February 17, 2010

With the dust beginning to settle from Google’s widely-criticized Buzz launch last week, it would seem the bad assumptions on Google’s part are pretty clear: Google thought it almost certain that you’d like to turn your most frequently-corresponded-with contacts into publicly-visible social networking friends, with only a fine print opt-out between you and any unwanted connections. Or maybe they knew their assumptions were wrong and hoped you wouldn’t notice.

However you choose to interpret the Buzz launch, though, its failings ride on top of a more fundamental problem with the most popular social networks: the entire model of social networking, from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter, is broken. It’s based on the interpretation of database tables, not on how humans naturally interact.

Honey, you forgot this at home

Here’s the problem: The dominant social networking paradigm is completely point-to-point. Our real-life social networks aren’t like that at all—they’re much closer to a hub-and-spoke model. Even from a young age, we meet different people in different contexts. We form discrete groups from discrete sets of people, generally with little overlap. Before the social networking revolution, the only time everyone you know would be present in the same forum would be at major events in your life, such as perhaps the end of it. Now it’s every day on the Internet.

Did you feel that slight trepidation the first time someone outside the first group of friends you connected with on a social networking site sent you a friend request? A vague tingling of memories of a parent showing up at school in front of your peers, or an older brother crashing the party with your friends? That sense is the result of a social flatland—to adapt a UI term from the estimable Bruce Tognazzini, who popularized it in application to Apple’s tendency to reject hierarchy and sorting for simplicity’s sake, it’s what happens when all your friends end up communicating with you simultaneously in the same space.

Unflattening your friends

Social networking sites have made attempts to address the inadequacies of social flatland. From the beginning, Facebook had its “networks,” which at least recognized individuals’ belonging to multiple, discrete groups, even if the groups were lumped together anyway. With the deprecation of Facebook networks, its “lists” feature with per-post privacy is the closest yet to real-life social networks—but the UI for it is far from intuitive and defaults to flatland.

There are some up-and-comers who get it. The closest thing to a real-life social networking site may actually be a blogging platform: Posterous, the email-powered blogging site, lets users create separate, multi-user private blogs and invite users to them. Tumblr provides similar functionality, if not quite as seamlessly. Even Twitter, partly by virtue of simplicity, doesn’t put any major roadblocks between you and multiple accounts to represent you in your different spheres, any of which can be easily made private. It’s not uncommon for Twitter clients to support fast account switching right out of the box.

Then again, it’s often fun to introduce friends to each other. It can be rewarding: Sometimes, the unexpected meeting of mutual friends can be a fortuitous pleasure. Other times, it can be a disaster.

Which is why, all things considered, it’s generally better to make those connections yourself.

February 3, 2010

Has it really been only a week since the iPad was unveiled? Perhaps the month’s worth of analysis that has transpired in the intervening days makes it seem longer ago. I think one can wring from the discussion a certain Solomonic prediction: The iPad will fail at exactly what Apple decided was outside its scope, and will succeed at precisely what falls inside it. I don’t see much debate as to how well it appears to approach what is within that scope—only how the scope will increase with time.

Apple products expand scope gradually but deliberately. The 2001 iPod was a music player and a hard drive. The 2005 version could display calendars, play solitaire, display a slideshow on your TV, and run feature-length films. The 2010 iPad is a big iPhone. You know how this goes. But there’s more to Apple’s tablet than its own scope.

Evolution and adaptation

Let’s take a step back. The iPad will evolve, it will influence the design of other tablets, perhaps tablet computing will indeed be reborn and draw significant numbers of casual users away from desktop computing as the iPad’s strongest supporters suggest. But we are not all casual users. We don’t all have needs that can be met by an appliance solution. What becomes of the desktop? It seems unlikely that it should be left to stagnate.

Of course, I have my own ideas on how to proceed. But assuming we’re not ready for that yet, we still have a time of transition ahead for the traditional computer. And despite Apple bringing to market the first direct-manipulation UI for desktop-class applications, I’m not convinced that the tablet paradigm stands to actually replace our old PARC-derived one. Even if there’s a tablet in every home, I can’t see offices replacing desks with sofas to be worked upon eight hours a day. But each side can learn from the other. As we saw with the iPhone and OS 10.5, Apple doesn’t hesitate to adapt things from its appliance UI to its desktop.

XI and friends

The first major step will probably be to take a multitouch mouse for granted: You can see this happening in fits and starts with various bundled apps on MacBooks. If OS XI isn’t a fundamental rethinking of the desktop paradigm, it should at least require a Magic Mouse. Once the UI can make that assumption, there’s suddenly a lot more it can do even with old-fashioned scattered windows—plenty more if you start from the iPhone platform’s modal window approach and combine it with scalable Cocoa Touch interfaces and window tiling. Perhaps a roving-to-mouse-position, local 1:1 touch surface? If Microsoft puts its researchers and its appliance people in charge of a future Windows, we could see similar advancements from them.

Ultimately, the iPad points not toward a future of tablets for everything, but toward the porting of tablets’ successful experiments to the desktop realm. The future of tablet computing is going to make the current desktop feel increasingly inelegant, but it won’t replace it. Their relationship will most likely be symbiotic, leading to new advancements in both realms.

January 21, 2010

Despite the inadvisability of beating so dead a horse upon so nascent a blog, despite the inevitability that within a week all speculation will be proven laughably wrong, I can’t avoid writing what you are about to seriously consider not reading.

So, yes, I think I figured out the e-reader part of The Tablet. Me and approximately 47% of the Internet, I know. This isn’t anything new. But I do believe I have found a pattern.

The web as an iTunes Store

Apple is making an iTunes store for web content. Yes, you know this already, but hear me out: This is where the magazine and newspaper negotiations, the HarperCollins negotiations, the Quattro Wireless acquisition, iTunes LP, the podcast directory, the App Store, and iWeb all meet. The publishing deals aren’t the only part of Apple’s “e-reader strategy” because Apple isn’t going into the e-reader business any more than they went into the minidisc player business with the iPod.

E-readers strive to simulate paperbound books. The Tablet doesn’t bother. Apple has left it all behind for interactive text with animation, multimedia, maybe social networking. Which sounds a lot like the web as it currently exists. But you know how Apple hates to stop at how things currently exist.

The web is a huge mess of things. Which is great. But it’s not so great for some things, especially the monetization of editorial content, as we are reminded time and again as various major print publications make plans to charge for online content only to be heckled back to the ad-supported model. But if there’s one platform that has successfully induced people to pay for things this past decade, it’s the iTunes store.

On the design side: As powerful as the art of CSS is, the diversity of end-user contexts means web versions of print magazines rarely have the character of their paperbound counterparts. Look at the cover story in Wired on the newsstand and then look at it online—one is like seeing a play, the other like reading the script. Paginated HTML5 in a controlled, predictable environment, however, can make these both look archaic in the hands of a good designer. Look at iTunes LP. That’s how you do it.

Everybody now

So yes, you know all this and the above four paragraphs weren’t necessary. But there’s much more to it than just the media incumbents. Just like with the podcast directory, Apple is inviting everyone to the party. Just like with the App Store, Apple is giving everyone a chance to monetize. Just like with iTunes LP, it’s a content experience based on HTML5 and a controlled browser environment. And this is where the new iWeb comes in. Everyone will have the opportunity to build their content into this new HTML5-based format and container; the bundled iWeb will come with a bundle of themes and preset grids to guide non-designers; iWeb Pro will become the de facto InDesign of this new field. Adobe will build support into CS5.

And of course, the hub for this will be the iTunes Newsstand. Buy a multimedia-packed issue of a magazine for $1.99. Subscribe to a free newsletter supported by Quattro ads placed painlessly through iTunes Connect. Publish your own free newsletter and throw a party when it reaches 10 downloads, as I will. It’s a content platform based on existing web technology but all packaged seamlessly in Apple’s domain.

A body of standards

This is not to say that everyone will be locked in. The major publishers will produce content compatible with anything packing a WebKit browser and the right size frame. The Tablet’s resolution will become the new 320 x 480, and similarly-specced, competing devices will soon filter out from most of the major manufacturers. But content on those will have to either be free or use a competing store to the iTunes Newsstand, and Apple’s counting on theirs being the best experience for both consumer and producer. And, unfortunately, there’s the issue of DRM: iTunes Newsstand will offer FairPlay wrappers to piracy-paranoid content producers, making the alternatives a tougher sell.

Everything I’ve written above is almost certainly wrong. I will regret using the future tense instead of conditional, making this post look even more silly in a week’s time, though on the upside, I greatly doubt anyone has actually read this far. But there you have it. Apple reinvents the web as its own sequel to print.

I apologize if you have actually finished reading this, and will return to actually writing about design and usability next week.

January 19, 2010

Hello again.

Circa my last entry at no substance. all eloquence, 10/GUI was an ambitious, slightly daft set of ideas for the future of human-computer interaction that had recently found their expression in an unknown eight-minute video. In the first weeks of 2010, 10/GUI remains largely the same, though “unknown” may be replaced with “somewhat widely circulated.”

If you have, in the past couple of months, arrived at ns.ae. from the Twitter page that I hurriedly linked from the 10/GUI site the hour it hit Slashdot, you might have wondered why ns.ae. stood dormant with no mention of the project. To say that the whirlwind of activity in the wake of 10/GUI’s popularity prevented me from writing wouldn’t quite be accurate: I wasn’t short on time as much as on perspective.

In practical terms, I haven’t seen any huge changes in these three months, though my momentary fame brought me to talk with a number of fascinating people and even opened several exciting career opportunities, including a full-day interview at a tech giant many dream of working at (though alas, that one didn’t pan out). 10/GUI is still little more than an idea with a video, but that will have its chance to change given time.

The next step is a proper treatment of the keyboard problem, by far the most asked-about feature of the video. I’m wrapping up the conceptual phase for it, and I’m hoping to be able to give this its own video soon. It also looks like I’ll be speaking at a couple of conferences this spring, so I’ll be noting those here once everything’s official.

Also: I’d like to thank everyone who has reported on, commented about, analyzed, and critiqued 10/GUI. Those of you who have been inspired, those with criticisms, those who can’t wait to beta test something, those with oddly long e-mails I don’t quite know how to respond to. I appreciate all of you.