Please, keep it simple

February 24, 2012 | 6 comments

I really feel like Microsoft turned a corner a few years ago, and I’ve been impressed with their decision-making for a while. Windows Phone? Pretty neat, actually. “Authentically digital” interfaces? A thousand times yes. Simplified Windows 8 branding? Completely agree.

Their decision to simplify their application line-up is another smart move. Your Windows Live ID is now just your Microsoft account; Windows Live Mail is just Mail; Zune Music Player is just Music. And so on.

Just as they’re removing all those bevels and shines with their authentically digital Metro interface, they’re removing the gimmicky branding that’s dogged software naming over the last ten years. Names like Windows Live Photo Gallery are confusing, they smack of design-by-committee, and, contrary to the presumed intention, they sap the product of any discernible personality. Just freaking call the thing Photos and concentrate on making it useful.

Kudos to Microsoft on making that decision.

Startups should also learn from this. Don’t try and invent your own vocabulary: your users won’t thank you for unnatural branding that clutters up your interfaces and forces them to think about what your feature actually does. If it’s a photo gallery, call it Photos, or, y’know, Photo Gallery. If it’s a music player, call it Music. And concentrate on making it fantastic.

In other words, differentiate your product by making it the best damn product of its kind. Anything else is disingenuous.

Update: Note that I’m not arguing against brands here! But minimize your brands. Twitter has tweets, because a tweet was a new thing (a 140-character status message). But Instagram has photos rather than Instaclips, Asana has tasks, etc etc. I’m not arguing that Google should have been called “Search” at all – but Google Docs is a reasonable name, rather than Google Pro Suite or something.

Another update: Stephen Downes got in touch with me to let me know there’s a racist meaning for this phrase. As Stephen pointed out to me, according to Wikipedia, the phrase predates the racist version – but nonetheless, I will avoid it in future. Racism is against everything I believe in, and I apologize to anyone who may have been upset by the association. I’ve altered the post title.

The device is the conduit; the cloud is the platform

June 8, 2011 | Leave a comment

The other day, Steve Jobs stood up and announced iCloud, which replaces the PC as the hub in the iOS device ecosystem, demoting it to just another device. You no longer need to have a PC to activate or synchronize an iPhone or an iPad. This is right, and proper, and in some ways long overdue.

Meanwhile, Nintendo announced Wii U, which connects to your TV like virtually every home game console before it, but also has touchscreens embedded in the controllers. You can move a game from the TV to a controller in mid-flow, for example if someone wants to watch TV. It’s not a stretch to think that someone might be able to watch a streamed TV show on a controller while someone plays a game on the television.

A few days earlier, Microsoft previewed Windows 8′s new interface:

“It’s going to run on laptops, it’s going to run on desktops, it’s going to run on PCs with mouse and keyboard,” says Microsoft’s Jensen Harris after demonstrating the Windows 8 interface in the company video below. ”It’s going to run on everything.”

We’re moving towards a very different paradigm for personal computing. In this connected future, more than ever before, the device is a conduit. You can consume the content or applications that you want, when you want, where you want, on the device you want; content, data and applications are all untethered to any particular object.

This doesn’t have to be any less secure, any less powerful or any less customizable than what you’re already doing. Most consumers will get their computing through Apple and Microsoft, as they already do (Google have ChromeOS, but unless there are major, secret features primed for release, it suddenly looks small-scale compared to the alternatives). Linux users will continue to run Linux – on their PC, on their phone and on their personal open source clouds.

Importantly, virtually all of the cloud platforms on the market have some kind of web technology component (you’re going to be able to build Windows 8 apps in HTML and JavaScript, for example); it’s pretty clear where all of this is going.

I’m writing and posting this blog post on a six hour flight. The Internet is increasingly everywhere; by moving to the cloud, we’re allowing for lower up-front device costs backed up by ongoing subscriptions. The platform providers are going to do very well out of this. Whereas in the current paradigm they capture value by locking users into application compatibility bubbles (Windows apps won’t run on Mac OS X, etc), in the cloud-based future, the lock-in comes from who runs the cloud servers. When Bill Gates started out, his vision was of a computer on every desk running Microsoft software; if he was starting out today, his vision might be a connected device in every pocket running on the Microsoft cloud.

Although this is a step forward in my opinion, there are dangers. Think about how “cloud services” as we’ve known them to date (web tools like Facebook) have monetized; they mine user data. As we put more and more sensitive information into the cloud, the challenge will be to maintain ownership over our information, maintain privacy over our activity, and to ensure that no one company gets to control this brave new world.

Microsoft may rule the open web

November 18, 2009 | 3 comments

Yesterday, I posted some commentary on Tim O’Reilly’s take on the web as an application platform, and agreed that Microsoft championing the open web would be a very smart strategy for them.

Previously, I’d talked about the issues with cloud computing at the moment, and how an iPhone App Store approach to web applications would dramatically increase security and ease-of-use, and therefore the whole experience:

What if we could fix all of these things at once? Enterprises, organizations and individuals could have their own, more secure environment that would allow them to use the cloud applications they needed with fewer security risks, while enjoying the ease-of-use and immediacy that the cloud provides.

[…] Imagine if you could get your own server environment that was as easy to use as the iPhone.

Windows Azure is that product, built on their web platform infrastructure. Jorge Escobar took a look:

It picked my interest. A Web Platform Installer? Microsoft doing PHP?

I went to the URL provided and I was blown away with the concept behind this application. Basically Windows has introduced point-and-click cloud computing for the masses and it’s doing it in a way that resembles the iPhone application directory but for web applications.

The app gallery is available to browse today, and includes well known applications like WordPress, Moodle and SugarCRM. They also have a product, the Web Platform Installer, available right now, which allows you to use these apps and easily set up a web environment on your own computer or server. Windows Azure will use the same model, but without the need for your own server: the applications will install seamlessly into the cloud. Personal users get their own cloud application space; enterprise users get to use their own infrastructure for extra security. This is where Microsoft’s going, and it’s very clever indeed.

The war for the Web

November 17, 2009 | Leave a comment

Tim O’Reilly has a great piece up on Radar:

If you’ve followed my thinking about Web 2.0 from the beginning, you know that I believe we are engaged in a long term project to build an internet operating system. (Check out the program for the first O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in 2002 (pdf).) In my talks over the years, I’ve argued that there are two models of operating system, which I have characterized as "One Ring to Rule Them All" and "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," with the latter represented by a routing map of the Internet.

This is exactly it (although for technical accuracy, I prefer the term “application platform” to “operating system”). The “one ring to rule them all” approach is the game being played by companies like Facebook and Google. “Small pieces loosely joined” is the open approach, which seeks to create an Internet application platform that isn’t reliant on any one service provider – much like most of the rest of the Internet works today. (Anyone can run an email server, for example, without having to hook up to a central email provider.) I strongly believe that this second approach is the only one that can ensure a secure future for the web.

The full article is worth a read. Most intriguing, for me, is Tim’s postscript:

P.S. One prediction: Microsoft will emerge as a champion of the open web platform, supporting interoperable web services from many independent players, much as IBM emerged as the leading enterprise backer of Linux.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone related to Microsoft which suggests that this isn’t the case. Nonetheless, it’s a genius strategy, and I hope someone up there in MicrosoftLand is listening. (And hey, Microsoft, if that’s what you’re up to – I want in.)

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