postheadericon Tech Talk: Isn't it time for an in-your-face interface?


This week I began testing the new OSX Mountain Lion, which is Apple's next incarnation of cat that powers your Apple computer (Snow Leopard or Lion, most likely), and one glaring aspect popped out at me at the end of this grueling session: not much changed.

It's like the biggest software giants on the planet are producing innovations in interface design (the part of the programming that we see) about as fast as a snail can run. I don't get it. Companies like Apple and Microsoft have armies of programmers at their disposal, and they literally are forces, with chains of command and rigid protocols, most marching lock-step to commands communicated through Wall Street.

Instead of sweeping changes warranted by the sale of almost uncountable smartphones, tablets and computers, we get different colored icons or gestures on screens that we can't touch, but look like it would be cool if we could. Changes to both Apple's OSX and Microsoft's Windows 8 are miniscule if compared to the changes that "could be" done... And this small amount of change every few years is inexplicable, even for someone as myself, who spent over a decade building IBM screens that once faced millions.

I can't imagine what they are thinking now, all those youngsters in Redmond and Cupertino. Do they think that "we as users" like having so many passwords that we need software to manage them? Do they think that we actually enjoy searching through billions of web pages just to read the news in the morning? Do programmers imagine that we are satisfied with our sorting through millions of files just to find a baby picture of Uncle? 

No, they can't be that cruel...programmers can't be to blame. They must be like soldiers during war, the lowly Private First Classes, who want to end the insanity, but are powerless to do so. They are just fodder for the cannon – and ultimately expendable. At IBM, I felt sad for the lot of us. 

It has to be a group dynamic – the larger the group, the more professional, the more funded, the more potential – the less is actually produced as far as radically new approaches go. Corps are conservative by nature. For example, after three generations of software development, OS screens look like any other, and don't really invite us in, or allude to any chance of having a good time.

Coming from dorm rooms and out of back-room parties is where the masses really get something that they like to play with and use. Facebook and Zynga have figured out how to capture our attention and eyeballs, where they stay glued to screens for hours on end. This is something that not even cold hard cash will draw us away from - it is a virtual heroin. We need it more than a shower – this just in from a major US Poll. What is on our screens is terribly important to us, even if the Help click is totally useless, who cares - we want the juice, without squeezing very hard.

But for us old [BLEEPS], we've seen Apple do a Cityville 18 years ago when they rolled out eWorld, which cost USD 8.95 per month for a semi-social service that ran between June 1994 and March 1996. It looked like my city in Cityville (a deserted outpost) or my dead farm in Farmville. eWorld never did evolve 'cause along came AOL (You've Got Mail) and eWorld imploded into dust in a tech instant. So goes the software industry, one second you are MySpace, the next you are lost in the space-time continuum of commerce, ready to reappear via the butterfly effect, or so it seems. But Cityville is eWorld done better, decades later and for free.

What eWorld wanted to do back then (when the mobile phone was no smaller than a brick) was to create the illusion that your computer screen was something from real life, tied to your life, and ready to become your personal assistant, or friend, or TV, or whatever you wanted the little beige box to be. Then the Internet gave our screens even more personality, it gave us real people, live or in pictures and video (much of it illegal or distasteful) – we love it! But unfortunately, all our operating system's interfaces (like Windows XP) just  give us headaches and indecipherable error messages – complete with blue screens of death! We don't get what we want, which was a virtual world designed by ourselves, and that is easy and fun to use – with lots of different things to do.

Granted, what you look at today on computer screens is an improvement over what we had 20 years ago, but do we have the patience to wait for something really cool, like an Apple Cityville on Steroids, in essence, a virtual reality computer portal built by the user? Or is waiting 18 months for a blinking icon that tells us it's mom's birthday really blazing the way forward? I don't think so.

Large dysfunctional families can produce a lot of rotten children, and we have seen our share, tech-wise. MS Vista will remain one of the most retarded in software development, and was quickly replaced by something less disappointing – Windows 7 – working but looking pretty much the same as before. And as OSX Lion is about to become the next Vista, shoved under the corporate carpet just a year or so after release, we are going to be left with abstract interfaces that are mediocre at best, especially when compared to real-world interfaces. We are also left knowing interfaces could be better, but who will make them so?

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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