Pocket PC’s Mixed-up Metaphor

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I’ve been using a Pocket PC for a couple of weeks now and I’ve come to the conclusion that Pocket PC suffers from something I call "the mixed-up metaphor."

You see, Pocket PC software is supposed to be a variation of Windows, built on the Windows CE operating system. It’s intended to leverage this relationship in order to reduce the learning curve for new Pocket PC users–users like me, for example–by presenting a familiar interface and a familiar metaphor.

The metaphor for Windows is simple. When you start an application it visually opens up on the screen in its own area called a window, which can then be resized or closed. You can even have multiple windows open at the same time, and you can switch among them by clicking on any part of a visible window or by pressing ALT-TAB.

I use Windows several hours a day on different desktop and laptop machines, and have done so for several years. (Yes, I’m one of the millions who’s never used a Macintosh.) And like many other Windows users, the windows metaphor is deep-rooted in my psyche.

Then came the surprise: Pocket PC doesn’t use “windows”. Although it might take some time for me to absorb this seeming oversight, I can understand it. After all, the typical Pocket PC screen is small, and how small can a “window” be before it is impractical to use.

But then I discovered that Pocket PC also does not honor two other powerful ease-of-use metaphors that are part of Windows, namely that when you open something, you can close it when you’re done, and when you go somewhere, you can go back.

It’s those two things that I call “the mixed-up metaphor.”

Let my people go back

In the desktop versions of Windows, applications are “opened”, or “launched” in Windows parlance, and “closed” when you’re finished. You can leave it open, of course, but you always know that you can find that application at any time and close it. Windows itself closes applications at shutdown, adding to the sense that things need to be closed when you’re finished with them.

Web browsers, such as Internet Explorer, increase usability by capitalizing on the second metaphor: forward and back. (Actually, even Windows Wizards do a good job of this one.) At any step along the way (either browsing the Web or using a Wizard), you are comforted in knowing that you aren’t doing anything irrevocable: you can always go “back”. The feeling that you can go back at any time when using a Wizard is amazingly reassuring, especially when you must choose options and settings for new software at a time when you have no idea of the consequences of these choices. Ditto for browsing the vastness of the Internet: people would be much more cautious about browsing if they could never go back where they came from in a click. (That’s partly why it’s so horribly aggravating and frustrating to hit a page with an automatic refresh that won’t let you go back.)

Pocket PC is lax in following either of these metaphors. Applications are “opened” but they cannot be closed (at least not without complex and thoroughly non-obvious steps that have nothing to do with the application itself). The details windows give a little bit of the right flavor: they are “opened” and can be “closed” with an OK button. But nothing else lets you go “back” in any sense. For the most part, you can “open,” you can “start,” and you can venture “forward.” But your mind must struggle with the sense that every such step is irrevocable because you can’t close and you can’t go back.

Why it seems different on a Palm

To be sure, Palm OS has something similar. Palm applications are also not “closable” in the Desktop Windows sense. When I first bought one, this was a disconcerting thing. But eventually I got used to it because I came to understand an important fact: applications in a handheld are always there. You can go to them to do something, but you don’t have to worry about “closing” them because there’s no reason to close them. They’re just there for whenever you want them.

Getting comfortable with this notion was difficult, but possible. So why isn’t it the same for a Pocket PC? Because on a Pocket PC, applications use up more memory when they run. That’s not true on a Palm, or at least it doesn’t appear to be true and as far as users are concerned, that’s the same thing. A Palm application takes up space to be stored, but if it is successfully stored, you don’t need to think about it again. It will run. It will rest in storage. There’s no difference.

But on a Pocket PC, applications occupy some Storage just to “rest” there, but then they use up more Storage when they run. They can’t be closed, but they eat up memory while they’re open.

Besides, all standard Palm application screens have a crucial feature: a “cancel” button. This is another way of implementing the all-important “I want to go back” feature. It’s impossible to overstate how frequently users press the wrong button or choose the wrong menu entry, whether by physical mistake (stylus held a little too high or low), or because of lack of familiarity. With almost every single Palm screen, there is a CANCEL button that can be pressed immediately. The presence of a CANCEL button meets the powerful need to be able to un-do a choice, which in turn means that people unconsciously feel encouraged to make choices, to explore, and just to use the damned thing with peace of mind. Not so with the Windows CE software. At best, some of the screens (for example, the Details screens) have an OK button. But saying OK is precisely the opposite of saying CANCEL and actually makes the situation worse. Unconsciously, it’s the equivalent of telling users: YOU MUST AGREE OR WE WON’T LET YOU GO: You must press an OK button or you can’t get out of the screen.

Of course, any application can implement a cancel button of its own. But application-level cancel buttons don’t appear alongside the system-provided OK button in the same style and color. As a result, you are never sure where to look on a given screen for what you’re supposed to do: it might be the little blue OK circle at the upper right, or it might be a large rectangular CANCEL button, or it might, for that matter, be a second OK button in the middle of the screen in some unexpected size or shape or color. This is annoying at best, and at worst, a serious impediment to ease-of-use.

Still, I’m hopeful. Recent rumors of the next release of Pocket PC tout it as having the metaphorical CANCEL button (as seen in the screenshot above).

Now if only it had windows.

About the author

Trotter Hardy is the Associate Dean of Technology and Professor of Law at William and Mary School of Law, and is the Founder and Editor of the Journal of Online Law. He specializes in Computers and the Law, Economic Analysis of Law, and Intellectual Property.

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