Natural user interfaces - notes from the field

Last week I was once again hustling through a brutal travel week (10,000 miles in the air and two packed red-eyes) when I came across something really interesting. It was ~ 9 AM and I'd just gotten off AA flight 4389 from Toronto. I was a bit bleary eyed from a 4 AM call with a Finnish customer and was just trying to schlep my way to the Admiral's club for a cup of coffee when I stumbled across Accenture's Interactive Network display at the juncture of terminal H and K.

 

THis is a picture of a screen for the Accenture Interactive Network, at American's terminal at O'Hare

 

So what? You might ask, it's just a big screen and we already know our future is minority report -right? Yes - those of us in the echo chamber might know that, but what really struck me was watching my fellow travelers and how they interacted with the display. I sat and watched for about 10 minutes (while forgetting about the sorely needed cuppa joe) and just watched people as they started to walk past, then pause, then go up to the screen and start playing with it. On average folks would stay for a few minutes and read some of the latest news feeds, then hurry on to their next stop. But what I really found intriguing was how they interacted with the system:

 

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"Cloud" is the Missing Ingredient for a "Third Device" iPad Strategy

Apple pitched the iPad at launch as a third device that consumers would use alongside the PC and the phone. While the iPad has genuinely innovative software and hardware, Apple has done little new to make the device easy to use in tandem with existing devices, beyond what is already in the iPhone. Consumers must sync the iPad using a cable with PC/Mac iTunes to transfer music or videos; while photos and podcasts are easiest if loaded the same way.

Apple has left too much in the hands of consumers to transfer and manage manually. For example, if a consumer wishes their video viewing position to be remembered across their devices, then they must sync first the iPad with iTunes, followed by syncing their iPhone or iPod. Contrast that with Amazon's Kindle: Whispersync maintains a person's reading position automatically between Kindle apps on PC or iPhone and Kindle eReaders.

The same issue hits multiple areas on iPad from games' scores and progress, the reading position on Apple's own eBooks, and the preferences of Apps downloaded from Apple's App Store, email, calendar and contacts.

There are workarounds for some of the above from app developers. Games built with the Plus+ network essentially have their own cloud service built in. Consumers may sync Calendar/email/contacts with a cloud by using a specific provider such as Google apps, a corporate account with Exchange, or Apple's own MobileMe. Other apps have their own app specific cloud abilities like Evernote or the iPhone/iPad Kindle app.

For iPad to really fly, preferences, usernames, passwords, and content should transfer automatically across the different devices that Apple intends consumers to use together: PC, phone, and iPad. Apple should use a consumer cloud to do it. Consumers should not have to think, all of this should just work. Tethered sync is a twentieth century product feature.

If Apple does not extend its consumer cloud services, iPad will rely on a patchwork of cloud services to deliver the third device experience. But, as a consumer cloud is essentially software, Apple could easily fix all of these things mid-life for existing iPad owners. iPad is after all very much a version 1.0 .

Every time I think of the iPad as "the third device," the image of Orson Welles from the film the Third Man appears in my head:

"You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

iPad is no cuckoo clock, but it's not, yet, a Michelangelo either.

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