Christian Heilmann

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Enjoying the silence…

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

It is a strange love I have for the web. Ever since I used the web for the first time it felt like taking a ride with a best friend.

I knew I had to start working on it to never let it down again. Many people who started with the web when I did have the same idea: I feel behind the wheel and I keep wanting to show the people the world in my eyes.

But sometimes I get the feeling that we’re flying high and we’re watching the world pass us by. Every new dress the web wears comes with technical challenges showing the limits of web technology. I don’t think that is broken, it is a pain I am used to. I show people how to work around limits, how stripped down solutions will perform better in the long run, and how walking in my shoes can give them a long lasting career with some great reward.

That said, I don’t think we get the balance right. It happens all the time that things don’t go as perfect as we want them to be. Of course we can tell people that they shouldn’t have done that, and follow a sacred policy of truth about the need for, for example, ubiquituous accessibility. But people are people and in many cases it is not always easy. When the boys in the higher up departments say go and it is a question of time in the project, shortcuts are taken. You stare down the barrel of a gun of delivery and you don’t have time for sweetest perfection. And – even worse – our whole market is constantly asked to innovate and create new things. We who are telling quality stories of old don’t suffer that well.

The landscape is changing all the time and the sinner in me is OK to spread some blasphemous rumours. The bottom line is that in your room you have a lot more insight than in a cut-throat delivery cycle. When products are faulty and become hard to maintain, we shouldn’t tell people “told you so”, that’s wrong.

We should be more flexible and whilst we have and hold the web we love, we should also remember that everything counts in large amounts. So our advice should yield fast and maybe dirty results, as much as the promise of sweetest perfection and a great reward in the future.

Instead of saying it’s no good, let’s say I feel you and try to fix the fragile tension between constant growth, innovation and quality.

Taking a look behind the scenes before publicly dismissing something

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Lately I started a new thing: watching “behind the scenes” features of movies I didn’t like. At first this happened by chance (YouTube autoplay, to be precise), but now I do it deliberately and it is fascinating.

Van Helsing to me bordered on the unwatchable, but as you can see there are a lot of reasons for that.

When doing that, one thing becomes clear: even if you don’t like something — *it was done by people*. People who had fun doing it. People who put a lot of work into it. People who — for a short period of time at least — thought they were part of something great.

That the end product us flawed or lamentable might not even be their fault. Many a good movie was ruined in the cutting room or hindered by censorship.
Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho almost didn’t make it to the screen because you see the flushing of a toilet. Other movies are watered down to get a rating that is more suitable for those who spend the most in cinemas: teenagers. Sometimes it is about keeping the running time of the movie to one that allows for just the right amount of ads to be shown when aired on television.

Take for example Halle Berry as Storm in X-Men. Her “What happens to a toad when it gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” in her battle with Toad is generally seen as one of the cheesiest and most pointless lines:

This was a problem with cutting. Originally this is a comeback for Toad using this as his tagline throughout the movie:

However, as it turns out, that was meant to be the punch line to a running joke in the movie. Apparently, Toad had this thing that multiple times throughout the movie, he would use the line ‘Do you know what happens when a Toad…’ and whatever was relevant at the time. It was meant to happen several times throughout the movie and Storm using the line against him would have actually seemed really witty. If only we had been granted the context.

In many cases this extra knowledge doesn’t change the fact that I don’t like the movie. But it makes me feel different about it. It makes my criticism more nuanced. It makes me realise that a final product is a result of many changes and voices and power being yielded and it isn’t the fault of the actors or sometimes even the director.

And it is arrogant and hurtful of me to viciously criticise a product without knowing what went into it. It is easy to do. It is sometimes fun to do. It makes you look like someone who knows their stuff and is berating bad quality products. But it is prudent to remember that people are behind things you criticise.

Let’s take this back to the web for a moment. Yesterday I had a quick exchange on Twitter that reminded me of this approach of mine.

  • Somebody said people write native apps because a certain part of the web stack is broken.
  • Somebody else answered that if you want to write apps that work you shouldn’t even bother with JavaScript in the first place
  • I replied that this makes no sense and is not helping the conversation about the broken technology. And that it is overly dismissive and hurtful
  • The person then admitted knowing nothing about app creation, but was pretty taken aback by me saying what he did was hurtful instead of just dismissive.

But it was. And it is hurtful. Right now JavaScript is hot. JavaScript is relatively easy to learn and the development environment you need for it is free and in many cases a browser is enough. This makes it a great opportunity for someone new to enter our market. Matter of fact, I know people who do exactly that right now and get paid JavaScript courses by the unemployment office to up their value in the market and find a job.

Now imagine this person seeing this exchange. Hearing a developer relations person who worked for the largest and coolest companies flat out stating that what you’re trying to get your head around right now is shit. Do you think you’ll feel empowered? I wouldn’t.

I’m not saying we can’t and shouldn’t criticise. I’m just saying knowing the context helps. And realising that being dismissive is always hurtful, especially when you have no idea how much work went into a product or an idea that you just don’t like.

There is a simple way to make this better. Ask questions. Ask why somebody did something the way they did it. And if you see that it is lack of experience or flat out wrong use of something, help them. It is pretty exciting. Often you will find that your first gut feeling of “this person is so wrong” is not correct, but that there are much more interesting problems behind the outcome. So go and look behind the scenes. Ask for context before telling people they’re doing it wrong.

Pixels, Politics and P2P – Internet Days Stockholm 2016

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

Internet Days Logo

I just got back from the Internet Days conference in Stockholm, Sweden. I was flattered when I was asked to speak at this prestigious event, but I had no idea until I arrived just how much fun it would be.

lanyard

I loved the branding of he conference as it was all about pixels and love. Things we now need more of – the latter more than the former. As a presenter, I felt incredibly pampered. I had a driver pick me up at the airport (which I didn’t know, so I took the train) and I was put up in the pretty amazing Waterfront hotel connected to the convention centre of the conference.

chris loves internet

This was the first time I heard about the internet days and for those who haven’t either, I can only recommend it. Imagine a mixture of a deep technical conference on all matters internet – connectivity, technologies and programming – mixed with a TED event on current political matters.

The technology setup was breathtaking. The stage tech was flawless and all the talks were streamed and live edited (mixed with slides). Thus they became available on YouTube about an hour after you delivered them. Wonderful work, and very rewarding as a presenter.

I talked in detail about my keynote in another post, so here are the others I enjoyed:

Juliana Rotich of BRCK and Ushahidi fame talked about connectivity for the world and how this is far from being a normal thing.

Erika Baker gave a heartfelt talk about how she doesn’t feel safe about anything that is happening in the web world right now and how we need to stop seeing each other as accounts but care more about us as people.

Incidentally, this reminded me a lot of my TEDx talk in Linz about making social media more social again:

The big bang to end the first day of the conference was of course the live skype interview with Edward Snowden. In the one hour interview he covered a lot of truths about security, privacy and surveillance and he had many calls to action anyone of us can do now.

What I liked most about him was how humble he was. His whole presentation was about how it doesn’t matter what will happen to him, how it is important to remember the others that went down with him, and how he wishes for us to use the information we have now to make sure our future is not one of silence and fear.

In addition to my keynote I also took part in a panel discussion on how to inspire creativity.

The whole conference was about activism of sorts. I had lots of conversations with privacy experts of all levels: developers, network engineers, journalists and lawyers. The only thing that is a bit of an issue is that most talks outside the keynotes were in Swedish, but having lots of people to chat with about important issues made up for this.

The speaker present was a certificate that all the CO2 our travel created was off-set by the conference and an Arduino-powered robot used to teach kids. In general, the conference was about preservation and donating to good courses. There was a place where you can touch your conference pass and coins will fall into a hat describing that your check-in just meant that the organisers donated a Euro to doctors without frontiers.

Foodrobotwater

The catering was stunning and with the omission of meat CO2 friendly. Instead of giving out water bottles the drinks were glasses of water, which in Stockholm is in some cases better quality than bottled water.

I am humbled and happy that I could play my part in this great event. It gave me hope that the web isn’t just run over by trolls, privileged complainers and people who don’t care if this great gift of information exchange is being taken from us bit by bit.

Make sure to check out all the talks, it is really worth your time. Thank you to everyone involved in this wonderful event!

Interviewing a depressed internet at The Internet Days

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

This morning I gave one of two keynotes at the Internet Days in Stockholm, Sweden. Suffice to say, I felt well chuffed to be presenting at such a prestigious event and opening up for a day that will be closed by an interview with Edward Snowden!

Presenting the keynote

Frankly, I freaked out and wanted to do something special. So, instead of doing a “state of the web” talk or some “here is what’s amazing right now”, I thought it would be fun to analyse how the web is doing. As such, I pretended to be a psychiatrist who interviews a slightly depressed internet on the verge of a midlife crisis.

A depressed internet

The keynote is already available on YouTube.

The slides are on Slideshare:

Internet Days – The Depressed Internet from Christian Heilmann

Here is the script, which – of course – I failed to stick to. The bits in strong are my questions, the rest the answers of a slightly depressed internet.


Hello again, Internet. How are we doing today?

Not good, and I don’t quite know why.

It’s not that you feel threatened again, is it?

No, no, that’s a thing of the past. It was a bit scary for a while when the tech press gave up on me and everybody talked to those other guys: Apps.

But it seems that this is well over. People don’t download apps anymore. I think the reason is that they were too pushy. Deep down, people don’t want to be locked in. They don’t want to have to deal with software issues all the time. A lot of apps felt like very needy Tamagochi – always wanting huge updates and asking for access to all kind of data. Others even flat out told you you’re in the wrong country or the phone you spent $500 on last month is not good enough any longer.

No, I really think people are coming back to me.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Yes, I suppose. But, I feel bad. I don’t think I make a difference any longer. People see me as a given. They see me as plumbing and aren’t interested in how I work. They don’t see me as someone to talk to and create things with me. They just want to consume what others do. And – much like running clear water – they don’t understand that it isn’t a normal thing for everybody. It is actually a privilege to be able to talk to me freely. And I feel people are not using this privilege.

I want to matter, I want to be known as a great person to talk to.

Oh dear, this sounds like you’re heading into a midlife crisis. Promise me you won’t do something stupid like buying a fancy sports car to feel better…

It’s funny you say that. I don’t want to, but I have no choice. People keep pushing me into things. Things I never thought I needed to be in.

But, surely that must feel good. Change is good, right?

Yes, and no. Of course it feels great that people realise I’m flexible enough to power whatever. But there are a few issues with that. First of all, I don’t want to power things that don’t solve issues but are blatant consumerism. When people talk about “internet of things” it is mostly about solving inconveniences of the rich and bored -instead of solving real problems. There are a few things that I love to power. I’m great at monitoring things and telling you if something is prone to breaking before it does. But these are rare. Most things I am pushed into are borderline silly and made to break. Consume more, do less. Constant accumulation of data with no real insight or outcome. Someone wants that data. It doesn’t go back to the owner of the things in most cases – or only a small part of it as a cute graph. I don’t keep that data either. But I get dizzy with the amount of traffic I need to deal with.

And the worst is that people connect things to me without considering the consequences. Just lately a lot of these things ganged up on me and took down a large bit of me for a while. The reason was that none of those things ever challenged their owners to set them up properly. A lack of strong passwords allowed a whole army of things that shouldn’t need to communicate much to shout and start a riot.

So, you feel misused and not appreciated?

Yes, many are bored of how I look now and want me to be flashier than before. It’s all about escaping into an own world. A world that is created for you and can be consumed without effort. I am not like this. I’m here to connect people. To help collaborative work. I want to empower people to communicate on a human level.

But, that’s what people do, isn’t it? People create more data than ever.

Maybe. Yes, I could be, but I don’t think I am. Sure, people talk to me. People look into cameras and take photos and send them to me. But I don’t get explanations. People don’t describe what they do and they don’t care if they can find it again later. Being first and getting quick likes is more important. It’s just adding more stuff, over and over.

So, people talk to you and it is meaningless? You feel like all you get is small talk?

I wished it were small. People have no idea how I work and have no empathy for how well connected the people they talk to are. I get huge files that could be small. And they don’t contain any information on what they are. I need to rely on others to find that information for me.

When it comes down to it, I am stupid. That’s why I am still around. I am so simple, I can’t break.

The ones using me to get information from humans use intelligent systems to try to decipher what it all means. Take the chat systems you talked about. These analyse images and turn them into words. They detect faces, emotions and text. This data goes somewhere, I don’t know where and most of the users don’t care. These systems then mimic human communication and give the recipient intelligent answers to choose from. Isn’t that cool?

People use me to communicate with other people and use language created for them by machines. Instead of using us, humans are becoming the transport mechanism for machines to talk to each other and mine data in between.

This applies to almost all content on the web – it is crazy. Algorithms write the news feeds; not humans.

Why do you think that is?

Speed. Constant change. Always new, always more, always more optimised. People don’t take time to verify things. It sickens me.

Why do you care?

You’re right, I shouldn’t be bothered. But I don’t feel good. I feel slow and sluggish.

Take a tweet. 140 letters, right?

Loading a URL that is a tweet on a computer downloads 3 megabytes of code. I feel – let’s name it – fat. I want to talk to everybody, but I am fed too much extra sugar and digital carbs. Most of the new people who are eager to meet me will never get me.

This is because this company want to give users their site functionality as soon as possible. But it feels more sinister to me. It is not about using me, it is about replacing me and keeping people inside of one system.

I am meant to be a loosely connected network of on-demand solutions. These used to be small, not a whopping 3 Megabytes to read 140 characters.

People still don’t get that about me. Maybe it is because I got two fathers and no mother. Some people get angry about this and don’t understand it. Maybe a woman’s touch would have made a better system.

But the worst is that I am almost in my 30s and I still haven’t got an income.

What do you mean by that?

There seems to be no way to make money with me. All everybody does is show ads for products and services people may or may not buy.

Ask for money to access something on me and people will not use it. Or find an illegal copy of the same thing. We raised a whole generation of people who don’t understand that creating on me is free, but not everything that I show is free to use and to consume.

Ads are making me sick and obese. Many of them don’t stop at showing people products. They spy on the people who use me, mine how they interact with things and sell that data to others. In the past, only people who use me for criminal purposes did that. Blackmail and such.

Can’t you do anything about that?

I can’t, but some people try. There’s ad blockers, new browsers that remove ads and proxy services. But to me these are just laxatives. I still need to consume the whole lot and then I need to get rid of it again. That’s not a healthy way to lose weight.

Some of them have nasty side effects, as you never know who watches the watchmen.

What do you need to feel better?

I want to communicate with humans again. I want to see real content, human interactions and real emotions. I don’t want to have predictable creativity and quick chuckles. I want people to use me for what I was meant to do – real communication and creativity.

Yes, you said that. What’s stopping you?

Two kinds of people. The ones who know my weaknesses and use me to attack others and bully them. This makes me really sick, and I find it disappointing that those who act out of malice are better at using me than others.

The second kind of people are those who don’t care. They have me, but they don’t understand that I could bring prosperity, information and creativity to everyone on the planet.

I need to lose some weight and I need to be more open to everybody out there again. Not dependent on a shiny and well-connected consumption device.

So, you’re stuck in between bullies and sheep?

Your words. Not mine. I like people. Some of my best friends are people. I want to keep empowering them.

However, if we don’t act now, those who always tried to control me will have won. Not because they are good at it, but because the intelligent, kind and good people of the web allowed the hooligans to take over. And that allows those who want to censor and limit me to do so in the name of “security”.

You sound worried…

I am. We all should be. This is not a time to be silent. This is not a time to behave. This is a time that needs rebels.

People who use their words, their kindness and their willingness to teach others the benefits of using me rather than consuming through me. Hey, maybe there are quite a few here who listened to me and help me get fit and happy again.

The feedback so far was amazing. People loved the idea and I had a whole day of interviews, chats, podcasts and more. Tomorrow will be fun, too, I am sure.

Decoded chats the fifth: Ada Rose Edwards on Progressive Web Apps

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

A few weeks after I pestered Ada Rose Edwards to write her first Smashing Magazine article on Progressive Web Apps I did a Skype call with her to talk about the same topic.

You can see the video and get the audio recording of our chat over at the Decoded blog:

ada video interviww

Ada is a great talent in our market and I am looking forward to pestering her to do more of these good things.

Here are the questions we covered:

  1. Ada, you just wrote on Smashing Magazine about “The building blocks of progressive web apps”. Can you give a quick repeat on what they are?
  2. We’ve had a few attempts at using web technology to build app like experiences. A lot of them left end users disappointed. What do you think were the main mistakes developers did?
  3. Is the “app shell” model a viable one or is this against the idea of “content first” web sites turning into apps?
  4. You worked on one of the poster-child web-technology based apps in the past – the Financial Times app. What were the main challenges you faced there?
  5. It seems that in the mobile space it is OK to abandon platforms that arent’ used much any longer, should that be something to consider for the web and browsers, too?
  6. Progressive Web apps do away with the concept of a need of an app store. This is more convenient, but it also poses a UX challenge. Users aren’t expecting a web site to work offline. What can we do to break that assumption?
  7. The wonderful thing about PWAs is that they are progressive, which means that platforms that don’t support ServiceWorkers should still have a good experience and fall back to a classic “add to homescreen” scenario. What can we do to avoid people forgetting about this and build “this app needs Chrome on latest Android” apps instead?
  8. Are responsive interfaces a unique skill of web developers? Is it something we learned simply because of the nature of the platform?
  9. The distribution model of PWAs is the hyperlink. You pointed out rightfully in your article that there needs to be a way to share this link and send it to others. Hardliners of the web also argue that a URL should be visible and “hackable”. Do you think this is a valid need?
  10. What about Instant Apps on Android? Aren’t they a threat to Progressive Web Apps?
  11. What can we do to avoid PWAs becoming the new “m.example.com”? The average web site it too big and slow to become and app. How high are your hopes that this new approach could help the web as a whole become slimmer?