Twitter is not a newsreader
September 17th, 2010 by ravi

Since the commercialisation of the Internet (say around 1994) there have been many “say what?” moments for us regulars; times when the likes of Wired first made up technology via terminology and then claimed how this technology was the new revolution. Wired has lost a good bit of its sex appeal, but the terminology invention mantle has been assumed by the blogistan. So we have “Web 2.0″, “curation”, “The Internet of Things”, and other recent verbal feats.

Equally puzzling are cases where a newer service (or fad) with function X is claimed to replace an established and targeted solution for problem Y. Take this quote by John Gruber:

Dave Winer: Why does Twitter work better for news than Google Reader? Simple, Twitter gives you what’s new now. You don’t have to hunt around to find the newest stuff. And it doesn’t waste your time by telling you how many unread items you have. Who cares. (It’s like asking how many NYT articles you haven’t read. It would be gargantuan. I don’t bother you with the number of Scripting News posts you haven’t read, so why does Google?)

Ignore the insignificant stuff about unread counts (as Gruber and Winer should have, in my humble opinion). More of interest is the notion that Twitter can replace an RSS reader (such as Google Reader) for reading news. Whence this notion?

On the one hand you have a tool like NetNewsWire (my preference over Google Reader) which lists subscriptions by provider, publication date, title, and author, offers previews of articles, and advanced functions such as filtering, sorting … or posting to Twitter if that be your proclivity.

On the other hand you have Twitter, a short message publication tool to which news providers (among others) post untagged, unsorted content at some arbitrary frequency. The 140 character limit affords barely enough room for a headline, leave alone the short summaries that are common in print articles, also available in RSS (or Atom).

How on earth can the latter (Twitter) supplant the former (RSS feeds accessed through dedicated clients or web apps)? Winer’s answer only adds to the puzzlement: in Twitter, “You don’t have to hunt around to find the newest stuff”. If you are a “breaking news” junkie, I suppose this (ability to serve you the latest bits) is a deal-breaking feature, but it is unclear to me why this is unachievable in an RSS reader. Even Google Reader provides ways to get this done (as also hide what to Winer is an annoyance: the unread count):

Google Reader with a customised style


It’s quite possible that Winer is aware of sorting by freshness and is speaking of some other functionality, but I cannot fathom what that might be.

Daring Fireball Linked List: Dave Winer on Unread Counts

The iPad and the Free world
September 12th, 2010 by ravi

A clever play on Apple’s exaggerated description of the iPad, from a remarkable NYRB article (with an anti-climactic poor ending):

Whether all this adds up to a game-changer able to revive magazine and print journalism will depend, not surprisingly, and as usual, on whether it’s innovative enough to lure consumers and advertisers into paying real money for content. At the moment, most of the news sites are both free and largely ad-free: while neither “revolutionary” nor “game-changing,” this is indeed “magical.”

The Future of Google
September 8th, 2010 by ravi

Google has transitioned from a “growth company to a cash cow” — that’s the conclusion of Michael Copeland and Seth Weintraub, writing for Fortune:

Long-term projections for growth in the search business are more in the 15% to 17% range. Yet analysts estimate that 91% of Google’s revenue still comes from the AdWords and AdSense business model that Google built around Page and Brin’s breakthrough PageRank algorithm. Even more telling, an estimated 99% of its profit does too. This year’s projected earnings growth of 18% is a third of what Google averaged over the past five years. A lot of companies would kill for that growth, but for technology companies, and Google in particular, those numbers don’t impress. Google is rounding a corner that all the fruit smoothies at its Silicon Valley campus make it hard to pull back from. This year Google has joined the ranks of just about every great technology company before it, including IBM, eBay, Cisco, Microsoft, and Oracle. Google, against its will, and defying its massive cash hoard, is transitioning from a growth company to — and there is no kind way to put it — a cash cow.

And, they note, Marissa Mayer isn’t all too worried about Google’s inability to establish itself in the social networking space:

Marissa Mayer, head of search at Google, says the company doesn’t provide financial guidance, but contends that Google doesn’t need a huge second act, a collection of smaller businesses will suffice.

Mayer of course is one of the lead players in the infamous “41 shades of blue” episode that caused designer Doug Bowman to flee Google. I tend to mention that incident a lot because I think it points to one reason (among surely many) why Google fails frequently at engaging it’s user in a long-term relationship (see: Google Buzz).

Google is genuinely oblivious to the effect their user interfaces, spartan and devoid of styling, might have on non-technical users. Not only might an engineering-focused and engineering-driven company fall back to a comforting process where “data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision” (to quote Bowman), but alpha engineers with their hyper-dominant left brains (if you will forgive the pop science indulgence) might see the measure of aesthetics as nothing more than maximal utility. Speaking of utility, more from Fortune:

Critics question whether Google can make the leap. “They are just not that good at it,” says Tom Coates, until recently the head of product at Yahoo’s defunct Brickhouse lab. “Google is very good at building these utility-type products — search, e-mail, and messaging. They are sort of like the power company of the Internet. But what they lack is a sense of how people share and collaborate.”

In the end, Mayer’s nonchalance that search (with advertising) will remain the core and dominant part of Google’s empire might prove pragmatic and even wise. It’s not a business that’s going away and honing it and expanding on it might be a lot smarter than attempting to teach a middle-aged dog new tricks.

To repeat Coates’s thoughts, Google’s engineering strength makes it a perfect utility company. Though the prospect might be as unsexy as Google’s UIs, it might be time to embrace that strength and build on it. Amazon beat them to utility computing and storage with AWS and EC2, but Android demonstrates that Google is willing to consider a future in which their [invisible] engineering prowess underwrites the visible products of others. It’s a good sign.

Download: Ahimsa 3.3
September 6th, 2010 by ravi

The only three things guaranteed in life are death, taxes… and your periodic update to the Ahimsa theme. Fortunately only the first two are injurious to your health, while the surgeon general actively encourages use of the Ahimsa theme by pregnant women and children ages four and above.

So, here it is, Ahimsa 3.3!

What’s new?

  • Bottom bar fading in index page now uses jQuery
  • Show permitted HTML tags when comment box gains focus
  • Edit/Reply for Comments hide/display on hover
  • Added a download box style (use a div with class=downloadbox and within that a link to the download with class=download)
  • New “comment guide” option to display some help text next to comment box
  • Fixed comment date/time display weirdness
  • Added Google “Droid Sans” font as fallback for “Trebuchet MS”
  • Converted all relative font specifications to absolute pt format
  • Lightened blockquote and list backgrounds in default skin
  • Removed first letter styling for post content
  • Changed behaviour of blockquotes and lists not to stretch background under jacent elements
  • Handle lists within blockquotes by not styling them
  • More spacing between posts in the index/home view
  • Fixed the “single pixel offset” problem when sidebar is collapsed
  • Made background colour more consistent during slidebar slide in/out
  • Fixed an issue where post bottom bar background colour did not extend all the way to the bottom
  • CSS cleanup and many, many small fixes
  • Tested on Firefox 3.6.3, Safari 5, Chrome 5.0
Why Apple Ping’s privacy setting is going to bite them
September 2nd, 2010 by ravi

TechCrunch thinks the privacy settings in Apple’s fledgling social networking service, Ping, is brilliant:

I haven’t used Ping enough to tell if it will actually be useful. Given that this is Apple’s first real foray into social, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise. But they’ve won the first battle: simple privacy settings. Facebook could learn a thing or two from this.

I beg to differ. Here is what the Follow preference page on Ping says (image from TC):

Take a closer look into those parentheses… that bit about “including purchases” — that’s the fatal flaw in these settings, in my view. To understand why, read the New York Times article titled “Never Listen to Céline? Radio Meter Begs to Differ“, from which I quote below:

American men have a naughty little secret. Sometimes, they like to relax with a little Céline Dion. Professed classical music fans have one, too: as it turns out, they don’t tune into classical radio nearly as much as they claim.

Do I want even my closest friends to be aware of the fact that I have recently purchased songs by Nelly Furtado and Hall & Oates? You bet I don’t. And no amount of “Liking” Miles Davis and Beethoven is going to make up for the ignominy (and ridicule) that awaits me.

// Link: The iTunes Ping Social Question: Follow, Friend, Or Lurk?

P.S: about that Nelly Furtado thing… my wife made me buy it. I swear! (which is another problem with this Apple scheme). I have no excuse for the Hall & Oates. I confess I like them.

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