Nov 13

Apple & the art of blowing things up

Many cool things appeared at Apple’s most recent product unveiling: new iPads, Mac Pro, OS X Mavericks and more.

But then a number of things disappeared as well — like a long list of features in the iWork apps.

Depending on one’s willingness to drink the juice, reactions ranged from mild annoyance to utter disbelief. It was either an unavoidable step toward a better future or an unforgivable slap in the face.

But — if you squint your eyes a bit, you’ll actually see this development as one more reason to feel good about Apple.

Good grief Ken. Could you possibly be more of an apologist fanboy?

I knew you’d say that. Especially since I myself couldn’t resist grousing about the missing features in Pages just a couple of weeks ago. Continue reading →

Nov 12

The great skeuomorphism misunderstanding

No, I’m not quite ready to let the skeuomorphism thing die just yet. Humor me.

I was relieved that Tim Cook dismissed Scott Forstall and put Jony Ive in charge of Human Interface.

I was surprised when I read so many articles that seemed to misinterpret what had just happened.

I lost count of the articles proclaiming the death of skeuomorphism. Such as:

Skeuomorphism is (finally) dead: So what is Apple’s next move? and Jonathan Ive to rid skeumorphism in iOS and OS X.

News flash: skeuomorphism is not dead. What’s dead are cheesy, antiquated graphics — like the stitched leather look in Contacts and Calendar. These were aberrations in a world that had been built upon good taste. Continue reading →

Oct 12

Jony Ive to the rescue!

I’ve never been a fan of the cheesy leather stitching that’s crept into OS X and iOS 6.

Actually, let me rephrase that:

I loathe it.

It’s not like I’m alone. I’ve never had a problem finding people equally repelled. Many in the design community have openly expressed their contempt.

This is the “skeuomorphism” issue that has reportedly been a point of dissension inside Apple between the Scott Forstall and Jony Ive camps. Should apps be designed to look like their real-world counterparts?

It’s one thing to create a skeuomorphic theme for an app. It’s quite another to create one that dates back to ancient times. I’ve never had a “desk blotter” calendar. Maybe my father did. Certainly no one under 40 can relate to it.

And what is it about the Find My Friends app that deserves the leather stitched treatment? Continue reading →

Aug 11

How firing Steve Jobs saved Apple

I think it’s safe to say that Apple’s success story has now grown to mythic proportions.

And it deserves every bit of its myth-hood: two guys in a garage start a computer company that grows to become the most valuable company on earth. (Well, it will be soon. Move over, ExxonMobil.)

Every good legend has its heroes and villains. Playing the role of villains in this tale would be John Sculley and the Apple board for being so dumb as to actually fire Steve in 1985, setting off the company’s great decline. Steve’s return 12 years later — and subsequent astronomical success of the company — proves what a boneheaded move that was, right?

Steve’s buddy Larry Ellison sure thinks so. Commenting on HP’s firing of its CEO last year, Larry said, “The HP board just made the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs  many years ago. That decision nearly destroyed Apple and would have if Steve hadn’t come back and saved them.”

Even John Sculley, master conspirator, now says it was a mistake to drive Steve away.

Well, not so fast, fellas. Steve’s firing is actually the reason Apple rules the world today — though admittedly, the players could not have foreseen this at the time.

Steve was pushed out because, brilliant as he was, he wasn’t all that brilliant on the business side. He was costing the company a ton of money. There was a legitimate fear that if he didn’t leave, he’d literally run the company into the ground. It was heart-wrenching, but out he went.

In exile, Steve founded NeXT Computer, Inc. NeXT was an exciting new venture for him, but it was also humbling. He didn’t have zillions of dollars to burn, so he had to court investors like Ross Perot and Canon. Financially, NeXT was a constant struggle.

This was Steve’s remedial course in Business 101. Obviously he’d learned a ton by building Apple, but NeXT taught him new levels of responsibility. Now, in a world filled with computer companies, he was going to build a new one from scratch. He’d have to stretch budgets to keep innovating through the dark times. He’d have to keep employees happy and inspired. He’d have to create new partnerships. Steve’s business skills improved immensely as a result.

With NeXT, Steve would experience something he’d never really known before: failure. At least failure in the sense that his beautiful new computer didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The press paid attention, but they wrote about a struggling NeXT, not a smashing new success. At some point, Steve would be forced to give up on the hardware and concentrate on what really made NeXT special: its software.

And so, when Apple found itself floundering, desperately in need of a new direction for the Mac OS, they bought NeXT. This gave them the technology to build Mac OS X, and it also brought Steve Jobs home — a more mature, business-savvy, fire-tested Steve Jobs than had ever walked the halls of Apple before.

If Apple hadn’t sent Steve into exile in 1985, there would have been no NeXT. Mac OS X would have been very, very different. And Steve himself would have been very, very different.

You only have to listen to Steve to appreciate how this experience changed him. In his speech at Stanford’s commencement in 2008, he said:

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Things worked out pretty well for Steve personally too. It was while at NeXT that he met his wife and started a family.

And so, a hearty thank-you to John Sculley and the Apple board for chasing away the one man who could save the company. In the process, you set the wheels in motion to re-create the company — and re-create the man.

Aug 11

The hidden message in Lion

Look a little closer at Lion and you’ll see a secret message from the highest levels of Apple:

During previous medical leaves, Steve was still running the show. This time, he’s stepped back to allow others a larger role. Get used to it.

Honestly, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion when (A) Steve has always been intimately involved in approving the design and function of OS X, and (B) a few of the more visible decisions in Lion look nothing like the Steve we know.

After using Lion for a couple of weeks, three apps in particular make me miss Steve’s touch:

1. iCal. Not to beat this dead horse (see earlier post), but the design sense of the new iCal is just totally out of character for an OS that otherwise defines elegance and simplicity. Steve is a purist. He doesn’t compromise. He sends designers back to the drawing board over and over until they get it just right. This is purely a design decision — and it looks like someone else’s decision.

2. Address Book. This app suffers a double whammy. It shares iCal’s design tackiness, then ups the ante by taking a leap backwards in functionality. We used to see everything Address Book had to offer — individuals, groups and contact info — within a single view. Now we have to jump back and forth between views to see it all. Totally unnecessary over-design. Totally not Steve.

3. Launchpad. This is a beautiful idea, only half-baked. Maybe even quarter-baked. Launchpad automatically configures itself with icons for every app and utility in your computer — including apps you’ll never use and apps you didn’t know you had. I don’t consider myself an app junkie, and my icons numbered over 200. A total mess. But it gets even worse: if you delete an icon, you delete the app itself. (Fine for apps you’ve purchased from the App Store, which can be re-downloaded — unacceptable for apps you’ve purchased elsewhere.) If you want to tidy up, good luck. You can delete icons of apps purchased from the App Store (which deletes the app as well), but Lion won’t let you delete the icons of apps you bought elsewhere. Fortunately, there’s a perfect little free utility called LaunchpadCleaner that allows you to get rid of icons without trashing your apps. I used it and deleted 179 icons that were making Launchpad unusable. How could Apple possibly offer Launchpad without this kind of functionality built in? Likely because someone else was playing the role of Steve for this performance.

Between his current medical leave and the fact that one day (hopefully far, far in the future) it is inevitable that he steps down as CEO, Steve would be irresponsible not to be transitioning certain responsibilities to others.

So this isn’t a criticism as much as it is an observation. Steve-level perfection can only be expected when Steve himself is making the decisions. Talent runs deep at Apple, but different people will see things a bit differently — and their decisions will sometimes raise our eyebrows. Lion is our sneak preview.

Put a little more Steve in your Lion: To strip iCal of its leather, go here. To do the same for Address Book, go here. To easily configure Launchpad, go here.