Open, Shmopen

Jim Dalrymple over at The Loop posted an article about the recent news that Google is not releasing the source code for the latest release of their Android operating system (Honeycomb), or at least not now.

Dalrymple writes:

Where are the mainstream press articles tearing Google up over this? While there are a few comments, many of the articles I’ve seen told Google’s story and stopped there.

Can you imagine if it were Apple delaying a software release. What would the press say if Apple admitted it took shortcuts with its OS to keep up with Google and now they couldn’t release it? The press would have a field day with that story.

Here's why people aren't more up in arms about this: most people don't really give a shit about openness, because openness doesn't represent a tangible advantage—only a theoretical one.

You hear it in the tech news all the time because it's the biggest difference between two operating systems that are actually quite similar (whether that's because Google copied Apple or what-have-you is a topic for a separate debate). There are perhaps a few examples where the actual user experience on Android is unequivocally better than iOS (notifications for one, Amazon mp3 Store/Cloud Drive for another), but in most cases the "advantages" you hear about which Android has over iOS are: a wider variety of apps (those that Apple won't allow), the ability to customize to your heart's content, and the fact that it's "open".1

But none of these things are actual improvements to the user experience. They are theoretical improvements—they represent improvement potential. As the theory goes: give people the tools to do whatever they want, and someone will do something truly great. And it's true that Android has the theoretical potential to outclass iOS in just about every way. But it doesn't seem to be happening.

So, what have we seen so far with Android being "open" and customizable with a wide-open App Store? Malware, lower-quality apps (for the most part) subsidized with ads, bloatware, restricted features and updates because carriers can lock things down any way they want.

The next time you hear someone saying Android is better because it's open, or because Google allows any app in their store, or because you can customize the OS, ask if they like crackers with their red herring. Let's stop talking about the potential for greatness and start talking about how each operating system actually performs in the real world. When the actual experience of Android outclasses iOS, I'll be right there to acknowledge it.

Again: why aren't people more up in arms about Google not releasing the Honeycomb source code? Because the loss of potential advantages is not really a loss if such advantages have yet to be realized. Pundits are very good at pointing out differences between feature lists. What most of them are very bad at doing is providing comparable feature lists in the first place (user experience, ease of use, etc. are almost universally forgotten in lieu of CPU, storage, memory, number of cameras, and other quantitative measures).

So while it's true that Android has been open sourced until Honeycomb, the loss of such freedom can until this point only be seen as a GOOD thing, given that most of what has come of the OS being open sourced thus far has been detrimental to the overall Android experience.

There will always be those who insist that open is better, but what they are hoping for is some mythical über-experience just waiting to be unlocked. But until that utopia is realized on Android, don't expect there to be much protesting.2

1The word "open" is in quotes because there is debate over what the term even means. For practical purposes, open in this sense means that the source code is freely available and anyone is able to take it and tweak it to make their own versions or to change certain components they may not like. 

2There are people who prefer an open platform because they have the skills to customize the experience, but these people are a decided minority and thus are not creating such an uproar as Dalrymple suggests would happen if Apple failed to open source iOS after promising to do so. 


iOS Notifications

On his blog, Shawn Hickman proposes the best re-design of the iOS notification system I've seen. I think it's nearly perfect. 

Shawn Hickman's iOS notification screen

I would make only two changes:

1. Move the Spotlight screen from a toggle within the notifications screen to its own screen—off to the left. It's easier to swipe left again than to tap a toggle. Additionally, when there aren't any notifications, perhaps the notification screen doesn't appear at all, so Spotlight is more accessible and you don't have to swipe past a blank screen to get there.

2. Reduce the timeout form 5s to 2s. When a notification comes in, you decide almost instantly if it's something you need to attend to immediately. If it is, you tap it and off you go. If you'd rather ignore it, then waiting 5 seconds seems like an eternity. Tapping the "close" button isn't any better than what you do now.

I like that the notifications bar slides up and over the dock, rather than pushing the screen upwards. When you're inside an app, this can be more disruptive than a modal dialogue, since UI elements can get pushed off screen. This happens currently when using an app while on a call—the content in this case is pushed downward by the OS. Smart choice here by Shawn.

I think most people agree that iOS needs a notifications overhaul, and here's to hoping that iOS 5 brings it to us. I can't see it getting much better than what Shawn has proposed.


HP is Ready to Play

HP had a big day today, introducing the Pre 3 and Veer smartphones as well as the TouchPad, all running the innovative WebOS first developed by Palm. But perhaps the biggest announcement came when HP later announced that they are dropping Windows from their PCs and going to ship them with WebOS.

HP will be making both the hardware AND software for its digital computer products—desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Sounds a lot like another company I know.

But bigger than the fact that HP will be competing directly against Apple (and, importantly, with the same tactics) in all of Apple's biggest markets—the Mac, iPhone, and iPad—what's most interesting to me is the transition of webOS from smartphones to PCs.

The PC operating system has been mired in a series of incremental advancements ever since the original Macintosh. Though OS X and Windows 7 are both infinitely more complex and powerful than Mac OS 1.0, they are still echoing the same tired chords: window and icon-based UIs with a hierarchical and visible file system.

Part of the reason Apple's iOS looks so different from OS X is out of necessity—you can't feasibly run multiple applications onscreen simultaneously on a phone, and file system access would makes things needlessly complex. But Apple has recognized they have some pretty good ideas in iOS that can translate to the desktop which is in dire need of an overhaul. Recently they announced that the next incarnation of OS X—Lion—will adopt many features from iOS which translate well to the desktop. This is a positive step, but at the heart and soul we're still talking about the OS we've known for over 25 years.

HP is doing it differently. They're starting with an operating system designed for smartphones and using THAT as the basis for a desktop-class operating system. WebOS running on a PC won't be like OS X Lion running on a Mac; there won't be any OS relics or legacy technologies that need to be supported to make people happy. WebOS for PCs represents the biggest UI evolution in the PC market since the original Macintosh OS. Just as people knew how to use an iPad from using their iPhones and iPod Touches, people will know how to use a next-gen HP desktop from using their Pres and TouchPads. The paradigms and metaphors, indeed the whole UI on an HP desktop will feel more like using a giant (and really powerful) TouchPad because people won't be upgrading from a current-generation desktop OS. In this sense HP is ahead of Apple, whose OS X updates must still contend with users familiar with Mac OS as it's existed for years. HP has no such baggage with WebOS.

HP is doing exactly what Microsoft and Apple cannot—starting completely from scratch. At the moment, Apple seems best able to match HP, since they've already begun to blur the line between iOS and Mac OS. Microsoft seems to be falling further behind by the day. Sure, Windows is king of the hill right now, but the hill it's on is shrinking, and the fastest-growing hill right now is topped by Apple and Google.

As the PC market continues to shrink, as mass market computers continue to evolve into smaller, more specialized devices, the companies that will benefit will be those that can capture this emerging market. HP has shown it is ready to do just that. And when the PC market dwindles to a small set of machines used only by dedicated professionals (designers, developers, video editors, etc), HP won't have to worry about where it's going to get it's next operating system.


We Feel It's Time To Make A Commitment (to Rip You Off)

Junk mail arrives at our house by the truckload it seems. And most of it goes right into the recycle bin. But every once in awhile something grabs my attention and the other day this advertisement from Verizon did just that:

 [click to embiggen]

If you're not appalled by this ad, let me explain why you should be. Verizon seems to be offering an incredible deal—super fast internet for only $20/mo., and what's more they're even guaranteeing that rate FOR LIFE! Seems too good to be true? Yeah. The only thing good about this deal is that they won't also steal your car and burn your house down.

The reason they can offer this price for LIFE is because they are offering high-speed internet at speeds so slow they're bordering on false advertising. They're guaranteeing download speeds of 768 kilobits per second (kb/s) which is pretty much bottom-of-the-barrel when it comes to high-speed internet. For the same price you could probably get speeds at least 5x and maybe as much as 10x what Verizon is offering.  My service is 6Mb/s (1Mb = 1024kb) for which I pay under $30/mo.

For many people, 768k isn't terribly unusable, and Verizon will certainly deliver on their promise to provide such speeds. But the point is, their price is high (not quite rip-off territory, but awfully close) by today's standards, and with the pace that technology is advancing, it's clear that for every month Verizon charges you that $20, they are taking more and more of that as profit. Clearly they are banking on those who don't know that "high speed internet" is not a one-size-fits-all affair, which makes it slightly more aggravating.

And they'll be happy to continue ripping you off at the same price—until you die! A good analogy would be this: in 1990 you lease a 3-year old personal computer for $20/month for life. Seemed like an OK deal at the time, but now it's 2011 and you're stuck with a computer that doesn't even have internal storage—for $20/month.


It's a Crock of Something…

My wife and I got a slow cooker by West Bend for our wedding 5 years ago. We did a lot of research on models and reviews and finally settled on this one based on superior customer ratings, versatility, and overall performance.

We haven'tused it much, and one of the reasons was the lack of success we had when we tried. Slow cooking certainly doesn't sound like rocket science—get some meat, season it, stick it in a pot and let it cook for 9 hours, right?

Recently we came across an explanation for our past failures: I didn't read the manual. By this point you're probably saying "we'll what did you expect?" and my answer to you is this: For a device with a single 5-option dial, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect to be able to operate it at a basic level without reading the instructions. I'm a firm believer that whenever possible, instructions should be used as a fallback—if something isn't clear, then you read the instructions—but should almost never be a requirement for use, and you should never create a situation where something that looks like it operates in one way actually operates in a very different way. Regardless your beliefs on whether most people do or do not read instructions, I can pretty much guarantee that nobody WANTS to have to read the instructions. Back to the point at hand.

As I said, the crock pot has a dial numbered 1-5. Before you read any further, what would you assume those numbers mean?

If you're like me, you might assume that they refer to heat levels: 1 probably being the coolest and 5 most likely the hottest. But if you read the instructions, which I did much later, you would learn that numbers 1 and 2 are to be used only for warming, and never for cooking. Numbers 3-5 are used for cooking—3 is low, 4 is medium, and 5 is high. What?

Not only is the interface an absolute atrocity and horribly misleading, what's with the notch marks between the 1 and 2? Or between the 2 and 3? For a device with a single dial, it takes a fuck-up of monumental proportions to get something like this so wrong.

I'll concede that many things probably can not be practically operated without manuals—a car is a great example. But there's no reason that West Bend couldn't have indicated SOME type of difference between the notch marks; something that would have at the very least indicated that there are 2 warming settings and 3 heating settings. The numbers might have been written in hieroglyphics instead. In fact, HAD the numbers been written in hieroglyphics, their intent would have actually been clearer because there would be no pre-existing associations, and it would have made the device practically inoperable without reading the instructions.*

So if the usability of your product can be improved by replacing language elements with hieroglyphics, please stop what you're doing and get some help.

*Note to designers: this is not an endorsement of the use of unintelligible code in your products; I'm merely using this as an example to illustrate your colossal failure.


Don't Be a Comic Sans Criminal

An ambulance? Are you fucking kidding?



How Not to Unsubscribe

So I got an email from GM advertising the new Chevrolet Cruze. These days, who knows how they got my name and email address. But the point remains that I am not interested in purchasing a new car, so even if I was considering a Chevrolet, this ad has no value to me. Time to unsubscribe.

At the bottom of the email is this:

I click the link, and I'm taken here:

Beyond this page being confusing, it's completely unnecessary. I just clicked on a link indicating that I wish to unsubscribe. So you should unsubscribe me and the website should be a confirmation with an option to revert to the previous settings in case I clicked the link by mistake.

I'd even accept a webpage that asks if I'm sure and requires me to click an "unsubscribe" button to confirm. But this? This, is just terrible.

I enter my email address in the box, and click 'retrieve'. I get this:

Well now isn't that interesting. Apparently I'm not in the database, yet somehow I've received multiple emails from them. So now I think that maybe if I click "submit", it will register that I do not want email from any of the GM business units, since none of them are checked. Let's try that:

Shit, didn't work. So now it appears I have to first subscribe to something before I can unsubscribe from whatever list I'm on which caused me to receive the initial emails.

I notice at the end of the paragraph on the right I have the option to opt out of ALL GM unsolicitied marketing communications. OK, here we go!

Fine, let's get on with it. OK what next?

For crying out loud are you guys fucking serious? So now it appears that there are two ways I may be able to stop receiving emails from GM:

  1. Subscribe to emails from one of their business units and then attempt to unsubscribe.
  2. Give them my first name, last name, home address, phone number, and email address (all fields required!) so they can not send me anything for the next 3 years, after which they'll use all that information to spam me back into the Stone Age.

I'd almost rather let the TSA cop a feel than go through this. Hey GM, the next time the American people bail your ass out of bankruptcy, how about you treat us with a little respect?


Saved From Further Embarrassment

Last Tuesday I did the unthinkable—walked out of a bar with my precious iPad sitting on the table. It was the day before leaving town for Thanksgiving, and it wasn't until I was well on my way out of the state before I realized it wasn't in my bag where it belongs.

That first feeling is terrible; I was pretty sure I had left it at the bar, but I wasn't entirely convinced. My instinct was to use the Find My iPhone app to locate it, but because of another massive lapse of focus, the account to which I logged in was not the account with which the iPad was registered. So I figured I had simply forgot to enable the feature on the device.

I called the BrewCo Manhattan Beach to inquire about my lost item, and to my utter relief they had found it and held it for me until I was able to pick it up the following Sunday.

When I came to get it, they wisely asked me to unlock it in front of them to prove it was mine, and at long last we were reunited. That first Tuesday was my first trip to the BrewCo, and if their good food and great beer selection weren't good enough reasons to return (they were), the honest and responsible staff are another reason I will definitely be going back soon. If you're in the area, you should check it out as well.

Thanks again, guys.


It Had to Happen Sometime

As a baseball fan and particularly a fan of the National League (screw those AL namby-pamby DH-using sissies) I'm happy to see the Senior Circuit show such dominance in this World Series. Pitching really does (really does) win the World Series. That the Giants were the best and most deserving team this year can no longer be doubted by anyone, even a Dodger fan like myself. They were clearly a better team than the Rangers, and to any who might downplay that feat, remember they beat Cliff Lee twice. Remember that the Rangers beat the World Series defending Yankees, and the Giants beat the defending National League Champion Dynasty-In-The-Making Phillies. No easy feat for either team.

So it's over. The San Francisco Giants are the World Champions of Baseball for the first time ever. They worked hard, they played tough, they earned every bit of it, as angry as that makes me (which anger, I acknowledge fully, is borne completely from jealousy).

While I cannot wish the Giants any sort of congratulations or goodwill on their monumental achievement, I do look forward to welcoming the defending champions to Dodger Stadium next year, where the joy I normally get in watching the Orange and Black go down in defeat will be multiplied. The score is now tied at 6-6, and with any luck the Dodgers and Giants will get to battle it out for the chance to attain #7 in next year's NLCS.

In closing, San Francisco is a wonderful and proud city and extremely deserving of the spotlight shining on them right now. I just wish it it didn't have to come by the arms and bats (?!) of the Giants.



Display Nirvana

The iPhone 4 with its "Retina Display" is one of the highest resolution displays ever in a consumer device. Breaking the 300ppi threshold (and handily) has delivered us a screen with such tiny pixels that for most manner of speaking they're imperceptible. Let that sink in for a moment. I don't mean imperceptible like they're just a lot smaller, I mean that unless you hold the device a few inches away and squint hard, you can't even tell they're there. Like how you can't see individual ink dots on prints from a good inkjet printer or on high-quality photographic prints. Put an iPhone 4 next to any other phone and you'll instantly see what I mean. It even make Apple's iPad screen look cheap in comparison.

The beauty of this screen is most evident when looking at photos. Photos on the iPhone 4 look so good that you can't believe you're looking at the same photo. This isn't an exaggeration: photos on the iPhone 4 don't just look better, they look like professional photographs on a light box. It's really stunning. And it's not even just that they look so much better, for all intents and purposes they ARE that much better. The quality of the display is a huge factor in determining picture quality, a fact that many seem to forget.

People tend to get all worked up about megapixels as a measure of digital picture quality (the fact that megapixels ostensibly provide a quantitative measure of said quality doesn't help with marketers who exploit this fallacy ad nauseam), but megapixels aren't even the most important photographic measure of quality, let alone the most important overall measure.

Most would agree that the displays on digital cameras aren't very good—this is on account of trying to preserve battery life for taking all those pictures. And I'd say that most people accept this; they don't intend to keep the photos on their camera anyway, so they don't need the preview display to be so good. It's ironic that the image by which we decide whether a photo is worth keeping or re-taking is likely the worst that photo is ever going to look. But not so with the iPhone 4.

Display technology has been steadily improving, and if Apple wasn't the first to bring print-quality digital resolution to the general public, there's no doubt someone else would have. But now that we're here, the proliferation of such displays will forever change the way we interact with our digital world. Pixelation will become a thing of the past—if you think 16-bit graphics are lovably retro now, just wait until we reminisce about today's computer displays in the same manner. It may be sooner than you think.

We've arrived at a resolution so good that its limits can barely be perceived by the human eye. It's like how movies are presented at (about) 30 frames per second, which is the limit beyond which the eye cannot detect the individual frames and instead perceives them as fluid motion. It means we don't have to wait for display technology to materially improve. We're here, this is it. Right now it's on the iPhone 4, but tomorrow it will be everywhere.1

If you haven't figured it out yet, you can't really understand what a big deal this is until you see it for yourself. Go visit an Apple Store and see an iPhone 4 in person, or look at one of your friend's. You absolutely cannot experience the difference on your computer. When you do see an iPhone 4 in person, compare the display to your own phone, then imagine if every display was of such impossibly high quality and you'll start to get the idea of where we're headed. 

1 If I were a betting man, I'd wager the next place we'll see this display is on Apple's next version of the iPod Touch, and I'd further bet that we'll see this device announced by the end of September.

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