Results tagged “apple”
October 23, 2012
Just getting ready to liveblog this event. My first Apple liveblog ever. Pretty excited.10/23/2012 4:56:26 PM
Tim Cook begins by saying that Apple sold out of iPhone 5. But we all know the truth, which is that Apple sold out the day Woz left.10/23/2012 5:03:54 PM
When we announced the new, super-thin iPod touch, we were so excited to see the Verge say, "We rubbed the iPod Touch on ourselves until the loop button popped up."10/23/2012 5:08:34 PM
There are now over 125 million documents stored on iCloud, and nearly 70 million of them are accessible at any given time.10/23/2012 5:08:53 PM
We have over 28,000 messages being sent every second on iMessage, with nearly 44,000 iMessages being received over the next 4 to 6 weeks.10/23/2012 5:09:56 PM
Apple is incredibly proud to have pioneered the TABLET CAMERA, which you can see in action in this image from our video.10/23/2012 5:11:49 PM
Now to iBooks. In iBooks 3.0, we’re adding new themes, and support for four different weights of Marker Felt for your reading comfort, and we’ve made the pages kind of krinkly, and there’s a krinkly sound effect.10/23/2012 5:13:01 PM
iBooks is extremely popular in grade schools, so we’re adding a new mode that automatically replaces π with 3 in order to comply with Texas schoolbook laws. Apple Maps shows the Earth as being flat, centered on the United States and wildly inaccurate, and thus is already compliant with Texas educational law.10/23/2012 5:14:46 PM
But since normal people hate books, let's quickly move on to the Mac.10/23/2012 5:15:16 PM
Phil Schiller kicked offstage by Tim Cook10/23/2012 5:17:10 PM
Tim Cook brings Phil Schiller out to talk about the Mac. Then, disgusted, he immediately sends him back offstage.10/23/2012 5:17:36 PM
"There's a huge difference with the new 13" MacBook Pro: It's .15 inches thinner. We think .15 inches is HUGE, okay?"10/23/2012 5:19:01 PM
"How many of you remember Magsafe 1? What if I told you that we could make Magsafe even BETTER?"by Paul Ford 10/23/2012 5:19:57 PM
"And you know what else? We've created a way to rotate our new laptops even more slowly for commercials."by Paul Ford 10/23/2012 5:26:26 PM
Our new lens.10/23/2012 5:30:00 PM
Phil Schiller explains the extraordinary pain that confronts anyone who gazes directly into the new Facetime camera on the MacBook Pro 13" or new iMac.10/23/2012 5:30:39 PM
We've made a remarkable new iMac, and we're excited to announce that we're bringing back the Blue Dalmatian finish.10/23/2012 5:31:45 PM
Isn't it amazing how making something new forces you to throw out a perfectly good computer? We've been honing our work in that area.10/23/2012 5:32:44 PM
"If you attempt to open this computer you will actually merge with the molecules inside. It's FILLED with molecules."by Paul Ford 10/23/2012 5:33:25 PM
"But don't worry. You will never open this computer."by Paul Ford 10/23/2012 5:33:41 PM
Blue Dalmatian iMac10/23/2012 5:36:54 PM
An exclusive shot of the beautiful new Blue Dalmatian iMac.10/23/2012 5:37:11 PM
Our new Fusion Drive integrates Flash memory with traditional hard drives, but the bad news is the fan spins up and is super loud any time you use Flash.10/23/2012 5:38:36 PM
The new super-thin iMac ships in December. Promptly on December 26th. You're welcome.10/23/2012 5:39:44 PM
Tim Cook did just say that the iPad is "fast and fluid", and 100 marketers' heads just exploded over at Microsoft.10/23/2012 5:42:49 PM
"Let's face it, this is so much cheaper than teachers."by Paul Ford 10/23/2012 5:43:32 PM
Back in January, we released iBooks Author, which you might know as iDVD but for books. The big news is that iBooks has now replaced PowerPoint as the most popular platform for creating Macromedia-Shockwave-1997-level teaching materials that nobody reads.10/23/2012 5:44:15 PM
Today we announce the newest version of iBooks Author. To the six templates built in to iBooks Author, we’ve added two more, one which comes with the name of your favorite rock band already carved into the cover, and the other looks like it’s covered in a book cover that you made out of a grocery bag.10/23/2012 5:45:55 PM
"With this new feature, we're responding to America's overwhelming demand for math."by Paul Ford 10/23/2012 5:46:37 PM
We've delivered the superior ease of use LaTeX to the iPad.10/23/2012 5:46:43 PM
by darth smallberries 10/23/2012 5:48:08 PM
For the fourth time, Tim Cook calls Phil Schiller on stage, telling him each time he gets halfway out to go back to the wings. "Sit down, Schiller."10/23/2012 5:48:55 PM
"You can hold this in one, incredibly giant, hand."by Paul Ford 10/23/2012 5:52:49 PM
iPad Mini - it's for almost everyone.10/23/2012 5:55:23 PM
Apple is not a hateful company, so the new iPad Mini works for almost everyone.10/23/2012 5:55:39 PM
iPad mini is great for reading magazines like National Geographic, Readers Digest, and any other magazine that's not as big as a normal magazine.10/23/2012 5:56:21 PM
With iPad mini, you can use Garage Band to make slightly shorter songs than with the regular iPad. You can play Angry Bird. You can Draw WIth Friend.10/23/2012 5:57:23 PM
We're also making ENORMOUS GLOVES to cover the giant hands you use to hold the iPad mini in one hand.10/23/2012 6:01:46 PM
by darth smallberries 10/23/2012 6:03:28 PM
We’ve updated Find My iPad to support the new iPad Mini by including a mode where it tells you if you’ve accidentally dropped it between your sofa cushions.10/23/2012 6:04:58 PM
We took a look at what’s available on the market today in the 7” tablet market. They’re mostly Android tablets, and they’re really weak in terms of battery life. More troubling, they have a devastating impact on their users’ self esteem.10/23/2012 6:05:14 PM
Our new iPad Mini Smart Covers give us a new take on a classic Apple theme: They’re lickable. By which we mean, they’re actually flavored.10/23/2012 6:05:26 PM
We know lots of folks get squicked out by chewing noises, so you can turn off the moist mastication music that plays while people lick your smart cover. But it’s on by default.10/23/2012 6:05:38 PM
The iPad Mini Smart Cover is available in red, dark gray, light gray, pink, green, and blue, which taste like cherry, garbage, steel, watermelon, antifreeze and bruised meat, respectively.10/23/2012 6:05:57 PM
One of the best features about the iPad Mini is if you like reading in bed: Now when you fall asleep holding it up, the device that hits your face weighs 9 ounces less.10/23/2012 6:06:21 PM
In honor of Amazon’s Paperwhite display, we’re bundling 50 Shades of Gray with each new iPad.10/23/2012 6:06:34 PM
Nobody has ever brought this kind of screen clarity, or this kind of computing power, to a form factor that fits easily on top of the water tank of your toilet.10/23/2012 6:08:47 PM
And one more thing: We're excited to announce iTunes 11 today.10/23/2012 6:12:38 PM
iTunes 11 with Klout sidebar.10/23/2012 6:12:57 PM
The most exciting new feature in iTunes 11 on the desktop is that we've eliminated Ping. And replaced it with Klout.10/23/2012 6:13:30 PM
We’ve taken the iTunes everyone knows and loves, and we’ve added the ability to read email and track your stocks.10/23/2012 6:13:57 PM
And finally, we’re also introducing a number of Lightning adapters to cnonect your new iPad Mini or iPhone 5. Lightning to SD Card, Lightning to VGA, Lightning to EGA, Lightning to RCA jacks.10/23/2012 6:14:26 PM
Lightning to the old ADB mouse port, Lightning to Jaz drive, Lightning to this SCSI housing that you have to manually terminate.10/23/2012 6:14:30 PM
Lightning adapter for the Duo Dock.10/23/2012 6:14:42 PM
Lightning Adapter for Duo Dock10/23/2012 6:22:38 PM
Exclusive screenshot of the Lightning adapter for Duo Dock.10/23/2012 6:23:11 PM
Eddy Cue shows of Klout for iTunes10/23/2012 6:23:54 PM
Detailed view of the Klout for iTunes integration, as demoed by Eddy Cue.10/23/2012 6:23:59 PM
the two new themes in iBooks Author10/23/2012 6:24:28 PM
iBooks Author added two new exclusive themes, one which comes with the name of your favorite rock band already carved into the cover, and the other looks like it’s covered in a book cover that you made out of a grocery bag. Pictured below.10/23/2012 6:25:06 PM
That concludes today's special event! Thanks to everyone for coming out. Be sure to share this liveblog with all of your friends!10/23/2012 7:57:54 PM
September 24, 2012
There are lots of different ways to measure how friendly a company is toward developers, and whether a tech company complies with the values that its developer community cares about. I'm a big believer in what I earlier called "radical institutional empathy". What this entails is not being an apologist for any one company or institution, but rather trying to understand its decisions within the context of what the people who work there must be trying to do.
The problem is, it's hard to do that in the current world of tech writing; people want to bring their own biases (things like whether a company is "good" or "bad", or whether a particular technology or strategy is "open") rather than applying a fairly consistent set of evaluations to all the players in a space.
One useful recent example is the conversations about Twitter's APIs. When I wrote What Twitter's API Announcement Could Have Said, people both mistook it to be my personal feelings about what the company could have said, or my literal interpretation of what Twitter was trying to describe. It was neither. Instead, it was an attempt to show a developer community that's largely abandoned any attempt at logically understanding a platform's changes and is now fully in the throes of emotional responses to anything that happens. Now, I understand that Twitter's own communications have been part of the reason there's been that breakdown, but all big companies are bad at communicating. That's just a fact. So we have to have a more reasonable way of reading the tea leaves.
Let's try applying a reasonably consistent set of commonly-held developer values to the flagship platforms of two of the tech world's favorite companies, Apple and Twitter. Obviously, the companies are wildly different in the audiences they serve and in what they provide to developers, but this is a useful comparison precisely because the loudest developer voices on both platforms comprise many of the same people.
|Has introduced the Innovator's Patent Agreement, an extensive new effort ensuring its software patents will only be used defensively, which makes developers optimistic.||Has a history of aggressively pursuing patent protections, which even when justified open the door to ever-more-expansive interpretations of software patents, leading even sympathetic developers to worry.|
|The company fought tooth-and-nail to avoid giving over a user's private information, defending the case against the government to the maximum of their legal abilities.||The company refused to allow news to be published on its platform because it was "not useful".|
Roadmap for Third Parties
|Published an obtusely-worded but generally reasonable set of guidelines for third-party developers on its platform, without explaining how those guidelines align with its business model. There is no documented process of appeal for apps which are cut off.||Publishes a concisely worded and clear set of extremely restrictive guidelines which are subject to change regularly. Has a well-documented process of appeal for apps which are cut off.|
Competing with Developers
|Told third-party developers to focus on analytics and value-add instead of read/write clients two years ago; Reiterated this recently. Hasn't shipped any apps that compete in other categories, but is tightening restrictions on apps in the read/write category.||Provides no guidance beyond the platform terms as to which areas apps should avoid, but has expanded to digital wallet, voice search, podcasting, video chat, reminders, reading, game networking, and other apps in competition with third-parties that had released earlier apps on the platform.|
Turning the Table
I understand that these comparisons are necessarily imperfect, and selective in their focus. Apple is very different from Twitter in that it plays the role of a payment middleman. (I find the defense that Apple allows ways around its platform shortcomings through use of the web to be spurious; If we grant it for Apple, then we'd have to grant it for Twitter. The web doesn't have these weaknesses.)
My point here is not to defend Twitter or Apple, though partisans of either company will undoubtedly say I'm being unfair to their favored platform. But rather, we should look fairly at their stances on important issues like free speech, intellectual property rights, self-expression of users and stability of developer opportunity when evaluating them.
Given that the most prominent pundits who've opined on the merits or weaknesses of these platforms often develop for both, I'd be curious to see how they interpret these facts about the company's positions in the context of how the companies see themselves and their goals.
We can rightly be frustrated at Twitter having targeted some apps in its upper-right quadrant; Rather than simply waving off client developers, Twitter could have said "it'll get increasingly expensive and difficult to compete in that market" and it would have had the same chilling effect without being punitive. But if we are frustrated at that, then certainly we should consider that the majority of popular iOS applications which aren't games are in Apple's virtual upper-right quadrant. Maybe that's fine. If so, then it should be fine on any platform.
And if we think changing the rules of the game as developers are playing it is unfair, then clearly neither of these companies, nor any major platform company, can be considered to be fair. As I make the decisions for how my own company will invest in these various platforms, I feel reassured again and again that the open web is the safest long-term bet for retaining control over my own destiny.
September 19, 2012
The classic criticism that thoughtless Apple haters use against the company is that it makes products that are pretty but dumb. Usually those criticisms are by people who don't understand the value of a comprehensible user experience, frustrated by the reality that many people will eagerly trade the open-ended technologies of competitors for the simple and satisfying experience that Apple provides.
But this time, they're right: Apple's made a new product that actually is pretty but dumb. Worse, they've used their platform dominance to privilege their own app over a competitor's offering, even though it's a worse experience for users. This is the new Maps in iOS 6.
Walking AloneApple's used Google's mapping features since it introduced iOS with the original iPhone and iPod touch in 2007. Google provided the actual tiled images that make up the maps, search for venues on the maps, and directions to destinations by car, transit or walking.
Apple started acquiring mapping companies a few years ago, pursuing their typical path of trying to own the entire technology platform for critical features, both so they could exert business control over the technology and so that they could improve the experience. (iOS maps had lagged behind in implementing new Google Maps features like turn-by-turn directions and vector-based infinitely zoomable maps due to the tension between the companies after Google launched its Android mobile OS.)
But with iOS 6, Apple decided it was time to rip off the band-aid and replace Google's maps with their own. Not at all a surprise, given the company's history of controlling critical areas of functionality on its platforms. But what is surprising is that the user experience got worse.
I've been using iOS 6 for a few months, and initially chalked up the problems I'd had to likely bugs that would be worked out as the software matured. Unfortunately, now that we all have access to the release version of iOS 6, it's evident that fundamental mapping features like venue search and directions are significantly worse than in the Google versions.
Here in Manhattan, where I live, basic search by building names is profoundly degraded in Apple's maps search. "Bloomberg" doesn't find the Bloomberg Tower; on Google Maps it's the first result. Searching for its address "731 Lexington Avenue" yields that address on Lexington Avenue in Brooklyn. It's fine to think that perhaps I wanted the address in Bed-Stuy, but even appending "NY, NY" or "Manhattan, NY" still yields the Brooklyn address. Google maps has none of these comprehension issues. I understand this is due to Apple partnering with Tom Tom, whose maps are considered to be lower in quality than other players like Nokia, but I'm not informed enough to say with certainty whether that's the case.
Similar troubles plague the directions and routing features for drivers. I'd tried the driving maps for everywhere from the New Jersey suburbs to rural Mexico and found out-of-date road information, impossible directions and a general level of unreliability that I never recall seeing from Google maps, even when it first launched. I have only used the walking directions in Manhattan where Apple's new maps have worked fine, but in fairness, it's almost impossible to screw up walking directions when you're on the grid in Manhattan.
And then there's transit. While transit maps were the subject of some misinformation when they were originally removed during the iOS 6 beta releases, the fundamental truth is that, out of the box, Apple's maps have no transit features. One could argue that Apple's ostensible strategy of supporting lots of local transit apps that plug in to the primary maps experience is more scalable, and certainly Apple can offer a credible defense that collecting all of the non-standard data that powers local transit is unreasonably costly. Given that Apple has a bigger cash hoard than the vast majority of countries, it seems as if this is more an issue of priorities than resource constraints.
Whatever the case, I was happy to support the OpenPlans Kickstarter campaign to bring an open source-based transit experience to iOS 6. I hope it gets traction and becomes widely deployed on iOS 6 devices, both to improve the maps experience of users and so that this kind of functionality can be more driven by a community rather than Apple's whims.
There are other opportunities, too — iOS 6's abysmal maps should provide a real opportunity for apps like Foursquare which have great local search; I've been using Foursquare for almost all of my venue search and local searching since upgrading to iOS 6 and it's helped me out every time the native iOS 6 app let me down.
Why It Matters
Obviously, Apple's going to fix as many of these bugs as they can. I'm not pretending they're incompetent or somehow want to deny people access to good maps on mobile devices. But the simple fact is: When you buy an iOS 6 device, you get a worse experience for search and no ability to get transit directions out of the box, both of which are significant downgrades from iOS 5. Apple's taken features away (critics would say "crippled") from apps before, typically during major platform changes or when rethinking the fundamental architecture of an app. But in almost every one of those transitions, they've provided a transition period or staged upgrade path that didn't force users to bear the brunt of the new platform's weaknesses.
Apple made this maps change despite its shortcomings because they put their own priorities for corporate strategy ahead of user experience. That's a huge change for Apple in the post-iPod era, where they've built so much of their value by doing the hard work as a company so that things could be easy for users. I'm not suggesting (yet) that this is a pattern, and that Apple will start to regularly compromise its user experiences in order to focus on its squabbles with other tech titans. But history shows that dominant players in every era of operating system history have reached a turning point where they shift from the user experience and customer benefits which earned them their dominance to platform integration efforts which are primarily aimed at boxing out competitors. It'll be interesting to see which direction Apple's maps follow.
June 18, 2012
Today a number of folks are talking about the importance of public transit data as Apple tries to shift from Google's historic integration of public transit data in its maps product to a new world where each individual transit provider would create an iOS app that would then be linked to from within its mapping application. (And please do read Clay Johnson's passionate argument about the importance of preserving open transit data.)
In the immediate term, Apple's solution is problematic, because it puts the burden on public transit systems (which are supposed to serve all) to create proprietary apps to serve a certain, privileged part of their ridership. Google's implementation was certainly problematic as well, but closer to the ideal where public (or semi-public) transit providers make their data available in open formats with published specifications, so that all can benefit from them.
There's a red herring argument that Apple's model somehow encourages more competition between information providers; In actuality, open data formats for transit mapping information would provide the most competition and benefit users the most in the long term.
We also lack perspective about how critically important this type of transit and traffic data is to technological entrepreneurship. While the providers of this data can range from completely government-sponsored public providers to completely private entrepreneurs, it's inarguable that innovation around traffic and transit data is one of the most important ways to attract great talent to tech.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen's first collaboration was a startup called Traf-O-Data, which recorded and analyzed traffic at intersections in their hometown using custom-built devices along with some smart software. Jack Dorsey's first successful application was a platform for dispatch routing, designed to optimize the flow of cars by optimizing the flow of information.
It's easy to see these debates as being about esoteric "open data" battles with governments and big corporations. But it matters because the work we do to build our cities directly drives the work we do to build our communities online.
May 29, 2012
This month's Wired magazine includes a milestone I'm incredibly excited about: My first published print column! You can read Safe In Its Shell, my exploration of the long history of introducing software lockdown mechanisms to mainstream computer operating systems. I keyed on the Gatekeeper feature in Apple's upcoming version of OS X which locks down which applications can run on your computer, and how it uses a method that was first broadly described by Microsoft as part of its Trustworthy Computing efforts a decade ago.
I'm happy with how the piece came out (I've never worked with an editor before!) but I thought that, before I republish the piece on my own site, I'd share some of the key resources that I found valuable in understanding the ideas which informed by column.Put another way, if that column were a movie, these are the DVD extras.
Microsoft's History With Palladium
- Microsoft did a briefing at NIST in 2002 about the basic principles behind Palladium
- The original Newsweek launch story about Palladium by Steven Levy is still up on the Daily Beast website
- And you can still find the original "Trustworthy Computing" memo by Bill Gates (in RTF format!) which acted as a rallying cry for the troops at Microsoft. (Looks like they added an HTML version as well.)
- And of course, Gates' memo was inspired by Craig Mundie's original TrustWorthy Computing memo (in convenient Microsoft Word format), which Mundie revisited on its 10th anniversary in a retrospective writeup
- I'd written a bit about that original Trustworthy Computing memo a few years ago myself
- Microsoft still has an active Trustworthy Computing site which offers a detailed timeline on the initiative, and presages their later site about the mellifluously-named successor program, the Next-Generation Secure Computing Base
- And though it's apparently no longer on Microsoft's site, the intense scrutiny of the original responses is evident in this cached version of Microsoft's original Palladium FAQ
The blowback to the Palladium announcement in 2002:
Lots of folks took exception to Palladium's announcement. Some highlights from the time:
- David Coursey, then of ZDNet, explains why the effort couldn't be trusted
- The Register called it an attempt to eradicate the GPL and destroy Linux
- Robert Cringely naturally deemed it "diabolical"
- Chris Hoofnagle from EPIC described Microsoft's Palladium presentation as "Orwellian"
- Microsoft exec Mario Juarez did an interview on Palladium in June 2002
- And Security Focus had a contemporary story at the time of Palladium's launch
- EPIC naturally offered some detailed resources about Palladium.
- Catherine Flick at the University of Sydney offered a detailed analysis in her June 2004 paper
- Ross Anderson's 2003 FAQ was also a seminal resource
- Microsoft then started to back off of Palladium (by then rebranded as "NGSCB"), as also mentioned Ars Technica
- Naturally, Microsoft immediately backtracked, vaguely reaffirming its commitment to Palladium shortly thereafter
Apple resources on Gatekeeper
Meanwhile, Apple's rollout of Gatekeeper has been very deliberate, and fairly low-key:
- A characteristically understated consumer explanation of Gatekeeper offers up Apple's only real customer-facing description of the feature:
"Advanced features in OS X already help protect you from malware no matter where you download apps. Gatekeeper brings you even more security options — and even more control. For maximum security, you can install and run only apps from the Mac App Store. You can choose to install and run apps from the Mac App Store and apps that have a Developer ID. Or you can install all apps from anywhere, just as you can today. You can even temporarily override your setting by Control-clicking, and install any app at any time. Gatekeeper leaves it all up to you."
- Rich Mogull (what a great name!) offered a detailed overview of Gatekeeper's functions and also summarized the feature in Tidbits
- Steven Frank had a thoughtful take on Gatekeeper
"I have a personal flaw in the form of a small conspiracy theorist who lives in my head. He worried that this may have been created as just a temporary stepping stone — like Rosetta for the Intel transition, or Carbon for the OS 9 to OS X transition — and that one day, the Mac App Store-only option might still be enforced.
But I can’t find it in me to disparage this goodwill effort that Apple has undertaken to not turn every third-party developer upside-down with regard to app distribution. To me it’s a great sign that they’re aware and at some level sympathetic to our concerns, while remaining committed to a high-security experience for users."
SmartScreen in Windows 8:
Finally, the new SmartScreen features in the upcoming Windows 8 bring the whole thing full circle:
- Where does any discussion of a new Windows feature start except with how to turn the damn thing off?
- Microsoft describes the code-signing requirements at the OS level on their developer site
- The great Windows fan site I Started Something goes into great depth about how the SmartScreen controls actually work in the new OS
August 19, 2011
For the past several days, Apple's stock has been rising high enough that the company has flitted between being the first and second most valuable company in the world. Regardless of the final value of the stock on any given day, it is without a doubt the greatest comeback or turnaround story in the history of American business: A single company has gone from being just 90 days away from shutting down to becoming the unequivocal leader in innovation, design, branding and now valuation, and the transformation happened in less than a decade and a half.
Most interestingly, there's a unanimous consensus, from fans and detractors alike, both within and outside the company, that a single man bears the lion's share of the credit for the vision, leadership and execution that's made this achievement possible.
So, who is this man? He's the anchor baby of an activist Arab muslim who came to the U.S. on a student visa and had a child out of wedlock. He's a non-Christian, arugula-eating, drug-using follower of unabashedly old-fashioned liberal teachings from the hippies and folk music stars of the 60s. And he believes in science, in things that science can demonstrate like climate change and Pi having a value more specific than "3", and in extending responsible benefits to his employees while encouraging his company to lead by being environmentally responsible.
Every single person who'd attack Steve Jobs on any of these grounds is, demonstrably, worse at business than Jobs. They're unqualified to assert that liberal values are bad for business, when the demonstrable, factual, obvious evidence contradicts those assertions.
It's a choice whether you, or anyone else, wants to accept the falsehood that liberal values are somehow in contradiction with business success at a global scale. Indeed, it would seem that many who claim to be pro-business are trying to "save" us from exactly the inclusive, creative, tolerant values that have made America's most successful company possible. I side with the makers, the creators, and the inventors, and it's about time that the pack of clamoring would-be politicians be put on the defensive for attacking the values of those of us on this side.
May 31, 2011
I've been waiting a year for someone to write about this, but my laziness has not yet paid off, so here are a few things that we all know about everybody's favorite Cupertino fruit company:
- Apple has client app software on hundreds of millions of devices in the form of iTunes on PCs and Macs and, well, all of the bundled software on iOS devices.
- Apple has an extremely large-scale realtime messaging service, in the form of Apple Push Notifications, which has scaled with high reliability to what must be an extremely large number of messages, certainly on the order of hundreds of millions a day.
- Apple has account info for every person receiving those notifications, usually including credit card information.
- Apple has lots of experience making client applications for short-length interpersonal messaging.
- Apple has a proven ability to get the attention and interest of artists and tastemakers who influence culture and inspire a following.
And here are a few things which Apple doesn't have:
- Any success or demonstrated ability in making compelling clients for social networking, whether in the form of Game Center or Ping.
- A usable API for developers to build on this realtime networking infrastructure in a lightweight way in web apps, or in languages other than Objective C.
But in short, the hardest, most expensive technical part of building a web-scale Twitter competitor already exists in Apple's infrastructure. What's missing, in an odd reversal of Apple's usual pattern, is a well-designed, simple user experience that makes people want to participate.
Could a small team of developers and designers within Apple make a credible realtime messaging service with first-rate native clients on every important platform? Could they graft on a simple, REST-based web-style APIs to the complicated, old-fashioned API that enables push notifications right now? It'd be a lot like building a usable, delightful user interface on top of well-established, but complicated, technological underpinnings, wouldn't it? I wonder if Apple has those skills.
March 8, 2011
About a year and a half ago, I was disappointed with one of the key choices Apple had made, given that they're often described as one of the most admired companies in the world. I wrote a piece called "Secrecy Does Not Scale", to try to describe the issue:
[T]he element of secrecy that's been required to maintain Apple's mystique has incurred an increasingly costly price. Apple must transform itself and leave its history of secrecy behind, not just to continue being innovative and to protect the fundamentals of its business, but because the cost of keeping these secrets has become morally and ethically untenable.
Well, if it's worth calling out companies when they do something wrong, then it's just as important to highlight when they do something right. Apple is to be commended for having addressed many of the key issues that were enabled by its lack of transparency, from answering questions about the working conditions of its suppliers in China to becoming far more open about the workings of the markets it controls through its dominant iTunes and iOS platforms.
- Apple has published an industry-leading supplier responsibility document, offering insights into the environment at Foxconn and expressing a commitment to ensuring humane and healthy conditions. And this document was clearly in progress before the publication of Joel Johnson's excellent Wired cover story about the topic (though admittedly, after significant coverage from outlets such as the New York Times), so it seems the company has been proactive about the issue even before receiving its most pointed media criticism.
- Apple's nearly-metonymic leader Steve Jobs personally became much more transparent in his communications before his recent medical leave, answering so many emails that multiple blogs like Emails From Steve Jobs have popped up to document them. That's amplified by unprecedented communications like Apple SVP Phil Schiller's on-the-record email to John Gruber about app store rejections, just a week after my critical post had gone up. (To be clear, I'm ascribing zero credit to my post for this change, but wanted to make clear the timeline because it seems Apple noticed the how untenable its position was at about the same time many of the rest of us did.)
- Just as important to their developer community, Apple offered clear, publicly-accessible published guidelines by which applications are evaluated for inclusion in the App Store. You can debate them, disagree with them, or be frustrated by them, but you can't say you don't know what they are.
That's not to say that Apple still isn't fantastically secretive about many things they do. The company still works frantically to try to shroud their product launches in as many layers of secrecy as always. Apple will certainly never be a company that puts out press releases about internal reorganizations or promotions, thank goodness. But in just 18 months, there has been a fundamental shift in the way the company communicates about the issues which have the greatest social impact on the world.
It's a positive evolution, and one that is worth calling out. Frankly, I still think they could loosen up about the secrecy around product launches, too. But I don't care about that as long as it's not having a cost in either the quality of life of the people who make their products, or in the ability for those who support the Apple ecosystem to make a living on their own terms.
And there's still a tremendous opportunity for a company to combine Apple's culture of design and user experience with a truly open and communicative style of doing business. In fact, I suspect it may be exactly that combination that would be required for the company to face a serious challenge in any of the many markets that it dominates.
November 7, 2010
Lots of nice writing out there that either replies to or references some recent posts here. Highlights:
- Dictatorship Versus Democracy in app store politics at Fast Company, by the always-genius Gina Trapani. A clear contrast between Mozilla and Apple's approaches, and the many other app stores that use similar models as well.
- Slashdot (remember that site?) picked up the conversation about an open app store with a few insightful comments on the thread. It was more striking to me that I wrote a post that got Slashdotted, and didn't notice. Valleywag predictably went a little darker on this topic, as Gawker's Ryan Tate offered up "Beware the Garden of Steven".
- After I posted a small catalog of app stores here, ReadWriteWeb took the idea and ran with it, asking developers, "Can You Take Your Mobile App Somewhere Else?" Good question!
Did I miss any other good responses? Nothing's more satisfying than seeing people use ideas here as raw materials for their own work elsewhere.
October 20, 2010
Apple took the not-very-surprising step of announcing an App Store for Mac OS X, an idea I was ruminating about earlier today in looking at all the app stores available today. So, now that we know that it exists, how do people who are concerned about the openness of the Mac OS X ecosystem for third-party developers make sure that Apple doesn't get a total stranglehold on app distribution on the desktop?
It's actually quite doable, if two unheralded but influential independent projects coordinate their efforts, or even merge. Their quiet ubiquity among third-party applications could create an emergent app store, turning a broad base of already-distributed and successful independent apps into a force with a lot more marketing and bargaining power in their discussions with Apple. So, who has the ability to change the balance of power here?
- Sparkle: Andy Matuschak has made a library called Sparkle, which allows any independent app to automatically announce and install app updates. If you're a serious Mac user, it's already on your system — from Transmission to Stuffit to Adium to TextMate to NetNewsWire to Evernote and on and on, many of the most popular apps on the Mac desktop all use the same tech for the critical app store functions of updating and alerting users to new versions.
- Growl: Growl is a ubiquitous and enormously popular open source library for announcing system events on Mac desktops. You can browse the list of apps that use Growl for yourself, but again, you've probably already got it on your system. It does a much broader range of notifications than the simple app updates notices of Sparkle, but it also has an even larger installed base. It's not strictly tied to app store functions, but it has the distribution that could be leveraged to give independent developers an extremely broad base of market penetration among Mac OS X users.
So, given these bits of software are useful, have key app store functions built in, and are on an enormous number of Mac users' systems already, what would it take to create an app store to compete on a nearly-level playing ground with Apple, while ensuring that independent developers retain ultimate control of their works and distribution?
Here's a rough outline of the steps that would need to happen:
- Move quickly. A number of prominent app developers would have to commit to supporting an open mac app store, by making their apps available on that store. These announcements would pretty much have to happen this week in order to have enough impact to sway the course of discussion. There's no reason these would have to be exclusive, or say anything negative about Apple's app store, but could just be expressions of these developers pursuing every distribution option available.
- Don't waste time in committee. Being Mac developers, their overwhelming impulse will be to waste time making pretty icons, endlessly debating the name of this new app store, and losing time to all manner of distractions which aren't actually that strategically important. This opportunity will only succeed if devs stay focused, don't waste time Dribbbling on themselves, and aren't trying to write a new galactic constitution. Make a simple wiki page or something, and list your names and apps.
- Make payment infrastructure part of Version 2.0. These developers have succeeded in the market without creating one Grand Unified Shopping cart, and they'll be able to continue to do so if they don't try to solve the payment problem right away. Let that be a great, innovative part of Apple's store for now, so that you can get this thing to market.
- Have the "app store" experience live within each of the apps themselves. To maximize the distribution benefit that each developer provides to the others, don't try to turn Sparkle or Growl into an app store with a dock icon of its own. Instead, make an embeddable store experience that could live within a menu option in the apps themselves, perhaps providing contextual suggestions of "other users who use this app also liked these other apps".
- Don't make it about Apple. One of the biggest temptations will be getting drawn into long, pointless conversations about "the meaning of open" and "the benefits of integration" and other highfalutin' horseshit, or to be stuck attacking or defending Apple. That's great Gruber fodder, but it won't help you in making an app store that actually gives you some leverage with Apple. Don't write long blog posts about The Meaning Of The Lion App Store if you could be just working on something to help you and your fellow developers.
- Ship before Lion does. If you can't do that, shame on you.
So, independent Mac developers: I'm an eager customer of your products. I want to give you my money. I also want you to stay empowered and able to make your own decisions about how your products are distributed. Give these suggestions some thought, point out any omissions or errors I've made, and start announcing your plans to defend your independence. Good luck.
October 20, 2010
Apple's App Store for iOS dominates people's perceptions whenever you mention the phrase "App Store". But it's actually just one member of a much larger set of "app stores", most of which don't use that description, but all of which are used to distribute applications to specific audiences.This is particularly important to keep in mind as it's likely that new versions of major operating systems like Mac OS and Windows will incorporate desktop app stores for the first time.
But wait — how could there be many, maybe even dozens, of app stores? Because they often take forms that we don't expect, or piggyback on other platform pieces that weren't originally conceived as an app store. To help make the concept clearer, I've outlined a few of the categories of app store that exist today, and collected some initial data about the size of these different app stores. Keep in mind: Many of these app stores serve more than one category, and those lines will only get blurrier in the future. I've deliberately erred on the side of stretching the definition of "app store" because I think it's very likely that new contenders will rise in areas that weren't previously considered competitive in this space.
- Mobile: These are the most familiar model of app stores, catalogs of mobile applications for phones and, more recently, tablets. As the most mature type of modern app store, they include really simple and robust payment services, easy ways for developers to submit apps, and widespread use amongst end users who have appropriate devices. iTunes leads the way here, of course, with Android being the other major player.
- Consoles: Gaming consoles and video set-top boxes have pretty mature app stores as well. Whether it's Xbox Live, Nintendo's virtual console, the coming Google TV and presumable Apple TV stores, or even the mini-applets that show up on Tivos, Rokus, Boxees, and some smart TVs, these are a relatively familiar form of app store for tech consumers as well.
- Desktop: The most obvious, and most glaringly under-developed category of app store. Interestingly, Microsoft launched a catalog of "Designed for Windows" applications as long as a decade ago when Windows XP came out, but today that's largely farmed out to CNET's Download.com and can't be considered a true app store. Windows 8 is pretty clearly going to integrate something more formal along these lines, and I'd be surprised if Mac OS X doesn't as well, perhaps as soon as in version 10.7. Meanwhile, Steam is extremely successful in being an app store for games on the desktop, and Linux users have long taken for granted a seamless app store experience from their preferred distribution's package manager tools. Some new platforms like Mozilla's open web apps will likely run across the desktop and mobile platforms like tablets.
- Servers: On the server, it's a strikingly different story than the desktop. While there are certainly popular package managers as on Linux desktops, it's increasingly common that server applications are delivered as complete virtual machines, or appliances. Amazon EC2 AMIs, Google App Engine apps, JumpBox images, and of course VMWare appliances are all extremely popular methods of deployment. The payment infrastructure for these app stores is also robust, not surprising given the significant amounts of money spent on server applications and the attractiveness of enterprises as customers. Some server app store deployments don't follow this appliance model, as in the common CPanel tools on shared web hosts, or Microsoft's excellent, but under-recognized, /web tools.
- Libraries: This is the geekiest category, mostly the domain of developers. From Pear for PHP or CPAN for Perl, from code distribution systems like Freshmeat or Macports, or even including old standbys like RPM or synaptic, tools that have long been thought of as mere developer infrastructure for installing library dependencies in the open source world seem poised to mature into relatively full-featured app stores, perhaps at the behest of commercial firms interested in introducing a business model and a more polished experience in front of these workhorses of the Internet. It's easy to picture a Sourceforge or Github creating a simple experience for the subset of the projects they host that can actually be used by end-users. One could argue that plugin installations systems such as the WordPress plugin directory are starting to become this sort of app store already.
So, let's grant that all of these previously-disparate categories of software distribution are becoming simpler for end users, providing a more seamless and integrated experience on all their target platforms, and are introducing more accessible ways to pay for the products they contain. This lets us start to form a picture of the "app store" space as a whole, and a good starting point for creating a strategy to target across all of these app stores is to count the number of apps they claim to contain.
Note: These numbers are rough estimates, and admittedly inaccurate, due to much of the source data being self-reported by the owners of the various app stores. I wanted to post this data here as a starting point for a conversation, so that anyone with more reliable data, or any suggestions for additional app stores to be included, could submit them here in the comments.
That being said, here's a quick overview of what some big app stores list in terms of individuals apps they make available.
January 27, 2010
I'm not a Democrat; I don't much care about the scorekeeping of who has more seats in any given chamber of Congress. But I do think there are things that need fixing in this country, and one of the most important is acknowledging when things are going the right way. More to the point, we need to find a way to use our collective powers of amplification for something that helps us, instead of as a reward for distracting us.
Tonight will be the President's State of the Union address. I'm very interested in what he covers, not least because the address will be the start of a two-way dialogue, as I outlined on the Expert Labs site. I think that's a pretty big improvement over simply addressing our elected officials.
But the world I inhabit, at the intersection of tech and media, is far more obsessed with what Apple's going to announce about its tablet. People who write about gadgets for a living gotta pay the bills, and I love cool stuff as much as the next guy. What leaves me at a loss, though, is how many otherwise sane and sensible people give their time and energy freely to help support a company like Apple that, despite its elegant designs and generally excellent products (I use many of them), certainly doesn't need free PR from some of the most talented people on the web.
Though Apple is a reasonably progressive company, they explicitly don't give a shit about poor people. (Let's pretend I found a nicer way to say that.)
Who does need your help? I'd say the current administration does. Because the biggest difference between now and 18 months ago is not that President Obama has gotten elected; It's that those who support his agenda have gotten lazy about helping in the effort. Remember "We're the ones we've been waiting for?" Well, it seems like a lot of people got tired and gave up on themselves. What if all the energy that went into free promotion for the Apple tablet went into free promotion for what's been achieved so far, in the hopes of encouraging more achievements in the future?
The Feature List
I know, I know. the conventional wisdom is "Obama ain't done nothin'!" But that's clearly bullshit. Obviously, political opponents are going to parrot that idea, but I'm surprised that even supporters are lazy enough to believe it without fact-checking. Perhaps everybody's attention spans have been a little too shortened by chasing the next Apple rumor, because the facts are obvious. In one year, here's what I caught (you might have your own list):
- The last U.S. Marines are leaving Iraq.
- Credit card companies can no longer charge interest on fees, and can't retroactively raise your interest rate on existing balances.
- We know who visits the White House, and who they're affiliated with.
- There's a quarter billion dollars more funding for National Parks, and $50 million more for the National Endowment for the Arts.
- We responded, imperfectly but with heart and sincere effort, to the disaster in Haiti. Just as we wish we had after Katrina. Leadership matters most in emergencies.
- Our current President readily admits when he's made mistakes, respects the validity of arguments that he disagrees with, and has members of the opposing party in his cabinet.
- The Department of Homeland Security now allocates its security spending according to threats, not by spending the same amount of money on Montana as it does on New York.
- My 401k is up 30% since the current President took office.
- Our President asked both corporations and individuals to reduce their electricity consumption. He asked politely.
- Trains. There's a plan to build more rails and more trains for transporting actual humans around the country.
- The Matthew Shepard hate crime bill was passed.
Now, that's just my list. These matter to me. Maybe you have your own list. Or maybe there's only have a wishlist of features for an Apple tablet. The difference is this: Our current President is listening to what your requests are, and wants to hear them. Steve Jobs doesn't give a fuck about you. I promise. I'm typing this on an Apple keyboard hooked up to a MacBook, and I don't use Windows anymore, but I guarantee you that Steve Jobs is not going to get those last Marines out of Iraq.
And I know, I know, people will piss and moan about the stuff this administration hasn't gotten done yet. So my question is this: What did you do to help? Did you do 1/10 as much as you did to get these folks elected? Did you do as much, today, as you did to help Apple sell billions of dollars of products that you get no stake in, that don't help make life better for you and your friends and neighbors? What are you waiting for, somebody to ask nicely? I'm asking nicely: Please find a cause you care about, and beat the drum to stir up public sentiment to support it. Make it your wallpaper on your new tablet.
I'm not scolding you; I'm scolding me.
I had to ask myself these questions. Sure, I've got a bunch of tweets about Apple features that I want to request, and of course I'll watch the Stevenote as rapt as when I watch the State of the Union. But we all have a choice to make about how we invest our time, attention, and passion. And I'll bet in eight years, today's tablet is gonna look an awful lot like a first-generation iPod looks today. Some efforts age better than others.
My goal here isn't to browbeat anybody, or to lecture. I'm in the same boat as everybody else who loves technology. But my personal reckoning has just shown me that a bunch of libertarian-leaning geeks in Silicon Valley who refuse to engage with government and civic society at all are never going to make an impact on most of the things that actually make a difference in our lives. Everybody in Silicon Valley will tell you they have a gay friend, but they couldn't stop Prop 8 or get the hate crimes bill passed. Probably everybody at Apple thinks "We should do more to support the arts!" but they weren't funding the NEA. There will be no iTrain.
Right now there are a lot of hopeful, and possibly deluded, people in the old-line media businesses who hope that an Apple tablet will prop up their failing magazine, newspaper or television businesses. Those of us who are digitally savvy are probably having a chuckle at their expense, snickering at their wishful thinking. But Apple will invest a lot more in saving any given book publisher than they ever will in saving civic society, in protecting individuals' rights, or in engaging in diplomacy to neutralize the threat of violent extremists.
I'm gonna try to spend at least as much time advocating for issues I care about as I do for the purchase of new gadgets. I hope that even those who disagree with me on those issues do the same. Maybe there'll be an app for that.
Update: Gawker reposted this piece, kicking off an interesting conversation. William Saletan in Slate writes about politics vs. technology, choosing the "or" option when I think he could have focused on "and". Finally, Alex Balk has a little darker take with Barack Obama Is Your New iPad over on the Awl, which is definitely worth a look too.
Note: This article is also available in Belarusian for those interested.
August 18, 2009
Phew! Seems like there are a ton of people talking about the topics we've all been discussing here lately. Here's some highlights:
After I posited that the U.S. executive branch is the most interesting startup of 2009, there have been some amazing responses. Craig Newmark (you love his list!) very kindly gave a nod towards my post, adding "In some results, it's run like a really good Silicon Valley startup", and spreading the word on The Huffington Post as well. Mike Masnick at Techdirt chiimed in as well:
For plenty of reasons that you can guess, I'm pretty jaded by people in government, and it's rare to come across people who seem to be doing things for anything other than "political" purposes. But I have to admit that the amazing thing that came through in both [Federal CTO Aneesh] Chopra's talks was that they were both entirely about actually getting stuff done, with a focus on openness and data sharing. Chopra talked, repeatedly, about figuring out what could be done both short- and long-term, and never once struck me as someone looking to hoard power or focus on a partisan or political reason for doing things. It was never about positioning things to figure out how to increase his budget. In fact, many of the ideas he was discussing was looking at ways to just get stuff done now without any need for extra budget. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you hear regularly from folks involved in the government.
Towards the end of my essay, I'd pointed out one particular challenge that faces this new startup-minded government effort: "Acquiring and retaining talent is hard, especially in a city that doesn't have as deep a well of people with tech startup experience." Amazingly, the latest perfect example of the type of talent that are heading to D.C. these days just popped up, with Christopher Soghoian's announcement that he is joining the FTC. I only know Christopher's work by reputation at Harvard's Berkman Center, but I think the fact that the government is looking for talented people in academia (a talent pool that typical tech startups often overlook) is a great sign.
Of course, there are skeptics. Gautham Nagesh covers the government for Nextgov and Atlantic Media, and he thinks I'm believing the hype". Of course, I think Gautham and I just disagree about government's role in general, and that I'll take small signs of progress as successes, even if there is a lot of work left to do yet.
In fact, I'll be talking about this a bit later today on Federal News Radio's Daily Debrief show. If you're in D.C., tune in to 1500 AM at 4:05 EDT and one idea I'll be discussing is how the recent web achievements by the executive branch are a lot like Microsoft's recent success with Bing; It doesn't mean that the whole giant organization is on the right track, it just means that it's still possible for these behemoths to do the right thing.
The potential is also hinted at in Brady Forrest's post about EveryBlock's acquisition over on O'Reilly Radar. I'm ecstatic to see Adrian and his team at EveryBlock get even more resources for their work, but just as pleased to see the government's work being discussed as a peer to even the most cutting-edge startups in the private sector.
Google's Wave Moment
After my recent posts about The Wave Way and Google's Microsoft Moment, I was very graciously invited to join Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis on their awesome podcast about Google and cloud computing, This Week in Google. If you have an hour or so to spare for listening to a podcast, I am very proud of how it came out, and especially that I got to participate with such pros on a show like this. TWiG is available on iTunes and Boxee and all of those usual services as well.
The idea that Google is facing a reckoning as it grows in size and influence seems to have caught on, and comparing the company to Microsoft has gone from seeming a bit radical at the time I posted to becoming much more popular when Wired covered the idea to finally having become something approaching conventional wisdom in just a few weeks. Take, for example, New Google is the old Microsoft, by Galen Ward, which lists the ways that Google ties its nascent (or even unsuccessful) efforts to the results of its dominant search engine.
Apple Blinks on Secrecy?
Less than three weeks ago, I was arguing that Apple's culture of secrecy can't scale. Fortunately, we may never know if I'm right. Astoundingly, Apple has opened up to some degree, most notably via VP Phil Schiller reaching out personally to bloggers John Gruber and Steven Frank. Of course, that's not a complete course change for Apple, but it is still significantly more human, personal and open than any recent communications they've made about their efforts.
Meanwhile, the idea that Apple's traditional secrecy is untenable has gotten an even larger audience with The Times' lengthy look at Steve Jobs and Apple:
[A]long with computers, iPhones and iPods, secrecy is one of Apple’s signature products. A cult of corporate omerta — the mafia code of silence — is ruthlessly enforced, with employees sacked for leaks and careless talk. Executives feed deliberate misinformation into one part of the company so that any leak can be traced back to its source. Workers on sensitive projects have to pass through many layers of security. Once at their desks or benches, they are monitored by cameras and they must cover up devices with black cloaks and turn on red warning lights when they are uncovered. “The secrecy is beyond fastidious and is in fact insultingly petty and political,” says one employee on the anonymous corporate reporting site Glassdoor.com, “and often is an impediment to actually getting one’s work done.”
But employees are one thing; shareholders are another. Should Jobs (who, as far as the world is concerned, is Apple) have been allowed to conceal the seriousness of his illness? Warren Buffett, the greatest investor alive, doesn’t think so. “Whether [Steve Jobs] is facing serious surgery or not is a material fact.”
Some say another sign that Apple omerta has gone too far was the death of Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer of Apple machines. He was given 16 prototypes of new iPhones. One disappeared. Facts beyond that get hazy, but it is clear that Sun committed suicide by jumping from a 12th-storey apartment. Internet babble says he killed himself because of the vanished prototype and, therefore, because of Apple’s obsessive secrecy.
Pushing the Right Buttons
Finally, the idea of the Pushbutton Web seems to be gaining steam. I am delighted to point out Om Malik's The Evolution of Blogging, which Om uses as an example of a longer-form blog post he's enjoyed recently, but which I also hope will be a catalyst for the evolution of blogging that he's calling for in the post overall.
That point is taken even further with Farhad Manjoo's ruminations in Slate, which reference my Pushbutton post:
[A]s technologies like PubSubHubbub proliferate around the Web, with companies like Google, Facebook, and others embracing them, real-time Web updates will become the norm. It won't be hard to build competitors to Twitter—systems that do as much as it does but whose decentralized design ensures that they're not a single point of failure. Winer envisions these systems coming up alongside Twitter—when you post a status update, it could get sent to both Twitter and whatever decentralized, next-gen Twitter gets created. If these new systems take off, Twitter would be just one of many status-updating hubs—and if it went down, there'd be other servers to take its place.
Seeing so many great conversations pop up recently around the topics I've been obsessing over has been very inspiring; Right after I made offhand mention of one of my Big Think interviews being about the Philology of LOLcats, my original piece on LOLcat language, Cats Can Has Grammar, was indirectly cited in Time's profile of "I Can Has Cheeseburger", through a reference to "kitty pidgin". It might seem like a minor mention, but the idea that a random dude like me can write a post that results in a phrase showing up in Time or The New York Times is still very exciting to me, after all of these years.
Best of all, there have been a spate of amazing comments on all of these posts lately, both on this site and in some of the responses I've linked to above. I'm having more fun than ever in watching the conversation across the blogosphere.
In the meantime, two to consider:
August 6, 2009
I've really been enjoying the response to my recent blog posts — here are some more thoughtful replies.
In one scenario, this is a bubble of sorts. Apple may be doing OK now, but they’re headed for a big crash when people get sick of their behavior. In another scenario — one that I think is, sadly, more likely, Apple continues as they are, adjusting when it must to address reality, but only in the most minimal way.
I've also really been enjoying watching Dave Winer's work recently. In the past we were both too young and stubborn to realize we're amused by a lot of the same things (There's my refrain of "We hate most in others that which we fail to see in ourselves" again!) but these days it is just plain entertaining to watch Dave go. My amusement is amply covered in "Anil's belly laugh", which mentions my response to Dave's latest bit of hacking. As I mentioned on my Twitter account, I also recorded an episode of the Bad Hair Day podcast with Dave and Marshall Kirkpatrick last week.
Speaking of podcasts, This Week in Google is a new one featuring Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis and Internet Hero Gina Trapani. This week, they had a very nice look at The Pushbutton Web towards the end of the show. I'm delighted how many people have told me they found that post valuable or useful in talking about this whole area of innovation. Since I'm a lousy coder, writing blog posts like that is the most helpful thing I can do.
Finally, as it's come up in several contexts lately, it's probably worth repeating the key point of a post I wrote two years ago, which attracted some attention then but is probably even more relevant today. The core concept is about "The Watery Web":
It's not true to say that Facebook is the new AOL, and it's oversimplification to say that Facebook's API is the new [MSN] Blackbird, or the new [AOL] Rainman. But Facebook is part of the web. Think of the web, of the Internet itself, as water. Proprietary platforms based on the web are ice cubes. They can, for a time, suspend themselves above the web at large. But over time, they only ever melt into the water. And maybe they make it better when they do.
Thanks, as always to people who've responded to what I've written, and especially to all of those who've taken these posts as starting points and expanded the ideas into some truly inspiring creations.
July 31, 2009
Apple is justifiably revered in the worlds of technology and culture for creating one of the most powerful brands in the world based on the combination of some key elements: Great user experience and design, and an extraordinary secrecy punctuated by surprising reveals. But the element of secrecy that's been required to maintain Apple's mystique has incurred an increasingly costly price. Apple must transform itself and leave its history of secrecy behind, not just to continue being innovative and to protect the fundamentals of its business, but because the cost of keeping these secrets has become morally and ethically untenable.
Some recent history:
- Sun Danyong, a young man in Dongguan, China, who worked for Foxconn, one of Apple's most important iPhone suppliers, killed himself after misplacing a prototype iPhone device.
- Apple prohibited the Google Voice application from being distributed on its iTunes application store with no public explanation of why, a refusal to offer any suggestions that could permit the application to be distributed, and no process for appealing the decision.
- Apple removed third-party Google Voice-compatible applications by explaining that they violate a policy against applications that duplicate native iPhone functionality, despite this rule being wildly inconsistent in its enforcement. Again, Apple refused to offer any suggestions for how developers could comply with the guidelines, and offered no process for appealing the decision.
The circumstances of Danyong's suicide are murky -- it's possible that he was involved in supplying the iPhone prototype to copycat manufacturers which would create knockoff devices, but the theory has also been advanced that he was merely unable to cope with the stress of the extreme secrecy required for his work. Regardless of the reason for Danyong's death, copycat manufacturers are a fact of doing business in China; It is only the extraordinary veil drawn around the product that makes such disclosures so particularly fraught.
Similarly, every carrier (and nearly every mobile application platform) has some arduous or even capricious limitations on the applications that can be created by developers. But for better or worse, those limitations are spelled out clearly, in a way that developers can anticipate, and decisions to prohibit particular applications are explicit even when they are annoying or offensive to those of us who believe in open platforms.
This means that those of us who support Apple with our dollars and attention are supporting a company that chooses to operate with an extreme and excessive layer of secrecy, even when making reasonable business decisions. This squelching of communication about Apple's products results in customers being unhappy or uncertain of the future value of their purchases, developers being too afraid to bet their livelihoods on a platform whose fundamental opportunities could be destroyed at any time, and suppliers being forced to inflict unreasonable or even inhumane restrictions on their employees. And that's in addition to the incredible stress that Apple employees themselves have had to endure, from missing Christmas to get products ready for MacWorld without even being able to tell family members why they must do so, to public-facing communications staff having to endure the misery of telling developers that their products or businesses are being terminated by fiat, without so much as an explanation.
I'm certain the web's usual contingent of soulless Randists will believe this level of suffering is somehow acceptable despite its moral cost, because The Market has made Apple a success. But there's even a financial argument: Apple spends an enormous amount of money on protecting and obfuscating normal business operations that any other company can do in the open. It's hard to estimate just how much the overhead of this extreme secrecy costs the company, but it's obviously many millions of dollars extra per year. And it will only get more expensive as large-scale realtime communications get more and more commoditized.
The Case for Secrecy
Now, if being ultra-private about announcements has such a terrible cost, then why does Apple go to all the trouble? Apologists would say that Apple gets three significant benefits from its incredible secrecy:
- An extremely disproportionate amount of extraordinarily favorable press from its "surprise" product launches
- A significant lead time on the rest of the market being able to copy Apple innovations
- An intangible benefit to the brand being so tightly controlled by the company
These benefits are real to some extent today, but in each case, the benefit is almost certainly not viable over the long term. Let's look at why:
"But they get so much free press from the element of surprise in their announcements!" This isn't true -- for almost every major announcement of the past several years, we've known the major points days, or even weeks, in advance. In fact, they earn the majority of their press from the extraordinary appeal of their products in design and user experience, as well as the pure showmanship they put into their signature launch events, which are unequalled thus far in the industry.
"But if they don't keep stuff a secret, other companies will be able to copy them!" Other companies already do copy Apple, and always have. And — dirty little secret — Apple has always copied other companies as well. This is a normal part of the business cycle (indeed, before its current bastardization, the patent system was designed to encourage this behavior), and no amount of secrecy will stop it. More to the point, if the only reason people are buying your product is because it has no viable competitors, then your standing in the marketplace is too tenuous to be defended anyway.
"But people love Apple's brand because it's so micromanaged!" This is the most insidious and inaccurate of all the justifications. In fact, since Apple's brand began to recover in the late 90s, two of the greatest and most influential global brands in the world have emerged: Google and Barack Obama. In both cases, they've embraced openness, transparency, and letting their communities define their brand. Despite my belief in my recent pointed criticisms of Google, it's worth noting that a number of high-profile Googlers responded personally, both privately and publicly, to the issues that I raised, all indicating that they took the discussion to heart. And President Obama has taken his penchant for talking things through to such an extreme that it's nearly become a let's-have-some-beers parody of itself.
In contrast, Apple's employees will be too cowed to publicly respond to this post, though I know they'll see it. Partners are tired of being bullied or facing petulant sanctions for accidental disclosures of relatively innocuous bits of information. And eventually, anyone talented and independent-minded enough to participate in the kind of innovation practiced at Apple is going to chafe at being constrained in how they can express themselves.
Self expression matters because Apple has always explicitly tied itself to the world of the arts and expression. One of my favorite (possibly apocryphal) Steve Jobs quotes is "Real artists ship", a testament to the fact that an invention that never sees the light of day can't affect anyone. But if we're talking about real artists, then let's consider all of their traits.
Real artists also expose themselves, making themselves vulnerable through honest expression so that their audience can see their humanity, and thus form a connection to something universal in all of us. Apple is still holding on to the centralized, Pravda-style public relations that artists used in 1984 when the Mac was introduced. Back then, giant record labels and a few powerful media outlets could tightly control the flow of information around a tiny cluster of superstars. The superstars of 1984 -- Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna -- subscribed to the doctrine of doing no interviews or press, and having their only communication with the public happen through tightly-managed events where they had total control.
Today's biggest and most influential artists, from Kanye West to Trent Reznor to Radiohead, are very nearly competing to see who can be most transparent. The immediacy and intimacy with which they communicate and create their works is dramatic, and they encourage their communities to get involved in a ritual that Apple used to encourage: Rip, Mix, Burn.
The sad truth is that Apple is still stuck in an anachronistic, 1984 mode of communicating with the world. If Apple doesn't evolve, it'll become a pathetic-looking giant, constantly playing whack-a-mole with information leaks, diminishing its relevance by antagonizing the very creators it has so long sought to identify with. Worse, while the fashions of 1984 might be back in style, the ability to tightly control a message is never going to come in vogue again, and the one thing Apple's brand can't withstand is suddenly becoming uncool. (I'm pretty sure Apple's also had a word or two to say about why today's world shouldn't be like 1984.)
Look Around And Learn
Every company, when facing a serious problem, suddenly starts blogging. From the giant auto manufacturers to troubled banks, it's been astounding to see how frequently companies figure out that embracing transparency yields an enormous improvement in how much their customers and community trust them. When Amazon screwed up by abusing their DRM powers over Kindle owners, they were a little slow to respond, but absolutely flawless in their message when they had Jeff Bezos himself post a simple, straightforward apology to Kindle owners in their own community, complete with open comments for people to respond. And it was an easy leap for Amazon to make -- they have extensive experience not just with consumer-facing blogs, but in talking directly to developers or business partners as well. While much was made of Amazon recalling George Orwell's titles, it's Apple's behavior that is most Orwellian overall.
This lesson isn't entirely lost on Apple; Once in a great while a missive will arrive from on high arrives in the form of a one-page letter from Steve Jobs on a significant issue. And when the debacle of MobileMe's bumbling launch got bad enough, Apple even launched a short-lived blog to address the issue. So it's not impossible that Apple can start to communicate in at least a semi-human, responsive way. Even better, Apple clearly has some parts of its corporate culture that want to do the right thing, as evidenced by its unusual willingness to offer refunds to a variety of disgruntled classes of customers over the years.
But the reason for Apple to embrace some open communications channels isn't merely because of the practical necessity of talking to customers, developers and partners. It's because this is the right thing to do. Apple has long been able to pride itself on being innovative even when the market wasn't demanding bold moves of them. Nothing could be more courageous than for Apple to take a decisive step to redefine a core part of their brand's history to be more in keeping with contemporary communication. Moving from the classic Mac OS to OS X or from PowerPC to Intel would be nothing compared to a transition from ultra-secretive to collaborative and expressive. It would show that Apple has the self-awareness to evolve into a better, more humane organization than they've been in the past.
The reckoning Apple has reached, whether it's admitted or not, is that its secrecy is compromising its humanity. Some of the smartest and most innovative developers on any platform are leaving and taking their creativity with them. The trade press who had embarrassed themselves with their effusive cheering for Apple in the past are rushing to cover absurdities like entire sites being dedicated to Kremlinology about Apple's platform decisions. If losing your cool doesn't move you, Apple, then what about people losing their lives to this domineering, outdated mindset?
It's incumbent upon Apple to do the moral thing here. Treat your employees, customers, suppliers and partner companies better, by letting them participate in the thing most of your products are designed for: Human self-expression. If the ethical argument is unpersuasive, then focus on the long-term viability of your marketing and branding efforts, and realize that a technology company that is determined to prevent information from being spread is an organization at war with itself. Civil wars are expensive, have no winners, and incur lots of casualties.
There is a path out of the current quagmire. Apple can start to see its customers as collaborators, and start to encourage them to use the very Apple products they've purchased as a conduit for sharing messages about the company and its products. Apple's fans have already shown a willingness to create fictitious print, television, and online advertising that exceeds other company's actual efforts in quality while still being slavishly faithful to Apple's brand guidelines. And being an open company doesn't mean that there can't be the occasional big surprise — in fact companies like Google often find it easier to have things "hide in plain site" because so much of what they do is open that the curious often don't dig past the surface to find out what else is going on.
Finally, there is the opportunity for Apple's employees themselves to act as ambassadors for the brand. Frankly, those Geniuses in the Apple stores aren't the most flattering face for the company. But instead of prohibiting all the other thousands of Apple employees from engaging in conversations about their professional lives on the web and in social media, perhaps they could be empowered to express the company's ideas in their own words. That would be an enormous resource that would be unleashed by Apple's evolution into a communicative company.
So Apple: Do the right thing. End your addiction to secrecy.
March 4, 2009
When launching the new version of Amazon's book device the Kindle, Jeff Bezos offered up the vision that the company has for the device: "Our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds." It's a message that Amazon has been consistently advocating since the device's initial rollout, and meshes nicely with the early Amazon vision of being the world's biggest bookstore.
Others have noted the audacity of the Kindle's vision. That kind of vision obviously evokes Google's early mission statement of striving to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". In truth, Google doesn't talk much about that mission these days, which might explain why a lot of their recent efforts do pretty well with the organizing the world's information part, but can be downright abysmal at making it useful. Virginia Heffernan articulated this quite well in the New York Times recently in regard to Google's image archive of old Life photos:
Google has failed to recognize that it can’t publish content under its imprint without also creating content of some kind: smart, reported captions; new and good-looking slide-show software; interstitial material that connects disparate photos; robust thematic and topical organization. All this stuff is content, and it requires writers, reporters, designers and curators. Instead, the company’s curatorial imperative, as usual, is merely “make it available.”
But at least Google's trying. That does count for something. And articulating that vision in cultural terms, phrased in language that explains the benefit to society, not just to stockholders, is important. Now, I think Google has a gap between their intention and their reality because the organization lacks theory of mind, but perhaps that's a problem that can be fixed.
And hell, I still even have a soft spot for Microsoft's old vision of "a computer on every desk and in every home", not just because in retrospect it seems so modest. It's also because it was a more ambitious vision that, if realized, would mean benefits even for people who never gave a single dollar to Microsoft. (As turned out to be the case.)
And these statements of vision are particularly resonant to me because we seldom hear any sort of similar vision from Apple. When the iTunes store was launched, the vision wasn't to "make every song in the world easily available". Instead, the clear goal was purely commercial, to make people buy music from Apple instead of Walmart.
And the truth is, Amazon, Google and Apple all make billions of dollars — that doesn't happen by accident. They should have clear goals about how to make money as part of their efforts. But since all of these companies also traffic in commerce derived from the artistic and expressive works that shape our culture, it makes sense for us to evaluate their efforts based on how well they articulate a desire to give back to our culture. They should make something meaningful for the world while making their money, at least as a happy byproduct if not as an intentional output. It's a lot easier for me to believe that employees at Amazon are doing something that's meaningful to the world at large than to feel that way about Apple's similar efforts.
I point this out not to be harshly critical of any of these companies; Indeed, I regularly give my time and money to all of them. But we often rush to describe Steve Jobs as a "visionary" for being the best showman in an industry where most people have the stage presence of a bowl of oatmeal.
The truth is, Apple has a chance to redefine what it considers vision while Steve Jobs is on leave. He could return and say that every copy of Garage Band will have the ability to instantly upload a user's songs to iTunes, unleashing an immense market of independent music to the world, and using their enormous market presence to let individuals help create culture, not just consume it. Or Apple could use its leverage with the record labels to impress upon them the importance of getting all of their back catalog of recordings online and available for people to consume — most of the music that's ever been released on any record label isn't available for purchase today, at any price, by anyone.
And just as importantly, we can use this criteria of vision, of responsibility for culture, as a way of analyzing announcements and releases in the technology world. So, last night, Amazon released their Kindle software for Apple's iPhone. Most of the reviews understandably focused on the readability of the text, or how well the synchronization features work. But I'm hoping that at least one or two lines of future reviews will spare a moment to think "is it a good thing for the world if this thing takes off?" My sense is that we're more likely to get positive answers to that question if the teams that are making these products are led by an appropriately ambitious vision.
December 30, 2008
Please (re-)visit Dan Cook's seminal Nintendo's Genre Innovation Strategy essay from 2005. It's chock-full of his signature revelatory insights, in this case inspired by the excitement and skepticism surrounding the announcement of the controller for the Nintendo Wii (then known as the Revolution).
Among many other inspired moments, Dan offers up, early in the piece, two key points.
- The increasingly hardcore nature of the game industry is causing a contraction of the industry.
- New intuitive controller options will result in innovative game play that will bring new gamers into the fold.
He goes on to describe the evolution of individual genres within the gaming industry, reaching a conclusion that was surprising to me, but that intuitively felt correct upon re-reading:
As the less hardcore players burn out on the game mechanics of their favorite genres, they too are at risk of leaving the game market. The result is a steady erosion of the genre’s population.
What is left is a very peculiar group of highly purified hardcore players. They demand rigorous standardization of game mechanics and have highly refined criteria for judging the quality of their titles. With each generation of titles in the genre, they weed out a few more of the weaker players.
This made me think of the recent innovations around the iPhone and, particularly, the games that have been created for the iPhone app store. Prior to the iPhone's release, high-end mobile phones had, essentially, become a really specific gaming genre, catering to hardcore "players", consisting of tech reviewers and industry analysts whose tastes had evolved as all genres must. "They demand rigorous standardization of game mechanics and have highly refined criteria for judging the quality of their titles. With each generation of titles in the genre, they weed out a few more of the weaker players."
The iPhone was about Nintendo-style innovation, applying the same rules that Nintendo has, and achieving a quite Nintendo-like result of producing a device that is fun, satisfying, and very inexpensive to develop innovative games for. As Dan says about Nintendo's history of innovating in controllers:
One of the easiest ways of creating a new genre is to invent a new series of verbs (or risk mechanics as I called them in my Genre Life Cycle articles). One of the easiest ways of inventing new verbs is to create new input opportunities. Nintendo controls their hardware and they leverage this control to suit their particular business model.
And this is exactly what Nintendo has done historically. The original Dpad, the analog stick, the shoulder buttons, the C-stick, the DS touch pad, link capabilities, the tilt controller, the bongo drums … the list goes on and on.
The touchscreen and tilt sensor in the iPhone are just another in the series of controller innovations, and they've yielded the results that these inventions always do. Only, instead of Mario being the brand that benefits from this new set of verbs, Apple is the brand that benefits.
And all of this confirms my suspicion that the iPod and iPhone are not only designed to be subscription hardware that you repurchase constantly, but that Apple is deliberately creating their devices so that the only way you can level up in this game is by buying a new iPod or iPhone.
It's worth concluding with one of Dan's final points:
Nintendo’s strategy of pursuing innovation benefits the entire industry. It brings in new audiences and creates new genres that provide innovative and exciting experiences. The radical new controller is a great example of this strategy in action.
Surprisingly, this also benefits Microsoft and it benefits Sony. As the years pass, the hard core publishers that serve mature genres will adopt previously innovative genres and commoditize them. Their profits will be less, but they’ll keep a lot of genre addicts very happy. Everybody wins when a game company successfully innovates.
I see both of these strategies as a necessary and expected part of a vibrant and growing industry. Industries need balance and Nintendo is a major force of much needed innovation that prevents industry erosion and decline.
According to Amazon's account of holiday bestsellers, "Nintendo Wii dominated the top sellers in video games and hardware including the Wii console, the Wii remote controller and the Wii nunchuk controller." Worldwide sales of the Wii are nearly equal to sales of the Microsoft XBox 360 and Sony Playstation 3 combined.
June 11, 2008
One of the most satisfying and fun things I've ever seen in my job was the sight of my friend and coworker Michael Sippey onstage with Steve Jobs and the Apple crew, showing off TypePad for iPhone. In our line of business, Apple keynotes are just about the biggest shows in town, and Sippey killed it on the toughest stage around.
As Michael graciously mentions in his own post, the demo wouldn't have been possible without our great developer (and demo god in his own right) Ray Marshall, along with Stephane Delbecque on our team who helped pull the entire effort together. You can watch the whole keynote on Apple's site, or just see a short clip of the TypePad demo for yourself:
But while I'm happy for Michael and the team on such a great demo, it also made me happy to see Michael onstage showing that his knowledge of blogging is second to none. Michael was, along with Peter, one of the people who really inspired me to start blogging, and he's probably under-recognized as a pioneer.
The list of ways he's influenced blogging and our industry are countless: Even the biggest gadget blogs today still make a huge deal out of featuring big-name tech CEOs when they get an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, but Michael interviewed Jeff Bezos for his seminal blog Stating the Obvious twelve years ago. I interviewed Michael for our series on the 10th anniversary of blogging last year, in which Michael talks about creating what was arguably the first link blog, Filtered for Purity, ten years ago. And of course, Mena mentioned Michael's joining Six Apart back in 2004 as our VP of Products. It's a role he's held ever since.
Add in his influence in efforts like advising the original Pyra team, which created Blogger, and it calls to mind the old chestnut about the Velvet Underground: Not everybody has read Michael Sippey's blog, but everyone who did, started a blog. (And at some point in recent history, it's possible that everyone who did started a blogging company.) Congrats to my friend Michael on putting that experience on display on the biggest stage around.
(And oh yeah, if you're the best in the world at what you do, you can work at Six Apart, too.)
March 28, 2008
An application that appears cluttered or illogical is harder to understand and use.
Aesthetic integrity is not a measure of how beautifully your application is decorated. It's a measure of how well the appearance of your application integrates with its function. For example, a productivity application should keep decorative elements subtle and in the background, while giving prominence to the task by providing standard controls and behaviors.
An immersive application is at the other end of the spectrum, and users expect a beautiful appearance that promises fun and discovery. Although an immersive application tends to be focused on providing diversion, however, its appearance still needs to integrate with the task. Be sure you design the user interface elements of such an application carefully, so that they provide an internally consistent experience.
From Apple's iPhone Human Interface Guidelines.
January 25, 2008
In an excellent post about Meg Whitman's retirement, David Galbraith succinctly summarizes the most important thing about eBay's potential:
Ebay is all about Green, the biggest angle any company can have, currently, and yet it has ignored this. As the largest marketplace for second hand goods, it is the worlds largest recycler.
Similarly, despite my frustrations as an iPod Touch owner that Apple is charging $20 for an update to the device, I am heartened that their revenue model may be evolving, even if just in a tiny way, from planned obsolescence. They claim their devices are more green because of reduced PCBs in the circuit boards, but the best thing they could do is to make their revenue model rely on throwing away software, instead of throwing away hardware. It's been said there are hundreds of millions of cell phones that live in drawers, and I suspect that the 100 million iPods that have been sold were sold to perhaps 30 million households. That's a lot of costly devices sitting in disuse. Software subscriptions are a much less planet-clogging option than hardware subscriptions for companies which offer both.