Gmail’s new layout

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but Gmail has slowly been shifting everyone’s layout from their old standard one to their new look.  I hate it.

Aaaaaaaaarrrrggghh!

This is me after using Gmail's new layout for five minutes.

Now, I’m not any sort of Google hater, but in all credit to them, they managed to produce possibly the most annoying layout for their webmail access I’ve ever come across on any webmail service and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition.  It’s less pleasing on the eye, more difficult to navigate, slower to work your way around and there’s almost no way to configure it all to ameliorate any of the things that really irritate me about it.

Admittedly, what works in terms of UI design is a very personal thing – what one person will love another will hate, but there are some commonly held beliefs amongst Developers with at least a tiny clue about user interfaces.  Google claim that they are bringing focus “to what matters to you”.  Oh really?  Well Google, here’s what matters to me… I get emails – a lot of them and I user filters to archive stuff out of my Inbox so I can clearly see how many emails I have from different people, companies and mailing lists.  Now that you’ve made my Labels list “elastic” I can’t see them all at once any more.  Y’know, like I used to be able to?  Why can I have 50 – or 100 if I really want to – rows of email Subjects on my Gmail page, but only the first eleven of my Labels?  Yes, I know I’m using a tiny-screened 10″ Asus Eee PC netbook, but that still doesn’t excuse stupid layout design; if you think I have enough brain cells to be able to scroll down the emails in my Inbox, why not leave all of my Labels clearly visible in one long column so I can scroll down through them too?

I used to be able to get to a specific set of labelled emails by scrolling down the page, finding the label, pointing and clicking on said label.  Now, I have to point my mouse at the left hand column where the labels are, pause for about a second until the scroll bar mysterious appears out of nowhere to let me navigate as if it’s doing me a favour, then I have to scroll down the list, find the label and click on it.  Oh yes, nearly forgot; if I scroll to the bottom of the list of labels, it bounces me back to the top of the list again.

Tell me Google, which one of those sounds less complicated and hassle-free?  It rather ruins your claim to be trying to make gmail “effortless” and yes, that’s a direct quotation.  I nearly choked on my coffee the first time I read that statement.

Now, I’ve been using the Internet for a good couple of decades now so I know what works and what doesn’t.  In fact, I’m currently earning a living testing web interfaces at least some of the time as a Testing Professional.  I don’t know what Google’s design and QA processes are like, but I personally think they dropped the ball on this one.  I’d be more than happy to offer my expertise and services to gmail to help them fix it; hell, I’d do it for free just to have a less irksome user experience.

What’s in a name?

Juliet:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Those who can remember past the Internet furore of SOPA and PIPA last week, may remember that when Google plus was launched, an awful lot of people were rather annoyed that you could only use your own “real name“, whatever that means.  In fact, G+ specifically disallowed people from using pseudonyms, whilst other forums like Launchpad merely encouraged the practise.  Of course, that leads on to the thorny issue of what a someone’s name looks like in different parts of the world, or is supposed to look like.  Of course, some names are inherently a bad idea to give to your kids, while others have fallen out of fashion, such as Methuselah.  What you name your Wi-Fi network is another matter entirely – my favourite is ”Pretty fly for a wi-fi”.

Now, as has been pointed out, some people don’t want to use their real names on the Internet – pseudonyms are used to avoid online abuse, stalking, identity theft, arrest for political activism, sexual discrimination and other fun things you don’t want to deal with in cyberspace.  In fact, having a real name policy can cause specific harm to a wide category of users

Having said all of that, Google appears to have seen the error of its ways and will now have a “more inclusive” naming policy, including allowing names in non-Latin scripts.  It looks like they have started to realise that some of their assumptions when it comes to what constitutes a name may actually be incorrect.  It also still seems to be up to Google to determine what constitutes, amongst other things, a “meaningful following”.  Would Google, in their infinite wisdom, determine that I could justifiably set up G+ account called Geekonomicon, or would it just delete it as they have done to other users with names they didn’t like the look of?

However, this doesn’t seem to mean you can set up a G+ account and have it be known only by a pseudonym of your choosing; if you have an uncommon name, having it be publicly searchable at all may be something you don’t want, if only to avoid identity theft.

Now, G+ has had those criticising it and even declaring it to be already dead, but it looks like they insist on being  alive and kicking – and changing the goalposts – at least for the time being.

SOPA and PIPA

The two four letter words above are not, as some may think, the main characters of a new Swedish thriller about to reach our TV screens. Nor are they swear words; well, not to everybody. Not yet.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock with no Internet connection over the last week or so, you’ll probably have heard all about SOPA and PIPA which are two pieces of legislation currently going through the Houses of Congress and Senate.  A lot of people are protesting about this, including Wikipedia for 24 hours.

If you want a technical analysis of SOPA, then have a read of this analysis by Dr Leonard M Napolitano, Jr, who is Director of Computer Sciences and Information Systems at Sandia National Laboratories.  My thanks to a Berkeley graduate student for the link to the above and a non-technical summation with the minimum of jargon which will be very helpful to those whose eyes glaze over when reading about tech stuff.

For information on PIPA, you can watch this short (3m52s) YouTube video:

In fact, the Internet is awash with lots of coverage and technical analysis of both Acts and why the blackouts and protest banners are happening.  There’s also been some very big names, such as Google, the Editor of Boing Boing on Al Jazeera and some guys called Mark Zuckerberg speaking out against SOPA, who got 75000 “likes” to his comment in just 10 minutes – popular guy!  Well, according to RT.com the blackout of Wikipedia, Boing Boing, et al has been a resounding success (video for the report is embedded on the page, or can be downloaded).

The real point is that the Internet was developed (initially by the US Military for its own purposes) to be an open, well-connected, multiply redundant system for connecting data nodes in such a way to all but guarantee the unimpeded flow of information from point to point over such a vast network.  It’s grown from being a way to ensure military communications in the event of a Nuclear War that has thankfully not come to pass… to a way for people to communicate and transfer ideas, information, products and messages at near instantaneous speeds over vast distances.

Now, people may have different attitudes to online piracy, but the Tweedledum a Tweedledee of US Internet legislation would, if they became law, allow the filtering of the information available to the general public in a manner not seen outside of far more restrictive and totalitarian countries such as North Korea, Iran or China.  Now that is a somewhat ironic situation for a country which has the First Amendment as such an iconic piece of legislation,  which is deeply felt and revered by the vast majority of it’s population.  Talking of free speech, this is also bad for writers as Chuck Wendig points out most eloquently and there’s now also an open letter by many different Artists and Creators, inclding Neil Gaiman, MGMT, Trent Reznor  and Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame.

Edit to add this paragraph: Going back to the issue of piracy for a second, I’ve just found an article about how copyright holders are conning Congress by providing data which not merely contains errors, but downright lies.  Big businesses telling fibs to better their own positions, I hear you say?  Surely not!

Even worse, this legislation could result in those who link to other parts of the Internet being liable to fines or jail time.  Yeah, you read that right – for creating a link.  Hell, I’ve put about a dozen or more links in this article already; if even one of those links points towards copyright disputed content, I could end up being imprisoned as a result of it under this new legislation.  In short, this could potentially destroy the connectivity of the Internet, which is is what makes it work so well in the first place.

I was going to finishing off this article with something along the lines of “Tim Berners-Lee must be despairing right now,” but instead there may well be light at the end of the tunnel given that the Obama administration said that it “will not support” any bill “that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” However, as the EFF points out, while the current incarnations of SOPA and PIPA may not last the legislative course, they may well regenerate in a new guise and come back, like an Internet version of The Master.  I just hope that the TARDIS appears in the nick of time to save us all.