Are you starting a social media company? Stop! Don't build a new social network, please. Just use Facebook. Yes, it sucks, but Facebook won. Or as a friend of mine starting a company recently told me, "we consider Facebook to be layer 7 of the Internet".
Apple just launched Ping, their iTunes social network. They also just launched Game Center, their gaming social network. These two social networks are brand new, you start with no friends. They're also disjoint. That tapping you hear this week is millions of Apple nerds adding their friends, again, to a new set of applications.
Apparently I'm an active user of 12 social networks: Facebook, Twitter, four instant messengers, Skype, Flickr, Metafilter, Blizzard Real ID, Steam, Xbox Live. That doesn't count the implicit social networks I've belonged to online for 10+ years, mostly via email. Then there's the social networks I no longer use or deliberately avoid, like Aardvark, Buzz, FourSquare, Friendster, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, MySpace, Orkut, ping.fm, Plaxo, Yelp, or Zephyr. And my actual social network, the people I call for a beer when I'm bored or whose kids I buy Girl Scout cookies from because that's how you do.
All of these social network applications just need one bit of vital information, "I know this person". And "person" is identified by email address. A list of acquaintances' email addresses is the universal social data.
I know, I know, your immediate thought is "but social media is more complicated! My users need to sort family from friends from coworkers and keep their nudie pictures private and what if someone changes their email address and how do I sell extra access to Zynga so they can spam my users' friends with credit card offers?" Yes, that's true, social relationships are complicated. Your special application can be as complex as you want, be assured you'll get a bunch of details wrong. But the core thing, the list of acquaintances' email addresses? Don't make a new one.
I'm a little glib up above by saying "use Facebook". Facebook puts a lot of conditions on using their social graph, enough that Apple won't use their data. What would be best for users and every Internet company except for Facebook would be a proper open standard for social data. Sadly OpenSocial is a failure and because of network effects I think it's too late to displace Facebook. So we're all kind of screwed.
(The saddest thing? I found my list of social networks by searching Gmail for the phrase "your friend". I found a lot of FourSquare spam but precious few actual friends.)
Update: quick clarification in response to feedback. I'm not saying "don't compete with Facebook", I'm saying "don't build something new where I have to enter a new list of my acquaintances."
Yesterday I tried to load some music on my iPhone for the first time in a year. The result was a complete iPhone apocalypse. Long story short; at some point iTunes decided to do an incredibly long and slow sync of some music I didn't want to copy. With no progress bar, no indication of how long it'd take, and no cancel button. So I did the only sensible thing and unplugged the phone.
The result? Not only did I have no music on my phone, but now I had no third party applications, either. Well I had a couple, some random subset were left behind. The other apps were deleted. Along with their data. Including a month's pain-stakingly collected diet data, gone forever.
Two-way sync is hard. But it's not that hard. iTunes' model is apparently that it has the canonical copy of what's on your phone. Only it doesn't update that model correctly in all cases, and then deletes whatever is on your phone that doesn't match the incomplete copy on iTunes.
I can sort of understand that failure with the music library; your iTunes install is the only conduit for putting music on to the phone. But apps can be installed independently, and generate their own data on the phone. iTunes can't be sure it has seen all the app data; so why be so casual about deleting it? Even if you can count on the user not to unplug the phone mid-sync, what happens if iTunes crashes? Or the machine crashes? Or the cat knocks over the phone? Or the power goes out?
I've made a sport of iTunes-bashing on my blog and Twitter the past few years. It's a bit obnoxious, but every time I try to use iTunes I'm stunned at how bad it is, particularly on Windows. Apple's reputation of building humane, user-friendly software is completely misplaced in this case.
Since December 2007 the Xbox 360 has been capable of playing Xvid files. But it's ridiculously complex to set up.
First of all: do not use Windows Media Center. Do not use the "Media Center" option in the Xbox. Do not set up anything called an "Extender". Windows Media Center is interesting and has a fancy UI, but for some baffling reason it does not support DivX/XviD.
Instead you need to do something simpler; just let the Xbox find the AVI file and play it. The easiest way to do this is via an external USB drive; just plug it into the Xbox 360 (it has USB ports!), go to Media/Video, press X to change source, and browse the files on the drive. It's really that easy. But copying files to a drive is a drag, what you want is to serve them over the network. And for that you need a UPnP server, a simple file sharing protocol.
There's a slew of UPnP servers out there for Linux and near as I can tell none of them work. Windows has a UPnP server built into recent versions of Windows Media Player. Launch WMP, click the obscure little arrow below the word "Library", and choose "Media Sharing". If your Xbox 360 is turned on you should see it as a device option. Allow sharing to it and you're done. You'll probably want to also do "Add to Library" to pick the folder where all your videos are. Then on the Xbox go to Media / Videos, press X to change source, and you should see your new UPnP server. Now you can browse and play.
This sharing process is all ridiculously complicated and obscure. Poor Microsoft; they really want to sell media devices, competing with iPod and iTunes and Apple TV. But it's clear their media stuff is designed by a giant committee: they lack the single person with good taste and the authority to say "make this work simply".
My ongoing rants about iTunes may be getting old, but I continue them because Apple has a reputation for well designed software. The truth is a lot of their software does not work particularly well, particularly on Windows.
Today's fiasco was when I plugged my iPhone in to charge the battery. Only it didn't charge. Why? I was in a hurry, so I didn't wait for 30 seconds for iTunes to start up and didn't notice that it wanted an upgrade. Which left the phone mid-sync and some stupid feature in the iPhone means it didn't actually charge the battery while waiting for me to click a button on the computer at the other end of the charging cable. Nice engineering, guys.
I approved the update. 65 megs of download without a functioning progress bar and the upload process stole keyboard focus from my other apps three times. My desktop reloaded several times too, and along the way iTunes once again stole my .mp3 association and littered my desktop and launch bar with QuickTime advertisements. Then it demanded a reboot, which I refused. The iPhone upgrade failed with an "error -50", whatever that might mean. It worked the second time, although the phone was deactivated for about a minute with no useful warning.
The iPhone has a terrible user experience on the Windows desktop. It's embarassing. And because the iPhone is a closed environment, I don't have any alternative. Apple's linkage between products is the sort of thing that got Microsoft in trouble.
Today I thought I'd update my iPhone to 1.1.3 firmware. Here's the hell I encountered.
(Yes, the phone is working again; plugging it into iTunes and waiting a few minutes seems to have now fixed it.)
Readers of my blog know I dislike everything about iTunes. But I'm kind of charmed by the license agreement on my most recent update.
Yes, the iTunes license in Klingon. Properly speaking it's just in a Klingon font; I don't read Klingon but I'm guessing the glyphs are just transliterated from English.
Apple should get a third party to build their Windows apps.
iTunes updated itself again today. And once again the update experience is awful. It took 5 minutes, the promised 4 meg filesize somehow ended up being 50 megs. When the update is done I'm informed I have to reboot. It put a launch icon on my taskbar again. And it's no doubt made itself the default app for all my music and video files, again, despite being told not to. Oh yeah, and more Quicktime crap installed again. Hello, browser crashes.
Fuck you, Apple. Is there a good Windows alternative to iTunes that supports iPhones? All I need is to backup the phone and copy music and video to it. iTunes sucks.
iTunes is bad software. I've avoided it for years but I'm finally stuck with it because of the iPhone. So now, I rant impotently.
This morning I'm informed iTunes wants to update. Maybe a patch for all the iPhone bugs? I don't know, it won't tell me what the update is for. But it insists on updating Quicktime too and spamming my desktop with Apple product icons and demanding a reboot.
Last night my sister asked me how to copy some new iTunes tracks she bought to her old iPod. Problem is she hasn't plugged the iPod into a computer in two years and doesn't have all the iPod tracks on her new computer. Any attempt to copy the new tracks over seems to involve a sync and removing all the old tracks that are not on her PC anymore. Neither of us could figure out a way to fix it in the few minutes we had; last I heard she was burning CDs and leaving the iPod at home.
The iTunes initial import of my music took forever. And was broken; it followed symlinks and m3u playlists and ended up with several copies of each of my songs. And while iTunes could identify and display the duplicates I can't find a button for "remove duplicate entries".
The whole process of managing what songs and movies are stored on my iPhone is terribly clumsy. What's wrong with just opening the stupid thing as a hard drive and copying files over?
My post about the iPod and Real got lots of response. Some followup.
First, a big raspberry to Real, who posted the full text of my blog post to their marketing site without permission or proper attribution. It's still there, although they've trimmed to a fair-use-sized quote.
Second, a thank you to Aaron, who in email pointed out a flaw in my logic. I called the iPod a "jail for music" because Apple makes it hard to copy music out of the iPod. However, I also said "Real has succeeded in unlocking the door". That's not right; Real didn't make the iPod less of a jail. They just enabled another DRM format on the iPod. Not so exciting, really, although I still don't see it as a bad thing.
Finally, a theory. I was truly puzzled why people were beating up Real and defending Apple when both parties seem enamoured of DRM technology. Then I got it. Basically, people like Apple more than Real. Even if iTunes has some DRM they've done it in a way that mostly doesn't annoy users (with some exceptions). By contrast Real has a long history history of annoying users with hostile software and proprietary awkward formats. Now their captive users are issuing some payback.