Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The iPad: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I'm a hard-core lover of Apple products; between my wife & I, we own 4 Macs. However, I also hate Apple's stance as a company on lots of topics. In fact, I would probably never use their products if they weren't so damn good. I'm just disclaiming that I may not be objective (although I try to be).

I was not one of the early enthusiasts for the iPad when it was first announced. I did not pre-order one and really had no interest in one until I had a chance to touch one. It didn't seem to make a lot of sense for me: I split my time between my laptop and the iPhone (which I truly love). The iPad didn't seem to offer much that I didn't already have.

But I realized in the first 10 minutes of playing with one that I was looking at the first incarnation of the next platform, and I quickly ordered one (actually, 2 — one for my wife & one for me — like the iPhone, I knew she would never wait for a hand-me-down). This blog is a culmination of my thoughts and impressions.

General Thoughts

It doesn't take long using an iPad (especially if you've been to the Apple iPhone school of user experience) for it to feel natural. The main difference is how much the platform manages to disappear, more quickly than any device I've ever used. That's one of the things I love so much about OS X: it tries to get and stay out of your way.

Using a well designed iPad app (and there are already some pretty stunning ones), you quickly forget all about the hardware/software combination that is the life support for the app. The application just seems to work.

Canon Cat

In The Humane Interface, Jef Raskin (one of the early Macintosh developers and a well respected researcher in human-computer interaction) wrote about human computer interaction at a pretty abstract level. He designed and sold a computer called the Canon Cat which implemented some of his user interface ideas. One of the most shocking things that Raskin pointed out is that computer users don't want file systems, they just want to work on stuff. The Canon Cat had no recognizable file system: you typed documents and then searched to find previous ones. The iPhone/iPad also have no visible file system: every application "owns" their own data. This causes a few headaches for applications that need to sync their data or share files, but applications (like DropBox) fill that void nicely. I'd rather a few applications figure this out for themselves rather than punish every user with having to understand the nuances & headaches from dealing with what really should be low-level abstractions. How many family members have you had to walk through downloading a family photo and then helping them figure out where it ended up on their computer?

For those who doubt what a paradigm shift this is (and how far away even close seeming competitors are), consider that at the time I wrote this, 2 of the top selling applications on the Android store don't make sense on the iPad: a task killer & a file system browser. Despite the cosmetic similarities between the iPad and competitors, the differences go much deeper.

Death of the Mouse

The iPad represents the death of the mouse. You don't need one, don't miss one, and it would be a huge leap backwards to try to use one. Your finger does what needs to be done, and it's scary easy. The only real exception to this is stylus-type usage. The iPad is a lackluster real-time note taking device for handwritten notes. However, the built-in keyboard works better than I expected.

The Good

As you can probably guess, I like a lot of stuff about the iPad.


My general computing time (time spent on notebook, iPad, & iPhone (minus calls)) has gone slightly up since getting the iPad. Most of the displaced time has come from the iPhone. If you look at 100% of my ipad usage, I estimate that it comes from 80% less time on the phone and 20% less time on my computer. When I first got it, I had the normal hedonic glow I get from new cool toys, and I looked for excuses to use it. That quickly went away, and now i find myself using it for very specific tasks. Case in point: I realized I wanted to add this section while standing in line to get on a plane; I'm typing this in my seat waiting for the rest of the passengers to board. Not enough time to get the entire laptop out, but way more than I would want to type on my phone. Once you've been using the iPad, some of the applications on the iPhone feel really claustrophobic. Some applications (and games) still work best on the phone, but there is certainly the case that some (most?) work better on the more capable hardware and form factor.

Killer Uses

Watching movies rocks on the iPad. It has 1024x768 resolution (which was the standard resolution for my laptop for years) which is beautiful. Watching content at the gym is absolutely transformative. The Google map application quickly shows that this is the perfect form factor and, more importantly, interaction model. The way you pinch and zoom to navigate around the map feels right, along with the gradual exposition of details as you do so.

Listening to music with the lyrics available is another killer feature for me (I listen to a fair amount of music — progressive rock & opera — where the lyrics really matter). If you associate the lyrics to a song as part of the meta-data in iTunes, the iPad has a mode that shows you the lyrics to the song that's playing. You've been able to do this on iPods & the iPhone for a while, but this form factor makes all the difference.

The iPad is definitely a "lean back" device, rather than a "lean forward" device. The interaction model for a laptop is well established and doesn't have a lot of options because of the form factor. Whether at a desk or an airplane, you pretty much use it the same way. The iPad, on the other hand, has lots of different interaction modes. I've seen a lot written about "habit spaces" and interaction models — the iPad makes you realize how true that is, and provides a blank slate for creating some new habit spaces & interaction models.

Using a mind mapping tool on the iPad makes me never want to go back to using a notebook for this activity. The mind mapping tools aren't as powerful yet, but the interaction is exactly right. I find I use my iPad a lot for brainstorming away from my computer, which is where I would like for it to happen because of habit spaces. And OmniGraffle for the iPad makes you rethink how drawing tools should work.

One must-have accessory is the Apple case for the iPad. It is a marvel of engineering in its own right, and it makes it easy to find the right interaction mode for what you're doing. Having a case that allows you to put it into various physical permutations makes it easier to get immersed.

The iPad is the ultimate airplane accessory: movies, books, games, and interacting with the outside world on planes with wi-fi. I have now partitioned my travel life into 2 eras: pre-iPad & post-iPad, and you can guess which is better.

As you've probably guessed, this entire entry was researched, organized, and written on the iPad, and it was a pretty good experience, much better than I thought it would be. I can anticipate doing more of this type of writing on the iPad.

The Bad

I have very little to dislike so far. It really does need rudimentary background processing just to allow stuff like Skype + X. The proposed changes coming in the 4th release of iOS should solve most of those problems. Doing real work on the iPad feels a little like being back in the DOS days. I had my notes for this blog entry in a mind map & had to switch back and forth. However, the pain was minor because the applications "start up" so fast (in quotes because that seems like kind of a quaint notion on the iPad: applications don't really have life cycles).

The Ugly

Nothing about the device is ugly. The only ugly thing in the neighborhood are Apple's sometimes overly controlling ways. But you have to realize that the future of applications on these devices fall into 2 categories: curated native applications from the AppStore and wide open, standards-based web applications, delivered through the browser. By maintaining control on the native applications, they remove the need for things like anti-virus software. They want to closely guard those applications all the way down to the look and a feel. I agree that if they allow cross- compiled applications, it dilutes their control. But that control makes a difference.

Before the iPhone, I was a die hard Palm (and Treo) user, which both offered an application development platform. Because there was no curator, 98% of Palm applications were abysmal, to the point that I stopped adding new applications. The Apple AppStore largely fixes that.

Android is going to suffer the same fate if they aren't careful. The interesting difference between the Palm & Android eras is the strength of social networks, especially user ratings. The largely unanswered question: will social networks be enough to all the cream of the Android crop to rise to the top, overcoming the Palm problem.

I won't get in a huff at Apple for controlling and curating native applications as long as they don't try to cripple the browser. As long as I can write whatever application I want using open standards and have it work correctly, I'm OK with the advantages and disadvantages of curated applications.

"I want to live there!"

I have a friend that every time he sees something new and futuristic, he says "I want to live there". Using the iPad feels like tiptoeing in to the future. I definitely want to live there.

I'm convinced that the iPad is the first iteration of the next major computing platform. PC's will become work & power user tools, but everyone will use iPad-like things for many tasks. This is the first incarnation - can you imagine what these things will look like in 5 years?

The iPad does for video what the Sony Walkman did for music. I can easily envision a near future where the family TV is only used on special occasions; the whole family sits around with their fifth generation iPad watching highly personalized content.

I don't think you can really appreciate the impact of the iPad until you've used one a bit. Thomas Watson famously said in 1943 that the world-wide market for computers was about 5 computers. He didn't understand the transformative effect that pervasive personal computing could effect. We're at the threshold of a new era of computing, and it's pretty cool. Ignore it at your peril!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mouseless Browsing

Once you write a book, you become really immersed in the subject matter. After it's off to the publisher, you can't turn off your interest in the subject. Consequently, after The Productive Programmer came out, I continue to find new ways to make myself more productive. One of my recent tendencies is mouseless browsing.

I have a love/hate affair with Firefox. I love the keyboard affordances it provides, especially the slash ("/") and apostrophe ("'") shortcuts. When looking at a web page, the slash starts an incremental find for text within the page. The apostrophe does something similar, but it restricts the matches to URLs only. How many times do you go to a web site and you know the name of the link you want already? For example, if I need to go to the ThoughtWorks web site to get the address of the London location (this happened earlier today), I know (or can guess) that there is a "Contact" link on the home page, which takes me to a list of offices. In my new mouseless browsing mode, I go to the home page, hit the apostrophe and start typing "contact", hit enter and now I'm on the contact page. From there, I can hit the slash key and start typing "London". I've found my address and never taken my fingers off the home row. This added to the spacebar to scroll down and shift-spacebar to scroll up and you can get a lot done in a browser without a mouse.

I maintain a love/hate relationship because one of the cool things about Firefox is all the plug-ins available. Conversely, one of the things I hate about Firefox are all the plug-ins! I tend to find useful plug-ins and add them, which adds to the weight (and start up time) for the whole browser. Recently, I stumbled across Camino, which uses the same rendering engine as Firefox, which means that my 2 favorite keyboard shortcuts work. Camino is very lightweight (if "feels" lighter than Safari) and it supports my browsing habits. This is going to sound odd, but one of the critical things that it supports is the ability to type a partial URL in the address bar (which it will auto-complete) and hit CTRL-N to move the cursor down to the first (or subsequent) matches. This is a big deal for me because the Emacs key bindings are deeply ingrained in my fingers (and most of OS X, as it turns out), but Firefox doesn't allow this. Firefox has apparently overwritten the CTRL-N key to do nothing (overriding the operating system). While this sounds minor, it bites me every time. Fortunately, Camino adheres to the Apple standard, allowing me to have my cake (having CTRL-N move down one line, as it was Meant To Be) and keyboard-driven browsing.

If you really want to go far down this path, there is the Conkeror browser. It's "About:"

Conkeror is a keyboard-oriented, highly-customizable, highly-extensible web browser based on Mozilla XULRunner, written mainly in JavaScript, and inspired by exceptional software such as Emacs and vi. Conkeror features a sophisticated keyboard system, allowing users to run commands and interact with content in powerful and novel ways. It is self-documenting, featuring a powerful interactive help system.

I have played with Conkeror and it has strong promise, but it's not quite mature enough for me to switch to daily use.

And if you are a Vim junkie, you can use the Firefox plugin called vimperator, which converts Firefix to a purely vi interface. Not for the faint of heart: if you don't know how to quit Vim, you're going to have a tough time with vimperator. Hard-core Vim-mers swear by this, but I'm too far gone down the Emacs route now to re-map the genes in my fingertips.

Mouseless browsing takes acclimatization, but once you become accustomed to it, you'll start finding it annoying to reach for a mouse (or even for the arrow keys -- not the home row!). This is why I have no interest in Chrome for now because it doesn't support my normal mode of browsing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tiffany Lentz: A New Regular on the No Fluff, Just Stuff Tour

It is with great pleasure that I welcome one of my ThoughtWorks colleagues, Tiffany Lentz, to the No Fluff, Just Stuff tour this weekend in Tampa. She did the Seattle show last year to great feedback, and now she's joining the tour as a semi-regular speaker.

Tiffany has been with ThoughtWorks since late 2004 as a project manager and agile coach. She embodies what makes ThoughtWorks project managers so good: enthusiasm, experience, expertise on how to build software, and infectious enthusiasm. She's one of the project managers that I would work with on any project, no matter how bad it looks at the outset because I know that she'll find ways to make it better, usually profoundly better.

I've been leaning on Tiffany for a couple of years now to come speak on the No Fluff, Just Stuff tour to share some of her agile expertise, and she finally knuckled under and decided to join the No Fluff, Just Stuff speaker's "boy's club". I don't think it's a coincidence that 2 of the rare female speakers on the No Fluff, Just Stuff in recent times have been ThoughtWorkers: Tiffany and our CTO, Rebecca Parsons. ThoughtWorks can be a bit of a fraternal atmosphere as well (especially amongst developers which, despite concerted efforts, still remain largely male), which means that Tiffany and other ThoughtWorks females learn to tolerate too many male geeks being around, like the speakers at No Fluff, Just Stuff.

Tiffany is going to be talking about Agile practices this weekend in Tampa. Her talks include The Agile Mindset: Applying Agile in Non-Technical Areas of an Organization, Iteration Management: What's in Your Toolkit, and Agile Project and Management Metrics: Measuring Success Downward and Upward. If you're in Tampa this weekend (or at a future tour stop), do yourself a favor and go see Tiffany speak.