Random Thoughts on Origami

No, it's not about folding paper. I've been reading a few tidbits about Microsoft getting ready to give XP Tablet Edition another run for their money, and I'm amazed at the possibilities of it backfiring on them again - i.e., even though power management and electronics have certainly improved to the point where a machine the size of a 7" touch screen is feasible, running that OS without massive UI re-plumbing is, well... scary.

And it's scary not because the OS isn't powerful and flexible (both XP and Windows CE are perfectly capable systems, despite what the Linux crowd says), but because Microsoft has demonstrated, time and again, that it can't design a mobile/PDA UI worth a damn.

And I have plenty of examples:

  • Their adaptation (some say mangling) of the Paragraph recognizer, and the recurring inability of migrating recognizer settings from one device to the other.
  • The stagnation of the pen-based UI from Windows CE 4.x onward (no gestures, very few - some say none - pen-specific widgets, no drag-and-drop other than that implemented inside applications, and an extremely poor interaction model).
  • No data orientation whatsoever - i.e., you run applications to view your data, but you don't even know where the data is stored or how to share it it in some coherent fashion among applications (remember the Newton?). Plus the "focus on data" metaphor is completely broken once you open File Explorer and see a bazillion sub-directories.
  • The completely asinine memory/task management approach in CE devices (that does not give you any hint of what's running until you run out of memory).
  • The utterly, utterly horrible UI of SmartPhone Edition devices (complete with tacky numbered menus and horrid text input).
  • The constant revisions of their dial-up connectivity UI in Windows CE, which now has a "simplified" view that only increases user confusion (nobody, and I mean nobody gets the distinction between "Work" and "Internet" connections unless they happen to know the history behind the distinction).
  • The way they waste screen real estate even on modern 640x480 devices by having the title bar, the bottom menu bar and the new soft key bar take up nearly a fourth of the screen.

And bear in mind that XP Tablet Edition was held by many to be much worse in terms of usability than a Pocket PC, largely because you had (and still have) very few pen-aware applications, and nobody ever bothered to write mainstream pen-aware applications that made it worthwhile (and no, OneNote doesn't count).

Like I said some time ago -

Tablet PCs have so far been successful only in combining all the worst features of laptops (size, weight and unreliable software) with those of PDAs (lousy pen input and tendency to run out of battery), and you can get a fully kitted-out PowerBook for the same amount of cash (which, by the way, is far more usable, reliable and performant).

Origami is supposed to change a lot of those variables (namely size, weight and battery), but I will hold out until I actually try one of those devices to figure out if they've sorted out the lousy pen input and the unreliable software bits.

My guess is that they will wrap some sort of simplified, glossy shell around the ugly bits and make it a bit more task-oriented (and, if they have any clue, importing some of their less glaring Xbox UI designs), but that it will still be Windows XP Tablet Edition, with all the ugly dangly bits and hangups, and that it won't be usable in any kind of real-life mobile computing scenario.

You see, it so happens that after years of using Palms, Pocket PCs, Nokia Communicators and Blackberries, there are three cardinal lessons I've learnt by heart:

  • No form of pen-based input is usable on the back of a taxi, no matter how smooth the ride.
  • Styluses will get lost.
  • A desktop environment shrunk to pocket size makes for a very poor drawing table (pun intended).

Linux fans shouldn't gloat, though. I've recently had the occasion of using a production Nokia/770 model (upgraded to the latest firmware) for a few days (it wasn't mine, so I couldn't install or test any software), and I must say that the experience is, at this point, just as poor:

  • the device is very slow (even on AC power). Even the menus were slow.
  • the hardware buttons are poorly positioned (it's impossible to use the directional pad with the cover flipped - slotted back to front)
  • the UI gave very little hints as to what was actually running (or how to switch windows in multi-windowed apps)
  • the mail client has very poor IMAP support.
  • connectivity was dismal - Wi-Fi configuration was fiddly, and the device destroyed the initial GPRS profile on my SonyEricsson phone by insisting in using CID #1 (i.e., it sent the AT+CGDCONT=1,"ip","apn name" command regardless of what I tried, therefore overwriting my MMS settings).

So I guess it will be yet another year without a PDA (or tablet device), and all the better for it.

Of course, a trillion pundits will chime in and say that Apple is sure to go tablet soon, but I won't hold my breath for that.

I am, nevertheless, pretty sure that Origami won't take it away.