Friday, October 26, 2007

Leopard's Stacks renders Dock even more useless

It's obvious by now that the Dock is Steve's pet feature, otherwise such a usability nightmare would have been scrapped long ago. Yeah, I've kind of gotten used to it, but still: it's awful.

It fails most prominently as an application launcher. First of all, it can only hold a handful of your apps. If you add too many, they will be too tiny to be practical.

Second, this is clearly the case when a word is worth a thousand pictures. If I look for Photoshop, I want to find it under "P," not "next to the icon with the QuickTime logo, not far from the stamp icon." You can alphabeticize names. You cannot put icons in any meaningful order. So every time I look for an app in the Dock, I waste several seconds, and grow just a bit more frustrated.

Luckily, there is (or rather, was) a solution. I put my Applications folder in the Dock. I click on it, and up pops the entire hierarchical list of all my apps. This is such a great shortcut that I cannot live without it.

In fact, every time I sit down to anyone's Mac, I make sure to put the Applications folder in their Dock. That's the only way I can even begin to work. After I'm done, I leave it there. Nobody complains.

It should be there by default.

Shockingly, Apple is disabling this functionality. According to David Pogue:

I'm not totally sold on the Stacks feature. That's where you click a folder icon on your Dock, and rather than a complete menu of the folder's contents, you get a fan or a grid that shows an array of the actual icons inside. Trouble is, if there are more than 24 items in that folder (depending on your screen size), you get only a partial list. To see the rest of the contents, you have to click the icon that says, "35 more in Finder," which opens that folder's actual desktop window.

There's no way to make the Dock show the complete list of folder contents anymore; nor can you stick your hard drive's icon in the Dock and have complete, drill-down, hierarchical access to your entire computer, as you could before.

Wow. I didn't see this one coming.

This can very easily be a dealbreaker for me. I'm not joking.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Apple, Jobs developing new, human side?

Ever since the return of Steve Jobs, Apple hasn't been about faces. Withe the exception of Apple's media events where Jobs, Phil Schiller, the occasional product manager or VP would take the stage, Apple's people have been mostly hiding in shadows.

When you interact with Apple's web page, you don't interact with people. You read news items or carefully crafted PR, search databases, buy with 1-Click™, or, at best, interact with other users in the support forums. It's all cool and impersonal.

Even video introductions for products show screencasts, and feature professional voice actors.

Under Jobs' tenure, "About" boxes of Apple's software products stopped listing the names of individuals (perhaps for fear of making the jobs of headhunters too easy). Even O'Reilly's Learning Cocoa book was, somewhat ridiculously, written by "Apple Computer, Inc." Not by people.

But that trend has been changing lately. First, there was the iPhone guy. Then Steve Jobs started to blog. And now we have the Leopard guy.


Jobs has "blogged" on the following occasions so far: when he delivered his open letter to record industry executives; when he addressed criticism by environmentalists and envisioned a greener Apple; when he announced a rebate for early iPhone customers; and finally, when promising an iPhone SDK (no link available, the announcement is simply a text-only item in Apple's Hot News section).

The first "blog post" is unique in that Jobs expresses a personal opinion and attempts to influence decisions by executives of an industry by summoning the power of media. It isn't something a company or a CEO does routinely, it certainly isn't business as usual, thus its unusual format is understandable and warranted.

However, the other items could easily be replaced by traditional Apple press releases. They do not really contain anything special that would necessitate their unorthodox format. There doesn't seem to be anything inherently suggesting a need for personal communication from Steve Jobs in those messages. Yet Jobs has chosen to present them as personally signed pieces of communication.

Again, why?

Similarly, the two new faces Apple has attributed to its iPhone and Leopard products (without names, though) mark a strange departure. None of the demos we see from these two guys would suffer one small bit, none would be any less informative or useful if we saw no faces, only narrated screencasts and close-up shots.

Yet Apple has decided to add those faces.


Is it just some PR stunt that Apple's advisers have come up with?

Or is Apple maybe concerned that it's growing too big and scary? Is it adding a human touch in order to counterbalance a (perceived or real) mean streak in its operations? The buy-me-twice ringtones, the options scandal, the monopoly accusations?

Or is Steve Jobs simply growing more vain, mellow or sentimental with age? Does he maybe think more and more about his image, his perception – maybe his legacy?

By the way. Did you notice how that Leopard guy really looks and sounds like Steve Jobs doing a keynote? By the time he talks about Quick Look, his voice could be mistaken for Steve's. He could be nicknamed Steve Lite. It's almost spooky.

Maybe this is what Jobs means when he keeps talking about Apple's DNA.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Quo vadis, iPhone?

People all over the web are giving Apple hell for breaking unauthorized and unsupported third-party iPhone hacks with its 1.1 software update. There are two types of these hacks: ones enabling the iPhone to be used with any SIM card; and others which just let users install third-party apps on the device. The former directly hurt Apple and AT&T, therefore Apple is actively trying to prevent these hacks. The latter, however, don't do much harm, thus Apple doesn't go out of its way to break them. Break them it does, nevertheless, prompting liberation movements to spring up and demand the franchisement of the iPhone from the evil tyranny of Apple. What could be more ridiculous than that?

Some of these critics jump to the conclusion that Apple doesn't get the importance of third-party applications. Well, chance may have it that Apple doesn't plan to ever allow third-party apps on the iPhone, but we don't know that.

I'm more inclined to believe that Apple wants to do it right.

There's a common sentiment out there that accuses Apple of some sort of haughty elitism. Wil Shipley put it this way:

I know Steve Jobs; he's actually amazingly like my old business partner Mike Matas. They both love closed systems, for a simple reason -- they both know they're smarter than anyone else on the planet, and they don't need anyone else mucking up their systems. Steve would rather have no third parties for Mac OS X if he could get away with it -- Apple, of course, would do a much better job on anything, but since customers insist on Photoshop and Office and other apps, he puts up with them. (Well, except, now Apple has their own office suite.) Steve knows that on a computer, having a broad spectrum of apps is more important that having them all be Apple-perfect.

But on iPods, Airports, Apple TVs, and now iPhones, Apple wants every app perfect. Which is nice, in theory. In practice, it means innovation only happens at Apple's pace. The marketplace of ideas is much smaller, and the devices are much poorer because of it. (Example: Why can't I stream music from my iPhone or iPod touch to my Airport Express?)
Emphasis mine.

Now, we don't know if Apple plans to open up the iPhone for third-party developers. But Wil is right: Apple doesn't need anyone else mucking up its systems. Some of those unsupported, unofficial third-party hacks would do just that. Muck up the system.

If Apple opens up the iPhone for developers, making third-party apps official and a supported feature of the phone, it won't be able to afford to have those apps crash the phone.

Apps on a computer can crash, sure. We're used to that. There are about five ways to force a misbehaving Mac app to quit, and a crashed Mac up will leave the rest of your system intact.

But remember the days before Mac OS X? Remember the bomb?

Remeber when a crash could render your entire computer unusable?

Do you also remember what happened when your frontmost app got unresponsive? Basically, so did your Mac.

With the limited user interface of the iPhone, a misbehaving app can easily create the illusion of a misbehaving iPhone. How do you know that it's only Johnnie's Shareware Recipe Editor that froze, not your iPhone? Will you blame Johnnie's Shareware Garage, LLC, or Apple, Inc?

Besides, people are far less forgiving about a frozen phone than about a frozen computer. A phone is just a phone, even if it can double as a computer.

What next? Your car keys freezing? Your beer opener?

If Apple does plan to allow third-party apps, it needs to perform some magic that prevents the user from just about ever having an iPhone locked up by third-party software.

Perhaps a daemon should be running, monitoring every application's responsiveness, and returning to the home screen when the frontmost app is having problems? Add a status message that informs the user of this incident? Or should there be a well-advertised, sure-fire, and foolproof user action that never fails to quit a misbehaving app? These things would need to be sorted out.

And besides, Apple would need to isolate parts of the system from direct access by third parties. We know that the iPhone was completed on a tight deadline, remember why Leopard hasn't shipped yet? So, it's not unreasonable to think that its software still has some rough edges, and nobody other than Apple's engineers should really be playing with it for a while.

So even if third-party application development is in the iPhone's future, it's only reasonable to expect that it takes time to implement properly.

I think that, for the near future, iPhone development will consist of the following:

  1. Apple delivering significant and free software updates: Notice how Apple's subscription-based iPhone accounting suggests that the iPhone will have more features in the future courtesy of Apple.
  2. Hand-picked third parties delivering applications, either for free or for a small fee: think about Google Maps already on the iPhone, and iPod games that are sold via iTunes. The iPod is also a closed platform, but there's still some third-party development going on, closely controlled by Apple. There's nothing stopping Apple from doing just that. As they would get to "bless" any third-party app before it becomes available, Apple could maintain its strict quality standards for the phone. A rumor to this effect is already out.
  3. Web applications may transition into Widgets. Rumors already suggest that improvements to the WebKit framework are on their way, enabling "web applications" to be stored offline. What exactly separates an "offline web app" from a Widget? Not much, mostly the capability to run arbitrary code (including Cocoa Objective-C). I'm inclined to think that a Dashboard-like SDK may be a compromise between the needs of Apple and developers: a sandbox with limited access to iPhone features, but at least not something that runs on a server.
Unlimited, no-holds-barred third-party development could turn the iPhone into a PDA and more. It could turn the iPhone into a VoIP device, causing a loss of revenue for AT&T (and thus for Apple as well).

Apple's new software updates for the iPhone will certainly serve as an indication as to where Apple wants the device to be heading. The first software update has come and gone, and we still don't have a clipboard, making the iPhone basically useless for any text editing apart from typing out a quick e-mail. There's no user-accessible file system, no SSH client, no instant messaging, no editing capabilities for Microsoft Office documents. In other words, the iPhone is not a PDA, and it's definitely not targeted at enterprise users or geeks.

The iPhone may be the smartest phone ever made, but it's not a smartphone.

Does Apple even want to change that? I'm getting the impression that Apple wants the iPhone to be pretty much what it is today, and those of us who expect software updates to turn it into a device with a greatly expanded set of capabilities will be ultimately disappointed.

I hope to be wrong, but I think Apple wants the vast, almost unlimited potential of the embedded OS X operating system to remain largely unfulfilled on the iPhone.

If the rumors of the Newton's revival are true, then perhaps those of us waiting for an ultrasmart PDA from Apple should set our sights on this new mythical beast, and resign to the fact that the iPhone is, and will always be, a cellphone.