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The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing

9 replies on 1 page. Most recent reply: Mar 3, 2009 1:07 PM by Joao Pedrosa

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Nancy Nicolaisen

Posts: 24
Nickname: nancyn
Registered: Oct, 2007

The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Feb 24, 2009 8:05 PM
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Summary
LongPause. Deep breath. Story resumes. Well, yes, it’s been a busy few months in the small, mobile devices field, what with being up to the eyebrows in day-in, day-out, day-job kinds of things.
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Untitled Document LongPause.  Deep breath. Story resumes.  Well, yes, it’s been a busy few months in the small, mobile devices field, what with being up to the eyebrows in day-in, day-out, day-job kinds of things.  All work, work, work, with smart people and smart little devices from eight time zones and four continents ( if you count the sub continents, which I don’t have any idea why you wouldn’t, since a couple of billion people live there).  And this brings me to my point (I do have one…). I’ve been hit—flattened, if you will-- by a great big epiphany, and it is this:  Almost everyone in this business (including me) has been asking the wrong questions up to now.  We’ve been making foot prints in the sand, plodding through the trackless wasteland that is mobile device content development (only a slight exaggeration) trying to find elegant routes to cross-platform code portability, app reliability and security validation, distribution channel access, and profitable mobile content publishing business models.  It is fair to say there is no freeway to these destinations.  In fact, the pretty good trails don’t even stay in place for long, given shifting economic winds, every variety of technical fragmentation, and the unsettled nature of mobile device ecology.  So. What we’ve all been pursuing, without a huge amount of success, is a solid set of “Hows”.  And the reason “How” is so incredibly elusive in this space? We’ve skipped a really important prerequisite: Understanding “Why”.


And here’s the diagnostic symptom of this syndrome: Virtually without current exception, everyone sitting on a cash war chest in the mobile content development space is trying to figure out how to shoehorn an Internet browser experience onto small mobile devices (both smartphones and the mobile internet devices variously called MIDs, UMPCs or SCCs). Similar to, say... a subprime mortgage crisis, this catastrophe began with eminently pragmatic, bottom-line motivations. Using existing browser based content to make a quick port and a quick profit is tempting.  After all, it’s apparently a wide open door to an emergent global market which, according to even the gloomiest forecasts, will run to 100s of millions of units within the next 36 months. And it’s pretty important to get there.  Last year smartphones outsold PCs by 4 to 1, so the writing is not just on the wall, it’s on the wall in about seventeen languages. But like so much in life, running at a thing and grabbing with both hands isn’t usually the best way to get it.

 
At the risk of stripping the metaphorical gears here, there are patterns about archetypes and outcomes that could easily apply:

  • Ugly stepsister couldn’t fit into glass slipper.
  • Ignoring beautiful but unconventional Cinderella only postpones truly appropriate match.

Or, extrapolating to Browser-on-Phone:

  • It doesn’t fit because it is too big;
  • It never will fit no matter how much we shove;
  • And we’re darn lucky it doesn’t fit, because this is about as dysfunctional a relationship as you’ll get without calling in Nora Ephron to write the script.


We won’t get a connected mobile culture simply by leveraging existing laptop or notebook targeting code—not as whole apps, or even as whole concepts.


Start By Asking the Right Questions
As every curious person knows, there are two fundamental elements to productive experimentation: First, ask the right questions; And second, recognize the answer when you find it, even if it turns up under the bed or behind the door.  What does this mean? Here’s an instructive technology tale, and a true one:


One day in 1970, Spencer Silver was toiling away in the bowels of 3M Labs attempting to create a super-strong adhesive.  A really, really, super strong adhesive--one that would be powerful enough to, say, glue the rings of Saturn together--when he discovered…a super weak adhesive.  Unfortunately, it barely qualified as an adhesive at all.  It made things stick to one another, but they easily peeled apart.  In fact, it almost entirely lacked that wonderful quality everyone so appreciates in an adhesive: adhesion.  Oh, well.  That’s the beauty of being a salaried research chemist.  You get to fail a lot of times, and no one minds much.  Fast forward four years. While singing in his church choir, Arthur Fry, one of Silver’s 3M colleagues, was frequently embarrassed by the fact that the bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal, causing him to come in late on nearly every tune, as he frantically searched for the correct page.  In a moment of sheer exasperation (his and the choir director’s) Fry remembered Silver’s lousy adhesive, and thought it would be just the thing to keep those pesky bookmarks planted where he wanted them.  Three things came of this insight: 1) Fry managed to sing the right hymns and come in with the rest of the basses.  2) The choir director presumably lived a longer and happier life than would otherwise have been the case.  3) 3M sold $100 million dollars worth of Post It Notes, which remain the fifth largest selling office supply item in the world.


Now for the analogy that links smartphones and MIDs and UMPCs to Post It Notes.  Undiscerning translations of laptop and desktop user interaction patterns to these platforms is probably the biggest opportunity to miss an opportunity out there today. It’s the wrong match of problem and solution and has the potential to be an appalling waste of time.  So let’s get to the right questions, and without further delay. For starters what does mobile mean, anyway? If “mobile” means “talk or text from where ever”, then why isn’t a low end phone good enough and what doesn’t it do? But if “mobile” means ultra-portable access to big computing iron and heavy lifting client/server functionality, why isn’t a notebook good enough, and what doesn’t it do? Forget what people can do with small devices.  What are they doing? And where, how often? It’s fair to say that no one has accurately or completely answered these questions, either in the technical sense or in the matter of articulating a technology consumer worldview. This is largely why we have such extraordinary, and extraordinarily durable, fragmentation in this space. 

The Five Senses Approximation and Flatness


Clearly, the first step on the path to intelligent innovation in the mobile space is to acknowledge that we need to start innovating, which is pretty much the polar opposite of dragging every desktop idea we’ve had since 1979 along and trying to squeeze the mindgrapes out of it until it fits on a two inch screen. Which is not to say there has been no success, just that we haven’t coherently integrated it into something  that allows users –lots of them, in lots of places—to react to small devices like this: “Uh huh.  That makes perfect sense.  That’s just how I want to do what I need done.” And, needless to say, I am pondering this, a lot. SO. Here’s the accumulated body of experimental data from what I’ve seen, done and worked on in the last eight months:

  • Mobile devices can be the “five senses”, vastly enriching life for people by enabling a much more emotive, immediate, nuanced human/device partnership than anything we’ve had to work with before.  With their cameras, they can “see”, with touch screens, they can “feel”,  with their microphones they can “hear”, with their speakers they can “talk”, with their GPS function they can orient themselves in the world and with their accelerometers they can orient themselves in space. Which is pretty close to having a really good dog, but without the lawn problems.
  • Blink time: For most people, 2 to 6 seconds.  So that’s how long you have to offer an actionable result on a mobile device.  Because of the small size of device screens, the human mind is wired to believe it should be able to see, analyze and store the information displayed there in one blink cycle.  And there you have the cognitive explanation for why it is far more annoying to get a slow response from a small device than when a big screen is exactly as sluggish.  Which makes it mandatory for small device UI hierarchies to be very, very flat.  Surprise!  The Luddites were right!! Sort of. As it turns out, cognitively, “flatness” is wired into the human brain right next door to “Uh-huh”.  Evolution really liked it when we knew where we were, and how to get to the next stop without running into a lot of higher order participants in the food chain. 

So if you think at all about this stuff—and I do, all of the time-- here are a couple of places I’ve seen recently where something is going really, really right:

Urbanspoon for iPhone
Immersion Corp,
Interaction Design Institute Ivrea


James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Feb 24, 2009 11:16 PM
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Nobody cares about ideas about ideas. Get an idea, then we'll care.

John Cowan

Posts: 36
Nickname: johnwcowan
Registered: Jul, 2006

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Feb 25, 2009 2:40 AM
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This is just the reinvention of WAP, which was a flop (except in Japan) precisely because it only gave you access to a walled garden controlled by the provider instead of the real Web.

Vincent O'Sullivan

Posts: 724
Nickname: vincent
Registered: Nov, 2002

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Feb 25, 2009 4:40 AM
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> The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing

> We’ve been making foot prints in the sand, plodding through the trackless wasteland...

Do you talk like this in real life? I doubt it. You really, really need to edit ruthlessly.

Cut out the unnessesary, repetitive, irrelevant metaphors and breathless hyperbole. There may be content in there somewhere but I, for one, have neither time nor inclination to plough through the frippery to find it.

Cameron Purdy

Posts: 186
Nickname: cpurdy
Registered: Dec, 2004

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Feb 27, 2009 2:51 PM
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OK, the post was a bit meandering .. but I did come to a somewhat similar conclusion a few weeks ago that most of the iPhone apps that I was using were each simply a replacement for a specific web site .. e.g. instead of going to Twitter.com, I use twitterfon, and instead of going to facebook.com, I use the iPhone Facebook app, etc. When you ask yourself "why is that?" the answer seems to be "because the browser experience is crap on a phone", right?

Peace,

Cameron.

Nancy Nicolaisen

Posts: 24
Nickname: nancyn
Registered: Oct, 2007

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Feb 27, 2009 4:47 PM
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Well, yes, I do talk like that every day, and if you want confirmation, ask Bruce Eckel. And everybody cares about “ideas about ideas”. Even you, at least if you like things like light bulbs and penicillin.


I’ll be the first to stipulate that day-to-day, pragmatic things run best when they are treated as un-emotionally and un-creatively as possible. That sort of stuff is valuable, and an honorable aim if it’s something you like to pursue. 


Pretty obviously, though, my interests are mostly creative and inventive, which involves both imagination and play. SO. Here’s another analogy, about problem solving that arises from play. ( And yes, I really am trying to annoy you now…) Perhaps when you were children, you guys liked to play with Lego. Clean lines, quantized blocks approximate a solution, no ambiguities. Also no chance of ever creating something that, at least up close, will include any curved lines. By contrast, I’m not so interested in incremental deviations from what we already have. I’d rather explore, and that is never a straight line, a-to-b trip. 

Vincent O'Sullivan

Posts: 724
Nickname: vincent
Registered: Nov, 2002

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Feb 28, 2009 6:16 AM
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> Well, yes, I do talk like that every day

Eeek! :)

> Pretty obviously, though, my interests are mostly creative
> and inventive

That's fine, I would dispute neither that nor your creative abilities.

The issue I had was with your communication skills based on this article. It's nice to know that the Earth appears flat and sandy feet and stuff but that wasn't what he article was about. Or was it? Basically, it failed to communicate with me. I failed to receive the message. Perhaps I'm unreceptive or perhaps the message was too garbled.

Henry Thoreau:
"Simplyfy! Simplyfy!"

Albert Einstein:
"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Estee Lauder:
"Because I'm stupid."

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Feb 28, 2009 7:18 PM
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> And everybody cares about
> “ideas about ideas”. Even you, at least if you like things
> like light bulbs and penicillin.

My response was unacceptably curt. I was feeling a bit "under the weather" that late on Fat Tuesday, if you get my drift. Not an excuse but just an explanation.

But I do have to stick with the sentiment. Nobody remembers the people who said "wouldn't it be great if there was a pill that cured infection?" or "one day someone will come up with a drug that cures infection" or "infection is bad, someone should come up with a cure for it." They remember the person who discovered penicillin.

Kondwani Mkandawire

Posts: 530
Nickname: spike
Registered: Aug, 2004

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Mar 2, 2009 3:24 AM
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Have to agree with most of the posters - I got lost in the wastelands. Probably a great post but between writing work related apps and the metaphors, I gave up 30 seconds into the read.

If you do speak like that and work with people from different parts of the globe, then you must have immense difficulties in communicating with them. You mentioned 4 continents so I assume most of your colleagues are not of an English-speaking background?

Joao Pedrosa

Posts: 114
Nickname: dewd
Registered: Dec, 2005

Re: The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing Posted: Mar 3, 2009 1:07 PM
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I actually skipped some of the text while reading it, but I did enjoy the parts that I did read.

After a month of vacation, spent visiting places like Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo beaches and mountains, it's good to be back to things IT so I have been trying to update my mail and news reader feeds and some Artima contents such as this one have kind of made my day, by both talking about things I was reading elsewhere and by being an extraneous take at presenting an idea. IT folks have been getting used to reading summaries and it's good to kill some time reading some artfully written text such as this one.

Thanks!

As for the mobiles, PCs, browsers... they are all so puzzling as a set.

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