The Proud Legacy of the New Web

My weekly column for the Loose Wire Servce.

A few things I had to do this week brought me to the same conclusion: Companies that don’t get simplicity are struggling.

First off, I have been writing a paper on social media. What we used to call Web 2.0, basically. Now that everything we do is Web 2.0 it’s kind of silly to call it that. And nerdy. But next time you use Facebook, or Twitter, or any web service that uses a clean, simple interface—nothing ugly, no bullying error messages—then you can thank Web 2.0.

Every time you are pleasantly surprised when the service you use—for free—adds more cool features and doesn’t try to sting you for it, thank Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 made things simpler, more user-centric. Its principles were share, create, collaborate (against the old world’s hoard, consume, compete.)

If you want to read more on this, download the Cluetrain Manifesto, a book written by a cluster of visionaries. A great read and a sort of call to arms for the Web 2.0 generation.

We know this. Researching the paper reminded me of just how influential Web 2.0 has been. But everything else I’ve done this week has reminded me how few companies still don’t get it.

First off, I had to set up a mailing list. You know, sending out lots of emails to people. It’s fiddly if you want to do it right. Before, you’d download software and painstakingly fiddle with spreadsheets and stuff.

Now you can do it online. But not all online services are alike. I tried one, Constant Contact (which doesn’t, actually. sound that appealing a concept. Sounds like an STD or one those annoying kids who follow you around at school.)

ConstantContact was OK, I suppose. But it was fiddly. No way was this going to be fun. Then I tried something called MailChimp. The look and feel of the site was pure Web 2.0. Big buttons, nice colors, the sort of site that makes you want to get yourself a coffee and browse around.

Sure enough, the whole thing was not only a breeze, but a joy. Not perfect—they like their simian jokes, those guys at MailChimp–but so different it brought home how Web 2.0 isn’t a set of tools but a mindset. “How can we make this easier, and fun? And cheaper?”

That was the first experience. Then I had to set up an email account on Microsoft’s online corporate web service, called Outlook Web Access (known as OWA.) The acronym should have given that away. OWA, as “Oh er” or “whoa”. After five years of Gmail using this was like going back to typewriters. And not in a good way.

Clunky, ugly, lots of annoying “Are you sure you want to do this?” type messages.

It was hell. A real reminder of what email was before Google got hold of it. (And, sorry, Yahoo!, but you’re still stuck in the slow lane. I tried your web mail offering again but it wouldn’t let me send half the emails I wanted, instead accusing me of spamming. Sending six emails makes me a spammer? That makes you my ex web mail provider.)

It’s not that Gmail is wonderful. But it’s simple. And it adds features before you’ve had time to think them up yourself. It strives to get out of your way and let you get on with stuff. Very Web 2.0-ey.

Then I had to buy a video camera. It was then I realized that Web 2.0 wasn’t just about software.

I got one of those Flip video cameras three years ago. I loved it. Barely three buttons on the thing, and perfect. An antidote to complicated video cameras and smart phones that require a PhD to use. Web 2.0 on a stick.

So I went looking for a replacement. Flip has been so popular it’s a) been bought out, and b) has lots of competitors. Even Sony have one. Yes, the guys who brought you the Walkman now offer you something called the bloggie PM5, which is basically what the Sony design people think is a better Flip.

Only it’s not. It’s Sony’s view of the world, and it’s striking how anachronistic it looks.

At first blush it’s smart. The lens swivels so you can see yourself videoing yourself. Which is good. But that’s the only thing good about it.

It’s heavy. The buttons are too many in number and aren’t intuitive—I couldn’t even find the volume adjuster, and nor could the guy in the shop—and it has all the things that reminded me why I’d never buy anything from Sony again. A proprietary USB cable slot—so you can only use a Sony cable with it. Their own memory card, which means you can’t use your other memory cards like the increasingly popular SD one.

(Oh and it only records for 30 minutes at a time. Not that the manual tells you that.)

In other words, Sony talks about the bloggie-ness of their bloggie, where you can share all your stuff on Facebook and YouTube, but still doesn’t get the bigger picture: That the Flip was supposed to make all this stuff simple. Open, fun, collaborative, about the moment rather than the fiddling. And no more closed shop. No more trying to sucker you into buying more of their stuff.

I haven’t talked about Apple in all this because the jury’s out on them. They definitely make things easier to use, but they’re still proudly disdainful of everyone else—including, I suspect, their customers. Their products are a joy to use, but I think the Cluetrain passed their stop.

So Web 2.0 is a state of mind. It’s something we should demand of all our interactions with products, services, companies, officials. Simplicity. Put yourselves in the user’s shoes. Don’t put up road blocks. Make using your product, if not a joy, then at least not a pain.

Sony, Yahoo!, Microsoft, print that last paragraph out and make a banner out of it. I guarantee it’ll work wonders for you.

24. August 2010 by jeremy
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