BB #54: Touch Bubbles

iPadLast April I finally bought my way into the touchscreen generation when I bought an iPad Air 2. After roughly four months of daily use, I have developed a very definite love-hate relationship with the pad itself as well as with the apps on it.

When I say “love-hate relationship” I don’t mean that in a casual ‘some stuff is good, some stuff not so much’ way. I mean, I really love certain aspects of it and think it’s wonderful, but I’ve come to deeply and very seriously loath a whole lot of others.

And I can’t quite make up my mind which one wins. The final analysis seems to be that I’ll go on using it — for better or worse, it’s a part of my life now. In that sense love won, and I really do love the parts that work for me.

But, damn, a lot of it — the whole concept — really irks me. That’s what this post is about, but let me start with the upside…

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What I love, and the main reason I bought it in the first place: e-books.

I’ve ‘bought the White Album again’ many times over when it comes to my music library. There are tunes I’ve had in vinyl, some form of magnetic tape, a CD, and finally a downloaded iTune.

iPod

I’ve had one of these for many years. Love It!

My video library hasn’t gone through nearly as many generations, but my VHS collection gradually turned into a DVD one.

Very likely any new movies I buy will be electronic-only, like iTunes, or lifetime access to cloud copies.

[I have mixed feelings about the whole cloud thing, but that’s another topic.]

The point is that my book collection is still in its original dead tree format. Further, they are the bulk of possessions I have to box up every time I move — dozens of large boxes. And they demand shelf space in each new domicile.

So I’ve been attracted to the idea of e-books for a long time, but I’ve been waiting for the technology to settle.

I was pretty certain a Kindle or Nook wasn’t what I wanted — far better to buy a general purpose device that can do other things. The decision really was between a skinny laptop or a touchpad. Apple seems better at the latter, so I went with an iPad.

As it turns out, for me, the real answer is I need both. The pad, great as it is for e-books and YouTube, does not meet my needs (by a long shot). I require a “real” computer.

The iPad has been a huge hit with me when it comes to e-books and YouTube. I can enjoy them from my couch or my dining table or while waiting to have my car worked on. (I realize most of you have been doing this for years. I tend to have a ‘wait and see’ posture with new tech.)

On these counts alone, it’s a keeper!

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But most of the rest of the whole touchscreen and apps business either leaves me cold or actively pisses me off. Allow me to enumerate the ways:

I’ll start off with the most obvious: The Fucking Fingerprints!

microfiberOh, my God, I hate the fucking fingerprints. (And it’s all the worse for me because I have rather oily skin. I can wash and wash, but within minutes I’m leaving fingerprints again.)

At least these use capacitance to detect touch and aren’t squishy. It is possible to clean a sheet of glass. (Apple recommends microfiber cloths, and I’ll tell you this: they work pretty well.)

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On the topic of touch, I find it really hard to avoid unintended touches. Handling requires a kind of care that’s annoying. Grab the thing wrong, and it does something you didn’t intend.

keys

Oh, how I miss you!

Even scrolling, if you aren’t smooth enough, can select an item on the list rather than making the list move up or down.

By the way: Is there a secret trick to get to the top or bottom of a long list?

Or are you just stuck scrolling and scrolling and scrolling?

On a real computer you can just use [Ctrl]+[Home] or [Ctrl]+[End] to take you there in a single keystroke. Is there really no way to jump to the beginning or end of a list?

D’oh!

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The other thing that drives me crazy is the lack of precision a touchscreen has. This is especially irksome with many websites where selecting the desired link from all those it’s nestled among can be a real adventure in surprise.

The solution, I know, is to “unpinch” to zoom in so the target is big enough for your fat fingers. But that’s a pain in the ass with the attendant risk of accidental selection.

fingerpaintingI never realized how much I missed the precision and control of a mouse until I was forced to fingerpaint on the screen like a kindergartener.

And on the topic of kindergarteners, what does it say about a device that is so simple that even a kindergartener can use it with ease?

The thing is, this hugely imprecise method of controlling the machine results in user interfaces that are dead simple. Which is to say dead-stupid.

And, in many ways, that’s my deepest complaint.

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I have Google Earth on my PC, and I really love it and all the things it can do. I have a collection of stored spots as well as various paths. Because of Google Earth, I know that one path I walk is 1.2 miles while another is 1.7 miles.

The “same” Google Earth app on my iPad is mostly worthless to me unless I want to spend time just looking around. It doesn’t have any of the features the PC app does.

Same company. Same app. One is great; the other is junk.

Redshift app

Great Astronomy!

Another example, a favorite from as far back as MS-DOS 3.3, the outstanding astronomy program Redshift. I was delighted to see there was a Redshift app for the iPad.

And,… okay, yeah, it’s still pretty neat (and entirely worth buying), but it’s such a far cry from the PC version.

In general, this seems to be the case all around.

Touchscreen apps are forced to offer extremely simplistic interfaces because there’s really only so much you can do with touch (and this all illustrates just how much power was available via the Windows™ right-click menus — Apple blew that one; two-button mice rule).

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Speaking of Google, the YouTube website interface also has features that the iPad app lacks. You can’t move items around your playlists, for example. And I really hate how they manage the video viewer.

Frankly, there’s something very off about all the Google apps for iPad that I’ve tried. Google Earth: junk. YouTube app: very inadequate.

And then there’s Gmail.

GmailI don’t know what it is, but I have some sort of mental block with regard to Gmail.

I just don’t understand the underlying model.

At all.

For one thing, there seems to be two types of folders: real ones and ones that act like folders. I just can’t wrap my head around it.

Something about the whole Google approach seems beyond me. I found Google+ hugely confusing, also. Never did figure out what half that shit even did.

And the Gmail app for iPad was one of the most unusable apps I’ve tried. Everything I hate about Gmail plus a shitty half-assed app.

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[I interrupt this post for an e-book and Google-related note. I can recommend the Eliot Peper novel, Cumulus. It’s a near-future story that’s about a company very much like Google or Yahoo. For the company in the book, think Google; for the CEO, think Yahoo. It raises some interesting questions about security versus safety.]

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The thing that really highlights the inadequacy of the mobile touchscreen device is the lack of a keyboard. The one that pops up on the screen… man do I hate that thing.

keyboard

One of the very worst, most hated, features of my iPad!

I never realized how often I use the hyphen key, or basic punctuation (like my friend the semi-colon), until it was all hidden away on a second keyboard I have to press a key to reveal.

And some apps don’t handle the keyboard well, popping away and back for no apparent reason.

But the thing that drives me the most crazy — and I can’t fathom this at all — is that there is no delete key! Backspace key, yes, but no delete.

W! T! F!

Again, I had no idea how often I delete the character to the right of the cursor until Apple took it away. And given the fat-fingered clumsiness of positioning the cursor in the first place, that need is even more urgent.

The bottom line here, is that for my money, any activity that requires significant typing is not an activity I’ll be doing much of on my iPad.

And, yes, I know about external keyboards. They’re proof that the iPad is not a real computer.

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waitingAnd then, for all their brain-dead simplicity, many of these apps are still buggy. I’ve seen them crash for no reason (I could see), freeze up for no reason, or just mysteriously vanish from the screen. Even with a simplistic interface and a hugely limited selection of actions users can perform, they still manage to write them badly.

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If it was just that mobile touchscreen devices existed and were whatever they were without affecting other things, I’d have no complaints. As an internet consumption device for ordinary people, I’d agree the things are a huge hit and rightfully so.

But there’s an element of zero-sum that goes on, and — as has been happening since the mid-1990s — opening the world of computers to ordinary people has made things worse for some power users just because resources always lean towards the greatest leverage.

Case in point: Mouse Hover.

hover

Another useful feature killed by all those touchscreens.

This was a feature implemented with JavaScript in the very early days of the web and which later versions of HTML enabled natively through the title attribute.

Until recently (about a year ago?) I used the title attribute in all my links to provide a pop-up bit of text explaining the link.

But WordPress removed the ability to do that easily when the attribute was depreciated in newer versions of HTML (you can still edit your HTML).

Why deprecated? Because touchscreen devices don’t have a hover concept, and since the whole world is addicted to touchscreens now, this useful concept falls by the wayside.

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menu

Clickable!

I’ve even had to revise the menu structure here at Logos Con Carne, because I’ve come to realize that touchscreen users don’t realize the top menu items are clickable and lead to pages.

That meant a lot of people never realized the About menu actually does lead to an About page.

With a mouse, you see, hovering over the top About item changes the mouse point as a clue that this is a clickable link. That can’t happen on the touchscreen.

For touchscreens, the first press opens the menu, but if you press the top choice again, it takes you to whatever page that links to. But how many users realize that?

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Another casualty of touch is that selecting things becomes extremely onerous. Many apps have a separate mode (“Edit” usually) that converts touches from “do this” to “select this.”

Selecting text is a nightmare, hugely prone to mistakes, and difficult to accomplish unless the text is as simple as possible. I’ve nearly wept with frustration trying to copy tables from baseball stats websites.

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Which brings me to the final insult.

graph

But I don’t want circles on my graph points, and I hate the colors! Apple says: Tough!

I was delighted to see my iPad came with a “spreadsheet” app, called Numbers. Until I retired, I had access to MS Office, and I haven’t gotten around to Open Office.

I love charts and graphs, so I was very excited.

The app is usable, just barely, for the simplest sorts of things, and only so long as you accept the limited (oh, so hugely limited) color palettes and chart styles. You have nearly zero control over… well, anything, and as a long time Excel user, this app seems like a kiddie toy to me.

A fun enough toy, to be sure, but still: A toy.

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Ultimately, that’s my bottom line. These are toys. The proof is that kids take to them so easily. Which is fine, really, it is. I just wish they had “power user” modes or something.

For me, the Microsoft ads mocking Apple’s attempt to call the iPad a real computer are right on point.

It’s not. It’s an adult toy. A device for consuming stuff, not a device for creating stuff. Steve Jobs ultimately got his “toaster” computer!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “BB #54: Touch Bubbles

  • Steve Morris

    You are right. I have tried to persuade people not to buy tablets, but they always do. As for one-button mice, I can’t express how much I detest them.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, that’s a losing battle. People are going to flock to these toys. We live in a world where Pokemon Go is (or, apparently, increasingly was) a thing. (I read an article just the other day about how quickly fads come and go these days. Like easily bored children, we seem, culturally, to need constant distraction.

      And the one-button mouse is so Steven Jobs. (So, I assume, is the missing Delete key.) The whole Apple ethic is that people want a “computer” to be as simple as a toaster, a goal they’ve largely accomplished.

      And, honest-to-gosh, that’s fine, really it is. I’m a Libertarian, so I absolutely believe people should be able to do anything they want…. so long as it doesn’t fuck with me doing what I want. It’s the zero-sum nature that gets me. The people get their toaster toys (and so do I!; toys are fun), but that seems to (understandably) edge out “power users” like me (and very likely you).

      All I want… is what I want. 😀

  • Steve Morris

    By the way, I own a desktop PC, a tablet, a smartphone, an SLR camera, an iPod and a Kindle. Each does some things well; others less well.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh! My SLR got stolen years ago, and I went straight to a table (and skipped a Kindle or Nook, but did consider it). I agree completely. I love the iPod (I’ve got the 120 GB classic), and in many regards, it’s a perfect device in my eyes. My entire music library (with room to spare) in the palm of my hand. Awesome!

      And I love the iPad for e-books and YouTube videos and my weather app and the news feed and a few other neat information consumption-type apps. But every time I forget myself and think it’s an actual computer, a device I can use for doing (i.e. creating) stuff, it makes me really, really angry!

      It irks me even when I try to just send text messages (let alone emails)! 😮

  • Wyrd Smythe

    A couple of points I forgot:

    The camera: A touch button to take a picture doesn’t work anywhere near as well as an actual physical button. You have to carefully avoid actually touching a touch button, whereas you can feel for and rest your finger lightly on a real button. Other touch buttons on the camera interface (to change modes and such) likewise require care to avoid accidental touch.

    And forget trying to work the thing sight unseen (as you could with a real camera). Touch screens require watching and careful handling.

    Precision: There isn’t any. As I said above: Finger painting. Trying to do anything that requires precision is an aggravating nightmare with a touchscreen. The need for additional physical devices (styli, keyboards, other pointing devices) demonstrates what toys these things are.

    Or, more nicely, consumption-only devices for read-only tasks. And they’re really quite nice for that (but I do so much more than consume).

    Selection: I mentioned in the post my frustration with selecting plain old text, let alone items from a table. There seems to be a secret trick that makes it work as you’d want… sometimes… when you do the right magic… but it doesn’t seem repeatable much of the time. Apparently the touchscreen needs to be in the right mood or something.

    The (free, so it’s snarky complaining) Garage Band is fun enough to play with, but I’m having a hard time doing much useful with it. I think if I spent enough time with it, I could probably bend it to my will, but I’m not sure I care for the investment.

    But note selection in the note editor reveals how awful a touch interface really is. Individual notes can be selected, all notes can be selected, and there even seems a way to select all notes of a given pitch (but that’s rarely what I’d want to do).

    A random selection of notes? No way. There’s no way to “draw” an enclosure around a given part of the screen as you trivially do with a mouse drag.

    It’s not just the note, it’s anything. A part of an image. Several items in a display. Items in a table. Selection sucks on touchscreens.

    So,… bottom line,… I guess I’m buying another laptop one of these days. I think an iPod (total thumbs up on that one) and an iPad is about as much Apple as I have stomach for. I think I’ll stick to my simple flip phone.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Q: Why do so many people constantly chatter on their cell phones?

    A: They’ve realized their own thoughts aren’t very good company.

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