Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Mobile sacrifices that build better products

Every single piece of software that is built is designed to work best with the hardware that supports it. That is the idea, at least. Be it an entire operating system, an application, or just a tiny background utility, this same rule always applies.

Take Microsoft Windows, for example. The user interface has been designed from the ground up to perform best in the standard desktop environment (mouse, keyboard, etc). Every single component in the operating system is designed to provide the best experience with the hardware that we use it with.

And after the graphical user interface was first introduced, this fact just became part of the big picture. Software worked well in the environment that had been created, and no further thought was required. But came the day when a problem arose. As smartphones were slowly creeping in, an entirely new type of system was required. There was no longer a need for a mouse, and in many cases, there was no physical keyboard either. This was a totally new computing environment.

So the OS providers had to go and sacrifice their existing systems and invent an operating system that worked more efficiently in the mobile environment. This was the sacrifice of mobile. It was recognised that a mobile device is supposed to be an all-in-one device that is portable, lightweight and easy to use on the go. And once Apple made their historical move with the introduction of the iPhone, realisation sunk in that styluses and related external components were to become a thing of the past.

But what is truly amazing is that out of this initial dilemma, of having to totally rethink the OS, came products that were, in most cases, far better than the products they started with.

But it’s not perfectly obvious what makes these products better. People who joined the mobile community in recent years only see what they hold in their hand; they weren’t around when mobiles were first developing and don’t know just how painfully bad mobile OSs were when companies tried to mirror the PC interface model on mobile (Windows Mobile, for example).

So what great functionality came out of the “mobile sacrifice”?

A better, more streamlined user interface
The best example perhaps is the Windows Phone OS, the successor to Windows Mobile. Microsoft spent many years trying to create a mobile OS that worked and looked just like Windows. In an attempt to make a fresh start, they created the Metro UI. A mainly text-based UI featuring very few icons resulting in a far less cluttered screen. The result is an OS that is incredibly easy to use with the hardware.

Apple and Microsoft are mirroring their mobile interfaces on their desktop systems, with Windows 8 and Mac OS X (see article: Back to the Mac?) and Hewlett-Packard have spoken of plans to bring their mobile system, WebOS, to the PC as well. This seems like a backwards approach and is proof that the mobile interface is far more logical and user friendly even in a desktop environment.

Application Repositories
The task of browsing and downloading from sites that aren’t optimised for mobiles is pretty irritating. The solution was to create a place where all the apps for that platform would sit. This also opened up opportunities for money making on both sides (OS provider, and developer). This form of application distribution has grown to become extremely popular over the last few years (see article: The App Trend).

Built in components
Smartphones have many built in components (camera, gyroscope, GPS, etc) which enhance the way we interact with the technology. This sort of functionality levels the device’s capabilities in some cases beyond that of a PC. This also opens the doors for software and technologies that can’t even exist on the desktop, such as Augmented Reality and Barcode Scanning.

I find it really incredible what has been achieved here. I’m sure rebuilding an OS is quite a mountain to climb, but it was definitely a worthy action if it actually enhanced the way we see and use the combined technology. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we see the death of desktop OSs in the near future.

Raffi Maurer
Follow me on Twitter: @raffimaurer


Anonymous said...

Well said!

David Solsker said...

It changed my life. After work I never use a computer.

Bill Mayers said...

The success of smartphones has finally given these companies a financial reason to get rid of their bloatware OS's and start again. We will all benefit from this.

Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see how the tablet market affects operating systems also.

James Walliams said...

Although battery life is an issue - smartphones are a little bit quicker to boot up than a PC! Maybe if the desktops booted as quickly that functionality alone would be a transformation.

Rick Holmes, USA said...

Never before have you had so much in a single package. Basically it surpassed the desktop because a desktop cant be a GPS, it cant have a location services feature, it doesnt always have a camera, and most improtantly it cant be used as a normal phone (minus VOIP). So portable devices were always going to eventually shine, lead the way and reflect back to the PC environment rather than the other way around. Nice article!

Yoni said...

I don't want to see the death of my Desktop OS. I have been running Windows 95 for 16 years now and still have yet to find anything better! :-)

Keep up the good work man!

Rakhi Dave said...

Nice article! Well written - the only place where I think desktops still reign are for enterprise systems e.g. ERP/Supply Chain
Keep up the good work

Natan Slifkin said...

Good article. The only way that the Windows near-monopoly on desktop OS might be broken is by an operating system that evolves from mobile devices.

Gershon Hepner said...

Dear Raffi,

Interesting reading - especially for someone who has never (yet) OWNED a mobile phone!

Kol Tuv,


israemploy said...

As a non techie living and working in a techie world I can honestly say that when I go to buy my first smart phone you will hired as my consultant!

Keep up the great blog

Chaim Emmett

Mohamed Fayaz Khan said...

Great article Raffi

Regardless of whether or not you owned a smartphone, your argument is very well though out. I am hugely impressed with the way in which you approached this.

Keep up the great work!

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