Whatever you think about electric cars and their future (I think it’s bright, but not for fuel economy reasons) you have to admit something about charismatic Tesla founder Elon Musk: He is out there making things.
Not just software things, either. Hardware things. Things you can touch and drive and fly to space in. That kind of ingenuity and relentless pursuit of turning ideas into physical things is sorely lacking in a lot of folks running software companies. Not that the products that they make aren’t necessarily important or interesting, or that they don’t have the potential to make enormous impacts on people’s lives — just look at the way Twitter has altered communication on this planet.
But I grew up as the son of a craftsman. Someone who made things with his hands every day for a living and then again at night for pleasure and eventually turned that pleasure into what he did for a living. He grew up the son of a craftsman who made things too, things that flew and drove and worked. Crafting things with your hands, or mind, and making them come into physical being has a certain Promethean magic to it that is difficult to match when things aren’t tangible.
As hardware gets more complicated and tied in with software and computers, it’s becoming more difficult for people to realize their visions without the infrastructure of corporate money and patent portfolios. That’s one of the main reasons that we won’t see a boutique smartphone any time soon.
But there are still opportunities. Some folks are out there making bits of our physical world better. There are ways to get the raw materials that you need to make your vision happen. Software is important and can be wonderful. But we need to remember the magic of changing the world in physical terms as well.
Elon Musk is making things. It makes me want to make things again too.
Unlike a lot of pundits, I have no problem with Apple’s switch to the lighting connector, and unfazed that it didn’t go with Micro USB or another standard. The smaller, dual-orientation plug is fantastic in use and the proprietary connector allows Apple to offer compatibility with audio accessories and more that a Micro USB plug would not be able to offer.
But that aside, I’m happy about the change for a completely different, if somewhat pedantic, reason: The lightning connector will no longer gouge the top edge of my pinkie finger.
This may be silly to some, but those of you that use an iPhone incessantly will likely know what I’m talking about. When I hold my iPhone one-handed, I tend to support the bottom edge with my pinkie. This allows me to not worry about it slipping out of my hand and support it while I bash away with my thumb.
My one-handed grip looks something like this:
Unfortunately, this has led to issues over the last several iPhones, as the bottom of the devices has been dominated by Apple’s 30-pin connector. A connector with sharp edges that dug into the flesh of my supporting pinkie. You may laugh, but it became a problem with the iPhone 3GS and 3G especially, because the connector was located at the apex of the bottom curvature of the phone, making it a perfect bladed edge:
Eventually, I had to start cradling the phone in one hand and tapping with the other like an octogenarian popping out an email one letter at a time (no offense intended to my wiser and better elders). The iPhone 4 and 4S did away with the curve, and bullnosed the connector edge a bit, but the hole was still there and the phones were so heavy that they tended to weigh harder on my poor pinkie finger:
Now, the iPhone 5 fixes all of that with a tiny, aggressively rounded Lightning connector port, which — I’m happy to report — has shown no signs of terrorizing my tender pink flesh:
The dock connector’s smaller, friendlier shape is also aided by the fact that the iPhone 5 is also .74 ounces lighter than the iPhone 4S, which is the heaviest iPhone Apple’s ever made.
So yeah, aside from the technical advantages, we also get a nice one-handed usability boost too. Thanks, Apple.
I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter and even tech writers getting confused about how Passbook looks on the iPhone 5. Many are saying that it’s not been optimized for the new display (which would be silly). But it actually is.
The problem is that most people are just loading one pass in the app. When you do that, the pass is centered on the screen, making it look letterboxed. But the splash screen is iPhone 5 ready and looks just fine. So what gives?
Well, all you have to do is add one more pass of another type to see that all is well, this is just how Passbook was meant to look. Remember, Apple designed Passbook knowing that the iPhone 5 would have a larger screen.
I’m not really in the habit of breaking down other writer’s posts, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Erica Ogg wrote the article linked above at GigaOm, entitled Apple’s New Passbook Isn’t Quite Ready For Primetime. In it she describes the points that she feels are still showing signs of friction in the Passbook process.
I’m not trying to hurt any feelings or disparage anyone here, but it bears correcting.
The answers to these questions come from my research as well as talking to professionals from organizations and heads of mobile that are already implementing Passbook passes and have worked closely with Apple to do so.
Notifications - Ogg mentions that the notifications stayed on the screen and wouldn’t go away when her event got close. This is by design. It’s so you don’t have to fumble around in your phone to find the Passbook app and pull up your pass. Instead, you grab and swipe and scan, boom you’re through the gate or turnstile. The notification goes away after some time has passed. This is a blessing for the 20 people in line behind you. However, there needs to be work done here to differentiate a Passbook notification from a push notification, because it breaks the natural behavior that people expect.
Location awareness - The creator of the pass has to set up whether it’s location aware or not and has to set up the area parameters. If United didn’t do that, then it won’t happen. I used it on a Giants ticket and it worked perfectly as I approached the park.
Using the app more than once - I’m not really sure what she’s doing in this section. You should never have to go to the App Store looking for Passbook apps. Passes are issued to you in the normal flow of your purchasing or usage of goods or services, not sought out and added. If you buy a ticket for an event, there will be a button at or near the end of your purchasing cycle that lets you add that ticket to Passbook. The same goes for things like your Starbucks card, which will likely get added for the first time when you add a balance and stay as you use it or add more. Aside from updating a pass or — in the case of gift cards and ‘season pass’ type passes — adding it for the first time, apps have very little to do with passes or Passbook. Perhaps it’s Apple’s fault for putting an App Store button here at all.
Brightness - The app cleverly cranks your brightness for you so you don’t have to dip into your brightness settings at the kiosk in oder to get a pass to register in a scanner. As someone who has had to do this many times with AA’s own mobile ticketing codes, I think this is a brilliant piece of engineering, not a confusion point.
Design for the iPhone 5 - The app itself is actually designed perfectly for the iPhone 5, but the passes themselves have not been updated to fill the screen. The splash screen with no passes in it, for instance, looks just fine. It’s only once you get more than one type of pass in there that you see it’s actually updated for the iPhone 5 perfectly. The passes fan out the full length of the screen.
Passbook isn’t actually that complicated. Once it’s in practice, you’ll come across the moments that you’ll use them organically. Initially it feels awkward because you’re ‘looking’ for reasons to use it and maybe there aren’t any good ones. But, as people integrate it, the ‘Add to Passbook’ button will show up on more and more checkout screens and in more confirmation emails.
For my experiences with Passbook, you can check this post out. I’ll probably write something more on Passbook soon, I find it a fascinating piece of Apple’s services puzzle and I do agree that it has a long way to go yet.
John Gruber talks about the recent Braun v. Apple graphic that’s been floating around, (something which was actually done better a long time ago by Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo). He talks about the difference between ripoff and homage, and what makes Apple’s Braun-inspired designs different than Samsung’s copies of the iPhone.
I think that it’s even simpler than that, though. Ive freely admits that Rams continues to influence him to this day. When was the last time you heard a Samsung designer publicly admit (outside of court) that they were influenced by the designs of Jony Ive, or anyone else at Apple? Never.
Ive’s designs for Apple apply the Braun aesthetic to devices that depart widely in purpose and function from the original Rams-crafted products. Samsung took Apple’s design for a smartphone and applied it directly to…a smartphone. And then tried to pretend that they didn’t.
The headline over at Fortune, which is quickly being mirrored by sites like 9to5Mac, is summarily deceptive. The ‘Apple execs’ that it refers to are Peter Oppenheimer and Eddy Cue, its CFO and SVP of Internet Software and Services, respectively. They held a meeting with analysts Wednesday in which they were, of course, asked about Apple making a more significant move into television distribution.
Their responses were taken by the analysts to mean that an Apple television ‘appeared extremely unlikely’, according to the headline of the note quoted right in Philip Elmer-DeWitt’s article.
This was an inference on their part based on Cue’s comments. But if you read the actual text of the note, the only comment from Cue is that Apple will ‘enter markets where it feels it can create great customer experiences and address key problems’. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the company line, oft repeated by CEO Tim Cook and others.
That’s the only direct comment mentioned to be made by Cue. There is absolutely no passage here that says Cue said ‘no TV solution’ and certainly none that says ‘not to expect and Apple television any time soon.
Now, the analysts can make whatever inferences they wanted. They were there, perhaps Cue signaled to them with some kind of body language that they shouldn’t expect a TV, who knows? But the rest of their text reads as supposition based on their opinions about broadcast rights and the difficulty that Apple faces in that arena.
And that supposition was then cranked up to 11 by Elmer-DeWitt with his catchy headline, which will be parroted by the usual suspects, without actually delving into the text themselves.
The fact of the matter is that Apple executives aren’t allowed to share any information about anything that could significantly change the course of the company in those meetings, and Elmer-Dewitt knows that, he even says it in the first paragraph. But the headline, and even the text of the article, implies the opposite.
Whether Apple is making a TV or isn’t, this particular analyst note and the headlines that will follow, are pure speculation, nothing more.
Update : Seth from 9to5Mac spoke to the analyst in question and stands by the 'no TV soon’ position the article takes.
After writing that piece yesterday about Sparrow, which I still stand by, something was pointed out to me by someone very smart that should have been obvious. Frankly I’m kind of irritated that I didn’t see this clearly yesterday, but I thank them for helping me see.
Although it has support for other IMAP clients and, in the end, POP clients, Sparrow is essentially, at a basic level, a conduit for the Gmail pipe.
The simple fact of the matter is that if your pipe comes to you looking to buy you out, you have no choice, you must sell. They have come looking for you because they’re going to buy a client, one way or another. If it’s not you, it’s someone else that does what you do and you’re done for anyway.
That adage goes for Twitter, Facebook, even Apple or other companies that don’t have a traditional pipe but control the platform you build on. There is an insane amount of leverage there that can’t be ignored.
I’m sure there are those out there that would fight the good fight when approached by the people that own the data flowing through their apps, but they are few and far in between, and that’s a bloody battle indeed.
I know that a lot has been written about Sparrow getting acquired by Google. There have been some really good points made by both Marco Arment and Matt Gemmel already. But there are a few things that I would like to say, and you’re free to read them or not.
First, I think that Marco’s take on this is the one I would recommend you use to color your thinking about the Sparrow acquisition. I know Marco to a degree and I can attest to the fact that he spends an enormous amount of time thinking about how to build a sustainable software product and how each decision he makes affects his customers. Not every piece of software out there is built to endure and bloom like Instapaper has, and not every team is out to do the same with their company. But those who do have a unique perspective on the topic of ‘selling out’ and it’s worth listening to.
I don’t know Dom Leca as well, though I have had some nice conversations with him over dinner and in interviews. I won’t presume to speak to his motives, as many have been doing, but I can tell you that any of the members of the Sparrow team that I’ve had the fortune of meeting have always left me with the impression of people who are just as intensely passionate about getting things right as any developers and designers I’ve met. I’ve never asked Dom, for instance, about a detail of the way that Sparrow works and not been presented with the reasons why it is the way it is, as well as a sense of curiosity about whether I think it works…and the feeling that he’s always looking for ways to make it better.
I speak to a lot of developers, designers and directors of apps in my work, and I can tell you that these guys are among the most talented I know of.
I can also tell you that I never, ever, got a twinge that the Sparrow team was building a product that was intended to be sold or acquired. I love Instagram, and the gents behind it are just as talented, but you always got a certain sense about the way they were building their business. I never got that from the Sparrow folks.
So, why did they ‘sell out’ to Google?
First, I’m telling you honestly that neither Dom nor anyone else on the team has given me any inside information about this, so this is completely my conjecture.
That being said, I believe that the Sparrow team was building the best product possible in Sparrow for Mac, but not making nearly as much money as they needed to keep the business sustainable. A productivity app that saves time is worth its weight in gold, and the few dollars that they were charging for Sparrow were more than worth it. But the Mail app for OS X is easily the best that ships with any desktop operating system, and that provides a huge barrier to those who might otherwise purchase it.
If you don’t know anything about software development, you might not be aware that building an email app is hard work. It has to work just so because people are so used to certain paradigms of operation when it comes to email, but you have to bring new ideas to the table and sell people on those ideas in a way that feels ‘better’ than something they’ve grown accustomed to for years.
Sparrow had to do this with a small team of 5 people, figuring it out as they went.
As much as people cried about wanting various versions of Sparrow for the Mac, iPad and iPhone, there was nothing that could be done about getting them out any faster. They simply had a limited set of resources with which to tackle these projects. When they released the iPhone version, they had to decide what do do next and they decided on a new version of Sparrow for Mac, versus splitting time to the iPad.
The small team and limited resources is also why Sparrow for iPhone never got push.
Apple rejected Sparrow’s initial use of the VoIP backgrounding system to continuously watch for new mail. This meant that the team had to either roll their own solution or contract with a third party to provide for it. Handling the security and infrastructure of a push server that deals with people’s personal email is far from trivial. That’s why most people let another company that does these things specifically handle it. That goes double for a team with limited man-hours to dedicate to it, like Sparrow.
Sparrow had been looking for push providers and, to my understanding, had located one before they were acquired. I don’t know why they didn’t release the feature, but, once again, my feeling is that it had to do with limited resources available. Sparrow for Mac had to be prepped for Retina, which slowed down the ongoing work on Sparrow for iPhone.
If I had to conjecture, and this is just a guess not based on any inside information, Sparrow for iPhone was selling well, but not nearly as well as the team wanted it to. The company was making money, but it may have limited their ability to pay for push, for expansion of the team or to accomplish things that they wanted to do.
But, since that’s just a guess, maybe it was selling like gangbusters, I don’t know. But I can say that the same challenges that an alternative mail client faces on the Mac are amplified on the iPhone, where Apple does not allow third-party clients to take over the default actions like clicking on an email address to send a new email and such. This puts clients like Sparrow and browsers like Chrome at a disadvantage.
I have a feeling that this acquisition offer and deal went through fairly quickly. The Sparrow team saw the challenges of making a business based on an alternative mail client sustainable, and they were made a handsome offer by Google. One that would allow them to make choices based on their desire to build good things, rather than the need to pay the bills, in the future. And they took it.
Sparrow was never a project whose goal was to build a user base then sell out, period. That’s just the way it happened.
As a user of the app that enjoys it very much, I can completely understand the dismay at Google’s acquisition of the team. But, as a person who has started two companies of my own and who has made a sincere effort to make them sustainable, I understand the challenges therein, and I wish the team all the best in the future, and so should you.
The best thing about the guys moving on to work on projects elsewhere? That passion, the anguish over making things great; that goes with them and hopefully informs projects at Google and beyond. Just as with engineers and managers at Apple go on to make things great wherever they are.
Still, you might want to start looking for another email client.