Journler: Blog

Apple to Developers: Write Web Apps. — Is It Really That Bad?

June 18th, 2007

Or: It’s the Content, Stupid.

Had a good conversation today with Chris Messina of Citizen Agency fame. Chris is one of the Agency’s co-founders and advises startups and other firms on their web presence. He is steeped in Web 2.0 goodness and is enthusiastic about the iPhone’s potential as a device which supports web standards. Our conversation brought into perspective my recent diatribes against the iPhone and has given me the chance to ask, is it really that bad?

Let’s take it by way of the WWDC’s OS X Graphics and Media State of the Union. I can’t go into details because of an NDA that was signed by my presence, but let me say that the session offered a convincing argument for the unification of the web, desktop and mobile experience, especially by way of “rich” — read media rich — content.

Since the desktop PC became a consumer product we’ve seen it increasingly decentralized. What traditionally belonged on the desktop is now appearing on other platforms. The transformation has given rise to a “device ecosystem.” Consumers work on their desktops, give presentations with their laptops, play on their portables, listen to their iPods, stream movies to their Apple TV and surf the internet on their mobiles. At the same time two other trends have developed. Rich content has become more prevalent, and individuals expect a single, unified experience.

The circumstances have led to a bit of a conundrum: how do you deliver the same experience when every year the experience becomes more complex and the devices which deliver that experience more varied? Take a movie for example. Alongside that movie are a website, a soundtrack, games for your desktop and portable, downloadable trailers and eventually the movie itself as a download. Heck, you might even throw in email stationary. Not to mention that presentation you put together on your desktop but can’t access from your laptop because of a bad USB stick, but which should be available from your homepage, usable on your phone and editable on your co-worker’s Vaio. What’s the solution?

Standards, and it is here that the iPhone may offer something truly revolutionary. It’s not an area I am well versed in, so I missed it the first time around when I said in my keynote post:

“Instead of announcing an SDK Jobs announced that developers would be able to write AJAX Web 2.0 applications that could be run directly in Safari on the iPhone. This was even billed as an advantage — developers wouldn’t need an SDK, how great is that? But the phone has a standards compliant browser. Of course it can run web apps based on dhtml, css and javascript. Nothing new here.”

Ok, nothing new because we knew the iPhone runs Safari and Safari is standards compliant. But that the iPhone is a phone with a standards compliant browser in the first place is huge! The sessions zeroed in on this with examples of how web pages render on the iPhone verses other web enabled devices. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe Apple Inc. is the first company to fully support web standards on a mobile device so that a site’s content appears exactly how it appears on your desktop or laptop.

With that we reach the point of this article: the platform is becoming irrelevant. At the end of the day does it really matter what kind of computer or device you use as long as it enables you to do what you want and in the manner you expect? The western consumer is about to enter an age of ubiquitous computing. I love that word, ubiquitous. Your Mac better play nice with the PC at the office and they both better work with your printer and your phone, render web content uniformly and allow you to access your data from anywhere at anytime.

I’m sure you’ll forgive the developer if he or she is upset about this. When Steve Jobs takes advantage of his Keynote to flip 6000 Macintosh developers the bird, hand delivering instructions to start writing web apps, he is negating tens of thousands of years worth of career and experience. I’ve only been doing the Cocoa/Obj-C gig for a few years now, but there are developers out there who have been doing this for a lifetime. Asking them to consider a whole other programming language with its syntax, style, libraries and quirks is like telling a Manhattan taxi driver to do his job in LA starting eighteen days from now. You’re gonna hear a few choice words.

Chris is hopeful this is a step in the right direction and our conversation really opened my eyes. It’s going to be a lot of work for Mac developers to make this transition but it certainly looks like a necessary one if they want to be relevant in the approaching age of ubiquitous computing, platform irrelevancy and content supremacy.

What You See is What You Touch: In Search of the Tablet Mac

May 1st, 2007

This is part one of a two part post on touch screen technology and the Tablet Mac.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Leopard’s Delay and the iPhone. I expressed frustration at the direction Apple is taking with the iPhone and criticized the limited nature of the device. At the same time I hoped for an Apple product which the iPhone would herald, a tablet Mac just as powerful as your MacBook but with a touch screen like the iPhone.

The personal computer is on the verge of a paradigm shift, with a well used standard facing replacement. Along with the rest of the industry Apple is at that edge and closer to affecting the change than any other company. The iPod and even the original Apple computer are parallel examples. MP3 players were already around, computers as well, but they were difficult to use, bulky and certainly not elegant. In both cases Apple created a product that not only was generally available to the wider public but was appealing. Apple is about to do the same with touch screen technology.

I’m giving birth to an acronym. You heard it here first: What You See Is What You Touch technology, or WYSIWYT.* Normally you interact with your computer using a keyboard and mouse. This is the old paradigm, the old way of working the hardware side of a user interface. In the coming future the mouse and its associated “click here” standard will give way to a “touch here” interaction. The click will be replaced by the tap. It is a historical irony that the company which made the mouse popular may also do the most to see its demise.

From a user’s standpoint WYSISYT technology is a much more intuitive way of manipulating data on a computer. Instead of moving an attached device on a distinct two dimensional plane — your mouse on a mouse pad or desk for example — to interact with the visual representation of a thing on another two dimensional plane — your screen — you touch the visual object itself. In the simple act of reaching for that visual representation, of confining interaction to a single surface, you replace a complex process with a much simpler one. See. Touch. It is the future.

I believe that the passing of the mouse will see the demise of the keyboard as well. Surely the keyboard won’t become entirely obsolete, but the hardware version of it will. Rather than a physical thing, the keyboard will become a visual, on-screen way to enter text that appears and disappears as needed. Because the screen is touch everywhere, this WYSIWYT business, you’ll be able to type on the display like you type now on a keyboard. And imagine, just as you may use and perhaps define gestures — you’ve seen them on the iPhone — you’ll also be able to customize your virtual keypad.

What You See is What You Touch. It’s been around for a while. You use it when you get cash out of an ATM, when you cast your vote in the last election, and when you work with any of the new tablet PCs featuring WYSIWYT by way of a stylus. But the iPhone is WYSIWYT at its best, and Apple may once again be the company that brings this technology to the masses in a revolutionary way.

As exciting as this is, at the edge of a paradigm shift, the iPhone is too small for my tastes. It may be selfish, but I don’t want a cell phone, I don’t want a PDA, and I don’t want a cute or slick media device. I a want a computer that does WYSIWYT, and I want it to be a Mac. Well, I’ve found one that comes very close. I’ve already taken a look at the emerging widespread use of WYSIWYT technology. In part two of this post I’ll talk about the Axiotron ModBook. Turns out this guy was a Best of Show at MacWorld 2007, and it is the first step towards a WYSIWYT Macintosh tablet.

*The Origin of WYSIWYT
Well shoot, after some more research looks like WYSIWYT is already in limited use. Maybe you didn’t hear it here first, but let’s put it on the map! UK Haptics uses the phrase to describe a virtual reality training simulator for medical professionals. Not quite what I’m getting at. A page over at the Tachi laboratory in Japan employs the acronym at a site about interacting with three dimensional objects. Closer. Dead on the mark is Panasonic in what is as far as I can tell a marketing campaign for the CQVD7001N, an in-car CD/DVD player, although the phrase and acronym don’t seem to appear on any of their English language pages. WYSIWYT. Use it proudly and expect to see more of it. What you see is what you touch is the future.

On Leopard, Delays and the iPhone

April 15th, 2007

I’ve been mulling a commentary on Apple’s recent Leopard announcement. At first I wasn’t sure if this was the appropriate forum. While the announcement does have bearing on Journler, a post about the delay would not limit itself to Journler. Do I really want to get into commentary? You bet I do.

If you aren’t already in the know, Apple recently said that it would delay Leopard’s release until October (look for the Apple Statement on that page). I’d like first to talk about the relevance of this delay for Journler’s users. Next I’d like to say what I think of the delay itself. Finally I’d like to take a hopeful look at the future.

Leopard and Journler
The delay affects Journler users in three specific ways: Syncing, iCal integration and Audio/Video recording. Syncing and iCal integration are two of Journler’s most requested features. I wholeheartedly support the requests and plan to add both features to a future release. I was, however, explicitly waiting for Leopard to implement them. Leopard makes it considerably easier to integrate with iCal, and the OS introduces significant changes to the syncing architecture. Users hoping for these features will have to wait an extra four months.

A/V input is also an issue. Journler’s A/V capabilities are buggy on some Macintosh hardware, mostly because I wrote the code myself without knowing much about the subject. A/V programming is hard and Leopard makes it easier, a fact I was hoping to take advantage of. Users on those machines will benefit from the changes, but again, they’ll have to wait an extra four months.

The Delay Itself
Turning to the announcement itself, the delay doesn’t trouble me in any great way. So it’ll be an additional four months until the OS is released. I’m ok with that, mostly because it doesn’t affect me too radically. To be fair, I’m not holding off on a hardware purchase, and other than planned features which I’m going to get to one way or another, I’m not shaking in my pants waiting for OX 10.5 to come out. 10.4.9 has problems, and Journler has problems because of it, but I can deal with them and I can deal with helping users deal with them. We’ll get through it.

In fact, the delay is something of a benefit for me. I’m still very busy ensuring Journler works as best it can on the currently available system. Those four months give me more time to focus on getting the most out of Tiger, and when I do finally turn to Leopard development, they give me more time to ensure my code works and works well. In the end, while I do understand why the delay annoys many users, I am less moved by it.

The iPhone
The reason for the delay just steams me though. According to the statement released by Apple, the company “had to borrow some key software engineering and QA resources from our Mac OS X team” in order to ensure the iPhone shipped on time. You mean to tell me that a company announced a product before it was ready to be demonstrated, gave it a premature release date, and is now taking resources from what was its core business to ensure that date is met. And for what? For what is, as far as I can tell, an expensive cell phone.

Others, the editors at Macworld for example, regard this approach in a much more positive light than I do. “The iPhone is the point,” they say, if Apple is to become the consumer electronics company it now aspires to be. In principle I think that goal is a fine one. Unify the digital life and the digital lifestyle with high quality products and a designer attitude, absolutely. The iPhone just strikes me as the wrong direction.

The iPhone is an expensive product with a limited, potential user base. A purchase locks you into a contract with a network that doesn’t even cover Europe and is slower than what is already available on less classy devices. 3rd party developers will not be allowed to take advantage of the platform and some key, expected functionality such as Voice over IP (Skype) will be missing because of contractual necessities. Let Leopard be delayed, no problem, but for that?

Hope for the Future
I don’t want to be a naysayer. Any of those limitations are liable to change, and Apple is known for its surprises. What is more, the iPhone could be a revolutionary device, not for being a phone but for its interface.

I remember the first time I really got my hands on an iPod, one of the 4th generation models with the click wheel. The feeling that came with using this thing was incredible! I immediately knew what to do and how to do it, although I had never played with an iPod before. And using the click wheel was such a joy! I purchased that model a little while later and it is still the iPod I have and love.

I imagine the iPhone will offer that same “Wow! This is awesome!” experience whenever a user first gets a chance to play with it. There is the potential here to introduce a device which radically changes the way individuals interact with computers. The keyboard and mouse have been around a long time and served the industry well, but perhaps it is time to reconsider that paradigm and offer a serious alternative to it.

It is in this possibility that my hope lies. The iPhone will be running MacOS, which means the kind of user interface available to the iPhone should, in theory, be available anywhere the OS is installed, as long as the hardware supports it. The fact that Apple borrowed MacOS engineers to ensure completion of the iPhone further supports that notion. Anything that makes the iPhone a revolutionary devices could also make the Macintosh operating system a revolutionary OS.

What I envision is not a phone sized mobile device but a tablet pc, the mythical Mac Tablet that is about the size of my MacBook monitor and just as thin. The entire thing is a mouse, responding to the gestures I make with my hand just as the iPhone does. When necessary I can use a virtual keyboard, one that appears and disappears from the display as needed. Put something like that in my hands and I promise you I’ll be awake endless nights developing some of the coolest software you’ve ever seen. And I won’t be the only Mac developer doing it.

In summary, Leopard’s delay doesn’t move me one way or another. Products are delayed and that is acceptable, even if it does impact Journler’s development and user needs. It is the reason for Leopard’s delay that troubles me. The iPhone in itself seems like a bad idea. At the same time, I’m hoping that the iPhone is a stepping stone to a product with a more universal appeal and an even greater revolutionary aspect. If there’s a company that can pull something like that off, it’s Apple, even if I do think that Apple Inc. is making a mistake this time around.

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