Weekly output: Windows XP (x2), Google Docs

It really is extraordinary (or maybe just sick) that this past week saw me still writing about an operating system that debuted in 2001.

Yahoo XP story in IE 64/8/2014: Die, XP, Die! Why the Operating System from 2001 Won’t Go Away, Yahoo Tech

I’ve been looking forward to writing this column for several years, and when the end of Microsoft’s support for Windows XP finally arrived I found it strangely enjoyable to revisit stories I’d written five and 10 years ago about XP. I’ve since heard from a few readers who say they prefer XP to Windows 7 or 8 not just because they need to run legacy apps or don’t want to buy a new PC, but because XP is easier. I’m wary of questioning a reader’s subjective judgment, but… um, no.

(Screenshot shows how the story renders in a copy of Internet Explorer 6 in Windows XP. Don’t ask how I sourced that image.)

4/8/2014: Windows XP, WTOP

I talked for a few minutes about the end of XP support and what users of that fossilized malware magnet of an operating system could do to stay safe.

4/13/2014: Why your browser doesn’t like copy and paste, USA Today

To judge from the low number of Facebook and Twitter shares displayed next to this story, almost nobody read my attempt to concisely how the intersection of browser security models with Web apps that look and work like local ones can lead to dysfunctional results. I’ll try to find a more enticing topic next week.

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A Metro user-interface wish list

One side effect of being a user-interface critic is never being able to step away from the work–the world is full of bad UIs. And sadly enough, public transportation has been a tremendous contributor. Consider the transit system I know best and use all the time, Metro.

Don’t get me wrong here: Metro’s rail map is a model of clarity (yes, I own a copy of “Transit Maps of the World”) and I’ve grown so used to Metro’s signs counting down the minutes until the next train that the absence of equivalents in places like Boston baffles me (“I’m just going to have to wait at Government Center for an indeterminate period of time?!”). The leadership at WMATA greatly improved the system’s usability when they provided a schedule feed to third-party sites like Google Maps, as I documented in an article for ReadWriteWeb two weeks ago.

Yet in some ways, Metro’s user experience remains awkward enough to make you wonder about the motives of the people behind this “UX.”

  • Too many bus-stop signs are useless. The one pictured at right, across the street from the Clarendon Metro station, isn’t even the worst: Although it offers no map or schedule, it does name the end points of each route.
  • Bus-route monikers mean nothing. Take the 30s routes–please. Most 30s buses going west out of downtown head up Wisconsin Avenue, but the 38B goes across the river to Arlington. The 32, 32, 34 and 36 are local, but the 37 is express. Metro can’t even pick logical names for new routes, with no established constituency to confuse: When it added express service to BWI Airport, it named this route “B30″ instead of, you know, “BWI.”
  • The NextBus interface, on both the desktop and mobile, is clumsy and slow. It’s terrific that Metro lets you look up real-time arrival estimates for buses–when those estimates approach reality–but unless you’re standing in front of a sign with a NextBus stop number, you have to look up service by choosing a bus line, then a direction, then a stop. Metro’s sites desperately need a “service near my location” button like those on NJ Transit and BART’s mobile sites; fortunately, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel tweeted in June that Metro was working to add that. (The photo shows a related problem of incompatible next-arrival tools used by other systems; to see if Arlington Transit’s 42 bus will get there before the 38B, you’re asked to hit a separate site.) Update, 12/1, 12:02 p.m. Reader “t” commented that NextBus’s smartphone site – nextbus.com/webkit -  offers that geolocation option already. I tried it, and it almost instantly reported the next arrivals for the four Metro bus routes nearest my home, plus a D.C. Circulator stop about a mile away.
  • The downtown transfer stations need better exit signage. Get off at Metro Center, then try to find the westernmost exit. You can’t without a compass on your phone; at any given point, you can only see one or two signs pointing which escalator will take you towards one of its four exits. (There used to be a large map on the Red Line platform showing exactly where those exits put you on the street, but that disappeared at some point.) The situation is as bad at L’Enfant Plaza.
  • As a great many others have complained, station names are a form of grade inflation. In the city, endlessly-hyphenated names like “U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” suggest how much influence a particular councilmember holds; in the suburbs, exercises in wishful thinking like “Vienna/Fairfax-GMU” imply that locations five miles away are next door. I can only hope Metro’s board quashes Fairfax County’s delusional proposal to name seven of the eight future Silver Line stops in the county after either “Tysons” or “Reston.”
  • Poorly-connected suburban stations. Building a Metro stop is an expensive exercise, but some area jurisdictions must have forgotten that when designing Metro stops that impede access from adjacent neighborhoods. In Fairfax, the Dunn-Loring stop squats in the median of Interstate 66–but there’s no pedestrian bridge connecting it to the north side of the highway. Walking from the West Falls Church stop to a friend’s house in Pimmit Hills–about a mile by air–sends me on a two-mile trek along multiple highway on- and off-ramps. In Montgomery County, walking from the Forest Glen stop to the east side of Georgia Avenue requires a hazardous crossing of eight lanes of traffic.

You’ll note that I didn’t include a common Metro rant: its byzantine route structure, with off-peak, peak and “peak of the peak” fares that also vary by distance. That’s because Metro’s stored-value fare cards, and in particular its SmarTrip RFID cards, help to hide the cost of any given trip. (When I interviewed Metro CFO Peter Benjamin in 1999 for a piece explaining the then-new SmarTrip system, he said upfront that Metro wanted to make the price of any one ride as invisible as the cost of a single drive.) It’s funny how a good interface can make complexity vanish.

Weekly output: Flash, Android tablets, SOPA, Microsoft stores, Metro

News flash: I haven’t been writing as often here. That’s a logical outcome of having more places willing to pay me to write, but at the same time I feel like I’m committing a blogging foul by letting this go dark for a week or two at a stretch. At the same time, I’ve realized that keeping up with my scattered output can’t be that easy for interested readers–I can’t always remember what I’ve written over the last two weeks.

(I point to my work on Twitter and my Facebook page, but good luck finding those links later on at either site.)

So I’m going to do a post each week wrapping up my work. That will ensure there’s something new here each week, and it will give me a spot to share some insights about how each post/article/Q&A/podcast/speech/interpretive dance/etc. came to be. (Credit for this idea and the structure I’m using goes to Brett Snyder’s Cranky Flier blog, which runs a “Cranky on the Web” post each Saturday noting where he’s written or been quoted.) Yes, the fact that this exercise may better promote my work and myself has not escaped my attention.

Nov. 15: “Fading Flash And Other Media Missteps,” CEA Tech Enthusiast (subscription required) CEA Digital Dialogue

A follow-up to an earlier post on Discovery News about Adobe’s decision to stop developing mobile versions of its Flash Player, in which I note some possible downsides of having to rely on a universe of apps for name-brand video on mobile devices and other non-computer gadgets.

Nov. 16:  “Why Android Tablets Can’t Catch A Break,” Discovery News

I’d meant to write this review of the Vizio Tablet earlier, but other events kept bumping it aside. The upside of that was that I could incorporate some extended observations of Vizio’s marketing and the broader state of the tablet market into the piece.

Nov. 18: “Online Piracy Act Is Copyright Overreach,” Roll Call

This is an updated version of a post I did for Tech Enthusiast two weeks earlier. CEA–no fan of the Stop Online Piracy Act–wanted to get the post a broader audience and sold Roll Call on running it. (CEA and I came to our dislikes of this foolish bill separately, but I don’t mind their efforts resulting in my first print appearance since April.)

Nov. 19: “A Store That’s The Apple of Microsoft’s Eye,” Discovery News

I trekked out to Tysons Corner to see Microsoft open its 14th retail store, the first anywhere along the Northeast Corridor. My first impression was probably yours: It’s a lot like Apple’s stores. My second: The Microsoft Store presents a tough critique of the PC business as we’ve known it.

Nov. 19: “How D.C.’s Metro Opened Up Its Data,” ReadWriteWeb

I started this post months ago; after my editor told me “no rush here,” I took advantage of a liberal deadline to over-report the piece. So, please, ask me an obscure question about Metro, transit-data feeds or mapping applications.

Updated 1/31/2012 with links to non-paywalled versions of the Tech Enthusiast links.