Big Ideas, Web 2.0 Questions, and Feeling out Features

So, in my previous post, I talked about the whole concept of the “next big idea” and how sometimes, it’s just not all it’s cracked up to be. Well, no sooner did I post that (well, okay – so it was a few days later) was I thinking about things, and a conversation with someone else online happened to spark something in my mind and an idea was formed.

No, it’s not anything that’s going to change the way that the web works, but it just might help out some of the podcasters out there. As we all know (well, those of us that listen to podcasts), ads/promos are becoming more and more prevolent in the shows we’re listening to. There are some that are paid ads, but on the whole, the ones that I hear are played because the podcaster wants his/her listeners to hear it. Upon poking around, I noticed that there really wasn’t much in the way of a network for these promos out there, and there really wasn’t an easy way for other podcasters to find/download them without having to email them all over or go to the podcast’s site and grab them.

Enter crosspod.net.

CrossPod isn’t anything amazing – in fact, I almost hope it never really evolves much beyond a nice, simple, clean app to oraganize podcast promos and make it easy for people to find what they need. The basic idea is pretty simple – you create an account, you upload your promos, you tag them with relevant information (tags/description/title) which makes them availible to anyone out there. I haven’t decided if I want people to have to create an account to get to download the promos or not, but that’s a bit out. Right now, I’m still getting the rough bits of it down and a new interface is being worked up…

Of course, a little shameless self-promotion never hurt anyone, but there is a motivation behind the message here. Once I fleshed out the concept of the site a bit and got to where I had a good feel for where it was going, I strated thinking about some of the new technologies that are out there and how they might help make the site even more functional. Sure, it’ll have RSS feeds that you can subscribe to for each of the users (showing their latest promo information), and a tag-based search/RSS to allow for even more flexibility, but what else is there. How can I apply the “no walled gardens” approach to a site like this? Is there something more “Web 2.0″-ey that I can do with the information that it would collect?

I’ve made the site with the concept in mind of “do one thing, and do it well” – I’ve had my share of sites that just try to do too much – and it’s harder than one might think. You start working up a site and you naturally want to start adding features upon features, hoping that maybe your users/visitors will really like it and it’ll make the site really take off. Honestly, I’m really starting to wonder if it’s about featuresets anymore…so many of the new “Web 2.0″ sites just offer simple things – to-do lists, social bookmarking, etc – and they’ve launched a new breed of application on the web.

So, what’s the answer here? (Actually, a better question is ‘What’s the question, anyway?’) Well, I ask you, humble readers, this one simple question:

Is it about features anymore?

Is “The Next Big Idea” Overrated?

Where’s the next one great idea?

It seems like now, more than ever, the sites that are rising up in the ranks and being extolled by the internet masses have several things in common – they’re all:

  • simple, both in design and use
  • targeted at one task, and doing it well
  • using some of the latest technologies (like Ajax)
  • and have the rest of us scratching our heads saying “why didn’t I think of that?”

I, like everyone else out there, would love to come up with something that just instantly takes off. I think that’s the dream of most internet developers out there, honestly. All it would take is that “One Great Idea” to get the ball rolling down the hill. Yes, PHPDeveloper does well, and I enjoy doing it, but it’s just one news site among many. It provides a service that any monkey could do with the right aggregation software. Sure, having the human aspect in there does separate it from sites like planet-php, but there’s still something missing…like there’s potential there for something really useful to come out of the mass of data I’ve collected on the site over time, but I just can’t seem to see it.

It feels more like one of those “just over the horizion” kinds of things, really – there’s hints here and there that there’s something out there, but nothing definitive. I start looking at the site (and looking around the internet) and think to myself, “Self, there’s got to be something you’re missing..” I look over the vast sea of pages out there and wonder how something I could do could even be a blip on the radar of the internet. I wonder what kind of site I could do to really draw the people in and really provide them with something useful.

Of course, then I stop, take a breath, and look at the short list I outlined above. The “KISS” acronym is more important now than ever. Google really helped start it all when it came on the scene – making simplicity in searching something to be desired. Enter the whole movement that seeks to provide an “elegant environment” for the user to interact with – things like edit in place and dynamic HTML through Javascript are becoming more and more the norm. And, with each new “elegant” site that comes out (my latest fav is Writely), you’re left to wonder what the next step will be…

So, I as I sit here and ponder things that might come next, I wonder if it will fall into one of these categories:

  • another site that bridges the gap between information stores in a clean, lean way
  • a site that provides more simple interaction of opinions between users
  • a community-driven site that serves up content in some new and provocative way

Of course, it could be something completely different…who knows…

Alas, Poor Trackbacks, We Knew Ye Well

So, the latest issue of php|architect is out (Sept. 2005) and my article is in it. It was a last minute inclusion as a result of a conversation with Marco, but I think it turned out well. Unfortunately, I can’t reproduce the contents of the article here to share them with you all. The topic was trackbacks – what they are, why they are, who uses them, and are they really needed.

In the research that I did for the piece, I dove into the technology, halfway expecting to find some little hidden gem of a protocol that could really be used and extended in some fun ways. Unfortunately, all I found was a technology that seemed to be a “one hit wonder” in the blog world. For those that aren’t sure what I’m talking about when I say “trackbacks”, think of most of the blogs out there (like this one) that have those separate URLs for their trackbacks on their post. The key here is that distinct URL – with it, someone posting on their own blog that has to do with the info on the first blog can zip a little “hey, thanks for the information! I linked to you!” on the original blog. They can help for things like finding the original source of information, and are a handy, simple way to link between pages/blogs with similar information. That’s about where it ends, though. The protocol they use is really nothing more than a glorified HTTP call, and they can be submitted by anyone. There’s no built in security model, no filtering – not much of anything built into the spec. Several pieces of software (like WordPress) have taken steps to try to curb some of the issues with trackbacks, but, in the end, it’s almost not worth it.

Look at trackback spam, for example. In my research, I plugged the word “trackbacks” into google in an attempt to get any and every kind of information on the subject. What did I find? Mostly links to blog posts on various sites that talk about turning off trackbacks. As most people have found, a lot of times, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to leave them on. They usually occupy the same area that the comments for a post reside in, so they clutter things up immensely when someone abuses them. It’s the same kind of situation as comment spam, except a lot harder to catch.

So, if you asked my opinion on trackbacks and their future on the internet (and more specifically blogs), it wouldn’t be a positive one…that is, unless someone out there can give me a good, valid use for them…

On Pushy Projects and Programming

Time for a “misguided projects” rant – better buckle up, it’s going to be all over the place.

We’ve all been there – working happily away on our project with the timelines in place, thinking that things are going to be just fine and dandy. Then, the malevolent spirit of feature creep (let’s call him Steve) comes in, sneaks into the safety that is your cube, and shakes things up a bit. Steve’s only goal is to come in and make you freak out. No, Steve doesn’t have to be a person, but he’s all too real for too many developers out there. They come into the project, look over the spec, and think to themselves “this doesn’t look so bad…I can just use this here and that there”. They place the sheet back on the table, look around at all of the other happy faces and think maybe, just maybe, this time things will be different.

Well, not if Steve has anything to say about it. No, I’m not talking about a specific situation here – I’m just blowing off some steam. Between dealing with other companies/other developers that just don’t understand your deadlines and having a Steve on your back, development just isn’t something to be taken lightly.

Have you ever started working on something, gotten about 30 minutes to an hour into it and realised that there was a much better way to do it? Sure, some people immediately jump to the “well, you should have planned more” argument, but sometimes, that’s just not good enough. There’s those out there that will tell you that there’s only “One Best Way” to do things when it comes to web programming (or just programming in general). So, who else out there wants to help me prove them wrong? Sure, there are best practices and all, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no room for flexibility. Too many developers are loosing that touch, it seems – they look at code, see that it’s a pretty dang good way to do things, and just keep using it over and over until something better comes along. Does this mean that you should rework every bit of code that you come across to make it better? Of course, not – that can only lead to a wee bit of insanity (and possibly a visit from Steve).

Instead, look at what you’re working with – whether it’s your own code or someone elses, and see if there are any glaring mistakes. Unfortunately, a lot of the PHP code that’s out on the repositories (save the stuff that people charge for…well, okay, some of that too) is “newbie code”. Not all of them are new to the language, but unless you get a little further on in development years, there’s just some things that you miss. No, I don’t have a particular list in mind of “Top 10 Newbie PHP Mistakes” (maybe I should make one), but most of the more seasoned developers out there know what I mean.

Maybe we should start a list in the comments….hmm….any takers?

*whew* okay – that’s enough for now. Sorry for my meandering mind, it takes me for rides too sometimes. Anyway, if you have any comments or want to contribute to the “Top 10″ idea, leave some comments below…

First Post and a Look into the Future

Alright, well – I’m going to give this a try and see how useful it really is. I figure that being able to express things here (without having to worry too much that people won’t think it’s news) will be a nice change. There’s been a lot going on in the PHP community – really the web as a whole – and having more of an open forum to express some ideas about it all will be a nice change of pace.

Posting the news on PHPDeveloper every day (well, okay, maybe not every day, but I try) is almost like having a second job. Thankfully, my current employer seems okay with the fact that I spend 30-45 minutes in the morning gathering and posting news. I finally wised up to the benefits of having an aggregator do a lot of the work for me (previously, I’d just be visiting each and every site), though there are still some sites that are stubborn about the whole “RSS revolution” that’s been going around. It’s all in how you think about it, really – whether you’re protective of the content on your site, or whether you want it to be out there in every way, shape, and form for your users. I love all of the new uses that have come around with RSS – everything from the podcasting that’s taken over to the simple ability to make a search results page something you can feed into an RSS aggregator and see when there are new results for that search. It’s customiztion on a whole new level.

And where does PHP fit into all of this? Well, now, more than ever, PHP is proving that it can scale and adapt to whatever the community throws at it. I even found a PEAR class today that takes an MP3 file and converts it into a viable torrent file – perfect for the podcasters out there that are looking for possible ways to reduce bandwidth issues. And with things like PEAR 1.4 on the way and the power behind PHP5, things are changing dramatically.

I’ve seen the other side of things as well with my operating of the AjaxDeveloper.org site – highlighting more of the client-side of things, talking about Ajax and related issues, but not necessarily sticking to them. I’m enjoying seeing the other side of things as well, and I get more of a feeling of being on the forefront of something that has the possibility to change the way the web works. Of course, it all needs something to provide the power on the backend, and that’s where PHP comes in. Flexible, simple to use, and running with years of development behind it, it really does seem to be the answer to a lot of developer’s prayers. One part PHP + one part Ajax = quite a few of the “Web 2.0″ applications that I see coming out…

Anyway, I suppose that’s enough for this first entry – let me know what you think, both of this blog and of PHPDeveloper.org (and AjaxDeveloper.org if you’ve been there too).