In what may very well be considered the geekiest sort of fandom possible, I consider myself a fan of Matias Duarte. As I’ve written before: “Wherever this guy goes, awesome user interfaces follow.” He and his team at Danger built a tremendously usable interface for the Sidekick, his work at Helio (especially the stuff that went to waste at the end, never to be seen by the public eye) was incredible, and then.. then there was webOS.
Say what you will about the Palm Pre and Pixi from a hardware standpoint, but the software that runs on’em is pure user interface gold. That’s largely because of the work of Matias and his team. Alas, Palm just lost Matias to the lil’ green robot that could: Android. Google has confirmed that Matias is joining them as the Android team’s User Experience Director.
Score one for Google.
This talent acquisition could be incredibly important for the folks in Mountain View. Android has a lot of fantastic selling points, but its user interface has never, ever been one of those. Since day 1, users (and nay-sayers) have been vehemently complaining about the interface. It is — and I say this as a pretty huge fan of the platform — rather ugly, and far from intuitive. (Everytime I speak to someone who just got their Android phone within the last few days, its the same story: showing them how to reveal the (very important) notification bar results in wide eyes and gaping maws, as if I’d revealed the key to time travel. That’s not good.)
And what does this mean for Palm? Given their recent buyout by HP, it’s probably a bit of a mixed bag. HP has their own team of designers — failing that, they’ve got the money to hire replacements. No matter how talented said replacements may be, though, it’s an uphill battle. webOS has very finely tuned design messages; throw a new cook in the kitchen, and half of their work will be learning the old cook’s recipes.
Making things worse, Matias doesn’t generally roam from company to company alone. When he left Danger for Helio, he brought members of his team. When he left Helio for Palm, he brought members of his team. When he leaves, a good chunk of his team tends to go with. Neither Palm nor Google has confirmed any shifts beyond Matias; with that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Palm lost 2-3 more designers to Google in the coming weeks, if they haven’t already.