In the introduction to his book, Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, wrote that life is about entertainment. He might seem the last person you’d imagine as focused on entertainment, until you realize that Linux started as a hobby.
Entertainment is increasingly the center of our lives, and we also want work that challenges and entertains. With the rise of the Social Web and new forms of communication like Twitter, iPhone, YouTube and others, entertainment is just a click away. In this post we look at today’s Web through the prism of both entertainment and utility.
These days work and entertainment increasingly mix. So we need software that understands what mode we’re in. When we work, we search for information. When we play, we’re browsing and we want to be entertained. The information for work must be precise, whereas that for entertainment can be imprecise and casual.
Help me: Search, Business Tools and Autocomplete
Search is the most important utility on the web and is indispensable in business. Whether you’re a programmer looking for a library, a researcher seeking a scientific paper, or a doctor wanting detail about a drug, search helps you find information.
Today’s search is dominated by Google. Much has been written about Google stagnation and many attempts to improve the search, but the fact remains, people prefer Google. Yet there has to be a better way to search. After each query we must sift through myriad choices. And we start each new search from scratch.
We’re looking for software that will guide us through the pile and help us find the answer.
In business we have a set of tools to help get things done. From Microsoft Office to the skinny gems from 37 Signals, business tools enable us to collaborate, manage projects, sales
pipelines, contacts, etc. While we complain about these tools, the fact is we couldn’t do without them.
The most important factor about business tools is context. The best tools understand what we’re doing. The best tools encode business flows and processes, and guide us through the process.
Back in 2003 at IBM, I encountered a giant flow chart that described the process of releasing a piece of software. My immediate reaction was, this needed to be a piece of software because no human could work through it without making a mistake. This is what software is for, to help us deal with complex processes.
The autocomplete function is common in your search box, iPhone and spell-checker. Autocomplete mode works by listing a set of choices that match what you typed. Imagine in the future most utility software understanding the context of what you’re doing and offering an autocomplete: choices that make sense in this context.
We already see this in many systems. All popular IDEs offer automatic fixes for common programming errors, iPhone understands that you’re looking at a phone number and offers you to make a call. Google understands that you searched for an address and shows you a map. These are examples of autocomplete or shortcuts, based on your context.
Truly helpful software of the future will be a sequence of shortcuts that understand your context and help you navigate to the next step. The computer will present the choices and the decision will be yours.
Entertain me: Twitter, Randomness and Recommendations
While utilities are getting more rigorous, entertainment software is getting more casual.
The new entertainment is based on a couple of patterns. First is brevity. With increasing (and nowadays unbearable) amount of information and choice, modern entertainment software knows it has your eyes for only a limited time.
Twitter is the proto entertainment riding the exponential curve of popularity. The reason is it’s short. But there’s another aspect to Twitter that’s part of a broader pattern. Twitter is casual.
The Twitter UI is a flattened list of messages intended to be scanned. Unlike its archetype email (link), which is meant to be drilled into and answered, Twitter places no obligation on reading or replying. It’s a feel good, hedonistic experience not meant to last more than a few minutes.
Modern entertainment is more casual and short because with ubiquitous web access, rise of
the social web and work from home, people want to be entertained during the day. Nothing that takes a long time could work, but checking Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook for a few minutes is fine in most people’s minds.
The other face of casuality is randomness. Apple made a brilliant move when it released iPod shuffle; a lot of people don’t care about the order songs play. Netflix cracked it with the Queue a long time ago; many people don’t care what movie to watch tonight as long as they pick it at some point. Digg shines with its top news because people are looking for random bits of information.
We still talk about personalization, and ideally we’d love to get the right recommendations for everything. But in the absence of such a magic algorithm, randomness and Amazon Bestsellers do the trick. We’re entering the age where entertainment is a mode of browsing, where the browsing part is squeezed to 0. We don’t want to spend time choosing entertainment. We want a quick pick, quick duration, quick satisfaction. Unlike business application where we must pay attention, we want entertainment to be relaxed, quick and simple.
Software is increasingly polarized into utilities and entertainment. Utilities help us work and are
becoming more rigorous. We’re looking for helpful software that understands our context and guides
us through the process, whether it is search or a complex business task. Entertainment software is at the opposite spectrum, being casual, brief and random. We’re unwilling to spend hours browsing, but instead seek quick and satisfactory entertainment.
And now, please tell us what business software is the most helpful to you? And what entertainment
software you find the most entertaining?
A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a weekend piece entitled In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop, which focused on the stressful nature of blogging. Using our friend Marc Orchant’s death and Om Malik’s heart attack as examples, Matt Richel built a case for web journalism as the cause of certain health woes because of its non-stop, 24/7 real-time nature. There is no doubt that news blogging is stressful. But it is not just blogging. Real-time anything is stressful. Take TV news, is Anderson Cooper not stressed? Looking broader, what about air traffic controllers or traders on Wall Street? Any human being that has to make decisions in real-time will be under a lot of stress.
The problem is much wider than the blogosphere. My wife, who works as a project manager for a large pharmaceutical company, is also under constant pressure. My dad, who at 60 had to switch jobs and became a mechanical engineer for a small company in Pennsylvania is always stressed too. The problem is not with blogging, the problem is with the real-time, as-fast-as-possible approach to things. In this post, we will explore the nature of real-time and argue that for better or worse, it here to stay.
Why Real-Time is Inevitable
Capitalism is about opportunities. Whenever there is a gap, there is an opportunity to bridge it. The classic newspaper business worked like this. People gathered news throughout the day and then once every 24 hours, committed what they had gathered to paper. That was good enough for a long time, but with the emergence of radio and television, and later of blogs and RSS, once per day seems like a joke. Clearly, we demand news more often than once per day. News bloggers in politics, world news, and particularly technology, recognized that the old way of delivering news had a flaw – it was not real-time. They turned the flaw into an opportunity.
Of course, this is not specific to blogging. During the first days of the war with Iraq we saw reporters embedded with the troops. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But it was also quite entertaining, because it was the news in real-time. The competition between the news channels guarantees the rise of real-time reporting. In the endless quest to out-do their competitors, stations have eventually arrived at real-time TV.
And news was not even the first industry to push for real-time. First, there was Wall Street. When I joined Goldman Sachs almost 15 years ago, there was already talk about the real-time clearance of trades. I confess that I am not sure if we are there yet today, but we must be really close. The competetive pressure on Wall Street, unlike any other, drives everything to be faster and faster. The drive for faster is what keeps the brokers and Wall Street technologists up at night.
With the new iPhone SDK, it’s just a matter of time before we see a wave of new applications. We expect a lot of popular web 2.0 apps to offer an iPhone version. Native Twitter, Facebook and Flickr clients for iPhone will run faster than their in-browser versions and will take advantage of the impressive Apple UI libraries. But there is an entirely new breed of applications also coming to iPhone. These apps simply would not be possible without a device like iPhone.
The major theme of this new wave of apps will be blending of the physical and digital worlds, using iPhone as the bridge. In this post we take a look at what’s coming.
1. Reality Tagging
Tagging reality is not new, but will be much better done with iPhone. Here’s how it will work. You take a picture of a landmark, then comment and add tags. The phone will automatically geo-tag it and send the picture to a photo sharing service on the Web. Now anyone in the world can find your picture by exact geo location, or by its tags. Reality tagging will be like a distributed Google Earth, but for pictures.
2. People Tagging
Even better than tagging landmarks, you will be able to use iPhone to tag people. You can already take a picture and assign it to a contact. It is just a matter of time before these pictures will available to a search engine. Doing it on the phone will be quick and fun. In a couple of years the problem that we described in this post will go away.
3. Reality Recognition
Reality recognition will be fueled by reality tagging and advanced image recognition. Imagine going on a hike and coming across a tree that you have not seen before. You will point iPhone at the tree and instantly a Wikipedia page about it will load. Or imagine that it’s your first time in New York City. You point an iPhone at the Chrysler building (because you think that it is the Empire State Building) and again information about the landmark will be paged to your iPhone.
4. Physical Social Networks
Today’s social networks exist on the internet, but mobile technology is going to bring it to the physical world. You will be able to walk into a restaurant, open up your iPhone and see a list of your friends who have been to the place. You can flip through their comments and ratings, share comments on the menu – all from the palm of your hand. Similarly, standing next to a painting in the Louvre, you will be able to instantly find out what your friends thought of it. Looking at this broadly, as we discussed in this post, advances in mobile computing enable us to overlay the digital on top of our physical world.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 4 so far )