Tech writers are disillusioned with the iPhone 5, and I'm getting disillusioned with tech writers.
I understand that if you’re writing about technology and/or gadgetry, a significant part of your job is taking a bunch of product announcements and reviews, and then fitting them into an easily-digestible, all-encompassing narrative. Usually, though, there’s at least an attempt to base that narrative off of reality, “ripped from today’s headlines” as it were. Lately, it seems like writers are content with a story that’s loosely based on actual events.
For the week or so building up to the iPhone 5 launch and the days after, the narrative has been simple: “The iPhone 5 is boring.” Writing for Wired, Mat Honan says, essentially, that it’s boring by design. And really, fair enough. Take Apple’s own marketing, remove the talking heads on white backgrounds, remove the hyperbole, and give it a critical spin, and you’ll end up with basically that: they’ve taken the same cell phone that people have already been going apeshit over for the past five years, and they’ve made it incrementally better.
Take that to its trollish extreme, and you have Dan Lyons (the creator of the “Fake Steve” blog). He wrote a “provocative” take on Apple’s past year including the iPhone 5 announcement for BBC News, in which Lyons (who wrote for Newsweek and also a satirical blog in which he pretended to be Steve Jobs) spends a couple of paragraphs reminding us why we should care about his opinion (it’s because he wrote a blog in which he was “Fake Steve”), and then mentions that he dropped the blog out of respect for Jobs’s failing health, and then invokes Jobs’s memory several times. In an “analysis” of Apple that’s as shallow and tired as you can possibly get without actually saying Micro$oft — he actually uses the word “fanboys.”
We can all acknowledge that to give him the attention he needs and then move on; there’s absolutely nothing there that wouldn’t get him laughed off of an internet message board. Lyons doesn’t even have the “I speak for Steve Jobs” thing going for him, since everybody has an opinion on how things would be different if Jobs were still in charge.
What’s more troubling to me is seeing writers who are usually worth reading instead take a similar approach: building a story that’s driven mostly by what other people are writing. Any idiot can regurgitate “news” items and rearrange them into a cursory non-analysis. (And that’s worth exactly as much as I got paid for writing them). (Which is zero in case you couldn’t tell already). Is it too much to ask for insight? Or at least, wait to see what the actual popular consensus is before making a declaration of what popular opinion should be?
If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It Anyway Because it Has Grown Tiresome to Me
On The Verge, Dieter Bohn found a perfect analogy for the iPhone in its own Weather app icon. He turned Honan’s piece from a blog post into the “prevailing opinion” about the announcement. But then he takes Honan’s reasonable but back-handed compliment and turns it into an accusation: the iPhone isn’t boring but timid. Sure, the hardware’s fine, but whatever: where Apple has failed is by showing no willingness to experiment with the core operating system or UI.
The mind-numbingly tedious drudgery of having to close multiple notifications under iOS (which, incidentally, I’ve never once noticed as a problem) proves that Apple’s entire philosophy is a lie. You’ve got a reputation for “sweating the details,” Apple? Really? Then how can you possibly explain this?! — as he thrusts a phone full of email notifications into the face of a sheepish Tim Cook, while Jobs’s ghost shakes his head sadly.
I honestly don’t want to be too harsh with any of the writers on The Verge, since I visit the site multiple times daily, and I really like their approach a lot. But I don’t think it’s particularly insightful to be aware that interface consistency isn’t just the dominant driving factor of UI design, but of Apple’s philosophy since the introduction of the Mac. We’ve been using “version 10″ of the Mac OS for 10 years now, and while the appearance and the underlying hardware have changed dramatically, the core functionality is largely the same. Intentionally. It’s only with the still-new Mountain Lion that Apple’s made changes to how things work on a fundamental level — and, in my opinion, it hasn’t been all that successful. (I don’t understand all the people whining about faux leather while saying relatively little about changing the entire structure of document management for the worse).
On top of that, though, there’s the fact that The Verge has spent at least a month covering the Apple v. Samsung trial, in which Apple was spending a ton of time, effort, and presumably money to defend the UI that Bohn claims needs a dramatic overhaul. Yes, Microsoft has done considerable work to dramatically rethink the smart phone UI. That’s how Apple wants it. They spent a month saying, “this is ours, we made it, we like it, stop copying it.” Could it use some refinement? Of course. It always can, and some of those good ideas will come from other attempts at inventing a new cell phone OS. Does it need a dramatic re-imagining? No, unless you’re irrationally obsessed with novelty for its own sake, as a side effect of being steeped in cell phone coverage 24/7 to the point of exhaustion.
The Audacity of Swatch
Speaking of that, there’s Nilay Patel’s write-up of the new iPod Nano. Again, I think Patel’s stuff is great in general. But here, he carries on the “boring but actually it’s timid” idea by linking to Bohn’s article, and then goes on to build a story about what it says about Apple in general. Essentially, they’ve become The Establishment, too afraid of change to take any risks. With a product that’s changed dramatically in design in just about every iteration since the original.
“But that’s the old market, and the old way.” Apple isn’t about profiting over the planned obsolescence and impulse purchase cycle — which is news to all of us who have now become conditioned to buy a new cell phone every 2 years and a new laptop every 3 or 4 — but to pioneer new markets. The last iteration of the nano heralded a future of wearable computing. The last nano could’ve been the harbinger of a bold new market for a more forward-thinking Apple: wristwatches.
Let’s ignore the fact that Patel himself acknowledges that the nano wasn’t a very good watch in the first place. What about the fact that smart phones pretty much killed the entire wristwatch business? I’m about as far from being fashionably hip as you can get, but I still get considerable exposure to what’s actually popular just by virtue of living in San Francisco. And I don’t know anyone who still wears a watch. It’s been at least five years since anyone’s been able to ask for the time and not have to wait for everyone to pull their phones out of their pockets or handbags. Why would Apple go all-in on a market that they themselves helped destroy?
(Incidentally, Patel quotes watch band designer Scott Wilson as saying “The nano in that form factor gave me a reason to have three iOS devices on my body.” I can think of the iPhone and the iPod Nano-with-watchband; neither Wilson or Patel make it explicit what the third device is. And now I’m afraid to ask, because I’m not sure I want to know what this third device is exactly, or where a person would enjoy sticking it).
Saying that the MP3 market is dead fails to acknowledge what killed it: that functionality, along with that of the point-and-shoot camera, has moved away from a dedicated device and towards the smartphone. Smartphones are expensive, even with a contract, and the more info we put onto them, the more they become irreplaceable. There’s still a market for a smaller, simpler, and relatively inexpensive MP3 player. There’s a clue to that market on Apple’s own marketing page, and the most prominent icon on its home screen: “Fitness.” Joggers and people who work out — at least from what I’ve heard, since I have even less familiarity with the world of exercise than I do with people who still wear wristwatches — want a music player they can take for a run or take to the gym without worrying too much if it gets lost or broken. They’ll get more use out of that than from a too-large wristwatch that has to be constantly woken from sleep and needs a headphone wire running to your wrist if you want to listen to music.
That’s where the new market is, ripe for Apple to come in and dominate: stuff like the fitbit. I don’t have the actual numbers, of course, and I don’t even have any way of getting them, but I can all but guarantee that Apple sold more of the iPod nano armbands than it ever did with watchbands. And I imagine it’s the same philosophy that made them put a place for carrying straps on the new iPod touch: it’s not even that Apple doesn’t want to take risks with its flagship product, it’s that customers don’t want to take risks with the one device that handles all their communication with the world. For them, the iPod is an accessory.
Speaking of Consistency
But if you’re going to be making up stories, you should at least try to be consistent with them. On Slate, Farhad Manjoo has some serious issues with the new dock connector. He repeats the idea that the new iPhone is boring, but he uses the magic of sarcasm to make his point extra super clear. The problem is that so many details about the new phone leaked out weeks before release. By the time of the actual announcement, the world had already seen everything and stopped caring.
Got that? Apple’s problem is that it’s got to keep a tighter lid on its plans. Classic Apple, going blabbing about everything all over the press, flooding the market with product announcements. It’s boring everyone!
He’s bored by all the leaked information and the lack of any big bombshells in Apple’s announcement. Except for the big bombshell of the new dock connector. It’s pretty boring but also very impressive. It doesn’t take any risks but completely and unnecessarily changes the dock connector, destroying an entire industry of accessories. Apple has a long history of invalidating what it deems outdated technology, but this is different. Manjoo has to get a new alarm clock.
Also, the new phone is remarkably thin and light, “the thinnest and lightest iPhone ever made, and the difference is palpable.” But how could Apple possibly justify changing everything just for the sake of this new, thinner dock connector?
Back on The Verge, Vlad Savov describes all the leaks that bored Manjoo, and he mentions how embarrassing they must be for Tim Cook. He says that the problem is all the points of potential leaks in the supply chain, which have “drilled holes in Apple’s mystique.” In the same article, Savov links to Verge’s own post about every detail that was leaked ahead of time.
Isn’t it a little disingenuous to be on a site that publishes front-page posts of pictures of new iPhone cases, a detailed report of the new dock connector, and a compilation of all the rumors and leaks to date, and then comment on the unprecedented demand for leaked information? It seems a little like prom committee chairman Edward Scissorhands lecturing everyone on their failure at putting up all the balloons.
And of course, on the first night of pre-orders for the boring new iPhone that nobody’s interested in, Apple’s online store was overloaded, and the phone sold out of its initial order within within two hours.
On the topic of pots, kettles, and their relative blackness: I wasn’t that interested in the new iPhone, and I still chomped on the pre-order like a starving bass. I was much, much, much more excited about finally ditching AT&T than I was about the device itself. (So eager to get rid of AT&T that I’m willing to run into the arms of a company that’s no doubt almost as bad). Now that Apple’s not talking about magic, I can take their advertising at face value: I’m pretty confident that it is the best iPhone they’ve ever made. I’ve got an iPhone, and I like it, so I’ll get a better one.
What does that say about the state of gadget obsession that “I’m going to buy a new expensive device every two years even though I don’t technically need it” comes across as the most pragmatic view?
I can still remember when I first saw Engadget, and I thought the concept was absurd. A whole ongoing blog devoted solely to gadgets and tech? Is that really necessary? Then, of course, I got hooked on it, and started following it and now The Verge and quite a few Apple-centric sites. If I’ve reached a point of gadget saturation just reading the stuff, what does it do the folks having to write about it? It seems like it’s creating a self-perpetuating cycle of novelty for its own sake, which then drives commentary about this bizarre fixation on novelty for its own sake. You can’t even say “maybe just step away from it all for a bit;” it has to be a stunt, completely giving up the internet for an entire year while still writing for a technology-oriented site.
Whatever the case, it’d probably a good idea to step back a bit. I’ll start doing that just as soon as I get my sweet new extra-long phone next week.