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How portrait mode is changing the way we use computers

by Ben Bajarin

November 4 2012

Ben Bajarin is the Director of Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, Inc., a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley. His TabTimes column is published every other week on Sunday.


We’re hitting uncharted territory as tablets offer us a new option for doing our work.

One of the things I have found interesting about Microsoft’s Surface, and a number of the other Windows 8 tablets coming to market, is how their design seems to be geared toward using the device in landscape mode.

Windows 8 is architected in 16:9, which is naturally suited for widescreen mode. Many of the apps and core experiences are geared toward landscape mode.

The same is true with many Android tablets, as the hardware makers seems to have designed the hardware, button orientation, speakers, etc., with the assumption that landscape mode is the preferred position.

The iPad is the exception where the buttons and ports seem to by oriented for more portrait mode–at least in my opinion.

Interestingly, I have found that my preferred use for docking the iPad and using the keyboard is in portrait mode. I am convinced that computing in portrait mode is far superior to landscape mode for many different tasks.

This hit me the hardest when I used the iPad for the first time for browsing the web. Browsing the web in portrait mode is by far the best way to browse the web. This should be obvious since many websites are designed with up and down scrolling rather than left to right.

Browsing the web in portrait mode allows you to see more of the website at one time. Beyond browsing the web there is another use case that I believe computing in portrait mode is far superior for and that is writing. 

Portrait Mode Computing

I do quite a bit of writing. I write reports, columns, and lengthy email responses to clients. This is one of the reasons that using a keyboard accessory with my iPad is a must. Writing while using the iPad in portrait mode is a powerful experience. The primary reason for this is because you can see more words on the page when writing in portrait mode.

Throughout human history, whether penned by hand, or while using a typewriter with a paper stand in the back, producing the written word on a medium that is longer than it is wide has been the norm. When you see people using pen and paper today you don’t normally see them turning the pad of paper sideways.

Computing in portrait mode is relatively unexplored territory. Since the beginning computers have had square monitors, which eventually evolved into the norm for today, which is 16:9 landscape. Due to the standard landscape orientation of computers to date, software has mostly been written with this screen orientation in mind. What happens, given the massive growth of tablets, and the fact that they are also computers, if software developers start thinking of writing software for use while in portrait mode?

Most apps today, with the exception of things like games, support different screen orientations. What is missing is that the user experience with software does not change much based on my screen orientation. Apple’s Mail app actually does change the UI when in portrait or landscape mode. However, when I am in portrait mode I can focus on the email because the side bar containing my inbox goes away. But when in landscape, the inbox sidebar is present and stays in sight.

This is a good example of a software interface being designed to make the application useful whether it is in portrait or landscape mode. Different screen orientations will present different looks and ways to use screen real estate. I believe that as software developers re-imagine their software for tablets they will also consider dual screen orientation experiences with the same software.

Portrait vs. Landscape

With this in mind I have been thinking a lot about the types of things I prefer to do while in portrait versus landscape modes with the iPad. Nearly all tasks that would qualify as productive I prefer to do in portrait mode. While the other tasks, with the exception of web browsing, like playing games, watching video, etc., I prefer to do in landscape mode. Reading is sometimes productive and sometimes for entertainment but either way reading is far better in portrait mode over landscape.

For games, it depends on the game since there are many great games that use both screen orientations. What has stood out for me though was how many tasks that were considered working or productive tasks for which I preferred using the iPad in portrait mode.

This is something that is only possible with tablet computers since laptops and desktops are not designed to allow you to change your screen orientation based on the software experience you desire to have. This also makes a very compelling case for a keyboard accessory for a tablet.

One of my biggest complaints with the iPad’s virtual keyboard is not that I can’t type fast on it because I actually can. My biggest complaint is that I can’t use it for any real productive input while in portrait mode. And when I use it in landscape mode, it takes up nearly half the screen leaving me with very little of the software application to see while typing. This completely defeats the profound experience I have while writing in portrait mode due to how much of the screen and words I can see at one time.

These are the kinds of experiences that are only available on the tablet form factor. I hope that as keyboard accessories continue to get refined and perfected, so will the software that will change not only our computing paradigm from mouse and keyboard to touch but to also break away from landscape computing as the only mode for working on a tablet.

I will be interested to see the unique ways that businesses and developers take advantage of this unique computing paradigm that only tablets have to offer

Ben Bajarin is the Director of Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, Inc., a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley. His TabTimes column is published every other week on Sunday.

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