Last time around, I wrote about FileMaker Pro 12 and its downloadable front end for iPhones and iPads. The final point in that outing was the recognition that FileMaker Pro 12’s ability to create a device-specific front end for a custom database, accessible on the iPad or the iPhone, was a clear recognition of how much our future access to information will be shifting away from the desktop, or even the laptop.

After I finished that column, I went out for lunch, taking my Kindle with me. While I originally bought the Kindle for the convenience of taking George R.R. Martin and John Scalzi and Laura Joh Rowland and Terry Pratchett with me on airplanes, I also started subscribing to my favorite magazines. That’s when I was reminded (again) of the importance of what we call The Front End—the actual user interface.

On the first of every month, my Kindle “newsstand” fills up with MaximumPC, PC Magazine, Popular Science, National Geographic, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (Disclaimer: I have published articles and stories in three of those periodicals.) There are other magazines I want to subscribe to, but the stack of unread print books and magazines in the living room, the bedroom, the office, the dining room, and even in the storage locker serves as a continual warning. Don’t go there.

Some magazines translate very well to the Kindle Fire. F&SF, for example, is mostly text, with the occasional cartoon. The text shows up just like any other e-book, so I can configure size, font and color. Occasionally I need to expand the cartoons to read the captions clearly.

But while the digest-size magazines translate well to the Kindle Fire, a lot of other magazines designed for larger formats do not translate as well to its 7-inch screen. The publishers have made the mistake of providing an exact replica of the print version page. That looks terrific on a 10-inch Galaxy Tab or iPad, not so good on a 7-inch Kindle Fire. Even with my reading glasses on, the print is still uncomfortably small. I have to pinch and expand each page, sliding it up to read the bottom and left to read the right side.

The Kindle Fire is not a full tablet, nor is it intended to be. It’s a content-delivery system of a size and weight that’s more convenient to hold than a tablet. The iPad and other 10-inch tablets have larger displays, but they’re too heavy to hold for prolonged reading. As of this writing, Amazon has sold 5 million Kindles, and that says there’s a huge market for this format, a huge readership hungry enough for convenience and content to spend two Benjamins for an electric book.
But that doesn’t mean this audience reads e-books and e-mags the same way they do print editions. Because it’s so easy to swipe to the next page, it’s easier to skim through a lot faster—and (pay attention, advertisers!) it’s easier to skip the ads as well. I’ve noticed that even the full-page ads don’t have the same impact, possibly because the smaller text is less likely to reach out and grab my attention.

And there may be other differences as well, though not as obvious. When page size is reduced, page layout becomes a graphic element until the reader zooms in on the text. Will graphics have more or less impact? And what about the content? Does a printed page have more gravitas than the same words on a screen? Will pages with links pull readers out of the magazine to other sites or advertisements?

And how about utilizing some of the other abilities of the e-book or tablet? Your browser can play music and show you animated gifs, videos and pop-ups related to the main content. While most of that shows up as advertising on mainstream sites, why can’t it also be applied to content? Visionary programmers have done a lot of astonishing things on the Web. When will the graphic designers of magazines recognize that moving off the printed page gives them a whole range of additional capabilities?

Why can’t a Kindle/Nook/iPad edition of a music magazine include relevant snips of songs to give the reader a better sense of the music discussed? Why can’t a movie magazine include trailers of upcoming films and clips from films being reviewed? Why can’t a science magazine include interactive graphs and demonstrations? All of these things are possible when magazine publishers recognize that the e-mag is a whole new format.

It seems obvious to me that many publishers of e-mags have not yet realized they have a “front end” problem. Most of them are still designing for print and porting that directly to 10-inch screens. They’re not designing for 7-inch screens or even the 4.3-inch screens of smartphones. (While I’m not sure I would want to try reading a magazine on my Galaxy S II, I have read whole chapters of books on the Kindle app while waiting in line at the bank. It’s not ideal, but it’s serviceable.)

The same problem also exists with many of the websites you visit on your 7-inch tablet or your 4.3-inch phone. It’s just a shrunken-down version of the Web page. You have to zoom in to find the content you’re looking for.

Likewise, a lot of downloadable applications do not scale well for different screens. (You know which ones, you don’t need me to list them.) But Angry Birds does. So does the World Series of Poker app, which looks pretty good on the smartphone, but looks even better on the Kindle because it scales up to a much more detailed graphic set. So it’s not impossible. It just requires recognition that the front end is no longer a stable target.

Was it ever a stable target? I don’t think so. But right now, we’re seeing a dramatic explosion of screen sizes and resolutions that complicate the problem enormously for anyone writing and publishing software.
There’s another factor at work as well, not immediately obvious, but possibly the most important part of the equation. As I mentioned above, I went out to lunch and sat down with the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This is the most literate of all the science fiction magazines. It’s been around since 1949 and it has published stories by most of the leading science fiction authors in the country. What I noticed as I read through the issue was the uniformly high quality of all the stories. The authors were literate, the prose was eloquent, the themes were mature, and the stories themselves were moving, disturbing or inspiring.

I wasn’t noticing this in a vacuum. Last year, as I was cleaning out some of the clutter that can accrue over half a century, I revisited some of the books and stories I had grown up with—works that had secured for themselves fond places in my memory. I was startled to realize that I could now see the pulp fiction roots of many of those tales. They weren’t bad stories, but in many respects they had been surpassed by the current state of the art.

The difference isn’t that the level of mediocrity has risen, it’s that the level of excellence has risen dramatically. There is a lot more headroom for authors today than an earlier generation had to explore. But what this means for aspiring authors is that they have to achieve a higher standard than ever before just to break in. It’s not enough to tell the story, they have to tell the story beautifully.

The same is true for those who write and publish software. It’s not enough anymore to have a powerful engine under the hood and an adequately serviceable interface. No, the front end has to grab the user immediately. It has to be well designed and immediately understandable. And it has to translate well for all formats. The user doesn’t want to learn a different set of tools for every device, he wants one set of tools that work cross-platform.

Because the front-end problem is going to be different for everything that we download to our portable devices—every application and every website, every piece of content—it means that the bar has been raised for all programmers. Producing a quality app, one that attracts a critical mass of users, now requires a much greater level of skill, insight and vision than we’ve seen in the past.

And this means that as important as front-end design has been in the past, it’s going to be even more important in the future, because the application is going to have to be understandable and attractive on every device, whether it’s an 80-inch 3D smart television, an Ultrabook, a tablet, an e-book reader, or the smartphone in your pocket. And even your desktop machine as well.

What do you think?

David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.