“Apple” Category

Simplicity, Ingenuity and Gumption

Patrick Rhone:

I’ve started to notice a trend with the apps that garner my personal praise. Some traits that they almost always share.

Simplicity, ingenuity and gumption. I love that. Very good way to summarize what good design is.

March 29th, 2013

Why Developers Shouldn’t Use iCloud Syncing

Brent Simmons on why you shouldn’t use iCloud, even if it worked without issue:

Here’s the thing: half the mobile revolution is about designing and building apps for smartphones and tablets.

The other half is about writing the web services that power those apps.

How comfortable are you with outsourcing half your app to another company? The answer should be: not at all comfortable.

That’s right, and his other arguments (which are similar to the ones I made last year) are convincing, too.

iCloud is limiting, and building your own service allows you to provide more services. All true, but sometimes, all we want is for our data to follow us around to each device we use. With Quotebook, for example, I don’t really want unique social features that they could only build with a custom sync service—I just want all of my quotes on my iPhone and iPad, and I want to be able to add them from any of my devices.

In cases like Quotebook, it’s still possible that iCloud isn’t the right answer, because there’s no way for them to build a web application on top of iCloud. But that doesn’t mean they should have to write their own sync service. We should, ideally, be able to build on top of existing sync solutions, and write our own only if it’s truly necessary. I don’t think it’s good for the future of mobile computing if everyone is effectively required to write their own sync service. The number of devices people use is getting larger, but syncing data across them is still a difficult task. The goal should be to solve much of it for people.

March 27th, 2013

Black Pixel Talks NetNewsWire

Black Pixel said a little about what’s happening with NetNewsWire. The good news: they’re developing new Mac and iOS versions. The bad news:

As far as sync is concerned, we knew we would likely need an alternative to Google Reader as early as last year. At the time, the option that seemed to make the most sense was to embrace iCloud and Core Data as the new sync solution of choice. We spent a considerable amount of time on this effort, but iCloud and Core Data syncing had issues that we simply could not resolve.

Ugh. As Steve Streza said on Twitter, if they can’t get it to work—a team of incredibly talented people—who can?

I really hope Apple’s working to fix iCloud’s issues. It needs to work, both for developers and for Apple.

March 20th, 2013

Cameron Moll On the Apple Watch

Cameron Moll:

Apple faces the opposite problem it faced with iPhone, where every phone in the market was painful to use. Just about every analog or digital watch on the market is already extremely easy to use. The challenge facing Apple is one of introducing new complexity, rather than eliminating it.

But the real potential for Apple Watch lies in serving as a vehicle for innovation, rather than the sole provider of it.

(Via Shawn Blanc.)

March 19th, 2013

Beyond Consumption vs Creation

Fraser Speirs provides an excellent explanation for what smartphones, tables and PCs are good for:

I’d like to propose that we can look at the ‘sweet spot’ for each type of device along two axes: task complexity and task duration. Task duration is the more obvious of the two: how long of a continuous period will you be using your device for the task.

It really is an excellent way to think about it in a way that’s much more systematic (and accurate) than “smartphones and tablets are for consumption, PCs are for work.” He argues, based on this explanation, that a larger iPad could allow iOS to encroach further into the PC’s territory. He’s absolutely right, but it wouldn’t be easy; to take full advantage of the screen size, applications would have to be designed specifically for the larger screen—which could result in fragmentation among “iPad” applications. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, of course, but would complicate the ecosystem.

March 5th, 2013

Groceries Update

One of my favorite iPhone applications, Groceries, just received a pretty big update.

Groceries is a terrific—what else—grocery list that makes it really quick to add items and create different lists. And it’s beautiful.

The new version makes it even faster. As you type out an item to add, Groceries figures out the item, quantity and unit. So if you type “wat 5bo,” it parses it to “water,” “5,” and “bottles.” It’s really, really cool.

February 28th, 2013

Google Now

Jamie Dihiansan:

She wants to stop by her aunt’s house on the way to drop off some Girl Scout cookies. In my head I’m calculating and recalculating that “1 hour” drive time to Geja’s.

While we’re visiting with her aunt I try not to look at the clock so much. That’s rude. But I wonder: how’s the traffic? How can we get there on time?

Then I get a notification on my Android phone.

That notification let him know that it was time to leave to make it to dinner on time. This sort of thing is another area iOS is behind.

February 26th, 2013

Apple’s Underwhelming Ads

Ken Segall:

No matter what brand I’m working with, technology or otherwise, it’s astounding how many times I hear marketing people cite the Apple example to make a point. Apple’s advertising history is as famous as its products.

But something’s changed.

After watching the latest batch of iPad ads, I agree. The ads aren’t bad—but they aren’t at all compelling, either. They’re just there, easy to ignore. Perhaps their intention is simply to remind people about the iPad. I don’t know.

Of course, that may simply be a consequence of Apple being at the top of the industry and because they have nothing new to introduce right now. The original iPad Mini ad was particularly excellent, but didn’t deviate at all from the show-the-product style Apple’s used extensively since releasing the iPhone in 2007. So it could just be these were two mediocre ads in Apple’s long-running advertising strategy to show off what the iPad can do rather than make concept ads.

That could be the case, too. Segall points out, though, that Samsung’s ad strategy has been very successful in stirring things up and getting attention. He seems to think that Apple needs to respond in some way, which I’m not sure of. I don’t think Apple can win at that game, because responding—no matter how oblique—will be read as Apple being afraid of the underdog.

Rather, Apple needs to continue making great products, and improving what isn’t very good—parts of the software. iCloud’s syncing needs a lot of work, Messages is a mess in OS X, Siri’s lagging behind Google’s efforts in many ways, and Passbook—although filled with incredible potential—is remarkably confusing to figure out how to use.

The original iPhone was an incredible product not just because of what it did, but because it was also incredibly polished. It did almost everything it was supposed to do really, really well. Safari was mind-glowingly good at the time, the iPod app was absolutely better than a regular iPod, and on and on. That isn’t the case in iOS right now. Passbook is one of those things that should be really successful because it’s such a good idea, but it’s missing the part that Apple usually excels at: making something fairly complicated obvious and accessible to regular people.

February 25th, 2013

Thinking Through the Watch

Now that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have all reported that Apple is working on a wristband-like iOS device—in other words, Apple’s preferred method of pre-announcing products to the public—it’s certain that Apple is working on such a device.

The last time the New York Times’s Nick Bilton made a similar report about Apple was mid-July 2012, when he and Nick Wingfield reported that Apple is expected to announce an iPad Mini sometime that year. The iPad Mini was announced in October, just three months later. Bilton’s report on the watch, though, does not suggest an announcement date (just that it “might soon become a reality”), and says that Apple is “experimenting” with wristwatch devices made of curved glass. Peter Burrows and Adam Satariano’s report for Bloomberg, though, says that more than one hundred “product designers” are working on it, and that the team includes marketing group employees, which would suggest that the device is being actively developed as a product and is not merely an experiment. That makes sense with the near-simultaneous reports in the Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.

I think, then, we can reasonably expect that such a device is coming. It’s an incredibly interesting device to think about because such a form is right on the edge of what we can do with mobile computers today and because it presents very difficult decisions about the device’s form and function. As such, I want to think through the watch a bit.

Form and Function

Ideally, a wristband-style mobile computer (hereon referred to as the “watch”) would be a standalone device that could also interoperate with the iPhone or iPad. It would have a decent-sized color screen, WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular data, GPS, a microphone and speaker. In other words, it would have all the hardware features of the iPhone, except in a much smaller package and would attach to the wrist. You would interact with it through touch and voice using Siri. It could act as a bridge to the iPhone or iPad (see messages and notifications on it, control media playback), but it could also be a replacement for many uses; instead of wearing an iPhone or iPod Touch while running, exercising at the gym or cycling, all you’d need is the watch on your wrist to track your distance and route. With Bluetooth headphones, you could listen to music and hear prompts from an exercising application, too.

Many places we go, a standalone watch would be completely sufficient. There’s little that you actually need an iPhone for while going out for the evening that the watch couldn’t do (texts, calls, finding where to go for dessert or a drink), and its smaller screen size—the main limiting factor—is actually a positive in this case (and many others), because it can be less distracting. You’ll probably zone out less checking Twitter, Facebook or Instagram while out with friends when all you have is a tiny screen to use.

But the watch will almost certainly not be standalone, at least initially, simply because our current battery technology doesn’t seem able to keep such a small device powered for a reasonable amount of time. The iPhone’s battery life is just acceptable, so it’s difficult to imagine a much smaller device with the same networking needs having anything approaching reasonable battery life—and that’s assuming it can all be miniaturized to a reasonable size. The odds are that the watch will instead be a Bluetooth accessory for the iPhone.

What, though, will it do? The standalone watch can replace a smartphone in many cases, which is reason enough to get one. But what about the watch-as-accessory? When Apple announced the iPhone, it had two uses that made it immediately obvious why it was a big deal: it replaced your phone and iPod with one superior device, and it could use the full web anywhere. What will be the watch’s defining use that clicks with people?

The apparent use is what Pebble and others do: alert you to phone calls, text messages and other notifications, and allow you to control media and some other functions. Apple could provide even greater interconnection so that the watch could use Siri through the iPhone’s connection. That could be convincing; with an improved Siri, there would be much less need to use the iPhone directly. You would be able to see and make quick responses to messages as they come in (or ignore unimportant ones), find a restaurant or bar to head to and get directions using Siri, get movie times, and control what music is playing in your car; in other words, you’d be able to do much of what we use the iPhone for without ever touching it. Passes in Passbook (airline flights, games, movies, etc) could be used without ever taking out your iPhone.

There are many potential uses for third-party developers, too. The immediately ones are for exercise. Even a dependent watch would still be a very useful exercise device; it could still track how far a person runs and for how long (like the Nike Fuelband and Jawbone Up do), instruct people on gym exercises and perhaps even track them, and do so without being connected to an iPhone. Even without a data connection or GPS, it would still be a very useful device for exercising. And if Apple could somehow build in a heart rate sensor, it could provide even more data than these applications have currently.

But there’s more potential, too. Tethered to the iPhone, it could serve as a tour guide for cities and other locations, instructing you where to go and pointing out interesting landmarks and information. While driving, it could alert you to new traffic jams up ahead.

Those are all fantastic uses (or at least I think so). Along with third-party services, the watch could completely eliminate the need for dedicated fitness devices like Nike’s Fuelband, Jawbone’s Up, and Fitbit’s various devices, it would make many tasks (like getting directions or information about things around you while walking around) much less intrusive and annoying, and could open up completely new uses.

That all might be enough to make the watch a compelling accessory—I would certainly like to use it. And perhaps that’s the right path to take. Rather than bill it as a new device, Apple can sell it wholly as an accessory, something that isn’t necessary but makes the iPhone better. From there, Apple can develop it until it’s something that can largely stand on its own. At that point, we would have a fundamentally new device.

A New Relationship

With the smartphone, because it can pack (relatively) large amounts of information on the screen and we can access it easily through touch, it’s very easy to spend minutes or even hours using it to browse the web, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other services. The smartphone is so engaging that you can end up disconnected from what’s going on around you, whether you’re waiting in line at a store or out to dinner with friends. We are all familiar with doing this or other people doing it. The smartphone is engaging because of its method of interaction.

Users, though, could have a much less engaging relationship with the watch. Because the form (small screen on the wrist) and means of interaction (voice, some touch input) are less engaging and carry less information than touch input with a large screen, our relationship with the watch will likely be very different. Rather than spend long periods of time using it, we will probably use it more as a utility, where we interact with it for some specific task and then go back to whatever we were doing. Instead of finding yourself checking Instagram when you pulled out your phone to look at a notification, you’ll just glance at your wrist, respond to it if it’s important, and go back to whatever you were doing. Instead of holding your phone while following directions to walk somewhere in the city, you’ll just glance at a street name, distance and arrow on your wrist.

In this way, the watch would be even more of a utility than a computer, a trend started with the iPhone. You use it for a specific task, and then it’s gone. It would take much less attention to use and it wouldn’t take you out of the moment while using it, as the smartphone tends to do. As such, the watch could be much more human than the smartphone. What I mean is that rather than force us to conform to it, it would conform to us to a much greater extent. It would provide us whatever information we need without interrupting the moment much, and it would disappear the second it provides it. It would empower us while doing what we want, rather than dominate our attention.

The smartphone is an addiction all its own. It’s always in our pocket and can provide us with almost limitless distractions when we want it, and because it’s always there, it can nearly become muscle memory to pull it out and tap around when there’s even just a few seconds of downtime. The watch could technically serve the same function, but simply because there would be much more friction to use it as such (tapping around on a tiny screen will simply be much more of a pain to do), we probably won’t. And because of that friction, the watch could be much more of a tool—something we take out when we need it and put away when we don’t—than the smartphone, which is much more akin to a security blanket.

That, I think, is a good thing, an improvement on mobile devices. Moreover, it speaks to a question that I think is important now and will only grow more important in the future: since mobile computing undoubtedly affects how we live as human beings, how do we want to live, and what role should computing play? Smartphones have a very engaged role, but “glasses”—mobile computers with heads-up displays, like Google’s Glass project—would literally become an intermediary between the world around us and our perception of it, because we would see the world through the computer’s display. In that case, computing would not only be integral to our lives, but would be our window to, and a filter on top of, the world itself.

I find that idea troubling, which is why I find the watch so promising. Rather than be a part of how we see the world, computing would be something we interact with when we need information or something done, and then it would go away. Rather than fundamentally change how we envision the world and interact with it, it would instead leave us as we always have been, but much more effective.

That question is as much philosophical as it is technological, and different people will have different takes. There is certainly an argument to be made that our advancement as a species depends on more deeply integrating technology into ourselves. Perhaps that is the case, and perhaps going down that road will leave us better off as individuals and as a species, but it points to what I think we should all be discussing more, which is what role computing should take in the future and what role it should play in our lives.

All that from a watch that doesn’t even exist. Yet.

February 14th, 2013

Netflix’s Set-Top Box That Never Shipped

Austin Carr has a terrific look at Netflix’s Project Griffin, a set-top box the company finished and nearly released in 2007. But they didn’t:

It was December 2007, and the device was just weeks away from launching. Yet after all the years and resources and talent invested in the project (a team of roughly 20 had been working on it around the clock, from ironing out the industrial design and user interface to taking trips to Foxconn to finalize production details), Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was having serious second thoughts. The problem? Hastings realized that if Netflix shipped its own hardware, it would complicate potential partnerships with other hardware makers. “Reed said to me one day, ‘I want to be able to call Steve Jobs and talk to him about putting Netflix on Apple TV,’” recalls one high-level source. “‘But if I’m making my own hardware, Steve’s not going to take my call.’”

Smart decision that, at the time, might not have seemed quite so obvious. The company was finishing up advertisements for the product’s launch—it was finished, and Hastings decided to kill it at the last second. He decided to kill a product that could have opened up Netflix’s future.

But, of course, it could also endanger their future, as Hastings saw. In retrospect, it’s an obvious decision. At the time, not so much; not only would it have seemed risky at the time to kill a product that could turn Netflix into a media streaming company rather than a DVD rental company, but it also meant killing the hard work of many people in the organization.

This is a good reminder of why, for business, it’s important not to be sentimental or fear being wrong. The right choice is the right choice, and Hastings made it.

February 6th, 2013

Netflix’s House of Cards

Netflix released the first season of “House of Cards” today:

On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting: “House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.

“House of Cards,” of course, is Netflix’s original “television” show that stars Kevin Spacey and is produced by David Fincher.

I’ve been excited since hearing about this, so I can’t wait to start watching it, but what’s more interesting to me is how successful this could be. It’s Kevin Spacey and David Fincher together making a high quality, serial political thriller; if it were premiering on a cable channel (like, say, AMC), there’s no doubt it’d have a huge audience.

But it’s not. It’s Netflix’s show, and it’s only available there. It shows; rather than “broadcast” a new episode each week at a certain time on a certain day, all thirteen episodes of its first season became available today. If you’d like, you could sit down right now and watch the entire first season—on its first day. Or you can space it out. Whatever you want, just like we’ve all been watching TV series on Netflix that we missed when they originally aired. And because they are intending the show for people who will watch one episode after another, there are no recaps at the beginning of each episode, either.

There’s been a huge amount of discussion about “when” television will become like the web, where we can watch what we want when we want it and only pay for it, rather than a bundle of things we don’t want. Well, that’s going to be a while, if it happens at all, because television is built on expensive cable subscriptions with advertising and hundreds of channels. There probably will never be a day when, suddenly, you can pay for only Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, or whatever you watch, and nothing else.

But Netflix is creating a new path for television-like content. If Netflix’s original productions are successful, then there will be a second way for television-like content to reach an audience. When someone’s thinking about creating a new show, they will be able to choose the traditional model (production studios, cable networks) or the streaming model. And if enough shows go the second route, cable won’t be the only place where all the content is.

At that point, the economics would shift. Cable subscriptions wouldn’t be the only viable way to make a successful show, and it wouldn’t be the place to go for good shows. Netflix could very well end up being a must-have for people who love good television. At that point, many people very well could cut the cord and go streaming-only for television. And once that happens, the traditional cable networks and production studios may have no choice but to offer their shows (or new shows) via streaming.

That’s the best approach, I think, to undermining the cable monopoly. People go to where the content is, so creating shows for the new medium, only available through it, and are must-watch shows is the best way to weaken cable’s grip. That’s what Netflix has the potential to do. But one step at a time; right now, what they have to do is make a show that’s so good, no one can ignore it.

February 1st, 2013

Talking a Little Sense

Patrick Rhone:

The original iPhone was released June of 2007 and changed the very idea of what a mobile phone was. It was a “blockbuster”.

The original iPad was released April of 2010, nearly three years later, and changed the very idea of what a mobile computer was. It was a “blockbuster”.

Now Apple has to — as in, MUST — come up with something equally revolutionary in less time in order to stay “relevant”? I’m sorry, I think I’d choose selling more stuff and making way more money and staying irrelevant by that definition.

January 31st, 2013

Apple Said to be Negotiating for HBO Go On Apple TV

Bloomberg says Apple is negotiating with Time Warner to put HBO Go on the Apple TV by mid-2013.

Excellent news if the negotiations are successful.

iTunes, Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go… Once you’ve got enough content sources, you could build a wonderful UI around the sources that abstracts them away. Just look for the movie or show you want to watch, rather than a source then what you’re looking for.

January 31st, 2013

Amazon’s Beautiful Low Margins

Eugene Wei argues that Amazon’s low-margin approach is a strategic advantage:

Attacking the market with a low margin strategy has other benefits, though, ones often overlooked or undervalued. For one thing, it strongly deters others from entering your market. Study disruption in most businesses and it almost always comes from the low end. Some competitor grabs a foothold on the bottom rung of the ladder and pulls itself upstream. But if you’re already sitting on that lowest rung as the incumbent, it’s tough for a disruptor to cling to anything to gain traction.

True. That’s what makes Amazon a threat to Apple: they are in the position of creating cheap, pretty good mobile devices that have access to a pretty good media store. They can undermine Apple’s strong margins, which have driven their success.

But what if “the market”—the nature of it—is constantly being redefined? What if you end up clinging to the bottom rung of a ladder to a market that no longer exists?

Wei believes that Apple should compete at the bottom end with lower-margin devices to defend against low-end threats from Amazon and Google. I don’t think he’s wrong, but I think the most important defense Apple has is offense. They have to continue redefining what mobile devices are and do so competitors are constantly chasing them.

January 28th, 2013

Romo the iPhone-Powered Robot

Romo is a $150 iPhone-powered rover robot that can be controlled from other iOS devices. I must have one.

It’s a cute toy right now, but what excites me about this is programming for it. There’s so much to experiment with—navigation, object recognition and people recognition, “emotions,” you name it.

January 25th, 2013