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March 15, 2009

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What Are People Doing In the Cloud?

Matt’s experience at South by Southwest suggests that a lot of the big social networking companies actually don’t have (or won’t share) a whole lot of insight into what their users are doing on line, or how it’s changed their lives. But is this because their systems are too simple (they just host/carry what other folks are doing) or too complex (too much information, too much noise — they can’t monitor it all)?

Clive Thompson’s new article on netbooks and cloud computing suggests that it might be a little bit of both:

In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen famously argued that true breakthroughs almost always come from upstarts, since profitable firms rarely want to upend their business models. “Netbooks are a classic Christensenian disruptive innovation for the PC industry,” says Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied both Quanta’s work on the One Laptop per Child project and Asustek’s development of the netbook…

A really powerful application like Adobe Photoshop demands a much faster processor [than a netbook’s]. But consider my experience: This spring, after my regular Windows XP laptop began crashing twice a day, I reformatted the hard drive. As I went about reinstalling my software, I couldn’t find my Photoshop disc. I forgot about it—until a week later, when I was blogging and needed to tweak a photo. Frustrated, I went online and discovered FotoFlexer, one of several free Web-based editing tools. I uploaded my picture, and in about one minute I’d cropped it, deepened the color saturation, and sharpened it. I haven’t used Photoshop since…

It used to be that coders were forced to produce bloatware with endless features because they had to guess what customers might want to do. But if you design a piece of software that lives in the cloud, you know what your customers are doing—you can watch them in real time. Shirazi’s firm discovered that FotoFlexer users rarely do fancy editing; the most frequently used features are tools for drawing text and scribbles on pictures. Or consider the Writely app, which eventually became the word processor part of Google Docs: When Sam Schillace first put it online, he found to his surprise that what users wanted most was a way to let several people edit a document together.

I’m really fascinated by this idea — little companies with serious chops doing simple things (whether building netbooks or cloud apps) that users actually need and want. It’s like the Unix philosophy expanded to clients and hardware!

This is actually one reason why (unlike Clive) I’m a little down on the idea that the web browser will just become the do-everything client that interacts with every cloud service. (Thompson writes, “I wrote this story on a netbook, and if you had peeked over my shoulder, you would have seen precisely two icons on my desktop: the Firefox browser and a trash can. Nothing else.”)

The problem is that while doing everything most of us want to do over the web is possible, doing it all in the web browser isn’t very satisfying. It means that every time I’m trying to do a specific task, I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff I don’t need — bookmarks to other sites, browser extensions I’m not using, link-and-click interfaces that aren’t optimized for this specific task. You can solve this a little bit with Flash or AJAX interfaces, but it doesn’t seem like a very good trade if I’m trading a bloated client app filled with tools I don’t need for a bloated browser with tools that aren’t even relevant to what I’m doing.
Especially on the smaller screens of phones or netbooks, we need interfaces that allow us to focus totally on what we’re doing, without extra junk getting in the way.

This is why I actually prefer (with some limitations) the iPhone interface to the netbook’s — lots of little web-capable clients that just work with one cloud service, or one KIND of cloud service. You can see this already in dashboard gadgets and little tray apps like Twitteriffic, Dropbox, or Skitch — that ideally don’t interact with your browser at all. This is also why I’m more sanguine about a netbook that’s more like an oversized iPhone than a shrunk-down laptop.

There’s obviously room for compromise — e.g. do you want/need a hardware keyboard or a software one, or are you willing to trade it for extra screen — that will be similar to the kinds of hashing out we did with PDAs and early laptops before that. But it is going to change — and we’d better all start paying attention to the folks at these little companies (plus smart observers) who actually know what’s happening and why.

Posted March 15, 2009 at 6:51 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Design, Technosnark


In fact, the one Unix-y test that the iPhone fails is that its apps can't talk to each other. Of course, neither can tabs in a browser window. In both cases, this is dumb, and bad -- and smarter people than me need to figure out a good way to solve it. (It's amazing that Apple, whose common applications really DO talk to each other amazingly well, hasn't figured out a way to do this on the phone that's secure, usable, resource-smart, and doesn't crash the whole thing.)

Have you tried Google Chrome yet, Tim? I think it does the best job (so far) of getting out of the way -- of making the browser sort of disappear. I could absolutely imagine a pretty functional netbook w/ no OS; just Google Chrome.

Chrome is great. I don't use Windows much these days, but I basically pimped Safari 4 to work like Chrome, and then I've got Firefox-plus-extensions for most browsing. I also use Fluid to make an SSB for Gmail (and Facebook, but that's less successful.)

But I love teeny client apps. Even Chrome is too much browser to do what Twitteriffic or Dropbox do; iTunes and Songbird are better for music; NetNewsWire/MarsEdit for reading/writing blogs, etc... (despite the fact that MarsEdit can't talk to Movable Type to save its life...)

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