User interfaces seem to proceed through stages, no matter what technology is involved. First the new must mimic the old, before breaking away and exploring the outer limits of the design space, then finally settling on conventions and becoming mundane before the cycle repeats again.
The first cars are horseless buggies, with reins instead of steering wheels. Reins give way to various levers/stick/wheel systems, before finally settling down to the system we are familiar with today.
Software CD players started out mirroring the physical CD players in the real world – down to the little LED displays and buttons of the real, physical thing.
After a while the designers realize that the old constraints no longer apply, and a slew of new interfaces burst forth, all challenging the old ways of doing things. During this phase we got things like winamp v3 skins, Microsoft Media Player version 9 and 10, which paint pretty pictures, but which didn’t really challenge the fundamental play/next/prev/stop model the software cribbed from the old physical CD and cassette decks.
iTunes was probably one of the first to leverage the advantage of having a screen and a keyboard attached to the player.
Suddenly you could see next song in the list on the screen. You didn’t have to create playlists ahead of time — the whole archive was there to manipulate in real time.
Software music players are still exploring the design space — and they have finally broken away from the old physical boombox.
The reason I bring this up is that we have got new phones at work. IP Phones. Internet telephony. Shiny. New.
You must have a program running on your PC in order for the phone to work.
This program is the users interface with the phone network.
This program is a prime example of the tyrrany of the real.
This program uses a scan of a real phone for its main window.
Nortel isn’t the only one to sin in this respect. There are plenty of other softphones which are also unable to break away from the constraints of the real world (XTen XPro, eStara softphone, for example)
But Nortel is the craptastic software I have to use on a daily basis.
There is a voicemail system in there as well, with the corresponding voice-driven menu system. Why does the menu system have to be on the phone? I’m sitting in front of a large color display with plenty of room for a list of messages in my mailbox. Do I have to listen to a women wibble on about the number of messages?
IP Telephony is still in the horse and buggy stage. We can only wait for the winamp/skinning phase to start soon, as useful but incomprehensible interfaces start to appear. The fact that SIP and the underlying APIs are fairly open means that there should be lots of experimentation as the infrastructure starts to become deployed.