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Archive for the ‘computers’ Category

HP Mini 1000

hp-mini-1000-xp1

The HP Mini 1000 (2008) is a netbook computer made by Hewlett-Packard. I bought one last week at Best Buy for $350 (28 crowns). I am writing this post on it.

It is at the low end these days when it comes to memory (1 gigabyte) and disk space (16 gigabytes), but being about the size and weight of a book it is very easy to carry with you anywhere. It is a great little computer if all you do is email and the Web at places that have wireless Internet, like libraries, Internet cafes and people’s houses. (No, HP is not paying me to say this!)

I needed a computer but did not have much money – I was willing to go up to $500 tops. I wanted a Mac – they are much easier to use and work better and have Unix for their inner workings, which I know and love as a computer programmer. But a MacBook goes for about $1400, way too much.

That meant getting a Windows machine.  My experience with Windows Vista has been terrible:  it seems like they were trying to copy the Mac and failed and wound up something that was a step backwards from the older Windows XP.

So if I could not have a Mac, I wanted to avoid Windows Vista at all costs.  Therefore I wound up getting this HP Mini, which runs XP – only because it does not have enough memory to run Vista!

Another thing in its favour is that it was an HP. I have used HPs at work and they seem to be good machines. I was warned off of getting a Compaq – they make bad computers I was told.

The HP Mini has three big drawbacks as I see it:

  1. It has no CD or DVD drive – so you cannot play music or video from disc.
  2. It has only a gigabyte of memory. That is fine for my purposes now, but because that is at the low end I will have to get a new computer in two years or less.
  3. The screen is small – about the size of the top half of a MacBook screen. You get used to it, yes, but smaller screens are just harder to use in general, like it or not.

I was afraid the keyboard would be too small to type at for long periods of time, but it is fine.

It is hard to control the sound – you need to use two hands to do it.

The battery power only lasts about two and a half hours, which is not the greatest, but it is acceptable. Where I need battery power the most is on the bus and I cannot imagine taking a bus ride that long as a regular thing.

Even though I work in computers, this is the very first computer I ever bought just for myself. Till now I have always used computers that belonged to a university or a company or the family. Just having a computer of my own that I can use whenever I want is great.

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Apple MacWorld CAPS125-jpgJonathan Ive (1967- ) is a British industrial designer at Apple Computers. He designed the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone, helping to change Apple’s fortunes. He designed the computer that I write this on. He should be a household name, an icon of our age, but few know who he is.

He does not design the computer parts themselves – the chips and programs and so on – but how they are put together into something that people can use.

The best example of this is the iPod. It was hardly the first music player or even MP3 player. But not only has the iPod taken over that market, it has made that market: it made music players a part of everyday life. And that is because of Ive’s design and the way he thinks about design.

Ive is driven by two ideas:

  1. Make it simpler: Take out anything that does not absolutely have to be there, in how it looks and in how it works. In designing the iPod he was able to get it down to five buttons and a scroll wheel. What is more, from the way it looks you do not even know about four of the buttons at first. That is no accident.
  2. Make it better: Make it not only better – simpler and cooler looking – than what is currently being sold but make it better than itself: do not stop, keep going, keep pushing. That is why when the iPod first appeared in the marketplace it was not just somewhat better than other players, it was on a whole other level.

You also need the courage throw away designs that you feel deep down are no good and start all over again.

One of the main things that have kept computers and things made out of computers, like music players and mobile phones, from being more widely accepted is that they are not simple: there are too many choices of what to do next, some of them leading to bad outcomes!

The fault lies not in computers or in people but in the lack of good design in between. Most companies do not give it enough attention.

So Ive’s aim is not only to make things simpler to use but to make them more inviting by the way they look. He does that partly by giving them a clean look and by his use of colour.

Ive grew up in Chingford in London, the son of a silversmith. He studied design at Northumbria University and worked for Tangerine, a London design company. One of their customers was Apple. He felt he could have more say in Apple’s designs if he worked for them, so in 1992 he joined Apple. By 1998 he had become the head of design.

Ive likes to dress in black. He drives an Aston Martin, often works 70 hours a week and makes about $2,000,000 a year (150,000 crowns). He is worth every penny.

– Abagond, 2009, 2016.

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mobile app design

ibeerA mobile app is a program or website that works on a mobile phone, particularly smartphones like the iPhone or the T-Mobile G1.

What to keep in mind:

  • The screens are small and come in different sizes.
  • On the Internet they are slow: it is 1995 all over again.
  • They can be used outdoors where the lighting is different.
  • A telephone call can come in during the middle of your app.
  • Typing and clicking are much more painful to do.
  • They are commonly used repeatedly in odd moments throughout the day.
  • Most have cameras and some even accelerometers and GPS.
  • Battery life has to be considered.
  • It is hard to use more than one app at a time.
  • If your app does not do something useful in 30 seconds, then it is useless.

Some notes on designing a mobile app:

  • Think about what people want to know, do and feel. Make users feel good about what they are doing. Your aim is not to show off but to make life easier, better and simpler for them.
  • Avoid shovelware: design it for the mobile phone from the ground up.
  • About half your time will be spent in design, the other half in coding and testing.
  • Design on paper with a fat marker. Do not try to put too much on a screen: keep it simple. Design all screens and the complete flow between them. When you think you are done, go back over it and make it better. Do that again and again. Design as much of the app on paper as possible.
  • Build on the user’s experience of the physical world.
  • Without scrolling the user should see branding, the most frequently used functions and the most important information.
  • Cut out all typing, clicking, scrolling and zooming wherever possible.
  • Prefer scrolling to clicking.
  • People see and understand images and colours first. They look at things with rounded corners.
  • Use presets that covers 80% of users.
  • Get something simple working first. Then add to it bit by bit, but keep it solid. Then make it fast. Then make it good-looking. Then make it cool.
  • Eat your own dog food: use the app for yourself.
  • Scratch the itch: if something about the app gets to you, then make it right and good.
  • Test, test, test:
    • Test for speed.
    • Test on all supported mobile phones.
    • Test indoors and outdoors.
    • Test when a call comes in.
  • Get it as good as you can before you put it out: if users do not like it, they will not wait for the update.
  • Remember you can use sound – but do not depend on it.
  • For websites:
    • Use simple HTML for the things on your pages.
    • Use CSS to make it look cool.
    • You can use JavaScript, but do not count on it always being supported.
    • Do not use a fixed-width layout. Do not count on more than 240 x 320.
    • Provide links to both the mobile and full version of the website (if they are different).

See also:

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TiVo

TiVo (1999- ) is a computer you hook up to your television that not only records the shows you ask it to, but even shows that you would probably be interested in, based on what it knows you liked in the past.

It does not need a tape like a VCR and you do not need to tell it when a show is on – it knows. Unlike a VCR, it remembers to record your shows better than you do. You watch them when you are ready.

It can look for shows not just by name but also by the names of actors or directors or keywords. It is like Google for your television.

You can watch live television too with TiVo. It lets you go backwards in a show or watch something over again in slow motion (great for ball games). If you start watching an hour show 15 minutes late, you can also jump past all the ads – something that TiVo makes easy.

Also, you do not even have to be at home to tell it to record something: you can do that through the Web.

You can also see part of the Internet with TiVo.

You can download shows from the TiVo box onto your own computer and watch them there or put them on disc.

The best thing about TiVo is that you do not find yourself wanting to watch television but there is nothing good on: TiVo has been busily recording not just the shows you want to see, but even shows you want to see but did not know it.

It does that trick by learning what you like when you tell it whether or not you liked a particular show. Like Amazon, it can compare what you like with millions of others and have a good idea of what else you might like – the stuff you would have recorded if only you knew. Because it can look at what other people with tastes like yours are watching that you are missing.

It changes how you watch television – even how you watch, say, sports. It makes television into something different.

The TiVo box, the computer part, costs $100 (seven crowns) and can save 80 hours of shows. Sometimes it can record up to two channels at once. It only works with cable or satellite television. The box for HDTV costs three times as much and can only record 20 hours of HDTV.

But for the box to work you need to be hooked into their monthly service so that it can know what is coming up on television. The service costs $12.95 a month (a crown).

Those are the American prices in December 2007, but they give you an idea.

You can also get TiVo in Canada, Mexico, Britain and Taiwan. Some have been able to get TiVos to work in Australia, South Africa and elsewhere.

TiVo runs on a Linux computer. You can even get a bash prompt, if you know what that is. This makes it a great machine for hackers who can make it do new things.

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YouTube

youtube-logo-2005-10-31YouTube (2005- ) is a website with videos: short films of ten minutes or less. It has a vast video library that anyone can add to or watch.

YouTube started in 2005. In 2006 it was the fastest growing website on the Internet, faster than even MySpace. It was a big hit, but it had no way to make money. Despite that Google bought it in November 2005, after trying and failing to build a better video website itself.

YouTube was a hit partly because it came along just when the Internet was becoming fast enough for video. But also because YouTube got some things right that no one else did:

  1. It was easy enough for anyone to use. Even your mother.
  2. It allowed anyone to put up videos on the website. So it grew quickly and soon became the most interesting place on the Internet.
  3. It just worked. You clicked on a video and then you saw it. No need to have a special video player, no waiting for ever for it to start, no strange messages about why it did not work.

The last one was huge. Before YouTube there were three video players: Windows Media Player, Real Player and Flash. You had to have all three on your computer if you wanted to be able to watch any video on the Web. Few had all three. But even if you did, videos still did not work half the time. Video on the Web was broken for the most part.

YouTube uses Flash because it is built into most web browsers, so you do not have to do anything special to watch the videos on YouTube. Because YouTube grew so fast – and because it all worked – Flash is now pretty much the only video player you need.

Now there is plenty of working video on the Web. That is YouTube’s doing. It is as if the Internet has been given eyes and ears.

An example of YouTube’s power came early on.

One night in December 2005 on the NBC television show “Saturday Night Live” the song “Lazy Sunday” appeared. Those who were home watching NBC that night saw it and had a good laugh. Before YouTube that would have been the end of the story. But then someone put the video on YouTube. Now far more people could see it. It was a runaway hit, making both the song and YouTube famous.

NBC, which owns the copyright to the video, made YouTube take it down. NBC put it up on its own website. But when you clicked on it you had to wait and wait. Maybe you would see something – or maybe not. It was just like the bad old days before YouTube.

NBC knew television, but it soon learned that YouTube knew something about Internet video that it did not. Google soon learned the same thing the hard way. It became clear that YouTube is more than just a website with some videos.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Halo 3


Halo 3 (2007) is a video game for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 computer. Although Halo 3 just came out on September 25th 2007, it is expected to be the best-selling video game of all time.

Halo 3 follows the wildly successful Halo 2, which came out in 2004 and has sold at least 8 million copies worldwide. Halo 2 in turn succeeded Halo (2001), which continues in the line of the Quake and Doom games of the 1990s.

In Halo 3 you find yourself in the 2500s fighting the Covenant, creatures who have landed from other worlds to wipe out mankind. But it is more than just a game where you get to shoot a cool gun, though there is plenty of that. It is also a science fiction story where you become one of the characters: Master Chief.

The story of Halo has four parts. Halo 3 is the fourth and last part. The third part has not been made into a game. Peter Jackson, who gave us the “Lord of the Rings” films, intends to come out with a Halo film by 2009.

You are part human, part machine. You can use different sorts of weapons, like a flamethrower, not just guns. You can go on foot or travel by tank or something else. You go through desert, jungle and town; go to other worlds or among the stars.

You can play against the computer (which becomes the Covenant) or with friends, either on the same Xbox or over the Xbox Live network.
Halo 3 does not just advance the story, it is better than Halo 2:

  1. You have more weapons you can fight with and more kinds of vehicles you can travel in.
  2. It seems more true-to-life. The look of things is more like what you would see in a film than Halo 2. But more than that, things like leaves, water, blood, wind, shadows, talking and the reactions of other characters (managed by the computer) seem much more believable.
  3. The characters that the computer managers can think for themselves more, making them harder to beat.
  4. You can play with more people. Four, not just two, can play on the same machine. Online you can play with up to 15 others. It is now easier to join games with people you do not know.
  5. Saved films: You can record a game or part of one. Not only can you play it back and put it online for others to see, but you can watch it from any point of view you like. This lets you study your own game play as well as that of others.
  6. Forge: You can add objects to the game and even do it while the game is going on.

Halo 3 works only on the Xbox 360.

Halo 3 is made by Bungie Software, a computer game company that started out writing a Pong game for the Macintosh. They have progressed from there. Microsoft bought them in 2000.

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Yesterday, on August 10th 2007, I saw my first iPhone. Well, I saw one a few weeks ago from a distance across a conference room. It just looked like a black piece of plastic. But someone at work just got one and so this time I could hold it in my hands and try it out.

It still needs some work, but it is leagues beyond anything that is out there. I would get one in an instant if I had the money.

It is smaller than I imagined it. Lighter and thinner too. It looks like it does in the pictures (but without the cool backlighting, of course). When you turn it off the front turns all black.

The iPhone is slower and harder to use than I expected.

The keyboard works. Because it has one key for each letter, it is easier to use than what you get on other mobile phones. But because so many keys are in such a small space, it takes practice to hit them right. I have heard that with practice with two thumbs you can go pretty fast.

Because it uses a touch screen instead of physical keys, sometimes you have to hit a key more than once for it to work. With a physical key, once you press it down you know it is going to work: you feel it in your fingers. But with a touch screen you do not get that. You have to look on the screen to see if it worked. I have the very same trouble with bank machines.

The biggest pain in the neck I found, in the few minutes I was using it, is the spell checker. It was not clear how to stop it from changing what I wrote. Good spell checkers are not that controlling. They are friendly, not motherly. This one needs work.

I noticed that with all that touching it is easy for the glass front to get dirty looking.

It does the Web. I saw Google Maps. The way you zoom in and out with two fingers is cool and it works. But because it is coming over a mobile phone network it is slow, like it was 1995. Still, it is way better than the Web I have seen on other mobile phones: the Web looks the way it should so it is readable and usable.

The iPhone does not have GPS – it does not know where you are. I find that a bit strange: you are on a mobile phone network which knows about where you are. You would think the iPhone could use that to its advantage.

Later I was standing in line at the store. The woman in front of me had a Treo. I saw its rows of little buttons and already it was starting to look old-fashioned to me.

palm-treo-650

Palm Treo 650, circa 2006. Click to enlarge.

– Abagond, 2007.

Update (2018): Added picture of a Treo, like the one I saw.

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email

Email (1966- ) is short for “electronic mail”. It is mail that is sent from one computer to another instead of by post. It is sent through a network, most commonly the Internet. No stamps required.

The first email was sent by 1966. By the 1980s it had spread to American universities. In the 1990s email had spread to the general public. Along with the Web, it helped to spread the Internet throughout America and all over the world.

Better than the post office: it is much cheaper and faster. And you do not have to find a stamp.

Better than the telephone: Even when most people have a mobile phone it is not always easy to get someone. Most telephones do let you to leave a message, known as voicemail, but in practice the message cannot be much more than 20 words. And listening to voicemail can be a pain in the neck when it contains something you have to write down anyway: you have to play the voicemail over and over again to make sure you got it right.

Email allows you longer message. It also allows you to write when it is good for you and for the other person to read it and answer it when it is good for him. This is the huge advantage of email.

But email has drawbacks too.

The first drawback is length. Although you could email a whole book if you wanted, in practice few will read more than 100 words of your email and they will only remember one point you made.

A good email makes one point only and is a paragraph or two long. The subject line and the first sentence has to make that point. Any other words you add beyond that only matter to the degree that they help to make that point.

That makes email more like an advertisement or even the beginning of a newspaper article. People think of it as a short letter. Wrong.

The second drawback is spam: unwanted email from people you do not know trying to sell you something or trick you out of your money. Email almost died in 2003 under the huge wave of spam that appeared then, but now they have computer programs that can learn to tell the difference between spam and ordinary email.

The last drawback of email is that it requires a computer to read and answer it. For most of us that means being at home or at work. You cannot very well stick your computer in your back pocket and read and answer your email just anywhere.

Well, as it turns out, you can: that is part of what a BlackBerry or an iPhone is. In 2007 they still cost too much for most people, but by the 2010s they should be cheap enough. So this disadvantage will pass away.

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Yahoo!

Yahoo! masthead from 1998.

Yahoo! masthead from 1998.

Yahoo! (1994- ), so spelled, is the number two search engine on the Web. In the early days it was the best there was, but now most people use Google. Yahoo! must kick itself daily: in 1998 and again in 2002 it could have taken over Google but thought the price was too high.

By some measures Yahoo! is larger than Google. Its website, for instance, gets more visitors than even Google. Yet it is Google that is making the real money on the Internet, not Yahoo!

Like Google, Yahoo! started out as a student web page at Stanford University. It was Jerry Yang’s web page on akebono.stanford.edu, called “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”, later renamed “Yahoo!”

The name comes from “Gulliver’s Travels”. They added the “!” because plain “Yahoo” was already taken as a trade name.

Yahoo! not only had a search engine, but also the best listing of some of the best sites then on the Web. You could look up sites by field of interest. Of course, it did not have everything, but it was a good place to start.

But in time the Web grew too large for such a listing, no matter how many people Yahoo! had working on it. The geniuses at Google found out how to get a computer to come up with listings almost as good in a split second. Yahoo! has been eating Google’s dust ever since.

Where Google has largely grown from within by applied genius, Yahoo! has grown by gathering bits of the Internet into one company:

  • 1997: RocketMail (web email)
  • 1998: ViaWeb (online stores)
  • 1999: GeoCities (user web pages), Broadcast.com (radio and music)
  • 2002: HotJobs (want ads), Inktomi (search)
  • 2003: Overture (the old GoTo.com – search-based advertising)
  • 2005: del.icio.us, Flickr (online pictures)
  • 2007: MyBlogLog

Those are just a few. The crown jewels are Inktomi, which has a search engine almost as good as Google’s, and Overture, which was making money on search-based advertising long before Google even knew how.

But putting all these pieces together into one, everything-for-everyone website that works well and makes money has been difficult.

Yahoo! has been led by Terry Semel since the dark days of the dot-com bust of 2001. He is a Hollywood deal-maker from Warner Brothers. He knew how to gather the pieces but not how to put them together. (He resigned a month after I wrote this.)

Google avoided doing it this way. For the most part they have built everything for themselves. They even tried to build their own YouTube. Instead of gathering Internet companies, Google has been building a brain trust, perhaps the best the world has seen since the Second World War. So far it has served them well.

Now there is talk of Yahoo! taking on Google by joining forces with Microsoft (third place) or eBay.

To its credit, Yahoo! has not gone the way of curiosities like Lycos, WebCrawler and AltaVista. Remember them? They still exist, you know.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Google

From the Google home page, December 2nd 1998.

From the Google home page, December 2nd 1998.

Google (1998- ) is both an Internet search engine and the American company that created and maintains it. It is now the top search engine in the world.

Like any search engine, Google is a page on the Web that you can go to to find all the web pages that mention the given word or words that you write in.

But the Web has countless pages, even for uncommon words. It seemed that the Web was going to die under its own weight, that it would become too large to find anything useful in it, even with search engines.

A good search engine will list pages from most important to least important. But how do you tell which pages are more important for a given word?

Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Stanford came up with a beautiful idea:

What matters is not whether a page has the word you are looking for, but how many times it is linked to by those that do!

For example, if you put in “New York Times” into Google, it will list the New York Times website first. Not because anyone told Google where the newspaper has its website, but because of all the pages that mentioned “New York Times”, it was linked to the most.

This process is called PageRank.

Brin and Page wrote a computer program that did this and ran it on some computers at Stanford. It worked!

They knew they had the best search engine in the world. But to start a company, they needed some serious money and a way to make money from searches.

First they went to Yahoo!, the top search engine at the time. It had also started at Stanford. Yahoo! said no, search engines were already as good as they were going to get. The real money was what you could add to a search engine. “Portals” was where it was at, they said.

Then they went to Andy Bechtolsheim, a founder of Sun Microsystems, a computer maker. They told him about Google on his front steps. He got it. He understood how great Google was. He got them the money they needed and the rest is history.

Google’s searches are free, so how do they make money? By selling search words. When someone searches on that word, your link appears on that page.

Nothing new in that. But Google did two things that most search engines did not:

  1. They kept your link separate from the search result itself. A Google search should be utterly trustworthy.
  2. You only paid when someone followed your link. This is called pay per click.

Prodigy, an early online service, had the second idea as far back as 1988, but Google was the first to get it to work.

Google has since got into other things, like searching for pictures, news and directions, putting up pictures of the entire Earth on the Web as well as all the old books in libraries.

The Google logo through the years:

1998

1998

2000

2000

2005

2005

2010

2010

2015

2015

– Abagond, 2007.

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Apple’s iPhone (2007- ) is like an iPod with a telephone built in. Like an iPod, it can store and play music. Like a telephone, it can make and receive calls. But there is more. It can also take pictures like a camera and show films like a small television. It can go on the Internet to get email, go to web pages and get maps and directions.

In fact, it is a Macintosh computer made small enough to fit in your hand and light enough to take anywhere. It even runs Mac OS X like a Macintosh.

There are already telephones that can play music, but they are hard to use. And there are telephones that can go on the Web, but the Web is almost unreadable and painful to use. The iPhone works the way these things should have. Even as just a telephone it is better than anything we are use to.

Apple will start selling the iPhone in America on June 29th 2007. Cingular, which was just bought by AT&T, will provide the telephone service. It will appear in Europe later in 2007 and Asia in 2008.

The iPhone is the future now: Bit by bit the computer has been taking over television, telephone, music and film. Within ten years few will still have a separate telephone or television or music player. Instead there will be three kinds of computers:

  • wall computer
  • table computer
  • hand computer

The iPhone is the first real hand computer.

Apple understands design and understands computers. Few companies have a deep understanding of both. That is why Apple is first.

Instead of little keys and a little screen, the iPhone has no built-in keys and one large screen. When it needs keys for you to enter names or numbers, it draws the keys as needed.

Things like Treos, Blackberries and Zunes will have to change or die. They will seem old-fashioned almost overnight.

As wonderful as it seems now, it already has some known drawbacks:

  • At 40 to 50 crowns ($500 to $600), it is a lot for “a telephone that plays music”. But, from the Gutenberg Bible to the VCR, this is a common starting price for something as new and different as the iPhone. If it does well, the price will come down, just as it did for printed books and VCRs.
  • Cingular’s telephone service is not as cheap or as good as, say, Sprint’s. It seems like a strange choice. You will not be able to get an iPhone unless you sign up for two years with Cingular.
  • The battery is built in. If it turns out to be anything like the iPod, then when the battery runs out of power after a few years you will have to send your iPhone back to Apple. They will send back someone else’s used iPhone with a new battery.
  • It has no games.
  • Even though it has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, you will still need to hook it physically into a computer to download songs and so on.

By year’s end we will have a much better idea of how good it is, of its strengths and weaknesses.

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Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768- ) is the oldest encyclopedia in English and the one with the greatest authority, even now. It was once the largest, but now the Wikipedia is larger. It first appeared in Edinburgh in 1768. It now comes out of Chicago.

It currently appears in three forms: in print, on computer disc and on the Web. Print makes the most money, but its days as a printed book are numbered.

Britannica has been slow to change with the times and its fortunes are sinking.

What happened? In 1993 came the first blow: Microsoft came out with Encarta — the old Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia put on disc. It was so cheap that many people got it along with their new computer. Then came the Web, then Google and then the Wikipedia. Who looks up anything offline any more?

Britannica was quick to get on the Web – they were there by 1994. But it was shovelware and you had to pay to see it (it was free only for a while). In the past 12 years little has changed. It has improved only around the edges, like putting icing on a hard, dry piece of bread.

What Britannica must do:

It needs to forget about printed encyclopedias. Its future is on the Web or nowhere.

That said, it needs to rework its content for the Web. It will not be easy, but if it does not do it, it will disappear and go the way of the Victrola.

The Britannica has over 55 million words and 120,000 articles. That comes to something less than 500 words an article. A very good size for a web page. But some articles go on for hundreds of pages! That will not work. Not even with outlines.

The content needs to be cut up into short articles of 200-500 words each. Every single one. Even “China”. Even “Europe, History of”. Yes. And each article must stand on its own and be valuable in its own right. For the 500-word articles to work the long-winded prose will have to go.

Of course, “Europe, History of” cannot be completely covered in 500 words or less. But depth must be provided by links not page length. That is important. Page length is what makes the Britannica so hard to use online.

An article should provide different levels of depth:

  1. title
  2. first sentence
  3. first paragraph
  4. highlighted words
  5. the entire article
  6. links for those who want to go deeper

Britannica has outlines: for each of its longer articles and for all of man’s knowledge. It should keep that, make it the structure of the site and fit each of its articles into it.

It needs to keep its content current. There is nothing on the Wikipedia, for example. (They added one at last in 2006 a few months after I wrote this).

It should read its server logs to see what readers are really interested in.

It needs a much much better search engine. Search is everything in an encyclopedia.

The Britannica has reinvented itself in the past. I hope it can do it again.

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shovelware

Shovelware is content moved from one medium and to another with little or no change – as if it were shovelled in. It can be between any two media, but these days it is the Web that is at the receiving end in most cases. The New York Times and the Britannica online are perfect examples. If a web page has a link that says “Next Page”, you can be sure that it is shovelware.

In the early days of television the first shows were moved straight from radio: radio plays, music shows, ball games and news. Some of it worked on television, some of it did not. Most radio plays did not work – television needed something else. And television news at first was read – read! – not shown!

And now it is the Web’s turn. That is why so much of the Web looks like a magazine. But the sites of those like Google or reddit, who know what they are doing, look nothing like this.

The New York Times on the Web is a lot like it is in print – so much so that it even has page numbers! Page numbers are completely unnecessary on the Web and, in fact, only get in the way of print, copy and search – operations that are unthinkable in print, but are common on computers.

The New York Times online is also structured into the same parts as it is in print – world news, city news, science, lifestyle, opinion and all the rest. Again, completely unnecessary on the Web and again it only gets in the way.

Even the links that they have in their stories are a waste compared to what they should be.

The New York Times conceives of the Web as a form of print. So they put up with the disadvantages of print – on the Web! – while missing out on what the Web can do.

They cannot treat the Web as some side thing: if they do not get it right, it will kill them. They seem to sense this, since they are getting help from Microsoft. But the changes they are making will make it even more like it is in print!

The Britannica is even worse. The Web and the encyclopedia are a marriage made in heaven, yet no one in Chicago seems to notice. They break nearly every principle of good web design. The only thing they get right is the spelling.

I love the Britannica dearly, but these days I almost always look up things in the Wikipedia first. It is far easier and almost as good. Only when I want to go in depth do I pull out one of my old Britannicas. But even that will not last.

Writing about inventions in 500 words or less has taught me something that Sony and the New York Times do not seem to understand: an invention has very little to do with what it looks like or how it is made. It has everything to do with what it does. Both companies are wasting a fortune because they do not seem to understand this. It blows my mind.

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computer

Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie creating UNIXA computer (1946- ) is an invention that has a perfect memory and can do arithmetic blindingly fast. It almost seems like it can think.

A computer can read letters and numbers – or, really, any set of markings – and apply rules to them to write a new set of letters and numbers. But there is more. The real beauty of it is this: it can use these same letters and numbers to read in new rules!

What a computer reads is called input, what it writes is called output and the list of rules that it applies is called the program (also known as software). What a program works on (which started as input and may end as output) is called data. When a program is working it is said to be running, like the motor of a car.

This definition might sound really dry and so what. But it is what computers are deep down, it is the root of their power and all they can do: send email, show web pages, play games, store and play music, make telephone calls and figure out your taxes. And countless other things yet to be invented.

Anything that can be expressed as program (a set of rules) and data (as letters and numbers) can be done by a computer.

Computers these days come in all sizes and assume forms that you do not think of as computers: iPods, mobile phones, gameboys, TiVos and DVD players are all purpose-built computers.

Most people do not seem to be aware of how general and open-ended the computer is. Even though it was invented only 60 years ago, it is an invention that is as important as the wheel or writing. And we are only at the beginning of what they can do.

Computers have perfect memory but absolutely no common sense. They do not know what you mean, only what you say. They do just what you tell them, nothing more, nothing less, to a maddening degree. But we put up with them because they can do a lot of things way faster than we ever could and do it with far fewer errors.

A program is written in a programming language. It is a set of instructions that the computer can understand. It looks like something halfway between English and arithmetic. Here is a simple example:

    $a = shift;
    $b = shift;
    $c = $a + $b;
    print "$cn"

This reads in two numbers, adds them together and then write out the answer. It is written in a language called Perl. It is just one of hundreds of such languages.

Nearly anything that can be expressed in a programming language can be done by a computer.

Some think that one day computers will rule the world because their intelligence will become so much greater than ours. If the root of intelligence is no more than what I said at the beginning – applying rules to data – then, yes, we are in deep trouble. It is just a matter of time before we become slaves. And it will not be we who sail to the stars, but our computers.

– Abagond, 2006.

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The Web

The Web (1989- ) is a set of pages that exist on the Internet. They do not form a book or come in any order. They do not all exist on any one computer but come from all over the world.

And there are millions of them! What makes them different from ordinary pages is that they are connected together by links. When you select a link you go from one page to another. And one page can be linked to any other page on the Web and can have any number of links. This creates not a list of pages in a certain order, like in a book, but a web of pages. Thus the name.

To find your way among all these pages requires a search engine and good word of mouth. But the links themselves work as a kind of word of mouth – a fact that Google takes full advantage of.

The Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, one of the great computer geniuses. It went public in 1992 but was little known till about 1994 when the Internet burst upon the public.

Content: A web page can have words, pictures, sounds, music, video, computer programs and so on. And, of course, links. A link can be anything visible on the page, such as a picture, but in most cases it is a set of words. A good link gives some idea of what is on the other side: “Tyra Banks pictures”, “The latest news”, “The mystery of the ages solved” (yes, I saw a link like that once).

Reading style: Very few will sit and read a page for long. Most read a few words here and there on the page – a hundred or two at most – and then be off going down another link. Only if the page has just what they were looking for or somehow holds their interest (by its humour, wit or something surprising) will they remain.

Structure: Little of it. The Web is not structured like a love story: it is more like a the Sears catalogue with pages mixed up and falling out.

The good and the bad: Unlike the codex, the Web is bad at long, carefully reasoned argument. You know, rational thought. It is not even good for telling stories, like the scroll or the television. But when it comes to finding out about something quickly or about something you know little of, it is unmatched. Where else are you going to find out what goes through the head of a schoolgirl in Singapore?

But what you find may not be true!! Anyone can write anything they want. And, if you are serious about a subject, you will soon find that in most cases the Web does not run deep. You will find yourself reading the same six facts over and over again.

– Abagond, 2006.

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