The Thin Line

Look at your smartphone: the fragile glass, the aluminum case, the absence of buttons in the device resting on the arm of your couch or comfortably fitting in your hand. It probably packs more power than your first computer if you were born in the eighties. You complained about the tiny keys as soon as you turned it on the first time, but now you can type a message faster than your carrier can deliver it.

This article was first published in the 5th issue of Techinch Magazine a couple of weeks ago.

You learned, you got used to it, and your smartphone became part of your life. Your documents, your spreadsheets, your music, your books are all wrapped within this tiny device. You became so attached to your smartphone that sometimes you prefer to keep your desktop off or your laptop closed. You can do just fine with your phone or, if you were willing to go the next level, your tablet.

In a world on the move, mobility became the first demand — a commitment the desktop couldn't attend. This struck app development as well. The last time I checked, there were 20 times more apps being released daily to the iOS App Store than to its Mac counterpart, and the market still grows.

Our smart phones became so essential, it became a deal breaker for any desktop app or web service to not offer a mobile counterpart. Look at the “bucket apps” scenario. Yojimbo managed, after years of struggle, to finally add a way to sync its library files, and Together recently released a version with iCloud synchronization. They both still lack a fully functional mobile app. Evernote has been doing sync and mobile apps for so long, and has finally gotten back to improving its desktop apps. But the mobile apps and sync sold us. We moved on.

In the end, there could be no other aftermath: we're leaving our laptops home. Or do you remember when was the last time you took a laptop to a meeting?

Changes in design

Android changed, Windows Phone changed, iOS is knocking our doors off with a refreshingly new interface. What they all have in common is the adoption of flat design, as Microsoft 8 has done to the desktop and Google has been raising the flag on the web. By the summer, we'll all be carrying flat designs in our pockets and whenever we open the lid of our laptops as we get home, they'll feel dated.

Even for Mac users, who until now have been using operating systems with nearly matching designs, the world is changing since iOS 7 was announced. OS X Mavericks was announced alongside iOS, with features that bring the Mac and iOS worlds closer in terms of apps with the inclusion of iBooks and Maps on the Mac. But the changes stopped there — OS X’ design feels stuck in the iOS 6 world, aside from a few changes and the removal of skeuomorphic designs in Calendar and such. Although the apps that integrate among each other have the same name, they don't seem to belong to the same ecosystem.

As we reach out more often for our phones and tablets, we'll get used to whatever change in design the present. With the difference between platforms, we may expect Mavericks to look obsolete after a short amount of time. This makes me feel sorry for Omnifocus 2, which hasn't been released yet but already looks as old as it predecessor did due to its layers of chrome and shades atop one another — but then, that’s why the Omni team has halted the public beta and gone back to the drawing board. In a mobile first world, no one can afford to stick with dated designs.

Native versus Web

If we gaze at most of our OS X apps, even those with praised design and Apple Design Awards under their belts, we’ll already noticed that some of their shine has faded. The chrome, the grayish sidebars, the shades, they'll all become a shadow of the past. I'm not suggesting that Apple should go Metro; however, the disparity between styles is hard to swallow. Sooner or later, OS X will have to get a flatter UI.

As we move our preferences towards a flat interface, we'll look for alternative apps to please our eyes. Nowadays, taking away distraction-free text editors, I doubt you can count more than a handful of flat-designed OS X apps that doesn't look like wrapped Javascript. But there's one place where flat has been the trend for quite a while, and that place is the web.

Mobility relies on the connectivity offered by the internet, so even though we've been giving preference to native applications, several of them aren't more than mediators of web services. You probably use a cloud storage such as Dropbox; maybe you keep your notes in Evernote and send little files through Droplr. They all offer native apps to use their services, but that's not the case for Instapaper, Gmail (aside from their purchased-then-neglected Sparrow) and Facebook, and we continue using them through third-party applications.

Then, there’s Twitter. After buying out Tweetie, the most popular Twitter app on iOS and the Mac, they nearly ceased development of the app, enough that we all assumed they’d abandoned the Mac app. At the same time, they clamped down on 3rd party developers so much that the market of Twitter apps cleared out virtually overnight. It's easy to dismiss the reason behind the decision considering they want to have more control on their ads, especially when considering their new limitations on third-party clients, but it doesn't justify dropping the native client on its own. That is, unless you consider that the line between native and web apps became so thin that it almost doesn’t make sense to support both on the desktop.

When I state that web apps can match native apps, there are a few exceptions: the web still can't offer the same functionality as a native copy of Photoshop, but such degree of complexity is solely required here and there unless you're a professional designer. Meanwhile, there's a simpler kind of app the web has already mastered, one most of us we use daily regardless of our professions: task managers.

Tasks beyond native

The task management scenario on OS X haven't changed drastically in years. The Hit List, the app that was supposed to change Mac task management, is now forsaken and users have jumped to other platforms. Even with new competitors in Todo, the mobile-first 2Do or the wrapped web service Wunderlist, the question for those taking productivity seriously have always been: “OmniFocus or Things?”. It's time to change that.

The relevance of a native option on desktop is dubious now, as we spend little time in front of our computers and, whenever we do, we're always online. As long as there's a native mobile counterpart, we're fine — in fact, that’s the deciding point today, and the one thing that’s pushed task management forward. For those used to native apps, it's easy to predict the limitations a web app must have in terms of integration with your operating system, like the Services menu, global shortcuts to activate a Quick Input window or Notifications — though maybe the latter becomes redundant with notification sync between devices.

I doubt you’ve never felt unsatisfied with your task manager of choice. But what could you do with so few native options? The truth is that we adapt to new scenarios, we evaluate pros and cons unconsciously and stick to the piece of software that demands less sacrifices. There's no such a thing as a perfect application for everyone, especially when we consider such a personal thing as productivity.

There's a rich, rich world beyond native for task managers on the web, where you can find a myriad of great options to keep you sharp, like Todoist, TeuxDeux, and the aforementioned Wunderlist. They’re all more than capable of handling your personal task management. Meanwhile, the web also has more robust apps in Nirvana, or Nozbe, but maybe these are trying too hard to look like a native application. Somehow, flat and mobile first just works on the web. With web and native blending in the world of apps, both rushing to catch up with the last trends, it's the perfect time to check your options and maybe, just maybe, realize that the app you were using so far to stay productive was another obstacle handicapping you into getting things done.

It’s All About Simplicity

Intuitiveness never requires adaptation from a user. Mobile’s taught us that, and left legacy desktop apps feeling clunky by comparison. You shouldn't need to change your personal system to use software unless this is the exact change you're looking for. Mobile apps tend to be far more thought out, designed to put the user first.

Mobile decides the winners today, in apps and services like the aforementioned Evernote and in UI design. It’s made the web more prominent, and cross-platform a must. Desktop apps are going to have to make the change, quick, or we as users will keep switching to the mobile+web apps that are increasingly adding desktop apps as an afterthought.