Category Archives: Week 12

A complex modular address space

Using the web as a source of information and place of interaction has become such second nature that it is not often we stop to think of all the steps—one right after the other, at the speed of light—that are necessary for us to be able to open one website or perform a Google search. I would say that it is like a massive system of networked cables and antennas, technical standards, hardware and software, big data bases, and multimedia content is put in motion when we hit “Enter” after entering a query on Google that is meant to serve us a list of results , but it wouldn’t be the most accurate description. It is rather like when we hit that “Enter” button and obtain that list of results, we have actually entered an ongoing socio-technical process of information flows and political, social, economic, and cultural relations among both human and non-human actors across the globe that has kept that massive system active for decades now.

I use a Google Chrome browser to go on the web on my laptop. The way this browser has been set up is that I no longer need to go to google.com in order to do a Google search; I can simply type my query into the address space in the tool bar and hit “Enter” and it will recognize it as a such. This step-saving feature has also been incorporated in browsers such as Firefox and Safari, as shown in images below.

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It is an example of an evolution of a user interface based on use. As more people rely on commercial search engines to start browsing information on the web, browsers developers noticed they could save the user the step of having to first go to a search engine’s site to then perform a query. While this small step seems insignificant, it has to be noticed that when I type google.com on my browser’s address space, a communication process begins between my computer and a network of servers, routers, and a big data system (the Domain Name System) that takes several back and forth ‘hops’ across a global network in order for mgoogle-come to access the famous search box screen.

 

It’s true that this digital saga can take only seconds, if that, here in Washington DC. But connectivity speeds vary greatly across the globe and any mili-second that can be reduced from the process of a user searching for something on a commercial search engine—that is, from how easily the user can interact with the interface provided, how fast can it perform a query that provides her with the results she actually hopes to find, how fast can it serve a list so that the user doesn’t go away—can be of great value. Making the address space function as the window to the search engine directly saves time and keeps users happy.

In my case, once I enter a query on the address space of the Chrome browser, a communication process starts from my computer directly with the Google’s web server, there is no need to ask the DNS anything. As soon as Google’s server gets it, they run it against a different big data base, an index of search terms that has been continuously updating through Google’s crawling Googlebot for years and that it’s processed according to over 200 factors before serving me a result list.

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It seems that this address space, created in the first instance as the tool through which a user would enter the domain name (that is, the name of the website, say, wikipedia.org) of the site she meant to access—either because she would know it or because she would guess it—has evolved through user and developer experience to become a more complex modular function. It is modular in the sense that it is made up of modules, “unit[s] whose structural elements are powerfully connected among themselves and relatively weakly connected to elements in other units” (Baldwin and Clark, 2000, p. 63). The weak links to other units in the browser are evident in the sense that the address space can be used independently of other functions in the browser, such as the bookmarks or the browsing history. But there are also less evident links established in this modular function.

As it can be seen in the image above, a known feature of Google’s search engine is the Autocomplete function, by which the search box provides the user with a series of potential search terms he or she may mean based on data Google collects on their past searches along with data collected about other people’s searches, including Trending stories. This address space then is made up of modules that not only combine more efficiently certain functions a user takes in a browser, but that also link it to databases of personal information on the user individually but also on Google’s millions of users collectively, as well as to algorithms that process these data according to user input.

The description so far has only reached the action of performing a search on a browser through its address space, and yet several functions, interactions, and connections can be observed. The browsing on the web we take for granted is part of an ongoing process of many flows of information that happen so quickly it is easy to miss them, but they reveal a lot about how many process actually take place on the web.

Web browser – users, Internet and interface

It is always a hard task for designers and product managers to decide what functions they should offer to users. Interfaces of web pages or applications decide the first impression of users and their will to learn more. Here I would like to talk about web browser and its design principle involving Internet access.

1. Don’t make me think
Generally speaking, web browser itself is an application for accessing contents presented on web pages. From this perspective, users expect some products that can react immediately and indicate what exactly they can see with Internet connectivity.

Therefore, the basic function of a web browser is to serve like a bridge between users and web pages they intend to see. For almost all web browsers, one of the most important parts of interface is the address bar. To most users, what they need to do is just remembering the domain names like youtube.com or google.com. One convenient thing about address bar is that without top-level domains(TLD), such as .com, the most commonly-used one, and .cn, the TLD especially for Chinese websites, most web browsers can convert what users type in into the key words of default search engine.

Another important function for web browser is to support multimedia. Most mainstream web browsers allow us to view the details of web page layout based on HTML language. Although what show on the interface is hard to understand, at least we can learn that texts, pictures and videos are integrated in one web page in a modular way. For example, when I check the source code of WordPress page, it tells me the source address of the inserted video and parameters like width and length that are related to its format.

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If we study more about the working mechanism of web browser, we can find that browser is essentially an interpreter. It sends requirement to remote servers, receives feedback data encapsulated in packets and calls local APIs to render the pages. Of course, for users what they only care about is the efficiency of finishing the whole process, which is directly related to the speed of opening a web page.

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2. We need more functions
For me, my favorite web browser is Chrome because it provides me some extra functions and allows me to customize the interface.

One thing that is extremely attractive to me is that Chrome gives me numerous selections of plug-ins. Plug-ins make web browser not only an application to present information, but a strong tool to deal with information. For example, the famous plug-in Adblock can accurately recognize the spam information on web pages and block the annoying popup advertisements.

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Sometimes the console based on javascript can be helpful if the web browser can not return the right information back to the third-party server for correct feedback. For example, I have the experience of failing to pay by Paypal online because the web browser can not successfully  go to the page that returns the information of finishing payment to sellers. By typing the code “window.OnPayPalSuccess()” into console, I can force the web browser to execute the right instructions. Implanting those hidden interfaces into web browsers, developers give plenty freedom to users who need more advanced functions.

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In fact, conciseness and variety are not contradictory. Developers can cleverly hide those advanced functions  and leave tutorials for those users who need them and just make the main functions visible and easy to understand.

A quick analysis of Google’s Ngram

For this week, I selected one of the Google’s services that I have used frequently as a matter of curiosity and also a way to get general information, Ngram Viewer, which allows for searching  words in books over the years, from 1500 -2008.

Ngram is one of the most impactful Google’s endeavors. It is the result of the digitalization of millions of books and the creation of a search tool that scan the material altogether.  According to an article published on Science by researchers involved in this project (Michel et. al, Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books, Science, 2011), the “corpus” of books was formed by publications that come from over 40 universities libraries with more than 15 million books digitalized, which corresponds to 12% of all the books ever published. The researchers then selected 5 million publications (4% of all the books ever published) based on the quality of both the metadata providing date and place, which is made available by publishers and libraries, and the optical character recognition (OCR) results, which shows how precisely the system used to digitalize recognizes the letters and symbols printed.

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Source:  Michel et. al, Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books, Science, 2011

To properly interpret the results that the tool shows the user, it is necessary to understand how the platform works. “Gram” is a group of characters, including letters, symbols or numbers, without a space. A gram can be a word, a typo or a numerical representation (bag, bagg, 9.593.040). For instance, “bag” is a 1-gram, while “small bag” is a 2-gram. Ngram means a gram composed by “n” number of groups of character.  According to the Ngram information session, word search results are circumscribed to the type of gram one is searching for. If the user typed a 1-gram, the search will be conducted only among 1-grams. The same occurs with a 2-gram and so on.

In the example given by the Ngram programmers, they search for two 2-grams and one 1-gram at the same time: “nursery school”, “child care”, and “kindergarten”, respectively. The answer to be obtained with the platform will be: “… of all the bigrams contained in our sample of books written in English and published in the United States, what percentage of them are “nursery school” or “child care”? Of all the unigrams, what percentage of them are “kindergarten”?” (Please see the first chart at https://books.google.com/ngrams/info).

Thus, the results are dependent on the classification of the gram that one is searching for. In the case above, the dataset where “kindergarten” has been searched is different from the dataset where “nursery school” and “child care” have been searched.

On the other hand, beyond the fact that the platform allows to easily search for classes of words such as adjectives, verbs, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, allowing linguistic comparisons, the capacity of the platform to scan books is much higher than a human capacity. As Michel et. al explain, “If you tried to read only English-language entries from the year 2000 alone, at the reasonable pace of 200 words/min, without interruptions for food or sleep, it would take 80 years.” (Michel et. al, 2011)

What is interesting about Ngram is that it builds on social knowledge of hundreds of years stored in universities’ libraries transforming millions of physical books into a single digital file. Through a combinatorial process that joins physical materials and also software, such as OCR, search engine, databases, Ngram makes possible the creation of tools that are more than a remediation (Manovich, 2013) of old books and libraries given that with a searchable file many different comparisons and uses are now possible. The fact that it is owned by Google and was built on a project of Harvard scholars (Michel et. al, 2011) shows that societal conditions and previous knowledge, while not determinant, are fundamental to shape who will have chances to reproduce power.

Regarding the limitations of Ngram, an article on Wired (Zhang, Sarah, 2015, The pitfalls of using Google Ngram to study language) shows that the more one unveils how it functions, the more precaution is advisable.  One can’t disregard the fact that optical character recognition technologies (OCR) are not perfect and can incur in results errors when some pixels generated when scanning a book are not accurate. Zhang (2015) explains that fonts patterns in some publications can generate confusion between letters (e.g. s and f), what will generate mistakes. Metadata can also present some errors implying that some information comes from a specific year and place when, in fact, it does not.

From the point of view of the web architecture, Google’s servers are the unique source for the content shown in the Ngram platform. Despite the fact that the physical books are in many different physical places, a user can read a given book on Google books platform and then do the search on Ngram accessing the websites from a computer device no matter where they are. Because it is a proprietary platform, users so far can’t have access to the raw data or even any report that explains the amount of books, 1-gram, 2-gram searched per year or decade. The more transparency the platform offers, the more uses one can make with such a rich application. At the end of the day, the reality created by Ngram is based on no more than 4% of all books ever published according to the researchers who pioneered it. We should keep this in mind.

Finally, the centralization of knowledge in one big player has consequences for the users’ privacy, which is compromised when their searches are identifiable and added to their profile to improve marketing advertisements. I don’t know to what extent this has been currently done, but there is no reason to believe that this is not the case.

Information Transportation System

Information Transportation System —  Galib

If Internet phenomenon itself may be seen as a universe space for communication, then, the World Wide Web may be seen as a transportation system to deliver information between internet users. Emerging new internet members / companies at the beginning of internet era dictated arising new regulation and standards to exchange information between as members as well as users. It is hard to imagine our life without traffic regulation. Despite of high-speed cars we would not use our vehicles if there is no traffic regulation between users of transportation system. Every our journey would be longer, dangerous and inefficient. WWW, like DMV for information, was developed in the right time of occurring the most prominent players of internet society and has been developing altogether with them on the constant base.

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traffic city night

Internet actors / companies continuously has been advancing their services, inspired by technology progress in hard and soft -wares. It constantly challenges information regulatory Unit, like WWW, to be ready to apply new regulatory tools and bring standards to increase efficiency and fairness within information exchanging process[i].

As in car traffic regulation for information sending-receiving process it was important to elaborate the road conditions, timing, cross-roads regulation, queue order of passing information, considering its volume and emergency, etc.

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It became important to define “special service” roads for government, emergency and/or security issues, to avoid information traffic jams and not miss some part(s) of transmitted information[ii].

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For users WWW-DMV regulations opened new perspectives, internet became more friendly using information tool. Echoing with development of URL, HTML, HTTP application and programs[iii], WWW gave a chance to users to get clear orients to navigate in the internet space and opportunity even to change their status and from users become active actors. It brought internet to the new stage when every user can develop its own internet page and start actively participate in internet society community. It changed (and because of its alive process, it still changes) market phenomenon, making it more global, and service providing opportunities. Each internet user-actor can introduce her/his service ability to remote users, makes deal and business with those clients who were unreachable during pre-WWW period. It also boosted education development for those users who are isolated within their information boarder. It opens more opportunity for providing health services and gives chances for those who loses their faith to recover their health conditions. Despite of some negative sides of information globalization process (security versus privacy[iv], etc.), in general Internet itself and WWW particularly serve for improvement the life standards of the World population, providing the easy approach to communication and information exchange process and making wider horizons of every internet user.

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Despite new challenges of mobile internet networking[v], it will continue to be the solid platform for providing political and social freedom. WWW helps to enhance transparency and support emerging new social networks and digital media portals which can connect millions after one simple click. It makes the global community more united, aware of each other concerns and gives a chance to everyone to be actively involved to the whole global family life.

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[i] Martin Irvine, The World Wide Web: Extensible Design Principles for Any Device and Interface”

[ii] Ron White, “How Computers Work”, 9th edition, Library of Congress Cataloging, 2008, page 369

[iii] Tim Berners-Lee with Mark Fischetti, “Weaving the Web”, Harper San-Francisco, 1999, page 35

[iv] Johnathan Zittrain, “The Future of the Internet”, Yale University Press, page 36.

[v] http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/03/23/the-future-of-apps-and-web/

WeChat, therefore we are

Chinese software companies have long bear the infamy of copycats: no innovation, low in technical content, only thrive due to the relatively closed software and Internet environment. That’s one of the reasons in China people know Google, Amazon, and Facebook, but not the other way around. Nevertheless, U.S. media intensively reported about one app born in China these years: WeChat. Because this may be the first time in the software world, China is in the lead.

One may doubt the claim. After all, WeChat ranks only fifth in MAU (monthly active users) worldwide. But we need to remember two things. Firstly, comparing to the 12-years-old Facebook, WeChat only launched 5 years ago; secondly, WeChat currently focuses on China only, once it outreaches to the world, a rampant increase is predictable.

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So what on earth is WeChat? We can view it in many different ways (in fact, there’re lots of other ways to see WeChat and for every single way we can develop a whole paper)

WeChat as social media

WeChat started off as a social network/messenger app. But unlike other competitors, WeChat had an inborn advantage, it was developed by the same company as QQ, the dominant social network software in China. As a port, you can link your WeChat account to your QQ, so you started the journey of WeChat with lots of QQ friends. And as a mobile app, it was also an interface to your contact information, once you linked your phone number to the WeChat account, you can befriend with those in your phonebook. As a result, WeChat combines two biggest existing network in China: telephone network and social media network. Basically anyone you know, either in real life – then you got his number, or online – then you got his QQ, is one click away to become your WeChat friend.

And WeChat was born to chat. Unlike the mainstream text-based social network of the time, WeChat, as a mobile app, had the access to the microphone and speaker on the cell phone. By simply holding SEND, you can speak and record your message and send it to your friends, a much easier, intimate, and even safer way to communicate. Facebook took years to incorporate Messenger to do the trick, but WeChat correctly exploited the instant voice message demand when it initially launched. Even the newly trend of “say it with a Sticker” was long ago developed and commercialized on WeChat.

Besides your personal contacts, WeChat also has a type of accounts called “media accounts” to which you can subscribe. It’s the equivalent of a blog directly to the users’ cell phone. With compatibility of all media available for a phone, the “media accounts” have great potentials and liberties to develop their own contents. In fact, the two main functions for WeChat users are chatting with friends, and browse the articles generated by “media accounts”. Even a new sector is required in traditional companies to handle their “media accounts” on WeChat due to much more frequent and direct interaction it enables the customers.

 

WeChat as transaction processor

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So WeChat is the Chinese edition of Facebook, one may think. But it is more. Besides QQ account and cell phone number, you can also connect WeChat with your bank account, make WeChat an e-wallet and online transaction interface. And due to the relatively slow speed of bank digitalization in China, most users use WeChat as their primary online bank interface, rather than the app developed by the bank they use. And on WeChat you can create a separate balance account, which draws from your bank account but has high conveniences for cell phone transactions. With the QR technology, you can make instant transactions with this balance account without the need to befriend on WeChat to the other end of the transaction, making it practical and popularized way for mobile payment. And you can draw from your balance without passwords to send to your friend or groups. There’s this custom in China to send friends money sealed in a red envelope on special occasions. WeChat strategically exploited this tradition and promoted campaigns to encourage people to send red envelopes to each other on Spring Festival. 2016 alone, for the first 5 days in Spring Festival, 516 million users (60% of total) sent and received red envelopes 32.1 billion times. And with access to TV shows, by shaking your cell phone during pre-designed points in a TV show can earn you actual money, different companies distributed billions of RMB on Spring Festival 2016 to attract consumers.

It also gives rise to an economic format called as “micro sellers”, combining the “media account” and ability to make transactions, everyone can establish an online store and sell things you own or you have access to. Based on the gigantic number of users, “micro seller” is one of the most popular occupations for young people in China.

And due to the dominant position of WeChat in everyday lives, governments sectors, companies all chose to cooperate with them. You can pay for your credit card, your electric bill, your train tickets, your party fee, and all sorts of payments on WeChat.

 

WeChat as aggregation of apps

In the U.S, a modern smartphone user would have a lot of “must have” apps on the phone. Facebook for social network, Amazon for online shopping, Uber to get a ride, Instagram to share photos, Skype to make phone calls, Yelp to check customer rating of restaurants, Game Center to play games with friends, and so on. But in China, all you need is WeChat, for it actually integrates all their functions.

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But it was not born with all these functions. What WeChat did is a relatively open structure and port to load plug-ins developed by third-party developers. For example, WeChat Game, a built-in game platform. WCG fully demonstrates the potential of integrated gaming platform. You can show your scores or achievements in your status to show off your prowess or promote the game (in fact, a lot of game operator give in-game rewards to users who post game screenshots in their circle, making users cheap and reliable promotion medium). You can interact with the game community on the phone. You can buy virtual assets with the purchasing ability of WeChat. You can enjoy all sorts of promotion brought to you by the “media account” of the game operator. You can make new friends based on game choices or shared game experiences. All these together made gaming a social and commercial activity which can yield much greater profit for the game developer than a stand-alone game. WCG has different gaming ecosystem, where game developers play a relatively insignificant role. Due to the hardware computational power of a phone, limited interaction methods and display area, WCG can hard compete with console games or PC games. But in WCG a player is constantly connected with, or stimulated by, his WeChat friends, and with the ability for instant payment, the in-game virtual avatar, the actual player and the paying potential behind him merge into a new agent on the WCG platform, playing another “game” without him noticing.

There’s no limit to the function WeChat can carry. For example, in China government is using WeChat as terminals of Smart City. Local traffic information, hospital reservations, online educations, policy consulting, certification handling, more and more government services have virtual windows on the user end carried by WeChat.

 

WeChat as interface to mobile phone

Another noticeable character is WeChat is not a cell phone adaption of a software or web page. It was born mobile. This seemingly disadvantage actually freed WeChat by guaranteeing some basic functions that every user has access to. Imagine that WeChat started as a website, then it can no way fully embrace the voice system because a lot of web users have no microphone or speaker. A voice message without speaker at the other end is literally less than useless: creating the false impression your message is received.

As a result, WeChat can be view as an interface to mobile phones that employs all the hardware functions and characters of cell phone. For example, you can easily send your current position to your friends, it is WeChat reading the geographical information enabled by the built-in GPS system on the phone. You can send packaged web page based on the HTML, PHP, and FLASH decoder installed in the OS. You can shake your WeChat to befriend with those simultaneously shaking their phones, which is applying the functions enabled by gyroscope on the phone. On paying, you can input the password by pressing the finger on home button, this is fulfilled by fingerprint recognition function of the phone. Though the primary OS of the phone also has access to all these hardware functions, but OS fails to present them in an integrated and symbolically meaningful environment. As a result, common users can use WeChat as a surrogate operating system to gain access to all hardware functions they matter. And the open structure of WeChat made it even more possible to hide lower layers of the phone. Imagine that, if all essential application functions are fulfilled by WeChat, it is totally possible for users to use it as smartphone OS.

 

When I say WeChat is in the lead, I mean it represents the future of mobile apps, and the possibility of next generation cellphone OS. It enjoys a much less international recognition and reputation than Facebook even Instagram, but it’s changing people’s mobile life in field Facebook has yet penetrated. By connecting the main pillars of mobile life: users, applications, hardware, and payment, WeChat creates a more integrated mobile life in China than here in U.S. It actually defined online life for many of the users. WeChat, therefore we are.

 

References

Wikipedia on the Mobile Web: a Case Study – Jieshu

I will try to use Wikipedia in a web browser–Safari on my iPhone to explore the systems behind the interfaces.

Thanks to my browsing history stored in the cookies of my iPhone, I don’t need to type in the complete URL of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page . After I typed in “wi”, Safari automatically filled the address bar with the whole URL. So, the address bar of Safari is an interface to the database of cookies on my iPhone.

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The address of Wikipedia is also an interface to many systems. For example, the “https” in the URL means Wikipedia is a website “on the World Wide Web using HTML[i]”, therefore an interface to a complex architecture of protocols and resources linked by hypertext. The “m” means the URL directs to a mobile version of the page. In this case, the mobile version is based on the MobileFrontend Extension, a tool by MediaWiki that provides mobile-friendly views[ii]. The “wikipedia” in the URL is the domain name, which was registered with Network Solutions in January 2001[iii]. The “org” is a top-level domain name used for organizations.

After I confirmed the URL, the Safari sent the address to my Internet provider—xfinity, which in turn sent it to a node of the DNS, where the address was expressed in IP address—208.80.153.224. (However, I couldn’t visit Wikipedia through this IP address. I don’t know why. I was shut out of this blackbox…)

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Using this string of numbers, Safari handed the request to the site server and waited in a queue for its turn[i]. In less than one second, the page was loaded completely.

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As we can see from the screenshot above, right below the address bar, there was an area called Smart App Banner, an interface prompting me to open Wikipedia’s mobile app for it detected the app was installed on my iPhone[iv]. Below the banner, there is a navigation button, a search bar, today’s featured article, and entries appeared in today’s news. These sections are graphically presented in Safari through HTML codes, specifically, HTML5, which allows an adaptive content display across different mobile devices.

Below is an image of the HTML codes of Wikipedia’s main page, but the screenshot was made on my laptop since Apple does not allow people to view page sources on iPhones. The HTML file is an interface to a large system of media resources, including texts, images, sounds, and videos. For example, the logo of Star Trek: First Contact on the upper left is a “hyper image”, which is an image with a hyperlink. It is specified in the red box in the HTML file, which defined its source in the database (the blue characters), its size (192X78), its location on the page, and its linking target (/wiki/File:Star_Trek_First_Contact_logo.jpg), which is a high-definition version of this logo.

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There are also many hypertexts, which are colored blue and through which you can access to other Wikipedia entries. The hypertexts in purple indicate the ones I clicked before.

Wikipedia is also an interface to the rest part of the World Wide Web. In every entry, there are links to the information resource. For example, the entry of Star Trek: First Contact has 121 references, each one with a hyperlink to a web page outside Wikipedia.

If you have a Wikipedia account, you can log in your account by pressing the “log in” option emerged after you click the navigation button. Here are two interfaces, one of which is the auto-filled user name, an interface to the keychain stored in my iCloud. The other interface is by logging into my account, I was mediating with the user management system of Wikipedia. The system constantly monitors and remembers my actions on Wikipedia, such as changing my profile and editing entries.

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In addition, Wikipedia also serves as a system accessible through other interfaces. For example, in the interface of Youdao Dictionary on my MacBook, there is an area for Wikipedia’s featured articles. As today’s article is Star Trek, the logo of the film and a brief introduction are shown. By pressing the hypertext colored in blue, you can access to the Wikipedia entry of Star Trek. This is possible thanks to Wikipedia’s API, another interface designed for developers to draw data from Wikipedia.

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Wikipedia featured article shown in the interface of Youdao Dictionary.

Some discussion about the debate of “Apps Vs Web”

I don’t think apps will replace the web in the future. I have a Wikipedia app installed on my iPhone. I prefer web version because I can open a hyperlink in a new page. Thus, I can go back to any of my previous pages. But in the app of Wikipedia, my route is completely linear and it’s very easy to get lost. However, app has its merits, especially for services. The web is like an open square while app is like a luxury SPA. The web will continue to thrive on information discovery, while app will keep growing in services providing, such as e-commerce and food delivery. I think they will coexist in a long time, occupying different niches.


References

[i] White, Ron, and Timothy Edward Downs. How Computers Work. 7th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que, 2004.

[ii] “Extension:MobileFrontend.” MediaWiki, n.d. https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:MobileFrontend.

[iii] “History of Wikipedia.” Wikipedia, November 19, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_Wikipedia&oldid=750413918.

[iv] Austin, Alex. “How to Set Up An iOS and Android Smart App Banner.” Accessed November 22, 2016. https://blog.branch.io/how-to-setup-an-ios-and-android-smart-app-banner-with-deep-linking-and-download-tracking.