Sunday, April 17, 2011

Platform fragmentation

There was a time, fairly recently in fact, where it was possible to target a single platform for all new development. That "platform" was the web. As long as you conformed to certain standards, and didn't make too many reaches in terms of how you expected your application to behave, there wasn't a problem. Applications would load into IE or Firefox, appear on a largish display with the user interacting with them using a mouse and keyboard, and, well, that was it.

And then, suddenly, here is the explosion of so-called smartphones, and now tablets. Both require subtly different ways of interaction, which means designing a user interface intended for a 1024x768 screen is likely to cause usability issues for those using smartphones and tablets. In some ways, developers were forewarned: portable devices that browse the web have been available for a while now, and anyone who used, say, a stylus-based user interface like a Nokia 800 knew that there were going to be big problems if and when we moved away from mice.

So suddenly we're at a stage where developers really do have to design their applications to run on multiple platforms - not similar platforms that merely differ in terms of how you write to a file, or receive a button down event from the user, but platforms that work in such radically different ways a developer has to think about designing entirely different user interfaces for each.

Is this a step back? I don't think so, we've been down this route before, when the great migration of text-based user interfaces to WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mice, Pointers) in the mid-eighties. The difference then was that the latter actually won out, whereas I have no idea whether future user experiences will converge on a single type in the near future.

It's nice, however, to finally see some excitement in the computing world after decades of stagnation.

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