There are two kinds of hysteria. Good hysteria and bad hysteria. Apple has had its share of the good and now it's getting some of the bad. Apple has recently put itself in the enviable position of the company its customers trust to put the latest and most fabulous technology into the hands of the most technically unsophisticated people. One of their mottos: It just works. Now it turns out that unsophisticated people who appreciate all that technology can hack it too. Is that karmic or what?
For years, like a lot of pros in the IT business, I resisted the smarmy swooning over the iPhone. I had a smartphone that could do everything it could do, plus some things it could not and still has not done. So I observed the hysteria and madness with a bit of perplexity, like watching fans swarm the Rolling Stones when you don't see what's so great about their music. Or seeing a dead Michael Jackson suddenly matter more than when he was alive.
Like with any technology, even if it's advanced enough to pass for magic, there are always limits. And of course people try to hack those limits. There are jailbreaks and knockoffs, deliberate exploitations and there are bugs and glitches at the end of the performance envelope. Still, you can make a perfect product with imperfect technology. Hysteria helps make that leap from good to great.
Yesterday, I was reminded that the last time there was this much public love over a product, it was the New Beetle. I got one the first year, a black turbo, and people used to stop to talk to me about it in gas stations. Kids would wave. Chicks would stare. Drivers would honk. Chicks would stare. Ahh those were the days. One time... nevermind. Anyway. The brakes on that car were great, but they would burn through pads like crazy. But you put up with such flaws.
The opportunity to hack an iPhone or to modify your car comes from the same motivation. If this thing is so perfect, I wonder if I can change it. The video below gives the technically unsophisticated individual an opportunity to say they're smarter than Steve Jobs. It is the easiest hack in the world: just pinch it in the right position. Crippling the miraculous iPhone is like blowing up the Death Star, or solving Rubik's Cube. It gives one a sense of power and accomplishment. If Steve Jobs is so smart, why did he make this mistake, one might ask. And hey, what's up with AT&T? Everybody 'knows' that AT&T is inferior to Verizon even if only 4% of the population could even tell you what kind of cell technology lies beneath the '3G' marketing.
Now I'm an iPhone 3 guy, and I've got my hands on the new one and I like it. For me, the three most important things about the new product are the improved speed, the video camera and the high resolution screen. The improved look and feel is a nice to have, as is the battery life. Multitasking? Meh. If I'm that focused on my phone, something's wrong with me. I've made a logical decision to hold off on purchasing, primarily because the rest of my family is on Verizon and there's marginal value in the hand me down. I've been rather surprised by the number of people lined up at the local Apple Store, and the number youth I've seen around my town with this phone already. But it's a public phenomenon and that goes beyond logical decisions.
I want Apple and Jobs to succeed. I like their approach to the entire market and I wish there were three such companies instead of one, just like I'm glad there is Mercedes, Audi and BMW. But you get the audience you deserve, and when hype can make you, hype can kill you.
I am thinking of components of a new kind of database tool. It is part and parcel of how I envision a multitouch interface becoming a new paradigm for computing. The initial question is "How do I deal with millions of things?". Then considering a 'glasstop' multitouch GUI what kind of primative and second-order operations might gestures generate.
One class of these deal with enumeration, and I'm thinking of this in the context of data mining. The first thing I want to do is generate some human-comprehensible names for result sets, one dimension at a time. My paradigm is naming conventions. So, imagine that we have a large set of data and upon this data we run a random transform - what do we name the set?
If we go back to the deck of cards data and the 'hoop' operation that I mentioned in 'glasstop', we recall that I may have 1 million 'records' and that when I set them through this transform I get, say, 15 new sets of records. I have distributed them and now the 15 new smaller decks will divide the larger set. The distribution should be named and tracked, so now we need 15 names for the smaller decks. Each of these 15 will can be reduced to a histogram of the gating/distributing function.
The Enumerator is a labeling / indexing function that assigns familiar human comprehensible attributes to result sets. The cardinality of the distribution is matched, along with user preferences to a predefined or dynamically generated set.
Consider a deck of cards that goes through a hoop called 'birthday month'. The deck of cards represents a demographic database with 1 million persons. Of those million, 89% have a birthday attribute. The function will then distribute them to 13 piles with the 13th being "N/A". But we could assign an enumeration target not to 'birthday month' per se, but to a color, or a color and shape combination or to an animal. 'January' could be mapped to 'Blue' or any such set with a cardinality of 13. This gives the human operator a way of cognizing and associating intermediary datasets at an abstract level. Alternatively the transforms can be transparent with those functions and their result sets directly named without abstraction. The abstract enumerations can be turned on and off at any time.
Clearly, size, shape and color are the most primary and recognizable abstract enumerations.
I know the leaves, I know the berries, I know the bark. I know how it branches and I know the sound of the wind through its leaves. I know what it looks like in the summer and in the winter. I know what the grain of it looks like when you cut it with a saw. I know what the berries tastes like when they're ripe and I know how firm they are when they are not. I know how to get the stains out of clothes that the berries make, and I know what it feels like to get hit in the face with one thrown by a neighbor behind a trashcan top shield.
But I don't know what the name of the tree is. So if I wanted to plant one or ask about one, I'd have to motor over to Wellington and point to it and say 'this'. You'd think the internet could help, but you'd be wrong.
I suspect that there are thousands of people who know that tree as well as I do, and surely most of them, being Americans from Los Angeles, have computers. Sometimes it gets tiring talking about movies and restaurants, but you wouldn't know that from the creators of Web 2.0 and social media. And so I am thinking, like a database guy thinks, about how to improve on:
People have done a bang-up job with restaurants. But the whole world isn't urban, nor is the whole urban world man-made. You would think that with all the green-think that somebody would think about figuring out how to query up and tally flowers, trees and shrubbery. But if you ask a bloke about shrubbery, he might as well say 'Ni'. And that's a Monty Python joke that has more fans than Ligustrum x ibolium.
It shouldn't have to be that way. This is another application of Fingerbox.
I have been wanting an iPad for two years now, ever since I started looking at surface computing. Finally, here is the real platform.
Ordinary people, who are not called to think beyond consumer stuff, and this includes just about every mainstream tech writer, will not get it. But if on occasion, one is called to be a visionary or one is at the top of a stack of mature technology, then you may see some of what I see in the future of this new computing paradigm. I have been speculating for a few years about the classes of applications that this platform will serve and I'm very glad that Jobs has made this happen. It's going to be huge.
One can immediately and easily say and see how the iPad is a Kindle killer. It is not. It is simply the high end device that is getting about as high end as it is possible to get for handheld touch. Let's think about that for a moment - because Apple's pricing is phenomenal. When could the absolute highest end device for a brand new technology introduction be had for under 900 bucks? To tell you the truth, I think Jobs is actually rather amazed himself. The Kindle and other eBook readers will survive just fine. I have the basic G2 Kindle and at $250, it was an easy and worthwhile purchase. I'm having no regrets. I didn't expect for the Kindle to do web browsing, and it is marginally better than that old CLI browser, Lynx. But the free Whispernet is worth its weight in gold, as is the multi-day standby battery life, not to mention the wealth of 99 cent books. I haven't seen the marketing detail for the iBookstore, but the overview looks extraordinarily retarded and retro, like a screenshot from Myst. Wrong-o Charlie Brown. However, like the iTunes store and iTunes itself, a lot of maturity is on tap for the future. Apple will have to earn its way forward in the eBook world, and it will not kill the Kindle any more than the iPhone killed Nokia.
The bold and proper pitch for the iPad is the consuming experience which has never been quite distinguished from the producing experience. So far all personal computers have striven to be all things to all people. Surely product lines have emerged over the years to make distinctions between business computing, home computing, gaming and mobile computing, but here finally is the right device to do it. "IPod Touch on steroids" is truly a positive way of thinking about the machine. A year ago, when I was working the combination of the Treo and the Touch, I was extraordinarily grateful for the ability to browse on the Apple device. I was frustrated by the lack of free wifi, and so chose my lunch locations with that in mind. Getting the iPhone last summer cleared all that problem up. This Christmas, I got the Kindle and it's a great reading experience - all about the format - but not quite the browsing experience I'd want. So Jobs and Apple are right on in placing this product between phones and laptops. Three devices are not too many. The phone is always with you, the iPad goes to lunch, the laptop stays in the office until the weekend.
So all in all, Apple is correct in making this device a sweetspot between work production devices and smart phones. As an all purpose browsing and media consumption device, it is what people will want when and if they become mature sophisticated consumers of digital content. I'm not convinced that it will be a stellar gaming platform, but it certainly will do what slates before it did not.
Next time I talk about the Pad, it will be with an angle towards the kinds of applications touch will bring out in this two handed format. Beyond the content deals that are certainly being negotiated as Apple counts its pre-orders, that's going to be the next big thing.
It turns out that there have been rumors about the 'iTablet' for years now. There have been a recent spate I caught this week from the Cranky Geeks. They report the rumor and then dis the product idea. I think they are being paid to shutup and say stupid things, like they did about the video iPod. The dimensions of the product? A $800 machine with a 9.7 inch screen coming in October.
A DS style deal with two screens that turns into a two-page reader is a spectacular idea. An oversized iTouch is a stupid idea. But note how the rumor has the screen at 9.7 inches. That's the exact same size as the Kindle DX. My speculation has been that Apple wants a Kindle killer and I expect that Jobs will want to do with books and texts of all sorts what he has done with music, which is boldly forge alignments that change the industry forever.
Everything that Google has done, somewhat, and failed to do in convincing various publishers to go digital can be done with an Apple/Amazon alliance. Or Apple could do it alone. All you have to do is imagine is Jobs saying with major book publishers what he said with the major music industry players when the iTunes store was first announced. It can be that big.
An iReader with multitouch is reasonably priced at 800 for gearhead first adopters like me, and can come down to Kindle prices next Christmas.
I don't know how anyone can not imagine Apple building a sexier device with multitouch and text to speech that blows the doors off of a Kindle DX. That's all this product needs to do. The problem will be, of course, the liklihood that Apple will overload the iTunes Store. It needs to be a different kind of store, if you ask me, and it needs to be a touch more open so that booksellers can get on board.
If anybody at Apple is as visionary as I am, then they will see a market for 'book developers' which is at least as large as the blogosphere, and they will find a way to monetize writing and lower barriers to self-publication in the same way they have generated a new class of software developers.If they added a bit more brains to that vision, then they would do speech recognition in a devkit that would provide for transcribed podcasts.
I've been doing some thinking about multitouch very seriously since Christmas. (I got an iPod Touch) and I'm starting to crank out some ideas about a new visualization paradigm. It starts with that very premise - that different kinds of data need different kinds of visual paradigms.
Thinking about this in a 'surface computing' UI has unlocked a large number of possibilities and I am developing those ideas now. I will be sharing them from time to time here. It's a bit frightening to do so because I'm not sure how I can keep the ideas to myself. At the same time, I really can't see any other way to develop them strictly in a vacuum, and I think this blog is going to be the best way for me to get in touch with people who can and will help.
At any rate, the basic idea is to make a real desktop - a large translucent horizontal surface for organizing, categorizing and analyzing large amounts of data. Glasstop or tabletop computing is what I'm thinking about, and specifically I am thinking about objects from BI. Not just the presentation objects for end-users but a comprehensive UI which exposes all of the tools that BI architects would use to prepare the data for presentation and that prosumers would use to organize their own or public data sets.
The first rule is that objects will be presented in such a way as to give visual clues to their scale, and the objects may change shape or navigation technique depending on its cardinality.
For example, if I were a marketing manager and I wanted to deal with 1 million customers, and I have and entire six foot by four foot table on which to do so, I would like a tool that allows me to segment them by all of the attributes I have for them. But how do I represent 1 million customers before I perform that kind of segmentation? How might I apply filters and enumerate distinct attributes? These are the kinds of problems I would like my system to solve very easily through multitouch manipulation.
There are a number of interesting analogs that come immediately to mind. Working with a deck of cards or stacks of paper are manual types of sorting paradigms which are familiar. So let's envision one small aspect of dealing with this problem - attribute enumeration. With our 1 million records, we can represent them as a deck of cards. But imagine that there were 100 cards in the deck instead of 52. If we dealt out the deck, each card would represent 10,000 customers. The thing to keep in mind is that we can zoom in to any card and deal with 10,000 or we could zoom back out to the entire deck. We can also change the size of the deck arbitrarily, but for now let's leave it at 100.
Now we know a deck of cards has suits, and each card has a face value. But if we use our imagination we can think of each of these as dimensions or attributes. For the time being let's leave it at the attribute level. Part of the system that is going to help us out tremendously is that it will have visual paradigms for different scalar systems. When I think multitouch in my iPod, it's easy to do flick gestures through say 100 or 200 albums knowing that each album may have 1 to 20 songs each. But I also have contacts in my iPod, for me that's about 7000. It is very inefficient for me to navigate to the Rs, for example, knowing I have 500 people to flick through before I get to Joan Ruzart. I'd probably have to think, go to the Ss and flick backwards. So the cardinality of a flick list should probably not exceed 200. Accelerating flick speed would not be as user friendly as simply adding a shortcut. Therefore I would want a library of shortcuts which are applicable to all of my data sets for quick navigation. And that's where my attribute enumeration comes in.
Obviously if I've already designed the records for my 1 million customers, I know what all the attributes are and what all the fields are. Let's start with something easy. Last name, as I implied above. Instantly and obviously I can split the deck into 26. So let's say I take my pile of 100 x 10k and drag it through a hoop (rather like a lion tamer) with 'ABC' on top. It comes out into 26 stacks. Or alternately it marks those same cards with 26 different letters. For the sake of our example lets say that our hoop only marks the deck.
Only because I used to work at Xerox am I familiar with the terms 'bursting' and 'decollating'. I'll just use the first term. Bursting means taking carbon copies apart. But in our deck example each card represents 10,000 customers. So to burst a card gives us 10,000. We are not bursting our cards as they go through the ABC hoop, we are marking them. So we make 1 million marks in an attribute with a cardinality of 26.
But we could do the same operation with a burst and resize. A burst and resize would take the 100 cards with the random distribution of 10,000 customers each and then sort them into 26 cards with a variable number of customers each. That sounds like a fairly expensive operation. So let's not do it yet.
Instead we will take another attribute and apply it visually to the deck. Let's apply a net revenue per customer metric to the deck. We calculate net revenue per customer and then take a spread of those values. That spread gives us a histogram. Think of it on the x axis from -$500 to $7500. Now I can stack my cards visually along the x axis and instantly eyeball the median. I can squeeze the scale so that I get only three buckets or I can stretch it wider so that I get more buckets. I can grab any stack in any bucket and then expand that out as well. With any stack I can mark or burst and resize the subset and work with another attribute.