Archives For September 2012

pondered about what the mobile device is optimized for now and what it will be optimized for in future.  HD videos, as I noted there, is certainly one thing.  But I have to follow that up with saying that it’s far more complicated than that!

So, what all does it mean to have HD video content delivered to your mobile device? It means a stellar battery life.  A lightening fast connection to the cloud. Seamless switching across available wireless interfaces. Serendipitous discovery of content. Collation and curation of content using social, knowledge and personalized interest graphs. Intelligent syncing and storage in the cloud. Fashionable peripherals that are beyond geeky. And much much more.

Innovations will need to span several areas to make all this work together and create the next level of user experience… Solar and wireless charging. Stable and intelligent connections. Peer-level content discovery. Contextual delivery of content. Unobtrusive interrupts. AI on a distributed system composed of vastly different resources. Intelligent purging of content from the cloud. Revolutionary industrial design on peripherals.  Semantic structures, automated metadata creation and refinement, overlay networking, software-based networks, programmable hardware, invisible security and automatic situational privacy are all areas that will see huge advancements in the years to come.

As a spot check, where are we today? Still in a fairly dumb digital world, with a long way to go! We have lots of bandwidth, but fairly dumb connection management. Lots of data, but it is fairly cumbersome to look for information in it. Screens ready for the HD video challenge, but with no knowledge when I might find it annoying vs interesting. Ability to produce massive amounts of content, but with no knowledge of where to share it by default or how long to store it. At some point, the capabilities of the device, cloud and the network in terms of bandwidth, data, content creation and content for consumption need to pause to let the synthesis and intelligence catch up.

The decade ahead is going to be as interesting and revolutionary as the past decade! I’m looking forward to it!

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The iPhone 5 and iOS 6 fever is here and almost calming down (seriously, the number of articles in my news feed that talk about it have come down from 20 a day to about 2 a day now!).  With the move to the 4-inch screen sparking several interesting comments, including complaints about how the thinner, taller iPhone just feels a tad less sturdy, I do ponder about just what the mobile devices are optimized for.  There are various aspects to consider, but let’s take the screen aspect ratio for the moment.

Despite the many explanations for Apple’s move to the larger screen and the 16:9 aspect ratio, my theory is that the iPhone just went from a device optimized for photos to a device optimized for HD videos.  Camera sensors for the most part have a 4:3 aspect ratio for still photography till this day. Point and Shoot cameras are recently sporting sensors that can capture photos in 16:9 aspect ratio, but it is not clear that the cell phone cameras are there yet.  Even if they did, it appears like an option that is not enabled by default – which means that we will see majority of the population continue to capture images in 4:3 formats.

4:3 images displayed in 16:9 screens look sub-optimal – this means that there will necessarily be bars around the images.  Short of apps such as Instagram and Pinterest that add flavor to images with other interesting stuff around it, the fundamental photo viewing experience is less than ideal. But who views images outside of some such app, you ask! Fair enough – the bar has been upped for apps dealing with images for a little while now!

And for Apple to change aspect ratios, leaving a good portion of the 700k apps in the App Store to deal with a degraded user experience with bars around the screens or prompting developers to upgrade to deal with the new device, is a big deal.  One that I can’t imagine came about without serious thought and consideration.

So, Apple is really betting on these devices being the portal to HD video content, ever more so now than in the past.  There is certainly something to it. How long before there is a seamless experience among the Macs, iPhones, iPads and Apple TV to shift content across the best available screen at any time? And prompt you to watch something that a friend or a fellow shopper is watching? Or alert you to check out highlights from that game that just got recorded in your cloud TV account? Creepy as some of this may sound, that’s the race and you my dear user, are starring in it!

Would Google beat Apple at this game? After all, Android devices were adopting 16:9 aspect ratios before Apple came around to it! And what would you optimize your smartphone for?

After writing about how magical experiences come to be and grudgingly acknowledging the fact that magical experiences means loss of flexibility to a degree, I feel the need to rant. I’ll take the flexibility – I’d like to control my destiny and be accountable for my failures. It just so happens that I need to do it on your platform – so, I need you to relent the control to me, thereby granting me the flexibility.

To the less abstract, the lack of flexibility in iOS in certain aspects really leads to frustrating moments in application evolution. My frustration of the day is the lack of ‘intents’ as Android provides – particularly the ‘Share’ intent. The world of bookmarklets and API-based tailoring of sharing in cooperating applications really makes the workarounds a feature for the geeks, an audience that the iOS is really not natively targeted for.  Really what Apple is telling us is that you don’t get to control your application functionality – not fully anyway. Android does this very well – with an interrupt-driven architecture of intents, I truly have the flexibility of designing my applications the way I intended (no pun *intended*) to.

Admittedly, this results in a long list of applications to scroll through, in order to share via the one (or a few) app(s) you truly need, as the end user. And this is why I want to be given the flexibility only to control it.  To be less cryptic, I would then like to have the ability to filter out the list of applications that can appear on my sharing list.  In other words, I’d like to have my cake and eat it too.

I’d really like to skip dealing with a million screen sizes and resolutions and minor tweaks of the native OS functionality, but iOS is just making it impossible to do what is needed! I will get over this, but in the meantime, the love-hate tussle between control and flexibility continues…

We are in an era of rapidly evolving technologies guided by innovative user experiences. The human race increasingly struggles to do more with less of their time.  Do you relate to a style of life where you steal a few moments to browse on your phone or tablet, rely on navigation tools, rely on digital devices to organize your life and feel that it is acceptable to use lack of connectivity or power as a reason for not doing something that in fact, has nothing to do with a digital device? The fraction of the population that belongs in that category is increasing… rapidly. But, these devices are not yet ready for the world we are ushering into.  True that seamless connectivity, faster wireless speeds and amazing graphic and other hardware capabilities have come a long way.  But, the batteries are insufficient more than ever and the amount of information that is attempting to get stuffed into small screens is ever increasing.

It is clear that there is a rather urgent and imperative need to deliver personalized, summarized and relevant information in just the right format at just the right time to these devices.  Just how are these experiences going to be created and delivered? Is it going to be through a set of distributed yet cooperating hardware and software players? Or a dominant player operating a tightly controlled ecosystem? Or a series of randomly evolving innovations?

Much of the digital experiences have started out with mediocre experiences, with refinements benefiting from the users getting used to the devices as well the technologists learning about the things that didn’t work so well.  However, the general recipe to successful and magical experiences gets lost along the way, as it is hard to separate the technology specific learning and effort put into it by the user from the fundamental intuitive aspects that were missing from the experience to begin with.

Traditionally, these experiences have also suffered from putting engineering first and design next. And A level engineering players assuming that B level designers are sufficient – or worse, A level engineers not knowing how to spot A level design needs or talent! Until we have better data, the lessons learned from the iTunes-iPad revolution that brought music to the end user in brain-dead simple ways (and demonstrated the confluence of design, engineering, business and marketing) and the Clippy (and now Siri) bringing potentially powerful technologies in not-all-that-useful ways to the forefront are all we have to go by. And the realization that design and engineering need to go hand-in-hand.

And then there is the tussle between control and flexibility. Should experiences be orchestrated by controlled designs or should there be options and flexibility such that the users can customize to just what they want? Unless customization becomes so incredibly intuitive and simple, I can’t see the latter opening the doors to magic. But, as an engineer, that is depressing to me. I like options – it is the democratic way to do things (while democracy has nothing to do with engineering, I tend to mix up the two more than I should)!

As a self-taught half-way designer, I can see that options complicate the already complex technologies beyond desirable levels. But, as an engineer, the loss of flexibility is hard to digest. My love-hate relationship with control and limiting options continues… (More to come)!