Must focus… Ooh look! A butterfly.

“Facebook notifications iPad UX FAIL” $FB #iOS...

“Facebook notifications iPad UX FAIL” $FB #iOS #opinions / SML.20130111.SC.NET.Facebook.iOS.iPad.Notification.UX.FAIL.Opinions (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)

I don’t know when the rot set in, but I do know it started happening a long time ago. In my first office job, we had two different types of computer. One was a fully fledged PC which sat in the middle of the office. Everyone in the office shared that one PC. When you needed to use it, you took your place, did what you needed to and left it.

You could only do one thing at a time and it was easy to focus.

The other kind of computer wasn’t really a computer at all. It was a dumb terminal, connected by cable to the massive beast of a mainframe in the basement. Again, you could only do one thing at a time and almost everything involved submitting a job that would get executed overnight. In the morning, you received a print out of the results. When things happen that slowly, you make damned sure you don’t make mistakes.

When I started programming, it was a similar story. At first, I wrote Adabas Natural programs on the mainframe. Everything I did took place on a terminal screen. Later, I moved on to program PCs, but they still ran DOS so there was little or no scope for multi-tasking.

Along came Windows with its promise of releasing the shackles of single-threading. When it first came out, it was so unstable that trying to do two things at once was like playing Russian roulette. On an operating system that crashed if you left it alone long enough, let alone loading it up with running applications, saving your work every 10 seconds became second nature.

But slowly and steadily, Windows improved and applications along with it. Instead of Single Document Interfaces (SDIs), now applications could have many windows open. The first web browsers could only show one website at a time. When tabbed browsers came out, you could have loads open.

Somewhere along the way came email. Then social networks. Somewhere in between came notifications. Most applications now have some sort of auto-update feature.

Someone’s sent me an email. Adobe Acrobat needs updating. Auntie Maud has posted on Facebook; she’s lost her cat. Ooh look, Stephen Fry‘s following me on Twitter. Ooh – another email. Windows needs to apply updates. A reminder – I have a meeting to go to. Another email. It’s OK, Auntie Maud’s found her cat.

Modern life can easily turn into a sea of distractions and it builds up over time. To start with, it’s nice to hear about something cool your friend’s found on Kickstarter. It’s great that you can read your email on the train. But it’s also very nice to sit down, relax and read a good book.

Advertisements

Look and feel

English: This is a general-purpose alphanumeri...

English: This is a general-purpose alphanumeric LCD 한국어: 범용 액정 디스플레이 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The device itself was rudimentary. Nothing more than a cheap metal casing which housed a small two-line LCD display and a flat ZX81 style keyboard.

“Can you make it look exactly like that?”

The assignment was for a large national breakdown operator and the devices lived in drivers’ cabs. They allowed simple communication between the drivers and the operators in headquarters. The original manufacturers of the units was now bankrupt and the customer wanted to replace them with cheaper modern commodity hardware. Ultimately, they wanted to enhance the units to offer much more functionality, but for phase 1, they didn’t want to scare the horses. After all, training a huge fleet of breakdown truck drivers would take some time.

My colleague studied the unit whilst mentally appraising the effort involved in replicating the look and feel of the user interface.

“As long as you leave one with us.”

So how hard would it be? Seeing as the hardware dictated that the only realistic programming language was Microsoft Visual C++, the answer was very hard indeed. Almost everything in C++ takes a surprising amount of code but if my colleague stood any chance of replicating the finer nuances of the device, he would have to resort to the dreaded owner-draw control. For ordinary controls which come as part of the operating system, Windows does all the hard work of drawing them every time something on the screen changes. For an owner-draw control, you have to write code. Reams and reams of it.

He took ages on those buttons. Firstly he studied the original, taking measurements and looking at everything through a magnifying glass to make sure he had the finer detail. The text on the buttons was not a standard Windows font either so on top of everything, he would have to create a custom font.

More than once I heard an “Aaaaaaaarrrgggh” from over the cubicle partition as he fought with the inner nuances of operating system libraries. After a month or so, he was ready for the first customer demonstration. I checked out his handiwork. It was an impeccable replica of the crude user interface. When the customer came in to see it, his brow wrinkled.

“Is there something wrong?”

“I was hoping you might smarten up the buttons to make them a bit more standard. You know, like the 3D look and feel you get with a Windows button?”

A quick look at my colleague’s face told me he was mentally counting to ten. A few moments clarifying what “exactly like” meant would have saved weeks of effort and considerable angst. Unfortunately, people specify things like this all the time and are usually disappointed with the result for some reason.

So why do they do it? They do it because it’s easy and requires little or no effort. Care and attention spent on requirements is seldom wasted.

Window replacement

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Microsoft has always been an adaptable beast, constantly reinventing itself to adapt to whatever technology landscape is the current order of the day. Sometimes they are slow to adapt, such as when Bill Gates initially dismissed the internet, but they are quick to catch up.

This week, 18 years after the fanfare of Windows 95, comes the launch of Windows 8. Back in 1995, Take That and Blur were fighting for the number 1 spot in the charts. Sweden, Austria and Finland had just joined the European Union and Netscape had just gone public.

The computing landscape was very different back then. Pretty much every desktop in the world ran Windows, so Microsoft found a ready supply of customers eager to upgrade from the limitations of Windows 3.x up to the ultra modern Windows 95 with its plug and play, 32 bit support and long filenames. Although, even the ultra modern Windows 95 didn’t even come with a web browser. You had to download the “plus” pack in order to get the fledgling Internet explorer. Thus began the browser wars that led to the downfall of Netscape.

The mood of the launch was very different for Windows 95. Microsoft was very much a company in the ascendancy. They dominated the desktop with Windows and Office and there was absolutely no doubt that the new version of Windows would be a success. They chose “Start Me Up” from the Rolling Stones as a theme tune for the launch campaign as a reference to the brand new start button that nestled in the bottom left of the screen. Wisely, they recorded a new rendition where they removed the words “you make a grown man cry“.

Windows 95 was a runaway success with 1 million copies selling in the first 4 days, 40 million in the first 12 months. Microsoft will be hoping for similar commercial success with the new version of Windows. But the competitive landscape is very different. Windows 8 is not just a desktop operating system, it is also aimed at the very crowded tablet market. It’s quite a battlefield with Android and iOS holding the high ground. Also – Windows 95 was a big step forward from Windows 3.x. Windows 8 comes after a very capable Windows 7 which had little to fault.

Windows 8 has been publicly denounced by Tim Cook, the Apple CEO as an unholy union not unlike a toaster combined with a fridge. Apple have approached the market with separate operating systems for tablet and desktop and see any operating system that tries to cater to both platforms as a compromise too far.

With the cash cows of Windows and Office looking decidedly venerable, Microsoft need Windows 8 to be successful and the move to a completely new paradigm is brave (even though the old look and feel is still there if you need it). I think they deserve plaudits for that bravery and there is a good chance that just like the ribbon toolbar that came with Office 2007, people will get used to it and come to love it.

Either way – Windows 8 is a landmark event in computing history.

Updates needed

raw data snapshot

raw data snapshot (Photo credit: MelvinSchlubman)

Do you think CT scanners in hospitals pop up messages in the middle of a brain scan telling the operator that there is a software update available? When was the last time your car stopped and flashed up a message saying software update needed? What about your TV? Or your satellite receiver? Probably never.

What about your computer? It seems like I get a message several times a week telling me that something needs an update. If it’s not the operating system, it’s the office software or the virus checking software or maybe a plug-in for my browser. It drives me nuts!

I have a laptop at home and a machine at work. Between them, I probably update some piece of software every day. On one day last week, my laptop needed an update as did the office software running on it and the flash player in the browser oh, and Adobe Acrobat Reader. Not only that, but my iPhone joined in the party and decided that what I really needed was an inferior maps application, so along came iOS6.

It’s a mess. All the time you spend updating all these software components compromises your productivity. Not only that, but all this change is risky. Software vendors seem to have improved at testing their updates, but even so, you always feel like you are taking a gamble when applying all these updates. At the end of the process – will you end up with a working machine or a nice looking brick.

And why does the software update process have to be so damned invasive? OK – so Acrobat may need an update – but do you think that I really want to know about it when I’ve just opened a document? Some update mechanisms allow you to specify options such as how often to check for updates and how to apply them – which is an improvement, but why do I have to do it separately for every application on the system.

I like the update system for apps on the iPhone and iPad. No painful pop up messages when you are trying to do something, just a little number hovering over the corner of the app store. If you are curious, you can go and see what the updates are and what they do. You can choose when to apply them – like when you plug your phone in for the night to charge. All in all, a very elegant system.

When can we have it in OSX and Windows? A single central source of software updates for the entire machine. No piece of software would be allowed to apply software updates any other way. Simple, elegant and non-invasive. Perfect.