Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An Unnecessary Evil

What do antivirus software and URL shorteners have in common? They're both elaborate solutions to fixable problems that should never have existed in the first place. They should have both been implemented by the one responsible for the problem, but both were instead solved by third parties. Also, they're both annoying. >_>

Start with antivirus software. The problem, obviously, is the rampant insecurity of Windows as a platform, combined with (let's be fair to Microsoft here, after all) a user base that's been trained to believe that running programs (installers) you've downloaded from random places on the Internet is okay, or even normal. The combination of these two factors has led to a malware industry that's actually pretty impressive, in terms of scope.

These days, Windows security is a lot better than it used to be, and Microsoft is even providing their own antivirus product. Some complain that it's anticompetitive, and that Microsoft is in a position to wipe out the rest of the antivirus market. I will be blunt: I would be perfectly happy to see that entire market shrivel up and die. It should never have existed in the first place, and if Microsoft can secure their OS to the point that we don't need antivirus, we'll all be better off for it. They haven't solved the problem yet, but they're trying, at least.

As for URL shorteners, let's look at why they exist at all. Twitter has a hard 140-byte limit on updates, a limit which is actually imposed by the 160-byte limit of text messages. People who receive updates through texts are the only ones for whom the limit is relevant; for the rest of us, it can easily be glossed over in the interface.

So, why doesn't twitter just run their own URL shortener for SMS users, keep the messages with shortened URLs within their own system, and automatically expand them when displaying them to users that aren't using SMS? Then users wouldn't have to worry about shortened URLs at all when reading tweets; Twitter clients could automatically shorten URLs to an appropriate length when posting updates; Twitter could even charge for use of really short URLs and finally have an actual revenue stream. (Or not, on that last one, I dunno if there's enough scarcity there to even support micropayments.) Ideally, the shortener would guarantee some minimum length of URL that it could provide, but then actually use the longest possible URL that would fit in the message, to preserve the URL space.

As with antivirus software, a market has sprung up to address this unnecessary flaw in Twitter's service. There was a rash of URL shorteners popping up with the rise in Twitter's popularity, though I think that's cooled off quite a bit with Twitter's use of as the default, and going out of business (or not? I forget now). Given that a lot of people aren't using Twitter via SMS, URL shorteners are an unnecessary evil in most cases. Twitter should follow Microsoft's example, step up to the plate, and give us back our URLs.


Kiriska said...

I'm really not sure how it became the norm to install whatever stray exe you came across on the Internet. I mean, even as a ten-year old running around in Pokemon chatrooms, I wasn't that stupid. :(

As for Twitter, I also really have no idea why they don't do what you suggest, but to be fair, URL shorteners have been around since before the service's explosive popularity because of crazy sites putting all sorts of nonsense hashes in their URLs, among other data. But yeah, Twitter made it worse.

Æther said...

As for downloading executables, keep in mind that the average reading level in the US for adults is something like 5th grade. That doesn't place much faith in the intellect of the average Internet user. Examples can be seen from the likes of comments on most public forums. The number of young people on the Internet that didn't grow up as the Internet developed doesn't help matters much.

As far as the limits imposed by Twitter, I'm barely aware of a problem. I only have Twitter to play with it occasionally and don't use it enough to care. URL shorteners would be more annoying if I had more time to play on the Internet, I suppose. To me, the shorteners create a game to try to fit your message into a certain size. Would you have me deprived of my fun?

Frank Church said...

Gotta second what Kiriska said, since I was exactly the same at that age. But then again, I'm not very trusting.

AEther: My dad's favorite statistic is that 50% of Texas HS freshmen don't pass the state algebra exam.

Twitter: If I don't read yours, is that a problem? I still refuse to get it, because I still think no one cares about my random thoughts.