The power of minimalism in technology

Timeless design minimal

By staying focused, you have a great chance of creating something great.

I’ve recently revisited one of the profound – what I consider – classics on my bookshelf, “Getting Real” by 37Signals, and I must say, even years later the book brings tons of insight into what I and other developers in the field can do better.

In “Getting Real” the author discusses the necessary “slimming down” of software applications, and how most of the software popping up is just way too bloated. That there is a lack of emphasis on doing just one thing great in applications. The author stresses the idea of slimming down, slowing down, and trying to be the best at that one thing that separates your application from the others. In hindsight, although this book was written years ago, this still seems to be plaguing the industry today.

Don’t get me wrong, tons of new start ups are honing their sights on to being the best at what they do, but it seems as though more developers than not, have forgotten about the simplicity necessary in an application, abstracting the companies focus. Although company profits are more than likely the primary motivator for useless addons, endless advertisements, and unnecessary services. it’s a shame that some developers forget that the user experience is what matters most. If using an application doesn’t feel good, people won’t use it – except for Facebook it seems.

FOCUS

Whatever happened to doing just one thing “right”, and being the best at it? I’m not just talking about desktop applications either, but applications on mobile devices and web apps (blogs, frameworks, tools) as well. Some of the bigger contenders on the web these days do seem to get that minimalism is important – maybe that’s why they are so big. Recent applications like Instagram and Dribble most definitely place huge amounts of emphasis on the ability to just share content – and they do it well. However the “big 3″ seem to be loosing focus. It only takes a little bit of analysis to figure out what brings loads of people flocking to the popular applications online and what about these applications help generate a noble following. One could argue that all the advertising that have been invested in these applications are what has brought them to fame, but on the contrary it seems to be that they have perfected the art of being deadly simple.

Minimalistic applications that focus on doing that one task great, yield better results and easily develop a stronger customer base naturally.

WHEN IT COMES TO SOFTWARE

If you’re working on developing an application now, or you have a couple lined up, try to keep in mind that the best solutions are almost always the simplest solutions. Really think about it. Do you need a giant framework to query a database, or can you write simple methods to handle your SQL queries? Keeping your software simple takes away the abstraction that can surround code. If you’re working on a project now, do you really need that new feature? What VALUE does it add? You may come to realize that it will fit better in the next project that comes rolling across your desk. In case you’re still on the edge with this one, let us take a look at one of the greatest achievements in physics of the 20th century.

e=mc^2

Beauty most always resides in an objects simplicity, while the Devil most definitely does in the unnecessary details.

Why I switched from iOS to Windows Phone and won’t be going back

windows phone 8 htc Why I switched from iOS to Windows Phone and won’t be going backWhy I switched from iOS to Windows Phone and won’t be going back

Before I start I want to say up front, yes I worked at Yammer which was acquired by Microsoft. However, I was considering a WP7 long before then.

I’ve been an Apple iOS user for a long time. I’d say for about five years. I have always been open to other mobile OS’s but for one reason or another none have really appealed to me. That is, until WP7. I never made the switch though because I was worried it was buggy or I’d hate the lack of apps.

So, what made me actually switch? My phone was physically ripped from my hands while waiting for Muni. This is a big problem in San Francisco. It wasn’t long before Christmas and my family and I had already bought a lot of gifts, so I didn’t have enough cash on me to get a new iPhone. Microsoft was giving away WP8 phones so I said screw it; might as well give it a shot. Fast forward a few months and I can honestly say I couldn’t be happier.

THE UI IS INTUITIVE

Unlike Android and iOS, most of the navigation takes place with gestures. You don’t have the ancient concept of “tabs.” Instead you have “panels”, which you swipe left and right to navigate. Most of the apps I use on a daily basis provide gestures for doing a lot of actions as well. Apps like Baconit (Reddit client) allow you to swipe left and right through posts rather than most iOS clients where you tap on an item, tap on back, tap on another, and so on. When you find a post you want to up or down vote you simply swipe up or down. Twabbit (Twitter client) has an entire section for setting gestures. Examples are two finger tap for replying and three to retweet. The hardware back button is also really nice since I always know how to get out of some place or find where I was.

THE UI IS REFRESHING AND BEAUTIFUL

I was getting so tired of the grid of icons. I’ve been looking at that since I got my Windows 95 computer. At the time iOS first came glossy, round corner icons were all the rage. After all, it was the web 2.0 days. Now it’s just boring. The skeuomorphism design breaks up apps and they have no real coherent style. I like being able to open a WP8 app for the first time and know exactly how to navigate the app. I’m also in love with the hidden menus at the bottom. You drag them up to see the buttons, but they’re hidden until you need them. Microsoft took a gamble with such a different UI, but I think they really nailed it.

LIVE TILES ARE SO SIMPLE, YET SO AWESOME

The tiles are easy to tap and provide lots of room for text and images to be used which developers use to create Live Tiles. Live Tiles are an ingeious invention that allow the app tiles to dynamically change. Some examples are the CNN app, which flips to show an image from a breaking news story with the title displayed on the tile. This has me opening the app far more than I ever did in iOS. The Bloomberg app will show a graph and stock prices of the stocks I own. This means I don’t have to open the app, if i don’t want to, to see the information I need.

IT’S REALLY FAST AND RESPONSIVE

It’s really, really fast. One thing that most people who play with my phone say is “wow, it’s really fast” or “it’s super responsive,” and it is. I use my wife’s iPhone and my iPod Touch from time to time for certain iOS-only apps, and hers feels sluggish compared to mine. Animations on WP8 are silky smooth and never stutter. On iOS I tended to notice slower performance when a lot of apps were open for awhile, or an app had a lot of data in it. Sometimes switching views, like opening a tweet detail view, would be sluggish.

…but it’s not perfect

With all that said, it’s not perfect. There are a lot of annoyances.

  • The lack of screen orientation lock drives me absolutely crazy.
  • It doesn’t have Instagram, which is a big problem for me and many others.
  • While I don’t have Facebook, my wife says the Facebook app is buggy and missing core features like sharing videos.
  • The app selection size doesn’t bug me, but the overall app quality does. They feel very amateurish.
  • Volume is a bit too quiet.
  • Many apps and especially games aren’t in HD, so they look blurry on Lumia 920′s and similar.
  • Most apps don’t have pull to refresh and instead waste space with a refresh button.
  • The hardware search button opens Bing instead of searching within an app. For example, in Netflix I wish when I clicked the search button it opened search, not Bing.

IE10 is a whole beast on its own. IE10 Mobile and the hardware back button don’t work so well. There’s no software back/forward buttons in IE10, which means to go forward you need to go into your history and if you close the app, open it, and hit back, it’ll close IE10 instead of going back to the last page where you were. On some sites, the small font sizes are huge. I think the designers were trying to help users by increasing small text, but this breaks some sites and makes the typography look terrible.

CONCLUSION

Despite a few annoyances, I love my Windows Phone. I enjoy just looking at the UI. I’m constantly customizing my tiles and I’m mesmerized by all the Live Tiles. Once I get Instagram and the ability to lock the screen orientation I’ll be completely happy with it. I’m truly surprised by just how much I like it. I really suggest you at least try one out if you’re an iOS user. You just might feel the same way.

Dropbox and the windowed ecosystem

A few days ago Mailbox, the unique and incredibly successful iOS email app, announced it had been acquired by Dropbox. The response from the tech community was an ostensibly unanimous declaration of approval. Generally, acquisitions of hopeful new startups are often seen as a conclusion to the underdog story, yet today’s news is viewed more as a continuation for that of Dropbox.

Ingrid Lunden for TechCrunch analyzed what this move means for the cloud storage company:

It’s a sign of how Dropbox wants to be more than just a cloud storage company. This is the other motif behind all of Dropbox’s acquisitions. Storage is the thing that people pay for now, but down the line there are two reasons why Dropbox would want to have more.

Reason one, she says, is to diversify revenue streams. Yet it’s her second point that is most interesting:

Alongside that, it may want to have more services to keep consumers on Dropbox’s platform rather than going elsewhere — just like Google, Apple, Microsoft and others do.

Maybe Dropbox is not only looking to expand its “platform,” but to develop an entire ecosystem.

I, like many others, use Dropbox as more than just a cloud storage system for a few on-the-go documents. Dropbox has fundamentally replaced my hard drive. Every piece of data I manage – whether it be a text document, PDF, or photo – is uploaded to Dropbox. I am thus able to open, edit, and save on any device I use. Abstractly, Dropbox functions for myself as a less literally-taken version of Splashtop, the Remote Desktop application. From every device I am able to access the core of data without the disparity of locally stored information.

Perhaps the next step for Dropbox is to create what I’d call a “Windowed Ecosystem.” In such as system, every personal file a user accesses is autonomously stored in Dropbox’s cloud under their own personal account. If integral in a device’s OS, there would be no need for a Dropbox app, it would simply be the file system of the device. The difference is, however, that any device the user accesses under their personal account will make the same data available to them. Thus, every device, every screen, a user accesses is like differently sized panes of glass; windows facing the same view. Software as we know it would be treated as hardware; as it is merely the interface attached the hardware. The true software would become the single point of access Dropbox gives the user for their data.

Yet if you look closely at the moves the largest tech companies have made, this Windowed Ecosystem is very much the goal for the entire industry. iCloud and SkyDrive are in-house attempts at implementing Dropbox’s already-established service. Google, however, is also building out this same system, just backwards. Being that all their services are based on the web, Google has created the scenery each window looks out to. It’s now up to them to develop the panes of glass; hardware which integrates with the data. Though Android isn’t made for this type of system, Chrome OS is.

Though we’ve grumbled that Chromebooks are machines purposed to only run a browser, it’s clear that this is fundamentally the architecture of a Windowed Ecosystem. If your computer’s desktop were to remain your desktop, your hard drive’s filesystem became Google Drive, and your media became Google Play, etc., then Chrome would simply return to function as your browser. If this were realized, Chrome OS could truly become the omnipresent OS of the future, execution of the Windowed Ecosystem, and Chrome OS as we currently know it would simply be an awkward missing link in this evolution for Google.

And like I said, Android isn’t made for this type of architecture. But let’s not forget that this happened. When you look at the big picture, Google’s many facets may now be loose strings in a cohesive knot that just needs to be tied together.

But the simple truth is that Dropbox really has the advantage. Dropbox can become the cross-platform Windowed Ecosystem. Apple, Google, and Microsoft should see CEO Drew Houston’s invitations for collaboration as business temptations of the devil. The platform Dropbox is creating would butt-out any native cloud implementation any of these companies wishes to pursue, and Dropbox has more-so the vision and understanding of how these systems work. Therefore, we, the users, should see collaboration as an opportunity for this system to be strongest; unhindered by any business-induced missteps of any of these companies are prone to make.

So what does all this have to do with Mailbox? Technically, nothing. But what the acquisition does prove is forward motion in the company. That, with email management now under its belt, Dropbox is working towards becoming more than just an app on my iPad and a folder on my computer. As Lunden said, the company is showing signs of evolving into something greater than just a cloud storage company. Tighter integration with web-based services within Dropbox will increasingly add bricks to the structure of a next-generation ecosystem.

Google Glass and the iWatch are the same thing

The last two months news and rumors about two new pieces of hardware have been the watercooler topics de jour. Google Glass and iWatch.

In the case of Google Glass we are beyond the state of rumors already. Specs seem pretty clear and a release is announced toward the end of this year. Bloggers have even had a chance to give it a spin.

The scope of the iWatch project is much less clear. If it even exists. However, considering the secrecy of Apple around its product launches this is not surprising.

So why these rumors, and why now?

Companion devices for your smartphone

If anyone attended last weeks Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, they will have noticed that smartphone technology has reached somewhat of a plateau. Devices made by newcomers such as Huawei or ZTE have the same capabilities like their Apple and Samsung counterparts. The main novelties are bigger displays and incremental improvements. The only mandatory feature still missing is NFC. This industry needs some real news!

Beyond that, focus has shifted from hardware to services such as information lookup, assistants, maps etc. Google Now, Siri are examples of that. Simplifying access to those technologies is paramount for future success.

Finally, the smartphone craze with status updates via Twitter, Facebook, etc., has reached a new level which clearly has its impacts on society through people pulling out their smartphones at any possible opportunity.

Devices such as Google’s Glass or  Apple’s iWatch could solve these problems by giving you quick access to relevant information in a stylish and unobtrusive way.

So the key insight here is that both devices fulfill the same function. And both devices will likely run as companions with your smartphone, which acts as the “brain” and “gateway” to connect to the digital online service world. The only difference here is the form factor. And with the form factor there will be different features.

Some core features like a screen, which displays current information, and voice input will be shared. But what about other sensors?

Form factor and implications for visual recognition

Glass has an integrated camera. Saying “OK Glass, take a picture” allows for taking snapshots without even having to open a camera app on a phone. Already at CVPR 2012, Sebastian Thrun (from Google’s equally ambitious self-driving cars project), reported about Glass and how it lead to another increase of pictures taken and shared (as if 300 million photos uploaded on Facebook per day weren’t enough already).

This means, that the digital companion hardware devices could increase demand for visual recognition solutions further. If they include a camera. Admittedly in the case of the iWatch the form factor of a wristwatch makes this hard to imagine. But you never know what the guys in Cupertino come up with. Let’s wait and see.

Rethinking the new Yahoo.com

When was the last time you ever checked out Yahoo.com? It’s been awhile, right? I’m sure by now you’ve at least typed that url in once to check out the new homepage design. How long did you stay and check it out? Probably not long at all. You see, Yahoo! needs to do a lot more than just simplify a few things here and there. They need change — exciting, surprising, bold change! You know, sometimes it’s really hard to believe that this site still has more than 700 million monthly visitors. What are they doing there?

I’ll admit, I was stoked when I heard Marissa Mayer was moving over to become the CEO of Yahoo! last July and had big expectations for anything new she touched. Well unfortunately, after this big launch, let’s just say I was on the site for less than 2 seconds and clicked away unimpressed. In those 2 seconds, the only thing I saw was the same old site with less of the cheap ads. It still feels like a 90′s website. It’s like a mix between Craigslist and an old Google design.

It seems to me like Yahoo! is trying to be more like Google in design. I personally think that’s a mistake. Yahoo! seems to be more of a news, entertainment brand. They should embrace that more and have fun with photography and type. I mean, seriously, they could have tons of fun with the editorial over there. Yahoo! could easily become the ultimate news site.

Anyways, in celebration of launching my latest project, PSDs.co – a place for designers to download Photoshop files I’ve created, I wanted to test for myself how hard it would be for Yahoo! to do something drastically different — something unique, memorable, simple, but not Google simple. Not even a handful of hours later I was able to create these two designs of what I would have liked for Yahoo! to reveal.

THE HOMEPAGE

Yahoo! is a entertainment/news source site. Don’t think of it as a search engine. However, at the same time, don’t count them out, either. It’s still a staple in their business. With my version of the homepage, I wanted it to be fun and personal. This comp below is showing what a logged in user might see when they land on Yahoo.com. Here’s a larger view.

new yahoo beyonce Rethinking the new Yahoo.com

It features a full browser width design. On the left, you have a few personal items such as your local weather, your favorite stocks, and even a few reminders that you left for yourself or that automatically show up through your Yahoo! email account. Of course, I needed to throw an ad in. Yahoo! has to make money, you know. Plus I didn’t want to cheat on the design either, hehe.

 Rethinking the new Yahoo.com

On the right, are new Yahoo! navigation tools which when clicked, change what appears to the left of them. When you first land on Yahoo.com, it’ll show the top latest news on the right. The big background image of Kanye is the featured news article. This featured area could be a big $$$ gainer for Yahoo! Imagine if MINI Cooper came out with a new car. They could pay Yahoo! the same cost as a Super Bowl ad to display it there. MILLIONS! (ideally for logged out users landing on yahoo.com.)

 Rethinking the new Yahoo.com

A cooler experience so far, right? Good. That’s what we’re after here. Something different that will make a user stay longer than 2 seconds to check out a redesign — something unique enough to want to explore.

Ok, now just to show how nicely the rest of Yahoo! fits into this design, I quickly mocked up a version of how search might look. Here’s a larger view of the search.

 Rethinking the new Yahoo.com

Just as you’d expect, more big beautiful imagery! To the middle, you’ve got the search results in a white column and a column of images and video beside it to the right. Anyone else hate to click “images” to see images? Yup. I didn’t think I was the only one. The first image could be the featured image that shows up on the left, unless Yahoo! could do some magic here with their talented engineers to make sure that image is always epic. Can’t be that hard, right Google…oh I mean right, Yahoo?

Notice two details here:

The search box never moved from where it was on the previous page.

 Rethinking the new Yahoo.com

Also the indicator on the right navigation now shows you’re in search mode. Nice, subtle details go along way.

 Rethinking the new Yahoo.com

Ok, so that’s my thinking for the new Yahoo.com. What’d you guys think? Feel free to leave some notes or send some tweets to let me know!

To leave you with this, Marissa says the new Yahoo! is:

“Fresh and dynamic and add an element of surprise and serendipity.”

Now, after seeing Yahoo! in a different light, what do you think? Does the current Yahoo.com feel fresh? How about dynamic? Surprising? You be the judge. Keep in mind, this is only a few hours worth of work and thought. Imagine how awesome we could make Yahoo! with a massive team of creative minds and proper time.