A dozen years ago I took a long and stimulating walk with an obscure designer who has since ascended into international prominence. Two weeks before a few of us had visited his company and somehow its CEO decided to invite me out for a private chat - part of this was walking with his favorite designer.
I'm not a designer by any stretch of the imagination, but the walk was fascinating - a discussion that bounced fluidly from material science, to Moore's Law projections, to the anthropology of Victorian women and how they dealt with sweating. It was clear this was someone who was fascinated by connecting the dots and he somehow saw me as a like minded person. In the end his boss made an interesting offer, but I decided to stay where I was - perhaps a mistake and perhaps not as the next two years were remarkably productive for me.
One of the most curious parts of that walk centered around thinking where personal electronics might be in a decade. He was concerned with how people would relate to the devices as objects - very much part of the user interface in his mind. He was fascinated by the stones some Victorian women would carry on hot days. These were beautifully finished smooth pieces with just the right size, shape and density. They could be rubbed for a soothing feeling that might calm a person if they were nervous or if the temperature was too high - they were gateways away from the craziness of the moment to a calmer state of mind.
It was important that the hand have access to all parts of these stones and that placed an upper limit on the size. He noted that, given the average size of a woman's hand, it was unlikely that you could design something for handheld use with a diagonal measurement that exceeded four inches. He speculated that devices with screens would probably have that as an upper limit on the screen size if the device was meant to be as suited as these old Victorian stones were... We talked about such devices as a stepping stone and where you might go after that and a dozen other things.
It was an incredibly stimulating walk, but the four inch diagonal measurement notion somehow stuck with me.
Yesterday morning I got up around three and sat in bed wondering what the lines were like at the AppleStore in Bridgewater, New Jersey. I could drive there in about twenty minutes and my iPhone 5 pre-order had me scheduled for delivery sometime in October...
since I was already up...
To my surprise the queue wasn't terribly long - I was about 30 in line when I arrived a bit before 4 am. I've been to a few events like these and love the fact that a group of complete strangers is drawn to doing something that is simultaneously unusual and common. Someone brought some excellent chocolate chip cookies and someone else had what must have been a few gallons of hot chocolate. If you sit back and watch you can learn quite a bit.
On that walk in Palo Alto one of the topics of discussion was the Porsche 911. Although far from a general consumer vehicle represents a remarkable example of constant evolution of a design that was close to ideal for the task when first introduced. It has a distinctive character as well as what should be an impossibly awful front to rear weight distribution. Almost everything in its design is meant to optimize its character and it can probably be considered one of the greatest automobiles of all time.
First introduced nearly five decades ago, the 911 has undergone a terrific amount of change, but current models are roughly the same size and shape of the originals. It is easy for someone with one from the 1970s to get into a current model and feel the sense of connection. The newer models are much "better", but they are also very much the same.
The designer wanted to make the point that the job of the designer was to help articulate this - to work with the engineers and those who build the car, those who have to repair it and those who will use it - to find the best compromise that will work at a given time and place. And then to participate in guiding its evolution. He made the point that these refinements produce something that is so timely that the notion of buying the latest and greatest isn't as important as just having one and taking delight in its use.
... then we talked about architecture, bicycles, violins, and watches ....
Apple has been updating the iPhone on roughly a yearly schedule. Generally there is a large change followed by a smaller change. Year to year it isn't particularly tempting to get something new. The latest phone has improvements over the last one, but not hugely so. But two years offers a large jump.
Most mobile contracts are two years. When your contract is up the latest phone represents a big jump in capability and that makes it desirable. At the same time you don't feel terrible a year into your contract when something new comes out. Apple also softens the desire for the mid-contract upgrade by offering free and roughly yearly updates to the iOS operating system. This works for about three years (four in the case of the 3GS), before a phone is too old to update. You buy into something that generally improves in capabilities over time and the process is mostly smooth and transparent.
The iPhone is not perfect, but there is a uniform design language and the lesson of the Porsche 911 is relevant. There isn't a huge amount of design difference between the original and latest iPhone - it is easy to recognize them as something from Apple. On the other hand there has been an enormous amount of refinement. There is a strong sense that, if you are satisfied with the product, you can comfortably stay with the line for a long time - assuming Apple remains true to the path.
It is popular for technical pundits to criticize new products. Most of these people have never designed, built or programming anything serious in their lives. They love to create specification checklists and use them as a proxy for comparing products. This rarely gets at the user experience, design, "character", ecosystem and the anthropology of something. There is no way I can comment on these deeply enough, but a few of you asked for an iPhone 5 review. I'll offer a few comments now, but will put together notes for a more detailed review after I use it for a week or two. (I won't post it here as I'm not a reviewer, but let me know if you want a copy when I finish the notes.)
When I finally got inside the Apple Store I was paired with Jeff Stambovsky who turned out to be good at navigating an order that was complicated by the fact that I needed to cancel a previous online order and doing so would cause a problem with my carrier's ordering system - namely it would reset the fact that I had over two years on my last phone. He was able to contact the right people at Apple and my carrier and just make the process happen. On top of that, while we were waiting, there was good conversation and no sales pressure. Apple Stores do the highest sales per square foot of any store in the US. Other brick and mortar stores should study them and a few others who have interesting approaches and perhaps learn.1
Why do we think of these things and call them "phones"? They aren't for many of us. I was talking to a European friend who notes he pays full price for a smartphone and then gets an unlimited data plan for about $13 a month ... He never uses it as a phone, but does "voice" instead using one of several VOIP products. He has routed around his telephone service. Imagine being able to do that in the US.
Out of the box I was startled by the weight and "feel" of it as an object. It is very light for its size, but still has enough density to let you know it is metal and glass rather than plastic. The fit and finish are excellent and comparable to some very high end consumer objects. Perhaps not at the level of a really fine watch, but approaching it.
The screen is excellent and the diagonal measurement, ahem, is four inches - the measurement that has stuck with me over the years. Larger objects have their own niches, but will speak to different design languages. Apple is about focus and simplicity. There is a design balance and Apple speaks strongly on this - excessive choice can lead to some tragically awful design.2
Good design is often about what you leave out.
Many have criticized the eight pin connector. This is Apple at work and I'm amazed the old thirty pin connector survived as long as it did. The new charging connection is much more secure, can be inserted in two orientations and allows a much slimmer case design. Every change like this is criticized as a terrible Apple mistake and a sign the company is in a downward spiral. In the end it is necessary to destroy some of the old and replace it if you want to prevent a Windows-like complexity from taking over. This is an artifact of necessary housekeeping as the design evolves. At the same time it is clear why wireless charging is not good enough to include at this point, why NFC doesn't make sense and so on. Focus and elimination, properly done, are a good thing.
Transferring my mobile life from my old iPhone 4 was simple. You have your choice of Apple's online backup system or a backup on your computer. I chose the backup on my MacBook. It took a couple of clicks and a few minutes to complete the task. All of my apps, their layout, all of my accounts were duplicated - the iPhone 5 is very similar to my old phone. This backup feature has saved me a few times.
There is a big noise over maps that reminds me of the antennagate kerfuffle on the iPhone 4. I'm very curious as to why this happened and can imagine a variety of scenarios that may or may not be a power play between Apple and Google. I don't know if there is a single driver or if both are involved - I suspect the later. That said maps are difficult! Fleshing them out is going to take a lot of user time as well as licensing many new sources (Google licenses dozens and dozens). The databases will improve with time - it isn't as simple as going out and licensing or acquiring one source. I suspect the maps will be much better in six months time and dramatically better in 18 months.
The maps are represented as vectors and render much faster than the old Google supplied bitmaps. The interface strikes me as nicer and cleaner than Google's, but the flyover is only eye-candy. Google's street mapped view is actually useful.
There is something more interesting to note. You can always bookmark the Google maps webpage in all of its chewy HTML 5 glory, as an icon and use it as a proxy for the Google Map app. Apps, for the time being and foreseeable future, seem to work better than HTML 5 for many applications. Apple discovered this accidentally almost immediately with the original iPhone. Google has discovered it, Facebook stumbled and only realized it recently... 3
Speaking of antennagate, the antenna design seems to work well on the new iPhone, but I haven't tested it throughly. WiFi is much improved and it can do 5 GHz 802.11n. My old iPhone had to use the house 802.11b we provide for house guests.
Performance appears to be excellent - similar to our iPad 3 and vastly improved over the iPhone 4. I'm sure it will feel normal in a few days and going back would be impossible.
The screen is beautiful - colors are richer and more vivid and the off-axis viewing is much improved. The size works well in my sort of average sized hands. I wouldn't want something taller and certainly not wider - I find many of the current Android phones to be unusable as single hand devices.
Apple earbuds are not for serious music listening and the new design is not a huge improvement. It is better for calls and the microphone must be improved as four of the five people I've talked to have noted my voice sounds different and more natural. Perhaps I was having a more natural day, but I suspect it is improved. They stay in my ears much better than the earlier Apple-issued ear kit. If you listen to music carefully, you'll want some better earbuds or earphones anyway.
The camera continues to improve. I don't know how many panorama photos I'll take, but it works much better than the third party apps I've used. My trusty Sony NEX-5N is still a vastly better camera, but it is of no use if I don't have it and it is just too inconvenient to pack around.4
Passbook is a very interesting and potentially important experiment. It addresses areas where NFC fails and may even work socially. Really important to think about and understand. It isn't clear if it will succeed and what success might mean for the ecosystem and others, but its success or failure is important to understand.
The bottom line is I would recommend the new iPhone as a great smartphone if you are currently in the market. It is the best I've used to date. I'm a happy camper. I wish I was as pleased with my carrier.
Apple doesn't execute perfectly - far from it and they never have in the past. But it does have a core set of principles that it uses as a guide and perhaps Jobs' best contribution has been making them part of the company. It won't last forever, but I think it stands a chance of going on for some time. Over time I believe we'll see this combination of design, a deep desire for simplicity, an attempt to deeply understand a specific problem and a linkage of the social and technical move in an interesting direction.
There is something deep about good design and knowing something well enough to realize what gets in the way so it can confidently be left out. The principle applies everywhere and turns out to be a fundamental tool for dealing with information. We've touched on that before and are likely to return as so many fields depend on it.
... much more to say, but I've used 70 of my allotted 60 minutes at this point. I'll add a recipe and post this now. Oh - and for those who love hardware the just released iFixit teardown video.
1 Apple Stores have evolved over the years, but have a common core design notion and mission. Copying them directly is probably a mistake as what works for them probably only works for Apple - the concept of brand comes into play. They aren't perfect, but they will probably continue their own evolution.
2 A rich subject indeed. Mass customization may offer meaningful choice and there are aspects that are very desirable, but much of the territory is unexplored. It will be fascinating to see how design couples with it. If you're curious about this it is an area that is of great interest to me and the reason why I spend time looking at where fashion may be going. There is much press given to 3d manufacture, but apart from prototyping and a few niches I think it is much too early to talk about if your horizons are anything under a decade. There are fundamental design and materials problems that need a much richer understanding than is currently available.
3 This is a really important point and helps define a minimal ecosystem. As much as I like some of Microsoft's current work and a few of the new phones, I doubt they'll gain enough traction to do very well. They have a real chicken and egg problem.
4 My view on what creative photography is and how I should attempt it has been undergoing a huge shift in the past two years. I'm coming to realize the kit is relatively unimportant and I need to train myself instead. I need to take a lot of photos and effectively use constraints. It may be that my iPhone is making me a better photographer than anything else I've done. Whatever you have, just go and shoot and shoot and shoot - and then learn how to be critical.
Today is the first day of Autumn and muffins are always good with breakfast as the weather chills and crisps. Here is an ancient blueberry muffin recipe I use. The secret to great muffins is to use very fresh ingredients and to barely mix the ingredients. Over mixing just kills them... I won't convert it to metric units.
° Preheat oven to 375°F with a middle rack in place