Why Google Doc?

April 13, 2008

I have used WordStar, Wordperfect and MS Office. At one point it was one of the best word processor and it was also cheap or free in the beginning. It was bundled freeof cost with the with windows operating system.

What is the problem now?

It is showing its age. Here is an article I wrote on the comparison that outlines my opinion about word processors. My main point is that monitor screen resolution is about 100-130 dot per inch and that is way less then the printed page that is about 1400 dpi. Considering this we do not need very precise text and picture layout for screen reading that is needed for a page that is being composed for printing. What does become important is sharing of documents and online collaborative writing and automatic document version availability. All newer programs like Google doc and ZOHO writer provide it as a default setting. Automatic version control was the biggest selling point for Wiki’s. Now that is also available for other types of document formats. MS Word was developed to produce printed pages and manuscripts not for the use of shared writing and collaboration. By adding office Live to MS office some of these functions are now possible.

Here is an article that compares MS office+Office live to Google doc on feature by feature basis

The workspace feature in office live comes from Groove. It is very nice feature where a person can create workspaces for each project he is working on with all the tools and the people needed to complete that project.

More articles:
Why Google Apps is a Serious Threat to Microsoft Office

Personally, I like the minimalist approach of Google docs. I am sure they will add feature as demands grow for them but I am beginning to think that we should use programs who do a lot with the least amount of features and based upon the work flow philosophy. Even MS word 2007 has a very similar interface as Google doc. May be more features but the interface is workflow based. I do not like MS word’s document html source. It works but is really messy. Google doc produce a clean html source for the document.

ZOHO interface is still based upon the old user interface design ideas that is why it appears cluttered. Also, their document html source contains separate a css file. All this creates problem when one is taking their doc and trying to manually post the document to a web server.

Here is another article that discusses the usage statistics of all these different applications. Interesting part of the article is this figure that shows the page views for these software applications. Google docs are in a clear lead. It shows the Growth in the usage and Google doc is way ahead of the pack.

Also, now the trend is towards simplicity in digital content creation and there is more emphasis on sharing and starting a conversation through discussion. Notice the starting page of Google search and compare it with home pages of popular web sites such as Microsoft and Yahoo. It is based upon minimalist design that provides user only the content that they need to complete their job. The Google web site is treated as a place where users complete their transaction i.e. search. No other information is provided but it is there buried behind the page.

Here is a video from TED talk that emphasizes simplicity for tech applications.

Another video that talk about the paradox of choices. Too may choices at the menu level makes programs difficult to learn and use.

These are some of the newer ideas. Now after going through all this are you still going to prefer your tried and tested software such as MS word or would you all reconsider your choices?


Knowledge Creation Process

March 21, 2008

“The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information— in the sense of raw data— is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.”

– Arthur C. Clark

This is a famous quote from science fiction writer Sir Clark it tells us about the way chunks of data creates knowledge and chunks of knowledge leads to wisdom that could lead to foresight. Internet is a vast repository of data. It could be used to create useful knowledge. In our context that would be defined by four C’s

1. Content creation
2. Communication
3. Collaboration
4. Coordination/discussion/consensus

This is also the process of knowledge creation that is advocated by the Constructivist approach.  The importance of the of communication/collaboration/discussion in knowledge creation process makes web 2.o tools ideally suited to implement this process. All the social tools are designed to mimic these processes. In contrast to this Web 1.0 based tools resembled close to old mass media where there was very little participation from the group.

Sir Clark also has another famous quote Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
– Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law.

Wiki as a tool for Collaborative writing

March 21, 2008

Wiki is a software tool that allows collaborative writing. The biggest project that represents the power of collaborative writing is Wikipedia The founder of Wikimedia foundations Jimmy Wales gave a talk at TED and provided the details on how the collaborative writing is done using free open source media wiki software and how they resolve the conflicts that arise around controversial topic. He emphasized how with the help of few staff members and large number of volunteers the large volume of writing was accomplished in creating Wikipedia.

Use of wikis in political process by barrack Obama to organize the local activities.

A simple explanation of what is a wiki is provided in this 4 minute video. Also more videos at Youtube about wikis.

The wiki markup is different then the html page markup. But now days wiki websites like wetpaint provide a nice rich text based interface to create wikis. They also provide the access control on how the wiki pages will be viewed and edited by its users. The front page of their website comes with a nice video explanation of how to create your on wiki pages.

Holy Grail of Digital Video and its presence and sharing on the web

March 16, 2008

Video is a media form that includes both moving pictures and sound. As a result it is multi modal and provides a rich sensory experience that grabs the attention of the viewer through the orienting effect.

It is also the most demanding media type in terms of CPU, memory and storage utilization. There are many encoding schemes to reduce the size of the video. Even within the same family of the encoding scheme there are incompatibilities. This causes problems when digital video is shared across different software systems and different computer systems.

Video Encoding and problems with multiple formats

I have some old videos that were taped in a live class room setting. We used Sony DV camcorder when it just came out in mid nineties. These tapes were captured by using theMiro video encoder that uses a non-lossy 5:1 compression scheme and uses the standard dvd size picture per frame. This process creates large files. We are looking at 100meg of data for one minute of play back time. Therefore, these files were further compressed using the MS Windows media encoder, real media encoder, Apple quick time encoder and sometimes with mpeg-1 encoder. This helps but now we have five different files that will play on some computers and some stopped playing when the encoding scheme became obsolete by the same company.

Recently, I decide to re encode these files with newer encoders. I do not have the original masters because those were too big and they were erased to free up disk space because disk space was not as inexpensive back then as it is now. The windows media format looses too much information so once a original is encoded with wmv format it is not worth to resurrect this file for further encoding. It is final no future editing is expected. Also, if you upload it to a service like youtube some of them failed to convert at the youtube web site into flv format used by Youtube. Having all these problems I went back to the saved files in apple .mov format. They had the most information and re encoded them into mpeg-1 format with audio amplification because for some reason the original videos had low sound volume. Every thing worked and I was able to upload these files on the Youtube.

This solved the problem of sharing videos but is it complete solution? No? I also wanted to upload these videos at Apple University because they have a very innovative solution in the form of video ipod/iphone that facilitates m-learning. I got apple Qick Tme Pro and reencoded the videos with apple encoder so that these videos can play on apple devices that is desktop, ipod/iphone and old mobile phones. It created three separate files at different streaming rate but now for some reason these files have poor quality of audio again. I am working on it to improve it and it is possible but the question is that why does it has to be so much work to take a simple video from a Digital Video camera and encode it and place it on these video distribution channels so that it can be shared with others in my case mostly with the students in my classes and they can be commented  on. Why can’t we have a video editing program that acquires video, improves it and uploads it at all these channels? instead of having whole set of programs to do one specialized job.

It also raises the issues of archiving the information and future access to it. We can still read old clay tablets from the ancient times. Can we be able to do the same for digital information? The attempts of archiving digital information are very basic such as archive.org

Video Share ability , treating video as a social data

For example example I wanted to embed some digital videos from TED conference into my WordPress blog. The WordPress for some reason will not accept the flash videos and I could not do that. So I went to my old blog on the blogger and tried embedding these videos. It worked with one hitch. When you copy paste the html the blogger editor did not like the embed tag. It will complain and will not save the posting but you can also force the blogger editor to accept it if you just ignore the warning and close the warning window. It is hard to believe after 15 years we still have to use “Object” and “Embed” tag to deal with the incompatibilities between Internet Explorer and Firefox/Mozilla on how they load an application.

We can conclude that WordPress does not like embedded video but that is not true either. They allow video embedding and from some web sites you can embed video in your WordPress blog with one simple click on the shareable video. How does that happen? I am still trying to figure out. So far it seems to me that MyStuff from gigya.com is the best widget it has worked for me across all the web sites. Others claim that they allow one click embedding but so far it has not been true. They can made to work with some tweaking but not with one click as they claim.

Facebook allows you to import notes from one rss feed only. It polls the rss feed and if it detects any changes it will modify the notes accordingly. It is a nice feature but what if some one wants to import notes from two feeds? It could be done but not easily. Also, Facebook do not allow video embedding at all in the notes so the blogs with embedded video only show the text but no videos.

So the moral of the story is that if you like digital video and want to create your own videos and share it with other people across different computer platforms it will be a challenge. It is not as simple as sharing of some 7 bit ASCII text strings that are the easiest universally sharable data type.

Talking of programs Corel acquired Ulead and doubled the price of programs Ulead was selling successfully through it web site for a while. Now the Corel/Ulead web site is hard to navigate. You can not even find a phone number if some one needs a live salesperson. It is hard to believe that Corel is still in business and have money to acquire small successful innovative companies. If the consumer oriented companies dealt with their customers the way the software companies deal with their customers they will be out of business in no time but companies like Corel who will create software like  grafigo that I thought was  very innovative software and then failed to support it stay in business. Amazing.

Zuckerberg at SXSW

March 14, 2008

Zuckerberg, the founder of facebook talks with the facebook developers at SXSW in Austin, Texas. He goes about the details on how facebook platform will develop in the future.

Online Document Creation and Sharing

March 12, 2008

There are many programs such as

Google docs
MS Office Live
ZOHO writer
or for that matter even wiki programs such as Wetpaint

those allow one to use browser accessible editor programs to create documents that can be saved in many popular document formats or they can be shared online for collaboration in completing projects. These programs do not have all the features that one will find in a full blown word processor such MS Word but they provide easy interfaces to facilitate group collaboration and instant sharing of information with fine grained access control. The old Word processor do not have this. With the 20/80 rule where 20 percent features in a program are used 80 percent of the time these programs provide enough formatting capabilities to create web based documents that can be saved in many different popular formats.

Some of you probably are wondering why I included wiki in the same mix as the others because wikis markup to create documents is different than the html markup that other programs are using. That is true but most of the user will use the rich text editor and they will never actually code in plain html or in wiki markup. For them it is not important how the data is internally stored. They just want to use the features of automatic versioning of the documents with sharing and collaboration capabilities. On a side note the computer programmers are incredibly creative people. If there are five ways to mark up an entry they will make sure that they use all of them just to distinguish themselves from others. Otherwise how else you would explain the existence of so many document formats such as rtf, html, pdf, wiki mark up and latex. I know there are historical reasons why they are here and each one of them offers some unique capability but the html and wiki markup are really not that much different. For example html markup fo a paragraph <p>xxx</p> or .p xxx wiki markup only differs in the amount of typing one does otherwise on the screen they are both rendered the same. The wiki markup creator must have hated typing brackets “<>” so he used “.” instead.

Now the graphic designers who have background in printing and want precise location of elements on a page is a different story. Most of their techniques are waste of time for documents that will be viewed on the screen because computer monitor screens do not have enough resolution to be pixel perfect. Compare 90-130 dpi (dot per inch) resolution to the minimum printed page resolution of 1400dpi. There is no comparison and the poor typographers and graphics designers who come from the print background cry when their dot perfect design is horribly mangled on the computer screen or the color fiends who use color maps to display precise colors for his/her design finds out that computer display monitors display the same image differently for variety of the reasons. So what is it that makes us give up our beautifully color printed books to the electronic documents that are of poor quality when compared with the original print media books? It is the ease of creation, use, sharing and collaboration. The original intent of creating printed books was to share information but it was one way street that information flow was between author to its passive readers a hierarchical network between author and the readers where the author sat at the top of the hierarchy pyramid. The electronic documents facilitate creation of flat network where every body can contribute if they desire to do so.

As always MS has its tiered strategy to compete in this space. They have MS Office live a free offering then they their enterprise office suite that does include one of my favorite program formerly known as Groove, a peer-to-peer based group collaboration tool that came from the same people who gave us Lotus notes. The program uses p2p so no need to maintain a large server every node is a client and a server. It uses a advance replication and presence so that the user can work off line and when they come online every other users workspace gets the copy. No need to notify every group member for the new changes the program automatically kees track of all this and keeps all the users in the loop. It was/is a program that was/is way ahead of other programs in this category with an extensible framework. Being part of the University I have access to the entire suite for free but what about the people I teach and I collaborate with. It was bad enough that I have to force them to download and install Groove client and pay some modest amount of $0-$50-$160 depending upon what capability we needed for the group but now they have to buy the whole office suite to get the same capability. Thanks to Ray Ozzie for selling us out who supported Groove when it was an unknown obscure slow and a buggy program in its version 1.0

That is why I am extremely cynical of the startups who when they need you will go out of the way to do things for you but once they made it at the back of their beta testers they quickly forget how they get there. Watch out facebook they will probably be bought out at some point by Microsoft or IBM. My take on this is that never support a company 100 percent and support only the product and companies that support you.

Talking of startup here is this company that claims to be the future of web. I was excited because they CEO was using the right words like “Semantic Web” etc so I made a blog entry and asked them if I can test their software. Guess what no reply. I guess they really have nothing to show except a sweet story for the venture capitalist.

This is the second entry I wrote using ZOHO write. As I said before it has better capabilities than Google docs but definitely needs some improvement. It needs auto sensing of url. It needs automatic spell check believe or not I post the article on wordpress and then use the auto sensing feature for spell check within rich text editor provided by wordpress. SOHO writer that claims to be an authoring tool does not have this most basic feature that helps an author but has gazillion icons to format the text. Also sometimes when I want to hyper link some text it has bizarre behavior of losing the text. Other then that It looks good.

Link rot, web archiving, ZOHO writer

March 12, 2008

This entry is about how link rot affects information resources on the worldwide web. Back in the early nineties when worldwide web suddenly gained traction on all the other more elegant attempts such as e-mail, NNTP based newsgroups, ftp and gopher to create and share information through networked computers some of us educators also got excited about the potential of using Web as a tool to improve teaching process. We created a web resource for teaching and learning Finite Element Method known as FEMUR original url http://femur.wpi.edu . It will not work now because Dr. Joseph Rencis moved to University of Arkansas so the whole resource moved with him at http://comp.uark.edu/~jjrencis/femur/
The resource is there but not as visible on google as it used to be when it was located at WPI.

Also, some of the links in the original femur resources were hard coded with server address http://femur.wpi.edu so when it moved to a different server some of the url simply do not work. The example is the unreachable stiffness learning applet located at the url http://tinyurl.com/3972u4

To get to this applet one has to first know the answer that they have to type in 3 for all the text area boxes and click ok that should take them to the learning applet but it it will not because of the link rot. It used to work but after the movement of the femur resource the url changed and one has to use the url to get to it.

Why am I writing this? This is to show that web developers needs to pay attention to information archiving. Web 1.0 was great. It helped in bringing obscure computer networking and information sharing to the non-computer savvy masses but it also created problems such as these.

Some of these type of problem can actually be avoided. Like this one could have been avoided if the web authors have used the relative web address instead of the full server address. It is a simple thing to do but you see thousand and thousand of web pages containing hard coded url that will not work after some time. Luckily some of these pages are archived at http://www.archive.org through Way back Machine or some of them are sitting in the Google cache.

Also, by avoiding the use of the frames altogether or using it more wisely as they are used in facebook frameworok. Frames can help in creating a fixed familiar interface where web pages load in a well defined area that may be considered as stage such as in the facebook pages where the top and left side of the screen always belongs to the user menu and every other information loads in the area defined by the frame. This way once somebody is lost after going through several urls they can always go back to familiar menu from the top or the left.

Frames have a nasty habit of hiding the url of the resource they are loading in the frame area. If someone wants to book mark the page he/she will not be able to get back to the same page becasue the frame is hiding the url of the resource frame was displaying. Luckily facebook creates a unique url for every page so even if the page is displayed within frame it can be book marked with any book mark utility for future reference. In this regards Facebook does stand out over its competition. There are so many these small innovations within facebook framework those at first appear almost trivial but hava a major impact on the usability and user experience with the program. It is the user experience in using the program determines if a program will succeed or fail.

This blog entry was written by using ZOHO writer from Zoho.com. I was impressed by the story of the company owner. The program is competing in the same space as Google docs. It has more features when it comes to editing. It even allows to post directly to the blog on wordpress.com. It could improve the text linking by auto sensing a url. I will hold my judgement and see how well it will compete with google docs, MS live etc. Knowing MS strategy where they will always give you more initially than the competition but once the user is hooked they start charging dearly. It simply the stragey to hook the customer than boil him like a frog slowly. They gave out MS DOS for free. They actively encouraged piracy when they wanted the customer base. They bundled office suite for free with Windows to kill the Lotus office suite. Once Word perfect was gone they started charging for MS Word. IE is still free because there is Firefox and Opera. The day these two will fold MS will charge $100 for IE. It is just good business practice I think people should learn from them how to kill the competition and wipe it out completely. It has always been either bury the competition by providing the product for free or buy the competition.

Actually MS business practices need a whole new post still it will not be complete so it is better to leave this topic alone.

Real Time Video Streaming Using Cell Phone

March 10, 2008

The live video streaming is now possible using a cell phone. Scoble describes how he can use his Nokia N95 and services from Qik network to stream live video from his cell phone. He has own his channel at Qik where he has placed some interesting interviews about the current happenings in the area of technology.

The latest is from SXSW conference where he has recorded the live speech from the Facebook founder and it is available at Qik.com server.

Also video of speech from one of the facebook developers.

For some reason the flash video with object tag will not embed in the post. Is there any way to embed flash video in wordpress post?

The future of Internet

March 9, 2008

[podtech content=http://media1.podtech.net/media/2007/12/PID_013179/Podtech_TWINE.flv&postURL=http://www.podtech.net/home/4721/twine-semantic-web-tool-revealed&totalTime=3546000&breadcrumb=e510df061eb44f43b0e8b674f5bc35d4]

Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks demonstrates its new Twine service which goes way beyond other Web bookmarking and collecting tools.

AI Chimp beat human on memory

March 8, 2008

We think that we are bestowed with the superior intelligence with respect to the rest of the animal kingdom. Recently the experimenters at the Primate Research institute in Kyoto University in Japan were able to train a chimp that perform better than humans on memory tasks.

Here is a write up in UK newspaper Guardian on the actual experiment.

This web page at Primate Research Institute Kyoto University, Japan provides the details of the experiment. Also a web page that provides the videos of actual experiments

One of the video that is a big file(153MB) and takes few minutes to download provides the summary of the experiment showing convincingly that chimp do outperform humans on the short memory task

It seems that chimps have photographic memories and we do not that is why we need to invent media to augment our memories of past experiences.