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Hubs vs. Apps, UX Patterns in Mobile Devices (WP7 vs iPhone)

Before I get started here I want to clarify that the idea of hubs isn’t unique to Windows Phone 7. In fact, the Palm Pre has had hub-like functionality since day one and there are other platforms, other devices, and other OSs that all have hubs or something similar. For the rest of this blog post, however, I will be talking about WP7 hubs and how they have the potential to radically alter the way we can interact with our device and our data.

WP7's Marketplace Hub

WP7's Marketplace Hub

It’s all about control. In a traditional, app-centric system the application has complete control and the user must go through it in order to get at any piece of information. In a hub-centric system, the information is in control and apps (or even small pieces of apps) are summoned at will to do things with, for, or related to, that information.

WP7 People Hub

WP7 People Hub

Let’s take an example. Let’s say I want to e-mail someone a photo, and this person is only in one of my social network applications. In an app-centric system you’d probably reach for your e-mail client first. But, on the iPhone, you can’t actually start in your mail app to send attachments. I know, seems odd. So, you go to the photos app, which lets you e-mail the photo. But, the contact list is only the list of contacts that are on your phone’s internal contact list. It doesn’t look up people in facebook or LinkedIn or MyAwesomeSocial or anywhere else. What if I want to tweet the photo after I e-mail it? On an app-centric platform, I have to back all the way out of the photo app, go into the Twitter app, and then pick the photo from the “new tweet” menu. If I want to then share the photo on facebook, what do I have to do? Escape all the way to the home screen again, and then open up the Facebook app, then push a few buttons and the worst part of this, is that I have to re-find the item that I was originally hoping to share on Facebook.

WP7 Game Hub

WP7 Game Hub

Now let’s look at how this might work in a hub-centric system. You go into the photos hub and then you find the photo you want. Without ever leaving the context of this photo, the system knows which applications are able to add extension capabilities to that photo. This means that from this photo, you can send it to someone via e-mail, you can share it on Facebook, you can share it on Twitter, you can (and yes, this is real, I’ve seen this in screenshots) automatically treat the photo with the word “FAIL” and submit it to the FAIL blog. And because contacts are also a hub, contacts can be injected into the list by other applications that know of additional sources of people. This means that from the photos hub, I can e-mail the photo to someone whose e-mail address came from Facebook or LinkedIn or the corporate directory or wherever.

WP7 Pictures Hub

WP7 Pictures Hub

Think about it this way: What you use your smart phone for, the things that you deal with on a daily basis, is data. Information. The applications are merely there to provide just enough chrome and ceremony to allow you to manipulate and store that information in a way that is hopefully pleasant and meaningful. Given this statement of roles and responsibilities, I personally feel that the hub-centric approach to smart phone UX is absolutely, hands-down more productive than the app-centric UX.

In addition to all of the built-in hubs that come with WP7, developers can even create their own. This enables application-sharing scenarios across multiple vendors and enterprises. Developers for a single enterprise can also build an entire hub around the business of that enterprise – aggregating data and information and statistics and wrapping all that information with functionality that applies to the information, only loosely identifiable as “apps”.