The iPhone may be my favorite device of the last ten years. No other gizmo since the PC has so fundamentally altered the way I interact with the web and my social circle.
But the iPhone’s ubiquity in the mobile space scares the living daylights out of me.
It frightens me the same way I’m frightened by the deceptive feeling of serenity that blankets me as I continue to surrender more and more of my data to Google (current buddy, future megalomaniac). The thought leaders at Apple have crafted an experience so warm and fuzzy it’s nearly impossible to escape its allure, even as it wallops all of its competitors.
I simultaneously sing the praises of the Semantic Web (often at the expense of rich media plugins such as Flash and Silverlight) while gleefully supporting dozens of apps delivered via the iPhone’s closed, draconian marketplace. The irony (hypocrisy?) therein is not lost on me.
It seems pretentious to avoid these products solely on insular, geeky principal, so I continue to champion competitors in hopes that a superior device will emerge or, at the very least, keep Apple under enough pressure and scrutiny to maintain their innovation and avoid sinking into mediocrity (remember?).
I had extremely high hopes for Palm’s WebOS, but a still-floundering app ecosystem coupled with some truly strange hardware choices appear to have sabotaged its chances. While I have much more confidence in the Android OS as a powerful and capable mobile device standard (especially in the long-term), the platform seems troubled by a lack-of-consistency between devices and the same snore-inducing, incremental release cycle that eventually tempered my excitement for ambitious open source projects like Ubuntu.
It could just be my ignorance of the platform, but as the iPhone becomes increasingly capable at performing business tasks I begin to look upon Blackberry users as I did AOL users ten years ago—with a feeling of solicitude generally reserved for endangered species.
What we need is a platform with a distinctive and decidedly un-iPhone-like user experience (an iPhone killer killer), produced by a company with experience facilitating ecosystems yet still capable of supporting a wide range of hardware and service providers.
Did you just say Windows?
That’s right, Microsoft showed off Windows Phone 7 Series this week, and it looks great. The minds responsible for the well-reviewed Zune HD have re-designed the mobile operating system from scratch. Designers like myself who admire the HD’s interface are thrilled, but considering the Zune’s marketshare could be very generously described as having a “lack of ubiquity,” it’s a brave (and admirable) move to hand them the keys to Microsoft’s mobile future.
Instead of forcing the user into disparate applications specific to function (iPhone) or allowing the user to multi-task until their poor little phone grinds to a halt (Android), Windows 7 Phones establish contextual hubs of interest. If you want to see what your cousin has been up to this week, you don’t have to check email, Facebook, Twitter and chat in separate apps; simply tap “People,” then select your cousin’s profile. This style of traversing your media and social circle is extremely thoughtful and appears to be well-executed. I know it won’t please everyone, but I’m certain a percentage of the population will instantly prefer it.
The interface itself looks completely unique, at least if you’ve never used a Zune. Subtleties like highlights, shadows, soft corners and texture are completely absent, allowing only color, typography and your content to show through. While occasionally abrasive (especially in the calendar application), it’s a striking choice that’s extremely memorable and looks beautiful in motion.
It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. The browser is still Internet Explorer, albeit the improved (but sluggish) version found in the Zune HD. Until Mobile IE supports the same sort of HTML5 features that have enabled web app developers to deliver rich mobile experiences to the iPhone and Android devices, Windows Phones will still be an obstacle in the evolution of the mobile web. Perhaps most depressingly, hardware actually supporting this OS probably won’t debut until Christmas, and who knows what may have changed by then.
Aside from the platform itself, what excites me most about this announcement is that another Apple competitor has finally shown they’re awake. Watching Apple merrily stomp ahead with Android slowly gaining ground and Palm off in the distance is becoming tiresome.
But an Apple/Google/Microsoft/Palm slugfest? I’d pay to see that.
It’s common geek knowledge at this point that Google Wave is named after the predominant method of audio-visual transmission in the tragically short-lived science fiction series Firefly (and it’s feature film sequel, Serenity). What’s ironic about this association is how much Wave, at this stage of development, reminds me of Firefly character River Tam.
River (Google Wave) is a prodigy, exceedingly gifted in nearly every respect, consistently one-upping her older yet still talented sibling Simon (Gmail). As striking as her abilities are, they are only experienced through a fog of schizophrenia and instability. While Simon lacks any of River’s psychic insight, he is nonetheless remarkable and ultimately more reliable.
Okay, maybe I’m stretching the metaphor a bit. My point is that Wave has really cool moments, but they’re fleeting in this early state. While I haven’t experienced the rampant bugs reported by other users, I have noticed that the interface leaves a lot to be desired (it’s shockingly similar to Microsoft Outlook, neglecting the emphasis on conversation Gmail achieved), and things become cacophonous when a conversation has many participants.
What I dig about Wave are the live conversations, the ability to structure those conversations in any order you please, and the freedom that plugins give the service. What’s wonderful about these high points is that they aren’t unique to Google’s implementation of the Wave platform. Remember, Wave is an open source creation aimed at replacing email as a standard, with Google’s offering the inaugural product. Regardless of the current user experience, one can’t deny the capabilities of the service, which any group of enterprising designers and developers could leverage into something truly wonderful.
That’s not to say we should necessarily write off Google’s interface at this early stage of development. Sure, it’s a little loopy, but who knows? It might kick email’s butt after all.
Like so many geeks on Twitter, I’ve been shamelessly begging for a Google Wave invitation. I’ve heard numerous tales of the product’s rampant bugginess, but email feels so broken in the wake of the initial demo that I can’t help but pine for its modern, collaborative goodness.
In spite of this, I realize my wait will not end with Wave’s arrival. The service will likely taking many years to establish itself as the ubiquitous standard it aspires to be. I can’t just ditch email and twiddle my thumbs until that happens.
Here’s how I attempt to thwart email’s crappiness and continue to maintain that Merlin Mann nirvana that is Inbox Zero.
I choose Gmail for its massive (and ever-expanding) storage capacity, the ability to send email from my personal domains, the versatility gained from “tagging” messages with labels, and the freedom to access all that cool stuff via POP3, IMAP and Google Sync for free. No competitor even begins to compare at this point and, even if they did, Gmail’s the easiest to escape from should you ever wish to switch.
In accordance with Merlin’s inbox makeover article, I immediately move every email I receive out of the inbox and into an action label after a brief skim. This protects me from workflow disruptions and insures that Gmail’s inbox and archive are used faithfully (for unsorted and archives items).
I prefix my action labels with an underscore so that they’ll be at the top of Gmail’s labels and any folder view in another application. They are:
I then follow Adam Pash’s lead and organize all other labels into Contexts and Projects, abbreviated to ‘C’ and ‘P’ respectively. Contexts might be something like “Events” and “Appointments,” whereas Projects refer to things like “New Web Site,” “The Big Account,” etc.
Once all your conversations are nicely organized and you’ve got a great bird’s eye view of your actionable items, Firefox users may want to install FaviconizeTab and Gmail Favicon Alerts for at-a-glance incoming mail alerts without additional applications.
I highly recommend using Google Sync, which gives you push mail, calendar and contacts from Google’s services. There’s nothing quite like the warm, fuzzy feeling you get having incoming messages pushed directly to that red badge on your home screen.
If you must have full multiple label goodness on your iPhone, or if you already have an Exchange ActiveSync account associated with the device, you should definitely use Gmail through mobile Safari. It does nearly everything the desktop version does (including offline support) and trumps the default mail app in numerous ways.
Postbox is Thunderbird with super powers. The interface is much more polished and boasts great features like tabs, attachment aggregation and social network integration. In many ways it’s the email client I wish Thunderbird was (and hopefully will be).
Setting up Gmail in Postbox is a snap. The big “archive” buttons acts as you’d expect, conversations are threaded, and the search accepts Gmail-like arguments (such as “from:Mom”).
Unlike Thunderbird, Postbox is a commercial application that’ll set you back $39.95 for a single license after a 30-day trial. Luckily, they’re nice enough to give purchasers a discount to hand out to friends, so the first ten people who purchase using this link will get ten bucks off that price. You’re welcome.
But I still wouldn’t mind playing with Google Wave.
I’ll even trade you a Typekit invite. Anyone? Update: Thanks to Ryan Williams and Chris at Studio 625 for the invites! I’ll publish a reaction to Wave soon.
This week’s web site redesign came with a set of custom-tailored social networking icons for easy sharing of articles and portfolio items. Inspired by Rogie King’s excellent social media network icon pack, I wondered if I, too, should unleash these little sixteen-pixel lovelies into the web design wilderness. With encouragement from Peter Wooley, Jim Gray and Vin Thomas, I’m doing just that!
The Ice Cream Social Icon Pack is a set of twenty 16 square pixel PNGs representing your favorite social networks, including Delicious, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, Google, Lala, Last.fm, LinkedIn, MySpace, NewsVine, Reddit, Stumble Upon, Technorati, Twitter, Vimeo, Virb and YouTube. Generic icons for feeds and email are also included.
Update: Ice Cream Social Icon Pack 1.1 is now available with even more icons.