Home The Future of Computer Applications: Help Me or Entertain Me

The Future of Computer Applications: Help Me or Entertain Me

In the introduction to his book,
Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, wrote that life is about entertainment.
He might seem the last person you’d imagine as focused on entertainment, until you
realize that Linux started as a hobby.

Entertainment is increasingly the center of our lives, and we also want work that challenges and entertains. With the rise of the Social Web and new forms of communication like Twitter,
and others, entertainment is just a click away. In this post we look at today’s Web through the prism of both entertainment and utility.

These days work and entertainment increasingly mix. So we need software that understands what mode we’re in. When we work, we search for
information. When we play, we’re browsing and we want to be entertained. The information
for work must be precise, whereas that for entertainment can be imprecise and casual.

Help me: Search, Business Tools and Autocomplete

Search is the most important utility
on the web and is indispensable in business. Whether you’re a programmer looking for a library,
a researcher seeking a scientific
paper, or a doctor wanting detail about a drug, search helps you find information.

Today’s search is dominated by Google. Much has been written about Google stagnation and many attempts to
improve the search, but the fact remains, people prefer Google. Yet there has to be
a better way to search. After each query we must sift through myriad choices.
And we start each new search from scratch.

We’re looking for software that will guide us through the pile and help us find the answer.

In business we have a set of tools
to help get things done. From Microsoft Office to the
skinny gems from 37 Signals, business tools enable us to collaborate, manage projects, sales
pipelines, contacts, etc. While we complain about these tools, the fact is we couldn’t
do without them.

The most important factor about business tools is context. The best tools understand what we’re doing. The best tools encode business flows and
processes, and guide us through the process.

Back in 2003 at IBM, I encountered a giant flow chart that
described the process of releasing a piece of software. My immediate reaction was,
this needed to be a piece
of software because no human could work through it without making a mistake. This is what software
is for, to help us deal with complex processes.

The autocomplete function is common
in your search box, iPhone and spell-checker. Autocomplete mode works by listing
a set of choices that match what you typed. Imagine in the future most utility software
understanding the context of what you’re doing and offering an autocomplete: choices
that make sense in this context.

We already see this in many systems. All popular IDEs offer automatic fixes for common programming errors,
iPhone understands that you’re looking at a phone number and offers you to make a call. Google understands that you
searched for an address and shows you a map. These are examples of autocomplete or shortcuts,
based on your context.

Truly helpful software of the future will be a sequence of shortcuts that
understand your
context and help you navigate to the next step. The computer will present the choices and
the decision will be yours.

Entertain me: Twitter, Randomness and Recommendations

While utilities are getting more
rigorous, entertainment software is getting more casual.

The new entertainment is based on a couple of patterns. First is brevity. With increasing (and
nowadays unbearable)
amount of information and choice, modern entertainment software knows it has your
eyes for only a limited time.

Twitter is the proto entertainment riding the exponential curve of popularity. The reason is it’s short.
But there’s another aspect to Twitter that’s part of a broader pattern. Twitter is casual.

The Twitter UI is a flattened list of messages intended to be scanned. Unlike its
archetype email (link), which
is meant to be drilled into and answered, Twitter places no obligation on reading or replying. It’s a feel
good, hedonistic experience not meant to last more than a few minutes.

Modern entertainment is more casual and short because with ubiquitous web access, rise of
the social web and work from home, people want to be entertained
during the day. Nothing that takes a long time could work, but checking Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook for
a few minutes is fine in most people’s minds.

The other face of casuality is randomness. Apple made a brilliant move when it released
iPod shuffle; a lot of people
don’t care about the order songs play. Netflix cracked it with the Queue
a long time ago; many people don’t care
what movie to watch tonight as long as they pick it at some point. Digg shines with its top news
because people are looking for random bits of information.

We still talk about
personalization, and ideally we’d love to get the right recommendations for everything. But in the absence of such
a magic algorithm, randomness
and Amazon Bestsellers do the trick. We’re entering the age where entertainment is
a mode of browsing, where the browsing part
is squeezed to 0. We don’t want to spend time choosing entertainment. We want a quick pick, quick duration,
quick satisfaction. Unlike business application where we must pay attention, we
want entertainment to be relaxed, quick and simple.


Software is increasingly polarized into utilities and entertainment. Utilities help us work and are
becoming more rigorous. We’re looking for helpful software that understands our context and guides
us through the process, whether it is search or a complex business task.
Entertainment software is at the opposite spectrum, being casual, brief and random. We’re
unwilling to spend hours browsing, but instead seek quick and satisfactory entertainment.

And now, please tell us what business software is the most helpful to you? And what entertainment
software you find the most entertaining?

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