Elgg is here for the long haul

July 27, 2006 | Leave a comment

As Dave has just posted, next week we’re relaunching Elgg.net as a fully-fledged community site for education. As part of this, there will be a number of sponsorship opportunities; more importantly, it represents a renewed focus on the site itself, and a commitment to maintain it as a flagship service.

So what else is going on?

In the next couple of weeks we’re going to launch Elgg Spaces, a turnkey Elgg installation site. Anyone will be able to come along and sign up for their own private Elgg installation, which can either be a walled garden or public to the outside world. You’ll be able to provide a default theme for the site, skin it how you like, and customise the system without any programming or pesky server configurations; hosted sites will always be upgraded to the latest version of Elgg and it’ll be directly supported by the folks who wrote it to begin with. You’ll be able to attach your own domain – e.g. yourinstitution.org or elgg.somecollege.edu – or use one of our subdomains. Should you then want to graduate to an installation hosted on your own servers, we’ll help you move everything across.

Of course, the software itself will always be free and open source. There are major developments there too; Bill Fitzgerald wrote yesterday about the upcoming OpenID integration being headed by Kevin Jardine. OpenID is a lightweight, standards-based single sign on solution; it’s already present in MediaWiki, Livejournal, Drupal and a growing collection of other software. You’ll be able to use Elgg as your central identity, or log into an Elgg system using an OpenID based on another server. Once it’s integrated into Elgg we’ll roll it into an open source release, enable it on Elgg.net and allow it as an option on Elgg Spaces, as well as make it available in some very important forthcoming projects.

And let’s not forget you can already hook it up to WebCT and Moodle.

As I hinted at above, there are other, very major Elgg-based projects in the works, which I’ll be talking about as soon as I can. Watch this space …

I’m really excited about where things are going, and what’s really cool is that we’re able to do it without losing sight of the ideals that got us here to begin with. The things that originally motivated us to work long hours for no pay are still motivating us now that this is our full-time job. From Dave and my original collaboration to a much larger group of people all feeding ideas and creating new implementations and ideas, this has been – and continues to be – one hell of an adventure. Thanks to everyone for sticking with us.

‘Internet’

July 16, 2006 | Leave a comment

This CBC report from 1993 on a new phenomenon known as ‘Internet’ is very interesting – particularly because we’re still working on some of the same social issues. Fun to see how it’s changed and developed so far though.

(Youtube link, via Jason Kottke.)

Open source is inferior to commercial software

July 15, 2006 | Leave a comment

I feel compelled to reply to Helen Barrett’s recent weblog post where she talks a little about Elgg and open source in general. Specifically, she says:

Of course that is one problem with open source software… without a business model to support the development, it can take longer to implement changes unless there is a regular funding stream. My experience with commercial tools shows that the companies are very responsive to their customer base, and have the resources to support ongoing support and development.

In my post Why does Elgg run PHP and MySQL? I pointed out a number of important reasons why going for the open source route might be a benefit to an educational institution. The big benefits are to do with the freedom this approach affords, which I’ll restate:

  • Freedom to copy
  • Freedom to modify
  • Freedom to reproduce
  • Freedom to redistribute modified versions

One of the big issues with commercial software is that it doesn’t always exactly fit an institution’s requirements, and many have found themselves actually altering the way they do things to fit the software! This is surely a backwards approach: software should be a tool designed to solve a problem. If you’re changing your procedures to fit the software, you’re actually creating a problem to fit the solution. It’s much better to be able to take a piece of software and knock it into shape to meet your needs; given that you can download and run Elgg for free, it’s much less expensive to be able to do this than with a commercial tool. There are a number of companies – Curverider and Aperto among them – that offer Elgg-related consultancy services, so you don’t even have to hire your own resource.

Generally, this is true of successful open source projects. Moodle, the Modular Object Orientated Dynamic Learning Environment, has a service network that provides a range of services depending on your requirements. Or, you can always take it out of the box and use it for free. The point is, you have more flexibility than you would installing (say) Blackboard, for a great deal less money. That’s money that can hopefully go towards teachers and other materials.

In all cases these companies are as responsive as any commercial company. And you don’t have to hire them – if you have your own technical resources, great! You can alter the software to fit your needs yourself, for no extra cost. Either way, this is both the business model and the funding stream, although it doesn’t have to be the only one – Firefox is said to get $1 per year per user from use of its Google search box, and Curverider has a non-programming paid service in the works.

This, however, leads me to my next point: the suggestion that commercial software providers are more responsive than their open source equivalents is plain wrong. The big example here is Microsoft and their Internet Explorer web browser. This corners something like 80% of the browser market, but is insecure enough for organisations like Penn State and the government of the United States of America to ask people to stop using it. Yet with all this negative press, security fixes still take three times as long as for Firefox. Microsoft’s advice for circumventing one security vulnerability? Don’t click on links; type in the URL instead.

Firefox is, of course, one of the big open source success stories. Like all open source projects, you can download it for free and modify it to suit your needs – hence interesting developments like Flock and Songbird. Its market share is increasing, it’s faster, and because it’s open source its guts are out for everyone to see. Internet Explorer is a black box; Firefox’s code is transparent. If you have the ability and the time, you can knock through it and see how it works. Do you really know that Internet Explorer isn’t sending back your browsing history to Microsoft?

This has obvious benefits in some very important areas. If the code for medical machines is open source, for example, problems can more easily be discovered and fixed. Similarly, take the voting irregularities in the US: the owner of Diebold, which manufactured most of the (closed-source) electronic voting machines, stated that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president.” With a closed-source system running often uncertified software, who’s to say those machines weren’t biased towards that result? Similarly, in education, you can prove that open source software used is fair and unbiased.

With all these benefits, why does open source still have such an unclean reputation? Josie Fraser recently highlighted the benefits of OSS Watch, but how much good are they and similar organisations actually doing in promoting the virtues of this free and open approach? Their own description states:

Perhaps you have heard that open source is a movement espoused by men (and some women!) sporting beards and sandals. Perhaps you have simply no idea what it is and you want to find out more. Whatever your motivations, it’s always a good time to start learning about free and open source software.

It’s great that they’re inviting people to come in and find out more. It’s not so great that they’re framing it as something espoused by beardy computer scientists. There’s a certain amount of marketing of ideas that needs to happen here, and we’re well past the point where software is just something for sandaled hobbyists in darkened rooms playing with motherboards and chipsets. It touches every aspect of our lives, and as a result it’s vitally important that we know what it does; and more importantly than that, any message we give about it has to be inclusive. The beardy image is something that is just going to send people away. While people like Richard Stallman – instigator of the free software movement – are doing some good work, the fact that they can sometimes come across as certifiable geeks isn’t helping anybody.

Similarly, organisations like the Open Source Initiative and OSS Watch would do well to learn from Mozilla and, to a lesser extent, Ubuntu. Make things friendly, emphasise that this is for everyone’s benefit (instead of just the computer scientists), and hopefully we can knock over this ideological barrier.

The Internet is not a big truck

It’s a series of tangled up tubes!

Some net neutrality-related Saturday fun. (How often do those words fit together?)

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