Tagopen source

Thoughts on the mainstreaming of openness

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Disclaimer: I’m strongly biased towards openness. I prefer free and open software over closed systems, I prefer an open and decentralized web over a closed and centralized one. I prefer transparency over obscurity.

That said, I’d also consider myself a pragmatic idealist (thanks for the hint, Igor) in the sense that I think to reach certain idealistic goals it’s sometimes necessary (or even ok) to make compromises.

Examples: I use a Mac (closed) to feed my WordPress blog (open); I use Twitter (kinda closed) to promote open web ideals (open: duh!); my phone is powered by Android (open) but uses HTC’s Sense UI (closed).

So when we were about to announce an event that’s promoting the ideals of an open web (Drumbeat), we discussed how to best promote the event. We decided to complement the “official” event page on the Drumbeat site with a Facebook event page.

I insisted on having this second option, and for several reasons. One of those reasons is merely of the practical kind: it’s much easier to organize an event if you have any idea how many people are coming, and Facebook is very, very convenient to use that way. The other reason is more philosophical: I believe to reach out to new people, i.e. if you want to mainstream the discussion and get more people involved, you have to reach out to them where they mostly communicate. Facebook is an obvious choice, as you get access to a whole lot of people.

Like we almost expected, we got into a little flame war over this decision, including all the all-so-common personal attacks and insults. (My favorite being the statement that it’s “people like [me] who destroy the open web”, and that we’re “riff-raff”. I was surprised not to see Godwin’s Law invoked, but maybe that will happen in the next few mails?) To put one thing straight: I’m not even insulted, I find it very amusing to read a lengthy, hand-crafted personal attack. I appreciate, one could say, the effort people like this invest in personal trolling. (As long as – like in this case – it doesn’t even hit the mark and stays within certain boundaries.)

But it did get me thinking, and we discussed this a lot afterwards: To which degree is it ok to use a closed platform to promote an open web? And I stand by my decision, and would like to re-iterate: it’s not only ok, but necessary not to insist on personal moral high ground and being the true believer that knows everything better; but to go where the people you’d like to get involved really are and discuss with them. It’s not ok, and most likely damaging, to just assume everybody on the planet is thinking about these issues all day, and if they don’t leave all their bad habits behind they don’t deserve any better.

This kind of thinking is, from my point of view, arrogant, hypocritical and damaging. It devalues the ideals these same people strive to promote.

(I’m sure many other professions have to make similar decisions every day, like international development aid workers, who buy building materials on local markets to strengthen the local economy, even though they know that a certain share of those revenues go back to funding the same groups that caused the underlying structural problems.)

Long story short: For the time being I’ll keep doing it the way I’ve done it so far. I’ll keep using Facebook to promote events, I’ll stick to Twitter if that’s where I reach new people. But I’d like to hear your take on this!

Diaspora, an open Facebook?

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IMG_4567

A few weeks ago, four recent NYU graduates announced – to the background noise of the latest (of many) major Facebook privacy fail – that they intended to build a privacy-focuses, decentralized, open-source alternative to Facebook. A social network, installed on a server of your choice, the data controlled by you alone.

Their fundraising period just ended. Instead of the $10K they had planned to raise, they got some $200K in pledges on Kickstarter.

There are several interesting points here: (1) these four young guys seem fairly inexperienced, yet they are a main focal point of hope for a large & growing number of privacy concerned web heads, including myself, so they get all the attention and are in a very interesting place right now. (2) After their initial announcement and the following hype (both on blogs and traditional media) they fell practically silent for several weeks. Which didn’t go down to well with many including myself, but others are more forgiving that way. (3) How can they match the expectations? Is there even a clear consensus about where the road should lead? Can they manage to pull of the first steps towards a prototype and open source quickly enough to engage the community, including some of the veterans of this field like Chris Messina and David Recordon (who both work for big companies now)?

As of yesterday, the Diaspora website is relaunched and also offers the Diaspora roadmap (PDF). Looks like late summer is still the first big milestone. From the (very top-level) roadmap, and with my very limited knowledge about the technical background of social networking and distributed computing, the project seems to be sensible. I really hope the four of them manage to pull off the first steps quickly enough to get more people and support on board.

This is potentially huge. But so is the chance of screwing up. And they just put a lot of stuff on a plate that’s growing by the day.

Image: IMG_4567, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from nearnearfuture’s photostream

iPad, Wired App, ecosystem. Or not.

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Igor and the iPad

I’m a big fan of Wired. I read it online all the time, I used to have a Wired US subscription (that didn’t work out that well both in terms of shipping times and price, at about 10 times US subscription prices with shipping). These days, I have a subscription to Wired UK that I’m very happy with. So I was really curious about the next steps for the digital version of Wired. The iPad app promised to be just that. So while my Twitter feed starts filling up with posts about the first batch of iPads arriving in Germany, I took the time to read up a bit.

And ended up writing a rant on the iPad’s product philosophy. Please note that I don’t own an iPad, I’ve only ever played around with one on a few occasions.

The Wired iPad ap is like a CD-ROM from the 1990’s

Interfacelab has a great rant analysis of the much-hyped Wired iPad app. The Wired app doesn’t get the best review here. I’d like to quote the whole thing, it’s that good. But I’ll try to stick to the most important parts:

I’m starting to believe that the physical magazine’s “interface” is vastly superior to it’s iPad cousin. However, what strikes me most about the Wired app is how amazingly similar it is to a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990’s. This is not a compliment and actually turns out to be a fairly large problem… ( …) There are certain interactive elements to the articles, but – and I apologize to all of the people who put in a lot of back breaking work into this – they’re pretty lame. Tapping on a button-looking element switches out part of the page with another image. You can drag your finger across certain images to make them sort of animate like a flipbook (and in truth, that’s what it is – a series of PNG or JPEG images). There are videos you can tap on to view fullscreen. There are audio clips that you can play. The interactivity in the Wired application is very 1990’s.

It’s not interactive, it’s a slide show

This is very true – I’m told the whole magazine doesn’t only not feel all that interactive: it just isn’t. It’s just a slide show. Which explains the huge size of the Wired app. Just to do some quick & dirty math: If you own the smallest iPad with its 16GB of memory and pack it with 20 movies (say 500MB each) and 10 magazines (Wired: 500MB), it’s full. You couldn’t even fit any music on then. Just saying.

A side note: The iPad’s main line of defense usually is it’s supposedly inspiring and groundbreaking design. But look at it – is it really that amazing? As Cory Doctorow points out (TWIT #249), it’s really only a “moderately well-assembled piece of south-Chinese electronics.” It’s a classic effect of glossy, fullscreen video that we go “aaaah, ooooh”, but does it really live up to the expectations?

What Apple is building is not an ecosystem, but a zoo

What’s more, of course, is that the iPad is built to be a part of the iTunes ecosystem – if you want to use that term in this context. An ecosystem is a living, breathing thing that can sustain itself; it’s has by definition an element of chaos, of not being controlled. The iTunes system is the opposite. The more appropriate metaphor might thus be: a zoo. You can look, but you can’t touch. (Ok, you can point.) You certainly can’t really interact with the animals except for shooing them back and forth within their cages.

If you buy an iPad, you don’t really buy a device. You most importantly buy into a system of software, services and contracts. The iPad is built around iTunes, which most certainly is an only moderately well-assembled piece of software. You must know, buying content through iTunes, that you will never be able to leave iTunes/Apple and take the stuff you bought with you. You will either always have to depend on Apple, or you will need to leave behind whatever you bought – every song, every book, the Wired app – if you move on to the next new system. Apple won’t be around forever. But maybe you appreciate a fresh, clean plate every now and then.

Maybe you also like burning down your house with all your belongings in them whenever you move.

The points above apply, by the way, equally to consumers and developers.

Jeff Jarvis, never short of a good quote, summarizes it graphically as always (sorry, no penis quote here):

I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

The question is: Can large corporations compete with amateurs?

So what’s at the core of all this this? Why do these “multimedia” (is that term still around?) apps feel so… stale? Maybe economics, pure and simple. As Danny O’Brien points out, technology often makes production of digital goods much cheaper – for amateurs. At the same time, production costs for professional products often skyrockets:

But can you re-gear a newspaper or a publishing house to produce the level of interactive complexity that a $5 app is going to demand, when it is competing with games and films in the same app niche? Honestly, it might be possible. We’re not in the age of CD-ROMs now. Our price-points are all over the shop, and a sealed environment like the iPad permits all kinds of unnatural pricing inversions. We’ll pay more for a ringtone than a full MP3. We pay $10 for a README file on our Amazon Kindle, and a dollar for a pocket application that plays farts. But if you want to play that game, you’re running against the clock. Other applications are going to make yours look ridiculously clumsy in a matter of months (honestly, in a year people will be amazed anyone paid $14 for a bunch of text, a rotating picture of a rock, and a quick Wolfram Alpha search). Plus the seals on that environment get corroded by open competition every day.

The announcement by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to be building a $75 Android-powered tablet for developing countries might just be a point in case. (Their first model wasn’t all that great and not very successful, but arguably has contributed strongly to the mainstream development of netbooks.)

So why does everybody (or rather: journalists) look so enviously at the iPad? Is it really the big hope, or are journalists (sorry for the generalization) really just too desperate to think clearly? In Cory Doctorow‘s words:

I think that the press has been all over the iPad because Apple puts on a good show, and because everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff. The reason people have stopped paying for a lot of “content” isn’t just that they can get it for free, though: it’s that they can get lots of competing stuff for free, too. The open platform has allowed for an explosion of new material, some of it rough-hewn, some of it slick as the pros, most of it targetted more narrowly than the old media ever managed.

Or as the Information Architects put it, referring to the iPad edition of Wired:

The future of journalism is definitely not a stack of banners spiced with videos, exported from a paper layout program. You need to try harder.

Don’t get me wrong. By now I’m all infected with the excitement about the form factor of a tablet. I never thought I’d say it, but I do see a niche in my life where the tablet fits in. But it has to be more open. If I use a device to store all my content, if it is my direct way of accessing culture in all its forms, I have to really own it. And I’m not even talking about taking apart (I think it’s important that’s possible, but I hardly dare doing that) or installing Android on an iPhone. But I like a world where that is possible. I mean you should be able to install what you like, and take your music along to the next device you get.

I just can’t have a company being able to pull the plug on me with a software update anytime they choose to do so.

Image: Igor, who doesn’t like iPads the least bit, in the tempting glow of an iPad, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mbiddulph’s photostream

Grassroots mapping (kite, camera, coke)

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Grassrooots Mapping: Field Mapping Training from TungstenMonkey on Vimeo.

Grassrootsmapping.org:

Seeking to invert the traditional power structure of cartography, the grassroots mappers use helium balloons and kites to loft their own “community satellites” made with inexpensive digital cameras. The resulting images are georeferenced and stitched into maps which are 100x higher resolution that those offered by Google, at extremely low cost.

Huh. There’s so much in this video I won’t even comment much. This pretty much sums up the awesomeness that open source & hacking can be.

Tech year 2009 wrap up: cloud computing, Android, privacy discussions

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retro future

A couple of days ago I’ve given a short look back at the year 2009 from a personal point of view. Right after, I realized there were a couple more things with a wider tech perspective that I’d like to include – again, more for personal documentation than anything else. So here goes.

Everything went to the cloud We had been talking about cloud computing for a few years, but for me, 2009 clearly was the year The Cloud took off. I moved practically everything to the cloud, and cloud often equals Google these days. My email has been living inside gMail for years, but in 2009 I’ve ditched my email client altogether. Now I’m IMAP-ing browser-based between my computers and my phone.

Everything but my most sensitive documents live in the cloud, especially most collaborative docs. (Again, Google Docs or Etherpad, but Etherpad has also been acquired by Google recently.) My calendars are 100% up in Google Calendar.

Am I happy about this focus on Google? Far from it. But at this point, I see no equally well-executed alternative. For an overview of just how googley 2009 was, head over to Gina Trapani. Also, I recommend This Week In Google, a great weekly podcast with Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis and, again, Gina Trapani.

Still all this is clearly just the beginning. It should be interesting to watch where cloud computing goes in 2010.

Android killed the iPhone (for me) Ok, ok, Android may not have killed the iPhone officially. But ever since I switched to an Android-based phone (HTC Hero), I haven’t felt the urge to get an iPhone. Not a single time. Before I had been playing with the idea, and had always restrained. (I really don’t like the product policy behond the iPhone.) Android is a gorgeous, stable, powerful platform, and it’s all open source. It’s clear to me that while I might change phones a few times over the next couple of years, it’s not likely I’ll be leaving Android anytime soon.

Speaking of open source, 2009 is also the year I ditched Windows for good. I now live a Windows-free live (with a mix of Mac OSX, Ubuntu and Android), and boy, it’s feeling good.

The fight for our data 2009 has also been a year of intense battles in the digital realm, although certainly it’s not the last (or worst) to come. These fights have been along many different fronts, and not all have been going well at all.

In politics, Europe has been covered in conflicts regarding data retention. (German government introduced excessive data retention laws which are now under court review as far as I know.) Also in Germany, the basis for government-run censorship was laid under the pretense of fighting child abuse, search for #zensursula for details. The best German-language resource for these topics is certainly netzpolitik.org, so check them out for more details and updates. Good news, if not a solution to the problem: President Köhler has so far refused to sign the law.

In the corporate world, the conflict lines have been a lot more fragmented and twisted. However, one thing has become clear: Internet consumers will have to make a clear point regarding their expectations in terms of privacy and data control in digital contexts. Be it Facebook and its privacy settings, be it data ownership in other social networks. Important keywords in this field are: Data Portability identification systems like OAuth, microformats or the decentralized social web. (Like so often, Chris Messina is right in the middle of it. Check out the DiSo Project.) The same goes for End User License Agreements (EULA for short). Everybody is so used to just clicking those pages upon pages of legalese away that we’re bound to have a discussion about their use and legitimacy sometime soon. This isn’t new, but hasn’t been solved either, so maybe 2010 will bring some news there.

But worry not, it’s not all lost – these topics seemed to be very niche, and maybe still are. However, everybody in their right mind will come to the conclusion that there’s a line to what consumers have to bear before just moving on to another brand or product. (Even my mom was asking about the insanity of DRM the other day!) It looks like these topics, obscure as they may seem, are getting more publicity and more people to help out. Hopefully we can all collaboratively take some of the load off of the few individuals that have been doing such a tremendous job of raising awareness so far. (You know who you are.)

Obviously I’m happy to be able to end this post on a happy note.

So, again in short: the tech year of 2009 the way I perceived it = year of privacy discussions, cloud computing, Android.

Did I forget anything important? Let me know…

(image source)

Save the date: 26/27 Sept Barcamp “Atoms & Bits”

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Update (26.August): We’re getting there! Official announcements both on my blog and (so far in German only) on the atoms&bits website.

Note: We’re still in a very early planning stage, so please take this with some caution, it’s all very much in flow at this point.

Update (18. August):

  • Locations are confirmed: A&B Camp will be held at IMA Design Village, Betahaus will be the central hub for A&B Festival Berlin. Both are right next to each other for your convenience.
  • Sponsorship info is ready to be mailed out the next couple of days. We have very good sponsorship conditions and are looking for sponsors who fit the event. Sounds like you fit that description? Please drop me a line (peter@thewavingcat.com)!
  • Theme tracks: While A&B Camp sticks with the topics outlined below, A&B Festival will have five consistent theme tracks: Coworking, DIY/Maker, OpenEverything, Politics, Production of Art. Of course we’ll be weaving some kind of online component into many of the events.
  • Plenty of events are confirmed and being planned. Not giving any of that away yet because the website and program will be online in the next couple of days, but trust me, there’s some wicked stuff.

Updates (5. August):

  • Name: It’s official, the name will be “Atoms & Bits”. This will be the theme for both the larger festival and the concrete camp.
  • Twitter: updates via @atomsandbits
  • Hashtag: #atomsandbits or short: #anb.
  • Festival: Want to run your own event as part of the festival? Drop us a line to tell us about it and to learn about our next planning meetup: contact@atomsandbits.net
  • Camp: Won’t be called Barcamp since we’re going to tweak the format a little, but will be run on the same principles; difference: we’ll have sort-of curated dedicated rooms/tracks for some key topics (Coworking, DIY and Open Everything).
  • Topics: At the A&B Camp pretty much as outlined in the first draft. At the A&B Festival there are going to be additional events around art&culture as well as politics.
  • Party: Yes. (Details TBA.)
  • Photos/Who Are You?: A complete list of everybody involved will be on the website (see below). Until then, you can get an impression through these A&B photos on Flickr.
  • How to get involved: See below. For participants, we’ll announce the registration process soon. For sponsors, we’re putting together very decent sponsor packages. Until we have the website up and running, feel free to get in touch with me (peter@thewavingcat.com) and I’ll hook you up with the right info or right people. Please let me know if you’re interested in sponsoring primarily the camp or the whole festival.
  • Website: Yes. Very, very soon. Promise. www.atomsandbits.net
  • Logo, claim, press contacts & more info: Yes. Very, very soon. Promise.

Conference Season

The divide between online and offline world doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to most of us; neither does the divide between private and professional lives make a whole lot of sense to mobile laptop workers and coworkers; designers, scientists, musicians and other creatives are discovering and (in the best sense) exploiting the advantages of open source principles; and with open source hardware, even the barriers between the hardcore techie world and the rest of us out here are falling. (Arduino, anyone?)

All this, plus our love of the Barcamp unconference format made us want to run a really neat event. And now we found the perfect excuse to do so. So here goes what we’re thinking about – again, we’re in a very early stage, and none of this is confirmed yet – and how we’d like to combine all these aspects in one event. As an overarching theme, we picked the working title Atoms & Bits, referring to the blurring boundaries of online and offline world; not sure yet what it’ll be called in the end.

So, hopefully, on the last September weekend (26/27 Sept 2009) the following will be happening in Berlin (and at connected events all over Germany, Europe and worldwide):

  • Barcamp
    A classic barcamp, no topical limits. This will be the frame, or rather umbrella, for the event. Let’s see if we can use the name barcamp with all the modifications to the format, or if we’ll call it some-or-another camp; details to be discussed. The important part is, The Rules Of Barcamp apply.
  • Maker/DIY/Tinker Track
    a room (or track, or bunch of sessions) full of exploring the tinker and bausteln sphere, Arduinos, MAKEZINE-style stuff, maybe a 3d printer or two. This could also include some power stitching or guerilla knitting, of course. No limits.
  • Open Everything Global
    Open Everything will have a global event on Sept 26. Open Everything is a great initiative taking open source principals and practices out of the software sphere and into other areas like design, fashion, science, business – you name it. We’re talking to the Open Everything Berlin crew and they’ve signaled interest, so let’s see if we can put this together. At the last global Open Everything, we witnessed some pretty fun handovers via livestream from HongKong to Berlin and then off to (I believe) the US. A room is reserved for Open Everything.
  • Breakout Festival
    Also a global event, Breakout Festival is all about coworking (which personally I’ve been really interested in lately). With the Studio70 crew, Hallenprojekt.de and other coworking spaces in Berlin, we’d like to take part in Breakout, and what better opportunity the combining both events. Breakout lasts for a month (17 Sept to 16 Oct), so our Berlin event will fit right in. At least a room (or the cafe?) will be dedicated to discussing coworking and working on the concept. Edit: Sebastian just reminded me (thanks!) that this track is only a small part of the local activities within Breakout. There’s more, and there’ll also be more events the day before. (Some info over at Sebastian’s blog [de].)
  • Breakaway rooms
    Inspired to plan or code something right there and then? If the location allows, we’ll also have breakaway rooms to dig in and work on stuff. After all, it’d be great to come out of this weekend with some concrete results at hand.

In general we feel that we should have some real results from this weekend. Get stuff done! So I’d like to encourage folks to stream or record sessions, and why not do brief interviews with the speakers and participants at the end of a session; I’m sure we can collect all the stuff and share it afterwards.

That said, and again with all the disclaimers noted at the beginning, Nicole and others and I will try our best to get this set up. And we’ll do all we can to make it rock.

Wanna get involved? We’ll be setting up a website and mixxt network soon; until then, feel free to get in touch via email (peter@thewavingcat.com), contact form or Twitter (@thewavingcat).

How to get involved?

  • As a sponsor: Barcamps are 100% non-commercial and free. That only works with your help. We need to pay for catering, internet, insurance, location. The currency we can pay you back, or rather pay it forward, is by links. We’ll ask the participants to blog and twitter about you. It’s a good audience. Sounds good to you? Please get in touch (peter@thewavingcat.com).
  • As a co-organizer, helping hand, volunteer: You’re the ones keeping it all together. We’ll be trying to make it as easy and smooth for everybody as possible. We can’t pay you (we don’t get paid either), but you’ll be part of something cool. Wanna help out? Get in touch!
  • As a participant: You’re the most important part of the event. You make it or break it. Yet, please wait a little bit, we’ll set up a system to handle registrations. (Thanks!)

Update 29 July 09: Comments were closed automatically after 14 days, now commenting is back open for another 14 days. Sorry, my bad. Also, more – and more concrete – info about barcamp, festival and how it all fits together very, very soon. Within a few days. For really up-to-date info, please follow @atomsandbits, but I’ll be posting an update here, too.

Photo by Boogah (Creative Commons)

Impressions of ITP Springshow

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ITP is a program at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, and it looks simply awesome. Taken directly from their own mission statement, the ITP’s mission is “to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies — how they might augment, improve, and bring delight and art into people’s lives. Perhaps the best way to describe us is as a Center for the Recently Possible.”

Twice a year, the students showcase their works, most recently (yesterday) it was ITP Springshow 2009. I’m very glad I could make it there. The vibe is just great, it’s creative and it oozes innovation. The folks studying there are a mix of artists, tinkerers & hardware hackers, it seems.

When I walked in, I saw Clay Shirky hugging a needy object. (Which, if you ask me, is a great start to any show. Also gives you an idea about the kind of stuff you get to see here.) Other projects I found noteworthy or just cool were The Gotham Guide, a QR code based mobile tour guide; a visualization of the rat and bedbug populations in New York City; A Simple Mug, a project to visualize the impact a re-usable coffee mug can have on our environment; an iPhone app that lets you travel back in time through maps; The Mud Tub (seen in the video below), an experimental organic interface that lets users control a computer by digging through mud; a cheap water-testing device for UNICEF & Africa; a service that broadcasts the public Twitter timeline in audio format; a gorgeous wind-sensitive LED light show; a hybrid of Andean textile Art & 8-bit aesthetics; International finance data interpreted as fish; a digital underwater creature that reacts to being watched; Flowzilla, a mobile rapping app; a Greasemonkey script to play Wikipaths like we did when I studied in Sydney; a modified Altoids box to channel women’s frustration; Root Boots that allow you to re-connect to nature; A service for phone calls from the past; A hug measuring jacket; A micro-locative game about heights in the city; a social light switch (which reminded me of the Good Night Lamp, which I also love); a jacket for those who need long-term intravenous injections; and many others.

The Mud Tub, an experimental organic interface

I had a blast. If you have a chance, go see the next show.

There’s also a complete list of projects shown.