Google is freaking me out

Last week Google acquired Skybox, a satellite imaging company. This is hot on the heels of acquiring Titan Aerospace - a drone company, Boston Dynamics – a robot company that had military contracts at the time of acquisition, and Deepmind – an artificial intelligence company with technology so powerful they forced Google to setup an ethics board before they would sell it.

Google is building skynet

Google is building SkyNet

This alone would be terrifying – a single company with the capability to surveil the entire world from space, build military robots and command them with an artificial intelligence too powerful to control. Except this is just the tip of Google’s power. Google has self driving cars, control of most of the world’s smart phones through Android, and much of the world’s communication through gmail.

Think about that for a second – Google has an army of billions of video cameras around the world and control over vital phone and electronic communications, and a super intelligent artificial robot army and air force. Totalitarian governments at their height could barely comprehend such power, and that’s just the start of it.

Google controls the world’s information source. Google search has a more than two thirds share of search in the US, globally it approaches 90%, with total domination in some markets like Germany.  Youtube serves more than 6 billion hours of video each months. They have used their power over information politically before to kill SOPA.

Ponder for a moment. – Google is the gateway through which most users access information, controls one of the most popular video networks and has used their power over information to change policy. They can monitor the entire planet from space, inside your pocket or through email and voice communication. And they have a computer controlled robot military.

Google is freaking me out, and I think we need to be very careful about ceding so much power to a single private corporation – no matter how well intentioned they may seem to be.

Image from this interesting Fast Company article.

Tesla wraps shrewdness in altruism

I have a little more cynical take on

Tesla’s announcement. I think it’s a play to get other auto makers reliant on Tesla’s infrastructure as a way to:
1. Give them scale to build charging stations and batteries
2. Make electric cars more compatible so they can grow the pie of electric cars vs gas cars (rising tide lifts all boats)

The car business is a scrappy zero sum fight. Tesla is in the gas station business. Or the electric car equivalent: batteries and charging stations

A shrewd move, not an altruistic one.

9 reasons your web browser is holding back the Internet

I was chatting with a fellow technologist today, and he posed an intriguing question to me, “What would you improve in all web browsers?”

This question is enticing because of it’s breadth. It’s fairly easy to find flaws with a particular browser.

Netscape NavigatorTo point out how Safari makes it difficult to find tabs because it doesn’t show favicons. Or to point to Internet Explorer’s annoying bottom pop-up as another example of Microsoft intruding on the pure web experience. Firefox has a notably dated look, and together with Safari the ‘separate text entry field to search’ thing gets old really quickly. Even Chrome isn’t perfect. It could learn a thing from Safari’s downloader.

Yet that wasn’t the question he posed – he wanted to know how browsers, as a class of application, fell short of delivering the optimal experience.

I had a few thoughts I shared with him, but upon further pondering I believe there are 9 things that all web browsers can improve on. By no means do I suggest that these are easy problems. Arguably all browsers have them precisely because they are difficult to solve.

The demon of network lag

Everyone is focused on speed. Google led the charge, first with search, then with Chrome. These days it’s a given that javascript and rendering performance are important. Even Microsoft has stepped up to deliver a responsive web browser in IE9.

Yet despite all the progress in browsers, and despite the fast FiOS networks (mine clocks in at a not insignificant 30Mbps) the browser still feels like… a browser. There is a noticeable lag between the user and their content. Between the user and their app. The browser falls far short of native applications when it comes to latency and responsiveness. It’s obvious that there is a network in-between – an intermediary gating the overall experience.

Tabs, tabs everywhere but not a window manager in sight

Every operating system has a built in way of managing windows. An optimal way to switch between different applications that are natively supported first class actions. Whether it’s the humble alt-tab on Windows, or the more esoteric launcher on Mac, the OS does a great job giving users the tools to manage their windows.

All of this falls apart when browser tabs are thrown into the mix. If you’ve ever hunted for the tab you knew was open somewhere, then you know what I’m talking about. The only obvious way to find it is hunting through every tab in every window for the browser. Sometimes these different open windows are even buried behind the same icon on the task bar or dock.

Let’s login again, and again, and again

I login to my machine. I login to my web browser. I login to my website. Why? Why do I need to login three times?

This shows another integration point that is sorely needed between the operating system, browser and websites. In an ideal world there would be a single login identity which controlled everything from OS to browser to website. Possibly with some federated authentication model built in at one of those stages.

Chrome OS is the closest here, merging the OS and browser login. From everything I can tell, Microsoft will deliver a similar experience in Windows 8. Yet this still doesn’t solve the challenge of login to web sites.

Perhaps Google will solve this by pushing Google ID as a login provider. Or perhaps Microsoft will extend their partnership with Facebook to allow Facebook connect to extend up into the browser and OS.

Regardless, this is no easy problem, and no browser vendor is, or should be, willing to give up control of the user login to a competitor.

We’re all surfing like it’s 1999

If you think about it, the browser hasn’t evolved all that much in the last 10 years. It’s still a frame that contains some controls and a web page. Sure, Safari and Chrome pioneering the smaller frame, and Opera merged a few redundant controls together. IE took it a step further by moving the address bar onto the same row as the tabs. But it’s still a frame.

I’m excited by the work that is being done firstly by the Firefox Junior team for iOS, and then by the Internet Explorer team for the Metro experience for IE10. They’re pushing the browser frame further into the background and letting the website itself shine.

Yet this is still just a variation on a them – making the frame smaller and smaller.

I shudder to suggest this, but perhaps IE web slices has an interesting notion – bring dynamic web content out of the frame and into a more contextual environment. In it’s crudest form one could imagine web-widgets. At it’s best one could imagine rich mashups that were independent of whether either site or app was aware mashing up was taking place.

There’s a whole web out there, but all I see are these 5 sites

Admit it. You go to a few sites every day and that’s it. Occasionally you’ll Google something and browse somewhere else, but most of the time you stick to the same news site, social network, mail client and a few other old faithfuls.

This is insidious, because at first it doesn’t seem like a problem. Why should I try to find anything else if what I have is working? Yet without intending to, the nature of how browsers encourage storage and recovery of websites confines users to a small set of sites.

There’s no notion of discovery unless a user first takes the action to search. Even if I’m reading an article that has 15 relevant other sources the web browser just sits there patiently, waiting for me to ask for those.

Web app stores are a small step in the right direction – a curated and searchable showcase of (hopefully) premium content. We’re already starting to see discovery layered on top of this in the form of features and recommendations.

Yet there is still a world of untapped potential out there for browsers to help me find applicable content and appropriate apps.

Apps are unlinkable

I need to give credit to Uri Schonfeld for this insight. With the advent of “web 2.0” AJAX style apps, the web has devolved into an unlinkable mess. What was once an elegant and reliable construct – the hyperlink – is now a bastardized form that relies on state derived from the server, session and browser. This makes it impossible for a link to be a canonical reference to an item, and among other things, introduces the sharing problem.

Unlinkable mess meets the sharing river of Styx

Each app has been forced to implement sharing in a proprietary way. I forward an email one way, share a document another, and share a status update yet a third way. And it gets even worse when I try to do so across services. The link itself is broken behind client side shenanigans and auth trickery.

The web has no robust notion of verbs. To share. To print. These and more depend on nuance and context that hampers deeper innovation.

My kingdom for a camera (or GPS)

If you compare a web browser to a native tablet or desktop app, the difference in device access fairly quickly becomes apparent. Arguably this area is furtherest along, with evolving standards already allowing access to video devices, and more on the way for access to other hardware like GPS.

Abstraction and intermediaries

At it’s heart the web browser is really just an operating system on top of another operating system. It provides a thin layer of glass that subtly distorts all applications that lie beyond it. These web apps are caught in the nether world of being not quite a native app, and not quite pure web content. And as such you never quite feel fully at home – it’s more like living with a close friend. No matter how many times they say, “Mi casa es su casa” you still can’t quite bring yourself to eat ice-cream straight from the carton.

Moving the web forward

I believe the web has tremendous opportunity to grow, evolve and mature. I think if browsers did these 9 things differently, and appreciably better, the web would move forward faster.

For all who love the web, I pose the same question to you, “What would you improve in all web browsers?”


Image from Arahman Shehri

The three eras of iPad apps

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the design of iPad apps. It’s particularly striking to see the nuance and expressiveness in the design language chosen to represent an app.

In a moment I’m going to share my thoughts on the three eras of iPad apps, but I’d like to dwell on the notion that there can be dramatically different expressions of apps on a platform with such comprehensive design guidelines.

The dawn of computing

At the dawn of computing every app was relegated to displaying text in interesting ways. Some chose menus, some chose modes, but on the whole the experience was clunky and daunting for novice users. As the capabilities of computers evolved, so did the richness of the UI language that apps could provide. On the extreme end, games created compelling interfaces tailor made for their audience. Some, like my much loved Sierra quest games, standardized an interaction interface across a suite of games.

Yet it wasn’t until the advent of GUI systems that the platform itself began to assert a particular design style. Windows, Mac and many other long forgotten platforms provided a set of prebuilt controls – menus, buttons, dialogs – along with guidelines for combining them into usable applications. From that point on, the immense variation we had seen before in UI language was narrowed. The few hold outs who tried to bring the old text style applications onto the new platform stumbled as their UX began to look increasingly old and out of place.

I believe platform design guidelines were (and are) largely a good thing. Application designers could spend less time thinking about control types and layout, and more time creating unique functionality within their apps. As the GUI market matured, and Windows 3 became Windows 95 and then Windows XP, the desktop saw a boon in applications built for the platform.

Many of the best applications deviated from the explicit platform design language to craft a more compelling experience. Even Microsoft’s own Windows Media Player did away with the standard title bar and other accouterments. Unfortunately, many of the worst applications followed suite. I shake my head thinking about how many driver software dialogs thought their settings deserved custom menu bars and buttons. It only served to make them look awkwardly out of place.

The three eras of iPad app

Fast forward a decade, and iPad apps are at a similar juncture with one key and exciting difference.

Prehistoric iPad apps

The prehistoric iPad apps are those that harken back to an earlier time. A time when desktop and keyboard ruled the human computer interaction. A time where the interface was densely packed with features and functionality in an attempt to make the application efficient and every feature discoverable. Or, as so often was the case, every feature equally undiscoverable.

Safari - a good example of a prehistoric iPad app

Safari – a good example of a prehistoric iPad app

A prominent example of a prehistoric iPad app is Safari, and to a somewhat lesser extent Chrome. You’ll notice the small and fiddley controls, the tiny untappable tabs, and the 1990’s inspired design metaphors.

If your app looks like this – you’re doing it wrong. You’re doing the equivalent of building a text based application as the era of GUIs was dawning. And it’s only a matter of time before your app is left a fossil on the wayside of progress.

Lest you think that a browser was destined to be a prehistoric app, I urge you to watch the demonstration of Firefox Junior – they’re doing it right.

Modern era iPad apps

Then there are those apps which fully embrace the design guidelines bestowed by Apple. Apps which use the appropriate controls and metaphors. Apps that look and feel like iPad apps. In fact they look so similar it would be difficult to tell them apart from afar.

These apps do nothing wrong, and in fact do many things right. They’re easy to learn, and immediately approachable. They extend the design metaphor held sacred by the iOS platform.

The phrase I would use to describe them is “perfectly adequate”. They’re safe, predictable and in a sense, boring. The magic is lost within a sea of similarity. And examples are all around, but you only need to look to the Mail app for a prototypical example.

The evolved iPad apps

Then there are those apps which have taken the established design metaphors and stretched them to the point of delight. These are the evolved iPad apps. Apps which look impart wonderment with their unique style. Apps which confront you with their character, and force you to engage at an emotion level.

These apps embrace the exciting difference between iPad apps and desktop apps of yesteryear – The delightfully visceral enjoyment that touch interfaces bring. They revel in the naturally playful discovery and almost interpersonal interaction that has come to define touch computing.

When you look beyond games, the examples here are disappointingly few. The obvious example here is Flipboard, but I feel that I would be depriving you of insight if I stopped there. My favorite example of an evolved iPad app is Spotify.

Spotify - an evolved iPad app

Spotify – an evolved iPad app

I think apart from just being generally a great service, Spotify nails a few design points:

  • Smart use of progressive discovery in the music exploration experience. It walks a beautiful balance between density of information and depth of UI.
  • It makes the most important things easy, with big play buttons just about everywhere to start the music playing. I’m always shocked at how many music apps still make the act of starting the music so difficult.
  • Appropriate and delightful use of asymmetry to focus on the most important content while providing a flow and hinting at user interaction.
  • It’s subtly aware of the screen dimensions, and puts the nav bar on the left. Most apps put the bar on the bottom, and even more severely constraint the vertical room when viewing in landscape.
  • UI variation keeps it interesting. The radio place mixes up large tiles with small tiles. Contrast this with an application like Netflix, that just looks like rows upon rows of little boxes.

Delightful is possible

If you’re designing an iPad app, don’t stop at the guidelines that Apple provides you. Delightful is possible, and magical within reach. Stretch the touch metaphors. Create an engaging experience that is only possible on a touch device.

It’s not just Facebook losing your email

In the old days of the Internet you used to be able to blame communication disruption on some grave technological shortcoming. Your ISP lost your email, or it was relegating incorrectly to your spam folder. Some calamity had befallen the message from your dear friend or colleague that robbed you of the opportunity to read their latest missive.

Facebook not alone in email snafu

Facebook not alone in email snafu

As it is wont to do, progress marched on, and the days of ISPs losing email are long behind us. Even spam protection on the top email services has improved to such a point that “it got lost in my spam folder” is no longer a credible excuse for ignoring someone’s email.

“It didn’t show up in my Gmail priority inbox” doesn’t really let you off the hook in quite the same way. Rather than expressing your heartfelt disappointment at not having connected with a kindred spirit, you’re really just telling them they’re not that important. Ahh, the truth of it all!

Facebook to the rescue with broken tech

Facebook recently did something incredibly brazen and, in my opinion at least, monumentally stupid. They switched the default email address over to the little used @facebook.com addressfor everyone, whether they wanted it or not. Then, as karma would dictate, they had a bug in their contact sync that caused all your friend’s email addresses in your contact book to be replaced with the useless @facebook.com address.

Yikes! As bad as this is, Facebook accomplished one thing – “the Internet ate my email” excuse is again completely valid. For at least the next few months you can blame your tardy non-replies on Facebook.

Google+ is also hungry – Eats Messages

At the beginning of this year I made the painful decision to leave Facebook – for at least a year, but hopefully forever. It was with a humility-tinged yet still smug sense of superiority that I watched as Facebook continued to ravage user’s privacy and take advantage of their captive audience.

So this last incident came as no surprise, and justified my social network platforms of choice – Google+ and Twitter.

Yet not a week in to the incident and I find Google+ eating my messages with an ravenous appetite reminiscent of Facebook. Or, at least, it seems entirely like that unless you’re aware of some Google+ secret that has escaped me.

Google+ makes messages undiscoverable.

Yesterday I saw a comment from an old friend on Google+, and decided to message them to say, “hi”. I had my phone with me, so pulled up the Messenger app in Google+, quickly tapped out my message and off it went.

A little while later my friend responded – a win for cross continent communication despite the foibles that Google+ is about to unleash on me. I had just finished a hike up Rattlesnake Ledge, read through his message and made a mental note to respond when I got back to my laptop.

Back at my laptop, the search for the missing message begins. At first I assume, naively that it would show up in my stream, or my Gmail. I was wrong. “Okay”, I thought, “It’s got to be here somewhere. I’ll just go back to the notification center and reply from there.” I can almost here the gods of technology laughing at me now. It was there.

It wasn’t in his stream, it wasn’t on my profile, it wasn’t in my Gmail spam, even Google couldn’t find it when I searched (again, and again, and again) for it. I even reached out to my Google+ followers (encirclers?) for help with no luck. His reply had vanished into thin air.

Eventually I pulled out my iPad, loaded up G+ and the messenger app. Lo and behold it was there. At this point I’ve resigned myself to sending him an email in reply.

To quote Cool Hand Luke, and thanks to Google+, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”