Archive for the 'Web & Technology' Category
There have always been a good number of reasons for using different Google services, aside from the price. GMail gives us many gigabytes of IMAP-accessible email. YouTube: HD streaming video. Maps: a powerful API and a photograph of every pavement in Britain! But one area that Google has always been a bit lacking is in producing attractive UI design. Functional, yes. Pretty, no. But over the past couple of weeks, that has all changed.
Ripping off Facebook?
Obviously it’s been a big month for Google because of Google Plus. This is, without a doubt, a social network with the ability to take down the mighty Facebook. The similarities are so obvious that I don’t know how they can get away with it. Facebook’s best features: wall posts, galleries, etc. are all there and in the same place as on Facebook. One way it distances itself from Facebook is in the privacy settings. You no longer have to share absolutely everything with absolutely everybody. I can finally ‘befriend’ my mother! Adding someone to a ‘family’ circle, for example, means that they won’t necessarily see absolutely everything you post. Of course, in my opinion, no Zuckerberg is also killer feature. I trust the giant faceless Google even more than I do the rather dodgy Facebook figurehead. I think maybe just because at the very least, I can take my data from the service whenever I want. Google+ is a great service on it’s own merits though, and now part of an increasingly well tied together package. There is still a lot of work to be done: For example Google are telling companies and organisations to hold off creating accounts for now and hear is actively disabling non-individual user accounts.
Regardless, the visual feel of the place does not feel half-done and Google have rolled out a simliar new look and feel across all their services. From Calendar to new GMail themes, the new styles are an improvement across the board and help tie everything together.
YouTube gets love too
Another large part of this aesthetically pleasing drive is the somewhat oddly named Cosmic Panda. This is billed as a “new experience” which provides a less cluttered, clearer YouTube experience. It’s the little features that I like most: The simple pointer cursor when you hover over the scrubber – making accurately picking the time to skip to easier. Full-page-width video is shown by default, so there is none of that silly loading a video, clicking once to make it grow to a reasonable size, then a wait for it to re-cache the video at another quality setting. User channel pages (such as this) are also more visually pleasing, although the aspect of the video thumbnails seems like a bit of an odd choice. 266px by 100px? What sort of a ratio is that? It leads to some very odd thumbnails indeed.
I also like the feedback they’re running on this. It allows you to click on each part of the page you have an issue with and leave a note. This works really well. So well that it’d be nice if I could take a system like this and use it with clients (nudge nudge, Google). Choosing to be part of Cosmic Panda will change things globally, so all YouTube video pages you visit (no matter where from) will have the new theme applied. Unlike the other refreshed interfaces that Google has forced upon us recently, this is optional. My recommendation is give it a try, it only takes one click to set everything back to how it was.
All in all, good work Google. They have done the UI design equivalent of the girl in the movies who takes her glasses off and suddenly we all see that she’s not just smart, but pretty as well.
If I understand Google+ correctly, you can follow/befriend/whatever me on the service here.
I work in design agencies, so operate under an unspoken agreement to hate on any effort Microsoft make to take sales away from Apple. A new mouse? I think you’ll find that the Mighty Mouse is the premium device, sir! Windows 7 now has a simplified ‘dock-like’ task bar? Tshk! OS X perfected this years ago!
Now comes Windows Phone 7: a desperate assault on castle iPhone. I thought I’d be happy to join in with pretty much everyone I follow on twitter and slag off the new advertising campaign that has been divised to accompany the new mobiles OS’ release. The most common complaint I heard was that this advert makes potential customers look like, well, douchebags. Maybe, but I think beyond that the advert tries to sell a very good point: We will help you get what you want quicker so that you can return to the real world. This is a great approach and a smart advert. How so?
Okay, this is a bit late (There has already been a Speak the Web: Liverpool event), but here are some brief thoughts from last Thursdays Speak the Web conference in Leeds.
Stuart Smith started with a brief (and quite amusing) history of the mobile web. He made the point that it’s not just iPhone users that we should build mobile websites for and that the typical mobile user was probably using a much less capable Nokia S40-based phone. He’s right of course, but he ignored the fact that iPhone users typically use the web on their mobiles much more than anyone else, but maybe that’s because the web often sucks so badly on the standard Nokia S40/60 browser? Still, he noted that countries like Uganda had quite advanced 4G networks so we, as developers, should be mindful of opportunities in places we otherwise are not mindful of. He also showed a slide of a corn-on-the-cob vibrator. Despite the other guys’ immaculately presented slides, this won the title of classiest slide of the night.
Opera was represented by Chris Mills. His talk had largely the same content as Bruce Lawson’s in Sheffield (so I won’t go into detail again). The HTML5 slides from Sheffield have been uploaded, by the way. He presented it in a similarly energetic way though, so I wasn’t bored hearing it again! I also learned that lots of people in Russia use Opera, but not many people who speak about Opera!
I’ve read a great deal by Andy Clark, on his blog, on Twitter and elsewhere on the web. He often goes under the name Malarkey so I shall refer to him as such. His talk can be summed up, I think, thus: Design for the clients you want and build for the web browser you want. I think this was what he meant by Hard Boiled web design. The concept of progressive enrichment (as opposed to enhancement), I think has its benefits. After all, even the appearance of the pages he showed us on tired old IE looked pretty nice.
I laughed when he showed us the IE6 stylesheet he’s been using for years. So sparse. I understand the need to bully IE users onto a more advanced browser, for the good of the web. I also feel no love for Microsoft. However, this approach just seems vindictive. The bulk of IE6 users are those poor souls working in government agencies and councils, the NHS and others who have no control over what browser they use. To give them such a poor online experience seems unnecessarily cruel. If they chose to use IE6 themselves, I’d say stuff ’em, but no one chooses to use IE6 these days. Of course Malarkey’s talk was a stark contrast to the boys from Cahoona who spoke in Sheffield: “Just give the client what he wants, regardless of whether it’s the best solution” (I’m paraphrasing). I wish them both well, but I think I’d rather work as Malarkey does. If I was in a position to do so of course!
All in all, another awesome conference. I think the audience was a bit more chatty and asked more questions than in Sheffield. Was this because Leeds has a more excitable bunch of design-types? Maybe, but I think it had more to do with how well the speakers got on. They ripped the piss out of each other in such a good-hearted way that I think it relaxed everyone. Malarkey even dropped a Hicks-approved oooOOOOh! bomb. First time I’ve seen it used ‘in anger’. I’d like to note that at both events there were some pretty friendly folk. It was a weird novelty for me that the first two people I said hello to in Leeds both noted that they had read my blog post about Speak the Web: Sheffield! Thanks once again to the guys who arranged all this.
Sheffield had its very own web conference in the form of Speak the Web and I had to go, due to the scarcity of such things in this town. Frustrating considering how many creative agencies there are round here. We’ve had TEDx North, which was great, but what I really wanted was something tailored for hungry designers and developers. It was held at the Showroom Cinema in town and the creators said that they wanted something akin to the atmosphere of a gig. Hence the £20 entrance fee. Although the only gig I’ve been to that cost more than 20 quid was Radiohead. But they didn’t give you a free drink.
Two chaps from Cahoona told us how they set up their agency, so of course there were the usual tales about living off pot noodles and worrying about the cash-flow. Their scotch-egg (sorry, Manchester-egg) heavy presentation was pretty well done and amusing. They had one legendary slide: “Make it shitter”. I think it was a reference to the problem that is often faced due to client-meddling. I guess their success shows that they deal with this meddling well, by caving into the request of the client, no matter how awful. I’m not 100% sure that’s how I’d run a web agency, but I understand their reasoning and hey… I’m probably never going to run a web agency. I dig their work though, especially their company website.
Bruce Lawson was the man from Opera. I’ve tried to use Opera on the Desktop and I always go back to Firefox (or Chrome), but he wasn’t here to pimp Opera. He was here to pimp HTML5, which Opera (especially Opera 10.5) supports pretty well. I’ve read quite a bit about HTML5 (including a lot at html5doctor, where Bruce writes) and the whole thing is quite exciting, but Bruce made it sound more realistic than I had previously imagined it was. My attitude has been that it is ‘for the future’, but now my attitude is that HTML5 is for now. The usual HTML5 video tricks were demonstrated, along with some stuff I didn’t know about, such as a totally different way that one can structure headings (Two H1s on a page? You have blown my mind!). Bruce wasn’t some crazy futurist though and he told us how, for example, we could get SVG-based graphics working in IE using VML. He didn’t go into too much detail (it wasn’t the time or the place for that) but he caused plenty of little sparks to fire in my brain.
Finally it was the turn of Brendan Dawes from magneticNorth. He was a great contrast to Bruce: all about the “Cushions”, the flash, fluff and visual niceties that make a website a website, rather than just a flat image. The best example he showed us of this, I think, was the shopping cart that smiled as you added products to it. A simple effect, but one that I can imagine makes a user happy. We were all children once and to bring that playful aspect into web design has got to have benefits. Although he may have sounded at odds with Bruce, the reality is that due to HTML5, CSS3 and some powerful js libraries, it is now possible for a good developer to make pages that are full of ‘Cushions’ but which are accessible and thus keep Bruce (and disabled people) happy. I hope they talked to each other after the event.
Brendan also pointed out that there weren’t many girls at this event and that it was a bit like a “gay club”. Firstly, a load of dudes in one place doesn’t constitute a gay club. If it did, then the Tory front-benches would be, well… less said about that the better. Secondly, we’re all well aware of the lack of women in technology. It needs sorting, but I think sometimes joking about the lack of women in tech isn’t terribly helpful.
So, in summary: this event was brilliant and all the speakers were interesting. I’m inclined more now to go to one of the local GeekUp events, which I think the people who arranged this conference are also involved with. To use the hosts analogy of a gig: it wasn’t as good as Radiohead, but it was a lot more interesting than that time I saw a side project by one of the guys out of Busted. Shudder.
Augmented reality as a concept has been round for ages now but there is a surge of interest in it every now and again. Most recently I think that smart-phones with reasonable processing power (read: iPhones, Android) have allowed applications to use augmented reality in a way that is actually useful. This video by Keiichi Matsuda paints a vision of the future. A vision that I, as someone who uses Adblock and skips through every single tv ad, personally finds a little nightmarish:
The recently unveiled iPad is a metaphor for how Apple has turned away from those who create, to those who consume. Not only is the focus now on consuming at the expense of creating, but the way in which one consumes is very limiting. Here is why:
Apple have always been different. Despite some solid hardware and software design over the past few years, the biggest advantage Apple has is that it’s not Microsoft Windows. Partially because of this, Apple has been the faux-official computer manufacturer for creative folk. Musicians need an OS that doesn’t get in the way of their creativity. Visual artists knew they could install Photoshop on Windows, but on a Mac it felt like it belonged there. Designers not only loved the way the machines looked, but also the way they handled their creations without fuss (or BSOD). Writers and bloggers loved their (usually) good keyboards and subtle UI. For their efforts, Apple have been rewarded with loyal fans amongst those who create.
For some people the internet is a one way thing. You sit back and it washes over you. Videos of cats falling off chairs, news articles, online radio, pornography… whatever. For many people, however, the web is a two way conversation. Whether it’s through IM, writing blogs, commenting on Reddit or even uploading shot film to Youtube, the web isn’t there to just be stared at. The people who demand this contributory attitude are often the creative folk I mentioned before. An on-screen keyboard isn’t the best way to go about all this. Neither is a 9″ screen, but that’s fair enough. We’re all pretty much in agreement that Apple didn’t make this device for creating monstrous Photoshop artworks or hours long Reason jams. No, they made it for the consumption of already created works. So why, Apple, limit so unnecessarily the ways in which we can consume such works?
The answer of course is control and money. You have to get everything through iTunes which means Apple cash-in, big time. What is puzzling is why creative types so readily favor such a creatively-limiting device. It’s understandable in a way: Apple rescued us all from a Windows hell. But don’t they understand that Apples “everything has to flow through us, it’s for your own sake, citizen” attitude stunts creativity? How can a design community be approving of Apple products when their applications are removed from the store, and their time wasted. Not only is this app-store only, no-multitasking world so bad for innovation, but Apple have the gaul to pretend that they’re doing something new. In yesterdays keynote we were told that all these cheap, 1.6GHz netbooks were too slow to be useful. That’s not true. Again, if you want to to some major Illustrator work then it’s probably not the best choice, but we’ve already decided that these machines are for consumption, which i think many netbooks (be they Linux or Windows7) excel at. I know hardware isn’t the only thing that effects performance, but I’m not entirely sure how the 1GHz iPad processor is going to be that much faster.
As a web developer I have to accept that the Apple app-store approach is bad for the web. When one creates an application for the web, be it using the latest HTML5 techniques or Flash, one can be sure that everyone can use it. As crap as Flash is for online video, it excels in some areas (like casual gaming). But that would mean that Apple loose out to free online alternatives to many (if not most) apps in their store. Apple is creating an elite version of the web, for only those who pay them directly, and because of this the iPhone and the iPad must be seen as poisonous to the internet, just as iTunes is poison to the music industry.
Some other ‘features’ of note include: The design looks like it’s a parody from the Onion. I need someone to explain how if a base model costs £388 and the same model with 16GB more memory costs £122 more, then where the hell do they buy their memory? Did they seriously call it an ‘iPad’? Finally, whatever I say, Hitler always has a much better grip on these things.
ReadItLater transformed the way I waste time online. I’ll rephrase that: it let me be more productive with my unproductively. Let me explain: Unfortunately I live in the real world (with a real job/boss) and this means that if I spot a 1hr long video on BoingBoing (about creative commons banana mash-ups being beaten by the police, or whatever) during my lunch, then I can’t sit there watching it all afternoon. Nor do I want to be mucking about e-mailing home urls to myself. What I really needed was a icon in Firefox I can click, that will save a page for later when I get home… or when I have more time to spend on such frivolities. That little icon was provided by ReadItLater. All it does it synchronize a bunch of ‘I’ll get round to this later’ links which you can save choose to visit later, when you have time. This plug-in has expanded onto the iPhone and a dozen other platforms. You can even view your list online, which I find handy when I have a moment to waste alone with just my S60 Nokia for company.
It’s simple, but very handy and the author has just released version 2.0 which brings some visual refinements that mean it’s all very polished. I love the new icons. Find out more at ReadItLater.
…and for those wanting to cancel their cable/sky packages. Here’s why:
I’ve been a member of the Boxee Alpha test for a while now and it showed a huge amount of potential. Boxee is, at its most simple, a media player that draws content from the net (Division3, iPlayer, Blip.tv etc.) and from your local network (ripped DVDs, your music library, downloaded tv shows). This content is then presented in a wonderful ‘made for big screen’ (read: your tv, not your 15″ laptop monitor) easily navigable interface. A rather gorgeous interface too, I might add. Well, certainly in the Alpha, I’m a little unsettled by the new beta interface but it is well ahead of the rigidness of the AppleTV and the ugly mess of any recent Microsoft efforts. Boxee is based on XBMC, a brilliant Open-source media player with a similar, but not as ambitious, desire to take over your tv. Boxee adds web-content to XBMC’s marvelous local network media management. I’ve been running XBMC on a hand-me-down 1st-gen XBox (thanks Ed!) for a couple of years now and it kicks the ass of Windows Media Centre and the like. It just works. No codec bullshit, no delay, no fiddling.
This alpha potential has been realized in the form of the newly announced beta and the Boxee Box. Although Boxee is quite intuitive to use, it can be a total bugger to setup, as was XBMC before it. Your options are hack your Apple TV or build a Linux machine and dive into a bundle of .debs and Pulse audio problems. Oh, and good luck on 64-bit Ubuntu, it’s a bloody nightmare! The Boxee Box removes all these headaches and essentially makes Boxee suitable for non-geeks. It’s built by DLink, who in my experience seem to churn out reasonable rooters/modems, and we’re promised it’ll cost a quite reasonable $200. This investment will open up a world of couch-accessible online content. There is a growing amount of independent media available online and bringing it from tiny laptop screens and onto that new 37″ monster you have in your living room could be the shot in the arm that many indie shows need.
I was going to blog about how stupid the case design was. “Don’t they understand that people are still going to have audio equipment/a DVD recorder/etc under their TV?”, I prepared myself to rant, “don’t they realize that such a bizarre shape will make it impossible to stack and fit under televisions?”. But as further details have emerged, it seems that the Box is so small that none of this should be a concern and as the remote control is RF then you could even hide it behind your flat-screen if you want.
The closest thing we’ve seen to this has been the Apple TV, which like Boxee could view web content. But being Apple, you were tied into the Apple iTunes marketplace, and thinking. No thanks, Jobs, no DRM crap for me. The Boxee Box’s design, cost and potential have lead to a very desirable little product and it is a testament to the Open-source projects that have gone before it. Put me down for one.
(More details on the Boxee blog)
There were already plenty of reasons to get an Android device. Now there is another reason. A big reason. There has been an official announcement regarding the release of Google Maps Navigation. This provides turn by turn navigation, traffic data and voice commands, basically all the stuff you’d expect of a high-end in-car GPS system. It irradiates the major downside of using Google Maps previously on mobile devices: it caches map data of the route you’re going to take. The big advantages are: It’s free. It utilities Street View, which is potentially very helpful and a service that no one else can realistically provide. Using Google Maps means it knows what ‘Maps knows. That is; everything. Local businesses, attractions and landmarks should all be easier to locate. It also has voice commands, which is something Google has done very well before and likewise, I think their UI is usually on pretty good form.
It’s only going to be available in the US initially, but the same goes for many of these big ‘Map-based projects.
This is one in the eye for Apple and friends, whose app store is currently full of £40+ turn-by-turn navigation apps. It’s bad news for GPS system makers as well, who rely on their proprietary software to shift their hardware. If you are particularly cruel, you can watch the stock of Garmin and Tom Tom fall on Google Finance or head to Engadget for further (typically excitable) coverage and videos.
We probably all have them, maybe in that piece of plastic we wave at the ticket machine as we get on the bus or tube. RFID is becoming more pervasive. This video shows how Berg London managed to let us see the previously invisible fields and what shape they take.
Okay, so I’m a bit cheeky. I went to two TEDx Norths. I went to the one in Sheffield, where I live. Then when I saw they had some interesting speakers, I got some tickets for TEDx Manchester as well. The two were both interesting events and have been summed up better elsewhere on other blogs, so here I will make just a couple of brief points.
I preferred the Sheffield TEDx. Why? Because although the speakers sounded like they’d be less interesting on paper, they were actually more interesting. Manchester gave us talks from people with big credentials. People from all across the BBC: Radio, Childrens, the head of research & development at BBC Future Media & Technology. There were people from the Guardian and from Nokia. These guys all gave interesting talks, but they were so wide in scope. In Sheffield the deal from the speakers was thus: “I’ve made something / am involved in something. Maybe not a lot of people find it that interesting, but I’m really into it and I want to share my passion with you”. In Manchester it was more, “Facebook! Twitter! Web 2.0! Social media! Cliche!” and I got a little lost in all the buzz words. Twitter and Facebook were mentioned so frequently, I think we could have engineered a drinking game out of it. I didn’t learn anything new about either of them, unfortunately. It didn’t help that each speaker had 20mins each, which blatantly wasn’t enough for most of them. Like in Sheffield, we were played old TED talks on video. If I wanted to watch them, I would do in my own time (as I often do) on Miro, or their YouTube channel. This should have been scrapped to give the speakers more time! (Disclaimer; I think Lost is the most self-congratulatory peace of crap JJ Abrahams, nay, anyone has ever done, so his talk was especially lost on me)
For me, the one guy who stood out was Phil Griffin. He talked about Manchester and its architecture. He told us about the tower blocks that are being torn down and the old pubs he knows that are lying dormant. This is obviously something that he cared about deeply (he even showed us pictures of the area where he once got married). This, more focused talk, was simply superb. I have an interest in architecture sure, but I’m a web developer with a much keener interest in the web. But the one man who didn’t mention the web (let alone any web2.0 cliche’s) once during his talk was easily the most fascinating speaker. He also used the large screen to display photography, rather than a dry list of bullet points (“*facebook *twitter *web2.0”).
Maybe in the future TEDx North could, and I don’t believe I’m saying this, be a little less web-orientated next time? Some pictures are available on my flickr stream.
Ever felt the need to watch Hollyoaks whilst shooting 14yr olds on Xbox Live? Me neither. But it didn’t stop this horrific creation that we named Megatron, in tribute to the new series of Peep Show:
Does it look stupid? Yes. Is it pointless? Yes. But no more ridiculous than one of Intel’s latest little projects, the four-screen laptop. Obviously Intel have 1-upped us here, but we were on a much more conservative budget. You win ‘Ridiculous use of screens 09’ this year Intel and to think I didn’t expect you to beat the sheer pointlessness of the Optimus Keyboard. Tshk!
You’ve probably heard of the TED talks. They’ve spread in part due to their excellent internet strategy: a powerful website, a strong presence on YouTube, software like Miro and the like. TEDx is a series of talks operating in the UK under license, I believe. They don’t quite pull in the Bill Gates and Seth Godins’ of the main TED talks but, as I found out last week, they present some pretty interesting folks.
TEDx came to Sheffield so my colleague and I spent the whole day at Electric Works and yes, we had a go on the slide. The range of talks kept things interesting. It started off quite business-orientated and the highlight in the morning was definitely Mike Southon of the Financial Times. He gave an obviously very finely tuned presentation that likened business success to the path the Beatles took. It was pretty ‘fluffy’ stuff, but I’m no business-head so that was probably fortunate. As the day progressed, the talks got a bit more creative-y. Highlights for me were Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino from Tinker it! bigging up the Arduino open-source hardware project and Andy Huntington with his little magic noise boxes (my name for them, not his). I wanted my own.
By the afternoon, the suits had all disappeared and the crowd was a little more geeky (I mean that in a loving way, obviously). That’s understandable, considering the breadth of topics. TEDx Sheffield was a day that did inspire, the only bad thing I thought was that they played us videos of previous international TED talks. I could have stayed at home to watch those, guys. I took some (not especially great) pictures that you can view on my flickr stream.