The space shuttle just flew overhead, on its way to being mothballed. I stopped work for a minute and went outside to watch. Cool to see it, but in an age of incredibly rapid technological progress, how striking to see something that looks like the future of 40 years ago. A dingy, bulky, tile-covered would-be plane that can’t fly on its own? That costs an arm and leg both to build and maintain, and can’t take off in the rain? Isn’t technology getting cheaper, smaller, and more reliable? Isn’t it also more accessible to all? Why are we still looking up at the shuttle, rather than buying tickets on one, the same way we might buy a new iPhone?
Archived entries for tech
Apparently that’s the contention of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on Jobs, according to this Silicon Valley Insider post. I’m about a decade behind in my effort to keep up with reading the New Yorkers that are stacked next to our coffee table, so I haven’t read the thing myself. But I wonder if Gladwell is using a good definition of “innovation.” Ideas are easy to come up with, and while it’s more difficult to turn new ideas into prototypes and first-gen products, neither task, it seems to me, is nearly as easy as turning new ideas into successful products. And judging by the successful of such Apple products as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, doing this requires a whole series of innovations, albeit in somewhat less glamorous areas such as marketing, engineering, manufacturing, etc.. And of course design, in which Apple – which is to say, in recent years, the Ives-Jobs team – is certainly an innovator.
John Dvorak is a curmudgeon, so it’s no surprise that amid all the (more or less) positive buzz about the look and feel of Windows 8, he says he hates it and wants Microsoft to ditch the Metro UI. But at least in its latest version, his argument is more than the rationalization of a knee-jerk reaction. Rather, he points out that for all its visual pizzazz, Metro is, in an important respect, much less usable than the current Windows desktop. The problem, in his eyes, is the replacement of click-to-launch icons with tiles.
Choosing beauty and hipness over meaning
It’s the tiles that have gotten everyone all excited about Metro. Many think they show that Microsoft doesn’t just acknowledge the possibility of a non-PC future, but embraces it. And they’re certainly visually arresting.
But a colored tile doesn’t “say” anything to the average user, absent his or her having used it for a while. To figure out what you’ll get when you click on it, you have to done that a bunch of times already. Or you have to have customized it with content you’ve chosen and formatted. In either case, a serious time investment is needed, to get to the point where you can see, grok, and click a tile as quickly as you can, when you see, say, the Word, Excel, or Outlook icons, on the current Windows desktop. Assuming, of course, that “you” means the average user. Or John Dvorak.
What’s odd about Microsoft’s move to tiles isn’t just that it brings a phone UI to the desktop. It’s also counter to Microsoft’s tradition of respecting users’ existing habits. Many features, of many Microsoft UIs, seem to exist only because people are used to them.
There’s a good reason for Microsoft to go this route. It shows respect for users, and acknowledges that learning to use applications and their features is difficult and time-consuming. If people have already spent a lot of time and effort learning one way to do something, Microsoft generally doesn’t force them to learn a new way. Even if, in the abstract, the new way is clearly “better.”
A hybrid approach
Desktop icons are the quintessential example a feature you’d think Microsoft would want to keep, for just this reason. Yet they’re gone in Windows 8. What’s odd is that they could easily have been preserved as part of a very phone-like UI. Android phones and the iPhone, after all, use icons arrayed on a field, or rather a set of fields, that we might, in another context, call a “desktop.” Why weren’t those UIs the model here?
The bubble, or the iron fist
It seems unlikely that at a place like Microsoft, artists – or rather, designers – got the upper hand over programmers, as Dvorak suggests. Perhaps the Windows team lives in a bubble where no one uses anything but Win7 phones. Or perhaps someone powerful decided that Windows needs to be roped into an all-hands-on-deck effort to establish the Win7 phone UI as the new standard for every device. As Dvorak suggested earlier this year, the latter seems likely, given Microsoft’s longstanding commitment to the goal of maintaining UI consistency across devices.
Microsoft has done something like this before – recall its jump from DOS to Windows. That move too was driven by opportunism and a willingness to borrow (or steal) rather than innovate. But back then, it chose the right model – the Mac OS. Not following Android or iOS is, at best, an odd decision. And one that, as Dvorak points out, may well be a big mistake.
In the popular perception, “great books” are often difficult to read not because they were, in many cases, written for readers of different cultures, in different times – but because the ideas the convey are so complex and rich, and, as a result, the prose, plots, and situations that convey them, so intricately constructed, meaning only close, slow, careful reading can lead to comprehending them fully. Folowing this line of thought, quality seems to equate with difficulty – and thus, suffering with deep, ultimately (if not immediately) rewarding reading.
Most of us imbibed this idea in high school and college, but got past it. Sure, reading Mill on the Floss is tough at first, but if you make the effort to understand what reading it would have been like, in the British 1860s, and try, if only in some superficial way, to read it in the context of the cultural references proper to that time, reading it becomes much easier and more pleasurable, and the book, if less Great, certainly no less good.
Did Jonah Lehrer never get beyond equating difficult with deep? Or is this article, saying that the e-reading experience, to be more meaningful, should be made more difficult, the product of his Wired editors’ obsession with making news by being contrarian at all costs, even to the point of being juvenile?
I’ve speculated before that the NYT will, sooner rather than later, have to radically restructure its organization – that is, fire a lot of people, and cut a lot of other costs too – in order to survive as a news-gathering and -dissemination operation. I didn’t expect that the Times’s leadership would come so quickly to the realization that one good way to do this would be to go all-digital. But now Arthur Sulzberger has broached the idea. If he’s saying this in public, and deliberately so, how much longer can it be, before this happens? Soon, I hope – the Times will be in much better shape, the quicker it goes this route, perhaps preserving, say, the Sunday Magazine and a few other sections, as regular, though not daily, printed products, for a boutique audience.
Wired in 1997: “the browser is dead.”
Wired in 2010: “the browser is dead.”
Err.. what tool is it, that’s displacing the browser, by doing a better job of what a successful remote info access-and-manipulation app needs to do – i.e. give users more power, and more freedom? Wired doesn’t say. (Nor did it say, at least convincingly, way back when.) Oi.
The usually dead-on Joe Wikert just tweeted that he’s “[a]ppreciating the irony that the Kindle platform provides so many top-selling #iPad ebooks.” But why the irony? Amazon’s core business is selling things – most notably, the content that used to come only in physical books, but now comes in ebooks as well. By getting a jump in the ebook space, Amazon built a perhaps small, but dedicated following of readers who are now used to buying ebooks in Kindle format – and, it seems, happy to buy them to read on the iPad. If Amazon stops making physical Kindles, no matter – the device will have done its job.
Sure, Apple could try to push Amazon out of the ebook market, using pricing strategies, signing exclusive deals with publishers, or whatever. But I doubt it would want to. Why give the world’s leading book retailer any incentive either to revivify the Kindle device, or to hunt for another devicemaker to partner with? The de facto Amazon-Apple partnership should suit both companies just fine.
That’s my takeaway from Joe Wikert’s review of iPad apps that deliver content from newspaper and magazine publishers. These apps are designed to evoke those publishers’ print products, in the hope that readers share the publishing industry’s nostalgia for an age when physical newspapers and magazines were the primary source of news and related feature content. But readers, Wikert included, understand that they can now get the same content, or its equivalent, for free, on the Web – and so see no reason iPad apps shouldn’t be more like websites. And be free, natch.
Which begs the question, which publishers will develop innovative – and free – websites, optimized for iPad, making maximum use of, say, its multitouch capabilities? Whoever does this may not make a mint off the ad revenue – but they’ll make way more than Time and the New York Times will ever make from selling their iPad apps.
As ereading devices become more sophisticated, the “distraction and affordance” problem will become more acute, both for readers, and for device and software designers. Serious reading, particularly reading of literary fiction and poetry, requires the reader to immerse himself in a text. To do this, he has to be either away from all distractions, or able to resist their temptation. Even many activities that might seem to enhance the reading experience can, ultimately, detract from it – think, for example, of using a dictionary to look up unfamiliar 19th-century English words, as you read The Mill on the Floss.
This was less of a problem for readers, before computers and mobile phones became ubiquitous. Now potential distractions are everywhere. I’ve speculated that Kindle might have a leg up on iPad, among serious book readers, because they’re likely to prefer a device that doesn’t have those potential distractions built in, and easy both to access and to use. Yet even those folks are likely to want access, in certain cases, to ereader features that would otherwise be distracting – the dictionary, for example, you need to look up those Eliotine words you don’t know. What device+software setup would work best for them?
In his Thursday O’Reilly Radar post, Mac Slocum writes approvingly of Russell Jones’s suggestion that ereaders allow users to toggle between a setup that affords easy access to apps other than the reading app proper, and another that doesn’t allow such access. For serious readers, he suggests, this might be the solution to the “distraction and affordance” problem. The logic is clear – toggling these features “off” is in some way akin to getting up a couple of hours before anyone else, taking your book into the study, and shutting the door. And while neither Slocum nor Jones notes this, serious bookreaders tend to be long on self-control, and the ability to self-deny.
But I wonder if this idea is practicable. When you’re shut up in the study at 5 a.m., you have to go to a certain amount of trouble to be distracted from reading – you might, at minimum, need to stand up, put down your book, open the door, and walk to the kitchen to get a snack. It’s much easier to click on a button, or press a switch, telling yourself, “I’m only going to check my email.” Such a button, or such a switch, would make an ereading device unsuited to immersive reading experiences, for all but the most dedicated readers. As such, I think, device and software designers, targeting the “serious bookreader” market, are much more likely to succeed by building a better Kindle, than a stripped-down iPad.