Monday, December 24, 2007

Space, the final frontier?

We are all familiar with the intro to the old Star Trek show, "Space, the final frontier", but in the virtual universe of the online "world" what is the nature of "space" and is it really a frontier?

Most people would agree that linear distance is completely irrelevant in the online world, where computer systems thousands of miles apart might as well be in the next room and a click could take you to data less than an inch away or a world away. An exception is that once we start communicating outside of the physical earth (e.g., Mars or deep space probes), latency becomes a very real issue.

Density of "space" (in terms of computing nodes or locations of files) is similarly completely irrelevant in the online world.

Space in terms of quantity of bits and bytes and data fields and database records is also completely irrelevant in the online world, with the exceptions of 1) occasional lack of local storage space due to artificial "quotas", and 2) latency and access time.

The next form of space is page layout. In print, writers have very hard and fixed boundaries for the amount of text and graphics that can be included in their stories. Getting an extra inch or page requires mighty effort. The Web page has no such limits. As such, space on web pages is effectively infinite and not a frontier at all.

But, there is another form of space online, screen size. The client device, typically a PC, does in fact have a relatively limited amount of space available. Sure, you can scroll and page through your large web pages, but there is a usability factor at work as well. Most "readers" do not read sequentially at all, but scan and bounce around. Their attention span for "viewing" a web page is limited, so asking them to scroll and page and click to get to the rest of the content is frequently too much to ask. The average reader has an unlimited number of content sources and will migrate to wherever screen size limitations are most respected.

Blogs and RSS readers introduce another layer  of space constraint. Sure, you can still page and link to get to unlimited amounts of space, but there is a clear premium value given to terse and concise blog posts that convey the essential meaning of a post in a single "view" in a small subset of the total screen space without demanding extra effort on the part of the user.

Finally, there is an even more intense constraint, or frontier if you will, imposed by accessing online content on a handheld mobile device such as a smartphone. Sure, you can certainly zoom and scroll and page and link to access an infinite amount of content, there is a clear premium value given to content providers who can format and express essential meaning in small-screen chunks.

So, in some sense the online world frees us of the limits and frontiers of three-dimensional and print space, but our access devices and human perceptual limitations give us new frontiers to tackle. We can look forward to a wealth of innovation in how to express, chunk, format, view, and navigate within online content in the years to come. Even the vaunted iPhone only scratches the surface. Even Google has not yet mastered the small screen.

Given the ease with which we can construct large computer networks with vast amounts of data storage and the vast, unlimited expanse of the Web, it certainly does feel as if the small screen of handheld devices is in fact a true frontier where opportunity is unlimited and existing solutions are quite limited.

-- Jack Krupansky