Misunderstood at Christmas

I am assuming you’ve seen the ad. If you haven’t, it goes like this: a teenage boy goes away with his family to visit relatives at Christmas. He appears to spend the whole time glued to his iPhone. Come Christmas morning, he commandeers the flat screen TV and streams a beautiful home movie he has spent the preceding few days shooting and editing, right under his family’s loving noses, and they are delighted by the surprise.

It struck me as very heartfelt, and a good exemplar of the human-centric values that Apple has always espoused. Naturally, many people can’t stand it:

The problem is that while he was creating, he wasn’t really living the day, he was a mere voyeur during it. The message? Life is better through video. Don’t live life, tape it.

(Jennifer Rooney, Forbes.com)

I was initially not without sympathy for this view. Smartphones certainly have eroded some of the one-on-one interaction from life, at a time when manners seem to be growing coarser. And when faced with people with antisocial tendencies — teenage boys chief among them — a smartphone is a pretty high barrier to establishing any kind of conversation or eye contact. But the more I read these responses, particularly the piece linked above, the angrier I got.

First of all, if the boy in this commercial had been seen with his nose in a book rather than an iPhone, it would have prompted none of this high-handed moralizing. “These kids today, and their reading.” Smartphones are the bogeymen of our time, the way Walkmans were in the ’80s and comic books were in the ’50s. These things are nothing but a lurid distraction obscuring a universal truth: to most kids in their mid-teens, adults are boring. Look at the kid’s family. He has a baby sister, a lot of younger cousins, a bevy of aunts and uncles and grandparents — and no one his own age to talk to and hang out with. No competent child psychologist would blame this kid for spending his time posting to Facebook or otherwise communicating with friends who actually understand him and like the same things he likes. Except, of course, that’s not what he’s doing.

You see, some of us in this world are observers. Not that we never get into the thick of the action, or that we don’t love spending time with people we care about. We just function better when we can operate with a slight buffer around us, especially when not at our ease. His family gets him; when granddad lobs that mitten at him, he’s being playful, saying in effect, “I’m not going to bother you over there, but don’t forget I’m thinking about you.” And if we’re creative types, as this boy certainly is*, we’re apt to express ourselves best through whatever our particular gift may be.

What we see this unnamed boy doing is, quite simply, an act of love. Cookie-making and sledding and snowman-building were all well and good, but he had an idea for something special he could give to his family, something only he could do. Who else but the kid who doesn’t quite fit in — neither adult nor child — could show his family who they really are, and what they really mean to each other?

And I’ll make one last point, at the risk of taking a little holiday commercial even more seriously than I have already: I’ll bet he was having fun making that video. I’ll bet when his granddad threw the mitten, he was thinking Aw man, that’s gonna look great in the final version. I’ll bet he had just as much fun watching his family sledding as he did sledding himself. And I’ll bet his family will remember that particular Christmas lump in the throat for many years to come.

By all means, let’s be vigilant about the effect that technology has on our lives. But let’s not get so cynical, so priggish, that we assume that the addition of a smartphone automatically renders an experience mediated, detached, invalid. Sometimes this technology really does bring you closer to the people around you.

*I’m not discounting that the Harris Family Holiday video is actually the work of a professional director (though it really was created on an iPhone), but it’s not beyond the abilities of a perceptive and capable teenager — if it were too good, the spot wouldn’t work as well as it does.

How pretty is *your* iTunes library?

I am more-than-averagely obsessive about my iTunes library. And yet, this is what most of it looks like. Ever see those pictures of ancient relics being restored in museums, when they’ll have exactly six pieces of some ancient textile and try to somehow fill in the gaps? It’s kinda like that.

Assuming I am more diligent about matching graphics with my albums than most people — and assuming most people acquire their music the way I did, rather than buying it exclusively through iTunes or Amazon — then it stands to reason that most iTunes libraries in the world look like this, or worse.

Kinda depressing, somehow.

Samsung, Stop Your Photocopiers. (And Apple, Stop Your Lawyers)

“They sat with the iPhone and went feature by feature, copying it to the smallest detail. In those critical three months, Samsung was able to copy and incorporate the core part of Apple’s four-year investment without taking any of the risks, because they were copying the world’s most successful product.”

Thus spake Apple attorney Harold McElhinny to the jury during closing arguments of his company’s lawsuit against Samsung. I don’t think there is any disputing that McElhinny is right. In fact, what reads on the page as lawyer’s hyperbole is really a simple statement of fact: Samsung really did crawl through the iPhone feature by feature, stacking it against its original Galaxy S and concluding that in any instance in which the two devices differed, the latter should adopt the look and functionality of the former. There’s something almost admirable in the very brazenness of it.

What is not so admirable is the spectacle of the world’s most valuable company — not technology company or electronics company, mind, but most valuable, full stop — trying to stamp out one of its imitators not through the competitive marketplace but through the court system. To be blunt, Samsung indisputably copied Apple’s designs, but I don’t see anything in the law that ought to prevent them from doing it.

Click to continue reading “Samsung, Stop Your Photocopiers. (And Apple, Stop Your Lawyers)”

And All That You Hear: Mastered for iTunes

Apple announced today a new service or product or category or something called Mastered for iTunes. You can see the thing for yourself in iTunes at this link courtesy of The Mac Observer; here is the description from Apple if you don’t want to bother reading it there:

Mastered for iTunes means these albums have been specially tuned for higher fidelity sound on your computer, stereo, and all Apple devices. Browse a range of music across all genres below, and keep checking back as we add more music that is mastered specifically for iTunes.

What this means is anyone’s guess, at least until people prod Apple for details and if Apple deigns to respond. Most likely they’re just compressing the tracks to make them sound louder and punchier. This would make them sound worse rather than better, especially on an iMac or a pair of pack-in iPod earbuds, but that does seem to be where modern tastes have landed us. I don’t suppose I will ever know, as I’m not going to re-buy any of my (relative few) iTunes purchases to compare old and new versions.

What caught my eye was the categories of music available in this new format. You have your Jazz, your Classical and whatnot. And then you have this:

Tastes come and go, but any format meant to appeal to serious audiophiles has to have the Floyd catalog. One day, music players may be able to stream music directly into our brains, leveraging the mind’s extraordinary sensory powers to make you feel as though you are within and surrounded by the music, inhabiting it in every fiber of your being, every nerve ending ablaze with it. And no one will buy it until you can play Dark Side of the Moon in it.

Edited the title to improve the Floyd reference. I can’t believe I got that wrong.

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs and the Wrong Question

You have no fucking idea what it’s like to be me.
— Steve Jobs

While I have deliberately avoided reading most of the critical reaction to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the broad consensus seems to be that Isaacson had the biographer’s opportunity of a lifetime, and blew it. Despite having unprecedented access to one of the most relentlessly private of public figures, Isaacson’s is a book without insight: his Steve Jobs is the same collection of contradictory impulses he has always been, a self-centered, unlikeable man who somehow created products that people adored, changing whole industries in his wake. In a world full of assholes, critics complain, what set Jobs apart? What made it possible for him to do the extraordinary things he did?

Let me say first that I agree in principle with the critics: Steve Jobs is a lousy book. I believe I arrived at the conclusion via a different route from a lot of other people, and I’ll get into that soon. First, let’s consider the argument, articulated well by Thomas Q. Brady, quoted on Daring Fireball:

I know lots of people that could be described [as “self-absorbed, immature, emotionally unstable control-freaks”], and none of them started a company in their garage that became one of the most valued corporations in the world. What made Jobs different? This isn’t really answered.

Actually it is, at least to a point. There is the asshole half of the Jobs equation, and then there is the other half, which Isaacson documents and which everyone already knows about: his fanatical obsession with spare, minimalist design; his belief that he was destined for greatness and his determination to achieve it; his tremendous persuasiveness; and his knack for infusing technology products with an underlying human friendliness. Unlike Jobs’s more unsavory characteristics, these are not common traits. Combine them with the ones above, and the story of Steve Jobs begins to seem, if not inevitable, then at least somewhat plausible.

Our civilization has spent centuries debating the origins of genius — even the definition of genius — and yet with each new transformational figure that comes along, we start the debate all over again. The truth is that genius has no formula. It cannot be predicted, reconstructed, feigned (for very long) or dissected, at least not in any way that is remotely edifying. You can quantify the factors that make it possible for people to be successful; for instance, Jobs acknowledged how lucky he was to grow up in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people who could nurture his talents and fire his ambitions. Had his parents opted to raise him in the suburbs of Wisconsin, we’d likely never have heard of Steve Jobs. But creativity — or inventiveness if you prefer, since we don’t tend to associate creativity with non-artistic pursuits — is a process that ultimately operates beneath the threshold of awareness. Indeed, it can operate in no other way; inspiration is not an algorithm.

Many people seem to have expected Isaacson’s book to provide the missing piece of the puzzle — the key that would finally unlock the secret of his genius and forever solve the enigma of Steve Jobs. They were never going to get what they wanted, because it didn’t exist. There was no “one more thing.” The enigma is its own solution.

I don’t want to give the impression that any inquiry into the inner workings of a genius is futile, or that Isaacson should be let off the hook for writing a superficial book about a man who was anything but. I merely suspect that no one could have written an entirely satisfying book on Steve Jobs, because the things people want to understand about him aren’t really explicable. What made Jobs different? How did he look at a Rio MP3 player and conceive what would become the iPod, where everyone else just saw a clunky, half-assed music player? You can posit various intermediary reasons — because he was driven to achieve perfection, because poor design caused in him something akin to physical pain — but what do those explain? What are the reasons for the reasons? The truth is that Steve Jobs did what he did because his unique blend of innate qualities, combined with the people and places that helped to shape his worldview, allowed him to. His career was the result of a confluence of circumstances so unlikely as to appear impossible. “What made Steve Jobs different?” is more a rhetorical question than an actual one. It is a way for our mathematically hampered brains to acknowledge the  baffling unlikelihood of his achievement — the incredible fact that in this world, a man like him could exist at all.

So having put that issue in perspective, what is my primary objection to the book? I will put it in straightforwardly Jobsian terms:

The writing sucks.

Click to continue reading “Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs and the Wrong Question”

And My Dream of a Better iPod Takes Another Blow

Good news, everyone! Oh wait — not so good news:

If you want to buy an iPod shuffle or iPod classic from Apple, you should do it sooner rather than later. We’ve heard those two iPods are getting the axe this year. (Courtesy TUAW)

Assuming this is true, is it likely that Apple is going to release a 128-gigabyte iPod touch this Christmas, so that die-hard music lovers might find something in their stockings that comes close to suiting their needs? I’m guessing not. The mp3 player market is dead. They are to this young decade what digital watches were in the ’80s: formerly sleek emblems of progress reduced in price and stature until they ended up being sold out of gumball machines.

Time was that Apple needed to offer a high-capacity iPod model to stand out from the competition. Now that race is run, and music playing is just one more function on a smart phone, or a handheld gaming and Internet device (to describe the iPod touch accurately). If the rumor is true and the shuffle is in line for the axe along with the classic, that means that the iPod nano will be the only remaining device Apple makes whose primary function is to store and play music — and i think it’s reasonable to assume that the nano will itself continue to exist only until Apple can price an iPod touch below $199. (Side bet: if the above rumor comes to pass, watch the nano drop to $99.)

So why is this a big enough deal that I keep harping on it? Because there is no smartphone or iPod touch that can do what an iPod classic does: hold a library of songs numbering in the tens of thousands, all stored locally and accessible without a network connection. And it does not offer a hardware interface optimized for playing music.

Don’t mistake this for sentimentality or Ludditism. (Ludditery?) I recently started using Rdio and was sufficiently taken with it that I thought it might obviate the need for my iPod classic. It offers a sizable library to choose from, the mobile app is pretty slick and it has some nice music discovery tools. But it doesn’t offer the granularity of iTunes: the ability to rate songs, tag songs, construct dynamic playlists or change metadata. In short, it doesn’t afford the kind of advantages that come from owning and curating your own music files. So Rdio on my iPhone is like having two different, mutually incompatible music libraries, one of which has everything by the Beatles (in mono, even) and not much else, the other of which is so ungainly it has 12 different songs called “Learning to Fly,” just because I wanted to see how many there are. (There are more than 12, but it was starting to get ridiculous.) And if I want to, say, make a playlist with “Flying” and Kate Earl’s “Learning to Fly”? Well, that ain’t happening. I can put Kate Earl on my iPod, but I can’t put the Beatles on Rdio.

If the classic is going away, then I and thousands of others like me are marooned. Our choices are to either keep our devices operating until Apple offers a new product that can serve our needs (mine is already three years old and on its second battery), or jump ship for something else. Such a change, for all I know, may not be possible, or if it’s possible, it may not be worth the trouble. Leaving the iPod will also mean leaving iTunes, and the information that app has stored about my music — my ratings, my playlists, which songs I’ve played or skipped in a given time — is, given the nerd-tastic way I listen to music, almost as valuable as the music itself.

So while I am chagrined to arrive at the end of the road with my iPod, I am hopeful that some competitor out there will finally seize the opportunity to build a music player that offers us what Apple will not. People are still buying vinyl records, for god’s sake. You mean to tell me there is really no return on catering to rabid music listeners — people who have already demonstrated their willingness to devote a lot more of their income to music than the average person?

Anyone want to sell me an mp3 player?