A World Now Without Steve Jobs

I entered a world in which Steve Jobs had already been born, and was 5 years old. He and I had different upbringing, but I suspect that many of our cultural touch-points were similar. We both first started taking note of the world around us when television made the leap from black and white to ‘living colour’ as the ads would say. We both saw a man land on the moon, and probably remember where we were when John Lennon was shot (I was in college, he had by that time started Apple Computer, Inc.) We both were lovers of music and calligraphy. In some ways, I like to think that our tastes were similar; we both fans of a sort of modernist simplicity in design. I fell in love with elegant industrial design early. I used to pore over the ads to Bang and Olufsen Hi Fi sets in New Yorker magazines while awaiting my piano lesson.

Photo of the Bang and Olufson Beogram 4004 Turntable,

I also remember my grandfather getting me a digital LED watch by Fairchild, one of the early, expensive ones before they became a mass-market item.

The Fairchild LED Watch
The Fairchild LED Watch, one of the beautiful but impractical LED watches of the 70s

The impractical thing about LED watches was that you had to press a button to see the time. In fact, I remember Saturday Night Live doing a parody on these watches that required another person to pushing a second button for you see the time, forcing you to get help to see the display. “It’s like asking a stranger for the time” was the slogan. Yes, but the elegance of the clutter-free bezel, and the lovely near-circle framed by a bit of chrome in was just irresistable to me.

For me, the Salton home appliances of that same period where also examples of great industrial design. They included hot plates, a peanut butter mill, and a thermostatically controlled yogurt maker:

The Salton Yogurt Maker

None of these artifacts was created by Steve Jobs or Apple, but I like to think that well designed consumer merchandise was not unknown to us nor did it not exist apart from Apple.

This part of Apple and Steve Jobs we (and I) could have survived if they never existed. However, it’s the rest of it, the software, that I can’t imagine a world without. My entry into this world began when I was in my 2os.

I got my first computer in 1985, while attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. In a guest bedroom in my landlady’s house, I set up a glass table (with 2 red metal sawhorses) where a Macintosh 512 sat, connected to the telephone line via a 1200 baud modem. The floppy drives frequently purred, and I used it to print my papers, as well as connect to the school’s DEC PDP-11 computer in order to edit the files for a piece of music I was working on at the time called ‘Spincycle’. It was a beautiful machine. I loved the shape of it, the way the screen surface was cantilevered so that the keyboard seemed to fit under it, and how the angled back corner echoed the shape of the mouse. The slight upward slant of the front screen, like a an inclined head, contributed to a sense of balance and elegance, along with a slight bit of anthropomorphism (and hence, a personality) that made this device something I added to the list of beautiful things.

The Original Macintosh 512K

Up until that point, I had been pretty disdainful of computers. They were my brother’s world, and to me seemed ugly, inhuman and tasteless. They were not for people concerned with the arts or non-mathematical pursuits. This computer shipped with a cassette tape that introduced you to its functions with elegant New Age music: The piano solo ‘Things with Wings’ by pianist Liz Story served as interludes and in the background. The tape, along with carefully written tutorial made it a joy to get to know and eventually become intimately familiar with this new technology.

One of the early things I did with that Mac was, as I mentioned, connect remotely to another computer. I did this to use my Mac’s built-in text editing abilities to create long strings of notes (written like A5 Ds E G As A Fs B C6 etc.) that I would ‘paste’ into the vi text editor running in a terminal on campus. If I did this at a time when many people were working on the PDP-11, the paste might not work properly; the other computer literally could’t keep up with pasting too much data at once if it was busy doing something else.

At any rate, using that computer to connect soon became a regular evening activity. I discovered and connected to Bulletin Board systems to download new software. That introduced me to a whole new world of User Groups and the software creation community.

Upon finishing my coursework and passing all of my oral and written exams, I moved out of Rochester (which I had happy to leave, having broken up with a girlfriend) and move in temporarily with my brother, who was attending MIT in Boston. I slept on the futon in his living room/guest room and got my first job with his girlfriend’s former boss, at a small computer software company in Harvard Square. Using another Mac, I learned how to write software documentation for programmers (mainly explaining what small modules of Pascal did as part of an online trading system). Then an enormously important things happened: in 1987 (shortly after Jobs had been forced out of Apple by John Sculley), Apple introduced (and released in early 1988) a piece of software called HyperCard. The creator of HyperCard, Bill Atkinson, was also the programmer of the Mac’s first graphics software, called ‘MacPaint’, which shipped with every Mac for a number of years. Atkinson demonstrated his software to packed conference rooms at the Bayside Exposition Center (and the air-conditioning had gone on the fritz, so it was like a sauna in these rooms). For me, it was love at first sight. Hypercard was, to put it simply, a software ‘erector set ‘that would let ordinary people (i.e., not just programmers) piece together acceptably usable and in some cases, well-designed software that included graphics, sound, motion, and even logic and calculations.

The HyperCard software Home Screen

Using HyperCard, anyone with some minimal training could communicate their ideas or expertise in a working application without having to learn the considerable amount of knowledge required to get even a single screen up and working using standard programming tools. These days, that would include learning the Xcode programming environment, the calls to present user interface elements like windows, buttons and menus, etc., as well as a knowledge of Objective-C and Apple’s version of it, called Cocoa. It’s worth noting that Steve Jobs did not particularly take to HyperCard and product eventually died out after he returned to Apple. I suspect that Jobs didn’t like HyperCard because it was never a polished product, particularly in terms of what people created with it. Most stacks were homely examples of what an amateur would do when given powerful tools. For me, though, HyperCard was my sandbox, my learning tool, my training wheels, and the path to new career. I wrote a book on it in 1992, and eventually made my living first as a general Macintosh consultant, and eventually as a software user interface designer. Working with the software and teaching others how to use it honed my skills in design, teaching, public speaking, writing, information architecture, and a host of other bodies of knowledge that would simply not have existed if it weren’t for Steve Jobs, the company he created and the software they produced (especially HyperCard).

These days, in a line of work and economy shaped by Jobs and the company he founded, I continue to live, work, and appreciate the elegance and beauty of well crafted hardware and software. Would I have this life without Jobs? I can’t imagine it. Will I have one without him? Probably, but now, with his death at the age of 56 (too damned soon!) we all head into a future without him, even if Apple remains, at least for the time being. It’s a future that feels just a little less exciting. We are all a little poorer without him, which is probably the best thing you can say about any human being. I suppose that he was one of what Apple’s ads referred to as ‘the crazy ones, the square pegs in the round holes…’ He moved the human race forward. I am lucky enough to be around to see it.

iPad, You Pad, We All Pad…

I just got back from one of our local Apple Stores and the iPads on display had quite a throng around them.  I didn’t check, but suspect that they are probably  sold out for today. My visit got me thinking about how to explain why I think the iPad is both so successful (and this is not just a belief, it’s a fact: Apple has already sold a million of them, and this past Friday they first went on sale in the rest of the world, (including here in Canada), and why Apple has once again filled a need that people didn’t know they had in the first place.

First, How to Define It

In describing what the iPad is, it’s easy to get caught up in what it doesn’t have, since that may be what strikes one at first; There’s no keyboard, no mouse or trackpad, no monitor stand, and all of the rest of the stuff that goes along with the experience of using a computer or connecting to the Internet.  That also includes a desk or table, chair, mouse pad (or with the advent of optical mice, at least a surface for moving the mouse on) or the various power, video and network cabling, external hard drive or optical (DVD) drive. There’s also a lot of upkeep and maintenance that has been taken away from the iPad;  there’s no anti-virus package that you might be reminded to get shortly after starting it up (at least, not yet), no place to get software except the built-in iTunes store. You don’t have to worry about defragmenting a hard disk (there is none – it’s solid state memory) or even emptying a trash can on the screen to free up disk space. While all of this does get one closer to the uniqueness of the iPad, it circles around the issue somewhat, which I’ll get into in a bit.

It’s also common to define the iPad as just a large iPod Touch or iPhone, since those are devices we are already familiar with. The fact that Apple chose to use a very similar operating system and launching screen to the one on those devices only serves to bolster the opinion that the iPad is merely a larger version of these other gadgets, something I’ve heard especially from people already familiar with those existing products. I think this is an incorrect assessment, simply because there are activities and media that are obviously far more suited to the larger form factor (like watching movies) than the smaller ones. A wall clock is not merely a large wristwatch. It’s a completely different, but related timekeeping object. But again, I think this is looking at the wrong thing.

To paraphrase the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, don’t look for the word, look for the use. Rather than try and define the iPad by what it is lacking or what it appears to be based on, define it by how it’s used. It’s here, I think, that you get to the really interesting and exciting thing about the iPad, which is the user model, or the totality of the experience under which it’s used.

Many of the most revolutionary technological advances are ones that embrace a new user model. Wi Fi and laptops freed people from being tethered to a single office or desk. The new 3G networks and hardware to connect to them on a Netbook allow one to be connected to the Internet not just in a Café with a local wi fi access point but perhaps sitting outside, by a babbling brook.

The iPhone’s size and weight meant that you didn’t have to be sitting down to use it. You could be waiting in line, walking, or sitting  in a seat on the bus or a car. In fact, the iPad is the first computer  that is almost intended to be used while slouching. It’s not a desktop or laptop;  it’s a loungetop! The idea that a computer is not necessarily for work (the Desktop and Laptop computers are ostensibly for that purpose) or for communication (all of the above plus the smartphone or PDA  – Personal Digital Assistant, a term coined by another Apple CEO –  plus phone) leaves the iPad a computer for casual use, mainly media-consumption with some email and web surfing. One could certainly do work on an iPad, and no doubt, some people will dedicate themselves to using it for their work tasks, but the iPad is first and foremost, the first computer designed to be used while a user is sitting back comfortably. That’s probably the big (if not one of the biggest) deal, in my opinion.

The lack of all of those other items (keyboard, mouse, external drive, cabling) meant that there is less to distract the user from the touchscreen and the content displayed on it. People often describe the experience of using an iPad as qualitatively different; that there is no longer ‘something’ in the way, between them and the Internet. While the day has not yet arrived where we ‘jack in’ directly to the Internet, the iPad comes a step closer to that consensual hallucination.

The iPad as Harbinger of a New Age of Human Control Interfaces

It’s even more interesting to take note of the fact that Steve Jobs conceived of the iPad first, and then realized that they could use a smaller version, with some of the scrolling behavior, as a way of building a telephone and internet device/iPod. The pure idea, that of a simple, flat, sheet of glass that displays content and interacts with the user was the original idea. You could put that foundation under any other gadget. People will now expect the iPad/iPhone touchscreen interface with it’s combination of mimicry of physical scrolls and easily changed collection of buttons or controls depending on the context as the default user interface for any number of other technologies. Your car will have a small iPad screen built into the dash (someone has already installed one, according to one of the tech blogs). You’ll set your thermostat or fade your lights with one of these glass interfaces, and you’ll program your microwave, dishwasher, or even toaster with one, once the technology becomes cheap enough to use everywhere.
By jettisoning the clutter and encumbrances of computing, the iPad pulls the rest of the world into an intelligent and software-driven set of controls. Physical knobs, along with raised physical buttons, will only be used where absolutely necessary. As for the rest, we all Pad.

Eek!

For decades there was a religious war regarding what computer users should be doing with their hands when they weren’t typing. No, not that religious war (you cheeky monkey!), the one about the pointing device, which would allow a user to make gestures on the screen, and address parts of a graphic user interface. Before I even started using a computer, I imagined that I’d be using some sort of ‘light pen’ to do Music Notation on the screen, since I’d once seen someone using that kind of a device on a documentary (and wasn’t it used in the movie The Andromeda Strain)?  Then, when I was just returning to the US from school in England, a fellow student (who was Canadian) said I should look into using ‘A Moose’. No, I misheard his Toronto accent. He wasn’t talking about the Canadian animal, but the Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie of Robert Burns fame A Mouse. The original, first computer mouse, invented by Douglas Englebart in 1963 had this drawing in the patent:
Original Mouse Patent Engineering Drawing

The Original Mouse Patent Engineering Drawing

Though the drawing doesn’t show it, Englebart’s mouse, which was one small part of Engelbart’s a larger project, aimed at ‘augmenting human intellect’ had 1 button. The drawing mainly shows how the block uses multiple rollers, which sense which way the mouse is being moved in terms of X and Y coordinates.

When Apple shipped the first Lisa computer (and of course, the first Mac) , the commandment that ‘Thy mouse shall have but  1 button’ was spoken to the masses. On the other side, the X-Window System, and the IBM PC mouse had multiple buttons (2 or 3). The two to three camps dug in for years, each claiming the ergonomic, moral or practical high ground over the others. The antipathy between the 1 or many buttons groups continues to to this day, even if this division is no longer the case. Many people believe that Apple has stayed true to their gospel and only makes or supports a 1 button mouse, but the unforutnately named ‘Mighty Mouse’, which shipped in 2005, supports multiple buttons virtually rather than physically (you click on one side or other other to simulate one or the other button), and also has a roller ball and 2 physical side buttons, providing no fewer than 5 buttons. The proliferation of mouse buttons, sometimes 2, sometimes 3, sometimes 5 or more, depends on the system and software one encounters. Some trackball devices have had 5 buttons that effectively provide even more control messages by allowing a different kind of click from different combinations of those buttons. Apple’s latest mouse (the even more unfortunately named ‘Magic Mouse’ – what group is coming up with these names?) even goes farther, making the entire mouse surface another control surface in and of itself, like the trackpad on a laptop. This, to me, is akin to attaching a steering wheel to the top of a gearshift, or some other bizarre composite, but I’ll have to withhold judgement until I try one, even though it sounds like the Industrial Design equivalent of a Turducken.

The point is, complex gestural movements, involving more than a simple click (or double click) on a pointing device have pretty much been adopted by all computer makers, with at least an accepted level of complexity, although for the most part, a user can work up to that complexity, by moving from simple gestures to more complex ones over time, hence the idea of a short cut to a function instead of making  that function only executable from a complex gesture.

As a friend of my parents puts it, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing’. I shouldn’t be surprised by what I thought was certainly a post on The Onion, but no, it was serious, and it was the Open Office Consortium who was proposing this mouse:


The Open Office Mouse. Really. No, really.

Holy Roller, Batman! This thing is certainly the other end of the spectrum from the mice we’ve seen up until this point, at least for the general public. (More complicated mice like this one have shown up on engineering stations, imaging systems, and countless other vertical application machinery).

If you look carefully (click on the photo to see it a bit larger), you’ll see that it has no fewer than 16 buttons and a roller that are visible. The description actually boasts that it has “18 programmable mouse buttons with double-click functionality” and “Three different button modes: Key, Keypress, and Macro”.  They even show a comparison chart comparing it to other mice on the market.

While I won’t comment on the oddness of an open software consortium designing hardware (or rather, having a designer design some for them), I have to admit that this initial paragraph, on the page ‘About the OpenOfficeMouse, caught my attention:

The OpenOfficeMouse was designed with the goal of being the best and most useful mouse the digital world has seen to date. Initially inspired by the keyboards on the Treo smartphones, it was designed by a game designer who was annoyed with the paltry number of buttons available on high-end gaming mice. Because gaming mice have historically been designed primarily for FPS¹ games, not MMO² and RTS³ games, they do not possess sufficient buttons for the dozens of commands, actions and spells that are required in games that make heavy use of icon bars and pull-down menus. After discovering that the available World of Warcraft mice were nothing more than regular two-button mice decorated with orcs, dwarves, and Night elves, the idea of the WarMouse was born. After much experimentation, it was determined that 16 buttons divided into two 8-button halves were the maximum number of buttons that could be efficiently used by feel alone. However, in the process of design and development, it quickly became apparent that many non-gaming applications would also benefit from having dozens of commands accessible directly from the mouse, especially applications with nested pull-down menus and hotkey combinations. OpenOffice.org was selected as the ideal application suite around which to design this application mouse because the usage tracking feature of OpenOffice.org 3.1 permitted the assignment of application commands to mouse buttons based on the data gathered from more than 600 million actual mouse and keystroke commands enacted by users. The OpenOfficeMouse team are advocates of Free and Open Source Software, which is why we are members of the OpenOffice.org community and have created custom profiles for other OSS applications such as Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, The Battle for Wesnoth, D-Fend Reloaded, and The Gnu Image Manipulation Program.

So what we have here is a design for a gaming mouse, now re-purposed for general purpose applications (like browsing the web, email, and the Open/MS Office suite of word processing, spreadsheets and presentations).

Maybe it’s because I don’t do much gaming (and by ‘don’t do much’,  I mean hardly at all),  maybe it’s because I come from the ‘make it for a klutz’ school of UI design because I’m not very coordinated, but I think that this approach to User Interface or Industrial Design will never have much of a following. It wasn’t lost on me that I had to look up some of those acronyms to provide the footnotes here. Sure, there will always be some small group of people who want more and more direct power over their work from their hardware, and they often buy the most baroque control devices. For me, however, the whole idea of taking a piece of gaming hardware and repurposing it to work on everyday tasks is about as appealing as using a flight simulator to do your banking. Sure, you might get more fine maneuverability during a funds transfer (if you could master the controls), but it hardly seems worth the effort. Maybe that’s the key here: Having a competitive advantage from  your hardware and your skill with it during a game is far more important and more likely to have you make that effort than being a whiz at moving from cell to cell in your spreadsheet or even triggering one of the 100 or so macros you’ve created for your word processing tasks.

So to the OpenOfficeMouse folks, I say, good luck, but forget about selling one of those mice to me. Now, we start seeing the ‘direct to brain’ controllers, where I don’t have involve my arms and fingers at all with typing and gesturing on the screen but just think where I want to the cursor to go, I’ll be more interested. That would be the 0 button mouse, which I think I’m going to have to address in some future post.


¹first-person shooter
²massively multiplayer online
³real-time strategy

Solving England’s Plug Size Problem

When I lived in England, believe it or not, everybody had to be an amateur electrician. I’m really showing my age, but back in the mid 80’s there wasn’t a common universal plug throughout England, so you had to buy your plug separately from the ‘flex’ which they called the electrical cord. I’m serious. You bought your appliance, lamp or other electrical device (I remember that in my case, it was a radio/cassette tape recorder), and then you bought a plug ‘kit’, which let you splice the plug on to the flex. You had to attach your plug yourself to any consumer electronics. It’s almost laughable, but that’s what the state of electrical standards adoption was in late-20th century England.

Eventually, the UK did standardize on a plug, but it ended up being the largest and bulkiest plug you’ve ever seen, including a fuse inside the plug itself. It was almost as if the Brits only begrudgingly accepted this newfangled invention of electricity, and decided that they were going to only allow you to use it if you had the proper muscle power to hold and manage these huge electrical plugs. The notion that you’d carry around an electrical device that needed to be plugged in hadn’t even been entered into the equation.

When people started carrying around laptops, the large size of UK plugs became even more troublesome. In the case of a Macbook Air, the UK plug was several times thicker than the laptop itself. Enter a clever designer and an ingenious design to the rescue. This video shows how a folding approach not only allows one to carry around a slim plug and unfold it when needed, but actually creates a new, secondary standard, where all of the prongs are still accessible but in a folded state, so a whole bunch of these folded plugs can be plugged into an adapter, which is plugged into the wall in its unfolded state (or perhaps, a new sort of power strip, built for the folded prong arrangement). To see what I mean, have a look at the video. It shows that sometimes good industrial design can almost work miracles. Lets hope this idea catches on: