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.

Maybe if it weren’t so freaking ugly

With Amazon’s Jeff Bezos pushing the Kindle like it’s chicken-fried Jesus and media heavyweights like Oprah on board, ebooks are finally getting some respect in the mainstream media.

Perhaps with Oprah’s help and a new and improved version due next year, the Kindle will achieve escape velocity and Amazon can stop showing me the annoying Kindle ad and disclose how many units have been sold. As for eliminating physical books from the warehouses, books are lagging music and video. The end of print is not near, but the writing is on the virtual wall. The economics of the Internet, as well as technology innovations such as improved virtual paper, instant translation, and always on, fast connections to a universe of knowledge indicate that Bezos is on the right track, just as he was in creating a virtual shopping mall for physical goods in 1994. And, he will have lots of company, or competition, as the digital age gets into full swing.

Amazon’s Kindle obsession: Bury the printed book | Outside the Lines – CNET News

I’m on record, many, many times, as saying standalone ebook readers are a dumb idea. While I haven’t yet seen a Kindle “in the wild” I have seen several Sony readers and I remain unimpressed by e-ink technology. I read more books on my Treo, I’d wager, than even the most avid Kindle fan. And eReader on the iPhone has become the most widely used ebook reader on the market (what the heck, the iPhone may as well be good for something).

But I was predicting the end of print over a decade ago, and that was before a whole new generation was introduced to Harry Potter. While I don’t have much use for them myself, printed books aren’t going anywhere for a long time, and the Kindle, for all its advantages (e-ink, great battery life, built in EVDO connection for buying and downloading books directly) isn’t going to get bibliophiles like my mom to stop lugging tree pulp around.

As for me, I’ll stick with smartphones. I like the look of the rumored second generation Kindle (and was it intentional to name this thing after paper used to start a fire?) but I’m already lugging around a smartphone, netbook and all the associated power cables, sync cables, batteries and whatnot for those. I have room to add a Kindle to my Scott e-Vest (seriously!) but I don’t honestly see the point when I can read perfectly comfortably on my phone.