Friday, March 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Mobile Device Interface

Smartphones: Yesterday's News

As some of you know, I started 2010 by working in a new position at Canonical: Ubuntu Project Manager. I've been having an absolute blast; working my butt off has never been more fun, challenging, or interesting. I'm finding that nearly every side-interest I've had in the past several years is coming to the forefront in my project management work.

There were all sorts of adjustments I needed to make before PM'ing again, and one of those was catching up on communication technology. I now live by email, calendars, IRC, Skype, and phone conversations. Gone are the days of going heads-down into some code for a week or two. I need to stay connected, 100% of the time. I needed to get a smartphone.

What I really wanted was a Nokia N900. Sadly, T-Mobile's not offering one, so I got an Android phone with a physical keyboard instead: a new G1. Yeah, out of date, but considering that I was still using a Razr, the G1 is cutting-edge ;-)

I gotta tell you, this little phone has changed my life. The craziest thing is not the apps, the Market, the features, etc.; it's the touchscreen that has made me a believer.

You Can Touch This

I can't believe how radically the touchscreen phone has changed my computing habits and preferences. When I sit down at my laptop or desktop to do something quickly, I don't want use the keyboard or mouse. I want to point, swipe, and tweak with my fingers. When I'm on the phone, my brain has my speaking and text-processing faculties tied up. To easily multitask while talking, I need to be able to use a different part of my brain: that part involved in motor control.

I like using the touchscreen so much that I will often use my G1 for tasks that are better suited for my laptop, merely because of the joy I get from using the interface.

Touch, tap, drag, push, swipe. I love it. Can't get enough of it.

The best thing of all? This is really silly: I love the virtual desktops and being able to navigate between them with a swipe. Whose idea was this? That designer or engineer needs to be promoted! I have never experienced a more intuitive way of switching virtual desktops. I didn't even know how much this was important to me until I used the G1. I want this for my laptop!

Having such a positive bias towards tactile technology, you can imagine my joy when I saw this Ubuntu blueprint. And then when I was asked to work with Bryce and Andy on the PM portion of multi-touch support, I was quite delighted. This will give application developers and device engineers what they need in order to start creating new exciting stuff for the Ubuntu world. You will be able to have an iPad-like experience on your Linux devices (that have the proper hardware).

The thing is, as much fun as tactile interfaces are, I want way more now. I've been given a taste... now I want the banquet.

An Interface for the Future

So the iPad has been getting lots of press. It's bigger than a phone, I like that: I could replace my pen-and-paper medium-sized Moleskine with one. The thing I like the best though? Yeah, you guessed it: the interface. Curling pages and apps that have been re-worked specifically for the new format/size. I love it when a device lets me use it in a way that is natural and intuitive, and provides visual (or other sensory) feedback on my use.

Apple has made, in my opinion, a good and interesting product. But certainly not a revolutionary one. It's a natural progression from what folks are already doing with smartphones and netbooks.
So let's talk about revolutionary :-)

Imagine you've got a crazy new shirt, one whose fibers convert your movements to electrical current and can power your devices. Perhaps it comes with a "battery net" for literally flexible power storage. Now imagine that some clever sod has equipped your shirt with sockets for micro-SD cards (or something similar). If you've read my "After the Cloud" posts, then you probably know where I'm going with this :-)

Now add some embedded micro-controllers, and bluetooth, a smart phone with cloud-controller software, and you've got a personal S3 with potentially terabytes of light-weight, wearable storage. And your phone controls the nodes, redundancy, failover, etc. Maybe your phone runs Ubuntu and you're pushing backups of your personal cloud onto your U1 account.

But how do we interface with all this great storage? Here comes the banquet I mentioned :-)

I want to be able to reach "into" my phone, grab an icon (application, file, contact, whatever) and put it where I want. But I mean really put it: I can pick up some data off my desktop, and throw it over my shoulder or at my feet. With appropriate sensing equipemnt on the power shirt's sleeves, my arms and hands are now the perfect "mice."

In fact, there's no more virtual desktop (that's old skool). One of the new primary functions of your mobile device is to peer "into" the halo of data that surrounds you now. You can either spin your virtual storage space around you like an inverted, 3D lazy susan, our you can physically move your phone around, like a diving mask peering into the water.

Closing Thoughts

The more data I have, the more I feel that I live in it. The problem is that our current tech forces us into tiny sardine cans and we have to consume our data with the equivalent of a single chop-stick. If I'm going to live in my data, I want to have the best possible experience of immersion that I can. I want an interface that can handle my future.

I could go on and on... I love this sort of thing. The important thing to know now is that the community is working on the building blocks for our technological future. The first steps are being made in open source software that will allow us to take giant, insanely cool steps in the not-to-distant future.