Quick Recap of Last Week’s Tech News

There have been a number of things I’ve been meaning to comment on in the last couple of weeks and not got around to it until now. Rather than write long posts on each, I’ll quickly summarise what I think of these points.

AOL wants to buy Yahoo!

This is I think good news. They are both very similar companies and to me at least, it makes sense to create one bigger one to help them both better take on Microsoft and Google. At one stage, AOL even directly copied Yahoo’s own homepage so I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to integrate both of their services together if this were to happen.

BlackBerry Playbook Announced

You may say that this deserves a post of it’s own, but if you want to read that then you’d be on Engadget, TechCrunch, Gizmodo and all of the others. Personally, while I think it’s cool and probably a smart play for a very quickly maturing market, I can’t say I’m very excited for it.

From what I’ve always heard, touch screens by companies other than Apple tend to be more frustrating and hard to press than the multi-touch displays that are such a joy to use. On the software and hardware sides, I can’t see them making anything that can genuinely rival what Apple can do. I liken this to Android in a way. It tries to be mainstream but ends up being too geeky and confusing for a lot of that audience.

Android is making steps forward so it’s not to say Blackberry can’t do the same. I feel the same way about tablets from companies like Samsung. I just doubt whether they really have what it takes to go head to head with Apple, but we’ll find out soon.

Google Launches goo.gl URL Shortening Service Publically

This is hardly huge news, I just wish they had done it much earlier because now they are way too far behind everyone else to compete. Bit.ly, J.mp, fb.me, wp.me and many more including now Twitter‘s own t.co service are all established now and I don’t think Google are going to be able to get a foothold in the market.

In order for them to really be successful with this, they need to get two things started. Firstly, they need to get integrated into Twitter and other news apps on Apple’s and other devices so that more people will be likely to choose to use it. They also need to give users a bookmarklet so that they can shorten links much quicker. Currently, you have to copy the URL, visit goo.gl and paste it in the box to get the short code.

While they are some way behind the competition in the process or shortening the links, where they do shine is in the stats they provide. Google have the best servers in the world and they put them to good use here, tracking data such as clicks, browsers, locations and platform used.

I don’t think until they make the changes I’ve noted, they can challenge the heavyweights of this growing category of service, but it’s Google. If they wanted to take it seriously, they could surely trounce everyone else pretty easily.

My IGN Updates

MY IGN is the cool social networking service built into IGN.com. It replaces the original community aspect of the site and makes it much better. I’ve written a detailed post on it before, so check that out if you need to get up to speed on what it does.

The new updates now allow peace of mind regarding blogging. At first, they had stated that all blog posts written in the new wordpress powered blogging system would be deleted when the service left beta. That is now not an issue and all posts written with either platform will be kept. This is great news.

They have also made the service more stable, have given more security options to prevent people from spamming your wall by only allowing people you follow to do so. You can also block users now.

Finally, you can see who you follow and who follows you and quite a few other improvements including post deletion. I’m really excited to see how they keep improving MY IGN going forward, because it definitely fills a void in the social media market as I’ve said before, and it has great potential.

The next thing I’d like to see them do is integrate the service into the IGN app for iPhone and maybe their m.ign.com mobile site which appears to be inspired by YouTube‘s mobile version.

Apple Updates iTunes Ping

This happened quite a while ago now, but essentially what Apple did was remove the genius sidebar, which I and probably most other people never used to begin with, and replaced it with the Ping sidebar. The new sidebar shows your recent activity from bands or friends you follow. When you click on a song in your library you get the option to like or comment on that song in the sidebar, or by clicking a button next to the track you have highlighted.

When the artist of the song you’ve highlighted has a profile on Ping, you’ll be provided a link to that in the sidebar as well, which is useful if you didn’t know before that they were active on the social network or not, or if you want to quickly check their activity.

It’s not a major upgrade to Ping but it makes sense and probably should have been there from the start. Genius never really needed the sidebar so it’s good that they’re putting that space to better use now.

Facebook News – Photos Update and New Groups

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

Last week, Facebook updated their Photos service to allow higher resolution images and the ability to download them easily. You can also view photos in a lightbox (dims the rest of the page) from any page, although I’ve yet to see this in action. People have been saying that Flickr should be worried, because Facebook appear to be moving into their domain with these changes.

While they are encroaching on Flickr’s ground, I also don’t think that these changes will do much to stop Facebook photos from being mainly used for uploading snaps with friends or holiday pics, and theres nothing wrong with that. Flickr offer higher res images and many other features and facebook simply can’t match at the moment for the more serious hobbyist and professional photographers out there. Myself included in that. Flickr also doesn’t spam your friends when you upload anything, and I like that.

With this said, you never know where facebook will go next. Their next update to photos could be another huge step forward and end up putting them in even more direct competition with mine and most other people’s favourite photo sharing community.

Today they held a press conference to announce a big new feature. We all suspected that it would involve some kind of Skype integration involving facebook connect and potentially audio / video chat in the browser.

In the end, the announcement had nothing whatsoever to do with Skype and instead they launched a new version of Groups, that actually works as intended. Groups up until now have in my opinion been used primarily as a way of either protesting something or just messing around, and not as actual groups for a use. They were too similar to facebook pages and simply confused people.

New groups does a far better job of living up to what you would expect from the name group. It’s a service that allows a group of people to communicate with others in a private setting, away from the rest of the site. I think in essence, what Facebook are doing with this, is that they’re admitting that the site has grown too big and that most people have too many friends form to be able to use the site in the way they originally were. Currently, it’s difficult to share things with only a specific group of people only and keep track of everything. Most people have too many “friends” and they don’t want to bombard them with things they have no interest in.

You can set privacy on individual posts but with groups you have a set destination for communications of a certain type with a set audience. Groups also includes group chat, which is a chat room for all the members of a group. it’s a cool idea but it may get hectic when you have lots of members online at once.

I think that while it wasn’t an obvious update that everyone would have thought of, it is one of those features that as soon as you understand what it does, you understand why it’s needed. There may be a complexity issue now that we have lists as well as groups for sorting our friends, but they may eventually decide to converge the two as to not confuse everyone further. At the end of the day though, the reason why this is needed is because the site is now too big and not just a site for your close friends and if someone has hundreds or potentially thousands of friends, the important stuff that you care about can often get lost in the shuffle.

It reminds me of how Twitter originally used the public timeline as the default homepage before it changed to just being focused on you and who you’re following. It got so busy that reading the front page was essentially pointless. Twitter Lists is also a similar concept which allows for more organisation of content. In that vein, I think that they might end up making big changes to the news feed so that you could pick a group feed and use that as your default homepage, or something along those lines.

As for the Skype integration, I guess we’ll have to wait to get our hopes up until the next press conference invites are sent out.

#NewTwitter – It’s Really Good

Digging the New Twitter, Plate 2

Since the new Twitter was launched about a week ago, I’ve been clamouring for it. The new look is a very cool change from the Twitter homepage of 4 years, since the service launched. In that time, Twitter has changed quite a lot in its purpose and in how it’s members use it, and the homepage hasn’t really adjusted in the best way to accommodate this, until now.

While this new version of the site doesn’t aim to make dedicated apps like Tweetdeck or Seesmic obsolete, it does bring a variety of useful features to everyone. These include in-line media viewing via co-operation with partner sites like twitpic, youtube and flickr, as well as easier tweeting from anywhere on the page, messaging becoming a more featured function, and of course the new two panel design and wider page.

You can open the side panel by clicking anywhere in a tweet except a link in it, or by a dedicated button to the right side. Alongside the tweet itself, it is able to display photos, videos, maps (if you geotag the post) and more. If you have no media associated with the tweet, it will automatically display things such as people or accounts mentioned, replies to the tweet, people who re-tweeted it or recent tweets by that user.

As well as this, you can also click someone’s name to open a mini-profile in the side panel which is perhaps not the most useful feature, and a bit confusing, but I may like it more as I adjust to the updated site.  This panel can sometimes cause some problems with scrolling because if you reach the bottom it will scroll the whole page down. This just takes a bit of time to get used to. Overall I really like it though.

Also new to the design is the main functions being moved to the top of the page. @mentions, retweets, saved searches and lists are all just above the timeline now which is a great improvement. The section that most benefited from the update however is the trending topics list, which used to be located at the bottom of the sidebar, far out of view for a lot of users who didn’t think to scroll all the way down and may have missed it. It’s now located just under your most recent favourited tweet in the sidebar where it’s practically impossible to miss, even with a small screen resolution.

I probably was a bit too hyped up about getting the update, so it was very tough for it to live up to my expectations but it still did. My big worry was that they would mess the whole thing up by over-complicating the site and moving away from what the original premise was. I needn’t have worried as I think they’ve done a great job of adding a more useful and modern design while hiding away a lot of the new features. A casual user can go to the new twitter and never have to deal with in-line media and profiles, and just enjoy the same experience as before, but with a nice, clean new look.

I hope future updates are also in this vein because it’s working well. Perhaps Digg should be taking notes on how to update a huge site without alienating its users, because the twitter team have done it better than probably anyone has, maybe even bettering facebook. Check it out when you get access, and if you’ve been unlucky so far, it will be released to everyone in the next week or so I believe.

Seesmic 2, Future of Desktop Twitter Apps

[ontheground for seesmic] the-seesmic-beastieb...
Image by philcampbell via Flickr

I recently got an email newsletter from Seesmic which touted their new desktop app as the next big thing. I downloaded it from curiosity and while it’s definitely a marked improvement on the first version, I don’t find it to be useful enough to encourage me to stop using the Twitter website as my primary way of using the service on my computer. I make use of lists and saved searches on Twitter, but I don’t really want to be bombarded with all of these in separate columns in one of these apps at once.

I also don’t think that it’s better than TweetDeck, its primary competition in the desktop client space. They offer similar features, but in the end, I think TweetDeck’s interface is easier to understand and use. While they both offer tools for power users like integrated support for a variety of add-ons for twitter and other services, Seesmic offers more optional functionality for serious users in the form of plug-ins. TweetDeck strictly controls the entire experience, which makes it feel more sturdy at the expense of more options for customization. At the moment though, it doesn’t appear to make much difference as Seesmic have tight control over what plug-ins are allowed anyway.

Both apps aren’t native to either OS in a traditional sense. Instead, they run on top of other platforms within the OS. TweetDeck runs on Adobe AIR, and Seesmic on Microsoft Silverlight. Both of these are strange choices, especially because neither are tremendously popular. Neither really hurt the apps, but updating Adobe AIR can be a little confusing at times especially when you have to update TweetDeck simultaneously.

Seesmic also has a strange design choice where it always opens in a window at a specific size, even if you previously maximised the window during its last session. It makes more sense to me with an app like this to allow the maximum room possible to fit more columns on the screen, so I don’t understand why they made it like this.

In the end, both apps are similar and both will do what power users are looking for with multiple columns allowing you to organise your twitter lists and saved searches in a way that Twitter.com doesn’t offer.

I just feel that the vast majority of users will be perfectly fine with just the standard Twitter site in their browser, and only dedicated twitter addicts need apply for these desktop apps. As far as mobile devices go, it’s a different story. Because the mobile web still is a long way from the level of interaction that mobile apps provide, there’s no real reason to not use them. Not only are they more convenient, faster and better looking than mobile sites, but you’re more likely to want to share media such as photos and videos when you’re using your mobile device, which most likely has a camera for both stills and video built in. Other features like location sharing are also more useful in phones, and the major apps support all of these functions and are free.

The future of desktop computing is moving more and more towards the browser and away from downloadable applications. The opposite is true in the mobile space, and therefore it’s hard to recommend them to people who won’t make considerable use of the multi-column view.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the future with regards to Twitter on the desktop. The official site may see considerable improvements, although I personally hope they keep it simple. With the increasing adoption of HTML 5, we could see desktop quality web-apps that require no download. I’m looking forward to seeing what developers come up with next and how things evolve.