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Interpreting Apple

One of the hardest things for me as a blogging Apple employee always had to be watching the public misapprehend the company’s intentions while remaining prudently silent.  Apple is slowly opening the lines of communication to its stakeholders these days (witness the recent series of letters from Steve to Apple customers–a veritable deluge of communication by Apple standards!), but in general I think it has traditionally done a far worse job of managing its relationship with its loyalists than many ostensibly less enlightened companies.  As a result its reputation has often suffered unnecessarily.

The latest example I’ve seen of this is the consternation over Apple’s failure to seed the Leopard GM build to developers.  A lot of the negative reaction toward this that I saw on Twitter was probably, at its root, based on an assumption that is frequently fed by Apple’s poor standards of communication: that Apple as a whole disdains (or at least disregards) third party developers, and therefore as a matter of policy the company had decided to deny developers the GM (perhaps to extract more money from them?).

Well, I may not work there now, but I did work in the OS division of Apple for several years (I even briefly worked as the liason to a major third party developer, Adobe), I’m pretty familiar with how things work there, and I’m still in touch with a lot of people who worked on Leopard.  And I don’t believe for a minute that this was true.  I’m convinced that the key fallacy behind this, and a lot of other mistaken ideas about Apple, is the idea that the company always operates as a homogenous entity, and that everything it does is as a result of some company-wide, top-down animus.  The reality is usually a lot more mundane.

I have known this to be true in cases where people give Apple too much credit as well as not enough.  One of my favorite examples was a post of Dave Winer’s some time ago in which he saw Apple’s addition of a certain feature to a certain Apple app as evidence of a brilliant, fully-meditated stratagem of Apple’s to dominate a certain market.  I had been privy to some of the discussions about adding the feature in question, and my perception was very different.  Rather than coming from on high as part of some master plan, the initial feature request Radar had originated with an enthusiastic low-level employee from an entirely different team, and it was initially denied because the right people didn’t see the value in it.  It wasn’t that Apple as a whole decided that it wanted to dominate a new market–it was, at least initially, the idea of just one person operating independently.

By the same token, on the negative side, I suspect that the explanation for the missing seed (pure speculation on my part, to be fair) has nothing to do with any malicious or greedy organizational intent (or even plain old indifference) on the part of Apple, but rather with the fact that the time between the GM build and the Leopard ship date was likely too short to make an advance seed practical.  I would guess that the OS people were quite motivated to get the product in the hands of the consumer as quickly as possible (and meet the difficult October deadline) without introducing any unnecessary delays.  If the particular Apple employees in charge of seeding were out of line in this situation, I would guess it was only in the sense that they understimated the importance of such a seed in many developers’ minds in their hurry to get an already delayed release out the door.

My point in all of this, I suppose, is that when it comes to interpreting Apple’s actions, Ockham’s razor is usually the best guide: the simplest explanation is to be preferred.  Apple, like any company, is composed of a large number of pragmatic individuals, most of whom don’t have any sort of agenda beyond trying to do their job and meet what are usually pretty demanding project deadlines.  The scary Japanese guy who thinks AppleScript engineer Chris Nebel has an anti-Japanese agenda and is trying to sabotage AppleScript localization would be better off assuming that any perceived sins on Chris’ part are sins of omission.  And the people who were haranguing Apple over its disdain for developers would be more fair not to ascribe malice to something that could be easily explained by ignorance.

Of course, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Apple could just get better at communicating with its customers and developers.  Here’s hoping that things like Steve’s DRM letter and iPhone refund are the start of a move away from Cupertino’s obsession with total secrecy, and that misunderstandings like this can be resolved or avoided altogether through reasonable dialogue in the future.

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Three Weeks with the iPhone

One of the fun things about no longer being an Apple employee is that I'm now much more at liberty to speak my mind about Apple's products.  Apple may have a reputation for being a bit of a cult, but in my experience, most insiders are only too willing to call a spade a spade when the company's products fall short, and it's nice to finally be able to do so publicly again without worrying about violating the PR code.  And, of course, the opportunity to speak freely came just in time, seeing as the first new hardware product released after I left was a highly significant (but in many ways, still unrefined) one: the long-anticipated iPhone.

I was among the faithful who bought an iPhone the day it was released, salivating at the prospect of finally having a phone built by people who get it–and by "it" I mean UI/VI design and industrial engineering.  Where I had become accustomed to years of death by a thousand paper cuts the moment I started trying to use my previous mobiles as anything more than a phone, I knew that the iPhone would be different.  And, thanks to Apple's characteristic thoughtfulness, it mostly is.  Among the things that make the iPhone such a pleasure to use:

The Keyboard
In many ways, the virtual keyboard is the single most gutsy risk Apple took with the iPhone–the essential design decision that shaped the rest of the device.  While many–including myself–were skeptical about how well the lack of tactile feedback would work for them, I'm proud to report that after only a week of use I'm a faster typist than I ever was with T9.  The on-the-fly auto-correction works admirably (it's right more often than it's wrong and it seems to catch most of my common errors), and the typing interaction design (when was the last time anyone spent much time thinking about that) is wonderfully well thought out–from the way the key set shifts from punctuation back to alpha when you press space, to the completeness of the character set, to the way the space bar disappears and a special ".com" button appears in its place while you're typing URLs.  In my estimation, no single feature does more to make the iPhone a less frictionless experience than any other phone on the market than its keyboard.

The Maps App
If any app on the iPhone could be considered "killer," in the sense that its very existence justifies the device's purchase, it's the Maps app.  I've spent the last week wandering around a strange and daunting city (New York), and the iPhone's maps app has helped me enormously (I've even been able to give directions to tourists on the street without actually knowing where I'm going myself).  Back when I had various Sony Ericsson phones, I was an avid fan of the mobile Java Google Maps app, but the iPhone's large, high resolution display and multitouch interface makes wayfinding a far more natural experience than the typical mobile phone "joystick" experience.

The Web Browser
The iPhone commercials don't lie–having a "real," undilluted web browser on a phone is a breath of fresh air.  The page rendering is flawless, the support for web technologies is, with the noteable exceptions of Flash and Java, fairly comprehensive (at least compared to most phone browsers), and the multitouch panning/zooming interface is probably about the best reconciliation of the small screen/full page dilemma I've seen.

The iPod Experience
Steve Jobs billed the iPhone as "the best iPod we've ever made," and I think that's true in many ways: it has the widescreen form factor the iPod has always needed to make video compelling, the Coverflow interface is stunning, the song list navigation (with the alphabet down the side for quick jumps) is clever, the "Now Playing" screen (with its giant album covers) is beautiful, and its On-the-Go Playlist functionality is easier to use than on traditional iPods.

The Physical Buttons
I haven't heard many people mention this (and it seems like such a simple thing), but I think Apple got things just right with the physical buttons on the iPhone (with a few exceptions I'll mention below).  The fact that I can lock the phone with a single button press (as opposed to most non-flip phones, which require multiple key presses for locking) solves a longtime, head slap-level annoyance for me.  The fact that I can take the phone in and out of silent mode with a single physical switch (as opposed to some deeply buried virtual preference) also strikes me as an eminently sane decision.

Visual Voicemail
No single thing more poignantly symbolizes to me what I've always hated about phones and phone carriers than traditional voicemail–possibly only fax machines piss me off more.  Thankfully, the iPhone turns this disaster into a relatively pleasant experience in the most obvious way possible: by giving me random, GUI-based access to voicemail messages without requiring me to remember arcane numeric shortcuts.  I almost hesitate to trumpet this as a feature because it seems ridiculous that it's taken us until 2007 to get such simple (and, obviously, in light of the fact that Apple was able to pull them off, do-able) improvements, but as of now, it remains a major coup of the iPhone.

The Display
The iPhone's display is simply gorgeous.  I think it's probably the nicest–in terms of resolution, brightness, and color rendition–that I've ever seen on a mobile device.  The photos I've synced to the phone from Aperture look amazing–better than on my computer's display.  The inclusion of a light sensor that controls the screen brightness is also a thoughtful touch.

All of that said, the iPhone is still very much a 1.0 device from a newcomer to the mobile space, and, as such, it's likely to have some shortcomings.  Among the ones I've noticed:

The Headphone Jack
One of the first things I noticed about the iPhone's case is that I couldn't plug my Bose headphones into it on flights, because its headphone jack is deeply recessed in a very narrow hole.  Even the headphones packaged with most iPods don't fit it.  Belkin does make an adapter to solve the problem, but it's rather inordinately long and awkward to use.

The Absence of Traditional Mobile Features
This probably isn't something that will bother everyone, but I think I tend to be a bit more of an "advanced" mobile user than the average American, and the iPhone's inability to send an SMS to more than one recipient, or (in particular) to send MMS messages at all, has put it a step behind even some of my clunkier old phones in certain ways.  For example, without MMS, in the absence of web browser file uploads (disabled in mobile Safari), and in light of the fact that iPhone email isn't an option for me right now (see below), I have effectively no way to upload images to Flickr.  The iPhone, despite its supposedly advanced nature, is the first cameraphone I've ever had where this has been a problem.

The Absence of Traditional iPod Features
As I said, I do think the iPhone is the best iPod Apple's ever made in many ways, but there definitely are some things about it that make me miss my "traditional" iPod.  Foremost among them is that I would prefer the iPod aspect of the device to be less compartmentalized–that is, I'd prefer playback (at least play/pause and back forward) controls to be available no matter what part of the device I happen to be in, as they would be on a "real" iPod.  It would also be nice to have disk mode back, although I admit my primary motivation there would be so that I could use PodWorks with it.  It also seems to me that the volume increments are too large (and the little on screen volume control is too difficult to use precisely).

The Camera
I hate to say it, but my last cameraphone, the Sony Ericsson w810i, kicked the iPhone's ass in both performance and usability.  The quality was good enough to almost rival many point-and-shoot digicams, and I loved the fact that you could actually use it like a "real" camera by turning it on its side and pressing a shutter button on the top.  The iPhone's camera is barely capable of producing a non-blurry photo in broad daylight; it exhibits the sickly, blue-green-ish color shift that seems to be the hallmark of crappy cameraphone CCDs; and its shutter is triggered by an ergonomically awkward virtual camera button on the phone's screen (which makes holding the thing steady very difficult).

The Email Experience
I ditched Apple Mail in favor of Gmail not long after OS X 10.4 came out, and, except for the fact that I had to use T9 on a phone keypad to type into it, I was very happy using Google's Java Gmail app to get my mail on the go.  On the iPhone, of course, that's not an option, and Gmail users are left with two choices: embrace the iPhone's Mail app and access Gmail using POP, or use web-based Gmail through MobileSafari.  The first option doesn't work for me because using Gmail through POP, frankly, sucks–it ignores whatever filters you have set up on the web (even messages that completely skip Inbox on the web show up in POP), and it quite unhelpfully puts a copy of every message you send in your POP Inbox.  The second option isn't much of a solution because the Gmail site brings MobileSafari to its knees (I'm guessing because Gmail is one of the more Javascript-intense web apps out there, and MobileSafari's Javascript performance could use some work), and even when it doesn't, the packed, full-page Gmail UI requires too much panning, zooming, and clicking on tiny buttons and links to be efficiently usable on the iPhone.

The Web Browser's Performance
So far there seem to be two problems at work here: AT&T's EDGE network appears to be painfully slow when brought to bear on "real" websites (at least it seems to be in New York City, the primary place I've had occasion to use it thus far), and (as I mentioned above) the iPhone's Javascript performance seems to be a bit lacking.  Whatever the cause, I find myself beating by head against the wall a lot when trying to use the MobileSafari on both Wi-Fi and EDGE (not to mention the fact that I rather pointedly lost a "look it up on Wikipedia" contest to a Blackberry user last night).

Scrolling Anxiety
Since touching both "clicks" and ends a "rolling" scroll (e.g. when you flick your finger upward to start the iPod songlist scrolling and then touch again to stop it), I often find scrolling a nerve wracking experience.  What happens quite frequently is that I'll accidentally register a click and start a song playing or something when I simply mean to stop the scroll.  Maybe I'm unique in this concern, and maybe there's a good way around it (using two fingers to stop the scroll perhaps?), but I find this annoying and it frequently makes me miss my iPod's scroll wheel.

Apparent Lack of Vision
Like most other Mac developers, I was very excited to discover that the iPhone, unlike Apple's previous mobile devices (i.e. iPods) was going to be an honest-to-God "handheld Mac" running a form of OS X.  As I told Merlin Mann at MacWorld, I was excited about this because a) it had the potential to greatly expand the market for Cocoa apps beyond the Mac market and into, essentially, the iPod market and b) it could foster the creation of mobile social software applications that could go far beyond things like Dodgeball and Twitter (applications I was very eager to develop myself). 

Unfortunately, as many others have already pointed out, Apple's actual offerings to would-be iPhone developers have been very disappointing.   Most of us were looking forward to developing groundbreaking mobile Cocoa applications that would take full advantage of the iPhone's impressive array of gadgetry (orientation sensor, light sensor, camera, multitouch display), but Apple has told us we should make due with…Javascript.  No offense to web developers (unlike Will Shipley, I have a lot of respect for Javascript), but I find it hard to imagine anyone creating a killer, breakthrough app that could only be done on the iPhone using only web technologies.

As for the social software part, I've had the sense for years that Apple (or at least the higher echelon of Apple) doesn't really "get it," and the iPhone continues Apple's streak of missing the boat on social apps.  As Peter Magnusson points out (though I think a lot of his suggestions are a bit Web 2.0 wanky), the iPhone could have been a bold forary into the kinds of social networking applications–particularly location-based services and "lifeblogging"–that it's young, hip user base will embrace.  Instead, with the exception of the iPod and the YouTube app, it's stuck in Blackberry mode with mostly prosaic, productivity oriented offerings (and, unlike the Mac, it offers no way for third party developers to bring in the fun).

All of that said, the current iPhone is still only the very beginning of what is essentially a new platform, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple address all of the above issues (most of which can be corrected in software) over time.  Even the lack of an API is something I suspect (or at least hope) is more the result of time constraints than a dearth of goodwill on Apple's part.  I look forward to the future of what I think will, in the long term, be a fantastic mobile platform.

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Apple: A Romance

If I ever write a memoir (and let me tell you, I plan to–I've got way too many great stories just begging to be told), I think the Summer of 2003 will almost certainly be its turning point.  It was in August of 2003, you see, that I fulfilled a longtime dream: I left Denver (my birthplace and home of 26 years) for California, started a job at Apple Computer (as it was then known), and set about reinventing myself. 

In many ways, my life had been leading to that point.  As a child I was profoundly impressed by an educational game called Robot Odyssey that I played on my friend's Apple IIc, and with a demo of Bill Atkinson's early Macintosh program Hypercard that my dad and I watched on television.  As a college student I was inspired by the quixotic, charismatic portrayal of Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley.  And as a chronically bored Java developer in the Denver financial world I pined for the Silicon Valley of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs.  I spent almost every night after work building the most impressive Mac application I could and raising my profile through my Mac development weblog in order to get the attention of the high priests in Cupertino.  Eventually it worked–I finally got an interview with my first boss at Apple during Worldwide Developer's Conference in June of 2003, was hired in July, and was living in the Bay Area by August.

To say this changed my life is an understatement.  Where I had spent most of my first year out of college only sporadically employed (thanks to the dotcom bust and ensuing recession) and frequently wondering if I'd ever work in the tech industry again, now I was suddenly working for one of the most admired and innovative tech companies in the world.  Where my previous job had mostly involved working on in-house financial applications that I couldn't care less about personally, now I was directly involved in creating products I used passionately every day.  Where I had once been a fan, I was now an insider.

My life changed profoundly in other ways as well.  I had become frustrated with the insularity of my life as a shy kid in Denver, where I mostly socialized with a small group of my high school friends, and the difficult experience of looking for a job after college taught me the value of connections.  When California offered me the opportunity to reinvent myself, I determined that I would force myself out my shell, and for a time I made a point of turning down no social invitation.  Many of the people who grilled me so terrifyingly in my all day interview at Apple became a sort of surrogate family–taking me kayaking in Monterey, initiating me in the natural wonders of Northern California, helping me shed 20 pounds, inviting me to parties and other social events, introducing me to an ever wider circle of people, and becoming my roommates when I got up the nerve to make the once unthinkable move to San Francisco.

Needless to say, these were magical, transformative, romantic years of my life, and for a time I simply could not imagine myself ever wanting to leave Apple.  It had provided me with so much more than a livelihood: it had provided me with a life.

As with any whirlwind romance, though, the honeymoon couldn't last forever.  Apple may be a very special company, but it's still just that: a company.  And, like any company, at the end of day it needs to take care of business.  In Apple's case (or at least the part of Apple I worked in), that business is shipping amazing software on impossible schedules with astonishingly small teams.  It's been Apple's business since the "90 Hours a Week and Loving It!" days of the original Mac team, and the grand tradition continues to the present day (just ask anyone on the iPhone team how much vacation they've had in the last year).

Like the Macintosh team of old, I started out at Apple as a young engineer willing to subordinate my life (for a time) to something I was passionate about.  When I left my first position at Apple (in OS X Integration) for a real engineering job in Pro Apps, I was eager to make the features I was assigned the best they could be, even if it meant putting in difficult hours to get them done on schedule.  So I put in the hours.  I worked evenings and weekends.  I worked while I was ill.  Even when I ended up laid up at home in the throes of what turned out to be mononucleosis (a condition, for those who haven't had the pleasure, that lends itself more to constant unconsciousness than constant concentration), I sat in bed fixing bugs.  And little by little, I burnt myself out.

But it wasn't just the workload.  As the stress and hours increased at work, my 45 minute commute down 280, which I had initially thought of as a reasonable (even pleasant and scenic) drive, became a soul crushing daily slog.  With most of my social life in San Francisco, but my demanding job an exhausting drive away in Cupertino, I started finding it harder and harder to keep up relationships.  As a recent article about commuting in The New Yorker put it:

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller “Bowling Alone,” about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”

Perhaps most importantly of all, though, I began to feel more and more that my job at Apple, once a source of such growth, was now holding me back creatively.  The natural curiousity, drive, and entreprenurial spirit that had once led me to develop two significant Mac applications, write a widely read weblog, and explore a variety of experimental side projects, had been all but crushed under the weight of a gigantic bug queue and long commute.  My well respected side projects were rapidly turning into abandonware, and my once compelling web profile had been reduced to a trickle of Twitter and Flickr posts.

Still, my attachment to Apple was so strong that it was going to take a lot to convince me to leave.  It took the encouragement of a number of good friends (who I plan to thank in another post) and, fittingly, the advice of Apple's two founders to convince me it was time. 

First, while driving home one night, I happened to turn on NPR and hear an interview with Steve Wozniak on the locally produced show "City Arts and Lectures" (I can't find audio or a transcript on the web, sadly).  In it, Woz told the lesser known story of Apple's founding from his perspective, and one part of his account in particular caught my attention: how hard it was for him to leave Hewlett Packard to start Apple.  Unlike Jobs, Woz didn't take Apple that seriously in the beginning, and hadn't planned to leave his beloved job at HP at all until the venture capitalist providing them seed money made it a condition of funding.   Woz loved HP, a company created by engineers for engineers, just as much as I loved Apple, and for a time he felt that it was where he'd spend his entire life.  It took a great deal of prodding by friends to convince him that it was worth leaving a prestigious job working on products he so dearly admired (in this case the HP graphing calculator) to pursue some wild eyed venture with Steve Jobs.  In the end, of course, the risk was more than worth it.

Second, I kept thinking back to Steve Jobs' inspirational 2005 Stanford commencement address, and in particular the part where he talks about how he decides whether his life is on the right course:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

For me, that answer had definitely been "no" for too many days in a row, and with the project I'd been working on wrapping up (it was announced, to a very positive reception, last Sunday at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas) I decided it was time to take the plunge and try my hand at a new venture (more on this later).  My last day was Friday, April 13, 2007 (hopefully not an ill omen for either me or Apple!).

I will always look back very fondly on my time at Apple, and I'm forever indebted to the friends there who gave me my big chance, took me under their wing, and taught me so much.  Apple remains, in my mind, a very special place, and I consider it a distinct honor to have been there during a large part of what might be called the company's "Silver Age."  I expect Apple will continue to amaze and delight us for years to come (the iPhone is a tantalizing start), and I'm looking forward to experiencing the excitement of its surprises as an outsider once again.  And who knows–as one of my bosses there was fond of saying: "The question's really not how long have you worked for Apple–it's how many times."  I wouldn't be at all surprised to find myself back in the halls of 1 Infinite Loop someday.

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In Your Face, Burning Man!

Well, it appears that the WWDC party I’m throwing Monday has finally eclipsed Burning Man to become the number one event on Upcoming.org.  This is exciting, but also a bit terrifying, because now I’m really concerned about overflow of our space at 111 Minna (especially because a lot of less informed people are bound to find out about it the day of and show up without an RSVP).

In any case, it should be pretty awesome.  Chris Moulios gave me a preview of his fun A/V set, which mixes in a lot of classic Apple ads and computer nerd movie references with various music videos, and I think it’ll go over very well with the geeky audience.  I’m a tad concerned that some of his material might be too risque or sexist (especially a Benny Benassi video he was playing), and I’m kind of dreading asking him to tone it down, but other than that I’m pretty thrilled with what he’s doing.

Today I should probably try to find the time to call 111 Minna to resolve a few remaining questions.  Oddly enough, though, there seems to be very little left for me to do at this point–which, in a way, only freaks me out more because it makes me think I’m forgetting something.

Party Time, Excellent

Those of you who aren’t in the geek-o-sphere proper probably don’t know this, but I’m actually somewhat well known in the Mac developer community for hosting an annual party associated with Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference.  This will be the third year I’ve done it, and, while it started in 2004 as a humble dinner at Bucca di Beppo (blech!) each year it’s gotten bigger and bigger.

This year, my friend Brent Simmons (developer of the highly successful NetNewsWire RSS aggregator for the Mac) offered to get the company that acquired his company (NewsGator) to kick in some money to sponsor the party.  This, of course, only encouraged me to be more ambitious than ever with my party plans, and what we ended up with is pretty awesome:

  • It will be held at 111 Minna.
  • There will be free drinks.
  • Chris Moulios–an uber-famous audio software engineer (try a Google search on him), current Apple employee, and sometimes DJ–will be doing what sounds like an amazing experimental A/V performance.
  • Broker/Dealer (San Francisco-based electronic artists on the uber-hip Ghostly International label) will be performing a live set as well as a DJ set.

I’m also going to try to get the tamale lady to come.

One of the fun side effects of tracking RSVPs for the party through Upcoming.org is that we’ve actually made it onto the “Most Popular Events” list–right up there with Burning Man and Snakes on a Plane!  As my friend Iroro would say: r-r-r-respect!