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.

Remembrance of Computers Past

Looking back at the rest of Apple’s product line helps explain why people think the iPad is such a big deal. Also, kind of a review.

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.

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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.
Continue reading “Remembrance of Computers Past”

Walled Garden Party

Passing the interminable waiting time by reading the hilariously over-the-top preactions to the iPad. Warning: very long and somewhat angry.

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Tomorrow morning, as you know, is The Dawn of a New Era in Personal Computing. The Coming of the iPad will bring about a magical age where people are directly connected to content, and they will become mindless consumers tied to an unchecked corporate overlord, and also it will flop and no one will buy one. All at the same time. It’s just that special.

I was pretty skeptical of Apple’s marketing at first; I thought the claim that it was “magical and revolutionary” was a bunch of flowery nonsense. But now I’m convinced. Somehow, even before its release, the iPad has taken what was once a disparate group of strangers with internet access and magically turned them into thousands of experts, better able to tell me how I should spend my money than I’d be able to by myself. And it’s going to bring about a revolution (which won’t be televised in widescreen format, apparently) in which everyone suddenly finds himself unable to think for himself or create anything of value.

All across the web are the brave souls documenting the downfall of society. It’s been a little bit disheartening watching Nilay Patel of Engadget make the transition from his initial guarded optimism to having to mention the lack of printing and the App store’s rating system in only tangentially-related posts. I actually can’t tell if he’s being serious, or if he’s just been worn down by the thousands of commenters just plain losing their shit over the idea that a gadget blog would cover a new piece of consumer technology. Stay strong!

It’s a little easier with Marc Bernardin’s post on io9, a sarcastic but pleasant enough little piece about the ability to read comic books on the iPad that gives an overview of what apps are going to be available and what it means for distribution and oh my god we’re all gonna die where the hell did that come from all of a sudden?

With Ownership of Media Comes Great Responsibility

But the best of all is Cory Doctorow’s manifesto on Boing Boing, helpfully entitled “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either).” It’s certainly no surprise that the guy who’s appointed himself lead internet spokesperson against the evils of digital rights management would choose to write a tirade against Apple; the only surprising thing is that he waited this long. John Gruber wrote a response that was more even-tempered than I could be. And, frankly, more even-tempered than Doctorow’s post deserves.

I should make it clear that I don’t have anything personal against Doctorow; for all I know he’s a fine person, albeit one I’d probably hate getting stuck talking to at a party. But it seems that the iPad (and its media coverage) has magically turned him from an amusingly passionate and occasionally irritating anti-DRM evangelist, into full-on sputtering douchenozzle. On the plus side, his post makes Annalee Newitz’s rant on io9 (which tried to say exactly the same thing, a month earlier) seem reasoned and thoughtful by comparison. On the negative side: everything else.

First he rails against the assault on comic books:

I mean, look at that Marvel app (just look at it). I was a comic-book kid, and I’m a comic-book grownup, and the thing that made comics for me was sharing them. If there was ever a medium that relied on kids swapping their purchases around to build an audience, it was comics. And the used market for comics! It was — and is — huge, and vital. I can’t even count how many times I’ve gone spelunking in the used comic-bins at a great and musty store to find back issues that I’d missed, or sample new titles on the cheap.
[…]
So what does Marvel do to “enhance” its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvellous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites. Nice one, Misney.

Haha, way to stick it to The Man, C-Doc! Because as we all know, Disney is a pure representation of Evil Multinational Corporation that stifles creativity, since it’s still 1994 and all of us had our emotional and intellectual maturation stopped when we were sophomores in college. Also, MEAT IS MURDER! Ever since tiny upstart mom-and-pop operation Marvel Comics got bought by their new corporate overlords, they’ve stopped publishing single issues. Even worse, they’re stifling kids’ enjoyment of comics by making them available on every single digital platform in existence.

I, too, am a comic-book grownup. And as a grownup I would prefer to have hundreds of comic books on a one pound, half-inch high device instead of in the boxes and stacks that are overflowing my closet, bookshelves, romantic-encounter-inhibiting stack beside my bed, and my parents’ basement. If I want to share them, then holy shit they’re now on a device that’s the same size as a comic book! I can hand somebody else the iPad, and it’ll even flip over to let them read it! Also the last time I shared a single issue of a comic book with anyone was when I was 18!

The comic book thing is just the first sign that Doctorow has become the worst kind of Old Guard: the Old Guard who believes he’s still cutting-edge counter-culture. The kind who believes that putting a picture of Steve Jobs upside down or using epithets like “Misney” is anything more than a lazy substitute for bonafide insight. What he’s done here is conflate two things: his pet cause of “ownership” of media, and the joyous magic of sharing. It’s selfishness disguised as generosity. If I start buying comics on an iPad, then I’m every bit as free to go “spelunking” through the online catalog for back issues — I could buy, right now, the first 10 issues of X-Men and read them immediately and individually; they’re not to the best of my knowledge in print as single issues. I could share my collection with anyone by sharing my iPad.

What I can’t do is take someone else’s work and sell it. That is not, however, “sharing.”
Continue reading “Walled Garden Party”

Our Browsers, Ourselves

Using the healing power of blogging to rationalize an expensive and unnecessary purchase.

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As one of the idiots loyal technology enthusiasts who bought an iPhone on day one, I was a little disappointed by the anti-climactic iPad pre-order event. In June a couple years ago, I was standing in line outside an AT&T store for an hour, chatting with the other saps fine people, only to be told at the last minute that they were sold out of the version I wanted. That led to my driving all over Marin county, eventually finding myself at an Apple Store, where I was welcomed by a double line of smiling Apple employees escorting me to the demo phones on display at their all-white tables, then putting a gentle hand on my back and leading me to the back of the store where they could take my credit card info. It was exciting and not at all creepy.

With the iPad, though, I just hit a button on a web form. Where’s the excitement? Or the exclusivity? It’s been over a week, and you can still order one online! You can even have it sent to your house, and miss out on all the energizing and totally not cult-like atmosphere of the Apple Store. I used the online form to reserve a pick-up at one of the stores in San Francisco. Conveniently, the very same form let me schedule a time and place outside the store to get mugged and have my iPad stolen from me.

I chose the WiFi 32 GB model, and I chose Darrel as my Forced Redistribution Representative. I figured that even the 64 GB model wouldn’t hold all of the music and video I’ve amassed over the decades, and the iPhone is a better music player anyway, so 32 GB could easily store a couple weeks’ worth of video and books until the next sync. And I liked that Darrel is a methadone addict who plans to re-sell the thing on Craigslist, so it felt like I was giving back to the community.

Now, I put a good bit of effort into talking myself out of wanting one of these things, and then calmly and rationally going through the pros and the cons, so that I could make an informed purchasing decision by the morning of the 12th. Apple ruined all that, by apparently having enough supply to meet the demand, but I hate to see all that thought process go to waste:

Cost-Effectiveness: When I moved into this apartment, I bought a couch for $600. It’s green and very comfortable. I also bought a chair from Office Depot for around $80. It’s oddly tilted and is bad for my back. When I get home after a grueling day of watching other people make videogames, I spend anywhere from two to four hours at my desk, reading news feeds and forum messages, starting and abandoning web posts such as this one, and obsessively checking Google for mentions of the game I’m working on. If it’s “Lost” or “Castle” night, or the day after “Community” and “30 Rock,” I might spend an hour on the couch in front of the TV. This means that every second I spend at my desk, I’m losing money that I spent on my couch. Being able to browse the web while reclined isn’t only more comfortable, it’s the right thing to do.

Productivity: Whenever I’m sitting in this uncomfortable chair reading the internets, I invariably run across a recommendation of some Flash game that I end up playing for longer than it’s worth. The iPad doesn’t support Flash. Big win.

Literature: I’ve still got all these books piled up from back when I used to intend to read things. But what a hassle! Those pages! Finding a light source! All the opening and closing! On the floor of my apartment, I’ve got a big stack of unread books just sitting there, mocking me every time I sit down to play a videogame or watch a movie. Just think of all the space I could save if I could have all those books on a single device that’s a half inch thick, and not read them there!

Health Concerns: The books that I do still read are comics, and reading comic books means leaving the apartment to take a bus down to the comic book store. And that means exposing my body to unhealthy UV radiation. In the perfect world of 2010, I should be able to buy comic books without going outside. And without waiting for the trade paperbacks to come out.

My Concern for You, The Readers: The one thing the best writers all have in common is that they have a singular voice, a defining characteristic. The one thing that all my writing has in common is that there’s a lot of it. If I can make blog posts from a touchscreen keyboard with the iPhone OS’s auto-correction, then I’ll be encouraged to keep it short and sample.

The Lamentations of Bloggers: There have been several bloggers calling out the iPad for representing the Evils of Closed Systems, writing post after post decrying the “walled garden” of the App Store and Apple’s unfair business practices. They suggest that consumers are complicit in the death of open software, lured by the status of an Apple logo and a bright shiny piece of electronics instead of getting a more powerful and more user-empowering computer. So I’m buying an iPad to make a statement. And that statement is: “Fuck you.” With the additional statement: “I know what I’m doing, and how I spend my money is my own damn business. If Windows or Android or Linux or HP or LG or whoever had beaten Apple to the system with a superior product, then I would’ve bought that instead. So suck it.”

Research: There are plenty of other e-book readers and personal media players and netbooks out there already; I believe that the new thing that the iPad will bring to the market is genuinely social computing. As in: a direct, tactile connection to the content displayed on screen; and real, face-to-face communication with another person while sharing the contents of the screen. Apple mentioned both aspects during the iPad keynote, but the “sharing” part was kind of an afterthought. I believe that’s were it’s going to make a real difference, though. (It’s also what the Microsoft Surface project has been all about, but they got locked into the mindset of a big-ass table. Instead of a portable device, which they always tried to turn into just another Windows machine). Apple mentioned showing off pictures with an iPad, but I think that’s because Steve Jobs feels about games the same way George Bush feels about black people. Board games and card games are just a different experience than playing single-player or even multiplayer games online, and it’s an experience that I don’t think computers have been able to replicate yet.

I do honestly believe that there’s going to be a subtle shift in the way people think about computers once more of us can show someone else a web page or a photo or a video simply by handing them the screen. But I think the most exciting stuff on the iPad is going to come from two areas: online magazines, and social games. (And hopefully, we’ll be able to take the term “social games” back from all the people making Facebook games).

Continue reading “Our Browsers, Ourselves”