Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Has Apple Jumped the Shark?

I used to love my iPhone. From the design and the interface right down through how well it flowed when you used one feature or another, only to see how it linked logically to the next step in a process. But, not so much anymore.

These days, the design, the software, and interface flow seem more like they were designed by a committee of parrots. It's like a Hollywood focus group was brought in and they said, "needs more explosions, more action". Many aspects were bad with iOS 7 and they've only gotten worse with iOS 8.

The other day I opened up my calendar in order to plan for something a couple of months in the future -- not what I would consider an uncommon task. Instead of seeing a list of months and days, I get a list of all of the things that I have scheduled. I look around a bit, a couple of clicks -- I've got a list of the calendars that I can show, but still no basic month by month calendar interface. I gave up.

Same sort of experience with the camera. I took a photo with the camera then clicked on the photo roll to view it in detail. Instead of the picture, I get dropped into a menu tree showing all of the photos that I have in my phone, cataloged by year. Each of the images are a thumbnail, probably no larger that 7 pixels by 7 pixels. WTF?! I mean really, what am I supposed to do with this interface on my phone? Celebrate the beautiful colors and the elegant red lines connecting the years? After a series of random clicks, I found something that approximated a view I could use.

But I'm Not The Only One...
In the days since the iPhone 6 launch, I've had a number of chances to talk to people about the iPhone 6 and the plus. Every conversation has centered around the same topic -- the size -- with the general consensus being big and too big. When we went into the store, I hear the same thing. I saw something from the sales numbers that point to the same story. You have 'that's big' and 'seriously?'.

Over the past few months, we've seen story after story about how consumers want phones with bigger screens. I wonder what they'll say when the iPhone 6 plus sales turn out to be significantly less than the 6? Will it be the same as what happened with the 5c -- the idea that everyone wants a cheaper, color phone, only to see sales of the 5s run significantly higher? It all reminds me of how they used to say that Apple needed to make a Netbook because everyone else was making them and consumers were eating them up.

What's changed since way back then? Well, perhaps Steve Jobs passing is a factor, but I'd like to think that there's more to it than that. I think that part of it comes from the perceived competition from Android and from Samsung. Take the Apple Watch as an example. Before Apple had anything on the drawing board -- beyond rumors -- Samsung and some other competitors were releasing products. And while the Apple Watch may be a far more elegant version of a Watch than anything that any of the competitors have introduced, it still seems like -- at best -- an accessory. And that, historically, has felt like something Apple let their ecosystem do. It's not that they don't have the capital to fund the development, but it doesn't seem like it's laser focused on a very defined future in the Apple universe. 

If that seems more philosophy that marketing, that's probably true. But perhaps that's what's missing from some of the product direction right now -- the mission, the philosophy, the ideology. Perhaps that is what I miss. Instead, it seems like we have now have a goal of being the market leader. Have we jumped the shark?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Your Monday Recipe for Success: Stop Emulating Successful Recipes

This morning I came across this post regarding the narrative fallacy of acting like 'successful' people. It's an amusing read and some interesting perspective. At the same time, think about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin. Would these guys have achieved what they did if they didn't listen to American blues records? They may not have found success emulating them, but they certainly were influenced by them.

It reminds me of this element in Finding Forrester, where Jamal is having trouble finding his creative voice and is helped into the process of writing by retyping the words from one of Forrester's stories. Sometimes the rhythm and flow of playing song can take you to new places. But there I go, busting out a narrative fallacy. Anyway, the post is worth a read. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Driving by GPS: Sometimes Data Isn't Enough

It seems like the kind of thing that you see around here a lot more these days. As you approach a light, there's a back-up. It turns out someone has realized that, although they were in the right lane, they needed to turn left at the light, so they are now slowly making their way across three lanes of traffic to get to the left turn lane. Everyone behind be damned -- they don't matter.

These accidents-waiting-to-happen don't just arise out of the blue, they happen because someone has just received new data, just processed their location, and realized that they were poorly positioned to respond to it. This is driving by GPS at it's worst.

The ability to anticipate what will happen, to expect the possible and position yourself accordingly, is something that sometimes seems lost in the Silicon Valley we live in. Predicting these moments is a combination of strategy, planning, and experience, any one of which will enable you to do better than an ugly last minute "oh shit".

But even in the face of those unexpected events, there's no reason that you can't make a graceful adaptation -- recalculate your route and adapt to your new course with a smoother transition. Remember HP's tablet effort? So your tablet sales sucked, does that mean that try to work your way across three lanes of traffic in order to reach your, "we're not going to do hardware anymore" left turn?

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Tale of Two Laptops

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
(and they say I write long sentences) Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

It was within the period of a little more than a month or more that two laptops were stolen. And while law and justice play a role in the unfolding of the events, sometimes the injustices that you find are bound to a different set of concerns.

Property crime is not new to Silicon Valley, or the rest of the world for that matter. For years San Jose promoted itself as one of the safest big cities, hiding under mantle of a low murder rate. But there was always property crime. Several years ago when we had an office in San Jose, somebody broke in one night and made a quick walk-through grabbing laptops off the desks where people had left them. At the time the thing that struck me was the irony of providing giving someone a laptop that never left their desk. In addition to the hardware, some data was lost as there was no structured practice for backup. In the months and years that followed, the official practice for laptop backup became being supplied an external drive -- maybe -- and a request/suggestion to back up to that drive.

Offices in the areas around what is now the Google campus used to get broken into a lot -- to the point that you would sometimes see more Mountain View cop cars in that neighborhood than your own. Friends that had an office in that area had several break-ins. Once, they not only stole computers, they also stole the software disks. It's probably better now with Google everywhere over there. Is it worth breaking into a building for a Chromebook?

Stealing laptops out of cars is so common, most local restaurants have signs warning you not to leave personal property in the car. Sometimes the signs even specifically mention laptops. Over the past couple of months, I've heard stories of several laptops being stolen from cars in parking lots. And one evening, when we were at happy hour and discussions about the cops in parking lot came up, it was noted that they were there because there had been repeated break-ins.

It was in this manner that Mr. Thinkpad was stolen. He was boosted from the passenger area of a car, window smashed, laptop grabbed, thief and laptop into the get-away car, and away. Mr. Thinkpad probably thought he was safe in the same way that novice campers may believe that bears or racoons won't take food of their tents or their cars. Unfortunately, glass provides little security and SUVs, wagons and hatchbacks live under greater threat as access to the cabin provides access to everything -- there is no real out-of-sight.

Most of what Mr. Thinkpad took with him was in the cloud, as many of our processes have moved that way. There were several active presentations underway that were lost, possibly more, but when it comes to work systems, Mr. Thinkpad was probably backed up more consistently than most. And the concern? Other than for the active presentation, perhaps the greatest concern raised was for the glass in the SUV as the vehicle was new.

In the days and the weeks that followed, a new system was spec'd, ordered, and arrived around the time when Mr. Air would disappear. In fact, Mr. Thinkpad's relative was sitting on a desk, still in the box, when Mr. Air vanished. Mr. Air was abducted, seized from the desk in a daring mid-day entry into our office around 1:00pm. The thief walked in through a normally locked door that was propped open slightly to facilitate international visitors going back and forth to the bathroom. This inside of a semi-secure building with cameras and a guard who often hangs out at the front desk in the lobby -- the illusion of security. The disappearance of Mr. Air was such a surprise that, people in the office thought that maybe somebody had played a joke, hiding him for amusement.

While Mr. Air was not a work system, work was sometimes done on him. It's one of those crazy things -- sometimes work doesn't invest in tools for the work environment and you find yourself working on a system that's five or six years old -- functional, but heavy, slow, and hitting the limits of it's capacity. When Mr. Air did do work, most of it was shared back and forth through the cloud, meaning that no work was lost. At the same time, what Mr. Air did carry from work was the password and keys to a host of systems that all needed to be reset.

But the greater loss with the disappearance of Mr. Air was the personal data. Not only did Mr. Air hold the passwords for work systems, he also carried passwords for all of the home projects. And then there's all of that other personal stuff, like taxes. Mr. Air was not backed up. Mr. Air's predecessor, Mr. MacBook Pro had been time-machined shortly before his surprising, untimely passing, but in a strange twist, the drive used to back up Mr. MacBook experienced disk problems in the weeks following Mr. MacBook's passing. So, also lost with Mr. Air was nearly a year's worth of activities.

In the hours and days following Mr. Air's disappearance, the main questions tended to surround aspects of Mr. Air: Wasn't he backed up? Didn't he use a password? Did he have "Find my Mac" enabled?

And, in the days following Mr. Air's disappearance, there were continued postmortem reports on the thief -- they got him on video, they could see the car on video -- as though this would provide comfort or a return of Mr. Air. Additionally, it was noted that, "it's too bad it wasn't a work system."

A cost-conscious business might question or nuance the liability, or hold no responsibility for events and property under their roof. But that same line of questioning might lead to larger questions like what is reasonable to expect from an employer or an office environment. And with the Internet, broadband and online collaboration tools, is it necessary to subject people to unpleasant aspects of a shared office environment. And while many businesses offer features like gourmet kitchens, free sodas, or Xbox gaming areas, is a base level of security a reasonable expectation?
The storyteller makes no choice 
Soon you will not here his voice
 - Terrapin Station
I don't have any good take-aways from all of this. Much has already been taken. I will say that, from a broader perspective, the entire experience has prompted me to reevaluate a number of my views on company culture. Here's hoping you find insights along a gentler path.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On The Wire: Melodrama and Expecting Better

I originally came across this link from the Los Angeles Review of Books through the MediaREDEF daily email newsletter. Since reading the review and the thematic ideas presented in On The Wire by Linda Williams, I've been consumed with thoughts about how this notion of melodrama fits with a broader view of things. Quoting from the review,
Melodrama, on the other hand, is, again, a liberal, democratic mode, in which suffering is presented as unnecessary if only the authorities, and indeed the viewers, would commit to change.
We started watching The Wire several weeks ago, not long after Amazon Prime began offering HBO series on their unlimited viewing options. As you're probably aware, it's one of those shows that critics always rave about. The critical reviews are so passionate, it sometimes leaves you feeling like you should probably avoid the show just on principle -- at least, that's sort of where we were with it. More like, not something we were going to seek out. But when it fell in our lap and we opened up to watching it, we've become absorbed.

But that original sense of skepticism runs deep, and it often leave me with a desire to avoid critics ranting about The Wire. So the link to this review wasn't one of the first things that I clicked from that email.

“melodrama always offers the contrast between how things are and how they could be, or should be.”
This isn't simply a theme in The Wire, it's a design theme, a Silicon Valley theme.
The Wire does not aristocratically call for an acceptance of the war on drugs or racism as inevitabilities to which its characters must resign themselves. Rather, it demands moral commitment and social transformation even as it demonstrates the power and intractability of institutional barriers to change.
This is the grand struggle, envisioning a better world, then striving to make that world a reality. This is also the dream of work life in Silicon Valley -- that we don't have to accept the status quo, that we don't have to absorbed by the machine and made a part of a mindless bureaucratic structure -- we expect better.

We expect better. We expect better from the people around us. We expect better from the people and the businesses that we work with. We expect better for the world. 

Why Isn't Apple More Helpful When Your Stuff Is Stolen?

My Macbook Air was stolen last week. Right after lunch, some guy walked into our small office through a back door that somebody left open and walked out with my laptop. There are extremely sucky aspects to this, but -- for the purposes of this post -- the most significant one is how surprisingly unhelpful Apple is when your device gets stolen.

Sure, when you go to the Apple store, they can look back through historical aspects of your account. They know enough about your devices to determine whether your warranty is valid -- probably more. But how much of that do they share with you?

When your Laptop is stolen, one of the first things you think about is the "Find My Phone" functionality. More recently, Apple added this functionality for Macs (Location Services) and I thought I had enabled it at some point, but -- either because of the sleep issues or perhaps I didn't successfully enable it, it wasn't active.

That being said, while finding the top result for Find My iPhone has information about the functionality, there is no login point on this page. In fact, most of the links in this area of their site won't take you to a login page. Need to log into find my phone? Better try another search.

Find My Phone
To use Find My Phone, you need to use the App on your phone or iPad -- or log into iCloud. Do you want to log into iCloud? You won't find that by searching iCloud login either. You know who does a better job of pointing to the iCloud login page? Google. Here's where Google takes you. Once upon a time, Apple used to have a login link on the main pages of the site... but I digress.

Of course, the problem with Find My Phone in iCloud is that, if your location services isn't enabled, the software has no idea about your system. Your history of devices? No. No access to any of that information. Sure I've authenticated and Apple thinks it's me, but other than access to your iCloud storage and apps, you get nothing. Contrast that to Amazon, where I have access to the history of things that I've ordered.

How about from the Support menu? What you'll find here is crap too. The only time I could actually find helpful information was at https://supportprofile.apple.com. This will provide you with a login page and, correspondingly, access do some of the devices associated with that Apple ID. Once logged in here, I was actually able to get my device serial number.

And what kind of support do you find in the Apple Discussion Groups (other links that Google found)? Here's what they have under "Report Stolen Laptop" on their support forum. And to quote Ryan's question to the Apple response, "I don't see why they couldn't have some sort of feature for this in their portal app for when the look up the serial numbers to see if computers are still under warannty, etc." You'll also find this information there:
Sorry but Apple does not have a flagging process for reporting stolen property. They recommend that if you have lost an Apple product you contact your local law enforcement agency to report it.
Off to the Local Apple Store
You might think that, your device having been stolen, you could head to the Apple Store and get some helpful assistance from the from Apple, possibly doing a remote wipe on the system or something. While the guys at the Genius bar are actually willing to talk to you when you tell them, "my Macbook was stolen and so I need your help to lock it down". They will then direct you to one of their systems and help you log into iCloud so that you can use the "Find my Phone" app on their system. Beyond that, not much help.

Changing the password your Apple ID forces anything that accesses your existing Apple ID to use the new password -- helpful to prevent stray devices from accessing your Apple universe -- but providing little help beyond that.

The "Open Letter to Apple and Tim Cook" Portion of the Post
The idea that Apple has no way to "flag" the serial number of a device is flat out ludicrous. Any time your apple device is connected to a network, it shares a number of communications with Apple. Any time it connects to an Apple ID, it shares data about the user, the device they are connecting from, and more. There is even geographic information shared. Some of this is the stuff you enable with location services, so while the idea of "my system is HERE" may not be straightforward, their systems have to have some access history.

But beyond location, the idea that you, Apple, can't flag a device serial number and say "this device was stolen" is bullshit. What you're saying is that you can't add another field into your database - a simple checkbox to "flag" the system. What would you do with such a flag you might ask. Well considering that, unlike most PC vendors, most Apple devices go through Apple for service, it hardly seems far-fetched to raise an alert if a system with a history that includes being stolen comes into your store.

In the end though, what is the most mind-boggling is that for me -- as a long-time customer who has bought numerous Apple devices over the years and as someone who has authenticated my identity with the company repeatedly -- that I can't go to a page that contains electronic records of all of the systems I've told you that I owned. Like a Facebook timeline, I should be able to see my history of everything, every device, every serial number, and maybe even the times when I've brought them in for service. And if there was a page like that, when my device died or was stolen, I'd probably go in and update it's status.

And why do you have so many portals and so many identities that don't seem to talk to one another?

Honestly, the reason that it comes up (and you can find it if you search on Google) is that we, your customers expect that kind of service from you. We expect better than this... this wave at the problem and say, "bummer for you. Sorry we can't help." Because the result is a sad Mac face on an already sad customer.

One More Thing...
I wrote this post prior to the release of this large number of nude celebrity photos, personal pictures allegedly stolen from their iCloud accounts. For more on that, you can read this, this, or this. While I must say that I have my doubts that all of this data was grabbed from Apple's iCloud, my purpose in referencing it is to underscore the broader thematic message pointed at Apple -- we expect better from you.