Twitter as Command Line to the Clouds

Twitter Twitter as a channel for streaming short messages of 140 chars is well known. This has been covered to exhaustion and then some more. Heck, even Britney twitters! And my early thoughts on Twitter can be found here.

 

Overlooked Trait of Twitter

A particular aspect that has not got adequate mentioning is Twitter as the front end for bot mediated interactions with services in the clouds. And what the heck did I mean by that? Well read on…

Cloud-based Services

Web 2.0, as definitively defined by O’Reilly, has as one of its tenets services that use the Internet as the platform. That performs large amount of its functions centrally, uses Internet standards as interface for any external systems to interact with it etc. I call these cloud based services.

IWantSandy, a personal productivity application, is a popular example, that I have used and am familiar with. Typically, all user interaction with such applications is using a browser.

Trends in Interacting with Cloud-based Services

A trend that has been emerging is the rise of dedicated rich client applications that act as front end to these services. The services still continue to reside on the server, the dedicated rich client application merely acts as a front-end of pretty skin to the meat of the functionality on the server. Twhirl as front-end for Twitter is a relevant example.

If you notice here we have embellishments to the core service that juice up the user experience, without having to forcibly stare at a browser-based UI.

Austerity in Interaction design

Now the other end of such a logic, is to strip away all UI to the barest minimum. The result of this thinking must be a little hard to imagine, how could you pare down a UI? Well, we have had such a UI since the dawn of computing and its the venerated command-line.

Utility for Command Delivery

Remember though that the service still remains on the cloud, on a server somewhere far far away. All that would be needed to give a command line interface to such services would be

  • To have a mechanism that can forward text based commands to a specific location
  • And return any response text returned by the server.

Note that both the above points make no assumption about the kind of service they talk to, this is just infrastructure. This problem has to be solved just once for it to be applied in many contexts.

In the specific case of Twitter and IWantSandy- Have Sandy jot down a reminder or appointment you could do type the following text “d s r nirvana tomorrow 4pm” in twitter. This translates to “direct message to sandy, remind about nirvana at 4pm tomorrow“. Remember the overhead of learning the syntax will pay off many times over, since you don’t have to logon to the website to add this reminder. 

Conduit for Text Commands

Enter Twitter that does both the above tasks brilliantly. Twitter acts as a conduit, a passive conduit, that makes it perfectly suited in this scenario. It is this facet of Twitter that multiple services like IWantSandy, RememberTheMilk, etc build upon.

Advantages of Stripped Down Interaction Modes

This way of interacting with the service might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it has significant advantages.

For example you can i) Add twitter bot as a contact in your IM and send commands to the bot. No need to sign onto any application. Anywhere you can have a IM client you could use this feature.

Characteristics of Such Bot-based services

  • Immediacy – No form to submit, no page post-backs in interactions. Type command and hit enter!
  • No wait time – Messaging protocols are asynchronous by default
  • No delivery guarantees – Always managed through response messages for confirmation
  • Cross-platform – Works wherever IM protocols work!
  • Better perception of interactivity than a windowed application!

Some Usage Scenarios

Twitter, or IM bot mediated services, could be used in a variety of ways to enhance the user experience. Some examples could be –

  • Application help – Instead of requiring to visit a website, why not have a IM bot provide needed info via text.
  • Workflow status checks – Use this to check up on status for literally any workflows, assuming you have a unique ID to track items
  • Reference – Use to do quick look-ups of Wikipedia or similar knowledge bases
  • Search – Used as front end for search, reduce the single text-box plus button to just a text-box!

Past Efforts

One of the most popular efforts around using IM as a means to interact with systems involved AI Bots. A version of the history of software agents can be found here.

Summary

  • Cool as it seems any command driven interaction with server-based services won’t gain mainstream traction and will not replace traditional and UI driven means of interacting with an application.
  • But will simplify interactions with cloud based services and be a legitimate means of interaction for power users.
  • This will be especially relevant on constrained mobile devices

With my opinion of this out of the way, where would you take this?

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[updated: feed link at bottom of post was broken, fixed. Thanks to Nischal!)

Comments

  1. Nice post! Yeah it's true this thing won't go mainstream but nevertheless would be quite helpful for those who get a hang of it ;o)

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