Tag Archives: online applications

Software, Slowly, Gets Better

Is it just me, or are software developers beginning to get their users? For a long time I’ve felt the only real innovation in software has been in online applications, Web 2.0 non-apps—simple services that exist in your browser—but now it seems that ordinary apps are getting better too.

Evernote, I feel, is one that’s really leading the charge. They’ve taken the feedback that us users have been giving them and have added, incremental release by incremental release, some really cool features. For example: now you can save searches in the Windows version. Reminds me of the old Enfish Tracker Pro, whose departure I still mourn. In fact, Evernote isn’t far off becoming a real database instead of a dumping ground for things you’ll read one day. Maybe.

Skype, too, have pulled their socks up. I hated 4.0  beta, not least for its big bumbling footprint. But the new version is better—a lot better. The main improvement is the option to make it look like your old Skype. But it has some nice new touches, including a chronology scroller that might interest Evernote’s legal department (Skype on the left, Evernote on the right):

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Move the bar on the right and you can move easily through old chats. Legal niceties aside, I think this kind of innovation is great to see, and almost restores my faith in designers realising that we don’t just use software in the here and now, but also as repositories of past heres and nows, if you know what I mean.

In short, our decision to commit to software is largely based on how much we will be able to get out of it. Not just in terms of hours saved in what we do now, but in what past information we’ll be able to get out of it. We have been using computers long enough now to have built up a huge repository of interactions and memos, and we want, nay we insist, to be able to get that stuff back. Quickly and easily. And, increasingly, to be able to move it to other places should we wish.

Google understands this relatively well. A chat in GTalk, for example, can be readily accessed via Gmail. And, now, we can also see and search our other data held within Google’s silos, right within Gmail, via some widgets from Google’s Gmail Labs. Here are two widgets that let you view your calendar:

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and here’s one to see your documents within Google Docs:

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Note the window at the top for searching through your document titles. This means one less step to access your data.

All these things have some basic concepts in common:

As I’ve mentioned, it’s about being able to get what you’ve put in out. Skype have listened to their customers and realised it’s less about the interface and more about the information the interface gives access to. If they were smart they’d find an easy way to send old chats to your email account or at least make it easy to search all your chats from one box. (I’m told that, or something like it, is coming in the ‘Gold’ version of  Skype 4.0 next year. Until now only group chats—three or more people can be saved to your contact list.)

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Secondly, software should, where possible, work with other people’s software. Emusic’s new download manager (above), for example, does something that has been missing ever since the service launched. Previously, if you wanted to include MP3 files you’d bought from the service in iTunes, you’d need to either drag them across into iTunes or re-introduce the folder into iTunes. The new version of the downloader tool now synchronizes automatically with iTunes, meaning you don’t need to do anything. Thank God for that.

There are tons of other things that software needs to do that it presently doesn’t. I could start listing them but I need to go to bed. But maybe in this downturn developers could take a note from some of these examples, and use the time to look more carefully at what users need, at how they use your software, and explore new and better ways for them to use it for what they do, not what you think they should do.

It’s Not the “Death” of Microsoft, it’s the “Death” of Software

Paul Graham writes an interesting obituary of Microsoft, killed off, as he sees it, by applications that sit in your browser. It’s just a matter of time, he says, before every application we need can grabbed off the server.

This is the kind of established wisdom of Web 2.0 folks these days that prompts only howls of “old news”. In some senses it’s right. I don’t use an email client anymore, nor a news/RSS reader. I try to use a calendar app like Outlook as little as possible. I even use Google Docs sometimes. But we’re a long way from interesting, complex applications running in the browser.

The problem: Most web applications are broken, and if we were paying for them, or Microsoft were making them, we’d be howling. Google Docs’ word processor, for example, quickly breaks down on bigger documents (weird artefacts appear in the text, keyboard shortcuts stop doing what they’re supposed to.) Its spreadsheet program mangles spreadsheets. The functionality in both is extremely limited for anything more than the most basic tasks.

All this takes us to a weird place: We somehow demand less and less from our software, so that we can declare a sort of victory. I love a lot of Web 2.0 apps but I’m not going to kid myself: They do one simple thing well — handle my tasks, say — or they are good at collaboration. They also load more quickly than their offline equivalents. But this is because, overall, they do less. When we want our software to do less quicker, they’re good. Otherwise they’re a pale imitation of more powerful, exciting applications in which we do most of our work.

Like what? Well, what have I got running on my (Windows) desktop right now:

  • BlogJet — blog writing tool. Online equivalent: Blog service tool. Difference: BlogJet more powerful than its browser equivalent, no latency, lets me work offline. Can move it around the screen and outside the browser. Can use ordinary editing shortcuts like Ctrl+B and Ctrl+K.
  • ExplorerPlus – file management tool. Lets me see what’s on my computer and move stuff around. Online equivalent: None? (ExplorerPlus now appears to be an orphan, sold by Novatix to SendPhotos Inc, but now no longer visible on their site.)
  • Text Monkey Pro – cleans up text. Online equivalent: Firefox plugin Copy Plain Text
  • ConnectedText – offline Wiki type organiser/outliner. Web app equivalent: TiddlyWiki. Jury still out on which is better
  • MyInfo – outliner. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any online outliner. There must be one.
  • PersonalBrain: thought organizer. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any.
  • Mindmanager: mindmapper. Online equivalents: bubbl.us, Mindmeister, Mindomo. Difference: Mindmanager much more powerful, works with more branches without losing effectiveness, integrates with other tools.
  • !Quick Screen Capture: screen capture tool. Online equivalent: Not known.
  • PaperPort: scanner and PDF database. Online equivalent: None.

Now it’s not as if I’m using these products because I think they’re all great. It’s just that no one has come along with anything better (Mac users: your cue to point me to great Mac equivalents). The past seven years, in fact have brought along nothing exciting in the offline apps world so it doesn’t surprise me that online applications, for all their simplicity, are getting the attention. (Don’t get me started on how weak and unimaginative PaperPort is. Mindmanager is still not as good as it could be; outliners are still doing very little more than their DOS forebears, and the lack of decent file managers is a crime.)

But all this just proves to me that there has been little real innovation in software in the sense of making programs do more. Web 2.0 has excited us because we lowered our expectations so much. Of course web apps will get better, and one day will deliver the functionality we currently get from desktop software. They may even do more than our desktop applications one day. But isn’t it a tad strange that we think this is all a huge leap forward?

What Probably Won’t Happen in 2007

The BBC has asked me to make some predictions about the coming year, something I’m always loath to do because I seem to get it wrong. Anyway, here are my notes. They’re based in part on my own bath-time musings, and partly inspired by the thoughts of others (tried to credit them where relevant.)

1999 just took longer than we thought, that’s all

Web 2.0 is not just about AJAX, mashups, blogs and all that. It’s about building a platform. That’s now been done. All we need to do now is let people use it. That is already happening, but it will REALLY happen in 2007:

Delivery will get better

RSS will stop being something we have to keep explaining to people, because they’ll be using it. It will be seamless — a way for anyone to join something, whether it’s a newsletter, a service, a MySpace group. It will stop being known as Rich Site Syndication or Really Simple Syndication and be Really Simple, Stupid.

Content will get better

The real improvement in computers will be the rise of the dual- and four-core processor, i.e. one that uses more than one chip. Think of it as the computer having more than one brain. This will speed up, and make easier, the editing of video and other multimedia content. Our computer, in a word, will no longer be an expensive typewriter. With faster connection speeds, too, video will be the thing that really makes the Internet compelling to people who were previously uninterested. What we watch on YouTube will get better. Individuals will have their 15 megabytes of fame. But this will couple with a rise of content generated specifically for the Internet, further blurring the lines between TV and computer viewing. Silicon Valley is no longer a tech center, but a media one.

The demise of big software

The rise of online applications will in turn blur the distinction between what is going on in your computer and what is going on at the other end of the line — the server. Vista will seem more like a farewell than a big hello, as big software from big companies locking in users to specific ways of doing things will give way to open source alternatives like Ubuntu. Microsoft will fight this tooth and nail, but I’m sure they already know it.

The mainstreaming of social media

 Web 2.0 is really all about breaking down barriers by making it easier to do stuff, and to mix it up with other people doing stuff. In a way what the Internet has always been about. Expect the influence of blogs to further pervade those last few citadels that have been resisting it, breaking down walls within organizations — internal blogs that flatten hierarchies and build up feedback mechanisms for employees to talk back to their bosses. Think government departments. Think universities, schools and anywhere else where hierarchies exist. This won’t be a one way street: anonymous bloggers in places like Microsoft and China may find themselves outed and lynched.

The rise of the maven

As the Web gets bigger, Google will need to reinvent itself to keep up. Web 2.0 offers some great ways to find stuff through other means, leveraging the knowledge of others who have gone before. We will acknowledge the contribution, and marketers will acknowledge the power, of the maven: the person who seems to somehow know stuff, and is ready to share it. Tagging, blogging, and other social tools will be recognized as extremely powerful ways to do this.

The demise of the big computer

The cellphone will get better at what it does, and we’ll grow to trust it more. We’ll stop calling it a cellphone and just call it a wearable device, or something snazzier I can’t think of right now. One day we’ll think it quaint that we had to sit in one place to do stuff, or near an outlet, or within range of a WiFi signal. Cellphones don’t have those limitations and this will start to hit home in 2007:

Teenagers will show us the way. Again

They’re already sharing everything via Bluetooth, creating networks on the fly (that, incidentally, fly under the radars of commercial networks and marketers). They share videos, ringtones, songs, games, either by exchanging content or playing against each other.

Space-shifting

The cellphone has already redefined what space is, and that will continue. Sexual liaisons involving public figures will be recorded by one party as insurance against future hard times. Cellphone television will become more popular, not just because it’s mobile but because it’s personal, a time to be alone under the sheets, on a bus, waiting for a friend, stuck in traffic. Maybe not this year, but soon they’ll be pluggable into the hotel TV. This is tied into the idea of personal space being something you control, either through presence, or through intermediary services where you only ever hand out personal details of your virtual self.

The End of the iPod

The iPod will decline in importance as the music-phone takes center stage. I didn’t think this would happen because cellphone manufacturers mess up the software on the phone, but they’re getting better at it. Even Nokia. So expect most people, starting with teenagers who don’t want more than one gadget and probably can’t afford them, to switch to one device. This will again throw open the mobile music/MP3/DRM debate, and iTunes will start to look a bit wobbly until Apple gets something sorted out so non-iPod users can download from the site easily and cheaply.

The downsides

It’s not all fun and games. Bad things are going to continue to happen, and there’s not much we can do about them. It’s partly just the normal process of utopians being pushed aside by realists, but it’s also about an ongoing debate about how to, or whether to, police a space that seems largely unpoliceable.

A dual identity crisis

Mainstream media’s identity crisis will be compounded by an identity crisis among bloggers. The rise of pay-me blogging, where bloggers get paid for writing about specific companies or products, will lead to some scandals and make people explore more deeply the ethics of blogging, and how they’re not that much different to the ethics developed by journalists over several hundred years. This won’t however, lead to the demise of blogging, but the rise of a sort of online press corps, with its own associations and rules, both written and unwritten. Many bloggers will end up being journalists, and the best journalists will move effortlessly and happily through the blogosphere. Many already do.

Keep up, grandma

Things are moving so fast the slow will look like they’re running backwards. If 2004-6 were anything to go by, 2007 will move quite quickly. Some folk I spoke to said that not much has popped up this year that’s exciting, and that’s true, in a boiling frog type way. It’s the earth shifting that is changing, and we need to change with it. Young people just get it, but us digital immigrants need to not just learn the lingo but keep up with the fast-changing slang. Oh, and MySpace won’t be the place to hang out in 2007; it’ll begin to look like a sad school hall dance arranged by the teachers.

The Rise of the Snoop

We tend to make a distinction between these things, but they’re actually all part of the same thing. Spam is getting worse, and it’s not just an invasion of privacy but an invasion of our productivity (91% of email is spam.) Music and video files will also rise as vectors of trojans, malware and other PUPs. GPS devices married to phones will enable people to track their employees, spouses or offspring, and further empower stalkers. Cellphone monitoring devices like FlexiSpy will get better at distributing themselves, and will be powerful not just in the hands of eavesdropping acquaintances but identity thieves. The rise of virtual worlds will also lead to the rise of virtual identities and virtual identity theft, along the lines of CopyBot. Expect to see cellphone eavesdropping and data theft from cellphones to surge. And we’ll start to realize that Google isn’t as cuddly as it looks; it’s a snoop, too.

What Probably Won’t Happen in 2007

The BBC has asked me to make some predictions about the coming year, something I’m always loath to do because I seem to get it wrong. Anyway, here are my notes. They’re based in part on my own bath-time musings, and partly inspired by the thoughts of others.

1999 just took longer than we thought, that’s all

Web 2.0 is not just about AJAX, mashups, blogs and all that. It’s about building a platform. That’s now been done. All we need to do now is let people use it. That is already happening, but it will REALLY happen in 2007:

Delivery will get better

RSS will stop being something we have to keep explaining to people, because they’ll be using it. It will be seamless — a way for anyone to join something, whether it’s a newsletter, a service, a MySpace group. It will stop being known as Rich Site Syndication or Really Simple Syndication and be Really Simple, Stupid.

Content will get better

The real improvement in computers will be the rise of the dual- and four-core processor, i.e. one that uses more than one chip. Think of it as the computer having more than one brain. This will speed up, and make easier, the editing of video and other multimedia content. Our computer, in a word, will no longer be an expensive typewriter. With faster connection speeds, too, video will be the thing that really makes the Internet compelling to people who were previously uninterested. What we watch on YouTube will get better. Individuals will have their 15 megabytes of fame. But this will couple with a rise of content generated specifically for the Internet, further blurring the lines between TV and computer viewing. Silicon Valley is no longer a tech center, but a media one, as Andreas of the Economist told the .

The demise of big software

The rise of online applications will in turn blur the distinction between what is going on in your computer and what is going on at the other end of the line — the server. Vista will seem more like a farewell than a big hello, as big software from big companies locking in users to specific ways of doing things will give way to open source alternatives like Ubuntu. Microsoft will fight this tooth and nail, but I’m sure they already know it.

The mainstreaming of social media

 Web 2.0 is really all about breaking down barriers by making it easier to do stuff, and to mix it up with other people doing stuff. In a way what the Internet has always been about. Expect the influence of blogs to further pervade those last few citadels that have been resisting it, breaking down walls within organizations — internal blogs that flatten hierarchies and build up feedback mechanisms for employees to talk back to their bosses. Think government departments. Think universities, schools and anywhere else where hierarchies exist. This won’t be a one way street: anonymous bloggers in places like Microsoft and China may find themselves outed and lynched.

The rise of the maven

As the Web gets bigger, Google will need to reinvent itself to keep up. Web 2.0 offers some great ways to find stuff through other means, leveraging the knowledge of others who have gone before. We will acknowledge the contribution, and marketers will acknowledge the power, of the maven: the person who seems to somehow know stuff, and is ready to share it. Tagging, blogging, and other social tools will be recognized as extremely powerful ways to do this.

The demise of the big computer

The cellphone will get better at what it does, and we’ll grow to trust it more. We’ll stop calling it a cellphone and just call it a wearable device, or something snazzier I can’t think of right now. One day we’ll think it quaint that we had to sit in one place to do stuff, or near an outlet, or within range of a WiFi signal. Cellphones don’t have those limitations and this will start to hit home in 2007:

Teenagers will show us the way. Again

They’re already sharing everything via Bluetooth, creating networks on the fly (that, incidentally, fly under the radars of commercial networks and marketers). They share videos, ringtones, songs, games, either by exchanging content or playing against each other.

Space-shifting

The cellphone has already redefined what space is, and that will continue. Sexual liaisons involving public figures will be recorded by one party as insurance against future hard times. Cellphone television will become more popular, not just because it’s mobile but because it’s personal, a time to be alone under the sheets, on a bus, waiting for a friend, stuck in traffic. Maybe not this year, but soon they’ll be pluggable into the hotel TV. This is tied into the idea of personal space being something you control, either through presence, or through intermediary services where you only ever hand out personal details of your virtual self.

The End of the iPod

The iPod will decline in importance as the music-phone takes center stage. I didn’t think this would happen because cellphone manufacturers mess up the software on the phone, but they’re getting better at it. Even Nokia. So expect most people, starting with teenagers who don’t want more than one gadget and probably can’t afford them, to switch to one device. This will again throw open the mobile music/MP3/DRM debate, and iTunes will start to look a bit wobbly until Apple gets something sorted out so non-iPod users can download from the site easily and cheaply.

The downsides

It’s not all fun and games. Bad things are going to continue to happen, and there’s not much we can do about them. It’s partly just the normal process of utopians being pushed aside by realists, but it’s also about an ongoing debate about how to, or whether to, police a space that seems largely unpoliceable.

A dual identity crisis

Mainstream media’s identity crisis will be compounded by an identity crisis among bloggers. The rise of pay-me blogging, where bloggers get paid for writing about specific companies or products, will lead to some scandals and make people explore more deeply the ethics of blogging, and how they’re not that much different to the ethics developed by journalists over several hundred years. This won’t however, lead to the demise of blogging, but the rise of a sort of online press corps, with its own associations and rules, both written and unwritten. Many bloggers will end up being journalists, and the best journalists will move effortlessly and happily through the blogosphere. Many already do.

Keep up, grandma

Things are moving so fast the slow will look like they’re running backwards. If 2004-6 were anything to go by, 2007 will move quite quickly. Some folk I spoke to said that not much has popped up this year that’s exciting, and that’s true, in a boiling frog type way. It’s the earth shifting that is changing, and we need to change with it. Young people just get it, but us digital immigrants need to not just learn the lingo but keep up with the fast-changing slang. Oh, and MySpace won’t be the place to hang out in 2007; it’ll begin to look like a sad school hall dance arranged by the teachers.

The Rise of the Snoop

We tend to make a distinction between these things, but they’re actually all part of the same thing. Spam is getting worse, and it’s not just an invasion of privacy but an invasion of our productivity (91% of email is spam.) Music and video files will also rise as vectors of trojans, malware and other PUPs. GPS devices married to phones will enable people to track their employees, spouses or offspring, and further empower stalkers. Cellphone monitoring devices like FlexiSpy will get better at distributing themselves, and will be powerful not just in the hands of eavesdropping acquaintances but identity thieves. The rise of virtual worlds will also lead to the rise of virtual identities and virtual identity theft, along the lines of CopyBot. Expect to see cellphone eavesdropping and data theft from cellphones to surge. And we’ll start to realize that Google isn’t as cuddly as it looks; it’s a snoop, too.