Friday, June 28, 2013

Oh Instant Messaging, I hardly knew you

For many years, I've been a big fan of Instant Messaging as a way to communicate with friends, especially those in other parts of the country. Sure e-mail works, but if you want to have a conversation with someone immediately, with a lot of back and forth, IM was the way to go. I jumped on the IM bandwagon all the way back in the ICQ days (and no, I don't remember my number). Followed by a bunch of years maintaining multiple protocols at the 'Big 3' at the time; AOL Instant Messaging (AIM), MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. Many of us recall the years of running three different clients on our desktop at all times, because all of our friends used different systems. Thankfully, it wasn't too long before multi-protocol clients came into play and we could start to consolidate.

Google was a late comer to the market, but it's GTalk Instant Messenger caught on fast. It was slim and trim and since GMail was the rage, everyone had a log-in. Slowly, over the course of 5 years or so, GTalk became my single IM platform. Most of my friends had migrated to it, and, anyway, I had grown distant from the couple of hold-outs who hadn't made the switch. This was the state of thing for a long time. Until recently.

In the past couple of years, the IM has undergone a huge shift, along with the rest of the tech industry, because of the advent of mobile computing. Before smartphones, people would use SMS for short conversations with friends, but unless you had one of those cool full-keyboard phones, it wasn't an ideal solution. Then along come phones with full on-screen keyboards, and most importantly tablets. All of a sudden it seems that SMS style messaging is the way to go, and if you're not on board you've missed the boat.

We now have a completely new playing field of contestants in the messaging arena, and all of them have a decidedly mobile bent.

  • Apple's iMessage was an early mover in this area, and seamlessly merged your SMS and iMessage experience on their iPhone product. It's only been very recently that iMessage has made it's way to OS X. However, it's strictly an Apple eco-system product.
  • Facebook entered the arena with it's Facebook Messenger, completely dismantling their old e-mail style messaging application in favor of something that looks and feels like SMS on a phone. Facebook Messenger on a smartphone is all over the place. To use Facebook Messenger on your computer, you need to use their website built-in application (or try and get one of the multi-clients to work, which has been hit/miss at times)
  • Then there's the newcomer, WhatsApp with it's direct SMS replacement app for phones. It doesn't even attempt to offer a desktop client experience. 
  • Microsoft has announced that it's killing it's old MSN Messenger, ever since it acquired Skype. Microsoft is taking a very different route in the messaging wars, by using a full featured video conferencing service, and extending it down to the messaging level. Whereas, other services are starting at messages and moving up to video.
  • BlackBerry Messaging has also escaped the confines of it's single platform and it now available for other phones as an SMS type replacement.
  • Finally, my beloved GTalk is getting shoved aside to make room for Google+ Hangouts. Google realized that they had too many messaging products, so they merged them all into one. However, they decided to forgo their earlier adoption of standard messaging protocols, and go with a proprietary standard. This means that most of the multi-clients will stop working at some point in the future. They also have moved away from providing desktop clients, outside of their Chrome Browser experience, instead focusing on apps for phones and tablets.
There is one place however, where Instant Messaging seems to still be going strong is inside a corporate environment. Many corporations still use Instant Messaging as a way to quickly communicate with co-workers. However, it's apparent that even in this environment, the mobile is still rearing it's head. Many of the enterprise level systems for doing corporate IM now have mobile apps for your phone or tablet, so you can stay connected wherever you are. 

I'll be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about the change to Instant Messaging. With the loss of so many desktop based clients, it's changed the experience. Before, you would have a list of friends who were "online" at the time, and you could start up a conversation with them. Now, because everyone is connected all the time, you never know if that person is truly available or not. Some of the services try to provide some sense of "presence", showing you an icon if the service thinks the person is around, but they're not as robust and accurate as the old services. As with everything, it seems that progress marches on, and things change. However, I'd like to take a moment of silence to remember the way things used to be, with AIM, MSN and YIM all humming away in the background of my desktop. Oh wait... these things were constantly beeping at you, telling you who was logging on, logging off, and who can forget the distinct sounds AIM made when you got a new message. Oh well, silence is overrated. I'm going to go G+ Hangout my friends.... or maybe Skype them... though FB Messenger might be good too.... wonder how many are on iMessage.....

Monday, June 10, 2013

Ive been thinking of a number between 6 and 8

Today, the internet was all a buzz about the keynote at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference. In particular the star of the show was the premiere of the totally redesigned iOS 7. Since I'm an Apple geek, I felt it was my sacred duty to add to the plethora of pundits and commentators, and add my two cents about this radical design change.

When Scott Forstall left Apple and Jonny Ive was given control over software design, it became a foregone conclusion that skeuomorphisms were going to be a thing of the past. Ive has made his views on them quite clear, and so the first thing that was shown the door with this new design was the wood bookcases, the green felt, the yellow legal pad and any semblance of leather stitching. During today's presentation there were even multiple jokes about the lack of these textures anywhere in the new design. Not sure if Forstall was watching, but for his sake, I kinda almost hoped he wasn't.

So about the design in general... The first thing that came to my mind when I saw it was "Huh, that looks like Samsung TouchWiz."I thought that perhaps that was just me, until moments later two different friends pretty much said the same thing to me. Now, there's nothing wrong with following someone else's lead, and frankly I like the direction they took it, but I can see a lot of criticism coming it's way towards Apple for copying others maybe a bit too much.

Specifically, I like many aspects of the design. It's clean and crisp, though some have felt it's too 'bright'. Some areas in particular:

  • Unlike many others, I like the iconography, but I really wonder how the sleek Apple icons will blend with the anything goes icons of random apps from the App Store. 
  • The addition of the quick control panel is a long overdue addition, but it certainly puts the flashlight app I downloaded out of business.
  • Multi-tasking app switching is a direct copy of WebOS, but since WebOS is dead, I love that it's been re-incarnated here.
  • The changes to Safari, particularly tabs, is very cool and I think it works well, and the ability to re-arrange things seems nice and natural.
  • The Weather app has some potential to look really cool. I hope it also has useful information besides just nifty animations of the day's weather ;-) . 
  • Scrollable folders was a HUGE and great addition, and something I'm really looking forward to.
  • Finally, the Notification Center seems to have gotten a really nice polish, and the fact that you can get to it on the home screen is a big bonus.
So besides the visual and functional tweaks, Apple also unveiled their new streaming radio service that's been rumored for months. I'm not a big streaming radio fan, but I might give it a try if it's just a button press on my phone by default. Frankly, I was more interested in the iWork via the Web that was demonstrated, and hope that really comes to full fruition soon.

So there's some quick thoughts on my take of the iOS 7 announcement. I'm anxious to give it a try when it releases and see how much has changed in my day-to-day use.