Monday, December 28, 2009

A great story about how social software enables innovation

When I reflect on what I did during 2009, one of the things that gives me most satisfaction is my involvement with the Status Updater project (also known as MicroBlogCentral). This is a really cool piece of software that I think will prove to be very popular. However, the story of how the software came about is even more interesting because it illustrates how social software can help unlock innovation and so I decided to write about it here.

My involvement in the project started when I was trying to come up with a project idea for Hackday 6.5 which was held in IBM Ireland back in June. At the time, I was just becoming familiar with the idea of micro-blogging and was feeling overwhelmed with all of the different places that were expecting me to regularly post an up to date "status message". It occurred to me that it would be very handy if I had a tool which would automatically post my status updates to all of the sites that were asking me "what are you doing now?".

I thought that it would be a cool Hackday project to implement a Notes/Sametime plugin to do this. At the same time I realized that it might be challenging to implement such a tool in a single day and so I posted the idea to the TeamBuilder page in the wiki to see if anyone would like to join my team. Someone saw my project proposal and told me about an existing tool called MicroBlogCentral (MBC for short) which did much of what I was proposing. It allowed users to update their status in Lotus Connections Profiles, Twitter and Sametime in a single simple UI. The tool also gave users a panel which summarizes recent activity in their Lotus Connections network. This had been developed as a hobby project by Jessica Wu Ramirez, so I contacted Jessica and she happily agreed to allow me use her tool as a starting base for my project.

Luckily the MBC code had been very well designed with extensibility in mind. Jessica had defined an eclipse extension point for the status updater interface - to add support for more services, I simply had to develop additional plugins that implemented this interface. During Hackday 6.5 I implemented instances of this service for a number of services that are used within IBM:
  • BlueTwit which is a service similar to Twitter which was developed by Ben Hardill in the IBM Hursley lab in England.
  • Fringe (also known as BluePages+1) which is a prototype of an enhanced corporate directory developed by the Almaden research lab in California. One of the enhancements in this service is the ability for employees to post a status message.
  • BeeHive (later renamed to SocialBlue) which is a social networking service limited to IBM employees which was developed by the Cambridge, Mass. research lab.
  • I also started work on a service to interface with Ping.FM so that we would have support for several external services in one plugin. However, I never got this plugin working properly.
I am not sure if I would have been able to complete anything if I was starting from scratch and I am fairly certain that if I was designing the UI it would have been much worse than the beautiful one that Jessica created. As I was doing this work, I restructured the build process such that the core feature only supported Lotus Connections and Sametime - support for all other services including Twitter is  now an optional install so that people who don't use these services won't have them cluttering up the UI. As a payback to Jessica for allowing me use her code, I added extensive comments to the code as I figured out how it worked (we felt that these comments would be useful if the code was ever published).

The updated MicroBlogCentral tool was well received within IBM. Since the people using it were by definition active users of social networking services, word about the tool spread rapidly. I personally was quite happy to use the tool because I felt it allowed me to avoid having to choose between being active in the BlueTwit communty or be active in the Lotus Connections service hosted on TAP. It also allowed me to begin using Twitter for the first time.

After a while, I began to notice that by helping me post status updates everywhere,  MBC wasn't really helping me engage in meaningful conversations. People were replying to my Tweets on Twitter and BlueTwit, but I wasn't seeing the replies because MBC only writes my updates to these platforms and doesn't read updates from other people. I discussed with Jessica the possibility of updating MBC to implement a two way interface to the additional services. Jessica was keen on the idea, but she cautioned that it would be a substantial piece of work.

We decided to post this as a potential project for Hackday 7 in October to see if anyone else was interested in helping out. At this stage MBC had become quite well known and so we were pleasantly surprised to get lots of volunteers offering to help out:
  • Emil Varga from Dublin, Ireland
  • Varun Sattigrahalli and Vinay Roy Thykkuttathil of India
  • Erika Flint from California
Myself and Jessica met with the new volunteers and agreed a project plan for Hackday 7. It is difficult to co-ordinate the work of several people on a project which needs to be completed in a single day, especially when with the exception of myself and Emil none of the people ever met each other.

Unfortunately, I was not able to help out on Hackday 7 itself because I was at the UKLUG conference in Edinburgh (ironically giving a talk about how the Hackday events encourage innovation). The team got on fine without me and completed all of their goals apart from the Facebook interface (maybe they got on better because I was not there to get in the way).

While I was at the UKLUG conference I naturally attended the Ketnote talk by Bob Picciano the General Manager of the Lotus Division. This talk covered all the useful features in the latest products from the Lotus brand. Bob was trying to explain how useful the Notes side-shelf plugins can be. What he said was: "For example, the first thing I do every morning is open the MicroBlogCentral plugin and check out the latest updates in my network. This really helps me get quickly up to date on what is happening". I was naturally delighted to hear such a high profile endorsement of the the MBC plugin. However, when we were reviewing afterwards how the talk had gone, Mary Beth Raven said that he should not have chosen an example plugin which was not available outside of IBM. Bob's response was "we should make this plugin available to our customers as soon as possible". I took this as a call to action.

When I got back home, I was delighted to find that the team had done a great job on the enhanced version of MBC (internally code named the Hackday 7 version) and the Hackday judging panel awarded the team the prize for "The Best Social Computing Application".

The team discussed a few possible mechanisms for making the plugin available outside of IBM before finally deciding to publish it via the OpenNTF organization. Publishing, via OpenNTF meant that we had to OpenSource the code under the Apache license. It was my first time to be so closely involved with releasing  a project Open Source license and I was a little surprised by how much work was involved (e.g. we had to replace all of the icons in the product and we had to rename it from trademarkable  MicroBlogCentral to the more descriptive Status Updater). Luckily Niklas Heidloff provided us with assitance to rapidly handle all of the steps and on 15th of December it was released by Niklas with a blog entry titled "OpenNTF Christmas Gift". Niklas' post has probably the best description of how to use the plugin (Hackers are not big on documentation).

This plugin has already started to attract many compliments. I am confident that the Lotus community will embrace this tool and it won't be long before we see people outside of IBM contributing extensions for their own favourite services which should make the tool more useful for everyone. Early in the new year we plan to publish and article on Developerworks which gives detailed instructions on how to do this (it is not hard - you could probably figure it out yourself by looking at the Twitter plugin we posted to OpenNTF).

I encourage you to download the code and try it out (IBM internal people install the plugins for the IBM internal services from the Hackday 7 update site). Even better, you could get involved in helping to improve it. In years to come you could be proudly telling your grandchildren that your were one of the first people to get involved in this famous project.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The real spirit of Christmas

Happy Christmas to all who read my blog. I think this slightly unusual rendition of the 12 days of Christmas from Frank Kelly is a great way to capture the real spirit of Christmas

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mixed feelings about Google Chrome Extensions

I am a big fan of the Firefox browser, mainly because of the wonderful extensions which are available. In particular the extension is so valuable I am  not sure how I ever managed to survive without it. However, I am also aware of the potential performance impact of having too many extensions installed.

I have recently started also using the Google Chromium browser and have been very impressed with its overall speed and quality. While I missed my Firefox extensions, I do realise that extensions and speed tend to be mutually exclusive. Therefore I had mixed feelings that I heard the news that Chromim now supports browser extensions.

I browsed through the list of extensions available and  was pleasantly suprised to see that there are already almost 1000 extensions available. There are two extensions to choose from, but neither are anywhere nearly as good as the Firefox equivalent.

On the plus side, it is possible to install or uninstall chromium extensions without restarting the browser so it is really easy to try out extensions and then turn them off if you change your mind. I now am using 5 extensions and I will try to keep the list of extensions small so I don't get bloated.

One extension which sounded interesting was the "YouTube HTML5-ifier" extension. However, it did not work properly. It got rid of the flash from YouTube, but the replacement player did not work for me.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Will we have a white Christmas in Ireland?

It is looking increasingly likely that we will have a white Christmas in Ireland this year. This picture shows the snow on my car, however I must admit that the snow is not really that severe because  I deliberately chose a shot to make the snow look dramatic. In most cases the snow is melting when it hits the ground.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Delighted that Sametime 8.5 has finally shipped

Almost all of my focus at work for the last few months has been on the Sametime 8.5 project. This is a major upgrade to the IBM/Lotus Sametime product and I am delighted to say that the product has finally shipped. The official announcement says that is will ship on 22nd of December, but the development team have completed all of their work at this stage and the gold master has been passed to the release lab. There was major pressure to have the produce ship before the end of the year, so you can see that we just made it by the skin of our teeth.

Sametime 8.5 includes updates to several parts of the product. Many customers will be excited about the new meeting room client which provides maximum functionality and is ideal for the frequent user of Sametime. However, I suspect that the feature most customers will get excited about is the new Java free web client. Obviously the server is mainly coded in Java, but there is no Java code downloaded onto the browser. We are using the Dojo Toolkit and the latest AJAX techniques which means that the code executed in the browser is all JavaScript. As well as ensuring we are fully buzzword compliant, this means that user can join meetings mush faster because there is no Java Applet to download. It also means that we can now support virtually any browser. Our officially supported browsers are Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari which should cover a large percentage of users. For other browsers (e.g. Google Chrome) we don't guarantee them, but if you try them you will probably be pleasantly suprised to find they work.

If you want to try it out for free you can visit Lotus Greenhouse. Currently a Beta version is installed on Greenhouse, but I am sure it will be upgraded to the gold coe very soon.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

#shotofjaq is destined to become to most popular open source podcast

Jono Bacon is fairly well known in the Open Source community as the Ubuntu community manager, co-presenter of FLOSS Weekly and most recently author of the Art of Community book. So when he teamed up with one of his UK friends Stuart Langridge to create a new podcast called ShotOfJAQ, I decided it was worth checking it out despite the weird off-putting name.

It seems that Jono is following his own advice and is building a really vibrant community around the podcast. They publish a 10 minute episode twice a week about "the goings on in the Open Source, Free Culture and technology world". Each episode is about a single topic which is currently generating a lot of interest in the community. Due to the short length of each episode, they effectively just introduce the topic and wait for their listening community to start discussing the topic by leaving comments on their web site.

So far they are keeping to their twice weekly schedule and each episode so far has generated over 30 listener comments which is pretty amazing for a new podcast. Of course it is to early to be certain if it will be a success (it has only been just over 2 weeks since they launched), but my my prediction is that this podcast will grow a lively fun community of listeners (just like Ubuntu has a lively fun community of users). I recommend you check it out for yourself - it will only take 10 minutes to hear an episode.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

SmartPower as applied to the lights in the Phoenix Park

As I needed to travel into the City Center this morning I was pleased to see that the roadworks in the Phoenix Park have been completed and the road is now open. It is always a pleasure to travel through the park. As well as being the fastest and shortest route from Castleknock to the city center, it is always nice to pass through an environment (rural, relaxed and old fashioned) which is in stark contrast from the surrounding city (urban, busy and modern).

I was surprised to see that the old fashioned gas lights have been supplemented with some very modern looking lights. At first I was disappointed with the fact that they were not in keeping with the general ambiance of the park. However, when I reflected some more I realized that they are an excellent example of Smart Power in action.

The new lights apparently generate power for themselves from a combination of wind and solar sources. Anyone who knows Irish weather will realize that we tend to get wind and solar energy at different times of the year - unfortunately we tend to get more wind than sunshine, but there is not much that can be done about that :-(

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 provides a silver lining to recent clouds

Some people have been critical of the response of official government agencies to the recent flooding, but there has been almost unanimous acclaim for the response from their local community. A number of people have remarked that neighbours whom they had barely spoken to before had spent many hour voluntarily working to help people deal with the consequences of the recent floods. Maybe the growth in community spirit will be the "silver lining" to our recent clouds.

I was just listening to Morning Ireland and I heard an interview with the creator of - this is a site where people who have skills and/or specialist equipment can register their willingness to help flood victims. The creator of the site was telling the interviewer that people naturally can see when their neighbours need help, but people who don't live in the flood affected areas are also interested to help.

This sounds like a great idea.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting sport into perspective

I remember sniggering at the ridiculous reaction of English people to Diego Maradona's hand of God incident in their match against Argentina in 1986. I worry that Irish people are in danger of behaving equally foolishly by over-reacting to the hand of Henry incident, but when I saw this song on YouTube my faith in the Irish sense of humor was restored.

For the record, I agree that the French goal should have been disallowed. I also agree that it would be a good idea for the soccer authorities to implement a procedure for referees to check video evidence similar to what is done in many other sports. However, the fact is that referees are human and frequently make several mistakes in each game (some minor some major). The current procedure in soccer is that the referee's decision is final and there is no way to get it overturned later. So we need to just get on with our lives and accept that we won't be at the world cup finals in South Africa next year.

Just in case you are not already familiar with the Corrigan Brothers, they are best known for their song "There is no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama"