The Iconmaster

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Posts Tagged ‘apple’

Ceding the Lead

March 9th, 2013

Apple is losing its lead in the area of user interface.

I’m not talking about skeuomorphism, which is a poorly-understood concept anyway. Probably any good touch interface is skeuomorphic by nature: this is not really a page under glass that you’re sliding around in Safari or Chrome.

Nor is this about the spectrum that lies between totally flat design and extreme texture realism.1

Where I see Apple losing ground is in those areas which are really key to a user interface in the post-PC, touch-driven era. For me, that’s largely not about color, texture, shading or even icons(!).

Rather, interfaces succeed or fail on the basis of organization (of the whole), layout (of the immediate view), typography, responsiveness, constancy2 and accessibility. By “accessibility” I don’t mean only access for the impaired, but access to the features or information the user needs at any given moment.

So while Apple’s graphical surfaces continue to outshine the competition’s in attractiveness, its interfaces could be falling behind in other areas.

One of the most important issues of accessibility for modern touch devices is the virtual keyboard. It’s an interface we use constantly: for searching the web, for sending a message, for entering a password, for adding an appointment to a calendar or for adding comments to a photo.

As it stands, I’d rate Apple as holding a solid third place in keyboards. While it’s fast and responsive, offers user-definable shortcuts and includes a sometimes helpful, sometimes maddening autocorrection system, the iOS keyboard has changed very little since the iPhone was released in 2007. (Text fields did gain copy and paste, which are both helpful and maddening in other ways.) Meanwhile, keyboards in Android and Blackberry have pushed ahead with predictive auto-fill capabilities. These systems hone in on what your most likely next word is, and offer to let you insert it with a tap or gesture. Since typing on glass is never without some frustration, requiring fewer taps means fewer opportunities for aggravation.

Andy Ihnatko switched to Android in part because of its superior keyboard offerings; while Ars Technica concludes “the BlackBerry 10 keyboard [with its flick-up-to-autofill feature] is one of the best virtual keyboards we’ve ever used.”

Good for Android and Blackberry 10. But it’s not just text entry where Apple is falling short; text editing remains remarkably painful on iOS. Having to fat-finger the insertion point into the hairline space between two letters so you can remove an unintended capitalization is a recipe for exasperation — and the need for doing so comes up multiple times a day. There are good ideas out there for how iOS editing could be improved. So far, Apple hasn’t shown much zeal here.

There are accessibility issues beyond the keyboard. Toggling wifi or bluetooth connections and adjusting brightness remain points of annoyance on iOS. Switching apps on iPhone requires a clumsy double-click on a button that was never engineered for that purpose. And even on the large, pixel-rich display of the retina iPad, there is no way to load a social stream alongside a live video (as I’ve wanted to do during political debates) or keep an online article handy while writing a response to it.

These are all interface issues that have been addressed to one degree or another on other mobile platforms.

Sharing data between apps, or between devices, remains a profound hassle. Using a photo from one app in another usually requires the ridiculous step of saving it to a third app — Photos — first. And if you want to move that photo to another device (or to your Mac), well… I hope you’re a Dropbox user, because Apple can’t help you.

Nothing here represents a problem beyond Apple’s ability to solve.3 Instead, what we seem to be seeing here is an example of Ed Catmull’s adage, “Success hides problems.” Apple continues to be monstrously successful across nearly every one of its product lines. If the iPhone 5 is the world’s best-selling smartphone and the iPad is the leader among tablets, what can there be to fix? My fear is that at some point these little niggling annoyances — each minor enough when taken on its own — will cease to be worth putting up with as a whole. If these are all solved problems on other platforms, customers will start to wonder why they have to keep tolerating them on an Apple device.

At that point, it’s already too late.

Apple does many things exceptionally well. Its industrial design and hardware engineering aren’t in danger of being eclipsed anytime soon. But competitors are chipping away at its lead in user interface. If Apple means to stay at the top of the mobile market, it needs to start closing these gaps.

  1. Talking about these design decisions as a matter of choosing one’s place on the spectrum, rather as a dichotomy which requires everyone choose a side, would be a helpful evolution of that discussion.
  2. Here I mean both “consistency” and “reliability.” An interface that changes with every view may suffer from inconstancy, but so might a particular view whose content fluctuates rapidly while struggling with sporadic availability of a server.
  3. Apple’s ongoing struggles with web services are another matter, but not an interface design issue.

On Apple Product Nomenclature and Proper Pluralization

November 22nd, 2010

Apple is unusually careful to avoid pluralizing their product names. Perhaps subsequently, a number of poor pluralization practices have sprung up around Apple’s more unusual monikers. As Western people, we know both the value of high linguistic standards and quality consumer electronics. It’s time to establish good, grammatically-correct standards for talking about our Apple products in the plural.

We must set aside such malformed constructions as “MacBook Airs” and “iPod touches.” Such utterances make us out to be semi-intelligent apes stumbling upon a giant, unibody obelisk whose seamless aluminum surface is broken only by a glowing fruit logo. We are a higher breed of consumer, and we will show forth both our erudition and our love of high manufacturing tolerances.

Consider the following, grammatically-correct pluralizations:

  • MacBooks Pro
  • MacBooks Air
  • iPods touch
  • iPods nano
  • iPods shuffle

If you are like me, you are now convinced of the self-evident correctness of these formulations and require no further persuasion. Feel free to skip the rest of what follows. But perhaps the mere music of the words “iPods touch” is not sufficient to convert you. After all, “everybody else calls them iPod touches.” Well, the whims of the masses are frequently a poor barometer of wisdom in life choices.

Consider also that English as a recognizably distinct language is at least 1500 years old, whereas Apple Inc. is a mere 24 years old — and internet punditry (and pedantry) is younger yet. It is likely that English, though it will undoubtedly evolve, will long outlast both the maker of our MacBooks Air and the ecosystem of customers, critics and clairvoyants that have crystallized around it. It will certainly outlast your own personal iPod nano, and it will outlast you. It behooves us to steward well this linguistic heritage and pass it on to our future generations unspoiled by techno-barbarisms.

Certainly Apple’s product names are grammatically… quirky. However it can be seen that they are not grammatically incorrect, if you take into account certain peculiarities of the language.

First, a note of clarification: the product names in view here are not to be confused with compound words. Compound words require the joining of two words into a single, new word: barnyard, pincushion, lighthouse and so on. (Now, “MacBook” does appear to be a compound word and we do not need to pluralize it as “Macs Book” [hat tip to Brian Behrend for raising this issue.]) Apple’s product names do not fit the compound word model.

The best way to understand Apple’s nomenclature, in my view, is to view each example as a noun followed by a noun acting as an adjective. This requires that English allow for two things: nouns that act as adjectives, and nouns that precede the adjectives which modify them. Happily, it allows for both.

I will deal with the more unusual case first. In many languages, it is not only common for nouns to precede their adjectives but actually expected. In English, this is unusual; but certainly not unheard-of, particularly in poetry or elevated prose. Consider the phrase from Coleridge, “it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural”; or Poe’s “Once upon a midnight dreary.”

No one should be surprised to find a noun followed by an adjective, even in contemporary English. There’s even a term for this: .

On the question of the noun exchanging its role for that of the adjective, examples are so commonplace as to be utterly mundane: “army general,” “race horse,” “school teacher,” “world war” and so on. You are reading this tedious essay on a “web page.” There’s nothing mysterious about these constructions.

We’ve thus established that A) nouns may be followed by the adjectives which modify them and B) nouns may themselves serve as adjectives. It thus only stands to reason that C) a noun may be followed by another noun which serves as an adjective modifying the leading noun. This is exactly the construction which Apple prefers to employ in marketing its product lines. A “MacBook Air” is an “Air” sort of MacBook. An “iPod touch” is a “touch” sort of iPod. I do not believe there is a more common-sense way in which these appellations (Apple-lations?) could be understood.

If we wish to be respecters of the language, we ought then to pluralize our Apple products correctly. We should speak of “iPods nano” and not “iPod nanos.” “MacBooks Pro,” not “MacBook Pros.” Please, join with me in standing up for proper English in our discourse about mass market computing devices.

(One final bit of pedantry: You may be tempted, as I was, to assume the word “shuffle” in “iPod shuffle” is being used as a verb — “an iPod that shuffles.” This would necessitate the pluralization be rendered as “iPods shuffling.” Were this the case, however, the singular would also need be altered to “iPod shuffling.” We can thus see that Apple intends “shuffle” here to be understood in its noun form, “an act of shuffling.” It is a “shuffle” kind of iPod, and the pluralization method is the same as for their other product lines.)

Update: Apple’s official stance is “trademarks are adjectives, and cannot be made plural or possessive.” So Apple’s preference seems to be that we refer to “iPod touch devices” and “MacBook Air computers” over any other alternatives. Take that for what it’s worth.