Wednesday, July 25, 2012

There's an app for that web site

(To whoever posted the last three comments -- not that there's even the slimmest chance you'll read this -- no, I do not want to buy French sunglasses from you.  Quel dommage.)

Ah, the late 90s.  We knew everything.  We knew that phones, TVs and PCs were going to "converge" until there was no real difference between them.  We knew that the web was exploding and was going to keep exploding.  "Broadband", that is, speeds faster than 56kb, was going to be everywhere.  We knew that mobile computing was going to be big and that the web would necessarily look different on a phone as opposed to a big monitor with a keyboard and mouse.

Honest.  I remember people talking about all this in the hallways and in the restaurants that always seemed to have at least two VCs interfacing animatedly in the booth behind you, before I left the Valley.

And we were right.  Unfortunately, we were wrong about a few of things as well, like whether this was all going to happen "right now, at internet speed" or over the course of decades.  And whether a company had to actually show a profit to be worth a gazillion bucks.  And this idea that in order to have half a chance in this blindingly fast new world, you had to become the "first mover" no matter the cost.  And buildings like this.  I mean, who would want to work there?

Now that web-and-video-enabled phones with decent bandwidth are commonplace, what does the web look like on them?  Well, if you actually try to use your phone's browser, it looks pretty unimpressive.  Pages come up in tiny print.  If you try to zoom in so you can actually read them, they may or may not reformat so as not to spill over the edge of the screen.  Selecting links or navigating to the right text box can be pot luck.  In all, pretty dismal.

Not that there haven't been efforts to make web pages look and feel differently if the browser is running on a phone.  There certainly have been, and again, I recall some of those efforts from back in the day.  But that's often not what happens.  What happens instead, often, is an app.

I can read this blog on a phone browser, if I want to, and it looks OK, because Blogger has machinery in place to present it in "feed" form, without all the formatting of the full web version.  This is exactly in line with the "one web site for all browsers" model, but it takes considerable extra effort.  If I go to a random web site, including major ones, I may or may not arrive at something useful.  At the end of the day, phones are just too different from the big-screen/mouse/keyboard setup.

To deal with the small screen, limited keyboard facilities and other peculiarities, phones have to do things significantly differently:

  • Much less text fits on the screen and typing is often cumbersome, so graphics play a larger visual role.
  • The layout changes, often radically.  Elements appear and disappear depending on where attention is focused.  Buttons are more common than links.  Input elements like buttons and text boxes tend to have reserved chunks of real estate, as opposed to being part of a big page that scrolls.
  • A touch screen favors gestures like swiping, pinch/spread for zooming out or in, long press instead of some altered flavor of click (right-click, shift-click, control-alt-meta-cokebottle-click ...), and so forth.
  • Autocomplete is even more important.
  • A phone is more apt to lose and regain connectivity, so it often makes sense to cache results deliberately, as opposed to counting on some generic caching layer to hold on to whatever happens to be around at the moment.
  • Phones are mobile, so physical location can play a much bigger role.  Not a lot of turn-by-turn GPS web pages out there.
  • Phones are phones.  You might switch from listening to a song to taking a call at any moment.  To some extent different apps on the phone have to cooperate to make this happen smoothly.
Put this all together and it's going to be next to impossible to maintain a web site that can automatically look good on all the major browsers and all the major phone platforms.  A better solution is to separate the information in the web site from its presentation and develop the PC/laptop presentation more or less separately from the phone presentation.

That explains why a good portion of apps are essentially web sites redone for the phone.  As long as the separation is done reasonably cleanly, this is the right call.  A weather web site and a weather phone app ideally share the same raw weather information, and probably a fair bit of common elements like icons for "sunny" and "fair to partly cloudy", but the web designer doesn't need to figure out how to recognize and handle a swipe gesture and the phone designer can dispense with a lot of web markup machinery.

It took me a while to pick up on this, not because it's that hard to notice but because I'm a little slow that way.  "Apps", huh?  Sure are a lot of them, and a lot that sound like web sites.  What's the point?  Must be some sort of marketing gimmick.  But of course apps are not a gimmick at all.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

75 years of Tanglewood online

This has actually been going on for a while, but in keeping with the usual Field Notes standard of cutting-edge reportage I only just now noticed that the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as part of its celebration of the 75th anniversary of its Tanglewood concert series, is bringing out 75 concerts from its vaults throughout the summer.  Many of the concerts had not been previously available and as I understand it some are of programs that were only performed at Tanglewood.

The BSO is making one new concert available each day as a free stream.  After the first day the concert is available for sale, whole or in parts.  You can also subscribe to the whole series at a substantial discount off the cost of buying the concerts individually.

Imagine what a promotion like this would have looked like before the web.  The symphony would have worked out a deal with one or more radio stations to get a regular block of time for broadcasting the day's selection.  Assuming it could swing the deal, you the listener would have to set aside that same block of time to listen to the concert, or at least record it off the air for later listening.

The symphony could make the entire series available for mail order as a set of CDs (or vinyl, if we want to go back in time).  If you didn't want the full set, you might be able to order individual CDs, but you wouldn't get to pick what was on them.  If you liked one piece from each of five concerts, you could end up buying five CDs to get them all.  And then you'd wait for them to show up in the mail.  If you lived outside the listening area of the radio stations involved, you'd have to buy the concerts on spec without a chance to listen, and you'd be more likely not to have heard about them at all.

Put together all the conveniences of the web, I wouldn't quite say you've got a revolution.  The dedicated classical music fan has had access to top-quality performances for quite some time.  Nonetheless, it's enough to make a difference.  Whether it's also enough to keep the symphonies in business in this age of digital entertainment remains to be seen, but it certainly seems like a good approach to try.