Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Tag: apple

The universal design critic

In just the past half day, a lot has been said about Steve Jobs. I’m not sure I have anything unique to add, but I’ve been using Macs continuously since the first one I owned, which was one of the original 128K models, so I can’t let his passing go without comment.

Many of the people praising Steve Jobs have focused on the way that he and Apple have provided them with the tools to do their job, the way they have demystified technology and made it elegant and fun. And I agree with all that. But Steve Jobs and Apple have had a more subtle and deeper effect on us than that.

One of Jobs’ greatest talents was as a critic, particularly of design. He didn’t design Apple’s hardware or software, but he had strong, detailed opinions on all of it, which he would forcefully deliver when anything failed to live up to his very high expectations. So it’s no surprise that Apple has delivered consistently well-designed products, but they’ve also delivered design-oriented products. The very first Mac had multiple fonts and typographic controls, could mix pictures with text. Even the screen resolution of 72 dpi was chosen to parallel the point-size system.

We take these sorts of thing for granted today. They would have happened eventually, but they happened when they did because of Steve Jobs and Apple.

Today, we know what a font is, and many of us have opinions on which ones are better than others. We look more critically at industrial design and engineering. There are even movies and shorts about fonts and industrial design. By putting exemplars of good design into the marketplace and making them accessible to regular people, and by giving his competition a higher mark to aim for, Steve Jobs has transmitted some small part of his critical acuity and insistence on quality to the rest of us.

When Jobs resigned as CEO about 6 weeks ago, John Gruber wrote

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like…Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Zoom out farther.

Thoughts on bandwidth

In The real reason why Steve Jobs hates Flash, Charlie Stross wrote an analysis of Apple’s recent moves, and where he thinks Apple is headed (oddly, he never quite says what “the real reason” is). He’s looking 5–10 years down the line. I’m thinking about the next 1–5 years, and how (or if) we might get to the future that Stross envisions.
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A last-minute thought on Apple’s mythical tablet

It is widely rumored that Apple will be introducing some kind of tablet gadget about half a day after I write these words. It is also widely rumored that a key aspect of this introduction will be deals with major print-media publishers, who will be offering electronic versions of their books and periodicals on the mythical tablet.

Based on some of Apple’s recent work (eg, the iTunes LP format), it is reasonable to assume that these electronic text publications will be marked up in HTML5, CSS, and Javascript. Companies like the New York Times and McGraw Hill are going to need a production tool for flowing their content out in this new format, as well as all the other formats that they’re currently distributing. In short, they’re going to need something like InDesign, but designed for HTML and with the ability to include video, dynamic content, etc.

Ben Hammersley has been writing about electronic media and the future of journalism, but more from a different angle—from the original act of creating stories. But I don’t doubt he’s been thinking about the production side too.

What tool will that be and where will it come from? I doubt it will be Adobe’s GoLive, although that might work. I suspect (assuming all these other suppositions are correct) that Apple will be announcing their own software, taking another dig at Adobe. If all this is correct, it’s going to become an important software market.

And while Apple gets dinged (often justifiably) for a walled-garden approach to their products and services, in this case a win for Apple would be a win for the public interest. A publication format based on existing standards lowers the barrier to entry for other players; if Amazon decides they want to support this new format in the Kindle, they’ll just need to ensure they’ve got a standards-compliant HTML engine on it, and publishers will just retarget the Kindle with the same output. The formats may involve some kind of quirky or proprietary wrappers, but these would get laid on at the last step in the production process. It would be trivial to re-wrap the same payload for multiple devices. For any of these devices to succeed, of course, is another matter entirely.

MacBook Air reaction

The interesting thing about the MBA (heh) is that it is intended as an “outrigger” computer. While it could be barely self-sufficient, the idea seems to be that anyone owning one would have a bigger computer somewhere else. That’s a reasonable assumption and the outrigger market is a reasonable one to serve. But if that was Apple’s starting point, they’ve made some weird choices.

  • Price: $1800 is a big commitment for a secondary computer.
  • Size: It’s small, but it’s not that small; its footprint is big enough that it clearly bothers a lot of people. And for that matter, it seems that they could have shaved an inch off the width and half-inch off the depth without cutting into screen or keyboard.
  • Power: It’s not exactly high-spec, but it’s pretty high-spec.

There is an emerging trend of cheap and cheerful devices that aren’t practical as fully functioning standalone computers, but are fine for web-surfing, media playback, and lightweight work. Things like the Nokia N810 or the Asus Eee. Apple seems to be borrowing the outrigger aspect of these devices without picking up on their other features—low-power CPU, small screen, limited keyboard, etc—features that make them less than workhorses, but easier to schlepp around and longer running. The MBA is a more or less full-power serious work machine and fashion statement that isn’t quite self-sufficient but doesn’t quite embrace its second-computer status either.

It’s been widely speculated that Apple would, eventually, introduce something that would fit somewhere between a laptop and the iPhone. Like a tablet. It may be that the iPhone is Apple’s tablet, but the choices behind the MBA leave room at the low end of the market for something else. Some people are already filling that void by installing OS X on the Asus Eee. I don’t think the MBA is going to be it for a lot of people.

.Mac—a missed opportunity

A post on oreillynet got me thinking about .Mac, Apple’s online thingy for mac users. Apple recently updated it, and while the updates are nice enough, I think Apple is missing an opportunity.

I don’t know how many people use .Mac. I get the impression that not many do. It seems overpriced for what you get. So what do you get? An e-mail address and web mail. Online photo galleries and web pages. Remote backup, storage and (for some apps) syncing. Apple just increased the available storage from one gig to ten, and added some other features—”groups” (sort of like Yahoo Groups or Google Groups), domain-name hosting, and upgrades to the existing features (the photo album is pretty slick).

All this for the not-very-low cost of $100/yr. Apple is competing with two other alternatives here: free and generic.

There are free groups, free photo hosts, free mail services, free blog hosts, and so on. Of course, these are all ad-supported. And they’re good: Gmail’s webmail is considered by some to be the best mail client out there—web-based or local. It’s hard to compete with free, especially when it’s as good as it is. Admittedly, a lot of people get a little creeped out by having their data mined by Google, and putting their entire digital lives in Google’s hands.

On the generic side, for the price of a .Mac subscription or less, you can get a web-hosting account that gives you access to a Unix shell, more storage space (at Dreamhost, which notoriously oversells, I’m getting something like 250 GB of storage, of which I barely use 1%), web-based management tools, and access to the whole panoply of web-side apps, like WordPress, Drupal, Gallery, and so on. So it is possible to duplicate most or all of what .Mac does using open-source software that gives you more control and potentially broader functionality. Not everyone wants that level of control or needs all those features, but there are a lot of WordPress and Movable Type blogs out there, a lot of bulletin-boards and community sites, and so on. Clearly it’s not a small market, and I’d bet it’s a lot bigger than .Mac.

So, given that .Mac is not free and does not offer the same level of functionality as the other options, what does it offer? I see two things: All the templates for information hosted on .Mac look great (although the underlying HTML can be scary), and it has good integration with the client. Pretty much what you’d expect from Apple.

.Mac has been around in some form since the Internet first caught fire, and at that time, the kinds of things that regular folks would want to do online were not well-established. .Mac (originally “iTools”) was speculative in that sense. Some things, like photo galleries, turned out to be correct. (Although even there, flickr has shown us how photographs can be the nexus for communities, in a way .Mac can’t approximate.) Others, like remote backup, haven’t really panned out yet because A) the service doesn’t offer a meaningful amount of storage, and B) most of us don’t have a sufficiently fast upstream connection to make it practical. .Mac has changed and expanded its services, but hasn’t always kept pace with trends in Internet usage.

The recent updates to .Mac seem nice, but do not tempt me. What would tempt me would be if Apple offered the same slick client-side integration, but tied into a more generic hosting service—one where I can install a WordPress blog or a Drupal CMS.

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