Review: How should Twitter's design shift? Seesmic gives us a "look"

When Loic Le Meur, founder of Seesmic, first started telling me about Seesmic‘s new “Look” Twitter client (released today) he said “you will probably hate it.”

Why would I hate it? Because Seesmic had done real customer research and found that lots of people who are using Twitter just don’t understand Twitter and so they set out to develop a client for these normal users, not for geeks like me. They don’t know what things like RT’s or hashtags are. They don’t know how to find interesting people to listen to. They don’t see a point of it and the display is too boring to use (most people want to sit back and be entertained and don’t know that to get the most out of Twitter you should use clients and spend some time over at Listorious to find some curated lists of users).

That pitch is all well and good, but when I finally tried Seesmic Look this morning I see a ton of things that make the old Twitter client seem boring and not nearly as fun.

What are those things?

1. Aesthetics. Twitter is looking dated when compared with the photographic-aesthetic used on Seesmic Look. This caused journalist Dwight Silverman to note that “The Seesmic Look interface is gorgeous in Win7. Really shows what you can do w/Aero.”
2. Discovery of other users. In Seesmic Look they have an “interests” link, which introduces new Twitter users in a number of different interests groups. This is like going to Listorious, searching for something like “politics” and finding a list of Twitterers. Why hasn’t Twitter gotten rid of the very lame Suggested User List yet and integrated Listorious? I don’t get that. That would dramatically improve the Twitter experience for new users.
3. Focus on Tweets. Lots of other clients, including Seesmic’s other clients, focus too much on info density. Getting as many tweets and features on the screen as absolutely possible. Seesmic Look goes the other way, by hiding quite a few features until you need them and making the size of the tweets much bigger. This goes to aesthetics too, but it dramatically changes the relationship a reader has with the Twitterer and also makes possible a new kind of display which includes previews of links and videos.
4. Complete theming/skinning, including for brands. It’s lame that after three years all we have is the ability to change our backgrounds on twitter.com. Seesmic Look shows that we can have complete control of the look and feel of our clients. Want to put a picture in the background and have a beautiful new display? It’s possible with Look, not with Twitter.com. Or, if you are CocaCola and want to have a really well themed display? Seesmic Look makes it possible. Why not on Twitter.com? RedBull, for instance, has a channel inside Seesmic Look that’s very cool looking and not possible with Twitter.com. Brands will go nuts over this kind of theming and skinning.

This said, Seesmic Look comes up short in a number of different areas.

1. My existing lists didn’t work/didn’t import into Look.
2. You can’t use multiple accounts with Look, which is becoming more and more important every day, especially given Twitter’s limitations around lists and lack of filtering.
3. No Facebook integration as with other social media clients including Seesmic’s other clients.
4. Sometimes info-density is what you need, so it would be nice to have a column view built into Look.
5. Figuring out how to navigate around Look not nearly as nice as other parts of the interface. On the navigation menu on my screen right now it says “trends; inbox; social; favorites; interests; channels; searches.” That’s way too many choices for infrequent users and they all shouldn’t be presented with equal weight. Also, Twitter searches bring back way too much noise and spam for normal users. Most users won’t know what’s different between all these choices, too. Tell me again what the difference between “interests” and “channels” are again? Don’t look. I bet you can’t define those cleanly so one needs to go away.
6. I’d love a “watch” mode that was clear so I could put this on one of my screens and just have it automatically refresh like Brizzly does. I didn’t figure out how to do that.
7. In “Interests” mode, the navigation takes up too much screen real estate. I’d like to select an interest and just “watch” it on my screen. After a few seconds it would be nice to get rid of all non-Tweet navigation elements.
8. Trends needs a rethink. Trends are, to most users, pretty lame and pretty useless even when they are interesting. The top level trends? They trend toward pablum, which is one problem. But even if they don’t (very rarely are they actually interesting) if you click through you’ll get tons of spam. We need a better trend system. I’d love to see one based on retweets and favorites of lists of people you choose (or that other people curate). I’d love to see what Mike Arrington’s friends are trending to him, for instance. That would be far more interesting than a huge crowd picking the lamest of trends. For instance, I really could care less about Conan O’Brien and his fight with NBC. It might have been interesting a week ago, but now? It’s just lame and brings new noise into my view.
9. There’s still too much “jargon” in the Look interface. Mouse over the icon for Direct Messages. Now you and I know what those are, right? But normal people don’t. And Seesmic doesn’t do a better job of explaining what they are than Twitter.com does. Demonstrates there’s still improvements that can be made.
10. Lists are not transparent. Click on “Interests.” You can then click on a variety of topics like business and tech. Unfortunately these lists are WAY too narrow (the business list, for instance, hardly has anyone on it) and aren’t easily customizable and Seesmic has way too much control of who appears on these lists. (Disclaimer: they included me on the tech list). A much better way would be to provide a seed list and at bottom include a link to Listorious. Here’s Listorious’ business list, for instance. This is a LOT more transparent and you could add your own list then (which you can on Listorious).

Anyway, my 90 minute review of Seesmic Look? It brings a much-needed new “look” to Twitter, but doesn’t go far enough. It does show Twitter’s own team how badly a redesign is needed, though, and hopefully does shove all Twitter and Facebook clients to focus on aesthetics and filtering and a focus on real users. Overall I like the direction but it needs a bit more work to make it a client I’d be able to use every day.

One thing that Seesmic has going for it, too, is that it has clients on almost every platform except for iPhone (which Loic tells me is coming “within weeks”) but so far I don’t see good common themes between all of their clients. It will be interesting to see how Seesmic evolves its family of clients and makes them useful with each other. Right now it doesn’t seem like these are developed by the same company with a common vision and that may prove troubling for Seesmic over the long term. If Seesmic Look is the training wheels to get new users into Twitter, I don’t see a good upgrade path to their more “professional” clients like Seesmic Web or Seesmic Desktop, not to mention any commonality between their Android client and their other clients.

20 years of Adobe Photoshop

On Friday I had a chance meeting with John Knoll. He and his brother shipped Adobe Photoshop just about 20 years ago (Adobe, he told me, will be doing an official celebration next month).

Photoshop is one of the most important pieces of software written so far in this industry’s small history.

What is Knoll doing today? He is an award-winning special effects designer for Lucasfilms’ Industrial Light and Magic. He did some of the effects you see on Avatar, among many other movies.

Anyway, thanks to Craig Hosoda, who got me a tour of ILM (he worked there as one of its first computer geeks for several years) and who introduced me to John. It’s my 45th birthday today and this was a real treat I’ve been waiting 20 years for.

Enjoy the interview. In it you’ll learn that Electronic Arts turned down Photoshop, and you’ll hear many other stories about Photoshop in its early days.

The push and pull of China

Sarah Lacy, on Techcrunch, wrote that the Google move today was more about business than about ethics. I am torn by her article, but to explain why I need to go into the push and pull of China and how it rips the heart out of US companies.

I’ve visited China twice, once in 1995 to work at a computer show there, and again last year to visit entrepreneurs in Shanghai, get a tour of Seagate’s factory, and see inside PCH, which is one of the supply chains that many of your favorite technology companies use, and visit a blogger conference.

As an American I saw two opposite poles: one of unending opportunity and one of unending frustration of dealing with the government.

First, the pull. The opportunity was in my face. When I visited Shanghai I met up with Gary Rieschel, one of the top VCs in the world (he helped start Softbank). There he showed me a nicely profitable taxi screen company and we had to wait for nine taxis before we found one with his screen. I could have copied his business plan and made many millions of dollars a month all without coming up with an original idea and all without really causing his company much new competition. In China there’s a gold rush underway and there’s gold lying in the streets for entrepreneurs.

Everywhere you looked you saw similar opportunity. In fact, if you are Chinese, it’s even easier. Just look to what’s getting popular in the west, copy it (there were tons of copies of Facebook and Twitter, at least one of which has a billion-dollar valuation) and go on your way. You don’t need to come up with an original idea, because what sells in San Francisco usually sells pretty damn well in China. All the American brands on the streets there were testimony to that fact. GM has a pretty good market share here, for instance, and there are more than 100 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Shanghai alone.

I met with quite a few entrepreneurs and they told me they see nothing but unending opportunity for China and its digital future.

But now the push. Everyone I met with told me stories of how they need to play games with the government to stay in business. We all know that the government censors things, makes things tough for entrepreneurs, and forces complicity from them. How if the government asks for access to their servers you must give it. One entrepreneur told me his biggest expense was hiring censors to watch his Twitter clone and make sure nothing the government didn’t want up got up.

One thing, though, the government can do is reward companies that play the game.

Let’s say you have a Web service like Foursquare. It’s getting hot in America. Foursquare would love to expand into the huge China market, too, wouldn’t it? Of course it would. Ask any of the people running the big companies in Silicon Valley or Redmond and they spend years and billions of dollars to get access to the Chinese market. Money isn’t enough, because the Chinese market works on relationships and on playing the game with the government, both of which are hard to break into with just sheer economic power.

Anyway, my friends showed me how China will keep sites working for quite a while, which lets entrepreneurs hire hundreds of developers (remember, a great developer gets paid about $25,000 per year, a decent one about $15,000, and a new one even less) and they’ll just clone the site.

So, now Foursquare will have a Chinese copy of it. That’s not fair is it? No, but it gets worse. Eventually the Chinese government blocks Foursquare, which will eviscerate its business. Think this doesn’t happen? A couple of years ago the Chinese government blocked Google and let Baidu stay up.

Why? Relationships and willingness to play games with the government.

So, now, Baidu is the #1 search engine in China and Google is #2.

The government rewarded Baidu for playing the government’s censoring games and punished Google for not playing the games (or not playing them very well).

The small little Foursquare can’t fight back, either. (Have you ever heard of Facebook complaining about this? I have, behind closed doors, but not in public). Why can’t Foursquare fight back? Because it will guarantee that it won’t have access anymore. It will give up access to a market that’s much bigger than the US market (potentially). Since businesses are supposed to serve their investors this is a move not made easily. Even if Google were in second place its investors would want it involved in the Chinese market because that market is so large. Pulling out of China would be anti-investor. This is why Microsoft continues to invest in search even though Microsoft was #3.

But, if that Foursquare or other company would play the government games, it would get a huge black eye back home in the US. Remember how Yahoo was pulled in front of Congress and told that it was evil for turning over information to the Chinese government?

So, if you are an executive inside a large tech company you are always being pushed and pulled. I’m glad I don’t need to make that choice. Even in Google’s letter you can see the push and pull. They didn’t just say “we’re out.” Why not? Because of the pull.

Why doesn’t the US government do anything? Well, because the Chinese have loaned us tons of money because of our deficit. The government isn’t willing to put any penalties on Chinese products to force the door open for Google or Facebook. And it gets worse over time.

So, now that Google found out that it was getting attacked by hackers paid by the government it said enough is enough.

Look at the wording from Google’s post:

First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses–including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors–have been similarly targeted….

Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists

This is the reality of dealing inside China. That’s why it was brave for Google to stand up to the Chinese government. Might have been a very stupid business decision (even being #2 in China means sizable profits and business over time).

Anyway, that was a long way of saying that I am torn by Sarah’s article. I both disagree with it and agree with it. Why? Because I’m feeling the push and pull of China.

Is Google doing this because of business or because of ethics? Probably a little bit of both. Or, maybe, just sheer frustration from the push and the pull of China.

Why now Google?

UPDATE: A Google Spokesperson just emailed me this: “This is not about market share. While our revenues from China are really immaterial, we did just have our best ever quarter [in China].”

Techcrunch’s Japan writer, Serkan Toto, tweeted at me tonight: “Astonished about how some people, i.e. @scobleizer, idolize Google now. What did G do in the past 4 years in CH besides playing along?”

Randy Holloway, who works at Microsoft, tweets: “You are a good guy, but you have lost your mind today. Ever think that Google is pulling out of China because they are *losing*?”

UPDATE: While I was writing this post, TechCrunch ran a post that said it was about business (and made the point that Google did this because it was losing again).

I think both questions are legitimate (albeit misguided) and they aren’t the only ones asking.

First, let’s take on the question of Google losing in China. I think this is an overly-cynical take (I stole that line from Danny Sullivan, search expert, who said the same thing).

Why is it too cynical? Because, well, if that was how business decisions got done than Microsoft would have pulled out of the search business long ago. But, seriously, to answer that you need to go and visit China, as I have. China is a HUGE market. In 20 years it’ll be much bigger than our own in the United States. Their people are getting online in HUGE numbers. So, to give up on this market now just doesn’t make sense.

Also, Google, and most other tech companies, have many employees there who develop features for the US market. I saw this first hand when I worked at Microsoft. Many of the coolest features inside Windows and Office were developed in China. So, to pull out of the Chinese market, even if you are a losing business concern there (Google was not, even though it was coming in #2 behind Baidu) doesn’t make sense at all because you’d have to give up these employees, many of which are smarter and work far cheaper than engineers in USA (when I visited China last year a HIGH END engineer was paid about $25,000 US per year, compare to a high end engineer in Redmond who usually gets paid $200,000 or more).

Pulling this move in China actually strengthens Google’s competitors (Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, et al). Why? Because over in China EVERYTHING is done with government support. Every factory I visited was assisted by the government and approved. If Google falls out of favor with the government, it won’t get the best employees, won’t get approvals for offices, will get blocked even more frequently than it is today (how do you think Baidu got so big, anyway? You think they are actually more innovative? Yeah, right. More on that in a future post).

Not to mention that the best supply chains in the world are in China. Translated to English: that’s where the Google Nexus One phone was made (and the hard drives that Google uses, etc etc).

Google has EVERY INCENTIVE to kiss Chinese ass. That’s why this move today impressed me so much.

Now, onto the other point, that Google hasn’t done much up to now to fight Chinese censors and other human rights issues. Um, I’m sorry, but when I visited China I heard from many people that of the American companies Google didn’t play the game as well as, say, Yahoo or Microsoft. Remember Yahoo? Remember what they turned over to the Chinese government? When I worked at Microsoft I saw them play footsie with the Chinese government too. Heck, the Chinese president visited Microsoft’s campus when I worked there and got a red-carpet welcome. Why? Because China is a HUGE market and a HUGE supplier of labor that builds Microsoft’s products.

It doesn’t matter to me that Google played footsie up until today, either. They were the first to stop playing footsie and THAT deserves a HUGE round of applause.

UPDATE: VodPod’s CEO, Mark Hall made quite a few good points in his post about Google and China.

Twitter's traffic in trouble?

I see over on Mashable that Twitter’s traffic is flat. Is Twitter in trouble?

Based on my watching of more than 16,000 accounts, no. Usage is better than ever. But, keep in mind I only care about geeks and tech talk. I don’t track how many people are talking about cat photos or celebrities or all the other dreck that’s on Twitter.

But these reports and charts have two major flaws:

1. They potentially undercount overseas users.
2. They potentially severely undercount users who use clients like Tweetdeck or Seesmic.

Last week I spoke to two groups at CES, mostly marketers. Most of those audiences raised their hands when I asked them whether they used clients like Tweetie, Tweetdeck, and Seesmic desktop. So, if compete.com and quantcast are undercounting those who use clients, or aren’t counting them at all, then we’re all arguing about nothing.

But, let’s say that these charts are right. Does that matter? It does to Twitter. After all, it’s easier to get hype and get advertising if the charts head up.

Why might these numbers be right?

1. New users get shoved into celebrity land immediately. That hardly is very satisfying. Come on, have you looked at what Oprah or Ashton are tweeting about? How about all the other celebrities. Here, go check it out (I’ve embedded a preview of this celebrity list from Mashable here):


2. Text in 2010 is boring. In an age when YouTube is growing nicely (here’s a comparison of Twitter’s growth to Youtube’s) it’s time to add some nicer displays to Twitter. When Twitter is looking as boring as my black and white Kindle you know something is wrong.

But, anyway, this is all a way to say that there’s a good amount of room for improvement on Twitter. I can see many many areas that Twitter could improve its service to make its service more engaging. Here’s some:

1. Get rid of the 140-character text-only limit. Facebook is a lot more fun to use than Twitter because you can see photos and videos right inline in the feed and you can actually communicate something more than the metaphorical equivalent of a grunt.
2. Greatly improve the list feature. The idea that it’s limited to 500 accounts is really stupid and the fact that I can’t create more than 20 lists per account is equally stupid. It means you can’t create lists of things that are complete. For instance, I already know of more than 500 tech startups. Let us create lists of lists, which would dramatically increase their usage.
3. Come out with a “supertweet.” Or, a new display surface for each tweet that can display all sorts of metadata. That would make each tweet more useful.
4. Add comments to each tweet.
5. Make the new retweet feature more useful by showing much more information about each retweet.
6. Improve search so that it has some usefulness.
7. Integrate a game into Tweeting, like Foursquare has. Give out badges for good behavior.
8. Greatly expand the bio. Or, just scrap the bio and make a deal with Google to integrate Google Profiles (here’s mine) into Twitter. Make it easier to search for people and companies.
9. Get rid of the follower counts. They are a game that increases noise. Everyone knows, like Anil Dash reported, that they don’t mean anything anyway. They just reinforce bad behavior.
10. Get rid of the suggested user list and, instead, point people to Listorious or something like it, which would let people find groupings of people using Twitter (with a preview).
11. Give us a private Twitter that we can share just with our friends (and make it easy to choose where Tweets go).
12. Give us a much better direct messaging capability. Right now that’s very lame, even compared with the very lame Facebook capability.
13. Give us a major UI update. Time to take Twitter into 2010 and stop making it try to fit into a 2006 mindset.
14. Make it easier to create and manage multiple accounts. Why do I need to use tools like Seesmic to tweet to my three accounts? Why can’t Twitter itself hook them together? This would let me create accounts with a lot less noise and a lot more purpose, which would help new users a lot.

Just some ideas.

But, anyway, how real are these numbers? Is Twitter’s traffic in trouble?

The best of the best and the worst of the worst of 2010 CES

I’ve been watching Twitter for the best of CES lists, and since I went last week I’ve got my own perspective on it too. First, the coolest display I found was the Intel infoscan touch monitor. That’s the video that’s above.

Let’s head through the best of the best of CES.

Fast Company: What to Take Away from CES. My favorite of the group, keys in on the real trends (which were hard to find at CES). While everyone else was ooohhhiiing and aaahhhhiiiinnnnggg over 3D TV Fast Company found the mobile and interface trends that will really matter.

Android and Me: Best of CES 2010: Android Edition. Android was all over the show floor and these guys found it all.

CNN: Best new toys from CES 2010. Yeah they got most of my favorites. The Parrot AR.Drone is mondo cool. But where’s Boxee? CNN was asleep during that demo, I guess (Boxee Box was named by CNET as “Last Gadget Standing” for best of CES, which concurs with my opinion).

TechRepublic got your favorite geeks to speak out about what they found interesting at CES. Yes, I’m on there.

TechCocktail: best of 2010 CES. An even better list than CNN has, includes Boxee and Ford, both things that impressed me.

Engadget: Crapgadget Crapdown, CES 2010: the best of the worst. Engadget is the official blog of CES, and was everywhere you didn’t want to be (honest, do you really want to sit through 50 boring press conferences instead of watching Cirque du Soleil?) and found the worst gadgets of 2010.

Appboy blog found three cool videos that captured CES.

Jim Louderback, CEO of Revision 3, found the Seven Weirdest, Wackiest, and Dumbest products from the show for the Huffington Post.

VentureBeat made a bunch of photos that capture the CES experience.

Ars Technica went further with the picture theme on a post titled: CES in pictures: the good, the bad, the Elvis.

CrunchGear did a postmortem. There’s that Intel screen again (yes, it really was the coolest thing I saw at CES). Crunchgear was all over the show floor (we met them inside the Canon booth) and they wrote up their favorite gadgets here.

ZDNet found an Android-powered microwave. That’s what happens when you take a platform approach. Weird gadgets come out.

Aging in Place Technology Watch wrote up their top-ten technologies from CES, which includes more wellness gadgets than other writeups.

G4′s writeups include a ton of video games, which I didn’t pay much attention to, other than to check out the very cool 3D Avatar game. 3D games are gonna be hot this year. 3DTVs? Not so hot due to lack of content.

iPhone Life found a few services that turn your iPhone into a Universal Remote control. I gotta test those out.

VentureBeat wrote up their favorites from CES. I loved that NVidia tablet, but asked the CEO if their technology was going to be in the Apple Tablet. Let’s be honest, Apple is the one we’re all waiting for. His answer? “I can’t comment on our partner’s plans.” Hmmm.

The Telegraph keyed in on Ford’s plans to introduce a “tweeting car.” I want this in my car.

Engadget, again, had a series of podcasts from CES, but here’s their final one where they wrap up what they saw.

Tekzilla uploaded a TON of video from the show floor.

My favorite product of the show was the Boxee Box and eGuiders got a video demo of it from their CEO. CNN also wrote it up after it won “last gadget standing” at CES.

The Washington Post made some cool photos of CES.

Oh Gizmo found that the RCA Airnergy captures energy from the wifi signals going through the air. Incredible if it works as promised.

Ben Parr, in WePC.com discusses why 3D became the dominant trend at this year’s CES. My favorite? The Sony OLED 3D TV. You had to wear glasses, but damn it was sharp and fun to watch. I can’t see buying one, though. Wearing glasses for more than one movie or sporting event a week would make my head hurt and even if I got over that hump there just isn’t much content and no affordable camcorders (the cheapest 3D camcorder I saw was $22,000).

PC World looked at all the in-car technology and put together a video.

Seagate showed me USB 3.0 and their new thin hard drives. USB 3.0 makes your hard drives a lot faster.

Macworld wrapped up a bunch of the HDTV news that came out of CES.

Wired’s Gadget Lab has a ton of gadgets, including the Que eBook reader. eBooks were all over the place, but I just don’t think they will do well when compared with Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Distribution is key here, not cool gadgets. Speaking of which, Engadget has the e-reader story of CES 2010 where they look at all the cool new ereaders.

Gizmodo has the best “best of CES” writeup I’ve seen so far. Or, at least, it’s the most complete.

Entrepreneur focused in on the best trends to come out of CES, including portable projectors. I am building a studio and am thinking of how I can use these small pico projectors to shine people and images on the walls here.

At Friday nights’ blogger party I got a chance to see the Parrot AR.Drone and thought it was the coolest thing (not the most useful, but the kind of thing that will keep the kids busy for hours). Anyway, toucharcade has a hands-on report about the AR.Drone.

James Kendrick is a guy I know from the time I used to sell tablets for NEC (yes, there WERE slates back in 2002 that were a quarter-inch thick!!! We forget so soon). Anyway, he put his hands on all the slates he could find and writes them up.

The TV I thought was coolest was the LG ones that have Skype built in. I can see these becoming a staple in conference rooms, especially at startups. I have a video of the screen.

Ubergizmo just posted a good list of neat stuff they found. Very complete and agrees with my own list.

Finally, Ryan Block and Pete Rojas over at GDGT did a great job of covering CES. You’d expect that. Pete started Engadget and Ryan used to run Engadget.

UPDATE: Melissa Jun Rowley of NBC in San Francisco, got some video about the dark side of CES (she interviewed me at the blogger party on Friday night).

UPDATE2: CNN poked into the Internet trends that were apparent at CES. Tom’s Guide looked into the 3DTV’s that didn’t need glasses. I checked those out, but they didn’t work for me off to the side and seemed blurry compared to the others. They will work in advertising signs, but I seriously doubt you’ll want one of those at home.

Popular Science picked its favorite gadgets of the show. Gizmag has even more gadgets that the other reviews didn’t share with us.

Jeremy Toeman, who launches companies at CES (they’ve won “best of CES” several times) knows CES better than most people I know and here’s his report of what he saw when he walked the show floor.

Penquin Six looked into power monitors at CES and has a nice roundup of those (which aren’t covered in most of the other reports).

Engadget’s headline? “All the stuff.” Well, they got most of it, but if you read all these links you’ll get a more complete picture.

Now, I’m sure I missed a few reports or videos or whatnot. After all, there were thousands of tech journalists and press there roaming the halls looking for stories. So, if you have a good wrap up, please post it in my comments here.

Whew, after visiting all these links I’m almost as tired as I was last week walking the show floor!