Thoughts on the iPhone Multitasking Thing

There’s a lot of rallying for full multitasking support on the iPhone, but a lot of that passion is misplaced. I don’t think Apple will ever support “real” multitasking on the iPhone.

Why? Because the main point of multitasking is to be able to move quickly from one application to another. But this goal can be solved in ways other than running multiple programs simultaneously. If a program can return to the exact state you left it in, in a matter of seconds, from a cold start – what does it matter to the user if it was “running” or not, while you weren’t using it? That’s the approach Apple took, and it’s a wise one. It works the vast majority of the time, only failing when third party apps are too slow, or neglect to return you to the exact state you were in when you left. Betting on faster processors and memory instead of gigantic batteries to handle needlessly-running, multiple simultaneous processes, was a very forward-thinking move – and an environmentally sensitive one to boot.

Apple basically waited for Moore’s Law to make multitasking (mostly) irrelevant. What’s interesting is that, as Moore’s Law chugs along, it could drive user-friendly computers to move in the opposite direction.

Battery life is one reason Apple doesn’t support multitasking on the iPhone. The other is complexity. You (the user) can avoid the battery drain problem by multitasking wisely. But that requires a whole lot of abstract thinking. Users have to be savvy enough to figure out how many processor cycles an app is likely to use in the background, and figure out what to quit, and when. I use a jailbroken iPhone because I really want background audio apps, and even I (a well-trained “computing professional”) fail to “multitask responsibly” – my battery giving out when I least expect it. The “it just works like magic” value proposition of Apple products takes an enormous hit when complex issues like processor cycle usage are exposed to the user.

The complexity issue of multitasking can be solved by Moore’s Law + time. It will evaporate when computers that can run unlimited processes simultaneously come into being. At that point, there will be no need to close any app, ever. Don’t think that day will come? Well, 20 years ago, did you ever think you’d be able to put every piece of media you own into a pocket-sized hard drive? Moore’s Law causes drastic paradigm shifts across decades. That day will come.

But…There’s one component of computing devices that is notoriously resistant to Moore’s Law – which evolves at a glacial pace compared to processors, memory, and hard drives: the battery. We may never have a portable battery powerful enough to reliably support this “everything-always-running” world. And that’s why this future computing paradigm will likely never hit the iPhone (at least not for many decades).

In a world without utterly transparent multitasking, the only way Apple can preserve their “magic” is to follow a piecemeal strategy of tackling the symptoms of all this multitasking wishing. Aside from quickly switching between apps, there are three reasons people want multitasking. Apple has already tackled two, and is definitely working on the third, right now.

Multitasking use case #1: Working with data between multiple apps

Apple tackled this first by introducing a very clever “cut and paste” system. Granted, it’s no substitute for having multiple application windows open simultaneously, side by side, but only the most hard-core nerds would argue for a need to run something like a programming IDE on a phone.

Multitasking use case #2: Letting one app send you information while you’re using another app

Apple later tackled this problem with their “Push service“. Of course, it’s not perfect – it’s limited to simplistic Javascript-style “alert boxes” – but it handles the huge majority of use cases just fine. Of course, it requires an always-on server component to work – but in this day and age, if you’re scared of “the cloud”, you probably shouldn’t be developing software.

Multitasking use case #3: Background audio

Here’s the real sticky one, still horribly broken, and desperately crying out for a solution. Pandora and Simplify Media are awesome audio applications (and there are others), but they’re pretty much useless to me without background processing – because I rarely have nothing to do except listen to music. I don’t turn off my radio when I read email on my computer, why should that happen on my phone?

So, how’s Apple going to tackle this one? I think I know the answer, and I think a lot of people won’t like it. See, there is one audio app that can run in the background – it’s the “iPod” app. I predict Apple is going to enumerate everything other music apps do, that iPod doesn’t – and add those features to the iPod app. (Remember that Lala acquisition?). Apple’s not afraid of telling users they don’t need apps that duplicate what the iPhone’s built-in apps can do (it’s definitely not afraid of telling developers that) It’s a sort of “boil the ocean” strategy, but Apple already boiled the music ocean once…

How Apple Will Destroy the Web

After my previous pro-Mac blog post, I bet you weren’t expecting a headline like that. But it’s true. Apple wants to destroy the web, and the iPhone was the opening salvo.Read John Gruber’s post about Apple and Flash. All of it makes sense, but Gruber fails to draw the ultimate logical conclusion. Apple would love to shun the web the same way it shuns Flash. It just can’t pull it off – yet.Apple COO Tim Cook (quoted in Gruber’s blog post) has said

“We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.”

Now, what about that sentence applies to Flash, but not to other web technologies?

For a company so obsessed with platonic ideals of technology, Apple is remarkably pragmatic. Which means, no, they’re not going to pull Safari from OS X (or iPhone) any time soon. Remember that Apple famously plugged the heck out of Microsoft Office for Mac (until they released a better solution, iWork).

Apple has already starting preparing people for a post-web world. The iPhone taught people that web apps are slow and awkward – native apps are where it’s at. I’m not quite enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe that Apple made us suffer through the iPhone web app era as a social experiment, but it certainly ended up proving that native apps are far superior to web apps, given the right native environment.

And then there’s that word, “app”. I used to think it was an odd misstep on Apple’s part to use industry lingo in a mainstream product. But no, Apple needed a new word to define the new way people would relate to their technology. “Application” was too literal, bulky, boring. “Program”? Even worse. But “app” is short, succinct, snappy – and, just coincidentally, the first syllable in “Apple”. Apps are the way you do stuff.

Everyday people do not give a crap about the Web. Now, don’t get me wrong – they care about the information found there, but Google famously demonstrated that the average Joe doesn’t know the difference between a browser, a web site, and a search engine. People want to tell their computer what they want, and then get an answer. They don’t care one bit if that answer is streamed via HTTP and rendered in a web browser via HTML. They just want an answer. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if they get that answer fast and in a fun, engaging way. You know, like, via a 99 cent app on your phone.

The iPhone trained people to use apps instead of web pages on their phones. The tablet Apple will release tomorrow will prove that apps’ superiority over web pages holds true for larger devices. It’s only logical that people eventually will use specialized apps in lieu of web pages on their full-sized home computers. Or will they? The answer is: it’s a red herring.

With powerful, portable devices like the iPhone, people will stop sitting down to get information. I’m not predicting the complete death of the home computer, but 20 years from now people will only sit down at a keyboard to do extended work. There is no long-term future for weather web sites, stock quote web sites, or perhaps even ecommerce sites. It just makes no logical sense. Remember when people had to sit, literally tethered to their desk to make a phone call? Seems pretty silly now, no?

Microsoft tried to render the web irrelevant by making it indistinguishable from the operating system (ActiveX!). Apple didn’t fall into that trap. Instead, they’re attacking the web by creating a superior distribution model for content – the same way they beat the unstoppable music-piracy juggernaut with the iTunes store.

Apple’s disdain for the web should be obvious:

  • Aside from their own web site and “me.com”, Apple has never launched a web-based service
  • The me.com launch was famously botched, indicating that Apple is not exactly awash with web engineering expertise
  • iWeb. Look, people knocked FrontPage back in the day, but not since FrontPage was there a web authoring app that “gets” the web less than iWeb.
  • Apple does not participate in “Web 2.0″. It has no Facebook Page (I was shocked to find that iTunes does), no Twitter account, no blog. Deep down, Apple doesn’t believe in Social Networking. They believe in enabling real human interaction. Remember Steve Jobs’ response to the Zune’s song sharing ability?

Microsoft tried to destroy the web because they were worried about losing sales. Apple is trying to destroy the web because they genuinely believe they can create a better experience, and they’re probably right. And if you think the web is too big a target for Apple to disrupt completely, think again – it only took Apple 6 years to effectively take over the century-plus-old music industry. The Internet has only been a commercial medium for 15 years.

If you’re a web developer wondering what this means for you, I think the takeaway is this: HTML and CSS are likely to be with us for many more years to come, because they are powerful technologies for easily organizing and rendering content. But where that HTML and CSS end up is going to be a much different place than where it is now. Keep your eyes open and your skills sharp.

Why I Switched, then Switched, then Switched

Back when Apple made a big deal about switching from Windows to OS X, I did. And I really enjoyed living the Mac life. But over time, due to a number of reasons, I drifted back to using a PC.

Firstly, I was stuck using a PC at work (ain’t that always the case). Secondly, (I thought) I wanted a netbook and a gaming PC. I figured maybe I should just standardize on one platform, and with the release of Windows 7, my fate was sealed.

Windows 7 didn’t suck.

I built a custom gaming PC and bought a netbook. Eventually, I realized that I don’t even really play PC games, and that yes, netbooks are kind of sucky and pointless.

But that’s not why I switched back to Mac.

I switched back to Mac because there’s been a crazy role-reversal between Apple and Microsoft in the past few years. I switched away from Windows because there were no good applications for it.

Remember when the number one argument against Macs was that all the good apps were on PC? Oh, how times have changed.

As the web (and web apps) picked up steam, something funny happened. The Windows app developers (mostly rooted in the corporate world) switched to building web apps, but the Apple app developers – mostly enthusiastic, passionate individuals or small teams – kept on building beautiful desktop applications (and passionate fan bases).

Again, Windows 7 does not suck. It is an excellent operating system. The problem was this: once my fascination with its improved taskbar, and Aero Snap, and all that good stuff wore off – once I got around to actually wanting to do stuff on my computer, I realized something. There was not ONE APPLICATION for Windows that I LOVED. Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft Office is good software. But I don’t love it. At this point, I think about Word or Excel the same way I think about “calc.exe”. It’s practically part of the operating system. It’s just something you have to have, and have to use.

The other apps I used a lot – Dreamweaver, Photoshop – were cross-platform, so even if they were awesome on Windows (they’re not – they’re bloated and buggy), they were no pro-Windows argument. The only Windows-only app I’ve come close to “loving” is SnagIt (I’ve always considered TechSmith the most Mac-like Windows development company), but man cannot live on screen capture apps alone. I mostly relied on web apps – using programs I was unenthused about, when I had to use them.

Windows 7 was a beautiful container for running a web browser. What was the point?

Since their respective inceptions, Microsoft has been all about business, Apple all about hobbyists. I’m making a gross generalization here, but Windows-based developers generally care about making money, and Mac developers care about making beautiful stuff. There’s little financial incentive to tying yourself exclusively to the Mac platform. Corporate niche Windows applications and subscription web apps are where it’s at if you just want to make money. If you develop for Mac, it’s because you want to make beautiful software, for people who appreciate beautiful software.

I recently hunted for a good Windows note-taking application, like the Mac’s Yojimbo. After seeing recommendations for OneNote and Evernote (two big, bloated apps) at every turn, I finally came across a small, simple, just-powerful-enough one called “GoldenSection Notes“, buried on the 5th page of some shareware directory. It really is good – try the demo. Then do a Google search for it. Every link on Google is from some cheeseball shareware aggregator site. There’s not one blog post about it (at least as far as I was willing to dig in the Google results). A forum for its users? Nope. A Twitter account from the developer? Keep dreaming. It’s like it fell onto the Internet from another planet. A whole lot of Windows software is like this. I found a really good Windows video converter called Aimersoft Media Converter. You’d never guess that it was good based on their web site, because it’s just one giant SEO trap. Popular Mac apps come with a developer blog, a forum, and one or more Twitter accounts from the developer. Windows software usually just comes with a feeling that you’re on your own.

You can buy decent Windows apps, but you’d be hard pressed to buy Windows apps that are beautiful and come with a passionate, accessible community to back them up. And that’s why I’m moving back to the Mac.

Welcome back, Coda.

Welcome back, Omnigraffle

Welcome back, Things

Welcome back, MarsEdit

Welcome back, Quicksilver

Welcome back, Mac.

A Thought on the iPhone Keyboard

image While reading an article partly about the iPhone user experience, a thought dawned on me about the virtual keyboard.  Like many other people, I was afraid that the lack of tactile feedback would be disorienting and difficult to get accustomed to.  And, like most people who have moved to the iPhone, I’ve found that it really isn’t.  That got me thinking about the whole nature of “touch typing”.

Think back to high school (those of you who actually took typing classes).  What was the “sales pitch” the teacher gave you about “touch typing”? Well, it made you more efficient by stopping you from having to repeatedly move your eyes from the keyboard to the screen (or, er, paper – at least when I was in high school).

Now think about the iPhone.  Where’s the keyboard? Where’s the screen? Your eyes never have to move more than 3 inches to jump between the two.  AND, with the large visual pop-up key feedback (the real stroke of genius), you can rely on your peripheral vision to ensure correct keypresses, and still never take your eyes off of the entered text.  Apple simply took a negative limitation of a mobile device (limited room for both display and input), and turned it into a positive – the ability to support a virtual keyboard by replacing tactile feedback with peripheral visual feedback.

Turning limitations into advantages is a hallmark of both great marketing and great user experience design.  Whenever you’re in the process of designing a transformative product like the iPhone, always be sure to ask yourself “What old rules no long apply?”

John Sculley: Marketing Genius

Peter Elkind of Fortune just wrote a scathing article about Steve Jobs in Fortune Magazine, but this post isn’t really about this.  It’s about this included quote from former Apple CEO (and sacker of Steve Jobs), John Sculley:

“Apple was supposed to become a wonderful consumer products company. This was a lunatic plan. High tech could not be designed and sold as a consumer product.”

This wasn’t just an offhand comment to the press.  It’s committed for posterity in Sculley’s memoir: “Odyssey” (13 used copies are currently available for $0.01 if you’re looking for further inspiration.)

And this is why he really should have stuck with selling “sugared water”.

Why Apple Will Dominate the Home Computer Market in the Decades to Come

It has nothing to do with OS X.  Well, not in the way most Apple fans think.I recently stumbled across two different, unrelated articles which point to the same conclusion.  In order for comptuters to truly shine, the software MUST be tied to the hardware.The first article, “Has Vista Lost all Credibility?” talks about how product development and product marketing conflicts between Intel, Dell, and Microsoft led to a lot of the faults of Vista (and provides 158 pages of internal email evidence backing it up).The second article, “Why I Quit“, by former Linux kernel developer Con Kolivas, talks about how even with complete control over the software, the PC platform architecture has become so convoluted over the decades that machines that are technically 1,000 times faster, they’re 10 times slower in “doing stuff”, like playing audio or moving windows.This problem is only getting worse, and Vista has proven it once and for all.  The open “Wintel” architecture used to matter, when people were regularly building and upgrading their own systems, but those days are long gone.  With $250 PC’s at Wal-Mart, the average user is as likely to upgrade their own computers as they are their pocket calculator.  PC’s are disposable commodities now, and people are fine with that.Apple knows this, which is why they developed the Macbook Air the way they did.  You can’t even (officially) replace the battery in this thing.  It’s a sealed, black box for the average user, and even though it comes at a premium price, people don’t care.  They want the illusion that the computer is just a single thing that just does what you want, whether it’s powered by Intel, Motorola, or magical fairies.True innovation in computing (in this day and age) will only come from an integrated hardware and software platform.  The Amiga was a quantum leap ahead of its contemporaries (as Con Kolivas points out) because of its hardware innovations.  Apple is currently the only company following this path, and this is why Macs will become the defacto home computer within 20 years, regardless of how cool OS X is.

Leopard Has Been a Bummer, Overall

So, anyone on the fence about upgrading to Mac OS X Leopard, just… don’t. I mean, it’s not as much a step backward as going from XP to Vista, but I’ve found very little in it that has improved my life. In fact, I’ve spent a whole lot of time figuring out how to hack away most of its changes:

  1. Removing the horrible translucent menu bar. Here’s how I did it.
  2. Getting rid of the ridiculous 3D dock. Here’s how I did it.
  3. Changing the folder icons to ones that are, well, distinguishable. Here’s a good set.
  4. Getting rid of the abysmal Stacks. Oops, can’t be done. But putting Aliases instead of folders in the dock can help. You don’t get the “show-as-menu-mouse-button-hold” thing, but at least you can avoid the stupid Fan and Grid views, and use a recognizable icon.

I also have never gotten my Aiport Disk drives to work quite right in Leopard, and Time Machine, the one compelling reason to upgrade, required a hack to work with my wireless drives.And just as a final note, the OS has literally lost its sheen. Sure, early versions of brushed metal were a bit tacky, but I really miss the faint pinstripes, metal textures and other subtle effects. The totally flat gray widows of Leopard are just… blah.I guess there’s some good back-end stuff going on in the Leopard kernel and whatnot but nothing that’s really changed MY life. And, of course, you can’t sell a $129 OS upgrade to regular folks without throwing in some new whizbang features. But I get the feeling that (aside from the brilliant Time Machine) Apple just focused on the back end for Leopard, and threw in some entirely rushed and thoughtless UI changes just to give folks the impression that they were buying an improved experience. I wouldn’t say that Emperor Leopard has no clothes, but they’re wearing out as quickly as a $20 acrylic sweater.

iPhone Update Arrives

iPhone version 1.1 software has been released. Update yer phones via iTunes.New features according to the installer:

  • iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store
  • Louder speakerphone and receiver volume
  • Home Button double-click shortcut to phone favorites or music controls
  • Space bar double-tap shortcut to intelligently insert period and space
  • Mail attachments are viewable in portrait and landscape
  • Stocks and cities in Stocks and Weather can be re-ordered
  • Apple Bluetooth Headset battery status in the Status Bar
  • Support for TV Out
  • Preference to turn off EDGE/GPRS when roaming internationally
  • New Passcode lock time intervals
  • Adjustable alert volume

Oddly enough, the non-sortable cities in the Weather app really was annoying me… Aside from the Wi-Fi Music Store, I think I could take or leave all the rest… I’d love for Home Button double-click to bring me to Safari bookmarks…

Amazon offering $0.89 DRM-Free MP3 Downloads

Amazon just started a store offering DRM Free MP3 Downloads for a measly $0.89. Well, some are $0.99, but they’re still cheaper than paying $1.19 for the same tracks at the iTunes store – and they’re encoded at an ear pleasing 256k bit rate. I don’t know what the music biz oligarchs are up to, but enjoy it while it lasts…

Apple to Sell DRM-Free Music from EMI

This is huge. Apple and EMI have announced that Apple will begin selling DRM-free tracks from EMI, one of the “big four” record companies. I never saw this coming—at least not this soon. I figured some indie labels might have jumped first, but that would have just been a small baby step—and Steve Jobs isn’t exactly a fan of incremental change. I’m not sure how Jobs pulled it off, but kudos to him.Now begins a great social experiment. DRM detractors have long claimed that DRM free music will sell better than protected music – the argument being that, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, a single unprotected file can spread just as fast as a million copies, so you’re only inconveniencing the “good guys”. Remove the DRM and the convenience factor will convince the good guys to buy more music. I want to believe this is true. I hope this is true. Now we get to find out.