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 Friday, 07 May 2010
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There’s a lot of understandable buzz about the iPad, including this well-written post that I think conveys something important.

As a Microsoft-oriented technical evangelist I’m now almost constantly asked what I think of the iPad. I’ve spent perhaps a total of 20 minutes with one, so I’m not an expert, but I can confidently say that I found it very pleasant to use, and I think it is a great v1 product.

(as an aside, many people also call it a “Kindle killer”, which I absolutely think it is NOT. It is too heavy, the screen is shiny and backlit and the battery doesn’t last 1-2 weeks – it was almost inconceivable to me that anything could replace real books (but the Kindle did), and the iPad certainly doesn’t compete with real paper or the Kindle)

I think the iPad reveals something very, very important. As does the iPhone, the Android phones and the upcoming Windows Phone 7: most users don’t need a “computer”.

Not a computer in the traditional sense, the way we as software designer/developers think about it.

Given the following:

  • “Instant” on
  • Primarily touch-based UI for the OS
  • Apps (and OS) that is designed for touch through and through (and no non-touch apps)
  • Light weight
  • Good battery life
  • Good networking (including home LAN, corporate domain, network printing, etc)
  • Portable peripherals, and standard connectors (USB, Firewire, ESATA, etc)
  • Docking station capability

I submit that your typical user doesn’t need a traditional computer. Sure, there are the “knowledge workers” in accounting, who push computers harder than developers do, but they aren’t a typical user either.

From what I can see, a typical user spends a lot of time

  • reading and composing email
  • using specialized line of business apps, mostly doing data entry and data viewing/analysis
  • browsing the web
  • playing lightweight casual games (solitaire, Flash-based games, etc)
  • using consumer apps like birthday card makers
  • organizing and viewing pictures and home videos
  • creating simple art projects with drawing apps, etc

None of these things require anything like the new i7 quad core (w/ hyperthreading – so 8 way) laptop Magenic is rolling out to all its consultants. Most users just don’t need that kind of horsepower, and would gladly trade it to get better battery life and more intuitive apps.

Which (finally) brings me to the real point of this post: today’s apps suck (just ask David Platt).

David talks a lot about why software sucks. But I want to focus on one narrow area: usability, especially in a world where touch is the primary model, and keyboard/mouse is secondary.

I have a Windows 7 tablet, which I like quite a lot. But it is far, far, far less usable than the iPad for most things. Why? It really isn’t because of Windows, which can be configured to be pretty touch-friendly. It is because of the apps.

Outlook, for example, is absolutely horrible. Trying to click on a message in the inbox, or worse, trying to click on something in the ribbon – that’s crazy. I’m a big guy, and I have big fingers. I typically touch the wrong thing more often than the right thing…

Web browsers are also horrible. Their toolbars are too small as well. But web pages are as much to blame – all those text links crammed together in tables and lists – it is nearly impossible to touch the correct link to navigate from page to page. Sure, I can zoom in and out, but that’s just a pain.

The web page thing is one area where the iPad is just as bad as anything else. It isn’t the fault of the devices (Windows or iPad), it is the fault of the web page designers. And it really isn’t their fault either, because their primary audience is keyboard/mouse computer users…

And that’s the challenge we all face. If the traditional computing form factor is at its end, and I suspect it is, then we’re in for an interesting ride over the next 5-7 years. I don’t think there’s been as big a user interaction transition since we moved from green-screen terminals to the Windows GUI keyboard/mouse world.

Moving to a world that is primarily touch is going to affect every app we build in pretty fundamental ways. When click targets need to be 2-4 times bigger than they are today, our beautiful high-resolution screens start to seem terribly cramped. And these battery-conserving end user devices don’t have that high of resolution to start with, so that makes space really cramped.

And that means interaction metaphors must change, and UI layouts need to be more dynamic. That’s the only way to really leverage this limited space and retain usability.

For my part, I think Microsoft is in a great place in this regard. Several years ago they introduced WPF and XAML, which are awesome tools for addressing these UI requirements. More recently they streamlined those concepts by creating Silverlight – lighter weight and more easily deployed, but with the same UI power.

I’d be absolutely shocked if we don’t see some sort of Silverlight-based tablet/slate/pad/whatever device in the relatively near future. And I’d be shocked if we don’t see the iPad rapidly evolve based on user feedback.

I really think we’re entering a period of major transition in terms of what it means to be a “computer user”, and this transition will have a deep impact on how we design and develop software for these computing appliances/devices.

And it all starts with recognizing that the type of UI we’ve been building since the early 1990’s is about to become just as obsolete as the green-screen terminal UIs from the 1980’s.

It took about 5 years for most organizations to transition from green-screen to GUI. I don’t think the iPad alone is enough to start the next transition, but I think it is the pebble that will start the avalanche. Once there are other devices (most notably some Silverlight-based device – in my mind at least), then the real change will start, because line of business apps will shift, as will consumer apps.

I’m looking forward to the next few years – I think it is going to be a wild ride!

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