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.

Star Trek

One day a few months ago, I noticed Star Trek: The Original Series was on, on CBS Action.

I should say that I have never seen any Star Trek, except for misremembered snippets gleaned when I was a small boy. I haven’t seen the latest (or any) film, nor any of the series, at all.

It was up to around episode 6 of the very first series. Watching the beginnings of Star Trek as my introduction to the franchise was quite exciting. Ever since, I have had to keep up as best I can with the 2-episodes-per-day quota. Having just started watching series 3, I’m hooked. However, even since gaining an appreciation for the brand, I  find Deep Space Nine and Voyager boring.

The writers’ estimations of what technology would become are often amusing.

“Microtapes” the size of a small, fat floppy disk, which fit into display screens the size of a Macintosh 128K; PDA’s (or rather, PADDs) which are just chunky electronic clipboards… It surprises me that the writers could create amazing new ideas about space propulsion, energy, and even society, but not come up with any more futuristic data storage than tape.

The computer systems are so retro and unambitious, it is, strangely, one of my favourite things about Kirk’s Enterprise. I am currently making a program for DOS Prompt to recreate the patterns shown on their bridge displays, as my screensaver for Computing lessons. In the meantime, tap364 gets the idea.

The interface is impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t know what it’s saying, it’s just… lights. I think that that is brilliant.


I realise that I haven’t blogged in a long time. Oops.