Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

We'll all be watching it on the internet instead - and the advertisers will be chasing online eyeballs. The UK is now the first economy where advertising spend on the internet has outstripped TV ad spend according to a report in the Guardian (online) newspaper.

Will this change the nature of the internet? Possibly - more obtrusive advertising possibly, the decline of amateurism as big bucks crowd out the mom n pop sites, a bonanza for SEO agencies as we all scrabble for Google page one, even more noise and less insight ...

The pace of the decline of 'traditional' TV will quicken as will the growth of the 'synergy' between TV and its online delivery mechanisms. In the UK the Murdoch war on the BBC will grow noisier. It might well be that the real target of Murdoch is the BBC's online presence, which has consistently set high online standards.

Murdoch's abandonment of Labour has more to do with Murdoch's strategy to eliminate competition than it has to do with politics per se, and as the Tories cosy up to Murdoch, they might just throw the old man the bones of the BBC's online output as quid pro quo.

What is certain is that we are witnessing the decline, or perhaps the downgrading, of a once omnipotent medium. For this reason alone, the revolution will not be televised, even if it is taking place within that medium.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hello Vignette, Goodbye Red Dot

Sometimes one has to feel sorry for a customer base. They buy a product (a difficult and expensive process in the first place), stick with it despite its quirks and its sometimes boneheaded refusal to work, train their staff to use it, and develop systems around it, and integrate it into the core of their business processes. Then, the product gets retired, and the whole shebang starts all over again.

This is undoubtedly the roller coaster ride that some customers of Open Text must feel they've been enjoying/enduring* (* delete as appropriate) in the last couple of years. First Open Text buys the Red Dot Content Management System and retires their previous LiveLink WCM. Not to worry, existing customers are reassured about licence transfers and an easy migration path.

Then Open Text go and do it all over again! This time they buy Vignette and are now retiring Red Dot sometime after 2010. Instead, a hybrid 'Red Vignette' will be unleashed upon their customer base, again with reassurances about licence transfers and easy migrations. This is just as I warned in an earlier posting.

Any migration will be difficult and so will any hybridisation - Vignette is Java based while Red Dot is an ASP/.NET application. Open Text talk of using Vignette as the backend and Red Dot as the front end - great, you now need .Net & Java developers on board if you want to customise your implementation!

So, perhaps your company is forward looking and you decided to train some staff in .NET in order to prepare the way for the eventual migration from LiveLink WCM to Red Dot. Now, lets send them on a Java course as well so that we're prepped for when Red Vinegar comes around. Few companies have such training largesse in the current economic climate - thanks again Open Text.

Does it seem like somebody is taking the piss? You might say this is a valuable lesson that the licence cost is just the start of the expense of owning software. Still, you might think that its also time to start looking at Open Source solutions like Alfresco - which is both an EDRMS and a WCM. Afterall, what's the worst that Open Source could do to you?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Institutional Memory

Recently I was watching an episode of the West Wing, where they deal with the 'institutional memory' of the Bartlett administration and the Santos transition. There is indeed a White House Transition Project for this very purpose, since the US Federal government does not have a permanent civil service in the same was as the UK. New US administrations have always faced the problem of inheriting policies, problems and agendas from the previous incumbents without always knowing the full 'ins and outs' and reasons why certain decisions were made. The government can therefore be handicapped in its approach to these issues.

The importance of the 'institutional memory' was further highlighted to me the other day listening to Robert Peston interviewing the head of Barclays Bank, John Varley. Varley, in response to Peston's question as to why Barclays didn't suffer as much as its rivals in the recent financial meltdown, explicitly referenced the bank's 'institutional memory' of the near catastrophic over exposure to the property market in the early 1990s.

So how do you capture, nurture and learn from your company's 'institutional memory'? For small or family owned businesses, this may not be a problem, but for larger organisations, with higher staff turnover, this can be a problem. After all, when somebody leaves the company, they may take with them 30 years experience and knowledge with them, and the incumbent, especially if an outsider, may be hamstrung without this knowledge and experience.

One method to institutionalise that knowledge is via the exit interview. This has always struck me as too little, too late. Any manager will tell you that the personnel, the human capital, are the most important part of the company, but very little is done to capture and institutionalise their knowledge as part of an ongoing and rationalised process.

Another method is via documentation of decision meeting - minute books, and the like. As a one-time historian, I am very aware how quickly the informational context is lost. I've read many minute books, the context and meaning clear to all who attended but vague and often illusive to readers a generation later.

So, how do we capture the meaning, context and lessons of daily working practice, experience, knowledge and the rationale behind the decisions made? This is something I'll be turning my attention to later.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Offline Advertising is dead - right?

Once upon a time, not long ago, in an office not far from where I'm sitting now, it was once declared that offline advertising was dead! The internet, & Google in particular, had killed it off, it was said.

Well, I'm a skeptical skeptic. Today I received a magazine & out popped a flier from .... Google! That's right, Google is using a traditional marketing flier to advertise the benefits of advertising online with Google! Hmmm, seems the obituary for offline marketing was a little premature?

Simple lesson - if your prospective customers are not using the internet, then you have to use other means to attract them.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Magento How To - override Product Search

We are currently developing a heavily customised rollout of Magento for a client. As part of the modifications, we had to customise the product search within the Admin area. In Magento, this can be done using the 'override' functionality - meaning that core code is left untouched and upgrades shouldn't result in your modifications being overwritten.

To help others get a handle on the correct approach to take when doing this, we've published a guide on the Magento wiki - you can read it here. Please check it out and chip in with any corrections or improvements.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Vignette vs Red Dot = Open Source!

The content management sector has witnessed the start of a consolidation trend that will ultimately leave consumers wondering where their best options lie. Recently Autonomy purchased Interwoven, and now Open Text has purchased Vignette.

In both these cases there had been a fair degree of overlap between the companies. The result is that certain platforms and software are retired. When Open Text bought Red Dot, the casualty was Open Text's own web content management system (WCM or CMS) LiveLink WCM PS. Open Text has since announced the sunset status of LiveLink WCM PS and is offering existing customers licence offers and migration assistance to move to the Red Dot WCM platform.

Now the question is which CMS will Open Text champion - Red Dot or Vignette's rival WCM? Vignette is often considered the more 'enterprise' or 'higher end' offering, but the recent marketing effort undertaken by Open Text to persuade its user base to switch to Red Dot might suggest that Red Dot will win out.

However, if I was either an Open Text or Vignette user, this lack of clarity would be troubling me, especially if I was in the market to replace my existing WCM. My worry would be that I might back the wrong horse and find myself purchasing and implementing a 'legacy' application.

There are alternatives, of course, and open source will be seen by many as the increasingly stable option - less risk of the system being mothballed after a company takeover, the freedom to implement and customise as required, as well as the lower start up costs. Open Source means that you can do more with less, with a greater sense of security that your chosen platform will survive and mature.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Alfresco UK Meetup

Yesterday I attended the Alfresco UK meetup at Sun's UK HQ in Camberley. There were several presentations from customers & partners, as well as from John Newton, CTO & John Powell, CEO of Alfresco.

The elephant in the room was Oracle of course. Both Newton & Powell addressed themselves to concerns about the consequences for Open Source of the proposed Oracle acquisition of Sun. Overnight Oracle would become one of the biggest players in the Open Source arena, even if only indirectly through its ownership of Java & MySQL. Newton was upbeat about the future of both under Oracle, not least because MySQL is fully open source - if we don't like what Oracle are doing, we can use the code to create another 'MySQL'. That said, the fact that were we talking about it illustrates the degree of uncertainty that Oracle's move has caused in the Open Source world.

This uncertainty has consquences. In uncertain times, companies need reassurance when making technology choices. Oracle need to make their position crystal clear with regard to both Java & MySQL - we need actions as well as words. This is a pressing need, because the global recession is actually an opportunity for Open Source solutions to illustrate that they enable companies/Govt departments to do more with less.

The best and most interesting presentation illustrated the last point above. A representative from Islington Council gave an overview of their experience of using Alfresco as a document management and intranet platform. Alfresco was originally thrown into the mix at the requirements analysis stage to act as a 'sanity check' against the three EDRM solutions that were already in use at Islington. In the end only Alfesco met all the requirements - Islington adopted Open Source almost by chance.

Only after adopting and using Alfresco did the opportunities that Alfresco offers for shared publishing, collaborative team working, project dashboards, community forums, etc become apparent. It was then that Islington decided to use Alfresco for their new intranet. Since then their adoption of Alfresco has repaid handsomely.

So, in consequence, perhaps Oracle's proposed acquisition of Sun (& Java & MySQL) won't have any real downsides for Open Source, but we need this confirming asap, lest more Islington scenarios are missed due to uncertainty in the Open Source landscape.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Dawn Fades as Sun goes down

Oracle, the database software vendor, has bought Sun Microsystems. Sun specialised in server hardware and software, but was also behind the Java programming language and various Java related tools and initiatives. Fairly recently Sun had also bought MySQL, the open source database.

So, what are the consequences for us of this acquisition? Well, most open source software uses MySQL as the primary database. Joomla!, Zen-Cart, Magento - to name just three - all use MySQL as the default database. You can add Drupal, and virtually every other open source project to this list.

The key question then is, will Oracle continue to support MySQL or will it allow it to wither as a direct competitor? Is MySQL actually considered to be a competitor by Oracle? The answer to this question will no doubt be a key influence on Oracle's eventual decision.

This decision has consequences for most of us, either directly or indirectly. If our business, website, etc, use open source software, then we may be faced in the future with having to change our database if MySQL goes down. The obvious open source candidate to replace MySQL is Postgress, considered superior by many. However, it is not clear how widespread is the hosting provision for Postgress - almost all hosting plans offer MySQL as a very affordable option, yet Postgress is still not offered by most hosting companies.

There is the real possibility that a fair proportion of open source software will have to be tweaked to use another database (Postgress) and that is again problematical if Postgress provision is limited.

Almost certainly Oracle's acquisition of Sun means we'll see, 'A change of scene, a change of style' with regards to the open source landscape. Whether we'll benefit from this is yet another question.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Joy of Joomla!

My Leicester Web Design agency has been using the Joomla! CMS (content management system) for at least three years. In that time Joomla! has gone from strength to strength. And so have the 3rd party extensions available. With this platform we've been able to satisfy just about all of our customer's requirements.

One criticism levelled at Joomla!, however, is its inability to accommodate deeply nested content structures. Joomla! organises content along these lines - Home > Section > Category >Pages - just three levels deep. Content Management Systems like Drupal, LiveLink WCM, etc, can handle unlimited nested content levels. The next major release of Joomla! (1.6) will address this 'deficiency'.

However, this 'limitation' of Joomla! is actually one of its strengths! The Holy Grail of web navigation is that no content is more than three clicks away. Joomla!, either by accident or design, reinforces this best practice.

My own starting point is that if your content is more than three levels deep, then you're probably replicating organisational structures rather than putting your customer's requirements first. Therefore, Joomla!'s content 'limitation' is actually a perfect reason to reconsider your information architecture to make your content more accessible and more easily navigable.

So, whatever the size of your organisation and its website, Joomla! is a real candidate to help you manage the website.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How to procure a new CMS

In my previous post, I railed against the PQQ for upping the cost of software procurement and for favouring the larger suppliers/vendors. Well, how should a company or local govt buy their new CMS (content management system)? The following is based upon Kaushik's recommendations (p.104-7) in Web Analytics - an hour a day, & my own experience.
  1. Appoint a project manager (PM) and make them responsible for the purchasing decision. This PM should also be the person who is primarily responsible for managing the company/council website. They must have the support of the CIO, Council Leader, etc.
  2. The PM should appoint a small committee (2-3) of people who will use the CMS on a daily basis. One member should be technically competent if possible.
  3. Write an outline technical requirements document.
  4. Based on the expertise and experience of the committee members, select 3-4 systems that you believe will meet your outline requirements. At least one of these systems should be open source.
  5. Set up test environments and install each system - spend several months getting to know each system, testing them, extending them, implementing a test solution (a special form or content type, etc).
  6. When you have selected the tool that best fits the requirements, is easiest to use and has the potential to grow/keep pace with your organisation, then write a PQQ for a company to implement your chosen CMS. Don't write the PQQ in a way that favours the larger suppliers - a small/local company may provide a better, more tailored service.
  7. Inform the business that you have chosen a tool and supplier for the new CMS.
At each point in the above process you might say you don't have the expertise in-house - to setup test environments, for example. Well, appoint a company that can do that for you - setting up a server to host a CMS should only take a day. If this is the situation, you should probably go for a hosted solution. If you don't have in-house expertise, buy it in. Money spent up front now will save even more money down stream later.

The benefits of the above approach are:
  1. That you get to play with software before purchasing. Too often you only learn of the problems after you've spent loads of money & its then too late to change supplier or system.
  2. By making a named individual (the PM) responsible for the purchasing decision, you encourage a sense of ownership and responsibility for the outcome. There is less room for back covering and a greater focus on delivering benefit for the business.
  3. You limit the potential for scope creep. The inclusive approach only leads to occasional (or never) users asking for complex tweaks that dramatically increase costs for limited business benefit. You also prevent your project from being hijacked by another department working to another agenda - by keeping control your destiny remains in your own hands.
  4. Finally, the process is quicker and cheaper and the outcome should be more certain.
  5. You might also learn something about the qualities that your staff have or lack.

Do PQQs drive up the cost of software?

I recently had the frustrating task of completing a PQQ for a university looking for a replacement CMS (content management system). The PQQ was in two parts: The first was a mini technical specification, along the lines of 'can your system do x, y, z', etc. This in itself was quite a time consuming document to complete.

The second posed as a supplier competence test, and alongside the usual questions about financial probity and accounting history, were very detailed requests for costings and project timescales. For example, it asked for costings for staff training and associated budgets. Essentially, it was asking for what I considered a PID (project initiation document), which is something for a later stage, after a provider has been selected. This part of the PQQ was also very time consuming and the further I progressed, the more annoyed I became at the bureaucracy involved.

Why did this PQQ (& this is not an isolated example but a growing trend I fear) ask for so much information, information that arguably should not be requested at such an early stage? Well, the key reason I fear is fear itself - public sector workers are risk averse. The PQQ has become a back covering exercise conducted along the way to chosing the most expensive provider. After all, no one gets sacked for chosing the biggest, best and most expensive system. There is certainly no reward for saving money - budgets must be spent!

I have the benefit of having been on the other side of the PQQ process, whilst working as a consultant for a local government, so I know something about the mindset at work while drawing up these PQQs. They are written for the precise purpose to absolve the individual/department concerned from any blame for the outcome - afterall, the chosen product/supplier was the best on paper!

There is another, not unrelated dynamic at play too. After completing the PQQ I started to read Avinash Kaushik's, Web Analytics - an hour a day. Here he outlines (p.103) why PQQs (or requests for proposal) drive up the cost of (web analytics) software, largely because everybody has input into the requirements (scope creep), you then add requirements about vendor suitability, set an aggressive response deadline, and then have a committe of 'cross-functional representatives' to select a winner. As the long and expensive process ends, the
"guaranteed result is that you will almost always pick the most expansive, and usually one of the most expensive, (web analytics) solutions."
PQQs therefore are usually expensive and lead to expensive outcomes.

Thus, the PQQ becomes a vicious circle. The more extensive the PQQ becomes, the harder it is for SMEs to compete. So, these PQQs favour the larger companies, with sales teams dedicated to responding to PQQs, so SMEs are discouraged from participating because they don't have the expertise to respond to PQQs. So in turn, the procurement cost goes up - those sales teams need to be paid for.

While the PQQ may help guard against corruption and promote transparency, it also tends to engender complacency and acts to absolve those involved of having to make a real decision, one that is based upon their expertise and knowledge. Finally the PQQ also tends to lead to more expensive outcomes as it favours bigger players in the market place.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Onwards & upwards for Firefox

Firefox continues to steal market share from Internet Explorer - that's if our totally unscientific eyeball of our client's Google Analytics reports is anything to go by. Our own web design agency website shows 33% of visitors were Firefox users, with 52% using Internet Explorer (of one variant or another). Other sites report between 11-30% of visitors using Firefox.

This still leaves IE as the majority browser but indicates the importance of website testing against other browsers, especially Firefox.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Libel and the internet

A blogger recently failed at the High Court in his attempt to sue a commentator on his blog for defamation. The nub of the judge's ruling was that the fact that the blogger left the 'offending' comment on his site for a considerable time, mitigated against the claim that the comments caused 'substantial upset and distress'.

The implication here is clear. If you feel that comments on your website are defamatory, you should remove them asap (common sense really) - this is particularly important if someone else complains that comments on your website are defamatory to themselves.

So while social networking type sites, which allow users to add comments and their own content, are vulnerable to potentially libellous or defamatory material, the risk can be mitigated by careful policing of content and prompt action.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thoughts on the Credit Crunch #2

Recently Gordon Brown announced his own version of the New Deal to revive the economy. Amongst the package of measures totaling £40bn were initiatives to speed up investment in renewables such as wind and wave power. One of the stated objectives is to help secure UK energy supplies.

This is welcome news. However, it may yet be too little, too late, not least with regard to the Russian-Ukraine gas dispute. While the UK gets very little of its gas from Russia, the disruption to European gas supplies has already led to UK gas stocks being diverted to hard pressed European buyers and delayed the possibility of UK gas bills coming down anytime soon. There is a suggestion that the European companies who bought up a large slice of the UK energy generation market, would favour European consumers over their British counterparts if the gas shortages in Europe continued.

Once again this illustrates the fragility of the UK's energy security. A small 'commercial' dispute in a far away country 'of which we know nothing', has shown the vulnerability of the UK to such events.

That said, the dispute between Russia and the Ukraine is too often described as a commercial dispute that has become politicised. This is to misunderstand the situation in Russia, where there is no neat distinction between the commercial and the political. It is barely credible that Gazprom, the Russian gas company at the heart of the dispute, could have turned off the taps without the express say-so of Putin. Indeed, this dispute has all the hallmarks of an ex-imperial power trying to bring an ex-colony to heel. The gas dispute is more the smokescreen for Russia flexing her muscles.

That said, it's a perfect illustration of the need for the UK Govt to seriously and quickly overhaul UK energy policy and embark upon a massive investment programme in renewable energy supplies.