Thursday, December 24, 2009

Web 3.0

No one reads this blog (or at least very few do), so it shouldn't be too presumptuous of me to call Web 3.0.

Web 2.0, of course, famously called by Tim O'Reilly, was about social networking and user-generated content, which turned the one-way, static pull of web pages into a two-way dialog. It snuck up on us, just as Web 3.0 has done.

Web 3.0, in my view, is about emergent functionality. Where Web 1.0 and 2.0 were still about dedicated web clients, Web 3.0 is about web-aware applications and the way web functionality changes when lots of portable devices and new types of sensors become clients.

Let's take the iPhone as an example. Google Maps is a traditional web application, but adding location services makes it possible to show you where you are on that map. Connect location awareness to data bases of restaurants, subway stops, and all the other location-related information you might ever need, and you get emergent search functionality that produces relevant local results.

That's a simple one. Let's take some more subtle ones.

Continuing with Google Maps, a recently added feature uses velocity information provided by Google Maps users who have location services enabled on their phones to show traffic status. When enough data are available from a given location, the map shows how quickly traffic is moving, even in those locations where traditional fixed sensors and cameras are not available.

The Urban Spoon app for the iPhone lets users take photographs of restaurant menus and upload them to the Urban Spoon site. The application then makes those menus available to users of the app.

Google Goggles lets users search on objects that they take photographs of with their mobile devices.

Amazon's Kindle application lets users download and read books on their mobile devices. Reading locations are uploaded back to the server so they can be synchronized across all a users' various devices. That is, when I stop reading a book on my iPhone and start reading the same book on my iPod or my Kindle, I pick up where I left off on the iPhone.

Augmented Reality is the recently-coined term for overlaying location-specific information on a camera view. The application uses location information from GPS, direction information from the compass, and visual information from the camera to overlay labels onto the camera scene showing items of interest.

Google Voice lets a person associate a single phone number to all of that person's phones and manage all phone-related information in one place.

The iPhone itself is a fully capable web client, not needing the support or intervention of a computer to download content, update functionality, etc. Need an inclinometer, or a sound pressure level meter? Download the app you need from Apple's app store directly on the device. Want to listen to a radio station that's across the country? Download the app you need, right on the device. This makes the device capable of becoming almost any information tool that you might need, because it's connected to a service that can instantly provide an almost limitless range of functionality. The same can be said of Amazon's Kindle, or its Kindle app - since you can order and download books directly from and to the device, the entire Kindle library is practically in your pocket.

Web 3.0 moves beyond traditional web clients (browsers running on personal computers) to incorporate any application for which web-awareness can provide emergent functionality. As the number and sophistication of portable devices and their associated sensing capabilities grow, I expect that we'll all be using dedicated, web-aware applications more and general purpose browsers less. Also, the range of emergent functionality that's possible in this world is only now being explored. To me, this is the next big wave of web development, and that's why it merits being called Web 3.0.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Morning-After in America

Although we just had an off-year election here, that's not what I'm referring to. Instead, I've been thinking about the recently revived interest in renewable energy, motivated by last year's high energy prices. While interest has fallen lately along with prices, due to reduced economic activity, there are plenty of reasons to continue pursuing these technologies, including the relationship between energy and national security, climate change, and flattening production.

Ronald Reagan famously declared that it was "morning in America" when he took office. I think he was right, in a way. He was really the morning-after pill that wiped away the renewable energy technologies that were gestating after the 1970s' energy crises. I wonder how much better off we'd be today had those efforts continued uninterrupted.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fox News Viewers: Foot-Soldiers for Elite Special Interests

Fox News and right-wing talk radio position themselves as populists, championing the causes of their viewers, who are conservative, patriotic, and often middle- to low-income. They appeal to the conservative values of their audience, then get that audience to champion causes that primarily benefit wealthy people and special interests. Yet, if you suggested to a Fox News viewer that they were foot-soldiers for special interests and wealthy elite, they would never believe you.

Here's why they are, though. Consider the tax revolt "tea parties" last April, organized, led, then gleefully reported as a spontaneous "grass roots" effort by Fox News. Many of these protests took place in states with positive balances of payments (they receive more funding from the federal government, from the tax revenues of the country at large, than they contribute in tax payments). Should taxes be restrained or cut as the protesters wished, they themselves would likely have borne the brunt of reduced services, subsidies, roads, and other federal benefits. The primary beneficiaries of their efforts would have been the wealthy, who are the primary target of planned tax increases.

Now consider health care. Many people in Fox News's demographic have tenuous health insurance, and I suspect that many others have none at all. They would be the primary beneficiaries of real health reform. Yet wealthy Fox News and talk radio hosts have incited them to disrupt town hall meetings intended to advance the process of reform. They have taken on the mission of defeating reform as if it were a threat to democracy and the American way of life, when in fact it's primarily a threat to insurance companies, doctors, and others who may benefit disproportionately from the current payment structures. In other words, these protesters are working for powerful special interests, and against their own personal interests.

Thomas Frank dives deep into this topic in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas, which I admit that I haven't read. So this isn't an original idea. I do wonder, though, if the specific manipulative relationship that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have with their audience, inciting them to work against their own interests, has been sufficiently explored. And I wonder what it would take to get these people to understand how thoroughly they're being played by people they trust.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blurred Boundaries

According to ABC News Australia, two girls, 10 and 12 years old, got lost in a storm drain and were rescued after they updated their status on their Facebook page instead of using their cell phone to simply call for help. The story quotes Glenn Benham of the Metropolitan Fire Service in Adelaide as saying, "If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000, so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway."

I think there's an interesting point to be made here about interaction design and the mental models of naive users. Consider times when you may have helped a naive user with their computer, and found that they didn't understand such basics as the distinction between the operating system and applications, and between applications and what they do. Email is email, internet is internet. You click on the envelope icon for email and you click on the big blue "e" for internet. More advanced users (whose friends or family have installed Firefox on their machines) may talk about starting Google (since that's the default Firefox home page). Talking to them about their email application or internet client is hopeless because they don't understand the concept. This may have made it difficult to communicate the concepts required to resolve whatever problem they were having.

The point for design is that designers are always the world's leading expert in their product, and they often assume that their users will share their mental models. So their interaction and interface designs often presume some basic understanding of an underlying framework: client/server architecture, application-specific preferences, the need for application updates, file formats, even the basic notion of files and operating system services, all of these may be presumed by the designer and escape the user. The consequence is products that are almost unusable by naive users. Typically, such users will learn a very limited path through the interaction logic to perform a very specific task, and become confused if they deviate from that path.

Two trends are conspiring to make this problem worse in the future, as demonstrated by the two girls lost in the storm drain. Technology is becoming more broadly used by less expert users, and the functional boundaries between applications are becoming more blurred as more and more of them add social networking features. It used to be that calling 911 (or 000 in Australia) was the way you called for help and email was how you kept up with friends. Now, whether you're lost in a storm drain or want to see what your friend is doing, you can call them, email them, Twitter it, update your Facebook page, IM it, blog it, ....

The more functional overlap there is between applications, the more likely it is that naive users will learn, and stick with, one preferred way of accomplishing a task, however inappropriate that may be for the situation at hand. I'm not suggesting that designers should limit application functionality to prevent over-burdening users with choices, but rather that they simply recognize that naive users often don't recognize the basic framework and context of systems and applications that designers take for granted.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Iranian Democracy

So those terrible Iranian Muslims that we don't want to have anything to do with are taking to the streets to protest a stolen election and demand democratic justice. In contrast to us Americans, who sat on our hands after the Supreme Court gave the Presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.... I wonder if those terrible Iranian Muslims might have something to teach us patriotic Americans about Democracy.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

On Balance

Wednesday was tax day in the US, and Fox News took full advantage of the opportunity to stir up the masses with a series of "tea parties" across the country. Conservatives gathered to protest high taxes and government spending.

To which I say, "Amen".

You have to admire the generous, selfless spirit of the protesters. They undoubtedly realize that the red states, the ones in which conservative republicans are prevalent, are net recipients of tax money, while the democratic blue states are net contributors. Recognizing the unfairness of this arrangement, these protesters are willing to sacrifice the benefits of their positive balance of payments. As a resident of a blue state with a negative balance of payments, I welcome their endorsement of reducing tax revenues to their own states. I'm sure that's what they have in mind, aren't you?