Is RSS Feed Synching a New Need?

Google Reader will die on July 1

I miss Google Reader already.

Humans are lazy. It’s not their fault, but the default action for any situation seems, for most people, to wait and see. It can be something as trivial as what to have for dinner (“Oh, we’ll decide when that time rolls around.”) or as enormous and threatening as Climate Change (“Let’s do more research to see if it really, really, really is the result of human activity and is something that might be dangerous…”) the standard plan for most of us is to wait until we have to do something. It looks like, for an issue somewhere in between dinner and the fate of the planet, is requiring some action on our part, and soon.

Up to now, some of us had gotten used to relying on that huge, ‘non-evil’ corporation, Google, to act as caretaker of our choices for news feeds (as well as a bunch of other pieces of info, but today I’m talking about the news stuff). Because we wanted to keep all of the ways that we consume those news feeds in different places on different devices or software packages in synch, we relied on Google to be the keeper of our choices. In addition to offering a pretty good online feed reader, Google also (and less obviously) gave us a canonical place to save all of our feeds, how they were organized, and even which articles we had already read out of each RSS feed (so as not to reread the same articles again when we switched devices/locations/software).

Google has announced that as of July 1, they’ll be killing Google Reader, the aforementioned web-based reader and keeper of our RSS feed list. That not only means that the web-access to online RSS feeds is going away, but the infrastructure that a lot of other feed readers (since they figured that everyone had a Google Reader account) was something important to support, since it provided a way to quickly synch all of those preferences (what feeds you subscribe to, what feeds have read items, etc.) Google Reader’s feed collection became, partly by default, the single place where you could count on to make sure that all of your readers (and some of them actually depended on Google Reader being their to hold those Feed preferences, ‘in the cloud’ as it were) could be set up the same way. Yes, you can export your feeds as a collection of them (called an OPML file – so nerdy it doesn’t even have a clever acronym), but that’s pain and doesn’t help reconcile 2 of those files, should you add or delete feeds in 2 different contexts. I suppose someone will come up with a method of putting your OPML/reader settings in dropbox, and then the program can use it there to show your feeds, but that already feels like a hack.

So, it looks as if Feedly is going to probably be one of my main ways to read CSS feeds, along with the more standard Reeder on iOS and Mac OS X. I also use Netvibes to read news, along with my mail, calendar, stocks and and a few other odds and ends. It’s a bit cluttered, but a fine start page/dashboard for most of the time.

Still, I like the idea of a service that keeps all of those other readers in synch. Might there be one waiting in the wings, the way iCloud is supposed to keep my calendar, contacts and mail in synch? There has been some noise about a project called ‘Normandy’ that Feedly is working on – mostly that it is a clone of the Google Reader API (but it will never have the horsepower that Google had, especially if you ever wanted to search millions or trillions of feeds in order to find something important). In some ways, my subscriptions are almost as important as my files and other information. I also expect that as computing power gets cheaper, the need to have cloud-based services to keep all of those computing points-of-contact working well together becomes more and more important, and makes the experience all the more powerful. No note-taking software on the iPhone or iPad can even approach the power of Evernote, because with that service, no matter where I take the note on my phone, when I get home it’s already on my computer. Conversely, before I leave to go somewhere, I enter all of the information I’m going to need into Evernote on the desktop, and then when I get there, access it on the phone. My feed choices should work the same way, whether I listen to them read to me in the car, see them flashed on the TV screen, or snuggle up with them on the sofa with my iPad.

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A World Now Without Steve Jobs

I entered a world in which Steve Jobs had already been born, and was 5 years old. He and I had different upbringing, but I suspect that many of our cultural touch-points were similar. We both first started taking note of the world around us when television made the leap from black and white to ‘living colour’ as the ads would say. We both saw a man land on the moon, and probably remember where we were when John Lennon was shot (I was in college, he had by that time started Apple Computer, Inc.) We both were lovers of music and calligraphy. In some ways, I like to think that our tastes were similar; we both fans of a sort of modernist simplicity in design. I fell in love with elegant industrial design early. I used to pore over the ads to Bang and Olufsen Hi Fi sets in New Yorker magazines while awaiting my piano lesson.

The Bang and Olufson Beogram 4004 Turntable

The Bang and Olufson Beogram 4004 Turntable, one of the first remote-controlled stereo components.

I also remember my grandfather getting me a digital LED watch by Fairchild, one of the early, expensive ones before they became a mass-market item.

The Fairchild LED Watch

The Fairchild LED Watch, one of the beautiful but impractical LED watches of the 70s

The impractical thing about LED watches was that you had to press a button to see the time. In fact, I remember Saturday Night Live doing a parody on these watches that required another person to pushing a second button for you see the time, forcing you to get help to see the display. “It’s like asking a stranger for the time” was the slogan. Yes, but the elegance of the clutter-free bezel, and the lovely near-circle framed by a bit of chrome in was just irresistable to me.

For me, the Salton home appliances of that same period where also examples of great industrial design. They included hot plates, a peanut butter mill, and a thermostatically controlled yogurt maker:

Salton Yogurt Maker

The Salton Yogurt Maker, another example of what I considered beautiful industrial design. Notice the use of Helvetica.

None of these artifacts was created by Steve Jobs or Apple, but I like to think that well designed consumer merchandise was not unknown to us nor did it not exist apart from Apple.

This part of Apple and Steve Jobs we (and I) could have survived if they never existed. However, it’s the rest of it, the software, that I can’t imagine a world without. My entry into this world began when I was in my 2os.

I got my first computer in 1985, while attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. In a guest bedroom in my landlady’s house, I set up a glass table (with 2 red metal sawhorses) where a Macintosh 512 sat, connected to the telephone line via a 1200 baud modem. The floppy drives frequently purred, and I used it to print my papers, as well as connect to the school’s DEC PDP-11 computer in order to edit the files for a piece of music I was working on at the time called ‘Spincycle’. It was a beautiful machine. I loved the shape of it, the way the screen surface was cantilevered so that the keyboard seemed to fit under it, and how the angled back corner echoed the shape of the mouse. The slight upward slant of the front screen, like a an inclined head, contributed to a sense of balance and elegance, along with a slight bit of anthropomorphism (and hence, a personality) that made this device something I added to the list of beautiful things.

My first computer, a Macintosh 512K

My first computer, a Macintosh 512K

Up until that point, I had been pretty disdainful of computers. They were my brother’s world, and to me seemed ugly, inhuman and tasteless. They were not for people concerned with the arts or non-mathematical pursuits. This computer shipped with a cassette tape that introduced you to its functions with elegant New Age music: The piano solo ‘Things with Wings’ by pianist Liz Story served as interludes and in the background. The tape, along with carefully written tutorial made it a joy to get to know and eventually become intimately familiar with this new technology.

One of the early things I did with that Mac was, as I mentioned, connect remotely to another computer. I did this to use my Mac’s built-in text editing abilities to create long strings of notes (written like A5 Ds E G As A Fs B C6 etc.) that I would ‘paste’ into the vi text editor running in a terminal on campus. If I did this at a time when many people were working on the PDP-11, the paste might not work properly; the other computer literally could’t keep up with pasting too much data at once if it was busy doing something else.

At any rate, using that computer to connect soon became a regular evening activity. I discovered and connected to Bulletin Board systems to download new software. That introduced me to a whole new world of User Groups and the software creation community.

Upon finishing my coursework and passing all of my oral and written exams, I moved out of Rochester (which I had happy to leave, having broken up with a girlfriend) and move in temporarily with my brother, who was attending MIT in Boston. I slept on the futon in his living room/guest room and got my first job with his girlfriend’s former boss, at a small computer software company in Harvard Square. Using another Mac, I learned how to write software documentation for programmers (mainly explaining what small modules of Pascal did as part of an online trading system). Then an enormously important things happened: in 1987 (shortly after Jobs had been forced out of Apple by John Sculley), Apple introduced (and released in early 1988) a piece of software called HyperCard. The creator of HyperCard, Bill Atkinson, was also the programmer of the Mac’s first graphics software, called ‘MacPaint’, which shipped with every Mac for a number of years. Atkinson demonstrated his software to packed conference rooms at the Bayside Exposition Center (and the air-conditioning had gone on the fritz, so it was like a sauna in these rooms). For me, it was love at first sight. Hypercard was, to put it simply, a software ‘erector set ‘that would let ordinary people (i.e., not just programmers) piece together acceptably usable and in some cases, well-designed software that included graphics, sound, motion, and even logic and calculations.

The HyperCard Home Screen

The HyperCard Home Screen - technically not the exact one I saw in 1988, but very close.

Using HyperCard, anyone with some minimal training could communicate their ideas or expertise in a working application without having to learn the considerable amount of knowledge required to get even a single screen up and working using standard programming tools. These days, that would include learning the Xcode programming environment, the calls to present user interface elements like windows, buttons and menus, etc., as well as a knowledge of Objective-C and Apple’s version of it, called Cocoa. It’s worth noting that Steve Jobs did not particularly take to HyperCard and product eventually died out after he returned to Apple. I suspect that Jobs didn’t like HyperCard because it was never a polished product, particularly in terms of what people created with it. Most stacks were homely examples of what an amateur would do when given powerful tools. For me, though, HyperCard was my sandbox, my learning tool, my training wheels, and the path to new career. I wrote a book on it in 1992, and eventually made my living first as a general Macintosh consultant, and eventually as a software user interface designer. Working with the software and teaching others how to use it honed my skills in design, teaching, public speaking, writing, information architecture, and a host of other bodies of knowledge that would simply not have existed if it weren’t for Steve Jobs, the company he created and the software they produced (especially HyperCard).

These days, in a line of work and economy shaped by Jobs and the company he founded, I continue to live, work, and appreciate the elegance and beauty of well crafted hardware and software. Would I have this life without Jobs? I can’t imagine it. Will I have one without him? Probably, but now, with his death at the age of 56 (too damned soon!) we all head into a future without him, even if Apple remains, at least for the time being. It’s a future that feels just a little less exciting. We are all a little poorer without him, which is probably the best thing you can say about any human being. I suppose that he was one of what Apple’s ads referred to as ‘the crazy ones, the square pegs in the round holes…’ He moved the human race forward. I am lucky enough to be around to see it.

My Presentation on UX for WordPress Sites

I recently gave a talk on applying some User Experience considerations to the design decisions one makes in a WordPress blog. Since there are a number of plugins and other technologies that can enhance the user experience of a blog, I thought it would be good to promote some of these. Here’s the presentation deck (without my commentary, so not every slide will make 100% sense, but you’ll get a feel for the subject):

The Greasepaint Approach

A Real iPhone is smaller than this, and that’s the issue

I’ve recently been involved with an iPhone project where we are doing a few custom UI controls, and it’s definitely proved a learning experience about the difference between designing for a computer screen and designing for the iPhone screen (either the current one or the upcoming iPhone 4 Retina Display screen).

One thing I’ve learned has to do with the characteristics of the iPhone screen, and how that influences User Interface Design choices. Over the years, I’ve become used to the what it takes to show a change on a computer monitor, which is to say, the degree to much you need to change the colour, shape, or scale so that it’s obvious, even if the user looks away for a second before the change occurs and then looks back.  This might apply to an object in its selected and unselected states, or the addition of something new on the screen, or perhaps the enabling or disabling of a button or other element.  At first, I thought this was due to the dots (or in this case, pixels) per inch of the iPhone versus computer monitors. Monitors are usually somewhere between 72 PPI (Pixels Per Inch) and perhaps 200 PPI on the best equipment. The IBM T220/T221 LCD monitors marketed from 2001–2005 were 204 PPI, and they probably set the standard for a while. These days, a 20-inch (50.8 cm) screen with a 1680×1050 resolution has a 99.06 PPI, and a garden variety Macbook (not the higher end Macbook Pros) has 113 PPI (Wikipedia has an article on how this is calculated).

However, the iPhone PPI is listed at 163 PPI, which although it’s on the high side, is certainly not significantly higher than a typical computer these days. The difference, then, must be the size of the screen. In the case of any iPhone screen 2G, 3G, 3Gs and 4G, it’s a 3.5 inch screen (compare that to the aforementioned 20-inch, and now we’re talking different.)

It might be obvious, but what I’ve noticed is that the amount of change you have to make in order to be noticeable is far more on the iPhone’s screen. The contrast must be greater, scaling or moving an object between one state and another has to be larger (or farther), and as a corollary to this rule of thumb,  it’s easy to miss subtle changes.  Several times during development of the app we’re working on, I had to report to the graphic designer that I was working with, that a selection style wasn’t distinct enough, or that a small detail of a button, such as a downward pointing arrow, had to be rendered with higher contrast (the UI had a lot of grey objects, and some of them had white or darker grey overlays).

I think the easy way to think about this is the analogy of greasepaint. What’s greasepaint? It’s the traditional makeup that actors wore (and has now been superseded by more modern stage makeup) that helps to compensate for both the washing out of facial features by the bright theatre lights, as well as help audience members to make out their faces, even though the actors were farther away (and hence, smaller in the eyes of theatregoers – perhaps the equivalent of being 4 or 5 centimeters tall depending on how far away from the stage they were sitting). I remember going backstage to a dressing room after the Play or Opera was over, and was always struck by how odd the performers looked before removing all of that extreme makeup, which brought out cheekbones or encircled their eyes (like a Raccoon, I though!).

So User Interface Designers working on iPhone apps, remember, the computer screen is the dressing room, and the iPhone screen is the stage. Don’t forget the greasepaint!

iPad, You Pad, We All Pad…

Apple's iPad

Apple’s iPad

I just got back from one of our local Apple Stores and the iPads on display had quite a throng around them.  I didn’t check, but suspect that they are probably  sold out for today. My visit got me thinking about how to explain why I think the iPad is both so successful (and this is not just a belief, it’s a fact: Apple has already sold a million of them, and this past Friday they first went on sale in the rest of the world, (including here in Canada), and why Apple has once again filled a need that people didn’t know they had in the first place.

First, How to Define It

In describing what the iPad is, it’s easy to get caught up in what it doesn’t have, since that may be what strikes one at first; There’s no keyboard, no mouse or trackpad, no monitor stand, and all of the rest of the stuff that goes along with the experience of using a computer or connecting to the Internet.  That also includes a desk or table, chair, mouse pad (or with the advent of optical mice, at least a surface for moving the mouse on) or the various power, video and network cabling, external hard drive or optical (DVD) drive. There’s also a lot of upkeep and maintenance that has been taken away from the iPad;  there’s no anti-virus package that you might be reminded to get shortly after starting it up (at least, not yet), no place to get software except the built-in iTunes store. You don’t have to worry about defragmenting a hard disk (there is none – it’s solid state memory) or even emptying a trash can on the screen to free up disk space. While all of this does get one closer to the uniqueness of the iPad, it circles around the issue somewhat, which I’ll get into in a bit.

It’s also common to define the iPad as just a large iPod Touch or iPhone, since those are devices we are already familiar with. The fact that Apple chose to use a very similar operating system and launching screen to the one on those devices only serves to bolster the opinion that the iPad is merely a larger version of these other gadgets, something I’ve heard especially from people already familiar with those existing products. I think this is an incorrect assessment, simply because there are activities and media that are obviously far more suited to the larger form factor (like watching movies) than the smaller ones. A wall clock is not merely a large wristwatch. It’s a completely different, but related timekeeping object. But again, I think this is looking at the wrong thing.

To paraphrase the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, don’t look for the word, look for the use. Rather than try and define the iPad by what it is lacking or what it appears to be based on, define it by how it’s used. It’s here, I think, that you get to the really interesting and exciting thing about the iPad, which is the user model, or the totality of the experience under which it’s used.

Many of the most revolutionary technological advances are ones that embrace a new user model. Wi Fi and laptops freed people from being tethered to a single office or desk. The new 3G networks and hardware to connect to them on a Netbook allow one to be connected to the Internet not just in a Café with a local wi fi access point but perhaps sitting outside, by a babbling brook.

The iPhone’s size and weight meant that you didn’t have to be sitting down to use it. You could be waiting in line, walking, or sitting  in a seat on the bus or a car. In fact, the iPad is the first computer  that is almost intended to be used while slouching. It’s not a desktop or laptop;  it’s a loungetop! The idea that a computer is not necessarily for work (the Desktop and Laptop computers are ostensibly for that purpose) or for communication (all of the above plus the smartphone or PDA  - Personal Digital Assistant, a term coined by another Apple CEO –  plus phone) leaves the iPad a computer for casual use, mainly media-consumption with some email and web surfing. One could certainly do work on an iPad, and no doubt, some people will dedicate themselves to using it for their work tasks, but the iPad is first and foremost, the first computer designed to be used while a user is sitting back comfortably. That’s probably the big (if not one of the biggest) deal, in my opinion.

The lack of all of those other items (keyboard, mouse, external drive, cabling) meant that there is less to distract the user from the touchscreen and the content displayed on it. People often describe the experience of using an iPad as qualitatively different; that there is no longer ‘something’ in the way, between them and the Internet. While the day has not yet arrived where we ‘jack in’ directly to the Internet, the iPad comes a step closer to that consensual hallucination.

The iPad as Harbinger of a New Age of Human Control Interfaces

It’s even more interesting to take note of the fact that Steve Jobs conceived of the iPad first, and then realized that they could use a smaller version, with some of the scrolling behavior, as a way of building a telephone and internet device/iPod. The pure idea, that of a simple, flat, sheet of glass that displays content and interacts with the user was the original idea. You could put that foundation under any other gadget. People will now expect the iPad/iPhone touchscreen interface with it’s combination of mimicry of physical scrolls and easily changed collection of buttons or controls depending on the context as the default user interface for any number of other technologies. Your car will have a small iPad screen built into the dash (someone has already installed one, according to one of the tech blogs). You’ll set your thermostat or fade your lights with one of these glass interfaces, and you’ll program your microwave, dishwasher, or even toaster with one, once the technology becomes cheap enough to use everywhere.
By jettisoning the clutter and encumbrances of computing, the iPad pulls the rest of the world into an intelligent and software-driven set of controls. Physical knobs, along with raised physical buttons, will only be used where absolutely necessary. As for the rest, we all Pad.