I couldn’t sleep last night, and on nights like that it is natural to think of things that might have been. One of the thoughts that grabbed hold of my too-active brain was the memory of PeoplePost, an Internet-based photo-sharing application that allowed groups of people to build scrapbooks together. We called it a virtual refrigerator door. It was pretty slick.
The project failed for a number of reasons. First, we tried to ‘roll our own’ instead of springing for sophisticated Web development tools. (Back then, the tools were very expensive.) To save the cash we added months to the development, and in the meantime something fundamentally changed on the Internet. People began to expect everything to be free. You remember the two-year span when Web services stopped trying to make money and figured they would find some way to be profitable in the future? Probably not, but those were the years we were working on PeoplePost.
This happened as the dot-com boom was just getting started, before Google had finished making the Web a useful place. WordPress did not exist then. No MySpace, no Facebook, no Friendster. Geocities was around, but had PeoplePost taken off, we would have had to invent modern social networking as the next logical step. At the time, our networks were closed communities with no way to discover what other groups were up to.
Another thing that killed us was a dead-wrong prediction I made way back then. I said that the browser was the Swiss Army Knife of the Internet, and that soon people would turn to specific applications to perform specific tasks. “Swiss knife is good,” I said, “but soon people are going to want cutlery.” Boy, was I wrong about that. Instead of using applications designed for a specific purpose, people worked with really crappy applications that worked through the browser. People tolerated crap that worked in some browsers and not others, and they tolerated bad aesthetics, wasted bandwidth (on their modems!), and wretched user interfaces that left them cursing the screen. Why? I still don’t get it.
Nevertheless, we made PeoplePost a downloadable application (with a really slick self-updating scheme), and when people downloaded and installed it, they would then go back to the browser and wonder what to do next. It’s the Internet! It must be in the browser!
The application was written in Java (not Swing, but that’s another post), so we managed to get the whole thing shoehorned into the browser — suddenly dealing with four different security systems and a host of other issues, like Microsoft’s passive-aggressive antipathy toward the language. What a pain. Still, a few people started to use it.
What we really needed at that stage was widespread broadband. We were diligent about saving bandwidth (all graphic elements preinstalled, for instance), but with advertising banners now harshing the lovely fridge door environment and eating up precious pipe, the user experience on a slow modem was not so great. Pictures are big. Still, we got Compaq and HP excited (shared photos become printed photos, which moves paper), and they helped get the product out there.
But we couldn’t charge for it, and we weren’t making money on advertising. It was going to be a long haul to make the product a financial success. An expensive haul. We couldn’t do it.
Skip forward to today. Finally, browsers are getting consistent enough and powerful enough that it’s almost (but not really) possible to make a decent application that runs in the browser. Meanwhile we’ve all been trained to put up with shitty software while online, so actual good software on the Web is big news. Now Internet Explorer (the second-worst thing to happen to the Internet) is finally close enough to the standards that people can write sophisticated user interfaces, using techniques that are often bundled under the term AJAX.
In the intervening years, galleries of many stripes have popped up on the Web, but nothing like PeoplePost. There are places people can share pictures, but they boil down to “here’s a big pile of my pictures; now post a big pile of your pictures.” Nice, but it could be better. A lot better. I was reminded of how cool PeoplePost would be this summer when the family was looking for a place to share photos from the eclipse cruise. There is nothing that allows people to collaborate, to build an album with text and photos and comments, and to allow everyone to contribute to the same album and build a true group identity. Combine that with modern social networking and you’ve got something.
Maybe it’s time to dust off the old failure. Maybe the world is ready for it now.