Platform Wars are a Waste of Time

Mac vs PC. iOS vs Android. Automatic Transmission vs. Manual Transmission.

Since the dawn of technology, the platform wars have raged. The decision to use one system over another has somehow become suggestive of the character of a person. If you’re a Mac user, you’re suddenly labelled an “Apple sheep”. If you’re a diehard Windows person, then you’re associated with someone who does “real computing”, is “uncreative”, and a “numbers person.”

These labels serve no purpose other than to perpetuate a divide within technological circles, oft exploited by marketing teams to propagate one platform over another. They’ve been used to attack not just the flaws of a platform, but the people using these tools. Most frustratingly, they obscure the fact that no matter the characteristics of a particular platform, technology today has become so advanced that it is sometimes indeed indistinguishable from magic.

Here’s the thing: technological progress has been so dramatic over the past few years that it really doesn’t matter what platform you use. Especially in creative fields like design, cinema and photography: most applications are cross-platform, and the platforms themselves proffer enticing options no matter whether you’re macOS or Windows.

I grew up on Windows, and have programmed some significant (well, significant for me) projects. My prefered platform for the past 8 years has been macOS. I have very personal reasons – as many people do regarding their tools of choice to get the job done or to unwind with. These range from certain intricacies with macOS: the way applications are managed, the overall user interface, window management, the robust industrial design of Mac hardware, a trackpad that has yet to let me down and means I don’t have to always rely on an external mouse to get most design-related tasks done (and that even augments my mouse when designing on macOS). There’s also the comfort factor: I’ve grown very used to the Mac way of doing things. The list goes on, but it is indeed very specific to my own use case. The beauty is that I’ve been able to install the “best of both worlds” on my MacBook: I can experience the things I love about macOS like the Finder and the Alfred search extension, whilst simultaneously using Visual Studio on a Windows installation through VMWare to develop Windows desktop apps critical to the operation of SKKSA.

Look, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. And technology is as opinionated a field as you can get. Our lives are intricately entwined with the devices and platforms we use daily to live, to exist. So it makes sense that one becomes vehemently passionate about their platform of choice. But when that passion extends to bashing others for their choice of platform, especially without having a reasonable experience of said platform to base opinions upon, then it becomes a serious problem. In fact, it may say more about that person than their attacks and scorn of their target’s platform and by extension, the character attack associated with the choice of platform. If anything, it represents a juvenile, immature mindset; a rather closed, small-minded viewpoint of the vastness that is modern technology.

We should be excited and grateful that we have choice. More than one platform means that the developers of these tools are constantly competing to make their product better. This only benefits us, the end users.

Platform wars are a waste of time because they detract us from the beauty that is our modern, advanced systems. They detract us from actually focussing on collaborating, on creating and on using our incredible tools to help make the world a little bit better.

Google, Design and the Age of Flat Unity

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A curious thing is happening in the world of digital design. Skeuomorphism, the art of translating real-world design cues into the virtual sphere (e.g. concepts like the “desktop”, “folders”, and, recently, faux-leather stitching in previous versions of Apple apps for iOS and OS X) has been shunned in favour of a flat, clean, colourful aesthetic that aims to convey a more honest-to-the-cyber-world user experience.

This is a good thing. It means that designers are starting to push new thinking into the highly volatile world of user interface design. Android has been doing the “flat dance” for a while, and Apple has only recently joined the bandwagon with iOS 7, and its decision has indeed catalyzed much of the developer community still holding-back to be swept by the Apple-effect of cascading influence.

Google just announced “Material Design”, a new design language set to rival iOS 7’s flat UI, and which aims to bring more user experience consistency to the highly-fragmented and popular Android OS. Android has long since faced the challenge of scaling with its rapid growth. It is the most popular mobile operating system by far, and its open source nature means that it is susceptible to modifications. Samsung and Amazon, for example, both re-skin the generic Android interface with their own variants. Amazon goes as far as calling their theme an “OS” – Fire OS.

What does this mean for the end-consumer? Well, consumers are more concerned with hardware than software; fancy features like fingerprint scanning and more megapixels are what drive sales, after all. But design fragmentation means that the user experience of a particular app across various Android flavours is unsteady. A user that jumps from one Android phone to another may experience subtle design changes that make for slightly jarred experiences. Apple’s iOS is designed in-house by a tightly-integrated hardware and software team, so the hardware-to-software experience is quite consistent. Android, by contrast, is nurtured by Google and the Open Handset Alliance, but hardware companies like Samsung and Sony implement it as the soul that gives life to their hardware creations – the Galaxy range, the Xperia range, etc. Each manufacturer makes it seem like there are a multitude of operating systems out there that are kind-of linked, when in fact there’s just one powering all their devices: Android.

What Google is doing with Material Design is a huge deal: they’re giving developers a comprehensive design guideline, from the ground-up, to ensure that their app designs, and by extension their user experience, remains consistent across the multitude of Android flavours out there.

Material Design is just another step in this new Age of Flat Unity: utilising flat design elements to rapidly unify disparate experiences. By alluding to real-world experiences through the implementation of physics-based effects (like the Parallax effect in iOS 7) and nature-inspired animated cues (Material Design’s abstraction of natural effects), designers can skip skeuomorphism in favour of an experience more intrinsic of the digital age. Google describes Material Design as:

“a unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion.”

 

Material Design will be rolled-out across Google’s services and platforms (Chrome OS and Android being the major players). The Verge has a good breakdown of everything you need to know about the new design language; check it out by clicking here.

Material joins Microsoft’s Metro Design and Apple’s iOS 7-esque flatness; I’m really interested to try out Material Design-inspired interfaces, and welcome this as a great addition to the Age of Flat Design.

BlackBerry’s Return: Here’s what I think

I’ve been following the regeneration of the BlackBerry brand for some time now. And with the launch of their “redemption” effort, the new Z10, I’ve decided to weigh-in on the debate. Granted, it’s a bit late, but hey – I can’t help get excited when a new contender enters the smartphone arena. Especially when that contender was a previous king, and had been dethroned by an ambitious young upstart.

So, when Apple announced the iPhone, they really shook the mobile space with a groundbreaking new way of interacting with a mobile device. The touchscreen became a major interface between human and technology, and the concept of the “app” propagated itself with the rise of Apple’s App Store, and the subsequent follow-ups by its competitors (Android Marketplace, BlackBerry App World).

Thus, I feel that BlackBerry’s Z10 enters the picture a few years too late (and a few years, in the technology space, is a really long time). iPhone and Android have established themselves as strong contenders. Windows Phone OS has been a constant third player, never quite cutting it to be part of the “cool club” of the first two, but always a potent alternative. With the recent Nokia-Microsoft mobile partnership, we’ve seen the brand hit quite well too. But as for BlackBerry…?

BlackBerry hedges its hopes on this new platform. And it does deliver some interesting innovations – the user experience is refreshing, and there are a few nifty additions like the timeshift camera, flick-to-type keyboard and “flow”. But again, the real test rests in whether these features can lure users so embedded in the Andorid or iOS ecosystems, because that’s the true market BlackBerry will need to be after.

What the company truly needs – more than just fancy new features and a slick new operating system – is to create this ecosystem. To create an holistic platform that can rival the might of iOS and Android. And I’m afraid that they might be too late to the party to really get hold of that already-set market… for the future of the company and its employees, I truly hope they can make it happen.

BlackBerry 10: A Schrödinger’s Cat

At the recent BlackBerry World in Orlando, Research in Motion took the wraps off their new platform and, effectively, their redemption attempt. In a world ruled by the iPhone and Android, this once king of the mobile world faltered in its scrambled attempts to take on the might of Apple. Much rests on the outcome of this latest attempt from the struggling Canadian-based phone maker.

They call it BlackBerry 10, and it’s a new operating system that takes on a rather refreshing approach to the smartphone interface. From what I’ve seen in the introductory video below, which uses a device called the BlackBerry Dev Alpha Device to show-off some of the key features of the software (a mock, testing phone that may not actually be the final product to use the BlackBerry 10 OS), I’m impressed. If Research in Motion (developers behind the BlackBerry brand) can pull this off without the glitches that the BlackBerry has become notorious for, then I think we have ourselves a contender for the mighty smartphone throne currently occupied by the guys over a 1 Infinite Loop.

The new OS makes distinct use of swiping gestures, and the “swiping” approach is taken from answering phone calls to operating the actual device. A bold move for BlackBerry comes in the final move away from physical keyboards – something that has become a trademark of the brand. With BlackBerry 10, RIM have designed a rather intuitive “soft” keyboard that has strong predictive text capabilities. It will learn to understand what you’re typing and how you type, and suggest words for you. This was introduced in previous devices, but with the new platform, they’ve obviously strengthened the overall capabilities of the tool and even integrated the swiping gestures here – you simple swipe upwards to select the suggested words to add to your text.

The new camera is an interesting feature: from the moment you open the app, it begins taking a series of shots. You can then go “back in time” to select the correct photo. This eliminates those often annoying photos where someone’s closed their eyes etc.

Here’s another video, from The Verge, detailing a few more features of the new platform:

Below is a gallery of shots from the promotional video so you can see the new interface they’ve designed:

Blackberry 10, for me, is a Schrödinger’s Cat. We don’t really know how effective and successful it’ll be until it is released later this year. In other words, until they release actual devices and people get to use the platform, as far as we’re concerned right now, it’s both “bad and good.” For starters, what’s displayed above is a very early look at the platform, and it’ll be interesting to see what the actual device to run OS 10 will look and function like. What’s good about this platform from the onset, though, is that RIM have been bold enough to deviate from the current “look and feel” of the iPhone-inspired smartphone experience: rounded-corner icons, app-filled home screens, “traditional” gestures… Let’s just hope that they can extend that idea to the rest of the platform, and to the future devices that’ll be running this system.