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Facebook – Unstoppable Juggernaut, or Has-Been-To-Be?

Here’s an interesting post from Mark Suster’s site about the history of social networking activities on the web, and what the past can teach us about what is likely to come in the future:

What the Past Can Tell Us About the Future of Social Networking

There are abbreviated versions of this post elsewhere on the web, but I recommend reading the full version at the link above- it has a lot more background information to help color the conclusions.

FaceOL LogoOne of the most telling parallels in the post is the positioning of America Online in the mid 90s vs. Facebook today. Obviously, there are differences- an open, “free” model vs. a subscription based model- but the perceived lock-in from the network effect is very similar.

I personally believe that Facebook has a dominant, but fragile, position. Time and again, it has been shown that one of the main competitive advantages of a new social network is its novelty- once it’s no longer the new hotness, it becomes very tough to engage new users and drive increased repeat usage from existing users.

Suster’s presentation points out that Facebook is a social networking catch-all, and as users get “trained” into being able to manage this ecosystem, they will become more discerning about their activities, and who they share them with. This implies a general shift toward users relying on Facebook as a blanket identity but moving more of their actual posting and sharing to activity specific sites. A good example of this splintering is the meteoric rise of InstaGr.am, which, fueled by the ubiquity of high-quality smartphone cameras, has started to erode the primacy of Facebook as a mobile photo sharing service.

An underlying theme of Suster’s presentation is that the end user’s goals – to connect and communicate- have not changed, although the technologies and companies serving those goals have turned over two or three times. Staying true to those goals is essential for long term success in the interactive space. It will be interesting to watch and see if Facebook can remember that as they enjoy their time on the top of the hill.

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WordPress: Why did I wait so long?

I sat down this afternoon to make some edits to my sorely out of date personal website (preserved here, for laughs) and a few hours later, I had ended up mostly rebuilding the site in WordPress.

All I can say is that I’m kicking myself for not doing this sooner. The WordPress ecosystem / community / fountain of STUFF is so overwhelmingly comprehensive that it makes it laughably easy to create a fairly professional web presence with little or no skill. I’m a living example of same.

I’ve been meaning to update my web presence for years, but I imagined that I’d have to pour a ton of effort into getting it to “good.” Using WordPress gets you to “good” straightaway- which leaves me more time and energy to get it to “great” by putting some useful content up.

I’m especially impressed by the amount of plug-ins available for previously difficult or menial tasks (like generating Google sitemaps). Importing my old (and in some cases, laughably outdated) Blogger posts was a snap, and now I’m looking forward to building out the rest of my supporting pages. I just hope I don’t succumb to the temptation to put every crappy widget possible on the home page.

One of the plug-ins I did install auto-posts to Twitter, so I’ve crossed two threshholds today- joining the WordPress club, and becoming a Twitter auto-post spammer. Goodbye, individually handcrafted bites of 140-character idiocy!

Redeye Remote base station

iControl Everything

I believe that within a couple of years, expensive universal remotes will be all but dead, as more home theater devices ship with built in Wifi and a phone/tablet app that controls them. However, I’m worse than an early adopter- I’m an early experimenter. That’s why rather than waiting for this to come built in to my next generation home theater/TV/cable box, I’m going to spend a bunch of money and go through a bunch of hassle to try and make it happen now.

My goal is to have total control of my media centers- both television and house-wide streaming video- from my iDevices by the end of this month. Here’s what I am using to accomplish this:

Redeye Universal Remote System for iPhone and iPadThis is a clever device that joins your Wifi network and translates control inputs from your iPhone, iPod or iPad to IR control signals for your home theater. It’s well reviewed by the users who seem to have realistic expectations about it. The few negative reviews seem to come from people with very large homes, and apparently the IR signals aren’t powerful enough to propagate very far.

Overlarge rooms certainly won’t be a problem for me, but the need to place this in front of the devices it controls is a problem- that will place it squarely in range of my 1 year old son, who will undoubtedly yank it off the coffee table the moment he sees it.

To avoid that, I’m going to pair it with a set of remote IR emitters. That way, I can hide it from prying hands and keep my family room coffee table a bit cleaner, too. It will add a bunch of wires to the rear of my entertainment center, but it’s a rat’s nest back there anyhow- a little more won’t make much of a difference.

Music is going to be a little more complicated. I could go out and spend a bunch of money on a Sonos multi-room music system, which comes complete with an iPhone app for control. However, I already have a few parts that should allow me to (in theory) approximate the benefits of a Sonos without much extra money and work.

One of those pieces I already own is an Airport Express, which allows me to use a Remote app on my iPhone to play downloaded songs and streaming Internet radio from an existing Mac Mini. However, that setup misses on important piece of the Sonos experience – the ability to easily play different playlists and sources to different rooms, and seamless integration with Pandora and Sirius XM streaming radio. To enable that, I’m looking at Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil, which seems to have a few solutions to allow for that kind of flexibility using the Airport Express/Mac Minin/iPhone combination.

Sonos fans typically aren’t satisfied with cheaper workalikes, but perhaps never having samples the Sonos goodness will allow me to live with a more “hackish” solution for the time being. However, if I have to keep running down to the Mac Mini to reboot something or restart the server software, I will probably relent and crack open the wallet eventually.

The goal is to have this stuff up and running in the next couple of weekends. I do know that juggling nine total remotes for three TV systems is going to get old quickly. If nothing else, the savings from AA and AAA batteries alone should be significant…

What are Social Networks Good For? How about Saving the Internet

Twitter is inanity, 140 characters at a time. Facebook is the world’s most engaging and least profitable website, spending millions of dollars a minute so that people can bore each other with baby pictures. MySpace, already written off by the digital elite, is the lowest common denominator of online interaction, the cheesy strip mall of social experiences.

These are not necessarily my opinion- I’m condensing common criticisms, a distillation of the chatter these brands elicit on the web. However, I have recently begun to think that this activity, so far mostly untapped by frustrated marketers who are looking for a linear return on their ad spending, is what will ultimately redeem the interactive medium and fulfill the promise of this new platform.

Here’s why: Trust is at the heart of all successful human transactions.

In an environment of password phishing, Nigerian scammers, Craigslist killers, and doing it for the lulz, we’re going to need a way to measure our trust in those we interact with online.

Social networking sites, tools, and services bring a level of transparency, familiarity, and insight to those we choose to interact with. Thanks to his Twitter feed, I know know more about Rainn Wilson’s family than I do the family two doors down on my actual street.

Facebook’s worldwide membership numbers are approaching the total US population. Twitter’s growth keeps accelerating, and LinkedIn has settled comfortably into the professional social networking space. I foresee a time when the average user will refuse to accept email or interact with an online entity that is not socially connected to them somehow, however tenuously, through the ‘web of trust’ they’ve constructed on these networks.

Who knows… if I make some friends in Nigeria, maybe I will actually encounter a deposed prince who needs my help in recovering his millions

Google: Great Web App builders, awful Web Comic publishers

I haven’t had an opportunity to use Google’s Chrome browser yet, so I’ll reserve my opinion on its user experience enhancements until I do. However, I have had an opportunity to read the web comic that Google posted outlining the new features and philosophy behind Chrome. One thing I am able to conclusively say to Google- as far as publishing Web comics goes, don’t quit your day job.

Google recruited Scott McCloud, the creator behind the excellent Understanding Comics and its followups, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics. These books really drill down into the essential truths behind what drives the comic book medium on paper, and how it can successfully make the transition to new platforms and distribution methods. Check out this neat web comic that uses an innovative method of inter-panel navigation; it’s the closest thing I’ve seen on the web to simulating the peripheral ‘clues’ you get from reading a printed page panel-to-panel. This comic does everything right, from screen friendly formatting to an easy to navigate and informative index below the panels:

That’s why I was so surprised that the Google Chrome comic suffers from utterly awful usability. In a nutshell:

  • The pages are formatted like a printed comic- in a taller, rather than wider (also referred to as ‘portrait’ vs. ‘landscape’) orientation. That means that every page is a scroll, even on my 23″ HD monitor.
  • The navigation is on the very bottom of each page- two Javascript links that go forward, or back. No index or method for jumping to the very beginning, or end- if you’re on the last page (38), and want to go back to page 6, you’re either hitting ‘back’ 32 times or starting over from the original link.
  • The pages themselves are flat jpeg images, with zero semantic information about the content on the pages. Ironically, Google’s own search engine would pretty much utterly disregard these pages, with no textual information about the content and Javascript links its browser would ignore.

I paged through this web comic in utter disbelief- how could Scott McCloud, the paragon of exploring new and innovative methods in creating comics for the online medium, have contributed to such a mess?

The answer is on Scott’s site, in an apparently hastily assembled page* linked from his homepage.  The comic itself was designed and drawn as a printed piece, intended to be sent to journalists and bloggers as part of the announcement. When the mailing went out earlier than intended, scanned copies of the comic began to appear online. In response to the demand, Google apparently slapped their own hastily assembled Web version up – access was more important than accuracy and craft, in this case.

However, this begs the question- if you’re creating a piece of documentation intending to communicate the benefits and thinking behind a new way to browse the Web, shouldn’t you anticipate that it will be consumed on the web at some point? And as such, shouldn’t you prep a Web version well in advance of an announcement that will, inherently, break on the Web in the first place?

At least it ends up being a program management and product marketing failure rather than an unbelievable gaffe on the part of one of the creators I admire most. I’m sure Scott is cringing ten times as much as I am as he pages through his most visible Web comic to date, and is probably furiously pushing pixels to fix it right now.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my favorite panel from the work- there’s just so much right with the intentional wrongness of this panel- it could be a whole blog post on its own.

*I assume it’s a quick reaction to the breaking news because, as of this writing, the title is incorrect – it reads ‘Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection’ rather than anything to do with Google – and none of the links on the global nav work. Based on the attention this site and comic is getting, it will probably be fixed by the time you read this.

Eyes On The Road, Pal

Last week, while traveling for business, I ended up with a rental Hyundai Sonata. While slogging through LA freeway traffic, I adjusted the preprogrammed radio stations to my liking. I then checked to see if there were steering wheel mounted controls, so I could scan the stations and adjust volume without taking my eyes off the road.

Well, yes on one count. The Hyundai did have steering wheel mounted audio controls, but in a curious configuration:

What struck me as odd was that the volume controls were tucked away behind the main face of the steering wheel, while the station controls where on the front. I actually had to duck my head and peer behind the steering wheel to determine the placement and functions of the buttons. Once I sussed out where the buttons were located, I had to modify my grip on the steering wheel to reach them, extending my fingers out as if I was holding a phantom soda can in my left hand. This was uncomfortable and made me effectively steer one-handed.

Contrast this with the button placement on my wife’s Honda minivan:

The buttons are all right up front, no neck craning or awkward peering necessary. Additionally, they can all be easily manipulated by my thumb while my left hand is in the normal ’10 o’clock’ steering grip position.

I can only imagine that the Hyundai designer was trying for something ‘neat,’ both in terms of visual presentation on the front of the wheel and in terms of functional gimmickry, trying to be different for the sake of being different. The end result is a lack of what I call contextual awareness for the controls.

If this were some trick looking iPod dock, meant to sit on a bookshelf or mantle and exude sleekness, I could forgive odd or non-standard button placement- once you learn where the buttons are, it’s not that much more difficult to use it. However, the context of steering wheel mounted audio controls is completely different- not only is the user in a situation where their attention is probably more divided than usual, but they are actually impaired in their ability to perform one of the main functions of the vehicle- steering it clear of obstacles – while using the control. Taken to the absurd extreme, the Hyundai controls could actually contribute to your demise as you fumble and peer for the proper controls.

I highlight this real world example to draw a parallel with controls or input methods in online applications that similarly fail to understand the context of their use. Typically, non-context aware controls on the Web don’t lead to a shower of glass shards and an airbag deployment, but they sure can put a dent in the enjoyment of your trip. You’ve experienced them- usually when you’re undertaking some sort of task and you’re stopped dead in your tracks, trying to figure out what the web page wants from you to continue.

Some common examples:

• Dropdowns to set data more easily entered as text, such as an event time in a calendar application, or worse- year of birth, with a dropdown listing years from 1945 to the present (I’ve seen that a few times, sadly). This is typically the result of a desire to limit the possibility for mistakes on data entry, but it shifts the burden to the user when errors could just as easily be checked and trapped in the background in many cases.

• Popups (such as calendars) that set data on the main page. Again, this strikes me as lazy programming – if you want to provide a piece of function that will take up an inordinate amount of space on the page when not being used, there’s better ways to manage that than by banishing it to a popup. By moving a control function out of the flow of the page, you introduce ambiguity about what action to take next, and increase the possibility of errors.

• Unnecessarily deep drop-down menu trees. In a misguided attempt to mimic some desktop apps, I’ve seen web apps that offer three and four level deep dropdown menus for navigation. Typically, your mouse needs to follow an extremely narrow and precise path along those menus to prevent them from popping off and leaving you where you started. I invariably abandon the tightrope act and try and find another means to reach the subpage. In one case, I actually had to view the source of the javascript that generated the menus to pull out the URL I needed when I couldn’t manage to thread the correct path.

These are just three of many similarly annoying web gadgets that fail to understand the context of most online applications: to allow you to complete a task or to obtain information as quickly and easily as possible. Forgetting, or worse, flouting that goal is what leads to high bail rates and low stickyness. Are those things worth showing off your neat Flash drag-and-drop skillz on your main site navigation? About as worth it as a car crash when you’re trying to find a decent station while driving.

Per iPhone: Google is a Verb

Although the Oxford English Dictionary has already decreed that the term Google is a verb, a more culturally relevant institution – the iPhone – has resoundingly confirmed it.

Here’s the search screen from the iPhone’s implementation of Safari:

Once you’ve entered your search term, you’re invited (by the active, blue button on the lower right) to Google it.

I’m now searching the rest of the iPhone interface for definitive answers on energy independence, gay marriage, and the nature of free will – I will post those revelations as they emerge.

Google to index Flash – and why this is a non-announcement

There’s a lot of buzz about today’s announcement about Google’s improved Flash indexing.

For those of you not obsessed with Flash or SEO, the reason this post is getting so much attention is simple: previously, Google’s crawlers were unable to index text within Flash movies. Since quite a bit of content (on entertainment sites, especially) is locked up in Flash, a lot of stuff wasn’t discoverable via search.

On the face of it, this is a huge boon for those sites that publish interesting content in Flash (like AOL’s photo galleries). However, if you read deeper into the Google blog post, you’ll see there are two deal breakers for most modern Flash sites.

The first: the crawler will not index Flash that is embedded in the page via Javascript. To avoid the IE ActiveX ‘click to activate’ security feature, the vast majority of Flash movies published by professional outfits are written into the page via Javascript. Thus, few of them will be indexed.

The second: The crawler will not index externally loaded SWFs or XML. The vast majority of Flash movies published by professional outfits load external information as SWFs or XML. The crawler will follow links to those items and index them separately, but that’s fairly useless for the goal of increasing the relevance of the main page.

About all this will effect are designer and photographer portfolio websites, which generally have hardcoded text content. Not exactly an Earth-shattering move for the rest of the Flash-using web.

Websites Are Not Software

It appears that Microsoft feels it’s so far behind in the online advertising space that it needs to spend $44 billion on purchasing Yahoo! – which will still leave them in second place.

Why does a company with massive amounts of money, talent and market share in the PC world need to buy its way into an online also-ran position?

I think it’s very simple: it’s because Websites Are Not Software.

Websites are made up largely of software components, but categorizing them as software is akin to declaring that hamburgers are beef. A hamburger, much like a website, is a recipe, a formula, a preparation, of disparate elements that must come together in the proper proportions for a successful result.

The extension of this is that companies (or teams, or people) who are most familiar with making software are likely to see a website mainly from the software perspective. This can be likened to putting an electrician in charge of a television network, since after all, the medium consists of electrical impulses transmitted to a screen.

The Web is hamstrung, and enabled, by the artifacts of the technology that spawned it- multipurpose computers, clunky browsers, incomplete and oft-ignored standards, and a myriad of proprietary media formats. It doesn’t have the same neat and tidy inputs and outputs that you can get from delivering shrinkwrapped software- a predictable platform, release cycle, or product roadmap.

Microsoft Word doesn’t need to restructure its menus when a celebrity OD’s. Adobe Photoshop doesn’t need to sell sponsorships on its startup screen. You don’t go out and buy the latest version of GMail to install on your computer.

When an organization used to the tidy inputs and predictable outputs of making software tries to use that mindset to tame the wild, wild web- the results are predictably poor.

Can Microsoft buy its way out of its software-oriented worldview? Based on recent statements, it seems that Microsoft is positioning the acquisition as an opportunity to obtain Yahoo! engineering talent. If those engineers are put on task to build more Microsoft software, then I’m skeptical that the acquisition will do much more than reinforce my point that Websites Are Not Software.

Driven to the future

While driving to the Albany area this past weekend, I realized the future creeps up on us a minute at a time.

I hadn’t done a similar drive since around 1989, when I navigated my 1973 Karmann Ghia up the thruway to visit a friend at RPI in Troy, NY. That vehicle was essentially a compact box of pressed metal, folded around a clattering air-cooled engine designed in the 1930s. The dashboard instruments consisted of a speedometer, fuel gauge, and a broken clock. The combo tape-deck/radio I had installed seemed terribly modern in the middle of the terribly retro fake alligator skin dash covering I had also inflicted on the car. The passenger seat held a massive road atlas, which I would study at frigid rest stops in a futile attempt to decipher the tangle of intersecting highways in the state capital area. If I failed, I would have to find a working pay phone at a rest stop and hope I had enough change left over from the tolls to call my friend, or at least hope he was home to accept a collect call.

18 years down the line I flipped the ignition on my rented Ford Edge, waited a moment while both the navigation system and the radio acquired two separate satellite networks. I plugged in my iPod, itself about the size of the cassette tapes of yore, yet holding about 20 days worth of music vs. 90 minutes. Cruising up the Thruway in comparative silence, I idly flipped through the onboard trip computer display that calculated my momentary gas mileage and ‘distance to empty.’ The GPS dutifully announced upcoming turns, merges and road names, and provided me with a countdown to an estimated arrival time. Nestled in the cupholder, my Blackberry plucked incoming emails from roadside cellular towers. Toll plazas silently charged my EZ-Pass as I cruised through them and their empty booths, a relic of when they harbored a human dipped into the stream of traffic to shave quarters and nickels from passing travelers.

The act- driving solo a few hundred miles up the Thruway- was identical, but just about every aspect of the trip has been transformed in ways that are now startlingly mundane. The temptation when predicting the future is to bird dog the sensational- “The car will drive itself! It will be powered by discarded banana peels!” We tend not to think about the quiet innovations that will flow in around those infrequent revolutions, and nestle themselves unnoticed in our lives until they are suddenly indispensable. Sure, I could drive to Albany and back without a satellite guided GPS system, but why would I if I have such a device? There’s no equivalent fun for me in “going paper,” as there might be in driving a manual transmission vehicle rather than an automatic. Flipping through a tattered road atlas on a freezing night holds no special nostalgia- I gleefully relegate that memory to the fading past.

Ten years from now, will I find it odd that I couldn’t, with some strategic keywords and gestures, edit together a three minute video journal of my travels compiled from the cloud of ubiquitous video cameras along the route? Will I curse my rental for not having warned me that up ahead the driver of the Expedition was likely to drift into my lane because his eyelid blinking pattern had slowed to dangerously drowsy levels? Will I look back in horror at the barbarity of having to actually check my email to find out my wife, home with the baby, had taken ill, and that the System hadn’t realized the urgency of the message and surreptitiously flashed it across the far wall of the conference room I occupied that day?

Regardless of the magical technology that may envelop us further in the coming years, I am fairly certain one element- me- will remain comfortably consistent. All the king’s satellites and all the king’s microprocessors still couldn’t prevent me from missing my turn into the rental return lot. I was otherwise occupied, fumbling with the radio to extinguish 2Live Crew’s embarrassingly blaring ‘Me So Horny’ before I pulled into the return line. I can only hope that the radios of the future will contain a taste subroutine that drives them to discreetly mute themselves rather than betray my guilty pleasures to the outside world.

Marc Siry's blog about the business of inventing the future