Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The iPhone

I have an iPhone and I love it. I hate phones, and I hate mobile phones in particular .. but my iPhone is different. Really. the reaction I get to it, when people see it reminds me of the "old" days when Windows was young and DOS ruled and Macs' were the only platform that really implemented a WIMP interface (only when Windows became better accepted - really after the release of Windows95 did mainstream people start calling the bit-mapped, mouse driven graphic desktop-metaphor based interface a GUI).

DOS folks (and I was one once too!) would laugh at me and complain that I was letting the computer make decision for me, I was missing out on the power of commands like "Copy *.*" - look at all the clicks you have to do to copy all your files, ... and on it would go.

Many early EIS systems were Mac-based. To write for DOS mean't the vendor's had to create their own GUI - a non-trivial exercise - so the Mac was a preferred platform. (In 1990 we evaluated Pilot, Comshare and Holos - all had Mac versions that were heaps better than the DOS versions.

Along came Windows 3.11 and then Windows 95 and the game changed.

The Desktop metaphor was created at Xerox Parc in the 60s. It is still with us. In a less defined and less consistent way our interfaces are now also dominated by a document metaphor (partly due to the take up of the Web).

The reason why the iPhone is so cool - and so interesting to me - is not that it's a phone, or that is has a touch screen, or GPS, or a camera or whatever other feature it has - all of those are neat, but as my Windows Mobile/Blackberry/Palm/HTC loving friends point out there are other phones with similar or better technical feature sets. The thing is its easy to use - and it not because it has a great screen, and a touch interface. The interface is based on a "new" metaphor. Information is displayed on a surface - the information becomes the interface. That's the revolution. Many of my friends don't get that.

Sadly, at this stage, it seems very few BI vendors get it either. This metaphor - and the technology that supports it - is perfect for BI systems. Watch this video from Edward Tufte - he's talking about the iPhone as a phone - forget that and just think about what he says about the interface. He's describing an almost perfect way of presenting and exploring data. As he explains it, the iPhone is a dramatic new paradigm. It will be copied and probably improved upon - but not by phone vendors who think squeezing a menu based system onto a touch screen is an appropriate interface for a mobile device.

I hope that one day the BI vendors will understand too. I wonder - if as before - we have to wait for Microsoft (who are playing with this new metaphor with their surface product) to build a new version of Windows before the BI worlds makes a real change for the better.