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David Berlind

Tech Update

COMMENTARY — For the last week, I’ve been testing out Radio Userland to better understand and plot a course for the content we offer through the Internet. In particular, it has facilitated our IT Matters podcasting efforts. I picked the $40 per year Radio UserLand because it offered two features lacking in our existing publishing systems. First, it has the ability to create and subscribe to blogs that include enclosures in their RSS feeds. Second, it includes a promising technology known as Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML).

If only for those two features, a basic blogging tool that gives me a public presence on a site with 40MB of space, as Radio does, is well worth a measly $40 per year. The surprising thing about Radio, both to me and I surmise the people at Userland, is that under the hood the software has a gazillion dollars worth of technology that has to be worth more than $40 per year to its users. I’m not going to bother telling you anything more about the product until I’ve spent more time with it.

However, the sheer depth of the product led me to a conversation with UserLand Software CEO Scott Young that convinced me of two things. First, blogging isn’t just some trendy, cathartic technology for broadcasting our deepest thoughts to the world, building community, and joining the new age media movement where grassroots journalism could end up threatening media monopolies. Second, every business should consider blogging fundamentals — particularly the notions of persistence and subscription — in virtually everything they do. Unlike e-mail threads or documents that move in and out of circulation, blogs are persistent. They remain available for future reference and are easily searched. And, thanks to technologies like the Really Simple Syndication protocol (RSS), you can tune in or “subscribe” to content inside or outside of your organization.

The light bulb went off when I drew the connection between two points that Young made during our conversation.. First, Young talked about the inadequacy of using e-mail as a default publishing platform. [MP3: 29:55] “When we go in and we look at these situations and what we see is pretty much complete reliance on e-mail as the default publishing mechanism and the default knowledge repository within an organization, and that’s a little scary because e-mail is not searchable, it’s not accessible to anyone, it’s completely distributed and most of the time if somebody leaves the company, they just simply just wipe it all out, even though it’s everything that person ever did and everyone that they were in contact with and all that information is simply lost.”

Secondly, blogs can complement e-mail. [MP3: 32:24] “E-mail is going to be appropriate for certain kinds of conversations and it’s going to be inappropriate for others and one of those is the publishing kind of capability. So if you’re writing your department report, post it to your department Web log and make sure people can see it by subscribing to it. And then it takes the burden off of you to have to ensure that everybody in the company sees it. You assume because its available, it’s out there. I’ve had some people say that you never can assume that and then I just point back to the Web logs and I say ‘It just happens a lot faster with the blogs.’ People do find it, and I think that you can make that assumption now that people are going to find it and it’s up to them to actually find it and I think that’s what’s going to drive some of the changes in behavior in companies, where you have to sit around wondering if you told all the right people. Just post it!” said Young.

Think about it. How many of the e-mails you publish should be stuck in e-mail? How many times have you caught yourself deliberating over who should see it and who shouldn’t? Why should that be the burden of people who are creating valuable information? The burden to get a report done or to summarize a meeting, or to register your thoughts within a collaborative environment before the project moves on to the next milestone is absolutely the burden of the publisher. But when merged with the notion of subscribing, there’s no reason that the people can’t bear the burden of tuning in themselves. Call it good listening skills. Not only that, it creates an environment where people that you never envisioned tuning in start to tune in, which leads to more knowledge sharing and, hopefully, more informed decision-making. Similar to other collaborative products, such as Groove, enterprise-class blogs could have enhanced security and document management features.

During the interview, Young suggested that corporate culture will need to change. Provided the capability exists, those who publish information will know when to use a blog versus a tool like e-mail. Ultimately, this could force a sea-change, not just in corporate culture, but also in content management software. This is why I say UserLand won’t survive as a stand-alone company for long. To some extent, the persistence, searchability, and free exchange of thought that is fostered by blogging technology will challenge “old world” document management.

Compared to blogs, document management systems that make allowances for publication, storage, and workflow of documents stored in a variety of formats (proprietary or not) are typically expensive and may add a layer of unnecessary complexity, at least for certain parts of an organization. A company that embraces the more Web-like document publishing and storage culture of blogging can dispense with the complexity of multiple proprietary document formats (for much of what it publishes) that then must be shoehorned into another storage system to make those documents accessible and searchable to the rest of the organization.

With blogs, businesses get to store their documents in the most widely used and supported document format (HTML) and those documents are innately linkable and searchable. The idea is not to author them in Word or e-mail unless it’s absolutely required. Unlike the single-user Radio edition, UserLand’s enterprise edition, multi-user Manila, has some document routing capabilities, but it doesn’t yet match the sophistication of heavyweight, established document systems, such as Documentum, Vignette or OpenText. For some organizations, those systems might be better suited to handling documents for which publishing in text to a Web-based or Intranet-based blog isn’t an option.

According to Young [MP3: 27:31], “The market is changing and the differences that exist between the older style or more traditional content management systems and the way the Web blog publishing capabilities that Manila offers, is going to have a dramatic impact on the lightweight end of it, down to the employee level. One of my favorite comments was from a guy who I won’t name, but he said [e-mail is] where documents go to die as opposed to being able to trap the conversation and the dialog that’s happening about any particular topic, to be able to access that and to have the situation where you can actually follow what’s going on in a department via RSS without being directly involved in it or being on an e-mail list or being sent the minutes of a meeting.”

But will it really require that significant of a change to corporate culture, and will IT organizations be faced with ripping out old collaborative infrastructures and content management systems to make room for the new? Or is it possible to transition without severe disruption? Can some of the old systems be salvaged through retooling. For example, instead having to consider whether I should publish or e-mail my notes from a meeting, I can simply enable my e-mail client as a blog publishing client and make the web log to which all departmental documents go an addressee in the e-mail system. Then, I can e-mail my document to John, Sue, and Mark as well as to the departmental blog (UserLand’s technology, by the way, makes it possible to post to a blog via e-mail). Over time, I may choose to use a different client — perhaps a platform that’s purely for blogs as opposed to e-mail — and skip cc:ing John, Sue, and Mark as they and the rest of the organization become subscribers to the department’s blog.

To see the evolution from an e-mail-centric system to a subscription-based world, check out Google Web Alerts. Google’s Web Alerts page says, “Google Alerts are e-mail updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic.” If you need to stay abreast on a topic, receiving alerts as the search results change definitely has some value. But, is e-mail the optimal way to go? Might subscriptions be a better idea? Microsoft recently started testing the idea of subscribing via RSS to search results. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but my preference is the subscription route. With Google alerts, I have to log in and fix the alert if I want to refine it or stop it from bombarding my inbox. With Microsoft’s subscription approach, I just fix the URL to which I’m subscribing within any RSS aggregator (such as the one built into Radio or NewsGator, which works with MS Outlook). Now scale up. How many separate e-mail alerting mechanisms do you want to have to manage versus a central location to manage all of your subscriptions?

E-mail, by the way, is just one example of a content container. Corporations are littered with proprietary silos of information that are virtually impenetrable from the outside, and lack a universal access protocol. For example, using a universal RSS inbox, I could subscribe to my e-mail, my calendar, specific projects I am tracking, to-do lists of my staff, the status of both inbound and outbound overnight shipments, and sales data for my territory tucked away in the Oracle database. The trick is having all the sources I need enabled with RSS feeds.

Does the CEO feel out of touch with what’s going on in the cereal division? She can simply subscribe to all of the necessary channels. No wasting of other people’s time, calling whomever and forcing people to dig through their archives to forward reports and documents that were passed around months ago and are probably sitting on a back-up tape or zip drive disk somewhere. How unproductive is that, to mobilize an army of people when all she really needed was to marshal subscriptions.

Talk about breaking down proprietary walls–forget the complexity of multiple repository-specific APIs like ODBC (Open DataBase Connectivity for accessing SQL data sources), MAPI (Microsoft’s Messaging API for accessing its e-mail and calendaring infrastructure) or POP3 (for opening Internet-based inboxes). Instead, make them available through a bunch of RSS-based channels. Everything–the database, the e-mail system, the project management system, the document management system (uh, I meant the Web logs)–becomes a channel on this giant antenna called RSS. In the offices, our universal RSS inbox behaves like a TiVo box (because it polls for all that content that you’ve “subscribed to” and puts it on your hard drive until you’re ready to review it).

Granted, it doesn’t have to be RSS (although that syndication specification is today’s leading facilitator for subscribing to blogs and other Web-based channels of information). Eventually, other subscription facilitators with other capabilities could evolve. For example, whereas RSS is already a de facto standard, the ATOM specification, which isn’t fully compatible with RSS, could end up as an official de jure standard since it’s currently under contemplation by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). In other words, syndication specifications are in an embryonic state and it remains to be seen where they’ll end up in the long run or if only one will prevail.

For the last decade, it seems as though we’ve been trying to strap the idea of alerts (to the existence of network events, corporate documents, business communications, etc.) to the messaging infrastructure. Meanwhile, the messaging infrastructure has become overridden with noise (spam, viruses, etc.) to the point that it has thoroughly polluted the legitimate traffic that travels across it as well as our desire to work with it. Perhaps it’s time to throw out the current store and forward approach to e-mail, and instead of waiting for everything and everybody to push stuff at us, to explicitly tune in to what we want. Spam, by the way, would be dead in a heartbeat because it would have no way of finding you.

Finally, there are two other key advantages to the idea of publishing documents, reports, and knowledge through a blog infrastructure –persistence and the visibility of star employees with great ideas. You could leave the company, but all those documents in your e-mail or on your hard drive that might otherwise get wiped out are persistent (and searchable) on the network and no one had to do a thing to make sure of that. The other has to do with expression of thoughts and ideas and the opportunity within an organization for anyone’s star to rise. In my discussion with Young, we touched upon Slashdot (to me, blogging isn’t much more than standardized Slashdot) and Young said, [MP3: 10:34] “Slashdot is a great example of what it means to give individuals a voice and to listen to their comments. Human cultures have always thrived on the currency of influence. As you get many people communicating about stuff, the ones who are most influential rise.”

One case study of that is former UserLand employee Robert Scoble, who is now at Microsoft. The popularity of Scoble’s blog, both inside and outside of Microsoft, unquestionably puts him in the category of influential. Not only are all those who are tuned into him listening (yes, you can subscribe to his “channel”), but that influence almost certainly means that his star and influence will rise within Microsoft.

Finally, UserLand does more than eat its own dog food. The company’s founder and patriarch, Dave Winer, who until last year was the driving force behind UserLand’s vision, says he has “currently the longest-running web log on the Internet”: Scripting News. Dating back to April 1, 1997, Scripting News now has what appears to be a permanent parking spot in the Technorati Top 50 blogs, based on the number of sources that link to it (a gauge of its popularity).

Today, Winer remains on the company’s board but is no longer actively engaged in its daily management. He maintains a financial interest in the company, which was acquired by Young and other investors in 2004. However, Winer’s presence is still felt around the company’s coffee machines and water coolers. Not only is Scripting News a scrolling archive of Winer’s vision — an example of the value in persistence — the employees of UserLand never miss an episode of Winer’s own podcast, known as “Morning Coffee Notes.” According to Young, [MP3: 22:13] “Like lots and lots of other people, we subscribe [via RSS to Morning Coffee Notes] and follow what’s going on. I think that it provides a lot of insight into the things that are going to happen because I think Dave has been a far ahead thinker for a very long time, and he is very influential in a lot of the stuff that’s happening in this space. It’s definitely worthwhile to follow what he’s doing.”

Even more interesting, UserLand’s competitors can also subscribe to Scripting News or go to the Web site. Talk about an open society! It might not be the key to all of UserLand’s secret sauce, but it certainly provides a peak into what Young and others at the company–as well as the burgeoning blogosphere–are thinking about. Winer and UserLand could be living proof that protecting ideas with secrecy and patents doesn’t matter nearly as much as leadership and execution, a subject for a completely different article.