The lower 48

While doing some online shopping, I received a notice that said

Estimated Economy Delivery (delivered via USPS): 6 to 12 business days within the lower 48 United States. All P.O. Boxes, APO/FPO/DPO addresses and shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands will ship via Economy Delivery.

I always get peeved when I see people use the phrase “lower 48 states”. Why?  Well, having grown up in the State of Hawaii, I can tell you with certainty that the Hawaiian islands are farther south than any other state in the United States of America, even the southernmost point of Florida. Taken literally, “lower 48 states” actually means all states except Alaska and Minnesota (due to Lake of the Woods).

Somehow I don’t think these merchants were referring to Minnesota.

Meh.

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.

Master of My Own Domain

Just a head’s up: this post is a bit of a rant. Had to get it off my chest.

Musical Chairs

I remember a few years back, probably 2002, my web hosting service went down for over a week at Christmas. Thankfully, I didn’t own any online retail/shopping sites, but if I did I would have been completely hosed. Unfortunately, I did host some clients’ sites on that server, and I had a very hard time explaining why their site was down for a week at the busiest shopping period of the year. The hosting service’s response? “Umm… we’ll get back to you,” followed by a very unapologetic string of excuses for the failure.

I’ve tried a number of different web hosting services since then. Despite every single one of them boasting about their “99.9% uptime”, all but one of them had technical problems at some point, leading to significant downtime for my sites. I left the one vendor that I didn’t have problems with because his service was a bit too limited for my needs.

Enter Media Temple

Eventually I was lured to Media Temple. Some of the higher-profile sites I frequented at the time were “proudly hosted by Media Temple.” Media Temple’s site has always been very slick, and includes an impressive a list of big-name clients. Aside from the eye-candy aspect, they also appeared to be on the leading edge of web hosting technologies with their fancy “grid server” system. I decided to take the plunge.

From the very start, I had issues with Media Temple, including confusing documentation, unfriendly/disinterested support staff, and — worst of all — connectivity issues.

Just say no to Media Temple

As with anyone in an abusive relationship, I wondered if it was my fault and was kind of ashamed to speak up about my problems. I let the relationship continue for a couple of years, making it work as best I could. I quietly cursed when my FTP connection would stop working mid-transfer then not be able to reconnect for 3 hours. I muttered to myself whenever I noticed the web service was down again despite the boasts of uptime. I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily whenever I saw the gazillion “hosted by Media Temple” stickers on famous websites.

Then, as I started to get more plugged-in to industry RSS feeds and Twitter, I noticed that there were others like me. The internet became my anonymous support group. I read other people’s Media Temple horror stories and realized I wasn’t alone. Then I started paying even more attention to Media Temple’s service, and started demanding excellence. What I received was most certainly not excellence, and was in fact confirmation that they are a crappy hosting service that I needed to leave behind.

Despite their glossy public profile, despite their proclamations stating that they are on top of their game and provide world-class support, in reality their service was mediocre at best and oftentimes downright shoddy. Customers using the cheaper Grid Service (shared servers) had the worst of it, but even customers using the Dedicated Virtual service have complained about problems. The final straw? The fact that Media Temple’s entire Grid Service system was hacked — including my sites — and they didn’t even contact customers to let them know. I received an email with a very vague warning about the hacks six days after it happened.

I complained to Media Temple directly via their internal support system, emails, telephone conversations and Twitter, explaining that they need to be more proactive and communicative with clients about serious system issues such as hacks and unanticipated downtime. Their response has always been something to the effect of “we provide plenty of information… it’s your responsibility to monitor our website for important notices.” Apparently they now consider Twitter to be their main alert system for clients.

I tried to explain to them that I don’t have the time to check their website every day, and Twitter alerts don’t work because they’re too easy to miss. Why not simply send your clients an email? I received excuse after excuse about why they won’t email clients. None satisfied me and some were completely illogical.

When the recent FTP hack occurred, I learned about it from the blogosphere (here and here [link no longer available]) and Twitter. I checked Media Temple’s site, and sure enough, they had a bulletin mentioning the issue, but I had to search to find it! It wasn’t until almost a week later that I received a notice from Media Temple about the problem.

One of their excuses for not emailing clients was that they didn’t want to alarm unaffected clients with scary news of hackers attacking sites. Whatever. In MY case, I WAS affected. The targeted sites used PHP and WordPress, and Media Temple knew I used WordPress because I initially used their one-click installer to set it up! If they knew I use WordPress and that I was susceptible to this hack, why not contact me directly?

Exit Media Temple

I had no idea what I was going to do, but for the last year or two I’ve desperately wanted to find an alternative to Media Temple. I asked around, and it always seemed to be the same problem: one person loves Host XYZ, yet another person has written a scathing rebuke of the same host. There doesn’t seem to be a perfect host.

Then a post by John Gruber caught my eye. It was very short:

Who better to write about the new Mac Mini server than the guys who specialize in colocating Mac Minis as servers?

A Mac Mini as a server? Whaaaa?! I read the article John had linked to and was impressed. Skeptical, but impressed. The article explained that Apple had just released a server edition of its Mac Mini that comes equipped with Snow Leopard Server OS, an extra hard drive, and 4GB of RAM. What’s more, the author of the article runs a business dedicated to hosting privately-owned Mac Minis in a world-class data center for a modest fee. That’s right — you can have your own private server in a secure top-notch data center for less than the price of a MacBook Pro.

I read the article and said “Screw Media Temple. I’m getting a Mini!”

This blog post is hosted on that Mini.

The World is My Oyster

All of my sites have been transferred from Media Temple to my Mini, and my Media Temple account will be closed at the end of the month. Buh-bye MT, won’t miss ya.

I will be posting on the ups and downs of administering your own Snow Leopard Server — there are plenty of both — in an upcoming blog post. Overall I’m really happy with my decision and feel very liberated. The short version is that administering your own server isn’t for everyone, but I’m willing to bet many of my peers and e-learning tweeps would be more than capable of handling it, too.

PS: If you feel I’ve been unfairly harsh about Media Temple, do a simple Google search and see for yourself. There are some pretty high profile people with similar complaints.

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?

Blackboard: Spoke too soon?

Alfred Essa posted this tidbit today:

An Important Correction to the Blackboard Patent Story
A number of us, including this blog, have gotten this story wrong. It’s time for a correction.

The USPTO has NOT invalidated the Blackboard patent. Instead the USPTO is proposing to invalidate the patent and has issued some preliminary documents for review and comment. At the end of the day the USPTO still might uphold the patent as valid.

Let’s hope this is just a matter of semantics, and that the USPTO will continue along their current path towards invalidating Blackboard’s patents. *fingers crossed*!

Rapid Intake: Where are the standards?

Today Rapid Intake announced a new service named Unison.

Not having used the service, I won’t pretend to know whether it’s a worthwhile service or not. It’s certainly an intriguing idea, and with its oft-mentioned low price, it’s guaranteed to get some industry buzz.

Out of curiosity, I perused the Rapid Intake site to read more about Unison. I wasn’t very impressed with the Unison product webpage. Being the geek I am, I decided to take a peek at the Unison page’s source code. UGH! They’re using tables for layout, JavaScript for simple navigation menu mouseovers, are omitting alt tags on many images, are using non-web-safe fonts, and are positively abusing CSS styles by applying a class called “maintext” to almost every paragraph.

Here’s a snippet:


<tr>
<td height="310" valign="top" class="h1">
<p class="h1">Collaborative eLearning Development and
Review for Teams</p>
<p class="h1"> </p>
<p class="mainText">Built on the Rapid Intake eLearning 
Development Platform, Unison is a web-based solution 
[ ... ]</p>
<p class="mainText"> </p>
<p class="mainText">Now all your SMEs, designers, 
and reviewers can work together on e-learning courseware 
[ ... ]</p>
<p class="mainText"> </p>
<p class="mainText">All you need to do is <a href="#">logon and get started.</a> </p>
<p class="mainText"> </p>

This code clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of long-established web standards and best practices.

I certainly don’t mean to beat up on whoever designed their site, but as a company whose business is publishing web-based documents, this website gives me zero confidence in the quality of their product.

Please understand that I’m not trying to be a jerk here. I wouldn’t rag on an individual person’s site or home-brewed course system (I know my site isn’t perfect, either!). It’s just that this site is a perfect example of how our industry appears to pay little heed to web standards and best practices. Rapid Intake — a company clearly on the rise in our niche market — is in a perfect position to be a role model for ‘doing it right.’

Standards make development work easier, and greatly reduce compatibility issues. I just don’t understand why companies like Rapid Intake don’t see that.

The IMS Global Learning Consortium needs to loosen up!

Today I’m working on a simple JavaScript/XML-based quiz. I decided I’d like to use a standardized XML format for the quiz questions and answers, so I googled QTI, a common quiz format. Turns out QTI is (yet another) IMS specification (duh, I should have known that!).

I looked up the QTI specs on the IMS site and couldn’t believe the boldfaced notice I saw on the page: “HTML documents may be viewed online, but may not be printed without permission” (emphasis added).

Can you believe that? IMS is in the business of creating standards they want the whole world to use. These standards should be open, easily accessible and free from licensing constraints. Why on earth do they want to put silly notices like this on their site? (Not to mention they didn’t even provide a contact link to help the visitor contact IMS about getting permission.)

This reminds me of their Common Cartridge project, which developers can’t even browse without being a paid member of IMS (individual rate: $100/yr).

The marketing tagline for the Common Cartridge project? “Free the content”

I say it should be free the standards!

LMSs are just websites… no, really!

I had an interesting conference call the other day regarding a learning management system’s browser support. We’re trying to implement a new LMS, and it needs to be accessible for Mac users. The vendor promised us Mac support before the contract was signed and — surprise! — it doesn’t support Macs at all. It doesn’t even run in Firefox on a PC. (Gotta love sites that still use ActiveX and restrict you to Internet Explorer on a PC.)

So we had an internal conference call to discuss the issue, and I was trying to explain to some cross-town colleagues that a well-made LMS should adhere to web best practices, and by nature should be platform neutral. After all, an LMS is just a website, and should work in any browser.

Then one of my colleagues blurted out “an LMS ISN’T a website!” I was flabbergasted. I mean, I know LMSs seem complicated and all, but they have a web-based front-end and a database back-end, just like any corporate or retail website. When you boil it down, even Amazon.com is just a website (ok, a very complicated one, but a web site nonetheless).

LMSs are basically HTML (often delivered via PHP or ASP), a database, some CSS, some JavaScript, and maybe a little XML for good measure. There is no reason anyone should be using proprietary and browser-specific code in a website, especially in an LMS that should be as accessible as possible, allowing your training courses to reach the widest possible audience.

*Sigh*

Her comment really struck a nerve with me. Over the last year, I’ve learned that many of the people involved in bringing an LMS to a company are NOT technical people. Many of them don’t understand the basic technology involved, and even fewer have any grasp of best practices and standards for web-based technology. The key decision-makers are often basing their decisions on what the vendor has promised the LMS can do — usually in a series of sales pitches and extremely controlled demos — not the recommendation of the technical people who will be using the system on a daily basis… like me!

And I’m pretty sure this is the case at MOST companies, not just mine.

It feels like someone bought us a used car from a shady dealer:

  • without having our in-house mechanic look under the hood (“Why should he look at it? I’m buying it from a dealer, so there’s a warranty!”)
  • without taking it for a test drive (“When the dealer turned the ignition for me in the showroom, it sounded great!”)
  • without checking consumer and professional reviews to see if the car performs well (“Oh, I didn’t know it has a rebuilt Yugo engine… I just saw a picture, and it had a really nice paint job. Plus it comes with a CD player! Didn’t you say you wanted a CD player?”)
  • without checking to see if the person driving it is capable of driving it (“You didn’t say you needed an automatic transmission! Can’t you just learn to drive an 8-speed stick shift? I already signed the lease. What do you mean it’s too small for you? I know you’re 6’5″, but you can still squeeze into a compact car if you need to, can’t you?!”)

…you get the drift.

It’s hard for me, knowing that I will be one of the primary users and administrators of this LMS, and that it doesn’t even meet our most basic need: running in a browser other than Internet Explorer. Again, the vendor said they’d ‘fix’ this, but with proper planning it could have been avoided altogether. And their fix will only make the learner module platform-neutral, not the manager or administrator modules, including the all-important report writing feature… they’ll still require IE on a PC. Bah!

Folks, it’s simple — if you have to paste a “this site works best with XXX browser” message on your site, whether it’s an LMS, an online course, or just a website for your mom’s knitting club, you’re doing something wrong. Do us a favor and stop it.

And if you’ve developed a mega-expensive LMS that only runs in Internet Explorer — especially if you’ve designed it in the last few years — shame on you! You should know better!

Oh, and a side note: my colleagues promptly and authoritatively informed us that they discussed Mac support (specifically Safari support) with the vendor, then did their own research into the ‘major’ LMSs, and no, NONE of the major LMSs support Safari. To which I quietly grimaced, bit my tongue, and slowly walked away from the phone.

I spent the next 60 minutes on google and came up with the following results: of the 15 major LMSs I could think of, 10 clearly state that they support Safari and/or use browser-neutral code. 4 clearly indicate that they do not support Safari, and one LMS didn’t give me a clear indication one way or the other. So that’s roughly 2:1 support for Safari. People, if you’re going to use ‘industry data’ as an excuse for bad programming, at least get some real data. Sheesh.