Selling free software

Presenting, in the blue corner, Google’s announcement of its forthcoming Chrome browser – by the medium of the comic book. And in the red corner, Mr Stephen Fry’s armchair chat on the subject of GNU, the movement to create a completely free operating system.

Both are trying to do something quite peculiar: they want to give you something for nothing, and they feel they have to really push the boat out to persuade you why that’s a good idea. For the record, I’m not sure either is a presentational success. I find the comic book really hard work to read, especially when it starts talking about detailed tech stuff. And much as I hate to say it, Stephen Fry’s video piece is rather dry and a little repetitive. Maybe it needs more Alan Davies. (It certainly could do with better audio.)

Selling ‘free’ software – normally WordPress, of course – is effectively what Puffbox does. But what am I actually ‘selling’? The manifestation is usually in the form of custom theme design, selection and configuration of plugins, brainstorming of new features and functions, plus a bit of coaching and training. But fundamentally, clients are paying for my experience with the product: knowing what it’s good at, knowing how to make these things happen, and being able to do it more quickly (and hence more cheaply) than they could themselves.

And as WordPress (well, strictly Automattic) CEO Toni Schneider told the recent WordCamp in San Francisco, it’s a flourishing business. You can’t say that about much these days, can you? But then, as noted on my last piece about Internet Explorer… I really believe the £0 price tag changes all the rules.

Another reason to use Twitter

I’ve recently noticed people’s Twitter accounts ranking particularly highly on search results for their name. So is the benefit to your search engine ranking good enough reason to get into Twitter, even just as a token gesture?

For example, I run an experimental Twitter account for Puffbox: it’s just a Twitterfeed thing for blog posts specifically about the company. It only has a handful of subscribers, and I’m neither offended nor surprised. But it’s ranking remarkably highly on Google searches for ‘puffbox’: at present, it’s number #3, beneath two results for puffbox.com itself. Setting up a new Twitter account takes seconds; setting up a Twitterfeed something similar; and once it’s up and running, that’s job done.

Of course, a one-way Twitter account isn’t going to win you many plaudits, or indeed many followers. But if it pushes your content up the appropriate search rankings, for zero cost and zero day-to-day (or even month-to-month) effort, surely it’s worth doing? The choice of a sensible, search-term friendly username seems to be the most important factor; but don’t forget to add meaningful ‘personal’ information to your profile, so people know where to go next.

‘Linking here’ lists with Google feed API

Time for some tech talk. A few weeks back, I wrote about Google’s new AJAX Feed API. Having played with it last week on behalf of a client, and having liked what I saw, I decided to implement it myself.

If you’re reading this on the puffbox.com website itself, you might see a list in the sidebar headed ‘Who’s linking here?’. (If not, see here for an example.) It’s something I introduced a while back, powered by feeds from Google’s Blogsearch engine, and processed using the excellent SimplePie. But I’ve now switched over to doing it client-side, through the Google API.

Once the blog post finishes loading, the Javascript calls in the RSS feed (actually, it’s Atom format) from Google. If it finds any blogs linking to that specific post, it writes a title into one previously empty DIV, and a disclaimer into another. In between, it generates up to 10 <LI> list items, each active as a link to the linking blog.

If you want to see how it’s done, and copy the idea for yourself, a quick glance at the page’s source code will reveal how straightforward it was. (You’ll need your own API key, obviously.)

Why go client-side? It’s less effort for the server to process; and it doesn’t build up a mass of cached feeds. It should also be marginally more secure on paper, which is important to some clients. And whilst the function is dependent on Javascript being available, it’s dead easy to offer a ‘noscript’ alternative – a link to a pre-formatted Google search query. It’s nowhere near as slick, but it ensures the information is still available to those without Javascript, so it passes accessibility requirements (W3C guidelines, checkpoints 6.3 and 11.4).

Embed RSS feeds via Google

RSS is my answer to everything. So simple, so straightforward, so flexible. Yet, as I’ve mentioned here before, I’m amazed how few government web sites – especially new ones – offer feeds. The number using RSS feeds to pull content in, of course, is even smaller. A few months back, I asked readers how many had websites which could import content via RSS. The results were depressingly predictable (or should that be predictably depressing?).

If it’s something you’d like to add to your site, Google might well have a solution. They’ve made available a ‘feed API’, based on simple Javascript, to pull headlines together from any RSS feeds (yes, plural) you specify, and turn them into HTML for inclusion in your pages. You can have a conventional one-line ticker, or a vertical presentation: in an aggregated list, or divided by source. Adding a live view of the latest headlines from any given (RSS-enabled) site just became as easy as copy-and-paste… assuming your CMS is OK about you entering Javascript.

Of course Google’s far from the first to do this… but I’ve never seen a similar service with the same big-name, long-term backing. The code looks relatively simple to hack if you need to, and you should be able to dress it up in the host site’s font/colours using basic CSS. Plus, the Google ‘widgets’ are really neat, with hover effects and animations built in. It’s far from ‘industrial strength’, but it might well be enough for smaller projects.

PM hails Google’s model of globalisation

Gordon Brown’s big speech at Google’s Zeitgeist conference this morning saw the unveiling of a new initiative involving the MetOffice, British Antarctic Survey and Google Earth to visualise the (potential) effects of climate change worldwide. It’s quite nice, but ultimately you’ll load it up and go ‘hmmph’.

More interesting perhaps was his citing of the lessons learned from the growth of Google’s industry for ‘how we build not simply a successful global economy but a global society’ – openness, non-protectionism, flexibility, inclusion.

He paints an optimistic vision of the future, based on a campaign in favour of globalisation. We get a few familiar tales of empowerment through technology, including yet another reference to crime mapping. And references to overturning protectionist monopolies will have gone down well with the Googlers in the audience, no doubt. 🙂

It’s interesting to compare Brown’s words with David Cameron’s remarks to the very same conference, two years ago. Both reflect on the positive side to globalisation, but whilst Cameron’s focus is more domestic, Brown is talking (again) about the global economics of it all. ‘Zeitgeist’ is certainly the word.

Ordnance Survey reinvents Google Maps

‘Following a successful closed launch’, apparently involving no fewer than 12 developers, Ordnance Survey has opened the doors to OpenSpace. It describes itself as ‘a JavaScript® Application Programming Interface (API) that uses ‘slippy map’ technology, letting you dynamically pan the map by grabbing and sliding the image in any direction you like.’ Just like Google Maps, then. But there’s more.

‘OS OpenSpace allows you to build Web 2.0 applications using Ordnance Survey data’ – just like Google. You can ‘add markers, lines and polygons on top of Ordnance Survey maps, and also search for place names’ – just like, er, you know. Oh, except that it’s ‘non-commercial use only’. According to their FAQ: ‘There can be no advertising, paid promotional content or other revenue generating activities associate (sic) with any part of your website.’ Which doesn’t leave much.

There’s a page listing various usage examples: but guess what? The examples are all non-interactive GIFs… which kind of defeats the object. Duh.

I’d love to get excited by this. OS is finally speaking the right language: API, web 2.0, mashup, etc. But they have to give developers a better reason to use this than their claim of having ‘the best mapping data available’. They’re already way, way behind.

Quick update: see comments from Ed Parsons – ex-OS, now ‘the Geospatial Technologist of Google’: ‘not quite what I had opened Openspace would be, but given the constraints … a great first step and will hopefully lead to the much needed rethink.’

Google Docs not there yet

I haven’t played with Google Docs for a while, but news of a form designer to ease spreadsheet input intrigued me. A lot of spreadsheets, especially in an office environment, are actually pseudo-databases. So why not treat spreadsheet data entry like a database?

It’s a great idea, but the initial execution is a bit disappointing. The form designer is pretty limited: some nice Ajax-y touches, but a restricted number of field types, and no easy way to enter dates (pre-population? popup calendar?). I have a couple of work-related spreadsheets which I update on a rolling basis, and which I’d happily move over to this kind of form-based approach… but sorry, not yet. Wufoo still seems to be the leader in online forms… and with the addition of payment processing, it opens up all sorts of possibilities.

But the whole Google Docs experience is definitely improving. I tried using the Prism browser, which is basically Firefox stripped bare: and it made for a more natural ‘Office-y’ experience. It was actually surprising how much the lack of familiar browser screen furniture helped. But I think it really needs to be offline-enabled (via Google Gears or Firefox v3?) to make its breakthrough. That may not be far away, as it happens: offline Google Docs access has been spotted in testing.

Microsoft-Yahoo: I’m past caring

I’ve been extensively quoted in a technology story on the Sky News website this morning, in which I describe Microsoft’s proposed purchase of Yahoo as ‘a deal for the accountants and advertisers, not the users’. I’ll tell you why.

I like to keep a lid on my RSS consumption: anything over 100 feeds feels like too much. I had one of my occasional clearouts at the weekend, and I was actually surprised to find myself removing the final feed in my Microsoft folder. But it’s been a long, long time since Microsoft launched or announced anything which excited or inspired me. It’s not just the disappointment of Vista. There have been too many underwhelming ‘me too’ launches lately: the Zune and Silverlight spring immediately to mind.

Over at Yahoo, it’s more like a succession of false dawns. The 2005 purchases of Flickr and Delicious suggested they really ‘got it’, and I still use both daily; but they don’t seem to have moved on much since the purchase. Whatever happened to Flickr’s promised video? Delicious has promised ‘big things coming soon‘, but the definition of ‘soon’ is stretching all the time. And just as significantly, neither seems to have influenced Yahoo’s core service much. (I’ve used Pipes a few times, but it’s for RSS-obsessed geeks only… like me.)

The unpleasant truth is that a Yahoo news story these days is unlikely to solicit more than a disinterested grunt from me, and Microsoft is rapidly going down the same road. From a user’s perspective, all this deal would/will do is reduce the field from ‘Google plus two also-rans’ to ‘Google plus one’. I sense more dread out there than enthusiasm.

And those following the Puffbox philosophy won’t be surprised to read my quote: ‘Being successful online isn’t about being big – if anything, it’s a hindrance rather than a help.’ Discuss.

Breath of fresh AIR

I’m finding more and more reasons to like Adobe’s new AIR technology. They describe it as ‘a new technology that makes possible exciting new software applications that merge the desktop and the web’; in practice, it opens software development up to those who chose to specialise in more ‘creative’ fields like Flash. And of course, because it’s AIR, the same app runs on both Windows and Mac (with Linux support  to follow).

Two current favourite tools: Analytics Reporting Suite, for looking at your Google Analytics data; and Twhirl, a lovely little Twitter app. In both cases, the originating website was already perfectly usable, but the convenience of a desktop app takes it a step further.

The Analytics tool is a reminder of the web’s limitations, even in the post-Ajax world: it’s just quicker, neater, and arguably prettier. And there are countless reasons to like Twhirl: you can log into several accounts at once; the interface removes the need to remember all those ugly Twitter codes; and there are ‘toaster’ alerts when a friend sends an update. Both are highly recommended… and free, obviously.