I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

The Wrong Size

When the iPhone 4S was released in 2011, the immediate reactions from the media and tech community were even more tepid, unreasonably disappointed, and petulant than usual. We got a much faster and dual-core CPU, a much better and faster camera, a more resilient antenna, a more reliable proximity sensor, and the introduction of Siri. In hindsight, most of the complainers would probably remember it as a great upgrade.

But it looked the same as the iPhone 4. The press and pundits wanted magic. They wanted a “real” “iPhone 5”. And they raked Apple over the coals for it.1 It was the most unreasonably brutal reaction to a major Apple announcement that I can remember.

The most frequent complaint I remember seeing (among those that were actually actionable, instead of vague demands for “something” “new” that seemingly just wanted a new case design) was that the 3.5-inch screen didn’t get any bigger. In 2011, Android phones were rapidly getting surprisingly large — high-end phones of the time usually had at least 4-inch screens, and the original Galaxy Note with its ridiculously huge 5.3-inch screen was released later the same month.

At the time, John Gruber wrote:

What sign has Apple ever given that it will ever change from the one-size-fits-all 3.5-inch screen? Every single iPhone and iPod Touch ever released has had the exact same size screen.

Now, maybe you would prefer a 4-inch screen. Or maybe a 4.5-inch screen. And maybe someone else would prefer a slightly smaller 3.25-inch screen. That’s not how Apple rolls, especially with iOS devices. There is no doubt that some people would prefer a bigger screen. But nor is there any doubt that many other people would not. I wouldn’t. I like to see things get smaller, not bigger. Bigger is not necessarily better. Apple decided on the optimal size for an iPhone display back in 2006. If they thought 4-inches was better, overall, as the one true size for the iPhone display, then the original iPhone would have had a 4-inch display.

I agreed and added:

It’s interesting that the expectations by the geeks and gadget bloggers this time were so heavily in favor of a larger screen, and so much of the disappointment was because we didn’t get one. I don’t remember any noticeable disappointment in previous years about it.

As a four-year iPhone user, I’ve never thought, “You know what I don’t like about this phone? The screen’s too small. I’d like to reduce my battery life, and I’d like my phone to protrude from my pocket in a larger and more conspicuous rectangle, to achieve a larger screen that I cannot comfortably use one-handed. That would be completely worth it.”

Not once.

Yet just one year later, Apple shipped a “real” iPhone 5 with a 4-inch screen. And a much faster processor, and a much better camera, and a battery-efficient LTE radio, in a thinner new case design that weighed comparatively nothing (remember the first time you picked up an iPhone 5?). People still complained, of course — the new, bigger screen wasn’t big enough, and they didn’t improve the rest of the phone enough2 — but they complained less, at least.

The Apple fans who had previously defended the 3.5-inch screen — myself included — got the new one, got used to it, and never wanted to go back to the smaller screens. It turned out that while the larger screen did make the phone slightly taller, technological progress also let Apple make the phone thinner and much lighter.

We had resisted the idea of bigger screens not because we hated screen space, but because we thought they’d bring major costs in size and weight. But the iPhone 5 really didn’t.

The “right size” principle was disproven. We were wrong.

Tomorrow, Apple is extremely likely to launch this year’s new iPhone in 4.7- and 5.5-inch screen sizes, blowing away even more of our previous assumptions and theories, and we can’t wait to get these bigger phones. (Well, most of us.)

How did we go so wrong before? I’d argue that we were partially just flat-out wrong, but mostly mistakenly judging the status quo with a lack of foresight. Big-screened phones were mediocre in 2011, but we failed to see that they wouldn’t always be.

In 2011, big screens came at bigger costs to size, weight, and battery life than today’s bigger-screened phones. We failed to anticipate advances in enclosure design, manufacturing, and screen technology.

Screen-size fragmentation isn’t as important as we once thought. The taller-only iPhone 5 screen was easy to adapt to because so many apps had vertically-flexible scrolling layouts. Designing for the new sizes today will also be easy because iOS 7’s aesthetic in all of our apps today is inherently far more flexible than 2011’s highly textured, pixel-specific fashion. And coding these designs is much easier today because of the introduction and rapid improvement of autolayout, adaptive view controllers, and storyboards.

People holding Galaxy Notes up to their faces to make phone calls looked ridiculous in 2011. Today, making a phone call in public on a huge phone is commonplace, and how often do you make phone calls in public anymore? We also thought it was ridiculous to hold up an iPad to take a picture — a brand new phenomenon in late 2011, as the first iPad with a camera was released only six months earlier — but that has also since become ubiquitous and unremarkable.

Tablets were still selling like hotcakes with no slowdowns in sight, we were still trying to carry both devices around everywhere, and we all assumed that you’d always just use your tablet for anything that could benefit from more screen space. Since then, tablet sales and hype have slowed down as they’ve gotten squeezed on both sides by better laptops and bigger phones. Many buyers prefer a bigger phone to a phone-and-tablet combo (and it’s hard to argue with the price and convenience of one device instead of two), so much of what we thought would be done on tablets is really being done on phones.

But mostly, we’ve continued the inevitable progression of phones becoming most people’s primary computing device, rather than a thing in our pocket that’s mostly just for phone calls and messaging. When you only do a few things on your phone and it doesn’t really matter how big the screen is, you don’t demand bigger screens as much and it’s nice for the phone to be as small as possible. But bigger screens bring such substantial benefits to so many personal-computing tasks that as these devices become more capable and we use them for more, we’ll be more willing to carry around a bit more bulk for the benefits that it brings to what we actually care about.

Today, I welcome bigger-screened phones. (I wanted one last year, too.) In today’s world, with today’s technology, making the phone’s footprint slightly larger is an acceptable tradeoff for having substantially more screen area for reading, working, watching, and playing.

  1. For the following 24 hours or so, then Steve Jobs died, and everyone paused to consider, even if only briefly, that their limited time in the world might be spent in better ways than complaining that a tiny internet-connected dual-processor pocket computer with speech and natural-language recognition that cost only 0.4% of the median U.S. annual household income looked the same as the one from the previous year. ↩︎

  2. Really. People really said that. A lot of people. This is why Apple drinks. ↩︎

The Watch Punt

When the iPad was rumored, but before it was unveiled, I worried about how Apple would face an obvious physical challenge that plagued every other prior tablet: What would be its main text-input method? I predicted:

I don’t know what Apple has in mind for the Tablet, but they nailed it with the iPhone: after decades of clunky, awkward, mediocre pocket computers, I think it’s safe to say that the large touchscreen is the best input mechanism for them.

But the decision isn’t nearly as clear for a slate-type device with a 7-10” screen, which most people assume to be the Tablet’s form factor. There doesn’t seem to be a good solution. No device in this category has ever even been close to good. …

I see two possible outcomes: either Apple has come up with a radical new input method for this form-factor that will overcome the fundamental problems that made every other similar device suck, or the Tablet isn’t this form-factor. … I predict the new-input-method solution. I have doubts that such a product could be as much of a replacement for general-purpose portable computing as John [Gruber] predicts, but I’m wrong a lot.

Of course, I was completely wrong. Apple punted on input methods. The iPad had only a bigger version of the iPhone’s on-screen touch keyboard, and Apple did the best they could with it.

That referenced John Gruber article proved much more accurate and raised more tough questions:

I have a thousand questions about The Tablet’s design. What size is it? There’s a big difference between, say, 7- and 10-inch displays. How do you type on it? With all your fingers, like a laptop keyboard? Or like an iPhone, with only your thumbs? If you’re supposed to watch video on it, how do you prop it up? Holding it in your hands? Flat on a table seems like the wrong angle entirely; but a fold-out “arm” to prop it up, à la a picture frame, seems clumsy and inelegant. If it’s just a touchscreen tablet, how do you protect the screen while carrying it around? If it folds up somehow, how is it not just a laptop — why not put a hardware keyboard on the part that folds up to cover the display? … If it’s too big to fit in a pants pocket, how are you supposed to carry it around? And but if it does fit in a pants pocket, how is it bigger enough than an iPod Touch to justify existing? And so on.

But there’s one question at the top of the list, the answer to which is the key to answering every other question. That question is this: If you already have an iPhone and a MacBook; why would you want this?

The epigraph I used to start this piece — the bit about Steve Jobs demanding that a tablet be useful for more than just reading on the can — indicates that Apple will release nothing without such an answer. I agree that such an answer is essential.

Reading that article, and the challenges it presents, is pretty humorous today. (Go read the rest. There’s much more.) Gruber was right about almost everything, including the challenges the iPad would face to justify itself. Apple punted on a lot of those questions, too.

We now have both 7-inch (roughly) and 10-inch iPads: those are indeed very different, but neither size is good enough to be the only size. You can type with all of your fingers, but only in landscape, only on the big iPad, and just barely; or you can type iPhone-style with only your thumbs, but really only in portrait, and mostly only on the small model.

The iPad does indeed need to be propped up to watch video, but you need a case that folds into or extends a stand, which is clumsy and inelegant, and only really works at one viewing angle and only on very stable surfaces. These cases also fold up to protect the screen in transit, but are distinctly not laptops — except some of them, which have keyboards, but not mice, to clumsily and poorly approximate a laptop.

It’s too big to fit in a pants pocket, needs to be carried in a bag, and isn’t replacing laptops for everyone.1 Rather than replacing anything en masse, it’s mostly just another device to buy, accessorize, carry, charge, sync, maintain, and replace every few years.

Many of us buy it anyway because it does enough things well enough, and it does some things much better than other devices. But those real-world tradeoffs hinder it from being the near-perfect, all-consuming device that most of us expected of it — and that smartphones and laptops both are.

*   *   *

In the months leading up to the Apple Watch, we had high expectations. We also recognized that a “smartwatch” had serious design challenges and limitations.

Electronics-heavy watches have always been big, ugly, and geeky. Many people simply don’t want to wear a visible computer on their wrist all the time, preferring to keep their technology more subtle. Even if you get past that, the physical design is full of impossible tradeoffs. There’s barely any room for text or buttons even on large watches, and fashionable watches are often much smaller, especially for women. Radios and high-resolution color displays need much more power than you can fit in a watch with good battery life, but a smartwatch without any radios is barely useful, and any smartwatch without a high-resolution color display looks primitive and ugly. There’s no room for much touch input, and a watch with more than a few buttons and dials looks ugly, but a smartwatch needs many possible inputs to navigate its far more complex and numerous features over a traditional watch.2 And for all of that, smartwatches to date have mostly been primarily to show notifications from your phone.

The ideal smartwatch would have a high-resolution, color, self-illuminated but not too bright, highly visible yet completely subtle screen that’s always on, but isn’t tacky and doesn’t draw much attention to itself from others. The screen must be as large as possible so you can read and touch it nicely, but as small as possible so it isn’t ostentatious and doesn’t look out of proportion on a wrist. This screen, and all of the other components, must use as close to zero power as possible because the battery needs to last at least a week (ideally much longer), weigh as little as possible, and occupy almost no space.

So it needs to be bright, dim, bold, subtle, large, and small, with a battery that lasts a month with zero mass, and some compelling everyday applications beyond telling time and showing phone notifications. The true design challenge isn’t making it pretty — it’s making it good.

Seeing other smartwatches fail at these impossible challenges, many of us assumed that Apple had to be working on something different for their “wearable”.

Maybe a flexible screen wraps all the way around the band, or the entire band is a battery, or it’s round, or it has a brand new kind of screen, or it has no screen. Maybe it’s not a watch at all. If it is a watch, it won’t emphasize timekeeping. Apple must be doing something radically different from the other smartwatches we’ve seen.

We can’t tell you what that might be, of course. We have no ideas that are actually realistic and practical to make. But Apple must know something we don’t, right?

Nope. They don’t. It’s a watch. And it’s very similar to other smartwatches we’ve seen — just executed far better. (We hope.)

Apple didn’t find a way around the laws of physics. They didn’t somehow unveil a revolutionary battery or screen technology that the world had never seen before. They punted again. In the absence of any better alternative approaches, they just did what they could with today’s technology.

It’s kinda big, but the touch screen isn’t big enough for good touch input and can’t fit much text or UI. It seems fashionable enough, but it’s unquestionably electronic-looking. It’s about as thick as it could reasonably be, but the battery only lasts a day. And the primary functions still seem to be telling time and showing phone notifications.

This shouldn’t be a big surprise, though. This is what Apple usually does.

And during that wave of predictions right before the iPad was announced, when we were all wondering how Apple would do “something” new or different to somehow make the perfect tablet, John Siracusa got it right, of course:

There’s also the popular notion that Apple has to do something entirely new or totally amazing in order for the tablet to succeed. After all, tablets have been tried before, with dismal results. It seems absurd to some people that Apple can succeed simply by using existing technologies and software techniques in the right combination. And yet that’s exactly what Apple has done with all of its most recent hit products—and what I predict Apple will do with the tablet.

Despite our frequent expectations to the contrary, Apple rarely comes up with major solutions that nobody else could think of. “Apple” is just a bunch of people like us, and if we can’t think of a great way to solve an impossible problem or tradeoff, they probably can’t, either.

What Apple does best is take established ideas, build upon them, make good design3 decisions along the way, and execute well. It’s what they did with the iPhone and iPad before, and it’s what they did with the Apple Watch.

It’s disappointing that they didn’t achieve the impossible, but I can’t really fault them for that.

  1. For some, sure. ↩︎

  2. The difficult balance between buttons, dials, features, and modes with usability and style has always plagued traditional watch design, too. Quick, how do you reset the lap timer on the once-ubiquitous Timex Ironman 731? (hint↩︎

  3. In the the “how it looks” sense and the “how it works” sense. Good design isn’t just one of those: it requires making good calls on the countless decisions and tradeoffs, big and small, along the way. ↩︎

Anger Over Songs Of Innocence

I’m with Waffle and Dan Wineman on this, and I think Peter Cohen really missed a lot of nuance.

Being angry about an album you were given for free does sound dumb, but due to the way iTunes purchase libraries work, that’s not the whole story. As far as most people can tell, purchases stick around forever. I didn’t even know you could hide purchases from your history until this, and I’m supposed to be an expert in Apple stuff.

The right way for Apple to do a big U2 promotional deal like this would have been to simply make the album free on the iTunes Store for a while and promote the hell out of that.

Instead, Apple set everyone’s account to have “purchased” this album, which auto-downloaded it to all of their devices, possibly filling up the stingy base-level storage that Apple still hasn’t raised and exacerbates by iOS’ poor and confusing storage-management facilities. And when people see a random album they didn’t buy suddenly showing up in their “purchases” and library, it makes them wonder where it came from, why it’s there, whether they were charged for it, and whether they were hacked or had their credit card stolen.

It was a sloppy, hamfisted execution uncharacteristic of Apple, much like the painfully awkward, forced, cheesy Tim/Bono marketing skit announcing this promotion that slaughtered the momentum of the otherwise very important iPhone 6/Pay/Watch event.

The damage here isn’t that a bunch of people need to figure out how to delete an album1 that they got for free and are now whining about. It’s that Apple did something inconsiderate, tone-deaf, and kinda creepy for the sake of a relatively unimportant marketing campaign, and they seemingly didn’t think it would be a problem.

It’s a breach of implied boundaries. It will cost them relatively little in the grand scheme of things, but in an area that’s extremely hard to recover: customer trust.

  1. It doesn’t even matter what you think of this particular album. There isn’t an album ever recorded that would have made enough people widely OK with this. “Every iTunes customer” is not only a lot of people, but it’s a lot of very different people. ↩︎

My two favorite iPhone 6 reviews:


Overcast is now accidentally an iPad app, too

I shipped Overcast 1.0.4 using this great trick to replace the various-sized launch images (Default.png) with a storyboard. This lets Overcast show an accurate launch image on any-sized device, at any screen resolution, and in any orientation without me having to make and ship separate static images for each one.

Well, there’s a bug. (Filed as radar #18371031.)

Despite Overcast being marked iPhone-only in the Info.plist, it runs at full size on iPads instead of in the little “classic” windowed mode that usually wraps iPhone-only apps when running on iPads.

I don’t actually know for sure that this is related to the storyboard launch image, but it’s extremely likely that it’s an iOS 8 bug when handling this edge case (a storyboard launch image on an iPhone-only app running on an iPad).

Special thanks to David Dudovitz for bringing this to my attention. (My iPad is still updating to 8 and will allegedly take 17 more hours.) Here are some screenshots from David for your curiosity and amusement. It appears to work fully, but it looks ridiculous.

Anyway, this is definitely not how I wanted to launch an iPad version. I’m going to let this version continue to exist in this state for the time being because it’s not doing much harm (and might be better than the alternative, I suppose), but I’m going to attempt to make it less ridiculous in the next update.

Thoughts on Music Formats

Time reports:

Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr believe so strongly that artists should be compensated for their work that they have embarked on a secret project with Apple to try to make that happen, no easy task when free-to-access music is everywhere (no) thanks to piracy and legitimate websites such as YouTube. Bono tells TIME he hopes that a new digital music format in the works will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music—whole albums as well as individual tracks. The point isn’t just to help U2 but less well known artists and others in the industry who can’t make money, as U2 does, from live performance. “Songwriters aren’t touring people,” says Bono. “Cole Porter wouldn’t have sold T-shirts. Cole Porter wasn’t coming to a stadium near you.”


In Time’s forthcoming cover story, Bono hints that the band’s next record is “about 18 months away” and will be released under the new file format. “I think it’s going to get very exciting for the music business,” Bono tells Time, “[it will be] an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens. You can see photography like you’ve never seen it before.”

If correct, this sure is a lot of misguided thinking and misplaced optimism.

If you’re actively using a screen, music competes with everything else that screen can do — and these days, that’s a lot. You’re lucky if people listen to music at all anymore, and the most you can usually hope for is that they have it on in the background while doing some other activity that doesn’t provide its own audio. The most important music-discovery platform in the world is YouTube.

So I can see why people in the music business might think it’s important to make and sell interactive, multimedia music formats (what decade is this?) to compete, but I don’t think they stand a chance. Every trend in music is going in the opposite direction.

Music sales are declining rapidly as more people switch to streaming services. That ship has sailed. It’s not turning around.1

Full albums are as interesting to most people today as magazines. Single songs and single articles killed their respective larger containers. This is true on both the supply and demand sides: most people don’t listen to full albums, and most bands don’t produce very good ones.2 People only care about hit singles. That ship has sailed, too.3

This alleged new format will cost a fortune to produce: people have to take the photos, design the interactions, build the animations, and make the deals with Apple. Bono’s talking point about helping smaller bands is ridiculous — smaller bands can barely afford professional production on the music, let alone these extras.

Apple doesn’t have the market power anymore to lock in a proprietary format’s success. When everyone was still buying on iTunes and listening on iPods, the chances of success were better, but that’s not the case today. The market is too diverse, especially with so much listening happening on streaming services and non-Apple devices that can’t and won’t display any of these extras.

So maybe this would have worked in the past. Maybe, say, in 2009, when Apple’s market power was more dominant and streaming services weren’t taking over music yet.

Fortunately, we don’t need to wonder how a theoretical new multimedia album format in 2009 would have fared, because Apple really launched one. Remember iTunes LP? It’s still around, but it never really took off, it hasn’t saved full-album sales, it hasn’t reduced piracy or the appeal of streaming services, and the music industry is still losing relevance.

Because just like every other hopeful music and movie format, people don’t value the “extras” very much. People value the music itself (just barely) and the convenience of playing it the way they want. That’s it.

So many people re-bought music they already owned on vinyl or cassettes through the shifts to CDs and digital downloads mostly because each medium was so much more convenient than its predecessor. Nobody bought CDs because the booklets were longer and had more liner notes than the fold-in cassette cards.

SACD and DVD-Audio never went anywhere, and Pono likely won’t,4 because imperceptibly better sound quality isn’t compelling enough to overcome the dramatic loss of convenience that new, proprietary formats bring to today’s world of ubiquitous music players.

There’s nothing Apple or Bono can do to make people care enough about glorified liner notes. People care about music and convenience, period.

As for “music that can’t be pirated”, I ask again, what decade is this? That ship has not only sailed long ago, but has circled the world hundreds of times, sunk, been dragged up, turned into a tourist attraction, went out of business, and been gutted and retrofitted as a more profitable oil tanker. Piracy is not the music industry’s real problem and never has been, and we have yet to come up with any audio or video medium that truly can’t be pirated.

In 2007, Steve Jobs wrote an essay called “Thoughts on Music” to attempt to pressure the big record labels into agreeing to DRM-free music sales. Here’s a portion of it:

Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.

I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but I’m having a hard time finding “Thoughts on Music” on Apple’s site anymore.5 Here’s the Internet Archive’s copy — the only live copy I found is in the Korean Hot News archive.

Jobs likely had ulterior motives, as usual — he likely wanted easier negotiations and flexibility for future hardware and features, and probably knew the upcoming Amazon MP3 Store had negotiated DRM-free music and didn’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage.

But I bet he also truly disliked DRM, as a tasteful consumer, technologist, and human being, and wanted to abolish as much of it as he could.

The effort ended up succeeding, mostly. TV shows and movies from iTunes didn’t stand a chance of going DRM-free, but iTunes music did indeed lose its DRM in the coming months (this page is still up). And the world didn’t end. Piracy didn’t suddenly explode. Everything stayed mostly the same, except it was nicer to be a music customer.

Now that we’re all accustomed to DRM-free music, I think it would be a big mistake to ever launch a DRM-encumbered music format for purchasing again.6 It’s hard enough to get people to buy music today at all — the last thing the industry needs is another excuse for people not to care.

  1. I say this as a frequent buyer of music and a very rare user of any streaming services. ↩︎

  2. I say this as a fan, and exclusive listener, of full albums. The decline is obvious. ↩︎

  3. This has been the case for decades, but most of the time in the physical-media days, the only way to get the hit singles was to buy full albums. Cassette and CD “singles” had few releases and were relatively uncommon because everyone in the chain — bands, record labels, and retailers — made more money on full-priced albums. ↩︎

  4. Higher-than-CD-quality music isn’t new. If there was truly much demand for it, Apple would have already been pressured to sell it and support its playback, but effectively nobody cares. How compelling of an alternative to streaming services would a high-bitrate format be? “We’re going to make the music collection on your 16 GB iPhone 4–10 times larger for a benefit that’s impossible to hear on any headphones, let alone your EarPods or Beats.” If forced to choose sound quality or convenience, convenience wins every time. ↩︎

  5. According to the Wayback Machine, the original page was taken down sometime between December 27, 2010 and January 27, 2011. I suspect, and hope, that this was a result of Apple’s poor website management rather than a deliberate action, although 2010’s similar Thoughts on Flash is still up. ↩︎

  6. DRM will remain justifiable for streaming services. ↩︎

iPhone Geekbench scores by CPU

Scores from Geekbench Browser.

Anyone else find the A8 step in this graph a bit sad? The party might be ending for mobile CPU advancements just like it did for PCs a few years ago.