A New Beginning

So, Apple has unveiled iOS 7 to much discussion, hand-wringing, and cheers. There are lots of things that I feel that Apple is promising to do right with this release, and a number of things that we will, of course, need to see to believe.

Photos

One of the most prevalent activities that iOS users engage in is photo sharing. Apple’s recently-released “every day” video showcases the power of the iPhone as a camera. iPhone users know that their iPhone is probably one of the best cameras they’ve owned, and the millions of pictures snapped daily obviously underscores that.

I was intrigued by the keynote’s handling of photos, namely the application of filters and the introduction of “Shared Photo Streams” into iCloud. To be honest, I felt that this was a feature sorely missing from iOS and iCloud for a long time. The idea of a photo stream curated by a single person is fine if one of your friends happens to be a professional photographer or something like that, but most situations in which people are snapping photos tend to be social, with multiple people desiring to both view and (most likely) contribute to an album of the event. The trick lies in determining the canonical center of the stream. Who “owns” the photo stream? When people contribute to the photo stream, are they adding to a single user’s photos, or are they, in effect, “copying” that stream to their own photo collection and then adding to it, which can then be seen by other parties? Or, are the photos stored on Apple’s servers, where multiple parties “own” photos, can add to the stream, and then define who else “owns” those photos? “Own”, here, is an operative word, since ownership of the photos is tough to nail down, in this case.

I’ve always wondered how something like this would work, but it’s a problem that Apple absolutely has to tackle in order to stay relevant. As people add more and more photos of their lives to their devices, the related storage of said photos become of paramount importance, followed closely by how people identify and integrate those photos into their identity. What has become increasingly obvious is that people don’t just craft an identity that is tied to a mobile device, they create a digital identity that the mobile device allows them to access. In order for these technologies to be relevant, they have to allow people to share photos and feel comfortable about storing them in a way that is non-destructive and still allows them to reference past events with ease. It’s clear that Apple is now moving towards more meaningful photo sharing, but it has yet to be seen if they can take this idea and use it to deliver the type of interconnectivity that people implicitly ask for.

Inter-app Data

One of the things that Apple did not address, and something I’ve heard from people who have recently switched away from iOS as their primary mobile platform, is that iOS hamstrings users by not allowing them to easily pass data between apps. While I agree with some parts of this argument, I can see Apple’s stance on the idea of inter-app data sharing. The scenario that I often hear from heavy Android users is that things like taking notes, or saving PDFs from one app to another, etc. are easier on Android. I don’t agree with this because I do those very same things every single day with iOS and, ever since Apple started allowing for custom URLs to pass data from one app to another, have never had an issue with that. As such, I think I understand their stance – that Android allows a freer exchange of data between apps using a more-or-less centralized file system.

One thing that we saw in the WWDC keynote, however, is the introduction of a new tagging feature in Mac OS 10.9, which, I believe, is going to be Apple’s eventual answer to the file system. Instead of files being stored on the device, in a folder, they’ll be stored in iCloud, accessible as clusters of files related to a specific idea. This is finally the intelligent organization that Palm’s WebOS got right. Ultimately, people don’t really organize their data by app, they organize it by idea or topic, which is a far cry from having data “live” in an app.

I think the ultimate goal is to enable a user to cluster files together around a central theme or project that they may be working on, and make that cluster available as an item in an app that keeps track of and syncs tags across platforms. Ostensibly, the user could open the app, see all of their tag groups, and (possibly using an Photos app-like pinch to spread gesture) see all of the files in that tag group. Tapping on a file would open a list of corresponding apps that are capable of handling that type of file. Interestingly enough, this may also allow Apple to put a little more control in the user’s hands by allowing the user to pick which app would be the default handler of that file type. In this manner, people don’t necessarily have to know where to look for their files, they need only to open the “Tags” app, find the group they want to work on, and tap the file they want to work on in that group. The OS then passes that file to whatever helper application the user has selected as default, and they’re off to the races. A system like this wouldn’t be able to satisfy every Android lover’s desire for a true file system, but Apple wouldn’t need to – the average user would see this as a new feature, and customers on the fence may see this as a tipping point.

Multi-tasking

This one is weird to me, but I like the way that Apple has addresed it in the update, with the WebOS-style “cards” interface informing this component of the OS heavily. The ability to see live updates of each app, or at least the current status of each open application as the user left it is another way Apple brings parity with Android, but does it better. I’ve seen Android’s task-switching waterfall, and It has always felt too sterile to be enjoyable to use, although I believe that’s more of a fault of the OS design language as a whole than that specific part of the interface.

The Icons

There have been a not insignificant number of words spoken about the changes Apple has made to the look of the stock app icons in iOS 7. To be honest, I feel like this whole discussion is completely moot. App icons are incredibly important, to be sure – they are the way a user identifies your application in the sea of other apps on their phone – but they are somewhat arbitrary. They need to be well-designed, but there is a certain “minimum effective dose” that allows most people to identify the app they’re looking for and associate it with the task they’re looking to accomplish.

When Apple made the choice to redesign the stock app icons, the folks behind Apple’s design choices exposed their design process as well as the grid-based layout sytem that informed the icon designs. There were comments made by graphic designers about how Apple’s layout choices were half-baked or wrong, and other coments that discussed how the color choices were catering to a younger generation, or the aesthetic biases of the cultures in new and emerging markets. Regardless of the reason behind the choices, I can’t help but relegate all of this commentary to the trash heap for the same simple reason: all of these comments are about a subjective experience. Of course Jony Ive wants to create an experience that is beautiful, familiar, approachable, friendly, and functional…but there are so many ways to accomplish this, and all of the commentary comes from a single data point in the universe. Even assuming that all of these designers and amateur critics were able to ascertain some objective truth about these designs that was universally applicable, they all have differing opinions – some of them conflicting – and it must thus follow that they’re either all right, or all wrong. I’m clearly in the latter camp. People are going to take a look at the icons and freak out because they’re different, and then everything will go back to normal and everything will be fine because, in truth, app icons only matter as pointers to something a user wants to accomplish. Once users draw new associations in their minds, they’ll be fine.

The Little Things

There are, of course, things that Apple hasn’t mentioned or brought up, most likely because they simply didn’t have enough time to do so, but I feel like I should mention them here for the sake of completeness.

While I know that not all of these things will be addressed (or even should be addressed) because of the focus that Apple is trying to maintain with iOS, there are some things that venture into that grey area that exists between the worlds of Mac OS and iOS. The first of these is the way the OS (and many apps) handle external keyboards. Safari, for instance, is able to handle a “Tab” keystroke, but does not recognize Command+L to put the cursor in the address bar, or Command+W to close an open tab. These aren’t necessarily “shortcomings” of the OS, but nor do they enhance the user experience. I’ve never thought to myself “Boy, am I sure glad they left out those keystrokes! My life is so much easier!” With this type of behavior, I’m not sure if the omission is intentional or not. Apple is a very intentional company, but something like this feels like an oversight as opposed to a deliberate design decision.

What’s Next?

Naturally, when people see new OS announcements from Apple, they assume that new hardware is going to follow closely behind. Something that I heard recently was that Apple’s new design, while beautiful on all current iOS devices, absolutely sings and looks right at home on the new devices that Apple has lined up for the fall. What these devices are is anyone’s guess, but I don’t think anyone would lose betting on a new iPhone. New iPad minis, iPads, and possibly iPod Touch units may also be in the works, but it isn’t completely clear yet exactly how these things will take shape, and what sort of changes we can expect. I love looking forward, but I don’t “do” rumors, so I’m not going to waste any time on speculating about what Apple is working on.

Ultimately, the new iOS version that Apple has introduced to the the world looks great and, based on what I’ve heard, feels amazing. I have no desire to start ripping on an OS that’s in beta, nor do I have the desire to laud it. While it’s exciting to see a refresh to the world’s most important mobile OS, the proof will be in the pudding once it’s been finalized and released.

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Cutting to the Bone

Mmmmm...calcium.

The announcement of Windows 8 and its subsequent demos were interesting for many reasons, not the least of which was its inevitable comparison to Lion, iOS, and Android. To be fair, Android should generally be left out of this comparison since it doesn’t have a true desktop operating system (yet), but periodic comparisons have to be made.

Windows 8’s user interface, at least the touch portion, looks good. I like the clean, muted-color aesthetic, and the transitions between apps looks natural and pleasing (similar to the Star Trek LCARS aesthetic, but a little bit sharper). The way that Microsoft is pushing this thing, however, is silly to me. Recently, I wrote about Apple playing “catch-up” with this release, but something I failed to address was the simplicity of the whole experience, and this is ultimately the most important aspect of the entire OS.

I can wax poetic about the history of the personal computer and its role in our lives, the changes that personal computing has brought to our lives and how we experience the world around us, but it’s unnecessary. We all know that the face of personal computing is changing rapidly and being redefined constantly. Instead, let’s ask a fundamental question:

Why are computers becoming “simpler”?

I know lots of people who lament the “over-simplification” of today’s computers. Computers should require lots of specialized knowledge and time to learn, in the opinion of many folks. They don’t understand that all the layers of schlock the operating system puts in between a user and the task that they wish to accomplish are unnecessary and silly. In order to build a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, for instance, I need to understand Microsoft Excel conventions and jargon on top of Microsoft Windows conventions and jargon. This is difficult, and it gets in the way of actually accomplishing things. The learning of the tool takes up more time and energy than using it. This is bad technology, but has come to be accepted.

Companies that design software continue to simplify it so that it gets out of the way of the user’s intentions and goals, so that it helps them accomplish what they need to accomplish. This is good technology, and has difficulty gaining traction because the software almost looks like a toy compared to the byzantine and grotesque software hydras that have become commonplace in the world.

I remember using my Palm Treo 700w, the Windows Mobile version of the popular Palm smartphone. It had a custom build of the Windows Mobile software that was tuned for the Palm “experience” which meant that it worked better than standard windows. I thought it was really great, but what really blew me away was a software shell (a layer over the standard Windows Mobile OS that looked way better than the standard home screen) by SPB called “SPB Mobile Shell”. This was right around the time the iPhone was introduced, incidentally. I tried using this OS shell for a while because it was “touch-friendly” (where have we heard that before?), but ultimately gave up because the phone was still using a really ugly, really unusable OS designed for styli under all the gloss and shine.

This is what Windows 8 is, and it’s flawed. The key is to change what the OS is at its heart, change the way that interacts with the user, change the way that OS feels. IF the user gets the opportunity to “peek under the hood” of the OS, he or she will see the ugliest, most confusing parts of the system laid bare. The gears, cogs, oil, chugging engines…everything. In Windows 8, this is still confusing, ugly, overcomplicated. In the Apple world, this is simpler, easier, uncomplicated. This is where Windows will fail. If I start to use an app that hasn’t been designed for the new “touch-friendly” shell (which is essentially all Windows 8 looks to be), then it fires up in its old, byzantine, bloated-hydra form. With iOS and the future of MacOS, this isn’t even an option. If an app hasn’t been designed to be used full-screen, it doesn’t matter, it’s still usable in its beautiful, native form.

This brings me around to the initial question of “Why are computers becoming simpler?”

The computer-savvy elite that used to be the only folks for whom computers were intelligible are no longer the only ones who can use computers, and computers are becoming simpler because that’s what we all want. Even programmers, developers, and coders want everyone to use computers. Everyone! They want their software to shine on beautiful hardware, too, and we’re seeing this happen from the world’s most innovative companies. Microsoft, however, doesn’t seem to get it. They want their software to be archaic, opaque, and impenetrable when it comes to interacting with the user.

Maybe that’s why they keep losing.


and another thing…

just about everything that i’ve read about the lack of iPhone/iPod/iPad multitasking goes something like this:

“…which means you can’t run pandora while…”

are you serious?  this is the argument against the iPad?  everything else, it does.  what else do you need to do?  seriously.  what else are you doing?  are you encoding video?  ripping a cd?  batch-editing photos?  this is a focused machine, and SURPRISE! it will play music in the background, just like the iPhone.  you can get emails pushed, chat notifications pop up right there, right in front of you, and texts come through just fine.  meeting appointments have a little alarm, i can get stock alerts from apps pushed to me if i want.

and you’re complaining about pandora?  please.

i just don’t think that’s a valid argument.