This week's column by Ctein
Back at the beginning of the month I discussed how devices, both computer-ish and camera-ish, are converging and how that makes life more complicated. Let's talk some more about those complications.
A couple of people brought up the rumored 13-inch iPad last time. I didn't mention it because it is just a rumor, but should it appear it would only make my point more forcefully. Its size, weight, and cost would place it squarely in the middle of the already crowded set of choices I previously described. If Apple's line is model-heavy now, as I think it is, this only makes things worse.
Microsoft has had its own problems with convergence. The attempt to give desktop Windows a mobile-ish interface was not met with acclaim. There are two reasons for that, and to me they're pretty obvious ones (Apple's hardly the only company that makes bonehead UI mistakes). The first is that if your computer doesn't happen to have a touchscreen, as most don't, interfaces that are designed to be poked at don't work half so well for the user as ones that are designed for a keyboard and mouse.
Then there's that information density thing. I complained about how badly iOS 7 scales to the iPad. Ergonomically, it's designed for much smaller screen, so there's a huge amount of wasted desktop space and an unnecessarily low information density, combined with excessively large and numerous movements required by the user to accomplish things. I reiterate: this is fundamentally stupid—the principles of scaling geometries for different sized devices are well understood, both as a matter of theory and of coding. When those principles aren't followed, as in iOS7 and the "new improved" Windows interface, it becomes ludicrous on larger screens.
On the other hand, Microsoft did something very smart with hardware—the Surface Pro 2. John Camp pointed me at this clever beast, and I'm not sure I understand why it hasn't gotten more traction. It strikes me as an excellent convergence—a very decent tablet and a more-than-capable computer. It might even be the ideal portable Photoshop machine (okay, it lacks a full 24-bit sRGB-space display, but you can't have everything). Is it because two pounds makes it too heavy to be usable as a tablet? Or is it just Microsoft's lackluster reputation in the hardware area? I admit I didn't give it even a glance when it came out for that reason. I'd be interested in hearing what readers think, most particularly why it doesn't appeal to you.
Do-everything devices usually don't do well in the marketplace—it's the trap of convergence. It's hard to make one device that's a jack of all trades, and that's true of cameras in particular. The "Frankencamera" approach, for example, has met with very limited success, and that's because, honestly, it doesn't work very well. You end up with a highly adaptable device that turns out not to be superbly capable at any one thing. It turns out that while people (collectively) would like the ability to do anything and everything with their cameras, if they (individually) can't do the thing they most care about superbly, they turn somewhere else.
Maybe that affects the Microsoft tablet/computer? If not in reality, in people's perception that it can't possibly be good at being both a tablet and a computer?
Okay, back to the complexity side. Let's assume we do see these kind of convergences. It really makes life difficult for the software and operating system designers. Suppose, hypothetically, Apple went the Microsoft route and there was only one single device in the 10–13 inch screen category? What should it run? Mac OS? iOS? As a heavy user of both, I can tell you that while either of them is capable of supporting any activity you can imagine doing on a computer or a tablet (or a camera), each makes some endeavors extremely easy and others almost impossibly difficult (try writing an incremental backup program for iOS). It's a lot like your favorite camera interface; I don't think anyone's ever found one that was perfect for them, although some come close. But there's definitely no particular camera interface which seems anywhere near ideal for everybody. I could give you my gripe list about Olympus's, but there's no point. You can come up with your own gripe list about your camera. Worse, for designers, get 10 of us in a room and we'll gripe about entirely different things in the same interface.
This does not make the designer's life easy. Much like the Frankencamera, the infinitely adaptable FrankenOS is far more a fantasy than a useful reality.
On the other hand, he says cynically, this is what keeps many camera companies in business. So many of the products are so similar—that unavoidable convergence I talked about last time—that if there weren't these distinctions that are difficult to engineer out, there'd be little reason for choosing one over the other.
And, then, there are those who actively exploit this. My complaints about trying to divine the differences between cell service plans? I hate to say it but I think that's calculated. The different companies really don't have a lot to offer that's different. So all they can do is gimmick things up with features designed to target specific market demographics (which any one of you probably don't fit). They have no incentive to make the consumer choice process clear and simple. The more obscure and difficult it is to discern the real differences between the plans, the more likely you are, at some point, to just throw up your hands as I did and pick one. Because sooner or later, ya gotta. (The same can be said for health insurance. The insurance companies don't really want you to understand their policies.)
Will that state of affairs last forever? I doubt it. It aggravates people. They just don't have an alternative. That doesn't mean they always won't.
Remember the old Apple iMac commercials, back when getting online could be pretty complicated? The one that explained how to get connected to the 'Net in three steps...and there were only two. Clever design and exceptionally clever marketing. Very successful marketing, too.
Maybe complexity will give way to simplicity. It's not an impossible dream.
Columnist Ctein converges on Wednesdays on TOP.
©2014 by Ctein, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Colin Work: "Exactly why I don't like video in my still camera. Sure, I know, I don't have to use it, but now my camera is more complicated than it need be—more menus, buttons that get in the way and/or could be put to better use. Interestingly, I've had to start shooting video—so I tried using my Canon 5D. Yes, it can produce some superb video—but is so awkward to use for this purpose. So I bought I decent camcorder—and was immediately amazed by how relatively simple the whole process became. Yes, I do appreciate that in the hands of a skilled cameraman, the 5D can produce amazing video. But I suspect very few decent stills shooters also make very good filmmakers—the disciplines are just too different."
Nerdie McSweatervest: "Re: cell service plans. Years ago, Dilbert creator Scott Adams coined the term 'confusopoly' to describe this."
Jim: "While you cannot please everyone, you can accommodate various users to make life easier. Twenty years ago we designed and sold test instruments that were tethered to H-P 200 palmtop PCs that let you set up tests and take data with one button press. I was just at a techie trade show where I saw several instruments, including some neat microscopes, interfaced to both Android and iOS devices by Bluetooth or WiFi. These systems allow setting up tests, taking, analyzing and storing data easily.
"Why can't I do that with a camera? An app should allow access to the camera to graphically set up all the parameters now handled with menus that are reminders of the 'dark ages' of the PC (DOS!) and store the setups in the camera under a easily-remembered name (e.g. 'critter cam' for my E-P3 with the Pana 100–300mm) accessible on a top-level menu or a programmable button.
"But, alas, camera company engineers appear to be clueless like the car companies were a decade ago. When I wrote a article on computer networks in cars, I found the original BMW iDrive had over 750,000 possible settings, many with unintelligible names...does that sound familiar?"