RSS Feed

January, 2007

  1. Sovereign and transient applications – why SAAS will win

    January 31, 2007 by max

    Everything on the web seems to be about AJAX and software as a service (SAAS) these days – but is it just another fad, or will it change the way we work? I think the latter, and I will explain /br /In 1996 Alan Cooper wrote “a href=””your programs posture/a”, where he split the programs we use in our daily lives in four distinct categories – Sovereign, transient, daemonic and parasitic. Sovereign programs are the ones we work with for hours on end – Word, Outlook, and Photoshop. They are our main working horses. Transient programs are helper programs that are used for a specific task and then quickly closed again. Calculators and Apple’s finder are examples of this. Daemonic programs don’t usually require any interaction, but will work quietly behind the scenes. Printer drivers for example. Parasitic programs are small programs that give quiet feedback, such as the clock, or the task /br /He lays out the design principles for each of these in his essay. Here’s an overview of sovereign and transient applications:br /span style=”font-weight: bold;”Sovereign applicationsbr //spanulliUsers are experienced. Since users by definition use the program for extended periods of time they will quickly become experienced users. Certainly everyone will start out as a novice, but only for a relatively brief period of time in relation to the amount of time they will eventually spend in the //liliSpeed and power. Experienced users know their way around, and need powerful ways of interacting with the program. Keyboard shortcuts, complex controls, and toolbars that may seem daunting at first //liliMuted graphical appearance. Since the user will be staring at the application for hours each day the visual presentation of the program should be muted and subtle. No normal user can stand looking at a bright colored application all //liliRich output environment. The program should give the user little hints about its state in the form of small icons or other graphical representations. These might not be noticed at first, but as the user gains experience he will experimentally interact with them and start using the program more //liliRich input environment. The input should be controllable in several //li/ulspan style=”font-weight: bold;”Transient applications/spanbr /ulliUsers are inexperienced. The program is only used once in a while and users will forget how to use //liliSimple controls. The program should be simple to use since it is not used often. Buttons should be marked “print this document now” instead of “print”.br //liliSelf-explanatory. The program should explain itself – a novice should be able to carry out a task in the program without instructions. /liliLarge buttons and bright colorschemes. Since the user needs to re-learn the application every time and doesn’t spend a lot of time with it cheery colors and large buttons are //li/ulbr /A webbrowser is a special case: The browser itself is a sovereign program – we use it as our main tool for hours on end, but the webpages we look at are mostly transient applications – we go to a specific webpage for the weather, news, gossip, or other information and then /br /But users can do pretty much everything in a browser that they can do in sovereign programs (maybe with the exception of Graphical designers, 3d artists and a few others) – with the added benefit of being able to better share their work, never have to worry about backups, and being able to work off any computer. So why don’t they?br /br /The answer lies in the way we interact with our sovereign programs. When I visit a webpage there is normally a small lag whenever I press a button or a link because a round-trip to the server is needed, and the whole page is redrawn. When I go to to see tomorrows weather I don’t mind because it is a transient task, and I don’t have to do it for hours on end. But when I work in a sovereign application this is unacceptable and would drive me nuts in a few days. How would you feel if there was a half second lag in photoshop every time you pressed a button?br /If a program that I use for five hours a day has a lag of half a second, or even 1/10 of a second, every time I press a control I will get extremely frustrated. I expect Word to react instantly to my commands. Until a few years ago there was no way around this, and so webdesigners all over the world accepted their fate and designed their websites to be used as transient /br /But the world has changed, and the technology is now much more advanced than it was just a few years ago. Using ajax technologies it is now relatively trivial to create websites that react just as fast as programs on your computer – the primary barrier for moving applications to the web has fallen. With ajax it is possible to create sovereign applications in a browser that have no discernible disadvantages over installed programs. They even have the added benefits of portability and easy sharing between many /br /But a lot of websites that are building the sovereign applications of the future on the net are making the mistake of treating them as transient applications. Instead of building sites with rich outputs, expert user interfaces and muted graphical experiences, they are stuck in the tradition of making transient applications that are self-explanatory with simple controls and large /br /If you are making an application that works in a browser you have the possibility of making a sovereign application instead of a transient one – but you have to design for it.

  2. Engineers of the West, engineers of the East

    January 11, 2007 by max

    Outsourcing is all the rage these days, everything but my pizza delivery seems to be outsourced to India, China or some other far off place that takes away jobs. Years ago the western nations calmed themselves by agreeing that only low-tech production, assembly of paperclips and realdolls, would be outsourced – that complicated products needed our expertise. Then came callcenters. Then came high-tech production. Then came development. Will this ever end, or will all our engineers be stuck with pizza delivery jobs?br /br /Of course not. So what is the solution?br /br /If you look at the weakness of almost all Asian companies, and engineers it is design. Good design requires much more than good engineering. It requires a whole back-catalog of ideas, opinions, and culture. And it takes time for a society to develop good design standards. It takes time and effort to create beautiful /br /The two mp3 players below illustrate my /a onblur=”try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}” href=””img style=”cursor: pointer; width: 320px;” src=”” alt=”” border=”0″ //abr /The first one, of course, is an Ipod from a href=””Apple/a, the second one is a player from a href=””Shenzhen Jingguanzun Electronic Science Technology Co., Ltd./a, and it features FM radio, digital voice recorder, and 7 equalizer modes, all of which the ipod is missing. Yet it is not as popular as the Ipod, even though it is considerably cheaper. Why?br /br /The answer is design – the ipod is beautiful. The no-name mp3 player from Shenzhen Jingguanzun Electronic Science amp; Technology Co., Ltd. isn’t. Even the name is ugly…br /br /This is not a unique example, most electronics that come out of Asia have the overall lack of usability, and lack of good design that this no-name mp3 player has. And most well designed electronic products (a href=””Apple/a, a href=””Bang amp; Olufsen/a, a href=””Thomson/a) are simple, elegant, and easy to use. In a word they are beautiful. And they are not from low-income Asian /br /So why do some companies make beautiful products, while others don’t? The answer isn’t simple, but it has to do with cultural heritage, and maniac attention to /br /The asian economies learned in the eighties that they could make a substantial amount of money by copying western products, because they had cheaper labour, and plenty of it. The requirement for this effort was speed, low pricing, and lots of features. The Asian economies grew to be masters of this trade, and churned out copycat products at a rate that was alarming to many western companies. And this is, to a large extent, what they are still doing. But society is moving on, and the standard of living keeps rising in the western world. And the consequence of this is that we can buy as many no-name mp3 players as we care for – we can afford it. But we don’t. We would much rather have a beautiful product, that shows how much style, elegance and coolness we have. And we don’t mind paying for /br /And this is where many of the Asian copycat companies fall short – it is much harder to copy “beautiful” than it is to copy the technical specs of a product by buying the same components as the competitor and putting them in your own box. The Ipod copies are just not as cool or elegant, we would rather have the real thing, and pay a premium for it – afterall we have the money to do /br /When you make a beautiful product you need very different virtues than when you make a cheap product. You need patience, and you need rigorous attention to detail, making mock-ups and prototypes until you get it just right. Steve Jobs is well known for being a pain in the ass to work for because he is never satisfied – every little detail must be perfect. But the Ipod has a 60% market share even though it doesn’t even come close to being the cheapest – Apple is virtually printing money with it. So it is obviously worth the /br /And this is where especially European companies have a tremendous advantage. They tend to be much more focused on detail and quality than their Asian and American counterparts (Yes, I know Apple is Americen, but they are an exception) – Beautiful cars come from Germany, beautiful clothes come from Italy, and beautiful furniture comes from /br /Style is not something that is easily copied, it is weaved into the fabric of society. Look at how the cities of Vienna, Venice and Copenhagen compare to Shenzhen, Shanghai, and New York. If you have been to these places it will be obvious what i mean. European cities have a calm and tranquil atmosphere, Asian and American cities have a hectic and confused atmosphere. I overheard a conversation about the Copenhagen Metro by two American tourists, “Wow – this is so beautiful, everything is smaller but cooler” and it hits the nail pretty much on the head – not big or full of features that nobody needs, but beautiful. And this trickles down through society, and shows in the products that we /br /So European electronic companies should not be pursuing the faster-quicker-cheaper road, but the beautiful-elegant-simple road – the success of the Ipod clearly shows that this is where the money is.