Entries tagged “apple.” (cont’d)

Tune In to the Friends Electric Podcast

Peter Wooley is one of my most frequent co-conspirators. A while back we started working together on a super secret project (sorry, can’t talk about it yet) and had to think up a name for ourselves.

We deliberated without much success for weeks until my girlfriend Mallory suggested “Friends Electric.” Since Peter and I are friends, we make stuff that would be impossible without electricity, and we happen to be Tubeway Army fans, it just made sense.

We’ve kicked around the idea of recording a web designerly podcast for a while, so I was overjoyed when things actually came together. Recorded last Saturday, the inaugural Friends Electric podcast debuts today. We talk about Apple versus Flash versus HTML5. You can listen right away; if you dig it, consider subscribing via iTunes.

This is our first foray into podcast creation, and there are definitely things I’d like to remedy in future episodes. That being said, I’m actually pretty pleased with the end result. We had a blast making it, and we intend to make more, hopefully bringing in guests from in and outside our little Portland design circle. We hope you enjoy it.

Why HTML5 and proprietary platforms are both here to stay

Flash or HTML5? Choose your side.

That’s the tone seemingly set by much of the web community following the aftermath of Steve Jobs’ controversial Thoughts on Flash, exacerbated today by a thoughtful (yet apparently blasphemous) thread of Twitter commentary from influential Facebook developer Joe Hewitt.

These conversations have re-ignited a debate already intensified by the ever-increasing prominence of HTML5. While it may seem natural to regard this as a quarrel between proprietary technology and open standards, this is a gross oversimplification. Our feelings are merely the growing pains of a maturing Web.

The source of much of this tension is the difference of approach between the World Wide Web Consortium and companies like Adobe. The W3C is an important group tasked with an inherently sluggish goal: To corral, distill and encapsulate the opinions of a zillion developers and vendors  in order to produce hard-to-read documents detailing how the Web should be. While I’m sure more attentive observers may offer solutions for streamlining the W3C’s process, the result will never be analogous to that of a corporation. Great ideas (and profitable products) cannot wait for bureaucracy’s blessing.

Visionaries will always develop a means to forge ahead. That’s why Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer 9 all implement portions of an unfinished HTML5 specification. It’s also why platforms like Flash, Silverlight and the iPhone SDK have such a perceptible impact on the Web. Collectively, they are a crystal ball within which we may glimpse activities we’ll eventually take for granted. Remember how novel YouTube felt before embeddable Flash video became so pedestrian?

Not unlike the story of the tortoise and the hare, specifications eventually catch up. Like CSS and JavaScript before them, canonical experiences will “graduate” to full-fledged features of—or companions to—HTML. (Any Argo SSP or Netscape LiveScript loyalists out there?) Why? It’s all about accessibility.

The more accessible your experience, the larger your potential audience. HTML can be parsed fairly reliably by the majority of web-connected devices. But with each subsequent layer of complexity, your user’s device and/or browser must be sophisticated enough to interpret the additional technical requirements. It’s our job as designers and developers to weigh the benefits of each layer’s capabilities against the hurdle it may represent for the consumer. Many of us employ progressive enhancement to capitalize on the latest technology while leaving as little of their users behind as possible. Time/budget permitting, why wouldn’t you want to pursue a greater breadth of device compatibility?

Plugins must innovate in order to survive. If Flash stagnates, if it fails to shine a guiding light on the future of our industry, it will join its sibling Shockwave in an ever-growing graveyard of antiquated technologies, succeeded not only by HTML5 but by more innovative competitors (Silverlight) or a whole new paradigm (device-specific SDKs).

The Web needs these technologies. I believe (and wholeheartedly hope) that standards will continue to define the most prevalent form of the Web experience, but not without the guidance, foresight and bullheadedness of those who refuse to slow down.

iPad Angst

Some Welcome Variation In Our Increasingly Mobile World

The iPhone may be my favorite device of the last ten years. No other gizmo since the PC has so fundamentally altered the way I interact with the web and my social circle.

But the iPhone’s ubiquity in the mobile space scares the living daylights out of me.

It frightens me the same way I’m frightened by the deceptive feeling of serenity that blankets me as I continue to surrender more and more of my data to Google (current buddy, future megalomaniac). The thought leaders at Apple have crafted an experience so warm and fuzzy it’s nearly impossible to escape its allure, even as it wallops all of its competitors.

I simultaneously sing the praises of the Semantic Web (often at the expense of rich media plugins such as Flash and Silverlight) while gleefully supporting dozens of apps delivered via the iPhone’s closed, draconian marketplace. The irony (hypocrisy?) therein is not lost on me.

It seems pretentious to avoid these products solely on insular, geeky principal, so I continue to champion competitors in hopes that a superior device will emerge or, at the very least, keep Apple under enough pressure and scrutiny to maintain their innovation and avoid sinking into mediocrity (remember?).

I had extremely high hopes for Palm’s WebOS, but a still-floundering app ecosystem coupled with some truly strange hardware choices appear to have sabotaged its chances. While I have much more confidence in the Android OS as a powerful and capable mobile device standard (especially in the long-term), the platform seems troubled by a lack-of-consistency between devices and the same snore-inducing, incremental release cycle that eventually tempered my excitement for ambitious open source projects like Ubuntu.

It could just be my ignorance of the platform, but as the iPhone becomes increasingly capable at performing business tasks I begin to look upon Blackberry users as I did AOL users ten years ago—with a feeling of solicitude generally reserved for endangered species.

What we need is a platform with a distinctive and decidedly un-iPhone-like user experience (an iPhone killer killer), produced by a company with experience facilitating ecosystems yet still capable of supporting a wide range of hardware and service providers.

Did you just say Windows?

That’s right, Microsoft showed off Windows Phone 7 Series this week, and it looks great. The minds responsible for the well-reviewed Zune HD have re-designed the mobile operating system from scratch. Designers like myself who admire the HD’s interface are thrilled, but considering the Zune’s marketshare could be very generously described as having a “lack of ubiquity,” it’s a brave (and admirable) move to hand them the keys to Microsoft’s mobile future.

Instead of forcing the user into disparate applications specific to function (iPhone) or allowing the user to multi-task until their poor little phone grinds to a halt (Android), Windows 7 Phones establish contextual hubs of interest. If you want to see what your cousin has been up to this week, you don’t have to check email, Facebook, Twitter and chat in separate apps; simply tap “People,” then select your cousin’s profile. This style of traversing your media and social circle is extremely thoughtful and appears to be well-executed. I know it won’t please everyone, but I’m certain a percentage of the population will instantly prefer it.

The interface itself looks completely unique, at least if you’ve never used a Zune. Subtleties like highlights, shadows, soft corners and texture are completely absent, allowing only color, typography and your content to show through. While occasionally abrasive (especially in the calendar application), it’s a striking choice that’s extremely memorable and looks beautiful in motion.

It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. The browser is still Internet Explorer, albeit the improved (but sluggish) version found in the Zune HD. Until Mobile IE supports the same sort of HTML5 features that have enabled web app developers to deliver rich mobile experiences to the iPhone and Android devices, Windows Phones will still be an obstacle in the evolution of the mobile web. Perhaps most depressingly, hardware actually supporting this OS probably won’t debut until Christmas, and who knows what may have changed by then.

Aside from the platform itself, what excites me most about this announcement is that another Apple competitor has finally shown they’re awake. Watching Apple merrily stomp ahead with Android slowly gaining ground and Palm off in the distance is becoming tiresome.

But an Apple/Google/Microsoft/Palm slugfest? I’d pay to see that.

The iPad Is Not Revolutionary

Near the end of yesterday’s unveiling of the iPad (that’s really the name, cue middle school jokes), Steve Jobs presented this slide (Gizmodo):

Our most advanced technology in a magical & revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.

While I cannot weigh in on the magical properties of the iPad until it flies from Hogwarts on its broomstick into the hands of perspirating Apple fanboys the world over (narrowly missing its chance at catching the Golden Snitch), I believe we have enough information to contest how revolutionary it actually is.

Princeton’s WordNet defines revolutionary as “markedly new or introducing radical change.” How so?

The device uses an improved version of the iPhone OS, and its apps are written using the same SDK. Applications are accessed via a paginated grid of icons (as on the iPhone). Like the iPhone, only one application may run at a time with occasional, Apple-sanctioned exceptions (such as iTunes playback).

It connects to the web via WiFi or, if you pay for a premium model and a monthly subscription, a 3G connection (just like the iPhone or Kindle, minus the subscription fee in the latter case).

The hardware is essentially a cross between a first-generation iPhone and the top half of a unibody MacBook. The screen is capacitive multitouch, with an onscreen keyboard larger than that of the iPhone or Windows 7. The display size is 10 inches (about the size of an average netbook). The display resolution is 1024 by 768 pixels, the same as Lenovo’s Thinkpad X61 Tablet (released in 2007). It is roughly the same thickness as the MacBook Air.

The iPad introduces an iBooks store that sells basically the same catalog as Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer for their respective e-readers, though slightly more expensive. The books are downloaded in ePub format, the standard for most reading devices with the exception of the Kindle.

The cheapest iPad model starts at $499, a few hundred dollars more expensive than a typical netbook. The most capable model is priced at $829, a couple hundred dollars more than a multitouch laptop.

What’s “markedly new?”

I anticipate many will respond “the product category,” but that’s a flimsy explanation at best. The iPad is basically a giant iPod Touch with optional 3G, no phone service, no camera and no additional storage. Apple continually questions the legitimacy of the netbook category, but they’re in a glass house on this one. If “giant iPod Touch with optional 3G” is a product category, then so is “cheap, tiny laptop” (also with optional 3G).

Even newly-introduced features like iBooks barely surpass the competition, largely through the use of superfluous interface niceties like page turns and three-dimensional bookshelves.

In nearly every respect, the iPad is a strictly evolutionary product. Cool-looking, probably fun to use, but not revolutionary in any sense.

What could have been

Like many, I had high hopes for the iPad. I was enamored with the possibility of the additional screen real estate coupled with multitouch and a 3G connection.

SpiderGoofI thought for sure that iBooks would include support for periodicals. As nice as the iPad’s screen looks, what a waste for it to render page after page of black-and-white text! I want to flip through WIRED or Communication Arts on this thing. Steve Jobs is Disney’s largest shareholder, which just bought Marvel Comics for crying out loud! Support for the magazines and comics I love without having to wastefully plop them into the recycle bin each month would have made this a no-question purchase for me.

Video on the iPhone is impractical due to a dearth of storage space, with tiny screens banishing playback to the realm of mere novelty. The iPad has a gorgeous screen, but no additional storage and no subscription-based service or even Hulu/Netflix integration to circumvent it. In foregoing these possibilities, Apple may have inadvertently allowed a natural successor to the Apple TV pass them by.

I’m not shocked that they didn’t include a front-facing camera for video conferencing via iChat or Skype, but the exclusion of any camera at all is quite baffling.

iPossibility

While the iPhone innovated both as a device and as a platform, iPad’s future seems wholly staked in the latter. As mentioned earlier, it shares an operating system with the iPhone, and for good reason. As much as I love my tablet PC, traditional desktop paradigms do not translate gracefully to a touch interface. Apple wisely decided to force developers to create touch-friendly interfaces through a familiar SDK rather than offer clunky support for more open OS X applications. The unfortunate side effect of this is that the iPad’s usefulness is reliant on developers and the App Store approval process.

An iPad version of the Adobe Creative Suite would be a killer app for artists and designers, but creating a device-centric version of necessary scope would require a daunting amount of time and money to develop for a market largely dominated by 99-cent applications. This makes the future of these platform-specific productivity apps uncertain at best.

This doesn’t mean the iPad isn’t right for anyone. If you were planning on buying a netbook in addition to an e-reader and a 3G card for your laptop, the iPad is a usable and comparatively affordable convergence of all three. If you find desktop computers scary but enter a calm, trance-like state while using your iPhone, you might avoid a Mac or PC in favor of one of these puppies.

Otherwise, my verdict is to hold off. In a year or two we’ll likely see more revisions of the device, and developers will have either breathed life into the platform or let it die on the vine. Personally, I’m hoping for the former.