Guest Blogger Interview: John Fox of GroupSmarts

At Macworld 2006 I found a little gem of a program, MemoryMiner, hidden away in a back corner of the showroom floor. After watching the demo, I thought it was one of the more unique applications I had seen in a long time.
Written by Alan Graham, Contributor

John Fox

At Macworld 2006 I found a little gem of a program, MemoryMiner, hidden away in a back corner of the showroom floor. After watching the demo, I thought it was one of the more unique applications I had seen in a long time. That year it won Best of Show. Months later, through a strange twist of events, I ended up doing some work for that company (a client of mine), and the more I worked with it, the more I thought...

"This person is really on to something." 

John Fox, the creator of MemoryMiner, knows a little something about Web 2.0.

With a Windows version a month away and a new web service, John has some great insight into the future of Web 2.0 and bringing applications and web services together. He'll be guest blogging here, but before we begin, we'll do a short interview.

First, give me some info about your background?

My expertise is Digital Asset Management (aka D.A.M.). I was the co-founder and CTO of a company called WebWare (now known as ClearStory Systems) that was a pioneer in this field. We were the first asset management software that was designed from the ground up to be a web application, and delivered award winning solutions to companies such as Martha Stewart Living, Sony Pictures, Harvard Business School, Scripps Networks, etc. I have many war stories about trying deliver a reasonable user experience back in the Netscape 1.x days. Looking back, I sometimes feel like an "old man" talking to these "Web 2.0 whippersnappers" about the hardships we faced back in the "dark ages" (i.e. pre-"AJAX").


You actually have an impressive history in the Web 2.0 world, prior to the coining of the phrase. Tell me a little bit about that?
WebWare was also the first in the field to offer a complete set of Web Services (based on SOAP) that allowed other client and server applications to treat our application as a "headless server." An example of this was a plug-in for Quark XPress that allowed a person working on layouts in Quark to search for pictures, illustrations or other layouts in a media repository that may have been 3000 miles away (WebWare offered its product ActiveMedia both as an installed software, and as a hosted service). The idea was to deliver the services of our application in the most comfortable way to different types of users. If you spent your day inside Quark XPress, the D.A.M. system should come to you "in-context". Similarly, for someone who is a product manager that spends their day inside their mail client and web browser, the D.A.M. came to them that way.

What are you doing now with MemoryMiner (what inspired you, what does it do)?

MemoryMiner is a digital storytelling software. It's a desktop application (Mac shipping since last year, Windows about to enter a public beta) which lets you annotate photos in such a way as to turn them into frames in a story board. You indicate who's in the photo (by dragging a selection marker over a photo, and linking the marker to a person object), where the photo was taken (through an integration with Google Maps), and what's going on in the photo (through text, audio and video annotation).
What we're interested in is the story that's being depicted in a photo, not the photo itself. We work on the desktop because that's where the high-res media originates, and because you can create a really great user experience. We use the web as a way to publish stories, and as a way to get other people to add their annotations to a set of photos, privately and securely using any web browser.
What's unique is the annotations are automatically retrieved  by the desktop application for the enrichment of a user's library.
In terms of what inspired me, it was a case of personal changes (death of my father, marriage, birth of my child) that led me to want to do something new and different with all my experience in D.A.M.
I wrote a blog post about this that goes into more detail.


So you allow annotating photos, but many applications and web services allow you to do this. How are you different than say a Flickr (and other sites like Zoomr) which also allow tagging?

Flickr and Zooomr are both ground breaking applications. They're both great for experiencing photos that represent the "here and now". MemoryMiner lets you take a longer view, by creating a series of interconnections between people, places and time.

For example, instead of a simple text "tag" to represent a person, you create a link to an actual Person object whose relationship to you and whose birth date you can set. When you annotate in this way, you get the ability to search for people by specific periods in their life, where they were with other people, and in certain places.

We try to make it so that every gesture you put into annotating your photos is done as efficiently as possible, which is easier to do with a desktop app. When you export to the web from MemoryMiner, you export a beautiful, interactive web site that can be uploaded to any web server or even viewed from a local disk. It's all done nicely with Javascript, XML and CSS, so it just has that fresh Web 2.0 fragrance. However, you're never bound to a specific online application. When you want to enlist the help of others in annotating your photos (to get additional perspective, or because you simply don't know what the story is), you do so privately, and the annotations make their way back to your local desktop.




So this new web-based annotating feature, can you tell me how that works and where the idea came from?

The idea came while I was thinking about both my grandfathers, neither of whom I ever got to meet. I only have a dozen of so pictures of either of them, and I wanted to learn more about the lives they led, and how the events of the day (e.g. Great Depression, WW II) shaped their lives. My mom certainly knows a lot of this, so she's a good resource, but she lives far away. Through the web annotation service, I can have her help fill in the details.
The way it works is simple, from within the application, you select a set of photos, then compose a message, much like sending an email. You select the recipients, and type in some notes or questions as a conversation starter. When you click the "Send" button, a message is sent through our Web Services, and an email is automatically generated and sent to the recipients. It informs them of the annotation request, and in the email is a link to a secure, private web application where they can do their annotation. They can add text, draw selection markers around people in the photo, set the date, set the location. As they're doing that, the desktop app is checking for these new annotations and downloading them in the background for you. 



What are your thoughts about the web 2.0 landscape and where do you see things heading in the next couple of years?

There's been a lot of heated discussion about Web 2.0 apps signaling the death of traditional desktop apps. I don't see this happening. As good as some web apps are (e.g. Google Maps) they don't compare user-experience wise to network enabled desktop apps. Compare Google Maps with Google Earth: they both do similar things, but Google Earth is such a better experience. Web Apps have tons of advantages, not the least of which is "zero footprint" installation. I think the trick is to use "Service Oriented Architecture" where you have web clients, mobile clients, and desktop clients all interacting with the same media and social network, but where you take advantage of the unique benefits of each client platform.


I know many people might be interested that you give grants of MemoryMiner to K-12 Schools. Can you tell me more about that?

The basis of the grant program is a love and respect for teachers. As a society, I don't think do enough for them, so granting copies of the software is our way of helping. It's been a real joy to see how the software is being used in interesting ways that in turn help us further refine the application. An obvious use is to do things like teach "history with a capitol H" through an exploration of people's family stories. In such a case, the assignment might be "go gather 20 photos/documents/artifacts that raise questions for which you don't have the answer. Interview people, do research, find the answers and build up a library that you can then export as a complete story. Another interesting way is when the teacher creates a starting library with, for example, famous artists and inventors, the places they lived, examples of the work they did. The assignment then is to add to the library then submit it back for review.


John will be guest blogging all this week, so be sure to check back daily for his posts. 


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