A Vertical Perspective, Part 3

Despite the obvious initial objection from my brain, I was still committed to experimenting with a vertical monitor setup. It did not help in preventing my anxiousness from rising when entering the office the next morning. After waking up the iMac, the vibrant Dell monitor joined in and pulled up the pleasing background image I have since left on screen. Seeing my own black and white photo filling the portrait was a real serene moment. Using that as encouragement, I started the experiment by doing some web browsing with Safari.

Though the Princeton University website was, predictably, not going to be very cooperative, other websites like the New York Times, blogs, and Facebook were a pure delight to view in this orientation. Scrolling vertically is such a common task on a computer, and with a vertical display I found myself doing it a fewer amount of times because the information I needed was already on screen. Whatever the opposite of a headache is, I experienced it here. I did notice a pattern forming in the way websites would handle this new orientation:

Sites that followed loose formats, featured infinite scrolling, or were mobile-aware worked the best, whereas pages with specific layouts, flash content (mostly gaming), and a lack of pro-active thought suffered the most.

This also includes system back-ends, portfolio websites (except mine), non-profit or small organizations, and anything that hasn’t been redesigned since 2007. That may sound like a lot, but it’s nowhere near the majority. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the mobile revolution forced a lot of web designers to drop the comfort of horizontal resolutions. A setup that was once a concrete truth got flipped on its ear (literally and figuratively) and now had to be accommodated because the vertical devices made it easier to browse the real web.

Next, email. I am not exaggerating when I say that the vertical orientation made me enjoy checking my email. I had reached some kind of cybernetic nirvana by managing and composing my emails in a taller view. The way the Mac Mail interface handles being tall is an inspiration. There are three panels to Mail: the mailbox list, the message list, and the message viewer. The mailbox list being taller made a huge difference because of the stacks of folders I keep. I didn’t have to drag a message to the bottom, wait for the scrolling to occur automatically, wait again for the appropriate mailbox to reveal itself only to get impatient and drop the message into the wrong box mistakenly, anyway. The message list in this height was so crucial during times of searching. Finally, having my messages appear as if they were newspaper articles made reading them feel so much more natural. This is why you switch to a vertical display.

Other applications took to the new setup as well. The calendar app did a stellar job holding shape, and was terrific at visualizing my life in any view. Building schedules and vertical spreadsheets in Numbers was remarkably easy although it was cramped when the formatting sidebar would come into play. Browsing my contacts was a pleasure, checking my reminders was a dream come true, and typing up notes couldn’t have been more natural. Look at the included images and find the iTunes screenshot. Upon discovering this, the drool was inevitable and unstoppable. Another pattern-based thought formed from this, which really puts the vertical switch into perspective:

Take a sheet of paper — the thing responsible for making us read and write — and hold it in front of your face. Shouldn’t it seem obvious that the way you’re holding it is the way you should be reading and writing on a computer screen?

Tasks like looking at maps, doing any design work (the arrangement of palettes on the sides really does defend the horizontal mindset), any kind of audio or video work involving timelines, presentations, watching videos, playing with settings; these would have been done horizontally without computers, it only makes sense that it remains that way on a computer.

Now, as much as I may seem like I’m drawing the thought to go vertical out of thin air, this idea is not unique at all. There was a vertical Macintosh in the works in 1989. The Xerox Alto was out for years before that. Of course the early experimentation behind this idea would lead to some products, but just like the TV, resting on the horizon sold, and whatever sells is what wins in the end.

But what I’m calling for is a revolution in the way we think about working on desktop computers. Our mobile devices are so easy to flip because of their weight, and we do it based on the purpose we have with those devices. There’s also a willing participation in the software to be turned and to rearrange the interface to answer the call of the accelerometer. With an ever increasing pace, the need for rotation-independence should be considered alongside the equally liberating concept of resolution-indepedence. On the Mac we know this is possible because iOS does it and iOS is based off of Mac OS X. It just needs to be supported in the hardware.

So, computer companies of the world, listen to the voice of your customers. As an ex-Apple Store employee, I can testify to having heard this answer from 80% of my customers when I would ask them what they wanted to do with a new computer:

“Oh, just check my email and browse the web.”

The need is out there. The time for rotation independence is upon you. You have the technology and the engineering skills, and just like the iPhone, you can have that moment where people will swear you’ve fulfilled a need before anyone knew they had it.

I call for you to:

Let monitors have accelerometers.
Let your users read and write the same way they’ve been taught for years.
Let interfaces have rotation preferences.
Bring the mobile revolution to the desktop.

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