Apple is Bad At Design

Ever since Apple announced the iPhone X and iPhone 8 last month, I've been thinking a lot about how they've begun to approach design as a whole, and frankly, it's not good.

Let's start with the "notch" on the iPhone X. It’s not strange, nor interesting, nor even odd. It’s just bad, and that results in a bad user experience. Apple attempted to justify the notch by saying it houses all of this new technology for Face ID, which lets you unlock the device just by looking at it. This could have easily been accomplished without a visual break in the display, yet here we are, a device with an awkward blind spot cradled by two useless blobs of otherwise useful screen real estate.

Visually speaking, it’s ugly and thoroughly un-Apple like. It completely undermines the core premise of the iPhone X’s design – all screen. It offers a feature as an excuse in search of a solution that was needed – no one asked nor wanted Face ID, and now it raises new concerns about security for users. Apple could have just as easily removed the notch and kept Touch ID, but this time on the back of the device (similar to what many Android OEMs have been doing for years now in an attempt to create a truly immersive front panel i.e. Samsung, LG, Essential, Google to name a few). And from a performance standpoint, nothing differentiates the iPhone X from the iPhone 8 beyond aesthetics and the fact that the former is the flagship out of the two only because Apple wants it to be. 

Just the bezels.  (Source:   r/android  )

Just the bezels. (Source: r/android)

Honestly, I’d love to say that the awful design compromise – and that is what it is, a compromise – is an anomaly for Apple, but it would be far more accurate to describe it as the norm.

Let’s go back in time a little bit and reminisce when Apple could do little wrong. “Macintosh works the way people work,” read one 1992 ad. Rather than requiring downloads and installations, Apple made it so that you could just plug in a mouse and start up the machine and it would just work. They managed to marry that ease of use with truly innovative and groundbreaking industrial design that so many other companies tried and failed to imitate over the last two decades. It’s easy to see just how Apple became the company for artists – the work was sublime and elegant.

Apple was frequently lauded as the best-in-class when it came to the synchronicity between hardware and software design, but things began to change right around the time of iOS 7 launching back in 2013.

iOS 7 was the first visual refresh to iOS overseen by Jony Ive, the darling designed of Silicon Valley who up to that point was seen as someone who could do no wrong. That wasn’t the case, as iOS 7 was confusing and amateurish, and up until iOS 9, still felt relatively incomplete as a thought. Ive had eschewed the former skeuomorphic design in favour of a more minimal, flat aesthetic – one that the digital world was fast embracing. However, Ive’s approach lacked any consistency. Icons all across the system could vary, and while it may seem like nitpicking, these are the kinds of details that Apple would never have gotten wrong before. Apple’s foundation – the lust worth design, the cohesion, total simplicity without sacrificing utility, was slowly eroding with the release of each new product.

Even John Gruber, the most evangelical and ardent of Apple bloggers, said this of the iPhone X’s notch: "It offends me. It’s ungainly and unnatural. This is Apple’s biggest product of 2017?”

What’s most surprising is that it’s been a long time since Apple blew anyone away with its innovation. Most of what’s been released in the Tim Cook era has been largely iterative of the Steve Jobs era. Larger iPads and smaller iPads. Bigger iPhones and smaller iPhones. Sure, Apple released a stylus for the iPad, but that was Apple merely addressing a market and what third parties had been clumsily producing for years. Sure, the cameras got better and the screens sharper, but so did everyone else's. Samsung for years has showcased larger, higher resolution and more sophisticated displays. The software became more complex but not necessarily more usable. Siri went from being there to, "eh, maybe it’ll work this time who knows?" (and totally blown out of the water by the likes of Google and Amazon). Apple Maps improved but is compared to Google’s offering in the same way that Bing is compared to Google’s search. It’s there, but who really cares?

And then there’s the Watch. Late to the game, as usual, everyone thought that it was just because Apple wanted to release the perfect smartwatch, and well, it was far from that. It was riffing off of other devices that came before it and the software was so poorly conceived that Apple had to rebuild it just two versions later. And the newest release is being torn to shreds for features that should work but just don’t (like LTE that can’t connect and a laughable battery). 

This doesn’t just end at the hardware level, nor the UI. The ecosystem as a whole is an utter mess. It’s impossible to backup your iPhone without needed iTunes, and your Apple ID and iTunes Account are seemingly separate for reasons only Eddy Cue and Phil Schiller know. It’s almost as if the company is starting to go down the path of itself back in the 90s being buried under the weight of its products, before the return of Jobs. Its unable to cut ties with past concepts that don’t fit the ecosystem anymore (iTunes), unable to choose clear paths forward (USB-C or Lightning?) and is choosing a user-hostile route by compromising core, universal elements to make room for splashy “features” all the while executing short-term solutions to long-term problems (AirPods > 3.5mm headphone jack?)

Even the naming scheme of Apple is thoroughly confusing. There’s the:

  • MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, 
  • Mac Mini, Mac Pro
  • iMac, iMac Pro
  • iPad, iPad Pro, iPad Mini, 
  • iPhone, iPhone Plus, iPhone X
  • Watch Series 1, Watch Series 3, Watch Nike+, Watch Hermes, Watch Edition

That’s Mini, Air, Pro, Edition, Plus. No consistency across products names, no consistency across product hardware, and most importantly, no consistency across the user experience as a whole. This isn’t an argument as to what Jobs may or may not have done; this is an argument for a central, cohesive vision that just isn’t there. When Schiller, Ive, and Cook cannot and will not provide that vision, who can and will?

Fans will shout justifications for a stylus that must be charged by sticking it in the bottom of an iPad, a “back” button that crammed into a tiny status bar, a system of expensive dongles used to connect devices that until a year ago didn’t need dongles and adapters, and a visual notch that rudely juts into the display of a $1,000 phone. However, the reality is that no matter how much or how well Apple sells, the company is stuck in an idea vacuum, like Microsoft in the 00s, or Apple in the 90s.

When smartphones first came on the scene, Blackberry and Nokia reigned supreme. But they became complacent and stopped innovating. They didn't see the need for things like a 3.5mm headphone jack. Then came the iPhone in 2007, and Apple turned the entire industry on its head. Everyone was chasing Apple and their design supremacy.  What's funny is that now Apple is the one playing catchup in both hardware and software, as the likes of LG and Samsung (and now Google, Huawei and Xiaomi) are out-Apple'ing Apple.

The Samsung Note 8, LG V30, and Apple iPhone X ( Source:   Android Authority )

The Samsung Note 8, LG V30, and Apple iPhone X (Source: Android Authority)

The thing is that with victory often comes a sense of complacency, and in Apple’s case, that comes in the form of design for design’s sake. Design without tough. A comfort in resting on your laurels and lauded history. An increasing lack of concern for what’s coming next. And in technology, the next thing is always the one that breaks you, which makes me ask the question:

Does Apple know what’s coming next?

On Instagram's Curated Reality

I was recently talking to one of my coworkers about our staff. We typically regard ourselves - in a somewhat joking manner - as the grumpy old men. We just don't understand the younger people that we work with.

We were discussing the fact that the staff often spend the majority of their time online, connecting on social media. When they walk in, they're Snapchatting. On their breaks, they're browsing Instagram and texting each other. It's this constant need to connect and share for no other reason than to connect and share just for the sake of it. 

He and I joke about this, grumpily calling them millennials, but we know that we're just as guilty of this as well. But the difference is that where we browse passively, they are always online - aggressively.

I shared with him two articles I had read. The first talked about how on Instagram, teens would aggressively curate their profiles. If a particular photo didn't get enough likes, they'd delete it, so that only the top photos would survive. The second, which is a more recent article, also talked about Instagram, and how it can be the most harmful social media platform for your mental health, and I understand and sort of agree with its premise.

Now, I'm not the typical Instagram user. I don't follow any of my friends and I typically try to avoid any of the feeds that focus primarily on people. I want to see the world around me, and the the world around you. I don't need to know what you look like to want to see your perspective. But browsing through the Explore tab is another thing entirely. In there, all I see are impossibly beautiful models and ultra beefy men. 

The thing with that, and what the second article touches upon, is that young people are incredibly impressionable. They often compare themselves and their bodies to unrealistic images that have been manipulated. But more insidious than that is that it also creates this thought process in which young people think that they too can and should have bodies that look like what they're seeing online, and that they too can have these luxurious lifestyles.

Scott McCloud, the famous cartoonist, talked about how comics were able to make people feel like the characters were reflecting themselves; like the comics were speaking to them personally. The way he described is that when you see the face of someone else, you see the other. But when you see a blank, expressionless face (and sometimes, no face at all), it's easier to project and to see yourself.

Scrolling through my Explore tab on Instagram, all I can see are the same impossible beautiful models and ultra beefy men, all with that same expressionless look on their faces. More than that, however, are the millions of photos with these people taken in various exotic locales. These types of photos do two things. First, they make you believe that you too can achieve that level of beauty and fame while being able to travel all over the world with total ease. And second, they create unrealistic standards, because while it may be fun to browse through these photos and live vicariously through them, they help to lower self-esteem and fuel issues such as FOMO-induced anxiety and depression. All of this is because we project ourselves onto these people we don't even know, but still idolize.

Platforms like Instagram and Twitter are still excellent ways to explore the world around you. I still enjoy them but seemingly less and less these days. It's hard not to be drawn in when I log in and see all those beautiful shots of the world around me. It's extremely easy to edit and manipulate things these days, so you never really know what's real and what's not, so I think that as long as you know how to filter out the noise and the excess on any given social platform, they can still be enjoyable.

Working Everywhere

A few weeks ago, I decided to finally start the process of searching for my first home. It's an incredibly daunting task and a little demoralizing, but also just so much fun. I had an idea in my head of what I wanted it to look like on the inside, and obviously, I took a lot of inspiration from my recent love-affair with Pinterest.

I knew that aside from having an immaculate living area, I wanted an office space. A place where I could sit down and get work done. A desk with drawers and everything neatly filed away and properly stored. But that's when I realized two things - I already have that in my room. I have this beautiful desk, this whole section that's dedicated to nothing but work, but I actually rarely ever spend any time sitting there. For instance, right now, I'm in my bed, drinking tea, and writing this as I have an episode of The West Wing playing in the background (I'm trying to watch in tandem with The West Wing Weekly podcast, but it's so hard not to watch ahead).

The second thing that I realized is that as much as I wanted to be someone who only worked at his work desk and only played elsewhere, I've never been able to do that. As nice as it would be to have one of those heavily curated, Pinterest-looking spaces to get things done, I've always been someone who can get things done anywhere. Well, not anywhere. I've never been able to work in a coffee shop or on a plane - they just never felt right to me - but I can just as easily get work done in my bed, in my kitchen, or on my couch. I've never quite needed a dedicated work space.

I think that's because I've situated myself in such a way that everything I need can be accessed from anywhere. All my my notes and important files are stored in Drive and Keep, I find things to read through Flipboard, sync and listen to my podcasts through Pocket Casts, and have all my passwords stored in LastPass - all of these a mere fingerprint scan away. If you were to give me your phone, I could turn it into mine by downloading a few apps and logging into them. Everything is everywhere, and it's kind of incredible how I've managed to make my life service, and to an extent, device agnostic.

There are some weird hangups though. Emailing on my phone feels as weird as messaging my friends on my computer. Things still feel segmented in certain areas, but that's mostly just a me-thing and how I've done things for so long. What's interesting is the little changes I've noticed. I no longer need to get my laptop to watch Netflix or YouTube just because the screen is larger. I do most of that on my phone now because it's there and it's convenient. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that while it is nice to have a dedicated space to just sit down and get stuff done, whether it's work or cleaning out your inbox, it's also nice knowing that you can do that just about anywhere these days.

I think that this is the way the world is going now - everything is going be both yours and not yours. You own the information, but it doesn't matter what device is being used to deliver that information to you. Everything we use is becoming increasingly more powerful and connected, which only blurs the line between them even further. We just need to unlearn the old ways of thinking how these things work. That and to make sure we don't forget our master password.

Finding Balance Online

A month ago, I wrote about how I was slowly working to make my phone, and myself, better. I talked about how I was replacing Twitter and Reddit from my home screen with Flipboard and an eBook reader. When I told my girlfriend about how I didn't want to spend so much time on social media, she recommended that I try Pinterest. I've tried getting into it before, but for whatever reason, it never stuck with me. When she told me that the key is to pick one project, make it into a board, and start saving every idea you even remotely like to it, I started to see it's value. Now, after a solid month of relentless pinning (men's fashion, home offices, and pugs), I can open up Pinterest and it's full of stuff that I'm really into. It's the weirdest mix of DIY home design to fashion tips I hadn't thought of to hilarious images of the wrinkliest pugs. It feels like me.

The other big shift was that I started using Flipboard a lot more too. After the death of Google Reader, I spent the last four years searching for the best way to consume news. I tried Feedly and Google Play Newsstand, but those felt a little too cold and didn't always deliver the news I was interested in. I tried setting up my Twitter feed, but I kept seeing the same posts retweeted three or four times a day. Facebook worked for a while (I unfollowed everyone, and replaced them with the sites and blogs I frequent the most), but then I noticed that because Facebook's algorithm kept refreshing the stories in a non-linear way, I kept missing out on important news events and stories. Flipboard for the most part has fixed that. Creating news boards around topics as opposed to strictly the sites I read the most has opened me up to a wider discourse and breadth of knowledge and reduced the amount of noise surrounding them

I did the same with Reddit and Instagram. I decided to stop following the accounts and subreddits I thought I had to or should be following, and instead followed the ones across all my interests instead. These have become the places where I spend the majority of my time online now, and you know what? It's absolutely wonderful.

The more I step away from the screaming mess that are Twitter an Facebook, the more I feel sane and happier. My friends, colleagues, and chosen strangers no longer dictate what I care about. Apps like Nuzzel are meant to help with this. You connect your Twitter and Facebook accounts, and a few times a day it'll send you a notification about the stories your friends, colleagues, and chosen strangers are talking about. It's meant to give you that sense of control, but I found it to be more of a distraction. Sure, to an extent it'll help keep me in the loop, but I've found myself to be more engaged when I actually want to flip through the latest news stories and events, not because people I know are talking about them.

The last month has been a calming reminder that the world isn't always on fire. The political landscape is scary as hell, and burying my head in home decorating tips isn't always the right approach nor the answer. But sometimes you need a break, and sometimes that break comes in form of home decorating tips. We're constantly being bombarded with so much news and content that it's exhausting. It's important to remember that it's okay to rest for a minute, cool off, and take a few deep breaths. It's tempting to segment things and view any and all forms of entertainment as pointless. I mean, who cares what the latest gadget is when the world is potentially ending, right? I do, and I think that it's a good thing to care, even if it really doesn't matter, just to give yourself that break.

For a long time, that's what Facebook and Twitter used to be - fun distractions. They were places where you could post silly pictures and share cool things with like-minded people who share similar interests. I used to check them several times a day, and now that they are the world, and we need new places to escape to, I check them maybe once very ten days. Life is just so much more peaceful without all the noise and distraction that comes from these platforms.

I'm still working on this, trying to carve out my little corner of the internet as it pertains to me - to find things and people that I think matter and interests me separate from the mess of the rest of the internet. It's incredibly tough though, finding that apocalypse-free zone, but the process of it all is already making me happier.

What I'm trying to say is that Pinterest is hella rad, and as long as you can find a proper way to filter all the noise, the internet can be pretty awesome.

Making My Phone (& Myself) Better

There are two things that my girlfriend noticed about me recently; I'm playing with my phone way too much, and that I won't stop playing with my phone. So ever since we went on that road trip across Canada, I've been trying to find ways to unplug. I'll read articles on the proper ways to unplug for the weekend, or how someone has one day a week in which they don't use their phone. It's all well and fine when you read that, but trying to put that into practice is much harder than it looks.

However, once you do it, you understand why so many people are advocating this approach. It work. For instance, this past weekend, I was in Mont-Tremblant. It's absolutely beautiful up there, and even knowing that, I didn't take too many photos. Instead, I actively chose to just experience it with my friends.

One thing that I do keep coming back to is my phone. Every so often, I'll do this whole overhaul of the apps I use and how I use them. Sometimes I'll start with a purge of my social media, and then my news sources, and from there, slowly build it back up. But what I keep coming back to is my homescreen. What you have on your homescreen deeply personal and says a lot about who you are as a person. I'm always looking at mine from the viewpoint of a stranger who might happen to glance at my phone, and what they might think of me.

Lately however, I've started to take a slightly different approach. Instead of my homescreen being a place where I have my most used apps, it's a place where I have the apps I wish I used more. It's more aspirational now - the homescreen of the person I want to be.

I replaced Twitter and Reddit with Flipboard (the newest update is seriously rad), because I want to be more in control of my news-reading. With the insane amount of news surrounding the Trump administration, I'm starting to feel overwhelmed by social media. It's still there, but only when I'm ready for it now. I also removed Pocket, because it's become a black hole of things I want to read but know I never will, and instead replaced it with an eBook reader.

The other big thing that I did was remove any and all games from my phone. I was never big into gaming in the first place, but they always felt like an unnecessary distraction, especially given my backlog of podcasts and audio books that I want to get through. Instead, now I've got a budget app on my phone that sends me daily updates about my finances, reminding me that I really don't need to buy that third coffee to get me through the day.

And the other thing is that I downloaded one of those guided meditation apps. Not because I meditate, but because everyone I knows keeps telling me that it's amazing and that sometimes I could use an extra dosage of chill. And now that it's there, I'm finding that I'm actually using it, instead of aimlessly scrolling through my Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Reddit feeds without much purpose other than to kill some time.

It's absolutely crazy to me how powerful a homescreen can be. Even now, after relegating some of the apps into the app drawer (which is still only a single swipe-up away from me), I find that I'm still wasting too much time aimlessly browsing through my Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Reddit feeds in order to kill some time. At least once a week, I'll send my girlfriend a screenshot of my homescreen, and she'll laugh, because it's the same layout, but I might have moved some of the icons around.

I'm still in the early stages of this experiment of making my phone a device that helps me to be more sane, focused, and productive. And not productive in the "Do More Work" sense of the term, but productive in actually making meaningful progress on the things that I want to achieve for myself. 

Habits are hard to break, but I'm really hoping that the old adage, "out of sight, out of mind," will come to bear some truth for me. But, maybe not. Maybe all I'm doing is moving some icons around.

On Privacy

Back when I was in university, one of my favourite things to do was to sit at the top of the lecture hall and try and figure out what kind of computers people were using. This was happening just as the smartphone wars between iOS and Android were heating up, so aside from the odd iPhone and Blackberry here and there, there wasn't much going on in that space.

I loved figuring out what versions of operating systems people were using, and the applications that went with them. I eventually got to be so good at doing that that it stopped being fun. That's when I shifted my attention to the then and now maturing smartphone market. Nine times out of ten, I can figure out what phone someone is using (because nine times out of ten it's either a Galaxy or iPhone).

With that, combined with my natural curiosity, I began to watch what people were doing on their phones. It's incredibly fascinating, seeing what apps people are using, how they've organized their home screen, and if they're the type of people to obsessively close their apps every five seconds. It's sort of my way of studying how other people work and go about their days, but mostly it's because I'm nosy in the most harmless sense of the word.

Every once in a while, during my over-the-shoulder glances into people's lives, I'll be dropped into something immensely personal and private. I've seen people send silly faces over Snapchat, a guy texting his parole officer, a girl breaking up with her boyfriend, and another person watching videos that can only be described as inappropriate for a public setting. 

And to be clear, none of these individuals are monsters - I am. I am the person who is willingly and knowingly peering into their lives and invading what they believe to be private moments. I mean, consider all the people you've ever run into who have talked loudly in public spaces regarding private and personal matters. If you talk in public, then yes, you deserve to be eavesdropped upon. Typing should feel different from that, but when you have a large, glowing rectangle pointed in my direction, you have to expect that I will see some of what you're typing away. That being said, I am a monster. I think.

What's odd to me is how the once very clear lines have blurred so heavily. We now do work from home, and personal stuff at home. Everything happens everywhere, and it all happens on our phones now. These little devices contain our entire lives, pushing the boundaries of what we consider private and public to the point of nearly destroying them. We post so many things on Facebook and Snap so much more; the question is where do we draw this line between private and public? Who is allowed to watch and who isn't? The problem here is that our phones make everything feel so immediate and of higher importance that we no longer think about where we are or what we're doing.

I've been thinking about privacy a lot over the last few months. For the first time in what seems like essentially ever, people are starting to seriously think about the implications of having these tiny, pocketable super computers that know everything about you. We have cameras that are on, paired with smart speakers in our living rooms, always listening to what we say. They say that their memories are short, but how can we be certain?

That's not to say that this isn't a tough question to mentally grapple with. Am I subject to your rules and surveillance every time I visit you at your house? Am I allowed to cover up any cameras with tape if they make me feel uncomfortable? So much of ourselves is now out there floating around, constantly being captured and stored, waiting to be presented to the whole world. 

Ultimately, each of us is allowed a reasonable expectation of privacy, but that's up to us to determine how much of that is actually in our control. Over the last year, I took the appropriate steps to enable multi-factor authentication on everything, from my Facebook to Twitter to Google accounts, and have only begun convincing my family members to do the same. Email has always had an unofficial mantra - never send anything you wouldn't want anyone to see, so if you're really trying to be private, maybe don't send things over email. It may seem trivial and silly, but we really should hold ourselves and our tech to one standard - that you are in control of your sense of self and privacy. The two go hand in hand. If you don't want people to overhear your business, then maybe don't talk loudly about it in public. Or, at the very least, look around to make sure no one is watching or listening every once in a while.

I don't think that anyone of us has really spent the time to think these things through, including their possible ramifications. Maybe with this new Presidency, in all of its insecure glory, now is the time to do so.

In the mean time, if you find anyone creeping your text messages, it's probably me.