Paradigm Shifts Between Phone, Tablet, Desktop & Web Interfaces

…Or how not to approach development. It’s busy in Vincentland, but I’m still determined to regularly update Tech IT Easy. Today, my question is: What determines the choice for a platform? Is it market, personal taste and talent, or the desire to create something that fits a certain paradigm? In the end, no matter how cool or uncool, we’re talking about a technology choice, which is affected by cost (time & financial), the tools available, and the potential return on investment. Just to put it coldly…

I’ll be honest. I have become a big fan of the tablet paradigm. Similar to the Nintendo Wii, it’s a blue ocean that not only addresses the un-targeted space of everyone that doesn’t use computers (from toddlers to old people), it also represents a potential (!) future for computing, away from the constraints of the abstract mouse and the oh-so-square keyboard. It’s a portal into right-brained computing, which I’ve written about several times before. Traditional computing is left-brained, it’s logical and doesn’t allow for the unstructured approach to creativity & thinking that materials like paper does. We’ve long needed a digital equivalent, and it quite possibly is here today (or soon anyway).

Touchscreen-iMacThe biggest obstacle to tablets becoming mainstream is not software, it is cost. You can justify the cost of an (Apple-priced) laptop in a work or school context. It drastically increases your productivity. While Apple has tried to keep the cost of its tablet-line relatively low, there’s no equivalent formula for calculating the return on investment from tablet-computing yet, because the money-making processes aren’t easily carried out via that medium yet. At some point, I envision tablets becoming clients hooked up to a massive server, docking into a pseudo-computer with a keyboard and (something akin to) a mouse. That would require a central computer to act as storage and a well-thought-out dock that is on people’s desks. The reason this doesn’t exist yet, is because no-one’s sure how to interact with the touch-screen when it’s standing up like a display — it’s an ergonomic conundrum.

The bigger problem is simply that having a device with too many faces — touch-interface on the one side, desktop power-horse on the other — creates a confusing paradigm for both users and developers. Would there be software that only works on the tablet-side, or would a software have to be “cross-platform?” It appears to me that this problem is being addressed in Apple’s new operating system Lion, that integrates features from OS X and iOS, but we’ll see if and how it works in practice. In any case, it will be designed to legacy-support the last few generations of Mac-computers, which all use a traditional mouse and keyboard interface. Future versions may be a fabled iMac that is also whole-or-part touch-screen, we’ll see.

Mac OS LionTouchscreen iMac

The difference between phone and tablet is clear: minimal screen-size and processing power (somewhat changing) and maximum portability. Tablets are also portable, but more armchair or go-to-a-café portable than wait-in-line-in-the-supermarkt portable. Not having used a tablet everyday yet (but it’s happening soon), I don’t quite know how this translates to applications. I do expect to use a tablet as a magazine and book reader, and would love to use it as a boardgame replacement with other people(!), both of which are natural to either the armchair or café context. The phone interface naturally lends itself to casual use, whether it’s a 1 minute game or a quick browse through the news or mail. While the iPhone’s retina-display is beautiful, beautiful for reading eBooks, it’s still a nicer experience on a bigger screen or a dedicated eBook reader.

Desktop software is geared towards productivity, both in an office and entertainment context. If you see how some people play StarCraft, you’ll understand that there will never be such a game on a console (though we’ll see about tablets). Equally first-persons-shooters that are released in parallel on desktop and console perform much, much better on the desktop. There’s no beating the mouse and keyboard-combo, whether you’re typing away in Excel or fragging your enemies to little pieces.

Regarding the web, I was fascinated to read the Ars Technica article, entitled “The Strategy Tax.” It refers to the scenario where Microsoft’s Office business unit was competing with the Web devision and was blocking the latter’s ability to innovate. Or so they say, but looking at what’s being on the Web now in terms of Office-alternatives, this is a credible claim. The desktop’s limitation is the lack of sync (something that the Google laptop is trying to address), which affects distribution and security (in the back-up sense). While it supposedly doesn’t yet have the matching horsepower that a Mac Pro or Alienware desktop computer would have, you can clearly switch between both — use the web for streaming and the desktop for processing — very effectively.

To summarise, following are the paradigms that I understand these four platforms to fit into:

Standing in line portable: Phone. Mostly used for quick activities on the road, like checking your todo’s, playing a 1-10 minute game, or browsing some quick news or mails. I see the interface for this being as reaction-fast as possible. We just want to launch it and go.
Armchair portable: Tablet. Mostly used for activities that take at least half an hour and can be done on the couch, e.g. reading or playing a game (I’m purposefully leaving out complex activities like drawing or making music, both of which have both hobby and professional applications. Launch time is important, but there’s more room for multi-tasking and displaying rich information.
Workhorse: PC. The powerful combination of mouse and keyboard, together with other factors contribute to its use for activities that require a lot of productivity. We care more about ability and features here than speed (though no one stops caring about speed).
Connected: Web. We favour the web because it keeps us in connection with stuff that is relevant to the task. That affects things like storage, security (both positively in the sense of backups and negatively in the sense of encryption), and more. Since the interface is used in the context of either a phone, a tablet, or a desktop, we tend to require a fitting interface and functionality from web-apps.

But why do I ask all these questions? In the end it’s a distraction, because I’m the type of person that asks a million questions to be sure before engaging a trajectory. In my case, I use so many Touch-interface apps and hate PCs so much, that I want to try developing (small) apps for that platform as well. But I’m also wondering about the future of these platforms and if developing for them is a safe investment. If you ask me, they are, but the exact shape isn’t clear yet. And it’s up to software developers, more so than hardware-developers, to define how tablet-platforms will be used, by toddlers, the elderly, and my generation—the 25-45 age-group.

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