What does this app do?

Yesterday, after a productive afternoon of hackery I came across this interesting exclamation on Twitter:

While I sympathized with Mr. Balkan’s general point, I couldn’t help but see (and partially agree with) the article author’s point of view. Here’s the gist of the matter: popular blogger John Gruber has teamed up with developer Brent Simmons, and designer Dave Wiskus to launch a note-taking app called Vesper.

What does Vesper do? Apparently not much. It lets you take text or photo notes, tag them and share them via email or iMessage. The Verge, Macworld and GigaOm all have their own articles about it if you’re more interested. Macstories even has an interview with the creators. Its biggest selling points seem to be good design and John Gruber’s involvement.

I have no qualms with paying for software – I use OmniFocus as a task manager, I bought the Android and iOS versions of Instapaper and I paid for the Pinboard bookmarking service. All of them do useful things for me and do them well (better than most other apps and services in the same category). So what exactly would I be paying for if I bought Vesper? According to Marco Arment (of Tumblr and Instapaper fame) I’m paying for balls. Apparently the apps creators are extremely brave for releasing a feature-light app that’s about the same as a bunch of other apps while being comparatively more expensive (and having a mildly interesting Credits section).

Perhaps they are. But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

I don’t care how heroic Gruber and Co. are. I don’t really care that the app is $4.99. I do appreciate that the app looks well-designed and the interactions are well thought out. But I care more that the app doesn’t do very much and for some reason, I’m supposed to celebrate that. Apparently being “skillfully crafted” means that things I’m starting to take for granted (like oh.. I don’t know… simple export) are suddenly “power user features”. Somehow we’ve gotten to the point where the developer’s balls are more important than the app’s functionality and data loss is just as much of a problem as typos in the credits.

How did we get to this point and does it matter? I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with the rise of The Cult of Design Dictatorship. I care about good design as much as the next guy and I’m glad that a small group of people can create and distribute widely used products. But when it comes to technology, I refuse to put form above function and I definitely won’t allow the developer’s pedigree to be a stand-in for functionality.

Advertisements

Upgrading to Ice Cream Sandwich

I’m about six months behind the rest of the world when it comes to phone software, but I finally upgraded my Nexus S  to Ice Cream Sandwich. Unfortunately the process was not as smooth as I would have liked: even though I have an unlocked stock phone from Google I still couldn’t get the OTA upgrade and had to find and manually download it. However, the upgrade basically destroyed my phone. Everything was slow and laggy, apps crashed all the time and battery life was down to a few hours. After a few days of trying to troubleshoot I gave up and did a “factory reset”. The reset removed all apps and reset to just the base OS (the upgraded ICS version in this case). Luckily this seemed to fix everything. Now that I’ve re-installed the apps that I did regularly use my phone is better than ever.

I really the look and feel of ICS. It’s close enough to Gingerbread that I don’t feel lost but it’s different enough to feel like I’m using something new. I like the blue and black theme much better than the previous orange (though I wish there was a selection of color themes). The more 2D feel of the interface (at least for the native Android apps) is really nice too. It’s different enough from iOS but not as different as Metro (or whatever it’s supposed to be called now). Some apps like the music player, the  contacts app and Gmail have had significant redesigns and are a quite a bit nicer to use. I don’t know what changes they have made to the keyboard but it seems much more natural to type on and more accurate. However the caps lock feature seems to be gone which is a bit annoying at times. Most third party apps seem to be unchanged by the design changes. The whole phone seems much snappier and faster. Battery life during actual use seems about the same, though it does seem longer on standby ( I haven’t made any scientific measurements).

I’ve been pretty happy with the Android platform and this phone in particular since I got it. It was not quite as polished as iOS but it wasn’t significantly deficient either. With the ICS update I feel like Android has made small but steady improvements to the whole experience. Since I mostly use the stock Android apps and popular ones like Facebook and Twitter I haven’t explored the ecosystem much. That being said, I have no complaints about the apps and services I do use. I use my phone basically as a quick lookup and occasional texting and calling device — I much prefer a proper computer when it comes to doing work. For those purposes the phone is great. With the improved keyboard I’ve been using it for quick emails and IM as well. If I was in the habit of keeping a shorter blog I think I could use the phone to write for that as well.

I don’t plan on switching phones any time soon and I’m glad to say that it looks like I won’t be forced to. The Nexus S is a solid device (not perfect, but solid). I wish it had a better camera and I’d be happy to pay for an OmniFocus app (even if it was just read only) but apart from that I’m happy with it. The ICS update made it better than it was and there doesn’t seem to have been any unnecessary superfluous changes. I hope the Jelly Bean update (when it comes) will keep going in the right direction.

The Interface Paradox

As much as I love programming and good old-fashioned text-based command lines, I have an interest in ergonmics and futuristic interface. A few days ago a post entitled “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design” made the rounds on the Internet. It opens with an old, but interesting video and goes to make the argument that our current obsession with flat touchscreens and simple gestures is doing our us all as disservice. Our hands are capable of complex gripping, grasping and touching motions and having all that expressivity confined to a small, two dimensional surface with a limited number of motions is self-defeating. The article makes the damning statement: “Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?”

The article helped me express an uncertainty that’s been floating back and forth in my mind for some time. I use my iPod Touch on a daily basis and I’ve been loving the multitouch trackpad on the new Macbooks. I love the swiping motions for window management and moving things around. At the same time I’ve started drawing by hand again (I loved drawing as a kid) and I realize that putting a pencil to paper is a rather complex but very fulfilling activity. Strangely enough I think that both the pencil and the touch-based iOS interface have a lot in common. In both cases, the actual physical device almost disappears letting you focus on the underlying application. The iPad or iPhone itself is just a thin frame around whatever app you’re using. The pencil is basically just a simple pointer but allows us to create an infinited range of images with it.

However in both cases, the expressiveness offered by the device is not enough. Pencils are not enough to express all the images we might want to create. That’s why we have pens, brushes, chalk, crayons and a variety of papers and canvases. The flat touch interface is also not enough, especially if we are confined to a small surface that fits in one hand. The question then is how we can take the simplicity of our current touch interface and extend them to a larger set of expressions and interactions?

Case in point is the camera interface on the iPhone. For a long time there was a software button that you had to touch to take a picture. But that meant sticking your finger in the middle of the picture. Normal cameras have a better interface: there is shutter button on the top that keeps your hands far from the actual image (even if you’re using a LCD screen instead of a traditional viewfinder). This deficient interface on the iPhone led to the Red Pop, a giant red shutter button and now iOS 5 turns one of the hardware volume buttons into a shutter button.

The Red Pop camera interface for the iPhone
The Red Pop camera interface for the iPhone

Having a fluid, upgradeable, customizable software interface is nice and I like smooth gradients and rounded corners as much as the next guy. But our hands evolved to use actual physical matter and before computer interfaces we built a lot of interesting physical interfaces. Apple has hooked us on the idea of sleek, smooth devices with no extraneous. While it’s great to lose unnecessary knobs and edges the Apple design philosophy might not be best in the long run, especially if your device’s UI doesn’t neatly fit into the touch-drag-swipe system of gestures.

Ultimately it would be great to have “smart matter” physical interfaces – the flexibility and programmability of software with the physical usability that solid matter offers. Imagine some sort of rearranging material (based on some form of nano- or micro-technology maybe?) that can be be a simple smooth shell around your interfaces but can change to form buttons, sliders, knobs or big red shutter buttons as your application requires. But in the years (decades?) between now and then we need other solutions. The range of accessories and extensions available for the iPhone (including the Red Pop, tripods, lenses etc.) seem to suggest that enterprising young device maker could use the iPhone (and it’s successors and competitors) as a computing core to which they can attach their own physical extensions. With a more open and hackable platform (an Android-Arduino hybrid perhaps) we might see a thriving device market as well as an app market. Am I a dreamer? Hell yeah, but as the projects I’ve linked to show, I’m certainly not the only one.