In Leicester Square

January 31, 2007 | Leave a comment


Meeting with some very important people, and using Four Communications‘ super-fast wireless hotspot. Brr, it’s a little bit chilly though …

Blackboard patent reconsidered; next, all software patents please

January 29, 2007 | Leave a comment

Blackboard’s patent is being reconsidered. The prior art built up following the original lawsuit and presumably cited in this request is not inconsiderable, so this is good news for Moodle and the like. I’d be very surprised if the patent wasn’t withdrawn.

Of course, software patents as a whole are probably unviable. This is a wider issue than VLEs, and not one that’s going to lie down quietly considering the amount of money involved. Consider the argument ongoing – but this is another example in a long line of patents that can’t be adequately defended.

As an aside, Groklaw is an excellent site for keeping track of software-related legal issues. Check out the Hallowe’en memo, verified authentic at last!

Hillary Clinton asks Yahoo; wealthy, middle class Americans reply

As reported over at Bokardo, a couple of days ago Hillary Clinton posted the following question to Yahoo Answers:

“Based on your own family’s experience, what do you think we should do to improve health care in America?”

At the time of writing there are over 37,000 replies to this – something I find both troubling and gratifying. (Search Engine Journal notes that this volume of replies makes Yahoo Answers an excellent platform.)

I find it gratifying because, quite honestly, when was the last time you saw a politican ask so openly about a major issue? This is a great way to both poll for opinions and to make a show that she will listen to voters – something that bodes well for the next national election (although I don’t, alas, think she could win).

I find it troubling because of the Internet usage demographics in the United States. Although it also notes that the digital divide is slowly closing, this article notes that not everyone is represented on the Internet.

Differences along income and education lines are also large. Those in urban areas, those who earn more money and those with more education are far more likely to own computers and have Internet access. One study found that 70 percent of households headed by someone with a post-graduate education had Internet access, compared to only 30 percent of households headed by someone with only a high school education.

When Hillary Clinton asks the userbase of Yahoo Answers about healthcare, she’s largely excluding the people medical policies affect the most: people who can’t afford to get on the Internet. It’s a nice idea, but it’s worth remembering that while technically the web is a democratic medium, it’s not a socially democratic medium until everyone’s on it. Will that ever happen? Probably not. She would be better off getting opinions from the street.

Software woes, software heroes

January 26, 2007 | Leave a comment

We made a decision today to scrap the email groupware software we’d been using – SproutIt Mailroom – and move over to something hosted on our own servers. We’d struggled with some of their features in the past, but the straw that broke the camel’s back turned out to be an upgrade to an AJAX-based system yesterday; in an effort to make it fancy (it auto-detected whether you were on or offline and acted accordingly) the developers appeared to forget basic principles of usability. Or functionality. In fact, it refused to send any email at all.

Luckily, we kept a backup of all our support email, and it turns out a number of emails slipped through the cracks and weren’t replied to at all. Not a massive number, but any at all is more than we’d like. We would like to apologise to anyone who’s been waiting for a reply from us, reassure everyone that we’re now using a much more robust system that we have full control over, and warn anyone else from using SproutIt Mailroom.

The problem with AJAX is that it isn’t actually completely reliable; sometimes the asynchronous messages that power the technology never reach their intended destination, and the Javascript and server-side scripting needs to be able to deal with that. There are also countless usability, browser and functionality issues – how do you link to something on an AJAX system that never reloads the page? We would never, ever build an entire system that depended on it – there always needs to be a fallback to traditional web processes. And we would certainly never launch a system that wasn’t fully tested on paying customers. Free betas are one thing; a level of flux is expected. A paid service, particularly something like group mail, is mission critical and should be treated as such.

Meanwhile, I’ve been running Kubuntu using VMware Player for a couple of weeks, and I love it. It’s a really useful testing environment (the KDE web browser, Konqueror, has the same engine as Safari, which allows us to ensure everything works great for Mac and Linux users at the same time). Because only the VMware Player is free, I needed to create my own configuration file; luckily, John Bokma has written this great tutorial, and has even kindly shared a selection of empty virtual machine disks to play with. I now keep Linux in the background and flip back and forth between operating systems many times a day. If only I could get the same thing running with Mac OS …

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