How overly “intelligent” software can embarrass you

Yesterday I got an email telling me that I was invited to an acquaintance's birthday party, together with some 30-odd people, most of which I didn't know. The email contained an .ics invitation as an attachment, one of these little files created by, for example, MS Outlook or Apple iCal. The .ics file carries information on a calendar entry in it, like time, location, sender, attendees etc.

I wanted to add the event to my Apple iCal calender, so I clicked on its underlined name. The event got added alright, but to the wrong calendar – one of my deprecated work calendars. So I deleted the entry from the calendar and tried something different: This time I dragged the .ics file from the Apple Mail email body right onto my private calendar in iCal. The event appeared in the right color, indicating that it had been added to the correct calendar, but … I noticed some interesting activity in my Apple Mail client! iCal had started to send out updated invitations to all the original party invitees – in my name! I quickly deleted the event from my calendar, only to be asked if I wanted to send out some explanation to the invitees. Confirmed that (I was a bit nervous by that time) and had to close ~30 draft emails; nevertheless, my email client kept sending out message after message until I finally disconnected the WiFi network to make it stop. By that time, at least 16 invitations and updated invitations had been sent out.

The shame of it! I had spammed a number of people, most of which I didn't even know, with updates to a party I had only indirectly been invited to, and that happened to me, who I consider to be sufficiently tech-savvy, with one my favorite tools, Apple Mail, on my favorite OS, Mac OS X 10.5. I sent out an apologizing email to the party organizer and later today another one to all the invitees. My apps' misbehavior had caused shame for me and irritation in my social network, and in the end the blame would land squarely on me.

Someone at Apple obviously had tried to make something super-simple but somehow got it wrong. Why am I made the owner of an event when I drag it to my calendar, and how can my email app start sending out messages without asking me first? This reminds me too strongly of Plaxo, a contact management tool that makes it super-easy to stay up-to-date with your contacts' address data, because it syncs all the changes in the background, but that can also result in your sending out messages to all the entries in your address book. The infamous AOL client had a similar functionality that I invoked at least once accidentally while working at AOL.

Brings to mind Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (1942), and right at number one, they read:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Please, keep this in mind when designing applications – protect people from overly clever actions of applications, and think about possible negative consequences of your apps' behavior.

Microsoft’s version of Multitouch: “Surface”

Now that everyone's waiting for the iPhone and its innovative user interface – have you seen Microsoft's product / vision video on "Surface"? It's well worthwhile … The system has been announced for public availability at the end of the year.

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Search for more videos on Surface on YouTube

But wait – there are quite a number of similarities to Jeff Han's impressive work; watch the video:

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Search for more videos on Jeff Han on YouTube

For those who – like me, intially :-) – thought Surface was a nice copy of what Jeff Han had done, you can find a very nice overview of multitouch and related projects on Bill Buxton's website. Bill tracks back the history of multitouch interfaces until 1982.

Still, the question remains: What are the use cases for such a system? With a price tag of $5.000-10.000, this will not be a PC replacement any time soon. It might also be a bit expensive for a digital photo organizer. I find the kiosk examples in the marketing videos more convincing. Still, this could be a Product Management challenge – how to position this device with its cool technology, how to identify the latent user needs that will make this an irresistible device (apart from "it demoes well", which it sure does).

Update: The Register has, as always, a biting comment on Microsoft Surface, saying

for Microsoft it's just another attempt at getting its software out from the beige boxes under our desks to somewhere, anywhere, else.

But read for yourself

Steve Wozniak: How I invented the Personal Computer … and more

Today, I watched the video of Steve Wozniak, the hardware engineer of the Apple I and II and one of the founders of Apple (Computers) Inc., giving a speech at Google HQ in Mountain View. It was an eye-opening experience – the enthusiasm, fascination, and dedication "Woz" brought across. But see for yourself …

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BTW: Woz will be in Zürich at this year's Tweakfest – he'll speak on Thursday (May 24).

AppleTV vs. MS Home Server – some thoughts

Last week at CES in Las Vegas, Bill Gates announced to-be-released Windows Home Server, and a day later, Steve Jobs showed Apple TV. Both products aim at solving the same issue: how to get media files that are on different devices, hard disks etc. onto one terminal (i.e., the TV). Interestingly enough, the two solutions are vastly different:

  • Windows Home Server, which is based on Windows Server 2003, will replicate media files from all computers, XBoxes, and Zunes on the local network onto its hard drive and play them from there so that it won’t matter whether the PCs are running. The machine running Windows Home Server can be operated headlessly (no display) and will be wired (Ethernet). The software will be administered from a separate machine using Windows Home Server Console. Ideally, the devices would be between $400 and $500.
  • Apple TV, which will be $299, takes a different approach. Although it features a 40GB hard drive and can be synced to one computer through iTunes (like an iPod), it can stream media files from five computers on the network – wirelessly, using the (non-final) 802.11n standard; i.e. the media files themselves are not replicated. Videos can also be bought through the iTunes Music Store.

Let’s see who has done the user research properly – I personally don’t think consumers want another PC in their homes just to watch their videos, and few people actually need a home server (we got rid of ours years ago). Apple might have done a very good job disguising their newest computer.

Update: There’s a nice article on Ars Technica: more details about Windows Home Server. Author Jeremy Reimer basically asks the same questions:

It’s a neat idea, but how many home users will want to shell out the cost of a separate server for their media files? It’s already possible to use the regular versions of Windows as servers in limited form through Windows File Sharing, and some might balk at dedicating an entire computer for this task alone. Others might argue that it would be cheaper to set up a dedicated server with older components and by installing a free operating system such as Linux. Where Microsoft can overcome these objections is by making the operating system affordable and by making these sorts of “home admin” tasks much easier than they have been before.

The iPhone is here

You'll all have heard about it – Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. (no more "Apple Computers Inc.") has demonstrated the upcoming iPhone, to be released in June 07 in the US (in Q4 in Europe, in Asia probably 2008). The iPhone features just one button ("Home"), a giant touch-sensitive screen with "Multi touch" abilities and runs a (probably stripped-down) version of Mac OS X (although Apple's marketing pages refer to it just as "OS X").

I've been using Handspring's (and later palmOne's) Treos for nearly four years now. I've been very happy with them: they allowed me to reduce the number of devices from two to one (from a mobile phone and a PDA to just one smartphone). Nevertheless, Palm OS seems to have got stuck in development somewhere – no multitasking, slow, syncing actually only works properly with Windows … and I won't go for a Windows Mobile device. Moreover, although Handspring (and later Palm) have done a tremendous job of integrating phone functionality into an OS that had not been designed with this intent in mind, the Treo still feels like a PDA with add-on phone functionality. And I'd love to have my iTunes music with me as well (which cannot be played from the Treo; and even playing non-DRMed music from the Treo isn't much fun).

So again I'm stuck with two devices – the Treo and an 80 GB 5th generation iPod. Moreover, I recently began to heavily use the mobile Internet on my Treo's Blazer browser. It works, kind of … but it's not exactly fun. This is why I will definitely have to get one of Apple's new gizmos. Not only because I've got that Early Adopter virus(TM), because I'm an Apple aficionado and fascinated by all new technology, but because this thing appears to have been designed to serve the following purposes perfectly:

  • making calls
  • listening to music
  • browsing the web
  • reading and writing e-mails

… and I believe that at some points you just have to start from scratch again, drop bloated approaches covered with "scar tissue" (Alan Cooper) and held together with band-aids, and go out and try new ideas based on what people actually need and want to do. (The mobile phone industry appears rather help- and clueless as to what to offer their customers as most people don't seem to be willing to use all the cool features in their phones.)

Oh, and another thing: In "The Invisible Computer", Don Norman argues that the future will provide us with lots and lots of specialized devices – one for each purpose. I guess he was wrong Smile I'm very much looking forward to actually test-driving one of these things, to see whether Apple's new product can live up to the promise. Have they really re-invented the phone? At least they've got a lot of attention and shaken up the industry quite a bit (again).

Update: Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini has put together a very nice and detailed analysis of the iPhone's strenghts and weaknesses (as far as can be seen from the available material). Definitely worth a read!