Blind, Deaf, Dumb & Broken Computer Metaphors

In Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge, neurobiologist and Nobel Prize–winner Gerald Edelman ((Excerpt From: James Geary. “I Is an Other.” iBooks.)) theorizes that…pattern recognition and metaphor is the basis for all thinking. When we discover something new, unknown or abstract, we use metaphor as a bridge from the old, that we understand, to the new, that we want to understand. Metaphor, then, is not just a way to communicate, a way to teach, it may well be the very way we think.

Definition and Purpose

In mathematical terms, metaphor is the flat assertion that A = B.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare used the sun as a metaphor for Romeo’s love of Juliet:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Now obviously, Juliet is not literally the sun; A is not literally B; so what do we gain by connecting these two seemingly unconnected things?

Metaphor makes an implicit comparison — an intuitive perception — of the similarity in dissimilars. It captures a key aspect of one thing by relating it to something else. Metaphor is so essential to our being that it is impossible to describe emotions, abstract concepts, or complex ideas without it.

The job of the metaphor, then, is to find similarities in unlike things, to teach us the new by building upon the old. Its primary purpose is to carry over existing descriptions to things that are so abstract that they cannot be otherwise explained.

A metaphor is a kind of magical mental changing room–where one thing, for a moment, becomes another, and in that moment is seen in a whole new way forever. ~ James Geary, “I Is an Other”.

Computing Metaphor

The early computer makers recognized our need for patterns and created metaphors to help us bridge the gap between the old and the new; between what we knew about the world that we lived in, and what we needed to know in order to successfully navigate the new world of computing. The better the metaphor — the better the connection between the old and the new — the better the user experience.

imgres This jet plane user interface is an example of a VERY bad metaphor because there is virtually no metaphor at all. The light switch and the radio switch and the ejection seat switch are exactly the SAME and are located inappropriately close to one another which is exactly the OPPOSITE of what one wants a metaphor to convey. One tiny mistake or slip of the hand and — whoosh!


220px-Writing_desk220px-Apple_Macintosh_DesktopThe computing metaphor that emerged from the 70’s and 80’s was the desktop metaphor

Steve Jobs described it this way:

The desktop metaphor was invented because one, you were a stand-alone device, and two, you had to manage your own storage. That’s a very big thing in a desktop world.

Presciently, Jobs then added the following:

And that may go away. You may not have to manage your own storage. You may not store much before too long.


[pullquote]“Tablet PC” brings up unpleasant memories of clunky Windows slates. ~ Steve Wildstrom (@swildstrom)[/pullquote]

From 2000 until…well…until today, Bill Gates and Microsoft tried to discover the proper metaphor for the tablet.

— They had the right form factor. The tablet was, in fact, the future of computing.
— They were innovative in their use of the stylus as an input device.
— But they had the metaphor all wrong, wrong, wrong.

Microsoft persisted in imposing the PC desktop metaphor onto the tablet, long after it was painfully clear that it was the wrong thing to do. A desktop metaphor works well on a desktop and even a notebook computer. However, it is a disaster on a tablet.

Why? The metaphors of menus, scroll bars and tiny buttons all work well on a desktop device because the mouse can easily locate and click on a single pixel. But on a tablet, mice were impossible to use and stylus input was clumsy, at best.



Touch input removed an entire layer of abstraction from computing input, but it also required the creation of an entirely new user interface, built from the ground up.

The finger, unlike the stylus, was imprecise and hit multiple pixels at once.
The finger, unlike the cursor, obscured one’s view of the screen.

What to do, what to do?

— Menus? Too, too small. Replace them with large buttons.
— Scroll bars? Too narrow. Replace them with swiping, up and down, left and right.
— Tiny buttons? Fugetaboutit. Replace them with huge, easy to see and easy to touch, targets.

Blind, Deaf, Dumb & Broken Metaphors

Say what you saw!

Bad metaphor creates a cognitive burden, a “tax” on the brain. A bad metaphor won’t kill a user interface but it will maim it and cause it to painfully limp along. Computing should be enjoyed, not endured.The better the metaphor, the easier the computer is to use and the better the user experience. The worse the metaphor, the worse the user experience and the less likely that the device will be embraced by a mass audience.


(Windows 8 is) like driving a car that has both a steering wheel and a joystick. ~ Michael Mace questions Microsoft’s sanity

Physical mixed metaphor is so obviously a bad idea. It is so totally impractical that, for the most part, it seldom exists outside of the lab.


A verbal mixed metaphor is a succession of incongruous or ludicrous comparisons. When two or more metaphors (or cliches) are jumbled together, often illogically, we say that these comparisons are “mixed.”

Stick these examples of mixed metaphors in your pipe and chew them over:

Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud. ~ Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament

The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been–but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned. ~ Thomas L. Friedman

The moment that you walk into the bowels of the armpit of the cesspool of crime, you immediately cringe. ~ from Our Town, N.Y., cited by The New Yorker, March 27, 2000

And my favorite:

All along the untrodden paths of the future I can see the footprints of an unseen hand. ~ Sir Boyle Roche

Less Can Be More; More Can Be Moronic

[pullquote]Never assume the obvious is true. ~ William Safire[/pullquote]

We all know that physical and verbal mixed metaphors are a bad, bad idea. Why then, is it so hard for us to recognize that mixed computing metaphors are a dangerous drain on our cognitive abilities too?

I guess it just seems obvious that two is better than one, that more is better than less. But when it comes to metaphors, nothing could be further from the truth.

There is great power in a consistent metaphor. In fact, it is worth sacrificing computing power (and its underlying complexity) if that power comes with at the cost of metaphor. This is the great paradox that tech pundits fail, over and over again, to comprehend.

Examples of Blind, Deaf, Dumb and Broken Metaphors


  1. Universal Operating Systems ( A Chimera, in Greek mythology, is a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. It also means “a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve.” That exactly describes and embodies the fantastical wish for a single operating system. A single operating system that runs on touch input devices (phones and tablets) as well as pixel specific input devices (notebooks and desktops) is as absurd has putting a lion’s head and a goat’s head on a single animal.)
  2. Windows RT (A tablet plus Microsoft Office. (Like an overly light-weight canoe being burdened with a overly heavy anchor.)
  3. Dual Boot (I want Android on my Windows Machine – said no one ever.)
  4. 2-in-1 hardware machines (The Swiss Army knife that you use to carve the turkey on Thanksgiving and the electric can opener that you use on a camping trip.)

  5. Keyboard on a tablet (Like a condom, it satisfies a need, but it doesn’t serve its designer’s purpose.)
  6. Touchscreen on a notebook or desktop (It does no good to touch a screen if the underlying OS is made for pixel specific input. Using touch on a pixel OS is like threading a needle with a jackhammer.)
  7. Dual Operating Systems (Two is always better than one! It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!)



images-75My advice is to focus on the metaphor first. If the metaphor is not intuitive to a 6 year old – or a grandmother — or even a gorilla, it may be too complex.

Two final thoughts from sources as diverse as Sesame Street and Warren Buffet:

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks. ~ Warren Buffett


[pullquote]It is a test of true theories not only to account for but to predict phenomena. ~ William Whewell[/pullquote]

I’m putting my metaphorical money where my metaphorical mouth is, and flat-out predicting that NONE of the above hybrid operating systems and hardware options will go mainstream. Oh, they may well survive, but none will thrive. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…

…at least, until another, better story, comes along.

(Author’s Note: Come join me on Twitter. My handle is @johnkirk.)

“Android Dominance” Is An Oxymoron

Alarm Bells Should Be Ringing At Apple: It’s Getting Absolutely Creamed By Android, Which Now Controls ~80% Of The Smartphone Market ~ Jay Yarrow, Business Insider

No, it’s not.

Definition of an oxymoron:

A figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction

Fact #1: No version of Android dominates mobile OS market share.

“Android Dominance” is an oxymoron. No single “slice” of the Android “pie” is equal to the 93% of iOS users who have upgraded to iOS 6. iOS 6 is the world’s most popular mobile operating system.


Fact #2: Historically, iOS customers have been quick to update to the latest OS version. ((iOS 6 Adoption At Just Over One Week: 60% For iPhone And 41% For iPad | TechCrunch))

Fact #3: Apple’s iOS users have even more reasons to rapidly upgrade to iOS 7.


A recent developer survey revealed that 95% of developers are updating their apps for iOS 7.

More importantly, 48% of those developers intend to make their updated apps work only on iOS 7.

With so many new and updated apps working only on iOS 7, iOS users are going be strongly motivated to upgrade to iOS 7 as soon as possible.

Fact #4: OS Versions matter.

Apple, arguably, has higher-quality apps because developers still focus on iOS first. The reason they focus on the App Store is that it generates more revenue than Google’s Android store, and users are more engaged. However, there’s no reason to believe this will continue. ~ Jay Yarrow, Business Insider

[pullquote]People who look only at overall OS numbers without taking OS versions into account are missing the “trees” for the “forrest”[/pullquote]

Yes, there is.

Pundits, like Jay, can’t seem to understand why Android leads in market share but iOS leads in usage, engagement, developers, income and everything else that makes a platform strong. ((Why The iPhone's Usage Advantage Over Android Remains So Important. The latest evidence confirms it: iPhone users are far more engaged with their devices than are Android users.)) ((Why Google’s Android is Losing the Battle to Apple’s iOS)) ((Apple iPhone users use their devices 55% more than Android users)) (("Both in apps and overall smartphone usage, iPhone owners rank higher than owners of Android handsets. After surveying both U.S. and European smartphone owners, researchers not only found owners of the Apple device more frequently use apps, but conduct more tasks suitable to smartphones, such as browsing the Internet. This despite Android’s advantage both in number of handsets out there and in sales. The dichotomy just reinforces our Android in a Drawer theory, which says many owners of the Google-powered devices see their handsets as just a spiffier version of dumb feature phones, ignoring most of what makes smartphones smart.")) ((Apple’s iOS continues to dominate with nearly 60% Web usage share vs. Android’s 26%)) ((Apple Continues To Dominate Mobile Video Viewing, With 60% Occurring On iOS Vs. 32% On Android)) (("Sandvine says that the iPad accounts for more home traffic than any other device, at more than 10 percent; and it says that if you added up all of Apple’s devices (iPads, iPhones, Macs, etc.), the company ends up with more than 45 percent of home broadband usage.")) ((Why FRONTLINE Isn’t Doing Android — Yet)) ((BBC – we have an Android development team that is almost 3 times the size of the iOS team)) ((Why there aren’t more Android tablet apps, by the numbers)) ((Android’s consumer strength hasn’t translated to enterprise, where Apple still dominates)) ((Apple rules the skies with 84% in-flight share vs. Android’s 16%)) ((Apple’s iPhone may have kept 400K customers from leaving T-Mobile)) ((screen-shot-2013-07-23-at-10-21-49-amSource)) ((Google shares were down as much as 5% in after-hour trading following a report of second-quarter net income of $3.23 billion compared with $2.79 billion a year ago. The overall revenue figure came in at $14.1 billion. The main reason for Google’s perceived weakness: less-than-spectacular mobile ad sales.)) ((app-revenue-q12013 Source))

Let me help you out. There is no paradox. The latest version of Android does NOT lead the latest version of iOS in market share. People who look only at overall OS numbers without taking OS versions into account are reversing the traditional proverb – but still making the same proverbial mistake – by missing the “trees” for the “forrest.”

Fact #5: Android hardware and software is split into many, many pieces.

  • 11,868 Distinct Android devices seen this year
  • 3,997 Distinct Android devices seen last year 
  • 8 Android versions still in use
  • 37.9% Android users on Jelly Bean

“And by the way, this is the most ideal state of Android. It only includes a version of android which talk to the Google play store so it doesn’t include things like Kindles and Nooks.” ~ Tim Cook, WWDC (113:30)


Android, for all its popularity, remains a messy, fragmented, less-than-ideal experience for a normal consumer. ~ Jay Yarrow, Business Insider

Ah! And finally we get to the crux of the matter.

Fact #6: It is iOS 6 – not any single version of Android – that is the most dominant and monolithic mobile OS in the world.

“iOS 6 Dominance” is not an oxymoron – it’s a fact. And it is iOS 7 that promises to extend the dominance of Apple’s mobile platform into the foreseeable future.

It’s impossible to look at the landscape today and believe that developers will still be iPhone-focused in five years unless Apple does something drastic to change its competitive position. ~ Jay Yarrow, Business Insider

I sorta hafta to disagree. And reality hasta disagree too. It’s not only “possible” to believe that developers will still be iOS-focused (notice how Jay conveniently ignored iPod Touches and iPads in his OS comparison?), it’s probable too.

You don’t agree? You’re an oxymoron who says that only total OS numbers, not OS versions, really matter? Sorry, I can’t hear you. The facts are shouting you down.

Android Hardware Is Too Saturated For Its Own Good

The plethora of Android devices on the market was added to in a variety of ways today with news from IFA.

My friend Evan Selleck asks a good question over at PhoneDog. Is the market being saturated with Android smartphones?

The answer is yes. Resoundingly and overwhelmingly yes. There is a difference between choice and too much choice. I believe there is a paradox at play with regard to the strategies of Android hardware makers. They believe the more devices the better. I actually believe the opposite is true.

I read a book a while back called “The Paradox of Consumer Choice: Why More is Less” by Barry Schwartz. His main premise of the book is that too much choice actually makes it harder for consumers to make decisions. If you are interested in this I highly recommend reading the book.

If I were to put myself in a consumers shoes, something I do often, and I were genuinely shopping for an Android phone I would find it difficult. There are simply too many choices. You also have the added bonus of knowing something better is just around the corner because Android vendors release new phones as often as rabbits have babies.

Furthermore a saturated landscape of devices is even harder to justify in a market that is in the process of maturing like the smart phone and tablet segment. Most consumers are still buying their first smart phones. Therefore they are still exploring what they want in a smart phone.

So the paradox is that Android vendors believe more is better when in fact while this market matures more is less. Android vendors should be making it easier for consumers to choose their products not more difficult.

The impact is that this saturation and overwhelming amount of choice with Android devices will most likely lead consumers to go with the safe bet, which is the iPhone. All the reviews of the iPhone are positive, consumers hear from their friends how much they love the iPhone, etc etc.

When you add all that up you can see why I stated that the iPhone 5 would be Apple’s biggest launch yet.

The bottom line is this saturation in the Android space makes it easy to conclude that the iPhone’s dominance is no where near being threatened. Apple is the #1 smart phone manufacturer and it doesn’t appear that will change anytime soon.

If you look at the history of the technology industry, the most iconic products stand apart. Take the Palm V(5) for example, arguably one of the most iconic products in our industries history. Palm didn’t release five Palm products that year. They just made one the Palm V and it was the most desirable PDA by far. Apple’s strategy has been the same.

While this market is maturing the right strategy for Android vendors would be to pour all their resources into creating one amazing device per cycle. Unfortunately they are falling into the trap of thinking the more devices the marrier. Thus saturating the market and making it hard for consumers to choose.

You may say this sounds silly since Android has been growing at alarming rates with vendors employing this strategy. To that I say let’s re-evaluate Android market share at the end of the year.

Why the Open OS Model Failed in Smartphones

Fifteen years ago, when Microsoft ruled the world and Apple was near death, the tech world was convinced that the conceptual batter between Windows and Mac–open operating systems available to all comers vs. closed systems–had been decided firmly in favor of open. But what applied to PCs in the 1990s does not appear to work at all for smartphones in the 2010s, as Google’s planned purchase of Motorola Mobility marks the beginning of the end for the open OS approach.

BusinessWeek cover

A major reason for this is that phones–and tablets–are very different from PCs even though they perform many of the same functions. A phone is a much more tightly integrated device in which it is very difficult to tell where the hardware ends and the software begins. Getting the user experience just right is both harder and more critical, because quirks that are a minor annoyance on a PC–or which can be remedied through an accessory such as a better mouse or keyboard–become killer flaws.

It’s easy to forget today that the first real winner in the smartphone market was Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, a closed system. RIM’s accomplishment was to provide a tightly controlled, secure mobile email device (the earliest models offered neither voice not internet service) that provided seamless access to corporate mail servers.

RIM could make this work because it controlled the hardware, the software, and the BlackBerry Enterprise Server middleware. Its rivals in those early days were the Palm Treo and Microsoft Windows Mobile. Palm was a bizarre beast that never really worked. Its owner, 3Com, first licensed the Palm OS to other manufacturers, then spun its software unit off into a separate company, PalmSource. The Treo was developed by one of those licensees, Handspring, which had been started by Palm’s founders. Palm eventually bought Handspring and reacquired some rights to the Palm OS, but it never had full control of the software. That’s a major reason why Palm and PalmOS gradually became non-competitive.

Microsoft’s mistakes were different, but illustrative of the traps inherent in an open phone operating system. In the best Windows tradition, Microsoft gave its handset manufacturers a lot of design freedom. It ended up with phones with a variety of screen sizes and configurations, with and without touchscreens, with and without physical keyboards. The hodgepodge of hardware made it impossible for Microsoft to provide a consistent–or particularly good–user experience on all Windows Mobile devices. And third-party software developers had a very hard time writing applctions that worked well, or sometimes at all, on all devices. In a final irony, until almost the very end, BlackBerry did a much better job of providing mobile access to Microsoft Exchange servers than Windows Mobile did.

Apple, of course, changed the game completely with the 2007 introduction of the iPhone, and again in 2010 with the iPad. Apple controls every aspect of the ecosystem, Apple software running on Apple hardware that can load only Apple-approved applications. This has horrified fans of open systems. such a Cory Doctorow and Jonathan Zittrain, but the mass market’s love for these devices has allowed Apple to suck up the lion’s share of profits in the handset industry and to define the tablet market to the point where it has no effective competition.

Except for Android, the open model has now all but collapsed. Nokia never achieved widespread adoption of Symbian by other manufacturers. Linux-based LiMo went nowhere, as did Nokia’s Maemo, Intel’s Moblin, and their love child, MeeMo.

The status of Windows Phone is uncertain. After the Windows Mobile nightmare, Microsoft set very tight design standards for its attempt to rejuvenate the platform. OEMs have a limited choice of display size and a physical keyboard is optional, but other specs must comply with the reference design. And Microsoft’s tight alliance with Nokia could result in, effectively, a line of “official” Nokia-built Windows Phone products. It’s nominally still a market where Microsoft offers its OS to any willing license, buy Redmond really controls the game.

Android’s openness has been a blessing and a curse. The free-to-all-comers OS has allowed the platform to gain a great deal of market share very quickly. It has also proved extremely frustrating to consumers, with a proliferation of designs and software versions all with different capabilities and no consistency in their ability to run third-party apps. With an iPhone, you know you will always be able to run the most recent version of the iOS software and any product in the App Store (with minor exceptions for some older models that lack some hardware features of more recent ones.) With Android, you just never know.

I suspect this will change in significant ways as a result of the Motorola Mobility acquisition. Google is never going to become Apple, but I suspect that the Android market is going to look a lot more like Windows Phone does today, with Motorola playing an even more central role than Nokia will for Microsoft. This sort of hybrid of open software with an official hardware maker is novel and largely untested; Palm and Nokia both nibbled at it, but neither was a fair test.

However it turns out, however, it looks like any attempt to build smartphones on the PC model is over.