Tags: technology

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Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

In between

I was chatting with my new colleague Alex yesterday about a link she had shared in Slack. It was the Nielsen Norman Group’s annual State of Mobile User Experience report.

There’s nothing too surprising in there, other than the mention of Apple’s app clips and Google’s instant apps.

Remember those?

Me neither.

Perhaps I lead a sheltered existence, but as an iPhone user, I don’t think I’ve come across a single app clip in the wild.

I remember when they were announced. I was quite worried about them.

See, the one thing that the web can (theoretically) offer that native can’t is instant access to a resource. Go to this URL—that’s it. Whereas for a native app, the flow is: go to this app store, find the app, download the app.

(I say that the benefit is theoretical because the website found at the URL should download quickly—the reality is that the bloat of “modern” web development imperils that advantage.)

App clips—and instant apps—looked like a way to route around the convoluted install process of native apps. That’s why I was nervous when they were announced. They sounded like a threat to the web.

In reality, the potential was never fulfilled (if my own experience is anything to go by). I wonder why people didn’t jump on app clips and instant apps?

Perhaps it’s because what they promise isn’t desirable from a business perspective: “here’s a way for users to accomplish their tasks without downloading your app.” Even though app clips can in theory be a stepping stone to installing the full app, from a user’s perspective, their appeal is the exact opposite.

Or maybe they’re just too confusing to understand. I think there’s an another technology that suffers from the same problem: progressive web apps.

Hear me out. Progressive web apps are—if done well—absolutely amazing. You get all of the benefits of native apps in terms of UX—they even work offline!—but you retain the web’s frictionless access model: go to a URL; that’s it.

So what are they? Are they websites? Yes, sorta. Are they apps? Yes, sorta.

That’s confusing, right? I can see how app clips and instant apps sound equally confusing: “you can use them straight away, like going to a web page, but they’re not web pages; they’re little bits of apps.”

I’m mostly glad that app clips never took off. But I’m sad that progressive web apps haven’t taken off more. I suspect that their fates are intertwined. Neither suffer from technical limitations. The problem they both face is inertia:

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

True of progressive web apps. Equally true of app clips.

But when I was chatting to Alex, she made me look at app clips in a different way. She described a situation where somebody might need to interact with some kind of NFC beacon from their phone. Web NFC isn’t supported in many browsers yet, so you can’t rely on that. But you don’t want to make people download a native app just to have a quick interaction. In theory, an app clip—or instant app—could do the job.

In that situation, app clips aren’t a danger to the web—they’re polyfills for hardware APIs that the web doesn’t yet support!

I love having my perspective shifted like that.

The specific situations that Alex and I were discussing were in the context of museums. Musuems offer such interesting opportunities for the physical and the digital to intersect.

Remember the pen from Cooper Hewitt? Aaron spoke about it at dConstruct 2014—a terrific presentation that’s well worth revisiting and absorbing.

The other dConstruct talk that’s very relevant to this liminal space between the web and native apps is the 2012 talk from Scott Jenson. I always thought the physical web initiative had a lot of promise, but it may have been ahead of its time.

I loved the thinking behind the physical web beacons. They were deliberately dumb, much like the internet itself. All they did was broadcast a URL. That’s it. All the smarts were to be found at the URL itself. That meant a service could get smarter over time. It’s a lot easier to update a website than swap out a piece of hardware.

But any kind of technology that uses Bluetooth, NFC, or other wireless technology has to get over the discovery problem. They’re invisible technologies, so by default, people don’t know they’re even there. But if you make them too discoverable— intrusively announcing themselves like one of the commercials in Minority Report—then they’re indistinguishable from spam. There’s a sweet spot of discoverability right in the middle that’s hard to get right.

Over the past couple of years—accelerated by the physical distancing necessitated by The Situation—QR codes stepped up to the plate.

They still suffer from some discoverability issues. They’re not human-readable, so you can’t be entirely sure that the URL you’re going to go to isn’t going to be a Rick Astley video. But they are visible, which gives them an advantage over hidden wireless technologies.

They’re cheaper too. Printing a QR code sticker costs less than getting a plastic beacon shipped from China.

QR codes turned out to be just good enough to bridge the gap between the physical and digital for those one-off interactions like dining outdoors during a pandemic:

I can see why they chose the web over a native app. Online ordering is the only way to place your order at this place. Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

Ironically, the nail in the coffin for app clips and instant apps might’ve been hammered in by Apple and Google when they built QR-code recognition into their camera software.

Monday, January 23rd, 2023

One morning in the future

I had a video call this morning with someone who was in India. The call went great, except for a few moments when the video stalled.

“Sorry about that”, said the person I was talking to. “It’s the monkeys. They like messing with the cable.”

There’s something charming about an intercontinental internet-enabled meeting being slightly disrupted by some fellow primates being unruly.

It also made me stop and think about how amazing it was that we were having the call in the first place. I remembered Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions from 1964:

I’m thinking of the incredible breakthrough which has been possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and, above all, the communications satellite.

These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on Earth even if we don’t know their actual physical location.

It will be possible in that age—perhaps only 50 years from now—for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.

The casual sexism of assuming that it would be a “man” conducting business hasn’t aged well. And it’s not the communications satellite that enabled my video call, but old-fashioned undersea cables, many in the same locations as their telegraphic antecedents. But still; not bad, Arthur.

After my call, I caught up on some email. There was a new newsletter from Ariel who’s currently in Antarctica.

Just thinking about the fact that I know someone who’s in Antarctica—who sent me a postcard from Antarctica—gave me another rush of feeling like I was living in the future. As I started to read the contents of the latest newsletter, that feeling became even more specific. Doesn’t this sound exactly like something straight out of a late ’80s/early ’90s cyberpunk novel?

Four of my teammates head off hiking towards the mountains to dig holes in the soil in hopes of finding microscopic animals contained within them. I hang back near the survival bags with the remaining teammate and begin unfolding my drone to get a closer look at the glaciers. After filming the textures of the land and ice from multiple angles for 90 minutes, my batteries are spent, my hands are cold and my stomach is growling. I land the drone, fold it up into my bright yellow Pelican case, and pull out an expired granola bar to keep my hunger pangs at bay.

Monday, January 16th, 2023

Mars distracts

A few years ago, I wrote about how much I enjoyed the book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not everyone liked that book. A lot of people were put off by its structure, in which the dream of interstellar colonisation meets the harsh truth of reality and the book follows where that leads. It pours cold water over the very idea of humanity becoming interplanetary.

But our own solar system is doable, right? I mean, Kim Stanley Robinson is the guy who wrote the Mars trilogy and 2312, both of which depict solar system colonisation in just a few centuries.

I wonder if the author might regret the way that some have taken his Mars trilogy as a sort of manual, Torment Nexus style. Kim Stanley Robinson is very much concerned with this planet in this time period, but others use his work to do the opposite.

But the backlash to Mars has begun.

Maciej wrote Why Not Mars:

The goal of this essay is to persuade you that we shouldn’t send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System. It would no more open a new era of spaceflight than a Phoenician sailor crossing the Atlantic in 500 B.C. would have opened up the New World. And it wouldn’t even be that much fun.

Manu Saadia is writing a book about humanity in space, and he has a corresponding newsletter called Against Mars: Space Colonization and its Discontents:

What if space colonization was merely science-fiction, a narrative, or rather a meta-narrative, a myth, an ideology like any other? And therefore, how and why did it catch on? What is so special and so urgent about space colonization that countless scientists, engineers, government officials, billionaire oligarchs and indeed, entire nations, have committed work, ingenuity and treasure to make it a reality.

What if, and hear me out, space colonization was all bullshit?

I mean that quite literally. No hyperbole. Once you peer under the hood, or the nose, of the rocket ship, you encounter a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ghoulish garbage.

Two years ago, Shannon Stirone went into the details of why Mars Is a Hellhole

The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the case for Mars colonisation is that its most ardent advocate turns out to be an idiotic small-minded eugenicist who can’t even run a social media company, much less a crewed expedition to another planet.

But let’s be clear: we’re talking here about the proposition of sending humans to Mars—ugly bags of mostly water that probably wouldn’t survive. Robots and other uncrewed missions in our solar system …more of that, please!

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023

Shift Happens

Marcin’s book is coming along nicely—you just know it’ll be a labour of love.

You’ve never seen a book on technology like this. Shift Happens is full of stories – some never before told – interleaved with 1,000+ beautiful full-color photos across two volumes.

The Kickstarter project launches in February. In the meantime, there are some keyboard-based games here for you to enjoy.

Monday, December 19th, 2022

Empty Pointers and Constellations of AI

AI becomes a stand-in term for whatever technologies and techniques are new, shiny, and just beyond the grasp of our understanding. We use it to gesture at a future we cannot fully comprehend or currently realise. As soon as we do, it will no longer be “AI.”

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

Russell Davies: The internet of good things

An internet-enabled kettle sounds stupid, but this is a genuinely thoughtful piece of hardware.

Wednesday, November 16th, 2022

Age of Invention: The Beacons are Lit!

Or, Why wasn’t the Telegraph Invented Earlier?

A wonderful deep-dive into optical telegraphy through the ages.

Thursday, October 20th, 2022

Why We’re Breaking Up with CSS-in-JS | Brad Frost

I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth many times over my years building on the web. I too feel like there’s something in the air right now, and people are finally acknowledging that most single page apps are crap.

But Brad makes the interesting point that, because they were incubated when profligate client-side JavaScript was all the rage, web components may have ended up inheriting the wrong mindset:

So now the world of web components has egg on its face because the zeitgeist at the time of its design didn’t have such a strong focus on SSR/HTML-first/ progressive enhancement. Had web components been designed in the current zeitgeist, things would almost certainly be different.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2022

JavaScript

A recurring theme in my writing and talks is “lay off the JavaScript, people!” But I have to make a conscious effort to specify that I mean client-side JavaScript.

I thought it would be obvious from the context that I was talking about the copious amounts of JavaScript being shipped to end users to download, parse, and execute. But nothing’s ever really obvious. If I don’t explicitly say JavaScript in the browser, then someone inevitably thinks I’m having a go at JavaScript, the language.

I have absolutely nothing against JavaScript the language. Just like I have nothing against Python or Ruby or any other language that you might write with on your machine or your web server. But as soon as you deliver bytes over the wire, I start having opinions. It just so happens that JavaScript is the universal language for client-side coding so that’s why I call for restraint with JavaScript specifically.

There was a time when JavaScript only existed in web browsers. That changed with Node. Now it’s possible to write code for your web server and code for web browsers using the same language. Very handy!

But just because it’s the same language doesn’t mean you should treat it the same in both circumstance. As Remy puts it:

There are two JavaScripts.

One for the server - where you can go wild.

One for the client - that should be thoughtful and careful.

I was reading something recently that referred to Eleventy as a JavaScript library. It really brought me up short. I mean, on the one hand, yes, it’s a library of code and it’s written in JavaScript. It is absolutely technically correct to call it a JavaScript library.

But in my mind, a JavaScript library is something you ship to web browsers—jQuery, React, Vue, and so on. Whereas Eleventy executes its code in order to generate HTML and that’s what gets sent to end users. Conceptually, it’s like the opposite of a JavaScript library. Eleventy does its work before any user requests a URL—JavaScript libraries do their work after a user requests a URL.

To me it seems obvious that there should an entirely different mindset for writing code intended for a web browser. But nothing’s ever really obvious.

I remember when Node was getting really popular and npm came along as a way to manage all the bundles of code that people were assembling in their Node programmes. Makes total sense. But then I thought I heard about people using npm to do the same thing for client-side code. “That can’t be right!” I thought. I must’ve misunderstood. So I talked to someone from npm and explained how I must be misunderstanding something.

But it turned out that people really were treating client-side JavaScript no different than server-side JavaScript. People really were pulling in megabytes of other people’s code to ship to end users so that they could, I dunno, left pad numbers or something.

Listen, I don’t care what you get up to in the privacy of your own codebase. But don’t poison the well of the web with profligate client-side JavaScript.

Saturday, October 15th, 2022

Simon Collison | Building with a lightness of touch

If, like me, you despair at the tech stacking and JavaScriptification of everything, shut that out and pay attention to those who understand the material of the web, its inherent resilience and efficiency. We’re lucky that principled voices still advocate for simple and inclusive methods because building with efficiency and a lightness of touch makes the work feel meaningful and, sometimes, fun.

Tuesday, October 4th, 2022

The Thorny Problem of Keeping the Internet’s Time | The New Yorker

This story of the Network Time Protocol hammers home the importance of infrastructure and its maintenance:

Technology companies worth billions rely on open-source code, including N.T.P., and the maintenance of that code is often handled by a small group of individuals toiling away without pay.

Tuesday, September 20th, 2022

Have I reached the Douglas Adams Inflection point (or is modern tech just a bit rubbish)? – Terence Eden’s Blog

This chimes with something I’ve been pondering: we anticipate big breakthoughs in software—AI!, blockchain!, metaverse! chatbots!—but in reality the field is relatively stagnant. Meanwhile in areas like biology, there’s been unexpected advances. Or maybe, as Terence indicates, it’s all about the hype.

Friday, August 5th, 2022

Douglas Engelbart | Hidden Heroes

An account of the mother of all demos, written by Steven Johnson.

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

Directory enquiries

I was talking to someone recently about a forgotten battle in the history of the early web. It was a battle between search engines and directories.

These days, when the history of the web is told, a whole bunch of services get lumped into the category of “competitors who lost to Google search”: Altavista, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo.

But Yahoo wasn’t a search engine, at least not in the same way that Google was. Yahoo was a directory with a search interface on top. You could find what you were looking for by typing or you could zero in on what you were looking for by drilling down through a directory structure.

Yahoo wasn’t the only directory. DMOZ was an open-source competitor. You can still experience it at DMOZlive.com:

The official DMOZ.com site was closed by AOL on February 17th 2017. DMOZ Live is committed to continuing to make the DMOZ Internet Directory available on the Internet.

Search engines put their money on computation, or to use today’s parlance, algorithms (or if you’re really shameless, AI). Directories put their money on humans. Good ol’ information architecture.

It turned out that computation scaled faster than humans. Search won out over directories.

Now an entire generation has been raised in the aftermath of this battle. Monica Chin wrote about how this generation views the world of information:

Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

Dr. Saavik Ford confirms:

We are finding a persistent issue with getting (undergrad, new to research) students to understand that a file/directory structure exists, and how it works. After a debrief meeting today we realized it’s at least partly generational.

We live in a world ordered only by search:

While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?

There are still hold-outs. You can prise files from Scott Jenson’s cold dead hands.

More recently, Linus Lee points out what we’ve lost by giving up on directory structures:

Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning. When it’s possible to take a “type in a query” kind of interface and make it more incrementally explorable, I think it’s almost always going to produce a more intuitive and powerful interface.

Directory structures still make sense to me (because I’m old) but I don’t have a problem with search. I do have a problem with systems that try to force me to search when I want to drill down into folders.

I have no idea what Google Drive and Dropbox are doing but I don’t like it. They make me feel like the opposite of a power user. Trying to find a file using their interfaces makes me feel like I’m trying to get a printer to work. Randomly press things until something happens.

Anyway. Enough fist-shaking from me. I’m going to ponder Linus’s closing words. Maybe defaulting to a search interface is a cop-out:

Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.

Monday, July 18th, 2022

Fundamentals matter | Go Make Things

I really enjoyed Laurie’s talk in Berlin a few weeks back. I must blog my thoughts on it.

But I must admit that something didn’t sit quite right about the mocking tone he took on the matter of “the fundamentals” (whatever that may mean). Chris shares my misgivings:

Those websites that don’t load on slow connections, or break completely when a JS file fails to load, or don’t work for people with visual or physical impairments?

That’s not an issue of time. It’s an issue of fundamentals.

I think I agree with Laurie that there’s basically no such thing as fundamental technologies (and if there is such a thing, the goalposts are constantly moving). But I agree with Chris with that there is such a thing as fundamental concepts. On the web, for example, accessibility is a core principle of its design that should, in my opinion, be fundamental.

This, basically:

Do I wanna see teenagers building frivolous websites? Absolutely. But when people are getting paid well to build our digital world, they have a responsibility to ensure the right to engage with that world for everyone.

Sunday, July 17th, 2022

Saturday, July 16th, 2022

The blind programmers who created screen readers - The Verge

A fascinating account of the history of JAWS and NVDA.

Thursday, July 14th, 2022

Lou Montulli and the invention of cookie | Hidden Heroes

Steven Johnson profiles Lou Montulli, creator of the cookie, and ponders unintended consequences:

Years ago, the mathematician Edward Lorenz proposed a metaphor to describe how very small elements in a system’s initial conditions can lead to momentous changes over time. Imagining a tornado that ultimately emerges out of the tiny air perturbations caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, Lorenz called it the “butterfly effect.” For better and for worse, Montulli’s cookie may be the most pronounced example of a technological butterfly effect in our time. But instead of a butterfly flapping its wings, it’s a 23-year-old programmer writing a few lines of code to make a shopping cart feature work. Almost three decades later, we’re still riding out the storm that code helped create.

Wednesday, July 13th, 2022

How normal am I?

A fascinating interactive journey through biometrics using your face.

Monday, June 27th, 2022

Still the Same — Real Life

Everything old is new again:

In our current “information age,” or so the story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways.

But the idea that modern life, and particularly modern technology, harms as well as helps, is deeply embedded in Western culture: In fact, the Victorians diagnosed very similar problems in their own society.