Thursday, February 28, 2008

seymour, do less

The blahgosphere is abuzz with talk of rich Internet applications, and has been for the last couple of months. Adobe's AIR was released the other day, and there's been a lot of talk about the technical merits of the platform, the security aspects, its place in the market, how it will compete with web browsers or the web in general, and so on. This is all well and good, programmers, analysts and strategists all love new platforms; poking at them, smelling them, squeezing, licking, your average verb+object bonanza.

But there's been little talk of usability, and I view this with some trepidation. The ability to easily create custom widgets and free-flowing designs will make it much easier to bring upon the desktop the curse of the skinners. Nothing good can come of this. I imagine Jakob Nielsen cries himself to sleep only to wake up later in a cold sweat.

I have yet to use a skinned desktop application (of the old steam-powered kind) that actually created a user interface that was clearly better than what could've been accomplished by using the native widget set. At best, and this happens extremely rarely, you get usability parity with a nicer visual presentation. Most of them have sucked more than a rational belief system can comprehend.

If there is a golden rule for interface design, it is this: Whenever a programmer thinks, "Hey, skins, what a cool idea", their computer's speakers should create some sort of cock-shaped sound wave and plunge it repeatedly through their skulls.

Skinning a desktop application used to be reasonably difficult, no native platform SDK provides you with the ability to do so without jumping through at least one hoop. With AIR I wonder if it's even possible to use native widgets. Add to that the fact that it's intended to actually encourage Flash or web developers to create skinned desktop applications, and it's a gaudy, blinking, oddly-shaped recipe for suck.

(One could add to this the accessibility aspect. Custom-widget designs and layouts don't respond to desktop themes that increase legibility, for example. If all AIR applications will communicate with screen readers or not is unknown to me. I know there are APIs to enable that, however.)

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