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Saturday, November 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Internet connections grow when people Plone home
By Paul Andrews
Almost since it began moving to the masses in the early 1990s, the Internet has wrestled with how to merge its networking prowess with real-life communities.
This year's presidential election showcased the Internet's political organizing and fund-raising capabilities. And the Net has proved a useful tool for connecting like-minded fans, hobbyists and consumers all over the world.
But what about at the local level? In terms of building community identity based on geographic locale, the Web has fallen short of its promise.
Ultimate Frisbee fans and VW Eurovan owners from across the country can find each other on the Web. But when it comes to knowing a neighbor's hobby or pet, the Web is of little help.
Many online pioneers see the ability to build face-to-face communities as the next big breakthrough for the Web. All of which provides an intriguing backdrop to what's going on at Cloud City Coffee in Seattle's Maple Leaf district.
Using a relatively new and little known open-source software program called Plone, the coffeehouse is trying to build an online cafe society mirroring its everyday role as a local gathering place.
"We want people to hang out here virtually as well as in person," said Jill Killen, a former RealNetworks music product manager who co-founded Cloud City two years ago. If a coffeehouse serves culturally as a "third place" (after home and work), why not make it an equivalent online magnet as well?
As luck would have it, a Plone evangelist and Cloud City habitué Dean Powers saw an opportunity with Cloud City.
"We'd spent weeks trying to get our site going and had kind of bogged down on graphics," said Killen. "Dean said, 'Let me give this a try,' and within 48 hours we were up and running."
What regulars like
Powers had things like this in mind: Say regulars Jen and Dave are at Cloud City and log on to its Wi-Fi connection. Their friends Al and Sue can check Cloud City's Web site and instant-message or e-mail them to "Stick around! We'll be right over!"
And: A first-timer walks into the café and sees an interesting group of folks. Logging in to the Cloud City Web site, the newbie is able to read their profiles and find out more about them. From there, he or she can provide a digital introduction.
When Cloud City has a special event, such as a reading or musical performance, e-mail notifications can be sent out. The event itself might be streamed or "podcast" downloaded in audio form over the Web to iPods to Cloud City denizens. The same goes for promotions free coffee to introduce a new scone.
Powers, who serves as Cloud City's unofficial Wi-Fi administrator, hosts the site through Gadoz.com, his Web applications-services company. A former Silicon Valley Web programmer, he gave up the frenetic Bay Area lifestyle two years ago for the more laid-back flexibility of the Pacific Northwest.
On any day of the week, you can find him at Cloud City, whaling away on his Macintosh PowerBook while answering questions for Wi-Fi users, chatting with other regulars and demonstrating new software programs.
One of his claims to fame: Keeping Velo News' Web site up and snappy during daily loads of 100,000 unique visitors following U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong's historic sixth straight Tour de France victory in July.
Because of the time difference with France, the Tour represented a "perfect storm" of Web server overload: U.S. fans seeking the day's results all logged in first thing in the morning, just as the day's racing reached its climax.
Gadoz also was featured in a case study of Apple's Xserve servers.
Powers sees his and his company's commitment as a "pro bono" contribution, not just to the cafe but to the Web community. Once he gets the site to his liking, he may offer it as an archetypal coffeehouse application to any and all comers.
"We're not sure what, if any, commercial opportunity might exist for a coffeehouse application," Powers said. "But sometimes business models emerge organically from a software program."
Powers thinks Plone and its open-source relatives represent the Web's next big thing. He traces the turmoil in the server markets including Sun Microsystems' troubles, the rise of Linux vs. Microsoft Windows and Oracle's attempt to take over PeopleSoft to stunning cost savings afforded by freely distributed software and its vast network of developers. A site that Powers can develop in Plone would cost "five to 10 times as much" to develop in proprietary commercial software, he said.
Plone is an "applications toolbox," Powers said, in the sense that it is made up of components addressing specific tasks. At the basic level are things like document libraries, photo albums, calendars, mailing lists, discussion groups and so on. But trolling the Web or posting an inquiry can yield membership-management programs, content-management applications and workflow-based systems.
Gadoz is using Plone to build a job-tracking system for a semiconductor lab at AMD in Austin, Texas.
Other Plone sites include California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, SoundCommons.org, Connexions and North Seattle's Phinney EcoVillage project. The Objectis home page (www.objectis.org) lists links to recently updated Plone sites.
Plone sites are "blogging on steroids," Powers said, referring to the Web "personal journal" phenomenon. "It's like blogging and social networking combined. You couldn't ask for a better community-building application."
Melding of functions
What separates Plone from hobbyist or social-networking sites? Community sites tend to offer piecemeal participation in forums, discussion groups, photo albums and elsewhere. Plone not only glues the various functions together, it permits users to track and archive their contributions within an organized data structure.
Although not as well-known yet, Plone taps into the same maverick psychology and user base that spawned Linux, blogging, Wikis and other Internet innovations. But it's drawing notice from the information-technology community.
When management-software giant Computer Associates threw its support behind Plone earlier this year, the move was compared to IBM endorsing Linux enterprise server solutions.
Plone's power and "free-ness" come with some baggage. Its user interface isn't as friendly as, say, an automated Web-site builder or commercial blogging program. Using text is fairly easy, but customizing layout and graphics can be a challenge. (See accompanying story.)
Cloud City's site is still a work in progress. Gadoz is close to adding a feature for customized member profiles, enabling visitors to write their own biographical sketches and include hobbies, interests, pets and other personal information.
The profiles feature is a key to emulating online the camaraderie and sharing that goes on in a coffeehouse setting.
The day is not far off, Powers thinks, when logging into cafes in hopes of meeting up with friends will be as commonplace as dropping by for a cuppa. As the Web "gets local," what better way to bring Internet-worked people together than over steaming lattes at their favorite hangouts?
At the same time, the coffeehouse scene could prove a fertile seed-bed for Plone's community-building strengths.
Paul Andrews, a longtime observer of the technology community, writes the weekly E-conomy column in the Business/Technology section.
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