Posts Tagged ‘user interfaces’

Does HTML5 mean the end of the road for Gears, HTA and Flash?

March 10, 2011

Web standard HTML5 contains loads of great features, from video playback to drag-and-drop. But the best bit, and currently one of the least talked about elements, might be the capability to run apps offline.

The normal web experience is hindered by connectivity. Users can typically access web apps while they have a connection to the internet. Once offline, individuals lose access to email, calendar or notes. There are, of course, workarounds. Google Gears, for example, allows users to navigate compatible sites offline and synchronise when back online.

Microsoft HTML Applications (HTA), meanwhile, is a Microsoft Windows formalisation that provides a web-like experience offline. And Adobe Flash can also be run offline, allowing users to run Flash-based content.

Such workarounds are OK but they are also a bit messy. People want the same experience online or offline; they want to get hold of – and manipulate content – regardless of location and they don’t want to be hindered by platform specific technologies or plug-ins.

HTML5 provides that standardisation. Its two–pronged approach re-connects the user through an SQL-based interface for storing data locally, and an offline cache that helps ensure apps are always available (see further reading, below).

With regards to availability, HTML5’s application cache mechanism provides the ability to have a fall back page for rendering pages when offline. It also provides a means to update cache dynamically. The key, here, is client-side management.

And without wanting to bang my own drum too loudly, it is a rhythm I have been hinting at for a long, long time. I blogged two years ago (see further reading) about client-side management as a method for keeping data in the browser, rather than the server, and as means to reducing memory and processing requirements.

“If only it was supported as standard by the browser rather than having to use hidden fields,” I concluded – and now that day is fast approaching. HTML5 creates a standards-based method for creating local apps that run offline.

As mentioned earlier, HTML5 also provides the ability to store data locally through a client-side SQL database. A series of apps could potentially work with this database, providing a new level of accessibility and integration.

The total approach represents a huge step forwards for web development. It also signals that the end is nigh for proprietary workarounds like Gears, HTA and Flash. HTML5 is the future and web developers simply must get with the program.

Further reading:

Getting apps to cope with different screen sizes

March 3, 2011

Take a ride on public transport and it’s like a game of spot the smart phone. Instead of passing time by reading a paper, more commuters choose to spend time connecting, searching and playing on their web-enabled devices. Soon we will see more and usage of tablets adding to the mix of screens. Then at home and in coffee shops we’ll soon see intereactive web TV’s when screens will get much bigger.

Much has been written, including by me (see further reading, below), about the challenge of trying to write apps for different platforms because of their different operating systems. For the business and its developers, differences in operating systems can be frustrating. Designing a successful iOS app is only half the battle. What about Android, Windows, Linux and BlackBerry?

Worst, however, is still to come. While analysts and experts concentrate on the problems of designing for multiple operating systems, they also often miss out another – potentially bigger – problem: screen size.

The increasingly crucial challenge for app developers is how to get an one to display appropriately across a range of screen sizes without having to recreate pages for different platforms. And that is a real challenge.

Large vendors have already talked about how to cope with the trend. Microsoft created its “three screens and a cloud” vision, which concentrates on how software experiences will be delivered through cloud-based services across PCs, phones and TVs.

Now Google is preparing to join the action, too. In December, details of Google’s next version of the Android operating appeared on the web (see further reading). The supplier started demonstrating how the system, referred to as Honeycomb, will work across multiple form factors.

More specifically, the system promises support for higher resolutions and boasts a frame-based interface that should allow the apps to run on a phone and a tablet, while being perfectly optimised for both. The result is that developers should be able to create one application that works on a number of screens.

Apps will have fragments that a pltform can choose to run depending on screen size and apperance. The result is something like a best-fit solution; an approach to technology that will allow the user to have a consistent user experience across multiple platforms.

That is also an approach that is familiar to edge IPK, with our edgeConnect system dividing a solution into numerous components that are called on-demand. The result is maximum performance and a series of components that can be used and re-used to reduce development cost.

Dealing with multiple screens can seem an added complication to the problems associated to dealing with multiple operating systems. There is no need to panic, however. Vendors are taking steps to design component-based systems for the mobile platforms of the future.

Further reading:

Birth of the User Experience Platform (UXP)

January 15, 2011

Regular readers will know I have an interest in the user experience. Actually, it’s more like a passion – so, what’s next for web and user interaction technologies?

 Gartner has answered that question in their recently released hype cycle paper on the next generation web (see further reading, below). The cycle itself raises some interesting issues and trends, not least the potential horror of ‘Web 3.0’ – which the analyst suggests could be an ambiguous and unhelpful term.

 In other areas, Gartner is able to be more precise. The analyst recognises that the web continues to evolve along multiple dimensions, such as social, mobile, programmable and real time. Such developments are taking place outside and within the business, causing growth on an unprecedented scale.

 Much work, however, still needs to be done. Too many workers at too many companies remain unaware of methodologies and processes that can be used to help improve the user experience.

 Understanding the user is everything. Giving users the platform that meets their needs – and inevitably the power to tweak that platform via end-user computing – will sort the web-enabled wheat from the business chaff.

 Once again, that is a trend recognised by Gartner. The analyst suggests that a series of trends, such as context-aware computing, the mobile web and the cloud, are of particular interest right now. However, it is their take on user experience platforms (UXP) that is most significant.

 Earlier in the year, I said I expected the pendulum to swing towards UXP in 2010 (see further reading). That foresight now looks spot on, with Gartner tagging the emerging concept of integrated technologies that help deliver user interaction in its hype cycle.

 The analyst suggests the UXP is developing as a critical platform, which represents the convergence of presentation layer technology. It suggests the UXP helps provide consistency and integration, helping users to have a similar experience across multiple platforms. A UXP, in short, provides significant efficiencies.

 Gartner suggests vendors have been slow to match demand and that the market will emerge through 2013. Some specialists, however, are ahead of the game – and the analyst’s hype cycle identifies edge IPK as a UXP vendor.

 Once again, it’s nice to be proven correct and even better that our good work is recognised. My advice is to take a look at the UXP now; it’s increasingly a business necessity and you will be way ahead of your competitors.

Further reading:

Make sure your UI is not lipstick on a pig

December 13, 2010

Are you working on the next generation user interface? If you are, are you designing for multiple devices or are you simply putting lipstick on a pig?

 There is a lot of development work underway with regards to handheld and tablet devices. There needs to be, too – everything that has happened during 2010 continues to point to the long-term dominance of mobile computing.

 Apple pushes more and more new devices, Google’s Android has become an operating mainstay and Microsoft – probably the first company to really suggest that the future of computing would be tablet-based a decade ago – want to muscle back into the action.

 Attention in the media has recently been directed to Microsoft’s move into the mobile space. The firm is likely to have a busy end to the year, with the buzz surrounding the anticipated release of Windows 7 Mobile and a possible tablet device (see further reading, below).

 For now, Windows users will have to be content with development around the margins. One such development is UI Centric’s custom Windows 7 tablet user interface, codenamed Macallan. An article analysing the UI (see further reading) claimed the results were “pretty incredible”.

 The custom interface is still to be released, so claims of yet another “iPad killer” are very much up for debate. But the UI Centric development – and other potential Windows 7 Mobile devices from manufacturers such as LG, Samsung and HTC – shows that the mobile market continues to evolve and grow.

 What UI designers must avoid as the mobile market emerges is to “put lipstick on a pig”, as one anonymous poster commented with regards to the UI Centric Windows 7 tablet. That seems harsh with regards to “Macallan”, which at least demonstrates the strength in potential of UI designs that are created with a particular device in-mind.

 One of the key principles of a successful “multi-device strategy” must be to design for the device. The mobile market remains extremely fragmented and UI developers will have to think of how users will get the best of a particular device with a specific operating system.

 As I have mentioned in my blog before, the smart guys are already moving from a mobile strategy to a multi-device strategy. What is important – rather than the device itself – is the wider approach being taken, which demonstrates how applications and data must be accessed in a similar format on different devices.

 Design for the device but always think of a multi-device strategy and how elements can be ported and re-used. Fail to think in such a manner and you could find that you’ve even managed to put the wrong lipstick on the wrong pig.

Further reading:


Some screens are better than others…

October 5, 2010

What’s your most important screen? Which device – regardless of application and information – is most important?

 Your business has probably spent years developing multi-channel strategies that allow customers to interact with your firm online, offline and by phone. But now, the level of online interaction is changing and organisations need to prepare multi-screen strategies.

 Microsoft has clearly been considering such strategies and started talking about a three-screen strategy towards the end of last year (see further reading, below).

 The company’s “three screens and a cloud” vision concentrates on how software experiences will be delivered through cloud-based services across PCs, phones and TVs.

 The software giant believes the approach will lead to a programming model that helps create a new generation of applications for businesses and consumers. That belief is spot on.

 Non-believers only have to think about how providers have worked to ensure the new generation of social apps – Facebook, LinkedIn, Spotify – are accessible online through various platforms with different screens.

 As I have mentioned elsewhere, the message for developers is clear: do not make the mistake of creating an application for a single platform. In the future, successful developers will have to accommodate applications to fit more than one screen size.

 In fact, the multiplicity of variable screen sizes is such that Microsoft’s three-screen strategy might be a few screens short. While the underlying sentiment behind the theory is right, big name providers are creating new ways to present information.

 Apple’s iPad is an obvious example, a device that sits somewhere between the pocket size smart phone and the laptop computer. Other less-hyped innovations are always entering the market.

 Take Intel’s recently announced Classmate PC, a hybrid device for education that offers the capabilities of a touch screen tablet and the usability of a netbook (see further reading).

 Some developments leave me to conclude that it’s too early to state that the three screens of PCs, phones and TVs will dominate our lives. Information is being provided in a series of ways across a range of forms.

 Convergence of screens is still far from a reality. Personally, I think we will be using far more than three screens – and the way that most people use a screen will vary depending on the device, location and a range of other contexts. As I have regularly suggested, context awareness is going to be a crucial element in the ongoing development of devices.

 While some people will like the option of having a phone on their watch, other individuals will want a different type of portable device that offers the option of a high quality, rollout screen.

 The end point, of course, will be convergence. Think forward and you can begin to imagine a situation where information on various screen forms is holographically projected. For now, however, such concepts remain dreams for the next generation.

Further reading


Can the BBC afford to take their eyes of HTML5?

October 4, 2010

You sometimes read an opinion that stands out and stops you in your tracks – and the below sentiment from a senior BBC executive about the next major revision of the HTML standard left me stunned.

 “I have concerns about HTML5’s ability to deliver on the vision of a single open browser standard which goes beyond the whole debate around video playback,” says the BBC’s future media and technology director Erik Huggers (see further reading, below).

 That viewpoint takes a negative approach to a fast-developing and – most importantly – open standard. The World Web Web Consortium (W3C) recently released the latest HTML5 draft specification, which will include native video support and will reduce the need for additional plug-ins and enhancements.

 It is a crucial step forwards. Providers currently take a disparate approach to web development, using a varied sample of codes, styles and plug-ins to produce the user interface. Such fragmentation often produces a disappointing web experience, with users aware that different browsers have different capabilities.

 HTML5 could be the start of something different. The standard already boasts some big backers and impressive features. Take Apple’s Steve Jobs, who is a passionate advocate and refers to HTML5 as the new web standard (see further reading).

 Microsoft, meanwhile, recently performed W3C Web Standards tests on the forthcoming Internet Explorer 9 (see further reading). For its part, Google has been using HTML5 to enhance the web-based version of Gmail and has even coded a Gmail-themed ‘shoot-em-up’ in HTML5 (see further reading).

 Most of the IT world, therefore, is preparing itself for an inevitable switch to HTML5. Apart from, it would seem, the BBC. Is the organisation right or wrong?

 Criticism of the BBC centres on the suggestion that its support of Flash belies broader support of open standards. Huggers suggests the organisation’s use of Flash is not a case of BBC favouritism and is the best way to deliver high quality video experience to the broadest possible audience. 

 More specifically, Huggers believes there is still a lot of work to be done on HTML5 before the BBC can integrate it fully into its products. But while work does need to be done, progress is remarkable.

 I believe Huggers is wrong to suggest that HTML5 progress is sailing off course and slowing. Backers are lining up to support the standard and, as stated above, the latest revisions to HTML5 have only just been released.

 The bandwagon for HTML5 has started to roll. Organisations either jump on now or get left behind. Way too many people want open standards-based solutions for HTML5 not to be a success. The BBC should not let its current requirements for video playback distract its attention away from the fast pace of web development.

Further reading:

The new King is “Context”

July 12, 2010

It’s good to be one of the first to have an opinion on a fast-developing scene. At the turn of the year, I offered my thoughts on context-aware computing (CAC), an area of technological development that is beginning to be hyped as the next big thing in IT.

 I had an early stab at a definition in that blog posting, saying CAC is associated to the concept that technology can sense, and then react to, the environment. Since then, the cacophony of hype surrounding CAC has continued to swell. 

 Analyst Gartner has continued to develop its thought leadership in the area. Leading publications have also started to write at-length about CAC, including a Computer Business Review feature that drew on my experiences and feelings.

 In that article, I offered an opinion that I will develop below – that context-aware computing, which is closely related to location-based services, can help with the creation of a single user experience. Sounds great, but at the moment the technology is not ready for such a giant leap.

 Location-based services (LBS) are the popular, media-friendly side of CAC. Users of Twitter and Google will be well aware of the proliferation of data feeds and apps, such as Foursquare, that provide information in relation to a user’s location.

 Smart firms are beginning to think about how they can use LBS to push relevant offers and opportunities. So, as you hit a certain part of a town, a restaurant chain or coffee shop could push special deals to your mobile device.

 Gartner predicts the LBS user base will grow globally from 96 million in 2009 to more than 526 million in 2012. For business, then, LBS is an area well worth exploring.

 Being able to target the customer at the right time is a tempting concept; what company wouldn’t want to increase customer loyalty through increased collaboration? But there’s a snag – and that’s where true CAC comes in.

 The key word is context. More than just being about location-based services and presence on mobile devices, true CAC is social – it understands you, your needs, and relates those desires to time and location. The right information/offer, at the right time, in the right place, on the right device !

 Train delays are automatically connected to your morning alarm; offers at your popular lunchtime haunts are pushed to your mobile location; and nearby friends are identified for a post-work pint. True context-aware computing, therefore, is about the provision of many different types of information on any device.

 There’s a lot of room for innovation and businesses must spend more time analysing the potential of CAC, rather than the hyped area of mobile apps. Context, after all, is much more powerful.

In the online world I expect Context to usurp Content as the next King.

Further Reading:


User Experience Platforms: Get your processes right first

July 5, 2010

If you want to get the user experience right, you will need to concentrate on processes before you start worrying about selecting the right supporting web development tools.

 As mentioned in one of my recent blog posts, more providers and businesses are paying attention to the user experience platform (UXP), a framework covering skills, processes, standards and technologies for User Experience.

 Major analysts, such as Gartner, IDC and Forrester are already paying significant attention to the user experience. Expect that attention to become more focused, because UXP is likely to become one of the key business IT phrases during the next year-or-so.

 There is likely to a great deal of focus on how web applications are designed and which tools will help produce a customer-friendly experience. But building the application is only part of the problem.

 While a focus on development and technology in UXP is important, your business will actually need to place most of its focus on process and measurement first– and a series of supporting applications will be needed.

 First, creating wireframes and visualising the application long before it is fully developed as an application is absolutely crucial. Prototyping – and being able to modify the code simply to meet user needs – is the key here.

 Second, user experience metrics tools will also be significant in assessing usability. Without the correct analytical tools, how will you measure user satisfaction and make the right modifications to maximise the efficiency and effectivness of users?

Third, apart from usability your marketing team will want to validate that you have adopted their online branding guidelines. You don’t want to upset the marketeers, they hold most of the budget when it comes to UXP.

 Fourth, you will need to provide a series of supporting documents. Providing the right documentation through the whole design process is a fundamental tenet of providing a strong UXP.

 Finally, you will need to provide the right test ground to check how the application works in different browsers, is not open to security issues and performs well for during maximum usage.

 If that sounds overly complicated, think again: establishing the right UXP is far from simple for a reason. In short, the right presentation layer relies on the right underlying processes.

 All these elements must be considered long before you worry about the development tools – such as Microsoft Silverlight or Adobe Flex – that will help you build your perfect web page.

 Get the processes right and you will be able to meet customer-friendly web applications that meet a broad range of users expectations and tastes.


Mobile Delusions Part Two

June 21, 2010

Lest you forget, 2010 is the year of the mobile device. It’s a subject I blogged earlier this month, and it’s a subject I’m returning to now in order to add further clarity.

That first blog on mobile delusions tackled the thorny issue of return on investment (ROI). In that posting, I suggested that busineses must think carefully before rushing head first into mobile development.

Well thought-out business plans, I suggested, will always win in the long run. That statement remains as true as ever; in fact, its resonance has increased as the proliferation of different smart phones continues to rise.

 If you’re asked to think about handheld devices, it’s more than likely you’ll think of one specific phone and operating platform. That selection might be pushed by your personal preference for a BlackBerry or Nexus One, but the vast majority of people will immediately think of an Apple iPhone.

 Why is the iPhone so all consuming? Consumer and media hype certainly helps: you don’t see national TV news coverage of people queuing round the block to get hold of a new BlackBerry device. For Apple, every new device is a national – no, global – event (see earlier blog on the iPad).

 Apple has been smart. It’s beautifully designed gadgets appeal to a ‘fanboy’ mentality, where the ‘Twittering’ elite will have you believe that each new Apple device is representative of a new era of social and technical development.

 To be fair, some of Apple’s devices are great. The iPod helped make digital music a portable reality. It’s continual development through the iPhone showed how openness can spawn great application development.

 But the iPhone is just one device in an increasingly crowded marketplace. According to analyst Gartner, Apple’s iPhone represents just under 15% of the global smart phone operating system market.

 The proportion, although significant, lags well behind Research in Motion and Symbian, the latter of which still accounts for almost half of the smart phone market. The conclusion is simple: developers will have to look beyond the Apple ‘fanboy’.

 An app designed for an iPhone should be easily portable across all mobile operating systems. Considerable market fragmentation means an app that has limited appeal for one group might be more attractive on another platform, particularly for BlackBerry users that desire enterprise interactivity.

 Which brings me back to the difficulties of getting an ROI from mobile development. Fragmentation and differentiation means you need to be learning about how you can make mobile pay.

 And the best way to create an ROI is through web-based apps that can easily cross platforms, rather than platform-specific software.


Gestures to Help the Business

June 3, 2010

Business IT is now all about the consumer. The CIO faces a series of demands from employees keen to use high-end consumer hardware and software in the business.

 Such demands present significant challenges, such as technology integration, fears over openness and potential security risks. When it comes to the continued development of these challenges for leading executives, there is good news and bad news.

 The bad news is that consumers – particularly those entering the business – are only likely to become more demanding. With converged technology in their pockets and detailed personas online, blue chip firms will find it difficult to lay down the law for tech-savvy users.

 However, the good news is that the next wave of consumer technology is also likely to produce significant benefits to the business. Take Project Natal, Micorosoft’s controller-free entertainment system for the Xbos 360 console that should be released by the end of the year.

 Motion-controlled technology has been in-vogue for gamers since the launch of Nintendo’s Wii in late 2006. The system, which allows the user to control in-game characters wirelessly, has been a a huge commercial and technical success.

 Natal is likely to take such developments to the next level, giving Xbox 360 users the opporuntity to play without a game controller – and to interact through natural gestures, such as speaking, waving and pushing.

 Maybe that sounds a bit too far-fetched, a bit too much like a scene from The Matrix? Think again – early demonstrations show how the technology could be used in an interactive gaming environment.

 But that’s really just the beginning. With Microsoft pulling the strings behind the technology, Natal is likely to be provide a giant step towards augemnted business reality – where in-depth information can be added and layered on top of a real physical environment.

 The future of the desktop, for example, will be interactive. Employees will be able to use gestures to bring up video conferencing conversations and touch items on the desktop to bring up knowledge and data.

 Employees in the field, on the other hand, will be able to scan engineering parts using their mobile devices. Information send back to the head office will allow workers to call in specific parts and rectify faults.

 The implications for specific occupations are almost bewlidering. Surgeons will be able to use Natal-like interactions to gain background information on ill patients; teachers will be able to scan artefacts and provide in-depth historical knowledge to students.

 The end result is more information that can be used to help serve customers better. And that is surely the most important benefit of next-generation consumerisation.

 Further reading