Lion Server compared to Snow Leopard Server

Update 10/25/2011: I’ve discovered that Apple provides Lion-ready versions of the older server management tools via a separate download from Apple, called Server Admin Tools 10.7 [link no longer available]. I have amended my post to reflect the capabilities of the Server Admin Tools 10.7 suite. Short version: Server Admin Tools 10.7 looks a lot like Server Admin Tools 10.6, but it has been stripped down, and has reduced functionality compared to Server Admin Tools 10.6 that ships with Snow Leopard. On the bright side, Server Admin Tools 10.7 doesn’t conflict with the new Server.app in Lion.

As I discussed in a previous post, I’ve been hosting this website on a Mac Mini server running Snow Leopard Server. The initial setup was a bit convoluted and not the most pleasant experience. It could have been much worse, but it was nowhere near what I expected from an Apple product.

At work, I recently had the opportunity to set up a Mac Mini running Lion Server. Now that I’ve had a chance to use it a bit, I thought I’d jot down a few comments. If you’ve done any research into Lion Server, you probably won’t be surprised by my comments.

First, the disclaimer: I have used Snow Leopard Server and Lion Server for slightly different tasks, so it’s isn’t a straight-up apples-to-apples comparison.

Web hosting

My Snow Leopard Server is confined strictly to web hosting: Apache, PHP, MySQL, and a dab of FTP. I host multiple sites and use a combination of the Server Preferences app and the Server Admin app to manage everything. Setting up websites in Snow Leopard is really easy via the Server Preferences app, and you have a pretty good assortment of settings to tweak in the Server Admin app if you want to fine-tune things.

Lion Server discarded both the Server Preferences app and the Server Admin app in favor of a new, streamlined “Server” app. It’s even easier to set up a website in Lion than it was in Snow Leopard. BUT… Server doesn’t provide ANY of the fine-tuning options that Server Admin provided in Snow Leopard. If you’re a total server admin n00b who only wants bare-minimum web hosting, this is probably good. But if you’d like any level of real control, you’ll be forced to use the command line. For me — not a n00b anymore but certainly not a command line guru — I’m left in the lurch a bit. I expect to be doing a ton of Google searches in the near future.

One example of how this can affect you: most domains should be set up with an alias to enable the domain to work without the “www” subdomain. For example, http://www.pipwerks.com is an alias that points visitors to http://pipwerks.com. If the www alias isn’t created, anyone who attempts to visit pipwerks.com by typing http://www.pipwerks.com will get a browser error. In Snow Leopard, it’s super easy to set up an alias in the Server Admin app. Lion does not provide this option, so you’ll have to do it via Terminal. More Google searches and wasted time.

Score (5 highest, 1 lowest): Lion: 2, Snow Leopard: 4

MySQL

Apple discarded MySQL in favor of PostgreSQL. This will cause problems for many who depend on MySQL, such as WordPress users. The good news is that you can install MySQL using an installer available for free from mysql.com. The bad news is you’re on your own when it comes to security patches and updates… Apple’s system update will no longer handle patches for you. (To be fair, Apple is notoriously slow to release security updates for server components anyway, so you probably shouldn’t rely on them to keep your system secure.) Not a showstopper, but definitely a stumbling block.

Score (5 highest, 1 lowest): Lion 1, Snow Leopard: 4

File Sharing

Snow Leopard’s file sharing GUI was decent, but I frequently had to tweak settings in multiple places. It was a bit disjointed and I was never quite able to get my FTP access set up the way I preferred. In Lion, the file sharing GUI is extremely simple and much easier to use. Maybe it’s because Apple removed the FTP option in the file sharing preferences! In Lion, you must use the Terminal to control your FTP services (or maybe find a 3rd party app). This seriously sucks. On the bright side, AFP is a cinch to set up. Since I’m only using AFP at the moment, I can be generous in my grading. If I depended on FTP, I’d grade much lower.

Score (5 highest, 1 lowest): Lion: 2.5, Snow Leopard: 2.5

User management

Configuring the directory in Snow Leopard Server was the single most painful experience I’ve had with Apple products (well, at least since the emergence of OS X — Mac OS 9 caused quite a bit of pain back in the day!). Configuring the directory seriously sucked and required hours and hours of troubleshooting, including multiple calls to Apple support. One little mistake when you first set up your system and it’s hosed, requiring a clean install.

Lion Server simplifies the process, and was astoundingly easy to set up. In fact, one of the key differences between the two systems is what happens when you first install the Server system: Snow Leopard forces you to configure your directory right away (even if you only intend to have a single user), while Lion doesn’t even mention the directory until you try to configure a service that relies on it. In this event, the configuration screen pops up and the process is so quick you’re done before you realize it. I can’t begin to tell you how happy that made me.

Snow Leopard has an app dedicated to user management (Workgroup Manager). Lion took the most basic elements of Workgroup Manager and turned them into a pane inside Server.app.

Update: Workgroup Manager is still available as part of the Server Admin Tools 10.7 [link no longer available] package, available as a separate download from Apple.

Since neither of my servers are used by clients (I only have a handful of accounts), I’m much happier with the slimmer approach used by Lion. Of course if you have many clients, you may prefer Snow Leopard’s far-reaching Workgroup Manager app.

Score (5 highest, 1 lowest): Lion 4, Snow Leopard: 1

Firewall

Snow Leopard Server includes a Firewall pane in Server Admin app, which makes it very easy to configure your firewall settings. This is gone in Lion.

Update: The new version of the Server Admin app (part of the Server Admin Tools 10.7 [link no longer available] package) provides a GUI for Firewall configuration. It’s a no-frills management panel, but it’s there if you need it.

Score (5 highest, 1 lowest): Lion 1 3, Snow Leopard: 4

Managed Clients

A “Managed Client” is a Mac that is associated with your server, allowing you to perform remote updates, enforce security options, etc. This is basically the feature that allows you to be an IT department and lock down computers registered on your system.

I never used the Managed Client feature in Snow Leopard, so I can’t make any comments. In Lion, the Managed Client feature (accessed via Profile Manager) is so easy to use, it makes me giggle. Granted, I’m not a “real” IT professional when it comes to managed clients, so take my comments with a grain of salt. All I know is, I needed to manage about a dozen Macs at work (think: computer lab-style shared workstations), and Profile Manager has been very easy for me to use, without having any real technical experience in the area.

One downside: all the Mac clients must have the Lion OS if they’re to be managed by Lion Server.

Update: From what I’ve researched, Snow Leopard clients can be managed from a Lion Server, but there are certain incompatibilities to watch out for. Clearly Apple would prefer everyone to use Lion.

Score (5 highest, 1 lowest): Lion 4.5, Snow Leopard: n/a

Summary

Lion Server really trimmed the fat, and Apple appears to have gotten so carried away they trimmed some of the good meat as well. If you’re looking for a GUI with lots of options, go with Snow Leopard Server. If you want the most streamlined experience you can get and only need to do basic web hosting, go with Lion. If you’re comfortable with Terminal and the command line, I’d suggest going with Lion because the GUI won’t get in your way as much and you probably already know what you’re doing.

I will be experimenting with Lion server for a while before I try and upgrade from Snow Leopard Server (if I upgrade). And if I decide to upgrade from Snow Leopard to Lion, I will definitely do a clean install… so many things have changed, I can foresee a lot of configuration problems arising from upgrades.

Instructional Technologist, Explained

I bill myself as an instructional technologist, which means I’m often met with blank or puzzled stares. I thought it might be useful to explain my rational for using this title.

Warning: this post may bore you to death, or cause you to get caught up in a tangled web of semantics.

In my opinion, an instructional technologist is a person who specializes in utilizing technology for instructional purposes. (Duh!) It’s a very broad title that can cover many different and often only tangentially-related duties.

When I was younger (so much younger than today), I worked in a number of educational and non-profit organizations in a technology support capacity, including print production, radio broadcasting, audio engineering and video production. With the dawn of the internet, I expanded my skill set to include web development. I relished working in a variety of mediums, and began to think of myself as a media generalist. Being a jack of all trades* was fun, and it felt good to know that most of my projects were educational or somehow helped the community.

When I decided to go to grad school, San Francisco State University’s Instructional Technologies (ITEC) program seemed like a perfect fit. I assumed that the program’s title meant that we would learn how to use technology in an educational capacity. Turns out I was only half right — technology was definitely involved, but I was also informed that “technologies” sometimes referred to adult learning theories and principles, not just just tools. Instructional design, which is completely independent from common notions of technology, was the primary focus of the program. I learned a lot about educational psychology and learning theories while in the ITEC program, and oddly didn’t really learn much about technology as I had traditionally defined it.

Once I graduated from the ITEC program, I jumped right into e-learning development, as both a content author, a course developer, and a course delivery systems programmer (SCORM, course development tools, etc… probably what pipwerks.com is most associated with).

As a content author, I often performed instructional design tasks, including needs assessments, research, writing, and content sequencing. For these tasks, instructional designer seemed most appropriate. However, because I also handled the media authoring and programming side of the courses, many people thought of me as a programmer, web developer or e-learning developer — all of which I felt were also too restrictive. I don’t want to be stereotyped or painted into a corner.

What to do? Well, I hearkened back to my grad school days and copped the title instructional technologist. It felt flexible enough to work for my needs, while still being accurate and even a tad mysterious. Mystery is fun, especially when most of your co-workers have bland titles like “analyst.”

Instructional technologist is also portable. Last week I left my old job and started a new one. While I used to focus on e-learning development and LMS administration, I now work with classroom support in a university setting, with a focus on administering a lecture capture system. Although I’m working in a completely different environment with very different technology, I’m still working with technology in an instructional or educational capacity. I was able to retain my working title of instructional technologist (kudos to my new bosses for agreeing to it).

Many people in universities use a title such as educational technology specialist. That’s a nice title, and very fitting for what they do. However, it also has the connotation of educational institution, such as university or even high school. Since my work has spanned corporate training as well as community and university work, I prefer the word instructional over educational.

So there you have it. Instructional technologist, explained. Think it’s great? Ridiculous? Have a better idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one”
[ citation ]

Rules for Work and School

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the workplace and about my kids’ school endeavors. In both situations, some people are excellent role models and some people are perfect examples of what not to do. This has made me wonder “what’s ideal? What rules should we operate under?”

We give our kids rules to follow, yet I see these same rules violated in the workplace all the time. Some rules need to be broken; most rules won’t be considered valid until the person experiences the opposite behavior.

So with all this in mind, I thought I’d type up a quickie list of things I believe in, as it relates to my profession or my kids’ schooling; I’ll leave out politics, religion, the sad state of the music industry, Apple versus Adobe, and alien conspiracies.

The following list is in no particular order. Feel free to add more in the comments.

  • Quality
    If you’re not going to do it right, why bother? Have pride in your work.
  • A sense of craftsmanship
    Your work is your craft, and you should continually strive to improve, no matter how small the improvement.
  • Helping people
    Treat everyone as if they’re a friend or cousin, and do your best (within reason) to help them. Unless, of course, they’re continually taking advantage of your generosity. In those cases, you should put their name on every telemarketing and fundraising list you can think of.
  • Respect
    The golden rule: treat others as you’d like to be treated. Better yet, follow the platinum rule: treat others they way they’d like to be treated.
  • Honesty
    If someone frequently lies, stretches the truth, or misrepresents things, how can you possibly trust them or feel comfortable working with them?
  • Responsibility
    Take care of your obligations, every time. If it isn’t possible for some reason, don’t cover it up — be open about it and look for alternative solutions.
  • Flexibility
    Being overly rigid and unwilling to listen to alternatives will bite you in the ass someday.
  • Communication
    Being clear is extremely important. So is listening to others (not just paying them lip service). If you’re not listening to others, how do you know you’re on the right track with a project or relationship? As we’ve all been told, communication is a two-way street: If you don’t inform others of your intentions, provide context for decisions, or give honest feedback, your relationship will sour.
  • Sharing knowledge
    Ignorance helps no one, except immoral politicians and businessmen. Raise the bar. Share what you’ve learned with others.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help
    We’re all n00bs at some point. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
  • Simplicity
    Do overdo it just because you can. Clutter isn’t just limited to your closet; websites and e-learning courses frequently suffer from visual and informational clutter, too. It takes restraint and discipline to keep things simple.
  • Equality/Accessibility
    Everyone should be treated equally and have access to the same resources. Building web sites and e-learning courses in an accessible manner is easier than ever. There is no excuse for an inaccessible product. (Note: accessible content does not always mean an equal user experience; for example, reading a transcript of a video may not be as fun as watching the video itself. Regardless, the content of the video is accessible to all.)
  • Don’t be greedy
    Money is a means to an end — no more, no less. Don’t become like all those Wall Street parasites we’ve read about.
  • Enjoy what you have
    We all suffer from daydreams about how much better things would be ‘if only I had thing X.’ Personally, I often forget that today I DO have the thing X I wanted 5 years ago. The problem is that the definition of thing X keeps changing, and I lose sight of what I’ve already accomplished. Many of us need to step back and realize that we probably have more than we realize and take some of it for granted every day.

Dear Apple and Adobe

 

Update: Steve Jobs Responds! Well, not to my letter directly, but it hits on the major points and is a well-written explanation of Apple’s position.

Dear Apple and Adobe

I’m a long-time customer and have spent more money on your products than I have on just about any other aspect of my life. I’ve spent more money on your products than I’ve spent on my healthcare, vacations, kitchen appliances, children’s school supplies, or home entertainment system.

In return, you’ve increasingly shown a disregard for my needs and concerns, and have acted in ways that demonstrate all you want from me is my money.

For example, both of you have constantly forced me (or at a minimum pressured me) to buy updates to products I already paid for. For years I went along with it because I bought into the sales hype and assumed these updates would somehow make my life better.  In most cases, they did not.

Adobe, your constant tinkering with the Creative Suite has brought a few nifty tools to the world, but these new tools will not get me to overlook the incredible bloat you’ve unleashed on my computers — almost 6GB of program files on my Windows PC at work, and over 7GB of app files on my Mac at home. Your applications feel more unstable with every release, and your UI feels slow and unresponsive despite the extra RAM and other hardware upgrades on my machines. Some of the biggest security holes on my computers are due to your Acrobat software — the very same Acrobat software I’ve learned to hate because of how bloated, complicated, and unfriendly it has become. It feels like it gets worse with each release.

Apple, your innovation is refreshing. Adobe could learn a thing or two by examining your software: increased productivity through reduced feature sets and cleaner UI. Simple is usually best. However, despite your continued excellence in design, your behavior is repulsive. You’ve consistently screwed your early adoptors via your pricing schemes and forced millions of Americans to use a phone network they detest. (Why? Because AT&T was willing to give you a bigger cut of the revenue?) Worst of all, the totalitarianism displayed in your latest iPhone developer agreement is breathtaking. It appears your goal is to piss off everyone, even your staunchest allies… like Adobe.

Apple and Adobe, you used to play well together. You both benefited from your long-term relationship and grew into very large, very successful companies. I sincerely doubt either of you would have survived the 1990s intact if it weren’t for your partnership. Desktop publishing was the Mac’s forte and the one thing that kept it afloat when the buzzards were circling. And who provided the most popular DTP software? Adobe (and the companies Adobe acquired, like Aldus and Macromedia).

Adobe, I know you’re mad because Apple won’t let you put your Flash technology on the new iPhone platform (iPhone, iPod, iPad). Honestly, if I were controlling a platform, I would have major concerns, too. As I mentioned earlier, your track record for software quality seems to be in a steady decline. Your products have become infamous for security holes, bloat, and crashing. It didn’t used to be that way. Somewhere along the line you dropped the ball, and now it’s coming back to bite you. The good news is that it isn’t too late for you to reign things in and regain control of your software. Stop trying to please everyone by adding every conceivable feature under the sun, and really focus on the most important elements. Drop the cruft. Clean the cupboards. Get that lint out of your bellybutton. Once your software is respectable again, you’ll be in a much stronger position to complain about Apple.

Apple, I don’t know what happened to you. You went from being a popular underdog to being the class bully. You’re in danger of becoming as popular as Microsoft in the European court system. From where I sit, your biggest mistake has been the idea that you can take over the world, one industry at a time. Of course, many companies are aggressive and set big goals for themselves, but they don’t stab their partners in the back as quickly and viciously as you seem to do. Your hubris and eagerness to expand into your partners’ markets is going to be your downfall. People have liked you because of your design sensibilities and because you were the hip underdog. You are no longer the hip underdog, and with time, other companies will create products that will be (almost) as stylish but also cheaper and with equivalent or greater capabilities.

The bottom line is that neither of you are choir boys, and I’m fed up with your bickering.

Adobe, stop playing the sympathy card. It’s a complete turn-off because I know how crappy your software can be. Granted, it’s unfortunate that so many people depend on Flash and Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone platform, but Flash is not a web standard. For all its shortcomings, the iPhone platform has one excellent quality: a top-notch HTML5 browser. Standardistas have been warning people not to go all-in with Flash for years, and now we see why. If it isn’t part of a standard, it will not be incorporated into some products. It’s the vendor’s choice. Simple as that.

Apple, stop trying to take over the world. We’ve seen what happens to other companies who try it, and it never looks pretty. Focus on your core values and let your partners do their thing without stepping on their toes.

Oh, and ditch AT&T already, will ya?

Respectfully,

Philip

Providing the same UI across browsers

As a web designer and e-learning course developer, I often grapple with the notion of making my products appear the same in every browser. I’m not opposed to the idea that you should make your work look (almost) identical in every browser. After all, you’re promoting a specific design aesthetic and the last thing you want is for a browser to dictate what you can and can’t do, especially browsers you don’t even like. (I’m looking at you, IE6.)

But it’s never as simple as we’d like. Internet Explorer has that crazy CSS box model. Older versions of Firefox and Safari don’t support border-radius or RGBa.  Mac browsers use completely different scrollbars and form elements than Windows and Linux browsers. For that matter, scrollbars and form elements in Windows 2000 look completely different than XP, Vista, and Windows 7.

This is one of the reasons Flash has become so popular — it allows designers to standardize their RIA‘s UI elements across browsers.

The latest salvo in the war for controlling your browser’s look and feel is Jilion’s SublimeVideo, an HTML5 video playback system that ensures your video has the same controller across browsers. It bypasses the browser’s built-in controller in favor of Jilion’s (very slick) custom controller. Jilion’s blog states (emphasis mine):

We aim at delivering a modern and simple video-embedding solution for web developers that provides the same user experience and uniform UI across browsers.

Jilion’s work comes from the same school of thought that led designers/developers to change the look and feel of other built-in browser components such as radio buttons and checkboxes. (Guilty!)

While looking at Jilion’s fine handiwork, I was struck by a thought: If a person uses a particular browser regularly, they will be accustomed to that browser’s native controls — whether it’s for video or drop-down menus in forms — and might be thrown off by the custom controls. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea to create a homogeneous video controller for all browsers.

After all, why does a Firefox user need to have the same experience as a Chrome user? Why does an Opera user need to have the same experience as an Internet Explorer or Safari user? These people have probably never seen what a webpage looks like in a different browser, anyway. What benefit do site visitors really receive from “a uniform UI across browsers”?

If you change the default controls to match the look and feel of something your visitor has never seen before, you run the risk of creating confusion, distrust, or alienation. Even worse, if the controls are poorly made or conceived — and many are — you might make your site less usable. A cardinal sin.

The more I think about it, the real beneficiaries of a uniform UI across browsers aren’t the site visitors, but rather the designers who demand artistic control and the clients who insist the product looks the same everywhere, without understanding that it’s okay (even expected) to have some differences.

Personally, I realized 100% uniformity is an unnecessary hardship when I began adopting HTML5 and CSS3 features into pipwerks.com last year. These new features are still not supported in all browsers, and essentially forced me to give up IE6 support. (pipwerks.com uses Andy Clarke’s handy Universal IE6 stylesheet for IE6.)

I’ve come to grips with the notion that my site’s design won’t look the same in Opera 9 or IE7/8 because those browsers don’t support border-radius. My design is simple enough that the general impression is preserved across browsers, but people who use certain browsers will see a slightly less refined product. This is a-ok with me.

It should also be noted that growth in the mobile market appears to be shifting perceptions about consistency between browsers, too. Most major sites have a “mobile edition” which will look quite different than the standard website, and is most likely geared to look great on an iPhone and so-so in all other mobile devices.

Speaking of IMS…

IMS produces standards they want everyone to use.

Why, then, do I have to log in to their site in order to VIEW the documentation for their standards?

Situation: I found a link to a PDF on their site. When I clicked it, I was presented with this warm greeting [link no longer available]:

Sorry
The page you are trying to access is reserved for participants in the IMS GLC Public Community or is reserved for IMS GLC Members, Affiliates or Alliance Members.

If you have already set up an account and just need to login, please do so here. If you would like to register for a free public community account, just head on over to our registration page.

So… in order for me to even read their standards, I have to tell them who I am and put my personal information in their database? How does this foster adoption of standards?

Geez these guys burn my britches…

UPDATE:

The IMS site requires the following information before you can view any of their documentation: Name, email, organization name, job title, job description, country

Pretty invasive if you ask me.

UPDATE #2:

After registering for site access, I was greeted with a second page asking for persona information, and asking me to agree to IMS’s licensing terms. They require the following information: Name, email, “entity on whose behalf you are accepting this agreement”, street address (includes city, zip, country), phone number

(Phone number? Seriously?)

The license terms are FIVE PAGES long after pasting into a Word file.

Interesting bits (emphasis mine):

IMS specifications are published solely for the purpose of enabling interoperability among learning products and services used by the education and training communities served by IMS members and are made available under license to Registered Users solely to further that purpose.

I guess this means the standards aren’t meant for public consumption after all, though the end result of the standards are?

Users of the Specification(s) are encouraged to engage directly with IMS as IMS members, including registration of all applications of specifications, in order to enhance the level of interoperability in the education and training industries worldwide.

I read this as: tell us who you are and how you’re using IMS specifications so we can include you in our next press release (you know, the part where we pat ourselves on the back).

Any use of the Specifications(s) or other Materials provided by IMS must be accompanied by the copyright legends provided with full attribution given to IMS.

If this were the case with the HTML, ECMAScript, or XML standards, our documents would be bloated with useless attribution credits. (Side note: I wonder how this affects SCORM, as SCORM uses IMS specifications for packaging? Is anyone who produces a SCORM-based course supposed to pay respect to the Don provide attribution to IMS in their courseware?)

Licensee agrees to publicly and visibly acknowledge and attribute to IMS the Specification(s) upon which products are based to any and all Development Partner(s).

So if Company X uses an IMS specification, they’re supposed to go over to each “Development Partner” — many of whom may be commercial competitors — and let them know?

IMS issues press release for new e-learning interoperability standards

News from the IMS Global Learning Consortium:

The IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS GLC) today announced the public review of the first phase of the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standards to allow open and seamless integration of educational web applications. Called “Basic LTI or BLTI,” this first standard addresses the most common roadblocks to achieving a seamless experience for teachers and students.

Reading this press release, I couldn’t help but notice two things:

  1. There’s an awful lot of chest-puffing and self-congratulation going on here — people’s credentials are thrown around an awful lot, and over half of the press release is filled “Statements of Support.”
  2. There’s no hyperlink to the standards that are being announced, nor is there any information about how you can read the new standard proposal, whether you can try it yourself, how long it’s open for review, etc.

If the new standards are written as poorly as this press release, it’s going to be 1,000 pages of useless spec. All filler, no killer.

Fear of sharing, fear of failing

Janet Clarey posted a link to a great blog post by Rajesh Setty entitled Why some smart people are reluctant to share? Setty’s insights resound with me, not because I think I’m smart — quite the opposite, actually — but because the more I learn, the more I’m aware of my limitations.

Setty tried to determine why “smart people” are often reluctant to share their knowledge with others. His conclusion was:

Smart people want to give their best and as they learn more, they learn that they need to learn a lot more before they start sharing. They learn some more and they learn they need to learn some more. What they forget is that most of the expertise that they already have is either becoming “obvious” to them or better yet, going into their “background thinking.”

I agree with the points in Setty’s post completely, except in I’d substitute the word “experienced” for “smart.”

Setty’s line “Smart people want to give their best” seems to be something of a passing thought in his post. I’d like to give it more attention, because I believe conscientious experienced folks have a fear of giving bad advice.

Zeldman had it right when he said “If your old work doesn’t shame you, you’re not growing.” Experienced people look back at their younger, inexperienced self and either chuckle at their own gumption or get rosy-cheeked from embarrassment. I’m more of the rosy-cheeked guy. My old work shames me all the time, and it often causes me to hesitate when sharing my work or giving advice to others.

This may sound funny to some of you… anyone who follows this blog probably knows I spend a lot of time doling out technical advice via places like the SWFObject and eLearning Technology and Development Google Groups.  The truth is, I question myself in almost each and every post I write. Why? Because I’m experienced enough to know that maybe I shouldn’t be so quick and cocky with an answer. Maybe there’s a different solution I haven’t heard of. To paraphrase Setty, maybe I need to learn more first.

So why do I even try to give advice if I have a fear of giving bad advice? Because I want to learn more. I often find that helping others is the best way to teach myself. I’ve learned a ton through helping others, and find it rewarding in many ways. Except when I’m wrong, and then it plain sucks.

Eolas is at it again

Eolas Technologies is a company that manages licensing for patents.

Eolas seeks to return value to its shareholders by commercializing these technologies through strategic alliances, licensing and spin offs. (source)

The problem is that Eolas is generally regarded as a bully trying to enforce a patent (Patent 5,838,906) that many experts feel should not have been issued.

The 906 patent, received in 1998 by the University and licensed exclusively to Eolas, describes ways that a Web browser can use external applications. (source)

(The US Patent and Trademark Office has made notoriously bad decisions relating to Internet technologies, causing many to wonder if they truly even understand the patents they’ve granted. Blackboard vs Desire2Learn is a great example; Blackboard acted much like Eolas, and their patents were eventually nullified by the PTO.)

Eolas sued Microsoft in 1999 for violating Patent 5,838,906, and in a rare show of solidarity, the Web and Open Source communities — normally very anti-Microsoft groups — rallied to Microsoft’s side. This included Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the Internet. They pleaded with Eolas to release the patent into public domain for the greater good of the global community.

Anybody in the browser field that studies the technology will see that its a very fundamental and basic patent to the World Wide Web. (source)

Despite the overwhelming negative response from the Web and Open Source communities, Eolas would not relent and forced Microsoft to modify Internet Explorer in a way that broke functionality on over hundreds of millions of web pages. Microsoft eventually forked over tens of millions of dollars in a settlement that allowed them to restore the functionality they had been forced to remove.

Other companies and products have used the same technology for years without paying royalties — Mozilla Firefox and Opera being the most well-known — but were not sued by Eolas, who chose to focus on the deep-pocketed Microsoft. (An initial jury verdict in 2003 awarded Eolas $521 million, but an undisclosed settlement was reached in 2007 after the case went through several appeals.)

This week — a year and a half after settling with Microsoft — Eolas has gone on the attack again, filing suit against “Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Argosy Publishing (publisher of The Visible Body), Blockbuster, Citigroup, eBay, Frito-Lay, GoDaddy, J. C. Penney, JPMorgan Chase, ‘transactional’ adult entertainment provider New Frontier Media, Office Depot, Perot Systems, Playboy Enterprises, Rent-a-Center, Staples, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, Yahoo, and YouTube.” (article)

For the record, Eolas was founded by former University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) staff, and the patent they’re suing others for violating was developed at UCSF in the 90s. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eolas

I work at UCSF and am ashamed of these lawsuits.

The University of California owns Patent 5,838,906 and has licensed it to Eolas. The Regents of University of California are therefore the driving force behind Eolas’ behavior. By extension, UC is a driving force behind one of the biggest and most unpopular disruptions the Internet has known. If UC is really interested in public interests and good will — not to mention good publicity — I hope Patent 5,838,906 will be released into the public domain.

On a side note, knowing the University of California is being hit hard with budget cuts, I wonder if this latest blitz of lawsuits is an attempt at making up for budget shortfalls?

Hawaiian diacriticals

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of encountering the Hawaiian language, it’s a very simple but elegant language.  The written form is largely phonetic (cooked up by American missionaries in the 1800s) and makes use of two diacritical marks: the ‘okina, and the macron (also known as the kahako).

An ‘okina usually indicates a glottal stop, which is very important in the pronunciation of Hawaiian words.  The name Hawai‘i is a great example: the ‘okina indicates the name is pronounced hahwhy-ee instead of hahwhy. When you hear a native pronounce the name, there’s usually a very short hard pause between the why and ee syllables.

Unfortunately, the two Hawaiian diacriticals are not used by European languages, which means they’re difficult to accurately represent on a standard US qwerty keyboard. In most printed publications, the authors simply omit the diacriticals altogether — the very reason you usually see the name Hawaii, and not Hawai‘i.

Over the last decade, there has been an attempt by many well-meaning locals (Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian) to use substitute characters when true diacriticals aren’t available. While macrons are usually omitted (they don’t exist in most font sets), the ‘okina is often represented by a foot mark (‘), sometimes (mistakenly) referred to as a straight or neutral single quote mark.

An 'okina. Credit: Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hawaiian_okipona.png) This brings me to one of my pet peeves and the purpose of this post:  misuse of the backtick (`) character. Many of the previously-mentioned well-intentioned folks mistakenly use a backtick to represent an ‘okina, and it drives me absolutely bonkers.

As I mentioned to a friend of mine recently, a proper ‘okina is usually the same as left single quotation mark (‘), depending on the font. The shape of the ‘okina should loosely resemble the number 6. In HTML you can get this character by typing the entity ‘.

Granted, using entities is a pain for most people, and practically impossible in email and other electronic documents.  Substitutions will continue to be made.  I believe a foot mark (‘) is a more accurate depiction of an ‘okina than the backtick (`). It’s also easier to type and looks nicer.