Apple, Technology

Everything is amazing and nobody’s insightful

Ouroboros pressI 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.

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Technology

Spontaneous Obsolescence

macminiback.png
As an electronic gadget obsessive with more disposable income than common sense, I’m well aware with the trials of being an “early adopter.” (That’s a euphemism for the older term, “impatient doof.”) We buy overpriced things, we watch them go down in price and up in specs and features, we sell them or donate them once they’re four or five years old, we buy a new one. It’s all part of the Great Circle of Life.

Rarely, though, is this delicate ecosystem hit with such a wide-spread cataclysm like the one we’ve seen this week. In just a few short days, I went from being blessed with pristine examples of consumerism at its finest, to being burdened with obsolete relics. It disgusts me even to look at them.

What’s worst is that all of the new models fix the one most annoying thing about each. For instance:

We all knew that The iPhone 4 was coming out, so it wasn’t a surprise. (Well, it wasn’t a surprise to most of us — apparently Apple and AT&T didn’t get the memo). This version has a faster processor and a much improved camera, which were my biggest complaints about the old version: now I don’t feel compelled to take a point-and-shoot everywhere. So I set aside some money — that I would’ve wasted on charity or something frivolous like that — and was prepared to make an informed purchase.

But then E3 happened! A new Xbox 360! Styled after the PS3, with special dust-collecting coating and barely-sensitive touch-activated not-buttons! And it, theoretically, fixes the two biggest problems with the old Xbox 360: catastrophic system failure from poor ventilation, and the fact that turning on the console is like having a leaf blower pressed against your head while standing on a runway at LAX.

And then: A Nintendo 3DS! Which fixes the biggest problem with the older Nintendo DS: that, err, it didn’t have 3D. Okay, that one is kind of weak, but I still want one after hearing everybody on the Twitter going nuts over it.

But then out of nowhere: A new Mac Mini! I’ve spent the past couple of years trying to piece together a decent home theater PC using the enormous, Brezhnev-era Mac Mini; an external drive; a USB TV tuner; an assortment of remote control apps; a Microsoft IR receiver; various DVI-to-HDMI adapters; and snot. Now Apple has said, “Oh right! HDMI has existed for several years now!” and upped the hard drive size and built an HDMI port right into the back, making it an HTPC right out of the box. (And by the sound of it, fixing the problem Mac has with overscan/underscan on my TV). It’s still overpriced to use as just a home theater PC, but it’s the best version of the mini that Apple has made yet.

And of course, the Microsoft Kinect business, which solves the problem of “I don’t look stupid enough while playing videogames.”

Now looking on ebay at all the listings of used Mac minis and Xbox 360s is positively heartbreaking; you can almost hear Sarah McLachlan wailing in the background as you scroll past one “0 bids” after the other. And now I actually feel kind of gross for writing all this, so I’ll start browsing elsewhere.

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Apple, Technology

Helpful Tips for Adobe

underdogcover.jpgIn a blog post on Tuesday, Mike Chambers of Adobe announced that the company was abandoning its plan to support creation of iPhone OS apps using Flash CS5. The post is less emotional than Lee Brimelow’s “Go screw yourself, Apple” but every bit as whiny.

All the angles on the issue have been covered extensively on tech blogs, in particular Daring Fireball, so you won’t see any particularly novel insight here. But I haven’t yet seen them all gathered in one place. Apple has gotten a lot of criticism across the internet — much of it entirely deserved — for its App Store approval policies and the closed system approach it’s taking with the iPhone OS. And it bugs me to see Adobe employees — whether representing the company as with Chambers’s post, or not as with Brimelow’s — getting so much traction by taking advantage of that ill will, when Adobe doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

After citing various stories about Apple’s rejection policies and an even-handed piece on Slate called Apple Wants to Own You, Chambers goes on to say that Adobe will be shifting its focus with Flash CS5 onto the Android platform. Here are a few helpful tips for Adobe that might make this next choice of platform go more smoothly:

1. Don’t promise something to your customers unless you’re sure you can deliver.

Adobe’s claiming that Apple suddenly introduced a new clause to the developer program license that blew all their hard work out of the water. How could they possibly have predicted that Apple would so cruelly impose a last-minute ban of Flash on the iPhone suddenly out of nowhere? I mean, sure, the iPhone has been out for three years now and it’s never allowed a Flash player, but with Apple’s draconian secrecy, who knows why that is? Okay, fine, the CEO of the company has repeatedly said that it’s for performance reasons and battery life, but that’s just spin. Adobe had no way of predicting that the company that’s refused to allow Flash on their devices would suddenly decide not to allow a program that runs Flash. It’s all Apple’s fault!

2. Have a chat with Google and Motorola first.

There’s no way that a small start-up like Adobe could’ve communicated with industry giant Apple, either. Who even knows those guys’ email addresses? Plus, they’re scary: Gizmodo made a whole post about the guy whose book-reading app was rejected for containing adult material. Who’s to say that the exact same thing wouldn’t happen to a multinational corporation proposing to create a new development environment for the platform? Unlike Apple, Motorola and Google are pledged to complete openness, and they won’t have any qualms about performance or security on their branded Android OS devices. You probably don’t even need to ask first.

3. Try running your software on the device in question.

Apple’s reasons for refusing Flash are so arcane and mysterious that nobody can figure them out. Even though it’s been said repeatedly from multiple sources both inside and outside Apple that Flash is a hit on performance on battery life, that’s just idle speculation. Better to try to sneak something in instead of actually trying to find the problems with interpreted code and non-standard video playback and getting it to run acceptably.

4. Don’t use a Mac for development.

Because if you want to get anything done, you’ll have to use Adobe software, since Adobe has near-total market dominance in every area of production. And Adobe software runs like shit on a Mac. Mr. Brimelow, I suggest that your talk about the long relationship Apple and Adobe have had with each other would be more convincing if you had a dramatic backdrop, or a YouTube video playing in the background. For the backdrop, you’ll want to use Photoshop CS4, the first version that supports a 64-bit OS, which came out a year and a half after OS X converted to 64-bit. And for the YouTube video, be sure you speak up loud, because playing anything with the Flash video player on a Mac will cause your computer’s fan to kick into overdrive from the increased processor load.

5. Consider what “cross-platform” means for a platform built entirely around its unique identity.

If the blog posts from employees weren’t enough to convince you that Adobe’s committed to cross-platform development, then running any piece of Adobe software — especially any AIR app — should do the trick. Using PhotoShop or Flash on a Mac means that you get to give up everything that made you choose the Mac OS in the first place. The closest they’ll come to “Mac look and feel” is begrudgingly including a “Use OS Dialog” button on their file dialog boxes. But the iPhone, even more than the Mac, is specifically branded as a device that wins not on features, but on the OS.

Chambers makes a point of saying “While it appears that Apple may selectively enforce the terms, it is our belief that Apple will enforce those terms as they apply to content created with Flash CS5.” Or in other words, Apple will allow Unity, .NET, et. al., but is singling out Flash/Adobe to screw them over specifically. Adobe’s complaining about Apple not giving them fair treatment is a lot like a polygamist accusing one of his wives of cheating.

6. Have someone define “closed system” to you.

Apple already covered this one beautifully with its terse and awesome response to Chambers’s post:

“Someone has it backwards–it is HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, and H.264 (all supported by the iPhone and iPad) that are open and standard, while Adobe’s Flash is closed and proprietary,” said spokeswoman Trudy Muller in a statement.

This is the most galling part of the whole thing, to me: Adobe’s desperately grabbing on to Cory Doctorow’s coat tails and waving the flag of intellectual freedom, while simultaneously suggesting that the iPhone OS is gimped because Flash has something like 98% market saturation with internet video.

The best explanation I’ve seen is from Louis Gerbarg on his blog: allowing Flash, or even iPhone-targeted Flash, onto the iPhone would mean Apple effectively turning its OS development cycles over to Adobe’s engineers. It’s the same reason they’re so uptight about developers using private frameworks: if they change something with an OS update, the app breaks, and customers complain to Apple. Not the developers.

Adobe’s essentially going into a store, handing the owner a big black box, refusing to let the owner see what’s inside, and then complaining about freedom and openness when the owner refuses to sell it.

7. Learn to appreciate the monopoly you’ve already got.

It’s not particularly insightful to point out that the environment Apple’s created with the iPhone OS is very similar to the environment that game developers have had to deal with for years. Game console manufacturers have very tight restrictions on what they will and won’t allow to run on their devices — if you think that Apple’s approval process is complicated and draconian, you should go through Nintendo’s technical certification process sometime. (Note that this isn’t a complaint: the certification process means it’s much, much harder to find a buggy game that crashes your system or runs poorly on your particular console configuration).

And the lesson in game development is that content is more of an investment than code. (At least, code written in a particular language. And that’s partly my programmer bias showing through, where it’s a point of pride that once you’ve learned how to do something in one development environment, it’s much easier to do the same thing in a different one). Art assets will port from platform to platform, even if the code base doesn’t. [More on this in point number 10.] I have yet to see a game company that didn’t use Photoshop to generate art assets, and most also use a combination of Illustrator or AfterEffects or any number of other Adobe products.

8. Come out and acknowledge who multi-platform development benefits, exactly.

There is an ease-of-use and familiarity benefit to using Flash. But Adobe reps hardly ever mention that. (As someone who’s developed games using Flash and using Cocoa, I can kind of understand why Adobe wouldn’t push the “ease-of-use” or “predictability” claims where Flash is concerned). Instead they talk about cross-platform capability. An independent developer might be drawn to Flash for, say, making a game because it’s an environment he already knows. A publisher would be drawn to Flash for being able to make the same game for the iPhone, Android, Web, and anything else.

And this makes it a little bit like trying to explain to poor people why they shouldn’t vote Republican: they don’t care about you. Adobe isn’t going to make such a big stink, or for that matter build a campaign around a new feature in one of their flagship products, for the indie developer who’s going to blow a thousand bucks on the new Creative Suite. Adobe wants to get publishers to buy site licenses. And publishers want to make something once and then get it onto as many platforms as possible, because for a publisher, development time is more expensive than hardware purchases, testing, and customer support. Smaller developers will quickly reach the point where having their product on multiple platforms is costing more than the revenue it’s generating.

So when Chambers says:

The cool web game that you build can easily be targeted and deployed to multiple platforms and devices. However, this is the exact opposite of what Apple wants. They want to tie developers down to their platform, and restrict their options to make it difficult for developers to target other platforms.

what he means is: Apple includes a free development environment on their machines, to encourage people to buy their hardware. It comes complete with documentation, visual design tools, and built-in animation and layering libraries that make it relatively easy to achieve Flash-like results using native code. However, this is the exact opposite of what Adobe wants. They want to tie developers to Flash, to ensure that they have a proprietary development environment that’s most appealing to larger publishers, and restrict their options to optimize the runtime to target any particular platform, guaranteeing that it runs equally bad everywhere.

The “cool web game” bit is there to make it sound like the guy sitting in his bedroom who’s just finished his cool Bejeweled clone-with-RPG-elements can just hit a button in Flash CS5 and suddenly be rolling in heaps of money from App Store sales. And to the smaller, independent developers who would like to try releasing their games for multiple platforms: learn Objective C. It’s not that difficult, and you’ll have developed another skill. That to me seems more valuable than getting upset that a game designed for a mouse and keyboard on the internet won’t port to a touch-based cell phone without your intervention and a little bit of effort.

9. Make a genuine attempt at an open system.

If Adobe really is all about content creation, and if they’re going to insist on jumping on the anti-Apple “closed system” bandwagon, why do it for an inherently closed system? They’ve got one development kit that requires a plug-in and forces all its content into a window on a webpage, and they’ve got another development kit that works with HTML and PHP but nobody uses it. Why not put their content creation software expertise to work creating stuff that’s genuinely based on open standards?

There are tons of great HTML 5 demos getting passed around the internet, and they’re all done with a text editor. (And, most likely, Photoshop). Why not take the Flash front-end, since people like it for whatever reason, and let it spit out HTML 5, CSS, and JavaScript? ActionScript is already a bastardized sub/superset of JavaScript. HTML 5 has a canvas element and layering. There’s a browser war going on, where everyone’s trying to come up with the fastest JavaScript interpreter; only Adobe can make Flash Player plugins run faster, and they don’t have a great track record at that. Flash that doesn’t require Flash Player would be huge. No doubt Flash has some power-user features I’m not familiar with, and of course Flash Video is a whole different topic, but I’ve never done anything with Flash that couldn’t be done according to the HTML 5 spec and some clever JavaScript.

10. Stop the damn whining already.

Brimelow closed comments to his post to avoid “the Cupertino Spam bots,” and Chambers warned that non-constructive comments such as “Flash SUXXORS!” would be deleted. Because, as everyone on the internet knows, anyone who defends Apple for any reason, ever, is automatically a drooling Apple fanboy who believes Steve Jobs can do no wrong.

Which means, I guess, that everyone in the tech industry is 12 years old.

What these guys need to understand is that complaining about Adobe’s closed, proprietary system doesn’t automatically make Apple’s good, and vice versa. (Although it’s a big point in Apple’s favor that they don’t try to claim that their system isn’t closed). There are definitely problems with iPhone development.

The restriction on interpreted code does indeed suck, and is the biggest problem that Apple needs to find a solution for. When I mentioned that game developers have spent years learning how to port games to different consoles, I didn’t mention that the key to that is often a scripting language, like Lua. That allows a big chunk of code to be included in the portable game “content:” tailor the engine specifically to each console, but let the game logic stay fixed. (In theory, anyway). If Apple would just have a set of approved scripting languages — instead of just JavaScript via WebKit — and include them with the OS, it would open up a huge number of possibilities. The appeal of Lua on a mobile phone is even more evident than on a PC: it’s tiny, relatively efficient, and too simple and general-purpose to cause many problems when the underlying OS gets updated.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention again that an iPad-native equivalent of HyperCard would be sweet. It could even use the Keynote front-end and run everything with WebKit. If you need a consultant on the project, Apple, let me know).

The other problem is the lack of transparency in the approval process. I mentioned that the certification requirements for consoles are a lot more complicated than those for the App Store; the advantage, though, is that they’re very explicit. You can and will still get surprised by a rejection, but a lot of the more obscure problems are solved when there is a huge list of requirements and developers are forced to test everything.

As for the other objections that are so often brought up, they seem reasonable enough to me. Yes, the state of file management on the iPad is really terrible right now, but I’m confident it’ll improve. Sure, Apple can reject an app for “duplicating functionality” of one of its built-in apps, but that situation is fluctuating (witness their support for VOIP apps like Skype, and browsers like Opera Mini) and the core apps are functional enough anyway. (Rejecting an app for the “pinch to preview a stack of pictures” functionality is pure bullshit, though).

And Apple can and does reject apps based on content alone. But as John Gruber pointed out, Apple’s still selling a brand as much as a platform. That’s the fundamental philosophical difference between the Android model (and Adobe’s whining) and the iPhone model: Android is selling you on the idea that you can run anything, Apple is selling you on the idea that you can run anything good. That’s why it’s a good thing that both platforms are available to both developers and customers. If you want a general-purpose phone that can run anything you throw at it, including ports of web games, then get an Android. If you want only the stuff that’s been specifically tailored to run well under the iPhone OS, then get the iPhone.

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Apple, Technology

iPerCard


Image of the HyperCard home stack is from the C.V. page of Robin Siberling

One of the things that gets my nostalgia fired up like no other is HyperCard, which I consider to be one of the greatest pieces of software ever made for a personal computer. No exaggeration. Neck-and-neck with PhotoShop in terms of significance, as far as I’m concerned, and definitely more mind-altering in terms of thinking about how computers work and what they can do.

I can and will go on at great length about how great HyperCard was, at any opportunity, but the design firm smackerel.net has put together a terrific retrospective called “When Multimedia was Black and White” that can do a better job than I could.

Ever since I made the switch back to Macs, I’ve been looking for a HyperCard successor. There’ve been several pretenders to the throne: SuperCard was the highest-profile, but it tried so hard to be a superset of HyperCard that it lost most of what made the original so cool. I keep checking in on Bento every time they announce a new release, but it’s becoming clear that a simple development environment just isn’t the market they’re after. Runtime Revolution, has been trying for years to be a direct successor, but I’ve never been happy with it — it seems like an attempt to recapture the multimedia authoring platform that HyperCard turned into, instead of consumer-level software.

There are still pockets of loyal HyperCard fanatics out there, still holding on to floppies full of HC stacks like mattresses stuffed with Confederate money. But over the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing HyperCard mentioned more and more often, even by sane people. For instance John Gruber on his Daring Fireball site about entry-level development environments, and in speculation about what the future of authoring multimedia content is going to be like.

What’s re-sparked interest in HyperCard is, of course, the iPad.

Why The Time To Act Is Now

Any fit of HyperCard nostalgia gets shut down pretty quickly when you look at it in a modern context and are forced to realize that it died for a reason. Bill Atkinson himself has acknowledged that its biggest flaw was focusing on local storage instead of taking advantage of networking. Most of what it could do was superseded by the World Wide Web. Later, Director and then Flash came in to take over the rest and become dominant.

But back then, there was little reason to believe (unless you were particularly prescient) that networking would become so huge outside of business settings. Personal computers were still very application-focused. Like the iPad is.

On OS X, a replacement HyperCard seems less necessary once you realize how many HyperCard remnants are scattered throughout the system. Much of HyperTalk remains in the AppleScript language. The rest of HyperCard’s coolest features live on in Xcode. Using Interface Builder, you can drag-and-drop interface elements, draw connections, and create a fully functional (if basic) UI without having to write any code. Databases are handled by the Core Data library, again without any code. But Xcode doesn’t (and definitely shouldn’t) exist on the iPad.

On the iPad, there’s no way to get apps except through the App Store, no way to develop them except through Xcode, and there are restrictions on what Apple will allow developers to do, for fear of interrupting a cellular network, or fear of ruining a user’s end experience (and by extension, as Gruber points out, their brand). A controlled development environment could “fix” much of that, giving Apple the control they want while allowing developers to make things more powerful than web apps but with less investment than the iPhone OS SDK.

Flash turned into the dominant platform for multimedia authoring, and even it got corrupted into a glorified interface for delivering streaming video. But — and I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this yet — the iPad doesn’t support Flash.

The excuse that Apple’s defenders are using for the lack of Flash support is that open standards like HTML 5 are preferable to a proprietary format owned by Adobe. Streaming video support is a whole other issue, but what about “basic” Flash: games, presentations, or even banner ads? We keep seeing demos that show what can be done using only HTML 5, CSS, WebGL and the like, but there’s still no consumer-level authoring platform that’s as straightforward to use as Flash. (Which might sound odd to anyone who’s used Flash, but dragging and dropping keyframes on a timeline is still more accessible than writing code in a text editor). If they want the content to take off, then there needs to be a better tool for people to create that content.

People need something like HyperCard; it’ll sell more iPads. There’s a glut of special-purpose apps on the App Store for stuff like keeping wine lists or golf scores or, of course, making fart noises. That may help with the 150,000 available apps claim, but it doesn’t make the device itself seem more useful. Especially if you have to pay one or two dollars a pop instead of just making a simple app yourself. And Bento just isn’t cutting it; it tells you up-front exactly everything you can do with it, and if your application doesn’t fit right into that narrow selection of templates, then no sale.

And it’s more of a minor point, but it’s possibly the most important and least “selfish” reason to do it: it would help keep the iPad from being perceived as purely a device for consuming media, and let Apple reassert itself as the company that makes things for creative people. HyperCard was uniquely Apple, and it fit so perfectly into the Apple philosophy: giving you only the complexity you needed and only when you needed it, and making the act of creating things feel like fun instead of like work.

What’s more, people will get it now. Back in 1988, much of HyperCard was devoted to trying to explain what it was, exactly, and what kind of stuff you could do with it. In 2010, people just naturally understand hyperlinks and pages and multimedia.

How Apple Should Do It

I do believe that if an iPhone OS-centric successor to HyperCard were to happen, it would have to come from Apple. And that’s not because of my devotion to Apple or some naive or high-minded philosophy, but for very practical reasons:

  • It has to be ubiquitous. A huge part of HyperCard’s influence was due to the fact that it was included on every Mac. If you have to go looking for it, then you’re probably not going to bother. Especially if it’s not clear to you what it does, exactly.
  • It has to run interpreted code. It’d be a lot better if Apple just relaxed its rule against letting apps run interpreted code, so that there could be all kinds of rapid application development available. But until they do, any attempt at a HyperCard replacement would be hopelessly gimped and over-simplified.
  • It would compete with the App Store. Being able to create your own stacks (or whatever the new metaphor is) would be of little use unless you could distribute them. Even back before the internet took off, people traded stacks on floppies at User Group meetings and over BBSs. If Apple allowed that kind of distribution for one third-party developer, they’d have to do it for all of them, and I see that as being highly unlikely.
  • It’d probably have to use private frameworks. Any app that ran these stacks would have to be doing runtime configuration that I just don’t believe is possible with the public frameworks. (Or I just haven’t dug deep enough into them).
  • Apple is already so close to having a finished version.

That last point is what got me excited about the potential for HyperCard on the iPad. It began with the “Getting Started” document that’s the first thing you see when you start up Pages for the iPad.

The Pages tutorial is, in a word, totally sweet. You can move images around and see the text flow around them, insert graphs and charts and edit them in place, and assign borders and other effects using simplified pop-up windows. Using Pages on a desktop or laptop, and you get the sense I’m using a simplified entry-level word processor. Using it with your fingers on an iPad, and you think this is how all page layout software is supposed to work.

Now, one of the iLife applications that seemed to have a ton of potential, but just kind of fizzled out, was iWeb. (I don’t know its actual success, of course, just that I’ve never actually seen a website that was created with it). It makes one hell of a first impression, but after using it for a while, you quickly run into its limitations. And you realize that it’s not the best way to make a dynamic website.

It would, however, be a fantastic way to make a HyperCard stack, or an iPad app. You can drag all of the page elements around and edit their properties in place. You can set up connections between buttons and other elements on the site. There’s already a notion of static content (e.g. a blog page) vs. dynamic content (e.g. individual posts). It’s got a media browser, as well as several built-in widgets.

iWeb has to do all kinds of tricks to get the pages you make with its editor to look as nice when they’re rendered in a browser. (The most obvious is how it has to generate big, web-unfriendly images when you rotate them or add borders and drop shadows). But it wouldn’t have to if they weren’t targeted for a browser, but were intended to be viewed in the app itself. Or even if it were targeted for Safari and WebKit only, instead of any browser.

And again, while using iWeb-type controls to resize, rotate, and add effects to pictures is pretty cool with a mouse, it’s really cool when you’re dragging and pinching stuff directly.

For the kind of fairly simple databases that a HyperCard stack would require, the Core Data system should be plenty sufficient. Core Animation already has all kinds of fancy transitions that can just drop into multiple contexts.

For assigning functionality to the visual elements, Apple’s already got a library of candidates. Dragging links between elements in InterfaceBuilder is a natural. There’s also QuartzComposer, which lets you sequence effects by drawing lines between boxes. And there’s the Automator app, which puts a visual front end on AppleScript. On a desktop, visual programming environments, including Automator, invariably seem clunky and limited. It almost always seems faster just to type it out in a text editor. But on the iPad, dragging and dropping is much more natural than typing. Eliminating typing altogether would just make the whole thing useless, another Bento that relies too much on templates without allowing enough configuration and customization. But minimizing the typing makes more sense on the iPad than it would on a desktop or laptop.

I dunno, maybe the idea is completely counter to what Apple’s trying to do. But it seems like it makes so much sense, and it would address so many concerns, and it just fits in with everything they’ve built up to now. All the iWork and iLife apps feel to me like HyperCard is lurking there in the background, waiting to come out. On the iPad they’ve finally got a good reason to let it loose.

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Apple, Technology

Remembrance of Computers Past

iPadHello.jpgOut of all the billions of articles that have been written about the iPad over the past few weeks — previews, reviews, essays, tirades, counter-tirades, hands-ons, first impressions, updates, and general grousing — the best is still Stephen Fry’s article for Time magazine. Fry’s an unabashed Apple fanboy, but the article does exactly what it needs to: explain why this is such a big deal to some people. And it gets rid of the white background and just asks the Apple guys directly, “What’s so great about this thing, anyway?”

Not that they gave a compelling answer, but it was still nice of him to ask. And he didn’t really need to, anyway, because Fry covered that himself. The best part of the article is when he describes his and Douglas Adams’s excitement over the original Mac:

Goodbye, glowing green command line; hello, mouse, icons and graphical desktop with white screen, closable windows and menus that dropped down like roller blinds.
[…] I would pant excitedly. Douglas’ wife Jane would point with resigned amusement to the stairs, and I would hurl myself up them to swap files and play. We were like children with toy train sets. And that was part of the problem. It was such fun. Computing was not supposed to be fun.

Douglas Adams’s enthusiasm for the Mac was pernicious and infectious. It’s been about 20 years (!) since I read the Dirk Gently books, but I can still remember the frontispiece of each one explaining how it was written on a Mac, listing the software used. And I can vaguely remember a long passage in one of the books describing a character using a Mac, written to make it sound as wondrous as any of the more fantastic elements of the book.

So Long, and Thanks For All the PICTs

I don’t know for sure whether reading those books is what set me on the course to Mac fanaticism, but whatever started it, I was hooked. I would buy issues of MacUserjust for the pictures. Everything seemed so much cooler on a Mac; the control panel had a picture of a rabbit and a turtle to set your keyboard speed, and even the error messages had pictures!

When I finally got a Mac Plus as a graduation present (that my parents couldn’t quite afford, but knew how much I wanted it, presumably because I wouldn’t shut up about it), I loved it. Doing even the simplest things was more fun, and I saw nothing but limitless potential in the computer because it was so enjoyable to use.

It didn’t quite “exceed my capacity to understand it,” and it definitely didn’t “just work.” The Mac OS had already outpaced my system’s memory, so it was constantly spitting out disks and asking me to insert a new one. (The sound of the Mac ejecting a disk probably haunted my college roommates for years). Even my Commodore 128 had color, but the Mac was still low-resolutely black and white. Back then, the Outsiders would make complaints that sound hauntingly familiar today: “You can’t open it.” “It’s a toy computer.” “There’s not enough software for it.” “You could get a much more powerful machine at that price.” I eventually fell for that, and “upgraded” to a machine that I liked just fine. But I never loved a computer like that one.

UIDejaView

And nostalgia couldn’t possibly be driving all of the hype around the iPad, but I do believe that the idea of the first Macintosh is a huge part of it, even for people who never owned one. And I believe the iPad is the closest Apple has come to realizing that philosophy since the first Mac.

After all, Windows may have copied the “look and feel” of the Mac, but it never quite got its soul. It wasn’t even until Windows 95 that they managed to get a consistent, unified personality at all. But you can’t blame Microsoft too much, since Apple lost it as well. As the personal computer got to be more ubiquitous and more general-purpose, it somehow got less personal. It got more functional, but less fun.

Using an iPad, I don’t just feel like I’m in the future, as I expected to. The part in that Time article that resonated the most with me was when Fry laments that Adams never got to see his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made real. Every new “mobile device” I’ve tried out, back to the original PalmPilot, I’ve subjected to the Hitchhiker’s Guide test. The iPad comes closer than any I’ve seen, it’d probably be even more uncanny if I’d gotten the 3G model. But more than that, I’m reminded of using my first Mac.

The iPad is obviously a direct descendent of the iPhone and the iPad, and it’s being described by tech writers and by Apple both as being a reaction to netbooks. But I believe you can trace the idea behind it all the way back to the Mac Plus.

The form factor is that of a magazine, sure, but it has a hint of the original Mac in there as well: just the screen when held horizontally, and the whole thing when in portrait mode. You can’t open it, but it doesn’t even seem like something you’d want to open: it feels like any time you’d spend configuring it is time that’d be better spent using it.

It’s got a few of the standby apps already installed and ready to go. MacWrite is no longer free, and it’s called Pages now, but it’s there if you need it. MacPaint has been made obsolete by digital photography, apparently, and the spreadsheet in AppleWorks now goes by the name Numbers. The desktop is still the realm of powerhouse applications with tons of features, but the iPad can comfortably support powerful apps that are simpler, more accessible, and more fun to use.
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