Jony Ive (Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple) says that there is beauty in simplicity. It’s easy to get sucked into the reality distortion field (even without the influence of Steve Jobs) and rave about how great Apple’s latest efforts are without really analysing them logically, but I think that catch-phrase – beauty in simplicity – has a lot of truth.
As a programmer and database and web site designer myself I know how easy it is to create something with a lot of features and functions. But while a “Microsoft” type of product with every feature imaginable and a disorganised mess of user interface elements to access those features may seem impressive, it’s actually the simpler, uncluttered products, such as the one’s Apple makes, which are truly superior.
In some ways it’s about what you leave out rather than what you put in. If something is designed properly it can appear simple and uncluttered while still providing plenty of functionality. But that is actually harder than just trying to do everything with little thought to how the user accesses those functions, how they are presented, or how they work together.
I think this principle applies to everything which is why I used more general terms above, but it is most apparent in software design, hence the example of Microsoft software user interfaces.
So what’s the point of all this? Well Apple are currently holding their World Wide Developers’ Conference in San Francisco and the keynote presentation showed off several new iterations of Apple’s current products including iOS7, the latest version of the operating system for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.
I don’t generally like to comment on products I haven’t used myself but I will present some initial thoughts here and perhaps do an actual review once I have used iOS7 for a while.
Many people (me included) think that the current version of iOS is very functional and simple to use but it is starting to feel a little bit lacking in some areas and maybe starting to show it’s age. After all, the first iPhone which used iOS was introduced a whole 6 years ago now – an eternity in computer terms!
So something had to be done and it seemed to make sense to have Apple’s design genius, Jony Ive, have a look at the system and bundled apps and apply some of his magic. It looks like he has succeeded. The new iOS looks simpler and cleaner but still has more functionality. The advanced features are accessible when they need to be, but don’t get in the way. It looks encouraging although I think they could have gone even further in perhaps eliminating the simple grid application layout.
Some people will say there isn’t a lot of real innovation there. I agree. But in many ways – despite what is often believed – Apple isn’t really about innovation at the most basic level. They are more about doing things right rather than doing them first. Let’s look at some examples…
The Apple II was the first home computer which most people could use, but there were a few other models which pre-dated it so it wasn’t really first home computer.
The graphical interface and mouse on the Mac (and Lisa before that) weren’t invented by Apple. They were developed at Xerox PARC. But Apple took those elements and improved them to a point where they worked (within the limitations of the hardware of the day). So again they weren’t the first with a graphical interface they were just the first to do it right.
The iPod was not the first MP3 player. There were plenty of others before that. But again the iPod was easy to use and had good capacity (although 5GB seems small by today’s standards) so it become very successful (at least once a PC compatible version was released) and to many seems like it was the one product which started the digital music revolution.
The same applies to the iPhone. There were many smart phones before that. Some of them had quite impressive feature lists, but those features were slow and awkward and most people didn’t use them. I had a very sophisticated Sony phone before I got my first iPhone and it had a web browser, email client, video chat, and many other features. But I didn’t use those features because they just didn’t work well. That all changed with the iPhone because everything was usable.
You must be getting the idea now so do I really need to mention that the iPad was not the first tablet, but that earlier efforts were truly awful?
So the same applies to iOS7. There are elements there which are just enhanced versions of what is in iOS6, and there are elements reminiscent of alternative systems like Android and Windows 8. But I suspect that it is how the functions work together and how they are so easily accessible and so intuitive to the user which sets them apart.
I guess I won’t really know until I start using iOS7. Luckily my iPhone 5 is new enough to be able to use all of its features. Sadly, my poor old iPad 1 can’t even run iOS6. Still, that is now 3 years old – virtually a vintage device in the fast moving world of computers!
People’s work habits usually change slowly. Maybe they just don’t change, and it’s only new generations which allow any change at all (because they don’t have old habits to overcome) but I think it should be possible for people to improve their routines if they just made the effort.
In this blog entry I want to discuss one of my little pet complaints: how people can’t get out of the habit of wasting paper by printing every document they want to read or store. Why can’t they use modern technology and use less paper and save a few trees?
I have worked on being paperless for a few years now myself and have succeeded almost 100%. I must admit that I do still occasionally scribble notes on small scraps of paper but most of the time I type them into my computer, iPad, or (most times) iPhone. I have got quite used to reading from the screen of my various devices so I almost never print anything. And all my document storage is in electronic form.
Mostly this works well. The notes synchronise between all of my devices through Apple’s iCloud and I use the computer (a MacBook Pro with an i7 processor, solid state drive, and 15″ screen) as the “master device” to create permanent documents which synchronise back out to the other devices.
If anyone hands me a piece of paper (such as a receipt, business card, or order of some sort) I just take a photo of it with the iPhone and give it back to them. And I might mention that using an electronic version next time would be preferred. Again, the photos synchronise to the other devices for permanent storage.
And I don’t read books or newspapers, at least not in a conventional form. Ironically, the last book I read on paper was the biography of Steve Jobs, the person who allows me to dispense entirely with conventional reading material. I read news on the iPad and computer through news web sites and I supplement this with podcasts from Radio New Zealand and other sources which I download every morning. And I read a few books on the iPad but mainly listen to audio books which means I can “read” and drive or “read” while walking from one job to the next.
So paper is basically a thing of the past for me. I didn’t even have a printer driver installed on my computer until I had to do some testing for a client. But what about the people I work with? How have they adapted to the new technology?
Generally, extremely poorly.
Almost everyone I work with refuses to read from a screen. They print things and read from the paper instead. Some people even print their email messages! And this applies even to people with high quality devices intended for reading such as iPads.
There have been some truly absurd examples of this. One person has his PA print his emails so he can read them. Then he amends them on paper or writes a new email by hand which the PA types as a new email message. So several sheets of paper are temporarily used for no good reason.
Here’s another example. When I noticed someone printing a 40 page PDF so it could be read I asked why she didn’t get an iPad. She said she had one but didn’t have it at work so couldn’t use it for reading from. When I asked why she left it at home she said it was because she didn’t use it at work so why bring it in? Clearly this was not someone with with knowledge of philosophical logic such as circular arguments!
I try not to be judgemental and I try not to tell everyone how they should work, but I don’t think there’s any harm in suggesting that going paperless is a good idea or even that it is possible. It’s not just because of the environmental advantages of reducing paper use, it’s also about working more efficiently and making the most of the technology we already have available.
I can’t believe that it has been almost 5 years since I last commented on my favourite iPhone apps. Not only is it surprising that I haven’t said anything about a device which I use so much, but it is also strange to think that the iPhone has been around long enough that my commentary should be so infrequent. Of course, I have commented on new iPhone hardware as I used it (I have owned an iPhone 3, 4, and now 5) but in many ways it’s the apps that make the iPhone so great so now I need to spend some time on them.
The best way to establish which apps are most useful is to look at which I have used recently. That’s easy to do by just double-tapping the home button and scrolling back through the apps I have used which are then listed in reverse order of when they were last used.
So here’s the stats on my 64G iPhone 5: total number of apps installed: 226; number of apps used since the last time I cleared the list (about a month back): 100 (exactly); total number of apps used today: 14 (so far, it’s about midday). That indicates that I use about half the apps I have installed and I guess many of the others are used less regularly and some not at all. To be honest there are a few where I would have trouble recalling what they even do!
But I think I should now list the apps I use regularly and talk about why they are so useful. Here they are in reverse order used (most recent at the top)…
Contacts. This is just Apple’s standard address book app. It stores contact information for the people and companies I deal with. It synchronises through iCloud to the Contacts programs on my computer and iPad. Obviously this is useful especially since it also automatically provides this information to so many other apps.
App Store. When you have over 200 apps there are updates available every day. I also like to see which apps are most popular in the iTunes store and I also write reviews of the apps I use. All of this happens through the standard App Store app.
Phone. Yes, I do use my iPhone as a phone occasionally. For every conventional phone call I probably do 10 emails, chats, messages, or texts, but standard old-fashioned cell-phone calls are still useful.
Clash of Clans. Of course games are an important part of the use of any smart phone. Clash of Clans is a game where you build a village with different resource creation (gold, etc), defence (walls, cannons, etc), and attack (various troops, dragons, etc) capabilities and then battle against other players. You join a clan and swap troops with your allies. It is very addictive and involves playing for just a few minutes at a time but to play seriously you must play several times a day, every day.
Super Stickman Golf 2. This is the second (and last) game in this list. SSG2 is another popular game where you can play against other players over the internet. It isn’t a realistic golf game (there are others which are) but is very entertaining, involves various cunning strategies, and becomes far more interesting when playing against other players instead of against the phone.
Downcast. Possibly the app which runs for the most time on my phone is my preferred podcast app, Downcast. Apple does provide a free podcast app but it is awkward to use and doesn’t have as many features as Downcast. I guess I listen to several hours of podcasts on an average day so this app is always busy playing podcasts and downloading new ones.
Music. I don’t tend to listen to a lot of music on my phone – that’s what I have an impressive multi-channel AV system for! But I do use the standard Music app to play audiobooks. Sometimes I run out of podcasts or want a change so I listen to an audiobook instead. In the last few months I have listened to: Animal Farm, Atlas Shrugged, the Demon Haunted World, A Universe from Nothing, Hyperion, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, the Silmarillian, and probably a lot more which I have forgotten about. In the same time I have read just one real book!
Yelp. This app allows you to look up recommendations for companies and services in your area. For example, if you are in another town you might want to find a good restaurant. Until recently there was no content for New Zealand so it was fairly useless here. There’s still not much but it is increasing – I have added three reviews myself!
WordPress. As you can probably tell, I am a fairly serious blogger (you are reading this, right) and WordPress is one platform I blog to (I also post on my own blogging system which I created). The WordPress app makes posting and monitoring posts and managing comments easy.
Mail. The iPhone’s screen is a bit small to make it a perfect email platform (the iPad is a lot better) but I still receive and send many emails through it every day, just because I always have the phone with me.
NZ Herald. This app is for New Zealand’s most well known newspaper. The app is very well written and makes accessing articles really easy. It has some useful features such as marking articles for later reading and, of course, allows access to media (such as movies) which traditional newspapers don’t. It’s also free.
Safari. Again the iPhone screen is a bit small to make it the perfect platform for web browsing but with a little bit of compromise it is useful for looking up quick bits of information and doing some basic browsing. Many web sites now have a mobile version which is specifically designed for phone screens and these are usually much easier to use.
Messages. Apple’s Messages app allows sending and receiving standard texts, including MMS messages with embedded photos and movies. It also transparently sends those messages to other iPhones, iPods, and Mac computers through its own message delivery protocol. These cost nothing, are not limited in size, and provide delivery and reading notifications. It’s a great way to communicate.
iBooks. Apple’s book store app provides access to magazines and books. Again the small screen doesn’t make this an ideal experience which probably explains why I listen to many more audiobooks than I read conventional books (on screen or paper).
Calendar. My day is planned on my calendar. This synchronises with the calendar on my computer and iPad. It makes even a disorganised person like me a bit better organised.
Trade Me. I use the Trade Me app instead of the web site when I am away from home. Not only is it a better experience on the phone’s small screen but it also bypasses any attempted censorship which might be in place at some institutions.
Facebook. I’m not a great fan of Facebook myself – I find the whole concept confusing and clumsy – but it is what everyone else uses so I do post stuff there most days and follow friends and family as well.
Instagram. I have been a serious amateur photographer for many years but Instagram makes casual photography easy and fun! I just take a photo on the iPhone’s camera (which is pretty good quality in the iPhone 5), change it around using Instagram’s filters and effects, and automatically post it to multiple locations (I usually send my photos to Twitter and Facebook).
MacTracker. As a Mac consultant I often need to look up specs on various Apple products: maximum memory, which operating systems they support, what type of memory they use, etc. MacTracker makes this easy. It has an extensive database of every product Apple has ever made with plenty of information about each one.
TomTom GPS: New Zealand. The iPhone is a brilliant GPS device. I have a dash-mount in my car which I slot the phone into, then I connect it to the power (GPS drains batteries) and use the TomTom GPS app. Apple’s built-in GPS app is very good but it requires a constant internet connection. The TomTom app stores its very detailed maps on the phone so it works fast and free everywhere. I also have the Australia map. They cost about $80 (a lot of an iPhone app) each but are really worth it.
So those are the apps I’ve used in the last 12 to 24 hours. It’s really quite surprising how many I do use. I don’t tend to notice much that I am using a lot, but looking back through the list it just seems to happen that way. I guess the iPhone presents such a clean, intuitive interface that using lots of apps is just too easy!
I have been doing general computer support (along with a lot of other IT related jobs, such as web site design and general programming) for many years now so I have had a lot of interesting experiences in that area. In my last blog entry I discussed some of the reasons for computer problems in regards to the computer hardware and software. Today I want to comment on (or maybe whinge about) how the user contributes to the whole situation.
I mainly work in a university which is (theoretically at least) filled with intelligent, capable people. You might assume, in this situation, that supporting their computing requirements would be fairly easy. Well no, not necessarily!
If I can actually work on the computer then there are usually few problems. With ubiquitous networking it is usually possible to take control of a computer without being physically present, and in many cases I can actually visit to tackle the problem directly. But there are many other situations where phone support is required, and that’s where things get interesting.
Recently I spend 20 minutes trying to establish whether a computer was plugged in to the power or not. I know that sounds ridiculous but think about it: even with an iMac, which has less cables than many other computers, there are still a few to worry about, such as keyboard, ethernet, and printer cables. Some users look behind the computer, see some cables, and assume that it is plugged into the power.
And yes, I did describe the power cable as a “quite thick (about 5 mm) grey one which probably goes through a big hole in the computer’s stand and connects in the middle”. The user saw a fairly thin green one which didn’t go through a hole and connected on the right, and thought that was close enough!
So when I try to figure out why the computer won’t start, after being told the power is connected and switched on, you can imagine my confusion. I often feel like my time is being wasted by help systems which ask if the computer is plugged in to the power. I think “of course it is, get on to the helpful suggestions” but clearly you can’t assume anything!
Sometimes users just seem to be totally blind to what is on their screen. I asked another user to open the Applications folder and tell me if “Image Capture” was there. He said it wasn’t and listed some other programs with similar names: iPhoto, iTunes, etc. I was surprised by this because Image Capture is a standard program installed with the operating system (an install which I had done earlier).
So I said “just type I, then M together quickly”. He said that it had highlighted Mail. Obviously he had typed too slowly and instead of highlighting a program starting with “IM” it had highlighted one starting with “I” followed by another starting with “M”. So I asked him to type a bit more quickly but before he did that he said “Oh, here it is, next to iPhoto”. Yes, and it wasn’t there all along?
But that was nothing compared with a similar issue I wasted about 10 minutes on (these may not sound like long periods of time but if you get 2 or 3 in a row suddenly you start thinking about how you might prefer to be doing something else). All I wanted to do was confirm which program a user was currently using.
On a Mac that is quite easy because the second menu in the menu bar (which is always across the top of the screen) is the name of the program, and that menu is always to the right of the Apple menu which is at the top-left of the screen. So all the user has to do is look at the top-left of the screen, recognise the small Apple symbol and read the word immediately to its right. How hard can that be?
Well, as I said, it took 10 minutes to prise that piece of information from one user I recently worked with.
First of all I assumed a certain amount of basic knowledge on the user’s part and asked her directly which program she was in (that terminology usually works, instead of asking which is the “active” or frontmost” program). She didn’t know, of course.
RIght, so again assuming a certain amount of basic knowledge, I asked what is the name of the second menu. She said she had no menus. Now I really don’t know if she knew what a menu was in this context so I needed to dumb it down a bit. I said “do you see the small Apple symbol at the top-left of the screen”. No, she didn’t see that. I said “what’s at the top-left of your screen”. She replied ” some coloured dots”.
OK, that was progress, there are coloured dots at the top-left of each window. So I said “no, at the top-left of the whole screen, not just the window (of course, I knew for sure she wouldn’t know what a window was but I’m eternally optimistic). No, there was nothing there according to her.
So it sounded like the program was in full-screen mode but this was an older machine with a system which didn’t support that and, even if it did, the coloured buttons wouldn’t be visible then.
So I said “what happens when you move the mouse pointer to the top of the screen? Apparently it disappeared. Now, I’m fairly sure it didn’t disappear – more likely she just briefly lost sight of it – but what could I say?
So I was thinking about what I could do next when she said “what does Finder mean?” I asked her where she saw that and she said near the top-left of the screen. I asked “to the right of the Apple symbol” and she replied “yes”. I asked “what did you do to make that appear?” and she didn’t know. She thought it must have been there all along.
At this point a career in – well just about anything except IT – seemed like a good idea, but at least I knew which program was currently active so I could proceed to the next step. But I really wonder to this day what it was she was looking at when I asked her to look for the Apple symbol at the top-left of the screen. And I guess she still doesn’t know what a menu or a window actually is!
Other users seem to take a long time to do basic things, like select from a menu. When it takes a minute to choose an item from a menu I get worried that maybe the user is really doing something else.
Here’s an example: I asked a user if he could see the Apple menu. Yes he could see that fine (obviously this guy is like Alan Turing compared with the previous user). So I said “click on that menu and choose System Preferences”. I waited a few seconds then said “now…”. But he interrupted me: “wait”. OK, I waited, then I said “OK now?”. He replied “No, just wait a minute, you’re going to fast”. At this stage I wonder if this guy is erasing his hard disk or writing a shell script to hack into NASA in the time between clicking Apple, moving down 100 pixels and clicking System Preferences, but after about 30 seconds I could continue. I still don’t know what he was doing during that time.
Finally there is the most creative and dangerous user of all: the user who actually thinks he or she knows what they are doing! This is usually bad… very bad.
I often like to explain why I am doing certain things just so that the user is reassured and can possibly learn something from the experience, but usually it’s just easier to list a series of actions and have the user repeat them on their computer.
Sometimes it becomes apparent that the user hasn’t got to the expected place, so I need to backtrack and find out what’s gone wrong. Often it is because they have taken a “shortcut” or “applied their knowledge to make things easier”. So I think: yes, well you called me because you can’t solve the problem, let’s just try it my way for a change, OK?
Some users have learned a few computer words and are keen to show them off. But their explanations, rather than clarifying the true situation, often just make things a lot worse! For example, I had one user tell me she had “pointed the font at the window and clicked the pointer but nothing happened”. Well I sort of understand all of those individual words but I can’t make a lot of sense out of how they have been combined!
So yes, computers can be bizarre and difficult to understand, but compared with users, computers are a trivial problem. At least computers make a certain amount of sense and follow some basic rules which can be understood after a few years of intense study of computer science. Users on the other hand (despite the fact that I majored in psychology as well as computer science at university) will always be a mystery to me!
When you are an IT consultant there are two elements of the job which you have to be aware (or maybe afraid) of: the first is the computer and all it’s complex, and possibly conflicting, parts; and the second is the user, generally an even more bizarre and unfathomable part of the equation.
Many people think computers give far more problems than they should do, and wonder why this issue is so common. They compare computers with other machines which seem to have far fewer faults and accuse computer experts of being somehow negligent in being responsible for these problems.
There is a certain element of truth in this criticism. Computers do seem to develop more faults than most other technology, but I would say there are several really good reasons for this which I will go through here.
First, computer technology is relatively new. The computer as a common workplace tool is only about 20 or 30 years old. Some common functions of computers, such as use of the internet by non-specialists, were developed much more recently than that. So I think there is a partial excuse in saying that computers are still being developed to be more reliable and easy to use and maintain.
Look at how good they are now compared with 10 years ago and it’s obvious considerable progress has already been made. I agree that there is still room for improvement, but how good were cars (for example) just 25 years after they were first mass produced? I would suggest they had progressed nowhere near as far as computers have in the same time.
Second, computers are extremely flexible and tend to be configured with components from a large number of different manufacturers. The computer might come from one company, the operating system form another, various drivers from a third, software from several others, and various peripherals from still others. It is almost inevitable that there will be some compatibility issues when all of these components interact.
Imagine if you bought a car from Ford, then put a Toyota engine in it, with an engine management unit from Mitsubishi and a gearbox from VW. Would you expect these parts to all work together easily? Clearly there are likely to be more issues with this approach, but that is basically what happens with many computers, especially Windows PCs. One reason Macs tend to give a lot less problems is that Apple provides more of the components (hardware, OS, drivers, and some of the software) which are more likely to work together in harmony.
Third, people tend to fine-tune and customise their computers far more than other technology. Traditionally computers have been completely open to reconfiguration by the owner, which has provided clear benefits, but a lot of problems as well. There are exceptions to this approach, for example the iPhone which is a much more closed system, but one where software conflicts, security issues, and crashes are almost unheard of.
To use my car analogy again, it would be like the owner being able to change the way components of the car worked. Would we be surprised if a car stopped working after the owner started fine tuning the engine management system, or disabled the cooling system, for example?
Finally, there has been (especially in the past but not so much today) a trend by major software and hardware companies to engage in a battle with their competitors to see who can create the computer with the best specs or the program with the most features without worrying too much about how relevant those specs were to the average user, or how well those features worked together.
We now have programs like Microsoft Word which can do almost everything but which does all those things really badly, or we have stuff like Flash which comes from the distant past and has just been added to in an attempt to keep it relevant. Both of these approaches result in more functionality theoretically but in less useful functionality in practice.
So when all of these difficulties are considered it’s fairly impressive that computers are as good as they are. It’s not clear which direction these trends will go in future. Apple is making its systems more closed which makes them more reliable, secure and consistent, but also less flexible and configurable. Microsoft is also reducing some of the flexibility of the past. But Google seems determined to offer maximum openness in its Android OS (and that has always been the case with Linux).
As I said above, it’s not clear which is the best approach, but it does seem to me that every other area of technology has become more closed off to the user (few people can service their cars now for example) while becoming more reliable and sophisticated. If that trend also applies to IT then maybe Google is taking the wrong approach.
I think computers will continue to become more reliable and less prone to the problems we still get today, but even now I think a lot of progress has been made. Considering what we ask of them, modern computers (even PCs) are remarkably problem-free.
I seem to have spent a lot of time describing the first difficult element in computer support. The user is in many ways a far more fascinating topic but that will have to wait for another entry.
Don’t be concerned, there hasn’t been another nuclear accident in Japan! Actually it’s much worse than that… not really. What has happened is that the hard drive in my Mac laptop has failed and it involves a major effort to get things working again. In fact, I am writing this blog entry on my iPad because my Mac is busy reloading files. When you have a million files totalling hundreds of Gigabytes of data, recovery from hardware failure is not going to be quick!
Before anyone thinks “oh those Macs are so unreliable” I should say that it is not the Apple supplied drive which has failed (although they do occasionally). It is a very expensive and very fast solid state drive which I fitted myself which is the problem. This has been working brilliantly for the last few months but has just suddenly died horribly.
Also don’t think “he’s an IT professional, why doesn’t he have a backup” because I do have several backups, but they only store my data files, so I still need to reconstruct the operating system and applications, although I also have most of those on an old disk.
The problem is my laptop is very complex. It has a massive collection of Mac and Unix programs installed which I update every day, plus virtual machines for Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8, Ubuntu Linux, Mac OS X Server, and Chrome OS. I challenge anyone to come up with a more complete and finely tuned collection of stuff! Oh, and I hardly ever use the Windows systems just in case you were wondering. They are mainly for testing web sites using IE, and other minor tasks like that.
Until recently I used Retrospect to backup my computers at home but I have recently switched to ChronoSync, so this will be a good test of how well that has worked. I find it interesting that many people run backup systems without ever testing a restore. This will be my first “real world” test of ChronoSync.
It has been a day and a half now that my laptop has been unavailable but I have managed to do a lot of what I would usually do on it using my iPhone and iPad. That is another interesting test of technology which I have now been forced into. Of course, I can’t practically do programming work on the iPad so that gives me an excuse to take a weekend off!
I am often asked if it’s practical to use an iPad as a substitute for a computer. I guess, depending on the specific requirements, in many cases it is. I really can type just as well (or just as badly because my typing has never been great) on the virtual keyboard of an iPad as I do on the real keyboard of the laptop. Plus the iPad is easier to use in different locations even though the 15 inch laptop is also fairly portable itself.
So whether this IT meltdown will take as long to recover from as Chernobyl of Fukushima I still don’t know. It is inconvenient, but it is also a learning opportunity. In the future I will run a disk clone overnight every day (or maybe once a week if it turns out to be inconvenient) as well as my existing daily backup.
I was hoping the solid state drive would be more reliable than a conventional hard disk as well as being faster. And I was hoping cloud storage would reduce the need for backups too. But maybe not. Backups are still as important as they ever were.
A while back I discussed one of my favourite things: the two Voyager spacecraft which are currently the most distant objects humans have ever launched into space and have been providing useful data for over 30 years.
Today I want to discuss a very different piece of technology and one which will be lucky to be still the greatest in 30 weeks (forget about 30 years). It’s from the IT world which is changing so quickly that no matter how good a device it is it will be somewhat obsolete in about half a year. This is both exhilarating (because there’s always something newer and better) and depressing (because of the need to keep buying newer expensive toys) for those interested in technology.
Anyway, without further ado I will announce that the device is the iPhone. The current iteration is the iPhone 5, which I have had since the day it was released, but it’s more the complete range of iPhones and what they have done for the whole field of smart phones which I am interested in here.
I know some people prefer Android based phones to iPhones because they are more open and cheaper, plus there is a greater range of hardware available, but I still think the iPhone deserves to be the recipient of my favourite things award because it started the modern smartphone revolution and the iPhone hardware and iOS system combination is just so much more elegant than Android.
It’s hard to believe that the iPhone is only about 5 years old and before that smartphones really didn’t exist. Sure there were some limited attempts at extending the capabilities of high-end feature phones, such as the Blackberry and Windows phones, but these were really in a totally inferior class to even the first iPhone.
Just over 5 years ago it would be almost impossible to believe that a single device could do all that an iPhone can now, and do it so easily (and at a price which I admit isn’t cheap but isn’t exactly totally outrageous either).
There are the simple things first. The iPhone is a great device for making phone calls and texting. It’s easy to forget the basics when adding more and more functionality. And it has a very usable web browser and email client. Before the iPhone some phones had these features but they were practically unusable in most cases.
But of course the iPhone is more a handheld computer than a phone so it’s after you get past the basics that things get interesting. I thought that instead of listing out the impressive feature list of the device I will give a few examples of how I make use of those functions to do useful things.
The iPhone is a great audio device. I use mine to listen to a lot of podcasts which are my main way to get news and information. I also listen to audiobooks because I don’t have so much time to read the traditional way. With audiobooks I can listen to a book while I am driving, walking, etc. Finally I do also listen to a bit of music, although I far prefer to do that through my audio system at home.
I have been a photography enthusiast for many years now but my SLR camera is just too big and heavy to take everywhere with me. The iPhone camera isn’t in the same class as a real SLR but it’s good enough (even for a serious amateur) if you have nothing else available. My favourite quote about photography is this: “the best camera is the one you have with you when you need one.”
I take my phone everywhere, so during my recent summer holiday I took about half the photos on my SLR and the other half on the iPhone 5. I also use Instagram to take quick pictures, change their style, tag them with a location and description, and post them to the Instagram system, Facebook, and Twitter all with one tap. It’s a great way to quickly and easily show other people what I’m doing.
I also use the phone a lot for it’s GPS functions. In fact, even though I have a standalone GPS unit I use the iPhone instead because it provides a lot of extra functionality. I use third party apps (one for each country) from Tom Tom for this. The maps for New Zealand and Australia cost about $80 each – by far the most expensive apps on my phone – but I use these instead of the free built-in Apple or the Google Maps apps because their maps are stored on the device and a constant internet connection isn’t necessary (except for traffic reports and a few other peripheral functions).
Another GPS function I use is “Find my Friends” which allows me to (with their permission) track friends and family using their iPhone’s GPS system. I can even set up automated messages to tell me when another person arrives at a certain location. This is very useful when travelling with several people in different vehicles.
I have a lot of presence on the internet. I use Facebook, Google+, and Twitter (and a few others such as LinkedIn and Foursquare less often) for social interaction; WordPress and my own blogging system to post blog entries; TradeMe and eBay for buying and selling; and I have many web sites and other servers I need to monitor constantly. All of this can be done from the iPhone fairly well although I still prefer an iPad or computer for writing full length blog entries – the screen of any reasonable sized phone (including the iPhone) is just a bit too small for typing lots of text.
Another of my expensive hobbies is astronomy. I know the sky well but sometimes I need to identify something unusual. With the iPhone that is really easy. Just use one of the many great astronomy apps (I usually use “Night Sky” but I also have several others) and point the phone at the sky. The compass, GPS, orientation sensors, and gyroscope in the phone sense what you are pointing out and label the sky for you on the screen. It’s brilliant and remarkably accurate too.
When you think about it it’s extraordinary that a device just over 7 mm thick and weighing just 112 grams can include all of the following: a dual-core CPU, a multi-core GPU, 1G of RAM, 64G of storage, a high definition touch screen, multiple microphones, speakers, two cameras (one with a flash and capable of high definition video and good quality photos), a complete cell phone system, a Bluetooth system, multiple-standard wifi, a compass, an orientation sensor, an accelerometer, a light sensor, a proximity sensor, a GPS (and the alternative GLONASS) system, and a battery capable of running all that for several days (for the average user).
So yes, the iPhone is an extraordinary device and a masterpiece of both technology and design. I think it’s Apple’s greatest product (and there’s plenty of competition there because I also love my MacBook Pro and my iPad) and definitely one of my favourite things.
As we approach the end of the year I think it is time to ruminate on tech trends and to speculate on where things are heading for 2013. Generally I think the trends of this year will continue and there is not likely to be anything new or revolutionary appear next year. Of course predictions by experts are notoriously unreliable and there might be something totally unexpected happen that I haven’t thought of, but that’s what makes working in IT so much fun!
Anyway, here are my observations on the year which I think will be an indicator of where things will continue next year…
The year has been an interesting one for computers and information technology in general. It has been one where the new trend towards use of non-computer devices, such as tablets and smart phones, has accelerated while traditional devices have become less relevant. And cloud services have became more important as mobile devices became more widely used.
Android devices make up the bulk of the numbers of these new smartphones and tablets but, as is so often the case, Apple have continued to lead the way and show everyone else how it’s done. I think Android will be the most widely used platform for these devices in the immediate future but Apple will always be the best.
I personally find Android OK but it’s so far behind iOS in terms of pure usability that you wonder whether it will ever catch up. Maybe it will be like the PC and Mac situation now: OSX is much better but Windows is OK for those who either don’t care or who are prepared to put the extra effort into using and maintaining their computer.
There are three news stories I have read recently which back up my opinions and might indicate where things are likely to go next year, especially for Apple…
The first is that Apple achieved its highest ever US smartphone market share for the quarter with 53.3% of the market, mainly thanks to the release of the iPhone 5. This shows that Apple is still very competitive despite the quite good hardware available from other manufacturers like Samsung. Predictions that the vast numbers of Android based devices would destroy Apple seem to be somewhat different from the reality.
Things aren’t quite so good for Apple in the rest of the world – the iPhone was beaten by the 61% share of Android in Europe – but it is still a very significant brand. And it’s also important to realise that most iPhones are used a lot for their smart features where many Android phones are almost unusable as smartphones and are really nothing more than fancy feature phones.
Another interesting story involved the rapid evolution of the iPad. After the surprise release of the iPad 4 (I know it is really just called the iPad, but I’ll stick with this naming) there are now rumours that an iPad 5 isn’t too far away. Apple will need to keep moving quickly to stay ahead of the opposition and an unfortunate side effect of this is that older iPads will become obsolete quickly.
Again it looks like iOS versus Android will be the big battle here because no one else (see next story for details) seems to be selling many devices. And again Android will represent the most common but inferior platform and Apple will be out ahead with superior design and innovation but at a premium price.
The final story involves Microsoft’s Windows 8 and how sales are disappointing. Most commentators have been saying this for a while but Microsoft have insisted that sales are good. It seems that the Microsoft propaganda is just that: propaganda. The problem in a market area where people just want something that is good enough (rather than brilliant) is that when they have something which is just good enough (Windows 7) why would they change (to Windows 8)?
So the big problem for Microsoft is that their traditional area of strength is becoming less relevant. Even the corporate market, which is always the least innovative and open to change, is likely to move to more mobile devices in the future. Microsoft have joined this trend late with their tablet product and they also might have taken the wrong approach.
Microsoft have tried to create one OS which does everything: Windows 8 runs as a desktop and laptop OS as well as a touch OS for tablets. In contrast Apple have built a different OS optimised for the two different functions. iOS is built specifically for touch devices and OS X for computers. Both approaches have their advantages and time will tell which will work. I think it’s clear that the Apple approach provides a far superior user experience but that isn’t necessarily the most important thing to many corporate users, so Microsoft’s approach might still be successful.
The fact that WIndows 8 and Microsoft’s Surface tablet devices have not sold well doesn’t bode well for Microsoft, especially as iPads and Android tables continue to sell in great numbers, so I suspect Microsoft’s recent slide into obscurity will continue. Never mind, they still have the Xbox. At least they can still beat Sony, but who can’t do that? Oh how the mighty have fallen!
I recently listened to a podcast discussing the sociological effects of technology. Few people would deny that technology has had a huge effect on our lives, and some would say that it’s probably had more effect than any other aspect of human endeavour, such as politics, religion, business, the arts, or even pure science. I agree this is debatable and many of the areas are inter-related – for example, science leads to technology which is used by business and coordinated by politics – but let’s just agree that it is important.
So what sort of effects are we talking about here and are they good or bad on balance? You probably won’t be surprised to know that I, as an IT professional and technology enthusiast, think that on balance the effects have been strongly positive.
There are several common complaints people have about technology. One is that using technology is addictive and people spend too much time with it. We hear about afflictions like “internet addiction” even though, as far as I am aware, this is an not officially recognised condition. Another common “addiction” is over-use of computer and console games. I’m sure there are examples of gamers whose lives have been significantly affected but I doubt whether it’s as common as is often claimed.
Another alleged problem is how technology causes people to disconnect from society. Social internet sites, like Facebook, are alleged to result in people interacting on-line instead of in person. Again this is usually suggested without any corroborating evidence.
There’s also the claim that people use technology where they would previously have used their own brain. For example, many people can’t do basic arithmetic because their computer does that for them, or they don’t remember phone numbers because they are all stored in their cell phones, or they can’t read maps because all their navigation is done with a GPS device. I’m sure this is true in many cases but isn’t that what technology is for? Doesn’t it take over some of the more mundane tasks we would normally do ourselves so we can concentrate on more complex and important things? Of course, this theory only works if their are more important things to worry about, but I think in most cases their are.
The final big issue (I’m sure there are other minor ones) is privacy. Many people seem to think that anyone who stores any information on the internet is almost certain to be stalked by some pervert, or be hacked by some malicious group from Russia, or to be ridiculed by the on-line community after they read and distributed personal details. Yeah sure, all those things happen in rare cases, but the reality is the risk has been blown out of all proportion.
Clinical psychologist and university sociologist Sherry Turkle has written a book titled “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” which discusses many of these points. I haven’t read the book so it is difficult to comment on it. I’m not sure, for example, how much of her opinion is based on facts and experiment and how much is based on opinion and anecdotes.
I do know that some real research has indicated trends in the opposite direction to what the book suggests: that people who use Facebook more also interact with real people more, that gamers sometimes broaden their horizons by interacting with other people all around the world who have a wide variety of experience, and that sharing information on the internet more often leads to good outcomes than bad.
I guess, like a lot of social science, there is evidence showing contradictory outcomes. And in the end the debate doesn’t matter anyway because technology, especially computers and the internet, is just too useful no matter what the disadvantages are. Few people will give up their social internet use just because there is an occasional unpleasant incident linked to it, no one is going to give up using a calculator or a GPS because it makes skills from the past redundant, and spending less time in front of a screen (computer, TV, or game) doesn’t seem to be much of a trend no matter what the naysayers are telling us.
It’s almost impossible to imagine life without these technologies now that we have them. I believe my horizons have broadened hugely since I started using the internet. I now know a lot more about a much wider range of topics than would have been practical without it. I find it hard to imagine how I could do much without my iPhone – it’s an ever-present source of information and communications. And I can do mental arithmetic quite well, I can remember many numbers, and I am quite good at reading maps, but I feel little need to utilise these skills because I just don’t need to.
We stopped riding horses everywhere when we got cars. Cars introduced many hazards, reduced the level of equestrian skills greatly, and had many other bad effects, but would we really want to go back to horses except as a recreational choice? Obviously not. The same argument applies to modern technology and if some people can’t cope with that then they should just get out of the way, saddle up their horses, and ride off into the sunset!
I’m writing this blog entry on my iPad because I’m doing an upgrade on my laptop. Specifically I’m switching it from a conventional hard disk to a solid state drive. I have done the same for a client’s machine recently and I was very impressed with the increased performance, lower noise, less weight, decreased heat, and better battery life. I have also used computers with SSDs pre-fitted – like the new MacBook Pro – and the speed is awesome.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But if SSDs are so great you might wonder why all computers (especially laptops) don’t use them. Well there is one problem: cost. SSDs cost about 5 times as much as an equivalent capacity hard disk, so they are generally used in most compact laptops (like the MacBook Air) and in premium devices where cost is less of a factor.
In fact all Apple laptops now use SSDs so I hope greater production will mean the price will continue to drop, although it will be a while before conventional hard disks are completely replaced. An intermediate step is Apple’s “fusion drive” which combines a conventional disk and an SSD to give the speed of an SSD and the relatively cheap high capacity of a conventional hard disk. That doesn’t help much in a laptop though because the weight, heat, and power issues are not improved like they would be in a pure SSD.
So how does it work? As the name suggests, an SSD is a solid state device – it has no moving parts – which explains the reduced weight and power use. Because there’s no need to wait for moving parts to access different parts of the disk the speed is also much better – and I mean a lot better: in my testing programs launch, the system boots, and files open up to 5 times faster – it really is a huge improvement.
The technology in SSDs is flash memory, similar to what is in flash drives. It’s not just a simple matter of scaling that technology up though, because most flash drives are designed for a limited number of read/write cycles, but a hard disk replacement must be able to do a lot more. So paying about NZ$600 for a 512G drive is actually quite reasonable.
I am expecting that reliability should be improved as well because the lack of moving parts should improve robustness. That is a bit of an unknown factor because SSDs haven’t been widely used for long enough yet to get an accurate idea of reliability. All I will say is that I have a box with about 100 dead hard disks in my office but no dead SSDs… yet!
I’m finishing off this entry on the laptop – after the 5 hour process of the data copying from the old disk to the new one – and I am happy to say the performance is as good as I had hoped for. I click an icon and a second later the program is ready, plus the area of my laptop above the hard disk is cool instead of warm like it used to be.
So my recommendation for anyone wanting to improve the performance of their computer is to consider an SSD – in many cases it will provide a better boost than a fast hard disk, more memory, or even a a faster CPU or GPU. Of course it will depend on the specific machine, what it is used for, and how much data you have to store, but I’m convinced SSDs are the easiest way to really make a difference.