What Facebook needs to do next

Update: Facebook has done it! It has finally created a messenger standalone for the web. You can go here to check it out (here if that doesn’t let you login) or here to read about it (but why would you?). Cheers!

Facebook has changed a lot over the past few years. There have been acquisitions, newsfeed, design changes and rollbacks and a whole mess of things. Facebook obviously understands that the future is mobile (hence WhatsApp and Instagram) and that people are moving in all kinds of directions, towards private spaces (hence the separate Messages app) and public posts (hence hashtags and the searchability of your FB post that goes with those).

So what’s next? Well, today, I wanted to send a link to my brother. Since I’m on Windows right now and not on my Mac (I usually just iMessage links to him), I fired up Facebook and sent it to him in a message. Why? Because it’s convenient, because Facebook detects the OpenGraph information about the page and processes it to make a neat link+image combo and because we have many conversations on there anyways.

Why didn’t I send it to him as a directed Facebook post? I could have, but I didn’t care enough to make it public. Our Facebook activity is not our true selves but a reflection of what we want to portray to others, and this link didn’t necessarily fit into any paradigm of my public self. (In other words, it wasn’t epic. Publicly shared links must be epic.)

Why didn’t I send it to him in an email? Hush, don’t ask silly questions.

But then, I wanted to send him another link and another. So what did I do? I clicked on that miserably little link that takes me to Facebook’s dedicated messages page so that I could share links and have conversations in a larger space than that goofy little box that occupies the bottom right corner of my screen.

That’s when it hit me. Facebook has a beautiful Messages app on the iPhone. I’ve sung praises of it before. But there’s a curious lack of a well designed web interface for messages. The old and clunky interface that sits there now has been sitting untouched since a long time.

Now, you’d argue that another private space that I could have used was the Facebook Groups feature. It looks nice, it’s often updated and has the same look-and-feel as the rest of Facebook. But why would I create a group for just myself and my brother? There’s no need for that since /messages exists. The only thing needed is to build a nice looking private messages space that people would use.

I was really tempted, as I started writing this post, to build this webapp myself. Facebook’s API is open and easy to work with. I’m sure I could have found many plugins and libraries to make the task easier for me. But any such project can never be feature complete. I can build it and you can come, but you’ll never stay because of lack of features, because a single guy sitting with a laptop with a limited amount of time can only do so much.

So Facebook, here’s the next thing you need to do – make messenger.com what it really should be – a full-fledged webapp that’s as classy as any other public facing feature of Facebook. I hope to see it soon!

Notes for Week 2 of 2014

So, it’s been an interesting week. Some observations –

Social

Found this gem of a Difference between Facebook and Twitter –

Facebook – 

“Best Practices

Making API calls directly to Facebook can improve the performance of your app, rather than proxying them through your own server.”

Twitter – 

“Caching

Store API responses in your application or on your site if you expect a lot of use. For example, don’t try to call the Twitter API on every page load of your website landing page. Instead, call the API infrequently and load the response into a local cache. When users hit your website load the cached version of the results.”

< p>Turns out, when not losing market share to a third-party app, Facebook is actually quite nice to developers as compared to Twitter. To be fair, tweets constitute a lot more volume and processing, so it would make sense for Twitter to want the devs to cache their data. Also, even ADN  has rate limits but at least their limits are more generous than Twitter.

Seriously though, twitter has millions of dollars for servers and all I have is a 128MB VPS. What the heck, Twitter?

Google(+)

Google is no longer Google. It’s Google(+). Everything we love about Google and it’s services is being slowly replaced by Google+ and the latest victim is GMail. Now anyone on Google+ can email you without knowing your email ID. As a communication tool, this makes GMail more open. But that’s exactly what people don’t use GMail for. They use it for Email. Big difference there Google. You can opt-out, but what’s the bet that option will be going away soon?

What Google should actually do –

Google understands one thing and one thing alone – Search. Pushing Google+ isn’t going to help them overcome the social networks of the world. But there is one thing I covet – the Search API. Seriously, why don’t we see third-party Search apps that innovate the way we see our Search results. That’s one data stream we’ve not targeted yet. Google needs to let people in, do their thing and pretty soon we’ll see people integrating Search with  social platforms. Oh, you wanna see which of your Facebook friends searched for the latest Tom Hanks movie and then clicked on IMDB? Here’s the data to that. Seriously Google, stop letting one segment of the business take over the other, specially since we know you’ll kill Google+ a couple of years from now.

Advertising

Ah, advertising! The Bane of TV show lovers binge-watchers. Advertising has slowly crept in everywhere on the Internet, from YouTube to Hulu. Towards YouTube, go find YouTube5. It’s an extension that replaces the usual YouTube player with a cool HTML5 one and kills all ads in the process. Enjoy.

To Hulu, I say, well, get rid of the “Brandon Switched to Ford” ad. Seriously. It’s a stupid ad, I’ve seen all too much of it and Brandon looks like a total douche for being the black sheep who abandoned the family tradition and switched from a Honda to a Ford. If ever Hulu fails, it’ll be because they keep repeating the same ads over and over again. I do not want to be bored by ads, I want them to be innovative and interesting. (Coincidentally, Samuel L Jackson staring in my face is not innovative. I’m looking at you, Capital One.)

I finally also saw the KFC ads that look like some woman with a video camera uploaded to YouTube. That’s supposed to be innovative? Nope. She looks drunk/high/both and you’re not fooling anyone with these ads KFC, those are scripted (or worse, they’re not!).

Finally, saw a teeth whitening strips ad on Hulu that said, very specifically, “If your teeth are not getting white, they’re getting yellow”. Ok, first of all, yellow teeth are perfectly normal and more an indication of stomach trouble than a medical emergency. Second, the ad targets people women who drink coffee. First it was guys who smoke who were targeted and now this. Finally, that text up there. That’s a scare tactic. Pretty soon, they’ll come up with a white paper saying that yes, your teeth getting yellow is a medical problem and you need to use teeth whitening strips in conjunction with toothpaste. All of this will be driven by only one thing – Sales telling the Marketing team to get innovative with the ads. There’s no real medical issue that they’ve tried to resolve.

That concludes the rant session on advertising.

Clients from Heaven

I’ve been building a web app for my brother and he mentioned that the text on the screen doesn’t ‘look black’. For a second, I tried hard not to wonder if my brother is a typical MBA Client from Hell but as it turns out, he was right, the text was actually #2C3E50 which is actually a weird dark blue. Thanks Bootstrap for making me look bad in front of my brother!

WordPress

It was an exciting week to be a WordPress user. Snaplive, a front-end text editing solution was showcased to a few who had signed up for updates. It seems to work really well with WordPress, so expecting some really good things in the future.

Ghost had promised to revolutionize WordPress, but instead it went and setup shop elsewhere. That’s ok, since we have Gust, which is a plugin that ports the awesome Ghost Admin panel functionality to WordPress. Mind you, this just released, so if you’re not ready for bugs (which software doesn’t have bugs?), don’t install this yet.

Finally, a shout out to whatweekisit.com, which I used to, umm, calculate which week of 2014 we’re in. Yeah, I should have just looked at a calendar.

A response to Marco Arment about ADN Freemium

Today, App.net (ADN), the social network that made me drop all others made an important announcement – that it is going to allow free accounts that are invited by currently paying members. I did not intend on writing a blog post about it because this is news that has already spread through wildfire in the tech community. Some have lauded and some criticized it. But the post that made me write is this commentary by Marco Arment.

Marco argues that while such news is welcome, ADN needs to do more to promote user growth instead of focusing on developing the API. He goes on to state that the main reason people are signing up is the twitter like functionality sans the spam and advertisements and instead of building file storage APIs, the team should develop spam protection and open the gates completely to free members. Continue reading

It is 1984.

Big Brother is watching. This is the ominous note that strikes me whenever I think about George Orwell’s amazing book. It makes sense in a senseless world. We are aware of our governments watching us. But I’m not going to talk about intrusive governments. I’m going to talk about something else. Ever since I joined ADN, I’ve been part of a growing debate over privacy concerns regarding Facebook and developer concerns over a now well-locked down Twitter API. I’ve read about Facebook’s new Graph Search, I’ve read about Twitter’s fight with Instagram and I’ve read about Dunbar’s number. But today, when I saw a link about Twitter being the fastest growing global social platform, is when I realized where all of this is going.

Many months ago, I read an interesting article on Quartz about how Facebook is looking to Africa for its next Billion users. The method is simple – provide Facebook access for free via SMS. In this classic move, people get addicted to the free social network and Facebook gets marketable user data on a Billion more. This despite the fact that we’ve well established that Facebook isn’t what it’s all pegged to be – a way to connect with people. Then I saw this new post about Twitter today and I realized where this is all going. Those of you who’ve read 1984 will know that in the book there are three main countries, each too large to be defeated by the other two, even if they try to combine forces, which never really happens because of ever-changing alliances. All this while, the common people of each State are fed misinformation and trained to accept it as fact. This is an Oligarchical system that cannot be broken. There is a perpetual war and all available resources are concentrated towards it, sacrificed from availability to common man with the hope that it’ll help in the war effort. But the most important facet? Everyone is watched. Continue reading

Auto-refresh for Fever on AppFog

Today, I got asked something about my “Installing Fever on AppFog” tutorial. Fever has an inbuilt module to refresh your RSS feeds periodically but this module doesn’t work on all types of servers and it certainly doesn’t work on AppFog. Shaun, being the good guy that he is, lists out a way to set up a curl command with a cron job to refresh the feeds automatically. Unfortunately, AppFog doesn’t support crontab directly either. So, I got asked if there’s a solution for this. After a little bit of Googling and finding this solution on stackoverflow, I built up a working solution specific to Fever on Appfog. The detail follows – Continue reading

Pythonista + Fever + Instapaper = Quick RSS Magic

I Love Python. It’s a simple, easy and quick to learn language. Before learning Python, the major language I knew was Java and believe me, that’s a pain! Seeing Python grow from a simple scripting language to a major platform is also a great feeling. The recent awesomeness about Python I discovered was Pythonista for iOS. It’s a wonderful app that allows you to run python scripts of varying complexity on your iPhone or iPad without worrying about silly things like Objective C. Of course, it’s not the perfect app, there are limitations to the libraries and you can’t easily transfer scripts to the app from your desktop. But hey, as long as it’s Python, right? Continue reading