Innovation »

  • The mysterious invention of email

    February 27, 2012 @ 1:16 pm | by Davin O'Dwyer
    Who invented email? You might think it was a pretty basic question, but a recent fiasco suggest that it’s a lot more complicated than one might think. It all started with the Smithsonian museum’s acquisition  of “tapes, documentation, copyrights, and over 50,000 lines of code” from a New Jersey programmer called VA Shiva Ayyadurai, relating to an early messaging system he designed. Coverage of the acquisition, such as this Washington Post article, unambiguously called Ayyadurai the inventor of email.
    But it seems that Ayyadurai’s claim is, well, contentious, to say the least. As soon as news of the Smithsonian’s purchase [See Thomas Haigh's comment below, it was a donation rather than a purchase] became public, a chorus of internet historians began to object, insisting that Ayyadurai didn’t, in fact, invent email.
    Ayyadurai’s claim rests on the fact that he developed a messaging program back in 1978, when he was only 14. By 1982, he had managed to copyright the word “email”. That’s not the same as inventing the technology, needless to say.
    The truth is that it’s very difficult to determine who invented email – it’s just words being sent over a network after all. There was some consensus that the first such communication took place in the early days of Arpanet, where a programmer by the name of Ray Tomlinson developed a messaging protocol in 1971 – he describes that process on his suitably retro-looking website.
    The brouhaha illustrates how our assumptions about the process of invention are pretty outdated – the notion of sole inventors toiling away on breakthroughs just isn’t applicable any more. With many technologies, there can be nothing so cut and dried as a single “author” – it’s an incremental process of improvement, and Tomlinson, for instance, spreads the credit. Tim Berners Lee is another prominent example, and even he doesn’t claim that he invented the worldwide web singlehandedly in a vacuum. We like the narrative purity of thinking that certain people are responsible for certain things, but it’s more than a little simplistic to think that’s how the process of invention happens.
    In a statement clarifying the motives behind the acquisition, the Smithsonian acknowledged that reality: “Many innovations are conceived independently in different settings.” But there can only be so much independence in these areas – standing on the shoulders of giants, or at least other programmers, is an inherently dependent process. Perhaps the answer to the question “Who invented email?” isn’t, ultimately, a person, but a process.
  • Clearing the way to the future

    February 20, 2012 @ 9:35 am | by Davin O'Dwyer

    Clear app, by Realmac Software, Impending Studios and Milen Dzhumerov

    The tech blogosphere has been buzzing all week about Clear, an innovative iPhone to-do app from  Realmac Software, Impending Studios and London-based developer Milen Dzhumerov that was released last week to great acclaim (available here for a limited-time introduction price of 79c ). It’s not an exaggeration to suggest it is the most-hyped app of the year, as far as these things go, with some great reflections on Clear’s gesture-laden user interface floating around.
    The headline on Matthew Panzarino’s piece on The Next Web, How a simple list app called Clear may change how we use our devices forever, captured the mood – Clear is being widely hailed as a landmark in user-interface design, marking a comprehensive break from the conventions of decades of computer use in favour of something far more, well, touchy-feely.
    Instead of relying on the usual array of buttons, arrows and calendars that characterise the competition, Clear only offers simple lists, navigated by touchscreen gestures such as swipes and pinches, with varying colours and sounds offering feedback. It does need to be used, or at least seen, to be appreciated, and this video captures some of Clear’s magic.
    The interface is minimal in the extreme – the user is faced with nothing but the items to do. The interaction comes not through buttons and menus and visible clues, but purely through touching and manipulating the items. Slide to the side to mark as done or delete, pinch to move up a layer, slide down to create a new item, and so on. The colour-coded prioritisation is a visually intuitive touch, and the sounds are nicely game-like.
    But as John Pavlus points out on FastCo Design, Clear tramples all over established usability principles.
    “Interaction-design greybeards like Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen would say Clear’s gestural UI breaks two fundamental rules: ‘Visibility (also called perceived affordances or signifiers)’ and ‘Discoverability: All operations can be discovered by systematic exploration of menus.’”
    Of course, as designer Francisco Inchauste points out, the usability conventions we’re just getting used to and settling on – pinching and swiping and sliding and the like – will be as natural to someone who grows up using touchscreen devices as pointing and clicking with a mouse feels to us. Already, there’s plenty of amusing evidence that children used to playing with iPads think that magazines are broken, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to select words on my laptop screen by tapping them.
    In the words of Aynne Valencia and Alfred Lui of international design consultancy Fjord:
    “User interface designers are beginning to realize that there is no longer the need to hang on to representations of real life objects and drag them into the digital space. Digital is something else. It’s magical. It affords the user magical powers. It is no longer the user, a mouse, and a complicated ballet of hand eye coordination…Clear’s focus on gestural UI bestows this sense of magic by escaping the traditional paradigm of check boxes and text inputs that normally exist with digital to-do lists.”
    Up to now, my to-do app of choice was a pretty feature-rich app called 2Do, which syncs across all my devices and has no end of customisation and endless settings and reminders and location awareness and what have you. But there was always an uncomfortable friction while entering stuff that needed to get done – whereas Clear is akin to writing down a shopping list, 2Do sometimes veered too close to filling out a health insurance form. Where Clear is lithe and responsive, 2Do often felt cumbersome, and 2Do is by no means the most convoluted to-do app around – the task manager of choice in geek circles is the fearsome Omnifocus, the Adobe Photoshop of “Getting Things Done”, with nearly as many tools and settings.
    Obviously, Clear does a lot less than 2Do – it doesn’t populate my calendar with deadlines, alert me with reminders or sync with my MacBook. But despite that reduced feature set, I’m already using Clear far more than 2Do, because it’s far more delightful and efficient. Its focus and design, and its focus on design, ultimately makes it a more useful app.
    It’s not without flaws, and I’m not sure how such fluid, intuitive user interface paradigms can scale to more complex apps, but every time I open it to add to a list or mark another item as done, it certainly feels like the future.

Search Innovation