The freedom of a captured moment.

I’ve been a musician since I was in fourth grade and was handed a violin. It’s always been a part of who I am and how I think about myself. I taught myself to play guitar, bass, and later drums because I was curious and had the time and willingness to learn. During my college years and the years immediately afterward, I spent a great deal of time writing, recording, and performing music. For a lot of reasons (avoidable post-adolescent turmoil chief among them, I’m sure), it was a primary focus in my life. 

As I’ve grown older and taken on more responsibilities, a home, a family, and a demanding career, I find less time to play than I used to. I enjoy it just as much, and try to keep my chops up, but the fact of the matter is that I simply don’t have the time to sit for a few hours and work through ideas in the same way I did when I was 25. I’m ok with this, mind you–I love my family and everything that’s changed in my life for the better–but time is still working against me.

I often find myself feeling really guilty about this. I tell myself that my spare time should be spent working those muscles out, staying in shape. But maybe I just want to read. Or play a video game for a few minutes. Or just stare off into space and breathe, whatever. I feel like I should be playing music more. But when I try to unpack that, I guess it means going into my studio, working on songs, recording them, mixing, polishing, and having an end-product. That’s what I feel guilty about–that it should all be leading somewhere.

What I’ve finally realized is that this comes down to nothing more than a miscommunication from my 25-year old brain to my current one. Back then, I had time to play for pleasure, but I had lots of time to work, too. I could spend four hours in front of Pro Tools because I had four hours to spend. Now, I sit down to play, find a few chords that I like together, capture them in whatever tool I’m using on my iPhone at the time, and probably never return to them. They’re saved, but presumably only to be revisited in a cursory way at best, and for a moment, like lazily flipping through snapshots.

Here’s the big epiphany for me, though: this is totally ok. I’m sketching in a notebook, little doodles here and there, sitting for a minute and drawing something in my field of vision. I’m not painting the Sistine Chapel, or drafting the Constitution. I’m sketching. Not consciously setting out to make a thing, just… sketches. Polaroids, not elaborately framed and time-lapsed landscapes. 

I keep notes, folders, files of all these little ideas. I listen to them from time to time. I like them all in some way. They needn’t grow into anything more, just the way your idle circles traced on the back of an envelope while you’re waiting on the phone don’t need to grow into a full art installation. It’s a moment, depicted in aural brush strokes, captured and stored. The weight of the activity is gone, only the pleasure of creating remains. I can’t believe it took me so long to see it. And I can’t wait to enjoy those fleeting moments with my guitar a little more now, without a second thought.

A user interface is not like a joke.

In the past week or so, I’ve noticed this sentiment, passed around in various tweets by a bunch of people:

“A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”

While I understand the point of the comment, and agree with its overall intent, to summarily declare this platitude as true discredits innovation and the learning process that we all submit to as human beings willing to try new experiences.

A UI is a tool; it’s a method for interacting with a software application, the same way a hammer is a method for interacting with nails and wood. If you put a hammer in the hand of someone who has literally never seen it before (I know, stay with me here), is that person going to automatically know how to use it to its greatest efficiency with zero instruction provided? Perhaps he or she can figure out that the heavy end should be swung at something, but it might be important to mention that you don’t want to have your fingers in the way when you do. How should the nail be held so that it’s inserted at the right angle and binds the wood properly? What happens if you hammer the nail sideways? What the hell are these claws on the back for (or this little round ball thing)? Throughout our life, as we engage in new experiences, in so many cases, someone or something is there to help us understand as we learn. It’s a natural phenomenon.

No matter how simple you think something is or ought to be, human beings will benefit from guidance. There’s a big difference between showing someone how to create a task in an app like Clear and how to navigate the byzantine menu bars of Excel. Both require explanation, but many would argue that one UI is superior to the other. What about the UI for a machine that performs laser surgery on internal organs? Should that be so elegantly designed that it can be just “figured out” without an instruction manual? Wouldn’t you prefer to know that the person who’s shooting a laser into you didn’t only rely on his/her own intuition to ensure that the operation is a success?

It’s a good tweet, and it’s a good idea in a lot of ways. But explaining something new to someone isn’t always a bad thing. Yes, there are thousands of horrible UIs to which this sentiment can apply. Talk to anyone who uses enterprise software on a regular basis. But don’t be afraid to help your user learn how to best use your app. You can build plenty of delightful touches in as well that can be uncovered through normal use. If you want to ensure success for your users, give them the tools to understand and achieve that.

The sickness of efficiency.

I suffer from a strange affliction that I’ve lived with for some time now. I’ve spoken to others in my circles and I take some solace in knowing they share either symptoms of it, or experience it full-blown. It’s a sneaky sickness that manifests itself in an all-consuming urge to deconstruct patterns, methods, and expectations in my life in a constantly self-doubting and brutally examined way.

I am, of course, referring to my addiction to task management applications.

We joke about it, those of us who know. Here’s a new one, anyone tried it yet? I’m back on Reminders (again). Screw Reminders. When is the update for [App] coming out? This doesn’t do custom repeating alerts? (Do I need custom repeating alerts?) YO GUYS you can totally hook up Drafts/Launch Center Pro/etc. to grab stuff and pass it in. Swoon. I’m always looking at, trying, evaluating, and otherwise just exploring the landscape. Sometimes that exploration leads me back down familiar roads.

Yesterday I re-re-re-downloaded OmniFocus again and dumped all my things into it. I do this every summer, it seems, although the constant tinkering is a year-long battle. I keep as much of this from my family as possible, for I fear they’d stage an intervention for this behavior as clinically speaking, I’m sure there’s a buried DSM-5 classification for it, or at least some heading under which it could be placed. So I’m finally going to try to break this into what I believe to be its component parts to try to understand why I’m this way as a person, why I’m forever chasing the last high of streamlining data input and retrieval for things as complicated as multi-stage projects and as mundane as taking out my trash on the right day.

I see the never-ending shift between these apps as an interplay between the following things I’ve identified in myself:

  1. An inherent need, despite the fact that something may be working, to explore, experiment, and generally try different kinds of software and see new ways to solve similar problems
  2. A desire to change the UI of whatever it is I’m using since I spend so much time in it every day that I tire of it, notice its shortcomings, etc.
  3. An internal nagging to always be assessing the state of my workflows and methods to determine if they are actually the best possible ways to do my work
  4. An ever-present doubt, that coupled with item 3 insists that I’m missing steps, forgetting things, dropping threads (which is sometimes manufactured and sometimes very real)

So let’s break these down. I’m not talking about specific apps from here on out, because it’s utterly irrelevant in the math here.

  1. I help to design and develop software almost every single day that I’m awake. On weekends, I download and try things, help friends with interface questions, find bugs, and generally fool around with personal projects if time permits. I know that there exists in my life a finite set of productivity problems that I need to solve for, and sometimes the thing that sets my mind off in a new direction actually helps me think about something else unrelated to what it is I’m focused on at the moment. If I never tried new software, I wouldn’t see how other people solve for the same problems, just the same way that you don’t get a pizza from one place and never eat another slice anywhere else. Life would be so boring without that kind of exploration, no matter how simple.

  2. I’m a super-visual person. I need to see things in front of me to make sense of them. I have a really hard time with audiobooks because my mind will wander and I’ll lose the story for my own thoughts and so read on my Kindle instead. My eyes are the way into my brain and my brain tells the rest of me how to feel about things. There are certain aspects of my daily experiences that I simply can’t change (easily–I know I could hack just about anything if I wanted to). The look of the operating system can’t really change. The interface of Mail is what it is. The Finder is windows and lists, and it’s fine. I don’t need those things to be different, because they’re all tools like my garden hose–I use them, I move away from them. I don’t care how my hose looks, I just want water to come out in varying degrees of force when I turn it on. I don’t need Finder to blow my mind, I need it to move my files around the same way, every time. But since I can easily change the look and function of my task lists, I’m tempted to do so and offered the opportunity almost every week. It’s an embarrassment of nerd riches. As I continue to design interfaces, I notice things I like in apps and things I really don’t, and they help me make better decisions in the work that I do. It’s valuable to me to keep my eyes fresh, and task apps are a weird, easy way to do that without a ton of disruption in my life.

  3. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a problem with keeping things the same for too long. I would endlessly rearrange my bedroom furniture, often in the middle of the night without my parents knowing. They’d wake up and see a completely different room than the night before. I had a limited kid-bedroom canvas to work with, and I was always looking to maximize the space I had to move around as well as the storage and access of all my stuff. This is but one example of this kind of behavior. As an adult, I don’t have the time or energy to move furniture all the time (and my wife would likely divorce me should I decide to make this a focus in my life again), but I look for other small efficiencies in my life that I can optimize. Rearranging the silverware drawer to gain access to the stuff we use the most. Same for the kitchen cabinets, putting things within reach and moving other things further away. The garage. My desk at work. My car. Shall I go on? Anywhere I see a repeatable task or a friction, I find a way to make it perfect (or as perfect as it can be within the limits of reality).

  4. This one’s the toughest. The fact of the matter is that I get everything done that I’m supposed to. I’m pretty good at it. I base everything against dates, and I’m brutally honest with myself about when things need to be accomplished. A former procrastinator in my youth (in stark contrast to what I just revealed in the above paragraph), as I got older, I realized that honesty and planning are better for me mentally than avoidance. However, I do capture things without dates, or without an immediate need. And they sometimes linger, or I forget about them. Sometimes it’s fine, and they never really needed to get done in the first place, and sometimes it’s dinner with a friend from six months ago and I’m a horrible person and let’s finally finally get together sorry man. Some of this dropping creates doubt in my systems and nudges me into new directions. Some of it is completely true and I find I’m not managing things as well as I think I’d like to–with little ill effect, other than a desire to improve as a person. But it’s there. Real or not, the thoughts are there and they need to be addressed.

All this considered, it’s worth noting that when I’ve got a lot to do, and people are depending on me, I don’t mess around with my system. I focus, get my stuff finished, and move on. I’m not a monster, after all. Work is work, and all this fiddling doesn’t matter at all when things are on the line. And I haven’t touched on it, but I absolutely, unequivocally realize the irony in wasting time trying out productivity software. Some people take it to extremes, and it just becomes farcical.

The last point I’ll make is that if I’m being honest, I have to say that my needs sometimes actually do change too. I might use Reminders between iOS and OS X and it’ll be just perfect for a few weeks or months, but then I realize that I actually do need a feature it doesn’t support for something. And not a manufactured need, but a real, honest-to-goodness need. It might even be a temporary need, but once I recognize it, it starts me thinking and the machine spins up all over again. Then I wrestle with some feelings–truly–about how and why I am the way I am. Why can’t I just leave well enough alone? What am I hoping to gain by engaging in this activity for the third time this month? I’ve become comfortable with my shortcomings, real, perceived, or otherwise and I just want to do good work. If a little dicking around with tasks makes me feel better and isn’t hurting anyone (and I’m still actually doing the things I need to), I guess I’m fine with it. I could have worse habits, I suppose.

But when time permits, and my mind wanders, or my eye tires, or the little kid in me really wants to move his bed and dresser again because maybe, just maybe he could fit some more stuff in here somehow… now I just open the App Store. It’s a wonderful time to be a lover of software, and we often forget just how great things are.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some data entry to do. Again.

Fitbit fatigue.

I listened to this week’s Back to Work which focused heavily on self-quantization, or simply put, keeping tabs on your activity and measuring what you’re doing. I’ve been a Fitbit user for over a year, during which time I’ve collected all the data the little thing could provide me with. It helped motivate me and showed me definitively what I was doing and how I was spending my active time. I agree with everything Merlin says in the show–it’s tremendously helpful to have this kind of insight about yourself. I began a personal campaign to become healthier a few years ago and using the Fitbit became a part of that. I was excited to have a little companion noting all my data for me. Numbers! Graphs! Yay!

But over time, something occurred to me and only recently became extremely salient: I don’t need to use it anymore, and more importantly, its use had become something that was a subtle stressor for me. It seems dumb, but I’ll explain.

As I explained in that earlier post, I began a new lifestyle in which I was very aware of my routines and habits and got very hard on myself to achieve some goals. Adding a Fitbit to the mix was a way to make doing those things a little more fun, and I was really into it for a while. My wife bought me a One for Christmas, which I promptly lost on a business trip and replaced. So I was into the idea enough to buy a second device. For a solid year it never left my side, unless I forgot it (rare), and then I was nearly inconsolable (all those lost steps!). Over time, something changed though; I was more concerned with collecting the data and having it than actually using it. It became a weird anxiety-provoking moment (pat pocket-ok it’s there-whew) that I experienced a few times a day.

As such, I was thinking about it recently and decided to check my data. What I discovered was exactly what I had suspected. My data was almost unvaried across the board. My sleep wasn’t so great in the beginning of last year, but a new infant will do that. Nowadays, I sleep 7-8 hours a night, with almost no disturbances. My sleep quality is something like 96% on average. My steps vary, but we’ve been saddled with some positively oppressive cold weather, so they’ve been a little low; that said, walking is always on my mind, and I’m still doing it as much and as often as possible. Water intake? Terrific. 64-96 ounces a day. Diet? Solid.

I found that my good habits were already in place, and the Fitbit wasn’t doing anything to change that. It was another thing I was carrying, and worrying about losing/syncing/monitoring, and I just don’t think I need it. I still think I’m going to fire it up for stuff like WWDC, just to see how many steps I’ve taken, but it’s not providing a level of insight I really need on a daily basis. I’ve created good habits and sustained them for a long enough period of time that I’m still doing those things without the added gadget. I turned it off earlier this week and placed it in a drawer and deleted the app from my phone. It feels strange, because I’ve been so focused on it for so long, but it’s also oddly freeing. I’m curious to know if I’m alone in this boat.

I’m probably a crazy person, but that’s also something I already knew from the data.

Pixel-based paralysis.

I continue to hear about tools designed to help people “cope” with information. The most common is probably ways to handle your out-of-control email situation. Smarter folks than me have tackled this one already, so I'll be brief.

Our problem is not information, nor the systems we choose to manage it. I will be the first to admit that we live in a unique time period in which we have ubiquitous access to more information than anyone in the past, and this poses new challenges to us. But finding filters and applying logic-based tools to the burden we feel is panacea to the real problem. We need to decide how we are going to feel about information in the first place.

Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of things requiring our attention is normal. Seeking ways to assist with this is normal. But until you get positively mercenary with the things you allow to affect your emotional well-being, you will continue to feel the weight of the internet crushing you. Learn why it's not important to think about everything with the same gravitas and start to realize that you can begin to separate signal from noise more easily than you think you can. Anyone can do it. It just takes training, like every other thing you didn't know how to do before you learned to do it.

I'm sure Merlin has covered this way better and way more comprehensively than I ever could, so go listen to Back to Work. It's great. In the meantime, stop worrying about your inbox. Go hug someone you love. Your email will still be there.

Data loss and noble truths.

I don't remember the first time I lost data. I don't even remember what it was. I do remember the feeling of utter despair though, and the declaration that I wouldn't let it happen again. Since then, so much of my time and mental energy has been spent thinking about ways to prevent this from happening and creating layers of redundancy around my data and in many cases the data of those close to me.

Of course, no matter how careful you are, things can happen. All you need to do is listen to any recent episode of ATP and it becomes apparent that I could still be adding layers, checking backups, making sure. Checking disks. More. Verifying. I could always be doing more.

But I've started down a path that calls into question – or at least forces me to examine – the ways in which I think about the preservation of data. It began when I was in our kitchen, absent-mindedly staring at my wife's small box of recipes – written on index cards, as is often the case in many of our homes. Certainly she's always using the devices around our house to look up new recipes online, but this box contains things from her mother, her grandmother, relatives, and friends – things given to her over time. And it suddenly dawned on me:

This is the only place where this information exists.

I immediately began developing a strategy. We will digitize the recipes. We both use Dropbox–no. She has an Evernote account; I would simply have to get them in there somehow. Probably take photos of the cards, let them sync that way. That would be the easiest. Yes. I would talk to her about it later that night, and such it was set in my mind as I drove into work.

And then I stopped myself and began an attempt to trace back in my thinking to a point at which I could see the inception of this obsession with redundancy. I thought about what might happen if that box were lost. I suppose she'd be upset, but she could probably retrieve many of the recipes again from the folks who provided them. It would be work, but it was possible and certainly not the end of the world. Then I extended this to all the other places where I obsess about data. What were the things I truly couldn't live without? I have spent so much time actively creating elaborate architectures for the preservation of my personal data, that everything has fallen into this bucket of “must retain”. Certainly things like pictures of our daughter's birth are worth saving and having in many places. But I sometimes feel like I've taken the preservation of data to a strange new place.

For example: It all starts with Dropbox. Copies of all my files, online and on multiple machines. I can't trust iCloud, but I use it for contacts, calendars, and reminders – so I individually back each one of those up with manual exports. I love Evernote, but once a week, I manually export and save a complete set of my notes in Dropbox. When browsing for apps, I often won't even give an app a chance if there's no Dropbox sync or backup component. It's partially because I want to save time in the future with setup tasks, but there's also a voice in my head always reminding me how transient these bits I'm pushing between my devices truly are. I'm writing this on the iPad in a text editor hooked to Dropbox, but I'm not sure exactly how often it saves my document, so I stop every paragraph or so and move the view around to see that it is in fact, updating and saving. All our music and movies are available for streaming whenever we want, but I always download and store (and back up) a local copy of everything I buy. Stuff for the business? No brainer. Of course. Cloned copies as far as the eye can see. It's sort of a sickness, and sort of a well-oiled insurance policy, but it's already saved me countless hours of aggravation.

There's a large part of me that's proud as hell that I do all this. There's another part that wishes I could care a little less and just be more relaxed about things. I am by no means a practicing Buddhist, nor would I claim to be a student of it in any regard. But I do find reading about it to be very interesting, and I find myself doing it from time to time. One of the tenets of the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism involves the individual's inability to let go as part of the cause of suffering – the anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing. This is an idea that is core to the religion, but this concept also exists outside of Buddhism as well. I accept the inherent impermanence of the things with which we often concern ourselves, and realize that all my efforts are but a fleeting stab at self-placation. I try to always remember this when I find myself perseverating on small issues and physical objects (not an easy task for someone who is always eager to play with new electronic toys). This idea however, is in direct opposition to my philosophies on preserving my data, which border on good-natured zealotry in the eyes of most of the people who dare engage me on the topic.

Which brings me to the core question: is data – and the memory, time, and emotion we etch into it in our lives – more valuable than the physical objects with which we surround ourselves? Can we draw a line of distinction between the two that squarely places an iPhone below the photos I took with it of my newborn child? Attachment to anything is the key factor. I often wonder how life would be different if I were to lose all the things to which I ascribe value. Life would certainly go on if we were safe, but all our things were gone, so how important are these invisible, psychically tangible things? I would be lying if I said that I haven't stayed up in bed thinking about backups at one point or another, mulling over my machinations, unsure of just how good they were. I suppose it's more of a theoretical debate than something one can put into practice, but I can't stop thinking about it. I suppose as with most things, there's a balance to be struck between managing data and preserving what is necessary or important to you, but understanding at a deep level that it's another thing tying you to a potentially stressful obligation in your life.

I hope I don't sound like some nitwit who would put his family in jeopardy and throw away a mortgage and a home to run free among the flowers unencumbered. Nor did I want to take a fundamental precept of one of the world's major religions and apply it to a triviality like where my phone numbers are in iCloud. We all take on various levels of responsibility and as providers to those we love, we shoulder the burdens that come with those choices. That wasn't the point of the thought exercise. I just happened to reflect on this concept and follow it to this point. I plan to continue backing up and safely retaining all my data, just as I am today. I may even become more neurotic about it. I haven't gotten around to the recipes yet, though.

But I probably will.

Soon.

One year.

One year ago today, my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world. In an instant, I was exhausted, jubilant, scared, proud, and hopeful. In the intervening months, not too much has changed aside from the fact that Maeve has changed us both in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. On a daily basis she makes me doubt my ability to be a great dad and then reinforces it immediately thereafter. Seeing her when I come home is the highlight of my day, and as soon as I walk through the door, whatever I had hanging over me is pushed away.

She is the single greatest project I’ve ever had a hand in designing.

I love the iPad mini.

When it was released, I got an iPad mini for the office for testing. I brought it home, put all my stuff on it to give it a proper test drive, and promptly decided it wasn’t for me. I liked my bigger iPad with its Retina display. I felt that Apple was being disingenuous with its promises of “iPad, concentrated” – it felt more like “iPad, crushed” to me. Sure, it was small and light, but honestly, there were too many trade-offs for my liking. I dismissed it, wiped the mini, put it in the testing pool at work and went on with my life.

Then something else happened. I didn’t go back to my larger iPad. I watched it, evening after evening, sitting on the TV console, fully-charged, ready to perform at a moment’s notice, but I never picked it up. I used the hell out of my phone, because the iPhone 5 is amazing, as we all know. But I didn’t feel like picking up that iPad. Every time I did, it felt so heavy. Like a really pretty manhole cover. Rene and I did a podcast in which he extolled the virtues of the mini, while I defended (theoretically, as it turned out) the need to have a bigger, nicer screen and a little more performance for the kinds of creative apps I was using.

Then it occurred to me: I wasn’t actually creating anything anymore on my iPad. It was, as I said, sitting. I watched and listened as my friends on the internet sang its praises, selling their large iPads, saying things like “it’s the best mobile device I’ve ever used”. I started to feel crazy, like I missed something… had I been too quick to dismiss the device? No, I know what I like, and my gut is usually right about things like this. Then I asked the people in my daily life who had them. Every single person said the same thing: it’s the best iPad they’d ever used.

With this gnawing at me, I couldn’t take it anymore. Deeply conflicted and doubting my own judgment, I ordered one, a white (HUGE departure from my lineage of black) 32gb Verizon mini. I sat back, suddenly relaxed that the decision was made. A weight had been lifted. If I truly didn’t like it, I could always send it back. I was ready to give it another shot.

Then it took two full weeks to arrive.

Agony. Having made the decision, I was ready to begin my new experiment. But I couldn’t. I had to wait and watch as a seemingly prehistoric process unfolded in front of me. I’m so used to Amazon Prime shipping speeds, watching as my mini was manufactured for a week and then stagnating as it trudged around the world was excruciating. It sat in a UPS facility in Kentucky for almost three full days. Doing nothing. I’ve had a 60" HDTV delivered to me from Amazon in less than 24 hours. This was torture. I casually wandered into the Apple store at the mall while my wife and I were shopping, in the hopes that they’d have a model I could grab that would at least be close to what I ordered. I was prepared to be flexible; sure, I would take a black 64gb LTE model. No problem. But nothing. Wi-fi only, everywhere I went. The cellular models were either the hottest sellers, or seriously undermanufactured.

When it finally arrived, I opened it and wept. Not really, but I was so happy to be done refreshing a shipment tracking page, I could have. I got to setting it up, put all my stuff in place, and configured it just so. Paired it with my Logitech Ultrathin (which looks positively gargantuan next to it now). Attached the Smart Cover I ordered while I waited for it to arrive. Began using it, picking it up, making it a part of my routine.

Verdict? I’m a jackass. I learned some things about myself and what I actually value. All the lip service I’d paid the larger display was truly worthless in the end, because I wasn’t even looking at it. The mini? I can’t put it down. It’s so light, I take it from room to room. I’d never done that with the larger iPad. I read more, I play games more, I bang out email, journal entries and draft posts more, simply because it’s there and ready. Everyone said it takes a few days to get used to everything being compressed a little, and it’s true. It’s been a week, though, and I couldn’t imagine going back. I stopped seeing the pixels about two days in, which was about 47.8 hours longer than I’d given it the first time. If only I’d not been so shortsighted.

The lesson for me is not about buying more crap and filling my life with more screens. It’s about not making snap judgments anymore. I find as I get older that I think I’ve got things pretty wired; that I know myself and what I think I like. The truth of the matter is that I’m woefully inflexible in my own mind sometimes, despite my ability to adjust to things in my real life (I just had a kid, trust me, I’m getting pretty awesome at “adjustment”). I have to learn to put aside my preconceived notions about things, and explore my options, because I’ll never know what I’m missing out on if I don’t.

Seems like a grandiose conclusion to draw over a gadget, but the epiphanies that matter the most to us don’t always come down on a bolt of lightning.

App.net | Twitter

The hidden potential of App.net.

I’ve thought a lot about App.net in the past few months, as many of us have I imagine. What started as discontent with the obnoxious corporate machinations that Twitter’s begun to execute spawned a movement to start something different and user-focused as opposed to focused on marketing. I won’t go into the details, because it’s well-documented in about a million other places, but suffice to say, the project got funded, we got an alpha web app and App.net quickly became a geeky subset of Twitter users both curious to try something new and disenchanted with the current state of things elsewhere.

The launch of Netbot kicked the service into high gear for a while and it saw a huge spike in traffic and activity, proving a point many have made, namely that in today’s tech world, to the user, the application is the service. App.net CEO Dalton Caldwell has even said himself that the ‘out of the box’ experience for new users isn’t terrific, and while they’re working to improve that, apps are paving the way and bringing people into the fold. And we watched as Netbot’s influence stabilized and we’ve seen overall ADN conversations trickle off in our feeds. People went back to Twitter, because the conversation keeps happening there due to a massively entrenched network effect that’s undeniable.

Lots has been said about the potential of ADN, and how it really needs to do something special to continue to grow. It won’t beat Twitter at its own game (admittedly, that’s been stated as not a real targeted objective anyway), but it’s got to do… something.

I’m starting to believe all of what we’ve seen is merely prelude to something more. I’ve been bullish on the service since making the decision to back it and I’ve watched it with great interest. I finally got around to listening to the official ADN podcast a few days ago too, and it’s basically Dalton talking about the API development and answering questions from users. The thing is, in hearing him talk about their progress and plans, I’ve started to realize something – two things, actually.

  1. The Twitter-like feed tool we currently see as “App.net” is but one face – the starting point – of a much larger idea
  2. It’s not just about making that tool better – the long play is to build an extensible communication platform not just for Twitter use cases, but for a myriad other outlets

I’d considered other ways in which the service might become valuable, but I’ll admit, I kept coming up short until I heard him talk about their plans. I thought about how it might be used as an external comment platform for blogs, linking threads and conversations back to a post via the service. I could see that being kind of cool, and I think it would definitely (given the price to enter the service) at least preliminarily solve a part of the “commenting problem”. Users willing to pony up some money to be part of a service like this might be less compelled to be dicks on people’s blogs. It’s a long shot, but you can see where I’m headed.

Listening to the podcasts, though, something else became very clear. The private messaging API is going to be the catalyst behind this entire thing. Dalton described how their focus on releasing a capable first iteration of this aspect of the service took great importance as they worked this past few months. He mentioned the concept of the “internet of things” – all the interconnected devices that are filling our lives with notifications and (in some cases) noise. He talked about the immense success platforms like BlackBerry Messenger and WhatsApp have had in the mobile space, and pointed out that no matter how large public messaging is, private messages (SMS and the like) outweigh it by orders of magnitude. He also reinforced the fact that ADN is not rushing to do much of anything – they’ve created a sustainable business model for the time being, focused on user features, and their goal is to continue developing the service, strengthening the hooks to outside applications and enabling developers to create new and interesting things by delivering working code examples with updates to the API.

Most importantly, he mentioned that with his previous company imeem, the final face of the service was drastically different than its first one. As with any software, the users will in large and small ways influence the ongoing development, and discover use cases that the devs hadn’t even considered. This is the core piece that as a market, we’re unable to see yet. We see a Twitter competitor, and one that feels like it’s faltering as Twitter continues to swell its userbase. We see something that we want to succeed, but we’re not seeing the endgame yet. I’m mentally reinvested in the entire idea after listening to him on the podcasts – not because he’s compelling users to foment revolution – but because he’s seeing past the market perception of what the service is supposed to be. It’s only been five months since the blog post that kicked this off, and four since funding. I don’t know many web services that declared victory in any capacity in that timeframe, and it’s worth keeping that in mind.

I highly recommend checking out the podcast if you’re even marginally interested in this at all. It’s changed my thinking; you may discover the same.

Thoughts? App.net | Twitter

Un-simplified, and happy.

I recently talked about my intentions to simplify my workflows by using the default Apple apps on iOS and the Mac (Notes, Reminders, etc.) as replacements for the many apps I like to jump between. My goal was to see if by just letting go of my need to tinker with the connective tissue between parts of my workflows I could improve both my base anxiety level (derived not from fear, but from a constant feeling of “could I be doing this more effectively?”) and my ability to focus more on the “work” and less on the “flow” overall. I stuck with it for several weeks, and the results are in.

It’s… not for me.

The short version: between heavy-handed interfaces and iCloud flakiness, I gave up because I felt that I was neither gaining relief from the productivity improvement demons nor was I focused on my work. Instead, I was waiting for the other iCloud shoe to drop (data loss) and talking myself into the idea that this was good enough for me, when the truth of the matter was that it really isn’t.

I’ve been reliant on Dropbox for so long I can’t even remember or imagine a world without it. Many apps take great advantage of the APIs Dropbox has in place to both sync settings and data with moderate to high levels of success based on the app and its implementation. There are two reasons I feel better about this path:

  1. Dropbox exists in a tangible way on multiple computers I own as well as in the cloud
  2. Flexibility between interfaces

The first one is easy. I don’t trust iCloud fully yet. Every time I saw three copies of a single note appear in the Notes app or a reminder re-add itself to a list after completion, I added a tiny tick mark to the wall in my mind. Which is not to say that Dropbox sync services are without folly; certainly they can and do fail from time to time, however I always have the opportunity to throw my data into another app and test the waters elsewhere. I can easily see my data in Dropbox, which is important not primarily for sync settings, but for things like my plain text notes, which might be transitory and not long-term in nature as I’d discovered, but important to see and preserve as I saw reason to take the information down and capture it. Seeing duplicate notes appear was the flip side to the coin where notes suddenly vanish, and I’m not comfortable with that.

Second: Apple’s UI choices are polarizing if nothing else. There are many choices I enjoy and find delightful, and many at which I continually level disgust and contempt. With the relief provided by giving up my tinkering ways to Apple’s choices comes a compromise I’m unwilling to make right now – I’m stuck looking at yellow paper that formats plain text in obnoxious ways and parchment lists that while functional, are hardly the optimal way to organize (in my mind, at least) the tasks and efforts I need to complete. By using apps that plug into Dropbox, I’m afforded a variety of ways to look at the exact same data. Sometimes I need that variety, and it comes at the price of my inability to sometimes stop myself from exploring other apps and interfaces. I look at these screens entirely too much each day to be unhappy with what’s staring back at me. I can work at leaving well enough alone with regard to fiddly bits, but I can’t work at liking a UI I simply don’t.

The fundamental truth I learned about myself, which I mentioned in the first sentence of that other post is that I am a tinkerer. I like to try different things, break stuff, put it back together, and start from scratch. It’s something I can’t really turn off entirely, nor do I want to. It’s a curiosity I’ve had since I was a kid, and I hope my daughter expresses the same interest in exploration, whether it’s with software or any other interest she’s passionate about. I try new apps and add layers of complexity because I need to. It’s an evolving little puzzle I do with myself, like a game of Jenga in reverse. Occasionally I find something rock solid and leave it working, but there’s always something else to move on to, some new thing to play with, some new web service to leverage to make the mental machine run a little more smoothly. Understanding this about myself means I don’t feel guilty anymore about trying a million different ways to do a simple thing because I can rest a little easier knowing I’ve ruled out the ways I didn’t know before.

So, back to plain text, back to Dropbox, like a favorite pair of jeans. Sometimes you buy new jeans, sometimes you wear a suit, and sometimes the jeans sit in your drawer for a few weeks. But they’re there, and you know it, and it makes you happy.