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Al Williams

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The Command Line Phone

December 28, 2010

I know I've mentioned it before but I have never fully bought into the whole GUI concept. There are a few exceptions--word processing and debugging come to mind. Still, like it or not, the idea behind GUIs is that all the program's functions are exposed and discoverable by a user. Right?

My lovely wife wanted to buy me an iPad for Christmas. I convinced her that I would prefer an Android tablet and I am writing this blog entry on it with only mild difficulty. The 10 inch tablet is a marvel. But I have been slightly perplexed at a few elements of the GUI.

For example, one of the highly touted features of Android devices is that they multitask. So how do you easily switch between tasks (like a task bar on Windows)? Oh easy. Just press the MENU button on the screen (or the hardware button if you have one) and hold it. After a few seconds a task switching pane appears. That's totally hidden unless you make a habit of pressing and holding every element on the screen to see if it does anything interesting.

You could argue that Windows or most X Windows systems hide task switching via the Alt+Tab key. But that doesn't really count since these systems also have (at least by default) a status bar with icons of running programs. This bar shows you what's running and lets you switch to anything you like. The fact that there is a hidden alternate way to switch with the keyboard doesn't strike me as a violation of GUI precepts.

There's more examples of this throughout. For example, changing the on screen keyboard requires you to press and hold a key on the keyboard (which is, of course, not marked for that function). Too bad the key isn't the same on on every keyboard. Oh and I have at least two keyboards that don't support it or I haven't puzzled out which key to press. Yeah, yeah. Read the manual. But that's my whole point--we collectively decided that asking people to remember commands was too hard. Yet how much different is it for me to remember commands versus having to remember that on one keyboard I have to hold down the alternate key down to switch input methods, but to switch again I have to hold down the enter key. Unless I switch to one that doesn't let me switch at all. Then I have to get out to the launcher and access the system setup program.

Even if there was a visual style that gave you a clue that something might happen when you long press an element (analogous to the "..." you are suppose to put on menu items that don't directly take action) I'd be satisfied.

Truthfully, I love the tablet. And I've done some Android development in the past (and hope to use this as an excuse to do more). But as we crunch user interfaces on tiny screens, are we losing the advantage of them? Hearing me preach about proper GUI design is like hearing Darth Vader lecture someone about manners. If he's noticed your bad manners, they must be very bad indeed.

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