Links in print

I’m working on the new Eduserv website right now – content inputting, structuring, trying to hang the whole thing together – and the question came up the other day about how best to deal with incoming links from printed materials. We do a fair amount of these at work: brochures, leaflets, case studies – that kind of thing. I’m also writing a book at the moment, and this’ll have a supporting website – so the same question is looming large in another part of my life too.

When I gave this some brain time, it struck me that there are several possible solutions, and also some obvious problems which come along with those solutions, so I thought I’d punt the ideas I came up with here and see if you clever people had any better or different ideas.

The problem that needs solving is obvious: URL’s tend to be fairly cumbersome, and frankly a PITA to type in. Getting people from print to web on the other hand seems to be something which has a fair amount of potential value in it, either from a marketing “measure the effectiveness of our campaign” perspective or purely (as is the case with my book) because the web gives you an opportunity to offer additional and more up-to-date material than the printed page.

The barrier is high, though. We’re almost (I think) past having to type the http:// bit. We’re also (I think) past having to type the www bit too (unless you’re talking many government institutions, that is..).

The obvious solution, and one which – if you flick through a newspaper or magazine – seems to be the most favoured is to simply use an aliased url of some description. So there will be somewebsite.com/specialoffer or whatever. Easy enough, although there is some alias hackery required and needing to be maintained at some level. Also, the URL is still a bit of a mouthful, especially if your root domain is a bit chunky in the first place. So my old stomping ground has sciencemuseum.org.uk/launchball for example – fine, but a bit of an arse for a user to have to type.

The next obvious one is to URL shorten. Bit.ly, tinyurl, goo.gl – they’re all much of a muchness: immediate, short, measurable URLs, and if you fork out for “pro” versions of these services then you can get a similar(ish) domain to the one you originally started with. TechCrunch for example shortens to tcrn.ch/whatever. All good, but as per wider criticisms of URL shortening: not only does it kind of “break” the web, it also relies on a 3rd party. If you’re talking about printed material then the link potentially needs to be maintained and maintainable over a more extended period of time, so this becomes more of an issue than online maintenance. You can always create your own shortening service (there are a whole number of scripts out there that do it), which makes things a bit safer, but you still need to maintain a secondary shorter domain.

Next up, and potentially good but not yet widespread enough is QR coding. Instant links, but suffering from two main problems: 1) few people know what to do with a QR code or have the necessary hardware to deal with it and 2) typically you’ll scan with a mobile, which probably isn’t where you want to be experiencing the web content. There are ways round this: you could for example ask people for an email address on first scan, and send links to this address – but it’s all a bit clunky.

The final thing I can think of is to use a variation of the “big brand” approach you often see on TV: “Search the web for: ***”, but this time say something like “Search our site for: ****”. You could do this using some kind of magnifier icon to keep the words short.

I’ve got a suspicion that I’m over-thinking the problem, especially given that most brands – even companies who have a fair overlapping of offline and online presences – seem to do it using the obvious first method. But it also strikes me as a problem which could be better solved with a bit of clever lateral thinking. Any ideas?

 

Some brief thoughts on borrowing content

One of the great things about WordPress as a publishing platform is the way it deals with incoming links, comments and trackbacks. Linking is the currency of the web, and WordPress gives you the maximum possible intelligence on who is linking to you, where traffic is coming from and who might be citing your posts.

I noticed a new trackback this morning citing the Street Museum interview I did a while ago, and as normal followed it to source to see what the person had to say. It turned out that what they had to say was rather familiar: a complete copy and paste of the original post, word for word and image for image.

My first response was one of irritation, and I posted asking the Twitterverse what they thought. Their answers ranged from “hunt them down…” to “don’t worry about it” but I think some of more subtle responses are worth reflecting on:

1) This blog is CC licensed. I also bang on about free content being better content. Thus, from a purely legal perspective, I’m absolutely allowing people to distribute, copy, display, so my irritation is unfounded;

2) The devil is in the detail. This isn’t a spam blog but a hand-curated one. I’ve had entire blocks of content “borrowed” before, and yes, this irritates the **** out of me. This is different.

3) As James Clay pointed out, “he is using the blog as an online store of stuff he finds”, and that’s absolutely right – it is a different mode of use, albeit one quite hard to quantify.

4) In a perfect world, the person copying the post would have got in contact via email, just out of courtesy. But they didn’t, and ultimately, I’m not going to lose any sleep over that.

5) The notion of “attribution” is important and subtle here. I use a LOT of CC images when I do presentations, and have worried about *how* to attribute effectively – a link on the image? a table of links at the end of the presentation (my preferred method to date)? an email? In this particular case, it is pretty clear that the article was written by me, borrowed from this blog – the signposting is pretty clear.

The long and short: have it, it’s only fair 🙂

The diminishing returns of size

I gave a workshop last week to a bunch of museums in the North East entitled “Bootstrapping the Web”. Well, actually, it started off as that but following a questionnaire asking what they’d like to learn, the focus changed a bit to “How to do social media well”. I’m hoping the attendees learnt something – I certainly did, which is always great when you’re delivering stuff like this.

One of the things that is readily apparent, both from this workshop and from many of the conversations I have and see, is that many institutions – museums, galleries, businesses – have climbed over the first hurdle when it comes to social media. Many of them – more than you would expect – now have a social media presence. Usually this is a Facebook page or a Twitter account, sometimes it is a collection of Flickr pictures, sometimes a blog.

On first glance, these networks are of value because of their enormous size. Facebook currently claims 500 million active users (that’s, what, about a 14th of the world’s population). Twitter has 200 million or so (or is it a mere 15 million? who knows).

At that kind of scale, though, these networks are just sub-silos of the web. Just “having a presence” on Facebook or Twitter means as little as “having a web page”. We all learnt a long time ago that creating a web page was merely the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg and that all the hard work comes after that: maintaining, driving traffic, linking, content, content, content. These networks differ because of the ease with which they allow network effects to bloom, and they have power when there is a personal nature to the interaction. The size itself isn’t by any means a guarantee of success, and nor is the hype.

This is a big lesson that many institutions – and people, for that matter – are only just  beginning to learn. Social media and social networks aren’t a golden bullet. The ease with which you can set up a presence belies the hard and clever work that is required to maintain this presence.

The thing we talked about a lot in the workshop last week was about how you put social media into a strategic framework: one which asks “should I be doing this at all?” as regularly as asking “how should I be doing this?”. I’ve always argued that we needed a JFDI beginning in order to kick start a more strategic conversation, but the reason for doing it should be made very clear right at the beginning. I (shameless plug) talk a lot about this in my book.

Gartner casts a light on what is likely to happen in the near future: many institutions will fall down the trough of disillusionment as they realise that social media isn’t the save-all that they thought it might have been, and we’ll see interest wane as Facebook pages remain unfriended, Flickr pictures aren’t looked at, and blog posts aren’t visited. The people who have thought about things a bit harder and a bit more strategically – those who are in it for the long game – will weather this storm and realise that the ROI on social media comes later on, and only with more strategic thinking.

Urban Augmented Reality: Q&A

Some time ago, Jacco Ouwerkerk contacted me having seen the interview I did with the Museum of London. He directed me towards a hugely exciting Augmented Reality application called UAR – “Urban Augmented Reality” which launched in the Netherlands in June 2010.

Here’s what we talked about.

Q: Please introduce yourself, and tell us about your involvement with the project

I’m Jacco Ouwerkerk, interactive concepter at IN10 Communication, a creative agency that creates interactive brand, museum and city communication. I’ve been responsible for developing ‘open museum concepts’ like Urban Augmented Reality (UAR) for the Netherlands Architecture institute (NAi). The Netherlands Architecture Institute is a museum, archive, library and platform that wants to get people of all ages involved in architecture.

I’ve been working on the UAR project since the start in 2009 and I’m responsible for the concept development, interaction design and the project management.

Q: What is the project / what does it do?

Urban Augmented Reality (UAR) is the world’s first mobile architecture application featuring augmented reality and 3D models. With UAR you can see the past and the future (things that aren’t even there yet..) of the built environment on your iPhone and Android smartphone. The NAi has set itself an incredible challenge by making the Netherlands the first country in the world to have its entire architecture viewable in augmented reality.

Rotterdam is the first city that is available in UAR. Rotterdam is famous for its modern architecture, but let’s not forget the past. Rotterdam doesn’t have many historical architecture left due to the bombardment during WWII, but the UAR makes it all visible again. UAR makes it able to see alternative designs of buildings in their real environment. Or get a sneak preview on the new Rotterdam Central Station.

Later this year Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague will follow.

Q: You chose Augmented Reality as your technology of choice. Can you tell us how you went about making this choice, and why you think it works best for you?

Mid 2009 Ferry Piekart, curator UAR from NAi, invited us for a brainstorm meeting at the NAi. He wanted us to come up with an idea how they could be a museum outside the museum walls. This is because architecture is best experienced in and around the architecture itself. Also, NAi will be closed for months because of construction activities. Therefore there had to be an alternative for NAi to share its enormous collection to the public.

At that moment I was thesis supervisor of Maurice Melchers on the subject of Augmented Reality. We were looking for relevant Augmented Reality concepts that could surpass the more gimmicky concepts that we found on the internet at that time. We concluded that AR could very well be used to view architecture.

In june 2009 we started researching the possibilities of AR on the smartphone in combination with interactive tours. At the same time Layar launched their Augmented Reality browser. We contacted them and soon we started a partnership to develop the Urban Augmented Reality application with 3D models. There was a lot of enthusiasm among the participants in this project: NAi, Layar and IN10.

Q: Tell us about the process you went through to build the app?

Our goal was to develop a stand-alone (native) smartphone application that could be accessed by as many people as possible. We chose to develop an application for the iPhone and the Android platform, in our opinion the two most relevant platforms to launch our application on. After researching the possibilities we came to the conclusion that we had to develop a web based app to make it easier to show content on both platforms, (multi platform) in stand alone apps. The content is also available in the Layar browser.

Our main goal was to create a maximal user experience: easy to use, with relevant information and optimised mobile content. User experience design for Augmented Reality is new. For the AR view we had to design with the Layar AR possibilities but also added some features. For example; a switch between the different stages of AR: past and present. At the same point we got the feeling we were finally designing our childhood dream: a time machine!

In the application you get all sorts of extra information about architectural projects, architect biographies, sketches, drawings, environments and an overview of the process of the realisation of the projects. The NAi spent lots of time selecting projects out of world’s largest architecture collection and preparing texts and images ready for a mobile context.

With UAR we tried to bring the ideas and stories in architecture to life by adding audio tours within themes and special ‘famous’ guides who tell you about the buildings surrounding you. This feature will be available in the upcoming update.

Testing UAR was surreal! We spent hours wandering in the city of Rotterdam looking through mobile phones: sometimes the spots were very crowded. People tend to get a little paranoid when they think you point a mobile phone in their direction. The technology is new so we had to deal with GPS accuracies caused by electricity cables, buses driving by and so on. We also spent a lot of time finding the right angle and GEO codes combination for 3D building positioning.

Q: What provision is there for people who don’t have these phones, and how did you go about making the choice to be selective with your audience?

It’s the first time mobile Augmented Reality is accessible on this scale. Augmented Reality only works on smartphones with compass and GPS receiver. We know not everybody has a smartphone and had several discussions how we could make UAR accessible for as many people as possible. We have choosen a multiplatform approach where we make the content available on stand-alone apps (for free) and via Layar browser. The Netherlands Architecture Institute wants to be innovative and decided to start with AR because of the relevancy of AR for architecture and in the belief that in the coming years everybody will have a smartphone.

Q: How successful has the app been?

The app has been downloaded approximately 2500 (iPhone/Android) times. Within the Layar browser UAR has been requested more the 6500 times.

Q: Can you give us some detail about the technical implementation of the app?

There were a lot of people and parties involved: NAi, IN10 (responsible for the concept, design, project management, CMS), Layar (SDK and browser), Triangle Studios (app development) DPI Animation House (3D models) and the Rotterdam Historical Archives.

Together we worked on getting the archive accessible in UAR on all kind of levels. We used the Content Management System to collect and upload the complete (selection of the) archive of NAi (materials, texts and 3D models made by DPI).

We imported a great amount of data by using Excel! For future releases, editors of the NAi, urban archives and architects can upload and create content directly in the CMS themselves. We’re also going to use all kinds of API’s and connect various collections and archive databases in UAR.

Q: What have you learnt about mobile / AR / developing this kind of thing? What might you do the same / differently in the future?

The biggest challenges we faced and learnings we have experienced during this process were the mobile multi-platform development, pre-loaded content, database connections/imports/API and 3D positioning.

I hope we get together with other museums and institutes to join forces on mobile development. I’ve seen that there are so many archives and collections that are digitalised. Together we can create strong mobile user experiences.

Q: What have you got planned for the future?

Rotterdam is the first city, to be followed later this year by Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. The rest of the Netherlands will follow in 2011. We’re also planning to add user generated content to the application.

Q: Anything we’ve missed…?

Smartphones with AR, QR and image recognition are just the catalyst of a future where everything will be connected with data. It’s more important than ever to open up and join forces to create beautiful, interactive and meaningful museum environments in and outside the museum.

It’s time to tell data stories to augment the reality of our daily lives.

Terribly successful

Imagine a web application as it should appear in 2010.

Now lower your expectations in absolutely every way.

Design? Absolutely terrible. We’re talking default and mixed fonts, no thought given to typography, spacing. Bad 1995 animated GIFs scattered around.  Terrible Photoshop, or more likely MS Paint skills – that kind of gratuitous dropshadowbeveladdsomesunglareandanotherlayer thing you do when you’re first fiddling with image editing programs: no subtlety, no restraint, no style.

Lower your expectations a bit more. The UI is awful – any sense of navigational place has been whittled away not just by the design but by the FULL ON nature of the interface, the ads, the lack of anything consistent.

Actually, the web interface is less important than it could or should be: really, all the action happens instead in your email inbox. By default, you get 550 or so emails from this site every week. That’s 80, every single day.

What else? Oh, no tagging, no taxonomy, no (meaningful) search, no API, no feeds. No proper database of past posts, actually…

Sounds terrible, right? Sounds like hell on a stick? Sounds like the kind of site you’d laugh at, one you’d definitely not get involved with? In fact, maybe I’m making it up as a kind of case study of how not to do the web, right?

Hm.

This is Bath Freegle. And the thing that utterly confounds anyone who looks at it (apart from the fact it flies in the face of everything we believe in as web people) is this: it is utterly, totally and unbelievably successful. Not just “not bad” successful, but in-your-face “literally, you’ll have people picking your stuff up within minutes of posting it” successful.

There’s a number of reasons why this works, of course (ranging from “people understand email” to “hey, free stuff!”). A passionate audience of more than 11,000 members helps. Free stuff certainly helps. Fulfilling genuine human needs helps (I need to get rid of shit, and can’t be bothered to sell it on eBay: you fancy said shit. Let’s deal).

Nonetheless, this makes us web types twitch for two main reasons: 1) it flies in the face of most of the things we believe in, and 2) it could / should be so, so much better.

So can we learn anything from this (apart from the fact that humans will do nearly anything for free stuff)? Maybe it’s something about going where the people are. Maybe it’s about simplicity. Maybe it’s about priorities, and how we should spend more time working with users to understand what makes them tick. Maybe it’s about all of the above.

Maybe. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow…

Quantity or quality?

This might seem like an odd question, especially given the vast (vast) quantity of effort that goes into digitisation, rights checking, caption authoring and so on. But I’m also a fan of taking a step back at least every so often and asking odd, obvious and possibly stupid questions.

The question is in part prompted by an (apparently controversial) post on Read Write Web (I Don’t Know Much About Art But I Know What’s Online). I say “apparently controversial” because it seemed to kick off a fair-sized discussion on the MCG list, at least one blog post and a bunch of tweets from people who seemed to be a bit cross about it.

FWIW, it seemed to me to be an interesting and mostly fair post, albeit with moments of obvious silliness. Defining a single “museum experience”, for example, is easily as foolish as defining a single “shopping experience” or single “reading experience” or single any experience – it seems blindingly obvious there is no single experience, no single context, no single person. At the same time the point – that there is, really, nothing quite like seeing the real thing, no matter which way you cut it – is a fair one.

All of that aside, the interesting questions asked by the post seemed to be:

1. Is the Holy Grail of collections online to get THE LOT up on the web?

2. What makes for a good online collections experience, especially if you’ve delivered 1) and your collections number tens of thousands?

And of course, underling these two questions is, for me, the interesting one: why? Why do it at all? Why spend hundreds of thousands (actually, millions upon millions..) of pounds digitising collections for distribution to a digital audience?

Clearly, the use-cases for online collections are as varied as anything else but there must be some answers here, right? If you’re a medium-sized museum considering your digitisation strategy, how do you choose what to do? Is it all about quantity, about some kind of “number of collections items online up 400% this year!” box-ticking exercise? And if it isn’t about quantity but quality, how do you go about measuring the impact of your strategy?

I find it hard to see past my own perspective on this one: personally, I’d always prefer a tiny number of objects (hundreds, or even tens!) where each has been given real, personal attention. Seeing enormous great lists of stuff where QUANTITY IS ALL seems somehow to miss the entire point. For me, this isn’t about the mass of objects but is somehow about the “gaps” between the objects: the relationships between them, the relationships to people and, most importantly, the stories. George Cavan’s now-famous matchbox means nothing without the story attached to it: with it, it has a huge and tear-jerking impact.

There again, I’m a punter and not a researcher. Maybe they’d think very differently.

Update: see Frankie Roberto’s post: “..what an art museum experience might feel like online”

Streetmuseum: Q&A with Museum of London

Streetmuseum – a rather lovely iPhone app by the Museum of London – launched a few weeks ago, and almost immediately began to cause a bit of a buzz across Twitter and other social networks. It’s hardly surprising that people have responded so positively to it – the app takes the simplicity of the Looking Into the Past Flickr group and combines it with cutting-edge stuff like AR and location-based services (think Layar++) to bring historical London into a modern-day context.

I caught up with Vicky Lee last week and asked her a bunch of questions about the app. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: Please introduce yourself, and tell us about your involvement with the Museum of London iPhone app project

I’m Vicky Lee, Marketing Manager for the Museum of London. As part of the launch campaign for the new Galleries of Modern London I’ve been working with creative agency Brothers and Sisters to develop a free iPhone app – Streetmuseum – that brings the Museum to the streets.

Q: Tell us about the app – what it does, and how you’re hoping people will use it, also about how successful it is being

Streetmuseum uses augmented reality to give you a unique perspective of old and new London. The app guides users to sites across London where over 200 images of the capital, from the Museum of London’s art and photographic collections, can be viewed in-situ, essentially offering you a window through time. If you have a 3GS iPhone these images can be viewed in 2D and also in 3D, as a ghostly overlay on the present day scene. The AR function cannot be offered on 3G iPhones but users can still track the images through their GPS and view them in 2D, with the ability to zoom in and see detail. To engage with as many Londoners as possible, images cover almost all London boroughs. Each image also comes with a little information about the scene to give the user some historical context.

What we bet on from the start was that users would enjoy finding images of the street they live or work on and would be quick to demonstrate this to their friends and colleagues – helping to spread the word about Streetmuseum but also raising the profile of the Museum itself, particularly among young Londoners who we have previously struggled to reach. We hoped that the app would spread virally in this way within days and it certainly seems to have worked as in just over 2 weeks the app has had over 50,000 downloads. It’s just been released in all international iTunes stores so we’re expecting this figure to rocket over the coming weeks.

Q: Why did you choose to build an iPhone app as opposed to something else (Android, web, etc)

When I wrote the brief for a viral campaign to promote the new galleries and reposition the Museum of London, I had no idea we would end up launching an app. I hadn’t for one moment considered that we could afford to develop an app but Brothers and Sisters’ instinct from the start was that this was what we needed to change perceptions about the Museum. As soon as we understood how the concept fitted in with the overall marketing campaign (which also uses images from the Museum’s collections) it was the only option we wanted to pursue.
As with most Museum projects we were limited by budget so it was a case of either iPhone or Android but not both. To launch with maximum impact our feeling was that we had to go out with an iPhone app, therefore benefiting from the positive associations with the Apple brand and securing the interest of the media. We hope now to be able to secure funding to develop an Android version of the app in response to the many requests we have received.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the financial model? Did you build it in partnership with someone else?

As a free museum reliant on funding, we would not have been able to create this app without collaborating with Brothers and Sisters. The partnership was mutually beneficial, generating media coverage for both parties and new business leads for the agency. Using images from the Museum’s collections meant that all the content was readily available so this kept costs down. Licensing agreements on certain images made it complicated to charge for the app, however it was always our intention to launch this free in order to reach the widest possible audience.

Q: Overall, what have you learnt about the process so far?

Simple works best. We originally planned to include user generated content but dropped this idea to ensure we stuck to our budget and timescale. Ultimately the idea is not that original but its simplicity has made the app an easy sell, both nationally and internationally.
I’d certainly give myself more time in future – we delivered the app in an incredibly short amount of time which gave little opportunity to review how it worked in practice. With more time we could have carried out user testing and refined the concept further to end up with an even slicker product.

Q: What else have you got planned for mobile at the MOL into the future?

We’re keen to keep the momentum going and stay ahead of the field, so, together with Brothers and Sisters, we are already looking at how we can develop this concept further. If we can secure additional funding we’d like to explore different subject areas and tie-in with future exhibitions and gallery redevelopments. Most importantly though we need to build upon what we have already achieved and keep evolving to ensure that any new apps continue to be newsworthy. We are also looking into the possibility of adding more images to the current Streetmuseum app and developing a version for Android phones.

The paywall experiment

Shortly the Times will begin its Great Paywall Experiment, locking out all but paid (£1 a day, £2 a week) subscribers.

It is very easy to laugh at Murdoch for taking this approach, but actually it’s a pretty good thing that someone has the balls/stupidity/temerity/whatever to do it. Many people – me included – have spent a lot of time over the past few years debating where the value is now that the volume of free stuff has increased a million fold. Like many of my peers, I’ve long been convinced of the value of scale rather than scarcity, but its been a long and often hard sell to many who still believe in traditional models, and we have all been scrabbling about looking for solid financial evidence to support one or other argument.

The Times approach will be a  pretty effective litmus test of applying a traditional business model to a non-traditional environment. It will also be an interesting case study in what social media – and, in fact, the web – actually means when it comes to virality and the Long Tail. Not only does the locking out prevent Google from spidering content, it also means that bloggers, Twitter users – in fact anyone using the web to comment – simply won’t be able to. Any links pointing to content in the Times site will end up at the sign-up page: essentially a pretty effective total blackout of in-linking. And if you believe what most of us have been saying since the dawn of the web – that linking is the lifeblood of this environment – then it is hard to understand how this model is going to work.

On Radio 4 this morning we heard James Harding, editor of the Times talking about the move. Some of what he said needs applauding: he talked about how in this online world we should appreciate the value of journalism, for example. This wonderful post by Kevin Kelly talks about the need for quality editorial control and journalism; certainly, the more STUFF there is shouting at us, the more we’re going to appreciate the people who can write well or help us sift our way through the quantity.

On the other hand, he also came out with some pretty startling stuff about “shop windows” (the analogy: window shoppers are the “shallow” reader, “real” shoppers are the ones who will pay) and how the Times is “doing exactly what we do with the printed paper”. Looking at the new designs for the site, the immediate response is “Hey, a newspaper. On a screen”. The visual analogy is so strong, you can’t help but feel that someone just scanned the paper version and uploaded it. And if we’ve learnt anything over the last few years, it is that online content is more than just a hyperlinked book…

Over more than a decade of working with content-rich organisations, I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that traditional models can’t be mindlessly shoe-horned into this new paradigm where a copy-paste-send makes us all content pirates. Charging for access to content requires a lot of thought: it only works in specific, carefully honed environments where the value of content displaces cost in ways that are more subtle than ever before. Nowadays it is about location, mobility, usability, time to market, update frequency and so many other factors. I can’t help but feel that The Times is just leapfrogging all of this subtlety on the whims of a wrinkled old CEO with a bee in his bonnet. Either way, it’s going to be an interesting experiment.

Here’s hoping the results are shared more widely than the content…

Quality, functionality and openness

It is against an increasingly bitter backdrop of argument between Apple and Adobe (Flash! No Flash! HTML 5! Openness! Closedness! etc…) that I found myself a week ago with a damaged iPhone. An accidental dropping incident from Son1 added a seemingly minor dent just next to the power button, and hey presto – a device I can’t turn off manually.

The poor, bashed-about phone I dropped was a Gen 1 iPhone: almost a retro device by some accounts. Nonetheless, I’ve stuck with it, and life now without an internet-ready mobile is simply not an option for me. It was therefore a rather lucky twist of fate that found a generous friend offering me his brand new Android phone to use for a while.

So I find myself with the latest and greatest Android handset: an HTC Desire. A ten zigabit processor, a gwillion megapixel camera, a ten billion pixel screen, infinite memory. Something like that, anyway. It’s slick, beautiful, thin, light. It has a bright, hi-res screen, a wonderful camera. It is rammed to the hilt with functionality. I’m blown away by having real location capability (remember, my Gen 1 could only find me using cell stuff rather than GPS); I’ve experienced using Layar, Google Sky Maps, other LBS services – properly – for the first time. That openness, that speed, that power. Awesome.

The first night I got back with the Desire, I found myself sitting on the sofa, flicking my way through the Android store, checking Twidroid, browsing the news. And a weird thing happened, something I wasn’t expecting. Like an almost intangible movement in my peripheral vision, I realised that something wasn’t quite right. I was a bit on edge, trying a bit hard, having to think. Night One, I said to myself. Night One with a new and unfamiliar device. No wonder. It’ll be ok tomorrow.

The thing is: the uneasy thought didn’t get better the next day, or the next night, or the night after that.

After a week of using the latest and greatest Android phone, I find myself sitting down on the sofa in the evening and the thing is sitting unused on the top of the piano. Instead I’m – get this – back using the 1st generation iPhone. It’s SIM-less (useless as a phone, but still ok as a device on the WIFI), battered, slow as buggery, and I can’t turn it off, but hey – I’m back.

Now’s the point in time I should make something very clear: I’m not an Apple fanboy. I have a Macbook at home but I spend most of my working life on PC’s. In my past I’ve used both, enjoyed both, had different experiences of both. I’m also pretty conflicted about some of the recent moves by Apple. I personally think that the whole anti-Flash thing is a major mistake, in the same way that I think the anti-Flash zealots are making some pretty bold assumptions in saying that HTML5 can replace Flash at this point in time. Frankly, that’s bullshit. I also dislike the pro-app, anti-web thing that they appear to have going on. The web wins: it always will. Apple say they get this but do a bunch of stuff which implies otherwise.

I wanted to love Android. I wanted to embrace openness, turn my back on Apple’s rejection of free markets, join the crowd of developers shouting about this new paradigm.

I can’t.

I’ve tried very hard to articulate to myself why this is the case. It is – certainly – something about usability. To take one of many examples: on Android you apparently have one paradigm for copy and paste in one application, and another in another: in the browser you get a reasonable Apple-like magnifier; in Twidroid (for example), you don’t. This to me just simply isn’t acceptable. Copy and paste is ubiquitous, end of. Stuff like global Google Search is good – very good – but when every move is hampered by subtle but vital compromises in usability, the overall experience becomes stressful, not playful.

The Android store is also, frankly, embarrassing. I tried very hard to find any kind of game or app that came close to the beautiful stuff you see on even the worst of the Apple store. Nothing. The UI of many apps is just terrible, the graphics all a bit 1995. Crashes are frequent, and when they do happen they are peppered with developer-like comments about code and runtimes.

It’s hard – store aside – to fault the Android device from a functionality perspective, and I’ve tried very hard to find ways that I can articulate what exactly is wrong. It is something about playfulness, about the fun of the technology. There is also something about quality. Robert Pirsig says this:

“…the result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable…”

I don’t want to get all metaphysical about Apple products: enough people do this already, but the iPhone experience – in a week of living with Android – is much, much closer to the invisible technology that makes for a better and more natural user experience. That’s what has me reaching for an old, broken, semi-retired phone rather than the faster, slicker, by-all-accounts-better model.

Apple stuff comes with a compromise – and make no mistake, I’m as conflicted as the rest of the world about this: the restricted UI, the closed and editorially controlled store, the limits placed by Apple on the devices their OS will run on – these are not “good” things – but they appear, at least in this instance, to be necessary for quality. When Android is forking its way off into infinite loops of differentness, each with pluses and minuses, Apple stays the course – a slow, chugging, proprietary, known experience. It doesn’t feel right, and yet it absolutely does.

When I think about what this means, I worry. As technology people, we should all be concerned about the approaches that Facebook, Google and Apple are taking, and we all know that openness is – or should be – key. But – and I’ve written about this a bit before – usability and ubiquity are the definers for normal, non-geeky people, not openness or functionality. And we need to focus on this and think about what it means when usability comes into conflict with openness, as I believe it does with Android.

So that’s me. I tried. Circumstance mean I’ll be using Android for the next few weeks either way, and I may change my mind. I may find myself on the sofa using the Ferrari of phones rather than the Morris Minor. But somehow, I doubt it.

Linked Data: my challenge

What with Gordon Brown’s recent (just an hour or so ago) announcement of lots of digital goodness at the “Building Britain’s Digital Future” event, the focus sharpens once again on Linked Data.

I’ve been sitting on the sidelines sniping gently at Linked Data since it apparently replaced the Semantic Web as The Next Big Thing. I remained cynical about the SW all the way through, and as of right now I remain cynical about Linked Data as well.

This might seem odd from someone obsessed with – and a clear advocate of – the opening up data. I’ve blogged about, talked about and written papers about what I’ve come to call MRD (Machine Readable Data). I’ve gone so far as to believe that if it doesn’t have an API, it doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist.

So what is my problem with Linked Data? Surely what Linked Data offers is the holy grail of MRD? Shouldn’t I be embracing it as everyone else appears to be?

Yes. I probably should.

But…Linked Data runs headlong into one of the things I also blog about all the time here, and the thing I believe in probably more than anything else: simplicity.

If there is one thing I think we should all have learned from RSS, simple API’s, YQL, Yahoo Pipes, Google Docs, etc it is this: for a technology to gain traction it has to be not only accessible, but simple and usable, too.

Here’s how I see Linked Data as of right now:

1. It is completely entrenched in a community who are deeply technically focused. They’re nice people, but I’ve had a good bunch of conversations and never once has anyone been able to articulate for me the why or the how of Linked Data, and why it is better than focusing on simple MRD approaches, and in that lack of understanding we have a problem. I’m not the sharpest tool, but I’m not stupid either, and I’ve been trying to understand for a fair amount of time…

2. There are very few (read: almost zero) compelling use-cases for Linked Data. And I don’t mean the TBL “hey, imagine if you could do X” scenario, I mean real use-cases. Things that people have actually built. And no, Twine doesn’t cut it.

3. The entry cost is high – deeply arcane and overly technical, whilst the value remains low. Find me something you can do with Linked Data that you can’t do with an API. If the value was way higher, the cost wouldn’t matter so much. But right now, what do you get if you publish Linked Data? And what do you get if you consume it?

Now, I’m deeply aware that actually I don’t actually know much about Linked Data. But I’m also aware that for someone like me – with my background and interests – to not know much about Linked Data, there is somewhere in the chain a massive problem.

I genuinely want to understand Linked Data. I want to be a Linked Data advocate in the same way I’m an API/MRD advocate. So here is my challenge, and it is genuinely an open one. I need you, dear reader, to show me:

1. Why I should publish Linked Data. The “why” means I want to understand the value returned by the investment of time required, and by this I mean compelling, possibly visual and certainly useful examples

2. How I should do this, and easily. If you need to use the word “ontology” or “triple” or make me understand the deepest horrors of RDF, consider your approach a failed approach

3. Some compelling use-cases which demonstrate that this is better than a simple API/feed based approach

There you go – the challenge is on. Arcane technical types need not apply.