Apple’s software problems are worse than flat vs. glossy

Screenshot of i0S icons

Leading up to the expected release of iOS7, there’s been much speculation online about whether or not Apple will adopt a more “flat” design aesthetic for its aging mobile operating system. The company’s skeumorphic, or natural, designs have come under fire from fans and foes alike, who charge it’s overkill now that users are aware of how to use touch interfaces and competitors are rolling out fresher designs.

Screenshot of i0S iconsIt will be interesting to see how iOS7 addresses these challenges (if it does), but I think Apple has a bigger problem on its hands: The company’s mobile software apps themselves are stagnant– not only in design, but more importantly, in functionality and interoperability.

Take a look at the image: It’s a screenshot of my iPhone’s final screen, which contains only two folders: The “Newstand” folder which sits perpetually empty, but Apple won’t let me delete, and then an entire folder titled “Unused”.

Why would I need a folder labeled “Unused”, if I can simply delete apps I no longer want or need? It’s because I can’t delete them – all of the apps (eight total) in my “Unused” folder are there because they’re stock apps provided by Apple as part of i0S6. Forget the fact that it’s spammy to force me to keep apps I don’t want – the real problem is why those apps sit unused in the first place. Quite simply, it’s because they’re outdone by better, faster, and/or more integrated apps provided by third-parties- many of them Apple’s competitors.

  • If I want the weather, I use Yahoo or Weather.com’s fantastic apps, which are both much better in terms of the data they provide and the design they wrap it in.
  • My default iOS calendar is replaced by Sunrise, a largely unknown startup that has nevertheless succeeded in producing a much more useful and integrated calendar than Apple has been able to in the six years since iOS debuted.
  • For Maps, I use Google’s outstanding Google Maps app, which is (subjectively) nicer, but more importantly, significantly more accurate and data-rich.
  • Finally, there’s the browser- arguably the second or third-most-important app on a smartphone after the Twitter or texting apps. Here, Apple’s stock Safari browser app is beaten by Google Chrome, which despite being slower than Safari, still gets the call for me based on having full integration with my bookmarks and browser history on my desktop version of Chrome. Typing URLs is one of the biggest pains on a phone, and Chrome makes that problem virtually non-existent by syncing my history across devices.
  • The list goes on: That list doesn’t even address Compass, Notepad, and Voice Memos, which I’ve used two or three times ever. While Passbook may become interesting in the future, right now it’s a an app that serves no purpose due to its limited options. It’s sad that I can’t just remove it until it becomes interesting to me.

So what can Apple do to ensure that its mobile OS stays the world’s most popular – or at least most-loved?

  • Allow non-standard apps to be set as defaults. This is the #1 must-have feature of any next version of iOS.
  • Allow non-standard apps to be deleted, or at least hidden in some meaningful way. This move would give Apple more insight into how users feel about their native apps; it also provides a clear interface
  • Improve and modernize not just the UI of their OS, but the functionality of the apps as well.

These long-overdue changes don’t signal the “Android-ification” of Apple’s mobile OS- rather, they show that the company slowly losing its lead to Samsung, Google, and whoever’s next should make some obvious enhancements that will make users far happier than any aesthetic trend.

Let’s see more context-aware design touches

I hope, and I predict, that we’ll start to see more of a trend in web and software development in the coming months and years that probably already has a great name, but since I don’t know it, for now I’m giving it my own name: context-aware design.

Loosely, I define context-aware design as a principle where an interface offers up specific information geared to that particular unique situation — either some customized data, navigation, or other existing element that’s loaded up at just the right time when it might benefit the user most.

I noticed a subtle but great example of it today when looking for a post on 37signals’ blog Signals vs. Noise. It was hidden in an often-overlooked and under-designed area that most blogs have: category archive pages. On Signals vs. Noise, if you click a category archive link (“Business”, in this example), you don’t just see what you’d expect from most blogs: the typical reverse-chronological list of blog posts from the Business category. Instead, you’re greeted with a nice bit of context-aware design right at the top of the screen:

A screenshot of the “Business” category of posts on the 37signals blog Signals vs. Noise

See the “Popular” box at the top right under the page title? It’s a simple concept: For folks browsing that category, why not show them the 10 most popular posts, right off the bat? If they’re deep diving for a particular item or topic (rather than searching), there’s a good chance one of the popular posts is the one they’re looking for — and if they’re just perusing, showing the most popular posts is a simple but effective approach to showing what types of content are in that category.

The “Popular” box shows off what makes context-aware design such a benefit for both developers and users: It’s simple to implement — most blog software will readily serve up popular content in a widget — and it’s the type of spontaneous experience that creates and builds trust. It adds up to less cost and more time spent with the interface.

Looking back on my predictions for 2006

Just over one year ago, I posted “7 things to look for on the web in 2006“. Now that 2006 is over, let’s take a look at how I did!

Here’s my original post, and here’s a summary of my predictions, in order of what kind of impact I predicted them to have:

7. Hyperlocal (or “Ecosystem”) social software
6. Distributed advertising networks
5. Identity
4. Attention
3. Delivery & Organization (RSS, OPML, SSE, and others)
2. User-Organized Media and Content
1. Open-source video / Videoblogging

7. Hyperlocal (or “Ecosystem”) social software
Grade: B / I think I did pretty well with this one. While corporate-engineered hyperlocal sites faired well in terms of quality and quantity– and the space grew quite a bit in terms of players– it was probably the expansion of homegrown hyperlocal that made this prediction a moderate success.

6. Distributed advertising networks
Grade: D / Sorry, me. With this prediction, I hoped online advertising networks would expand, making the monetization of online content more democratized. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Despite the success of PajamasMedia and the Federated Media ad network, this space took more steps back than forward. For one, both Pajamas and FM are both closed networks, with high bars to entry. Secondly, Google Adwords faced no stiff competition from Microsoft or Yahoo!, and finally, the most well-known new addition to the space in 2006- PayPerPost– became known as an ethically-questionable company, enraging many of the most well-known bloggers for its approach to advertising (which, for the record, I am strongly opposed to).

5. Identity
Grade: C / As 2006 rolled on, this prediction became more and more important to me, yet I saw little or no indicators that it would ever take off, at least during the calendar year. With some moderate adoption of OpenID, I predict that I was one year off, and that 2007 will mark the year that identity really breaks through with early adopters, while in 2008 it will see adoption across major platforms in some form.

4. Attention
Grade: D / Sadly, attention didn’t break out big in 2006. Though some strides were made, I predicted it to become part of the online conversation much as RSS did in 2005, and I was sorely mistaken. Although there are some attention tools built into services such as YouTube, we as creators are still not benefiting from any sort of serious effort to capture and provide attention details to us. Let’s hope my prediction was one year ahead, and 2007 becomes the year for creators to earn more information about their productions.

3. Delivery & Organization (RSS, OPML, SSE, and others)
Grade: D / In my opinion, 2006 was a major down year for the promise of RSS, OPML, SSE, and related innovations. RSS continued to be beset and marginalized by the lame implementations of personal homepages, while Microsoft’s promising SSE gained zero traction, and OPML, which finished 2005 strongly, floundered and struggled without any major breakthroughs during the year. Although Google’s Reader product made a big splash, no other power tools emerged, and as far as innovative uses, I saw only one power-user product- 30Boxes‘ calendar- which truly showed me that RSS can continue to be grown.

2. User-Organized Media and Content
-AND-
1. Open-source video / Videoblogging

Grade: A / A I think it’s safe to say I scored big on both of these. It’s my belief that online video was the big story on the web in 2006. From Time magazine naming YOU its Person of the Year (because of your contributions online), to Google’s $1.6 billion dollar purchase of YouTube, to the breakout videoblogs Rocketboom and ZeFrank, to the success of big media video in the form of MSNBC’s record video stats, to the number of sordid celebrity stories told online and enhanced by video (Michael Richards’ meltdown, DeVito on the view, many more), to MSNBC and CNN’s record video streaming numbers, video was the single most explosive online sector last year. 2007 promises to be a huge year for video and user-organized content as well.

Overall grade: C And coming soon- my predictions for 2007!

7 things to look for on the web in 2006

Happy New Year!

I have some humble predictions for the biggest themes, trends, and ideas on the web in 2006. I’ve got seven items here because the arbitrary concept of posting either 10 or 5 seemed pointless. A list either too long or too short would’ve been diminished by the inclusion of ideas either made up or left off. So, seven themes I think will help shape the web (and the world) in 2006. Here they are:

7. Hyperlocal (or “Ecosystem”) social software

“All politics is local,” goes the old saying. In 2006, I predict the social software movement- sites that allow users to share content, data, and more- will go local more than it ever has. I believe this trend will develop in part because 2006 is an election year in the U.S., meaning that action on the grassroots level will spike as it always does around elections. Further fueling the increase of hyperlocal news & content will be the continued popularity of social content sites like Flickr. As the mainstream begins to develop and amplify ways to utilize these social ecosystems among their families, cliques, and local business networks, the space will expand with the

These trends may also promote the development of pure-play local ecosystem software, most likely in news (there are already several hyperlocal news sites nationwide) and connections (dating, business, meetups).

6. Distributed advertising networks

Blogads and Google Adsense have been the market leaders in blog advertising for a couple of years now. But the market stagnacy is about to change in 2006. Smaller players like Pheedo will either innovate or fade away, but newcomers such as Federated Media (which has been long announced but hasn’t yet launched) and Pajamas Media (which has stumbled out of the gate) with both make this space active, interesting, and competitive. Hopefully, they won’t all be chasing their tails- innovation here is welcome.

Another angle is emerging in blog, or more widely, web-based advertising. That’s the concept that users- who are providing user-generated content in droves to sites like Flickr and You Tube– should be paid at least a share of the revenue generated from the millions of eyeballs they bring to these sites. Two new, as-yet-unreleased services, Newsvine and Squidoo, are hoping to lead a change in this situation. Both services say they plan to pay their users for the content they provide based on the amount of traffic they generate. I hope Flickr and others consider following suit.

5. Identity

This is probably my riskiest prediction. It concerns a concept rarely discussed, even among early adopters and/or close followers of the web. It’s called identity, and it’s a big, abstract philisophical question that, if addressed, can help overcome some of the larger, and smaller, issues of trust, reliability, and socilization online and off.

Specifically, conversations are already underway about the need for an open, distributed system for online identity. In a system like the outlined by LiveJournal founder Brad Fitzpatrick, OpenID, people carry around a single, URL-based identity that can be used to verify their blog posts, comments, and other content; a single identity can be easily managed, moved, and updated; and it can help facilitate web-based transactions (like auction buys) and/or business (think deals and jobs) and/or personal (think dating sites and meetups) arrangements.

To jump in, start with Johannes Ernst’s fascinating post on the advantages of a URL-based identity schema. This is a foundation issue for the web- one that seems erudite but actually touches all of us as is suggests a shift away from email-based identity, part of the “plumbing” of communications on the web. To put it in powerful terms, a URL-based identity system reduces not just the publicity of, but the dependency on, email addresses, which in turn can have a positive impact on the spam crisis.

4. Attention

Identity and attention belong next to each other in this list because they’re both fairly abstract, macro-level ideas as opposed to emerging technologies or tools (though both have their own vibrant development communities). They’re also similar in that identity and attention both address the issue of who we are when we’re online.

While identity is about trust, attention is about- visibility, with accountability. As Steve Rubel explains in his thorough post about Attention.xml, “…imagine for a moment you can look at an RSS feed…and see how many people have read the same post you�re reading or how many page views it is getting, etc…What if you could get an RSS feed that notifies you every time there are blog posts that are read by more than 100,000 people?”

The questions he’s asking suggest the heart of the attention issue- that for quite a long time, the living web has badly needed a unified, yet decentralized, trustworthy place to aggregate and push out data about who, when, and how often people are reading, linking, and subscribing to your blog or content. As Steve notes, the concept of such a system wouldn’t be limited to the blogosphere: “Going a step further, consider the possibilities if the mainstream media (MSM) adopted attention.xml as well. This could happen if the big RSS feed aggregators get behind it.”

The it Rubel refers to is Attention.xml, a proposed format for just such a system to reliably track who is interacting with who. While the number and important of blog search tools continues to climb in 2006, so will the discussion of a system to begin charting the exchange of interactions on the web.

3. Delivery & Organization (RSS, OPML, SSE, and others)

2005 has been the biggest year yet for RSS, and that expolosion has likewise suggested that OPML, a close cousin to RSS, will expand its reach in 2006 and beyond. Both of these acronymns have proven to be important delivery & organization systems for a variety of content on the web (blogs, news, stock/weather data, advertisements). As blogs become ubiquitious, and social service sites like Flickr continue to launch and grow,

Furthering the rise of RSS in 2006 will be the long-awaited release of Microsoft’s next operating system, Vista. The OS, along with two of its most popular applications, Internet Explorer and Outlook, with all be deeply ingrained with RSS and its Microsoft-created (much) younger cousin, SSE. With the launch of SSE, Microsoft (and early fans of the technology) hope that the current “one way street” of RSS will be alighted to allow for bi-directional flow of information. This change, if it materializes, could be as important as the initial release of blogging tools like Manilla and Blogger were to the development of the writable/living/social web.

2. User-Organized Media and Content

Okay, so I couldn’t call this one “User-generated content” because people seem to hate that term (they feel it dimishes the user- fair enough, I guess). So instead, I’m calling it “User-organized media and content”, which in the end seems to be a more descriptive term, so woo hoo.

Either way, it’s all about the concept of giving users a large, open space to share content, links, and comments and to therefore define the discussion of what’s news. The trend emerged in a big way in 2005 thanks to Digg.com, a technology news site where the news is provided via links from users, which are then voted on. No editor picks the top stories on Digg- instead, votes determine, on a constantly-rotating basis, what lands on the front page.

It’s a continuation of the living web as a place for conversation, and beyond the traditionally-opinionated nature of blogs, this round of user-organized information brings news media into the fray.

Expect many other sites, including some mainstream media websites, to follow suit in 2006 and give their users a shot at not just digesting, but defining, what’s relevant in news and other media.

One big player in the space, which I think will be one of the most popular sites of the year, is Newsvine.com. Though the site is currently in private beta, it promises to continue Digg’s innovative, user-centric spirit, while also mixing user’s links with traditional news articles from AP and other sources.

Better still, Newsvine provides all users their own space to write and has noted that it plans to share any revenue generated from user’s content. Another service, the recently-launched Squidoo, also promises to share revenues with its users, who use the site to create “lenses”, or collections of personal expertise, on a limitless array of topics. Call it About 2.0, or, as its creator calls it, a “platform for meaning”.

No matter the label, the social web enters a new phase this year as its heart- news, blog posts, comments, links, video & audio, and all varities of other content- is made even easier to share, mix, promote, and comment on.

1. Open-source video / Videoblogging

Video was on deck in 2005, but it will step up to the plate in 2006 and beyond.

I think video will explode in two big ways on the web this year. One will be via community-based sites such as YouTube, a video hosting and sharing service similar in function to Flickr, the popular photo site. 2005 already hinted at the emerging popularity of online video communities, where users will go to upload videos of all kinds and skill levels.

I had an idea, back in January of 2005, that video on the web might be starting to get big. As the horrific tragedy of the tsunami struck in late 2004, thousands of people across the world filmed videos of the events. Through the internet and blogs, these videos spread quickly, bringing home to every citizen of the world the terrible state of Southeast Asia with stark reality. At the time, I was web developer for Media Bloggers Association (disclosure: I’m still on the Board). In its role as as a blogging advocacy group, the MBA undertook a project to help host videos of the tsunami in an effort to curtail massive bandwidth fees assumed by those bloggers hosting the videos.

During the month MBA hosted the videos, I watched our traffic explode by 1000%, while we leapt from the low-thousands into the Top 50-most-trafficked blogs on the web. This was no longer the hollow predictions from analysists suggesting the arrival of the broadband web- I witnessed first-hand the power and the attraction that even the most amateur web-based video held.

The popularity of all types of viral video did not go unoticed, at least by those in the industry. Back in May, Viacom purchased iFilm.com, a relatively-unknown site that serves up a variety of viral videos, from bloopers to hommade shorts to cable news clips.

Then, in December 2005, it got crazy. The formerly lost season of Saturday Night Live got a much-needed jolt with the premier of “Lazy Sunday,” a ‘digital short’ that aired on the series’ December 17th episode. By the following Tuesday, the popularity of the 2-minute song parody had made an almost overnight sensation out of YouTube.com, a 10-month old video hosting and sharing service, where a user had posted a clip of the SNL video.

Soon after, the popularity of the clip prompted NBC to post its own version of the file for free on its website, NBC.com. NBC’s parent, Universal, quickly followed suit by releasing a version of the video for free on Apple’s iTunes Music Store (which also sells videos of NBC and other networks’ TV shows).

The ensuing hysteria over the video wasn’t something new for its creators, SNL cast member Andy Samberg and writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Members of a comedy troupe The Lonely Island, the trio have been releasing their own homemade, amateur-looking (yet brilliant and hilarious) videos free on the web for a couple years now. In fact, it was in large part due to the popularity of some of their previous videos- all released under Creative Commons licenses, which encourage free linking and sharing- that the trio was hired for Saturday Night Live.

The popularity of the “Lazy Sunday” video- linked and shared freely, beginning with users up to the corporations that “own” the content- suggests what I believe will be the biggest trend on the web in 2006:

Combined with the natural expansion of blogging from a primarily text-based medium to one rich with audio, and particularly, video files, 2006 is going to be one huge year for user-created, community-shared video of all imaginable types.

The blend is right in 2006 in part because corporations- historically, the only creators, containers and distribution model for content of all types- are finally getting wise to the immesurable potential of homegrown and delivered goods. But more importantly, it’s the creators who are recognizing- and responding to- the increasingly large audience of people who are becoming more and more in tune with the idea that their entertainment doesn’t need to come in half-hour bursts from channels 2, 5, or 7. There’s more out there, and it’s getting good.

Best of the web 2005

In abbreviated form, here are my picks for the best software, services, and/or tools for the year 2005:


5. Bloglines
I’ll start with a downer: I don’t love Bloglines…yet. But I do like it a whole lot, because it’s a reliable, pretty friendly place for me to store and view my RSS feeds. I like their categorization, feature set (but still long for subfolders), and their tools (the blogroll feed, in particular) are appreciated. In 2006, I hope Bloglines continues to expand by adding true security features, multiple view options, and perhaps a bit of a speed and/or design tweak here or there. Still though, they’re good enough to make my top 5.

4. Backpack Understatement: 37Signals was on fire this year. Shifting from a consulting firm to a product company, they first released a nifty to-list service, Ta-da List, then followed it up in May with Backpack, a service where a person or people can create lists, notes, tasks, reminders, and store and share documents and images. The service has been an invaluable tool for me (and thousands of others), won tons of accolades, and has, with others, spawned a revolution of small, simple, web-based services that is likely to explode in 2006.

3. Flickr Flickr, a photosharing service and community, is hands-down the best, most fun web service I’ve ever used. From it’s super-easy Uploadr tool for, well, uploading your digital photos, to its amazing Organizr tool for sorting, naming, and grouping them, to its truly brilliant and ever-emerging ways to bind its community of users together, it’s the shining example of how joyous online experience can be. The best part? It keeps getting better. Late this year, they’ve added digital photo printing via Yahoo!/Target, by itself a worthy reason for the service’s acquisition by Yahoo! this year.

2. Mozilla Firefox Firefox got big in 2005, and it was well-deserved. The cross-platform browser is my pick for 2nd best of the web this year for its emergence as a (nearly) all-in-one platform for using the web. The best part of Firefox in my view are the extensions. Thanks to a community of developers, I use Firefox as a blogging tool, spell checker, del.icio.us bookmarks manager, I search multiple sources, I bypass website registration, have integrated color hex code picking, and it’s web developer toolbar proves invaluable at my job.

And oh yeah, it’s a sleek, powerful, reliable browser, to boot.

1. del.icio.us The site’s design was ugly until late this year, but that didn’t matter much- del.icio.us’ great beauty derives from its simple, open-ended, RSS-ified structure. Beyond just a go-anywhere, browser-based boomark service, del.icio.us exploded the way we save and share the web by allowing us, the users, to create our own methods and habits for linking pages, media, and ideas. Just a couple of the thousands of ways to use the service: A bookmark service, a link delivery service, a PR-watchlist- even a to-do list, library manager, and, heck, blogging tool, all-in-one. del.icio.us is the best and most inherently revolutionary of the “web 2.0” services because it provides any user the basic tools and inspiration to map their own view of the web.

Idea factory: integrated bittorrent search

OLSTM (one-line summary): a bittorrent client that includes an integreated search box.

Here’s one way it could work:
A user downloads a bittorrent client that includes an integrated torrent file search box. As the user, you can specify one, or a series, of URLs to pre-load the search with. The software’s maker could also choose to pre-load some popular tracker sites, based on quality/affiliates/etc. Then, instead of having to use the browser to perform a search and click on a link to your load your client, all could be handled from within the app. Better yet: if the app offered a Firefox search plugin whose results window spawned the app.

Why it matters: Because no bitorrent client I’ve ever used includes an integrated torrent search box. There may be one out there (after all, there’s no shortage of clients), but I have yet to come across one.

Bitorrent file search is so bad right now, it could easily be improved from many angles. This is one.

Some first impressions on Measure Map

Measure Map is a new blog stats (really, analytics) tool developed by usability consulting firm Adaptive Path and currently in private alpha mode for the time being. (Whoah- will alpha become the new beta?)

By entering you email address at the service’s homepage, measuremap.com, you’ll be added to the waiting list to receive an invitation to test out the service. I’ve been lucky enought to receive an invitation, and today I finally opened the email and signed up for the service to track this blog.

My first impressions, after using it for just a few hours, are that it is quite usable and very attractive. Unfortunately, this blog generates such little traffic that I don’t quite have the data set I’d like (or is really necessary) for a proper experimentation. Nonetheless, I can comment on the interface, as sparsely full of data as it is, and what I’ve seen so far I really like.

First, the signup process. Continue reading “Some first impressions on Measure Map”