Hinging on stupid design

20120314Microsoft

I could never understand what all the hullabaloo was about when details of the Microsoft Courier tablet (above) leaked back in late 2009. It seemed so obviously an exercise in FUD-inspired vapourware directed against the imminent iPad – which was to be revealed in January of 2010. Courier’s debut was just a leaked series of mocked up computer graphics, for crying out loud, and yet there was no shortage of boosters screaming that this was the real future of computing, forget that big iPod touch coming out of Cupertino.

Okay, so the thing didn’t actually exist, and I was completely unsurprised when it was announced in April 2010 that it was never going to exist. The future of computing doesn’t tend to get revealed in leaks to Gizmodo, after all.

But the most obvious flaw in the whole concept was the hinge down the middle – in what world did that make sense? How could none of the Microsoft enthusiasts and blogosphere Courier fans not admit that two screens with a hinge down the middle would make for a bloody irritating user experience.

And now, as belated vindication, we have the Sony Tablet P (below). It’s a tablet with a hinge down the middle, a la the Courier. And Gizmodo, who once championed the Courier as “Microsoft’s astonishing take on the tablet”, this time admits that “The Tablet P’s most glaring flaw is its main point of differentiation: that double screen. It’s just a deeply unsatisfying experience, like sex with an ice cube tray.”

20120314Sony

John Gruber points out that “Trying something different is indeed a great idea. The problem is with companies that try something different, it turns out shitty, and they ship it anyway.” Fair point, brilliantly put. But nothing with a hinge down the middle should get past the blueprint stage in the first place, never mind land on shelves. Consider what screen would be improved by a black stripe down the centre – your TV? Your laptop? Your smartphone? Your iPad?

And it’s not just screens that this applies to – think of the different designs of A4 refill pads. There’s the ones that flip at the top, allowing a single A4 sheet to work on at any given time. And there’s the ones with a spiral binder down the side, which ostensibly allows you to work on two sheets at a time, doubling the work space. In practice, it’s a royal pain to work with two sheets open, because that spiral is sitting right under your wrist. Pretty much everybody flips the left side underneath so you’re working on only one sheet.

Even smaller notebooks aren’t drastically improved by a spine – back in the days when I carried a Moleskine for notetaking, the gutter between pages was a no-man’s land, just too awkward to utilise. I much preferred writing in those notebooks that flipped at the top – the workspace then exhibited “a unity of purpose” as some design guru might put it. The only exception to the hinge = irritation rule, of course, is books. That said, one of my favourite things about ebook readers is not having to place my thumb on the spine to keep it open – I don’t even need to hold it at all, if I’m feeling crazy and/or lazy. Books with spines, they need to be held. That’s not a massive cost, and it would never have bothered me before, but I now realise it’s not an advantage either.

In conclusion, then, Sony were idiots for shipping the Tablet P, perhaps Microsoft were smart to cancel the Courier, and as for all those people who lusted after Redmond’s vapour-tablet? Well, maybe they’re not all idiots, but I sure wouldn’t listen to them in a hurry.

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