Quality, functionality and openness

It is against an increasingly bitter backdrop of argument between Apple and Adobe (Flash! No Flash! HTML 5! Openness! Closedness! etc…) that I found myself a week ago with a damaged iPhone. An accidental dropping incident from Son1 added a seemingly minor dent just next to the power button, and hey presto – a device I can’t turn off manually.

The poor, bashed-about phone I dropped was a Gen 1 iPhone: almost a retro device by some accounts. Nonetheless, I’ve stuck with it, and life now without an internet-ready mobile is simply not an option for me. It was therefore a rather lucky twist of fate that found a generous friend offering me his brand new Android phone to use for a while.

So I find myself with the latest and greatest Android handset: an HTC Desire. A ten zigabit processor, a gwillion megapixel camera, a ten billion pixel screen, infinite memory. Something like that, anyway. It’s slick, beautiful, thin, light. It has a bright, hi-res screen, a wonderful camera. It is rammed to the hilt with functionality. I’m blown away by having real location capability (remember, my Gen 1 could only find me using cell stuff rather than GPS); I’ve experienced using Layar, Google Sky Maps, other LBS services – properly – for the first time. That openness, that speed, that power. Awesome.

The first night I got back with the Desire, I found myself sitting on the sofa, flicking my way through the Android store, checking Twidroid, browsing the news. And a weird thing happened, something I wasn’t expecting. Like an almost intangible movement in my peripheral vision, I realised that something wasn’t quite right. I was a bit on edge, trying a bit hard, having to think. Night One, I said to myself. Night One with a new and unfamiliar device. No wonder. It’ll be ok tomorrow.

The thing is: the uneasy thought didn’t get better the next day, or the next night, or the night after that.

After a week of using the latest and greatest Android phone, I find myself sitting down on the sofa in the evening and the thing is sitting unused on the top of the piano. Instead I’m – get this – back using the 1st generation iPhone. It’s SIM-less (useless as a phone, but still ok as a device on the WIFI), battered, slow as buggery, and I can’t turn it off, but hey – I’m back.

Now’s the point in time I should make something very clear: I’m not an Apple fanboy. I have a Macbook at home but I spend most of my working life on PC’s. In my past I’ve used both, enjoyed both, had different experiences of both. I’m also pretty conflicted about some of the recent moves by Apple. I personally think that the whole anti-Flash thing is a major mistake, in the same way that I think the anti-Flash zealots are making some pretty bold assumptions in saying that HTML5 can replace Flash at this point in time. Frankly, that’s bullshit. I also dislike the pro-app, anti-web thing that they appear to have going on. The web wins: it always will. Apple say they get this but do a bunch of stuff which implies otherwise.

I wanted to love Android. I wanted to embrace openness, turn my back on Apple’s rejection of free markets, join the crowd of developers shouting about this new paradigm.

I can’t.

I’ve tried very hard to articulate to myself why this is the case. It is – certainly – something about usability. To take one of many examples: on Android you apparently have one paradigm for copy and paste in one application, and another in another: in the browser you get a reasonable Apple-like magnifier; in Twidroid (for example), you don’t. This to me just simply isn’t acceptable. Copy and paste is ubiquitous, end of. Stuff like global Google Search is good – very good – but when every move is hampered by subtle but vital compromises in usability, the overall experience becomes stressful, not playful.

The Android store is also, frankly, embarrassing. I tried very hard to find any kind of game or app that came close to the beautiful stuff you see on even the worst of the Apple store. Nothing. The UI of many apps is just terrible, the graphics all a bit 1995. Crashes are frequent, and when they do happen they are peppered with developer-like comments about code and runtimes.

It’s hard – store aside – to fault the Android device from a functionality perspective, and I’ve tried very hard to find ways that I can articulate what exactly is wrong. It is something about playfulness, about the fun of the technology. There is also something about quality. Robert Pirsig says this:

“…the result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable…”

I don’t want to get all metaphysical about Apple products: enough people do this already, but the iPhone experience – in a week of living with Android – is much, much closer to the invisible technology that makes for a better and more natural user experience. That’s what has me reaching for an old, broken, semi-retired phone rather than the faster, slicker, by-all-accounts-better model.

Apple stuff comes with a compromise – and make no mistake, I’m as conflicted as the rest of the world about this: the restricted UI, the closed and editorially controlled store, the limits placed by Apple on the devices their OS will run on – these are not “good” things – but they appear, at least in this instance, to be necessary for quality. When Android is forking its way off into infinite loops of differentness, each with pluses and minuses, Apple stays the course – a slow, chugging, proprietary, known experience. It doesn’t feel right, and yet it absolutely does.

When I think about what this means, I worry. As technology people, we should all be concerned about the approaches that Facebook, Google and Apple are taking, and we all know that openness is – or should be – key. But – and I’ve written about this a bit before – usability and ubiquity are the definers for normal, non-geeky people, not openness or functionality. And we need to focus on this and think about what it means when usability comes into conflict with openness, as I believe it does with Android.

So that’s me. I tried. Circumstance mean I’ll be using Android for the next few weeks either way, and I may change my mind. I may find myself on the sofa using the Ferrari of phones rather than the Morris Minor. But somehow, I doubt it.

What’s so great about mobile?

I gave a presentation recently at UK Museums on the Web entitled “The Intertubes Everywhere”. It was a re-working of my Ignite Cardiff talk, with a gentle angle towards cultural heritage. Here are the slides:

[slideshare id=2742484&doc=theintertubeseverywhere-091218044628-phpapp02]

The one-liner for those that don’t have the time to go through the slides is something like this: I believe that although mobile has been held up as THE NEXT BIG THING for some time, we are reaching a kind of “perfect storm” of conditions where it is at last becoming a viable reality for many users and therefore something for institutions to think about, too.

This is as much to do with effective marketing and consciousness raising as it is to do with device or network capability: if you’ve tried buying a mobile phone in the last year or two, you will have been offered mobile internet; if you go to a mobile phone company website today, you’ll see smartphones, dongles and internet on the go on their homepage. It would be very hard to miss this kind of marketing push. Couple this with the radical improvement of mobile content, the beginnings of location-based services and the increasing speeds and capability of a “normal” mobile device, and it seems pretty clear that we’re on the cusp of something pretty big.

If you’re in any doubt, check out slides 25-35 of the presentation that Dan Zambonini and I did at DISH 2009, which have some interesting figures on changing mobile usage. With device replacements happening on average every 14 months, even the old-school phones that don’t support mobile internet won’t be here for much longer.

With this level of exposure, it’s obvious that museums and other cultural heritage institutions are going to be following along and getting excited about mobile, either building iPhone apps or creating mobile versions of their sites.

While it is excellent to see innovation in this field, I’m slightly underwhelmed by some of the mobile offerings starting to appear that seem to be more “because we can” rather than “because we should”, in particular the current trend (and I’m deliberately not giving any examples – you can go find them yourself!) for “mobile collections search”.

It seems to me that the single mantra which should surround any mobile web development project right from the start is something like “never forget: the mobile browsing experience is far, far inferior to the desktop browsing experience”.

Browsing a mobile website is generally not a fun time. You don’t relax when you’re browsing on a mobile; you don’t lose yourself in the content: you’re there in sit forward mode, and you want to do one of two things:

  1. find some information and get out as quickly as you can
  2. use the capability of the “mobile” bit of the experience to do something…well, “mobile”

The first point is a no-brainer, IMO. Consider when and how I might choose to browse a museum website on my mobile. The answer is not “in my living room at home” – if I’m there, I’ll go find my laptop and have a far easier and more pleasurable experience in sit back mode. The answer probably is (and don’t shout at me for being obvious..) but when I’m mobile. I’m out and about, wondering what to do at lunchtime, thinking about whether a museum is open or where I can get tickets or how to get there. I’m not on WIFI, and I want the information as quickly and as seamlessly as possible. I don’t want images, I don’t want interaction, I want information. And I want it right now. And – this is the painful bit – I really, really don’t want to browse the collections. Why would I want a second-rate experience of browsing content using a 2″ screen, some clumsy non-mouse interaction touchpoints and a slow connection? And – more to the point – why would I possibly want to stand in the street (being mobile…) and look at museum collections? I don’t*.

* Actually, sometimes I do, provided the mobile experience adds something. And this is where point 2 comes in:

If I can have an experience which augments my real experience rather than just providing a poor quality facsimile of an online experience – then you’re talking about truly putting mobile capability to good use.

So for example – if I’ve got a known location (and this can mean GPS but more likely in our museum context means “I’m standing in front of artefact X and my phone knows that because I’ve keyed in something to tell it this”), then now is the time for the museum to give me additional information about other similar exhibits, let me bookmark that artwork, or share it with my network.

mobile.nmsi.ac.uk - something I knocked out about 5 years ago and still live!

Some of the museum sites we’re starting to see are making use of this capability – check out BlkynMuse on your mobile (and note the immediate emphasis on “where are you on-gallery?”) as a good example; but there also seems to be an increasing number who are simply putting their museum collections online as they are in some kind of mobile format – either a mobile optimised site or (worse) an iPhone application, with none of the context-sensitivity that makes mobile a value-add proposition for end-users.

Much as I’m glad to see innovation in this space, I’d much rather see museums focussing on point 1 above by having a mobile-sniffing code on their homepage and redirecting to an optimised m.museumsite.com page with visiting information, than putting in a huge amount of effort into providing mobile-optimised collections search. At the very worst, museums should have the subdomain m.*** or mobile.*** and there have a script to strip out the images and so on. There are many ways to do this – here, for example is the Museum of London site stripped using a simple PHP script from Phonefier, or see these tips on how to create simple “mobilised” versions of your existing site with zero extra effort.

Once the simple and high-gain win is done, then it’d be great to see some location-specific and innovative approaches to “virtually collecting” or augmenting collections experiences. But the “browse our mobile collections site” without really thinking about the use-case is pretty much saying: “go here on your mobile and you can have an experience which is infinitely worse than the one on your desktop with absolutely no upside”. In other words, no thanks.

What do you think? Has your museum got a mobile site for visitors, or just for collections, or none at all? What mobile apps have you downloaded or accessed that provide museum collections (or other) information? How was it for you?

UPDATE (about 3 minutes after I posted this…): I just realised I utterly neglected to talk about gaming. Which, IMO, is where mobile (and in particular mobile collections) have a huge amount of potential. I think this’ll have to wait for a future post 🙂