Thursday, June 27, 2013

Teaching Skills and Technology - Not Brand Names

One of the things I cringe at when I hear people talking is the use of brand names. For example, Word documents. Excel sheet. Skype. Google Docs etc.

Open source types have been whinging about this for years. It's not about teaching a particular product. It's about teaching skills. The general principal of a mail merge is the same across the different office suites (though I don't think Google Docs does it natively. Instead you have to script it and given it's scripting language, it's cludgy at best). Formatting fonts is exactly the same (though I'm of the opinion that we need to separate out font and paragraph level controls and give the user the option as to how they'd prefer their workflow).

I've been having a discussion with people about Skype. Skype was this incredibly compelling technology - making video calling accessible. Faster Internet speeds and some proprietary codecs (how the video and sound information is packed up for sending across the Internet and unpackaged on the other end) have made this possible.

But I argue, the day of Skype is gone or going. Technology is moving on and no longer do we need to have a separate client running on our machines sucking up resources. Rather than opening Skype every time we log in, most of us probably organise a time to meet some other way (email?) and only open up the client when we're expecting or making a call. So for the most part, we leave the phone off the hook.

There's another big problem. Skype is a single use application. It's only used for video calling (or voice calling landlines - something that's probably cheaper through VOIP services like calling cards). If you want to talk to someone, they've got to have a Skype account as well (and the software).

Enter in an age of Web 2.0. Skype teams up with Facebook. Google have hangouts. Google Hangouts is actually quite a lot of fun. I had a play when I was on Google+. It has functionality that's paid for in Skype (video conferencing). So in a Google world, you have to have a Google account.

Meanwhile, the Skype and Facebook connection isn't as integrated as it could be. Instead of having the one account to rule them all, you have a separate Facebook account and a separate Skype account which are then linked.

All of this aside, we've still got the problem of vendor lock out. Say I have a Google account and I want to talk to someone via video conferencing. I would then need to make sure that person has a Google account as well. Likewise for Skype. If I object to anything within the GoogleSphere or Skype, my choices are severely limited.

So the choice of which one to use isn't about functionality. Instead, it's about a brand name. Which brand name do the people you want to contact use?

I think those patented codecs need usable alternatives. The choice of client. If a central account managing piece needs to exist, then it needs to conform to open standards that any developer can design their software around.

We've got examples of this working. The Document Foundation seeks to create a set of open standards for documents giving the user the choice of word processor/spreadsheet etc. Unfortunately, it's uptake has been... impeded.

In 2007, Microsoft included support for ODF files but it's implementation did not adhere to the standards and thus, showed ODF in a negative light (this has happened before with Microsoft's implementation of OpenGL in a particular version of Windows - I think I have the reference in a book somewhere that I've leant to a friend. I'm sure if I had the book I'd be able to find a reference online to the particular events).

The other thing I'd really love to happen is the same sort of sharing permissions on a Google Doc being applied to video conferencing. Only require the person initiating the call to have an account on a particular service. Allow others to join using nothing more than a link.

So when we start seeing beyond a brand name, we can also look at functionality. What would you like it to look like? I think this is incredibly important as it opens the doors for progress. Instead of being complacent and taking what we're given, we can start to imagine a less vendor locked in future which is accessible to anyone.

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