The Tool-Task Dichotomy
Or, Phones Redux
As a follow up, of sorts, to why some phones do and do not work for me, I had a conversation with a close friend.
We’ve had the same argument for years; I find that Linux sucks, she the same for OSX. I find older Android unusable, frustrating. She finds it intuitive, wonderful.
It took this one final round of how we use technology to finally uncover more distinction between our philosophies.
Once upon a time, I enjoyed configuring systems; learning to install my OS. Debate FreeBSD over Linux.
Install and learn the ways of Solaris.
Life pulled me towards the development side of computing; writing programs, schemas.
That joy of learning Linux became a liability. Before, rebuilding a work environment was a regular occurence; after, I had things to achieve, the flexibility a distraction. I rapidly iterated tools, searching one that almost fit my needs; allowing myself to mould to the tool.
I settled on MacOSX. Linux fell away, and I grew ever more frustrated with its divergence from my world.
The tasks drove my tool choice, and I adapted.
The Other Path
My good friend had a different experience. Less exposed to the demands of creation, her environment was further customised.
Driven more by the needs of those such as I, pushing for a specific world, she learned flexibility and configurability. The tools were extensions of the task. The task was flexible, so too must the tools be.
She chose Linux, through it maintaining a highly custom world. She lacks the time or impetus to force her mind to a new world. Why should she? Hers suits her perfectly, mine requires change.
I accepted the change of the world; She brought change to the world.
A Metaphor for Other Things
My falling into the land of iOS was inevitable; passing through Android and MeeGo were merely slums on my path to the world I had chosen to conform to. I tell myself it’s about quality of design, the elegance of the UI and interaction.
In reality, so much of what I consider good design is wrapped up in my choice of task-oriented tools; things that work without thought or configuration, slipping into well-worn grooves.
The same expression of perfect design, renders such a device unusable to my friend. The expectation of configurability causes friction; the opinionated, unchanging defaults an intolerable bondage.
For her, Android and its broader variation matches more closely. Tools she has spent years honing require little to reconfigure; the device itself bends to her whims and desires.
A refrain of “But it doesn’t get in my way!” is equally applicable; mine for falling into my mental grooves. Hers for not breaking her expectations.
Google hired a professional designer to own Android for Honeycomb through to today1; My opinion of Android has risen through each release since then. Ice Cream Sandwich was a marked improvement; Jelly Bean even more so.
In fact, Jelly Bean is finally of a sufficient design aesthetic that I can almost enjoy using it. Certainly if Apple’s demands become unbearable, I could tolerate a conversion.
My friend is of the other path; the loss of configurability is starting to cross boundaries, move towards intolerability. Irritation, not delight, is the word of the day.
With Google moving towards my worldview; the broad worldview of opinionated design, how badly will my friend be left behind?
The final aspect here is that there is no third choice. Blackberry is dead in the water; MeeGo was murdered by Nokia on Microsoft’s orders over a year ago.
Windows Phone is a trainwreck, mismanaged and ignored by the carriers. Nokia makes great phones that no one wants to buy.
Even if they sold, their app stores are barren wastelands, lacking the dazzle of the iOS App Store, or the myriad free options of Google Play.
A switch away from the Big Two is tatamount to saying “I would like to be ostracised from the new Internet.”
But with Apple’s stranglehold and Google’s painfully obvious copycat behaviour, where is there to go that cares about user control?
A customized ROM, or hoping the Tizen2 project doesn’t disintegrate.
At the core, this is a false dichotomy. There is no real appreciable difference between her and I; we’re both trying to get things done in the fastest way possible.
“Design” and “configurability” are easy catchphrases on an old argument, a shorthand of saying “This forces me out of my Zone of Productivity, and is thus annoying.”
Which we chose matters less than that we chose it; all our justifications are merely supports for that we chose it.
We both achieve what we need to achieve; our tasks are complete, and our tools fit our purpose beautifully.