Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Major UI Failure At Apple

After writing 'Chrome: NSFW', I kind of shrugged and moved on. I kept Chrome on the Windows laptop I never use, answered some comments I got, and that was that. But right now, as a UI person, I am seething, over pretty much the exact same functionality. Because this time it has been included in Apple's Safari. And of all people they should have known better.

Mike downloaded the beta and alerted me to the fact that it also, in a copy of what I considered terrible about Chrome, has the functionality of showing your most frequently visited sites on a new empty tab as a grid of thumbnails, ostensibly so you can quickly click to the site you are likely to go to. And of course, with Mike being a well-rounded adult in the Internet age, some of those thumbnails are very personal and very, very NOT SAFE FOR WORK.

Basically, at any point in time, while using this program normally, you are one click away from being embarrassed in front of your co-workers, friends, children, or anyone else who glances at your screen, all because Safari doesn't support the reasonable, normal, human habits of separating private from public life, even when you use the same tools. This on the installed default browser on a major platform.

Look, I take my laptop to my clients. I don't have a work computer and a separate personal computer. And yes, off-work I browse stuff that I should not take into work. And I am not special in that. This is how free-lancers, road-warriors, people who take their work-laptop home, or people who simply goof off at work from time to time, live. This is how they are. And we can do this because our tools, our programs, are predictable. We know what they will do. Even if you, gentle reader, are now thinking "well, serves you right for reading smut", do you really want to be in the situation that when your boss walks by your cube, or comes over to check your work, you are just one click away from showing how you actually go to Popcap Games and Knitting Patterns and eBay more often than the Intranet work page? Or say you want to show your spouse this new site so you open a new tab, oops, there was the jeweler's page you have been browsing all week for that perfect surprise gift. Which is now no longer a surprise.

I can't install this beta to check, but I have been told it takes setting two settings in the Preferences to make this potential professional and personal disaster not happen. That makes it even worse to me, because so few people understand (or ever even open) Preferences panels.

The worst part for me, personally, as a UI professional, is what this represents in the history of Apple. This was the company that harbored and nurtured and pushed personal computing UI design. For years the best book on how to design a Graphical User Interface was the big book of Apple Human Interface Guidelines. This company produced field luminaries, Tognazinni, Laurel, Raskin, for starters, who all in their own way approached and evangelized the same idea over and over: we have to make the computer predictable or it will never stop being scary and it will never be accepted. The whole idea of metaphors, direct manipulation, the stage craft of making screens of little pictures to click and pick up and manipulate, was about making the user feel secure that what they thought would happen when they clicked or dragged or pointed, would actually happen. That they always knew 'what was going on'. You do A expecting B, and B would actually happen. The worst bugs were the ones where the stage management broke down and B did not actually happen, leaving the user lost, confused, angry, and suspicious of their shiny new box, pushing them away from being more productive and connected and creative. Predictability is what makes tools dissappear from cognitive view so only the goals of the work remain. Yet here in Safari the Apple UI team is baking unpredictability right in, at the top, at the beginning, at the front. Yes, unpredictability, because let me tell you, humans actually do not remember how often they go to a site, how often they clicked reload, how often the site reloaded itself, and therefore cannot predict how and when that site will show up on that mosaic of top-used sites.

Did these people in Cupertino not actually work with Chrome before they copied this? Did they not spend 5 minutes and go, oh man, we can't let this happen inside a workplace, all our advocates who have been working so hard to make OS X accepted in the workplace will look like buffoons when they install this and fire it up the very first day.

The first time I complained about this, when I discussed Chrome, I was told I should just put my browser into 'Erase All Tracks' mode when I was doing my non-work browsing. Because the browser changed and became unpredictable, the peanut gallery said I should change my habits to fit my tools. Well, I actually do want my browser to remember my passwords and cookies for sites I browse when off-the-clock. It has so far and it has worked fine because I know what my browser will show when. My tools either fit me or I grab another, and I am a Firefox user anyway. But it baffles me that the toolmakers of this very important and central tool seem to not have seriously thought about how their product will fit their user's lives, and are instead experimenting with crap that will embarrass their users because the toolmakers are playing some kind of game of UI one-upmanship with a recent upstart. When they have such a wonderful legacy to uphold.

Thank gawd it is just a beta. They can still correct it before release without too much egg on their face. Let's hope they do.

Why Yes, I Will Have A Great Day

I can kind of see the logic in training off-shore call reps for US accounts to have US accents, badly as this gets executed, but did you know that us UK callers get the same accents too? "Diane", "Angela", and "Thomas" let me know this last night -- I am particularly worried about certain Suthun' flourishes that appeared and then vanished in "Diane"'s voice.

Now I wonder if this means that there really is only one form of 'accent-reduction' training in India for this class of workers, or if T-Mobile just has a global call-center for all their countries and just settled on using the US one. Sheesh, do us customers in the UK not even warrant our fakery?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Radio Held My Data Hostage In Its Deathroes

I actually used to pay for a Yahoo! service: Launchcast Radio. Launchcast was a web radio service that got bought by Yahoo! and just kept alive for years. The player would only work on Internet Explorer and only on Windows, which means I couldn't use it at work for most of 2006 and 2007 because I was on a Mac there. Still, it was rock-solid, no drops, and the music was easily rateable, but with a lot of flexibility. For every track one could rate the artist, album, and song independently, which was very useful if you only liked a particular era of an artist's output, or just a one-hit-wonder track, or wanted to kill the novelty album from the music stream. You could listen to pre-programmed stations or make your own based on your ratings, which would then also play new music based on the information. If you upgraded to Plus you'd be free of commercials and get really nice quality of stream, just a touch worse than CD quality to my ears.

But in the new regulatory web radio environment and Yahoo's tanking numbers, I guess it had to go, so as of last weekend it got sold off and is now 'powered by CBS' and that copies the model of AOL radio: preset genres, preset stations, no customization, no ad-free stations. What the web could uniquely give, personalization for no or low payments, narrowcasting, is now gone, and replaced by something that, well, satellite radio does better. Hell yes, I am disappointed.

So, off to the competitors. The big one is Pandora, which also allows you to make a custom station based on your own personal tastes and ratings, and is known for very good predictive technologies. Unfortunately, it is also restricted to the US only, so that is no use for me in the UK. Last.fm works in the UK, and allows you to rate songs, get recommendations based on the ratings, and find out what people with tastes like you (your Neighborhood) are listening to. It started as AudioScrobbler, a social music site where you could show off what you were listening to by using little plugins to put in your WinAmp or iTunes, and has slowly morphed into a social site with web radio and custom channels now that bands make their own pages and upload music. It now wants to also start charging for a premium service where you can skip and play the same song more than 3 times. However, with its wildly varying sound-levels and the way it keeps recommending one tiny genre for me, over and over even though I have scrobbled for years over my whole library, the service is totally frustrating me.

And I could rate and fine tune some more, but still. I invested a lot of time rating my music on Launchcast already, clicking that little star bar whenever a new song came on. Now all that time is just wasted, gone. Yahoo stored my ratings and there was nothing useful to do with them outside of Yahoo. Obviously Launchcast wasn't a huge crowd pleaser or it wouldn't have been shut down, but I wasn't the only one wondering why all my data was now a) in a silo b) useless. If something happens to Pandora, or Last.fm, or Spotify (the new Euro kid on the block I can't try because it is an invite-only beta) or Rhapsody or Napster -- none of them huge blockbusters and all of them in a difficult global regulatory environment -- do we then need to start rating somewhere else all over again to get our custom radio?

I know I am in a minority here but I have rated almost every song in my iTunes library. When one day my directory died I panicked not because I might have lost my music -- I can re-rip that, and at a higher bitrate this time, and pirate what I had bought as music files -- but my ratings, my god, my ratings were gone! Nobody can do that for me but me! Everything turned out ok, but again, here's my data, it represents a lot about me, and it is caught in one location for one narrow use.

Can I export these ratings to each other? Not really, although I did write a terrible tool quickly to scrape my Yahoo Launchcast ratings through a forgotten Yahoo API, but I can't upload it to anything. Well, I could write a tool to upload it to last.fm (against their terms of service, because you can only rate something you are actually listening to at that moment, and for 9000 songs, well, that would take around 18.000 minutes of uploading) but they are pretty locked there. And on Pandora. And why neither one lets you upload your ratings files from local music players to quickly customize your radio or taste circle. Which seems like such an obvious idea, you are going to make me go through song after song on your service and click little hearts while you could make me happy with one file upload from my personal harddrive? There aren't that many audio players in use, you know. Even if the user hasn't rated their songs in iTunes or Media Player, the play-counts alone tell you so much about the tastes of that music lover trying your music site.

We need a Switzerland for music ratings. A place where I can rate songs once, and that does its best to scrape them from all your radio stations or places that you identify you rate songs at. In this age of interconnection I should never have to rate a song more than once anywhere, and my data should not die when the service goes. Competitor radios, especially sites that want to be social and taste hubs, places to show yourself off, should know better than that.

Breaking: then again, that music ratings Switzerland could totally end up selling you out to the RIAA like Last.fm seems to have done over a U2 tracks leak.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Size Matters

Portable file-based music players are usually small:

ipod shuffle

And the headphones aint' that big either:

ipod shuffle, earbuds plugged in

So why do these earbuds need a carrying case the size of a house?

ipod shuffle, earbuds plugged in

And no, you can't put the shuffle in there with it. Inside the case there is this big plastic spool to wind the cord around that takes up all the space.

Sony, what were you thinking?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Your Future Phones Are Being Demoed Now

Right now you can't get a hotel room for love or money in Barcelona. Apartments seem to be out as well. The annual Mobile World Congress has landed there, and the Mobile mailing lists have been abuzz for days with people trying to get last-minute tickets and accommodations. Yesterday the major manufacturers did their major announcements, the demo handsets are touchable on the conference floor today, and the gadget blogs are going nuts.

Two years ago when the iPhone came out I got asked if Apple had finally and truly changed the baseline now? In the media phones, in the smartphones segment, has innovation finally been pushed to the forefront by a manufacturer who started kicking ass and putting the best there was in a device at an affordable price? I said yes, yes I was sure that Nokia and Samsung and LG indeed looked up at this launch and gulped and gotten off their ass. I knew it then, and I know it for sure now: new phones are being shown that look like there's finally a dialog of one-upmanship going on in the segment again, after years of the LG Prada and the Nokia 7700 (oh god in heavens) being the flagships of tech for their respective years while RIM's black plastic chicklets cleaned up underneath.

Here's your new media player phone, the Samsung OmniaHD. It plays super-smooth video on a gorgeous screen (AMOLED), and the resolution is beyond hot:

Also, 8MP camera with 720p video recording, Nokia-Symbian S60 5th gen OS. More at Engadget Mobile. I believe it also makes calls or sends text messages.

Nokia is showing it understands now what a businessphone looks like after years of watching RIM hit their targets, the E55. Smooth, seriously slim, good software, good connectivitiy, no weirdness, accessible, but also designed to look the sleek part when being pulled out of the inside pocket of a Hugo Boss suit:

Also more info and pictures at Engadget.

The future is not flimsy black matte plastic anymore. And it should never have been.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Retail: It Is Hard

So, Microsoft wants a store. Which immediately got every pundit thinking of the Apple store, the very successful Apple stores. The destination stores, the let's pop in and see what is new stores, the play around stores, the aspirational stores of gear you want to have and things you can buy, the immaculately designed stores, the clean stores, the stores where nothing out is broken, the store where everything is ready to be played with.

Instead it will probably be more like the SonyStyle shops in malls. Ever been to one? I have, and I asked my friends about their experience. They were unanimous: you go in once, find a a lot of gear you are not allowed to touch, a wall of accessories that is hit-and-miss for your more exotic gear, no organization to any of it, when you ask about the new gear you read about in magazines the store help has no idea what you are talking about, and there's an obviously tuned-to-the-max set up of home theater in the back with 3 screens and loudspeakers blaring different stuff that doesn't tell you why one screen costs $2000 more than the other. Then, and most importantly, one look at the prices makes you wonder why you would buy anything here ever instead of just go online. The only times I genuinely liked SonyStyle stores was when I would see kit (that's a UKism) I wouldn't see in any other store, like when I happened on a UX490 in a store in Los Angeles. It, of course, wasn't actually on or charged anything, and the hovering and concerned looks didn't actually make me feel this was a rugged piece of portable electronics designed to go with me everywhere, but hey, it was the only place I got to touch it. Same for the e-ink readers, and the stunning OLED more-money-than-God thin-as-card TV I saw at the store in Heathrow. If I did those stores I would emphasize the Japan-only or barely-carried stuff, available only at outrageous prices, knowing that the stores are just a showcase for the brand anyway. When I went there in the early 2000s the full Qualia range should have been on display, even if locked in plexi-glass. Somehow B&O makes unaffordable luxury HiFi retail work for them.

At least the Nokia Flagship Stores -- dimly lit caves of plastic jewels doing nothing as they are -- understand you will buy these phone somewhere else anyway. The tugging anti-theft strings make it difficult to really get a feel for how this phone will be in your hand or pocket, but at least you can very quickly gauge which product is engaging. The wall of accessories always seems very low on the really exciting new 3d party stuff, and I don't remember being able to really play with bluetooth accessories or something. Just little phones, too many of them off or stuck, mounted on their shiny media stands surrounded by items distracting me from the product.

I am still trying to think about the Microsoft version of the Genius Bar. You know you want one. God, a place to send your relative when their computer is super-slow and their keyboard is screwed up, instead of having to dread family holidays because you will be carted off to the home office the moment you walk in the door with a "Can you fix this you are so good at it it takes you no time". The best sentence you can hear in that context is "I'm paying the neighbor kid for it now, he's as good as you and I don't have to wait till the holidays!" Geek Squad in the US basically tried to make a business of home PC support, coming to your home dressed like Dilbert in little cars, until some big box retailer bought them and instead you could cart your computer to them. Whereas Apple Geniuses were hand-picked from the store help and sent to Cupertino for training with rigorous follow-up, Geek Sqaudders were, well, I am not sure what criteria they were slected by, but they didn't seem to have that aura of The Best around them, for what probably is a mind-numbing job.

Because what would the Microsoft version of the Genius bar do? Wouldn't 80% of the cases be trying to clean up the result of the faults of the design of the Windows kernels? "My computer is slow" means having to clean up layers upon layers of Internet Explorer- and Outlook-delivered viruses that have wormed their way into the system so deep the only real cure is to basically start over, and the prophylactic is to change the account settings to something safe that will break half most of the customer's software because it can't run as Administrator. No Microsoft Genius can win here. "My computer crashes all the time" means having to tell the customer that some peripheral they didn't bring in, some driver, some video-chip glitch, some closed blob of software created by a non-Microsoft pary is not helping, and the ping-pong between hardware and software manufacturers. Nobody likes to call Microsoft support for exactly these issues, would a real live person be able to help any more?

Apple's complete integration and limited internal configurations meant that when I got my appointment with my Apple Genius and said "My MBP is switching off suddenly when off the lead without waring me", the Genius already had some idea, could open the software that deeply monitors the state of my hardware, confirm from it that my battery was shorting out, hand me a new one, and have me out in 10 minutes. After half an hour of waiting even though I was on time. As one of my Apple-store contacts pointed out, the Genius Bar is actually the only part of the store that doesn't scale well with the success of Apple retail. You can always put out more Nanos to play with, more Geniuses is harder. The only response is to stay on top of what happens in the stores, and what happens with the product, and just build a better product that needs less hand holding.

Windows 7 may be such a product that will kill virus exploits dead and be able to handle wonky terrible 3d party drivers and glitchy hardware (and I will get a unicorn-pony, a chocolate cake, and a £100k Chief user eXperience Officer job tomorrow), but that still leaves the collective installed base of 98, ME, 2K, and XP out there -- yes, seriously, they are in use -- collectively running some spam botnet. I wouldn't want to touch these machines with 20 foot poles. Which makes clicking commands hard. The Microsoft Genius bar is a non-starter.

What would be a good tack then? Look, Windows makes money anyway. XBox does not (seriously). Zune does not. Few people really understand what the Microsoft OS can do in the home besides deliver Bonzi Buddy. Few know the breadth of hardware it runs on. So Mike and I thought that was the only chance the Microsoft store has of not being a sad bag of fail in a mall, waiting to be converted into a luggage store two years from now -- who buys all these roll-a-boards anyway? -- is to make it a Dad and Kids Destination while Mom goes shoe shopping. The place to be for all those guys looking at either their shoes or the distance hanging outside the Hairclips n' Glittery Shit stores, hoping nobody they know walks by. 8 humongous flat screens attached to XBoxes, side by side side by side with couches in front of them, pretty much like Best Buy tries to do for Guitar Hero in their store. Have different kinds of games on them so it's not 8 couches of big male teens throwing virtual blood, but also have Game Stewards whose only job is to keep this theater running but are not of the "Kids, get off my lawn!" variety. Always the newest stuff on. Sure, families will use the store as a babysitter, but this babysitter will make your kid nag your parents for $400 worth of hardware. Have music and video and pictures on servers and handhelds all showing how Windows Media Center lets you have your music and video everywhere you are, from on the Xbox to your car. Wall after wall of accessories and game figurines and collectibles, released here first at events. A corner where manufacturers can show their latest box as long as it hasn't been released no more than 6 months ago and is unlikely to show up at a big box to handle and get familiar with. (Alienware! HP's Vivian Tam clutch!) Every media player, loaded up, charged, working, and with people there to reset them so all those media tablets can really show their stuff. And actually, like Apple, have this channel feed back into your product lines: "The street says the Xbox tray is fragile. The Zunes always reset in the store. The Media Server doesn't like this card." Use it to make better products, not just sell them. Apple stores seriously feed back into Apple. They are tracked meticulously.

Oh you want to hold Microsoft Office classes and demos at night? Lord knows the 2007 version could have used a better transition. Sure, if you must. But go big then so you have plenty of space. Because this shouldn't be a Microsoft Windows store, which is all the pundits can see when they think about a Microsoft store. We use that at work, nobody wants to go to a store to see work. Make it a Microsoft-for-everything-else store. Mainly fun.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Exercise Your Power

I was writing this entry about how the # key on my phone no longer works, which means I can't enter capitals in password fields and how this is going to make me look for a new phone and how I wasn't finding the combination of chic and functionality that I want, when I realized, hey, this is completely uninteresting. So I don't want a G1 because it looks like a white 2002 Palm and the iPhone has a crappy camera and the Nokia 5800 is a failed-gothic UI mess and the rest feels outdated compared to the previous 3... does anyone care? Nah, you'll all go out and either have your minds already made up based on what your friends show you, your brand partisanship -- and I see nothing wrong with that -- or whatever looks cute and is cheap on your plan. And more power to you.

Just do me a favor, if your previous phone sucked, just look at which part of it sucked, and don't buy that again. Stop rewarding crap that doesn't suit you. I mean, we've managed to punish Motorola for tricking us into buying that buggy RAZR POS just because the outside looked cool and then taking that design and slapping it on everything till the RAZR looked as exclusive as a piece of toast, to the point that Motorola is cutting everything and trying something completely different in their labs in Chicago. That is good, people.

Did you hate the Windows Mobile experience? Don't buy the next one! It's been 7 years and it's still not getting seriously any better! Sony-Ericsson and Samsung can't really improve it with a neat new shell, they can't fix whatever makes it lock up spontaneously once in a while (like, say, every day, for some people. Or when they receive a call). You didn't like it? Don't get another one! Let someone else surprise you.

Try things in the shop. If something annoys you there already, it is not going to get better when you have to do it 50 times a day (like scrollbars on a touch phone, geezus christ what are you thinking Nokia 5800? Are you on drugs? Was your mommy on crack when you were being gestated in Espoo, and is that why you are some mongrel bastard UI of a finger-touch and a stylus phone?). If someone has to show it to you in the shop, you're going to forget once you are outside of it. If something on the screen doesn't clearly indicate with words or images that you should swipe or click or touch or dial or arrow here, it never will, and you won't remember two days from now. You're going to use that thing 60 times a day or so, so make it sure it does what you want it to do.

Don't make the same mistake over and over. Make these manufacturers work for your patronage, even if the phone is offered 'for free' in the shop. It's the only thing that will get them off their ass. Free stuff will still annoy the hell out of you three months from now when it still don't work like it didn't work in the shop and you knew that was a problem already.

Just don't settle without having tried.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Kindle Leak Rework

So the leaks of the new Kindle, to be announced this Monday, have of course happened. I am not sure of the strategy behind these leaks -- yes, I believe 'leaks' are often intentional as part of a media strategy, like how a recording of Christian Bale made at least 4 months ago got leaked just as publicity for the movie needs to ramp up up and would like for the words 'Christian Bale' and 'Terminator' to be on everyone's lips. So, we have a weekend of digesting 'leaked' designs before the announcement. Designs that look like what we saw last year in progress, by the way.

Product shot of new Kindle
Marketing shot of new Kindle

I get an IM from my friend Mike M. Mike thinks he is a network troubleshooting tech flunky in a dead-end harrowing job, with a part-time job at the Apple store. He is not, he is actually a genius in getting to the heart of design issues of personal technology, both because of his lack of preconceptions and because his whole work life is about fixing it when it breaks and finding the right solution, either for the global network he is on or the people walking into the store in despair.

Mike: what say ye, design maven?
FJ!!: too much bezel. looks like a hospital

I am a terrible typist, so I don't capitalize in IM.

Mike: [hates keyboard but] it wins on thin. There's just so much fussy on the front still.

And here is where he sums up the problem with the look of this device one sentence, nailing why the iRex look so much better (bolding mine):

Mike: Books don't have shit scattered around the edge of the page.

And after a few minutes:
Mike: There, done.

Mike M. redesigns the Kindle

Mike: If the entire point of this exercise is to find a use for e-ink after a decade of SUCK, then let the e-ink be paper. Have that kindle experience on top and get the [effing] business done on the bottom with a touchscreen like grown folks do. When you're reading, it turns off. Then you don't have to fickity [eff] with keys or that stupid D pad. Nobody is going to enjoy typing on that object as it is with that keyboard, so you might as well go virtual.

My first reaction was that he had now made it twice as expensive to make, but then again, if Nintendo can sell two screens and touch and logic for under $150, can a simple touch screen instead of a mechanical keyboard be such a problem? And it would add so many uses. I did a little sleuthing and indeed, an electronic paper reader with a secondary touch screen has been done before. Although not as charming as Mike's.

The next step is to wonder, since Amazon is also rumored to make the Kindle catalog and service available on mobile phones, is whether the next revision of electronic paper could be an accessory for these smartphones. Something you can slide a G1 or an iPhone or iPod Touch into but still access the screen for typing and gestures and selection and control. You could put in a much more expensive e-paper screen with higher resolution and contrast because you could throw all the memory and EVDO and Sprint charges out. Kindles and iPhones are currently being bought by the same people anyway. Read newsbites on the phone from the Amazon service while on the move, slide it in the comfy big e-paper reader at home. Maybe even waterproof so you can finally read in the tub. It would have to be the next generation of iPhones and G1s, though, the current hardware can't drive two separate screens this way.

As for me, I already designed my fav e-paper reader. It's a small moleskine-size fold-out with a 400 dpi color screen. Or otherwise, as I said this morning:

FJ!! I think I'll want an ereader when it makes me think Vogue would be an awesome read on it
Mike: cologne vents too

I told you he was a genius.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Find Me

Google Latitude is a new step in keeping your carefully selected friends aware of where you are, and I am busily exploring it. You run it on your phone and it tells Google where you are, so Google can tell other people you have authorized where you are. Works best on mobiles with GPS, of course, on my phone the reported location will always be a bit off since all I have is cell-tower triangulations.

However, this doesn't solve the main problem I have with friends and directions: forget always updating, I have always just describing "I am here" in a useful way at a single point in time. Now all these new phones are getting GPS and maps, so I should be able to send a location marker easily for their phones to display on a map. Just a two-click action to have my phone send a Geo-SMS (yes, we'd need a standard for that) of where I am right now to someone, who could then see on their phone's map application where I am and how to easily get ot it. Maybe even a standard to include in emails, a microformat like vCal and vCard with which dates and contacts are now easily included and exchanged.

Precise geographical location is something computers know, understand, and can communicate, yet somehow humans are the ones who end up having to negotiate them to meet up.