User Interfaces

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.

An iOS Developer's View of the New Microsoft Way

A few week's ago I heard about a new meet-up being organised around Metro: I rarely come across Microsoft technologies that excite me nowadays but this one has piqued my interest. For the uninitiated, Metro is Microsoft's new vision for the Post-PC (not their words...) world, and this vision brings the worlds of mobile and desktop much closer than before, hence my curiosity. During the evening we would hear from both seasoned Microsoft developer and writer Matthew Baxtor-Reynolds, and an evangelist from Microsoft themselves. I went along – feeling weirdly like I was a spy infiltrating enemy lines – and here's what I took away from the night. Primarily aimed at .Net developers looking for an introduction to the new world of Metro, the evening was a great way to find out exactly what Metro is and is not, and what Microsoft and Microsoft developers think its role is. Spoiler: these two sometimes disagree.


Metro is not a new operating system. It is just – albeit a big 'just' – a design aesthetic. You're no doubt familiar with it already, even if you don't realise:  it's what Windows Phone 7 uses. Metro is bold colours, square corners, active tiles, san-serif fonts and naturally-flowing text. It's actually really nice.

So if Metro is just a design, what's so new? What's the exciting OS, the new APIs that will soon span mobile and desktop? That will be WinRT, and WinRT lives inside Windows 8. WinRT is the new Win32. What seemed very clear is that WinRT is the new paradigm that will come to replace Win32, in the same way that Win32 replaced MS-DOS., as Windows 95 replaced Windows 3.1. That's what the developers say, anyway. What I found quite amusing is you will absolutely not here that from Microsoft proper. This is understandable in some respects of course, in 1994 they wouldn't have announced discontinued support for their incumbent system. Microsoft is a company that on the whole likes to have it's old cake while baking a new one. When it suits them, anyway.

Which is king: Devices or Data?

The impression I got from the Microsoft evangelist who spoke at the event was that Microsoft have a clear and bold view of how we should use devices. And it's kind of the opposite clear and bold view of that other large tech company who make operating systems and devices. (Not Google, the other one.) The message I heard was this: one Windows device has many uses. And Windows may have many faces, but it's always Windows. You're on the sofa with your slate (his word, not mine) surfing with the kids or consuming some content (whatever that means). Then,  you remember you've got an email to write and a spreadsheet to work on, so you pop to your desk and plug in keyboard, mouse, printer and monitor. Away you go, spreadsheeting to your heart's content, the same device repurposed for another task. One device has many purposes. But there is only one Windows, even if it looks different for each task.

Apple, by contrast, have a different message, which I interpret as this: pick the device that is right for the task. A phone, a tablet, a notebook; choose what is appropriate and use that. The specific device isn't so important, what's important is that whatever device you pick up your data is always there. In Apple's world, you are your data, and that data will be available to you whatever you pick up or sit down in front of. It's a little like the thin-client that Sun so successfully (ahem) pushed for in the nineties, only the  computing power is now in the device, it's just the data that isn't.

Two different visions. And it's great that there are choices. I was once discussing dancehall with a ska DJ, and he didn't really like it at all. "It would be really boring if we all liked the same stuff, though" he said to me. Very true. Which means it's fine for me to have a strong opinion on which of these plans I think will work. For me, it's crazy to think that the device should be the thing moving around, not the data. Why? Because the device is a thing, and data isn't.

I really enjoyed the meet-up, and for me there were two take-home lessons. First: Metro is actually a really exciting new vision for Windows, and those targeting Windows Phone 8 should be in for a treat as the APIs available will be approaching those available on the Windows desktop: so they're richer than before, and migration to or from the desktop will be easier . Second: the message from Microsoft about what to do in this new Metro future is a confusing one, with no clear direction for current Windows developers. I heard it as: "Go for Metro, but also don't, depending on what your application is and what your market is". Maybe this is just the unfortunate legacy of the enterprise market that Microsoft are stuck with: no matter how great there new vision is, they just can't quite afford to jump toward it with both feet.