By Erik Christiansen
From the viewpoint of someone who works in the field of information science, the end user is key. Too many times have I tested, or worked with, software (consumer or enterprise) that fails to create a fluid user experience. Yet, there is a balance. Software that is dumbed down to the point where utility is inhibited is also unacceptable. The juncture between usability and capability is the sweet spot that all modern operating systems should strive for, regardless of the device or platform.
The limitations of the current crop of touch-based operating systems reflects the infancy of the mobile market. iOS, Android, and Windows Phone do not represent a fully functional OS. They were designed to ease people into a new era. The era of touch.
The introduction of the Graphic-user-interface, or GUI (pronounced “gooey”) as us geeks like to call it, was arguably the game-changing invention that brought the personal computer into the mainstream. The whole notion of the desktop and the folder-icon file system was first commercialized by Apple’s Macintosh operating system. Just like the current generation of Macs, Apple’s strategy has been to create operating systems that were powerful, yet consistent and easy to use. Conversely, Microsoft set its sights on the enterprise market, and opted for more drastic changes to the user interface (UI) with each iteration. Today, both are very capable productivity platforms.
My first introduction to the GUI was the family Atari 1400ST, which featured a state-of-the-art OS made by Digital Research. Amazingly, I still have that computer, and it chugs along to this very day. I remember fondly the white icons and lime green background. It had no internet connection (though there was modem for it that we never used). While it was used for productivity (mostly basic word processing) and games, it was above all a learning tool. It prepared me for what was to come.
When I got to school we had Macs and Windows 3.1. Not long after, my family made the jump to Windows 98, Windows XP, and subsequently Windows 7. Currently, I use Mac OS 10.8. Each iteration was slightly more streamlined, but added more functionality. Today, I would consider myself a pretty expert computer user, but only because I honed my skills with each generation.
Tomorrow, Apple will hold its World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC), where they are expected to announce (among other things) iOS 7 and OS 10.9. Don’t let the number 7 fool you, however. iOS hasn’t changed much since its introduction in 2007 - unlike Google’s Android, which has seen considerable advancement. Unfortunately, as much as I like my phones and tablets, they are not anywhere close to replacing my Macbook or desktop computer.
The more we use mobile devices, the more we expect from them. Technologists are bored with the current selection and we pine the next big thing. The next generation of mobile phones and tablets have to be considerably more capable. The training wheels have to come off. Both my generation and the younger generation (the latter which has never experienced a world without the smartphone) are prepared for something more advanced. Our Kung-Fu is strong, and we’re ready for the next challenge.
Microsoft has tried to move users in the opposite direction, which I feel is a mistake. Handicapping the desktop and gearing it toward touch is the wrong approach. What companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple should be doing is adding some of the traditional desktop functionality (such as multitasking, windowing, and file systems) into the their respective mobile OS’.
I’m optimistic for the future of mobile. When I haul out my old Atari from the closet, it always makes me smile. I’ll be honest, using it can be pretty painful. But, I owe it a great deal to that relic. It introduced me to a fascinating new world, sparked a lifelong interest, and put me on a path toward an exciting career. When I hold my tablet or phone, I experience the same excitement as when I first used a computer. “This is the Atari of mobile,” I say to myself. “I can’t wait so see what’s next...”