Archive, Don't Delete

I'm one of the lucky … actually I have no idea how many or few have Google Inbox. In any case, I was graciously sent an invite, and have been using it on the web and on my Android phone since then. I love almost everything about it. I particularly love the fact that Inbox seems to be able to divine what archetype an email has. Is it spam? Don't show it to me. Is it travel-related? Bundle it up. Same with purchases, social network notifications, promos, etc. It even does a good job of prioritizing each bundle, and only showing notifications when it thinks it's urgent — configurable of course. It's pretty great.

I don't love how hard it is to delete an item. You have to dive down deeply into an overflow menu on a particular email to find the "Trash" button. I wish it was more easily accessible — I don't know man, I guess I'm a deleter. I remember buying a 320mb harddrive called "Bigfoot" because it was so humongous, but even then I had to manage my space in order to fit everything. So I can't help but feel like this is a generational issue, and I'm now a relic of the past. It had to happen eventually, and I'm getting a really strong vibe that the ceremonial burial of the trash button was very much intentional. It's behaviorism: teaching you not to delete, because archiving is faster and safer.

The crux of the Inbox app is the embracing of the idea that an email is a task. This is contrary to a very popular notion that you should very much separate those two paradigms as much as you can, so it's very interesting to see Google leaning into it. Combined with their concept of "bundles", I think it makes it work.

Let's walk through it: it's Monday morning and you just arrived at the office to open up your email. You received a couple of promos from Spotify and Amazon in one bundle, an unbundled email from mom, 9 bundled Facebook notifications, and two shipping notifications in a bundle. The one email worth looking at is immediately obvious, so you can either tap "Done" on the "Promos", "Purchases" and "Social" bundles to end up with only the one email, or you can pin moms email and tap the "Sweep" button. Everything but the email that needs your attention is archived and marked "Done", and it took seconds.

This is how Inbox is supposed to work. You archive tasks you're done with, you don't delete. If something important did happen to be in one of the tasks you quickly marked done, it's still there, accessible via a quick search. If you get a lot of email, I really do believe that embracing Inbox will take away stress from your daily life. All it asks is that you let go of your desire to manage your archive. You have to accept that there are hundreds of useless Facebook notification emails in your archive, emails you'd previously delete. It's okay, they're out of sight, out of mind, and no you won't run out of space because of them. Checking 9 boxes and then picking the delete button, as opposed to simply clicking one "Done" button — the time you spend adds up, and you need to let go.

I know this. I understand this. As a webdesigner myself, I think there are profound reasons for hiding the delete button. It's about letting machines do the work for you, so you can do more important things instead, like spending time with your family. It's the right thing to do. And I'm not quite ready for it yet. Can I have the trash button be a primary action again, please, Google?

The One Platform Is Dead

I used to strongly believe the future of apps would be rooted in web-technologies such as HTML5. Born cross-platform, they'd be really easy to build, and bold new possiblities were just around the corner. I still believe webapps will be part of the future, but recently I've started to think it's going to be a bit more muddled than that. If you'll indulge me the explanation will be somewhat roundabout.

The mobile era in computing, more than anything, helped propel interface design patterns ahead much faster than decades of desktop operating systems did. We used to discuss whether your app should use native interface widgets or if it was okay to style them. While keeping them unstyled is often still a good idea, dwelling on it would be navelgazing, as it's no longer the day and night indicator whether an app is good or not. In fact we're starting to see per-app design languages that cross not only platforms, but codebases too. Most interestingly, these apps don't suck! You see it with Google rolling out Material Design across Android and web-apps. Microsoft under Satya Nadella is rolling out their flatter-than-flat visual language across not only their own Windows platforms, but iOS and Android as well. Apple just redesigned OSX to look like iOS.

It feels like we're at a point where traditional usability guidelines should be digested and analyzed for their intent, rather than taken at dogmatic face value. If it looks like a button, acts like a button, or both, it's probably a button. What we're left with is a far simpler arbiter for success: there are good designs and there are bad designs. It's as liberatingly simple as not wearing pants.

dogma (noun) a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true

The dogma of interface design has been left by the wayside. Hired to take its place is a sense of good taste. Build what works for you and keep testing, iterating and responding to feedback. Remembering good design patterns will help you take shortcuts, but once in a while we have to invent something. It either works or it doesn't, and then you can fix it.

It's a bold new frontier, and we already have multiple tools to build amazing things. No one single technology or platform will ever "win", because there is no winning the platform game. The operating system is increasingly taking a back seat to the success of ecosystems that live in the cloud. Platform install numbers will soon become a mostly useless metric for divining who's #winning this made-up war of black vs. white. The ecosystem is the new platform, and because of it it's easier than ever to switch from Android to iOS.

It's a good time to build apps. Come up with a great idea, then pick an ecosystem. You'll be better equipped to decide what type of code you'll want to write: does your app only need one platform, multiple, or should it be crossplatform? It's only going to become easier: in a war of ecosystems, the one that's the most open and spans the most platforms will be the most successful. It'll be in the interest of platform vendors to run as many apps as possible, whether through multiple runtimes or just simplified porting. It won't matter if you wrote your app in HTML5, Java, or C#: on a good platform it'll just work. Walled gardens will stick around, of course, but it'll be a strategy that fewer and fewer companies can support.

No, dear reader, I have not forgotten about Jobs' Thoughts on Flash. Jobs was right: apps built on Flash were bad. That's why today is such an exciting time. People don't care about the code behind the curtain.

If it's good, it's good.

Chromecast

Ordered the Google Chromecast the other day. It's a little HDMI dongle you put into your TV to make it smarter. Amazing gadget, I must say, it's been a while since I was this excited about a piece of electronics. It's not that it's that full-featured — right now it's only actually useful if all you need is YouTube and Netflix (which happens to be the case for me) — rather, it's the implications of the device that excites me.

It doesn't have a remote control, and the device does nothing on its own. The remote is your phone or your tablet or your desktop. All the device does is receive streams from the internet, and you "suggest" those streams from your handheld. In essence it downgrades your "smart-TV" (or in my case, upgrades my dumb-TV) into being simply a display capable of receiving input. It removes every single bit of UI and interaction from the television itself, and propels it onto that thing you have in your pocket regardless.

The concept alone blew my mind when the implications sank in. I doubt it's controversial to say that television UIs have sucked for decades. Just pick up your remote control and look at it, chances are you'll find more than twenty buttons, 90% of which you've used only once. Alright maybe you picked up an Apple TV remote — vast improvement over most other remotes, but why is that? Right: fewer buttons. Which is why requiring all interaction happen on your smartphone is such a novel idea: by virtue of being a sheet of capacitative glass, your television remote now has only the buttons necessary, and only when you need them. 

It's just great.

What's even better is not having to switch on your television and change to the "HDMI" channel. The Chromecast is always listening for input, so if you tell it to play Netflix, it'll turn on your TV for you, on the right channel no less. When you turn off the television again (alright, I suppose you do need your remote for that — and for volume), your Netflix app will pause the show you were watching. 

This is how television is supposed to work. They've cracked it.

Yeah sure, it's early. Most people will need set-top boxes for a while still. For a 1.0, however, the Chromecast is remarkable. If only Netflix would auto-play the next episode in a TV show, if only Pocket Casts was Chromecast enabled… But hey, this dongle auto-updates transparently in the background. Who knows, maybe next time I turn on the televison, there it is. It is Chrome-based, after all.

A Window With A Chrome Finish

The once-mythical GooOS has materialized, and it’s carved in Chrome. Google has just announced that they’re entering the operating system arena with their own offering, Google Chrome OS. Here are the facts:

  • Linux-core
  • Initially targeted for Netbooks, later also for full size desktops
  • New windowing system
  • Focused on getting you on the web quickly
  • Open source
  • Will run on x86 (Intel) and ARM processors
  • Will be available this year as a download, OEMs second half 2010
  • The business model: happier users that spend more time on the internet

Well this is exciting. Translated roughly from pressreleasish, this means that Google is now entering a cold war with  Microsoft, Apple, Ubuntu, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and pretty much everyone else who has a stake in the web. The computer. The smartphone. It could work too; imagine it’s a little over a year from now, and your mom wants a new laptop. You surf onto dell.com and when you get to pick between operating systems, you can either pick Windows 7 Starter at an added price (and no ability to change the desktop wallpaper), or you can pick Google Chrome OS at no extra cost. Both run Gmail and Facebook. Which sums up the extent of the chromic bomb Google dropped last night.

For Your Mom

beos5

Chrome OS may succeed where many others have failed. It may succeed by simply leveraging the ignorance that’s keeping people on Internet Explorer 6; the very same ignorance that makes your mom think Google is a browser (which I remind you, it wasn’t always). Why should’nt it be? With Android, Google got their fingers dirty with Linux. With Chrome, they surprised many (possibly even themselves) with the ability to bring the minified Google interface to an application, without getting flak from the “pretty is important”-brigade. Opportunity awaits in operating system country, and it’s fueled by I don’t care what my computer runs, as long as it works. It’s a match made in the cloud.

Canonizing Linux

It’ll be interesting to see what the implications are for Ubuntu. Whether there are casualties or opportunities created when a new massive open source project is announced, is a very tricky discussion. One could argue that Firefox is in trouble with the existence of Google Chrome and certainly something similar could be the case for Ubuntu with the emergence of Chrome OS.

Or, it could mean the opposite. The market is a pretty large cake, and even the smallest slice is larger than it seems. So on the flipside, if Google Chrome OS takes off, it’ll mean that high profile apps will suddenly also appear on the Linux platform. Sure, right now Google proclaims HTML5 and CSS to be the new SDK, but so did Apple when the iPhone launched. Given time, I find it likely that “real”, compiled apps, will still be necessary for a number of things. So just possibly, Chrome OS means Ubuntu users will finally get Photoshop on their platform. And perhaps it won’t even be slow.

The System Font

One of the core tenets of Linux has always been free (as a bird). Which means it’s not so compatible with non-free stuff like Helvetica and Flash Player being bundled with the system. So let’s indulge in speculation for a moment: Chrome OS will be Google branded and so when Google opens the source of the OS, it’ll likely result in Chromium OS (as it did for Chrome). Whether this will solve the non-free problem, or upset the gentle Linux eco-system further, remains to be seen.

Timing Is Crucial

According to Robert Scoble, there’s a reason why Google announces Chrome OS this week:

Why did Google announce Chrome OS this week? Well, of course, Microsoft has a big announcement coming on Monday (I’m embargoed). (#)

While I do find it somewhat odd that Chrome OS is being launched without even a single Comicbook to go along, the timing could simply be a matter of coinciding with Windows 7 going gold (which I read somewhere is scheduled for this monday). However, if we are to read any significance in to Scobles comments (which history suggests we shouldn’t), Microsofts upcoming announcement is likely to be somewhat related to Googles Chrome OS announcement. Could it be that Microsoft is finally shedding the DOS baggage and rebooting Windows with a new product, codenamed Windows Begins? With Google Chrome OS just announced, such an announcement would certainly lack the same punch.

Then again, it’s probably just yet another Microsoft attempt to copy Googles success. In fact, it’s probably Google Docs, but from Microsoft: Microsoft LiveBing for Workgroups (you know, because it’s collaborative).

Perhaps, Finally, People Will Stop Using Internet Explorer 6

Search is not Googles core business, Google Adsense is. And so, the more web-apps Google can make and place Google ads in, the better Google is doing. And so it once again boils down to Microsofts gift to the internet, the curse known as Internet Explorer 6, an obsolete browser which which reads web-apps like a conservative christian would read The Origin of Species; try a few pages, then give up and burn the rest. In the fight against Internet Explorer 6, the operating system as chosen by OEMs is the final frontier. So in a way, Internet Explorer 6 probably paved the way for Chrome OS. Thanks?