On Grieving for the Famous

Two quick things about reactions to Steve Jobs’s passing:

1. Bill Gates would get a much bigger outpouring if he were to pass away under similar circumstances than people think. It would just be of a completely different character because the only people connecting emotionally to what Gates did would be reacting to his philanthropy and his business success. They might overlap strongly with the people who continue to fail to get why Apple did so well after Jobs’s return and attribute his success to showmanship and marketing. The reason is that nobody connects emotionally to any of Gates’s technical work. Nobody loves Windows. And fewer hate Windows than old Mac partisans would like to believe. But legions love and hate the iPhone, iPod, iPad, or the Mac. If you don’t understand the difference, I can’t teach you in this post.

2. Dave Winer complaining that Steve Jobs is viewed too nicely in his bio is like Mubarak complaining that Lenin is viewed too nicely in bios. It may be true, but just because you’re gonna be a footnote in history doesn’t make you not an asshole, too. Hey, at least you’re a footnote: I haven’t even achieved that. And maybe you’re like Jobs at NeXT, a genius between highs. But there’s no denying “mercurial” would be a polite way to describe your interactions with others.

Meanwhile, in a Dark Room in Cupertino

Giving you a break from Depression II: Bailout Boogaloo, Apple has justified my continued holding of the stock. They have dropped the NDA on iPhone applications developers, ending one of the two biggest obstacles to iPhone application development. Now, at least, you can talk about the API and how to use it without getting sued.

Now, I’d buy more stock if they’d publish some guidelines on applications and stick to them. Right now they’re being capricious on what they accept and reject, and because this happens at the end of the development process, all your effort is in vain. A centralized App Store with a consistent, predictable set of rules for what is in and out is not necessarily a weakness, but a centralized App Store with capricious and arbitrary rejections of applications can kill all but the largest developers with separate guarantees from Apple from developing for the platform.

Part One is done, Steve. Now do Part Two and see your stock recover.

Leave Steve ALONE!!! Except for the real issues.

I think some people think this is an accurate representation of me, late at night:

There are real issues to get upset at Apple about, though I think Steve’s health issue is at this point merely annoying than important–and I say that as a shareholder. I also bought an iPhone, much to the chagrin of Stallman’s FSF, failing to be swayed by the news that their preferred open source license isn’t compatible with the distribution model for third party apps that Apple chose. I’ll just have to miss out on GNU Breakout (delivered as an emacs plugin).

Being an Apple user can be an exercise in frustration, especially when the company acts against their avowed values and PR image. At the end of the day, they’re a company built by humans, with some human, but still irritating and sometimes maddening flaws.

Currently arousing my ire is that the iPhone SDK is still under NDA. The rumor is that it’s because things are not as stable as they want, so they’re waiting for the next release so people don’t badmouth it. Criminy. Isn’t Microsoft supposed to be the one that says “Hey, it’s 1.0 (or 2.0 or 2008 Xtreme Edition), so you’re basically our beta testers.” Apple always made its APIs public, and to do so when the product is allegedly out of beta basically says, “We don’t really care if your apps get all that much better, it’s just a marketing line item for us, not a serious reason to use the iPhone.”

Another one that ironically got fixed tonight was Apple’s failure to deliver a patch to BIND in coordination with everybody else, and I mean everybody. Even Microsoft played ball. Maybe Apple has done magic things to BIND on OS X, but I suspect it’s pretty much BSD BIND with a different compile. Either way, there are no excuses for being almost TWO WEEKS BEHIND Edit: THREE WEEKS LATE (that’s just sad) in patching the vulnerability. Even if it’s primarily important for OS X Server, at some point Apple’s lack of Enterprise penetration will limit its growth: people often go with what they use at work. I say that both as someone interested in the health of the platform (mainly so Microsoft finally has a viable competitor) and as a shareholder.

Steve, your bowels are your business, so long as it isn’t life threatening. I’ll give you a pass on that one. But can we ease up on the cult of secrecy with developers of released products and live up to industry standards on patching security issues? Yeah, Macs are still more secure by default than Windows PCs, but that doesn’t mean invulnerable and it doesn’t mean it will always be so.

Leave the computer science to the computer sciences and get on with the product strategy and design.

Apple Mania Plus Bad Registration System Equals…

I just got back from San Francisco, and boy, were the lines at the Apple Store long. As in long on Friday (by news reports), on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (from in-person viewing). Yep, people were lined up at least 50 deep each day, no matter the time of day. By contrast, at the Berkely AT&T store, there were no lines, and only a few customers.

Last-Second Macworld Prediction

Given that the consensus is that Apple will introduce an ultra-portable notebook computer to fill the void left by the 12-inch PowerBook, I predict the return of this offering will be turned down by my Mac-h8r pal Jason who always would buy a Mac “except for” one of the following reasons:

  1. Too expensive
  2. Won’t play my games
  3. If only it had $FOO technology
  4. Not enough default storage (subset of 1)

My bet is #1 above.

(This post may not be entirely serious and may be intended just to get a rise out of Jason… 😉 )

This Is What Caused Me to Dump MacFixIt

In the days of yore, when Extension Conflicts (kind of like DLL hell on Windows, except solveable) ruled the Mac troubleshooting landscape (this was a decade ago), Ted Landau’s MacFixIt site was a must-read. He had the dish on every OS upgrade, troubleshooting tips, and how to do preventive maintenance that made a Mac pre-OS X still more stable than the Windows available at the time.

Cometh OS X, and suddenly a whole new technology resides under the hood. MacFixIt struggled to keep up, as the voodoo of System 7 yielded to the exposed underpinnings of BSD-style Unix. The site expanded but kept with troubleshooting via the post-hoc fallacy. I kept with them for a while (I’ve been using flavors of OS X for seven or more years), but the site has degenerated into uselessness. Witness the following:

Google’s Gmail service has increased its coolness factor considerably by adding IMAP access, but meanwhile, back in the world of Web mail access, one user complains that the initial Gmail Web page has trouble loading under Leopard. He says that there are difficulties no matter what browser he uses.

One user.

And a website is slow in every browser, so it must be Leopard, right?!

Um. I’ve been using this here web thing for a while now, and one of the first things you learn is that a) not every server responds equally well, b) sometimes your internet connection is slow, and c) even when a) and b) aren’t true, there can be breakdowns between you and the server you’re trying to reach.

To raise this as a serious question about OS X 10.5 while admitting you can’t reproduce the problem and not entertaining any other of a host of more likely possibilities means that MacFixIt is being dumped from my RSS feeds (I dropped bookmarks long ago).

Sorry, Ted. I can get real problems reported by other, less Cassandraesque sources, and don’t have to waste time with inane guesswork subsituting for a little education. I can do that myself without assistance, and reading about web application slowdowns that don’t even have a plausible mechanism in the OS is taking away from my valuable TV-watching, eyebrow-plucking, or even just staring-at-the-wall-blankly time. Those are all more worthwhile pursuits than the above article.

Finally an Honest iPhone Editorial

Finally, amongst the outrage of over-privileged jackasses braying over the unfair price cut of a piece of technology–as if this didn’t happen eventually with every consumer electronics product ever–Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post captures the real reason for the anger.

The sky-high price was supposed to guarantee a decent period of exclusivity. For a time, if you bought an iPhone, you were supposed to be the envy of your friends. The ability to show off all the neat things it could do was your compensation for the fact that the iPhone didn’t really change your life.

Eventually, you understood, everybody would have one — as happened with the iPod. But after spending $599 for a cellphone, the aura of supercool should have lasted longer than a couple of months.

Yes, it’s not about “fairness” or Apple “screwing” anybody. It’s about a bunch of hipsters with $600 to burn to be the envy of their friends feeling cheated now that the hoi polloi will have iPhones. Then how will they demonstrate their superiority to their fellow man by the mere act of conspicuous consumption?

If you’re upset that a cool piece of technology will drop in price after you buy it, you might want to invest in real estate. Whoops, you’re screwed there, too. What’s a whiny hipster jackass to do?

The Psychology of Apple(-Bashing)

It continually amazes me the people who react to every new announcement by a computer maker with 3-5 percent market share with a ritual justification of their (usually continued) non-purchase of said item. Apple’s mindshare is truly out of proportion to its marketshare.

Many Slashdotters, for example, will continually declare, “I won’t buy [insert Apple product] until it [insert condition].” Sometimes Apple comes out with a product that meets this condition, and lo and behold, there’s a new and more obscure thing it Must Do before it is eligible for purchase. I can understand this a bit in the realm of MP3 players, as the iPod has a clear (but far from safe) lead in marketshare and hence is the default choice for most.

But in markets where Apple isn’t dominant, it is mind-boggling. Maybe it’s the continual envy of the “cool” factor of Apple products–it’s not something you can quantify on a spec sheet, so it’s not something you can engage the same way you compare the usual list of gadget features. I think many of the people who react this way are gadget freaks at heart who need to have the most features in order to “win” the coolness of having teh hawtest gadget on the block award. Apple products sometimes take away features, and this simply doesn’t fit their worldview, and hence they can’t understand its success.

But above that I think even when Apple does out-compare in the feature list phallus-size substitution game, the “coolness” factor that isn’t related to features makes the gearheads uncomfortable. After all, how can they know they have got the coolest thing if they have to talk about feelings instead of specs? “It’s a joy to use” doesn’t win you many arguments at the comic book convention. Style is just not in their vocabulary.

There’s a crossover of this crowd with Microsoft and Linux users who think that Apple products are “cool” or “usable” because they’re “pretty.” They prove time and time again that they Don’t Get usability, or why the combination of usability and style (the two are not the same) might make Apple products popular with a certain segment of the population. But because they don’t understand these concepts intuitively, it causes them great distress because they can’t engage with it on their traditional terms: there’s simply an axis of “cool” that they can’t argue against.

So they harp on everything else, whether it is really important or not, and then they mention the price, as if Apple’s position as the not-Wal-mart is surprising to anybody who has paid attention to them since the introduction of the Macintosh, 25 years ago. Hey guys: it’s been a quarter-century, isn’t it time to admit you just can’t afford them? Because at this point price is only an issue if you really want it but are looking for reasons to proclaim those grapes to be sour.

Why Microsoft Applications Never Look Nice

Joel Spolsky, one of the better known ex-Microsoft programmers, writes a single sentence that most displays the incomprehension of design and user experience that seems to typify Microsoft products:

In the case of the iPod, the way beauty is provided happens to be through a clean and simple design, but it doesn’t have to be.

His justification for this is his claim that the Hummer is appealing because of its complexity. No, the Hummer is appealing because it’s huge, and thus a good compensation for insufficient virility. But what design statement it has is that its overall shape is simply a box with a notch cut out of it.

Nobody has come up with beautiful design that isn’t clean and simple–even the Baroque period has lots of filigree, but at the base of that are some very simple figures and they’re arranged with incredible care.

Joel’s psychological block is that he can’t see a distributed benefit in the face of a concentrated harm. He sees the additional sales he would lose if he were to remove a feature. He doesn’t see the benefit to his users who don’t need Feature X of one less option to hunt through to Do What They Want To Do.

Even the iPod has [a] gratuitous Solitaire game.

I’m willing to bet a lot of money that the “gratuitous” Solitaire game had to pass through many, many hoops to make it into the product. It wasn’t one marketing survey that said, “We’ll get X more purchasers if we have a couple of games.” I’ll even bet that it had to be shown that it wouldn’t degrade the experience for someone who Just Cares About Music.

Joel is right that simplicity isn’t just “leaving out features.” It’s work to achieve it, and takes talents that 99.99% of programmers don’t have. But simplicity is important, and is almost always the number one failing of software, which is why I still get questions about how to use Microsoft Office products, more than two decades after those products were first released.