When Apple, Microsoft, and Google took on touch

When Apple took on touch, it created a new OS (though, yes, based on OS X) with entirely new UI conventions. It threw out everything end users knew about getting around in software and started building anew with the finger as the foundation.
When Microsoft took on touch, it first tried to bolt it onto Windows 7, then got off its ass and built an entirely new interface for Windows 8. This time Microsoft used the finger, but also the pen, as the foundation.

When Google took on touch, it slapped a web browser in a traditional PC notebook, gave it a price tag of $1,300, and said ‘good luck tapping tiny 30-year-old UI buttons designed for mice and keyboard shortcuts’.

The Verge: Why is Verizon’s iPhone 5 unlocked? Don’t thank Google or the FCC

In theory, the rules were intended to usher in a new era of openness in cellular by requiring that any compatible device or application be permitted to connect to it unless such use “would not be compliant with published technical standards reasonably necessary for the management or protection of the licensee’s network.” At the time, the rules — seen as a big win for consumers — were celebrated by virtually everyone outside of the traditional cellular providers actually bidding on the spectrum, and Google famously bid it up beyond the reserve price to make sure the rules would go into effect.

The reality has barely moved the “open” needle, however.

— Chris Ziegler

Plausible theory, but something still bugs me about it. A decent chunk of the smartphone market is switching from AT&T to Verizon, but Verizon doesn’t need to lose sleep over the reverse happening.

Still, Verizon has a reputation for obsession when it comes to locking down its network and devices. I find it hard to buy that Verizon simply doesn’t care, especially since those overseas roaming agreements have supposedly, in the past, been so lucrative.

Maybe it’s actually worth it to Verizon as a sort of gym membership business model. A lot of people in the US want unlocked phones because “unlocked” sounds great in the same way “unlimited” data sounded great. But the truth is that few people actually end up using their gym memberships, and very few people ended up getting anywhere near the new data caps the US carriers now enforce.

Maybe selling unlocked iPhones, along with their necessary and extremely lucrative US data plans, turns more heads and brings in more revenue than those ridiculous international roaming plans that very few people end up paying for in the first place.

Passbook worked like a champ this weekend

Last week a couple friends of ours invited us out to an Eric Sardinas show at the House of Blues in Chicago. I realized it was the perfect opportunity to give Passbook a real chance.

I installed the Live Nation app, found the show, and bought two tickets. Alongside Live Nation’s built-in ticket display feature is a new Passbook option, so I tapped it. The two tickets I bought were listed separately, so I had to tap each one to add them to Passbook. It seems like that should’ve been a one-tap process, but this is a minor complaint about a 1.0 shot at A Big New Thing.

It is at this point I think it’s worth noting there is nothing particularly proprietary about Passbook content. They’re just bundles of HTML, a couple icons, and a couple JSON files that contain the meat and potatoes of what makes your ticket(s) yours. In fact, a few services are cropping up that let you roll your own Passbook items for things like affiliate memberships or coupons you got in the mail. If the place you plan to use them has basic hardware to scan bar codes or, in some cases, fancier QR codes (like my House of Blues tickets), you can use these passes.

Sidenote for my sidenote: isn’t it funny how, for years, QR codes have been the butt of many a tech joke and even a whole blog, but Apple could very well propel them to actually being used with a single OS update and app?

Back to my night out with friends and Passbook, we hopped the Metra into Chicago and walked to dinner. When we were about a block and a half away from the House of Blues, Passbook displayed an alert presenting our tickets for the night’s event. I slid the alert’s icon and Passbook opened to present our tickets for scanning. It was great—I didn’t have to go digging through my homescreens or folders, and once I have more cards and tickets in here, I look forward to not having to manually open Passbook and dig through a bunch of said cards and tickets. My iPhone does the right thing for me.

Besides the multiple tickets complaint, my big request from this experience is for Passbook to be even more integrated into the ticket experience. For example: the next time I buy tickets from an app like Live Nation, I want the final step of the process to just toss my tickets and I over to the Passbook app; I shouldn’t have to manually add my tickets to Passbook by tapping one or more icons or list entries. If I’m doing something that could end in Passbook on my iPhone, I want it to just end up there.

Maybe some people don’t want to use Passbook for stuff like this, but I’m not a psychologist so I’m not sure what personality disorders would cause people to make such a decision. Assuming these people do indeed exist, maybe this could be a setting, be it system-wide (“If It Could Work In Passbook, Send It To Passbook”) or per-app.

But Passbook worked so well on my first real-world outing that I now want to use it for everything Passbook related, even if I have to spend a little time to roll my own. My iPhone is doing more of my work for me, and doing it well. That’s a fantastic win in my book.

On the iPhone 5, iOS 6, design, and choices

Many of us have heard this before, but it bears repeating because many still have not: great design is about making choices. Put another way: to the chagrin of Steve Ballmer and his periodic and preposterous assertion that design can involve “no compromises,” the ability to compromise, and well, is a core asset of great designers and engineers.

Design is not a haphazard journey to find and absorb every new and mildly interesting feature, trend, or trick. Great design is the relentless pursuit of creating a cohesive, contemporary product, be it a painting, a building, or a smartphone. To design great consumer electronics, companies must choose whether to incorporate this feature or that, usually at the expense of size, weight, battery life, materials, and other factors that matter. You can’t change one without affecting one or more of the others.

Apple as a company has built a reputation for great design, but it’s premature to label the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 as such. Though iOS 6 has been in developer beta for months, the majority of us have yet to so much as see or touch an iPhone 5, and those who have only did so for a few minutes after Apple’s event. At best, a small handful of the press are playing with review units as you read this. Even so, it’s only been a couple days.

On the flip side of that coin, it is also premature to label the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 as bad design or, to muster the supposed pinnacles of our journalistic times, “boring.” Again, no one’s spent real time in the wild with this stuff, but more importantly, in the conversation of design, too narrow of a focus is being applied.

One of the central arguments for the iPhone 5’s supposed inability to blow off the door for some people is its lack of a couple features, specifically NFC and wireless charging. But few appear to have investigated why Apple made the decisions to exclude those features. I somehow doubt Apple’s product managers haven’t heard of them or simply forgot to bring them up at the right meeting.

There are reasons for why Apple made these compromises, and some website got Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior VP of worldwide marketing, to offer some insight.

Compromise

When asked why NFC was excluded, Schiller answered simply:

It’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem. Passbook does the kinds of things customers need today.

With just two short sentences, Schiller both challenged NFC’s existence and offered Apple’s unique response to the actual problem NFC is designed to solve. If you need a primer on what NFC is and the features it can theoretically enable, Engadget wrote a great NFC primer last year. In short, once you open the proper app for the task at hand, NFC makes it really easy to then move your device very close to another NFC-friendly device to share media, unlock doors, and use affiliate and credit cards to pay in stores.

The compromise with NFC, however, is that it’s a hardware solution. Existing phones that don’t have it can’t get it, and new phones have to have their designs altered in various ways to fit the new hardware. Plus, every single thing in the real world we want to endow with NFC—vending machines, door locks, retail checkout counters, the list goes on—has to be replaced; it’s no small task. While there are removable, NFC-enabled SIM and MicroSD cards for some devices, their effectiveness is reportedly hit and miss since they end up buried out of general reach most of the time.

Apple’s Passbook, on the other hand, is a software solution to the same problems NFC is designed to solve. This means Apple doesn’t have to redesign around new hardware, so the iPhone 5 maintains the company’s design goal of being as thin and light as possible. Plus, because iOS 6 and Passbook are supported across four generations of iPhones—the 3GS, 4, 4S, and 5—Apple can offers a convenient new mobile payment and ticketing tool to tens of millions of customers literally overnight. No one needs to buy a new phone, no one needs to learn a goofy new initialism, and retailers don’t need to spend a not-insignificant amount of money upgrading to NFC-compatible hardware.

Complexity

On the topic of wireless charging, Schiller again offers a simple comment that explains why Apple chose to avoid incorporating that design:

Having to create another device you have to plug into the wall is actually, for most situations, more complicated.

Complexity. A handful of other phones and third-party accessories have tried wireless charging and it’s never really taken off. In general, wireless charging has so far been quite slow, but more importantly, it requires extra hardware built into or otherwise attached to the phone, as well as yet more new hardware external of the phone to provide the charging apparatus. It’s not like you plug some tiny box into the nearest AC outlet and electricity magically passes 10 feet across the room to your phone sitting on a table.

Palm was the first (mainstream?) company to try it with the Prē Touchstone. You had to swap out a different back panel on the phone and buy a bulky stand (an extra purchase), and we all know how that ended up. Now Nokia is trying it with its new will-ship-sooner-or-later Lumia line, where the phone’s half of the charging system is built into the device, but now instead of a stand like the Touchstone, it’s a pillow.

Whether charging your device at home or traveling, you already have to have some sort of a cable and AC adapter. But Apple’s argument against wireless charging is that you would then have to add yet another extra thing, and no small thing, mind you, in order to sustain the system. Now you’re not just compromising, you’re adding complexity—two C-words that Apple does not consider lightly.

Considering the constraints of wired charging and the pursuit of a thin and light design, Apple instead chose to dramatically redesign its connecting adapter. Again, it adds some immediate complexity for some people who will need to buy adapters or whole new accessories. But looking down the long road of the future where wireless charging just isn’t realistic, the new connector is much smaller and its symmetrical design makes it far easier to use.

Change

Apple clearly did compromise in the iPhone 5 when it comes to one of the device’s core components: the display. Since the original it’s been a 3.5-inch diagonal display, changing only in other factors like pixel density and manufacturing process to nudge those pixels closer and closer to your finger.

Maintaining that size reduced complexity for Apple, developers, and end users. It made Apple’s manufacturing plans and processes easier, gave developers more time (and therefore money) to dream up wonderful new apps instead of waste time (and therefore money) adjusting for different resolutions and layouts, and makes the shopping process far easier on users. Since day one, Apple also professed that the 3.5-inch size allowed the iPhone to stay small and fit well in most people’s hands so they could use all of the phone’s screen with just one of those said hands.

But after watching the vast majority of its competition adopt 4.0-inch and larger displays over the years, ushering that size through the trendy phase into commonplace, Apple decided that it was time to change. Change often requires complexity, no matter how minimal it may be.

As for adding an entirely new display size and resolution to its iPhone lineup, the iPhone 5 will bring its fair share of complexity, though likely short-lived. This is the first time Apple will sell two phones with significantly different display sizes, and every existing iPhone app in the store will need an update to take full advantage of the new layout (plus: how many abandoned apps will simply never be updated, yet still sit in the store for customers to stumble across?). For some apps, the update may not be very difficult. For others, perhaps many, it could take serious effort to redesign the entire interface, which takes time and, therefore, money.

However, it’s a safe bet Apple won’t rock the boat like this again for some time. Once apps are updated to support the iPhone 5’s display, we’re probably good to go for at least a couple more years, perhaps more. After all, smartphones can only get so large before they spill over into tablet territory and out of the typical pants pocket.

Prospects

Wireless charging has already failed to take off at least once—twice if you count all the third parties who have offered it the last few years as an add-on to the iPhone and other devices. I wager the core implementation of wireless charging would need meaningful change before Apple bothers to seriously consider it. Perhaps something like a small box you plug into AC that sends electricity through the air to your phone’s battery, no pillows or stands required.

NFC has fared slightly better. Unlike wireless charging, it’s seen a little adoption not just in a few competing device, but by a few actual retailers. Engadget and others have reported modest success for NFC in a countries, most notably Japan, and I know Macy’s in Chicago added Google Wallet NFC pads to its checkout counters not long ago. I’ll be damned if I’ve seen anyone use them while people watching, though, and none of the employees I’ve asked—people who work there day in and out—can say they’ve seen it.

On the other hand, iOS 6 arrives next week for tens of millions of existing iPhone owners, not to mention all the iPhone 5 buyers. New iOS releases typically enjoy fast adoption, and in light of the circumstances, there’s a good chance retailers—many of which already have scanning equipment that can read a bar code off the iPhone’s display—will be watching.

Choices

Apple wound up being wrong about larger display sizes, but will it be wrong about wireless charging and NFC? As much as it pains me as a writer to not edit out this next phrase, time will tell. But Apple has made clear, deliberate choices in the way the iPhone can respond to customer demands and solve contemporary problems.

Instead of carelessly adding features, bulk, and complexity, Apple has the strength to say no and follow a vision. That’s design, and we will soon see if Apple’s vision for the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 resulted in great design.

Apple did with the iPhone what it never has with the Mac

Three years ago, while beta testing his abilities as Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook famously told journalists on an earnings call that Apple doesn’t build netbooks because it can’t find a way to make a great notebook for $300. It became a famous and contentious statement from a company that pitches great products for a good price in an industry of barrel scrapers.

Thanks to its masterful supply chain command and response to the challenges of mobile phone competition, Apple capitalized on the culture of the wireless industry to do for the iPhone what it never has for the Mac: offer a good product not just for cheap, but for free.

During that earnings call, writers prodded Apple executives on why the company doesn’t make a cheaper notebook or netbook to compete in the sub-$500 market. Cook explained that Apple only makes the best computers it can for the best price it can. For quite some time, that means Apple’s best and most affordable attempt at a great, traditional computer has cost a minimum of $599 as a desktop and $999 as a notebook.

To make already cheap PCs look even more affordable, other computer makers have tried the subsidy thing, but I dare you to find one of those machines in public. Maybe more heads will turn once Verizon makes good on its promise of delivering shared data plans this summer. So far, though, customers just aren’t buying into subsidized PCs, partly because of the cheap-garbage factor, but largely because the burden of a second, costly data plan is a deal-breaker.

In smartphones, though, subsidizing does work, and Apple has capitalized on that difference in consumer culture. After hooking up the smartphone market in 2007 to the lightning rod of life it sorely needed, Apple has consistently responded to competition and leveraged its supply chain to drive down the iPhone’s barrier to entry from $400 in 2007, to $200, then $99, and now free, as of last fall.

Sure, the free-with-contract iPhone 3GS isn’t the top-of-the-line 4S, but it’s still a good phone and still supported by the latest iOS updates. It marks an accomplishment unique in Apple’s long journey: making one of, if not the, most important product in company history extremely accessible and free for more customers around the world than it can ever dream of reaching with the Mac.

Apple released a PSA last night: Siri is a tool first, companion second

Something struck me about the two new iPhone 4S and Siri ads Apple released last night, especially Joke, but I didn’t get it until now. Both ads star John Malcovich lounging in his subtly magnificent sitting room, but Joke features him speaking a series of one-word commands to Siri that practically feel like verbal equivalents of tapping on a particular app to get a particular piece of information. “Weather.” “Evening.” “Linguica.” “Joke.” Apple seems to want to remind us that, underneath the clever responses and artificial personality, Siri is a tool meant to help us get more done with less.

All of Apple’s other ads portray Siri as an early version of your very own Wall-E-meets-Asimo; a personal assistant you can banter with while asking for snippets of information and mundane tasks to be done. But I’ve seen a sentiment from plenty of users that trying to learn and adjust for Siri’s banter and request syntax is more cumbersome than just tapping Weather and Calendar, or opening Yelp and typing “Linguica.”

In “Joke,” Apple shows that Siri doesn’t need all the banter, that if you’d rather dispense with the pleasantries, Siri can get right down to business. Direct, succinct commands like these (and yes, they work) could very well be the efficiency boost some users want out of a robotic vocal assistant that they perceive as more of a tool, not a companion.

I hope Apple gets back to basics in iOS 6, or: A list of what’s broken in Apple’s most important OS

iOS has come quite a ways since its humble beginning in 2007, when it had very few background tasks, no folders, no Air-anything, no games, no Notification Center (or notifications), and of course, no (sanctioned) way to add new native apps. Apple has added quite a few welcome features over the years, but a number of them feel… incomplete.

Surely, you will be inundated with “new features I’d like to see in iOS 6” lists between now and when Apple finally relents and previews the next iteration of its most significant OS ever. I want to take a different approach and focus on the features that have felt broken, or at least unfinished, since their release.

In Lion, Apple went “Back to the Mac”—or as I called it in my Macworld analysis, “back to basics”. While we’re only five years into iOS, I think it could use some of the same attention in iOS 6:

Photos is broken

The Camera Roll is a mess and Photo Stream is its drunk, belligerent cousin that just came out of the woodwork. Yes, even after 5.1. We need a way to take iOS screenshots that don’t pollute our Apple TV screensavers. We need to be able to actually move photos to albums so they disappear from the Camera Roll.

We need control over default apps

Safari, Mail, Calendars, Contacts, and Twitter are great, but so are plenty of other apps. It was time for Apple to let us pick our own default apps when it launched the App Store in 2008, and it’s still time in 2012.

I’m old ‘nuff paw, promise

Warnings about an app’s content need to stop, and I’m plenty old enough to stop them. I couldn’t care less if a big bad app is going to expose me to the big, bad internet. I’m 31, not 13, and I don’t and won’t have kids—give me a mechanism to prove it and turn off those godforsaken warnings in iTunes and on my devices.

Something, something, homescreen, folders

Besides the arrival of folders in 2010 with iOS 4, homescreen management hasn’t really changed since iPhone OS 1.0. I have 172 apps on my iPhone, and while I’m sure that’s on the high end, I’m also sure I’m not the only one who feels that iOS’s options for managing all this could use… something. Whether it’s a new perk or two or a complete rewrite from byte one, I just hope Apple’s engineers are way ahead of me here.

Easier toggles

Sometimes you just gotta turn stuff like WiFi, Bluetooth, Personal Hotspot, and your VPN off. Or on. And it’s always been a pain in the ass in iOS. Maybe they can become buttons at the top or bottom of Notification Center, maybe they can show up as homescreen widgets. They just need to show up.

Restore from iCloud

Backing up to iCloud is awesome. Restoring from it sucks, primarily because you can only do it after a full restore, and then, only for your entire device. If apps actually work with iCloud for storage, they’ll just pull down all your documents the next time you delete and restore those apps (or, at worst, they’ll prompt you to do so). But we need a way to restore files from our iCloud backups for apps that aren’t (and, for whatever reason, may never be) actually using iCloud file storage without having to lobotomize our devices.

AirDrop for iOS

There’s no easy way to send a document or photo from one iOS (or, really, any) device to another without signing up with some service, some ToS, some middle man that uses the internet (and no, Bluetooth file transfer doesn’t quite cut it). Apple applied an arguably post-PC solution to this problem in OS X by introducing AirDrop with Lion. AirDrop sure would make a good bullet item for iOS 6, and perhaps a great addition next to the “Open In” action arrow option.