Apr 27, 2007

The secret ingredient is ... Transitions!

Information Technology interfaces have progressed to the point that the core competency factor has become design. Design that is pleasing to see and gives a good feeling, or as many sarcastically call it - 'eye candy'. Call it what you like, if your product has good design it will do well. Talented graphic designers are finding themselves under heavy demand.


Microsoft does have to be credited with constantly upgrading it's software design - from Windows 3.11 to Windows 95 to Windows XP and now Vista. Microsoft Windows Vista's new look is percieved to be largely a response to the design initiatives at Apple corporation. Though I think Linux has also pushed the Vista design team.

Windows Evoluttion

screenshot-macosAt Apple corporation the design initiative was initially unleashed on the physical machines with it's new iMac series. Then it went deeper with the Mac OS, which focussed on the software interface itself. Innovative design was invested in creating new interface elements and redesigning the existing ones. The user who's aesthetic sensibilities had been ignored for so long received a happy shock.

Linux and the open source community has consistently provided the plug-ins to enhance user experience. The fact that all of these have not traditionally been in one installable bundle made them inaccessible for common computer users. Here are a few examples from the Linux Ubuntu site:

Linux Ubuntu Linux Ubuntu Linux Ubuntu


Excuse my being awfully simple about this definition:

  1. When you are using a computer you'll initiate an action at a time, for example opening a program window. The computer system may also initiate an action.

  2. The result of that action will produce a result on your screen. For example, a window will appear or a menu may open.

What happens between 1 and 2 is a transition period. How the software fills that time on the screen is what makes a Transition.
Ordinarily, there's no need to fill a Transition with any work. Click a button, computer does some processing and a window instantly appears. Optionally a better experience would be to have the software create an animation to make the window appear to zoom in to place, from some corner of the screen. That gives some feeling and space for the Transition taking place. Another common Transition occurs when clicking on menu's. Normally, the menu could be made to instantly appear - which doesn't provide as good an experience as when the menu rectangle slowly folds out from the top menu button, or rolls-out downwards.

There are many such points of Transition that the software can handle better. With the evolution of operating systems, the main change I have seen in the interface is the incorporation and enhancements of these transitions.

I have been using Vista for a few weeks now, so I'll refer to those examples, but know that these days almost every operating system has some fantastic transitions built in. In Vista click on a window to open and it fades in and zooms into view, minimize it and it fades out and zooms out to the toolbar. A small thing to do, but makes a great difference in the feel of how the software 'drives'. The difference between a Mercedes and an old Toyota.

Switching between windows could be an ordinary click-on-another-window-and-it-comes-into-view, or you could do the same using Vista's spectacular Flip-3D.

All of these Transitions still work on application events inside the operating system. As more applications move to a web interface, these transitions will need to happen inside the browser. There are already HTML meta tags that are used to create transitions, but these have traditionally been frowned upon. Most of the official movie sites look for a lot of dynamic effects and transitions. As a HTML based site is limited in this area, most of the sites use Adobe Flash interface, which, by the way, is not counted as a standard (for examples see The Inconvenient Truth site, the X-men site). Applications are also moving onto small portable devices, and even there graphics and transitions are providing a smoother and friendlier user experience.

It is still tricky business building graphics and transitions into applications using the current developer platforms and technologies. Technologies such as Java never really cared much or helped with the software layout, graphics and transitions. That's due for a change.

At work I don't have Windows Vista, I don't even have Windows XP, I have Windows 2000. But that hasn't refrained me from incorporating features such as transparent windows, a Mac OS style dock, and even 3D effects on the windows. Enterprising developers can build any Transition effect plug-in into any level of software. All the windows you see below can actually flip-away to a folded-up view or flip-down to a full-window. The bar on top is like the MacOS applications dock, very handy for launching applications and folder explorer windows. Get the plug-ins here.


Hard-core programmers and developers tend to thumb their noses at such not-central-to-the-problem features. However, as mentioned previously - with the gap between the software features narrowing, such design feature differentiators can become the main Unique Selling Proposition. Having a good experience while you work is not to be discounted.

In our current technology interface, we work within 2-dimensional (2D) environment that we see on our monitor screen. To alieviate this situation, graphic engines have been added to provide a 3-dimensional (3D) emulation. You can see 3-dimensional objects - such as cars in a game - on your 2D screen. Many of the above plug-ins sought to put in an artistic 3D effect - shadows, light gradients to alieviate that flat experience. Now the experience has been further enhanced by full 3D emulation, making all the 2D elements undergo 3D Transitions - fly around the screen, rotate, distort, animate etc. The stuff you see in videogames are going to be incorporated in the elements of the everyday interface.

Transitions are a design trend here to stay.

More Examples

Here's another peek into future Transitions.

Links to Transition software

Most of the software below works in Windows, but I'm sure you could find Linux equivalents - search for Ubuntu or Beryl. The best stuff in life is free!
  • Firefox browser - 'Tab effect' extension. Everybody I know who's seen it on my desktop wants it, and keep coming back to me on where to get it. Well, here it is. The Transition is that when you move to another tab in Firefox, it looks like a cube is rotating with one face being the old tab screen and the next face being the new tab screen

  • Madotate - A japanese designed software which makes even the windows in my Win2000 computer flip sideways when not needed, as in my desktop above. The small configuration interface is in Japanese but there are English translation documents provided.

  • Transparent Windows - I use these to make my windows partly transparent. You won't feel the need for dual monitor systems.

  • Object Dock / Aquadock - provide a MacOS type dock in Windows environments, Aquadock currenlty works upto WinXP only

  • Yahoo Gadgets / Google Desktop - lots of nice little dynamic graphic icons to add to your desktop

  • The Amnesty Generator, for you new Vista users. This converts widgets, games and video's on the web to gadgets that can be added to the Vista Sidebar.

  • And finally, here's the ultimate demo in transitions - multiple spinning desktops, really strechable toolbars/docks, truly flexible windows. It's a combination of a great NVidia Graphics Cards, Linux Ubuntu, and Beryl OpenGL accelerated desktop

Apr 18, 2007

Book Review: The First $20 million is Always the Hardest

book coverI read this book around 5 years ago, but it's passages keep coming back to me. It's quite superb and written for anyone to read, though techies will identify with it and enjoy it the most. I laughed and nodded my head through many of the pages. It was published in March 1997 and is authored by Po Bronson, who has been described as: "Po Bronson is a genuine voice of a new generation, the bard of Silicon Valley." by Lewis Lapham

It is written in the time and about the time when information technology was a boom story. Everybody was inflating the internet bubble without any conception of a possible bust at the end. Many techies were working feverishly to turn their expertise and ideas into fortune. Riches and Glory never seemed so near as in those early years. It may seem so long ago, but we are only talking the 1990's.

In the beginning of the book an employee, the main character Andy Caspar, goes through the process of leaving his company - yeah, you simply can't just walk out. He's on a bright-eyed quest to join the league of enterprising individuals out there engaging in research and making a difference. At the other end is a seasoned project manager, Francis Benoit who's already had a string of achievements under his belt and is now trying to form a new team. He's past the hype and trying to push the realistic boundaries. The starting setting is 'LaHonda research center', the place where Francis Benoit works and where Andy Caspar is looking to join.


Benoit chipped in. "I want him to keep my friend Ronny Banks, but Hank here has been trying to convince me that we should keep you instead. Maybe you would care to help us."

Andy was caught off guard. What could he possibly say about himself that would earn their respect? What did they want? "Look, I’m not a conventional engineer," he started out, "I didn’t even study engineering in college, but maybe that makes me … different." He was just saying something, but Francis Benoit leapt at it.

"Different? Now that’s an interesting theorem. How do you think it would make you different?"

"Well, I might approach a problem differently."

Francis baited him. "Are you saying you are different because you approach things differently, or you approach things differently because you are different?"

Now Andy wished he hadn’t said anything. "Sometimes I think I see simpler solutions …" he offered.

"Ahhh, now we have something. You said before that you approach things differently, therefore you are different. Now you say that you have simpler solutions, so I am to conclude that you are simple?"

Andy looked to Hank Menzinger for help. He was still there grinning away, as if we all should be enjoying our merry selves right now!

"Perhaps Andrews would be a little more comfortable if you asked him some questions," Menzinger offered.

Yes, do that, Andy thought. But wait—Andrews? Plural? Menzinger had said Andrews again. Menzinger thought his name was Caspar Andrews! Menzinger was his supposed advocate in this debate, the one small chance he had at being reinvited, and Menzinger didn’t even know his name!

"Uh, it’s Andy …"

Francis said, "You used to work at Omega, huh? Did you ever sell the Falcon chip?" Francis had designed the Falcon.

"I left before the Falcon. I was selling the Eagle, the 486."

"Did you like it there?"

Should he tell the truth? Probably not. "Yeah, I guess."

"Then why did you leave?"

"Dunno. They don’t really let marketing people become programmers. The usual career path is the other way around, programmers burn out after five years, move to marketing."

Francis said, "Why do you think they burn out so fast?"

This was a delicate question, but Andy couldn’t avoid the truth, even if Omega was a big sponsor for La Honda. "In that environment, programmers have to make so many compromises … it’s hard to keep the desire, the will, when half your work gets thrown out every year."

That brought a bit of a smile to Francis’ mouth. Andy wondered if maybe he’d said something right.

In the end Francis banishes Andy and a bunch of usual suspects to a shed to work on an impossible project, essentially to get them out of his main team. The project is to make the first $100 PC. Now what would happen if Andy's disgruntled bunch - somehow, maybe, actually succeed. That's where you'll have to read the book. It was one of those books that kept me in a happy mood for weeks.

If you don't like reading then there's the Movie. It is a disappointing Hollywood adaptation, mainly goofy without any of the intelligent sparks, and it ruins the advanced interesting makeup of many of characters.

At present, as the digital economy matures, the benchmarks for a successful idea are getting harder. In this year's Sun (Microsystems) Developers Day conference, the keynote speaker emphasized that investors look to see some sort of return on their investment within 6 months, they used to be patient for years.

Read Book Prologue
Read First Chapter
Amazon Link

Apr 16, 2007

Google Earth - New Zealand Tourism Layer

Google Earth - the wonderful service that brought Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to the common user level - is now focusing a bit on New Zealand. It helps that Dr Craig Nevill-Manning, Google’s Head of Engineering in New York, is a New Zealander. Tourism New Zealand has tied up with Google Earth to create a specialized information layer on the service.

Google Earth - New Zealand Tourism Layer
(Image Courtesy Tourism New Zealand)

For those of you that haven't seen this service yet, Google Earth presents a 3-D interface displaying the Earth's globe, which the user can move in any direction desired. Users can zoom down from space to the street level. One can choose to see the default photographic representation using satellite photo's, or choose a map, and even the contours of terrain. Essentially, the software maps images, features and properties to each longitude and latitude coordinates on the earth model. By selecting different check boxes (representing "layers") you can choose what information is to be displayed on the model - click "Roads" and you will be shown all the road names, click "Accommodation" and you will be shown all the hotel locations etc. Now the new plan is to create a check box that shows detailed authoritative information about New Zealand Tourist locations.

(Image Courtesy Tourism New Zealand)

More news here.

Apr 13, 2007

Skywalks that leaves you hanging, and other unfriendly tourist spots

After hearing news reports on the BBC, about a new tourist attraction on the Grand Canyon, it became one of those places that I'd like to see someday. It's a glass semi-circular path suspended above the Grand Canyon, which you can walk on and see your feet floating over an immense spectacular abyss. The height at which you'll be is higher than the skyscrapers of New York.

But then reading one of the first blog reports of someone who's actually been there, I would need to do a rethink. Among the many disppointments described, ticket costs turn out to be far more than advertised, and strangest of all you are not allowed to take your camera. Apparently it can "fall and crack the glass" !!??

I never understand the logic of such a rule. A 2-dimensional photographic representation hardly robs prospective tourists of the true in-person immersive 3-dimensional experience. How many copies of the 'Mona Lisa' painting must you have seen everywhere? However, that does not stop a huge number of tourists scrambling to get a brief glimpse of the real thing at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Akshardham in New Delhi is also such a place - a magnificent example of revival of traditional Hindu architecture, funded by India's new money. Last December of 2006, my Dad finally took us all there, overriding my objections. Walking through the place, you can't help but feel that you have traveled to an ancient era in Indian history when the ancient monuments were new. The place is organized more as a theme park than a place of worship, but still you can't take photographs. Being a collector of memories and enjoying reliving my experiences using photo or video, I find this very irritating. Even more annoying was the process where you are frisked and for dubious reasons, have to leave every single electronic gadget the uneducated security can identify. It's tighter than airport security, they didn't even allow my usual pocket USB thumb drive through! You are not allowed to take your cellphones, so if you get separated from your loved ones in the immense crowded temple complex (it can have upto a 100,000 visitors a day), then God help you.

There are many museums and galleries that don't let you take your camera, even though they allow cellphones. But then, what happens to cellphones which have cameras? Here's another challenge of modern convergence technology - how will you identify it and how will you control it.

In my view, in the emerging modern paradigm, the new human is (or will be) permanently plugged into a communications and information network and the devices enabling these are part of a personal identity. Any attempt at separating these from the person would be in a way a violation of human rights. If a copyright or security rule is to be implemented then mechanisms for these should not interfere with this enhanced personal identity. A person can be made aware of the rules and the responsibility should be passed on to him or her to follow the instructions.

In fact these days you can take your cellphones with you on the plane and that doesn't mean you are allowed to use them while on board. But ... you can take your cellphones with you.

Apr 5, 2007

Vista follows Unaffordable Suite

The Windows Vista Ultimate Element

I mentioned in my last blog that the huge price difference between Academic and Normal versions of Microsoft Office Professional 2007 Suite is just waiting to be exploited. Now here are examples of individuals making profits off the inflated price of the Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate Edition.

The following is a screenshot of ongoing auction on Trademe, considered New Zealand's most popular website.

Vista Ultimate On Trademe

So why are they selling it, instead of using it? Apart from the obvious profit motive, here's samples of what is described on Trademe:

"Picked this up at a Microsoft conference and have no need for it."

"I won it at a product show and I cannot use it as it needs a better computer than what I have."

"Purchased and realised it would run in the computer but with limited feature so decided to sell - make sure you have good system."

Most users don't want half-baked versions, they want everything available under the brand. Vista is a much better version of the Windows operating system, with a lot of nice features for monitoring and enhancing PC performance, not to mention the updated look. Everybody wants Windows Vista Ultimate with all the features working on their current computers. Microsoft is propagating, if not highlighting, an economic class-structure of users. And who doesn't want to climb a class-structure?

The price of Vista Ultimate in the New Zealand market is listed by Dick Smith Electronics is nearly NZ$1000. Now that's much more than you would have to pay for a current above-average configuration desktop computer or an average configuration laptop. Consider in India, it costs above Rs. 30,000, an amount many times the monthly salary for most Indians.

Vista is also working very hard to avoid piracy at all costs. I would really like to see that succeed, because if Vista becomes hard to get at anything less than the full price, people will start discovering the joy and freedom of using Open Source operating systems such as Linux. Sun Microsystems has also recently released a free version of the Solaris operating system. There are going to be exciting times ahead. There are many agencies, including the United Nations, advocating free open source software alternatives especially in economic vulnerable areas such as found in developing countries. High costs don't help the Digital Literacy Divide.

Apr 1, 2007

MS Office goes Academic

Microsoft Student Franchise

I went to the Warehouse today and noticed that MS Office 2007 Professional was selling for NZ$398. That made me pause and I saw a sticker saying 'Academic Only'. I checked the back panel listing and comparing all the Office Suites. The feature column for the Professional version was highlighted, and there was no column for 'Academic only'.

Even more curious, I checked on Dick Smith Electronics prices online. MS Office 2007 Professional was listed at NZ$1148 ! But Wait, there's also an 'Academic' version listed at NZ$399, again.

Hmmm ... What's the difference? I've checked the Microsoft web site, there's no clarification. I've checked Google, still can't find any confirmed clarification.

The only thing needed to buy the Academic version is a student ID card. But surely The NZ$750 difference leaves space for money under the table. Hear ye, all students, here's how you pay off those burgeoning student loans! You can accept hefty commissions from the hapless non-students, and buy the poor folks some MS Office 2007 Professional editions at prices that cost less than a laptop.

Seeing such wide margins I wonder what Microsoft's profit calculations are? Does Bill Gates want more money? But then so do we all.

See ongoing conversation initiated in Geekzone

P.S. Oh Yeah, fyi ... I'm not a student :( , but I do already have MS Office 2007 Professional edition :S