Wk11: Close To You – the open and closed debate, and do we care?

Open source, open platforms, closed ecosystems – seems these terms have been bandied about A LOT of late. They are very technical terms, and very important causes, with plenty of pros and cons on both sides.

But what about outside of the technical world?

For the music fan, the movie fan, the culturalist – where should we stand on the open vs closed debate? And should we even care?

I think we should.

But there are lots of arguments for and against either side. But maybe we can boil them down to some clear and simple headlines to keep in mind.

Open.

The idea of it is built upon one of the very foundations of the web – that all data is equal.

Open-source, open-standards, open-platforms – it all comes from that core idea. That we share information. That we remain transparent. (I’m going to refer to open-anything as “Open”).

Did you know that you can “View Source” on any website? It brings up the code for that website. Not that many people had code websites from scratch anymore, but I can see how anyone created any part of their website, and replicate that. And by doing that, learn a new skill.

A lot of great stuff has come from the world of “Open”. Firefox is probably the best example – built on a system that is completely open. The great thing is people can create more stuff that fits right into Firefox. I have an All Music Guide search bar, for instance.

This blog is created on WordPress, one of the best examples of “Open” when it works. WordPress is a “distributed company” – it’s employees all work remotely, around the planet. And they all develop for this blogging software separately (or in teams). The whole thing is open, they don’t need to worry about permission from the boss or others.

Here. Take it all. Go make something.

Closed.

Essentially, the idea that something (software, hardware), is protected, mostly as intellectual property. And you can’t screw around with it.

Even though the web is built a spirit of “Open”, computing has been ruled by “Closed”. Microsoft Office is the most famous. If you want to create an add-on for Office, you had to pay Microsoft to un “close” the door for you.

And it works. It protected the program’s integrity, and helped make it perhaps the most popular computer program in the world ever.

Similarly Apple, with it’s “closed” iTunes systems means that there is only one way to use it – Apple’s way. You don’t really own the program. You pay the company for the use of it.

But to understand it better, there is a very clear example of the spirit of “open” vs the spirit of “closed”. It’s MySpace vs Facebook.

Although not completely open-source, MySpace certainly came from the place of “Open”. You could, if you knew HTML coding, change your MySpace profile into almost anything. You could move stuff around, change all the colours and more.

Facebook, however, is very “closed”. Although they allow for some development, they a cordoned-off sandboxes in a larger, unchanging ground. You are just borrwing some space, really.

But the success and failures of both are at the heart of what “Open” and “Closed” means for us – non programming, no techie types.

“Open” is great for the technically savvy and inventive, but for a majority of us wh don’t know what we’re doing, looks shit. “Closed” traps us to conform with everyone else – but at 500 million users – maybe we’re ok with that?

The “Open” vs “Closed” fight has now gone to the tablet world. Google’s Android system is “Open”. Apple’s iPad is “Closed”. Android supporters, Apple haters and techies all attack the iPad’s “Closed” spirit. Over and over in announcements and press releases, the “Closed” point is beaten home.

But does anyone care?

Because Android has a big, huge, fineprint. Android is “Open”, and that means open to everyone. Including a simple Wallpaper App that was sending user’s personal data to somewhere in China. And it’s against the spirit of “Open” to stop it.

On the other hand, iPads and the iOS securoity measures is akin to censorship. Sure, Playboy can’t get on the store. But neither can iTunes competitors. Or clever programs that don’t fit Apple’s incredibly strict guidelines.

Yet, the iPad is the success. As is Facebook.

So who wins?

I think we have to all accept that there has to be both.

Further – that most people will go with “Closed”.

And early adopters and techies will go with “Open”.

There’s no use pumping out PR about how much better “Open” is, and how it is better for innovation and creativity. Most people don’t want innovation and creativity. They want robust and reliable. And they’ve voted that way time and time again. They voted to close.

As for “Open”, it is hugely important to keep it around. Not only as opposition – although there is a sense of “keeping the bastards honest”. But as a place for those who are more innovative, tech savvy and creative than the average bear to out those big ideas to use. Create it for the world, and the world will follow later.

I think it’s time to stop those silly articles about which is better – “Open” or “Closed”. It confuses people. And it distracts from what is truly better or worse about your product.

And in the end, there will always be a audience for both. And one far more than the other. Get over it. Case closed.

Android App sends data to China – http://www.cultofmac.com/android-app-sends-personal-data-to-china/52929

Recent discussion on Digital Planet about the “Closed” iPad. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00f32rt

Wk9: The Hardest Button to Button – Reinventing the keyboard.

There has to be a better way

In the last decade, almost everything we’ve known about computers has changed. But  the humble keyboard remains pretty much the same (and in some ways worse). Maybe it’s time to have a think about it from scratch.

The layout of a keyboard has pretty much stayed steady from typewriter days. Big tall buttons in mostly the same order. For programming purposes, we had a series of function buttons that most people never touched. They added a number keypad on the right as well.

In fact, the development of the keyboard in the last decades has been only about adding buttons. Some newer, even clunkier keyboards had stand-alone volume and playback controls. Add some screen stuff as well (brightness, contrast, etc). If you look at one of those keyboards, they are clunky, complicated and full of redundancies.

And, once again, it took Apple to really think outside the square.

I’m a Mac user, and when I have to go back to PC, it’s always the keyboard that is the biggest struggle. Apple are pretty good at touting all their features, but they kept quite mum about the keyboard ones. Maybe it’s because they’ve used them for so many years.

Really thin buttons is the main one. Most keyboards have buttons that are almost 1cm tall. It might sound like a small complaint, but the lightness of touch increases speed and reduces strain. Not to mention getting rid of silly valleys where food can get into. Macs also come with back lighting on the keyboard, that automatically comes on in low light. They also got rid of the wire.

Beyond the physical advancements, there are some changes in the thought behind the keyboard. The Function buttons (F1, F2 etc) are rebranded into useful things like Dashboard, brightness and volume. Looking at a MacBook, where I’m typing this now, the keyboard looks compact and efficient.

Most importantly, I use every button quite often in my active use of my laptop. I don’t have lots of buttons taking up space for no reason.

Again, there maybe some who simply think – who cares? But we should. Technology should be looking at how to improve every aspect of our lives. Why has only one company in the world ever looked at keyboards, and how we typed?

If we took a snapshot of what your most used buttons are, what would you see? How often do you hit those function buttons. Or print screen? Numlock? Pause break?

Less buttons work. And it’s worth thinking about. Are frequently used buttons hard-to-get to? Are rarely used buttons in the way? What about finger strength – are the most used keys lying under your most powerful fingers?

Maybe it’s time for good old QWERTY to go. Dvorak (link) has never caught on, but maybe we can use some of the thoughts behind it. Or this new Android keyboard designed for thumbs (link) – splitting QWERTY in half.

Otherwise we are wasting time. Sure, it’s a small waste. But its’ a waste multiplied across millions of computers and users, hours and hours, every day of the year.

I think the most interesting Apple has done with keyboards is on the iPhone. Cutting it into three – allowing type to appear first, then punctuation in the next two screens.

Cleverly though, when it comes to typing in URLs, there is a button for “.com”. That whole phrase is one button. It’s a shame that seems to be the only real breakthrough of new buttons. And a new type.

When I was in high school, I had an essay to write about Hamlet. Because I was typing and retyping the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so I set up a simple ‘macro’. A little Shift+Ctrl+R would type Rosencrantz, saving me some time. This was over a decade ago, programmed by a kid. If everyone in the world was typing Rosencrantz a lot, we should be looking at a Rosencrantz button.

And maybe new types of buttons are what we should be looking at the most.

Here’s one suggestion (link) – a Share button. In the era of social networking, people often share content they discover. Is there a way we can work out the rules, and save me scrolling around a page to find that share button?

If I was allowed to create a button, it would be “Search”. You would still need to type a search field somewhere. Maybe hitting search pops up a window with a text field, and pressing again launches the search. When done in a browser, it goes to Google. On your desktop, it goes to Finder. In Word, it searches for words. In iTunes, it finds your songs. Seems like a no-brainer.

The Apple iPhone keyboard doesn’t take things far enough. Imagine giving programmers full keyboard customisation. For Twitter – the hashtag is too far away, and retweeting should be a keyboard button. Hopefully they will open this up in future.

Such keyboard customisation exists. Check out a Pro-Tools keyboard (link). It just takes computing back to something very basic and powerful. Press a button, and something happens. If only we could control those buttons.

Less buttons work. Yet more buttons need to be invented. It’s an interesting tension.

But buttons no longer need to be physical anymore. Tablets and phones are moving away from the physical keyboard. And a button is just a button – software can rewrite it’s function.

It seems like it’s been a long time for the keyboard. I can’t remember there ever being a game-changing one – maybe it’s not as cool as Thunderbolt or Retina Displays. But it’s our very access into the computer. It should be the best it can be.

Nice article about keyboard challenges – http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/news/hardware/The-search-for-the-perfect-keyboard/articleshow/7583512.cms

Discussion of a ‘Share’ button – http://kovshenin.com/archives/every-keyboard-needs-a-share-button/