The plain-text internet is coming

Your five-minute guide to the best of Protocol (and the internet) from the week that was, from the beauty of a simple website to the new laws that will shape the tech industry for years to come.

Keep it simple, stupid

The web is overrun with junk. This is so obvious, I almost don’t need to say it. But I will: Between the pop-ups, the autoplaying videos, the cookie banners, the incessant calls for sign-ups, the coupon offers, the “Don’t forget to subscribe!” reminders on top of the other “Don’t forget to subscribe!” reminders, the in-line ads slowing the page down, the slew of trackers also slowing the page down … you get the idea. For lots of reasons, some good and some bad, much of the internet has become totally unusable.

Plain Text Sports is nothing like any of those sites. The site, created by developer Paul Julius Martinez (who you might know as CodeIsTheEnd all over the internet), is more like something out of the 1970s, a wall of monospaced plain text with ASCII-art boxes surrounding real-time scores for all the professional sports games happening right now. It has no images, no pop-ups, no trackers. It loads practically instantly, even on a bad connection. I’ve been refreshing it obsessively the last few weeks, through the end of the NBA seasons and the beginning of March Madness. Not only is it a useful site for sports fans, but it feels like a harbinger of things to come.

Martinez started working on Plain Text Sports because of his own frustration with the state of the web. In early 2021, he was in Wisconsin, spending part of the pandemic on his family’s farm. He was trying to watch a Packers game, but, “we get not-great internet reception,” he said, “so I checked the score on my phone, checked ESPN.” Even that page, with all the ads and trackers and JavaScript, wouldn’t load. He’d been thinking about a super-simple sports site already, but that made up his mind.

Plain Text Sports was initially just for NBA scores, but Martinez has been systematically adding other sports. Each one takes some work, as Martinez has to teach his system how to ingest data, what scores mean and how various APIs work. But once it’s up and running, he said, the site more or less runs itself. More recently, he’s added the ability to go back and forward in time, so you can see upcoming games or go back through a season.

There are lots of other things Martinez could add to Plain Text Sports, even things that would ostensibly make it a “better” app. Maybe it should have user accounts, I said, so visitors can personalize their own homepage? Maybe you should have affiliate links to tickets and make some money! Martinez just shook his head. “I’m a software engineer who reads Hacker News every day, obsessively,” he said, “but I’m also kind of a Luddite.” He hates smart TVs, he said, because he hates flipping through menus when all he wants is to watch TV. He loves that Plain Text Sports is simple. “There’s no cookie banner, there’s no GDPR banner, there’s no asking-you-to-donate banner.”

The downside, of course, is that Plain Text Sports doesn’t make Martinez any money. Right now, he’s OK with that. He said that because the site is so simple and low-bandwidth, his Amazon CDN bill is only about $50 a month, and it’s mostly a fun side project anyway. Its success may change that, though: After recently hitting the front page of Hacker News and being featured on Daring Fireball, he said the site’s traffic went up 100x overnight, to about 100,000 homepage loads a day. (Those are all the analytics he has, because, again, simplicity.) Since then it’s dropped, but it’s still 10x what it was a few weeks ago. At some point, he might have to put an ad on the site. But it’d probably be plain text.

The success of the site has made Martinez wonder what else might benefit from the Plain Text treatment. He’s been thinking about Plain Text Stocks, or maybe even Plain Text Stonks, though the latter seems to be better-suited to a chaotic and hyper-monetized site instead of something simple and sparse. He wants to do the Plain Text treatment for European soccer, and for cricket. “There are like a billion people in India who probably don’t have great internet service,” he said, “and they love cricket!”

Plain Text Sports is hardly the first of its kind, of course. Simple, single-purpose websites are a longtime staple of the internet, from Did Duke Win to Busy Simulator to Netflix Codes to Down for Everyone or Just Me. But Plain Text Sports manages to be that simple on the front end with a surprising amount of complexity on the back end, making sure the whole sports world is represented in real time on that page.

In general, we’re starting to see developers and designers rebel against the general overwhelm of the internet, as sites and apps ditch their cruft and complications for things that load faster and work more intuitively. Social networks are bringing back chronological feeds; reading modes are now everywhere in browsers. Even apps like Obsidian, a favorite among productivity obsessives, are based primarily on plain text.

They don’t look like much, but that’s kind of the point.

— David Pierce (email | twitter)

You tell us

We asked you for your favorite underrated/unknown apps and services, and you responded! Here were a couple of our favorite responses:

Privacy.com, creates 1-off credit cards for questionable merchants. Meandmyid.com, creates 1-off email addys to control and pinpoint the origination of spam. Favorite game: Curvy.” — Chris

“It was Outline.com which let you just read an online article by stripping out all the extra ads, banners, notifications and other Internety nonsense. The site hasn’t worked for weeks though, unfortunately.” — Sam Rothermel (Sam, you should try Reader Mode!)

And thanks to everyone who pointed us to this Reddit thread, which got 13,400 responses to a simple question: “What is the coolest website you’ve visited that nobody knows about?” It’s a gold mine.

A MESSAGE FROM CLARI

“To win more revenue for your sales teams, start with the customer. Understand what your customers need, and make sure that those needs are aligned to clearly defined internal success criteria. Build trust across the teams that what you sold the customer is what is being delivered.” – Pilar Schenk, COO at Cisco Collaboration

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The best of Protocol

Google and Spotify’s app store deal could upend the mobile app economy, by Janko Roettgers and Nick Statt

  • Spotify’s Android app no longer requires that you pay for a subscription through the Play Store. That’s a small change but a huge deal, and the most substantial sign yet that Google is changing its mind on how payments — and commissions — work on the platform. You can bet regulators, and Apple, are watching carefully.

Europe’s plan to rein in Big Tech will require Apple to open up iMessage, by Ben Brody

  • The other big regulatory news of the week was the EU’s Digital Markets Act, which has the potential to upend a lot of the economics and structures of the tech industry. But forcing messaging companies to interoperate could be the biggest change of all — and the most complicated to pull off.

Game developers say a four-day workweek saved their studios, by Nick Statt

  • Another one for the “Maybe Fridays Off … Forever?” files. The gaming industry is famous for making employees work awful hours and crunch at the end of a project, but more and more studios are saying that fewer hours might be the most productive idea in the long run.

Microsoft whistleblower claims he was fired for exposing corruption, by Anna Kramer

  • Tales of bribery and corruption, and a whistleblower’s revelations that seemed to go nowhere. Where do you go when the official channels don’t work anymore? If you’re Yasser Elabd, you tell your story on your own terms, and make sure you can’t be ignored.

Platforms are wooing creators with cash. LinkedIn thinks they need to learn how to be creators first, by Sarah Roach

  • LinkedIn creators: They’re a thing! And LinkedIn is cultivating them, but not just by dangling piles of money. The company is offering resources and coaching to help people navigate the creator economy and lifestyle, because it’s rarely as glamorous or easy as the creators make it look.

My worst employee ever: Competent and smart, but bad at the job, by Allison Levitsky

  • What do you do when your new employee just doesn’t get it, no matter how hard you try to bring them into the fold? In our latest series, bosses tell us stories of hires gone wrong, and how everyone can get out unscathed.

The best of everything else

How Big Tech lost the antitrust battle with Europe — Ars Technica

  • Why is the EU leading so much tech regulation? And why hasn’t the tech industry been able to sway it the way it has managed to both sway and slow the government in the U.S.? In the wake of the Digital Markets Act, here’s a good look at exactly how it went down.

The latecomer’s guide to crypto — The New York Times

  • A sprawling, multipart series that serves as a useful resource for anyone new to the world of blockchains, altcoins and Web3. Also a handy link to send to all the family and friends who keep texting you questions about DAOs and why Elon Musk keeps tweeting pictures of shiba inus.
  • But you should also read “The edited latecomer’s guide to crypto,” which is annotated by a bunch of researchers and experts: It critiques and extends a lot of the series’ points.

Lapsus$: How a sloppy extortion gang became one of the most prolific hacking groups – Vice

  • Lapsus$ has been in the news a lot in recent weeks, mostly for its hacks of Okta, Microsoft, Nvidia and a host of other companies. The group is reportedly run by a teenager and has been unusually successful in getting access to highly sensitive data. What does it want? Well, it’s pretty obvious.

How SiriusXM bought and bungled a beloved podcast network — The Verge

  • The podcasting land grab is still very much on, and while Sirius doesn’t get covered like Spotify or Amazon, it’s as spendy and ambitious a player as anyone. But there’s an exception: Its big-dollar acquisitions don’t seem to go very well. And it turns out that marrying old-school radio with newfangled audio tech is harder than it seems.

Is Russia’s largest tech company too big to fail? — Wired

  • Yandex isn’t just one of Russia’s biggest companies and platforms: It’s one of the internet’s most interesting and important search engines (among many, many other things). And as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, life is getting really hard for Yandex and its creator.

The 50 best sci-fi books of all time – Esquire

  • You should bookmark this list because, for one, it’s a great list of great sci-fi books. But it’s also a heck of a “stories that inspired tech folks to make all the products you use” list, from “Snow Crash” to “The Time Machine” to “Red Mars” to “The Three-Body Problem.” You can’t go wrong spending your weekend with anything on this list.

A MESSAGE FROM CLARI

“Trying to make every deal as big as possible often adds complexity and extends sales cycles. To accelerate growth, sellers should focus on landing faster, and then expanding, and expanding again. Getting customers into your solution sooner helps you solve their initial problems, then later, you can grow together.” – Michael Megerian, Chief Revenue Officer at Yello

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to our tips line, [email protected] Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.