Back To Where They Came From

Back in the eighties and early nineties, we had home computers. These home computers were sleek all-in-one beasts, could be plugged into family TV set, and very importantly, were used for leisure. Not to play down the significance of the Apple Macintosh, it was actually the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga that stole the show in my generation. And why was this? Games.

Let's face it: the majority of Atari STs and Amigas were used almost entirely as games machines, with maybe a little bit of time spent in Deluxe Paint, Degas Elite and STOS. (To be fair, one of my my best friends wrote a DBMS while I played Lotus Elite Turbo Challenge, but I suspect he was the exception.)

And then something happened: dad brought his work home from the office.

Enter the IBM PC (and compatibles). The big, boxy, beige machines invaded the home, straight through the front door: families only needed one serious computer, and what better to pick than the one that was already familiar from the daily grind?

The PC, while running all manner of CAD and spreadsheet packages very well (remember when we called apps packages?) wasn’t so hot on the games front at first. From the humble beginnings of Sierra graphical adventures games and some dodgy flight simulators, games on the PC went from strength to strength as the teenaged children of the aforementioned father spent their weekend job money on sound cards, graphics cards, motherboards and processors. One upgrade at a time, the office PC became the home-office PC, the family PC, and finally the gaming PC.

The next twist in the PCs unusual life was the explosion of home internet. The internet gave the PC more strings to its bow: no longer just a productivity and gaming machine, it was now the information and communication hub of the home. And lest we forget shopping.

While all this was going on in the spare bedroom, games consoles were enjoying a parallel life in the living room. Each generation of console became more powerful, more accessible, more mainstream. Some people preferred the PC for games, others the console, but before long we were all playing the same games, on almost the same hardware.

So what was next for the PC? Well, what many didn't see coming was PC becoming so cheap and portable that everyone got their own. The PC unwittingly really did become the personal computer. And then the iPhone happened. And we all realised that actually, that was what we really wanted when we said personal computer. The iPhone, in hindsight, marked the major step in giving us a personal computing device that could manage most of the tasks that most people want to do.

The iPhone spawned the iPad which spawned numerous other tablets, and we now live in a world where an iPad will do 90% of the tasks 90% of home PC users. This is not to say that the PC is dead. Far from it. The PC is the best tool for many, many tasks, but the majority of those tasks are associated with work, not leisure. The PC is the ideal tool to be used in many workplaces for years to come. And yes, I'm talking about Windows PCs with mouse and keyboard input: this paradigm is actually fantastic for many productivity tasks, that are just horrendous when carried out on touch screens or machines held in one hand. Even the ecosystem that has grown up with them, the enterprise market, is in many ways a mature and solid setup, that like the sub-optimal "design" of the mammalian eyeball, is actually quite fit-for-purpose.

The thing is about the PC: we just don't need one at home anymore. Consoles and set top boxes provide us with amazing gaming and entertainment. Tablets and smartphones provide us with much better ways to consume news, knowledge and information, and to communicate and remotely socialise. These devices all do what they were designed to do where for years the poor PC had to limp along, doing it's best. It's time to give it a break.

I’m not calling time on the PC: I’m just saying it’s time for the PC to go back to the office.


The Home Button Should Go Back To Having One Use

The Home Button on iOS devices is a great example of hardware and software design working in harmony: its role as a safety, a reset button that you can always depend on to get you back to the comfort of the home screen. And it is true that the iOS home screen is genuinely comforting: you are at home, where your device can do its primary things (an iPod, a phone, an internet communicator…), where your apps are in the places you put them, each a little tempting button that will do just what you expect. Even the icon on the home button shows you what you're going to get. As we enter an age where we are used to how touch devices work, we no longer need our training wheels: we need fewer affordances to let us know how things might react. This to me feels right, and for proof take a look a look at an 8 or 80-year old with an iPad. The new gestures unveiled in iOS7 at WWDC  show how we will soon be able to navigate around our devices in a faster and more fluid way, power users and regular users. (There are actually some neat animation speedup tricks for the real power users that make the experience even quicker.) In fact most of the gestures are ones that have been introduced in apps over the last few years and at least some of us are so used to we try to use them even when they aren't there.

The home button at first may seem out of place in this new world, but actually its primary use as an escape button is still a great piece of UX, something that is essential on a device that you way want to call an ambulance on as well as play a few rounds of dots.

The problem with the home button is not its primary role. It is its secondary role: as the app switcher. Nothing feels more clunky than, having unlocked with a gesture, navigated around using back and forward swipes, accessed notification centre and control centre, than then attempting to switch between apps by double tapping the home button. You feel your nippy journey around your device suddenly slow to a crawl as your thumb depresses the button, once, then again. The satisfying audible feedback you once liked is now a dull thud in your ears. The whole experience shakes you out of the future and back three years.

Arguably, the tertiary role is just as bad, it's just not used so much. Siri, the time-saving feature that lets you talk instead of act, takes two full seconds of waiting with your thumb pressed down. Siri shaves two seconds of a tasks if you're lucky, and so this method of invocation feels like a prank being played on you for trying to use the feature in the first place.

There are many aspects of iOS7 that really bring the futuristic feel back to iOS devices, the combinations of physical gestures and on-screen animations especially. In the next few months, two more gestures need to be found to not let the home button be a burden around its neck.

Got Pebble

Last year one project became the poster child for the crowdsourced funding site, and that project was Pebble. They shot to fame when they overshot their funding goal by $10,000,000. The result was they had to rethink their business plan, their whole manufacturing process, and their timescales, in order to try and satisfy the demands of all their backers.

While the delays were hard to swallow as we all waited patiently to live in the future, last Friday mine finally arrived at my doorstep from Singapore. Was I excited? Very. Did I feel bad that it arrived before my manager's, the guy who convinced me to back the project (a few days after him)? Not really. I was too busy unboxing and, given as I am to the zeitgeist, posting the unboxing to Vine.I'd already installed the Pebble app on my phone in anticipation when I got my shipping email. There are already some great reviews of the Pebble, so I'm going to focus on my first full day wearing it and what that was like.

The first thing I liked about the watch was, stop me if this seems a little obvious, being able to tell the time by looking at my wrist. I haven't worn one for three years when the strap on my Diesel knock-off from Malaysia broke. Yes, I'm so lazy that I went three years looking at my wrist and being a little disappointed. Actually, when Siri was first released I had high hopes that that would be my new way of finding out the time: pressing the button on my headphones and saying "what's the time?". Nice idea, but there's something wrong with having to not only vocalise that question (and not to another human being), but then waiting for that audio data to be uploaded to a server, interpreted, sent back to the phone and then read back to me. Just as I was about to mend my watch, Pebble came along and I decided I could probably wait a little longer. So: teling the time, awesome. The "text watch" theme gives the time in a lovely two or three word form such as "two forty". The only downside is it's americanised, and so you occasionally get things like "five after three" instead of "five past three". If and when I get my hands on the SDK I might take that into my own hands.

Ok, so I'm sitting on the train and my wrist vibrates. A text message from a friend about the evening's plans: I glance at my wrist and I can read the whole thing, without getting my phone out. I know this sounds like a small gain, but let's just consider how fiddly it is to get your phone out of your pocket while sitting on a train. Not convinced? Well, I find it quite fiddly! Ok, so it's not really overcoming of phone extraction that I liked so much. It's the fact that this workflow felt much more natural, and I felt like I'd been less disturbed by not having to check my phone but simple being fed the one piece of information I needed right there and then. It's really an issue of human self control, but now that our phones have become our main communication and entertainment devices there is a real draw to continue to interact with it after the original reason for checking it in the first place.

So I spent the rest of the day wandering around Shoreditch, occasionally getting messages from Facebook, texts, and the odd Twitter @-reply and genuinely enjoying not having to get my phone out but being able to screen these notifications from my wrist. Clearly I'm easy to please. I use my phone as my radio while at home, playing through a bluetooth speaker. While I'm out and about I pause and play music with the button on my headphones, so the ability to do it from the watch isn't so useful. At home, however, this is actually really handy if the phone and speaker is in another room.

So that's about it. But is "it" enough? For me, the Pebble does three things that are useful. Just three. But that's three really useful things, and two more than a regular watch. And that makes me a happy pebbler.

Looking for the tl;dr? The picture sums up my view of the pebble.