Efficiency vs. Delight

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of delight in application design and how it relates to (and sometimes trumps) efficiency. I wrote a small piece about this and Macworld published it today.

The Next Thing and Low Hanging Fruit

I read this Wall Street Journal article where Tim Cook explained that Apple is approaching releasing a product in a new category. There is one line in the story that explains “Cook knows that’s the biggest question hanging over the company: whether it can repeat the innovative success with a new product category – as it did with the iPhone in 2007 and iPad in 2010.” Somehow it’s become a thing that if Apple can’t release something equivalent to the iPhone and iPad, it’s doomed. Oddly (or perhaps sanely), nobody says that about any other company.

I’m sure Apple does have some new product categories up its sleeve but I also seriously doubt any of them will be as successful as the iPhone. Everybody needs a phone. Not everyone needs a watch, fitness tracker, or iJockstrap. The iPhone represents an expensive and frequently replaced bit of technology that we all need to get around. There isn’t anything else like that. Nevertheless, Apple will start expanding into these lesser categories and people will look at the numbers and say, “See … Apple is doomed without Steve.”

It seems to me that with phones and tablets, Apple has already taken the low hanging fruit. I don’t think there is another category of personal electronics at this stage of the game that everyone will want or need. I’m sure Apple’s new products will be great and will enhance the overall experience but I’d be shocked if they were iPhone/iPad levels of success. I don’t think it matters whether Tim Cook or Steve Jobs were in charge, I just don’t think such a product category exists right now.

The Problems You Don’t Know

I’ve been running pretty hard the last few months between the day job and finishing up the Email Field Guide. In the process, I’ve fallen off the wagon a few times with my OmniFocus task management discipline. Everybody probably knows that feeling of seeing the red badge of “Overdue” show up on the icon and know that it has been several days since you opened up the application and sorted through things. You know there is ticking bomb under your kitchen table and part of you would rather pretend it’s not there and keep eating Cheeze-Its.

I’m here to tell you to put down the box of delicious cheese-flavored crackers and instead cut the red wire. If you are using some of the tricks I showed in my OmniFocus Screencasts, it will not take that long to quickly get through your task list. Even if that means pushing 95% of your tasks off until next Monday, that 5% left is manageable and just think how much more time and money it will cost to rebuild your kitchen if you let that bomb go off.

Here is how I did it under fire the last few weeks.

Screenshot 2013-11-21 14.02.13.png

1. Enable A Clear Perspective

I have a special perspective to help me sweep the decks. It removes all project distinctions and instead just gives me a long list of all active tasks. This makes it really easy to grab big fat chunks of them using the shift or command keys while selecting.

Screenshot 2013-11-21 14.02.28.png

2. Use the Inspector to Process Multiple Tasks

On the Mac version of OmniFocus, open up the inspector and move the start date to some safe date in the future for large swathes of your selected task backlog. Set a record for how many you move with one selection.

3. Defuse the Bombs

There will be a few important things left. Deal with those and get back to the big project that put you behind in the first place. Remember, this too shall pass.

The thing is there are the problems you know and the problems you don’t know. It is the ones you don’t know that will get you every damn time.

Trucks and Cars

In 2010, Steve Jobs made the analogy between PCs and mobile devices with the original trucks and cars. He explained that when we were an agrarian nation and automobiles were new, everybody wanted a truck. Automobiles were expensive things and you only bought one if you needed it to do heavy work. That, however, was temporary. Eventually, people began buying cars and before you knew it most people bought cars.

As the analogy goes, the desktop PCs are the trucks and the emerging classes of tablets and pocket computing devices, such as iPhones, are the cars. When he made the analogy, it made a lot of sense to me but I felt like it was still something pretty distant into the future. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Looking at my new iPhone, it has a 64 bit processor and is more powerful than anything I could’ve imagined just a few years ago. Moreover, software developers are getting smarter about ways to implement these touch devices in a way that’s quick, efficient, and just better than a traditional PC. (Don’t believe me? Check out Editorial.) I don’t think the desktop Mac is going away but I do feel the swing as more people decide their phones and tablets are “enough”.

This was brought home for me today with some reporting by Horac Dediu. Including iOS and Android devices with traditional computers, in Q3 2008, there were 92 million units shipped, 90% of which were running Windows. Jumping to Q3 2013, using the same devices, there were 269 million units shipped of which Windows was 32%. There were more traditional computer shipped in 2008 than in 2013. You don’t even need fancy statistics to verify this. Just look around you, and you’ll find several people that get by just fine with a mobile device alone.

I’m not saying that laptops and desktop computers are going to go away entirely. There’s a big group of people that are always going to want that kind of power, including me. However, the shift from trucks to cars is in full swing and as the mobile devices get even better hardware and smarter software, this is going to become even more obvious.

Scummy App Copycats

I cannot understate how repulsive I find the actions reported in this Ars Technica article. An App Developer made a successful photo app called “A Beautiful Mess”. The app was successful and then a group of copycats began submitting confusingly similar apps with names like “A Beautiful Mess Free” and “A Beautiful Mess +”. In some instances, the copycats used identical icons and screenshots. The article opines how some developers will even grab the code from the original app and reverse engineer it. How does Apple not see what is going on here? If I submitted an app called “Logic Pro X Free” do you think it would get approved?  When someone so blatantly rips off another developer, Apple shouldn’t only reject the app, they should also ban the developer. There simply is no excuse.

The tragedy is that with the approval process Apple has the ability to stop this practice in its tracks. Indeed, Apple is the only app store that can do this since it is the only one requiring approval.  As a community we need to put as much light on this as possible so, in addition to looking for malicious code, Apple also starts looking for (and banning) scummy developers. 


Apple’s Enemies

I’m 100% on board with Brent Simmons’ post at Macworld yesterday.

“Instead, Apple’s enemy is Apple itself. It must attract and retain talent. It needs to get strong where it’s weak—particularly with syncing and online services.

It needs to retain that awesome balance between cautious incremental updates and the occasional, mind-blowing new.

It’s not easy. But nobody does it better than Apple.”

I tried to make a similar point in my Macworld article about the culture of fear in the Apple community. We are not going back to a world where one platform gets 96% of the market share. We no longer need to be worried about our beloved fruit company shuttering its doors. It is now up to Apple to continue to deliver.

The RSS Apocalypse

Aldo Coresi explains:

“The truth is this: Google destroyed the RSS feed reader ecosystem with a subsidized product, stifling its competitors and killing innovation. It then neglected Google Reader itself for years, after it had effectively become the only player. Today it does further damage by buggering up the already beleaguered links between publishers and readers. It would have been better for the Internet if Reader had never been at all.”

I spent most of today in meetings. As a result, I didn’t have time to fiddle in Twitter or check in on the web. It was the kind of day where I knew I could catch up on the day’s news the way I do most busy days, through RSS. So you can imagine my suprise as I drove home today chatting with Katie Floyd on the phone and she tells me Google is uplugging Reader.

I remember back when RSS was amazing and something you paid for. I also remember when Google Reader showed up and very quickly started taking over. It was free. It was Google (back before we were all scared of Google) and it wrecked the market for all of the paid RSS services. We all wondered how Google monetized its Reader expense but we wonder that about most Google services so we all cancelled our paid services and leapt.

Now Google is yanking the cord. Since Reader is the Google service I use the most, that made me a bit sad but I didn’t see it as the end of the world. I’m sure some enterprising folks have already filled the whiteboard and are spitballing ideas for the next great RSS reader service. Within a month competitors will be on the market and I’ll switch. It will probably cost a few bucks but they won’t be collecting data on me or selling to advertisers. (At least not the RSS service I evenutally choose won’t.) In other words, with Google exiting, the free market will take over. So my initial reaction was, “meh” and even a bit of enthusiasm that with paid RSS, people may start innovating again.

Then I got home and my wife was really upset about it. My wife is a bit of a nerd too but she travels in circles of electronically connected paper-crafters and they are absolutely up in arms about this. To them, Google Reader is RSS. They don’t know of alternative services and as far as they know, new services will never again exist. They think RSS is going to die on July 1 and that’s that. Now some of them will figure out they can go elsewhere but some won’t. Those people will stop reading blogs via RSS and those blogs will lose readers.

That got me thinking. I’ve spent years building up MacSparky.com. There are thousands of RSS subscribers. How many will bother to sort out a new RSS system and subscribe again? The closing of Google Reader is going to result in the great RSS purge of 2013. Then Brett Terpstra tweeted this article by Aldo Cortesi which sums it all up in the above cited paragraph better than I ever could. This whole mess is just another example of why free is so often bad.


I’ve been thinking about all the hullabaloo over the price of the new iPad mini. Everybody feels that Apple blew it by not getting the price down to something competitive with Google and Amazon. Upon reflection, this really doesn’t surprise me. Both Google and Amazon have stated that they are selling their small plastic-based tablet products essentially at cost in order to get market share. They have a problem. Apple is beating their pants off in the tablet market and they need a toehold. Apple enthusiasts are eager for Apple to stifle the competition by making a superior iPad mini at roughly the same price. As they see it, Apple has its boot on Google and Amazon’s neck and needs only to push to own all aspects of the tablet market for the foreseeable future.

Apple however does not play that game. Apple likes to make money. I can’t really fault it for that. The iPad mini starts at $329. the Google Nexus device starts at $199. That Google device only has 8 GB of storage whereas the iPad mini has 16 GB. To get a Google Nexus tablet at 16 GB, you need to spend $250, $79 less than the iPad mini.

So a fair comparison is the $250 Google Nexus device versus the $329 iPad. What does that extra $79 get you? For starters, the iPad mini is better designed and built. I’ll take aluminum over plastic any day of the week. Additionally, the iPad mini is an iPad in all senses of the word. It runs, natively, all of the excellent iPad software. The Android tablet software is not there yet. (That thing I wrote about Android apps nearly a year ago still stands.)

When I was on the Mac Roundtable this week, I made the comment that this device isn’t necessarily aimed at us nerds. We all love our large-screen iPads with retina displays and a lot of us don’t see a good reason to go to the smaller device. That’s okay. Apple already has our money. I suspect that the market for the iPad mini is probably less nerd-inclined than that of the larger iPad. The iPad mini is aimed at people who want a quality smaller tablet device. Apple thinks there are a lot of people willing to shell out an extra few bucks for such a device and I suspect they are correct.
All of this said, I agree that if they were able to hit $299 instead of $329, a lot more people would have gotten past the price barrier but Apple is a very successful company and I’m sure people much smarter than I already did that math and the iPad mini will do just fine at $329.

The real interesting part of all of this discussion is the collective concern of Apple enthusiasts over Apple blowing it. All of us remember the times when Apple was nearly on the chopping block and there’s this sort of cultural fear that somehow our beloved company is to stop making our beloved products. As a result, we all wring our hands and rend our garments in fear every time Apple makes a big move. Moreover, when we see any other company being remotely successful in the same space as Apple, a small part of our brains think it is Microsoft Windows all over again. The good news, my brothers and sisters, is that those days are over. There is not going to be a single winner like there was for the Mac vs. Windows days this time. (Not even Apple.) Apple gets that and is more than happy to let others fight over the low margin end of the market and gobble up the high-end of the market where Apple can actually make a profit and, therefore, keep the lights on.

Jason Snell said it best in this week’s Macworld podcast, “Is there a cheap tablet market or is there a small tablet market?” I think the latter and so does Apple. I’ll also go out on a limb and say that, with the iPad mini’s sales starting tonight at midnight, they’ll be sold out before I wake tomorrow.

About this Apple Publishing Lawsuit ▻

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY)wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal about the US Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Apple over book-selling practices. I’m sure there must be some explanation for this lawsuit but it eludes me.

As I understand things:

  1. Amazon had a chokehold on digital distribution and was gleefully ramming it down the publishers’ throats.

  2. Apple, and others, entered the market and gave publishers more control over how they sold their books.

If anything, it seems that Amazon is the one being anti-competitive. It looks like Senator Schumer agrees with

Degrees of “Free”

In this week’s episode of Build & Analyze, Marco Arment explains the challenges of competing with free. At some point over the last few years I’ve migrated away from free services for anything I consider essential. I’d like to say this was calculated but this shift took place at a subconsious level. This shift has two reasons:

  1. No Monetization = Temporary
    I don’t want to waste my time in something temporary. I’ve been burned too many times over the years investing my time and effort learning a free service or app that disappears with little or no warning. If something is good, I want it to stick around and I understand that requires money.

  2. Free is Not Free
    While some apps are free downloads, they are rarely “free”. I end up paying with intrusive ads or information about myself. I’d much rather pay a few dollars to begin with. In my book, that is much cheaper.

Applying this to Instapaper, not only did I pay for the app on my iPhone and iPad, I also am a subscriber and pay $1 per month for this ridiculously useful service that I use every day.