Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Anybody unfortunate enough to be standing near me recently while I'm using my iPad will be aware that I am not a fan of iOS7.  I have not been shy about expressing my vexation about the new look and feel, and my feelings towards its creators, along with my speculations about their activities, inclinations, and parentage.  However, it occurs to me that I have not always been as eloquent as I might about its exact shortcomings.

After all, iOS7 does in fact live up to most of its advertised goals.  Is it not a sleek, modern looking interface?  Well yes, yes it is.  Is it not bold and distinctive?  Sure.  Does it not have a spare elegance, and striking use of colors?  Yes, but all this misses the point.  Ask the wrong questions, and you'll get appropriately pointless answers.

Perhaps an analogy will do a better job expressing my opinion.  Another recent acquisition, an early Christmas present from my wonderful wife, is a Martin guitar.  It's an absolutely gorgeous instrument.  This present follows the theory that even though I don't know how to play, having such a beautiful instrument will make me want to learn to play.  So far, this is an incredibly successful strategy.  I don't want to put it down, even when the steel strings make my fingers hurt so much I can no longer hold it.  The top and bottom are a rich, dark mahogany, with a lovely woodgrain and a gleaming satin finish.  The headplate is East Indian Rosewood, bearing the words "C.F. Martin & Co Est 1833" in ornate gold letters.  The tortoise pickguard and the ebony endpins provide a lovely accent and blend of textures.  The Sitka Spruce struts help contribute to a beautiful smell, which makes holding it an incredible tactile experience.  It's a feast for the eyes, ears, nose and fingers.   
I know my flute is beautiful too, but I'm having a hard time remembering it at the moment.  New toy syndrome.  We'll see.

Now let's imagine that one day, a friendly rep from Martin & Co comes by my house and knocks on my door.

"Hi there!  I'm from Martin, and we're coming by to do some work for on your guitar."
"Um, wow, that's great.  Is there a charge for this?  I didn't schedule an appointment."
"No, it's absolutely free!  It's just part of the superior service that we like to provide to our loyal customers."
"Wow, that's great!  Come on in!  So what are you going to do?  An adjustment, or something?"
"Even better!  We've been working very hard at Martin to come up with a completely new look for your instrument.  We love it, and we think that you will too!"
"Great!  What will it look like now?"
"Well, for starters, we're ditching the whole natural wood grain look.  That's feeling a bit old - we've been doing it since 1833, after all.  We'll start by painting the body solid white."
"That's right.  Very sleek, very modern.  Of course, it's not all white.  We've accented it on the fingerboard and headplate with bright, vibrant colors.  Very edgy, very eye catching."
"You're joking."
"Not at all!  And you'll see that we replaced the font on our logo as well.  Those letters in that loopy font in the golden paint was so last century.  Our logo is now in Helvetica.  Very cool!"
"But I like the old look of my guitar!"
"No, you don't.  We've got top designers that say this look is much better.  It's all sleek and modern."
"Can't I keep the same as it was?  I appreciate your coming all the way out here, but I'd really like to keep things as they are."
"Well, I won't do the work today, if you insist.  But I'll keep coming back.  And pretty soon, none of our replacement guitar strings, or straps, or anything else will work on your guitar unless we make this modification.  Sooner or later, you'll need to upgrade, and then you'll thank us.  Really."
"If Mr. Martin were still alive, he'd be appalled.  He was a huge fan of the natural wood look on guitars, and he had more taste than your whole design department put together."
"Well, that's the issue, isn't it?  He's not around anymore, so we need to do something different, or people won't think we're an innovative guitar maker anymore."
"Even if it's worse?"
"Yeah, even so.  By the way, I see that you have some sheet music for movie music on your bookshelf?"
"Well, we're changing that as well.  We're going to replace your sheet music.  We think it's wasteful to have the title of the music on the top of the page.  After all, you can see what movie it's for on the front cover."
"But wait a minute!  I don't have covers for any of my music!  I won't be able to tell what anything is!"
"No problem, we thought of that.  If you don't have the cover, you just have to label each bit of sheet music as 'my personal music'.  That way, we won't take away the title from the front page!"
"I don't know why you care so much, but if that's your policy, why don't you simply leave the title on the front page whenever I don't have a cover?"
"Our designers didn't like that option.  They really think it's much cooler if everything is sleek and uniform."
"Why can't I have a choice with all this?  I mean, I'm sure that some people like this new sleek, modern look, but it doesn't seem like it would be that much trouble to offer the classic guitar, and then the new guitar look as a separate option.  Isn't that possible?"
"Possible?  Sure, it would be easy.  But it doesn't hold with our philosophy.  We offer you loads of choice.  That choice is 'our way or the highway'.  Lots of people like it, so we must be right."
"But I don't like it."
"Yes, but you're not going to switch to another guitar, are you?"
"Probably not.  I have too much invested in this one."
"Wow!  I'll have to send a note to our business strategists and tell them what a great job we're doing.  Our guitars are so enmeshed in our customers lives, that they don't feel like they can switch, even when they hate what we're doing to them.  Good news for our stockholders.  Have a nice day!"

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Google Glass: Course Set for Failure

I wish I didn’t believe in this blog. Like many people, I’m intrigued by the potential of Google Glass, and would like to see it succeed. But so far, I haven’t seen evidence that anybody working with Glass really understands what it is or how to use it.

In many ways, Google Glass is simply a continuation of a long trend in making computing power more accessible.  We started with mainframes, then evolved to minis, desktops, laptops, and smart phones.  Mainframes could not be moved without a small team equipped with a truck or two, and could only be accessed by a small number of highly trained individuals employed by an institution large enough to spend millions of dollars.  Each successive phase of computing evolution reduced the barriers for accessing computing power, and in the process, opened up new possibilities of what you could use that computing power for.  Using a mainframe for word processing made no sense, but it’s a great use for a desktop computer.  It would be technically feasible to log your location in Foursquare using a laptop, but it only took off once we had smartphones.

Viewed simplistically, Google Glass is simply the next phase in making computing power smaller and more accessible.  Its only modestly smaller and more mobile than a smart phone, so on the surface, it might seem to occupy a similar niche in terms of applications.  However, in terms of its usage, its much more akin to the difference between a mainframe and a laptop.  Every previous phase of technology had an interface which the user interacted with to the exclusion of doing anything else.  You could run programs on a mainframe, or you could go sightseeing in town, but you couldn't do both at the same time.  Smartphones come close to crossing this line, as you can shift your gaze quickly from phone to your surroundings, but its still an either/or proposition, as many people learn to their dismay after unsuccessfully attempting to drive while texting.


Google glass, on the other hand, offers a unique opportunity to integrate computing power with your everyday interactions with the worldThis opens up an entirely new world of computing applications.  This is why I was so disappointed when the New York Times recently reported on the latest Google Glass developments from Google's I/O developers conference.

Apps under construction include
·         Twitter
·         Facebook
·         CNN news alerts
·         Elle fashion features

In short, these are simply repackaging existing applications and data feeds onto the new device.  All of them buttress the worst arguments that Google Glass's critics make, which is that people are going to be distracted (with potentially fatal results) from whatever they need to be really focused on.  None of these apps enhance the user's existing visual experience.

What should developers be working on instead?  Here's a few initial ideas:

·         The personal database.  A lifesaver for those of us who have difficulty remembering peoples names, but also useful for anybody without a perfect memory.  Whenever the camera focuses squarely on somebodys face, it uses facial recognition to compare that person to the people in your database and reminds you of that persons name.  It would also quickly pop up any timely facts such as if that person's birthday or anniversary was coming up.  A quick input from the user (perhaps a nod or a tap on the side of the glasses) would produce a quick summary of facts you had previously stored, either displayed on screen or recited to a bluetooth earphone.
·         The tour guide.  Travel through any location, and have great attractions, good restaurants, and other points of interest presented to you in real time.  Focus and tap again, and get detailed reviews for that restaurant or historical information on the cathedral.  Ideally, this application would be an API, rather than being a single vendor's perspective, so you could subscribe to whatever perspective you liked.  Imagine legions of bloggers, each with their own unique voice, annotating the landscape with a variety of viewpoints.  Anything from the Hipster's Guide to San Francisco to the Italian Gourmet's Guide to Topeka Kansas.
·         The training assistant.  Need to change the oil on your car, or install a video card in your computer, but not quite sure how to do it?  Youtube has thousands of great videos instructing people how to do all sorts of things, but they are limited by the context of the film-makers environment.  Imagine getting step by step instructions, and when you got stuck, the glasses would highlight the component you're looking for via pattern recognition.

Google Glass has the potential to be the indispensable tool for tomorrow.  It's a pity that  the developers working on it seem to be thoroughly fixated on yesterday.