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Dr. Strangephone or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Windows Phone

Posted: May 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: android, Apple, Companies, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

Lumia 900 Live Tiles Flat

This weekend I switched back, once again, to Windows Phone from my ICS packing Galaxy Nexus.  Previously, I had switched to Windows Phone from my Froyo ( can you believe this phone was launched in the US with Froyo? ) Infuse 4G.  I seem to always switch away from Android eventually, and I haven’t been sure why, until now.  This is not meant to be an Android hate fest, I don’t want to say I hate iOS, and I don’t hate any OS.  I am a huge fan of iOS and Android, nor am I a fanboy of any camp ( any more ).

I think that Android is an excellent implementation of  the vision for which it was designed.  iOS was the first and is still the leader in its category. Both of which are largely cut from the same cloth.  Who copied whom, I’ll leave for history to decide.  For the my purposes, however I am happier with Windows Phone, and I have finally figured out why.

Windows Phone is Designed Around Use Cases

As I was transitioning between my various Android handsets, my iPad, and my new Lumia 900, I kept thinking about what it was in Windows Phone that kept causing me to want to use it.  The browser is merely sufficient, the hardware is technically behind the curve ( while the phone hardware as a package is superlative, hats off Nokia ), and the OS is, well… different.  One of the core things, which was immediately apparent, was that it didn’t take long for me to get to what I wanted to do with the Lumia from the live tile home screen.

I don’t subscribe to the “Smoked by Windows Phone” campaign, I think that was stupid and wrong.  Android is typically faster in specific areas, like time to app launch, etc… iOS smokes both of them in scrolling and touch screen responsiveness as well as time to app readiness on the newer iPad2/3 and iPhone 4S.  Windows Phone’s speech to text is great, but not comprehensive;  Android’s speech to text is better than Windows Phones, Siri’s voice recognition is marginally better than Androids, if only because of her witty retorts.

Despite all of the shortcomings I have just described, I still prefer Windows Phone.  For a few months, after I started with Windows Phone 7 on my Focus S, I started to think something was wrong with me for liking it.  Maybe I was a “feature phone” kind of guy after all.  The tech media kept telling me that Android and iOS are better because of their broader app selection, more sophisticated chips, hardware, etc… I could readily agree with this assessment, after all, Windows Phone doesn’t have NBA Jam, or Angry Birds Space.  The more I thought about it however, as far as I am concerned, I prefer to use my phone for communication first, and apps second.  Being presented with a grid of apps, or strange widgets, or the wrong panel of the launcher were all in the way of simple communication.

When I use Windows Phone, it is clear, I press people for communication, me for updating my social networks, phone for calls.  This simplicity, and clarity; that is what keeps drawing me back.  It isn’t that Windows Phone is faster in any way than Android and iOS, not that it is slow.  It is that each specific task that I want to do with the phone has a well defined path, is clearly encapsulated, and is a complete end-to-end experience with no cruft.  It isn’t chaotic like the Android intent system, leading me all over the place from app-to-app, it isn’t ridiculously siloed like iOS.  Things that should be combined, like Facebook and twitter are grouped together.  Games are all in the same place, and share a coherent experience that is clearly differentiated from the other flows for when I want to play games.  Music, podcasts, and audio are all together, unified in their Zune experience, which also is differentiated from the game flow, and the social flow.

Sideways Lumia 900

Android and iOS are Designed Like Desktop/Tablet OS’s

Once I began to think about use-cases, I started to see how ill fitted Android and iOS were for the phone.  I started to put devices into categories based on these use cases, to try to figure out where they go wrong.

When using my desktop / laptop, I am consciously sitting down to perform some fairly complicated task, I expect to have to make lots of decisions to perform that task, and I do not mind the complexity of the windowing system.

When using my tablet, I am typically settling down to enjoy some content, a game, a book, a fun diversionary app, or I am attempting to use a productivity app, for which I could perhaps perform the task on my desktop / laptop.  I don’t mind actions taking a little extra time on my Tablet, I am expecting to explore and engage in an experience.

My phone is different.  I am not typically trying to explore.  I am trying to find a restaurant to eat at right now, or I am looking for my friends house and I am wandering around trying to read street numbers.  I am buying something and need to compare prices.  I am trying to call someone to have a conversation.  In short, most of what I am doing with my phone is immediate I don’t want to browse.

The grid of apps, is really nice for presenting an experience, it is an invitation to browse, to wade into an entire universe of possibilities.  A bunch of apps is great for when I want to spend time looking around, like window shopping.  I don’t necessarily know what I want to do, I just want to be entertained.

I don’t really need apps on my phone, I need the workflows that are in those apps.  I need the restaurant information inside of the Zagat application, I need the directions and augmented reality that is inside of google/bing maps.  I need the social graph that is inside of Facebook to find out if my friends are busy this weekend.  I need the content of the twitter app to find out what is going on right now.  As far as exposing that, some apps for Windows Phone can do this with their live tile, for other, well designed Windows Phone apps, there is a clear use case for the application, and it brings as much content to me as it can to assist me with doing something right now.

Windows phone isn’t perfect, there are still quite a few missing use cases that I would like to see fleshed out, like the augmented reality directions, or a better workflow around photo sharing.

When you think about things in use cases, you actually start to see that the multitasking system that Windows Phone employes is correct.  It is only broken if you are looking at it as you would look at Android or iOS, or if you are comparing your mobile computing environment to one that is less mobile.  Windows Phone is better thought out than its competitors. Once you let go of the fact that you believe you want your smart phone to be just like your desktop/laptop/tablet, then everything will be fine.

So what if Windows Phone doesn’t have many quality apps, for most of the things I want to do, I am covered.  As they add apps, so much the better, I only hope that the developers think about how their users will accomplish tasks in real-time with the applications they provide, and don’t fall back on the Android and iOS way of sticking a bunch of data into a silo and expecting the user to poke around to find it.

Lumia 900 Top Third

Windows 8, in its current incarnation is half-mistake, in my opinion.  For the designers to take UI and a set of interactions that are successful for phone use cases, and apply them to a desktop OS is to turn something useful into a chaotic chimera.  I believe that Microsoft is not allowing for as much richness and complexity as the interaction patterns of a stationary computing experience should provide by implementing the Metro interface on the desktop.

In the legacy interface, they are just screwing up what was working.  It makes sense for them to take the same approach as they allowed the Windows Mobile team to take.  Think about the use cases that people are likely to encounter when they are attempting to accomplish something with their desktop/tablets.  You may not be able to unify the interfaces, it is OK.  Apple is falling into the same trap, it is leaving a massive opening for someone to do something awesome with the desktop computer…. Canonical are you listening?

Let it go, the desktop paradigm is dead.  Stop worrying about how things used to be and learn to experience Windows Phone for what it is.  A beautiful breath of fresh-air, a new way of thinking about mobile interaction.  Hopefully Microsoft doesn’t screw it up.  If their marketing is any indication, I am worried about the future.  If they leave the Windows Phone team alone, and allow them to keep doing what they are doing, things will be great.


If the FCC had never existed

Posted: March 12th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: android, Apple, AT&T, Companies, Google, Verizon | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

image

Much of the tech media is thinking about the problem of wireless spectrum in the wrong way.  It is helpful to think about why the commission was created, and the problems that have been created in the market by its existence.

The FCC/FRC was created in response to complaints by large national carriers that smaller regional broadcasters of dubious quality were broadcasting on all available frequencies with such power that the national broadcasters couldn’t get a clear signal through. 

The government at the time thought it would be a good idea to control the broadcast frequencies so that they would have spectrum available for use with military equipment  domestically. 

So a deal of sorts was struck where in return for being regulated, national broadcasters would receive a monopoly on broadcast licenses.  This would later cause the breakup of these same broadcasters.

The spectrum was allocated by frequency with buffer zones between blocks.  Power output limits were also part of the regulation package, without which, the allocated frequency blocks would have been useless.  This represented a modern and efficient set of controls based on the technology of the era.

Skip ahead a hundred years and see what has happened.  The technology has improved, the regulatory framework is obviated by the technology. However, since we have an intruder in the market preventing normal forces from solving the problem, the same companies who were given the monopoly control which innovations consumers are allowed to buy.  These same companies set, fix prices, and collude to gouge both content companies and consumers to the tune of ridiculous profits.

Let’s spin back to the past and examine what would likely have happened if the FRC and subsequently the FCC had never been created.

In the late thirties, the first experiments with digital technology were beginning to be performed. At the same time, content companies were beginning to have difficulty broadcasting because of band saturation on radio and later television frequencies.

The war had and was driving incredible advances in communications technology, including experiments with digital broadcast technology.

What Bell would have done was to seek profit from all of the major broadcasters of the era. They would have said, “hey, we have this cool way of using digital transmission to allow us to send tremendous amounts of data from different sources to different destinations through the same frequency using codes to distinguish one broadcaster from another. Why don’t you all pay us a small fee to register yourselves with us, and we’ll build a network of general broadcast / receivers throughout the country.  We’ll use more frequencies as necessary, but since we can pack you in, we will always have plenty.”

This didn’t happen for many reasons, and has its own problems, but what would happen next would have been the rapid rise of bundlers.  Companies whose job it was to use the spectrum they chose as efficiently as possible to maximize their own profit. It would have sped the pace of innovation and prevented the mess we have now.

Eventually the government would have stepped in and mandated that these bundlers reserve spectrum for military and government use. The bundlers would have complied.

Fast-forward this system to today.  We would have hundreds of free market companies competing for the most efficient use of spectrum, with AT&T, T-Mobile, and hundreds if not thousands of competing Telecom and internet providers.  The barrier to entry for these providers would be very low since they would just need to pay the bundler of their choice which best suited their needs.

These bundlers would have built powerful networks of broadcast / receivers everywhere, on roadsides, inside buildings, etc.  There would be no lack of spectrum, and no need for excessive, heavy-handed regulation, as each advance in technology would allow the bundlers to use ever less spectrum and sell both the technology and license their spectrum to even more bundlers.

This didn’t happen, so where do we go from here?  There are few places where it is so obvious that regulatory interference has caused irrational behavior in the market as in wireless.  The FCC should embrace digital technology and require broadcasters to form independent corporations to act as the bundlers that I described.  These bundlers would manage the infrastructure for the broadcasters with the broadcasters riding on them.  Once the system was in place, the licensing system would be replaced by power output limits, and the FCC would assume a greatly reduced role.

There are many flaws to my proposal, but we have to get the FCC out of the spectrum licensing business.  Technology is sufficiently advanced that we do not need this frequency based system. It is causing more harm than good.  We need to let the market work to provide better access to everyone.  It is critical that the barriers to entry for wireless carriers to be lowered if we want real competition and innovation in wireless going forward.


The Post Tablet Era

Posted: July 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: android, Apple, Companies, Google, iPhone, Lifestyle, Media | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »
google chromebook

Chromebook

The tablet entered with a huge bang a few years ago.  It was staggering, Apple sold in an incredible number of iPads and forced all of the netbook manufacturers and Google to scramble to produce and release a tablet OS, namely Honeycomb, that was arguably not ready for release.

The result with both the iOS and Honeycomb are two excellent tablet OSs, and Ice Cream Sandwich promises to be a stellar tablet and smartphone OS.  What I have been discovering over the past year plus using both versions of the iPad and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is that I don’t really need a tablet for general computing.

This is surprising to me.  I built an IDE for the iPad and iPhone after all, and found myself using my own product more on the iPhone for quick edits than I did on the iPad.

I watch an awful lot of netflix on the iPad, and I play games most of the time that I am using it.  I have found that with the Galaxy Tab, my patterns are much the same gaming, watching videos, occasionally reading ( although I still prefer my Kindle hardware to the tablet versions ).

So I am coming to the conclusion that the pundits were right initially, tablets are clearly for content consumption, not content creation.  The reason, however that these devices are not suitable for content creation is worthy of debate, and is an issue that I’d like to take up now.

Natural User Interfaces

The user interaction that most tablets sport as the default is something that is being called a natural user interface, that is an interaction that uses some of the users other senses, such as motion, to perform an on screen action.  The current crop of tablets mainly use touch instead of a dedicated hardware component to facilitate user interaction with the interface.

This lends itself obviously to gaming, and a “kick back” experience of sorts.  The user can use touch, or the gyroscopes to control a character on the screen, this makes logical sense to just about any user.

As an example, many role playing games have a 3/4 view of the game board, that is, the camera is typically at 5 o’clock high, or somewhere thereabouts.  The control scheme for most of these types of games is to touch a place on the screen to send the character to that location.  Role playing games work particularly well on tablets for this reason, they are almost better with a touch interface than a controller.

As another example, car racing games use the accelerometer in the tablets to control an on-screen car.  This works well, unless you are in a position in which your motion is constrained, such as the bed, most of these games provide some sort of alternate touch based interaction that replaces the accelerometer based input.

The problem with using on screen touch points in auto and first person shooter games is that the controller now covers part of the screen, or your hands end up covering important parts of the game world, causing the player to miss part of what is happening.  I know that in my case, it takes away from the FPS experience and makes it so that I typically don’t buy those sorts of games on tablets, but instead prefer to play them on a console.

Natural user interfaces only work when the content is modified such that the user can interact with it sensibly using the available sensors, gyroscope, touch screen, microphone, et cetera.  In a famously bad case of using a natural user interface to interact with content from a platform that uses traditional input, Numbers presents the user with a typical spreadsheet like the one you would find in Excel for your Mac or PC.  The issue here is that Apple didn’t modify the presentation of the content such that it matches the platform.  Arguably there is no way to do this in a form that makes sense.

The interface for Numbers features beautiful graphic design elements, and is generally pleasant, but when you tap on a grid element, a virtual keyboard pops up and you are invited to type into the fields.  Apple has made a numeric keyboard interface which is pretty nice, but anytime you display the virtual keyboard, you haven’t thought hard enough about the problem.  Displaying a grid of content is not useful on this device, it is amazingly useful on the desktop, but it just doesn’t work here.  Inputting large amounts of data is frustrating, and the virtual keyboard makes mistakes all to common, either because of mistyping or the misguided autocorrect.

Modifying Content for the Natural Interface

Most of the people who are buying tablets today appear to be tolerating these issues, my belief is that they are doing this because tablet computers feel like a piece of the future they were promised when they were children, useful or not.  Eventually, they will likely stop using their tablets at all in favor of ultralight laptop computers, or they will relegate the tablet to the living room table as a movie watching and game playing platform.

It is possible to make significant user input acceptable on a tablet, perhaps even pleasurable, by using a bit of creativity.  First, they keyboard is a complete failure.  It has its place, but in most cases it can be replaced by effective gesture (non touch ) and speech recognition.  This is the only viable way for bringing large amounts of content.

On the visualization front, using our example in Numbers, perhaps a flat grid is not something that makes sense on the tablet, maybe we should send the data to a server for analysis and present it as a series of graphs that can be changed by the user, manipulating the graph directly with touch actions, or with spoken commands.  The result of the changes would flow back into the spreadsheet, updating the numbers behind the visualization.

Many would argue that this would not be a rich enough interaction for some of the complex spreadsheets, pivot tables, etc… that they work with, indeed, it likely would not.  Most of these users would not perform these actions on the tablet, instead they would use a MacBook Air, or other lightweight laptop computer.  It takes a huge amount of creativity and intelligence, as well as significant amounts of computer power to manipulate data in this way.

Imagine a speech interface for a word processor that could use the camera to track your facial expressions to augment its speech accuracy.  It could, and should, track your eyes to move the cursor and ask you to correct it when you make a bad face at a misinterpreted sentence.  An application like this could make word processing on a tablet a wonderful experience.

The technology to do most of these things is here.  It is either fragmented with each part patented by a different company, some without any sort of tablet such as the Microsoft with the Kinect.  Or the effort to produce a piece of software to utilize the features of tablet computers to best effect is too great to justify the investment.  For example, doing that sort of work for a word processor doesn’t make sense when people will just jump over to their laptop to use Word.  Would anyone pay $100 up front for an iPad word processing application?  I don’t think so.  Would anyone pay $25 per month for the same application as a service on the iPad?  Its equally doubtful.

What you come to eventually is that, for interacting with content that either naturally lends itself to, or can be easily modified for, the tablet, it is fantastic.  Currently, however it is severely overpriced for how it is being used.  After all, you can get a fairly cheap notebook that can play Netflix and casual games for $200, or 1/3 the price of most tablets.  If you have to carry your laptop anyway, why would you have a tablet at all.  Why wouldn’t you take the Air with you and leave your tablet at home.  It can do everything the tablet can do, and it also can handle any of the content creation that you care to try.

Thinking about the situation, we need to find better business models that will allow for the development of applications that can handle the modifications to content that we need for tablets to be generally useful.  This will take a while, and in the interim it is likely that some companies will produce tablet hybrids, the ASUS Eee Transformer is one tablet that comes to mind.  It is very popular, runs a mobile tablet operating system, but becomes a keyboard wielding notebook in a second.

The Google Chromebook is another example of a lightweight, even in software, laptop that can do most of what a tablet can do, as well as most of what the typical laptop does.  In my own use, excluding building applications for tablets, I always reach for my Chromebook instead of my tablets.  All of this is excluding the huge difference in the difficulty of building applications on the platforms.

Writing applications for tablets is extremely hard with a doubtful return on investment, unless you are making a media or gaming title.  While writing applications for the web is easy and potentially extremely lucrative with many variations on possible business models, and little interference from device manufacturers.

I am starting to think that Ray Ozzie was right when he said that Chrome OS was the future.  It feels more like the near future than the iPad at this point.  The tablet will always have its place, and perhaps with significant advances in natural user interface technology, with accordant price reductions it will start to take over from the laptop.  I am fairly bullish on the natural user interface over the long term, but at the same time I pragmatically understand that we aren’t there yet.  The devices, software, and consumers have a lot of work to do for us to really enter the era of the computerless computing experience.  I am committed to getting there, but I think that the current crop of tablets might be a false start.