Steve Jobs is threatening to destroy the Internet. And it’s not even his fault.
No, I’m not talking about whether or not the iPad supports Flash. I’m talking about the new propensity of various analysts to redefine computing, technology, and apparently the fabric of reality in order to fit their partisan positions around debates Jobs himself is framing. It’s detracting from the actual utility of Apple’s mobile tools and competitors alike. But more importantly, the people who write about technology seem to have lost sight of issues that ought to be the ones inspiring true passion.
Amidst the debate, I also think we’re losing our grip on the language we use to describe the things that make technology worth using for personal expression – creating, say, digital music and digital motion.
“Curated” has been one of my pet peeves for some time now, because it’s so often applied carelessly. “Cura” is care in Latin. In the art world, curation has real meaning, and “care” is most definitely involved. If you claim you’re a curator, then you better have put real spirit into selection, choice, limitation, and even care for the artistic expressions. Too often in music, we dilute that meaning – someone will throw a party, call a few friends to play, and say they “curated” the night.
Now, analysts at Forrester have infamously used the term “curated” to describe the iPad. This has, predictably, led to a lot of self-congratulation in the pro-Apple camp and hair pulling in the anti-Apple camp.
It’s really not worth getting sucked into that debate. The whole notion is patently ludicrous, whatever you believe. First, consider the source. This document, entitled “Apple’s iPad Is A New Kind Of PC,” sells for $499, and comes from a firm whose slogan is “Making leaders successful every day.” (I think that’s what my Girl Scout cookies said on the side of the box, but the official motto of the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts turns out to be, “Be Prepared.” I’m choosing the Scouts over Forrester Research, especially if I get stranded in the wilderness.)
A “curated” technology experience sounds like a great idea, but we have yet to see one. The notion that limiting development to trusted partners is one that dates back to game console maker Nintendo and its “Official Seal of Quality.” That gold standard became the butt of jokes as quickly as has Apple’s iTunes and its juxtaposition of censorship with free-reigning fart apps. (iPhone owners I’m sure can find an application as hideously awful as things like the E.T. game for the Nintendo game system.)
In a guest story for Ars Technica, analyst Sarah Rotman Epps elaborated on the idea for those of us unable to afford the Forrester article:
To compete with Apple in the tablet market, product strategists must bridge the gap between what consumers expect from a PC and what a tablet actually delivers. Most importantly, they should embrace a Curated Computing experience, which limits choice in a good way, turning the limitations of the form factor into strengths rather than weaknesses. The iPad’s success can be attributed to its guided simplicity: the only way to use the device is via apps, which are expressly developed for the device.
“Limiting choice in a good way” is not curation; it’s design. “Guided simplicity” is, specifically, interaction design. That’s possible on any platform. If the iPhone does it well, or the developer tools serve developers doing it well, then great – credit that. Instead, this notion that controversial limitations are the reason for Apple’s success have been consistently-argued talking points raised by Apple apologists since the iPad’s introduction. The cost is that people don’t appreciate actual design work Apple and third-party developers really have done.
Design and Development
In fact, to see how tortured Ms. Epps’ argument becomes, see how she describes application interface design:
Each of these applications is in itself also curated, since the publisher selects content and functionality that’s appropriate to the form factor, just as a museum curator selects artwork from a larger collection to exhibit in a particular gallery space.
Again, this is design, not curation. So I really have no idea what she’s talking about. You’re definitely better off spending that $500 on an actual iPad rather than the Forrester report.
For actual curation, see the superb blog Creative Applications, which reports on innovation in design and expression, including many of the best applications for iPad and iPhone.
Apple’s ability to lock devices to the iTunes store is a business model, one that has been discussed more than enough. It has the business model in common with game devices like the Xbox 360, in that only licensed software can run on the device – this much is true. To describe this business model as “curation,” however, seems out of touch. Even on the Xbox, on which there are greater controls in terms of distribution and (notably) no Web browser, there is very little sense that there is any kind of curated experience.
Nor is this about “native” development toolkits. Users naturally notice when cross-platform apps integrate poorly with an OS, so a lot of Mac fans in particular have experienced on worse-case scenarios with toolkits based on Java or Adobe AIR. Apple has exploited that ignorance by overstating the importance of its (otherwise excellent) Cocoa frameworks. End users are unaware of, for instance, the massive amounts of platform-agnostic code in C/C++ that often make their apps work, including a lot of those iPhone games.
Taken to its extreme, you can see how misguided this argument is. The mobile platform right now that has the most constraints on developers and, accordingly, user experience is Windows Mobile 7. In fact, in a sign of how important portable C development is to mobile development, Skype is joining herds of developers dropping Windows Mobile support, following the announcement that the next version of Microsoft’s mobile OS won’t support native code.
So, apart from being a misleading, inaccurate choice of terminology and based on technically inaccurate descriptions of the development and distribution process on the device, I’m sure Forrester’s report is really quite insightful.
Let me suggest an alternative term, and one very dear to the kind of development we’ve covered on CDM for nearly six years: immersion. What software for game consoles and next-generation apps have in common is that they offer more immersive experiences. Somehow, this has been lost, and I think it’s partly the fault of Apple’s (and Jobs’) own defensiveness about the controls they’ve applied to the store. The sequence goes something like this:
1. Some developers and users criticize aspects of Apple’s approach.
2. Apple defends their approach.
3. Critics seize on that defense.
4. Proponents seize on that defense.
5. Critics and proponents argue – now with the debate reframed on these issues.
6. Apple’s device is successful.
7. The success of the device is credited with the defense of certain decisions, not the product itself.
It’s going to be a grim landscape for digital technology and expression if everything is presented as Apple or its opposite.
To see why that’s a problem, look no further than Android. Google has been quick to crow about how they’re for “freedom” because they’re providing support for Adobe Flash – never mind that what a lot of us actually love about Android is the fact that access to source code for the OS makes it easier to write apps, and to make those apps better. Nothing against Flash, but, well, it’s not at the top of my priority list for what I’d want to see from Android.
In fact, I think it’s the quality of immersion that makes the iPad and iPhone successful, and could make a wide variety of devices and software we haven’t seen yet successful, too. Ironically (or appropriately), it’s in some of these areas that Android specifically has lagged. I’d describe immersion as:
- Expressive physical interaction. Apple’s superior multitouch sensors, firmware, and APIs mean that touch simply works better on the iPhone/iPad than on competitors. Good touch makes for more seamless interaction. Of course, keyboards and the stylus have a place, too, whether or not hipsters think they’re cool, and I believe future touch sensors will be better at handling pressure. Making hardware and software work well together in this area is the big challenge going forward for everyone, whether it’s a keyboard or a stylus or touchscreen or anything else. (Case in point: a lot of people still buy Blackberrys and Androids for the keyboards. If you’re typing a lot of messages, that’s the important interaction point to you.)
- High-definition, full-screen experiences. Part of the appeal of game consoles has nothing to do with “curation” and everything to do with the fact that they connect to big, bright, pretty televisions and you use them from your couch. On a mobile device, this means likewise intelligent connections to external displays and rich, full-screen, 3D graphics and video on the device itself. Screen density is a big area, too – an area in which, right now, a device like the iPad actually does not yet excel. I think that’ll improve in future tablets from all vendors, Apple included. And it’ll make these devices terrific canvases for digital artists to get their work seen and used. Ironically, one reason will be that, unlike a more “curated” device like the Xbox 360, distribution should be far easier.
- 3D graphics and video. This is an area almost everyone actually seems to be getting right, from hardware-accelerated video decoding and encoding to standards-based 3D on netbooks, tablets, and phones. Now if people just got graphics and audio right, and not just the former. (We have two ears. We have two eyes. See a pattern?)
- High-performance audio. This is a big one. Sound and music are essential to the human experience, and even the most untrained ear is radically calibrated to tiny differentiations of sound. That means high-performance, low-latency, reliable, click-and-pop-free audio is absolutely essential. In the wild, this presumably helped us escape being eaten by bears, and gave us the power to evolve language and society. On a device, it’s a make-or-break part of the experience. Apple gets this right on the iPhone OS, and vendors like Google with Android get it completely wrong. It’s part of why we need improved audio APIs – just for simple, low-latency buffer output and native access to hardware – on Android. But it should be a lesson to all platforms about what matters. Nor is this a “niche” concern. Music and creative audio apps have been among the best-selling on the iTunes store, full stop.
Apple likes to make a big deal about how many developers are choosing their solution, meaning they presumably endorse all the decisions Apple is making. On the contrary, I think a lot of developers don’t like some of Apple’s decisions, but likewise see deficiencies in their current biggest rival – Android – on some of these “immersive” qualities, particularly sound and touch. (Android does pretty well on most of the rest.)
Let’s give credit where it’s due. Apple has an exceptional operating system on their mobile platforms. If you’re a fan or a foe, either way, that’s twice as much reason on both sides to pay more attention to what they’ve done right and what it means, technically speaking, for the user experience. Rich sound, brilliant touch, rich media, consistent UI tools, strong design, and a stable OS are all a big part of what makes users like their devices. None of them has anything to do necessarily with what the iTunes store or developer agreements do or don’t allow. And none of these things should be exclusively the domain of any one company – that’d be rather silly. Nor is this the end of the line. The successes here should present engaging challenges for anyone designing technology and interaction going forward.
This should come as great news to everyone reading this site. Rich music, sound, and visuals matter. The last generation of software was covered in dull UI widgets and complex, menu-driven interfaces. The next generation may be about art.
And part of why I bring this up is that I think there’s a particular opportunity for art and music apps to go beyond the last-century, hardware-modeled or menu-and-toolbar-centric interfaces of the past. There’s a chance to build the same sort of immersion for the creation interface as the audiovisual output that interface creates.
Freedom and Perspective
This was a long article. I type fast. But I do spend most of my energy in other places, not on these debates. I think appreciating both curation and immersion are essential to being artists, so I take that seriously – far more seriously than whether or not a specific gadget does Flash or bans nipples. I hope we don’t lose either of those discussions.
It may come to a surprise, though, that even though I work a lot on my computer, I care about ideas, language, and expression first, and technology second. I do have a life outside my computer – really – even if there are days on which the contrary seems true to me.
I got as angry as many of my friends when I read this story:
Steve Jobs Offers World ‘Freedom From Porn’
If you’re expecting an angry, anti-Jobs, anti-censorship tirade from me, guess again. (I won’t even get into “belittling”; I’d say Apple and Gawker have done their fair piece of that, each.) No, what bothers me more is that watching Gawker and Jobs alike invoke Dylan is just embarrassing. I’d like to believe Dylan’s lyrics were about more than gadgets, especially since his tool of choice (as pointed out to me on Twitter) was a pencil. Amazing art he made with it, too.
Tools matter, and having healthy debates about them is important. People who spend their days working on tools will of course be passionate about those issues.
But let’s put things in perspective. Technology is a human creation, even a human art. But it’s a means to an end. “Freedom” is about more than gadgets and software – anyone’s gadgets and software. I think at one point Jobs was trying to make that point in the exchange above, but in the midst of bizarre statements about “freedom from porn,” he lost the plot, too.
Real freedom is about far more than technology. And if anything, that can guide more meaningful discussions about what freedom can mean on tech, too.
Let’s ask some of the real questions about freedom. Of course, that encompasses developer tools and distribution, but not exclusively. If we use tools for expression, how can we share those with other people, regardless of what gadgets they own? (Maybe, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to buy?”) Even as artists working with technology, what translates in our art if there’s a power outage? What translates to parts of the world that share simple cell phones and have limited utilities? What does freedom of expression mean when you’re interacting with technology?
You might arrive at something like “free software,” but I think even that you might see in a broader context, because whatever freedoms you might have with the software itself, you’d hope you’d be using that software to, you know, do something.
We need to have a debate that isn’t just about agreeing with or arguing with Steve. And we need to reclaim words like “curated” or “freedom” in ways that they mean something, something beyond just technology. These words sum up the reason a lot of us are artists and creators, the reason we invest some of our money in technology as tools to make our art.
Oh, except “game changer.” You can have that one. I’ll keep freedom instead.
If you want to give me $500 for this quickly-typed rant, though, I won’t say no. I can give it to charity.
What does real freedom mean in technology, or music, or music technology? That’s a question you could spend a life time answering as a technologist, one well spent, and you shouldn’t need to use the words “Apple” or “proprietary” or “open source” to answer it. What does freedom mean? For that, ask a poet.