September 8, 2014
What It’s Like to Carry a 6” Phone

I carried a 6” phone for almost 2 weeks. It was a Nokia 1520, the largest Windows Phone currently available, running a beta of Windows Phone 8.1.

It sucked.

It didn’t suck because of the software. The Windows Phone OS is actually wonderful, and although there’s a dearth of applications, the built in suite of apps works quite well, and look great to boot.

It also didn’t suck because of the hardware itself. The Nokia 1520 is very fast, has an amazing camera that shoots RAW, and is thin and comfortable to hold.1 And that screen, my lord. Web browsing felt more like using an iPad than using a phone – that is to say, it felt wonderful. Likewise for watching any sort of video, or viewing photos.

It sucked because it was just too big to carry. It didn’t fit in the front pocket of my jeans, and it didn’t fit in the back pocket of my jeans. (Even if it would have, I’d be wary of sitting on it, and having it flex so much that the screen might break.) It didn’t fit in any pocket that was designed for “cell phone use”, and it didn’t fit in any of my friends’ pockets. My friends mocked me. My family was confused.

I’ll probably still buy a 5.5” iPhone, though.

If the rumours are true and the “iPhone 6 Plus” has a better camera, and/or a larger storage capacity, then I will put up with the inconvenience of carrying it, because all the other details of carrying a huge phone make it worthwhile.


  1. I have large, but not ridiculously large hands

October 27, 2013
Pay Attention in Math Class

While it’s one of the driest parts of any high school career, I can’t overstate the importance of math class. Over the past few years, my job has been becoming more and more about implementing incredible visual designs, and as such, has required more and more raw math skill.

From simple custom layouts to complex 3D transforms, animation curves and now – in iOS 7 – collision physics1, you cannot “fake it until you make it” when implementing custom interfaces. Trial and error is impossible when your problem space is infinite, and good API will only take you so far. The core concepts that are taught in high school algebra, geometry, trigonometry, physics, and calculus are used nearly every day in the world of interface design and development.

Software isn’t a shrinking field, and interfaces aren’t getting less visual. If your career path veers anywhere towards the technical, I urge you to take great care in your math studies – as irrelevant as the homework may seem. I promise you that sooner or later, it will be worth your time.


  1. You could still do collision physics in iOS 6.0 and prior, you just needed to do much more math yourself.

June 16, 2013
Why You Shouldn’t Install the iOS 7.0 Beta

It’s the time of year when many people ask me if I can help them install the new beta version of iOS on their phone. I am usually reluctant to help, and with iOS being more popular than ever, I would like to make clear exactly why you (as a non-developer) should never upgrade your phone to a beta OS.

1. Your apps will break.

iOS 7.0 brings radical changes to both the user interface, and the under-the-hood developer APIs. The developer of your favorite app probably heard about iOS 7.0 the same time you did, if not an hour or two before. They haven’t even had the chance to review these API changes, yet alone fix bugs or crashes that have been caused by them. The changes are so major that it’s unlikely any app will work as well as it did on iOS 6.0.

If you rely or even just enjoy using 3rd party apps, you’re likely to have an extremely bad time on the iOS 7.0 beta.

2. Your phone will crash and bugs will bite.

Aside from 3rd-party apps, Apple apps and iOS 7.0 as a whole are just not yet completely implemented. Multitasking in particular has seen major changes, which come with major bugs that can, and do, cause the entire system to be brought down. Having your phone reboot in your palm for seemingly no reason, when you’re trying to accomplish some task, is no fun.

Further, if you do manage to avoid crashers, you’ll still hit bugs in other core apps like Phone, Messages, or Mail. Crazy things can and do happen: music starts playing during a phone call, an iMessage gets sent to the wrong person (or not sent at all), or none of your email gets displayed.

It’s amazing how a device you love so much can become a device you want to throw through a wall because of a few bad bugs.

3. There’s no going back.

Downgrading iOS is simply unsupported. Although there are hacks out there which make it possible in some situations, certain iPhone internals like the baseband processor (which handles talking to the cell networks) simply cannot be reverted, and may experience bugs when trying to interact with a mismatched OS.

There is no “trial mode” when it comes to beta operating systems.

4. You will lose data.

It’s not uncommon for beta software to include a time bomb, which deactivates the product after a certain amount of time. This is to force the testers to upgrade to newer versions, so that developers don’t need to continue to field bug reports from old, known-broken versions.

If you don’t upgrade to every new beta release vigilantly, you risk hitting one of these time bombs and losing data. Even if you do keep up-to-date, there’s still major risks: Since it’s beta software, your backups could become corrupted, or lost entirely.

You may be lucky and lose little to nothing, but remember that your phone holds important memories. Photos, videos, messages, etc. Is it really worth it to risk these things?

5. No one is going to help you.

No developer is yet ready to support iOS 7.0, for reasons listed above. They may laugh at you if you email them with complaints. Apple is also not yet ready to support iOS 7.0 either, so taking your phone to a genius bar would be just as fruitless, even if the issue isn’t iOS 7.0 related. As a non-developer, you will be ignored or possibly even berated on developer forums.

Because new updates to beta software are released to testers at regular intervals, there’s rarely going to be advice that is better than “file a bug and wait for the next update.”

Patience

Installing iOS 7.0 is akin to trading in your reliable BMW for a Ferrari with engine problems. It sounds sexy at first — who could resist a Ferrari? But after missing appointments and not even being able to run a simple errand, soon you’ll realize it isn’t worth the trouble. If you can’t use your product for its intended purpose, what good is it?

Fortunately, there is hope. iOS 7.0 will be released when it’s ready. If history is any indication, you’ll get it for free in just a few months, and you won’t have to deal with most of the issues listed above.

Patience is a virtue.

6:06pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zz3npwnWOlZa
Filed under: tech ios7 
March 23, 2013

socmoth:

everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you (via Steve Jobs: The Most Important Thing)

I had never heard this line from Steve before. Damn, does it ever make me miss him.

(via socmoth)

8:45pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zz3npwgzfruB
Filed under: tech steve jobs 
February 25, 2013
Glass Interrupted

Have you ever had lunch with someone who puts their smartphone on the table, face up, next to their silverware? When the phone lights up to display an alert – any alert – their eyes break from yours and their attention is stolen by the device. It doesn’t matter if it’s an urgent call or just their turn at Letterpress, this person has made a statement: In this moment, I am not willing to give you my full attention and I’m going to keep myself open to distraction.

If you were doing this during a first date, there is no way you’d get a second.

One of my questions about Google Glass seems to have been answered by Joshua Topolsky’s recent hands-on experience with the product. Can people see you looking at the Glass screen?

Joshua Topolsky wearing Google Glass

It’s not covered by the article so I could be wrong, but the direction of Joshua’s eyes in that photo seem to show the answer. With a glance like that, a person sitting across the table from you would have no problem noticing that you were checking your email instead of listening to them.

Glass has a mission to get “out of your way when you’re not interacting with technology”. I don’t understand how moving the location of the screen from the table to your face makes an interruption less rude.

I have high hopes for the future of wearable technology. I love my Fitbit. An Apple “smartwatch” sounds amazing. I think the anxiety caused by the alien-like aesthetic of Google Glass will disappear over time. But it’s impossible, at least with current technology, to engineer around human impoliteness.

Thanks to Chris Clark for his feedback on drafts of this post.

3:07pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zz3npwe-UOTi
Filed under: tech glass 
February 12, 2013
"We must do something great."

Question about the “Apple would never…” religion

The only thing we’ll never do is make a crappy product. That’s the only religion we have… we must do something great. Something bold, something ambitious. Something great for the customers, and we sweat all of the details.

Tim Cook, speaking at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference. Great answer.

10:13am  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zz3npwd-9LZe
Filed under: tech 
January 3, 2013
The NEX and Antarctica

I want to talk about two things: Antarctica and Sony’s NEX mirrorless camera line, specifically the NEX-5N and the NEX-6.

Mirrorless cameras are the fast-approaching future of consumer / “pro-sumer” photography. Like traditional DSLRs, they offer large sensors and interchangeable lenses, but thanks to the lack of mirror and prism, are smaller and thus more portable. As the cameras in mobile phones continue to get better optics and eat into the point-and-shoot market, it’s easy to see this new type of camera becoming the defacto choice for someone who wants more from their photos.

That being said, the market is still somewhat nascent. Early movers like Panasonic/Lumix and Olympus are on their 2nd or 3rd generation models, but the big players like Canon and Nikon only released their first offerings this past year. (To aplomb, sadly.)

Sony’s mirrorless system, the NEX line, was the one which pulled me in. Sony hardware is generally well regarded, and its cameras are no exception. While they doesn’t have the greatest history of UI design, they usually do better than Olympus or Panasonic, whose software and hardware design I find rather ugly. It turns out the UI on the NEX cameras is pretty bad, but we’ll get to that later.

The NEX-5N

I bought an NEX-5N to try out about a year ago. It’s a strange thing. I’d like to cover it a bit before jumping into the NEX-6 because they are so similar.

The camera body by itself is on par with, or smaller than, most point-and-shoots. It’s almost too small. The camera is practically all lens, but that’s kind of ok, since the lens is arguably the most important part of any camera. You end up with a rather awkward shape though, as some lenses are actually taller than the camera body itself, causing a tilt when you set it down. Other than setting off some weird OCD, this doesn’t really have an effect on use.

Fortunately, I have never found it awkward to hold. The grip fits well in my medium sized hands and the camera feels small, but not uncomfortable – exactly how I hoped a mirrorless would.

The image quality, especially with the kit lens, is fantastic.

The kit lens is not very fast: wide open, its f-stop sits at 3.5. This means it’s unlikely to capture ultra-low depth of field shots that many associate with high-end photography, but it’s still quite good in own right. Any decently lit scene comes out looking good, and daylight shots are really sharp.

The UI was the most lackluster part of the entire kit. Sony’s menu system, while good looking, is difficult to navigate because there’s hardly any information hierarchy, and the hierarchy they do have is practically nonsensical. For example, one of the top level menu options is “Camera” – as if I could modify settings for other devices?

Excuses

My dad has been lucky enough to travel to world twice-over throughout his life. One place he never got to, however, was Antarctica. He had always wanted to go, but never the time or means. This year, when he found them, he pitched the idea to my brother and I and we were sold. Both my brother and I are avid photographers, so we leapt at the chance to go take photos of one of the world’s most remote and beautiful places.

And is it ever remote. We flew to Miami, then Buenos Aires, then Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world), totaling roughly 18 hours worth of flights. Then we had to travel by ship for two and a half days through the Drake Passage, the place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific and Antarctic Oceans. This gets you to Graham Land, the Antarctic peninsula, the most accessible part of the continent. The rest is another 2-3 days by boat, and is generally covered in ice anyways.

With all this travel ahead of me, it seemed the perfect excuse to upgrade to the NEX-6.

The NEX-6

Using the NEX-5N from day to day was good, but I really missed the viewfinder from my SLR. Taking shots through an LCD screen in front of your face and not a viewfinder is a very different — and not necessarily desirable — experience. The shots tend to originate from about a foot in front of you, and down by your chest, instead of near your own eye. Sony does sell a OLED viewfinder attachment for the NEX-5N, but it’s expensive, and being an attachment, cumbersome.

The NEX-6 has one built-in, so right away it seemed like a good upgrade for the price.

There are other bonuses too. It’s slightly larger and made of stronger, more professional-feeling materials, making it a bit nicer to hold. It also has a physical mode selection dial, and a manual control dial for whatever mode your in. This makes the entire thing much nicer to use in practice. No photographer wants to have to fiddle with menus or settings in the field.

The sensor is the same as the one in the NEX-5N, which I already know and love.

Through the Glass, Looking

Upon arrival of the NEX-6, I was sadly disappointed by the kit lens. The new 16-50mm “Power Zoom” lens is smaller and has a wider focal length than the NEX-5N, but it features an annoying electronic motor which controls the zoom and eats battery. What’s worse, and more important, is the image quality. Wide shots have noticeably bad blurriness on the right side of the photo, as can be seen in the cropped image below. (Retina readers, my apologies.)

Although I could have gotten along fine with the 18-55mm lens from my NEX-5N, I had only a few hours before my flight and in a moment of panic I decided to spring from the Sony 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss lens — a wide, speedy lens I knew I could count on. It was possibly the best panicked decision I have ever made.

Its sharpness and clarity was superb. I was so impressed with some of the photos, I wanted to compare it to a Leica. On price, the Sony Zeiss lens costs about $1,100. The comparable Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M lens is more than 6x as expensive. Given that, you may be surprised to find out that the Sony lens is as good as, if not better, than the Leica:

I have held the new Sony Zeiss e Mount 24mm to a very high standard. The 24mm f/1.4 Summilux is a world-class benchmark lens, one of the finest fast wide angle lenses made. It is of course a full frame lens, while the E mount Zeiss covers APS-C. Also, the Zeiss is an autofocus lens, so in some ways we’re comparing peaches and apricots. Also, there is more than a $5,000 price difference between the lenses.

Given all of the above, the 24mm Zeiss stands up to the Leica Summilux very well indeed. It bests it in some areas, holds its own in some, and falls slightly behind elsewhere. Overall this is a stunning performance.

That’s from Michael Reichmann at The Luminous Landscape, who ran exhaustive tests against the two.

Trial by Travel

The benefits of using a mirrorless system show up before you even leave the house. The NEX-6 fits so well in almost any carry-on, and USB charging meant I didn’t need to bring an extra charger; I knew from my experience with the 5N that the battery would last long enough to get me through a day of heavy shooting, at least. In the SLR days, most people would carry a dedicated extra bag for all their camera gear. Not so with the NEX — all I took was the camera itself, the charging cable, and an extra zoom lens, all of which fit easily in my messenger bag.

Because the flight to Buenos Aires is so long, we decided to stay a couple days to see the city a little bit and break up the travel. It’s a massive city, so we knew there was no chance to enjoy all it had to offer, but we did what we could. My favorite thing was El Avaneo, a bookstore converted from an old theatre.

The NEX-6 preformed admirably. Because of its unassuming size, it’s easy to take everywhere and it doesn’t attract much attention.

The viewfinder helps composition so much, it’s hard to believe I was ever trying to shoot without one. It was sunny and hot in BA, and trying to use an LCD in daylight is difficult even with the best of screens. The viewfinder totally alleviates all of that strain. It activates when you put your eye up to it (there was no noticeable lag, the proximity sensor is great) and the LCD screen shows the same thing. However, you can set the LCD screen to only show camera settings instead of a live display, which is very helpful.

The viewfinder would prove especially important in Antarctic, where, on a sunny day, it’s so bright you’d think were showing up to the Oscars with Anna Kendrick on your arm.

Lens Fun

One of the big appeals of SLRs and mirrorless systems is the ability to change lens to adapt to what you’re trying to shoot. I figured I’d want to take close ups of whatever wildlife we would encounter so I brought along another NEX lens: the 55mm-210 f/3.5-5.6 lens. It’s the cheapest of the Sony zooms, and it shows. It’s not very sharp, nor that fast, nor that zoom-y (other telephotos go to 300mm) but for the price, it’s also not a bad deal.

Ushuaia is the city “at the end of the world” — a small, very rural town supported primarily by Antarctic tourism. It’s not a beautiful city, but the surrounding landscape is. I couldn’t stop taking photos even before landing. Being from Canada, you may think I’ve seen my share of snow capped mountains, but I realized while there that I’ve never actually been as far north as I have been south. I wonder if this is what Yukon is like? Another trip for another day, I suppose.

The Main Event

Let me tell you about Antarctica. I could tell you what you might expect to hear: It’s beautiful, cold, and mesmerizing. All of things things are true. But there’s another word I want to use to describe it: Magical. I know it sounds corny, but stay with me.

The thing about visiting Antarctica is that doesn’t feel real. Your entire life, you grow up knowing there’s this massive white continent at the bottom of all the maps that no one goes to because it’s simply too challenging, too inhospitable. You don’t ever expect to see it with your own eyes, so when you do, and it feels like nothing you’ve ever experienced, it feels like magic. It feels like an optical illusion, like a trick is being played on your brain.

Antarctica has this quiet beauty that was accurately described to us as a “loud quiet”. Unless you’re near a penguin rookery, the only thing you hear is the wind, and the occasional calving of ice, which, depending on your distance, can be extremely loud.

Calving: Imagine your house, but made of ice. Now take 4 or 5 of those. Stack them vertically, and attach them to a much, much larger piece of ice. Then imagine it coming unattached, and falling into water below. The sound is like thunder, but longer and growlier. It’s magnificent.

Expeditious

Every day on our trip, we did landings to different parts of the peninsula or the nearby islands. On one day, the weather was particularly nasty, and our zodiac (the small boat you take from the big boat) had to deal with some serious chop. The wind whipped up the waves and got us soaked. Our bright yellow waterproof parkas meant this was a nonissue for our health, but the same couldn’t be said for the NEX-6.

I had hoped the stronger body would have also come with a bit of weather sealing, but that was not the case. While the camera and lens survived a bit of rain and unintended splashing, I found alarming amounts of water in the battery compartment shortly after. I cleaned everything diligently, and experienced no problems, but I felt like I cheated death.

The NEX-6 features wifi connectivity, for some crazy reason. It sounds good in theory (wireless photo transfers, finally!) but it falls apart in practice because the software is so bad. A downloadable app — yes, the camera has apps — allows you to directly upload photos to Facebook, which might be of interest to some, but the sign up process is so convoluted and frustrating, I doubt most people will even bother. Another app lets you send photos directly to your iOS device, which is actually pretty cool. Sadly, the implementation makes it unlikely to ever be used: The camera creates an ad-hoc network the iOS device must join each time, instead of just sharing a common network. Good for transferring in the field, but not much anywhere else. Further, the required iOS app is flaky at best. The Apple camera connection kit is still a much better option.

Surprise!

There’s one last (literally) hidden feature of the NEX-6 that justifies the upgrade: A built in, pop-up flash. The NEX-5N ships with a flash as an attachment, but you have to either leave in on all the time or remember to bring it with you. In other words, it’s a pain.

This little addition makes late night (or early morning — it doesn’t really matter when it never gets totally dark) party photos that much more fun.

Recommendations

Go to Antarctica. It’s cold and it’s hard to get to and you’ll be extremely disconnected, which is a good thing. You might need it. We all do, every now and then.

As someone with a lot of experience with various cameras, I used to get frequently asked for camera buying advice. Now that everyone has iPhones, I rarely get asked for that help. However, I know that I’ll have no issue absolutely recommending the NEX-6 to anyone looking to take higher quality photos. Despite its annoying menu system, it’s a beautiful and fun camera. It’s genuinely difficult not to enjoy, no matter where you take it.

Grab the body-only version of the NEX-6 and avoid the kit lens. Go instead for the standard 18-55m f/3.5-5.6, or the Zeiss if you’re willing to spend more.

Final Notes

I’d be remiss to not mention the new NEX-5R and the older NEX-7.

The NEX-5R is essentially a 5N with WiFi, a control dial, and faster focusing. It’s the most current version of the NEX-5 series of cameras.

The NEX-7 is much different. It has been out for about as long as the NEX-5N as the pricier older brother – Its generally $250 more than the NEX-6. It shares many of the same features of the NEX-6 (viewfinder, manual controls, etc), but the primary difference is the sensor. The added cost gets you a lot more megapixels – 24.7 to the NEX-5N’s 16.1. The body size is also significantly larger, to the point where it feels more like a small SLR. At the time, it didn’t think it was really worth it, but I could understand the appeal.

There’s also the lower-end NEX-F3, but it lacks important manual features that most serious photographers would probably want. I bet it’s a nice camera though, if you don’t mind the crummy UI.

The full set of photos from my trip can be found on my Flickr.

10:30pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zz3npwawdu5X
Filed under: tech nex-6 review 
December 9, 2012
The Magazines

Craig Mod wrote an extremely important essay about the future of publishing called “Subcompact Publishing” that you should read if you haven’t already. In his follow up, there were the echoes of an idea I take issue with, care of Ryan Singer at 37signals:

“Tablets are waiting for their Movable Type”

I couldn’t disagree more.

Movable Type, Wordpress, and other blogging platforms were successful because they removed barriers between authors and readers. Their arrival marked the first time that it was relatively easy for authors to self-publish. This led to an explosion of great new independent content online. The idea that the same results would occur if only it were easier to publish to native is short-sighted: Even with better authoring software, there are still extra barriers between authors and readers that exist in native publishing.

The Drawbacks of Native Publishing

The crux of Singer’s idea is simple:

Wouldn’t it be awesome to publish my own magazine on the iOS Newsstand?

Singer implies the answer is yes, because he’s only looking at the benefits. In reality, things are more complicated. The benefits of native publishing are appealing to the reader:

  1. Push notifications of new content
  2. Background downloading for offline reading
  3. Simplified purchasing

However, there are numerous disadvantages to the author:

  1. Push notifications require a running a server which is configured to notify users of new events.
  2. Native apps must be built, submitted to the App Store, and be maintained (should bugs be found or programming APIs changed).
  3. Native content is subject to censorship by the controlling store.
  4. Non-negotiable pricing terms.
  5. Native publishing limits the readership to owners of the devices supported by the native apps.

Singer is advocating the creation of a “Moveable Type for Native” application or framework to alleviate these problems. As Mod points out in his follow-up, there are already companies like The Periodical Co. who are working hard towards this goal. Although I wish them well, they seem ill-equipped to do so, because they can’t control the last three of those big downsides. Software would definitely be able to mitigate the first two issues, but the others are much harder to deal with.

Let’s assume a best-case scenario: a platform owner like Apple is the one to improve the authoring tools and tackle these challenges. Apple already offers iBooks Author, a beautiful ebook creation application. It’s easy to see them expanding their foothold in publishing by offering a similar Newsstand Author tool, complete with a hosted push notification service. They could relax their stance on censorship of magazines – they already don’t censor ebooks or music. They may even change their tone on pricing, but I wouldn’t count on that. They’re still left with issue #5: Readers without iOS devices won’t be able to access the native content.

For authors, reach is a huge deal. One of the reasons web publishing was and is so desirable is because it levels the economics of reach: It costs the same to have 5 readers as it does to have 5 million. Compared to the web, native publishing only limits the number of people who can view the content and adds additional operating expense.

Given these drawbacks, authors like Singer must ask themselves: Is native publishing worthwhile? Even if a software solution existed, a non-trivial amount of overhead would be required to support it. (Implementation, dealing with subscriptions, customer support, censorship, etc.) Further, readers can already get similar features through existing technology like RSS, Instapaper, Pocket, or Safari’s built-in Reading List feature. Is native publishing really better than the web?

This is an open question that no one yet has the answer to, but I’m betting against.

Publishing for native has a very different set of requirements and cost/benefits as compared to straight web publishing. The balance of these costs and benefits probably isn’t good enough to justify the effort to most people, no matter how good the authoring software.

Bonus Alternate Ending

What do Heather B. Armstrong, Paul Ford, and Deadmau5 have in common? None of them want to configure a push notifications server. Probably. I don’t know any of them well enough to say for sure, but I do know this: People want to do what they want to do. Writers want to write, musicians want to make music. They don’t want to troubleshoot code compilation warnings or figure out ambiguous errors from iTunes Connect, the infamous App Store backend.

People also want to share what they make, and discover what others have made. With print ceding ground to the web, there are new opportunities abound.

Luckily, there are people like Marco. Marco had both the foresight to realize this and the skills to take advantage of it. He created The Magazine, a platform for the things he loves: Writing in and around the world of technology. The Magazine lets both authors and readers get what they want: All the advantages of native publishing with minimal overhead to the author, and with content being owned by the authors, maximal reach. (The fact that The Magazines publishes articles in their entirety on the web at a later time helps too.)

I believe there will be more people like Marco, and more publications like The Magazine. There will be a Magazine for short films, specially tailored to download large video content and play it. There will be a Magazine for Music, built as audio player with new playlists every week. There be lots of different kinds of Magazines. There will even be Magazines which compete with each other, and that’s OK.

Instead of individuals trying to self-publish on native, authors will rally around these new magazines. Magazines that are specifically geared to showcase their content and manage the technical aspects of implementation and support. This will be the way many authors get their content get published on native devices. Many other authors will remain happy with web-only publishing. For everyone else, there will always be sandals or sneakers.

While it will be a big shift, I believe digital publishers of the future will be a combination of talented engineers who know how to leverage technology and smart editors who can pick great content.

No matter what happens, 2013 is sure to be a banner year for publishing. I can’t wait.

9:15pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zz3npwZ1neW7
Filed under: tech 
November 20, 2012
Apple and Twitter

My friend and co-worker Tom has a thesis about Apple’s biggest problem: Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services.

I’m a long-time Mac user and a diehard Apple fan, and even I will admit that Apple’s approach to the web has been a clusterfuck. iCloud, née MobileMe, née .Mac, has only ever been adequate at best. I’ve heard (or been victim to) countless stories of duplicate or lost contacts, calendar syncing errors, or email downtime. Outside of sync services, Apple has other web problems. Here are a few examples:

  • Apple can’t update its online store without taking it offline first.
  • A popular Game Center game was able to bring down the entire network.
  • Apple requires you to re-friend everyone on Game Center, Find my Friends, and Shared Photostreams.
  • Notes requires an email account to sync.
  • The iTunes and App Stores are still powered by WebObjects, a mostly dead framework written almost 20 years ago.
  • iMessage for Mac lives in an alternate dimension in which time has no ordered sequence.
  • Ping.

Almost anything Apple does which involves the internet is a mess, save for their excellent web browser teams.

Meanwhile, Google, specifically Android, has been steadily improving its entire platform. To me, it still doesn’t have the same quality of polish and feel that Apple software does. However, it’s getting harder to argue that point, especially since their web services all tend to Just Work. Features like Google Now and near-instant voice commands are starting to give Android a serious leg up on iOS. Design is coming along as well. Android is still ugly, but it’s much less ugly than it was a few years ago. Google seems to be actively addressing this, and if Apple isn’t worried, they should be. Tom is the first friend I’ve had who has switched from iOS to Android, and he is unlikely to be the last.

Here’s what I’m getting at: Apple should buy Twitter, and they should do it now.

I’m hardly the first to suggest such an acquisition. Apple and Twitter have talked before and much speculation has already been made. Most, if not all, of this speculation centered around how Apple needed to buy a social network, because Apple needed “Social” – whatever that means. Owning a social network only solves one of the aforementioned problems (finding friends) and it only does so only partially: Both friends must already be a part of that social network for it to work. It seems ludicrous to suggest paying billions of dollars for half a solution to the symptom of a problem.

So that’s not that argument I want to make.

I would posit that the cause Apple’s lackluster web skills stems from their inability to recruit or keep talented web engineers. Historically, if you’re into databases, servers, or web application frameworks, then Apple was probably pretty low on the list of places you aspired to work at. Apple has always positioned itself as a consumer products company, and even killed off its server hardware over the years. Mac OS X Server remains, but who knows for how long.

Where Apple falls short, Twitter flies. Not only does Twitter use some of the most advanced web technology, they invented it. They own scale. They know how to send hundreds of thousands of tweets a minute. Further, Twitter is social network with values that (used to) reflect Apple: focus and simplicity.

Apple should buy Twitter not for its social network, but for its talent and technology. That talent and technology could undoubtably help bring Apple and iCloud into the 21st century. The social network is basically an added bonus.

Twitter is a company struggling to make financial sense. With over $1B in funding and over 1500 employees, they need to figure out how to stay in the game for the long term. Hence, the disappointing pivot and the user backlash. Exhibit A, exhibit B. While Twitter may make a lot of money for its investors, having many of your original users abandon ship isn’t good for your long term prospects.

Apple has boatloads of money, and although it’s extremely conservative with it – you don’t get rich by spending money, after all – I don’t think it’s out of the question for them to make a heavy strategic investment like this.

An Apple buyout of Twitter wouldn’t be welcomed by all. With so many Twitter employees, I imagine at least a few hundred of them are dedicated to Twitter’s advertising arm. Since Apple is unlikely to be interested in that aspect of Twitter’s business, many of those jobs would likely disappear. It wouldn’t be pretty. (Then again, maybe they could help turn around iAds?)

If it doesn’t happen soon, it likely won’t happen at all. The larger Twitter gets, the more likely an IPO, and Apple isn’t dumb enough to pay the grossly inflated market prices for a publicly traded social media company. Further, the more Twitter becomes a “media company” the less engineering talent it will retain. Anecdotally, I’ve already heard of quite a few key engineers leaving the nest.

All said, I think this is pretty unlikely to happen. Maybe I’m just jaded, but Twitter probably thinks of itself as being too big and too primed for money-making to be acquired at this point. Also, stomaching the layoffs of much of it’s staff doesn’t sound like something their leadership would be up for. Apple is probably too in denial about the failings of it’s antiquated approach to the web to consider dropping such a huge amount of money.

The fit seems so good, it’s hard to not wish for.

Update: A previous version of this article referenced a statistic about Twitter handling hundreds of thousands of tweets per second. This was an error, the rate Twitter quoted was 327,452 per minute. My apologies. Still, it’s quite an impressive number, considering the one-to-many nature of Tweets.

12:30pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zz3npwXaGZOg
Filed under: Tech