Transparency of Use Will be Difficult to Achieve

Posted: May 17, 2011 in Apple, Convergence, Transparency
Tags: , , ,

In looking back at my comments on transparency I realize I might be giving the wrong impression. Data transparency is moving along. However, creating software that makes moving from one device to another transparent is very hard to accomplish. It involves making the transition from one UI to another transparent or, coming from the other direction, involves making one UI work across several devices. Consider where this has been most successfully done i.e. the iPad and iPhone. Both the iPhone and the iPad use the same OS with the same UI. However, in accomplishing this, the tablet version of iOS has been hindered by the need to work well on the much smaller screen of the iPhone. Google has taken a different approach. Their tablet version of Android is noticeably different from the phone version. The result is that Apple and Google are coming at the problem from opposite directions. With Ice Cream Sandwich, Google will try to unify the tablet and phone experience and thereby improve transparency when moving between the devices. Apple, with iOS 5, will try to bring better functionality to iOS so their tablet offering is less restricted by the OS and is able to come closer to the functionality of a full blown laptop.

But tablets and phones are closely related. Any problems encountered while working to achieve transparency between the two pale compared to merging the experience with other devices. Consider the TV set. It lacks a touch screen. Any keyboard linked to the TV set will almost certainly be less than full sized. It would be easy to claim that the TV is fundamentally different and to forget transparency altogether.  That would be a mistake. There is too much money at stake to take the easy way out. Here is where human factors specialists will have to shine. They will have to craft a different OS interface than that on a phone or tablet but one which feels very similar to the phone OS interface such that knowing the phone OS takes the TV OS learning curve to zero.The same will be true when looking at the man-machine interface in the automobile. Here, minimizing driver distraction will be the main goal. There are two aspects to driver distraction and they will sometimes work against each other. On the one hand, making the automobile UI look like the phone UI will allow use to be more second nature and thereby require less conscious thought on the part of the driver. The problem is that a phone OS will sometimes require that the driver look away from the road. That’s not good. A compromise will have to be reached. Like the TV, there will be other ways of interfacing to the UI than just a touch screen. There will be voice, steering wheel controls and probably a mouse like device similar to what BMW uses on its infamous iDrive.

This high difficulty level extends to applications. I really like those iTunes store apps that have the plus sign next to the price. You pay once and you get something that works on both your iPhone and iPad. I hate paying twice for an app just because I want it on my iPhone and my iPad. Down the road I want to buy an app once and use it on whatever device is handy. This trend is already in full play. Just take a look at Steam. When you buy a program through Steam, you can download and install it on any machine you like. You log into your Steam account to gain access. The main problem here is that you have to download a large program for each device but that could be easily automated. Also, as more programs exist in the cloud, this will be less of an issue. Already some programs allow the user to start playing while sections of code not in use continue to download. The big problem is interface design. Imagine making Crysis work on everything from a phone to a TV set. That’s not easy. It is particularly difficult if the user wants to pick up a game in progress on one device, say a TV, where he left off on another such as his phone. To get an idea of the scope of the problem look at Foreflight. This is a great aviation app with an excellent user interface. However, their iPhone and iPad apps are two completely different animals. With Foreflight this isn’t too big of an issue since the apps are free and the database subscription allows use on an iPhone and an iPad at the same time. The photos below show how different the interface has to be because of screen size.

The iPad version of Foreflight allows selecting different pages from any current page. Look at the bottom of the picture below.

Sections like AIRPORTS and DOWNLOADS can be selected on the bottom. Now look at these screen captures from the iPhone app. The first shows the page equivalent to the iPad page shown above.

Here you select CLOSE which takes you to this page:

Now you can select the page you want.

I am not picking on Foreflight. Rather, I am highlighting what they have done as an example of adapting to the different screen sizes of the two devices while maintaining a lot of the same feel so that the learning curve is low. However, this is the easy part. Adapting to TV, car, laptop etc. will be a lot more difficult. If you are a pilot you might be wondering why anyone would want to use this program across so many devices. But, if transparent use and data is really achieved then imagine the following scenario. You are watching TV with some friends when the talk turns to playing golf on Hilton Head the next day. You bring up Foreflight on the TV and flight plan the trip to find out the flight time and take an initial look at weather. The next morning you quickly update and file the flight plan using your laptop. On the way to the airport you notice that the morning clouds haven’t burned off as expected so you decide to check the current airport weather. Your car interfaces into the Foreflight app on your phone and you are able to bring up the weather. In the air passengers follow the flight’s progress on the iPad using the same program. You have bought one application and used it across numerous devices. It feels easy and natural to do but it was only easy for you. For the developers it was a tough task. They had to sweat the user interface and how it would appear on different devices. The device manufacturers had to sweat the user interface of the OS to make sure this transparent usage would , well…, really be transparent.

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