Aza Raskin: Conversational Computing (Ubiquity & Jetpack)

AUG 20, 2009
Aza Raskin delivered the eighth Web Exponents tech talk at Google last week. Aza is head of user experience at Mozilla Labs. He's an entrepreneur and Renaissance man, as evidenced by the breadth of topics in his presentation.

What I like about Aza is that he's a user advocate - sharing our frustrations over the complexities and hurdles of interacting with computers. It's not that applications lack functionality. Aza points out that "90% of the feature requests for features in [Microsoft] Word are in fact for features that are already in Word." The problem is that humans can't interact with, speak with, computer applications using a familiar language.

Ubiquity is one of the projects from Mozilla Labs that bridges this digital divide. Ubiquity is a Firefox add-on that allows users to complete tasks using a more intuitive language. One example Aza shows is highlighting part of a web page and typing "translate this to Russian". Ubiquity acts on the user's request by replacing the text in the web page with the Russian translation. Another example is typing an address in a Yahoo! Mail message, typing "map this", and having Ubiquity embed the desired Google map inside the email.

Aza calls this you-centric computing - allowing us to interact by talking about what we want to do, rather than forcing us to think about how to do it. Ubiquity achieves this, moving us from a web of nouns to a web of verbs. The point, according to Aza, is "perhaps by adding language, by making things hackable, we go from interfaces which work to our failabilities and our frailities, and instead are a little bit more human and hence a little bit more humane."

Jetpack extends Ubiquity's theme of making the Web hackable. Aza describes it as "an incredibly fast prototyping environment for changing the Web to make the Web yours. Sort of like taking the idea of Greasemonkey and mashing it up with extensions and giving it all steroids." Ubiquity and Jetpack allow each of us to make the Web our very own by modifying it to work the way we want.

Empowering users to customize the Web and more easily complete tasks moves us from a feeling of helplessness to a feeling of being in control. This is an important point and reminds me of Matt Mullenweg's talk at Velocity about slow web sites (my personal bent). There Matt says, "...when an interface is faster, you feel good. And ultimately what that comes down to is you feel in control." Empowering users is a common goal, and yet today's web applications still contain many hurdles (complexity, poor interaction language, slowness) that need to be addressed to make users feel in control and ultimately happy. Thanks to Aza and the folks at Mozilla Labs, we're moving closer to the you-centric Web each of us wants.

By Steve Souders, Performance Evangelist