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ATPM 16.04
April 2010




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by Wes Meltzer,

Melts in Your Hand

Perhaps you haven’t heard that April 3—just two short days after you’ll get this issue of ATPM—is the launch date of the iPad.

I’ll let you go order one. Or two.

[Cue hold music, playing Kenny G’s “Classics in the Key of G.”]

OK, now you’ve gotten that out of your system. In honor of this month’s big announcement, we’re having an iPad-alooza at Bloggable: two fun segments on the iPad, plus the iPhone vs. Nexus One and Droid.

How Slavishly Should iPad Software Mimic Real-World Objects?

The iPad is a lot bigger than an iPhone—it’s larger than the palm of your hand. That puts it in the same general category as a lot of other physical objects for which there are clear physical analogues: books, magazines, e-readers (e.g., Kindle).

Because there are so many physical analogues, a lot of people, which includes developers, have varying expectations of how closely the software interfaces on the Kindle should hew to real-world objects. Should a book application involve physically turning the page? (Apple’s answer: at least in demos, yes.) Would the pages of a magazine application be laid out like text on a computer screen, flowing in one long, dynamically resizing column, or would it be laid out with the same care and static physical form as a printed magazine page?

We could dig deeply into our Rudolf Arnheim, Jakob Nielsen, and Edward Tufte books all day to look for the answers, but to the developers of iPad applications this is a problem with a little urgency.

Marco Arment is a terrific developer whose Instapaper is a life-saver for anyone who reads on the train or keeps three computers like me. He’s been working on an iPad version of Instapaper, and he started a lively debate over just how much software interfaces should hew to their real-world counterparts.

He observes that he didn’t want to try too hard to preserve real-world fidelity to books when he was writing Instapaper, which includes pagination of text—that he didn’t add pagination because books have it, he did it because it seemed clearly superior to scrolling.

And Arment also cites the difference between the Calculator application that comes included with your Mac, which is basically identical to a physical calculator, and a Mac OS X calculator called Soulver, which is more like a Unix command-line than a physical calculator with buttons.

(For what it’s worth, I’m a religious PCalc user, which is a conventional calculator but supports RPN just like my grandfather’s old HP.)

So this is all to drive home the point that, sometimes, software tries too hard to be like real-world hardware.

Arment is at his best with a pithy quote:

Nobody should need to perform a full-width swipe gesture and wait two seconds for their fake page to turn in their fake book.

That’s the jumping-off point for Chris Clark, an interface designer for Black Pixel. He writes at Release Candidate One:

iPad apps have a high visual fidelity to real-world objects but retain the sensible interaction design one would expect from Apple. iBooks doesn’t force you to swipe its pages side-to-side; you tap on a page to advance to the next one, and the page-turning animation is done in a fraction of a second.

I agree with Clark that the key isn’t whether a user interface is loyal to the original, physical object or not, so long as it’s useful. Here I return to PCalc—I think it’s a superior calculator to any software calculator, and I’m not enough of a mathematician to adopt a command-line interface for math. And yet it’s still laid out like a physical calculator.

But Clark and Arment may be oversimplifying the case a bit, argues Neven Mrgan, a designer at Panic. Apple’s forte is creating interfaces that rely on real-world knowledge without being too slavishly devoted to the original. His example is the OS X scroll bar, which looks like an icicle mounted in a sliding channel. Mrgan has a nice equation:

Familiar + satisfying + fun vs. limiting + illegible + awkward

And he says, “The left side giveth value, and the right side taketh away. Neither one delivers a deadly blow.”

Mrgan hits the nail on the head of Apple’s apps, and what he says other developers should strive for: “[a]pps should mimic the warmth of real-world objects, not their literal design.”

Speaking of Physical Objects…

The guys at Omni Group have been busy getting their software ready for the iPad. Because iPad developers weren’t given advance copies of the iPad to test their software on, they’ve been going old-school with their prototypes: making mock iPads out of stuff.

For their OmniGraphSketcher application for iPad, they’ve hacked up a bunch of ways of prototyping this: cutting custom graph paper down to size using a table saw, and even a 3D printer-made model their CEO put together.

It’s quite impressive—they have paper cutouts of all of their user interface elements, dialogs, pop-up menus, etc., and the writer (Linda Sharps) recounts a hilarious encounter with one of the developers in trying to use the “fauxPad”:

Robin: “So let’s say you want to turn this point from a circle into a square. What would you do?”

Me: “Buhhhhh. Dur. I touch it?”

Robin (soothingly): “Okay. You see a little blue circle around the element. Then what do you do?”

Me: “Uhhhhhrrrr. I’d…maybe I’d press real hard. Like this.” smoosh

Robin: “Um…well, okay. You get a dialogue that says ‘copy’.”


Robin (brisk clap): “Okay then! What say we try this again later.”

Go to the link. Seriously. You have to see these photos. It’s incredible the lengths some people go to—and yet, at the same time, it’s admirable in Omni Group’s devotion to getting it right.

More on Companions to the iPhone

We’ve been down this road before: comparisons of the iPhone to its competitors. But two terrific tech writers, Jason Snell of Macworld and Harry McCracken of Technologizer, take a stab at comparing the iPhone to the mobile OS that Steve Jobs says is the greatest competitor of them all: Android.

Snell thinks there are good lessons for the iPhone from Google’s Nexus One, the Android phone sold by Google for T-Mobile’s network, and McCracken compares the iPhone to the Droid, which is Motorola’s offering for Verizon. To start off, Snell suggests the highlights of what Apple can learn from Google:

Higher screen resolution

The Nexus One’s screen is 480×800, vs. the iPhone’s 320×480, and “it shows, most especially in the playback of videos and photos and in the Nexus One’s crisp text.”

More flexible Home screen

“You can choose which apps show up on the home screens; to bring up a scrollable list of every application on your phone, you tap the application button at the bottom center of the screen…the Nexus One lets you save shortcuts to important contacts, phone numbers, map directions, and even items from third-party apps.”

Better notification

“To see your notifications, you can pull down the menu bar at the top of the screen. It’s easy to see all the notifications at a glance, and you can tap on one to go to the relevant application.”

Combined inbox

For those of us who read both personal and work e-mail on the iPhone, this one’s a big one. Snell: “The main screen of the built-in Mail program lists all your e-mail accounts and, above it, a combined inbox (along with options to view starred mail and any drafts you might have). It’s not perfect—some indication of which mail came from which account might be a nice feature—but it’s much more convenient than doing the iPhone tap dance.”

Multitasking, a.k.a. background applications

“Android lets apps run in the background. If you aren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t notice most of the time. Using the Nexus One, I never ran into a situation where I needed to find and quit apps in order to speed things up…if I want to drain my battery listening to Pandora, or receiving notifications every time anyone mentions me on Twitter, I’d like to be able to make that decision [on my iPhone].”

Snell also lists some places where there’s not a clear better or worse, like the Nexus One’s removable battery, having a camera with flash, and the App Store:

[If] the App Store is a bit like a rigorously managed chain retailer—Target or Walmart, let’s say, though I’m sure Apple would prefer I liken it to Nordstrom—then the Android Market is a bit like an open-air bazaar. There are featured apps, yes, but once you start searching things get really weird, really fast. I kept running into apps that demanded that my phone be “rooted,” the Android equivalent of jailbreaking. Other apps required specific phone models (Droid, for example) or specific versions of the Android software. Real geeks won’t care about any of that, maybe, but it’s a terrible experience for regular consumers.

Sometimes I wonder if Android Market is actually a victim of the App Store backlash. Quite honestly, I think Android would better serve its users if it began to follow Apple’s approach, rigorously testing apps and approving only a tiny fraction for the Market, as well as providing some very specific filters so that users of a non-rooted Nexus One don’t run into search results full of apps requiring a rooted Droid.

(I would add here that I think the right model for Google is Ubuntu, the popular Linux distribution. It’s possible to install any application you want, but there’s also an application that only searches into a database of tested, approved software.)

All in all, it’s a good read and a good analysis. I disagree with Snell on a few things—for instance, if I were the guy responsible for sorting out multitasking, I disagree strongly with Snell’s vision. I would allow only one background application, and it would have to draw an icon in the menu bar like the iTunes and phone applications, and be accessible via double-tapping the menu bar or something equivalent.

But reasonable people can disagree. I think Snell has great food for thought here.

McCracken tried the same thing but switched to a Droid for a month—to use Verizon’s superior network—and lists the ten things he likes best and least about it. He calls it “The Good, the Bad and the Bizarre.”

He lives in San Francisco, so I can see wanting to get away from AT&T like the Black Plague. But just as Snell found, he says there are upsides and downsides to life with a better network and a much less polished mobile OS.

Big pluses to McCracken: Verizon network, multitasking for IM and Slacker (or Pandora), having a back button, and the aforementioned status notifications. He also points out one terrific feature, and I’m not sure if it’s an Android feature or specific to the Droid: Facebook integration into the OS. He writes:

You can choose to have the Droid sync all your Facebook friends into its Contacts list. You get access to phone numbers and e-mail addresses from Facebook, and when a Facebook friend calls you, you see his or her photo as the phone rings. The intermingling of Droid and Facebook info seems to work perfectly; if I go back to the iPhone, this is the single OS feature I’ll miss most.

Big minuses: strange click behaviors, low-quality third-party apps, lame hardware keyboard. Oh, and:

I can live with an OS that’s not as elegant as Apple’s…but there are times when I wonder if anyone at Google, Motorola, or Verizon has even used the Droid. If you’re in portrait mode and go to the setting that lets you adjust screen brightness, the necessary slider appears to be missing—until you notice a sliver of a scroll bar on the right side of the dialog. Who ever heard of a dialog box that scrolls?

We’re with you, Harry.

What’s Left When You Divide Three and Two?

  • A debate from Technologizer on the future of Windows between a bunch of tech journalists, technology futurists, and former Microsoft employees. It’s a good read: Kara Swisher, Ed Baig, Robert Scoble, and Richard Brodie, et al., who are all at the vanguard of technology revolutions. They may disagree on the specifics, but they all think that Windows—real Windows, not Windows Mobile—needs to play more of a role in our personal lives. And almost all of them think Microsoft needs to keep up the Windows-for-every-platform strategy MS is starting to cook up.
  • Speaking of Windows Mobile, the new Windows Phone 7 will not support copy and paste. Do you remember all of the Sturm und Drang before the iPhone had copy and paste? I have to say, I only use copy-paste on my iPhone once or twice a week, so I could get by without it. But it’s especially funny to see the tables turned. (As a former Windows Mobile 5.5 user, I prefer the iPhone’s copy-paste implementation…it was always hard to trigger the paste in WinMo.)

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