Open Letters I wish Taylor Swift would write to Apple

After the rousing success of Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple last week, it made me think of several other open letters I wish she’d write to Apple:

  • Dear Apple, Please Let Us Uninstall Weather, Watch, and most of your other default apps;
  • Dear Apple, Can We Please Have OS-level integrations With Third-Party Apps Like Chrome and Google Maps?
  • Dear Apple, Did You Really Need to Go And Complicate the Confederate Flag Situation?
  • Dear Apple, Remember Ping? This Letter Isn’t Really Designed To Change Anything :)

Apple’s software problems are worse than flat vs. glossy

Screenshot of i0S icons

Leading up to the expected release of iOS7, there’s been much speculation online about whether or not Apple will adopt a more “flat” design aesthetic for its aging mobile operating system. The company’s skeumorphic, or natural, designs have come under fire from fans and foes alike, who charge it’s overkill now that users are aware of how to use touch interfaces and competitors are rolling out fresher designs.

Screenshot of i0S iconsIt will be interesting to see how iOS7 addresses these challenges (if it does), but I think Apple has a bigger problem on its hands: The company’s mobile software apps themselves are stagnant– not only in design, but more importantly, in functionality and interoperability.

Take a look at the image: It’s a screenshot of my iPhone’s final screen, which contains only two folders: The “Newstand” folder which sits perpetually empty, but Apple won’t let me delete, and then an entire folder titled “Unused”.

Why would I need a folder labeled “Unused”, if I can simply delete apps I no longer want or need? It’s because I can’t delete them – all of the apps (eight total) in my “Unused” folder are there because they’re stock apps provided by Apple as part of i0S6. Forget the fact that it’s spammy to force me to keep apps I don’t want – the real problem is why those apps sit unused in the first place. Quite simply, it’s because they’re outdone by better, faster, and/or more integrated apps provided by third-parties- many of them Apple’s competitors.

  • If I want the weather, I use Yahoo or Weather.com’s fantastic apps, which are both much better in terms of the data they provide and the design they wrap it in.
  • My default iOS calendar is replaced by Sunrise, a largely unknown startup that has nevertheless succeeded in producing a much more useful and integrated calendar than Apple has been able to in the six years since iOS debuted.
  • For Maps, I use Google’s outstanding Google Maps app, which is (subjectively) nicer, but more importantly, significantly more accurate and data-rich.
  • Finally, there’s the browser- arguably the second or third-most-important app on a smartphone after the Twitter or texting apps. Here, Apple’s stock Safari browser app is beaten by Google Chrome, which despite being slower than Safari, still gets the call for me based on having full integration with my bookmarks and browser history on my desktop version of Chrome. Typing URLs is one of the biggest pains on a phone, and Chrome makes that problem virtually non-existent by syncing my history across devices.
  • The list goes on: That list doesn’t even address Compass, Notepad, and Voice Memos, which I’ve used two or three times ever. While Passbook may become interesting in the future, right now it’s a an app that serves no purpose due to its limited options. It’s sad that I can’t just remove it until it becomes interesting to me.

So what can Apple do to ensure that its mobile OS stays the world’s most popular – or at least most-loved?

  • Allow non-standard apps to be set as defaults. This is the #1 must-have feature of any next version of iOS.
  • Allow non-standard apps to be deleted, or at least hidden in some meaningful way. This move would give Apple more insight into how users feel about their native apps; it also provides a clear interface
  • Improve and modernize not just the UI of their OS, but the functionality of the apps as well.

These long-overdue changes don’t signal the “Android-ification” of Apple’s mobile OS- rather, they show that the company slowly losing its lead to Samsung, Google, and whoever’s next should make some obvious enhancements that will make users far happier than any aesthetic trend.

Mike Daisey and this American denial

Image from Public Theater website

Two things are really bothering me about today’s news that monolougist Mike Daisey fabricated portions of his hit performance piece “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Let me get something out of the way out front: I’ve known Mike since about 1996. He was an advisor/supporter of my high school’s speech & debate team, of which I was a member. I got to know him and I considered him a mentor. Critics can easily point to that fact as an invalidation of what I have to say – go ahead; I don’t really care. In fact, this whole thing is about critics and how they use the weapons of rhetorical misdirection to further their cause (or in this case, obscure the cause of the other).

The first thing that bothers me is the terrible news that by making up portions of his theatrical piece — and then letting, and helping, that theatrical piece spread to the media, where he reported it and let it be reported as individual facts — Mike has undermined the essential, and incredibly relevant, truth of the situation. No, not the truth that Apple is evil, or the people of China are being subjicaded by an industrial complex that places profit value over human rights.

I’m talking about the truth that as our craving for an ever-increasing schedule of cheap gadgets increases, we go into deeper and deeper denial about exactly how those gadgets arrive here so quickly and so cheaply.

Why are we in so much denial about our insatiable desire for the next? Why does our pride flow so freely at the release cycle of electronics, but ebb so violently at the simple truth about the conditions under which those electronics are produced? That, folks, is the world’s finest example of shame. It’s shame on a grand, hypocritical, American scale. The irony is that it would be even more American to own up to the reality and, for lack of a better word, embrace it. No, it’s the absolutely insane cycle of cover-ups, denials, misdirections, and attacks that really has me baffled.

Predictably, widely-respected Apple blogger John Gruber is the one of the loudest of all Daisey’s critics today. Mr. Gruber remained comparatively silent on the topic of Apple’s supply chain even as it blew up into a two-month-long major national news story and ensuing conversation about an essential element of the company that is his sole beat. As he notes himself, he wrote only one piece – all of one paragraph – about Daisey’s appearance on This American Life; I can find only two other mentions on his site of the conversation around Apple’s manufacturing processes since the story broke in January. In one, Mr. Gruber calls the story “Apple’s biggest challenge.” Note the choice of words: This isn’t an issue for us to face as a nation of consumers; this is a “challenge” for Apple to overcome.

With that perspective, it’s no wonder Mr. Gruber came out swinging today. Since the news broke this afternoon that NPR’s This American Life program is retracting its “Agony and the Ecstacy” themed episdode, Mr. Gruber has now run five six items (to date — it’s only 8:15pm EST as I write this) condemning Daisey.

In one item, Mr. Gruber declares that the only reason he’d been quiet on this issue (prior to today, obviously) is because he credits his “spidey sense” for alerting him to the fact that Daisey lied. Mr. Gruber didn’t share this insight at any point as the story exploded; he was so busy keeping his mouth shut, he couldn’t even be bothered to publicize his suspicions about the #1 critic of the company he works so admirably to defend and promote. That’s not shame; that’s shameless.

The other thing that bothers me about this news isn’t about the universal implications of a society that can’t be honest with itself. It’s about Mike. What a shame for a thinker and performer so incredibly gifted with the ability to see into us and come up with some simple truths, present them in a compelling way, and move onto something entirely different just as we wanted more.

I truly hope Mike can, unlike so many other people who fail notably and publicly, actually learn from this experience to create a message that is tighter and more trustworthy. Every artist makes a pact with his audience; Mike’s pact is that he helps us question and understand the hard truth about ourselves. If he wants to regain our trust as an entertainer, he should keep up his end of that bargain.

In the meantime, our appetite for gadgets spins madly on. Apple’s latest iPad became available last night at midnight, with the corresponding (and by accounts deserving) adulations following dutifully.

Along with that product launch comes the news that Apple’s stock price is over $600 per share. As a proud capitalist through and through, I couldn’t be happier for them, for our economy, and for the positive outlook made possible by their success. But at least I’m damn fine with the truth about why, and how, they earned it.

Critics like Mr. Gruber — and there are many others — are celebrating today’s news not because it proves Apple is right and Mike Daisey is wrong. Rather, they’re insanely relieved that the painful, potentially embarrassing journey to the truth — not about Apple, but about ourselves — might actually, finally, be cut short. Once we do stop, it will be much harder to get back on that path.

Mike, you almost brought us there. I’m just sorry it will be your fault if we don’t quite make it.

A mobius strip debate: PC vs. Apple, by the specs

Over the weekend, I picked up our new custom-built home PC system from my brother’s house. That, along with Apple’s new TV spots, got me thinking about the endless debate of PC/MSFT vs Apple. While I feel it’s one of those mobius strips of personal belief- like abortion or Red Sox vs. Yankees, its a debate neither side can hope to “win”- I still think that popping up every once in a while to make a point is good exercise.

As I said, what’s set me off this time are two factors. I’ll get to the cost/quality factor later on, but first I want to talk briefly about Apple’s new TV spots running all over prime time and cable. The commercials are typical Apple- smug, sarcastic, and delusional. They’re a far cry from the “Switch” campaign, which should a demographically-diverse range of “real” people, talking naturally about how switching to Apple did meaningful things for them- such as make their lives a tiny bit easier.

Today, Apple has traded that image- one of inclusion and friendliness- for that of a 20-something hipster with an all-powerful attitude towards a laughably stereotypical nerd that is supposed to represent a personified PC (and PC user).

The sad part here is Apple’s shocking hubris. As recent as five years ago, they were taking a friendly tact towards earning customers. Now that they’ve had admittedly gigantic success with a music player (it’s a single product line, mind you), they’ve gone into full-on jerk mode, effectively saying that the only people they need are the affluent young urban and suburbanites who sing the praises of the iPod and by proxy related products. This is a classic example of a company putting on huge blinders and believing that the magic dust they’ve been splashed with is anything but the latest in a long line of popularity-driven trends, which, as many other companies know, can be as quick to leave a product as they are to arrive.

I could be wrong, but I see Apple painting themselves into a giant corner here. They’re betting their entire future on a small subset of the population whose tastes are so notoriously fickle that they can destroy a product in weeks without a single afterthought?

So that’s hubris and blindness, now what about the actual product specs? Those happen to be exactly what irks me most about Macs. See, if they were more extensible, more powerful, and more accessible products, I could easily forgive some of their arrogance and defend their longer-term prospects. However, if you take a real look at technical specs, you find that Apple loses to any number of intelligently-built PC systems on all counts: performance, selection, customizability, and of course, price.

Recently, our home desktop system died and we began looking for a new system. My first stop was to check out Apple’s site since my search began just days after they announced support for Windows XP on their machines. I figured I’d give them a chance, hardware-wise, and see how they compared to my history of building my own custom PC systems.

I found just one system that was not outrageously overpriced, and since I’m not into the habit of paying through the nose for something just because it happens to be hip this year, I narrowed it down to a single potential Mac system: the 1.66GHZ MacMini model, retailing on the Apple site for $799.

Curious to compare Apple’s “Power has never been this economical” system with a custom-built PC for around the same price, I turned to my brother, a systems administrator, long-time custom PC expert, and VP of a networking consulting firm to see what he could deliver me for $800, or the same price as the MacMini.

Before I tell you which system I chose, I’ll let this handy comparison chart fill you in on the details of the Apple MacMini vs. the custom-built system my brother designed for me:

  Apple logo
Apple MacMini 1.66GHZ
Antec Super Lanboy PC case
My own self-built PC system
Winner
Processor 1.66GHZ Intel dual-core AMD Athlon 64-bit 2.1GHZ PC! – 50% faster, 64-bit power
Memory 512MB DDR at 667mhz 1GB Ultra DDR RAM at 400mhz PC! – Double the RAM!
Hard drive 80GB Serial ATA 7400RPM 74GB at 10,000RPM PC! – You can’t beat 10k!
Optical drive Dual-layer DVDR/RW/CD/R/RW at 8x speed Plextor dual-layer DVDR/RW CD/R/RW at 16x speed PC! – Twice as fast, plus the reliability of Plextor
Video card Intel GMA950 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory nVidia GeForce 6200 256MB HDTV/DVI/PCI video PC! – 4 times the RAM
Case Apple MacMini case Antec Lanboy aluminum case; dual fans (one oversize), hidden-door front Your call – But I’ll take my case. It’s expandable, for one.
Ports 4 USB, FireWire, 10/100 GB Ethernet 9 USB, 9-in-1 card reader, 3 FireWire, 10/100 GB PC! – double the USB, triple the FireWire, same ethernet
TOTAL PRICE $799 $680 PC! – It’s $119 less!!


Additional notes:
These specs don’t even consider that my system also includes three additional hard drives– a 100GB, 80GB, and 40GB- that I was easily able to swap out from my old PC and place into my new PC. I also took my ATI TV Wonder VE TV tuner and easily popped it into my new case. Likewise, if I want to upgrade to 2GB of RAM in the future, it will literally be a snap.

Of course, swaps, transfers, and upgrades likes these are the dirty little secrets of Apple’s vaunted hardware. Besides the impossibility of adding anything to the MacMini, you’d also have to contend with the sheer lack of selection of hardware and get hit again with exorbitant prices anytime you tried to upgrade existing parts. Combine that with Apple’s frustrating and long-standing habit of releasing new products while your current system still feels fresh, and they get you again. And again.

As you have probably guessed, I chose the custom-built PC system and pocketed the extra hundred bucks. I even used part of my leftover cash to pick-up a low-cost HP printer to replace my 10-year old DeskJet 742. Add that to the list, and I’ve still got $50 to spend on something besides a computer. Sorry, Apple, I guarantee you that whatever it is, it won’t be shiny and grey with a little silver apple etched on it.