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For the day Thursday February 2, 2006...

...I went to a developer conference hosted by Microsoft. When asked about it half an hour after its conclusion by a friend who works at a nearby consumer electronics store, I could not remember what it was about. Only as I was boarding a bus to return home did I remember that it was about making programs for mobile -- excuse me, smart phones.

I can't blame the presenter, as he seemed well versed in the subject of cell phone programming, and knew enough to not bore us with Powerpoint slides. But he did manage to bore one of us with code. (It wasn't me, honest. But a guy a couple of seats to my side startled the upper level of the theatre with a sudden snore.)

I probably would have fallen asleep if I wasn't struck by some incongruities inherent in the presentation. During the presentation we were taught to conserve memory use, and to bring home the point, he showed us that the demo phone (or actually the emulation of the phone on his laptop) had only 18MB of RAM. Our very next demonstration showed us how to pull a picture of a house off of a database upstream into this memory-limited device (though the hypothetical situation of this being a real estate agent's phone would explain the potential use this would have).

He also reminded us that we should make good user interfaces. However, this phone emulation uses a version of Windows Mobile for its OS that, for one, chooses to place status messages at the top of the screen (where the Start menu resides). This is unfortunate because this relatively space-constrained area, with the Windows logo to the left and various status and mode icons to the right, is too small to display most status messages in full. Every time our demo phone had to sync and download a new Windows Mobile component for his coding demonstrations, the status message would read "Installing Mi..."

As a note, many cell phones have UI problems even before you turn them on. In fact, the UI problems prevent most of us from figuring out how to turn them on. If you want to read Joe's article at the previous link, you can figure out that one of the reasons is that the electronics industry mistakenly believe that their icon for power switch means enough to override the color red which means "DANGER, DO NOT TOUGH UNDER THREAT OF DEATH!!" I know of no one who sees that stabbed circle and thinks "on-off switch".

Also, it doesn't help that the current trend of consumer devices where the time it takes for it to power on is enough for you to ask "Why is it taking so long to power on?". I have a new HD ready TV (it likely needs a converter box, but it will be hooked to a HD cable box, so it doesn't matter), which takes 30 seconds to power on. Even though it has circuits and microchips, I can't figure out why it needs what is essentially a boot process to power up. There's no operating system loaded on storage that needs to be loaded into RAM, as is needed for computers or apparently cell phones. It seems remarkable that in this Faster world, people aren't driven mad by the ever lengthening start-up times on such devices.

That, in part, is what impresses me about the Intel iMacs from Apple computer. This past week, while I was at the store (see second link) I turned off their computer and turned it back on, timing the startup with my watch. From the Apple "bong" to the point where the menubar clock appears (the last element loaded by OS X), it took the Mac only 27 seconds to start. Actually there was a stall when the dock tried to rise up from below (thus rather than being a smooth animation, it rises only 1/3 way from below the screen, and then *pops* into place). If there was nothing to freeze OS X right there, it could have loaded completely in under 20 seconds. I have seen no computer since MS-DOS boot that rapidly. In fact, the nearby PowerMac -- their more expensive and more powerful machine -- took around two minutes to start up.

Now, back to the the friend who I talked to there, though I couldn't remember what I learned at the MSDN seminar, I did show him the two DVDs of beta software we got for going (it was the reason I went and watched how-tos on mobile phone programming). This lead to talk of Microsoft Word and the sorta-new interface they're introducing in Office 12 (or Vista or 2006/2007 or whatever they plan on calling it). I say sorta new, as it really is only an expansion of UI concepts introduced in drawing and image programs like Adobe Photoshop and CorelDRAW. The big story as passed by everyone is that Microsoft Office will ditch the menubar for a set of context-sensitive changable toolbars. This actually scares and confuses people, as the menu bar has been central to the graphical user interface since it was first popularized by Apple. (I don't know what the Xerox PARC's UI looked like, though I suspect they had menubars on that as well.) Still, the idea of a palette that changes depending on the tool selected is something that's been in programs like Photoshop and DRAW for the better part of a decade. Those programs have far more tools and options than can be shown at once. Which actually pretty much explains Microsoft Office as well. In fact, since Corel's purchase of WordPerfect, the only major feature that has been added was the context sensitive property bar.

The conversation continued to the sad, sad neglect of WordPerfect by the Corel Corporation. I can't say much but to suggest that too much of the code in there is a black box to Corel's programmers. They haven't changed the file format since version 6, which is becoming a liability since it leaves WordPerfect the last major word processor to not support Unicode. They seem to struggle to fix long standing bugs in the program, even though they just released a new version a few days ago. I'm continuing to hope someone will buy Corel or WordPerfect. The guy at the Apple store wishes that company would pick it up. Pages is a good page layout program, but it isn't a heavy duty word processor. Plus Apple's suite is missing a spreadsheet. However, the last version of WordPerfect for the Mac died about 10 years ago, and such a move by Apple could rankle its relationship with Microsoft.