Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The imminent fall of Apple

WWDC 2015 was yesterday. It was a day of modest improvements, not sweeping changes. The big news was no surprise to anyone at all, which was Apple's music service.

I have a co-worker that repeats to me frequently that "Apple has lost it's way". That is the belief of some after Steve Jobs left the building.

It bears to be repeated - Apple was not Steve Jobs. He left his imprint on the company, but a part of that is a legacy of good design above all else. Apple doesn't invent many new things; it refines things that exist in ways that become obvious once Apple does it. The Watch is an example of what is right and wrong about Apple. They rushed a product to market that isn't still fully formed. It is definitely a work in progress. But, on the other hand, it is probably the best of the current devices out there that try to fuse digital assistant and timepiece.

A study of contrasts to be sure - I watch Google's developer keynote last week, and was impressed, but it ultimately I have to remember that Google is not Santa Claus. It is giving us things because it wants to get better at mining data on it's users. Why does it give so much space for people to upload photos, with some really slick tools for discovery? It uses these very same tools to mine even more data on it's users. In that picture it sees a user holding a can of Pepsi - it now knows one more thing about you. Are you on vacation in Hawaii? It knows one more thing about you that it can now use to better target you for advertising and services, data it shares with it's "partners".

There is much talk about the evils of Apple's "walled garden" versus Google's "openness", but it is really a matter of choosing your poison. This article points to a world where people are willing to give up their privacy for convenience - which  the author claims puts Apple at a disadvantage. But it is really comparing two different things. Apple is not in the business of mining it's users - Facebook and Google are. Will people gladly hand over all the small details of their lives for a little more simplicity - to the point where both of these companies become truly intrusive? It remains to be seen - the cynics have already decided.

I remember someone telling me that REM (the band) sucked after their first album. Really. REM went from indy darlings to a band that sold a lot of records. This doomed them for the early adopters, because they were popular, they must be bad. It is a form of close mindedness. Hipsters would write off Madonna as she became a pop diva, but "Ray of Light" is really a pretty great album -  if it had been recorded by a complete unknown, it would have been hailed as a masterpiece. Success breeds contempt in small minded people.

Is Apple failing? No. It is true that the Watch is not the groundbreaking success that the iPhone was, but behind the scenes, there are a lot of little things that Apple is doing profoundly right. When I heard of Apple pay last year, I told folks that it was the important thing that Apple had announced at WWDC. Google had tried to implement something similar, and had failed. Apple succeeded because their "walled garden" (so to speak) gave them an advantage that others don't (and continue to not) have. It allowed them to build a consistent user experience. It taps into something that people routinely do, and makes it better. People talked on phones before the iPhone, but the iPhone changed what people could use their phones for. I owned several smart phones before the iPhone, and they were all half-baked. Apple had the secret sauce.

Apple sells a bunch of Apple TVs. Google has tried three times to sell something similar, and the first two tries were failures. They are now back for a third try, but I think it is too late. If I had to pin anyone as the company that came in late, but has been successful, it is Amazon with FireTV. They have a ecosystem that mirrors Apple's - a superior one to Google's Play store - which is functional but hardly compelling. Google has a store because they have to - not because it offers something that is better than anything else out there - in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really fit into their overarching strategy. Android is a way to get people to use phones tied to Google services - keeping them in the Google ecoverse so that they can be further mined for information.

I think much is written about Apple because what they do is what other companies wish they could do. People really like their products. I doubt anyone really likes their Samsung phone in a way an iPhone user feels about their phone. Detractors call this a "cult" but it is not that at all - Apple doesn't force users to buy their products. People buy Apple products because they suck less. It really is that simple. Which confounds the detractors. It has to be more complicated than this - but really it isn't. Companies that focus on making great stuff do well. Sony for a long time made the very best TV sets you could buy, and it was because their TV's had a polish to them in not just the picture quality, but in the way they looked and worked. They lost that magic. Let's hope that doesn't happen to Apple.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

That iPhone bump and what it means for Apple

I haven't posted here in a very long time. This will probably be my last post on technology for a while. I have been thinking a lot of how I can make writing a blog interesting again. It's time to write about other stuff.

But I can't avoid spending a few minutes writing about Apple's new product announcements yesterday, because it represents a pivotal point in Apple's history, but not necessarily for the reasons that are outwardly obvious.

A new iPhone 6 and the Watch. Both are technical achievements that illustrate Apple's technical abilities. Faster, thinner and also bigger, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus represent another chapter in iPhone physical design, perhaps the biggest change since the iPhone 3. There is the curved glass on the side of the phone that makes it nice to hold. Moving the power/lock button to the side. Details.

But there is weirdness as well. The bump on the back of the phone for the camera? What is that? It is obviously ugly and not finished. I know why they did it; they were so intent on making the phone slimmer (given it's increased screen size) that they couldn't make it any slimmer with the camera module. But it looks terrible. It will be a constant reminder. The phone will not lie flat on a surface. It may snag on stuff and get damaged.

The Watch is also a compromised product. It is not attractive. It is a big thing that sits on the wrist. Not elegant at all like Apple's best products. It looks clunky. The best things about it are the new UI with the "cloud" interface that groups applications in a cluster instead of a grid. Look for it to be copied by other manufactures. But it is tethered to an iPhone to some of it's key features to work. No internal GPS means that it is of marginal use to runners, for instance. It is one more thing you have to carry along, and doesn't do anything that the iPhone already does, other than sit on your wrist. It is a bunch of features (many extraneous - really - I want to send someone my heartbeat?).

The iPhone 6 and the Watch represent an Apple that is looking at the market, and reacting to it, instead of leading it. Samsung can't innovate because they don't have that culture, but they can cram in more features, make stuff bigger, make stuff thinner. But they don't have Apple's ecosystem and tight integration of software and hardware that blur together. Samsung's attempts to brand Android with their own look is half-baked - useable but not something that makes people take a step back in awe. It is serviceable, maybe even attractive, if a little annoying.

But what Samsung did do is make phones bigger. And some people wanted that. Not everyone, but some people. My own opinion is that they look dumb and have a marginalized experience. They won't fit in a pair of pants that fit well, but perhaps a pair of baggy jeans. And I want my device to be unobtrusive.

So Apple made a bigger phone, because it is being reactive and "giving the people what they want". Apple has at times been successful at this - when Apple added Windows support for the iPod, the iPod crushed it's competitors. It was what people wanted all along. When Apple let developers write Apps for the iPhone, instead of just having them create web applications, it creates an incredibly rich eco system.

But the watch represents Apple attempting to find it's way by creating a new product, in a space that is still attempting to make a good rationale for existing at all. It is a product for technically inclined and those that want something just because it is new and shiny.

But not all is glum. Apple's payment system is a stroke of brilliance. They may indeed be the ones to really put the credit card to rest, the same way that the iTunes store started the slow decline of music CD sales. Their health integration framework looks to be better realized that competing environments. It will create a whole little ecosystem for fitness applications. An elliptical trainer that can talk to your iPhone and add in data - most likely.

Apple's software front looks solid. There are a lot of things under the hood of iOS 8 that could be innovative. But their newest products - arguably the biggest changes in a post-Jobs existence, are not a home run. They represent an Apple that is working to be relevant in a world of increased competition.

Will I get a new iPhone, though? Yes, I will. I like the iPhone 6, and it has enough new stuff over my iPhone 5 to make it a good upgrade. But at the same time, it is still incremental, and that camera bump really bothers me. As for the Watch - let's check back in on it in 2 years and see where Apple has gone with the next version, if there is one.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Microsoft on the Surface

Today Microsoft released a second version of their Surface products, named Surface 2. They are both worthwhile replacements, with better processors, better screens (on what used to their RT model) and better keyboards. The Pro model, tellingly enough, now supports a stylus.

They are to be commended for trying to win in a market that has already become somewhat entrenched. For tablets, it is typically summed up as a battle between Android and iOS, but in reality it is more of a battle between several Android tablet manufacturers and Apple. Microsoft's tablets are but a speck.

There are two Surface models; the Pro model using Windows 8, and the cheaper Surface using Windows RT, which has the same UI elements of the Pro model, but doesn't run Windows 8 applications. Confusing the naming between the two is probably a mistake for Microsoft, for they are in reality very different products. It is as if Apple was to release a "Pro" version of the iPad, that couldn't run Apps made for the iPad (okay, this analogy is a little weak, bear with me).

I wish Microsoft well. I had a Windows 8 laptop, and thought it was interesting, but ultimately flawed. It always felt like I was being forced to work the way it wanted me to work. Some things felt arbitrary in how they were conceived. It was the first OS in quite a while that left be perplexed at times, wondering how the thing worked. I ended up spending time on the internet to learn how to do things such as fixing my wireless networking so that it would work correctly. It wasn't obvious to me how to work with the wireless settings.

Microsoft is clearly following the lead of Apple, as it has done for a while now. There was the Zune, which again had a nice UI but suffered a poor adoption rate for a variety of reasons - mostly because of Apple's better ecosystem and management software. Apple actually made the iPod and iPhone work better on a Windows machine than Microsoft's own product.

I think the Surface (not the Pro) should never have been made. I would abdicate the low end of the market to cheap Android tablets and possibly the iPad. It is watered down KoolAid, a confusing product that isn't quite a full Windows experience, with little 3rd party software support. That simply will never happen.

The bright spot is actually their Windows mobile efforts.The Windows Phone experience is actually pretty good, some nice UI design touches that are innovative. Their market share is very weak, and will likely always be in 3rd place, but it gives them the product differentiation they need. A Windows mobile tablet at an affordable price makes a lot of sense. It is a product that is easier for people to understand - just like Apple, you could buy software for your Windows mobile handset, and have it work on a tablet as well. This represents a good value for customers.

So, I think the Surface (not the Pro) is kind of a doomed product. I can envision people perplexed to find that their new Windows tablet really isn't a Windows tablet, but some sort of weird kind of a Windows tablet. Third party application support will be tepid; I can't imagine many developers wanting to write software for this thing.

The key to Microsoft's success is not by copying others. It is by innovating. It is not driven by making something that is kind of like something else. It comes from envisioning what people want to do, and creating products that empower them to do that. This is a key part of Apple's success. They do not throw things out on the market just to see if it will catch on. That is what Samsung does (such as their watch). Apple may seem to be a step or two behind in terms of features, but a feature list is not the same thing as innovation. That is a lesson that Microsoft can take to the bank.

Friday, September 06, 2013

About Process

I wrote this for my students to help them with their final project.


We are winding down the semester. Next week's assignment will be to come in with a pitch for your final project. In essence, begin thinking about what you want to do for your project, and ask the following questions:

1. Who is the project for?
2. What is the narrative? Can it be summed up in one sentence?
3. Determine scope of your narrative.
4. Identify materials you will need to tell the narrative.
5 Implement a rough mockup, wireframe and/or material collection

When I use the term "narrative", i am talking about either fictional or non-ficitional accounts. As an example, a web site that helps people choose a pet would possibly have the single sentence declaration "This is a site that guides users through the process of deciding what kind of animal to get as a pet, using preference information combined with living constraints." An Audio project might have a statement like "This is a musical exploration of the United State's political landscape using a combination of original and found media."

Much is written about “creative process”. 5 stages to consider are:

1. Preparation/Hypothesis 
2. incubation/data collection/experimentation/
3. synthesis/illumination/experimentation (i.e. rough draft)
4. implementation
5. assessment

Steps 4 and 5 may need to be repeated based on results.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ouya and Kickstarter

Within 24 hours of initiating their funding campaign via Kickstarter, Ouja has already made $3 million dollars - more than triple their original funding goal.

They are selling a box - a game console that runs Android - in a way an answer to mobile gaming, but really it is piggybacking on the success of mobile gaming.

The problem developing games has been expense and access. Developing for the Wii, for instance, requires you to buy special magic development hardware, and use Nintendo's tools. This costs a significant amount of money. In addition, games have to be vetted through Nintendo Q+A - not just for whether the game is good or not - but whether is is appropriate for Nintendo's image of itself as family friendly. Nintendo has made it clear that it has no interest in courting the independent developer, which in my opinion has unnecessarily crippled it's handheld game system, the 3DS. The dearth of new titles can be traced to many things - but one of them is the cost of entry, and Nintendo's tight control over distribution.

Contrasting with Ouja - you buy one of their $99.00 boxes, you now have a development platform. You are free to use whatever development tools you want (such as Unity, a 3D game development system) to make your game. You can easily have your existing Android game running on this new console - particularly since the game controller has a touch pad build in for games that use one (think Angry Birds).

The company makes it money from a cut of sales - games are free to try, but through in-app purchases companies can make money - or through a subscription service (think WOW or other games) - and Ouya gets their 30% cut.

This seems to fly in the face of logic - why another console - but clearly there is a market here that hasn't been tapped. Console manufacturers (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) all have online stores, but they have nothing on the scale of Apple's App store.

And that is what is brilliant about the Ouya game system. This is the only way to get games for the system. There is no pain of retail shelf space, inventory etc. 

As I watched the numbers climb for Ouya on Kickstarter - the thought I had was what a missed opportunity this had/has been for Apple. They already have a $99.00 device that could have been what Ouya is going to be. They have an app store. They have a developer friendly distribution and development system.

I have been mystified why Apple hasn't made the leap into an App store for television. They have all the pieces - and clearly people are ready - cash in hand - but Apple has simply chosen not to do it.

I gave Ouya my $100 for a box. Given the openness of the platform, I figure that at least for my money I will get a fairly powerful media box that is hackable - so that in itself means there will be some use for it - think Netflix Hulu etc.

What will have to happen next is Ouya will have to - ironically perhaps - get the big name developers on board. Game systems live and die by their titles. John Madden Football will have to run on it. People will feel much more comfortable when they see new titles alongside their established favorites. This will keep them from repeating history - the 3DO being a casebook example of a system that was capable - but too expensive and not enough brand name titles. I think things are different now, and Ouya has a chance. We will see.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Breaking Bauhaus

I think it started with me about 5 years ago, when I read an article assigned to me in class on the importance of ornamentation. It used the term "making it special", and wound out a narrative of how ornamentation is important to religion and culture.

The next point of inflection came a few month ago. Like many, I read a number of blogs, and one of my guilty pleasures is the gadget heavy blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget. The writing is typically breathless and severely ADD. There is always the underlying tension of Apple's products and the benchmark they provide for good design.

At least one writer has decided as an arbiter of good taste to parrot what they perceive to be Bauhaus virtues, which boils down to the use of shiny white plastic and brushed metal (okay, I am simplifying). There is little discussion on all the ways Bauhaus had impact; the focus is primarily on products. This is to be expected, for it is easier to critique things that we use every day, without really digging deeper into why something works or it doesn't.

I am not here to criticize Bauhaus, despite my title - for anyone in design would be silly to not acknowledge it's importance to 20th and 21st Century design. But people in design know there are many schools of design, some influenced directly by the clean aesthetic, some not. All have their place.

Consider typography, and all the permutations of how it is used - more so than ever due to the facile nature of digital copy. Anyone with a copy of Photoshop can wield lettering, for better or worse (I consistently argue for the better).

Those that "know what they like", and celebrate Bauhaus, without ever going through the painful process of designing something that people will use, will assume that it is all about "stripping away what is not important". How obvious is that! Let's design an iPod this morning, and then take the rest of the day off!

The problem is that - again - using the example of typography - is that Bauhaus at it's worst becomes bland, blank and cold. It doesn't move you. Glass-sided buildings with no ornamentation - the materials are pretty much it, not much more. Contrast this with buildings that do make a statement, where ornamentation is part of the necessary aesthetic of "making them special".

I think it is time for those who celebrate consumer goods to get a better grasp of what good design really is. It is much more than materials and placement. It is more than "just leaving out what is not important". It is a much harder thing than this. It is making something that will be valued, something that makes an impression, something that can bring a smile to someone's face. Ornamentation is crucial here - these are design elements that are not there for simply pure functionality - they are there because it appeals to us in a way that is uniquely human. Bad Bauhaus denies our humanity.

This is why there are no truly Bauhaus automobiles. Automotive design hooks into both sides of our brain. I love automotive design for this very reason. It is not purely about functionality and efficient use of materials and structures, it is about how it makes us feel. Zagato's designs in the 60's were waaay out there at times, but their best work defined styling elements that others would pick up in their own cars. Virgil Exner's designs for Chrysler in the 50's where designed to be over the top; floating pieces of automotive sculpture that appropriated design elements from such sources as jet fighters. The cars at their best looked like they could actually fly.

And this is why it hurts my brain now to hear evocations of Bauhaus in everything consumer. Those who consider it the last word in design (real designers do not) are not paying attention. They are simply echoing stuff they read somewhere. Design is more than materials and efficiency - it is about form, time and motion. This is more than the curve in the back of an iPad. It is more than making something banal but clean - it is - about making it special.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hybrid Tablets.....back to the future

As Apple continues to surge, Microsoft is betting that hybrid tablet/computers will be the next big thing. Just like they were before the iPad came along, which pretty much killed hybrid laptops off. But this time it will be different, but really it won't.

There is pretty much a market for just about anything, but it still begs to question whether it is worth the effort. Samsung's Galaxy Note is an unwieldy combination of cell phone and tablet, with a stylus as one of it's selling points. I was amused at Samsung's extra long Super Bowl ad poking fun at the folks in line waiting to buy the latest unnamed competitor that Samsung wishes they were.

Why they never will be Apple, or anything close, is for another time. Now, I want to ponder why would ordinarily smart people recognize that something that didn't sell that great before will magically be so much better now. Hybrid tablet computers were heavy, clunky, and eventually would become just another laptop in the hands of the user. They were too heavy to cradle in an arm like the iPad.

Now, the solution is to have......a docking keyboard. It is a dead out of the gate idea. Developers have to make assumptions about basic functionality of products. This has allowed Apple to leverage both software and hardware experience to offer a coherent device platform for developers. I have talked to developers who relate what a pain in the neck it is to write for Android phones because you can't count on a physical keyboard, and even then - the keyboard interfaces are not standard.

This won't be the case for Microsoft's Windows 8 to be sure. But from a software designers standpoint, does it make sense to rely on physical keyboard and point device interfaces when it is just as likely not to be there? Can there even be a cohesive user experience centered around tablet computing, or will be be another no-even-half-baked "Windows Tablet" thingie?

Apple succeeds here because they see it all as one thing. Microsoft is cursed because they can't own the whole eco system - they are reliant on hardware manufacturers that have their own ideas as how stuff should work - just like the mess that is android user interfaces on cell phones (admittedly, it has improved a lot since a year ago).

I saw one design that Intel is showing that features a tablet with a dock. That is their idea for this new "hybrid tablet". It is so bad it makes me ill just thinking about it. It is simply more back to the future. It didn't work last time, won't work this time as well, for the same reasons. Witness how many people who buy keyboard cases for their iPad - some, but not all. That is a problem. It kind of illustrates my earlier point - sure - there is a market there - but is it enough to stake an entire platform initiative on? No.