If you see a stylus, there’s probably a good reason.

I was catching up on things this morning and saw this post on Daring Fireball regarding the impending flood of told-you-so tech pundits loudly proclaiming that Apple “blew it” because they might include a stylus with the still-hypothetical iPad Pro that might be coming. It occurred to me that a lot of tech writing, like every other facet of humanity, sees only black and white, ignoring any and all shades of grey interpolated between those two fixed points. Surprising, I know.

But this isn’t about defending Apple’s choices. This is about something that we as a culture have done and will continue to do. We say things, write things, and do things that are irrevocably bound to us, carved in time, for later examinations to throw back at us, disregarding the context of what we did entirely. Words are disassembled and used as weapons. Meaning and intent are disregarded or reframed in a revisionist history that suits a new agenda.

When Steve Jobs famously made that comment— the “if you see a stylus, they blew it” one—it’s pretty clear that he was talking about the general use cases involving touch screens and human interaction. I think at this point, years later, we can all agree that in many ways, this was the right direction to follow. It’s hard to imagine a world where we didn’t touch all the screens around us with our fingers. But that of course doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for a refinement of those interactions, a subset, in which certain users see value in employing a specific tool to do a specific job.

Reading that comment broadly as “a stylus is always a bad idea” is tantamount to the shortsighted letter-of-the-law interpretations we see every day in politics, religion, and any other human pursuit that we feel passionate about where we point to something from the past and apply it to a current situation. Context, understanding, timeframe, and intent are all valuable variables that need to be applied to these ideas to better see the point someone tried to make. This isn’t a technological fallibility; it’s a fundamentally human problem.

Latching on to the core of an single statement in its most literal sense prevents us from growing bigger and better ideas. It’s exhausting to see a bold step forward turn into fodder for the most inane and recursive discussions possible. To come back to the comment specifically, even if Apple decided “hey, you know what… maybe we were wrong about the stylus thing” it would likely be because it took the idea, observed how the world applied it and made a judgment call. It wouldn’t have followed the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.

I personally couldn’t be more excited about the potential a more powerful and advanced iPad might bring. That product line needs a shot of adrenaline. It’s been relegated to gorgeous, inspiring commercials and good intentions, but it hasn’t grown the way a lot of us had hoped. If there’s a stylus, great. The device probably needs it.

Apple is a business, and it makes products people want to buy. Steve was notorious for changing his mind, as anyone who’s even studied Apple casually can tell you. Shifting gears is how the company made it this far. Don’t assume for a second that anything that’s ever been said is gospel. That’s just not how progress works.

Let’s talk about the future.

As a kid (ok, a nerdy kid), I had dreams of an incredible future that my VIC-20 couldn’t even begin to predict. I watched science fiction films and fantasized about all of the amazing ways that technology would transform the landscape of our lives. As I grew older, and some of those dreams took shape, my excitement and passion for tech increased as I watched developments come to pass that previously only lived inside my fevered geek-kid dreams. It goes without saying that if you showed a current generation mobile phone to yourself as a 12-year old, your head probably would have just exploded on the spot.

Which is why I’m a little troubled by the way Google is positioning itself and its products as the future of our technology. Not for the reasons the internet would ordinarily attribute to a proclamation like this (cult member status of a competing platform’s movement), but rather because at its core, I’m not sure that Google is being honest with itself, and with us.

Take Google Glass, a piece of wearable technology that looks like it was left behind by a time traveler. The geek kid inside me looks at that and says ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m going to be able to have an always-on HUD for my actual life!’ because that’s just the way I’m conditioned to respond to products like this. The pragmatic adult inside me looks and says ‘Ok, good, but let’s see how the platform around this develops before we get excited’ because that’s how my grown-up brain thinks. But the fact remains that it’s a cool and interesting piece of tech, and I remain curious about it.

Look at Google Now, a recent addition to the Android OS with Jelly Bean. The main idea behind Google Now is that by plugging into Google services with your phone, your location, your likes and dislikes, your habits, patterns, and intentions will slowly be absorbed and presented back to you in a meaningful context, with relevance. Amazing, right? Imagine most of the friction involved in gathering in-the-moment information on your smartphone removed – you look at it, and it seemingly already knows what you want. Sports, weather, restaurants around you, everything that matters to you right now as you’re looking at the phone. It’s a very cool idea and one that paints a better picture of our machines working for us, as opposed to with us, or in some cases against us (let’s just say it took a while for Siri to actually grow into her promises of information at my fingertips the way I wanted it).

Great ideas, executed and advanced by what was and is one of the greatest engineering companies on the planet. No one would assert that Google can’t bring the future to us, given how it’s shaped the web and redefined how we interact with it. My problem is this:

Google is bringing the future to us so it can monetize every single thing we do in our lives, online or offline.

Google is not a pure engineering company, rather, Google is a company that engineers great products (and they are great) in order to advance a larger, singular objective: the collection of user-provided data to better serve advertising interests. It’s not a company that sells products to people; were that the case, this entire thing would look and feel very different to me. We know how Google makes money. It’s not a secret. As I watch Google release more impressive and robust mobile products with comments like “there’s no margin, it just basically gets (sold) through” the picture only gets clearer. It’s not making money on hardware. It’s not making money on software, as it’s traditionally kept software products free to most if not all users. The money comes from us, and all the information we give it. The money comes from tailoring ads to match what it thinks we want. Which at its core is itself a great idea, but leads to a lot of other questions.

But before this gets tin-foily, let me refocus: if you’re cool with Google knowing a lot about you, that’s fine. For the most part, I don’t even care myself. I’m not super paranoid about this kind of stuff, although I do tend to approach it with a more skeptical eye. What I don’t like and can’t agree with is the notion, as presented by the company, that it’s changing the landscape of consumer technology and the way we interact with one another for any noble reason. It’s not doing this to join all the peoples of the world together in blissful online harmony. It’s not doing this so that we can experience amazing new things and drive humanity to new heights. It’s doing this because (first and foremost) it’s made of geeks and geeks like to build cool things (and other geeks want to use them), but those things take money to build and sustain, and the way it makes its money always seems to take a backseat to the wow factor. And that’s what troubles me. It’s not the advancement of technology for the love of the art and science of human discovery – it’s cool technology, but it leaves a lot of questions in my mind about motivation and method.

And listen – all of this could just be fired-up rhetoric in a few years anyway, when Google announces complete data transparency and personal information is regarded with the sanctity some of us feel it should be. I’m not holding my breath for that particular outcome, but to be fair, Google’s always been first to say that we should be able to get our data in and out of a system when we want it, and its guiding corporate goal is to stay away from the Dark Side of the Force. All I’m saying is, think about the subtext of all the things you see coming to market and the messages you’re receiving along with them. Ask yourself: is this the future you’ve always dreamed about or is it the future brought to you by [ADVERTISER NAME HERE™]?

Adding “value”.

Instacast released its 2.0 update yesterday to some Twitter fanfare. As a regular user of the app, I updated immediately. Now, to be clear, I don’t love Instacast. In fact, I have lots of personal issues with it. But as a regular listener of podcasts, it sucked the least of all the apps I’ve tried, and I’ve tried many. I wish so much that Apple would add even the most basic subscription support for podcasts to iOS within the native music app, but they haven’t, and it doesn’t look like they will any time soon.

What I found after updating was an interface that remained just as abstruse as the initial one, with the “added value” of reduced functionality. Most notably, the default behavior for podcasts downloaded within the app was altered. The original behavior of the app was that when podcasts were downloaded, they would stack up in a list, from oldest at the top to newest at the bottom. Now that order is reversed, to list the newest at the top. Which fundamentally changes the only way I listen to shows.

For a $1.99 in-app purchase, it appears that I could add functionality that would allow me to edit this playlist, and (I assume) change the order to something more palatable. I’m assuming this because I’m not going to make that purchase. And believe me, it’s not because I’m cheap. I buy tons of apps. I buy apps I don’t even plan on really using if I want to support the developer, because I believe in doing things like that. I won’t be adding that in-app purchase for two reasons:

1) because I don’t like paying again for what I was getting as a previous paying customer

and more importantly

2) because I have a hard time supporting something I don’t even really enjoy.

Instacast was originally a purchased app, not a free one. I understand completely if the developer of a free app wants to monetize through in-app purchase, but having paid for the app initially, and not expecting anything more than the basic continued functionality I was experiencing, to be forced to use the app differently is annoying, but then being told that I can use it the way I was using it if I pony up a few more bucks is really annoying. I’m not talking about adding new abilities or allowing some additional features. I’m talking about simply making it work the way it was previously working, one day earlier.

Furthermore, as I said, I don’t really love this app. And I know I might be in the minority, but I paid for and used the iPad app too, and I don’t like it either. Both UIs are needlessly complex, and expose inconsistencies throughout. The iPad app is almost unusable in my opinion because between the arcane controls and the spotty iCloud integration, I can never tell what’s actually happening within the app, and as such, I just stopped using it. I know a lot of people who wrote great things about it when it launched, and it was pretty as all get-out, but I’d be curious to know how many people are still actually listening to podcasts on their iPad at this point with it.

Listen, despite how this all came off and how my cranky tweets read, I don’t hate this app, nor do I hate the developers, their families or their pets. I just really believe very strongly that if you’re going to refine a UI, then really refine it. Don’t add things that seem like new controls yet obfuscate purpose. Don’t take gestures that were slightly difficult to discover but very useful and replace them with even more confusing options. If you have an overcomplicated hierarchy, make it simpler. And for the love of all things holy, don’t up-end the way people (especially previous paying customers) use the app and then tell them they can buy “great new features” in order to restore the basic way they’d been using the app to begin with.

I’m fully aware that these choices were most likely not arbitrary, and actually based on feedback. They represent a conscious choice on the part of the designers and developers to respond to feedback and provide what they feel is an improvement to the existing model. Choices are hard. I get it. The craziest part of all of this? Instacast is still, after all of this, significantly cleaner and easier to use than almost every single other podcast app in the App Store. Don’t even get me started on the other app everyone endlessly recommends to me (because I have it, surprise, and I have even fewer things I can point to as good).

Bottom line: creating in-app purchase options is a tricky choice, and I give a lot of credit to devs who pull it off successfully. But this kind of purchase isn’t adding value. The only thing it’s adding is frustration.

Update on Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This post was picked up at iMore and there’s some discussion over there about it. I was challenged as to the harshness of the post, and I defended my reasoning behind writing it if you’re curious about my motivations. (Hint: it wasn’t because I wanted to conduct a witch-hunt today.)

Update on Thursday, June 21, 2012

Since it was brought to my attention earlier today, it is worth noting (and I should have posted it as soon as the change took place) that Vemedio has since reinstated the features that were pulled from Instacast and placed behind the in-app purchase. They listened to their user base, respected the feedback, and in turn, I respect that decision. It was a tough call, and I disagreed with it initially, but I certainly harbor no ill will, despite how cranky I was the first time around.

Apple’s shot across the bow.

Rene asked me to write a few thoughts on Apple’s announcement after our coverage on Thursday, along with a few other iMore writers. As a former educator, I have some strong feelings on how we’ve not served our children in the past, and some stronger feelings on going forward into the future. You can read my thoughts below, and see the other writers’ thoughts here.


Apple’s move to advance our shamefully archaic system was met with a lot of debate on Thursday morning. On one side, we heard from utopian education advocates (myself included to some degree), extolling the virtues of a centralized e-textbook platform, and Apple’s commitment to engaging our youth. On the other hand, I had a few spirited conversations with those who feel that by making great educational opportunities “expensive” (meaning only upper-class schools may even be able to apply these new techniques, leaving inner-city and less-privileged districts behind) Apple has driven a wedge between the haves and the have-nots, making education less democratized and less accessible to all. Personally I feel that both sides have points, but quite honestly, nothing is fair. Education has, in the past decades, grown more and more to be the bastard child of the federal budget, despite the headline-grabbing initiatives that get introduced to fanfare and few results. Kids are taught only to pass tests, so that funding can be applied to districts who have “earned” it. Kids are getting the short end of every stick they see in school, and nothing is changing. And what if Apple’s entire move here is not about changing the entire education system, which it most likely understands is irreparably flawed, but rather to disintermediate education the way it did carrier control with the mobile market? What if Apple’s ultimate play (with products like iBooks Author) is to put education back in the hands of students (and the actual individuals they interact with on a daily basis), obviating the need for a bloated, antiquated system in much the same way that it saw the carriers as a necessary evil in bringing iOS to the hands of users?

Certainly not every district is hopelessly broken, and not every kid’s education suffers at the hands of an ever-shrinking budget. Children who seek out learning will always learn, and those who do not will make their way in the world. It has happened for years and will always be the case, no matter what costs we apply. Apple’s attempt to shake up a system so mired in early 20th century standards is merely a shot across the bow of a huge vessel that’s been in motion for as long as any of us can remember. It will not be panacea to all the ills of our society, nor should people expect Apple to fix every problem. Apple is a business; they exist to make money and sell merchandise. Those who are decrying its attempts to make learning better are missing the bigger picture. Should we all shun this advance because only rich kids might get a chance to use it at first? Education needs disruption, and all it takes is a cursory look at the developing countries of the world to know that mobile computing is the future for our society. Not everyone will get an iPad or an iPhone, but at some point, everyone will be exposed to learning in a better, mobile capacity, and we’ll have Apple to thank for jumpstarting the efforts of those who would sit idly and let our children continue on the endless march to mediocrity.

Seth worked for five years as a computer instructor in a public middle school (grades 6-8), for six years with kids with autism, and was a member of district-wide technology planning committees.


Since that post was published, I’ve heard a lot of other great commentary regarding the fact that this is all just more of the same kind of whiz-bang, “look how fun we can make learning” that we’ve been seeing for decades. I think there’s a lot of truth to that sentiment. However, even if this is only a first step, it’s an interesting one. This is by no means a problem that’s easily solved.

Tired.

On the heels of what many are describing as the cataclysmically disappointing iPhone 4S announcement yesterday, the internet is rife with tales of Apple’s inevitable post-Steve descent into oblivion. Why, the mere suggestion that Tim Cook has bungled his first big show is enough to send bloggers the web over into paroxysms of glee, breathlessly recounting every misstep, every missed opportunity, and every underwhelming demonstration onstage at that emotionally vacant press event.

But today, after the smoke’s cleared, I’m just tired. I’m tired of the outlandish expectations the media creates. I’m tired of contrarian backlash, built on incorrect assumptions about how an extremely successful company needs to operate to continue on the path to further success. There simply isn’t any way to even view Apple announcements through any lens of reality anymore, and it’s tiring.

Vultures feed on the flesh of the dead, but Apple is far from dead. We’ve stopped getting news from many of the sites we used to read voraciously every day, because what they’ve started serving up is reverse hyperbole, seemingly with the intention of portending the end of Apple as soon as possible in some juvenile effort to scream “FIRST” when it happens and link back to the post. This is a company that currently has more money in the bank than most people can even fathom, and yet people are lining up to tell them they’re “doing it wrong”. I think when you can absorb most of your competitors without breaking a sweat, you buy yourself a little latitude in your decision making process.

For every reality distortion field, there exists an inverse reality polarization portal, where all of the things we ought to be excited about are derided endlessly and deconstructed to the point where nothing is even worth doing anymore. Yet Apple still sells millions of phones, every time, in spite of both of these phenomenons.

The most annoying part, though, is that after all of the nay-saying, market comparisons, vitriolic voice of the people and such, most of these writers will buy that phone, regardless of the lack of new body type. And they might even write something about how it’s actually a pretty big step forward and start focusing on how Apple is creating experiences as opposed to glass and metal bricks with which to do things. Because that’s actually the story that gets buried under the lede right about the time Apple releases new stuff. Heaven forfend you decide to focus on THAT, in which case you’re immediately labeled as a sycophantic Apple fanboy.

If anyone were actually analyzing this at any sensible level, it would become apparent that Apple’s not playing the same game everyone thinks that they ought to. In fact, they’ve never played the same game as the rest of the market. Why in the world would they start now, when they continue to move ahead of everyone else in the game they are playing? Because an enclave of echo chambered writers thinks they should?

Here’s your new headline for the iPhone 4S: Normal people unfazed by ludicrously unbalanced narrow market perspectives; plan to continue spending untold sums of money on new iPhone and apps. If you don’t like the new iPhone, I’m totally cool with that. No one says you have to. I think we all secretly wanted to be blown away yesterday by a new phone style delivered straight from the future itself. In fact, the presentation (in my honest opinion) left quite a bit to be desired.* But when you project your irrational “analysis” onto the population at large, you’re not reporting news anymore. You’re just tiring us out, and eventually, we’ll stop listening.

Update: 10.06.11 7:47 am

*and sadly, now I know why.