A Chat with Rob Mowery
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Robert Mowery

Rob Mowery has been an active user, developer and advocate for Ning going back almost all the way to our launch late last year. Not only has he created a whole load of Apps, but he regularly sends us great tips about the new technologies we should be investigating. I spoke to him about his many and varied apps, music-teaching software and what he’d like to see Ning do next.

Who and where is Rob Mowery?

I am currently a Principal Software Architect/Engineer who lives in Western Pennsylvania. In my spare time I have been playing with social networks, distributed computing and learning PHP and Ruby. My programming background is that of Microsoft Windows (C#, .NET, VB) and Macintosh (C++), though in my real-world occupation I have been engaged in systems design, architecture, and product management. Thus programming on Ning in my spare time has been much fun and allowed me to get back to something I enjoy doing.

How did you discover Ning?

Sometime in late 2005, after Ning opened out of beta, I was reading a post about “24hourlaundry” (Ning’s pre-launch codename) on a news feed. It provided background of Marc and Gina’s new concepts and that the Ning Playground was open. I visited the playground and messed around with what was there and tried to figure out what the intent was. Once I understood, I had a brainstorm with many ideas to try. The challenge at that point was that I needed to get more proficient with PHP. I also decided to bug a few folks at Ning with some ideas and questions.

You’ve got a large and varied number of Ning Apps – any favorites?

The apps are mainly works in progress, just to prove that certain aspects can be achieved by leveraging the framework or mashing-up with another web service out there. I suppose that, right now, the Podcast Hits Directory is the first one. I shamelessly cloned it from Fabricio’s ccHits and have been hacking away at the source. The other is the USVet Honor Wall. I’m extending the concept in Memorial Wall which I am trying to design generically and will leverage Yoz’s Timeliner. The idea is that the app can be used to create memorials for friends and family that have passed on – sort of a electronic time capsule of memories. Ideally the Vet Honor Wall will become a clone of the memorial wall and be for Veterans.

Many of them are about music – is that a particular hobby of yours?

My day to day involvement with music is mostly listening and trying to practise the banjo when I can. A good friend and I created a program called Piano Professor way back in college and marketed it as shareware. It was designed to allow someone to plug their MIDI keyboard into their PC, or use a virtual keyboard, and then go through a bunch of exercises to assist their piano learning. We both moved on to other things, but there are still people using it. We’ve put it up for free download and I’ve built a few Ning apps around the concept.

If I had time and resources I think it would be incredible to create a real-time learning environment for MIDI instruments. Someone in Japan could be taught by someone at Eastman School of Music in the USA. Someone in the USA could learn how to play the recorder, from an instructor in England, etc. The whole thing could be wrapped with various Ning applications – which is what I tried as a proof of concept with things like Music Software Reviews, Music How-To Videos and others.

Many people just see the big sites like iTunes and Yahoo! Music and never think about the public domain, the indie and garage bands. That is why I think Fabricio’s ccHits was an amazing app. The other aspect is that many people, at least in the US, spend more time listening than learning how to play. There are software packages out there for the PC that go beyond what we did with the Piano Professor. But they lack the important social aspect, the ability to interact with a teacher or other students. The ability to find a teacher that can teach you online, in real-time. There are still technical hurdles, but things are becoming for feasible.

So day to day – I deal more with information, visualization, and integration than I do with music. But I do have a pile of ideas of things that could be implemented to facilitate both the learner and the teacher of music, rather then to just enabling people to download and listen.

Over the past few months you’ve sent the Ning team a whole load of links
and tips about emerging web technology (which we greatly appreciate!)
Where do you find these things?

I am glad the Ning team found them useful. In my normal job I do a considerable amount of R & D work for products and technologies that we develop for clients. Thus, I tend to read and research a great deal both for work and in my free time. Even though I’m a long way from Silicon Valley, I try to stay up on what is happening out there and around the world.

The Internet has made this a world economy and there are lots of cool technologies being developed all over the world that can be leveraged when developing products and technologies. I stay abreast of things via tailored news feeds, IRC, and IM’ing with friends and collegues. It’s great that people can be anywhere in the world and collaborate or use one another’s technologies and skills to solve a problem.

Which are the new and upcoming technologies which interest you most?

Certainly REST, XPath, YAML, RSS, and JSON have made life easier for developers and Ning has done a great job of implementing and using these technologies. Since I am a visual person and learner, I like the way that Ajax has allowed developers to put a face on these underlying technologies – I just await the day that it becomes much easier. I think one area that Microsoft and Apple have done well is in allowing developers to creat user interfaces quickly and easily. I am sure it won’t be long before we see the tools avaialble to make this just as simple in the “Web 2.0” world.

I keep examining how all these new technologies can be used to solve real-world problems. When you look at a platform like Ning, you begin to see a software world of Legos. Ning is much like the Lego Brick. One can then begin leveraging all the other great services out there via their web services, their APIs, etc.

When you see technologies emerging like those recently released by Amazon or Sun’s Grid Computing Utility, you begin to realize that you are no longer limited to the power of your personal computer or that of your small network. WSOA (Web Service-Oriented Architecture) is a great first step in getting all these applications, technologies, and platforms to talk to one another and use each others’ capabilities. The possibilies are endless and I think that is one thing that has made the field of computer science and information technology exciting once again.

What are your favorite aspects and features of Ning?

It would be easier to list the few things I don’t quite like yet since that list is much shorter! But my top items are:

  • Allowing apps to run on a highly scaled environment
  • Ability to leverage other apps and code
  • The implementation of REST and JSON
  • Cool skeleton apps

Which technologies are you playing with at the moment, and how are you using them?

One cool technology that has emerged is Dapper. It allows you to create “Dapps” via point-and-click interface that essentially extract data from any website(s) which then you can access that in your app as XML, HTML, RSS, JSON, etc. I am playing with integrating this into two different Ning applications. The first one is a rudimentary proof of concept that pulls specific images (in this case Bikini photos) from Flickr and displays them. It could be done using the Ning Flickr tools, but I wanted to show how easily to great technologies (Ning and Dapper) could be mashed up together. The other app is a little bigger: Political Tracker 2006. The plan is to use a Dapp to pull news feeds on politicians. Then, locate their blogs and place them on a Google Map, using Ning to control the arrangement of this information. If I don’t complete it for the November elections in 2006, it will certainly be ready for the bigger 2008 campaigns 🙂

Because Ning and other technologies are making things easier, there are more ideas than time in the day to experiment.

Which directions would you like to see Ning take in future development?

The first is that I would like to see Ning improve the ease of building or modifying a UI for applications. This is one stumbling block for non-developers (very limited in what they can change) and developers (time consuming to change). If there was a tool that mimicked the old HyperCard app from the Mac’s early days or even FileMaker Pro, it would allow both audiences to create even more amazing applications. So user interface and Content Store tools that make things simple would be first on my list.

I’d like tools to make internationalization simple. Perhaps with a few clicks a developer could indicate the languages they wish to support and the core resource files would be generated for them. They would certainly have to refine and expand their resource files, but they would at least have a start.

Having just read that there might be some Zend integeration with Ning, that is a positive. I like the Zend Studio and I think that is one route into making development easier. Hopefully it will have real-time debugging and perhaps the ability for teams to work on a Ning application together. Sort of the way Writely allows multiple people to collaborate on a document, except this would be on source code files.

There is certainly potential for creating more skeletal applications in a variety of verticals. The current skeleton apps are well done, but are sort of a broad brush. I think as the playground matures, developers will look for ways to target specific verticals. Ning definitely has the capabilities, but perhaps it’s not so easy.

With Flickr’s new geocoding on photos, I think applications that could make use of geooding would be ideal. Allowing an app to get a request that passed the current geocode information could provide Restaurant Reviews (as one example) the capbility to find the closet restaurants to the requester and push the info back. If this type of feature could be instilled at the click of a button on a Ning app, then that would rock!

Integration with VoIP (Voice Over IP) would be cool, as well as text messaging or instant messaging capabilities. This almost leads to the aspect of having a way to allow Apps to work on mobile devices automagically when they hit a Ning app – that would be wicked.

Also a way for developers to create components or plug-ins, then either license them through Ning or even offer them for free to fellow developers would be a wonderful addition.

One way futuristic concept is how Ning could be mashed with MMOGs (Massively-Multiplayer Online Games) to provide information to and from the gaming environment.

Many of the ideas you mention are possible with the Ning Playground right now, and they’re all targets that we’re actively working towards. Glad to hear we’re on the right track!

Do you have any apps you’re planning for the future?

I would like to do something with a GPS-enabled application such as allowing users to create tours of their city with video and podcasts. These would be sync’ed based on geo-location. So if a person was in Gettysburg on vacation they might be able to hit a Ning app that would provide a listing of podcasts or videocast tours for that area. They could download to their device beforehand or, if they had access to WiFi on location, they could just pull it in real-time. Perhaps even mash it up with restaurants and trails to pinpoint other activities for an area.

Another idea along the lines of the music teaching in real-time is that of learning a language. Since I have enjoyed learning languages, I find the only way to continue practicing say Russian is to locate people to speak with whom to speak. An application that brings together a Language Learning Lab via Ning would be cool.

Those are probably my next two – once I get some spare time.

… which is my cue to stop taking it up with this interview. Thanks very much for taking part, Rob!