Sunday, November 4, 2012

Platform UI Unification, Or Variety? Which Works?

Within the last few weeks, three of the biggest players in the software industry released products to fill the gaps in their respective platform offerings. Apple released it's iPad mini to go along with the iPod touch/iPhone, iPad 2, and Retina iPad. Microsoft released Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, and subsequently updated the XBOX UI. And Google. Ohhhhh Google. The land of the droids released the final two pieces to their platform puzzle, the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10, joining the Nexus 7 to complete the full Google-approved Android device offering.

Each company has it's own unique platform. As interesting as this is, perhaps more intriguing is the approach that each company takes to each user interface on each respective device. Apple's UI seems to be similar across the board, but differences are hiding around every corner, and the gap between phone/PMP and tablet is very wide. Microsoft is trying very hard to pull their design together and unify it as much as possible. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find many interface differences between Phone 8 and 8. Google, on the other hand, pointed out by their naming scheme, has decided to embrace each device as a step on the stairs of Android. Each device offers Android in very similar flavors, but for different purposes tailored to form factors spanning three sizes.

This arouses the question- which works? Is it better to unify everything, have each user interface be distinguishable by form factor, or keep the similarities in front, and the differences relatively hidden? Read on to find out.

First, I always like to put the market leader in the spotlight. Apple is known for trying the hardest to streamline their platforms. From the iPhone, to the iPad, and the iPod touch, Apple has implemented a very similar UI in each product. And it's that consistency that has attracted more and more users to the platform. People like to be familiar with all of their devices without any effort. Frankly, Apple is the only company right now that offers that in a UI. However, the similarities end with the UI. Across pocket-sized devices and tablets, the software offering is incredibly different. Apple understands that different form factors call for different functions. And hey, I can't help but agree. And so does the rest of the world. The most popular tablet on the planet is the iPad. And the most popular phone is the iPhone. Get over it, haters.

Microsoft has an approach that quite literally gives in to the pressure of Apple, and conforms to an almost unchanged user experience across all devices. But the similarities are sometimes unneeded. Microsoft wastes valuable application space in Windows 8 apps, where that space is filled on Windows Phone 8, and don't need to be filled on Xbox. It feels as though Microsoft has lost the ability to divide space to areas where more features can be added, and tries to keep the slate as bare as possible. Once again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But for me, I feel as though Microsoft is sidestepping an opportunity to build better apps in favor for platform uniformity, and that is the biggest sell out of all.

Google is really, really, really, really good at keeping things as simple as possible. This is definitely evidenced by the uniformity of the Nexus 4, 7 and 10. However, where Apple only takes some advantage to interface similarity, and Microsoft lazily makes everything the same, Google strives to keep things similar for the sake of user choice. Because every device fills the same essential purposes, the buy decision comes from the form factor. However, this proves to be a failure when most tablet apps are just blown up smartphone apps, bringing us back to the Microsoft problem. Other than that, Google is really keen on stressing how each devices fills a different size-based use case, and quite frankly I love it. But like Microsoft, there's still a lot to be desired.

At the end of the day, platform uniformity and variety, as evidenced in Apple's mobile product line, is best had when blended together. It's good for devices to have similar user interfaces. However, the line should detach itself right there, as it's not always the best idea to "blow up" apps to larger displays for the sake of everything being the same. And that's not to say that mobile devices shouldn't be sold based on form factor either. I have found that I get more out of my iPod touch than I do my iPad, and that's just because I'm more of a instant-gratification, tiny device in my pocket kind of guy. But at the end of the day, like anything else in the world of consumer technology, the purchasing decision is up to the user. So dig in.

By the way! Don't forget to leave me a comment in the comment section below! I'd love to hear from you!

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