Overlooked, Part Two

A bit over two years ago, I vented about the increasing complexity and inconsistency in smartphone interfaces.

If you missed that post, or have forgotten it–two years is a long time to remember anything these days, given all the demands the ever-changing crisis du jour places on us–the gist was that Apple keeps changing their mind about how iPhones should work, while Google takes a laissez-faire approach, allowing developers to do pretty much whatever they want. The result is that, unless you’ve been following along with the evolution of your phone’s UI, there’s an Everest-level learning curve to surmount. At the time, I suggested that someone considering their first smartphone should take a look at the phones designed for seniors; two years on, I’m not sure that’s still a valid recommendation.

Because it seems as though there’s an unnatural law that the more complicated a product is, the less documentation comes with it.

For many smartphones, the documentation seems to consist largely of a single piece of paper showing you where to insert the SIM*–with no explanation of what it is and what it does–and a peel-off sticker on the screen that points to the various buttons and ports.

* Back in the day of the flip phone, your contact list was saved on the SIM. Moving to a new phone? Transfer the SIM and all your saved data was magically on the new device. Although SIMs can still store contacts, no phone has done so by default for at least a decade, and some don’t support it at all. Current phones store contacts on their internal storage, just like any other data. Yet phone salespeople are daily confronted by people who demand that their old SIM be installed in their new phone because “I can’t lose my phone numbers”.

Even the Jitterbugs and other senior-focused phones are cutting back on paper documentation in favor of on-device “Help”. If you can figure out how to access the help screens, you probably know enough about the device that you don’t need them.

And it’s not just smartphones.

Bought a computer lately? Very few come with any printed documentation beyond the legally mandated safety information. It’s a rare day when I don’t have to show someone how to turn on their new computer. As for the difference between “Shut Down” and “Sleep”? Don’t get me started.

Even gadgets that use to be simple enough for anyone to figure out are succumbing to the trend. Think about the simple alarm clock. You’ll have to think about it, because you probably can’t find one. First the manufacturers added radios. Then came multiple alarms, followed by on-ceiling displays, charging ports, and integrated coffee makers. And yet the manual will typically be four pages of illustrations intended to be language-independent.

Fortunately, one variety of device continues to keep documentation creators employed: the landline phone. I bought a new phone system for my mother a year or so ago. It comes with five phones, has a built-in answering machine, speakerphone capability, and large, (fairly) clearly labeled buttons. To make a call, you dial the number and press “Phone”. Maybe not totally intuitive for those used to waiting for a dial tone, but simple enough that most people eventually figure it out. Of course, if they can’t, they can always refer to the handy manual included in the box. It’s 104 pages long–and the section on making a call takes up a grand total of two of those pages. (I just read those pages, and it turns out if you miss hearing a dial tone you can use it in more or less the traditional way: pick it up and then dial (you do still need to press “Phone” for it to actually dial, but it’s still a nice nod to user expectations.

Even better, you can actually hang up the phone. That’s right: unlike your smartphone, if you set this phone down in its cradle, it disconnects the call! Try slamming your smartphone down to express your rage at the latest telephone scammer and all you’ll get is an expensive repair bill.

Too bad the telcos are doing their level best to do away with landlines, much less landline phones.

Tech Notes

As expected, Amazon has unveiled their upcoming pocket-sized advertisementsmartphone. That leak we discussed back in April was on the mark. There were only two significant things in Amazon’s grand unveiling that weren’t in the leak: Amazon’s eyes and Amazon’s ears.

Ears as in Mayday, eyes as in Firefly. The “Mayday” service that Amazon introduced on their latest generation of tablets is now coming to your phone. Yell for help, and the phone will connect you to a live customer service representative who can look at your screen and solve your problems. And “Firefly” gives your phone a specifically Amazon-centric eye. You simply take a picture of something, and the phone will tell you all the important information: where to buy it* and how much it’ll cost. Point your phone at that tacky lamp and find out how much it cost. Point it at your state senator and find out how much he costs. Great fun at parties!

* Do you suppose it will direct you to Barnes and Noble if you snap a picture of a Hachette book? Seems unlikely. I’m sure Amazon would rather take your money and wait weeks to ship you the book.

The NSA and its counterparts in other countries are, no doubt, pissing in their pants in eagerness for the public to get their hands on a phone designed to let third parties view its screen and optimized to quickly upload photos. But you probably thought about that already. Did you also think about how much more attractive to criminals Amazon’s customer data is about to become? Just wait until you answer a phone call to your shiny Amazon phone and hear a cheery voice with a thick accent say “Hi, this is Fred from Amazon. We see you’re looking at a Jimmy Choo handbag. We have a special deal going on right now for 25% off. But you need to act quickly because they’re going fast. No, we’ve already got your credit card number. Just give me the three digit code from the back and I’ll enter the order for you…” Real time, targeted phishing attacks. Coming soon to a phone near you.

OK, on to something cheerier (and thanks to Lior for pointing me at this one).

Have you heard about IkeaHackers? It’s a website devoted to, as founder Jules puts it, “modifications on and repurposing of Ikea products.” Ideas range from modest (adding a baby changing table to the top of a dresser) to the ambitious (turning a cabinet into a hanging rat cage). With the occasional diversion into the not quite so well-thought out.

Lior pointed me to instructions for building a catwalk. No, not a platform for fashion models. An elevated path-slash-lounging space for felines. It’s a simple hack, requiring only a bunch of Ikea shelves, lots of threaded bolts (maybe you can pick up some spares from Caltrans; I hear they have a whole pile of galvanized bolts they don’t know what to do with), and the willingness to drill holes in your ceiling.

What a great idea! Give your cats an elevated space of their own to hang out. No more tripping over them on your way to the bathroom at 3 AM. Just remember to duck before you bang your forehead.

I can’t speak for your cats, but ours can–and frequently do–spend hours watching a bug fly around near the ceiling, occasionally jumping at it, only to fall short by several feet. With this catwalk in place, they’d have an elevated launching platform. They might even be able to jump down at the pesky bugs. What fun! Hopefully you were smart enough to remove all breakables from any room with a catwalk. Then there’s Watanuki’s habit of assaulting toes and ankles. Do we really want to give him easy access to ears? I don’t think so!

So maybe the catwalk isn’t for us. It might be for you. Even if it’s not, chances are good you can find something on IkeaHackers that is for you. Take a look soon, though. IkeaHackers is currently in negotiation with Ikea over the use of the name. It appears that the core of the dispute is advertisements for non-Ikea products on the website. Negotiations are continuing as I write this, and Jules is hopeful for a peaceful settlement, but if a settlement can’t be reached, IkeaHackers will have to move to a new, and probably less memorable, domain.

Oh, Come On


The Internet–or at least that part of it that isn’t running around screaming because it just realized it’s April 15, and its taxes aren’t done–is agog with the latest “OMG, Amazon is working on a smartphone” rumor. Remember that these rumors have been around since around 4004 B.C. and that every time the rumors have peaked, Amazon has released something that’s not a phone with the most recent example being Fire TV.

The excitement this time is over some leaked photos and specs courtesy of BGR. I’ve yet to see a totally accurate leak, but just for grins, let’s assume they’ve got it totally correct. What does Amazon have in store for us?

Start with a screen slightly smaller than the current market leaders at 4.7 inches. Give it a 720p resolution instead of the 1080p found on those market leaders. Add Amazon’s usual “highly customized” version of Android that lacks significant chunks of the Google infrastructure in favor of Amazon’s own versions. This isn’t sounding too appealing yet, is it?

What if I tell you it’s got a brand new interface? Apparently so. Amazon’s not going to give you a stock Google/Android UI, and they’re not going to give you their standard “Fire” interface, either. No, they’ve got an exciting new 3D (or rather, 3D-like) UI. Picture the famous “parallax effect” of iOS 7, where tipping the phone from side to side makes the home screen icons shift relative to the wallpaper, giving a 3D effect. Got it? Now extend the metaphor: tipping the phone lets you see the sides of the icons! But wait, there’s more: the same effect is used in apps too! Angle the phone and you can see the sides of products in the store. So much simpler and more intuitive than sliding a finger across the screen, don’t you think?

It gets even better: Apple uses the phone’s accelerometer to figure out how you’re tipping it. Amazon is including four infrared cameras on the front of the phone to track the phone’s orientation relative to your face to allow greater accuracy and more degrees of freedom of movement.

I can tell you’re all wetting your drawers in anticipation. But wait, you haven’t heard the best part. According to BGR, this is Amazon’s premium offering and will come at a premium price, up there with the iPhone 5s, Galaxy S5, and HTC One. A “second, lower-cost” phone will come later.

Excuse me while I take a nap. I could see the potential value in the Fire TV, but I can’t see any real user value in a phone like this. Value for Amazon, sure: it’s another way to lock users into their infrastructure. But value for the user? Nope. Let’s hope this thing crashes and burns quickly.