On the Soapbox

How NOT to do tornado coverage

Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Keywords: Rant

  1. Do not pre-empt the current show. Especially if it's only a tornado warning (no actual tornado). In a mostly rural area with very few people. And the vast majority of the audience in your viewing area are not affected. And the show that you pre-empted was Jeopardy!
  2. Do not show off your fancy-smancy "Doppler XP" (at least they could have picked a less blatantly marketing-dept name than that!). The objective is to present relevant information, not to show off the millions that you have wasted on useless smoke and mirrors.
  3. Do not piss off your audience by talking about the hail that had fallen earlier in the day or about the amount of rain that had fallen during pre-empting coverage or showing traffic cam pictures from an area that isn't even the tornado warning; your audience already hates you for pre-empting their favorite show, and wasting that time talking about such trivia is rubbing salt on the wound.
  4. Present the information statically, so that someone tuning in can get the information with a single glance of the screen--after all, if this had been a real emergency and not just a sensationalized, overblown media-manufactured situation, I do want really want to have to wait for the weather man, who appears to be running in a loop, to loop back and repeat the relevant information. A small inset map in the corner showing tornado watch and warning areas in different colors would be far more useful than an idiot weather man flipping through maps boasting about how great the station's radar is. Or a sidebar bulleting the important points, so that someone turning on the TV can get the info immediately. As a bonus, you wouldn't have to pre-empt the show if you did that. Imagine, less annoying to the user and more useful, too!

This, BTW, was also the first time that a TV station had angered me to the point that I wrote them a letter (well, an e-mail). The TV stations back in Kansas were much better. They didn't pre-empt shows for tornadoes, and despite that, they were still more informative than the clowns here.

What makes Firefox 3 great?

Monday, May 12, 2008
Keywords: Technology

Last night, the code for Firefox 3 RC1 was handed off for building, and as I type this, the first candidate builds for RC1 are being spun. I've been using the nightly builds on my test machine (actually, a VPC) for a while now. At first, it was just meant as a test installation so that I could get a feel for what the upcoming browser would be, but now I find that I'm doing more browsing on that test install in a VPC than I am on my Firefox 2 installs on the real computer. That I'm using the Firefox 3 nightlies more than Firefox 2 despite it being run in a virtual machine is a testament, I think, so how great the new version is. So what makes it so great?

  1. Places: the new SQLite-based storage of bookmarks and history is much faster and allows for cool new things like the new location bar. I must admit, like many users, I hated the new location bar at first. It took a bit of getting used to and some adjustment in how I used the location bar, but now, I find it to be utterly indispensable, and it is the primary reason why I am using Firefox 3 more than Firefox 2.
  2. Firefox 3 is noticeably faster and more responsive.
  3. As a result of improvements such as the use of jemalloc and a new garbage collector, Firefox 3 uses less memory.
  4. The new graphics backend offers various benefits, such as the smooth scaling of images.
  5. Firefox 3 strives to appear more native, so it fits in better with the OS that it is running on. Of special interest to me, Firefox 3 looks better than Firefox 2 on Windows Classic.
  6. The download manager has been improved. First, it no longer uses RDF and thus doesn't suffer from slowdowns when the list gets too long (the use of RDF was a perfect illustration of how too many people today are mis-using XML for things for which XML is an insanely bad idea). Second, it allows download resumption. Third, it shows a general status indicator (# of downloads and est. time remaining) in the browser's status bar so that you can keep the manager closed and still keep track.
  7. The remember password prompt has been redesigned so that you could choose to remember the password after you have successfully logged in.

Sensible Product Naming

Monday, May 12, 2008
Keywords: Technology

Back in 2004, when the Firebird browser ran into naming difficulties and a search for a new name was initiated, I quietly wished for what I knew was a nearly-impossible outcome: that AOL would relinquish all claims to the Netscape name and donate that name to the Mozilla Foundation, so that it could be used for the name of their new browser. After all, Netscape is a browser's name, and if AOL was no longer in the browser business, why would it keep the name?

There were several reasons I wished that Firebird would be rebranded as Netscape. First, the Netscape logo has always been pretty. The elegant N on a starry background and a ship's steering wheel superimposed with the constellations were beautiful and evocative of the idea of "exploring" the Internet--I remember using Netscape 1.0 and how much that branding imagery colored my initial experience of browsing the web. Second, it would be poetic, for Firebird was originally named Phoenix, and if it could be named Netscape, then that would allow it truly live up to to the intent of its name. And most importantly, it was a name that made sense. "Netscape Navigator" gave some hint at what the product does: it navigates the net.

Back in 2003 when Mozilla announced that Firebird would become their new flagship product, they also announced that the final product name would be "Mozilla Browser", and that Firebird was just the project's temporary codename. Branding discussions from that time talked about the need to reinforce the "Mozilla" name (since Mozilla's first objective has always been the Gecko platform) and the need for clarity about what the product does. The "Mozilla Firebird" name doesn't give anyone any clue whatsoever what the nature of the product. It does not matter for people who are familiar with the product, but given that Mozilla is the underdog trying to claw its way up, a name like that made little sense at the time, and even today, it still makes little sense.

But I suppose this was all in line with modern marketing styles where things are given names that have absolutely nothing to do with the function or purpose of the product. What would have guessed that "Song" was an airline? Outside of the tech-savvy minority, who the heck has any clue what "Twitter", "dodgeball", or "del.icio.us" are? On the other hand, "Facebook" and "MySpace" have names that at least hint at what it is that they do. Similarly, Microsoft and Google are consistent with their naming: "Microsoft Word", "Windows Media Player", "Google Earth", "Gmail/Google Mail" are all examples of products whose use of a generic product name helps shift the emphasis to the parent brand name and clarifies what the product itself is. "Mozilla Browser", "Mozilla Navigator", and "Netscape Navigator" are names that would follow that same pattern of sensible product names.

But alas, to my horror, it was announced in 2004 that the official product name for the Firebird project would be "Mozilla Firefox". This was wrong in so many ways. The initial reaction upon hearing that name from many people then (and still today) is, "what the heck is a firefox?!" The name was appropriate for a code name or for an inside joke, but not for a product name. It offered no clue as to what it did. It adds an extra step to the evangelism and marketing of the product because you must first explain to someone that "Firefox" is a web browser. I was also disappointed because I saw Phoenix as the rebirth of the Netscape lineage, and now the final name had nothing to do with Netscape or Phoenix/Firebird, and the metaphor was, sadly, lost.

Epilogue: With the initial success of Firefox, AOL resurrected the Netscape brand and released a couple of browsers based on Firefox bearing the Netscape name, but these releases played second-fiddle to Firefox, and Netscape slid further into obscurity. Earlier this year, the Netscape brand was closed for good. RIP...