30
Nov 16

Tired Mac prose

Over the last several weeks, a Skylake full of ink has been spilled over this fall’s Apple crop. Actually, the press seems fascinated with three distinct topics:

  1. Insufficient magic in the 2016 MacBook Pros
  2. Apple “sticking it to pros” by offering limited RAM in the MBP
  3. Apple “sticking it to pros” by not updating the Mac Pro desktop since 2013.

Issue number 1: Beginning the next day after the announcement, I had non-technical friends asking me, “what’s the deal with poor, old, beleaguered Apple?”

Okay, I’m exaggerating. That’s not really what they asked. But they were underwhelmed. Tell you what? I was too. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was expecting a bit more. The Touch Bar is interesting, but hardly world-changing. The presence of Touch ID is also interesting, and frankly, more relevant, especially for business users of Macs. (Dare I say it, “Mac-using pros”.) But most relevant, IMHO, is the fact that it is thinner and lighter (both also useful to pros who remove it from their desks). The move to USB-C is perhaps annoying today, but in time, will not be a big deal, and potentially very useful in terms of Thunderbolt 3 extensibility.

So is it earth-shattering? No. But it’ll do just fine at filling the backlog of orders that came after Apple had let the MacBook Pro lay dormant for a good long time.

Issue number 2: Apple only provides up to 16GB of RAM (and they didn’t go full Kaby Lake). Last thing first, it’s just late 2016. Nobody goes full Kaby Lake. But to suggest that Apple missed the boat by skipping a secondary tock is wacky. Apple rarely takes a bullet for the industry. We’ll see Kaby Lake and beyond come to the MBP. But it makes no sense to rush it this year.

Now we come to the real meat of the outrage. There’s this fascination – dare I suggest it is a feedback loop, that Apple completely doomed the MBP by not enabling more than 16GB of RAM in any of the new devices. That these devices are (paraphrasing) “unsuitable for pros”.

Please.

I offer you a challenge. Using Google, or any tool you’d like, find links to the following three things:

  1. The US$15 burger on the McDonald’s menu
  2. The Tesla convertible
  3. The page on Microsoft’s site where I can build or configure a Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book with more than 16GB of RAM.

Too tongue in cheek? Seriously though… The first two would exist, if there was a large enough market for them. The third would as well, although Microsoft most likely chose to cap it at 16GB for many of the same reasons that Apple did (Spoiler alert: it was about a compromise of what most users need in terms of RAM, and battery life). You’ll note that every Mac you can plug in, short of the [somewhat] budget conscious Mac Mini, does offer options for configuring more than 16GB of RAM, if that is what a user needs.

I’m admittedly on the low-end of the “pro” user market anymore. I couldn’t readily make my living doing what I do without a Windows PC or a Mac. But I don’t ever run an IDE. Like a band saw, that is a thing I’m not qualified to do, and it’s in nobody’s best interest that I do it. I also am a firm believer for about 4 years now in not virtualizing diddly on my Mac. I cut my teeth on the Mac running VMware Fusion from the beginning. Frankly, licensing (Windows-based) stuff to run in VMs on a Mac is a hot mess that your org should be very careful about doing. But that’s not why I don’t do it. I don’t do it because it’s a hot mess of RAM and storage requirements, in an era when both are more limited than in desktop-class laptops of the past. For my needs, I’m better served by buying a laptop that focuses on being a kick-ass laptop (minimal CPU, the RAM and SSD I really need, and a battery that lasts for a delightfully long time, and running VMs in Azure, AWS, or on a desktop. (Or more desktop-like “laptop” that would probably burn my crotch if I really used it for that.) I’m not convinced that the top-tier MBP that Apple created still can’t meet the needs of many (most?) of those who truly need a laptop to do their work.

I feel like a lot of the issue here can be summed up by a tweet of mine from 2014…

untitled

There is a number, greater than 0, of business Mac users who truly need a laptop with more than 16GB of RAM, and would pay what it costs for Apple to build in the technology+battery needed to make it happen. I believe that if Apple saw that that number was significant enough, they would build it. That’s what they do. They built an oversized iPhone, when we all said they wouldn’t. They offered a stylus for the iPad, even though that would mean they blew it. If a market that is willing to pay a premium exists, Apple will build a thing to address it. (This also likely describes why Apple is letting their displays go fallow, and perhaps will even let them die completely. We will see if, perhaps, new displays arrive the next time we see an iMac refresh, likely in 2017.) But I honestly would love to see more detailed scenario descriptions where people need more than 16GB in a laptop day-to-day, where having a secondary desktop or using cloud-based virtualization wouldn’t meet or exceed their needs instead – especially in cases where people aren’t willing to pay the premium Apple would need to charge for an MBP that could meet those needs. Thoughts on that? Blog on what you do, what you need, and why those wouldn’t work, and post a link to my Twitter.

Issue number 3: Finally, we come to the Mac Pro and signs of life. It has been almost 1,100 days since the last update to the Mac Pro, a desktop high-end Mac that is, significantly, a) really expensive, and b) uniquely, assembled in Austin, TX.

As a result of a headline with a recent year stating, “New Mac Pro announced”, many have marked the line for death. Why shouldn’t they? Apple used to make servers. They don’t anymore. Apple used to make wireless routers. They don’t anymore. Apple used to make displays. Whoops, my bad. We’ll see in 2017, but that might be the case as well. I don’t know the stats on how many Mac Pros Apple sells annually, or what the ASP of those units is. It could potentially be a reasonably large chunk of cash, but even with the price of the units, is most likely a pittance of the actual revenue compared to what Apple makes on iPhones, or even on the rest of the mobile Mac+iMac lines. And for better or worse, Apple’s focus, as most companies of late, has been on shareholder value/returns. Apple gives what it gets. Like a “MacBook Pro Plus” (or whatever the ultimate nerd-spec MBP would be branded), the cost to address the market in a timely manner don’t likely mesh with more aggressive research spend to deliver it more rapidly than the cadence we’re seeing.

So will we see a new Mac Pro anytime? Perhaps.

But there seems to be a fair amount of rumors that say Apple would rather build a tier of iMac that could address some (but not all) of the scenarios the Mac Pro instead of building a new top-shelf desktop PC. Because we are at a reasonable plateau of display technology – of sorts, I could reasonably set aside my distaste for AIOs and say maybe that isn’t a horrible idea. Is it ideal? Not really. The Mac Pro is minimally extensible, and a (27″, Kaby Lake) iMac that addressed it’s space would need to rely completely upon external extensibility… not that the current Mac Pro doesn’t, outside of RAM or SSD). Any iMac would also be seriously challenged to address the caliber of GPU or CPU power possible with the Mac Pro. The replacement, or suggested replacement for a Mac Pro is, IMHO, very likely to arrive in 2017.

In terms of both the MBP and Mac Pro, I think Apple will try their best to continue to address the high-end pro market as best they can. But time will tell. In the end, some pros may find Apple’s innovations discouraging. Some will possibly switch to Windows-based PCs, but short of building their own PC, I think many will find the PC OEMs driving towards similar modularity and cost reductions, and feel constrained – if less so – when buying a PC of any kind.

There’s a whole other topic to discuss another day, which is the rumbling “Microsoft has stolen the creative mantle from Apple” theory. More on that later…


27
Nov 16

Goodbye, Twitter

Almost exactly three years ago, I decided to kill my Facebook account. Not log off. Delete it. It’s been gone since then, and honestly, I never miss it.

When I signed on to Twitter for the first time in May of 2008, I had no idea what I would do with it. The running joke at the time was that Twitter was primarily used to let others know you were going to/were in/were back from, the bathroom. Colleagues at a startup in Austin even registered a domain name (whospoopin.com) as a joke, in the hopes of creating a “competitor” to Twitter.

During the last 8 and a half years, I’ve used Twitter to make new friends, find old ones, and make connections that sometimes even translate from binary into analog, meeting Twitter connections for the first time. As I once said on Twitter, when I was young, I didn’t get the point of pen pals, but now with Twitter, I did, and had pen pals around the world.

I’m very disappointed with the state of the world at the moment, and I find that Twitter lately only adds despair, rage, or both to my mood.

In my life, I try to be mindful of how tools work for me or not, and discard them if they cost me more than they benefit me. Recently, I’ve realized that Twitter’s return for my investment has greatly diminished, and I’m wasting far more on it vs. what it gives me. Sure, some of this has to do with this insane election. But it is not just that. Pondering what Twitter means to me has helped me highlight a desire to focus inward on my own personal priorities – my health, my weight, my job, reading and learning, and  my other personal interests, ahead of the seemingly empty calories that Twitter provides to me of late.

For the time being, I’m not deleting my Twitter account, deleting any tweets, or even taking the account dark. But I have deleted the apps from my computers and iPhone, and I don’t intend to check Twitter with any regularity any longer. I continue to be reachable via email, and cell phone, as well as Signal and Telegram.


28
Aug 16

It doesn’t have to be a crapfest

A  bit ago, this blog post crossed my Twitter feed. I read it, and while the schadenfreude made me smirk for a minute, it eventually made me feel bad.

The blog post purports to describe how a shitty shutdown dialog became a shitty shutdown dialog. But instead, it documents something I like to call “too many puppies” syndrome. If you are working on high visibility areas of a product – like the Windows Shell – like Explorer in particular, everybody has an belief that their opinion is the right direction. It’s like dogs and a fire hydrant. My point really isn’t to be derisive here, but to point out that the failure of that project does not seem to be due to any other teams. Instead, it seems to have been due to some combination of unclear goals and a fair amount of the team he was on being lost in the wilderness.

I mentioned on Twitter that, if you are familiar with the organizational structure of Windows, that you can see the cut lines of those teams in the UI. A reply to that mentioned Conway’s law – which I was unfamiliar with, but basically states that as a general concept, a system designed by an organization will reflect the structure of that organization.

But not every project is doomed to live inside its own silo. In fact, some of my favorite projects that I worked on while I was at The Firm were ones that fought the silo, and the user won. Unfortunately, this was novel then, and still feels novel now.

During the development of Windows Server 2003, Bill Veghte, a relatively new VP on the product, led a series of reviews where he had program managers (PMs) across the product walk through their feature area/user scenario, to see how it worked, didn’t work, and how things could perhaps be improved. Owning the enterprise deployment experience for Windows at the time, I had the (mis?)fortune of walking Bill through the setup and configuration experience with a bunch of people from the Windows Server team.

When I had joined the Windows “Whistler” team just before beta 2, the OS that became Windows XP was described by a teammate as a “lipstick on a chicken” release was already solidifying, and while we had big dreams of future releases like “Blackcomb” (never happened), Whistler was limited largely by time to the goal of shipping the first NT-based OS to both replace ME and the 9X family for consumers, and Windows 2000 in business.

Windows Server, on the other hand, was to ship later. (In reality, much, much later, on a branched source tree, due to the need to <ahem/> revisit XP a few times after we shipped it.) This meant that the Windows Server team could think a bit bigger about shipping the best product for their customers. These scenario reviews, which I really enjoyed attending at the time, were intended to shake out the rattles in the product and figure out how to make it better.

During my scenario review, we walked through the entire setup experience – from booting the CD to configuring the server. If you recall, this meant walking through some really ugly bits of Windows. Text-mode setup. F5 and F6 function keys to install a custom HAL or mass-storage controller drivers during text-mode setup. Formatting a disk in text-mode setup. GUI-mode setup. Fun, fun stuff.

Also, some forget, but this was the first time that Windows Server was likely to ship with different branding from the client OS. Yet the Windows client branding was… everywhere. Setup “billboards” touting OS features that were irrelevant in a server, wizards, help files, even the fact that setup was loading drivers for PCMCIA cards and other peripherals that a server would never need or use in the real world, or verbs on the shutdown menu that made no sense on a server, like standby or hibernate.

A small team of individuals on the server team owned the resulting output from these walkthroughs, which went far beyond setup, and resulted in a bunch of changes to how Windows Server was configured, managed, and more. In terms of my role, I wound up being their liaison for design change requests (DCRs) on the Windows setup team.

There were a bunch of things that were no-brainers – fixing Windows Setup to be branded with Windows Server branding, for example. And there were a ton of changes that, while good ideas, were just too invasive to change, given the timeframe that Windows Server was expected to ship in, (and that it was still tethered to XP’s codebase at that time, IIRC). So lots of things were punted out to Blackcomb, etc.

One of my favorite topics of discussion, however, became the Start menu. While Windows XP shipped with a bunch of consumer items in the Start menu, almost everything it put there was… less than optimal on a server. IE, Outlook Express, and… Movie Maker? Heck, the last DCR I had to say no to for XP was a very major customer telling us they didn’t even want movie maker in Windows XP Pro! It had no place on servers – nor did Solitaire or the Windows XP tour.

So it became a small thing that David, my peer on the server team, and I tinkered with. I threw together a mockup and sent it to him. (It looked a lot like the finished product you see in this article.) No consumer gunk. But tools that a server administrator might use regularly. David ran this and a bunch of other ideas by some MVPs at an event on campus, and even received applause for their work.

As I recall, I introduced David to Raymond Chen, the guru of all things Windows shell, and Raymond and David wound up working together to resolve several requests that the Windows Server team had in the user interface realm. In the end, Windows Server 2003 (and Server SP1, which brought x64 support) wound up being really important releases to the company, and I think they reflected the beginning of a new maturity at Microsoft on building a server product that really felt… like a server.

The important thing to remember is that there wasn’t really any sort of vehicle to reflect cross-team collaboration within the company then. (I don’t know if there is today.) It generally wasn’t in your review goals (those all usually reflected features in your team’s immediate areas), and compensation surely didn’t reflect it. I sat down with David this week, having not talked for some time, and told him how most of my favorite memories of Microsoft were working on cross-team projects where I helped other teams deliver better experiences by refining where their product/feature crossed over into our area, and sometimes beyond.

I think that if you can look deeply in a product or service that you’re building, and see Conway’s law in action, you need to take a step back. Because you’re building a product for yourself, not for your customers. Building products and services that serve your entire customer base means always collaborating, and stretching the boundaries of what defines “your team”. I believe the project cited in the original blog post I referenced above failed both because there were too many cooks, but also because it would seem that anyone with any power to control the conversation actually forgot what they were cooking.

 

 


27
Jun 16

Compute Stick PCs – Flash in the pan?

A few years ago, following the success of many other HDMI-connected computing devices, a new type of PC arrived – the “compute stick”. Also referred to sometimes as an HDMI PC or a stick PC, the device immediately made me scratch my head a bit.

If Windows 10 still featured a Media Center edition, I guess I could sort of see the point. But Windows, outside of Surface Hub (which seemingly runs a proprietary edition of Windows), no longer features a 10′ UI in the box. Meaning, without third-party software and nerd-porn duct tape, it’s a computer with a TV as a display, and a very limited use case.

Unlike Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile, I’ve never had a licensing boot camp attendee ask me about compute sticks (almost none ever asked us about Windows To Go, the mode of booting Windows Enterprise edition off of USB on a random PC).

The early sticks featured 2GB of RAM or less, really limiting their use case even further. With 4GB, more modern versions will run Windows 10 well, but to what end?

I can see some cases where compute sticks might make sense for point of service, but a NUC is likely to be more affordable, powerful, and expandable, and not suffer from heat exhaustion like a compute stick is likely to.

I’ve also heard it suggested that a compute stick is a good potential for the business traveler. But I don’t get that. Using a compute stick requires you to have a keyboard and pointing device with you, and find an AC power source behind a hotel TV or shared workspace. Now I don’t know about you, but while I used to travel with a keyboard to use with my iPad, I don’t anymore… and I never travel with a spare pointing device. And as to finding AC power behind a hotel TV? Shoot me now.

The stick PC has some use cases, sure. Home theater where the user is willing to assemble the UX they want. But that’s nerd porn, not a primary use case, and not a long-term use case (see Media Center edition).

You eventually reach a point where, if you want a PC while you’re on the go, you should haul a PC with you. Laptops, convertibles, and tablets are ridiculously small, and you don’t always have to tote peripherals with you to make them work.

In short, I can see a very limited segment of use cases where compute sticks make sense. (Frankly, it’s a longer list than Windows To Go.) But I think in most cases, upon closer inspection, a NUC (or larger PC), Windows 10 tablet or laptop, or <gasp/> a Windows 10 Mobile device running Continuum is likely to make more sense.

 


24
Jun 16

An iPad Pro is not a Mac

Last year, Christopher Mims wrote about how Apple should kill off the Mac. Just this week, Apple alumnus Michael Gartenberg wrote that the iPad Pro is the new Mac.

It’s human nature to try and match things up… to simplify, organize, and categorize data points. To say a thing is like another thing, or a thing can replace another thing. But I think doing so today only confuses normal users.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how you shouldn’t cross-shop the iPad Pro and Surface Pro (or Surface, for that matter) because people kept pondering the two as alternatives of each other.

Someday, we will arrive at the point that an iOS device will be able to meet the requirements of many, perhaps even most, macOS (nee OS X) users. This day is not that day, and this year is not that year.

I travel a fair amount. Almost every other month, I have to fly for work. While my old 15″ Retina MacBook Pro had served me well for some time, I was growing frustrated with three issues (in order):

  1. Battery life
  2. Heat
  3. Screen size.

My Mac’s battery was to the point where no matter what I did, unless I dialed every possible thing back that I could, it was less than 3 hours of battery life. I write a lot… and I like to write remote. Having to find AC power all the time gets really frustrating, and AC also isn’t always available.

I use my laptop as a… laptop. The i5 in my old MBP got hot. Not as bad as the i7 in my old ThinkPad, but toasty – limiting when and where I could <ahem/> comfortably use it.

Finally, with the great unbundling, coach class seating is now hostile to machines over 13″. I found that on Alaska’s planes, if the seat in front reclined on me, I wasn’t going to be working.

So I needed something smaller. Lighter. More efficient.

I’m not a developer. So I don’t need Xcode. I don’t work with Mac versions of most legacy multimedia software from Apple, Adobe, or others. I don’t even play games on my computers. But I work in Microsoft Office every single day. And there are things that I need there. There is the mobile version of the Office applications, and I have an E3 subscription that entitles me to using them.

So as I winnowed down my device options, I was seriously looking at the large iPad Pro. While I’m all thumbs when it comes to drawing (or hand-writing), the Smart Keyboard and iPad Pro make an acceptable (although compromising) combination.

In particular, as I pondered life with the iPad Pro, several caveats came up with the hardware, before I’d even considered the software capabilities.

  1. Not “lappable”
  2. Keyboard of great compromise
  3. Fixed position screen
  4. No secondary pointing device.

Lappability. I hate the term. But it is a thing. “Lappability”. The iPad Pro, like the Surface line (outside of the Surface Book, which is arguably somewhat lappable) is not lappable. It isn’t. If you have to care about where the device sits on your lap before it falls (or how long you can leave it on your lap before the kickstand feels like it is cutting into your flesh), it is not “lappable”.

Compromising keyboard. As I said earlier, I write a lot. I’ve really fallen in love with the keyboard on my old MBP. It is really pleasant to use. The iPad Pro’s keyboard, like Microsoft’s original Touch Covers for the Surface devices, is squishy and has strange key travel. For a writer, I just find the contraption too compromising to work well. I would imagine most developers would as well. Frankly, I’d love to see Apple try a Surface Book like approach for keyboard (sans the wacky GPU in the base).

Fixed screen. In terms of the screen, sure – the position is probably positioned pretty well. But the inflexibility drives me nuts. Sometimes you’re in a plane or conference center, and the sun is hitting the screen just right so you can’t work. Or your neck hurts, so you want to subtly reposition it. Good luck fixing that.

Touch only. Finally, the lack of a pointing device, and the requirement to smear your screen to navigate the device, while standard operating procedure with iOS, and acceptable with certain device use cases, makes me stabby on my daily use work device. I’m staring at Word, PowerPoint, the Web, and a handful of other things throughout the day. I don’t want to be cleaning my screen all day.

So if I’d been willing to compromise on those 4 (I wasn’t), the iPad Pro might’ve been capable of becoming my primary device. But then we hit the software caveats.

  1. Word on iOS is far from full-featured
  2. Working with files in iOS is still a bear
  3. Collaboration through SMB shares is unworkable
  4. Tools I use regularly for workflow are absent.

Word limits. Word on the iPad is very limited compared to Word on the desktop (even just comparing Word on the Mac, let alone Windows. I don’t even use VBA, so don’t care that that is missing. As I mentioned, I have Office 365 for work, so don’t need additional licensing. But the editing tools on iOS are very… constrained. Tables and outlining, for example, are things I use all the time in Word on the Mac and Windows. No go on iOS. I also find the document reviewing tools on iOS excruciatingly frustrating to use vs. desktop equivalents.

File handling. Much has been made of the lack of a Finder equivalent in iOS. iOS doesn’t need  a finder per se. But it does need the ability to share certain “universal” files in one location and have any other app be able to open them. Trying to open a PPTX file with rich content in PowerPoint on iOS is ugly. Basically have to copy the file. Need to make edits and save the file back for a colleague to read? Good luck. You’re gonna hurt yourself by the time you finish.

Legacy collaboration. Collaboration through old Windows shares is not workable on iOS. If your org has moved completely to Dropbox or OneDrive (which would be impressive), then you can make this work. Otherwise, you’re using kludgy apps that try to make SMB fit within the parameters of iOS, and create similar problems to the ones I just outlined. (Even Microsoft’s own Work Folders technology seems basically dead on the vine in favor of OneDrive for Business. iOS was designed to be standalone and not need file shares. Which is all well and good if you’re a sole proprietor, Web-only or your whole org is all-in on SaaS-based collaboration software. But most orgs aren’t.

Specialty software. I have several tools that I use regularly – notably BetterTouchTool, and Paw, for work. These don’t have equivalents. I could perhaps get used to not having them, or perhaps find alternatives, but I’d rather not.

Contrary to what you might think, I wouldn’t describe myself as a power user. I run terminal on OS X about as often as I ran regedit on Windows (and for the same duct tapey reasons). But in the end, I found that the iPad Pro and iOS would not, in terms of either hardware or software, meet my needs, without me needing a Mac in addition for certain things.

In the end, I wound up getting the new MacBook, consciously choosing the low end model with the Intel m3 processor. It feels like I see beachballs a little more than with my old MBP, but it isn’t that frequent. More importantly, I have a screen that works great on flights, it runs cool almost all the time (plus it has no fan!), and I can go an insane amount of time without needing my charger.

Apple will surely come out with more iPad Pro hardware/peripherals over time, which will enable new scenarios and flexibility. And iOS and macOS will continue to harmonize, while iOS moves upmarket, to enable more and more software scenarios that were previously exclusive to the Mac. It’s a delicate dance. Building a walled garden around macOS, while expanding the walled garden of iOS.

But the reality is also that there are certain scenarios people should not ever expect iOS to support, like SMB file shares in-box, or replacing built-in apps with third-party equivalents. I just believe that’s not the kind of things that you should expect Apple to do.

In several years, perhaps as few as 2, maybe as many as 5, iOS devices will likely be able to meet the needs of most people who use Macs or Windows PCs today. Some users will compromise their behavior or requirements early and go to iOS. Some will find that iOS just meets their needs, and switch. Some will continue to use Windows and macOS for the foreseeable future. Some scenarios, like developing fully-featured OS X and macOS apps (or developing for Windows clients or Linux server on Macs), will continue to require a Mac, even as Swift development tools likely gain capabilities on iOS.

In the meantime, I think that saying the Mac should go away, or that the iPad is workable for most normals who are knowledge workers, is a real stretch. Probably in time. It’s the direction. But we’re not there yet… not for some time.


07
Jun 16

The Autostadt, brand spaces, and marketing

Following my recent trip to Germany, I’ve spent the last month thinking about the idea of brand spaces. By brand space, I mean the use of a space – be it a single store, a building, or a multi-building space, that a business uses to establish or grow a marketing relationship with their consumers.

Although I hate to fly, I love to travel. (As I like to tell people, “I like to be places”.) I took a few days this year between work events to visit Volkswagen’s hometown of Wolfsburg, Germany, and the Autostadt, located there, as well as VW’s museum. A child of the 1970’s, there is a special place in my heart for the Volkswagen brand. My parents owned a VW Fastback before I was born, and a Dasher and Westfalia camper when I was young, and that’s when I fell in love with cars… So there are considerable emotional links for me associated with the brand.

I had hoped to visit the factory, but it was closed while I was going to be there. But the trip was still worthwhile to me, just to visit the Autostadt.

If you haven’t heard of the Autostadt before, you may not completely understand what this place is. The Autostadt, which is completely owned by VW, was first opened in 2000.

If you’ve ever been to Epcot (as it was created, not as Walt imagined it), or a World’s Fair, you can get an idea what the Autostadt is like. It reminded me more than a little bit of Expo ’86, in Vancouver. Imagine an automotive Epcot, where each brand has a pavilion, instead of each country. It was apparent that brands each had a very different idea of what to do with their pavilion. (A few really struggle to tell a cohesive story.) But Škoda and Porsche’s pavilions, in particular, tell stories that really align with their brands. (The lack of any Bentley presence was odd to me, given that even Ducati, Lamborghini, and Bugatti – brands people often aren’t familiar with the ownership of – are represented at the Autostadt.)

When you enter the Autostadt, you go through a main pavilion to the “park” itself, where each of the pavilions are. It’s much like any Disney park. Single point of entry, and once you’re inside, it’s rather easy to get disoriented. Thankfully since it is situated next to the factory with its tall smokestacks, and the Autostadt itself features two large car towers that store 800 cars, it isn’t quite as mentally all-encompassing as Disney’s parks.

Supposedly, VW spent nearly US$500M initially building the Autostadt. What I can tell you is that they’ve created a fascinating tourist destination for car fans, car-tolerant families of car fans, and families picking up a VW for delivery. An on-premises Ritz-Carlton (with subsidized rooms for those picking up a car), numerous restaurants, several stores and a large design museum create a space that can occupy a day, at least, for fans of one or more of the VW brands. In essence, it’s a brand theme park.

As I walked the Autostadt, I began thinking about the fact that I paid what I did… to visit a marketing exercise. Like Apple and their retail stores, VW built the Autostadt to establish a physical presence for their brand(s) with consumers that want to engage with it. Sure, it’s synthetic. (So is Disney.) Sure, it’s contrived. Some of the brands honestly fail at making the most of their opportunity at the Autostadt (looking at you, Lamborghini), but in terms of creating consumer engagement, it’s an interesting concept.

This all loops back to the concept of brand spaces. A Disney theme park. An Apple Store. More and more consumer brands are struggling with how to nurture a brand space to be. Gateway tried for years. Sony did too. Microsoft tried in San Francisco, then tried again with their current foray into retail. I think that a brand space is a space that is welcoming, and created in a manner that reflects the design aesthetics of that brand. But you can’t force it. You can’t just riff off of Apple’s design aesthetic to build a space that consumers will just swarm to. Your brand space needs to reflect your brand, and what consumers like about your brand.

Years ago, Best Buy had a brand space. You walked in, and it felt like Best Buy. You either liked it or hated it. But now Best Buy, like most big box retailers, has turned into a micro-mall, infected with store-within-a-store parasites, compromising their own overarching brand. I believe that the creation of a unique brand space is an important component of brands that want to – and will increasingly need to – stay directly engaged with their consumers.

Bear in mind, there are brands, like Intel, that make no sense to establish a brand space for. Intel, like BASF, is really a wholesale brand, no matter how much people wish it wasn’t. Focusing on consumer-level messaging if you aren’t selling to consumers is tilting at windmills. (Here again, Microsoft’s massive presence in enterprise and struggles in the consumer space post-XP make a similar argument.)

I’m not saying that every consumer brand needs to build a retail presence or a theme park. PLEASE, no. But I am saying that it will become increasingly important for brands to consider when and how engagement with their consumers, in a physical way, makes sense, given their brand, their consumers, and the purchasing cycle of those consumers.


09
Feb 16

Taken for a ride

Last week, as I entered the elevator of the building, another tenant turned to me and gleefully exclaimed, pointing across the garage at a new Jeep, “See that Jeep? I think I’m going to buy it.” 

I could tell immediately that this guy (a younger man, in his 20’s) was in trouble. He was smitten. He was a stranger, but sharing all of this, unprovoked. I had just come home from work, after a long editorial review meeting, followed by a trip to the grocery. So the logic gates in my mind were pretty shot. But the dialog basically went as follows:

Him: “Yeah, I just went over to test drive it, and they wanted over $600 a month for it. But I got them down to $350.”

Me: (still sort of shocked at being pulled into this conversation): “Wow. That is… a big difference. Interesting that they’d do that after the end of the month.”*

Him: “I thought so too. He said their sales month ends on the second day of the month.”**

Me: “That’s… different.”

Him: “I told them that I needed to go home and let my dogs out, but if they’d get it down to $300, we’d have a deal.”

We arrive at his floor before mine, and I can’t process the whole conversation before he exits the elevator. He steps off, I say, “Well, good luck in your decision!”

I go up to my floor and head to my apartment. A few minutes pass, and I crunch those data points in my head. I think to myself, “Holy shit. I need to stop that kid.”

I went downstairs, but the Jeep was already gone. I felt guilty for a little bit, but I noticed the next day that the Jeep wasn’t there, an older vehicle was instead. Obviously the deal hadn’t occurred.

Let me explain why I was concerned. When I used to sell cars, there was this bullshit form that they insisted that we use as we sold the car. It was a con. This sales grid is basically it.

It works by trying to nail you down on one or two data points, by making all of the other (important) data points variable. For example, if they see you focus on the monthly payment as the most important vector, they’ll swizzle the deal by making the payment term longer, or lifting your down payment. Other variables that come into play are your trade-in (but you’ll generally get stiffed on that), any options or extended warranties they’ll try to tack on, or the interest rate you’ll pay. Effectively it’s the old shell game con – and they try to appease you by meeting the one or two numbers you won’t waffle on, but do so by being vague about others.

Of course, all of these terms are available when you’re signing the contract, but by that time, backing out of it can be physically or psychologically challenging, if your brain can clearly process all of the key paperwork being thrown at you.

I don’t necessarily wish I could go back and talk the young man out of buying the Jeep, per se. But I would really like to know more of the metrics involved in the dealer’s side of the negotiations. I suspect that the dealer was primarily playing with the payment term or the down payment.

Many purchases, like a car or a home, can easily become driven primarily by emotion rather than logic. Some salespeople will prey upon this. Never be afraid to walk away from a potential purchase if your emotions are guiding you, and not your brain.

*This dialog happened on February 1. Car dealers are famous for offering deals that expire at the end of the month, as that’s often how sales bonuses from manufacturers line up.

**That the dealer told him this was extremely suspect. I don’t think I believe it. It’s possible, but doubtful. Instead, I think the date given to him was arbitrary, to try and close the deal.


03
Feb 16

Surface Pro and iPad Pro – incomparable

0.12 of a pound less in weight. 0.6 inches more in display area.

That’s all that separates the iPad Pro from the Surface Pro (lightest model of each). Add in the fact that both feature the modifier “Pro” in their name, and that they look kind of similar, and it’s hard to not invite comparisons, right? (Of course, what tablets in 2016 don’t look like tablets?)

Over the past few weeks, several reports have suggested that perhaps Apple’s Tablet Grande and Microsoft’s collection of tablet and tablet-like devices may have affected at holiday quarter sales of tablet-like devices from the other. Given what I’ve said above, I’ve surely even suggested that I might cross-shop one with the other when shopping. But man, that would be a mistake.

I’m not going to throw any more numbers at you to try and explain why the iPad Pro and Surface devices aren’t competitors, and shouldn’t be cross-shopped. Okay, only a few more; but it’ll be a minute. Before I do, let’s take a step back and consider the two product lines we’re dealing with.

The iPad Pro is physically Apple’s largest iOS device, by far. But that’s just it. It runs iOS, not OS X. It does not include a keyboard of any kind. It does not include a stylus of any kind. It can’t be used with an external pointing device, or almost any other traditional PC peripheral. (There are a handful of exceptions.)

The Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft’s most recent tablet. It is considered by many pundits to be a “detachable” tablet, which it is – if you buy the keyboard, which is not included. (As an aside, inventing a category called detachables when the brunt of devices in the category feature removable, but completely optional keyboards seems slightly sketchy to me.) Unlike the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro 4 does include the stylus for the device. You can also connect almost any traditional PC peripheral to a Surface Pro 4 (or Surface 3, or Surface Book.)

Again, at this point, you might say, “See, look how much they have in common. 1) A tablet. 2) A standardized keyboard peripheral. 3) A Stylus.”

Sure. That’s a few similarities, but certainly not enough to say they’re the same thing. A 120 volt light fixture for use in your home and a handheld flashlight also both offer a standard way to have a light source powered by electrical energy. But you wouldn’t jumble the two together as one category, as they aren’t interchangeable at all. You use them to perform completely different tasks.

The iPad Pro can’t run any legacy applications at all. None for Windows (of course), and none for OS X. There is it’s Achilles heel; it’s great at running iOS apps that have been tuned for it. But if the application you want to run isn’t there, or lacks features found in the Windows or OS X desktop variant you’d normally use (glares at you, Microsoft Word), you’re up the creek. (Here’s where someone will helpfully point out VDI, which is a bogus solution to running legacy business-critical applications that you need with any regularity.)

The Surface Pro offers a contrast at this point. It can run universal Windows platform (UWP) applications, AKA Windows Store apps, AKA Modern apps, AKA Metro apps. (Visualize my hand getting slapped here by platform fans for belaboring the name shifts.) And while the Surface Pro may have an even more constrained selection of platform-optimized UWP apps to choose from, if the one you want isn’t available in the Windows Store, you’ve got over two decades worth of Win32 applications that you can turn to.

Anybody who tells you that either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro are “no compromise” devices is either lying to you, or they just don’t know that they’re lying to you. They’re both great devices for what they try to be. But both come with compromises.

Several people have also said that the iPad Pro is a “companion device”. But it depends upon the use case as to whether that is true or not. If you’re a hard-core Windows power user, then yes, the iPad Pro must be a companion device. If you regularly need features only offered by Outlook, Excel, Access, or similar Win32 apps of old, then the iPad Pro is not the device for you. But if every app you need is either available in the App Store, you can live within the confines of the limited versions of Microsoft Office for Office 365 on the iPad Pro, or your productivity tools are all Web accessible, then the iPad Pro might not only be a good device for you, but it might actually be the only device you need. It all comes down to your own requirements. Some PC using readers at this point will helpfully chime in that the user I’ve identified above doesn’t exist. Not true – they’re just not that user.

If a friend or family member came to me and said, “I’m trying to decide which one to buy – an iPad Pro or Surface Pro.”, I’d step them through several questions:

  1. What do you want to do with it?
  2. How much will you type on it? Will you use it on your lap?
  3. How much will you draw on it? Is this the main thing you see yourself using it for
  4. How important is running older applications to you?
  5. How important is battery life?
  6. Do you ever want to use it with a second monitor?
  7. Do you have old peripherals that you simply can’t live without? (And what are they?)
  8. Have you bought or ripped a lot of audio or video content in formats that Apple won’t let you easily use anymore? (And how important is that to you?)

These questions will each have a wide variety of answers – in particular question 1. (Question 2 is a trap, as the need to use the device as a true laptop will lead most away from either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro.) But these questions can easily steer the conversation, and their decision, the right direction.

I mentioned that I would throw a few more numbers at you:

  • US$1,028.99 and
  • US$1,067.00

These are the base prices for a Surface Pro 4 (Core m3) and iPad Pro, respectively, equipped with a stylus and keyboard. Just a few cups of Starbucks apart from each other. The Surface Pro 4 can go wildly north of this price, depending upon CPU options (iPad Pro offers none) or storage options (iPad Pro only offers one). The iPad Pro also offers cellular connectivity for an additional charge in the premium storage model (not available in the Surface Pro). My point is, at this base price, they’re close to each other, but that is a matter of convenience. It invites comparisons, but deciding upon these devices based purely on price is a fool’s errand.

The more you want the Surface Pro 4 (or a Surface Book) to act like a workstation PC, the more you will pay. But there is the rub; it can be a workstation too – the iPad Pro can’t ever be. Conversely, the iPad Pro can be a great tablet, where it offers few compromises as a tablet – you could read on it, it has a phenomenal stylus experience for artists, and it’s a great, big, blank canvas for whatever you want to run on it (if you can run it). But it will never run legacy software.

The iPad Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that puts power optimization ahead of everything else
  2. Every application you need is available in the App Store
  3. The are available in an iPad Pro optimized form
  4. The available version of the app has all of the features you need
  5. All of your media content is in Apple formats or available through applications blessed by Apple.

The Surface Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that is a traditional Windows PC first and foremost
  2. Enough of the applications you want to run on it as a tablet are available in the Windows Store
  3. They support features like Snap and resizing when the app is running on the desktop
  4. You need to run more full-featured, older, or more power hungry applications, or applications that cannot live within the sandboxed confines of an “app store” platform
  5. You have media content (or apps) that are in formats or categories that Apple will not bless, but will run on Windows.

From the introduction of both devices last year, many people have been comparing and contrasting these two “Pro” devices. I think that doing so is a disservice. In general, a consumer who cross-shops the two devices and buys the wrong one will wind up sorely disappointed. It’s much better to figure out what you really want to do with the device, and buy the right option that will meet your personal requirements.


31
Oct 15

Simulated gambling in the App Store? The only winning move is not to play.

From the arrival of Apple’s iPhone App Store, they’ve elected to keep the platform, shall we say, “Family Friendly”.

While the guidelines for developers who elect to sell their software through the App Store are always evolving, they seem much more constant and consistent versus when the store first opened. In general, it’s still about keeping it a warm fuzzy place, while allowing some evolution so the App Store can grow and thrive. Apps which which violate terms include those that offer pornography, violence (simulated or other), targeted defamatory or offensive content at a given race, ethnicity, or or culture, or include objectionable content. What’s objectionable? Ask Apple, as they use the Potter Stewart school of content screening. Things like Metadata+ and Ephemeral+, which provide information unavailable anywhere else, but which could be found “unpleasant” by some, are not available on Apple’s platforms. Personally, the justification of that is ridiculous, but that’s a matter for another day.

Instead, I want to talk about “simulated gambling” games. This week, I found myself on the App Store search page, and noticed among the Trending Searches, the string “777”. As someone who flies regularly (but doesn’t gamble), I was curious what this even was. I clicked, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I clicked the link, and discovered an endless parade of “simulated” slot machine games.

What’s really both fascinating and terrifying to me is how much the Trending Searches space seems to include “simulated gambling” titles at night, and how many of the Top Grossing apps in the App Store are simulated gambling.

I really dislike that much of the iOS ecosystem has become overgrown by free-to-play (F2P) apps and games. I’ve started referring to these as free-to-p(l)ay instead, as because they generally require you to pay if you want to actually get to the most desirable content or levels in the title. I’ve only ever interacted with a handful of F2P games, and as a general rule, they are basically a Skinner box that conditions the user into paying for content in order to receive gratification.

Here’s where the problems begin, though. I believe there are basically two ways to classify titles in the App Store that offer in-app purchase (IAP):

  1. À la carte IAP
  2. Bottomless IAP.

À la carte IAP apps offer one price for entry (either free or some base currency), and then a set menu of items that can enable a set collection of functionality within or interconnected to the app. For example, a drawing app could offer a set of pens or brushes, or a range of colors. The point is, a given amount of currency will buy you a set piece of functionality. One could argue that you can IAP subscribe to services and that can be ongoing, but I contend that is still a set currency over time.

Bottomless IAP apps, on the other hand, have an almost endless supply of offers to exchange currency for downloadable content, “lives”, “coins” or other virtual (but financially worthless) tchotchkes to help you progress within the app (game). While the apps may have a cap on how much can be spent over time, many offer ridiculously expensive IAP items that can be repeatedly purchased, ideal for targeting and manipulating impressionable individuals. These are the IAP titles that we’ve all heard about, where people of all ages get duped into paying real dollars, without realizing how big the financial hole is that they’ve created for themselves. Many of these simulated gaming titles offer IAP items up to US$99!

I have two problems with “simulated gambling” apps in the store. In reverse priority order:

  1. They might be violating numerous gaming laws around the world
  2. They are preying upon people, including those dealing with real-world gambling addiction problems.

As a general rule, Apple’s guidelines on apps that include gambling state:

“Apps that offer real money gaming (e.g. sports betting, poker, casino games, horse racing) or lotteries must have necessary licensing and permissions in the locations where the App is used, must be restricted to those locations, and must be free on the App Store.”

and

“Apps that use IAP to purchase credit or currency to use in conjunction with real money gaming will be rejected”

So “gaming” apps like simulated slot machines are in an interesting wedge. They ride a fine line, seemingly all following the first guideline, and making themselves free for download, but with the opportunity for the consumer to bleed out significant cash through bottomless IAP. They can’t ever convert any winnings in the app to actual real-world winnings, or arguably they’d violate the second term.

Now here’s where things get interesting. Let’s take a look at that first term more closely. These apps are supposed to be licensed according to the location where they are used. This is a distinct problem to me. Though these are “simulated gaming”, I believe that since they are simulated slot machines (among other categories of gambling available in the App Store), they should follow the jurisdiction where they are used.

Thing is, there are very specific rules in many jurisdictions on what the payout must be for a given device used for a given category of game. For example, on the Las Vegas strip on the percentage of cash that must be paid out to gamblers, which ranges from 88.06% (penny slots) to 93.69% (US$1 slots). Arguably, the old line that “the house always wins” isn’t completely true. But statistically, it isn’t going to be you, either.

But these games are all “simulated”. There is literally no opportunity for payout. Any winnings are generally returned as an opportunity to play again. There are no winnings. None. Arguably, by being a “simulation”, these titles do not need to abide by payout terms within the locales they are being used. But as they aren’t real gaming, I personally feel Apple should reconsider having this category of title in the store at all.

Gambling addiction is a real thing. People get sucked in by the lure of easy money, and can quickly lose more than they had to begin with. The National Council on Problem Gambling has an interesting survey, the 2013 National Survey of Problem Gambling Services discusses how much money is spent on gambling addiction services across the U.S. The App Store lets consumers link credit cards to IAP. By offering bottomless IAP, these titles are effectively allowed to shake out the wallets of vulnerable consumers to an extent they cannot financially bear.

The problem with these “games”, is that they play upon the same emotions as real slot machines, luring the consumer into wasting untold dollars on a game that is completely unwinnable, financially. To quote the movie WarGames, “The only winning move is not to play.”

My contention is that if games offering simulated gambling must be allowed on the App Store at all, they should not be allowed to offer bottomless IAP, or perhaps even offer IAP at all. Take a look at this game review from a user of top-tier “simulated slot” game Slotomania from Playtika Games (A division of Caesars Interactive Entertainment):

Slotomania

That makes me so sad. These games offer no redeeming value (literally). From Playtika’s own Terms of Service (linked incorrectly within their App Store entry, by the way):

“The Service may include an opportunity to purchase virtual, in-game currency (“Coins”) that may require you to pay a fee using real money to obtain the Coins. Coins can never be redeemed for real money, goods, or any other item of monetary value from Playtika or any other party. You understand that you have no right or title in the virtual in-game items, spins or Coins.”

These titles are all about killing time while burning your wallet at the same time. They’re all about taking money from the easily impressionable – youth, adults, retirees… across the board. When I posted on Twitter about simulated gambling, a follower of mine replied back with the following:

“grandma uses her iPad 2 almost exclusively for slot apps. :*(“

If Apple is going to hold up the App Store as a family friendly place for commerce, with reasonable consumer protections, I think they need to re-examine what role, if any, simulated gambling apps with IAP are allowed to play there.


27
Sep 15

The Apple Watch is perfect. On paper.

This week, I’m doing something that I don’t remember ever actually doing before. I’m taking back an Apple device, for a refund.

After spending less than a week with the Apple Watch, I have to say, I’m disappointed. A bit in the device. But more in Apple. The software is simply not done. Perhaps it’s my use of a 5s as the host device for it. Perhaps my expectations are too high. Perhaps I’m right, that it’s not ready for prime time. Regardless, it’s definitely not worth the price of entry in the device’s current condition. As Nilay Patel said, “If you’ll like toys, you’ll like it.

As I checked out at a grocery this week, and performed my first Apple Pay transaction, the  following interchange happened between the cashier and myself:

Her: “Ooh. Is that it (the Watch)?”

Me: “Yes.”

Her: “How do you like it?”

Me: “It’s okay. I’ve only had it for about a day.”

Her: “What can it do?”

Me: <silence/>

I hesitated, struggling to really list out the things that the Watch could do that were relevant to me. It was in that moment that I think I switched from “I think I’ll return it.” to “I’m going to return it.” I understand that apparently most normals are quite happy with their Watches, and that only technophiles (if you can still call me that) like myself found all the foibles in the way the device works.

The Watch isn’t without positive attributes. I just don’t feel that they outweigh the negatives.

What’s good:

  • As a bauble, it is gorgeous. I bought the stainless Watch, with the new, more traditional Saddle Brown Classic Buckle. As a piece of jewelry, I think it looks really good. (Although my 14YO would tell you that my free opinions on style are worth what you pay me for them.)
  • As a watch, it’s pretty good. I mean, it keeps time, and the interchangeable faces are fun for a bit.
  • Given the space, the user interface works pretty well.
  • When it all works, there are some neat conveniences that you can’t do (or can’t do as easily) with an iPhone. Apple Pay and other Wallet (nee Passbook) features on your wrist are handy. But not “OMG!” useful.
  • There’s a pretty amazing supply of Apple Watch apps that already exist. (See caveat to this, below.)

I was really hoping I could come up with some more positive aspects here. But honestly, I’ve run out already.

So… what’s bad about Apple Watch? In no explicit order:

  • It is very expensive, for what it does. My mind boggles that Apple has sold any of the Watch Edition models.
  • Updating sucked. It took over an hour and a half to install the 500MB update from my iPhone. That is inexcusable.
  • It’s heavy. I’ve got tiny T-rex arms, but the weight of the Watch on my ulnar styloid (the bump of bone on the outside of your wrists) was painful after only a few minutes.
  • It’s slow. In tandem with my 5s, there are far too many beach balls waiting for apps to launch. This may get better over time as apps are updated for the new version of the OS. But I fear that it may be indicative of the real resource constraints on such a small device. Time will tell.
  • I had hope that Watch would make my Phone better. That is, it would add utility to my phone. Instead, because of the app model, it made my phone’s battery life horrible.
  • The version of the SpringBoard shell used by the Apple watch is atrocious. I have small fingers, so don’t have much trouble selecting apps. But the UI of the Watch comes the closest to being the “sea of icons” on iOS that Microsoft derided for so long. Doing anything rapidly on the watch with this UI is… complicated.
  • Too many app developers don’t seem to understand what the Watch is, and is not, ideal for. I guess that’s both a good and bad thing. But to the caveat I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of apps for the Watch – many of which aren’t even on Windows Phone. But there’s a lot of crap – it seems many developers are lost in the wilderness.
  • It shows every single fingerprint you place on the face.
  • The packaging for the Apple Watch is… overwhelming. There’s plastic on plastic on plastic. Wrapping device subcomponents in one-time use plastic is horrifically wasteful.

The former product manager (and former development manager) in me sees how we arrived at this point. The Apple Watch team was established long ago, and started on their project. At one point, pressure from above, from outside, from investors, who knows… forced Apple to push up a launch date. The hardware was reasonably ready. But the software was a hot mess.

Traditionally, Apple excelled when they discarded features that weren’t ready, even if competitors already did them in a half-assed way – winning over consumers by delivering those features later when they’re actually ready. Unfortunately, you often get a product manager in the mix that pushes for a feature, even if it can’t really be implemented well or reliably. The Apple Watch feels like this. It offers a mix of checkbox features that, yes, you can argue, kind of work. But they don’t have the finish that they should. The software doesn’t respect the hardware. In fact, it’s giving a middle finger to the hardware. Even WatchOS 2 fails to deliver adequate finish. The list of features that the Watch promises sound nifty. But actually living with the Watch is disappointing. It isn’t what it should be, given the Apple brand on the outside. I expect better from Apple. Maybe next time.