This Week’s Column: Bacteria at Your Fingertips

This week’s (paid subscription only; apologies) column in the (which runs in the Personal Journal of The Asian Wall Street Journal) is about the gunk in your keyboard:

An exhaustive poll of my friends reveals that all sorts of stuff is being spilled over the average keyboard: biscuit crumbs, mango, fizzy beverage, the odd stray cornflake, nail varnish, rice, soy sauce, coffee, wine (red and white), hand cream. Under your keys lie a faithful record of every snack, lunch and beverage break you’ve had at your desk since you joined the company. It’s like typing on a pile of week-old dirty dishes.

Here’s the permanent home to Loose Wire columns.

What Newspapers Should Do: Gist and Juice

I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but there’s so much hand-wringing going on about the future of newspapers in the Second Age of the Internet I thought I would throw in my two cents: Newspapers need to treat print and online as two different audiences, and cater for them accordingly. It’s about getting the word out, not getting a product out.

The rule is a simple one: Newspapers are for people who love to read, and want something in a format and depth they can take with them. They are looking for layout, nuance, photos, details, rich writing and analysis. In short: Storytelling.

Online, meanwhile, is for getting up to speed quickly. It’s information as briefing. Tell me what I need to know so I can get on with my day. In short, it’s short, to the point: for people who don’t like (or don’t have time) to read.

It’s not just about brevity for the sake of speed. People don’t like reading lots of text online, so it’s obvious that writing for the Internet is best done short and to the point. (This, incidentally, is one reason why blogs are so successful: Bite-sized chunks that deliver something that fits nicely on the average computer screen. Sure there are some bloggers who write essays, and write them beautifully, but most blog postings are short and to the point.)

But this doesn’t necessarily mean putting a few paragraphs on the net, or a teaser or two, and then a link to the full-blown story on a subscribe-only website. What is online still needs to be as comprehensive a product as the newspaper would offer its hardcopy readers. It just needs to be shorter, and, as I’ve said elsewhere [ link: Subscription only, I’m afraid], formatted in a more imaginative way than merely a vague pastiche of a newspaper with a few HTML tricks thrown in. (Think newsmaps.) It’s intriguing to see newspapers, including my own paymaster The Asian Wall Street Journal, toy with formats; when is the same big thinking about format going to happen online?

Online content needs to be short and sharp. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down to wire service copy or wire service- style writing; it means reducing the amount of text to something manageable in an online format. So, say a piece on Medium being the new Large (something I just read in the still excellent The Guardian) could be delivered online as a briefer piece, the main point summed up in a paragraph with the main examples to back it up. Not necessarily pretty, but just because it’s a feature doesn’t mean it a) isn’t useful information and b) has to be feature-length to convey its meaning.

The newspaper reader is still going to prefer the full length version. There’s something delightful and serendipitous about reading a thoughtful newspaper like The Guardian in its entirety (or the International Herald Tribune, another coffee-time favourite despite, or perhaps because of, its quixotic choice of stories). There’ll still be a market for that, whatever the size of the paper it’s printed on. But how many of us get time to read these papers cover to cover every day?

The Internet needs to be a faster mechanism to get that same rush of interesting fact and insight that reading a newspaper cover to cover offers. The journalists who write the material may baulk at seeing their lovingly crafted 3,000 words reduced to 300, but they shouldn’t grumble. The offline world will still see their 3,000 words and, if the editing is good, the online reader will still get the gist, if not the juice, of their writing. It’s no longer about one product delivered from an ivory tour. It’s about getting the word out.

How To Get A Good Idea Part II

Nowadays I get three days in the office to do part of my job, editing The Asian Wall Street Journal’s print edition of the Personal Journal (great piece in tomorrow’s edition, by the way, on South Korean female blogging by Lina Yoon (I noticed the Sydney Morning Herald also did something on this earlier this month, as observed by Smartmobs’ Jim Downing).)

Anyway, three days in the office, two days doing my column. I’m not an office guy. No great idea ever occurred to me in the office. No great idea ever really occurred to me period, but especially not in the office. For me you’ve got to be outside. You’ve got to walk around, you’ve got to see things, you’ve got to talk to fresh people, observe weirdos doing their thing, be somewhere you can think. But it’s interesting how divided my colleagues are on this. They like to work late, but not take anything home with them. Others are like me, they look like they’re strangers in a cubicle, camping out until there’s a decent opportunity to flee. Others look like they live there. I find the office good for hammering things out, but mine isn’t really a hammering-things-out type job, so maybe it’s all about the kind of job you’re doing. There’s hammering, and there’s getting ideas.

Anyway, roundabout way of saying you can tell what day it is by the number of off-the-wall posts Loose Wire gets. If there are too many, it’s probably Thursday or Friday.

On News Visualization, Part I

This week’s column in The Asian Wall Street Journal’s Personal Journal (and online at, subscription only) is about visualizing the news:

To me it’s slightly daft that most news Web sites stick to an online format that someone wandering in from the mid-seventeenth century would recognize. Newspapers haven’t changed an awful lot in layout since they first appeared. There’s good reason for this. But why has the Internet, with all its interactive links, clicking, visuals, sounds and promise of customizing to the individual’s needs, not thrown out the newspaper model – headline, pictures, text — in favor of something better?

Beyond the services mentioned in the text, readers might want to explore some other Web sites that visualize data in different ways:

Meanwhile, as mentioned in the column, there’s a great Web site called information aesthetics which lists a lot of these and similar projects. Anything I’ve missed, please do let me know; I do remember quite a few efforts a few years back, but none of them seem to be active, or offer a public version, anymore.

Asia’s WSJ Takes On New Format

As most of you who follow this kind of thing, the overseas editions of the Wall Street Journal are switching to a new format. This includes The Asian Wall Street Journal, my immediate paymaster and primary home to the Loose Wire column. More news as I hear it.

Kiss Me Sir, Part II

A few months back I wrote about how English gets corrupted into interesting new forms —  The Asian Wall Street Journal into Asia Watching Journal, Asia Movie General or Asian World Strip Journal , ‘ excuse me sir’ into  “Kiss Me Sir”, “A Skirmisher”, “Ex Skirmisher” and “Kill Me Sir”.

I’ve noticed there’s another tendency, towards abbreviation, that in itself creates interesting possibilities for misunderstanding. In mile-a-minute Hong Kong, every syllable squeezed out is a syllable saved, so it’s not surprising it’s most common here: The guy who comes around the rooms checking mini-bar supplies, for example, doesn’t bother saying ‘housekeeping’ but ‘erskine’ which baffled me at first, given I went to school with a guy sporting that name. ‘Good morning’ becomes ‘gummmer’, so next time a guy knocks on your hotel door saying “Gummer Erskine”, you needn’t hide under the bed. It’s just the mini-bar he’s after.

In my local 7–11 the very nice ladies behind the counter charmingly ask me every time I buy water from them, “Waba?” which I only realised this morning is, of course, short for “Want a bag?”

My Kind Of Keyboard

This week in the Asian Wall Street Journal/ (sub only) I write about keyboards. One little gadget I’ve taken a shine to in this area is the Bluetooth Smart Keyboard, made by an apparently anonymous company somewhere in China:

As I mentioned in the column, it’s not great, but it’s surprising what they’ve managed to do in such a basic device. As you can see from the picture, the design is straightforward, although what it doesn’t show is a simple stand that slides out of the base.

Here are the devices it works with for now:

  • Nokia 6600, 6670, 7610, 3650, 7650, 6260, N-Gage, N-GageQD
  • Sendo X
  • Siemens SX1
  • SonyEricsson P800, P900, P910i
  • O2 X Phone, O2xda, O2xda II, O2xda IIi, O2xda IIs
  • Dopod 565
  • Orange SPV C500, SPV E200
  • HP iPAQ 1940, 5550, 2210, 2215, rx3417, rx 3715, hx4700 series
  • Acer n30 series
  • Palm Zire72, Tungsten T, Tungsten T2, Tungsten T3, Tungsten T5
  • Pocket Loox 720, 420
  • Clie UX50
  • Motorola A1000
  • Dell Axim X50, X50v
  • Asus MyPal A730

Using Bluetooth means your device doesn’t need to be in the cradle — it can be on the other side of the room, if you like, or charging. The software is simple enough, but offers some shortcut keys to basic functions, as well as key combinations that you can assign to specific tasks, such as opening contacts or whatever. Using it with a Nokia 7650, I was able to tap out SMS messages and send them without having to touch the phone. It’s not a leap of technology, but it sure makes preparing long text messages — or even emails, using the Nokia’s GPRS function — easier.

Firefox Resources

Further to this week’s column on browsers in the Asian Wall Street Journal/ (subscription only) on Firefox and other browsers, check out my directory of browsers for a (by no means complete) list of what’s out there.

Here’s the beginnings of a Directory of Firefox related sites:

More to come as I come across them. Please feel free to let me know of your favourites. I’m particularly interested in good extensions.

Interview With Firefox’s Ben Goodger

I was fortunate to be able to fire off some questions to Ben Goodger, Lead Engineer of Mozilla Firefox by email, for this week’s column on browsers in the Asian Wall Street Journal/ (subscription only). Here’s a full transcript of the interview.

1) How different has it been, getting Firefox into shape, than if the operation were run as a commercial operation?

It’s been an enormous challenge for a huge number of people. Over the years, hundreds of engineers have contributed code, hundreds and thousands more testing and other types of materials, probably millions of man-hours spent. The major difference and biggest benefit to the Open Source process is that we get the benefit of those thousands of people for whom an internet of free and open standards is important. That community includes some of the brightest minds in the business, committed to improving security and user experience. Some important contributions from the volunteer effort include our visual identity (iconography, theme design, website etc), much of our distributed quality assurance effort (thousands of people download “nightly builds” and use them as their browser – a great way to find and report bugs as they occur), and our massive localization effort.

2) What is your response to people’s fear about something free: That it’s less secure, less likely to survive, less professional, less, well, proper?

The industry backing of the Mozilla Foundation by companies like Sun, IBM, Novell etc coupled with an increased awareness among the web development community (Hewlett Packard released guidelines on its web site recently advising its content authors to test their materials in Firefox) as well as accelerating adoption among users and organizations alike show that Firefox is more than a flash in the pan. The results are shown in the marketshare which continues to climb month over month, in our download statistics which if anything show an increase following the holiday period. We’re just getting started.

I’m aware people will be skeptical of something that’s free. Well, all I can say to that is: buying the CD from is a great way to satisfy your urge to spend money and it also supports the Mozilla Foundation 🙂

3) It seems to me that innovation in software has been mainly in browsers, the past few years. Not just Firefox, but K-Meleon, Opera, iRider, Deepnet, Netcaptor, etc. Would you agree with that, and if so, why is this? And then, following on from that, do you think Microsoft have missed a significant opportunity by not really working on IE in the meantime?

I wouldn’t say that innovation has been mainly in browsers – a great number of new pieces of software that I couldn’t live without have risen in the past half decade, look at iTunes, Google, and next generation internet apps like Skype that make use of higher bandwidth connections. But you’re right, there have been significant developments in Web browsers in the past few years – specifically in the areas of making it easier to find and manage content (see Firefox’s Google bar, Find Toolbar, Tabbed Browsing and RSS integration – all ways in which we make it easier for people to get at stuff).

I think it’s very difficult to be in Microsoft’s position – they have a lot of customers who have written applications to work with their system and a precedent for not having changed their formula much, which makes movement in a particular direction a more involved proposition as they need to carefully determine the impact of their changes on the people who have written solutions specifically tailored to their system. I do think they will move however, it’s not a matter of if, but when. They see what’s going on, and they will react.

4) What of the role of plugins? It seems to me there’s been a fascinating movement of innovators just working on individual little features? How important has that been? How hard was it to make the software so people could do that? Is this the future of software?

This was one of the benefits of the architecture chosen by the original implementors of much of the UI architecture we use now, I have to single out Dave Hyatt and Chris Waterson here for mention – they among others back in the Netscape days had the foresight to see the value of an extensible system, one which after years of refinement has led us to where we are today.

Plugins are an important part of the ecosystem of Mozilla applications. They allow people to customize their software in nearly infinite ways, adding new innovations that we may not have thought of yet, or tailoring the experience to suit very specific audiences in ways that we cannot in the main line distribution. Plugins in web pages allow for a richer content experience. In short – these application extensions are part of the applications’ DNA which allow every user to have the software that makes sense for them.

5) Where do you see Firefox going? Will it continue to innovate? Will you continue to be a part of it?

We’re still working on our 2.0 plans, we have a lot of ideas, no final schedule yet. It will absolutely continue to be a beacon for Open Source Software innovation and usability. At this time, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, and the talented people I work with all feel the same.

6) Where do you see the browser going? Will it replace other programs, as it seems to be replacing the RSS reader?

We will integrate services as and when they make sense, not for any other reason. At all costs we must resist the urge to go down the path of unnecessary feature creep – that’s what we have developed our extension architecture for. As for other applications, some have moved to the web such as email and photo management, and we will obviously continue to be a portal to those.

7) You’re pretty young. How easy/hard has this been for you? Did you expect Firefox to make such a big splash?

The work I’ve done on this project is the most interesting/challenging I’ve done to date, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. By extending ourselves and setting the bar not just at the level of the competition but higher we make a statement not only in the quality of the software we create, but about the value of the Open Source model of software development. I think we expected Firefox to be more successful than the Mozilla Application Suite (currently in 1.7.x) that preceded it, but I don’t think we expected it to be quite this big. Every release for the past year things seemed to get exponentially bigger in terms of popularity and buzz. We’ve now had over 21 million downloads – that’s amazing for any piece of software.

Thanks, Ben, and good luck in your new job. (More by Ben and his new job here.)

The Tag Report I: A Chat With Gen Kanai

In today’s column (subscription required) for and The Asian Wall Street Journal‘s Personal Journal section I write about tags — the kind found on and Flickr. I spoke — or at least IMed — with some interesting people to research the story, and thought I’d post excerpts from some of the chats, with the permission of the source, in case anyone is interested in reading more.

Here’s the first one, from Japanese American Tokyo resident Gen Kanai who was very good at walking me through some of the ideas about tagging. He declined to let me identify his own current involvement, but it sounds interesting indeed. Hopefully we can talk more about that later.

JW: i was playing around with delicious and started reading stuff, including your posts on it, and was trying to see where it’s all going…
Gen Kanai: Its definitely been the hot topic of the past few weeks.
JW: from what i’ve read this is all about metadata, and making it so it’s not just personal categories, but sharing… is that anywhere near?
Gen Kanai: yes, the key is the sharing aspect.
Gen Kanai: as we all know, people are lazy,
Gen Kanai: so a little bit of investment up-front in tagging (photos, a url, etc.) means you can find a lot more related information afterwards
JW: ok…
Gen Kanai: especially when web services start sharing that data
JW: what’s in it for web services to share this stuff?
Gen Kanai: good question
Gen Kanai: More readership, a greater audience
JW: could you give an example?
Gen Kanai: sure.
Gen Kanai: if delicious was merely a bookmark saving service, it wouldnt be interesting.
Gen Kanai: delicious is compelling because the users save the bookmark but also associate metadata in the form of tags with each URL.
Gen Kanai: that “tag” is then automatically associated with other “tags” and so one can find other URLs related to “ferrari”
JW: how would that work exactly? if someone gave a tag ‘car’ and another ‘roadhog’ would they be matched? or lost?
Gen Kanai: or whatever keyword or phrase.
Gen Kanai: The other important part
Gen Kanai: is that both Flickr and Delicious have APIs for sharing.
Gen Kanai: Application programming interfaces.
Gen Kanai: a simple way for the data (Photos or URLs) to be shared on other websites.
Gen Kanai: Amazon also has an API for their system
JW: for sharing book lists etc?
Gen Kanai: its one important way Amazon is more successful than other Ecommerce sites
Gen Kanai: yes.
Gen Kanai: on sites OTHER than amazon.
Gen Kanai: but getting back to tags
JW: ok, i’m with you. still not sure how the tags work if they are just keywords assigned by individuals. how do they get matched up?
Gen Kanai: its all very serendipitous and chaotic
Gen Kanai: at the same time.
Gen Kanai: librarians would have a fit.
JW: heh…
Gen Kanai: anyway, the other key is that “tags” are user generated.
Gen Kanai: it doesnt sound like a big deal, but it is.
Gen Kanai: because in the past, with XML, for instance
Gen Kanai: there was a need to make agreements across industries to standardize
Gen Kanai: and that’s all thrown out the window with tags
JW: ok…
Gen Kanai: basically its a way to find other similar information
Gen Kanai: the user does a bit more work tagging, but it results in a wealth of information once the tagged information is cataloged and associated with other data that has the same tag.
Gen Kanai: I would say, however, that this is all VERY new, and no one is really sure what this means in the long run.
Gen Kanai: Whether it will scale.
Gen Kanai: etc.
JW: ok. i’m still a bit clueless how the serendipitous tagging works: if my idea of tagging and yours don’t gel, won’t that be duplicated effort?
Gen Kanai: that:s ok
Gen Kanai: it doesnt have to gel
Gen Kanai: it not a perfect system
Gen Kanai: but so far, when used, it works well enough that people are excited and more and more sites are implementing tags as a feature
Gen Kanai: the best sites have APIs so they can share that information with other sites…

Thanks, Gen, for walking me through it. I’ll post some more chats soon.