So Meg Whitman Walks In…

Meg Whitman, the new CEO of HP, came to the Palm campus this week to give us an update on where we stand.

Unlike many others I won’t talk about what was said, but I will say that I was impressed by Meg’s candor, and the fair amount of boldness it takes to not only come to Palm in person, but to subject herself to a Q&A session and take questions that, as you can imagine, were not exactly softballs (including 2 from yours truly). Whatever decision she ultimately makes for the webOS team, I am confident (or at least more confident than I was) that it will be the right one.

Our Hero and Meg Whitman

Take your time, Meg. But not too much time…

The Real Mobile Tech Revolution…

While the small sliver of people lucky enough to live in the developed world (perhaps 1 billion of the 7 billion souls now in this world) currently deal with omnipotent smartphones with screens that blur the distinction between smartphones and coffee tables, and ponder just how revolutionary our and social picture sharing apps (with badges!) and this week’s group messaging app are, there is a real revolution taking place in the developing countries that are home to the great majority of humankind.

Shafique Khan, right, demonstrates to Ghisi Lal Varma, center, a 61-year old farmer, a new grievance reporting service to use for sending complaints via text message to the government about problems in the village. (Caption & Image credits: Rama Lakshmi/Washington Post)

A recent article in the Washington Post titled “Indians use cellphones to plug holes in governance” gives a glimpse of the sort of wondrous changes that mobile technology is bringing to those who until now had never known the power of connectivity.

“The ubiquitous cellphone, with about 750 million users in India, and open-source Internet platforms are being deployed to ensure that trash is picked up on time, to track bribes and to help people learn English, find jobs and report incidents of sexual harassment on the streets.”

I spent 2 years in India working for one of India’s big companies, and witnessed dozens, if not hundreds of ways large and small that the mobile phone is transforming Indian society. It’s what inspired me to move to Silicon Valley and take part in the revolution.

What’s all the more remarkable is that they’re doing all this with phones like this:

The Nokia 1100. The best-selling single model phone (and possibly any single electronic device ever) in the world

No gyroscopes, no game monetization frameworks, and no $500 iPhones in this revolution–all it takes is the incredibly simple and deceptively powerful tools of voice (remember that?) and SMS. Gradually, as the capabilities of ultra-basic phones grow, these revolutionary services are expanding to encompass GPS and cameras, as is the case in Hyderabad:

…The local government uses Global Positioning System technology and cellphone cameras to manage the mounting problem of uncollected garbage. Sanitation supervisors take photos of overflowing trash cans, and the images are uploaded in real time. Officials say this helps hold sanitation workers accountable.

The phones may not be smart (yet…), but the people devising new ways to use them sure are.

The Real Mobile Tech Revolution will not be televised…

It will be texted.

The Design Brilliance, Intentional or Otherwise, of Windows Phone for Indie Devs

Working in the Worldwide Developer Relations team at Palm has made me spend a great deal of time thinking about the pain points in the mobile ecosystem for small, indie app developers. You know, those one-man or two-man shops who are writing cool new apps simply because they love doing it–and aren’t averse to making some money on it in the process.

It’s a challenge to get noticed in a sea of apps of course. And in those happy circumstances when the indie developer’s app does indeed show up in a list of search results (in this case, let’s say I’m searching for “alarm clock”), the indie app developer faces another challenge:

hmmm, which ones am I not even going to consider?

Your icon looks unprofessional compared to those who had the means to get a professional icon done, or the design chops to do it themselves. Nobody wants to download a bad app, and fairly or not, the icon is the first impression people get of your app. When I see a bad icon on iOS, I am more hesitant to download the app for fear it may be bad. When I see a bad icon on Android, I am even more hesitant to download the app for fear of it being not just bad, but a security risk.

What’s nice about Windows Phone is their Metro design language makes it easy for people who would rather be spending time in the IDE than in Illustrator to still give their app an icon that looks “professional” and congruent with the overall design scheme of the OS, and one that will be given a fairer consideration by would-be shoppers. Observe the hypothetical fart app I made (the result of ~3 minutes playing with shapes stencils in iWork’s Pages app) and pasted into a WP7 homescreen: MetroFart

MetroFart

Creating 2-color, high contrast simple line drawings is much easier and faster for someone to pull off than to make an icon fit into iOS.

Those who don’t think there is something to be said for the effectiveness of minimalistic, 2-color designs can take their case up with this guy:

Daring Fireball

Daring Fireball, by John Gruber

Of course, just because developers CAN make such an icon for a Windows Phone app, doesn’t mean they choose to. As this picture I grabbed from PocketNow makes clear, some developers are opting to go Metro, while others go for a more traditional idea of an app icon:

WP7 apps

Screengrab courtesy of PocketNow.com

Given Windows Phone’s market position, this is a great solution to get apps that look better without the sort of leverage Apple has. Apple has enough market weight and gatekeeping power to be able simply tell app developers to make a prettier icon or they won’t get in the App Store.* Android has the same weight and gatekeeping leverage (or does it?) to force developers to make nicer icons, but it doesn’t seem to care to. Windows Phone 7 has created an opportunity for those who prefer grepping to gradients to not only make an icon more easily, but one that looks better than something they would have made if left to their own devices (case-in-point: the icons of most Android apps–whose icons, seemingly lacking any guidelines from on high, are of varying styles, shapes, perspectives, etc)

A sample/smorgasbord of Android app icons

I am not saying the WP7/Metro icon solution is better than iOS–it bears repeating that I love the beautiful full-color icons that some iOS developers are capable of creating–rather, it is simply different, equally valid, and exceptionally appropriate for Microsoft’s current position in the market and its need to do whatever it can to be as friendly to indie devs as possible. Microsoft should be applauded for trying something new, rather than going for a bad imitation of iOS icons.

The real question is if Microsoft did this on purpose, or if they simply stumbled into this as a happy result of Metro. Given the considerable number of apps in the WP7 Marketplace with bad icons, I’d guess it’s the latter. Microsoft really should make an effort to push these indie devs toward more “Metro-ish” icons. It’s in the interest of devs, users, and the Windows Phone platform alike.

——

* While I applaud Microsoft for making it easy for developers to get away without being great designers, I applaud Apple for doing the exact opposite. It is a matter of what role each of these platforms plays in the mobile universe–their dharma, if you will. I’m going to talk more about “platform dharma” (with apologies in advance to Hinduism!) in a future piece.

2010s Smartphone Screens are the New 1950s Tail Fins

I don’t know who this Dustin Curtis guy is (I’m sure he returns the favor), but he’s absolutely right. The ever-larger screens on (non-Apple) smartphones are ever-less ergonomic and ever-more ridiculous.

image from Dustin Curtis

The bigger the screen, the more impossible one-handed operation becomes.

It’s another case of companies getting into an arms race over “who can make the biggest x” without any regard to why. Where have we seen this before?

If they’re going to make phones with ever-bigger screens, they should take care to design the UI to improve one-handed use, as suggested by Itai Vonshak‘s awesome Emblaze UI design:

Thumb-centric design

Itai works at Palm now, btw 🙂

H/T to my friend Jon Tzou for sending this my way

–UPDATE–

And the best tweet ever on the subject comes from Sebastiaan de With:

Dénouement

I am brought to tears not from sadness at the loss of Steve Jobs, but from joy at seeing something wondrous.

In any singular moment, have you ever seen such an outpouring of so much love, from so many people, in so many corners of the world, focused together?

Such a moment had never happened in my lifetime. Arguably, it had never happened in human history–we could never have felt together until technology knitted us together–And it may never happen again.

Experiencing this…moment, this magic, this love, together…it was Steve’s final gift to us.

Thank you.

webOS TouchPad beats Android Honeycomb to 1000 tablet apps

It’s simply remarkable. The HP TouchPad has been on the market for 3 months–the last 1.5 of which have been spent being “dead”–and it STILL beat Android Honeycomb (on the market since February) to 1000 tablet apps.

Take a minute and think how amazing that is when you consider the respective market positions of webOS and Android.

This is testament to the tenacity, creativity, and sheer scrappy determination of the webOS Developer Relations team–and the amazing and equally tenacious webOS community that has been tirelessly advocating on our behalf, spreading the gospel of webOS to convert developers and users alike.

I am honored to be part of such an amazing team and community.

Great work, people. I can’t wait to see what miracles we pull off next!

Hello Marco’s Readers

Thank you to everyone who spread the word of my blog, because it somehow made its way to Marco Arment (of Instapaper fame), who linked to it.

I will now take advantage of my 15 minutes of fame to squeeze every bit of self-promotion out of it that I can.

My name is John Kneeland. I am originally from Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 with a degree in nothing useful. Now I live in San Francisco.

I currently work with the awesome webOS team (née Palm) at HP.

If You See a Close Button, They Blew it

–UPDATE: Hello readers of Marco’s blog! I’m John Kneeland and enjoying my 15 minutes of fame. Feel free to follow me @SirKneeland on the Inter-twits.–

Apple’s iPhone wasn’t the first touchscreen portable device, but it was the first one that didn’t make you want to stab yourself (or the device) with its stylus. One of the many reasons for this was that they were the first big company to realize that a touchscreen should not simply take desktop metaphors designed around a mouse and cursor and shoehorn them into a tiny touchscreen being used with your fat fingers.

One of the most obvious ways in which this is apparent is the replacing of small tiny buttons designed to be hit with a fine point (a cursor or stylus) with much larger buttons that can be accurately tapped with a finger.

Except, of course, for when Apple simply shoehorns desktop metaphors into a touchscreen:

I hope you brought your stylus...

The most egregious example of this interface inconsistency is in the teeny tiny close buttons that pop up on the iOS interface when you want to close apps in the app switcher, delete apps from the homescreen, or close a browser tab. it’s even worse in Apple’s new iOS notifications system, which decided being hard to use wasn’t enough and it should be hard to see as well.

Now featuring low-contrast colors for added inconvenience!

Naturally, since iOS made this mistake, Google made the same mistake when copying iOS designing Android.

Apparently great artists steal bad ideas, too.

In fact, the Android one may be even worse than the iOS one because while the iOS button is located halfway outside the window object’s border and thus catches the attention of the mind that identifies these jarring aberrations in shapes, the Android button is completely nested in the window.

How to avoid using the close button then? People still need to close things after all. I think there are two valid methods. In increasing order of awesomeness, they are: holding down for a contextual menu (exemplified in Windows Phone 7), and swiping away to dismiss (exemplified in webOS).

CONTEXTUAL MENU

Well MS stuck with the teeny tiny close button in their browser windows, they have made a great contextual menu system in other areas, such as app management on the homescreen: Hold down your finger on something, and a contextual menu of actions pops up.

This successfully avoids the problem of having the teeny tiny close button. It also is potentially extensible as it allows for a large number of relevant contextual choices (for example, archive vs delete in Gmail). but runs the risk of replacing the teeny tiny close button with a teeny tiny text menu and leaving it open for the user to accidentally select the wrong contextual option. It also can wind up being used by app developers as a lazy catch-all for actions, leaving users with too many options, rather than forcing the developers to spend more time thinking about minimizing complexity and putting these other options elsewhere.

SWIPING

Swiping things away is, in my opinion, the most natural way to dismiss things as it is the most similar to how one might get rid of things in the physical world–toss them away!

webOS swipe up
Just swipe it away. No teeny tiny buttons required!

Of course, swiping has some problems of its own in terms of extensibility (it has none) and discoverability. In a few years the average user may be sufficiently ‘trained’ in expected touchscreen behaviors to know to try swiping, but for now any system using a swipe gesture should be sure to educate their users on the availability of swiping, ideally on device first-run.

Bottom line, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, is this:

if you see this button:

They blew it.

It should really be called the “blew it button.” I want to see a touchscreen OS that doesn’t have a single one of these (and unfortunately webOS added them in 3.0 for deleting apps on the homescreen). It’s one of those rare cases in which I can say Palm should take a lesson from Android and look at how removing an app from Android’s homescreen involves dragging an app to the trash:

Now THIS is how you delete an app!