Results tagged “microsoft”

Clouds for People, or the Consumerization of the Cloud

June 28, 2012

Right now, there's no App Store for Amazon EC2. Today's just-announced Google Compute Engine isn't plugged in to Google Play, the Android Music and app store. Microsoft seems to be moving toward unifying the various Windows and Zune and XBox stores into one great super-store of content, but stuff that lives on the Azure cloud is a world apart.

I don't think that's going to last.

Google Cloud Engine The simple consumer model of one-click buying of app experiences at low prices is, happily, here to stay. But currently, those apps can only be bought for mobile devices (phones and tablets have very mature app stores) and are just starting to become available on desktops through the Mac app store (I had some feelings when that was announced two years ago) and the upcoming Windows 8 store. The television/gaming consoles like XBox, AppleTV, GoogleTV and the rest have pretty robust app stores, too, of course.

There's an entire class of innovation that's being ignored by focusing on just these consumer devices, though. Cloud computing is getting increasingly powerful and rapidly decreasing in price, but right now the only beneficiaries are a narrow class of enterprise and developer technologists. Apps that have the always-connected, high-bandwidth, compute-intensive, storage-hungry traits that make them a perfect fit for today's cloud consumers might make a great experience for a lot of regular individual users. We see that today with the awesome potential of platforms like OnLive, which uses the cloud to bring those expensive elements of computing to much cheaper devices.

So we need a consumer cloud offering. An app store for EC2 or a marketplace for Rackspace. The same one-click stores that offer us easy apps on our own local devices should let us purchase consumer-friendly apps that run on our own individual cloud servers.

EC2 For Poets, And For Other People

Sure, regular folks having their own cloud computing accounts might seem more complicated or esoteric. If you wanted a service that runs on other people's computers, wouldn't you just sign up for a centralized site like Facebook or Gmail or something? Maybe not.

First of all, I'm not suggesting that regular consumers (or even power web users) should be exposed to the super-technical management interfaces that current developers and administrators face when working with cloud infrastructure, whether it's platform-as-a-service or infrastructure-as-a-service.

Instead, newer cloud providers like Digital Ocean or AppFog (or even friendlier versions of offerings from existing providers like Heroku and Rackspace) point the way towards experiences that regular people might actually want to use. In a way, these platforms would be the successors to the mom-and-pop web hosts that used to be used to run all kinds of one-off apps a decade ago before the web hosting market consolidated.

For years, Dave Winer's been talking about "EC2 for Poets", the idea of getting Amazon's web services platform running for regular liberal-arts-leaning folks. I agree with his fundamental premise that only arrogant techies think their platforms are beyond the grasp of normal users.

But I do think many people who would benefit from these kinds of platforms just don't want to invest that kind of time in learning. More importantly, incredible innovations in features and user experience emerge when you moving computing power to the edges of the network.

Through this lens, a huge part of the entire mobile app phenomenon that iPhone really catalyzed is merely an impact of moving so much computing power to the edge of the mobile phone network, instead of trying to provide so many services through archaic centralized infrastructure. Put simply: Move the brains to the edge of the network, and you get great new kinds of apps. We don't know what the Angry Birds or Draw Something of the server-side web app world looks like right now, because right now there's no way for consumers to buy it.

Regular People Having Web Servers?

Now the skeptics reading this will say, "Who in the hell is gonna want their own cloud server to run an app when they could just sign up for a simple centralized service?" First, I am supposing that the sign-up and account creation experience for these services could be made as simple as signing up for Facebook or iTunes or other payment services.

But second, I know there's an entire class of applications that centralized services don't create. Every day, a dozen different people at Google or at Facebook or at Twitter say to each other in a meeting, "Well, that's a great feature, but only one percent of our users would want it, and it's super compute-intensive, so let's just table that for later."

Unless some enterprising and generous engineer devotes their slack time to creating the feature out of sheer enthusiasm, those ideas die. Not because of merit, but because we have no option in between intermittently-connected, low-bandwidth personal devices and centralized megaservices with unified, homogenous feature sets.

No two people's smartphones have the same functions, thanks to app stores. Everyone's web sites have the same features, even despite platforms like Facebook's apps, because those apps have to live within the constraints of what Facebook permits and can support.

So there's a third way. Hopefully a robust and enthusiastic multi-front war between the giant cloud players like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Rackspace, platform efforts like Cloud Foundry and OpenNebula, and enablers like Jumpbox and Bitnami and Cloudstore will yield benefits not just for big companies, but for regular users, too.

There's no reason the experience can't be as seamless and easy to buy an EC2-hosted web app on a Kindle Fire as it is to buy Words with Friends or the Foursquare app. Of course, we're starting to experiment with the first steps towards this ourselves on ThinkUp. We've been trying out a simple cloud setup for ThinkUp that gets people up and running with the app on PHPFog's infrastructure in a few minutes. We make a couple bucks, they provide a great infrastructure, and semi-technical users get an experience that, while not quite as easy as point-and-click in iTunes, starts to hint at how a whole new app ecosystem could work.

Related

Showing some of this evolution, from two years ago, a list of all the app stores. It's a very different perspective on the then-current application platforms, before we'd realized that some of them were app stores in disguise. Of course, some of those platforms still don't know that they're app stores.

The Importance of Public Traffic Data

June 18, 2012

Today a number of folks are talking about the importance of public transit data as Apple tries to shift from Google's historic integration of public transit data in its maps product to a new world where each individual transit provider would create an iOS app that would then be linked to from within its mapping application. (And please do read Clay Johnson's passionate argument about the importance of preserving open transit data.)

In the immediate term, Apple's solution is problematic, because it puts the burden on public transit systems (which are supposed to serve all) to create proprietary apps to serve a certain, privileged part of their ridership. Google's implementation was certainly problematic as well, but closer to the ideal where public (or semi-public) transit providers make their data available in open formats with published specifications, so that all can benefit from them.

There's a red herring argument that Apple's model somehow encourages more competition between information providers; In actuality, open data formats for transit mapping information would provide the most competition and benefit users the most in the long term.

Traf-O-Data

We also lack perspective about how critically important this type of transit and traffic data is to technological entrepreneurship. While the providers of this data can range from completely government-sponsored public providers to completely private entrepreneurs, it's inarguable that innovation around traffic and transit data is one of the most important ways to attract great talent to tech.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen's first collaboration was a startup called Traf-O-Data, which recorded and analyzed traffic at intersections in their hometown using custom-built devices along with some smart software. Jack Dorsey's first successful application was a platform for dispatch routing, designed to optimize the flow of cars by optimizing the flow of information.

It's easy to see these debates as being about esoteric "open data" battles with governments and big corporations. But it matters because the work we do to build our cities directly drives the work we do to build our communities online.

The Decade-Long Campaign to Lock Down Your Computer

May 29, 2012

This month's Wired magazine includes a milestone I'm incredibly excited about: My first published print column! You can read Safe In Its Shell, my exploration of the long history of introducing software lockdown mechanisms to mainstream computer operating systems. I keyed on the Gatekeeper feature in Apple's upcoming version of OS X which locks down which applications can run on your computer, and how it uses a method that was first broadly described by Microsoft as part of its Trustworthy Computing efforts a decade ago.

I'm happy with how the piece came out (I've never worked with an editor before!) but I thought that, before I republish the piece on my own site, I'd share some of the key resources that I found valuable in understanding the ideas which informed by column.Put another way, if that column were a movie, these are the DVD extras.

Microsoft's History With Palladium

Microsoft's "Palladium" effort to begin providing a framework for software security that was controlled by the software behemoth inspired an immense amount of controversy from the moment it was announced. Some key resources:

The blowback to the Palladium announcement in 2002:

Lots of folks took exception to Palladium's announcement. Some highlights from the time:

Apple resources on Gatekeeper

Meanwhile, Apple's rollout of Gatekeeper has been very deliberate, and fairly low-key:

"Advanced features in OS X already help protect you from malware no matter where you download apps. Gatekeeper brings you even more security options — and even more control. For maximum security, you can install and run only apps from the Mac App Store. You can choose to install and run apps from the Mac App Store and apps that have a Developer ID. Or you can install all apps from anywhere, just as you can today. You can even temporarily override your setting by Control-clicking, and install any app at any time. Gatekeeper leaves it all up to you."

"I have a personal flaw in the form of a small conspiracy theorist who lives in my head. He worried that this may have been created as just a temporary stepping stone — like Rosetta for the Intel transition, or Carbon for the OS 9 to OS X transition — and that one day, the Mac App Store-only option might still be enforced.
But I can’t find it in me to disparage this goodwill effort that Apple has undertaken to not turn every third-party developer upside-down with regard to app distribution. To me it’s a great sign that they’re aware and at some level sympathetic to our concerns, while remaining committed to a high-security experience for users."

SmartScreen in Windows 8:

Finally, the new SmartScreen features in the upcoming Windows 8 bring the whole thing full circle:

This first Wired column was a great experiment for me in learning how to write without hyperlinks, but I'm enjoying the process greatly and hope that sharing some of the links behind the piece make it even more interesting.

All The App Stores

October 20, 2010

Apple's App Store for iOS dominates people's perceptions whenever you mention the phrase "App Store". But it's actually just one member of a much larger set of "app stores", most of which don't use that description, but all of which are used to distribute applications to specific audiences.This is particularly important to keep in mind as it's likely that new versions of major operating systems like Mac OS and Windows will incorporate desktop app stores for the first time.

But wait — how could there be many, maybe even dozens, of app stores? Because they often take forms that we don't expect, or piggyback on other platform pieces that weren't originally conceived as an app store. To help make the concept clearer, I've outlined a few of the categories of app store that exist today, and collected some initial data about the size of these different app stores. Keep in mind: Many of these app stores serve more than one category, and those lines will only get blurrier in the future. I've deliberately erred on the side of stretching the definition of "app store" because I think it's very likely that new contenders will rise in areas that weren't previously considered competitive in this space.

  • Mobile: These are the most familiar model of app stores, catalogs of mobile applications for phones and, more recently, tablets. As the most mature type of modern app store, they include really simple and robust payment services, easy ways for developers to submit apps, and widespread use amongst end users who have appropriate devices. iTunes leads the way here, of course, with Android being the other major player.
  • Consoles: Gaming consoles and video set-top boxes have pretty mature app stores as well. Whether it's Xbox Live, Nintendo's virtual console, the coming Google TV and presumable Apple TV stores, or even the mini-applets that show up on Tivos, Rokus, Boxees, and some smart TVs, these are a relatively familiar form of app store for tech consumers as well.
  • Desktop: The most obvious, and most glaringly under-developed category of app store. Interestingly, Microsoft launched a catalog of "Designed for Windows" applications as long as a decade ago when Windows XP came out, but today that's largely farmed out to CNET's Download.com and can't be considered a true app store. Windows 8 is pretty clearly going to integrate something more formal along these lines, and I'd be surprised if Mac OS X doesn't as well, perhaps as soon as in version 10.7. Meanwhile, Steam is extremely successful in being an app store for games on the desktop, and Linux users have long taken for granted a seamless app store experience from their preferred distribution's package manager tools. Some new platforms like Mozilla's open web apps will likely run across the desktop and mobile platforms like tablets.
  • Servers: On the server, it's a strikingly different story than the desktop. While there are certainly popular package managers as on Linux desktops, it's increasingly common that server applications are delivered as complete virtual machines, or appliances. Amazon EC2 AMIs, Google App Engine apps, JumpBox images, and of course VMWare appliances are all extremely popular methods of deployment. The payment infrastructure for these app stores is also robust, not surprising given the significant amounts of money spent on server applications and the attractiveness of enterprises as customers. Some server app store deployments don't follow this appliance model, as in the common CPanel tools on shared web hosts, or Microsoft's excellent, but under-recognized, /web tools.
  • Libraries: This is the geekiest category, mostly the domain of developers. From Pear for PHP or CPAN for Perl, from code distribution systems like Freshmeat or Macports, or even including old standbys like RPM or synaptic, tools that have long been thought of as mere developer infrastructure for installing library dependencies in the open source world seem poised to mature into relatively full-featured app stores, perhaps at the behest of commercial firms interested in introducing a business model and a more polished experience in front of these workhorses of the Internet. It's easy to picture a Sourceforge or Github creating a simple experience for the subset of the projects they host that can actually be used by end-users. One could argue that plugin installations systems such as the WordPress plugin directory are starting to become this sort of app store already.

Who's Winning

So, let's grant that all of these previously-disparate categories of software distribution are becoming simpler for end users, providing a more seamless and integrated experience on all their target platforms, and are introducing more accessible ways to pay for the products they contain. This lets us start to form a picture of the "app store" space as a whole, and a good starting point for creating a strategy to target across all of these app stores is to count the number of apps they claim to contain.

Note: These numbers are rough estimates, and admittedly inaccurate, due to much of the source data being self-reported by the owners of the various app stores. I wanted to post this data here as a starting point for a conversation, so that anyone with more reliable data, or any suggestions for additional app stores to be included, could submit them here in the comments.

That being said, here's a quick overview of what some big app stores list in terms of individuals apps they make available.


Sincere thanks to Morris Laniado on our team at Activate for compiling much of the research in the spreadsheet above, as a great starting point for adding more data to come.

How to run Windows 7 under Mac OS X 10.6 for free

October 21, 2009

Update: Since this post got a lot more readers than I expected, it's become clear to me that the title was unintentionally vague. I thought it's amazing that a technology I still think of as fairly advanced, virtualizing operating systems on the desktop, has become commoditized enough that free, open source tools are very mature. When I said "for free" here, I meant that virtualization is available at no cost, not that Microsoft's giving Windows licenses away for free. Sorry for assuming that was obvious!

Pardon the uncharacteristically nerdy post, but I thought I'd write up a handy way I'd found to run Windows 7 in a seamlessly-integrated virtual machine under Mac OS X 10.6. I started with these basic components:

If you're like a lot of geeks that I know, you have a Mac as your main machine, but often need to drop into Windows to check things like browser compatibility or to use some particular Windows applications. I happen to just really like Windows 7 (it's on par with Mac OS overall for me, with some parts being better, such as the Windows Taskbar being much better than the Mac's Dock, and of course some parts being worse.) Some of these instructions may be obvious, but I hadn't seen a writeup anywhere, so here goes.

Here's what you'll need to do:

  1. Install Windows 7 under Boot Camp, following the normal instructions. All of the Vista drivers for Boot Camp worked fine for me, and the install was actually pretty quick.
  2. Download and install VirtualBox. This is an open source virtualization system that runs on Mac OS, a lot like Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion, but available for free.
  3. The tricky part: You'll need to do a little bit of geeky stuff. First, eject the Windows boot camp disk in Finder. (It's usually called "Untitled".) Then, launch Terminal so you can enter two commands.
    • sudo chmod 777 /dev/disk0s3
    • VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -rawdisk /dev/disk0 -filename win7raw.vmdk -partitions 3
  4. Start up VirtualBox, make a new Windows 7 machine, and browse to win7raw.vmdk in your home directory to choose the virtual hard drive for the machine. Your Windows install should boot up. It'll fuss for a little while as it installs new drivers.
  5. Once that's done, you can optionally install the VirtualBox Guest Additions software to let your Windows install completely integrate with your Mac OS X environment.

While it's not quite as seamless as some of the paid alternatives out there, I've found it was very easy to do (under an hour total, and only 15 minutes or so if you already have Windows installed), works very well, and is speedy enough to use regularly.

As always, your mileage may vary, and comments or corrections or feedback are welcome. I was too lazy to do screenshots of the whole process, but if you want to turn this into a complete gadget blog-worthy writeup, I'll be happy to link to it. If you really liked this how-to, you can buy WIndows 7 from Amazon and I'll make a few bucks.

Wired on Google's Microsoft Moment

July 25, 2009

If you liked my post on Google's Microsoft Moment last week, you may well enjoy Fred Vogelstein's detailed piece in this month's Wired.

I think no small part of the reason so many people enjoyed my post and responded to it was that I deliberately chose an evocative title by referencing Microsoft. Microsoft is shorthand for a whole, complicated set of emotions and responses in the tech and business world, and the brand itself is very effective at communicating a complicated idea very efficiently. Wired's made a few interesting choices in their own headlines:

  • The online story is titled "Why Is Obama's Top Antitrust Cop Gunning for Google?"
  • The print magazine's teaser line on the cover says "Is Google a Monopoly?"
  • The story itself is headlined in the table of contents and on the page as "Keyword: Monopoly".

Now, "monopoly" in a context like this is intimately associated with Microsoft, but "Keyword" actually feels like AOL speak, not something particular to Google. And the Obama reference (as opposed to, say, the DOJ or the administration as a whole or Eric Holder as Attoryney General) seems a little off. But I think it's no accident that the story itself opens with the quote "I think you are going to see a repeat of Microsoft."

Clearly, this perspective on Google's current dominance and cultural shift has reached its moment in the zeitgeist. But aside from the fact that this is an idea (or at least a meme) whose time has come, I think it's interesting to see exactly which way of articulating the idea is most effective in getting people to talk about Google's moment of reckoning.

All Around The Web

July 13, 2009

There have been a lot of great conversations around and about some of my recent posts; Here are some highlights.

My post about Google's Microsoft Moment seems to have really struck a nerve. First amongst the responses, from my perspective, is prominent Googler Matt Cutts' "Why Googlers should read Anil Dash's post. The open-mindedness and willingness to take constructive criticism that Matt shares with a number of his colleagues at Google (I'd also highlight Karen Wickre, who helps lead Google's efforts in blogging and on Twitter) are going to be the factor that decides whether or not Google falls prey to the dangers outlined in that essay. Matt concludes his comments with a simple, and inspiring exhortation:

Googlers, ask yourself how you can help make another one of those moments where you’re proud to work at Google. I think those moments are a great way to keep from becoming just another large company. And if Googlers are open to posts like Anil Dash’s, the web is tell us tons of things it wants us to do, or how to do them better.

Some other notable conversations around these ideas popped up as well:

  • The presciently-named (but independent) Google Operating System blog offers up Google's Changing Corporate Culture.
  • Ex-Googler, current FriendFeeder and all-around good guy Kevin Fox takes issue with some of my points in Google's Apple Moment. Kevin raises the point that a lot of Googlers did: It's okay for Google to have two different operating systems because they serve two different markets. I don't disagree — I did ask in my original essay "If the keyboard works with my fingers instead of my thumbs, I should use Chrome OS and not Android?" and folks at Google have already responded to me privately with, in effect, "Actually, that might not be such a bad way to put it..." My point, though, was not that it doesn't make good technical sense to have these systems. Rather, that sort of roadmap complexity makes it hard for casual outside observers to believe that their needs are being put ahead of the company's platform ambitions. I'll chalk up the lack of clarity there to my own poor editing and the fact that John Gruber highlighted that bit on Daring Fireball, which may have put more focus on what was a relatively minor point.
  • I loved, and totally agree with, Mini-Microsoft's Microsoft Has Turned The Corner. This makes explicit what was part of the subtext of my essay: Even Microsoft doesn't do this kind of shifty crap anymore, if they can help it. And to their credit, Microsoft since Ray Ozzie's ascension has also seemed to regain their ambition and clarity around creating innovative products. I'm not sure if that's correlation or causation, but it's good to see regardless, and this is a post well worth reading in full.
  • One of my favorite bloggers, Mike Masnick of TechDirt, asks Has Google Reached The Perception Tipping Point? The post consists of the single word "Yes." Okay, not really, but it's still thoughtfully argued and especially highlights Google's recent track record in the area of intellectual property and DRM, which is TechDirt's strongest suit.
  • Finally, a couple more mentions in bigger media: BusinessWeek's Rob Hof offers up a critical look at Google's strategy, which is a welcome change from most mainstream press that tend to slavishly puff up any pronouncement of this scale that comes out of the tech industry. Similarly, Alex Pham at the LA Times puts the Chrome OS story in the context of Microsoft's Office 2010 announcement today. Matt Asay has an even more skeptical take over at CNET. And finally I thought MG Siegler's brief post about the back-and-forth between me and Matt Cutts offered up a nice perspective on the perils and potential of this inflection point in Google's evolution.

Here's a two-fer: Chris Anderson's CNN Commentary on Google, Microsoft, and Free. Chris ruminates on whether the tech giants' habit of entering new markets with free products funded by the obscene margin they make in their primary lines of business is going to face legal scrutiny in the future. Recommended if you liked either Google's Microsoft Moment or Free Criticism, Science After Data and Airport Books.

Reason mag's Tim Cavanaugh had an amusing riff that referenced that post of mine from the other day: Resolved: The New York Times Should Be Staffed By Volunteers, Like Meals On Wheels. I thought it was a fun read, at least.

And if you're seeking out even more comment on these topics, Silicon Alley Insider has a pretty fun thread in response to my Free Criticism post, along with a slightly more inane one in response to last month's post about The Future of Facebook Usernames.

Finally, some stuff that's actually related to my day job:

  • Tony Dearing at AnnArbor.com has a really smart take on a conversation we had about what that site is doing to make a real community-focused local news website. I think the current AnnArbor.com team has the best chance at success of any of the dozens of similar efforts I've seen over the past several years.
  • In a similar vein, Ken Edwards has a detailed look at what it's taken to build the new BG Views community at Bowling Green State University. It's always fun to watch a project like that from afar and get to see a new community take off.

Thanks to everyone for great comments on my previous posts, and even more for the inspiring conversations that have happened around these topics. And a specialy thanks to the many of you who've shared links to these pieces on Twitter: @padmasree, @timoreilly were instrumental in kicking off the broader conversation around the recent Google post, and it was really gratifying to see @wilw find a quote in my Free Criticism essay that really seems to have struck a nerve.

Google's Microsoft Moment

July 9, 2009

I'm not sure Google's new Chrome OS announcement is that big a deal, or that the eventual product that gets released will actually have that much impact, but it's a useful milestone in marking Google's evolution towards becoming an older company with a distinctly different culture than they used to have.

This is, for lack of a better term, Google's "Microsoft Moment". This is the point when the difference between their internal conception of the company starts to diverge just a bit too far from the public perception of the company, and even starts to diverge from reality. At this inflection point, the reasons for doing new things at Google start to change.

google-microsoft-chrome-480.jpg

Let me be clear: I don't think Google is "turning evil". Hell, I've caught a lot of flack for the fact that basically I don't think Microsoft was evil. But there are some notable trends going on across Google today that could cause the company to compromise its stated values and that will certainly cause people to think Google is being evil, if not corrected. I'll try to outline a few key cultural indicators from around Google.

Designing for corporate synergy, not for users

Google's recent development work on applications for mobile devices has often been delivered exclusively as applications for their own Android platform instead of as iPhone applications, despite the fact that iPhones are roughly forty times more popular in the marketplace. iPhones are also much more popular outside of the United States than Android, further limiting the actual audience served by these applications. Now, it's obviously good company policy to make sure to support Google's own platforms, and Google does an admirable job of using generic open web technologies where possible to avoid having to choose between platforms at all. But choosing to leave the majority of users in a given market unaddressed because they are on a platform that is not part of your corporate goals is short-sighted and leaves a lingering sense of mistrust.

If you look at Microsoft ten years ago, or even as recently as five years ago, they had a tendency to say "Well, we've got a version that works on Windows Mobile." or "This works on Internet Explorer" and feel that they'd done their job for addressing mobile or the web. Or Windows Media Player would connect to XBox but not to any other systems for sharing media. They were putting their corporate agenda ahead of what the marketplace had chosen as its preferred platforms. But after all these years, Microsoft's internal teams have finally started to develop their web or mobile versions of products to work on competitor's browsers and competitor's mobile platforms, recognizing that they have to go where the users are, instead of favoring only the platforms created by their corporate siblings. Google appears to be headed the other way.

Forgetting what the real world uses, and favoring what's convenient for your own business goals is a quick way to have customers think you don't care, and to indicate to partners or developers that pleasing Google is more important than pleasing customers.

Multiple competing product lines: Chrome OS and Android

This is one of the simplest and most obvious examples, after this week's announcements: Google is now offering not one, but two mobile operating systems. While they undoubtedly share code, I can't help but think back to ten years ago, when Microsoft was vehemently protesting about how much code was shared between the Windows NT/Windows 2000 operating systems and the Windows 95/98/ME operating systems. If I make a screen two inches smaller, should I use Android instead of Chrome OS? If the keyboard works with my fingers instead of my thumbs, I should use Chrome OS and not Android? I know Google is convinced its employees are smarter than everyone else in the world, but this is a product management problem, not a computer science problem.

Changing methods of communication

Within Google, I'm sure the perception is that their public-facing communications are still very "Googley". Now, Google does an excellent job of maintaining and using an enormous number of official corporate blogs in dozens of languages for a rapidly-blossoming number of products and initiatives. But despite my admiration for that effort, and their commendable willingness to forgo the usual boring press releases, the way that the company communicates with the public has fundamentally changed, and not necessarily in a more human direction.

In lieu of blog posts or simple word-of-mouth, as helped popularize the Google search engine itself ten years ago, efforts like Chrome are being accompanied by television ads, complete with all of the production values of primetime TV. Instead of launching a new developer initiative by promoting an SDK on their blog, Google is filling convention centers, Apple-style, with day-long developer presentations and an Oprahesque giveaway of free phones under every seat. Instead of white papers, there are highly-produced comic books being distributed to the press to explain the value of Chrome.

Now, I actually support these types of outreach. Getting outside of the insular tech bubble requires higher production values and clearer messaging. But when Google evokes Apple or Microsoft or Oracle in its style of communicating ideas, and when cell phone ads on TV say "Powered by Google", an average consumer's conception of Google essentially shifts to seeing this company not as "those guys who do the search engine" but instead as another consumer electronics company, like Samsung or Sony, but a little more hip.

This would be okay, except that I doubt Google's internal self-image as an organization has changed to reflect this new reality. "We're not like some giant company with flashy TV ads — we're just a bunch of geeks in Mountain View!" And while that might be true for the vast number of engineers who define the company's internal culture, the external impression of Google being just another tech titan like Microsoft will gain footing, making the audience for Google's messages less tolerant of ambiguity and less forgiving of mistakes.

Only the last generation of companies can be evil, not us!

Though it's almost impossible to picture now, in the era when Microsoft was formed, IBM was synonymous with an almost Orwellian dominance of information technology. It's been a full 40 years since the antitrust actions against IBM, and IBM is seen as a bastion of open-sourceness now, but Microsoft's founding mindset clearly was shaped with the idea that "those old guys from the last generation are evil, and we're the nimble, smart upstarts who are going to humanize this industry". Sound familiar?

Though it's hard to believe, the FTC's first investigations against Microsoft began eighteen years ago. When Microsoft reached its apex in terms of public perception and industry respect, with the launch of Windows 95, the culture inside the company still largely saw themselves as upstarts against old, proprietary behemoths. Though Microsoft's headcount has increased fivefold since then, at the time of Windows 95's launch, they had about 17,000 employees.

Google's headcount just passed roughly 20,000 employees. And most of those staff members are firmly convinced that evil, or at least incompetence, is a trait of the last generation's dominant tech player: Microsoft. The idea that developers or customers might start to bristle at their dominance is met with the (true, yet irrelevant) argument about how open their data and platforms are. Eric Schmidt said yesterday that Chrome OS is so open that Microsoft could make Internet Explorer for it, though of course the effort of porting the browser would be prohibitively complex. By neatly inverting the framing of the conversation ("We didn't bundle a browser with our OS, we bundled an OS with our browser!"), Google's avoided having to confront the parallels between this moment in their corporate culture and Microsoft's similar moment of ascendancy 15 years ago.

Still haven't developed Theory of Mind

And finally, as I outlined two years ago, Google still hasn't developed theory of mind. From my piece then:

This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.

Worse, because most of the dedicated detractors of Google have been either competing companies or nutjobs, it's been hard for Googlers to take criticisms seriously. That makes it easy to have defensiveness or dismissal of criticisms become a default response.

Conclusion

Google has made commendable steps towards communicating with those outside of its sphere of influence in the tech world. But the messages will be incomplete or insufficient as long as Google doesn't truly internalize and accept that its public perception is about to change radically. The era of Google as a trusted, "non-evil" startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over.

Years ago, GMail introduced context-sensitive ads and was unfairly pilloried for being anti-privacy or intrusive. And while there have been a few similar hand-slappings along the way, Google's never faced a widespread backlash against their influence or dominance from average consumers yet. Today, protestations of "but it's open source!" are being used to paper over real concerns about data ownership, and the truth is that open code doesn't necessarily imply that average users are in control.

And ultimately, once a tech company becomes dominant in its space, it's susceptible to a kind of reverse Hanlon's razor: Anything caused by stupidity or carelessness will instead be attributed to malice. Similar to the Law of Fail ("Once a web community has decided to dislike an idea, the conversation will shift from criticizing the idea to become a competition about who can be most scathing in their condemnation."), Google is entering the moment where it has to be over-careful not to offend, and extremely attentive to whether they are treading lightly.

Is Google evil? It doesn't matter. They've reached the point of corporate ambition and changing corporate culture that means they're going to be perceived as if they are. Whether they're able to truly internalize that lesson, accept it, and act accordingly will determine if they're able to extend their dominance in the years to come.

(Illustration courtesy of Federico Fieni.)

Related Reading:

Update: There's been a phenomenal reaction to the ideas discussed here. I rounded up a lot of the responses in a follow-up post. But it's also worth noting that a number of people from both within and without Google have pointed out that in many cases, the release of an Android application has preceded its counterpart iPhone equivalent due to delays in Apple's opaque approval process for applications on that platform, or because the Android applications were only created as hobbyist projects by Googlers in their free time. Similarly, a number of people have pointed out significant differences between Chrome OS and Android, such as the primary development environments (HTML5 and Java, respectively), memory limitations for applications, and the distribution model.

While I've certainly not meant to gloss over any of these clarifications as insignificant, and appreciate the additional information, the key argument I'm advancing here is about the overall impact of changes in Google's culture and perception. Many more examples can (and have) been identified to support that larger trend, and I'm pleased that the larger dialogue has focused on that bigger issue, inspiring some great conversation.

Flags, Windows, Lucky Numbers and Hidden Mickeys

May 21, 2009

Another new version of Windows is nearly upon us, as Microsoft will release Windows 7 later this year. Vista was greeted with probably a few too many jeers, which in the tech industry means Windows 7 will probably be greeted with a few too many cheers as compensation. I've used it for a while, and Windows 7 is fine or even great if you like Windows, and will not be fine if you don't. But I found some interesting points in the initial marketing materials that are starting to become visible across the web.

Windows 3.1 flag logoMicrosoft's gradual design evolution from Windows 3.1-era "What's design?" to XP-era "We're trying our best!" has graduated with Windows 7 into the first visual design touches that are thoughtful, clever, and perhaps even witty. It starts with the logo and promotional graphics for the new version.

There's been a (likely-unplanned) public reveal of the branding around the new release thanks to a site called Windows Lounge. Staying true to Microsoft's uncomfortably awkward corporate culture, the Windows Lounge site is a standalone one-page website that features a YouTube video and some text instructions, all designed to get Microsoft employees to join a Facebook group where they can talk privately about what's planned for the new Windows release. Yes, they're using Google's video service and a private Facebook group to have a conversation that, being aimed at Microsoft employees only, could take place on their own intranet. But I'm not judging that part!

windows-7-green Instead, look at the clever "7" graphic I've included here, which I cropped from one of the Microsoft promo sites. It's clear and simple, like the "7" name itself — no inscrutable "XP", no overly-broad "Vista", just a version number like software used to have in the olden days. Sure, the overdone lens flare gives it a little bit of that I'm-blinded-by-your-brilliance presumptuousness that made squinting my way through the otherwise-delightful new Star Trek movie a little painful. But overall? It's as good a job as any logo Microsoft's done, and it maybe even suggests a > greater-than sign, subtly indicating that this new product represents an actual improvement over whatever version of Windows you're enduring now.

But the moment of delight in truly pleasing designs comes in the reveal, in the sense of discovery that maybe there's something unexpected or unexpectedly familiar in a graphic. It's that moment of FedEx arrows and hidden Mickeys. Which hit me when looking at the familiar Windows flag logo. What if we take this new 7 logo and overlay it on that old standby Windows flag? We get something like this:

windows7-flag-overlay

Hey, that's pretty cool! It's not perfect, probably as the result of some hand-tuning of the 7 logo. But to take a familiar icon like the Windows flag and use an element of it in a new way — that's a step forward for Microsoft's visual design efforts in terms of thoughtfulness and care. It even echoes the simple, understandable branding of the new platform itself, which uses a lucky number to try to get back some of that feeling (now almost completely forgotten) of when people used to be curious and excited about new Windows releases. You can imagine exactly how they'd animate this luminescent logo in an advertisement, without even having to see it done — that kind of evocative immediacy has rarely characterized any past Microsoft design efforts.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the larger corporate culture at Microsoft outside of groups like the Zune team is largely indifferent to design, except where it's actively and aggressively anti-design. Take the official corporate logos page on the company's press site. It features the usual array of Microsoft, Office and Windows logos, along with other smaller products and whatever the hell the Forefront/System Server mesh-typhoon thing is supposed to be. (It's a logo that screams "this product is not for people who like having sex!") But then there's that familiar Windows flag, in large and small versions, laid out however you might want it.

The small version is basically the same as the Windows 7 logo you see above. And the big version, designed for print editors to use in their publications? It looks like this. You can almost hear the folks who were just celebrating their success with the 7 logo sighing and shaking their heads when you click on that link.

re: Vision

March 4, 2009

When launching the new version of Amazon's book device the Kindle, Jeff Bezos offered up the vision that the company has for the device: "Our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds." It's a message that Amazon has been consistently advocating since the device's initial rollout, and meshes nicely with the early Amazon vision of being the world's biggest bookstore.

Others have noted the audacity of the Kindle's vision. That kind of vision obviously evokes Google's early mission statement of striving to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". In truth, Google doesn't talk much about that mission these days, which might explain why a lot of their recent efforts do pretty well with the organizing the world's information part, but can be downright abysmal at making it useful. Virginia Heffernan articulated this quite well in the New York Times recently in regard to Google's image archive of old Life photos:

Google has failed to recognize that it can’t publish content under its imprint without also creating content of some kind: smart, reported captions; new and good-looking slide-show software; interstitial material that connects disparate photos; robust thematic and topical organization. All this stuff is content, and it requires writers, reporters, designers and curators. Instead, the company’s curatorial imperative, as usual, is merely “make it available.”

But at least Google's trying. That does count for something. And articulating that vision in cultural terms, phrased in language that explains the benefit to society, not just to stockholders, is important. Now, I think Google has a gap between their intention and their reality because the organization lacks theory of mind, but perhaps that's a problem that can be fixed.

And hell, I still even have a soft spot for Microsoft's old vision of "a computer on every desk and in every home", not just because in retrospect it seems so modest. It's also because it was a more ambitious vision that, if realized, would mean benefits even for people who never gave a single dollar to Microsoft. (As turned out to be the case.)

And these statements of vision are particularly resonant to me because we seldom hear any sort of similar vision from Apple. When the iTunes store was launched, the vision wasn't to "make every song in the world easily available". Instead, the clear goal was purely commercial, to make people buy music from Apple instead of Walmart.

And the truth is, Amazon, Google and Apple all make billions of dollars — that doesn't happen by accident. They should have clear goals about how to make money as part of their efforts. But since all of these companies also traffic in commerce derived from the artistic and expressive works that shape our culture, it makes sense for us to evaluate their efforts based on how well they articulate a desire to give back to our culture. They should make something meaningful for the world while making their money, at least as a happy byproduct if not as an intentional output. It's a lot easier for me to believe that employees at Amazon are doing something that's meaningful to the world at large than to feel that way about Apple's similar efforts.

I point this out not to be harshly critical of any of these companies; Indeed, I regularly give my time and money to all of them. But we often rush to describe Steve Jobs as a "visionary" for being the best showman in an industry where most people have the stage presence of a bowl of oatmeal.

The truth is, Apple has a chance to redefine what it considers vision while Steve Jobs is on leave. He could return and say that every copy of Garage Band will have the ability to instantly upload a user's songs to iTunes, unleashing an immense market of independent music to the world, and using their enormous market presence to let individuals help create culture, not just consume it. Or Apple could use its leverage with the record labels to impress upon them the importance of getting all of their back catalog of recordings online and available for people to consume — most of the music that's ever been released on any record label isn't available for purchase today, at any price, by anyone.

And just as importantly, we can use this criteria of vision, of responsibility for culture, as a way of analyzing announcements and releases in the technology world. So, last night, Amazon released their Kindle software for Apple's iPhone. Most of the reviews understandably focused on the readability of the text, or how well the synchronization features work. But I'm hoping that at least one or two lines of future reviews will spare a moment to think "is it a good thing for the world if this thing takes off?" My sense is that we're more likely to get positive answers to that question if the teams that are making these products are led by an appropriately ambitious vision.

Bill Gates and the Greatest Tech Hack Ever

June 26, 2008

Bill Gates has pulled off one of the greatest hacks in technology and business history, by turning Microsoft's success into a force for social responsibility. Imagine imposing a tax on every corporation in the developed world, collecting $100 per white-collar worker per year, and then directing one third of the proceeds to curing AIDS and malaria. That, effectively, is what Bill Gates has done.

On a day when everyone will be noting Gates' departure from day-to-day involvement in his work at Microsoft, it's worth noting the work he's done which will likely be seen as his greatest legacy.

Gates biographyThe unofficial goal of Microsoft in its early years was to see a computer on every desk and in every home, presumably running Microsoft software. That sort of vision, put forth in a time when the conventional wisdom dictated that personal computers might disappear entirely, was astounding enough. But by the year 2000, just 25 years after its founding, Microsoft had achieved that improbable goal, at least in the developed world.

The story of the Gates Foundation is well-covered, but it's important to consider the context in which the Foundation was created. What would you do if you defined the most ambitious goal you could imagine, and then achieved it just 25 years later? And what if you had done so while still relatively young, not even fifty years old? That's the position Gates found himself in just a decade ago.

Most people, when faced with the realization of their greatest dreams, will respond at first with elation, and then later settle into melancholy or even depression. It can be overwhelming to think that there's nothing left to do. Instead, Gates upped the ante.

How high did he set his new goals? How about curing AIDS? Or ending the spread of malaria? What about improving life expectancy and quality of life for the poorest people in the world? After achieving a goal that seemed outlandish, it's clear that the only logical next step is to try to achieve a goal that seems nearly impossible. I have to point out that sense of thinking "Okay, we won -- what next?" is extremely unusual.

Plainly, I admire Bill Gates for this. I think there are few people who, instead of resting on their laurels, decide to stake their reputation and fortune on goals that are not only altruistic, but that conventional wisdom dictates may not be achievable in a single lifetime. There are many other ways to measure a man, and I'm not diminishing at all the fact that Microsoft as a corporation has made regrettable, unfortunate, and even illegal decisions during Bill Gates' tenure. But imagine if someone had defined an explicit goal of a "cure AIDS tax" for corporations, and then tried to get that enacted. The fact that, effectively, this has happened is remarkable.

And there are many who still want to think, despite the commitment of incredible resources and formidable talents to support the Gates Foundation's mission, that all of this philanthropic work is an attempt to simply generate good PR. But that simply doesn't follow the facts.

A Family Tradition

The truth is, Bill Gates doesn't just come from a family tradition of philanthropy: It's actually a significant part of the reason he got the single biggest opportunity of his professional career. You can see the family tradition today, with the founding chairman of the Gates Foundation being William Gates Sr., Bill's father. But you have to go back twenty years earlier, to Gates' mother Mary Maxwell Gates, to understand how philanthropic work opened doors for a fledgling Bill Gates and Microsoft.

Mary Maxwell Gates was deeply involved in the work of the United Way for many years before her passing in 1994, most notably as its first female chair. And one of the connections she made through that work back in 1980 was to John Opel, the chairman of IBM who was also a member of the United Way's executive committee.

It's become fairly clear in the years since that at least part of the reason IBM was willing to hire Microsoft to create an operating system for the initial release of the IBM PC was because of the introductions made through that connection. Taking a risk on an unproven small software company was a big leap to take, and it's one that ended up being the greatest turning point in the history of the biggest software company that's ever been created.

It's fitting, then, that that opportunity is honored by having the founder of the company return all of his efforts and the vast majority of his wealth to an even more ambitious new vision for philanthropic work. So, congratulations to Bill Gates on his new job, and I hope this hack is even more successful than all the ones that he's done in the past.

Essential Links

A few recommendations for those who want to understand more about Bill Gates and his legacy:

  • Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews published Gates: How Mirosoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry, back in 1992. I have been a big fan of this book since it came out. It was released before his period of greatest fame after Windows 95 launched, and perhaps as a result is more insightful than later efforts that tried to case Gates' entire life and career merely in the context of post-monopoly Microsoft. (I've shown the original, gloriously awful, cover photo above, but I think the paperback edition has less floppy-disk lunacy.)
  • Fortune has a slideshow covering 30 years of Bill Gates' career, narrated by the man himself.
  • Gates' 2003 rant about the shoddiness of the Windows user experience. Though this has prompted lots of "haw, haw, Windows sucks!" responses from geeks, I though it was interesting to look past the memo as merely a document of a typically dysfunctional large company. What struck me was a founder, nearly 30 years after starting the company, and decades after becoming wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, still obviously had both great passion and an enormous amount of technical knowledge.
  • Those same themes of passion and technical competence are echoed in Joel Spolsky's essay about his first BillG review. Joel revisited this in a less-geeky version of the essay published in Inc. magazine.

Smug Ugly

October 28, 2007

Although I've been accused sometimes of reflexive contrariness, the truth is I'm just pretty consistent in my assessments of technology, with little regard for the perceptions of the companies or people who provide those technologies.

The best case in point I can use to illustrate this is an example of the worst thing about Apple. There is simply nothing less attractive than a person who is both flawed and smug, and apparently one of the few plausible justifications for treating corporations as legal persons is the fact that this holds true for companies as well. And Apple is a smug company.

The new version 10.5 of Mac OS X [1] rather famously features the following display when you're browsing machines that appear to be running Microsoft Windows:

osx-bluescreen.jpg

Now, I'm all for a little sense of humor in the world of technology. But the image here deliberately uses an aged-looking monitor and a crashed computer as the illustration of your other computers. The disdain here isn't for the unfortunate unwashed who have to suffer through Windows because they're so clueless -- it's a snide shot at the other computers you own, or of your family's other machines around the house, or of the computers of the peers you work with. In short, the derision is likely aimed at people who care a hell of a lot more about you and your boundless Mac-enhanced creativity than, say, the OS X team does.

And all that is assuming the image is even accurate. Plenty of Linux and other Unix machines show up as Samba file shares, meaning they'll be presented as unstable blue-screening machines, despite the fact that they're likely more stable than OS X. That's the heart of the issue -- it's not like the Mac is completely stable; It's got its share of crashes just like every other operating system.

Arrogance is ugly. If you claim to care about aesthetics and design, it's in your interest to keep from being completely tacky and lacking in taste.

To be honest, there's really only room for mocking everybody else if you're absolutely flawless. And even then, it's pretty bad taste. I've seen exactly what it looks like firsthand to see people take cheap shots and make snide comments about their nominal competitors, and it invariably makes the complainer look worse than the ostensible target. When the company you're taking a shot at is Microsoft, that's saying a lot.

Perhaps most disturbingly, it's not at all implausible that this little easter egg was, at least implicitly, approved by Steve Jobs himself. It's a whole 'nother post to explain why that level of meddling megalomania is kind of pathological for a multi-billion-dollar global corporation, but let's not digress too much. Suffice to say, the presence of this image means that there's permission to be this passive-aggressive and, well, lame at all levels of Apple's organization.

So, to Apple: Your company's value, as measured by market capitalization, is way up. You're dominating the markets you care about. The quality of your products is generally very good -- my main laptop runs OS X and we've got the requisite geek household pile of various-generation iPods around. Apple's got my money, to the tune of thousands of dollars. But this level of sneering arrogance, at a time when a little humble appreciation of success is well in order, would go a long way. You're succeeding. Act like it.

(Thanks to Joerg for the image.)

[1] Referring to versions of OS X by cat names, when those names appear nowhere in the operating system itself, seems astoundingly user-hostile. I have no idea what the cat name is for the operating system I'm running, and yet when I try to evaluate shareware, the authors are often asking me if I'm a panther or a tiger or something. Hasn't anybody noticed how stupid that is over at Apple?

Blackbird, Rainman, Facebook and the Watery Web

October 9, 2007

I've seen a number of people make reference to Facebook's application platform without knowing a lot of background about some historical examples that might be useful to learn from. So, since I remember a good bit of info about these things, I figured I'd share it for future reference.

In 1995, Microsoft believed that its proprietary development tool, codenamed "Blackbird" would be the dominant platform for creating rich online experiences. While it would eventually evolve into a tool that created reasonably standard HTML, Blackbird's ability to make attractive and pleasing aesthetic experiences for MSN was considered a no-brainer to replace regular HTML for anything that needed to seem polished. It wasn't an unreasonable assumption at a time when most browsers were showing ugly text on a plain grey background with almost no advanced layout or design.

In 1999, AOL believed that its proprietary development tool, called RAINMAN (Remote Automated INformation MANager) would be the dominant platform for creating rich online experiences. While it would eventually be replaced by tools that created reasonably standard HTML, Rainman's ability to make attractive and pleasing aesthetic experiences that integrated seamlessly into the AOL client was an effective replacement for HTML for tens of millions of users who wanted a polished and social first experience on the Net in the late 90s as they first got online. This wasn't an unreasonable constraint to impose on the experience at a time when having a rich interactive experience meant downloading complicated browser plugins for video, or configuring temperamental client software just to read email.

AOL was always secretive about Rainman, and remains so to this day, even though Rainman has been largely retired in favor of standard HTML, which has let AOL open up much of its proprietary content to the public web. But Microsoft really wanted to get the word out about Blackbird. There were even conferences for developers, to promote Blackbird for their applications. Ironically, MSN would reverse direction from Blackbird almost immediately after launch, eventually building much of its original content around a small vector plugin called FutureSplash. One big reason you have Flash in your browser right now is because MSN aggressively distributed millions of copies of the FutureSplash plugin with all of their client software, and eventually, with Windows itself. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Back in late 1995, the venerable Release 1.0 newsletter offered an analysis of Blackbird that's well worth reading in its entirety. Some highlights:

Microsoft's challenge is to make MSN flourish soon, so that it won't be eclipsed by more open systems, making Blackbird irrelevant, or at least obsolescent. ... The question at hand is whether Microsoft's networked-application architecture makes it beyond MSN's walls and becomes more commonly used. The innovations Netscape is introducing, described above, make this a difficult task. This is where the battle between proprietary operating systems and the Internet is being fought.

...

Microsoft wants Blackbird to be an inviting environment for third-party tools. The pace of technological change will help. Connectivity will change all standalone applications, making many obsolete. With Blackbird, Microsoft is attempting to offer traditional Windows applications a viable path to re-create and re-validate themselves in the networked world. ... Blackbird has its own representation format, the Blackbird Markup Language (BML), which is a variant of HTML enhanced to be OLE 2.0-aware.

In 2007, Facebook has released its proprietary development platform, codenamed F8. Blackbird was to provide better presentation, and Rainman promised better social abilities, than open standards of their time made possible. F8 promises a combination of both aesthetic and social capabilities, with the key feature of the platform (presented as an "innovation") being the social APIs for friends lists. F8's ability to create broadly-distributed social applications that integrate seamlessly into the Facebook environment offers an experience that, for now, exceeds what publicly-available social APIs can do. It's not an unreasonable behavior that people are building and using applications on the platform today.

  • Just like Blackbird, Facebook's APIs offer more features than the available open standards do today.
  • Just like Blackbird, Facebook's APIs have inspired conferences and development toolkits and a lot of reactive responses in the industry.
  • Just like Rainman, Facebook APIs offer native integration with social functions like buddy lists.
  • Just like Rainman, the user experience for integrating those applications is far easier than the equivalent behavior on the open web.
  • Just like Rainman, Facebook's APIs support applications that have millions of users, users that the conventional wisdom says could never be displaced.

It's not true to say that Facebook is the new AOL, and it's oversimplification to say that Facebook's API is the new Blackbird, or the new Rainman. But Facebook is part of the web. Think of the web, of the Internet itself, as water. Proprietary platforms based on the web are ice cubes. They can, for a time, suspend themselves above the web at large. But over time, they only ever melt into the water. And maybe they make it better when they do.

Some links:

  • We're opening up the Social Graph. Six Apart, where I work, is committed to helping create, promote, develop for, and popularize the open standards that will be needed for helping grow social platforms from Facebook or anyone else.
  • The O'Reilly Radar Research Report on Facebook's application platform. Interestingly, given the Release 1.0 report I quoted above, that publication has evolved into Release 2.0, which is now an O'Reilly publication.
  • Jason Kottke on "Facebook vs. AOL". He covers much of the fundamentals that I've discussed here, and helped inspire me to offer some more concrete examples of the history of these sorts of efforts.
  • Somehow I'd missed it at the time, but Scott Heiferman had drawn the analogy to Rainman first. I still feel people aren't very familiar with that point in web history.
  • Graphing Social Patterns, the conference on Facebook and its applications that Dave McClure is currently hosting.
  • The circle of web life, another similar historical lesson.

Office Tools of Expression

August 29, 2007

One of my favorite posts that I've ever written was Excel Pile, about people's propensity for using Office tools like Microsoft Excel to track mundane parts of their lives, or even as tools of artistic expression. From that post three years ago:

[A]lmost every one of my friends has, at one point or another, made at least one Excel spreadsheet to document some arcane aspect of their lives. The number of consecutive sunny days, the types and prices of the cups of coffee they drink, or just straightforward charts about their boss's mood. There's no end to the ways one can misuse desktop applications in one's personal life.

Art of Office - Excel Pixelfreak.png

The team behind Microsoft Office for the Mac has built a site called Art of Office around exactly this concept. I had intended, with that original Excel Pile post, to make a site (called Office Pile, actually) which would let people share and collaborate around these kinds of expressive documents, and it's exciting to see that someone has done exactly that. At Microsoft, no less! They describe the site well:

Art of Office is for Mac users pushing the boundaries of what can be done in Mac Office. Explore. Contribute. Reuse. Remix. Add your best work. Take what you like (giving credit where it's due) and make it yours.

Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo created some postcards in MacWord, Phil Torrone made a 361-slide PowerPoint deck of illegal primes, and Pixelfreak made (what else?) pixel art in Excel. I dig it.

Blog readers who liked this post also enjoyed:

David Byrne - EEEI Arrows

End of slide show, click to exit.

Bill Gates, Ambition, Legacy, and Obligation

July 6, 2007

I’ve followed the history of Bill Gates and his career and work since I was a kid. Though he’s not nearly charismatic enough to inspire an army of fawning fanboys, the complexity and eccentricity of a lot of his choices makes his character endlessly fascinating to me. And of course, it is an extra bonus that most people confuse such an interest for uncritical adoration, which ain’t the case.

I’m not a Bill Gates fanboy, I just think he’s more ambitious and more likely to permanently change the world for the better than anybody else in the history of the technology industry.

Part of understanding why is having the proper perspective. I remember Microsoft’s mission from when I was a young kid — a computer on every desk and in every home. That mission, of course, had an implicit suffix of “…running Microsoft software”. About 25 years into that mission, before Bill Gates had even turned fifty years old, Microsoft had achieved that goal. Think about that — you set a goal as ambitious as you can imagine, and before your kids are even in high school, it’s happened. What do you do when you’ve accomplished your biggest goal?

It’s not a problem most of us ever have to deal with. Honestly, most of us that would even take the time to set such a goal would make it so big or so fuzzy it would be impossible to ever achieve. But by being just slightly specific, Microsoft under Bill Gates’ direction achieved a seemingly-extraordinarily ambitious goal.

So, what next? You have to go for an even bigger goal. What’s bigger than computers everywhere? How about curing malaria? And AIDS? That seems big enough. And the true innovation seems to be approaching those problems in an entrepreneurial way, with a big focus on accountability.

And after years of seeing his awkwardness in articulating the benefits of technology, it’s startling to see just how good Gates is at telling this far more important story. You might have seen a link to Bill Gates’ Harvard commencement address and probably thought “eh, I’ll read it later”. Go read it now: it’s the kind of leadership and accountability that’s been sorely missing from those in a position of power in the technology industry. Hell, it’s the kind of message that’s been curiously absent from the lips of nearly all of our leaders.

Just one highlight:

I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person’s life - then multiply that by millions. … Yet this was the most boring panel I’ve ever been on - ever. So boring even I couldn’t bear it.

What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love getting people excited about software - but why can’t we generate even more excitement for saving lives?

You can’t get people excited unless you can help them see and feel the impact. And how you do that - is a complex question.

Still, I’m optimistic. Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new - they can help us make the most of our caring - and that’s why the future can be different from the past.

The defining and ongoing innovations of this age - biotechnology, the computer, the Internet - give us a chance we’ve never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.

I’m sure those who make their decisions based on fashion and popularity contests won’t want to give Gates the benefit of the doubt. But I’m okay with someone uncool doing the right thing on an unimaginably ambitious scale.

Comic Release

May 29, 2007

Ten years ago, then-Microsoft fontographer Vincent Connare launched the Comic Sans Cafe.

During 1994 I noticed that a large number of cartoon/comic style software titles were under development at Microsoft. As Microsoft Creative Writer had a need for FUN fonts, I had an idea to make a lettering script similar to the lettering used by the major comic books.

There was a consistent style used in comics, which was quite unlike the style of lettering you see in newspaper cartoon strips. I also noticed that many people were inappropriately using drafting lettering in comic speech balloons.

Five years later, and half a decade ago, more from Vincent:

I can understand some of the sentiment behind the 'ban comic sans' campaign as often the font is used in an inappropriate way. Comic Sans was designed originally for use only by a comic application. That application and its inspiration was Microsoft Bob. MSBob used Times New Roman in cartoon balloons for the words of cartoon animals and characters...

Having said that, I feel that the use of my image, taken from a photo posted on my personal website, is inappropriate. The way people use the font and its distribution with Microsoft products has nothing to do with me.

The campaign he's referring to, of course, is ban comic sans.

Telling the Backup Story

March 21, 2007

This is one of those "how to market a product effectively" examples that's been kicking around in my brain for a while, I thought I'd share it. About half a decade ago, Microsoft implemented a technology called Volume Shadow Copy, which maintains old versions of your files (or the difference between the current version of a file and its past revisions) so that you can restore past states for a file if it gets corrupted or deleted.

It's a smart, automatic way of doing backup, and takes smart advantage of the fact that disk storage space is so cheap. The user interface for enabling Volume Shadow Copy on a Windows 2003 machine looks something like this:

Microsoft's Time Machine

In the upcoming Leopard version of OS X, Apple has introduced a similar feature. In Apple's case, it's called "Time Machine" instead of "Volume Shadow Copy". And while I strongly recommend that you check out the Apple's own marketing for the feature, you can probably tell the whole story from the screenshot of Apple's implementation of the same feature:

Apple Time Machine

Now, the whole starry-background thing is way over the top, to the point that it's off-putting. But Apple will get credit for innovation for a feature that Microsoft shipped almost half a decade ago. And they'll deserve it.

See Segoe Go

February 7, 2007

Since I've already been described as a Microsoft apologist, despite creating delightful little films to mock their products, I might as well point out something I think was overlooked in the launch of Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007: A great new font!

SegoeIt's Segoe UI, which is bundled with the new versions of Microsoft's flagship OS and productivity suite. And like the Microsoft TrueType core fonts, Segoe could very well present an interesting new option for web developers.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. It'll be a while until the font is in common circulation, and it might never make it onto other platforms like the Mac and Linux. But that's why we have a set of fallback fonts; If you know that some large percentage of your audience might have access to the font, or you're in a controlled environment like an intranet, it's nice to have another good option.

Microsoft's System font information page for Vista has some additional good info on usage and guidelines.

(For what it's worth, I only blog about Microsoft regularly because it seems like there's very little discussion that isn't either shameless fanboyism or pointless bashing. I'll take another font option in my CSS from anybody that can offer it to me.)

Unsolicited Testimonials

January 12, 2007

From Ron Liecty's rumination on developer evangelism on Nokia's site, "Microsoft apologist Anil Dash, in ComputerWorld’s Jan 9th article, said Microsoft's openness contrasts with traditionally secretive companies such as Apple Computer Inc. or Google Inc."

Meanwhile, Pierre Igot offers a blunt assessment of my chuckle-headedness:

Someone like Anil Dash should know that all this information is highly valuable, that it is stored on a hard drive, that it is modified daily, even hourly, and that the risk of file corruption or hard disk damage is very real.

I mean, we are all guilty of having lived dangerously for years without proper backups. But I really believe that, today, in 2007, we no longer have any excuses—especially those of us who are comfortable enough with the technology.

Actually, both posts are absolutely right, and I'm taking their words out of context. But you might enjoy reading them anyway.

Microsoft Says, "Steal This UI"

December 20, 2006

Summary: Earlier this year, I said that Office 2007 is the bravest upgrade ever, and the reason was simple: The audacity of introducing a radical new user interface was as surprising as the vast improvements it yielded in productivity. Now, Microsoft has decided to license that user interface to other developers, being surprisingly open in the license terms and potentially improving the user experience for dozens of other applications.

Word 2007 has the wacky ribbon

When I wrote about Office 2007 back in June, the benefits were obvious to me:

They killed the File menu, along with all the other menus. They added a giant, weird circular target up in the corner. They actually use part of the title bar as a menu sometimes. They even changed the default font in all the apps. What's amazing is not just that it works, but that it works so well.

My experience has been the same as most of those who I know that are using the new version: Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best. Excel is a fundamentally different kind of spreadsheet application, focused on presenting information usefully instead of optimizing for the creation of complex formulas.

Anne Chen and Michael Caton wrote an excellent overview of Office 2007 in eWeek, and I don't know if they or their editor created the headline, but it gets to the gist of the story pretty effectively: "Office 2007 Will Rock Corporations' Worlds".

Though the Office UI Licensing page is a little short on details, as always, Jensen Harris articulates the story perfectly on his blog:

[M]ore than a year ago we started talking about how we could share the design work we've done more broadly in a way that also protects the value of Microsoft's investment in this research and development.

Well, I'm pleased to finally be able to definitively answer the question. Today, we're announcing a licensing program for the 2007 Microsoft Office system user interface which allows virtually anyone to obtain a royalty-free license to use the new Office UI in a software product, including the Ribbon, galleries, the Mini Toolbar, and the rest of the user interface.

Office 2007(Side note to Microsoft's communications team: I understand you feel you need to put out the standard boring press release, but why not at least link to Jensen's blog from there, so that people reading about this won't think it's quite so boring?)

The best part is that the guidelines themselves are written in clear English. You can download a sample (1.4mb PDF) of the 120-page guidelines document. The example guidelines are about an esoteric area, resizing the items on the Ribbon toolbars, but are clear, comprehensible, and promise a lot of potential for the other pages in the document.

This is a fantastic trend, mirroring on the desktop what companies like Yahoo have done with licensing their UI libraries for the web. I'm cautiously optimistic that other developers might even follow the guidelines correctly, promising some productivity gains from the new generation of desktop apps.

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