Kindle didn’t start the fire…

Apologies to readers for misquoting a Billy Joel song title. And the terrible pun.

My friend, Kate Carruthers has an interesting post about sitting next to an elderly gentleman on a recent flight and hearing his views on the change the Amazon Kindle is bringing to the book publishing industry.

As a Kindle owner of just a month, I consider the device transformative in its market segment. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the Kindle is the first device of its kind – we’ve had ebook readers of one form or another for quite some time now. But it’s the first to make a difference in the public mind.

What I do believe is that with now-global availability of both the Kindle 2 and the larger-format Kindle DX, the book publishing industry is facing a watershed moment. It’s a moment of no lesser transformation than that the music industry has faced with the dominant emergence of the iPod and the iTunes Store. Again, Apple didn’t invent the electronic music player nor selling music online, they simply had the smarts to define it. And I think Amazon has likely done the same thing with the Kindle.

As a device, it’s trivial to use. The interface is incredibly easy, and the smarts built into the OS such as the way the Menu button reveals an in-context set of activities based on what you are doing (reading, browsing titles in your library, looking at the Kindle store, etc), make device usability very good. It’s not perfect, but it is close.

On top of the actual usage experience, the ease with which the device allows you to access your library (from multiple devices) as well as wide availability of titles, makes obtaining new and interesting reading a trivial task (as with the iTunes Store for music). It’s also potentially expensive, as the purchase hurdle is now near-zero.

Lastly, the usage experience is pleasurable. The Kindle is easy to read on. It’s as clear as a book and the electronic ink the screen uses is much easier on the eye than an LCD screen.

I don’t think the Kindle is yet in a position to supplant paper books. Not even for a tech early adopter like me. Books, and the tactile please to be realised by holding one and reading it, curled in a lounge chair, isn’t under threat from the Kindle. Nor is every book published on the platform yet.

But it is a tangible threat to book publishing. I believe it will transform the retail end of the publishing industry, though I don’t yet understand how. And, with Amazon opening the platform to developers, there are potentially further as yet unseen benefits.

Technology Untanglers

Today’s New York Times Fresh Starts column (somewhat annoying subscription required) is a relatively comprehensive and accurate description of what a “usability professional” does. It’s definitely targeted at a general audience, and is probably a great starting point to use when you are asked the inevitable “so explain to me what you do.”

It doesn’t differentiate between IA, information design, usability or any of the other myriad variants in our very mixed profession, but it’s certainly a good start. And it’s in a significant media outlet, boding well for our collective profile.

Silverlight? indeed

Over at UXB, Shane Morris is trying to convince us there’s really no competition between Flash and Silverlight (along with no competition between the Expression toolset and similar Adobe products). I’ve had a couple of short conversations with Shane recently about where and how Expression and WPF are going to impact the incumbent toolsets – Flash, Flex, Dreamweaver and other Adobe design tools (not to mention Eclipse) and I’m not convinced by his arguments that they can all play nice together.

Shane’s a super-smart guy – incredibly likeable and with few peers in the user experience space – but it’s his job as a Microsoft representative to ensure that as many people are introduced to the new Microsoft tools in as non-challenging, friendly way as possible. With the Age of User Experience sessions running at the moment, a major part of his job is to introduce Australian developers to Expression and WPF.

Sadly for Shane and his bosses, his arguments seem redundant in the face of Sean Corfield’s most recent post.

As a former senior Adobe staffer and ColdFusion guru, Sean holds major league sway in the Adobe tool using developer community. Given the pretty awful experience he’s just had trying to get Silverlight to work on his Mac, this group is going to be even less likely than ever to look at Expression and WPF.

To confirm Sean’s findings, I tried to repeat his experience on my MacBook Pro. I followed the instructions and did exactly what the Microsoft site told me to do. Apparent success in installation. But, as with Sean’s experience, no seamless redirection back to the Silverlight home page. You have to try to intuit what Microsoft expect you to do, given you’ve moved past the installation instructions…

Now, here’s the doozy – my experience was worse than Sean’s! Every time I try to go to the Silverlight home page to check out this cutting edge new technology, Firefox crashes without warning, and I can’t even check out how cutting edge and “check that out” Silverlight is… UPDATE – I can now view the sample apps without Firefox crashing.  That said, like Sean, I see no video in the top of the page.  Also, and this is opinion so take it with a grain of salt, the demos show me nothing Flash hasn’t done in spades for years.

For Shane’s sake, I really hope Microsoft get their act together and make this both seamless and error-free, because at the moment, getting Silverlight happening on OS X is:

  • counterintuitive;
  • error-prone;
  • an unmitigated usability disaster.

Do I NEED 15 shutdown choices?

Over at Joel on Software, Joel delivers a sound slapping to the designers of the new Windows Vista who have managed to give the user a mind-numbing 15 options when trying to figure out how to switch off their computer.

This confusing set of possibilities is driven by trying to offer too many options/choices in a effort to please everyone rather than proving a simple yet functional interface. What this, or any other interface needs, is a simple and direct way to access necessary functionality.

It boils down to a matter of usability being a factor in your design. Ask yourself some fundamental usability questions. I could reinvent them, but the guys at 37signals have done the work for me in their book Getting Real – the faster, smarter, easier way to build a successful web application. Read Chapter 9 – Interface Design for their thoughts on the issue.

Sweet Color Schemer

If, like me, you have no concept of web design, nor of how to come up with a decent color scheme for your site (let alone the design, which is a whole other story…), this little wonder will save your ass very nicely! And it’ll export your color scheme as a Adobe Photoshop .act, Macromedia Illustrator .ai or as plain text.
Of the very many color scheme generators out there, this is definitely one of the best I’ve found; and it comes up with very pleasing color sets. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you which colors to use where (banner, links, menus, etc.) – I am yet to find one which does.