Saturday, October 08, 2005

Everyday Sites (and some unsolved problems)

Robert Scoble, Microsoft's corporate blogger, earlier this week wrote a post saying that he likes Web applications if he uses them less than 10 minutes a day and prefers Windows software if he uses them more often. I used to be like that (well, substitute "local" for Windows -- my operating system preferences are elsewhere), but my circumstances have changed so much in the last few years, and the Web has improved so much, that I'm finding myself spending most of my time on the Web. This is significant because, unlike several years ago, I'm a regular user now. My job isn't in technology. This should worry Microsoft.

First, the circumstances, some of which are unique to me:

  • I'm never more than a few steps from a broadband or wirelessly connected PC or device.
  • I work on several different computers. The one at work isn't mine and my employer barely lets me save anything on its hard disk. At home, we have a wireless network and I'm either using one of two desktop computers or a laptop. When traveling, I'm using Internet-cafe style computers or whatever happens to be on the desk at the local bureau. The implications of that is that a local application just complicates my life. A local blog reader, for example, couldn't easily keep track of what I've read and what's new. My email would be in pieces all over the place. The documents I'm working on would have to be kept in sync, laboriously.
  • A vanishingly small part of my output needs to be kept local. I'm a news wire editor -- the only thing that matters in my work is what gets sent to newspapers. And nothing spends long on my screen. I recently picked up a USB flash disk pen and I'm having trouble thinking of stuff I need to keep on it. I used to have a Palm Pilot, but gave it to my daughter because it was yet another thing to carry and was redundant. Since I stopped being a reporter, I'm rarely out of the office. When I travel, it's to another desk.

The result is that the Web is a more natural place for me to keep my data than a local disk. Within minutes of sitting at a new desk, everything I write, bookmark or photograph is available to me, without me having to do anything more complicated than open a browser and type in an address.

That's been true for a while, but the early Web applications were painful and awkward to use. That's changing. Whether you call it "Web 2.0" -- the current meaningless hype word -- there's no denying that the applications are becoming less of a joke. In the past, for example, I used Hotmail only in a dire emergency. Today, Gmail is my main email client and I like it. With a reasonably fast Internet connection, today's Web apps are responsive and feature rich enough. The key word is enough. I've been using computers for so long now that I'm jaded. I don't care if you have 80 features, compared with 74 at your rival. I just want to get my work done. The simpler, the better.

Here's the current list of sites that I find I use everyday. Crucially, every one of these works on every computer I use, Windows or Linux:

  • I've written many times about this before, so I won't spend too much on it. This is where I start, because it keeps track of all of my Web bookmarks. Mine are added here. In Firefox, I can even "subscribe" to different tags and they appear identical to regular bookmarks. So, for example, if I add a new news Web site at work, it shows up automatically under "news" on the bookmarks menu at home.
  • Gmail: Again, mentioned many times previously. In my opinion, it's the best Web client around right now, even compared with the admirable efforts at Hotmail and Yahoo to match it. It does force you to rethink how you use email a bit -- no folders, for example -- but once you get use to its methods, I think it's superior. It has an excellent spam filter, basically because you have millions of users refining its filters. You still need to be invited to get an account, as far as I know. If you want to try it, email me.
  • Backpack: I'm a notoriously disorganized person, which is one of the reasons I work in daily (or minute-ly) journalism. I have a difficult time managing long-term projects and am a terrible procrastinator. To-do lists help. Even though I know what I have to do next, checking it off a list keeps me moving. Backpack provides up to five free pages, which can contain just about anything -- notes, photos, etc. I just use three pages for to-do lists -- personal, work, and daily (stuff I have to do every day).
  • Writely: This is one of the most useful sites I've found in a long time. It's a word processor and document manager for the Web. You create documents in a simple, but very Word-like editor. You can also share them with anyone with an email address. One feature that I'm using a lot is its ability to post to a blog. I find Writely a superior editor for Blogger. You can write your post using the full screen, for example, rather than Blogger's puny little form. I wrote this page in Writely.
  • Flickr: Again, I've written about this loads of times, but Flickr is the best application right now for managing your photos. And the fact that it's on the Web is irrelevant.

Here's a few others that I use everyday, but are just candidates or in a bit of a flux.

  • SearchFox: This is an interesting new blog reader that I'm trying. I subscribe to around 80 blog feeds, which can be a bit hard to handle, especially if I'm busy and miss a few days. SearchFox watches what you read, what you mark as favorites, what titles catch your eye, etc., and orders the blog posts to show you first what it thinks you'll find most interesting. It's still a work in progress and invite only. (If you want an account, message with your preferred username and use my reference code xb17.) It still has a few drawbacks -- it doesn't automatically find feeds given a regular Web address like Bloglines does, for example, and it takes a while to learn your preferences well enough to become really useful. I have a high volume of blogs and it took it a few weeks to start picking out the real gems.
  • Yahoo Calendar: I use Yahoo for my calendar, but I'm not thrilled with it. There are lot of garish advertisements and it's slower and more complicated than I would like. It does have all of the features you'd want -- recurring appointments, alarms, ability to sync data with personal devices, etc. But it just doesn't thrill me. I'm still looking.

There are several drawbacks to using Web applications. Here are few:

  • Keeping track of all of those accounts. No one has come up with a good solution for this that works across platforms. I need it to work on both Windows and Linux, and the Mac would be a nice plus (because I plan on getting one of those soon). At the moment, I keep an encrypted file with all of my usernames and passwords and keep it in Gmail. It's an awkward system. The alternatives are less than secure -- using the same password for everything, or using only passwords that are very easy to remember.
  • They have your data. My data isn't earth-shaking important, but it's still not good to leave it exclusively in the hands of companies such as Google. My approach is to spread my data among several companies, try to keep the same piece of information in more than one place and only use services that provide a way to easily export it, so that I can take my stuff elsewhere if need be. Part of that is keeping my stuff in portable formats -- text, HTML, JPEG, XML. I avoid any kind of "digital rights management" or proprietary formats.
  • No one has come up with a good Web app for my most abundant data: music. I have 25 gigabytes of the stuff (all legal). At the moment, I keep it in portable MP3 format (I would have used a loss-less file format if I were forward-thinking enough, but I'm not), mirror the collection between two computers at home and keep another copy on my iPod. We need a Flickr for music, assuming someone has the guts to locate it on a deserted island and stand up to the record companies.
  • Finally, and this isn't exactly a drawback, but there are still applications that I prefer to use locally -- Skype, Firefox, Emacs.

Even with those drawbacks, my attention (a scarce resource) is being spent more and more on line. I read with interest everything Microsoft's Scoble wrote about the latest professional developers conference, where his company trotted out all the stuff it's planning on shipping in the next year (or three). But I wasn't excited about it; there's was no feeling of anticipation. I've had it with pretty animations, sculpted interfaces and pretty buttons. I just want to write things for the Web, share my photos, communicate and keep track of information. And these days, I can do that anywhere.

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