Time Machine

July 22, 2010

Who says it is not possible to go back in time. For the past couple of days I was playing with a fairly new BlackBerry device and oh boy, it is like going back in time. The experience, interface, using scroll wheel to navigate mouse, navigation, reboots to install/replace an app etc. I mean, look at this typography…


Impact of Touch on WebApps

February 21, 2010

For the past 20+ years, we are used to using intermediate devices like Mouse and Keyboard for input. Their replacements are Touch and Voice. While we are not there today for Voice, we are certainly are getting there on Touch replacing mouse (atleast in portable devices). Whenever we see such fundamental changes, there is always an opportunity. But these trends also mean changes have to be made in current products.

Consider the example on why iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad doesn’t support Flash. While there has been a lot of talk on this subject, the best technical explanation I have seen comes from a Flash developer on why Flash is not supported on iPhone/iPad.

Many (if not most) current Flash games, menus, and even video players require a visible mouse pointer. They are coded to rely on the difference between hovering over something (mouseover) vs. actually clicking. This distinction is not rare. It’s pervasive, fundamental to interactive design, and vital to the basic use of Flash content. New Flash content designed just for touchscreens can be done, but people want existing Flash sites to work. All of them—not just some here and there—and in a usable manner. That’s impossible no matter what.

I recommend reading the entire post.

Going beyond Flash, I actually think this explanation holds true for web apps too. This lack of mouseover functionality could make some web apps and even some websites unusable or less effective.

There are ton of webapps that use mouseover functions for many actions. Remember those drop-down menus on mouseover? Sites like Amazon, eBay, GoDaddy, BestBuy, Microsoft… they all use mouseover. Take eBay for example, the categories menu on the top left is a mouseover event. The action for mouseover event is different from onclick event.

All such mouseover functions have to be reconsidered while optimizing web applications for touch.

Does Touch kill mouseover function? I think it does.

It is not just mouseover function. But there are other things we are used to on the web like viewing Tooltips, viewing the URL in the status bar on mouseover without clicking the link…they will all be gone from the web if we are accessing it from touch-based devices. Is it a good thing? I think yes. Touch has its own advantages and I am sure we will find some innovative alternatives. These are small compromises in adopting the next major step.

Touch changes the way we use the web. We need to get used to it and vendors need to design their apps assuming this reality.

There has been some interesting discussion about Apple and iPad being closed. In many cases for Apple, I’d buy this argument, but regarding iPad being closed, I have to disagree. As I talked earlier, iPad is a gadget for non-techies. People who have been scared about the complexity of computers will be able to use it. So it is kind of like a toaster (a beautiful one, though) which is simple enough that every one understands. Do you care about what goes within a toaster or a microwave (unless you are in that feild)? They just work and that is all we care about. I put iPad under the same category. It just works, no crashes (thanks for not including Flash. It crashes my Safari EVERY day). It really doesn’t matter what goes within as long as it offers good value and is a pleasure to use.

Openness doesn’t always result in great end-user products. Look at many open source projects out there (I am talking about end-user products here, not server side marvels). How good is Linux? At the back-end, it is AWESOME. But for the end user, it is a pain in the rear. I’d put Android under the same category. It very much excites geeks, but is far from desirable, atleast to my taste (yes, I own an Android device but couldn’t use for more than a day).

This talk about not using a standard processor, not-replaceable battery etc…commmon. We are blaming Apple for creating a better product? Every single person who played with the iPad said it screams. Shouldn’t we blame other guys for not creating power efficient processors? We also blame them for closed AppStore etc. When Apple first said web apps will be the way to include third party apps on the iPhone, everyone panicked and asked Apple to open it up for developers. Two years and 140K apps later, we go back and scream that it is a closed platform and web apps are the way to go? That’s interesting.

For developers, I actually think iPhone/iPad platform is pretty open. Their APIs are pretty exhaustive and are improved constantly. I expect to see some innovative apps on the iPad. We have seen troubles with Android due to ‘openness’ (available in n devices, by m carriers with x number of screen sizes and y number of configurations). Android Market app sales talk for themselves. Contrast that with the iPhone App sales.

For end users, simplicity matters, a LOT. More than openness.

Most of the industry has been underwhelmed with the iPad launch. I for one, actually think this is a great device. It may not be for us, techies, but for rest of the world, it is going to be a great device.

This is a device I can hand it my grand father and he won’t have much trouble using it. Compare this to handing him a laptop and training him about how an OS works, what a drive is, what a file system is, why he needs an anti-virus software etc. Ease of use is the key here. Infact, we have seen this with iPhone already. Every day I see many 2-3 year old having absolutely no problem using the device. That makes a HUGE difference.

In a country like India, there are over 500 million mobile phones. But there are less than 15 Million computers (connected to the internet). Why is this the case? One of the reason is, PCs are complicated to use/learn for non-techies. I think this device can address a broader market as it hides the details from the user.

Ofcourse, mobility is a another huge factor here. India has less than 40Million landlines compared to 500Million mobile phones. Morgan Stanley report on mobile internet says mobile internet will cross desktop internet usage very soon. It is through devices like this we will see this happening and it is through devices like these the internet will reach the masses worldwide.

Sure, for techies, it can be yet another device between phone and a laptop solving a specific need, but for the rest of the world, I think this will be a great device and mostly their primary computer. Yes, there are some missing features initially, but they’ll be addressed and that is the evolution of any product. We have seen this with the iPhone and I am sure we will see this with iPad.

Overall, I see this as a first major step in the evolution of mobile computing. We will see a flurry of devices in coming months and years. But end of the day, it is all about software. In this case, iPad has the software dumbed down to the masses in a great form factor and in my view, it’ll be a winner.

There has been some good discussion around Android recently and Daring Fireball blog has some very good points on the opportunity Android has in the market.

I 100% agree with him that iPhone needs competition. Unfortunately, the competition doesn’t look very good so far. While John Gruber makes a case where competition could exist if executed right, I don’t see some one gaining significant share in the market, atleast in the short term.  iPhone seem to be couple of years ahead of competition in the market and so far, I still don’t see good competition for iPhone.

When hardware becomes a commodity, the value moves to the software. So the game suddenly shifts to the software vendor’s turf. Now, to provide better end user experience on an end user device like a phone, a vendor with expertise in both hardware and software has significant advantages in this market and there are not many vendors who do software and hardware and definitely not at the scale as Apple. This puts Apple much ahead of competition not just in the short term, but also in the long term. When they have a lead, it is tough to beat them, unless we see some blunders from them.

I love linux. As I geek, I spend lot of time with it and I don’t see how tens of thousands of companies (like Google) can survive without open source software like linux. That said, it is already known that Linux has not penetrated the desktop market as much as it penetrated the server market. Infact, I’ll go a step further and say that it is tough to find enough open source software with great UI/usability. On the other hand, more often than not, the server side stuff is pretty good for most of the popular open source software. I think this is true with Android. I played with it a bit and found similarities between Android and Linux (yes, it is the same core). Similar to Linux, Android has the same powerful stuff, but where it fails is the usability and the final touches it needs. I can never call any Linux software ‘pleasure to use’ (yes, including Ubuntu), but I can say that after using a Mac, for example. As long as someone takes the user experience and user interface seriously, I think Android will face the same fate as Linux.

If a new phone has to compete with iPhone, it is not good enough if it is 10% better than iPhone. It has to be significantly better than the iPhone. If it comes with a smaller vendor, it going to get much tougher.

If there is one thing I’d like to see in Android (or linux), it is the improvements to the usabiltiy and UI of the entire OS. It looks crappy, atleast to my taste. Attention to the detail is very important and it has to be a please to use. Unless someone comes up with an OS that is good for end users, they’ll keep loosing against Apple. Phone is the device that stays with us longer than any other device. It is not good enough if it is functional. It has to be ‘please to use’.