Here's why we all need to be technology sociologists

Here's why we all need to be technology sociologists

Summary: Perhaps we would do better at serving normal users by thinking less about the technology and more about the sociology.

TOPICS: Smartphones, Tablets

Someday the technology industry will hit "peak stupid" and we'll stop trying to shove ridiculous ideas down the throats of the people who use our stuff.

Mockup of a dual-booting phone
A mockup of a phone that can dual boot into Android or Windows Phone. The latest in a long list of terrible ideas that we technologists foist upon an unsuspecting market.

Imagine that utopian society. Everyone will be happy. No one will waste their money on rubbish. It'll be sunny everyday. And I won't have anything to complain about...

Today, however, is not that day. There's a rumour going around that Microsoft wants HTC to make a phone that dual boots Android and Windows Phone.

The plan

A dual-booting smartphone is the latest in this year's circus of fail. We started off with CES in January with fridges that run Evernote, took in the sights of Ubuntu Edge — a smartphone that was also a laptop, very recently enjoyed the wonder of a smartwatch that doesn't do notifications properly (although I should say ZDNet's Matthew Miller did like his Gear), and now a dual booting phone.

Way back in 2008, ZDNet's Jason Perlow wrote about a company looking to build a system for building a phone based hypervisor. The idea here is that a phone could run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

There is one (and only one) good reason why would want to do this — to keep one's life separate when it comes to having one device that's use for work, and another for the rest of your life. If you can run two virtual machines on one device you can increase your safety and security, and drive down potential for embarrassment.

The idea of cleaving a phone in half to keep everyone happy and safe is a good one. I can get behind that.

But Microsoft's overtures to HTC aren't this. The rumour going around is that either a user will be able to boot up a phone into a choice of operating systems, or that somehow the two will be blended so that you boot into a "master" operating system and run apps from a guest.

(Both these ideas are present in BlackBerry 10, by the way.)

Engineering-wise, dual booting is easy. Windows Phone and Android run on essentially the same hardware. All you need to do is create a bootloader and the user chooses when they turn it on. The other option — creating an Android player that runs on Windows Phone or a Windows Phone player that runs on Android is significantly more technically difficult, as well as politically pernicious. Don't hold your breath for this.


We've looked at the technology. But, no one is asking this vital question: "Why?"

Technologists never ask this question, and really we need to start.

Or, maybe we do ask this question, but yet we still roll up our sleeves and get to work the moment our brain provides the answer "because it's cool!"

A non-technologist responds to many ideas that technologists posit with a simple phrase: "So what?"

Here's a sketch of a technologist trying to explain a dual booting phone to a normal human:

Normal person: "Wait, so I turn my phone on, and I choose what 'operating system' it's supposed to run?"

Technologist: "Yes!"

Normal person: "Right. First question — what's an operating system?"

Technologist: "You know how your laptop runs Windows? That's an operating system."

Normal person: "OK, so this phone runs Windows?"

Technologist: "Well, sort of. It can run a version of Windows called Windows Phone that's designed for Windows, but it also runs Android."

Normal person: "What's Android?"

Technologist: "It's like Windows. But it's made by Google."

Normal person: "OK, so I don't really understand of that that. Anyway, can I run Instagram on this?"

Technologist: "Yes, if you boot into Android. If you're running Windows Phone you'll have to turn your phone off, turn it on, and boot it into Android."

Normal person: "So if I see something I want to Instagram, I have to turn my phone off?"

Technologist: "You might have to turn your phone off."

Normal person: "How would I know if I have to turn my phone off?"

Technologist: "You need to look to see if you're running Windows Phone or Android?"

Normal person: "How do I do that?"

And all of this that is nothing, nothing compared to what life will be like for that user when they find the million and one tiny usability problems with running a dual-personality device like this.

Remember, as an industry we now know what usability problems dual-personality user environments create — Microsoft showed the gold standard in confused user experiences with Windows 8.

The bottom line

This is why we all need to be technology sociologists, and stop being "technologists".

The sample conversation I've imagined above — we've all had conversations like that. Every one of us at some point has sat down with a significant other, or a colleague, and fallen into the mire of assumed technical knowledge, and a "solution first" mindset. This is what technologists do because our desire is to build not use.

The scenario above, all that user wanted to do was take a picture of their kids and share it on Instagram. And everything we did got in the way of that. The sociological side — the sharing, the recording of memories, the social connection — that's the important bit. The actual technology is never important.

A technology sociologist sits at the crossroads between technology and sociology, much like a CTO sits at the crossroads between technology and the business's commercial needs.

To do good product design, all we have to do is strip away the stuff that seems cool and that we want to build, and that doesn't make our family and friends look at us with that quizzical look when we tell them about it.

They're the ones that need to say "that's cool", not us.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Smartphones, Tablets

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  • Why I would want a dual-boot device

    I have had Android phones ever since the primordial G1. So when I buy a new phone, a major consideration is leveraging prior investment in that platform. However, I hear a lot of good things about the Windows Phone platform, and I'm curious to try it. If it's as good as others have said, then I can transition to it off Android at my own pace. And apps available only on Android, if any, won't become a deal breaker.

    I'm puzzled to why Microsoft is courting HTC to do this, however, instead of using their investment in Nokia. The Nokia hardware intrigue me as much as the OS; such a phone with global connectivity would be almost a no brainer if it's available when I need to upgrade next summer.
    • It seems that way but...

      Installing Android on their own device would seem like a concession. They'd much rather see HTC do it. If they don't, I wouldn't be surprised to see MS do it on a Nokia handset... and market it as some sort of challenge... a much riskier move, at least before app availability on WP8 catches up.
  • The reason is obvious...

    Microsoft would love to see a phone where WP8 and Android is compared head to head... without the influence of brand-loyal tech writers.

    They think they can win that direct comparison.
  • What I want

    is for my HTC One Android phone to run Windows 7, so that I drop in on MMOs that I play on my desktop during breaks when I'm away from my computer or away from home. This would require a powerful Intel cpu and Nvidia or AMD dedicated GPU... which the HTC One doesn't have...

    I prefer Android for my phone/mobile functions, but for serious computing away from my desktop I still want Windows 7.
  • DualBooting FAN

    I am a fan of the dualboot device.
    I am a proponent that BlackBerry should have launched a DualBoot BlackBerry Z10 in January 2013 Running BlackBerry 10 and Android.
    You don't NEED to explain that to the regular user. during set up you set the primary OS. during shutdown the option to boot with OS selection ON/OFF is checked, default to Off so regular user boots only the OS they get set up with when they buy the phone unless they want to make a change or a tech friend makes the change
    The OS is arranged so that Media is on a shared partision of the drive so that Music, ringtones, pictures, movies, documents are available to both OSs.

    You ask what is the point?
    Well for Both BlackBerry and in your example HTC the point is about moving more hardware. Both companies are at a disadvantage to Samsung and Apple with Marketing budgets and perception both companies need to move more hardware. If they could move an extra 25% units because of the option that is a big advantage for them reducing writedown on inventory, for BlackBerry it increases potential of users trying BB10 at each OS update and gives developers an extra reason to pick up a BlackBerry10 device and maybe port their Android app over to BlackBerry world
  • confusion is hilarious

    I hope they go for it. I think it's funny when old people try to use devices that should be simple but have been way overcomplicated and made nearly impossible to use. Take modern bluray players for example. My grandma wants to watch a movie she got at the movie store. She used to just pop in a VHS and it played. She rewound it when it was done. Easy. Now she puts in the bluray and it takes her to a menu with a bunch of different programs/options. She has learned to pick "play bluray". So then when she presses that, it takes a really long time to load up, and then it doesn't work, and it says she needs a firmware update. Then she tries it and it says she needs an internet connection and she has to configure a connection to her wireless router which she doesn't have. LOL. Hahahaha. I love confusion.

    Please, make this dual-booting phone a reality!!!