Apple’s real innovation: a gesture made with two fingers

Douglas Rushkoff nails my unease at the patenting of gestures, a critical front in the commercial war being waged through intellectual property. At stake is how far governments should grant monopoly rights over something that belongs to all of us: our shared language of words and gestures.

US Patent #7,812,826, though limited and not at stake in the latest Samsung judgement, grants Apple rights over pinch-to-zoom.

What if they had Patented the Alphabet? Rushkoff demands to know. I’d take it further. Patents on gestures take us into the same territory as those on human genes, and on flora and fauna. These are our shared commons; natural attributes that may be discovered and used, but never invented nor enclosed. Opposable thumbs! They’re part of what it means to be human.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that all the focus on Apple’s patents obscures the true reasons for the company’s runaway success in mobile. The mythology around Steve Jobs paints him as heir to Edison, a wizard presiding over a school of invention and creativity. True innovation is not like that and never has been; it’s about much more that just building a better mousetrap.

My favourite definition of innovation is not the usual pat phrase about “making new stuff”, or even “making new stuff useful”. Those focus too much on the outcome at the expense of the process. Instead consider this throwaway line in Bruno Latour’s Aramis:

“a project is considered innovative if the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

That is to say, innovation is the act of cajoling diverse, contradictory and competing interests – eternal human needs, new technologies and entrenched commercial structures. And that is where, in the congealed mobile value chain of the mid-Noughties, Apple deserves some credit.

Mobile had – and still has today – a complex web of interdependent business models. Crouched at the centre were network operators which had risked billions of other people’s money on radio spectrum and infrastructure. They aimed to recoup this investment by distributing heavily-subsidised devices tied to lengthy airtime contracts.

In such a situation, end users could easily become peripheral. Device manufacturers came to see operators, not consumers, as their customers. They became adept at pandering to the operators’ many and varied whims:

  • Multimedia messaging which few people used
  • Front-facing cameras in the hope of a video-calling bonanza
  • Operator-specified applications designed to wring a little more revenue out of their users.

Consumers were baffled by the terminology, sceptical of the benefits and fearful of unpredictable extra charges. And yet the manufacturers and operators remained locked in an arms race to give people more of the wrong things.

Apple, fresh from playing a similar game with the music industry, used its muscle in the market to bulldoze past all that, to appeal over the heads of entrenched interests to end users themselves.

With a high-end device as under-specified as that first iPhone, any other brand would have struggled to get onto operators’ ranges at all. But for Apple? No 3G? No multimedia messaging? No apps (they only came later, remember)? No problem, and throw in a special unlimited data bundle for good measure.

The best thing about the first iPhone was not the satisfying gravitational bounce when you scrolled to the bottom of a screen – there must surely be prior art for that somewhere. What was amazing was the product development process that prioritised that bounce over implementing MMS.

By sticking to its guns, Apple transformed mobile for ever. But that kind of innovation is impossible to patent because it’s about what you have the guts to leave out, much more than what you’re able to squeeze in.

Week 790: Leaving Orange

On Valentine’s Day 1997, I left my job as a newspaper journalist to work with the small, smart team who were building a pioneering news service for the web in a squat, Leeds-look, edge-of-centre office block. “You can always come back,” said my editor, “if this Internet thing doesn’t work out.”

For a long time I was genuinely grateful to know that. It was not that newspapers had got any less interesting, just that the world outside seemed to hold such potential.

The news service morphed from PA NewsCentre to Ananova. We were bought, as a team, by Hans Snook’s Orange. The very next week we moved a little further out of town and up in the world to the top floor of Marshall’s Mill where we surfed the amazing surge of mobile, from the “Matrix slider” to the ubiquitous smartphones. (By chance this also planted the historian in me among the ruins of the Industrial Revolution, the time when our city was part of  true northern renaissance.)

It has been a brilliant ride – several times up, over and round the hype cycle with text-to-speech, the mobile web, mobile apps and most recently near-field communication and mobile payments.

At every turn, Orange has granted me and my colleagues a privileged vantage point as millions of people have their first encounters with the amazing worlds of web and mobile media. Thank you to everyone who has given me those opportunities.

If you clicked this link looking for a bitter expose of life inside big telco, this is not that post. Please make a back gesture on your device now, or try Paul Ford’s brilliant “Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley“.

It is not that operators have got any less interesting, just that the world outside seems to hold such potential.

Simon Wardley draws a business lifecycle from innovation to custom built to productisation, and finally to commoditisation. From his chart I draw two highly relevant conclusions:

  1. Lots of the stuff with which I have been privileged to play over the last decade and a half is approaching, or has already reached, the point of commoditisation.
  2. This is exciting, because it’s in the transition from product to commodity that services are born.

Together those two conclusions point to a Cambrian explosion of useful and engaging new services and business models.

Since handing in my notice at Orange I’ve had conversations with a wide range of people about what those services and business models might be. (Thank you, all of you. You know who you are :) I’ve also become even more convinced that human-centred service design and innovation techniques are the right tools for the job.

Next week I start my first freelance engagement with an amazing agency that is doing great stuff in this space. Longer term I’ll be looking for other clients and partners who are as excited as I am by all these opportunities. Want to know more? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

Digger!

As a parent of a toddler you see the world differently. Everything that’s become everyday on the long slog into grown-up-dom is suddenly fresh again when seen for the first time through a new pair of eyes.

With a small child at your side everything exists to be classified and clarified. Cat, dog, big, red, dangerous, dirty, fragile.

Digger! Look, a digger!

It’s matters not that before becoming a parent, you paid no attention to diggers. The act of pointing-out signals to the child that you are interested in their interests, and that they may be interested in the pointed-out thing. This becomes a cycle of positive reinforcement.

At times in my children’s upbringing this work as life’s tour guide has become so all-consuming that I’ve caught myself pointing things out when unaccompanied by an actual child. To work colleagues and complete strangers: “Look! A digg… err, nothing…”

And then, as quickly as it arrived, that phase of a child’s life is gone. Language assimilated, stabilisers off, the child is equipped to drink in a fill of the world and filter the risks and opportunities for herself, at least in a moment-to-moment way. The work of parenting shifts up a level, to instilling higher-order knowledge and shared values.

Right now, owning a smartphone feels a bit like parenting through those precious first years. Small and bright eyed, it has all these amazing, pure senses and capabilities, and so much world still to discover.

When I see a QR code I feel a parental urge to show it to my phone, like pointing out a digger to a toddler.

It’s not so much that the content at the end of the codeblock will interest me,  just that I have a chance to see something mundane through the device’s eyes. Together we are experiencing the world anew.

I’m fascinated by work on computer vision like Greg Borenstein‘s forthcoming O’Reilly book about Microsoft Kinect, and Berg’s inquiry into the robot readable world. It feels so much like the start of something.

Of course mobile is already climbing out of the basic, high-contrast cot-toy stage. Google Goggles seems to have a reading age roughly equivalent to that of my youngest, five-year-old, son.

That’s also the age at which we begin to think more critically about the values we’re instilling for the future. Perhaps our task now is to raise a generation of well-balanced smartphones that can make sense of the world in all its wonder, not grumpy, materialistic tweens only interested in mass media and shopping.

Mobile experience in use and ornament

Thanks to @MrAlanCooper for highlighting Rahul Sen’s beautifully-written piece on the relevance of the Bauhaus movement to modern-day interaction design. The world would be a better place if more designers could cultivate such a deep appreciation of the history. I tried to  comment on the Johnny Holland blog but was foiled by the pernicious Recaptcha, so this post is by way of a response. Please read Rahul first.

He writes…

The Bauhaus Movement (1918-1933) was based on a German revival of a purer, honest design representation in architecture, art, typography and product design. Its philosophy celebrated an austere functionalism with little or no ornamentation. It advocated a use of industrial materials and inter-disciplinary methods and techniques. The  Bauhaus aesthetic and beliefs were influenced by and derived from techniques and materials employed especially in industrial fabrication and manufacture. Artists included Paul Klee, Wassilli Kandinsky, and Feininger. Architects and designers included Mies Van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Lazlso Moholy-Nagy and several others.

Rahul detects the emergence of a new Bauhaus trend in interaction design, typified by the innovative new Windows Phone 7 user interface. But in concluding he asks exactly the right question by pointing to the failings as well as the early promise of the Bauhaus brand of reductionism.

If the Bauhaus movement in the early part of last century failed to resonate with users… can we as designers prepare ourselves to meet the challenges ahead?

If you can bear the profuse ornamentation, I think it’s worth looking a couple of generations further back, to the roots of the movement against which Bauhaus was reacting.

John Ruskin hated classical strictures and mass production. He loved the changefulness that comes when anonymous workers are set free to express themselves through their craft. I think his Nature of Gothic makes a good model for the amazing variety of mobile, web-enabled media, savageness, redundance and all. You can have your IxD Bauhaus, but I’ll keep my Mobile Gothic.

“The bit where the screen went black and you said ‘look up’”: on the irresistible pull of a story in the place where it happened

This is my youngest son, Pascal, when he was two years old. He’s looking sheepish because he’s just picked an apple. It’s an apple from the orchard at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, the orchard where Isaac Newton first conceived of gravity.

We were drawn to this beautiful, remote farmhouse for a tea break on a long journey, and ended up learning some science. A master storyteller can make the laws of gravity come alive anywhere, even in a lift, but to experience them at Woolsthorpe adds an extra weight. The National Trust which now owns the house has turned a barn into a small discovery centre where you too can see the forces of nature anew, right where Newton did more than 300 years ago.

In his famous Proposition 75 Theorem 35, Newton wrote:

“If to the several points of a given sphere there tend equal centripetal forces decreasing in a duplicate ratio of the distances from the points; I say, that another similar sphere will be attracted by it with a force reciprocally proportional to the square of the distance of the centres.”

That “reciprocally proportional square of the distance” bit means the attraction gets stronger, much stronger, as things get closer together.

So it is with stories.

Sheffield and Leeds are 34 miles apart. When I told the story of Leeds steam engine pioneer Matthew Murray in the Cutlers’ Hall, Sheffield, the Interesting North audience gave me polite applause. (Granted, it was 10:30am on a Saturday when many had got up early to be there.) When I told the same story in Temple Works, Leeds, just across the road from the site of Murray’s Round Foundry the audience gave much more. I could have raised a mob there and then to tear down James Watt’s statue in City Square.

  • A story in the same county is quite interesting.
  • A story in the same city is more compelling.
  • A story in the place where it happened is extra powerful.

It’s more than just playing to a home crowd. Actually being there increases exponentially the return on just a small leap of imagination. We can picture the protagonists standing beside us, under the same sun, breathing the same air. It’s why the microcontent of blue plaques is so powerful.

It’s why it was so much fun to talk last week about the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Several people have remarked on the same moment in the talk, something that brought this thing home to me.

Bettakultcha follows a lightning talk format of 20 slides in five minutes. When I reached the part about the amazing domed roof, there seemed little point showing people a Powerpoint slide of the inside of the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Cuthbert Brodrick’s masterpiece speaks for itself. So I blanked the screen and asked people to look up.

They looked up at the Spartan, modern-before-its-time structure above our heads. It turns out this was the point of maximum attraction, the moment people were as one with place, the point most remarked on in my conversations ever since.

Similar connections to place cropped up in some other Bettakultcha talks too:

All of which must not be taken to mean that local stories are static, parochial stories. As I argued at TEDxLeeds and hinted in my Corn Exchange talk, our city owes its dynamism to outsiders and their connections with other great cities around the world. Without Egypt, we would have no Temple Works; without France, no Louis Le Prince.

These unexpected links with other places, these wormholes, only open up when we open our imaginations to the things that happened in the past, in the places where we now find ourselves.

An oft-remarked characteristic of the internet is that it erases distance and difference, that it allows a script kiddy in Kazakhstan to cripple a business in California. In this account it seems local differences will be erased by the swelling ranks of the Republic of Facebook.

But this emerging medium must surely also power a resurgence in situated storytelling. The location-aware dimension of the mobile internet is uniquely well placed to bring stories to people where they need to know them most. The hyperlinked web dimension makes it possible to leap through wormholes from one situated story to its entangled quantum twin.

I wonder where they will take us next?

And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet

The depths of winter, two weeks off to take stock of where we are and where we’re going, a chance to catch up with family and friends. We travelled through blizzards, cooked and ate good food, lit fires, drank wine, fiddled with MP3 play-lists, time-shifted TV, and made one (thankfully minor) visit to Accident and Emergency. We – friends, family, all – talked about our lives in early Twenteenage Britain: public sector insecurity, the choice of good schools, distant relatives, our new phones and other devices. The confection that follows is made from the left-overs.

Our current preoccupations seem to boil down to two resources, both of which are unequally distributed within families, communities, our nation and world at large. To understand these resources is to see where opportunities and conflicts lie, to look for unlikely allies and unexpected lines of agreement.

The first of the two resources is disposable time – the uncommitted minutes and hours in which we make our own choices.

The clichéd “cash rich, time poor” professional classes are not alone in their want of this resource. The pressure on the “squeezed middle” is as much a temporal crunch as a financial one. As Ed Miliband said: “If you are holding down two jobs, working fourteen hour days, worrying about childcare, anxious about elderly relatives, how can you find the time for anything else? … Until we address the conditions that mean that people’s lives are dominated by long hours, then the big society will always remain a fiction.”

Time wealth ebbs and flows as we move through life-stages, and is at least partially subjective – there are huge variations in people’s estimations of their own and others’ busy-ness. But, whether acknowledged or not, the debate over fairness and equality – over social security, pensions and the division of unpaid labour within families – must be as much about time and energy as it is about money.

The second resource, sometimes a skill, but as often a learned attitude, is tech mastery, a belief that computers, the internet and mobile phones exist to help us achieve our goals, not to enslave or bewilder us.

Tech mastery is the toolkit to take control in the modern world, to “program or be programmed.” Good technology products and services increase the mastery of their users; poor ones sap it. That tech mastery tends to rise and fall with age, and to be more concentrated among men than women, says more about the biases of tech implementation than about the innate abilities or preferences of those demographic groups.

I believe 2011 will be a year when people get angry about bad usability and the failure of the new media to meet the needs of all but a narrow section of society. As the web becomes more mobile and more, genuinely, worldwide, it has to do better at empowering all its users, young and old, rich and poor, not all of whom have the latest device designed in California.

The interactions between disposable time and tech mastery reveal (via sweeping generalisations, I know) some interesting gulfs in understanding to be overcome…

When free tech culture meets the law it’s more than a matter of understanding the “what.” There’s also the “why”.

One person’s innocent checking of their mobile phone is another’s gross intrusion into quality time.

We also find some opportunities…

What services could bridge the gaps between the generations and social groups by drawing on what they have in common?

How could two groups of people make the most of their complementary resources?

To square this circle, we need to pay attention to the different characteristics demanded at each point, and find ways to spread the wealth more equally. Something like…

Right now, at the start of 2011, I have many more questions than answers about disposable time and tech mastery inequalities. But I reckon we’ll see a lot more of these themes before the year is out.

On the way to dConstruct: a social constructionist thought for the day

A desire to put some theoretical acro props under my vague unease with the determinist narrative of so much of our technology discourse has led me to the writing of the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. His work on the social construction of science, an ethnography of the R&D lab, has a special resonance for me, a humanities graduate who finds himself colleague to a legion of French engineers.

I’m stumbling intermittently through Catherine Porter’s translation of Latour’s 1991 work “We have never been modern“, as a prelude to David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old“. At times it feels a bit like eating up the broccoli before allowing myself desert, but the rich, buttery morsels like the following make it all worthwhile.

The story so far.

Latour argues that modernity, from Civil War England onwards, managed its contradictions by placing boundaries between nature and society. Thomas Hobbes, writer of the Leviathan, was taken up as a founder of political philosophy while Robert Boyle, he of the air pumps, was channelled as a natural philosopher and pioneer of scientific method. In truth both men speculated on both politics and science, but this inconsistency was whitewashed by their modern successors seeking only the pure narrative of one or the other.

And so we are today in a world still riven by CP Snow’s two cultures, where right-wing bloggers can grab acres of media coverage against climate scientists by finding just the tiniest trace of political “contamination” on the lab’s email servers.

But I wonder if the disconnection and reconnection of nature and society is also a useful way to understand some of the ideas I’m expecting to hear today at dConstruct, a conference at the cutting edge of technology and media convergence.

The 19 years since Latour published “Nous n’avons jamais été moderne” roughly spans my working life so far. I’ve witnessed the amazing things that can happen when you expose the humanities-soaked world of newspapers, books and TV to the attentions of software engineers and computer scientists. The results have been delightful and depressing, often both at the same time. Who knew back then that floaty copywriters would have to cohabit – for better or for worse – with the number-crunchers of search engine optimisation?

This fusing of the worlds of media and technology is only just beginning, and the next step is evident in the hand-held touch-sensitive, context-aware marvel of creation that is the latest smartphone.

Hitherto we have seen the the world of human-created information, the texts of the ancients and the tussles of our own times, through the pure window of the newspaper, the book, the TV, the PC screen. But the smartphone is a game-changer, like Robert Boyle’s air pump. With its bundle of sensors, of location, of proximity, and in the future no doubt heat, light, pressure and humidity it becomes a mini-lab through which we measure our world as we interact with it.

All manner of things could be possible once these facts of nature start to mix with the artifacts of society. My Foursquare checkins form a pattern of places created by me, joined with those of my friends to co-create something bigger and more valuable. My view of reality through the camera of the phone can be augmented with information. We will all be the scientists, as well as the political commentators, of our own lives. This is the role of naturalism in my “Mobile Gothic” meander.

To recycle Latour on Robert Boyle’s account of his air pump experiments:

“Here in Boyle’s text we witness the intervention of a new actor recognised by the new [modern] Constitution: inert bodies, incapable of will and bias but capable of showing, signing, writing and scribbling on laboratory instuments before trustworthy witnesses. These nonhumans, lacking souls but endowed with meaning, are even more reliable than ordinary mortals, to whom will is attributed but who lack the capacity to indicate phenomena in a reliable way. According to the Constitution, in case of doubt, humans are better off appealing to nonhumans. Endowed with their new semiotic powers, the latter contribute to a new form of text, the experimental science article, a hybrid of the age-old style of biblical exegesis – which has previously been applied only to the Scriptures and classical texts – and the new instrument that produces new inscriptions. From this point on, witnesses will pursue their discussions in its enclosed space, discussions about the meaningful behavious or nonhumans. The old hermeneutics will persist, but it will add to its parchments the shaky signature of scientific instruments.”

I don’t yet know where I stand in this picture. Am I the experimenter, his audience, or the chick in the jar?

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

A desire to put some theoretical acroprops under my vague unease with the determinist narrative of so much of our technologydiscourse has led me to the work of the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. His work on the social construction of science, anethnography of the R&D lab, has a special resonance for me, a humanities graduate who finds himself colleague to a legion of 

French engineers.

I’m stumbling intermittently through Catherine Porter’s translation of Latour’s 1991 work “We have never been modern”, as a

prelude to David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old”. At times it feels a bit like eating up the broccoli before allowing myself

desert, but the rich, buttery morsels like the following make it all worthwhile.

The story so far.

Latour argues that modernity, from Civil War England onwards, managed its contradictions by placing boundaries between

naure and society. Thomas Hobbes, writer of the Leviathan, was taken up as a founder of political philosophy while Robert

Boyle, he of the chicks in air pumps, was channelled as a natural philosopher and pioneer of scientific method. In truth both

men speculated on both politics and science, but this inconsintency was whitewashed by their modern successors seeking only

the pure narrative of one or the other.

And so we are today in a world still riven by CP Snow’s two cultures, where right-wing bloggers can grab acres of media

coverage against climate scientists by finding just the tiniest trace of political “contamination” on the lab’s email servers.

But I wonder if the disconnection and reconnection of nature and society is also a useful way to understand some of the ideas

I’m expecting to hear today at dConstruct, a conference at the cutting edge of technology and media convergence.

The 19 years since Latour published “Nous n’avons jamais été moderne” roughly spans a working life in which I’ve witnessed

the amazing things that can happen when you expose the humanities-soaked world of newspapers, books and TV to the

attentions of software engineers and computer scientists. The results have been delightful and depressing, often both at the

same time. Who knew back then that floaty copywriters would have to cohabit – for better or for worse – with the

number-crunchers of search engine optimisation?

This fusing of the worlds of technology and media is only just beginning, and the next step is evident in the hand-held

touch-sensitive, context-aware marvel of creation that is the latest smartphone.

Hitherto we have seen the the world of human-created information, the texts of the ancients and the tussles of our own times,

through the pure window of the newspaper, the book, the TV, the PC screen. But the smartphone is a game-changer, like

Robert Boyle’s air pump. With its bundle of sensors, of location, of proximity, and in the future no doubt heat, light, pressure

and humidity it becomes a mini-lab through which we measure our world as we interact with it.

All manner of things could be possible once these facts of nature start to mix with the artifacts of society. My Foursquare

checkins form a pattern of places created by me, joined with those of my friends to co-create something bigger and more

valuable. My view of reality through the camera of the phone can be augmented with information. We will all be the scientists,

as well as the poticial commentators, of our own lives. This is the role of naturalism in my “Mobile Gothic” meander.

To recycle Latour on Robert Boyle’s account of his air pump experiments:
“Here in Boyle text we witness the intervention of a new actor recognised by the new [modern] Constitution: inert bodies,

incapable of will and bias but capable of showing, signing, writing and scribbling on laboratory instuments before trustworthy

witnesses. These nonhumans, lacking souls but endowed with meaning, are even more reliable than ordinary mortals, to whom

will is attrributed but who lack the capacity to indicate phenomena in a reliable way. According to the Constitution, in case of

doubt, humans are better off appealing to nonhumans. Endowed with their new semiotic powers, the latter contribute to a new

form of text, the experimental science article, a hybrid of the age-old style of biblical exegesis – which has previously been

applied only to the Scriptures and classical texts – and the new instrument that produces new inscriptions. From this point on,

witnesses will pursue their discussions in its enclosed space, discussions about the meaningful behavious or nonhumans. The

old hermeneutics will persist, but it will add to its parchments the shaky signature of scientific instruments.”

I don’t yet know where I stand in this picture. Am I the man in the white coat or the chick in the belljar?

All fingers and thumbs, an observation

User testing is always illuminating. The mirrored glass, the dimmed lights, and the unreal relay of sound from one room to the next. These things become familiar. But the users, no matter how carefully screened and segmented, are all different. They make every session both humbling and surprising.

Last week I dropped in on a test of one of our flagship products, running in prototype on a touch screen phone. The sessions I saw went well: no problems using the phone, some encouraging stuff on our product, a few issues, no showstoppers.

But then this…

  • The thumb deployed to tap links, to hunt and peck at letters in text input
  • The forefinger to slide and drag
  • Even sometimes the middle finger to scroll

And since then I’ve been watching how people treat their touch screens – some lovingly, some harshly. And the more I watch, the more I wonder if “touch” is even the right word. More like…

  • A stroke screen
  • A press screen
  • A smear screen
  • A stab screen

This amazing, visceral dexterity at once reveals the inadequacy of the previous great user interface breakthrough, that fistful of plastic, the mouse, and its faux precise on-screen avatar, the pixel-pointed arrow. The four-year-old child who was looking for the mouse behind the TV is now a six-year-old jabbing impatiently at the screen.

Microsoft Word tells me this post has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 5.1, so to all you 10-year-old mobile designers out there, this pearl of wisdom is for you.

The way we design for these screens needs to change, to consider not just the size of the screen but the hands with which people hold and control it.

  • Are they big hands or small hands?
  • Does it work as well with the left as with the right?
  • Does this component suggest fingers or thumbs?

In such choices lies the difference between user frustration and user delight.

Update 22/08/2010: Nice observations from Dan Saffer of Kicker Studios on Finger Positions for Touchscreens

A tale of attention and abundance: Why service design matters on the new mobile web

Over the last few days I’ve had a chance to reflect on the relationship between the mobile web and service design. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the two are tied together, in a way that was not the case with either the PC-based web or pre-internet mobile services.

Why? Well it goes like this…

In the beginning, was the Screen, and the Screen was a Television, and we gathered round the Television and gave it our undivided attention. And there were not many channels, so producers devoted their time and money to making good programmes in which we grateful viewers were immersed.

Then came the Web, and unlike the TV, it offered near limitless choice of sites and services. So the producers of Inter-Net Web Sites had to worry about stuff like findability, and usability, and (yuck) “stickiness”. They had competition, and we were easily bored, so they strove to give us novelty in content and agility in development. They invented SEO and pay-per-click and the Million Dollar Homepage.

Yet still all the striving happened within the bounds of the Screen. By and large the world outside the browser window was of little concern to the web designers.

Meanwhile, there were Telephones, and unlike TV and the PC-web, they existed in a world of divided attention. We made short calls in busy places, and sent hurried text messages in the gaps between other important stuff in our lives. The context of use was filled with constant distractions. As I’ve advocated here before, try using your service in broad daylight on a busy street corner, preferably in a slightly dodgy area of town, and you’ll see what I mean.

The life of a mobile service provider was a hard one, focused on finding the right customer needs and meeting them with usable solutions. Technology was fragmented and its vagaries absorbed much time and effort, but at least this meant that the few who conquered the technology could enjoy substantial rewards. The world outside the Screen was complex and confused but, compared to the wild, wild web, services were scarce and contention for “real estate” was limited.

Now, joyfully and at long last, those technical barriers to entry in mobile are melting away. Anyone can make content or services, offer them to consumers anywhere in the world, and monetise them through payments and advertising. We can experience those services on bright, light, sleek, enjoyable devices.

Continue reading

1794 Redux

Late last year I made a small prototype based on my Ignite London talk, 1794, by printing the 20 slides as Moo cards, with associated pages on this blog.

Now there’s a new version, using cards, stickers and an A3 sheet for you to play with the story. It’s backed up with a new set of web pages at 1794story.wordpress.com.

It’s an unashamedly personal, partial and unfinished history, an experiment in stripping the book down to its barest essentials then adding some of the flexibility and remixability of the web. I’ve written more of the “why” of the project in the about page.

Also, I’m looking for a few people to play with the story. “Beta test” would be an overstatement, but I am interested in honest feedback. There is no right way to read this story, only what you do with it. Let me know if you’re interested.

Enter your 16-digit card number folllowed by Arghhh

So I got home late last night and opened a letter containing a replacement bank card. To activate it I had to call one of those automated phone lines. It taught me something interesting.

Though standing in the living room just a few feet from a landline phone, I reached for the phone that is always with me, the shiny computer in my pocket, with wifi, a web browser and a touchscreen so slick it has to defend against my disgusting human fingers with a lipophobic coating.

I entered the number (because, yes, this computer also makes calls!) and was greeted by a man from the Nineteen Eighties. This is going to be a breeze, I thought smugly. I’m a confident 24-hour e-banking consumer. I laugh in the face of paper bills. I sweep administrative trivia into the gaps of my a busy lifestyle.

“Now,” demands Nineneen Eighties Man, “using the keypad on your phone, enter your 16-digit card number followed by the hash key”.

The keypad on my phone? The keypad on my phone? My phone has a camera, a compass and an accelerometer. It tells the weather to save me the strain of looking out of the window. It has no need of a keypad!

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One & Other in a roundabout way

This is a photo of the screen of a computer, displaying a webcam that’s trained on a plinth. Not just any plinth, The Plinth.

On the webcam is a whiteboard that carries a message, a message that’s saying hello to my sons. They were very impressed.

Lorinda (who I’ve never met) wrote the message. Lorinda wrote messages she got on her phone, via a service called Thumbprint. Thumbprint is a dead simple way to say stuff about places and topics by text.

I texted the Plinth after seeing a tweet from Andrew at Blink who made Thumbprint with my friends at Common.

It was all over in a few totally unexpected minutes of a Saturday afternoon, so let’s play that again, in slow motion…

  • Tweet…
  • Text…
  • Thumbprint…
  • Text…
  • Plinth…
  • Pen…
  • Whiteboard…
  • Webcam…
  • Amazement.

Well done to all involved.

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The Hyperjoy of Hypertext

In my ramble through the possibilities of Mobile Gothic, Ruskin’s fifth quality of Gothic – Rigidity or Obstinacy – was the hardest to express. It may not be all of Christopher Alexander’s qwan, but it’s certainly an important part of it.

At the time I wrote:

“The articulation of the parts of the mobile user experience is a key to its success, which is why we talk a lot about flow, about seamless user experience, but it often sounds vapid. Ruskin reminds us that there should be angles, there should be tension and change as we move from one mode to another.”

The angles, the angles, it’s all in the angles. It’s all in the angle brackets. Because at the heart of Mobile Gothic is hypertext.

And at the heart of hypertext is, well, text.

Let’s pause for a moment to remember just how amazing text is. Continue reading

Mobile Gothic: a flight of fancy

I’ve always found it strange that Eric S. Raymond chose the cathedral as his metaphor for closed development in free software, because the construction of our great medieval cathedrals must have been a very open process.

Passing peasants were doubtless discouraged from picking up a chisel to hack at the nearest stone, but Gothic buildings like York Minster and Strasbourg Cathedral were certainly the work of many hands, over many generations – not generations of software but generations of people. They were in very public beta for longer than Google News.

And so in chronicling the exciting changes we’re about to see in the mobile user experience it seems appropriate to turn to John Ruskin, Victorian art critic, social theorist, and owner of a magnificent beard.

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