The Single-Serving Internet of the Future

Thinking about the internet – at least the internet since the invention of the web – it strikes me as a long journey from general-purpose to highly specialized uses. The first websites were broad, serving lots of purposes. They were muddled & messy, very amateurish – much like the industry was. We first few web developers did not have a vocabulary to work with – we had to make it. And the early web reflected that. In many ways, more than anything else, this is what the Web 2.0 “revolution” was about – standardizing the vocabulary of the web. This lead to web standards, common conventions. It is no coincidence that around this same time, the publishing industry was rife with books like “Don’t Make Me Think!” (2000) and “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” (1998) – we as industry were maturing. Along with this came specialization. Until the late 1990’s, it felt to me that everyone working on the web could, and did, do a little of everything. While I was already primarily a programmer, it was expected that I would do some design work. Designers were expected to markup and code as well. This is much less the case now – this is specialization comes with industry maturity as we all learned the particular roles and skill-sets that make up a web-team (this is not to say that people do not work more than one role now – lots of people do. But it is less common, and people now will identify more by a particular role (designer, programmer, front-end devloper) than as a generic “web developer”, which was an insanely common title in the 90s).

There was an axiom (that probably still holds true) that in order to make a good web app, you just needed to “look for a unix command-line tool & slap a web-interface on top of it”. Many, many useful web applications grew out of this ideal: Do one thing, and do it well. Sure, there were, and are, sites that do lots of things. But looking around at my fellow web professionals, we all are completely comfortable with using best-of-class tools for each problem – whether or not they interrelate particularly well. Just as we have specialized our skillsets, we are specializing our tools as well – but, all to be done in our browser. Our time-tracking software is different (though it may well talk to) our invoicing software which is different from our project management software. In many ways, the 37 Signals suite of apps embodies this the most. The trend of the “open” web (by this I mean the low-barrier-of-entry of web apps (intuitive, cheap, ubiquitous, interconnected via APIs) has in some ways run counter to the professional development of those of us working in the medium (most programmers can no longer design at a high level and vice versa). But we have gotten, thanks to an increasingly sophisticated & shared vocabulary gotten very good at inter-skill communication, much like websites have gotten very good at sharing data between themselves.

The Mobile Internet is taking specialization a step further, and in a very different direction from the web itself. Due in no small parts to the design constraints of the GUI on current-generation smart phones (Android, iPhone, Palm, Blackberry), most apps tend to do one thing, and one thing well. But here’s where things are different again – while our browser was historically a very-general tool, single-serving apps are replacing the browser. For instance, I use the New York Times app to read American News, The Guardian app to read European News, The Globe & Mail app to read Canadian news. I use the I Can Haz Cheezburger apps for that suite of blogs, etc. I use Now Playing to check theatre times & buy tickets. I use Tweetie to interact with Twitter ,the Facebook app to interact with Facebook, and so on and so forth. Each time I want to perform a different action online, I now use a different app, not just a different URL. And there’s a very good reason for doing this: each app has a highly-specialized UI that is designed to optimize my experience using it. Each app, while drawing from the same general syntactical rules of the Apple iPhone HIG (I expressly say the Apple HIG, because, from the few other smart phone apps that I’ve seen, they are all reading from this same playbook), may have it’s own dialect of interaction rules, but overall,  I know what to expect. But this specialization allows for my experience to be improved more than any web-app (to date) has been able to do. Content producers love this because it creates lock-in. In order for me to switch phones now, not only would I want every single app I commonly use to exist on my new mobile device, but I’d want there to be a better experience with some of them to make it worth my while.

We have reached a curious point in the development of our industry: To build a good mobile App, look at an existing web app and wrap a more-customized, specialized UI around it, and you’ll have a good mobile app. But, while on the surface this sort of looks like a continuation of the old unix-command-line axiom, there is a difference: For the most part, mobile apps tend to exist in silos, unaware of other apps, similarly to how web apps used to exist. There’s also the matter of lock-in. Because these apps are almost always platform-specific, it locks their consumers onto a particular platform. And because the languages used to create for each platform are (and will most likely remain) different, there’s a huge expense in porting an app from one platform to another. And, much like cross-platform development tools for the desktop create experiences that somehow fail to work great on any (see: any Adobe AIR app), the same will happen on mobile platforms (this is a very good argument in favour of Apple’s infamous section 3.3.1 update). I’m not sure what this means for the future, but I have a feeling that with the exception of “utility” apps that will be ubiquitous, we might see shaking out in the mobile environment what happened in the desktop environment. One platform will become thought of as particularly “good” for a certain segment of apps. Blackberrys might be good for “business”, Android for “development”, WebOS for “social”, iPhone for “gaming” – who knows. Right now, the iPhone(/iPod Touch/iPad) app market is so dominant that it shows up in all catgories. But already, friends who are sysadmins or in the support/service side of IT seem to be all buying Android phones (and the number & diversity of IT-related apps for Android is stellar). My colleagues in sales & HR seem to be happy to just upgrade their RIM phones. I really don’t know anyone who’s buying the Palm Pre, to be honest, but hopefully it’ll find a niche soon.

We, as an industry, still seem unsure about when to build an app, when to build a mobile website. I don’t believe the answer is always “build both”. But I’m not sure that as an industry, and more importantly, we as a culture of users of the mobile web (which already has a different flavour from the desktop web) have developed a strong enough syntax to know how to answer that yet. But I do see an continuation of this trend of specialization in skill sets & in what web sites and apps do.

My belief is that Single Serving Web Sites which today exist as mostly joke sites may actually be signs of the future to come: ever-more-specialized web sites & apps. My hope is that this, combined with semantic markup, structured data and smart APIs will actually benefit the user: I may use 200 different beautiful, optimized, specialized apps & websites  in a day, but hopefully they will exchange data in a manner that I control (via things like 1Password (which if you aren’t using – why aren’t you)), but I suspect will be controlled via things like the existing authorizations schemes of Twitter, Flickr, Facebook & Google.

Liam, future popstar!

Yesterday, on our way home from swimming, Liam informed us that when he grows up, he wants to be a singer. Not only that, but h wrote 10 songs at school! We, of course, immediately asked him to sing for us. I managed to record 2 of his songs, now preserved here for all time:

  1. “I Love You Baby”
  2. “You’re not Building a House, You’re just Building a Bench”

So these were recorded on my iPhone, and thus are in m4a format, so I’ve no idea how this will work for various people on various platforms (they’re also pretty quiet for that matter). Nor do I have any embedded players – my apologies. If anyone has a recommendation for a lightweight plug-in, please let me know!

Liam certainly has the tropes down – lots of repetition, lots of “baby!” and “oh yeah!” in there.

Liam Reads me Bedtime Stories

On a lighter note, last night Liam decided that he wanted to read me bedtime stories, rather than the other way around. I, of course, took an iPhone video of him “reading” to me:

Story 1: 10 Halloween Trick or Treaters

Story 2: Curious George at the Chocolate Factory

I had asked for “Curious George and the puppies”, but this is what I got:

He’s going to be so mad at me when he’s a teenager, isn’t he…

Thoughts on the iPad

Like a huge number of people, I was highly anticipating the release of the Apple iPad. After watching the announcement, my initial response was ambivalent. It didn’t hit all the notes I was expecting it to. But a few hours later (and, it should be noted, I still have not seen it in person, only watched videos) I have some additional thoughts on it:

  • Given how much I enjoyed using my iPhone as an eBook reader on my last trip, I can only imagine how awesome it will be to use that screen to read books. That being said, the page-turning animation is horrible, and should go away now.
  • Where is the multimedia magazine-reader app? Can I buy a subscription to National Geographic or Harper’s or the Walrus or anything that’s been formatted & optimized for digital reading yet?
  • The form-factor strikes me as all wrong for watching TVs and movies. As several people have noted, it’s 4:3, when virtually all visual media is in widescreen now. Why not make it skinnier and longer to accommodate that?
  • I really hope I can tether it to the iPhone for internet access. I haven’t seen anything saying I can or can’t. But I can’t afford another data plan – so I certainly hope so.
  • I’m not a big mobile gamer, or mobile video-watcher, outside of travel. And I don’t travel much. The idea of watching movies on a tiny screen, in less-than-optimal resolution, with less-than-optimal sound does NOT sound appealing. Except on an airplane, where this screen kicks-ass over the in-seat screens.
  • The idea of loading up iWork and taking that with me whenever I do a presentation is *really* appealing, and I could legitimately see many small offices buying a communal one for that reason. Plus for note-taking during meetings.
  • Why no over-the-air sync of files/music/etc with my main computer? (I ask this about the iPhone too, but with iWork, it becomes a more serious issue)
  • The lack of forward-facing camera is actually something of a deal-breaker for me – because now, when travelling, I’d still need to take my laptop with me for chatting with Leah & Liam at home. So then it just becomes another device to tote, not a replacement.
  • Overall, this seems like a pretty awesome version 1.0. I’m excited to see what apps people develop over the next year. If, say, there was a Coda for iPad, some sort of remote-desktops app & and something like Lightroom (along with some sortof dongle connector so I could upload photos from my camera to my iPad), I would suddenly become very interested in owning one of these.

Your thoughts?

Snowy england by train

I wrote this yesterday while on the train from Paddington to Cardiff Central. Written on my iPhone, and now, posted from my iPhone. I feel like I’m entering a bold, dangerous new world of mobile-blogging. None the less, here’s my thoughts as I travelled yesterday:

England is impossibly lovley in the snow – the hedge-lined country lanes, the church spires spinkled with white, the near-invisible sheep & cows dotting the hillside as I rush past on the train. Even the nuclear power plant, curiously sandwiched between a cow pasture and what appeared to be and abandoned quarry appeared almost mythical. I could easily imagine Jack Frost and little sprites, or perhaps even Puck dancing along the rim of the towers kicking off little swirls of snow, laughing in the sunshine.

I wish the train were slower and the windows cleaner so I could take photos, but the experimental shots I took resulted in a blurred white smudge covered in brown dust.

Also, so much for the much-ballyhooed weather delays in England due to snow. The train from Cambridge to London arrived early, the circle line ran on schedule and here I am on a train to Cardiff, admittedly not my originally scheduled train as it was cancelled, but we are ahead on schedule, shortly approaching the Severn tunnel.

Vancouver Jazz Festival iPhone App

This year, the Vancouver Jazz festival added a new tool for all its attendees to use: a “Mobile Companion”, for the iphone (free, from the app store [NB: iTunes store link]). This is probably the first (that I’m aware of) of innumerable related apps. I fully expect that every major, and shortly, even minor festivals, will have a similar app. It just makes sense.

When you first open the app, after asking for your location, it’ll update with the current schedule, and present you with a screen like this:

Jazz Fest Mobile Companion main screen
Jazz Fest Mobile Companion main screen

With this, I can quickly find what’s happening right now, what’s happening soon and how far it is from me so I can guess whether I can get there.

If I click on an event, I get another screen with info on the show itself:

The Event Details Screen
The Event Details Screen

This allows me to quickly see who’s playing, the cost, where it is and gives me links to the 2 things I’d want to do next: 1) phone for tickets or 2)find out how to get there (as an aside, the only major improvement I’d like to see is a almost-real-time count of the number of tickets available, even if it was “less than 100 seats left!” or “nearly sold out!”, rather than a specific count.

Of course, because your on an iPhone, the map is even more useful, because with 2 more clicks, you can directions to where you want to go, in the means of transport of your choice:

How to get to the venue
How to get to the venue

This is extremely useful for any multiple venue’d event, such as the jazzfest, the film festival (imagine the unwieldy Vancouver Film Festival Guide, digitized on your phone, along with movie descriptions directions, times, links to purchase tickets, etc.). It would likly prove just as useful for single-venue events like Sasquatch, or Pemberton – live-to-the-second updates of who’s on which stage, maps to bathrooms/vendors, etc.

Give it another couple of iterations, and tying in these apps to things like twitter for real-time interaction will be easy, seamless and make it possible to interact with the larger digital realm. I’d love to see a couple more links on that Jazz Fest details page: This event on Twitter/Facebook/Flickr/YouTube/(whatever) that opens up a search results, in the app that displays relevant results, and perhaps gives an interface to contribute to it as well.

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