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First Microsoft, then Apple, and now Google are about to change the look and feel of everything you can do on their devices. But it was actually Facebook who first gave us a preview of what’s coming up next.
Pop is Facebook’s new ‘animation engine’. It allows developers to create apps which offer the same effortless fluidity of navigation as Facebook’s critically acclaimed ‘Paper’ app. Facebook’s idea is that apps created using Pop will no longer be hamstrung by navigation which is based upon the primitive, obsolete, crude and cranky usability and design principles which pre-date the advent of mobile devices and touch screens.
With Pop, apps no longer need to look as if they were ‘ported’ from a pre-2007, pre-touch OS.
What Google are doing with their new ‘Material Design’ technology is something which looks as if it is exactly the same kind of thing as Facebook have done with Pop and Paper.
However, what Google have done here, is to do exactly the same kind of thing that Facebook has done for apps using Pop and Paper, but Google have taken it to its logical conclusion.
Google have baked a next-generation animated display-based interaction experience into every aspect of their Android OS front end.
When Android L ‘Pops’, it will Materially resemble (3D?) Paper
This means that both your overall phone and tablet usage experience as well as your app selection experience (not to mention your actual app usage experience if the app you happen to be using is itself also implemented using Google’s Material Design) will have a much more up to date and silky smooth look and feel.
What with the tiled design of Windows 8.1, Apple’s latest upgrade to iOS 8 and Google’s new Android L (which will implement Material Design) all the major operating systems front-ends are currently in the throes of a sea change which looks to be almost as dramatic as that original 2007 move to touch-based interaction that came with the introduction of the iPhone.
There’s a big question regarding where Facebook will fit into the app development future, but it looks as if Microsoft, Apple and Google are going to close the ‘user experience quality gap’ that Pop and Paper were aiming to address.
There are reasons to believe that Facebook will nonetheless find cross-platform opportunities at the server end (involving such back-end things as identity, sharing, notifications, app installs, monetization) which may turn Facebook into a back-end cloud based meta-OS host for apps across all operating systems.
Let’s remind ourselves what happened just before the last UI revolution
Usability gurus collectively wailed and gnashed their teeth at the ‘hideous’ retrogressive impact that HTML and the web was having on user interface design in the 90s.
An HTML webpage represented a giant leap backwards from the (mostly) serious gains in intuitiveness which had accrued from the widespread adoption of the GUI.
The ‘solutions’ (to this seemingly unconscionable backsliding into web-induced pre-GUI clumsiness) which were taken up at the time somehow managed to achieve the impressive feat of actually making the user experience even worse.
A bewildering profusion of java-based browser plugin apps rapidly emerged to fill the yawning HTML ‘non-GUI-ness based lack-of-interactive functionality’ chasm that webpages represented.
This resulted in downloadable java apps being built with interfaces so different from that of the OS and so different from the interface of the browser and so different from each other’s interfaces that they systematically destroyed any possibility of UI consistency that had been built up in the few years between the initial massive surge in adoption of Windows and Windows app development (not forgetting the rise of the Mac and desktop publishing whose re-invigoration of design-conscious fastidiousness made the whole interface proliferation phenomenon seem all the more frustratingly regressive) and the subsequent widespread take up of the web.
This developer-driven UI inconsistency nightmare was paralleled by another (this time designer-led) abomination known as the animated splash screen.
This masterpiece of procrastination-on-demand prevented you from accessing the web page until you had endured some interminable arty animation aimed at restoring the reputation of designers otherwise humiliated by the extent to which the crudeness of HTML made them look incompetent.
End of reminder
The java-based browser plugin developers of yesteryear are today’s mobile app developers.
Today’s app developers dedication to consistency (so that each app doesn’t expect/force users to learn and remember how to navigate their way through the app, because the navigation for one app doesn’t look or work the same way as it does other apps) is still open to the same old criticisms.
What this recently announced revolution in fluidity, smoothness and intuitiveness of apps (kicked off by the new operating system upgrades) heralds, is a potentially massive improvement in app design.
Unfortunately this revolution comes at a price which looks remarkably like the price we paid in the last GUI revolution.
None of these three new design-led app interface development initiatives is compatible with any of the others.
That’s hardly surprising, as platform differentiation becomes ever more crucial when the dreaded nemesis of commoditisation (arising from inevitable hardware cost erosion) is always only just over the horizon.
Want to make you app completely consistent with the rest of the user experience of the user’s device?
It looks like it’s going to get much easier to do this really well on any one of the leading platforms.
Want to offer that level of compatibility with the device-specific UX, and to offer it on multiple OS platforms?
It looks like it’s going to get much more expensive to do that really well as the tools and techniques diverge.
Want to also make your apps all ‘feel the same’ on all platforms?
Good luck with that fantasy, the upcoming divergence may quite possibly render it impractical, maybe even impossible.
There’s an argument which says that any user running the same app on a combination of Windows, Apple or Android devices may not get the consistency of experience they want, but they will most probably get the one they deserve.
This seems to imply that consistency of user experience should come at the price of consistency of platform choice, something which many may question.
In my experience of the technology industry, differentiation and compatibility are fashion-like phenomena which come and go in successive (overlapping) waves.
Recent announcements seem to indicate that the leading purveyors of OS interfaces and app design are about to embark upon a serious effort to differentiate themselves to an extent which is likely to be in anticipation of an upsurge in commoditised low cost devices which are expected to impact the business models of just about every sector of the device market.
As ambitious and potentially transformative as this recent flood of OS upheavals may seem, it still looks like we are experiencing the calm before the storm: the app development market is vast and mostly brand new (i.e., many app developers are very inexperienced) and many developers may be about to experience their very first big disruption.