Apr 032012


This is an opinion piece to express my discontent for the feeling that “interfaces” should be consolidated and have one “look” and feel. This is utter rubbish and I will try to convey this distaste with a few examples. One should feel warned that if you do not enjoy reading opinion based content, you should stop now. This rant spawned from Microsoft’s push to force upon us a failure waiting to happen. So I will start with the tunnel vision of Microsoft, the success of Android and the failure of other interfaces on devices that I have used recently or shopped for.

Computers, Tablets, and Phones Oh My!

Microsoft is currently in a push to “unify” devices with the up and coming Windows 8. As a person that has had the displeasure of using the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a desktop as well as a laptop, I can tell you with certainty Microsoft will fail that goal. Let’s not forget that Windows 8 is not “new” in the tablet genre. Microsoft had “Windows XP Tablet PC Edition” as well as Vista and 7 running on tablets and “Windows Phone” running on phones. Granted, when XP came out, the tablet scene was not ready and the price of said tablets were beyond what people were really willing to pay. They also had an easily misplaced stylus as an input device requiring users to seemingly take a step back to pen and paper. As such, “tablet” systems have not taken off with Microsoft as its OS… and for good reason. Face it, Apple did several things right with the release of the iPad build around their iOS that spawned initially from portable devices. Unfortunately, Microsoft is going the other way and all new PC users will suffer as a result. Microsoft wants you to use Windows on your phone, tablet, laptop and desktop and it is not going to work. The only thing they are going to really accomplish is diminish market share and raise Apples stock price. Each of those devices do not need “the same” interface.

Windows 8 has the “Metro” interface (an uncomfortable replacement for the start button) that is big square and rectangle tiles (oddly enough, most are two colors) instead of icons, presumably, easier to “touch” with a touch screen computer or tablet. That is all fine and dandy if said tablet did not have any “other” functions that one comes to expect from a Windows PC, such as using Explorer to wander around the file tree. Said Explorer actually drops the Metro style full screen view and dumps back to the standard desktop that we have all come to enjoy (or at least put up with). In its current version, I cannot imagine actually using Explorer on a tablet as the interface just does not follow that type of interaction. What is even worse is that two different versions of IE are in use in Windows 8. One that is full screen if activated from Metro with the address bar at the bottom, and another one if on the desktop and opening up IE from there with the address bar at the top. How is this going to win over desktop users as well as tablet purchasers? Having the address bar at the bottom of a tablet makes a certain amount of sense… touch keyboards often appear from the bottom and it would be easier to glance right above the keys to the address bar to see what is being typed, but with the insane push of “apps” that are just short cuts directly to a website and the long standing bookmark feature, I find it hard to believe the address bar will be used often, but it still does not need to move from North to South for the average user. It makes for a confusing experience and just scratches the surface of how users will lash out at the OS and should not be taken lightly. I may expand more on this later, but off to my point.

Microsoft is all too familiar with epic failures in the past (Windows ME) and most recently with the release of Windows Vista. Vista was (and still is) a bloated OS that took a speedy XP on modern systems and brought them to a crawl. As far as the end user was concerned, it was just a pretty interface that caused this slowdown and consumers wanted answers. That answer was to give Vista users the opportunity to go back to XP, further advancing the overall opinion of the OS in a downward spiral. Oddly enough, people will probably bash Windows 8 for not being pretty, just as I did, but also discredit the usability factor on desktops… Microsoft’s current bread and butter. Why piss off your absolutely largest audience just to capture a small percent of users that are already very happy with the great alternatives available? Thankfully, Windows 7 fixed many of those nagging Vista performance issues and has resulted in a great OS that I use daily and I will guarantee that after only a short period of time, people will be screaming to get Windows 7 on their new PC’s shipped with Windows 8. Unfortunately for Microsoft, I also use other OS’s daily and they are not Windows based.

Android Success, WebOS Fail

In all honesty, I have not used any Apple portable products, so I cannot comment on ease of use, but I can comment on Android. With the release of the Motorola Droid, I was propelled from wanting a “netbook” as my movable computer of choice to just using a smartphone. The Droid did everything I wanted: email, surf the web, GPS navigation, Netflix streaming and a dizzying amount of other functions I use all the time. The interface was built from the ground up (just like iOS was) from a touch screen/portable perspective. As such, I feel it is pretty easy to use and highly functional for what I need to do as well as intuitive enough to pick up and not have to “figure out” how to do the simplest of tasks. Oddly enough, “tiles” are not a part of the interface. Multicolored icons are throughout and easily identifiable as such, not so with Metro.

During the HP fire sale of the TouchPad device, I was able to acquire one. Hey, it was only $99 and I wanted to experience the “tablet” type of device and see what I was missing. Come to find out, I was not missing much as the single most important function that I wanted a TouchPad for was to stream Netflix on a device larger then my phone while away on business. After purchase, I quickly (20 minutes) discovered that no Netflix application supports WebOS. I tossed the TouchPad on my desk and left it there for several weeks. I even tried to pawn it off onto family members that wanted to try a tablet out, but they knew that if I am dumping technology, it is for a reason… or lack of purpose.

One faithful night, I decided to see if I could make my TouchPad useful. I rapidly discovered CyanogenMod as an alternative ROM for the TouchPad. Usually used to “root” and get rid of the default flavor of Android on a device, this is installed along side of WebOS. First I used CyanogenMod 7 (Android 2.3) but recently, CyanogenMod 9 (Android 4.0) has hit “Alpha” stage and I gave it a shot as well. The TouchPad now completely rocks. I use it often to stream Netflix via wireless networks where ever I may roam. Not only does Android have a successful interface on a phone, but Ice Cream Sandwich is great on a tablet. I could not be more happy and looking forward to the advancements the CyanogenMod team does.

It should also be worth noting that I use a WebOS powered phone for work. Yes, it does what it needs to do, but since HP dropped support for the devices, they won’t be advancing any time soon. The marketplace for WebOS is a ghost town and not many applications are available. The interface works, however, as the way it zooms out and swipe to scroll left and right through open applications is great. Just a flick to the top closes an application from the zoomed out view. Somehow, I wish that feature was available for ICS… oh wait… it is. Hitting the app selector button brings up a thumbnail listing on the left hand side of all applications running. A quick swipe to the right closes the application. Good innovations do live on, even in an alternative form.

The Death Of The PS3… How I Miss Thee!

Not to long ago, my PS3 that I purchased new upon first release died. Best that I can come up with is that it had a heat related issue and I did not wish to pay for it to be fixed. After all, for the past several years, the only thing I have used the PS3 for was to play optical disk movies and stream Netflix. I can come up with a replacement… I think. I do not have the money for a new PS3, so I had to figure out what I could do with what I already had.

I am well known for doing silly things with old hardware. At one time, more then a decade ago, I had a computer hooked up to my TV to watch DVD’s as I did not have a dedicated DVD player. I used a wireless mouse for controls and all was well and good. It worked for what I needed it to do. So, I decided to take one of my old laptops with a DVD player, put Linux on it and hook it up to the TV so I can stream Netflix. After several hours of banging my head against the big screen TV, I found out that Netflix only supports Silverlight on PC’s and it is not available for Linux due to DRM. What?!? Okay, I get the fact that Silverlight is a MS flash wannabe, but my thought of using a Linux PC for streaming Netflix was busted and I was pretty pissed. Even though it is technically possible, I looked for alternatives that, once again, I already had.

I turned to the XBOX 360. Unfortunately, the XBOX 360 requires a Live subscription to stream Netflix that I was not willing to pay for. Another unfortunate aspect of this adventure was that I updated the XBOX with the latest version available and the GUI turned into a strange, 3D avatar infested mishmash of… you guessed it, two colored tiles. Want to experience the prequel to Metro? Look no further then the kiddy interface on the 360. Another chink in the XBOX’s armor is the fact that mine does not play Blu-Rays, but more importantly, I wanted my Netflix back, so I turned to the Wii.

The Wii does not play Blu-Rays either, but at least I can stream Netflix without any additional cost. I should mention here that I don’t use the Wii. It was purchased for my wife, so I have not had the displeasure of using the motion controllers much. I did play Tetris by plugging in an old-skool style controller to the Wii wrist strapped uncomfortable bricks, but didn’t use it often enough for me to remember why I hated it. Oh, look! A bunch of square tiles! At least these had rounded corners! I then downloaded Netflix, activated it and off I go. I actually used this motion interface for a week before throwing the controller across the room. I cannot stand the Wii controllers and I could not even search for movies or browse for more. This sucks.

I then went to the local Walmart to get a standalone box to play optical disks as well as have the ability to stream Netflix. I landed on, what I thought, was a good deal and will suit it’s purpose and brought it home. It was a Sony player, so I figured that the interface would be compatible to the PS3 that I so miss. It was, sort of. It was slow as running through quicksand. I could not search or browse movies, only view my queue and streaming HD was not working. Even though YouTube was an option, I could not view the favorites that I have saved (music videos). I took it back and almost purchased a new PS3 with money I did not have, but I didn’t.

A friend of mine caught wind of my distress and offered up his Samsung player he was no longer using to take care of duties. It works, but not that well. The PS3 streamed wonderfully via wireless but the player does not have a wireless option. I now have a 50′ CAT5 cable running through my house from the player to the router. At least it does HD, but the interface for Netflix? No searching or browsing movies. Oh how I miss the PS3! The PS3 saves my point in my show watching and this player does, kinda. If I do not pause it in the middle of a program, it will randomly pick 1 of 100 episodes that I already watched and call that not viewed and I start from there. When a person is on episode 78 and it decides to pick 31 as its starting point… it gets annoying quick. After viewing a program, it gives the option of playing the next episode, but if you wish to wander back to the queue, not find anything worth viewing at the moment and jump back to what you just watched, the next episode is, again, a random pick. Crazy annoying crap, really. At least the interface on the player is basicly functional, which leads to my next point: “Smart TV’s”.

Smart TV’s?

Picture this: a college student is living in a 10′ by 10′ square (tile) and needs all the extra space and shed any electronic equipment that is not needed. That leaves me out. In the back of my mind, I want to get a TV to hang on the wall in the computer room. I want a TV that streams Netflix and can be connected to a computer at some point. No problem there, until I casually went to Walmart and discovered what I want was out of my price range (and more then a PS3). It has been (and still is) in the back of my mind, but I know that any “smart” TV that I get will have some crappy interface, slow as can be, and just be barely functional to even call it smart.

Enter Samsung. I was caught watching live TV when a Samsung commercial for their new smart TV’s came on the screen and I could not fast forward. It showed people standing in front of the TV and waiving their hand in front of them to move a cursor on screen as well as go from an open palm to a clenched fist to click. Are you serious? But wait, you can even talk to it. Uh, what? Yeah, I just laughed. I then looked up Samsung’s website to see what other craziness it can (or cannot) do. Come to find out, it has a bunch of built in features and has alternate input methods, such as a remote with a built in touch pad/microphone and a keyboard with a touch pad. Great, but I do not like touch pads either. At first opportunity, I plug in a mouse to my laptop to completely avoid using the touch pad at all. In certain Samsung’s propaganda videos, they even state that this new interaction is “fun”. Well, call me an old fart, but I do not find waving my hand around to be a fun way of messing with a TV or talking to it to make it do anything. Maybe that college student might enjoy it or a Kinect/Wii user, but I sure don’t. Oddly enough, the touch screen interface on a phone is just what the doctor ordered. I have no problems using it, via thumb. Oddly enough, it feels like a natural interaction vice a finger running over a touch pad. Depending on the actual size of the small remote control, it could be a usable alternative for me. If not, thankfully, a TV producer does have (acceptable) options available, such as the “like a Bluetooth mouse” from Panasonic.

Hey TV manufactures everywhere, I will give you what I think is the best option available: Bluetooth mouse. Let me connect a Bluetooth mouse to the TV so I can sit it on the coffee table and move it as I see fit. It is a tried and true method of interacting with desktops that, I feel, does not need “reinventing”. Granted, this option may not be great for everyone, but at least give the option. If you can engineer a camera on a TV that recognizes faces to “login”, you can let me connect a damn mouse to it.

Until that point… I will keep my dumb TV and only connect smart things to it… or at least try.

-Black Viper