1. A masterclass in subtle obfuscation

    Posted November 1, 2012 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    The apology Apple published after losing a UK court case to Samsung has not gone down well with the judge who told them to publish it. If you’ve read it you probably won’t be very surprised.

    The statement was meant to clarify that the Galaxy Tab did not copy the design of the iPad as Apple had claimed. Instead, it mainly painted Apple in a positive light by talking about cases in other countries that had gone in the company’s favour and quoting the judge’s favourable comments about the iPad. It didn’t take a legal expert to realise that the court would want to have a word about it.

    Looking past the specifics of this case, however, there’s something to be learnt from how the statement is written – especially its first section, which contains what is effectively the legal payload of the entire message. Here are the first two paragraphs:

    On 9th July 2012 the High Court of Justice of England and Wales ruled that Samsung Electronic (UK) Limited’s Galaxy Tablet Computer, namely the Galaxy Tab 10.1, Tab 8.9 and Tab 7.7 do not infringe Apple’s registered design No. 0000181607-0001. A copy of the full judgment of the High court is available on the following link www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Patents/2012/1882.html.

    In the ruling, the judge made several important points comparing the designs of the Apple and Samsung products:
    “The extreme simplicity of the Apple design is striking. Overall it has undecorated flat surfaces with a plate of glass on the front all the way out to a very thin rim and a blank back…”

    The most artful thing about the statement isn’t the point-scoring that follows (and which I’ve not included – see the full wording here) but the placement of the legally required statement within a thicket of technical-looking jargon that acts like chaff to the reader.

    The eye starts tripping over the words as the various Galaxy Tab model numbers are repeated and then, upon detecting the intimidating-looking patent number a bit later on, decides to move on the more welcoming second paragraph. With any luck many readers will abandon that first paragraph before they read the three legally meaningful words – “do not infringe”.

    Here’s that first paragraph again with the legal payload highlighted; see how it hides away from the reader, surrounded by stuff that your eye just wants to avoid:

    On 9th July 2012 the High Court of Justice of England and Wales ruled that Samsung Electronic (UK) Limited’s Galaxy Tablet Computer, namely the Galaxy Tab 10.1, Tab 8.9 and Tab 7.7 do not infringe Apple’s registered design No. 0000181607-0001. A copy of the full judgment of the High court is available on the following link www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Patents/2012/1882.html.

    It’s a deceptively simple trick but one that any devious writer would do well to master. If you’ve got an unwelcome message to deliver, boil its essence down to the smallest combination of words as possible, put it in a much longer and generally upbeat text, then clog up the sentence around the unwelcome words with as many numbers, hyphens and other gibberish as possible.

    Next time you have an awkward email to write, why not give it a go? Although admittedly it may be difficult to pad an “it’s not me it’s you” type of email with technical specifications and patent numbers…

  2. The new iPad might not be very impressive on paper. But who cares?

    Posted March 8, 2012 in mobile, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    Yesterday Apple revealed the new iPad. You can read all about it elsewhere or go right to the source if you want to buy one.

    As usual the announcement was preceded by feverish speculation. Would the new device come with iOS 6? Was it going to allow users to ‘touch’ pixels (or tixels) through advanced haptic feedback technology? And what about Siri?

    The answer to all these questions turned out to be “no”, but some new features did make it in. First and foremost was the Retina display, which doubles the screen resolution. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this – talk about display resolution never really captivates ‘normal’ people – but it does matter.

    The other enhancements possibly fall into the “so what” category. Take the support for 4G and LTE connections. If you’re in the UK you might well ask, support for what? These are new standards for mobile networks that are becoming common in north America, but they’re still some way off here. So that enhancement isn’t really relevant to British users.

    And then there’s the new quad-core processor. The less said about that the better. It’s not that it isn’t important – it’s just that it really doesn’t excite consumers. Remember in the early 2000s when Windows devotees would mock the lower clock speeds of PowerPC CPUs, believing this proved the inferiority of Apple machines? You probably don’t: it turned out that no-one cared. Apple refused to join a CPU arms race and it turns out that they were right.

    So this leaves Apple with a new product announcement that is evolutionary rather than evolutionary. No freaky futuristic stuff, no “one more thing”. But does it matter?

    I don’t think it matters at all really. The iPad dominates the tablet market and there’s nothing on the immediate horizon that’s going to change that. When Windows 8 launches it’ll be in a battle against Android for second place, but that could end up being a pretty small prize to fight for. There’s a more tangible threat to the iPad from the Kindle Fire but Amazon has work to do if it’s going to convince people that these products belong in the same device category. Apple’s dominance of the tablet market is ensured for the foreseeable future.

    Given all this, throwing new features at the dominant product in an attempt to revolutionise it would be a bad move. When you’re behind, the “hail mary pass” – a single recklessly ambitious scheme to stave off disaster – is a good strategy. But when you’re ahead that’s the last thing you want to do. It’s what Microsoft did with Vista, and it ended up spending millions giving the world a product it didn’t need. Apple isn’t going to be “doing a Vista” with the iPad any time soon.

  3. Some more background reading on the Apple Store

    Posted February 3, 2011 in links  |  No Comments so far

    A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the design strategy of Apple’s store on Regent Street. I was interested in how, by stripping out money and its visual signifiers, Apple were deliberately creating a space where a direct and emotional connection could form between visitors and the products.

    Anyway, here are a few links about the Apple Store that I thought I’d post up here, in case anyone’s interested.

    • Bohlin Cywinski Jackson is the firm of architects that has designed Apple stores across the globe. Their approach to the Regent Street store was to “edit distracting elements from the visual field” to create a serene environment in which “Apple’s products gracefully assume center stage”.
    • The Atlantic reported in October last year that more than 74.5 million people had visited one of the 317 Apple stores across the world in the preceding quarter, setting a new record for footfall in retail.
    • Back in 2009, Social Episodes wrote about the Apple Store customer experience far more extensively than I did, relating it to six “laws” of customer service. I like the story of the Apple staff keeping their cool when, after spending lots of time with a customer complaining about iTunes syncing, they discovered that he didn’t even have it installed on his PC.
    • So whatever Apple is doing with its retail stores, it’s obviously doing it well.

  4. No place for money in the brave new world of the Apple Store

    Posted January 13, 2011 in strategy  |  No Comments so far

    The Apple Store on Regent Street has been open for a while, but my first visit was just before Christmas. I went to get some things for my work laptop, and had a slightly confusing time.

    The Apple Store on Regent Street

    Once I’d found the stuff I needed, I spent an awkward few minutes hopelessly looking for somewhere to pay. Mild panic gripped me when I realised that it wasn’t going to happen – because there were no tills. No tills! And not only were there no tills, there were no signs saying “Pay Here”, no queues of patient shoppers, no beeping scanners. I simply could not figure out how to purchase the stuff I was carrying – a strange feeling to have in a retail environment.

    Luckily a passing staff member noticed my confusion and asked if I was OK. I asked about paying for my things and he said, “that’s fine, we can do that right here”. Using an iPod Touch to scan my things, he then processed my card using equipment tucked away discreetly behind a bench. I was finally free to leave the store.

    At first I thought Apple just wanted to use technology to look clever while streamlining the buying process. But maybe there was a deeper motive. After all, Apple doesn’t mess around when it comes to design – they execute well, but they also plan well (let’s leave Ping aside for the moment). So what’s the thinking behind the oddly invisible Apple Store purchase process? Here’s my take on it.

    Show money the door

    The central principle, stated simply, is this: get rid of money. Remove money from the space. Go as far as possible to extract money, the signs of money, the sights and sounds of money, from the Apple Store environment.

    Putting this into practise means that there should be no tills, no barriers, no staff members sitting behind desks holding barcode scanners. No “Pay Here” signs dangling from the roof. No obvious places for shoppers to form queues. By taking these steps, the space can be wiped clean of the idea of money.

    But why do this? Why take these steps when they’ll cost money while confusing customers, who are extremely accustomed to how normal shops work?

    There has to be a good reason for doing it, and there is: to remove money as a mediating presence between the shopper and the product.

    Money gets in the way (click for full size)

    Money muddies our thinking. When we’re reminded that it exists, we can’t forget about it. When it’s on our minds, every decision we make is influenced by it. It becomes a kind of lens through which we process the world.

    For most retailers this isn’t a big problem because it can be exploited. Think of the discount trick – you see a pair of OK-but-nothing-special shoes, then notice a sticker saying “20% off” and suddenly you want the shoes. So-so products can be enhanced by a money message; introducing money into the dynamic can make people more likely to buy. But while this is all very well for the likes of Tesco, Apple is playing a different game.

    iThing, you complete me

    Apple really doesn’t want us thinking about money when we encounter Apple products. It wants us to engage directly with them, without money intervening. The connection should be emotional, not functional or financial. Thoughts like “that’s cheap” or “is this discounted?” undermine this connection.

    Instead, Apple want us to imagine our lives having been enriched and transformed by the snazzy new iThing that looks so glorious in this pristine store. Without money getting in the way, with no visible reminder of its influence, it’s easier to conceive of the iThing as being in our grasp. Without things like checkout queues subconsciously reminding us of money, our desire for the iThing can take more easily root in our minds.

    Apple is creating a kind of post-money environment where decisions are based on emotion, not utility value, and that this is why they’ve erased manifestations of money from their store. It fits in with Apple’s broader strategy of being more like a luxury brand than a technology company. And it works – at least if my experience is anything to go by.

    When I got back to the office I realised I hadn’t even checked how much my stuff cost, and was amazed to find that I’d paid £25 for a USB network dongle without batting an eyelid. If I ever visit the Apple Store again, I’ll have to be on my guard.

  5. Syncing Apple iCal with Google Calendar

    Posted January 4, 2011 in software  |  1 Comment so far

    While Outlook on Windows has the ability to publish a calendar to the web, this feature isn’t present in Apple’s iCal application. This means that two-way synchronisation between Google Calendar and Apple iCal is more or less impossible. Yes, you can subscribe to your Google Calendar and see its events in iCal, but you can’t have iCal events moved to Google Calendar automatically. This means that you can’t get, for example, event notifications on your mobile device unless you manually copy events over.

    Apple probably don’t mind this state of affairs because they’d like you to pay for MobileMe to access this sort of syncing functionality. But you might have lots of reasons for wanting to continue using your Google Calendar. If so, your only option might be Spanning Sync.

    The bad news is that Spanning Sync is also a paid-for tool. It costs US $65 for a one-off license, or $25 for a one-year subscription. This is cheaper than MobileMe, which is $99. But the main benefit of Spanning Sync is that it works well and keeps your Mac interoperable.

    Once you’ve installed it the process is extremely straightforward. It asks for your Google login details then finds iCal calendars on your Mac. Once you’ve paired up local and remote calendars, the software runs the first Sync and then sits in the menu bar quietly syncing away.

    It works well enough, but it’s annoying that third party digital software products are needed to achieve this – let alone software that you have to pay for. So if you know of a better way to sync Apple iCal with Google Calendar, I’m really keen to hear about it!

  6. Why I ended up buying a Mac

    Posted September 14, 2010 in ephemera  |  3 Comments so far

    Last Saturday I started setting up my new Macbook Pro. Nothing spectacular about that, I guess, except that this is my first foray into the world of Mac OS X. Here are some thoughts on why I decided to buy one of these machines.

    In the last few years there have been more than a few occasions when clients, friends or colleagues have been surprised to see me running Windows or even Ubuntu, saying things like “I always had you down as a Mac person”. It reminds me a bit of when I used to smoke and colleagues would say “I didn’t have you down as a smoker” – it feels flattering, but you still wonder about the signals you’re sending out.

    I’d never become a Mac user because I never really saw a compelling reason to. I enjoy learning new things and I’m interested in computer systems (let’s face it – I’m a nerd) but could never justify the time and expense that switching would have involved a few years ago.

    You see, back then everything was different. Macs ran on proprietary hardware. The application ecosystem for OS X was still developing. Most of my personal data was stored on the hard disks of Windows machines, and just moving to a new PC was arduous enough.

    But these things have changed. You can install Windows or Linux on modern Macs, making them far more multi-purpose than they used to be. The application ecosystem seems far richer now (this list of indie graphics editors for Mac OS X is a case in point).

    And most importantly, my personal data doesn’t bind me to a specific machine in the way it used to. Like many people, my online self is becoming increasingly nebulous, drifting away from the lone device to reside in the external world or the “cloud”. Email, contacts, files, personal notes – all of these can be reached from any machine with an internet connection, and with every couple of months the setup time becomes shorter and shorter.

    It’s this last point in particular that encouraged me to give Mac OS X a try, and which I expect is encouraging OS-agnosticism among many other people too.

    There might even be a bit of a paradox at work here: the less we depend on a physical device to act as our information store, the more free we become to focus on its physical properties – ergonomics, build quality, the tactile sensation it offers, as opposed to, say, its hard drive capacity or its RAM.

    As the computer becomes a physical device first and an informational device second, a company like Apple (which has been focusing on physicality for a long time) can only stand to benefit.

  7. The keyboard is not going away

    Posted April 8, 2010 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    Since the launch of the iPad, hubris and hysteria among technology commentators has been gradually increasing. The device is the future; Rupert Murdoch thinks it’s the saviour of journalism; it will change the world; it “can replace any real-world object you own”.

    One notion that I take exception to, however, is that the iPad signals the death of the keyboard and that touch interfaces are destined for ubiquity.

    Now, I’m no technological conservative – I’ve been using touch-screen phones since before the iPhone came out. But I think a more fundamental point is being missed here, which is that the roles computers play in our lives are multiplying greatly.

    Computers used to play a relatively limited set of roles which could be supported with a common set of interface models, mainly centred around the keyboard and the mouse. The keyboard & mouse setup worked when the computer operator was sat at a desk, had to enter lots of data from a large character set, and needed direct access to many (maybe even several hundred) on-screen controls offered by their applications.

    Today, not every computer user is sat at a desk and in the need state described above. Computer users might be on the other end of a phone line from the machine itself, operating it through a (notoriously infuriating) voice interface. They might be delivering a parcel and collecting the recipient’s signature using a handheld computer’s (notoriously infuriating) pen interface. And of course the computer user might be using a personal device like a smartphone, which needs to be small and light and whose functions don’t require the sort of  intricate and precise interactions supported by the keyboard/mouse combo.

    But this doesn’t change the fact that some computer users will still be in situations where the keyboard and mouse paradigm is appropriate. Therefore the keyboard will not die.

    What things like the iPad illustrate is that we are using computers more than we used to – in a wider number of contexts and for a wider range of reasons. They don’t replace what we already have, they’re just a new addition to our collection of tools.

  8. An open assault on the walled garden

    Posted December 21, 2009 in strategy  |  No Comments so far

    Mobile telcos charge us for the texts, minutes and megabytes we use. They buy our loyalty by heavily subsidising our increasingly expensive phones. And they’re terrified of becoming like the people who supply our electricity or gas. They’re terrified that one day they’ll be nothing but interchangeable providers of a commodity, irrelevant logos printed on tedious, humdrum bills.

    This is why their marketing focuses so much on music, culture and lifestyle. It’s why O2 customers get priority tickets to concerts at the arenas bearing their name. It’s why Orange customers get half-price cinema tickets on Wednesdays. And it’s why T-Mobile runs that insufferable campaign about Josh and his ever-growing band.

    T-Mobile advert screenshot

    Join the b(r)and: T-Mobile want to be associated with music and lifestyle

    Customers are being encouraged to associate the brands of mobile operators with a certain type of lifestyle experience instead of just voice and data. This experience extends from the marketing to exclusive content services and even the interfaces and feature sets of the handsets themselves.

    In this sense, mobile telcos are offering their customers a walled garden, in which the mobile internet is presented as part of a convenient package branded Orange, AT&T, T-Mobile or O2. If your internet memory goes back as far as the mid-1990s this might sound slightly familiar. But in the next ten years this walled garden is due to come under direct assault.

    Charlie Stross has posted an excellent, thought-provoking piece looking at how the next ten years might pan out for the mobile industry – and making it sound in some ways like a technology rehash of the Great Game, with Apple and Google as the chief protagonists.

    As Stross sees it, Apple and Google both want to destroy the walled garden built by telcos but for different reasons and in different ways. As a premium marque, Apple wants to work with telcos while preventing their brands from adulterating the Apple experience:

    Apple don’t want to destroy the telcos; they just want to use them as a conduit to sell their user experience… [they] want to maintain the high quality Apple-centric user experience and sell stuff to their users through the walled garden of the App Store and the iTunes music/video store

    Google, on the other hand, wants people to view more of its ads. To make this happen, Google wants to fundamentally reshape the mobile industry:

    I think Google are pursuing a grand strategic vision of destroying the cellco’s entire business model… turning 3G data service into a commodity… getting consumers to buy unlocked SIM-free handsets [like the Nexus One]… and ultimately do the Google thing to all your voice messages [through Google Voice] as well as your email and web access.

    These distinct strategies both threaten the mobile telcos, who stand to lose any emotional connection they have with their customers either way. But this doesn’t mean that Apple and Google are going to be bedfellows:

    Apple’s iPhone has been good for Google: iPhone users do far more web surfing — and Google ad-eyeballing — than regular phone users. But Apple want to maintain…  the walled garden of the App Store and iTunes… [and] Google can’t slap their ads all over those media. So it’s going to end in handbags at dawn … eventually.

    The piece (here’s the link again by the way) has me thinking that the coming decade in mobile networks will be much like the previous decade was in land-line internet service provision.

    If Charlie Stross is right, the idea of the telco as provider of an experience will not last the decade, meaning that flash mobsOrange Rock Corps and Josh Ward will become nothing but a dim and distant memory. And customers will hopefully have greater choice over how they use mobile networks, which would be nothing but a good thing in my opinion.