trenchant.org

by adam mathes · archive

Social Media is an Amoral Force Of Destruction

Our algorithmically optimized systems of media distribution today are not self-correcting for anything but engagement and retention. They optimize for addiction.

That’s what they are designed to do. That’s why consumers use them, that’s why advertisers buy attention in the form of advertising. That’s their business model.

We should not be surprised that misinformation, hate speech, abuse, trolling and other worst case scenarios have become rampant.

This is the unfortunate logical conclusion to an advertiser based business model that optimizes for audience growth, scale and usage.

Only Software Companies And Drug Dealers Call The Clients Users

To complain about it, and demand those who own these systems take responsibility for it seems to me a bit like complaining to a drug cartel that they aren’t selling a version of cocaine that creates a more wholesome, productive environment amongst the community.

You’re trying to reason with a drug cartel. To make drugs less sellable.

It’s against their interests and anathema to their culture.

So good luck with that.

(In the case of Facebook, it’s more like trying to argue with a giant pharmaceutical company that enjoys profits from selling prescription versions of opiates.)

Change The Context

The drug analogy is extreme but useful framing. I don’t advocate prohibition of social media anymore so than I advocate it for drugs. (I voted to legalize marijuana last week in California, as did the majority of voters here.)

You don’t solve the problems of drug addiction by going after drug addicts or dealers, as the US has realized in a pointless war on drugs for decades. You treat addicts with compassion and offer help, and you change the economics and dynamics of the industry by movimg it from an underground economy to a regulated industry.

Beyond that, fundamentally, you have create a world where selling drugs and taking drugs aren’t the most appealing options available.

As technologists and designers in the sphere of consumer internet and media, we as an industry have utterly failed when hyper-optimized feeds fueled by incessant integrated advertising is the best we can do after decades.

This is how we want people to exchange ideas and communicate?

Treatment

Telling people to quit social media is like telling humans to become luddites, stop talking to their friends, miss out on the dominant means of communication and publishing and audience, and retreat to a weird abandoned backwater that is the formerly fun but now ghost town independent internet.

Sure, you can do it, but it’s not practical. The fact that I can do it is a rare privilege and is not without significant personal cost.

Asking users to fight against the tide of addictive social software that constantly optimizes itself, and customize the software and modify their behavior to use it in a less “awful” way is an equally difficult ask. (Please use opiates responsibly!)

We can build tools to help, but fundamentally the whole mechanism of media now is asymmetric warfare for our minds.

No, I Don’t Blame The Media

For the record, I believe institutional forces for globalization that have ignored the impacts on normal humans for decades are the fundamental ‘why’ behind 2016’s presidential election results. I don’t actually think media is at fault but it’s clear that both social media platforms, and establishment media outlets aren’t coming out of this unscathed.

For me, this is the sad, inevitable result of seeing the power of the independent internet movement coopted by giant companies. I’ve been writing about this and trying to make sense of it for years:

When people talk about how Facebook needs to change to deal with this, what seems saddest to me is that we are even having this conversation. We seemed to have a decentralized system that arguably was able to self-correct, or at least change itself rapidly and be responsive. Adapt. Without single points of failure.

Instead of that we are now left with centralized gatekeepers that are even less responsive and responsible than the old gatekeepers.

Traditional broadcast stations are regulated by the FCC and have to serve the public interests, theoretically.

Journalists, as a profession and as part of institutions, tend to act as though they have certain ethics and norms to uphold independent of the profit motive. (Sometimes. Sort of. In theory. You get the idea.)

We as people let Facebook and other companies get into this position by giving up freedom for convenience and audience.

Social media isn’t moral or immoral in its distribution and choices — it’s much more terrifying. Being optimized for engagement is amoral. And that is something that is going to be somewhere between very, very difficult and impossible to ever change in the current powerful entities.

What Then

I want to rely on decentralized, self-correcting systems that have different incentives aligned with the betterment of people.

That’s what I’d like to find a way to change.

Apple's Touch Bar Is an Inhuman Interface

Touch Bar is a tentpole feature of the MacBook Pro I just ordered.

I’ll reserve final judgment until I actually can use it for a while — but I am extremely skeptical it makes sense from a usability perspective. On first principles it seems — awful.

Modal Keys

Function keys are bad interfaces because they are modal — they change what they do depending on application context in unpredictable ways without clear indication.

Other keys do the same expected thing at all times. (Mostly.) So it’s hard to know what a function key will do and that modality makes harder to use them without error, and they have a high learning curve.

I am old enough to remember putting plastic overlays on top of function keys so their usage within WordPerfect was clear when you looked down.

That was, to put it mildly, a less than ideal interface.

The best application of these function key relics from decades past has been dedicating them to media keys (volume, play, etc) that you can depend on and develop muscle memory for. People actually use those to change volume, brightness, and stop music.

Removing that so that you can have variable touch inputs that require you to look down seems like an odd tradeoff to me.

Did we just make a prettier version of those WordPerfect overlays? At least those were all buttons, these can be virtual sliders, buttons, dials, or any number of touch interfaces.

Inputs and Outputs

What makes laptops and desktops different from touch devices is you manipulate on-screen entities using off-screen input devices.

Input below, output above. Eyes on output, fingers on inputs.

If you have to look, process, and focus on the input device while the output device is elsewhere you will slow progress to a halt as your attention shifts between input and output.

This is why we train to touch type rather than hunt and peck for each key, and why looking at your mouse while trying to point to something is going to make it impossible to succeed. If you can’t operate off-screen inputs with muscle memory, then your input takes away the focus from the entity you are manipulating on-screen.

Input = Output

Touch devices are different since the input and output devices are the same. You end up directly manipulating objects of interest, no context shifting or mappings needed.

The Squishy Terrible Middle

By putting a touch interface that requires visual attention in between the dedicated input (keyboard and trackpad) and output (screen) of a laptop, this suggests replacing fast actions with ones that would seem to be necessarily slower.

It also just mixes two very different models — direct mapping (keyboard/trackpad) and direct manipulation (touch) in a way that I can only assume will make our brains hurt.

How / Why / Huh?

While this may be interpreted as the marquee feature of the device, my guess is that it may have started more conservatively — adding in the technology to enable TouchID necessitated most of the guts of an Apple Watch / touch device, so might as well add in a screen too and multitouch!

But when your user experience ignore fundamentals of human computer interaction research and basics of human factors, glitzy marketable features and cool factor will wear off quickly.

I’d be more surprised about this but after 3D Touch (hey! let’s take the least disocverable, hardest to use feature of Android and make it more complicated by adding pressure as a variable!), pinch to zoom on a tiny Apple Watch, and nearly everything about Apple TV, I’m worried there are too few “no’s” in Cupertino right now.

New MacBooks Are Probably Not A Sign Of The Apocalypse

Some people are freaking out about Apple’s latest laptops and discussing them in either gushing or apocalyptic terms.

Let’s take a longer view.

Sample Size of One

I have purchased five Apple laptops — this latest will be my sixth.

These are the laptops I purchased (mostly, in some cases prices/stats may be off where I’m using publicly available data rather than receipts.) I may be mixing between medium and high end variants, but they’re all 15”.

Moore’s Law, Mostly

Notes:

  • Man that first TiBook was expensive
  • Hard drive size stalled during the switch to SSD
  • Yes, GHz * cores is kind of a dumb proxy but so is everything

15 Years Of Laptops

I have been buying Apple laptops since 2001’s Titanium Powerbook G4.

It took me a few years before Mac OS was my primary environment — overtaking Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD. But since about 2004 or so I’ve been using Apple laptops as my daily driver. For a few years that was all I really used, but these days I maintain a Windows PC for games and run a Linux server.

Apple laptops are the primary tool for my creative output and I’m emotionally and unreasonably attached to them.

The last time Apple released a redesigned their pro laptop was in 2012, I’m writing this on it one now. It’s great, even more than four years after purchase. I agree with my preliminary thoughts that it’s basically the best.

Speed, Power, Portability

I didn’t include weight and thickness but those have been declining and have probably overshot consumer need in 15” laptops.

While some may quibble about specific benchmarks or getting the absolute latest and greatest Intel processors, it’s mostly undeniable that Apple laptops steadily (and predictably) have improved over the past 15 years.

From my perspective this is not a super impressive or disappointing release, specs wise. The 2012 laptop I have already surpasses my needs for the most part in terms of performance, and I’d rather sacrifice a little in performance to have longer battery life, lower heat, and portability.

Where my needs are unmet is gaming and VR where Apple seems to have just completely ceded this area to competitors. (If there was an option to get a real overpowered GPU in the Macbook or use an external GPU, I’d do it in a heartbeat to stop dealing with a separate Windows box.)

Everything else I do (writing, programming, graphics experiments) what I have is already over the top.

(After four years I do have two dead pixels, and the screen sometimes seems to suffer some burn-in/fading at times, but other than that the hardware has held up.)

The Good

For me the most exciting announcement was actually for an external 5K display that connects to the new MacBook Pro with a single cable. That sounds amazing! Of course it’s not out until December.

This basically sold me — having a retina laptop with a retina external display has been my biggest want from Apple for a few years. (I almost bought the 5K iMac but the idea of buying a desktop seemed like it would just cause me too many headaches.)

TouchID for authentication seems like it will be a really nice time-saver and increase security and make things more convenient. Biometrics on my laptop! Cool!

The logo doesn’t glow anymore, I can only assume because in 2016 whimsy is dead.

The Extremely Concerning

I’m a keyboard snob and typing this on a Filco Majestouch 2. There is a near zero chance I will be happy with the weirdo no travel keyboard on this new laptop.

To be fair I’ve never really liked laptop keyboards, and when I do “real” work I’m generally in front of a bigger screen with a mechanical keyboard, so I’m expecting I’ll be able to live with it.

Touch Bar may be a debacle (or not) — I’ll cover it in depth tomorrow.

Data

Name  Year  CPU   RAM   HD   USD    USD2016
Ti    2001  0.4   0.25  10   2599   3610
Al    2005  1.67  0.5   80   2299   2895
MBP   2007  4.66  2     120  2499   2967
MBP2  2010  5.32  4     128  2199   2480
rMBP  2012  9.2   8     256  2199   2356
rMBP2 2016  10.8  16    512  2799   2799

TiBook
AlBook
MBP
MBP2
rMBP

Will VR Matter

When the echo chamber of modern tech punditry and giant company thinking claims something is the next big thing, usually either they’re too soon, way too late, or completely wrong.

THIS WOULD BE A SIDEBAR IF I EVER BOTHERED TO ADJUST MY CMS

DID YOU KNOW: Some technology executives are so good at not predicting the future, you can safely bet that whatever they proclaim in their public statements will definitely not be a priority at that company or the industry within five years, and have successfully done that at multiple companies over multiple decades.

Is this the future?

Getting the self-loathing and industry-loathing out of the way — the HTC Vive is the first product I’ve used in a few years that has felt like the future. That thrill of the novel, the squishy odd newness, the vague sense of uneasiness.

Truly novel things have to cause uneasiness in early iteration or they’re not actually novel.

I bought, used, and got bored with an Oculus Rift DK2 in 2015. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting, it just wasn’t interesting enough compared to the annoyance required vs. other ways to occupy my time.

(Also, resolution was low, software wasn’t ready, nobody knows how to make good stuff yet, etc.)

The Vive seems qualitatively different — moving from seated VR experiences (which only ever felt “right” to me if in a cockpit or similar simulation) to “room scale” VR with motion controllers is about 10x the hassle in setup, cords, and ridiculousness, but 100x the value in awesomeness.

Setup

I spent an hour futzing around with magical light cubes, too many cords, tuning a gaming PC that forces me to use Windows despite spending most of the last 20 years avoiding that OS at all costs, and afterwards it felt a little like the time I looked around my living room after playing Rock Band for a month and realized my life was full of fake plastic instruments.

Is this really how I want to live my life? What if someone sees this? What is all this weird plastic ephemeral detritus strewn about?

I was pretty sure it was a mistake and I would return the ridiculous monstrosity by the end of the weekend.

Moments

After spending even more time setting up “room scale VR” by waving motion controllers around a room, then having to do it again while reaching over a futon and furniture to trick it into thinking I had enough space, I was finally ready.

The first time I loaded up Space Pirate Trainer, looked down at my hand, and saw a future space gun thing, it blew my mind.

Not the blowing up the space drones for 30 minutes afterwards — though that was fun too.

What sticks with me was looking at the virtual object that was mapped to a physical object that I was holding, and seeing it and manipulating it. That bizarre otherworldy interplay between physical, digital, real and virtual created a level of presence and weirdness and fun.

That feeling is the future.

It’s like the magic of the first time playing Wii Bowling but hyperwired into your retinas and with everything hitting your whole body and ten million times more intense. And not bowling.

Will Anyone Care

Translating existing popular genres of entertainment over has challenges. The weight, heat, power, GPU/CPU requirements, cords, and rest of the mess makes using VR for extended periods of time still annoying.

I just want to dive into the metaverse, not fight with hardware.

Probably

It’ll get sorted out — though it might take another two or three generations of VR technology to make the annoyance factor low enough to bring it from the early adopters to a more mainstream audience.

Nobody really wants to futz with cords, high cost GPUs, or touch Windows 10, even if it means that’s the only way to touch the future.

The dividends of the smartphone wars make it seem reasonable to assume we’ll have the equivalent of what today you need a PC GPU for in a high quality VR self-contained headset unit with 4k-8k screens in the next 5 years (either by shoving your smartphone into a headset or standalone) for the cost of a smartphone/console. (Google Cardboard was step one in this direction, Daydream devices are step two — I’ve got a Pixel with headset on the way to see how it’s progressing.)

Feels like we’ll also need some better ways to handle physically walking around without infinite physical space (treadmills? gyroscopic crazy things?)

The contrarian view here is that VR is just too weird to gain wide adoption — maybe all this hype is for nothing, and maybe AR or other things are the next thing.

Seems shortsighted. My bet is VR headsets in 10 years will be as prevalent as video game consoles and the dominant form of immersive entertainment (eating into television, gaming, and mobile device usage) once the hardware becomes cheaper and easier to use than a giant television.

Video Game Consumption, Q3 2016

Regency Solitaire

This game is so good I can’t really even explain it.

I’m not going to try.

★★★★★

Videoball

VIDEOBALL is one of the most completely realized thoughts on game mechanics ever made in any medium.

I like VIDEOBALL a lot. Even though it appears nobody plays it.

★★★★

No Man’s Sky

It’s not as good as any of the gameplay trailers which are basically aspirational ads and not actual gameplay, as the internet will gladly tell you.

I’ve played 46 hours.

It’s pretty amazing, and feels like some of the most incredible exploration moments in gaming.

And also terrible and boring and awful and monotonous and addictive and garbage.

It’s a masterpiece while simultaneously being a huge disappointment.

Maybe in a year it will be 5 stars. Or zero stars. I don’t know.

★★★

Shardlight

A post-apocalyptic point and click adventure game published by Wadjet Eye Games, so, yes I enjoyed it a lot, as all previous evidence would suggest I would.

Feels like a believable world, great character, good writing, acting, puzzles. It’s good!

★★★★

Event[0]

Finally a first person adventure mystery game where the main NPC is an MS-DOS machine with Dr. Sbaitso!

Event[0] is beautiful, interesting, and ambitious but the limits of its tiny world - both the dimensions and size of the ship and the limits of the “AI” Kaizen - hamper its ability to convey a complete, coherent, and rich interactive experience.

It’s not that I think games have to be “long” to have “value” — just that this one doesn’t feel complete, and ends up seeming a bit disappointing. I want more highly memorable, short 5 hour interactive experiences, I just felt this one didn’t quite hit, but applaud the effort.

★★★

Kathy Rain

A mystery point and click that feels like it’s trying to be Gabriel Knight but I felt ended up being only pretty good rather than memorable and awesome. Enjoyable but forgettable.

I expected I’d like the protagonist more but Kathy just sort of annoyed me after a couple hours.

★★

ABZU

The succession from Flower to Journey to this feels like each iteration the creative team gets closer to making the game they really want to make in terms of a visual interactive experiences.

But also maybe what they really want to make is just a movie?

But you can’t make a wordless cg movie of a dude swimming for a few hours, so, we have ABZU.

It’s very pretty and you can meditate on a rock while fish swim around you — proving that what consumers really want is just After Dark aquariums.

★★★

Abandoned

I was expecting that Quardrilateral Cowboy would blow me away like the other Blendo Games but it’s so finnicky I gave up after a couple hours feeling that it was too unfun.

I’m not going to talk about Mighty No. 9 other than to say I probably should probably just start blocking Kickstarter at the DNS level.

Virtual Reality

I bought an HTC Vive and played a lot of VR stuff that I’ll write about separately.

Sim Travel

I put my sim back into my iPhone 5S for a couple days and railed about how the 6 series of phones are slippery garbage — and after two years the hardware and software hasn’t adapted to larger screen usability.

(Why are home screen icons still filled from the least accessible part of the screen?)

· · ·

Putting your sim into a 3 year old device feels like the promise of time travel, but it’s nothing like that. The now and future won’t be stopped by anyone’s gadget defiance.

(Then I pre-ordered a jet black iPhone 7.)

Pre-Apple Event Sept 2016

iPhone

Rumor: iPhone that looks like an iPhone 6 sans headphone jack.

What I want: iPhone that looks like anything other than an iPhone 6.

Watch

Rumor: Watch will now include GPS.

What I want: Watch with always on display.

Other

The standalone 5k display and updated Retina MacBook Pro that has modern processors / GPUs that I would instantly buy are rumored to still be months away.

I’m increasingly afraid I will just give up and buy an iPhone SE.

· · ·

I don’t want to spend my time on a giant two-handed phone — I prefer real, powerful computers with giant displays and large iPads for the rest of the time.

The 6 has probably been the only iPhone I own that I felt strong dislike towards.

Apple’s product line feels increasingly hostile to my preferences.

Maybe It Just Makes Me Crankier

Well that was a weird summer. (On multiple levels.)

· · ·

Whether social media isolation can actually ameliorate the negative impact of social media is still an open question for me, despite a few months of evidence. It’s hard to evaluate when your test subject is yourself and there are large uncontrolled variables.

Just Add Nationalism and Emotional Human Interest Stories

micah: I hate the Olympics.

clare.malone: Wait. Really?

harry: Really.

clare.malone: I have never heard anyone say that. I’m not being hyperbolic here.

You don’t even like one event?

harry: I watch baseball and football. Those are not Olympic events.

natesilver: The Olympics is sports, packaged for non-sports fans, which is slightly offensive if you’re a sports fan.

Is Donald Trump Blowing it? FiveThirtyEight

Eric Andre at the RNC

The only political coverage that matters.

That sure was VIDEOBALL

VIDEOBALL is a game that you can not quit.

Mostly because Action Button Entertainment literally did not implement a quit function in the initial PC version.

VIDEOBALL is one of the most completely realized thoughts on game mechanics ever made in any medium.

(If you’ve been reading Tim Rogers’s work for years this makes intuitive sense.)

Mostly though, it’s fun.

It’s beautiful, simple, colorful, and engaging. The charge mechanics are so carefully crafted and pleasing it feels like pure joy each time you pull off a play just right.

And, on top of that, it has incredible sound effect design, music, and voiceovers.

Highest possible recommendation.

TECHCORP

TECHCORP logo from Mr. Show Season 1, Episode 2 — “What To Think”

Every time I watch Mr. Show again I see something other detail that’s amazing.

[HBO Now]

Video Game Consumption Q2 2016

Doom

Expectations couldn’t have been lower. id hasn’t released a good game in years - rage was abysmal, Doom 3 a debacle. Carmack is off making magic VR goggles. Doom as a franchise is more than 20 years old. No review copies were sent out in advance — almost universally a sign that a publisher is expecting bad reviews.

So that Doom is a masterpiece of beautiful and horrific carnage, capturing what made doom bizarrely terrifying and awesome when it rocked the PC gaming world in the 90s, is one of the amazing surprises in gaming this year.

It’s fast, unlike the plodding cover based shooters that followed.

The weird over the top violence is mixed with a rhythm-based mechanic that finds a way to turn the ever-increasing carnage of monstrous demons and overwhelming odds into an intense flow when it works.

It’s level design again harkens back to the original weirdness of strange architectures, combinations of science fiction and demonic and horror.

Spoiler: you’re going to fight demons in hell.

Spoiler: it’s going to be awesome.

★★★★★

Technobabylon

I have loved every sci-fi point and click adventure game Wadjet Eye Games has published. I loved this one too.

Great writing, art, atmosphere, and puzzles. It’s excellent.

★★★★

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

Pretty good! Came for free with Doom, which makes it seem less good in comparison, despite being free.

Wolfenstein The New Order was somewhat refreshing and fun, this felt more plodding, less fun. More forgettable.

★★

Batman Arkham Knight

The PC version of this game was such a mess at launch they stopped selling it and I never played it. But now, in the future, graphics cards are more powerful and I guess they fixed some bugs and it’s kind of awesome?

I’m Batman! Wait, why is Batman in a tank? Am I Batman? And if so why am I in a tank?

I mean, if you are asking these questions instead of enjoying SCREAMING THROUGH GOTHAM IN THE BATMOBILE then why don’t you just EJECT YOURSELF from the Batmobile at high velocity up into the skies of Gotham and glide around and then land on a building and kick the crap out of some villains?

Now do you feel better?

I read Marvel comics, not DC, and thus do not care about any ideological purity or character guidance or nonsense in DC cartoons, games, or other media. I can just enjoy that every generation gets the Batman they deserve, and right now we need one that requires an insane amount of graphics power, and a fucking tank.

★★★★

or maybe ★

I honestly don’t know but I played like 50 hours of this and all the DLC, sorry.

Are There Viable Open Source Slack Alternatives?

Some are close, but I believe there will need to be serious investment in native mobile applications for the existing open source solutions to get there.

What Is Slack

Slack is incredibly popular, high growth, proprietary chat software.

You should probably try it if you haven’t already, it’s nice.

What IS Slack

It’s a little more than that. Key elements that make Slack Slack

  1. real time chat
  2. asset hosting and sharing (images, links, etc)
  3. search of text and assets
  4. understandable authentication and permissions
  5. client software for web
  6. platform for automated users (bots)
  7. native mobile clients for iOS and Android with push notifications
  8. a bunch of social norms and behaviors around talking to coworkers (with emoji and gifs)

1-5 are nearly a commodity at this point in various forms, though generally not packaged very well together as a system.

The value of 6 can mostly be replicated by competing platforms as de facto standards emerge, but hasn’t.

7 is actually a competitive differentiator for Slack right now, and is the focus of the conclusion of this piece.

It may seem like I’m mocking 8 but I’m not. Setting the cultural context and norms for communication software matters a lot more than people think, and how software makes you feel is part of why people will or will not use it. (This is something that open source software, and software generally, ignores.)

All communication and social software is about people, and how they feel. When you breathe culture and personality into software, it has an impact on that. 1

Why Use Slack

Slack is a great way to get the above with very little hassle in a hosted, integrated offering with momentum.

I like the software! It’s nice. There’s an attention to detail, polish, and craftsmanship in what they’ve made that is very admirable.

I have friends that work there, and they’re all nice too.

Why Not Slack

Cost may be an issue, though for most business usage I doubt that will be the deciding factor.

For personal usage, it seems cost prohibitive if you want to keep access to your archives and get the “full” experience.

Bigger issues that may be important to you:

  • data security and ownership
  • federation
  • long term viability of Slack Technologies Inc.
  • cost structure in long term
  • long term viability of proprietary protocols, closed source code vs. open protocols
  • lack of control over your own communications archives and destiny
  • uptime and stability
  • government surveilance, end to end encryption, privacy

You can argue that exports and backups and documentation can mitigate a lot of the above but in 2016 it feels like real time chat communications platform should be something anybody can spin up and use without hassle, and without having to deal with a giant VC funded US corporation, no matter how benevolant you think those entities may or may not be.

Much of the above I think are just fundamentally not going to be addresseable with centralized, hosted solutions (privacy, surveillance, encryption, ownership). All the convenience of magical self-hosted centralized software comes at a cost, some people may deem the tradeoffs not worth it.

For me, while I work on proprietary software and have for many years, I choose to spend some of my free time pretending to be an open source curmudgeon, sometimes, and want to understand what the alternatives are.

The older I get, the more it seems like RMS was right more often than I ever thought.

Money

Even if you don’t care about any of that, there’s probably viable businesses in getting open source slack alternatives up to parity and selling services or other complements around it.

Slack has hundreds of thousands of paying users and is growing — there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue over the next few years in this space, it will be surprising to me if the open source community doesn’t capture some of it.

Three Contenders

Looking at the current landscape of Slack alternatives, I found three that I think can get you most of the elements listed above: IRC, Mattermost, and Rocket Chat.

After limited usage my take is IRC is a glorious mess, Mattermost and Rocket Chat are both incredibly impressive efforts at this stage, though my personal take is Mattermost feels a bit disappointing, and Rocket Chat shows more promise and momentum.

IRC

I’ve been playing around with IRC lately and it’s, well, IRC. It’s a beautiful mess.

Pros:

  • tons of servers
  • tons of clients
  • tons of bot and automation tools
  • tons of logging tools
  • lots and lots and lots of options for everything!

Challenges with IRC to get it to be a reasonable Slack alternative:

  • things may or may not work together
  • everything feels incomprehensible
  • very hard to integrate context / archiving / logs / search into client experiences
  • authentication is difficult
  • UX has a steep learning curve by default
  • native mobile clients — protocol works poorly on mobile, slow connection/starts
  • native push — extremely difficult to set up, non-standard
  • non-text assets — hard to handle by default, need to go beyond protocol
  • search — requires logging and external tools

If I were the CIO of a decent sized tech company that could recruit engineers, I might rather match the tens of thousands I’d spend on Slack with an internal open source effort to build out the capabilities of IRC to future proof and have full ownership of my data and processes.

(Etsy may be that company, which is awesome.)

Most of the above challenges are addressable, but it’s not trivial, and requires a lot of different kinds of work to come together (server, client, authentication integration, user experience) and by the time you’re done you end up making something that doesn’t work with most IRC software anymore.

For small teams, personal projects, and other things it feels like IRC is a lost cause at this point. Unless your audience is UNIX loving open source nerds, you’re in trouble.

Membership has been declining so it’s unlikely people are already using it - you’re probably trying to get people to use it from scratch.

(I tried and failed, but I didn’t try very hard, and I have no friends.)

Mattermost

As of this writing this piece, its github has 341 watchers, 8462 stars, 987 forks. It’s an active, impressive project.

Mattermost feels like the open source project most directly positioned to challenge Slack credibly, but my short time trying it was kind of disappointing.

For example, here’s me trying to upload an image and look at it and figure out why it doesn’t work:

I failed.

I had a lot of trouble running it (mostly because I had a bunch of legacy 32-bit system libraries, but that’s a tale for another day.)

Pros

  • written in Go — I love GoLang!
  • core feature: real time communication, archiving, search basics seem to work
  • nice platform for integrations
  • single-sign-on authentication with GitLab
  • projects a more enterprise, professional face and sells services

Cons

  • limited deployment options documented
  • felt buggy to me, almost immediately
  • overall UX feels very janky, even on web
  • authentication with GitLab but not others easily
  • doesn’t feel like a fun, vibrant community project from their online presence
  • weak native apps — wrappers around webviews lead to high latency and low usability

It’s an impressive piece of tech, but more fuzzily, Mattermost doesn’t feel like it has momentum and delight yet as a product, it feels more like enterprise software that is in development.

Rocket Chat

As of writing this piece, its github has 499 watchers 8099 stars, 1686 forks, so a similar level of activity as Mattermost.

But Rocket Chat feels like the most viable Slack open source alternative right now to me. It gets the fundamentals right of real time communication, asset sharing, and search. The community has made efforts to make it very easy to deploy in a whole lot of ways, and discussions around it seem like it has emerged organically and has a lot of passionate developers working on it.

Pros

  • mostly seems to work with little tweaking
  • lots of deployment options and one click deploys that work
  • authentication, including social authentication on Twitter
  • lots and lots of features popping in
  • feels like a lively, active community

Cons

  • some of those features seems half-finished, buggy or not well integrated
  • buggy — a key push notifications feature didn’t work
  • some docs are non-existent or hard to follow
  • platform / integration tools are in flux, not easy to drop in arbitrary bots besides Hubot
  • weak native apps — wrappers around webviews lead to high latency and low usability

Native Mobile As Leverage Point

The success and ascendance of chat applications has mirrored smartphones.

Chat is, in many ways, the ideal mobile use case and interface, and certainly one of its killer apps.

Webviews wrapped in a mobile app to handle push notifications are just not as responsive, fluid, or usable as native applications. They’re subpar experiences.

It’s going to be very hard to compete against Slack without high quality, fast, real mobile experiences.

A viable Slack open source competitor needs high quality native mobile applications that don’t exist today.

Free Advice

If I were advising one of these or other Slack alternatives, I’d encourage them to make native mobile top priority and invest in it. I think it’s the highest leverage point of any of them right now. 2

The rest (while not trivial) seems to be coming along OK. (Though there’s probably something in security and encryption that could be interesting too.)

The open source community is weaker in mobile, compared to its strength in server and web experiences (and desktop.) Given that both major mobile platforms are managed computing environments owned by giant corporations and come with lots of restrictions and strings attached, this is not surprising. But it is going to hamper adoption of new communications tools like this and let others take the market.

The next priority would be to emulate Slack’s APIs for third party integrations where possible — the webhooks and bot integrations Slack offers are very powerful and being able to re-use that ecosystem is very powerful.

· · ·

My guess is Slack understands how important their mobile clients are to their current usage and growth. If I were advising them, I’d suggest finding ways to keep the mobile experiences extremely performant (my experience is it feels like it takes a long time to get back to a chat when relaunching the app) and figure out how to stay dramatically ahead of whatever open source alternatives eventually come up. (As usual, advice is easier to give than to execute on.)

Footnotes

[ 1 ] A more interesting and perhaps more controversial piece would delve into this topic, in the context of soul-less enterprise software, but I’m trying to be positive here and if I hear one more person complain about brand x proprietary enterprise soulless software vs. brand y I may cry.

[ 2 ] I estimate a first version is doable with a 3-5 person team in 3-6 months, if that team has the right mobile expertise and scopes the project appropriately. Given Rocket Chat is built on Meteor, it may be (slightly) easier to get there by using existing software that bridges Meteor changes to CoreData. You still have to build the real UI, which isn’t trivial.)