SaaS and FOSS replacing COTS?

July 25, 2007

When I logged into Elluminate for our third and final live presentation in the “Understanding and Using Social Software for GDLN” course I noticed that the installation process changed.  They had also changed a couple of features. I noticed, for example, that the maximum number of simultaneous speakers went from 4 to 6.  This reminded me of one of the handy aspects of using hosted software services — things can get better without you doing anything.  You don’t even have do an “update” or an “install”.

Most of the software we discussed during this course is “hosted” and maintained by someone else.  Another term for this is “Software as a Service” (SaaS).  Widespread adoption of fast internet access has made SaaS products much more viable.  Before software was installed on your local computer or, in larger installations, on a local area network.  Now, a provider can offer an installed software application to tens of thousands of users at the same time.

We chose to focus on a specific set of SaaS applications because they are widely available, (the ones we chose anyway) are inexpensive,  and they don’t require specialized technology skills to use.  I’m a big fan of FOSS (free and open source software) but, in general, FOSS requires having access to technical skills — programmers, system administrators, designers.  FOSS tools are sometimes offered in SaaS models but I don’t think we’ve talked about any tools that fall into this group. 

All of this is to distinguish from the previous dominant software paradigm — COTS which stands for “commercial off-the-shelf” software.  This is licensed, often “shrink-wrapped” software, you purchase.  Microsoft has made its billions selling COTS software.  Today we do well to look for SaaS and FOSS solutions before choosing a COTS or home-grown approach.

I was struck again, as I composed this post, by the importance of the jargon we use in this field.  e.g., SaaS, FOSS, COTS…  The jargon is useful and worth learning but makes life painful for people struggling to understand what is being said.  Therefore, I’m really happy with the way the GDLNSS07 glossary is coming along.  Many of the jargon terms we’ve been using are already included and defined along with some terms we haven’t even gotten to! 


More on VoIP for Web Conferencing

July 16, 2007

Two quick thoughts about VoIP for web conferencing: 1) choosing a VoIP provider and  2) headsets.

1) VoIP Services.  VoIP can be a difficult component of web conferencing.  When we have the choice, we prefer to use traditional phone conferencing for the audio component of web conferences.  However, phone conferences aren’t always a good option — they can be expensive and difficult for international and government agencies. 

For small groups, Skype can often provide satisfactory audio conferencing.  You can even use a Skype screen sharing plug-in to do the web conference. 

Larger groups (10+ participants) are tougher.  We chose Elluminate because of its VoIP support and have been pleased with the quality of the sound and ability of participants to use the audio.  Elluminate supports 4 simultaneous speakers which is more than you probably want anyway!  However, some participants have had a difficult time joining our conferences.  Elluminate has a large download and uses funky ports.  I expect the combination of download, java support, and various firewall problems are causing the headaches. 

So what other choices have we got?  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t think that Skypecast is quite ready.  If you don’t need your participants to be able to speak than Mike at my office suggests using audio broadcast tools like ShoutCast or IceCast.  These are the kinds of tools that are used for Internet radio broadcasters.

2) Headsets.  Using a headset — integrated headphone speakers and microphone — is a very good thing for higher quality VoIP.  Using your computer’s speakers and mike is unlikely to work well.  I ended up buying a Logitech USB headset which has worked fine.  Plantronics got a few shout-outs but I couldn’t find one in the stores I went too (next time I’ll order earlier online).

 We tagged a few articles with more advice with the GDLNSS07 tag


Thoughts on online workspaces

July 11, 2007

In addition to exploring tools that allow live (synchronous) interactions between people in real time such as web conferencing, instant messaging, and VoIP, we will also be exploring tools that allow people to interact on their own time (asynchronously). An example of this type of tool is an “online workspace”, which can also be referred to as an “extranet” or an “online collaboration tool.” During this course, we are demonstrating how to use an online workspace tool called Google Groups to complement our live sessions.

It allows all of us to log in on our own time and access course materials, share ideas and resources, and discuss experiences. We also think it might be a good option for GDLN affiliates to use with groups who desire a simple way to follow-up and continue sharing and collaborating after a GDLN videoconferencing event.

There are lots of different online workspace tools available – and while they share many of the same features (document management, task management, calendaring, discussions, etc.) they have different strengths and weaknesses. To make a generalization, they tend to range from “complex and powerful” too “simple and intuitive.” Some of them, such as Web Office and Central Desktop, have many of the features that one might typically find in an organizational intranet (document library, group calendar, time tracking tools, database tools, etc.). These tools are very powerful but also tend to be more complicated and harder to use. Another group, such as ProjectSpaces, Basecamp, and near-time excel at project and task management and group coordination. They tend to work well for groups of people from different organizations who need to communicate and coordinate over time about discrete activities and projects. Lastly, are tools that are excellent at supporting larger communities of users and focus primarily on discussions and knowledge sharing. Google Groups and Yahoo Groups are examples of this type of tool.

For this course we wanted a tool that met the following criteria:

1 – really easy to use and administer
2 – excellent facilitating discussions and knowledge sharing
3 – easy and cheap to set up (so GDLN affiliates could apply it easily in their own work)

Document and task management as well as other database features were less important. In our view Google Groups is a great fit for this particular set of criteria, and we picked it over Yahoo Groups because it is easier to add users. Yahoo has a more complicated process for setting up an account and logging into a group for the first time. Google Groups has an excellent discussion tool that combines all the best features of e-mail listservs with an excellent online archive. It also has a nice “wiki” feature that allows us all to edit pages – which we will be experimenting with to explore how discussions are good for some types of knowledge sharing and wiki’s for others.

As we go forward, we would be very interested in hearing from course participants about what they think about the Google Group tool as well as any experiences using online workspace tools in general.


Why Elluminate? Or VoIP conferences not quite ready for prime-time

July 11, 2007

Our objective with the social software we are using is to demonstrate tools and learn lessons that can be applied directly to GDLN projects.  We intend to use inexpensive (usually free) tools that are powerful and widely available for all that we do.  Moreover, we want these tools to be usable by non-tech folks.   As the facilitators, we at Forum One could get help from our excellent technology or user experience teams to craft specialized services, but most GDLN affiliates don’t have these kinds of resources readily available.

Thus, for the web conferencing portion of the course, we had intended to use an  inexpensive desktop sharing tool and a separate voice-over-IP (VoIP) tool that supported voice conferencing (we figured we would need 30 simultaneous users).  We had chosen ReadyTalk as our desktop-sharing tool because we have been using it in-house and are pretty comfortable with it and it is pretty affordable.  ReadyTalk supports telephone conference calls but doesn’t offer a VoIP option. 

We then set out to find a good, cheap, VoIP voice conferencing tool but didn’t find one.  I was most hopeful for Skype’s SkypeCast service.  It is supposed to support up to 100 simultaneous users and is available for free.  While it gets some good reviews,  the sound quality in our tests was poor.  Moreover, it looks like there may be some bugs that are yet to be worked out (Skype is good about keeping users up-to-date on issues).

Elluminate logoWe liked the VoIP functionality of Elluminate better than other tools we tried.  It supports multiple connections and up to 4 simultaneous speakers (not that having 4 people speak at the same time on a web conference is a good idea!) and quality was good.  

The down sides of Elluminate include that it requires Java and a large download for participants and is reasonably complex.  A number of participants had a hard time logging in.  Of course, the flip side of “complex” is “powerful” — it supports a number of interesting interactivity options including polling, chat, graphing, whiteboarding, screen sharing, multiple moderators, etc. 

Given all this, I like the product.  I just wish there was a cheaper price structure for international use (hint, hint!).


Observations from the first live session

July 11, 2007

We presented the first module during live web conferences on Monday (7/9/07).  We did two sessions — one at 9am EDT and one at 9pm EDT — to provide opportunities for people in more time zones to participate.  I was really pleased that we had participants from places like Ethiopia, Peru, Thailand, China, and Costa Rica.  Here’s a few of my observations from my role as “presenter”.

  • It takes time to practice the technology.  Three of us spent a good part of Sunday and almost all of Monday studying, practicing, and experimenting.  Some of this time was spent on the content but a lot was spent getting comfortable with the technology (we used Elluminate).
  • Language is, of course, a problem with international communications.  I’m an English-only speaker and we had many participants who speak English as a second language.  I tried to speak slowly and clearly, we used the chat window to type comments, and we had some help with translations (thanks Alexandra!), but better options are still needed.  I think the language problem reinforces the importance of between-session collaboration.
  • There are a lot of balls in the air during an interactive web conference.  It is hard to manage one of these smoothly and I was tired at the end of the day!  I was the “presenter” with the main voice managing the display.  Tory acted as moderator interacting with participants via Skype (especially people having a hard time logging in) and the chat window.  I tried to follow the chat window but had to be careful not to lose my place in the presentation.  Tory would interject, when necessary, about things happening in the background.   Meanwhile, Joe was busy recording the session.   Having all three of us involved helped a lot.
  • The recording worked well!  Check out Joe’s fine work – http://www.brightcove.com/title.jsp?title=1114136844&channel=1080193755
  • Use two screens.  During the second session I was configured to use two screens – a screen that participants saw and a screen that I used to manage the web conference.  Being able to see what was happening in the web conference at the same time that the participants saw what I wanted them to, is a big help.  Here’s a picture of the two screen setup.   The left is what participants saw and the right is what I was using.

Dual screen desktop

I’ll post more lessons from our next two sessions as well so stay tuned in. 


Blogging about Social Software for GDLN

July 8, 2007

During July we’ll be facilitating a course called “Understanding and Using Social Software for GDLN”.  The course is sponsored by the World Bank for the Global Development Learning Network (GDLN).  We’ll be collaborating with about 30 participants from around the world on how best to use web 2.0 online tools to support GDLN activities. 

We’ll focus on ways to use widely available, low cost (free if possible), collaborative tools for supporting interactivity, knowledge sharing, and product development.  The first module of the course will focus on working together and talk generally about the tools and more specifically about workspaces, email tools, and real-time communications.  The second module will go into more detail about tools that support collaborative production with text and data.  The third module will focus on tools that enable production with photos, videos, and maps (with a discussion of APIs).

During the month the facilitators, Bank staff, and participants will all be researching, experimenting with, commenting on, and critiquing tools.  We’ll use the tag GDLNSS07 to mark what we find online.  We’ve also got a course workspace set up at http://groups.google.com/group/gdln.

This blog is managed by the course facilitators — Dave, Joe, and Tory from Forum One.  (We are responsible for the content of the course don’t blame the World Bank!) We’ll use it as both an example of blogging and as a tool for commenting on our learning during the process of managing the course.  We’ll post our observations about how things worked, what tools we picked and why, what we’d do differently next time, etc. 

We welcome comments, suggestions, critique here — feel free to add comments.  We hope this documentation will be useful to others trying to better use the cool tools available.