Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2012

Under New Management

I keep seeing predictions that Jonathan Ive’s management of Human Interfaces will result in Apple dropping skeuomorphic design choices. Hell, this one’s from the New York Times. Sebastiaan de With, designer of the now-infamous Find My Friends app, has the best dismissal of those notions:

What bothers me, though, is that everyone is flinging around cheap shots at ‘skeuomorphism’ (set to be awarded the Most Misused Term of 2012 award), as Jonathan Ive gaining leadership over Apple’s famous software HI team is somehow assumed to significantly change Apple’s subjective design decisions in the future.

People are jumping to conclusions and making assumptions on design processes at a company that’s so well known for being design-driven and perfectionist. However, it doesn’t tend to be that clear cut when you’re essentially leading the trend of software design. I can’t see things changing in such a black-and-white way: Ive was, after all, closely involved in the design of iOS 1.0.

Dropshelf

In Microsoft’s Courier concept video, the user is able to temporarily hold items that they’re dragging and dropping in the “spine” of the hinged tablet. This has always struck me as a brilliant idea.

Well, Nick Moore of Pilotmoon has made that concept a reality for the Mac. Dropshelf is a tiny app which sits on the side of your desktop to temporarily hold things while dragging and dropping them. It’s a brilliant app, and it’s just $5.

Google Voice Search Comes to iOS

In my testing, the voice search feature has been reliably fast, and really friggin’ fast, at that. It’s also often more accurate than Siri, though it was incapable of understanding a package tracking number, something which Siri got on the second try. It’s less capable than Siri (obviously, since it isn’t baked in), but it gives Eddy Cue a clear speed target.

Growing up a Bond Girl

Fantastic video essay by Deborah Lipp:

I am a woman, a feminist, and a hardcore James Bond fan; I’ve even written a book on the Bond movies. But when I meet fellow fans, they are often startled that a woman is among them. When I tell feminists that I am a Bond fan, their shock is as great, and often accompanied by disgust. In either case, I’m subtly, or not-so-subtly, being told that James Bond is not meant for me.

There’s a transcript available, but the video is worth watching, too.

Apple Delays iTunes Refresh Until November

Apple’s statement to AllThingsD:

“The new iTunes is taking longer than expected and we wanted to take a little extra time to get it right. We look forward to releasing this new version of iTunes with its dramatically simpler and cleaner interface and seamless integration with iCloud before the end of November.”

My stupid single-serving domain has been updated with this information.

The Best Possible Situation

As Mondays go, yesterday was one hell of a trip in the tech world. Google launched their holiday lineup, and Microsoft introduced the world to Windows Phone 8. But the biggest of them all, Apple, waited until mid-afternoon to share the news: Scott Forstall and John Browett, two of their executive team, would be leaving the company.

John Gruber gave his usual in-depth analysis, Federico Viticci asked the right questions, and Jim Dalrymple was characteristically monosyballic. Between all the rumoured reasons for their departure flying around, I felt like I was reading the kind of gossip stories normal people read. But I don’t want to dwell on the circumstances for their leaving. I want to make the case that this executive shuffling of duties is the best possible position for Apple to be in.

Scott Forstall was the man in charge of iOS and, briefly before that, Mac OS X. That means that he played a huge role in controlling the direction of around 70% of Apple’s quarterly revenue. He lead the engineering side, including Siri and Maps, and drove the interface design side. He was Steve Jobs’ right-hand-man in the realistic leather-and-wood world. But Jobs passed away a year ago, and Forstall doesn’t still have the kind of clout that allows him to be kind of a dick. Which is a shame, because he’s one hell of an engineer.

So, how does his job get divvied up within the company?

There are ten names on Apple’s leadership page now. Two of them, CFO Oppenheimer and GC Sewell, aren’t interesting to the normal creative operations of the company from my perspective. That leaves eight people. More specifically, eight of the most talented people in the world at what they do every single day.

Tim Cook runs the joint. He’s the best operations manager in the world, bar none. He was the guy who took Apple from 90 days of stale inventory to complete turnarounds that take less than a week. Like his predecessor, he isn’t a designer nor a coder. He probably doesn’t have quite the design taste that Steve Jobs had, though I’d wager that he understands thoroughly the difference between good and great design.

But that’s okay, because Jony Ive is there, a man with truly impeccable taste. You may dislike his stark, material-oriented industrial design philosophy, but you cannot deny just how good he is at it, nor can you deny the impact it has had on the rest of the world of industrial design. And now he’s the director of “human interface” in a software sense, in addition to the hardware. He is the man in charge of making sure Apple’s products make sense and are comfortable for human beings. He facilitates the design of that entire interaction.

Then there’s Phil Schiller, the Number Two1. If Cook gets killed while skydiving into work in the morning — his usual commute — Schiller takes over. His official title is “Senior Vice President, Worldwide Marketing” but, as Gruber notes, this is somewhat misleading. It makes more sense if you replace the word “Marketing” with the word “Product”, because that’s his role: shaping Apple’s entire product direction. He’s realized that the best way to market a product — to make people want to buy a given product — is to make that product so good that people want to buy it anyway, regardless of how many ads the company runs. Judging by Apple’s decade-and-a-half of hits, this makes him one of the best product guys in the world.

While Ive oversees the design of Apple’s software, someone still needs to implement it. That role now falls on the rather wonderfully-appointed head of Craig Federighi. He was the man who delivered perfectly on Mountain Lion, an operating system that costs $20, was delivered on time, and was relatively free of bugs. Now he’s in charge of delivering that same quality of operating system on Apple’s mobile devices. Interestingly, OS X is reportedly now on an annual release cycle, as with iOS. Apple wants to prove that they can deliver, and it’s all on Federighi now. Next year will be his first test to do so, and I can’t wait to see what he delivers.

Apple also needs people to implement Ive’s hardware designs. His team works closely with Dan Riccio’s genius hardware engineering team, and Jeff Williams’ operations team to ensure everything works together, and can be made en masse. Also in this field is Bob Mansfield, brought in for one last job: to run the totally vague Technologies division. According to the press release, this means wireless hardware and processors, both of which are critical to Apple’s largely self-contained future. He’s going to be running this for the next two years, and apparently has “ambitious plans for the future”.

Last, but very much not least, Forstall’s Siri and Maps duties have been passed on to the resident fixer Eddy Cue, who runs the new Internet Services team. Cue has been critical to gaining many of the media deals that have allowed the iTunes Store to grow to its current size, dominance, and worldwide prevalence. He was also the guy who took the failed MobileMe product and fixed it up into iCloud. It’s not perfectly reliable, but it’s so much better than the days of yore. Now, Cue’s job is to make Siri and Maps function as well as they should, or better. It makes sense to consolidate the internet services into one division. Cue’s record indicates that he is an ideal candidate for this job.

This reshuffling of duties is what Apple does best: simplification. No longer will the two operating systems be engineered by two people. No longer will the iOS team be in charge of two internet services. Everyone’s job makes sense. Each team is a critical component of making each product, from concept to record sales quarter.

And, yes, Apple will find a replacement to lead the retail division.


  1. From what has previously been reported, my understanding is that Jony Ive isn’t a “number”, but rather a man who operates a division that runs both parallel, and in direction of the entirety of Apple. ↩︎

Bubble Wrap

A few weeks ago, the incomparable Shawn Blanc had a mini garage sale to clear out his old iPhone and related accessories (and his shitty speaker). I spotted an Olloclip for half price, which he was selling because it doesn’t work with the iPhone 5.

It arrived today in what can only be described as an overwhelming amount of bubble wrap, in a box that could hold perhaps 20 Olloclips:

Shawn must have also realized how ridiculous I’d find this, because he enclosed a note:

Note

Nick —

Would you believe me if I told you this was the smallest box I could find. Seems like overkill. Oh, well.

— SB

P.S. I figured I might as well go nuts with the bubble wrap so long as I’m at it…

Well, at least the bubble wrap ensured an absolutely safe journey.

Olloclip sample

Plainspoken

John Gruber on the headline for today’s Cook-canning (“Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services. Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi Add Responsibilities to Their Roles”):

… I think that headline, euphemistic though it is, tells the plain truth: Forstall was an obstacle to collaboration within the company. Now he’s gone, and his responsibilities are being divided between four men who foster collaboration: Ive, Mansfield, Cue, and Federighi.

As Gruber notes, there’s no quote from any of the executives in the press release, either. I don’t think Wall Street will be taking this well, but it’s for the best in the longer term.

Shaking Things Up

I’m going to be quoting a lot from this press release because nearly every paragraph is huge:

Apple today announced executive management changes that will encourage even more collaboration between the Company’s world-class hardware, software and services teams. As part of these changes, Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi will add more responsibilities to their roles. Apple also announced that Scott Forstall will be leaving Apple next year and will serve as an advisor to CEO Tim Cook in the interim.

Forstall is out. Despite the Maps PR shitstorm, I was not expecting that. The guy was responsible for much of Mac OS X in the early years before moving over to run the iOS team. He’s been one of the few people steering the direction of the look-and-feel of Apple’s operating systems and their integrated applications for the past ten years.

Forstall’s Businessweek profile painted an unflattering portrait of a man deliberately trying to ape Steve Jobs. He’s clearly talented, though. I can’t wait to see where he goes now.

Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design.

This certainly sounds promising.

Eddy Cue will take on the additional responsibility of Siri and Maps, placing all of our online services in one group.

Good start. Cue’s direction of online services is, for the most part, excellent (with the obvious exception of iCloud, but then, I am basing that on my total lack of knowledge of how much data they process which, I assume, is a lot given the amount of down time it has).

Craig Federighi will lead both iOS and OS X. Apple has the most advanced mobile and desktop operating systems, and this move brings together the OS teams to make it even easier to deliver the best technology and user experience innovations to both platforms.

Hair Force One is in the house. The totally smooth Mountain Lion launch proved Federighi’s competence, and I can’t wait to see what this means for iOS. I suspect it’s good news.

Bob Mansfield will lead a new group, Technologies, which combines all of Apple’s wireless teams across the company in one organization, fostering innovation in this area at an even higher level. This organization will also include the semiconductor teams, who have ambitious plans for the future.

Remember when Bob Mansfield was retiring? And then Tim Cook played the part of Ashton Kutcher to say “just kidding”? Now he’s running Apple’s most vaguely-named group. This combination of areas makes sense, though: hardware design, hardware engineering, and software engineering and design. Three big groups to make Apple’s entire lineup. How to sell them?

Additionally, John Browett is leaving Apple. A search for a new head of Retail is underway and in the interim, the Retail team will report directly to Tim Cook.

Guess they didn’t like his cost-cutting at all costs approach. No surprises there.

Huge news. It’s going to be an interesting morning on the NASDAQ, provided it’s open, of course.

Update: The stock exchange won’t be open until Wednesday at the earliest, which gives a day of thought for all investors. The uncertainty will likely see Apple’s stock drop.

Windows Phone 8 Review

Calgary is an interesting city. We have the second-largest land footprint of any city in North America, just behind Los Angeles. For a city of little more than a million people, this means that the vast majority of the city is very low-density. Downtown, for example, isn’t highly populated. At around 5:30 on a weekday evening, barely anyone is wandering around, and most of the shops are shut for the day, and won’t be reopened until the following morning.

The stores close early because there are few people living and shopping downtown. There are few people living and shopping downtown because there are no amenities to support it. It’s a cycle.

This is the problem Windows Phone has. People aren’t warming to it because their favourite apps aren’t on the platform. And their favourite apps aren’t on the platform because developers don’t want to put a lot of time and money into porting their app for a platform few use.

Like Calgary’s downtown core, there’s so much to love, but it’s marred by its lack of liveability.

The Predictive Future of Search

Introduced with Android 4.1, Google Now is seeing some major improvements in 4.2. It’s a product that I find myself wanting, but with a better privacy policy than what Google offers. I can’t square that circle, unfortunately; to want something as wonderfully predictive as Google Now requires crossing a chasm of privacy, and that’s something I simply cannot do.

Nexus 4, 10, Sandy

Hurricane Sandy is a real bitch, and managed to preempt Google’s Big Announcement Day by bringing her storm to New York. It’s like a movie, except real. Stay safe.

Two items of note were announced in an uncharacteristically low-key manner today: the Nexus 4 and 10. The 10 is Google’s answer to the new iPad. No, the other new iPad. The 10″ 2,560 × 1,600 pixel display looks stunning but, as usual for Samsung, the body is made of cheap-looking plastic. It also includes a shitty-sounding front cover:

You can attach a special cover to the tablet: the back has a removable panel at top that can be replaced with another one with a built-in cover. With the unit we tried, that panel was a little finicky to remove, though. Also, though the cover automatically woke and slept the device, it’s not segmented like the smart cover on an iPad, so it’s not likely to be especially useful as a stand.

So if you want to temporarily remove the cover while it’s on your desk at work, then put it on again for the commute home, you need to carry around your spare plastic back panel. Sounds wonderful.

The Nexus 4 is Google’s new phone, made by LG. What it has is less interesting than what it doesn’t have: LTE, an SD card slot, or capacity above 16 GB. But it’s cheap, at just $299, or $199 on contract. This explains why Google is dancing around the LTE issue a little.

Joshua Topolsky got a sneak-peek inside the development process of both products, and it’s worth reading for no reason other than to see what shirt Matias Duarte is wearing. There’s also this rather blunt explanation of what Google is, in the words of Andy Rubin:

“If you look at how Google evolved, it’s an ad company, so the thing that’s funding everything in this building is ads. As long as we’re competitive in the services that we’re offering and people love us, the ad business works.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard any Google executive be as straightforward as this regarding what Google really is.

Steve Ballmer Must Be High as a Kite

Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer trumpeted the company’s new Surface tablet on Thursday, classifying the device as a twofer that — unlike some of its competitors — can be used both for work and entertainment.

“I don’t think anyone has done a product that I see customers wanting,” Ballmer said.

Uh, okay.

Why I’m Returning My Microsoft Surface

Brent Ozar ordered a Surface RT, and he loves the build quality. But, like a lot of the early reviews have mentioned, the software is woeful. Just take a look at the embedded videos.

It’s a shame, really. Between the crappy beta-level software and the miserable retail experience, it’s a real letdown for what should be a really promising product. The Metro UI is beautiful, and the product is incredibly well-built. But, and I seem to note this frequently for Microsoft products, there’s a lot of compromise to try to make the thing work with legacy software, byzantine enterprise environments, and edge-case scenarios. Ironic, for a “no compromises” product.

Amazon’s Quarter

John Gruber reacting to this idiotic story in Forbes:

Second, we’ll never know how Kindle Fire sales compare to the iPad because Amazon does not release unit sale numbers. Apple takes the heat on missing sales projections but none of its main competitors — Amazon, Samsung, or Google — even release those numbers.

Comparing the results of Amazon’s red quarter with Apple’s significant year-over-year growth, and declaring Amazon the real winner here is simply ludicrous.

Samsung/Apple UK Judgment

Apple read the judge’s decision by the letter because, not only does this emphasize how uncool the Samsung tablet is, it’s set in Arial, size 14. If you imagine this as read in a mid-Jersey accent, it’s much more effective.

Also, note that most websites are using the term “apology” to refer to this notice. Indeed, that’s what the link above calls it. But it was never referred to as an apology in the trial or decision; rather, it was called a “notice”. Its purpose, from the perspective of the High Court, was to acknowledge the decision, not to show remorse:

Samsung say that, notwithstanding the fact that Apple have lost this case, they continue to assert that Samsung infringes and that the damage that was caused and has been described there continues to apply. Accordingly, Samsung seek orders that I should require Apple to put on their websites and to put in certain newspapers references to this judgment and a statement that the court has found that the Samsung Galaxy tablets do not infringe.

If you’re wondering why the notice doesn’t have the tone of an apology, or even a non-apology apology, it’s because it wasn’t supposed to in the first place.

Updated Reading List

My reading list has been updated to include great new stuff from David Blake and Paul Graham. I’ve also switched up my own links, to reflect some more recent articles I’m happier with.

The list also includes a new category: books. I’ve listed some of my favourite reads that are a little out of the ordinary (I trust you’ve already read The Great Gatsby). So far, the only books I have listed are nonfiction, and include works by Drew Curtis, Kitty Scott, and Eliot Wilder. The book links go to Amazon but, as stated in my colophon, these are not affiliate links. I receive no kickback from your purchase.

I Hate Myself and Want To Die

George Strombolopolous reports about two Nirvana-related developments. The first is a sitcom to be titled “Smells Like Teen Spirit:

The show focuses on “an 18-year-old budding entrepreneur” who defers his acceptance to Harvard and starts a multibillion-dollar internet company in his parents’ garage.

Sounds shitty.

And speaking of lawsuits and Nirvana: Sam Lufti, who says he’s Courtney’s manager, was in court regarding a lawsuit he’s bringing against Britney Spears […]

“[Courtney Love and I] are currently working on a possible motion picture or Broadway musical based on the Nirvana catalogue, based on her life and Kurt Cobain’s,” Lufti said during the trial.

Sounds real shitty. The Nirvana fan in me wants to die.

Apple’s Fourth Quarter Results

Apple PR:

The Company sold 26.9 million iPhones in the quarter, representing 58 percent unit growth over the year-ago quarter. Apple sold 14.0 million iPads during the quarter, a 26 percent unit increase over the year-ago quarter. The Company sold 4.9 million Macs during the quarter, a 1 percent unit increase over the year-ago quarter. Apple sold 5.3 million iPods, a 19 percent unit decline from the year-ago quarter.

Increased sales of every product except, predictably, iPods. Remember: only eight days of iPhone 5 sales were counted in this quarter, yet they still sold 58% more than the previous year’s Q4. As Nilay Patel noted, “it’s a weird world where Apple can post record quarters but still miss analyst expectations.”