Monday, July 06, 2009

Virtual Respectability

The global recession has given air travel a good seeing to, and in this time of greater fiscal prudence at hitherto carefree organisations, web conferencing is showing that it is coming of age.

And it's easy to see why. At the bottom end of the market there are now a suffusion of free tools offering the kind of functionality that only a year or two ago commanded serious fees. For us as elearning bods this offers a great new way to help people interact and share ideas, as the crew of Onlignment have recognised.

At the top end of the market the technology is getting so good that the effect is truly remarkable.

So it is no surprise to see that TED, an organisation that is all about staying ahead of the curve, is now giving virtual presence the full stamp of respectability. For the first time, those that fancy it can attend TED online, with "a virtual front-row seat at the conference via a private, live web stream". This means you get to see all the bits cut out of the TEDtalks, like the introductions by Chris Anderson, the tech guys setting up the laptop/hacked Wii/brain-in-a-jar, Seth Godin getting up halfway through a talk to go use the toilet* and so on.

While this might seem the solution to the scarcity of tickets (as I'm given to understand it, $2000 a pop, by invitation only, or at least a compelling reason as to why you should get in), before you go reaching for your credit card, even this 2D rendering of the TED experience will cost you $995, without the chance to head to the bar afterwards to chat up Qi Zhang, spill your pint on Bill Gates** or ask Phillip Zimbardo if the SPE wasn't actually a hoax***.

If they are asking that much for the experience then they know that they can - web conferencing becomes aspirational. Cool.

I mean WTF? Would you take a guy seriously in Dennis Taylor shades?!
* Seth Godin has never done this at TED and is very well mannered - he won't even walk out of a Michael Bay movie early out of respect for other ticket purchasing members of the public.
** Not that I would suggest that you do this on purpose. He's just quite unassuming and it would be easy to inadvertently bump into him as you struggle to get away from Al Gore doing an impromptu rendition of The Inconvenient Truth on a Samsung Pico mobile phone projector next to the fag machine, egged on by Susan Greenfield and Robert Scoble.
*** I mean, doesn't it sound just a little too amazing? In six days you recreate Nazi Germany in a Californian basement, just because of a couple of a few uniforms?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Free, now with added capitalisation

I've just trawled through the working and reworking of ideas spawned by Chris Anderson's book Free. It got a big response from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin and on it went. I lost quite a bit of time in there.

The basic premise is that with the cost of production asymptotically approaching zero, you can more or less round it out to nothing. If it costs nothing to make, then you give it away Free. There are various broadsides levelled at the likes of publishers for daring to complain that people might reasonably be expected to pay for reading news or what have you, but there are counterclaims that Free TV is struggling (has anyone called an ambulance for ITV?) while paid for TV (cable/satellite) continues to do well.

While it is implied that Free can apply anywhere, I'm not so sure. In the case of mobile phones it is inverted, moderately priced phones are free when you pay for the facility to distribute or access content (voice, SMS or data). Similar models apply to broadband, and, increasingly, laptops, and it has even been suggested that such a model may apply to transport in the future, with the car being covered as part of a flat rate paid for the fuel.*

Of course, none of these are actually free - this model is a disguised form of credit with the cost of the hardware being spread over the lifetime of the subscription. But what's important, according to the commentary, is that the notion of Free is enough to change how people think.

However, content, it would seem, is where free really works. The discussions played out above centre on music, video, news and books.

I'm not sure how you might attach the same model to something like Adobe.
Pay $30 a month for our starter package with up to 10 layers per image and that will let you save out 75 raster file images that month. For $100 dollars a month get an additional 60 filters and get unlimited raster saves and layers.
Oh christ, I hope nobody at Adobe sees that.

The fact is, for leading edge apps, the monied option is the only way to go. Gimp is great for what I need, but it's not quite Photoshop. OO3 is a dog when placed next to Office 2007 (heck, for fun compare a rapid solution put together in Ppt 07 to one in OO Impress). Even Audacity, where the quality of output is indistinguishable from paid for alternatives, is still not the tool of choice with pros.

Sure, it costs bugger all to copy the files, but just as with Big Pharma, the cost of development of genuinely new products is so high that it can't be ignored.

At the same time, our industry is in the thrall of FOSS software - the most obvious of which is Moodle. This fairly mediocre application gets a lot of attention because of the Free label, but it's not without a great number of problems that are mainly attributable to the development model**. Cammy's tipping point post provoked some interesting replies, but for me the most telling query was Cammy's wondering about an OS authoring tool - there was one, eXe, and it was even made for Moodle, but it sucked and I think it may have died off now.****

My point, lost somewhere in my rambling, is that free content seems to be the bit that works. Yet I have not seen free elearning content.

Imagine, if you will, yet another piece of Brussels derived equality/compliance legislation washing up on the banks of the Thames outside Parliament. Six months later HR departments up and down the country are all of a panic about how to get their people "trained" on this. The usual model is for the ravening packs of the development companies to go to each individual company and create "custom" solutions. Perhaps the more forward local authorities will share this via Learning Pool (I think that's them) but not all will. A lot of wasted effort and money.

But what if an enterprising equality company was to simply give away the training in a packaged, generic course, or as a set of 'rapidready' ppt slides***.
  • Perhaps this could work fine for organisations that like that sort of thing
  • perhaps this would mean a lot of business for the company to tart it up and brand the content
  • Perhaps simply seeing the name on this would generate business later on
I see so much of the commercial elearning community discussing Free as it applies to us using other people's free tools, but isn't it about time that Free came in here too and started to disrupt things for us?

* God, I don't know where. This is the Internet, have a look for it. It's some smart bloke who made a fortune out of an Internet company and decided to put his money somewhere interesting. Israel may feature in this story and I know the BBC ran a story about it.

** Actually there is a really good discussion going on in the Moodle forums right now about usability and its absence in OS products.

*** an idea of a company which I cannot bear to name, for fear of seeming like a kiss ass, but whose new chief evangelist is more than welcome to claim credit for.

**** Actually, I'm not sure that this would even be possible since there are so many takes on what an authoring tool might look like the development community would probably tear itself apart, or produce a tool so diffuse it would be no things to no men (or women). [Actually the best bet for a clear project would be to work on building in Articulate/Adobe/PointeCast Presenter type facilities directly in to OO Impress - but perhaps there's another post in that idea]

***** There are very few people who will actually notice that there is no five-star comment in the body of the text. This is here simply to apologise to you for having taken up your time and to ask you to spare a moment more by adding a comment about which you think would be more awkward, a broken leg or a broken arm - let's say it's your writing hand - Your contribution on this would be really confusing to anyone who hasn't read this footnote...