The similarity of differences.

Google held its annual I/O conference recently, and unveiled some extremely interesting developments for the year to come. Focused ever more heavily on data processing and machine learning, its AI initiatives are being inserted into many of their products, and creating some new ones in the process.

One of the most notable new additions is Google’s Assistant, which replaces the Google Now functionality. Available throughout Android and new products like Google Home, Assistant will use context to present you with relevant information across many apps and services, allowing users to have a more fluid conversation with their devices, using the natural language patterns they’d ordinarily use talking to people as opposed to specific syntax queries.

Quite honestly, it’s very impressive stuff. I watched the I/O keynote in its entirety this week when I found some time, and I was blown away by some of the things Google is doing, right now, today.

I know a lot of people who enjoy it and use it daily, but for me, Siri has been inconsistent at best, and infuriating at worst. I can attempt the same, simple operations on different days and get wildly different results. Features have been added over the past few years, and on paper, it looks terrific. In reality, it is a crapshoot as to whether or not the small task I need to perform will actually get done in any possible way that would be faster than me using my phone manually. Using it on the Apple Watch is an abject nightmare. Your experience with it might have been nothing but unicorns prancing through fields of wishes and dreams, but it’s a broken system as far as I’m concerned.

Consistency is a huge part of good user experience. If, as a user, I have doubt, or reservations of any kind that the thing I need to do isn’t going to happen the way I expect or want it to, that creates friction. Friction eventually erodes trust, and without trust, I cease to be able to do the things I want in the way I want them done. I’ll find another way.

Siri has long struggled to mature under Apple’s development since the technology was acquired several years ago. I’m sure there are many, many good people working on it, and it pains me to feel the way I do and say these things, but it is simply not something I enjoy using–or use at all for that matter, anymore. There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about Apple’s ability to deliver compellingly (and consistently) in this new, shifting, data-driven landscape. Now famously having taken a stance in favor of localizing personal data to the device and protecting it in every way possible (a stance I am quite fond of), lots of questions as to whether or not the company is even prepared to meet this challenge–one that Google has been tackling for many years now–have arisen.

So back to Google.

They’re pushing forward with machine learning, using massive amounts of collected data–data that Apple has said it won’t take and doesn’t want–to create entirely new user experiences. The more it works, the smarter it gets. In the aggregate, all this data and use strengthens the product and allows users to do more things. It’s not an app, it’s an entire layer within the OS, working around what you’re doing with your device, affording you additional skills and options.

Earlier this week, prior to watching the keynote, I was having a conversation with some friends in Slack. Using my high-level glances at what Google was doing, and without really thinking too deeply into it, I said the following:

AI/bots may or may not be the future of computing. But data analysis and the kind of power Google has with those capabilities most definitely is.

That’s where Apple can’t catch up. This isn’t about phones. This is about what software is becoming and where the things we do with software go.

And I talked at length about why I thought this was true. I wasn’t spouting apocalyptic proclamations about Apple; they could set fire to piles of money today, every day for months, and still be in better shape than almost any other company on Earth. But I did express some real concern for the platform I enjoy and prefer not being able to keep up, and how the tradeoffs Apple is making to keep users safe (good) could potentially preclude it from delivering more compelling and timely experiences that people will come to expect from their devices (not so good).

Then I watched the keynote.

What became apparent to me, seeing everything myself and hearing the Google presenters talk about the technology, was that Google and Apple aren’t even competing in the same space anymore. Both companies are engaged in selling mobile devices, but they’re coming at personal technology from such different perspectives, they’re almost not even comparable. A few years ago, it seemed like the companies were at odds on the same field. But they’re not even playing the same sport.

If we’re going to distill it down to a focused, philosophical difference, I think it might look like this.

Apple’s world centers on hardware. It designs and builds amazing and transformative devices. Software is paired with hardware, and the integration points are tight, able to take advantage of hardware optimizations and tuning in crazy ways. Apple’s general perspective today on data is that they don’t want to know certain things, and want to obfuscate others. It’s a very individual-centered and -minded approach.

Google is all about that data. It eschewed hardware for its mobile OS initially, insisting that other companies provide it, following the Microsoft model of the recent past. It’s edged toward unifying software and hardware in a way similar to what Apple does, but doesn’t seem to be interested in pursuing that to its logical end. Hardware is a vehicle for software and data, passing in and out.

Apple and Google, in the eyes of the general public and many tech bloggers, have been at war for many years, and in vague terms, both companies sell fancy mobile phones. But the implications of those businesses are so far beyond the face value of what we see. And what I’ve realized is that they aren’t zero-sum or mutually exclusive. What I’ve come to understand is that the more the two companies seem to have been battling, the more the individual directions of each company become unassailably concrete.

Let’s use healthcare as an example, since that’s been the focus of segments in both companies’ recent presentations.

Apple: ResearchKit and CareKit. Centered around individuals, reporting personal data. Assembling tons of it, and allowing for better personal follow through on long-term treatment, and more individualized reporting for research purposes. Gathering of this data is done through traditional channels, but by allowing users to have agency in these processes, Apple affords people the ability to contribute to a large data set, but safely remain an identifiable component variable.

Google: machine learning to aggregate data against the treatment of extremely difficult ailments (diabetic retinopathy was the example presented in the keynote). Very few doctors can detect it accurately, and it’s very hard to do right/well. And this small number of doctors can’t be everywhere at once. But put enough data into a machine and it can pattern match the very intricate details–perhaps better than people, and everywhere at once (since people can only be in one place at a time). Throw incomprehensible amounts of information at an enormous amount of computing power and basically brute-force a treatment protocol that functions better than humans ever could.

Two fundamentally different approaches, two similar goals.

It’s a very interesting and important time in personal technology. Data moves through our lives like air. We want to protect it (some of us, anyway), but we want the value that sharing it can provide us. We want the future we were promised in our childhoods, but the changes we find occurring around us can be discomforting. This kind of change is everywhere, and it continues to move like perpetual motion, unstoppable. It’s beautiful and frightening. But it is inevitable.

I’m delighted that Apple wants to protect my information and is loudly standing up to the degradation of that idea in public and within the legal system. They may even be able to pull off the things I’m hoping for, without the compromises I’m looking to avoid. I’m also really excited to see what Google can actually do to advance the entire industry and provide new ways of solving serious problems. I think there are a lot of ways that these two approaches can exist together, in complementary layers, that can give us more of the future we’d hoped for. I’ve been becoming increasingly jaded about technology in the past few years, but I feel like I’ve been shown possibilities this week that may set me back in the other direction. Of course, there’s still time for things to go horribly awry.

The world will create a narrative of opposition because our nature is to set forces against one another. I no longer see this as a competition. And along with things like VR (which I have become obsessed with, in terms of non-gaming applications), for the first time in a while, I have real hope for things beyond my whatever my next phone might be.

That feels really good.

Collateral damage.

Generally, by the time iOS beta 3 or 4 rolls out, I can’t help myself and throw it on my carry phone. But I haven’t had time to play this summer. It’s been a particularly busy few months and I needed to make sure my primary phone was as stable as it could be. As such, I’ve been pining away to play with the new Notes app that Apple debuted at WWDC this June. It looks like a tremendous update to one of the built-in apps that could actually change the way I currently use my devices. I’m not alone in these sentiments; I know many other folks in the tech space who are begrudgingly admitting that it’s pretty cool.

Since I’ve been keeping my devices as standard as possible too, I’ve been using Notes between OS X and iOS, even in its current form. I’ve found it to be a useful scratch pad and short-term landing area for little bits of text that don’t even merit creating a new .txt and saving somewhere. And they do sync between devices pretty well (for the most part).

On Wednesday, I’m excited to finally update my devices to iOS 9 and get all the cool stuff I’ve been hearing about, like any other normal user. But something occurred to me yesterday.

When I update my mobile devices, El Capitan is still two weeks away from shipping. Which means that my workflow breaks. If I didn’t have the foresight to think about the disparity in ship dates and extrapolate that one extra step, I’d have been caught scratching my head on Wednesday afternoon as I update and keep working through my day. Like any other normal user.

This isn’t good. For me, or for anyone. But sadly it’s become the norm. Marketing pressure and ship dates trump user experience more and more. Working in software, I understand a great deal more than the average person about how this process takes place and how you don’t always get to make the decisions you want to about the fate of your users when external pressures start exerting force on the business. I know that releasing both mobile and desktop OS updates in the same day is insanity, and I wouldn’t expect that. I know that two dedicated groups of people, working hard to ensure they hit their dates have made every effort they possibly can to make my experience a good one. I know that with the advancements in both operating systems, no decision–no matter how small–is a simple one.

But I’m the end user. It shouldn’t have to matter to me, and it’s not my problem. However, it’s become my problem. What if I don’t want to upgrade to 10.11? What if I can’t? What if my laptop is company-issued and there are no immediate plans to upgrade the OS? My stuff is broken, and I get a big shrug from the company to which I trusted my data. (Which of course, is a much more nuanced and complicated discussion for another time.)

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Apple did this last year with the transition to iCloud Drive. It caused more than a little confusion for both users and developers. But this isn’t just an Apple thing either. Many companies are breaking implicit promises with their users to further push their products into the future, and leaving confusion and doubt in place of a feeling of consistency as people use these products. Apple, of course, has the momentum to carry it forward, and we’ll all forget about this, the way we mostly did when Yosemite shipped and the iCloud Drive transition wasn’t such a big deal anymore. And I fully realize that writing this much because my notes stop syncing (temporarily) seems like absolute overkill. But I spend a lot of my time trying to come up with creative solutions for users so people enjoy the software we produce. I try to solve problems so they don’t have to. It’s the right thing to do. Tim Cook from WWDC 2014:

Apple engineers platforms, devices, and services together. We do this so that we can create a seamless experience for our users that is unparalleled in the industry. This is something only Apple can do.

Software updates have always been risky. I’ve been using computers since I was about five years old, and I know this. I understand it at a level most people don’t. But at this point, with the way software has reshaped our lives, I shouldn’t have to. It’s disappointing that even a company like Apple, so proud of its experiences across hardware and software and delivering the best to its users still falters on these kinds of things. This’ll all blow over. I know that. But it’s a troubling trend, and I don’t have to like it.


PS: It was pointed out to me that iCloud.com will sync/display Notes after the iOS 9 transition. Given the state of the site as an afterthought in almost everything Apple does, I’m not surprised it didn’t occur to me. This will certainly suffice in the time between upgrades, but I wouldn’t have immediately thought about it if someone didn’t point it out. And considering any regular user of iOS probably doesn’t even know that iCloud.com exists as a destination, neither will they.

Apple Music and ownership.

There’s been a ton of discussion about the technical differences between iCloud Music Library and iTunes Match, since Apple is keeping both products around (at least for the time being). The core issue seems to lie with the way tracks are delivered back to you from the cloud depending on how and when you uploaded them.

iTunes Match (iTM) provides a storage locker and retrieval service that delivered DRM-free tracks back to you on demand. iCloud Music Library (iCML), as part of Apple Music, based on its pricing structure, appears to be delivering DRM-wrapped tracks when requested for offline access. This is an obvious move on Apple’s part, as it doesn’t make sense for you to download and keep DRM-free versions of tracks you didn’t actually buy for all time, the way it allowed you to “upgrade” your low-quality rips with iTunes Match. However, if you go all in on iCML and upload your entire catalog, dropping iTM, if you don’t keep local copies of those tracks, when you go to re-download them, you will receive DRM-wrapped versions. Which… will cease to work (as I understand it) should you cancel your Apple Music subscription.

Kind of a crappy solution. But crappier is the fact that it’s not exactly clear how and when this happens unless you really think about it. Keeping a local copy seems to be a safe play, though, and this whole thing only seems to become problematic if you have no local copy to fall back to.

What I’ve chosen to do (and I assume this will be ok for me) is:

  • Keep my local full library copy (already uploaded to Match and stored in iCloud) at home, on a NAS, attached to a Mac mini, and backed up in a bunch of places. This library will no longer be synced/uploaded with any Apple cloud service.
  • I have a full library copy in iCloud now, which I assume will remain as long as I continue the Apple Music subscription (which I plan to). I’m assuming this because I’ve completely disconnected that Mac mini and signed out of iCloud, and all my music is still showing up through Apple Music, having enabled Music Library.
  • I plan to cancel Match this September, which will remove my ability to re-download DRM-free versions of my music, but it’s a non-issue since I have multiple safe, offline copies anyway.
  • If I buy new music (unlikely since I don’t buy much to begin with anymore, and with AM, I can listen to whatever I want) it will automatically be available in iCloud.
  • I will then download the purchased music through iTunes on that “safe” Mac mini and store it in that offline local library.

This way, as long as I maintain my Apple Music subscription, I have a full library copy in iCloud along with everything else. If I cancel, I have the ability to re-upload a known good copy from my archive, at any time, to any service. Hell, I could even run a server again at home if I feel like it, which I did for years.

This stuff is crazy confusing, and it’s unsurprising Apple isn’t making a fuss about it. They’d probably love for it not to be so labyrinthine, but music licensing is nothing if not arcane. The safe play seems to be pretty simple: don’t delete your local library if you can help it. Stick a good copy on a hard drive somewhere and forget about it if you have to. But hang onto it in at least one good way, just in case, and have fun with the new goods.

Like anything else relating to computers, backing up your stuff always pays off.

Apple, privacy, encryption, and trust.

Matthew Panzarino has a great piece up at TechCrunch covering Tim Cook’s recent speech on the topics of encryption and privacy and Apple’s place in the discussion. It’s worth a read if only for some of the Southern subtweet-style smackdowns (alliteration power up!) he lays at the feet of other companies storing and using consumer data. Apple has in the past year taken its previously quiet stance on consumer data privacy to the front lines of its marketing in an effort to hold it up as a differentiator against the current trend of free services that are offered with the hidden cost of absorbing users’ personal information, and Cook in particular has become a vocal proponent of this initiative.

Philosophically, I agree with this. Tactically, the only security you can truly trust is the security you put in place yourself, and manage end-to-end. Realistically, Apple’s position is a middle ground I’m willing to accept in order to live the technological life I’ve grown to enjoy. I understand that the tradeoff I’m accepting is that I trust the company to make the right choices regarding the data I (and my family) share with it. If Apple decides to change direction in the future, I have some hard decisions to make. But for right now, this choice seems clear.

Apple’s business model is selling hardware. This is a fairly common and accepted fact. We pay money for shiny things, and it takes our money and gives us the shiny things. In simple terms, that is how the company became the financial juggernaut it is. Its cloud storage is free to start, but if you want to use it in any meaningful way, you need to pay for it. Again, you pay a fee and it provides a service. It would be naive to assume that the company isn’t collecting some of the data you provide. All companies do this for a variety of reasons. It would also be naive to assume that because the stated goal of protecting customer data is a primary focus, that it will always remain so into the future, and for all time, and is impenetrable to outside forces.

But all security–at a pragmatic and not utopian level–is a compromise between convenience and protection. At this point in the market and in my personal life, Apple’s promise is one I can get behind. I don’t wholly trust any corporate entity (or anything bigger than individual people, for that matter). Any data that you capture, share, or otherwise transmit over a network you don’t control and between servers you don’t manage should always be assumed to be public. If that sounds ridiculous, think about it for a second and then think about it some more in light of everything that’s happened in our world in the past few years. For a normal individual, the compromise Apple is proposing is sufficient to enjoy the technological advances we have at our disposal without losing too much sleep over it.

Trust is something that human beings grant when we want something in return. Apple wants our money, and is willing to leverage our trust as a motivator to continue running a successful business beyond simply offering shiny things. As long as the fundamental balance it provides remains intact, and it does not willingly choose to violate the trust we place in it for any reason, it remains the best of all options for me, and for many others.