Web Fonts: Making the Web Beautiful

Google Web Fonts: It's about time Google did something great again.

There is an old adage which states, “how you say something is just as important as what you say”. I believe this to be true. You can’t give a serious presentation while giggling like a schoolgirl or warning of the dangers and hazards in the home while making toast in the bathtub. The same is true of the written word as the spoken word; I am about halfway through (what? I’ve been busy!) Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson and it is obvious that Steve knew the importance of proper typography and fonts. I like reading about his passion for perfect kerning and the use of sans-serif fonts for user interfaces, not just at the command line but in bitmapped Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) too.

The web has always been a dangerous place for fonts. Different browsers on different operating systems means you can’t guarantee that the font you designed your page with will be there when the user comes to view your page. Adobe (nee, Macromedia) Flash allows you to embed fonts into movies so you can be pretty sure that what you design will be what is shown to your users, but the web is a warzone. There have been attempts by browser vendors to allow font files to be embedded into web pages, but the bitterness between the vendors have made settling on a standard rather difficult… that is until recently when it became obvious that in order to survive in the Post-PC era you need to be very standards-accepting.

 

The Most Beautiful Website in the World?

I certainly don’t mean this site – unfortunately I don’t have the spare time to make my blog as pretty as I’d like – I’m too busy (did I already say that?). However, the reason why I’ve been spurred on to write this today is that I saw an article on Fast Co.’s website which made me take a step back and go, “wow, that’s very nice.” Not a lot of websites do that… Continue Reading “Web Fonts: Making the Web Beautiful”

Google Maps Cube

Fantastic! Finally Google shows off some of its creativity and innovation!! You know my feelings about Google, but this has gone some way to reaffirming my faith in the big primary-coloured search-and-ads behemoth. You should also know my feelings about WebGL being the future of the web (and everything).

So, before you do anything else today, fire up the Google Chrome browser and hit the following link:

http://www.playmapscube.com/

 

Here’s a taster of what’s in store:

 

 

Google

Google CEO, Larry Page
Larry just got bad news from the Oracle.

I was all set to write an apology to tech mega-giant, Google. Even though my AdSense woes are still unanswered, there are aspects of the Google operation which really excites me. Self-driving cars is important and they’ve put nearly a billion dollars into renewable energy. In fact, they say they want to run their entire business on renewables; considering they constantly consume over quarter of a billion watts of energy that is a big statement. To put that into perspective, a nuclear power plant will output a billion watts of power…

Once Google+ has a half-decent API it will become an immensely powerful platform for developers to hook into that even Facebook will struggle to compete with and Android is the most exciting mobile operating system out there today.

But the reason that this isn’t the apology I had originally intended was because Google dropped yet another clusterfuck of incompetence this week.

 

Google+

This week, Google revamped the look and feel of its Facebook rival, Google+. From the photos I saw flowing through my RSS reader (yes, sometimes I still live in 2004) and Twitter it looked GREAT! Everything a modern web application should look like. I love the menu down the left hand side, the way it is grayscale until you mouse-over or select an item, and then it becomes colourful and you get an arrow indicating without any ambiguity that the content is coming from this chosen app. It is neat.

However, the first thing that I’ve noticed about the new design is just how FREAKIN’ BUSY the whole user interface (UI) is. I’ve taken a vertical slice of the home page, below, just look at how many horizontal lines there are in this picture. Some are solid, some are dotted, some have shadows, some don’t, some have white on either side, and some separate grey from white. There are six (count them, SIX!) different types of font in there too. There are different font sizes, colours, upper-case and not. It’s actually tiring to look at:

 

GooglePlus is so busy

 

That is unforgiveable. Google is one of the richest companies in the world and their speciality is supposed to be The Internet. They have redesigned their mostly-unloved social network a mere 7 months after launch, something that gets Facebook into lots of trouble with its users every time they do it.

They should follow the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Software should be written for the lowest common denominator. Facebook isn’t complicated to use, that’s why it is popular. It is so frictionless. To a user experience (UX) specialist, or a software designer, or anybody with some stylistic flair, Facebook looks shit. The only “brand” that is present is that little blue bar across the top. The rest is just links, little pictures, and lists of information or activity. But it works. It works to such effect that it has a monthly userbase of over 800 million people.

That is DOUBLE the userbase of Windows 7.

The worst thing about the Google+ revamp is that it simply doesn’t work. People don’t have 800-pixel wide screens anymore, so when I use a normal, domestic widescreen monitor how come I end up with 50% of the screen showing me NOTHING at all?

One wise person realised it was the perfect place to store their streaky rashers:

 

Google Plus Revamp
Google plus... umm... bacon.

 

It’s daft. And I don’t mean the bacon.

 

Google+ User Count

Facebook are very strict about their user counts. When they say “active user” they mean somebody who has actually signed into Facebook in their browser or on their mobile device. Simples.

When they say they had 845 million ACTIVE users in December 2011,  80% of their US userbase logs in daily and 483 million people log in each day I tend to believe them. They are backed up by staggering independent stats too from places like SocialBakers:

  • 157 million users in the US logged in YESTERDAY.
  • 30 million users in the UK logged in YESTERDAY.

Now let’s look at what Google are claiming about Google+.

They say “170 million users have upgraded to Google+”. Well, that’s misleading for a start-off. Anybody wanting to sign up for a new Google Account will automatically get added to Google+. When you consider that “a Google Account” now means “a Blogger account”, “a YouTube account”, “a GMail account”, “a Google Earth account”, “a Google News account”, “an Android device account”, or any other account linked to Google’s digital estate, you can’t really announce that 170 million figure as being directly attributable to Google+.

A cynic might say Google’s move to move to a single Terms and Conditions document seems to be to bolster the G+ user figures…

For me, the important difference between Google (who I distrust intensely and find incredibly creepy) and Facebook (who I am neutral towards) is this:

Google makes it clear that Google+ is designed to make their search results, and thus their adverts more relevant. Facebook makes it clear that they only care about a fantastic social experience and their adverts (which you can turn off or complain about, or give feedback on, and control quite a lot) are a necessary evil for keeping Facebook going.

The tone between those attitudes is significant.

Everybody loved Google when their adverts were the necessary evil to keep their best-in-the-world search engine going. But now that they seem more focussed on profits than product everybody hates them.

My biggest concern is what happens if Facebook switches their focus to the bottom line? Post-IPO (which is set to happen in the coming weeks), they may be obliged to do so. What happens to our data then??

I went to a Microsoft event a few years back and I got talking with a Windows Vista evangelist (possibly the toughest job in the world!) about the certification process for new software that would give publishers the right to put a “Certified for Vista” gold star on their boxes. He said something like, “to be honest we’ll certify anything, because the market will get rid of all the bad products for us.” Market forces certainly seem to be at work here to the detriment of G+. In March 2012, Comscore said that Google Plus users only spend 3.3 minutes per month on the site, compared to 7.5 hours per month on Facebook.

 

Google Code Jammed

Every year Google hosts a developer conference called “IO”. It is damned popular and some of the most innovative stuff in the universe has come from it. Remember Wave? I loved Wave. That was Google ingenuity at its best. Pure Internet technology pushed to its limits in a new, revolutionary and (most importantly) really useful way.

Tickets cost $900 but delegates get loads of brand new hardware (last year they got Samsung’s 10.1″ Galaxy Tab tablet and a Chromebook) and deep-dive software previews and coding session that give them a headstart on their competition.

This year the tickets for IO sold out in 20 minutes, but Google started a competition called Code Jam to offer 100 more tickets to good coders. Very generous.

Coders had to code solutions for four problems posed by Google. However, people ran into problems almost immediately. The first problem would only accept incorrect answers. Anybody with the right solution would be turned away. Many, who had stayed up all night to enter the competition, gave up after this first hurdle. Those who had done a shoddy job of coding and came up with the wrong answer were allowed to proceed and ended up being offered the tickets.

Totally unfair, and proves how seriously Google takes its Quality Assurance processes. Maybe that explains the Buzz fiasco too…

 

Update 22/04/2012:

Google have relented and say all developers who entered, regardless of their success, will be offered the chance to buy tickets to IO.

While the Google IO Code Jam Google+ page is full of initial spite and subsequent praise of Google for their “generosity”, it is very difficult to see what other options were available to Google over this unfortunate event.

The real irony is that Google cocked up verification code of a competition which looked down its nose at cocked up code.

What a clusterfuck.

 

Android Market Becomes “Google Play”

Google Play
Google Play - It's like iTunes, but with added evil

After fucking up their core search business in favour of ghost-town Facebook clone, Robert Scoble+, innovationally stunted advertising megacorp, Google, have decided to have a crack at destroying part of their other global success: Android.

If it aint broke, don’t fix it, Mountain View.

Continue Reading “Android Market Becomes “Google Play””

Facebook’s Secret Grand Plan

Look Into My Eyes... (And give me your cash)
Look Into My Eyes... (And give me your cash)

Various sites (CNet, TechRepublic) are saying that the Facebook IPO isn’t for mere mortals like you and I and not to even consider buying stock. When we finally get our chance, the venture capitalists, early investors and company employees will already have had their wallets vaccuumed clean and the price will be horribly inflated. But what if Facebook was about to change up a gear and bring its Armada of engineers to face the company that has already fired the first shot across their bows?

In the S-1 filing, the document required for private companies in the US to get the ball rolling on going “public”, Facebook stated in no uncertain terms that they were at risk from competitive products. With MySpace no longer being a threat, Bebo long dead, Friendster (who?), well you get the point, their competition is obviously Google+. Google are the ones in possession of the smoking cannon with their Facebook-a-like social network and have recently started playing dirty. Signing up to ANY of Google’s services (Calendar, Docs, GMail, etc) will AUTOMATICALLY sign you up for a Google+ account. If you’re over 18, that is.

Given the search and advertising monopoly of Google, this hardly seems fair.

 

Why are you talking about Google so much? Wait a second, search and what monopoly?

A-ha. Welcome to the party. What kept you?

What would really spoil Google’s day? What would make their Google+ potshot look like a potato gun going off? And most importantly, what would give new investors something to really smile about after they put all their cash into Mark Zuckerberg’s university project?

Every website you go to, you see Facebook’s “Like” button. Every website you go to, you see Facebook’s Comments widget (just scroll down a bit to see an example…). Website owners trust Facebook enough to control how word of their sites spread. They trust them to be in control of the primary way of engaging with their readers, visitors and (this is the important one) customers.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Why wouldn’t webmasters also trust Facebook to supply the adverts on their site? Remember, the adverts that Facebook provides are very highly targeted. Just look to the right hand side of your News Feed next time you’re on FB. Scary, huh! So webmasters are going to enjoy adverts that are very likely to earn them more money. Imagine if you see an advert for a new computer game, Facebook can add a list of your friends who like this product too (using Sponsored Stories, which is already available to companies who want to pay for it!). That’ll increase the pull of the adverts. It’s all great news for webmasters. And very very bad news for Google’s AdWords product.

 

Wait. Isn’t that the reverse of what Google hopes to achieve with Google+?

EXACTLY! Google are using Google+ to get inside your mind, your social circles, your likes and dislikes, your answers to open ended questions such as “What’s on your mind?”. This all allows them to provide you with more relevant search results and, the important bit again, more relevant adverts that will be more likely to be clicked on.

Facebook is in a much better position than Google, however. Google are in “learning” mode. You’re slowly transferring all your likes and tastes across to Google+ from Facebook, but Facebook already has it all. It has the historical records too which shows how your likes and tastes have evolved over time. Google+ can never give that to Google’s advertising engine.

Facebook could launch their version of AdWords tomorrow, and advertisers would drop Google like a weight lifter with sweaty hands. The benefits of advertising through Facebook will be immense.

 

But I get Analytics with Google too. As a Webmaster, I’m still splitting my tools between the two aren’t I?

Don’t forget, Facebook are actually pretty good at offering analytics. For anybody who has ever written an App on the Facebook platform, you’ll know about Insights – a growing collection of stats and utilities you can use to track how your application is doing.

It’s not a quantum leap from monitoring Facebook Platform Apps to monitoring users roaming around websites.

And then Google becomes nothing but what it was in 1998: A Search Engine with a cashflow problem.

 

Conclusion

I like Facebook. It has values that I identify with. I used to like Google, but then it all went very creepy, stopped being innovative and just started being reactive. Not good for a technology company!

I think Facebook would be crazy not to do this. It has amazing commercial potential while also ingratiating website owners with Mark Zuckerberg’s company.

And lastly, it would kill Google, which would solve that whole “competition” thing, that Facebook said was a real risk.

Don’t Worry, Past-Dweller, There Is No Cloud.

If buzzwords were currency, the one worth the most at the moment is undoubtably “Cloud”. The problem with buzzwords is that nobody puts any faith in them, they’re bandwagons and may be gone tomorrow. Who wants to invest in something that is vague enough to mean pretty much anything? (There’s a “fuzzy” joke in there somewhere).

 

A brief rant about Carbon Tax

But there is good news, buzzwords tend to be reinventions of things we’re all already familiar with. Remember the “Greenhouse Effect”? That was humans killing the planet by wearing deodorant. When we took all the nasty CFCs out of our bodysprays and the temperature kept on rising, rather than admit they might be wrong about the human effect, scientists rebranded it “Global Warming”. People with Range Rovers and engines that produced enough power to give you a smile on your face were castigated like despot tyrannical dictators. When the planet suddenly started cool down and we suffered some of the worst winters on record, again scientists were loathe to admit they might be wrong, instead it became an even vaguer term, “Climate Change”.

This is just semantics and at the heart of it lies an age-old buzzword that we’re all familiar with; “Seasons”.

 

Get back to talking about Cloud, Richard

“Cloud” is no different, in fact it has a very slow-moving lineage with roots back in the 1960s when the US “Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency” (DARPA) built a distributed computer network that was intended to enable nationwide communication even in the event of Ivan bombarding the United States with Uranium-tipped missiles.

The so-called DARPANet became The Internet, an interconnected landscape of computers which used a common language to talk to eachother (“HTTP”), became attractive to consumers and normal-folk in the 1980s and 1990s with the invention of the “World Wide Web”. Tim Berners-Lee was the smart-alec behind the WWW, he was working for CERN at the time, the big European research centre that is currently smashing subatomic particles together at speeds that create impacts akin to two aircraft destroyers crashing head-on. The invention of HTML – the text language behind web pages – and Tim’s coining of the phrase World Wide Web meant that the simple act of a computer asking another computer for information, and then that second computer giving the first computer the information it had asked for, suddenly grew legs and became things like Google, Amazon and Facebook. And Yahoo!. Remember them?

That is the basis for “The Web”, a buzzword that’s now so commonplace that even our most elders are silver-surfing it. Requests for information and Responses in the form of webpages, or images, or Facebook statuses. Etc. Etc.

 

But What is a “Website”?

A website is content that lives on a computer somewhere on “the internet”. The computers (called “Web Servers”) that websites live on tend to be rented or leased (this equates to a monthly “hosting fee”) and you pay more for more disk space or a more capable connection to the Internet.

 

But isn’t that The Cloud?

Exactly my point. Although the recent surge in “cloud” focus has brought refinements to the Web concept, it is still at its heart, a Request/Response system, using HTTP to talk between computers, spitting out content (usually HTML).

The things that are new are not dramatic changes, in fact the major change is more granular control over the “content” on the Servers so the payment model has changed slightly (if you believe the marketing, this is a change for the better, but there are only a limited number of people raving about their savings). You can now store files as “blobs”, you can push your program code onto a “compute server”, and your data is stored in SQL and NoSQL databases. Each one charging slightly differently to optimise bang-for-buck.

But don’t be afraid of the terminology, there is nothing new to see here. This delineation of files/programs/data has always been there on The Web, even since the early 90’s when the only way to view web pages was on a black screen with luminous green text.

 

So should I invest in the cloud?

The question you need to ask is, would you invest if it was all still just called “The Web”?