Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The "First Screen"

Earlier this year, Olson acquired MyThum and created a new company, Olson Mobile.
In the announcement, the CEO, Kevin DiLorenzo, said "Mobile devices are no longer the third screen, they have become the first. And they’re the only screen we carry with us everywhere."

I think he's mostly right. But I think the whole "three screens" thing is meaningless in terms of interface design.
Nielsen Company started the whole idea of "three screens" to describe the changing viewing behaviors of consumers. The three screens they talk about are TV, computer, and mobile.

I can see how they got there: in the world of commercial video, those are three separate platforms with separate licensing and content delivery models. And of course, screen size is something Nielsen can measure...

But if we ignore the publishing and licensing models, and look at how the screens are used, I think we can create more meaningful classifications:

Big Passive:
"The new shrine in the office" by Helen Keegan
In this scenario, the screen occupies a large portion of the viewer's field of vision and has a limited interaction. We are all familiar with this model from traditional television. Sitting and watching with a remote in hand.

I used an Apple MacBook Pro as my primary television for about a year. Even though that would be classified as an "Internet (computer) screen" in Neilsen's "Three Screen" model, when I used it for video, it was a passive experience with a remote control.

A smartphone or portable gaming device held a few inches away fills a similar part of the viewer's field of vision as a television across the room.

Currently, the input systems on most of these devices include a limited number of inputs (remote control, game controller buttons, virtual buttons on a touch screen, or menu selection buttons).
Content is longer form, because of the passive user interaction.

I don't think long form, passive, programming is going away. But I believe we'll see some evolution in the controls. Video and audio inputs will become an important part of these interfaces moving forward.  Your TV will watch you. Your phone will respond to facial gestures and voice. You won't even need to use the remote.

Active Drive:
"invisible iMac" by William Hook on Flickr
This is the traditional computer interaction. The user sits in front of a rich input array like a keyboard and mouse. If you're like me, you have even more inputs.

The user drives all the action. Obviously this is the model for  "working" on the computer, but this also the mode for games. This type of interaction can occur on any sized screen: Large TVs with game consoles, traditional computers, games on touch devices or even simple games on "feature phones."

The user is constantly, typing, clicking, tapping, or pointing.

Video content is often short form because the user has many other options and can easily "click away."

"Android Tablet" by Tony Maro on Flickr
In this mode, the user interacts with the screen for seconds, not hours. Often, the user will not even initiate the interaction. The most fleeting experience would be digital signage. No user interaction, seconds to convey a message.

Traditional television advertising and web ads also follows the "no interaction" model.

But some short experiences are directed by the user. Most informational websites are requested by the user, but then get a short amount that user's time to tell a story.
The web interaction can happen on any device with a responsive browser, but "Apps" are also filling this short-attention role.

Many advertisers want to convert these "drive-by" experiences into longer interactions but I think that is a mistake. Television ads didn't need to stop the show, and I don't think online ads should either. Interrupting the user's plans, in my opinion, is just rude.

Window (Augmented Reality)
There's another type of screen interaction coming down the road, where a portable screen with a camera acts a "window" into the real world. The user can add information to, or virtually interact with a real-world scene. We are just starting to see early designs for this type of interaction, but the hardware needed is available in the current crop of devices. Whether this sort of interaction becomes its own mode of use, or whether it just becomes a context for one of the other modes remains to be seen.
"044_Augmented Reality Tablet Video Stills" by Gary Hayes

But not everything even needs a screen for feedback. There's a lot a of research to be done in non-visual feedback systems.  I've always thought the perfect phone would have just one button and respond to voice commands.

When designing content, we should concentrate on the nature of the content and the level of user interaction - not the size of the screen. I ran into this earlier this week when someone explained that their "mobile" site didn't run ads because they didn't fit on the smaller screen. If your business plan requires advertising, and you can't display ads on some screen sizes, then you probably need to fix your business plan.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

These are Not the Clouds You Are Looking For

The pendulum swing towards "cloud" computing may soon reach the end point and start swinging back to local storage.

The swing started with a single computer...

In the early days of computing, we all used dumb terminals to connect to a central computer.

"PDP-11" by ToastyKen
That started to change with arrival of minicomputers like the PDP-11, where you only had to share your computer with a few people.
Then we got to the "personal" computer with things like the Altair-800 and the Apple ][. No sharing at all!
We fulfilled Purnelle's Law: "one user, one CPU."

In the 80's and 90's the Personal Computers got more and more powerful. Multiple processors and graphics cards concentrated the computing power at each user.

The pendulum reached an end-point sometime in the early 90's when we started networking computers. Centralized data inside companies and email moving across the public Internet started the swing back away from computing at the user.

When the Internet  became accessible to regular people, we started seeing the pendulum of computing power move away from the user's workstation and back towards centralized servers.

Larry Ellison of Oracle has been promoting the "thin client" model of computing since the early 1990's.
In this model, lightweight terminals connect to high-powered centralized servers.

Thin clients aren't supposed to be full personal computers. They don't have drives or much local storage, but they do have enough computing power to run rich graphic interfaces.

The rise of the Web changed this direction slightly by letting pretty powerful personal computers readily access data and services on remote servers.

What most people refer to as "cloud computing" nowadays is just a virtualization of these remote servers.

But storing your data on a remote system requires enough bandwidth to store and retrieve that data. New services like Google's Music and the Amazon Cloud Drive require a ubiquitous Internet connection.
Consumers' barely have enough bandwidth for these services now, and the ISPs are constantly lowering bandwidth caps and raising rates.
This does not bode well for the Ubiquitous Internet. It will become less practical to use remote storage for a while as the telcos and cable companies squeeze consumers.
Netflix streaming video service and OnLive's remote game services could really eat up consumer bandwidth allotment.

At the same time, local storage is still growing. While spinning drive capacity growth has slowed slightly, I believe that is caused by limitations in operating systems suppressing demand for larger drives.
The adoption of newer operating systems and the popularity of high-def video content will push the demand for local storage and we should see capacity catch back up the historic rate in a couple years.

Expect to see at least 10 terabytes in your pocket by the end of the decade.  If we move from spinning disks to solid-state storage, capacity could grow even faster.

With bandwidth getting more expensive, and storage getting cheaper, the pendulum will probably begin to swing back towards local storage and computing.

Combine that with neighborhood networking like that envisioned by Bob Frankston, and we start seeing a real cloud forming. Every household shares in the bandwidth and shares in the storage. File storage becomes highly redundant and durable.
We already see this sort of storage available with services like Windows Live Mesh and Symform which spread your data across multiple nodes.

But until we get to this mesh, I predict the pendulum will move towards local storage with occasional synchronization over wifi. Streaming will be reserved for special content because of the extra cost.

But once everything is in a peer-to-peer mesh, we will swing into a new golden age...