Friday, September 28, 2007

What would it take to make wikis mainstream?

If wikis are as I would guess the future of digital knowledge management why is that the adoption has been so slow? Plus, what is the tool or click that's missing to make them mainstream?

We have to be very careful when we look at wikis adoption as Bradley Horowitz suggested some time ago there are three different groups of users: creators, synthesizers and consumers. Basically what it means is that when we look at wikis adoption we might have a tendency to look at the creators/synthesizers and that would not be correct. You could estimate that every 1 creator you'll find 10 synthesizers and 100 consumers.

One thing wikis certainly usually lack is a nice and clear design. Maybe the killer wiki application will just give a new look to the same'old thing. Maybe most of the enphasis of those developing wiki software so far was centered around the creators and sinthesizers and it's overlooking the majority of the population that is actually going to make wikis mainstream.

I was looking a little bit of the history of blogs, it looks like there could be lessons to be learned from blogs evolution.

One tool that could read any wiki seems to be one of the things wikis are lacking. We do not have such a thing as a wiki reader where I could concentrate my wiki reading needs. This could be because of a lack of a proper wiki rss publishing standard, maybe it just didn't occur to people or maybe it's just a bad idea, I'm just thinking loud without having really researched much.

Even if such a tool were to be developed, there is what I think is the main issue with wikis and it is that information seems to be lost inside. It would be really nice to have different paths that would give me a wiki tour according to some pre-established need that I could have. So, for instance if I'm looking for a quick introduction I'd follow JoePath Doe's suggestion and I'd had an easy sequential way of looking at things, and once I choose this path I could read the wiki as a traditional book page by page without being overloaded by the vast wiki complexity, although of course everything is hyper-linked and I could decide to get out of this path at any time and just browse back on the sea. So there would be a need for a tool that could create the illusion to a user that he's actually reading a book (even graphically-wise), although the richness of the wiki can emerge at any point. Also, collaboration tools for people to share their favorite paths into a wiki would be important and this would keep synthesizers's hands busy giving them a nice place in the community even if they're not really creating content. This could work in cases such as a book written as a wiki where the only content editor is really the author(s) but they could still create a community on top and could use the same wiki reader and the same collaboration features.

Annotation and collaboration is indeed another thing that is kind of obscure for some of the wiki uses where it'd be interesting for the wiki to break in (such as the book industry itself). Here it looks like the wiki that was originally only focused on building content has the collaboration tools aside and almost hidden but when we think of a community sharing and adding just their notes and trying to see their friend's reaction to what was said in a particular part of the page it really needs to stand up graphically a whole lot more (with the ability to be hidden as well according to user's personalization/customization/settings).

Summarizing, I can imagine a universal wiki reader similar to an rss reader but much more specific to the subject, that can optionally flatten the wiki's world to hide some of the complexity to the user, highlights the collaborative and social features maybe being context-sensitive to the user's social network of preference, and focuses as much in the consumer of the wiki as in the synthesizers and the creators.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

GeneXus XVII Event promising and inspiring

The GeneXus XVII Event was promising ... and it's kind of weird that I'm saying this of an event, but Rocha is a very promising version and the event was a lot centered in Rocha version which in turn made the event promising if that makes any sense.
Rocha is all that it promised and probably lots more, being in beta 1 it still has a way to go, but definitely it's the version that can make GX leap over to the next phase of being really worldwide adopted. Of course in order to be worldwide adopted it needs to get it's feet onto the US Market and that is a costly move or a too long postponed one ... there were great insights on this subject in Pablo Brenner's talk (funny one too).

As far as inspiring, I never ever attended any GeneXus event that was not inspiring and it's probably true for most of human gatherings where there's a synergistic energy going on and specially any type of shared passion.

I liked a lot Andres Levin's talk and knowing that Rich Internet Applications and separating interface from code will be addressed. I still have many presentations to watch as I find some time here and there.

I was surprised that the subject of collective intelligence (web 2.0) did not surface as a relevant one, it was already missing last year. Even if it's not relevant to the tool itself it sure should be of great importance for the community and I was expecting to see at least some of that but unless I totally missed it, it didn't seem to be there.

All in all a great event, enjoyable even remotely!

GeneXus XVII Event remote experience

This GeneXus Event I could not attend in person but the internet access to it was so good that I really could feel part of it to a great extent. It helped that as coincidentally I was seek these days I couldn't do a whole lot more anyway ;)

Only couple things could have made my remote experience better:

1. It'd be nicer if the access to conference's videos would be available during the same day. I do have time differences with Uruguay and if I missed a conference live I could not see it until the next day when it was published.

2. It'd add a lot if there were other web cams live showing people just in the registration area, booth areas and general areas. Even if conferences are the main and absolute substance of the Event, the atmosphere lived in general and the social encounters are missed as well. Maybe there could even be a way to interact remotely, ask questions or otherwise. There seems to be a growing community and the local event will reach a physical limit (probably already did).

As I write this post I'm listening to Breogan Gonda announcing that the Rocha book will be down-loadable on their website. That's a great direction to go.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Semantic Web or just Relational Web?

Both Tim O'Reilly and Alex Iskold from Read/WriteWeb have been talking about the Semantic Web this week. Any prediction about the web of the future involves in a way or another the Semantic Web. The reason is simple, we need to be able to have a better quality of search on the web. We want to be able to get all the packages out there for fall Hawaii vacations or all the 8MP digital cameras we can get below $200 that can ship to California with no taxes and overnight shipping.

Many years ago, Tim Berners Lee came up with a vision of a Semantic Web that would eventually be able to have computer agents looking for all these answers for us. The vision was basically about annotating the existing web in a way computers could understand. Adding tags with metadata representing ontologies (RDF mainly) that would allow computers to infer stuff and using a SQL-like language (SPARQL) retrieve meaningful information. The problem is how to produce/have such an annotated web?

There are basically two ways to do it as Alex Iskold summarizes very well:
1. Top-Down approach, computer tools allow the existing web to be converted into semantic representations (ontologies on RDF format most likely). In order to produce such representation the computer needs to understand semantics. To me this is the real Semantic Web and it is not as far as we imagine but is obviously not here right now, there are some hurdles and time to go ...

2. Bottom-Up approach. All the bottom-down approaches involve manual changes on existing HTMLs and applications producing HTML in order to add to the visible layer another layer with metadata. People build ontologies manually or with help of tools. This is a very consuming process that for now has only be adopted by highly scientific environments with extreme need of formalization. It basically has only worked in very vertical markets and areas.

The Semantic Web is not yet a reality despite being out there as a concept for many years because the top-down approach is ahead of us in terms of our current state of art and the bottom-down approach is high maintenance, to the full extent really impracticable and industry has not adopted it.

So, by definition the Semantic Web is one where computers have the ability to understand semantics. How can computers understand semantics? The only way for that to happen is for computers to understand natural language and to be able to build models of reality with their complex relationships as we humans do. Can we have a Semantic Web without computers understanding natural language? I think the answer is no. The reason is that we can give computers metadata for them to consume, and that will give us better quality information and searches, but there will always be stuff that is not annotated and is falling off the Semantic Web.

What are the alternatives and possible evolution paths from where we're at right now?
1. The partial annotation with industry standard and de-facto standards could prevail. Microformats, standard metadata for contacts, social networks, calendar events, geographical info among other. Seems like the right tool at the right moment. (bottom-down)
2. Browser toolbars and extensions that mine HTML pages in search of phone numbers (like skype recently tried not too successfully) or addresses (like Firefox extension Map+). (top-down)
3. Global relational databases such as Metadata could make a difference if they could become a standard and mine the web accordingly as well as being used in combination with pipes for retrieval. (mix)

I love all these approaches, I just wouldn't try to call them "Semantic Web", it's more like adding some semantics to the web, that's why some people call it "semantic web" (no uppercase). I see it more like part of the "Relational Web" as far as the computer goes and the web itself it does not have the semantic capability by adding these improvements we're just adding to the relational capability of the web. There are other great things happening in the "Relational Web" right now ...

Anyway, regardless of which way the web will evolve and how we'll name it, it's happening and it's very exciting to witness :)

ORT Student Journeys: Gonda and Dolder

My friend Mauro Canziani mentioned a few days ago that he was attending the X Student Journeys at ORT University. That brought great memories from probably one of the first edition of these Journeys which I had the opportunity to attend many many years ago (I'm almost sure it was way more than X so it looks like they changed names at some point).

There were two conferences that had memorable instants for me at that event:

1. Breogan Gonda talked about a project he had on development stage that sounded very promising at that time and he closed he's conference with a very empowering concept pointing to the unlimited potential of ideas stating "We've got the imagination". "The imagination" materialized over the years in the greatest development tool ever: GeneXus, which relevance increases as it gets harder and harder to keep up with technology's pace in today's world of exponential growing.

2. Herman Dolder explained (to me for the first time) the process of learning. The main thing I got out of his presentation was that in order to learn you need to attach new concepts to existing concepts in your mind. If you don't have the little pieces to attach the new information you simply can't learn. That's why good teachers present information in different ways so different students with different previous concepts or views can do the link. The "aha moment" is unique and particular to each student and it involves a matching process between what I know and what I incorporate as new knowledge. As a corollary, learning hurts. The reason is that sometimes in order to be able to match new info with existing info we need to re-accommodate what we know and this is a process that consumes energy and generates "mind pain". Knowing this helped me to recognize and embrace this pain in my mind as I learned, which seems to be fundamental to acquire the flexibility to learn in the least limited way possible.

Funny coincidence after all. In writing this post I realized that Herman Dolder is pursuing a development tool, based in the Model Driven System. In this paper he compares such a tool with Program Driven Systems and Application Generators (such as GeneXus). As far as the theory it's pretty interesting, as he states in the paper Model Driven Systems would be the holy grail of computer science (as any other project involving AI). On the other hand, if I was pursuing such a tool I'd ride on top of existing technologies and use for instance GeneXus as the program generator. Actually today, GeneXus would be in a better position than ever before as it today has a pattern generator that can generate GeneXus objects as needed by an external tool. It would have made a lot of sense for a tool to be designed that would in the end through the pattern generator use the GeneXus tool to generate the best database schema as well as the best platform dependent programming code instead of re-inventing the wheel ...

Back to the ORT Student Journeys themselves they had a very nice robot development contest on speed, orientation, search and transportation, all done with LEGO kits. Must have been lots of fun!

As you can tell I didn't have the time this year to make it to the GeneXus Event so I still have time to be thinking out of the blue stuff ;)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Users will always transcend product's design intent

What developer has not been around a user that explained to them an extra use they found of a product that they as the designers had no idea could be accomplished with the developed tool? Probably none. Sooner or later a user will come to you and explain you how they are coming around that issue of this and that and they're being able to make the system calculate this extra thing for them that you had no idea the system could.

The other day we were looking at the Google Street view of San Diego area with couple co-workers and I was wooing just imagining the possibilities. I know of all the security controversia and stuff but still I think it's sooo cool to have a tool like that. One of my co-workers to my surprise goes, who's going to use this? I don't see much use for it in addition to the security concerns, bla bla bla ... That's when I was reminded one more time of this maxima: "users will find ways to use any tool in many more ways that it was originally intended" and I thought, this in itself is a universal truth about technology! ask Einstein ;)

Sequential is baaad

One of the most enlightening moments on my process of becoming computer literate was when, in Programming II, I was taught about file accesses, at that time in Cobol. We basically started learning about sequential files and we did all the boring processes that could be done with sequential files and later on the semester we were introduced to the concept of indexed files. It was like going from night to day or another way of saying it that I like better was going from the real world to the digital world. There were two great insights at the same time:
1. Sequential is baaad. Indexed is good. This is the obvious one, it's a simple matter of optimizing accesses.
2. In real world objects occupy a place in space, but this is not completely true in the digital world. In another words, in the digital world I can access a list of people at the same time by last name and by date of birth. It's the same information, it's there once but can be accessed instantly (almost) by different concepts. I believe as we get into more digital and virtual spaces in our lives we'll feel the presence of this concept more tangibly. Think about it: a virtual person could be in multiple worlds at the same time ...

It probably all seems to obvious and irrelevant. So, why is this still all relevant to me? Because there are plenty of things out there that are still essentially very sequential media and that totally bugs me. Two examples of this are videos and books. Other than the basic chapter index the idea is that you consume both a video or a book sequentially. This is a very limiting way of consuming information. When you're talking about a story, it's a little more arguably, but when it comes to consuming information it is definitely not a good option.

Particularly with books, I struggle a lot when I see digital book readers that are just a transportation of the old sequential book model to a new hardware. On the other hand I've been thinking a lot on alternatives without getting to nothing conclusive. The alternatives I though of, clearly involve hypertext, picking on the concept of summarizing and allowing the reader to drill down in the information as needed. But of course, the business of writing a book hasn't changed, the way people write books hasn't changed, so it's a whole chain that will need to be re-invented even as an economic model in order to have the book of the future.

One last thought on books, as we were discussing in a prev post, one alternative would be somewhere around wikis and blogs (in all variants). Wikis being much more powerful than blogs never became as popular. This is something I've been thinking for a long time and can't seem to find a def answer to ... I believe some of the answers are around the fact that wikis (and hypertext itself for that matter) are not flat and sequential. They're graphs and rather hierarchical. Blogs by opposition are pretty sequential. So, I wonder if there's a limitation in our minds that (untrained) they don't come with a natural capacity to deal with the non-flat non-sequential media. Maybe it's part of our evolution to little by little get into these non-flat spaces or maybe we'll find by the means of virtual technology a way to present digital information in ways that look flat even if they're not ... Not sure I'm making total sense here, just thinking out loud ;)

Anyway the subject of mixing wikis and blogs is a recurrent one around the blogsphere and I suspect an important one too ...

Raising kids: another way of programming

Today while doing homework with Nicole I came across the realization that my number one task as a parent is not that different from my full time job.

Out of nowhere she tells me "I don't cheat at school, because I want to learn". I was like, oh my god, she does listen to me! At that point it was to me like seeing your application run, seeing the program working and then I thought, wow, it's all about programming. Every little talk, every little conversation become meaningful. I feel now as I talk to my kids I'm debugging, twitching, improving, as life enfolds and the programs get tested on the field. Coming back to a wonderful book by Marvin Minsky, "The emotion machine" (which I didn't ever finish BTW;) pride and shame would be two of the most basic ways goals get programmed into kids minds, but it gets so much better when you can consciously program them, it becomes another ride, an extra one :)

Obviously, when it comes to kids, you're not alone at the task. Teachers, peers, friends and family, media, will also do their own programming on them, and there's always genetics too which will indicate which programs flow better on their hardware as well.

I guess more importantly than providing the actual programs in this case, would be to give them the tools to program themselves. To assure them that they have programs in their minds and that they can change them, that they actually have to be monitoring, twitching and playing with those programs for life.

Friday, September 07, 2007

GeneXus Planet's ecology

I love being part of Planeta GeneXus. The downside though for me is that I feel a little restricted in my expression capability.

I started this blog to talk about my number one passion in life that is evolution, and I'm kind of getting far apart from my main goal as time goes by ... I think I'll come back to my original blog intention and then wait for some comments wanting to kick me out of the planet ;)

When you're in a Planet you need to be aware of the Planet's ecology ... then out of respect for the Planet's environment I end up not doing some posts that are too off-topic or too-personal or I feel would just contaminate in an excessive way.

I guess it's a fair trade-off, fraternity vs. freedom ;)

That's why I decided to start trying a separate blog for my personal/spiritual dimensions called Natural Life Highs.

As others in the planet I'm wondering if this is the way to go ... I'd much rather have only one blog than multiple, and much even I'd like to have a blog with different spaces on it broadcasting to different planets as needed ... I might be able to do something just by changing my home page and dividing it in spaces and publishing the last post of each space. I haven't look into the template capabilities that far .... maybe I need another tool, or new software might needs to be developed ...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Your point of view ad campaing

Sometimes a little detail can make a big difference. In the walls of the corridors inside London Heathrow Airport there is a massive campaign by HSBC with a tolerance message beautifully presented. Subjects were extensive going from work/play, vacation/hell, art/science, art/garbage, chaos/perfect and traditional/trendy like in the photo. All of the gallery can be seen here.

A side note for my friends in London, I only was in London long enough to run and catch a flight to Prague :(

If this post looks weird in any way it must be because thinks I understand czech and does not offer an easy way for me to switch to english ... talking about going to far in product usability and assuming user behavior.