Missing the point

Like most of you (probably), I’ve been reading the news around Google Buzz with interest. At this point, the regular as clockwork announcements from Google are treated somewhat routinely by the various technology blogs. Google announced foo, competitor bar says this and expert John Doe says that. Bla bla bla, revolutionary, bla bla similar to bla, bla. Etc. You might be tempted to dismiss Buzz as yet another Google service doomed to be ignored by most users. And you’d be right. Except it’s easy to forget that most of those announcements actually do have some substance. Sure, there have been a few less than exciting ones lately and not everything Google touches turns into gold but there is some genuinely cool stuff being pushed out into the world from Mountain View on a monthly, if not more frequent, basis.

So this week it’s Google Buzz. Personally, I think Buzz won’t last. At least not in its current gmail centric form. Focusing on Buzz is missing the point however. It will have a lasting effect similar to what happened with RSS a few years back. The reason is very simple, Google is big enough to cause everybody else to implement their APIs, even if buzz is not going to be a huge success. They showed this with open social, which world + dog now implements, despite it being very unsuccessful in user space. Google wave, same thing so far. The net effect of Buzz and the APIs that come with it will be internet wide endorsement of a new real time notification protocol, pubsubhubbub. In effect this will take twitter (already an implementer) to the next level. Think pubsubhubbub sinks and sources all over the internet and absolutely massive traffic between those sources and sinks. Every little internet site will be able to notify the world of whatever updates it has, every person on the internet will be able to subscribe to such notifications directly, or more importantly, indirectly to whichever other websites choose to consume, funnel and filter those notifications on their behalf. It’s so easy to implement that few will resist the temptation to do so.

Buzz is merely the first large scale consumer of pubsubhub notifications. Friendfeed tried something similar with RSS, was bought by Facebook and successfully eliminated as a Facebook competitor. However, Pubsubhubbub is the one protocol that Facebook won’t be able to ignore. For now they seem to stick with their closed everything model. This means there is Facebook and the rest of the world and well guarded boundaries between those. As the rest of the world becomes more interesting in terms of notifications, keeping Facebook isolated as it is today will become harder. Technically, there are no obstacles. The only reason Facebook is isolated is because it chooses to be isolated. Anybody who is not Facebook has a stake in committing to pubsubhubbub to be able to compete with Facebook. So Facebook becoming a consumer of pubsubhubbub type notifications is a matter of time, if only because it will simply be the easiest way for them to syndicate third party notifications (which is their core business). I’d be very surprised if they hadn’t got something implemented already. Facebook becoming a source of notifications is a different matter though. The beauty of the whole thing is that the more notifications originate outside of Facebook, the less this will matter. Already some of their status updates are simply syndicated from elsewhere (e.g. mine go through Twitter). Facebook is merely a place people go to see an aggregated view on what their friends do. It is not a major source of information, and ironically the limitations imposed by Facebook make it less competitive as such.

So, those dismissing Buzz for whatever reason are missing the point: it’s the APIs stupid! Open APIs, unrestricted syndication and aggregation of notifications, events, status updates, etc. It’s been talked about for ages, it’s about to happen in the next few months. First thing to catch up will be those little social network sites that almost nobody uses but collectively are used by everybody. Hook them up to buzz, twitter, etc. Result, more detailed event streams popping up outside of Facebook. Eventually people will start hooking up Facebook as well, with or without the help of Facebook. By this time endorsement will seem like a good survival strategy for Facebook.

Google Chrome – First Impressions

First impression: Google delivered, I’ve never used a browser this fast. It’s great.

Yesterday, a cartoon was prematurely leaked detailing Google’s vision for what a browser could look like. Now, 24 hours later I’m reviewing what until yesterday was a well kept secret.

So here’s my first impressions.

  • Fast and responsive. What can I say? Firefox 3 was an improvement over Firefox 2 but this is in a different league. There’s still lots of issues with having many tabs open in Firefox. I’ve noticed it doesn’t like handling bitmaps and switching tabs gets unusable with a few dozen tabs open. Chrome does not have this issue at all. It’s faster than anything I’ve browsed with so far (pretty much any browser you can think of probably).
  • Memory usage. Chrome starts new processes for each domain and not per tab. I opened a lot of tabs in the same domain and the number of processes did not go up. Go to a different domain and you get another chrome process. However, it does seem to use substantial amount of memory in total. Firefox 3 is definitely better. Not an issue with 2 GB like I have and the good news is that you get memory back when you close tabs. But still, 40-60MB per domain is quite a lot.
  • Javascript performance. Seems fantastic. Gmail and Google Reader load in no time at all. Easily faster than Firefox 3.
  • UI. A bit spartan if you are used to Firefox with custom bells & wistles (I have about a dozen extensions). But it works and is responsive. I like it. Some random impressions here: 
    • no status bar (good)
    • very few buttons (good)
    • no separate search field (could be confusing for users)
    • tabs on top, looks good, unlike IE7.
    • mouse & keyboard. Mostly like in Firefox. Happy to see middle click works. However, / does not work and you need to type ctrl+f to get in page search
  • URL bar. So far so good, seems to copy most of the relevant features from Firefox 3. I like Firefox 3’s behaviour better though.
  • RSS feeds. There does not seem to be any support for subscribing to, or reading feeds. Strange. If I somehow missed it, there’s a huge usability issue here. If not, I assume it will be added.
  • Bookmarks. An important feature for any browser. Google has partially duplicated Firefox 3’s behaviour with a little star icon but no tagging.
  • Extensions. none whatsoever :-(. If I end up not switching, this will be the reason. I need my extensions.
  • Import Firefox Profile. Seems pretty good, passwords, browsing history, bookmarks, etc. were all imported. Except for my cookies.
  • Home screen. Seems nicer than a blank page but nothing I’d miss. Looks a bit empty on my 1600×1200 screen.
  • Missing in action. No spelling control, no search plugins (at least no obvious way for me to use them even though all my firefox search plugins are listed in the options screen), no print preview, no bookmarks management, no menu bar (good, don’t miss it)
So Google delivers on promises they never made. Just out of the blue there is Chrome and the rest of the browser world has some catching up to do. Firefox and Safari are both working on the right things of course and have been a huge influence on Chrome (which Google gives them plenty of credit for). However, the fact is that Google is showing both of them that they can do much better. 
Technically I think the key innovation here is using multiple processes to handle tabs from different domains. This is a good idea from both a security point of view as from a performance point of view. Other browsers try to be clever here and do everything in one process with less than stellar results. I see Firefox 3 still block the entire UI regularly and that is just inherent to its architecture. This simply won’t happen with Chrome. Worst case is that one of the tabs becomes unusable and you just close it. Technically, you might wonder if they could not have done this with threads instead of processes.

So, I’m genuinely impressed here. Google is really delivering something exceptionally solid here. Download it and see for yourself.

Posting this from Chrome of course.

Songbird Beta (0.7)

Songbird Blog » Songbird Beta is Released!.

Having played with several milestone builds of songbird, I was keen to try this one. This is a big milestone for this music player & browser hybrid. Since I’ve blogged on this before, I will keep it short.

The good:

  • New feathers (songbird lingo for UI theme) looks great. Only criticism is that it seems to be a bit of an iTunes rip off.
  • Album art has landed
  • Stability and memory usage is now acceptable for actually using the application
  • Unlike iTunes, it actually supports the media buttons on my logitech keyboard.

The bad (or not so good since I have no big gripes):

  • Still no support for the iTunes invented but highly useful compilation flag (bug 9090). This means that my well organized library is now filled with all sorts of obscure artists that I barely know but apparently have one or two songs from. iTunes sorts these into compilation corner and I use this feature to keep a nice overview of artists and complete albums.
  • Despite being a media player with extension support, there appears to be no features related to sound quality. Not even an equalizer. Not even as an extension. This is a bit puzzling because this used to be a key strength of winamp, the AOL product that the songbird founders used to be involved with.
  • Despite being a browser, common browser features are missing. So no bookmarks, no apparent RSS feed, no Google preconfigured in the search bar, etc. Some of these things are easily fixed with extensions.

Verdict: much closer than previous builds but still no cigar. Key issue for me is compilation flag support. Also I’d really like to see some options for affecting audio playback quality. I can see how having a browser in my media player could be useful but this is not a good browser nor a good media player yet.

Killing time in a hotel lobby

In the past few days I’ve attended the Internet Of Things conference in Zurich. If you’re keeping an eye on my flickr feed, you might have noticed a few photos tagged with iot2008. I was responding to the invitation to put photos under that tag but so far I seem to be the only person bothering to do so.

This was sort of the core message behind the demo we did at this conference: people use the internet to check out places before they go there and again afterwards to e.g. upload photos but during your presence somewhere, the internet is pretty damn useless. Our demo presented our web based platform for smart places.

The conference was quite interesting and right now I’m enjoying the free WLAN in the hotel lobby of the Swissotel in the Oerlikon district. My plane isn’t leaving until 19:00, I’ve read my mail, had my daily dose of RSS goodness on google reader and am now thoroughly bored. So

Joost

I spent some time playing with Joost, the streaming video/online TV thingy from the makers of Skype and Kazaa. There’s a lot to like about it conceptually. I live in Helsinki where basically public television sucks and the commercial cable packages suck slightly less. So to me Joost is pretty compelling: major content publishers lining up to join and hassle free streaming straight to my screen. So I signed up via the “send me an invite” bullshit feature on the website. It’s just an ordinary web registration form except in this case you have to do it twice. Once to get the invite and then another time to get a Joost username (“duh! didn’t I just tell you who I was?!”). I reactivated my good old Yahoo mail address for the occasion. No way I’m giving my primary email address to these guys.

The user interface seems quite nice even though it is a bit unconventional. It launches into full screen and has a menu system with which you can select channels and programs. The program has no network settings menu, it either works or it doesn’t. This is probably the kind of simplicity end users need. However, from experience I know that things sometimes don’t work and when that happens it is nice if the UI informs you what the hell is going on. Things like whether it is actually connected or how many bytes are flowing to and from me are not represented in the UI. You could stare at a black screen forever (with the default wobbly screensaver thingy in the background) if for some reason you would be disconnected. This happened a couple of times and it’s quite annoying. Pretending everyting is ok is not the same as a usable experience.

Aside from this, the UI is pretty easy to figure out. I’m not sure I like the whole channels and programs paradigm. I guess this is what couch potatoes understand. The problem is that there is a huge and growing number of channels which each can have numerous programs. You have to first select and add a channel and then you can browse its programs and select one. Since there’s a lot to choose from it takes some time to find something. And scrolling through huge lists gets old pretty quick. The UI does not really support people in doing that. I would prefer to have a UI more like an RSS reader.

Technically the experience is not as smooth as it should/could be. But then, this is a beta and probably the experience will improve as the number of users skyrockets, as it will no doubt do when this goes public. Anyway, I found that a great number of channels simply don’t play at all or seem to have a problem getting the bytes to my machine. It seems that everything except the most popular stuff is likely to not work. No doubt this is due to the fact that there are less peers with that content. I have a 1 Mbit connection (roughly 100KB/s download and 30-40 KB/s upload), which should be enough although it probably is the bare minimum. My impression is that most content is not streamed at that rate anyway. Additional problem is that Welho, my finnish cable provider, sucks big time and that the motorola modem I use to connect to them is complete crap as well. So I’m not ready to point the finger at Joost for all network problems I have. Nevertheless, the difference between some stuff working just fine and some stuff not working at all I cannot explain using my network situation.

The most annoying thing about Joost is no doubt the fact that it inserts commercials before, after and even during the streaming. Commercials suck and there seems no way around them other than not using Joost. If Joost fails, it will be because of the fact that users reject the commercial content interrupting the crappy other content. They’ll have to be very careful with this. There’s just no way I’m going to sit through commercials when my browser is one alt+tab away. Also if the content is crap, I might end up not alt tabbing back. I’ve explored the channels on offering a bit and am not really impressed so far. Seems to be on a par with Zune which doesn’t have that much good content either.

Dumping bloglines for google reader

I’ve used the popular Sage extension for all my RSS reading needs until a few months ago when I discovered bloglines.com. Essentially the advantage of an RSS aggregating website vs an offline RSS aggregator is twofold:

  • You don’t have to worry about polling the various sites
  • You can use multiple computers to visit the website and not see the same stuff twice. In my case I use my laptop (work), my pc (home) and sometimes my phone (Nokia E70) or somebody else’s computer.

Bloglines.com was nice while I used it but I had some issues from the beginning:

  • A lot of time appears to pass before bloglines updates its feeds.
  • Sometimes stuff is presented as unread while in fact I already read it
  • Sometimes that was months ago
  • Sometimes it is everything in the bloody feed
  • All of the above seems to be happening a lot lately. I’m not getting updates from sites that have multiple updates when I visit them manually (including the sites that I visit multiple times per day normally). The same stuff from the same sites keeps reappearing as new when I know for a fact that those sites are not experiencing technical difficulties. Also it seems to affect a lot of sites.

So basically it broke both reasons why I was using it in the first place! Bye bye bloglines and hello Google Reader. I exported my feeds as opml from bloglines and imported them in Google Reader. When I tried it a  few months ago it basically sucked (hence I moved to bloglines) but they’ve made loads of improvements since then and it is now pretty damn good.

  • It’s got nice AJAX features so it doesn’t waste my time letting me wait while it fetches the same page.
  • Navigation is excellent, fast and intuitive. I had some minor issues with pages not refreshing though.
  • I disabled the mark read when scrolling feature. This feature basically marks stuff as read when you scroll downwards using the scrollbar or your wheel mouse. Since I scroll before actually reading stuff (to get an overview of what is on the page) that means stuff gets marked read that I have only glanced at of 0.5 seconds. Not good, should be off by default.
  • With this annoying feature disabled, the behavior is quite nice. You can click an item or scroll to the next with the spacebar. Doing so marks it read.
  • There’s a mark all read at the top of the page. So what I do now is review the new stuff (in chronological order); middle click stuff I want to read (on the original site) and then mark all read.
  • So far I’ve not been able to catch Google Reader to be more than a minute or so behind on my favourite site. Pinochet died yesterday and I knew almost right away because the relevant feed updated immediately. I saw the post on a blog within 20 minutes after it hit the news. With bloglines, I would probably have been ignorant of the whole thing until I bothered to visit the site myself. Probably google is hooked up to pingomatic and has enough capacity to download updates more less right after the ping arrives.

So far, I like Google reader a lot better than bloglines, even when it was working properly.

Firefox 2.0 Beta 2

I just installed the new Firefox 2.0 beta 2. There are a few nice improvements over 1.5:

  • The most visible change is the new theme. The changes are pretty subtle but seem to be aimed at improving usability.
  • One of my petpeeves: the lack of a search button in the toolbar has been fixed. The go button, which accompanies the url bar, has been there forever but until now the search box had to do without one.
  • Tabs now have their own close button instead of a global tab close button way on the left. This was a usability nightmare from the moment this ‘feature’ was introduced a few years ago. People have been complaining about it ever since. It’s a good example of how long it can take to convince software engineers of something when they have digged themselves into the sand :-).
  • The themes and extensions window have been merged into an addons window. This is probably a good change but it doesn’t go far enough for me: it should be integrated with the options window. I frequently confuse the two and open one when I intended to do something in the other.
  • There’s a ‘recently closed tabs’ option in the history menu. Nice! Also there’s a ‘undo close tab’ option in the context menu on the tab bar. I used to have an extension that did more or less the same. Nice to see good features being picked up by the developer theme.
  • Spell checking. This is a nice feature except for two things: it has no (permanent) disable function. You can toggle ‘spellcheck this field’ in the context menu but the setting does not persist so it comes back on the next time you edit a textfield. Also there is no configuration userinterface for the spellchecker. For example installing a dutch dictionary requires some configuration that requires a number of steps which are probably documented somewhere but not obvious from the present userinterface. So if I go to a dutch site with the us version of firefox (I prefer the english userinterface), basically every word I type will be highlighted as misspelled. Hidden in the context menu of a spellchecked field is an option add dictionaries which takes you to the addons site. The url ends with /dictionaries but there is nothing on the page related to dictionaries. So this needs some work. Suggestions: add a dictionaries tab to the addons window and a disable spellchecking option to the content options tab. BTW. the spellcheck feature is already annoying me. I guess I’ll be looking for an extension to get rid of it. Amazing how many non dictionary listed words can sneak into a post like this.
  • The subscribe to RSS feeds feature has been improved and you can now subscribe using an external feedreader or using several websites, such as Bloglines, which I have been using since a few weeks.
  • Apparently there’s a new phishing/malware detection tool. This might prevent people like my mother from installing spyware. I’ve depended on common sense for years now to prevent me from getting into trouble with worms, viruses, etc. That strategy seems to work fine but having some kind of advanced warning before clicking somewhere is of course nice.

I don’t see much negative stuff anymore so I think I’m going to use this build until the release candidates start appearing. I’ve blogged previously about the version number. Given that the half finished spellchecker + rss fixes are the biggest changes and the rest is merely minor cosmetic work, I still don’t think this counts as worthy of a major version number bumb. However, this seems to be another ‘heels digged into sand’ kind of thing. Everybody has been pointing this out for months and all the 2.0 reviews I’ve read so far seem to point out that there isn’t that much new in Firefox 2.0 as well (I predicted that this would happen on Ben Goodger’s blog a few months ago, seems I was right). For example, ars technica, which usually does a decent job of reviews, says this about the version number:

Is the new release really deserving of the 2.0 moniker? It’s hard to say, given the fact that it looks and feels very much like 1.x. Is it a better browser than 1.x? Definitely.

I think I agree with this assessment 100% It’s definitely a nice incremental improvement and who cares about version numbers anyway :-).

Reader

Google has a new thingy: Reader.
Seems like a nice RSS reader. It only has one major issue: it is a bit slow. But I suppose it is nice to have a tool like this for on the road. Otherwise, I am happy using Sage.

WordPress review

After a few days of use, I think a wordpress review would be appropriate on this newly created wordpress blog.

Installation

Wow that was easy (with help from the excellent install howto):
1) create mysql database, remember user, password + servername
2) download wordpress
3) unzip, edit the config file and insert data noted under 1
4) upload everything to the server and visit the install wizard to complete the 1 step installation (creates tables in the database and sets the permissions right on some directories)

TADA! Done.

Migrating pivot.

I had been using pivot for about half a year and had collected about 30 or so posts that I wanted to migrate to wordpress.

Sadly import of pivot posts is not supported directly (well there is an unsupported migration script some guy wrote once) but the good news is that pivot has excellent RSS support and that wordpress can import RSS.

So
1) set up pivot to spit out everything in its RSS feed (instead of the latest 10 posts)
2) download the rss feed
3) edit the import_rss.php file to point to the rss file
4) open the php script on the server, it will import the rss

Done! Categories, authors, posts, titles, dates etc all migrated.
5) well, it’s probably best to restore the import script to its default state of not being configured with any rss feed so it can’t be executed accidentally.

TADA! All my posts of the past year are now in wordpress.

Using wordpress

Using and configuring wordpress is quite easy. It takes a few moments to understand how user rights, options and features relate. These concepts are quite well worked out in wordpress. By default there is one user (admin) who can do anything. Other users may register through the website and get a level of trust from the admin (or a qualified user). 0 means no rights at all. By promoting users, they get the right to add their comments, moderate/edit/create posts, manage users, etc. Nice. But I’m unlikely to register much other users.

Visitors can leave comments on the site. The behaviour can be configured such that comment spamming is unlikely to happen. An important feature for me because I had to disable commenting on pivot because of spam. I’m still experimenting with the settings to find out the best mix of freedom of speech and spam protection.

The user interface is quite clean and functional. Oddly, the wordpress developers prefer the use of serif fonts. This gives wordpress a rather pleasing, unconventional & conservative (contradiction, I know :-)), newspaper like look and feel. The letters are big (1 em) and readability is excellent. When you think about it, this is kind of important for a tool intended to process text. The font communicates an important design philosophy: this tool is about getting content out for people to read and nothing else. It is not about feature creep, complexity or in your face flash & javascript enabled GUIs.

Aside from the look and feel, this tool has all the features you’d expect from a blog tool. The functionality is organized in a number of self explanatory tabs like ‘write’ and ‘users’. The default settings are probably ok for a novice user and a more advanced user can easily change the behaviour of posting, comments, templates, etc.

migrated to wordpress

I’ve been playing around with wordpress for about an hour. Easy to use, feature rich and I managed to migrate my old pivot posts by importing the RSS.

Why migrate away from pivot? Well, I wanted to try something new. Referrer and comment spam has caused me to cripple pivot and frankly, I never really liked the plain text files, the messy templates and the lack of updates during the half year I used it.

WordPress seems to be popular amongst the ‘hard core’ bloggers and I like the look and feel. Also the default template is much nicer IMHO.

As for that, I am unlikely to change it much due to a lack of time and interest. That may sound a little unlike me but I am sort of bored with trying to make html+css+javascript do things it is clearly not very well suited for.

I simply no longer believe in this technology: it is primitive, awfully limited and hopelessly flawed by design. Most nice page layouts consist of elaborate workarounds for browser limitations, browser incompatibilities, ambiguous standards interpretations and plain parser bugs. The implementation of the more relevant CSS features are almost without exception problematic.

I have no wish to learn much more than I already know about yesterdays mistakes at Netscape and Microsoft. Every attempt at building something nice over the past few years has ended with me discovering it wouldn’t work in IE (position:fixed) or it wasn’t possible at all (vertical spacing, css columns with a row beneath) or it would sort of half work in version x and break down in version y of Firefox (never bothered to find out which version was behaving ‘incorrectly’).