The ultimate hybrid device.

I found myself daydreaming about the ultimate hybrid tablet/laptop device earlier today because I’m 12 years old, and I think I’ve got it nailed this time. Stay with me, unless you’re allergic to awesome ideas.

A 13″ iPad Pro. Fully functioning new class of device, runs iOS. Basically the thing we’re all expecting to see at some point.

The bottom half of a MacBook Pro–keys, battery, processor, etc. All the guts and power, no screen.

The magnet hinge that affixes Smart Covers right now locks into this bottom piece (obviously, but with some serious magnet upgrades), which has a hinged joint, for moving the screen to different positions.

When detached, the iPad has its own battery and processor and iOS runs normally. When docked, it connects with the MacBook body and OS X is not run from the iPad, but is displayed on it, as it’s run from the MacBook body. So it’s projected onto that screen. When you’re done, grab the screen, detach, and iOS pops right back on.

Think about it. That’s all I’m going to say. I realize this is ludicrous, and there’s a million reasons why Apple would never build it. But I would buy the shit out of this thing. And yes, I suppose you can do this (sort of) with some of the Windows PCs that are out there now, but we both know that’s no substitute for a device like this. Sell it to professional users, at a premium. Not for your grandma, bro. For serious work and play. They can use that if they like.

I don’t know why I torture myself like this.

Omniscience and oblivion.

Recently I was asked about where I think user experience is headed. After giving it some thought, I was able to distill my idea about it down to a fairly concise dichotomy. Obviously it centers on mobile computing, and the two most interesting parts of it (to me) are:

  1. Presenting information to the user in a contextually relevant way without much (if any) external interaction on his/her part
  2. Increasing security and/or ensuring that the loop for transactional activities is closed, in the face of continued compromises of sensitive financial information

There are two products that exemplify these goals in the market right now, supplied by two companies whose philosophies couldn’t be more divergent, but yet are intertwined: Google Now and Apple Pay. Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly–this is not going to be a “who’s better” post. It’s simply an examination of two different approaches to solving two big problems for users. The biggest difference being the diametrically opposed underpinnings of how the two technologies work.

Google Now’s promise is that if you hook your life into Google’s services, the massive intelligence behind those services will parse as much as possible from what you provide and surface information to you at the most relevant times possible, without you even having to lift a finger. Apple Pay creates a bubble of security around each purchase that you conduct with it, allowing for unique financial transactions, hiding your identity and information from merchants and potential data theft. Both are amazing in their own ways, and both edge ever closer to the fuzzy, nostalgic ideals that the World’s Fairs of yesteryear told us the future would bring.

The difference is that one service wants to know every single thing it possibly can about you to build a world of information around your activities, and the other wants to purposefully know as little as possible about you so that it can obfuscate the sensitive information that passes between two parties during a financial transaction.

I’m enthralled by both of these worlds, but to date, I’ve only embraced one of them. As we continue into the future, and more of our personal information–even the most innocuous bits–exist on the servers of other companies, I become wary of how and when it will be used. I’m not kept up at night thinking about it, but I’m still far more comfortable using Apple Pay for a purchase than dumping everything about myself into Google so I can find out if my flight is late, or how long it will take me to get home. Those examples are rather trite, but it illustrates my point: the two aspects of software that I’ve outlined are both insanely cool and interesting to me, but the overall value I can derive today is far higher with Apple Pay. More importantly, I’m left wondering how I can enjoy the benefits of something like Google Now without sacrificing my feelings about my data. I just don’t know if it’s possible, and I may change my mind about how I feel down the road.

I’ve been fascinated with technology throughout my entire life. It’s a source of creativity and consternation. Amazement and horror. It always has been and always will be a series of trade-offs and opposing forces. I think as we try to solve more of our problems in these new ways, the two ends of the spectrum get pulled closer together, and I’m not sure how that makes me feel. I’m along for the ride, though, until I pull the ripcord and go live on a beach in blissful, ignorant solitude. Until then, my fingerprint is my passport. Verify me.

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.

Text messages and my shortcomings as a social human.

I hung out with a longtime friend on Saturday night. Well, afternoon and evening, really. Being old, by 10pm, we were done, and back at my house. Exhausted, we said goodbye and he took off. I showered and got into bed. Then we had a 45-minute text message conversation, mostly about his iPhone, which I was helping troubleshoot. But as I fell asleep, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is it about text messaging that is so unavoidably appealing to so many people? I love it myself, and prefer it in many social scenarios. I tried to distill it down to a few key elements to understand it better. This is what I landed on:

  1. Time investment
  2. Social grace
  3. Psychological/cognitive load

There are factors spread across these three areas that I think resonate with people on different levels, depending on who you are and how you interact with the people with whom you communicate. Picture it as a pie chart, rearranging percentages based on situation or personality. I’m going to examine these from my own perspective, but I’d be curious to know if I’m right about these for other people, and if so, how the percentages fall at any given time.

Time investment, or ‘why would I want to sit on the phone with you?’

I recall being a 7th grader when my parents decided it was time for me to have a telephone in my room. I got to pick out the one I wanted (even then, I was pragmatic; nothing fancy–a nice keypad with rubbery keys and a slim design) and they got me my own line. This was probably because we used our house line for my dad’s business as well as our family stuff. Either way, it was a big deal. I spent a lot of time on that phone that year. I remember calling friends and just laying there watching TV or doing nothing at all, in almost complete silence, for hours. Teenagers are weird.

Now, time spent on the phone is purely a tactical measure. If I have to be on the phone, you’d better well believe it’s to accomplish a task or set of objectives that I literally can not complete in any other way. The notion of sitting on the phone talking to someone for hours is simply exhausting no matter how I picture it. In fact, I’m getting a neck ache just thinking about it. For a variety of reasons, my time is so much more precious now than when I had my burgeoning 7th grade agenda meticulously organized in my Trapper Keeper. I don’t think I’m alone here, either. Anyone with small children would probably agree that free time just isn’t what it used to be. And even if you consider something like a phone connected to a Bluetooth headset, you’re still expending mental energy to maintain that phone call as you do other things. It just isn’t tenable anymore for many of us.

Texting is easier, quicker, and accepted in almost all situations. I say almost all because there are still an obvious number of things that absolutely require phone calls–family emergencies, relationship issues of any kind, etc.

Social grace, or ‘did you really just say that?’

Our mouths work very differently when we speak in a conversational context with other people as opposed to when we are thinking alone and can form words within the walls of our minds. Everyone has muttered something that probably didn’t really need to come out, and regardless of whether it’s embarrassing, destructive, unpleasant, or merely a misstatement, we recognize it and feel it. The more magnanimous individuals among us brush this off to make others feel better, but there’s something to be said for having some semblance of forethought and tact prior to speaking.

I feel like the slight delay sending a text message affords us allows me to reflect, even for a moment, on what I think I want to say. I can pause, process, and respond in a way that speaking in real-time doesn’t always afford me. I like to think I’m pretty quick on my feet anyway, and can feel fairly comfortable speaking extemporaneously about a lot of things to all kinds of different folks, but even still, I know I’m not conversationally infallible. A joke may land flat, I may inadvertantly insult someone who I’ve only just met, or I might just be an asshole thinking I’m being delightful. I try to be cognizant of these moments, but they still come up from time to time. Text messages give me that added advantage of stopping myself for a heartbeat to do a quick assessment.

There’s a flip side to this, of course. Context, sarcasm, tone, and a great many other things can be lost, mistranslated, or otherwise morph in the worst of ways in the course of a text message conversation. It’s very easy to make the same mistakes you would in a spoken conversation with typed words. And emoji only goes so far.

Psychological/cognitive load, or ‘sweet mother of mercy, just shut up for a minute’

I am someone who has a finite amount of patience for speaking of any kind. If I’m embroiled in a conversation that I can’t find a way out of, or I’m tired of, or whatever, I try to be kind (operative word: try) and see my way clear to another part of the room. The bathroom and I are intimately acquainted with this little dance. Talking can be exhausting! Being around people is tiring! I am totally outing myself as a hermit-in-waiting, but I don’t care. I used to think it was funny to just wander away quietly, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m not a Wes Anderson character, and that this kind of behavior just makes me a dick.

Text messages allow me to be the very best dick I can be. I have a little kid. Anything can happen. I have a pregnant wife who watches that kid most of the day and needs respite when I get home. I’m a busy guy at work and have many obligations. I occasionally operate a motor vehicle and I make a great effort to do so safely. There is no end to the amount of reasons I can’t respond to you right this minute, or had to wander away from our text conversation. And if you’re going to get bent out of shape about that because I was nice enough to turn read receipts on, I’ve got some pro tips on not caring. Just ask. This freedom is intoxicating. This actually builds on the previous two elements: there’s an asynchronous time factor working in my favor, as well as the delicate social balance of not being obnoxious to someone in person. This is my pool, and I am Michael Fucking Phelps when it comes to this shit.

I’ve been texting for years now. I never get tired of it. I think my love for it grows every day. And when I love something, I guess I find it enjoyable to examine why. It helps me understand myself a little more, and I’d say it’s a valuable exercise. Even if it’s through an asinine blog post, it’s worth something to stop and think about our motivations around certain activities. Self-reflection by way of emoji poop. Sounds about right.