Schools and young entrepreneurs

There was a piece on ReadWriteWeb earlier this month about the Teens in Tech conference: ‘They haven’t learned that the sky is not, in fact, the limit - and for god’s sake, don’t tell them.’

Teens In Tech Conference 2010 from ReadWriteWeb on Vimeo

In January, Stephen Heppell, quoted in the Guardian, said of the iPad: ‘It’s gorgeous, I want one, but I want to see children and teachers develop for it … nearly there.’

I’ve been meaning for some time now to say something here about what George Burgess, a final year student at St Paul’s, has been doing. I’ve known George for three years and he’s the most business savvy student I’ve ever come across. It’s in his blood: he operates with a shrewdness and an eye for opportunities. George is alert to changes in the game:

‘The idea that anyone, all the way from an individual to a large company, can create software that is innovative and be carried around in a customer’s pocket is just exploding. It’s a breakthrough, and that is the future, and every software developer sees it.’ — Apple’s Game Changer, Downloading Now, NYT, 6 December, 2009

Late last year, George had his iPhone app, GeoRev, accepted and on 24 November it appeared in Apple’s store. You can read about it on his website, EducationApps. From George’s press release:

GeoRev is designed to help students revise for their Geography GCSE exam and consists of 600 multiple-choice questions. These questions are separated into 15 topic areas with both foundation and higher tier options. The topic areas aim to incorporate the majority of material required by major exam boards.

GeoRev is the first of many revision apps Burgess will produce as part of his business, EducationApps. The business aims to produce high quality education applications for the iPhone and iPod touch which help pupils to learn and revise for exams.

Since then, he’s released a free, LITE version of GeoRev with only 150 questions, with the aim of sparking further interest in the full version by giving users an opportunity to try it out first. (When I spoke to George in early February, he’d sold over 400 copies of GeoRev, now priced at £1.19.)

Not standing still, he’s gone on to release two Economics apps, with revision notes for Units 1 and 2 of Edexcel’s AS Level Economics. The notes are split into topic areas and there’s a search function to allow users to quickly find relevant material (particularly helpful for homework). ‘I’m currently working with teachers to try and produce the following GCSE apps before Easter: Maths (a basic version of this might be available within the next two weeks), Chemistry, Biology, Physics and RS. I’ve also received permission from OCR to use their word lists in the making of my foreign language apps. I’m therefore working with a developer in Australia to get these started.’

Oh, and over Christmas his seasonal Trivia Quiz made it into MacWorld.

George ran his first idea for an app (GeoRev) past the school and then drew up a contract with our Head of Geography: they co-wrote the questions and answers (George is studying Geography at A Level). Once version 1 was out of the door, he began working on new features for version 2, including random testing and beat-the-clock.

He’s happy for me to re-tell the story of how, in our junior school, he got into some trouble … as a result of his business sense. Travelling quite often between the UK and the States, he noticed how his friends liked the American sweets he brought back. So he started bringing them back in quantity and selling them on. That’s what business people do, but it’s not quite the form traditionally expected of school pupils. (Bruce Chatwin got into trouble as a schoolboy at Marlborough College when he exercised his discerning eye and bought stuff from the local antique shops that he knew would fetch a good price in London. In his case, the local dealers got together to protest to Chatwin’s headmaster: Chatwin was destroying their credibility, they said …)

One thing I find admirable in what George has done is that he’s done it at all, whilst still at school. He’s not the first, of course: there’s a long line now of school-aged innovators seizing the reins, writing code and changing the world a bit.

In George’s case, he didn’t write the code for GeoRev himself. Like me, he’s not a coder, but unlike me he had the idea for an app, knew what it should do and what it should feel like, found a developer in Pakistan and commissioned the work. And in order to do all this, he approached my colleague, his Geography teacher, and invited him to enter into this business proposal, contract-based, clearing the idea with the school as he went.

Since George got his first app on the market, other GCSE revision apps have started to appear. He’s swift to watch for new competition, seeing what each does and appraising the strengths and weaknesses of their products — ‘this developer produces quite boring and basic apps (including the ICT one), which consist only of audio commentary with some notes on the screen’; ‘these ones only cover science but look quite good, with a similar approach to mine (multiple-choice questions)’; ‘this developer just produces revision flash cards with text and pictures’.

It will become a crowded space and then there’ll be the inevitable shake-out. That’s his challenge. Ours is to respond adeptly to this most significant change in empowerment: not just to tolerate or learn to cope, but to create the ethos which encourages entrepreneurial initiatives and offers guidance and support — not least in avoiding the pitfalls. I’ve seen more complicated, student-driven initiatives just recently, and one thing we can bring to all this is a sense of realism about legal and other issues surrounding these ventures. But ‘realism’ must not be a reason for dampening enthusiasm. We’re here to guide and enable, as best we can, as these young entrepreneurs aim high.


When I was at the Saïd Business School in September for the Oxford Social Media Convention 2009, I heard Matthew Hindman (author of The Myth of Digital Democracy) say that Google has spent more in the past six years on R&D than was spent on the entire Manhattan Project (figures adjusted for inflation: ‘constant 2002 dollars’).

In my opening remarks I strenuously disagreed with other presenters’ claims that the Internet provides for “low barriers to entry.” Different barriers to entry? Sure. Low barriers in 1995? Of course. But low barriers today? Not in any of the mature part of the Web, and certainly not in the niches that I study.

I thought of this again whilst reading John Naughton’s column on Sunday morning. If you have seven minutes to spare, watch this first:

John Naughton summarises:

The sting in the Android tail was also unveiled this week: Google has launched GPS navigation for the new handsets. It does everything that TomTom, Garmin et al do, and a lot more besides. For example, you can talk to it: tell it to “navigate to the museum with the King Tut exhibition” and it will do an instant Google search and present you with a list of options. Its maps are continually updated because they’re not held on the phone. It’ll give you live traffic data for your route. And when you get close to your destination it switches to Street View to show what it looks like. And it’s free.

That same day, in my Delicious network stream, Bill Gurley’s (now much lauded) post, Google Redefines Disruption: The “Less Than Free” Business Model, popped up, in which he reflects on Google’s progress from licensing data owned by the mapping duopoly of Tele Atlas and NavTeq to today’s state of independence:

… as a venture capitalist it is imperative to understand ways in which a smaller private company can gain the upper hand on a large incumbent. One of the most successful ways to do this is to change the rules of the game in such a way that the incumbent would need to abandon or destroy its core business in order to lay chase to your strategy. … when I read this week that Google was including free turn-by-turn navigation directions with each and every Android mobile OS, I had an immediate feeling that I was witnessing a disruptive play of a magnitude heretofore unseen. … Rumors abound about just how many cars Google has on the roads building it own turn-by-turn mapping data as well as its unique “Google Streetview” database. Whatever it is, it must be huge. This October 13th, just over one year after dropping NavTeq, the other shoe dropped as well. Google disconnected from Tele Atlas and began to offer maps that were free and clear of either license. These maps are based on a combination of their own data as well as freely available data. Two weeks after this, Google announces free turn-by-turn directions for all Android phones. … To understand just how disruptive this is to the GPS data market, you must first understand that “turn-by-turn” data was the lynchpin that held the duopoly together. … Google’s free navigation feature announcement dealt a crushing blow to the GPS stocks. Garmin fell 16%. TomTom fell 21%. Imagine trying to maintain high royalty rates against this strategic move by Google.

There’s much more to read there about the implications of Google’s move. Much, much more. Including the irresistible new ecosystem that will open up:

Google is apt to believe that the geographic taxonomy is a wonderful skeleton for a geo-based ad network. If your maps are distributed everywhere on the Internet and in every mobile device, you control that framework. Cash starved startups, building interesting and innovative mobile apps, will undoubtedly build on Google’s map API. It’s rich, it is easy to use, and quite frankly the price is right. In the future, if you want to advertise your local business to people with an interest in your local market, chances are you will look to Google for that access.

(Yesterday, talking to some business savvy students, I was struck by how much they already knew about this and how they lapped up Bill Gurley’s article for its navigation of the very far reaching implications of Google’s move. That breath on the nape of your neck? The next generation, coming up fast.)

Gizmodo reflected on this in Google and the Deadly Power of Data:

This is not an attack of Google’s business practices, but an explanation of the sort of destructive innovation that has made them so huge so fast. (It’s also a warning to consider carefully any entities that gets this strong, especially if you plan on going into business with one.) Though predecessors like Microsoft experienced similar explosive growth, and grew a similar sudden global dependence, we’ve never seen the likes of Google. The GPS business isn’t the only one that will be consumed by its mighty maw before it’s had its run.

We’ve already seen the devaluation of the office apps that make Microsoft rich; we’ve already seen how Google’s experiences with Apple and others helped it create telecommunications platforms (both mobile with Android and completely virtual with Google Voice) that threaten its former partners’ existence; we’ve already seen how Google converts photos, videos, news wire stories and other former commodities into freebies by smashing the false notion of scarcity that “service” providers had literally banked on.

Meanwhile, pundits remain fascinated by the economics of YouTube and the same edition of the Observer, in an article about Google’s ContentID system, repeated the line that, ‘Three years after Google bought the site for $1.65bn, it has yet to turn a profit and there are concerns the division is devouring the internet group’s cash reserves’. Last month, Eric Schmidt said, ‘We’re starting to make signifigant money off of Youtube’. But it was a recent Wired piece that held my attention:

… a new report from Arbor Networks suggests that Google’s traffic is approaching 10 percent of the net’s traffic, and that it’s got so much fiber optic cable, it is simply trading traffic, with no payment involved, with the net’s largest ISPs.

“I think Google’s transit costs are close to zero,” said Craig Labovitz, the chief scientist for Arbor Networks and a longtime internet researcher. Arbor Networks, which sells network monitoring equipment used by about 70 percent of the net’s ISPs, likely knows more about the net’s ebbs and flows than anyone outside of the National Security Agency.

And the extraordinary fact that a website serving nearly 100 billion videos a year has no bandwidth bill means the net isn’t the network it used to be.

(According to Chad Hurley, CEO and Co-founder of YouTube, YouTube now serves ‘well over a billion views a day’.)

More here on the Internet Observatory Report from Arbor Networks (I’d really like to get hold of the report itself and scrutinise the details), from whence this:

Evolution of the Internet Core: Over the last five years, Internet traffic has migrated away from the traditional Internet core of 10 to 12 Tier-1 international transit providers. Today, the majority of Internet traffic by volume flows directly between large content providers, datacenter / CDNs and consumer networks. Consequently, most Tier-1 networks have evolved their business models away from IP wholesale transit to focus on broader cloud / enterprise services, content hosting and VPNs.

Rise of the ‘Hyper Giants’: Five years ago, Internet traffic was proportionally distributed across tens of thousands of enterprise managed web sites and servers around the world. Today, most content has increasingly migrated to a small number of very large hosting, cloud and content providers. Out of the 40,000 routed end sites in the Internet, 30 large companies – “hyper giants” like Limelight, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and YouTube – now generate and consume a disproportionate 30% of all Internet traffic.

About the Wired piece, Ian commented on Delicious, ‘Another way to put it: Unless you own massive infrastructure, you will *never* be able to compete with Google. Welcome to the new net, indeed. Meet the new boss…’. The field certainly ain’t level.

All of which made me do what I’d a while ago grown bored of doing and once more note down something here (as a marker for myself) about … Google. Creative destruction.

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Our work (so far) this year

It’s again been an exhilarating experience to teach our first years (13 year-olds) their ICT course. The pace of adoption by them of technological developments still surprises: once again, I notice how this year’s cohort is just that much further on than the equivalent year group last year. It’s not just us, the adults, who notice this: where we might think that teenagers swim in all this digital stuff like fish in water, it’s eye-opening to watch only slightly older students being amazed at what 13 year-olds now know. So last month, a year on from when I last posted here about this course, I was feeding back to colleagues whose specialism is not ICT:

Last year, for example, we taught about tabbed browsing, but this year we didn’t need to: our 13 year-olds are experimenting freely with different browsers, wasting no time in downloading and adopting the recently released Google Chrome. They joined the school knowing more than last year’s 4ths about operating systems and several have experience of Linux. They are keen to learn about how they can maintain their personalised experience of computing (by exploiting web apps) when using the school’s networked machines and many were already using iGoogle before joining St Paul’s. One 4th former routinely uses PortableApps and showed others how to do the same. Others know about running Firefox from a memory stick, retaining all their individual settings no matter what PC they are on. There is a wide range of hardware in use and the barrier between desktop machines (hitherto commonly taken to be synonymous with computers) and mobile devices has gone — notebooks, mini-books, smartphones, the iPodTouch, iPhones ... all proving their computing worth in day-to-day life. Location-based services are being widely used on mobile phones; such services are coming soon to browsers (Firefox, Chrome) and operating systems (eg, Windows 7).

Some further context here: a year ago, iGoogle was alien to nearly all our first years; memory sticks were used more or less only as … memory sticks — running apps off of them was a fringe experience; browsers and the exploitable differences between them simply hadn’t the popular prominence they have now. Most interesting in many ways to me is the demand for Open Source software: because of 13 year-old, pupil-led demand we are networking Open Office, running it alongside MS Office. It’s up to the user which product he/she wants to use. I’m also interested in reports from colleagues about 13 and 14 year-old pupils, when asked to create a document or to collaborate, opening web-based apps as a matter of course.

So, the course as it is evolving this year is currently online here. I have no doubt, though, that we are now at a watershed and, as I also summed things up for colleagues, ‘The current course, revised from that of last year, will need fundamental revision for next year in order to keep pace with the changes afoot and the rate of adoption by young teenagers’. In particular, I think we’re now ready to make a fundamental shift towards the creative — and this pleases me a great deal.

They don’t have blogs, or I’d link to them, but my gratitude to the team with whom I co-teach this course (Richard, Andrew, Olly, David) is great: my thanks to them for all their hard work and enthusiasm.

This year has been very busy on a number of other fronts. We took the decision late last academic year to re-design our website and asked Clearleft to undertake the work. As I knew it would prove, it’s been a pleasure to work with Clearleft: we’re somewhere around halfway through the project and I’ve learned a great deal from them — about web-design, for sure (we had fun with affinity diagrams and played with post-its), but also about how good design work probes and challenges a company’s perception of how it’s promoting itself. I recommend the experience.

We’ve also been working a lot with Firefly, the company who write the software that powers both our website and our intranet. Simon and Joe, the founders and developers of Firefly, were pupils at St Paul’s and wrote the first iteration of Firefly whilst studying here. With the great help of Jess and Serena from Headshift, we have worked together, discussing how the interface and capabilities of Firefly might be developed, and this month saw the release of the new product. Thank you, Joe and Simon, for all your work on this. In summary: comments can now be enabled on all pages; we have blogs; the editing interface has been re-worked and made in-line, write-access is on by default and key editing options are immediately visible in hover-over mode; RSS has been made both much more obvious and widely available; the permissions dialogue has been improved and made more transparent; search has been improved both in UI and performance; template documentation is on its way, as is tagging; shared workspaces are available; calendaring now supports iCal; pages are owned by their creators but stewardship of a page is assignable (useful with classes, projects, etc). These are major software improvements for our intranet (which has amassed some 25,000 pages), providing us with something to build on collaboratively (staff and pupils) and develop further.

When we were deliberating the next iteration of our ICT Development Plan, I wanted green computing to be high on the agenda and I’m delighted that we worked with Gavin at AMEE and are now poised to start aggregating our energy data for the school (ie, the whole site) with AMEE. Our building program recognised the importance of sustainability from the outset.

We’ve been in discussion with Google about starting a branded YouTube channel. We filmed most of this year’s talks (see below) and have these and other stuff to go up. All this takes time, of course, but it’s coming.

This year we also began what I sense is necessarily a thoughtful, slow and sensitive engagement with games and gaming. These have a poor standing in schools, yet their cultural influence and their ubiquity in the lives of many younger people (by no means “just” students) is evident and widely reported. Grand Theft Auto originates from Paulines, of course, and it was high time to address the whole “matter”. We founded a society this term, met a couple of times (the first time without anyone, perhaps, realising it was meeting) and grew it out of two influential, important talks (see below). Next term we move the throttle forward and give it some more oomph. Those involved (it’s pretty popular) bought the idea of everyone reading more about games, and we’ll start with Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.

We’ve had a great run of speakers so far this year, with more to come. Last academic year I blogged these talks as we went, but this year things have been too busy for that (along with all the work detailed here, I’ve also switched to commuting daily, which involved decamping mid-term from my school flat and giving some much overdue attention to our own home — and then there was learning to live with First Great Western …). So here’s the run-down …

Continue reading "Our work (so far) this year" »


I've been playing around with a variety of wiki software with an eye on what I might recommend for colleagues at school. It was good to meet Jeremy Ruston at Reboot. Jeremy is the founder and CTO of Osmosoft, 'the publisher of TiddlyWiki, a popular and well-regarded free tool that is relied on by hundreds of thousands of people around the world to record, organise and share all kinds of information'.

Doc Searls' post yesterday, Food for rethought, is a good and quick reminder of some of the things that make TiddlyWiki interesting, but I particularly liked these comments of Jeremy's — made whilst demo-ing TiddlyWiki to Doc:

We don't have many weapons to use against really ineffectual people ...  It's reasonable to talk about software as being alive ...  It's symbiotic ... It needs a host geek in which to live ... The value in software is as much in its potential as in its functionality ...

I heard the news of BT buying Osmosoft from Jeremy when we were in Copenhagen. He blogged about it at the end of May:

I’m delighted to announce that the mighty BT has acquired my tiny little company Osmosoft Limited. I’m joining BT as Head of Open Source Innovation, and I’ll be building a crack open source web development team called BT Osmosoft. … BT is becoming a remarkable thing: a truly internet-scale consumer company that doesn’t rely on owning “secret sauce” software for it’s business. At the most senior levels, there’s an appetite to embrace open source that wouldn’t disgrace a web 2.0 startup. I’ll be working with a great many talented and interesting people, and I’m looking forward to it immensely. … I hope BT’s endorsement of TiddlyWiki will open up new applications that we haven’t thought of yet. To meet the challenges that they bring, I’ll continue to strive to keep the core of TiddlyWiki true to its origins as a lean, efficient non-linear personal web notebook.

I see TiddlyWiki has just had its release 2.2. I'm off to look more closely at TiddlyWiki.

Eugh ...

Crazy fortnight of the usual end of term stuff … the kind of weeks a lot of teachers go through round about now, their schools entering states of extravagant levels of activity: invigilating, marking coursework, marking exams, writing reports. (Come back Andrew Pinder, all's forgiven - this is a very inefficient "industry".) 

Then, moving. Surreal sense of time blurred all together, days melding into nights into days. So when a friend emails me with this from our leader

Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don't come here.

… I find I'm coming to, like the morning after, my head aching with the realisation that this is yet another example of a politician out-satirising satirists. Then John Naughton posts: 

Sometimes, one has to rub one’s eyes in disbelief. Yesterday, a Labour Prime Minister was interviewed by detectives investigating a corruption scandal engulfing his administration — and it was judged a triumph by his staff that he wasn’t cautioned. This meant he was ‘just’ a witness, and not a suspect in the inquiry. And at the same time, his government’s chief law officer halts an inquiry that was on the brink of revealing illegal payments of perhaps £1 billion to a posse of Saudi princelings and their hangers-on because they were (as the BBC’s Security correspondent intimated this morning) livid at the prospect of having their ‘privacy’ invaded.

Eugh indeed. Inglorious times.

Somewhere in this gap of time, I spent about a week saying 'plutonium' when I meant 'polonium'. (In David Weinberger's great phrase, 'I have become all cracks, no flooring'.) Bless the internet for underscoring so readily why it's important to tell the difference.

And then, the afternoon of my move out of Radley and back to Marlborough (prelude to a move to London in the new year), my laptop's fan, origin of strange noises for a while now, packed up and the machine became, of course, unbootable: 'Fan Error'. You bet. The next day was spent lost in Reading's seemingly all-look-alike roads: Lenovo has this relationship with TNT and Reading's my nearest, relevant TNT drop-off point. Sheesh.

I get by at times like these by borrowing family machines. My wife's laptop will go back to her with various bells and whistles installed. (That's my bargaining ploy for the extensive use of her machine.) Thomas' woes are of another order, though:

I am currently limping along on an external hard drive for my laptop with the last good back up from two months ago. I am missing notes from the last few conferences and my kGTD, which I just got running well.

I do sympathise. What do we need so as to make all this business of machine-hopping and machine-breakdown bearable or better? Thomas again:

Many people are trying to sync and back-up their lives on a regular basis, but the technology is still faulty. So many people have faulty syncing, no matter what technologies they are using. Most people have more than two devices in their life (work and home computer, smart phone, PDA, mobile phone with syncable address book and calendar, iPod, and other assorted options) and the syncing still works best (often passably) between two devices. Now when we start including web services things get really messy as people try to work on-line and off-line across their devices. The technology has not caught up as most devices are marketed and built to solve a problem between two devices and area of information need. The solutions are short sighted. …

Having trusted devices working together helps heal the fractures in our data losses, while keeping it safe from those we do not wish to have access. The secure transmission of our data between our trusted devices and securely shared with those we trust is quickly arriving.

I am hoping the next time I have a fatal hard drive crash it is not noticeable and the data loss is self-healed by pulling things back together from resources I have trust (well placed trust that is verifiable - hopefully). This is the Personal InfoCloud and its dealing with a Local InfoCloud all securely built with trusted components.


Having said which, and bearing in mind that, unlike Thomas, I'm not running my own business or attending multiple conferences, etc, etc, what has struck me this year, whenever I've lived temporarily without my own machine, is how well I can now get along. As Robert said just recently:

Google is delivering the Web goods and is taking over more and more of my life …

Hook another machine up to the web, and it's almost business as usual, plus or minus some favourite desktop shortcuts or bits of software.

And for me, it's also turning out that there are unexpected benefits to be had from these little hiatuses. (ThinkPads are supposed to be utterly reliable. No thing is utterly reliable. In nearly two years of owning it, this one's been back to Lenovo three times — once for a new motherboard.) To draw from Eng Lit a moment, Coleridge has this notebook entry:

The extenders of consciousness — Sorrow, Sickness, Poetry, Religion. The truth is, we stop in the sense of life just where we are not forced to go on.

Habit holds us back, holds us in — so much — in both big things and small, even in the lesser matters of software choice. I couldn't figure out how to get FeedDemon running from off of my own laptop's hard drive (running this as an external drive, talking to my wife's laptop's hard drive), so I switched to Google Reader using a not-very-recently-backed-up OPML file. And guess what? Google Reader is not only as great as people have said it is, I'm reading stuff faster in it than in FeedDemon because there are fewer options, fewer possible enrichments … fewer distractions. (Joel Spolsky: 'People, for the most part, are not playing with their software because they want to. They’re using the software as a tool to accomplish something else that they would like to do'. Good software should … disappear. I was so delighted to find an easy way to get Live Writer to run, on my borrowed laptop's drive but using my bank of draft posts from off of my own hard drive. Live Writer's a dream blogging tool: it disappears and lets you get on and do what you want to do.) I've been wanting for some time now to speed up my reading of feeds without (I hope) losing too much, so as to get back to reading more books alongside my online reading. This unlooked for nudge has broken me out of one habit and started me off on another which may give me some more time for offline reading. 

So Gmail, Google Apps, Google Calendar, YouTube, Google Video … and,, Flickr …  (Not quite a Google flush — not by some way, in fact). And there's something magical about finding that all those settings that seemed like they were part of your desktop are, as you always knew they were but had ceased to experience them as being, out there — waiting for you to pick up and carry on as if nothing much had happened after all.

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Online/Office 2007

I've been using Office 2007 in beta for some while now and like it very much. Dan Saffer at Adaptive Path writes:

Office 2007 just might be the best interaction design to ever come out of Microsoft, and it’s certainly the most significant upgrade to a major suite of applications since, well, probably ever. … 1000 enhancements. They broke with convention when they had a better solution. They applied known interaction design principles and come up with some awesome results, including the minibar. They understood tasks and modeled them before designing. They fixed known issues that have been annoying people for years. In short, they took a set of products that have been an interaction design punching bag for years and rethought them. While I’m sure this is going to cause some serious redesign reorientation, the suite really looks and feels designed now. In a good way.

But, he adds, 'From a business sense, it’s unclear if all these upgrades might be too little, too late.'

Anil praised Office 2007 back here:

Short and sweet, the Ribbon and new UI in Microsoft Office 2007 is the ballsiest new feature in the history of computer software. I've been using Office 12 for about six months, and not only has it made me more productive, I'm struck by the sheer ambition of the changes in this version. … there have been very few bet-the-company style risks, and certainly none from companies as large as Microsoft. But Microsoft did it anyway. They killed the File menu, along with all the other menus. They added a giant, weird circular target up in the corner. They actually use part of the title bar as a menu sometimes. They even changed the default font in all the apps. What's amazing is not just that it works, but that it works so well.

My experience has been the same as most of those who I know that are using the new version: Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best. Excel is a fundamentally different kind of spreadsheet application, focused on presenting information usefully instead of optimizing for the creation of complex formulas.

I've posted about Google "Office" before (here and here). Now I see:

  • You can email documents into Google Docs & Spreadsheets (login and go here).

  • Google Spreadsheets now allow you to 'publish … in every imaginable format (HTML, PDF, XLS, ODS, CSV) or as a feed. What's great is that the file is automatically updated, so you'll be almost certain that someone gets the latest version. You can also publish all the sheets or only some of them. But the coolest thing you can do is to embed a spreadsheet into your blog or site … Google Spreadsheets shows you all the revisions of a spreadsheets, so it's easy to go back to an earlier version. And there are two new functions that use information from the web: GoogleFinance("symbol", "attribute") that returns information about a stock. GoogleFinance("GOOG", "price") returns the current price for GOOG; GoogleLookup("entity", "attribute") that returns answers to simple questions like: population of Italy, Jay Leno's date of birth, that usually appear at the top of search results in GoogleLookup("Italy", "population") will return the population of Italy. Don't forget to place an equal in front of the function name.' Google Operating System

In other news:

We know that many of you are managing your tasks with Remember The Milk and your events with Google Calendar, and we thought it would be very cool if we could bring the two together. This new feature adds a small task icon to the top of each day in Google Calendar -- click on the icon to:

  • Review your tasks for the day
  • Add new tasks and edit existing ones
  • Easily complete and postpone tasks
  • Review your overdue tasks
  • Optionally show tasks with no due date
  • See where your tasks are located on a map
  • Google Reader is improving in leaps and bounds. The latest, via Lifehacker: 'Google Reader has updated their Feed actions drop-down menu with several super-handy actions that had been conspicuously missing in the first iteration of the new Google Reader, namely renaming of feeds and assigning feeds to a folder (all you could do for a while was unsubscribe).'

Web-apps (and not just Google's — see my earlier postings linked to above) are quickly becoming formidable. Whether Microsoft is, indeed, doing 'too little, too late' time, 'the final arbiter of all designs' (Dan Saffer), will tell, but all enterprises, businesses, schools must at least be pondering whether something as tempting as Office 2007 (for example) really is worth the upgrade price (and associated issues). Dan Saffer cites one CEO: 'To me, Office 2007 is a complete non-event. I have no interest in an upgrade … Most of what I like about computing now lives online.'

Is online already 'good enough'?

Sam Sethi posted at TechCrunch UK three days ago that 'I suddenly felt a wave of liberation come over me as I decided this was a good time to move my entire digital life (and data) to the web':

My goal was to simply separate my data from the application and in turn from the operating system.

So: Google Apps for Your Domain ('to host my POP3 email accounts and calendars'), Google Reader ('the next desktop item removed was my desktop RSS Reader'), Google Docs & Spreadsheets ('The next big challenge was to see if I could do without Microsoft’s Office on my desktop … Although I would consider myself a heavy user of Outlook and Powerpoint, I now consider myself a “lite” user of Excel, Word and Access'). On quitting MS Office for Google Docs & Spreadsheets:

I was pleasantly surprised, although it’s still very rudimentary - like moving back to Office 2002 or earlier - the product fits well with my “lite” user requirements. That said, the best thing about Docs & Spreadsheet was being able to collaborate online with other people. More often than not, that is what I find myself doing these days. e.g. for the TechCrunch Party I was collaborating with several people about the attendee list. No longer did I have to email document attachments and then integrate the changes from several people. I simply invited the people to use the online file and we all collaborated on the same file. Of course had Google bought JotSpot sooner, I might have additionally used the wiki capabilities.

Using Docs & Spreadsheet has enabled me to successfully remove the need for Word, Excel and Access 2003 from my desktop and to be clear I will NOT be upgrading to Office 2007 for the princely sum of £/$400. Instead I will use the Office 2007 free viewers if I need to read Office attachments in the future or I can wait until Google provide a free converter/reader for Docs & Spreadsheet. In fact most of the documents I receive today are PDF file attachments and I have already replaced Adobe’s desktop reader with the smaller, faster and free Firefox plug-in called Foxit.

Equally having replaced the need for Outlook, the issue of synchronisation between Outlook and Google calendars and the respective inboxes quickly became a non-issue. Although if you still wish to still use Outlook’s calendar then there are third party solutions that enable you to link the two services. The last major hurdle was to replace the need for PowerPoint, so I decided to trial a combination of online services. The first I am using is SlideShare which enables me to upload my (old) existing Powerpoint presentations and make them available online. Secondly I am trying two online presentation tools , Empressr and Thumbstacks. As Google continues to build their version of Office “online”, I guess it won’t be long before Google enter the market again and buy a presentation tool, but which one?

Sam goes on to discuss online storage ('[I] needed to have an online storage drive so that I was truly free of the OS and that when I was out and about I could also access my files'): what Google might soon offer and other, existing options, such as Amazon's S3. He concludes in part: 'Of course there are some feature limitations about this online configuration but most of those holes are being filled in by greasemonkey scripts or Firefox extensions for now. … Of course not everyone agrees with this type of migration to the web and I must admit for many people the richness of desktop applications will remain superior. I guess what I am looking for is flexibility of choice over bloated functionality that I no longer need or can afford.'

Well, sending this TechCrunch UK link to some colleagues immediately elicited a 'Just what I'm thinking of doing' response. (Sam followed up his posting with another, the same day, Hasta La Vista Microsoft … we won’t be back!, in which he noted others — Richard McManus, Ryan Carson — newly posting their thoughts about, or recording their experience with web-apps.) I had students last academic year writing essays in Writely, and I certainly expect the depth and degree of student and teacher engagement with web-apps to change dramatically in the coming months.

I blogged previously about Google Apps for Your Domain and Google Apps for Education here and here, and about Google Reader here. In the end, I think there's still a great market for hybrid tools. (One of my sons, on a new machine and without MS Word, asked my advice and ended up writing his university essay using Google Docs & Spreadsheets. But he told me later that he then downloaded his document at uni where he could finish off the look of his essay in Word.) Going online is going to score highly, though, because of ease of access (to your data), because of ease and reliability of storage (let a pro outfit store your data and back it up) — and because of the collaborative possibilities web-apps open up. The last will become very big, but right now are probably not figuring much on the radar of most early users in schools. (When we really understand the way the web has opened up collaborative possibilities then we will have undergone a sea change in education.) 

Of course, there's edge … and there's edge. Matt is already thinking about deploy-to-desktop:

Web apps are currently undergoing a renaissance–or perhaps they’re fulfilling the promise made when the genre was created in 1999. The technology, skills and community that go to make these web apps is beginning to turn in many different directions. We’ll soon see a number of different web app species. One I find most exciting is Deploy to Desktop. What if the same skills needed to build complex web apps could be turned to making desktop applications, starting from a simple web app in a HTML renderer window, and iterating to use native widgets, drag and drop, and full OS integration? (More about this in my App After App talk.)

As he writes there, he's not alone. How different computing will seem in just a short while.

OED: cold turkey … and abundance

Back on 12 August, I reported to OUP a problem with loading the OED (on CD-ROM). This followed a Microsoft security update. OUP got back to me a few days later:

There is a known problem between the OED and the Microsoft Security Update KB917422. It causes the OED to close as soon as it is loaded, without showing any error messages. The developers are currently working on this problem and a solution will be posted on our Support website as soon as it is available.

The OED website subsequently confirmed this position and also made it clear that it was Microsoft who were now sorting this out ('Microsoft are currently working on this problem'):

In the mean time, to enable the OED to open successfully, it is necessary to uninstall the Microsoft update …

Huh? Spend two months (see below) with this security fix uninstalled? No thanks.

Late last week, I checked back at the OUP website: still no news of a fix. A search, though, revealed that other software had been affected by KB917422 and some sites certainly did now know of a fix. This from eLearnAid:

On 8 August 2006, Microsoft published an automatic Windows Update KB917422. This update has installed on your computer and conflicts with a wide range of software, including OED Macmillan CD-ROMs. Computers running Windows 2000 and Windows XP are likely to be affected. Microsoft has now made a hotfix called KB924867 which solves this problem.

At the moment, KB924867 can only be obtained by calling your local Microsoft office or +1 800-936-3100. On 26 September, we expect to be able to publish a link on this page to Microsoft's Download Center where this hotfix can be downloaded directly.

Macmillan had this hotfix news, too, went some way to apologise for a problem not of their making and also had some practical help to offer their customers:

My CD-ROM has stopped working after a Windows Update. What can I do?

LATEST INFORMATION published on 27 September 2006

… At the moment, KB924867 can only be obtained by calling your local Microsoft office or +1 800-936-3100. In October we expect to be able to publish a link on this page to Microsoft's Download Center where this hotfix can be downloaded directly.

If you are unable to contact Microsoft, Macmillan recommends that you register for the free online edition of the Macmillan English Dictionary so that you have an alternative to the CD-ROM.

The Macmillan dictionary team and our software partner apologise for the inconvenience caused by KB917422, which is beyond our control, and we thank you for your understanding and patience.

It would have been good to have had a similar OED offer from OUP. Instead, users just had to sit this out. Or so it seemed. 

Happily, I remembered (but not until several weeks of OED-deprivation had passed) that in England you can access the OED through your local library's Online Services portal — here's Wiltshire's. So this was one very good thing to come out of all this — discovering the amazing resources available online in England through local libraries. From the OUP (ironically! — no-one at OUP had had the bright idea of directing users-in-England to this, their own page): 

"It's hard to imagine a better excuse for the recent rises in the council tax … a recent remarkable deal between Oxford University Press and the Museums Libraries and Archives Council means that many of the world's most prestigious and authoritative reference works are now available free online [to members of public libraries in England] The list of works is astonishing: the entire Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and 170 other dictionaries, companions and atlases on a myriad of subjects including law, medicine, zoology, statistics, space exploration, world literature, saints, history, theatre, opera, politics, biology, the ancient world, mythology, football, and many languages. The magisterial Grove Dictionary of Music and the Grove Dictionary of Art are also available Most English libraries have joined, but if yours hasn't, or you live in Scotland, I would start lobbying now." The Independent, 15 April 2006 

As part of the MLA's new Reference Online initiative, OUP is delighted to announce that 144 public library authorities in England have joined together for the first time to share the cost of a 2-year national licence for a range of OUP's online resources. 

129 library authorities have subscribed to the following resources: 

15 library authorities have subscribed to the following resources: 

Access is available until 31 March 2008. Members of subscribing libraries can access the resources from any computer at any time - as well as within the library! Check with your local library for details.

To find out more, go to . (That's for England; there's no mention there of Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland.) Cornucopia! To access any of the above, you visit your local library's Online Services portal page, click the link to the OED (etc) from there, enter your library membership number … and away you go. 

Meanwhile, back at the hard drive coalface … Contacting Microsoft UK (0870 6010100) earlier this week got me the hotfix — but, again, no thanks to the OED website which continues to report that 'Microsoft are currently working on this problem'. 

Sometimes, one just has to wonder how user-friendly software manufacturers think they're being. When the OED on CD-ROM first came out (which is when I bought it — at full price, and me having beta-tested it ’n’ all), it cost an arm and a leg. That kind of money ought to buy you something better than the experience of the last two months. And as for Microsoft — well, it's worth reading Bruce Schneier's posting, , and drawing appropriate conclusions for the little episode of KB917422. Having said which, I can't fault the way Microsoft have handled my case this week.

Google Reader

As Google lines up its bits and pieces into something more like a formation of units that work well both in themselves and together, the appeal of a reliable suite of services co-ordinated through one account is going to be compelling for many end-users. There's some way to go yet before things are really singing along, but I expect savvy schools are already paying close attention. (I've blogged about Google Apps before: see here and here.)

I've been playing with the new iteration of Google Reader. What's new has been well reported elsewhere:

… we've added some things you've been asking for, such as unread counts and "mark all as read." Folder-based navigation makes it easier to organize your subscriptions, and the new expanded view lets you quickly scan over several items at once. And we've made sharing much easier - with a single click of the "shared" icon, you can publish an interesting item on your public sharing page for your friends to see. … (Tip: You can have original item links open in a new tab in Firefox. In the preferences window's "Tabs" section, choose "Force links that open new windows to open in: a new tab.") Google Reader Blog

You can see Niall Kennedy's public page of shared items here. On Google Reader itself, I think Niall Kennedy makes the most perceptive comments (in a review that is full of praise for the new version):

The coolest new feature is Google Reader's continuous scroll of feed items combined with automatically selecting each feed item as you move around the news flow. You'll find a lot more access keys in the new Reader, mapped to the common Gmail commands for massage navigation and actions. I like the Gmail-style unread count displayed in the page title, allowing me to glance at my row of tabs to see if I have anything new in my feed inbox. …

The new Google Reader is pretty impressive and may become the online aggregator of choice for many Gmail users. I was a bit disappointed Google did not leverage what I feel are its two biggest strong points: the data advantages of online feed aggregators and close integration with other Google services. An online aggregator has an edge over desktop aggregators by providing more information about each post or blog based on what might be already known about the site or based on the activity of a user collective. An online Google feed reader could tie into Google search, or offer special handling of enclosures passed off to Calendar or Spreadsheet. I'm most surprised that the new Google Reader does not include search integration with Google feed search, and actually removes the search bar that was present at the top of the page in Reader's first version.

Important suggestions there for how Google Reader might be developed further and be more tightly tied in with other Google products.

Other commentators of note include: Google Blog, Inside Google, TechCrunch ('There’s a “river of news” view [click all feeds, view settings, sort by auto]), Read/Write Web, Michael Sippey and Download Squad:

One feature I quickly fell in love with in this new UI is the way the List view allows you to page through headlines and expand individual articles within the list of headlines … Pressing enter expands a headline like this, while pressing it again collapses it back into uniform with the rest of the listed headlines. What's even nicer is that n/p can be used in the list view like this, allowing you scroll through headlines without expanding them, while j/k let you expand each headline in place …

… Reader seems to build a user's set of folders/groups from their tagging structure, but the tagging system still exists for organizing feeds and headlines, in addition to the new foldering scheme for feeds. Pressing g + l to invoke the label selector (though 'labels' are now called 'tags' in the Settings) brings up a list of labels/tags, but selecting one actually choses a folder in the left column. Confused yet? Me too.

Mobile use? Google Reader Blog for 18 May:

We've just released a mobile-friendly interface for Google Reader. If you use the Google Personalized Homepage and have installed our Reader Homepage Module, it'll automatically show up on your mobile homepage. Simply go to on your mobile phone's browser and click the link to "Personalized Home".

Yes … but it doesn't seem to work right on my E70 using the native S60 3rd edition browser: working from the directions here, I'm not yet getting on my mobile the customised page I've set up on my laptop — no Reader, for example. I'll persevere and also try out different browsers. (I blogged about some Google products and mobile viewing here.)

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