Monday, May 22, 2006

Email = the cockroach

Antonio's recent post describing his startup Tabblo's premature outing on Valleywag reminded me that email is a survivor:
...if you look at the numbers, by far the biggest photo-sharing service out there is still email. For the most part, people find that what is out there does not add enough value to merit being used instead of just attaching a bunch of pictures to an email and hitting send (and this despite all of the associated mailserver hell).
Email still wins most tech battles.

The millions of dollars corporations have spent on knowledge management systems, specialized collaboration tools, file-sharing systems, groupware solutions, workflow applications and other once-hot tech categories have all too often been wasted. People balk at using separate KM applications. They end up attaching PowerPoints to emails and whipping them around the corporate network. (Then they end up helplessly searching said network for the latest version or a specific slide. So it goes.)

The problem is congenital: Our overreliance on email is a birth defect of the "personal computing" revolution, which somehow completely failed to integrate the social aspects of Doug Engelbart's famous 1968 demo (see my earlier post on this). Although they successfully implemented Doug's overlapping windows and scrolling mice, both Jobs and Gates were completely blind to networking and the social side of computing that Doug demonstrated. Both had to learn those lessons slowly and painfully.

This congenital condition means that group functionality is typically grafted on to the dominant personal productivity tools, awkwardly, rather than being built in. So we end up having to buy and install "groupware" capabilities, or even use tools and interfaces that are completely separate from our everyday tools in order to "harvest knowledge." A few tools try to infer knowledge from our everyday work products, but few of them seem to achieve great value.

It's been 22 years since the Mac's debut in 1984. Why isn't platform-independent screen sharing just baked into all machines yet? Why are wikis, which allow collaborative editing, such an anomaly? And so late? I'll come back to this issue in future posts.

There is one promising trend that could kill off email. Millennials, interestingly enough, see email only as a way to communicate with their parents and teachers. They communicate with one another through IM, cellphones, online games and sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Voicemail? Naaah!

So when us old farts die off, then maybe the next generation will drive a stake through the heart of email. Maybe.

This is a funny issue for me. I love IM. When I first wrote about it for Release 1.0 in January of 1997, I was piqued; by June, I was convinced this was the future of the phone interface (which hasn't happened quite yet) and much more.

But when I hear about kids' IM-centric world, my first response is, "how on earth do they track what they promised to do, or where they said they would meet?" (My second response: "wouldn't life be wonderful without all those messages haunting me?") It turns out many kids look things up in the IM log files, which serve the same purpose as your email archive or chock-full folders.

I wonder: is the log file now an important feature when kids pick IM clients? Probably not. More likely it's just which IM their buddies use.

The other thing I wonder is how kids handle the constant interruptions.

More broadly, I wonder if this IM/cellphone behavior represents a long-term shift toward real-time communications, or instead a reaction to today's rather primitive tools, which will cause our eventual tools to settle somewhere between IM and email, whatever that might look like. After all, in an always-connected world, who needs store-and-forward? It was a kludge to work around cranky, slow networks back in the day.

This may take some time.

Not many "serious" (read: older) software developers are Gen Y yet, so I don't see experiments in the serious software world. And the major IM platforms are mostly private, a bit too much like mobile phone software platforms, so they're not inclined to experiment this way. And they're not quite open enough (Jabber protocols notwithstanding) for Gen Y-ers to mod directly, aside from making spiffy skins, which has to get boring after a while.

Email is the acid test. If some new way of collaborating is to take over, it will do so at the expense of email. And not a moment too soon.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

How'd they manage to make Flickr harder to use?

The Flickr user interface has been overhauled, and I have to say that it's a net negative for me.

The irritating changes are small, but they add up. The first small one is that the "add so-and-so as a contact" link has wandered off to the right. It used to be much more central and obvious. I can get used to that, I guess.

It gets much worse. When I scroll through someone's social network, I can no longer easily tell who is already my friend and who isn't. They used to be distinguished by easy-to-scan bold/not bold usernames.

In the old interface as I moused over a contact, it would pop up a lightweight dialog that said "so-and-so is your friend; change?", and if you clicked once in the dialog, it went to the add screen and asked if they were friend or family. Minimal clicks.

So instead of knowing at a glance, for the entire page, who is already my contact and who isn't, now I have to mouse over each picture, pause while the pull-down arrow appears to the right of the picture -- still with no information! -- click on the arrow, and only then the pull-down menu appears. Because it is plain text, I still have to make sense of the textual menu. No color cues to tell me quickly that this person is already a contact, or whatever. Sheesh!

While doing this, if you mouse over the picture and mistakenly click on the picture instead of that pick-list arrow that appears to its right, you're off the current page and on to that contact's photos. Annoying.

That same pick-list arrow now drives the menu choices on your Flickr home page. It's meant to simplify the interface, I'm sure, but

How'd they go from slick to lame in one "upgrade"?

I didn't notice any new features from the redesign. The changes I've just described make things harder to use, and they're not balanced by anything that's a pleasant surprise.

Here's someone with more technical beefs about the revamp.

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