'Make it simple, stupid' should be the motto for the mobile Web

Ian Betteridge is spot on with today's post: "The era of simplified computing." Simpler defines the current PC market. Simplest defines the next computing paradigm -- anytime, anywhere, on anything, for which the cloud-connected mobile device is the major platform.

"I've come to see that we're entering a new era of computing, one where the paradigms and expectations of the world of the PC won't give us much guidance," Betteridge writes. "This new era is all about simplified computing, technologies where what's important is the ability to sit down, get something done, and put down the device. Fast, simple, and most of all requiring as little knowledge about the underlying technology."

Cloud services have been driving simplicity since the early 2000s. I first started talking about this phenomenon with vendors' clients in early 2005, when working as a senior analyst for JupiterResearch. Several convergent factors drove the simplification of connected, cloud user interfaces compared to PC applications. Among them:

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1. Web browser limitations, which compelled developers to make much different choices about UI design and the broader UX (user experience).

2. Client-server architecture. Web browsers are more like thin clients when connected to the cloud. The heavy computing is done on the server rather than the local application.

3. Web development tools. For all the talk about Rich Internet Applications, many Websites rely on HTML, cascading stylesheets and plugins.

These three factors, among others, led to simpler cloud service user interfaces (as presented in the Web browser) compared to PC apps during the Noughties.

Adobe Flash is perhaps the greatest culprit sucking simplicity from Website design and broader cloud service UX. Websites using Flash add the kind of bloat and complexity more typical of PC applications. The best reason for moving away from Flash is the one I don't recall Apple CEO Steve Jobs making in his attack on the programming language/toolset: Complexity. HTML5 promises to extend browser-based applications' capabilities without dramatically increasing complexity. From the perspective of simplicity, HTML5 -- at least as the spec matures -- looks better than does Flash. I'm not familiar enough with Adobe Air to make similar assertion.

In May 2004, I first blogged about my four principles of successful tech products. I later added two more principles. According to the revised list, successful products should:

  • Build on the familiar
  • Hide complexity
  • Emphasize simplicity
  • Do what they're supposed to do really well
  • Let people do something new they wished they could do
  • When displacing something else, offer a significantly better experience

Emphasizing simplicity and hiding complexity are the most important of the six criteria for the next computing era. Google search is one of the best examples of the simplicity paradigm. Google hides most of the search complexity from the user -- on the server and through its algorithm(s). The user simply types text into a box.

There are plenty of other examples, such as blog services Posterous or Tumblr. Posterous makes blogging as easy as sending an e-mail. Tumblr offers a simple, yet powerful blogging interface/platform, with posts defined into seven meaningful content types.

However, many Websites and cloud services are more complex today than five years ago, and Flash is but one reason. Some sites overdue AJAX and other tools in their quest to mimic desktop applications. Sometimes developers go too far. For example, Flickr is currently rolling out a new user interface that I consider to be a design disaster. The new Flickr is more cluttered and tasks that were previously easily exposed as links are now tucked into submenus.

But the mobile Web demands greater simplicity, because of:

  • The space constraints demanded by dumb phone, smartphone and tablet screen sizes.
  • Applications user interface conformity required by some mobile platforms (primarily iOS).
  • 3G bandwidth limitations, either imposed by carriers or limited by network data capabilities.
  • How phones are used differently than PCs. For information, there are immediate -- and often hands-free -- needs.
  • Developers' compulsion to deliver lighter applications, whether in the browser or by connected local applications.

As I explained in April, Apple and Google approach the mobile Web from two different worldviews. I wrote: "Apple's worldview is more applications-centric while Google's is more Web-centric. Apple wants to pull computational and informational relevance to applications, while Google seeks to shift relevance to the Web."

Betteridge presents an astute view of Apple's and Google's different worldviews about simplified computing:

Google's approach to this is to 'put it in the cloud.' The only thing you need to do is be able to run a web browser, and the ultimate expression of that is ChromeOS, where there is very little the hardware does except run a web browser.

Apple's approach is to keep the physical expression of the hardware as simple as possible, to remove options, to pare back the software so that you can only do a limited number of things, all of them 'Apple approved.' Of course, the 'limited number of things' currently runs to around 200,000 different applications, and you can still access HTML/JavaScript-based web applications too.

The two worldviews share one thing in common: Simplicity. My simple prediction: Platforms that strip away complexity are the most likely to succeed as the new computing paradigm evolves.

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