Communication Convergence

In the past 12 months, many things have happened. The world has seen an unprecendented global shakedown of financial services, America welcomed in a black president, a well respected and seasoned newspaper filed for bankrupcy, and the catch phrase “chk chk boom!” entered the Australian vocabulary. Just to name a few. And every one of the events of the past 12 months has been recorded, distributed, discussed and discovered on the interwebs.
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A little too simple?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending time in several bookshops, just browsing. One of the stores I visited was Kinokuniya, in George St. It’s a great store (if at times a little over-priced), with a huge range of books. But because the shop is so large, they try and help shoppers with a touch-screen kiosk that searches for your book, and prints out a map of where the book is located (if it’s in stock).

Kinokuniya kiosk

As you can see, it’s a very simple interface. In fact, this is the second screen. The first screen lets you choose what items you want to search on, author name, book title, etc. And the results are very accurate. But this screen in particular, while it may look simple enough, it’s perhaps a little too simple. Why?

Yes, Qwerty layouts might not be as optimised for performance as Dvorak’s, but it’s what we know.

Standard Qwerty Layout
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I put it to you, that when presented with a keyboard-esque layout for entering text, our brains, which are now so used to the standard qwerty layout, have great difficulty swapping to the unrelated visual order of the Kinokuniya interface. Sure, it’s simple, but it’s been overly simplified.

Did I miss something?
Funny enough the thing I missed – which you might have on first glance as well – is the button “PC Keyboard mode”. Sorry, but im not using this kiosk to set my personalised options – there is no ubicomp going on here, I just want to search for a book. So as far as im concerned, my brain is like “this button doesnt even exist”. Especially when im standing on an angle to the screen, AND my focus is on the keyboard, and not in the bottom right corner.

While the time difference between using Qwerty or not wouldn’t be measured even in minutes, it just bugs me they dont use Qwerty by default, AND that I have to choose to use it. I dont want to have to learn another layout. Ive already got to deal with mobile phones, pda, dvd’s, security locks… my brain just wants to enjoy the browsing experience. I want to find a book.

Interestingly, I initially had the same reaction (but for different reasons) to the use of the Qwerty layout on the iPhone.

iPhone qwerty
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

After using Nokia mobile devices for such a long time, with their predictive text and limited 12 button interface, I thought that using the qwerty layout for sms was too complicated, and perhaps it is (I haven’t had a chance to really play with the SMS capabilities of the iPhone – not having one of my own!!), but at least Apple didn’t attempt to come up with a new layout.

The Kinokuniya kiosk may be helpful, but from an interface design point of view, I find it ignores the user and their use-case. It is (for want of a better term) undesigned. And although undesign can be found everywhere and is a legitimate approach to interface design, ignore the user at your own peril!

Read the newspaper online… literally has started showing the entire print version of their daily newspaper online : SMH News Paper Direct.

online paper
Screenshot taken from

Im not sure what I think of this idea yet – mainly I think it’s a waste of time, but there are parts that could be good from an accessibility point of view. Like the ability to hear an audio transcript of a story… but surely screen readers et al can do this for the existing website?

It was also pointed out to me that producing this type of online version is reasonably easy for them to do – in that they would have the paper in roughly this format already… but does easy make it useful? Not sure about that…

EDIT : ive had a little bit more of a play with it.. and there are a few cool things it can do – like translating content to various languages, skipping through content in a “webby” kind of way… but again, surely this is all done with the existing site? I guess the only thing I really like about it is that there are no banner ads!! Anyway…

How do you RSS?

18 months ago, my fiance gave me an iPAQ 6365 PDA. I was over the moon – the first PDA i’d ever owned, it played music, took photos, and to boot had a mobile phone built into it. Even better, it had all these awesome wireless technologies built right into it… I couldn’t even begin to think of all the possibilities my new friend was going to open up for me.

I gave Skype Mobile a go, but the 6365 uses a low consumption CPU, and wasn’t powerful enough to run it. I’m forever dabbling with wireless IM, but there is no way that I could ever write as fluidly or without errors using a stylus as I can with all 10 digits. I’ve written small apps in Flash for PDA consumption – like the TV guide, but in this example finding a reliable XML feed of Australian TV has been at times frustrating and non-reliable. I’d thought that surfing Google Maps on my PDA as I hunt for a place to buy in Sydney would be novel – but it turns out that my Nokia 6280 mobile does that better… albeit at a higher cost. And along side all of these disappointments I’ve maintained my contact list, appointments and personal email via Outlook, even though i’d prefer to move to Thunderbird (thanks Windows CE).

Needless to say, I had almost given up hope for my PDA, and it started to become ill-used… and this just so happened to coincide with my whole-hearted adoption of RSS as a means of news gathering. Firefox began to use Live bookmarks, and poor PDA got left to the side… used as a glorified contact list and events manager (which I might add, my mobile also did).

Well, we all know what happened to RSS – it’s matured, and now I more often than not get my daily dose of any given blog / news source / forum / entertainment channel via this incredibly powerful new way of interacting with the internet. Of course, to traverse this new internet, Live bookmarks are not enough, and so I was introduced to Google Reader. I could have used any number of RSS Aggregators, but I like google interfaces, and I like the integrated sign in of Network Google.

An awesome tool, Google Reader allows me to continually add more and more RSS feeds. It is insatiable! At first, I tried to maintain the pace, every day opening up Google Reader, and – using the unread email paradigm – clearing my inbox. But as more and more of the internet becomes RSS-ified, there are constantly more and more sites I want to add, and every day my unread feeds keep growing and growing and growing. And no matter how much id like to, there just isn’t enough hours in the day to read every new Boing Boing post that appears.

Last year, this reached critical mass. I could no longer even pretend to keep up with my reading, and im sure my list of feeds is modest in comparison to others. So I began to read books again. One book after the other – I almost welcomed with relief the confines of the printed page. I knew where it would end, I knew that given an hour I could get 5 chapters out of the way, and that was great.

Soon though, life demanded I get up to speed with some new technologies, and so I opened up Google Reader once more… ignoring my clusters of 100+, and added another link to the mass. I played around with a Live Bookmark of all my feeds, I guess a limited window of all the bits I like the best, a list of lists. This certainly made life much easier, because now I only cared about what was in the list… I didnt have to open Reader up and know how far behind I was. If I had time, I could read a story (based on it’s headline), no pressure. This was a revolution, but the best was yet to come.

These days, I’ve cracked open my PDA again, but not to develop games, or applications, or attempt to sync it with Thunderbird (though this is something I may do in the near future). Instead, now I use Google Reader Mobile, and read my RSS feeds at leisure, at home, as i’m falling asleep, just like my books. And im really quite pleased with it! At last, a reason to love my PDA again!! And better yet, if I read a tidbit that I like, I follow the “See Original” link, and Google re-translates the original website into a mobile-specific format! Noice!

Now, not all users on the web are happy with this service, and I can see valid reasons why re-translating a site into an alternative structure can blow completely, but for the content that I read, it is soo much better than trying to load up css and images and flash.

This is how I RSS these days, and the reasons why. How about you?


I was gonna rant about a recent ad I saw for the new McDonalds Pasta Zoo happy meals, but just read a good article on smh that sums up my thoughts.

We see things very differently to our children. When you see a trip to McDonalds, they see an unmissable magical adventure.

This may be true… but is it a good thing?

The trouble with keyboards

I’m as accessibility-conscious as the next web geek… well, to be honest sometimes a little more (read professional work), and other times a lot less (read personal work). What I have found, however, is that since I’ve started paying attention, Ive stumbled across several high profile examples where accessibility seems not to have been considered. And I blame, my keyboard.

You see, since I started learning (or at least attempting to learn) how to use VIM, Ive become sooo conscious about using my keyboard to do things (generaly associated with the point and click analogy), that it’s hard NOT to find a situation where I say to myself… “the trouble with this site, is that if I navigate it with my keyboard, it completely sucks!”

Google Reader takes up that challenge, and offers VIM-esque keyboard accessibility, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that (in the short term at least), attempting to get Nike to make their glamorous Flash animations accessible with a keyboard is like shouting at a lawn and saying “mow yourself!”

What the lawn needs, of course, is a lawn mower… and more importantly someone that is willing to push it. But it raises the issue, does the lawn actually need to be mowed? Is this another of those validation for validation’s sake arguments?

Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere inbetween… and there in lies the rub.

UPDATE: Toby has passed on a link to an awesome tutorial on how to be a power user in Google Reader. For those who love their keyboard, this is a must!

A brave new world of OS

Well, this is an idea that has been kicking around for some time, but it was highlighted by a discussion I was having at work today. When will the OS as we know it die, and be replaced by the browser as the OS of choice? Consider all of the applications offered by Google, which are increasingly tackling tasks previously mastered only by the most expensive software known to man.

Certainly, things like OpenOffice offer free alternatives to the standard desktop application, but what i’m talking about is a more fundamental shift, away from the installed app, and toward a decentralised approach to computing.

Imagine the day when you purchase a Linux box that comes with the latest build of Firefox (or its ilk), and instead of all the apps, you just launch the browser, log into your favourite online app service, and away you go.

It’s not so crazy, when you think about it – at least for the average home user. What do we really use at home anyway? Email, photos, basic word docs, spreadsheets, and movie/game playback. Don’t know how it would work with big business, but by using tools like Confluence (which we use at Red Ant), and free web-based blog software like WordPress, the shift to the online documentation of process has begun in earnest.

So my question is, will there be a complete shift away from the standard desktop-based paradigm, and if so how long will it take for it to occur?

Ubicomp, new technologies, and the future

So, ive had a few minor revelations over the past few days – which i’d like to share and get feedback on. Here they are – in no particular order.

1. Small business and ubicomp

As I look out my window, I see a man steering a small boat underneath the Anzac bridge. He’s a coffee man. He travels around Sydney in his aussie-gondola, selling coffee to people on beaches too removed from the rest of the world to have kiosks, boardwalks or pools. It’s a great business. Question is, do you think he has a need for ubiquitous computing?

Well, what could he get out of having better access to the world, from within the comforts of his floating coffee shop? I can think of at least one thing : more customers. Imagine if people on their secluded beach could open up their phones, launch a little web app, placing an order. He’d be able to launch his side of the app, see the list of orders, and plan a route that would best maximise his dollar. He could use something like the Google Maps Java app for mobile phones in conjunction with his own custom orderring system and viola!

Or, if he does decide to go the ubicomp way… perhaps his implementation will be via an SMS service, and the cost of the coffee will be charged to the users mobile account. He’ll forgoe Google Maps Mobile, and instead use a tablet pc to map his route out. People will recieve his current location (based on a GPS signal) and know how long until he arrives at their beach.

Question is… would he really use any of this technology? Just because ubicomp is coming, doesn’t mean that every small business will be on the ever-connected band-wagon. And just because it has the name ubicomp, doesn’t meant that it’s a one size fits all scenario. In actual fact, it’s the complete opposite. And for small business, I can see the future being a fun messy place of technologies as they jump head long in the brave new world.

2. Personal computing and ubicomp

OJ has started an interesting discussion about the state of personal computing – with respect to the family pc. It is an interesting discussion, which goes on to suggest a non-MS default for all standard home pc’s – a great idea.

I love the notion that every new computer will get shipped with an open source operating system – capable of becoming a Windows, or OSX or Linux box – depending on the need of the individual. Hence the “personal” in personal computing. But what interests me even more, is what shape the personal computer will take in 10 years time…

Many people are moving to the now user-friendly install of Ubuntu, and we already know that MS aren’t about to rush out and make another version of Windows after Vista…so this number will just continue to rise. We have just seen in the last few days Adobe hand over much of its proprietry Flash virtual machine to the Mozilla foundation. Google seem to come out with yet another free application every second day, and are pushing the use of their personalised javascript widgets heavily. And many smaller devices – digital playback, network elements, etc – come with Linux as the default standard OS because of it’s light weight, and yet fully flexible, robust, secure and open sourced framework.

This constant push I think will make these curently “geeky” devices more and more common in the household – and perhaps spell the demise of the personal computer… or at least force the reshaping of it, to become something much more ad hoc, and “personalised”.

3. Market pressure

The road to these possible futures will forever be pushed and pulled by market pressure. You only have to look at the current mess surrounding the new LG LCD advertising which had to be pulled and reworded, because it promoted people skipping ads. Then there is the continued ICE TV debate in Australia between it and Channel 9.

In the same way that Sydney streets do not follow a discernable pattern, nor too will the future of interactive technologies. And maybe that’s a good thing – ever lived in a city with nothing but straight streets? It might be easy to get from A to B, but is it any fun?

Original Thought

Ive been thinking a lot lately.

Not about anything in particular – just all kinds of stuff. Truth be told, I was thinking about what I wanted to blog about. And it was while thinking about this that I started to think about original thought.

Obviously i’m not the first person to have an original thought about original thought, but it got me to thinking, and it started a conversation with a co-worker about the amount of rehashed content on the internet. What we talked about was that these days – in the same way major News publishers and TV networks (for the most part) carry the same news, the same story, the same stock footage – our favourite websites, once our favourites because they carried the quirky, the innovative, and the sharp, are themselves becomining homogenised.

It’s not uncommon for each of my 10 favourite RSS feeds from these sites to carry the same content. One links to one, the other links to the link of one… and so on and so forth.

As Jess Jervis says in the episode of Futurama I just happened to watch : “The Internet is about the free exchange and sale of other people’s ideas. We’ve done nothing wrong!”

Which is a very true statement. I mean, that’s the beauty of the internet – that we can all share each others ideas, read them, link to them, create this awesome social network of interconnected thought processes… but I guess what I am lamenting is that even though the internet has reached its’ 100 millionth website, I feel like we are all (by degrees) talking abut the same stuff.

It might be just me, who knows. Maybe I just need to search a little harder, think a little longer… or not worry too much about it. I mean, without the support of people linking to sites, sharing info etc… who would bother putting effort in to creating open source blogs… but then again, without the generic blogs – perhaps the mere effort in making your own custom site would induce more individual thought… but then again, if EVERYONE had to make their own sites, standards might not be embraced, the internet might not be as rich, the open source community not as strong… etc, etc.

So I ponder. And I hope that on the horizon I’ll see the new Boing Boing (eg) and it will NOT just be a list of links from the old Boing Boing.

In the mean time… check this out!