As we look ahead to 2010, we're hoping it's the year the web becomes a truly great platform for working and connecting online. Here are five things we'd like to see fixed for that to happen.
Photo by Dan4th.
Over-aggressive Flash and widgets
One week after your first time ever opening a web browser, you knew how it worked. Text that was differently-coloured and turned your cursor into a little pointing hand was a link. Images could also be links, and content and advertising usually have distinct barriers on the page. When sites get annoying, they blur the lines.
Festering squarely at the bottom of the barrel are "search" and "preview" bubbles that automatically pop up when your mouse glances past certain topical words on blogs and news sites. Sometimes they're double-underlined, sometimes they're not. Sometimes they simply offer a graphical thumbnail of the page you'd travel to if you clicked, and sometimes they promise "explainers" that are nothing but ad-infested, self-linking nightmares. In any case, they break and cheapen the web's promise as a reasonable, if loosely organised, centre for information. It's akin to walking through a library, glancing at the Young Adult fiction section a few rows over, and then being startled by a sales representative for the Twilight books, leaping up from beneath a counter and screaming "LEARN MORE ABOUT TEAM JACOB!"
That's just one example from a different corner of the web, but it's something you can see in a sadly large number of interactive sites. "Share this" buttons that expand to take over text space when you cursor barely taps them, screen-covering slide-outs asking readers to "Subscribe to our newsletter!" or "Take our survey!", videos that automatically play when you mouse over them (or simply arrive on the page) — they all come from a desire to fudge how interested a reader is in the supplemental stuff around the content. We know our own site isn't entirely void of sometimes aggressive Flash-based advertising, but on the editorial side just over the business wall, we envision a future in which readers can expect a consistent, calm reading experience on most any site on the web — and browser add-ons like AdBlock Plus, FlashBlock, and their ilk aren't crucially necessary.
If we think a web app is a crucial convenience, and one that our friends and family need to get in on, we'll tell them. I know I've pushed a number of grudging friends and a patient spouse into Google Voice, Brizz.ly and Evernote, but I did it when the thought occurred to me, not while signing up.
Too many web apps offer to make it "easy" to "find contacts who are already on X", and then ask for your Gmail, Hotmail, Facebook or other sign-in credentials. You already know who you want to "connect" with on most sites, but if it's somehow convenient to pull in everybody from your massive contacts list, and then un-check the folks you don't need ties to, it's up to you to decide whether it's worth handing over a sensitive password (and then, maybe, immediately change it).
But most eager web apps don't stop there. For all the contacts that aren't on XYZNet, they'd like to email all of them, let them know that you've joined up, and ask them to connect with you, be your friend, share your reading list, etc. No web app has any reason to do this. It's spam, pure and simple, and it preys on those who are too hurried or overwhelmed to look before they click "Next", and the bulk odds of getting hundreds of people every day to do what their contacts are doing. If you've got a good product, it will get noticed, people will use it, and the people who respect those early adopters will follow suit. If you play a numbers game based on little white web app lies, you're MySpace.
Web apps without mobile versions
A well-made, thought-out iPhone app is a great thing, and there are great device-specific apps for Android phones, BlackBerry units and other platforms. But having a mobile site and service that's fast, functional and universally accessible is the most powerful tool of all.
Google could, by all means, make a killer Gmail app for the iPhone, and already has an Android app that many users swear is worth the price of admission alone. But nobody knows what the future brings, and having a platform that's accessible to just about any web-capable phone, while being fast and feature-packed, is the smart investment. For every great web app out there, not being able to access it on your preferred device will be an endless problem going forward as new mobile browsers — tablets, e-readers, heck, even in-dash car screens — come along, but it's a straight-forward fix.
Sites that don't remember, block password saving
Pushing a button that does nothing is a universal route to madness. Likewise, offering "Remember me" check boxes, and denying a browser's built-in ability to save passwords, is becoming the newest way to make your web app unliked and, in fact, kind of hated.
This is the simplest, but most dire, demand of any application that allows you to — and, in fact, encourages you to — create data, connections, contacts and more: let us take it all out.
Google's Data Liberation Front is an initiative by the search firm to force discussion on the topic of data portability. Before you use a web app, and before a web app designer starts offering sign-ups, a few questions should be asked:
- Can I get my data out at all?
- How much is it going to cost to get my data out?
- How much of my time is it going to take to get my data out?
And the ideal answers are:
- Nothing more than I'm already paying.
- As little as possible.
Web apps vary greatly on how they adhere to these ideal data provisions. Looking at Gina's roundup of free tools to back up online accounts, it's plain to see that there are apps that offer simple, universally useful data (WordPress, Tumblr, most Google apps), apps that offer data if you know where to look (Twitter), and apps that make you hunt down backup solutions that aren't officially supported (Facebook). As such, many people remain non-committal about working in the web, because it's hard to say just how long-term some platforms can be, given their closed-off nature.
What web app annoyances make you question the web as the place where you'll work in the future? What would you change about your favourite web apps if you had a team of programmers and a week off to work on it? Let's hear what's on your web wishlist in the comments.