My first conference paper

With my colleagues Luís and Mark, I’ve had a paper accepted for the ICASSP 2012 signal-processing conference:

I’ve previously co-written a journal paper and a couple of posters, and I’ve done demos, but this is the first conference paper I’ve ever been the primary author of.

(Though it may turn out to be a poster when presented—I gather the organisers decide after acceptance whether to allocate a poster or paper slot based on the presentation schedule.)

Windows 8: Mixed metaphors

I haven’t yet paid much attention to the Windows 8 Developer Previews, but having found Windows Phone 7 so likeable I thought I should take a look.

It’s very disorientating. It’s as if two different agencies are at work in designing it, one pushing for radical simplification in the mould of WP7 and the other for plenty of extra features. And whoever is responsible for running the show has decided the only way to make everyone happy is to do both, but to flip between them depending on context.

So there’s the Metro home screen with WP7-style squares:

Windows 8 MetroDevelopers are encouraged to produce applications that work in the same style, so when you start one up, it runs full-screen but with a “feel” that is familiar from the home screen.

But when you run up a traditional application like Windows Explorer, it flips to the old-school desktop and comes up with something with more accretions and fiddly bits than ever before:

Windows 8 TradI have a certain affection for that sort of complexity—it reminds me somehow of KDE3—and I can see the ribbon is intended to be more touch-friendly than traditional menus, but it’s not exactly coherent, especially since it isn’t obvious from the Metro home screen which tiles are going to launch you back to the desktop and which will leave you in Metro-land.

There are other idiosyncracies, like the way the right mouse button behaves quite differently in the different kinds of application, or the fact that Metro apps wouldn’t run at all for me at first because they have a fixed minimum size and my VirtualBox window was too small. All this leaves the impression that Microsoft are trying to crunch their way through a major change in interaction style by brute force, without ever really knowing where they’ll end up or how.

A bit like the early days of X11, before the question of what to do with all those mouse buttons had really been settled and the conventions from the now-traditional Windows application laid down. A fascinating business.

How come Windows Phone 7 isn’t a big hit?

I’ve read some speculation recently about why Windows Phone 7 hasn’t been more successful.  (For example, here by Charlie Kindel and here by MG Siegler.)  But they don’t seem to mention the Obvious Reason.

The Obvious Reason

HTC Sensation

Above, left: an exciting, vibrant, joyful-looking phone with appealing pictures on the front.
Above, right: a grey object ruefully displaying a handful of murky green squares.

Microsoft have missed any opportunity they might have had to compete directly against the iPhone for consumers’ attention.  Besides getting in first and making a compelling product, Apple have spent a decade building what turns out to be a very effective means of selling phones to people — by actually showing them to people and letting people try them — without asking anyone to deal with the horror of the mobile phone shop.  Microsoft haven’t got that option.

No, the competition for Windows Phone is Android, not iPhone. WP7 has to compete against Android on the shop floor, on the wall of plastic replicas, in the hearts and minds of mobile phone salespeople.

And it can’t do that, because it looks dull.

Why would anyone buy a phone that looked boring, but that was in fact the unusual, hazardous choice?  Who wouldn’t rather get the phone that looks exciting, especially when it is also, underneath the facade, the popular and safe choice?

“Good taste”

Windows Phone 7 is a lovely operating system to use; like many people I really appreciate its design, and I imagine that most people who do use it will enjoy it.

It emphasises information over decoration; creatively uses text itself as a responsive, dynamic interface element; and is as close as a mainstream OS has come to finding a successful replacement for every letter of the previous generation’s WIMP acronym.

WP7 exhibits “good taste” in a way that no other current operating system does.  I use the term “good taste” in a rather loaded way.  Apple show good judgement, but that’s not the same thing: when it comes to taste, Apple are always willing to exploit the appeal of the toylike, shiny, luxurious.  WP7 resembles minimalist architecture in comparison.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, minimalist architecture isn’t very popular.

Tired Technologists

WP7 might have been designed to appeal to people like me, long-standing technology users for whom the thought of another shiny glass-look 3D-effect icon is a tiring one.

I like it for that.  But for me to like something… let’s just say it’s not a good indicator of commercial success.  The products I like best largely seem to flop, and I suspect many people whose interest in products is broadly technical find the same thing.

Does the fact that I like WP7 mean that it’s doomed, or does the fact that I think it may be doomed mean that it could take off after all?  I’ll have to wait and see.