Apple Ushers in Era of the Fluid UI

34 Comments

It has been a while since I sat down with Angus Davis, co-founder of voice applications service provider TellMe. I have known Davis and his co-founder Mike McCue for years. We met in an era when most Oracle employees wanted to work at Netscape, where the two of them were. (These days I guess Google is the company on people’s wish list to escape the evil clutches of Larry 1.0.)

TellMe powers the 411 services at major telecom service providers, mobile operators and large corporations like FedEx. It is a boring business, but hugely lucrative, enough to make TellMe a likely candidate for an IPO offering later this year. But Davis dodged those questions, and instead we ended up talking about a staggering work of Jobs’ genius – the iPhone, which could also very well be Steve’s WaterWorld.

Given that Angus and I match John Madden in cumulative age, it came as no surprise that we were a tad cynical, and perhaps skeptical of the device that promises to do it all. After all, dialing a touch screen phone when driving is kind of difficult, and of course our senses have been programmed to use the 12-key pad.

Chattering like yentas aside, we did marvel at the phone’s user interface – fluid, dynamic and simple. The kind of fluid dynamism you can see in the Apple TV or on Front Row. It might be worth whatever it cost to build.

The New, Fluid Interface

The commonality amongst those three is their ability to bring into focus the feature or functionality that you want to use, and fading the rest in the background. The simplicity triggers usage almost intuitively. While these are three Apple products, they portend a new trend, the emergence of a more fluid and active user interface.

Apple is not alone in thinking along these lines, because you can find other examples, though not quite as polished or fully evolved.

The Nokia N80 and N73 have a multimedia key that opens up a multifunction window that is navigated using a tiny navigation stick. Some of the Sony Ericsson phones have an almost-dynamic UI, and so does the BlackBerry Pearl from T-Mobile; they only limit it to the Faves feature. A few phones from Samsung and LG have dabbled in this, though most have stopped short of Apple’s efforts.

It is easy to have a static interface when all you want to do is look up a phone number or send a text message. The emergence of the active and fluid user interface stems from the trend that the devices are becoming multifunctional, and complex.

One of the big challenges when it comes to adoption of converged devices has been their complex and confounding user interfaces. Citizens would happily sacrifice convenience of one-device-to-do-it- all in favor of simplicity.

This is especially so in the case of mobile phones that are now masquerading as everything from music players to Internet tablets. To navigate through the wide array of features using a classic user interface is quite challenging.

Intelligent storage drives and multifunction CE devices are also ideal for this new fluid interface, only exposing the functionality you want to use. The gaming consoles have been testing this idea and we can very well expect more UI experimentation in the near future.

Not Just for Devices

The fluid interface is not just for devices, and thanks to Web 2.0 technologies like Ruby and Ajax, you are also seeing the fluidity come to web and web applications, and perhaps it will soon trickle down to enterprise applications.

Netvibes and Pageflakes are good examples of rudimentary interfaces that depend on fluidity. Digg Spy and Cloud View are other examples of a fluid UI. The commonality between all these services is that they are dealing with massive amounts of information, just like the new CE devices.

The big interface shift is part of the technological evolution. During the last century, the automobile business started out Model-T but then evolved to different models, each with a different look and feel and a different dashboard, the UI of that business. It has continued to evolve and become more dynamic as complexity of the box-on-four-wheels has increased.

The computer business has gone through the same evolution. I remember the punch cards, the DOS interface, Windows 3.1, the Mac, the OS X, the Windows XP and so on. (Interestingly, the Xerox inspired icon-driven Mac UI changed the way we interacted with computers.) Computers had screen real estate and helped popularize the “menu” and “windows” system. But with mobiles and CE devices that menu-windows paradigm doesn’t quite work as effectively.

The fluid UI is the natural evolution. In an era where hyper commoditization is part of doing business, UI and by extension the user experience is the crucial barrier to entry. Apple’s iPhone is a collection of commodity chips, hard drives and whatnot dressed up in a pretty shell. It is the UI that makes it intriguing enough to worth waiting for.

Our skepticism about it being a potentially costly debacle aside, both Davis and I are waiting for the iPhone, just to get a close personal look at the user interface. (At least that’s my excuse for getting one!)

34 Comments

Apple is Overrated

The only thing Apple is successful at is growing a whole army of loyal sheep followers of its brand. Steve Jobs is overrated, and Fluid UI is nothing more than rebranding by Apple, a branding not company, not a computer company! Itunes succeeded because the music industry shut out Bill Gates and Microsoft because of their fear of Bill; not because they had a better product. Itunes inherently built a monopoly conspired by the Music companies and Apple, not through natural market forces. This is in contention right now in Europe. Steve is opening up the ability to copy music across players because he realizes growth is stalling. Microsoft people are 10x smarter and will eventually take over this realm as free market busts the monopoly open.

Prabhu

Like Paul DiCristina, I am interested in more formal definition of Fluid UI. If there is any info in public domain on methodology or Architecture, that would be most welcome.

Dedwarmo

Thymn Sinhell “I’m pretty sure fluid interfaces have been around prior to Max OS X … I disagree that apple ushered in the era of the fluid UI.”

Macintosh 1984
Windows 1.0 1985
Windows 3.1 1992

I am interested in the history of fluid user interfaces and I’d love to hear about innovations from companies other than Apple. Which user interfaces did you have in mind?

Paul DiCristina

From the discussion so far it sounds as if “Fluid UI” is a UI methodology with well defined principles and techniques that all of the commenters are familiar with. Can someone point me to a definition of this somewhere? Is the iPhone interface so different from what came before that it has defined a new UI methodology. If so, what are the hallmarks of “Fluid UI”?

anona

David: “But for people to claim that dialing a phone (or talking on a phone) is uniquely dangerous (as compared to driving activities which get a pass), well, that just isn’t logical.”

I didn’t say anything about dial&drive being uniquely dangerous. It has been the cause of many fatalities and as a result it’s uniquely, if you must, illegal. Neither is drink&drive uniquely dangerous. Yet it’s illegal as well. It’s utter nonsense and height of irresponsibility to parse these words. You shouldn’t drive and engage in distracting behavior, period. And we shouldn’t be finding ourselves encouraging people to switch to keyboard-based phones because they are somehow easier to dial while driving. That’s ridiculous.

Brian Lam

This is an old concept among those who cover gear. But a fresh one on a business site. Good to see it covered here.

Todd Sieling

Hi all; long time reader, first time commenter here.

I think Om and Angus’s observations about the fluid interface are spot on, and I hope we see more of this feel in Leopard. One thing I see is that these interfaces are also more tightly walled off from customization and adding your own content. I don’t much lament the lack of customization, but in Front Row I always feel a little cut off from the rest of my stuff that I think belongs there, and unless I’m willing to hack it in or do hours of conversion processing, that’s how it will remain to be. The streamlined flow works much better for grandparents and other neophytes, but sometimes leaves me wanting more. The iPhone has the same feeling, from the screenshots. Everything is very streamlined and smooth, but the apparent lack of expansion makes it feel kind of incomplete. This is the reality of appliance computing, though, and I think that’s what Mr. Jobs was pointing towards with is Gretzky quote at the end of the keynote.

Speaking of the iPhone and whether it’s innovative: this seems to be a real hot-word for people who don’t think it’s all that. The point of it is not whether the individual technologies in the iPhone have existed elsewhere. Instead, ask if you’ve seen select and pull together those technologies as well as Apple has done here. That is the innovation that they bring – selection and combination into a coherent and pleasant experience. I’d buy that for a dollar more than the competition; heck I’d buy it for a hundred dollars more.

Jim Teece

I use a Windows CE phone today.
It’s a cingular 8125. I paid $400 for it and $85 a month. I have a 2 year contract.
It has a touch screen. But I have to use a stylus to dial.
I cannot dial it well when I’m driving.
DUH!
We are not supposed to.

Voice Dial my friend. Voice Dial.

I find it funny all these opinions over Apple’s iPhone when I did not see any of the same on Microsoft’s CE enabled Smart Phones that own the market now.

I use it all day.
I use it to schedule, plan, talk and surf the web when i need to.
I just got it last summer.
I was very excited by it when I got it.
But in the end I can’t wait to get rid of it.
Steve was right, the killer app is the phone.

The Widgets will win too.
Stock, Weather, Maps are all I need on a daily basis on my phone.

IM and Mail are huge too. But I get my mail over Google Web interface. It works well for me.

Will the iPhone be perfect. Nope. Will it be multi generational like the ipod, yes. big difference is that we will be waiting two years in between each upgrade.

rdas7

“dialing a touch screen phone when driving is kind of difficult”

You guys are missing the point. With synchronized addressbooks, you don’t have to DIAL numbers anymore (or rarely). You will initiate calls with your contacts by touching their icon, or presumably shortcuts/gestures.

Speaking as somebody who has been using Addressbook/iSync for at least 5 years now (ever since the T68i), and now uses a 3G videophone, I can attest to the fact that as soon as you don’t have to, you’ll stop “dialing” numbers in the first place.

For example, most phones now have a recent caller list. To initiate a call with the people you speak to the most, it’s usually a question of “d-pad down, down, center.”

There’s always a need for it (meet someone new, see a billboard, etc.) but these cases certainly do not occur frequently on curves at 60mph.

I’m sure the iPhone will include some shortcut or direct-dial feature. And I can guarantee it won’t be pressing 8-1-1-5-5-5-2-3-4-5. It’ll probably be along the lines of: see grid of “favorite” contacts’ faces, tap contact. Or, swipe with two fingers means call boss, swipe with three fingers call home…

tyc76

another side effect with the touch scrolling is that finally i will be able to scroll nicely my left hand. other smart phones is a no go for lefty like me, if i use the stylus to scroll (which the scrollbar is on the right) my hand would block the whole screen.

David McElroy

Dialing while driving is no different from changing a radio station while driving. You can do it safely and responsibly OR you can be an unsafe idiot. It’s even the same with having conversations. Some of them can be involved enough that you don’t need to talk with someone in the car. The problem is when people don’t use any judgment about when to do certain things. But for people to claim that dialing a phone (or talking on a phone) is uniquely dangerous (as compared to driving activities which get a pass), well, that just isn’t logical.

Thymn Sinhell

I’m pretty sure fluid interfaces have been around prior to Max OS X … I disagree that apple ushered in the era of the fluid UI.

Vincent

I think Netvibes and Pageflakes are pretty much what B2E applications like web portal software (IBM WebSphere) have used as UI metaphors. I still think the examples above are not trully, “fluid” there still pretty static and basic when you start using the UI.

Vincent

.

tf

The important, but not overtly mentioned, conclusion of this piece is that competition to the iPhone is not in the device manufacturer’s hands. Or it could be… but is unlikely (most are and will remain dependent on others to provide the OS/UI).

People claim that Motorola, Samsung, HTC can and will respond. But all of these manufacturers are subject to and locked into the developments of Palm, Nokia (Symbian), and Microsoft for the most part. (Certainly at the high-end or “smartphone” end of the spectrum.)

Palm and Nokia have pretty much shown themselves to be inept and unresponsive in furthering the development of their mobile OSes/UIs despite having the advantage of developing the OS and hardware (since the intersection of the software and hardware is key as well). And Microsoft is more constrained by delivering the most open platform… needing to accomodate all devices and form factors.

Yes, the broader market has done some OS/UI work, but considering the focus on features and the commoditization of the market, I do not see how they will be “responders” in the market.

This puts the weight on Palm, Nokia, and Microsoft. Palm and Nokia seem inept and sluggish. Microsoft has been pretty rapid to respond, but by focusing on delivering a Windows-equivalent experience that is already pretty full-featured, it seems like it would be a large task to pare down and/or pivot their strategy to be innovative rather than familiar.

Brent

Yeah, nice UI.

I saw it first on the TiVo HD. I saw the feature focus strategy in UI design presented by Joshua Davis at Flash Forward 2000 over six years ago. I’ve seen every other feature/app afforded to the iPhone on various Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile devices in the previous decade.

How incredibly innovative.

Dave

I have voice dialing on my razr. It’d be a nice feature to see in the iphone, if it’s not already…

Om Malik

anona, and contrarian,

i think you are pretty much agreeing with me – if you have to dial a touch screen phone when driving, you have to look at it, and put everyone at risk. in a regular phone, at least you can dial the keys without looking at the phone.

more than that, i don’t like people who drive and talk on the phone as well. i don’t do it, and in fact i hate walking and talking on the phone as well.

so yes, i do agree that people should not drive and dial – but they do, and touch screen phones are only going to increase the risks associated with them./

Dempsey

anona, you can calm down now. Everyone knows you shouldn’t drive while … doing anything other than driving. The fact remains that even the best among us have to do that which is improper. Like blogging several times about an unavailable product in order to maintain a high pageview count.

Thankfully Om would never to either of the above. (insert winking smiley here)

Rock on Om. Totally agree with the fluid UI bit. Although I’m not sure the album art scrolling in iTunes is actually easy to us, but it’s cool to look at and that usually works for most people.

anona

“I wasn’t agreeing with the driving while dialing comment.”

So it’s OK to drive&dial?

Josh Wais

Just to clarify, I wasn’t agreeing with the driving while dialing comment. I was agreeing with your piece, Om : )

Josh Wais

I agree with you completely. What I find interesting, though, is what kind of impact the UI will have on the rest of the OEMs out there. As they struggle for differentiation, granted more so in the low end but higher up as well, the big three, Nokia, Motorola and Samsung, will have to either put up the money and the effort to hit up to par or take an alternate angle on the problem with either a different innovative UI design of their own or some other sort of equivalent value add. It’s a complex subject but without a doubt something we’ll be hearing a lot more about as the summer approaches and especially after we all get to play around with the device ourselves. I think it could mark a step forward in the industry, hopefully setting a higher bar for UI design and the user experience all together. This should give the dormant carriers a shot in the arm of the-users-demand-more, as well.

anona

“After all, dialing a touch screen phone when driving is kind of difficult,”

You should be ashamed of yourself to mention that so casually. Really. Look in the eye of a grieving parent whose child thought it was OK to dial and drive and tell us it’s cool to drive and distract yourself. I hope you find it in yourself to apologize for that. Totally uncool.

aswath

I also agree that UI is the major contribution of iPhone. But this also will put the devices in the driver seat for the carriers will not be able to introduce new features till the devices incorporate them into their UI.

Stephen

“dialing a touch screen phone when driving is kind of difficult”

Oh, wonderful. What roads do you drive on, so I can avoid them?

Om Malik

Josh, i have heard of PSP :-)

I had the whole bit on gaming but edited it out because it was getting bit too long. I am grateful for you reminder..

mark

it’s even more interesting to see the divide between those journalists/bloggers who understand the importance of the UI, and those who just go by the list of features.

anyway, one point I’d make is that advances in UI usually triumph over what came before. Altho the Mac was “first”, Windows copied it enough so as to win out over non-GUI interfaces. The iPod UI still hasn’t been copied because of the clickwheel patent. So I don’t doubt that a fluid UI like the iPhone will succeed, the question will be whether the iPhone itself will triumph, or a knockoff that avoids the iPhone patents and is good enough (like Windows is relative to the Mac) will be the winner.

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