HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA
While this space is normally dedicated to sites that, whether they are new, recently redesigned, or recently discovered, generally feature their own original content, this week's essay features the growing online phenomenon of the website 'spinoff.'
As private and commercial Web portals begin to invite outside involvement and experimentation, new sites are being launched which, rather than offer any unique material of their own, offer an alternative method of viewing someone else's material. Some are practical, some merely recreational, but all are examples of yet another evolution of the web - the 'unilateral collaboration.'
Perhaps the best example of these reinterpreted hosts is the previously reviewed Flickr. A more than impressive photo-sharing application to begin with, and an extremely popular web destination, Flickr is also proving to be a favored subject for adaptation, and one hopes that its recent acquisition by Yahoo won't do anything to stifle (the creator) Ludicorp's apparently tolerant policies regarding these alternate access points.
Among the earliest of these variations on the Flickr theme was Mappr, which sorts photographs by their geographic location on an interactive map of the US. The Flickr Postcard Browser, on the other hand, takes a minimalist approach to the Flickr experience - reducing the visitor's interface to an essentially blank page with keyword search input.
Enter your term(s), and the Postcard Browser displays the most recent relevant additions to Flickr in a layout not unlike an old-fashioned photo album - at which point you can zoom in on a particular image with a click of the mouse, or navigate among the enlarged images by using your computer's arrow keys. (Enlarged images also display links to their originating Flickr pages, which will open in new windows.)
Employing a search protocol that you've probably never encountered before, the Color Fields Experimental Colr Pickr places a color wheel of sorts in the middle of the browser window and then loads images whose predominant hue matches that of whatever pigment you select on the wheel. Have a preference for images with a warm or cool tone? The Pickr can oblige.
A specific favorite color? Just click on that dot. And if you lean towards bright or subdued exposures, a slider to the right of the wheel allows you to designate overall levels of illumination. As with the Postcard Browser, clicking on a thumbnail will open the original Flickr page in a new window.
Below the color wheel, a series of links also allow the Colr Pickr's results to be confined to specific categories, such as Macro photography, Textures, and Urban Decay - but if you're looking for anything more specific than a 'feel,' there are quicker ways to get where you're going. As the creator states, the Colr Pickr is an experiment, and for the rest of us, an amusement. "It's purpose is simply to provide wonder and delight. Nothing more, nothing less. Isn't that enough?"
Meanwhile, these experiments aren't restricted to Flickr, or even non-commercial websites. Amazetype</a> is a Flash-based, alternative 'front end' for Amazon.com. And while it is a fully functional interface for finding merchandise at the Amazon site, it's a safe bet that many people will visit the application simply to play.
After selecting the database (Amazon.com, .ca, .jp, .uk) that you want to access, designating media type (books, music, video), and artist or title options, you simply enter your selection into the keyword search and enjoy the show. The application immediately starts building the search term from images of various sizes (from small to infinitesimal) of album, book and DVD covers by, about, and otherwise related to the search term. ("Beatles" not only included the band's own recordings, but various forms of 'tributes' as well.) The letters are built at a steady but not blazing pace, so it may be a while before the word is completely formed. Even then, new thumbnails continue loading on top of existing images - so the process presumably remains in operation infinitely.
You can start exploring this retail collage at any time as the icons are loading - even before the text is recognizable. Click anywhere on the generated word, and the page will center and zoom in on that area of the display and create an info box (title, price, average consumer rating) for the cover that was under your pointer when you clicked.
Click on the "More Info" button, and Amazetype will open the actual Amazon page for that item in a new window. It's not going to be the most efficient way to find an item at Amazon, but it will almost certainly be the most entertaining. (The recent addition of a Google style "Zeitgeist" feature will give an indication of what other surfers are looking for by this rather roundabout method - and will no doubt say as much about the people who are using this technique as about the popularity of the titles themselves.)
A more practical retooling of the Amazon interface recently won the Technical Achievement award at the 2005 SXSW Festival. Amazon Light 4.0 would appear to live up to its name when the home page loads - the layout is definitely more spartan than that of it's source site, and while preliminary search results will look a bit more Amazonian, they're still less crowded with information than the real McCoy. Once you reach specific item pages though, AL4 begins to demonstrate the benefits of variety.
Along with such standard Amazon options as buying an item or adding it to a wish list, AL4 substitutes Amazon's left-hand column of "Recently Viewed" and theme-related items with direct links to other search engines and any news articles relevant to the artist/product. In addition to the Shopping Cart options on the right, AL4 also invites users to send the page's URL to a friend, your own Blog, Drop Cash (if you're trying to get someone else to pay for your acquisition), or Del.Icio.Us - if you have a bookmarks account with that operation.
But more interesting for most visitors will be the features which link directly to Google Print excerpts of books when available (so you can sample the text before buying), and the chance to immediately check for a book's presence in your local -if online- library. (AL4 did also have the ability to check video titles for availability through Netflix and music selections at iTunes, but that functionality was removed at Amazon's request. Not surprising when both features would tend to cost the source site some sales.)
This last ingredient, the removal of innovative but unwelcome features linked to another's website, does remind the surfer of the speculative nature of these enterprises. Some of these experiments may end up being integrated into -or perhaps even overshadowing- their source site, some will be the target of 'cease and desist' orders, others will remain as entertainments or disappear altogether.
But they all reveal glimpses at yet another outlet for innovation online - and it will be interesting to watch the work of designers who, while they may not be promoting a better mousetrap, still have definite ideas about the best tasting cheese.