Happy 30th Birthday Mac!

I join my many tech and design brothers and sisters today in wishing a happy birthday to the Macintosh computer. Yes, I know inanimate objects don’t really have birthdays, but with the Mac it feels appropriate to use the word “birthday.”

The Mac was the first real PERSONAL computer, a machine that aligned with what users needed to do and empowered people to do things that was in the realm of complete fantasy just months before.

I learned how to do graphic design and layout by using a Mac, and while I am a user of both Windows and OS X, I still have a fondness for the Mac.

Here’s the video of Steve Jobs revealing the Mac to the world for the first time:

When the exceptional becomes commonplace, Apple is in deep trouble

I, like many other tech fanboys, was glued to my computer screen early this month during Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference keynote. What new products or software would be revealed? Would the rumored iWatch be shown? Was Apple going to (finally) update the MacPro? What would the new version of the iPhone operating system going to look like? And so on.

Many things were announced (no iWatch, though), with the biggest being the new operating system for the iPhone and iPad, iOS7. It’s a near-complete redesign of the “presentation layer” of the operating system, and features several new functions intended on improving the experience. I’ve been using the iOS 7 beta for two weeks now and it’s… OK. It’s slick, minimalistic and new enough to engage users… but it’s not groundbreaking. It’s an incremental improvement, not an exceptional one.

Adding insult to injury, Apple’s recent “Designed by Apple in California” has turned off many viewers, because (in my opinion) the ads make Apple look like a pretentious company that is better than any other one in the world… and you should be grateful whenever they “deem” a new product should exist.

Pundits has been beating up Apple a lot over the past few months, criticizing the lack of innovation over the past year and many say it’s best days are behind them. Could this be true? Or is the problem bigger, something Apple itself helped to create? Here’s some of my thoughts on where Apple is and why Apple could be in deep trouble.

The baseline has shifted

When Apple came out with the iPhone six years ago, it was groundbreaking. It was a brand new way of looking at the smartphone, and within two years every company in the world were releasing devices that looked a lot like the iPhone. Google created its own operating system for touch-screen smartphones and started licensing it to any company who wanted it. Microsoft created a new paradigm for their smartphones, a more object-oriented model in contract to the app-centric model of the iPhone and Google phones. And so on. A similar cycle of product releases occurred with the release of the iPad, and you now see tablet computers being sold by everyone, everywhere.

One of the key principles I look at as a product or software designer is something called the Kano model. This is a model used in product development where features are evaluated based on customer perception. Where the features exceptional, and perceived as “delighters”? Were they part of the “baseline” that customers expected from the product? Or were they detractors, aspects that provoked a negative response? The challenge with applying this model is understanding that the baseline is always shifting… over time we grow accustomed to the “delighters”, and those cutting-edge features becomes the new normal.

What was exceptional became commonplace. Hence, the problem with Apple. iOS7 is good, but not great. It keeps Apple “in the game”, but it doesn’t move the needle in the same way that the original iPhone did. To paraphrase a line from Shakespeare: the fault lies not in Apple but in ourselves. We have gotten so used to the new baseline, the one that Apple helped to create, that we aren’t “wowed” by incremental improvements. We expect more, because we have gotten used to so much.

Microsoft and the long game

For years Microsoft worked on cool concepts that never got out of the lab, and when products were released… They often failed to impress or making much of an impact. Only with the XBox has Microsoft made a significant cultural impact, bringing an impressive console to living rooms around the world. When it comes to public perception, Microsoft was always a distant second to Apple when it comes to innovation… and I’m sure that perception frustrated many Microsoft employees.

Let’s flashback in time a few years… 1995, to be precise. Robert X. Cringley wrote and produced a documentary about computers called Triumph of the Nerds. I recently rewatched it, and was struck by how completely on top of the industry Microsoft was, and how very much “on the ropes” Apple was. Microsoft had, effectively, won in a knock-out and was clearly in charge. Apple had fired its co-founder Steve Jobs and was floundering.

I very frequently quote a saying that is attributed to Mark Twain, and it is this: History don’t repeat, but it sure does rhyme. Once, as we saw in Triumph of the Nerds, Apple was the underdog in a fight to prove it was still relevant. To do that, they brought back Steve Jobs and started a cycle of innovation and product design that changed the world. Right now, Microsoft is a similar underdog when it comes to perceptions… and they like Apple before them, doesn’t like it. Apple needs to watch out, because Microsoft doesn’t like being second in anything… and they are working very hard to win again.

And when it comes to innovation, it’s about deeds not words. What upcoming operating system will have built-in drivers and supports for the latest cutting edge technology, 3D printing? Not OS X. Its Windows 8.1.

What type of cutting-edge technology is Apple adding to the next OS X? The ability to add tags to files. Umm… yeah.

Not saying that Microsoft will eventually “take the Innovation crown” away from Apple, but I will say this. Microsoft looks very motivated to try new things (and sometimes some of those ideas won’t work – see the recent XBox One kerfuffle). Apple, being on top, looks to be playing defense… and that’s not a good place to be when you have aggressive competitors nipping at your heels.

The solution: be bold

So, how does Apple respond to the critics? How do they create a new baseline and produce a product that changes the world once more? The key, in my opinion, is to be bold. To pursue true innovation, not change for sake of it. Why isn’t Apple making a consumer 3D printer? Why isn’t Apple pushing the boundaries when it comes to personal payments?

Now, I have the same amount of knowledge of Apple’s product roadmap as you do… which is to say, none. They may be cooking up some remarkable technology and products that will blow our minds… or they may not. We’ll see. And obviously, if I’m aware of stuff like the Kano model, the folks at Apple are certainly on top of it as well. The key is what they are going to do about it. Will Apple rest on its laurels and be beaten by Google and Microsoft? Will they once again pull an amazing invention out that wows everyone? Who knows.

All I know is this: The competition benefits all of us, because it drives innovation and experimentation. It makes the good even better, while lowering the cost of ownership. Whatever the future brings – and whatever logos adorn the gadgets of choice – we will have some really cool things that will make our lives better and richer than they were before.

Reaction: Why iOS7 is MORE skeuomorphic, not less

“It’s flat, just like they said it would be!”

That was the immediate reaction I saw from one of the tech pundits commenting on today’s introduction of iOS7, Apple’s new operating system for its iPhone and iPad. There have been a lot of rumors recently that Jonny Ive, who took control of Apple’s full design team some months ago, hated skeuomorphic design and the new UI would be redesigned o reflect a more “flat” aesthetic. And yes, skeuomorphic elements such as the felt green tabletop from the Game Center app and drop shadows have been removed, as well as lots of other textures throughout the UI. Flat design clearly won the day.

Not so fast. In my opinion, this new OS is even MORE skeuomorphic than iOS6, in ways deeply integrated throughout the UI. Why do I say that? Read on…

Depth, parallax and layers

One of the first design aspects that they showed in the keynote was how everything was layered. The icons “floated” above the background, providing a semi-3D effect. This depth carried through with a parallax view… the angle of the background image changes based on how you hold the device.

If the OS was completely “flat”, this wouldn’t happen… so, clearly, it’s not. This is skeuomorphic design, applied. Depth is something that we all know and engage with in the real world, and having this depth is not just a cool design flourish – it engages the user and brings them “into” the UI. This layer effect is even more pronounced when you access Notifications, the keyboard, or the new Mission Center app… these panes appear translucent above the primary screen, and you can see the colors and objects below reflected in it. It’s similar to frosted glass, but it’s not “frosted glass” per se… Again, this is a skeuomorphic design element applied in a very subtle way.

Motion and action

The new weather app has animation to reflect the weather. Rain drops, snow, lightning… Instead of icons, it’s the ENTIRE UI. Very similar to the great Weather HD app, this visualization representation current conditions in the real world… Motion is used throughout the OS. UI elements act like objects, just as they had in the earlier version of iOS. It’s interactive, engaging and things work like they would in the real world far more than in other UIs.

3D tabs and cards

if you look at the new version of Mobile Safari, the tabs are listed like cards in a rolodex… except without any stupid “rolodex” UI elements. Again, depth and dimension allows for easy access to open browser windows. The aforementioned weather app continues to treat each location as a “card” that users can flip back and forth – and the global weather view looks like a set of cards lined up in a wallet, much like the Passbook app UI.

And speaking of cards, they have added a gesture in Mail, iMessages and other apps to thumb back and forth to the detail screen… this gesture is, essentially, the same gesture you would use when you draw a playing card. And while the UI doesn’t “look” like a card deck, this gesture “feels” organic… because we have done it before, in real life. That’s skeuomorphism, applied gesturally.

The end of bad skeuomorphism

They didn’t remove all skeuomorphism… they took out all the BAD skeuomorphism. The textures that were there added no value, and instead looked… well, cheap and ugly. The new iOS7 page on Apple.com explains it perfectly: “Conspicuous ornamentation has been stripped away. Unnecessary bars and buttons have been removed. And in taking away design elements that don’t add value, suddenly there’s greater focus on what matters most: your content.”

Skeuomorphic design applies real world elements to assist in learning, understanding, and use. Except for – maybe – the Notes app background, none of the elements that existed in the operating system did that. They have removed those elements, but kept the key concept of making sure that the design aligns with and mimics the real world, to make it a better experience.

And more “obvious” skeuomorphic elements still exist – the world clock and the compass app, for example – because it’s the best way to present that information. A completely flat UI that abandoned real-world elements, wouldn’t present that information as effectively.

I think that what Jonny’s team has done is pretty daring, and, while not perfect, is to be admired. They aimed to improve and refine, and in most cases, they succeed. And, by integrating effective skeuomorphic design instead of abandoning the approach completely and arbitrarily, I think they will do quite well with the only group that matters: users.

Photos: 2013 Vintage Computer Show and Apple “Pop-up” Museum

When I first heard that there would be a vintage computer show in Atlanta on March 20th and 21st, I was excited. Then, I read that a traveling Apple “Pop-Up” Museum would also be there. Being an Apple fanboy, this heightened my excitement to 11.

I soon discovered that the show would be held in an old CompUSA store… which somewhat dampened my enthusiasm. What type of show was held in an abandoned retail store?

I shouldn’t have worried.

The show was fantastic, with an amazing collection of hardware, much of it working (my older son and I played some classic Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 games, as well as in a LAN party of DOOM). And the Apple museum was fantastic, very professionally done… with EVERY. MAC. EVER.

Congrats to the guys at Vintage.org for putting together a great show, and here’s some pics:

An here’s lots more on flickr.

The connected home is Apple’s for the taking

There’s a huge battle taking place between tech companies, one that doesn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves. It’s not the fight between Google and Apple in mobile, or Facebook versus Twitter in social… It’s the fight for our living rooms.

It’s about who will be the preferred tech provider in our home and hearth, and who will empower our lifestyles in the 21st Century

Look at tech today. Everything is “connected”, and yet… It’s not. Does your XBox 360 “talk” to your Windows laptop? Does your iPhone connect to our TV? In some ways, yes, through proxy apps that service very specialized functions… But in general, it doesn’t. We have specialized devices with specialized apps and we have to jump through numerous different hoops to get things done. It works, but it’s not optimal.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s obvious why it IS that way. We have gadgets from dozens of different companies in our homes. Just looking at my family room, I have the following: a TV from LG, a DirecTV receiver that runs Linux, a Sony Blu-Ray player, a Vizio sound bar, a Microsoft game console… And nearby an iPad and an iMac. Only two of those devices are from the same company, and the notion that they can all “talk” to each other… Ludicrous.

One of the things that is great about the Internet is that it has standards, protocols that everyone HAS to play along with to make everything work. For the most part, consumer electronics doesn’t have that, and many companies look at compatibility as a dirty word (I’m looking at you, Sony).

I’m an open source guy, and so I love the idea that open standards can be set (even more than they are today) to connect computing devices, to make things easier and empower users… But someone has to LEAD, someone has to have a vision to make this happen.

When I wonder who could be that leader, I can only think of one company, one that already has the hearts and minds of the majority of consumers, a company that can align consumer electronics with user needs better than anyone… that company is Apple.

I think that Apple has both the vision and the ability to execute that Microsoft and Sony lacks. Microsoft has worked for more than a decade to capture the living room, to “own” that space, and they have done great work with the Xbox gaming system… But I think that, as good as they have been, it’s not enough. They haven’t thought big enough, looked at all the ways that integrated devices could empower our lives. It’s a lack of vision. Sony has that vision, but they can’t pull all the pieces together and they have lost market share and consumer confidence.

Imagine a true connected home… Where computers are smart servers for “not-so-smart” clients, like alarm clocks, ovens, or security systems… Apple can make that happen. Imagine asking a Siri-powered alarm clock what your schedule was tomorrow, and seeing it display in front of you to review and change. Think of sending a recipe to our oven from your computer and seeing it per-heat while you prep the ingredients. Think about home automation writ large, with temperature, lighting and devices powering on when you enter a room. Think about how many ways a truly connected home could make our lives simpler and better.

There are hints that Apple is already looking at this space. They have started selling the Nest internet-enabled thermostat in their stores, made by a company run by a former Apple executive. They have been working with automakers to add Siri connectivity to their cars. Apple can buy, build or partner with companies to make this happen, if they have the vision and the will.

The benefits of such an offering is obvious: the more integrated Apple can make their devices in people’s lives, the more dependent consumers become on Apple products. Integration ensures upgrades, and profits, for years to come.

Steve Jobs famously said that he had “cracked” the TV experience. I hope he had some great ideas he can pass on to his team before his death, but even more than that, I hope he had a broader vision than just television. I hope he saw a future where everything worked together, where data followed the user and wasn’t locked to our devices… A future that empowered people could use technology to lead better lives.

We’ll see, but I know this: The future is going to be a lot more interesting than we imagine. And that excites me.

A lot.

Why didn’t Apple make a Leather Smart Cover for the iPad Mini?

I’d say it was a combination of aesthetics and functionality.

Aesthetically, the iPad mini doesn’t NEED a cover, because its small and light. A cover would protect the screen, but… It would “thicken” the device and (in my opinion, and potentially in the opinion of Apple!s product managers) make it look less sleek and add bulk.

Functionally, the full iPad Smart Cover is also a very useful stand… And the iPad mini is so small you don’t need a stand.

Not to say that they won’t eventually ship a “mini Smart Cover”… If Apple sees a market opportunity (I.e. if other companies start successfully selling their own mini covers) they will very possibly release a product to take advantage of it.

See question on Quora