Google Voice and Lysenkoism
May 16th, 2010 by ravi

Back at the height of the Soviet Union, the story goes, a biologist named Lysenko won the favour of über-dictator Stalin, in major part due to his notion (not original to him, see: Lamarckism) that acquired traits can be passed on genetically i.e., inherited. This scientifically unsubstantiated but emotionally appealing idea, which served the general philosophy of the Soviet Union and communism well, was declared unquestionable and academies were purged of dissenters, and so on. As most historical stories go, there are all sorts of simplifications and misrepresentations at play with this one, but nonetheless, the moral of the story is worth consideration: don’t let your ideological commitments unduly influence your research and development.

Which brings me to Google Voice, a telephony service that offers many attractive features (such as using a single number to ring at multiple locations), but one crippling weakness. The weakness is not a technical or design one, but an ideological one: Google’s commitment to the web (and web browser) as the primary, and often only, interface to its applications. The result (made worse by Apple’s self-serving rejection of Google Voice app for the iPhone) is that making a telephone call involves (in my usage pattern, YMMV):

  • Switching to the web browser
  • Opening a new tab
  • Clicking on a bookmark or entering the Google Voice URL
  • Possibly logging in, or worse:
    • Reaching a Google FAQ page because I am logged in as a different user
    • Logging out, and re-logging in as the “correct” user
    • Being returned to the FAQ page! (because that’s where I was at)
    • Returning to the Google Voice URL

  • Clicking on Contacts
  • Navigating to the right person, clicking on his or her entry
  • Selecting the right number and clicking on Call

Some of these steps can be eliminated, but I am fairly certain not enough of them can be, to get the workflow down to the simplicity of using Skype instead:

  • Switching to the Skype app
  • Double clicking a contact list entry to call the person (or right clicking and selecting “Call”)

It would take less than a week for one of Google’s highly skilled developers to whip up a native Mac App, a cross-platform AIR application, or a Dashboard widget, that would provide the same simplicity as Skype’s application does. It is not technical ability, but, I suspect, Google’s commitment to replacing the desktop and desktop OS and application environment with the browser and browser based applications that lies behind the lack of such tools.

Which returns us to the Lysenkoism analogy. It is not that Lamarckism is provably wrong and therefore a wrong route to pursue even if dictated by one’s other commitments. Rather, it was not, at the time, [anywhere near] provably right and, for that reason, the wrong basket to put all of one’s eggs in. Recently, in response to a set of tweeted criticisms (of the failings of HTML/CSS for building serious user interfaces) from celebrity developer and blogger Joe Hewitt, Google countered that such criticisms were perhaps applicable two years ago, but not any longer. A few days later, Google added (and advertised with some gusto) a feature to one of their flagship products, Gmail: drag and drop file attachment to a message. A feature that has been available in desktop applications for more than a decade (two decades, arguably).

Once again, the moral: Lamarckism, or web applications (such as Gmail or Google Voice) are not destined to failure. It is quite possible that they (web apps) are destined to succeed, given the many advantages they offer (universal access, zero user software maintenance, so on). However, if one just added drag and drop to one’s mail interface, that future is distant enough to warrant a more pluralist approach. A failure to do so is in effect a punishment of one’s [academic] biology and biotech, in the case of the Soviet Union, or one’s users, in the case of Google.

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