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Apple to Offer Ultra Subscription?

June 1st, 2012

In contrast to the popular mantra of ‘Make it Smaller‘ that has appeared lately in specialty, community-run, and anti-conglomerate grocery stores, banks, and retailers, tech companies have been trumpeting the benefits of the large. For example, Apple’s huge app selection and Facebook’s established network are touted as the primary arguments against going with a competitor. Well, if the biggest tech companies have their way, I would expect an even more extensive merger of power and services in the near future.

Apple could be very close to being able to control virtually every aspect of your digital experience. You’ll drop your phone and cable provider. You’ll ditch Netflix and Spotify. Instead, you’ll pay Apple one monthly fee to get it all, and it’ll be delivered exclusively to your growing library of Apple devices. Setting aside the inevitability of a mountain of antitrust lawsuits, this is the direction Apple could very well take, and here’s how they’ll pull it off…

The Pieces

1. Apple already owns virtually every piece in the puzzle in the creation of their devices – from the silicon to the hardware to the operating system to many key software titles. Cutting out the army of partners needed to create most other digital devices allows Apple to offer high-quality and fully customised products at prices that are hard to match.

2. In addition to pushing their own SIM card designs, there have been reports that Apple may be looking to offer its own mobile phone/data service exclusive to their devices. If this is true, consumers would be able to ditch AT&T, Verizon, and the like, and pay Apple directly to supply mobile service. With the additional money gained from these highly profitable subscriptions, they could even afford to offer their devices free to users that sign up.

3. The FCC has been considering the redefinition of what types of companies get to call themselves ‘multichannel video programming distributors’, or MVPDs. This legal definition, currently applied to cable companies such as Comcast or TimeWarner, gives a distributor the right to carry certain TV channels and responsibility to carry others. Effectively, an expansion of the definition to include online distributors would mean that Apple could stream many more TV shows to consumers without having to negotiate rights with the channels individually. Since these negotiations are one of the biggest practical barriers for Internet television services, the MVPD designation would make it much easier for Apple to mirror the offerings of today’s big television providers.

4. Apple purchased streaming music service Lala several years ago, and has lately seen their iTunes Store lose customers to increasingly popular subscription services like Spotify, Rdio, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. I find it hard to believe the current a-la-carte iTunes service will remain the only path to music, movies, and books in Apple’s ecosystem. Apple needs to put those giant data centers they keep building to good use, and a subscription streaming media service would certainly fit the bill.

5. Apple has been slowly building their own exclusive pathway not just to the Internet, but to a growing Internet of Things. They’ve been doing it one portal at a time, with their offering of an Apple-approved and iOS-exclusive collection of apps. Instead of supporting a much more open web-app environment — one that would have been accessible by other devices — Apple has championed their own proprietary development platform. Because of how Apple devices feature these apps, many companies have chosen to create iOS apps as the portal to their services instead of creating web apps. This has effectively created a second, more exclusive internet — one only accessible through Apple devices. This has been surprisingly non-offensive to the same people that champion net neutrality and routinely complain about service providers throttling certain websites or putting a cap on data usage.

The Holy Grail of Subscription Services

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture Apple stringing these services together and tying them into one monthly subscription fee; The data and voice service, TV shows, streaming movie and music, book lending, and access to an exclusive library of apps, all part of a single monthly subscription. This universal subscription would tether a user to an iCloud full of all the media they could ever want, and it would be accessible from any Apple device they own. This type of unified digital experience would be the realization of a dream and a sort of nightmare at the same time. The potential for gatekeeper abuse would be staggering, but it would oh-so-conveniently packaged and easy to use. Can it really be wrong to be so right?

What do you think? Would you subscribe to an Apple Universal Subscription? How much would you pay to consolidate all these services into one shiny package? Would you be able to resist if you got the hardware for free as part of the deal?

Design, Digital, Gadgets

AT&T Tried to Make Me Buy an iPhone : UPDATE

April 1st, 2012

As someone who can appreciate a good user experience when I see one, I’ve long been a fan of the Windows Phone operating system.

Microsoft’s 7-Series mobile software has been critically praised by everyone from Gizmodo to the New York Times, and I tend to agree with these reviews. There are so many fantastic UX ideas expressed in Windows Phone that help make for an incredibly personal and social experience. For example, I like how the OS puts people, not apps, at the center of communication. While a conversation with a friend may technically employ text message, Google Chat, Facebook, and Skype, all these platform threads are pulled together as a cohesive narrative on one screen. It’s so simple! This hub-based approach to social computing makes the totally discreet desktop metaphor found on iOS and Android seem downright outdated.

 

 

Microsoft doesn’t actually make their own phones, though. As good as the software is, the hardware that Windows Phone has been paired with has always been… underwhelming. Cheap black plastic, crappy cameras, and awkward forms abound.

Enter Nokia, the Finnish phone company with a history of great mobile phone design. They’ve always made quality hardware, but they never managed to nail the software experience layer that gives charm and powerful functionality to today’s smartphones. When Nokia and Microsoft partnered last year to begin work on a true flagship phone for WP7, I decided to hold off on upgrading my iPhone to wait until this make-or-break phone would be released. After more than a year, the moment I was waiting for finally arrived with the North American release of the Nokia Lumia 900 on AT&T.

I went to the AT&T website on Friday and saw that the Nokia Lumia 900 was being promoted on the homepage. However, since I’m already an AT&T customer, I had to go through an upgrade path to replace my old iPhone with the new Nokia. When I pressed the Upgrade button, instead of seeing the brand new Lumia 900 — the phone that AT&T is supposedly giving the most launch support to in their history as a company (including the original iPhone launch) — I saw three upgrade options: iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, and the iPhone 4 (Refurb). What?!?

I’ve designed countless pages for websites just like this one, but this page had me puzzled. Since I currently have an iPhone, I’m willing to concede that putting the iPhone 4S as the primary upgrade path makes sense from a continuity standpoint. I’m even willing to concede that maybe the older iPhone 4 makes sense as a cheaper alternative to this primary upgrade path. However, even I was confused as to how I might proceed to choose a phone that WASN’T an iPhone.

Well… Do you see that box at the bottom of the screen that looks like a banner ad — the same type of banner ad that users have been trained to ignore? Well, guess what? Instead of opting for clarity with a basic link to ‘Choose Other Phones’ or, better yet, to simply display the other available phones below the fold, the designers at AT&T deliberately chose to try to dead-end users on this page. Believe me, UX designers try to avoid banner ads like the plague — we all know that users ignore them. Hell, we don’t even like to put useful information in a spot where users expect banner ads to be. It’s that bad.

So, when a designer uses the language of a banner ad to house an otherwise meaningful communication, the message intended for the user on this page couldn’t be clearer: these three iPhones are the only upgrade choices you’ve got.

Since I wasn’t about to be bullied into an iPhone 4S after I’d waited all this time, I nervously clicked on the banner ad — going against every fiber of my being — hoping that perhaps this was indeed the path to more phone upgrade options. It turns out it was. With a sigh of relief, I finished purchasing the Nokia Lumia 900.

However, this little piece of UI trickery bothered me enough to write this article. It just seems so… shitty. When carriers do sketchy things like this, it’s no wonder that it’s so hard to turn the tide of momentum against a particular mobile OS. A good user experience or a great piece of hardware might not be enough to break through the noise of politics and social pressure surrounding the iPhone. Even though I prefer the ethos and experience of the Windows Phone OS, I know I tried to think of a million reasons not to switch.

The subtle and omnipresent pressure to align with Apple is really intense within the design community, and increasingly within pop culture at large. While Apple tends to make beautifully detailed products, and I will probably stick with the MacBook Air as my productivity device of choice for the foreseeable future, I grow wary of the Cult of Mac when it starts to do more harm than good.

A perennial problem with revolution is that revolutionaries are cute in the jungle before they’ve won, but quickly become decrepit and sadistic once in power.  Aspirational Che was sexy but empowered Castro was cruel… This is a familiar dilemma, and it is often said that the only response is constant revolution. - Jaron Lanier

I, for one, am looking forward to the exposure to a different digital flavor — a wholly unique mobile OS. Like that feeling of open possibility I get when I travel to a foreign country, I think it’ll be a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing that weakens the spirit of creativity more needlessly than a perceived lack of choice.

 

UPDATE

After my hard-hitting reportage on the subject this morning, AT&T has capitulated (slightly) and has changed the design of their upgrade page. It now includes a link to see all available phones down at the bottom of the screen. Perhaps someone at Microsoft or Nokia put the pressure on. Anyways, I hope they eventually create an even more user-friendly solution — one that can, of course, feature a phone or two, but that treats the other phones AT LEAST as second-tier contenders. In this day and age, users expect to be treated with respect, even when they’re on an e-commerce site.

Advertising, Design, Digital, Gadgets , , , ,

Privacy Tips from the White House

February 24th, 2012

The White House, not waiting for Congress to agree on anything ‘official’, has released their plans for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

While it seems many privacy pundits are pushing for a ‘one button’ solution that would allow consumers to wholesale opt out of personal data tracking in ANY digital experience (be it website, app, browser, or device), I believe that strategy would end up crippling a lot of innovation and have devastating effects even on existing services. Would consumers really understand why Facebook stopped working after they pressed this ‘privacy’ button? Is ON or OFF the only choice we should give consumers when it comes to data use?

In any case, the rather eloquent digital privacy tenets set out by the White House seem much more reasonable and compassionate, and may even serve as apt guidelines as we construct our own designs. I expect ‘Respect for Context’ will become increasingly hard to manage the more connected and complex our platforms become…

  • Transparency:  Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.
  • Respect for Context:  Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.
  • Security:  Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.
  • Access and Accuracy:  Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.
  • Focused Collection:  Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.
  • Accountability:  Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

 

Design, Digital , ,

An App Store Revolution

June 26th, 2011

The recent unveiling of Amazon’s marketplace for Android apps got me thinking about digital commerce and its seemingly steady march towards becoming a reflection of real-world commerce. Currently, you can only buy mobile apps in a few digital mega-stores, but this sparse landscape may eventually be filled with Ma and Pa app stores of all stripes, each one serving a specific demographic by offering a curated selection of apps. The prevailing trend towards more social computing all but guarantees it.

If you’re only familiar with the Apple’s iTunes App Store — the sole marketplace where an iPhone or iPad owner can purchase apps for their devices — you may not be aware that, while Google runs an official app marketplace for devices running their Android platform, there are several other marketplaces where Android device owners can buy apps. In fact, Google has structured Android, their mobile operating system, to allow users and mobile device manufacturers a great deal of freedom when it comes to applications. This ethos that values flexibility and customization allows device makers to pre-install their own apps and, more relevantly for most of us, allows users to download Android apps from anywhere on the Internet that they please.

THE PROBLEM WITH BIG

Like the iTunes app store, the official Google app marketplace has been widely criticized as being difficult to shop. The number of apps available for mobile devices has grown so large that the simple but simplistic shopping strategies employed in both of these marketplaces are now insufficient to connect users with the apps they seek — assuming a user even knows that an app they might want exists. Only the editorially featured and most popular apps are easily surfaced for the consumer. For everything else, word-of-mouth, blogging, and advertising are the only real hope for an app to find its audience. An overhaul of these nascent app shopping experiences is long overdue. (I’m looking at you, iTunes.)

Additionally, because Google doesn’t stringently vet applications as part of the approval process, the Google Android Market has become known as a sort of Wild West. Malicious, buggy, or misleading applications seem to find their way onto the phones of unsuspecting users all too often. Apple takes advantage of this supposed side-effect of freedom to justify their highly-restricted-but-safe “walled garden” system. However, I am fairly certain it is possible for freedom and safety to coexist within an online community if it is given the right tools.

THE FUTURE

Since they don’t happen to own an operating system, Amazon’s mere presence in the app business suggests that there is room for a variety of storefronts in the app business — that apps, like cans of Coke, should be available not just in a Walmart, but from any store that wishes to sell them. I bet the Internet is full of app connoisseurs who would gladly evangelize their favorite apps in exchange for a little cash or a reward of some kind.

In the future, given enough consumer demand and developer support, opening a curated gallery of digital experiences for sale could be as easy as installing WordPress. Instead of just recommending apps, Gizmodo, New York Times, or your local Girl Scout Troop could offer their favorite apps for sale. A free market for digital experiences would be totally cool, and it would shift the power of app recommendations into the hands of those that do it best — friends, family, and brands whose values the consumer already sympathizes with. These specialized app shops may not have the breadth of apps that a super-store like Apple, Google or Amazon would, but they would be able to offer a trusted sensibility and inspiring curation.

Superstores are mega-profitable and efficient entities, so it looks like they are here to stay. However, besides offering low prices, they are rarely identified as delightful shopping experiences. In the real world, it was a long, slow, profits-driven journey from the neighborhood corner store to the mega mart. In the world of appstores, it appears that journey will be precisely the opposite, the power of commerce moving down from the big companies and out into the hands of the little guy. I’m betting it will happen because people will always demand boutique shopping experiences. One could argue it is this same love of the boutique sensitivity to purpose that has made apps a more popular experience on mobile devices than the web browser.

SEEKING EQUILIBRIUM

I believe e-commerce, like most cultural experiences, is constantly seeking equilibrium between efficiency and authenticity. The engineers of today’s Internet have plied the system with a lot of the former, but not so much of the latter. The contemporary shift toward more ‘social’ digital experiences is the inevitable result of the system trying to balance itself. Entrepreneurs and engineers now building software platforms and tools that give more than lip service to this shift will surely ingratiate themselves into the hearts and wallets of today’s humanity-starved Internet goers.

Apple is setting itself up as the Starbucks of mobile app retailers, increasingly offering a safe and efficient retail model tuned to a mass market scale. They are sure to remain a successful business that will always have its place. However, I believe Google’s Android will eventually see massive returns on the truly social experiences that are sure to result from the openness of the platform and their business model. For true authenticity to be expressed, you must empower the people not just as consumers, but also as implicit owners of a culture on all levels.

The revolution is coming to the way we buy, sell, and trade apps.

Design, Digital, Ideas , , , ,

Is This Lady Gaga’s Motorcycle Father?

May 27th, 2011

In promotion of their new (and pretty damn great) Cloud Drive streaming media service, Amazon was offering Lady Gaga’s new record Born This Way for just 99 cents. Now, I’ve never been the biggest fan of her music, but I thought I may as well own a complete record to give her a fair chance — you know, seeing as how she’s one of the most popular artists in the world.

Disappointingly, I wasn’t won over by this record. Instead, I found it even more cloyingly campy and difficult to listen to than I anticipated. It seems I’m just not cut out to be one of Gaga’s Little Monsters.

In disproportion to my interest in her actual music, it is telling that I have now written three posts on Gaga. In fact, I have always admired Lady Gaga as an art director and performer. I think that she and her team come up with some of the catchiest, strangest, most referentially brilliant props and performance conceits in modern memory (her meat dress and cigarette sunglasses come to mind). Now, I don’t find the becycled cover of Born This Way to be brilliant, exactly, but I was pleased that it recalled one of my favorite old pinball machines, Centaur. Back when I first saw the straight-out-of-the-80s Centaur machine at a bar in Seattle, I remember thinking the concept of a centaur being half-man and half-motorcycle was funny but strangely compelling. Would this form factor be a gift or a curse? It’s difficult to tell…

…and now I’m thinking the cover just might be kinda brilliant — an aptly odd metaphor for the whole pop-machine Gaga identity whirlwind… Damn! She got me again!

Perhaps the only question that remains is: who wore it better?

Art, Design, Music , , , ,

Is Facebook ‘Too Big To Fail’?

April 20th, 2011

Facebook is fast becoming the ubiquitous form of both personal and social identification on the Internet and across connected devices. Unlike most of its earlier competition, Facebook has grown beyond it’s simple beginnings as a walled social network; it now powers the social features of numerous other digital experiences. Members can use their Facebook ID to sign into websites, challenge their friends from within video games, populate apps instantly with contacts, and spread feedback and comments all over the web. Heck, as we’ve recently seen, the site is even helping change history in its role in political revolution across the globe. In other words, Facebook is proving incredibly useful and nearly indispensable (gasp!) as the first widely accepted common denominator for personal identity and social features across numerous digital platforms.

So, as membership grows and the service weaves its way into more and more experiences, at what point does Facebook become too big to fail? It is projected that 50% of all Americans will be registered on Facebook by 2013. At this rate, does it begin to make sense that Facebook should become recognized as an integral part of our digital infrastructure, and its social databases regulated as a public resource? Should Facebook’s social web be commodified; becoming synonymous with ‘social network’ instead of merely being one example?

Though it’s the goal of most every startup, the true indispensability of a specific Internet service is a foreign concept; The Internet is simply too young, too unstable, and too marginalized as just one slice of everyday life. Our demands on this digital system are growing, however, and we can look for precedent in other industries and commodities, such as water. Clean and available drinking water is something that most of us see as a common right. It would would seem ridiculous if landowners were allowed to claim full rights over the water in a river that runs through their property, charging all those downstream for the right to drink. If a factory was allowed to pollute a river, harming everything and everyone later exposed to the water, most of us would agree the government should step in and stop them. While Facebook may not be as necessary to life as water (for a few of us, at least), at some point the availability of a free, secure, and universal source of social identity on the Internet will be necessary to create the meaningfully connected digital experiences we all dream of.

The transition of property from private to public resource is never a simple matter. We have a system of patent and copyright expiration for intellectual property, eventually allowing brilliant inventions like Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair or Pfizer’s Viagra (which goes generic in the US next year) to be made and sold by any manufacturer.  However, patent expiration and its terms are always bitterly debated by any affected parties. The digital industry most certainly sends lobbyists to Washington to make sure their concerns are heard on this and other relevant issues.

Of course, one of the primary hurdles for any unified social network is whether or not most people would actually want a singular online identity. Facebook offers complex permissions and groups settings, but personally I use LinkedIn for all my business connections and FourSquare to inform select friends of my partying whereabouts. Most of my other social dealings online are either borderline random or totally anonymous. It’s too tedious to keep recreating a new social network every time I join a new website. So, if the alternative to a unified system is that only three or four of my digital experiences are truly social, it strikes me that unification will eventually win. We’ll just have to figure out how to address best practices for permissions and privacy.

With no one new in the industry able to find a way to compete with Facebook in the social arena, there’s a lot of pressure to figure out how to best socialize new digital experiences. Promisingly, the not-quite-finished HTML5 standard lays the initial groundwork of a social web by including tags to identify the author of an article and of any linked pages. The more we live our lives digitally, the more we will need to continue to develop HTML in this direction. I believe the users of the Internet will eventually need a commodified social tool — a standardized, extensible, protected, and regulated personal identification and address book. With 600 million users (and growing), I am curious to see if Facebook will eventually offer itself (or part of itself) as a candidate for this standard before the government steps in and requests regulation on our behalf.

UPDATE: As I finished writing this article, the Obama administration announced a plan for a regulated marketplace of public and private Online identity providers — perhaps resulting in the very vision I just outlined. If this initiative goes forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook is counting on being the front-runner, thus cementing their place at the top of the social-web hill for the foreseeable future. Still, we have yet to discover whether people will trust any identification system officially sanctioned by the government.

Design, Ideas , ,