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Minuscule computers irk interface designers

Minuscule computers irk interface designers
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First Published: Sun, Mar 25 2007. 04 57 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Mar 25 2007. 04 57 PM IST
Seattle: Watching users fumble and nearly drop an early version of the FlipStart compact PC practically gave Robin Budd a heart attack. The culprit was the three-key sequence, Control-Alt-Delete, required to log off or reboot a Windows PC.
“They would hold the device in one hand and try to get their three fingers on the keys at one time,” said Budd, senior director at FlipStart Labs, a venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. “You can do it if you are fairly nimble with your fingers, but it is precarious.”
When the shrunken-down laptop goes on sale later this month, early adopters might get a kick out of FlipStart’s solution: a dedicated key marked “Ctrl Alt Del.”
The FlipStart, like other ultra-mobile PCs, may give workers tools to do more from the road. Also, the Control-Alt-Delete problem is a reminder to electronics makers that the human body is not keeping up with ever-shrinking gadgets.
Manufacturers have not found “the sweet spot between small enough for portability and big enough to use and interact with,” said Gregg Davis, a principal at Design Central, an industrial design company in Columbus, Ohio.
The FlipStart has a laptop-esque clamshell design, so that users tired of thumb-typing can set it on a desk and peck away and still see the screen.
Another ultra-mobile PC, Sony’s VAIO UX, sports a slide-out keyboard, designed to allow “standup computing” so Japanese office workers crammed into commuter trains can be productive.
An ultra-mobile made by OQO, the forthcoming model 02, has a backlit slide-out keyboard for low-light use; Samsung’s own Q2 sports a split keyboard arranged on either side of its tablet-style touch screen.
Each device maker has a different sense of how small an ultra-mobile can get before it becomes impossible to use. Microsoft thinks the tiniest screen possible measures 7 inches diagonally, but FlipStart Labs settled on 5.6 inches (14.2 centimeters).
So far, devices are used more by real estate agents and health care workers on the go. Among ordinary folk, there seems to be no clear design winner.
“Everybody wants something different in a little tiny PC,” said James Kendrick, who consults as a geophysicist for oil companies and also avidly blogs and writes about mobile PCs.
While Kendrick prefers a larger tablet-style notebook:Fujitsu P1610. When he uses anything smaller, he carries around a fold-out portable keyboard, Myriam Joire, a video game software developer and OQO enthusiast, says that even though her computer’s tiny keyboard is not perfectly comfortable, it beats using a stylus and touch screen for writing code, which she occasionally does on her OQO model 01.
For many, some typing is good. Using keyboard shortcuts instead of the eraser head-sized joystick and increasing font and icon sizes makes the device user friendly.
Ergonomics experts point out that a standard laptop is far from ideal. If the screen is at a comfortable position, the keyboard isn’t, and vice versa.
Challenges are not limited to hardware design; ultra-mobile PCs, for the most part, run a full version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system. That is a problem, said Mark Rolston, senior vice president of creative at Frog Design, a Palo Alto, California, design group whose past projects include early models of Apple Inc.’s computers.
“Windows is a fine interface for that general-purpose, desk-centric, sitting-throne-position environment,” Rolston said. But mobile computing is what he calls “high context”, the device needs to perform a very specific task, based on where the user is (in the car) and what she is doing (like trying to find the mall).
“Just because you can make it small does not mean you should,” he said.“If you just take Windows, the deeply immersive mouse and keyboard experience and plug it down on a 7-inch (17.5 centimeters) or 5-inch (12.5 centimeters) screen, you have some problems,” said Bill Mitchell, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Mobile Platforms division.
By Microsoft standards, ultra-mobile PCs have screens that measure less than 7 inches (17.5 centimeters), weigh less than two pounds (0.9 kilograms), run a full version of Windows and have a touch screen. Mitchell said that for this category, Microsoft shifted focus away from an interface that required fine motor skills, and made it easier for someone to get the information needed while in the car or walking down the street.
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First Published: Sun, Mar 25 2007. 04 57 PM IST
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