Apple Ushers in Era of the Fluid UI

It has been a while since I sat down with Angus Davis, co-founder of voice applications service provider TellMe. I have known Davis and his co-founder Mike McCue for years. We met in an era when most Oracle employees wanted to work at Netscape, where the two of them were. (These days I guess Google is the company on people’s wish list to escape the evil clutches of Larry 1.0.)

TellMe powers the 411 services at major telecom service providers, mobile operators and large corporations like FedEx. It is a boring business, but hugely lucrative, enough to make TellMe a likely candidate for an IPO offering later this year. But Davis dodged those questions, and instead we ended up talking about a staggering work of Jobs’ genius – the iPhone, which could also very well be Steve’s WaterWorld.

Given that Angus and I match John Madden in cumulative age, it came as no surprise that we were a tad cynical, and perhaps skeptical of the device that promises to do it all. After all, dialing a touch screen phone when driving is kind of difficult, and of course our senses have been programmed to use the 12-key pad.

Chattering like yentas aside, we did marvel at the phone’s user interface – fluid, dynamic and simple. The kind of fluid dynamism you can see in the Apple TV or on Front Row. It might be worth whatever it cost to build.

The New, Fluid Interface

The commonality amongst those three is their ability to bring into focus the feature or functionality that you want to use, and fading the rest in the background. The simplicity triggers usage almost intuitively. While these are three Apple products, they portend a new trend, the emergence of a more fluid and active user interface.

Apple is not alone in thinking along these lines, because you can find other examples, though not quite as polished or fully evolved.

The Nokia N80 and N73 have a multimedia key that opens up a multifunction window that is navigated using a tiny navigation stick. Some of the Sony Ericsson phones have an almost-dynamic UI, and so does the BlackBerry Pearl from T-Mobile; they only limit it to the Faves feature. A few phones from Samsung and LG have dabbled in this, though most have stopped short of Apple’s efforts.

It is easy to have a static interface when all you want to do is look up a phone number or send a text message. The emergence of the active and fluid user interface stems from the trend that the devices are becoming multifunctional, and complex.

One of the big challenges when it comes to adoption of converged devices has been their complex and confounding user interfaces. Citizens would happily sacrifice convenience of one-device-to-do-it- all in favor of simplicity.

This is especially so in the case of mobile phones that are now masquerading as everything from music players to Internet tablets. To navigate through the wide array of features using a classic user interface is quite challenging.

Intelligent storage drives and multifunction CE devices are also ideal for this new fluid interface, only exposing the functionality you want to use. The gaming consoles have been testing this idea and we can very well expect more UI experimentation in the near future.

Not Just for Devices

The fluid interface is not just for devices, and thanks to Web 2.0 technologies like Ruby and Ajax, you are also seeing the fluidity come to web and web applications, and perhaps it will soon trickle down to enterprise applications.

Netvibes and Pageflakes are good examples of rudimentary interfaces that depend on fluidity. Digg Spy and Cloud View are other examples of a fluid UI. The commonality between all these services is that they are dealing with massive amounts of information, just like the new CE devices.

The big interface shift is part of the technological evolution. During the last century, the automobile business started out Model-T but then evolved to different models, each with a different look and feel and a different dashboard, the UI of that business. It has continued to evolve and become more dynamic as complexity of the box-on-four-wheels has increased.

The computer business has gone through the same evolution. I remember the punch cards, the DOS interface, Windows 3.1, the Mac, the OS X, the Windows XP and so on. (Interestingly, the Xerox inspired icon-driven Mac UI changed the way we interacted with computers.) Computers had screen real estate and helped popularize the “menu” and “windows” system. But with mobiles and CE devices that menu-windows paradigm doesn’t quite work as effectively.

The fluid UI is the natural evolution. In an era where hyper commoditization is part of doing business, UI and by extension the user experience is the crucial barrier to entry. Apple’s iPhone is a collection of commodity chips, hard drives and whatnot dressed up in a pretty shell. It is the UI that makes it intriguing enough to worth waiting for.

Our skepticism about it being a potentially costly debacle aside, both Davis and I are waiting for the iPhone, just to get a close personal look at the user interface. (At least that’s my excuse for getting one!)