WWDC 2014

Tim Cook began the WWDC 2014 keynote promising “the mother of all releases for developers” and “the biggest release since the launch of the App Store.” He was not exaggerating. In a 30 minute span, Apple knocked nearly every item off the community’s list of wishes and complaints. As I said on the Debug podcast last week, it’s as big a Monday as I can remember for developers. And I can remember quite a few.

Releases like this don’t come often, because the decisions and effort behind them aren’t applied lightly. The massive technical and political change required and subsequently generated by things like extensibility, third-party keyboards, and a new programming language, bears massive risk both inside and outside of Apple. That risk — to security, to battery life, to a consistent experience that customers know and trust — was constantly evaluated when I fought for SDK enhancements as a Technology Evangelist inside Apple. And more often than not, it was decided either that the risks were too high, or that there wasn’t enough time to solve the problem while sufficiently containing those risks.

Apple caught up with itself this year. As with the first iPhone OS and SDK, the consumer experience (iOS 7) took priority, and developers had their day a year later. Apple has decided that moving iOS forward is as much in developers’ hands as it is in Apple’s. Consider that all this is happening at a time when Apple has more money and is hiring more engineers than ever. If anything, Apple is more suited to shut the doors and go it alone. But that’s not what’s happening.

And it seems to be coming from a place of confidence rather than concession. It wasn’t just the announcements themselves, or the energy behind them. It was the energy from first-time attendees who made up 70% of the crowd. It was the energy from employees when I spoke to them in the conference halls and after hours. It was Craig Federighi sitting on the floor during sessions and taking pictures with everybody who lined up. It was the easing of the conference and pre-release NDA. Apple seems just as excited as developers about this new era. And yet despite this shift, true to old form, nearly everything remained secret until showtime.

This was my first WWDC since 2011. That keynote was Steve Jobs’ last, and it lacked the excitement needed to counter his visible lack of energy. Responses to the events since (and perhaps even a few prior events) paled in comparison to the response we saw last week from press and developers alike. Apple has needed time to cope not just with losing Steve, but with the idea that Apple wouldn’t be his company anymore.

That process began some time before October 5, 2011. It ended on June 2, 2014. Josh Topolsky kind of said it, Ben Thompson kind of said it, so let’s just say it:

This wouldn’t have happened under Steve Jobs.

The “Continuity” suite of features says more to me than anything else announced last week, naturally blurring the line between Mac and iPhone and iPad while still accepting each product for what it is. Recent updates to OS X seemed intent on forcing iOS down the Mac’s throat. Last week, for what felt like the first time ever, the two were on equal footing: an Apple device is an Apple device is an Apple device. This shot of creativity, connectivity, integration, and inclusion points to drastic change from within. When I wrote “Regime Change” in 2012, nearly everyone assumed the title referred to the fall of Scott Forstall. It in fact referred to the rise of Tim Cook.

What we saw at WWDC 2014 was built by thousands of people. The leadership at the top empowered those people to not only proceed, but to succeed. The attitude behind WWDC 2014 was one of increased openness and increased confidence — an attitude that managed to depart from the worst of the past while staying true to the best. Apple is undeniably the new company it deserves to be, and Tim Cook’s stewardship is on full display. I’m as excited for the future we haven’t yet seen as I am for the one we were just shown in San Francisco.

2014.01.24

30

My familiarity with Macintosh came relatively late in life. Our first computer was a Commodore PET, which my father, a math teacher, borrowed from his school. It was replaced by an IBM PC Jr, then a PS/2. My dad taught me some Turbo Pascal, and then that was it. We never got another computer. We were a DOS house, and I barely saw a GUI until 1995, when I left for college.

I had seen a few Macs, but most of them were very old. So when I got to college and saw my friend Seth’s PowerMac 7100/66, I was shocked. The screen is so big! It has color! It does things other than print layout! I was hooked. I bought a Mac within weeks. My dad thought I was nuts.

These were the days when built-in Ethernet was largely unheard of, and yet Macs had them. Most computers in the dorm didn’t even have a modem. The World Wide Web was just starting to become a phenomenon. The Yahoo! homepage was a grey, HTML 2.0 mess. There was no spam.

We didn’t just have Ethernet, though. We had AppleTalk. Every Mac user in every dorm was a click away, and not only could we share files, but through a System 7  Chooser extension called BroadCast, we could message each other in realtime. It was IM before IM.

Then, of course, there was Marathon, which also supported AppleTalk. We badged our BroadCast usernames with |M| so complete strangers would know who was up for a game.

“M?”
“Sure”
“Join”

So here we were in 1995 playing spontaneous eight-man networked deathmatches. Every night. All night. People came to our doors asking us to turn the volume down — and to stop screaming at each other.

But for me, it was more than games and chats and word processors and desktop pictures and custom icons. I wanted to understand why Apple thought RISC processors were better than CISC. How those menus and windows got on the screen. How I could make my own. And so I started flunking classes because I was too busy coding for no discernible reason. At that point, my father, bless him, said “I think you need to make a decision.” I went into college an aspiring veterinarian. I came out an aspiring software developer. The rest is, well, now I’m where I am.

The Mac made me excited about technology again. It changed and shaped my life in just about every way.

A few years after I graduated, I found a position at Apple that matched the skills I had scraped up to that point. Mac OS X had just been released, and Apple was still losing money. One of the interviewers (who is still there today) asked me, “How do you feel about potentially working for an underdog?”

I told him I spent all my savings on a Performa 6300CD, and then again on a PowerMac 8600. I got the job.

Sitting there on the east coast in a dirty dorm room with so much to learn, reading Guy Kawasaki’s email newsletter, it seemed so ridiculous that I’d ever be an Apple Evangelist that I didn’t even bother dreaming about it. In retrospect, it seems obvious.

2014.01.16

The Net Neutrality Endgame

The U.S. Court of Appeals made a significant and troubling decision this week: it shut down a 2010 FCC decree that prevented internet service providers (“ISPs”) from selectively enhancing or restricting traffic to certain destinations (websites, streaming services, etc.) The collective term for this idea has become known as Net neutrality.

If you need help understanding what’s at stake, you must read Nilay Patel’s dissection on The Verge. While you’re at it, see Fred Wilson’s brief but brutal take on what it means for entrepreneurs and investors.

At the very least, you should take a good look at this mock-advertisement posted by ‘quink’ on Reddit. It’s the most compelling and succinct illustration I’ve seen. Even the fine print was written with care.

Put simply: the Internet we know and depend on will become something very different. The business relationship with your provider will change its focus from consumption (how many ones and zeros came over the wire) to behavior (what kind of ones and zeros). The latter is much more discriminatory and insidious.

Quink’s illustration is far from the worst-case scenario. Have a look at your cellular bill: most of us have minute allocations for specific times of the day and week. Now imagine a future where Netflix streaming is twice as expensive after 6PM. Where a single Skype call costs as much as a monthly landline.

The privacy implications are just as chilling. A discriminatory model bakes surveillance into the way ISPs do business. Sure, your provider can snoop on your traffic right now, but nothing in the fundamental concept of delivery requires or justifies that they do. With this environment in place, the implications for privacy and anonymity tools like Tor should be obvious: they would be banned in the provider’s terms of service (how else can they know how much to charge and what to block?) and lobbyists would waste no time making them illegal.

It’s sad that this has come to an issue of courts and regulatory bodies. The real problem is that there’s nowhere else to turn. There is no tangible consumer choice. The infrastructure is effectively monopolized. It will not be possible to vote on this with your wallets: you can submit, or cancel your service. But nobody’s going to stop using the Internet — certainly not in the kind of volume that would make a dent in policy.

The picture above resonates so well because we’ve seen it before. We see these itemized, booby-trapped menus every time we buy television or phone service. So it’s quite difficult to call this vision far-fetched when you consider the people who sell us Internet connectivity are the same people who sell us television and telephone connectivity. This is absolutely the future they want. And if nothing changes, they’re going to get it.

(Update: This article originally attributed the ISP “pricing menu” image to a user on Twitter. Iain Delaney pointed out the correct source. Sadly, none of these outcomes will change the way work is stolen on the Internet.)

2013.11.01

Thermonuclear War

In the early days of the iOS-Android war, Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.” Everyone immediately anticipated patent claims against the Android OS. I doubt many anticipated claims against Google’s undiversified core business.

ArsTechnica is reporting that Rockstar, the company spawned from an Apple-Microsoft-RIM-Sony alliance which, in 2011, outbid Google for a trove of Nortel and Novell patents, has filed suit against Google:

The complaint against Google involves six patents, all from the same patent “family.” They’re all titled “associative search engine,” and list Richard Skillen and Prescott Livermore as inventors. The patents describe “an advertisment machine which provides advertisements to a user searching for desired information within a data network.”

The oldest patent in the case is US Patent No. 6,098,065, with a filing date of 1997, one year before Google was founded.

If you think that sounds like nearly 95% of Google’s revenue, you’re not alone. This sole patent feels like enough motivation for Google to have won this auction at all costs. Not only did Google not win, it made joke bids. What were they thinking?

Perhaps Google wasn’t thinking. Perhaps it was woefully unprepared for the 2011 auction and lacked a sufficiently clear picture of how valuable the portfolio was  — and conversely, how dangerous it would be in other hands. Or perhaps Google decided to brave court battles and ideally set a precedent that crumbles the patent troll house of cards for good. That sounds very, very risky, and doesn’t explain why it bid up to $4.4B in the first place.

It also doesn’t explain why Google paid twelve billion dollars (!!!) for Motorola just one month later. It’s harder than ever to see the Motorola purchase as anything but panic: having lost the Nortel auction, possibly not even realizing what they’d lost until after the fact, Google scrambled for countermeasures. Larry Page practically admitted as much when he announced the deal.

Unfortunately, Motorola’s patents have not proven too useful. Florian Mueller repeatedly predicted this mess, chronicling a number of courtroom dead-ends since the Motorola deal was made. And then there’s the small matter of Motorola continuing to hemorrhage cash. I wonder if Dan Lyons still thinks the deal was a “rope-a-dope”.

I’ve said this multiple times in the past, and I’ll say it again: I don’t like this game. Rockstar looks, smells, and now acts like countless NPE’s that have done more harm than good — namely Lodsys, which has been aggressively harassing Apple’s own ecosystem. It’s extremely disappointing to see Apple facilitate this kind of behavior. At the same time, the missed Nortel auction and dubious Motorola purchase look as awful a strategic blunder as ever for Google. They kept their head in the sand for too long.

2013.10.07

Samsung’s new Galaxy Gear ad

A month after announcing it, Samsung has begun advertising its Galaxy Gear “smartwatch” on television. The first ad features clips from various movies and TV shows of people talking into and tinkering with watches that were more than just watches. It concludes with a shot of someone using a Galaxy Gear. The implication was that we now finally live in the future, thanks to Samsung.

Many people immediately noted that the ad was reminiscent of Apple’s original 2007 ad for the iPhone, titled simply “Hello.” The easy thing to say here is that this is just another instance of Samsung aping Apple. It’s a reasonable charge, but it’s also lazy.  These ads are alike in appearance and nothing more.

First, it’s only fair to point out that the “Hello” ad is not typical Apple advertising. Apple’s ads are historically plain, to the point, and focused entirely around the product itself. In “Hello”, we see the product for a split second, after a barrage of licensed content with no connection to Apple or Apple products. There’s a reason for that departure, which also must be noted, because Samsung clearly did not.

The “Hello” ad worked on a number of levels:

  1. It was a playful introduction to the product
  2. It set very low but still very real expectations to build perspective
  3. It clearly demonstrated progress in technology and design

The message behind “Hello”, and its distinction from the usual Apple product advertisements, was and still is clear: You are not ready for this, so we need to formally introduce you.

The iPhone dramatically tore down our understanding of everything that preceded it: phones; computers; software; the Internet; how we consume information; how we communicate; how we are (not) beholden to gigantic infrastructure companies that basically hate us. It’s all done differently now. The Way Things Are was about to become The Way Things Were. So, “Hello.”

The Galaxy Gear ad, and the Galaxy Gear itself, convey none of this. The ad primes us with decades of fantastic expectations — expectations which just about any review of the product you can find will tell you have not been met. It also implicitly, and very ironically, shows just how lacking in vision the product itself is. The iPhone ad says, “We’re starting over.” The Gear ad says, “We tried to make that exact thing you’ve seen on TV all these years.”

One of the common cheapshots following the Gear announcement back in September was “This is what we get when Samsung doesn’t have anything to copy.” This new ad is Samsung’s reply. “I beg your pardon, we absolutely copied!” It demonstrates not just a lack of creativity in the product, but also a complete lack of awareness in its marketing.

This all stands just the same whether or not you think the TV spot is actually derivative. The problem with this ad is not that it’s ripping anyone off. The problem with this ad is that it exhibits everything wrong with Samsung as a company.