Posts Tagged ‘Apple’

Touching the… something

June 5, 2011

You may recall I’ve had words on various touch gadgets in the past, like here or overthere – this post I thought I’d devote to a designer’s look at touch technology itself, so let’s dig in:

– undoubtedly riding the coattails of both the ridonkolously successful iPhone/Pad and their own attemps at mobile OS, Microsoft have started teasing Windows 8. Now, if one did not much like MS, one might ask why one should believe they can make that work when Win-7 clearly ended up as little more than a graphic front-end on XP but that would be outside the scope of this article, and… whoops, I guess I did ask it after all.
Anyway, that’s not the point – the point is, MS want to be the first to apply what is essentially the user interface of a smartphone to a “PC”, as they call it. Complete with swiping, tiles, apps, the whole shebang.


The above video became the straw that made me start writing this, and now I must explain why…

Well, in one of the articles I linked at up at the beginning, I mention hotkeys and such, and I also berate the lack of an actual, physical keyboard – at the heart of it, these two complaints are the problem with touch.
Of course, you may think that hotkeys are the stuff o’ geeks, and certainly there are ones you (or even I) have never heard of, but if you’re being but a little productive on your computer, chances are you use some, like cut/copy/paste, or arrow keys or tab, for example.

Then there’s the physical keyboard itself – it relates to touch like a church organ does to a harmonica. What I mean is, even if you’re the most dexterous person you know, the number of possible gestures you can squeeze out of ten fingers (even if none are used to hold the device) pales in comparison to the number of combinations even a relatively-fumbling person can manage with those ten fingers and a qwerty keyboard – there’s just way more material there, which means potential access to a greater number of practical shortcuts.

But there’s something more to the difference between touch and an actual keyboard, and it’s the same reason that this never became popular:

It’s a laser keyboard, and it’s been around for almost twenty years but maybe you’ve never seen one in real life, as it never really caught on.
Why? Because it lacks something you probably didn’t know you needed in a keyboard (and indeed in many other cases): Tactile feedback.
Your fingers, flying mostly below the radar of your consciousness, rely heavily on feedback from the keyboard, and therein lies the rub: – anyone doing anything other than casual browsing (i.e. non-productive activities) on a device is going to experience significant slowing in interaction if, instead of the fingers instantly “knowing” if they hit those buttons or keys or not, and if they responed, you’d have to rely on a visual or audio cue (like a blink or a click) that you have to consciously take note of.
That’s why the F and J keys on your keyboard, and the 5 if you have a numerical pad, have a small bump – to tell you, at a near-subconscious level, that your fingers are in the right place.

This is hyper-low tech – it’s tactile response, something we’ve had since we were friggin monkeys, having snuck into everyday use (check your non-touch phone if you have one, see the little bumps? – see the little nubs on your headphones, telling you which is left and right?), and we rely on it so heavily we’re not even aware of it.

It makes sense – afterall, how often do you ever look down at your fingers, or any other part of your body, to check where it is? Usually (as in, when you’re not learning the tightrope, for example) you don’t have to because the body is exceptionally good at keeping you informed about what it’s doing.
Imagine doing something as simple as walking by consciosly deciding what to do with your legs and feet all along – this is head-explodingly difficult, and the reason some people never learn to walk fully again after certain types of injuries, namely the type that makes the body “forget” how it feels, and forces the concious mind to work it out instead.

The concious mind is good at many things – but being fast is not one of them.

So everyone who uses even slight amounts of blind-typing, which here means “anyone who ever take their eyes off the keyboard at any time during computer use”, is going to have to overcome this. Now granted, for much casual use speed is not of the essence, and you’ll probably be OK once you’ve got new routines but for most productive uses, touch is going to be a major hurdle.

(if you’re now sighing and rolling your eyes, mumbling to yourself how they’ll overcome that easily and soon, you should know that Nokia announced their tactile feedback touch keyboard as far back as 2007 – also something you’ve probably never seen or even heard of. Apparently it’s not that easy)

OK, so what am I saying here, that I want to outlaw – or at least diss heavily on – touch interfaces?
Of course not. Well, the dissing part may be true. But they’re cool, and what’s more, they are now popular with Microsoft, meaning we’re stuck with them even if they weren’t cool at all.

What I want to say with this article is this: – some very important details concerning humans and design are especially apt at flying below the radar and be overlooked, specifically because their place in whatever process we’re talking about is mostly (or completely) outside the spectrum of the conscious experience involved, even if they’re absolutely central to it.
I think we should devote specific attention to try and notice these details.
Not because we can’t make things that work otherwise – things like touch technology clearly works – but because we can make things that work even better if we do.

I also think touch interfacing has as much place on an actual computer as wifi on a sledgehammer, and by thinking this is the one goal of computer development now, to add touch to everything, MS and Apple both (damn, I wish we had more choices!) risk crippling the otherwise incredibly versatile tool a computer truly is.

Broader vision, people, broader vision.

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Technology in clown shoes?

November 4, 2010

Did you get an iPad yet?

You do have an iPhone, right?

Or whatever brand of smartphone you prefer – you know, the kind that has internet capacity (and not WAP, either).
If you do, you’re part of the future, if we are to believe some of the big players. Apple seems to have already relegated their actual computers to an afterthought, compared to the efforts placed on the carry-with-you-gadgets, Microsoft is moving in, and every mobile service provider out there is scrambling to give you on-the-go internet, as is a plethora of other service providers (here in Denmark we have free internet access on buses and trains, for example).

Mobile internet is the future, apparently.

Well, I’m not gonna poop on that, it’s probably true – I am, however, going to add some comments to it, for you to make of what you will.

The defining factor here is speed. The speed of your internet connection, and the processing speed of your hardware.
By now, the standard internet connection is more than 1 megabit, and many if not most people have way more.
This doesn’t just mean you can download that video of the sneezing panda in mere seconds. It profoundly affects the way web sites are coded; almost the entire progress in website design and coding has been dictated by the increasing bandwidth and computanional capacity available.

The earliest web sites were just static text, perhaps with an 8-bit image, then later with a few spinning gifs, but try going to, oh, I don’t know, let’s say your Facebook page.
Run your mouse over it a little – see all those tips, hints, pictures and stuff popping out? The constantly updating statuses, chat, whatever?
Or check out your favorite news outlet, and notice all the Flash adverts all over it – they need the advertisement for funding, without it they can’t exist.

Each of all of those things demand a chunk of code be downloaded into your browser, and for your computer to execute it. They also demand something else: The Mouseover Event.

Not many mobile units have that kind of bandwidth yet, and they also don’t have any mouseover capacity (because there is no mouse pointer – your finger is the pointer). We’ll get back to the power in a moment, but that event needs a little explanation, especially if you’re not a web geek.

sadly, this is not live anymore – easily one of the funniest memes ever

You see, most of what makes websites of today non-static (or reactive) is due to the mouseover event family. Regular code (HTML or Javascript) can pay attention to your mouse pointer and make the website react to its location, and most Flash in websites is almost entirely based on mouse pointer detection.
Basically, the only thing most Flash content will do on a mobile device is play video and let you click things like regular links – forget about playing all but the simplest point-and-click games, for example.

This is no small point – websites that rely, say, on expanding menus can’t be used at all on a mobile unit, pure and simple; you can’t access the site content if you can’t get the menus to show.

Then there’s the issue of power. That’s actually pretty straight forward: – if the content requires a lot of stuff to be downloaded and executed in the client (your browser), current mobile chips just don’t have the power, and, perhaps more importantly, neither do the batteries.
And battery technology is not following Moore’s law and can’t keep up – if you want an indication of the power consumption, try running some Flash content on your laptop without the charger plugged in. It will hork that power down like a stoner with a plate of burritos.


Also, it is worth keeping in mind that a lot of stuff gets downloaded or executed behind the scenes even if you don’t point at or click on it, sucking up bandwidth and power beyond your control.

The reason this situation exists is that web content as we know it was designed on, and for, stationary computers and laptops with a charger never too far away – obviously, the content was built to push the available power to its limit.

But what is the new situation – mobility – going to mean then?

Are we going to see all the knowledge and funcionality of the 21st century internet suddenly becoming, not obsolete (as it is not being replaced by something better, not yet anyway), but just not used anymore?
I mean, take Silverlight for example, Microsoft’s cutting edge web technology, which they’ve spent years developing. Good luck with that on a mobile device – it’s geared specifically towards all that multifunctionality executable stuff, rich media and whatnot, and even if the mobile chips grow powerful enough to handle it, and even if mobile internet becomes fast (and cheap) enough, we still need some pretty exceptional leaps forward in battery technology to be able to use it.
HML 5 is going to have problems too, as a large part of it is centered around extended mouse pointer detection functionality and rich media.

Will all this carefully developed technology be wasted? What should web developers focus on – powerful stationany machines or iPhones? With the current challenge of getting consistant behavior across platforms and a few years worth of computers (which has people like that frothing at the mouth already, let me tell you), they’re not going to be able to cover both flavors at once; the difference is way too big.

Are we going to see two internets – one for mobile, another for “real” computers? I mean, sure, we want stuff that works on our mobile devices but we don’t want to come home to our actual computers and load up something that looks like Facebook Mobile. We want the bells and whistles there.
But do we want two internets?

I guess what I’m asking is, are we going to see this state-of-the-art, developed-over-decades internet tecnology go tripping over its own feet, like the awkward adolescent it is?

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Speak of the…. iPhone

July 9, 2007

It’s out.
The iPhone.

– but not here in Denmark…

However, being unable to get one for myself and get first hand knowledge doesn’t keep me from having formed an opinion, if not about the iPhone himself, then at least of the idea of it and the hype surrounding it.


It’s interesting, first off, to note the “campaign” for this gadget (more on that term later) – the Mac circles have been murmuring about an Apple phone for years, yet Apple themselves never said anything about it before the stunning presentation of a fully functional iPhone by mr. Jobs himself at one of his famous turtleneck stage performances.
Having a sort-of cult following as Apple does pays off; such attetion as was built by the rumors (neither started nor supported by Apple in any, least of all economical, way) is hard to create with even the best commercial campaign…

When the product finally hit the streets it was, of course, impressive – wether you want to love or hate it, noone with any interest in tech stuff, devices, computers or design is unaffected.
What is funny, though, is that the most innovative features (in my opinion anyhow) are hardly the topic of any of the numerous reviews, so I’ll try and point at some of them:

– the multi-touch display. This is the first time ever that any device with a touch screen as its primary interface is available to the general public, let alone at a price that is reasonable (if indeed on the heavier side of reason), and the ability to interface with it using multiple touch points is nothing short of brilliant. All the same, most reviewers seem to take this interface for granted…
edit: – it has been brought to my attention that certain camcorders do have touch screens at consumer levels, and PDAs and smartphones have been pointed at. I admit I didn’t think of the camcorder angle (one might argue that it’s not a camcorder’s primary input device, though), but I intentionally left out PDAs and smartphones; the former is pretty much useless without a stylus and hence not a true touch screen from the consumer’s point of view (even though technically it is), and the latter have a numeric keypad as its primary input device…

– The iPhone is not really a gadget. I mean, let’s be honest, when we talk about a gadget we mean an implement which does all manner of technically advanced, yet mostly useless, stuff, but really none of the iPhone’s features can be called truly useless, leading me to the next point:

– It’s not a cell phone. This machine is a dedicated communication device; pretty much only the on-board iPod is not directly targeted at modern, web-based communication – sporting several applications needed for this, such as email, bluetooth, text messaging (with a graphic interface for keeping track of “sms conversations” – cannot believe nobody thought of this before), voicemail browsing (ditto), picture sharing, full blown web browser, and an API solution that will allow for additional functionality to be added user-side. Not to mention it’s really a computer, running an actual system (OS X), making it the first “cell phone” which will truly be updateable and upgradeable…

– And, of course, the user experience. Another first: breaking with the common numeric keypad as the primary input device – let’s face it, how often do we actually use the key pad for punching in a phone number the old school way? Most of the time, the limited number of keys are subject to advanced finger acrobatics to force them to fill tasks not even remotely connected with their nature.
The iPhone vision also shows a great understanding of how a hand-held communication device is used – for example, integrating maps with address & phone number search and info, and that with the telephone function, et cetera.

Even though it’s obvious I’ll put the disclaimer in words: I haven’t tried it myself, the above is based on Apple’s own info and user feedback online.
Even if this device eventually fails however, it has already pointed to one thing: We need to think about how we use technology to communicate in a whole new way.

Oh, and before anyone writes it off because it doesn’t have a video camera or MMS capabilities or because the feature list is shorter than your average Blackberry, let’s remember that many people laughed when Apple launched a desktop computer without a floppy drive, or when we first saw a portable mp3 player – the two products that turned Apple around and pointed the way for everyone else in the business today.

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