Thursday, June 17, 2010

If you build it, will they come?

Dave Winer is conducting an interesting experiment.

A few days ago, Winer wrote a post that discussed a meetup. Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed a plus sign next to this paragraph:

Then our guest, Richard Ziade, took the floor and told the story of Readability and showed us some iPad apps for reading content. He gave us background on what Safari is doing that goes beyond what today's Readability does. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

If you click on that plus sign, new text appears.

Apple is not just borrowing ideas from Readability, what they've included in Safari is Readability.

They've done something that will probably be controversial. If a story has continuation pages, Safari allows you to go through them without first seeing the page with its ads, and then asking to have it made "readable." At least that's my understanding. I have to get the new Safari and check it out.

Rich has a lot of ideas that go beyond what Readability does now, and luckily they dovetail with some of my thoughts on where blogging software can go, and ideas I've heard from others.

BTW, the text you're reading is a milestone. This is the first blog post that has the ability to hide sub-text. This makes it possible for me to add detail to a piece that not every reader might need, without creating a new web page (which I never have time for anyway). I'm going to do a write-up of the feature shortly.

I missed this particular feature (for reasons that will become clear shortly), and so did many others. So Winer wrote another post to highlight what he had just done. The post, entitled "New feature: Blog post sub-text!" opened as follows:

Note: If you're reading this on the Home page or the RSS feed you won't see the plus signs. Go to the story page to get the full effect.

Since I usually read Winer's blog via an RSS reader, the effect was lost on me. But Winer didn't stop at version 1.0, he offered an improvement that allowed the sub-text to be available to RSS readers, also. However, Winer noted:

Of course there aren't any apps that read this format, yet. It's always that way. When I first came out with the predecessor to RSS, no one read it. But eventually someone did, and then a lot of people, etc etc. That may not happen here, but then again, it might. Don't count it out.

Now I tend to approach things from a business, rather than a technical, perspective. From my view of things, one would start with a customer problem - for example, "How can I provide content to both the casual reader and the reader who prefers a deep dive?" From that perspective, Winer's sub-text idea is one of several ideas that could solve the problem.

The fallacy of my approach is that it only accounts for cases in which the question is asked. What if no one thinks to ask the question?

I've written another blog post that talks about Steve Jobs. That post mentions the 3 1/2" floppy drive that Apple brought to the masses. No one was asking for a 3 1/2" floppy disk. The 5 1/4" floppy disk was just fine. But Jobs went ahead and added it anyway. Here's how Jobs summed up the whole episode, as part of a discussion of Flash technology:

Apple is a company that doesn’t have the resources that everyone else has. We choose what tech horses to ride, we look for tech that has a future and is headed up. Different pieces of tech go in cycles…they have summer and then they go to the grave. We have a history of doing this. The 3 1/2 floppy. We made that popular. We got rid of the floppy altogether in the first iMac.

Jobs provided some other examples, then said:

And when we do this, sometimes people call us crazy. Sometimes you have to pick the right horses.

Now it should be noted that Winer is not DISCONTINUING a feature, but adding one - something that is less controversial (though not without controversy of its own). So if the feature never takes off, the only potential loser is Winer, who invested time in something that nobody wanted.

There is no one best system for creating technological advances. I've been involved in projects where the best SEI CMM-derived processes were used to envision, specify, design, create, and test a wonderfull application. I've also been involved in projects where someone threw something together over a weekend. Both systems work.

Without trying to pigeonhole sub-text into one process or another, let's look at what Winer did. First - well, to tell the truth, I don't know what he did first. At some point, however, he wrote the meetup post and tested his feature. He then publicly announced the feature in a follow-up post. This was followed by discussion in the comments, and several other posts (most of which I haven't linked to) in which Winer received feedback and in which Winer and others discussed possible use cases for the feature. This led, among other things, to Winer's new implementation for RSS readers.

Of course this isn't enterprise bullet-proof software that you'd give to your grandmother, and perhaps other development methods may be appropriate for health records management software, but it's certainly a fun ride.
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