Friday, September 03, 2010

another patience lesson

Apple has really come to prominence, and a lot has changed this decade. But, not all that much. They are still doing most things in pretty much the same way that they were in 2000. In particular, they have a relatively slow, long-term rollout of new features. They would rather release a feature quietly and let it go unused for years, while people gradually figure it out, than promise a new feature that they end up failing to deliver.

One example is the accelerometer. Apple notebooks have had it for a long time, but it is only used to protect the hard drive if the computer is dropped. It has been possible for quite some time to install software that allowed you to use the accelerometer as an input; a couple of examples would be tilting the mac to control steering for a flight simulator, or tapping the side of the screen to start your favorite applications. It may be that the laptop is a little too heavy to make those applications useful, but I still think that one day they will surface and prove useful. The iPhone has, of course, made the accelerometer much more prominent, and uses it frequently. However, the use of the accelerometer is still rather primitive; it should be possible to devise a rich vocabulary of controls that are initiated by subtle movements or tilts. But, the public need time to adapt to that reality, and Apple seems to know this better than many other companies. The foundation of their success is shipping features that are polished to a shine, but not flashy in the least.

This is a strategy that has also been clearly communicated by 37Signals, which is a small company that specializes in design but also has published several of its own web applications. Both in their stewardship of the Rails platform, and their books and blogs, they explain that simple solutions are just more effective. There are many facets and corollaries to this thesis, but the most salient one may be the annoying trend that people will give up on trying to use a web app if it is not immediately intuitive. Although there may be complicated business logic hidden in there, the interface of it should be as natural and unfettered as possible. It's relatively clear that they learned this wisdom from Apple, and the two platforms have both benefitted from recent advances in the other (for example, Apple's Objective-C 2.0 incorporated several of Ruby's most time-saving features; Ruby only became popular after 37Signals began to use and evangelize it).

Keeping my product simple, and my interface natural, is a challenge for me. There are just a whole lot of features I can add that seem powerful to me. I know that I should wait until my user base has mastered a few things at a time, and I am striving to do so. I just wanted to mention that Apple's event this week provided another reminder of their enormous patience.

When they debuted the new iPhone this summer, the most suggestive remark was that they planned to ship X millions of "FaceTime devices" this year. It was pretty clear that this videoconferencing technology would be part of the new iPod, but many wondered if it would also be incorporated into the AppleTV box. There are several big advantages to having it there - for example, your TV is usually in a spot that has a very strong WiFi signal. It has a big screen, and you don't have to hold your arm out in front of you to see it. For users, like grandparents, that might not get the point of an iPod, or might not be able to find it if they have one, the TV is a less threatening interface. And, the enclosure of the AppleTV is big enough to house a good camera, with zoom, without a miracle of engineering.

Yet we will have to be patient to see that come our way. I think Apple preferred to keep the price point down, since the first AppleTV was a bit of a failure. There may have also been awkward issues with camera placement that Apple opted to avoid, or defer for now. After all, it is "face" time, not "edge of the coffee table" time. Apple is enhancing the beauty of its product with the beauty of faces. And, although it will be years before video calling is an everyday experience, they will patiently wait for us to catch up, and just keep working on their new ideas in private.

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