Apple Maps update

I was pretty scathing about Apples new maps for a variety of reasons: business listings which were mispelled, years out of date or hundreds of metres from where they should be, building outlines that aren’t properly aligned with the street layout, and a whole lot of stuff which is just missing: not just shops but schools, post offices, churches, park names, art galleries.

But the thing I thought was completely unforgiveable was all the missing train and tube stations, including major London stations like Wimbledon and Tottenham Court Road. And there really were a lot of gaps; for example, of the four stations with Wimbledon in the name — Wimbledon, South Wimbledon, Wimbledon Park and Wimbledon Chase — three were absent.

Having complained about it, it seems only fair to report that the stations are reappearing! In fact I think all the ones I’ve checked are now back on the map. There are two things about that I find reassuring: that the maps are improving at all, but also, the fact that the stations seem to have been fixed before a lot of the other problems suggests that someone at Apple has the right priorities.

I think it’s quite interesting, incidentally, the way we’ve been spoiled by Google, to the point where I expect the map on my phone not just to have streets and train stations, but bars and restaurants and cinemas and so on. After all, I managed for most of my life with paper maps that marked none of that stuff — not least because they just didn’t have space for them, unlike zoomable electronic maps. It’s a mark of the scale Apple’s cock-up that they didn’t just fail in comparison to Google: their maps are often inferior to an old fashioned A-Z. Those maps wouldn’t have your local hairdresser, but they did usually have useful landmarks like schools, churches, hospitals, nature reserves and so on.

But the main thing is: Apple’s maps are still pretty feeble in this part of the world, but at least there are signs of improvement. Who knows, in a year they might be as useful as an A-Z, and in two years they might be as useful as Google.

Apple’s new maps: yes, they really are terrible.

I really use the maps on my phone a lot. I’ve found it to be the most surprisingly transformative aspect of having a smartphone: never feeling lost.

So I was slightly worried about Apple replacing Google’s maps in the new version of iOS, but I assumed they knew what they were doing. That it might not be perfect, but it would probably be good enough. So I updated the system.

Obviously the first thing you look at is your own street. And it was a bit disconcerting. The first thing I noticed was a ‘restaurant’ which was actually a food shop and has been out of business for perhaps seven years. There is also an antique shop which no longer exists, and a food shop marked as a petrol station. A car repair place is 250m from where it should be. Completely missing are two restaurants, a café/delicatessen, a clothes shop, a gift shop, a car repair place, a barbers and a post office. And the local primary school.

To be fair, there also four businesses listed correctly.

Now, I don’t actually need every little clothes shop marked on the map, and the data being a year or two out of date is not such a big deal, but still, that’s an awful lot of wrong in a small area. As a comparison, Google has all the businesses marked, up to date and in the right places.

And it’s not a fluke. For example, the ‘food shop marked as a petrol station’: that’s true all over London and seemingly the rest of the UK as well. Almost everything marked with a little petrol pump icon is actually a food shop — although I have also found oil companies, a wholesale kerosene supplier, and a nuclear fuels company. And it’s not just the icons which are wrong; a search for ‘petrol station’ or ‘gas station’ dutifully returns a list of local food shops:

If you’re wondering what real petrol stations are marked as, I checked a few nearby ones; one was marked as a mechanic, two were missing completely.

Irritating but not fatal is the fact that the outlines of buildings in Central London don’t align properly with the roads:

And my favourite find so far is something called the National History Museum in South Kensington.

However, I don’t use maps on the phone as a business directory, primarily. It would be helpful if things like petrol stations, post offices and ATMs were correctly marked, and it’s a step backward that they aren’t; but what really matters is whether I can use the maps for basic navigation. But there’s a bigger problem than a few missing businesses. I checked a few places I regularly visit. If you don’t know the area, it may not be obvious what’s wrong with this picture (apart from yet another corner shop marked as a petrol station):

The clue is ‘Station Road’. Yup, that map is centred on Wimbledon station. There should be a National Rail station, a London Underground station and a tram station marked there — not that Apple’s maps give you any way to distinguish between train stations and tube stations.

Richmond rail and underground stations are also missing. So is Bookham station in Surrey. So is Lambeth North underground. And Notting Hill Gate. And West Dulwich.

I should emphasise: I haven’t done an exhaustive search of London’s transport network, I just checked a few places I happen to use fairly regularly. And without trying very hard I’ve found six missing stations.

A map having a bit less detail, or missing a few restaurants: that’s mildly annoying. Not being able to find petrol stations and post offices: genuinely inconvenient.  But a map with a significant percentage of train stations missing is severely broken. Broken enough that you can no longer rely on it for anything important.

I suppose I should just be grateful that the roads themselves seem to be mainly in the right places — but I suspect we mainly have Ordnance Survey to thank for that, after they released so much data under Creative Commons-type licensing.

Steve Jobs RIP

On the desk in front of me are a computer and an external hard drive for backup. The computer is a 24″ aluminium iMac from 2007, and the hard drive is a Western Digital My Book Pro from about the same time.

The iMac is 4 years old, so the novelty value has long worn off, but I still get a degree of satisfaction from looking at it: it’s an obviously high quality object, well-made and well-proportioned. The design, with the whole computer and screen suspended from an angled metal foot, might be precarious if it was done badly; but in fact it is solid as a rock, and the angle of the screen adjusts easily but stays where you put it. The Apple logo on the front is the same glossy black as the screen surround and contrasts with the soft, non-glossy brushed aluminium of the body.

The hard drive is designed in broadly the same style: it’s a plain metal box formed out of rounded rectangles, with a simple glowing blue ring on the front. But the metal doesn’t have the same quality of finish as the computer: it’s greyer and slightly shinier, and it’s held together by an ugly plastic rim that immediately makes the whole thing look cheap. And it’s flimsier, and it’s been manufactured via a cheaper process; I think the iMac was machined out of a block of aluminium, whereas the hard drive looks like it was made by bending sheets of metal into shape. And the logo etched onto the side is a bit ugly. And the grille on the top is cut with an odd pattern of square holes and slots which is presumably intended to be attractive but just looks like design for the sake of design. And having managed to find, download and install the right driver to make the button on the front work, it now communicates with me via an arbitrary and completely unintuitive system of flashing lights: if the light is going round in a circle, that means one thing; flashing means something else; a steady light means something different again. If I ever need to know what they mean, I look it up in the manual, then immediately forget again.

Don’t get me wrong, the Western Digital drive is entirely good enough for my purposes and I would cheerfully recommend it to a friend. And despite my nitpicking, it’s not a hideous object, it’s a normal-looking bit of consumer electronics. I’ve seen much worse. But when Apple made the iMac, they didn’t settle for ‘good enough’, ‘not hideous’ and ‘normal looking’. They made something excellent.

I know Steve Jobs didn’t personally design my iMac. The credit for that has to go to Jony Ive and his team. But Jony Ive was already at Apple before Jobs came back, and the company wasn’t winning any design awards. And I bet there are talented designers working at Samsung and Nokia and Sony and even Microsoft. But what Jobs did was create the environment where design is able to survive. He made sure that the good work of designers was not always being undermined by the pressure to ship products quicker, to make them cheaper, to include badly-executed features so you can list them on the box. I bet there are amazing, beautiful prototypes sitting in labs at HP and Sony and Samsung; but at Steve Jobs’s Apple they were still beautiful when they reached the customer.

William Morris said ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Under Jobs, Apple made products that were more beautiful — something that seemed to irritate a lot of technology people, who apparently regard the quest for beauty as suspicious and potentially subversive. But they also made products that were more useful, because Jobs understood that it doesn’t matter how many things a device can do; it only becomes more useful if you actually use it, and you only use it if it’s easy enough to use.

Um, what?

Just got this text from O2, the company which provides both my mobile phone service and internet connection:

We’re happy to tell you that your tariff New Allowance will offer browsing as well as text at £15 starts on 09/04/2011.

I rely on this company for much of my ability to communicate with the world. The fact they can’t make their website run properly or compose intelligible automated messages to their customers: this does not inspire confidence.

The iPhone, Top Trumps, and widescreen TV

The BBC’s tech blog has posted a piece about the new iPhone, and, inevitably, the comments are full of people whining about how the iPhone is rubbish because it lacks some feature that competing phones have, or has inferior specs, and that people only buy it because of they are stupid fashion victims. 

This comment provides a particularly classic example:

What about MMS support -sure no one really uses MMS, but it’s kind of a missing feature don’t you think?

I’m not sure that people outside the UK ever had the pleasure of playing ‘Top Trumps’. The way it worked was that you had a themed deck of cards, which might be cars or footballers or whatever. And each card was scored with various qualities:

from the Pointless Museum

You had to turn over your next card and try to win your opponent’s card by challenging him to beat a particular score. With this set, the Horror Top Trumps (which I remember playing at primary school, incidentally), the scores are out of 100, so it’s very obvious that if it’s your turn to play and you have Dracula, you should challenge on ‘Horror Rating’. The winner gets both cards and gets to play again. Naturally enough, different sets had different kinds of scores. I assume that for Prehistoric Monsters, older is better.

from the Pointless Museum

This was all good clean fun, but it wasn’t a very subtle or nuanced way of evaluating which prehistoric monster (or sports car, or footballer) was really ‘better’. And I can’t help feeling that all those BBC blog commenters are just playing technology Top Trumps.

The idea that a technology product is more than the sum of its features is not a new insight. I’m just one of the many people who have been banging on about it for years. But it’s always worth reiterating because  those who are most fascinated by technology, and are the most vociferous about it, are exactly the kind of people who don’t get it. They are, in fact, the kind of people who would probably rather enjoy playing Tech Specs Top Trumps.

I have a favourite new example of the distance between those technology enthusiasts and the bulk of the public. I watched the Champions’ League final in a pub in Wales. The football was on a nice big widescreen plasma TV, and the signal was coming from Sky, so I know it was being broadcast in widescreen — but the picture was distorted. Presumably, at some stage there had been something on TV which was in a 3:4 ratio and they had changed the TV settings so that the picture was stretched to fill the screen, and had never changed it back.

I tried to explain what was wrong and offered to fix it, but unsurprisingly the barman was reluctant to hand over the remote control to a random stranger just before the biggest match of the season started. So Wayne Rooney looked even shorter and squatter than usual, and the ball was oval.

In other words, they’ve spent many hundreds of pounds on a TV, and however much it costs to get a Sky subscription for a pub, and are using it to distort the picture and cut off the edges. Because they can’t tell the difference? Because they don’t care? Or the most worrying possibility: perhaps they think that’s what widescreen is — a normal picture, stretched a bit.

There are probably many many people, all around the country, doing the same thing: using their expensive new equipment to distort the TV they watch. And the biggest favour you could do those people is not to provide them with more features: it’s to make sure they can use the features they have. If that’s true for something as simple as a TV, it’s even more true for a sophisticated smartphone. Ease of use and good interface design are so much more important for most people than the sheer number of features.

Look, it’s a good thing that there are people who go over these kind of technical specifications with a fine tooth comb and compare products against each other. It’s a valid kind of critique and provides useful information. But brandishing these numbers as though they are irrefutably The Final Answer is like saying “obviously the woolly rhinoceros is better than the archaeopteryx, because it weighs more”.

» All the pictures are taken from The Pointless Museum.

What I want to see at WWDC

WWDC, for those of you who don’t avidly follow Apple’s annual publicity cycle [for shame!], is the Worldwide Developer’s Conference. Which is being held next week in California.

Everyone’s expecting a new iPhone with slightly better specs, but I’m not quite geeky enough to get excited about wireless data standards. Obviously faster=better, but it’s not suddenly going to persuade me that I can afford to shell out £270 for a phone. What I think is potentially much more exciting is to see new iPhone app demonstrations. That has potential to have a real ooh factor.

What I would like to see is an Apple e-reader. I have become more and more convinced that sooner or later we will be doing much more of our reading on some kind of handheld device; much as I like books as physical objects, I have too many of them already. And it would be great to be able to take six or seven books on holiday with me — or just around town — without the bulk and weight of dead trees. And to be able to read newspapers and blogs on the tube.

This device doesn’t have to be made by Apple, of course, but I’d love to see what they could achieve if they tried. The only problem is that there isn’t even the hint of a smidgen of a whiff of it on any of the Apple gossip sites. And I suspect that the nice people at Apple have had their hands full recently with Leopard and the iPhone. 

» Transgenic Apple, posted to Flickr by dujarandille. I’s not actually transgenic, I don’t think, that’s just what the photographer has called it.

All geeked out

One reason this blog has been quiet over the past week or so is that I’ve been engrossed in Puzzle Quest, perhaps the geekiest computer game of all time.

It’s an RPG with all the standard trappings thereof: orcs, trolls, giant rats, lots of character statistics, magic weapons, spells and so on. Except that when you meet a troll or a dragon or whatever, instead of hitting it with your sword, you challenge it to a game of Connect 4. Or what Connect 4 would be like if you had seven different kinds of counters dropped randomly into the top of the grid and you had to make lines to gain the magical energy to cast spells.

So it’s really a puzzle game with added orcs. The plotting, characterisation and so on are extremely flimsy, but it doesn’t really matter because the puzzling is really quite absorbing and the game eats up hours at a time quite easily.

I was struck again by how far the internet has come so quickly when I got stuck on a particular bit, googled ‘capture wolfrider’, and was pointed directly to a video someone had uploaded showing how to do it. Truly we are living in a brave new world.

Wii tennis

I decided yesterday to try to work out how the computer-operated characters in Wii tennis get such vicious side spin on the ball. After a lot of experimentation, I have a much better grasp of how it works, but trying to concentrate on how I was moving the remote completely hammered my timing and my score dropped by about 1000 points, enough to make me lose my Pro status.

It’s much more subtle than it initally appears; when you first start playing it seems to be all timing, but actually you have quite a lot of control over your shots. What it’s not is much like playing tennis.

I find the way wii games use the controller quite interesting; it measures tilt and acceleration in multiple directions, so it has a lot of information to play with. But it’s not magic; it measures relative movement but it doesn’t actually know the position of the controller. The ideal tennis game would be able to measure the entire shape of your stroke and the angle of racket at the moment of contact and use that to model the shot. If they could do that, someone who played real-world tennis would actually be able to just pick up the game and play all the shots they wanted. Instead, although it uses all the information available to subtly vary the shots, it doesn’t manage to create the illusion of really playing tennis.

It’s still a fun game, though.

Talking bollocks about technology

Simon Jenkins has an article in the Guardian that is so wrong-headed that it’s a little hard to grapple with. The first couple of paras give a good idea of the flavour:

I rise each morning, shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine. At a centrally heated office I type on a Qwerty keyboard; I might later visit a pub or theatre. Most people I know do likewise.

Not one of these activities has altered qualitatively over the past century, while in the previous hundred years they altered beyond recognition. We do not live in the age of technological revolution. We live in the age of technological stasis, but do not realise it. We watch the future and have stopped watching the present.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to pick apart all the ways in which his examples are tendentious, highly selective or downright false and skip quickly on to pick a bit out.

No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before.

I can’t help feeling that he’s stretching the word ‘just’ beyond its reasonable limits.

As well as using it as a more sophisticated replacement for the mechanical typewriter, I regularly use my computer for design, photo-editing and as a print-shop. It’s a jukebox and photo display unit, and I can watch DVDs on it. I have a tuner plugged into it, so it acts as a TV, radio and video recorder as well. If I was so inclined, I could also use it to write and record music, edit sound and video, create animation, do 3D modelling, and process complicated mathematical functions. I can play games on it: an entirely new pastime and a new creative medium. I suppose you might argue that many of these things are possible without computers — I could have a print shop, darkroom, recording equipment and film editing suite in my house, after all — but I think that having all of them in one box qualifies the computer as a ‘stunning technological advance’.

And if I attach the computer to the internet, there’s a whole load of extra things it can do that I haven’t even mentioned yet. It becomes an alternative to mail, a news service, a library, an encyclopedia and a picture library. I can download music and video. If I had a camera attached to it it would be a videophone. There’s this site, which is read every day from places around the world. The numbers involved are fairly modest — I’m no Boing Boing — but even so, it would hardly be practical to distribute the same content though the post.

As for “the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before”; even if that were true, it’s like saying that aeroplanes are no different to ocean liners. They both move you from one place to another, after all. Sometimes, ‘faster’ is the whole point.

I’ve seen versions of this argument in the media a few times and I just find it baffling. Jenkins has thought about this enough to have a bee in his bonnet about it; how did come to the conclusion that this is “the age of technological stasis”? I suspect a lot of it comes down to the Clarkson effect: there seem to be lots of people who are fascinated by machinery and engineering as long as it has gears and pistons but completely turn off when faced with a piece of electronics. There’s a weird cultural disconnect between the nostalgic image of the ‘boffin’ — otherwordly but admirable model of technical ingenuity — and the ‘geek’ — pasty, socially inept, caffeine-fuelled toiler in the code mines. And somewhere along the line, people seem to have lost any sense of how incredibly sophisticated these machines are. The very sophistication of them means that most people use them with very little idea of how they work: you can’t open up a computer and find out how it works by taking it apart and putting it back together.

And that’s only going to get worse. I don’t aspire to übergeek status myself; in fact I’m hardly even an untergeek despite a few geekly leanings. But at least having grown up with the first generation of home computers, I have some sense of what a very simple computer is like and how you get from there to here. If your first computer has Vista on it, and you play your first games on an XBox 360, they might as well just be magic boxes for all the insight you’re going to get about how they work.

the coming of 3D video games

Technological change is extraordinarily rapid, yet somehow it seems to creep up on us. The internet went from being an obscure curiosity for the geeky to part of people’s everyday lives without most of us ever having a eureka moment when the change was brought home to us.

I have had a few such moments, though. I still remember the moment I saw my first proper 3D game, Virtua Fighter — in a Vegas casino, of all places — as incredibly exciting. I would quite seriously compare it to what it must have been like for the audiences when they first saw The Jazz Singer. It was jaw-dropping to see these graphics which were simply unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

It helped that it was completely unexpected. I didn’t read the gaming press, videogames barely made the mainstream media unless there was a moral panic going on, and the internet barely existed – I’d certainly never used it. So I had no prior knowledge; I just stumbled on the cabinet among all the other games and was blown away by it. What struck me most wasn’t the greater realism of the characters, exactly: even in the moment of first seeing it, the blockiness of the characters looked pretty primitive. But the way the characters moved in three dimensions really did make it feel more like you were controlling a ‘person’ rather than just an animation. And more than anything, it was the swooping camera, that moved around the action and zoomed in and out as you played, which brought home this shift from a flat game world to one with depth.

I’ve already compared it the shift from silent movies to talkies; a more exact comparison would be the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting. I don’t want to use hindsight to claim that I saw Virtua Fighter and immediately had a sense of all the ways 3D would have an impact on gaming, but it didn’t take any particular brilliance to see it and know that you were present at the start of something. Perhaps in C15th Italy there were people feeling the same way.

I still like the look of the original Virtua Fighter. I know that the minimalist environment — a bit of texture on the ground and a few clouds — is because of technical limitations rather than aesthetic choice, but I find it appealing. If you see the later versions of the game (they’re currently up to Virtua Fighter 4, with VF5 due out this year), the backgrounds are ever more lushly-detailed graphical marvels, mainly for the sake of eye-candy but also as part of a pointless attempt to build a narrative context. The places they fight are related to the characters’ elaborate back-stories. But really, what’s the point? It’s a beat-em-up; I don’t need to know my character’s motivation. And while I was excited as anyone else by the advances in computer graphics at the time, that lush, hyper-realistic aesthetic gets cloying after a while. It’s about time for a bit of less-is-more.

Comparisons with early cinema and Renaissance painting inevitably bring up the question of games as art. That’s not what I had in mind when I made them, and I certainly wouldn’t pick Virtua Fighter as a case study, since apart from the graphics it was the simplest and most formulaic game imaginable. But even discussing a game this simple, the kinds of things I find myself mentioning — the overall visual styling, the way the 3D characters made it more immersive, the characterisation, set design, lighting, camerawork — make comparisons with various artforms almost inevitable. That’s why it seems certain that descendants of today’s games will be treated as artworks with all the importance of films, novels or paintings. Someone will find a way of bringing it all together and making it into something more.

Whee!

Well, I’ve pre-ordered my Wii and a copy of the new Zelda from Amazon. Which I think is exciting, even if none of my readers do.

Jonathan Ive and the post-gadget aesthetic

Some more thoughts on design in the tech industries. This time, the slow death of what I think of as the ‘gadget aesthetic’. The gadget aesthetic was a product of the novelty and glamour of electronics; it fetishizes the look of hi-tech gizmos. Lots of buttons, lots of LEDs, curvy moulded plastic, metallic-looking silver plastic:

This is the same approach as the set-designers for Star Trek: if you’re going to have some actor peering at a panel and saying “Captain! The dilithium crystal containment field is coming out of phase!”, then you really need the panel to look important. So you cover it in glowing panels and screens and buttons.

But now I think people have got past that; they want their consumer electronics to look stylish, but not necessarily in the Star Trek manner. One of the reasons Jonathan Ive has won all those awards for Apple is that he completely understands that. I’m writing this on an iMac which has less buttons visible than just about any other electrial product in the room – the clock/radio, the camera, even the fan. It is less visibly complex than the Anglepoise next to it.

Apple only have about 5% of the personal computer market, so perhaps you can’t look at their computers and assume that the design taps into a profound cultural shift. But they do have an overwhelming market share in mp3 players, and the iPod has that same post-gadget aesthetic. It’s not that it’s somehow trying to look anti-technology, but it isn’t trying to look ‘hi-tech’. It’s not trying to look like it fell through a wormhole from 2037. It has no LEDs or glowing buttons; the controls it does have are reduced to a circle of a slightly different colour on the front of the machine.

None of this is exactly rocket-science, and there have been thousands of words written about Apple’s cool minimalism. But on the specific point of a post-gadget aesthetic, Apple’s competitors either don’t get it, don’t know how to do it, or aren’t trying.

Here’s an iPod competitor, the 20GB Creative mp3 player:

I’m sure it does a good job of playing music. Ad someone has put some thought into making it look attractive. But look at the styling. The glowing buttons, the glowing outline, the moulded plastic, and the futuristic typeface on ‘Creative’ —  it looks like a communicator from Star Trek.

And here’s the ‘iriver H320 Lite 20GB MP3 Player’, which is, i anything, even more mired in the same culture of making products look futuristic:

You’ve got shiny glowing buttons, another futuristic typeface, the use of techy jargon (‘multi-codec jukebox’). It’s quite a cool thing and I’m sure a lot of people will look at it and want it, but it’s cool in a gadgety way. Next to the iPod it looks like it’s trying too hard.

One more example. Compare the silvery, swooshy Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 to Apple’s plain white wireless Mighty Mouse. They have nearly the same functionality (both have four-way scrolling; the Mighty Mouse has four buttons to the MSLM6000’s five), but the Mighty Mouse doesn’t feel the need to advertise how sophisticated it is.

At the moment all this stuff is so closely associated with Apple that it’s just perceived as Apple branding. In fact, the Nintendo DS Lite, which has a very similar kind of simple, ungadgety style, is often described as looking like it was designed by Apple.

But my feeling is that these companies are just ahead of the curve. There will probably always be a market for techy geek chic, for games consoles, computers and mobile phones decorated with das blinkenlichten. But electronic hardware is not the sole preserve of geeks anymore, and I think tech companies are slowly starting to understand that. Apple has always been the less geeky alternative to Microsoft, and Nintendo have always been more family-oriented and less focussed on hardcore gamers than their competitors. And generally speaking, both of them have been outcompeted, and have had rather poor market share.

But the runaway dominance of the iPod, and the fact that the DS is outselling the more powerful but more traditionally gamer-orientated PSP, raise the possibility that the non-geek dollar is finally starting to have a serious impact. I think we’re in an interesting time when a lot of companies know that they need to make their products more desirable to a broader range of customers, but there’s a lot of groping around to work out how to do it. The mobile phone companies have had to deal with this quicker than anyone, and they haven’t done a bad job; from the time that mobile phone use exploded, it probably only took them about five years to come up with a proper girly phone, for example. And there is a huge range of designs available, even if they often tend to be somewhat similar in overall look. So if the much-rumoured iPhone does ever materialise, it’ll be interesting to see what Ive and Apple can do when competing in an already well-developed market where the importance of design is understood. I’m sure there’s scope for a much better UI, for a start, but what really interests me is whether he can come up with a look for the phone which stands out from the crowd. If he does I’m sure it’ll be the least futuristic looking mobile on the market.

form vs. function — a stupid false dichotomy.

Core77’s design blog led me to this article about form vs. function in mobile phone design. The title of the article says it all: Is the ‘dumb blonde’ phone here to stay?

In this context, a ‘dumb blonde’ phone is one which looks pretty but lacks functionality. I can understand why someone thought that was a good gag, but it completely misses the point. It assumes that people actually want all the added functionality of web-browsing, email, multimegapixel cameras, Bluetooth, music playback and God knows what else; that they’ve sacrificed something by choosing a stylish phone instead. But perhaps they haven’t. Perhaps they just want to make phone calls and send texts. Here’s a paragraph whose stupidity makes it worth quoting in full:

Andrew Brown, IDC’s European mobile devices programme manager, said the operators and manufacturers have played their part in the dumbing down. “Everyone gets very excited about aesthetics. It’s easier to sell design than it is to sell feature functionality – it’s laziness.” Good looks are immediately apparent to the average buyer – the benefits of having 3G connectivity or a smart operating system are not.

Which inevitably reminds me of the equally stupid quote from Sim Wong Hoo I blogged about earlier. Sim, as the CEO of Creative, was completely failing to learn the obvious lesson about iPod thrashing his products in the marketplace. The same lessons apply to mobile phones.

Here’s the first point: to choose a simple, attractive phone over an ugly but hi-tech one is not an irrational choice. It seems like such an obvious point that I can’t quite believe I have to explicitly say it, but I suspect I do. There’s a bizarre prejudice against aesthetics in the tech community, as though the pleasure in using an object you actually like is somehow an illusion, a deceit, and something of no value. Now if that’s how you feel, then fair enough. Good luck to you. Go and buy the most function-filled gadget, or the one which gives you most oomph per dollar, and ignore design issues completely. But if you want to sell gadgets to the non-geek community, you have to learn that people like to own nice things.

We’re not talking about a once-in-a-lifetime purchase: a mobile phone costs about as much as a handbag. Why on earth shouldn’t it be a fashion item?

Here’s the second bizarre prejudice: that added functionality adds value. This is the mentality that produced the much-mocked ballpoint pen with clock that used to be a staple of Innovations catalogues. Functionality you don’t want doesn’t add value, it reduces it. Even if it doesn’t interfere with the main function of an object, it makes it more complicated, which is a Bad Thing. I only use my mobile for phone calls and texting; so for me, all the other menu options are just unnecessary rubbish I have to scroll past to find what I want. By all means make a Swiss Army Knife phone with a tool for getting the stones out of horses hooves; just don’t expect me to buy one.

But the real problem, the one that underlies the others, is a belief that design is something you put on at the end, a lick of paint to pull in the stupid, style-obsessed consumer who somehow doesn’t appreciate the wonderful functionality you’re giving them. But design, properly, is not superficial. It deals with every aspect of the user’s experience of the product, down to the number of button-presses to perform an action and the obviousness or otherwise of how to do it. If a product is badly designed (or just as likely, not really designed at all), if it doesn’t try to make it easy for the user, then it’s a bad product, however many features it has.

My father has a PVR/DVD recorder that makes the perfect case study. When he got it a couple of years ago, it was the bleeding edge of the technology. And to be fair, it has proved itself to be a brilliant step forward from the VCR – no more scrabbling around for blank tapes, no difficulty trying to find what you recorded earlier. The basic concept of recording TV on a hard drive is superb. But despite that, I’ve come to actively dislike it. Because it was obviously put together by people who put all their effort into providing a certain set of features none of it into the user experience.

First example: pretty much everything you would need to do with the machine can be done, as you’d expect, by pressing buttons on the remote and using onscreen menus. But if you want to stop a timer recording, you have to press the stop button on the front of the machine twice. That’s completely unguessable, and easily improved upon; when someone presses ‘stop’ on the remote, just give them an ‘are you sure?’ message. Second example: despite the fact that even slightly complicated functions are managed through onscreen interfaces, the remote has 76 buttons. I don’t know what the right number is, but I’m damn sure it’s less than that. It also came with three separate manuals — an outline of the basic functions, a hideously complicated full manual that explained every possible function badly, and something in-between because, presumably, they realised the other two were both crap.

I’m conflating two meanings of ‘design’ here, attractiveness and usability, and of course they aren’t the same thing. Indeed, products often sacrifice usability for aesthetic appeal. What they have in common, though, is that they both make the product more likeable. They give pleasure. But pleasure is intangible and unmeasurable, so it’s all too easy for people to undervalue it, or just to pay lip-service to it. Because the thing is – good design is hard. It takes a lot of time, effort and commitment, an endless appetite for details and a deeply stubborn perfectionism. A company is never going to get it right if, deep down, they think of design as superficial.

eBooks on iPod?

There’s a rumour doing the rounds that the next iPod will be designed for reading as well as music and video. It remains to be seen whether that happens, and indeed whether the iPod is well-suited for reading (as compared, for example, to the more specialised Sony Reader).

Whether or not their time has come, I do think that electronic reading devices are potentially exciting. It’s not a new idea, of course, and none of the previous attempts have succeeded, not least because the competing technology – the book – is so very good at its job. A book is already small, light, very high-resolution, has a simple intuitive user interface and doesn’t need power. For you to spend a few hundred pounds on an electronic version, it’s going to have be pretty damn good. One advantage of building it into a music player is that it gives people a reason to buy it.

So if books are so good anyway, why do I think it’s a good idea? Firstly there’s the capacity. It’s not just one book, it’s a whole library. Even just for reading on a commute you might want to have a choice of three or four books. If you were going away for a few months, you could take hundreds of titles. You could keep reference books on there. Assuming that the system was able to read generic text files, HTML and PDF, you wouldn’t even need to buy all the books from Apple; just think of the enormous wealth of stuff which is out of copyright.Project Gutenberg has 18,000 books available for download.

But the other point is that it doesn’t have to be books. You could plug it in every night and have your computer automatically update it with all your favourite blogs and news services. You might even be willing to pay a modest subscription to get the newspaper(s) of your choice automatically downloaded onto your iPod to read on the train.

Whee!

Nintendo have announced that their new games console, referred to previously as the ‘Revolution’, is actually going to be called the ‘Wii’. Personally I think that ‘Revolution’ was a fucking awful name – or at least a leadenly literal-minded and unimaginative one. I can’t quite decide about ‘Wii’, although it does make a good logo:

I think it’s a good thing that it’s neither too techy-sounding or too macho, but it may have strayed too far into Hello Kitty territory. Nintendo are keen on the association with ‘we’, but I’m not sure that makes up for the associations with small Scottish things and urine. If they were going to go for a clean, modern sounding monosyllable, how about Kii? Or something.

MAKE, folk art, and postpoems.com

I love MAKE: Blog. Not because I actually want to make my own automated cocktail dispenser or LED tank-top that plays Conway’s Game of Life, or even an iPod Nano arcade cabinet. But I love the fact that there are people who do these things. A while ago, I went to the Folk Archive exhibition at the Barbican, and said:

It was an exhibition of contemporary British folk art, but that term was interpreted extremely broadly; the exhibition includes (some of these are photos rather than the actual object): trade union banners, graffiti, prison art, modified cars, costumes from traditional festivals, prostitute calling cards, sectarian murals, shop signs, painted false nails, football fanzines, protest placards, crop circles, sand castles, flower arrangements…

The sheer range of objects makes it hard to know what to say. Many of them were complete tat – unremarkable examples of mundane objects – but seeing them all together one did get a sense of a huge wealth of amateur, unofficial creativity. I enjoyed it and found it curiously cheering.

Whatever you think of ‘folk art’ as a category, and whether or not you think an iPod Nano MAME cabinet fits that category, what does apply to the stuff at MAKE is “a huge wealth of amateur, unofficial creativity”. People making stuff, in their spare time, because they want to. Love it.

I admit I find it harder to be so cheerfully enthusiastic about the reams and reams of bad poetry on the internet; but even if I don’t want to read the stuff, I’m glad it exists.

Sir Shigeru

Shigeru Miyamoto has been made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Damn straight. If the man who invented Mario and Zelda doesn’t deserve a knighthood, who does?

That doesn’t make it any less annoying that the release date of The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess has now been pushed back by a year since its original projected release last November, but I don’t begrudge Miyamoto-san a bit of non-industry recognition.

via wmmna

Ajax and the common man

One of the hot new(ish) things in web design is Ajax – standing for Asynchronous Javascript And Xml. To quote Wikipedia, “The intent is to make web pages feel more responsive by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind the scenes, so that the entire Web page does not have to be reloaded each time the user makes a change.” You’ll have seen the results on websites like Flickr, where you can edit the descriptions on your photos without having to load a new page. An impressive example of an Ajax-rich WordPress theme can be seen here; click on the buttons at the top to get the full effect.

Which is great, of course. Except that one of the joys of the internet is its accessibility for the casual user who wants to make a webpage. HTML is, really, an extremely simple system to use. CSS means a bit more to learn, but once you get the hang of it, it actually makes your life easier. And that’s all you need to arrange content on a page. If you just want to create a static webpage, you can do it entirely from scratch just with HTML and CSS, and how good the content is and how good it looks are entirely up to you.

Even using software like WordPress, it’s easy enough to just use some knowledge of HTML and CSS to restyle the output. The software is built in PHP, and you just have to work around the PHP tags, moving them around as necessary; it’s usually obvious from context what they do. So you can completely change the look of a site without doing any of what I’d call real coding. The various changes to the appearance of this site and its predecessors have all been done without me knowing any PHP. Ajax kills that, as far as I can tell; hacking around a theme to change the styling becomes a suddenly much more technical exercise.

I completely see the point of Ajax – when it’s used well, it transforms the user experience. And I’m not suggesting that anyone stop using it just for my sake. New software makes it easier and easier for people who know little about computers to share their thoughts and pictures on net; it’s just an unfortunate side-effect that as the software gets more sophisticated, it gets harder for a dabbler like me to get my hands dirty and tinker with the machinery.

I guess it’s a natural progression with all technologies. In the early days of motoring, you *had* to know how to do basic repairs to your car by the side of the road, and the engine was simple enough that you could probably do it with a couple of spanners and a can of oil. The fact that cars are now so reliable that you barely need to know how to check your oil and tyre pressure is a Good Thing, of course. But it still seems a pity when things get professionalised out of people’s hands to the point where they never get to do things themselves from scratch, whether it’s baking bread or creating a webpage.

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