Friday, April 6, 2012

We the pioneers of the touchscreen age: How will our time be remember?

We live in a special time, as our time will be the time remembered as the era when touchscreens became the norm. Touchscreen enabled devices became a commercial success fundamentally changing how we used our devices and what we did on them. The touchscreen is being introduced alongside a host of new technologies, promising an excitement filled future in personal electronis. How exactly will we remember these 'early times' however? Here are my tongue-in-cheek thoughts on the subject.

UPDATE: Here's a link by AAWP titled "Has Apple put mobile innovation back 10 years?" Link -- enjoy!

Operating systems that go boing, blonk, blink in the night

With added intelligence to our devices, they started feeding us a lot of information. Who's online, how's the battery status, what's the weather etc., these were all things we suddenly wanted to know. Our devices began to feed this information to us in a way we humans sometimes force feed our unwilling children. There isn't a single operating system on a mobile device today that doesn't use an intricate notification system consisting of sounds and lights to let us know exactly what is going on. Simply adjusting the volume on some devices produces a monotone sonata of sounds to let you know that 'Hey, you've just adjusted the volume. Good for you, buddy'. Textual pop-ups or 'Toasts' write it out for anyone still unsure of what is going on. After the event, notifications of the event linger all around "status bars" and "notification centres" just in case you missed it.

What's the time, how's the weather, what's the time?

Relating to the information overload we now expected from our devices, it became fashionable to have you reminded of the weather and time 100% of the time you use your device. Desktops and Home screens filled with clock and weather widgets, and user interfaces revolved around elaborate symbolic systems to constantly keep you updated on exactly how the weather and time is. We took being informed about the time and weather to such an extent, that some manufacturers' devices shipped with up to 10 different clocks to place on home screens. In addition to this, we filled our appstores with hundreds more such applications. This keen fascination on the time and weather resulted in a pathological popping down of heads to check our phones, at least twice because we were distracted by the weather widget and forgot to actually see the time. We have never been so informed about what time it is or what we should expect when we step out in to the real world, that you'd think tardiness and dressing too lightly for cold days were mankinds problems solved for good. I think its safe to say, that statistics of every boss everywhere indicate otherwise.

Smaller is better and biggest is best

With the touchscreen becoming the new norm, people began to receive larger devices. Increased screen real estate meant watching video and browsing the web never felt so good. Big bright screens became the ideal, and it wasn't until the reached the 4" mark that got the feeling that we'd had enough. Of course by the time we got here, enter the iPad and tablet computers.

The big screens challenged engineers to come up with ever slimmer devices, as devices were expected to grow in terms of display size, but nobody wanted a chubby buddy in their pocket. Few problems were introduced here, though as huge screens were getting bent in trouser pockets and once a touchscreen broke, the lifeline of the device had practically ended. Warranty policies of manufacturers didn't choose to cover touchpanels shattered after falling from speeding bikes onto the pavement or phones misplaced in blenders. Coincidentally, the warranty policy of the most popular mobile devices decreased from the standard of two years into one year.

The neverending dressup game

As we began to sport this fragile and expensive gear in our pockets, we tried to calm our nerves about the worst-case-scenarios running through our minds. Our outlet was the buying of accessories in attempts to protect our device from its inevitable fate. We bought it silicone covers, hard plastic covers, see-through plastic film to place over the touch panel and placed our device inside a protective bag of some sort. Just in case we paid attention to placing the device in our pocket with the display against our thigh! Never before had manufacturers seen customers invest this much money in products that could be produced from the waste material every manufacturer is going to have anyway. People were willing to pay roughly 10 times the material's worth to buy a product to protect a device with an already remarkable profit margin.

"Third party" manufacturers weren't the only ones to latch on to this trend however, as a notable manufacturers of mobile devices began offering different coloured battery covers with their devices. Smartphone users were partying with changeable covers like it was 1998 again, with the Nokia 5110 and its 'Xpress On Covers'. How advanced our needs had become!

One handed two handers / silence of the lambs

Touch-only devices introduced some limitations in use also, namely hindering getting anything productive done on the device at all. Virtual keyboards were slower and more cumbersome to type on, so many text messages were simply left unsent, I imagine. Or then reduced to platonic confirmations such as "OK", "YES" or "GTFO". Internet browsing was a big part of the smartphone experience, but people who were used to being actively involved in social media were now forced to the spectator seat. No telling in detail what's going on, a simple "Go dolphnns!1!!q" with a check-in to Facebook would have to suffice.

A somewhat ironic debate spurred around the touch user interfaces relating on these devices as well. Some felt that the only good UI is one that you can use one-handed. Some products were put down for requiring two-handed use (such as any device with a physical QWERTY keyboard), but in reality all typing on most touch-screen devices had to be done using two hands by holding the device sideways or in "landscape" position. As no virtual keyboard ever could fully replace a physical one, for a time Westeners fell into a forced silence as suddenly replying to messages was more cumbersome than waiting to get to a place where they could just call back later.

Efforts to alleviate difficulties caused by virtual keyboards did produce some entertaining technologies and subsequently websites, being in the forefront in entertainment value.

It's not what you've got, It's what you might get

As smartphone software became more advanced, and competition to get your smartphone device out on the market became tougher, update total overhaul cycles for mobile operating systems were introduced. Manufacturers released half-baked operating systems with limited functionality and were praised for customer loyalty for including features we actually had already had in our phones pre-touch.

Waiting for the next software update became a game as well, as people planned their device purchases on abstract notions over possibilities of updates for their devices. Needless to say, if a manufacturer deemed one of its products as unupgradable, the outrage was incomprehensible - regardless of weather users were satisfied with their device at the moment or not. It became the right of the common man to demand features and functions to his device that were appearing in new models, sometimes even over two years after the purchase of the current one. The need to break restrictions set by the manufacturer created phenomena now commonly referred to as 'gaining root' or 'rooting' and 'jailbreaking'. Once these restrictions were circumvented, users could enjoy community provided enhancements and features to their device, often with the cost of voiding the warranty.

This created some real problems for device manufacturers, as suddenly their newest product lineup had lost its edge in terms of new features and functions, just months after release. Interestingly this produced two reactions: some made it deliberately even easier to circumvent their devices in hopes of hacker appreciation, some decided to tighten the restrictions and many decided to strive for a completely customisable experience known as an Open Source platform.

Ironically, the systems that included all features and functions ever invented for mobile phones lost their fame because of the way in which they handed these features to consumers. Users reported bad experiences with "ugly boxes" and "nonexistent graphical transition effects". The solution for this was to switch to an operating system equally as raw as a green mango.

One device to do it all, just without the tools

Once we were all under the impression that the entire software platform of our device was constantly developing from its already developed state, we started forgetting about our productive capability on our devices. All computers and even mobile phones we had used up until the touch-screen era had supported the running of many applications at once (for example MS Paint and the Calculator, or the music player and text messages), but in the early touch-era we let go of all that. This kind of application use is called multitasking, by the way. As if being hindered by the slowness of virtual keyboards wasn't enough, we didn't mind starting the writing of our e-mail from the beginning if a notification threw us into the alarm clock application, forcing the e-mail application to restart and forgetting all we had typed before. We no longer minded the fact that we'd been stopped from doing what we were doing, and simply decided to 'call back later'.

There was a time when we were used to functional applications or tools on our devices, that could help us in the daily tasks we face. Many smartphones were marketed as being a 'mobile office' with their range of functional manufacturer provided apps, although often displaying anything more complex than a mobile version of a website proved impossible. We however bought into this willingly, and even went about boasting about what our devices could do. Surely there was someone out there who had even worse productivity than us, right?

Upsides to the story

As some might've noticed, this piece has been deeply sarcastic and I hope it hasn't turned off any of you. I do admit, that there are upsides to larger screens and trends relating to them and I'm in no way trying to discredit that. Also, for example perhaps the first time in personal device history, it has been fashionable to be easy to use and manufacturers have figured out ways to actually make devices easy to use. To me this is unprecedented in the history of electronics.