Apple Pie!

One of my very favorite WorkJuice Players, Mr. Hal Lublin. Been meaning to do something like this for a long while now, but you know, I’ve been busy what with moving again and having a new job. I understand it was his birthday recently, so I found some time. Cheers, mate. Happy birthday >clink!<

And Another Thing...

Just as a corollary to the previous couple of posts, how’s this:

I think we’re living in a world where Apple and Microsoft are no longer in real competition with one another. And I think they should start acting like it.

No really. MS is developing devices that are solving niche problems that Apple isn’t designing for. MS is effectively no longer in the smartphone space, or mobile tablets, and now they’ve conceded the Macbook-style notebook/laptop segment as well. Apple has had so much success with these markets, their only real competition is Samsung and Google, and that’s kind of it.

Apple and Microsoft are now solving different problems for different people and complement each other’s portfolios more than they compete. And even if they do still overlap to some degree, I think it’s less than MS thinks. Windows is a distinct market separate from MacOS these days and I think MS would be better off treating it that way.

Microsoft’s markets are Windows users in general, and PC and Xbox gamers, and now this touchable tablet/ultrabook/creative segment. None of which Apple is in.

Additionally, I think MS should stop comparing their products to Apple’s in their marketing. They need to make ads that show off their hardware in their own light, without the constant references to Apple. It makes them look very self-conscious, and it’s a little demeaning.

It’s an admission that Apple’s the one to beat. That Apple is the market leader. It’s the reason Apple could get away with it with the I’m a Mac, I’m a PC ad campaign: they actually were playing catch-up. They were acting like a much smaller company because they had to. It’s the sort of thing you do if you’re a scrappy startup, carving out any position you can. Or if you’re an established company clawing your way back to relevance.

MS is neither of those in the actual markets in which it still competes. If it believes in its products, then it should let them stand on their own without making them seem like they’re in someone else’s shadow. As long as MS is taking cues from Apple’s marketing (that Surface Studio intro video) then they should take this lesson as well. Apple shows their products in use, allows them to impress all on their own. Ever seen a spec comparison in an iPhone ad, trying desperately to convince you how much better iPhone is than Galaxy? Hell no. They put the 7 up on it’s own, in sexy lighting, and let you make up your own mind. They show software solving real problems, and creating real things for real people.

The only time I can think of Apple making self-validating comparisons these days is in keynotes, showing customer satisfaction metrics compared to other vendors, and adoption rates compared to Android. Frankly I think Apple should stop this, too, and for the same reasons.

MS is making some compelling hardware these days and playing on what remains of their strengths without chasing off after every shiny object in sight. That alone is a hell of a pivot, for which I have to give Satya Nadella full credit - pre-Nadella Microsoft simply didn’t have the insightfulness or taste to pull this off. They should have the guts and self-confidence to stand on their own and drop their obvious anxiety about being compared to Apple. 

Regarding a Mac Tablet and Why I Think There Won't Be One Any Time Soon

So why didn’t Apple develop something like the Surface Studio? Why is it letting other companies eat away at the edges of the creative pro market? 

For that matter, why the heck is Microsoft making a play for that market?

Apple is not in the business of developing for niche markets. They are not in the business of solving niche problems (except as an adjunct to solving big ones).

Apple, certainly since Steve Jobs returned to the company in the late 1990s, has been in the business of engineering solutions for the largest segments of the market in which they can be profitable. Apple loves solving problems for people, so the larger the problem set (bigger or more prolific problems for more people) the better.

The iMac was an appeal to the very common problem of getting on the internet easily, and an appeal to a sense of style and the computer as an appliance. Those were mainstream concerns for which no one else was providing a good solution in 1998, when logging on and surfing the web was a more complicated, technical problem. The iPod was aimed squarely at “people who like music,” not the tech nerds that earlier MP3 devices were designed for. iPhone was designed for the mass market, to provide a pocketable computing platform that could becomes ANY solution; the app developers concerned themselves with the niches, Apple provided the platform. Same with iPad. 

Apple’s Mac line has been designed as the biggest solution to the largest market segment in which Apple could make a good solid dent. “People who use computers for stuff” you could say. There’s a LOT of those. So they concentrate on making excellent machines for people who need computers to DO things. And they’ve been so good at it, their laptops have dominated the market and mindshare for the last decade. MacBooks (Pro or otherwise) are the reference design for the entire industry.

So what about the creative market? That segment that used to be so core Apple’s user base, the group that kept them alive during the Dark Times?

Well, for one thing, those Dark Times were 20 years ago now. I know, it makes me feel old, too.

For another, I actually think it was closer to 35 years ago that Apple was REALLY solving for creative professionals. Key moves like a GUI, settling on 72ppi for screen resolutions (to match printing measurements for typesetting), incorporating PostScript, and so forth, set Apple up for a couple of decades of creative support that established a cultural expectation of catering to creatives.

But even by the early to mid 1990s they were actually making products for the masses. They were selling Macs at Sears. As companies like Aldus, Adobe, and Macromedia picked up the task of making professional creative software, Apple ceded this ground to concentrate on making good out-of-the-box experiences for as wide an audience as possible. So, yes, they included creative software, but nothing designed to compete with the likes of Photoshop or Quark.

Even during the Jobs Renaissance, when there was a resurgence in Apple professional software tools, they were to fill holes in the overall ecosystem to support Apple’s revival and recover their core audience of professionals. But this was a survival mechanism, to sell enough machines to make sure they could develop the iMac, the iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc. Holding actions until they could build mainstream successes. 

So, Apple has always been about achieving broad public success. Being the Computer of the Creative Class was a means to that end. And we lapped it up. Mostly because none of us creatives thought this at the time, we just thought that we had someone in our corner making great products for us (that some other enlightened mainstream users also appreciated). 

Where Apple has supported us the whole time has been in making a great OS and great hardware that we can use without having to constantly troubleshoot or reinstall drivers for. They excel at designing platforms that get out of our way so we can just get to work. And that’s still the case. 

But, it’s also true that this means that certain particular problem cases fall outside of Apple’s directive. They have not created specialized hardware for people who draw on their Macs, for example. Even the iPad Pro with Pencil is positioned as a broader market device. I mean, they kind of have to, since it doesn’t run Photoshop or Illustrator, but they could have made a push to encourage a different development path, with changes to the marketing or development tools or App Store, to attract professional tools like Sketch, et al.

I’m not arguing that Apple’s approach is wrong. Their position is that Macs are good for computer things, and iOS is good for mobile things, and that both are better off specializing in solving those problems in their specialized ways. They could be right. I certainly understand the reasoning.

But it leaves spaces in the market for other solutions to other problems.

And this is where the Surface comes in. You just knew I was going to tie this together, didn’t you?

Apple is not in the business of solving for niche problems, they are in the business of solving for the largest problems they can for as many people as they can.

The Windows PC industry, on the other hand, is all about solving for niche problems. Even within their own ecosystem. When Dell and HP and the like rose during the 1990s as the mainstream computer sales megacorps, hundreds of smaller, leaner startup PC suppliers cropped up to fill every conceivable nook and cranny Dell was leaving. Gaming PCs, video PCs, audio PCs, recording PCs, cheap PCs, corporate PCs, and so on. Most of those companies did not survive. Most went out of business. Some got acquired, then went out of business. Some still survive in some form.

The Windows PC world is constantly working to fill new niches, either real ones dictated by the real market, or artificial ones dictated by their marketing departments. What can we talk people into buying today? Most of these efforts fail. Tablet PCs in the late 1990s, for example. Some work out, but settle into their limited market niches; Wacom-style drawing tablets, for example.

Microsoft is working on the Surface line because it’s an area where Apple doesn’t have a comparable solution. Notice MS hasn’t taken a stab at the straightforward Macbook Pro-style notebook. The Surface Pro is a shot at the iPad and the Macbook Air (Apple’s ultraportable). Because you can draw on it (which you can’t do with the Air) and you can run Photoshop (which you can’t do on the iPad). 

Instead of confronting Apple head-on, which has been suicide for everyone who’s tried, they’re coming at them from the side, solving for a niche in which Apple’s not actually interested. Because of that, MS has gotten a bit of traction there, and boy are they running with it. But again, they’re shooting for a market position Apple isn’t even solving for. The question is why isn’t Apple interested, and will that change?

Personally, I think it’s because the actual real market for people who will buy a Surface for the reasons MS wants you to buy one is relatively small, and Apple recognizes this. A small market for PCs can still be viable, where it might not be for Macs.

Consider the total PC market. It’s big, but the Surface isn’t for everyone. It’s for creatives, mainly (otherwise you just get a cheap PC subnotebook, right?). Creatives are a small percentage slice of the overall market, really. A few million people worldwide. Let’s say 10 million give or take (about the population of deviantArt, most of whom can’t afford a Surface anyway but we’ll leave that for now). A viable market if you can reach it, and with a few dozen manufacturing partners around the world selling to regional niches, like MS could have, you might just be able to saturate that over a few years.

If you’re Apple, though, the equation is different. The total addressable market is smaller, say one tenth the size. But let’s say that this segment would be more likely to buy Mac if they had the option. Let’s be generous and say they could sell maybe 2-5 million units over time. 

Apple’s success is spread across iPhone, iPad (still selling viably even if it’s down over time), services (iTunes, AppleMusic, etc.), the App Store, and Mac. They have an iOS empire to maintain and distinguish. If they made a MacOS tablet it would put them in the position of supporting two devices with similar hardware; a Mac tablet and the iPad Pro. Physically, they’d do pretty much the same thing. And they'd have to re-write MacOS to be tablet friendly, and so forth. An expensive way to create a lot of confusion. They are better off supporting their distinctive ecosystems separately to get the most out of each one as specialized experiences.

Microsoft on the other hand ONLY has the desktop left (yes, they have XBox, but that’s not part of this discussion because it’s not really part of the same ecosystem; it could be but MS is protective of it in kind of the same way that Apple is protective of iPad). They don’t have a mobile business to threaten. 

It’s in their best interest to try crazy stuff on the desktop because that’s the only market they have to work with. Apple does their crazy stuff with iOS and iPhone, and stays conservative with the Mac, relying on third parties to niche-ify the Mac experience for specific subsets of users. 

Don’t get me wrong. If they did make a Mac tablet, I’d be in line for it already. But I just don’t think it’ll happen. Even if they would like to, I just don’t see how it makes any sense, financially.

For the record, I don’t think MS is going to sell that many Surfaces, either, Pro or Studio. I suspect the actual, real market for them is smaller than anyone thinks. But as a reference, I also expect it will inspire other PC manufacturers to chase after that market, so who knows?

I know it’s got the creative pro community in a tizzy, if my Twitter feed is anything to go by.

 

* Before people start to call me out on these numbers, yes, they’re mostly out of thin air. Well, educated guesstimates, really. Intended to illustrate the point more than be a serious academic statistical analysis. I’ll leave that sort of thing to Horace Dediu. Even if they’re wrong, they’re probably not wrong by orders of magnitude, which is the scale needed for Apple to have a market they could sell to.

** Incidentally, this is also why Apple doesn’t make gaming machines or upgradable towers anymore. It isn’t that the overall market for this problem is small, but that Apple’s addressable segment of it is too small for them to expend the resources to solve it. Though the gaming segment is large in pure numbers, it’s still a small slice of the mainstream market for which Apple excels at providing solutions, regardless of how some PC gamers have convinced themselves of their own self-importance. Personally, I think it was a mistake for Apple to get rid of the towers in favor of the cylinders. They had a good market segment going there - people loved those towers - and all they needed to do was maintain it. Ah well.

Thoughts on the Surface Studio

My initial thoughts - the only kind I can have yet since I haven’t tried one out for myself - amount to be being cautiously impressed. While I was watching the introduction video, I kept thinking how Apple-like the presentation was. The device itself is sort of beautiful, again in a very Apple-y way. Well, sort of. The screen itself literally looks like an iMac screen with a Microsoft logo, down to the gentle curve and powdered finish of the aluminum back. The base is, well, a base. Those shiny chrome arms, though, look oddly out of place by comparison; a note of tacky in an otherwise elegant industrial design. So, part win and part what were they thinking?

But maybe that’s the sort of detail only a design snob like myself would notice or appreciate. So never mind all that, what about what it actually does?

The device seems to be aimed squarely at artists, with all of the drawing on the screen and adjusting color palettes and such. And to its credit, it seems to be well suited to this market, if the glowing review from comic artist Mike Krahulik is anything to go by. Which is great — I’m all for tools that help artists do their job or get better at arting.

But here’s where my reservations start to creep in. It seems to be solving a problem that already has a solution. Wacom has been making large drawable screens for years. Like the Cintiq 27QHD (http://www.wacom.com/en-us/products/cintiq-27-qhd-touch). Ittilts down to drawing-comfortable angles or straight up to vertical, like the Surface Studio, and it has multitouch, also like the Surface. Maybe the Surface does these with more elegance, or maybe having a PC built in to the device is a particular advantage, but for the “what problem does this solve” aspect, it doesn’t seem to bring much new to the table. 

Well maybe that’s not fair. The magic wheel - Surface Dial - they debuted is kind of a neat trick, I’ll grant. But Griffin has been making something similar (http://appleinsider.com/articles/16/10/26/microsoft-surface-wheel-evokes-comparison-to-griffin-powermate-for-mac) for years and lots of professionals have been using their dials for audio and video production, in much the same ways as Microsoft’s was shown, for that long. The screen-recognition is a nifty trick, and the built-in haptic feedback sounds very nice, but again I don’t think it solves the problems in a significantly better way, in spite of those gimmicks.

What I expect is that Griffin will update their design to emulate it, or Wacom will develop their own, and the same people who have been using the Griffin solution will use the new versions.

The other consideration is the price. It’s expensive. Like $3000 to $4200 expensive. So, they’ve designed this for artist-types, but priced it mostly out of their reach. And the artists that ARE likely to be able to justify the expense already have Wacom Cintiqs, which are mostly considerably less expensive, even including a PC to run them.

And if you’re not someone who draws on your computer regularly, I have a hard time seeing you getting much use out of the Surface Studio that you wouldn’t get from a regular PC, and for a LOT less money.

What Microsoft seems to have built is a device for a niche segment of the market, professional creatives, and then priced it mostly out of their reach, all while not necessarily solving the problems of making digital art any better than Wacom already has. If I’m actually in the market for a large drawing screen am I going to buy a PC + Cintiq for $2500-3000, or drop $4500 on this? And I’d bet the PC I’d get for that would outperform the Surface PC guts in a few specs, and I can upgrade just the PC part as more powerful options become available over time.

So, just like the original Surface table display from like 7 years ago, this seems more like a clever technology reference than a real product that solves a real problem for the people that need that problem solved.

It’s going to look great on some executive desks, though, and the small handful of professional artists who can afford it and get enough use out of it to justify the cost.

I’m fine if I turn out to be wrong about this for some reason. Maybe they’ve found a secret sauce in the integration of components and fine details of the execution of the idea. I mean, that would truly be a first for Microsoft, to get something this complex so right the first time out of the gate, but hey, we do live in an infinite universe.

Speaking of Apple...

Found via LogoDesignLove; a short conversation with Rob Janoff, the designer of the Apple logo.

I post it here because it's fun to gain insight into iconic design, but also because Janoff's approach reflects my own design philosophy, especially in this final paragraph:

What’s the most important feature of a well-designed logo? Simplicity. Too often clients have long laundry lists of elements the logo “must have.” That’s a recipe for failure. Logos need to be simple and distinctive or they won’t be remembered.
— http://www.logodesignlove.com/rob-janoff-apple-logo-designer

This goes beyond technical considerations of legibility and printability (and... webability? sure). Yes, too much detail makes it harder to print, as the inks spread into the fiber of paper, obliterating small details and making a mush of a cluttered design (the digital equivalent is screen resolutions, sizing, and unpredictable color calibration), to say nothing of edge-use cases like faxing or embroidery on corporate apparel.

But more than that, strong simplicity reads faster and with greater impact, especially to new people not already intimately familiar with the brand. Part of the job of a logo is to impress the public as to the trustworthiness and stability of a brand, and fussy detail and clutter tend to work against that.

Anyway, the article is here, and is worth reading if you're interested in that kind of design nerdery. Enjoy.

None More Black, or My Take on iPhone 7

I stay pretty well read up on technology, and Apple in particular for the last fifteen years, give or take. So, when this question came up recently, I set out to jot down a short, concise reply to indicate my general positivity and reasoning therefor.

I failed.

I wound up writing a much more complete answer than I anticipated, which went on to become a general observation on the advancement of technology compared to the problems it solves. You have been warned.

Here it is:

In short, I’m generally quite positive about the 7. It’s a significant improvement along all of the vectors people use smartphones for. Faster, more memory, more responsive, more durable, and so on. And all by statistically significant margins even over last year. Any iPhone owner at the 2-3 year point of their upgrade cycle should get one without hesitation.

For myself, personally, it’s a greyer choice. I had my 5 for three years, so when I got a 6S+ last year, it was a HUGE leap. A year later, it’s still a spectacular device. I took it out camping this weekend and abused the camera doing time-lapse and long-exposure tricks, and it just performed.

The one feature I was hoping for in the 7 was Pencil support. Had it had that, I’d already be in line somewhere to get one. Without it, the 7 is a good upgrade from the 6S+, but not enough to make me rush out. I might become interested just on the basis of improved camera and the fact that I’m financing through AT&T anyway, so my monthly payment would be the same no matter what. 

As to the lack of the headphone jack, I think this is MOSTLY a non-issue. The 7 comes with an adapter, and they’re selling extras for $9 (super cheap for Apple), so there’s a solution for retaining current headphone investments. People talk a lot about Apple pushing new Lightning headphones, but I think this is incorrect. Apple’s push is to wireless, period. And like their abrupt tech pivots in the past — shift to USB in the original iMac, removal of floppy drives, OS 9 to OS X, shift to Intel chips in Macs, 32-pin to Lightning — broader support for this will ramp up over the next 6 months and be a complete change in about a year. The whole industry will catch up in that time and the later adopters will have an easy time of it. Expect a lot of new wireless headphone solutions to hit the market, in other words.

I also think that the fact that the exterior design is similar to the 6 series isn’t much of an issue. This is what happens in a matured, post-Cambrian Explosion ecosystem, and this is what’s happened in every technology sector that’s ever existed. Forms stabilize and slower iteration sets in, as technology allows. Eventually this results in a small handful of dominant forms, and a whole ecosystem of more specialized forms each seeking to serve smaller and smaller markets.

Looking at the computer industry as another example, the basic form was set by the 90s, and it’s been slow year-over-year iteration and small-scale experiments pushing change.

What most people use computers for is a relatively small set of activities. Internet, email, socials, photos, video, and so forth. Most of that is just communication, and once a machine gets fast enough to keep up with typing, any additional improvements are aesthetic, or ergonomic, or comfort features. So you go lighter and smaller, which led to the laptop explosion of the 2000s. The moment laptops could do the work of desktops, people went portable in droves. I did this with design and art, first with the iBook and PowerBook, and later with MacBook Pros. 

The point is many of these processes don’t change much over time, where humans are concerned. When I started doing graphic design on computers, back in the mid-1990s, the machines struggled to keep up with even basic tasks. The power needed to set type, to show color, to build vector graphics, etc, was demanding on that hardware. By 2000 or so, monitors had become good enough to show accurate color on flat screens (expensive screens, mind - my 22 inch LaCie flat CRT cost me about $1500 at the time; it weighed about 70 lbs and was a beast, but the screen was glorious for the time). But building publications and doing photographic compositing at print-resolutions (300pixels per inch, in CMYK colorspace) still needed as much power as you could throw at it, and would still take 10 minutes to save a 500MB file. Printing to a color laser might take 20 minutes. Go make a sandwich. I had two full workstations in my office so I could work on one while the other was rendering or saving or printing. 300 Mhz monsters, the fastest machines that could be purchased by consumers then.

By 2004 I could do all of that on a 12-inch PowerBook, so I went portable full time. And that was my primary workstation for years, until I upgraded to the shiny new Unibody MacBook Pro in 2009. It was like a piece of science fiction by comparison. I’ve upgraded a few times since then, and currently use a Unibody MBP that’s going to be four years old in February. This one has a massive SSD in it, though, and is still superfast.

Now, during this whole twenty-year span, the fundamentals of printing technology haven’t changed much at all. I’m still creating 300ppi files to print in CMYK at the same paper sizes as I was in 1996. The difference is that everything now happens instantaneously. Photoshop launches in 5 seconds instead of 2 minutes, 500MB files save in seconds instead of minutes, I can no longer overload the RAM so the machine slows to a crawl executing commands via scratch disk, and I have more cheap storage space than I can fill. 

So the ability of technology to deliver has blown past the demands placed on it, even for someone like me who used to be a genuine power user. These days the only envelope-pushing demands on computers are in content creation, 3D rendering, editing hi-res video, high-end gaming, and so forth. Large markets, but smaller and small by percentage to the overall market.

As the tech catches up with the uses, and flattens out the friction points of solving the actual problems to which it is being applied, upgrade times lengthen. People wait longer to abandon a solution that works to move one that merely works better. The “better” has to be demonstrable and clear, and convincing people gets harder and harder as time goes on.

Computing has gone through this curve, and now is trying gimmick after gimmick to find the next mainstream success. 4k and VR are the current edge cases. There’s a lot of hype around these right now. Partly because they’re new (they’re actually not new, but the new promise is that affordable computers may finally be ready to deliver these to the masses). And partly because other industries, that have themselves plateaued, are cross-promoting new tech because they are also searching for the next revolution to sell more of their own stuff – 4K TVs, for example, just a few years after they finally sold everyone a 1080p TV; or virtual reality solutions of one kind or another (I’m not sure I think facehugging headsets are going to catch on any more than the Kinect did; an initial explosion of interest followed by a collapse as the limitations and inherent inconvenience sets in to reality). 

This will happen with phones as well. I suspect we’re already seeing the beginning of this transition. So starting to see some long-term consistency in the exterior designs is a good indication, I think. Of course as I say this, Apple is probably preparing to throw it all out the window next year, so I should enjoy this feeling of insightfulness while I can. 

Brooks Falls Bears

My current (pun!) obsession is a live stream (pun!) of Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska, managed by a site called Explore.org. It's got good resolution and sound, which is rare for such a cam. It's so peaceful and calming to have it on a second screen, watching the bears and salmon and listening to the water rushing over the falls. They've got a bunch of other great streaming cameras as well, placed all over the world. Great way to explore the world from the comfort of your air-conditioned home.

Happy Coffee

I love coffee. My days start with a single-serving French press, and the blackest, richest, darkest magic I can conjure from it. Mid-day I'm usually over at a coffee shop with my laptop either making art or procrastinating on the Internet. Usually nursing an Americano (I request less added water to keep it strong - I love espresso but want a coffee to take more than 3 sips to finish). Very occasionally a caramel macchiato if I'm more in the mood for dessert coffee.

I've discovered a roaster here in Atlanta (and Olympia, Washington, as it turns out) called Batdorf & Bronson — love the coffee, love the brand design — and bounce between a couple of locations near(ish) me that serve it. Good stuff.