Sunday, March 12, 2006

What is Missing In the Ray Ozzie’s Live Clipboard Concept?

Let me say a few words to the new initiative of Ray Ozzie, who proposes the universal clipboard for the internet. I would like to show a slightly wider approach that could be better positioned for a mass adoption because - in my opinion - it better corresponds with the nature of today's internet applications and user’s expectations.

Ray Ozzie’s Concept

Ray envisions a standard for interchanging structured information between web applications (e.g. web calendars and address books) and calls it an “extension of the clipboard user model to the web”.


And what was the most fundamental technology enabling “mash-ups” of desktop applications?

The clipboard. And a set of common clipboard data formats.

Before the clipboard, individual applications (such as Lotus 1-2-3 with its Copy and Move operations) enabled intra-application data transfer – in a world largely designed around a single running application. But the advent of the multi-application user environment, combined with the simplicity of the Select/Cut/Copy/Paste/Clear model, suddenly empowered the user in ways they hadn’t previously experienced.

Reading these lines, no doubt the concept and its reasoning sounds interesting. But when I had a look at the screencast of a Live Clipboard demo, a big question emerged in my head. Will the Live Clipboard really succeed? Is this the right application for the internet world?

I don’t think so. The user’s perspective changed significantly since late 80’s and 90’. These days, people expect more from internet applications than they expected from PC with Windows. They would like a real automation, not just a tool for manually moving (even complex) data.

And this is why I think developers will not be too excited to implement this concept – it will not bring any real competitive advantage to their products.

Why the Clipboard Was Adopted

Now more from the developers’ view. Back in 1985, when Windows 1.0 first appeared on the market, the battle was not about pushing the clipboard; it was of course about pushing Windows and reach its wide adoption by developers. Clipboard was just one (and certainly not the most important one) "selling point" of Windows (the really important selling points were: GUI, ability to execute multiple graphical applications at the same time, virtual memory, system's own device drivers). But as soon as developers decided to move to Windows platform, implementing all Windows features (including clipboard) made a good sense for them, as it differentiated their product from its DOS competitors. And regarding clipboard itself, they of course had no alternative to it. The platform was owned by Microsoft, and Microsoft also defined all the standards of data interchange.

The Difference

So, what are the chances of Life Clipboard for its adoption by developers?

Three things have changed since 80’s:

  1. The platform is not owned by any single company
  2. While it would still make sense for the developers to implement a “rich clipboard” type of functions, it would not bring them any competitive advantage (while seamless interoperability with other applications was a reasonable competitive advantage in developer’s decision to port their application to Windows).
  3. The user expectation changed (we will cover later)

Given these facts, the motivation of developers to implement Life Clipboard is very weak and is in fact a “chicken-and-egg” problem. The effort to implement this function pays off only when there are enough applications that support it. On one hand, Microsoft is a strong company, so the standard is certainly not dead. But...

User’s perspective

But on the other hand I always think we should strive for more; for something “more sexy”, which would really make a clear difference for the user.

Well, back in late 1980s, the clipboard was no doubt a big step forward. Instead of having to save file, exit the application, launch a new one and then import the saved file we got a very friendly, fast and useful tool. But even this example clearly shows that we shouldn’t exaggerate the sole role of the clipboard – without an ability to run multiple applications at once, clipboard would be virtually of no value to users.

And the same holds for the Life Clipboard concept. Something is missing to it – yet – to make the concept really appealing.

We should strive for more!

Let us then think about an idea which would be really “sexy” by itself; an idea that would excite developers and would motivate them to further extent it. To me, the manual “Cut & Paste” model doesn’t fall in this category any more. It was OK in the DOS time, but the expectations have changed since then. Today’s users would expect something more automatic and more convenient than just a tool for manual transfer of appointments and business cards from one application to another (and it doesn’t matter that all these items contain rich information).

So, what could make the real difference today?

The Vision

Imagine I find an interesting concert on a web page and want to attend. I would expect to find a simple button on the page which I can press in such a case. In the same time, system identifies me (which is technically possible already today) and asks me to confirm payment for the ticket. It also contacts directly my (web) diary (which is however automatically synchronized with any personal device I use) and writes down the event. In case there is any conflicting appointment, the system lets me know before requesting my payment. Sounds better than a simple cut and paste? Yes, indeed – because this is a real automation. But the story doesn’t finish yet.

Now, the concert is cancelled – you know, musicians are just people, so this may happen even in the future -:). Instead of driving there and finding a closed hall with a crowd of angry people, the appointment will be automatically removed from my diary (again, no technical problem – who records a particular information is also allowed to change it) and I will be informed about the change just as it occurs (which may be just a function of my diary – so nobody needs to know my personal email, IM, or whatever channel I use; nobody also needs to learn in which way and when I would like to be informed about changes). This would be a good, useful application. And still no rocket science!

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