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Why Apple May be in a little bit of trouble


I’m going to start off by saying that below is essentially a theorem – note not ‘theory’ – meaning it’s not proven beyond my own qualitative observations, but I’m thinking that Apple management may be struggling under the new regime. It’s also important to note the sort of trouble isn’t the sort that shows exponential stock drops any time soon. The aspects I’m thinking of could be seen in the latest new products, especially the ones released after Steve passed on.

Sure, there’s seemingly no issues with the march of improvements to the iPad, iPhone and laptops. Afterall, each are in a seemingly mature market, thus incremental improvements are par for the course.. In my mind, the trouble is with the new devices like the Watch and Apple TV. All reports point to the devices being of good quality and adequate performance in the face of their peers. But that’s the rub.

Apple products, as we have become accustomed to, are relied upon to somehow be a step above its competitors. Most claim the way the firm achieves this is usually through their ‘design’. Being a bit more specific, the difference comes from a more considered understanding of how these products will fit into someone’s life where they make experiences better – not by adding complexity but doing the opposite – distilling the functionality to what is only needed. Then Apple hones that experience until there’s no glitches or rough edges. For instance, the iPod took out all the complexity of MP3 players and made it gloriously simple to use. Instead of operating something that seemed like a PDA (or Newton) with hoards of setting and menus, it was as simple as using a Walkman again. The phone did the same thing. It took the vast capabilities of a smart phone and distilled it until Apple delivered a package for massive complexity that made it as easy as a swipe to operate.

Looking at the Watch or the new TV, this considered simplification doesn’t seem to be present. True, they have exterior styling that makes them attractive, but what of the utility? And it’s certain they’ll both sell extraordinarily well. The real question is will these products somehow transform each market they are in? Probably not, no.

Unlike the iPhone that had an experience that was head and shoulders above the competition, these items struggle to find any sort of function or feature that’s truly places them at the head of the pack. Apple doesn’t seem to be helping, either. Where with the iPod and iPhone, Apple saw the paradigm shift and built features around that. The company seems to be heaping on functionality (eerily like Samsung) on these items in hopes someone will see into them the paradigm shift the company can’t seem to find..

Framed positively or negatively, we can all agree that Steve was an idealistic and stubborn force to be reckoned with . Nobody (either from the inside or the outside) was going to pressure him to do anything. He could stand up to the demands and the shouting for new products and take whatever time was necessary to make sure they got it right. Even more so, a government-grade shroud of stealth cloaked products until they are perfectly ready.

The amazing lack of this perfection-seeking can be easily seen by comparing the launch of the Watch versus the iPad. With the Apple tablet, there were no advanced prototypes to be ogled and there wasn’t any official specifications released beforehand, either. Instead, it was just rumored to be and after Steve went on stage, it was essentially available to the public. Conversely, there were press conferences, sneak peaks, hints and and partial launches of the Watch where viewers were held to a safe distance. There was talk of ‘finalizing’ and eventually 6 months or so after the ‘launch’ you could finally start reading actual performance reviews and maybe get one of the few trickled into stores. Within about a  year of the Watch being out, it’s still somehow news when Best Buy finally started carrying them.

How could this happen? My thinking is that both of these new items were brought out not because they were finally ready with a honed, distinct market advantage for each, but management may have finally cracked under the pressure of shareholders and pundits screaming for Apple to match strides with their competition, as if they knew better than Apple to judge what it needed to launch. Or perhaps even more scary is this may be  the manifestation of a firm that’s now just trying to keep up with the Jones’ rather than leading the neighborhood. If either are true then Apple may just have that bit of a problem.

The Strange Strategic Predicament of the Apple Smart Watch


This is a really great linked article, read this too!

Smart watches are all the rage right now. Every self-respecting consumer electronics company needs to have one. Apple’s been feeling that pressure for quite some time, certainly from pundits and fans and probably even from shareholders. The problem is that there hasn’t really been a compelling reason for owning one beyond health apps and perhaps just looking cool (if you can look cool with a giant light-square on your wrist). Apple knows this, but they also know that they shouldn’t release something without having the killer application that makes a consumer feel as if they can’t live without it. Sure, they’d see fanboy buys and some holidays purchases, but there’d be no sustain for it. So, what can Apple do? Release a product without a market or not release a product that makes them look deficient in comparison to rivals? They chose the latter.

One could infer from the sorts of hiring done by Apple recently that perhaps they don’t have a clear direction at Cupertino for this product. This also dovetails with the lack of intellectual property filed on its behalf. I would think the game plan was to wait it out until the watch’s true necessity presented itself and rally the troops then, much like they did with the mp3 player, tablet and mobile phones. Unfortunately, other firms haven’t been waiting, they’re launching and hoping the platform will summon the devices’ utility.

Patents…eyebrows raised. The linked article goes into more detail.

When pebble came out, they knew there’s a diaspora of possibilities for such a device and elected to launch with a simple, open device. Samsung is known for throwing everything at the market and then iterating on the ones that get a little traction. Asus may have actually made a smart phone stylish. Strangely enough, in perhaps Google’s only hardware win, their watch shows a sort of approachable genius that comes from attentive human-centered design. Into this market, Apple drops off their watch.

Apple’s products have always been about giving a refined solution, so the idea of belching out technology and hoping a random coder will find the device’s purpose goes against the fabric of the company. Apple is supposed to have the answers, and polished ones, at that. They don’t have to fumble about the market for help. Maybe that was because Steve had the answers – but more probably, he knew to take the heat until the time and the device was ready.

Steve is gone now and Apple launches a watch. It has iOS on it and one of the big sell points is health tracking. It has a skeuomorphic dial on the side and vaguely looks like every other smart watch on the market from about a year ago. I’m sure there’ll be a robust spec sheet and easy compatibility with an iPhone and the applications on it, but it just feels… pushed.

Lately, there’s been a few articles suggesting shoppers wait for the next iteration of the Apple Watch. Some cite the inevitable issues with launching a new product, like software bugs. The question that needs to be asked is are these legitimate thoughts about the growing pains of a first manufacturing run, or a polite way of saying the Apple Watch (and to be fair smart watches in general) just hasn’t created a compelling product vision that makes having one indispensable as other Apple products?

The Future of Modern


What is Modern Design? How do you recognize it? Most people would say it’s a style that’s clean of detail and somehow functionally formed. Maybe some would say expensive, or cold.

It wasn’t designed to be that way. The simplified, pure shapes must have looked like aliens had left them behind when they came out, and the left-field material selections and manufacturing processes didn’t help either. At the time, most people were deciding to buy either that ‘new’ Stickley stuff or go William Morris Bungalow. Comparatively, items by LeCorbusier and Gropious were outrageously Metropolis-futuristic.

Curiously, modern furniture wasn’t designed to elicit this response – its core principles were much more Utopian. If designers could somehow harness this mass-production phenomenon, perhaps they could elevate the underprivileged so as to live a life just as others do. If they could only reduce costs, the designers felt they could make these conveniences and necessities that much more approachable for everyone. Of course, this vision would come at a cost. They’d have to peel out a lot of the extra details, as those processes added cost. They’d also have to source newer, cheaper materials. Perhaps modern companies like these who pump out thousands of bicycles could also pump out furniture just as fast if it were made with the same tube? Prices would then surely be approachable.

Flashing forward through the ages, the concept of Modern, and its aim of elevating the masses was usurped by the fact that only the rich, it seemed, adopted the new looks. They wanted to be ‘modern’ and were the only ones willing to pay for it. Besides, the more cost-effective designs just didn’t resonate with the populace. Modern was re-labeled as the style of the rich. Sadly, only after IKEA made it big did Modern fulfill its pledged goal.

The aftermath is the current definition of Modern. Products with hefty, nearly unapproachable price tags peddled by the designer elite essentially for the elite style connoisseur. It means ‘clean’, ‘detail free’, form-following-function and more pointedly, a wealth of good taste. But just as technology paved the way for this thinking, technology once again is changing our perceptions.

The last decade has ushered in the direct connection between machines that make things and the drafting/modeling programs that design them. No more are we handcuffed by a human element in one aspect or another. Things can be designed and handed right off to the machines that make them – no human hands involved.

Suddenly, the very ornamentation that we loved and that we had to give up with Modernism is far more easy and cost effective to have than it ever was. It’s also more customizable than we could possibly imagine. The end effect is that designers and artisans no longer have to hone economy of line and shape. In fact, the programs and machines can make anything of nearly any possible detail.

As humans, we’ve essentially solved what’s the perfect dimensions for a chair. We’ve solved the structural requirements for a bookshelf and now we can ask a computer to solve both for us. The even more amazing thing is that whatever we draw, we can have made, and quickly. A talented and skilled craftsman does not have to be found. In fact, we don’t even have to actually draw things, we can have a computer do that for us, as well.

All this will come together to once again recast the definition of Modern. The modern that the next several decades will know is one that means extreme ornamentation. It will mean extreme complexity, mass personalization. It will also mean that if one has simple, form following function items, they must certainly not be well-off.

Television is a Social Event Device, and There’s the Rub


One of the hardest parts about bringing interactivity to the television is not so much getting it on the internet. It’s getting an idea on what exactly TV apps should do.

The graveyard for ‘interactive’ television devices is a very large place, and there’s new residents happening every day. It’s not just third party, flash-in-the-pan manufacturers, either. Some of the tombstones have some pretty big names on them. Why the ongoing tragedy?

The sorrow of it all stems from the fact that the way people interact with a television is so much different than how they interact with mobile devices. Slapping an Android computer on a TV with a revved up tablet UI is not going to work well, no matter what shape you make the box. The problem is that the TV is a fundamentally different product and experience. It’s a social event device.

What do I mean by that? In today’s world, the television is used to share experiences with more than one person. If just one person were going to consume media that would normally be on a television, they would likely do it with another device like a tablet, laptop or phone. We invite friends to watch media on TV together.

This is the big sticking point. The current batch of applications on mobile operating systems are fundamentally designed for interaction with only one person per device. Angry birds? Single user. Hootsuite? Single user. Foursquare? Single user. Their social aspect is derived through the sharing of information across networks to someone else’s device. They are not designed for sharing with others on the same device. The social aspects of sharing a television event on Facebook with the same people who are in the same room as you, seems somehow redundant. Perhaps sharing with others who aren’t in attendance would make this seem useful but that’s just a feint, isn’t it?

The awkwardness of the ‘social’ app issue could easily be distilled down to when there are many sharing one device experience, it’s no longer an ‘I’ event, it’s a ‘We’ event. For whatever the app is doing, everyone is essentially doing it and if something changes, everyone has some sort of hand in the operation (assuming you have courteous friends). Thus, either there are an army of personal accounts invading the device or there is just one person’s account. Redundancy or awkward conformity are in store.

The second aspect that’s been overlooked is that whatever account that your mobile devices are run through contains a lot of information about you, and maybe some information that’s best left within the safety of password-protection. A quick test of this is taking a stroll through your friend’s mobile phone. The experience turns out to be pretty much uncomfortably voyeuristic. The details saved and the personalization of said device is a deep, deep window into the inner workings of a device’s owner. It’ll become uncomfortable to share a lot of these profile details with others. Even relatively benign shopping lists could cause some to blush if shared with the wrong people.

We have different personas – or ‘accounts’, if you will – a public one and a private one. Truly social event devices like televisions need to be ready to handle the line we set between them. This asks an interesting question: do we then have to individually go into every aspect and assign what can be shared and what cannot, a la Google Circles or do we have second, sharable proxies that are neutered for public browsing? Will they be connected somehow?

With both of these aspects in mind, the biggest issue is that the standard apps available for tablets and phones just don’t work for the social aspects of TV viewing. There will have to be a complete set of brand new apps invented to truly capture the utility and the desire to have this capability on televisions. This is where the excitement should build for what would really turn out to be a completely new market for applications where a sort of real-time social app is born. Instead of being all ‘web 2.0’ on separate devices, groups could have that same interaction through one large device in one location. Or perhaps something even more out on the horizon.

It’s time for manufacturers and programmers to see that this change needs to happen, if they’re going to want to keep playing in this space. From user interfaces that are actually designed for the sort of environment TVs are used to the more mundane aspects of creating a sort of sharing profile that has a tuned environment that’s safe to use where others can browse.

Branching Out and Digging Deep in Everyday Tech Stuff



If there are actually return readers to this blog, they will probably see that a lot of the stuff on here is focused towards technology and where it may be going. Most of it is pretty top-level stuff.

The hard part about all this tech is that they work really well in a vacuum and sometimes they work really well with items from the same maker and the same time, but we all usually don’t have the opportunity to buy the whole product line at once. This puts us in a bit of a pickle as it certainly doesn’t make it easy to get all the benefit out of everything we buy. Most times, the manufacturers aren’t on our sides so there’s really not a lot of help out there. Thankfully due to the ingeniousness of the third-party manufacturers and relatively open standards, there are a lot of helper items that go a long way to connect the dots.

In light of that, I’ve decided to put together another sort of blog that will talk to more of the “dirty hands” portion of the march of technology. Sure, there’s a lot of places out there talking about the next new thing in mobile devices, laptops and such. I’m not going to throw out more of the same. Instead, I’m going to focus on looking at all the items and techniques that link together our devices and really enhances our total experience with them.

I think I’m going to focus on the more standardized methods of connection, like USB, HDMI, Bluetooth and Wifi. There seems to be a lot of green shoots in the adapter industry around these methods and there looks to be a lot of trick stuff that promises interesting results. Of course there may be a bit more esoteric posts as well. Perhaps in the future, there may also be some posts about software interactivity, but I’m not sure. To make things easier, I’m also going to post where I got these things from and focus on getting everything from Amazon – as there’s nothing worse than reading about something and then not being able to find it.

The new blog is and I think the name really goes a long way at describing what it’s all about. That focus is on all the little connectors and helper devices that makes it easy for all our toys to work together or just work better. I’m going to sort of document my journey through all these helper devices and share what I’ve learned along the way. Hopefully, it will help all you out there as well.

Oh, and if you have some ideas on what to try next, go ahead and email me, or leave them in the comments!

Tactility Means Something


In today’s world of product design there seems to be a lot of emphasis placed on homogenizing the shapes of things. Obviously this looks rather nice and makes for a pretty good looking ‘system’ of things that sit on the shelf well. Then along comes a project like this to remind us that we need to consider other aspects besides congruent shapes when thinking of functionality.

Memories USB pen drives by Vanessa Redondo

I am not sure if this was the main reasoning behind Vanessa’s shapes ( yes, I did not really read the article), but my takeaway from the images is that the set of in-congruent shapes would certainly have a benefit for a user in recalling what is on each of the drives.

Today, we have a lot of data. Although the cloud is coming, we still carry and store a lot of it on devices that are physical to us. Many times this data can’t be held on just one chunk of media for a variety of reasons. Just like days of old with floppy disks, it becomes hard to recall what exactly is held on each drive. Having a drive with a distinctive shape goes a long way to circumvent the issue.

Memories - Vanessa Redondo

Designers usually try and attack this sort of thing with a visual design or some sort of handy color-coding. But these devices are usually quite tactile in use and the project here seems to go a long way to treat this aspect. Seeing this implementation makes me think that in this day and age we haven’t really utilized the capabilities touch gives us in a conscious way. Being able to quickly reach for a media drive and understand generally what their content is without taking eyes off of other things is really a benefit that makes this project quite strong.

For many reasons (which I am sure I will revisit here) I think that designers get into the bad habit of forcing things into systems even though the functionality is obviously sacrificed for style. It would be nice to see a movement where we look at projects like this to truly address function before shoehorning things awkwardly into shapes that merely look good. Oh, and also to consider more deeply tactility as a legitimate form of communication and utility.

What would Bezos do? Amazon, Wii, TV and the future


Does the tablet-Entertainment-mobile arms race force Amazon to acquire RIM? Does it also force it to buy Nintendo? These are very serious questions and while there’s been swirling rumors for the phone aspect of it, the notion of why not both is something to look at.

Why would Amazon feel the need to buy? The answer comes from how you perceive their competition to look like. Obviously, Amazon doesn’t sell phones or electronics, well they do but that’s not their real business. Their real business is the business of providing a market for commerce and from that vantage point things look different. Who competes with them in this market? Google, Apple and Microsoft.

Buying into phones, and even more so into home entertainment, is nearly a must. Amazon has put considerable investment into the online delivery of media, and not just books. They are one of the largest players in mp3 sales and they even have their own app store. With Apple and Microsoft closing the loop on media delivery and the devices to use it on, it must be scary for Amazon. What position would they be in if they end up being an app on someone else’s system? Things don’t even look that safe from the Android world, what with Google having Play, expanding YouTube and dabbling in music sales.

Much like Microsoft, the win for Amazon is not selling a phone, it’s guaranteeing the capability to solely sell content through it’s own devices as well as the opportunity to sit at the big table for at least another 5 more years on customer experience lock-in.

The purchase of RIM is tantalizing for a number of reasons. Firstly, they get a large (but crumbling) user base. Mature (perhaps too mature) technology, supply chain and branding to build on are all features that make this a great move for Amazon. These details alone makes it an easy decision over building from scratch. RIM is also looking to get its groove back and what better than to have the full capability of Amazon’s vast media offerings coursing through it’s circuits?

The phone makes sense, sure, but why Nintendo? The answer is pretty close to the same. The Wii gets them on the TV. TV is a vast market that hasn’t been executed properly…yet. Streaming Movies right from the Amazon store to your TV guarantees longevity. The customer base for the Wii is also more similar to the Amazon cloud than Sony’s Playstation, as well.

The ultimate play to maintain relevancy in this competition is to get on the TV—which means in the living room—and get mobile. Obviously, there are some other plays that would get them close to this scenario – and probably cheaper at that. First is to look at another handset maker. It would be hard to steal Nokia away from Microsoft, but HTC would be a nice buy. They’ve had some good successes and have got a nice presence on carriers and in stores, but not having the capability to close compatibility to just Amazon’s system might be less than palatable and that holds for the rest of it’s Android kin.

It gets a little more interesting with the TV play. There’s an army of set top boxes that would be ripe for purchase, TiVo has been ailing for a while, and Roku would look good as well. All Amazon needs is a device that plugs into the TV that can stream media and be capable of running apps. Even more useful is established consumer buy-in and sell-through. I am unconvinced that any of these boxes’ cheapness would offset the brand power the Wii has. Then again, with games pushing mobile, that support might be crumbling as well.

Whatever the choice is, grabbing both device platforms would put Amazon nearly on the same turf as Microsoft or Apple and bests Google because the power is in the synergy of the components. This is the same awesomeness that Apple enjoys with the iTunes-iPad-iPhone and soon to be Apple TV as well as Microsoft will enjoy with their Windows 8 phone, tablet and Xbox triumvirate.

All of a sudden, that Amazon Cloud-thing could make a lot of sense, huh?


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