18
Aug 15

Continuum vs. Continuity – Seven letters is all they have in common

It’s become apparent that there’s some confusion between Microsoft’s Continuum feature in Windows 10, and Apple’s Continuity feature in OS X. I’ve even heard technical people get them confused.

But to be honest, the letters comprising “Continu” are basically all they have in common. In addition to different (but confusingly similar) names, the two features are platform exclusive to their respective platform, and perform completely different tasks that are interesting to consider in light of how each company makes money.

Apple’s Continuity functionality, which arrived first, on OS X Yosemite late in 2014, allows you to hand off tasks between multiple Apple devices. Start a FaceTime call on your iPhone, finish it on your Mac. Start a Pages document on your Mac, finish it on your iPad. If they’re on the same Wi-Fi network, it “just works”. The Handoff feature that switches between the two devices works by showing an icon for the respective app you were using, that lets you begin using the app on the other device. Switching from iOS to OS X is easy. Going the other way is a pain in the butt, IMHO, largely because of how iOS presents the app icon on the iOS login screen.

Microsoft’s Continuum functionality, which arrived in one form with Windows 10 in July, and will arrive in a different (yet similar) form with Windows 10 Mobile later this year, lets the OS adapt to the use case of the device you’re on. On Windows 10 PC editions, you can switch Tablet Mode off and on, or if the hardware provides it, it can switch automatically if you allow it. Windows 10 in Tablet Mode is strikingly similar to, but different from, Windows 8.1. Tablet mode delivers a full screen Start screen, and full-screen applications by default. Turning tablet mode off results in a Start menu and windowed applications, much like Windows 7.

When Windows 10 Mobile arrives later this year, the included incarnation of Continuum will allow phones that support the feature to connect to external displays in a couple of ways. The user will see an experience that will look like Windows 10 with Tablet mode off, and windowed universal apps. While it won’t run legacy Windows applications, this means a Windows 10 Mobile device could act as a desktop PC for a user that can live within the constraints of the Universal application ecosystem.

Both of these pieces of functionality (I’m somewhat hesitant to call either of them “features”, but I digress) provide strategic value for Apple, and Microsoft, respectively. But the value that they provide is different, as I mentioned earlier.

Continuity is sold as a “convenience” feature. But it’s really a great vehicle for hardware lock-in and upsell. It only works with iOS and OS X devices, so it requires that you use Apple hardware and iCloud. In short: Continuity is intended to help sell you more Apple hardware. Shocker, I know.

Continuum, on the other hand, is designed to be more of a “flexibility” feature. It adds value to the device you’re on, even if that is the only Windows device you own. Yes, it’s designed to be a feature that could help sell PCs and phones too – but the value is delivered independently, on each device you own.

With Windows 8.x, your desktop PC had to have the tablet-based features of the OS, even if they worked against your workflow. Your tablet couldn’t adapt well if you plugged it into an external display and tried to use it as a desktop. Your phone was… well… a phone. Continuum is intended to help users make the most of any individual Windows device, however they use it. Want a phone or tablet to be a desktop and act like it? Sure. Want a desktop to deliver a desktop-like experience and a tablet to deliver a tablet-like experience? No problem. Like Continuity, Continuum is platform-specific, and features like Continuum for Windows 10 Mobile will require all-new hardware. I expect that this Fall’s hardware season will likely continue to bring many new convertibles that automatically switch, helping to make the most of the feature, and could help sell new hardware.

Software vendors made Continuity-like functionality before Apple did it, and that’ll surely continue. We’ll see more and more device to device bridging in Android and Windows. However, Apple has an advantage here, with their premium consumer, and owning their entire hardware and software stack.

People have asked me for years if I see Apple making features that look like Continuum. I don’t. At least not trying to make OS X into iOS. We may see Apple try and bridge the tablet and small laptop market here in a few weeks with an iOS device that can act like a laptop, but arguably that customer wouldn’t be a MacBook (Air) customer anyway. It’ll be interesting to see how the iPad evolves/collides into the low-end laptop market.

Hopefully if you were confused about these two features, that helps clarify what they are – and that they’re actually completely different things, designed to accomplish completely different things.


25
Jul 13

Make stuff that just works, or go home.

“This is what customers pay us for–to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.” – Steve Jobs

The job of the the software developer and the hardware engineer is to make experiences. They deliver these experiences for users by building things. Software, devices, and the marriage of the two. Sounds easy enough. The detail is in making things into experiences that “just work”.

Long ago, I started a blog post about my (now returned) Leap Motion controller, and stalled out on it. Listen – I don’t want to pile on a small company trying to make their own way. I think that Leap Motion has done some things very well. They made a good looking device, with nice packaging and even a pretty darn good (low friction) application store. But when the rubber meets the road, the device… just didn’t work how I expected it to. I’ve got a general post I’m mulling over the next few weeks where I’ll talk about that, as well as Kinect for Windows/Kinect in general.

Where the Leap Motion controller falls down, though, is actually in use. There are promises that their marketing materials make that simply don’t work in real life.

A few years ago, my youngest daughter asked for a toy (for either Christmas or her birthday) that she had seen during the little bit of TV she watches that had ads. Upon opening it, she seemed underwhelmed. When I asked her what was wrong, she noted, “It’s smaller than I thought it would be, and this thing doesn’t really work.” She was pointing at a pretend water faucet, if I recall correctly.

There are few things that are more disappointing – for a grownup or a child – when something we spend our money on or get as a gift doesn’t work the way we’re led to believe it should work – or even worse, the way we’ve been told it will work.

As I was boxing up my Leap Motion, a colleague came by and asked me to take a quick look at their computer. Unfortunately whether it’s a colleague, a parent, or a friend, that’s rarely something fun. Indeed, something had happened when they had rebooted their computer, and it had now somehow lost the trust relationship with the domain (and as a result, my colleague couldn’t log on). If that sounds gross and confusing to you, it should. It’s Windows showing you how the sausage is made. There’s an easy fix. Unplug it from the network, and Windows logs on using cached credentials. From there, you can do a bunch of things (including jamming the metaphoric sausage back into the casing) – but it will almost always let you fix the problem at hand. This hack is how Windows has worked for years when this scenario happens. My question? Why doesn’t Windows just say, “You may be able to log on to your computer and fix the problem if you unplug the network connection.”

Shame on me for not thinking of that solution 15 years ago and submitting a bug on it – and driving it to a fix.

I’ve been looking at a new book from Addison-Wesley called Learning iOS Design. The timing of the book may not be great, given the iOS 7 design refresh, but a lot of the principles still apply. It’s a good read so far, and most importantly, is really thoughtful in terms of sincerity of design. As I first thumbed through the book, I happened to land almost immediately on page 146. On that page is a section entitled:

The Moment of Uncertainty

It reads: “A crucial instant occurs every time a user provides a bit of input to a piece of technology … if the designers have done their part to create a graceful experience, then the instant will pass without notice by the user. The technology responds, the user’s expectation is met, and he continues getting done whatever it is he’s using the app to get done.”

This text, and much of this book, resonates with me. Over the last few years, I’ve begun looking around at the technology in my house, my workplace, and my life as a whole. Hardware, software, apps, appliances, everything. If something makes my life easier, I keep it. If it makes my life more tedious than if the item wasn’t there, it gets tossed. (I’m looking at you, Sony alarm clock on my nightstand.)

Imagine a device or an application. As it is designed, we can consider the potential discomfort (let’s just call it pain) of using this thing. The goal of a good designer is to eat the pain for the user. Imagine the below as a horizontal slider where the pain of a good interface can be alternately felt by the user or the designer. Iterations, refinement, tossed prototypes, all go in to building an end result that pulls the slider below away from the user and toward the designer. The work the designer performs upfront leads to a more efficient, predictable, and enjoyable experience for the end user.Painpoints

Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The trick is to make magic where people can’t see the strings, and can’t see the cards up your sleeve.

I’ve mentioned this video before, but I think two of Jonathan Ives’ quotes in it are really relevant here:

“A lot of what we seem to be doing in a product like that (the iPhone) is getting design out of the way.”

and secondarily:

“It’s really important in a product to have a sense of the hierarchy of what’s important and what’s not important by removing those things that are all vying for your attention.”

I’ve said on Twitter before that it’s wrong that we’ve let people tell themselves that they’re stupid when the computer doesn’t work the way they expect it to. When you turn on the hot water and it comes out cold, does that make you stupid? No. So why do we put up with this from computers, devices, and software/apps?

I believe in the end, the technologies that win will be those that just work for users. Those that are predictable, easy, and enjoyable to use will win with consumers. Devices and software that are not focused innately on the needs of the end user will not survive. They will be discarded for solutions that do.


07
Dec 12

Review: Logitech Touchpad (T650)

If you’ve known me long, you’ve known that I’ve been far from Windows 8’s biggest fan. For me, that’s been for a specific reason. The concessions that Windows 8 makes to being touch focused have – I strongly believe – compromised the ability for those of us damned to the desktop to really use the platform.

While I believe Microsoft intends for Windows 8 to be a success both with tablets and on non-touch devices, learning to use the operating system if you have a “touchless” device as I do can be a chore. My main computer is a ThinkPad W510. A relatively beefy (read: horrible battery life) Intel i7 laptop, the W510 is, horsepower-wise, more than an optimal candidate for Windows 8. Though it doesn’t support UEFI, it ran preview versions of Windows 8 quite well, whether I was running Windows to Go from a USB Flash Drive, or using VMware Workstation to run it virtually on Windows 7.

But my ThinkPad, like almost all Lenovos on the market in 2010 (and many today) didn’t/doesn’t/won’t support touch. When mobile, it has a capable 15.6″ display, and at work I dock it and use my main monitor, a gorgeous 27″ Acer. Neither has touch, and with the distance between myself and the displays, my typical work layout would make me a good candidate for gorilla arm if I used touch all the time on either one:

While friends kept telling me, “just memorize the keyboard shortcuts“, I had to say, “no“. Perhaps it’s because I’m a visual/spatial person (a “colors” person as a colleague says), perhaps it’s the sheer frustration at needing to memorize keyboard shortcuts to do what I used to use a mouse for, I didn’t want to learn 20 keyboard shortcuts. A colleague pointed out how excited I was to learn 13 new gestures upon getting the Logitech, and I guess we’re both still befuddled at that.

I had heard from several people that had tried the Logitech T650 that they were very satisfied with how it worked for them. Having used MacBook Pros for 3+ of the years I worked in Austin, as well as using ThinkPads and Toshibas with decent trackpads (but nothing like Apple’s) and being a very happy user of the Apple Magic Trackpad at home on my iMac, I really wanted to try the Logitech and see how it worked together with Windows 8. Only problem? I couldn’t find one! My local Best Buy seemed to sell out as soon as it received a shipment. A local reseller was supposed to get some in late last week, but still hasn’t. I happened to be by Best Buy in Bellevue, WA on Wednesday evening and they had one left. One. As best I can tell, the device is selling incredibly well. Unfortunately when I tried searching a couple of retailers online, I didn’t even get out of stock notifications – just pages telling me that they no longer sold the HP TouchPad (unfortunate naming overlap).

I’ve had a few people ask me why I didn’t just use another Apple Magic Trackpad. Because Apple’s gesture support for Windows stinks. They could enable the same gestures for Windows as they do on the Mac, but it would take considerable work, and to what end? So only a fraction of the gestures enabled on the Mac work on Windows – and none of the ones that would make life with Windows 8 much more palatable without touch.

Touchpad in hand, with a freshly installed upgrade from Windows 7 Pro to Windows 8 Pro installed, I set forth to try it out. The device is packed in a box that is vaguely Apple-like. No foam, a bit of paperboard. No driver CD included. Comes with the Touchpad, wireless dongle, charging cable, and instructions/warranty info.

First impressions? The Touchpad is big. No, not as big as Logitech’s odd “Touchpad in Lilliput” images on their site may make you think. but it is significantly larger than the trackpad on my ThinkPad. Here is an actual picture of the T650.

The device is wireless and requires no batteries. Logitech claims roughly one month per charge, and mine came fully charged as best as I could tell. You can also use the device while it is charging, which is a nice touch.

Assuming mine was not charged, I plugged in the USB dongle (I wish it was just Bluetooth!), the cable to another USB port and the other end to the Touchpad. There is no software included, but upon plugging it in, it installed the Logitech receiver and prompted to download and install the Logitech SetPoint Software. It was a very smooth, consumer-friendly experience. My only frustration was trying to use the Logitech Unifying Software, which prompts you to power cycle the Touchpad in order to pair it. I was never able to satiate the software that it was paired, yet the Touchpad worked. Odd.

The SetPoint software is relatively well designed, and easily lets you tweak which gestures trigger left, right, or middle click. I configured mine to mimic Apple’s, which I’m used to. Single finger click for left click, double finger click for right click.

Most importantly, for a device with no physical (or on screen) Start button, getting back and forth from the Start Screen and desktop was most critical to me. For this, a three finger swipe up gets you to the Start Screen. Three fingers back down gets you to the desktop. Three fingers down again minimizes all desktop apps and shows you the actual desktop. Nice touch. Two fingers allows you to have a Mac-like smooth scrolling experience. While Tweetro+ was temperamental a bit with this scroll, tending to overscroll a bit, Word, IE, and Outlook seemed to work quite well with it. A three-fingered swipe back and forth functions as a back/forward button and was wonderful in IE in particular.

The commonplace two-finger pinch gesture enables you to zoom in or out in many applications – I did experience some frustration in getting WinRT-mode IE in particular to like this gesture. Scrolling and pinch and zoom didn’t seem to work in the Windows common control (File Open) dialogs, an unfortunate, but minor omission.

Swiping in from edges works as you’d expect, with the app switcher (left swipe in) and Charms (right swipe in). Theoretically the top and bottom edges also display the app bar as they would on a touchscreen. While it did work sometimes, I found it a bit more temperamental. My one wish for the device would be that in a future design, Logitech include a small (say, 1/4″) outside edge that can be felt, or perhaps a small indentation to place your finger on in order to start an “edge gesture”. I say this because in particular the gesture to trigger the Charms is hard to place correctly. You want to almost start with your finger partially off the right side of the device and swipe on, but that doesn’t work well. In testing, I eventually found that the device is somewhat tolerant of this, and you don’t have to have your finger truly on the edge in order to do an edge gesture. That said, having an actual edge or bevel might make this easier for novices to learn.

Finally, Logitech includes several 4-fingered gestures for dealing with the currently active desktop application. These mirror Windows Snap functionality and include four finger swipe up or down (maximize or minimize, respectively), and left or right (left or right-side Snap). Unfortunately, these gestures don’t work to snap Windows Store applications, nor am I sure Logitech could even enable that if they wanted to.

Like the Apple Magic Trackpad, the T650’s click is physical – and how well it works depends on the surface you use it on. On my wooden desk itself it worked flawlessly. On the 3M “Precise Mousing Surface” attached to my keyboard, which slightly wobbles? Not so well. I view this as more of a defect of my desk than the Touchpad, personally. All in all, the device is built quite well.

I think that while there may be a category of Windows Store apps that this device still won’t enable (games, drawing applications or other application best handled with actual direct touch), a broad swath of the Windows Store applications, and Windows 8 itself, become much more readily approachable with the T650 than I believe they do with a mouse. More importantly, the T650 allows you to interact well with Windows 8 while still interacting well with the desktop environs and desktop applications that many of us will still be using for quite some time.

Once you get adjusted to the gestures included in the Logitech T650, I firmly believe you’ll find that not only is it a thoughtfully designed device that complements Windows 8, it is a device that honestly lets Windows 8 shine on touchless devices much better than it (Windows 8) can on a device equipped solely with a mouse.

Device specifics:

  1. Interface: Proprietary wireless. Works with some other Logitech devices.
  2. Included: Touchpad, wireless dongle, charging cable, instructions/warranty info.
  3. Price as tested: $79.99 before tax. Available at some locations for slightly less.
  4. Dimensions (courtesy of Logitech):  Width: 134 mm / 5.3 in. Height: 8.7mm / 0.34 in. 12mm / 0.47 in. (USB cable plugged in) Length: 129 mm / 5.1 in.
  5. Wireless: 33-foot wireless range, 2.4 GHz (Logitech proprietary – not Bluetooth).
  6. Works with: Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows RT. I tested on Windows 8 – cannot speak to the experience with Windows RT.

Pros:

  1. Excellent gesture support, makes Windows 8 without touch habitable.
  2. Well-designed interface for tweaking actions for the built-in gestures.
  3. Phenomenally large trackpad surface.
  4. Cordless, yet rechargable through included USB cable, no batteries needed.
  5. Glass top makes it serve as an excellent coaster. I kid!

Cons:

  1. Not cheap.
  2. Requires proprietary Logitech USB dongle. Augh.
  3. Should have a bevel or edge to demarcate the outer edge for edge->in gestures.
  4. Pairing app didn’t work. But it paired. Very confusing.
  5. Clicking action, while good, requires a very stable surface in order to achieve a solid click/right-click action.
  6. Colleagues may want to use it as a coaster.

Recommendation: Want to/need to use Windows 8 on a touchless device? GET THIS! NOW!