July 11, 2011

Still Looking to Sync the World of Desktop, Mobile Devices

As an over-extended digital device collector, I have my unfair share of tablets, phones and laptops strewn about my office. My kids are practically tripping over them, each one having its own use or unique operating system. As I use each of these devices, I find myself seeing gaps in the way different applications share data - keeping user information local to the device and locking it away so I lose information when I switch. While the Web and the buzzword-heavy "cloud" are helping matters, we've still got a lot of room to grow.

As I move from device to device, I'm doing so making decisions based on what applications and data I will find when I get there. By using my laptop, I lose access to games and apps that run on my Android phone and tablets. By using my phones, I lose the desktop apps. While some are looking to Apple to lead the way by merging the OS X concept with iOS, less talk has been made of bringing these iOS apps to a touch-screen enabled desktop. Maybe the idea is not happening because it's a bad one, but some smart app developers have thrown caution to the wind and brought their content to practically every screen.

Take the ubiquitous Angry Birds franchise for starters. I can play Angry Birds on my Mac from the app on the Mac App Store. I can play it on Google Chrome on the Chromebook. I can play it on my Android phone and tablets. I can play it on the iPad and iPod Touch. It's everywhere. The downside, of course, is that I have to conquer all the same levels again on every device, with no central record.

A little better is how Barnes and Noble approaches its NOOK eBooks. Purchases I make on my NOOKColor may initiate there, but I can also read the same books from my NOOK app on the Galaxy Tab (7 inch or 10 inch) and there's even a Mac client. I just have to sign in to my account and my library is right there. Very cool. If I'm connected to the Web, it will even know which book I am reading and open to the right page. That's the kind of integration I am really looking for.

You can also see smart integration of user preferences in the way Safari on iOS has the same bookmarks as on your computer, or how Chrome bookmarks follow you from Google Account-enabled machine to machine.

But most of the time apps are not behaving this way. Android's default browser is still not Chrome (and this baffles many), so the integration isn't there. Meanwhile, if I play 9 Innings baseball on my Galaxy Tab 10 and get through 81 games, starting the same app on my Galaxy Tab 7 starts at game 1. Even if I buy in-app enhancements to the game (and others like Home Run Battle 3D), those enhancements are device-specific.

Now that we can have Web-centric user profiles and can back up our user content, history and preferences, the very least we can do is be sure that our activity is matched across similar mobile devices. I recognize that often coding for desktop and mobile can be very different, but as the devices blur between smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops, a screen is a screen is a screen, and I want to get the same stuff everywhere.

Defaulting to a Web-centric operating system like ChromeOS is a start, of course, but it's early days for that, and not everything has yet made the trip. I'd love Spotify on my CR-48 the same way it's on my phones and tablets and Mac, but it's a major hole until it hits the Web.

One practically has to make a mental matrix to remember what content and services are available on which devices, and what one loses when they choose one screen over another. I'd like to see more developers thinking about eliminating these gaps and giving users what they want no matter what screen they choose.