Friday, April 13, 2012

Hints of Future Products

Lots of people (well, two) have said, “Wow, I’m so super-excited to hear you guys are finally working on some new software! It’s only been, like, 8 years, right?”

To which we whine, “Hey, supporting Delicious Library is hard, ok? Our lives are hard. You know when they came out with those new iMacs that had really bad cameras and we had to re-write our entire barcode-scanning a third time? That took us like half a year. And we just gave it away! Hard.

But then those people (both of them) say, “Cool. So what are you making?” And of course we just tell them, because we’re crazy like that.

No we don’t.

But today I’ll tell you some of the ideas that led me to my next product. Don’t worry if you don’t guess it immediately – this thing is still over a year away.

Since the first personal computer users have thought, “How can I use this to offload some of the burden on my brain? How can this thing learn about me?”

About 23 years ago we saw what I consider the first glimmer of this, with NeXTstep’s built-in Address Book. Suddenly there was one central place to store the names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers of your friends. This seems like such an obvious thing that it’s hard to believe now that this was one of the NeXT’s contributions to the world in 1989.

Now, NeXT didn’t invent the computerized address book. What they did was far more important - they made it a central service so all applications that wanted an address or contact-related data would use it, instead of each app having its own balkanized list. This was the first step in computers learning about you.

In the ‘90s paper organizers gave way to Palm Pilots (as we called them), and the electronic calendar suddenly became practical. Again, Palm didn’t invent the electronic calendar. But they did make it sync with your Mac or PC, and that started to make your calendar a central service. It became clear users wanted calendars on their computers, as well, so Windows did their ugly thing and the Mac got iCal.

Again, the important thing here was that the calendar was central, so all other applications could read and write to your one true calendar. It made it easier for application writers to add scheduling and date-based functionality, and it motivated users to actually use their calendar, because there was a whole ecosystem that was powered by their data.

Contacts. Calendars? What next? In a way, photos (e.g., in iPhoto) are in this group, although so far Apple’s done a great job of NOT opening up the ecosystem for them (Apple has a framework so all applications can get at your photos, but third-parties are explicitly not allowed to use it.)

Some might think of bookmarks as being central data, but there hasn’t been a lot of sharing of them.

Keychain on the Mac stores passwords and other sensitive data in a safe way, which is awesome. Unfortunately it’s kind of incomprehensible and is quirky as heck, but once upon a time it would sync your passwords across all your Macs (but not to your iOS devices, bizarrely) so it provided a central, secure place for applications to store passwords and other sensitive data. (Keychain is, sadly, dramatically underused because it has one of the worst programming interfaces of any framework on any platform at any time in history. Also, Apple got rid of syncing of passwords when they went to iCloud, in a giant step backwards.)

So, there’s an incredible value for users in entering data about themselves once and having lots of applications able to easily use and modify that data. What areas haven’t been done? And, just as importantly for us, what areas are practical for third-parties to do? (We don’t want to create the next Address Book only to have Apple ship the same app a year later.)

I’ve had two ideas, and I’ll tell you the one I’m not going to do, because it really belongs in the system software: your face. That’s right, YOUR face. That’s right. Faced!

Maybe you’ve made a “Mii” on the Nintendo Wii to represent yourself, or you’ve constructed an avatar on the Xbox for yourself by picking eyebrows and cheekbones from a list. Or maybe you’ve played one of the Tiger Woods games and spent hours tweaking every parameter of your body, like the exact distance between your eyes. Maybe you’d done all these and more, and you’re tired of guessing what you look like every time, because, duh, you can’t see yourself.

Right now every video game has their own system for creating avatars. There’s no need for this. You only have one face – you should enter it once and have all games use it.

And, once entered, there’s a ton of cool stuff you could do with it well beyond games. You could have this avatar represent you in remote transactions when you don’t feel like video chatting. It could appear on websites when you make a post. It could be your Twitter face. It could appear above mail messages you send. You could send it to your friend’s phones so when you call them it comes up automatically and looks at them expectantly. (Read “Understanding Comics” if you are unconvinced of the power of a drawing of your face vs. an actual photo of your face.)

And, amazingly, not only is there no common format for your face, but also not ONE game or game system that I’ve ever seen has done the simplest, most obvious idea for getting your face into the system: take a picture with the webcam and then drag-and-drop face parts onto the picture (which is dimmed out, natch) to match your actual face. Dur, guys. Dur dur dur.

But, there’s no money in this idea for me – I’d have to get all the game studios to license it, and they’d all be like, “We’ll just do our own solution, we’re so smart” and plus I hate having to make partnerships with lots of people. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel. I’m like the wind.

So we’re going to do my OTHER idea. We’ll talk more about that later.