Wednesday 13 June 2007

Adventures in web 2.0

Lately I've been doing some research into the current state of the art in the resurgent Internet economy. In particular I've been experimenting around the web 2.0 community, a concept I've previously had doubts about, relegating it to the overflowing dustbin of hyped concepts alongside 'push technology'.

However, after several weeks spent repeatedly entering my profile into every site that will have me, I have to say something is emerging from the pastel colours and ubiquitous tag clouds that captures my interest. I'm beginning believe there really is something to it, a new zeitgeist which genuinely does have substance. Even the economics seem more sustainable with many web 2.0 companies exiting through acquisitions rather than through the over-hyped IPOs of the first bubble.

In particular two trends have particularly caught my eye. The first is the rise of the widget companies; technologically nothing new - personalisation through the use of web page components and gadgets has been around for at least a decade. However, the key difference here is the move from personalisation around a single portal, to network personalisation through multi-site syndication. User generated content that was once trapped within sites dealing within a specific verticals such as photos, is now freely accessible through a multitude of front-ends through the use of widgets.

This was the promise that syndication standards such as RSS have failed to keep up with, leading unfortunately to an abandonment of standards in favour of presentation. Where RSS still dominates in textural content supporting aggregation through tools such as readers, widgets are inherently presentational delivering rich media content beyond RSS, but in a way that is inherently difficult to aggregate. It is interesting to see the rise of services such as Feedburner that are taking up the challenge to integrate these streams together, providing ways to encapsulate rich media within the constraints of RSS.

Secondly, the opening up of the Facebook Platform to third parties to develop applications upon is of major significance. With a stated goal of creating a social software operating system for the web, Facebook has certainly latched on to something with great potential.

After registering and linking up with friends, filling in my profile and joining a few groups, I found myself wondering what I'm supposed to do on Facebook. I seem to spend many hours fiddling whilst not achieving very much, keeping track of what everyone else is doing and essentially killing time quite unproductively. However, when I look at Facebook as an underlying infrastructure for building a network, upon which applications can be layered, it suddenly becomes much more of an attractive proposition. If Facebook can match the explosion of development within its borders with an adoption of is core concepts of identity, profile, presence and network in external applications then I think it can achieve its aim.

This leads to the coming conflict - on the one hand you have a closed network of friends producing content within applications built upon the Facebook platform, primarily local, but with a number of external integrations such as the movie site Flixster. On the other side you have specialist verticals such as Flickr doing a much better job within their narrow focus, syndicating content, via widgets, through open forums such as the blogosphere. Currently I have to choose - do I manage my photos in Facebook and get the advantages of the the network but no visibility beyond it, or do I manage them in Flickr with better tools, open syndication, but a duplicate profile and an inferior network?

Two social perspectives seem to be developing, on the one hand you have the individual; their restricted profile, their closed network and around that a whole host of information, on the other you have the blogosphere; content focused, open, surrounded by that same web of information. These don't need to be exclusive if they both build on the power of the specialists; rather than looking at the Facebook platform as an opportunity to build an application within Facebook, look at it as an integration platform that allows specialist environments to be syndicated into a successful network-centric environment, and use that network platform as an infrastructure component for those specialist sites (Flixster does this close integration well).

Finally here's the roll call of the sites which have kept me occupied while exploring these concepts: social networks by Facebook and Linkedin, blog by Blogger, syndication by Feedburner, social bookmarking by and Addthis!, events by, images by Flickr, movies by Flixster, videos by YouTube. You'll notice that almost all of these are now owned by either Yahoo! or Google.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Surface computing

A couple of days ago I picked up this video from TechCrunch demonstrating Microsoft's new surface computing product. Surface computing is an admirable attempt to deconstruct the prevalent user interface paradigm and introduce more natural human computer interfaces into our everyday lives. The video is certainly impressive, reminiscent of Minority Report's gestural interfaces, with seamless integration with mobile devices.

Certainly when I've given these kind of interfaces a go on traditional computers, I've initially been impressed by the eye-candy, but have soon reverted to the traditional interface for quickly and easily performing everyday tasks. However, when you move away from power-users, and workhorse tasks, these interfaces could genuinely lower the barriers of technology - I can see my parents managing their digital photos on such a platform, whereas I dispair of them ever emptying their SDcard currently.

More importantly, in the long term such interfaces will become vital as embedded computing becomes more ubiquitous. When your clothes have embedded CPUs and you carry your personal area network with you, interfaces will need to evolve beyond windows and menus. It's reassuring to see that Microsoft of all companies, is thinking outside the box here and is going beyond just embedding a computer in a table (think the failed promise of kiosks) to produce something which delivers us new interactions and sets us thinking that maybe we've all been lured into a dead-end local maxima of interface design centred around the diminishing returns from the refinement of windows, menus and more recently ribbons. The field is wide open for innovative ideas to become tomorrows de-facto standards; just maybe this product could herald the start of some real progress in interface design after years of stagnation.