The Apple Method. Steal it, If You Can!

So Samsung’s marketing firm interviews those in queue for the new Apple iPhone 5S and 5C. Wonder why they even bothered to do that. Here is the secret that Apple “fanboys” intuitively get, even if they cannot articulate it always. The Apple Method is available in the open. Are you fit enough to steal it?

From such simple and obvious principles emerge the confounding complexity of building a sophisticated phone and surrounding ecosystem.

Every time Apple sneezes, folks in town are rallied, pitchforks raised to rid the land of this “otherness”. I wonder what rankles and rouses everybody to react so. Perhaps because Apple has an opinion? That they are presumptuous enough to know what matters? Or is it just old-fashioned tribal thinking, whoever does not look, think, dress, dream, play and pray like me is evil or uncivilized?

Anyway, the video is another example of craftsmanship and resulting from deep introspection. Just for fun, watch it with headphones on and observe the delightful soundscape.

Apple caters for those who delight in the details. They don’t always get it right, but then no company can.

Android and iOS – Two Approaches to Managing Constraints

iOS-Home

In a perfect world with infinite resources, one can create a perfect product. It would be a thing of beauty, with oodles of functional excellence and be dirt cheap. Unfortunately that world does not exist but in the fevered imaginations of dreamers. The rest of us have to live with constraints the real world imposes. We think hard about which audience we create the product for, how will it help solve their problems, what price will they pay, and so on. I have learnt a lot from this post on constraints by Matt Gemmell. Some quotes from that post, which should be read and assimilated in its entirety by the way.

All technology imposes constraints.

There are many factors to consider. Performance and power consumption. Size and weight. Noise and heat. Beauty, durability, and portability. Connectivity and upgradeability. Compatibility and of course cost. At buying time, we presumably consider availability too. They’re all interrelated in various ways, forming a complex web of trade-offs.

What will you optimize for, given the constraints imposed. What is more important to you as a creator. What is important to users you wish to target. But the hard reality is this, Users don’t really get to make a complete choice.  The hard choices are already made by the designer.

I remember Steve Jobs mentioning in one of his presentations that users employ product creators to make these decisions on their behalf. It is the job of the designer to choose between constraints judiciously. Not to randomly tack on features because it helps tick off one more check box in the minds of consumers who might not think deeply. Whether multi-tasking is a benefit when considering power management on a mobile device. Whether screen-size accounts for ergonomics of a human holding the device.

Superficial customization, extensibility options provide an illusion of control for the end user but come saddled with unacceptable tradeoffs for some users. For example extensible memory on my Galaxy S2 was seldom used. I preferred syncing over Wi-Fi or even a cable with my PC.

As a concrete example of how engineering decisions impact user experience, see this post by a Google engineer on why Android does not have a Fluid UI experience and might never have one. Here is the money quote:

It’s not GC pauses. It’s not because Android runs bytecode and iOS runs native code. It’s because on iOS all UI rendering occurs in a dedicated UI thread with real-time priority. On the other hand, Android follows the traditional PC model of rendering occurring on the main thread with normal priority.

That gentlemen is a classic example of a design decision taken on the Android platform. Deep in the bowels of the OS is a decision that ripples up to the UI. Of course am not sure if this was a decision to not optimize for fluid user interface. Or perhaps it was a legacy constraint that Android engineers could not work around.

The point is this, what are you optimizing for. Will you take the hard engineering decisions, that would not be seen or even understood by 99% of your users? Will you ask user’s to trust your judgement or will you take the lazy route and give everything the user asks for?

Apple chooses to optimize for user experience, for tactile responsiveness. Android chooses to optimize, or not, for broadest compatibility across a range of devices. Seen another way, the choices seem to be whether to work well on a single class of devices or work sub-optimally on a range of devices. What the designer chooses says a lot about their priorities. Which platform a customer chooses says a lot about what constraints they are willing to live with in exchange for what services.

Don’t miss reading Matt’s post, it opens up additional perspectives on how one should think when creating anything.

This is our Signature. And it means everything.

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.

How it makes someone feel.
Will it make life better?
Does it deserve to exist?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.
Until every idea we touch
Enhances each life it touches.

You may rarely look at it.
But you’ll always feel it.

This is our signature.
And it means everything.

My iPhone 4S drowned around 5 months back. Not wanting to spend a ton of cash on an iPhone, I took another route. I opted for a Windows Phone, a Lumia 820. I could handle it for a few months.

About two weeks back, I had enough. I had enough compromising on my own design and aesthetic sensibilities, enough compromising on what I valued and enjoyed in any device I used. I gave in and bought an iPhone 5. If there is one thing I have noticed that good engineering is not just about features, it is primarily what informed the design thinking of the creators, it is about what they wanted to evoke in you every time you used their creation.

Now, more than ever, I utterly understand what Apple means by “You may rarely look at it. But you will always feel it”, every damn time I lift the phone and use any of the apps.

Other platforms can try their best to cram features, add bigger screens, be first to add a visual idiom etc. But most do not understand whatever deep design-based thinking can accomplish can only be bettered by superior design thinking. Without it one builds castles in sand.

Samsung Android and Daylight Bamboozlement

Apple sues Samsung on Android

 

Apple and Samsung have gone to the courts. Apple contends that Samsung Android ripped off iPhone’s design.

As a part of this process it was revealed how Apple took inspiration from Sony’s industrial design approach. Many online took this as an opportunity to paint Apple in a negative light, saying they too copied. I have always believed being inspired is one thing, outright theft quite another.

Today am happy to link to one example of what outright theft looks like. Please see below an internal Samsung document presented in court that goes through screen by screen where Samsung Android fails in terms of usability. See every screenshot in the document and determine for yourself if the UI of almost every app was copied or not. They obviously could not get every detail right so were doing some reviews.

Android-Samsung-Design-Review

I have written about Android before. But this level of blatant copying is ridiculous. No wonder Steve Jobs was pissed off.

Every creator goes through a soul-wrenching process to create anything. Companies like Samsung/Google with their Android are a blot upon the finest instincts of humanity and spirit of capitalism.

[Update: Removed Scribd embed, linking to Samsung Design Review file now.

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Pixate – Style your iOS Apps Using CSS!

It is a truth universally held by all learned men and women that Apple’s development environment and tools suck big time. Others say XCode and iOS dev environment have grown mature lately, perhaps it is true but I can only imagine the horror it must have been! Last week I came across a effort called Pixate on Kickstarter that should alleviate some pain for iOS developers.

Pixate – Styling in iOS

To be honest XCode does a half-decent job to let you style controls. But the workflow of importing graphical assets of multiple resolutions remains convoluted, leave alone making UI respond to state changes within the application. Pixate seems to have solved this problem rather elegantly, they propose styling apps their components using CSS and their custom CSS Engine. This is awesome at couple of levels. First developers can piggy back on their knowledge of CSS from web development world and two it enables an extra level of separation between Views and how content within is actually styled.

Ancestry of Pixate

I personally do not know what exactly inspired Pixate developers to use CSS as the styling engine. Use of CSS in web development as mentioned above is well known, so that is an obvious starting point. But there are precedents in other areas too.

Take for example how XAML works in WPF and Silverlight. There too is a clean separation of control elements and the code to style them. In fact, though XAML is a proprietary language, I thought it was a well engineered technology. Of course Microsoft never quite nailed positioning for XAML leading to its poor adoption and high failure rate. I have seen projects on WPF/Silverlight being used for purposes they were never designed for, say real-time rendition of high volume graphs, that too on half a decade old hardware.

A minor detail, XAML is not just about building UIs and styling them, it was a markup for object serialization..which explains why Workflow Foundation rules/graphs could be described in XAML. Sadly it did not take off but am fond of XAML still.

Support Pixate on Kickstarter!

Without digging into the past, let me just say I love what Pixate are attempting. Driving look and feel in iOS apps via CSS-like syntax is a good thing. So I have registered myself on Kickstarter as a supporter of this project. If you are curious am going for the $99 pledge, gets me a single user dev license if the project goes through. I would highly recommend you take a look at Pixate and support them, we all win if tools surrounding iOS(they have an Android equivalent on their plans too) development get more smarter.

Update – Pixate now supports importing Adobe Photoshop Layers in Real-Time! This is awesome, check it and give it your support!

Nest Gets Engineering and Marketing Right

Nest-thermostat

Nest is a thermostat. A thermostat is not usually worth talking about. Nest though is worth talking about and many have in the past.

Engineering or Marketing

There are products that are engineered well but the messaging falls flat. Some products get the marketing right but engineering fails to measure up. But there are times when engineering and the messaging surrounding it come together in perfect harmony. In such rare moments, the engineer and creative person can be content at what they have accomplished.

Nest’s latest advertisement does justice to the engineering behind it. Watch it first.

Reminds me of another product messaging.

Thinking Time

Instead of listing down how both examples resonate with me, am going to try something different.

First. Which other unsexy and green utility like Nest has better marketing?

Second. How would you introduce an iconic device like the Apple iPhone that might change how people communicate?

Fire away in the comments or drop me a note..details in the contact page. I shall post my views in comments mid next week.

Org Charts – Truth as strange as fiction

Am sure you all have seen Valve’s Employee Handbook that floated around online last week. Read the whole thing its worth your time. What drew my attention was the org chart, as envisioned by Valve’s employees.

Valve OrgChart - Envisioned by Employees

Funny as it is, read through the handbook to see how this seeming chaos is actually implemented. The audacity of Valve’s leadership to conceive, and attempt to realize, such a culture is commendable. This reminded me of another series of mock/humorous Org Charts that was on the Internet few months ago.

Apple Google Org Charts Manu

See the irony? The above picture is an external observer’s humorous take on how these companies(Microsoft, Apple, Amazon etc.) are structured. And the Valve example has a similar clustering/connectedness profile. Truth, gentlemen, is at least as strange as fiction!

Windows 8: Awesome UX, Not So Much Underneath

Big news coming from the D9 conference around Microsoft. Its flagship OS gets a rethink with the tentatively codenamed Windows 8. Take a look.

Simply love the concepts here. The tiles, ability to compose windows, IE 10.0 and more.

But all the rush vanished when they showed Excel and Windows Explorer. You got to the same old Windows, the junk was brushed under the carpet and nothing more.

John Gruber does a fantastic job enumerating why this is a flawed approach.

I quite understand Microsoft’s predicament. How could you not provide backward compatibility?! There would be a virtual revolt from consumers, especially the corporates, if their favorite apps did not work. So the internals with its 20 odd years of legacy will have to remain. What about the Office suite? Imagine all the corporate drones who live in Office, who raised a ruckus when the Ribbon menu interface was introduced! Whilst it would be possible for the Office team to reinvent the UI for a touch based environment, they would have a PR disaster on their hands if they attempted anything on those lines.

Microsoft is doomed by its past successes. Whilst it might have the intellectual mettle to re-invent itself for the post-PC world, it is chained to its legacy and thus doomed for irrelevance. Apple has craftily maneuvered itself out of its niche status in the PC world by using its low market penetration to invent iOS and related services to define a new field and own it.

Interesting times.

A Parent’s Guide to Apple’s iPad

Parents Guide-Home

There are a ton of Apple iPad guides and tutorials over the web. But very little info to guide parents of children under 5.  If you are a parent, or about to be one, read this post.

A shiny toy/device like the iPad invariably draws children to it and there is little you could do to stop them from messing about with it. A bawling child is a argument you can’t win. And almost every time the iPad can act as a high-tech pacifier to get your child to do anything(stop bawling, eat their food, divert attention from other gadgets and give you some breathing time!).

Steps to defend your iPad

Familiarize yourself with the Settings –> General section. Almost all the stuff you have to do resides here.

Parents Guide-Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man the Gates with Passcode

Parents Guide-Passcode Lock

 

This is your first line of defense.

Go to Home –> Settings –> General

Choose Passcode Lock and turn setting to on. You will be asked to select a four digit number. This will be your primary lock down step.

Note the Erase Data setting. After 10 unsuccessful logon tries the system would wipe out your data. Be careful with this. I have chosen to keep it on.

Restricting Apps

Next step is to enable various restrictions on what can be done on your device.

Parents Guide-Restrictions

Right below Passcode Lock, you will find Restrictions entry. Switch this on and you will the screen shown here.

Again, to get here follow Settings –> General –> Restrictions.

Below entries should ideally be turned “OFF”

i) Installing Apps ii) Deleting Apps iii) Accounts iv) Location v) In-App Purchases vi) Multiplayer Games vii) Adding Friends viii)Safari ix)YouTube and x) iTunes

Of course doing this restricts capabilities of the device and makes it a little dumb but the whole point is to prevent kids from doing things you don’t want them to do. You can selectively enable these options when you want to.

Restricting Content

If restricting all online media consumption options seems tyrannical then you can notch down things a little.

Allowed Apps

Parents Guide-Allowed Apps

Choose the country you are in to get ratings relevant to your region. So this is Settings –> General –> Restrictions –> Ratings For.

All apps on the Apple platform are rated just like media.

This is a truly a smart way to think about Apps on a device like the iPad. Curation of apps by Apple ensures there is consistency in the ratings.

Select Allow Apps Rated. Choose the ratings relevant for your child’s age group.

 

Allowed Music & Podcasts

Parents Guide-Allowed Music Podcast

 

Select Allow Music & Podcasts Rated.

Turn this Explicit setting to “OFF”. You certainly don’t want kids watching dodgy stuff. Of course you can turn it back on when you are using the device.

 

 

 

Allowed Movies

Parents Guide-Allowed Movies

 

 

Choose the option Allow Movies Rated. Select the rating options relevant again.

 

 

 

 

Allowed TV Shows

Parents Guide-Allowed TVShows

Select the Allow TV Shows Rated option.

Select the options most relevant for your child.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Lockdown

After all this, you might get a little complacent and think you are safe. But kids have a way of getting their fingers into screens you never thought existed. This skill will put them and you in trouble especially when connected to the Internet. So my step is to shutdown ability to get online.

Parents Guide-WiFi Access

 

Go to Settings –> WiFi.

Switch the WiFi setting to “OFF”.

This would stop your iPad from getting online. This is most useful and can be used as a master switch, without fiddling with allowed ratings for various types of content and apps.

 

 

 

Important Note : On iTunes, ensure you don’t save your password. Require to provide this password every time. That way when your kid somehow gets to iTunes on the iPad or tries to buy something the password request dialog box will act as another line of defense. Remember, your credit card details are on iTunes and a simple click can wipe some serious money from your account.

Some Parting Words

It is a delight to watch your child pick up the UI idioms without blinking, as if it were all obvious. And therein lies the magic of what Apple has managed to deliver. For all the Android and other tablet fans out there, I really would like to see a first generation device that can be used by a child.

All said, if you are a new owner of an iPad, hearty congratulations. As an individual and as a parent it has exceeded my expectations in the first few days and am sure it will do the same for you. And do not take your child’s time with the device lightly, always ensure you have some adult supervising its use. Have fun.

For iPad, To Go Native or With Web Standards? See Flipboard

Flipboard is a hot new startup that offers a social magazine on the iPad. Basically it takes your Twitter, Facebook feeds, scrapes out the links in them, does some more smart crawling and provides a magazine like experience. Everything from choosing pictures to display from the links, the dimensions, layout etc. is dealt with dynamically.

Today they announced a feature called Flipboard Pages, which I came across via ReadWriteWeb. The feature itself is said to be a framework that..

..automatically converts traditional Web content into an iPad-friendly format, featuring full-screen, paginated, magazine-like pages.

It seems content publishers have to publish information in a certain way to make the magazine like reading experience possible, instead of a staid old web-page.

Now to the key point that caught my eye

All publishers worked with Flipboard to create their own HTML5-based framework, so they each have their own look and feel.

Wow. I am excited by a few things here.

  • Ability of HTML 5.0 to act as an informal contract between content publishers and aggregators
  • The rise of aggregators that can morph a bunch of links fished out of content streams and construct a magazine like experience. On the fly. Dynamically. Personalized for every user.
  • Publishers produce content in one format HTML 5.0, which by default would be handled by most modern browser. And there is the differentiated experience via special apps.
  • All of them driven by web standards and not a proprietary technology in sight!

On a plain HTML 5.0 page it would not be possible to do all that can be done within iOS, at least in my understanding. But this news reduces the need to go native iOS for one more class of apps.

Publishers, aggregators and consumers win with this approach. For those who still on the Flash, Silverlight bandwagon for dynamic rich experiences its time to rethink your approaches.