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Woods

No surprise, I’m depressed by the election result and think it portends terrible things for our country. There’s work to be done, art to be made, and a million tiny positive things we can do that will add up to repel darkness and hatred.

“But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. … [I]f you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.”

—Barack Obama

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StrongerTogether

The Wall Street Journal estimates 12 million watches were sold in its first year, compared to 6 million iPhone sales in its first year. That sounds pretty successful, but what does it mean for the next couple of years? (For the record, I think 12 million is a pretty good indicator that the watch isn’t a “flop,” which is the current sentiment in most media.)

Macworld has just published an opinion piece I wrote, arguing that a better comparison is the iPad, not the iPhone, when looking at longer-term performance. Read it here: Look to the iPad for Apple Watch comparisons.

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My latest article for Lynda.com is now posted, wherein I rebel against good photo settings and make the point that even mistakes are better than nothing. Go see the errors I made and how I compensated for them:

Epic Photography Fails…Can Be Awesome

(The headline is a little hyperbolic, but hey, it gets your attention, right?)

I also reference the movie The Paper, which also hinges around catchy headlines, and which is a great film about the newspaper profession. Go rent it—unfortunately, it’s not on any streaming service right now. (The photo above is a still from the movie.)

After you’ve read my article, be sure to check out the comments on the post at Facebook, where someone pasted a great photo of Rambo rapid-firing a DSLR at a butterfly.

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

[Updated in places thanks to feedback from readers, and a fresh round of caffeine since I wrote this post late last night.]

I almost titled this post “The Pessimist’s Look at WWDC,” but I’m not a pessimist. I think most of what was announced by Apple at the Worldwide Developer Conference keynote is exciting and interesting, and I can’t wait to be able to use it. The presentation itself was funny and lighthearted at times (although the haircut gag was too forced), and shows that Apple is doing all sorts of work that doesn’t rely on a shiny new gadget.

But as I read more about the technologies and think about the keynote, I can’t help but hear from the devil on my shoulder that proves, to me, Apple—even at such an unbelievable current level of success—really needs to prove themselves in many areas. So, a quick whisper from the shoulder about some of the stuff announced today, in no particular order:

  • I’m excited by the photo possibilities introduced in iOS 8. The editing controls look really slick. Will this herald the end of iPhoto for iOS? There’s a lot of overlap in functionality between the new Photos app and iPhoto.

  • It’s not clear whether iCloud Photo Library counts against the storage space for the new paid tiers, all documents, the new iCloud Drive, or what. I’m guessing it all does, which makes the 5 GB free pretty disappointing. People already rightly complain that Apple’s iCloud storage plans don’t even cover a regular backup for devices—I own a 128 GB iPad Air. And when you add photos to the mix, 5 GB gets eaten up mighty quickly. So what happens then? Are oldest ones deleted? [It sounds as if the storage space is for all of your data, and new material is no longer uploaded when you hit the ceiling.]

  • I would like to see more than just marking something as a favorite and creating albums as the only methods of organizing photos. If Apple is retiring iPhoto for Mac in favor of the new OS X Photos app in 2015, say goodbye to keywords, star ratings, smart albums, and other ways people sort their photos. And how does that apply to people’s existing libraries? My suspicion is that Apple will continue to have two tiers of photo organization: the Photos app on iOS and OS X mirror each other and replace iPhoto on OS X; iPhoto and Aperture are rolled together into the “pro” or “advanced” application, perhaps with a gauzy screen separating the amateur and pro features somehow. I don’t believe Apple is ready to ditch Aperture entirely; it has time and money on its side. But it may not have any users left. And both applications desperately need to be refreshed or fully rewritten, for performance reasons alone.

  • I like the idea of being able to say “Hey, Siri” at any time to activate Siri hands-free, but without some magic applied, that’s gotta be murder on battery life. [I missed that this feature is only active when the device is plugged into power, such as in a car, nightstand, or desk. Related: How soon before people freak out that Apple is spying on them by having an always-listening device nearby? Even though I’m sure it wouldn’t be recording or anything remotely nefarious, just listening for that trigger. Mark my words, some pundit will make a big deal out of this.]

  • Extensibility is a long overdue, great addition to iOS. And one that every developer is going to try to add to their app. So what happens when I want to open a document of some type and I have to slog through dozens of apps in the share sheet to find the one I want? On a phone especially, throwing in too many options will degrade the user experience. I should be able to swipe once, twice max, to find the app I want.

  • The Family Sharing features also look promising, but the kicker is that all devices must share a single credit card. That makes sense, but how will that work in practice? Specifically, how will people transition to take advantage of it? My wife has her own music library and her own credit card to pay for items; if we switch to a single card, does that erect a wall between her existing items and the new ones? And if it’s at all complicated to set up in a situation like that, will people just ignore the feature?

  • Oh boy, the promise of HealthKit is exciting. Apple singled out the Mayo Clinic as a partner with integrated data and apps that can notify a doctor if, say, your vital signs are spiking. I want to believe, but this involves dealing with the medical industrial complex where nothing is easy, nothing talks to anything else, and obfuscation is standard operating procedure. Can it really get off the ground? [Looks like it has potential: Apple has partnered with Epic Systems, which provides an estimated 40 percent of Americans’ medical records.]

  • Wi-Fi integration with your iPhone to take phone calls on your Mac! Automatic hotspot! Soooo cool. But with one little asterisk at the bottom of the page: “*Check with your carrier for hotspot availability.” In the U.S., that basically means, “Crap.” [Okay, I overstated, since most providers now offer hotspot features. But often at a markup.]

  • Okay, let’s lump iCloud Drive, Mail Drop, iCloud Photo Library, Handoff, HomeKit, and I’m sure several other features into one big box: iCLOUD. I totally understand why Apple is leveraging the cloud, especially since in most situations the end points are all Apple products. But, iCLOUD. For whatever incomprehensible reason, Apple has never quite gotten the essential net services that it knows are vital to all of this. Developers have spent months and months banging their heads trying to incorporate iCloud syncing in their apps, and many of them have determined that the best route is to write their own sync servers. Say “iCloud” to a room full of developers or people who support Apple devices and the floor tilts from the combined displacement of eyeballs rolling in their sockets. The more Apple elevates iCloud as the backbone of its services, the more important it is that iCloud just works. All the time. And Apple still struggles with this.

Like I said, I actually have a positive outlook on what Apple announced today. And keep in mind that the WWDC keynote is often only half of the iceberg—we’ll learn more in the Fall when new hardware is released to take advantage of this software. But, as ever, Apple has a lot to prove to make it all work.

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A few quick caveats up front:

  • I’ve not used an Oculus Rift VR headset, and I’m not even much of a gamer anymore.
  • I’m working on multiple projects right now and I’m sleep deprived.
  • I’m highly caffeinated.

Still, the news that Facebook is buying Oculus for $2 billion ($1.6 billion of which is Facebook stock), I, too made jokes on Twitter about it.

I mean how could I not? A giant social media advertising company is buying a company that is designing, of all things, virtual-reality (VR) hardware and software.

But I think it could turn out to be a savvy move on the part of Zuckerberg in the long run, based on two tangential relationships I have. (Look, I warned you up front. I’m not trying to be a hard-hitting journalist here. I’m actually typing this on my iPad in a quiet kitchen while more coffee brews.)

I know a guy (who I’m leaving anonymous here) with many years of experience (those are real years, not stretched Silicon Valley years) managing servers at Internet service providers. He knows more about network hardware than I know about most things, and just looking at the impeccable ways he strings cable so it’s not a mess tells you that right away.

A few years ago, he left what seemed like a solid job to go work for Facebook in one of their new data operations centers. This was before your parents had joined Facebook, so it sounded pretty crazy. But he pointed out that even then, the amount of data pouring through Facebook’s machines was immense, especially the vast numbers of digital photos. Although he was going to work for a company best known for its trivial content and sketchy privacy attitudes, it was clearly one of the most interesting, most challenging places to be if you wanted to shape how data on such a scale operates.

I know another guy, Mike Matas, a designer and photographer I’ve met a couple of times who left a successful startup to work at Apple, designed the original iPhone battery icon (among many other things), and then left the world’s biggest fruit company to blaze a trail as an independent software developer again. He and a small band of folks made the interactive version of Al Gore’s book Our Choice, gave an impressive TED talk about it, and looked poised to usher in a new chapter (ha, it’s the caffeine) of interactive ebooks.

Facebook bought his company. Facebook wasn’t, as far as I can tell from the outside, interested in making ebooks. They wanted design talent. And since Matas has been at Facebook, he and his colleagues made big changes to the Facebook Camera app (right as the company bought Instagram for what now seems like a small amount, $1 billion) and recently released the much-lauded Paper app (well, lauded for the design and interactive elements, not so much the stealing of another company’s name).

Now, the thing that ties these two men together, and how it relates to Oculus, is this: They’re both still at Facebook. Part of the Silicon Valley culture, it seems, is that people don’t feel obligated to stick around at companies for too long, especially people who’ve sold their companies and hang out until their options vest.

I admit I don’t know the first man beyond social interactions and I don’t know Matas at all aside from an introduction and a nod hello, but my sense is that more is happening at Facebook behind the blue curtains. My purely gut-level impression is that there are actually two “Facebooks.” The ad-generating behemoth that traffics in funny pictures and quasi-inspirational quotes and an abundance of auto-playing videos and ads is the Facebook of now, and because it’s yoked to impressions and traffic and eyeballs (eww), it has to do all these obnoxious things because that pays the bills even as advertising revenue is losing its effectiveness.

The second Facebook is the one of tomorrow, which doesn’t have to be tied to the current one except in the sense that those Upworthy posts are paying for these two men and plenty of other talented people to work on innovations whose effects are still a few years out.

That’s where Oculus fits in. VR has always been a few years out. It’s the technology that appears in all the movies because no one can make it really work in the real world. But from what I’ve heard, the Oculus folks are genuinely on to something, which likely won’t make its full effect as a pair of digital ski goggles strapped to your head. And Facebook, which has a lot of cash—and more important, a lot of potential—can afford to scoop up this startup now for the future Facebook to work and play with.

It’s easy for us to look at things as they are now and wonder how disparate pieces fit together. Ten years ago, Apple started playing with touchscreen technology in its labs, invented a prototype iPad, then shelved it for a spell until the opportunity arose to create a phone. A phone, from the company that only made computers that were for artists and music players that were for kids, according to much popular opinion. Now look at us. I just wrote this piece on my iPad and it’s likely you read it on an iPhone, iPad, or other touchscreen device.

Coffee’s brewed. Time to tackle the next challenge.

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Greg Knauss created a fun little iOS app called Romantimatic that reminds you to text your significant other just to say things like “Hello,” “I’m thinking about you,” or “I love you.” It’s clever and appeals to people who are, in Greg’s words, “distracted or forgetful.” We all know someone like that (and I’m sure we all are someone like that sometimes).

Apparently, it’s also the worst thing that could have ever been created by mankind, because Greg has endured the brunt of cynical, public abuse. Apparently, if you don’t remember to do something nice for someone you care about, it means you’re a horrible monster and you don’t really care. Or something.

In “The Empathy Vacuum,” he writes about that experience but goes much deeper into the heart of the problem.

So what’s the difference? Why is mechanical help with relationships out of bounds, but help with weight control not? Why is one type of self-improvement aid worse than the other?

The difference, for me, comes down to empathy. We — the majority of us — need help with our weight. (Note to international readers: I’m an American. Seriously, the majority of us need help with our weight.) It’s an easy enough problem to understand. Ice cream is delicious, exercise sucks, and so a little nudge in the right direction is appropriate, even appreciated.

But we — the majority of us — apparently do not need help remembering to text our significant other. (Or — cough — think we don’t.)

And that’s the difference, isn’t it? What we can imagine ourselves doing, or needing, or wanting. Those people who don’t need the help feel free to judge those who do.

Personally, I think that if you’re thoughtful enough to add a reminder to say something nice to someone, that’s as good as spontaneously remembering it. The point is to express that feeling. There’s too much pressure out there to conform to how one is “supposed” to express emotion or act romantically, we don’t need more guilt and crap.

Go read the whole thing. It’s excellent.

Risk Appetite

January 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

I love this post by my friend Mason Marsh, “Risk Appetite.” Photographers take all sorts of risks when shooting, and sometimes it ends up with broken camera bodies and human bodies. What’s your risk appetite? Yes, I want to capture great photos, but I also like being in one piece. He writes:

I feel for these photographers who have lost their expensive cameras and lenses at Cape Kiwanda, but I also want to express my grumpy disdain for their choices. When you plant your tripod on bare rock on the Oregon Coast, you need to ask why it’s bare. The coast receives up to ten feet of rain each year, so if there’s any chance for green things to grow they will. When rock is bare near the ocean it’s usually because waves keep it that way. If intertidal life is living on the rock, that is a solid clue that the ground you are on will indeed get wet. If you are standing on grass and fluffy dunes, you are probably going to stay un-doused. Make choices with knowledge, not hubris. Anyone taking photographs in nature should take some time to get to know why things are the way they are. Our responsibility to ourselves as outdoor photographers is to manage our risks and enjoy our rewards. When things go sour and cameras die, that sucks but it’s the price we pay. It’s our risk tax.

20130313-233727.jpgThanks to 39,000 (and counting) people today, there’s going to be a Veronica Mars movie in spring of 2014. The project, by show creator Rob Thomas, was set to fund if the Kickstarter campaign raised $2 million within 30 days. It actually took only ten hours to reach the goal. As I write this, late in the evening of that first day, almost $2.5 million has been pledged.

And to my amazement, that’s driving some people crazy. My colleague Phil Michaels, for example, tweeted, “Congratulations to fans of Veronica Mars for your eagerness to hand over money to already well-compensated entertainers.”

True, making a movie with established actors isn’t going to cure any diseases, but the general sentiment is that this is superfluous, that Hollywood is taking advantage of regular people who don’t know better and who throw their money at glitter. And there’s the persistent idea that backing a project on Kickstarter is just a way to order stuff (in this case, DVDs, scripts, posters, and other things related to the movie).

I’m no movie industry insider, but I know that this isn’t some vanity project being foisted upon folks. Veronica Mars was a semi-successful TV show that had great writing, an intentional film-noir approach to high school that was different than most TV dreck. When it was cancelled in 2007, viewers still cared about the characters, and since then Thomas and star Kristen Bell have tried to get a movie version made.

Even with an established property and an ongoing fan base, they ran into walls. No studio wanted to do it. That’s common in Hollywood. According to the creators, the Kickstarter project was a last-ditch effort. They talked to Warner Bros. and made a deal: if they could raise $2 million on Kickstarter and show that an audience exists, WB would greenlight the movie. Letters to studios and fan petitions only go so far—money talks loud and clear.

I suppose some people think this is just an easy $2 million for Thomas to pocket, but realistically that’s a tiny fraction of what it would take to make a movie. That’s basement-low money in Hollywood. That gives you a cast working at scale, a small crew, and equipment rental. I saw elsewhere that $2 million is about what each episode cost when the show was on the air (or maybe that’s the average cost of a scripted TV episode now; I’ve lost the reference). A small budget works for something like Veronica Mars, which will no doubt be heavy on words and light on special effects.

To release the movie, Warner Bros. will spend at least that amount in marketing alone, and that’s just for a small campaign. The more money raised by the Kickstarter project, the more they can put into production.

A lot of media writers are going to point to this in the coming days and project all sorts of things. I’ve seen it on Twitter tonight already: In the near future, you’ll have to pay for movies in advance; studios will turn to crowdfunding to further line their coffers; etc. And some of that will be true, and some of it will be tried, and a lot of it will fail. You can bet a ton of old properties that might have some whispers of fan bases will be resurrected. And they’ll probably collapse. Small budget filmmaking is essentially a private version of Kickstarter, with moviemakers asking friends and relatives for investment, running up credit cards, and the like. Kickstarter gives the process a streamlined approach that can involve a lot of people you don’t personally know.

This isn’t the case of a handful of movie folks rolling in money. The whole point of the campaign, and of Kickstarter in general, is to get started, and to create something worthwhile. I pledged $50 because I want to support people who want to create something good, and I’m betting that a Veronica Mars movie will be good. It may not be. It could be a disaster. I may not even go see the movie in theaters (which would cost me more money; my pledge isn’t buying me a ticket); it may not even be released in theaters. But that doesn’t diminish my desire to support the creation of good entertainment.

Charles Fishman’s excellent article “The Insourcing Boom” in The Atlantic never mentions Apple — save for one instance of “iPhone” used for its apparent sleekness — but the company’s ethos is everywhere.

Fishman writes about how GE has moved manufacturing of some of its products like washing machines and refrigerators back to the United States from China. On the surface, this seems absurd, because we all know that labor costs in the US are vastly higher than costs in China (about 30 employees in China for the price of one employee in the US, he notes). But it turns out that labor is no longer the most important factor: oil prices have risen over the past decade, making it much more expensive to ship goods by boat; the typical five-week travel time between continents is becoming a liability as the market demands faster revisions to products.

However, what’s really crucial turns out to be design. To manufacture a water heater called the GeoSpring in their own facilities (which have remained largely empty for years), GE’s engineers realized that actually building the thing was a mess.

The GeoSpring suffered from an advanced-technology version of “IKEA Syndrome.” It was so hard to assemble that no one in the big room wanted to make it. Instead they redesigned it. The team eliminated 1 out of every 5 parts. It cut the cost of the materials by 25 percent. It eliminated the tangle of tubing that couldn’t be easily welded. By considering the workers who would have to put the water heater together—in fact, by having those workers right at the table, looking at the design as it was drawn—the team cut the work hours necessary to assemble the water heater from 10 hours in China to two hours in Louisville.

In the end, says Nolan, not one part was the same.

So a funny thing happened to the GeoSpring on the way from the cheap Chinese factory to the expensive Kentucky factory: The material cost went down. The labor required to make it went down. The quality went up. Even the energy efficiency went up.

Even if you know Apple just for its products, you know that design is a huge focus at the company. Design is the company. And the way the iPhone appears or the thinness of the latest iMac is just a small part of the products’ design.

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To make their products as sharp and beautiful as they are, Apple has to also design the manufacturing processes to create them. The fit and finish of an iPhone 5 is unmatched because a machine with high-resolution cameras examines the partially-assembled phone in front of it, snaps photos and precise measurements of it, and then chooses from 725 versions of one piece to find the one that fits best (watch the iPhone 5 video starting at 4:31).

In the documentary Objectified, Apple Senior VP of Design Jonathan Ive says that much of the work that goes into coming up with a new product design is focused on building the machines and processes that will create the product. For example, Apple designed the machines that turn single slabs of aluminum into the cohesive frames of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops; making the body one piece increases rigidity, while using aluminum keeps the weight down.

(Apple is a great source of behind-the-scenes machine assembly pr0n, which also shows that it knows this manufacturing is a significant competitive advantage. When you hold an iPhone 5 compared to just about any other phone on the market, the other feels like cheap plastic garbage.)

So Apple has been aware for years of the advantages of designing systems and manufacturing processes catered specifically to their products. And yet, nearly all of its production happens in China.

Fishman talks also about the disconnect between a product’s designers and engineers in the US and the people doing the manufacturing in China. It’s not just an issue of speaking different languages.

It happens slowly. When you first send the toaster or the water heater to an overseas factory, you know how it’s made. You were just making it—yesterday, last month, last quarter. But as products change, as technologies evolve, as years pass, as you change factories to chase lower labor costs, the gap between the people imagining the products and the people making them becomes as wide as the Pacific.

Apple benefits from several advantages in this respect, made possible largely because Apple has so much money to address the issues. Apple employees spend time in the factories, and have built up perhaps the world’s most impressive supply chain. Back when Apple CEO Tim Cook was VP of operations, an important manufacturing problem came up. According to an article by Adam Lashinsky at CNN:

“This is really bad,” Cook told the group. “Someone should be in China driving this.” Thirty minutes into that meeting Cook looked at Sabih Khan, a key operations executive, and abruptly asked, without a trace of emotion, “Why are you still here?”

Apple also circumvents the time-to-market issue by flying new products from the factories directly; when you place an order for a new model of iPad, for example, you can track its progress from the factory to the US via FedEx or UPS tracking number. Loading many — hundreds? — of 747 cargo planes full of devices so they arrive in people’s hands the first day of availability is massively expensive. But Apple has the money to do it, the margins to pay for it, and millions of customers willing to pay for it. (Here’s another area where design is crucial: it’s no coincidence that Apple’s product packaging has shrunk over the years. Smaller boxes mean you can fit many more onto a pallet, which translates to hundreds more devices that can be carried on a single plane, reducing the cost of fuel per device.)

Cook is an operations genius, and is no doubt aware of the points raised in Fishman’s insourcing article. Which is why it’s not a surprise that Cook told Brian Williams of NBC that Apple plans to begin producing one of its existing Mac computers in the US next year. Given the company’s extensive experience designing manufacturing in the past, I have no doubt it’s taking the same skills and figuring out how to make it work in the US.

Fishman’s article is a great look at an exciting new chapter in US manufacturing. Although it was published just a couple weeks before Cook made his statement, the article has Apple written all over it.