Tag Archives: free software

Installing BuddyPress on a Webhost

[Jump here for more technical details.]

A few months ago, I installed BuddyPress on my Mac to try it out. It was a bit of an involved process, so I documented it:

WordPress MU, BuddyPress, and bbPress on Local Machine « Disparate.

More recently, I decided to get a webhost. Both to run some tests and, eventually, to build something useful. BuddyPress seems like a good way to go at it, especially since it’s improved a lot, in the past several months.

In fact, the installation process is much simpler, now, and I ran into some difficulties because I was following my own instructions (though adapting the process to my webhost). So a new blogpost may be in order. My previous one was very (possibly too) detailed. This one is much simpler, technically.

One thing to make clear is that BuddyPress is a set of plugins meant for WordPress µ (“WordPress MU,” “WPMU,” “WPµ”), the multi-user version of the WordPress blogging platform. BP is meant as a way to make WPµ more “social,” with such useful features as flexible profiles, user-to-user relationships, and forums (through bbPress, yet another one of those independent projects based on WordPress).

While BuddyPress depends on WPµ and does follow a blogging logic, I’m thinking about it as a social platform. Once I build it into something practical, I’ll probably use the blogging features but, in a way, it’s more of a tool to engage people in online social activities. BuddyPress probably doesn’t work as a way to “build a community” from scratch. But I think it can be quite useful as a way to engage members of an existing community, even if this engagement follows a blogger’s version of a Pareto distribution (which, hopefully, is dissociated from elitist principles).

But I digress, of course. This blogpost is more about the practical issue of adding a BuddyPress installation to a webhost.

Webhosts have come a long way, recently. Especially in terms of shared webhosting focused on LAMP (or PHP/MySQL, more specifically) for blogs and content-management. I don’t have any data on this, but it seems to me that a lot of people these days are relying on third-party webhosts instead of relying on their own servers when they want to build on their own blogging and content-management platforms. Of course, there’s a lot more people who prefer to use preexisting blog and content-management systems. For instance, it seems that there are more bloggers on WordPress.com than on other WordPress installations. And WP.com blogs probably represent a small number of people in comparison to the number of people who visit these blogs. So, in a way, those who run their own WordPress installations are a minority in the group of active WordPress bloggers which, itself, is a minority of blog visitors. Again, let’s hope this “power distribution” not a basis for elite theory!

Yes, another digression. I did tell you to skip, if you wanted the technical details!

I became part of the “self-hosted WordPress” community through a project on which I started work during the summer. It’s a website for an academic organization and I’m acting as the organization’s “Web Guru” (no, I didn’t choose the title). The site was already based on WordPress but I was rebuilding much of it in collaboration with the then-current “Digital Content Editor.” Through this project, I got to learn a lot about WordPress, themes, PHP, CSS, etc. And it was my first experience using a cPanel- (and Fantastico-)enabled webhost (BlueHost, at the time). It’s also how I decided to install WordPress on my local machine and did some amount of work from that machine.

But the local installation wasn’t an ideal solution for two reasons: a) I had to be in front of that local machine to work on this project; and b) it was much harder to show the results to the person with whom I was collaborating.

So, in the Fall, I decided to get my own staging server. After a few quick searches, I decided HostGator, partly because it was available on a monthly basis. Since this staging server was meant as a temporary solution, HG was close to ideal. It was easy to set up as a PayPal “subscription,” wasn’t that expensive (9$/month), had adequate support, and included everything that I needed at that point to install a current version of WordPress and play with theme files (after importing content from the original site). I’m really glad I made that decision because it made a number of things easier, including working from different computers, and sending links to get feedback.

While monthly HostGator fees were reasonable, it was still a more expensive proposition than what I had in mind for a longer-term solution. So, recently, a few weeks after releasing the new version of the organization’s website, I decided to cancel my HostGator subscription. A decision I made without any regret or bad feeling. HostGator was good to me. It’s just that I didn’t have any reason to keep that account or to do anything major with the domain name I was using on HG.

Though only a few weeks elapsed since I canceled that account, I didn’t immediately set out to transition to a new webhost. I didn’t go from HostGator to another webhost.

But having my own webhost still remained at the back of my mind as something which might be useful. For instance, while not really making a staging server necessary, a new phase in the academic website project brought up a sandboxing idea. Also, I went to a “WordPress Montreal” meeting and got to think about further WordPress development/deployment, including using BuddyPress for my own needs (both as my own project and as a way to build my own knowledge of the platform) instead of it being part of an organization’s project. I was also thinking about other interesting platforms which necessitate a webhost.

(More on these other platforms at a later point in time. Bottom line is, I’m happy with the prospects.)

So I wanted a new webhost. I set out to do some comparison shopping, as I’m wont to do. In my (allegedly limited) experience, finding the ideal webhost is particularly difficult. For one thing, search results are cluttered with a variety of “unuseful” things such as rants, advertising, and limited comparisons. And it’s actually not that easy to give a new webhost a try. For one thing, these hosting companies don’t necessarily have the most liberal refund policies you could imagine. And, switching a domain name between different hosts and registrars is a complicated process through which a name may remain “hostage.” Had I realized what was involved, I might have used a domain name to which I have no attachment or actually eschewed the whole domain transition and just try the webhost without a dedicated domain name.

Doh!
Live and learn. I sure do. Loving almost every minute of it.

At any rate, I had a relatively hard time finding my webhost.

I really didn’t need “bells and whistles.” For instance, all the AdSense, shopping cart, and other business-oriented features which seem to be publicized by most webhosting companies have no interest, to me.

I didn’t even care so much about absolute degree of reliability or speed. What I’m to do with this host is fairly basic stuff. The core idea is to use my own host to bypass some limitations. For instance, WordPress.com doesn’t allow for plugins yet most of the WordPress fun has to do with plugins.

I did want an “unlimited” host, as much as possible. Not because expect to have huge resource needs but I just didn’t want to have to monitor bandwidth.

I thought that my needs would be basic enough that any cPanel-enabled webhost would fit. As much as I could see, I needed FTP access to something which had PHP 5 and MySQL 5. I expected to install things myself, without use of the webhost’s scripts but I also thought the host would have some useful scripts. Although I had already registered the domain I wanted to use (through Name.com), I thought it might be useful to have a free domain in the webhosting package. Not that domain names are expensive, it’s more of a matter of convenience in terms of payment or setup.

I ended up with FatCow. But, honestly, I’d probably go with a different host if I were to start over (which I may do with another project).

I paid 88$ for two years of “unlimited” hosting, which is quite reasonable. And, on paper, FatCow has everything I need (and I bunch of things I don’t need). The missing parts aren’t anything major but have to do with minor annoyances. In other words, no real deal-breaker, here. But there’s a few things I wish I had realized before I committed on FatCow with a domain name I actually want to use.

Something which was almost a deal-breaker for me is the fact that FatCow requires payment for any additional subdomain. And these aren’t cheap: the minimum is 5$/month for five subdomains, up to 25$/month for unlimited subdomains! Even at a “regular” price of 88$/year for the basic webhosting plan, the “unlimited subdomains” feature (included in some webhosting plans elsewhere) is more than three times more expensive than the core plan.

As I don’t absolutely need extra subdomains, this is mostly a minor irritant. But it’s one reason I’ll probably be using another webhost for other projects.

Other issues with FatCow are probably not enough to motivate a switch.

For instance, the PHP version installed on FatCow (5.2.1) is a few minor releases behind the one needed by some interesting web applications. No biggie, especially if PHP is updated in a relatively reasonable timeframe. But still makes for a slight frustration.

The MySQL version seems recent enough, but it uses non-standard tools to manage it, which makes for some confusion. Attempting to create some MySQL databases with obvious names (say “wordpress”) fails because the database allegedly exists (even though it doesn’t show up in the MySQL administration). In the same vein, the URL of the MySQL is <username>.fatcowmysql.com instead of localhost as most installers seem to expect. Easy to handle once you realize it, but it makes for some confusion.

In terms of Fantastico-like simplified installation of webapps, FatCow uses InstallCentral, which looks like it might be its own Fantastico replacement. InstallCentral is decent enough as an installation tool and FatCow does provide for some of the most popular blog and CMS platforms. But, in some cases, the application version installed by FatCow is old enough (2005!)  that it requires multiple upgrades to get to a current version. Compared to other installation tools, FatCow’s InstallCentral doesn’t seem really efficient at keeping track of installed and released versions.

Something which is partly a neat feature and partly a potential issue is the way FatCow handles Apache-related security. This isn’t something which is so clear to me, so I might be wrong.

Accounts on both BlueHost and HostGator include a public_html directory where all sorts of things go, especially if they’re related to publicly-accessible content. This directory serves as the website’s root, so one expects content to be available there. The “index.html” or “index.php” file in this directory serves as the website’s frontpage. It’s fairly obvious, but it does require that one would understand a few things about webservers. FatCow doesn’t seem to create a public_html directory in a user’s server space. Or, more accurately, it seems that the root directory (aka ‘/’) is in fact public_html. In this sense, a user doesn’t have to think about which directory to use to share things on the Web. But it also means that some higher-level directories aren’t available. I’ve already run into some issues with this and I’ll probably be looking for a workaround. I’m assuming there’s one. But it’s sometimes easier to use generally-applicable advice than to find a custom solution.

Further, in terms of access control… It seems that webapps typically make use of diverse directories and .htaccess files to manage some forms of access controls. Unix-style file permissions are also involved but the kind of access needed for a web app is somewhat different from the “User/Group/All” of Unix filesystems. AFAICT, FatCow does support those .htaccess files. But it has its own tools for building them. That can be a neat feature, as it makes it easier, for instance, to password-protect some directories. But it could also be the source of some confusion.

There are other issues I have with FatCow, but it’s probably enough for now.

So… On to the installation process… 😉

It only takes a few minutes and is rather straightforward. This is the most verbose version of that process you could imagine…

Surprised? 😎

Disclaimer: I’m mostly documenting how I did it and there are some things about which I’m unclear. So it may not work for you. If it doesn’t, I may be able to help but I provide no guarantee that I will. I’m an anthropologist, not a Web development expert.

As always, YMMV.

A few instructions here are specific to FatCow, but the general process is probably valid on other hosts.

I’m presenting things in a sequence which should make sense. I used a slightly different order myself, but I think this one should still work. (If it doesn’t, drop me a comment!)

In these instructions, straight quotes (“”) are used to isolate elements from the rest of the text. They shouldn’t be typed or pasted.

I use “example.com” to refer to the domain on which the installation is done. In my case, it’s the domain name I transfered to FatCow from another registrar but it could probably be done without a dedicated domain (in which case it would be “<username>.fatcow.com” where “<username>” is your FatCow username).

I started with creating a MySQL database for WordPress MU. FatCow does have phpMyAdmin but the default tool in the cPanel is labeled “Manage MySQL.” It’s slightly easier to use for creating new databases than phpMyAdmin because it creates the database and initial user (with confirmed password) in a single, easy-to-understand dialog box.

So I created that new database, user, and password, noting down this information. Since that password appears in clear text at some point and can easily be changed through the same interface, I used one which was easy to remember but wasn’t one I use elsewhere.
Then, I dowloaded the following files to my local machine in order to upload them to my FatCow server space. The upload can be done through either FTP or FatCow’s FileManager. I tend to prefer FTP (via CyberDuck on the Mac or FileZilla on PC). But the FileManager does allow for easy uploads.
(Wish it could be more direct, using the HTTP links directly instead of downloading to upload. But I haven’t found a way to do it through either FTP or the FileManager.)
At any rate, here are the four files I transfered to my FatCow space, using .zip when there’s a choice (the .tar.gz “tarball” versions also work but require a couple of extra steps).
  1. WordPress MU (wordpress-mu-2.9.1.1.zip, in my case)
  2. Buddymatic (buddymatic.0.9.6.3.1.zip, in my case)
  3. EarlyMorning (only one version, it seems)
  4. EarlyMorning-BP (only one version, it seems)

Only the WordPress MU archive is needed to install BuddyPress. The last three files are needed for EarlyMorning, a BuddyPress theme that I found particularly neat. It’s perfectly possible to install BuddyPress without this specific theme. (Although, doing so, you need to install a BuddyPress-compatible theme, if only by moving some folders to make the default theme available, as I explained in point 15 in that previous tutorial.) Buddymatic itself is a theme framework which includes some child themes, so you don’t need to install EarlyMorning. But installing it is easy enough that I’m adding instructions related to that theme.

These files can be uploaded anywhere in my FatCow space. I uploaded them to a kind of test/upload directory, just to make it clear, for me.

A major FatCow idiosyncrasy is its FileManager (actually called “FileManager Beta” in the documentation but showing up as “FileManager” in the cPanel). From my experience with both BlueHost and HostGator (two well-known webhosting companies), I can say that FC’s FileManager is quite limited. One thing it doesn’t do is uncompress archives. So I have to resort to the “Archive Gateway,” which is surprisingly slow and cumbersome.

At any rate, I used that Archive Gateway to uncompress the four files. WordPress µ first (in the root directory or “/”), then both Buddymatic and EarlyMorning in “/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes” (you can chose the output directory for zip and tar files), and finally EarlyMorning-BP (anywhere, individual files are moved later). To uncompress each file, select it in the dropdown menu (it can be located in any subdirectory, Archive Gateway looks everywhere), add the output directory in the appropriate field in the case of Buddymatic or EarlyMorning, and press “Extract/Uncompress”. Wait to see a message (in green) at the top of the window saying that the file has been uncompressed successfully.

Then, in the FileManager, the contents of the EarlyMorning-BP directory have to be moved to “/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning”. (Thought they could be uncompressed there directly, but it created an extra folder.) To move those files in the FileManager, I browse to that earlymorning-bp directory, click on the checkbox to select all, click on the “Move” button (fourth from right, marked with a blue folder), and add the output path: /wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning

These files are tweaks to make the EarlyMorning theme work with BuddyPress.

Then, I had to change two files, through the FileManager (it could also be done with an FTP client).

One change is to EarlyMorning’s style.css:

/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning/style.css

There, “Template: thematic” has to be changed to “Template: buddymatic” (so, “the” should be changed to “buddy”).

That change is needed because the EarlyMorning theme is a child theme of the “Thematic” WordPress parent theme. Buddymatic is a BuddyPress-savvy version of Thematic and this changes the child-parent relation from Thematic to Buddymatic.

The other change is in the Buddymatic “extensions”:

/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/buddymatic/library/extensions/buddypress_extensions.php

There, on line 39, “$bp->root_domain” should be changed to “bp_root_domain()”.

This change is needed because of something I’d consider a bug but that a commenter on another blog was kind enough to troubleshoot. Without this modification, the login button in BuddyPress wasn’t working because it was going to the website’s root (example.com/wp-login.php) instead of the WPµ installation (example.com/wordpress-mu/wp-login.php). I was quite happy to find this workaround but I’m not completely clear on the reason it works.

Then, something I did which might not be needed is to rename the “wordpress-mu” directory. Without that change, the BuddyPress installation would sit at “example.com/wordpress-mu,” which seems a bit cryptic for users. In my mind, “example.com/<name>,” where “<name>” is something meaningful like “social” or “community” works well enough for my needs. Because FatCow charges for subdomains, the “<name>.example.com” option would be costly.

(Of course, WPµ and BuddyPress could be installed in the site’s root and the frontpage for “example.com” could be the BuddyPress frontpage. But since I think of BuddyPress as an add-on to a more complete site, it seems better to have it as a level lower in the site’s hierarchy.)

With all of this done, the actual WPµ installation process can begin.

The first thing is to browse to that directory in which WPµ resides, either “example.com/wordpress-mu” or “example.com/<name>” with the “<name>” you chose. You’re then presented with the WordPress µ Installation screen.

Since FatCow charges for subdomains, it’s important to choose the following option: “Sub-directories (like example.com/blog1).” It’s actually by selecting the other option that I realized that FatCow restricted subdomains.

The Database Name, username and password are the ones you created initially with Manage MySQL. If you forgot that password, you can actually change it with that same tool.

An important FatCow-specific point, here, is that “Database Host” should be “<username>.fatcowmysql.com” (where “<username>” is your FatCow username). In my experience, other webhosts use “localhost” and WPµ defaults to that.

You’re asked to give a name to your blog. In a way, though, if you think of BuddyPress as more of a platform than a blogging system, that name should be rather general. As you’re installing “WordPress Multi-User,” you’ll be able to create many blogs with more specific names, if you want. But the name you’re entering here is for BuddyPress as a whole. As with <name> in “example.com/<name>” (instead of “example.com/wordpress-mu”), it’s a matter of personal opinion.

Something I noticed with the EarlyMorning theme is that it’s a good idea to keep the main blog’s name relatively short. I used thirteen characters and it seemed to fit quite well.

Once you’re done filling in this page, WPµ is installed in a flash. You’re then presented with some information about your installation. It’s probably a good idea to note down some of that information, including the full paths to your installation and the administrator’s password.

But the first thing you should do, as soon as you log in with “admin” as username and the password provided, is probably to the change that administrator password. (In fact, it seems that a frequent advice in the WordPress community is to create a new administrator user account, with a different username than “admin,” and delete the “admin” account. Given some security issues with WordPress in the past, it seems like a good piece of advice. But I won’t describe it here. I did do it in my installation and it’s quite easy to do in WPµ.

Then, you should probably enable plugins here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-options.php#menu

(From what I understand, it might be possible to install BuddyPress without enabling plugins, since you’re logged in as the administrator, but it still makes sense to enable them and it happens to be what I did.)

You can also change a few other options, but these can be set at another point.

One option which is probably useful, is this one:

Allow new registrations Disabled
Enabled. Blogs and user accounts can be created.
Only user account can be created.

Obviously, it’s not necessary. But in the interest of opening up the BuddyPress to the wider world without worrying too much about a proliferation of blogs, it might make sense. You may end up with some fake user accounts, but that shouldn’t be a difficult problem to solve.

Now comes the installation of the BuddyPress plugin itself. You can do so by going here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/plugin-install.php

And do a search for “BuddyPress” as a term. The plugin you want was authored by “The BuddyPress Community.” (In my case, version 1.1.3.) Click the “Install” link to bring up the installation dialog, then click “Install Now” to actually install the plugin.

Once the install is done, click the “Activate” link to complete the basic BuddyPress installation.

You now have a working installation of BuddyPress but the BuddyPress-savvy EarlyMorning isn’t enabled. So you need to go to “example.com/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-themes.php” to enable both Buddymatic and EarlyMorning. You should then go to “example.com/<name>/wp-admin/themes.php” to activate the EarlyMorning theme.

Something which tripped me up because it’s now much easier than before is that forums (provided through bbPress) are now, literally, a one-click install. If you go here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/admin.php?page=bb-forums-setup

You can set up a new bbPress install (“Set up a new bbPress installation”) and everything will work wonderfully in terms of having forums fully integrated in BuddyPress. It’s so seamless that I wasn’t completely sure it had worked.

Besides this, I’d advise that you set up a few widgets for the BuddyPress frontpage. You do so through an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/widgets.php

I especially advise you to add the Twitter RSS widget because it seems to me to fit right in. If I’m not mistaken, the EarlyMorning theme contains specific elements to make this widget look good.

After that, you can just have fun with your new BuddyPress installation. The first thing I did was to register a new user. To do so, I logged out of my admin account,  and clicked on the Sign Up button. Since I “allow new registrations,” it’s a very simple process. In fact, this is one place where I think that BuddyPress shines. Something I didn’t explain is that you can add a series of fields for that registration and the user profile which goes with it.

The whole process really shouldn’t take very long. In fact, the longest parts have probably to do with waiting for Archive Gateway.

The rest is “merely” to get people involved in your BuddyPress installation. It can happen relatively easily, if you already have a group of people trying to do things together online. But it can be much more complicated than any software installation process… 😉

Development and Quality: Reply to Agile Diary

Former WiZiQ product manager Vikrama Dhiman responded to one of my tweets with a full-blown blogpost, thereby giving support to Matt Mullenweg‘s point that microblogging goes hand-in-hand with “macroblogging.”

My tweet:

enjoys draft æsthetics yet wishes more developers would release stable products. / adopte certains produits trop rapidement.

Vikrama’s post:

Good Enough Software Does Not Mean Bad Software « Agile Diary, Agile Introduction, Agile Implementation.

My reply:

“To an engineer, good enough means perfect. With an artist, there’s no such thing as perfect.” (Alexander Calder)

Thanks a lot for your kind comments. I’m very happy that my tweet (and status update) triggered this.

A bit of context for my tweet (actually, a post from Ping.fm, meant as a status update, thereby giving support in favour of conscious duplication, «n’en déplaise aux partisans de l’action contre la duplication».)

I’ve been thinking about what I call the “draft æsthetics.” In fact, I did a podcast episode about it. My description of that episode was:

Sometimes, there is such a thing as “Good Enough.”

Though I didn’t emphasize the “sometimes” part in that podcast episode, it was an important part of what I wanted to say. In fact, my intention wasn’t to defend draft æsthetics but to note that there seems to be a tendency toward this æsthetic mode. I do situate myself within that mode in many things I do, but it really doesn’t mean that this mode should be the exclusive one used in any context.

That aforequoted tweet was thus a response to my podcast episode on draft æsthetics. “Yes, ‘good enough’ may work, sometimes. But it needs not be applied in all cases.”

As I often get into convoluted discussions with people who seem to think that I condone or defend a position because I take it for myself, the main thing I’d say there is that I’m not only a relativist but I cherish nuance. In other words, my tweet was a way to qualify the core statement I was talking about in my podcast episode (that “good enough” exists, at times). And that statement isn’t necessarily my own. I notice a pattern by which this statement seems to be held as accurate by people. I share that opinion, but it’s not a strongly held belief of mine.

Of course, I digress…

So, the tweet which motivated Vikrama had to do with my approach to “good enough.” In this case, I tend to think about writing but in view of Eric S. Raymond’s approach to “Release Early, Release Often” (RERO). So there is a connection to software development and geek culture. But I think of “good enough” in a broader sense.

Disclaimer: I am not a coder.

The Calder quote remained in my head, after it was mentioned by a colleague who had read it in a local newspaper. One reason it struck me is that I spend some time thinking about artists and engineers, especially in social terms. I spend some time hanging out with engineers but I tend to be more on the “artist” side of what I perceive to be an axis of attitudes found in some social contexts. I do get a fair deal of flack for some of my comments on this characterization and it should be clear that it isn’t meant to imply any evaluation of individuals. But, as a model, the artist and engineer distinction seems to work, for me. In a way, it seems more useful than the distinction between science and art.

An engineer friend with whom I discussed this kind of distinction was quick to point out that, to him, there’s no such thing as “good enough.” He was also quick to point out that engineers can be creative and so on. But the point isn’t to exclude engineers from artistic endeavours. It’s to describe differences in modes of thought, ways of knowing, approaches to reality. And the way these are perceived socially. We could do a simple exercise with terms like “troubleshooting” and “emotional” to be assigned to the two broad categories of “engineer” and “artist.” Chances are that clear patterns would emerge. Of course, many concepts are as important to both sides (“intelligence,” “innovation”…) and they may also be telling. But dichotomies have heuristic value.

Now, to go back to software development, the focus in Vikrama’s Agile Diary post…

What pushed me to post my status update and tweet is in fact related to software development. Contrary to what Vikrama presumes, it wasn’t about a Web application. And it wasn’t even about a single thing. But it did have to do with firmware development and with software documentation.

The first case is that of my Fonera 2.0n router. Bought it in early November and I wasn’t able to connect to its private signal using my iPod touch. I could connect to the router using the public signal, but that required frequent authentication, as annoying as with ISF. Since my iPod touch is my main WiFi device, this issue made my Fonera 2.0n experience rather frustrating.

Of course, I’ve been contacting Fon‘s tech support. As is often the case, that experience was itself quite frustrating. I was told to reset my touch’s network settings which forced me to reauthenticate my touch on a number of networks I access regularly and only solved the problem temporarily. The same tech support person (or, at least, somebody using the same name) had me repeat the same description several times in the same email message. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was also told to use third-party software which had nothing to do with my issue. All in all, your typical tech support experience.

But my tweet wasn’t really about tech support. It was about the product. Thougb I find the overall concept behind the Fonera 2.0n router very interesting, its implementation seems to me to be lacking. In fact, it reminds me of several FLOSS development projects that I’ve been observing and, to an extent, benefitting from.

This is rapidly transforming into a rant I’ve had in my “to blog” list for a while about “thinking outside the geek box.” I’ll try to resist the temptation, for now. But I can mention a blog thread which has been on my mind, in terms of this issue.

Firefox 3 is Still a Memory Hog — The NeoSmart Files.

The blogpost refers to a situation in which, according to at least some users (including the blogpost’s author), Firefox uses up more memory than it should and becomes difficult to use. The thread has several comments providing support to statements about the relatively poor performance of Firefox on people’s systems, but it also has “contributions” from an obvious troll, who keeps assigning the problem on the users’ side.

The thing about this is that it’s representative of a tricky issue in the geek world, whereby developers and users are perceived as belonging to two sides of a type of “class struggle.” Within the geek niche, users are often dismissed as “lusers.” Tech support humour includes condescending jokes about “code 6”: “the problem is 6″ from the screen.” The aforementioned Eric S. Raymond wrote a rather popular guide to asking questions in geek circles which seems surprisingly unaware of social and cultural issues, especially from someone with an anthropological background. Following that guide, one should switch their mind to that of a very effective problem-solver (i.e., the engineer frame) to ask questions “the smart way.” Not only is the onus on users, but any failure to comply with these rules may be met with this air of intellectual superiority encoded in that guide. IOW, “Troubleshoot now, ask questions later.”

Of course, many users are “guilty” of all sorts of “crimes” having to do with not reading the documentation which comes with the product or with simply not thinking about the issue with sufficient depth before contacting tech support. And as the majority of the population is on the “user” side, the situation can be described as both a form of marginalization (geek culture comes from “nerd” labels) and a matter of elitism (geek culture as self-absorbed).

This does have something to do with my Fonera 2.0n. With it, I was caught in this dynamic whereby I had to switch to the “engineer frame” in order to solve my problem. I eventually did solve my Fonera authentication problem, using a workaround mentioned in a forum post about another issue (free registration required). Turns out, the “release candidate” version of my Fonera’s firmware does solve the issue. Of course, this new firmware may cause other forms of instability and installing it required a bit of digging. But it eventually worked.

The point is that, as released, the Fonera 2.0n router is a geek toy. It’s unpolished in many ways. It’s full of promise in terms of what it may make possible, but it failed to deliver in terms of what a router should do (route a signal). In this case, I don’t consider it to be a finished product. It’s not necessarily “unstable” in the strict sense that a software engineer might use the term. In fact, I hesitated between different terms to use instead of “stable,” in that tweet, and I’m not that happy with my final choice. The Fonera 2.0n isn’t unstable. But it’s akin to an alpha version released as a finished product. That’s something we see a lot of, these days.

The main other case which prompted me to send that tweet is “CivRev for iPhone,” a game that I’ve been playing on my iPod touch.

I’ve played with different games in the Civ franchise and I even used the FLOSS version on occasion. Not only is “Civilization” a geek classic, but it does connect with some anthropological issues (usually in a problematic view: Civ’s worldview lacks anthro’s insight). And it’s the kind of game that I can easily play while listening to podcasts (I subscribe to a number of th0se).

What’s wrong with that game? Actually, not much. I can’t even say that it’s unstable, unlike some other items in the App Store. But there’s a few things which aren’t optimal in terms of documentation. Not that it’s difficult to figure out how the game works. But the game is complex enough that some documentation is quite useful. Especially since it does change between one version of the game and another. Unfortunately, the online manual isn’t particularly helpful. Oh, sure, it probably contains all the information required. But it’s not available offline, isn’t optimized for the device it’s supposed to be used with, doesn’t contain proper links between sections, isn’t directly searchable, and isn’t particularly well-written. Not to mention that it seems to only be available in English even though the game itself is available in multiple languages (I play it in French).

Nothing tragic, of course. But coupled with my Fonera experience, it contributed to both a slight sense of frustration and this whole reflection about unfinished products.

Sure, it’s not much. But it’s “good enough” to get me started.

The Need for Social Science in Social Web/Marketing/Media (Draft)

[Been sitting on this one for a little while. Better RERO it, I guess.]

Sticking My Neck Out (Executive Summary)

I think that participants in many technology-enthusiastic movements which carry the term “social” would do well to learn some social science. Furthermore, my guess is that ethnographic disciplines are very well-suited to the task of teaching participants in these movements something about social groups.

Disclaimer

Despite the potentially provocative title and my explicitly stating a position, I mostly wish to think out loud about different things which have been on my mind for a while.

I’m not an “expert” in this field. I’m just a social scientist and an ethnographer who has been observing a lot of things online. I do know that there are many experts who have written many great books about similar issues. What I’m saying here might not seem new. But I’m using my blog as a way to at least write down some of the things I have in mind and, hopefully, discuss these issues thoughtfully with people who care.

Also, this will not be a guide on “what to do to be social-savvy.” Books, seminars, and workshops on this specific topic abound. But my attitude is that every situation needs to be treated in its own context, that cookie-cutter solutions often fail. So I would advise people interested in this set of issues to train themselves in at least a little bit of social science, even if much of the content of the training material seems irrelevant. Discuss things with a social scientist, hire a social scientist in your business, take a course in social science, and don’t focus on advice but on the broad picture. Really.

Clarification

Though they are all different, enthusiastic participants in “social web,” “social marketing,” “social media,” and other “social things online” do have some commonalities. At the risk of angering some of them, I’m lumping them all together as “social * enthusiasts.” One thing I like about the term “enthusiast” is that it can apply to both professional and amateurs, to geeks and dabblers, to full-timers and part-timers. My target isn’t a specific group of people. I just observed different things in different contexts.

Links

Shameless Self-Promotion

A few links from my own blog, for context (and for easier retrieval):

Shameless Cross-Promotion

A few links from other blogs, to hopefully expand context (and for easier retrieval):

Some raw notes

  • Insight
  • Cluefulness
  • Openness
  • Freedom
  • Transparency
  • Unintended uses
  • Constructivism
  • Empowerment
  • Disruptive technology
  • Innovation
  • Creative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Technology adoption
  • Early adopters
  • Late adopters
  • Forced adoption
  • OLPC XO
  • OLPC XOXO
  • Attitudes to change
  • Conservatism
  • Luddites
  • Activism
  • Impatience
  • Windmills and shelters
  • Niche thinking
  • Geek culture
  • Groupthink
  • Idea horizon
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Influence
  • Sphere of influence
  • Influence network
  • Social butterfly effect
  • Cog in a wheel
  • Social networks
  • Acephalous groups
  • Ego-based groups
  • Non-hierarchical groups
  • Mutual influences
  • Network effects
  • Risk-taking
  • Low-stakes
  • Trial-and-error
  • Transparency
  • Ethnography
  • Epidemiology of ideas
  • Neural networks
  • Cognition and communication
  • Wilson and Sperber
  • Relevance
  • Global
  • Glocal
  • Regional
  • City-State
  • Fluidity
  • Consensus culture
  • Organic relationships
  • Establishing rapport
  • Buzzwords
  • Viral
  • Social
  • Meme
  • Memetic marketplace
  • Meta
  • Target audience

Let’s Give This a Try

The Internet is, simply, a network. Sure, technically it’s a meta-network, a network of networks. But that is pretty much irrelevant, in social terms, as most networks may be analyzed at different levels as containing smaller networks or being parts of larger networks. The fact remains that the ‘Net is pretty easy to understand, sociologically. It’s nothing new, it’s just a textbook example of something social scientists have been looking at for a good long time.

Though the Internet mostly connects computers (in many shapes or forms, many of them being “devices” more than the typical “personal computer”), the impact of the Internet is through human actions, behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. Sure, we can talk ad nauseam about the technical aspects of the Internet, but these topics have been covered a lot in the last fifteen years of intense Internet growth and a lot of people seem to be ready to look at other dimensions.

The category of “people who are online” has expanded greatly, in different steps. Here, Martin Lessard’s description of the Internet’s Six Cultures (Les 6 cultures d’Internet) is really worth a read. Martin’s post is in French but we also had a blog discussion in English, about it. Not only are there more people online but those “people who are online” have become much more diverse in several respects. At the same time, there are clear patterns on who “online people” are and there are clear differences in uses of the Internet.

Groups of human beings are the very basic object of social science. Diversity in human groups is the very basis for ethnography. Ethnography is simply the description of (“writing about”) human groups conceived as diverse (“peoples”). As simple as ethnography can be, it leads to a very specific approach to society which is very compatible with all sorts of things relevant to “social * enthusiasts” on- and offline.

While there are many things online which may be described as “media,” comparing the Internet to “The Mass Media” is often the best way to miss “what the Internet is all about.” Sure, the Internet isn’t about anything (about from connecting computers which, in turn, connect human beings). But to get actual insight into the ‘Net, one probably needs to free herself/himself of notions relating to “The Mass Media.” Put bluntly, McLuhan was probably a very interesting person and some of his ideas remain intriguing but fallacies abound in his work and the best thing to do with his ideas is to go beyond them.

One of my favourite examples of the overuse of “media”-based concepts is the issue of influence. In blogging, podcasting, or selling, the notion often is that, on the Internet as in offline life, “some key individuals or outlets are influential and these are the people by whom or channels through which ideas are disseminated.” Hence all the Technorati rankings and other “viewer statistics.” Old techniques and ideas from the times of radio and television expansion are used because it’s easier to think through advertising models than through radically new models. This is, in fact, when I tend to bring back my explanation of the “social butterfly effect“: quite frequently, “influence” online isn’t through specific individuals or outlets but even when it is, those people are influential through virtue of connecting to diverse groups, not by the number of people they know. There are ways to analyze those connections but “measuring impact” is eventually missing the point.

Yes, there is an obvious “qual. vs. quant.” angle, here. A major distinction between non-ethnographic and ethnographic disciplines in social sciences is that non-ethnographic disciplines tend to be overly constrained by “quantitative analysis.” Ultimately, any analysis is “qualitative” but “quantitative methods” are a very small and often limiting subset of the possible research and analysis methods available. Hence the constriction and what some ethnographers may describe as “myopia” on the part of non-ethnographers.

Gone Viral

The term “viral” is used rather frequently by “social * enthusiasts” online. I happen to think that it’s a fairly fitting term, even though it’s used more by extension than by literal meaning. To me, it relates rather directly to Dan Sperber’s “epidemiological” treatment of culture (see Explaining Culture) which may itself be perceived as resembling Dawkins’s well-known “selfish gene” ideas made popular by different online observers, but with something which I perceive to be (to use simple semiotic/semiological concepts) more “motivated” than the more “arbitrary” connections between genetics and ideas. While Sperber could hardly be described as an ethnographer, his anthropological connections still make some of his work compatible with ethnographic perspectives.

Analysis of the spread of ideas does correspond fairly closely with the spread of viruses, especially given the nature of contacts which make transmission possible. One needs not do much to spread a virus or an idea. This virus or idea may find “fertile soil” in a given social context, depending on a number of factors. Despite the disadvantages of extending analogies and core metaphors too far, the type of ecosystem/epidemiology analysis of social systems embedded in uses of the term “viral” do seem to help some specific people make sense of different things which happen online. In “viral marketing,” the type of informal, invisible, unexpected spread of recognition through word of mouth does relate somewhat to the spread of a virus. Moreover, the metaphor of “viral marketing” is useful in thinking about the lack of control the professional marketer may have on how her/his product is perceived. In this context, the term “viral” seems useful.

The Social

While “viral” seems appropriate, the even more simple “social” often seems inappropriately used. It’s not a ranty attitude which makes me comment negatively on the use of the term “social.” In fact, I don’t really care about the use of the term itself. But I do notice that use of the term often obfuscates what is the obvious social character of the Internet.

To a social scientist, anything which involves groups is by definition “social.” Of course, some groups and individuals are more gregarious than others, some people are taken to be very sociable, and some contexts are more conducive to heightened social interactions. But social interactions happen in any context.
As an example I used (in French) in reply to this blog post, something as common as standing in line at a grocery store is representative of social behaviour and can be analyzed in social terms. Any Web page which is accessed by anyone is “social” in the sense that it establishes some link, however tenuous and asymmetric, between at least two individuals (someone who created the page and the person who accessed that page). Sure, it sounds like the minimal definition of communication (sender, medium/message, receiver). But what most people who talk about communication seem to forget (unlike Jakobson), is that all communication is social.

Sure, putting a comment form on a Web page facilitates a basic social interaction, making the page “more social” in the sense of “making that page easier to use explicit social interaction.” And, of course, adding some features which facilitate the act of sharing data with one’s personal contacts is a step above the contact form in terms of making certain type of social interaction straightforward and easy. But, contrary to what Google Friend Connect implies, adding those features doesn’t suddenly make the site social. The site itself isn’t really social and, assuming some people visited it, there was already a social dimension to it. I’m not nitpicking on word use. I’m saying that using “social” in this way may blind some people to social dimensions of the Internet. And the consequences can be pretty harsh, in some cases, for overlooking how social the ‘Net is.

Something similar may be said about the “Social Web,” one of the many definitions of “Web 2.0” which is used in some contexts (mostly, the cynic would say, “to make some tool appear ‘new and improved'”). The Web as a whole was “social” by definition. Granted, it lacked the ease of social interaction afforded such venerable Internet classics as Usenet and email. But it was already making some modes of social interaction easier to perceive. No, this isn’t about “it’s all been done.” It’s about being oblivious to the social potential of tools which already existed. True, the period in Internet history known as “Web 2.0” (and the onset of the Internet’s sixth culture) may be associated with new social phenomena. But there is little evidence that the association is causal, that new online tools and services created a new reality which suddenly made it possible for people to become social online. This is one reason I like Martin Lessard’s post so much. Instead of postulating the existence of a brand new phenomenon, he talks about the conditions for some changes in both Internet use and the form the Web has taken.

Again, this isn’t about terminology per se. Substitute “friendly” for “social” and similar issues might come up (friendship and friendliness being disconnected from the social processes which underline them).

Adoptive Parents

Many “social * enthusiasts” are interested in “adoption.” They want their “things” to be adopted. This is especially visible among marketers but even in social media there’s an issue of “getting people on board.” And some people, especially those without social science training, seem to be looking for a recipe.

Problem is, there probably is no such thing as a recipe for technology adoption.

Sure, some marketing practises from the offline world may work online. Sometimes, adapting a strategy from the material world to the Internet is very simple and the Internet version may be more effective than the offline version. But it doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as a recipe. It’s a matter of either having some people who “have a knack for this sort of things” (say, based on sensitivity to what goes on online) or based on pure luck. Or it’s a matter of measuring success in different ways. But it isn’t based on a recipe. Especially not in the Internet sphere which is changing so rapidly (despite some remarkably stable features).

Again, I’m partial to contextual approaches (“fully-customized solutions,” if you really must). Not just because I think there are people who can do this work very efficiently. But because I observe that “recipes” do little more than sell “best-selling books” and other items.

So, what can we, as social scientists, say about “adoption?” That technology is adopted based on the perceived fit between the tools and people’s needs/wants/goals/preferences. Not the simple “the tool will be adopted if there’s a need.” But a perception that there might be a fit between an amorphous set of social actors (people) and some well-defined tools (“technologies”). Recognizing this fit is extremely difficult and forcing it is extremely expensive (not to mention completely unsustainable). But social scientists do help in finding ways to adapt tools to different social situations.

Especially ethnographers. Because instead of surveys and focus groups, we challenge assumptions about what “must” fit. Our heads and books are full of examples which sound, in retrospect, as common sense but which had stumped major corporations with huge budgets. (Ask me about McDonald’s in Brazil or browse a cultural anthropology textbook, for more information.)

Recently, while reading about issues surrounding the OLPC’s original XO computer, I was glad to read the following:

John Heskett once said that the critical difference between invention and innovation was its mass adoption by users. (Niti Bhan The emperor has designer clothes)

Not that this is a new idea, for social scientists. But I was glad that the social dimension of technology adoption was recognized.

In marketing and design spheres especially, people often think of innovation as individualized. While some individuals are particularly adept at leading inventions to mass adoption (Steve Jobs being a textbook example), “adoption comes from the people.” Yes, groups of people may be manipulated to adopt something “despite themselves.” But that kind of forced adoption is still dependent on a broad acceptance, by “the people,” of even the basic forms of marketing. This is very similar to the simplified version of the concept of “hegemony,” so common in both social sciences and humanities. In a hegemony (as opposed to a totalitarian regime), no coercion is necessary because the logic of the system has been internalized by people who are affected by it. Simple, but effective.

In online culture, adept marketers are highly valued. But I’m quite convinced that pre-online marketers already knew that they had to “learn society first.” One thing with almost anything happening online is that “the society” is boundless. Country boundaries usually make very little sense and the social rules of every local group will leak into even the simplest occasion. Some people seem to assume that the end result is a cultural homogenization, thereby not necessitating any adaptation besides the move from “brick and mortar” to online. Others (or the same people, actually) want to protect their “business models” by restricting tools or services based on country boundaries. In my mind, both attitudes are ineffective and misleading.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

I think the Cluetrain Manifesto can somehow be summarized through concepts of freedom, openness, and transparency. These are all very obvious (in French, the book title is something close to “the evident truths manifesto”). They’re also all very social.

Social scientists often become activists based on these concepts. And among social scientists, many of us are enthusiastic about the social changes which are happening in parallel with Internet growth. Not because of technology. But because of empowerment. People are using the Internet in their own ways, the one key feature of the Internet being its lack of centralization. While the lack of centralized control may be perceived as a “bad thing” by some (social scientists or not), there’s little argument that the ‘Net as a whole is out of the control of specific corporations or governments (despite the large degree of consolidation which has happened offline and online).

Especially in the United States, “freedom” is conceived as a basic right. But it’s also a basic concept in social analysis. As some put it: “somebody’s rights end where another’s begin.” But social scientists have a whole apparatus to deal with all the nuances and subtleties which are bound to come from any situation where people’s rights (freedom) may clash or even simply be interpreted differently. Again, not that social scientists have easy, ready-made answers on these issues. But we’re used to dealing with them. We don’t interpret freedom as a given.

Transparency is fairly simple and relates directly to how people manage information itself (instead of knowledge or insight). Radical transparency is giving as much information as possible to those who may need it. Everybody has a “right to learn” a lot of things about a given institution (instead of “right to know”), when that institution has a social impact. Canada’s Access to Information Act is quite representative of the move to transparency and use of this act has accompanied changes in the ways government officials need to behave to adapt to a relatively new reality.

Openness is an interesting topic, especially in the context of the so-called “Open Source” movement. Radical openness implies participation by outsiders, at least in the form of verbal feedback. The cluefulness of “opening yourself to your users” is made obvious in the context of successes by institutions which have at least portrayed themselves as open. What’s in my mind unfortunate is that many institutions now attempt to position themselves on the openness end of the “closed/proprietary to open/responsive” scale without much work done to really open themselves up.

Communitas

Mottoes, slogans, and maxims like “build it and they will come,” “there’s a sucker born every minute,” “let them have cake,” and “give them what they want” all fail to grasp the basic reality of social life: “they” and “we” are linked. We’re all different and we’re all connected. We all take parts in groups. These groups are all associated with one another. We can’t simply behave the same way with everyone. Identity has two parts: sense of belonging (to an “in-group”) and sense of distinction (from an “out-group”). “Us/Them.”

Within the “in-group,” if there isn’t any obvious hierarchy, the sense of belonging can take the form that Victor Turner called “communitas” and which happens in situations giving real meaning to the notion of “community.” “Community of experience,” “community of practise.” Eckert and Wittgenstein brought to online networks. In a community, contacts aren’t always harmonious. But people feel they fully belong. A network isn’t the same thing as a community.

The World Is My Oyster

Despite the so-called “Digital Divide” (or, more precisely, the maintenance online of global inequalities), the ‘Net is truly “Global.” So is the phone, now that cellphones are accomplishing the “leapfrog effect.” But this one Internet we have (i.e., not Internet2 or other such specialized meta-network) is reaching everywhere through a single set of compatible connections. The need for cultural awareness is increased, not alleviated by online activities.

Release Early, Release Often

Among friends, we call it RERO.

The RERO principle is a multiple-pass system. Instead of waiting for the right moment to release a “perfect product” (say, a blogpost!), the “work in progress” is provided widely, garnering feedback which will be integrated in future “product versions.” The RERO approach can be unnerving to “product developers,” but it has proved its value in online-savvy contexts.

I use “product” in a broad sense because the principle applies to diverse contexts. Furthermore, the RERO principle helps shift the focus from “product,” back into “process.”

The RERO principle may imply some “emotional” or “psychological” dimensions, such as humility and the acceptance of failure. At some level, differences between RERO and “trial-and-error” methods of development appear insignificant. Those who create something should not expect the first try to be successful and should recognize mistakes to improve on the creative process and product. This is similar to the difference between “rehearsal” (low-stakes experimentation with a process) and “performance” (with responsibility, by the performer, for evaluation by an audience).

Though applications of the early/often concept to social domains are mostly satirical, there is a social dimension to the RERO principle. Releasing a “product” implies a group, a social context.

The partial and frequent “release” of work to “the public” relates directly to openness and transparency. Frequent releases create a “relationship” with human beings. Sure, many of these are “Early Adopters” who are already overrepresented. But the rapport established between an institution and people (users/clients/customers/patrons…) can be transfered more broadly.

Releasing early seems to shift the limit between rehearsal and performance. Instead of being able to do mistakes on your own, your mistakes are shown publicly and your success is directly evaluated. Yet a somewhat reverse effect can occur: evaluation of the end-result becomes a lower-stake rating at different parts of the project because expectations have shifted to the “lower” end. This is probably the logic behind Google’s much discussed propensity to call all its products “beta.”

While the RERO principle does imply a certain openness, the expectation that each release might integrate all the feedback “users” have given is not fundamental to releasing early and frequently. The expectation is set by a specific social relationship between “developers” and “users.” In geek culture, especially when users are knowledgeable enough about technology to make elaborate wishlists, the expectation to respond to user demand can be quite strong, so much so that developers may perceive a sense of entitlement on the part of “users” and grow some resentment out of the situation. “If you don’t like it, make it yourself.” Such a situation is rather common in FLOSS development: since “users” have access to the source code, they may be expected to contribute to the development project. When “users” not only fail to fulfil expectations set by open development but even have the gumption to ask developers to respond to demands, conflicts may easily occur. And conflicts are among the things which social scientists study most frequently.

Putting the “Capital” Back into “Social Capital”

In the past several years, ”monetization” (transforming ideas into currency) has become one of the major foci of anything happening online. Anything which can be a source of profit generates an immediate (and temporary) “buzz.” The value of anything online is measured through typical currency-based economics. The relatively recent movement toward ”social” whatever is not only representative of this tendency, but might be seen as its climax: nowadays, even social ties can be sold directly, instead of being part of a secondary transaction. As some people say “The relationship is the currency” (or “the commodity,” or “the means to an end”). Fair enough, especially if these people understand what social relationships entail. But still strange, in context, to see people “selling their friends,” sometimes in a rather literal sense, when social relationships are conceived as valuable. After all, “selling the friend” transforms that relationship, diminishes its value. Ah, well, maybe everyone involved is just cynical. Still, even their cynicism contributes to the system. But I’m not judging. Really, I’m not. I’m just wondering
Anyhoo, the “What are you selling anyway” question makes as much sense online as it does with telemarketers and other greed-focused strangers (maybe “calls” are always “cold,” online). It’s just that the answer isn’t always so clear when the “business model” revolves around creating, then breaking a set of social expectations.
Me? I don’t sell anything. Really, not even my ideas or my sense of self. I’m just not good at selling. Oh, I do promote myself and I do accumulate social capital. As social butterflies are wont to do. The difference is, in the case of social butterflies such as myself, no money is exchanged and the social relationships are, hopefully, intact. This is not to say that friends never help me or never receive my help in a currency-friendly context. It mostly means that, in our cases, the relationships are conceived as their own rewards.
I’m consciously not taking the moral high ground, here, though some people may easily perceive this position as the morally superior one. I’m not even talking about a position. Just about an attitude to society and to social relationships. If you will, it’s a type of ethnographic observation from an insider’s perspective.

Makes sense?

Free As In Beer: The Case for No-Cost Software

To summarize the situation:

  1. Most of the software for which I paid a fee, I don’t really use.
  2. Most of the software I really use, I haven’t paid a dime for.
  3. I really like no-cost software.
  4. You might want to call me “cheap” but, if you’re developing “consumer software,” you may need to pay attention to the way people like me think about software.

No, I’m not talking about piracy. Piracy is wrong on a very practical level (not to mention legal and moral issues). Piracy and anti-piracy protection are in a dynamic that I don’t particularly enjoy. In some ways, forms of piracy are “ruining it for everyone.” So this isn’t about pirated software.

I’m not talking about “Free/Libre/Open Source Software” (FLOSS) either. I tend to relate to some of the views held by advocates of “Free as in Speech” or “Open” developments but I’ve had issues with FLOSS projects, in the past. I will gladly support FLOSS in my own ways but, to be honest, I ended up losing interest in some of the most promising projects out there. Not saying they’re not worth it. After all, I do rely on many of those projects But in talking about “no-cost software,” I’m not talking about Free, Libre, or Open Source development. At least, not directly.

Basically, I was thinking about the complex equation which, for any computer user, determines the cash value of a software application. Most of the time, this equation is somehow skewed. And I end up frustrated when I pay for software and almost giddy when I find good no-cost software.

An old but representative example of my cost-software frustration: QuickTime Pro. I paid for it a number of years ago, in preparation for a fieldwork trip. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do, especially given the fact that I was going to manipulate media files. When QuickTime was updated, my license stopped working. I was basically never able to use the QuickTime Pro features. And while it’s not a huge amount of money, the frustration of having paid for something I really didn’t need left me surprisingly bitter. It was a bad decision at that time so I’m now less likely to buy software unless I really need it and I really know how I will use it.

There’s an interesting exception to my frustration with cost-software: OmniOutliner (OO). I paid for it and have used it extensively for years. When I was “forced” to switch to Windows XP, OO was possibly the piece of software I missed the most from Mac OS X. And as soon as I was able to come back to the Mac, it’s one of the first applications I installed. But, and this is probably an important indicator, I don’t really use it anymore. Not because it lacks features I found elsewhere. But because I’ve had to adapt my workflow to OO-less conditions. I still wish there were an excellent cross-platform outliner for my needs. And, no, Microsoft OneNote isn’t it.

Now, I may not be a typical user. If the term weren’t so self-aggrandizing, I’d probably call myself a “Power User.” And, as I keep saying, I am not a coder. Therefore, I’m neither the prototypical “end user” nor the stereotypical “code monkey.” I’m just someone spending inordinate amounts of time in front of computers.

One dimension of my computer behavior which probably does put me in a special niche is that I tend to like trying out new things. Even more specifically, I tend to get overly enthusiastic about computer technology to then become disillusioned by said technology. Call me a “dreamer,” if you will. Call me “naïve.” Actually, “you can call me anything you want.” Just don’t call me to sell me things. 😉

Speaking of pressure sales. In a way, if I had truckloads of money, I might be a good target for software sales. But I’d be the most demanding user ever. I’d require things to work exactly like I expect them to work. I’d be exactly what I never am in real life: a dictator.

So I’m better off as a user of no-cost software.

I still end up making feature requests, on occasion. Especially with Open Source and other open development projects. Some developers might think I’m just complaining as I’m not contributing to the code base or offering solutions to a specific usage problem. Eh.

Going back to no-cost software. The advantage isn’t really that we, users, spend less money on the software distribution itself. It’s that we don’t really need to select the perfect software solution. We can just make do with what we have. Which is a huge “value-add proposition” in terms of computer technology, as counter-intuitive as this may sound to some people.

To break down a few no-cost options.

  • Software that came with your computer. With an Eee PC, iPhone, XO, or Mac, it’s actually an important part of the complete computing experience. Sure, there are always ways to expand the software offering. But the included software may become a big part of the deal. After all, the possibilities are already endless. Especially if you have ubiquitous Internet access.
  • Software which comes through a volume license agreement. This often works for Microsoft software, at least at large educational institutions. Even if you don’t like it so much, you end up using Microsoft Office because you have it on your computer for free and it does most of the things you want to do.
  • Software coming with a plan or paid service. Including software given by ISPs. These tend not to be “worth it.” Yet the principle (or “business model,” depending on which end of the deal you’re on) isn’t so silly. You already pay for a plan of some kind, you might as well get everything you need from that plan. Nobody (not even AT&T) has done it yet in such a way that it would be to everyone’s advantage. But it’s worth a thought.
  • “Webware” and other online applications. Call it “cloud computing” if you will (it was a buzzphrase, a few days ago). And it changes a lot of things. Not only does it simplify things like backup and migration, but it often makes for a seamless computer experience. When it works really well, the browser effectively disappears and you just work in a comfortable environment where everything you need (content, tools) is “just there.” This category is growing rather rapidly at this point but many tech enthusiasts were predicting its success a number of years ago. Typical forecasting, I guess.
  • Light/demo versions. These are actually less common than they once were, especially in terms of feature differentiation. Sure, you may still play the first few levels of a game in demo version and some “express” or “lite” versions of software are still distributed for free as teaser versions of more complete software. But, like the shareware model, demo and light software may seem to have become much less prominent a part of the typical computer user’s life than just a few years ago.
  • Software coming from online services. I’m mostly thinking about Skype but it’s a software category which would include any program with a desktop component (a “download”) and an online component, typically involving some kind of individual account (free or paid). Part subscription model, part “Webware companion.” Most of Google’s software would qualify (Sketchup, Google Earth…). If the associated “retail software” were free, I wouldn’t hesitate to put WoW in this category.
  • Actual “freeware.” Much freeware could be included in other categories but there’s still an idea of a “freebie,” in software terms. Sometimes, said freeware is distributed in view of getting people’s attention. Sometimes the freeware is just the result of a developer “scratching her/his own itch.” Sometimes it comes from lapsed shareware or even lapsed commercial software. Sometimes it’s “donationware” disguised as freeware. But, if only because there’s a “freeware” category in most software catalogs, this type of no-cost software needs to be mentioned.
  • “Free/Libre/Open Source Software.” Sure, I said earlier this was not what I was really talking about. But that was then and this is now. 😉 Besides, some of the most useful pieces of software I use do come from Free Software or Open Source. Mozilla Firefox is probably the best example. But there are many other worthy programs out there, including BibDesk, TeXShop, and FreeCiv. Though, to be honest, Firefox and Flock are probably the ones I use the most.
  • Pirated software (aka “warez”). While software piracy can technically let some users avoid the cost of purchasing a piece of software, the concept is directly tied with commercial software licenses. (It’s probably not piracy if the software distribution is meant to be open.) Sure, pirates “subvert” the licensing system for commercial software. But the software category isn’t “no-cost.” To me, there’s even a kind of “transaction cost” involved in the piracy. So even if the legal and ethical issues weren’t enough to exclude pirated software from my list of no-cost software options, the very practicalities of piracy put pirated software in the costly column, not in the “no-cost” one.

With all but the last category, I end up with most (but not all) of the software solutions I need. In fact, there are ways in which I’m better served now with no-cost software than I have ever been with paid software. I should probably make a list of these, at some point, but I don’t feel like it.

I mostly felt like assessing my needs, as a computer user. And though there always are many things I wish I could do but currently can’t, I must admit that I don’t really see the need to pay for much software.

Still… What I feel I need, here, is the “ultimate device.” It could be handheld. But I’m mostly thinking about a way to get ideas into a computer-friendly format. A broad set of issues about a very basic thing.

The spark for this blog entry was a reflection about dictation software. Not only have I been interested in speech technology for quite a while but I still bet that speech (recognition/dictation and “text-to-speech”) can become the killer app. I just think that speech hasn’t “come true.” It’s there, some people use it, the societal acceptance for it is likely (given cellphone penetration most anywhere). But its moment hasn’t yet come.

No-cost “text-to-speech” (TTS) software solutions do exist but are rather impractical. In the mid-1990s, I spent fifteen months doing speech analysis for a TTS research project in Switzerland. One of the best periods in my life. Yet, my enthusiasm for current TTS systems has been dampened. I wish I could be passionate about TTS and other speech technology again. Maybe the reason I’m notis that we don’t have a “voice desktop,” yet. But, for this voice desktop (voicetop?) to happen, we need high quality, continuous speech recognition. IOW, we need a “personal dictation device.” So, my latest 2008 prediction: we will get a voice device (smartphone?) which adapts to our voices and does very efficient and very accurate transcription of our speech. (A correlated prediction: people will complain about speech technology for a while before getting used to the continuous stream of public soliloquy.)

Dictation software is typically quite costly and complicated. Most users don’t see a need for dictation software so they don’t see a need for speech technology in computing. Though I keep thinking that speech could improve my computing life, I’ve never purchased a speech processing package. Like OCR (which is also dominated by Nuance, these days) it seems to be the kind of thing which could be useful to everyone but ends up being limited to “vertical markets.” (As it so happens, I did end up being an OCR program at some point and kept hoping my life would improve as the result of being able to transform hardcopies into searchable files. But I almost never used OCR (so my frustration with cost-software continues).)

Ah, well…

Legal Sense: CMS Edition

This one is even more exciting than the SecondLife statement.

After the announcement that the USPTO was reexamining its patents in a case against open source course management software, Blackboard incorporated is announcing that it is specifically not going to use its patents to sue open source and other non-commercial providers of course management software.

From a message sent to users of Blackboard’s products and relayed by the Moodle community.

I am writing to share some exciting news about a patent pledge Blackboard is making today to the open source and home-grown course management community.  We are announcing a legally-binding, irrevocable, world-wide pledge not to assert any of our issued or pending patents related to course management systems or transaction systems against the use, development or support of any open source or home-grown course management systems.

This is a major victory. Not only for developers of Moodle, Sakai, ATutor, Elgg, and Bodington course- and content-management solutions, but for anyone involved in the open and free-as-in-speech approach to education, research, technology, and law.

Even more so than in Microsoft’s case, Blackboard is making the most logical decision it could make. Makes perfect business sense: they’re generating goodwill, encouraging the world’s leading eLearning communities, and putting themselves in a Google-like “do no evil” position in the general public’s opinion. Also makes perfect legal sense as they’re acknowledging that the law is really there to protect them against misappropriation of their ideas by commercial competitors and not to crush innovation.

A small step for a corporation … a giant step for freedomkind.

Microsoft Disinforms on Open-Source and Free-Software

Can Windows and Linux Learn to Play Nice?:

A commercial company has to build intellectual property, while the GPL, by its very nature, does not allow intellectual property to be built, making the two approaches fundamentally incompatible, Muglia said.

Interesting take on “intellectual property.’ Would benefit from a bit more of an explanation. Is “IP” the very foundation of any commercial company?
What's more awkward, though, is that Microsoft veep Bob Muglia talks about the GPL in the context of open-source. As he surely knows, this is exactly where the terms “open-source” and “free software” are not interchangeable. While the two are quite similar, “free software” refers to a movement in favour of free (as in speech) or “libre” development in direct opposition to the notion of “intellectual property.” “Open-source,” on the other hand, refers to a development process through which source code for software is shared by multiple developers in an open fashion, whether or not that code is meant to be protected as “intellectual property.” In fact, many open-source projects are not only interoperable with commercial software but do in fact have commercial licenses through which they protect their IP. Whichever model we prefer, free or open, they're models of very different things. The two models are quite compatible in practice. They are both used in resistance to Microsoft's hegemony. But confounding them serves little purpose in the discussion. It might not be a strategy on Muglia's part to confuse the two issues. Interestingly enough, the “free software” vs. “open source” issue wasn't even the main thrust of the Slashdot thread on the subject, at least in the beginning.

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