Sunday, January 31, 2010


And what can I add to discussions of the Apple iPad? I thought not much, but after discussing the product with Genius Mike, I am now very confused about discussions I have not been seeing. It is difficult to bet against Apple because they have won so hugely in the past -- and who wants to be the one quoted when the next iPod turns out not to be lame? -- but do remember that Apple also released the G4 Cube to very tepid sales, and some strange iPod accessory boombox you probably can't even remember right now.

So what am I not seeing? How about this: a look back at the ├╝berpad Apple released before. It's software was a magical experience of integration, of simplicity, of looking over the user's shoulder to read a scrawl like "Lunch with Bob tomorrow" and have it ask if you want to enter that into your calendar, and which Bob did you mean, and set all the smart defaults for this meeting, something mail readers and smartphones still can't do, even though we desperately need it to manage all the snippets and appointments and alarms that come into our lives. Now that is real magic, magic that keeps being delightful and surprising, not just the magic veneer from having a good credit card system behind the scenes in place for your app store. That is old hat by now, what we call 'hygiene', the basic functionality you have to have to not turn users off.

The line of Newton MessagePads actually was a user experience complete with thought out gestures and almost no modes, very focused on not being 'computing' but being a simple scribble block sketch pad that magically Just Did The Right Thing. And it bombed painfully because it was just a pain to enter any data that the pad could do this right thing on. Considering there was no ubiquitous wireless connectivity at the time, the data did all have to come from the user's writing or typing. It couldn't even handle syncing with the desktop very well. Although the last one in the product line could have an external keyboard added, I even bought one.

How is this relevant? Much as this new iPad will get its data over wireless networks from other computers in nice formats computers easily understand, the part where the user adds their bit is actually, well, really uncomfortable. The iPhone and iPod Touch are mediocre typing experiences with their lack of tactile feedback and tiny keys, but at least the size keeps people from thinking they need to be able touch type with it, and writing a book or even a letter is still considered a remarkable feat. Yet using that soft keyboard seems exactly what Steve Jobs expects us to do on the iPad because right now it is, well, bigger. Not more tactile feedback, not having a more giving surface, just bigger.

How? It's back is curved, does it even lay flat? Nobody mentions. When I am on the sofa, do I have to put it on my lap and hunch over it? On my airplane table tray, where again my screen is not at a a good angle for viewing? I suspect that since I actually do not touch-type (22 years of computing and I can't touch-type, for reals) I may have an easier time since I hunt and peck. But considering the big reveal about the reveal was a productivity suite with word processor, somewhere there's a question, that Apple has tried to deal with before, ending in disaster and cancellation of all the Newtons, that seems to be answered by Apple with "Just type on a pane of glass, it'll work out."

(Meanwhile, since bluetooth keyboards are possible, what will really happen is that we will see 3d party cases with an extra battery and a keyboard to slip a the iPad into.
It will allow the iPad to be a laptop when you need it, and a tablet when you don't. See here an example of the IdeaPad U1 Lenovo showed at CES a month ago and plans to release this summer.)

Other questions: when will I be able to listen to my Internet radio and do my word processing on my awkward keyboard? Well, 'they' say this capability, multi-tasking of apps, is coming in the next revision of the OS underlying all of Apple's Touch products, but a week ago I was being told it would be there for the pad itself. It is not. And what I learned studying interaction was that on small screens users like being focused on one thing, on not having many interruptions; one of the hardest things designing smartphone UIs is how to let the user know an SMS came in while they are doing something else without being disruptive. But on a big screen? Users love lots of little things happening, to be able to pick and choose what to focus on now, and, especially when they are young, to have multiple data streams to follow in their peripheral vision while they work. One app at a time on a big screen -- and how boring this big screen is in an age when we smartphone come with insane resolutions and laptops engineered to be super cheap can be switched to show text reflectively and smooth like it was printed on paper -- is just going to disappoint. A communications machine this is not. Unless this multi-tasking revision gets slipped in before the iPad goes on sale.

No, seriously, does this thing lie flat? I keep wondering. And wondering what there is here that an Android-based pad couldn't deliver as well, and probably cheaper, in 3 months of engineering, with multi-tasking having been built in and thought out since day one of Android's release. Heavy lock in with services like book and magazine and newspaper publishers, I guess. Apple will try to lock those up for their device only. Still, this thing looks like a boombox to me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

App Stores Are Not A Blessing

App StoreImage via Wikipedia

Everything is getting an app store. Not just one for every phone manufacturer, but now there's one for digital pens, and bluetooth headsets. Televisions and Blu-ray discs players are updating their own firmware over the Internet, and glorified clock-radios are made to download new capabilities.

We are going to a situation where every piece of electronics can be customized post-sale. Which is going to have two unfortunate consequences:

  1. Devices are going to be even unfriendlier to use, because the out-of-box experience will be given short thrift with the idea of 'the user will fix it'. In a rush to be first and cheapest, product developers often do not spend a lot of time testing and thinking and testing and thinking about how to make the easiest product with the best default settings. Now that product managers will be able to say "the user will fix it with an after-market download developers will make, so ship it now", the design cycle will be even more under pressure, and it will show in clunky products that require mandatory downloads -- and cash -- to be enjoyable. No being delighted from the moment you unpack it. Already, I have been told, users have to wait an extra half hour in between hooking up their Sony PS3 and getting to play because of firmware updates needing to be downloaded and installed. This will get worse.

  2. The future is going to be even buggier. Making a product modifiable means creating programming interfaces and machines that can execute programs. A closed system is bounded, it can theoretically be exhaustively tested for all circumstances and button-presses. An open system has no such predictability, really, and is mostly debugged through years of feedback from users and developers running programs trying the combinations of programming calls in all kind of different and unexpected ways.

My Discrete Mathematics lecturer in college used to say there was a Law Of Conservation of Misery: the short-cut trick you used to cleverly shorten the steps in one part of a proof only meant you had to spend more time and sweat on other parts, always. I think this Law also goes for buggyness in systems: yes, some manufacturers are working harder to really entice consumers with well thought-out experiences, but the rest of our electronics will be designed to shoot themselves in the foot even more, and take our time and sanity down with them as collateral damage.