The Ghost of Projects Past

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.


5 thoughts on “The Ghost of Projects Past

  1. Hey, my computer just spent gobs of time yesterday (on high-speed wi-fi at work) downloading and installing software updates and patches (from about seven different providers, including BOTH Java and Javascript), and now I have Shatner and the duck on Firefox. So it wasn’t your fault that I couldn’t get them before … it was probably just that some previous software update had disabled whatever enabled those applications.

    OTOH, one or more of those updates seem to have caused a couple of gadgets to disappear temporarily from my Vista sidebar. I did get the gadgets back after some fiddling, so no big deal. But it was annoying to lose my clock temporarily.

    I remember an application that came out, probably about the same time as you were attempting PeoplePost, that would have done about the same thing — it was called “Fridge Door” or some such. At the time that I read about it, I thought it was a really neat idea, but that it wasn’t really practical since just about everybody on the Internet at the time was on a dial-up connection. It got a lot of press, but it fizzled.

    • I did some tweaks to the duckloader tonight, and now it works on all my Windows browsers. Opera had its own odd quirks.

      While I was at it, I unstuck the poem rotator (again) in Internet Explorer.

      There was a thing called Fridge Door (so we couldn’t use the name), but it was different. There really hasn’t been anything like PeoplePost (and we were looking every day). You may be combining the name with my descriptions of what we were building. Also we were on the news in San Diego and LA and other stations may have run it as well. It created a buzz for a while.

  2. Hey, I got to be the first voter in your new poll!

    Meanwhile, now that the duck and Shatner are working, I’m going to have to remember to mute my computer while I’m at work before I wander into the blogosphere … at least this computer makes that easy with a dedicated mute button above the keyboard.

  3. This is an important entry that I kept meaning to come back to, and forgot. I remember being excited for you about this and I remember cruising in the Miata and listening to the swiss army knife rap. Alas, my peoplepost t-shirt is now my oil-change t-shirt. Which isn’t a commentary on value, but on time passing. Your title says it all.
    What is between you and the resurrection of PP? What is binary labs up to theese days? In defense of people using crap on their browsers, – was there an alternative? Widely known? I find the whole AOL and Compuserve thing interesting. Where users didn’t even know about browsers, they just saw the internet that AOL thought they should see.

    • I’ll get to your other points later, but as for crappy software in browsers, PeoplePost was originally created as a standalone application. Double-click the icon, a window opens, and you’re in the PeoplePost world. No browser at all. Security that made sense. Better performance.

      People just couldn’t associate that with ‘Internet’. I suppose by giving in and shoveling the thing into the browser, I just contributed to the ongoing ‘browser=Internet’ thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *