I love you just the way you are?
June 29th, 2010 by ravi

A strange thing happened on the way to Safari Extensions. I lost interest in (or the need for) extensions of any sort. I still love Firefox. I still think the cornucopia of Firefox extensions is a wonderful thing. But since I switched to using Safari (mainly because of the Web Inspector), I seem to have learnt to toe the Apple line, living off of the crumbs that Jobs is willing to throw at his users in all his infinite wisdom.

Safari 5, and Extensions in particular, were to me the coolest unannounced feature (at the recent WWDC). If I didn’t quite exactly jump in joy, in consideration of my advancing years, it would not be an exaggeration to say I had erotic flashbacks of life with Firefox and my myriad extensions, now with Safari. And off I ran to the various unofficial extension galleries where the fine efforts of various developers are listed. Each extension sounded better than the previous one. I even installed a few. But admit I must: I use none!

Apple has won. I have been assimilated.

Download: Rachel 0.93 for WordPress
June 27th, 2010 by ravi

Germany might have spanked English bottoms today but you can come out on top with this spanking new release of Rachel for WordPress! This is version 0.93 and along with fixing various annoyances and anti-features (some like to call them “bugs”), it adds support for WordPress 3.0’s nifty background colour/image options. Want to know what’s fixed? Visit the GitHub Commit Log and read about the changes made after 2010-06-16.

This version of the theme is close to approval and should go live at WordPress.org shortly (I hope!). A shout-out is owed to Tom Lany for his patient and detailed review comments.

See previous post for screenshots.

Screenshots: Rachel 0.93 for WordPress
June 27th, 2010 by ravi

Below are some screenshots that demonstrate support for WordPress 3.0’s background colour and image in Rachel 0.93. Download link coming next.

Rachel 0.93

The future of software? (from a user perspective)
June 26th, 2010 by ravi

There are two unrelated success stories that I wish to tie together in this bit, and if I am successful and justified in doing so, then you too might worry as I do about the future of software.

First, I must clear the air: I am a staunch Free Software advocate. And specifically, I take the Richard Stallman position when it comes to Free vs Open Software. And towards the end of this post, I will try to reconcile that position with the worries raised below.

Now back to the story of the two successes. The first, MacHeist, is small, but only in comparison. MacHeist is an affair that occurs a few times a year where users solve puzzles on their way to a booty of fire sale priced Mac software. The operation is run by a few clever lads (and ladies?), sells software worth hundreds of dollars for as low as $50 in total, and nets a handsome profit (reputed to run into the hundreds of thousands) for the organisers.

When the MacHeist gets going (and I admit to having “participated” in one or two) one criticism that is often heard is that the developers of the software are not getting quite the fair shake, and that selling software at such unsustainably low rates devalues the effort that goes into their creation. I think both criticisms are legitimate.

The second success story is a big one: Google. A company that hires brilliant engineers to turn out complex software products, but then turns around and gives most of these away for free, preferring instead to make money by selling advertising. So much so that the reliable purveyors of quotable statements are wont to note that Google is not a search technology company, but an advertising one.

As a Free Software fanatic, you might think that all this would warm my heart, but it does not. To understand why, I will refer to the difference that Stallman draws between Free Software (“free as in free speech”), and Open Software which is “free as in beer”. Whereas Free Software, through the terms of the GNU Public License, fosters a culture of public ownership and ubiquitous contribution, Open Software in its paradoxical naive pragmatism (of gaining usage by adopting a more “liberal” license) undervalues the act of development making it no more than a form of cheap labour.

The claims in the previous paragraph are arguable, and argue about it we should. The point of this post however is to consider the impact of this cheap or free software on users.

Consider my recent experience with a remote file access application called Flow. Flow is a very useful application with an impressive set of features and a more than decent interface. Flow retails for $25, a fair price for the functionality it promises, but it was also recently given away as part of a MacHeist “nanobundle”, the popularity of which has led to a warning from the makers of Flow, ExtendMac, that they are swamped with feedback and that all users (including ones like me who did not acquire it through MacHeist) should exercise a bit of patience while we await a response.

Patience, we have been told, is the virtue of an ass, and my experience with contacting ExtendMac tends to justify the comparison (of me) with the maligned beast! More than two months ago I submitted a report of a problem with Flow that was making it close to unusable: the application would hang mid-way through a file transfer and provide me no means to recover from it. Not even an option to cancel the transfer. This is just one of many issues. Here’s another: the application hangs upon encountering a symbolic link on the remote host. I have since reported these problems two more times and promptly received a canned response. But ExtendMac has been reticent to communicate further on this matter.

If indeed the MacHeist fire sale and ensuing volume of users makes it impossible for ExtendMac to address the issues of its users, then there is a good bit of legitimacy to the criticism that such sales both shortchange the developer and ultimately harm the end user.

The other, larger point of the matter is learnt from the example of Google. Having separated the source of their income (advertising) and their source of value (software), they are now wedded to “web apps”, applications that often coerce (though to Google’s credit, not always) you to using Google supplied browser based interfaces (so that money-making advertising can be targeted at you) irrespective of how well suited they are to your needs (recently I wrote about Google Voice, where the lack of a desktop client severely hampers the usability of the product). Better, I think, a choice between: software as a public good as envisioned by Stallman; or software as a valuable product solving a user’s needs in the best possible way, and hence worthy of charging a fee, as seen by Apple.

Update: in the spirit of the philosopher Peter Singer, who follows up his meditations on ethical eating with practical recipes, a recommendation: for a powerful GPL licensed free alternative to Flow, take a look at CyberDuck.

UI clarity: does the Mac do better?
June 18th, 2010 by ravi

Much [and often deserved] fun has been had at Microsoft’s expense with regard to their incomprehensible dialogs. Examples can be gathered from the Daring Fireball blog (for example, this one). But what of Mac OS X? To answer the question posed in the title of this blog, Mac OS usually does better, but take a gander at this iCal Sync warning that popped up yesterday:

How exactly is one supposed to resolve this “conflict”? In the first place, it is not clear what the conflict is! Both entries look the same (the blocked out text is the name of a family member and is the same in both cases) as far as I can tell.

Worse, what do the two columns represent? One is titled “iCal” while the other says “This Computer”. What are we to make of this distinction? iCal is an application running on This Computer! In fact the only application that has calendar entries.

I suppose the “parent event:”, present only in the left column, holds the key to this conflict mystery, but what it means is as opaque as the rest of the alert.

This is one example among the many failings and confusions of Mac OS X (here’s another: say you change an entry with invitees, often unintentionally by mistakenly dragging it, iCal insists on updating the invitees providing no option to undo the action without consequence) and they seldom excite the sort of ridicule that Microsoft suffers. Someone should report this to the authorities.

Screenshots: Rachel 0.8 for WordPress
June 17th, 2010 by ravi

Download: Rachel 0.8 for WordPress
June 17th, 2010 by ravi

Rachel is a theme for WordPress. Read more about it here.


Comment isn’t free: Gruber vs Wilcox
June 16th, 2010 by ravi

Daring Fireballer John Gruber is annoyed with Joe Wilcox because Wilcox is being a bit sulky about the inability to comment on Daring Fireball (a blog that dispenses with the ubiquitous reader comments section), in order to give his side of the argument on who punched whom first in the Google vs Apple affair. Gruber will have none of it. Why, he asks, should I provide you a free podium on my lovingly and laboriously nurtured (and wildly popular) site? He does not add: especially if you are going to be taking shots at me.

I think Gruber is right on the original issue: Google has been invading Apple’s space (everyone’s space for that matter) for a while now, though Steve Jobs’s accusation that such steps by Google violates it’s own informal motto — “Don’t be evil” — is laughable (it is only in Jobs’s mind that competing against Apple is the equivalent of being evil!).

However, the argument that Gruber musters to deny Wilcox’s demand, are not the most estimable:

You write on your site; I write on mine. That’s a response. I don’t use comments on Wilcox’s site to respond publicly to his pieces, but somehow it’s unfair that he can’t use comments on my site to respond to mine? What kind of sense is that even supposed to make? […]

Is my soapbox bigger than Joe Wilcox’s? Yes it is. But that’s fair, because I built this soapbox myself. […]

Now that DF has achieved a modicum of popularity, however, what I tend to get instead aren’t queries or complaints about the lack of comments, but rather demands that I add them — demands from entitled people who see that I’ve built something very nice that draws much attention, and who believe they have a right to share in it. They don’t.

The righteousness of the last paragraph (notwithstanding the humility implied in “modicum of popularity”) would have been more palatable had it been relevant to the real and substantial issue — which is not whether others have a “right to share in” something very nice that you have built, but rather, whether building a nice soapbox gives you the right to use it to say things about others while effectively denying them an opportunity to defend their view (to the same audience).

Building very nice soap boxes is one painstaking activity. Let us say, building great software is another. There is a difference though, when it comes to their effect on the opinions of people. It is perhaps in appreciation of this difference that the law and the guidelines used by print journals impose certain responsibilities and limits on writers and what can and should be written, especially when it pertains to others. Newspapers have sections where readers and others (in particular, those critiqued in their pages) can contribute comments. They also employ a public editor or ombudsman to address such commentary or other grievances. The law provides for libel redress to varying degrees. So on.

Gruber is correct that nothing compels him to surrender space on the nice site he built (and he is quite right that nobody should feel a sense of entitlement to a comments system). I am uncertain though that much can be advanced from this rather narrow notion of fairness as correctness. Not much more is owed someone whose line of argument is to question your manliness, but I am speaking to the general reasoning offered by Gruber in the quoted section above.

Change, even if slicker, does not equal progress
June 3rd, 2010 by ravi

Not to worry, this is not a post about politics, but about design (I am an expert in neither field). You have probably grown tired by now of reading this popular quote attributed to Steve Jobs, but it’s worth repeating:

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

You only need look at the design convulsions of Ford and GM over the last 10 years (in particular the various retro models) to see that most design is either adding more and more lipstick on the pig or worse, adding fluff to a product (or presentation: think colour gradients in text boxes in PowerPoint slides) that makes it less usable.

Take this example from my workplace. Up until a few months ago, we had a water cooler that looked like this:

Picture 1

A fairly straightforward affair, with hot and cold water indicated clearly by colour, and no ambiguity on where the water comes out. This unit was replaced with the slicker one below (let’s call this picture 2):

Picture 2

Any guesses on where the water comes out? That’s a valuable bit of knowledge when you want to use the hot water! Perhaps the water is dispensed from a point below the red and blue markers? Or atop the circular holes on the base filter? If you guessed either of these not only would you be wrong, but you would be wrong in a dangerous way (let’s call this picture 3):

Picture 3

As you can see from the above picture, if you were to position your cup below the red icon or the circular hole on the base filter, the hot water would in fact pour out a bit to the left of your cup (blue arrow(s) added by me), most likely on to your hand. Note that only the coloured icons and the base filter are visible from the top (Picture 2), your view when you are filling water at the cooler.

It is not clear to me if there is some usability testing that is performed at GE before these products are released. But what seems likely is that the function (“how it works”) is a somewhat distinct process, at GE, from the form (“how it looks”).

Download: Fotile 0.9
June 2nd, 2010 by ravi

Fotile is a simple web app for generating a tile puzzle from an image, which can then be solved by swapping pieces. Images can be loaded from a URL, from a local directory (under your Fotile installation root) or from Flickr’s “interesting” page. You can read more about Fotile here.

»  Substance: WordPress  »  Style: Ahren Ahimsa