Screen real estate

June 16, 2012 | 2 comments

I’ve found that I work much better if I have two very large monitors – but because I travel a lot, I’m often constrained to my 15″ MacBook Pro screen. I’m not alone:

So here’s a crazy idea. We’re used to carrying around headphones to act as surrogate speakers for when we’re unable to sit in a room with properly-positioned full-sized units. Why not apply the same principle to monitors? It sounds very silly, but we have the technology to make it work.

Products like Google’s Project Glass show that augmented reality glasses are very much within our grasp. As well as creating exciting new interfaces that interact with us in more intimate ways, we could also use this technology to generate the screen real estate we need in virtual space. It’s not big or sexy, but there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t use augmented reality headsets to create, for example, two 30″ monitors in places where carrying physical monitors would be impractical. Sit at your laptop, mobile device or other workstation, put on the glasses, and get to work.

For many of us, this is a more compelling use case than some of the wilder applications that have been bandied around. And it has other benefits, too:

  • Privacy: there’s no need for your actual laptop screen when you’re using augmented reality to generate artificial screens. So nobody can look over your shoulder.
  • Simplicity: the glasses could, potentially, be tethered to the laptop via a cable. There’s no need to have a wireless, augmented reality laptop without the laptop – at least in version one.
  • Practicality: you’re no longer limited by the laws of physics or affordable engineering when designing displays. Minority Report style UIs become a more interesting possibility when you don’t actually have to manufacture the glass. Update: and as Steven Livingston points out, the desktop could extend in an unlimited way, over 360 degrees.
  • Productivity: the glasses immerse the user in their working environment. Remember in The Social Network how the developers were portrayed (inaccurately) as being “plugged in”? Sometimes that’s necessary. Add sound, and you’ve got an instant distraction-free environment.

I realize this is a slightly different kind of post to my usual. All I’m trying to say, really, is: hey, I’d buy a pair.


June 14, 2012 | 18 comments

Amazon has bid for .book and .author. Google has bid for .app and .love. Microsoft has bid for .docs and .live. American Express has bid for .open.

Opening the top-level domain system is a great idea. There are just 22 generic top-level domains right now – .com, .org, .net and so on. (There are 280 country-related TLDs, like .us and .uk.) Because digital real estate has been so limited, the price of valuable words has skyrocketed, and domain name squatting – where a name is registered purely to sell on at a higher price – is rife. If you’ve ever seen a web company with a silly, misspelled name, you’ve seen a company that’s decided not to give squatters any cash. (A company I was once part of paid a squatter over $10,000 for a .com domain, but they can go for much more.) Removing the limitation on TLDs theoretically removes the domain name availability crunch and would take the bottom out of the squatting market. Good.

Unfortunately, ICANN has both decided to allow anyone to apply for any TLD, and simultaneously to limit the market.

Let’s say that Amazon are successful in their bids for .book and .author. They will subsequently get absolute control over who can have a .book or a .author domain. So for example, if I want, it would be completely legitimate for them to only allow me to have it if I’m an Amazon self-published author selling through the Kindle store. Similarly, they could block non-Amazon books from having a .book address. The point isn’t that they will do this – how they’ll act remains to be seen – but that it’s possible. By failing to regulate usage, ICANN have left the door open for companies to have a monopoly on certain thematic addresses on the web.

In turn, it’s a closed, controlled process rather than a market. If Amazon wins .book, it will be because they put up the money, but it will also be because ICANN decided they should have it. There’s no indication that further generic TLDs will be introduced in the future, or that the process will be widened out. If I, as an individual, had put up the $185,000 necessary to bid for .open or .social (two real bids) or .source or .abuse (two TLDs left unbid for), would I have had an equal chance as the corporations? It’s impossible to say. However, nobody will be able to compete with these TLDs, because the process is now closed.

There’s 60 days to comment on the domain names, and then another seven months to raise objections to domain name allocations. I see no issue with company-specific domains like .microsoft or even .apple and .amazon (two more ambiguous names), but why should Amazon get to control books, or Google get to control love? This seems to contradict the spirit with which domains have been allocated in the past. I’d suggest we all make our opinions known.

Here’s what Google+ could have been

April 6, 2012 | 2 comments

Confession: I want to like Google+. I think competition is a great thing, and Google is in a unique position to do something fascinating with social platforms. It’s also significant that a lot of really brilliant people from the decentralized web community – Chris Messina, Will Norris and Stephen Paul Weber, for example – now work at Google. (Not to mention Elgg’s Evan Winslow.) I have nothing but respect for those guys. And, hey, I’ll admit that I’m a little envious that they get to work on it.

In my opinion, search needs to be at the center of social software. It’s how you find new people, resources and shared conversations. As I argued on a panel at SXSW 2011, it’s far more natural to visit someone’s profile by typing “Ben Werdmuller” (for example) into a box than typing “” or “”.

Google has over 66% of the US search market, so it’s in a great place to be where that happens, which is presumably what was on their minds when they decided to build a social platform. They also have traditionally had a problem with the “deep web” – the non-public bits of information that its spiders can’t get to. More and more, that’s because these web resources are subject to user-centric access permissions within web applications. Because the Google search spider isn’t a user, it doesn’t have access to these resources, and they never get listed.

Which is why I’m so surprised that Google+ has remained a monolithic social dashboard, akin to Twitter or Facebook. (In fact, it’s more so than Facebook, which has done a great job at turning itself into a very impressive social platform.) You share stuff using +1 buttons or the interface on the Google+ site itself, and are limited to the small number of data types that Google have provided on their own site. You can post links, photos, videos and text updates.

But Google is great at making platforms. Because of its openness, Google Maps is still the go-to standard for displaying cartographic information on the web. (It’s significant that its creator now works at Facebook.) Google Analytics is just about everywhere. And Google APIs are typically easy to use, fast to integrate and powerful.

So why isn’t Google+ a platform? The Circles functionality is brilliant: nuanced access control made simple. If Google integrated those access controls throughout the whole web, allowing anyone to integrate them into their sites and applications with search and universal sharing across all of them, they would effectively become a social application operating system. It would be a new kind of platform altogether, and would cement their search portal – and thus, their advertising – as the default place to look for connected resources. To keep privately-shared resources secure, social objects could be stored in the Google cloud, presenting themselves to a requesting application only if the authenticated user had access. At Elgg, we wanted to do this with a feed format called the Open Data Definition half a decade ago, but didn’t have the resource to execute to our satisfaction; Google has those resources. Universally shareable social objects with privacy controls, searchable via a unified Google interface, would transform the web.

Maybe this is what Google is warming up to. But right now, and probably for the foreseeable future, Facebook is a more interesting social platform.

You need to be wearing Google goggles to think this is a good idea

April 4, 2012 | 1 comment

Today, Google released this video of Google Glass, an augmented reality project:

Beautiful, right? It’s a virtual assistant that sticks with you wherever you go.

Exciting features debuted in the video include:

  • Automatic geo-tracking of both you and your friends.
  • Seamless photo-taking and live video broadcasting from anywhere you can put your head.
  • A head-up display that occupies some of the visual channel.
  • Everything you see – your visual reality – is augmented through a single company.
  • You are continuously recording information about the people around you as well as yourself.

Okay, I confess: by beautiful, I meant scary. Leaving aside the implications of having our ambient information spoon-fed to us rather than discerned through inference and discovery, this project opens an ethical can of worms, and asks important questions about Silicon Valley’s attitude towards other peoples’ privacy.

Indeed, traditionally, this isn’t a can of worms that Silicon Valley has been very good at dealing with. Android phones encourage you to link your friends’ accounts together, joining their Facebook details to their Google details, for example. There hasn’t been a strong line between information that is yours, information about you that you’re happy to share, and information that you’re gathering about other people. It seems clear to me that people should know what they’re sharing about themselves, should have to opt in to do so, and should not be able to share personal information about other people without those people opting in. That doesn’t seem to be an opinion that Silicon Valley shares with me. Most free services are a Katamari-like information-gathering free-for-all.

I’m a fan of many, many things that Google does, and kudos to the product team that’s putting Google Glass together. It’s a very significant achievement. But from a social perspective, there’s a lot of work still to be done.

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