January 2009

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Donncha O Caoimh tweeted:

WPMU 2.7 is just about ready. Unless someone has found a showstopper bug or has a great patch, it’ll be out later tonight

This is great news for all WPMU users as well as those waiting for a release of BuddyPress. Once the current beta is tested with a WPMU 2.7 release, the march toward the release of the second beta, then BuddyPress final. It would seem that the final release of BuddyPress is likely to occur by the Middle of February based upon the old release date and the number of days between the announced delay and the actual release of WPMU 2.7.

Donncha also believes that automatic updates should work in WPMU 2.7 for subsequent versions. This is a great security enhancement and convenieince for WPMU administrators.

The current SVN revision for WPMU is 1644. The includes/version.php still lists the code as 2.7-beta. I look forward to updating my installations this evening.

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Sometimes I think I am becoming unpopular on some educational technology websites. I have a keen distrust of free hosted services that are touted by so may web evangelists and those that frequent such sites. Some edtech sites almost seem like clearinghouses for free Internet based services. I have often challenged the use of such site citing student privacy and (less often) data control and ownership.

Today I came across a link to a provocatively worded blog post condemning these free cloud services offered so widely today. Before you click, I want to warn you that this post uses strong language. Jason Scott is an archiver of old BBS data and producer of a five hour documentary on Boston area Bulletin Board Services. He clearly has a larger historical perspective than most who use the Internet today.

Jason warns:

You are going to have to sit down and ask yourself some very tough questions because the time where you could get away without asking very tough questions with regard to your online presence and data are gone.

We increasingly rely on online repositories for our work and can no longer do so thoughtlessly. He isn’t talking so much about data you have so much as data you have created—our photographs, blogposts, videos, etc. Many are relying on cloud sites to store this data. He further states:

Because if you’re not asking what stuff means anything to you, then you’re a sucker, ready to throw your stuff down at the nearest gaping hole that proclaims it is a free service (or ad-supported service), quietly flinging you past an End User License Agreement that indicates that, at the end of the day, you might as well as dragged all this stuff to the trash. If it goes, it’s gone.

The larger perspective shows us that these services have abruptly disappeared in the past and that relying on these services puts our data at peril. Jason Scott does not say we shouldn’t use the cloud, rather we should not rely upon it to store our only copy of content that we created. They let you store your stuff for free in their cloud. Why should they put themselves in legal peril by guaranteeing the safety of the data?

This issue of data safety will be exasperated by our current fiscal climate. Banks and large financial institutions that appear solid one day are collapsing the next. Liquidity is drying up and investors are reluctant to risk money in businesses that do not have a reliable revenue stream such as firms that offer free Internet services.

I’ll go a step further than Jason in regard to the license agreements on such sites. Not only do these sites relinquish responsibility for the safety of the data, they often also tell you that you are giving up the ownership of your data.

This all is made even worse when teachers have their students rely so heavily on these cloud solutions for storing their content. Both students and teachers have begun to take these resources for granted with little regard for the safety of using such sites. Is this the behavior that teachers should model?

The solution is to take responsibility for your data. In most cases that means paying, either for a service that provides a guarantee and a clearly articulated back up plan, or for inexpensive server space that you personally back up. Anything less is folly.

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BuddyPress developers have postponed release dates for the second beta and the subsequent final release waiting for the launch of WordPressMu 2.7. The second beta was originally scheduled for January 26, while the final was slated for February 9.

WPMU developer Donncha O Caoimh released WPMU 2.7 beta January 22 revision 1627 on the SVN repository. While he reports that there are still plenty of open tickets, I have found 2.7 beta very stable and relatively issue free. I am using this version for my test BuddyPress installation and our school’s WPMU blog site.

WPMU represents a major overhaul of the administrator and user dashboard and backend. Overall, I find the interface increasingly intuitive and easier to use. WPMU certainly has come a long way since I began using it just over a year ago.

I hope for a February release of BuddyPress along with Elgg 1.5. It looks like a big month for free and open source social networking platforms.

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Elgg 1.5 is slated for release next month. From the looks of things, it appears that they may well be on time. Curverider devs have made almost 100 revisions (at the time of this writing) to the SVN repository since the beginning of this month.

Indeed, Marcus Povey, who seems to do much of the day to day coding, recently tweeted:

Assessing work priorities for the following few weeks before the 1.5 release of Elgg

He also intimated:

Stuff on the roadmap + bugfixes. Some new functionality – much already in SVN. Complete list to come

Speaking of Roadmap, there seems to have been some revisions to the 1.5 planned features:

  1. Views and plugin location caching
  2. Scalability enhancements – phase one completed. (this is ongoing)
  3. OpenDD import and export – Completed
  4. Improvements to the submenu system including better grouping and naming
  5. Improved frontpage layout
  6. Views and languages files to be loaded on demand rather than discovered on initialisation
  7. Metastring garbage collection – Completed
  8. Group deletion
  9. Site wide activity stream – Completed
  10. Log rotation – Completed
  11. Admin interface for profile field creation – Completed
  12. Rebuild js toolbar menu to be cross-browser compatible – Completed

It also appears that existing themes will need to be updated to be compatible with the new Elgg version.

Now that Elgg 1.5′s release is quickly approaching, I look forward to seeing the next roadmap revision. Elgg developers plan a 6 month major release cycle which means we might expect version in August 2009, one year after the release of Elgg 1.0. As I examine BuddyPress more closely, I’m starting to develop a wish list of new features. What would you like to see after Elgg 1.5?

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While comparing software features is important, it is also essential to consider user experience. This post is going to focus on the new user experiences for Elgg and BuddyPress working through first look at the site, the registration process, and the resultant page once one has logged in for the first time. I gave an initial overview of the differences between Elgg and BuddyPress in my previous blog post.

With BuddyPress, a visitor arrives a page that may look like this with a “sign up” link on the upper right hand side of the page.

In Elgg, a first time visitor may encounter a page like the one below. Note that the Elgg landing page has been altered using an index.php override. I feel this is a fair comparison in terms of effort with installation. As you may recall from my previous comparison, the BuddyPress installation required a certain amount of coding, so I thought it would be fair to apply comparable effort to an Elgg installation as a starting point. Note the registration link in the left column.

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Registration

Click on the register button with BuddyPress and you arrive at a page asking you to provide profile information by filling out several fields. The administrator can change or add to these fields making them optional or required. In this installation, I added a “Profession” field. Further discussion of this feature will appear in future posts.

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Next, you are given the option to create a blog or just an account.

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You then are notified to look for an activation email. Once you click on the link in the email, you are given a password.

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Elgg, on the other hand, simply asks for a display name, email address, username, and password.

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Click on Register and you are returned to the landing page with a prompt telling you that you will be getting an confirmation email. Clicking on the link in the mail returns you to the site notifying you of confirmation success. You can then log in.

Logging In

Once logged in, Elgg and BuddyPress deliver you to entirely different pages. BuddyPress brings you to your public Profile page, while Elgg delivers you to your private Dashboard.

Once you log into your new BuddyPress Account, you return to the main page with the options available to a logged in user. Note the gray menu bar on the top of the page that was not visible when not logged in.

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The first time you log into Elgg, you arrive at your dashboard page and prompted to click the edit page link highlighted below. The dashboard is visible only to the account owner.

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Once you click that, you are presented with a set of widgets that allow you to customize your dashboard. Simple darg and drop them into one of the three columns. These widgets can also be configured. On a side note, Elgg’s profile pages function much the same.

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Conclusions

BuddyPress’s and Elgg’s landing pages are strikingly different, especially if Elgg’s index.php file is not customized. No question that BuddyPress’s default theme with the widget customization is more attractive out-of-the-box. That being said, this is not very important as one can install different themes on either platform. Elgg has many free themes available and BuddyPress will have a variety of themes upon release. Discussion of this is really best left to another post.

BuddyPress’s registration page solicits much more information than the bare bones Elgg registration page asking the new user to fill in profile information and to upload an avatar before the registration process is complete. It also allows the administrator to customize the fields in the form. This could cut both ways. Some users might be put off by the steps required to register preferring to enter just enough information to get inside. On the other hand, it would be more likely that users actually provide profile information and an avatar. It requires somewhat more of a commitment to get an account. In the Elgg community site, I have found it irritating that many users have no profile information at all because it is not required. They just leave it all blank.

Elgg, delivers you to a blank dashboard page; whereas, BuddyPress delivers you to the logged in front page. Some have argued that the blank dashboard is confusing and univiting. On the other hand, it does invite immediate action to customize your account with an easy to use widget interface. With BuddyPress, you will need to explre the menu to find more options. Both Elgg and WordPress require a certain amount of exploration once logged in as not everything is immediately obvious.

I will continue to post about the features and user experiences in future posts. Hopefully, these posts will help individuals choose the best platform for their needs. Beyond that, perhaps developers can learn by examining the different interfaces.

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