Friday, June 18, 2010

Revenge of 1996

So, I'm home sick today. Annoying, but it happens, and I've set up camp on the couch, TV, kleenex and meeds all in reach. But the funny thing is that I forgot to charge the Ipad yesterday or last night, so it's down around 20%. While I charge it, I'm using my laptop and I must admit that while my laptop is fantastic, I would rather be using the ipad. This is definitely a little odd.

This will seem like a tangent, but bear with me: if you were on the web or making web pages in the late 90s, there was a particular aesthetic you saw a lot of, one that revolved around trying to make pages look more like things, specifically classy paper things like libraries, fine stationery, pen and ink, notebooks and so on. Bear in mind this was a new frontier, and there was an enthusiasm to these efforts that was quite compelling. Because there were no standards to speak of, and everything worked kind of badly anyway (dial up, remember) the logic of the day was often to make something that looked nice, and more specifically which looked like the way something *should* work in an intuitive fashion.

Unfortunately, this lead to some really terrible designs. The technology was really not in any shape for the things people were asking it to do, and in many ways this made things worse. Over time, the standards of design gravitated towards what the web could do well, which lead to something of a virtuous cycle and resulted in the current state of things, and this world of google and 43 folders.

But the thing that has been grabbing me about the ipad is that it reminds me of the promise of those easily web sights, only with the technology to back it up. Consider the humble page curl - it was an abomination in web design, but it works wonderfully on things like the ipad map app. I admit this delights me.

For all that there are a lot of apps I'm enjoying on the Ipad, there are a handful that have really blown me away in terms of how they really embrace the fact that this is something new, and the fact that this newness captures echoes of old promise is somehow all the more satisfying.

I've talked about other apps that I've found useful and fun, but let me call out a handful that I think are noteworthy for their experience.

Carcasonne - There's some irony to the fact that the first app I mention isn't an pad app at all, it's an iphone app which happens to scale up very nicely to Ipad size. Carcasonne was the first game I thought of when I saw the Ipad. It's a game of tile placement, and that tactile element seemed the perfect thing for the big, friendly screen. It's delivered in the promise, and it's a joy. Days of Wonder's Smallworld is probably more technically impressive, but it lacks the tactile element.

Reeder - I've tried several RSS readers, including NewsRack and NetNewsWire, and they're all good, but Reeder is actually lovely. It's basically just a shell for google reader, but it does a good job of conveying a document metaphor (Piles are, so far as I can tell, the current hotness in interface design).

AlphaBaby - Fred showed me this one, and it's basically designed to distract a child. It's a blank screen which, when you touch, a letter, number or shape appears, with a voice announcing what it is, and the item can get pushed or bounced around the screen. Very dull, I know, unless your two years old, in which case this is the MOST AWESOME THING EVER.

MyTexts - I love the ipad as a writing device, and I've tried everything I can get my hands on - Pages, Notify, MaxJournal, Sketchnotes, Paperdesk, Corkulous, My Writing, CourseNotes, Office2 HD and Docs2Go Premium - and Mytexts has taken the lead for the simple reason that it embraces the reasons I like the iPad for writing. The lack of multitasking and the lightweight interfaces makes it easy to focus on the writing part of things. MyTexts has all the tools I need (fullscreen mode, word count and such) and no unnecessary distractions. (That said, I want to give honorable mentions to Scripts Pro - I don't write scripts, but if I did? Awesome).

Starwalk - Hold up the ipad, and you can see the stars in that direction. It looks like magic. And it's beautiful.


  1. Re: web pages and pdfs

    Having worked as a system administrator in an Architecture and Design school of a university, I was constantly amazed at the really really bad designs the students consistent came up with for their web-design course.

    The problem wasn't how they looked, which was admittedly far better than something I could do, but rather how unwieldy they were unless you were sitting on a T1 line. The best sites should have a certain design aesthetic, but they should also be functional and fast and easy to navigate. For a counter example take a look at the slow-down of, say MySpace, as the ads gets more animated and longer, and thus become unusable, which leads to less clients, which leads to more need for advertising revenue which leads to further slowdown and loss.

    The same goes for PDF design, and is one of my big complaints about publishers that provide PDFs that are optimised for printing rather than use on the screen. The overhead can make even a reasonably modern computer slow (depending on how most PDF readers use memory – most are pretty crap at it).

    This is one of the three reason why I tend to convert the PDFs that I am actively using into HTML documents.

    Another reason is that I can reindex them easily for various forms of accessibility, which is a marvellous utility (although I can do it because I'm not afraid of using CGI and a database to organise and control the linking of the separate data elements; something most people won't be able to easily duplicate at the moment with plain HTML). This is more important for an ebook because we have less positioning information to base our innate search algorithm on (possibly people growing up with ebooks won't have this lack, although by then advances in information management will make even my futile efforts irrelevant).

    The final reason is that I can mod the actual documents directly, creating a single canonical document with all amendments and supplements integrated into the body of the work. I can update world setting information as the game changes the world. Add new ideas into the text (which makes them easier to find). [I can even compare changes that I've made with the original text, and reference back to the original source documents.]

    While I agree with the makers of Diaspora that a book can be an object of great beauty in and of itself, there is a distinction between the book as an artefact, and the text of the book as a reference document. Both are called a game, but people want different things from them. And that can lead to confusion when it comes to marketing the product, as evinced by the aforementioned game recently.

    I think the future of gaming ebooks are things purposefully designed for the intuitive rather than linear access. For example, your iPad contains a character sheet, which can be automatically generated, but also serves as an index into the rules (the worth of doing this is increased sales. Instead of one sale to a group (as is generally the case in my experience), you make it convenient (and cheap enough), so that every play buys your product.

    And even further down the track, virtual tabletops, with windows that allow you to see through your iPad to a rendered landscape. [Although truth be told, you would need to use something like a Wi remote to get accurate positioning information for this to work properly as I don't think the iPad positional referencing is really accurate enough as it stands. I could be wrong here.] The future is bright with possibility.

    <shrug> The intuitive exploration of information architectures has always been something I've been interested in.

  2. Oh. And I hope you feel better soon. <grin>


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