Netbooks – the necessary new design test-tool

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Writing this on my Lenovo S10e netbook, I am furious. It’s before mid-day and yet I have had two experiences of software designs that did not consider netbooks a platform – or at least the new low screen resolution these computers imply. And before you call me a whiner (besides the fact that you’d be somewhat right), this is just a description of the changes I will make to include netbook users as an audience of software and website in the future.

Whine #1: Twice I’ve been cripled by software that saw the low screen resolution as a handicap – one of them on purpose. First I installed Pidgin – the cool cross-platform/cross-protocol IM and IRC client. I like it a lot, but on Windows some dialogs are too big and will not allow me to navigate to the OK/Cancel buttons at the bottomof the settings dialog. Fortunately this is Open Source stuff, so I can just participate and actively fix this myself.

Whine #2: I had to install a printer driver for my HP Photosmart 2575 printer – the install took over one hour because of some “ingenious” package system. That obviously poor user experience decision aside – the minimum requirement for the printer driver is a screen resolution of 800×600 pixels. My S10e runs at 1024 x 576. The consequence – I cannot print from my netbook in Windows because the printer driver won’t finish installing, as it has an irrelevant requirement. Fortunately I am dual-booting with Ubuntu, which has excellent support for my printer (without the requirement)

I’ve read somewhere that 20% of all computers that will be sold in 2009 will be netbooks. Some producers (including Asus) will stop production of 8.9″ -screen netbooks. The 10-inchers seems to dominate right now, and probably for the rest of the year (note: my guess only). Every company designing software will have to take this into account before they ship the next version of any product with a user interface.

I’ve worked on so many web projects with art directors saying: “Nobody runs 640×480 or 800×600 anymore”. Hey we know – but do you know how many users run with their browser maximized because a designer thought up a design that required it? Web designers don’t own the real estate of the users screen resolution – they can only hope to own the area the browser is sized to – and you have to count on users having at least one open history/bookmarks sidebar and/or plug-in and/or Google/MSN/Web developer toolbar enabled.

My point should be rather obvious: It is vital to include netbooks as testplatforms for serious UI-designers or your product will no longer be compatible with the equipment of the customers you want. The rules have changed – live with it.

You may argue that netbook users are asking for it, but if the competing website or software support the netbooks and you don’t – the users is no longer making the decision of leaving you.

Posted in Geekyness, Linux, Netbooks, Open Source, Software design, Tips, Web

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