Thursday, 22 October 2009

Blackboard on the shopping list: do Google need reining in?

Alex Spiers (Learning Innovation & Development, LJMU) alerted me via Twitter to rumours in the 'Internet playground' that Google is considering branching out into educational software. According to the article spreading the rumour, Google plans to fulfil its recent pledge to acquire one small company per month by purchasing Blackboard.

The area of educational software is not completely alien to Google. The Google Apps Education Edition (providing email, collaboration widgets, etc.) has been around for a while now (I think) and - as the article insinuates - moving deeper into educational software seems a natural progression and provides Google with clear access to a key demographic. This is all conjecture of course; but if Google acquired Blackboard I think I would suffer a schizophrenic episode. A part of me would think, "Great - Google will make Blackboard less clunky, offer more functionality and more flexiblity". But the other part (which is slightly bigger, I think) would feel extremely uncomfortable that Google is yet again moving into new areas, probably with the intention of dominating that area.

We forget how huge and pervasive Google is today. Google is everywhere and now reaches far beyond its dominant position in search into virtually every significant area of web and software development. If Google were Microsoft the US Government and the EU would be all over Google like a rash for pushing the boundaries of antitrust legislation and competition laws. This situation takes on a rather sinister tone when you consider the situation in HE if Blackboard becomes a Google subsidiary. Edge Hill University is one of several institutions which has elected to ditch fully integrated institutional email applications (e.g. MS Outlook, Thunderbird) in favour of Google Mail. Having a VLE maintained by Google therefore sets the alarm bells ringing. The key technological interactions for a 21st century student are as follows: email, web, VLE, library. Picture it - a student existence which would be entirely dependent upon one company and the directed advertising that goes with it: Google Mail, web (and their first port of call is likely to be Google, of course), GoogleBoard (the name of Blackboard if they decided to re-brand it!) and a massive digital library which Google is attempting to create and which would essentially create a de facto digital library monopoly.

I'm probably getting ahead of myself. The acquisition of Blackboard probably won't happen, and the digital library has encountered plenty of opposition, not least from Angela Merkel; but it does get me thinking that Google finally needs reining in. Even before this news broke I was starting to think that Google was turning into a Sesame Street-style Cookie Monster, devouring everything in sight. Their ubiquity can't possibly be healthy anymore, can it? Or am I being completely paranoid?

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Kindle according to Cellan-Jones

The world in which Rory Cellan-Jones exists is an interesting place. It's one which often results in a good, hard slap to the face. He can always be relied upon for some cynicism and negativity (or realism?) in his analysis of new technologies and tech related businesses. (See the last posting about Google Wave, for example.) This can be unexpected, often because he sees through the hype or aesthetics of many technologies and evaluates stuff based squarely on utilitarian principles. His overview of the Kindle is no exception to this rule:
"The Kindle looks to me like an attractive but expensive niche product, giving a few techie bibliophiles the chance to take more books on holiday without incurring excess baggage charges. But will it force thousands of bookshops to close and transform the economics of struggling newspapers? Don't bet on it."
The thing is, Cellan-Jones often talks a lot of sense. To be sure, the Kindle looks like an extremely smart piece of kit, but when Cellan-Jones stacks up the realities of the Kindle one wonders whether it'll be the game changer everyone is expecting it to be.

The focus for the Kindle seems to be on the best seller lists and the broad sheets. An area which appears to have eluded adequate exposition by all the tech commentators is the use of this new generation of e-book readers to deliver text books, learning materials, etc. This was always considered an important area for the early e-book readers. Why carry lots of heavy text books around when you could have them all on your Kindle or Sony Reader Touch, and be in a position to browse and search the content therein more effectively? Or, is this an extravagant use of E-Ink? E-Ink is required for lengthy reading sessions (i.e. novel) rather than dipping in and out of text books to complete academic tasks, something for which a netbook or mobile device might be better. So what happens to the future of e-book readers in academia?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Wave a washout?

This is just a brief posting to flag up a review of Google Wave on the BBC blog.

Google unveiled Wave at their Google I/O conference in late May 2009. The Wave development team presented a lengthy demonstration of what it can do and – given that it was probably a well rehearsed presentation and demo – Wave looked pretty impressive. It might be a little bit boring of me, but I was particularly impressed by the context sensitive spell checker ("Icland is an icland" – amazing!). Those of you that missed that demonstration can check it out in the video below. And try not to get annoyed at the sycophantic applause of their fellow Google developers...

Since then Wave has been hyped up by the technology press and even made mainstream news headlines at the BBC, Channel 4 News, etc. when it went on limited (invitation only) release last week. has reviewed Wave and the verdict was not particularly positive. Surprisingly they (Rory Cellan-Jones, Stephen Fry, Bill Thompson and others) found it pretty difficult to use and pretty chaotic. I'm now anxious to try it out myself because I was convinced that it would be pretty amazing. Their review is funny and worth reading in full; but the main issues were noted as follows:
"Well, I'm not entirely sure that our attempt to use Google Wave to review Google Wave has been a stunning success. But I've learned a few lessons.

First of all, if you're using it to work together on a single document, then a strong leader (backed by a decent sub-editor, adds Fildes) has to take charge of the Wave, otherwise chaos ensues. And that's me - so like it or lump it, fellow Wavers.

Second, we saw a lot of bugs that still need fixing, and no very clear guide as to how to do so. For instance, there is an "upload files" option which will be vital for people wanting to work on a presentation or similar large document, but the button is greyed out and doesn't seem to work.

Third, if Wave is really going to revolutionise the way we communicate, it's going to have to be integrated with other tools like e-mail and social networks. I'd like to tell my fellow Wavers that we are nearly done and ready to roll with this review - but they're not online in Wave right now, so they can't hear me.

And finally, if such a determined - and organised - clutch of geeks and hacks struggle to turn their ripples and wavelets into one impressive giant roller, this revolution is going to struggle to capture the imagination of the masses."
My biggest concern about Wave was the important matter of critical mass, and this is something the review hints at too. A tool like Wave is only ever going to take off if large numbers of people buy into it; if your organisation suddenly dumps all existing communication and collaboration tools in favour of Wave. It's difficult to see that happening any time soon...

Thursday, 8 October 2009

AJAX content made discoverable...soon

I follow the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog. It can be an interesting read at times, but on other occasions it provides humdrum information on how best to optimise a website, or answers questions which most of us know the answers to already (e.g. recently we had, 'Does page metadata influence Google page rankings?'). However, the latest posting is one of the exceptions. Google have just announced that they are proposing a new standard to make AJAX-based websites indexable and, by extension, discoverable to users. Good ho!

The advent of Web 2.0 has brought about a huge increase in interactive websites and dynamic page content, much of which has been delivered using AJAX ('Asynchronous JavaScript and XML', not a popular household cleaner!). AJAX is great and furnished me with my iGoogle page years ago; but increasingly websites use it to deliver page content which might otherwise be delivered using static web pages in XHTML. This presents a big problem for search engines because AJAX is currently un-indexable (if this is a word!) and a lot of content is therefore invisible to all search engines. Indeed, the latest web design mantra has been "don't publish in AJAX if you want your website to be visible". (There are also accessibility and usability issues, but these are an aside for this posting...)

The Webmaster Blog summarises:
"While AJAX-based websites are popular with users, search engines traditionally are not able to access any of the content on them. The last time we checked, almost 70% of the websites we know about use JavaScript in some form or another. Of course, most of that JavaScript is not AJAX, but the better that search engines could crawl and index AJAX, the more that developers could add richer features to their websites and still show up in search engines."
Google's proposal involves shifting the responsibility of indexing the website to the administrator/webmaster of the website, whose responsibility it would be to set up a headless browser on the web server. (A headless browser is essentially a browser without a user interface; a piece of software that can access web documents but does not deliver them to human users). The headless browser would then be used to programmatically access the AJAX website on the server and provide an HTML 'snap shot' to search engines when they request it - which is a clever idea. The crux of Google's proposal is a suite of URL protocols. These would control when the search engine knows to request the headless browser information (i.e. HTML snapshot) and which URL to reveal to human users.

It's good that Google are taking the initiative; my only concern is that they start trying to re-write standards, as they have a little with RDFa. Their slides are below - enjoy!