Apple is Both Tone Deaf and in Tune

Settle in as I express my deep disappointment at Apple, and then turn around and vigorously defend them on a totally separate point. On one issue, I find them being arbitrarily and arrogantly dismissive of an enormous proportion of their users, and on another, I find them  with what users need and want from a smartphone. They are simultaneously in tune and tone deaf. I know, it’s dizzying! Join me, won’t you?


Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via / CC BY

As you are no doubt aware, the newly-announced iPhone 7 and 7 Plus do not have standard headphone jacks. No reason they’ve offered up for this decision holds water to me, and the fact that Phil Schiller characterized the decision as an example of “courage” is simply laughable. There’s no feature or innovation of the iPhones 7 that, as far as I can tell, required nixing the headphone jack. And its presence wouldn’t have prevented them emphasizing Lightning port-connected or wireless headphones. They could still have included Lightning headphones in the box, if they really think they’re so much better than analogue headphones.

I know the term is becoming cliché, but ditching the headphone jack is user-hostile. iPhones, to be sure, are high-end luxury devices, and on paper you might presume that anyone who can afford one can certainly make a change to all-wireless or all-Lightning headphones without much pain. But we all know that freaking everyone has iPhones. With carrier subsidies and installment plans, iPhone owners span economic strata. People of all means, ages, and technical acumen own iPhones, and want to have the latest iPhones.

Headphones, meanwhile, are a real democratizing technology. Yes, there are high-end headphones that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and even “mid-range” headphones are out of reach for many consumers. But anyone can afford cheap earbuds and enjoy the audio on their phones. Companies like Panasonic make incredibly inexpensive and well-regarded headphones that anyone can buy and afford to replace if they get lost or break. Headphones can be had by anyone, and enable anyone to hear what their phone can produce.

Apple doesn’t care about that anymore. I know they included a Lightning-to-analogue adapter, but people will lose it. They included Lightning EarPods in the box, but those will also get lost or break. And millions and millions of people already own headphones they already like, and Apple’s decided that it doesn’t really matter. Headphones were the great equalizer for these astoundingly-great, expensive, high-end electronics. Not anymore, as far as Apple’s concerned, and I think that kind of sucks.

This is part of why this is not analogous to Apple’s rejection of previous computing standards, like their nixing of floppy drives from the iMac and the end of optical drives in latter-day MacBooks: the user-base of floppy and optical drives does not begin to approach the universality of analogue headphones. Excluding floppy and optical drives in computers effected a certain subset of consumers who 1) used computers, 2) used Macs, and 3) made regular use of those drives. That’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. On the other hand, we have the set if people who use iPhones (approximately 79 bazillion), and the subset of those who rely on the headphones jack (approximately all). It’s a failed analogy.


Photo credit: Luis Marina via / CC BY

Now, they have every right to change their product any way they choose, and the market can decide whether or not such a change is a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s wise or in keeping with the ethos I feel like they purport to be guided by.

Okay, now, take a breath, I am now going to defend Apple. Here’s the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo on the iPhone 7, who says “Apple’s aesthetics have grown stale.”

As competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic. …

… The bigger problem is an absence of delight. I recently checked in with several tech-pundit friends for their assessment of Apple’s aesthetic choices. “What was the last Apple design that really dazzled you?” I asked.

There was a small chorus of support for the MacBook, the beautifully tiny (if functionally flawed) laptop that Apple released last year. But most respondents were split between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 — two daring smartphone designs that were instantly recognized as surpassing anything else on the market.

Readers of this blog know that I have not been an iPhone user since the 5S, and have happily been in the land of Android…almost too happy. So I have no brand-identity motivation to defend Apple’s choices. (I mean, I just got finished crapping all over them, so.)

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of hand-wringing over the fact that the iPhone hasn’t changed in its broader design over three product generations. I shared some of this feeling for a while, wondering why Apple hadn’t been going out of its way to blow us all away with some delightful new novelty in phone design. But now I think I get it.

What’s a smartphone, really? It’s a computer with a touch display, meant to be held in the hand. There are theoretically any number of ways one could approach coming up with a form factor for such a device, but particularly when you’re talking about something so utterly ubiquitous as an iPhone, there’s not a lot of wiggle room left after you get down to “thin rounded rectangle.”

Now, I adore some of the more novel smartphone designs of many Android phones. I thought the LG G4 was surprisingly wonderful with its leather back and ever-so-slightly curved screen; Motorola’s 2014/2015 aesthetic with sloping backs, rear “dimples,” and metallic edges I thought was delightfully striking; the Nextbit Robin is beautifully quirky and industrial; and of course Samsung’s current line of Galaxy S and Note devices are almost jewel-like. They’re all great.

But the current iPhone design is great, too. I’ll admit, I at first was a little underwhelmed by the look of the 6-era iPhones when they were introduced. But hold a 6/6S Plus in your hand (without a case) and the cold, smooth feel of it is startling. You almost feel like you shouldn’t be trusted with something like it. Before we switched carriers, my wife had the black iPhone 6-regular, and I was jealous of it. Not for its software experience, but just for that shape and that color.

But even if I hadn’t personally found the iPhone design so evocative and attractive, the market has spoken, and it has said loud and clear with the chorus of tens of millions of voices, “This design is great.” People like the shape and feel of iPhones as they are now.

And that design also just works. People find it sufficiently ergonomic, and the basic form factor allows Apple to put into the phone what it feels like it has to (at least up until its rebuff of the 1/8″ aux port). You know what that also sounds like? Computers. Which the iPhone is, by the way.

Look at Apple’s MacBooks. They fiddle around the edges of the design, but all in all, their laptops have looked more or less the same since 2001. The biggest shift in design was the MacBook Air which morphed to the current-day suffix-less MacBook, and that’s been consistent since 2011. This is because those forms work really, really well and also happen to look really good. And really, the entire laptop industry is essentially made up of products that are variations on screen-that-folds-down-on-keyboard. I mean, tablets haven’t been able to meaningfully hurt laptops because it turns out that the platonic laptop form is just about right.

Here’s more from the Manjoo piece:

The company says it does not change its designs just for the sake of change; the current iPhone design, which debuted in 2014, has sold hundreds of millions of units, so why mess with success? In a video accompanying the iPhone 7 unveiling on Wednesday, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, called the device the “most deliberate evolution” of its design vision for the smartphone.

As much as I have been rolling my eyes at the grand pronouncements of Jonny Ive of late, I agree with him here. The design is deliberate, not the result of a lack of vision. They got it right in 2014, right for the market as it exists. To interpret the fact that they didn’t totally overhaul the iPhone form (perhaps a sphere? or something like this?) as a lack of vision or chops is, I think, short-sighted, and probably a symptom of focusing on a relatively new device category as it starts to mature.

I think it’s enough that each new phone released by any manufacturer is better than its predecessor. There are a lot of ways to be “better,” and only one of them is cosmetically.

And shit, you’re just going to put a case on it anyway.

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Oh No, Not OLED

It is being reported that Apple will begin to use OLED displays in an upcoming iPhone generation, as opposed to the IPS LCDs it has always used. And I’m not at all happy about this.

I’m not an iPhone user at the moment, so in the near-term I don’t really care what Apple does to its phones. But it can’t be denied that anything significant that Apple does with its most important product will likely be aped by most other manufacturers, if they aren’t already doing the same thing.

And the problem is that I seem to have some sort of ocular allergy to OLED. Throughout my Year of Phones, several of the units I tried out had AMOLED or Super AMOLED displays, and I recently spent some time with a Dell Venue 8 7000 tablet, which is OLED. And with only one exception, all of the OLED devices gave me headaches when looking at them for more than a few minutes. Indeed, I feel the strain on my eyes almost immediately.

I have no solid explanation for why this is so. OLED devices with which I’ve had significant experience, Notes 4 and 5 and the Venue 8, while they are truly excellent, each gave me the same problem. I thought perhaps that there might be some difference between Samsung’s proprietary “Super AMOLED” and Dell’s vanilla “OLED,” but no. They both produced the same effect.

And no settings-tweaking helped. Lowering the brightness, lowering the saturation level, adjusting hues, nothing mattered.

Some folks in forums have speculated to me that this has to do with an imperceptible “flicker” that OLED displays produce and LCDs don’t, but that’s just a guess from a few people who are otherwise as stumped by this as I am.

There was one exception, however, the Nexus 6, the device with which I had a stormy relationship. That has a Quad-HD AMOLED display just like the Notes 4 and 5, and yet with all the problems and delights I had with that device, I don’t recall headaches being an issue at all. I have no idea why.

On the flip side are LCD displays, like that on my beloved LG G4, and on every iPhone and iPad ever. I have never had any problem gawking at iDevice screens for hours on end, and my G4 Quad-HD LCD display is so lovely I can sometimes hardly believe it.

Also, I’ve seen far more problems with OLED displays than LCDs. This is anecdotal experience, of course, but on OLED screens I see far more burn-in, ghosting, dark spots, dead pixels, and the like. I do know that it’s currently a fact that they degrade more quickly than LCDs. They seem, from my personal experience, to be far less reliable.

But now Apple will, well, saturate the market with OLED, making it the new normal. OLED displays, at their best, are far more eye-catching and rich than most LCDs (though the G4’s is right up there), so they have obvious appeal. But if they are less reliable, why would Apple commit to them so wholeheartedly?

Boy Genius Reports speculates that Apple is prepared for OLED’s degradation problem, saying, “It stands to reason that Apple is confident that the aforementioned drawbacks can and will be addressed in the years ahead.” But I don’t think that needs to be true at all. Apple has already introduced its own leasing program so that folks can get new a new iPhone model every year, so we know that Apple very much wants to push regular consumers to upgrade at a rate that’s high even for many tech enthusiasts. If they’re confident that an enormous number of their users are going to get rid of their phones after a year anyway, why should they care if the OLED displays start to lose their “oomph”? You’re buying the new one anyway.

But what this all means for me (which is what this is really about, remember) is that the best phones on the market in the coming years will all be OLED in one way or another, which means that, unless they change something as-yet-undiagnosed in the displays or my eyeballs, I will be squinting in agony at the objects I would otherwise hold most dear. It’s like an Van Gogh devotee who gets a small electric shock whenever they look at one of his paintings.

There is still the anomaly of the Nexus 6. Perhaps there’s something in the way its display was made that holds the answer. Or perhaps LG will continue to improve its LCD displays to the point where it’ll be clear that it’s the better alternative.

But with my luck? I’m going to need a new drug.

“Apple Released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung Phone.”

Photo credit: Brett Jordan / Foter / CC BY
Summing up the latest Apple event in which a slew of new products were introduced, including a giant-ass iPad, a better Apple TV (low bar), and new iPhones–6 with some odd gimmicks in them. The Verge’s Nilay Patel said on Periscope (and I’m paraphrasing), “Today, Apple released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung phone.”

And yeah, they kinda did. I think that’s fine, though, I’m not one of those folks who think Apple or any other company has to be 100% original with every product they produce. I’m glad they rip each other off and learn from each other’s good ideas. It makes all the products, in the aggregate, better.

That said, Patel’s joke was funny because it was largely true. The iPad Pro is Apple’s answer to the Microsoft Surface, which, despite some genuine confusion of what it was for, now seems to be a well regarded device for folks in particular fields and with particular needs. (Anecdotally, I’ve seen a number of them with college students who get a lot out of the tablet-PC combo as well as the stylus.) I’m glad they copied the Surface! Since the Surface was introduced, I hoped Apple would make something like it, and they finally have. I’m glad they took the stylus as an input device very seriously. Is any of this any good? Who knows.

I do know one thing: It’s way too goddamned expensive for me. Baseline $800 without the stylus or keyboard cover, which kick you over $1000. Nope. I’m sure that’s very worthwhile to a great many people, but not me. Halve that, and I’d consider it.

(Kyle Wagner at The Concourse writes of the tablet-PC combo: “I have no idea why you’d try to marry the two, outside of blithe cowing to other people’s dumbass ideas. It is profoundly dumb. They will sell 500 million of these.”)

The Apple TV looks nice. And it does a lot of things other folks already do, but probably very well. That’s about it.

And then the phones, the iPhones 6S and 6S Plus. The big changes here are “3D Touch” and “Live Photos.” Until I use one of these devices myself it’s impossible to know just how useful or interesting either of these new features is, but I’m a tad skeptical. 3D Touch, where additional information can be gleaned about something on screen by pressing harder on it. I’m less interested in the hardware aspect of this, where the device knows how hard you’re pressing, and more interested in the UI side, where the user can now “peek” underneath things, or get quick access to actions or items without opening a full app. That could be pretty cool if done well. Will it be? I thought Apple had answered my prayers when they added third-party keyboards to iOS, but they turned out to mostly do it poorly, so who can say.

Live Photos strikes me as the Samsung-y move here, a kind of Harry Potter move where a photo also gets a bit of video recorded around it. It’s cute, no doubt, and will probably yield a few cool items, especially with kids. But Google, of course, auto-animates a series of photos into GIFs, which is similar in idea but very different in the actual output. And other Android manufacturers have had the photo-as-short-video feature before and no one really cared, including me.

(I’ll have more to say about the ups and downs of Samsung’s approach to iteration in another post.)

So it’s not a reason to buy a phone. Neither is the 3D Touch for that matter. But Apple will expect you to, and chances are, “you” (meaning the general smartphone consumer) will.

So, yes, Apple is (finally?) doing some of the things its competitors have done, and it pretended not to be interested in (like the stylus). That’s good, and they’ll likely do it very well, it’s all in the execution for them, as Josh Topolsky wrote at The New Yorker (I know, I was surprised to see him there, too):

That’s part of the reason why Apple’s “me-toos” end up feeling like “me-firsts.” In the age of digital, execution is staggeringly important, and there isn’t a single company in existence that can pull off polish and simplicity like Apple. While other companies struggle just to get all of their devices and services talking to one another, Tim Cook and friends are worrying over the details that actually make consumers pay attention. The products don’t just work the way they should; they feel the way they should. Reducing friction, even a single click, can change the way a user perceives an entire product.

Yes, but! I’m not so sure Apple is all-in on “execution” like it used to be. If it were, Apple Music wouldn’t be driving people nuts, iTunes wouldn’t be a software shitshow, and the new generations of iPhones wouldn’t start at 16GB. That’s right, those “Live Photos” you’re taking, those iTunes movies you’re downloading, and that 4K video you’re shooting will have more or less no room on that expensive new device. Matthew Yglesias gets why this is a huge mistake, because it sacrifices the quality of experience for short-term monetary gain, which it doesn’t even need:

Killing the 16GB phone and replacing it with a 32GB model at the low end would obtain things money can’t buy — satisfied customers, positive press coverage, goodwill, a reputation for true commitment to excellence, and a demonstrated focus on the long term. A company in Apple’s enviable position ought to be pushing the envelop forward on what’s considered an acceptable baseline for outfitting a modern digital device, not squeezing extra pennies out of customers for no real reason.

The fact that this is still around shows a degree of cynicism and greed that should worry the Apple faithful. As more of a Reformed Apple-ist, I can appreciate and wonder at how well they’ve executed on so many things. But I can also take a step back and ask if they really sweat the details like they say they do. Not giving customers a sufficiently capable device is a big detail to miss.

Magical Thinking Won’t Make the iPad Rise Again

Photo credit: plynoi / Foter / CC BY-NC
A few months ago I made the case that iPads and tablets generally were a product category in crisis. Ever-larger and more powerful phones with ever-slimmer, lighter, and simply more pleasant laptops means that the use-case for tablets severely dwindles. And I say this as a genuine fan of tablets, but also as someone who no longer owns one because of their functional redundancy.

A few days ago, Neil Cybart at Above Avalon, an Apple analysis site, made more or less the same case, but focused as much on sales numbers as on use-cases. (I’m maybe a little peeved that my post was ignored and this one is getting serious attention from the tech punditocracy, but I’m nobody, so whatever.) Cybart emphasizes how tablets are primarily used for watching video, and therefore don’t require frequent upgrades or high-end hardware.

He’s right. They are mostly passive devices, thin little TVs. They are largely not being used for high-end productivity or for the advancement of the humanities. Of course there are exceptions, as power users can certainly make incredible use of tablets, but the mass market is buying them to watch Netflix, check Facebook, and look at the email they don’t want to respond to.

Where I differ from Cybart is in his vision for iPad success and growth:

By selling a device that is truly designed from the ground-up with content creation in mind, the iPad line can regain a level of relevancy that it has lost over the past few years. In every instance where the iPad is languishing in education and enterprise, a larger iPad with a 12.9-inch, Force Touch-enabled screen would carry more potential.

He goes on to lay out potential use-cases in education, enterprise, and general consumer computing, all of which hinge on Apple heavily focusing on making it easier to manage and juggle multiple applications and windows, and more pleasant and ergonomic to type.

I think he’s wrong. I think this particular vision is an example of a kind of Apple-is-magic thinking in which Apple grudgingly stuffs complex functionality into the constricting parameters of its platonic ideal of a “simple” computing device. Geeks like me cheered when Apple added things like third-party keyboards and improved sharing capabilities to iOS, but many (including me) quickly grew frustrated as it became clear that Apple’s efforts were kludgy, a series of half-realized solutions that prioritized Apple’s sense of preciousness over consistent usability.

I feel like this is what Cybart is asking for when he prescribes these more powerful capabilities for a hypothetical iPad Plus or iPad Pro. Barring unforeseeable and massive leaps in input and UI technology, even a big, powerful iPad will remain a rectangle displaying pixels, used by two-handed primates with 10 digits. There’s only so much complexity, and so much productivity, such a thing could ever realize. We’ve almost certainly not seen tablets hit a ceiling in terms of what degree of productivity they can eke out, but I bet we’re damned close.

(And for that matter, why is it so important to envision scenarios of revived success for iPads at all? Why be invested in this? Could it be because some of us are more concerned with identities as Apple aficionados than we are with actually having the best devices for a given need?)

Meanwhile, high-end, slim laptops get lighter and nicer to use, and still maintain all the functionality we’ve been conditioned to expect from PCs. You don’t have to connect a Bluetooth keyboard, you don’t have to buy a stand or a special case to do any of it. You just open your laptop, and there’s your screen, keyboard, and trackpad. And lots of laptops also allow for touch input, in case you really want that too. Even though it’s a more or less “old” idea by technology standards, it’s damned convenient when you think about it.

Phones are getting bigger, with higher-resolution displays, and as I just noted, more and more they’re even being used to read books. They’re great for video watching (as are laptops), for games, for checking Facebook, and for ignoring emails (as are laptops). Oh, and it’s already in your pocket or bag, and goes everywhere with you. No tablet needed. When people derided the first iPad as “a big iPhone,” it turns out that’s really what people wanted, not a replacement for their PC, but a bigger phone.

But even if we assume that iPads will reach the kind of functional threshold that Cybart predicts, they’d still have to be better suited for productivity than laptops, which they can’t be, and perhaps more importantly, be demonstrably better than things like high-quality Chromebooks and Chromebases that can deliver most or all of the features and conveniences of laptops and tablets, including touchscreens.

Chrome-based devices, I think, are the products that are truly on the verge of breaking through to mass adoption in the very areas Cybart sees as fruitful for the iPad. Cheap Chromebooks are already growing in education, and as they become more obviously of a higher quality, there’s no reason to think they won’t make inroads into the consumer and enterprise spaces. And perhaps the biggest irony there, with Chrome more or less being a browser, is that they’ll be simpler to implement and use than an iPad. That’s not the Apple narrative, Apple is always supposed to be simpler and more intuitive, but I think it’s easy to see that their devotion to simple-as-defined-by-us has largely just made things clunkier for their products.

I should note that I really do love iPads and tablets. I certainly wouldn’t turn one down. They’re often pleasant to use, beautifully made, and convenient.

Just not enough to keep dropping over $500 on them. Maybe once, and then not again for a long, long time. (I got my wife an iPad Air for Christmas, and she was happy but a little confused because her old iPad 3 was more than fine for her.) I don’t think Apple finding a way to snap two apps’ windows together on the screen, or vibrating under your fingers, is going to change any of that.

The Diminishing Returns of Flagship Phones During the Mid-Range Renaissance

Moto X Style, image by Motorola.

I gotta say, I’m not so sure there’s much reason these days to buy a phone that retails (unsubsidized) for more than $600. Merely a year or so ago, I wouldn’t have said this, as the most well-regarded and reliable phones were those such as the HTC One M8, the Galaxy Note 4, the LG G3, the Nexus 6, and of course the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. All of them came out at prices over $600, and reached into the realms of $800–1000.

There were exceptions in the flagship realm: the 2014 Moto X was just under $600, and the OnePlus One blew minds at the low price of $350 or so – that is, if you could actually get one. The Nexus 5 was technically a 2013 phone, but at about the same price at the OnePlus One, remained a strong contender.

But generally, unless you wanted to take a chance on a crazy “flagship killer” with hit-or-miss service and a decent chance for receiving a lemon, or you were okay with using a year-old device, you had to spend at least $500, but more likely closer to $700 or $800, if you wanted a solid, well-made device. Goddamn that’s a lot of money.

But today? While the current crop of high-end flagships are great, they’re not so much greater than the new middle-range, which is in the midst of some kind of sudden renaissance, to make the extra few hundred dollars worth it for the general customer.

I recently wrote that last year’s flagship phones are usually a better bet than a current-generation mid-ranger, but that truism has been exploded entirely with a slate of recent announcements. Last week, Motorola announced its new flagship, the Moto X Pure Edition (or “Style”), which will start at $400, a hundred less than last year. (It’s also got a new Moto G, which competes competently for under $200!) OnePlus has a new Two, which is only a little more expensive than its last phone, under $400. Asus has its Zenfone 2 at $300, and Alcatel has its Idol 3 at $250, both of which have been widely heralded as excellent, far exceeding the expectations set by their prices.

The LG G4 looks gorgeous. The upcoming Note 5 will certainly be a powerhouse. The Galaxy S6 has a screen so gorgeous I could just die. And so on. But for most people, there’s almost no reason to get any of them instead of one of the sub-$500 phones in the previous paragraph.

Here are the exceptions: General consumers who simply can’t be bothered to learn something new, who will be so flummoxed by anything that’s not iOS, or are utterly entrenched beyond all measure into the Apple ecosystem (or just spent an enormous amount of money on an Apple Watch), they should still get an iPhone. They’re amazing, they’re beautiful, and are far more than the sum of their specs. (I played with a 6 Plus the other day, and I swear, its display seems sharper and appears bigger than it actually is. It’s a marvel.) But a lot of folks who think they fall into that easily-flummoxed category would actually be just fine with the stock-Android experience offered by something like a Moto X or Moto G. We still don’t know what the next Nexus (or Nexi) will be or how much it will cost, but if it goes the 2013 Nexus 5 route, it will also be an easy recommendation for this crowd.

Also, those who have a specific need for high-quality stylus work, clearly you’ll want the Note. (Though the Note 4 will remain a kickass phone well into the next year, so I’m not so sure how necessary the 5 will be, but we’ll see.) If you must have the absolute best camera possible on a smartphone, get an iPhone, a Galaxy S6, or an LG G4. By all means!

But for everyone else, I am becoming convinced that spending the additional $300 or $400 one would spend on a high-end flagship will yield ever-diminishing returns. Manufacturers are getting better at what they do, understandings of software interface and optimization are improving, technology is advancing, and the general consumer who needs an excellent phone simply doesn’t have to drop a fortune to own one outright. Whether or not they’re usually iPhone people, now’s a great time to doff the high end, save some cash, and still be happy.

Unaligned Ports, Unhinged Punditry

I really respect Rene Ritchie at iMore. He’s a great reporter, an eloquent writer, and has a nuanced perspective of the larger tech world that few in the tech blogosphere even aspire to, let alone achieve. He really understands not just the technology, but how real human beings, the “normals,” use technology. Check out his review of the iPad Air from 2013, which I remember as one of the best tech reviews I’d read in a long time (and I told him so over Twitter). And overall, iMore is a very good site staffed with talented folks and stuffed with useful information on all things Apple. (I’m also a devoted MacBreak Weekly fan, on which he is a host.)
You know there’s a big “but” coming, right?

He has a piece that exemplifies for me the worst excesses of Apple apologetics, lauding Apple for centering and aligning the ports and speaker grill at the bottom of the iPhone 6 (which is fine), and shaking his head at Samsung for only centering but not aligning them at the bottom of the Galaxy S6.

Ritchie says:

Some people might not care. Like painting the back of the fence or finishing the underside of the cabinet, it’s a detail that only people who take tremendous pride in craft really care about. And, of course, people who look for just exactly that kind of quality.

That’s because it takes an incredible amount of time and resources to achieve it. It takes an incredible amount of planning and coordination as well. It also takes the willingness to not do something if you feel doing it right is important enough.

To align everything along the edge of a device takes designing and mounting the boards in a certain way, and the ports and speakers, and the buttons and jacks, and the grills and every other detail so they all line up at exactly the right place at the end. Painstaking is likely an understatement.

… [O]nce you know the back of the fence wasn’t painted, not only can you never un-know it, you can never stop wondering what else wasn’t given that same care and consideration.

The principle he’s talking about is totally sound. That attention to even the tiniest detail is also why I love Apple products. But this is off the deep end. The perfect-center-alignment that Ritchie is looking for is a matter of taste, and it’s entirely subjective as to whether it matters or is indicative of anything. To Apple’s designers, and to him, aligning everything that way is pleasing and worthwhile, and so they go to painstaking effort to achieve it. Samsung’s folks probably don’t feel the same way about that kind of symmetry. Or they do, and just made the choice to allocate their time and energy to other things.

It’s a fallacy to presume that this was an oversight or neglect on Samsung’s part, and not a mere difference of priorities. The Galaxy line, while not to my own aesthetic tastes, has obviously delighted many, many people with the choices Samsung has made. They like the things Samsung said “yes” to, such as the curved screen on the Edge model, the glass on the front and back, the superior camera, etc. Some of those same people are less than delighted by their decision to say “no” to a removable battery, for example, but I can bet that their delight is unhindered by Samsung’s saying “no” to utter pan-dimensional symmetry in the ports.

This kind of nit-pickery frustrates me, not just because it seems a bit silly, but it’s part of an attitude that implies not just an aesthetic but an almost moral superiority for one design approach over another. I know that this is not Ritchie’s intent by any means, but his piece feeds into this morass of a zeitgeist among Apple pundits that creates a perception of snobbery, whether fair or not, that turns so many off. I love Apple stuff, but I am woozy from it.

Samsung’s designs are not for me, and I do indeed vastly prefer Apple’s sensibilities to Samsung’s, but I also recognize that this is just a subjective preference, and does not imply that I am therefore a better person or smarter user of technology. I think, for example, Motorola’s designs of late for the Moto X and Nexus 6 have been just as striking as Apple’s.

Just in case, I checked to see if my Nexus 6 is “aligned” to Apple standards, and while the power and volume buttons on the side are indeed aligned, the headphone jack is not aligned with the SIM card tray on the top. So obviously, it’s junk, right? As a very happy user of this phone, I clearly don’t know enough to make my own technology decisions, and Motorola and Google obviously don’t care about design or their customers.

And I’m sure their fences are disgusting.

My grossly unaligned Nexus 6. The horror.

UPDATE: My friend Justin Sapp (designer of this site’s banner), made this for me. Enjoy:



This we know to be true: I have something of an unhealthy enthusiasm for gadgets, currently focused on smartphones. (Sometimes it’s tablets, though not now, sometimes headphones, and it goes on.) When I find the one I like, it becomes a rather precious thing to me.
Remember when I was without a mobile device for a whole day a couple months ago? I didn’t do well.

A few days ago, a tripped while attending to a whining child at the breakfast table, at which point my Galaxy Note 4 flew from my hand, and though it was in a very good case, landed screen-first onto the rim of a cereal bowl. Though the bowl had some milk in it, there appeared to be no liquid damage (time may tell otherwise). But, alas, there was a chip in the glass of the screen.

A tiny, tiny, wee chip.

My wife couldn’t even see it herself without help from me to point it out.

But I couldn’t bear it. The phone was very expensive, and I’d sold three other devices to afford it: my previous phone, an iPad and a Kindle. I’d only had it a few weeks. I kept it in a chunky Speck case to minimize any chance of accidental damage.

But I never liked screen protectors. I may be changing my position on them.

So there was that chip. That tiny, tiny chip. Not a scratch, mind you, not a thin line, but a small piece of the glass, now gone. A tiny, tiny piece that many would probably not even notice.

But I noticed. Always noticed. My eyes were always drawn to it. I see you there, distorting and discoloring the underlying pixels into a rainbow of pain. I see you there.

So I’ve sent the phone away to be repaired. (All the local repair places only do iPhones. All of them!)

Because I need some kind of phone for work and keeping in touch with my wife throughout the day, I was able to borrow an old, abandoned iPhone 4S from my wife’s uncle. The WiFi on it doesn’t work, but whatever.

Photo on 3-9-15 at 3.18 PMAnd it’s so small. When I had my own 4S back in 2011, I adored it. It was my favorite device ever. When the iPhone 5 came out, I thought it was a little too big.

Times have changed. The 4S now seems comically miniscule. It’s like a Fisher-Price phone. It’s small enough to be my Apple Watch that actually does useful things. And since the WiFi doesn’t work on it anyway, I’m using it as little as possible, only when necessary.

So without a tablet, without an e-reader, and without a phone I get any pleasure from using, I’m experiencing what I have to admit is a kind of withdrawal. I’m refreshing status update pages obsessively. I’m bemoaning my state on Twitter ad nauseam. I’m twitching.

How long will this take? According to FedEx, as of this writing, my phone hasn’t even yet arrived at its place of repair. Then days for it to be evaluated and fixed. That’s assuming they have the parts they need. It could be days for them to order and then recieve the parts. Then a couple more days to be shipped back.

All this for a tiny, tiny chip in the glass.

I don’t know if I’ll make it.

I’m told they once printed books on paper, bound into a kind of codex. I may explore that as a stop-gap.

I should say that my 5-year-old son, unbidden, and based solely on his perceiving my disquiet, offered me the use of his Fire HD 6 tablet “whenever you want.” He’s such an angel.