Saturday, October 13, 2012

Windows 8: Hardware That Will Physically Hurt

Much has been written about Windows 8 already, and most reviews I am seeing are negative. Windows 8 is an Operating System and User environment that tries to work the same on tablets and desktops, strongly visually tied to Windows 8 phones as well. Most reviewers hate it because it is such a break from how 25 or so years of desktop worked; in migrating their mobile OS ideas to desktops, and laptops, Microsoft is forcing a new paradigm that is just uncomfortable. So uncomfortable they had to make commercials to show people how to use it.

No multiple windows in the main view, no easy visible way to switch applications—you have to know a specific set of gestures—and no easy way to start new applications in the compatibility environment that suddenly lost a start button. In short, a set of gestures that are really easy on a tablet end up making life hard when needed to be done with a mouse and keyboard. The gestures are not obvious in either case, but we forgive that on tablets because of the lack of real estate; on desktops with 28" monitors, not having start buttons and task switching widgets is kind of, well, mean, really.

Apart from all that, I may, may, have found another issue with it, which is pretty serious: Windows 8 could be physically painful to use over time.

Every laptop I have seen introduced for Windows 8 has a touch-sensitive display, just like a tablet, which makes total sense if you are going to make a machine to run what is basically a tablet OS with a desktop afterthought. The convertibles take the idea even further: these are tablets to which you can easily attach a rigid keyboard and then have a laptop-like device but that then doesn't have a touchpad or nipple mouse, it's all touch driven. So on portable computing, all Windows 8 machines with a keyboard are touch for moving around with. Desktop machines for Windows 8 are also equipped with touch screens, enabling users to make the gestures that make Windows 8 work.

Well, here's the thing: when travelling or when at work, this has been my computing set-up:
iPad standing up with a bluetooth keyboard

I have been using this for months now, and in the last few weeks I have noticed a knot under my shoulder-blade, a tenseness that is just getting worse and worse in one small spot on my back. It's just not going away. It is making me realise just how many times I am moving that right arm up to press the home button to switch programs, or gesture on the touch screen to make something happen. That movement is constant, lifting my hand from the keyboard, not to a mouse or touchpad that will support my hand and thus my arm, but up to touch something in front of me, making me hold my arm up in the air unsupported, and requiring me to then exert fine motor-control. It's not just a simple once, but all the time while I am behind the set-up. I resent doing so, I keep wishing CMD+Tab worked on the iPad like it does on my macbook to switch programs, and a touch-pad would work so I didn't constantly have to lift my arm and touch the screen and bezel, over and over. And today it hit me: that's why the muscles that hold my arm up when extended are hurting. Over-use.

Using an iPad with a keyboard is a minority use-case, as we say in the User Experience business: there aren't that many people doing it because it is not a compelling scenario. People with serious typing to do use proper laptops and desktops with proper big keyboards and mice. But Microsoft and its hardware partners are about to unleash a tidal wave of machines that really do have touch+gesture as their main paradigm: convertible tablets, touch-enabled desktops. Microsoft itself is explicitly making a keyboard cover for their tablet, almost built-in, meant to be used like the set-up in the picture. (Edit: Note the Surface keyboard case does have a trackpad. But, also keep your eyes open for reviewers saying getting to the hidden controls is cumbersome with the mouse or trackpad.) From a minority use-case this mode of interacting is becoming a blessed paradigm.

This is going to hurt a lot of people. Seriously, if you are buying a new Windows 8 device and are not using it in tablet mode on your lap, or cradled in your arm for most of the time, if the screen stands mainly upright and is not flat on the desk like a book so you are pointing down when you gesture on it, get a pointing device that rests on the desk, like a mouse or track-pad. Insist on it. Otherwise you may be in a world of chronic hurt.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Other Digital Thing IKEA Did With The Catalog

The story of how around 12% of the latest IKEA catalog was not photographed but digitally rendered has made the rounds all the way to the Wall Street Journal, but oddly I haven't seen mentions of the other digital feature of the IKEA catalog: the paper catalog unlocks content on a mobile application. Now that I consider real news. 

Frankly, I am surprised IKEA is so late to the digital-rendering party,. Indeed considering the geographical color and sizing variations they have to deal with; it would seem a lot easier to digitally retouch a kitchen to a darker shade and adjust the fridge to be free-standing instead of built-in (a strong difference in kitchen design between the US and Europe) than to have to build a new kitchen in the studio, but I guess shooting rendered furniture to the quality the catalog demands really was quite the challenge.

But in the catalog that landed on my doorstep, many pages have a small icon with the text 'Scan to unlock extra content.' Page two of the catalog explains what that means: you can download an app on a smartphone--I found one for Apple mobile devices and Android--and if you scan the page, more content will be downloaded over, preferably for a speedier experience, your WiFi connection So I made a video to show you what that looks like.

I have to apologize here for the quality. Usually when I watch vlogs of unboxings and rants and tutorials I always shake my head and scream at YouTube that the videographers should have bought a tripod already, and learned how to switch on the macro setting, and rehearse once or twice! Alas, when it comes time to make my tech video debut, I am far away from my home with my toys, in a rented flat with some random portable tech, no tripod, bad lighting, and no better place to do this than a table. I apologize and promise not to yell at videographers anymore through the screen.

The app is a little slow to start up and to start scanning, but it works well on my New iPad and iPod and the shots look gorgeous on the Retina displays. The 3D models look cheap and ugly, though. It drastically failed to show anything useful on my small Sony Xperia Mini Pro, and I quickly stopped trying. The scanning of a page is not too difficult to get videos and photos, but trying to see a 3D model from more than the top is difficult; turn the phone too much to examine the front and sides and the model disappears.

It is a fun little game for about 30 minutes, if you can stop yourself from simply going to the website and seeing the same content. Some videos are really not that interesting; watching how a set is perfectly dressed up by professionals to look like a too-beautiful-to-be-true bohemian chic dinner party only made me feel like they were cheating--if I was a pro stylist my parties would look awesome too--and two of the four 3D models I found showed something useful: how the doors fold open on the TV bench and how table leaves were stored in an extendable table.

I think that is my main negative with this system: for a company that makes such functional products, they seem to have invested a lot of money in something that isn't quite there in functionality. Well, isn't right now: as a way to showcase more content and details about a room set-up that simply could not fit in the catalog it is pretty darn good already. But once this platform works, I would consider it mandatory for every piece of convertible furniture in the catalog to have an associated video to show the transformation. Scanning might be as easy for an able-bodied person as typing the name of the sleeper sofa or extendable table in the catalog app to find the video, but if you have to have the app open anyway to see it, scanning is far more fun. Equally useful would be walk-throughs through the small spaces IKEA is so good at making live-able with a lot of little tricks, tricks that are hard to show in a catalog but easy in a well-produced video or 3D model.

So, like learning how to credibly render interiors without having to physically build them, learning how to tie in digital content with catalog content is a good idea too. IKEA now has a platform to deliver more useful inspirational and far more useful content next year, now that they can see what works and what doesn't.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Sony, Dearest, You Gotta Do Better Than This

I have an Android phone, by Sony. I have an iPod. When Apple releases new firmware for the iPod, it gets installed when I attach it to iTunes. There's a bit of a terms & conditions, a click-through license, it gets downloaded, it works. When Google releases a new version of Android, I have to hope my hardware vendor adapts it to my hardware. Sony usually does—which is why I bought Sony—and indeed, I can now updates my Sony Xperia Mini Pro, to Android 4.0, "Ice Cream Sandwich".

Perhaps. On my Mac. But the whole nonsense starts out with a warning. The phone management program on my Mac, akin to iTunes but made by Sony to run my Sony phone, shows a screen saying that before you can upgrade you need to read some messages. Only after you click on the hyperlink that opens a page in the browser, can you go to the next screen. Why that warning had to open up a whole new browser instead of stay in the management program, well, I can take a guess how stupid fiefdowms and deadlines and managers made that happen, but I won't here.

What is this important notice? It's a warning:

What the hell, people? A coded warning this may kill how well my phone works, as the first bullet, without even outright saying it? WTF? You are giving me the most fundamental piece of software without even having the balls to tell me how good or bad it will be? You made my phone, you should know this, Sony. And only have released this upgrade for my device when you were sure it made my device better. Not 'may'. The rest of the buller points are kind of dumb too, but I will not get into that.

Look, making things difficult and clunky may be acceptable for cheap devices; everyone knows one trades money for convenience. But the Xperia line is not some bargain-basement device. This is contempt for the user, this is laziness, this is outmoded behavior. Apple has changed the baseline of what acceptable is, and this throwback to twentieth century 'let the consumer struggle' is just not cutting it any more.

Every time Sony posts another disastrous quarter we get a thought spreading that Apple should buy Sony. But why would they? Sony seems to be filled with people who think not caring about how the product, once bought, continues to work for their consumers is acceptable.

Needless to say, once I click through this and Continue, of course the update never happens. I get the message that some Update Manager—is that a process on my computer? My phone? The Internet?—isn't working and I should contact tech support. I wouldn't even know what that would look like or what they could possibly say to help.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I Think The Kindle Might Be Keeping Us From Finding New Dates

As I am noticing more and more Kindles on the Tube, I am also noticing I can't tell what people in general are reading any more. A few years ago when I first came to London I could tell you that The Millenium series was really quite popular, and not just the first Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but the whole thing. These days I can tell you beige or burgundy faux leather covers are very popular during the morning commute, but not whether we are getting collectively stupider or smarter or more hung up on vampires, child magicians, or gruesome murders, a genre publishers seem to particularly want to push here if the poster ads are an indicator.

So to explain my title, this also means that in cultures where people might strike up a conversation with a stranger in public (not London), the opener "Oh you're reading that? How is it?" is now gone, as is the signal that you may want to know this person in the first place. I remember, early in the millenium living in Boston, being snobbishly appalled at someone in the T who was dressed as an office worker practically spelling out 'Who Moved My Cheese' in enough rapture to miss their stop, as proclaimed just before the mad dash out at the next one. And feeling the same years later when suddenly 'The Secret' was the book of choice for my fellow travellers. If you live in a polarised culture it is useful to be able to quickly filter out people just by seeing they are reading something by either Glenn Beck or Dan Savage as an example, instead of just seeing their e-book reader. An opposing view is that we are not challenging or communicating across culture lines anyway and thus this new lack of broadcasting your stand is positive because it will make people talk who previously would not have. I would say nobody wants that kind of challenging conversation with the person you end up next to in an airplane for the next six hours; show me what you are reading and I will know how absorbed I need to seem to be in Sky Mall.

This disappearance of a communication channel is an actual hurdle in converting bibliophiles to e-book readers. Numerous times I have had the conversation where I was told some form of "Sure I could carry my ten thousand books with me in a tiny package, but I could not live in my house without my full shelves. In a way, these are my friends" while surrounded by book cases groaning with written media. It's very specific to books; I have never heard anyone complain about missing their VHS tapes, or pining for their CDs when switching to hard-disk or cloud equivalents (although vinyl does get that kind of reaction). In fact, I remember being told by a UX researcher who had done an ethnographic study that had brought him into dozens and dozens of living rooms of older people to ask them how they watched things on TV, that once they have on-demand video, standing up and putting a DVD in the player and switching the inputs is seen as too much work compared to fiddling with the remote to just watch anything remotely pleasant on cable. He saw stacks and stack of DVDs, many un-opened, of truly beloved films, gathering dust in a corner. Indeed, no cinephile has ever told me about how much they enjoyed the smell of a freshly opened DVD package, something book-lovers will extol about new books. At most they tell me they like what the DVD box sets communicates to visitors, but know film posters and action figurines say just as much.

We are social animals and we do want to broadcast who we are and what tribes we belong to, in almost everything we wear or carry. Nokia became huge allowing people to customise their mobile phone. The aftermarket of specialty cases is huge, but that aftermarket barely signals anything about our tastes and attitudes beyond color. Why is that? The most we will let our personal devices say about what we read or watch or play is Hello Kitty stickers, I never see any iPhones in the wild decked out equivalent to wearing an obscure band T-shirt.

Is there a market opportunity for here for e-book readers and mobile phones and game machines—often the same device—that playfully show what media is being consumed or game is being played, or will that seem too flashy and constructed? I can't say, I am on record after all as the tech blogger who thought nobody would want to be seen with a Bluetooth bug in their ear, so I should stay away from saying what outward fashion will actually become popular. I can easily imagine that the people who wear loud brands and labels really would want to broadcast what amazing new leaked track they are listening to right now that you are not, what specialised closed social network tribe they are checking out, and their supreme taste in making this playlist. And just as easy I can imagine that the group dressed in minimalist German anthracite clothes actually discretely wants to do exactly the same broadcasting with their 16th century music and vintage copy of Monocle.

I raise Monocle for a specific reason here. The following three paragraphs appeared in an article about the magazine and its editor in the NYT:
More than a throwaway periodical, Monocle is a status symbol, a prop poking out of a Jack Spade carry-on, announcing to the saps in the back of the plane that you’re a member of the international aesthete class. Trendy stores like J. Crew Liquor Store and Freemans Sporting Club display it as a chic accessory. 
Indeed, new inductees sometimes order the whole back catalog to show off on bookshelves, Mr. Brûlé said, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica for cool kids. (Never mind that few people ever seem to read an issue cover to cover.) 
This is one reason Mr. Brûlé has no plans for a Monocle magazine app yet: on an iPad, no one can see you reading Monocle.
It's not just me here then that notices a problem with this loss of broadcasting your tastes. I do think Mr Brulé, in this one very specific instance, is wrong, though. While indeed the back of a tablet will not broadcast what you are reading the way an opened magazine, even folded, does, of all mobile technology it is tablets like the iPad that broadcast what it is you are consuming the most. Tablets are still so heavy that people rest them on their laps, thus enabling shouldersurfing by bystanders. That visible front screen surface is far larger than any mobile phone, and brighter than any e-ink reader. That backlit rich color can't help but draw the gaze of everyone who can see it, especially if displaying angular yellow branding like Monocle's. I'd say that as long as that branding is on every page, on an iPad everyone will see you reading Monocle. And Monocle is a print and web property already, with every web page having the bright yellow accents, so going iPad should really be not a big deal. Tablets broadcast, phones and e-ink readers don't.

We tell our friends on Facebook what we are listening to on Spotify, but that's people we already know, don't we want to tell people about our obscure band on our headphone right now in a nicer way than the annoying sound leaking out? Wouldn't checking in be more fun if everyone around you could see you just became mayor and won a prize, not just your friends on Twitter miles away? Hey, you're playing Infinity Blade too, what do you think of it? You like it a lot? Wanna grab some coffee so I can show you this secret move I found?