Lost in telecommunication

News just in from the department of the extremely obvious – iPhone users can be a little obsessional and, even, delusional.

It seems a consultancy has invested a serious amount of time to diagnose what they call the ‘iPhone syndrome’. Strand Consulting tells us that the iPhone isn’t that great a phone but that users will sometimes overlook its faults or even come to defend its shortcomings as features. They liken the behaviour of both users and mobile phone networks to the delusional relationship which can sometimes develop between kidnappers and their victims.

Well I’ve certainly witnessed the behaviour. All one need to do typically is wait a couple of hours for the iPhone battery to die (normally a critical failure for a mobile phone’s performance) and the addict will claim that it’s not the iPhone’s fault – they shouldn’t have left the 3G switched on, they’ve been using the screen too much, or perhaps they’ve made too many calls. Indeed this is such an obvious design flaw that there are now several products, advice and articles (‘turn off bluetooth, vibrate and the music equaliser’) out there to try and remedy it. Or, you’ll receive an SMS resembling hate mail, only to find out it the result of a (practically unusable) iPhone keyboard, which the sender is yet to ‘master’.

But I think it is unfair to blame the technology press and general media for misleading the public about the qualities of the iPhone. The point isn’t that iPhone customers are duped into buying a product which is in some ways flawed. The amazing thing is that iPhone customers quickly accept these issues as facts and plough on being evangelical. Media couldn’t do this. It is the product of a piece of absolutely superb bit of software and hardware design, focusing not on the ostensible functions required of a phone (making calls, sending messages etc) – all of which the iPhone is at best medium at – but rather at looking at what the joys are of having a computer in your pocket (the iPhone has the same computing power as the first generation of iMacs).

Apple (under Jobs) has always been good at this, although it’s not original thinking (Theodore Levitt put it very nicely: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”).

It doesn’t matter if the Sony Vaio has better specs that the Apple Macbook. Why? Because the Macbook lets the guys with the funny glasses and the expensive jeans feel like they, not Microsoft or Sony, is in charge of the computing experience. With a Macbook or an iPhone, they are masters of their little computing universe (admittedly only for an hour or two at a time with the iPhone). Apple has given geek pleasure (of technology mastery) to the next wrung down the ladder – to the people without screwdrivers in their pockets, and they will forgive them a lot because of it.

The numbers’ game

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Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps a conspiracy. Perhaps there’s something in the west-coast water supply but the last week or so has seen a pretty sophisticated debate break out on the use of facts and intuition in design.

  • Douglas Bowman is leaving Google, having been heralded as one of the best things to happen to the search giant when he arrived in 2006. To make matters more interesting, Bowman has blogged about his reason for leaving – an excessive Google reliance on data-driven design (well, data-driven everything)
  • Google themselves are flogging a new product to help everyone else become as data obsessed as they are, bringing reasonably complex multi-variant testing to a car dealership near you. This is in a market which is rapidly waking up to the user of performance tuning and management
  • Everyone (and especially the Twitterati who might be expected to love it) hates the new Facebook design. Unlike v2 which was introduced in a vaguely consultative way, v3 has been foisted on all users rather suddenly, seems most to be ‘inspired’ by Twitter (which is frankly a very different beast), and jettisons many of the best features of the site. This has raised a debate about how much companies should listen to users in design.
  • Apparently Steve Ballmer has been off telling people that Microsoft has a challenger advantage in search over Google, who are too set in their ways and conservative
  • At the other end of the spectrum, Apple has released the frankly insane zero-button iPod shuffle. Bizarre: yes. Bold: certainly. Tasteful: perhaps.

So the question is: just how innovative can a business be by relying on data about current user behavior, rather than using creativity and instinct to come up with new things that people don’t even know they want yet. Bowman’s disquiet about Google is that the company would (for example) statistically evaluate the colour of borders or the size of buttons, making his role as head of visual design somewhat redundant but also making his aspirations – as someone who is looking to lead the market through visual design – impossible.

I think this says more about Bowman’s expectations (quote: ‘change the world a few million users at a time’) than anything that surprising about what Google does. The experiences Google are trying to enable are all about using great technology to build perfect mousetraps. The core ideas can be expressed in just a few words (“get the correct results from any search”). And I think it’s true that usability has always been much more important than visual design for the business. And, Google has always known that the user experience is as much governed by performance and quality as interface. With the exception of Chrome, all of their products have been almost deliberately ugle, liberating them to focus on function.

I’m sure too that there’s immense chortling at Google HQ about the idea that this focus on statistical research is stifling the multi-billion pound Google business, and equally that Microsoft is likely to fly right past them in terms of search. Google  is synonymous with search, it is the generic, and that has everything to do with what goes in and what comes out, and very little to do with how it goes in and how it comes out.

A similar reality is starting to exist in every other area of utility-orientated computing.

Facebook has done the opposite. Zuckerberg-centred design pervades with – I presume – the rest of the user experience team bowing not to statistics but to the great one and his views. Of course, time – and numbers – will be the judge, but it seems odd that Facebook has thrown out many of its best features and endorsed the micro-blogging format, just as that market become more competitive and challenging.

What Facebook appears to have lost, is its principles. Google’s area is straight-forward: ability to find, or ubiquitous access. Facebook’s used to be about enabling connections in groups. What are they now?

Whilst Microsoft’s ambitions for search seem unrealistic, there is a strong case to make that this unlikely candidate has the best overall approach to design.

Creating some of the most complex products in digital (Windows and Office), Microsoft has found a way to combine imagination, principles, many types of user research and engineering to produces fantastic products. I’ve posted the Jensen Harris Mix presentation before but it remains well worth a watch. An understanding of the core user behaviors gave rise to an overall framework for the application, which then used ethnography, user research and the amazingly detailed data from the customer experience programme to really find out what people do. Do we need a ‘save’ button if everyone uses CTRL-S? In fact we do because many actual users don’t use quick keys. Customization may seem like a neat solution to a complex problem, but we actually learn that only a tiny proportion of users ever turn it on.

Similarly, the Windows 7 team has done a great job (yes, an overdue one), of informing their design decisions through detailed understanding of customer behavior, but without just asking users to do the design for them. The team’s detailed analysis of problems (and again, understanding of the role of performance) is rigorous and inspiring.

Should data be at the heart of your design strategy? Yes, but it shouldn’t be the heart of your design strategy. The heart has to be the principles, and the team must believe that inspired thinking can change the game about sticking with those principles and achieving objectives. The fact that Google’s inspired thinking has almost all been in technology and architecture is besides the point. The fact that Facebook’s solution is wrong is not because they’ve ignored users, it’s because they’ve ignored users’ motivations.

Indecent pricing

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Inspired again this morning by a Clay Shirky twitter (this microblogging might have legs you know) 

Dear AAPL, re offer to upgrade to iTunes+ at $0.30 a song: Go fuck yourselves. I took yr stupid DRM off myself, too late to bill me now

This reminds me (a) of a great gaping void cartoon:

Hugh MacLeod cartoon about DRM

And (b) of a reductionist version of the plot of the Robert Redford and Demi Moore blockbuster. Redford says to Moore ‘Will you sleep with me for a million dollars’. Moore and that bloke from Cheers talk about it for a few days. They can use the money, it’s just the once etc etc and they decide to do it. Moore goes back to Redford and say’s ‘OK you’re on’. (This is where we diverge from the plot they actually showed in the film). Redford then says, ‘Well in that case, let’s make it $50′. Moore is shocked. ‘Well’, he say, ‘we’ve already agreed that you’re for hire (or  a less nice phrase), so now we’re just arguing about price’.

I think Shirky’s ire is slightly misdirected at Apple, who are only the middlemen in this one but the point remains the same. In this last stand in the DRM ‘debate’, the record companies admit defeat and still try and charge us more money for music we’ve often bought two or three times from them already. I still believe most users are willing to pay a reasonable price for music, but the record business will have to face up to the fact that they are not a monopoly. They are competing with a free market for identical (if illegal) products.

20 days for 20 years

I’ve been thinking about what 2009 holds in store. 

At this point, I should of course wheel out all of the great reasons one should not make predictions (especially about the future). Or perhaps I should recall the fictional Magrethea in HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, a planet which decided to hibernate through Galactic recession – oddly tempting at the moment.

Slartibartfast of Magrethea

What I actually find myself doing is focussing all of my attention on one particular day in 2009, and one that is not that far away: January 20th. Of course, that’s the day that Barack Obama will officially be sworn in as America’s 44th President. 

Barack Obama

Whilst we’d all talked about the way the mass intelligentsia here and in the states had taken to digital media, it scarcely seemed possible that anyone could truly harness these new approaches as a presidential candidate. But Obama did precisely that, collecting hearts, minds and dollars.

It seemed even less likely that Obama would continue post election with either the consensual style he adopted in the campaign, or the digital media he’s used to do it. But still he is sticking resolutely to path which looks likely to remould politics and attitudes to politicians, as much as it looks to bring about the change to the American way of life which was such a centrepiece of the campaign.

And so to inauguration. For the first time in many years, Obama has forgone the massive donations of corporate lobbies and is working to finance the inauguration with the $5 checks of his base which were such a large part – symbolically and financially – of the campaign. We can expect the speech itself to be an even more marked departure. 

The theme is given as ‘a new birth of freedom’, and it is being positioned as a suitable celebration of both the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the 22nd Martin Luther King day.

I believe that Obama will not propose, however, any form of back slapping or self-congratulation for his nomination and election. I believe instead he will look to start a more radical redefinition of personal freedom from the perspective of responsibility, and of what it means to be an American. It will be ‘ask not what your country can do for you’ but for a different generation, and I believe with an even greater onus on practical participation.

It’s an interesting idea in a western democracy where we have come to be believe that politicians will gain favour by cutting taxing and increasing entitlements, the right course of action today is to encourage greater participation and contribution from the population, both in shaping the political movement, and in building and supporting communities.

Obama’s success in four year’s time will be contingent upon delivering a real vision of the American dream in action where the US of today performs the miracle of economic and social rebirth, not through handouts and state intervention, but through drive and determination. As Napolean said, the role of the leader is to “define reality and provide hope’.

The new first family change the perception of the US internally and externally just by the symbolic importance of their race. And, the freedom which is being reborn cannot, I believe, be a freedom to shop, a freedom to entitlements, rather I believe the emphasis will be on re-invigorating the spirit of hard work and determination which underwrote the freedom, and hope, of the founding fathers.

And, what better time for this message to be spread in America. As many of the new certainties of the Regan era flounder – the stock market won’t make us all rich (at least not all of the time), America hasn’t solved world peace (especially under hapless and incompetent Bush), jobs cannot be protected by governments from foreign trade.

George Bush

If Obama can achieve this, the amazing success of the campaigns will pale into insignificance.

And where does this leave democracy? If Obama succeeds in reshaping the imperial presidency, around a new need for leadership (post the Bush vacuum, the incompetence and corruption of politicians) around consensus through straight-talk, around a liberal and academic view of the world; then we will see yet another complete upheaval in the concepts of media and a political domino effect around the globe.

Traditionally politics hangs on the coat tails of the latest corporate successes. Here political America will vastly have outdone corporate American in understanding the potential of the new medium. Of course, the Obama campaign used vast amounts of traditional media. It’s not so much the vehicle of promotion that shifted but the vehicle of engagement.

I think he will do it, and it will radically change the way we think of politics, democracy and America for the next eight years. 

Oh, and Apple will release a slightly lighter 17″ laptop, Microsoft will eventually get a good operating system out, having taken several years of not-very-subtle hinting  to heart, and Google will port Android to PCs and make an even bigger killing.

Hostage for a fortune

'I'll execute every last one...'

More news from the department of ‘if Microsoft did it, they’d be strung up from a lamp post but if Apple does it, no one cares’ department.

It seems that you have to be so cool to be a member of the apple app creators’ club that you’re not allowed to even talk to the non-members about it.

Apple may be all nicey-nicey and ‘we love to share’ in their marketing, but it seems increasingly that their tyranical addiction to secrecy has gotten out of hand.

And it seems Apple is particularly keen to weild their control when potential revenue comes into play.

Perhaps no one really cared about the banning of stupid apps like ‘I am rich’ but the recent plight of the Podcaster application is as alarming as it is bizarre. The app, developed by Alex Sokirynsky, allowed users to download podcasts directly to iPhone or iPod Touch. It was banned by Apple for being ‘too similar’ to existing applications (meaning iTunes). The author then tried  to distribute it outside of the App store (using the beta testing channel), only to find his priveledges revoked, without explanation.

But the story gets more sinister still. In in fit of anger, Sokirynsky then wrote a blog post criticising Apple’s, decision and saying, amongst other things that he would port the app for Android.

And then, funnily enough the post was significantly softened, the next day. Do you know many bloggers who delete or substantially modify blog entries later? My experience is that people will follow up – maybe even apologize for overly energetic responses – but that it is very rare to remove post content.

The obvious explanation is that Apple, weilding the developer NDA (which currently even prohibits developers using public discussion forums and is now being prominently featured on app store rejection letters), asked Sokirynsky to remove the post. Who knows what really happened.

Now, how does that make you feel about the slightly vacant Gap-wearing characters of Apple marketing?

Stay quiet your ******, or we’re going to ex-communicate every last one of you.

Is it just me?

Amid the phenomenal suprise of the new… 3G iphone, Jobs also slipped some other news into the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote. It seems Apple is re-releasing an old favourite from Microsoft: 

Yes, it’s the sick older sister of Windows ’98. The ill-fated ‘millennium edition’ of Windows which barely made it into the noughties.

This new platform,  (apple) mobile me is a ‘breakthrough web 2.0 app interface’ allowing the user to access their calendar and mail over the internet:

wwdc-keynote_154

And here once again, Apple shows it’s tremendous audacity:  re-inventing Outlook Web Access some five years after Microsoft built it, and declaring themselves ground breaking and market leading.

You’d be forgiven for thinking they were poking fun at their own addicted fanboys with the ridiculous ‘me’ reference.

No zealot like a convert

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it is that companies like Apple actually do to inspire the kind of religious fervour we’ve seen recently in the lead up to CES, and journalists and fans alike clamber over each other to make wilder and wilder predictions over the next miracle that Jobs will announce.

I’ve been round this loop myself a couple of time. At college we produced the student newspaper in a tatty room in the student union on a couple of Mac SEs. System 7 had just come out and we thought we were right at the cutting edge of technology. Then, as now, we looked down with a kind of pity on the PC people who we suffering with ugly boxes, impossible interfaces, and ‘general protection faults’.

And then Apple started going wrong, and their machines would crash just as much as as the PCs. Then Microsoft got NT4 out. And that really did never crash. And all of a sudden, the mac people seemed like the ones with the slightly deranged thinking. PC people were sensible because the kit was cheaper, and more flexible, and more hackable.

And now of course, it’s back the other way round. Vista’s pretty sucky (although it’s likely to improve dramatically at SP1 – like XP did). OS X is more stable and has reclaimed the interface ground that System 7 had all those years ago.

But of course, it’s not really about which is actually better. In an interesting interview with Gizmodo (where he also admits Vista is not a great product), Bill Gates makes a very interesting point:

“To the degree we can share the risk we’re taking and how our innovation comes through, we get a very positive image; to the degree that someone just got a few error messages or they think all big companies, or some specific thing we did, is arrogant, we get a negative message. It’s all going to be there. Maybe it reached a particular time period when we were having some court cases going on and people thought start ups were the source of all innovation. Xbox has helped, Zune has helped. There is a lot of data that people  have to process when you say ‘What do you think of Microsoft or the people that founded it’

So Apple, Microsoft or whoever might do good things, might do bad things but there will be a lag between what they do and their reputation capital. The brand will be insulated from at least some shocks, because people have a lot of data about it, all added together. So my new shiny iPod Touch has been going through a bit a period of crashing all the time. Does this make me re-evaluate Apple and their engineering standard? Well it will if they don’t get it fixed fairly quickly, but they’ll get away with it for the time being.

And the other thing, is that people strive for internal consistency. And they invested alot – financially and emotionally – in this platform decision. Backing Mac is more than a tech gamble. It’s a statement about the user too. And to change sides means reevaluating yourself as well as the box in the corner of your lounge.

Africa: outwardly mobile

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Mobile data and applications have always had a funny adoption curve. Who are the most connected in our society? A few dyed in the wool early adopters may have had 3G cards in their laptops for years now or spent many a wasted train journey like me trying to connect to the internet from their laptops  via their crappy mobile phones over pitifully slow connection speeds.

It is however, the management class who got their first. They probably didn’t even they were doing it, walking around with their flashing, buzzing, chemically addictive blackberries in their pockets.

Just like the laggards who ended up at the top of the sophistication tree almost by accident in the UK, we may soon see rural farmers in South Africa leapfrogging our very own ‘digital sophisticates’ in using their phones to manage their financial affairs.

If the slow uptake of desktop computers was once seen as a barrier to internet adoption in that continent, perhaps the PC will just be overtaken by the massive ubiquity of mobile. After all, it isn’t just the desktop PC that many of these people haven’t had access to,  but any form of banking at all – making these new services potentially economy and life-changing.

iphone_tom

Finally in the UK with the price plans that have been needed to make the iPhone work, it seems customers will start to understand the genuine concept of un-metered, always-on mobile access. Companies however must design around the relative merits of levels and types of communication.

Facebook may be a great rich, iPhone (or general mobile) experience, but text messages might be just as good for simple transactions.

The promise of on-phone banking is incredibly attractive, especially if phones themselves could play a role in the needs for two (or even three) factor authentication. Providing environments potentially more secure than traditional home computers.

Perhaps one day we will even have services to rival the market leaders in Africa.

Proving the rule

Steve Jobs presenting

I’ve spent the last couple of days at the Forrester Consumer and Financial Services (combined) forums in Barcelona. Some pretty good speakers and some interesting ideas which I’ll go into in more detail later.

Overall, it seems, a consensus has broken out around the need for brands to embrace the changing nature of media to increase their relevance, and to actively involve their customers in the marketing and innovation process.

All good stuff but leaves me with one huge question unanswered – a question asked, and inelegantly side-stepped by one of the conference’s headline speakers, Blast Radius CEO,  Gurval Caer: how come Apple, after-all the poster child for all things new, shinny and modern, doesn’t act in this way at all.

We hear that there is total secrecy around any new product launch. Every single piece of marketing, rather than being happily-clapping co-created by customers, is signed off directly by Mr Jobs himself. Twice a year at huge global media events, Jobs will announce the next big thing. And, when criticism comes, it’s neatly brushed under the apple carpet  – never an open discussion from the company. Even when the issue was huge – buyer rights and DRM, we got a letter from Steve Jobs, posted – like a prohibition notice on the factory gates – on the front of the site.

And while we’re at it, for all it’s blogging and 80/20 time, does Google really involve its customers. Does anyone really think that OpenSocial wasn’t in discussion internally at Mountain View since the Orkut purchase, or certainly since F8 rolled out. 

This isn’t a criticism of Apple, but rather a question. Given a single-minded enough focus, is there a role for more leadership from brands. Sure they’ll market to their biggest fans first but sometimes those fans would rather wait and here what the next miracle product is.

On Tap

iPod Touch

As Andrew Orlowski points out, the new iPod Touch (the iPhone without the phone bit) is, on paper at least, an overpriced, locked-down PDA and one without any games or even an email client for when you’re on WiFi. It is also, however, the only piece of consumer electronics on the market today that will without fail turn grown men and women into delighted children.

In the five days since I bought it at Apple’s Regent Street store, everyone who’s taken the little black gizmo for a spin has ended up staring in disbelief, wide-eyed, slack-jawed and saying ‘wow’ a lot. Think how amazed you were when you first saw the tiny nano, and multiply it by a hundred. One colleague, a little carried away in the moment and flicking through photos asked whether you could put music on it.

How does it achieve this? Obviously it comes in a very good looking case – all of the chrome of the original iPod, the front panel almost entirely a large and bright screen and wafer-thin.

However it is the software which amazes, and in particular, the multi-touch interface. By – just about – managing to get the interface to respond in real time and introducing many levels of immediate functional mapping, Apple has made standard handset interface look decades out of date. It’s as revolutionary as the effect that Apple’s first GUI had on the DOS prompt.

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(Above: An add Macintosh ran to congratulate Windows on the tenth anniversary of Windows 95).

The opportunities presented by a malleable, multi-input screen are enormous, as we’ve seen a number of times with Jeff Haan’s demos. Apple’s actually been very retrained in their use of it, presumably on the grounds that people will need to follow a learning curve of some sort. However the interface is almost entirely intuitive with very few people needing even an introduction to the concept.

To start to see some of the potential of this new way of thinking, and how the relatively small screen size of the iPod Touch can be best put to use, we need only look to Facebook’s iPhone interface, which is an absolute joy to use. Perhaps 2008, at last really will be the long-awaited “year of the mobile”.

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