Before Google, search engine builders thought that the way to organize the Internet was like an index, or, to use the term that was popular at the time, a directory — A giant list of every link on the Internet. Librarians saw a place on this wave also, as Steve Coffman wrote recently:

Remember those heady early days when we thought we were going to catalog the web? …  Almost every library felt the responsibility to stuff its website with long and often elaborately annotated lists of web resources for just about everything.

As Matthew Reidsma says, the list-making urge is still much in evidence on library websites:

Libraries love links so much that most [library websites] look like spam link farms, designed to trick Google. Every other successful website on the planet gave that up in the late ’90s, but not libraries. We librarians like to see a big list of resources because it makes us seem more relevant.

As Reidsma has discussed in other works, the problem with the prevalence of link lists on library websites is that users ignore them, and don’t find the really important things on the website … or they just go to Google.

Why do users find library lists so unappealing? Neither of the commentators quoted above, nor anyone else that I’ve seen, has written about it, but the obvious answer, I think, may be … Alphabetical Order — Invariably lists of links on library sites are alphabetical — In the days of PageRank, how boring!

The “I’m Feeling Lucky” PageRank Revolution

Before Google, the only rational way to organize a long list of links on the same subject was alphabetical order. It’s almost hard to imagine back to those days, and to realize what a revolution Google’s PageRank was. It seemed like magic that Google gave us automatic lists of links, with the best ones at the top of the list. James Gleick wrote about this recently, in a retrospective look at the Age of Google [boldface added]:

PageRank is one of those ideas that seem obvious after the fact. But the business of Internet search, young as it was, had fallen into some rigid orthodoxies. … People naturally thought of existing technologies for organizing the world’s information, and these were found in encyclopedias and dictionaries. They could see that alphabetical order was about to become less important, but they were slow to appreciate how dynamic and ungraspable their target, the Internet, really was.

With this great new invention of PageRank, people soon came to assume that any list of resources worth looking at would, of course, have the best links at the top of the list. If they encountered an alphabetical list, their eyes would glass over. So, with most long link-lists on library sites being in alphabetic order, is it any wonder that they’re not very popular with users?

So what can libraries do? As Reidsma has been saying recently, we need to look at our websites like our users do, and change them to fit users’ needs — He says from his work with users surveys that this means greatly simplifying library websites. Link lists should be short, with someone’s idea of the “best” links at the top. As I’ve learned with my work on Hardin MD, no matter how long the list of links is, only the top 2-3 will get many clicks.

The emphasis on simplifying our websites, of course, fits very well with the mobile revolution. The small screens of mobile devices beg for small, simple web pages, and trimming our lists is a great place to start.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Josh Keller’s recent article in the Chronicle, As the Web goes mobile, colleges fail to keep up, as the title indicates, focuses on college campuses. But it’s message also applies well to libraries, as I’ve discussed before. Around the same time I saw the Chronicle article, I came across the graphic on the left that seems to capture the same ideas in a picture – Together with the chart on the right, from the Chronicle article, the message is clear – “The mobile wave is coming fast, don’t get washed away.” Here are Keller’s words:

Hand-held devices like smartphones and tablets are fast becoming the primary way many people use the Internet. Half of all college students used mobile gear to get on the Internet every day last year, compared with 10 percent of students in 2008, according to Educause, the educational-technology consortium.

But many colleges still treat their mobile Web sites as low-stakes experiments. That attitude risks losing prospective applicants and donors through admissions and alumni portals that don’t work, and it risks frustrating current students who want to manage coursework and the rest of their lives with their mobile phones, says David R. Morton, director of mobile communications at the University of Washington. “For so many institutions,” he says, “mobile is a part-time job, almost an afterthought.”

One key to these projects is recognizing the mobility of mobile devices, and not treating them as if they were small desktop computers. Among colleges, even the leading mobile applications and Web sites still function like add-ons; students and others can get much the same information on a personal computer, although perhaps not as quickly.

But many college officials say that will change within a few years. As more people adopt Internet-enabled mobile phones, colleges will be able to take advantage of features like the ability to record information on the fly or to determine somebody else’s location.

Colleges often do not realize how far their Web services have fallen behind what students are used to, says Kayvon Beykpour, of Blackboard. The Stanford graduate recalls that signing up for courses online was so difficult that it was a “running joke” in the computer-science department. “Students are using Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, all these Web 2.0 systems every day,” Mr. Beykpour says. “It’s like their top five Web sites they use. And the sixth Web site is the school Web site, because you have to use it. And that’s where the biggest disconnect is.”

Another recent thread speaks to the problem of trying to keep up with the mobile wave — In a talk making the rounds on Twitter, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt says put your best people on mobile — A pretty strong indication that Google et al are scooping up all the mobile programmers they can find, which means that inevitably it’s going to be hard for us in academia to compete. So for the time being, we’ll probably need to rely on the sorts of third-party solutions discussed in the Chronicle article, like Blackboard and iMobileU.

For me, a key to understanding the deep infrastructure of mobile has been learning about WebKit, the underlying technology of all mobile browsers, including Safari, Chrome, and Android. Read more in my earlier article: The Mobile Revolution & the WebKit Revolution.

Mobile wave graphic credit: http://ssb.mofusepremium.com/blog/the-mobile-web/the-mobile-browser-is-the-killer-app

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

“The browser platform wars are over. WebKit won. Gecko & IE lost” – Ian McKellar

As I wrote recently, one of the important effects of the iPad is that it’s shown that the WebKit browser platform is important beyond the world of mobile devices, with its use on Safari for iPad and also for Google Chrome. “WebKit” will likely soon become part of vocabulary of the wide Web-using world. Now, though, it’s talked about mainly by geekish tech people, so it’s hard to sift out non-geek talk about it that can inform the rest of us. The article by Gecko and WebKit developer Ian McKellar (@ian) that I’m excerpting below does a good job of this. McKellar states strongly his view that the programming environment of Mozilla/Firefox is outmoded and that the browsers of the future will be WebKit-based.

About the sub-title above: “The browser platform wars are over …” — This is from a tweet by McKellar, in response to my tweeting a link to his article. Although his tweet includes IE (Internet Explorer), his article is only on WebKit and Mozilla.

Gecko (in McKellar’s quote) is the browser platform for Firefox. Mozilla (in the excerpting below) is closely associated with Mozilla Firefox.

Excerpts from McKellar’s article [boldface added]:

In my experience (8 years building Mozilla based products and playing with WebKit since 2003) there are a few clear technical and social differences that can make WebKit a more attractive platform for developers than Mozilla.

The scale and complexity of the Mozilla codebase is daunting. Mozilla advocates will say that that’s because Mozilla provides more functionality, but the reality is that even if you don’t want all that functionality you still have to dig through and around it to get your work done. Much of the Mozilla platform is poorly documented, poorly understood and incomplete … while WebKit is smaller, simpler and newer.

The scale of the Mozilla organization is also daunting. Mozilla’s web presence is vast and is filled with inaccurate, outdated content. Their goals are vague and mostly irrelevant to developers. By contrast WebKit’s web site is simple and straight-forward.

Perhaps I’m short-sighted, but I don’t see a clear path forward for Mozilla in competing with WebKit as a platform for web content display. The long history of Mozilla have left them with a large, complicated codebase that’s not getting smaller. The rapid growth and defensive attitude of the organization (probably brought on by the Netscape / IE wars) has left it without a culture that welcomes friendly competition. … I’m just glad we have an alternative web content platform.

So, where to to from here? As iPad-like tablet devices nudge into the world of desktop computing, it seems likely that WebKit browsers are the future. Though FireFox and Internet Explorer will probably continue to dominate the desktop for some time, the WebKit future is available now on the desktop in Google Chrome — I’ve started using it regularly, and I find it superior to FireFox in many ways. So consider giving it a try.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

“The browser platform wars are over. WebKit won. Gecko & IE lost”

When I wrote on the WebKit Revolution in August, I didn’t find the good graphic below, I think because of the way it was titled and placed in excellent articles by Jason Grigsby (@grigs). So, thanks, Jason, and I hope you don’t mind that I’ve tweeked the text accompanying the pie graph, to show more clearly the platforms involved.

The graphic is a bit dated, since it doesn’t include the iPad, and no doubt a more current version would show a larger share for iPhone and Android. Also, the recent introductions of a WebKit browser on the Kindle 3 would make the WebKit dominance even more noteworthy. But the graphic still does a good job of showing the strength of WebKit browsers on mobile devices. Note >> All the pieces of the pie in shades of BLUE (all but Windows/Others) are based on WebKit.

[Text: 2009 Smartphone Market Share (Gartner). Phones currently shipping or projected to ship using WebKit ... Symbian (Nokia) 47%, Blackberry 20%, iPhone (Safari) 14%, Android 4%, WebOS (Palm) 1%, Windows/Others 14%]

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

A big part of Steve Jobs magical mobile revolution has been the advent of the App, which greatly simplifies using a small mobile-device screen. As popular as iPhone Apps have been, though, iPhone’s Safari browser has also been a great success, showing the practicality of using a Web browser on a small screen.

Safari has shined even more on the larger-screened iPad. With its interface being so similar to the iPhone, it seemed when it first came out that Apps would play the same role on the iPad as on the iPhone. But with its larger screen, people quickly realized that the Safari browser does a fine job in presenting information, and that separate Apps are not nearly as important as on the iPhone. And of course the Safari browser has the great advantage that it lives on The Web.

So the trend, going from iPhone to iPad, is the growing importance of Safari on Apple devices. But this goes well beyond Apple, because Safari is just one of the large class of “WebKit” browsers. I became aware of the importance of this with news in the last month that the Kindle and the Blackberry are both getting WebKit browsers (Thanks to Mike Cane for giving a shout about the significance of this).

So, what’s a WebKit browser? WebKit is the “layout engine” for Safari, Google Chrome, and almost all mobile browsers (Android, Blackberry, Kindle et al). It’s especially good for mobile browsers because of its nimble code and advanced HTML capabilities. And WebKit is open-source, which is why it’s being used on such a wide range of platforms, beyond Apple.

Learning about WebKit has given me a whole new way of seeing the mobile Web world — The varied and interesting implications are many …

  • The iPad’s big splash – Desktop computing is fading fast, and mobile is booming. Until the iPad came out in April, “mobile” meant cellphones and other hand-held devices. Now with the iPad, the definition becomes fuzzy, and will get fuzzier, with smaller versions of the iPad rumored to be in the offing, and Android tablets with a variety of screen sizes certain to come out soon. The whole mobile tribe, from cellphones on up, are certain to have WebKit browsers.
  • Apple’s influence spreads – The first implementation of WebKit on a widely-used browser was when Apple developed Safari and made WebKit as a “fork,” or variation, of the existing Unix rendering engine KHTML. Although Apple made WebKit open-source, and usable by anyone, it’s come to be strongly identified with Apple. So isn’t it interesting that now WebKit, which is widely thought of as an Apple standard, is being used in the browsers of Google and Amazon — Is there any precedent for that? For anything that’s Apple-flavored being adopted by Google and Amazon, which may be Apple’s two biggest competitors in the near future?
  • Apple’s Unix roots are deep, going back to Unix based Mac OS X. WebKit deepens these roots, having been developed by Apple from the Unix KHTML layout engine.
  • WebKit & eBooksWebKit is used for many eReaders, because they have so much in common with web browser technologies, so it will become increasingly important for libraries as the use of eBooks grows.
  • Firefox is fading – Instead of WebKit, Firefox is built on the Gecko layout engine, which was designed for the bulky Windows environment, and it shows its age on mobile systems with more compact code.
  • The growing irrelevance of Microsoft – With very little mobile or tablet presence, their claims to be embracing cloud computing (which is closely connected to mobile computing) seem doubtful — Especially since none of their current or planned browsers are WebKit-based.

I’m often surprised in reading commentaries about the iPad and its competitors that WebKit isn’t mentioned — John Martellaro touched upon the sense I have of “seeing the leaves but missing the branches” in a recent such commentary — He talks about “the advanced technologies that Apple has been nursing along for a decade (unnoticed)” [boldface added] — YES! Exactly! — People see the effects of Apple magic but don’t notice the things that create the magic (Martellaro himself doesn’t mention WebKit!).

So for me, seeing things through the lens of WebKit has been like “pulling back the curtain” on current developments and power struggles in the Web world — In reading anything about competition among Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and various eBook competitors, it’s invaluable to think about how WebKit affects things. I think it’s likely that as things progress (and especially when Android tablets start coming out in the next few months), WebKit awareness will certainly grow fast.

I use a Windows desktop at work and a Mac desktop at home. I’ve been a confirmed FireFox user on both of them for several years. But in doing research for this article, I’ve switched to WebKit browsers — Safari on the Mac and Google Chrome on Windows. I like both of them a lot, especially Chrome — I’ll certainly be staying with it.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

I’ve been following discussions in two different worlds this week. The first of these is based on an article by Brian Mathews, in which he discusses the effect of mobile cloud computing on libraries. His ideas especially drew attention when the Chronicle’s Wired Campus blog pulled ideas from Mathews’ speculations in an article with the provocative title If Libraries Remove Computers, Will Anyone Come? This was such a good title ;-) that the LISNews blog also ran a follow-up article with the same title. My thoughts on the discussion are well-summarized in the title of my comments on the LISNews article – Removing Computers is Moot: Mobile, Cloud & iPad are Coming! My point (and I think Mathews’ point) is that mobile cloud computing is coming, and when it does, there will be little need to have computers in libraries because students won’t be using them.

The other discussion I’ve been following is based on a talk given by Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley (AKA “Queen of the Internet”) — Mobile Internet Will Soon Overtake Fixed Internet. Her talk was much-discussed and her slide below was much shared on blogs — It’s relevance to the Libraries Removing Computers discussion is apparent — Mobile is going to overtake Desktop by 2014. What will libraries be like by then?

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Holly Hibner’s tweet about John Blyberg‘s talk at the recent Computers in Libraries (#CIL2010) was one of the mostly highly retweeted posts of the conference. Blyberg’s metaphor captures the thought that I’ve had swimming around in my head for long — What’s the use of making an elegant, user-friendly library web site when the centerpiece of the whole library info-ecosystem — the catalog — is hopelessly difficult to navigate? I blogged about this in October when I found a great graphic (part of which is below left) that points to the striking contrast between the simple, inviting user interfaces of dotcoms like Google and Apple, and the much more complicated interfaces of libraries.

With the small screen of mobile devices the trimmed-down, mobilized library website makes the old, non-mobilized library catalog seem even more ghetto-like, using Blyberg’s phrase, so that it’s questionable to even link to the catalog from the mobile library site. With the constraints of mobile design, we have no choice but to take up the opportunity and simplify. Several libraries have now mobilized their catalogs, among them the clean, simple design from UNC below. Scroll down for links to a series of articles I’ve written on mobile design and libraries.

Flickr set has graphic above & the full version in other article, that shows the context of the library catalog caricature.

Articles on mobile design and libraries:

Holly Hibner’s tweet:

hhibner: Your web site is great, but when people click on the catalog link, “Boom! They’re in the ghetto!” John Blyberg #cil2010

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Hardin MD Gallery pages’ simple design makes them intrinsically mobile-friendly. They work especially well on an iPhone because they fit well on the screen, as described below. To go to Hardin MD Mobile click logo:

In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss and illustrate why Hardin MD Galleries are especially usable on an iPhone. I’ll also discuss the process of mobilizing Hardin MD, describe which galleries are most usable on a mobile device now, and talk some about future development.

We’ve been pleased to realize that Hardin MD galleries work especially well on an iPhone because most images  have a similar aspect-ratio to the iPhone — 1:1.5 — which is relatively unusual for a computer screen, though very common in photography (4″x6″ snapshots).

We didn’t plan it that way, but it happens that most of the images in Hardin MD are about 720 x 480 pixels (the same 1:1.5 aspect ratio as the iPhone), in landscape orientation. So, as shown in the screenshots at left, Hardin MD images fit nicely on the iPhone screen in landscape view.

Most of the individual disease/condition galleries in HMD are fairly usable on a mobile device as they are, although the navigational thumbnail images for some are rather poor. The weakest aspect of mobile-usability is the broad-grouping super-gallery thumbnail directories — Thumbnails work well for individual galleries of pictures on a particular disease condition, but they don’t work so well for super-galleries, which have several different diseases. So we’ll be making scrolling-list menus, which work well on an iPhone, for the broad topic groups, as we work on improving the mobile navigation of the individual galleries within each group. For now, the first broad-group menu is public-domain, free-to-copy galleries.

Other super-galleries, for which we’ll make mobile menus in the future are:

Besides working to improve the mobile-accessibility of super-galleries, we’ll also be trying out a second type of mobile access for individual galleries, by putting pictures in a WordPress blog — WordPress (with a wide array of smart plugins) does a wonderful job in displaying pictures on blog pages, especially because it’s so smart in handling portrait and landscape orientation. The nice fit of Hardin MD images on an iPhone screen, described above for existing galleries, also works well in a WordPress blog. Our first one is here >> Measles pictures from CDC

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

In December 2006, Luke Wroblewski blogged a good discussion about The Complexity of Simplicity in user-interface design. Interestingly (in light of his recent articles discussed below), in the 2006 article he doesn’t mention MOBILE design. What makes this especially interesting is that the iPhone, with its game-changing elegant mobile interface, exploded on the scene just a month after Wroblewski’s article, in Jan, 2007. So … Jump forward to an excerpt from Wroblewski’s Nov 2009 article Mobile First, in which he first proposed the idea that all web pages should be designed first for a small screen, before considering their appearance on a large screen:

Mobile forces you to focus – Mobile devices require software development teams to focus on only the most important data and actions in an application. There simply isn’t room in a 320 by 480 pixel screen for extraneous, unnecessary elements. You have to prioritize. So when a team designs mobile first, the end result is an experience focused on the key tasks users want to accomplish without the extraneous detours and general interface debris that litter today’s desktop-accessed Web sites.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

The link in the quote above goes to Wroblewski’s Aug 2009 article Mobile App User Experience, which has the image at left, a great “picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words” view of the words in the quote — Cut the crap and give the user the important part, what they’re looking for! Taken together, I think, the quote and the picture tell the story of what’s been happening in the world of interface design since the introduction of the iPhone –Though I’m sure this is something of an oversimplification, I think that the simple user interface that seemed so hard to attain on a large screen has now become easier with the forced constraint of the small screen.

Wroblewski’s ideas resonate with what I’ve been writing about simple mobile design for library sites. Although he’s not talking specifically about libraries, his ideas are certainly right on-target for us in libraries. The AP News example he chooses for the picture especially catches my attention, as I’ve been watching news sites to see how they’re adjusting to the mobile upheaval — I think they carry lessons for libraries, as we go through the same thing.

Note in the picture here that we in libraries have an advantage over news sources and other dotcom sites — We don’t have the extra baggage of advertising — This in itself would seem to make mobile friendly design a Great Opportunity for Libraries. The obstacle for libraries seems to be the longstanding culture of overly complicated design for our resources, especially OPACs. The good news here is that with mobile design there really is no alternative to simple design — As Wroblewski says, the size of the screen just doesn’t allow extra fluff. The constraints of mobile design, I think, level the field — This makes it easier for us in libraries to create sites as simple and easy to use as the big dotcoms. As I’ve written, there are encouraging signs that we’re doing this.

Less is more …

I better wrap this article up — It’s turning into a classic case of controlled serendipity … Just as I thought I was about finished, the “less is more” thought came into my mind, as a pithy epigram of mobile user design. Alas, I Googled, and found this, another striking quote, from Darja Isaksson (www.inuse.se), maybe I’ll expand more later, but for now, a good way to end:

So … Does the iPhone live up to its hype? [article title] … boldface added by me …
The results? Stunning. The iPhone has introduced a new interaction paradigm to the world, in an uncompromising way that proves that “less is more” when it comes to true user experience.

Related articles:

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Sarah Houghton-Jan reports in an article a few days ago that a new PEW report shows the growing tendency of people to get news from the Web. She suggests that librarians should jump on this, and offer our skills in filtering, teaching finding-skills, and creating tutorials. I like Sarah’s idea, and take it a step further — As Sarah mentions, one of the findings of the PEW report is that mobile devices are providing a growing portion of online news, so I suggest that an area of news curation that especially needs librarians’ skills is mobile news — I’ve been watching for news sources that have mobile apps or mobile-friendly sites, and I find that they vary a lot in coverage and quality — They’re in great need of the curatorial skills of librarians!

Sites that I like (with screenshots below) are: New York TimesAP-News, The Guardian, The (London) Times, and Reuters. I especially look for good pictures. The best of the sites listed here for pictures is AP-News — Note that the bottom left screenshot below is a report of the recent earthquake in Chile, with an AP-News gallery.

For news-related pictures, I’ve found that the best sites are not traditional news sites, like the ones listed here, but other, blog-like sites — As I discussed in an earlier article on Haiti earthquake coverage, great pictures for that (and for the Chile earthquake as well as other news subjects) are at The Big Picture/Boston.com and the Hyderabad News WordPress site.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey