Friday, March 04, 2011

Copy and Paste – A Legacy Solution in a Modern World

If the rumours are true, an update to Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 operating system is due within the next few days. Even if those rumours prove inaccurate, the update is likely to arrive within the next month or so. The major change publicised for this update is the addition of “Copy and Paste” to the operating system.

Since WP7 was first released, forum/blog posts, online comments and reviews have been blasting Microsoft for failing to include Copy and Paste. Typically theses comments start with the poster saying they “cannot believe Microsoft didn’t include Copy and Paste, it’s 2011 already and iPhone and Android both have it !”. Arguments for Microsoft usually go along the lines of, “Well it’s version one of a completely new operating system and they didn’t have time to implement and test every feature”. From there the argument rages on, with the suggestion that while it might have been ok to release a system without Copy and Paste in 2007 (which Apple did), it’s not ok to do it now when competitors have already implemented it. There are those who have said they won’t buy a phone without support for Copy and Paste.

My question is, do we even want Copy and Paste ? Given the debate it’s clear people think they want it, but sadly, the customer is not always right.

Despite owning many phones including two prior to my new HTC HD7 that were capable of web browsing and email, I have almost never wanted copy and paste as a feature of my phone. I say almost, because on one occasion recently I wanted it for a single fleeting moment. I was viewing a web page on my phone (something I still prefer to do on a PC whenever possible) and I wanted to share it with my Twitter followers. My natural reaction was to reach for copy and paste, to copy the URL to the clipboard, change to my Twitter application and paste the URL in. In fact, it would have been worse than that. I would have had to navigate to a service like then paste the url in there, copy the output of that service and then switch to my Twitter application to paste the final value into the tweet.

Is that really what I wanted to do ? No. I wanted to share the page with Twitter users. I didn’t actually want to click, tap, drag or highlight the URL and choose to copy it. I didn’t want to switch applications, watching one screen animate to another, waiting for one application to go into the background and one to come forward.  Nor did I really want to manually go to and convert the URL, or even paste the url into Twitter. I just wanted to share the page. Any of that process might have been better (given the current state of the platforms) on iOS or Android, but it still would have been wrong.

At this point I found myself in a good news, bad news situation. Fantastically the WP7 browser includes a “share” option on it’s application bar menu. That’s what I should have reached for, that’s what I wanted. An option to share what I was viewing with a particular group of people via a specific medium, not some antiquated desktop technology from the 1970’s. The bad news is the share option, at present, only allows you to share a URL via email. There is no ability to share via Twitter, Facebook or any other service except your configured email accounts. So close, Microsoft, yet so far. This is surely an oversight on Microsoft’s part, since the camera application updates to include support for TwitPic and Flickr when the appropriate applications are installed (SkyDrive/Windows Live, email and SMS messaging are available by default).

Of course copy and paste would have allowed me to solve my problem, but we as an industry and particularly as consumers have moved past ‘good enough’ solutions. Apple’s iPhone and iPad have led the way in proving this. When Apple release a product that is missing features they are often defended by those who say it doesn’t matter features are missing, because what is there is so good. It’s the user experience that matters now, and it is through improved user experience that Apple are doing amazing things and pushing the industry forward. Given this, I’m actually surprised that Apple implemented copy and paste in their own platform. They more than anyone else should have been in a position to insist that it was the wrong answer, and provide a better solution or solutions. After all, they remain strong on their anti-Flash arguments despite criticism for it from many quarters and they have pioneered new user interface concepts.

Is copy and paste a good user experience ? Not really. It’s certainly what we’re used to, and what we’ve been conditioned to look for. It’s also relatively easy to engineer, and if done correctly can be provided by the underlying operating system and therefore operate in virtually any application without that application’s developer having to do anything. That’s also the biggest problem with it. While copy and paste is great as a fall back for when the user experience is already broken, we shouldn’t be using it when we don’t have to. We should be demanding greater and smarter integration. Copy and paste won’t run my URL through or tinyurl for me automatically, but fantastic integration between the browser and Twitter application would. If someone sends me a txt message with a name, phone number and address in it,  I don’t want to carefully copy and paste each value between applications, constantly switching between one and the other. I want to tap the info then select ‘save as contact’ and have the phone try to sort out which bit of text goes in which field in a new contact. Of course it should also allow me to tweak which data goes where if the phone gets it wrong. There are plenty of examples where copy and paste can be used, but is actually a hack to get around the fact that different applications or parts of the operating system don’t integrate the way they should.

My concern is that once we have copy and paste, improving the integration between applications becomes less important. Because we can use copy and paste, and because it’s easy for developers to implement (in fact they shouldn’t have to do anything), better integration between applications may not even be thought of let alone implemented as a priority.

I’m not upset about having copy and paste in the phone. It’s the ultimate fall back for sharing information between programs (except perhaps for the file system, which is also disappearing in the mobile space). Despite the fact I think you’re crazy to try and create Office documents (or most other sorts of document based content) on a phone, I can accept that if you do then copy and paste would probably be useful. I have to ask though, have consumers done themselves a disservice by demanding copy and paste ? Will Microsoft recognise this and resist the urge to say copy and paste is good enough ? Will we eventually see development tools that ask the developer what kinds of content the application can accept or publish every time a new one is created, and expose end points for dealing with that content directly to the operating system and other applications when it is installed on a device ?

On a desktop PC, copy and paste probably still has a place, at least for a while. It’s familiar, it works, and it’s already there. You also have a mouse and a full keyboard, which makes selecting and copying data easier. You can have non-full screen applications so copying and pasting between applications or even windows isn’t so painful. You’re more likely to be creating content, in particular complex documents with mixed data, which is where copy and paste shines. Copy and paste also works with multiple formats of data, text, images, folders & files, spread sheet cells, flow chart shapes etc. In the mobile space though, we have different problems, different input methods and most importantly the chance to do something better.

Although having copy and paste on the phone doesn’t worry me (so long as we don’t let it ruin our future), I am upset that it was given such a high priority. There are many more missing features in WP7 that would be infinitely more useful. Even custom ring tones would actually be more useful to me personally. I can only hope the impending update includes more than a thirty to forty year old technology we should be abandoning as fast as technology allows, or that future updates that include other features will ship soon after.

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