Posts in “Technical”

October 15, 2010

Where the semantic web breaks down

We’re using semantic web technologies for a lot of cool stuff in Logos Bible Software, and I’m coming to appreciate the tools and structures, especially when you control  both the data creation and consumption. It’s also cool to see more semantic data showing up in web pages, microformats, etc.

Hearing Clay Shirky speak this week sent me back to his site to re-read articles, including The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview in which he points out “In the real world, we are usually operating with partial, inconclusive or context-sensitive information.”

That point was made especially clear for me when I noticed in my teen daughter’s Facebook stream that she recently acquired a sister: a girl I’d previously known as her second-cousin. Also, according to Facebook, my young daughter is married, to her best friend.

OpenGraph and the semantic web are opening up a whole new world of semantic data. But without context – knowing my daughter, for example – it can be just as messy and inaccurate as the raw data that preceded it.

December 15, 2009

Google destroyed the web

I don’t mind advertising supported content. But I’m sick of the heaping mounds of garbage that clutter the Internet in an attempt to generate “passive income” on 0.000001% click-throughs of Google AdSense ads.

Today I searched for the answer to a question. The top hit was a useful article written by a subject-matter expert. (Good job, Google.) Many of the following hits were a simplistic rewrite of that article that had been search engine optimized, and were hosted on massive “content” sites cluttered with ads.

You can always tell a Search Engine Optimized page. A Search Engine Optimized page reads like it was written by a six year old. People who write a Search Engine Optimized page are sure to include keyword phrases many times so that search engines can optimize the way they find the Search Engine Optimized page.

I’m not saying anything new. I’ve just reached my personal “I want to scream” point.

I’ll give them some credit; Google has gotten better. Now when I search for “hilton fresno” I’m very likely to see Hilton’s official site ahead of the nine-million “I loaded the yellow pages into a web site” sites.

But it’s still out of control. You can’t trust search anymore. It’s why people are turning to social media for links and visiting trusted blogs and content providers.

(It’s good for my business, too: people buy Bible software because they want a dedicated tool and a curated library. There’s lots of free Bible content online, but our users don’t have time to separate the wheat from chaff.)

Google, Bing, and especially Wolfram Alpha are trying to offer more “answers,” rather than just links. But most of my searching is for another site, not just an answer. I want to be sent to somebody’s page – just a real page, not an ad-farm.

There’s an opportunity here to create a web search engine that punishes results littered with ads. Google can’t do it – they live off those ads. A site that took ads but didn’t have an incentive to send you to other sites full of them could offer a superior experience.

And there’s an opportunity for publishers, too, to take their quality brands and build content sites that take over some of what you’d use the search engine for.

December 10, 2009

The future is now

Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, wrote about The End of Book Publishing As We Know It. His post includes a video of Sports Illustrated’s tablet prototype.

It’s very cool, and looks like the obvious next step in publishing: the freshness of a web page, the editorial attention of a magazine, and the depth of a book, in the form factor of a Kindle.

It even looks comfortable and familiar to me… I feel like I’ve seen it before…

Separated at birth?



We’ve been building the future for a few years, and we’re shipping it now. (Minus the dedicated device with touch screen; but put Logos 4 on a tablet PC and you’re just about there.)

So here’s my experience-based take on Hyatt’s six conclusions about the future of book publishing:

1. The line between newspapers, magazines, and books is about to become blurred.

Boy, howdy. We contracted with professional news artists from major newspapers to build a whole new set of infographics, like Solomon’s Temple shown above. We consulted The Society for News Design’s annual awards book for Home Page layout ideas. The page incorporates hand-chosen excerpts from books and will integrate with Bible Study Magazine in the future.

And let me add databases to the blurry mix. A single table or piece of data in isolation won’t satisfy users of an interactive tool. SI will need to have their stats linked into massive back-end databases, just like a Bible map now needs to be backed up with all kinds of metadata.

2. Publishers will need to envision multimedia content from the beginning.

And in many cases this means starting over. We have dozens of books with graphic representations of Solomon’s Temple, but we had to start over to ensure we’d have not only a great image, but the high-resolution vector art and 3D model. (Look for that same temple model to be animated and explorable in the future.)

Publishers also need to secure the rights to re-mix and re-use data. You don’t want a timeline graphic, you want a database of events you can repurpose many ways.

3. Consumer expectations are going to skyrocket.

Paper is the true what-you-see-is-what-you-get medium. Our expectations for what we can do with it don’t go beyond scissors and tape. In the digital world, consumers expect the production values of a major motion picture with the data crunching of a spreadsheet and the flexibility of a scrapbook.

There are many issues for publishers to worry about here:

  • Production Quality – There will need to be a bigger investment in art and design. And, in interactive media, a significant investment in the design of the user interface. Design will need to anticipate usage scenarios, too. The picture bleeds off the page for artistic effect? Great – but can I copy it uncropped to put into my report?
  • Flexibility – We already had high-production-value multimedia content. The 1990’s saw a plethora of multimedia products; Microsoft’s Multimedia Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony was an excellent example of using every media type to produce something that wasn’t a book, a magazine, or a movie. But production of each product was insanely expensive, and each product was a closed box, tied tightly to a technological moment in time. These products are unusable today. Future-proof publishing needs to have flexibility designed-in.
  • IllustrationRights – The entire publishing industry is built on a rights-model designed for physical distribution. Any significant property (books with text, multiple contributors, and licensed images, or video with music, images, and other content) is tied down like Gulliver was by the Lilliputians. We are creating new media and new content not only to use it flexibly, but to be able to grant consumers the right to use it in the ways they’re demanding.

4. The cost of producing digital books will get more expensive.

In addition to audio, video, and design costs, publishers will need to invest more in markup and tagging. It’s not enough to cite an article in a footnote, it needs to be linked to the source. Are cross references links? Are people disambiguated? Are places tagged with latitude and longitude? Are events tagged for timelines? Are images annotated so that you can search for a picture as easily as for a word?

Indexing and abstracting will become much more important. Stand-alone back-of-the-book indexes will need to be replaced with rich tagging that works across multiple properties.

5. Digital content creation and distribution will become our primary focus.

We’re still distributing on DVD-ROM’s, to my amazement. (Broadband Internet just isn’t everywhere yet.) But a few months ago we shut down the last of our physical distribution network. The good news is, we didn’t own a warehouse, and serving that distribution network was just a small part of our business, and never our focus.

Physical products will remain an important part of the traditional publisher’s business, but they’ll need to decide if their focus will remain on physical-goods logistics or move to digital competencies. This is different than the move to sell off printing-presses a decade ago. It is more than asking “Do we outsource the warehouse?” It’s asking “Who are we?”

6. People will be reading more than ever.

The good news! We see this all the time. Freedom from the bonds of paper weight means we can give the user a great deal on more content than their shelves could hold. An easy interface and automated research tools help engage users with their content. Each innovation – especially our move to a newspaper-style Home Page – helps users get more out of their digital library. And when they get more value from it, they purchase more content.

Publishers, are you ready?

Take this simple quiz:

  • [ ] Graphic design is a core competency in-house, not an outsourced project.
  • [ ] I have unrestricted global rights to the content I publish.
  • [ ] I employ an Information Architect.
  • [ ] My content is always designed for use in multiple media or formats.
  • [ ] Everything we own or license is thoroughly indexed and stored in a database.
  • [ ] I employ an Interaction Designer.
  • [ ] Software development is a core competency in-house.
  • [ ] I have an experienced digital publishing partner, not a project-based contractor.

Do you need a perfect score? Nope. (I don’t have one either
.) But these are things to think about as we prepare for the new normal in publishing.

April 6, 2009

Platforms need to get the basics right

Everybody is building a platform these days. Software isn’t delivered on top of an operating system anymore, it’s delivered on top of a platform that does what the OS used to (and, to be fair, usually a lot more).

So instead of a Windows or Mac app, there are now Ajax, XUL, WinForms, WPF, Java, Adobe Air, Flash, and Silverlight apps. I won’t even get into the mobile OS’s.

This is all fine-and-dandy, and results in some cool innovation. But they are missing the basics: the smooth user interface polish that came from years of tweaks and fine adjustments.

I’m still annoyed that streaming video doesn’t have a fast playback mode, and today I’m frustrated by the lack of basic keyboard shortcuts. What happened to the Home key moving to the top, or Ctrl+Left moving back one word? Ctrl+A doesn’t select everything in many edit boxes. Double-click doesn’t always select the word.

Worse, you never know what’s going to work where. It’s hit and miss.

Apple, Microsoft and IBM have all built detailed user interface guidelines, and the standard shortcuts and UI conventions are well documented. These should be required reading for everyone implementing yet another edit control or drop-down list.

August 15, 2008

Catching up with the movies

Photosynth This follow up to Microsoft’s Photosynth is spectacular. This makes all the “Now enhance it, and let me look at it from another angle” nonsense in the movies seem not so far away.

Now all they need to do is integrate this technology with live video feeds, and we can be virtual tourists in real time. Or, the most perfectly surveilled police state ever!

March 17, 2008

Pragmatic versus idealistic product evolution

Once again, Joel explains it all.

I wrote some MS-DOS utility programs back in the 80′s. They run just fine on Vista, and I even use one of them once in a while. 25+ years of backwards compatibility.

I can’t even load up my old Apple IIe or original Mac software.

Microsoft has gone to great pains to make sure that "things just work" with each new product release. They’ve been rewarded with massive market share, but at the price of never being able to jump very far ahead.

Apple has repeatedly reinvented itself and abandoned massive installed bases. They’ve been rewarded with the ability to jump further ahead, and they get to be super-cool, but (till now) they’ve only been able to serve the smaller market that valued cool / easy / new / beautiful over compatibility.

The world’s changed. I don’t run as many applications as I did; most of it’s on the Internet. The apps I do want to run are big, fresh, and important. They’ll always be updated to work with the latest and greatest.

In a fast-moving world of increasing complexity, I need "obvious" and "just works" (and even "beautiful") more than I need any old technology.

It’s time to push the reset button on lots of technologies. I think consumers are ready for "insanely great" solutions in every category. Many of the technologies we use every day have been too backwards-focused for too long. The built-up layers of inconvenience that each "compatible" generation accumulates have gotten too thick. Today, more than ever, we’re willing to give up the old if the new is great.

In the operating system world, virtualization is the silver bullet that allows this. Microsoft took a bold step in creating .NET and WPF, setting aside the Win16/Win32/GDI programming model, but they hacked it onto an ancient OS stack. It’s too thick. Give me a ".NET Operating System" and Windows XP in a well-integrated sandbox.

Kind of like Mac OS with a copy of XP and Parallels

(Fun thought: What if the Mac had always come with an Apple IIe emulator inside? Not a hacked OS that could run IIe apps as first-class citizens, but a literal "sandbox", like the emulators available now, that let you use the old apps in a way that didn’t cut you off, but still encouraged you to move to newer Mac apps as they became available? Could Apple have used that IIe momentum to get further with the early Mac?)

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