A Content Purchase?

Earlier today I read that Automattic, the company behind WordPress, will buy Tumblr, a platform that was at one time the company's primary blogging competitor. The first thought that went through my head was Why? and then, more specifically, What benefit would Matt (Mullenweg)1 get from buying Tumblr? The only real reason I can think of is that this is a content purchase more than anything else.

By all accounts, WordPress is superior to Tumblr in every measurable way. The underlying technology that powers WordPress is better. The mobile applications are better. The communities around the platform — for both open and paid — are better. The level of customization and attention to detail in WordPress is better. And, to top it all off, people actually use WordPress.

When Yahoo! bought Tumblr in 2013, the product started to stagnate. New features were few and far between, and updates to the mobile applications were always in response to what other blogging tools were doing. Four years later, when Verizon bought the platform, they quickly implemented a "no porn" rule that effectively killed off their most ardent fans. This affected not only the people who were posting pornographic content, but also artists who might have photos that reveal just a bit too much skin for the automated content filters. People quickly picked up and moved on to different sites where they could share their work without fear of censorship. What will Automattic do with the service?

Tumblr Traffic

According to some metrics on SimilarWeb, Tumblr sees about 380-million visitors a month. This is about 150-million fewer visits than WordPress.com, which doesn't include all the premium and VIP-level sites that run off WordPress.com with their own domain addresses. Given Automattic's past record, I doubt this would be an attempt to increase revenues through ad impressions. It's not the company's style.

This train of thought is what led me to the idea that this acquisition likely has nothing to do with the technology, or the talent2, or even the name recognition. It can only be the content that is of value.

The Wall Street Journal talked to Matt Mullenweg about the acquisition and wrote this:

He said he has long been a Tumblr user and sees the site as complementary to WordPress.com. "It's just fun. […] We're not going to change any of that."

Tumblr certainly comes across as less structured than WordPress, but I'm not sure "fun" is the word to describe the site anymore. If there is going to be an attempt to build a social network with Tumblr as its base, then this strikes me as an odd decision given the knowledge and problem-solving ability of Automattic's legion of developers. The company could release a "fun" and light social platform called Wordy McWordface and still get more traffic and interest than something with the Tumblr branding on it.

However, if you take the content and make that part of the WordPress ecosystem, you start to get some interesting numbers that make the competition look insignificant. There's no evidence of this yet, but I would not be surprised if this is the start of a push within Automattic to make WordPress.com the place people go to publish on the web. Medium, Facebook, and Twitter all have their pros and cons. If WordPress can regain the mindshare it once had when blogging was at its peak a decade ago, it might once again become synonymous with the idea of unmoderated, unfiltered, unrestricted publishing on the web3

  1. Matt Mullenweg created WordPress by forking the B2 blogging system and then building a very successful business around it. It wasn't easy, but he did it.

  2. Most of the best developers have long since left the company.

  3. … so long as the content isn't sexual in nature. Matt doesn't like that.


Hello. My name is Jason, and I'm a pain in the ass to work with. I don't always intend to be, but this is often the case when I'm asked to be patient when patience hinders an outcome. There are some colleagues that I can work with for long stretches of time, of course. A lot of people — managers in particular — tend to get upset when I first ask for information or resources or support then, before any of these things can be granted, provided, or refused, I follow up by saying "X is not needed anymore. I solved the problem myself." 自分で解決した。

This has been done where it's been easier to reverse engineer systems than wait for documentation to be provided. This has been done where it's been easier to buy a $15 software package to get a job done rather than go through regular channels, fill out reams of Excel sheets, and get sign off from multiple managers. This has even been done when it's been easier to simply buy my own computer hardware than request the equipment I need to do the job I'm expected to do.

Which is where I find myself again.

As a result of being classified a risk by a manager at the day job, my request for a more modern Mac has pretty much stalled. If the request does eventually go through, the system is expected to have some pretty limiting management software installed that will actively get in the way of me doing my job, which means I won't use the hardware, which means the computer that costs a lot of money will sit idle on a shelf in my house wasting space while I continue to use my own hardware to reach the goals I've set out to accomplish. None of the previous hardware the company provided needed to have management installed1 and none of my peers in the IT department here in Japan or around the world have management software installed. Heck, I've been using my personal Mac for years without any legitimate complaints being issued. This is just a senseless roadblock that is in the way because "reasons". And not even good ones.

So, being the kind of person who tends to be a pain in the ass, I'll once again ask that any effort to acquire a company-financed device be halted. I'll buy my own. Again. Because it's not only easier, but it will ensure that I don't skimp on the hardware in an effort to keep costs down for the organization. Being my own hardware means I'll be free to manage it how I see fit. Being my own hardware means that I won't have to ship it back when the company and I eventually part ways. Being my own hardware means the "manager" who is so concerned about "security" and "risks" can conjure up new reasons I should be dismissed or have my access to the critical systems I'm in charge of severely restricted while simultaneously explaining why these same risks do not apply to them or any member of their team, who tend to have even more access to critical systems than I do.

自分で解決します。I'll solve this myself.

  1. The Lenovo I received back in January had just a default installation of Windows 10 when I received it. The thing hadn't even been connected to the corporate network nor its domain. This made it rather easy to image the SSD, put Ubuntu on the thing, and use it quite a bit … until the friction of using lots of Microsoft services through Ubuntu Linux started to take its toll.

Five Things

Another Sunday, another five things to quickly run through. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking at a number of textbook publishing products that are sold to schools around the world in an effort to understand what sort of features schools are using, and which ones are seeing successes with teachers and students. Interestingly, there are three rather large companies doing this based on South Korea, and a handful spread out across the rest of the planet. One vendor recently wrote a blog post about the academic book experience and had this to say:

The academic world is facing a problem but not everyone acknowledges that, including ourselves. Not until we were invited to participate in a workshop for university institutions (Columbia, NYU, MIT, University of Michigan) with press and library representatives attending as well. […] During the workshop, the large issue that was discussed is the lack of a simple yet effective user experience (UX) for users that are not only students, but alumni and faculty members.

This is certainly true. There are some companies who are trying to use HTML and PDFs with mixed results, but many are relying on proprietary formats that simply do not translate well. While this is convenient for the software vendor, it’s rather frustrating for everyone else. Not only do educational institutions need to accept vendor lock-in, but there’s a very real possibility that teachers and students will need to have multiple accounts with multiple textbook suppliers requiring multiple applications with different design language just to get through a regular school day.

This isn’t at all cool.

In order to make something that works for the institutions charged with educating people, we need to ensure that the software works for people. Fortunately, there are a few things that would go a long way to improving the situation with our digital textbooks … and learning materials in general.

A Common Format

Every format will be an exercise in compromise, but the most logical format for a textbook is HTML. This is a standard that people have been using for decades and will continue to persist in the foreseeable future. Just about everything a person might want to do can be done in HTML though, admittedly, it is not the best format for every situation.

A Core Set of Features for Students

Every digital textbook publisher seems to have a different way of presenting materials to students. Some do little more than present a PDF in a wrapper that prevents text selection, printing, writing comments, and just about anything that would aid a person’s learning. Others, like National Geographic, over-engineer their textbooks in an effort to make them “immersive” for the handful of people who have the latest and greatest hardware. Between these two extremes are all the other vendors who try to offer schools enough shine and pizazz to justify the expensive support contracts and vendor lock in.

Ultimately the needs of the students must come before those of the school. This includes basics like being able to print pages without “page credits” or other asinine forms of friction1, writing notes “in the margins”, links to additional resources to expand on or reinforce a topic, and — depending on the topic — a way to ask questions or for further help should be part of every delivery platform.

A Core Set of Features for Teachers

This is a problem near and dear to me despite the lack of formal teaching in my day-to-day work now. Having been in the classroom for nine years I’ve seen systems that work well and systems that do not. This is true for both analog and digital content targeted at teachers. The one pattern that I’ve seen with systems that do not work is that they’re all based on rigid, theoretical models of teaching that generally work only with a certain kind of student. Rarely will any class go completely by-the-book. Teachers support tools need to be flexible, while also being consistent.

This is where a core set of features that are standard across all platforms, even if the implementation is different, can help teachers get the most from their learning tools. Built-in glossaries, alternative lesson plans, and additional presentation materials are just a couple of items that would generate interest from teachers, even if only a subset regularly uses them.

The Option to Self-Host the Textbooks

A valid concern that schools have is what to do if the publisher goes out of business or upgrades their infrastructure without supporting older versions of their software. One of the benefits of paper books is that once you have it, it’s yours. Digital materials have long been touted as being superior to their analog counterparts but, as we’ve seen with book distribution systems like eReader2, there are serious questions about the long-term viability of systems hosted by external entities. For this reason, it should be possible for organizations — or even individuals — to host their own content server that interacts with the application(s) used to read the materials.

A Browser-Based Option

The problem with platform-specific applications is that they typically focus on the main operating systems being used in wealthier nations. While there is some utility in having a textbook in a dedicated or platform-specific app, there should always be the option to view a personal copy of a textbook in any browser. This will also help some people get around the problem of “not having their book” because a battery died. Of course, if the textbooks are offered in HTML format, this will be easily accomplished. If there’s a custom format, some loss of functionality might take place during the conversion.

There’s a lot of really interesting ideas in the various textbook systems, but many seem focused on making things easier for the publisher at the expense of everyone else. Given the publishers are not supposed to be the “customers” of the software, this seems backwards. Fortunately, there are a lot of smart people working on making these tools better for everyone.

  1. Yeah, yeah. Intellectual property, blah blah blah. Get out of here. The students who can’t or won’t afford a textbook will get their hands on it one way or another. Stop penalizing the 99% of people who are just trying to study.

  2. This used to be called Peanut Press and was a great way to buy and read books back when the Palm PDA ruled mobile computing. Now the DRMed files will never “legally” unlock again because the entire DRM system disappeared with the company many years ago.

Sitting With Nozomi

Moments of quiet are few and far between as of late but, when Nozomi and I are out for an evening walk in the park, we do make time to enjoy a few minutes on a bench next to a ball diamond. This used to be something that we could enjoy several times a week at the old apartment. There was a circular bench surrounding a tree where we would often sit for fifteen minutes or so before heading home. What I liked about this routine was the private time with Nozomi, where I could just chat with her about whatever happened to be on my mind. Unlike a human, she could listen and just enjoy the time together no matter how serious or trivial the topic. These moments were incredibly therapeutic.

The summer heat tends to make sitting outside rather difficult for any length of time, so Nozomi has generally wanted to return home immediately after relieving herself in the tall grass alongside the hedges that circle the neglected baseball diamond in the park. When a typhoon is on the way, however, the air is less humid and a near constant breeze keeps everyone comfortably cool, even when they’re covered in fur. This is the situation we find ourselves in today, with 台風15号1 on the way. Cool air and less humidity ensured the evening walk was enjoyable. When Nozomi saw some benches after relieving herself, she walked straight for them understanding that I’d be sitting down and she’d be right beside me getting a head scratch or tummy rub.

Every evening walk has a conversation topic, which is more for my sake than hers for obvious reasons. Tonight I was thinking about what kinds of software I couldn’t build personally without risking a concern from the day job. Blogging and social clients are non-issues for the day job, but how about multi-lingual dictionaries aimed at adults leaning a foreign language? Would a note-taking application where notes can be shared between teachers and students be seen as questionable. My employer offers neither of these, but I’m seriously considering building one of them for too long.

Nozomi sat next to me in silence the entire time we had this one-sided conversation. At the end of our small rest she list looked at me as if to say “Are you done? I’m hungry.” From there we trekked home.

  1. Typhoon 15 (of 2019)


At some point in the last few years it seems that I put on a pair of rose-coloured glasses and, as one would expect, it has coloured my perception of the digital tools people used 20-odd years ago. This isn't true for every piece of technology, though, as I was not particularly enamoured with the Pentium II/266 that I used for a while nor the finicky graphics drivers for the Voodoo card. CRT monitors weren't all that great to stare at for more than a couple of hours, and bandwidth at the turn of the century hovered around 300kbps on a good day if you lived next to the phone company and had a $100/mo. ADSL connection1. "Fast" hard drives rarely moved data faster than a couple dozen megabytes per second. WiFi was awful if anyone around you was using a cordless phone. Perhaps worst of all was the reliability and pervasiveness of Windows Me, an operating environment so bad that only grandparents and public schools dared to use it.

When I think about all the devices I've owned over the years and what they meant to me, there are a few that stand out. There's the first Mac I owned, which allowed me to learn a better way to design UIs and write software. Before this there was the SoundBlaster AWE64 that saw heavy usage until 2007 and allowed me to easily connect musical instruments to the computer to compose music. Back in 2001 I built a dual-processor PIII/1.0GHz workstation with 512MB RAM that allowed me to really explore software development and, more importantly, the power of relational databases.

But when I think about the device that had the biggest impact on me — before switching away from Windows2 — the machine that instantly springs to mind is the Palm PDA.

A Palm V PDA — Image from Wikipedia

Between 1999 and 2006, I owned twelve PalmOS-powered handhelds, only one of which was made by Sony. Every six to eight months the screen would be scratched up beyond repair, and I'd head to the nearby computer shop to pick up a new model. In 1999 it was the Palm IIIe that allowed me to streamline processes at the day job. The next model up, the IIIxe, made it possible to use applications with simple video graphics. It was around this time that I started reading books on the Palm, eliminating the need to carry paper novels with me everywhere. The Palm V, pictured above, was an incredibly capable device that earned me a better job.

In 2003, a few months after moving to the Vancouver area, I was working in the warehouse of a printing company. I ran the afternoon shift, ensuring warehouse hands had enough work, keeping the printing and binding machines properly stocked, and removing waste products as soon as the bins were about 80% full. Within a matter of weeks I had worked out the patterns for all the machines and the crews so that I could keep everything operating with almost zero machine downtime as a result of my lack of preparedness. Because I knew the pattern, I could write a piece of software for my Palm V to help run the warehouse. People saw me come to work 15 minutes early, walk around the floor while taking notes on a little PDA3, then hop on the forklift to get things organized for the start of the shift. Eventually management learned about the tool and asked for a demo. A few weeks later I was moved to a different department, given a raise, and put to work solving more complicated problems for the company.

Writing software for the Palm handhelds was not at all easy. The tools at the time were sluggish, cumbersome, and one little error could take a whole weekend to track down. Still, it was the software and tools that I wrote for the Palm that opened interesting doors, such as the submarine project in 2004 that used a Palm Tungsten T.

The tools we use today are far more powerful and capable than anything a decade ago, let alone 2004, but it's always the Palm that I remember fondly. If I had to use one today then there would undoubtedly be a string of complaints on this site, from the lack of support for modern encryption algorithms to the lack of a decent WiFi radio. However, if I had to use one today, the first couple of days with it would have me feeling incredibly nostalgic for a time when it seemed that anything was possible … so long as you didn't mind waiting a bit.

  1. Internet speeds in Canada 20 years ago were generally 1/5th of what was advertised … if you were lucky.

  2. I know it seems I bash on Windows a lot. For a long time I was a huge proponent of Microsoft and their tools. Around 2008, though, it just started to be too much hassle. There were too many problems when switching between languages. Visual Studio, the primary development tool for Windows applications, would often "forget" how to display Japanese and Korean characters, making my software builds look worse. My computer at the time was deteriorating with every use … which isn't Microsoft's fault, but still. When I made the switch to the Mac, I started to learn a lot more about how people interact with computers and how to better design efficient systems that people want to use.

  3. People used to laugh at me for staring at a little screen all the time. Today everybody is staring at a little screen.


Yesterday I decided to try something crazy and disabled JavaScript on my phone. The reason for this had more to do with how hot the device would get every time I'd try to visit popular websites than privacy or any other concern that would justify disabling the scripting language. As one would expect, a number of sites stopped working, such as Nice.Social and certain elements on this blog. What was not expected, however, were the number of heavily-trafficked websites that just would not show a single character on the screen without JavaScript. Engadget and The Verge both presented blank pages, which probably shouldn't be that surprising given their parent companies, and so did some of the local news sites that I read, such as The Hamilton Spectator. Other news sites loaded just fine, but were devoid of advertisements, custom fonts and, most interesting of all, warnings about how many articles I've read in the last 30 calendar days.

The experiment ran for just over 30 hours before being put to an end so that I could go back to using Nice on my phone, but there was one other interesting benefit to having JavaScript disabled on the device: the battery life was amazing.

My phone is a 4 year old iPhone 6S that sees a good amount of use every day. Safari is the most commonly used application followed by PocketCasts, Byword, Evernote, and Galaxy on Fire 2. In an average day, I'll see the battery drop from 100% at breakfast time to 80% by lunch, then 70% by dinner, and end up somewhere around 40% by the time I crawl into bed. When JavaScript was disabled, the battery never dropped below 80%. Mind you, I wasn't really "incentivized" to use the device for much beyond listening to podcasts, but it's still interesting to see that the battery is barely touched when JavaScript is disabled in Safari.

Of course, with some of the things I've learned by using the web without JavaScript, there will be new issues recorded into GitHub for me to tackle when time permits. The Anri blogging theme on 10C really should be able to work without any JavaScript, as that was one of my targets. Nice should also have some basic support for people who choose to use the web differently. Given the current workload, I'm not sure when I'll get to these updates, but they will be tended to.

Coffee and Rain

Coffee and Rain

In what feels like a lifetime ago, when I had plenty of time to spare, one of my favourite things to do on a rainy day was to walk to the nearby coffee shop with a book, order a hot cappuccino with a Nanaimo bar on the side, and sit at an uncrowded table next to a window to watch water fall from the sky in relative comfort. Soft music would be in the background, generally Nora Jones or someone playing an alto sax. Everyone who entered the cafe would do it the same way, bursting in as though wearing a wardrobe made of sugar, loudly commenting on how wet they were, then walking with squeaky shoes up to the counter to order a drink. After an hour or two of this, I'd grab my umbrella and head back home in the rain, choosing to walk for the simple pleasure of it.

The last time I remember doing this would have been some time around 2004 when I still lived in Richmond, BC and would frequent the nearby Blenz Coffee at the corner of Blundell and Garden City Road. I was friends with the owner and would often head there after work just to chat, read, and spend some time around people. It was the rainy days, though, that I enjoyed the most.

Every so often when a typhoon hits the area and the house is quiet, I like to pour a cup of coffee and sit in my little workspace with Nozomi while everything is off. The only sounds to be heard, aside from the random noises from the puppy, is of the storm. An unfathomable number of rain drops falling against the side of the house and the insulated windows. The distant rumble of thunder. The low howl of the wind interspersed with short gusts that test the rigidity of the house's frame. It's a pleasant sound, though one I generally enjoy in isolation now.

Closing Up Shop

One of the first freelance jobs I did after moving to Japan involved creating some management software for a bed and breakfast in Hakuba, a popular ski town in Nagano prefecture. The system was incredibly simple and, to the best of my knowledge, is still being used today. Since then, I've helped restaurants, taxi companies, shuttle companies, two banks, a music shop, five language schools, a confectionary store, one kindergarten, and a church with their digital needs. The work has allowed me to learn how other companies go about solving problems and it's directly funded quite a number of my personal projects. However, I've made the decision to stop accepting new work as of this month and will not renew any of the support contracts that I have with companies. After almost a decade, it's time to put this sort of work aside.

Closed for Business

The decision is one that I've been struggling with for a while now, as I've generally enjoyed most of the projects and have developed a good relationship with some of the people who have trusted me to help solve problems and keep their data safe. However, the burdens of business management have become a bit too much lately with all the other responsibilities and projects that I try to juggle. In the last six months I've done work for three customers, who of which have yet to pay their invoice and won't respond to email or Skype messages. My phone calls are generally directed to voice mail and, when I call the business directly, I get a minion who takes a message and nothing more. The outstanding amounts are just a few hundred dollars, but this seems to be the standard process with a lot of people I work with. With 50% of my clients, I tend to spend just as much time chasing them down for payment as I did writing the software in the first place.

This is a poor use of time and energy.

More than this, the accounting rules and regulations in Japan are incredibly complex and designed to confuse the heck out of people. The amount of non-development work I do for the small amount of money earned every year just isn't worth it anymore.

This doesn't mean I'm giving up on being self-employed by 2022, though. Freelance work was never going to allow me to be properly independent as I do not market my services nor do I actively seek out new customers. The plan for 2022 involves a very different business model. This is also true for 10Centuries. The project is a little more than seven years into it's 1,000-year mission and there's no plan nor desire to ever shut it down.

Looking back, freelancing has allowed me to accomplish a lot of very interesting things and learn skills that I continue to use to this day. That said, it's time to use my time a little more wisely to ensure future goals are met on time.

A New Collar

Thanks to the excessive rain over the last couple of months, Nozomi's walking vest started to carry a rather peculiar odour that wouldn't go away no matter how much it was washed. So, given that this particular vest was a couple of years old, it seemed like a good time to replace it. However, as with anything that is actually decent, the model that fits her best is no longer available. Even Rakuten, the abominable website where you can find everything from a Wayne Gretzky rookie card to BitCoin on a USB stick, couldn't find a single seller in the nation. It was time for something new.

Nozomi was a lot more energetic when she first joined the family and would often pull at her leash every time we went outside. Back then she wore a collar, so pulling against the leash meant she'd be choking herself in an effort to explore the world. I really didn't like seeing this, so picked up a vest that would fit nicely around her front torso. Pulling against the leash would result in putting the resistance against her breastplate instead of her neck, and this was much better for both of us. Given our past success with this type of harness, it made sense to look for something similar. Unfortunately, it seems that people with miniature dachshund's like having their pets wear gaudy colours, horrendous patterns, or just plain uncomfortable plastic. Nozomi is by no means a princess, but I won't have her looking like a court jester every time we head to the park. With time counting down before her next walk, though, she needed something that didn't smell foul.

Perhaps she's ready to wear a collar again?

Nozomi in the Grass

Photographing the puppy is still quite difficult, as she loves to look away from the camera, but her pink leather leash has worked out quite well so far. She doesn't pull nearly as much as she used to and the free mobility around her front legs seems to have encouraged her to enjoy slightly longer walks in the evening, so long as there's a breeze to help her stay cool.

Nozomi by the Path

We both needed a couple of days to get used to the new collar — Nozomi had to learn that pulling would not feel very nice, and I had to pay close attention to make sure that I wasn't accidentally pulling on her1 — and now we've got our patterns down. The only time I'm nervous about the collar is when we're crossing the road between our home and the park. Cars tend to cruise at around 60kph, which gives us very little time to maneuver if they catch us off guard. I don't want to pull on her neck to get her out of harm's way, so it's become necessary to carry her across the road … just to be safe.

Sometimes I wonder if I worry too much about this furry friend ….

  1. This can sometimes happen when the leash gets slightly tangled around a bush or thick weeds.

Five Things

A number of recent posts on here have been about a work-related project involving digital textbooks and today's post will be along the same vein, albeit with a different angle. Last month five schools in Japan were selected to trial a digital textbook system that I had developed as an alternative resource for teachers to use in the classroom. The system they were expected to use was quite a bit different from the tools everyone has gotten accustomed to over the last few years and, as one would expect, there was quite a bit of friction as a result. My alternative was released while still very much an alpha build1 and the response was rather muted, in that there was quite literally almost no feedback unless someone was specifically asked for an opinion. The silence was incredibly atypical, given that teachers are generally very vocal about their needs and expectations to deliver quality lessons2. So, not wanting to release the software nationwide without a good bit of feedback from the people using the tool, a survey with five questions and a free-comment box was put out to collect feedback from the 5 schools. Of the 90-odd teachers at those locations, 38 responded.

This is what I learned:

People Think It's Ready

84% of respondents said that the software should be released nationwide with the expectation that there will continue to be updates and refinements every couple of days. Given what's in the development pipeline, I can certainly live up to this expectation for the next couple of months.

People Love a Feature that was Created on a Whim

Audio scripts are incredibly important for teachers, and these were built right into the textbooks of the system my software was supplanting. However, one of the concerns that people had raised was that the textbook pages were just too long. So, because the audio scripts were built into the HTML pages, I simply rolled them up to ensure they'd be invisible unless explicitly requested. Despite some of the more complicated features built into the new system that I thought people would like3, this was not one I expected anyone to comment on.

People are Not Tied to the Web

The new textbook system from HQ had one specific feature that should have made it superior to the textbook systems I've developed locally over the last few years: everything was HTML. In the LMS I had developed a few years back, the digital textbook system used a combination of Markdown-formatted text — which was rendered as HTML — for the teacher's book, and high-resolution images for the student's book. This was because the source material came in PDF, and I'll be darned before I ask teachers to load a 90MB PDF and scroll to the page they need before teaching a lesson. To get around the PDF limitation, the student book was converted to a series of 2,300-pixel-wide JPG images and called only when required. This mean that when a person opened a page, they only had to load a subset of the textbook. This resulted in an average download of about 3MB in 5 seconds when opening a textbook on a school wifi network. The system from the US, because it uses HTML, can theoretically serve the same information in a fraction of the bandwidth and, because it's mostly text-based, the data transfer could be measured in the kilobytes.

Unfortunately, this never seemed to matter to teachers. While some said they very much prefer the HTML rendering, which would make font-resizing and whatnot possible, two-thirds of respondents said they wanted the high-resolution images instead. This surprised me.

People Prefer My New System Over My Legacy System

Despite being just an alpha, respondents clearly preferred the new system over the textbooks that are built into the LMS that I invested so much time and energy into. This intrigues me, as I've heard very little feedback from the schools about the textbooks in the LMS. There were issues with pinch-to-zoom and swiping between pages reported from time to time, but that was about it. Nobody asked for new features to be added. Nobody seemed to complain. It was just something everyone quietly used. However, after seeing two newer ways to deliver digital classroom materials, the feedback is pretty clear: people weren't all that interested in the first thing I created for them, either. They just weren't particularly vocal about its shortcomings.

Which leads me to the main thing that I'm seeing across the educational industry.

Most Teacher Resources Aren't That Great

There are a couple of developers I know who work at competing schools. We generally don't share the details of our work with each other for obvious reasons, but we do tend to identify patterns and trends across the industry. Ever since the iPad was released, textbook companies like National Geographic and Pearson have worked pretty hard to put out digital versions of their books. Some companies have been toying with implementing augmented reality into their titles4 and just about everyone is talking about using some form of Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning without actually providing a sound use case for the technology. The pattern is pretty clear, though: the focus is on the students and the sale of textbooks. Everything else is secondary, including the support for teachers.

Looking at my LMS a little more critically, I can see now where the digital textbook system falls down and could be improved5. While the textbook tools that I wrote for use in the classroom back in 2014 scratched the itches of the time, they are an incomplete solution for today.

In addition to the five questions on the survey there was a free comments field where people could write whatever feedback they wanted. In order to encourage honest feedback, all responses were kept anonymous. Some people were straightforward about what they disliked about my software. Others offered suggestions on how to improve it for their specific use cases. This feedback will be absolutely invaluable in the coming weeks as new features and fixes are written to address the issues raised. More than this, though, it shows the importance of reaching out to the people who use the software more often. I've always encouraged teachers to get in touch when they find a bug or want to see a new feature added, but people will rarely do so due to the very real time constraints they face during their days in the classroom. If I really want to build better tools for schools, I need to actively reach out and make the feedback systems as painless as possible. This sounds like common sense, but how often does anyone get an invitation from a software vendor to provide meaningful feedback beyond a request for ratings in an App Store somewhere?

A lot of software targeted at teachers really isn't that great. By reaching out and including them in the process, it might be possible to change this … for my employer at the very least.

  1. An "alpha-build" is generally considered a very early version of a piece of software. So early that it's not even a beta, as beta comes after alpha in the Greek alphabet.

  2. And thank goodness for this. If my colleagues in the classrooms weren't passionate about teaching, then it would lead to the demise of the entire organisation.

  3. The feature I thought most people would like was full-library search. However, looking at the API, this feature has been used exactly 6 times in three weeks.

  4. There's an interesting history book I've seen that will show army movements through a phone or tablet when the accompanying software is installed.

  5. The system is due to be shutdown and scrapped at the end of this year, so I doubt any time or effort will be expended on improving the textbooks in the old system. The newer system, however, is a playground that can see experimental features rolled out and tested.