In a world in which nearly everyone is technically a felon, we rely on the good judgment of prosecutors to decide who should be targets and how hard the law should come down on them. We have thus entered a legal reality not so different from that faced by Socrates when the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens, and it is a dangerous one. When everyone is guilty of something, those most harshly prosecuted tend to be the ones that are challenging the established order, poking fun at the authorities, speaking truth to power — in other words, the gadflies of our society.
“We need to focus. Keep the self-driving cars, magic glasses, laptop, handheld OS, and Brazilian social network. Ditch the feed reader.”
— Pinboard (@Pinboard) March 14, 2013
Even though there’s probably no need for this amidst a sea of commentary surrounding Google Readers sudden demise, it would be weird not to write about it, considering that I’ve been a heavy user of the service for many years.
First, let me get one thing out of the way: As a Google Reader user, I’m seriously pissed off. Google is causing me a lot of trouble by breaking workflows that I’ve come to rely on heavily. Now let me be clear, I’m not coming at this with a sense of false entitlement: Google Reader was a free service and they have every right to shut it down, but as a user I have every right to hate their decision in return. There might be good business reasons for Google’s decision and it might ultimately turn out to be a good thing for a diversified, decentralized, healthy RSS ecosystem as many commentators have pointed out (Brent Simmons, Marco Arment, Dave Winer, Andre Torrez), but right now, I feel like Google is pulling the rug out from under my feet. I’m a heavy RSS user, subscribed to more than 350 feeds, and I read somewhere between 5000 and 10000 news items in a month. It’s my primary channel of news discovery and one of my primary channels for reading. No, Twitter doesn’t do it for me when it comes to keeping up with my favorite websites and writers (it’s just too easy to miss something good floating by in its ceaseless stream), my Facebook friends have terrible taste when it comes to sharing interesting, useful and intellectually stimulating articles and magazine-style readers (such as Flipboard or Pulse) lack the efficiency of plowing through a couple hundred new articles without having to worry that you might miss something. Tumblr’s dashboard is actually pretty good and convenient, but unfortunately it’s limited to Tumblr itself and there are people outside its silo that I’m also interested in following. (Which begs the question: why doesn’t Tumblr allow following outside sources in its dashboard, by way of, oh let’s say RSS? I would assume it could only increase user activity across Tumblr.)
Now when I say that I’ve been a Google Reader user for several years, a small clarification is in order: I’ve never really used the web application front-end of Google Reader. I maybe visited the website once or twice a year. But I’ve come to rely on Google Reader’s API as backend syncing infrastructure across the many devices where I use different native feed reader applications. By offering a solid and free product with a functional API, Google has managed to establish itself as the central hub in the RSS ecosystem. Pretty much any feed reader that was released in the past few years relies heavily on the Google Reader API for it to function. Netnewswire, my long time feed reader of choice on OS X desktop, switched from its own proprietary syncing service to Google Reader back in 2009. Reeder, probably the most popular feed reader on iOS, relies on Google Reader (just as many other iOS feed reader apps). And I’m gonna go out on a limb here and presume that most Android feed reader apps also rely on Google Reader, without having done a ton of research on the matter. Google Reader wasn’t so much a piece of software I used, but rather an invisible yet crucial piece of infrastructure, a piece of plumbing that made the web work for me.
And therein lies the crux of Google Reader’s unfortunate demise: There are plenty alternatives when all you want is an application that consumes and displays RSS feeds. Many frustrated users and tech websites have compiled lists of alternatives to Google Reader if all you’re trying to replace is the web application (e.g. Matt Haughey, Gizmodo, The Verge). But that’s not where the true value and importance of Google Reader resided: By shutting down the central hub that kept all other feed readers talking with each other and keeping them in sync, the Google Reader shutdown causes a giant rift in the RSS ecosystem which will be difficult to bridge. Brent Simmons already wrote about the implications of this shutdown back in 2011 and had me slightly worried about this ever since. He also shared his ideas for alternative syncing solutions (one, two, three). As the original and long-time developer of Netnewswire he knows what he’s talking about.
But aside from all the personal frustration and inconvenience this shutdown is causing me and hundreds of thousands (millions?) other Google Reader users, there’s something else truly baffling about this shutdown. Consider this: Google Reader is built on a giant archive of information chunks in a format much more machine readable than your average web page. Despite all this, Google, a company with a self-proclaimed “mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful“, didn’t consider Google Reader a worthwhile part of this mission? Google Reader is also a web service that provides Google with a tremendous amount of data about what we like, whom we follow and what we read online. As a company which makes its money by shoving targeted advertising in our face based on what it knows about us, they still couldn’t figure out how to monetize this service?
Additionally, according to a recent report from BuzzFeed, Google Reader still drives far more traffic than Google’s favorite pet project of the moment, Google+. It truly seems as if Google’s management simply didn’t have a clue what they had on their hands with Google Reader – its creator Chris Wetherell recently corroborated as much in an interview with GigaOm. That Yonatan Zunger, chief architect of Google+, turned to his G+ followers with the question what made Reader so useful speaks to this as well.
As a parting thought: Ask yourself, do you have any idea how profitable services like GMail and Drive are? I don’t, and I trust them a whole lot less today than I did a week ago.
During our research, a few consistent patterns emerged:
- Most people don’t differentiate between apps and widgets.
- Widgets aren’t widely used – weather, clock and music are the most used and after that, fewer than 10% of customers use any other widgets.
- Most of you don’t modify your home screens much. In fact, after the first month of use, approximately 80% of you don’t change your home screens any more.
I’m not really surprised by this and suspected as much for a long time. Nice to see some research (albeit only presented in this abbreviated form) to back up my suspicion.
So much for Apple needing to add widgets to iOS to stay competitive with Android…
Lapka is a tiny, beautiful personal environment monitor that connects with your phone to measure, collect and analyze the hidden qualities of your surroundings.
I have no idea what to use this for, but I kinda want one anyway.
Ubuntu recently announced a version of their operating system optimized for tablets. The user interface of Ubuntu for tablets is heavily influenced by their Ubuntu for phones user interface and makes extensive use of swipe gestures – you can read more about the design philosophy of their touch interface in this interview at Co.Design. Their introductory video (embedded above) gives a pretty good overview of how it all works, but the most interesting part (to me) comes around five minutes into the video: You can plug your phone or tablet into a display or TV and get the full Ubuntu desktop or Ubuntu TV experience.
I find this approach intriguing because it carries the promise of a single device in your pocket that flexibly adapts to specific needs, while at the same time reducing the need for redundant capabilities (in processing power, storage, connectivity) and thus hopefully decreasing cost. No need to buy a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone and a media box for your living room, just one smartphone that adapts to the peripherals you connect. No need to lug your bulky, heavy laptop into work and back home everyday, just hook up your ever-present smartphone to your work environment.
It got me thinking about how the current big players in the platform wars approach their multi-platform strategy on a technological level, so i whipped up this table:
Of course if you move deep enough down the stack you’ll find more common underpinnings: Both iOS and OS X share a XNU kernel. Both Android and Chrome OS are based on Linux. Windows Phone, Windows RT and Windows 8 are all based on a Windows NT kernel. Google TV is based on Android and Apple TV is based on iOS. Nevertheless, out of all four vendors included in the chart above, Ubuntu appears to take the most unified approach.
On the user experience side, however, Ubuntu takes a more nuanced approach: instead of attempting the daunting task of creating one unified user interface to work across desktop, mobile and big screen, the user interface adapts to the specific strengths and limitations of each domain – in stark contrast to what Microsoft is trying with its “no compromise” (ahem), one-size-fits-all, schizophrenic hybrid Windows 8 approach.
So let’s take another look at the different user experience approaches taken by Apple, Google, Microsoft and Ubuntu:
Everyone except Microsoft is approaching the tablet market from a phone UI perspective: Android, iOS and Ubuntu UIs for tablets are (more or less) modified and optimized to make use of the larger tablet screens, but they share the same fundamental interaction and UI concepts with their phone siblings. With Google it’s slowly shaping up to be a slightly more muddled affair, with rumors floating around of Chrome OS allegedly making strides into the tablet market, but for now these ambitions haven’t materialized (aside from some timid touchscreen support in Chrome OS on their new Pixel Chromebook).
Microsoft is the only company breaking out of this pattern, approaching tablets from the other direction: They’ve tried to shoehorn the same user experience onto both tablets and desktops, resulting in a somewhat confusing hybrid environment received with rather mixed critical response. Admittedly the Metro parts of the Windows 8 user interface are influenced by and based on their Windows Phone UI, but the user interface on Microsoft tablets is essentially the same as their desktop UI, with x86-based Windows tablets running exactly the same operating system as desktop machines.
At this point I’m inclined to believe that Apple, Google and Ubuntu got this mostly right were Microsoft did not. The hybrid UI approach, one half optimized for touch interaction, the other half a concession to legacy application support, is confusing for users. Furthermore, the desktop part of Windows 8 just makes it plain obvious that you can’t simply slap a touchscreen on a pointer-based UI and call it a day – classic desktop mode in Windows 8 when operated by touch is barely usable and an exercise in frustration.
In March of 2011 Dr Bud Frazier and Dr Billy Cohn of the Texas Heart Institute removed the dying heart of patient Craig A. Lewis and successfully replaced it with a ‘continuous flow’ pumping device.
Without the constant beating of his heart Craig Lewis no longer possessed a detectable pulse and was effectively dead by conventional standards.
The digital content of these dedicated display devices may be called “books” for legal and economic skeuomorphic reasons, but they’re not “books” any more than an mp3 file is the Beatles playing live in your living room.
If you’ve seen the first episode of Black Mirror season two, the basic premise of _LIVESON should strike you as familiar: The service promises to analyze your Twitter feed and continue to post on your behalf when you’re dead. “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting” is their tagline.
On a more lighthearted note, there are other reasons to hand over responsibility for your social media existence to the bots as CouchCachet demonstrates:
CouchCachet finds the coolest parties in your neighborhood, and automatically checks you in on Foursquare so all your friends can be super jealous of how awesome you are. Plus it will tweet all the right lyrics from the right indie rock bands, post amazing images of young 20-somethings in skinny jeans from instagram and wax poetic about that perfect local, organic, microbrew that everyone’s drinking. You won’t be cooler, but you will seem that way.
I can see the argument that dicking around with our phones in public is not cool, that we should pay more attention to our companions and surroundings, and less to our computer displays. Strapping a computer display to your face is not the answer.
I’ve been reading this argument again and again over the past week: That always-on connectivity on our phones distracts us from our surroundings and that Google Glass will fix this. Now aside from the fact that strapping a computer to your head is obviously not the solution when you want to disconnect from the internet, I don’t even buy the first part of the argument: I don’t think we stare at our phones, texting, twittering, facebooking, looking stuff up on Wikipedia, catching up on the news, because we’re addicted, we’re doing it because it’s more interesting or useful than what’s going on in our immediate surroundings. Nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned.