Wednesday, March 14, 2018

It's Not Just You: Apple's Siri is a Dissappointment within the Company

Here's an interesting post from Macrumors about Apples' Siri product and the history of it's lack of development. It's definitely worth a read. The article goes into the history of Siri, including things like how earlier versions of the Homepod didn't even include Siri. The post is drawn from a longer article here, but the article is behind a paywall, so you may not be able to see the longer version.

Monday, March 5, 2018

United Airlines Explores the Idea: What is the Antonym for Meritocracy

So I happened to come across a couple of articles about this. United Airlines shelves lottery bonus program after employee backlash is a summary of the recent news. Here's some additional analysis of the story, A memo the president of United Airlines just sent his staff shows exactly how not to treat your employees.

To summarize, should you not be interested in following the links, United Airlines recently announced a program to their employees stating that they were going to drop a bonus program that gave out bonuses based on meeting certain performance goals and replacing it with a bonus lottery "rewards" program where one employee per quarter might win $100,000. Apparently, they may have also has some smaller prizes as second and third tier awards. (Perhaps second prize is a set of steak knives...)

As I'm sure you can imagine, this brilliant bit of internal marketing (#satire) was not well received by employees. While I suspect that, when they were crafting this plan, they must have been focused on the idea of trying to make something exciting, the first thing that I thought of when I read about it is, what's the antonym for meritocracy? Here's a funny look at that from Quora.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Grand Irony of the iMac Pro

Apple closed out the end of the year with the launch of the iMac Pro. This system is being pitched as an example of Apple's commitment to the interests of the "Pro" user -- a system that meets the needs of creative and graphics professionals that have been a core Mac user base for so long. The iMac Pro is being rolled out in advance of a redesigned Mac Pro that's supposed to be unveiled sometime in the future.

The current Mac Pro design is something like four years old. You know the one -- it looks sort of like a Dyson fan turned on it's side -- there are racks and racks of them in use... nowhere, because it doesn't really do racks. Err, my bad. I just Googled "Mac Pro Rack" and found a bunch of aftermarket chassis designs. Anyway, it's probably noteworthy is that there is a market for Mac Pro rackmount accessories -- and how disconnected the design is from the application.

After releasing a bunch of very un-Pro systems with Pro name tags and sparking a bonfire of outrage from professional Mac users (more from me about this in my previous post, Is Apple "Designing" Their Way Out of Customers?), Apple suddenly started making noise about how the Pro market was important to them and how they'd release a new, modular Mac Pro in, maybe a couple of years.

What I think that they really wanted to do was to cool the outrage and get some positive media while their Touchbar USB-C Macbook Pros racked up sales -- since those systems were the only real option available to most pro Mac laptop users, significant sales numbers inevitable.

The other thing that Apple did, while the world waited on the two-year development of the Mac Pro,  was plan and announce an iMac Pro. What I think they were trying to do with this was two-fold: first, fast-track a pro-spec system around an existing design; second, if the sales for the iMac Pro underperformed, they could use that to amplify the idea that "there really isn't much of a pro market after all -- more noise than substance".

As I noted in my headline, what makes this so ironic is that the iMac was never the system you allocated to your Pro users. The iMac was the home system, the one with colors or flowers, the inexpensive all-in-one you used for your admin and support staff so that they'd be on the same platform and could use the software -- if needed. But as Apple has gotten out of the business of doing pro monitors and systems, the iMac is their last option for control over the total package.

It's sort of like if Apple had gotten rid of all of it's iPhone models, then realized they really needed a phone, then saying, "we've made this great iPhone from our Apple Watch. In order to get the battery life and performance you'd expect from an actual iPhone, we've added these dongle attachments for battery, processor and display." Okay, maybe it's not that bad. But if there's anything that makes the case that Apple -- at least for a time -- quit caring about the pro market, it's the iMac Pro.

Also noteworthy on the iMac Pro are what you see in the actual technical specs.
  • USB-3 ports. Why? Because the world still uses them. 
  • A traditional audio port. Why? Because the world still uses it.
  • An SD card reader. Again, another hated drop from the Macbook Pro line.
  • USB-C ports used for Thunderbolt, DisplayPort, etc. If they had done this with the Macbook Pro, there probably would have been fewer complaints.
  • No Touchbar. If this was a must-have feature, it would make sense to migrate it to these desktop systems. It would probably make even more sense for desktop since it wouldn't be a power draw. But the reality is that, if this feature were on a stand-alone keyboard, the additional cost would probably limit it's sales.
iMac Pro -- the missing link between evolution and devolution. Now, if they can only get this thing into a laptop-sized package, they might have something worthy of a Macbook Pro title.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

New Year, New Mac

So in the back and forth over what to get for Christmas, my wife decided she would like to have an Mac of her own to use as her system (she's been using PCs regularly for many years). My initial inclination was just to buy her the latest Macbook Air, fully decked out. Essentially, that would be the same as my personal system, albeit a couple of years later with a somewhat faster processor. However, before I decided to pull the trigger on that, I decided to check the Apple site and see what options might be available in the refurb and clearance section. In the clearance section, I came across a couple of listings for the previous generation 13" Macbook Pro (pre-USB-C, Touchpad, and no Magsafe connector version).

If I could identify faults with my 13" Macbook Air, I would say that it only has two real shortcomings. First, the lack of a Retina display. As my eyes have aged, they can challenged by the lack of sharpness on the older technology LCD panel. It's also not great for image editing -- if you happen to be doing that work on a laptop screen. Prior to my wife and I getting married, when I was at home, I would do my image editing on a big screen monitor sitting on my desk in my dedicated home-office workspace. Since getting married, I no longer have the space for the desk or the monitor, so I've found myself editing images directly on the Air. Of course, Apple could update this, but they've had years to make the update and haven't done it -- I don't expect a Retina Macbook Air any time soon.

The second issue relates to the first -- when I had my Macbook Air sitting at my desk, I used to hate the fact that it only had one Thunderbolt port. I like to use one port for Ethernet and one port for display. Since the reviews weren't great for most of the Thunderbolt docks that I saw, I never invested in one. That being said, a second Thunderbolt port on the Macbook Air would make it a perfect system for me.

But, as I said, Apple isn't moving this way with their new products. Instead, the last generation Macbook Pro is really the last thing we've seen out of Cupertino resembling a Pro class laptop.

So I was looking at this clearance 13" Macbook Pro -- Retina display, two Thunderbolt ports, and even an integrated HDMI port, something that I often wind up carrying a dongle for when I travel -- and I began to see a plan take shape. After discussing it with my wife, we decided that we'd order the clearance13" Macbook Pro for me and give my wife my older Macbook Air. Merry Christmas to all. Overall, the ordering process was pretty straightforward -- other than the free shipping experience that UPS provided, essentially stealing one of our vacation days (you can read all about it on my Twitter feed). And I spent the New Years weekend migrating my old system to the new Macbook Pro.

So a couple of hick-ups that I experienced that I should probably warn you in case you find yourself in a similar position. I had a Time Machine backup of my Air, but when I tried to use the migration assistant, it told me that it couldn't use the back-up because there was a difference in versions between the two systems. Initially, I thought it was probably because my Air was running on Sierra and I expected my new Pro system to be running High Sierra. That turned out to not be true, but not before essentially forcing me to migrate my Air to High Sierra. When it still wouldn't work, I dug deeper and discovered that the new Pro clearance system shipped with El Capitan, and that was the OS difference issue. The new Pro is now running High Sierra too. Perhaps if I'd felt like jumping through some hoops, I could have restored my Air from an older backup, then went looking for a signed copy of Sierra, but it seemed like a lot of extra effort just to avoid the upgrade.

Reflections on the 13-inch Macbook Pro (early 2015 model)
Overall, I'm pretty happy with the upgrade to my system. This Macbook Pro is noticeably snappier than my Air. This system is running an Intel i5 at 2.6 GHz while my older Air was running an i7 at 1.7 GHz (or something like that).

The Retina display is much easier on my eyes.  The display color seems much richer and type is so much sharper that I don't find myself reaching for my glasses -- something that had practically become a necessity with the Air.

Another reason why I thought it might be better for me to get the Pro is the differences in the laptop body. One of the things that my wife and I can sometimes struggle with is being able to identify which device belongs to whom. With iPhones, we use different models, so it's pretty easy. With iPads, we use different color cases. The Apple product that sucks the most for multiple users in a household is the Airpods, since there's no really easy way to differentiate one pair from another, even though they're uniquely paired to a specific user's devices. Anyway, with one Pro and one Air, it's much easier to identify which system belongs to whom.

There are some issues that I have noticed with the Macbook Pro though. Probably the one that I'm most aware of is the battery life. While the early 2015 era Macbook Pros are supposed to be pretty good on battery life -- or at least supposedly much better than the current generation (I've heard several stories of crap battery life on the USB-C / Touchbar models), the battery life on the Pro is no match for the Air. Even with my couple of years old Air, I could easily expect four to six hours of active system operation before I saw my battery falling into a "really need to charge this" zone. With the Pro, I'm getting below 50% in two-three hours of use. It's sort of like turning over the keys to my high mileage compact and jumping into an SUV. It's a workable battery life, but at this point, I'm thinking I don't want to get too far away from an outlet.

The touchpad on the Pro seems a bit more sensitive than the one on the Air. While I've been using the system, I've found myself accidentally triggering clicks and inadvertent mouse movements. I'm still playing with the settings, so hopefully I can make that work a bit better.

In conclusion, I think that the ideal system would be a Macbook Air with a Retina display. If that system was available, I'd buy one today. Having spent a couple of years getting accustomed to the battery life of the Macbook Air, that feels like a bit more of a critical requirement than the Touchbar designing product team seem to recognize. That being said, I am really appreciative of the Retina display and the extra ports on my Pro, but YMMV.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Facebook Partners With Companies to Violate Employment Law

I came across this article from the New York Times on Twitter. Since it's from the New York Times, it may be behind a paywall and you may have trouble getting to the actual article (here's another link to the article on ProPublica). However, if you can get to it, it's totally worth a read. As well, I've tried to craft a click-worthy title because I think that this story is really a must see.

The gist of the story is simple. Companies have been running job ads on Facebook that are targeted -- and thus, were only visible -- to a specific age demographic. In other words, if you're not 26-35 years of age, you don't see the ads because the company isn't interested in hiring you.

Facebook defends these ads. They want to make the case that the companies doing this type of advertising also run other programs on other platforms that target the people who aren't 25-36 years old. They think that it's great that companies recruit this way because of... well, whatever they say, it's really about ad revenue for them.

Knowing Silicon Valley, you might expect that we're talking about start-ups here, but not so. These ads are also coming from companies like Verizon, Amazon, and Target. Theoretically, these companies know that they can't put an "only under 50 need apply" in employment ad, so why would they use the age demographic targeting for an employment ad?
  • It's easy. They simply need to tick a checkbox and they've focused their employment search on the candidates that they really want.
  • It's very difficult for people to complain about something that they never see. Since the ads are only visible to the target demographic, it's unlikely that anyone outside of that demographic would know to complain. 
What I find most telling in this whole story is the difference between Facebook and LinkedIn when it comes to their reaction to ProPublica challenging them on the age-based ad targeting.
Other tech companies also offer employers opportunities to discriminate by age. ProPublica bought job ads on Google and LinkedIn that excluded audiences older than 40 — and the ads were instantly approved. Google said it does not prevent advertisers from displaying ads based on the user’s age. After being contacted by ProPublica, LinkedIn changed its system to prevent such targeting in employment ads.
Contrast that with Facebook's defense of the practice.
Facebook has argued in court filings that the law, the Communications Decency Act, makes it immune from liability for discriminatory ads.
Facebook also claims that since advertisers have to click a checkbox, the ads must be legal.
Facebook helps educate advertisers about the legal requirements they face so that they understand their responsibilities. We've also begun requiring businesses that show employment ads on Facebook to certify that they comply with the law before we show their ads.
While it's hard to say how the courts will ultimately rule on things, it strikes me that the spirit of the protections provided by the Communications Decency Act is about not being held responsible if someone posts something illegal on your platform. It's not designed to protect you from building a platform that sells them access to something that is inherently illegal.

Like the Russian political ads that helped shape the election, Facebook's advertising business seems to lack a moral/legal/ethical compass -- if not to avoid these kinds of issues entirely, at least enough of a sense of direction to get them out of it cleanly (see LinkedIn). It's like the ad revenue end of the business is fully-on Wall-Street-Bro-Culture-dollars-before-all-else, the kind of story you'd expect to hear coming out of Uber.

I actually am more sympathetic to Facebook's enabling of the Russian political ads using fake accounts than I am about this age-based targeting of employment ads story. In the Russian political advertising story, Facebook can fall back on the excuse that their systems were abused and that they were duped. With this, they set the system up to do this.

Of course, once this all plays out, when Facebook issues it's mea culpa and is forced to change it's practices, we all know that nothing will really change with hiring. After all, while Facebook built an advertising platform that enabled these businesses to selectively reach a specific age range, it was the prospective employers that implemented programs (that unexpectedly became public) that exposed decision criteria that have been operating in the background long before Facebook ever ran an employment ad.

This quote in the article from HubSpot spokeswoman, Ellie Botelho, made me laugh.
The use of the targeted age-range selection on the Facebook ad was frankly a mistake on our part given our lack of experience using that platform for job postings and not a feature we will use again.
While I haven't set up a Facebook employment ad, having configured numerous other online ad programs, I can say with some authority -- selectively narrowing the scope of an advertising program down to a specific granular segment isn't something you just accidentally click on. An accident could explain why their ad was also viewed in Europe or by people under the age of 18. An accident would have cost them more money. Selectively targeting an ad so that they only need spend on their actual, intended candidate criteria -- that takes extra effort.

Frankly, I hope that it costs the companies that have participated in this significantly. Perhaps if they'd had somebody from an older age demographic in their employ, that person would have had enough experience to keep them from going down such a stupid path.

Monday, December 18, 2017

iOS11 Continues It's Buggy Reign of Terror

One morning last week, I received an unusual call from my wife. She was in Japan and, back at the hotel after a day of meetings and a work dinner, she'd tried to set an alarm for an early morning meeting the next day. Suddenly, her iPhone 8 began restarting. Repeatedly. She tried a number of different things to fix it, but when they didn't work, she called me.

After some online searching, I was able to find a path that temporarily fixed it. As you may have guessed by now, it looks like what she was experiencing was the "Calendar bug" in iOS 11.1.2. Later, I was able to text her an alert her to the 11.2 update that patched the bug.

Yet Another iOS 11 bug -- who could have imagined?

And then there's Apple Pay
And so, that same day, I updated my phone to iOS 11.2. It turns out that beyond the patch the highlight feature that's been added with iOS 11.2 is the, "you should really turn on Apple Pay" feature.

After you install iOS 11.2, the phone says that you need to "Complete the Installation Process". It then takes you into an Apple Pay configuration wizard. Don't want to enable Apple Pay? Then iOS 11.2 drops a big red notification bullet on your iOS settings app icon. The only way to turn this off is to either enable Apple Pay or dive into the settings in Wallet and turn off Apple Pay Cash.

About a day after I did this, I was suddenly greeting with a pop-up screen that basically said, "Don't you really want to enable Apple Pay?" I'm not sure what triggered this -- or whether it will recur -- but it occurs to me that when you're having to advertise "an upgrade" in your operating system software in order to gain adoption, you've got some underlying issues with the feature.

Put a different way. I've gone several years without enabling Apple Pay. What could possibly drive the product team to think that if I hadn't activated it, that this feature was the trigger that would make me choose to enable it?

Instead, what this is another example of is Apple's software team starting with the conclusion that this whole Apple Pay Cash system would work more like their imagined model if it was enabled universally. In other words, this design, this feature set, is entirely centered on Apple's imagined needs for themselves and completely disregards my needs as a user. Fundamentally, this is what's wrong with today's Apple on a broader scale.

Apple's new slogan should be "Think marginally different than Android".

And One Patch Follows the Next
Of course, about a day after installing the 11.2 update, there was iOS 11.2.1, another patch to address a camera auto-focus issue introduced with the 11.2 update. It goes without saying that they still haven't fixed a whole host of animation or screen presentation bugs that affect operation.
  • The calculator will still miscalculate 1+2+3 if you type it too fast.
  • My email client often shows emails in my VIP mailbox, even though I have not received any emails from VIPs. For whatever reason, it errors in it's calculation and display of these mailbox roll-up folders. Additionally, these numbers will linger for a length of time.
As I've noted, it really makes you question the products coming out of Apple these days. These days, when I look at my iPhone, I never think, "this is the best phone I've ever owned." Instead, virtually every time I look at my iPhone, I'm struck by how much of the damn thing has been broken.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

LB Steak: Clever Marketing, Puffery or Misdirection?

So I had dinner last night at LB Steak in Santana Row. It was part of a group/work dinner. Like most typical group dinners, my expectations for the food wasn't particularly high -- work dinners aren't something you go to expecting to enjoy the food. What's more, having been to LB Steak for some truly mediocre brunch in the past (nice outdoor seating in Santana Row), I already had some sense of what to expect. I feel like I had a reasonably low bar going in.

Still, I was thoroughly surprised by the restaurant's marketing of their food and their dining room -- and not surprised in a good way.

Prior to grinding my way through rush-hour traffic to get there for dinner, one of my colleagues had told me that we'd be seated at the "Chef's Table". Now, being someone who enjoys my share of food and restaurant experiences, I must say that the idea of being at the Chef's Table had me hopefully optimistic. Perhaps this would be one of those enjoyably unique experiences that would walk back my previous brunch experiences. Imagine my surprise to see some of my colleagues sitting at a large table by the front window of the restaurant as I walked up.

I wasn't the only one. A couple of others asked the waiter about the "Chef's Table" and he said, "oh, that's just what we call this."

As I posted on Twitter last night, I suspected that they had switched tables on us for some reason (perhaps group size), but when I spoke with my wife about it, she said that she knew about LB Steak's "Chef's Table". So I looked it up this morning. Here's the link to LB Steak's private dining page. Further, on the PDF of their private dining menu (page 3), you'll find a description and picture of their "Chef's Table".

Of course, as I mentioned on Twitter last night, I don't think that the common perception of "Chef's Table" is "Big Table in the dining room by the front window and door". So I went looking for a definition of "Chef's Table". Here's what's on the Wikipedia page for restaurant:
A chef's table is a table located in the kitchen of a restaurant, reserved for VIPs and special guests. Patrons may be served a themed tasting menu prepared and served by the head chef. Restaurants can require a minimum party and charge a higher flat fee. Because of the demand on the kitchen's facilities, chef's tables are generally only available during off-peak times.
 Note: the emphasis added is mine. 

Clearly, LB Steak intends to set an expectation with the "Chef's Table" designation. It's an obvious attempt at priming (psychology) the customer's perception with a perception of exclusivity. For me, that core misrepresentation ate at me more throughout the evening than I ate at the food.

Being Sold on the Prime Rib Eye
In another round of adventures in labels versus products, the waiter sold a significant portion of the table on the 12oz Prime Rib Eye. He made some explanation about it, but mostly emphasized about how tender it was. Perhaps you are wondering what a Prime Rib Eye is?
  • Expectation-wise, you might think it was Prime Rib...
  • Or maybe you might expect that it's a big thick Rib Eye steak. 
As it turns out, it's a steak that's about the typical thickness of a slice of prime rib (about 3/4"), grilled like a rib eye. It's hard to represent the difference between the plates of steak that were presented to the table and what you probably were expecting if your mind was aligned with either of those bullets I've listed above. Visually, the product looked like something an inexpensive market steak you'd expect to get your average local grocery store. Or perhaps something you might get at one of those low-end chain steak restaurants.

The LB Steak menu lists this "35 Day Dry Aged Prime 12 oz Boneless Ribeye" at $52. I suspect that if I went to Costco right now, I could get a three-pack of prime Ribeye steaks for about the same price, any one of which would have delivered a product closer to what I would expect a business that features "steak" in it's name to be able to produce.

So the question that you might ask is, are these misrepresentations by the business puffery? Merriam Webster has the definition of puffery as, "exaggerated commendation especially for promotional purposes : hype". Wikipedia goes further.
In everyday language, puffery refers to exaggerated or false praise. In law, puffery is a promotional statement or claim that expresses subjective rather than objective views, which no "reasonable person" would take literally. Puffery serves to "puff up" an exaggerated image of what is being described and is especially featured in testimonials.
There's also this great link from the puffery page to restaurant menu writing style. In short, it's not unusual to attempt to inflate the description of dishes or make them sound more exotic. In one sense, you could say that that is what LB Steak is doing.

At the same time, while a "tenderloin of pork avec compĂ´te de Pommes" may be "a pork chop with a dollop of applesauce," most people would probably be unhappy to be served some thin slices of lunch-meat-cut ham with some applesauce under the guise of a "tenderloin of pork".

This is the problem with their "Chef's Table" nomenclature. They could name it anything -- the Silicon Valley table, the Grand Table, anything -- without creating the false expectation of a "Chef's Table". Rather than elevating the dining experience, I think it undercuts the restaurant's credibility with the customer. I think that this is a clear-cut case of marketing quackery.