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.

Talk to me, Siri.

A lot has been said already about the way Siri stands to change user interaction with iPhones, and almost as much has been said about why we all needn’t get excited about it. There’s a readily vocal section of gadget nerds who’s more than happy to point out that they’ve been talking to their devices for years now, and that we’re all a bunch of sycophantic Apple excuse generators who trumpet everything the company does as the only and best implementation that exists.

Well, if you can dial down the contrarian bleating for a minute, I think there might be something here. Part of the reason Siri is so wildly popular over other voice-enabled options is that it taps into our desire as humans to engage not in commands with another intelligence, but communication. We’re not speaking to our phone, we’re speaking with it. Granted, we’re a long way from actually having meaningful conversations with our devices, and the capacity for independent thought and action (mercifully) has not yet arrived (Skynet, I’m looking in your direction).

However, the conversations one has with Siri – and they are, in many cases, exactly that – small, targeted conversations – appeal to us as humans in a way that the stilted delivery of commands likely never will. Think about it – of all the futuristic artificial intelligences you’ve seen and thought about in science fiction movies and the like, which ones are the most captivating?

The ones that talk back.

Andy Rubin has stated that he doesn’t want to have a conversation with his phone; that it’s a tool and should function as such. But I’m willing to bet that as nice a guy as he probably is, Andy’s not like most people. And most people don’t want to memorize a new lexicon of short-burst variable orders through which their phone performs actions. They want to use their real voice, their natural inclinations, and their own way of thinking and speaking and have the machine do the work for them. Natural language processing has come so far in the past ten years, and Siri is merely a harbinger of things to come.

And despite the inevitable enslavement and eventual extinction of humanity that will come of these things, they sure are awesome right now.

“Siri, remind me to go underground when you become fully sentient.”

“Ok, I’ll remind you.”

Specs Mean Nothing [In a World of Software Experiences]

The release of the iPad 2 brings with it some lofty claims by Apple about what it can accomplish, and other tablet makers have been quick to point out its inadequacies, but they’ve primarily focused on hardware shortcomings. Unfortunately for these other manufacturers, they’re fighting a battle that really doesn’t even exist in the minds of consumers.

Look at how Apple positions its products: pure experience, with promise of creation, exploration, and connection with the people and things we care about. That is what resonates with consumers. My mom isn’t interested in the fact that the iPad has a dual-core processor, or that the Xoom has a better camera on the back. She cares about seeing her grandkids, and FaceTime makes that happen. Software enables her to experience what she wants with the device. The fact that the camera is only VGA means absolutely nothing to her.

This is where other companies fall down. They can’t compete in the software choices. They build to impress a group of people (spec nerds) who represent a shrinking market, and a market whose clout over the direction the consumer tech industry takes has all but vanished. Apple builds for everyone. It’s the reason hardcore geeks get bent out of shape when they can’t do exactly what they want with Apple hardware, but it’s not for them. It’s for everyone else, and everyone else is who’s spending the lion’s share of the money and filling Apple’s coffers with reasons to continue along this path. Computers have been too hard to use for too many people for too long and Apple’s stance is that it’s time for a change.

The spec battle is long since over. Companies who insist on continuing it instead of creating compelling software experiences do so at their own peril. It’s too bad, because more interesting software makes the market better for all of us.

[Cross-posted here]

How to fix the Mac App Store’s licensing issues.

A lot of people, myself included, are excited about the arrival of the Mac App Store, but there’s a few issues still outstanding, some of which I spoke about yesterday. After a little bit of thinking, I came to some conclusions on how Apple might be able to deal with one of the bigger ones, namely helping users who have already paid for software transition into the App Store without having to repurchase it.

I see two possible solutions. The first is that Apple allow developers to issue “transfer” codes, similar to promo codes in the iOS App Store. Currently, as I understand it, there are limits to how this works in iOS, but in that case, we’re talking about a software ecosystem that didn’t exist prior to the device allowing it. In the case of the Mac, there are years of investment on the part of users, and loyalty built upon certain developers and their work.

The second might even be easier. Developers have lists of registered users and their associated email addresses and licenses. Just like there’s a “Redeem” section of the iTunes store, create a “Transfer License” area. Allow developers to upload a database of all their registered users to Apple. Customers who wish to transfer their licenses to the App Store can then fill out two fields: their email address on file with the dev and the license code they’ve already been issued. We’re probably mostly talking about power users here, so this two-step process shouldn’t be too difficult. Once the license is transferred, no one else can repeat this process (just as with the current iOS redeem codes). Furthermore, once the database was uploaded to Apple, the dev would in fact be implicitly agreeing to move all future purchases to the App Store, alleviating the need for two purchase channels. The existing user list goes in, and that’s it. After a while, this could even be phased out entirely.

I don’t think either of these would be too difficult to implement, especially in an effort to ease the transition from the web to the App Store for Mac purchases. It would be an extremely favorable position for Apple to take, and engender a lot of goodwill among users and devs, and would probably avoid polarizing the massive potential user base for the new store. I know I’d be more inclined to move toward it, knowing everything I’ve purchased thus far wasn’t completely negated by the new retail channel’s expectations.

The Mac App Store is live, but not perfect.

The Mac App Store was unveiled earlier today with the 10.6.6 update, and while for a great many Mac users, it heralds a new, easy way to grab interesting software you might ordinarily have missed, it’s not without its foibles too.

For a regular user who just wants a way to browse for things like they do on their iPhone or iPad, it’s a great thing. Get all your apps in one place, get notified when they’re updated automatically as in iOS. But for power users, who are accustomed to the modicum of effort it takes to seek out and find apps, there are a few downsides. Already there are rumblings that certain popular apps had to remove pieces of functionality just to be included in the store. That could be a deal-breaker for someone who’s been using a piece of software and wants the unified benefits the App Store offers, but can’t give up a function he/she relies on.

Apps already installed on your Mac show up as installed, but as of now, won’t be updated through the App Store either, which can cause confusion for users. It’s probably because they don’t want people to purchase apps they already own again, but it’s a confusing UI choice. Could be a bug, could be a real pain further down the line when version numbers don’t quite match up, functions are different between two seemingly identical versions of the same app, and users have questions about what they have and why it isn’t like the other things they have.

Furthermore, before the iOS App Store, there really wasn’t a super easy way to get apps on and off your device. The ease of instant downloads and instant deletions made it perfect for not having to think too much about those impulse buys. But the Mac is very different. As of right now, I can’t find a simple “tap-and-hold” delete function for Mac apps like on iOS, and people are going to want that. Soon. Within the App Store app, I don’t see any mention of uninstallation. Just a purchase history. And considering that the Mac is not sandboxed the way iOS is, it could lead to problems and confusion in the future.

Considering Apple’s aiming this squarely at the standard user and not so much at the power user who understands where .plist files are stored and why they might be crashing your app every time you open it, they have a lot of work left to do to make it exactly the same kind of experience the iOS App Store has become. It’s a great first effort, but be prepared for some quizzical expressions here and there as we go along. Perhaps 10.7 will address some of these issues. I hope so, because as it stands, it’s just not the same fluid consumer experience people are used to. And that may be a bigger problem for Apple than they realize.

iPhone 4. Finally.

We all knew it was coming. We knew a bunch of things, or at least we thought so. We basically knew a lot about the software already. I have to say, I don’t know what I was expecting, but that “one more thing” seemed a bit underwhelming. 


IF the person you’re calling has a new iPhone. IF you’re on Wi-Fi. And IF you both want to look like tools.

I know, someone is going to get excited about it. But I’m more excited about that screen. Oh, that glorious screen. What a fine looking lady that one is. Reading books doesn’t seem like a punchline on it.

Screen and speed. Speed even more than screen. I hate waiting even a second for an app to load. I’m such a spoiled bitch that way.

Well, just two weeks until iOS4 (awkward, but it makes sense if you think about how silly “iPhone OS” seemed on other devices, especially if the new Apple TV rumor comes to pass). Then a few more days for the hotness.

Nice. June is the month to be an Apple nerd.

Apple is not China.

I originally sent this as an email to Buzz Out Loud this morning. It wasn’t used on the show, but I figured it was worth posting anyway. The points are still valid. On Tuesday’s show, Molly made a comment comparing Apple’s App Store shenanigans to the way China handles their government. It just wasn’t a good analogy.

There is simply no way that you can compare Apple’s questionable App Store policies to China’s unmitigated death march on human rights. Apple is a consumer electronics company. It makes choices, based on what it sees as a value to increasing its presence in the market and its monetary worth to stockholders. China is an entire country, bent on oppressing what the world has come to accept as basic civil liberties and human rights to advance its own agenda. You really can’t draw parallels between these two entities. They’re simply not the same.

I know it’s tempting, because we all love to look at corporations as nefarious, overreaching behemoths whose every move is calculated to control more of our lives, and in a lot of instances, well, that seems to be the case. But… not in the App Store, k?

You may not like that Apple is selectively removing apps from the App Store, as it reeks of censorship – but it’s not a government. We as the non-stockholding public don’t get to have a say – it’s a company that makes products, to make money. Let’s all take a step back, and be honest – no one’s basic human rights have been compromised – no one’s undeniable freedoms have been trampled because of these decisions.

And frankly, we all know the App Store has too much crap in it anyway.

Apple Confidential 2.0

I read this book about a year ago, and I think about it often. If you are at all interested in Apple as a company, I’ve yet to read something that goes into the exhaustive detail that this book does. It’s not written from a fanboy perspective; in fact, it’s unflinchingly detailed in every aspect of the company’s growth from that tiny garage to the multi-billion-dollar culture-defining behemoth that it’s become. Which includes all the bad choices, all the tantrums, and all the back-room sniping that led to the company falling, and eventually rising again. A great read, highly recommended.

Apple Confidential 2.0