Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The best technology is invisible

I was invited to attend the Frontiers of Interaction conference in Florence today. It is a fantastic event, sort of the TED of Italy, with speakers coming from all over the world. If you close your eyes, you would think you are in Silicon Valley, then you eat at the coffee break and you realize you are in Italy ;-) The best of both worlds.

Anyway, the talk I enjoyed the most was one by Amber Case, titled Cyborg Anthropology and the Evaporation of the Interface. I was pretty much in agreement with everything Amber said, which is a rare case for me...

One slide hit me so much that I felt I had to take a picture.

The best technology is invisible.

I could not have said that better.

The beauty of this statement is that it comes from a UX designer. The goal of people in this field is to build the best user interfaces. What is the best UI? The one that does not exist. It is there, it does things for you, but you do not see it. It is like magic. The UX designer destroys the UI. It makes it disappear.

It has always been my mantra (yep, I have a usability background too, apparently we like to destroy our jobs as well ;-) and I tried to apply it to Funambol every step of the way. Synchronization should just work. You take a video and it magically appears on all your devices, without you touching a button. No need to click on sync. Ever. We pushed it so far that at a certain point we realized we screwed our chances to add an advertising layer (well, you need real estate for it, if the UI does not exist, it is hard to put a banner anywhere...).

Still, I believe it is the best way to build a user interface. Make it magical. User will like it because they will not see it. The robots out there are working for us, life gets easier, I do not have to upload anything, I save five minutes of my life every day to do what I really like instead.

The best technology is invisible. It just works. The machines are working for us, not the opposite. It is how the future should be.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The iPad is one step closer to be a personal device

What seems a very long time ago (a year in mobile is 10 years in desktop life ;-) I wrote a post about the iPad as a personal device vs. a family device.

You know, as soon as you took it home, it was stolen by your spouse or kids. It became a family device, not a personal device.

I fight daily with my daughter over it, even more than over the TV remote (she does not like the Giants as much as I do, apparently).

Still, I was convinced Apple planned for it to be a personal device, eventually expecting everyone in the family to have its own. The lack of multi-account support was a strong hint...

I concluded:
Do I really think the iPad is a family device? Nope.

Do I believe Apple will add multi-account support to it? Nope.

The iPad is and will remain a personal device, as your iPod or your iPhone. I already know people that bought two, three or four. One for each member of the family.

Everyone in the family will get an iPad, eventually. Apple is more than happy to have you not fight on the remote. So nice of them.
After the WWDC keynote, I am even more convinced about it.

What they are doing is tying everything to one Apple ID. They are piling stuff on it. First it was just apps, now it is calendar, contacts, pictures and your entire life. It is all about personalization (for one person, there is nothing to split it). They are even adding sharing to calendar, something you would not need for a shared device (you could just pass it around...).

It is not just to sell more iPads. It is also to sell you more apps, music, books and movies. If they manage to tie the Apple ID to only one individual in the family, you will not be able to share apps across devices. You will be forced to buy them separately.

Obviously, for now it fits only the adults in the family, because each Apple ID comes with a separate credit card. Unfortunately, I see a lot of fights with my daughter in my future. Unless, of course, I decide to buy her an iPad and make Steve Jobs even richer. Thankfully, my wife will prevent me from doing it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

SMS are going away, so are the revenues

The amount of news out of the WWDC keynote is staggering. Apple has announced three different products, all interconnected, threatening dozens of startups and lifting some (glad to be in the second category ;-)

One thing that did not get much visibility, as one of the 10 features of iOS5: iMessage. It is a built-in instant messaging product, one that will work on all iOS devices (and, I am assuming, Mac and PC down the road).

What is it? Simply: texting. It is the new SMS. It replaces SMS. And it does it transparently, because you receive a message that looks like an SMS and you reply with a message that looks like an SMS. The UI on the iPhone is exactly the same (and it works on iPads too, also the wi-fi only ones).

The difference? It uses your data plan. Very few bytes of it. It is practically free for the end user.

Nothing new: one of the most used feature of BlackBerry is BBM or BlackBerry Messaging. It is what is allowing RIM to stay afloat in emerging markets.

I know this announcement seems small. It is just an instant message product, right? However, it is huge, not only for RIM (sorry for them) but mostly for the mobile operators. Because it comes from the big gorilla.

SMS is by far the most lucrative product ever conceived by a mobile operator (it was an accident, BTW ;-) The amount of money they make with texting is insane, considering the network is practically not used at all.

It is all going away. It will happen slowly, of course. And there is an issue with interoperability between devices because it will work only within the Apple silo. But it is a sign. The direction is clear. SMS are going away, and so are the revenues attached to it.

Years ago I mentioned to a mobile operator that SMS were going away, eventually, and that they would have to move up the food chain (I went all the way saying that voice is a data type and that it will go as well, just wait...). He told me it was not going to happen. The carriers had too much control to let this slip away from them. "They can take everything, but not the cash cow". My answer was: "I spoke a few years back to a fax manufacturer who said the same thing about email"...

Guess what? The cash cow is going. If you are a carrier, you better move up the chain fast, because it is not going to last.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The sweet feeling of validation

Feel free to skip this post. I am not writing it for you, I am writing it for myself. I just want to keep a log of what happened today, because I have been waiting for years for this moment...

Today Steve Jobs unveiled iCloud. I wrote on this blog many times before it was going to happen one day, and it did. What surprised me is the words he chose to explain why cloud and synchronization are so key to the future of computing. Why? Because it sounds like me talking ;-) How cool is that?

This is what he said:
I get to talk about iCloud. We've been working on this for some time. About 10 years ago, we had one of our most important insights. We thought the PC would be the hub for your digital life. Where you put your photos, your video, your music.

You were going to acquire it, and sync it to the Mac, and everything would work fine. And it did... but it's broken down in the last few years.

Why? Because all your devices have photos, have video, have music. If I buy something on my phone, I have to sync it to get a song I bought. Then I have to sync that to other devices, and if I have photos, it's the same thing... and keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy!

We've got a solution for this problem. We're going to demote the PC and the mac to just be a device. We're going to move your hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.
So now, if I get something on my iPhone, it's sent to the cloud immediately, and they're pushed down to my devices automatically. And now everything is in sync without having to think about it. I don't have to be near my Mac or PC.
He even had a slide with the motto our Product Manager has used to focus our team: "It just works".

Here you have it. If the greatest visionary on earth tells the word that the future is what we started building ten years ago, then it means we were doing something right. Seeing Apple catching up to the concept feels great. Validation is sweet.

What about Funambol? This is just a great lift-off for us. iCloud is an Apple-centric platform. If you own an Android device (just one, and keep in mind they are getting everywhere, in your TV, car and so on), or a BlackBerry, or a Windows phone... you are screwed with iCloud. This is the Apple silo. Everything will work as long as you stay within the silo. However, in any family or company I know, there is a mix of everything. And that is where the big money is.

It is great that Apple is showing it to everyone, because when they do, everyone believes it. When I say it, nobody gives a damn :-)) Now life is going to be so much easier!

Thanks Steve, you made my day, and probably ten years of my life.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

It is time to kill the file system

I am sure you have watched the video preview of Windows 8. If you haven't, shame on you, it will turn out to be a crucial moment in the history of computing... Ok, ok, I'll add it below here. Watch it and then come back.

Now, tell me what you felt and what you remember if you close your eyes.

Exactly, it is all smooth and nice and wow until you get around minute 3:00. He opens Excel, Windows creeps in from below and you think "oh, s**t, that's ugly, I want to go back to the other interface!".

I think that reaction is telling. We want good UIs, we want the new touch interface, we are tired of windows, we like tiles and things that magically update themselves. However, Microsoft needs to be backward compatible and - as Michael points out - they were successful once with launching Windows 3.1 while having the ugly DOS window in the background. Maybe they can do it again.


The problem is that we have moved on. Mentally. We, as users of mobile devices and tablets. We like what we have now, we do not want to go back. The paradigm has shifted, a new era has begun, mobile is becoming desktop. The desktop is tired, it needs to move, to become mobile.

One thing in particular kills me in that video. He says: "Because it is a PC, it has a file system". I think it tells everything. It is a PC, it has a file system, it must have a file system, right? Or it would not be a PC!

I do not think so.

The file system is dead.

Think about it. It is the biggest change introduced by Apple with iOS. There is no file system. Documents live within applications. Pictures live within the picture app. Videos within the video app. Books within iBooks. You can move stuff around (from Mail to iBooks) but there is no concept of file system.

I know you know what a file system is. But ask your parents. Did they ever understood the concept. Fully? Do they ever created folders within folders? Do they get the tree? No. It is complicated. It is not intuitive.

Actually, it is not necessary at all. It is a complication of the metaphor. One we can live without.

Of course you'll have a file system underneath. I am not advocating killing the OS file system. We geeks will use it to move stuff around, but the end users do not need it.

Eventually, they will not need the old Windows UI either.