There are things that Apple does that frustrate me. Here they are.Read More
If you require some sort of explanation about the two characters mentioned in the title, here it is: on January 30, Louis C.K. sent this email to anyone who had created an account on his website, which he has previously used to sell copies of his standup:
Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.
Go here to watch it.
We hope you like it.
The show itself is too much to be summarized here. It's the first episode of a series of unknown length, released on an unknown schedule. It clocks in at 67 minutes, has no advertising, and follows a stage-inspired two-halves-separated-by-an-intermission format (which does nto end its similarities to stage productions, but thats more about the content of the show itself, which I wont speak to now).
His entire marketing strategy for this show consisted of those 24 words.
It could be said that there are two competing visions for the future of the internet.
The first views the internet as a dissemination tool. Networks and content makers stored and showed their video works on televisions to a discrete audience, and growth was scary and required a distribution undertaking on the scale of the production of the content itself. Print publishing before them dealt with similar issues, none more pressingly than journalism. The internet allowed for distribution of those products at a wide scale with much lower overhead, but didn't fundamentally change the nature of the products they produced or the forces behind them. They were just available in more places for more people for less money, and when distribution costs don't rise on scale with increased distribution, the revenue sources they use become much more effective.
The first group thinks that media companies and editors still have the real creative and curative energy behind them. So their distribution methods change, yes, and change they must and always will continue to change, but nobody in their garage is going to challenge Universal Studios or NBC or the New York Times because distribution is only worthwhile when the content is worth it, and their content is just more important. They are the curators.
The second group believes that the internet is a tool for the democratization of content: if not democratization, than anarchization of content. That decrease in distribution overhead didn't just lower costs for big publishers, it lowered the bar for potential producers, and someone who could foot this much smaller bill wondered why they didn't deserve an equal seat at the table. After all, the medium of browsing the web affectively gave them one: a URL was all you needed to get to both the New York Times and Joe Smiths Food Blog.
If large publishers and small publishers compete on an even playing field based on the quality of their content, the second group believes that small publishers will sometimes win.
The first battle between the two sides was fought over words, specifically published and printed words. The democratizers won.
The second battle was fought over music. A vision of instantly accessible garage bands was co-opted by the powerful marketing establishments of media companies, and today the media landscape is populated by the same types of artists looking for exposure to the same sorts of companies. The curators won. (Its worth mentioning that independent publishers won a side battle over podcasts, but that was more of a direct hit against terrestrial radio than music companies, who never really cared enough to fight this battle.)
The third battle was fought over movies, and the curators won, but not by beating independent creators on merit. Someone could make a movie for an audience and release it online, and maybe even have enough money to put a big name actor behind it, but it will never see an awards show appearance unless a production company markets it, and they will use the same techniques they always do when they eventually find something they like. Theres still a layer of production executives and producers in between people and movies.
The fourth battle is over short-form episodic video, formerly known as television shows.
Louis C.K. is not a production company. He has none of the baggage of producing a show thats supposed to be aired on television by a network: no commercials arbitrarily breaking up the flow of an episode into four parts, no S&P execs defining what can or can't be said by who, no marketing people determining what kind of things millennials will or will not watch. Theres no social media campaign, no commercials, no marketing of any kind aside from those 24 words.
But it is, by a quality standard, real. It stars Alan Alda and Jessica Lange. It has long takes and careful, almost mournful pacing. It has a theme song by Paul Simon, for Christs sake. This is a real show, meant to be consumed with the same reverence as any other show, but without the baggage from television and even the production filter of Netflix or Amazon, which are just as much content filters and curators as the networks were.
Whether or not the show is good, and I believe it is (please see for yourself: Go here and pay the five bucks), what is most important is that this model has to be seen as an option going forward in order for the democratizers to have a shot of winning this battle, and making sure the internet can still be a place for everyone.
The Good Parts
Setup is easier than anything else in the market, because the Bluetooth pairing with the iPhone is so future-stuff. I set it up before the Remote app was updated to work with it, though, so typing in all those passwords and codes was a pain.
The thing is pretty fast. Things jump around and zip from screen to screen pretty rapidly. Lag is noticeable and unforgivable in the context of what is the New Normal for this device, and honestly devices in this market as a whole.
The Bluetooth remote is faster and better than an IR remote. I don't have to point the thing at the TV like a monkey.
Scrubbing on this thing is hooooooooooboy it's beautiful. It's the most pleasant and happy I am when I'm using the device.
The app model as a whole is better than the channel model provided by the old device. The older devices channel model made you manually hide every channel you knew for a fact you were never going to watch, which was a cumbersome process at best. It also left too much control of the interface up to arbitrary channel additions, meaning you could be looking for something you want to watch and have to re-find it because some new channel pushed it to a new row. Now, you only have the stuff you want, and new stuff goes to the bottom. Sweet.
Siri is great, and when I remember to use her and she works (more on that later) it's really a better way to use a TV. Scrolling and swiping from screen to screen from row to row, typing letters, all that sucks. I don't really have to do that anymore, and that's better.
I've never had to charge the remote. I do, when I think to do it, but I've never been like oh shit, the battery's gonna run out, I'd better charge it. That's a pretty good indicator of how long it lasts.
I guess it's nice to turn the TV on with the same remote? My audio goes straight to a soundbar with independent controls, so I don't get to use that part, but the powering on part is nice.
Sometimes when I use this thing I contemplate my own death
The downside to the app model is that every app gets to define its own user interface. It can abandon convention and become completely inscrutable, and it's really really important to have a scrutable TV interface, I'm discovering. It also doesn't help that Apple's "guidance" for UX design leaves me asking some very serious questions.
Let's start with the remote.
The old Apple remote was about as small and simple as a remote can get. It had about the same number of controls as an NES controller: up, down, left, right, select, menu, and play/pause. You didn't really need a label for most of them, and because of the layout, you knew which side was up and which end was the right end to point at the TV. Granted, it was small, so you drop the thing and it finds really impressively small crevices to get stuck in, but when you were using it, you didn't really think about it, because you were able to operate it while looking at the screen. You know, because it's a remote for a screen that's six to ten feet away from you when you're using it.
I think that if you had a real Design Think-y meeting about how to fuck up that remote, you could end up with something a lot like the remote they shipped with the new Apple TV.
A good remote is:
- Ergonomic. It feels good in the hand.
- Tactile. It should tell you how it works by touch, so you can use the remote without looking at it while you watch your game or housewives or whatever.
- Simple. No one wants to spend time futzing with their remote. It's supposed to do what it's supposed to do and then go away.
Is it ergonomic? No. It feels like a bar of soap, except it's too narrow to hold comfortably so my fingers prefer to be off of it rather than on it. It's too skinny and too narrow. I don't like holding it.
Is it tactile? No. It's got six buttons, positioned in a 2x3 directly in the center of the remote. One of the buttons (the Siri button) has a slight divot in it, and the volume up and down buttons are connected, but that doesn't really help unless you've got the arrangement memorized. If you pick up the remote in the dark, it's really a crapshoot if you're holding it the right way. It doesn't even light up or glow in the dark. That would fix everything. No, instead, it leaves which direction is up to the fates. And which direction is up is important, because one side does nothing and the other side could fuck your shit up good.
The danger zone is the touch button surface thing, that covers the top front quarter of the device. You touch it, and it brings up the on screen controls. Your finger moves across that surface, even for a second, and whatever you're watching stops, scrubbing in one direction or another. The responsiveness is almost instantaneous: there is no affordance for accidental touches whatsoever.
If you were holding it, that would be one thing. But when the remote falls down, and you pick it up, and it fucks up your movie, you want to never use it again. And it falls down a lot. And it gets stuck in crevices a lot. Have fun playing Operation with your couch.
If that wasn't enough, there's another thing about this touch urbane that bugs me. Apple has made touch surfaces out of glass since they started making touch surfaces. A bit of glass inside a matte casing means you can touch it. iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, the whole lot work this way. So, when the glass surface on this guy does nothing, and the matte surface does a whole bunch of stuff, you throw all the intuitive gesture stuff out the window. Matte surfaces don't drag well: they're matte.
Is it simple? I'd say it's about as complicated as a six button and touch surface remote could be. It doesn't adopt any conventions from iOS, and establishes new symbology that isn't really clear. If you go from the old AppleTV to the new one, you have to relearn how to use the remote, which can be really frustrating if you developed some speed with the older one, aside from the frustration everyone gets when they're forced to relearn some shit they already knew.
I can't overstate this: I should not care this much about a remote. It should just fade into the background, like any good UX, and just make way for the content I care about. Instead, I jumped for joy when the Remote app was updated to support it, and use that most of the time now.
tvOS UX and Design
I did not think I would miss the old design, but I do.
The high order bit for TV interface design has to be what I'm calling for the purposes of this review "Cognition". Cognition is measured in milliseconds, and is the amount of time it takes to figure out your current place in the UX. What's the currently selected option' where are the the places you can go, what is the direction things scroll if they scroll, etc: these are all things someone operating a remote control for that interface needs to know, and needs to know fast.
The old design kept elements at a fixed size and used highlighting to show the currently selected element. Additional elements were in a vertically scrolling list view, so you could go up or down, and left to right as elements were arranged in a grid, but no elements were off screen to the let or right except for in the Hero units at the very top, which were distinguished as primary highlighted placement. It was similar to all the store interfaces on all the other products. Lists were always vertically scrolling, so you could see more options and kept a sense of place in the list as you scrolled down. At the top was a key to where you were and where you just came from.
It was a bit heavy handed, but it wasn't like it was in Corinthian leather or anything. It was set in Black, so turning on the thing didn't light up the room. Text was white, so you could read it against black from far away. Highlight were in blue. When an image was highlighted, it was bordered in blue. It was really, really easy to see where you were at.
The new interface tries to jazz things up a bit by adding a third dimension, and shows your current selection by bringing it forward, in effect growing it about 10%. This is way too subtle, and it means you can't tell what's selected until you start moving around. Interface elements also switched orientation from vertical to horizontal scrolling, meaning you can only see three or four options before you start moving through a list and losing your first two. That means lots and lots of swiping and swiping... on a matte surface. This is not fun.
To top it off, there's a buffer, where an element shifts and spins before your selection moves to the next element. Does it look cool? Yes. Does it make it functionally more difficult to use? Yep.
Keep in mind, this is just for Apple's stuff. This is in the iTunes TV Shows app. Getting from season to season is a pain in the ass, jumping to a new show takes work, etc. not only are these the system apps that get shipped with the device, but it's also how Apple teaches developers how to design for the platform. And the interpretation by the developers in the field has been predictably chaotic.
Third Party Apps
Shipping a platform instead of a API based channel means tvOS gives up control over the way UI elements look and feel. Third party apps are free to adopt conventional UX, or not. If they improve upon the system designs, it's good. If it does its own weird thing...
My most used apps on the old and new Apple TV have been Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go. For a while, they were the only apps I had on there, and I was cool with it. All three have different UI/UX.
Netflix is the best, simply because it ships their standard UX that they've shipped on all their other products, bringing it in line with their brand. Categories scroll horizontally, switching categories moves vertically. Episodes are listed in a vertical list. It all makes sense, and works pretty well. I kind of like it better in some ways, as it lets each screen take some of the character of the show I'm watching.
Hulu is a mishmash of vertical and horizontal scrolling, with windows of different sizes, and more often than not the hero images are broken or misrendering. The fact that this is not the worst offender of the three has less to do with its own flaws and more to do with...
HBO. I devour their shows and movies. I think their back catalog is unstoppable, filled with some of the best TV ever made. I routinely dive in when I'm looking for something to watch. It pains me to say this, but the HBO interface provided here is a god damn mess.
Highlighting is indicated by a subtle white line, either to the left, or underneath, or around, or wherever depending on which menu you're in. You're supposed to navigate through multiple levels of options on the same window, moving from category to season to episode, and since you don't know or aren't clear where you are if you've just finished an episode (because continuous viewing isn't a feature in this version, you end up back at the menu when an episode is finished) moving the remote at all can send you really far away from where you're at depending on which level the app has placed your cursor. Oh, you're at s3e5 and you wanted to go to s3e6? Too bad, you're now in s6. Oh, you want to go back? S3e1. Walk there.
Want the special features? Have fun guessing that gesture. Seriously, using this app is a nightmare.
Now, Apple also ships an alternative to all of this scrolling and scrolling and guessing, in the Siri function. Say a series and a season and an episode, and boom, you're there! That is, if you've implemented universal links properly, and the direction sent to your app goes through. Sometimes, with Netflix, it does. iTunes, of course my has a 100% success rate. HBO just sends you to the Show's main page and let's you figure it out from there.
As a whole, the AppleTV feels like something designed by someone without consideration for real life use. Its affordance site for the aesthetic detract from the usability of the product. It boggles my mind that this was shipped by Apple.
Overall, it's a mixed bag. It's a pretty design, the hardware is fast, video streaming and processing is almost instantaneous, scrubbing through video when you actually want to is great. The app model itself is absolutely the way it should be done, and as the SDK improves and more tools and capabilities are at developers' disposal, the experience will get better and the variety of content will improve (I'm not saying the content or variety of content is lackluster at all, far from it: merely that as companies join the platform more diverse content and content types get added).
But the details, the little things that make using Apple devices so great, the tiny affordances they agonize over to provide an experience that's not just to be looked at but to be used, tools for a new millennium, are absent on this device. Using it feels like work at best and dangerous at most.
If you're in the market for a device like this, I'd buy the older AppleTV before this one. I'd wait a year or so for a new version of the OS, and for Apple to get their TV ducks in a row, before recommending this as a must buy.
I want to say the title is too strong, because it doesn't really give away how many positive things I think about this device, or let on to how optimistic I am about it as a platform. But, it's not: when I look at this device, I see everything it could have been, all the hopes I had for it, and come away with a palpable sense of let-down. It's a great first step down a great path, just a few steps behind where I expect them to be at this point.
The watch comes in an oblong cardboard box that surprised me, as after all I'd been hearing about Apple's efforts to reduce shipping costs by cutting down on container size, I definitely didn't expect to see a device so small come in a package that large. The device itself was in an inner box, which held the actual packaging of the watch and the charger/extra band. All in all, it was a far cry from the iPod touch, or even the iPhone, which comes in a box almost exactly as big as it would need to be to contain it and it's accessories and no bigger.
The cable is the longest cable I've ever seen Apple ship with a device. Even the MacBook cable isn't as long, and it comes in two pieces. What?
The video ends, and Tim Cook is about to get on stage and tell us about the Apple Watch, and I couldn't be more unenthusiastic. I had expected something different, to be honest. I half expected to not even see a screen on the thing - just a notification extension with a biometric ability that cost $99 bucks and would mark every iPhone owner on a single glance, unlocking your device and serving as your password for everything. Shit, I thought it was a good idea, at least.
"Welp, they actually made a watch."
My colleagues looked at me. "You mean, you didn't see this coming?"
"Yeah, but I hoped... whatever." They shrugged. Oh well.
Powering on the device is, well, I don't know how to do it besides plugging it in, so I plugged it in (which translates to plugging the power cable into the wall and sitting the watch on the charger pad, which fits into place with a satisfying click that I'm sure engineers agonized over for days, arriving upon a sound both playful and secure, in true Apple form). On it goes, and after a minute of staring at the old style 3D Apple logo from the pre-iOS 7 world ("...huh?"), I'm staring at the screen, telling me it's time to find an iPhone to get the show started.
"Are you going to get one?" I'm asked at least ten times that day. "Eh," I reply. "Maybe."
To tell you the truth, I'm not excited. I've tried to wear a watch twice: my Dad bought me a Skagen for a steal one time and I wore it until the screen cracked way too easily, getting used to its absence so that by the time it came back from repair I'd moved on. Pretty thing, though, but it would get sweaty on my wrist and it would ding into stuff. A girlfriend bought me one a few years later, Burberry, and I wore it until I forgot to put it on one morning and the habit was broken. I was not optimistic a watch would ever work its way into a daily habit, an Apple Watch notwithstanding.
The pairing process takes all of two seconds and is as simple as lining up my watch with a watch sized roundrect outline on the screen through the camera, much like you'd use the camera to deposit a check or enter a card into Apple Pay. Easy, hassle free, and it went by as if it was the most natural and effortless engagement.
It looked nice, anyway. Thick, though. I'll wait and see one in person before I make the call to buy one or not. I'm definitely not preordering one, though. I don't have $400 bucks to throw around on a maybe. Between the handful I'd get to play with at the office and the eventual trip to the Apple store to put it on for myself, I'll have enough to convince me one way or another.
We'd get to develop something for it, though. My colleague, Emily, a product manager, immediately went into the office of Mobile Products to figure out what we'd do for it. I went upstairs, back to my office in Ads, and got back to reporting the news. A watch, yes. Starts at $349. Who knows how much for the Gold one. Yeah, it's gold. Yeah, it runs apps. No, I'm not getting one yet.
Watch OS 1.0.1 had come out by the time it arrived, so updating it was the first thing I really did with the device. I think I put it on for a second before I realized that it had to be off and charging in order for the update to work, but that was it. After that it was a strange twenty minutes of watching a circle on the watch slowly fill in and a status bar on the phone start and finish and start and finish... For all the polish on the entrance, the update process was remarkably haphazard. Weirded out.
Apple buys a campaign on the homepage. Then they buy a week. It's a watch promotion. Weird - they never have to advertise new products like that, especially when they don't even have a sale price yet. Wonder what that's about.
I hit “load all available apps.” My mistake - I get a warning that "There's not enough room on your Watch for this app" followed by six more. I instantly undo and can already eliminate ten or twelve apps I don't want anywhere near my wrist. Fandango, FlightTrack, Deliveries, Instagram. Nope city.
I load Dark Sky on there, hoping for a weather app replacement, as well as Uber, Yelp, Automatic, Overcast, HipChat, and a few others. This is almost all blind: I read Marco's post about Overcast and I assumed that Uber would let you get a car with your watch, but other than that I had no clue what to expect.
I pick up the Burberry watch, black on black leather, that my ex had gotten me. The band had long gashes in it from when our dog, now her dog, had gotten to it on the nightstand and enjoyed the rich Corinthian leather in the way a dog knows best. It still fastened, so I figure I'll put it on and see if I could actually pull off wearing a watch. It's an experiment: a test balloon. I'm preparing myself for the inevitable.
Hell, I might even replace the band. Sixty bucks. I'll do that eventually.
A few weeks later, the watch slows down, indicating a soon-to-be dead battery. I wind it a few times, realizing the futility. Where do you even get a battery for this stuff? Amazon? God, I don't have to go to a Burberry store, do I? On the shelf it goes. I'll get a battery at some point.
I would not use the word "thick" to describe the Watch itself. I know they'll eventually get thinner, but it's almost exactly like when I first held the iPhone 3G. "Yeah, this feels nice."
The band is way more comfortable than I assumed it would be. I ordered what my office refers to as the "nerd watch" (space grey, Sport, black band) and while I assumed the rubber - sorry, Jony: flouroelastomer - band would get sweaty and feel cheap, it actually does neither, fitting securely and feeling more leathery than plasticky. The whole device is so light and the buckle is so smooth on the entry point that I barely give a thought to it when I'm not being tapped.
The term "digital crown" seems gimmicky. Oh, and the term 'force touch'? Nothing has ever so directly stated the lack of women working on a product than the name "Force Touch". Real molesty vibe, there, Phil.
Oh, the tap.
First, the was the ringtone. It was a signal that took some getting used to, but there would be a sound in your pocket (or, in my mothers case, her purse) that was identifiable to you, alerting you to someone's demand for your time and attention, and you didn't even think of refusing because what are you some kind of asshole or something? So you pick it up. It was the start of the personal notification, arguably the evolution of the human idea of a name.
Next, the silent notification, or the vibration, served a similar purpose in areas where noise was unacceptable, which made the pocket a sacred, hollowed ground for your pager or phone.
The transition from audio feedback to tactile feedback is an important one, but I think when the device moved itself one layer closer, directly in contact with the skin, the mode evolved further into what Apple is calling the Taptic Engine. I'm just calling it the most pleasant, unobtrusive but completely recognizable offer for attention ever devised by man. I'd rather be tapped by my watch than have my own name spoken aloud. It alerts me without being demanding or assuming, I don't feel bad about ignoring it but I never miss it, and it never insists: it politely requests.
The innovation they've done with the engine on the MacBook trackpad is great. I assume that same type of super tactile feedback will appear in iOS devices. All those applications fall short of the simple act of tap-to-notify, and you won't know how truly remarkable it is until you feel it.
The March event ends. $349 for the Watch Sport, $549 for the Watch, $10K for the Watch Edition. Cheaper than I thought, but still. I'm honestly more excited about the new MacBook, even though I'm not in the market. It represents an expansion, or even an abandonment, of the iconic four pane matrix of Apple lore - consumer and professional, portable and desktop. Now, there's a third column: enterprise. The consumer portable is the Macbook, the enterprise portable is the Air, the professional portable is the Macbook Pro Retina. Apple has grown up. Good for them.
That watch, though. Am I missing something? What's the "reason for being"? I remember Steve getting up there and taking ten minutes to explain why the iPhone needed to exist and what it would do. I remember him laying out exactly where the iPad fit in the scheme of things before even showing it to us. Now, it's just "Hey, look, we made a watch." Who wanted to make this thing, anyway? Why? What problem does it solve? And why should anyone buy it?
Tap tap. Time to stand up.
I don't get the "Stand up" nudge very often, because I have a standing desk and I usually walk around a lot, pace back and forth, and swing around a bat. But when I do, it comes at exactly the same time as the three other watch wearers around me, usually at 10 ’til. Maybe it’s because we’re in the same meeting. Maybe it’s all synced up. Who knows - I do it, and I don't even make a joke about it, or complain, or moan about how my watch tells me to stand up and I stood up like some sheep. I just kind of do it, because it seems like a good idea.
"Oh, yeah, right. I should stand up."
Preorders start, and it's in the Apple Store. All the models are there. That black on black steel one looks cool. Kind of Darth Vader-y. No way i'm spending $1100 on it, though. No fucking way.
I favorite it, along with the black on black sport. Just in case.
I never use the digital crown.
I move the watch into my cart. Then I close the app. Not yet. I'll put the thing on and decide.
Most third party apps on this thing suck.
I mean that very specifically. Go to the home screen (which is really more of the app screen, because Home really is the watch face), tap on any app, and prepare to have a weird experience. First, you’ll wait for the watch to load the app, and then you’ll wait for the app to load its content, which can be a total of ten seconds. Then, you're presented with a UI designed by someone who’s never actually held the device, with functionality you would much rather use your phone to do, so you do, and shortly thereafter delete the app off your watch.
The apps that I have left are Uber, Dark Sky, Overcast, and Fantastical. Fantastical is an exception to the rule in that it’s a marked improvement over the system calendar app on the watch, so I have both the app and the glance installed. Same is true for Dark Sky, whose glance I use instead of the Weather app. You can’t delete system apps (god damn Stocks, you taunt me again!) but you can remove their Glances and use another one instead, which in practice feels like removing them, or even setting a new default.
I tried to call a car with Uber one time and it said my payment system was invalid, so I used the phone and haven’t tried again since.
I schedule a Try-on appointment at the Apple store. It seems like the lamest thing i've ever done, cementing my place in the Apple fanboy cult. I'm making an appointment to try on a watch I can't buy yet. I don't even wear a watch. What the fuck happened to me?
I put the thing on. The first one I try is the link bracelet, to see if it's Darth Vader for me. My arm hair gets caught in it instantly. Fuck that shit. The sport band feels fine: really, really light, almost unnoticeable. It's a demo unit, so you can't do anything with it, which leads me to the displays around the store with functional units attached to an iPad with tours loaded on it. It's Foreign Device Syndrome - iOS devices are strange, somewhat useless items until they've got _your_ stuff on it, so picking up a device thats not yours is kind of pointless and feels weird, like everything thats going on is none of your business.
Seems fast, though.
Battery life is a non issue. With no exceptions, I’ve been able to make it through a full day with more than 20% of battery left. I wouldn't want to wear it when i slept, because the tap will wake me up, so charging it at night is no big deal.
Battery life on my iPhone, however, is fucking crazy town banana pants good. I don't get home with less than 60% anymore, and thats after ten or so hours of use. The amount of power Bluetooth LE (they meant it when they said low energy) uses to connect to the watch is apparently negligible compared to the amount of energy it costs to wake up and put the thing back to sleep every time you pull out the thing to read a notification. That’s secret feature #1: your iPhone now has plenty of energy to do whatever you want. It’s now a two day device, in my experience.
It goes back in my cart again, this time a steel Watch with a modern buckle. That one felt good, at least, and the mechanism was cool. $750, though. That's a lot.
I'm home, and it's late. I get in my apartment, and look down at the watch. I'm using the modular face, which I have showing my activity circles on the bottom left. My standing circle is complete, and I've walked enough to finish the "Activity" circle, but I'm 50 calories away from completing the last one, which would give me three full circles, a feat I had yet to complete. I pace around the apartment for a bit, wave my hands around hoping to trick it. No dice.
I leave the apartment and walk around the block. I round a corder and get a tap: "Nice work!". I'm pleased with myself.
Instantly, I'm laughing. I didn't have my watch on when I did my morning exercise routine (push ups, squats and leg lifts, none of which would trigger the Watch's activity measurements), so I knew that I'd crossed the Activity threshold way earlier. Plus, I just walked around the block to make my Watch happy.
At the same time as I feel kind of silly, it's also not a big deal. Im actually kind of happy i did it. Apple got everyone sucked into screens big and small, most of the time spent with those devices while we sit on our ever fatter asses. If it felt an obligation to get their customers up and moving around (you know, like humans), I'm for it.
"Come on," my coworker Jason said, toying with his Watch. "You know you're going to get one. I need someone to send touches to! It'll be so cool!"
"If I do get one," I say, "I promise the first thing I'll do is send you a drawing of a dick."
He laughs, but we both acknowledge what's going to happen with the little touch drawing thing. It's going to be cool, then we'll annoy the shit out of everyone, then no one will use it. It's Yo for dick drawings.
I say I might end up getting it, but not immediately. He thinks I'm lying to myself. Maybe I am. I can't tell.
When I said “no exceptions“ to all-day battery life, there’s really just one.
Two nights ago, I was at a late night barbecue in Alexandria that went until about one-thirty in the morning. I looked down at the thing and it was approaching ten percent, and out of curiosity and a desire to not completely drain the thing, I turned on “Power Reserve” mode. This basically means that if you tap the digital crown, the time will display in green, and thats it. I’d appreciate it if it still did the “Activate on Wrist Raise“, but for a device that you might need in order to tell time… ah, who am I kidding, you’ve already got your phone with you, who cares, I’m never going to use that feature again.
So I turn this mode on (which is basically shutting the watch off, for all intents and purposes), and I go back to my night. Then my phone buzzes in my pocket.
I pull the phone out. It’s an email from the Gap. “Whatever.” I swipe to delete it.
The first watches arrive. My boss and my coworker get theirs. Ooh. Aah. They seem half enamored, half irritated. I make another try-on appointment. Put on the watch, take it off. "Thanks. I think I'm set."
Then I realized what had happened. I realized I’d probably wear a watch like this for the rest of my life.
I remembered the way I felt about the iPhone when I first got it. I was excited, to be sure, but there was a fear that it was just a novelty or a fad, that I wouldn’t use most if any of the apps, that i’d eventually go for something simpler with better battery life, and that I’d feel hosed for spending that much money on a marketing gimmick. I used it for a week or so, and I liked it.
Then I needed directions somewhere, and I looked it up in Maps. Boom - turn by turn directions, in a manner of seconds, from where I was at that moment. That was the moment I knew I’d be using smartphones for the rest of my life, and that I no longer had to convince my friends and family to get one because they eventually would. It just became a fact of life that this thing, this magical and revolutionary device, was going to take over the world.
I loathed having to pull my phone out of my pocket. What a waste of time - constantly fishing the thing out, checking a single and easily missable alert type for something that could either be banal or of the utmost importance. Checking an alert and being notified about the things going on in my life is not less of a hassle, it’s no hassle. It’s completely natural, almost effortless. Apps aside, for notifications, it’s perfectly executed, the screen turning on whenever I want to look at it (it’s so accurate it’s almost magic) and allowing me to quickly dismiss, delete, or take action. It’s not an extension of my phone: it’s an extension of my brain.
Who’s left who’s skeptical about the computer? What about those smartphone holdouts? How about the automobile skeptics, or the flight pessimists? No, they’re dead or slowly dying out, either by literally dying, fading into obscurity, or succumbing to the eventual evolution, falling under the weight of progress and slowly but surely letting this technology do what it’s always done: change our lives for the better.
I’m not going to waste my time convincing people to get the watch. I’m not going to explain to people how it’s going to make the small moments we’ve become habituated to easier and more fluid, curbing those impetuous interruptions and bringing us back to face-to-face contact with each other, to the universal fellowship of conversation. I know that for everyone, it’s a lost cause. We’re at the precipice of a new world, and it’s only a matter of time.
It's midnight. I just got paid. I'm staring at the 38mm black on black Sport, $349, the already christened "Nerd Watch", named after the developers who ordered it almost exclusively.
"It's Apple", I think. It's new, we make apps for it, and it could end up being something. It's sort of my job, right? Besides, am I going to let people tell me if its good or not, or am I going to see for myself? Besides, if I don't like it, I'll return it. No harm, no foul.
You can't talk about this phone without talking about this screen.
More specifically, you can't talk about this phone without talking about the size of this screen. How does 4.7 inches feel for a phone as opposed to 4 inches, or as opposed to 3.5? And haven't iPhone owners been hating on screens that size for a while now? To what can the turnaround be attributed to besides a) Apple following the herd and b) Apple product owners loyally following Apple?
Let's get to the first question. To me, 4.7 inches is right at the line of "useful addition of screen real estate" and "unmanageable for regular use as a phone". I noticed as such in the newer Nexus devices, which all have similar screen sizes, as well as one of the older HTC Ones, if I remember correctly. For a person with hands the size that mine are, this phone is not too big - rather, it's big enough. Any bigger, and it would be uncomfortable.
I have used the "Reachability" feature two times, both to demonstrate the feature to others and never to actually reach something higher up on the screen without adjusting it. I doubt I ever will actually use it. I think it will go down as one of the worse hacks Apple has ever released on a device.
This all, however, kind of misses the point. The screen is not just how big it is, but what it is and how it works. To discuss its size as the only qualitative measure is to seriously miss out on what a fantastic screen this is. I mean, holy shit, this screen.
Touching this device is buttery smooth. The curved edges are lovely to hold, and touches on it feel noticeably better than on the 5S - the effect of a thinner display module is that there's no "press" feedback, only touch and move. Text and images look spectacular.
The rounded edges (and flat seams) provide another effect: the "swipe right to go back" gesture feels gorgeous. It completely obviates the need for going up to the top left for the back button and makes it a pleasure to do so (for those apps that use it, which most do).
Those two things, the technical and physical structure of the screen and the software behind it, are what makes Apple different from these other companies. The first is an example of their attention to detail, the second the power of integrated software and hardware (as well as the power of a third party app ecosystem with a high degree of quality). John Siracusa had it right a few days ago on ATP: we've seen phones this big, and we know how they sell, but we haven't seen iPhones this big, and there's a difference.
In fact, that's generally what I thought when I'd hold a Nexus device or something along those lines. The size of the device was never the objection (except for the dinner plate 5 inch plus devices, and we'll get to that later, don't worry), but the rest of it - the device either felt flimsy and weak in the case of the Galaxy devices or weighty and bulky like the Lumias. Even the well made hardware like the HTC One or the LG newer devices suffer from Android, which in looking prettier has never scaled up to the larger screen size in a meaningful way and, once the carriers and OEM's get to it, looks hideous. I see people all the time using Galaxy phones with a skin on it that looks like a child picked four random colors out of a palate and splashed them on the screen in neon madness, tied together by Comic Sans. I'm amazed people use them.
So I'd pick one of these phones up, and, if the hardware was nice, i'd say "Man, I wish these things ran iOS." Now, they do.
The question is, how does iOS scale to the larger device?
Under the Screen
I focused on the following questions when looking at this device for the first few days.
--How does pushing all those extra pixels make the device feel? Is this the kind of situation that the first retina iPad had, where the hardware just wasn't there yet and would necessitate a processor and graphics bump to accommodate it?
--How well does iOS scale to the larger size? Is there a functionality and feature increase that comes with the screen real estate? do they use it well?
First, the speed and performance issue. I do not think this is a 3rd-gen-iPad situation. This has more than enough power to run this display and feels faster than the 5S did, which is saying something because it was never slow. This is super responsive, which could be the new display, but apps open instantly and run smoothly. No complaints there.
Second, the usefulness. Some things are larger, which is good - namely, the keyboard. Typing on this keyboard is so much easier and faster than on the 5S simply because it is bigger. There's just more room to move and your touch targets are bigger. In landscape, the default keyboard actually has buttons on the right and left side, which I'm not sure I like yet but fall into the "get used to it" category, because they put the comma in the main screen and Daddy like.
An extra row of home screen icons is nice and allows my setup to spread out a little bit, as well as put more info right up front. That's a lot of extra room, when I can add more and spread out what I already have.
The larger viewfinder helps to line up pictures (the camera is amazing, but that's been covered ad nauseam, so I won't address it other than to say it's wonderful).
List views are just what you'd expect - you can see more items. For most things, that's wonderful, but here's where we hit the line between "yay more" and "wait a second where am I". The problem with android tablets is not their size per se, but the fact that all apps for android tablets don't provide an interface better than a blown up phone interface, which is a giant sprawling single column list view.
4.7 inches is right at the line where you are presented a comfortable amount of information and you're not staring at a sea of white bars and grey dividers. This phone, in a lot of ways, is really as big as I foresee it getting where it's comfortable for me to use.
Everywhere else, they pretty much punted and stretched the interface out, letting Auto Layout constraints do the work for them. Music playback has pretty much been a joke and still is. The larger screen highlights the downside of iOS 8, which was the downside of iOS 7 - a "flat" interface means you see a lot of white space unless it's used effectively. Well designed iOS apps are now about making the most out of the space you have, and although only some of Apple's preinstalled functionality apps don't meet that criteria, that still leaves a handful of "try better next time"s.
I have yet to see an iPhone 6 Plus in the wild, but when I do, I anticipate it will confirm a suspicion I have that Apple really punted on using the new real estate in a functionally beneficial way. What I suspect will change my mind is if the things like a landscape home screen and a regular size class in landscape (for laymen, the ability to do an iPad style layout in landscape orientation) turn out to be killer features, but that still leaves portrait orientation to be a sea of big, towering lists.
The Elephant in the Room
I did not order the 6 Plus. I don't like phones that size - they're awkward in my hand and in my pocket, which is where they spend most of their time, and if they don't add noticeable and tangible benefit to mobile (not portable) computing, they're a nuisance.
The distinction between mobile and portable is important, because apple makes a portable device running iOS - the iPad. I own an iPad mini retina, and I love it. I'll undoubtedly be using T-Mobile's JUMP to get the newest iPad when it comes out, and i'll love that too. I like the tablet as a form factor for portable computing. So, I have no use for a second tablet, especially when it removes my favorite part of the phone, which is its mobility. It goes in my pocket, with me, everywhere. That's a tall order, and the phone does it, but only because of it's size.
So, I won't be getting it. I understand why some people will, though. These people don't have and won't get an iPad. They want a device that does both, and 5.5 inches is comfortably between the iPad mini and the iPhone 5S, skewing on the side of the phone. So, they'll really like the iPhone 6 Plus, and I expect them to sell pretty much every one they make for the first 6 months.
I mean, the truth has always been, really, that there were many people in this group who would have wanted a big iPhone, and have been asking for a bigger iPhone, and this device is for them. Some just chose to be okay with there not being a big iPhone by hating on big Android phones, while others openly stated their wish for an iPhone that size (most people honestly fell into that second category). This is normal - it's the same thing Android fans did when they mocked iOS' design sensibility but then couldn't shut up about shit like Project Butter and how much prettier Android got over the last two years. If you don't have it, and you want it, and someone else has it, you hate it until you get it. It's called jealousy, and the owners of the Thing To Be Had love lording others' jealousy over them. The preferred position around jealousy is to be craveee, not the craver.
Is there anything inherently wrong with "phablets"? No. I just prefer to have a tablet for that purpose, and see the phablet as a compromise device that loses some of the better parts of being a mobile phone to gain half-functional benefits of being a tablet and ending up with a product that's mostly not as good as either thing it cribbed from. But, people who don't have room for a tablet in their life don't see it that way - they see the gain in real estate and the adjustment in landscape to the two pane split view as revolutions in productivity and real honest gains in functionality that they haven't been exposed to yet.
The key to recognize about this year is that Apple is giving back a choice they made for years confidently and unflinchingly - "this is what you want". We picked the exact right size, the right color, the right finish, the right everything. Now, iPhones and iPads are in the "we made two great devices, pick the one you want." I went iPhone 6/iPad mini retina, but the combinations are varied and quite vast when you factor in the 5C and 5S. It's jarring, but a bit of responsibility in making decisions about one's preferences usually is.
TL;DR: A guy on Slate wrote an article that insists on many common and frustrating themes in tech writing and journalism as a whole. In a somewhat scattered form, I attempt to address them.
I address the curse of High Expectations, which means Apple can't effectively impress anyone anymore, and are constantly competing against imaginary products that don't have to actually work.
In the end, it comes down to this: the idea that tablets can't be used for work, and that keyboards are essential for work, come down to an inability to not only accept and adjust to the future, but imagine a future that doesn't look like the present.
There is literally nowhere to begin with this article, published late yesterday evening by Slate in an effort to garner cheap pageviews and raise my blood pressure. Any criticism of it that claims to be complete will, by virtue of the sheer tonnage of weirdness in this article, be scattered and broad in turns. From sheer bone-headed assertions ("Tablets will replace computers, but only for people who can’t afford computers." - what a patronizing and ass-headed statement) to recycling the trope of bringing up a smart watch for no reason other than to grab SEO, it's an article with so much to hate.
My main, over-arching issues with it are four-fold:
1) Cognitive Dissonance
2) Expectation Curse
3) A Substandard Definition of "Work"
4) Future Shock
So, let's dive in. Here's the caption underneath the header image (we're not even in the article yet):
The new iPad Air is a slick device, but it's clearly not designed for getting work done.
Really. Clearly. What makes the iPad clearly not a device for 'getting work done'? I imagine that he'll tell us later. I pull out my bottle of antacid pills and read on.
Apple unveiled its new iPad Air on Tuesday, and as expected, it’s impressively light and sleek.
Okay, here's how this works. If something is expected, it wasn't impressive. That's not what those words mean. To be impressed is to have your expectations exceeded.
Here we arrive at a great example of issue 2, because the author assumes that the reader has the same condition he has: Apple's expectations are so high that true positive reaction to their behavior is impossible. What would be impressive? Does anything aside from giving the product away not fit under the umbrella of "they've done that before"?
The worst thing that ever happened to Apple happened immediately after the iPhone was announced in January of 2007. When they blew the collective minds of journalists and tech lovers worldwide with the iPhone, they created an expectation that they would be able to do this again, and again, and again, forever. That means, at least in spirit, every Apple product launch will be forever compared to the launch of the most successful product in history since oil. That sucks.
It doesn't have to be this way. We could go back and look at a product on its merits, rather than compare it to the best thing we could possibly imagine. That's what the author here is doing, you see: he's upset because Apple didn't release a keyboard cover for the iPad that's thin, light and doesnt add to the weight and usability of an iPad, while also providing a first-class typing experience with negligable power cost... in other words, a product that exists only in his imagination. If a product that exists has to be compared to a product that doesn't, you'd think its existence would be a major selling point. Not with Apple - they are the company that can blow your mind, remember?
When I say that Apple isn't held to the standard that other companies are, this is what I'm talking about. Every product Microsoft puts out doesn't have to be perfect at the risk of the destruction of Microsoft. Not so for Apple - they're not only competing with real companies that aren't handicapped in such a way, but also the collective imaginations of tech pundits worldwide. No wonder Apple focuses on delighting the user - delighting anyone else is apparently a futile proposition.
But it’s missing something that a lot of Apple-watchers had hoped it would have: an attachable keyboard.
If you're wondering where that citation is, where he asserts which apple watchers were doing what kind of hoping, you won't find it because it's not there. He just says that. To refresh your memory, no one that I know of that follows Apple or technology really expected a keyboard cover, much less hoped for it.
Just to clarify, as well, here's Apple's history with keyboards for the iPad: in 2010, a full keyboard dock was released alongside the original iPad. That's right, Apple made a keyboard for the iPad when they made the first iPad: they even gave it time on stage during the iPad introduction announcement. Apparently, it didn't sell particularly well (because no one wanted it) and so they neglected to update it for the thinner iPad 2 the next year. However, since the first iPad (I believe), Apple has allowed third party keyboards to pair with the iPad over Bluetooth (including Apple's own Wireless Keyboard, which it still offers as an accessory to the iPad at purchase time). I work with two people who regularly use their iPad in a keyboard dock or keyboard cover of some kind - I have never seen them use the iPad out of their contraption, but I've also never seen them bring their laptop to a meeting in lieu of their iPad.
What this author is talking about, then, is something more than a keyboard to go with the iPad, or a keyboard accessory. They want this:
The Surface debuted with a "Touch Cover" (as well as a "Type Cover", in typical Microsoft fashion: don't look at us, we don't know what you should buy!) last year. It was good, but not very good - either there was no travel on the keys, which is disorienting when the keyboard isn't on the screen for instant feedback, or the keys just weren't very good. Microsoft improved both covers in the newest incarnation of the Surface, but there are still issues with usability (see Engadget's and The Verge's reviews for more on that).
Also, the keyboards just lay flat, and don't do anything to prop up the device: the tablet itself needs its own support mechanism, in the Surface's case a kickstand. (If you think Apple will ever put a kickstand on the iPad, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.)
It's important to note also that the Touch and Type Covers were the main marketed feature of the tablets when they released (with those ridiculous commercials with the tabletop dancing that made me cringe every time), and the Surface's sales were pretty crappy, suggesting that maybe a keyboard attachment is not a good selling point for a tablet.
So, with that background, Apple absolutely has to make one, right? It's inevitible! An unsuccessful product sort of shabbily did it - Apple's stupid if not to immediately follow their strategy! (in which case the narrative would shift to "Apple taking and copying their strategy from Microsoft? How awful!" No? Really?)
The Surface failed (and literally no other Android tablet is launching with a hardware keyboard, or at least anywhere as near a high profile addition as the Surface) because it is trying to run in two directions at once - move into the future with a tablet, and continue in the current trajectory with a laptop. The experience is disjointed at best, confusing at worst. Apple is not following this strategy - I know this because they say so at literally every press event they have. This most recent one sounded like this:
Our competition is different: They’re confused. They chased after netbooks. Now they’re trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs. Who knows what they’ll do next? I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you that we’re focused.
You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those aren’t going to be pleasing to the user. We are not going to that party, but others might from a defensive point of view.
This is the sort of this those "apple-watchers" would know, and would prevent them from predicting that Apple would make a keyboard cover.
Let's go back to the article.
Instead Apple simply rolled out a new batch of smart covers, which is something of a misnomer: The only thing smart about smart covers is that they put your computer to sleep when you close them and wake it up when you open them. There’s no keyboard, no touchpad, no accessory port.
First, that seems pretty smart to me. Second, who said the requrements for something to be smart were that it have a keyboard?
Sure, you can add a separate wireless keyboard to your tablet, or buy a third-party keyboard case. But these tend to be ugly and bulky to carry around, which rather defeats the purpose of getting an iPad Air.
The fact that this sentence exists in this article is unfathomable to me. It completely invalidates his other points, adresses the reason why many people choose to forego keyboards entirely, and asserts that adding one would defeat the purpose of getting an iPad (because it would ruin its ever so predictable thinness and lightness)! This is Issue 1: he says things that completely contradict each other, and asserts them both to be incontravertably true. Keyboard covers cannot be essential AND crappy additions to the iPad. The purpose of getting an iPad is thinness and lightness AND it needs a keyboard addition to be relevant.
Without a real keyboard, a tablet can’t plausibly claim to replace anyone’s laptop for work purposes. So why didn’t Apple build one?
He goes on to say that Apple is counting on people not to do work, and that might be a winning strategy for right now, but will eventually be subsumed by tablets with keyboards because words, but we can just stop right there and arrive at Issue #3.
Apple's reasoning for not doing things like a keyboard cover for a tablet is not just negative (as on "we don't want to do that."). They also are quite happy with their current strategy. Before they announced the new iPads at the event yesterday, they showed a video that was worth watching the rest of the keynote (about an hour in: i'll post a direct link when they release it). In it, they flash cut between people making use of iPads - some of them are really cool, some you've no doubt already heard of - surgery assistant, flight navigation and assistance, teaching tool.
Looking back on it, exactly zero of them were plugged into a keyboard, and I'd also venture to say that zero of them could have been plugged into a keyboard - they just werent in a position to make an external keyboard useful. Do you think that's because they left it at home? Maybe it's because the iPad is doing just fine as a productivity tool without it?
When commentators in this field talk about tablets, they seem to draw a line between productivity and work. yeah, you can do stuff with an iPad or an Android tablet (okay, just an iPad, let's be honest), but you can't do "work". Grownups use laptops - tablets are just for having fun and fucking around on Facebook.
Here's my question - at what point does activity geared toward one's job become "working"? I tried to think about this in the vein that I've seen people at my office use iPads and tablets for office productivity. They're used often for email, so that can't be the line. Neither is taking notes during a meeting, obviously, because people do that all the time. Neither can making resentations or running them.
I don't have an iPad anymore, but when I did I knew what it wasn't effective at doing and what it was good at. It's not a particularly good development machine for the web - iPad's text editors are geared toward publishing with formats like Markdown and less towards programming (even that is changing as iPad text editors improve), and the iPad's built-in keyboard make supporting symbols and punctuation slower than on a full sized keyboard, where parens and brackets are first class citizens (for languages like Python, which are relatively sparse in punctuation, check out Editorial for what's being done with that on the iPad: arguably, the iPad is one of the best Python dev tools out there.)
But that's only my idea of "work". If I can't write code, compile apps or connect to a terminal to run commands, I can't work. Honestly, that makes an iPad about as useless as a Windows PC, and I would have to do comparable levels of setup for both to make them work in the way I'd need them to (Exhibit A: Cygwin).
Some may also use tablets in mobile work environments, like a doctor’s office or an Apple store, but rarely if ever for Word processing, or while sitting at a desk.
The iPad video presented at the keynote showed people being productive, and undisputedly so. Were they not working? Or were they doing what they define as work? It looked like the iPad fit in quite well at their definition of work.
Also, since I'm assuming by "Word processing" the author means Microsoft Word, it's important to note that Office for iPhone has only been out for a few months, and Office for iPad doesn't exist yet - that might be why it's hard to use Word on an iPad. If he had said "word processing", than that would have been a fallacy, because word processing is a common and trivial task for iPads.
And another thing: A tablet is only useful if you're using it for work at a desk? Isn't that a bit of a rigid requrement? If you work at a desk, isn't that a great place to put a device that benefits from being stationary for long periods of time, like a laptop or desktop?
Here's what it sounds like to me: "work" is all the stuff that's not fun and sucks to do. As soon as it becomes fun, its not "work": it's "creativity" or "productivity". That's why the iWork apps fail at doing work - they make it fun, and therefore not work. Apple should definitely take direction from Microsoft, who has been making things not fun professionally for years! They're practically the experts at sad and banal! They're... what's the opposite of a fun thing that makes your life better?
An airport. They're like the airport boarding process of application design.
(The most unbelievable part of this article is that it's author wrote this in response to the Surface 2 announcement - it's basically what I'm writing now, criticizing Microsoft for misunderstanding tablets and for making productivity "no fun". I tried to think how the same person could write both articles, but I got a headache.)
Just like the "million lines of code" article from earlier, whether the iPad is a good device for work really depends on the work that's being done. The iPad is a great productivity tool - it presents information in a way that is easy to absorb and manipulate, and it has the power to do computationally intensive tasks that involve more than direct input from a user (it can factor in location, orientation, speed, etc). The potential for this device is astonishing.
Unless you primarily type all day, in which case it took some getting used to, and probably still isn't as fast as working on a hard keyboard. I suspect that this is why journalists are hesitant to mark the iPad as a machine for productivity - they can't use it, or at least they don't yet. That's on them, though - that's their use case, and they don't speak for everyone. BUT THAT'S WHY APPLE MAKES MACBOOKS.
Issue #4 is pervasive throughout not only this article, but tech journalism as a whole. It goes something like this:
Apple needs to reinvent this category and really change the world: wait, why doesn't it look or work like I'm used to! Where's the thing I use? This sucks!
I call this Future Shock: it's the inability to process a transition from past to present without some arbitrary hook into the past to establish comfort. When the author says a tablet can't replace a laptop without a keyboard, he's effectively saying "anything that means to replace my laptop has to have a keyboard", which isn't true. This is what he was talking about in the first photo caption. It has no keyboard, so clearly it can't be used for getting work done. It made perfect sense to him.
A laptop replacement doesnt need a keyboard; if it doesnt have one, it just needs to replace the need for a keyboard, which in many cases the iPad has done. That leaves us to be open to new ideas about how to create - an uncomfortable proposition for some.
Microsoft is the company for people with Future Shock. Their products are designed to massage people slowly into the future, by constantly hedging their bets and insisting that if they don't give their customers exactly what they have had all these years, they'll be abandoned. Whether or not that's the case, they are pushing that strategy forward with Windows 8.1 and the Surface tablets, talking about productivity being exclusively the domain of Excel spreadsheets and reports.
You know people with Future Shock. You're probably related to them, and if you're reading this, odds are they're your parents. The transition to iPhones was hampered with cries in mourning for their Blackberry keyboard and worry that they just couldn't use the iPhone, which was the same kind of fear they had for cell phones, and laptops, and computers, and new interface changes on Facebook. The same thing always happens - Fear in the form of an Allergic reaction, then familiarity brought from use and repitition, then Acceptance and Learned Behavior. The same people who can't type without a hardware keyboard are the same people who couldn't type without a typewriter, who were the same people that couldn't type.
Don't wait for these people to come up with the future, with the new groundbreaking innovations that spur the world forward. By extention, don't wait for them to move there yourself - they'll come along eventually, or be left behind, but just because they refuse to move does not mean the future fails to arrive, on time and on schedule. This blog is about greatness, and it is a fact that people with Future Shock and people who cater to them do not make great things.
I still really don't know what to think about Random Access Memories.
I'm not saying that in a way that's supposed to imply a negative feeling toward it. I just have these conflicted emotions whenever I think of it or listen to it or hear "Get Lucky" on the radio. I have assuredly never felt this way about a piece of music, and It's taken me a while to get up the courage to try and write about it, and even now, still, I don't really know what to say, or what the choices even are.
Let's take that last example. I'm sitting in a car and Daft Punk, yes, that Daft Punk, comes on the radio. Terrestrial radio - in fact, the contemporary pop station in DC. It's still kind of mind boggling to say that.
I mean, it's about time that the pro's got some mainstream coverage: musicians of every pop genre (and yes, there are pop genres: Pitbull and Taylor Swift are both pop music) have been cribbing off of electronic music, EDM, and more recently Daft Punk themselves, nonstop for the last year or so. Every week, some new song by some brat comes out and it's got so many of the quintessential ingredients of house music in it - establishment of rhythm, gradual build, drop, re-establish rhythm. It's not traditional pop music: the Chorus would traditionally go where the drop is. The song is about the drop, the ecstatic release, pounding bass, and hey look, someone's shouting/singing about some party. And they're all about some party, or some club, and they're all talking about the music that's playing in the club, and I think I know what's playing without them having to say it - the music from the producer that they paid to make their beats.
Lady Gaga's secret ingredient? Zedd. Look him up.
The popification of house music has also led to its, for lack of a better word, caramelization. It's distinctive edges melted away due to intense pressure and exposure, leaving only a sticky, saccharine sweetness, uniform and easy to package.
This had to make Daft Punk crazy. There is not one, and I mean not one contemporary pop producer who doesn't regard Daft Punk as a primary influence, or at least wouldn't say so. And the robots are supposed to sit and watch their decendents, the people they trusted to carry forward their legacy (and make no mistake, that's the way they think of this genre) reduce it to a sugary paste, ready for mass consumption? Kiss their robot asses.
If you were reading the tape around the release of this album, that's what they were saying about the state of music today.
"Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone, and it's not moving one inch," Bangalter says. "That's not what artists are supposed to do."
"Today, electronic music is like an audio energy drink," Bangalter says. "Artists are overcompensating with this aggressive, energetic, hyperstimulating music – it's like someone shaking you. But it can't move people on an emotional level. It's a way to feel alive, but . . ."
"It's not deep, it's surface," de Homem-Christo offers.
"Maybe it's the difference between love and sex, or eroticism and pornography," Bangalter says.
And that's all from one interview!
The appropriate way to hear Random Access Memories, then, is as a criticism of the current state of electronic music, not in the form of an essay, but a contribution meant to shake the genre into reason. This is either what they think things should be, or it's an extreme example of what they think we need to strive toward - a lighthouse far in the distance we can and should never hit, but so we can guide our ships toward it, changing course. After listening to the album, I can see where they were going with that.
I have two problems with this.
First, they did not go forward. They decidedly went backward. It was as if their thinking was that the way to show us where we'd gone is to embarrass us by showing us where we came from, as if we'd shudder to look at our purer, more artistically potent ancestry. Remember, that's what they think of us. Everything's going downhill, saccharine, monotony.
Except now we get an idea of where they started form, of what they consider our musical heritage - and it's disco.
Disco. It kind of makes sense, and I'll admit, I have a new appreciation for the Bee Gees now, one that my father, who was actually around when they were popular, expressed his displeasure with on our most recent visit. But take a listen to the two together, and the similarity is unmistakeable. One fair interpretation of Random Access Memories is that it's a disco album.
Granted, there are other ways to look at it. Disco had it's hand in a few cookie jars, most notably funk and Disco's european interpretation (I'm looking at you, Giorgio). And the line can be clearly drawn from disco to funk to R&B to house, or some combination thereof. But there's an undeniable disco current under the album.
Their two hallmark collaborators are Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder, for Christ's sake. These are not the guys who are designing music's new direction, they're meant to remind us of something we forgot.
But did we forget it, or put it aside intentionally? Seeing Disco's influence on the album is kind of like Martin Scorsese admitting that his inspiration for The Departed was listening to, I don't know, a music video for Britney Spears, like the one where they're in space. The reaction is "...really? That?" It almost makes you appreciate where they went less, if you can't detatch yourself from your past impressions of it to develop a new idea.
A new way forward would have been really great for the industry. I mean, I can kind of see where they were going with what they were saying, but what I think we were waiting for with baited breath when all those sneak peaks were coming out was a place for us to strive toward musically. Instead, they wanted to remind us of where they think we came from.
Basically, that lighthouse is not in the distance, it's backlighting us.
My other problem with this album, and the idea behind it, is much bigger, and it's my biggest hangup overall. It's that I am having a hard time being convinced that electronic music needs what they're trying to offer, or that what they seem so convinced is happening to the industry is actually happening at all, at least to the extent they think it is.
All of the criticisms I gave of contemporary electronic music are valid, except they are really criticisms of contemporary electro-pop music (and it's subgenres of electro-rap-pop and electro-rock-pop, three terms I wish I never knew were words). If that was all there was, (and reading their interviews and hearing the names they mentioned, it's easy to take away that that's all Daft Punk thinks there is), I (and they) would be right.
Except that's so far from the case. To say electronic music (or even just EDM) has become complacent and saccharine ignores so much of what's going on today.
The same week that Random Access Memories came out, an album by a duo called Disclosure, called Settle, hit iTunes. It's a set of simple ingredients, massaged and finessed into a wonderful package that is both relaxing and invigorating, filled with an unmistakeable current of energy, but not in any way devoid of emotion or banal. It's fantastic, and I encourage anyone and everyone to check it out.
Those two albums coming out in such close proximity to each other made me think. When Daft Punk were out slashing and burning the industry, I began to wonder if Disclosure was even on their radar. Or Zedd, with the Clarity album (which I loved). Or Siriusmo. Devoid of emotion? How about Above and Beyond, or Kaskade? New, fresh, exciting? How about anything Diplo has done in the last five years? (I'm not even going to bother linking up that last one, because there's just too much, but you'd be smart to check out Major Lazer and his Mad Decent or Jeffrees imprints for new music.)
I guess I'd kind of assumed, or taken for granted, that Daft Punk had their fingers on the pulse of what was actually going on in the genre, but based on what they said about it, (and this is painful to write) I doubt they really have the contemporary musical background to leverage any real criticism. The statements they make lack credibility.
It's like a chef saying there's no good french food in New York City, so he opens an Italian place because "that's where it all came from, don't you know", and right next door, a fantastic French place opens up that blows your fucking mind. Did they even look around before saying that stuff? Did they do any more research?
While I was writing this, I checked iTunes for the Siriusmo link for "Last Dear" and saw he's actually got a new album out, and I clicked BUY, like a person with even half a brain should upon being given the opportunity. I'm listening to it right now. It's fresh, innovative in both composition and tonal range, and it fucking rocks. Great French cuisine.
I've listened to Random Access Memories at least twenty times all the way through since it came out. There's a lot of good things to be said about it. It's a production masterpiece, every layer and ingredient meticulously crafted. One way to make Daft Punk's message more relevant is to reduce it's intended audience to just producers, and their message to a cry to make the act of production more organic, to look into the analog world and see what's left to be discovered or at least appreciated. There's a level of truth to that: the thing their collaborators have in common is that they all primarily have a background in music production - there's a reason they got Nile Rodgers and not Bootsy, Pharrell and Todd Edwards and not, well, someone else. It's a producer's wet dream - listen to them gush about it in the Collaborators YouTube interviews. The pant-creamy nature of all of them is almost explicit. For producers, maybe it's a valid point, but to the rest of us, it's a misguided attempt to give us a talking-to for a crime we didn't commit.
It also needs to be said that Daft Punk excel at one thing above all, and its not something they could change if they tried - their outstanding characteristic is that they are inspiring. I bet we could look at music history and see a profound impact on the direction of electronic music after each of their albums, all of which go in different directions, and this one will not be an exception. What warmed my heart in the weeks before the album, after "Get Lucky" hit iTunes in its wave of disco glory, were the remixes that showed up on Soundcloud from amateur DJ's and producers, first a trickle, and then coming with a flood. It could have been an attempt to catch some public recognition, and yes, there was some opportunism, but some of them were just so good. It made me excited to see what the pro's could do with them, when they actually turn pure ingredients into modern electronic music.
I'm almost done reviewing my "Apple's 2013: iOS 7" post, so that's coming soon. In the meantime, a few words about what just happened in Congress regarding the gun control bill.
I made the mistake late last night of posting a thought I had regarding President Obama's ineptitude on Facebook. First of all, I posted it late last night, which is usually the first warning sign that I probably shouldn't say anything - good things rarely come of ideas between 11pm and 6am.
That post read thusly: Obama can't pass a gun control bill with a 90% public approval rating after a school shooting. That's now a political fact.
Needless to say (because anyone who's voiced anything remotely close to a political opinion on Zuck's Big Blue Argument Hole knows what happens next) the more right-leaning of my Friends (uppercase, for the title designation and not the emotion) responded with typical skepticism and criticism.
Jordan (of Philosophy Baker, who's rocking a real nice Squarespace template, if I might say so myself) said the statement I made was not political fact as much as it was spin, because similar statements could be made blaming the fall of the bill on Congress. Others expressed skepticism of the 90% figure (to which I direct them here.), and others said this was just like President Obama's healthcare bill, in that Congress hasn't cared the way citizens feel about its actions for a while.
None of these were really what the post was about, and in retrospect there's a lot more to say on the subject, so I'll clarify.
Obama's speech after the bill failed was an account of how the gun lobby and their purchased senators intimidated cowardly moderates and liberals to voting against the bill, making it fail. He said that the fact that Congress couldn't do what was obviously the will of the people was "embarrassing".
That's not why I'm embarrassed.
First of all, the gun lobby's going to do what the gun lobby is going to do - lobby for increased rights to own and purchase guns without restriction, and fight attempts to do otherwise. Expecting otherwise is the bad idea, and if this sort of thing isn't accounted for in the beginning of a political strategy, that's not their fault.
It's also not reasonable to expect Congressmen who've received donations from political lobbying organizations to vote against their contributors, or to expect cowards to be anything other than cowardly. A reasonable political tactician will factor this stuff in before they begin their strategy.
The only people left to blame are the ones making the strategy - the Democratic political organization, led by the President. So, did they forget about the NRA's primary purpose, the Republican's steadfast opposition, the gun caucus, or the cowards? Were they asleep, or in a light fugue state? I don't think so - their biggest problem is more simple than that.
It's that they're smug.
Smugness, when asked to accomplish What They Want To Happen, takes into account all of the opposing teams, and assumes that What They Want To Happen will happen because it's obviously the right thing to do. Smugness assumes posession of the right idea, and believes that if not granted their wishes, in time they will be vindicated by the gradual procession of time towards what they know to be the future.
If that sounds like Conviction, it's close, but there's a crucial difference. Conviction necessitates Action - someone with conviction works hard to accomplish their goal, because they know it's the right thing to do and because they know how important it is to get done, and the consequences of not doing it. The risk of failure, for themselves and others, propels someone with conviction to action.
Smugness requires no action - it's the idea that what they believe is so right and so pure and so just that to not do it isn't even imaginable. Who would do such a thing? Such a thing would be 'stupid'.
Republicans have conviction. Republicans have beliefs, some of which I agree with, and most of them I don't, but they have conviction in those beliefs. They are convinced that the things the believe in are of paramount importance, and to risk their defeat would be devastating.
Democrats are smug. Democrats have beliefs, too, most of which I agree with and some of them I don't, but they haven't seen the need to work particularly hard or be effective enough to accomplish them. The healthcare bill that Republicans and other right-leaning people oppose so deeply is more like their alternative than what Democrats actually believe should be the case, because Democrats (with the White House and a large Congressional majority) couldn't hold steady against opposition. When they were defeated, they retreated not to conviction, but to smugness - they know they're right, just you wait and see!
It must be frustrating to support a party that doesnt feel the need to enact their political positions into law.
When it comes to guns, though, where there are lives at stake, where communities are under martial law, where ther is no clearer distinction between business interests and the will and desires of a nation, where a vocal minority forces a majority to live in a state of fear because of a refusal to live in a state of safety, and when the reality of the dangers of reckless gun policy and unregulated gun ownership are as fresh as a few months old in the minds of America, people expected that the powers that be get something substantive done. Instead, they got President Obama and the Democrats, and what they've just bungled is the equivalent of not being able to pass increased airport security after 9/11.
The thesaurus entry for "smug" lists its synonyms as "self satisfied" and "complacent". Are there any better descriptions for why the Democrats failed to pass a bill like this? Theye were so sure of themselves that they didn't put in the work necessary to do what needed to be done, and as they stand up now and try to tell their party faithful that this is only round one, that there's more to this fight, and that they'll push hard for what they believe in, I'm embarrassed for them. You don't get another round after a knockout.