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November 29, 2002

UK-based mobile phone manufacturer Sendo recently announced it decided to drop Microsoft's new OS for smartphones (formerly known as "stinger") and opted instead to endorse Nokia's Series 60, a Symbian-based User Interface platform.
Even though Sendo is a small player, the one-sided divorce was, to say the least, unexpected.
Sendo had been among the first to befriend the MS platform and (after almost two years in the making) it was supposed to be the first to hit the market with its long-announced Z100, now discontinued.

Sendo's defection might spring from Symbian's decision to switch from delivering pre-packaged OS-UI combos to providing the OS and allowing its licensees to take their chances on the UI side.
The result of this change in strategy has been that a smart company like Nokia has jumped at the opportunity, developed a good user interface package, the Series 60, and then licensed it to interested parties.
Sendo has thus joined a list that so far includes Matsushita, Samsung and Siemens.
No small players here, you see.

All of the above might just sound like trivial OS-war zone mumbo-jumbo until you ask yourself a simple question: who will "own" the OS market in the far future?
The OS market in general, mind you.
The first name that comes to mind is probably "Microsoft", but you might want to think again.

Certain countries have never really witnessed the PC-internet invasion that other western countries have experienced.
Even in Italian homes a PC with a high-speed Internet connection is far from being a common sight.
The same can be said of many first, second and especially third-world countries that have barely wet their feet on the shores of the PC-internet sea, but have been hit hard and fast by the cell-phone tsunami.
The result is that people who have never owned a computer, or hardly know how to use one, are now ready to be offered familiar, phone-like objects that will enable people to do much more than what their shiny plastic shells reveal at first sight.
In other words many of those so far left out of the digital city walls will be given the key to enter a realm much larger than they realize when thinking about the little beeping things in their pockets and bags.
If you take all of the above into consideration it becomes rapidly clear why Microsoft has been aggressively going both after the mobile OS market and, lately, pushing hard on Tablet PCs.
Mr. Gates probably realized that Windows might one day become again something people will simply look out of, and not on DataSpace.
Nokia's UIs might indeed already be the most familiar and ubiquitous in the world, as recently noticed by Matt Jones and others.

So why should all of the above be of interest to the design community at large?
Without indulging in any open vs. closed-source diatribe, I am thinking about the (little) window of opportunity that Symbian's strategy leaves open for us as well.
The Series 60 is an open UI platform based on an open OS, which means it can tweaked, expanded and improved.
This will hopefully mean that in the near future operators and manufacturers will turn to our community looking for help on how to make their products better.
As a side consequence we might end up being able to make people's lives a bit easier.
How about taking up on the offer and designing the best interface the world has yet to see?
Maybe one that explores new interaction principles?

Now that my business side has had its turn at the wheel I'll give you also the other, more idealistic reason.
The open-ness at both OS and UI level leaves the back-door open for all those out there exploring the paths that lead to the medium's hidden soul.
Howard Rheingold says it best in Smart Mobs:

"...key breakthroughs won't come from established industry leaders but from the fringes, from skunkworks and startups and even associations of amateurs.
Especially associations of amateurs.

What could we have these things do if we had a chance to have them meet our collective desires?
Got to think. Please contribute.

Posted by fabio sergio | 5:58 PM | permalink


November 26, 2002

The previous post was a bit serious, so let me try to lighten things up a bit.

Steven Johnson has recently coined the term Googleshare: using Google to measure how much a word or a concept has come to be associated with a person's name.
The obvious consequence of this idea is that you can somewhat check if people in Connectedland think you are the reference point on a given topic or if someone else is beating you, and how badly.

Thanks to friend and colleague Ashley Benigno I discovered Googlefight, a less precise but much more direct way to have Google tell you how anybody/anything fares against anybody/anything else.
Armed with this simple tool you can finally prove that Good beats Evil (87.600.000 to 8.380.000 right now) and that (sorry to do this to all of you fans out there) all bets on Elvis are off.

Posted by fabio sergio | 2:36 PM | permalink


It seems in March Razorfish will be bought by SBI, finally marking the end of a slow descent into oblivion from the fame and fortune of the late 90's.
I had hopped on the roller coaster when the first carts had almost started their downward ride.
We proudly screamed at the top of our lungs until we could.

I don't regret a thing about my time there or the choice I made, mind you. Quite the contrary.
Being surrounded by people much smarter than you works wonders to have you give your best all the time.
Effervescent, that's how I would describe the atmosphere in the Milano office until the very end.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night and not being able not to carve into digital runes the thoughts that the day's conversations had sparked.
Thinking about it, even this very site has been conceived back then.

In the end I am just sad to see the soul of another creative forge go the way of the Dodo bird.
In biological terms it just detracts from bio-diversity and that, I am told, is no good thing.
It also saddens me to think that this final twist of the plot won't be painless for many fish who had so far managed to survive the roughest seas.
To all of you: you have my sympathy.

William Gibson had seen it coming. The future is ripe for Zaibatsus.
Not to worry.
The dream is dead. Long live the dream.

Posted by fabio sergio | 11:56 AM | permalink


November 22, 2002

I am not sure if everyone is infected with the same memes or people in similar environments just end up thinking similarly.

Both Adam Greenfield and Matt Jones posted about BBCi's redesign and its (not so immediately evident) interaction-driven benefits.
If you try and click a few times on a link and then you visit the home page again you'll notice that the background color of the box the link is in has become darker.
In the end the page gets chromatically layered with info about areas you often explore, as those that least interest you slowly appear to be fading.

If you've read yesterday's post by yours truly (hint: scroll) you'll realize this is precisely in line with what I was referring to, applied to navigation:
"Designers should strive to create relationships and structure but leave composition to the user."

Another example that resonates here is Method Lab's old Cowpaths project (download PDF here).
In addition to the imposed (read: designed by an IA) main navigation bar (top-down, structure) users’ paths through the site slowly appear in a secondary nav bar as people find their own way through the available data over time (bottom-up, composition).

With all their obvious limits (what about the efficacy of BBCi's approach for color blind people?) both attempts might be first steps towards websites whose navigation evolves with users and adapts to their habits in a transparent way.
Next steps: extend path-tracking to the entire global audience and let the secondary nav emerge by itself.
Caveat: it might take time. Lots of it.

Another relationship between BBCi and RealSpace: physical things that get forgotten and not cared for slowly start to show this by getting covered with dust, dirt, rust.
They age and decay. Over time, they fade.
Digital objects completely lack these LO-FI qualities and keep their first-day sheen forever.
This also brings back to memory a satirical piece written about all the sites that end up never getting updated and how that should be reflected by some sort of digital rot.

How might interactive products show the qualities of a wooden artifact?
How could they age gracefully?

Posted by fabio sergio | 4:40 PM | permalink


November 21, 2002

Anne Galloway and Matt Webb have been making me feel like it’s time I find myself a bigger brain.

Anne's started it all.

"So now I'm working on how technologies can be designed to evoke, rather than to describe; to perform rather than to represent..."

Matt took it to the next step, turning the focus on the media that enable that to happen, strangely enough, because of their limits.

"When the media isn't as rich as real life, the ones that succeed are the ones that don't try and hide the fact they're not real life ... typography, music, architecture, cooking ... augmented reality, radio"

If the medium is imperfect its limits can turn to be its biggest strength as people have shown this strange habit of ending up using them as a way to find their own freedom of expression.
SMS anyone?
Ever wandered why Pixar decided from the very start to avoid life-like efforts and instead focused on plot and character development in cartoon-like scenarios?
Just take the time to emotionally compare the visually amazing Final Fantasy with Monster's Inc.

These considerations take me straight to my first love, architecture.
It has always struck me as the client-architect relationship tends to follow a couple of opposite directions.
In one case the architect's ideas and taste prevail and the result often happens to be "a house for someone else to live in".
I personally know at least a couple of families who have ended up living in a place they loath and they have dearly paid for.
Fading visions of one of my professors advising to "just take pictures before they put their stuff in". All their LO-FI stuff.

School-day memories of Adolf Loos depicting the life of the Poor Rich Man whose house had been designed in the smallest detail, so that it was finished. Complete.
Have you ever felt like that? Complete?
I guessed you hadn't.
Because we are fantastically imperfect creatures, with imperfect senses.
We breathe a LO-FI mixture of gasses.
We live amazing LO-FI lives.
That's why perfection ends up feeling foreign. Lifeless.

On a complete tangent all of the above might also be the reason why recent Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture efforts have been greeted with such animosity from the very same people it was meant to appeal to.
A house someone else has designed for you to live in. Complete.
DataSpace architects inheriting the very same qualities and vices of RealSpace architects.
That alone could be an interesting cross-over theme to explore.

On the other hand of the spectrum, though, lies a relationship of mutual exchange, with the architect soaking himself in the client's own desires.
Trust. Mutual trust.
The end result can be a collaborative effort that allows the client to feel his tastes and needs have been filtered and brought to a better life and the architect to perceive he has enriched the client's life.

To bring back the matter to the digital world, a phrase that had been lurking in the back of my mind for quite a few years reveals its deepest meaning:

"Designers should strive to create relationships and structure but leave composition to the user."

In case you were wondering the quote is from one of the myths of my Director days, Che Tamahori.
I translate that now as "create structure at a micro-level and let organization emerge out chaos by itself at a macro-level".
Your knew that already. God is in the details.
Brenda Laurel had also somewhat pointed it out.
Don't be a puppeteer, be the play writer. Then let the director and the actors find their own way through the paths you have indicated.

Architecture again.
Tadao Ando and his gardens. Completely foreign for a westerner's mind but purely reliant on the power of evocation.
A slice of sky, a tree. Concrete planes. Limits that leave the mind free to float.
A moment, caught in time. RealSpace Haiku.
Zen rock gardens, always different, always the same.

Back to Matt Webb and LO-FI media.
I've been commuting to Milano by car for about 3 months now.
One long hour at the wheel each way.
Ten short minutes of the most unlikely immersive audio experience.
From 8:50 to 9:00 the Italian public radio broadcasts a 50's-style series based on Georges Simenon's Maigret books.
Human voices and an ethereal soundtrack draw me in for just the right amount of time.
I find myself in a state of flow, senses fully awake as my body moves through space.
The narration is left dense with pauses.
In those moments of silence imagination finds the freedom to explore its limits.

Back to architecture, sort of.
Peter Merholz has recently referred to Stewart Brand's "How buildings learn".
I find myself suddenly thinking: what do they dream?

Posted by fabio sergio | 8:30 PM | permalink


November 20, 2002

34 North 118 West is a twist on interactive narratives with a bit of GPS/positioning magic thrown into the mix.
The story unfolds on a Tablet PC, based on movement through RealSpace.

"Imagine walking through the city and triggering moments in time.
Imagine wandering through a space inhabited with the sonic ghosts of another era.
Like ether, the air around you pulses with spirits, voices, and sounds.
Streets, buildings, and hidden fragments tell a story.

Cool phrase of the day : "The landscape becomes the interface".

Posted by fabio sergio | 1:58 PM | permalink


November 18, 2002

Steven Johnson has got a weblog!
Just last week I finished re-reading Emergence and had wondered why such an influential thinker was missing a first-person presence on the web.
His sudden appearance feels a lot like a gift.

I also just received three emails from friends telling me they returned from this year's Doors of Perception conference.
I'm green with envy.
Fortunately Matt Jones has been easing the pain with daily reports. Thanks.

Posted by fabio sergio | 7:06 PM | permalink


November 15, 2002

Connected mobile devices have been steadily incorporating every possible feature miniaturization has allowed to squeeze into the little things.
On the software side micro- browsers, Java-based games, PIM-like applications, MP3 players and AM/FM radios are just some of the standard features usually found on European models.
On the hardware side no serious high-end cell phone can at the moment lack at least a color screen, a camera, infrared and bluetooth capabilities, headset and USB ports and so forth.
In the old continent Nokia’s 7650 has led the way and the others have been following suit.

While convergence advocates are probably grinning the first direct consequence of this trend has been that both in Europe and Japan the latest generation of mobile phones is actually bigger than the previous one, breaking the “smaller is better” paradigm that had resulted in models only hobbits could feel comfortable using.
The other consequence is that the SUI (Solid User Interface) of the phone has simply started to get in the way. If you’ve ever tried to play Doom on the 7650 you’ll know what I mean.

How big can a cell phone get before it's perceived as "too bulky" for everyday use?
How many buttons, joysticks and switches can you super-glue on these devices before the basic functionality of the phone gets too complicated for the average user?

To tackle these problem manufacturers have been exploring opposing directions, and it appears Nokia has been quietly leading the pack as usual, at least judging from the onslaught of upcoming products they have recently announced.

On one hand they have been aggressively addressing specific needs and markets segments with models like the N-Gage, practically a Game Boy in disguise (with Sega partnership to go with it), or the 6800, an SMS and email platform that builds on the 5510’s misfortunes to see if the concept that failed with teen-agers will work with professional users.
Both products are as specialized as they come and show how Nokia has fully understood the rapid saturation of the market and is now going after the niches with products tailored to the needs of very specific users.

On the other hand Nokia has instead de-constructed the phone and started making products that stand on their own but can be integrated with a phone to create a whole that’s more than the sum of the parts.
The coolest product is the James Bond-esque micro-camera-headset combo, which can be used alone or attached to a phone.
Just as interesting, if a bit scary maybe, is an surveillance camera that sends MMSs when something’s wrong or a music stand module: put the phone in the cradle and presto, music.

Incidentally this last direction is nothing more than a new incarnation of the PAN (Personal Area Network) concept, in this case to physically de-couple the main features of the device (phone, camera, radio etc.) and then to link them back together via bluetooth or similar means.
The coolest interpretation I’ve seen so far of this idea is one of Ivrea’s Interaction Institute research projects, “Mobile Embodiments”, where the mobile phone acts only as a “conduit” and intelligent objects around it are then used ad-hoc to translate the incoming data into sound, video, information or whatever else the user needs at the moment.

All in all if you think about it the mobile industry is just following a well-known path.
Integrated vs distributed.
General purpose vs specialized.
The personal computer vs information appliances.
All of this also goes to say that, as usual by now, we’ll see an increasingly complex stratification of these opposing models and not an emerging winner.

Now if only someone could instead explain to me what’s wrong with Nokia’s design department.
What made them abandon the understated, elegant, clean lines of the past for the “abducted by the aliens” direction they’ve been following lately?
Did they hire Bell’s mountain bike helmet design team from the 90’s altogether or what?

Posted by fabio sergio | 9:59 AM | permalink


November 13, 2002

connectedness. mobility. information. interaction.
the way we think and behave is changing.
what should the design community at large focus on to help make the world a better place for us all?
as we are moving our first steps in the always-on, connected society new twists on old problems require re-thinking where and how we want to play a role to have a real impact.
luckily enough there are things happening that could end up providing the missing answers.

as some pieces of the puzzle started coming together in my head so did my need to line up words to wrestle my incoherent thoughts in a coherent sequence.
i decided to check first if great people i highly respect could be interested in publishing my thoughts on their site.
unfortunately two months later i've been told the article is an un-focused ramble (which it is really) and thus it gets published where it probably belonged to in the first place.

hopefully you'll enjoy freegorifero's new article: connectedland.

oh well. what can i say. fame and fortune keep escaping my grasp.
only my useless ideas have this strange habit of sticking around.
go figure.

Posted by fabio sergio | 3:40 PM | permalink


November 11, 2002

interesting research material on web content credibility from Stanford University's Web Credibility Project .

"Our goal is to understand what leads people to believe what they find on the Web.
We hope this knowledge will enhance Web site design and promote future research on Web credibility.

incidentally the project is part of Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab, that has been looking at one of the potential dark sides of interactive media.
how can technology influence users' motives and inclinations?

"A persuasive computer is an interactive technology designed to change a person's attitudes or behaviors.
In other words, captology pertains to the area where computing technology and persuasion overlap.

i remember reading an article on Communications of the ACM magazine a little while ago about captive technologies and thinking long and hard about all the potential abuses they seem to imply.
all of this has already become relevant as mobile phones and the "always on" connection they enable make avoiding being somewhat "monitored" more and more difficult.

funny how this also resonates with what Adam Greenfield has recently written about ubiquitous computing:

"...human beings absolutely require moments of disconnection, of amnesty.
For various ethical, political, social, psychological and even spiritual reasons, we should be careful to design moments of silence, of unawareness and disconnection, into our ubiquitous systems.


Posted by fabio sergio | 6:42 PM | permalink


November 06, 2002

the New America Foundation has published Kevin Werbach's new article: "Open Spectrum" (download PDF here)

"For nearly a century, radio frequency spectrum has been treated as a scarce resource that the government must parcel out through exclusive licenses.
Licensing may have been the only approach in the 1920s, but it certainly isn’t in the first years of the 21st century.
Today’s digital technologies are smart enough to distinguish between signals, allowing users to share the airwaves without exclusive licensing

also stumbled onto "Hand-helds of tomorrow", an interesting article from Technology Review available on IDEO's site (download PDF here).

"Which new handheld and wireless devices will really find their way into our pockets?
Human-factors engineers are interested in practical answers to that question, not fanciful ones

the Austin Power-ish opening photo alone is well-worth the time spent downloading the article.

Posted by fabio sergio | 10:02 AM | permalink


November 05, 2002

Peter Merholz has been logging his impressions and ideas while reading Howard Rheingold's great new book, "Smart Mobs, The Next Social Revolution".
this has led to interesting comment-based conversations about mobile phones and the idiosyncrasies related to their use, like speaking loudly "to ourselves" in public when using a headsetµphone set-up.
every time it happens to me i cannot help but notice the puzzled looks of fellow human beings as they are trying to decide for what reason they should pity me.
at the same time i think the apparent ease with which the western world has learned to accept people apparently talking to themselves in public is fascinating.

all of the above also reminded me of one of the most interesting mobile/wearable concepts i've seen so far.
Whisper was a project presented by at CHI 99 by M.Fukumoto and Y.Tonomura (full paper available here from the ACM Digital Library).
the phone had been shrunk down to a watch (a-la Dick Tracy) and it relied on your index finger bones to carry sounds.
yes, stick a finger in your ear and presto, conversation.
just like we did when we were children.
incidentally the whole idea also solved the "am i crazy or not" syndrome, as the microphone was positioned in the watch bracelet and thus users simply had to whisper into it, holding their wrist close to their mouth.
a gesture-based interface rounded out the package.
i remember one person in the audience asking "...and you mean this actually works?". it did.
not sure the idea went anywhere but it seems the only (free) reference to it is on Japan's mobile operator ntt DoCoMo's site so i wouldn't be surprised to see it become a product one day.

on a completely different note Adam Greenfield's v-2 has just re-launched.
version 3 sports a great-looking "less is more" design, the usual highly-inspiring content and a full-on back-end overhaul.
what more could you ask for?
how about "Ubiquitously yours", a new article about the social and psychological implications of pervasive computing?
yes, life is good.

Posted by fabio sergio | 8:40 AM | permalink


November 04, 2002

for those of you who might not know about it the Hip Top (also known as T-Mobile Sidekick) is a little wireless device produced by a company called Danger that's recently been made available in the US by T-Mobile.
it sports a black&white screen, a little camera, and web-browsing, emailing and instant-messaging capabilities. yes, you can also use it to call friends on the phone, the old-fashioned way.
all in all the little device is relatively cheap (about 200 $) and looks simple compared to many full-fledged smartphones/communicators out there.
as usual though when many simple things are linked together something complex tends to happen.

as people like Mike Lee and Matt Jones have been documenting there's something interesting and cool happening over at the Hip Top Nation.
the Hip Top Nation basically acts as a publishing space for people who bought the little thing.
couple weblogs with mobile publishing platforms that include a camera and you might start to get the full picture of what's been brewing.

this resonates with what i've been thinking lately about the different evolution paths of the WEB compared to its mobile extensions/expansions/appendages.
while the WEB as we know it today had evolved/emerged almost by itself, most mobile environments have been "designed" by someone to replicate the WEB's success.
obviously to no avail.
i tend to compare the feeling to that of a house, or clothing for that matter, that have been specifically designed...for someone else. all dressed-up and nowhere to go.

i am hoping that decision makers who want UMTS-like technologies to succeed will keep that in mind and leave people and technology enough freedom for things to just happen.

Posted by fabio sergio | 7:47 PM | permalink


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