Two Examples of Good Online Software

As I mentioned in my other blog, Loud Murmurs, next week I’ll be at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco. Nevertheless, I’ve seen some web software, little things, that have really impressed me, and one of them was connected with the conference.

Here’s the first one:

The Developer Conference has a very full schedule of sessions, split into 3 tracks. They are all categorized, numbered, and described in detail on the Apple WWDC Web site. While most attendees will want to go to a lot of these 150+ sessions, that’s clearly not possible, and not every session will appeal to every attendee . In fact, the schedule has been in place for nearly a month. What’s been added is the following: You can now create a personalized schedule of sessions and labs that will find its way to your hands, where you’ll need it during the conference. Using the online Conference Schedule, you click a session or lab you’re interested in, then click on the Select button in its information pop-up. (you can also add sessions and labs from an alternate Sessions and Lab page, where sessions are grouped by track rather than by the schedule):

Click to see full version

After you’ve selected all of the sessions that you want, like this one:

Selecting a session in the Schedule

…you click a link, which downloads a URL to iCal, which then subscribes to that calendar:

The Link Subscribes you to the Schedule in iCal!

Then, when you then sync that calendar with your iPod or iPhone, you now have your personalized Conference schedule for each day on your iPhone:

After syncing, the sessions I selected show up in my iPhone. Fantastic!

The other web software that impressed me is the always-handy Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Whenever I’m stuck with that Now what other movie was that actor in?’ question or several like it, IMDB has been a godsend. While several sites are rolling out iPhone versions of the interface, IMDB does a spectacularly good job of it. The clear and sensible breakdown of an actor’s bio or film’s information lets you do that wonderful ‘swivel search’, where you can hop from actor to movie to cast to another actor to movie to director, etc. It keeps perfect track of your breadcrumb trail, and the performance, as well as excellent use of the ‘slide left’ animation for drilling down make it a real winner as an iPhone web app. I hope some of my other favourite sites roll out iPhone versions (Digg, Slashdot, Fark, BoingBoing and a bunch of other wonderful time-wasters, I hope you’re listening!)

Surface: Microsoft’s Sexy Coffee Table

Surface-thumbnail
I’ll bet that there are days at the Microsoft campus when some groups are working on a super-secret project that they just wish they could tell the world about it. In fact, keeping their secret must drive them crazy. Especially when some other company comes out with a similar project to the one they were working on, or shows off some feature in one of their demos that seriously steals some of their thunder. Time to market is part of the game, and when you lose the race, it hurts. That’s probably how the group who were working on the project called ‘Surface‘ felt some months ago when Steve Jobs made his spectacular iPhone demo, particularly when he showed that product’s new User Interface called Multi-touch. Multi-touch, at least the way that Apple defined it, means that a device can tell when you have one or two fingers touching a touch screen, and behaves differently depending on how those fingers interact. For the iPhone, this means that you can tap and double tap for some behaviors, tap and fling to move a screen or scroll a page, or touch with two fingers and move them toward or away from each other in order to zoom in or out on an image. It’s that last one that Microsoft’s new product has, and I’ll bet they were gnashing their teeth and grimacing with each ooh and ah from the crowd as they reacted to Jobs’ demo at MacWorld last January.*

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Surface, besides all of that multi-touch stuff, is a strangely exotic and futuristic product. Most folks would call it ‘bleeding edge’. It’s frankly not something I expect from Microsoft. When I think of Microsoft, I think of Windows™. Windows is not bleeding edge. It’s market-tested, well worn, doesn’t take chances, and is definitely not exotic and futuristic. It runs on hardware that is getting cheaper by the day, and most of the time that hardware is, well, ugly (with a few exceptions from Sony and maybe one or two others).

Surface is none of that. It’s a 30 inch acrylic display with touchscreen built into a rather austere-looking coffee table that’s 22 inches high, 21 inches deep and 42 inches wide. There’s no keyboard and no mouse, although it does have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and wired Ethernet connectivity. The main way that you interact with it is by touching the screen. Actually, Surface is designed to work not only with more than one finger touching at once, but with more than one person interacting with it at once. Oh, and yes, in case you forget, it’s a computer running Microsoft’s own Vista OS (Windows is still in there somewhere!) and will probably cost somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000. (Update: I just found out that these numbers are $5,000 to $10,000. No big surprise there.) What remains is the question of what you actually do with a $10,000 coffee table touchscreen computer with Internet and wireless connectivity.

Here are some examples of what Microsoft has in mind: (click on these thumbnails to see a larger image).

Multi-touch in Action Multi-User Computing

In the Fact Sheet on their web site, Microsoft says that they will ship Surface (and yes, this is a shipping product) “… to partners with a portfolio of basic applications, including photos, music, virtual concierge and games, that can be customized to provide their customers with unique experiences.” The web site for showing off Vista has several video demos, ranging from happy-smiling-people (a term I learned from my days at Fidelity that refers to those models you see in business ads who always seem to be having a better day than you are) arranging digital photographs, planning a trip, playing cards, and interacting with their cell phones as they place them on the glass table-top display. One of the demos that seems just a little unrealistic has a little girl using Surface to paint a cute picture. I’m sorry, but even though the top 1% of the very wealthy in the US are getting wealthier, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the Gates families and a few others that can afford a 10K electronic paint toy for their kid, much less place it in the living room. What did look the most interesting, however, were the instances where someone was interacting with one or more cell phones, allowing people to download trip information into them by dragging the information into a box that stood for the phone on the screen or moving music tracks from one cell phone/audio player (iPhone? Zune?) to another. The one that made me think ‘Hmm, I don’t think they’ve thought through the social dynamics of this one…’ was an example where a group of diners in a restaurant split the bill and dragged their portions to their cell phones. It might be nice to be able to split a bill with perfect math accounting for each dish ordered, but somehow having that appear on the screen felt a bit…awkward? I suppose it’s no worse than the waitress splitting up the bill, but can you imagine the tug-of-war that might ensue when one or more diners tries to pay for the other?

The fact is, this is a product that is probably going to be seen in casinos and some upscale restaurants and hotels first. The living room will have to wait. I have to say that I like that Microsoft is thinking outside the box (or rather, the desktop or laptop), and some of the applications do look fun. Will this catch on? I’m not sure. For a long time, people were hot on touchscreen kiosks for some of this activity, and they never really took off, and I can’t really see Surface working as a real restaurant table:

Oh, I spilled my Curry sauce all over the computer screen…
Don’t worry sir, I’ll just wipe it up, oh, whoops, sorry to order that round of champagne…
Oh, how cute, little Dylan is playing Blackjack between courses…Oh, don’t stab at the table with your fork, sweetheart…

Damn that messy physical world, full of food, klutzes and kids getting in the way of our cool software technology!

I used and designed interfaces for a touchscreen years ago, and I was struck then by the intimacy of the interactions. Rather than move a cursor via a physical proxy (the mouse, trackball or trackpad), you can touch a part of the screen, and sometimes that piece of the screen would change, just like in the physical world. The examples that Microsoft showed had this happening most of the time. You touch something, it either ripples, moves or highlights. The Surface UI is meant to be more than simply a new display, form factor and method of input, it’s a different style of interactivity that looks like the iPhone writ large (and for two or more people). I’ll bet it just kills the Surface team to hear that.

*It’s worth mentioning that Jeff Han demoed a surface interface at TED in 2006, and much of what he demonstrated is reflected in Microsoft’s new product. Han’s demo also got oohs and ahs, but it has only been seen by a relative few, where the hype for the iPhone definitely went farther into the mainstream media.

UIs in the Movies

Metropolis

Forbidden Planet

A recent paper by Michael Schmitz, a student at Saarland University (a fascinating institution near the borders of Germany, France, Luxembourg and Belgium), surveys several different user interfaces from science fiction movies throughout film history. Human Computer Interaction in Science Fiction Movies cites several films, including Metropolis, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix, Logan’s Run, Forbidden Planet, Gattaca, Minority Report, Total Recall, Star Trek: The Next Generation (one of the movies, I assume), X-Men, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark Star, the 2002 remake of The Time Machine, and even Galaxy Quest.

It is intriguing the way Schmitz has organized the UIs he is taking note of:

The movie clips in the main section of his survey are categorized according to their area of real-life applications and research:
Neuro Technology: Technologies that connect to brains are introduced here.
Identification: Electronical identification of individuals
Displays: Various kinds of displays as an output medium
Speech: Including speech synthesis and recognition as well as intelligent assistants/avatars as special subgroup.
Other I/O technologies: All technologies that are more specialised and that were difficult to categorize according to the fields above, for example gesture recognition or tangible user interfaces

I think these categories arose because of the scenes that he chose to include. There are perhaps some other movies that were not chosen that may have brought in other areas of classification (for instance, Tron, Blade Runner, Serenity, any of the Star Wars films, The Fifth Element, Ghost in the Shell, any of the James Bond films, 12 Monkeys or Contact).

The fact is, the UIs that we often see in the movies are not always accurate because they aren’t necessarily built for good usability, but instead for good dramatic effect. Sure, Tom Cruise could have done some of his research in Minority Report using a mouse and an LCD screen, but it was so much more dramatic for him to don VR gloves, and perform the exhausting 3D manipulation in virtual space in front of him. Even everyday, mundane events like receiving an email get full-screen 3D animations in the movie Disclosure with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore in 1994.

Nevertheless, movies do have a way of placing imagery and expectations in the mind of many movie viewers. In fact, because a surprisingly large number of people can’t tell the difference between movies and reality, some of these UI inventions may be adopted sooner after they are developed for real, everyday use. What James Bond sees on his computer screen may very well be built by some small startup determined to bring just such a tool to market, at whatever price the public wants to pay. They know they want it, though, because they saw it work just fine at the theatre.

Design Gems from Moscow (with love?)

Through the usual way that one stumbles upon something on the Internet (by…stumbling upon it), I found the web site of the Art Lebedev studio, who have become known because of a breakthrough keyboard that has been talked about (and wished for) for quite some time. The keyboard has struck a chord (pun intended) with a lot of geeks, because it’s one of those ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ kind of products. Each key is an LCD, and can be programmed to both display a different character and type that character (or perform that function) when pressed. Here’s what that could mean:

Set for English: (lower case)

Optimus Keyboard set for English

Those same keys set for Photoshop:

Set for Photoshop

Wait, what it if was set for the game Quake?

Set for Quake

On top of this extraordinary keyboard, there is also a brilliant, if less ergonomically spot-on mouse:

The Mus 2 Mouse from Lebedev Studios

In addition to these bits of Industrial design (and geek fancy-tickling), Mr. Lebedev, who along with his studio, is in Moscow, also writes a sort of blog, although it is not an RSS feed (but I wish he would make it so) called Mandership. According to Mr. Lebedev, it’s been a project since 1997 (which would account for it’s pre-RSS structure). I also notice that the most recent entry is in 2006. I hope he does another few this year. Nearly all of the posts I read were gems of clear thinking about design, the way the world works, and the way people think. No wonder he and his compatriots at his studio keep coming up with such brilliant products, even if some of them are harder to bring out of the concept stage.

Contactability Versus SPAMbots: What to do?

Here’s an issue that both touches on usability, as well as this blog itself:

A visitor to this blog noted the lack of contact information (such as my email address) in plain view. My answer to him was that this is partly on purpose. As many people know, when you leave your email address on a web page, software that is designed to harvest email addresses can easily grab that address and put it in SPAM databases. I learned from my Kendall Group web site that doing this resulted in a nearly unusable email address (ddrucker@ that address is constantly inundated with hundreds of SPAM a day, and only after I completely removed it and put up a ‘closed for business’ page up has this begun to let up , but not entirely).

There are some solutions for this problem, but I’m not sure which to adopt. Here are the ones I know of:

  1. List my address as ‘name “at” domain name’ , rather than an address that is actually written out. This is inconvenient, and relies on the ability of people to figure it out (and machines to be unable to – I’m not sure if they have improved the SPAMbots so that they can get around this). It’s a relatively simple but user unfriendly solution, that is potentially useless if the software has been made more ‘intelligent’ to get around this subterfuge.
  2. Create a ‘Contact Me’ form for the initial email, much like a comment, but on it’s own page and with a simple mailto form script. While it’s not particularly elegant (and mailto scripts have their own security problems), it might do the trick. Again, there’s no guarantee that SPAMers might find a way around this one.
  3. Include the text “To contact me, please use a comment.” somewhere on the home page. This is easiest, and would have a pretty good chance of getting by the SPAMbots. It is, however, less ‘friendly’, since initial communications would be public and not everyone likes having their opening communication visible to all (even though I can actually choose to not publish the comment and still respond via email).
  4. Years ago I’d heard of services where email sent to an address for the first time required the sender to validate themselves (essentially respond to a link in an automatic responder email). I’ve forgotten what it was called, but it sounds good in this case, but I’m not sure what kind of reaction it might cause (since it puts most of the responsibility upon the person who is initially trying to get in touch to verify that they are not a SPAMer)

So, there is my quandary: How to make myself more ‘contactable’ without opening up the door to the inevitable flood of SPAM. I already receive about 2-300 SPAMs a day from my old address, so this is no small issue. I know that there are probably some other solutions, but I do not want to run extra SPAM software on my Mac, and do not want to have to buy a PC to run SPAM software either. I want to stop or discourage these emails before they are sent, not have something sift through my mail to remove them afterward. I sometimes access my email from the road via webmail, so extra SPAM-filtering software doesn’t help there.

Any ideas?