Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Apple of my iPod

For years I have scoffed at those who walk around with headphones on, seemingly lost in whatever audio environment is more compelling than the real physical world around them. But no more. When I switched (again) to walking and public transportation as my primary means of commuting, I thought that listening to audiobooks and music would be a perfect way to make additional use of the time.

After weighing my options, I got an iPod Touch for several reasons. Although it's not the most capacious device in Apple's lineup, the 16Gb version is pretty roomy. Also, I really wanted to try the multi-touch screen interface, and, with the January Software Upgrade, the new PDA-style applications for it.

Suffice it to say, I'm very impressed. The Touch UI is all that it's claimed to be, and more. There are some inconsistencies across applications (e.g., in Notes, you have to touch left and right arrow buttons to turn pages, instead of just swiping your finger across the screen), but on the whole, it really is a new and dramatically better way to work with a handheld device.

I'm also undecided about the on-screen keyboard. It works reasonably well when I hold the device in my left hand and "type" with my right index finger. Apple recommends using both thumbs for typing, but I found this much too error prone. Apple also suggests using the on-screen display to view the letter being typed, and changing it if need be, before lifting the thumb/finger from the screen. This runs counter to all my learned behaviors for typing, so I'm not sure if or when I'll adapt to this.

The question this device raises, however, is what is an iPod Touch. If it's a music player, it has too little storage and too much irrelevant functionality for the price. If it's a PDA, it's missing important applications (e.g., To Do lists), and it's too difficult or impossible to synch across multiple computers. For example, with my phone/pocket PC (T-Mobile Wing, as mentioned elsewhere), I can synch with my Mac at home (using Missing Sync for Windows Mobile from Mark/Space) and with my Windows XP machine at work (using the included ActiveSync software from Microsoft). That way, I only have one address book, one calendar, etc.

Interestingly, the iPhone doesn't have this dilemma. It's a smart phone that can play music. Take away the phone capability, though, as in the iPod Touch, and you're left with a weird hybrid device.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gee! Mail!

Let me start by saying that I'm a mainly a fan of GMail, Google's Web-based e-mail program. I use three different e-mail programs (for reasons I'll elaborate on some other time), but GMail is certainly one of them.

One of the cardinal rules of interface design is Don't move buttons around! Buttons should be in consistent locations from screen to screen. This is largely because of what's affectionately known as muscle memory ... the ability our bodies have to remember physically how to perform an action. It also has to do with consistency in general, which makes interfaces more predictable and hence easier to use.

If, for some reason, you have to move buttons around, the worst thing you could do would be to reverse the meanings of the buttons. For example, if you have a "Save" button on the left and a "Delete" button on the right in one screen, you don't put the "Delete" button on the left and the "Save" button on the right in another screen. You can imagine the consequences.

With this in mind, I now present, without further comment, two portions of screen shots from GMail. The first is the button row at the top of the "Inbox" view:

The second is the button row at the top of the "Spam" view: