iLife

Piecing together the obituaries and eulogies of Steve Jobs makes it clear that his impact wasn’t just reality distortion

I try to stay wary of Apple’s marketing lingo: as much as I like using the iPad, it’s not “magical;” and for all the Apple-branded products I have scattered around the house, in various states of obsolescence but each one the best device I’ve ever owned, I’d never describe any of them as “insanely great.”

But Apple’s brief memoriam is absolutely right in calling Steve Jobs “visionary.”

There were plenty of obituaries and eulogies popping up across the internet within minutes after the official announcement of Jobs’s death; most ghoulishly composed right after his resignation (if not sooner) and polished off with an edited date and time. There were a few insightful ones as well; the best I’ve seen being Slate’s analysis of the wide reach of Jobs’s vision and a more personal thanks from Stack Overflow on behalf of all computer programmers.

But the best obituary was provided by Jobs himself, his commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. You have to wonder at the time whether he was aware he was delivering what would become the best summation of his life, not content with letting other people handle it.

That wasn’t the first time Jobs provided his own retrospective; the Think Different campaign for the Macintosh was every bit as much about Jobs’s own philosophy as it was about a computer brand. Jobs says as much in that video. And that ad campaign is a better testament to his legacy than any number of rote obituaries checking off his career achievements.

It may seem crass to associate a life’s work with a product marketing campaign, but I think it’s an outstanding symbol of Jobs’s vision, that his public life and his ideals are so inextricably linked with the Macintosh. It’s because of Steve Jobs that we can even think of computers and mobile phones as having “ideals” at all.

Even the tired criticisms of Apple echo the criticisms of Jobs himself. People decry Apple devices as being overpriced status symbols, while most of us who depend on Macs and iPhones use them simply because they do everything we want and do it well. People criticized Jobs for being an arrogant, stubborn, and sometimes ruthless; while he consistently described his perfectionism as a desire to reject the less-than-perfect in favor of making something that would genuinely change the world.

People are quick to point out that technologies existed before Apple used them, or that other devices have better technical specs — more slots, faster processors, more “open” technologies. But Steve Jobs’s greatest achievement was staying true to a holistic view of computing: individual specs aren’t as important as how they all work together. Technology isn’t the focus, what you do with technology is the focus. Xerox PARC first developed the GUI. But would Xerox have produced MacPaint and HyperCard?

It was the work of hundreds of hardware and software engineers, industrial designers, and graphic artists, not just Steve Jobs, that “invented” the Mac, iMac, PowerBook, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. But without Jobs’s dogged fixation on Apple’s core philosophy, they never would’ve come together as an integrated product line — not a phone, or an MP3 player, or a computer, but a line of technological products that could inspire you and enable you to make something great.

Getting that right once or twice could be dismissed as a fluke. Getting it right over and over again can only be genius. And it’s only by “connecting the dots” over Jobs’s career that you can see the remarkable consistency and devotion to that philosophy. How much did he influence the direction of Pixar, for example? It’s always a mistake to give too much credit to one person, but then you have to realize: Pixar was the studio that developed the most advanced computer animation and put it to use not as pure spectacle, but for storytelling. Again, it’s not the technology that’s important.

I never regarded Steve Jobs as a hero, and I barely knew anything about him before I read the retrospectives after his resignation from Apple. By most accounts of his management style, I would’ve hated working for him. I tend to be annoyed at the level at which people worship him. And I absolutely reject the ideal of the auteur, and I’ve seen far too many cases of people being treated poorly for the sake of staying true to one man’s arrogant “vision.”

And still, I’m more profoundly affected by the news of Steve Jobs’s death than I’d expected to be. His arrogance doesn’t seem just dogmatic, but inspirational: not just for the people making the computers, but for all of us using them. And “think different” no longer seems like just an opportunistic marketing plan to inspire people to buy computers and cell phones; but a genuinely-felt philosophy intended to inspire us to do great things with them. Maybe Jobs’s greatest achievement was understanding that business and art don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Jobs invented the personal computer. And I’ve only just recently started to have fleeting moments of awareness of how profound that is: getting directions from my cell phone while I’m listening to music after just playing a game or reading an article, and having the sudden realization that I’m living in the future.

From now on, when I watch Apple ads, I’ll try not to see ethnically-diverse models on skiing trips or vacations to Paris, or hear the carefully-selected focus-tested music in the background as actors pretend to be a father talking to his wife and daughter. Instead, I’ll try to appreciate the bigger picture, and understand the vision Jobs wanted us all to see: friends and families using innovation to make their lives better.

L-i-t-t-l-e M-o-n-e-y

Final Fantasy Tactics and the bizarro psychology of Apple App Store pricing

Final Fantasy Tactics CalculatorsAs we all know, Final Fantasy Tactics is the best video game ever made. In the thirteen (!) years since it’s been released, I’ve been looking for other games that hit all the right notes as well as FFT did, with no luck. Plus I’ve been looking for rereleases as an excuse to buy it again, in the hopes that I could play through once more as if it were the first time.

Which is why Square’s announcement that it was going to be released on iOS was exciting: sure, I’ve still got a version — two versions, actually, since I got the PS1 Greatest Hits release way back when — that runs on the PS3, and I bought the PSP rerelease a while ago. But here was a chance to play it on a machine I actually use!

We were all warned well in advance that there’d be separate versions for iPhone and iPad, and not only did I not complain, I thought: even better! I get to buy it two more times, twice the chance to reaffirm how much I like the game. Once you reach a certain age and a certain level of Western entitlement and media saturation, buying a copy of a game or a movie becomes less about getting access and more about saying “I liked this enough to spend money on it.”

What I hadn’t been warned about, though, was that the iPhone version would be sixteen dollars.

Even the “prestige” titles for iOS max out around five dollars, with the super-fancy or particularly lengthy ones going as high as ten. Sixteen bucks for an iPhone game is outrageous.

That was my reaction to the price, even though I’d already paid $20-$40 for the game without a second thought, three times over. Even though it’s my favorite game, and I know that I can get at least 30-40 hours of play from it. And even though I’ve done enough iOS development to realize that developing for the platform can be every bit as time- and asset-intensive as developing for PCs and consoles. I’d become part of the race-for-the-bottom problem without even realizing it.

The two aspects of the App Store that have usually justified the lower pricing are: apps and games are smaller and simpler, so there’s a much lower barrier to entry; and the market penetration got so huge so quickly that you could sell an app to less than 1% of iOS users and still make a sizable profit.

Neither of those are true of Final Fantasy Tactics. Even though it’s a port of a 13 year old game, it’s still a pretty huge game with a ton of assets, not to mention a redesigned input system. And even though it’s spoken of in hushed tones as one of the greatest games ever made, it’s way too niche a game to reach even Plants vs Zombies-level sales. And it’s worth pointing out that the iPhone version is still cheaper than the PSP remake from a few years ago.

It’s a bizarre market to get into. The traditional rules of “charge what it’s worth” don’t seem to apply to the App Store; it’s become more a gamble, hoping that you can appeal to a large enough tiny fraction of the iOS market to recoup your lower production costs. On the one hand, that’s horrifying, as it creates a gold rush mentality of making unambitious and derivative games that are just “mainstream” enough to be another Angry Birds. On the other hand, it’s part of what makes the platform appealing: even with more and more huge corporate monstrosities (like, well, Square-Enix, I suppose) barging in and trying to dominate, it’s still egalitarian enough that a one- or two-man operation can make something novel and see it not only compete with the bigger guys, but surpass them.

In the fifteen years since I got into game development, it’s the closest I’ve seen to a creator-driven, “great American novel” environment in games. I know I’d never have even considered “going indie” if my only options had been PC or console releases. (I’m not even sure a one-man operation can release something on XBLA or PSN anymore). Now it feels like I’ve actually got a chance to recoup my minimal investment.

Assuming of course, I don’t waste all my time playing Final Fantasy Tactics. It’s a shame that it’s the War of the Lions release, since the more earnest translation lost a lot of the charm of the weirdly-translated original. Ah well, Life is short: Bury! Steady Sword!

140 Characters Plus an Internet

Twitter for iPad is another one of those apps that make you think all the talk about the iPad being the future of computing wasn’t just hype.

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The official Twitter app finally went universal with its iPad version yesterday, pushing the iPad one step closer to being my most useful computer. (Next milestone: the OS 4.2 update, and a good blogging client).

I’ve been using Twitterrific, and its iPad version really is great, but it was understood between the both of us that I’d be jumping ship as soon as Atebits released its app. Tweetie basically defined what features a desktop Twitter client should have, then did it again on the iPhone version, and now once again on the iPad. There’s a reason Twitter bought it as its official client — not necessarily because it’s the best one, but because it’s the best one for what Twitter wants the service to be.

I’m not interested in writing a review, because there are already dozens of reviews out there (a lot of us were waiting, apparently), and because the app is free. If you’ve got an iPad and use Twitter, there’s no reason not to download it. My review is just that “hey, it’s great.” What’s interesting to me is how much thought went into the design of the app, and even more importantly, how significantly the design of one app can change how I perceive the entire device.

A lot of people seem to be dismissing the new approach as “nice UI touches” (or alternatively, “annoying gimmicks”). And the gesture stuff — pinching and two-finger dragging — is pretty gratuitous. But the big change isn’t just a new, slick, presentation. The change is the notion that absolutely everything in the app has context.

Everything you tap on causes a new panel to slide out with more information. There’s no new information here that you couldn’t get via the older clients, but the app is constantly making predictions about what you’ll want to see based on the content of the tweet — single tweets open the user’s profile, replies display the entire conversation, tweets with a photo link open the picture, tweets with a hashtag do a search on all the other tweets with that hashtag. Since none of the information is all that new, it may not seem like that big a deal. What formerly took two or three clicks now just takes one tap. But in practice, it feels like a leap from mid 80s text-chat technology to the bridge of the Enterprise.

I’m still not sure anyone really gets what Twitter is, exactly — even Twitter doesn’t or they wouldn’t be asking “How do you use it?” A lot of people, myself included, have always seen it as just instant messaging for lonely narcissists. I’ve got lots of interesting things to say about the state of my beard and bowel movements that are far too boring to tell a single real-life friend, but are just perfect for sharing with hundreds of strangers. As a result, Twitter clients have always tended to look like IM clients. That’s why I believe if you think of Twitter as global public IM, Twitterrific is still the best client for that.

But lots of other people, who are every bit as boring as I am but a billion times more famous, are using it for advertising or self-promotion. That’s where any hope of monetizing the service comes in, and that’s (I’m assuming) why the official Twitter app emphasizes the external content in tweets instead of just the text itself. When you first start the iPad version, the main timeline (what used to be the focus in older clients) looks awkwardly small on the screen. As soon as you start scrolling and tapping, though, you can see what the designers want the Twitter service to be: a stream — or, I suppose, firehose — of information.

The only feature from Twitterrific that I miss is that there’s no quick and easy way to look at a person’s profile and find out if they’re following you. I can imagine that’s intentional, too — they’re not pushing individual conversations as much as individually tailored public streams of news and links. Part of the appeal of twitter is that contacts are asynchronous and not fake “friends”; if someone’s saying stuff you want to hear, it shouldn’t really matter whether or not they want to hear what you have to say. But that’s about the only place so far where Twitter’s enforced idea of how I should be using their service has been an annoyance.

The rest of the time, I’m just impressed by how dense the average Twitter feed is, all the stuff streaming by that I never bothered to click on before. And impressed by how the iPad app just seems to know what I want to look at. Presenting relevant information automatically instead of making you look for it seems like just a convenience (or annoyance, depending on how slow your internet connection is). But the more I use the iPad Twitter app, the more I get the sense that this is exactly the kind of presentation that will make tablet computers come into their own.

Meanwhile, in the future….

Reading comic books on the iPad is kind of great. Discovering a comic like Atomic Robo is even better.

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Man, I love Atomic Robo. It’s a comic book series about an indestructible robot designed by Nikola Tesla in 1923, who now leads a team of Action Scientists who are “sanctioned by the U.N. to investigate weirdness.” The influence of Hellboy and The B.P.R.D. are pretty clear, both in the art and the writing and tone. But instead of feeling derivative, it stands as a great counterpart to those books: there’s less of the folklore and epic mythology, in favor of pulp science fiction and B-movies. Plus, it’s played pretty much strictly for laughs, but with enough plot and a strong enough storyline to keep everything from evaporating.

Plus it hits all the right notes. It’s nearly impossible to find writing this sharp — especially comedy writing, which hardly anyone in comics can get right — or artwork this polished in the “big three” publishers, much less from a semi-obscure smaller house. The guys behind the comic published their manifesto a couple of years ago, and it proves that they didn’t just stumble onto a good comic, they know what they’re doing. It’s clear that they’ve put a lot of thought and effort into making something that’s smart, goofy fun.

But as much as I like it, I can all but guarantee it never would’ve caught my attention if not for the Comics app from Comixology. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I have one of the Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day issues in print lying around somewhere, but I didn’t pay much attention to it (assuming I read it at all). It’s a perfect example of the long-promised potential of digital distribution, but it actually worked for once.

Continue reading “Meanwhile, in the future….”

Torches & Tonics

Helsing’s Fire for the iPhone OS is a puzzle game with a clever mechanic and terrific presentation

HelsingsFireTorch.pngI’ve been neglecting my site for iPhone OS recommendations, but I haven’t forgotten it. But I didn’t want to wait until I could fix it up before recommending a cool new game that, for me, perfectly encapsulates why the iPhone is such a genuinely exciting platform.

The game is Helsing’s Fire by developer Ratloop, published by Chillingo. It’s a puzzle game in which you destroy creatures of “The Shadow Blight” with a combination of Professor Helsing’s torch and his assistant Raffton’s tonics. The puzzle is positioning the torch so that your target creatures (and only your target creatures) are hit by the light of the torch, and then using the matching-colored tonic against them. It’s a simple, clever, and surprisingly engaging mechanic that I’ve never seen in a game before.

It’s a good thing the mechanic is so novel, because the puzzles themselves take a long time to get interesting. The entire first screen of the game is no challenge at all, and it takes a while for the game to start throwing new complications at you. In effect, the first 20 or so puzzles play more like a “software toy” than a puzzle game. But the puzzles are generated randomly, so you’re free to keep experimenting.

That sense of experimentation is the most interesting thing about the game, since it’s so rare for puzzle games. Typically in a puzzle-based game, you’re expected to think of a solution first, and then start interacting with the game to put the solution in motion. In Tetris, you find where the piece fits, then move it into place. In Bejeweled, you find the match, then click or tap on the screen to make the swap. And in an adventure game, you stop and think about what item works with what object, then try the combination to see if it works. It results in the player “switch modes” throughout, alternating between passive and active, and it can be a turn-off. On the other end of the scale, you’ve got physics-based games, where the developer just sets up a condition and lets you do whatever you can think of to hit on the right solution. That has its own set of problems, since to me it always feels like I’ve just interacted with a simulation, instead of interacting with the developer — there’s too much randomness involved to make me feel like I’ve accomplished anything.

I think that the torch in Helsing’s Fire does a great job of splitting the difference: you’re constantly moving the torch around, seeing how the light interacts with obstacles, actually playing the game. Not just staring at a screen waiting for inspiration to hit.

HelsingsFireChars.pngAnd even taking all of that into account, the puzzles aren’t even the best thing about Helsing’s Fire. The presentation is fantastic — you can tell that the developer’s a fan of Mike Mignola’s work on Hellboy (and Edward Grey: Witchfinder), which earns it double plus extra points with me. It’s not just in the artwork, either, but in the tone of the whole game. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but isn’t filled with desperate attempts at humor, either. The dialogue’s clever and used sparingly, and the music carries the tone throughout, blending a contemporary-sounding track for the puzzles with a title-screen track that reminds me of a 16-bit Castlevania game.

And best of all: the victory screen for each puzzle has Helsing and Raffton giving each other a fist bump or high five, one of those completely gratuitous touches that can send a good game over the top.

According to the credits, only two people worked on the game, but you wouldn’t know from playing it. It’s got a professional level of polish to it while still feeling weird and novel enough to be an indie project. And it’s only a dollar, so there’s absolutely no reason not to recommend it. Even if you breeze through all the puzzles, you’ll be entertained while doing it.

Reeder for iPad

The Reeder app is finally available for the iPad, and the iPad finally feels useful

I’ve got a pretty nasty RSS feed-reading habit. I’m currently subscribed to 116 feeds (down from around 200 at my peak), and I start to feel anxious and disconnected if I go too long without sucking from the webtap. I blame NetNewsWire by Brent Simmons, which set the standard for how a desktop RSS feed reader should be written. It’s so extensible and so efficient, it practically makes fun of you if you’re not keeping track of thousands of posts in hundreds of feeds.

One of the most important things I was looking for in the iPad was a way to make the whole feed-reading ritual more enjoyable and less like work. Instead of getting up in the morning and immediately sitting in front of the computer to pore over news articles like a less effective Winston Smith, I could lean back on the couch like they show in the Apple ads, and develop some kind of “morning paper”-esque ritual that would make me feel more like a bonafide grown-up.

The iPad version of NetNewsWire was released at launch (or maybe soon after), and I’ve been using it since then. It’s fast and efficient, but it just didn’t flow as well as it does on the desktop. It understandably stays very close to Apple’s established UI for iPad apps, which is part of the problem: I don’t like the standards Apple’s put into place. They claim that “it doesn’t matter” how you hold the iPad, but their own system of pop-ups and full page views ends up giving every app two modes: an orientation that’s efficient (usually landscape), and one that’s enjoyable to use (usually portrait). With NetNewsWire, it meant a lot of flipping the device around — landscape to get through lots of posts quickly, portrait to read in depth — and forwarding the ones I wanted to read in greater detail to Marco Arment’s outstanding Instapaper app.

There’s a separate app called Early Edition that compiles newspaper-style page views from your available RSS feeds, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted, either. It was kind of the opposite extreme to NetNewsWire: nice-looking, but not as efficient. What I really wanted was something that would split the difference: good for reading single posts in detail, efficient for scanning through blogs that could have hundreds of entries, and a seamless way to switch between the two modes.

Reeder for iPad by Silvio Rizzi is exactly that. I’d already been a fan of the iPhone version of Reeder, but reading lots of text on a cell phone is never going to be ideal. The iPad version, though, gets just about everything right. I started gushing about it as soon as I tried it, but it’s really not an exaggeration to say that it’s turned the iPad from an overpriced novelty to a genuinely useful computer.

Here’s why I like it, with pictures. I really do believe that the interface is worth studying; anybody who’s considering making an iPad app should look at how Reeder does things and why they’re usually a good idea.

Continue reading “Reeder for iPad”

Stress Test

Some days it ain’t easy to be a fan of Apple

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Here’s a fun game as long as you have a very loose definition of “fun” and “game:” see how long you can watch the iPhone 4 “Design Video” before all the hyperbole and breathless exclamations of wonder make you have to turn it off. I lasted until the head of iPhone OS Software said he was blown away by a video conference call.

(And yeah, I’m going to avoid calling it “iOS” for as long as I can because I think that’s a dumb name).

Maybe it’s just because I assumed video conferencing was something that all other non-iPhones could already do, but Apple exceeded my tolerance for marketing with this whole push. To hear them tell it, they make it sound like the polio vaccine and the discovery of fire were baby steps on the way to a backside illumination sensor. (Great for both a band name and a sex act).

Sure, all the Apple reps talked about the iPad as if at any moment they were about to put a hand up over the camera and ask for a moment to recompose themselves. But that’s understandable — the iPad is kind of a tough sell. Unlike the iPad, everybody knows what an iPhone does, and this is a better one.

And I think that’s ultimately what my issue is: the new version is basically a no-brainer of an upgrade. Based on Engadget.com’s recap and hands-on, it’s got just about every single thing that’s been missing from my current 3G model: the iPad’s processor, a better display, a better camera, a forward-facing camera, video recording, thinner form factor, less plastic-feeling build, Wireless N.

I usually go through my ritual of denial-acceptance-preorder-purchase-guilt whenever Apple releases a new iThingToBuy, but there’s none of that here. I’m going to get one, it’s going to replace both my phone and my point-and-shoot camera, and I’m going to get a lot of use out of it. It would’ve been a completely stress- and guilt-free first world purchasing experience, but then they had to trot out the video. And that just makes me understand why so many people roll their eyes at the sight of an Apple logo and accuse people who like their products of being “cultish.”

I said “just about every thing,” because it’s still missing compact flash storage, and it’s still tied to AT&T. I understand why they don’t do the compact flash — so the price difference between the 16GB and 32GB models will go to Apple instead of SanDisk.

But I’d sort of hoped that after years of profiting from flash memory markup on the iPhones and iPods, Apple had collected enough money to buy its way out of AT&T exclusivity. Like just about everyone else with an iPhone in San Francisco, I’d love to drop AT&T, and their reneging on the unlimited data plans just makes me want to even more. But Apple may have saved them once again, by putting out a phone that’s appealing enough to make up for being lousy as an actual phone.

Everyone’s entitled to my opinion

Only the finest things are recommended by Spectre Collie.

I got a totally not-lying, for-real request from an actual human being to make a list of my favorite iPhone apps and put it online. Seriously — making lists and giving out my opinions unsolicited are two of my favorite things to do, and now I’m being encouraged to do them.

So I put up a Tumblr log, called Recommended by Spectre Collie, which I’ll eventually expand on and possibly incorporate on this site, depending how ambitious I get and if I ever get more free time. For now it’s only got a few iPhone games, but eventually it could be a repository for anything I’d like people to buy, read, or watch, and then come back and thank me for pointing it out to them. The RSS Feed is here for people who swing that way.

Incidentally, if you weren’t aware, and you’re interested, there’s already another Tumblelog called SpectreCollie Annex that links to my favorite stuff from YouTube, Flickr, and random websites (when that works).

Helpful Tips for Adobe

I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed with Adobe’s attempts to spin the whole Flash-on-iPhone OS story.

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.

iPerCard

The time is right for my favorite program to make a comeback.


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.