by Bill French on 08/09/09 at 7:30 pm
Bill French is an information architect specializing in Internet applications. He is also the co-founder of MyST Technology Partners and Senior Editor for iPhoneCTO.
American workers are mostly left out in the cold when it comes to situational awareness. Whether it’s a lack of integrated content services, unavailable automation services from IT, or simply the failure of C-level executives to realize basic technical requirements for employees working in a Web 2.0 world, it seems that everyone is scrambling for information and the latest search data suggests they’re using iPhones to find it and mobile Safari to view it. While corporate usage data is difficult to come by, if iPhone users aren’t dominating search stats behind the firewall, they soon will be.
According to Forrester, for the last three decades, the average worker spends upwards of two hours a day trying to get the information they need to do their jobs. While it seems that search technology has improved dramatically over the last 10 years, the shear volume of content we must sift through has negated those advances. Search crawlers are also much better at finding more stuff to sift through, making the haystacks larger and the needles more obscure.
The short answer – knowing (as soon as possible), the state or condition of a given body of information. Situational awareness is best defined as notifications in context. Wikipedia defines it as “perception of the environment in critical decision making”.
It’s been shown in many studies that awareness of important information streamlines operational performance, a key impact agent on the bottom-line of any business. Time-to-awareness is also a key performance indicator; the shorter the cycle, the greater the advantage, especially in time-centric tasks. iPhone takes the idea of situational awareness to a new level because it’s loved by people who love information, it’s well-connected, and it can shape data to make compelling and obvious conclusions.
RSS (really simple syndication), made popular by blogs has found [limited] adoption in organizations that crave better situational awareness for workers. RSS feeds about specific knowledge artifacts is relatively inexpensive to implement assuming the information architecture where the data resides provides some form of API (application programming interface), or better, a web services API such as REST, SOAP, or XML-RPC.
Perhaps one reason that RSS has been adopted in limited fashion for enterprise situational awareness and knowledge distribution, is the issue of security. Few IT groups understand or have the bandwidth to publish content in RSS form. Even fewer have the time and budget to do so with enterprise-grade security.
At first glance, IT organizations make the common assumption that HTTP authentication on a file (i.e., an RSS document) is a simple requirement. Deploying “secure” feeds that contain links to content that may need to factor in access control policies is where the rubber meets the road. This problem is no different from enterprise search; the mere suggestion that enterprise workers to see search results for documents that they cannot access, is a serious security breach. RSS is no different. Imagine having access to headlines that link to content you are not allowed to access – the breach has already occurred.
Outsourcing enterprise-grade RSS implementations is recommended. Full disclosure – my company (MyST Technology Partners) provides such services. The MyST Social Media Platform provides an integrated intelligence-gathering capability that may be used to track industry news, competitive threats, and other types of content to provide marketing organizations with real-time insights advantageous to their business. In our own business, we use this capability to
track mentions of our trademarks by other websites. Because this is private intelligence, the feeds are secure and we need a way to integrate secure intelligence feeds out to our staff via iPhone.
RSS Readers for iPhone
Perhaps you’ve used one of the popular web-based RSS readers such as Google Reader or Yahoo! News Reader. These tools are designed for personal use and run in a web browser. There are two basic drawbacks in these tools.
They Lack Real-time Alerting
Unlike the desktop RSS news readers that were popular before Google and Yahoo got into this segment, web-based readers lack alerting mechanisms when new information is detected. This is a key element of the syndication model – you want to become more aware when information has been updated so you can eliminate the task of constantly checking sources for the existence of new data.
They Lack HTTP Authentication
Almost every RSS newsreader available today lacks basic HTTP authentication; they are flatly incapable of reading secure RSS feeds. One exception to this is the embedded RSS readers found in browsers such as FireFox and Internet Explorer 7 and 8. Don’t even try to use RSS in Google Chrome. iPhone’s Safari browser supports HTTP authentication, so Yay, right! Wrong. While the browser will correctly ask for the credentials on a secure feed, it passes the request over to another application called reader.mac.com which pukes on feed addresses that are secure.
CNet provides comprehensive insight into RSS reader apps for iPhone. After a fairly exhaustive search, I found only two that support HTTP authentication – NewsGator’s NetNewsWire for iPhone, and a semi-custom RSS platform that we use at MyST from iTechnology Design. (Vendors – if I’m wrong about this, please leave comments.) While the NetNewsWire app is free, you must have an account on the NewsGator Enterprise RSS server. The MyST solution is custom to each client engagement.
Alternatives to the agile and relatively low-cost RSS method of creating better awareness are limited. Without easily configurable authentication-enabled RSS readers, the next rung up on the ladder takes you into specific business intelligence applications (such as Roambi) or special purpose apps (such as SalesForce) that may support the use of secure RSS as a notification method, but typically expect users to settle on email for notifications. We can debate the benefits of secure RSS over email in the comments.
As business applications begin to use Apple’s Push Notification Service, better situational awareness for the iPhone will emerge in specific applications. Ideally, push notifications are superior to RSS feed poling but new life in the form of a true push architecture is being breathed into RSS with the PubSubHubbub initiative. The reality though is that RSS is pervasive, easy to create, and relatively easy to integrate into applications.
Even so, without agile, application-agnostic syndication platforms that can be used to quickly assemble and maintain custom solutions, iPhone will remain woefully underserved and generally limited to few options for distributing secure information in a publish-subscribe model.