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More innovation means less control. Is that bad?

Innovation in mobile computing, search and social media increasingly means taking control away from users

March 16, 2013 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The Internet freaked out this week after Google announced the closure of its cloud-based RSS reader, Google Reader.

RSS fans begged Google to change its mind, signed a petition and scrambled to come up with alternatives. Although Google Reader is just one reader among many (probably the best one), many expressed fear that the RSS format itself is threatened by Google's action.

Despite the thousands of articles and blog posts lamenting the loss, few wondered why so many people think RSS is worth saving.

The conventional wisdom, which is conventional but not wisdom, says that RSS is obsolete because now we have Twitter and other social things. Techcrunch even said "In essence, Twitter is a big RSS reader."

In fact, Twitter is not a big RSS reader. RSS is something you control, and Twitter is something other people control. (Even if you dedicate a Twitter account exclusively to the same sources of content you had in Google Reader, the viewing options, functionality and everything about Twitter is controlled by Twitter.) That both give you streams of content is a superficial similarity. Fundamentally, they are opposites.

What Google Reader and RSS fans fear is not the loss of a good service and a great format. They fear the loss of control. They fear a future in which decisions about what they see, watch, read and listen to are determined by secret algorithms and the whims of the social media masses.

It's not an unreasonable fear: The taking away of control from the user is the way the whole industry is going.

Samsung's fuzzy user interfaces

Computer user interfaces have evolved to become more user-friendly and more sophisticated. But while they have become easier to use, they've become harder to control.

The command line gave users perfect control. You typed in a command. It was either right or wrong. If the command was right, you could predict exactly what would happen.

The graphical user interface was a little fuzzier. For example, you select a group of icons by drawing a box with your mouse. A small slip of the fingers and you might miss a couple of icons or select the wrong ones.

Multitouch user interfaces are less exact still. It's easy to tap the wrong thing, or use the wrong gesture. Pinching and zooming doesn't give you an exact size; it just gives you generally smaller or generally bigger. The flicking gesture is even less exact. Flick the screen and down it goes; where it stops, nobody knows.

This week, Samsung added even more innovation to smartphone user interfaces with two new technologies.

The shiny new Samsung Galaxy S4 features eye-tracking. If you tilt the phone while looking at a web page, it will scroll automatically. If you're watching a video and look away, the video pauses.



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