December 2012

Volume 27 Number 12

Don't Get Me Started - Being Fully Digital

By David Platt | December 2012

David PlattMicrosoft is providing more UX guidance for developers with Windows 8 than it did with Windows Presentation Foundation and Silverlight, a change I welcome. One of the tenets of the new Windows UI style is to make your content fully digital. By this, Microsoft means that you should not spend screen space or CPU cycles or user attention on meatspace analogies, such as a book reader app displaying pages that look like physical paper. Apple in November announced it was moving in the same direction.

The design guidance makes sense. Mobile device screens are small compared to PCs; computing cycles are also more limited, and so are physical storage and battery power. A pixel spent on the deckle edge of a simulated book page means one less pixel for the book text. The page-flipping motion in a reader app is a PC indulgence, unaffordable on a mobile device.

Will users accept this? I think so. When personal computers first started catching on 30 years ago, our main UI idiom was making the computer display picture look like the physical thing it replaced. For example, the display of the Windows Cardfile program, shown in Figure 1, looked like an actual file of paper index cards (well, as close as we could get to it with the graphics of that time). But that changed as computer usage spread and evolved.

Remember Cardfile?
Figure 1 Remember Cardfile? The original Windows personal information manager looked and acted like paper note cards.

We’ve reached the point where informational content has been decoupled from its physical storage medium. Our computer representations no longer need to simulate their physical origins, such as page numbers or CD track numbers. The flexibility of digital presentation renders these useless at best, misleading at worst.

For example, my Kindle reader reformats the text for the larger type size I prefer, and I read on devices of different sizes (PC, tablet and phone), so page numbers lose their meaning. In a recent presentation, I referred my audience to a Kindle location instead of a page number. And after I introduced them to my classic rock music collection, my daughters now beg me, “Daddy, put on the Beatles’ White Playlist.”

Kids today grow up with ubiquitous computing, and therefore never learn the connection between digital content and a physical medium. My 2-year-old grandniece and grandnephew, children of my 30-year-old geek nephew, are prime examples. When I gave them music CDs for their first birthday (Raffi singing “Baby Beluga”—revenge on their father for dropping my laptop years ago), their mother said, “I don’t think we have a player for those. I’ll have to rip them to the Apple music format that we use here.” These kids don’t have movie DVDs—they’re all online, too. They don’t have magazines. Nor newspapers. Nor paper photo albums. And now that I think of it, they have darn few paper books, though lots of Kindle editions.

These kids could play music on their dad’s iPad before they could walk, though I’m surprised he let the little thugs touch his precious toy. (Perhaps he was hoping they’d break it, so he’d have an excuse to buy this year’s improved model.) His daughter, then aged 15 months, got mad and cried when she finger-swiped their big-screen TV and nothing happened.

They consume far more informational content than I did at that age. But that content has been liberated, set free, decoupled from its physical representation. It has become, as Frederick Brooks wrote in “The Mythical Man-Month” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 1995), “nearly pure thought-stuff.” The Windows 8 fully digital tenet catches and accelerates this trend.

Toys“R”Us is now selling an Android tablet aimed at kids (with a rubber protective frame) for $150. The cost of producing digital books is tiny compared to the color paper-printing process, although the pricing model hasn’t completely caught up yet.

The last generation of humans who will handle paper books (other than as a historical oddity, as we enjoy watching a blacksmith at work) walks the planet today. You tell me: Should we weep, cheer or shrug?

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at