Is the Mailman Watching Me?

My friend Michael sent me a link to “You don’t want your privacy: Disney and the meat space data race,” an article by John Foreman on GigaOm, and made the mistake of asking my opinion on it. I think it’s a somewhat shallow essay, frankly, but it raises some interesting topics, so in the interest of spreading my private data everywhere on the internet, I’m copy-and-pasting my response from Facebook. Overall, it seems like one of those shallow mass-market-newspaper-talks-about-technology pieces, the kind that breathlessly describes video games as “virtual worlds” in which your “avatar” has the freedom to do “anything he or she chooses.”

For starters, I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who says something like “Never will we take our children to Disney World.” (Assuming they can afford it, of course; considering that the author had just talked about vacationing in Europe and enjoying the stunningly blue waters off crumbling-economy Greece, that’s a safe assumption). Granted, I’m both childless and Disney theme park-obsessed, so my opinion will be instantly and summarily dismissed. But all the paranoia about Disney in general and princesses in particular strikes me less as conscientious parenting and more as fear-based pop-cultural Skinner-boxing. It seems a lot healthier to encourage kids to be smarter than marketing, than to assume that they’re inescapably helpless victims of it. Peaceful co-existence with the multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerate.

Which is both none of my business and a digression, except for one thing: I really do think that that mindset is what causes a lot of shallow takes on the Disney phenomenon, which are based in the assumption that people can’t see past the artificiality and enforced whimsy, so an edgier, “counter-culture” take on Disney is showing them something they haven’t seen before. It also causes the kind of paranoia about Disney that describes it as if it were an oppressive government, and not a corporation whose survival depends on mutually beneficial business transactions.

There’s no doubt that Disney wants to get more data on park guests, but that essay’s extrapolations of what they’ll actually DO with that data are implausibly silly. They’re all based on the idea that Disney would spend a ton of money to more efficiently collect a ton of data aggregated for weeks across tens of thousands of customers, and then devote all that money and effort to develop creepily specific experiences for individuals.

It’s telling that Foreman compares Disney’s magic bands to the NSA, since I think the complaints miss the point in the same way. People freak out that the government has all kinds of data on them, when the reality is that the government has all kinds of data on millions of people. The value of your anonymity isn’t that your information is private; it’s that your information is boring. All your private stuff is out there, but it’s still a burden to collate all of it into something meaningful to anyone.

This absolutely is not an attempt to excuse the NSA, by any stretch. The NSA’s breaches are a gross violation, but the violation isn’t that they’re collecting the data, so much as that they’re collecting the data against our will and without our knowledge.

Anything Disney does with the Magic Band data, at least in the next ten years or so, is going to be 1) trend-based instead of individual based, and 2) opt-in. For instance, they’ve already announced that characters can know your name and about special events like birthdays, but they’re only going to use something like that at a character meet-and-greet. For example, you’ve specifically gone to see Mickey Mouse, and he’ll be able to greet you by name and wish you a Happy Anniversary or whatever. Characters seeking you out specifically is just impractical; the park has already had enough trouble figuring out how to manage the fact that tens of thousands of people all want to get some individual time with the characters. The same goes for the bit about “modifying” a billion-dollar roller coaster based on the data they get from magic bands; it’s just as silly as assuming that you could remove floors from a skyscraper that weren’t getting frequented enough by the elevators.

It’s absolutely going to be marketing driven; anybody who says otherwise doesn’t get how Disney works. But I think it’s going to be more benign. Walt Disney World as a whole just doesn’t care about a single guest or a single family when they’ve got millions of people to worry about every day. So they can make more detailed correlations like “people who stay at the All Star resorts don’t spend time at the water parks” and adjust their advertising campaigns accordingly, or “adults 25-40 with no children spend x amount of time in Epcot.” But the most custom-tailored experience — at least, without your opting in by spending extra — is going to be something like, at most, coming back to your hotel room to find a birthday card waiting for you.

The creepier and more intrusive ideas aren’t going to happen. Not because the company’s averse to profiting from them, but because they’re too impractical to make a profit.

Sometimes When We Stylus

Back in March of 2009, Kindles still had keyboards, and we were still a year away from enjoying all the feminine hygiene jokes that came with the release of the iPad. I took advantage of the release of the Kindle 2 to describe what would be my ideal tablet computer.

Reading that blog post now, what stands out the most is what a fundamental shift in thinking the iPad was. Looking back, it’d be easy to say that the iPad was inevitable — of course they’d just make a bigger iPhone! But that’s definitely not where the speculation was before the iPad’s announcement. People were still thinking that there’s a clear distinction between computer and media device. It’s why there’ve been so many “hybrid” laptops with removable screens that become “tablets,” that invariably have tech journalists swooning and declaring them the perfect solution right up until the point that the thing is released and fails to make a dent. It’s why people still insist on making a distinction between devices for “consumption” vs. ones for “creation.” If you’d asked most people in 2009 to describe what the iPad was going to be like, they’d have described something basically like the Microsoft Surface Pro.

That includes me; what I had in mind was essentially a thinner, lighter Tablet PC (in other words, the Surface Pro). The iPad undercut that, not just in size and in price, but in function. It made good on the promise of a “personal computer:” portable enough for media consumption, but multi-purpose enough not to be dismissed as just an evolution of the e-book reader or PDA. It’s clear now that that was absolutely transformative, and anyone who suggests otherwise is not to be trusted with your technology prognostication.

I’m not claiming to be prescient; at the end of that blog post, I gave a spec list for my perfect tablet computer, and it’s not an iPad. However, it is eerily close to a tablet computer that exists today, with one major difference: it wasn’t made by Apple, and it doesn’t run OS X. It’s the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0.

Why Would You Even…?!

I’ve already been completely converted to the form factor of the iPad mini, and this one reportedly had all of that plus removable storage and a Wacom digitizer. The existence of refurbished models, some left-over gift certificates, and “reward” points, meant that I could get one for about $250. (They retail for about $400, and not to spoil the review, but I really can’t recommend it at that price). If you don’t think I chomped on that like the star attraction at Gatorland, then you just don’t know me at all.

Most of the reviews for the Note 8 that I’d read acknowledged that it’s a fairly good — but soon to be outdated — tablet whose main draw was stylus input, and that unless you need the stylus, either the iPad mini or the Nexus 7 is a better value. They still treated the digitizer as an extra feature though, as opposed to the whole reason for the tablet’s existence. (Which is fair, since Samsung’s treating it basically the same way by selling a Galaxy and Galaxy Note line in parallel). I hadn’t seen any that reviewed it mainly for the strength of its digitizer and its appeal to digital artists; the closest I could find was Ray Frenden’s review of the Galaxy Note II smartphone.

Over the years, I’ve tried out various graphics tablets, tablet PCs, styluses, and art software with the hope that I’d find the magic bullet that suddenly turned me into a better artist. I’ve finally given up on that idea and resigned myself to the fact that only practice is going to turn me into a better artist. By that measure, anything that reduces “friction” and encourages me to practice more often is a worthwhile investment. I’ve got several Moleskines that were going to do exactly the same thing, but instead just frustrated me with their analogness. Without an “erase everything” button, they’re like tiny Islands of Dr. Moreau, the misshapen forms of my previous failures staring back at me and discouraging me before I’ve even begun a new drawing.

A tablet that I use as often as the iPad mini, on the other hand, but that has a pressure-sensitive stylus and palm rejection and layers and simulates different media and colors and download reference material directly into my art program? And for less than 300 bucks? How could that not be ideal?

As a Digital Notebook

The sketch above is the most effort I was willing to put into a drawing for this blog post. Obviously better artists could show more of the capabilities of the device; even I have generated better drawings on the Note 8 when I’ve put more time into it.

But sample images for these things are always deceptive. I know I’ve gotten in the habit of looking at Frenden’s reviews and thinking, if I buy this thing, I’ll be able to draw like that!, which is of course a lie. And you can find amazing pieces of work done on just about any device, from a cell phone to a Cintiq, by artists who already know what they’re doing. What I wanted to see was what kind of results you’d get if an average person interested in being a better artist sat down and tried to use it.

That drawing was done in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for Android, and it’s intended to show off the basic advantages of using a digital notebook. Reference art from the web, multiple layers for sketching & inking, brushes with variable line weight, and a tool that makes it easy to add simple color.

Pressure Sensitivity: You can tell that it’s a pressure-sensitive pen, but you’re not going to see dramatic differences in line weight unless you’re willing to do a lot of fiddling with brush settings. There is a way to increase the sensitivity of the S-Pen, apparently (instructions are in that Frenden review of the Note 2), but I had no luck getting it to work.

Palm Rejection: Even though there are now pressure-sensitive styluses for the iPad, one of the biggest annoyances remaining was that none of the software (at least that I’m aware of) supported any sort of palm rejection. As a result, you had to hold the stylus out as if you were using charcoal or pastels, which to me kind of defeats the purpose of having a stylus. On the Galaxy Note 8, of all the apps I’ve tried — Sketchbook Pro, Sketchbook Ink, Photoshop Touch, ArtFlow, and Infinite Painter — it only worked reliably in Sketchbook Pro. The others would either leave a smudge at the bottom of the screen, resize the view, or interrupt the current drawing stroke. Even in Sketchbook Pro in “Pen Only” mode, it seemed eager to interpret my palm as an attempt to resize the canvas. I get the impression that both pressure sensitivity and palm rejection have to be implemented by each app for itself, although it seems like it’d make far more sense to have it implemented at the OS level.

Accuracy: The other big problem with drawing on the iPad is that you need a blunt tip to register on a capacitive display. The S-Pen is much, much better at this, as you’d expect. The other thing that helps is that the tablet detects proximity of the pen to the surface, not just an actual touch, so you get a cursor showing where you’re about to draw. (It also means you get tooltips throughout the entire system when using the pen. Which is nice, I suppose, but I’d prefer just to have simple clarity of the UI, and I’d been hoping that touch screens meant tooltips were dying off for good).

Drawing on Glass: Earlier I said I wanted something that would reduce the “friction” of drawing so I’d practice more often; drawing on the Note 8 takes that a little bit too literally. I’ve gotten used to drawing on graphics tablets, and with rubber-tipped styluses on the iPad. That’s entirely different from drawing with a plastic nib on a glass screen, enough to make me wish they’d sacrificed the display brightness a bit in favor of a more matte surface on the screen. That would never have happened, since Samsung’s trying to position the tablet as a superset competitor to the iPad mini and is going to make a big deal out of the slightly better pixel density. But I think it would’ve been a good way to further differentiate this as a stylus based tablet, instead of a table that happens to also have a stylus.

Responsiveness: It varied from app to app, with Sketchbook Ink being the worst. When I turned off the “Smooth Brush” option in Sketchbook Pro, the lag was all but imperceptible to me, unless I was drawing with a particularly large or complex brush.

Bezel: Unlike the iPad mini, the Note 8 has a bezel that’s as wide on the sides as it is on the top and bottom. While I think it does actually contribute a bit to the overall “cheap and plastic” look of the device, it’s absolutely essential for a tablet with a stylus. If you were to simply slap a Wacom digitizer onto an iPad mini, there’d be no good place to hold it.

Software: If it’s not obvious by now, Sketchbook Pro is the clear winner of all the apps I’ve tried. That’s no big surprise, since it’s been around for years and was designed specifically for tablet computers. I’ve bought a version of it for every operating system and every computer I own, and they’re all excellent; it’s nice to finally be able to use it as it was designed to be used. I do wish that it were possible to import brushes on the tablet version as you can on the desktop versions; if there is a way to do that, I have yet to find it.

Overall, I’d say that even though our skill levels are vastly different, my take on the Note 8 isn’t all that different from Frenden’s take on the Note II. (Much of that’s intentional on Samsung’s part, as they want consistency between the phone, 8-inch, and 10-inch tablet devices in their line). Don’t expect to use it for finished art, and don’t expect it to function like a $300 Cintiq tablet. But as a sketch book with a complete set of art tools that you always have with you, it’s fine. Whether you have the Note II or the Note 8 — every review I’ve read of the Note 10 says that it’s underpowered, so I’d avoid it — just depends on which one you’re more likely to have with you everywhere you go.

For my part, I can definitely see myself practicing more often on this thing.

As a Tablet Computer

Practicing art was only part of the thing; even I can’t justify spending a couple hundred bucks to replace a $10 Moleskine. The idea was that I’d have something that would do everything the iPad mini can, and function as a digital notebook. In that regard, I’d say that it’s not quite there, but it’s pretty close.

When I had my semi-religious experience in an Apple Store, I said that the iPad mini seems absolutely silly until you actually hold one. I still think that’s the case, and I think that the build quality of the Note 8 really drives that home. It’s got a white plastic back and a silver border that makes it seem 1) like a prop from 2001 or Space: 1999, 2) thicker than it actually is, and 3) kind of cheap. The iPad mini feels like a solid block of metal and glass; the Galaxy Note 8 just feels like a plastic consumer product.

According to the specs, the Note 8 has a slightly higher pixel density than the mini. It shouldn’t be enough to be perceptible, but whether it’s more clarity, better use of fonts, brighter colors, or just placebo effect, the picture does look better than the mini’s. Especially with text and line drawings (by which I mean comics, of course). The colors also seem brighter than on the mini.

Battery life is middling. I haven’t stress tested it (and I’m unlikely to), but it has been completely drained of power just sitting idle for three days, which has never been the case with any iPad I’ve used. I suspect that if I took it on the road, I’d be having to charge it every night.

It does support micro SD cards up to 64 GB for external storage — one of the items on my “ideal tablet computer” list from 2009 — but for documents only, not apps. (Since it’s Android, there are instructions online on how to root the tablet so you can use the SD card for apps, but I’ve always considered rooting or jailbreaking these things to be more trouble than it’s worth). Since the tablet is limited to 16 GB of internal storage, and you’re left with around 9.7 GB after all the pre-installed software, the extra space is definitely nice to have. It could store my entire library of Kindle books and comic books, and have enough space to actually store a significant chunk of my music library, which is something I’ve never been able to do with the iPad. Consistent with the build quality of the rest of the tablet, the door for the SD card is one of those tiny plastic covers that always seems in danger of breaking off.

The stylus is definitely closer to a Palm Pilot stylus than a Wacom pen, but it’s perfectly adequate for drawing. It’s more white plastic, it fits snugly in the underside of the tablet, and pulling it out automatically brings up a page of Samsung’s pen-enabled “S Note” app. Unlike the bloatware I would’ve expected, that’s actually a pretty solid app. It’s got a set of templates of questionable usefulness, but the technology underneath is solid. Handwriting recognition is flawless enough to be eerie, and it’s got additional modes that recognize mathematical formulae and shapes for diagrams. The latter one was the biggest surprise for me, since I’ve been surprised that I haven’t see any tablet computers pull off the potential of OmniGraffle very well, when it seems like it’d be a natural. (It’s possible that OmniGraffle for iPad is an excellent program, but at $50 I’m never going to find out).

Handwriting recognition is available throughout the system as a “keyboard” mode; the others are a traditional keyboard and voice input. (Somewhat surprisingly, handwriting is faster and more accurate for me than voice input. Could Star Trek have gotten the future wrong?)

Samsung has re-skinned the entire OS and included its own apps, but I didn’t think either one was particularly obtrusive. All the apps other than S Note were quickly relegated to a different page. Having a “Samsung Cares Video” icon that can never be deleted from the system is kind of an annoyance, but at least I never have to look at it. And I tried using a different launcher for a bit, but soon went back to the default one.

Considering how often I read comments online from people demanding that this app or that service be released on Android, I’d expected the Google Play store to be filled with nothing but fart apps and tumbleweeds. But I’d quickly found and downloaded every one of the apps I use most often on iOS. I’d be more disappointed if I’d any intention of giving up iOS completely, but there’s a respectable amount of software out there.

It’s also got two cameras, and they’re both terrible. Which is as it should be, because if tablets had good cameras, you’d have even more people taking pictures with them in public.

Android vs. iOS

Believe it or not, I did go into Android with a completely open mind. As long as it’s functionally equivalent to iOS, then there’s no point in getting butthurt over all the differences.

And at least with the version of Android that’s installed on this thing — I don’t know, it’s Peanut Buster Parfait or some shit — it is pretty much functionally equivalent. On a task-by-task basis, there’s little that’s inherently better about one way of doing things than the other. Widgets and Google Now seem better in theory in practice, and the only thing that’s outright worse about Android is the lack of a gesture to immediately scroll to the top of a screen.

What’s surprised me is just how much the cliches about each OS are true. Overall, Android seems like an OS that was made by programmers, while iOS seems like an OS that was made by designers. iOS tends to have a consistent aesthetic, while Android has that weird combination of sparseness and excess that you see on Linux desktops: there’s only an icon for a Terminal window and an open source MS Office clone, but they glow and rotate in 3D space with The Matrix constantly scrolling on top of an anime girl in the background.

I’ve certainly got my own preferences. The lack of options and settings common to iOS apps is often, bafflingly, described as a failing, but what it is is an acknowledgement that having a consistent experience that just works is preferable to having to fiddle with a billion different settings. I often have to read people complaining about Apple’s “walled garden” and its arrogant insistence on one way of doing things as opposed to giving the user choice; what I see in Android is a ton of meaningless, inconsequential choices that I’m simply not interested in making.

One of the “features” of the Note 8 that I didn’t mention above is that it supports multiple windows. You can open a little task bar and drag a separate app onto the screen to have two apps running at the same time. A lot of reviews that I’ve seen for the tablet list this as a major advantage of the system. I say that it’s a clear sign the developers have learned nothing from the failure of the Tablet PC. They’re still trying to cram a desktop OS onto a tablet with a touchscreen, when even Microsoft has learned to stop emphasizing windows in Windows. The iOS limitation of having only one app running concurrently isn’t just some technical limitation; it’s one of those constraints that makes the design of the entire system stronger. It means the designer can’t just lazily port a desktop interface to a tablet, but has to put real thought into how to optimize the app for the new device and how it will be used.

(There are definitely, absolutely, major inconveniences to having only one app running at a time on iOS, as anyone who uses 1Password will tell you. But I’m convinced that the best way to solve it won’t look anything like what works on a desktop OS).

I think the best example of the whole divide between Android and iOS is in the file system. iOS is notoriously closed; each app has its own sandbox of files that only it can touch, and transferring documents between apps is cumbersome. Android is notoriously free and open; you have access to the entire file system of the device, with a file-and-folder-based GUI that should be familiar to you because it’s the exact same one you’ve been using for 30 years.

Some people will say this is a perfect example of each person being able to choose the operating system philosophy that works best for him. I say it’s an example of how stubbornly sticking to one way of doing things results in something that’s best for nobody. I’m perpetually frustrated by the file handling in iOS, where I just want to use this app to open that document but can’t find any flow of import or export that’ll make it work. But I’ve been just as frustrated with Android, where I keep creating files and then am completely unable to find them in any of the dozens of folders and subfolders on the system. (Sketchbook, for instance, doesn’t save pictures you’ve exported in Pictures. Nor in Documents. It saves them in Autodesk/SketchbookPro/Export).

I’m hoping that Android will eventually get over its problems with market fragmentation, let go of the desktop, and finally embrace a post-PC world. And I’m hoping that iOS will eventually let go of Steve Jobs’s pathological fear of multiple buttons and develop a scheme for cross-app communication that doesn’t depend on clipboards or exposing the file system. Concentrating on how to use touch as a completely new way of interacting with a computer could lead to a dramatically improved method of working with computers; we’ve already seen that kind cross-pollination happening between iOS and OS X. I don’t see that kind of innovation coming from Android, though, since it seems to be still doing little more than iterating on stuff that’s as old as X Window.

And one of the cliches that’s hilariously not true is the one about Android being all about functionality and practicality with Apple being all about flash and gimmickry. Because I’m now the owner of a tablet that has no less than eight different ways to unlock it (most using a rippling water effect), and which keeps warning me that it can’t see my eyes, because it has a “feature” (optional, of course!) that won’t let it go to sleep if it detects my face looking at it. Unlike the iPad, which, you know, turns off when I close the case.

And Finally, the Verdict

I’m way too invested in iOS at this point to ever switch over completely, so that was never an issue. And I think I’ve gotten most of the making-fun-of-Android out of my system, so I’m not going to be starting any campaigns against it. (I’d even like to try writing an app for it, at some point).

The questions for me were whether the Galaxy Note 8 could replace my iPad mini as the “everyday workhorse” tablet, and whether it’d help me practice drawing more often by having a ubiquitous digital notebook. The answers, so far: almost definitely not, and maybe.

If I were actually writing for one of the tech blogs, I’d be laughed out of my job if I based my entire verdict on “how the computer feels.” But for me, that’s what it comes down to with the iPad mini. It’s like Kirk Cameron’s banana: it just fits the hand perfectly (and doesn’t squirt in your face, either). It just feels more fun to use, for some indefinable value of “fun.” When Apple inevitably releases one with a higher resolution display, it’s going to be all but impossible for me to avoid getting one. I bought the first one thinking it was a ridiculously excessive extravagance, and it almost immediately became indispensable; I use it every day.

Still, I’m happy to have the Galaxy Note 8, although I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it. It’s a solid (if not exceptional) drawing tablet that didn’t require me to shell out for a Cintiq or even a Surface Pro. If it helps me get to the level where I could actually make art for a game, then it was a good investment.

As for normal people, without my weird affliction when it comes to gadgets?

  • If you don’t care that much about drawing and just want the best tablet: get an iPad mini.
  • If you want a good tablet for an unbeatable price: get the Nexus 7.
  • If you’ve got the money, and you’re looking for a laptop replacement or the best drawing experience you can currently get on a tablet: get the Surface Pro. (I haven’t used it myself, but I’ve never seen a review of one that could find fault with the digitizer on it).
  • If you want a mid-sized tablet and think you’ll ever want to use a stylus with it: get the Galaxy Note 8. Preferably on sale.

Protestant Gadget Ethic

After my previous unfortunate episode in an Apple store, it should come as little surprise that I didn't last very long before I broke down and bought an iPad mini. No, it doesn't make sense for me to be throwing my credit card around as if I were the CEO of Papa John's or something. I've already got a perfectly fancy tablet computer that's not just functional, but really quite terrific. It's not like I'm getting paid to write reviews of these things, and even my typical “I need it for application development testing” is sounding increasingly hollow.

What helps is a new metric I've devised, which measures how long it takes me after a purchase before the appeal of the thing overwhelms my feeling of conspicuous consumption guilt over buying it. It's measured in a new unit: the Hal (named after Green Lantern Hal Jordan, the Jordan who does have willpower).

By that standard, the iPad mini clocks in with a new record of 0.03 Hals, or about 30 minutes after I opened the box. Because this thing is sweet, and I pretty much never want to stop holding it. I'm writing this post on it, as a matter of fact, even though a much more functional laptop with keyboard is sitting about three feet away from me at this very moment. But to use it would mean putting the iPad down.

The “finish” of the iPad mini, with its beveled edge and rounded matte aluminum back, is more like the iPhone 5 than the existing iPads. It makes such a difference in the feel of the thing that I can talk about beveled edges and matte aluminum backs without feeling self conscious, as if I were a tech blogger desperately seeking a new way to describe another piece of consumer electronics.

It’s about as thin as the iPhone 5, and almost as light. With the new Apple cover wrapped around the back, it's perfect for holding in one hand. There have been several times that I've made fun of Apple, or Apple fanatics, for making a big deal about a few millimeters difference in thickness, or a few ounces in weight. And I joked about the appeal of the iPad mini, as if the existing iPad was unreasonably bulky and heavy.

But then something awful happened: I had to fly cross country four times within two weeks. And reading a book on the iPad required me to prop the thing up on the tray table and catch it as the person in front of me kept readjusting his seat. All my mocking comments were flying back in my face (along with the iPad, my drink, and the in-flight magazine), in the form of the firstest of first-world problems.

“Version 1 of the iPad mini is for chumps,” I said. “Check back with me once you've put in a higher resolution display, Apple.” In practice, though, the display is perfectly sharp. “Retina” isn't the make-or-break feature I thought it would be. You can certainly tell the difference when comparing the two; I'd assumed that squabbling over pixel density was something best left to the comments sections of tech blogs, but the difference in sharpness is definitely visible. It's really only an issue for very small text, though. Books, Flipboard, and web pages are all clear and legible.

And speaking of Flipboard, it and Tweetbot are the two apps that get me giddy enough to own up to making another unnecessary tech purchase. Browsing through articles and status updates on a tablet that thin is probably the closest I'll ever come to being on board the Enterprise.

The phrase I've seen reoccurring the most in reviews of the iPad mini is some variation on “this is the size the iPad is supposed to be.” And really, there's something to that. I'm not going to give up my other one; the larger size really is better for some stuff, like drawing, Garage Band, and reading comics or magazines. But overall, I haven't been this impressed with the “feel” of a piece of consumer electronics since I saw the original iPhone. Realizing that this is just version 1.0 is actually a little creepy — apart from the higher resolution display, I honestly can't conceive of how they'll improve on the design of the iPad mini.


It started out innocently enough; I thought it’d be good to get out of the apartment for once and take an aimless drive in Marin County. And hey, there’s an Apple Store in Corte Madera, so what could it hurt to stop by and take a quick look around?

It ended with a descent into craven tablet-computing madness. In a shockingly short time, I’ve gone from thinking that tablet computers were a vulgar, unnecessary display of conspicuous consumption; to thinking that tablet computers were a vulgar, unnecessary display of conspicuous consumption and I want all of them.

I’ve already conceded that the iPad for me was a case of blowing a wad of cash on a gadget, in the hope that it would create a use for itself at some point down the road. And it did; even if I weren’t still calling myself an iOS developer, I’d still have gotten enough use out of the iPad to justify the expense. But what happened today is much worse.

iPhone Gigante Más Pequeño

I should explain something first: my reaction to the Apple “event” where they announced the iPad mini. Now, I’m about as shameless a whore for Apple products as anybody you’ll find outside of Daring Fireball, but I still saw nothing in that batch of announcements that interested me in the slightest. New MacBook Pro with “retina” display? Please; they hit exactly the sweet spot of size vs. power with the Air. New iPad with a thinner “lightning” connector and faster processor? I don’t think even Apple seriously expected anyone to consider an “upgrade” after just a few months.

And the iPad mini was just baffling. Who could it possibly appeal to? It’s smaller than the iPad, but not enough to be a recognizably different product, and not quite small enough to be really called “handheld.” It’s not as if the iPad is uncomfortably big and bulky anyway; in fact, it’s the perfect size for comics and magazines, and is actually a little bit too small for playing board games. And the price of the iPad mini is way out of “impulse purchase” range like the Kindle or Nexus 7, and too expensive for an e-reader. It’s been getting stellar reviews pretty much across the board, but those are just tech reviewers buried under such a mountain of gadgetry that anything with Apple’s fit and finish is going to make a great first impression. It couldn’t possibly pass the real-world, practical test. It seemed like Apple had once again done the impossible: creating an Apple product that I had absolutely no desire to buy.

Then I went into the Apple store and tried out the iPad mini, just for yuks. I don’t know what kind of gas they were pumping into the store, but whatever it is has the same effect on my brain chemistry as a nightclub singer has on a Tex Avery wolf. This is the perfect size. How was I ever able to imagine reading in bed with such a freakishly enormous iPad? I would totally read more with a tablet this size. And the display is so sharp and the text so clear that it doesn’t even need a higher-resolution display. We have always been at war with the 10-inch diagonal. Go away, old woman, I don’t care that you’ve been waiting in line; I just want to keep holding this and never stop.

I’m not a complete idiot; I left the store without buying anything. And even though I see an Apple Store the same way Angelina Jolie sees African orphanages, I don’t plan on buying another iOS device anytime soon. When they release version 2 of the mini, though, it’s going to be a tough time for me. I’ll admit to spending a few minutes in the car trying to envision scenarios where my bulky, cumbersome iPad 3 met with an unforeseen “accident.”

A Small-Ass Table

In what I’m sure was a completely coincidental bit of retail zoning, a new Microsoft Store happens to have opened up just a few doors down from the Apple Store in Corte Madera. I checked in to take a look at the new Surface tablet, and came out almost as surprised as I was by the iPad mini.

Another thing I should clear up: even though I’ve gone all-in on Apple, I’m actually kind of excited by Windows 8. The last time I considered Windows to be anything more than a necessary evil was back in 1995. (Yeah, I genuinely got excited over Windows 95. Come on, you could put spaces in filenames. Just try and tell me that wasn’t cool). But Windows 8 seems to be a case of Microsoft getting it right to such a degree that I’m surprised it’s from Microsoft.

I installed the upgrade on my Windows machine, and I’ve spent the time since trying to come up with excuses to use it more often. (Until now, it’s just been The Machine That Runs Steam). As a desktop OS, it’s reassuringly Vista-like in its clunkiness: stuff takes more clicks than it should, basic system settings are confusingly split into several different places, it’s hard to tell what’s clickable vs what’s decorative, and the UI on the whole requires a tutorial or cheat sheet to be usable at all since there’s absolutely no discoverability. Basically, there’s enough wrong with it to remind me that I haven’t fallen into some alternate dimension where Microsoft is no longer Microsoft.

But as a consistent, cross-device UI, it’s outstanding. Text is big, legible, and just plain looks cool. All the hassle of writing WPF applications that required mark-up and screen resolution-independence finally seems to have paid off. The “Live Tiles” are such an ingenious way of combining widgets, icons, and full-blown apps that it seems obvious in retrospect, and it makes it look like other OS developers have been dragging their feet for not coming up with it sooner. It’s functional and actually is genuinely fun to use, from desktop to touch screen to tablet to phone to video game console.

And it’s instantly recognizable — even if, without “Metro,” there’s no good name for it — and unique, which is something that Android still hasn’t been able to accomplish. I was in a Best Buy the other day, and I legitimately couldn’t tell the difference between a bunch of Android phones and the iPhone 5 at the end. And speaking of phones: I like the iPhone 5, but I got one more as an obligation than anything else; it was as much to get rid of AT&T as it was to to get any of the new stuff in iOS. But I’ve looked at the new HTC Windows Phone and for the first time have legitimately considered jumping ship.

So I think that Microsoft has been doing a remarkably good job with the new Windows push, overall. And the Surface fits in with that. The commercial still offends me deeply on a philosophical level, considering what a fan I am of basic human dignity. But still, it does what it’s supposed to do. Above everything else, it sets it apart from the iPad and Android tablets. It shows you how you’re supposed to use it — not tossing it to your pals or dancing with it in a fountain, but then again, why not? — propped up and attached to the keyboard cover, like a super-portable laptop. It’s still Windows, and the implication is that you can do the stuff you use Windows for, instead of just putting your feet up on a table and reading the New York Times.

Finally seeing it in person, I was surprised by how well it works. It’s much lighter and less bulky than it looks in pictures. The display is bright and clear. The OS functions pretty much the same with a touch screen as it does with a mouse and keyboard. Having already learned the gestures on the desktop, I didn’t have any problem figuring out how to use the tablet, and there was absolutely no sense of translation between desktop/laptop OS and tablet OS as there is between OS X and iOS.

I had very little success getting efficient with the touch cover keyboard, but I think the touch cover is as much branding as it is technology. It’s undeniably neat that it’s functional at all, but I think its bigger purpose is to remind people that they have a keyboard and trackpad with them wherever they go — This is a Windows machine. Look you can run Office, it whispers in your choice of colors. The “type cover” adds an imperceptibly small amount of height and is infinitely more functional; it’s a super-slim laptop keyboard.

It feels ridiculous to hold the Surface vertically, but again, I get the impression that’s an essential part of the branding. They want you thinking, This is not a magazine or newspaper. This is like a laptop computer. I know this. I can be productive with this, as I laugh at the iPad users lounging on their couches swiping through vacation photos.

I’m not actually tempted to get one, but I will say that it’s the first product that’s gotten me to look up from my iPad and pay any attention to it at all. There’s absolutely no way I’d actually buy one.

And yet… this is the Windows RT version. The “Surface Pro” is coming out sometime next year, and it’s even more shameless about being a full-fledged notebook computer in tablet form. It’ll be thicker and heavier. I’ve heard it’ll actually come with a fan (other than Steve Ballmer, obviously). And it’ll undoubtedly be considerably more expensive than the current Surface tablet, which is already on the higher end of the iPad price range. But: it’ll come with a pressure-sensitive stylus. And I’ve wanted a tablet PC for as long as I can remember, as soon as I learned that they were even a thing. In fact, three years ago I described my ideal tablet computer, and it’s pretty much point-by-point the feature list of the Surface Pro.

Except for the “Apple makes it” part. And that’s the part that’s got me wondering what’s happened to the world. I just spent a considerable amount of time praising Microsoft. I defended an ad that has an old couple kissing and a tablet-covered dude doing the robot. I actually considered getting a third iOS device, for a not-insignificant number of seconds. The Apple Store seemed austere, black-and-white, business-like; while the Microsoft Store was colorful and fun. I’m actually envisioning a world where I might have a Windows device as my main computer. A time will come — but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this blog post, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.

They Don’t Love You Like Google Loves You

Just days after the entire developed world sank into a depressive ennui due to Apple’s boring new smart phone, society was rocked to its foundations by the unmitigated disaster that is iOS 6’s new Google-free Maps app. Drivers unwittingly plunged their cars into the sea. Planes over Ireland crashed into nearby farms due to mislabeled icons. College students, long dependent on their iPhones to find their way around campus from day to day, were faced with a featureless blob of unlabeled buildings and had no option but to lie down on the grass and sob. Huge swaths of Scotland were covered with an impenetrable fog, and the Brooklyn Bridge collapsed.

Throughout the entire ordeal, Tim Cook only stopped giving the world the middle finger long enough to go on Saturday Night Live and rip up a picture of Steve Jobs. Jobs’s only recourse was to haunt the homes and workplaces of thousands of bloggers, commenters, and Twitter users, moaning “You’re the only one who truly understands what I wanted. Avenge me!

At least, that’s the way I heard it. You want proof? It’s right there in the video, the one where they say “The Statue of Liberty? Gone!” while showing a picture of the Statue of Liberty. (Psst… hey, The Verge people — it’s that green thing in the middle of that star-shaped island). You think just because it’s “journalism” they have to have sources to show that it’s a serious, widespread problem? Check it, Jack: a tumblr full of wacky Apple maps mishaps.

And no, it doesn’t matter that the vast majority of those are complaints about the 3D Flyover feature, which was universally acknowledged as being a “neat but practically useless” feature of the maps app as soon as it was released, because shut up that’s why.

Of course, since I’m a relentless Apple apologist, I’m focused, Zapruder-like, on one tiny six-second segment of that three-minute long video: the part that says “For walking and driving, the app is pretty problem free.” And I’m completely ignoring the bulk of the video, which shows incontrovertible evidence that not everything is 3D modeled and lots of things end up looking kind of wavy.

Sarcasm (mostly) aside, my problem with this isn’t “oh no, people are picking on Apple!” My problem is that the people who are supposed to be authorities on tech — and to be clear, it’s not just The Verge, by a long shot — keep spinning the most shallow observations into sweeping, over-arching narratives. (And no, I haven’t see a single Verge post about Apple in the past week that’s neglected to find a way to link to that 73-degrees-Apple-is-timid post).

The tech journalists are the ones who are shaping public opinion, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect an attention span of longer than a week and a short term memory of longer than a year. And as a result, I’m going to hold them responsible every time I read something dumb on the internet.

To be fair, even though the video just says “Apple’s supposedly been working on its version of Maps for 5 years, and it’s resulted in an app that’s inferior to what was there before,” and leaves it at that, the article does mention that Google’s data has been public for 7 years. And points out that the data gets refined with the help of location data from millions of iPhones and Android devices.

But why make it sound as if the decision to break free from dependence on Google was an arbitrary decision on Apple’s part? By all accounts, Jobs had a preternatural grudge against Google for releasing Android. But it’s not as if the Maps app on iOS 5 and earlier was feature equivalent to the Google maps on Android, and Apple’s deciding to roll their own was a completely petty and spiteful decision. Android’s had turn-by-turn directions for a while now, and there were no signs that it was ever coming to the Google-driven app on iOS.

Was that a case of Google holding out, or Apple not bothering with it because they knew they had their own version in the works? I certainly don’t know — it’s the kind of thing it’d be neat for actual tech journalists to explain — but it ultimately doesn’t matter. The licensing deal with Google ran out, so Apple’s options were to reassert their dependency on their largest competitor, or to launch with what they had.

And incidentally, whenever someone says “Steve Jobs would never have allowed something this half-assed to be released!” it’s the tech journalists’ responsibility to remind them that the iPhone released without an SDK and nothing but Apple’s assurance that Web apps were The Future. Or that Jobs had no problem releasing the original iPhone without support for Flash video, even though there was an outcry that Flash was crucial to the user experience.

I installed iOS 6 on the iPad and tried out a few practical searches. It found everything I needed, and it actually gave me more relevant information than I remember the Google version giving me, since I was looking for businesses, and Yelp automatically came up with business hours. Of course, my experience means very little, since I happen to live in the one part of the world that’s going to be most aggressively tested by Silicon Valley companies. I have little doubt that Europe and Asia are going to have a harder time of it, and obviously they’re not markets to be ignored. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all problem, so it’s silly to treat it like one.

Apple has no problem calling Siri a beta, so they probably should’ve called Maps beta as well. It’s a huge part of why people use smart phones, so it’d be foolish to imply that serious inaccuracies are no big deal. Regardless, it’ll work well enough in a lot of cases for most Americans, and in the cases where it doesn’t work, the web version of Google maps is still available (and you can set up a link on the home page with its own icon, even). Maybe Google and Apple will reach enough of a détente for a third party Google Maps app to get released. Maybe it’ll even finally bring turn-by-turn directions, or Apple will even allow third party apps to be default handlers for links!

Until then, maybe we can stop with the melodrama and the hyperbole, and just appreciate Apple Maps as version 1.0 mapping software with a neat extra feature of peeking into an alternate reality where Japantown in San Francisco has been overtaken by giant spiders.