Tag Archives: Design

One Thing Computers Cannot Do

The most creative innovations of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences. They believed that beauty mattered.

Steve Jobs Speaks At Apple Web Developer Conference

This short essay from Walter Isaacson is well worth reading. I believe he’s right about the necessary intersection between art and science. I like to say that science makes our lives possible but art makes them worth living.

My sister in law Denise Gets a New iPad


My sister in law Denise, pictured here, just got a new iPad for her birthday. Sorry for the photo quality. It was taken at a restaurant and looked better on my daughter’s iPhone screen. If I find a better one, I’ll post it.

Over the last several years, we’ve gotten a Windows 7 laptop and an iPad for Denise, on my recommendation. The PC was just too complex for her to use and her parents refuse to learn current technology, so it’s been a source of frustration for her. The iPad generally allows her to use it without too much trouble and we can often troubleshoot any issues over the phone. She cannot read or process much complexity so the fixed, simple, and symbolic UI of the iPad is pretty ideal for her. She likes to type simple letters to people using words and other patterns she’s memorized or written down.

Denise has an iPad 2 with 16 GB of storage and she wanted a new device for her birthday. I suggested that we all get her a new iPad Air with 32 GB and a keyboard case, so she can have the impression she’s using a laptop. She loved the idea. Her other family members bought the iPad and I just need to find her a good keyboard case. This new device should be easier on her eyes due to the excellent screen and the extra storage will allow us to load it with soap operas and other content she likes so she can enjoy it whenever she wants.

Before anyone asks, I’ve thought about trying an Android tablet with Denise, but this is one case where Android is sub-optimal. She loves to see me use my Nexus devices, but the complexity of Android would cause her grief and you can only hide so much of it. I develop for, use, and recommend Android devices for many people, but for someone who just wants a device with a rich ecosystem and a straightforward symbolic user interface that presents one simple path to accomplishing any given task, iOS is the best there is.

I recommend iOS devices as much as Android because many people just want stuff to work and they’re happy to live within the confines of the Apple system to get that. This preference is a matter of personality and priorities rather than intelligence. If you want the freedom to choose from a wide range of options for every major use case, then Android is your best bet for a mobile device. For the rest, there’s iOS.

Diagrams are our friends

Simple Flowchart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowchart

Simple Flowchart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowchart

The linked article is not a particularly strong one, but I agree with the basic premise that making diagrams can be a fantastic way to communicate your ideas. Also, it got me thinking of how I use diagrams at work and home.

I deal a lot with complex systems, most of which don’t exist when I’m dealing with them because I’m helping someone design them, translating their system requirements into sets of software (and often hardware) components that will not only fulfill their requirements but function as an optimal system to fulfill their mission goals. Those of you who’ve worked with customers designing systems, especially complex and expensive ones, know that considering only written requirements is a recipe for a very suboptimal system and often a disaster. IBM is now infamous for this practice. See http://www.cringely.com/2013/08/07/fulfilling-customer-requirements-is-a-weapon-at-ibm/ for high level details.

Many humans can only grasp complex relationships (i.e. systems) when they’re presented in a visual format. Even for those of us capable of wading through a huge mass of documents and discerning the purpose and critical requirements of a system, it’s usually very helpful to create diagrams of what we think the system’s properties are, so we can communicate this to both colleagues and the customers, to be reasonably sure that we all end up agreeing on the same architecture.

A mistake in understanding here can be costly in time, money, and reputation, since it’s often easier for a customer to blame the engineers than accept responsibility for a mistake. It’s just human nature to point fingers when something big goes wrong.

Okay, I really just wanted to say here that it’s worth the time to draw a diagram, structural, flowchart, whatever is appropriate, to help you understand and follow through on tasks, especially if you need to coordinate with others on a project. I often put off making architectural diagrams because it’s a pain in the ass, with Visio at least (thanks Microsoft), but I never regret putting in the time to create a diagram once it’s done.

There are advantages to creating diagrams even apart from communicating with others. Creating a clear representation of an idea or set of related structures (i.e. the diagram) forces you to clarify and often refine or substantially change your proposed architecture as you see things that sounded good in your mind but on “paper” are obviously suboptimal or unworkable.

Finally, you’re already using diagrams. A task or shopping list is a simple diagram, as is an itinerary or schedule. These tend to more text based than visual, but as you’ve probably experienced, even these simple diagrams can increase your understanding when you add order, time, and spatial (e.g. a map) relations to them.

I hope this was helpful. I started out to write a much simpler article but a lot of new thoughts jumped out and demanded to be included.

Benchmarking tools

Below is a link to an article listing the most popular benchmarking tools. I used to use these tools a lot when I was involved in doing research and making recommendations on the best hardware and software combinations for customers’ needs. Having an industry standard reference point to talk to gives a recommendation more weight by providing objective evidence for your guidance.


Hating Apple is Pointless

What is it with all the Apple hatred lately? I just read a Google Plus post with a great story about the inventor of the first internally programmable computer, who happens to dislike iPads because they don’t encourage creativity. Every other comment on this post was an irrational attack on Apple, as if Apple is single-handedly causing the decline of computing and creativity.

I have many issues with Apple’s behavior as a corporation. I’m frequently frustrated with their use of litigation to hurt other companies and their refusal to pay those who assemble their products a living wage, and I do what I can to pressure Apple to change their ways. On the other hand, Apple produces beautifully engineered products that are generally among the best available. I have used a lot of computing machinery, running Sparc Solaris, many flavors of Linux, Windows, HP-UX, OSF/1, …, so I’m qualified to judge. At work I develop (mostly guide others in developing nowadays) software and systems based on Linux, Windows, and Android.

When I’m home, I have a variety of machines to use, but gravitate toward a Mac (Macbook Pro or iMac) for most activities and an iPad when I want to relax and give my wrists a break. There’s a reason the technically brightest and most creative types mostly use Macs. A Mac lets you just get things done. There’s no need to tinker to optimize your environment for development or anything else (except games) and the full power of *NIX is available beneath the beautiful UI.

I have an Android 4.0 tablet, an Android 2.3 phone, and an iPad in use now. I almost always use the iPad because it lets you just get stuff done, just like its OS-X counterpart. With Android, I can multitask better but the time lost to tinkering and losing your flow due to a suboptimal UI isn’t worth it. I think Android will eventually surpass IOS in functionality and most measures of capability, but maybe not in pure ease of use. Linux likewise continues to get better every year and it’s a very usable OS, particularly the frequently updated Ubuntu and its like (though I’m mostly stuck with Red Hat at work), but I’m not sure it will ever surpass OS-X (or its successor) in ease of use or assisting productivity.

Finally, while I agree with both the author and Kirsch about the iPad lacking tools for creative work, it’s getting there, and more quickly than Android in general. As a learning device, the iPad is great, with first class apps for learning in a variety of areas. Android is also doing well with this, but is still behind IOS.

Android verus iOS – Reply to a Rant

I ran across an interesting perspective on Android (previous and current versions) from a confirmed Apple lover. It was a decent article, fair and well written. Then I ran across an anti-Apple rant from an idiot and felt compelled to respond. (I know, why respond to an idiot, but I’m mental that way.)  Here’s a link to the article and then my response to the bad comment, which is also posted there, but I want my comment to stand on its own.


My Comment 

I wasn’t going to bother commenting but then I saw @tim’s comment ignorantly bashing Apple.

I am a technology guy, with no religion as to what tech to use other than a slight anti-Microsoft slant because of the way they do business and their often sloppy engineering. I have an older iMac and white Macbook and a year old Macbook Pro my wife and I use at home. My kids use Windows laptops for games and homework. We have an older iPod Touch and three of us have Android phones. I have both the original Galaxy Tab and an Asus Transformer. At work, I lead a team doing development on Windows and Linux client and server platforms as well as Android. We are just ending our support for Sparc Solaris and I’ve developed for other systems in the past. So I have broad experience with the hardware and software available over the last 15 or so years.

Now, to address @Tim first. he bases his argument against Apple’s cloud on a single anecdote I’ve never heard and then says, without justification, to trust him on this. Only the most ignorant would trust the author of a rant, especially one who’s obviously loose with facts and has no apparent experience in software or systems engineering. He then says that he think Apple (presumably iOS) is plain, ugly, and cheap looking. I think he’s in the minority here, since the iOS UI is widely praised and isn’t much different from the Android base UI. He goes on to rant about bad Apple acts without specifying them. So much for @tim.

Now, @Connor makes several good points in his article. He hits the nail on the head with his comment about vendors skinning Android. It’s counterproductive, doesn’t add much if anything to the user experience, and makes OS updates more difficult. He also talks about how good the iCloud is for easily accessing content. This is clearly true. He even gives credit to Google for vastly improving their market offerings so that now Google Play is a true competitor to Apple’s cloud. Finally, @Connor notes that Android 4.0 has a UI that’s well ahead of iOS in many ways. Also true.

Apple makes great hardware and software that work well together. I use Apple’s OS-X at home because it lets me just get stuff done without a fuss. I also appreciate the beautiful engineering of their hardware. The pervasive myth that Apple is overpriced is largely just that, a myth. Paying $1100 for a Macbook Pro seems like a lot, but if you want to buy a Windows laptop of comparable quality, it costs about the same. It’s the same with iMacs. Apple will rarely be the least expensive option for a computing device, but it will very often be the most capable and elegant.

I feel compelled to mention that Apple is on my Do Not Buy list right now because they knowingly allow their products to be made in China with slave-like labor and pocket the extra profits. That’s just evil. I knew Steve Jobs wasn’t a nice guy, but the revelations coming out about his labor practices and conspiracy to inflate the price of eBooks is despicable. I won’t be buying Apple again until they demonstrate that they’ve cleaned up their act and chosen to join the ethical path.

Now, your choice of iOS versus Android comes down to personal choice and your personality. Some points:

  1. A good device (both hardware and software) will melt away into the background and appear as an extension of the user, requiring no thought of how to use it. This is the holy grail of usability. The user should be able to focus full attention on the task at hand, without thought for how to “use the device” to accomplish the task. Apple approaches this ideal pretty closely. Android, ideally, can also approach this ideal with the new Android 4.0 interface.
  2. Both iOS and Android now provide a very compelling ecosystem for accessing content, whether it’s games, music, movies, or books. The iOS interface is a little smoother and easier to navigate, but Google is getting awfully close with the Google Play store.
  3. If you worry about safety and demand that things just work on your device, then Apple’s iOS is still king. Apple operates a walled garden where everything that makes it into the app store is carefully screened first, so you can be pretty confident that downloads from the app store are safe to run and will work as advertised. Android takes a different approach, allowing anyone to upload apps to Google Play and relying partly on users to weed out the bad ones. As a result, there’s a lot of apps on the Android store that you’ll likely never see on the iOS store. Google does have the ability to remove bad apps from your device remotely if they discover it, so the situation isn’t quite the wild, wild west.
  4. As part of Apple’s walled garden approach to their mobile devices, they decide what’s appropriate for you to have on your iOS device and make it very difficult to access content they haven’t approved. It’s very possible to hack your device to allow you access to more content, but if you feel like you want an open system, you really should be using an Android device.
  5. Do you like to tinker with things or customize them to make them reflect your personality? If so, your only real choice is Android. Android lets you change almost everything about the appearance and functionality of your device and there are many apps that make it easy to customize your device to suit you perfectly. Apple allows very limited customization because they’ve decided what’s best for you. In fact, I recommend an Apple iOS or Android device to others largely based on whether they want to tinker or customize it.

The bottom line: If you just want your device to be like an appliance that lets you do very cool things, then get an iOS device. If you want a device that you can make work just the way you like and then use it to do very cool things, then get an Android. Everything else is secondary.

Why iOS Will Lose to Android in the Long Run

Slate writer Farhad Manjoo recently wrote a “iPads are the greatest ever, ever, ever!” article that, while not technically wrong, was nothing more than a huge fanboy victory lap for a short-lived victory. Frankly I expected better from Slate. The comments are predictably populated by loud and angry proclamations on both sides, punctuated by more reasonable people leaving sensible comments. Damn those reasonable people!

Below is my response to a commenter claiming that Android tablets have failed disastrously, can’t compete on price, have no applications worth using, etc.

1. Android Tablets have failed disastrously.

The claim that Android tablets have failed disastrously is pretty silly. I live in a pretty affluent area and I see more people here with Android phones and tablets than iOS devices. I know several people at work who have an iPad but I also know several who have Android tablets and some who are looking to get their second, with the latest hardware. This isn’t just techies I’m talking about. It includes a lot of not very technical adults who just want something they can own and not have to put up with Apple’s ecosystem.

Here’s what happened with Android tablets in the beginning. Google and Android moved into tablets too soon, pulled into it by overeager manufacturers like Samsung with their Galaxy Tab. The Galaxy Tab is a great device (I bought one the day they came out) but Android wasn’t ready for tablets. Android 3.0 Honeycomb was better but still a quickly thrown together tablet OS, unlike Apple’s always carefully prepared iOS releases. Now, with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Android finally has a unified OS for phone and tablet that works well with both. The user experience will not be as smooth as iOS for awhile because Apple’s control of the whole manufacturing chain and totalitarian control of the content they allow on their devices means they can more tightly control quality and ensure that everything works well together. But eventually, Android will reap the benefits of having opened itself up to the world, letting basically anyone make an Android device.

Android will become ubiquitous in mobile and embedded devices and Apple will increasingly become a non-dominant product. Apple is dominant now because its philosophy it to dominate a market very quickly, just as with the Apple IIs and Macs. I had an Apple II as a teen and I have three Macs my family and I use daily, so I understand how well designed their products are. But very few people use Macs at work because Windows is good enough to get the job done and there’s Linux for people who need real power and control, both of which I use as a software architect.

The article’s author, Farhad, makes points that aren’t necessarily wrong, but are misleading. He’s taking a very narrow and short-term view of technology.

2. Android can’t compete with Apple on price.

As far as price, one of the primary reasons Apple can offer such great prices is because they use slave labor. It’s recently come out that Apple has conspired with book publishers to inflate the price of eBooks and will be sued by the US government. So Apple’s playing with a fixed deck in at least a few ways. I’m disappointed because I genuinely like Apple products, but Apple the company is increasingly becoming someone I’d rather not know personally. I’m afraid that Steve Jobs went beyond not being a very nice person, to being sociopathic in his drive for power, perfection, and profit.

3. There are no good tablet apps.

I’d like to ask the people claiming there are no great Android tablet apps whether they’ve actually used an Android tablet in the past six months. There are more great apps, games and otherwise, than my kids and I have time to even try out, much less use daily. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Most of the good iOS games are also on Android, many of them for free, and Android also has a huge number of independent games and tools that aren’t available on iOS.

4. Conclusion 

I have two 11 year old boys and a 15 year old daughter. They are all very tech conscious, as most kids are these days. iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches are hot, but the big thing to have now is Android. My wife, daughter, and I all have Android phones, cheap no-contract ones that cost about 1/3 the price of an iPhone off contract, provide all the core functionality, and cost us a total of less than $100 US per month in cellular fees. My boys love to play with my older hand me down Android phones and their friends with IPod Touches or iPads beg to play with my Asus Transformer tablet when they visit.

Kids and young adults love to tinker and they realize very quickly that Apple’s “My way or the highway” philosophy won’t let them be creative, making their device into something personal. An Android device for a kid is just a core system that allows him to load all the games he wants, most for free, customize everything about it, from the lock-screen to the launcher to the keyboard to the menus, everything. And he can do whatever he wants with it. This freedom matters greatly to kids and young adults. That’s partly why Apple will steadily lose market share, remaining the favorite of technophobes and other people who just want something as an appliance, but losing appeal to everyone who really wants to own their toys.