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Can You See Me Now? September 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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The mobile devices we carry grow in capability and sophistication every day.  It seems that what used to be phones that did clever things are now mobile computers that happen to make phone calls.  Is there a limit to what we’ll be able to use these devices for?  I think so, but it has nothing to do with power, memory, or computing capacity.

The real limit has to do with the length of your arm. I’ve found that I can no longer hold my phone far enough from my eyes to read the display.  There may be an app for that, but I can’t see it.

Seriously, there is a harsh correlation between our aging eyes and our inability to actually read the screens on these oh-so-clever devices.  Regrettably, many of these devices are designed and programmed by people with sharp, youthful vision.  In the hands of more seasoned users, the display icons, text, and even the buttons are too small or dim to see.

Setting aside the apps and the UI, I suspect one of the reasons for the success of the iPhone is that big, glorious screen.  When the text is big enough to read, you can still fit enough content on the display to be useful.  This is a big deal for those of us who spend a lot of time squinting or reaching for reading glasses.

But, some will say, there have been big-screen mobile devices before the iPhone.  What about them?

Prior to the iPhone, devices had stylus-centric interfaces.  When you are poking at things with a toothpick, developers tend to cram lots of tiny buttons and widgets on the display.  The iPhone has a finger-centric interface, with finger-sized buttons.  Finger-sized buttons are big enough to be read by those of us who are old enough to remember rotary-dial phones.  I’ll point out that the size of an icon on an iPhone is about the size of a finger-hole in a rotary phone dial. Coincidence?  Yes, but a meaningful one.

I suspect that we are about to hit a wall in the usability of mobile phones.  The display can’t get much bigger without making the phone annoyingly large in your purse or pocket.  Increasing the screen resolution packs more pixels on the display, but that just lets you create sharper widgets that are still too small to be seen by anyone over 45. I’ll take low-res and sharp over hi-res and blurry any day.

As a result, the amount of information can be displayed on a phone is about to hit a limit imposed by your age, the lens of your eye, the size of your hand, and the distance between your ear and your mouth.  That information limit will affect the complexity of applications that get developed. Until we get some breakthrough in implantable display devices, the applications on our phones aren’t going to get much more elaborate.

And for all you smirking young developers out there, have pity on us older folks.  Test your UI on your Mom to make sure everyone can see it.  And just you wait.  Your time is coming, my friend.  Your time is coming.

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