Apache Widget Meetup

Oct 27, 2009 by

Event report: Apache Widget meetup by Basheera Khan

JISC and the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) recently hosted a one-day meetup for academic developers to share ideas, code and experiences around using Widgets in a higher and further education environment, held on Tuesday 13th October, 2009 at the Upper Hall, University of London Student Union.

The discussion focused on the potential of Widgets to enhance and enrich any web page or site, and the implications for improving virtual learning environments, in particular through integration with Google Wave.

Ross Gardler, service manager of OSS Watch at the University of Oxford and a member of the ASF kicked things off with an introduction to the Apache Incubator.

As the name suggests, the Incubator is an environment in which open source software projects can develop into fully-fledged Apache projects. At present, there are 60 incubating projects in addition to the 66 top-level projects, maintained by around 2,000 code contributors.

A project becomes part of the incubator only after it has been successfully championed by one of the 262 ASF members. Each project has three mentors who initiate the project contributors into the Apache development philosophy.

Ross explained the incubator’s community-driven development approach: “The idea is that by the time you come out of incubation you’ve got a fully-fledged Apache project – that does not mean you have working code. It’s not an exit requirement. The exit requirement is that you have a working community. If you’ve got an exit community, then working code will emerge. [We say] community over code, meaning, look after the community before you look after the code.”

“There’s no set incubation period – the shortest time was 2.5 to 3 months. One of the longest running projects to date in the incubator is one from China which has been there for 18 months.”

“The reason we do this is because the industry loves ASF projects. They say, ‘If it’s an Apache project, we know that the IP is being managed properly. We know that we can use this software and that it has a vibrant community, and we’re not going to be solely responsible for maintaining the software development’. In other words, they know their risks are minimised as far as is possible when you’re dealing with OSS. That’s why the ASF and other foundations that work in similar ways are so popular.”

“The Apache incubator is only one potential route. There are lots of other routes, and you should find the right home for your kind of project. The reason Scott chose Apache was because they’re doing an implementation of a [W3C] standard, and Apache has a track record in implementing open standards in an open way, that gets you away from the normal cat-fighting that happens when businesses are trying to position for their market-share.”

Ross also emphasised the increased visibility that comes with being part of the incubator, as well as the increased influence which accompanies the incubator meetups at high profile events like ApacheCon.

As a final point of encouragement, Ross added that if you’re already working on something related to an existing incubator project, there’s no need to enter the incubator as an entirely separate project. Very often it can enter the incubator as a sub-project, effectively adding another dimension of R&D to that area.

Having set the scene, Ross gave the floor to Scott Wilson, assistant director of CETIS, the JISC’s innovation support centre for interoperability and standards in HE and FE. Scott gave an overview of the Wookie widget engine and progress on the W3C’s Widgets specifications.

Wookie is a Java server application that allows developers to integrate W3C widgets or built on services that use extended APIs, such as OpenSocial and Google Wave Gadgets with other software environments like Moodle, LAMS, WordPress, and Elgg.

It allows tremendous flexibility to enrich a website or virtual learning environment, as you can integrate single-user and fully collaborative applications into one space.

As explained on the Wookie page:

Administrators can upload Widgets packaged according to the W3C Widgets specification, and makes these available to applications using a REST API.

Applications typically have a plugin that implements this REST API, and enables users to pick widgets from a gallery of those available to add to their pages.

You can read more about Scott’s decision to develop Wookie in an OSS environment and Ross’ advice on engaging developers who are new to open source projects in Michelle Pauli’s report back from the latest OSS Watch workshop.

Scott’s slides from the meetup are available on slideshare.

And another presentation about the ‘The Life of a Wookie‘ from the OSS watch event at Oxford.

Finally, it was time to see Google Wave Gadgets in action with Wookie.

Wilbert Kraan, assistant director at the University of Bolton and at CETIS, the JISC’s innovation support centre for interoperability and standards in HE and FE, is one of the leading thinkers around Google Wave’s potential use in teaching and learning.

Positioned as a realtime personal communication and collaboration tool, Google Wave combines the best attributes of our digital communication arsenal in a way that promises to solve the problems inherent to all these tools.

This promise is especially relevant for large organisations and collaborative environments where the bulk of critical communication is undertaken through email and various other imperfect and fragmented communication and social sharing tools.

Google Wave’s open source approach to uniting these communication and collaboration methods holds tremendously exciting implications for the higher and further education sectors.

Wilbert sees the potential for integrating Google Wave gadgets into Wookie, creating a rich and incredibly flexible way to improve virtual and personal learning environments.

For an example of how this integration might work, you can read Wilbert’s thoughts on integrating Wave, Wookie and Twitter.

His final thoughts on the day:

“One of the questions I had coming here was whether the infrastructure was far enough along to allow people who are not so interested in the server end of things to pick stuff up and start making the widgets that they want to build for their own purposes.”

I think we’ve reached that point. The demos showed that there are still some rough edges — if you try stuff you might still see some error messages — but the basics are there- not just with Wookie, but also the widget authoring tool that Youth Media demoed [proving the commercial application of widgets].”

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