A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Apples for Apples 

The simmering trademark issue that EcoblogIT mentioned back in 2003 has resurfaced in the High Court in London. Le Freak was apparantly played in court to demonstrate how downloaded music works. Who is David Beckham anyway?
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Monday, March 27, 2006

Virtualisation is king 

We are tinkering with virtualisation in Solution Delivery. For instance I have a PC that runs Windows XP, I run the absolutely jaw droppingly excellent vmware player with a fedora core 5 Linux appliance. Check out the appliance link for other appliances you can get, and be sure to look at the community page which is where I got the Fedora Core 5 appliance (Linux)

Our live platform is ColdFusion 5 on Windows talking to Oracle on Solaris. On the VMWARE virtual computer we almost have ColdFusion MX7 running in Linux supporting Economist.com and CFO.com. We have a few path problems that are beating us up a little right now. I would love to throw abuse at the person who decided that we needed things like c: instead of /c/, \c\ or something. Stupid stupid stupid idea.

Although in Windows Vista you can mount whole drives in subdirectories of c: for example. This doesn't sound too different from the subst command which places a directory as a drive, it just reverses it I guess. subst is how in development we fake having an e drive on the standard Economist build so we can run our application locally. That doesn't quite work yet either. Anyway, that's an offbeat rant.

Recently we've launched a Wiki for our processes and I think Mike is chasing up a Wiki for the group. Perhaps we have a contender on smarties, perhaps not, it looks quite plain but has a rich text editor which takes away the horrible {{LINK}} syntax that wikis hit us with. It still needs work to link to other Wiki pages without doing {{link}} but shows promise. This Wiki shouldn't be used right now to store IT processes or important docs as it's beta software and may trash your data but it shows promise.

We are also rolling out localized development environments to developer staff to move away form using a central development server and to embrace some powerful source control features. Subversion is our source control package of choice and is excellent when linked with TortoiseSVN which becomes part of Windows Explorer to give you an interface no different from the every day use interface on Windows. We need a NY based database before we can complete this but it's good progress.

But I started on virtualisation. I could see a server environment really working well with virtualisation. We have a development server that needs it's own space but is rarely using all it's memory or CPU cycles, why couldn't we share that out. The mail server probably isn't as busy outside of office hours, why can't it help do an extra task. Our IBM hosting environment has web servers that are also application servers and they can affect each other. The world needs to embrace running operating systems concurrently on the same hardware in the same way that an older generation of computing needed to embrace windows for applications. Business Systems are currently out looking for potential hosting partners for the web platform. I have a feeling it's important to have fibre across the pond and for extra capacity to be added quickly. Blades do this, however I think blades are similar to virtualisation. You have an image of an application and you roll it out quickly. I'm not sure where I'm going with this post so I'll stop but I think virtualisation could really help a small company like the Economist trim and stream line it's IT operations in a big way as well as give automatic redundancy. OK so I haven't stopped yet, so let's explore a possible option. Take a groupwise server, it might be possible to take the groupwise mail server and another machine that independently do their task and install both sets of software virtually on to both machines. If hardware fails on either machine both applications still run without the addition of hardware as they are virtualised. Additionally you can backup every virtualised computer appliance and roll it out on any hardware as the VMWARE client abstracts it from the hardware.

This stuff is genius genius genius. To prove the point I posted this post from a virtualised browser appliance that completely secures your browsing experience by running Firefox in a virtualised appliance.
Combining Open Source and virtualisation certainly opens the door to increasing resilience at no extra costs, but unfortunately the big boys charge license fees according to how many virtual machines their code runs on in most cases....
We are a small company, we don't have to use the big boys. Do we use the big boys just to tick the box for our customers to say that we have the big ticket support. Does support hold us back at times in the stuff we could do?
Well that depends on whether we need functionality that only they provide right now. Such as real time (not military real time) data replication, mirroring and other features that are missing from some Open Source apps.

I'd argue that as a small company we have more need to use supported products as we don't have the engineering capacity of a Google or a BBC.

It's a balance.
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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why you should shred credit card applications - Lifehacker 

From the always interesting Lifehacker, a scary story about why you should shred credit card applications
In answer to the article - I recommend a Fellowes shredder. Get one that cross-shreds (i.e. makes little squares). They're cheap as chips.

I'm in the process of working out how someone tried to buy a mobile phone using one of my cards...I'll update EcoblogIT when I have an answer.
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Friday, March 24, 2006

Netvibes - the Thierry Henry of customisable homepages 

Netvibes is just the best (IMHO)Web 2.0 application out there. It's clean and easy to use and just works. Sorry Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google (that is, until one of you buy it - Netvibes got more funding this week, but I suspect one of the three will make a move soon).
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Thursday, March 23, 2006

What makes good design? 

You may have seen that the BBC's Culture Show ran a competition to find the public's favourite example of design in Britain since 1900. Concorde won with my choice of Verdana not making the top three.

Anyway, the Culture Show recently had a clip of one presenter's view of what consituted bad design and those of you who are based at Red Lion Square will be unsuprised that the revolving door featured. Why do revolving doors exist? You can't get more than one person at a time through them, if you're disabled or carrying bulky items they're unusable and they seem to be an excuse for people to indulge in a spot of "test your strength".

To my mind the acid test for design is to give people an option and see which one they choose. In the case of the revolving door, we had just such a choice at Red Lion Square until a couple of weeks a go and guess what? The revolving door, which is positioned as the main entrance went unused.

Unfortunately for reasons unknown, the preferred door is now out of action.

The same principle applies elsewhere, such as on the web. Google's search (remember when that was all they did?) was different because the interface was so simple and uncluttered. As additional products have been rolled out, the look and feel of those products has remained consistent, but you can see the conflicts that have arisen. In trying to use the same style for search, maps and calendaring, compromises have been made and the overall design ceases to be as effective.

There's an important message in this - if the objective of the service that you're offering remains clear and simple, the design can be uncompromising, but if the aims multiply, then good design becomes more difficult to achieve, but even more important.

The revolving door is with us because architects have persisted in believing that in a modern building the door has the function of keeping the elements out rather than that of simply letting people in and out.
Revolving doors became needed in buildings in the early stages of the twentieth century because lift shafts were creating air pressure in buildings. I don't understand how this works at all but they had a real problem building the empire state and rockafella and revolving doors fixed it. You get told this if you go to the top of the rock rooftop experience. I am really confused as to how they make it better.
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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Google/Blogger hardware problems 

You may have noticed that this blog has been unavailable periodically on the past week or so. Google filer problems apparantly.
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Monday, March 20, 2006

Firefox 2.0 alpha is here 

Revolving World has alpha releases of Firefox 2.0. I'm hoping that it will fix the memory leak problem that causes F i r e f o x t o g r i n d t o a h a l t. The red X on each tab to close it is good, but looks pretty much like those in IE 7.
CAUTION: Looks like this is not an official release, although depending on what you read it's pretty close to one....
Those "X" to close on each tab were originally thought up by Opera not MS
It is a special case..
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Friday, March 17, 2006

All your storage are belong to us 

I read a couple of interesting stories about the development of online storage this week.

First up, ZDNet have a story about Amazon's new S3 storage service which they are making available to web developers. They are charging per gig stored and also for bandwidth used. For Amazon, it's a way for them to make more of a return out of the infrastructure they've already invested a lot of money in, and for developers they also win because they have access to limitless amounts of storage without having to think about managing the infrastructure side of it.

The prices seem low but I suppose if you wrote an application using S3 which then became the next killer app you might end up being Amazon's best customer.

Next, I read a few pieces of fact, speculation and rumour/rumor (I am beginning to feel conflicted over US and UK spelling) about the Google GDrive service. Privacy issues aside, it will supposedly offer a big, free, mapped drive that you can get to from any internet-connected computer. Back in ye olde dotcom-bubble days there was a free service called XDrive which was pretty similar, they are still going but they are now subscription-only now.

Footnote - Click here if you are wondering what's going on with the title of this post
Ok, ok, so Mike beat me to it with the S3 story !!
If you want GDrive now, my GMail Drive still works and allows me to store files through a mapped drive in my Gmail account....I was going to say it's unsupported, though, but then realised that most of what Google do is effectively just that anyway.
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Googlezon gets a step closer? 

TechCrunch reports the launch of S3 (simple storage service) from Amazon. This is not a public facing service; you need to use REST or SOAP to access it and so it opens up the possibility that any Web 2.0 apps that need storage could just use S3. John Battelle reckons this and Google's PayPal-type service put Google and Amazon on a collision course.
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Ipod AV Photos 

Scoop or Photoshop?
The "virtual clickwheel" has been reported elsewhere so maybe it's something 'near' to the truth.
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When Rupert's in town.... 

Up until this week there had been lots of speculation on how News Corp. could leverage MySpace with its other brands, but no action.

This week Rupert was in town and in amongst the other news was that a MySpace for Sun readers was on the cards.

Very interesting.

As EcoblogIT has mentioned in the past, MySpace gets 10% of ALL ad impressions on the web. That could go a long way towards balancing declining ad revenues in print....
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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

BBC in a jam? 

BBC jam has launched and already it's attracting criticism because it's not different enough from existing commercial offerings. I'll pass verdict on that, but will say that it's an impressive used of the medium. You should take a look (I'm sure your kids will).
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Monday, March 06, 2006

2Gb broadband 

Initially touted as "ASBO TV" (because the TV channel lineup will include one with pictures of people issued with anti-social behaviour orders locally), the Digital Bridge project in east London will pilot 2Gb broadband and use of PC technology such as MS Office on TVs. I guess that the technology uses broadcast bandwidth; anyone know for sure?
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Friday, March 03, 2006

The future of content creation 

"The challenge is to create content for a tenth of the cost" according to Rafat Ali.

Neil Budde said that at Yahoo! News he does this by ensuring his small staff aren't doing production work, but rather are making decisions on what ends up on key pages.

Interestingly Rafat has a view that contextual ads do not work on community based sites such as his. I think I'd agree with this - most are off topic and have been delivered based on a term that is peripheral to the content.

Neil made the point that context of content is increasingly important as people find what they're looking for via the likes of
Google - for example by putting dates prominently on articles (the idea of permanence is another theme of Web 2.0).

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Yahoo! realise that people are expensive 

Simon Levene, MD of Corporate Develoment at Yahoo! Europe said that they're shifting effort into using computers to do the jobs that historically have been done by editors (such as selecting stories and categorisation).

I thought that he was going to also mention the characteristically Web 2.0 idea of collective intelligence, but instead he pointed to user generated content from the likes of flickr and del.icio.us. I'd have thought that applying collective intelligence to Yahoo!s categoriastion using del.icio.us has great potential, but Simon said that the recent acquisitions were run as separate businesses and were likely to be so for the foreseeable future..

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Vista and the reading experience 

Mike Cooper of Microsoft outlined how features in Vista will improve the presentation of content. What he called adaptive flow technology will ensure that the layout of text is optimised at every screen or window size. He demo'd how templates could be used to adjust the presentation of content and even the content itself at different window sizes.

He also kept referring to advertising opportunities that become possible with the technology - an interesting slant from MS.

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OPA Conference day 2 

Continuing coverage.....

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Economist in print is dead 

It's official according to Jeffrey Cole, Director of the Cente for the Digital Future at USC. His description of The Economist as a news magazine immediately undermined his argument, but made me wonder why we proudly still call it a newspaper.

Apparantly internet users spend an hour less than non-users reading newspapers and the wisdom is that when a newspaper reader dies they aren't being replaced. Lifestyle mags may survive as the content is less commoditised.
It interests me, this idea that content is becoming a commodity...rather heretical for us perhaps. But you can see it in a lot of places from the balance of power shifting from creative to media agencies, publishers' attitudes to the 30,000 or so novels published every year and the stories people go to on newspaper web sites (for the Mail a picture of Elizabeth Hurley in a bikini is much more popular than the Linda Lee Potter column).
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All toblogger now 

Jeff Jarvis (a blogger) chaired a good discussion that concluded with the thought of people as partners not consumers.

Emily Bell of Guardian Unlimited, who are about to launch Comment is Free with 200 bloggers - both staffers and others, Mike Oreskes of IHT.com and Euntaek Hong of OhmyNews all concurred that getting participation was key to being a successful media organisation in the future (and they meant that you need more than a letters page!).

Emily cited the role of community manager as one that would become widely known in future.
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CBS on the web 

The battery on my Blackberry died so onto the Treo...

Larry Kramer, President of CBS Digital Media chaired a conversation with a couple of London-based correspondents, Richard Roth and Sheila MacVicar.

While they welcomed a place to post the additional stuff that didn't make it onto their two minute slot on the evening news, the need to file more often was seen as conflicting with their ability to research the story and take the time to be able to tell it in the best way. The need to properly fund web news rooms was also raised along with the difference in needs for HDTV for broadcast and webcam quality deemed ok for the web. Personally I don't think that poor quality video will be accepted for long as ok by online consumers.
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Rotten Cookies 

Esther Dyson asked a panel of marketeers whether they were worried about negative publicity surrounding cookies and they way they used them.

I think that she was driving at the way that cookies are used to track people who respond to ads after they have left the site on which they saw them. This harks back to the Abacus/DoubleClick furore that rattled people with they thought that someone could track exactly what they did on the web.

The point here is that cookies make use of some sites easier and are therefore a good thing. Bad things can happen when they are used for other purposes. Cookies are an unsatisfactory fix for something that HTML on it's own can't do and what I think is needed is limiting of the use of cookies to the good stuff.

All that would be needed is an update to IE or the Google Toolbar and the landscape will change overnight.

A new tracking methodology is needed because when a significant number of people don't trust them and delete them every day tracking stats become meaningless.

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Is word of mouth the next big thing? 

Can people avoid mass marketing messages entirely? asked Steve Hayden of Ogilvy Worldwide.

Or if you irritate people enough will they remember your brand? Well with the internet version of the remote control (skip this ad) this is becoming less effective. Unsurprisingly word of mouth is the least untrusted form of marketing and Steve reckons that at least 50% of existing marketing teams ought to be looking at blogs and the web and feeding information back into the organisation. He termed this sense and response - staying in touch with your audience (unlike the Kryptonite bike lock case).

He also suggested tapping into teenagers habits to get insight into the future and how the web will be used.

Interstingly Steve reckoned that there is a shortage of good advertising slots online.

So, what are agencies doing?

- 360 degree branding
- bringing creative groups (online, offline, outdoor etc.) together
- bringing planning back in house
- BRIC - that is Brasil India China
- looking at new compensation modelsl
- getting serious about CRM
- emulating the small Miami agency Crispin Porter and Bogusky that created the Mini counterfeit spot

What can media organisations do?

- allow 360 degree branding
- create new inventory
- help prove that brand value can be built
- give a replacement for the 30 second a slot that reaches 20 million consumers

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Google Bash 

No, not another Google product, but the view of the panel including Michael Hanfield of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Phillipe Janet of Les Echos, Ali Rahnema of the World Asaociation of Newspapers and Zach Leonard of News International.

The audience clearly disagree and feel that Google is here to stay and that publishers need to work with Google. Google News particularly was criticised in that it effectively steals content to create a potentially money earning product.

Zach kind of sided more with the audience in saying that we had to find a way to work with the likes of Google and he also said that he felt subscription revenues would be an increasing source of revenues online for newspapers. There's more to this thought and the conflict between syndication and subs - when will Google do their first syndication deal with a traditional publisher to guarantee access to their content?

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The two way pipe - facing the challenge of the new content creators. Tim Glocer, CEO, Reuters 

The consumer as editor has been recognised by media organisations, but consumers have moved on and are now increasingly the creators of content opened Tom. So what's the upside for media organistions? What MySpace gives NewsCorp is an invaluable early look at future trends through analysis of activity on the site. Tom said he has a page on MySpace (as do I) and surmised that soon all of us will be customers of Murdoch. I'm not so sure - pulling of some links has alienated some of the community and young people are extremely fickle with other sites such as Beob seeing huge rises in usage.

So what did Tom see as the role of the media company in the next decade?

1. Seeder of clouds - good original content which keeps consumers inside your tent
2. Provider of tools - non-protectionist
3. Filter and editor - deciding what is good to read

Tom highlighted the way in which the UK fanzine boom of the '90s led to their creators becoming editors of mainstream magazines and said that the equivalent is already happening with bloggers.

So why does Tom think traditional media organisations survive? Consumers don't like too much choice (like a blank menu in a restauraunt), our time is valuable and we need someone to select what we should be looking at. This last point was interesting because the collective intelligence touted in Web 2.0 has an effect without the interference of a big media brand.

Tom then suggested that traditional brands would retain the trust of consumers while newer ones like WikiPedia would lose it. I'm not convinced of this - consumers are pretty good at realising the limitations of Wikis and the accuracy of WikiPedia has been shown to be at least as good as Brittanica.

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OPA '06 Conference 

I'll be trying to blog updates of themes from this week's Online Publishers Association. Stay tuned....

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

DoubleClick Email Solutions sold to Epsilon 

I missed this one when it happened. Epsilon Interactive, formerly Bigfoot and now a division of Alliance Data, has acquired DoubleClick Email Solutions.

You may recall that DoubleClick was taken private last year by being sold to Hellman and Friedman who immediately created separate divisions for the e-mail and advertising arms of DoubleClick. I have to say that this was on the cards, even though local management in Europe did not admit to the strategy when I met with them last year.

Is this the end of one of the more successful Web 1.0 companies?
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VIsta may actually be quite good 

Well, the headline on slashdot was "Why Vista Won't Suck" which is even more unexpected. The posting refers to an ExtremeTech article that goes into some "under the hood" details on what makes Vista a big step up from XP. Well worth a read.

It also highlights what was not quite right with the way that Life2 showed Vista - we (a reasonably techie audience) were shown how Vista allowed the user to scroll through cascaded open windows (in exactly the same way that you can with XP and the Alt-Tab PowerToy but with each app. appearing in a bigger window).

Incidentally, I noticed that when I downloaded an updated PowerToy and the beta of IE7 for my home machine, an applet kicks in to check that a "Genuine" copy of Windows is installed. Not sure how this works, but as downloading software becomes more the norm, I expect to see more of this.
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