An Analysis of Microsoft Activities

People seem to think that because I implemented Microsoft Activities for Firefox that I am agreeing with Microsoft’s solution. That conclusion is not correct. I simply implemented Activities because I thought it would be fun. But in the process of implementing it, I’ve learned a bit about it, and I’m going to provide some of that information here.

Clearly when I first saw Activities, I thought “man, that looks a lot like Operator.” And that motivated me to take a closer look. But what’s interesting is that I believe Operator and Microsoft Activities share a common ancestor: Live Clipboard.

Microsoft introduced Live Clipboard two years ago their PDC. The basic idea was to put a little orange scissors icon on web pages and allow people to copy and paste data from those web pages to other web pages and to applications. The data that was copied was a microformat, so it would maintain its identity. So for instance, you could copy an event from a web page and paste it into Windows Live Writer. It seemed like a good idea, but it had some problems:

  • Required HTML and JavaScript hacks
  • Scissors mean cut – they don’t mean copy and they don’t mean paste
  • Finding places to paste the data was difficult
  • No one wants to put an orange scissors icon on their web pages

But they did get one thing very right – the use of microformats to encapsulate the data.

Really, though, the problem is that people don’t want to copy and paste data; they just want to be able to send that data to the place they want it to go. That’s where the idea for Operator came from. The idea was to take the microformats and create actions to allows data on a web page (microformats, RDF or other) to be sent directly to a web service or native application. This is the idea of the web as a switchboard. (See Alex Faaborg’s presentation) Incidentally, Live Clipboard was one of the first actions I created for Operator!

Activities looks like it is trying to solve the same problem. This quote from the readiness page is very telling:

Activities are contextual services to quickly access a service from any webpage. Users typically copy and paste from one webpage to another. Internet Explorer 8 Activities make this common pattern easier to do.

So Microsoft ended up coming to the same conclusion that we did: you need to be able to execute an action directly on a web page, not cut and paste. Unfortunately, in creating Activities they lost the one component of Live Clipboard that was useful – the structured data (microformats).

Activities acts on three contexts in a web page, a selection, a link or the document itself.

The selection context is the least useful of all the contexts. It takes selected text and sends it to a URL, similar to what search already does. It’s essentially a search with preview. It does not attempt to interpret the text it sends or validate it.

The link and document contexts both act on a URL and they are definitely more useful. The reason they are more useful is because a link implicitly provides more data than selected text. You know it is a link, therefore you can do more interesting things with it like add it to del.icio.us or digg it.

The fact that links are more useful then selected text should tell us something; the more data we have about what we are acting on, the more choices we are able to give a user that they might actually want to do. If you really want to see this in action, check out BlueOrganizer from AdaptiveBlue. This shows you the power of knowing the type of data that the user has selected.

So by leaving microformats (or any semantic markup for that matter) out of Activities, a lot of the usefulness is gone. I much prefer using Operator to right click on a calendar item and add it to my Google calendar (assuming it is marked up with microformats).

Activities has caused me to realize one thing though – we really need to work together to define an XML syntax for defining actions. I’m hoping to work with the folks at Adaptive Blue and maybe Microsoft to make that happen.

And if you are looking for an update to my Activities extension, I’ll have something soon. It’s working much more like the Microsoft implementation and allows you to manage the activities better.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “An Analysis of Microsoft Activities

  1. I agree that supporting microformats would make Activities even better, but I think you are overlooking the usefulness of allowing it to work with selected text. In my opinion that’s the feature that will make it successful. As a user, having the ability to select some text that the page author didn’t think to add metadata to and use my own ability to understand the meaning, and communicate that to the computer seems infinitely useful. It’s like having one of the cool features of microformats without the microformat.
    My suggestion, make your extension smarter than the IE8 one. Allow it to work with microformats as well as selected text. Then I could just right click in some text that’s part of a microformat and have it suggest the appropriate activities.

  2. My point was that Activities could have been done on selection using the OpenSearch features in IE (and Firefox). There was no need to create a new specification.

  3. Good point. Then basically having it working with selected text is just a good UI improvement (1. The preview is cool, 2. Being able to pick what I want to do with the text rather than having to copy and paste or change my search engine before selecting the text is excellent.)
    I think there’s room for you to one up the IE version of the tool by having it recognize microformats as well. Three features that would be cool:
    1. If I right-click in a microformat block have it offer to allow me to work with the microformat (even if I don’t have it selected).
    2. If am working with a microformat block have it make smart suggestions about which activities I’m most likely to want to do.
    3. Give some UI advertisement of the microformat that alerts me to the fact that it’s a good candidate for use with Activities.