Podcast Episode 12: Plugins

By Aya Taher

Paul Ford: [00:00:00] Hey Rich.

Rich Ziade: Hey.

Paul Ford: Web browsers.

Rich Ziade: Billions of people continue to use web browsers every day.

Paul Ford: Pretty exciting technology, but you know what? Ever since the very first moments, well, maybe not the very first, but pretty soon after, like Netscape in the nineties, everyone went “I like it. It’s cool, but it should do more”.

Rich Ziade: Always.

Paul Ford: Always to the point that they finally had to go, “alright, we’re gonna make a way for this to happen”. And, we’re gonna make it easy, we’re gonna give you plug-ins, we’re gonna give you some, remember flash?

Rich Ziade: Flash was amazing, flash made everything come to life.

Paul Ford: You liked flash.

Rich Ziade: Well, it was fun.

Paul Ford: Yeah, it was lively.

Rich Ziade: It was lively, it was not program, it became a programming language eventually, but it started off as like actually just animation, timelines stuff, I was like, wait, okay cool I can make cartoons on the internet.

Paul Ford: It was multimedia.

Rich Ziade: It was multimedia and it was kind of neat and it sat neatly inside the browser. You had to install something to make it work, but [00:01:00] at one point, Flash was everywhere and Flash was the way you watched videos on the internet.

Paul Ford: That’s true, it also was the way that you saw ads on the internet.

Rich Ziade: Boy it was, and, and Adobe had made a bet on Flash, they had built, you know, frameworks and programming languages on it, hoping that the dynamic web would be powered by Flash, and then Steve Jobs wrote a memo and that was kind of the beginning of the end of- no, actually that wasn’t it. What was it, was the openness of the web prevailed.

Paul Ford: There was that, but there was also the fact that smartphones just murdered it, right? Like it just like-

Rich Ziade: Smartphones murdered it, JavaScript kept getting better and better, more powerful.

Paul Ford: They weren’t gonna run, they weren’t gonna run Flash on the iPhone, that was just, that’s what killed it.

Rich Ziade: Oh, that’s right, that’s right. If you’re going back in history, but there is a cool tech that exists where it lets you effectively extend the capabilities of the browser.

Paul Ford: [00:02:00] So this is always, so this is this one of those things in tech culture, that’s kind of funny, right? Because you’ve got app stores, app stores shocking success you mobile phone, you wanna get a new iOS app, you go to the app store, you download it, okay? You’ve got, uh, but, and then you always have this idea like, well, the web is a fully featured computing platform and it can run apps.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: So we should have like an app store for the web, that is actually just called URLs, but then there’s this other space.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, and, and Chrome is the dominant web browser today. And if you search Chrome Web Store, you’ll find what they call chrome extensions, which are all the browsers have this ecosystem, these ecosystems for them, and what they are are [00:03:00] actually, they’re very cool, they’re worth looking into because they can really enhance how you use the browser beyond just hitting URL and you, and interacting with a webpage. You, they can actually, and there are businesses that have been built on extensions, browser extensions.

Paul Ford: Yes.

Rich Ziade: Evernote, which is seen kind of a rise in a decline, but Evernote was explosive in its growth, powered by an extension that let you put stuff on, from the web.

Paul Ford: So, so let, let’s draw a clear line here, right? So the web shows up, it’s a document based medium. I’m gonna share docs, okay, now I have Flash and plugins, and let me play video and do all this stuff.

Rich Ziade: Yep.

Paul Ford: That kind of fades because the web lets you do all that stuff on its own. You don’t need to install the plugin.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: Hard to get a plugin installed. Then you have extensions, and extensions sort of, if you go to Chrome, there’s that, Google is always trying to make Chrome into something that could compete with a smartphone, right? Like they just sort of-

Rich Ziade: An operating system.

Paul Ford: But the reality is people don’t go to do that, what they [00:04:00] do is they go for and look for things that make their experience browsing the web more compelling or give them more power. So a classic early days, there was one called Grease Monkey, it was this framework and it would let you like change the background color of your-

Rich Ziade: You could inject code into any page.

Paul Ford: That’s right, and you see the Browser company, they have this browser called Arc.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: They’re big on that kind of thing too, because they feel that, you know, you want to give people some control over their environment and the look and feel.

Rich Ziade: Yes, and, and what this speaks to, and you just, you just said the word power, what this speaks to, and this is why I think browser add-ons, are legitimate and powerful, but also worth noting, you know, the Browser company is building a whole new browser.

Paul Ford: Right.

Rich Ziade: They didn’t bother with the add-on, they just skipped everything, they’re using the chromium open source project as a baseline and they’re building all kinds of crazy features off the web, which is fun.

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: And it’s, it’s, you can, and they’ve been very transparent about how they’re messing around with the [00:05:00] internet. What’s so cool about all of this is that the evolution of the web experience is a, an evolution of control slipping further and further away from us as consumers.

Paul Ford: One day my kids were like, “hold on, check this out”, and they were using their Chromebooks.

Rich Ziade: Uh-huh.

Paul Ford: And they were inspecting elements, oh sorry, no, they couldn’t do it on their Chromebooks, they came to my computer and they’re like, “can I do this? Inspect the element”, and we changed, like they wanted to go to the New York Times and change the headline. They’re like eight.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And they’re like, hold on, I, I can make the New York Times say poop.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And to them that was magical, that they could manipulate the medium, right?

Rich Ziade: Absolutely.

Paul Ford: This is always a great tension in our industry, which is, I’m gonna publish a website, and that is supposed, I, I have sort of rights that I assume as a publisher [00:06:00] and then as a user you might have rights. And there’s certain things where we’re like, okay, that’s all, it’s all good, like a, a good example would be if you are a person who has very limited eyesight or is blind and you use a screen reader and you kind of miss all the ads.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: All good.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Not a problem.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: If you are, but if you’re changing the design.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And do, you did readability that got a lot of people upset cause it changed the way that it-

Rich Ziade: It was invasive.

Paul Ford: It made the webpage look different.

Rich Ziade: It was a power shift.

Paul Ford: Yes.

Rich Ziade: The way I look at readability, I didn’t view it as like we got rid of the ads, what it was was a power shift where we were power empowering the consumer to change their experience, to tailor it to what they wanted, right? And you had people with like vision problems, you had people with screen readers who said, you changed everything for me because it couldn’t parse the page.

Paul Ford: So, there’s this ethic there that’s really interesting, and I, I think that, uh, plugins are funny because what, what turns out, here’s what I would propose, here’s the plug-in [00:07:00] framework mentally that makes sense. The web, people are okay with users manipulating their web experience, like, you know, making the browser smaller or bigger, as long as the fundamental transactions that drive the website don’t get messed with, so the fundamental transactions might be an ad impression.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: A link to a store.

Rich Ziade:Mm-hmm.

Paul Ford: Things like that, right?

Rich Ziade: Well, the bread and butter like this is-

Paul Ford: Also, credit though, credit, like is is the author’s name still coming through?

Rich Ziade: Yeah sure, no, I mean it is, it is, again, it’s a power shift. It feels like hacking, it is hacking. You’re actually kind of hacking. Um, but there’s something very compelling about it because, power shifts are justified if the experience has deteriorated so much that we feel like we have to exert control again on it. Nobody would’ve liked readability if the web was beautiful and easy to read.

Paul Ford: No, but instead it was like clicked [00:08:00] click next 12 times to read a 12 paragraph article.

Rich Ziade: Right, and, and so it became kind of gross in the little cynical, and then you look at, and I think we have to mention Pinterest. Pinterest is a big company that lets you clip images off the web and you’re like, well big whoop, right? It’s clipping image, but what it is, is it’s-

Paul Ford: Well that actually turns out to be a relatively large whoop.

Rich Ziade: It’s a large whoop. And what it is, is it’s not about lifting the images, it’s about giving people spaces of their own to carve out that are like snapshots of parts of the web, and that turns out, gets people very excited.

Paul Ford: We get, I mean, look, this for as long as we live, people will be arguing over what, who gets to do what with things on the internet. For instance, right now, people are very, they’re, they’re pretty animated about ChatGPT or, or sort of open AI and all these sort of tools that, that build off of giant collections of images.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And make new images and [00:09:00] in the style of certain, the funny thing with writers and with pros is everybody’s just like, yeah, whatever, man. You’ve already got me, like I, I whatever, do do your worst.

Rich Ziade: It’s not like they’re defending the fortress of money.

Paul Ford: Do your worst, right? But there is, you know, there’s, there’s always this thing happening where there are spiders and there are tools.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: I’m gonna tell you where I come down, which is that once it’s in, here’s, here’s the ethos that’s emergent, I think this is pretty stable once it is in your browser. It’s yours to play with and manipulate it’s data in the computer’s memory, and you can do stuff with it. That doesn’t mean you can take the picture and republish it.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: But for personal use, once it’s been loaded into the browser, if you are not republishing it, you do whatever the hell you want.

Rich Ziade: I paid the bill already.

Paul Ford: You already paid the bill, the transaction’s done.

Rich Ziade: I paid the bill, the transaction’s done. I saw the ad, you got the impression and, and I wanna tie this to Aboard. I wanna go back to what you said about how everybody’s kind of going crazy about ChatGPT and, and, and the, the image [00:10:00] rendering stuff, and it’s gonna kill art, and it’s gonna kill writing. A thing that happens with, with technology is people can’t help but react with “oh my God, things are happening”, it’s a very powerless feeling, or like, “oh, a new thing has landed, it’s gonna affect my life. Nobody asks me for permission and I don’t have a choice”, right? And I think and-

Paul Ford: well, it’s also we’ve created a medium where-

Rich Ziade: We disrupt.

Paul Ford: But, but also, whether you’re right or wrong, we’ve created a medium in which it is very, very simple to be extremely dramatic right away.

Rich Ziade: Well that’s a whole other podcast, which is a great time to plug the Ziade and Ford Advisors podcast.

Paul Ford: That’s right, that’s right [laughter].

Rich Ziade: Um, so Paul, why are we rambling on about browser add-ons?

Paul Ford: Well, because when we pivoted Aboard and started to do something new, what we realized is that we wanted to make an easier, cleaner, more organized web.

Rich Ziade: Mmm, organized?

Paul Ford: That’s right.

Rich Ziade: So [00:11:00] we’re not just gonna parse articles here.

Paul Ford: And, and and God bless the Browser company, but building a browser’s a pretty big step.

Rich Ziade: Okay, so.

Rich Ziade: We’re more cowardly.

Paul Ford: Let’s not do that.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: At the same time, building like a web spider is a bad scene cause now you’re competing with Google, and what we realized we wanted to do was start extracting data.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: From the web, which is what you did with readability and in sort of a lot of my interest around the Semantic web.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: So we’ve built a plugin, which we’re gonna be showing people really soon, and it cleans up the web and presents it back to you in a nice, tidy way.

Rich Ziade: And this isn’t about articles, it is about-

Paul Ford: Anything.

Rich Ziade: Dot, dot, dot.

Paul Ford: Yeah, exactly.

Rich Ziade: Right, and we’re gonna talk more about that.

Paul Ford: Turning the web back into data and then giving you tools to, to, to use that data and do things with it while never losing track of that initial transaction. We’re respectful of where the data comes from.

Rich Ziade: Absolutely.

Paul Ford: Yep.

Rich Ziade: So this is The Aboard podcast. We’re either delusional or actually building software.

Paul Ford: Well, usually you kind of need [00:12:00] both.

Rich Ziade: It’s a little bit of both, stay tuned. We’re gonna reveal a lot more very soon about what Aboard is all about.

Paul Ford: Or are we? No, we are. Okay.

Rich Ziade: Give us five stars wherever there are stars.

Paul Ford: Let’s not worry about stars right now, my friends. Let’s just get this plugin in people’s hands.

Rich Ziade: Yes, have a lovely week.

Paul Ford: Bye.