The belated wisdom of techies abandoning Google
July 12th, 2013 by ravi

Sam Whited via Hacker News on leaving Google:

Like many people, I recently decided to move many of my online services away from Google. The recent Google Reader shutdown and Google Hangouts disabling XMPP federation made me realize that any of my services could go at any time and I didn’t want to be so dependant on a single provider or the integrations between services.

Among the reasons for switching away from Google:

When you’re paying for your social network, it makes you a customer instead of a product.

All of the recent hand-wringing over Google, especially under this “customer vs product” meme, reminds me of Paul Krugman’s point that apparently, to be taken seriously, one has to have been wrong first. For was it not obvious from day one that by signing up for Gmail, Google Calendar, so on, you were submitting yourself to be Google’s product, not a customer?

So you have well-intentioned posts like this one from Whited, full of pointers to open source alternatives, and yet, three, four of seven years ago, when Whited was, as now, Google’s product and not their customer, he chose to sign up for Gmail and other Google products. Why?

I suspect the reason is a version of the usual confusion between “free as in freedom” and “free as in beer” that underlies Open Source itself.

Google used to give the warm fuzzies to techies because of its perceived commitment to Open Source. This is despite the fact that Google single-handedly made advertising on the Internet mainstream and respectable by purchasing DoubleClick, one of the most despised marketers on the net. Somehow, this sentimentality towards Google made it possible for techies to tolerate targeted ads displayed alongside their email, something that would have been an intolerable abomination in 1998. The sporadic (if genuine) gestures from Google to openness coupled with the “free as in beer” nature of Google products helped techies square the circle of their use of these products. Consequently, concern for privacy, aesthetic experience and user requirements was set aside in favour of zero cost, the fuzzy feel of openness, and a few power user features.

Now the response is to run away from “free as in beer” to “unfree as in champagne” options like App.net which are, if anything, less viable than free Google products that might be yanked at a moment’s notice. I doubt it is going to help much.


P.S: There is, of course, the option that is so obvious that it cannot be stated: iCloud. It provides web and app APIs to services like mail, calendaring, file storage, etc. And it is a product that is sustained by one of the wealthiest company in the world, a company which treats you as a customer, not a product.

Tim Bray defends Google Glass
May 23rd, 2013 by ravi

Tim Bray defends Google Glass

Tim Bray works at Google and on his blog (which reflect his opinions, not Google’s) he defends the re-masculating device in five or more paragraphs most of which are spent on answering criticism (of dorkiness, privacy invasion, so on), before getting down to the question of “Why Google Glass?”. That he dispenses with quickly:

Do They Meet a Need?

Seems pretty obvious to me; I’m damn sick of hauling out my mobile to find out what time it is, or to check on my next meeting, or to glance at a map, or to snap a quick photo of an interesting streetlight or whatever.

What he fails to answer is how obvious this is to others who may not be sick of occasionally using an appropriate tool to address an occasional need, rather than have one attached perpetually to their head. Even the guys who used to walk around with Bluetooth pieces permanently implanted in their ear seem to have of late taken a different view from Bray’s.

If anything, Google Glass use as envisaged by Bray limits the multi-tasking/interfacing abilities of humans by reducing their interaction with the device and the world beyond to vision and voice.

I wonder if Bray would be equally receptive to the idea of walking around with a fork strapped to his index finger lest he be at pain to haul one out of the drawer should a tasty meal present itself?

iOS Maps Reconsidered
May 6th, 2013 by ravi

iOS Maps Reconsidered

Scott Forstall had to go. It was owed to Apple users who had to suffer the onslaught of skeumorphism brought on by Forstall, that turned the OS X UI into a riot of over-the-top textures and tortured selection of fonts and colours. But when Forstall refused to sign on to the apology for Apple Maps (in iOS 6) he had a small point.

And that point was that for the majority use cases the new application did a pretty decent job. Stories of stranded motorists in the Australian outback, while true and horrifying, were misrepresented as the general case, to unfavourably compare the new iOS Maps to the latest Google Maps, the latter a product that has undergone years of updates and corrections — many of those corrections coming from users like me.

When Google released their own maps app for iOS, Apple, having shed Forstall from its ranks and bent over backwards in apology, went so far as to recommend it as an alternative to their own product. Media pundits giggled in delight at the opportunity to speculate wildly on the effect of the release of the Google Maps app on the adoption rate of iOS6, before reversing themselves once the data came in.

Today, Apple released a list of the 25 all-time highest downloaded apps, and right at the bottom, at #25 sits Google Maps, many slots below Facebook Messenger and the app that got in first among 500 peers and thus managed to claim the name Flashlight. Google Maps is relatively new, even in comparison to Facebook Messenger, and it is possible that the relationship of download count to a human being or device may be many to one (a device passes hands and someone reinstalls an app but using a different and new Apple ID), which would inflate the download counts of older apps in contrast to new ones. But one thing this does say, in my opinion, is that download counts for free apps do not tell us anything concrete beyond the fact that people like free stuff especially if it might be useful. You might disagree… perhaps you know a user or two that actually uses Facebook Messenger on their iPhone?

The right kind of customer
May 5th, 2013 by ravi

The right kind of customer

I was a very early adopter of Instapaper and an ardent promoter of it to friends and acquaintances. When people complained about the clutter on websites, I would express mock incredulity that in 2010 they were still reading web pages in their native ad-infested homes or bookmarking them to their browser, bookmarking service or in some strange instances Facebook[?!], for later reading. Not using Instapaper (or Readability) seemed masochistic.

Instapaper was (is) noteworthy for other reasons as well. It was near ubiquitous (with a bookmarklet and web interface for the desktop and an affordable iOS app), clean and perhaps most important, its sole proprietor, Marco Arment, seemed to have the right ideas (competitors are yet to implement one of the most useful features of Instapaper: the ability to save an article to Evernote).

And yet, in the last few months I have been weaning myself off Instapaper and moving to competitor Readability. That Readability comes with a cleaner and more sophisticated interface than Instapaper on the web, in embedded mode, and the mobile app, is one small reason for this change. A host of other factors — such as Marco’s shift to the misguided idea of “email address as identity” and his confusing rollout of this change (which mysteriously caused sign-in using my login identity to stop working in the mobile app), or the discontinuation of subscription to other users — pushed me over the edge.

Arment will not miss me and I think that’s quite the way it should be. What he writes with regard to customer satisfaction may be good advise:

No matter what you make or how much you charge, some people will find things to complain about. If you drop your app’s price all the way down to free, people will still complain — just not about the price. They’ll move on to the features, the implementation, the design, the updates, the way you look, or what kind of dog you have. They’ll complain about every facet of your app, and then they’ll complain about unrelated topics just to pile on. They’ll say they use your app every day and love it, then give it a two-star rating until you add their pet feature. They’ll drop you from five stars to one star after an update that broke their edge case, then never come back to update that review after you fix it. [...]

You will never please everyone. You will never win that battle.

But I wonder if there is a danger in Arment mixing in cranky ranters — the types who leave 1 star ratings on review sites because of a pet peeve, who cannot be satisfied or won over because they have no interest in that at all — with customers who have a divergent interest in the app.

The story goes that when famed designer Dieter Rams was asked if he did consumer research he replied “Never! We were out to change the world”. Consumer research is a bit different from consumer feedback but I sense a tendency today to take this line with regard to any interaction with customers. All feedback, whether it is about the “kind of dog you have” or about the working or future of a feature, are perceived as “complaints”.

Arment’s words are good psychological reinforcement (“illegitimi non carborundum” and all that), but I think for an app developer trying to reach the sort of success that Arment rightfully enjoys, drawing the right distinctions between customers might be valuable.


All of which reminds me, Instapaper seems to automatically recharge the subscription fee to my credit card every three months. This action is not clearly specified in the subscription page on the Instapaper site, something I had pointed out in email to Marco. I never heard back. It probably landed in his Spam folder… or perhaps he took it as a comment about his dog!

The Sceptical Competent
April 23rd, 2013 by ravi

The Sceptical Competent

Warning and apologies: the train metaphor employed within might drive you off the rails.

Software development has hidden hierarchies that play out not so much in titles or skills as in echo chambers. A person working up the programming ladder is corralled into pre-approved positions by the din of expert opinion repeated many times over in text books, blog posts, Twitter, conferences and sundry outlets. It is only on occasions when there is a clash of propaganda or when a glimpse of history raises question about the grand narratives, that the adrift novice coder begins to question the emperor’s attire. The smarter among such novices quickly learn to swim with the current; or whatever happens to be current. The rest stay adrift, unable to reconcile the reality of the sausage making with the extravagant theorising about it.

What’s my point?

Read the rest of this entry »

Safety in numbers?
April 17th, 2013 by ravi

Safety in numbers?

I see the point of this bit from John Gruber (quoting Harry McCracken) about iOS vs Android and what the numbers say:

Great work, and his conclusion seems perfect:

Android if you’re talking about market share; iOS if you mean financial success. So far, this is a strikingly different market than the PC business back in the 1990s, when market share translated directly into financial success.

This is true. So far. But consider the IT hardware/software business back in the 90s:

In the late 80s and all through most of the 90s, the Unix vendors (Sun, in particular, but also HP, SGI, others) boasted margins in the server market that underwrote their intentional shunning of the brutal Wintel marketplace and the pennies it yielded (to hardware vendors). In the mid-90s, AT&T was putting Sun workstations that cost upward of $10,000 on the desks of employees and spending a multiple of that amount in the server room for the same hardware. What sane CEO would leave this paradise for price warfare on PCs?

Today, Unix has won (in the form of GNU/Linux and, ironically, OS X/iOS/Android) but the Unix vendors with those fat margins are near gone. They are gone because computing was becoming commonplace and processor performance was sufficiently advanced that Wintel’s price advantage and user friendliness made it ubiquitous.

I am not implying that this holds a clear message for Apple, that they should, as the pundits have been baying for, introduce low cost models of iPhones and Macs to gain marketshare. Rather, I think that simply as a matter of correlation, the Apple vs Android situation today is not dissimilar from Unix vendors vs Wintel in the 90s.

An Open Letter to Google: Design Matters
January 27th, 2013 by ravi

Dear Google,

you invariably put me in mind of my four year old. His intentions are always good, but his output varies wildly. And I sometimes wonder if he is leading the design department over at your HQ.

Consider Chrome, the subject of my latest struggles. Chrome would not exist today if not for Firefox and it is by piggybacking on the Firefox ethos that you were able to gain a foothold. That was uncool. But you are also the source of most of the more than 100 million dollars that Mozilla takes in each year (and naive old us thought Mozilla was a struggling little David to the Microsoft/Apple/Google Goliath). So that’s a bit redeeming. But that’s not what this letter is about.

The history and popularity of Chrome would be of no impact to me if not for Apple’s hate crime on the splendidly usable Web Inspector in WebKit (the HTML engine that you share with Apple’s Safari browser). Apple took an intuitive interface that was well laid out (big horizontally separated sections for sources and console) and mangled it into a three panel layout with cryptic icons, and (unless I am missing something), for additional insult, they took away useful features like adding new selectors and styles to the document CSS1. And therefore, for web development, I have had to move to using Chrome, which thankfully retains the old Inspector.

But this means I now have to use Chrome frequently, and thus deal with the strange design quirks you have adopted, that add up to a figurative migraine by the end of each day. And however much I ponder, I cannot fathom the thought process behind such things as:

Tabs on Top

At first this looked pretty cool, I admit. It also made sense that the URL bar, which is specific to a page and hence a particular tab, lie within a tab, not above it. Even Apple flirted with the look in an early beta of Safari 4.

The trouble is, with the tabs on top, the application window’s title bar height is reduced to a bare minimum, making it difficult to click on the app or move it around. Tabs on top also causes the page title to be displayed within the tab (rather than in the title bar), so we can abandon any chance of knowing the entire page title, even for those sites that set this HTML tag to some meaningful value.

And why on earth are the tab close buttons on the right?

That Awful Downloads Bar

What’s the point of this monstrously huge thing that sticks around at the bottom wasting valuable browser real estate long after it’s work is done? On the Interwebs everyone says there is a flag (about:flags) to disable this beast, but in an Apple’sque move you have now done away with the flag. Thanks for that.

Status Bar

Most browsers (Safari, Firefox) offer a toggleable status bar that is used for, among other things, displaying URLs when links are hovered over. You seem to have taken a dislike for this idea. For a browser that is willing to waste a large number of screen pixels on a Downloads bar, Chrome gets miserly with URL display, popping up a tooltip of sorts at the bottom of the page upon hovering over a link. Why?

A Bookmarks Bar to rival your neighbour’s Christmas decorations

Site favicons placed next to link/bookmark name in the Bookmarks Bar = a riot of colours and shapes below the location bar that is an eyesore and distraction. And mostly useless in an age when this bar is dominated by faceless bookmarklets. Away with those favicons, Google. Do I need remind you where the very idea came from?


I could go on, but I think you might have had enough of the whining. The thing is, these design bizarrities (surely with a name like Google, you do not mind if I make up words?) are a running theme across your product line. The new Gmail is a massive improvement and I congratulate you for that, but still… the massive buttons with little differentiation? The smorgasbord of options and links in the left sidebar? The pain remains. A visual experience as mutilated as the application interface you offer under the name of IMAP. And I will not even get into what you have done to Google Analytics.

Heed our pleas dear Google. Is this all worth the pretence that every problem is an engineering problem? Isn’t it enough that you have made millionaires out of countless geeks, already? We, the geeks, have won! Through you! Now is the time for a gracious gesture: give a designer a seat at the centre table. You will not regret it.

  1. Yes, there are hacks to bring the old Web Inspector back to Safari, but none have worked satisfactorily for me.
Being right, also on the Internet
January 25th, 2013 by ravi

This week’s episode of Men in Tech Behaving Badly is the case of Heather Arthur, whose work was mocked and ridiculed on Twitter, prompting her to post a calm analysis and raise the very pertinent question of the effect such ridicule might have on entrants to the Open Source movement and their confidence in publishing code.

While many of those involved in the Twitter thread have been quick to unconditionally apologise, one person, David Cramer, found a different lesson in the episode. In a post titled “Being Wrong on the Internet”, he writes:

To people like Heather, criticism (good and bad) comes every day. It doesn’t matter what kind of person you are, and it doesn’t matter if you can handle it or not. It’s going to be there. Open source doesn’t change that. In fact, no ecosystem in society changes that. It’s there, and it’s not something everyone can deal with. [Emphasis added]

It seems to me that there is in fact one ecosystem in society, namely the real flesh and blood society itself, where bad criticism is considered inadmissible and the inability of a person to “deal with” merely holds a mirror on the ecosystem’s inability to prevent it.

Two days ago, in an unrelated bit of news, Alan Cox announced he is leaving GNU/Linux development:

I’m leaving the Linux world and Intel for a bit for family reasons. I’m aware that “family reasons” is usually management speak for “I think the boss is an asshole” but I’d like to assure everyone that while I frequently think Linus is an asshole (and therefore very good as kernel dictator)…

The doublespeak of some making a macho1 virtue out of asshole’ishness, while simultaneously, others pay lip service to the importance of encouragement and civility is incoherent.

It might be worthwhile to either establish the claim that “asshole dictator[s]” are a necessary and good thing or to accept that uncivil and antisocial behaviour is unacceptable independent of realities or authority.

  1. This is decidedly a primarily male thing. For another bit of evidence, read Pam Selle’s blog post on Why you shouldn’t invite Yehuda Katz to your user group meeting.
The future is now
December 28th, 2012 by ravi

Here’s a puff piece on the New Scientist about how the mouse is on its way out:

If the Leap is anything to go by, the days of the mouse are numbered. The 3D-gesture-sensing device lets you control your computer with a wave of your hand – and it could be yours early next year.

[…]

Pointing and clicking has been a mainstay of our interactions with personal computers for nearly 30 years, and old habits die hard. But if the Leap is as good as the pre-release hype suggests, the mouse could soon be ousted, with little more than a wave goodbye.

This sort of thing in the media (especially science/technology journalism) is hardly worth noting, except that it serves as a clear example of the bipolar approach (wilful ignorance or hyperbole) the media defaults to when it comes to Apple. On the one hand Apple is projected as a revolutionary and inventive company despite scant evidence of any great inventiveness (in a technical sense) on the part of Apple. On the other hand, well, there is the above piece.

The days of the mouse are numbered, yes. Time to wave goodbye, true. Thing is, we do not have to wait for some futuristic technology from an unknown tech startup. Pointing and clicking, the mainstay of our interaction with computers, is being ousted today, and being done so by a technology so subtle that, apparently, science journalists have failed to notice. That technology is the touch interface made ubiquitous by the iPhone and iPad, the implementation of which has put paid to “pointing and clicking”.

Linus Torvalds on carriers
November 9th, 2012 by ravi

Linus Torvalds, originator of GNU/Linux, does not like an Engagdet editorial about the “race to the bottom” in mobile phones. What’s wrong with a race to the bottom that commoditises the technology and lowers prices, he wonders. But what really irks him about Engadget’s piece is that they seem to be missing the forest for the trees:

But when it comes to cellphones, it’s not just a flawed argument, it’s doubly stupid. Because in that market, particularly in the US, the alternative is the whole broken carrier subsidy model, with all that entails. None of which is good, and all of which is much worse than any (hypothetical) “race to the bottom” arguments.

And at no point did that deeply flawed editorial even mention carrier lock-in issues. What crock.

As someone who is concerned with identifying the real problem, I expected Linus would notice the word that is significant and common to both issues (subsidy model and lock-in) is “carrier”. That was not to be. Instead Linus moves on to his preference for the “unskinned” Android experience. And fortunately for him, an unlocked Nexus phone (which seems to sell for about $400, though I cannot be sure: there are so many similarly named devices, and one called Nexus 4 that is not even on sale yet) gives him the trifecta: he gets the unskinned experience, freedom from carrier lock-in, and his $400 (or whatever he paid) frees him from the carrier subsidy model.

I like the Nexus phones just because I think they have a nicer interface.

But I like the Nexus phones even more because they are clearly pushing the whole “no carrier lock-in” model. And price is absolutely part of it.

While Linus does not explain how “price is absolutely part of it”, the real leap is the claim that an Android phone, unlocked or not, is the answer to carrier induced pain. I need not point out what Google did with the first Nexus device it sold. The history runs deeper. Android exists successfully today for one reason: it enabled carriers to continue their regressive practices (of which lock-in and price subsidy are only two, and the latter, the subsidy, is a mild in comparison to the rest). And it did so at a crucial moment when the iPhone was finally breaking users free from the clutches of telcos. It would not be a stretch to further argue that this function of Android is a conscious strategic choice made by Google.

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