Archive for the ‘Gadgets’ Category

iPhone5 Saves Facebook’s Mobile Strategy

September 20th, 2012

The iPhone 5′s extra 176 pixels of vertical screen space just inadvertently saved Facebook. The social giant was having trouble thinking of ways to integrate ads into the cramped screen real-estate of the iPhone. As you can see from the illustration below, however, they need worry no longer.

My recommendation: buy FB!

Digital, Gadgets

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.



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.

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Panini Sticker Books: A Prototypical ‘Achievements’ Model

September 27th, 2010

In case you don’t already lust after Foursquare badges and spend hours trying to kill every zombie possible in Dead Rising long after you’ve beat the actual game, I’ll let you in on a secret — achievements are the next big thing in game design. Started quietly on the Xbox as a way to rack up your Gamer Score (translation: how badass of a video gamer you are), achievements were basically extra mini puzzles that you could solve just by playing the game a certain way. They weren’t a necessary part of the game, they were just there to award you for, say, playing long enough to kill 100,000 zombies.

Well, as it turns out, these little awards resulted almost immediately in a marked increase in the amount of time gamers spent playing a game. Without doing anything, really, game designers had managed to make their games many times more engaging to the player. Result: now you’ll find achievements everywhere.

In the location-based check-in application FourSquare, achievements such as the “I’m On A Boat” badge are awarded for, what else, checking into a location that happens to be a boat. Foursquare users actually will seek out certain locations just so they are awarded the badge. These badges don’t get the user anything except for whatever feeling of pride that comes with cultivating a collection of colorful badges. Yet, take them away and FourSquare loses a big part of its charm. Genius.

However, as with most things new under the sun — this same concept has been used before as a way to raise consumer consumption of a product. I refer, of course, to Panini Sticker Books — the addiction of my youth.

Panini stickers were sold in packs like baseball cards, except they came in practically every flavor of game and children’s movie franchise known to man. The special thing about these sticker cards, though, was that you were also supposed to buy a special book in which you pasted the stickers you collected. For each card in the set, an empty box with a description of the missing sticker taunted you until you managed to serendipitously purchase the sticker to fill it. You would keep buying these stupid little packs of stickers long after it started being repetitive and the fun was drained from the whole endeavor just so that you could fill all the empty spots in your book. As you see below, there were even large empty spaces that required you to find multiple stickers that added up to make a complete picture. This is the Panini equivalent of unlocking special levels in your video game after filling your badge collection.

Adding a compelling structure to inane and often repetitive collecting is basically ‘achievements’ in a nutshell.

What is questionable is that now achievements are being hailed as a legitimate way to gamify the world. Simple game mechanics like scoring and achievements are being tacked on to everything from websites to brushing your teeth (watch this great video of Jesse Schell at the DICE conference). There’s no question that it works, but it does start to seem psychologically manipulative. It might be the cheapest possible route to engagement, and, as such, is ripe for abuse. Experience designers should make sure that there are adequate rewards for engagement beyond obsessive collecting, or I think we risk creating disillusioned users and a real loss of fun. Time with our websites, apps, and devices is real time in real people’s lives that we’re borrowing to make a dollar. We should be careful we’re not imprisoning people inside the outmoded and lame parts of human nature.

If only we could get Foursquare badges to add up to a giant picture of Megatron… then we’d be just rosy.

Design, Gadgets, Ideas

Flash vs Apple: A Digital Designer’s Opinion.

April 30th, 2010

Since I was a kid, when my dad brought home a new Apple LC III, I’ve been a Mac guy. Every computer I’ve ever owned, all six of them, has been made by Apple. I am typing this on a Mac Pro, my iPhone is resting in my pocket, and my little red iPod Mini is sitting there neglected on the bookshelf in the corner. I also have quite a history with Flash. I started out nearly ten years ago animating things in Director and Flash. I now design and build complex experiences in Flash using AS3, Flash’s powerful programming language. I respect both companies for the great user-centric digital experiences they’ve enabled over the years, but I’m stewing over the philosophical direction that Apple seems to be taking with their newest portable devices — a direction that could set the stage for some very lame industry practices.

I’ve taken part in many-a-heated debate lately over Apple’s campaign to exclude Flash from all of their portable devices. Apple’s position on the topic, as is clearly evidenced in a letter released yesterday by Steve Jobs, is that Flash is a misguided proprietary software platform that is best replaced by other technologies. He, and many angry bloggers, point to a still-in-development revision to HTML (the programming language that makes up the foundation of the Internet) called HTML5 as providing a viable replacement for Flash. HTML5 won’t be finished until an estimated 2022, but one of the features that is stable now is video playback within the browser itself. HTML5 uses a technology called H.264 (a video codec that itself is proprietary) to play high quality video. You can try it out on many sites already, including YouTube and Vimeo. But does this new technology replace Flash?

One of the big problems with HTML5′s H.264 video playback is that it doesn’t support ads, annotations, or any other “interactive” elements within the video player. It just plays back video. This is great for video watchers, and if all Flash did was play video, I would totally jump on the “Kill Flash” bandwagon. However, if content makers are unable to make any money from offering video online, many of them simply won’t offer video online. Gone will be popular sites like HULU that depend on in-video commercials to pay for the content that users can now watch for free. If television stations couldn’t put ads between their programs, all that TV would offer us for entertainment would be the public access channel. The whole reason TV exists as it does today is because of ads. People hate ads, but it is how the people that make the shows we love pay the bills. Imagine television with no Lost, no House, no Seinfeld, no Doogie Howser MD… it would be pretty sad.

Actually, the TV analogy is a pretty useful one to illustrate the real reasons why Apple would want Flash blocked on their devices. Picture Apple as a Pay-Per-View television company. When you turn on your television, you would pay $1 for each sitcom and $4 for each movie that you wanted to watch. If this system of pay-per-play was the only way that TV shows could make any money, and it was the only way you could get access to content – Apple would be in a very strong position indeed. They would be gatekeeper – deciding which shows you could watch – and they would profit from everything you saw on your TV. If Flash came along and offered television producers a way to get their content to viewers that enabled them to pay their bills by selling their own advertising – bypassing Apple’s Pay-Per-View system and basically turning your TV into the experience it is today – you can see very easily why Apple would be balk at the prospect. Getting back to the real matter at hand – it almost doesn’t matter that HTML5 allows browsers to play back video at a quality equal to Flash. No websites will be able to afford to offer you any decent content if they can’t make money from its consumption. This is why the HTML5 argument is merely a diversion from the real truth: that Apple needs to ensure that iTunes is the only way that you can conveniently access premium media on your iPhone and iPad. This is how they make money.

Now, this business decision makes a fair amount of sense – and I don’t blame Apple for making it. I would want to keep making as much money as I could if I developed a rad device like the iPhone or iPad. I would probably feel entitled to it as the maker of what are arguably the best portable consumer electronics in the world. However, since Google and Microsoft are both promising excellent mobile experiences that will allow Flash into their ecosystem, I think that this protectionist decision by Apple is shortsighted, and I certainly think that many of their public reasons for excluding Flash are disingenuous.

So – what’s the big deal? Why do I care if Flash is allowed on a phone or not? While we’re at it, why should YOU care? Like I said before, Flash isn’t just a video player. Even if you didn’t value the relative freedom of a system that allows content creators to make money from streaming video without charging the consumer – allowing both popular and unpopular video content to survive and subsist online – you should examine what else Flash has to offer. As it turns out, Flash is the most powerful and easy-to-use cross-platform multimedia-friendly software authoring tool that currently exists. This means that people can make a compelling multimedia experience – a game, a video player, an art project, whatever – and it will work on nearly any device that has a web browser. This is very, very good both for people who make and people who enjoy these experiences. It means that authors don’t have to develop a different version of their experience in a different programming language for every single device that a user might own. When the New York Times makes an app for the iPhone – only owners of an iPhone can use that app. The New York Times has to make a whole new app for someone that owns a different phone. You can see why this isn’t ideal for anyone else other than the phone manufacturers – each of whom are competing for a developer’s attention at the cost of all the other potential users interested in the content. For the New York Times, developing multiple version of their apps might not be a big deal, but to the average developer, it is a huge roadblock. Don’t make me choose who has access to my ideas – this seems backwards.

I chose to learn to make experiences in Flash because it allows me to make really interesting, fun digital experiences that are accessible to nearly anyone. Dreaming up and designing these websites is very enjoyable, but programming them can be quite tedious and time consuming. If the future of multimedia experiences means having to develop an experience for half a dozen different phones in as many programming languages (or choosing one and alienating everyone else), then I’m not so interested in making a project anymore. This is why we need Flash, or something just as powerful – so that we can make an app once and have it go out to all the available platforms. This is ideal for developers, and it ensures that users have access to all the cool things we make.

However, all these dreams of powerful web standards aside, we know that the real way that Apple makes money is by differentiating its products from everything else on the market. They need you to think that the iPhone is unique – that the apps that essentially define its functionality can’t be found anywhere else. The fear that we will lose out on some sort of compelling and unique experience keeps us paying a lot for an expensive phone with an expensive monthly fee.

It’s true that Adobe also benefits from people adopting their product to develop applications, and that it also represent proprietary technologies and unique experiences. However, Adobe makes their money by ensuring that apps made with Flash are available to whomever the author chooses, while Apple makes their money by ensuring that authors only offer their creations in one place: on Apple devices. I will evangelize the philosophy and practice of the former over the latter any day of the week.

Design, Gadgets, Ideas , , , , ,

The Apple iPad: Just What We Deserve

February 1st, 2010

Like many, I was swept up in the sport of imagining what sort of magical interactive paradigm Apple would present with its new tablet computer. Would you talk to it? Wave at it? Put your face on it? Would you be able to hold it up in front of your friends face and see on the screen what they would look like as a zombie?

Well, like many, I was disappointed with the well-made but annoyingly locked-down media consumption device that Apple delivered. I ranted for two days about how the iPad was more a business avenue than a computer. That it was a media buying appliance dressed up as a lifestyle device. Basically, I was pissed that the device encourages the consumption of media over the creation and sharing of ideas. The iPhone managed to support both consumption AND communication. I had assumed that surely the tablet would build on both of these pillars, while using its increased screen size and power to allow for even more creative ways of making and sharing. Portable devices are supposed to be social, right?

However, the avenues for getting media onto this machine seem to be few and far between unless you’re going through an Apple approved venue. The browser doesn’t support Flash, so there will be virtually no alternative music or video services online. Pretty much all the music, movies, and books you consume have to come through the iTunes Store. There is no camera, so there isn’t a way to share photos of the things you see or video chat with friends. There is also no phone, so you can’t send text messages or talk. Where’s the rebellious creative fun!

After grumbling for a while, I came to an epiphany that has put me at ease and lulled me into a state of acceptance of this, the next big gadget. We, the People, deserve the iPad. We deserve the inherent restrictions of our benevolent big brother Steve looking out for us. We’ve had more than a decade of wild romping through the world of interconnectivity online and we’ve proven ourselves incredibly irresponsible. We steal music. We steal movies. We steal whatever intellectual property we have the good fortune to hear about on Twitter. Our society is like a teenager who wrecks his parents car, and now we have to deal with the consequences or there won’t be a car to drive by the time Prom rolls around…or something…

So, the iPad represents a new Internet paradigm. It is a curated, safe world where the people are shepherded to the media experience they desire for a fair price. You won’t be able to do whatever you want or share whatever you want, but you’ll find what you’re looking for really quickly — and with a host of suggested related materials to enjoy later without ever getting out of bed. I guess I can live with that.

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