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.

10 years of blogging at jasonclarke.org

Today marks 10 years since the first blog post on this site. I’ve owned the domain name for about 2 years prior to that – Archive.org lists October 2001 as the first recorded date– but used it mostly as a testing ground until 2003.

When I started this site, it was built on my own homemade content management system, which ran until 2005, when I finally switched over to WordPress. Over 500+ posts, here are a few of my favorites:

In 2003, I recommended people check out ESPN’s up and coming sportswriter Bill Simmons. In 2004, I announced the launch of my book. In 2006, I covered a Maine-centric blogging/media scandal; in 2007, I declared Twitter to be a “fad”. Later in 2007, I got press credentials for a presidential debate.

I’ve covered my home state of Maine’s media and politics, followed the evolution of blogging, and made a lot of lists! Finally, here’s a category that collects my favorite writing over the last 10 years.

Thank you for visting my site these past ten years – I hope you’ll stay tuned for the next 10!

 

Trying out a public revision process

"revision/procrastination" by Flickr user wenday
“revision/procrastination” by Flickr user wenday

With the launch of this latest version of my site (roughly my fifth iteration since 2006), I’m experimenting with two new features I’d love to see on other blogs: a changelog and a roadmap.

Yes, it might seem strange to have these two software and/or enterprise-oriented features on a tiny personal site, but why not? If a changelog can show users the progress of software, why not a website? And the same with a roadmap: It might not matter what’s ahead for this particular blog, but what if bigger sites like ESPN or Zeldman.com published public roadmaps, giving visitors a peek into their plans and their processes?

As a developer, and as a reader, I’d love to see more of these types of transparent peeks into the past and future of websites – both large and small.

Update: Nice! The Verge publishes a Version History.

Why the gdgt+AOL union is a rallying cry for the WordPress community

AOL sign at AOL Music Showcase

In my latest article on WP Daily, I talk about why the recent acquisition of tech site gdgt by AOL’s tech publishing arm might be bad news for WordPress in the enterprise:

I’m suggesting that old, tired, and unfair “WordPress is for traditionally-formatted blogs” trope may still be a factor when online media properties choose their technology platforms.

If that misconception is a factor when enterprises choose platforms, it can be particularly troubling as media companies (such as AOL, Vox, and Buzzfeed before them) choose and promote in-house platforms.

If it’s true – that WordPress is passed over, at least in part, because of the outdated and incorrect notion that it’s too generic and not customizable enough for enterprise – what can we do as developers?

Read the whole thing, and share your take in the comments! Thank you to WP Daily for publishing the article – check them out for all kinds of great news and commentary on WordPress.

 

Local banks should hire a “startup advocate”

Photo "Vault" by Flickr user ostrograd
Photo "Vault" by Flickr user ostrograd
Photo by Flickr user ostrograd

A recent crowdsource-driven funding contest promoted by a local bank in my area got me thinking about how banks in particular can find themselves on the sidelines of the entrepreneurship/startup movement as the costs to starting a business drop and as new and creative fundraising options become available.

One way that banks can become more active participants in the startup communities in their area is by hiring a startup advocate.

What would a startup advocate do?

A startup advocate would provide the bank with a personal, human presence within the startup community, including:

  • Attending local startup meetups;
  • Speaking at local incubators and other programs (similar to the TopGun Maine program I participated in last year) – not as a pitch for the bank, but as a resource for info about the complicated world of funding;
  • Blogging/posting videos/podcasting with an eye on the local startup scene;
  • Be available for “office hours”, where entrepreneurs can call, Skype, or meet for Q&A or just talking;
  • Connect entrepreneurs with other people in their network where appropriate.

Who would make the best startup advocate?

Loosely defined, the role of a startup advocate would be filled by an entrepreneur at heart: Somebody with personal, hands-on experience inside a startup, ideally having co-founded or led one. That person would work for and represent the bank, but they should be known within the community and/or trusted as a personality unto themselves, not just as a mouthpiece for the bank.

It’s about adding value, not advertising.

Besides the obvious resource of capital (short and longer term), banks have other intangibles to offer startups: Advice and connections on the money side of the game can be immensely helpful to people who are more focused on bringing their ideas to life than learning the intricacies of funding.

Hiring a startup advocate whose mission is to actually know, understand, and help startups could be more effective and less costly for banks than simply dumping more money into traditional advertising or transparent gimmicks.

Yes on Question One

Next week, Mainers heading to the polls to vote for president, senator, representative, and local leaders also have the chance to legalize same-sex marriage in a ballot measure commonly known as “Question One”. A similar measure passed in 2009, but was overturned by Maine’s People’s Veto process just seven months later.

Three years later, with a second chance, it’s time that Maine people approve question one and finally make it legal for same-sex couples to marry in our great state.

It’s easy and popular to call same-sex marriage a “complicated” issue, but I disagree. Both for individual liberty, and for the good of society as a whole, I think it’s quite simple and essential to support the expansion of the marriage contract to include same-sex couples.

Separate from its religious overtones, and along side the rule of law, money, and freedom, marriage is an essential, foundational element of a civilized society. At its most basic, it is a contract between two willing participants that provides both individuals, as well as society in general, with widespread security, stability, and, yes, occasional happiness.

Opponents of the law have little ground to stand on. I see two primary arguments levied against allowing same-sex couples the right to marry. The first is that religious institutions will be unfairly harmed – in Maine’s case, that concern is respected and mitigated by the language of the law, which as written protects religious organizations from legal retribution should they choose not to perform same-sex ceremonies.

The second most common opposition comes in the form of a vague “threat” to marriage, citing “studies” and claiming that marriage will actually decline if more couples are granted the right to the marriage contract. The leading organization opposing the law, “Protect Maine Marriage”, goes so far as to claim that “When marriage no longer has its historic meaning and understanding, over time fewer and fewer people will marry.”

The lunacy and desperation of that argument is staggering. The institution of marriage is more, not less necessary in a society fighting war and economic decline; in that context marriage is as important today as ever. In its time of need, welcoming more consenting adult couples into the institution will strengthen, not weaken, marriage’s position in general by expanding it to include a class of people devoted enough to fight for the right to participate in it. It will also strengthen, not weaken, families as children see their family unit validated by society on symbolic (and many) practical levels.

You can often tell when an argument on any topic is on its last legs: it’s when fear will be grandiosely unveiled, a last-ditch effort to confuse and deter people from doing what they know is simple and just. In that spirit, Protect Marriage Maine writes on their website that the law, if passed, would “result in profound consequences for society.”

They are absolutely correct.

It would mean more people have the legal access that they deserve to one of our society’s most important elements. It would mean children’s lives enhanced by stability. It would mean our fellow citizens would be treated more humanely in the eyes of the law and as they go about their daily lives. It would mean a little, maybe a lot, more happiness in this world.

Those are indeed some profound consequences.

Why I don’t like the political conventions

Two convention attendees embrace

Note: I originally posted this on my WordPress.com blog.

Against my better judgement, I’ve found myself tweeting about the Republican and Democratic conventions over the past week. My tweets on the subject are usually sarcastic and/or attempts to be humorous, so I want to explain in a bit more detail why I think these are inane and even poisonous events.

2008 Republican convention
2008 Republican convention – Courtesy PBS NewsHour

Conventions are a shining example of the broken political system

Political conventions are a blatant reminder that most of American politics is not about governing, or innovating, or moving our society forward, but rather is about the two parties grappling for power, or attempting to hold onto power. As somebody who is not a member of either party, I find this shameless acknowledgement of the endless power struggle to be incredibly depressing.

Gary Vaynerchuck once said that one of the problems with America is that people put more effort into their weddings than their marriages. The same is true for politics: Governing is hard, messy, and wrought with failure; campaigning brings the glow of attention and the ability to say anything without consequence. Conventions celebrate the former excessively while completely ignoring the latter.

Conventions are insanely self-centered

No other segment of American life – not sports, not celebrity, not even business – spends as much time explicitly celebrating itself as the two main political parties (and their politicians) do during their conventions. As citizens, many of us are gleefully complicit, praising the days of empty rhetoric, self-serving video productions and ignoring the complete lack of substance or self-reflection. If you doubt that, watch as pontificating speeches about personal experiences are praised – and then the praise is praised!

Conventions bring out the worst in spectators

Like a YouTube video of bystanders idly filming a crime instead of attempting to intervene, I feel like people are at their most viciously partisan during conventions, whether it be predictably attacking every scrap of their opponents’ convention, or blindly celebrating every aspect of their own party’s event. The denial of reality and the refusal to be honest is established as a tone by the conventions, and then perpetuated by partisans.

What to do

To start, the conventions should no longer be given airtime on major networks. It’s ridiculous that major broadcast networks continue to provide prime-time air to the conventions In a time of hundreds of news and entertainment sources available across every possible medium and device providing years of coverage of every detail of the campaign.

Parties have the resources and the technology available to broadcast the conventions on their own – they no longer need or deserve the media frenzy supported by prime time air time.

In an ideal world, I’d love it if both parties retired the outdated and increasingly absurd tradition and replaced it with a new kind of event that placed integrity above pageantry. Give up the meaningless (and sometimes corrupt) nomination process and replace at least some of the endless cavalcade of speeches with honest assessments of the candidates’ records, plans, and promises.

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.

Let’s see more context-aware design touches

I hope, and I predict, that we’ll start to see more of a trend in web and software development in the coming months and years that probably already has a great name, but since I don’t know it, for now I’m giving it my own name: context-aware design.

Loosely, I define context-aware design as a principle where an interface offers up specific information geared to that particular unique situation — either some customized data, navigation, or other existing element that’s loaded up at just the right time when it might benefit the user most.

I noticed a subtle but great example of it today when looking for a post on 37signals’ blog Signals vs. Noise. It was hidden in an often-overlooked and under-designed area that most blogs have: category archive pages. On Signals vs. Noise, if you click a category archive link (“Business”, in this example), you don’t just see what you’d expect from most blogs: the typical reverse-chronological list of blog posts from the Business category. Instead, you’re greeted with a nice bit of context-aware design right at the top of the screen:

A screenshot of the “Business” category of posts on the 37signals blog Signals vs. Noise

See the “Popular” box at the top right under the page title? It’s a simple concept: For folks browsing that category, why not show them the 10 most popular posts, right off the bat? If they’re deep diving for a particular item or topic (rather than searching), there’s a good chance one of the popular posts is the one they’re looking for — and if they’re just perusing, showing the most popular posts is a simple but effective approach to showing what types of content are in that category.

The “Popular” box shows off what makes context-aware design such a benefit for both developers and users: It’s simple to implement — most blog software will readily serve up popular content in a widget — and it’s the type of spontaneous experience that creates and builds trust. It adds up to less cost and more time spent with the interface.