The Facial Expressions of Dumb Terminals

Steve, here, again. Ian’s older brother, and the host of most of the family web sites, (except for Kent’s LiveJournal).

And the one sibling who doesn’t actively blog. Why? I’m too much of a perfectionist, still seeking the perfect blogging tool.

I last wrote in this space last year, when Ian was detained as a security threat or a drug addict or something, we’re still not sure, trying to return from Canada. He’s in Maine, now. Don’t know whether he’s planning to drive up to the border to moon that Customs officer before returning to Columbia County.

When Ian asked me to set up Michelle to stand in here a couple of nights ago, it took me several minutes of cognitive struggle to remember which blogging tool Ian uses. He started out with Blogger, back in the days when Blogger had occasional outages and no comments. Sean and Michelle still use Blogger, making good use of the new features added since Blogger was bought by Google.

But Ian couldn’t wait for Google to accelerate Blogger’s growth, so, after he wheedled me at length, I finally converted this site to Movable Type. Oh, we evaluated TypePad, too, but it just wasn’t flexible enough. (Primarily, TypePad couldn’t preserve Ian’s many inbound links. We weren’t willing to give up our position as the sole Google result for "Lisa Kudrow’s shady film career.")

Only a few weeks after the move to Movable Type, Ian phoned me in a panic. This blog was the victim of severe comment spam. After a long, bi-coastal session deleting comment spam, we installed MT-Blacklist. I was skeptical, but it seems to be working well, and I see that Ian still does the one-click thing to delete comment spam when it happens.

Then, during the hubbub over Six Apart’s changing the pricing of Movable Type, I started to read comments by people who bit the bullet and converted from Movable Type to WordPress in order to ensure they were using a platform guaranteed to be free and open for good. I was especially influenced by Mark Pilgrim’s clear explanation of why Movable Type, as a proprietary product, and WordPress, as an open product, each serve valid markets. As a longtime tinkerer, I realized that an open source product would suit me better, so I knocked up a WordPress blog on one of my servers. I’ve only begun to hack that tool.

So, when Michelle called and asked for the password to Ian’s blog, I couldn’t remember where it was! WordPress, right? No, wait, Blogger? No, oh, yeah, Ian’s on Movable Type. Then I couldn’t remember my password.

IBM 3270 terminal of the 1970s era. All these tools floating around in my head made unexpected connections with last night’s BayCHI program, a panel of several internet application visionaries talking about and demoing cutting-edge stuff that makes our blogs look like green screens. Oh, sure, blogs are a good example of plain old hypertext documents, accessible, linkable, searchable.

But authoring a blog through a web browser? Yech. Blog authoring, indeed any sort of document authoring, is like any other interactive application. It’s fun to have a blog, but it’d be a lot more fun if we didn’t have to struggle with web forms, snippets of HTML, and uploading images. Web forms are a return to the old green screen dumb terminal days. The web is a huge step backward for applications, even if it gives great document.

Which is why it was fun to see Ethan Diamond’s demo last night at BayCHI of Oddpost, the innovative rich email application that preceded Google’s Gmail by a couple of years. I tried Oddpost when it first became self-aware, but never signed up for a paid account, primarily because it only worked in Internet Explorer for Windows. Oddpost is all built in complex, browser-specific DHTML, so Mac users and those who prefer not to run Microsoft Virus Culture need not apply.

And, more interesting parallels: Google bought Blogger, Blogger improved quickly, and then Google made a big splash by announcing Gmail, which, like Oddpost, is far easier to use than the current crop of web-based email services (Hotmail, Yahoo!, and so on). And what just happened? Yahoo! just bought Oddpost!

And now Oddpost is improving quickly: Last night, Diamond demo’d lots of new Oddpost features, with lots of drag and drop and, notably, an RSS aggregator and (ding!) one-button blog posting: Want to post a comment on an friend’s interesting blog entry (or email)? Read it and add add it to your Blogger/TypePad/Movable Type blog, right in Oddpost, with drag and drop. Now that’s not like using a clunky web form.

But Oddpost is, I can only imagine, a deep and sticky morass of browser-specific code. (Or, now, two morasses, since Diamond demonstrated Oddpost running in Firefox last night. But maybe it’s all valid XHTML and DOM, what do I know?) I doubt that kind of effort can be sustained every time somebody wants to build a new application, even with Yahoo! doing the hiring. Is there a better approach? In particular, what will we be authoring blogs in next year?

The BayCHI panel also included Mike Sundermeyer, a Macromedia V.P., and David Temkin, founder of Laszlo Systems. Let me tell you why they made interesting dance partners. We all know that Macromedia makes Flash, a.k.a. the bane of all web surfers. Macromedia will burn in hell one day, but that’s not fair, really, because any tool can be used for evil. Flash is just a more powerful tool for good and evil.

Wait, no, Macromedia is a little evil: They don’t give me control over which Flash animations may run on my computer. It’s all or nothing (unlike most web advertisements, which are easily and selectively disabled by Junkbuster). Nothing, in my case, as I’ve removed the Flash player from Internet Explorer. I switch to Firefox if I need to use a real Flash site.

If Macromedia weren’t at least a little evil, they’d give us a buttons to disable ads but enable useful Flash apps. I’m a true Flash hater, but lately I’ve become enthusiastic about Flash applications that replace green-screen web forms with interactive, responsive applications like we had on our desktops before 1995.

Imagine a blog authoring tool that’s WYSIWYG, with drag-and-drop images and links, interactive searching, actually useful calendars, and so on. The blog itself should still be a simple web document, since it’s meant to be read (and searched and copied and used in derivative works and parodied), but authoring, yes, authoring is an application.

So, given that Macromedia is slightly evil (and wholly proprietary), what’s a web developer to do? That’s where Laszlo comes in. Laszlo’s framework supports attractive, animated applications delivered as Flash applications. But they’re not built in Flash. Rather, Laszlo applications are built in a more open, transparent framework that compiles to Flash today, but tomorrow they might compile to a different (hopefully more open) client. ("Client," that’s what we programmers call your web browser, Flash player, whatever.) Laszlo uses what’s out there in millions of web browsers today, but lets us developers stay independent of that slightly evil client, and promises a more open world tomorrow. I know little about Laszlo specifically, but it gave me a vision of how we may build this stuff in the future.

Naturally, David Temkin had no ill words for Macromedia, especially as they were sitting right there. And Flash does work, for good or evil, after all. But he made a few sly comments that I took as healthy independence of Macromedia.

I see good things ahead. The green-screen web is a good place for our collective knowledge, accessible to us all (and to Google-like entities). The web was never meant to be a one-way "publishing" medium, from the authors on high to the readers below. The web was meant to be an interactive medium. But green screens just don’t work for most people, and we didn’t have the CPU horsepower or the vision of the framework that would support more interactive applications, until just about now. We’re on the cusp of making our ‘puters useful again, this time with networks. That’s exciting stuff.

Now, if I could just remember that password…

0 thoughts on “The Facial Expressions of Dumb Terminals

  1. kent

    I like the idea of more WYSIWYG blogging, but I’m not entirely sold. Maybe I’m a geek, but … no I am a geek. But I’m part of a minority of computer users in that my workday tools, while they have been refined over the years, are largely the same as they were 10 years ago.
    In fact 99% of what I do, I could do from a Lear Siegler ADM3A, one of the venerable green screens of yore.
    In the rush to make everything ‘content rich’ and ‘bitching’ people sometimes lose sight of just how important and powerful having a typewriter that doesn’t require White-Out can be.
    I don’t mind inline markup languages, because I know enough to get by, I can type fast, and they don’t make me move my hand to the effing mouse to drag and drop something. Has anyone besides me ever noticed how fiddly it is to select just the text you want from a window?
    My biggest peeve with GMail is that 2 things I would want to do — select a bunch of messages quickly, and move stuff to the trash — both require rather precise mouse actions that I screw up on a regular basis.
    As far as I’m concerned, if you have a large volume of E-mail, nothing beats Pine + Procmail. All my mail used to go into separate folders, I could do everything without moving my hands from the keyboard. Sure I had to learn some key commands, but why are people so resistant to learning things that aren’t that hard to learn, when the benefit is speeding up your workflow by an order of magnitude?

  2. Steve Williams

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a mouse-impaired command-line bigot, too. But some applications actually need interactivity. And most people benefit from direct manipulation like drag and drop, because it mirrors their mental model better than mark-up.
    At BayCHI, during the Q&A, the accessibility of these interactive web apps was questioned. The response from the panel was disappointing: They argued it’s good to give the majority a more productive tool, even if it means a separate version must be tailored to disabilities.
    While that rationale is true, it is wrong for several reasons. First, the tailored version(s) will never be developed, at least not by the developers shooting for the majority. Second, it doesn’t explicitly observe that the output is often more amenable to accessible presentation than the tool, e.g. an interactive blog authoring tool must still produce accessible, relatively static documents.
    Third, and most important to us old-timers, is that ignoring accessibility for those with profound disabilities creates disabled tools. Keyboard enablement, as you observe, enables all of us, even those with mild disabilities like 45-year-old eyes and mildly irritated carpal tendons.
    So, yes, I agree these new interactive applications need to be accessible. But that doesn’t mean Pine is the unassailable pinnacle.


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