— GoDaddy: Smart and Sexist
A Verge forum piece that I wrote earlier this month. Do these ads really sell domains?
— GoDaddy: Smart and Sexist
What stands out the most about Apple’s yearly release cycle for iOS (and now, it seems, OS X as well), is the manner in which it removes the holiness of the OS upgrade. A decade ago, upgrading to a new operating system was a big deal. Outside of simply a monetary investment, that OS was the product of several years of work. It was a company saying that this is your new playground and toolbox for years to come. On a yearly upgrade cycle, there’s little to break and little to change. That’s something evident in each iteration of iOS. Certainly there are tweaks evident across the system, but aside from several, often not so exciting, headline features, these releases don’t bring much change. Additions like iOS 5’s Notification Center are more than welcome, but as a development, it’s nothing more than an improvement to a basic interaction. iOS 6 then, perhaps more than any iteration that proceeded it, is a drab release in a broader sense.
It’s important to note, however, that this doesn’t, and almost cannot, mean that it’s a bad release. Microsoft hurt itself in a major way with a release like Vista. It took years to come out and was no improvement over its predecessor, to say the least. iOS 6, though touting no great amount of polish, is simply this year’s iOS. Next year it’ll be somewhere else. iOS 6’s improvements are minor. We finally see Facebook integration. It’s been something that was tangibly missing, and Apple has finally adopted the type of integration that Windows Phone saw from its debut. Unfortunately, for those of us who aren’t Facebook friends with only the several dozen people who we actually care about - that is, none of us - our calendar and address book will be filled with birthdays and emails and addresses that we couldn’t care less about. Facebook can be hidden from Contacts, but Notification Center is filled with acquaintances’ birthdays. Windows Phone has a similar implementation, but it’s still unfortunate that we’re given an all or nothing option. It only makes sense to automatically populate our contacts with their most recent images, but we don’t necessarily need contacts without actual phone numbers.
The most notable change here is Maps. Apple and Google are in something of a tiff, and Apple has replaced the five year old Google Maps app with one of their own making. There has been something of an uproar about its quality. Looking across the areas that I’m familiar with (highly populated US cities), Apple’s maps do a fine enough job. They don’t always emphasize items in the way that Google Maps does, highlighting major markers that you didn’t realize that you were looking for. Stylistically, it adopts a charming enough paper cut-out look. Yelp data is scattered across the map as you zoom in, and slick pages appear when you tap on them. Perhaps the finest feature here, one unmentioned by Apple, is that their Maps app seems to save data for often used locations. This means that even without service you’ll be able to see your immediate area in detail, Yelp information included. This is very useful - talk to anyone trying to figure out how to navigate a subway - although it can’t quite make up for the fact that Apple’s maps are unnecessary. It’s a bold move in a battle between two companies and not a move aimed at improving our experience. The maps are good enough, but they’re not better.
Maps comes with two headline features itself. The first is a slick 3D mode, which is gorgeous to look at, like a real life Sim City, but is unfortunately only available in major cities. The more important one is turn by turn navigation. It has a great, clean interface, and works better than any stand alone GPS that I’ve used. For those with cars, this is a fantastic and important addition. For everyone else, it’s something that will go unused, and their attention will instead go to Apple Maps’s lack of public transit information. This is a major issue. While Google’s information wasn’t always spot on, it was important information that certainly many users took advantage of. Apple now kicks you to the App Store to look for area specific apps. Though certainly these apps are more thorough than any one-size-fits-all implementation, such apps simply don’t exist for every city. Pittsburgh, which has a fairly thorough public transit system, has no app for its public transit. This means constant Googling for the 54C’s PDF schedule, and that thing is a pain to read.
Otherwise, minor, albeit useful, tweaks are all we’re given. Siri has some powerful new functionality relating to sports and movies, in addition to now being able to tackle some previously missing basic tasks. Safari gets tab syncing with its desktop counterpart - something Google beat Apple to on its own turf. Their Chrome for iOS has been doing that since its debut early this summer. It’s worth noting that FaceTime calls are now allowed over cellular. Apple has also introduced Passbook, a clever way of slowly moving our wallet to our phone. Unfortunately, it seems that Passbook requires brand specific apps to be installed and to support the feature. As of this writing, there’s no more than a dozen. It’s likely this will be adopted quickly - some major names are already on there - but its an unfortunately slow debut.
This all makes iOS 6 out to sound rather dull. It’s features are nice, they simply aren’t often impressive or worth getting excited about, at least not outside of turn-by-turn navigation. What is important, however, is that iOS 6 in many ways feels faster than iOS 5. Perhaps it’s simply an adjustment of animations, but screens seem to switch quicker and simply feel snappier. There are small UI adjustments throughout, and though they hint no more legitimately of a change than Quicktime’s black stylings do, they’re certainly improvements. The Music app is styled unlike anything else in iOS. It’s a slick look that’s less playful and more digital, although comfortably so. Touches like the status bar sometimes adopting the color of the app beneath it bring a bit more vibrance to the increasingly safe look of iOS.
It would hardly matter if iOS 6 was bad, unless it reached buggy. It simply isn’t exciting. Apple’s new Maps app may be a major misstep for some users, but it’s easy to suspect that it will be something that most users will overlook. For those who aren’t in patchy areas, they’ll hardly notice. Otherwise, iOS 6 is another slow build toward something larger. There are bigger plans for pieces like Siri and Passbook, they simply aren’t where Apple’s focus was this year. Perhaps it was a mistake to dedicate this time to maps, but it won’t make a difference. iOS 6 is as good as any other iteration of iOS, which is to say, it’s the tightest mobile operating system, and it will continue to be so. For those of us closely following its paces, it’s not the shiniest of releases, but it’s little touches show a constant fine tuning. Each release is hardly a new operating system. They’re all updates to one slowly, steadily growing OS.
For all of the praise and TechCrunch posts telling developers to iterate, iterate, iterate, Instagram, easily the face for mobile startup success stories, has largely stayed away from this philosophy. To constantly iterate is certainly good advice in our current culture. Tech moves fast - if something doesn’t stick, it’s better to find something that does than to keep refining a product no one wants. On the other hand, this has lead to countless instances of PR spun pivots. Just last week, Airtime, from celebrity entrepreneurs Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker of Napster fame, made changes that don’t seem to fully align with their original product. And of course, there’s Color, the infamously far too well funded startup that only casually resembles its original product anymore, and they’re still yet to gain traction.
Instagram was able to avoid the chicken-and-egg problem of social startups by being something far more natural. While a social experience made the app better, even without it, Instagram turned out a great product for the user. Though Instagram is less than two years old, it’s still had a relatively careful development. Last week Instagram hit their third milestone release, but, like version 2.0, Instagram 3.0 doesn’t bring much new. Version 2.0 was more of a major refinement than anything else, and this newest update, aside from one headline feature, comes largely with the same philosophy. Both of these updates added smart, useful polish to a fine experience. There’s been no feature glut.
This newest version brings perhaps the most distinct feature addition yet. What Instagram calls a Photo Map is all too straightforward and simple. It takes the existing geotags of photos and overlays them onto Google Maps. It’s a slick implementation, and we see representative clusters of photos fly apart as we zoom closer in to a location. It’s the equivalent of Facebook’s timeline. It creates a way to explore your photo history independent from time. While this idea is nothing new (Apple’s iPhoto has been doing this for some time now), the presentation creates a great response, and the ability to view other users locations so clearly is brilliant.
The Photo Map is a tentative step into location. However, what’s most interesting about this move is that by taking on the basics first (that is, gathering a user base) Instagram may be on its way to solving a problem countless startups (Color included) have failed to do. There have been plenty of attempts to create location or event based photo streams, and it seems that in the future, this could easily be in the works for Instagram. Right now, aside from the previously present feeds dedicated to tagged locations, there’s no way to view public photos in a given area. Even so, what experience there is is deeply charming, and broadening this would muffle other competitors in the space.
This all points out the strength of Instagram’s approach. As much as incubators, startup-style companies, and a quick to iterate mindset can bring about smart results, there’s a lot to be said for making a product that delivers immediate content for the user. Instagram may seem inherently social, but its initial social success came more through Twitter and Facebook than their own network. All of the failed (and currently trying) apps that worked to take on location based social photography clearly had the right idea. What they’ve all learned is that outside of San Francisco (if that), there was little reason to use their product. It’ll be exciting to watch Instagram move further into this space, and maybe everyone else interested will focus more on building a product than an empty network before getting funding.
Back in 2004, Digg was my first serious introduction to tech news. Slashdot was the powerhouse then, but its focus has long been far more technical. Beyond that, save for some rounded edges and text decoration, its design was about as sharp as it is today. It’s no surprise that in the wake of Digg’s demise that many articles have come to reminisce of its glory days. Digg’s finer times were tech heavy, but it’s memory is in ushering in the much buzzed about Web 2.0 (it must have been a good six years before that term faded away). Digg played a massive role in creating the idea of social and crowdsourcing. It always claimed to democratize news, and for a time it did. Digg didn’t manage to keep up however, and it’s pages, which previously were filled with broad and smart content, where relegated to lists of lolcats and the most recent Cracked articles.
Betaworks recently acquired Digg’s brand as well as its “core assets.” They’re a small company, and they intend to keep Digg small, following along with current startup scene wisdom. Late Tuesday they released the first version of their Digg. It’s exciting to see a revitalization of the property, and Betaworks is saying all of the right things to bring some interest to it. They’ve rebuilt Digg in six weeks, and they intend to keep their team nimble and adaptive, avoiding the pitfalls of the previous reign.
The original Digg was forward thinking in a serious way. Users found and published the content through agreement and the permission of a hidden algorithm. This allowed gems of articles from smaller sources to make it through to Digg’s front page that elsewhere would have gone unnoticed. What Betaworks is presenting to us is largely a slick new service with Digg’s branding. This isn’t a bad thing - clearly Digg’s methods and influence have waned. The new Digg retains the idea of crowd sourced popularity, but it does so largely through indirect means. This is smart - Digg has no established community now, and leaving the content to what community might show is no longer a feasible choice.
Of course, this all leaves the new Digg at the mercy of Facebook and Twitter. On one hand, this may well be the natural progression of things. Digg allowed anonymized crowd sourcing, but Facebook and Twitter’s inherent personalization mean a finer curation, at least of non-fringe content. This means the new Digg is less likely to have a front page filled with links to various herbal websites explaining why pot should be legalized. Either way, these services are where news breaks now, and it’s the only way to follow things sharply. Unfortunately, this means the dismantling of everything that Digg used to be. As of now, stories gain traction through external sites. It all makes too much sense in our current web, but it marginalizes the use of the new Digg.
Betawork’s current product, though well designed, isn’t much beyond a curated Google News. Editors shape the homepage (a huge ‘No’ of the original product). This leads to great bits, particularly int the form of relevant tweets, but it also means that Digg can’t truly break news. It’s an second hand aggregation service, and nothing about that feels exciting. In fact, the new site almost feels like one of the original Digg’s offbeat Web 2.0 indulgent visualizations of its content.
Though Digg may recall fond memories, one couldn’t have expected much from Betaworks. This is not to say that their project is a failure, but there was nothing that could be turned around in six weeks. Of course, Betaworks had no intention of doing this. The new Digg is still finding itself, and it’s more likely that it will evolve into something entirely different yet. What we have is a product with a history that demands we pay it attention. Betaworks was serious enough to get itself involved in the mess. It’ll be interesting to watch them work it all out, and it’ll likely all be moving fast.
It might not hit that Christmas like feeling of a new product release, but a new OS launch could be the tech Thanksgiving, when we look to appreciate our current devices all over again. Mountain Lion, Apple’s latest version of OS X, went live in the App Store yesterday morning, selling for just under twenty dollars, the lowest yet of the increasingly lower prices Apple slaps on its OS X updates (how long until it’s free like with iOS?). It may well be that Apple doesn’t do big OS releases any longer - it’s an interesting and smart strategy, almost akin to the accelerated development that quickly allowed Chrome to dominate in the browser market. Lion was a big release - it began in a very major way the inevitable merging of OS X and iOS. Mountain Lion, as its name suggests, isn’t starkly different from its predecessor. It is, however, the smartest next step that Apple could make. Mountain Lion is hardly a change in the operating system paradigm, instead, it seeks to remedy the lack of feature parity between Apple’s desktop and mobile platforms and move us ever closer to a persistent user experience.
Looking at Mountain Lion, it’s almost hard to tell what’s new. In many ways, it’s more of an app pack than an OS update. We get Notes, Reminders, and Game Center. There’s another piece to be written on the strategy behind Game Center and bringing it cross platform, but otherwise these are no more than desktop versions of Apple’s simple stock iOS applications. They’re necessary components in a world with an iCloud backbone, but it’s hard to get excited about a notepad application, let alone one filled with skeuomorphisms (seriously Apple, can we have a word about Game Center?). Reminders in particular is going to add some serious productivity to its users’ workflow, but otherwise there isn’t much to see here.
The most notable crossover is Notification Center. For longtime Growl users, not much is going to change. You’ll close Growl (a third party notification app with significant developer support), and you’ll get a more effective solution. For everyone else, notifications have been long missing. It’s easy to forget that notifications, up until yesterday, haven’t been baked into OS X. They’re remarkably similar to iOS’s implementation, even down to the charcoal linen background. It’s a smart implementation, even discretely throwing in a quick access button for composing tweets (and come this fall, Facebook posts). Though Notification Center can be accessed by clicking on the menu bar icon, the gesture definitely isn’t the easiest for a casual user. That said, it’s pretty brilliant. Working off of Notification Center as this omnipresent box just off of the screen’s edge, the gesture requires you swiping left from off of the trackpad’s right edge and onto the trackpad itself. It’s super slick, and it really speaks to Apple’s interest in creating a more natural interaction between users and their devices. Seriously, I’ve tried to trick this thing, and it just isn’t having it. The swipe begins off of the trackpad’s edge, and it makes complete sense.
Apple’s next iteration of Safari, and their iChat and iMessage amalgam, Messages, are two fine additions to Mountain Lion, but they don’t quite sell themselves. Safari touts a lot of strengths over Chrome, particularly its heavily Mac specific features like tap to zoom, but it isn’t as elegant of an experience. Safari feels heavier, and it’s unfortunate that tab switching doesn’t have an associated gesture. It implements eye catching features like Reader really well, but Chrome implements things like being a responsive browser. It’s great to see tab syncing between OS X and iOS finally happening, but Chrome has already beat Apple there too. Somehow, even though Chrome for iOS is forced to run slower than Safari, the app itself still operates more quickly. As far as Messages goes, it’s a nice evolution of the increasingly unnecessary iChat. While replying to iMessages on the desktop is a fantastic idea, it’s unfortunate that the app itself needs to be kept running at all times to make this happen. Not that it’s a hassle to leave an app open, but the opportunity it affords you isn’t worth the resulting loss in computing zen.
There is certainly a rounding of Lion’s edges here. It’s not hugely noticeable - there’s small changes in the momentum of scrolls and screen switches, there are new places you can zoom. Things like the three finger tap to define a word are significantly more responsive and smooth. There’s a search box in Launchpad that smartly reacts to immediate typing without the need to select the search field. It’s super quick, and it functions as a heavily visual Spotlight search specific to apps. There are also share buttons all over the place here, and though that isn’t the finest functionality, it’s the inkling of a move toward a more social operating system. Features like Power Nap are brilliant but subtle from a user’s perspective. While asleep, Macs running Mountain Lion can download and install updates, backup to a Time Machine drive, and sync files across iCloud. After running my Macbook Air’s massive battery down to almost nothing, I found it exactly where I’d left it several hours later, and a notification alerted me that an update had been downloaded.
As the first of hint of Siri one day being on our desktop, we’ve got Apple’s dictation built in to Mountain Lion. It works well enough, but the built in microphone isn’t as good as what the iPhone has, and this leads to a lot more errors. It’s still pretty good, but not quite what you’d get on the 4S, where I find maybe one minor error per transcription. Another small, but deeply significant change is Mountain Lion’s new policy of not allowing ‘random’ apps to be installed by default. This means an app, if not vetted through the App Store, must at least be signed by a recognized developer. If something goes awry, Apple can send out a message for the app to be pulled from users’ computers. It’s a really smart and simple implementation. It’s invisible to the user and causes little stress to a developer - it’s a free registration, and it gives credibility to the app. That said, I’ve already had to turn the feature off so that I could update Dropbox, which clearly is yet to sign up. It’s likely that adoption will quickly increase among developers as Mountain Lion gains a user base.
Finally, there’s much to be said of the iCloud integration within Mountain Lion. It runs deep. When Apple made iOS they decided to do away with the notion of a file system. In a lot of ways it’s an antiquated idea - like the desktop, it’s a metaphor that we cling to to ease us in to computing. iCloud is slowly replacing the filesystem as our computer’s backbone. Rather than a file being in an arbitrary array of folders, files are associate with a specific application. Why wouldn’t a Pages document save within Pages? That’s exactly where you need it to be. Of course, this leads to a number of issues. We’re used to easily moving files between applications and systems, and obscuring the actual file adds additional steps to the process. On something like iOS it’s even more difficult - you need to install something like Dropbox to give yourself a pseudo file system. This new paradigm clearly isn’t fully baked yet, though it’s clear it one day will be. Apple’s moving toward it, and they’re doing it quickly. For now, there’s bound to be confusion over iCloud storage limits and default save locations. Most apps seem to default to saving to iCloud. This means that we have it locally, and we can maybe access it via iCloud, and definitely access it via another Apple device with the same app installed. It’s a bizarre middle man right now rather than a true backbone, and it’s disconcerting to see that bar push nearer to our five gigabyte limit. If it’s such a natural part of our interaction with OS X (it is the default, after all), what are we expected to do then?
At twenty dollars, Mountain Lion is more of a ‘why not’ purchase than anything else. If you’re coming from an OS prior to Lion, then Mountain Lion is a steal. These past two versions are a distinctly different era of OS X, and they’re the finest and most polished interactions with an OS that I’ve ever had. Mountain Lion is by no means a must have, but it’s an easy enough sell at its price point. Power Nap is downright cool, and Notification Center is life changing, at least for those who haven’t been using for Growl for years. This is a necessary release for OS X, not a major one, and it definitely speaks toward Apple’s reducing price points. iOS has always been iterative, and it looks like OS X is moving in this direction too. Perhaps charging for an OS update is an old paradigm - perhaps an OS update being a major deal is old too. Mountain Lion is better than Lion, that’s for certain. Though it can’t stand close to what Lion did for OS X, that doesn’t make it any less fine of a release.