Archive for January, 2010

An Excellent Use-Case for Google Wave

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Yes, another post about being engaged (it’s kind of this week’s theme). I promise this will be the last one, at least for a while; there are just a lot of interesting thoughts coming out of planning a wedding. We’ll resume our regular totally-non-marital posts at one per week on Monday.

I’ve been meaning to write up a good post regarding my take on Google Wave pretty much since I launched this blog in October ’09. The trouble was, I could never find a really good use-case that demonstrated how powerful and useful Wave is — until now. So without further ado:

I don’t understand how people planned weddings before there was Google Wave.

My fiancée and I are both the type to do a lot of research and planning before a big financial decision. So when it came to booking a venue, with so many different options and associated costs, we both dove right in. The only problem was that we had a really hard time staying in sync; we would both research the same venue or lose track of contact information for a place we really liked — it was a disaster. We tried ad-hoc discussions in person (this didn’t work; human memory is far too fallible) and a mess of emails (I had to scrub my inbox with a sponge after that one) but we found we were still stepping on each others’ toes. Then it dawned on me:

What we really needed was a wiki.

We needed someplace where we could both see and add and edit information, highlight important dates or phone numbers, and easily compare venues to one another. Nothing huge (a CRM would have been way overkill), just a light-weight wiki that would be approachable for my not-very-geeky soulmate.

So I fired up Google Wave and spent a couple of minutes explaining it to her. Now we have a wave for wedding venues, where each wavelet (that’s what the posts in a wave are called) is about one venue. When either of us comes across a cool-looking venue, we can quickly scan the wave to see if it’s already there, and if it isn’t we can add it and fill in some quick details. If we want to contact them, we highlight the contact info, and if we make an appointment to visit a venue, we highlight the date as well; this way even at a quick glance we can quickly see when our appointments are and if there are any left to make. If either of us have comments about a venue, we can reply to its wavelet; this takes care of the usual meta-discussion in an informal but persisted way (the indent makes it easy to ignore when skimming).

So far, this is working incredibly well. We’re both completely in sync all the time, and it’s easy to find key information by quickly looking in one place. We’re already starting to add new waves for other things we’ll both want input on, like the photographer, the DJ and the cake. I have no idea how else we could be doing this as efficiently as we are; Wave is suddenly crucial to our planning process.

What went right?

I’d like to touch briefly on why this has worked out so much better than my previous experiences with Wave. I think one of the big problems with Wave is that information tends to get scattered — it’s easy to lose something in a mountain of replies, and the inability to hide or mass-delete old content causes a lot of unnecessary and frustrating sifting. What I did differently this time was enforce some basic rules about how the wave should be structured: one venue per wavelet, replies are allowed for discussion if required. This way there’s no checking to see if that golf course with the gorgeous gazebo is nested somewhere in a chain of replies, or deciding what depth to add that maple farm that four different people have recommended. They’re both easy decisions, and sticking to these informal rules really pays off in terms of keeping the wave easy to read and update.

Have you found a good use for Wave?

I’m curious to know what other creative uses people have found for Wave. If you’ve got something good, please share!

We Live in a Communication Age

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Suppose the year is 1990, and you have some big news to share with those close to you and the world in general. How can you do it? There are a few ways:

  • In person
  • Over the phone
  • In a mailed letter
  • Through a printed announcement (say, in a newspaper)

Fast forward to today, a mere 20 years later. How much has changed? In addition to the ways mentioned above, look at all the new tools we have:

  • Voice chat (Skype, Google Voice)
  • Video conference (Skype, iChat)
  • Instant message (from any number of clients)
  • Text message (or MMS)
  • Email
  • Facebook (status update, wall post, private message)
  • Twitter (tweet, @someone, DM)
  • Blog post

And this is just what I used on Monday; there are many others. We’re more connected than ever before. We can reach more people, faster, through whatever means is convenient for them, and the list of applicable technologies just keeps growing. It’s incredible!

A brief take-away

Monday reminded me how many tools there are for spreading messages that I don’t normally use, and made me realize that sometimes I have to look outside of my usual channels to reach people in a way that is most effective to them. I’m sure there are other things I will think of over the next little while that I can communicate more efficiently using tools other than my defaults; perhaps the same is true for you?

I’m Engaged

Monday, January 25th, 2010




(click image to enlarge)

Why I don’t hate Internet Explorer 8 (not that I’d ever use it)

Monday, January 18th, 2010

This week’s entry is a double feature about Internet Explorer. Part 1 examined why IE4 was awesome. Read on for part 2, where I’ll admit that I’m grateful for IE8.

Let me start by saying that in general, I find Internet Explorer appalling. The fact that so many people have been supporting an insecure, slow, feature-weak, standards-deviant browser with serious rendering problems and an awful user interface for so many years afflicts my soul with such utter disdain for Microsoft’s line of browsers that I automatically regard every new incantation thereof as an affront to both the web and mankind as a species.

Now that that’s out of my system, I don’t entirely hate Internet Explorer 8. I wouldn’t use it, not with so many better alternatives just waiting to be explored*, but it does offer one massive improvement over its predecessors that I’m very pleased with: IE8 has fantastic CSS 2.1 support.

I’m not making this up.

Check out the standards support table on this page, specifically the secion about CSS 2.1. Look at the massive difference between IE6/IE7 and IE8. Even Firefox 3 and Opera 10 can’t claim the same level of compliance. IE8 isn’t just a competitor when it comes to supporting CSS 2.1, it’s a role model.

This is a big deal.

For the first time ever, web developers can finally count on using standardized CSS to create a modern web experience without having to worry about “how to handle Internet Explorer”. Granted there is still the matter of older versions of IE, but with Windows 7 repairing a lot of the damage done by Vista, more and more users are upgrading to a new OS, and with that, a new browser. Writing cross-browser CSS is becoming easier than ever before.

Of course, many people will argue that simply supporting CSS 2.1 isn’t good enough (and they’re right). Internet Explorer is still way behind its competitors when it comes to newer standards such as HTML 5 and CSS 3. But what if this is just the beginning? Internet Explorer 9 is already well into development, and if Microsoft can turn the hobbled CSS implementations found in IE6 and IE7 into what is now in IE8, who’s to say they won’t be able to step up support for CSS 3 and/or HTML 5 in IE9? In as little as a year or two from now, Internet Explorer may be a legitimate browser for cutting-edge web experiences.

Share some thoughts!

What do you think of IE8? What about Internet Explorer in general?


* For the curious, the browsers linked in that phrase are the ones that were selected to show up in Windows 7′s “browser ballot” in Europe due to antitrust charges brought by the EU against Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows. Computer World offers a great summary and FAQ on the matter.

IE4 was the Best Version of Internet Explorer Ever

Monday, January 18th, 2010

This week’s entry is a double feature about Internet Explorer. Read on for part 1, which examines why IE4 was awesome, then check out part 2, where I’ll admit that I’m grateful for IE8.

I found an old CD at work the other day; it was an install disk for Internet Explorer 4 SP1 for Windows NT and 95, still in its original packaging. I was quick to grab it, thinking about how great it will be to make fun of what an awful browser it must’ve been (I actually never used Windows NT or 95 or even 98.. I was raised Apple until 2000). So I pulled up Wikipedia and started reading, expecting to find plenty of things to laugh at, only to realize that what I was holding in my hand was actually a remarkable software artifact. IE4 wasn’t just great, it was legendary.

IE4 was the first wildly successful version of Internet Explorer. When it was released in fall of 1997, Netscape Navigator was the default “everyone uses it” browser. Internet Explorer, as a franchise, was the underdog. In merely a year and a half, IE4 had attained over 60% market share — it was the first version of IE to capture the majority of browser users, starting the first-ever browser war and a dynasty of sheer dominance for the Internet Explorer brand that peaked at just over 95% market share and is still running today, 11 years later.

IE4 pioneered the Trident rendering engine, which has been used in every version of IE since (and a few other places). It was bundled with the first official version of Outlook Express, and also included a chat client, a VoIP client (which supported video chat), a stripped-down web development platform, and RealPlayer (which was actually popular back then). There was even an optional download package that added an Active Desktop feature, which was essentially a precursor to the widgets found in Windows Vista/7.

IE4 also made significant UI improvements to the Internet Explorer line, moving from the bevelled-button motif that was popular at the time to the toolbar we still see in browsers today (see this pre-IE4 screenshot, then this one of IE4 — both courtesy of this wonderful IE archive site — and note the difference in the toolbar).

In short, this was one kick-ass cut of software. Can you imagine what it would be like if all of Microsoft’s output was this revolutionary? Where would browsing be today if every version of IE raised the bar this high?

iPhone OS 4.0 Predictions

Monday, January 11th, 2010

This week’s entry is for the Apple fanatics, and iPhone owners (or potential iPhone owners) in particular.

There was a post over at TUAW last week encouraging readers to weigh in on what may or may not be present in the forthcoming iPhone OS 4.0. I missed their deadline for submitting comments, but read on to hear my thoughts anyway — I’m going to talk about a couple of things I’d like to see happen to the built-in Maps app.

Voice Navigation

There is a big market for GPS-like turn-by-turn directions on the iPhone, and plenty of companies both big and small have thrown their hats in with varying features and price points (an excellent comparison of such apps is available at Pocket GPS World). While this is enough to show that users really want voice-navigated directions on their phone, the big reason I think this will happen is that Droid users already have this behaviour built straight into Google Maps. This is a big feature, and the difference between having it available by default on the Droid and as a paid app on the iPhone is significant, and something I think Apple will want to address.

Augmented Reality

There are a lot of apps designed to help users find nearby points of interest. Some of the more recent ones have started a trend called augmented reality, which is when a live feed of the camera on the phone is used as the background and information is overlayed on top of it based on what direction the user is facing. With the iPhone’s accelerometer and compass, this technique has proven to be remarkably accurate and holds a lot of “wow” factor; something Apple has consistently been a fan of.

Since most of these apps are simply wrappers for the Maps app, why not cut out the middleman and blend an augmented reality feature into Maps by default? This would be Apple’s first entry into the growing augmented reality market, and would really up the ante for developers who currently offer augmented reality mapping features. Apple is all about shaking things up, so while this is probably pretty unlikely it wouldn’t be entirely out of character.

Your turn!

I’ve given my thoughts about the Maps app, which I think will net a big update come the next iPhone OS release. What do you think will be added/changed/removed in iPhone OS 4.0?

Opera vs Reality

Monday, January 4th, 2010

2009 was an exciting year for the web browser crowd:

  • Google released Chrome.
  • Apple ported Safari to Windows.
  • Firefox picked up a lot of market share.
  • Microsoft actually produced a half-decent version of Internet Explorer.
  • The iPhone and Android finally made mobile browsing popular.
  • Support for HTML5 and CSS3 was way up across the board.

The term crowd is especially appropriate here because it really is starting to get very crowded. For a long time the browser war has been fought largely between two major players at a time (IE/Netscape, IE/Firefox) and all of a sudden we have four major companies with fantastic browsers available to the vast majority of users. Oh, and then there’s Opera.

Here’s the thing about Opera

Opera is in serious trouble because it doesn’t have a “thing”:

  • Internet Explorer’s thing is its existing market share. It has a lot more users than everyone else, so its going to be a major player for the foreseeable future.
  • Firefox’s thing is its community. Not just its core developers, but the people who create addons or personas or rally everyone they know to go download the latest version on launch day. It’s easily the most passionate user group of the bunch.
  • Chrome’s thing is its brand. When people think web, they think Google. Google has the best search, a fantastic email client, why not a great browser? Users rely on Google for a great online experience, and Google has a lot of high-traffic areas where it can push Chrome.
  • Apple’s thing is its loyalty. Apple fanboys are a loyal bunch — most of them will stick with Safari on their Mac and many will consider getting Safari for any Windows computers they’re forced to use. Apple also has the iPhone, which gives it a growing space where it has the only browser (not that any iPhone users mind — loyalty, remember?).

Opera has nothing. It used to be the most advanced browser for HTML5 support, then everyone else caught up. It used to be a major player in the mobile space, then Apple and Google obliterated it. It used to be a fun browser for geeks to talk about, but now the buzz is all Chrome. It’s not enough to be an alternative to IE anymore; users are demanding more from their browsing experience, and they’re flush with places to find it.

What’s even worse is that there isn’t really anything you or I can do to help. Opera’s engine isn’t open source like Gecko (Firefox) or Webkit (Chrome/Safari) and they don’t have the extensibility of Firefox or Chrome. It doesn’t have the de-facto standard advantage in Windows (IE), OSX (Safari) or linux (Firefox), and even if I wanted to rally some Opera enthusiasts together, where would I start? How many people do you know that have even heard of Opera?

I don’t have anything against Opera (it’s a fine browser), it’s just that it’s no longer relevant — there are too many better options around preventing Opera from picking up new users, and I can’t think of a single significant reason for its existing users to stick with it.

Any Opera fans out there?

Do you use Opera? Do you have any thoughts on Opera’s future? Be sure to leave a comment.

One Post Per Week

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Starting today, this blog will officially be updated on a weekly basis.

This is a small step up in terms of how often I’m posting now, but it’s something I want to try. After all, it’s a new year and that’s a great time to experiment with new ways of doing things — as I’m not an experienced blogger (at all) I haven’t really nailed down any good content-producing habits, and I think the best way for me to do so will be to get into a bit of a groove by sticking to a fixed schedule.

To help me hit my weekly deadline, I’ve developed the following chart, which is posted on the wall next to my desk:

The first column lists the first letter of each month, and the numbers on each row are the dates of all Mondays in the corresponding month for 2010. So the first row, for example, shows that the Mondays in January fall on the 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th. These are all the days on which there will be a new post. When I have a new post done and set to publish automatically, I’ll mark the matching Monday square in green. When I miss a day (though the plan is that I won’t) I’ll mark the matching square in red. This way I’ll have a very clear history of when I did and didn’t meet my deadline.

The purpose of this table is purely motivational. Having it next to my desk gives me a noticeable reminder if I still haven’t finished the next Monday’s post, and marking past Mondays in green (for done) and red (for missed) will give me a very frequent reminder that I’m either doing well or falling behind.

Are you trying anything new this year? Would a visual aid help you stay on track?