1. Surface the Third

    I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of Microsoft’s Surface. Sure, it seems a bit too divided, a bit too “I can just have everything, can’t I?” But despite its obvious conceptual shortcomings, a device that is all things to all people has an appeal.

    On more than one occasion I’ve talked about using the iPad for work, writing in particular. I see it as the future of computing and if Apple plays their cards right, the primary non-smartphone computing platform.

    After the introduction of the surface Pro 3, discussions arose around the announcement and a piece by Ben Thompson in which he calls for the end of the Surface line.

    Even in my clearly Apple-biased view, this makes little sense from a product and marketing standpoint even while it makes a great deal of sense on a profit to loss basis.

    Microsoft fell behind when the internet first showed signs of growing into what it has now become, and it bought and crushed its way back into the space. It fell behind again when Vista was a flop, but most spectacularly with the smartphone. They were caught flat-footed (as was everyone) but weren’t able to force their way back to power. And though Windows Phone isn’t dead, it sure doesn’t look all that promising.

    With the Surface, Microsoft has the potential to be ahead of the curve. They’re doing taking a different tact with tablets, zigging when everyone else is doing a variation on Apple’s zag.

    If there is a future in which the primary work device is a tablet with a desktop operating system, then the Surface could give Microsoft the edge they’ve long needed. They’re thinking differently (yeah, I know) though we’ll have to wait and see whether it’s different good or different not so good.


  2. We’ve had the iOS 7 design for a year now. It was about time someone decided that it needs to go. And because I can’t resist such debates, I’ll engage.

    Jon Mitchell on his site, Everything is ablaze! has had enough of icon grids, be they shiny and reflective or flat and simplified. But more so than the look of the icons, he’s had it with what they do.


    The problem is that these icons do not neatly correspond with the actions I want to take from my phone, and since they’re so indistinct, I end up staring, studying my home screen when I should be doing something and then putting my phone away. That’s frustrating.

    I agree that this situation is frustrating, but what Mitchell assumes here, and throughout his article is that users want an action-based interface. The brilliance of the iPhone interface was—and is—in the simple genius of “Tap to open an app, home button to close.” If a user taps Mail, they get email. If they tap Calculator, they get calculator, Weather for weather, Calendar for calendar, and so on.

    In a truly action-based interface, the Text action could possibly take me to any of these as well as Notes, Reminders, and countless others. What used to take me one tap in a familiar app now takes at least two taps, one of which includes a leap of faith that the action I’ve chosen corresponds to the secondary actions that might follow. So instead of finding the app that does my task I’m stuck trying to choose the type of content I want to create and what to do with it before I’m even in the area of the interface that lets me make the choice.

    Let’s say I want to send an email. Instead of tapping Mail, I go to Text which could be used for anything text-related. Now, for me that isn’t a stretch, and it might even be nice if I want to send the text into or through various channels before it gets to the final destination of email. However, for someone less tech-savvy and geeky, this is a significantly worse situation. If I’m an ordinary user, I now in fact cannot find email or accomplish the task at all because Text does not necessarily connote email to me.

    Mitchell’s article uses Launch Center Pro as the closest example available on iOS today. Not to go fully into the argument uneducated, I downloaded Launch Center Pro and used it as he suggests.

    The first issue I encountered in working with Launch Center Pro is that it’s just plain complicated to convert the ideas of where you go to do something into what you want to do. Let’s say I want to search Twitter for a person whose handle I don’t know so I can follow them (virtually the only thing I ever want to search on Twitter). Step one is to make sure that my Twitter client is supported (and since I use Tweetbot, I’m lucky on that front). Now I need to assign an action that somehow does what I want. There’s one to search for a user, but then I need to add a prompt to the action so I can type in my query. If you’re able to figure all of that out, Launch Center Pro sends you out to Tweetbot which then gives an error that the user could not be found (I tested using a person who is in fact on Twitter, so there’s a problem somewhere). In addition, the app isn’t even in the right navigational area (according to my mental map) to search users, which in turn means that I can’t even search manually once I’m in the app.

    Not a good experience, especially when I would argue that the ordinary user would never have gone past the “What action corresponds to my place-based mental model?” question.

    Now, I know Mitchell has his reasons for such a post—not the least of which being that it’s fun to speculate and talk about design details—but I think it brings to light one of Apple biggest current challenges. Power users want a better way to work with iOS, whether work means tasks that are more commonly associated with the mouse and keyboard paradigm or simply just a way to do the things that iOS can already do in a faster and more efficient manner. On the other side are the folks who (though the likely don’t realize it) have gravitated toward iOS because it lacks these additional complexities, even if they were to be hidden.

    Take a look at the recent apps tray from iOS 6 and the similar interface from iOS 7. Both are meant to help out power-users of iOS by giving the user access to information about the apps they have been running or that might possibly still be doing some kind of multitasking in the background. Both are fairly well hidden from the average user, requiring either a double home button tap or a multitasking gesture. The effect of this feature has generally been one of increased negativity. Power-users find it too limiting (which will be true until they have full control of every detail that is available on a desktop system) while ordinary users find that it only adds stress.

    Think about it. How many stories (and real-life examples) do you know of in which a non tech-savvy person has made a ritual of opening the recent apps view and killing all of the apps within it? And then, on top of that, they usually describe it as a remedy for system slowdown or a way to keep their iPhone from filling up, meanwhile they can’t install the latest updates because every picture they’ve ever taken is on the device which only further strengthens their belief that quitting the apps will help them as their phone is constantly reporting that it is out of storage space.

    It’s a design nightmare. How is that person going to navigate an action-based system? The answer is that they’re not. Perhaps with some future version if iOS made for a Pro caliber device, we’ll see actions and quick menus ala Launch Center Pro. I just hope that in that future very app is able to support the actions because in my time as an action-based iOS user that was not the case. My favorite apps didn’t support actions, and if they did, they didn’t behave how I expected them to. And that’s the name of the “computers for the rest of us” game.

    When I interact with my device, does it intuitively do what I expect? If yes, we’re at least on the right track. If no, well, at least we nerds will have a new design feature to complain about.


  3. Recommended: Hearthstone

    I am a big proponent for high production value games on iOS. I’ve made no secret of this. I openly supported and backed the Republique Kickstarter and even interviewed the lead developer for the game on Critically Speaking. There are few topics that I’ve argued as fervently for and few (in the realm of tech) that I’d like more to see become reality.

    Now, there a plenty of examples if you want great iOS games, but most of them come from small teams with small budgets (though frequently with big ideas). Typical titles from the big budget companies tend to be cash grabs (Infinity Blade being the most prominent exception, and to a lesser degree XCOM: Enemy Unknown). Many are variations upon the themes of endless runner, city builder, or match three. There are a handful (probably a large hand) of spinoff games based on popular console titles, but when it comes to complete, self-contained gaming experiences, iOS is almost all indie.

    And don’t get me wrong. I’ve gushed about more than just Republique on this site—Sword and Sworcery and Bastion come to mind. However, it’s somehow refreshing to see a big, well-established gaming company with a history of quality and success stepping into the iOS space with a complete and polished product.

    That company is Blizzard and that product is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. One look at this game and you know that much has been left on the iOS gaming table in terms of sheer attention to detail. The key to a great iOS game is native interaction, and Hearthstone has it. Cards move with a fluidity that makes them feel lightweight, as though you’re a casino dealer in a Vegas movie. Flip a card here, slap a spell card down there, rifle through your unplayed cards, every move tracks directly with your fingers—just as all great iOS apps do—and so few traditional games on the platform do.

    In essence Hearthstone is a Magic: the Gathering-style collectible card game, only everything happens digitally. No actual dead tree and ink items to collect. The game, made for two players, pits the various classes from World of Warcraft against each other. Each turn, players gain an additional mana point with which they can play spell or creature cards. And that’ s the gist: build a deck, execute your strategy, react to the other player’s deck, and try to bring their health to zero. This is not special. It’s standard for just about any game of this type. The brilliance of Hearthstone is in its execution.

    My first memories of Blizzard games all the way back to Warcraft: Orcs and Humans are of the sound effects and music. Specifically, Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness had units with specific spoken dialogue when selected, commanded to move, attack, or stay, and of course when clicked too much. Both humans and orcs had differing sounds, and to a junior-high boy of twelve or so, they were hilarious. In addition, the musical score set the scene, building a mental visual for Azeroth when the technology for visuals was still in its early stages.

    Hearthstone recalls and expands upon those memories. During loading sequences, the old soundtracks make an appearance, creature cards speak the old lines (though re-recorded for higher quality audio and consistency), and they all have that quirky and often amusingly immature Blizzard humor. I no longer laugh out loud, but I do smile and shake my head, thinking of bouts of hysterical laughter out of the past.

    But it’s not all nostalgia. Hearthstone’s visuals impress across the board, from opening new packs of cards, to flipping those cards over, to the initial opening of the Hearthstone box that begins the game. The frame rate is smooth, not as one expects from a usual iOS game, but with the smoothness we expect from iOS apps in general (think, “Scrolls like butter,” and you’ve got it). Creature icons fracture and crumble, each with a satisfying crunch or explosion that only further increases the physicality of player actions. Spell effects are gorgeous, yet not overreaching. No spell takes up a full screen nor do they waste time with unnecessary flourishes.

    Above all, Hearthstone is a game that constantly thinks about the user, thanks in part to extensive player testing, but also because of the experience Blizzard brings to the table after years of producing polished games to one of the most demanding audiences in the industry.

    Assuming you have an iPad, there’s really no excuse to not download this game. It’s free on the App Store and will not pester you with in-app purchase options (though you can buy card packs if you feel so inclined). If nothing else, load it up and see what iOS gaming can look like when a big traditional games company focuses on players more than quick-hit profits.


  4. minimalmac:

    Nothing crazy about it though, the iPad and iPhone, seem to me to be the perfect writing machines. They are regularly always with you so they allow you to start writing almost anytime and anywhere. When one can let go of the fear and let built in tools like auto-correct help, you might be surprised how fast one can become on the built in keyboard. But, as explained, part of the benefit is that it also can slow one down just enough to be more intentional with the words they choose and careful about the accuracy of the typing. I actually find I make less typos and am more quick to catch those I do when doing so in this way. In short, the iPad and iPhone help me write more often, in more situations, and write better.

    I wish I could communicate this convincingly in my day job. The iPad often requires a reconsideration of one’s approach to a task, not a limitation to whether that task is possible. And as time goes on, more and more tools appear to do incredible things with computing devices that are light, friendly, and infinitely more accessible than their forebears.


  5. Chris Bowler:

    But as a reader, I only use my phone to read when I’m in between places. And that reading is very shallow, a cursory look at items that would be consumed in more depth at some later time. So I had hoped that there would be an iPad version as well.

    I feel the same way. Though I like Unread on iPhone, I think I’d love it on the iPad.