Specialised services and the ambient workspace

Screenshot of a Windows Live Space

Somebody’s Windows Live Space (not mine)

Abstract: I think that our contemporary web services are doing fewer things, and doing them better, and our platforms are consolidating more information, more usefully.

The rise of the central service

Years ago I had a Windows Live Space. This was a weird blogging service slash Myspace clone, and an all-round fumbled gambit into the hastily developing world of social networking, by the ever-lovable Microsoft. Thing is, not all of my friends were on Windows Live, despite it being their first choice for email and chatting. This bugged me. Some kids had LJ, some had Xanga, and the lion’s share were on Myspace, of course. I thought, “I don’t want to sign up for all these different things and manage a million accounts, there should be some way that they can all be consolidated.”

Or, more accurately, “Everyone should decide to use the service I’m using.”

Then there was Facebook. It had photos that were taggable and statuses and chat and these new app things and games and best of all, everyone you knew was on it, something that happened practically overnight.

The fall of the central service

Now I’m going to make the bold claim that this utopian vision of togetherness is backwards, and that we are abandoning it without realising. Facebook has the world’s largest collection of photogtraphs, but more and more of the photos posted in timelines are coming from other services such as Instagram. Facebook has recently tweaked interface prompts to increase engagement, and — anecdotally — I have seen a lot of friends joining and engaging with twitter, and hearing that they log into Facebook but don’t create as much content as before. That’s interesting, and that’s bad for Facebook.

I’d posit two reasons for this:

  1. Specialised services are better at what they do (see Unix Principle)
  2. The devices we’re running these things on are getting better at giving us information ambiently.

Ambient workspaces

Let’s leave point 1 for the moment, and look at point 2, because I made a graphic. Click to enlarge.

Diagram showing traditional dekstop versus ambient workspace

Even if we’re not all using KDE or Windows 8 (yet), maybe you have a sidebar application for Twitter. Maybe eBay integrates into your mobile phone’s messaging system so you can see new bids alongside your SMSs and emails at a glance.

I strongly believe that this is a paradigm we are working towards, because the fewer clicks or keypresses you need to get to your subject of interest, the better. Why should we waste screen estate on wallpaper and icons, when the icon itself tell you what you need to know?

I’ve overlooked and glazed over a lot of points, but start a discussion in the comments if the fancy takes you.

Pokémon Synchronisation Server

Recently, I have gotten my sister all mixed up in that darkly addictive universe that the kids call “Pokeemans”, coincidentally a topic which I blog about alarmingly frequently. She is 29.

Now, we are playing Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen version at the same time and (hopefully) speed, allowing us to battle and trade at regular intervals. To co-ordinate this effort, I took it upon myself to put my fingers to keys and write some PHP.

Pokémon Synchronisation Server represents the sum of my efforts at this. It is specialised to us, but is still a landmark as the most complex thing I have achieved with PHP. Since the game will be over in the far future, and the page gone or transformed, here are some pictures of how it stands as I look at it today. Click an image to enlarge it.

The publicly viewable index page:

The edit page, after having entered the password:

It’s quite limited in some ways, and the interface is sloppy; I’ll admit to that. I would have liked to have an [Evolve] button and such, but this way was reasonably simple, does the job, and took me the shorter half of an evening. As such, I’m very happy with it.