Archive for July 2004

Beautification by Dirification?

Related: Read the resolution to this article here: Beautification Revisited

Although the subject of clean URLs has passed through the blogosphere plenty of times over the last year or two, I don’t feel there has been a definitive answer as to a) how important they are, and b) what the best way to implement them is. I plan on making a naming-convention change at Mike Industries this week and am soliciting user feedback as to the best way to go about it.

Are clean URLs even necessary?

Clearly the most compelling use of intelligent page naming is what is known in the industry as “vanity urls”. If we are calling out a special Lance Armstrong section on ESPN.com via the use of a television, radio, or print campaign, it is a huge advantage to point readers to something like “espn.com/lance”. A nice, clean, easy-to-remember URL is the only chance we have of planting information into our audience’s heads which may stick.

But what about the recent trend towards Googlefying URLs? In this case, you have a URL like:

http://www.mikeindustries.com/ blog/ archives/ 2004/ 04/ 20/ what_is_wrong_with_the_cottage_cheese_industry/

… which is neither memorable nor particularly vain. The idea, as I understand it, is mainly to pack the URL with keywords relevant to the subject of the page, so as to coax Google into awarding a higher page rank.

There appear to be advantages and disadvantages of naming pages in this fashion.
→ Read the rest of this entry

All Hail the iPhone

One of the longest running rumors in the Apple community is the emergence of an Apple-branded cell phone. Apple has denied the existence of such a product for as long as the world can remember, and up until now, they’ve had legitimate reasons to stay away from the cell phone market. Poor data speeds, poor service, incompatible frequency standards, and lack of profit on handsets have all been sited as reasons to stay away from the cell phone business. With the emergence of several new developments in the cell phone industry, however, it is becoming rapidly clear that Apple is ripe to enter the cell phone market within the extremely near future.

Let’s examine what’s new:

The MVNO Market

As companies like Virgin, AT&T Wireless, and others enter the new MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) market, it is becoming clear that the key to success in the MVNO realm is branding. For those unfamiliar with MVNOs, they are a relatively new phenonemon in the wireless industry whereby a company like Virgin resells wireless minutes through a provider like Sprint PCS. A customer buys a Virgin-branded phone at a retail location, signs up with service through Virgin, and goes on to use the phone, receiving bills and notices as though everything was coming from Virgin. Behind the scenes, however, Sprint is doing all the heavy lifting. Their network provides the infrastructure for placing and receiving calls, they meter customers’ usage, and just about everything “technical” related to the customers’ use of the phone is handled by them. The deal is a win-win for both companies because Sprint fills up their network with more customers and Virgin’s brand does all the selling. Many MVNO operators have a special differentiating factor to them, and Virgin’s is pre-paid service… perfect for teens.

GSM and CDMA

It used to be impossible to design a phone which would work on most cellular networks. The U.S. market was so splintered with incompatible standards that service providers had to pay handset manufacturers to develop phones for their platform. Well now it’s 2004 and the world seems to have standardized on two basic standards for now — GSM and CDMA. In the U.S., Sprint PCS and Verizon use CDMA and T-Mobile, Cingular, and AT&T Wireless use GSM. What this means is that handset makers need only develop for two platforms to cover 90% of the market. Handspring currently offers its Treo 600 to customers of all five of the providers mentioned above. It is for the most part, an identical unit, save a minor color variance and a few internals.

Profitability in Handsets

Handspring is smiling all the way to the bank with the success of their Treo 600 smartphone. Even with a $600 price (near the top of the cell phone market), Treos are flying off the shelves faster than Handspring can manufacture them. While most people pay under $100 for their phone, or nothing at all, the pent-up demand for a true portable convergence device is so great that Handspring can sell a unit with a fairly low-resolution screen and no bluetooth for crazy prices. There will always be cheap little free phones around to coax customers into signing long-term contracts with service providers, but Handspring has proved with the Treo that the high end of the market is where the profit is.

The Success of the iPod

Apple has enjoyed the same sort of success with the iPod as Handspring has with the Treo. Both are very expensive devices which were eaten up by the public not because they filled niches, but rather because they created niches. There was no clamoring for a $400 portable music player before the iPod and there was no clamoring for a $600 phone before the Treo. Apple has turned the iPod into a cultural phenomenon by giving people all sorts of new freedoms they never had before.

The iPod and the Treo are about the same size, they both play MP3s, and yet the iPod only does a few things better. It has up to 40 gigs of storage, as compared to the 1 gig SD card you can stick in a Treo. That’s about 10,000 songs vs. 250 songs (albeit in removable form). The second thing is does better is provide a dedicated music-centric interface. The Treo’s interface must do 1000 things with the iPod’s does only do a few. And finally, the iPod looks a little better than the Treo, and that is a testament to Apple’s legendary design prowess.

Aside from those three things, however, the Treo dropkicks the iPod right off the playing field. It makes calls, organizes contacts, syncs with PCs and Macs, plays games, runs applications, gets email, surfs the web, checks blogs, has crazy-high battery life, and on and on and on. So if I only have room for one cigarette-pack-sized device in my pants pocket, which one am I going to pick? That’s easy. There is no good reason for portable music players to continue on as standalone units, and Apple, being a smart company, realizes this.

Viable Cellular Data Speeds

The “wireless web” has long been a joke among those of us involved in web design and development. Who wants to develop for tiny screens and sub 14.4kbps speeds? Cellular service providers placed large bets on their data networks early and when the customers failed to come in, the public lost faith in the business. While the 3G speeds companies have been promising for the last several years still aren’t here yet, the data rates on the big five cell networks in the U.S. could now legitimately be considered viable for lite-duty digital communication. Reading e-mail is a snap, syncing contacts takes seconds, and even browsing the web is an acceptable experience if you don’t mind waiting a few seconds here and there. Were Apple to make waves in the cell phone industry, they would make waves on the data side of things, and the state of the industry suggests the timing may finally be right for such a foray.
→ Read the rest of this entry

Spotted on the Live Cam...

There aren’t too many nicer places in the summer than Seattle. 70 to 90 degrees, low humidity, breezy, great air quality, and just a general sense of happiness among everyone.

Seattle is a city surrounded by water. To the west, we have the saltwater of Puget Sound. To the north, we have Lake Union, with its stunning city views and unique houseboats. And to the east, we have freshwater Lake Washington, separating us from the suburbia of Bellevue, and Microsoft.

Part of the reason I created the Live Theme for Mike Industries (see the “Live” button on the right side of the site… Flash 6 required) was to lend the feel of Seattle to the site. When it’s rainy and drab, the site feels muted. When it’s sunny and gorgeous, the site comes to life.

When it really gets interesting though is when something cool floats across Puget Sound and the live cam captures it. Being that it is the middle of summer, the amount of cool stuff flying by has increased substantially. Below is a sampling of header images from three random times I checked the site over the last couple of weeks:

Cruise ship with parasailer flying alongside

Slightly larger cruise ship

Hyundai container ship entering port from Asia

I’m still working on getting motion detection set up properly so these sorts of shots appear with greater frequency, but for now, please enjoy the view.

ESPNndependent - Life After the Butterfly

Earlier this month, ESPN and MSN parted ways after their multi-year deal expired and was not renewed. I am not a spokesman for ESPN so I of course cannot comment, but I did want to point readers in the direction of a great pair of interviews on the subject. In one interview, Staci Kramer of the USC Online Journalism Review talks to John Skipper, Executive Vice President at ESPN and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. In the other, Kramer interviews Ross Levinsohn, Senior Vice President and General Manager at Fox Sports Interactive Media.

The interviews provide a nice view into the differing strategies of two online sports franchises; one on the way into a deal and one on the way out of one.

Dashboard: Benevolent Pragmatism

Who would have thought the “Little Browser That Could” would create such a flap in the web standards community? After reading Dave Hyatt’s explanation about what HTML extensions Apple is adding to WebKit, I am simply in awe at how far little-known KHTML has come under the tutelage of one very talented person at one very idealistic company. To do what Apple has done with this rudimentary rendering engine in less than two years is nothing short of amazing.

So now that Dave’s fit WebKit with a gown for the ball, Apple is looking for some glass slippers. Enter Dashboard extensions. Enter shortly thereafter, Eric Meyer. Eric rightly questions Apple’s implementation plan, yet recognizes and respects what Dave and his team are trying to accomplish. Instead of offering a blanket condemnation of everything Dashboard stands for, Eric clenches his fists a few times, breathes deeply, and offers constructive suggestions that only he and a handful of other people in the world are even capable of thinking of. As a result of these suggestions, Dave listens, thinks, and responds positively before the dust can even settle.

This is what happens when two smart people listen to each other.

It is commendable enough that Apple has been this open with the development of Safari, but to show this sort of flexibility and transparency is a huge break in tradition for the normally covert company. After all, we’re talking about an operation who has fired people for discussing the tint of aluminum used in their cases. Apple, past and present, is legendary for its ability to keep a lid on things, and yet with Safari it not only breaks this model but turns it completely on its face.
→ Read the rest of this entry

Creating Sports Fans, One Baby at a Time

Little ESPN Malachi McCall turns three years old next month. The smiling boy from Pampa, Texas, pictured on the right, will be getting a visit from us as part of a two-hour ESPN25 television special in which he and two other youngsters named after the network will be featured.

Here is a quote from reporter Lori Yount of the Amarillo Globe:

“His middle name is a biblical messenger of God, so his parents sometimes call him ‘the sports messenger’.”

Oh my.

This kid should have no trouble making the football team.

Bloglines Redesigned!

Well it’s about half past midnight right now and it looks like Bloglines just relaunched a few minutes ago with a spankin’ new design. It’s always weird catching redesigns as they happen. You’re at the old site one minute, then you click a link and it’s like the Wizard of Oz all of a sudden.

Although I’ve only played with the shiny new interface for about 20 minutes now, I have to say that I am thoroughly impressed so far. It feels like there is quite a bit of new functionality to enjoy, and yet I don’t feel disoriented or sick to my stomach as with some other recent redesigns. A huge part of the challenge in redesigning a major site is to inject freshness while not alienating loyal users. I salute thee, Bloglines, for succeeding in this regard.

Among the new features are:

  • A simple point-and-click publishing system for creating your own blog
  • A new Clippings metaphor to replace the existing Saved Items feature
  • A skinnable blogroller
  • A slightly retooled reading interface
  • A more informative front page
  • Enhanced searching and sharing capabilities
  • Sliding-Doors style zoomable tabs (a la Douglas Bowman)

… and lots of other stuff I’m too tired to test out right now.

All in all, this looks like another successful improvement of what is already my most visited site on the ‘Net. Sure I’d like to see more interactivity, more out-of-browser functionality, and smarter aggregation routines, but in the meantime, I’m happy with these incremental improvements.

Content aggregation has not even entered its golden age yet, but Bloglines continues to show us the way when it comes to no-nonsense web-based information gathering.

HTML Language Equals Javascript

Today marked the launch of Microsoft’s vaunted new MSN Search site. The new front-page design is so clean you could eat off it. With such a simple, spartan layout, you’d think the code would be museum-quality as well.

I am not one to bring out the firing squad for minor validation errors, but the very first line of MSN’s search page is pure folly:

<html language=”Javascript”>

Yes. I’m not kidding. HTML language equals javascript. And English equals C++. It took the MSN Search team exactly 7 characters to mess this up. I guess that’s what $100 million buys you these days.

Here is an archive link in case things have changed by the time you read this article.

If there was any doubt whether or not most major sites have caught the standards bug yet, the answer is clearly no. We love our MSNs and our Googles and our Yahoos but none have yet to exhibit any real effort with regard to designing with standards. As I’ve said in previous posts, it is more important to judge web sites on what they offer versus whether or not they validate, but spectacles like this show just how far some companies are from even making a decent effort. I will reserve overall judgment on the new MSN search site until I see how well it works for me, but this just doesn’t look like a great start.

History says that regardless of user experience or code quality, the new MSN search site will be relatively “popular” once it’s baked into every corner of the Windows environment. So the question is, with this power to pervade, does it really even matter how good the code is?

Shared
Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away:

A great essay about how toxic everyday distractions can be.

Humanity's deep future:

A group of researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute talk about where our race may be going and how artificial intelligence could save or kill us all.

Steve Jobs speaks about the future at the International Design Conference in 1983:

31 years later, it’s safe to say this is one of the most prescient speeches about technology ever delivered. Jobs covers wireless networking, tablets, Google StreetView, Siri, and the App Store (among other things) many years before their proliferation. A fantastic listen.

How to travel around the world for a year:

Great advice for when you finally find the time.

LiveSurface:

A fantastic app for prototyping your design work onto real world objects like billboards, book covers, and coffee cups. This seems like just as great of a tool for people learning design as it does for experts.

50 problems in 50 days:

One man’s attempt to solve 50 problems in 50 days using only great design. Some good startup ideas in here…

How to Do Philosophy:

If you’ve ever suspected that most classical philosophy is a colossal waste of time, Paul Graham tells you why you’re probably right.

TIME: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us:

Stephen Brill follows the money to uncover the pinnacle of corruption that is the U.S. Health Care system. A must-read article if there ever was one.

DIY Dot Org:

A beautifully designed site full of fun and challenging DIY projects. I could spend months on here.

The Steve Jobs Video Archive:

A collection of over 250 Steve Jobs videos in biographical order

Self-portraits from an artist under the influence of 48 different psychoactive drug combos.

Water Wigs are pretty amazing.

David Pogue proposes to his girlfriend by creating a fake movie trailer about them and then getting a theater to play it before a real movie. Beautiful and totally awesome.

Jonah Peretti's letter to BuzzFeed’s employees:

If you’re wondering what a excellent blueprint for a modern media company looks like, look no further than Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s latest email to his employees. In it, Peretti explains a lot of his company’s virtues, the most important being a relentless focus on always providing what’s best for the user. Vox Media (operators of The Verge) is the only other company I can think of which approaches this level of reform and execution.

The Covers Project:

I love this so much: a cross-referenceable database of cover songs, searchable by song or artist. Slowed down, acoustic covers — no matter the song — are so enjoyable to me that I wish it was a requirement to play one at every show. If you like them as much as I do, make sure to check out M. Ward’s Let’s Dance or Sun Kil Moon’s entire album of Modest Mouse covers.