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Get your motor runnin’…Head out on the [mobile] highway…

Peter-Fonda-and-Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-RiderWhen I first read the title of John Daigle’s Adobe Day presentation, “Enjoying a Smooth Ride on the Mobile Documentation Highway,” guitar riffs by Steppenwolf echoed in my mind thinking of the song, “Born to Be Wild” and scenes of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding down the information highway. OK, maybe not the information highway, but with mobile, it’s an open road right now that is waiting to be explored.

While I hadn’t heard John speak before, I was familiar with his “rock star” status due to social media–mostly through Twitter (you can find him as @hypertexas)–in my e-learning and m-learning forums.  It turns out that John is a big RoboHelp and Captivate expert, so being tied into the mobile highway scene makes sense!

JohnDaigle
John Daigle

The premise of John’s talk was that there are shifts and trends in mobile, and we need to look at organizations as early adopters, figure out the mobile landscape, and look at how user assistance is used on mobile as compared to how reference documentation is used generally. He pointed out that writing and designing for a mobile audience is very different from traditional methods (I agree!), and that he would be offering some hints on how to approach technical communications for mobile.

John pointed out that fellow speaker, panelist Joe Welinske, created the “bible” for Windows Help,  and now has created the “bible” for mobile apps, referring to Joe’s book, Developing User Assistance for Mobile Apps, which talks about the “screen wars” between the smartphones and tablets of various size. These various sizes produce a challenge for technical communicators. John went on to point out that e-readers, such as Kindle and Nook, are still alive and well and doing well as compared to other tablets such as iPads and Samsung Galaxy Tabs.  The initial conversion of print text to Kindle ePubs was a big change in electronic documentation. He also stated that at this stage of the game, Windows Surface and Windows Phone are a little late in the game, but they are catching up rapidly.

Following some of the comments of keynote speaker, Charles Corfield (the post on that talk is forthcoming!), John explained that other products including voice-activated devices, such as those found in some cars these days, are becoming more prolific. Google Glass, which is getting a lot of press right now, is a new game changer in mobile devices, and time will tell what kind of impact it will have.

John told us that as of February 2013, there were one billion smartphones and 150 million tablets worldwide–proof that mobile is becoming more widespread! Corporations are even getting more involved in mobile by buying mobile devices for employees, but many companies are also allowing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Companies are starting to embrace the idea of BYOD a little more lately.

Finance and healthcare industries are quickly adopting mobile delivery of information because of the portability of the devices. Mobile devices are being used more in industry and shop floors because they allow users access anytime, anywhere. John informed us that many of the same technical communications skills and experiences needed to write standard information apply to mobile. QR codes are gaining popularity as a  part of the movement of accessing documentation through mobile. John quoted Jakob Nielsen saying, “Killing time is the killer app of mobile.” With that in mind, John advised that technical communicators should learn to use more economic words for mobile, such as  “extra” instead of “additional.”

John also quoted John Caroll, who said, “Minimize the extent to which the systems and the information get in the way of what the user’s really interested in.” Progressive disclosure is key in writing for mobile. It allows one to gain information by revealing what’s needed when it’s needed. Ways to show this in mobile interfaces could be drop-down navigation or overlays. This allows a user to not leave the page, but he or she can still get to information quickly. In this sense, mobile can go right to the source or the heart of information needed.

So the question is, are huge documents (such as what’s in those big company binders) going mobile too? The answer is that technical writers can’t just dump desktop layouts and information onto mobile. This is where technical communicators need to work with developers to do what they do best–help “champion the end users.”

Going mobile is about flattening navigation–but not going button crazy, and getting back to context sensitive help. Technical communicators need to tap into social media to keep content current and accurate, thus becoming curators of user generated content.

It helps to prototype mobile layouts with rapid wire-framing tools, like Balsamic Mock-ups as a popular example. There are many specific tools on the market that are available to assist the developer in facilitate context-sensitive help.

However, there are several design controversies involving the need to upgrade browsers, progressive enhancement, adaptive design and responsive design. Some argue that responsive design is not the best because it makes a device’s CPU works harder, thus it becomes a virtual memory hog when resizing images as needed. Yet, responsive web design can adapt layouts to the appropriate viewing environment with fluid, proportion-based grids.

John suggested using the site, http://HTML5test.com , to help test how compatible your site is with mobile interfaces. He also pointed out that help-authoring tools can do much of the work with single source layout concepts, as different settings in authoring tools can help determine how to make user outputs work properly. Another such tool he recommended was Adobe Edge, as it helps writers to preview and inspect web designs on mobile devices directly ON the devices. For additional tools and information, John pointed us to his website, http://www.showmethedemo.com .

I particularly enjoyed John’s talk, as I’ve been following many of his posts on Twitter for more than a year now. He’s very good at explaining the power of mobile in technical communication, and I think John put this perspective well into view for the Adobe Day attendees.  As many know, I’m a big believer in the power of mobile, and the mind-set for writing for mobile isn’t that difficult if you understand the basics. So, it’s good that Adobe continues to include information about technical communications in the mobile world, as that’s where a lot of change is coming in the future. Adobe made a good choice when asking John Daigle to present information about mobile documentation.

John, if you are reading this, please feel free to add any comments or corrections in the comments! 🙂

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iPads and Surface and Nexus…oh my!

With the announcement of the new Windows Surface tablet coming out later in 2012, the new Nexus tablet coming out as well, and the rumors of an iPad mini possibly coming out in the fall, it’s made me think about what this all means in terms of “what device would be best?” especially for m-learning and other mobile applications.

First, I need to clarify that when it comes to technological devices, I’m generally torn. I’m all for having variety and such– it’s what makes market competition possible, but at the same time, each thing has its benefits and place, and it’s like comparing apples to broccoli. It’s no secret that I love my iPad. I got it almost a year ago after owning my iPhone for a couple of years. At the time, my husband retorted, “What do you need that for? It’s just a toy, if anything.” Or IS IT?

When I was doing my graduate studies, all I could think about what how I could use it for my own studying purposes, and I did several projects centered around the idea of using iPads for flipped classrooms or even classroom use, and based much of my experiences of what mobile learning is between my iPad and iPhone. I love the flexibility of the devices, and how lean and mean they are in how they operate.  Like many students out there with tablet devices, I read articles and e-books, I wrote up assignments and papers, did my research– did most everything I could with my iPad. The downside? Well, I didn’t have 4G on my iPad, so sometimes having web access was limited, but it wasn’t anything that bad that couldn’t wait until I did have connectivity, or until I got home and could use my laptop or the wi-fi at home. (There are 3G and 4G versions available–I just didn’t want to shell out the extra cash for that ability.) And until I had my wireless keyboard, doing all those papers and assignments could get a little rough.

At the same time, while I have an iPhone and an iPad, I can’t say that I’ve been totally sold on the idea of getting an iMac of some flavor. I love my PC laptops. While the last Apple computer I used was an Apple IIc about a million years ago (be quiet! I was a kid back then–really!), my entire IT existence both professionally and personally has always been on a PC. Yes, I’ve experienced the blue screen of death several times, and had numerous crashes over the years, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed unless the hard drive was dying. Until I got my iPad, my laptop went with me on vacation or whenever I was away from home. Even writing these blog posts is easier on my laptop than using my WordPress app on my iPad. Ninety-eight percent of my online degree was done on my PC laptop– the other 2% was on my iPad. I’ve owned 3 laptops in the last ten years, and had at least two or three PC desktops for years before that. So yes, I’m a devout Microsoft geek as well.

So when I heard that Microsoft had finally come out with a tablet they were going to release, I had to find out more. I thought that it would be helpful to understand what the Microsoft Surface tablet was all about, and was hoping that it would work well in the future for single-sourcing initiatives. I felt like the Microsoft presentation and reviews I was seeing online was just mirrors and smoke, and after three iPads having been in the market now, why a Microsoft tablet now? Was it worth me getting one, as if I were to abandon my iPad for…heaven forbid…something else?

On a recent weekend jaunt to a local mall that had both an Apple store AND a new Microsoft store, I actually asked a Microsoft store employee about the new Microsoft Surface machines, and he said it was rather simple to explain, actually. The new MS Surface tablet was Microsoft’s answer to having their own hardware like a Samsung Galaxy or other PC-type tablet, running on a Windows 8 OS platform similar to the Windows Metro platform used on their phones. The guy had his personal PC tablet loaded up with Windows 8 on it, and proceeded to show me how it worked. In a nutshell, it worked exactly like my laptop, just a few more bells and whistles for the interface. And this, as I was told, would be pretty similar to what my experience would be like with a Surface machine, but with a handy keyboard in the cover. So anything that I was running on my laptop–full versions of Adobe Tech Comm Suite or Creative Cloud, Flare, PC games, Microsoft Office– as long as it all fit on the flash drive inside, or ran off a Flash card or external drive device, you could use it on Surface.

But wait…if Microsoft Surface is essentially just a flatter, touch screen PC version of my laptop, did this make it the iPad killer that everyone (especially Microsoft) has been claiming it to be? At first, I thought it could be. I was thinking that Surface was what I was looking for over a long period of time before my iPad. Sure, there have been other tablet computers out there, but they were always out of my price range and weren’t as powerful as my regular PC laptop. So, a former me that was shopping for a tablet would have loved that. But now, in my mind, I don’t think it’s the “iPad killer”. It just sounded–to me–like it was just a flatter, touch screen version of my laptop, with less storage room and possibly less power. Would it replace a laptop for me? Well, maybe not me, but for the average person who is not a power user, it might be a good alternative for someone else who is less tech savvy. Imagine if all the full features of your laptop were in a convenient package like a tablet, so it’d be easier to bring with you–it would work well.

At first, that sounds great. Just in mobile learning alone, that could be monumental. And that might work better for many people who want the convenience of a tablet with all the power (but less storage space) as a laptop. For some, it’ll be just what they need. But for me, as I’ve thought about it, and debated whether to get one in the future, I decided it wasn’t worth it. First of all, for the same amount of money that this Surface machine is going to cost (if it’s financially on par with iPads, as Microsoft claims it will be)–what’s the point of getting a tablet with little storage space and not as much power when you can get something more powerful–more storage space and higher processor speed–in laptop form for the same price? There doesn’t seem to be much of an advantage in having one, unless you are a person who wants to make the switch, and you don’t do much on your laptop to begin with. Yes, there are some operational advantages, but they are minor. The convenience of a tablet? Oh yeah, that’s definitely a plus, but it seems so late in the game. And in the end…it’s still a PC. You can get this now on a Samsung Galaxy Tab or other PC-based tablet now, for the most part. Maybe it’ll be a slightly ramped up OS, but then again iOS6 will probably be coming out around the same time (more or less), so it’ll be interesting to see who wins the latest Apple vs. Microsoft battle.

But just as everyone is focusing on the usual heavyweights battling it out, Google has been a contender for a while–much more than Microsoft has been. Google has recently announced that it was releasing its new device, Nexus 7, running on the latest Android OS called “JellyBean.” Reports I’ve read is that since this is a full OS, not an abbreviated version like on a Nook or Kindle Fire, it runs more smoothly and robustly. It allows for more Google features like Google Now and Google Play to be used more fully, for example. This leads me to believe that while this is a smaller tablet in size than an iPad or Surface, due to it’s great affordable price starting at $199 (as compared to a “bottom of the barrel” iPad at $499 for the new iPad, $399 for the same in an iPad), it’s definitely a dark horse contenter to come in and steal some thunder. In the end, though, it’s not really in the same category as an iPad or Surface machine. Let me explain.

The way I see it, there are two categories of tablets. The first category is one in which the tablets are almost PC replacements, but not quite. They have the most flexibility due to their ability to do anything from word processing and reports, graphic and image editing, games, video, email, web browsing, etc.  They are generally a much leaner version of a PC, not only physically in the hardware, but also in its capabilities. iPads have this down to a science now, whereas Surface will be just a slimmed down physical version of what most people have already.

The other category includes the small tablets. These would be your Nook, Kindle Fire, Nexus 7 and if it actually comes out, iPad Mini. While it has great perfunctory use, it’s not meant to be anything but a basic device to provide basic services. I’ve never heard of doing presentations off of a Nook, or a report being written on a Kindle Fire.

Are there uses in education and business for any of these kinds of tablets? Sure there are. Because of their enormous flexibility and functionality, it’s no surprise that iPads have been dominant in both education and business, and will continue to be dominant. Will the Surface upset that dominance? It might, only because so many are used to using a PC that the learning curve (not that there’s a huge one in learning how to use an iPad) would not have to be contended with, and some might like that full PC functionality over a streamlined one like an iPad. I see iPad and Surface being more productive than the smaller tablets.

Does this mean that smaller tablets don’t have a place in education or business? No, not at all. It can still be used for reading, communication, video and basic web searches– that might be all someone needs.

But from my own personal experience as a student as well as a professional, I don’t see how the larger tablets could lose. The question will be whether educators or business people find the streamlined functionality of an iPad more beneficial or the PC-similarity of the Surface to be more productive in the long run. Hmm…I think I found the topic of my PhD thesis (if I ever do it in the near future)!

What do you think? Let me know the comments below.

(PS–Microsoft or Google– if you want me to try these devices out once they are out, I’m glad to give them a go. 😉 )