Simple != Easy

I’ve been working on a three part article for the last few days called "Pimp my Treo" but now I’m not sure I’ll post it. In short, it’s how to use Kinoma Play, Skyfire and Winterface to "modernize" a Treo or similar device to look and feel more like the "new hotness" devices from HTC and Samsung. It all works pretty well, but I’m doubting now if it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve talked many times before about the Zen of Palm, the commitment going back to Jeff Hawkins to make Palm devices as easy to use as possible. As it turns out, this is important not just in handhelds, but all kinds of computers. Paul Thurrott of the Windows Supersite had an interesting observation on this recently (expanded a bit in this week’s Windows Weekly podcast):

Reading Mr. Carr’s article, it occurred to me that the problem with Windows 7 is the same thing that’s the problem with Mac OS X. That is, Microsoft is confusing “easy” with “simple.”

For example, Mac users have claimed for years that Mac OS X is “easy to use,” when in fact it is anything but. Mac OS X is simple. As noted above, simple is hard [to engineer]. And we should all give Apple credit for that. But simple is not the same as easy. One basic example: The Mac OS X desktop is a barren place with no obvious starting point. And the people who feel that it is easy are fooled because they are simply used to it. Things that are familiar seem easy. But they’re not necessarily easy to those who are unfamiliar with that thing or, in the case of potential Switchers, are familiar with something else. The Mac OS X desktop is simple. But it is not easy.

By contrast, the Windows desktop is easy in that it provides an obvious starting point (a Start button) and because Microsoft and its PC maker partners go a bit over the top presenting information to the user on first boot. Critics will argue that this also makes Windows convoluted. And they’re right, as it turns out. It’s hard to get the right mix of simple and easy. Apple errs to much on the side of simple, in my opinion. But Microsoft errs somewhere else: They overwhelm the user with functionality in a bid to make sure it works for everyone. All too often, the result is something that works for very few people.

Simple is not the same thing as easy. Jeff Hawkins understood this, and made the original Palm devices easy to use. But as many of us Palm veterans know, there was a lot of power in those early devices, too.

Thanks in large part to the iPhone, we’ve seen a flood of “simple” user interfaces on Windows Mobile devices recently. TouchFlo3D on the new HTC devices is only one, Samsung and O2 and Velocity and many others have followed suit with their own spins on how to simplify the Windows Mobile experience. But are they right?

One of the examples Thurrott mentioned in the podcast was old school command line Unix. Here we have a system that was simple, but not easy. Most Unix commands do only one thing, it doesn’t get much simpler than that. Grep finds text matching a search term, nothing more. But you had to know what they were, how they worked, and what kind of output they’d give you before you could string them together in shell scripts to do complex things. Definitely not easy.

The more I tweaked my Treo to work more like the new devices on the market, the more something started to bug me. It seemed slower. It seemed a lot slower. And it was, because I was discarding features designed for ease of use for things that made the experience “simple”. It was simpler to have contacts mixed in with my applications in Winterface, but it was actually easier to get to them by typing directly on the Today screen. I’ll bet my Treo can do anything a Touch Pro can do in a fraction of the time, even with a slower processor. Because it’s easy to use, not simple.

Calm down, Chicken Little

Calm down, liberals. Take a deep breath. I know that trusting your elected officials and being skeptical of the press feels alien and wrong, but times have changed. It’s really okay. Ease down. You’ve blown the transaxle, you’re just grinding metal.

I woke up this morning to a cacophony of Chicken Littling about the possibility that Obama might not roll back the Bush tax cuts! OMG! How could he do such a thing?

Well, if you slow down and read the fine print, he didn’t. Here’s what he actually said.

“Whether that’s done through repeal, or whether that’s done because the Bush tax cuts are not renewed, is something that my economic team will be providing me a recommendation on.”

So the question here is whether the tax cuts for the wealthy are repealed in 2009 or allowed to expire on their own in 2011. And he’s not saying he won’t repeal them, just that all options are on the table to be considered along with the rest of our economic policy. That doesn’t sound as scary. It actually sounds kind of, you know, rational.

I’ve seen this happen almost daily since the election. The media, and their audience, is so used to everything going to hell sans handbasket that they immediately jump to the worst possible consequence of anything coming out of Washington. But the new guy is such a fundamental change from the smirking chimp currently occupying the Oval Office that this approach doesn’t make sense anymore. I find myself in the distinctly uncomfortable place (no, not the backseat of a Volkswagen) of having to trust the politicians and be skeptical of the press. Because every time I’ve seen this happen, it sounds horrible until I actually read what Obama said and say, “Oh, well, that sounds okay.”

It really does come down to trust. I trust Barack Obama to be smarter than me and do the right thing. I’ve trusted Bush for eight years to be dumber than me and try to screw me over, but that different. I know that Barack Obama knows everything about politics that I know, plus a lot that I don’t know, even stuff, with apologies to Rummy, that I don’t know I don’t know. And I trust him to weigh all of that against itself and make the right call for our long term prosperity and security.

And the key to that is “long term.” Politics is the science (and art) of compromise, and if we want the changes we get in an Obama administration to endure, a simple numeric majority in Congress isn’t enough. We need Republicans who might, even though it looks more dubious with every Sarah Palin photo op, be back in charge someday to have some sense of ownership over these changes.

Think about this like a chess grandmaster, looking several moves ahead. Obama knows that historically, our economy has tanked after every tax cut on the rich and rose after every tax hike on the rich. But he also knows that we’re going to be running a serious deficit for at least most of his first term as we try to spend our way out of this recession (the only proven way to get out of a recession), so the money lost to the Bush tax cuts between 2009 and 2011 is just a factor in the size of the deficit, not the cause of one. So if he extends this potential olive branch to the Republicans (and their super-rich constituents), does that grant some Republicans the political cover they need to step across the aisle and pass universal healthcare or a new New Deal to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure?

So stay calm, trust that Obama has his eye on the big picture, and don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s going to be okay. Rational adults are in charge now, give them room to do their jobs.

It ain’t pretty but it works

“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts.”
— Han Solo

As a Windows Mobile user, I’m consistently amazed that people take the iPhone seriously as a smartphone platform. Yes, my Treo has an old school 2003 interface and isn’t as shiny as newer smartphones (including “black slab” iPhone wannabes like the Blackberry Storm and even WM devices like the HTC Touch Diamond and Samsung Omnia), but I’m also not hamstrung with arbitrary limitations.

Let me give you an example. Apple recently released the 2.2 update for the iPhone, which finally allows users to download podcasts directly to the phone if they’re on the go. Sounds cool, right? I mean, it must be really good if Apple was willing to kill a popular application on the app store because they were about to provide the same functionality in a better, Apple-sanctioned experience.

Only it’s actually pretty lame. First off, it doesn’t let you download anything over 10MB over 3G, because heaven forbid you actually use that high speed connection for anything where you could actually tell the difference between it and Edge. No, anything over 10MB (and most podcasts are) can only be downloaded via WiFi, which means you have to stay at the hotspot while you download. So much for “on the go.”

But it gets worse. It also doesn’t sync what you’ve downloaded and played with the desktop, so there’s no way to tell your iPhone to check all your subscribed podcasts and download the new stuff. You have to check each one manually (through the same Apple iTunes Music store that should, theoretically, know what you’ve already downloaded) and remember on your own what you haven’t heard yet.

So let me get this straight. Apple pulls a popular app from the app store because they’re going to provide that functionality in the base OS, but then their solution not only doesn’t take advantage of integration with other Apple products (iTunes, music store), but also imposes limitations on where and how you can use it? And iPhone users have been brainwashed into thinking this is a good thing?

On my junky looking, outdated user interface Treo, on the other hand, I can install the open source and free BeyondPod, which allows me to import my podcast feeds from an XML file or from Google Reader, keeps track of what I’ve listened to and what I haven’t, downloads new podcasts both a la carte and on a schedule (I have it download everything at 3am while I sleep) and has no limitations on how much I can download, when or where I download, and can even stream podcasts instead of downloading. It can also optionally delete each file as soon as done listening to it.

Or, if I want a “slicker” user interface, I can use Kinoma Play. It can also either download or stream podcasts whenever I want, as well as play media from Orb, Audible, YouTube and lots of other services, all from the same modern and consistent user interface. Or I could use Pocket Player from Conduits, which also… well, you get the idea.

The iPhone is a great basic media player and internet terminal, but until has the power and flexibility of Windows Mobile, or even Palm OS, don’t tell me it’s a smartphone. It may not be pretty, but my Treo gives me options, not limitations.

Quantum of awesome

I wasn’t sure they could top Casino Royale, and I”m not sure they did, precisely. What they did with the new Bond movie is continue the story from Casino Royale without missing a beat or dropping the intensity. I won’t give too much away, but I will say I was damn impressed by how smoothly this transitioned from the first film. As a fan of the original Ian Fleming novels, I’m also amazed at how they were able to recapture the sense of no-nonsense (there is no Q, and very few gadgets) bad-assery in a post Cold War world. Make no mistake, this Bond doesn’t quip, doesn’t waste time mugging for the camera. These are serious professionals.

That said, some lessons learned.

  • Do not build a building out of hydrogen fuel cells. You’re just asking for trouble. Oh, the humanity.
  • If someone implies that they’re watching you, for god’s sake, don’t get up and storm out of the opera.
  • Never, for any reason, pull over at a Bolivian traffic stop.
  • Oh, and don’t give James Bond a reason to want you dead.

First impressions of the AT&T Fuze

One of the folks at COPTUG (Colorado Palmtop User’s Group) tonight has a brand new AT&T Fuze, a variant of the HTC Touch Pro. I’d already taken a look at Sprint’s version, so it was nice to compare and contrast.

  • The keyboard layout might be better than the Sprint version. No number row, but I like the dedicated Windows and OK keys.
  • The back is faceted like the European Diamond, which isn’t nearly as obnoxious as it looks in photos.
  • I still hate the D-pad.
  • Love the way the screen and keyboard backlight fades in and out. Classy!
  • VGA is gorgeous. I’m so jealous, even though the 320×320 on my 800w is nothing to sneak at.

So what will Windows Mobile 6.5 really look like?

wm652 wm651 France Smartphone posted the two images you see to the right today as a preview of what’s to come in Windows Mobile 6.5. In case you missed it, Motorola let the cat out of the bad a couple weeks ago when they mentioned 6.5 as one of the OSes they had in their new slimmed down lineup for new devices. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer confirmed the existence of the operating system last week (seriously, why do they let him anywhere near a microphone?). 6.5 should should appear early to mid next year, and pave the way for Windows Mobile 7 by early 2010.

However…

Take a good look at these screenshots. While they’re certainly good looking, they’re also certainly fakes. The biggest tip-offs are the color of the Start flag (colored in on one shot, white on the other) and the position of the signal strength and battery icons, which swap sides from one shot to the other. So while this might be a very good guess at what 6.5 might look like, it’s only a guess, and not leaked from Redmond.

Now that we know they’re not real, let’s see what they do tell us. The first one, a program launcher of sorts, uses the hex layout familiar to tabletop RPG folk instead of a more traditional rows and columns grid. Can you say trackball navigation? We know some of the new Moto devices use a Blackberry/G1-style trackball instead of a d-pad, and this is just the kind of UI I’d expect to take advantage of that. But since I don’t think most of the new devices are going to be trackball-based, I think we can skip that one.

But the second shot is far, far more interesting. Here we see the standard Windows Mobile Today screen, but laid out and navigated far more like the Zune interface. This makes sense, since we know that Microsoft plans to bring the Zune software platform to both Windows Mobile and X-Box eventually. If that effort were farther along that we thought, this would be a very credible look for Windows Mobile, a combining of the Zune UI with Windows Mobile 6.1 Standard’s “sliding panels” homescreen interface.

So while I’m convinced these shots aren’t real, I do think Microsoft should take a good long look at them as an example of how they could modernize the Windows Mobile experience without changing it so much that it’s not Windows Mobile anymore. After all, those of us who choose to use Windows Mobile today know the iPhone and Android are out there, and we picked Windows Mobile for a reason.

NaNoWriMo 2008 washout confessions

So NaNoWriMo was a bust for me this year, as I’ve given up only ten days in. Why did I wash out this year when finished in 2006?

No one to race against. One of the big motivators for me in 2006 was racing against my writing partner, Josh Curry of Maximum Geek. Josh sat out this year, preferring to spend his time doing schoolwork for his degree, like higher education is important or something. So I was pretty much going it alone, and couldn’t rely on anyone else to push me.

Lack of incentives. Other than keeping the blog going, I didn’t really have anything to reward me when I did well, nor any negative consequences if I didn’t make my quota. Again, this is where self-discipline should have kicked in, but if I had strong self-discipline, I might be fundamentally unqualified to be a writer.

And there’s one reason I thought might be factor, but I won’t use: lack of time. I’ve had time if I’d really wanted to write. In the past week, I’ve installed OneCare on both my desktop and laptop, cloned and then reconsidered the Windows 7 user interface on XP (I’ll do a writeup of this later), how to blog in OneNote, rebuilt my phone around Kinoma instead of BeyondPod and AudiblePlayer, then back to BeyondPod again, watched nearly all three seasons of "How I Met Your Mother" and found lots of other ways to waste time I could have spent writing.

Too afraid to screw up a book I care about. This is the big one. I know now why Chris Baty makes it a rule not to use pre-existing material for NaNoWriMo. I was rules-lawyering my way around that prohibition by starting an entirely new draft of Ghost Ronin, but I’ve had this story developing in my mind for damn near two decades now. I’ve done years of research for it, have the 17 chapters of the book planned out in some detail, and oddly, that very preparation is what killed me.

NaNoWriMo is based on what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” something that no matter how much I understand the concept intellectually I can’t manage to internalize. I kept freezing up, not wanting to get anything “wrong”. While I know I have to work through this eventually if I want to ever finish anything, I doubt it’s going to happen this month. Ghost Ronin’s firm structure and abundant research and backstory will make it great for writing at my own pace, but they also served as constant roadblocks for the silly abandon that is supposed to characterize NaNoWriMo.

I’ll try again next year, and I have tentative commitment from Josh that both he and his girlfriend will be joining me. I’ll pick a story concept that I don’t already have much investment in, but one that seems exciting enough to carry me through 50,000 words. I’ll set up a system of rewards for hitting certain milestones, and try to really enjoy the ride. For now, though, I’ll keep plugging away at Ghost Ronin at my own pace and try to get it finished before Script Frenzy next spring.