The Post-Personal iPad

Over at Ars Technica, they’re asking whether the iPad is a PC or not, with some debate over the semantic boundaries of the term: does a PC have to have a keyboard? Must it be directly programmable? Does it have to be an open system? It’s an interesting discussion.

Apple’s line, of course, is that the iPad is a “post- PC device.” Their belief is that it augurs a new era that leaves the old paradigm of window, icon, mouse and pointing behind. For my part, I subscribe to that theory, for sure. As I said recently, I fully believe that iPad is a transformative innovation.

But I also have a slightly different take on this concept of a device that is “post-PC.” It’s not just that the iPad is such a different kind of hardware and software from what came before it, but it’s also that people regard the iPad differently.

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Forecast for Music in the Cloud

The just-announced Google Music Beta offers a cloud-based storage locker for your music, theoretically letting you play your files from anywhere or on any compatible device. The initial reports seem to indicate that it doesn’t work very well, but it’s sure to improve. Amazon already offers something similar in its Cloud Drive product, and Apple, it is rumored, will join in at some unspecified point this year with an offering of their own.

There’s an inevitability to storing music on the cloud, but what I’d like to see is something a little more ambitious. It’s great to eliminate the need for local storage of music files, but why simply move those files to a server somewhere? If music can be served with near ubiquity, why not serve more than just the music?

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Life in a Solid State

The MacBook Air that I bought in late 2009 was never much of a speed demon, but by the end of last year it was operating so slowly that it was nearly unusable. Startup times, application launch times, even accessing open and save dialog boxes all seemed interminable, due mostly to the lamentably poky hard drive that shipped with the laptop.

I finally did something about that earlier this week when I pried open up the laptop casing, removed the hard drive and replaced it with a brand new solid state drive that I ordered from Other World Computing. Even for someone like myself who has very limited experience and comfort with the innards of delicate machinery, the installation process was fairly straightforward, especially with the aid of OWC’s handy installation videos.

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The Interactive TV You Already Use

We have been waiting forever for interactive television, but Peter Yared of Webtrends argues that it’s already here. It’s just not happening on our television sets, where we had always imagined elaborate user interface layers would be superimposed onto the channel-tuning paradigm we’ve been familiar with for so long.

Instead, consumers have opted to leave their televisions relatively untouched — and simple — while supplementing their viewing experiences with other digital devices: laptops, smart phones and tablets. You’ve probably done this yourself: in the middle of watching a movie at home you spot a an actor or actress who looks familiar but whose name you can’t recall; out comes the laptop or iPhone, where a quick Internet Movie Database lookup scratches that itch. Or, you’re catching up on the back catalog of a popular television show that’s particularly engrossing, so you go searching the Web for commentary, background material, and hypotheses about why the heck there was a polar bear on that island.

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Confirmed: Blu-Ray Not for Moms

When I was visiting my mother earlier in the month, I helped her upgrade her ‘home theater’ — I hesitate to call it that because her needs are not nearly so grand as replicating a theater viewing experience inside of her home. She just likes to watch the occasional movie and maybe tap into her granddaughter’s Flickr stream and that’s about it.

She had an old 30-in. CRT television that weighed about a ton, but I managed to kick it to the curb and bought her a new, inexpensive Vizio LCD television. Setup was a breeze, but of course her old DVD player was not capable of upconverting to the new TV’s greater resolution, so playing movies looked terrible on it. I went to the store with the idea of buying her a new, simple, US$50 upconverting DVD player.

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This Could Be Google’s Design Moment

Last week’s news that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave of absence led many people to wonder whether the company truly has a vision that will sustain it in his absence. I happen to think that in the short term, at least, Apple will be just fine, but it’s interesting to note that implicit in this worry is whether Apple’s singular attention to good design will continue to prosper. Which is to say, perhaps the paramount anxiety surrounding Jobs’ leave — and his inevitable departure, whenever that is — is whether it represents the point at which Apple’s ability to design wonderful products went on the decline.

It’s true that when visionaries leave a company, a lot can go wrong, though of course right now it’s impossible to know for sure what will happen. But by the same token, major shifts in leadership are also an opportunity for a company’s design acumen to improve.

This is what I’m hoping happens over at Google where, as also reported last week, Eric Schmidt is handing over the reins to co-founder Larry Page. Page is an engineer, of course, and quite private, so I have no particular insight as to whether he has any meaningful appreciation of design. But as a founder he has a unique power to influence the priorities at his company, and as the new CEO he has a unique opportunity to imbue his organization with a new design sensibility. If he wants to.

And hopefully he does. Few companies seem to understand the concept of design so cannily and yet so incompletely as Google does. It’s abundantly evident that they pay exceedingly close attention to usability and they slave over getting that right. And yet the total, intangible effect of their hard work is little more than the sum of its highly efficient parts. Google products are rich with design intelligence, but they also suffer from a paucity of design inspiration. They could be so much more than they are — they could be surprising, witty, fun and, yes, they could be truly beautiful. (Read former Google designer Doug Bowman’s notes on this for added perspective.)

We tend to think that design is a function of good process, well-structured organizations, and copious time and budgetary resources. But design is just as much a function of leadership. Who’s in the top seat matters very much to whether a company can design well. If the leader cares passionately about producing amazingly well-designed products, then you can get a string of indelible successes that capture the popular imagination like we’ve seen at Apple for the past decade-plus. We haven’t seen that kind of result from Google during that same span of time, though. Beyond the iconic minimalism of the original Google home page, not one of their subsequent products has truly inspired us. I hope that Larry Page realizes that, with the resources and design talent he probably already employs, there’s no reason that has to continue to be the case.

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Listening to What Movie Lovers Have to Say

In my post from earlier this week about the drawbacks of Blu-Ray, one of the points I tried to make was that all of the extras that Blu-Ray discs provide really amount to very little of interest to me and, I would guess, to most consumers — especially if they cause the total user experience of Blu-Ray discs to be slow and problematic (they do). Contrary to what the entertainment industry believes, most of us can easily live without all the deleted scenes, interviews, outtakes, trailers, and commercials disguised as documentaries — to say nothing of the uniformly dismissable interactive features and supplemental content that Blu-Ray makes accessible over the Internet.

What matters is the movie itself, the core content. If you don’t believe me, you can believe Netflix. Through their success they’ve inadvertently proven that the concept of “DVD extras” is hardly a necessary component of providing good entertainment. Their discs-by-mail service treats a two-disc movie release (one for the movie itself, one for the extras) as two different rentals, and so it’s probably safe to say that very few people go to the trouble of renting that second disc. And of course, their streaming service offers up no extras at all and has proven to be a big hit nevertheless.

In an age where entertainment journalism is so popular and when everyone is interested in the backstory of practically every movie, regardless of how good the movie itself is, it’s interesting to me that extras can be regarded as so inessential. But they really are, and user experience designers across all media would do well to keep that in mind. Cherries don’t sell sundaes.

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Blu-Ray Blues

It’s been about a decade now since DVDs first became the default delivery medium for movies and I’ve been trying to remember exactly how buggy or inconsistent the earliest DVD players were. I remember vaguely that some discs wouldn’t work with some players (especially DVD-ROM drives built into computers), but as best as I can recollect, I never had a problem playing a single disc. Or if I did, it was just one out of countless discs I’ve owned, rented or borrowed. For me, DVDs have always just worked.

Not so with Blu-Ray, the would-be successor to the DVD format. I was lucky enough to get a Blu-Ray player for Christmas a year ago and when it works, it works great. I can pop in a Blu-Ray disc and watch a movie in beautiful, luxurious high-definition, revealing all sorts of details in my favorite movies that I’d never been able to see before. But it has not been a painless experience. The player has been frustratingly, consistently buggy, making the act of watching a disc needlessly difficult.

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What’s Old Is New Again on iPad

There’s a brief article over at The Atlantic about “Fresh Flowers,” a current show of David Hockney’s recent iPad and iPhone paintings. Using the popular painting app Brushes, Hockney is creating a new painting every few days, then electronically transmitting them to the exhibition space in Paris where they’re displayed on screens. I find the paintings themselves very unremarkable (some are quite bad, even) but I do think they’re interesting for a few reasons.

First, they imply an endorsement of the touch devices like the iPad as a tool for making art by a big (huge) name artist whose fame was forged in the pre-digital world. That credential matters to some people, because it demonstrates, however weakly, that this new and unfamiliar device is not just a passing fad. Hockney’s motivation for creating these paintings was presumably that he found the iPad interesting and worthwhile; he certainly doesn’t need it as a gimmick to burnish his already sterling reputation. When a leading light of the art world shows interest in a medium so young, it speaks volumes. To some people.

More telling I think is the kind of work that the artist decided to create. You can argue over their artistic merits all you want, but what strikes me about Hockney’s iPad paintings is that they’re surprisingly unimaginative emulations of another medium. The iPad is a full-fledged computing device capable of doing many, many different things. But reproducing the quality, texture and aesthetics of analog paper, canvas and paint seems to be one of the least interesting of them all, at least to me. Someone like David Hockney, you’d expect, would be able to show us entirely new worlds through drawing on a device like the iPad. Instead the works in “Fresh Flowers” are faint echoes of a world we already know very well. They’re pretty, but they’re boring.

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Moving to a New Mac

The 24-in. iMac that I’ve owned for four years is now retired. In its place, I’ve got a brand new, 27-in. iMac with a speedy i5 processor and a capacious hard drive. I’ve actually had this new machine since just after Thanksgiving. I didn’t set it up until this past weekend, partly due to my hectic work and family schedules and partly due to the fact that I was dreading the setup process.

In the past, it’s been my habit to take the route of many conscientious geeks, opting to build each new system from scratch. That’s always meant manually installing every application and every utility, re-creating every preference or setting from scratch. Very time consuming, yes, but it always gave me peace of mind that my new system was truly a fresh start, free of the cruft that had accreted in my previous system.

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