Monday, January 25, 2016

The biggest IT changes in the last 5 years: Multi-gadget User Interfaces

In the early days of mobile computing, the dominant vision was to get your application suite on "any device, at any time". Single purpose devices such as SMS messengers, email-only messengers faded from popularity, largely replaced by mobile gadgets that could, at least in principle, do every thing that a good old fashioned desktop computer could do.

Operating system visions started to pop up everywhere aimed at enabling a single user experience across a suite of productivity applications, regardless of form-factor, weight etc.

Things (as ever!) have turned out a little differently. Particular form factors e.g. smart phone, tend to be used as the *primary* device for a subset of the users full application suite. Moreover, many users like to use multiple form-factors *at the same time*.

Some examples from my own experiences. I can do e-mail on my phone but I choose to do it on my desktop most of the time. I will do weird things like e-mail myself when on-the-road, using a basic e-mail sender, to essentially put myself in my own in-box. (Incidentally, my in-box is my main daily GTD focus. I can make notes to myself on my desktop but I tend to accumulate notes on my smart phone. I keep my note-taker-app open on the phone even when I am at the desktop computer and often pick it up to make notes.

I can watch Youtube videos on my desktop but tend to queue up videos instead and then pick them off one-by-one from my smart-phone, trying to fit as many of them into "down time" as I can. Ditto with podcasts. I have a TV that has all sorts of "desktop PC" aspects from web browsers to social media clients but I don't use any of it. I prefer to use my smartphone (sometimes my tablet) while in couch-potato mode and will often multi-task my attention between the smartphone/tablet and the TV. I find it increasingly annoying to have to sit through advertizing breaks on TV and automatically flick to smartphone/tablet for ad breaks.

I suspect there is a growing trend towards a suite of modalities (smartphone, tablet, smart TV, smart car) and a suite of applications that in practical use, have smaller functionality overlaps than the "any device, at any time" vision of the early days would have predicted. A second, related trend is increasingly common use-cases where users are wielding multiple devices *at the same time* to achieve tasks.

Each of us in this digital world, is becoming a mini-cloud of computing power hooked together over a common WIFI hub or a bluetooth connection or a physical wire. As we move from home to car to train to office and back again, we reconfigure our own little mini-cloud to get things done. The trend towards smartphones becoming remote controls for all sorts of other digital gadgets is accelerating this.

I suspect that the inevitable result of all of this is that application developers will increasingly have to factor in the idea that the "user interface" may be a hybrid mosaic of gadgets, rather than any one gadget. With some gadgets being the primary for certain functionality.


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