RIP Steve

Good old Steve, we should perhaps not be surprised at what seems like his swift demise, in retrospect it’s perhaps simple to understand that Apple was not just his lifes work, but put simply his life too. When he told us those few weeks ago that he could no longer fulfil his role at the top and stepped down the more perceptive amongst us should probably have seen it for what it was.

I didn’t. Maybe the more perceptive that did wisely kept their mouth shut, for which I am grateful. It was a huge shock.

But oddly it doesn’t upset me, it just fills me with a strange sense of purpose. I have no personal anecdotes to relate in order to confirm a link to Steve directly, or even to Apple products in general. I’ve only used a Mac since after the Intel switch. You could say I am one of the “nouveau riche” in the world of experiencing computing in a different way, I never really appreciated what abundance of simple pleasures awaited me over the fence, and how poor my previous existence was until very recently. I have never used anything older than Mac OS X 10.4.

During the last 4 years or so I have almost totally changed my attitudes to using computers, and I certainly wish I had jumped aboard the train a lot earlier than I did. I can’t say I was ever wary of the “cult” criticisms, although I was certainly aware of them, and while there is probably a grain of truth in there it’s more accurate to say that it’s more of a movement than anything else. And all movements have their figureheads. We just lost ours, but there’s no reason to dwell on the sadness and every reason to keep the momentum going. Steve’s greatest creation wasn’t a device, or an OS, it was a culture, not a cult, and one that remains the same today as it did yesterday.

Today starts a new chapter, but the plot is firmly fixed, and the story continues.

RIP Steve.

In defence of inefficiency

In years gone by the definition of a “power user” has subtly altered as more and more people not only own more and more computers, but become more familiar with how they operate, and more competent at actually doing the things that we have been told for years they will help us to do.

It’s a phrase I have never particularly liked, and one that is increasingly unhelpful when it comes down to assessing the relative skills of a user. It’s also largely only ever used by people who already consider themselves to be “power users”, which immediately skews the meaning somewhat and somehow makes it self serving. My brother understands cars more than I ever will, can fix them up, describe their inner workings and drive them faster and likely more safely than me. He’s not a power driver though, that would be ridiculous.

When I first started messing with computers properly, and certainly when I started to do it professionally (and that is another term that I have beef with) I considered myself a power user, and if asked for a definition of that phrase I would probably have suggested that it would describe someone who knows how a computer and it’s operating system combine with application software (there were no Apps back then!) to allow you to achieve some end result, and that the power user would understand the whole end to end process sufficiently to be able to not just know what to do, but understand why you are doing it. And in extension of this, should said power user need to do something for the first time, they should be able to work it out from first principles without having to be taught the new actions required or refer to any manual etc. That’s very wordy, but there is no simple soundbite phrase that covers all the elements in a nicer way that I can think of.

In short, a power user was a someone who knew how their computer worked, and was able to use it to achieve tasks that they might not have been taught to do by anyone else because, like maths, once you understand the concepts you have no need of learning times tables to infinity by rote any more.

These days most people with a computer could probably fit that description at least up to a point. A combination of improved usability and capabilities of the whole computing eco system, along with the prevalence of computers in everyday environments (these days you are a minority case if you do not have at least one computer of some description with some form of internet connectivity in your household or workplace) means that today my retired mother can probably do more on her first Macbook that I could have done with my first PC, even with limited tuition or training.

But of course, those of us who live and breathe computers, whether for fun or for money, have the need to set ourselves apart from the regular Joes, and the way in which we do this has changed over the years. Previously, we could just do more. Now thanks to technological progress we can all do the same, so we need to find a new differentiator. So we’re going to have to do the same, but faster.

Santa’s little helper

Say hello to a whole host of tools to help me, the power user, stand out from the regular crowd by using a suite of applications and services that allow me to do things differently to my dear Mum. I’m looking at you TextExpander, and you Launchbar, Keyboard Maestro, FastScripts and so on. If you’ve even heard of these programs, much less used them, you are probably entering power user land.

Using everyday actions like starting a program from it’s dock icon, using the built in keyboard shortcuts where available etc are all out of the window. It’s not enough to be able to do what we need, we need to do it faster, with less key presses, and we certainly do not want to take our hands off the keyboard to go near the mouse unless it is strictly necessary.

I have to say, I don’t use any of these tools. It’s not that I am dismissive of them, but I could never fit them into my way or working. And I think I just worked out why. It’s not that I am incapable of first of all knowing that such tools exist, and then learning a) how to use them, and b) how to adapt my workflow to include them into it, in order to make myself a faster and leaner computer user. It’s more that I don’t feel the need to increase my productivity in such a way that requires me to change the way I use my computer in a way other than it might have been designed.

I think a part of this is that I don’t use my Mac for professional purposes, it’s very much my home and hobby machine. I spent 12/13 years supporting Unix servers in commercial enterprises. I learned all the arcane keyboard tricks for multiple shells, and could navigate a text file in vi like a man possessed. At work knowing how to shave 10 seconds off the performing of a task yielded tangible benefits, either I got rid of the annoying user faster, or I got more time to talk toot with the rest of the cubicle monkeys, or I got to slope of for longer lunch breaks and so on.

I’ve tried to use Quicksilver and Launchbar and Alfred, and any number of similar tools, and never been happy with the results. I’ve always assumed that it was because the particular app didn’t quite suit how I like to perform a certain action, or perhaps because I wanted it to do even more things beyond what it wanted to allow me, as if even the power tool wasn’t powerful enough for me. For a while I even nurtured a few thoughts that since moving away from a technical role to a managerial one at work I had some how “lost it”, and was in a downward spiral into regular user land.

Then it struck home. When I am at home, what is the motivation for doing things faster? I’m using my computer in a completely different mode to at work. I don’t want to save 10 seconds filing away a dozen emails by calling my customised applescript via a customised keystroke. It gains me nothing, but forces me to turn my brain into work mode. It’s not a chore that must be paired down to the minimum actions that produce the maximum efficiency that I can extract from the process. If I start a photo editing application, it’s not a task to get it out of the way as fast as possible, I’m there to enjoy my photos while I am cropping them and tagging them.

The innate power user need for increasing my productivity and doing things ever faster in a more streamlined workflow is directly irreconcilable with my requirement to enjoy what I am doing. Efficiency such as what these tools lead us towards, is a step away from the creative mode of using my computer to do something for myself. Those few seconds longer it takes me to do something, or the extra few steps required provide me with breathing space to appreciate what I am doing, have just done, or am about to do. I don’t exactly use my computer to create earth shatteringly amazing works of art, but to take the efficiency drive to it’s logical conclusion would have me slaving over ways to edit my photos faster for example, which would surely result in failing to enjoy the process, and as such failing to appreciate my photos etc. I could save time changing my slideshow settings to show each picture for 4 seconds rather than 5, but where is the requirement to reduce the time it takes to do something I have chosen to do, rather than need to do? This blog post has taken roughly an hour to write since I thought up the topic. When I click publish in a few more minutes, I’ll be using my mouse and clicking buttons rather than using shortcuts, and won’t be using any time saving mechanisms to publish it faster. Would saving even 5 minutes of the time taken to load up a text editor normally, write it, copy it into WordPress and so on have yielded anything useful? Would this blog post be any better had I had a few minutes more time through using MarsEdit?

I’m not saying these tools don’t have a place, many people who have different usage requirements will and do find them essential. But I would questions the motives of anyone who is using them because of some internal need to be a “power user”, like it was some sort of entry requirement in the hall of fame for geeks and nerds.

I’d be interested to hear from people who use these tools in a non professional environment and have other views.

Just another device after all

Today I rebooted my phone for the first time in many many months. Other than for software upgrades I can’t recall a time when I have chosen to fully power cycle the device for reasons other than a dead battery, and even that is a relatively rare occurrence these days.

The reason? Well, it just didn’t feel right. Pressing the home button was encountering odd delays as if it had not registered the key press, and overall the whole thing just felt, well slow. This might not seem an unusual thing for many people, but it had immediately drawn my attention. It’s a testament to the general speed of the device as a whole that you start to wonder what is wrong when a few seconds delay is introduced to tasks, rather than appreciate the fact that you are normally saved from such mundane irritations. Of course, the iPhone hasn’t always been super responsive at all times, the first release of iOS 3 on the iPhone 3G did indeed reduce it to a crawl on text entry until it was patched but these day, well if it was a proper “Mac” I would say it certainly has “teh snappy” these days.

So, that was the reason for rebooting the phone, but not the reason for it feeling slow. Did it fix it? Sadly the answer was a resounding no.

No space at the inn

Running out of space on iOS

So after a morning of confusion I am finally alerted to the culprit. I’m out of space. Thinking back the last thing I did was take video of my daughter playing, and it’s tipped the scales of the device. However, this doesn’t really explain the general slowness of the device satisfactorily to me. I could understand apps not wanting to start, or crashing, or otherwise producing errors of some sort, but just being slow? Odd. It’s not as though it is using any virtual memory to try to shuffle apps around like other mobile OS attempt, so its storage situation should just remain static when performing simple phone operations like setting an alarm or viewing the calendar etc. A bit more digging showed me that I has precisely 0 bytes available:

Zero Bytes Free

Naturally suspicious, I then took a screenshot which as you can see worked, so I suspect that there is a certain amount of leeway in what it considers to be free space or not!

Anyway, the problem identified I went ahead and removed a couple of videos as suggested and we are back to cooking on gas. So, was there anything useful to take away from a simple problem? I think so.

It’s not magical after all

Firstly, it just goes to show how much we take for granted the capabilities of the iPhone and devices like it. It never occurred to me, or rather it has never manifested that there was some finite limit on it’s capabilities that was as mundane as storage. OK, you come across this when trying to stuff it full of films to take on holiday etc, but this is during a time of (for want of a better word) “maintenance”, not necessarily normal use. Day to day, I’ve spent since launch doing whatever I wanted without ever hitting a limit that curtailed my usage, whether than be running out of space, connectivity, speed, or anything else for that matter. Days like today make you realise it’s just a computer after all. Damn fine and all that, but just an operating system, running on a selection of components that have their limits.

Also, always get the biggest device you can afford with regards to storage! With talk of the upcoming 8MP camera in the next iPhone, we can only expect to use up the available space faster than ever before. In a similar vein, I suspect I must have gotten close to whatever invisible threshold iOS deems “full” in the past, but have likely synced in sufficient time to empty out the pictures and videos before hitting the storage wall. I have occasionally synced at the same time as charging, just because that was the nearest USB socket, but with the upcoming Wireless sync and iCloud photo stream that may change my sync strategy, i.e. I may stop doing it at all and thus be more susceptible to running out of space.

There’s an old adage in computing that you will always use the space available to you, whether you have a 20Mb drive, or a 2Tb one. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it eventually happened on the phone too, just perhaps surprised at how long it took.

Fresh Installs, or How to Find New Stuff and Stuff You Just Never Knew

Upgrades being what they are, namely quick and easy on a Mac, many people have never needed to reinstall their OS from scratch, and indeed most people should never need to. I have read of people who have been using the same OS image, that has been upgraded 4 times over as many machines and half as many hardware platforms.

I, however, like to install from scratch each time there is a new OS, mainly because it’s a neat way to remove the crud that I accumulate (I install a lot more stuff than the average user I imagine, for example I have attempted to install at least a half dozen driver/application packages for a Mobile Broadband dongle that would’t work under Snow Leopard, none of which a) worked, or b) got uninstalled), but also because it’s a great way to discover the neat new stuff that appears. When was the last time you trawled every option in system preferences? Probably when your machine was first purchased. This is where I start with any fresh install.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. This time, I had been using Lion for several months as part of the developer program, and as such decided to try something new. I scalped the Dock. Every icon, every app, gone. Launchpad, AppStore, FaceTime, Photobooth the works. Get rid of them. I long ago switched to using Spotlight for application launching, and many people use third party tools such as Launchpad and Alfred etc. A combination of this and the new gestures for switching between programs and such like means the only thing I ever use the Dock for is emptying the trash. I predict that there will be no Dock if not in 10.8, then the one after.

Next, I hit up System Preferences, and make the following changes:

General

Set a highlight colour, completely unimportant, but I like to change the colour every so often, and try to pick one that matches the wallpaper I have. No idea why really, just feels good to mix it up a little.

Desktop & Screen Saver

Desktop – pick one of the new backgrounds. It was Mt Fuji on Snow Leopard, I’m on the Eagle Waterfall in Lion. Screen Saver – unlike what I just said, I always keep this as Paper Shadow – go figure.

Dock

Reduce the size, and set auto hide to on. Turn off the indicator lights for running applications – I don’t have anything in my Dock, so if it’s in there, I know it’s running, don’t need the light to show me.

Mission Control

Depending on if I am on a portable or a desktop, I may remap the keys for showing the desktop etc, largely depending on if I also have a magic trackpad in which case I never use the keys.

Security & Privacy

General – Set the time to requiring a password after sleep to 1 minute. Show a message when the screen is locked, currently it’s set to “This computer belongs to Dan Wilkinson. Please contact dan@stuffe.net for a reward if found.”, but as this is a new option, I may tweak the text over time to get that nice balance between pleading and bribing… Filevault – Turn this on for portables, I don’t bother with the desktops, possibly because they don’t have SSD drives so the performance hits may be more noticeable – it barely is on the Macbook Air. Firewall – Turn this on. Seriously, why does this default to off? Privacy – Turn on sending of diagnostics to Apple – I figure if everyone did this, it probably does help identify problems fast than would happen otherwise.

Universal Access

Click to enable access for assistive devices. I have no idea what these are, but you come across the odd program like Steam that requires it.

CDs & DVDs

Turn off any and all automatic actions on disc insertion. So irritating trying to second guess me.

Energy Saver

The new name for power management. I fiddle with the settings variously depending on which machine I am doing it on. on the iMac I turn off the automatically reduce brightness before the display goes to sleep setting, as the screen makes an awful buzz when dimmed in this way. I leave it on elsewhere as it’s a handy reminder to whack a key should you actually still be doing something like reading etc.

Keyboard

Change full keyboard access to all controls. Embarrassed to say I only discovered this a few months ago, even though it’s always been there! It allows you to tab between OK and Cancel buttons for example, rather than having to use the mouse, and then use space or enter to select either the minor or major highlighted option. A great timesaver.

Trackpad

Turn on tap to click. To be honest, this is probably the very first thing I do, after logging in with any new install! Also, turn on App Expose in the more gestures tab.

Printer

Add my printer, this sits hung off the back of my Airport Extreme router, so it’s just a case of tick the box and download the drivers automatically.

Sound

Turn off the volume icon in the task bar, turn off feedback for volume changes – you can see onscreen the levels etc, no need for a beep, and if you are muting to prevent unnecessary noises when recording audio, for example, you don’t want it adding a beep in there when you realise you are half way through and forgot to do it already.

MobileMe

Log in, set to fully replace all data on the computer at the next sync, and set everything to sync except Dashboard, Dock and Prefs – turn on Back to my Mac.

Bluetooth

Turn this off for anything that doesn’t need it for peripherals (i.e off on the Air, on on the iMac), and get rid of the icon in the task bar.

Sharing

Change the computers name to something more descriptive, and turn on file/screen sharing. Set a VNC password.

Users & Groups

Create a new Admin user, remove admin rights from my normal user, remove fast user switching menu bar icon. This does add extra steps when upgrading/installing software, but that’s not necessarily an every day task, so the added security is probably worth it. Set the Apple ID – it asks for this during install, but then fails to make the connection, which I am not sure is a bug or just odd.

Date & Time

Show the date in the clock, check the location data is finding a sensible city.

Time Machine

Point the thing at my backup drive, which these days is attached to another machine and shared out. Set encryption to yes in the options. Prepare to come back here later to add areas like Steam data files to the exclude list as and when they get installed.

That’s pretty much it for the preferences. I always recommend trawling through these after every major upgrade. Things change, get renamed and moved etc, and there is always something new that you may want to alter.

After this little marathon is over, I then start to configure some of the included apps with some changes. These include changing the battery icon to show percentage left, changing finder preferences so new windows start with my home folder not the “all my files” one, changing Safari to always show tabs and configure iTunes to use Home Sharing.

I may follow up this article with the next steps, which are to install and license all the software that I find essential. Over time this will get easier as I migrate more software to the App Store editions, but at a bare minimum I fire up DropBox, then the 1Password installer, because if nothing else, it holds all my license keys for non App Store software in a datafile on DropBox!

I hope you found at least one setting that you had never considered changing before, and if you have any “must change” configurations that you insist upon, or think I have missed something you consider mandatory, then let me know.

Regards,

Dan

Tools for taming the web: prologue

In a previous post, I talked about how I felt that the web had become an unruly mess, and promised a further article outlining a few of the ways we could help to disentangle ourselves from it’s clutches with tools that helped to remove the years of tarnish, grime, and occasional extra licks of paint from the websites we visit and allow us to if not increase our enjoyment, at least reduce our frustrations.

Well, sadly it took as long as I feared it might and hoped it wouldn’t, and it’s still in progress, but in truth it is a good thing that I was so laggardly in completing it, as since the time of writing the original article a number of changes have taken place in the areas I was intending to cover that would have made it instantly out of date, and the scope for what was already becoming a veritable leviathan of a post increased considerably.

So, sorry about that, and this time I will merely say it will be ready when it is ready.

That’s how I scroll

Muscle memory is an odd term. Unlike our real muscles which need to be exercised regularly if we are to build them up, muscle memory is gained through the repetitive motion of minimal effort.

We computer slaves lazily build up our muscle memory, getting our minds ripped without even noticing, building up muscles on top of muscles, muscles in places where most users don’t even have places… Keyboard shortcuts, gestures on trackpads and even physically opening the lid of your laptop. We have no need of steroids and maxi-muscle whey supplements, mere time is the catalyst to getting our minds buffed.

I realised today that I could open the lid of my Macbook Air, enter my username and password, then quickly jump into Mission Control in almost a single motion, and without any conscious effort. I don’t need to think about how much pressure to use with the lid in order to open it without lifting the base off the desk at the same time, or look at the keys to see what I am typing, or think about how many fingers I am using to make the appropriate gesture etc. It just happens. I’ve spent enough time with my computer to build up the muscle memory to impressive proportions.

This sounds like a good thing, experience and time alone help to speed up the everyday things we do, meaning we expend less effort, both physically and mentally, which presumably frees you up to expend that elsewhere, on the new stuff, on the things that you actually need to concentrate on in order to do them. But, like all good things there is a downside, one that allows the 6 stone weakling users who still have to methodically and consciously direct their thoughts at normal thinking speed to kick sand in the faces of us, we the Charles Atlases of computing, and that is this: Unlike real muscle, failing to use muscle memory does not make it less effective over time.

But surely this is a good thing? It can be, if your usage for those muscles never changes, but when it does, when you need to learn something different, rather than something new, it causes mayhem with our suddenly puny minds.

I first noticed this when switching to use Firefox on my work laptop. Having shunned I.E. for anything that wasn’t work related I had used Opera for many years. It did the job, and I never had an issue with it. At home, I would use Safari on my Mac, and likewise be happy enough. Then, for whatever reason, I had to swap Opera out for Firefox, and a battle has begun with my own mind that I am in no way close to ever winning.

You see, in both Opera and Safari, when right clicking on a link within a webpage the first option would be ‘Open in new Window’, followed by ‘Open in New Tab’. I couldn’t tell you which order they were in until I checked a few seconds ago, but get me surfing around and throwing a few links into background tabs and I just do it, I know what to press, I never read the words on the context sensitive menu that pops up immediately after right clicking, I just do what I have learned to do after years of repetitive motion. Enter Firefox. The menu items are the other way around.

Now, I know they are the other way around, I know approximately a tenth of a second after I finish clicking that I have just done it wrong, but in no way can I stop myself from opening those links in windows instead of tabs. I cannot do it. The actions takes place, the realisation that I have just done it wrong AGAIN occurs, and I immediately close the new window that has arrived to mock me and do it again, this time reading the menu. It drives me mad. I have been using Firefox for almost 3 months now, and I am not sure I will ever manage to train myself out of this ridiculous dance. I think it’s because it’s not so much a change, but a deviance from the norm. If Safari changed to match, I would probably get it in the end.

Which brings me to Mac OS X 10.7. The roar of the mighty lion is insignificant to that heard when I scroll backwards in a document by accident. However, this time I have a fix. Like the relative order of the menu items across my browser software, the problem isn’t so much one of change, but one of deviance from the memory. Whilst my work PC scrolls one way, and my Mac now scrolls the other I seem doomed to frustration. The simple fix is to switch off the so called ‘natural’ scrolling on the Mac. A more complex fix might be to do the opposite, and hack Windows to swap the direction.

But I had a better idea. One that would leave me free to leave them both different, but still retain that muscle memory in such a way that would allow me to use both systems frustration free.

I binned my mouse.

That is to say, I took my mouse to work, replaced the slightly erratic and elderly work supplied one with it, and refuse to use one any more at home. on Windows, I scroll with a mouse. On my Mac I have graduated solely to a trackpad, both on the Macbook and with an external Magic Trackpad for the iMac. It’s genius. My iPhone has trained me to touch scroll that way without ever even realising it was different to using the scroll wheel on a mouse. I never get it wrong, on either machine.

And that, is how I scroll.

iBooks Irritations, Notations on Rotation

Just a quick one with regards to the iBooks app on iOS devices. Many people have previously noted the moving “store” icon which trades position depending on if you are using a large or small screen device, but today I found something else which is inconsistent between versions, and that is rotating.

I can understand it when an app is locked to a particular orientation, that’s perfectly fine most of the time (unless there is no reason why it simply can’t work in both) but I have found with iBooks that when used on an iPhone turning the phone upside down doesn’t flip the screen. It does on the iPad version, and it is after all a universal binary, so what gives?

You might be wondering how I found out, or more pertinently why I care – well, I only ever charge my iPad at night using a cable that lives behind the bedstead on a little shelf. It needs charging so irregularly that I just leave the phone charger there to charge whatever needs it at the time. It might be twice as slow as the iPad charger, but they can both share the same cable and I don’t care how long it takes when I know I am going to leave it on all night. This does result in occasionally having a flat iPad before going to bed, so when I fire it up for my nightly dose of Epic Fantasy I need to read with the cable plugged in.

Anyone who reads reclined will know the trick to turning the thing upside down so you can rest the iPad down without it balancing on your charging cable. Just seems a little odd that the iPhone doesn’t support it, because it can be just as irritating.

Anyone else got any daft rotation behaviour, particularly in first party apps?

Back to the cyber-future

The Web has come a long way since I first started using it in around 1993. Almost all of the many and various advancements over the years have been welcome evolutionary advancements, with the odd revolution thrown in for good measure. Taken year by year, surfing the Web has been easier, faster and more enjoyable with the passing of time. It would seem churlish, foolish even to complain about the riches the modern Web provides. But as with many things that change gradually, it’s only when you take the long view back that you realise that whilst the journey was great, you’ve ended up at the wrong destination.

So it is with how I feel about the Web. This isn’t about specific technologies, companies or standards, it’s about how something comes to be defined by the huge amorphous mass of humanity that started to use the Web, and to bend it to their will without an overarching design plan. The Web, is a mess. Surfing it has become an exercise in frustration rather than a source of pleasure. What would have simply amazed us 10, or even 5 years ago, now irritates us. There is no wonder people are going App crazy, the Web is bloated, ungainly, and ugly and is increasingly seen as something to bypass wherever possible. Luckily the great unwashed have seemingly seen fit to spare us the ongoing horror of sites like MySpace but even the staid and predictable site of the victor in that particular sphere is fast becoming a den of Web iniquity. Facebook website? No thanks, I’ll use the Mobile App, spare me from your distracting sprawl!

My Eyes! It Burns!

I’ll take one of my favourite tech sites (which I shan’t name, but you may recognise) as an example of what I mean. It’s got a nice logo, it’s got clever navigation, a good colour scheme, a professional look and feel in general, and distinct sections inviting me to do all sorts of clicking around. Sounds good, and to be honest in the grand scheme of things it IS good, but when you start to cast a critical eye over proceedings you start to realise how much of what you have just been presented with actually distracts you from the what you went there for, the whole point of using the site which is to see the stories they have carefully researched and written for your reading pleasure.

So, I manage to ignore the cruft, and select an article to read. It loads in a snap and I am presented with what should be the content I am interested in reading. What I get is a web page that has 12 distinct areas, of which only one is the article in question. There’s the site logo, the traditional navigation bar for the site as a whole, a large logo and headline for the section of the site that it is in, a “Top Stories” section with repeated navigational links and headlines for the various sections, still further a section with seemingly random other articles imploring me to “Read more”, job ads, an advert, tools for adjusting site options like font sizing etc, Facebook links with MORE site article links, social networking options asking me to like/tweet/dig and so on and so forth, a picture and link for a featured article and finally ANOTHER LINKS SECTION for non-article content related pages for the site (“About Us” and so on).

60 hyperlinks for various aspects of site navigation including a full duplicate set, once via text, once via icons 20 hyperlinks to other articles (2 of which are linking to the very page I am on) 14 social hyperlinks 4 links to job adverts Over 50 further links for various actions such as printing, viewing comments for the article in question or links to other sites etc (admittedly some of these are in a drop down menu or three) 13 pictures total, of which only 2 are a part of the article Dozens of icons variously preceding links and sections, often repeating the same generic tiny picture over, and over again.

Squeezed in on 3 sides by all these 150 plus links and assorted gubbins is the article I wanted to read.

And let me me fair here, I am not pointing this site out as a worst offender, far from it, in fact I consider this to be a good site, on the basis that there is only 1 Ad (it’s static, not at the top and not overly large, in fact compared with the sites own link flotsam and jetsam it’s almost too subtle to be noticed) and the article is presented as a single page without being needlessly chopped into tiny fragments in order to bait us into loading more ads (if there is one phrase I would wish to rid the world of it is “Read more, after the jump”…).

Can you say information overload?

Let’s step back and take a long hard look at our websites. It’s not a pretty picture is it? Imagine a time before the web when newspapers and magazines were our go-to for reading content. Now imagine every single page of your rag of choice, your weekly TV guide (remember those?), your monthly periodical were each and every one of them surrounded by an identical frame of this sort of crap. It’s like having the contents page on EVERY page, like each and every article being simultaneously given the front page treatment with red top logos and the page 2 treatment with subscription and publication information etc with the inside pages double ad spread to boot all at the same time. It would be in short, virtually unreadable.

So far so bad, but what can we do about it? Well, luckily for us one of the more recent trends in the Web is the ability to commit acts of cyber vandalism on the sites of our choice. Safari extensions exist to remove all traces of Facebook from webpages, or to hide comments sections and so on (of course on the flip side are the ones that are there to ADD comments to such sites as have deliberately avoided them to spare us from the banal thoughts of people such as myself). Various plugins and such for browsers far and wide enable us to customise these carefully constructed mazes of information and bend their contents to our own will. Remove this, add that, move the other.

This, of course, it to be welcomed in the manner of welcoming all such evolutionary changes. But it’s not a real solution, requiring as it does for us to manually be in control of amending those sites that offend us most, with no guarantee that it will work when the site tweaks it’s design at some future point, or even that such a workaround is even available for your favourite awful website. It’s as though we don’t see the problem for what it is, just the opportunity to make things better. I don’t want to be messing around like this. I just want to read the words behind the headline that brought me here without my eyes being and brain being bombarded with unwanted and unnecessary stimulus.

Calling all APIs

One of the revolutions of recent years has been Apps. Surfing the Web was such a powerful metaphor that it became ingrained into our way of doing things. You see a Web, you surf it. You see what’s there, you take it for what it is and you move on, and on. But Apps have turned this way of getting our content on it heads over the past couple of years. OK, we still visit sites manually, whether through force of habit, or via tools like Safari Top Sites, and Opera Speed-dial etc, we click links in emails and Twitter and we go to the full fat websites often. But increasingly we are using Apps and APIs to bypass the “surfing” aspect of using the modern Web.

I think I have only visited the Twitter website a half dozen times. At least 9 out of 10 times I check into Facebook for a quick browse around, I’m using the iPhone app instead of the website. Many websites have specific apps that are duplicating the content we would find through a browser, without duplicating the structure and the navigation. Mobile versions of websites are cleaning up our interfaces without giving us sub-par experiences. All of these modern methods help the content to spring free of the bounds of the website, but it’s still a fragmented approach. An app per website? We’re going to look back and cringe over this one. No-one wants to fill their mobile devices with this type of thing, and we’d all be mad to move our browsing to mobile devices just to clean up our websites. Talk about fixing your headache via amputation. It’s overkill, we need a simpler way, a way of reducing the complexities of our websites, and at the same time converging our desktop and mobile surfing habits.

The same content, looking consistently acceptable regardless of how you access it.

This is the promise of a raft of (relatively) new products and services such as Readability and Instapaper. Via the power of a couple of bookmarklets in your browser, or a sharing option via a hyperlink or even from your RSS reader, you can send any web article to be divested of it’s oily rags, scrubbed up and presented to you in a smart respectable shirt. Better still, you can queue up your content to be read offline at a later date, like some sort of personalised internet that only has one website and no adverts. It’s like having the old internet back, but without the nasty typography and inconsistent page rendering. Or Compuserve… One method, the whole internet.

In Part 2 of this article I intend to discuss this new form of using the Web, via Apps and API calls, and to take an in-depth look at 4 competing (and occasionally complementary) methods for achieving it. I’ll have a ponder on everything from website ad revenue, to getting your Dad to actually enjoy using the Web.

Thanks for reading this far, and I hope to not keep you waiting too long for Part 2.

Dan

Hi

Thanks for dropping in, I’m hoping to have something more interesting to read shortly, but in the meantime you can marvel in the general genericness of my site.

Cheers,

Dan