Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Search Box is the New UI

I was listening to Phil Windley's AJAX Progress and Challenges when the bells rang. While describing the JavaScript programming that is taking place inside the Browser's guts, Windley pointed out that browser-based client applications have become O/S indifferent. Operating systems have been finally abstracted out from the entire transaction chain.
And then the inevitable metaphor ("Everything is a metaphor") of the Browser-as-a-Platform was mentioned, triggering a bunch of thoughts in my head on the Browser-as-a-platform interfacing the Internet-as-Platform, thoughts that made me feel dizzy after a while. Something was wrong and I was having a cognitive Ajax dissonance which I will describe now.

Dissonance#1: The Browser

We're living in this Browser paradigm ever since the Internet (and terminals) was invented. Don't you find it strange that everything else is changing but the Browser is still around?
Browsing is efficient when there's a blueprint, a layout. Think about an application's menus or a site's map: the user navigates according to the site/application explicit structure. And that's efficient because the user is supposed to invoke functions. Most of the sites/applications are created to realize functions, so they make their functional layout explicit, enbaling the user to browse and navigate through the functional tree. Many business sites have the following functional layout: about us; products; services; solutions; events; press room. Commerce sites have this functional layout: books; electronics; your cart; wishlist etc;

Users are required to invoke functions in order to get Information and/or set Information.

Now here is the bare truth: Information is locked behind functional bars; users want to get/set Information, but they can do so only by going through the site/application functions. And for this kind of navigation the Browser is a most suitable user interface.

Only that Web2.0 – the same Web2.0 exalting the Ajax Browser (and see the second paragraph in Dion Hinchcliffe's article) – has turned the functional paradigm on its head. With RSS, the site/application Information is unlocked and published to the Global Information River. People can get the Information they want without going through the functional sites/applications. And with Microsoft's SSE and Google's Gdata they can also update the Information River, again without necessarily visiting the site/application.

Now, the Global Information River has no functional layout, so browsing the River will get you nowhere. The Information River mandates another kind of UI, and I think we all know what this interface is: it is search.

The Search Box is the new UI!

This formidable phrase was coined by Adam Gross, VP of Developer Marketing, while describing the cooperation between his company and Google's Enterprise Search 2.0 – an appliance that indexes not only unstructured data like documents and mails, but also databases of major application vendors, such as So if a sales person wants to know details about the customer he's about to meet, he only has to search for it, and…

Strange. just acquired Sendia, a company specializing in rendering Browsers into all sort of devices. But if we stick to Adam Gross' logic, Sendia shouldn't have been acquired at all. Instead a Voice interface to a Google Search Box which, in its turn, is mapped to database would've been a better choice for Salesforce's mobile strategy. After all, what the user at the end of the device really wants is not a foxy Nokia interface but real-time Information. If she can get it by talking to the device, she'd be much more productive.

So Google's in this game. What about Yahoo!? Read & listen to Jeff Bonforte, Senior Director of Voice Product Management at Yahoo! about their plans.

Dissonance#2: APIs vs. UIs

Another Browser-based dissonance has to do with mash-ups. Web 2.0 is all about mashing up the site/application APIs. In other words, it's all about a site/application providing access to its functions/Information through APIs. If no APIs are offered the site is practically out of the game. I will redraw your attention to an excellent article in, where the dilemma of whether to develop API or UI is well described. The conclusion is that in a Web2.0 reality, APIs should have precedence over UI.


I enjoy Ajax UI very much and the Browser-as-a-Platform metaphor is absolutely cool. Only that the Browser is a limited and not that efficient way of interfacing with Information. The more people will become Information Junkies, the less they will find the Browser suitable for their needs. I'm having a dilemma here, so I'm going to take an aspirin.


Blogger Paul Jardine said...

I think you're right about the browser being an 'old fashioned' way of getting information.
I had envisioned MMORPGs as the access mode of the future, which I initially thought didn't tie in with 'Search as the new UI' but on reflection, the online world effectively just overlays structure onto the Global Information River, providing an 'index' to enable better access.
Web 2.0, JAM tomorrow (Just Another Mashup) ;)

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take some XUL to create a un-headacked interface.
Technically ajax is a not a solution. It is a solution for users but not for programmers.


2:02 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Hi Paul

It's a very interesting perspective you're offering: sites and applications as convenient "Lenses" over the Panta Rei. The Browser-as-a-place-of-Order in an unstructured, chaotic Information world. Great perspective.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Hi Gabriel

Ajax, XUL - everything's a metaphor. It's the browsing paradigm I'm interested in.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous GabrieL said...

You are right of course about ajax, i did not finished your article yet - sorry... (as a developer, so i stayed stuck to the Ajax buzz word, which get me on my nerves)
Just to add a testimony about web2, i was a happy web surfer, but I almost stopped hanging around the web since i took "google reader" as my web home page.
In a way i am sad of that, i liked diversity, surprises, meeting with other people way to be. Surprinsingly, in your paradigm ui v. api, i regret the ui. That is why i still think that the universal plateform - the web browser - has its future. Not as the unique way - as in the early years of the web. But i think internet is a neutral place. People come to find some information. And other people come to give information.
How do they meet? Why? When? This is where the magic begins, something out of our control, out of our way to broadcast information, in a place where you hear people talking to each other about this web site, or that one, where you googlise anything, the name of your friends, the names of writters... I mean: creating an api is today a great way to create a market, but do not forget freedom, and pleasure, of the web, do not forget what is out of our scope. You can only find if you have the willing or the pleasure to search.
That is why i am still advocating for xul - ie (oops...) a universal and neutral plateform :-)

2:29 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Hi Gabriel,

Thanks a lot for sharing these thoughts of yours. I think that both Paul and yourself are making clear that the Browser is much more than an Interface, or a Platform.
It is a place of order and it is a place where human socialization takes place. Hence, its importance for us – the human users of the Net. I agree wholeheartedly.

9:45 PM  

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