What does this app do?

Yesterday, after a productive afternoon of hackery I came across this interesting exclamation on Twitter:

While I sympathized with Mr. Balkan’s general point, I couldn’t help but see (and partially agree with) the article author’s point of view. Here’s the gist of the matter: popular blogger John Gruber has teamed up with developer Brent Simmons, and designer Dave Wiskus to launch a note-taking app called Vesper.

What does Vesper do? Apparently not much. It lets you take text or photo notes, tag them and share them via email or iMessage. The Verge, Macworld and GigaOm all have their own articles about it if you’re more interested. Macstories even has an interview with the creators. Its biggest selling points seem to be good design and John Gruber’s involvement.

I have no qualms with paying for software – I use OmniFocus as a task manager, I bought the Android and iOS versions of Instapaper and I paid for the Pinboard bookmarking service. All of them do useful things for me and do them well (better than most other apps and services in the same category). So what exactly would I be paying for if I bought Vesper? According to Marco Arment (of Tumblr and Instapaper fame) I’m paying for balls. Apparently the apps creators are extremely brave for releasing a feature-light app that’s about the same as a bunch of other apps while being comparatively more expensive (and having a mildly interesting Credits section).

Perhaps they are. But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

I don’t care how heroic Gruber and Co. are. I don’t really care that the app is $4.99. I do appreciate that the app looks well-designed and the interactions are well thought out. But I care more that the app doesn’t do very much and for some reason, I’m supposed to celebrate that. Apparently being “skillfully crafted” means that things I’m starting to take for granted (like oh.. I don’t know… simple export) are suddenly “power user features”. Somehow we’ve gotten to the point where the developer’s balls are more important than the app’s functionality and data loss is just as much of a problem as typos in the credits.

How did we get to this point and does it matter? I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with the rise of The Cult of Design Dictatorship. I care about good design as much as the next guy and I’m glad that a small group of people can create and distribute widely used products. But when it comes to technology, I refuse to put form above function and I definitely won’t allow the developer’s pedigree to be a stand-in for functionality.

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The Readability URL shortener

I’ve written before on how reading for the web is changing for the better. We’re seeing new tools and services that take away the cruft from web pages and help us get to the content on our own terms. Readability is one of the services leading the charge. It provides a browser plugin (and a plain bookmarklet) that will present a web page in a beautiful clean layout with quiet background colors and clean, crisp fonts.

A few weeks ago Readability announced a satellite service in the form of a URL shortener called Rdd.me. This service not only shortens the URL but also injects some JavaScript that places an unobtrusive bar at the bar at the top of the page that gives you a link the cleaned up, readability version of the site. Even though I dislike the idea of a URL shortener in general (I would like to see where I am going, thank you very much) I think Rdd.me is actually a good complement to Readability

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The implementation is well done and I really like the fact that they don’t automatically apply the Readability view for you. A growing number of websites out there are actually well designed and I like being able to see the variety and creativity. However for the times that I do want something cleaner Rdd.me does a really good job. I think the service caches the Readability view version of the page because it seems to load faster than applying the browser plugin. I like the feeling that Readability is actively trying to make the web reading experience better for me and giving me the control I need to customize my experience. I am starting to use Readability even for reasonably well-designed sites (if the font is too small or the colors seem off). But that’s a personal preference and I’m glad that Rdd.me keeps that decision in my hands.

One thing that I do think is lacking with Rdd.me is integration with Twitter clients. If Rdd.me (and by extension, Readability) is going to make a dent in the URL-shortening game it needs popular Twitter clients to offer it as an option. I don’t know of any clients that actually do offer it at this point, but I would really love to see it available. As someone who wants to help the reading revolution along I would rather use Rdd.me than Bit.ly or any of the others (since I don’t really care about “tracking” who visits my shortened links). So if you’re working on a Twitter client (or know someone who is) please have Rdd.me as a URL shortening option.

I have to admit that I haven’t actually used Rdd.me myself. I don’t share that many links via Twitter and I prefer posting the full URL if I can. If it’s too big I generally just use default shortener because it’s faster and I have more important things to do than a copy-paste dance. I’m sure there are a lot more people like myself who are casual linkers on Twitters and will go for the default, least resistance option. That’s why getting Rdd.me into Twitter clients is essential.

Rdd.me is one of those services that fulfills a nice little niche and does it well enough that you don’t have to write long pieces detailing its functionality. It’s a simple tool that does one thing well and makes the UNIX user in me happy. The next time you need to shorten a URL and don’t mind doing some copy-pasting, Rdd.me is highly recommended.

Sunday Selection 2011-03-26

Around the Internet

iPad 2 is not revolutionary, but it is great I’ve been lusting after an iPad for a while now and with this refresh I think I’m going to finally crack and get one. This review is worth a read if you’re considering getting one (or wondering what all the fuss is about). It explains why the iPad is likely to be the best tablet on the market for a while (even when all the others stop being vaporware).

How Kickstarter Became a Lab for Daring Prototypes and Ingenious Products I haven’t invested in any Kickstarter projects (starving college student + I’m on a minimalism kick) but I think it’s a great idea that is doing some measurable good in the world. And helping create some beautiful products in the process. Required reading for anyone starting a business or service organization.

The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less This is an older article to offset the other two. I’ve been thinking a lot about focus and concentration, both in terms of mentally energy and actual physical doing-stuff. There’s no big secret revealed here and we’ve probably heard the facts already. But every now and then we need to calm down, take a breath and be reminded to focus on what’s important.

From the bookshelf

Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience While digesting the wisdom of the Internet is definitely fun and worthwhile, sometimes you have to go back to basics. This book gets cited a lot in articles on productivity, focus and time management. It’s the distilled wisdom of one man’s journey to understand what makes life worth living from a spiritual and scientific viewpoint. If you’re only going to read one book on self-improvement or time management, this is it.

Software

Instapaper and Readability After my last tribute to the resurgence of web reading how could I not recommend these two wonderful pieces of software? Part web service, part mobile app, these two will definitely make reading on the Internet a much better experience.

The Reading Revolution

The Web is in the middle of a reading and design revolution. And I’m not talking about the demise of the erstwhile <blink> tag. We’re seeing the rediscovery of the web as powerful document and knowledge transfer platform just as the Renaissance saw the rediscovery of Classical knowledge and wisdom. Independent of the rise of the online video and music people are also reading on the web, now more than ever. And there is no shortage of words, paragraphs, ideas and stories to read. Flexible web typography, the popularity of clean, elegant designs and the increasingly sophisticated rendering engines in modern browsers are helping to sustain and fuel our reading needs.

At the heart of this resurgence of reading are technologies that fundamentally change the experience of reading on the web. First on the list is Instapaper. The brainchild of Marco Arment (formerly of Tumblr) Instapaper is a web service and iOS application that is designed to one thing: make it possible and easy to save text content from the web and then present that text in a beautifully designed package. Instapaper strips out all forms of advertisement, images and anything else that distracts from the experience of just reading. To use Instapaper you sign up for an account and install the “Read Later” bookmarklet. When you find an article you want to save you just click on the “Read Later” button in your bookmarks bar and the entire text gets parsed and saved for later. There is no form to fill out and no need to set any options. You can get along really well with just the defaults.

 

Instapaper on the iPad
Instapaper on the iPad

 

Where Instapaper really shines is if you pair it with the iPhone or iPad app. These apps sync automatically to your account and download the full text of your saved articles. The articles are then presented in a no-distractions format on a clean background with beautiful fonts. Reading Instapaper articles on an iPad is one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, second only to the Kindle. Words and screenshots do not do the experience justice, you have to see it for yourself. If you read a lot of long-form web content it might be worth getting an iPad just for Instapaper.

But what if you want a better experience right now while you’re reading in your browser? Filling that niche is Readability — a bookmarklet backed by a web service that strips away all the fluff from a webpage and presents just the text (with any important inline images) for your reading pleasure. Like Instapaper the reading experience is carefully tuned with a good selection of beautiful fonts set on clean, neutral backgrounds. You can also get along just fine with the defaults but have some options for customizing your experience if you want (mainly font size/type and background color).

Personally, I think Readability is a more important innovation than Instapaper. While Instapaper works best with a reading device like an iPad, Readability works on mostly anything that’s text-heavy on the web. Not only does it get bad design and unwanted ads out of the way, it’s also great for sites that are have font that is just a little too small, or columns that are just a little too narrow for comfortable reading on a wide screen. Personally I find myself reaching for Readability on anything that I find even slightly difficult to read. After all, it’s right there in my browser and takes barely a few seconds to beautify a page.

Readability on the web
Readability on the web

Alongside the aesthetic fixes, Readability also has a business model for sustaining ad-free reading on the web. 70% of the monthly $5 (or more if you like) fee gets sent to the content providers. For the individual reader, $5 a month is a tiny price to pay for a great reading experience. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands (millions?) and you get a business model that doesn’t depend exclusively on selling consumer information.

Both Instapaper and Readability (and similar apps like Reeder and Tweetmag) build on a set of basic principles to offer great, compelling products. They acknowledge that people like, and will pay for, thoughtfully designed and beautiful tools. Instead of trying to offer services for “free” and turning their users into products they tighten the loop between producers and consumers both in terms of product and financing. In the process they do what I would consider a public good: making the acquisition and production of knowledge a pleasurable, worthwhile experience.

We’re living in the years of the resurgence of the web as a communication and knowledge platform, rather than just an ad delivery vehicle. While video, music, animations and visualizations are making the web a more dynamic and vibrant environment, tools like Instapaper and Readability are ensuring the existence and growth of a web “designed for reading, not a web where reading happens despite the design“. And I for one like it that way.

Showing up and making rituals

Over the last few months I have been suffering from some bouts of senioritis. Nothing fatal, but it’s set me back by a few weeks, especially for my long-term projects like my thesis. At the same time, I’ve come to realize that every semester I start off with some grand plans but I just get too busy at the end of it to accomplish. Part of it is just being an engineering and computer science double major, but a large portion is also a flawed personal work ethic.

Though I make jokes about my laziness all the time, I do try my best to get stuff done. Unfortunately I’ve never managed to set up and stick to a formal plan of action. Most of the time I’ll implement a system or just put in more hours when I hit a heavy workload, but then I’ll stop once the busy period ends. That serves to get me through the hard times without affecting my grades (or making me pull regular all-nighters) but it also means that I end up wasting a lot of time and not working to my full potential during regular workloads.

I’ve been wanting to fix this situation for a while, but never figured out how. I use a to-do manager regularly and that helps to keep track of tasks that must be done on time. But it doesn’t help me make good use of the time that isn’t directly scheduled. Also I don’t want to block schedule all my time and live tied to my calendar and to-do list. I want my schedule to have some flexibility and variety, but not enough to cause choice paralysis.

I found the beginnings of a solution about a week ago, but I only formulated it on Monday. I read an article about forming rituals — things you do every day without thinking because doing it will help you reach a goal. The author uses the example of exercise — it’s something you just need to do every day without thinking. If you stop to think you’ll start coming up with reasons not to go to the gym. So what were my rituals? I realized that I didn’t really have any. I was working on a reactionary basis, reacting to homework and assignments and exams instead of getting work done every day — work that I enjoyed and really wanted to do.

I’ve decided to implement some rituals, but in a looser sense. I know that I can get classwork done on time because somehow I manage to make the time, but my other activities fall by the side. There are 3 main activities I enjoy but don’t do as much as I would like to — reading, writing and programming. So my rituals are that every day I will:

  1. Spend 30 minutes reading fiction. For now it’s classics on my Kindle right before bed time and then books from the library once I’ve exhausted that list.
  2. Spend 30 minutes reading non-fiction. This list gets fed by RSS feeds and links coming in via tweets. The actual reading will be either in Google Reader or in Instapaper.
  3. Write one complete piece. This will be a blog post (for The ByteBaker or the Lafayette Voices), a subsection for my thesis, or homework for screenwriting class.
  4. Write some code. Either something for my thesis or my computational art project. I’m hesitant to quantify this as I don’t know how. Definitely something to think about and come back to in a week or two.

All this does add to the amount of stuff I need to get done each day, but that’s the point. Till now, I’d be lucky to get two of the above done each day. I need to do all four in order to be the person I wanted to become (a well-read hacker with great communication skills).

To get the time to do everything I’ll be cutting down on the time I spend on email and randomly browsing the web. Anything interesting I want to read gets buffered in Instapaper for reading as part of the 30-minute non-fiction block. Hopefully I’ll completely eliminate the time wasted sitting around and wondering what to do (and the frustration that entails). But at the same time the rituals are flexible enough that I’m not strait-jacketed. The point is to show up and take away the randomness that might prevent me from getting things done. Will it work? I’ll find out soon enough.

The Web is for Documents: Part II

In my last post I talked about my dilemma regarding webapps: they’re wonderful and they’re letting us do amazing things, but in the effort to become a general-purpose app platform webapps seem to be struggling against the basic document-oriented nature of the web. However, there are some applications that I think are successfully embracing the idea that web is a sequence of connected documents. I mentioned Simplenotes and Dropbox in my last post and they’re both awesome apps that you should check out. However, the document nature of the web has given rise to some new uses that aren’t applications in the conventional sense of the term.

When we hear the term “document” we generally think of something along the lines of a traditional paper document. Perhaps we can blame “word processors” for that. But in this brave new age of Web 2.0 documents aren’t just flat sheets of text. The best demonstration that I’ve seen of this new potential is the HTML5 Slideshow. It’s an HTML web page, but thanks to the the tools of JavaScript and new semantic elements it’s a great presentation too. It probably took a good amount of time and effort to put together and I don’t think you want to put this much of effort into each document. Right now, it’s a great showcase but I’m hoping that eventually there will be tools that make it easier to generate these kind of HTML5 documents with minimal effort, the same way we have great CMSs for building web pages today. There are already HTML presentation tools out there, but right now I think too many of them are trying to hard to clone desktop apps.

Moving on from presentations, another really nice example of innovative documents is the the Google book/website entitled “20 things I learned about browsers and the web”. This is almost certainly not the type of thing you think about when you hear “document” or web-page. Personally I think the pageturn effects are overdoing it a bit, but it presents a large amount of information presented in a very attractive format. I also like that the format they used is quite innovative. It’s not like anything you’d expect to see on a desktop for the simple reason that it’s not a program, it’s a document. Well, that’s not technically true: there’s a significant amount of JavaScript code being executed while you’re viewing it. But would you download and install a program whose sole purpose was to tell you 20 things about browsers and the web? We expect documents to work differently than programs (irrespective of what’s going on in the background): we don’t want to run them or interact with them to perform complex tasks, we just want information. And this book makes access to that information quick, easy and obvious.

Presenting information effectively doesn’t need to have great design and cool animations. In fact, perhaps the easiest way to present information is to get the design elements out of the way and let the content speak for itself. This isn’t a call to ignore design or to consider it as unnecessary frills. Quite the opposite: creating design that doesn’t clutter up the data is a hard job that we’re only just starting to get right. Two services that are leading the pack in this regard are Instapaper and Readability.

Instapaper has the goal of letting you save long form text you find on the web for later reading. The website itself is really simple and behaves mostly as a lightweight bookmarking service; you just save links to things you want to read when you have the time. But it really shines when paired with the iPhone or iPad apps. Instapaper strips websites of all their clutter and presents just the text on a simple background in a good font. It’s goal is simple: putting the focus back on the content and letting you read without distractions. I’ve only used the iPhone app so far, but the iPad app looks really good too. If I had an iPad it would probably be my one of favorites. Instapaper lets you read web-based content without having to be in front of a computer (or even connected).

Next up is Readability. It’s a brand new service who’s mission is similar to Instapaper: make reading easier. But Readability is focused on the web. It’s a browser plugin that will take text-rich web pages and present them in a cleaner, simpler design. There are a number of themes to choose from (I like Inverse myself). There will be Instapaper-like iOS apps soon, but that’s not the real point of Readability. It’s for people who will spend time reading in front of their computers instead of on the move (such as me). I’ve only been using it for a few days, but I’m already hooked. Whenever I see a webpage with a lot of text I want to read, but the design isn’t to my liking I hit the Readability button (or just the backtick key). I get the whole article in a nice serif font on an easy-on-the-eyes dark background as well as a list of things I’ve read recently. You can see that list here. I have some more things to say about Instapaper and Readability, but that deserves to be in a post all by itself.

I think we’re only just seeing a resurgence of the web as a document platform. These are still early days no doubt: creating HTML5 slideshows or flip-page books is not something you can do at the push of a button, but I think we’ll get there. Tools like Instapaper and Readability are helping us take back the web, so to speak. There’s still a lot of to do and I’m pretty sure we haven’t even come close to how far we can push the document-based nature of the Web. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the new formats and services that get built in the years to come (and maybe build a few myself). While webapps won’t go away, we’ll also gain a lot from the web staying true to its document-based roots.

Why bookmark?

Yesterday I came across a cool little web service called Pinboard which claims to be “social bookmarking for introverts”. It’s a simple, no-frills bookmarking service that combines a very clean design with a simple bookmarklet to do a good job at helping you save and share your bookmarks (if you want to). I currently use Diigo for my bookmarks, which I moved to from Delicious about a year ago. The only reason I moved was because Diigo let me store a longer excerpt as the description. I don’t use any of the fancy highlighting or social features that it has to offer. However, as I considered trying out Pinboard I realized that I don’t really use bookmarks at all.

In the last few years tl;dr has apparently become a major problem. People supposedly don’t have the time to read long articles or posts on the Internet. Services like Read It Later and Instapaper (which I sometimes use) have evolved to offer a way to save things they find online for later reading on the variety of Internet-able devices that are now available. To some extent Pinboard and bookmarks in general address that problem as well. However, I don’t have that problem myself. Though I subscribe to a fair number of RSS feeds and keep a regular eye on Twitter, I do manage to find the time to sit and read larger posts and articles online. Generally I do this in the “down-time” between classes or when I’m working at the IT helpdesk, when I know I’ll get interrupted and so don’t want to start anything that will require concentrated attention. I signed up for Instapaper a few months ago and have the app on my iPod, but I can’t say I’m a regular user. If I find something interesting in Google Reader that I can’t read right then, I’ll star it and come back to it later in the day or the next. When I bookmark something, it’s generally so that I can find it later and even then the only time I go back to my bookmarks is to find stuff to post on a Sunday Selection (or share with someone else). Truth be told, I’ve generally considered the bookmark bar in browsers to be a waste of screen space.

All that considered, the question I have is: why bookmark? Personally, I can’t really come up with an answer. Any site that I think I would visit regularly, I grab the RSS feed and pipe it to Google Reader. I only use a handful of web-services: Gmail, Facebook and Twitter on regular basis and with autocomplete in the URL bar on Firefox and Chrome it takes me about the same time as it would for me to type it in and hit enter as it would to click on a bookmark in the bar. The only real reason I can think about is bookmarklets for services like Tumblr and Readability and even then, I generally use a browser extension for that (the Chrome extensions are often just the spruced up bookmarklets).

I guess being able to save sites and articles you like would be a good idea, in theory. But in practice I rarely go back and look at what I’ve already read. I’d be interesting in knowing how many people who use bookmarks regularly actually go back to them. Back in the day, before I had 24/7 broadband I used bookmarks as a sort of long-time cache: instead of saving pages, I’d bookmark them in Internet Explorer with “read offline” (or whatever it was called) enabled. But since I have a rather more dependable Internet connection nowadays, that’s no longer a real use case. In the same way that I don’t really care about saving my Twitter feed, I don’t really care about saving bookmarks anymore — they’re both meant to be ephemeral and impermanent and I’m fine with that. Whenever I do need to recall something a combination of Google or Google Reader is generally enough to find what I want.

At this point, I’m really interested in knowing why other people use bookmarks. Do people really go back and check things they read before? Is it mostly just a “read later” buffer? Are journalists (bloggers included) the only people who really use bookmarks anymore (so that they can refer back to their sources)? Or is it just some form of social inertia from when there wasn’t RSS or Twitter and so having a fixed link to a website you visited often was a good idea? There must be some reason why sites like Delicious and Diigo are going strong and newcomers like Pinboard can actually charge users a signup fee for their service. If anyone has ideas, evidence or even just theories explaining any of this, do let me know.