iPad Pro 10.5″: Wonderfully Unnecessary

I had lost interest in tablets for a while. I hate owning redundant possessions, and as large-screen phones became my norm, owning a tablet as well felt decadent. No one needs a tablet.

Eventually I remembered that “need” isn’t the point. As I discussed in my iPad Air review many years ago, the tablet is the device you choose to use when you are no longer compelled by necessity to use a phone or a PC. It’s for the things you want to do as opposed to the things you have to do. Your phone and PC can do things you want as well, but the tablet would ideally be specifically suited to activities of non-compulsion. I’m talking about things like reading (books, articles, comics, etc.), browsing, watching videos, playing certain kinds of games, as well as, for many, drawing, designing, making music, and for me in particular, creative writing.

Not writing for work. I’ve become something of a stickler for intentionally separating my work machine from my leisure machine, even though I work from a home office using my own laptop. Most of the time, the laptop is for work-work, and the tablet is for the writing and creative work that I do by my own whim.

To sum up, here is my Theory of Devices:

  • Generally speaking, though with countless exceptions, phones and PCs (laptops or desktops) are “lean-in” devices of necessity. One squints and scrunched one’s attention (and fingers) on the small screen of the phone in order to accomplish the tasks demanded by the moment. One hunches over the keyboard and display of a laptop, studying the contents of the screen and dutifully typing away to, again, satisfy the demands of the moment. They require a kind of tunnel vision.
  • Tablets (and e-readers like Kindles) are “lean-back” devices of choice. Generally hand-held, but large enough to encourage the user to kick back and absorb content rather than actively scrutinize it. If one wishes to more deeply engage and create or “work,” that’s fine. There is a psychological separation between the work machines and the diversion machine.

This is why I sought a return to the tablet. I didn’t want to play at the office.

Late last year I got the iPad Pro 9.7”. It was more than I absolutely needed, as an iPad Air 2 would have more than sufficed for almost all my tablet needs, but I was too intrigued by the possibilities presented by the Apple Pencil to settle. Having used a couple of Galaxy Notes, I knew very well the vast difference between just using any old stylus on a touchscreen, and having a stylus specifically built for your particular machine, a machine with software and hardware tuned to interact with that stylus. (This is part of why a strongly considered a Surface Pro 4, but decided it was both too expensive and too close to being a work machine.) So iPad Pro it would have to be.

I loved it. I loved it more as the months went by. I kept finding myself impressed by its speed, fluidity, responsiveness, and the sheer loveliness of its display. I made lots of fun pictures with 53’s Paper app, and even made delightful musical arrangements with iOS GarageBand (which has become really quite an astounding application in recent years). I did a little writing on it as well, but not nearly as much as I’d like, partly I think because I failed to find a keyboard solution I was truly comfortable with. More on that later.

But I always wanted a slightly bigger screen than iPads offered. Having seen Surface Pros, the Pixel C, and the pre–2015 Samsung Tab S’s, I knew that a larger canvas would really open the device up for me. The 12.9” iPad Pro was always utterly intriguing, but I knew that it would be too unwieldy to be the lean-back device I needed it to be.

Then Apple announced the new 10.5” iPad Pro, and I was ready to pounce. Not because of any flaws in the 9.7” Pro, but because a slightly-larger super-iPad was What I’d Always Wanted. I would later describe it as the first-worldiest of purchases. But shit, life is short, and this is all I spend money on. And now a very nice Swappa user in New York City now has my 9.7” Pro, and I have his money. Or, I did. I gave that money to Apple. Again.

I’ve had the iPad Pro 10.5” for about a week. I haven’t pushed it to its limits (nor do I know how I would go about that), but I’ve used it for all of the things I would normally use a tablet for, and as you’ll see, I don’t need much else to go on.

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So how is it?

It’s a really good iPad. You already know what an iPad is and does, so, yes, the 10.5” iPad Pro is the best at all those things, with a little bit more room on the screen on which to enjoy those things. It’s the same weight as iPads have been since the iPad Air in 2013, about a pound, and it’s super thin.

The expanded screen size is very nice, and there are times I pick the thing up and turn it on and I’m taken aback by that little increase in visual immersion. But in regular use, it’s not world-changing. It’s a little bit nicer, and it makes the software keyboard easier to use accurately.

If anything, it reminds me of the Google Pixel C, which was my “pro” tablet of choice before the iPad, but I gave up on after it suffered from technical failures (such as a screen that quickly went on the fritz) and abysmally poor customer support for said failures. But one of the great things about the Pixel C was its screen size at 10.2″, so having an iPad with about the same screen size is a way for me to get back some of what I really loved about Google’s tablet.

The iPad Pro, regardless of the change in screen real estate, has kept the same pixel density at 264 ppi. I’m frankly disappointed that Apple hasn’t bumped this up even a little bit since the introduction of the iPad 3 in 2012. I’ve been using quad-HD phones, and the Pixel C had a gorgeous 308 ppi display. Hell, even the iPad mini line has 326 ppi.

It really doesn’t matter, though. I almost never notice the lower pixel density of the iPad Pro, and Apple’s done so much to make this screen crisp and beautiful in so many other ways that no one else even attempts, let alone achieves. TrueTone, though unnecessary, is a nice adaptive-color technology that is better to have than not. The display itself is just about painted onto the glass, so there’s no sense of gawking at your content as though it’s beneath a window pane. I would certainly like the ppi to be higher, and I know I’d notice it and appreciate it, but I have no complaints about the iPad Pro’s display.

I can talk about performance, but honestly, the real test of that will come with iOS 11 this fall, when the operating system transforms from giant-phone-OS to something that genuinely seems ready to be used as a full-power computing device. Other than that, everything is as fast as you’d imagine it to be. But of course the same was true for the 9.7” Pro, so I doubt anyone would perceive any difference between the two.

The bigger change is this boost from a 60hz refresh rate to 120hz. This does indeed make scrolling and animations more fluid. At times it looks so good it’s otherworldly, but you also just get used to it and it’s no big deal. Again, better to have than not, for sure. Some are describing this change as almost akin to the difference between Retina and non-Retina, and I don’t agree…yet. I do really appreciate it, but I suspect that once again its utility will become more apparent with iOS 11.

The refresh rate boost is also supposed to improve the display’s interaction with the Apple Pencil, reducing latency to almost imperceptible levels. I can feel the difference in apps like Apple’s Notes and 53’s Paper, but not in other drawing apps. This might be because they haven’t taken advantage of the new hardware yet and likely will, but right now there’s no difference I can sense in many Pencil-related apps. This is another area where there were no problems with the performance on the 9.7” Pro, and the Pencil on the 10.5” does it a little better.

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I’m trying to decide whether Apple’s own Smart Keyboard is good and useful enough to justify holding onto. I purchased it alongside the iPad, assuming it would be almost necessary to get the full “Pro” experience. But, like the iPad, it was not cheap.

It is much nicer to type on than its predecessor for the 9.7″ Pro, with keys more widely spaced, but also like 9.7’s it also makes for a clumsy iPad cover. It’s heavy for a cover, and its weight is (necessarily) uneven. While it’s wonderfully easy to take on and off, it’s too expensive to casually toss aside like you might do with a plain cover (which are also grossly overpriced). It is somewhat deceptive in that it doesn’t look like an expensive piece of electronics, but it is, and one does not want to have it snap in half because you didn’t know it was sticking out of the couch cushions before you sat or laying on the floor as you smash it with your feet.

As before, it pairs with the iPad immediately upon magnetic contact, so there’s no fiddling. One little annoyance I’ve discovered is that if before you attached the Smart Keyboard you had been using a third-party software keyboard, the Smart Keyboard gets a little confused. I like to use Gboard as my software keyboard, but if it’s the most recent one I’ve enabled when I attach the Smart Keyboard, at least one key (the apostrophe) doesn’t work. Maybe others fail too, but that’s the one I noticed. Cycling back to enabling the default keyboard solves the problem.

Oh, and once again, it doesn’t have a place to stow the Apple Pencil. Argle blargle.

For a couple of years now I’ve had the Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard, and it is very good for what it is, and tablets and phones alike sit nicely in it’s little device slot. I don’t think it’s quite as nice to type on as the Smart Keyboard, and, obviously, it doesn’t have the advantage of being physically attached to the iPad. You have to go get it to use it. The Apple Smart Keyboard is always there, either on the iPad itself or within arm’s reach.

I don’t really trust any of the other keyboard cases I’ve seen because in each of them the keys have at least the potential to rub up against, and thereby scratch, the screen. That’s not gonna fly. With the Smart Keyboard, the keys fold away and make no contact with the display, ever.

I believe I may be convincing myself to keep it. As much as I’d like to recoup that cash. I should experiment with the Microsoft keyboard again, just to be sure, so as I write this, I’m just not certain about the Smart Keyboard.

And quite frankly, I often prefer typing on the software keyboard. I wouldn’t even consider an external keyboard if the software keyboard didn’t take over so much of the screen. But I’m using it now to type this, and I suppose this is another benefit of the 10.5” screen: a more comfortable on-screen keyboard and more remaining space for the content.

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Some smaller things worth noting:

  • I am overly sensitive to devices that get too warm. It was perhaps my greatest source of dissatisfaction about iPads 3 and 4, and was a rollercoaster struggle with the Nexus 6, among other devices. I have yet to feel this tablet get meaningfully warm. The 9.7” Pro never bothered me either, though I could notice changes in temperature. So far, I can only attribute any warmth to the 10.5” Pro to the heat from my own hands.
  • The speakers are excellent for a super-thin wafer of a computer. Better than any other device I’ve used that isn’t itself a dedicated speaker or sound system.
  • I used to much prefer using any tablet in portrait mode, seeing it as the “correct” orientation, particularly for lean-back uses, but something about the increase in screen size makes landscape nice for more passive use as well, in that you can easily split the screen between two apps and still feel like you’re looking at two iPad mini-size devices.
  • The camera is apparently amazing, but I’ve used it almost not at all. I have no idea if this will change, but I am definitely not one of those “omg never use a tablet to take pictures” people. Seriously, use whatever gadget you have the way you want to. Your tablet has a camera and a giant-ass viewfinder. Go ahead and take pictures. (Just don’t be obnoxious about blocking people’s view with it.) It’s supposed to be an iPhone 7-quality camera, which sounds great. Hard for me to see when I’d take advantage of this, but hey, it’s there.
  • There is a problem with Google Photos that hasn’t been addressed yet, where the application grinds to a halt when trying to edit any photo. This did not happen with the 9.7” Pro, and a couple folks online have had the same experience. I have no idea why this would be, but I hope a software update comes quickly.

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Clearly, the 10.5” iPad Pro is a fantastic tablet. Almost certainly it’s the best tablet available, and by several orders of magnitude. It’s more tablet, and really, more computer, than almost any one in the market could possibly need. And that’s good, because if there’s one thing even Apple was surprised to learn, it’s that people buy iPads and they hold on to them and use them for many years. This iPad will fare very well over those year, I predict.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t need this at all. The 9.7” iPad Pro was far and away the best tablet in the world, and upon the release of the 10.5” it became an extremely close second. Almost negligibly close.

Having used the 10.5 for a few days, but before iOS 11’s arrival, I can confidently say that if you have a 9.7” Pro, you’re good right now. You’ll probably be good for a long time. If you’re in the market for a powerful and/or stylus-optimized tablet, but don’t want to spend $700, do go and find a 9.7” Pro. You’ll love it.

I loved it. And I also love this one. The 10.5” iPad Pro is everything I loved about the 9.7”, plus a little more. I’m really glad I got it, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, but I also know I could most certainly have gone without it.

Also, if you want a tablet for just the lean-back stuff, and you want it to last many years, ignore this whole review and get one of those new vanilla iPads for a little over $300. You’ll love it.

Don’t get a Pixel C, because Google’s support it the absolute worst. (Example: In order to help me with a problem with the hinge on my Pixel C’s external hardware keyboard, they insisted I reboot my tablet and put it in safe mode. For a hinge. On a physically separate object. Sorry, no.)

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No one needs a tablet at all. I certainly don’t. But as a lover of technology, as a big consumer of news and writing, as an artist and musician, and indeed as an autistic introvert, there’s something wonderful about these things. I’m so fortunate to be able to scrape together the means to own an object that facilitates so many of the things that bring me joy and meaning in life, and is also comfortable and appealing, such that I am drawn to it and encouraged to play, explore, create, and find a little peace.

I don’t need this tablet. I’m damn glad that I have it anyway.

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Hey, if you like my work, maybe you’ll think about supporting it through Patreon. That’d be cool of you.

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Apple and the Heresy of Control

In an episode of the podcast Clockwise this week, the panel offered their opinions as to what Apple as a company should be wary of that might threaten its titanic dominance of the consumer tech space. The answers were fine, mostly dealing with how Apple needed to be careful about letting too many things die on the vine, or letting hubris cloud its ability to maintain its level of quality. But I couldn’t help but feel like the distillation of the responses could be summed up as, “Apple might get too awesome.” Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s what I took away from it.
What is it like for a religious fundamentalist who walks away from the ultra-conservative wing of their sect, but still retains a more liberal form of their former belief, say, becoming a “progressive Christian” or a reform or secular Jew, perhaps? Not to overplay the metaphor, but that’s sort of how I’ve felt in recent months.

While my “religious” devotion to Apple and “The Steve” has always been tongue-in-cheek, it was amusing (to me at least) because it was based on the truth. Though not a fundamentalist, per se, I was definitely an Evangelical. The products and services and overall decisions of other competing companies struck me as, most of the time, misguided and bizarre.

Today, I carry a big-ass Android phone, I’ve taken more advantage of the services offered by Google, and slowly I’ve come to recognize shortcomings in Apple I’d never really acknowledged, or that are themselves new. I’ve also started recognizing the good and often brilliant things being done by other companies in other areas.

With a little bit of distance, it’s clear that the hubris some fear might overtake Apple is not imagined, but a present reality. Read how Tim Cook dismissed the Android Wear smartwatch space in favor of Apple’s as-yet-unreleased product. He didn’t simply assert his product’s superiority (which of course he is supposed to do), he mocked the very idea of their existence, as though these rather well-regarded products are jokes, and that Apple’s watch will be of such a high caliber as to change the world to the same degree the Mac or the iPhone did.

Come on, Tim. It’s a watch that lets a phone project some of its software over to it. I’m sure it’s going to be lovely and novel and fun, but it’s not a world-changer. And from what’s been shown so far, it’s not even materially different from a Moto 360.

Or take Jony Ive’s utter dismissal of Motorola’s decision to allow customers to configure the look of their phone before it’s shipped to them. Yes, Apple makes gorgeous hardware, probably the best-designed overall, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best for everybody, or that people shouldn’t want to have more input into the look of a device they’re spending hundreds of dollars on, and will spend hundreds of hours using. It’s fine to say your idea is better, but it’s another thing to characterize all ideas that didn’t happen to come from you as junk.

From this same Clockwise episode (which I feel compelled to say I really like overall, though less so now that it’s becomes so Apple-centric after Jason Snell’s departure from IDG), in discussing an apparent controversy over privacy regarding speech recognition in Samsung TVs, one panelist actually defended Samsung as not actually having done any wrong in this case, which was good, but also prefaced her defense with, “as much as it pains me to say this.” Why? Why would it “pain” you to clear up a technological misunderstanding?

Because Samsung competes directly with Apple.

(Okay, and Samsung is kind of run, by all accounts, by a bunch of sketchy creeps. Gotta grant that.)

I would still recommend iPhones and other Apple products to most general consumers. (There’s as yet no way I’m using anything other than a Mac as my computer.) This is because Apple’s philosophy of making as many of the decisions as possible for the user is a good one for the general public. Most people don’t want to have to think about any of the stuff going on behind the glass of their screens, and nor should they. For them, Apple is most often the best way to go. But it’s not universal, and for those who want a little more control, there are other options, and those options are plentiful, and these days, really damn good. The iPhone 6 is probably the phone on the market best suited for the most people, but the Galaxy Note 4 is probably the best phone overall in terms of all it offers and all it can do.

And when I talk about control, I’m not talking about a geeky level of control (“I can make it run Linux” or whatever). I’m talking about some basic level of control over how you share a link or where you store a document or photo, or how you want to secure your lock screen. Apple hides almost all of this from the user, and for very good reason, but I think more users than is generally presumed would like a little more ability to make a few choices themselves. And those people shouldn’t be mocked for thinking differently.

I don’t think this segment of the phone-buying population is a majority by any stretch of the imagination, though. And I think Android and Windows Phone and any other mobile system would do well to aspire to get closer to Apple’s way of keeping things simple, and make their systems as easy to use out of the box as possible. Have a degree of choice and control available, but make it optional. Android is getting there, but it’s not there yet.

But whether it ever does get there is beside the point. I guess I’m simply weary of a pose that I used to strike myself, in which it is taken on faith that while Apple may make mistakes, even their screw-ups are somehow morally superior to the best of what anyone else had to offer. There exists an attitude that no matter what Apple does wrong, there’s nowhere else to go, and to use another company’s products or services is a kind of heresy, somehow personally tainting. I’m glad to say I’m very much over that. But it also means I need to abandon a few of my once-favorite podcasts.


 

Related: “Shaking Off Some of the Apple Fussiness”

Apple’s Well-Earned (If Worrisome) Stranglehold

Ewan Spence declares that Apple has “taken down” Android, and it’s hard to argue with him:

Through careful financial management, Apple built up the resources to invest heavily in component hedging. The ability to buy components years in advance and have a monopoly on supplies of a product, has been used time and again to keep Apple’s bill of materials low while restricting the availability of new technology to its rivals. …

If you’re competing against Apple, you’re not going to be allowed to fight with the best components, because Tim Cook reserved them years ago when he was in charge of Apple’s operations. …

Apple has managed to raise its game and create better devices, while at the same time reducing the options for Android and forcing them onto a developmental path that suits Apple more than it suits Android. In parallel to this, it continues to bring in more money from the high-end of the market, and using that money to prevent any competitor becoming established.

If I worked for, say, Morotola or HTC, this might be the point where I throw up my hands and say, “Fuck it. I give up.”

But there’s no way to get around the fact that in the big picture, Apple has been masterful in establishing its utter dominance of this space. They invent the first and most viable form of the touchscreen smartphone, more or less inventing the category itself, and as Spence explains, leverage their popularity to take over the very means of producing smartphones generally. The more popular their devices, the more they can assert control over the components and manufacturers, which allows them to more easily make even more popular devices, and it just snowballs.

And from both a business operations perspective and a product design perspective, they have entirely earned this dominance. They made more or less the best devices, and also brilliantly carried out their operational strategy.

At first blush, it can feel unfair, particularly if you’re like me and (currently) prefer Android to iOS. But what first strikes one as unfairness is really about fear. I want Android devices to be great, and Spence’s analysis makes me worry that there is a ceiling above which Android devices can never get beyond, because Apple has eaten up the means of production. But it’s not unfair. Apple just got there first, and continued to do it better.

But it still could suck for people like me.

As I said, Apple’s earned this place. As bored as I am with iOS and iPhones, I would still be hard pressed to recommend to any non-geek any smartphone that isn’t an iPhone. It will give them the fewest headaches, confuse them the least, and will more or less hold their hand through the phone-ownership process. Android has gotten easier and friendlier to the point that I could see my wife owning an Android device and her relying on me for questions, but not so that I could recommend the same to her iPhone-toting aunties and uncles. (That said, one of these non-geek aunties has a Galaxy S4, and she’s perfectly fine.)

Support is also a huge factor here. Apple’s ubiquity will mean that their users always have someone to turn to for service and support. (See my whole thing about Apple Stores as embassies.) Is Samsung’s support infrastructure robust, fast, and friendly? I don’t know, but the fact that they plant their flags in Best Buys, which are black holes of customer service, isn’t encouraging. I do know from experience that companies like Motorola try but struggle to offer meaningful support, and don’t even get me started on a company like OnePlus, which seems incapable of offering even the veneer of support – one gets the feeling that they hope you just go away once you’ve bought their phone. As much as folks in our family get frustrated with Apple and their iPhones (and they really do), I can only imagine how out in the cold they’d feel if their HTC One or Moto X shit the bed.

This is all to say that until Apple totally blows it, or rots from the inside somehow, this is probably just how it’s going to be for a long time, or at least until the next technological paradigm. And I don’t mean smartwatches. Nor do I mean VR or Internet-of-things stuff; that’s all part and parcel of the era we’re currently in, and if Apple decides to enter one of those markets, it can once again buy up all the parts, design something gorgeous, and leverage its market and cultural dominance to bolt ahead of everyone else. It’ll have to be something else completely, something Apple hasn’t even explored seriously, or is unaware of. Your guess is as good as mine.

If Apple’s Stuff Doesn’t “Just Work,” What Does?

L6lJgThe tech punditocracy is abuzz, talking about this post by Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, The Magazine, and Overcast, co-host of Accidental Tech Podcast, and who’s probably as famous as an iOS developer can be. It’s a kind of catharsis post, a kind of throwing up of the hands at the myriad problems and unkept promises plaguing the Apple ecosystem.
“The problem seems to be quite simple,” he writes. “They’re doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines.” And the result is a significant decline in the utility of their software and services, and a big increase in frustration. (The hardware, he writes, remains “amazing,” which I largely agree with.) OS X, he says, is “riddled with embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions.”*

But I want to focus on one part of Arment’s post, which to me was the most damning of Apple.

Apple has completely lost the functional high ground. “It just works” was never completely true, but I don’t think the list of qualifiers and asterisks has ever been longer. We now need to treat Apple’s OS and application releases with the same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ.

Ouch.

This has been my experience as well, which is particularly stark given my past as an Apple Store drone and reputation as an Apple evangelist (a well-earned one). But I can’t say with a straight face anymore that Apple’s software is “more intuitive” or that things work “almost seamlessly,” which I used to feel wholeheartedly. I still think that, generally, an iPhone is a better purchase for normals than an Android phone, but I no longer feel confident that the ease of use of Apple’s software and services is a selling point.

But Arment’s assertion begs a question asked by John Gruber, who also has an answer:

If they’ve “lost the functional high ground”, who did they lose it to? I say no one.

And I have a different possible answer: Google. And I’m not talking about Android.

What is more intuitive, more familiar, to the general user than a web browser? The basic tenets of how a web browser works haven’t changed in 20 years. People know how to get their email, browse and share photos, and even do their office work in a web browser. And as time passes, more and more big processes and services are moving from standalone apps to the web. Major apps like Office and Photoshop now have near-fully-fuctioning web versions (while Apple’s web versions of its apps are stunted).

So if a consumer is looking for a hardware/software/service ecosystem that “just works,” the answer might be (and if not today, probably very soon) Chromebooks. I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience using one, but Chrome OS is more or less a web-browser-as-operating-system, where Google and other companies’ cloud services take care of all the storage and synchronization tasks, with little to no effort on the part of the user. Google’s services certainly aren’t foolproof or immune from failure, but they’re reliable enough that one never presumes there will be a problem. With Apple stuff of late, one goes in slightly flinching over what might not work.

And while I don’t include Android here, it can’t be denied that Android’s interconnectedness with Chrome OS gives Android a huge “it just works” leg up on iOS/OS X. Android’s problem is that it’s still too fiddly; too much customization is demanded from a general user. But that’s improving all the time. The back end synchronization is, in my experience, flawless.

In a recent piece at The Next Web, Wojtek Borowicz writes about the future of interfaces for our digital lives, beyond point-and-click and tap-and-swipe, and beyond icons and folders. He prophesies, “The interface of tomorrow will be dominated by cards, notifications and natural language communication.”

He elaborates:

To execute this vision, apps and platforms need to leverage intelligence and understand context of the user. The easy part is harvesting all kinds of data we’re providing computer systems with. The hard thing? Structuring this data, making sense of it, and turning it into features that go beyond pushing actionable notifications to the lock screen. The key is tailoring the experience for needs of the particular user. It requires knowledge about users almost on the level of intimacy.

No one is better positioned to do that than Google, whose Google Now and general context awareness is infused into every aspect of its services, while Siri lags behind as a useful but frustratingly limited bonus to owning an iOS device. Whatever happens after the web browser (the current and immediate-future “it just works”), Google alone has the underlying foundation of data and infrastructure to make real the next paradigm. That doesn’t mean they will, but they probably can. Apple could, but it would need to change some core aspects of its philosophy on matters such as privacy, openness to third parties, and perhaps complexity, at least in the short term.

And right now, they don’t seem to have the wherewithal to execute on the current paradigm, so a sea change is quite a ways off.

 


 

* For my part, it’s less about the problems with OS X, and more with the marquee Apple apps that run on it. Garageband, iMovie, iPhoto, and the iWork suite have all gotten worse, probably starting their decline around 2008. Just this week on the podcast The Rebound, the fellows get themselves on a track of fondly remembering the way iMovie ’06 worked (and I agree, it was excellent), and how the thinking behind the current generation of apps is mostly incomprehensible.

Whither the iPad? Oh, It’s Way Over There, Never Mind, I’ll Just Use My Phone.

IMG_0004Would it be a big deal to be sans tablet? Despite my 2015 tech-setup pronouncement the other day, I’m stuck on the idea that my phone, a 5.5″ phablet, covers most of a tablet’s territory, and I really hate having objects that are both expensive and redundant. Admittedly, this is the first-est of all first-world problems, but it’s a genuine question for those of us working out what tech devices we’re going to invest our money in, and live our very full electronic lives through.
I’ve already gushed about my LG G3, how it’s the right balance of ergonomics and display size, and how I find it a genuine delight to use. The problem is that I prefer using it for most of what I’d use an iPad for, primarily reading (be it blogs, books, or tweets). There are a handful of games that are better experienced on a much bigger screen (Monument Valley comes to mind), and browsing a website is easier on a tablet, but not so much so that I find myself seeking out the iPad when the phone’s already in hand.

Often, when I consider busting out the iPad for my lean-back (or “choose-to”) activities, like reading books, browsing RSS, or playing a game, I think, Why bother? It’s all the way over there, and my phone is right here. Whee! I love this phone!

Conversely, when inspiration strikes and I want to get some writing done and blow the Internet’s mind with my incredible depth of thought*, the easiest thing to do is grab the iPad and start tup-tup-tupping on its screen. But then I run into all the usual pains-in-the-ass that come with word processing and publishing on a tablet, where text selection and editing is harder (and ironically easier on the G3, which has a built in clip-tray for easy access to your clipboard history), multi-tasking is burdensome, and formatting posts (whether in a Markdown editor, WordPress’s app, a third party blogging app, or in the WordPress web interface) is unreliable and frustrating. There is less net-frustration by just popping open my Mac. The iPad is great for on-the-go writing in some ways, with its small profile and great battery, but again, not so great that it’s not almost as easy to just bring the MacBook, and maybe a charger too if I know I’ll be working for more than a few hours.

Where the iPad truly excels over other devices is things like comic book reading, casual video watching (stand the thing up in its case and hit play), and drawing on apps like Paper. Well, I still don’t really read comic books much, if not never, so that’s not such a big thing. I don’t watch much casual video, either, and when I do, I probably already have the TV to myself (because the wife has gone to bed and Gilmore Girls is no longer playing), and can even cast much of what might be playing on my phone over to the TV via the Roku. And there’s always the MacBook.

There’s no real solution to the drawing thing, unless I move from Paper to, well, paper. That seems to work for my kids, but who am I kidding.

So it seems like a clear case, doesn’t it, when you lay it all out? Sell the iPad and spend that money on something more useful like food, heat, or rent. (Hahahahahahahahaha)

But then remember that since 2008 I had been an iOS-only guy, which means a significant amount of money has been invested in iOS software over the years. Having no iPad would mean having no iOS device at all, and all of those apps would be useless. All those $5 games! Those $10 artisanal productivity apps! I once bought a $10 Pinboard app, and I don’t even use Pinboard anymore, in large part because it wasn’t tablet-friendly enough!!!

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Here we get into the whole sunk-cost fallacy (thanks, Matt), which I am particularly prone to falling for. I was one of the dummies who, in 2009, stood in line for a million years for the iPhone 3G when all of Apple’s systems crashed on launch day, and what would have been a couple of hours in the early morning turned into over 7 hours in the sweltering midday sun. But I’ve already been here for 3 hours, I can’t leave now! And it was for the iPhone 3G! The 3G! Not even one of the good ones!

Anyway, it’s not always clear to me that the sunk-cost fallacy is a fallacy at all. I mean, I did spend that money, I did invest that time and effort into familiarity and relative expertise with the system. And the iPad is not devoid of utility by any stretch of the imagination. I just need to give enough of a damn to use it.

But of course, needing to manufacture damn-giving is the exact opposite of my whole Theory of Tablets. They have be the device you want to use, that you choose to use even though you needn’t, in order to make sense. Otherwise, they’re just too-big phones or too-underpowered PCs.

It would be strange just on principle to not have a tablet, seeing as how zealously I’ve touted the iPad’s wonders in the past. And I can imagine myself with no trouble at all completely reversing myself within a day or so. I contain multitudes. Perhaps I’ll experiment with a tablet-free life, and simply put the iPad away for a couple of weeks, and see if I notice its absence. And of course, I would write about my experience here, because I know you really, really care.

Or, maybe I could buy a Chromebook.

*This never happens

Android Being a Profit Hole Sucks for Everybody

IMG_0406Android devices are apparently vacuuming money from device manufacturers. Uh oh. Here’s Ina Fried at Re/Code:

Analyst Chetan Sharma estimates that global profits in the Android hardware market for 2014 were down by half from the prior year — the first year that there has been any significant drop.

A lot of that is due to the big drop in profits at Samsung, the largest player in the Android market. China’s Xiaomi gained significant market share, but is only modestly profitable thanks to its slim margins. Meanwhile, other players like Sony and Motorola lost money in their Android-based mobile businesses.

That’s obviously of concern to the hardware companies, but it should also be worrisome for Google.

This should be worrisome to Google, but it’s also worrisome to me. As someone who uses and genuinely enjoys and appreciates both major mobile platforms, the idea that this whole Android thing might not be working out spooks me.

First off, a robust Android ecosystem forces Apple to compete and improve; it’s the bar Apple must clear to maintain its reputation as the best in the mobile space (and even I as a happy Android phone user can say that overall iPhone is the generally superior hardware platform for most normal users). iPhone/iOS gets better in large part because Apple works to provide a superior experience to Android – and note that it’s iPad that’s seen the least innovation, and there is no meaningful competition from Android in its price range (at lower price points there are some excellent Android tablets like the Fire series and Nexus 7, but Apple doesn’t play in that part of the market). With no strong Android ecosystem, Apple is free to navel-gaze…more than it already does. I want better iPhones, so I need manufacturers to make great Android phones.

Now, Google could pull an Amazon, and ramp up the manufacture of its own hardware, sold at more or less a loss. For Amazon, that gets more people shopping its store. For Google, loss-leader Android devices would put Google services in front of more people. But that’s a tall order for a company that’s not really a hardware company, and usually partners with myriad manufacturers to build its Nexus devices.

But there’s also tremendous value in the battle to stand out within the Android space. Motorola battling Samsung battling HTC battling LG spurs all of them to outdo each other. Sometimes you get clusterfuck devices as a result, other times you get brilliant pieces of tech, like my new beloved G3. A Nexus-only Android world would be in big danger of stultifying, save for competition with Apple, but that would likely become a software-only fight, where Google would have no choice but to sell cheap, uninspiring hardware. I want awesome Android phones, and that means Android phones need to be profitable to make.

So what’s going on? Is it simply a matter of insufficient numbers? Because it seems like devices like the HTC One M8 and the Moto X, while not selling at Samsung levels, ought to have been enough to be in the black. It seems that way, but obviously something is up. Is it that the flagship phones are profitable, but the glut of midrange bricks don’t pull their weight? Is it the other way around, where marketing power is thrown at high end devices, but all for nothing, when all the money is in cheap phones? Whatever it is, I hope they all figure it out.

And speaking of “cheap” and “flagships,” this makes me wonder: is OnePlus profitable? Answer: Yes, sort of, barely.

Shaking off Some of the Apple Fussiness

John Gruber has a running joke he used to tell on his podcasts, his Rules for Success on the Internet, meant to poke fun at himself and the folks in his circle. The rules were, paraphrased:

  1. Have a clicky keyboard
  2. Be fussy about coffee
  3. Own a Sodastream

It’s so amusing to me and his audience because it’s an acknowlegdement that he and his ilk have the luxury of having quirky predelictions about certain trivial things that, in their lives, seem so important. The coffee, for example, has to be made just so, with just such a convoluted method, with very particular beans, and never any sweeteners or cream of course.

Having now had more than a few trips outside of the Apple walled garden, the fussiness of the elite Apple consumer has become more and more apparent to me. In my own experience, based on my immersion in the various websites and podcasts and other media generated by various folks in and around the tech world, there seems to be a very strong correlation between the Apple user of at least moderate affluence and what I’ll carefully call a fetishization of fussiness, having all things just so.

This is actually a stock photo, but it's close enough to a fussy minimalist Apple person's workspace. That chair would never fly, though.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by that, and make clear that I don’t mean this pejoratively. Take a look at websites like Minimal Mac or Tools & Toys, or the kinds of things promoted by Gruber, Marco Arment, Craig Mod, Sean Blanc, and others (all of which I like very much!). To varying degrees they exhibit high levels of fussiness in things like design, tech products, office products, clothing, food, typesets, and so on. You’ll see images of nearly-empty desks, save for a single computer (a Mac), perhaps a keyboard, perhaps an iPad carefully propped up, an iPhone (not in a case) docked, and probably a moleskine notebook. There are likely wood tones surrounding the technology. Everything is just so. Each object has been embued with preciousness. Android phones are not to be spoken of.

I halfheartedly aspired to this kind of Cult of the Minimalist that many of these Apple fans seem to achieve and then relentlessly hone. For good reason: this demand for a level of quality and polish from the objects we use and the things we consume is, I think, a healthy thing. Fewer distractions, less noise, less disorder – these are all things worth pursuing. Toys can’t make happiness, but the things with which you surround yourself (and choose not to) can be steps on the way to peace. (Sometimes not, of course.)

But being a little more on the outside of the Apple universe (or, at least, travelling between it and other worlds), it becomes clear that the desire for this kind of peace-through-objects can itself be a source of stress. For one thing, one can’t possibly achieve the level of minimalist artisanal nirvana seen on many of these sites without a significant outlay of cash. Beautiful, well-made, precicely crafted objects, be they phones or desks or pens, are expensive. (So are good clacky keyboards and fuss-worthy coffee and its paraphernalia, though not really Sodastreams.) Living this life of pricy simplicity also takes time, effort, and discipline to achieve. Not everyone has the luxury, nor does everyone share those priorities.

Immersing myself in the Android world has been an awakening of sorts. As beautifully designed as many Android devices are these days, and as excellent an operating system Lollipop is (and it really is), the Android world is full of noise. Websites devoted to Android, or at least in that universe, are cacophonous, frequented not by minimalists, but by tinkerers and augmenters and reconstituters. Hardware is valued more for its potential for modification and raw power rather than its ability to place one in a zen state. It’s overwhelming to newcomers from Apple-land, but it’s also fun and daring and, frankly, a bit of a relief from all the fussiness.

After playing with a bunch of different Android devices, I had occasion to handle a few friends’ iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. They are gorgeous, no question; really solid, smooth, platonic ideals of future-looking objects. I was a little envious.

But not as much as I once would have been, because as much as I admire the iPhones 6, they now also seem a little too precious. I have a red Nexus 5, a phone that came out in the fall of 2013, and it’s all plastic with visible seams and sharp corners and an ugly micro-USB port, and I just adore it. And the wide variety of shapes and sizes and even design philosophies coming from different manufacturers is fun to explore and examine and experiment with. In comparison, the Apple/iOS world feels a little staid, stationary, and a touch stuffy.

And at the same time it seems smooth and peaceful and free of the need for superfluous futzing. Most of the decisions have been made for you, and that’s a nice thing a lot of the time.

But not all of the time!

My awful, terrible dock.

I like both worlds. I like the world of disorder and cobbling and staggering variety, the world that made it seem like a good idea for me to cobble this horrible-looking and probably very temporary phone dock out of an old broken iPhone dock, a USB cable, some wire tape, a small cardboard box, and some rocks (for weight). I also like the world of simplicity and focus and refinement, where only things made by Twelve South are allowed to touch your precious glass-and-aluminum talisman. I like the mess and the fuss. Neither is The Way it Ought to Be, they’re just both ways-to-be whenever it suits you. How great is that?