More from Unsheffield

I promised to share more of what happened at Unsheffield over the weekend so I’m living up to that promise.

Sunday at Unsheffield was certainly a quieter day but it was still an engaging day.  A few heads were aching after a fairly decent Saturday night of drinking but those of us who were there at the start of the day soon dived in to the discussions taking place.

First of the sessions I attended was on the rise of the netbook, and the issues associated with getting non-tech people to adopt (and be happy with) Linux operating systems. We collectively identified three primary user classes of netbook owners:
1.  Tech heads and tech enthusiasts;
2.  Business people needing a highly portable device; and
3.  Students.
We also decided that there were effectively three different versions of netbook:
(i) Good battery life, small (often solid state) hard drive, small screen;
(ii) Reasonable battery life, average hard drive and avergage screen; and
(iii) Poor battery life, large hard drive and usually larger screen.

It wasn’t hard to determine that tech enthusiasts are not so terribly worried about adopting Linux – indeed they were keen to use.  But even among the tech enthusiasts there ws a general consensus that using online applications wasn’t terribly effective and a small hard drive did limit usability greatly.  Even with a highly efficient operating system like Linux with Open Office and other open source software, the smaller hard drive netbooks effectively forced users into treating the device as a surf’n’turf (web search and email reading) device.

Among the business users there was also a consensus that Linux is okay but unless you can provide enough of the software options needed by business, and unless the operating system was essentially a Windows clone, it wasn’t attractive.  I pointed out my own little netbook runs on WinXP but I have virtually all opn source software sitting on top of that – Open Office, GIMP, Fileziller, and so on.  But having an XP base allows me to make my clients feel comfortable because the basic infrastructure looks essentially the same. Of course having a Windows machine means you need a large hard drive and a lot of RAM.  And the payoff is a short battery life.  Ambient power devices, or at least wireless power pads again were raised as possible solutions to that weakness in design.

The biggest opportunity for Linux design then, seemed to be in the education market.  And support from school boards for open source architecture adds weight to this niche.  It was generally agreed that usability design and product testing should focus on the education sector and that it be recognised that working offline is still a major need among netbook users. Assuming cloud access is simply unfeasible, even in major urban centres.

The next session I attended was on social media consultancy, taglined ‘the profession that daren’t speak its name’.  Apparently I was the only participant in the session who was prepared to descrbe myself as a social media consultnt.  But the general consensus was that the notion of social media consultancy was problematic, partly because so many people have jumped on the social media bandwagon and are damaging the reputation of people who are genuinely experienced technologists, and partly because there was a sense of disconnect between ‘social media’ and ‘consultancy’.  Some views were that social media can’t be all of what you do.  Others said that consultancy doesn’t lend itself to social media because it assumes a ‘drop-in’ model of interaction where social media requires sustained relationship development.  I countered on both points, saying that social media in its entirety referred to all technologies through which relationships are forged and maintained, thus social media can comfortably exist as a niche sector, and that consultancy is about training individuals who are going to be developing relationships, not simply setting up accounts or user IDs on various platforms and spamming people.  A social media consultant is someone who considers both short and long term goals of an organisation, and develops the best strategy for humanising the organisation, as well as assisting an organisation to move from broadcast-model communication, to collaborative development of products, ideas and opportunities.  It’s not a PR role, nor is it an advertising role.  It’s not a purely communications role, nor is it a market research or product development role.  It’s instead someone who understands strategy and technology, education/training and changes in consumer behaviour.  That’s a highly specialised individual and requires substantial skill.  The room agreed, but the problem naturally arose: wha do we do about all the social media douchebags out there?

Of course the obvious suggestion was a professional association, and we all groaned collectively at the notion of bureaucratising something that inherently shouldn’t need bureaucracy.  Eventually we all agreed that we’re never going to eliminate the poor social media consultants from the sector just as you cannot entirely eliminate the poor practitioners in any field.  But organisations that are considering social media consultancy advice need to do a reference check on practitioners and actually use social media to determine the validity of the consultant’s claim to expertise. Access former customers, current partners and current projecvts to see just how reliable their claims are.

The next session I attended was an open rant and there were several issues I’m unable to cover here, but perhaps it’s best summarised as: don’t get friends to do work for you, and youthful eagerness should be encouraged but tempered with a healthy dose of realism. And after this session I attended a live website analysis session which was fun, but I’m waiting on the results to post about that separately.

After lunch, I attended a session focused on developing a pilot project on open business collaboration.  A fascinating concept, Jay Cousins is trying to build a methodology for prototyping a product and developing a repeatable process for commercialisation in a manner that is reflective of open source software development.  There’s no ‘platform’ for engagement as such, but tasks in the development of a product will be shared to the broad business community and allocated on the basis of volunteering and skills, not on direct investment. In return, contributors to a product will share in the profits.  It’s effectively a community building project, but instead of building something on a physical site, it’s building a product or service that can then be sold through mainstream (or even new public) distrubution channels.  And the expertise of the collective can grow as new product options come to light.

Amidst this discussion the question was asked: where do the product ideas come from?  We noted that ideas could simply be posted to a site, almost in reverse of the instructables or etsy sites, so people are asking for a product to be made, rather than showing how it’s done.  There was also the suggestion that in business, a bunch of organisations like Google allow their workers to spend time developing projects which often don’t come to light.  If these ideas could be shared in the collective business development interface, then perhaps some outside minds could think of better ways of executing on projects and make these products profitable.

I’m particularly interested in this project, though of course I can see many potential challenges.  Competition in the marketplace often involves first mover advantage and in-confidence product development, so this project would be always faced with a balancing act between protecting the competitiveness and potential profitability of products that come through its doors, and being open about the specifics of product design and branding. But I’m hopeful the collaboration methodologies research coming out of our Amplified work may help bring this ambitious project to life.

The final session I attended at Unsheffield was focused on what can be done with 100Mbps broadband connectivity.  The example of the South Yorkshire Digital Region project was put forward as a test case of what organisations should be doing once this connection becomes available. I have to sa this session frustrated me a bit.  The answers to what you do with 100Mbps are actually easy: you just augment what you’re doing now and add value to the real world experiences that are out there. But what is more irritating, is that all these augmentations can be done now. I’ve personaly been involved in some sentional augmented reality projects that have used extremely simple technology to realise.  It’s not bandwidth you need.  It’s a network of people and businesses to make that happen. But as the topic was focused on what we can do with 100Mbps (not, as I was wont to ask, whether we needed it), we had to stay on track.

There was some debate in the room about whether video conferencing is effective under a 2Mbps connection or less. I argue it can, and is quite effective under 512Kbps connections, let alone 2Mbps.  The reason why few people actually use it has far more to do with the fact that they don’t need or want to use it.  One (very reasonable) point was that you can’t connect via VPN to high-bandwidth corporate intranets effectively under less than 5Mbps, but I had to point out that very few people who work in these large corporate environments can easily work from home anyway, and as a sum total of a residential area, it’s likely to affect a very small percentage of the market.  Perhaps depressingly, the most obvious use of 100Mbps connections was flawless access to BBC iPlayer (passive media) and  online gaming.  But is this truly something we can afford to pay billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to facilitate? I left that session rather troubled, I have to say.

But in general, I found Unsheffield to be a superb event on both days. The ideas of Day 1 and the debates of Day 2 were both stimulating and enlightening.  I look forward to meeting again with many of the attendees at future technical events in the UK.

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