Quick Lessons From Losing an iPad

A couple of weeks ago I forgot my iPad on the train.

After getting over the initial overwhelming feelings of idiocy on my part, I started thinking a bit deeper about the consequences and whether I had taken sensible precautions to mitigate those consequences.

The Problems

A couple of problems dawned on me:

  1. I had lost something that is quite valuable (one colleague told me with some measure of sincerity: “Nice gift for somebody else”. I don’t spend €700 casually and was distressed about losing something that is worth that much.
  2. More important than the device is the data that is on it. There are two potential problems here. The first is that you might have lost access to data that is important to you. The second is that somebody else suddenly might have gained access to your data. Both of these made me feel very uncomfortable.
  3. Finally, losing the device made it clear to me that all iPads look alike, especially in their locked state, and that there is no way for an honest finder to know who the rightful owner of the device is.

The Solutions

So here is my advice on how to minimize these problems. I recommend for you to apply these immediately if you haven’t done so already.

  • Fully insure your device (I had actually done this). Even though this is prohibitively expensive and even though you really shouldn’t insure devices if you can afford to replace them yourself (those insurance companies have to live of something), I still think it is a good idea as there are so many things that can go wrong with it, just through bad luck. I take the cost of the insurance into account when buying the tablet and amortize that over two to three years.
  • Ask yourself this question: Could I throw my current device in the water, walk over to any random computer with a browser and an Internet connection and access all the data that matters to me from there? If next, you would get a new device, would you be able to easily get that data back on the device? If your answer is no to either of these questions you should change your strategy. Some people might think I ask for too much as they are happy to backup to iTunes. I prefer to be as independent from iTunes as possible (I only use it for updates) and think most people would still lose a couple of days of data if all they had was an iTunes backup. Even before I lost my iPad, I was ok in this area. Here are some of the things that I have done: I like to have all my data in apps that keep both a local copy (for when I am offline) and transparently sync to the cloud. For email, contacts and my calendar that is easy: I use Google Apps for my domain and set it up to sync (you have your own domain right?). My task are managed with ToodleDo. My news reader of choice is Google Reader. All my notes are done with Momo. I have copies of my most important documents synced in a Dropbox folder. Dropbox also provides the syncing architecture for my iThoughts mindmaps and for the large collection of PDFs I have sitting the Goodreader app. I buy my ebooks DRM free and read them with Goodreader or I get books as a service through the Amazon Kindle bookstore. Apple now allows easy redownload of the apps you have purchased in the past.
  • Make sure you set a passcode on your iPad (this I had done too). I’ve set it up so that it only comes on after a couple of minutes of being in standby mode. This why I get to keep some of the instant on and off convenience, but also know that if somebody steals it from my bag they won’t just be able to access my data. One thing I am still not sure about is how secure the passcode lock is. What happens when people try to connect a stolen iPad to their iTunes? Is there access to the data?
  • Find my iPad

    Find my iPad

    Apple provides a free Find my iPad service. I had never bothered to set it up, but have since found out that it literally only takes two minutes to do. Once you have it installed you will be able to see where your iPad is, send a message to the iPad and even wipe its contents remotely. All of this can only work once your iPad has an Internet connection though.

  • Finally, I have downloaded a free iPad wallpaper and have used GIMP to add my contact information on top of the wallpaper file (making sure not to put the info underneath the dialog that asks for the passcode. This way, when somebody with good intentions finds the iPad they will have an easy way to find out who the rightful owner is.

To finish the story: a couple of days after I lost my iPad I called the railway company to see if they had some news for me (I had asked them to try and locate it as soon as I realized it was missing). They told me a fellow traveler had brought in my iPad to the service desk and that I could pick it up. Unfortunately, I have no way of thanking this honest person, other than by writing this post.

What on Earth is RSS Cloud?

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about a new technology using Linux Format‘s “What on Earth is …?” style (see example on Android). We did not agree on a particular technology and we would get bonus points for a nice pixellated image to accompany the post. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

RSS Cloud

RSS Cloud

RSS Cloud? I am getting a bit tired of this cloud computing trend.
Yes, I also think that cloud computing is slightly over hyped. However RSS Cloud is not about cloud computing. It is about bringing real-time updates to the RSS protocol.

I have only just grasped what RSS is. Only the technorati seem to use it, normal computer users have no idea.
Indeed: most people have no idea what RSS is or how they can use it. They still visit all their favourite news sites one after the other to check whether something new has been posted. However even people that don’t understand it often use it. If you download podcasts through iTunes you are using RSS technology. Furthermore RSS is the technological glue for many of the popular mashup sites. You don’t need to understand a technology for it to be useful to you.

Fair enough, so how would you explain RSS Cloud to a lay person?
Sites that have content that changes often (think blogs or news sites) publish an RSS feed on their server. Whenever a new item is posted it will be added to the feed, usually dropping the oldest item from the list at the same time. If you are interested in those news items you can use a news reader (also called an aggregator) and tell this news reader to check whether new items are added to the feed, if there is an update, then the news reader can retrieve it. A news reader typically does this every fifteen minutes or so. This means the news can be 15 minutes old when you get it. RSS Cloud makes it possible for news readers to subscribe to the updates of a feed. Whenever something new is added the feed, the RSS Cloud server notifies all subscribers so that they can pick up the content immediately: in real-time.

Another buzz word! What is the benefit of real-time? Can’t people just wait a couple of minutes before they get their news?
People listen to the radio so that they can hear the sports results in real-time. Weren’t you upset when all your friends knew about Michael Jackson’s death earlier than you, because they heard it on Twitter? The success of Twitter search and trending topics shows that people want to know about stuff as it happens and not fifteen minutes later.

Now that you mention it: Twitter indeed works in real-time. Why do we need something else, what’s wrong with Twitter?
Twitter actually also uses a “polling” model for its content. Each single Twitter client will have to access the Twitter API to see whether something new has been posted by the people you are following. This is a huge waste of computer resources. All these clients asking for new information even if there is none. It is a model that does not scale well. A “push” model actually works much better in this respect.

Oh, so it is a bit like the difference between getting your email once every couple of minutes and getting it immediately on your Blackberry?
Yes, that is a nice analogy. The Blackberry uses push email. You get the email as soon as it hits the server, because it is pushed to your phone. Traditional email clients, like Outlook, go to the server once every couple of minutes to see whether something new is there.

So what large company is trying to push this idea?
This time it is not a big company trying to establish a standard or protocol. The RSS Cloud protocol is designed by Dave Winer who also drafted the original RSS specification.

Dave Winer, isn’t that the guy that loves to rub people the wrong way?
He is a controversial character and is certainly very vocal and opinionated. At the same time, he is a true pioneer and one of those people that embody the values of the Internet. His vision for Cloud RSS is not about blogging. Instead, he wants to provide a decentralised architecture for microblog messages. To him the fact that Twitter centralises all the microblogging activity is a real vulnerability. His goal is to create a network that can work alongside Twitter without being in the control of a single company.

Talking about companies. I suddenly remember hearing about a similar technology. One of these cute names with many vowels?
You probably mean PubSubHubbub. This is a Google sponsored protocol that has already been implemented in Google Reader.

Great: another standards war. VHS versus Betamax, RSS versus Atom, Britney versus Whitney. Will we never learn?
This shouldn’t become a problem. RSS and Atom for example live happily next to each other now. It is easy to implement both. PubSubHubbub has a slightly different goal in comparison to Cloud RSS. It focuses mainly on blogging and associates itself with Feed Burner. The two technologies should be able to live next to each other, at least that is what Dave says.

Well, let’s hope he and you are right. By the way, isn’t this Cloud RSS just another sneaky way to measure subscribers, generate some statistics and store information about where they are from and what they are doing?
It is true that an RSS reader will have to register itself with the the RSS cloud for the protocol to work. However the RSS cloud forgets about the RSS reader if the registration isn’t renewed every 24 hours. You also have to remember that many people will use readers that do not support RSS Cloud. There are much better ways to get statistics.

Aren’t you a learning technology person? What does this have to do with learning?
I am very interested in Cloud RSS because I am a learning technologist! Like all new Internet based technologies it will only be a matter of time before some smart developer finds a way of using this in some unexpected fashion. Remember:
technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice! Just think of what kind of course delivery models RSS has made possible: the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course could not run without it for example.

You are a Moodle evangelist. Does Moodle support RSS Cloud yet?
I haven’t checked, but I doubt it.  It is very new and the Moodle developers are focusing on getting Moodle 2.0 to a beta release. However, I am sure that in the future, parts of Moodle will move towards real-time. Imagine how Cloud RSS could be used to create activity streams or notify people of comments on their work. It could effectively bridge the gap between asynchronous activities like discussion forums and assignments and synchronous activities like web conferencing.

Ok, you have managed to pique my interested. Where can I go if I want to start using it?
There are two ways of using it. First, you can make your own feeds RSS Cloud enabled. If you have blog at WordPress.com this is automatically the case. You can opt-in if you host your own WordPress blog. The other way of using it would be to have an RSS reader that supports the protocol. Currently only River2 supports it and Lazyfeed has announced that it will support it too. Only web based readers can support it, as the RSS Cloud server needs to be able to ping the reader with the update.

Are there any sites that can tell me a bit more?
The current home of the protocol is http://www.rsscloud.org. Here you will find news about the protocol and an implementation guide. The Wikipedia entry could be better. Why don’t you help fixing it?

A SnapAsk Widget for Symbian S60

Answers in a snap

Answers in a snap

My favourite gadget of all time is the Psion 5MX. EPOC, its operating system, was sheer genius. It had a great interface and was a joy to use. EPOC became Symbian S80 and when the lack of Internet functionality of the Psion became too bothersome I decided to switch to a Nokia 9500, then to a Nokia E90 and now I own a Nokia E71 with Symbian S60 3rd edition.

Suddenly I find myself stuck with a smartphone that has an operating system which doesn’t leverage the keyboard of the device and is in many ways quite clunky (some options are hidden more than five layers deep). However I much prefer Symbian to the other available platforms: the iPhone is extremely nice but married to iTunes and locked down, Palm hasn’t been resurrected yet, Windows Mobile is a joke (using a pen is ridiculous in this day and age), the Neo Freerunner is too experimental, Maemo doesn’t allow me to use a SIM card and all the phones running Android that currently exist have no battery life.

I like to get the maximum potential out of all the technology that I use. I have spent quite a bit of time setting up my phone exactly the way I like it, so that I have quick access to information on the go (see for example the custom mobile start page that I created). In due time I will write a post about the programs that I use on my phone. In this post I want to focus on a small widget that I developed yesterday evening.

A couple of months ago I read a post on Lifehacker about a great service for people who own a mobile device with email capabilities: SnapAsk allows you to send an email to ask – at – snapask -dot- com with a keyword and a query in the subject line. SnapAsk will then reply to your email with an answer to your query. So “wiki Symbian” will return the Wikipedia page for Symbian and “news economic crisis” will return an email with relevant news articles. Some of the keywords are a bit US centric and don’t return proper results for me in the Netherlands (e.g. weather, traffic or flight), others are quite innovative: Know some words of a song, but can’t remember the name or who sang it? Send an email with the subject “lyrics A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of” to Snapask and you will be textually Rickrolled.

Using SnapAsk on my phone proved more difficult than I had hoped. I had to either type in the email address in the To: field or select it from my contacts, remember (the hardest part!) and type the keyword I wanted to use and finally type the query. I also learnt the other day that Nokia has decided to support widget development on their Symbian platform. So I gave in to my tinkering spirit and committed to trying to write a little widget which would make it easier to use SnapAsk on my phone.

I set the following criteria for the widget:

  • It should require the least amount of possible clicks
  • It should be as close to self explanatory as possible
  • I would have to be done with it in a couple of hours
The UI of the widget

The UI of the widget

At first I thought I would create links for each keyword and an input field for the query. The user would first click on the link with the keyword, then write the query and finally click on a link or press a button to start the email application. Later I realised that I could eliminate one step by making the keywords buttons. This way the user would only have to type in the query and select the correct keyword.

This idea required some Javascript. I have been wanting to try jQuery, so I wrote the initial implementation using that library. When I tried loading the page on my phone I learnt that jQuery seemingly was not supported by Nokia’s built-in browser. I then decided to try and write it with normal Javascript code and this worked perfect. With some CSS I managed to get the input field to be the full width of the top of the page (where the cursor is likely to be). I also made the field higher by increasing the font-size property, so that it is easy to get your cursor on it, in case it isn’t. The only thing I couldn’t manage to do was get the field to auto-focus on load. It seems that Nokia doesn’t want to support that function.

All I had to do, after finishing the HTML file (with inline CSS and Javascript), was create an XML file called info.plist with the name of the widget and its version number and an icon.png file of 88×88 pixels. I then put these three files into a folder, zipped it and changed the extension to .wgz.

The widget as an installed app

The widget as an installed app

The great thing about these widgets is that they install like any other Symbian program and can, by default, be found in the Installations directory on your phone. Ajax can be used and apparently some Javascript methods exist that allow you to map certain functions to the softkeys of the phone.

I really like how standardised web technology is becoming. This widget should run on any other device with a standards based browser and if you keep the structure of the page simple and clean you can expect each individual mobile browser to display the page optimally.

My employer has standardised on Symbian smartphones for all their consultants. It should be relatively easy for them to develop a highly relevant widget that will enable me to do my work better and more efficiently. I have to say I am bit puzzled about the fact that Nokia is not pushing this concept a bit harder. Where is the Nokia Widget Store?

I would love for people to use the widget and give me some feedback on whether they like it:

Download the Widget
(or try in your browser if you don’t have a Symbian phone)

If you know of any other interesting widgets for Symbian please let me know!

Learning 2008: Mashups & Widgets are the Future of the LMS

“Mashups & Widgets are the Future of the LMS” was the title of the talk by Bryan Polivka of the Laureate Higher Education Group. This is a group that runs 36 universities over the world. All of these universities have different methodologies, styles and cultures. It is Bryan’s challenge to find solutions that work for all of these universities.

Bryan outlined his problem for us: The learning model is determined by how content connects to students connect to faculty connect to assessment. Their universities are still in the traditional LMS paradigm. This is a problem because we now have all these new things like podcasts, mobile phones, 3D worlds, social sites, etc.

His solution to this problem is to go back to the basics. What is the core of what they want to do with learning technology? According to Bryan they decided that Content – Students – Assessments form the core interaction. This is what should be supported by the LMS, the rest can be flexible and can be set up in multiple ways.

He then went on to highlight the widgetisation of the web (his example was Pageflakes). It used to be the case that the Internet was laid out according to the physical metaphor of the web page: a virtual location. You moved from place to place by switching web pages. That infrastructure is in the process of being broken up: you now have the possibility to pull in data from all over the web and display it in a single location (look at popurls as an example).

An LMS should support this through its architecture. Bryan gave a quick demo of Asiatrac Learning Studio. This LMS is created in Thailand and allows embedding of all of its contents as a widget on another site.

The courses in the Laureate group’s universities are designed through a very solid design process. This allows them to have a lot of high quality content (much video and audio) in their repository of digital assets. The repository allows for tracking and can display its assets in an LMS, but also in a Facebook app or through the iTunes university. All they need is to make sure the student authenticates. The university is now in control of what options they will give their students and they can experiment with having the content only available in Blackboard, or sharing it more widely capitalising on the site that is currently en vogue with their students.

I find this a very interesting strategy and love how Bryan managed to conceptualise his whole presentation very clearly. It would be great for current LMS’ to have more of an architecture that would support its contents being displayed elsewhere. However, I do see two issues that could use some more thought:

  • Content is seen here as broadcasted material (audio, video, interactive e-learning modules, etc.) and not as pedagogically designed activities. Where is the student as a constructor of knowledge in this story? How do you facilitate and moderate student interaction and collaboration?
  • How do you ensure that the learning experience doesn’t become too fragmented? The British Open University has explicitly chosen a strategy in which all the learning takes place inside the LMS (or as they call it: the VLE, compare Niall Sclater). This way they have full control over the design of the learning experience and are able to optimally facilitate their learners with a unified and clear interface.

I would love to explore this topic further. Does anybody have any pointers?