Jason Kottke

Ramblings on Twitter, Tweet Marker, RSS, and the cloud

Last month while reading an interview with Jason Kottke, a blogger I’ve been following for many years I noticed this question and answer:

What’s your online reading setup look like these days? RSS? Twitter? Multiple devices?

For discovery, Twitter and Stellar. No RSS…stopped doing that a few months ago and I feel like it dramatically improved my success rate in finding interesting things (although the addition of Stellar has helped with that too). For reading long stuff, Instapaper.

The fact that he dumped RSS and uses Twitter (and his web application Stellar) gave me pause and I started to think that maybe the way I’m using my aggregation tools needs to be reconsidered. Granted, his response seemed to be about mining the internet for things to post on his site, less about getting news, but many of us mix these two things together and my guess is he does too.

Part of me hates change, especially when I’ve got things working well, but part of me enjoys the evolution of these tools and seeing how things evolve is fascinating. Couple that last thought with the idea that people seem to be skimming rather than reading online these days and you have part of the recipe for the success of a service like Twitter, where posts can be no more than 140 characters long.

Keeping Twitter in sync
Twitter is a service that allows registered users to post (tweet) to their subscribers and subscribers to follow the feeds of people and/or services that interest them. It’s incredibly popular the world over and it runs on computers, tablets, smartphones, and almost every connected device out there.

If you only use Twitter via your web browser on a single computer or device keeping things in sync isn’t an issue for you but if you use Twitter with client software (not a web browser) on multiple devices, have you ever considered that there is no way to keep your feeds in sync? In other words, if you read (skim, browse, scroll) through a bunch of feeds on your computer and get to “now” (a tweet from 1 minute ago) then pick up your iPhone and run your Twitter client there, it has no clue that you’ve already read the feeds you have on your computer, you’re back hours before “now.”

I use Twitter via a client for the Macintosh called Twitterrific and a client for iPad and iPhone called TweetBot. These happen to be popular and excellent Twitter clients in the Macintosh and iOS worlds but I chose them for another reason, they make use of the Tweet Marker service. While Twitter is a cloud service it doesn’t seem to have a way to keep track of the position of your twitter crawl across multiple devices. This is what Tweet Marker is all about and it works quite well with Twitter clients that support it. You don’t need to make an account with Tweet Marker, you simply turn it on in the preferences of supported client applications.

With Tweet Marker enabled, if I update my Twitter feed on my Mac when I pick up my iPhone my Twitter feed automatically scrolls to the place I left off on my Mac, and visa versa. The bookmarking is still awkward on both Twitterrific and Tweetbot but it does work and it makes Twitter infinitely more useable to me.

Frankly, I have no idea how most Twitter users deal with looking at dozens, some with hundreds and some with thousands of feeds across multiple devices. I have no idea how people can deal with more than 100 feeds even on a single device coupled with their RSS and no doubt Facebook activity, but that’s another post. Twitter can be a useful tool and if you want keep things in sync between multiple devices you might want to try Tweet Marker.

I’ve used Twitter for a while but (Kottke aside) prefer my RSS feeds to my Twitter feed for the content I like to track and read. However, an individual can get a Twitter account without having a web site and tweet away while RSS requires a web site that puts out an RSS feed. They’re both useful technologies and there is overlap, it’s up to us to sort it all out as both publishers and readers.

Backstory on RSS
Simply, RSS is a technology that allows a web site like this one to put out a feed and for users like you to subscribe to it. If you subscribe to it and track it along with other feeds in a newsreader application (aggregator) it’s a simple way to see which web sites you visit regularly have updated their information. RSS is useful to a publisher (me) in that it lets me notify you that I’ve posted this piece of writing and it’s useful to a reader (you) because it allows you to see that I’ve posted this along with other feeds you track, all in one place and/or application. It remains my favorite networking technology although it is quickly being replaced by Twitter (Kottke seems to be supporting this) which I’m less than happy about.

The content management system that powers this site, WordPress has RSS capabilities built in so all I have to do is hit “post” on this post and the site will send the headline out to anyone who’s subscribed. In other words, everything I post here is also sent out to my RSS subscribers and if they want to read further they can click on the feed headline and come here to get more information. I could also send the post to my Twitter account automatically so that anyone subscribed to my Twitter feed (an overlapping group) would see notice there. I do this manually now as I update posts and permalinks and don’t want to be posting to Twitter until things are done on this end so that I don’t create dead links for subscribers.

Almost every web site I visit I visit through a headline I’ve clicked on in my RSS newsreader. I have only a few sites I visit daily that I visit by way of a browser bookmark. RSS has been the core of my web experience for many years and I can’t imagine it any other way.

For those reading here who have never used or learned about RSS, look at this old post What is RSS and/or this entry: RSS.

The need for cloud services
In the old days when NetNewsWire was the only game in town for managing multiple RSS feeds on the Macintosh and we didn’t have to deal with multiple devices, life was simple. As people started attempting to manage RSS feeds across multiple computers the need for cloud-based services became apparent and around this time Google started offering RSS feed aggregation with their Google Reader service (there were and are many others). One could use a web browser or a dedicated client application on a computer to read feeds on one computer and log into the same account on another computer and see where one left off. This is the beauty and importance of having this stuff in the cloud but also having the service keep track of activity. I can read some feeds on the train with my iPhone and when I open my computer when I get home I don’t see those feeds as unread, they’re read and gone.

The world of RSS aggregation and reading has remained like this through the transition to iPhone and iPad and at this point I have a Google Reader account that I read on my Mac, my iPad, and my iPhone with a great application called Reeder. There are Windows and Android equivalents of all of this stuff although Reeder is so good I’m not sure what’s quite that good in the Windows and Android worlds. No doubt there’s something. It doesn’t matter, what matters is that you find a client application you like and use it to manage the ever growing stream of information coming our way.

For those new to all of this let me be clear: Reeder is a client application that is not stand-alone, it requires that you have a Google Reader account to store your RSS feeds in the cloud. It taps into that account and displays the feeds and allows interaction with the account more elegantly than Google does in a web browser. Reeder is the killer RSS aggregation app for any Macintosh or iOS using, Google Reader using user.

In the same way I find it difficult to understand how people who use the web for news and information can get along without a newsreader subscribed to RSS feeds, I can’t understand how anyone could use Twitter and keep up without a service like Tweet Marker and I’m amazed that Twitter doesn’t have a service like this built into their API. Twitter the company should buy the Tweet Marker capability from its author and embed it in their Twitter back end.

Will Twitter kill RSS? I hope not. They’re different technologies with different capabilities and I find them both useful, now that there’s Tweet Marker.

Notes on Kottke’s take on Apple

Jason Kottke wrote a thoughtful essay: How to beat Apple. I highly recommend reading it, every point is simply and clearly made, and true.

    1. Apple doesn’t do social well
    2. Apple doesn’t do cloud well
    3. iTunes is bloated and showing signs of age
    4. Apple doesn’t pay close attention to products that Steve Jobs doesn’t show a personal interest in

1. Apple doesn’t do social well
Agreed. I turned Ping off a month after turning it on. It wasn’t a great idea to add one more piece of functionality to an already bloated iTunes (see #3). More importantly, given Apple’s past with eWorld as an answer to AOL and their various ways for people to connect on the internet, I’m not confident that whatever they have brewing that we don’t know about will be great. If #4 is true, Apple won’t get this right until its CEO delegates “taste making” to someone who actually cares for and uses social applications.

However, Apple sure does know what to do with credit card numbers they hold: they sell lots of computers, iPhones, iPads, iPods, music, apps, and more on the web and if we stretch the definition of “social” a bit to include finding innovative ways to connect with customers, maybe it’s less of a leap to find innovative ways to let said customers interact with each other.

Kottke makes the point that “the Facebook Fone would be a massive hit if done right.” Of course, “if done right” is the key and one could make the same case for many opportunities Apple still has but hasn’t yet done right. And, given Facebook’s struggle with doing things right, I’m not so sure they’ll get it right either.

Here are two social networking opportunities that come to mind that Apple hasn’t fully leveraged yet and may in the future:

Apple is spreading FaceTime around on all of its devices. Now that the iPad has a camera and FaceTime and anyone with a FaceTime equipped Apple computer, phone, pad or pod can call anyone else with said device, FaceTime may be a social platform that end-runs the other types of social networking. I would love it if Apple found a way to merge some of iChatAV’s capabilities (group chat, sound alone, texting) into FaceTime. I continue to use and love iChatAV daily.

I know a couple who just bought a new MacBook Pro (with FaceTime). They were hoping to get a new iPad before one of them traveled off for a month to Costa Rica for business. He’ll have free wifi in Costa Rica so they were hoping to communicate with Skype or something like that. They couldn’t get an iPad in time (at that point a five week order backlog) and I recommended an iPod Touch. They found a current model used on Amazon and of course it has a camera and FaceTime. The iPod Touch will allow them easy and free video calls anywhere in the world there are wifi connections. Of course Skype will as well but FaceTime is easier and built into all modern Apple devices with cameras.

FaceTime may be Apple’s Trojan Horse for end-running typical social networking. It’s another “credit card” like thing they hold on all of their users and it will allow them to connect us to each other (and them) in creative ways we may not have thought about yet. This is social networking that doesn’t compete with Twitter and Facebook, it end-runs them.

Apple TV
Apple TV runs on iOS and is connected to a user’s home network so in theory, Apple TV could allow users to interact with other users through their TV sets. It could also allow someone running FaceTime to broadcast to someone at home with a TV set and Apple TV. I agree with others, Apple probably won’t make a TV set although a TV set with a built in video camera might be a compelling reason for them to enter this market if it meant easy connection in a living room to other living rooms and computers, phones, pads and pods. Maybe instead of having a camera in the TV, Apple could continue to stay out of the TV market and put the camera and microphone in the Apple TV box.

Again, this is not “typical” social networking like Twitter and Facebook but I think it uses technology Apple already has in place and allows easy user interaction, end-running cellular services and all of their costs and complexities.

One thing Apple is capable of and has done well occasionally is looking at the product landscape from a higher altitude than others and then redefining the game with a device or service that changes things. This has the potential to flop on a grand scale but it also has the potential to be a huge success. Apple TV and FaceTime might be Apple’s way of not playing the same social game Twitter and Facebook are competing in but redefining the social game to a field even more people can fit comfortably into.

2. Apple doesn’t do cloud well
Agreed. MobileMe is poorly designed (for Apple) and unreliable. As I’ve said in earlier posts, MoblleMe should be free or better yet, free and built into the OS of every Apple device.

I want to be able to add an address or calendar date to my iPhone and have it automatically and immediately sync to any and all of my other (Apple and/or other) devices. MobileMe in theory does this but it hasn’t been honed as well or as fast as Apple’s physical products which might mean #4 is at play again.

I think if Apple made the address book and calendar apps even better and improved them in MacOS and limited MobileMe to simply syncing updates, made it free and totally reliable, they’d have a huge hit and they’d sell more computers, phones, pads and pods because of it.

As Kottke says, users of his caliber now use services like Dropbox to sync computers and other devices and Dropbox has a cult following. If Apple started with address and calendar, then bought Dropbox and added it to MacOS and iOS, maybe adding something like Simplenote as well, they’d have a huge hit. The idea is to build this stuff in so that using it isn’t an optional add-on but something everyone does as part of using a collection of tools that share information.

The rumor is that the reason Apple built a huge data center in North Carolina is that they’re working on a way to stream music and video from the cloud but given their track record with MobleMe we’ll have to see this and use it to believe it. Again, Apple doesn’t do things like this in a small way but this is an area I think ought to be done incrementally, initially by building syncing of addresses and calendar into everything and then expanding to more data types.

3. iTunes is bloated and showing signs of age
Agreed. My good friend Dirk (who lives in London) and I were talking using FaceTime six months ago and he noted (rather strongly) that iTunes is “a piece of crap.” This got my hackles up and I spent some time defending iTunes as a necessary part of Apple’s strategy to update and synchronize their various devices.

After we disconnected I had this nagging echo of Dirk’s rant on iTunes in my head. Dirk enjoys poking at me as he knows I’ll defend things I’m passionate about but he and I also share many years of discussion about this type of technology as we both worked with a company (AlphaSmart) that makes a simple keyboard for writing while away from one’s computer. Dirk still works for the company that bought AlphaSmart and the product still exists: Neo. Granted, the AlphaSmart and/or Neo is a simpler device than an iPhone and while it was easy to “send” text from an AlphaSmart to a computer via a USB cable, wireless transfer or moving text from computer to AlphaSmart was more complex and needed more attention.

All of that said, Dirk has deep experience with both all things Apple and the complexities of syncing and his opinion, while always suspect for attempting to get a rise out of me, carries a lot of weight.

So, I started thinking about iTunes and the process or setting up, upgrading, and moving information to and from an iOS device. Then I considered my Apple TV which, for a complete iOS upgrade doesn’t need a computer at all: it will upgrade itself and remember its settings sans-computer.

If Apple did a cloud-based service right and every Apple device was automatically and simply connected to it, Apple could update a phone, pad or pod this way, backing up the device to the cloud, updating the OS, then restoring all settings, just like they do, sans-computer, with Apple TV.

When you consider the fact that one can buy music, movies, TV, and apps directly from the phone, pad or pod, iTunes becomes a superfluous layer that could be eliminated, or, turned into what it was initially, a player for MacOS computers.

Step one is eliminating the need for a computer when setting up, syncing, and updating an Apple phone, pad or pod. Maybe their new datacenter is all about that. We shall see.

4. Apple doesn’t pay close attention to products that Steve Jobs doesn’t show a personal interest in
I’m not so sure about this although it makes perfect sense. I think it may be more like: Steve jobs doesn’t allow products out the door that a collection of Apple folks haven’t convinced him of the viability of. There is little doubt that Steve Jobs has made some great business decisions over the years and has done many things right, and while I’m a fan of his I’m not of the opinion that Apple will flounder without him at the helm.

Apple has been honing its DNA over many years and what Steve Jobs has done is amplified this by pushing the company to take risks that other CEOs with boards and stockholders might have avoided. Some of those risks have bombed, some have been wild successes.

Yes, it may take a small group of visionary people to do what Jobs has done but so what? Apple has plenty and while it would be a huge loss if Jobs’ influence ended, it may be that the person or people who take his place do “it” even better.

Kottke’s example of Jobs’ lack of personal interest in iCal allowing it to be less than wonderful is a good one. Of course, the next CEO or design decision team might actually use it and make it better. Or, allow a more radical change to it.

One of the biggest things Jobs did with the Macintosh/MacOS and now with iOS devices is to defend two things:

1. Keeping it simple; not competing on features and horsepower but usability.

2. Keeping it beautiful down to the last pixel, port cover, or Gorilla Glass screen.

Good design, well tested and honed isn’t something that only Steve Jobs knows how to do and over the years he’s been involved, others have as well. The fact that there are pieces of Apple’s offerings that have lagged may in fact be because Jobs didn’t push in those areas but it also might be that Jobs was in the way of innovation in those areas (as Kottke says).

As Steve Jobs gets closer to retiring we’ll see how all of this plays out.

I hope Apple continues to make things simpler, more ubiquitous, and more connected, and they do this in a way that includes even more people. They certainly have the potential to smooth out these rough edges and surprise and delight us all.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could share a Facetime call using my iPhone on the Appalachian Trail with my 95 year old mother watching (Apple) TV in her living room in Los Angeles and at the same time with my friend Dilip on his iPad in India and with my friend on his business trip in Costa Rica on his iPod Touch. If that’s going to happen I’m confident that Apple is the company to do it.

[via Steve Splonskowski]

Kottke on Chatroulette

Kottke on Chatroulette

Jason Kottke reviews a new video conferencing site called Chatroulette (chat roulette). Connect with random people all over the world, no moderation, no rules, just a video and voice connection with god knows who or what on the other end. The site has no appeal for me but Kottke’s review of it is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read. Read it, it’s funny as hell. If you have the guts to try Chatroulette let me know, I’d love to hear what you think.