The sum of all fears

Update 5/25/2017: This is a post I started over a year ago.  In the interim Ubuntu has officially dropped the plan on a convergent desktop.  Mark Shuttleworth might argue that convergence will eventually happen but ultimately that doesn’t matter.

“In business being early, or being late, is the same thing as being wrong.”

Outstanding article over at TechRepublic discussing the lack of momentum that Ubuntu has had as of the last couple years.  The basic rundown is that the author believes that the long term goal of “the convergent desktop” is causing other less important goals to slip.

For those who haven’t heard of the convergent desktop (or simply convergence) it is the idea currently being chased by both Microsoft and Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) whereby your phone/tablet can also be your desktop/workstation.  Sometimes this is associated with a seamless user experience that “transcends” both use cases (i.e. is the same environment on both platforms) but more often is based on some kind of modal shift when device size changes.  So for Windows 8, it become more Windows 8’y when on a phone, but feels a little more like Windows 7 when on a 22″ monitor with mouse.

Google is, of course, more concerned with turning everything into an extension of the web via Chrome and/or Android.  This means that they ultimately don’t care if it is a desktop or a phone running applications; as long as the data is stored in their cloud or provided by one of their services.  So what is Apple’s strategy concerning convergence?  Ahhh, now you get to the meat of the problem.

Apple, always laser focused on user experience, figured out a while ago that convergence SUCKS.  It really really does and here is a brief explanation why.

A great desktop experience is going to be focused on use cases where people are going to use desktop applications.  I call these users “creators” because they primarily use their computers for creative endeavors.  Think software development, editing photos, writing books, mixing music,  making spreadsheets, etc.

In this vein, the tools for creating are centered around the ability to produce new material.  Keyboards are spectacular input devices for creators.  I can type faster than I can write. Even though my ultra-book has a touchscreen, I never use it because my ten fingers are faster for creating things that a single pointing finger is.  When a fine grain control inside a two dimensional canvas is needed, a mouse is significantly better than either a touch screen or a touch pad.

A great tablet experience is going to be focused on use cases where people are not going to be creating.  I call these users “consumers”.  When using my tablet I am almost solely relegated to the role of consuming information.  Reading emails, watching Netflix, looking up receipts on Google, etc.  Consuming requires less functionality than production and added interface utilities for these edge usage cases would just take away from the user experience.

Now obviously most users spend some time during the day being both a consumer and a creator.  This is not a statement of the value of how a user uses their technology but an implicit realization that different use cases should be centered around how best to actually use their system.

It is hard to make a really functional sports car that can also be a useful pickup truck.  Trying to make one into the other generally causes you to have a tool that is good at neither.