Embarrassed

There’s something strange that’s been happening in the world of tech as hotly anticipated products (primarily of the Apple variety) near launch: the world finds out about them long before they’re unveiled.

I think the entire phenomenon is so strange. When kids are young and looking forward to a hot new toy, they sometimes try to approximate its presence in their lives by creating an ersatz model to take the place of the real thing until they can actually touch, hold, and use the real thing. Strangely, this is happening with increasing frequency to the iPhone. The tech world is so hungry for anything iPhone that they will contract graphic designers to create 3D models of the new gadgets, and even go so far as to build full physical models.

The noise is deafening.

Post after post featuring blurry component photos hits the interwebs, and the tech press gobbles them up like bacon-stuffed donuts. Most folks don’t follow tech blogs, don’t really have a pressing desire to know the internal layout of new gadgets, feel no need to really seek this stuff out. They read what falls in their lap and, usually, are better and more sane because of it.

Then the device hits, and it elicits “yawns” from the peanut gallery because they’ve already seen it all. They make sweeping (often literally global) statements about the reception of the product, about the excitement it’s generated, etc. Their actions are, again, childish, just like the kid whose favorite team gets eliminated from the playoffs really early and starts claiming that no one likes [insert sport here] anymore, anyway.

Ultimately, they’re embarrassed.

Who wouldn’t be? Their phones are either knock-offs or faked. The real deal is just that, and consumers know the difference. Companies will try to illustrate how their products “stack up” against Apple’s iPad, or iPhone, or whatever, but it ultimately just makes them look, again, juvenile. I can make a checklist that makes me look like the best human being ever compared to random people on the street. I could create a checklist of the features of a raw, uncooked potato, and compare it to all the features of a slice of deep-dish Chicago pizza, but comparing those two things would make no sense. “Grows in the ground”, “Has eyes”, “Will sprout if placed in water” are all “features” of the potato that the pizza doesn’t have, but who really cares? I’ll take the pizza thankyouverymuch.

Which leads me back to my point. The leaked specs, the feature parity, the checklists, etc. are all meaningless in the face of true user experience and the whole package.

A guy I know had his iPhone run over by a car. It was absolutely destroyed, which was sad for him. He was contemplating purchasing a replacement, but decided to wait it out until his contract was up for renewal so he could purchase a new iPhone 4S. In the meantime, someone gave him a Motorola Droid RAZR (or whatever it’s called…these things have the weirdest names). He ditched the Droid in favor of an iPhone 3G. You read that right. He disliked the Droid user experience so much that he went with a molasses-slow (comparatively) phone, simply because the overall user experience was so superior. When you’re on the losing team, shouting really loudly and making a lot of noise is still fun, sure, but it doesn’t win you ball games. Just ask Cubs fans.

At any rate, it’s clear that people are jazzed about the iPhone 5, and all these “yawn” reactions are just the tech news equivalent of Cubs fans getting uppity. People will choose good design and a fluid, beautiful user experience over checklists and noise.

As they say, it doesn’t take a genius.

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Freedom from numbers

For years now, I’ve been a loyal user of Google. I can remember the day I made the transition from .Mac to the power of the Google. It was quite an interesting day. I was convinced that Google was the way to go. Everything in sync, all the time. All my information, my photos, my calendars, email, everything. Everything was going to live in the cloud with the Google overlords watching benevolently as I used their services, added to their search statistics, usage patterns, and more. I became obsessed with keeping everything together, everything synchronized across multiple devices, using their servers as a free way to organize my life.

What I learned, however, was that I wasn’t as much interested in the sync or the connectivity, I was more interested in not losing everything. Being a student and a geek for many years meant that I was always trying to push the limits of technology in the classroom. I was using my 12″ Powerbook G4 in classes long before teachers were comfortable with the idea. I was tethered to my Nokia 6600 through bluetooth and surfing the web happily while my teachers lectured. My mind was busy, I took copious notes, and, come exam time, had a far easier time studying than my peers with binders and notebooks full of handwritten scribble (“When did we talk about that? Was it before or after the thing about the guy…?” *Command+F* “Nevermind, found it.”)

When my computer suffered a critical hard drive failure, however, it became clear that I needed a way to back everything up in the case of a similar failure. I lost almost everything. I had managed to backup a significant portion of my (for those days) gargantuan music library (60 GB!), so it wasn’t a total loss, but my notes, papers, research…all gone. I was upset, which is why I started using Google Docs. I never wanted to be left in the position of losing everything and being without some record of my past. Obviously, using Google Docs led me to Gmail, and Google Calendar, and Google, well, everything.

There’s a special insanity that comes from using Google products, as I’m sure is true of using basically any product almost exclusively, but Google’s is particularly sinister and particularly ubiquitous. In a matter of a few months, I had made the transition to Google almost completely, and I started learning to do things “The Google Way.”

This refers to the accumulation of knowledge, facts, data. You essentially start to look at your life as a series of interconnected services, all of which are always accessible and always updated and live in this magical land known as “The Web.” It’s comforting. You don’t have to worry about software updates, managing resources, or crashes. You just open your web browser, and you have Google (I mean that almost literally, since almost every single browser has a little search box that takes you through the goog’s massive brain). And it’s free! Wow!

Then you look closer, and you realize something. Google has eaten your life.

You’ve given them everything: your contacts, events, email, documents. Literally everything you need to make your life work. They have it all. In return, they gave you the tools to create more, give them more. Sure, there are privacy concerns there. How many articles have you read about Google’s scary in-email advertising? It’s not really invading anything, and they’re not really “reading” your email, but people are creeped out by it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s like cheating on your taxes, and then opening a fortune cookie that says, “Cheating is bad!” It’s not meant for you, it’s a random cookie from a bag of a thousand, but it feels like it’s for you, and you get all weirded out and feel guilty (I’m not saying it’s ok to cheat on your taxes, just trying to illustrate an example).

Even more sinister, however, is how Google has made you a slave to numbers.

Your inbox, your unread count on Google reader, your new voicemails on Google Voice, your unread Waves. These and more pull you in a thousand directions, trying to coax you back in from productivity, focus, or wherever else you may have been doing. Suddenly, instead of reading that book you wanted to read, you’re wrapped up in a conversation with a friend from halfway across the world while reading the latest Guardian headlines. Then you’re behind, but those numbers keep getting larger, and you can’t get to that paper until your unread RSS count hits zero.

You’ve gone crazy.

So, I decided to pull the plug on all that. No more google. I got a subscription to MobileMe, synced all my contacts, and was on my way. I don’t have an “unread” count anymore, just a folder full of sites that I like to check. If I have time, I read them. If my day is too busy, I don’t. The world will survive, it moves on. I don’t need to check my inbox constantly. I can, if I want, but I like knowing that my email is there for me to take care of when I actually have time to take care of it.

It’s not freedom from the privacy that was my victory, it was regaining appreciation for doing things my own way. Having my computer, my iPad, and my iPhone tied together with a service that is expressly made to keep them in sync is amazing (like the old ads for Mac OS X Tiger, it feels “built-in, not bolted on.”), but having the ability to handle my work my way? Beautiful.