Wednesday, August 15, 2007


A conversation I had recently reminded me of some views I've long held on the subject of user interfaces, or UIs. For most people, the term UI, or GUI (graphical user interface), conjures up images of dialog boxes, choosing fonts and colors, and deciding what a piece of software should look like.

These are part of the process, but the real user interface is the conceptual, or cognitive, model that is instilled in the user. This model dictates the user's understanding of what data is being presented and manipulated, and sets the user's expectations about what effect different actions will have. Every single feature of the design of a product must establish and reinforce that conceptual model.

Consider the difference between draw programs and paint programs. Both are designed to let users draw pictures on the computer. Yet the underlying representations of those pictures are completely different. A draw program allows the user the define geometric representations of shapes, which can then be displayed in various colors, patterns, etc. Adobe Illustrator is perhaps the best known of these, though there are plenty of others.

A paint program, on the other hand, stores everything as pixels ... tiny dots of colors arranged like tiles in a mosaic. The user's actions will affect the color of individual pixels, but once these are drawn, there's no concept of shapes, underlying geometry, etc. Pictures from your digital camera fall into this category, since they're just made up of colored dots recorded by the camera. Adobe Photoshop is the best known example of this.

Each of these models, draw vs. paint, or vector vs. bitmap, has some features and some limitations that the other does not have. So, over time, the more successful programs have tried to shoehorn in various features that expand the capabilities at the expense of keeping the model pure. Photoshop has paths, and text, and other non-pixel data. Illustrator has smudging and blurring and other effects that use pixel-level manipulation.

Adding features is not a bad thing, but complicating the models makes it much harder to learn and use the software. Sure there are plenty of people who become expert in Photoshop or Illustrator or both, but it requires a lot of dedication and time to do so. The conceptual models are not simply anymore, so the user interface is more complicated.

Later, I'll talk more about these draw and paint models, and suggest some other ways to look at the problem of representing pictures.

Thursday, August 2, 2007


The commonplace greeting, "What's up?" is evolving in two directions at once. The monosyllabic mob have shortened it to simply " 'Sup?" an interrogative that sounds remarkably like a dinner invitation to my aged ears. On the other hand, the apostrophe averse favor the edgier "What up?" sans contraction.

Since I'm a uniter, not a divider, I propose the convergence of these two forms, in the interest of preventing further splintering of our language. I suggest we all adopt "Tup?" as the preferred form of this largely rhetorical question.

Similarly, plying the same metonymical trend that leads to calling business people "suits," we could refer to doctors as "scrubs."

So "Tup, scrubs?" might be the hallmark of a new millenium Bugs Bunny.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

You Phonia

I know in the past I've recommended cargo pants as a great way to deal with all the electronic gadgets we tend to haul around with us now. The more pockets, the better. But this does not apply to bathing suits. Bathing suits should not have lots of pockets. Maybe none!

On a completely unrelated note, my Treo 600 went for a swim while I was on vacation last week. Smart phone? Ha!

So, of course, this gave me the opportunity to reassess the state of cell phones, PDAs, smart phones, etc. Overall, there are way more all-in-one gadgets out there than there were when I got the Treo two years ago, and many of them seemed very capable.

Of course, the much touted Apple iPhone was the first one to be considered. But there were two drawbacks:
1) AT&T's mediocre service reputation, and
2) Newness. Unlike the tens of thousands who lined up to grab in iPhone the day they came out, I'd prefer to let the technology mature a little, and get the kinks shaken out.

I wound up going with a T-Mobile Wing. I was already a T-Mobile customer, and they are the only ones to offer what I consider the perfect plan: Unlimited data and 0 minutes of phone calls. I'm much more interested in being connected to the internet than in actually talking to anyone. (See the title of this blog.) And when I do want to make a call, I don't mind paying the 20 cents a minute or whatever it is.

Now the Wing itself has several pros and cons:

PRO: It's Windows Mobile, so it syncs up very well with standard MS desktop applications like Outlook.

CON: It's Windows Mobile, so it doesn't sync very well with the MacBook Pro I'm now using as my main computer.

PRO: Mark/Space ( has Mac software called Missing Sync which can sync with Windows Mobile.

CON: Missing Sync only works with Windows Mobile v5 and earlier. The Wing runs WM6.

PRO: Mark/Space has a new version in beta that will work with WM6.

CON: I have yet to get sync working at all with the Missing Sync beta. It doesn't realize the device is connected.

So, I'm still struggling with this, but I'm optimistic. Sync with my office Windows XP machine has been relatively trouble free. (I tried installing the MS ActiveSync software on WinXP running under Parallels on my Mac, but it failed to install. Maybe I need to break down and upgrade to Parallels 3.0, but I'm peeved at having to shell out another 50 bucks only a couple of months after paying $80 for the previous version.)

Otherwise, this phone/PDA/whatever-they're-called-now device has been wonderful. The Outlook "Today" view, which I always found incredibly annoying on a desktop PC, is actually a pretty handy one-glance summary. And I like the fact that I can deal with actual files, instead of just PalmOS applications.

I still don't have e-mail working quite the way I'd like. I want to read only new, unread messages from both an IMAP server and from GMail, and I'd like to have two delete options: local only, or local plus server. There may be a way to do that. I downloaded the GMail Java applet for reading mail, but it won't run due to a missing certificate. I'll have to look into that further.

But the best part of the Wing is, of course, the cool blue, rubbery finish. It feels really good in your hand. Go play with one at a T-Mobile store.