Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Part 2 - Scalable Design Elegance - or why I would never purchase an iPhone

It has been two years since I wrote a blog (Part 1) about my reluctance to move from Windows 6.5 platform and the need for a Scalable Design Elegance. Since then, I have made a switch to Android and am now using Samsung Galaxy Note. It is time, I followed up on that blog from two years ago with some more specific examples to illustrate my point about Scalable Design Elegance. The fact that I am publishing this on the day Apple is announcing its new iPhone is just a coincidence, but It does try to illustrate the problem I have with iOS, Windows 7 and other non-scalable OSs in general.
So here it goes. The scalable design elegance, to me is a question of simplicity versus functional scalability. iOS/iPhone/ Windows Phone etc. provide the simplicity (stable, simple to use and elegant) but limited if you want to customize core functionality (examples below for Home screen and Keyboard). 
Let me start by a confession, In my 8 years of using smartphones, I have never liked the base OS on any phone (I have tried Palm, WinMo 6.1 to 6.5, BB, iOs and extensively used WinMo 6.5 and now Android). It has always taken me endless tweaking and customization over weeks and sometimes months before I can get the phone to behave and function exactly the way I need it to. The gripe I have with Apple (for that matter with Microsoft with it's new tile based Windows Phone) is that it dictates how a functionality needs to be. You take it or leave it. There is no alternative if it does not meet your needs completely. The problem with that approach is that it meets 80% of typical needs. If you are (like me) in the remaining 20%, it does not work. 
Let me illustrate using a couple of examples,
Example 1. Home Screen - The native home screens on any of the phones (iPhone, Windows tiles, Android skins from Samsung, HTC, Motorola etc.) all fall short when, I get down to very specific needs. iPhone is very minimalist, it does not even allow for widgets like World time or a short cut for Lock Screen. One feature that I cannot get in any phone including Android, is the ability to add a short cut to a specific file. This last feature, comes handy to quickly open a specific Excel or Word file that you use for a specific purpose. Most home screens, only provide a link to an App. You have to open the app, and then search or select the file you want to view/edit. On my home-screen I have direct links to a set of files, I access regularly. It's like the files on your Windows desktop, ready to go in one click.
The only HomeScreen that caters to almost everything I need is SPB Shell. I have used it for 4 years now. It was on the Pocket PC (Win Mo 6.5) phones from HTC and the exact same Shell is on my Samsung Android Galaxy Note. I am ambivalent to the OS or even the phone brand (it can be a Nokia for all I care). As long as it allows me to install SPB Shell and give me the Home Screen feature I need. The default Home Screen on most phones is the design feature or functionality and you can customize it to an extent. The true scalable design is one that allows me to change the native HomeScreen itself. Thankfully Android allows that. iPhone, Windows Phone, BB do not.
2. Keyboard Example - The same goes with the keyboards (I should say input methods). iPhone allows two methods, keyboard and Siri. There is no other option if you want something more or different. For me, the critical feature in a keyboard is the shortcuts. Similar to Windows PC, I need Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, Ctrl-A, Ctrl-Z and so on. I need short-cuts for Cut, Copy, Select, Select All, Redo/ Undo and so on. I had a custom key-board called Resco Keyboard on all of my Win-Mo phones. On the Android, I have found A.I. Keyboard that provides exactly what I need. The screen-shot below would explain it better. Regardless of which, App or window I am in, the custom key-board allows great editing features. Besides, cut, copy, paste, redo/undo, it allows me to move cursor one letter at a time, or one word at a time (navigation arrows in the middle). Moreover I can just use the same to select a letter or a Word, one at a time. 
A.I.type Keyboard Free - screenshot

I am not suggesting that iPhone or Windows Phone design a keyboard exactly the way I want it. Everyone has different needs. I may like keyboard short-cuts, you may like Swype and someone else may like to use a stylus to scribble in his/her own handwriting. 
Summary - Each phone or platform will cater to its core market with 80% features. What is important is that the platform or phone company recognize that there will always be 20% cases where their features will not work or will come short. They have to provide the design scalability to allow users to either replace core functionality or customize to meet the exception scenarios. I am not espousing that they build a keyboard that caters to all 100% needs but recognize that 20% of users will always need something else and allow to install a custom keyboard. 
The 80-20 rule does not apply only to user types or features but extends to scenarios. In Systems Analysis context, we call these the ability for a system to handle exception scenarios. You typically do not need to copy email from within a Contact Card. In most cases, you can just initiate an email from the contact itself; simple and user friendly. But there would be 20% scenario, where you need to open a contact, copy email address and paste it in a chat box or an html form. if you cannot have that functionality, your Copy/Paste and Contact functionality fall short for these 20% scenarios. 
I will end with an analogy with a real life example of automobile transmissions in cars. The ability for cars to change gears without a clutch and change gears automatically is a great innovation. It's very elegant, simple and very user friendly. It makes car driving easy and allows for adoption by many users. This would be something similar to iPhone's innovations. Now consider scenario where the car is stuck in mud, in snow or on a steep hill. You would need to drive in a manual mode and use the lowest gear possible. You would not want to rely on the automatic gear for these scenarios. To me, what iPhone does is innovate like automatic transmission but it does not provide for a manual override for the exception scenarios. It dictates that I should never select my own gear. It tells me either I drive in automatic gear or take a hike. To me it does not work, I live in New England and it snows, you see. 

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