Nicholas Windsor Howard: The Apple Goes Mushy

Nicholas wrote a well-articulated piece titled ‘The Apple Goes Mushy Part I: OS X’s Interface Decline (Introduction)’ (via. The Loop) that critiques the present OS X1 design. There are a lot of points here to back the criticisms, instead of blandly throwing about the ‘…wouldn’t have happened if Jobs was around’ dialog. It’s definitely worth a read. While reading, I tried really hard to think of reasons why these points don’t hold, how there’s maybe just that one sliver that’s hiding behind the cracks that Nicholas missed out on, something that justifies Apple’s sacrifice of design in favour of a pleasing aesthetic. I couldn’t. Everything is well-argued and backed with solid examples. But perhaps there’s a draw here — one in Apple’s favour. Apple’s message of yore — pre-iPhone, when their sales were low — was ‘Our computers are easy for anyone to use.’, fit for attracting new (usually Windows) customers to the Mac. Maybe now it’s shifted to ‘Our computers are instantly familiar and easy to use’, appealing instead to users of Apple products (usually an iPhone) and retaining existing Mac customers. Nicholas says of the removal of color throughout OS X: They have greyscaled other, more obscure parts of OS X to harmful effect, and seemingly no one has mentioned these design changes. I intend to do so. Note the color removal on the delete button (which should probably depict a trash can and not a “cancel” symbol, but alas…) in the Image Capture utility: I use Image Capture regularly and find myself fumbling for the delete button ever since Apple turned it from red to grey. Why did they suck the color away? And I wonder again why the color vanished from almost every sidebar in the system: besides Finder, iTunes, iPhoto (before the new Photos application existed), Mail, and Contacts (back when Apple called it Address Book) have all succumbed to wan insanity. The Menu Bar selections in Final Cut Pro X highlight grey, not blue, when your cursor hovers over them. The majority of system applications greet you with vast canvases of nondescript white. Buttons are white. The Menu Bar is white. The Dock application labels are white. The cumulative effect is exactly the same as almost all popular interface designs today: everything is a stark, harsh, flat, alienating plane of white. I haven’t used OS X pre-Yosemite so I don’t have a practical grasp of the situation. Nicholas doesn’t bring up the Safari UI in the entirety of his piece. But to make my point, I intend to do so. (Safari is probably the most colorless app I’ve used on OS X; every control is a shade of grey.) It’s true Safari’s UI could be perplexing to a first-timer. It’s visually minimal, perhaps a little too much. But I think Apple knows this. Because while it may be tough for the new-comer, it’s extremely rewarding for the veteran. Due to the pervasive gray, Safari is minimal, it’s unobtrusive. As Jony Ive says, it recedes to give way to your content. If The Times of India has a shitty design/aesthetic, it’s Times of India’s fault. If The New Yorker seems to you like the aesthetic equivalent of charming grace and you can’t help but revisit it over and over, it’s The New Yorker’s fault. Safari is just your old friend who got you there and deftly stepped side — appearing again only when you need it to. Again, I can’t be absolutely certain about this but it may just be that Apple is trading in a lean learning curve for a loyal, rewarding user experience, beneficial in the long-run. I haven’t referred to OS X as macOS throughout my article because the narrative is about OS X El Capitan and prior releases, not macOS Sierra. ↩︎

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Video’s importance was a shared theme in this week’s quarterly earnings report

A lot of big numbers were talked about this week. The billionth iPhone was sold; Dave Pell jokes: ‘Drug cartels wish they had a product that addictive’. Other numbers were by companies on their quarterly financial reports. Among each narrative was a shared theme — one of considering video as a medium of prime importance. The following are a few excerpts from come New York Times articles. Amazon: Amazon plans to nearly double its spending on digital video during the second half of the year as it expands the offerings of its Netflix-like streaming service, he said. Twitter: “We’ve become a video-centric platform,” Adam Bain, Twitter’s chief operating officer, said in the company’s conference call on Tuesday. “It is now the No. 1 ad format in terms of revenue on Twitter.” Facebook: “We see a world where video is first, with video at the heart of all of our apps and services,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in a conference call with investors. The only company that didn’t talk about video in relation with its growth (the company that already has probably the most lucrative video ads business) is Google: Mr. Pichai’s lengthy prepared remarks took a long-term perspective, focusing on the importance of machine learning — software that adjusts to the user’s experience. It will be, he promised, the source of the next great innovations after the switch to mobile runs its course. What’s the upshot — the general consensus — here I wonder? Video is more engaging than static written-form visually supplemented by images? I don’t think so. (Jason Kottke has a great piece on this topic.) I don’t have a definitive answer, maybe some spontaneous theories but nothing worth penning down.

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’The Typography of ‘Stranger Things’’

Sarah Gless: The Stranger Things title sequence is pure, unadulterated typographic porn. With television shows opting for more elaborate title sequences (think GOT and True Detective), the opening of Stranger Things is refreshingly simple. It trims the fat and shows only what is necessary to set the mood. More importantly, it proves a lesson I’ve learned time and time again as a designer: you can do a lot with type. […] The Stranger Things logo probably looks strangely familiar, taking you back to an era when Stephen King reigned supreme. The show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, directly cite King as the inspiration behind the show’s logo, having sent copies of King’s novels to Imaginary Forces, the creative studio behind the title sequence. I kid you not, when I saw Stranger Things’ preview image on Netflix, I thought it was a TV series based on some Stephen King book I was unaware of. Sure, part of it was the fact that the cover itself — minus the title — has an uncanny similarity with a Stephen King plot, but that typeface carries it a long way; perhaps even pays homage to King. The unspoken effect of an appropriate font is absolutely wonderful. (Coincidentally, I’m currently reading Misery by Stephen King. It’s an old edition, I managed to get my hands on it at a bookfair. The cover looks quite like the ones featured in the article.)

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NYTimes: ‘Facebook Profit Nearly Triples on Mobile Ad Sales and New Users’

Mike Issac, The New York Times: Facebook said sales totaled $6.44 billion for the quarter, up 59 percent from a year ago, while profit almost tripled to $2.06 billion. The rise was driven by strong mobile ad sales, as well as a steady ascent in its number of users. Facebook now counts 1.71 billion monthly active users, up 15 percent from a year ago. And in a sign of how indispensable the social network is to people, the amount of money the company can squeeze from each user globally jumped to $3.82, up from $2.76 a year earlier. Those are very impressive numbers, especially considering ‘the next billion users’ is generally a steeper hill to climb.

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Xiaomi announces its Mi Notebook Air

Rich McCormick, Circuit Breaker (The Verge): The Chinese company announced the Mi Notebook Air today, a thin and light Windows laptop that comes in gold or silver, and looks set to compete with Apple's MacBook. Fine attention to detail — the very first image on the official page looks exactly like the MacBook too; so do the arrow keys. I wonder why they didn’t pull it out of an envelope?

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Amazon Prime comes to India

Madhav Chanchani, The Economic Times: Amazon Prime in India will offer free one day and two delivery to customers and early access to its exclusive offers. Prime Video, which will include Amazon original TV series and movies besides other Indian and global content, is expected to be launched as a part of this service later. Currently, Amazon Prime is available for a free 60 day trial after which the annual subscription will be available at a “special introductory price” of Rs 499. The listing pricing of Prime membership is expected at Rs 999, which is much lower as compared to its other market like $99 (Rs 6,633) for US and £96 (Rs 8,691) for UK. (Funny how well this ties in with my previous post on time-cutting driving sales.) I would’ve guessed Amazon’s introduction of Prime would prove no good since faster delivery doesn’t seem like an enticing promise for the Indian market. However, on second thought, Amazon wouldn’t introduce Prime in India were it not for data that proves some demand for fast-deliveries exists. The ‘special introductory price’ of Rs 499 ($7.43) is less than a tenth of what Amazon charges its American customers; Rs 999 ($14.9) is still very cheap, comparatively. But the American Prime offers customers unlimited photo storage, music streaming, and free Kindle book-rentals, none of which is a part of the Indian Prime. Prime video is the most interesting aspect for me, although I have a feeling their catalog of Western media isn’t going to match its American counterpart. A word on Amazon’s marketting in India: I think their ad campaign ‘We Indians…’ is pretty smart — blending in with your local customers builds trust and maybe even loyalty. (It’d be fun asking someone on the street which country they think Amazon is based in.)

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Vox: ‘How free games are designed to make money’

Jason Kottke’s article ‘The behavioural psychology behind freemium mobile games‘ has a collection of sources that talk about the the way freemium games utilise behavioural psychology to earn a quick — sometimes manipulative — buck. Among the collection is a video by Vox that further explores this idea and explains some ways games exploit the phenomenon that people are predisposed to spend representations of money more readily than ‘actual’ money. The more real it seems, the tougher it gets to part with; the video narrates people’s readiness to spend money via cards overpowers their readiness to do so when paying with cash. The video also illustrates that increasing the distance from you and your ‘actual money’ is the game developers’ decision to substitute your money for gems. But the part I find absolutely fascinating — which is, granted, probably exploitive — is how unevenly the currencies map. Pricing 100 gems for $1 is an option but if I spend 3200 gems while playing the game I can estimate the amount I’m spending. Instead, game developers price 120 gems for $1. Now when I spend 3200 gems, it’s tougher to instinctively guess how much of my money I’spent. (To further the cause, why not price 137 gems at $1 ? Now you’re really struggling to deduce how much those armour-backed troops just cost you.) I want to add a word to this discussion, something Vox’s video faintly alludes to — I think the time taken in getting you those gems plays a non-insignificant role in your impulsiveness to spend your money. And I think this applies to other domains of buying and selling goods as well. So while swiping a card, entering your pin (the whole charade), somewhat masks the $800 you parted with in buying yourself an iPhone, I think a service like Apple Pay would mask your expense further still; due to the fact that the 20 seconds you would spend paying by card has been reduced to 5. Lesser the time spent on a transaction, less cognisant you are of being made to part with your money. Part manipulative, part genius.

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Recode: ‘Facebook Messenger now has one billion active users’

Kurt Wagner, Recode: Facebook Messenger now has one billion active users each month, making it as big as Facebook’s other messaging app, WhatsApp, and the third Facebook product — along with the flagship Facebook app — to reach a billion active users. […] If you’ll remember, Messenger growth really started to take off once Facebook spun the product out of the flagship app, forcing users who wanted to send and receive messages on mobile to download Messenger as well. When Facebook segregated Messenger from core-Facebook, I — and a few others I knew — were inconvenienced by the broken integrity; knowing that the decision was intended to let Messenger grow as a (somewhat) independent platform was little consolation. But I realised the gravity of Messenger’s segregation one day when I was sitting in my office and I wanted to contact a friend through a quick message on Facebook and get back to my work. When I opened Facebook’s website, I was conscious of probably seeming like ‘that guy who sits on Facebook at work’ to anyone who happens to pass by. I went ahead with my message anyway. Also: I dont have the Facebook app installed on my phone but Messenger is present.

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More mockups of an iPhone ‘Pro’

Juli Clover, MacRumors: The iPhone 7 Pro features a dual-lens camera and a Smart Connector, while the iPhone 7 Plus and the iPhone 7 feature single-lens cameras and no Smart Connector. I’m really struggling to see why Apple would add yet another model to the iPhone line. What would justify the added complexity across multiple axes: Support, maintenance, ease of selection for the customer etc. Maybe it’s because Apple is (presumably) nearing peak iPhone-ownership? Everyone who can buy a smartphone already has one and people don’t upgrade their phones as frequently. (Apple could gain market share by gaining Android users, and more people are entering the smartphone-purchasing bracket but I’m considering a static market for argument’s sake.) Adding a ‘Pro’ iPhone to the lineup that’s priced somewhere around $349-399 and offers higher margins would be growth for Apple in a market that’s (again, presumably) more or less stagnant. Would people pay the added price for the highest tier? I don’t know. But I’m willing to bet Apple commands the biggest chunk of ‘I don’t care what it costs, I just want the best‘ customers.  

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Adobe’s Make It on Mobile Debut Event

Adobe uploaded a video on YouTube titled Make It on Mobile Debut Event. Artists get together and engage in creative tasks using — obviously — Adobe’s apps. Everyone uses an iPad, some paired with the Pencil; editing on the iPhone is mentioned too. It’s good to know people can create with this amount of flexibility on an iPad but Adobe selling ‘creativity on mobile’ is akin to Apple saying ‘…it’s the best iPhone yet’ — it’s hard to overlook the self-advertising, whether you agree or not. Instead, I took a step back to look at Apple’s push into various disciplines and get a grasp of their seriousness in pitching the iPad as a work-machine. Apple’s partnered with IBM and Cisco on their enterprise fronts, Microsoft even got stage-time at the iPad Pro debut last year to showcase Office, as did Adobe. Swift Playgrounds is a big push towards education and a start for programming on the iPad. What’s common across these fields? They’re all categorically ‘work stuff’. I gave my parents an iPad Air 2 a little while ago. My mom presumes everything that can be done on a laptop can be done on an iPad. I don’t have to convince her to use an iPad as her primary machine. (I sometimes have to convince her out of it, in cases such as printing files since our printer isn’t wireless.) The convincing is usually reserved for people who have been long-time desktop/laptop users. (Further anecdote: I always hear my relatives say ‘my [post-toddler-age] kid is just so natural with a touchscreen’, never ‘oh he works the ol’ mouse like a charm’.) I have no trouble believing that the iPad powered by iOS and direct manipulation is — or will drive a huge majority of — the future of computing, despite being increasingly unable to use my iPad Air. The next time you run into someone who is deeply sceptical of the iPad ‘not being any good for work stuff’, take a moment and consider how long they’ve stared into a desktop OS.

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Mashable: ‘This blind Apple engineer is transforming the tech world at only 22’

You might’ve read this story by Katie Dupree on Mashable. The part that caught my attention: Sarah Herrlinger, senior manager for global accessibility policy and initiatives at Apple, says a notable part of the company’s steps toward accessibility is its dedication to making inclusivity features standard, not specialized. The cynical take here is that this is rehearsed PR-speak designed to sound great and put forth a good impression. I don’t think that’s the case but even if it is, I don’t see other companies presenting their PR-speak with a shared passion. I think Apple truly understands and cares for the needs of the people they’re crafting for: ‘…making inclusivity features standard, not specialized’.  

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[Update] The app has been submitted for review

After multiple 12+ hour work-days spent in front of Xcode, the app I wrote is finally awaiting review. I’ve been checking the iTunes Connect app repeatedly, due to anxiety. The irony in iTunes Connect crashing some times when trying to view the app’s status is enjoyable.

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