Friday, 28 June 2013

iPad as laptop replacement: almost, but hamstrung by closed thinking

 I had to get a shuttle to work today, after dropping my truck off at the garage and, since my new laptop is due to arrive today, I decided to just take my iPad with an Apple bluetooth keyboard and its cool Incase Origami case/stand (see pic).

So I started with the usual email sift & dispatch.  Mostly fine until I had to reformat an email  I was forwarding and could not add bullets/numbering. After foraging for a bit I ended up having to use dashes and manual numbers. Mildly irritating because it's not exactly a difficult feature to add.

Next, I was trying to upload a document to a website. While 3rd party apps typically give you a plethora of sharing options, based on whatever apps you have installed (eg. Google Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync etc.), Safari only gives you access to the camera roll. Maybe Apple designers, in their shaven-headed, dodgy facial-haired wisdom decided that we would only ever want to upload photo to a website. Or maybe that filesystems were too complicated for my childlike, enchanted brain. The only sense of wonder here is the bewilderment that such a simple utility is not included. But then these are the folks who didn't even include copy & paste until the 3rd version of the OS.

So, basically, I have no faith in the utility of an iPad as a productivity tool beyond basic text and drawing. "That's because it's designed for media consumption, Neil!" you may ejaculate, fondling your tablet distractedly. Yes, it is, but my point is that the limitations are self-imposed by iOS designers, not by any hardware limitations. So to exclude key features that would make it a useful productivity tool is design snobbery at worst and oversight at best.

While other Operating System makers try to fundamentally reconcile their desktop and mobile offerings into a seamless user experience (Google with Chrome and Android, Windows with Windows 8, Ubuntu with their upcoming mobile OS), Apple are changing the fixtures with 'flatter' UI designs and features designed to only work with other Apple products.

That's the trouble with walled gardens: you can fence your audience in, but you can also become prone to self-absorption, and you can lose sight of what the people by the walls (on either side) are saying.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Writing ... software


Recently, I've had cause to go back to writing software directly - rather than managing teams doing it. 

Aside from the struggle to readjust my concentration levels away from erratic thoughts (it's like reading a book and solving a puzzle at the same time), I've also had to adjust to the pace of this creative process. It reminds be of those Fast Show sketches parodying Nick Park and the Aardman Studios' claymation "... and then I move it... just a tiny amount... and take a picture... before... moving it just a tiny amount... and taking another picture..." and so on. 

I long for the day when I can write code as second nature, as easily as I write this blog post. It's not the language that's hard: that can be fiddley if you're unfamiliar with it, but not insurmountable. The tricky bit is the mindset: breaking down problems into actionable chunks of code that you can then build and stick together into a coherent program that does what you originally intended. I used to be able to do this easily, and I now see how rusty I've become at it. Hopefully, like riding a bike, it will come back to me, but it's a bit of a slog for now. Still, I'm enjoying the creativity again: it's hardly World of Warcraft (it's actually an appointment booking system in Google Script), but it's a good puzzle.

Anyway, enough distraction. From one creative thread to another I go...

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Windows 8 verdict: daft UI

I've been using Windows 8 on my desktop PC at home, with a 29" HD screen, for about 3 months now. I'm sure there are tons of improvements under the bonnet, but the new user interface features have served only to get in the way. Not "proved difficult to adjust to, but eventually became great time-savers." Just got in the way. I feel like I'm constantly having to move stuff out of the way, yet also having to poke around for other stuff. Where's the control panel? I dunno, I'll just search.  Which is fine, I suppose, so why have the tiles? As well as the old desktop?

I open Windows Reader (like OSX Preview, only crappier) and it fills my widescreen, mostly with empty black space. I want to see this document in a window... but, irony of ironies, I can't.

Microsoft have done their old trick of giving us more and leaving it to us to figure out which bits are better. Remember the Office wars? Wordperfect and Lotus lost out to Microsoft Office through sheer feature power: the newest version of MS Office would have all the best features of its competitors combined.  The fact that most people didn't (and don't) use more than 10% of the features was irrelevant in the exuberance of the PC revolution. The software could do so much, and it was relatively cheap.

The web, and mobile in particular, changed consumer perceptions, though. Now we don't want more functionality, we want less. Given the abundance of technology choices in our lives, most of us simply want a consistent narrative: phone has good reception and battery life, it takes decent pictures that I can upload to all my favorite places, etc. Ubiquity and usability of software is a consumer choice, and if you mess with it you will suffer the mass wrath of consumers.

I get what Microsoft are trying to do: make an OS that is as phone/tablet/touch-friendly as it is mouse and keyboard friendly. But rather than do the difficult thing of rethinking it from the ground up (like Apple tend to do), they've stuck to their old approach of extending what they have.  Maybe I'm over-blowing it, and they'll get it right for Windows 8.1. I certainly hope so: while I love Apple interfaces, their enterprise/collaboration tools stink. Nobody knows the enterprise like Microsoft. Although Google are nibbling at their lunch...