Antifeatures, and two requests to Google

I’ve been reading some noise on the wire lately about anti-features. Benjamin Mako Hill, who seems to have coined the term, writes: “Anti-features are sold to customers as features but are fundamental or unavoidable aspects of systems that can only be removed or withheld through technological effort.”

In other words, anti features are things that a system would do anyway, were it not for the fact that it is deliberately crippled for business reasons. Good examples are (lack of) RAW support for digital cameras, region encoding on DVDs, and connection limits on “non-server versions” of MS operating systems. These are all cases where time and effort was expended to remove or constrain features when less effort or just a natural approach to engineering would have left them functional.

A related idea is the idea of (something I also read about recently and forget the term for – some kind of “tax” I think) – where a company implements an antifeature, or deliberately refrains from developing a useful feature, because said feature would imperil the business interests of that company’s partners, or in some cases, another branch of that company. The obvious example again is MS, who must at all costs preserve the supremacy of Windows and Office. One reason why parts of IE are so ropey, I read, is that they would compete with Word if they were improved. Similarly, various well-publicised DRM mechanisms in Vista are at the behest of MS business partners in the realm of content distribution.

(Amusingly, MS unwittingly let the cat out of the bag in the don’t-ever-compete-with-Office arena when they invented XMLHttpRequest. But that’s another story for another blog. Go google it yourself.)

Of course, free software doesn’t suffer from antifeatures – if it did, one could just remove them (this often happens). But the point I really wanted to get to was concerning creeping antifeatures at Google.

Google by and large produces excellent stuff, but there are some curious holes in their lineup. I never really believed their “do no evil” motto anyway – public companies are practically the definition of amorality, but I think it’s pretty evil to drain so many talented engineers from the marketplace and make them work on serving up ads.

Anyway, Google, if you’re listening, I have two requests for you to prove your worth: one easy, one probably a real test for you.

The easy one: make Picasa work with Flickr. Picasa is absolutely awesome. For non-serious photographers like myself who just want decent photos of family and friends from their compact cameras, it’s brilliant. I’m just a little uneasy about how it takes over all my photos everywhere in the world in space, but I can forgive that just because of the insanely simple redeye reduction and cropping.

But Picasa web albums? Not so good. A long way behind the excellent Flickr, even if they are free. Flickr is so, so, SO much better. So it would be really nice to upload stuff from Picasa to Flickr. In fact, so nice that someone’s already done it. But maybe you could make it a bit easier, or something. That plugin only uses the uploadr, not things like kflickr etc. Actually, I bet Google could integrate into Picasa a best-in-class upload tool for Flickr, and it would work on Linux, too. And while you’re about it, denizens of the Googleplex, please make Picasa rotate movies too.

My second request might be harder for the Goog. Gmail is a great mail service. It redefined web mail, with its interface, its practically unlimited storage, and its built in niceties like antispam technology and offering POP3 access (unlike Hotmail and Yahoo!).

Gmail has a great opportunity now, and that is to build in encryption. Encrypted email hasn’t really taken off except among certain geeks; for a combination of reasons: lack of out-of-the-box mainstream email client support, configuration issues, no perceived need among the general email-using populace, etc. But privacy is an important issue and Google has the chance to make it ubiquitous, and take Gmail up another notch. This could do for email what did for search.

Go on, Google! Give everyone built in security in their email. You’re big enough to make it stick in a significant portion of the market, get people used to it, drive the competition to keep up, and change the world for the better. License the patents, if any. Deal with the support calls. Hire people like Bruce Schneier and Ross Anderson (and his graduate students) to figure out the system architecture for you. Do something really good for the generation who are growing up with computers as appliances, not knowing how important their online privacy is.

Or you could just cling to mining people’s emails for ad-serving opportunities. Do no evil, you say? To allow evil to prevail, all that is necessary is for the good to miss opportunities like this one.

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