While tablets are heralded as the newest next big thing in the gadget world and print magazines are struggling to find a sustainable reinvention of themselves as content becomes ever more digitised I thought I would have a quick rant to encapsulate where things are at right now.
This has been prompted by a recent and extraordinarily brilliant video demonstration of a new tablet/e-magazine UI, which also serves as a flawless example about how to communicate ideas properly. Bonnier does both with style and genius. Take a look...
Mag+ by Bonnier
Essentially what we're looking at is Bonnier's excellent candidate for how the eventual electronic magazine format would operate. This is independent of the device, since the UI concepts here could be translated to any multi-touch tablet quite easily, however I am more impressed by the way they have effortlessly explained their concept.
About their concept: When I am looking at the person using the [mock-up of the] device I get the sense that reading a magazine with the Mag+ interface would feel a little claustrophobic after a while. I would want to be able to glimpse everything in the same way someone would quickly flick through a printed magazine. (This same feeling of claustrophobia exists in First-Person Shooter games like Call of Duty where the screen offers only a limited version of our own much larger field of vision. You get the sense that you want to stretch the edges of the monitor much wider apart). My suggestion to Bonnier here is to provide a way the viewer can zoom out to see the articles side by side. In a similar concept done for Sports Illustrated their solution is what they call a "Flip View" which can be seen at 1:08 mins into the below clip.
I very much liked Bonnier's solutions to reading an e-mag, including the way articles went right right to the edges, but to alleviate that feeling of claustrophobia the viewer could do the following: By dragging two fingers from the top the view zooms out the further you drag your fingers down the page eventually revealing all the articles side by side. Essentially, this is the table of contents. When you've zoomed out to a distance where you are comfortable you can scroll left/right, then click on an article to zoom back down to the original full-page view.
The "warming atoms" concept Bonnier has invented and thrown into the mix of ideas for multi-touch displays is as inspiring as it is simple. It's one of those ideas that invokes the reaction: "Of course!", and reminds me of similar creative uses of these devices in-built sensors like the iPhone's "shake to undo" feature in their SMS (whereby you physically shake the iPhone to undo your recent mistake).
As impressed I am with their e-mag solution I believe that this is essentially yet another way previously successful business models, like magazines, are molding (re: contorting) their forms to fit into the continuous explosion that is the internet. It is basically like whittling down a square peg to fit into a round hole. Chances are emags will eventually look like the websites they are trying to distance themselves from (in order to remain a viable business model) and current websites will start adopting similarities to e-mags, but that's just the perpetual cross-pollinating evolution of design for you, I guess.
Courier by Microsoft
This really surprised me. Not because of its pure-form innovation, or it's elegance, but because it came from Microsoft. In my really not-so-humble opinion I believe the Courier changes everything. Essentially the Mag+ concept could carry over to, and be seamlessly incorporated into, Microsoft's 2-screen Courier. (I.e. Flipping through articles scrolls the article on the right screen to the left screen). However I am particularly struck by the way the device's design limitation of its central spine has been cleverly incorporated to become a positive using the "tuck it" feature (at 1:08 mins into the video below)...
The overall achievement of the Courier is how cleverly, and how much, it has re-invented existing concepts, in a strange way, by going back to what people are comfortable with about printed books, journals and diaries. There's an in-built familiarity there that the design is brilliantly exploiting. (It reminds me in much the same way how the Wii controller looked very similar to what people understood as a television remote control, which allowed for a much broader acceptance of the device). Below is the second [deliberately] leaked video of the Courier...
What you're not seeing in any of the Courier videos is the touch screen keyboard being dragged up from the bottom of the screen. We're lured into some deceptive idea that the Courier is completely stylus-driven. Not so. When we eventually see the on-screen keyboard we'll know that if we tilt the courier on it's side it can become exactly like a normal laptop (if you ever need it to be one). Kind of like this...
I'm a big fan of the OLPC and it's intended sequel (pictured above), if only by the principle of it alone- especially its elegantly simple Sugar UI. I doubt whether the OLPC will ever reach the lofty goals it first set out to, or the kudos it really deserves, but I see it as the non-profit version of Apple. Go hard.
Playing the devil's advocate for a moment: Could the trouble with being able to have so many ways you operate a Courier, or Courier-like device is that it might easily become a mess of pull-up/down/sideways options, screens and functions? It may become so convoluted by its muli-dimensional access to everything that the user experience could very well lose itself as a substantive experience. Let me explain... If our icon-littered desktops are the "face" of our computers, we can recognise it because of this. Our task bars anchor us. Tablets on the other hand are like being inside a Swiss-army knife. I believe we need to make sense of where we are in the virtual universe of options that exists at the ends our fingertips. In a way, we need to see our Operating System, and I believe we are starting to lose that the more UI evolves. (Am I wrong about this? Am I showing my age perhaps?) Whether this is a non-issue or a genuine point, here are two ideas that may help ground our interactive experiences in the future...
1. We need an elegant hub. A home screen that can cleverly and intuitively guide us to all applications and features of the OS and the device itself. A starting point to everything- customisable and always familiar.
2. A clever file management system. We see too often the work-around solution to our mounting piles of data: a search engine. Although useful, search engines are a bandaid fix to the problem of organising our "stuff". Most of the time our data gets folderised or backed-up into oblivion, along with all of their well-intended duplicates. To be able to see our files in a way that we can easily understand and then organise all our system's content would go a long way to providing a helpful sense of user-orientation.
(I'm working on solutions to both of these dilemmas at the moment)...
What we see with the above videos is a strong direction where the overall gadget convergence is heading. The only point of contention is size. Do I want something small and phone-like, laptop-sized, or a hybrid-size between the two? If I were to pick a book out of my book case that represented a size I felt most comfortable reading- that would be it.
The Apple Tablet
I have a hard time believing that Apple will be able to match some of the incredible innovation we've been seen coming out of Product Development Labs lately. (What's ironic here, if we're to be truly honest about it, is that most of these innovations got much of their initial boost from the innovations of the iPhone). However, as much as I am a Mac fan, I can fall into sharp disappointment at the rate at which Apple introduces the plainer variety of improvements to their products. They seem as slow to upgrade as they are innovative, and almost as stubborn- see my continuing plea for sensible iPhone features here. For a few years now I have always thought that Apple would retain the edge on innovation. That they would always be one step ahead (at least), and that they would be the safest bet as far as purchasing choice and brand loyalty, but now it seems- with the expansion (or explosion) of the Information Age- this may not be the case after all. I'm genuinely not sure if that's a good thing or not.
Just for fun, I've included some notable ways printed media have fought back their inevitable fate...
The Esquire Augmented Reality Issue
A terrific and ultimately unsustainable attempt at embracing the future. And now for a diametrically opposite point of view, here's The Sun's clever and sarcastically witty bite back...
The "Newspaper" by The Sun
This charming ad highlights some of my lighter concerns with tablet concepts. For example, the task of reading for long periods of time on a tablet, and reading in the direct sunlight isn't the same as with printed media. Let's face it, if you're competing with real magazines then you're competing with the leisurely way I can read a folded magazine in my hammock, and in the bright warm glow of New Zealand's morning sun no less. A newspaper doesn't require batteries and I can read it (and preferably) with the light shining directly on it. I am aware that OLED technology uses far less energy, and that advancements in battery technology like in the new MacBook Pros can yield a far longer battery life, so I'm not too bothered by those elements, but I'm wondering if there could ever be a dual-system of screen technology (like the original OLPC) which could change between backlit mode (colour) and ebook mode (black & white) but using OLED technology instead? Perhaps the "front cover" of our new dual-screen book-like tablets could be a dedicated reader-friendly third screen using the black and white e-ink instead? That would actually be rather cool. :)
However, and to conclude my rant, in some small insignificant way, printed media will have one ever-lasting edge over any new advancement in technology that threatens to replace it... you can't roll up your fancy-pants new iTablet and swat a fly with it, can you? No, you cant.