Inconsistent Whimsy

Image source: Serious Eats (2011)
Image source: Serious Eats (2011)

After quite a bumpy beta period, macOS Catalina was finally released on 7 October. There are welcome improvements, such as the addition of Sidecar, the split-up of iTunes into different apps, a better Reminders app and the all-new Voice Control, which is a fantastic accessibility feature that enables you to control your Mac entirely with your voice. There are also some more controversial changes, including tightened security and permissions (leading to more dialogue boxes), the slow start to iPad apps on the Mac with Mac Catalyst and the final, complete removal of support for 32-bit apps. If you want a full review, make sure to check out Jason Snell’s on Six Colors.

Whilst Catalina has received quite a mixed reaction, personally I’ve been happy with the software upgrade and can see how Apple clearly is continuing to push the Mac forwards, leaving legacy cruft behind in order to facilitate a more cohesive, integrated ecosystem of devices. Apple is clearly showing that it still believes in the Mac, contrary to the shrieking and carrying on by many tech analysts. Rather than being the centre of our lives as it once was, it is now just one of many devices.

Despite these visible improvements, there’s a little something that has been sticking in the back of my mind in for the last few years: inconsistency. More on this in a moment…

For some time, Mac fans have complained that Apple has been stripping the whimsy out of macOS, saying that it lacks much of the personality that it once had. Examples range from the removal of Clarus the Dogcow all the way through to the more contemporary ‘grayscaling’ of buttons and other UI elements throughout the system, where flickering, aqua-themed progress bars, quirky ‘About’ boxes and reflective, glass-like finishes once reigned supreme. To be clear, Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘whimsy’ as ‘Playfully quaint or fanciful behaviour or humour’.

I don’t really buy this argument. To claim that Apple has steadily been making macOS (and even iOS) more boring isn’t quite right, as the company’s design pendulum has swung between skeuomorphic and flat, opaque and transparent, ‘lickable’ and grey and so on for years. The company is naturally going to respond to consumer taste and also attempt to match its current hardware.

The true issue doesn’t lie in the supposed removal of whimsy; it’s in its inconsistent implementation and presentation. Let me give you a super-specific example.

For many years in Mac OS X (now macOS), removing an application icon from the Dock resulted in a whimsical little puff of smoke. Now, as you can see below, it does not.

Aha! Didn’t you say that it wasn’t all about the removal of whimsy, Martin? Where’s the inconsistency here? It’s becoming boring like everything else in the system!

Not so fast… look what happens when you go to customise the toolbar in Safari…

Not only does the removed toolbar icon disappear in a puff of smoke, all icons shimmy side-to-side whilst in the editing mode, like on the Home screen in iOS.

This may seem like pretty pedantic example but it’s very significant. Apple’s entire philosophy for design, be it in software or hardware, is to sweat the details—to pay attention to the little things that no one else cares about. Why is this animation present in one application and not the other? This seems like an oversight.

Moreover, the puff of smoke is only a simple animation but it makes you smile and enjoy a system that you’re probably using mainly for work. These days, that is almost always the context for the desktop computer.

When people discuss the UIDatePicker that has been brought from iOS to macOS (in Mac Catalyst apps like Home), they explain their dissatisfaction as being rooted in the fact that this ‘does not work on the Mac’ at all. ‘Not working’ really means that this whimsical, skeuomorphic element doesn’t belong or match the elements that are around it—it’s out of place.

I understand that Apple is in a period of significant transition, particularly as it has developed more integrated platforms and as it comes to terms with becoming more of a services and media company. Things are also moving much more quickly in tech these days, with greater pressure to innovate, add new features and churn out new and amazing products. Slowing things down a bit is a double-edged sword: taking the time to refine software can ensure stability and consistency but you risk being seen as lacking drive and innovation.

I don’t believe in the claim ‘Steve wouldn’t have allowed that if he were still here’, however I do believe that Apple is now lacking an equivalent tastemaker—one person (or very exclusive group of people) to look across the entire company and say ‘yes’ and (more often) ‘no’ to things. Whimsy is only a small part of this but like any kind of feature or design decision, it needs to be consistent. Such decisions shouldn’t have to be guided by only one person, however it’s also true that the best things in life are never designed by a committee.

Consistency may not sound like the most exciting product feature, however like fun and whimsy, it’s one of the main things that attracted us all to the Mac in the first place.

Apple and Its Ever-changing, Unchanging Ecosystem

Image credit: Apple
Image credit: Apple

In case you missed Apple’s latest keynote this week (not sure how), the company announced the new seventh-generation iPad, Apple Watch Series 5 and iPhones 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max and gave updates on retail, Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade.

Naturally, the event has already been covered to death. The coverage may be summarised as follows:

  • ‘Midnight green? What were they thinking?’;
  • ‘So what’s the point of the iPad Air now?’;
  • Will the game demos ever stop?!’;
  • There’s really nothing that they can do to improve the watch and I doubt that I’d need to buy a new one even if… OMG AN ALWAYS-ON DISPLAY!!!’; and
  • It’s great that they’re giving Apple TV+ away for a year with new devices but yeah I’m not so sure about it… look at Disney+!’.

It’s this last point about Apple’s emphasis on services like Apple TV+ that has really gripped most fans and commentators in recent times when looking at Apple events. So much of it is pure speculation at this point. Reflecting on the event, however, I found the most impressive and important part of the whole presentation to be the video that was shown at the very beginning, called Wonderful Tools. It is an antidote to this concern.

When this started, I was absolutely transfixed. Apple encapsulated its design philosophy and history in under two minutes. It set the scene for the product announcements that followed.

Of course, as the keynote progressed and the new announcements came and went, the Web (Twitter, really) lit up with users obsessing about specific features, colours and the direction of Apple Arcade and Apple TV+. Even with positive reactions to certain elements of the products and services, there is still a prevailing idea that with this big push for services and (perceived) product evolution rather than revolution, Apple is somehow different from what it once was. The event received a bit of a ‘meh’ from many. The hardware focus is apparently at risk.

Yet I don’t believe that Apple has changed much at all. Wonderful Tools is evidence of this and that Apple retains a focus on hardware. Reviewing everything that was featured in the video, the only things that were strictly services were Apple TV+, Apple Music, Find My and (to a degree) Siri.

Apple enthusiasts and analysts say that specs aren’t everything, yet they often focus on tiny details rather than the broader narrative. Looking into the fairly recent past, we can see that Apple has been telling the same story over and over again, reassuring its customers of its commitment to an ecosystem that is centred on hardware.

For example, in one of my all-time favourite Apple ads, Designed Together, Apple showed off its consistent design language in hardware and software with the iPhone 5c.

In the masterful piece Intention, we see Apple telling the story of ‘a thousand nos for every yes’ in what it chooses to make and how it makes it. In my view, this is the epitome of Apple’s brand storytelling.

Now, some will say that Apple no longer lives up to this ideal. How could it? In a world where services are now on the rise, Apple will attach a fee to whatever it can. Apple simply wants to turn everything into a service and is hellbent on creating new ways to make money out of its existing customers, as it sells fewer iPhones each quarter over time.

Sure, Apple will never say no to more cash but the thing is: none of these services are really new; they are just old ideas recycled.

Look at Apple Music and the more recently announced Apple TV+ and Apple TV Channels. They are not new services; they are the inevitable streaming replacements for iTunes. You know how people say that Apple has never been able to do services? Apple built the world’s most successful mainstream digital music service and it’s now dying a slow death as people turn to streaming. Something has to replace it when people eventually stop buying and owning music.

What about Apple News+? Well, back with the launch of iOS 5, Apple launched the clunky and now defunct Newsstand. In addition, during the early days of iPad, Steve Jobs announced the first iPad-only digital publication with News Corporation, The Daily (also gone). Right, so Apple isn’t really in any new territory here; it’s just a different app with a rejigged distribution and payment model.

What about the way the company takes users’ money for extra iCloud storage? All of this cloud stuff is sort of new! Well, again, before iCloud there was eWorld, iTools, .Mac and MobileMe, which all offered some different take on the same old idea of an online service that bound products together. Apple has long charged for this kind of thing.

Aha! What about Apple Arcade?! That’s a new service entirely! Not exactly… remember Game Centre, Apple’s earlier idea of a gaming service? Game Centre’s intention was to provide a way for Apple device users to play and compete in games through the App Store, encouraging them to buy more games. (It continues to hang around kind of invisibly today.) Apple Arcade is just a clearer, more comprehensive subscription service that does away with the confusion of old. It’s like Apple Music but Apple just funds the content.

Let’s not forget that the App Store in general is also perhaps Apple’s greatest service, in addition to iMessage, which is in itself a social network—the definition of a service. Oh, now that I think of it, Apple Maps is also a service, along with the entire Apple Store experience, including sales, support, classes and Today at Apple sessions, spread across physical and online environments.

Back in June, I wrote a piece called Challenging Three Apple Myths, discussing the following common ideas:

  1. Apple can’t do services well;
  2. Apple is doomed without Steve Jobs; and
  3. Apple can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

Looking back and taking all the aforementioned services into account, I can now see that I missed the great modern myth about Apple, which appears in much of the reporting about the company today:

Apple is turning increasingly into a services company.

Observing the video examples above and tracing Apple’s evolution of the same service ideas over and over again, the reality is in fact the opposite:

Apple has long been a services company.

People are so obsessed by what is new and shiny or more specifically, that which is rebranded, that they forget what came before. They fail to see how the same ideas are recycled. It’s the only way that Google fans could possibly forgive the company for so many cancellations of online products and services, which then come back in some other form down the line.

Especially since Steve Jobs’s announcement of the digital hub strategy, Apple’s focus has always been hardware that runs its own software, all tied together by integrated services.

Apple hasn’t just realised that it needs services and must charge for them because the iPhone is a maturing cash cow; instead, Apple has finally worked out how to make high-quality, long-term services to replace older ones and that also fit the overwhelming trend of the subscription model. Apple didn’t get games and now it kind of does. Apple was slow to the catch onto the idea of streaming but now it’s getting there.

As Apple’s ecosystem continues to transform and grow ever more complex, in essence its basic philosophy and foundations has really remained unchanged: create beautiful objects that are underpinned by great software and joined by useful services. That was the point of Wonderful Tools. Services aren’t distracting from hardware; they’ve always been there and now they’re just getting better (for a more obvious fee).

For those who still aren’t convinced, they should ask themselves this:

If Apple sees itself as a services-only company in the future, on what hardware would it actually run?

Although much of the user experience rests with systems macOS and iOS and the connective tissue that is iCloud, without hardware, there is no Apple. It is the company’s identity.

Rumination 50: Will Email Ever Die?

A number of things have come up this year in my feeds that have discussed the history, value and disadvantages of email.

First of all, I watched the movie You’ve Got Mail for the first time. Yes, I know… I left it for a while after its release. This film presented the tool in a way with both caution and hope for the future.

Second, over the past few months, I’ve seen fellow Twitter users voicing their frustration about email and how their messages build up quickly, leading to anxiety in the workplace. How can they ever get through it all?

Third, on the matter of relentless promotional material in inboxes, the recent episode 257 of The Talk Show with John Gruber featured a discussion about how our email clients have become faux web browsers and a kind of ‘non-consensual technology’, which attracts various security risks and breaches. Spam and dodgy services are an unfortunate reality for just about everyone.

It’s the way that email as a communications technology has influenced our social lives and behaviour at work that interests me the most. In each of the roles that I’ve worked, I’ve seen people obsessively check their emails, worrying about losing track of the latest conversation or decision. I don’t think that email was ever intended to be used this way. It’s not really supposed to be a messaging platform for natural, turn-taking conversation. It’s literally what its name means: electronic mail.

Email is not the best tool for modern work and ongoing digital conversations. Instead, applications such as Slack, Yammer and Microsoft Teams offer better workspaces that enable you to communicate, share files and work on projects in a way that is more fluid than the reply-all method of shooting written messages everywhere. Even more casual apps like iMessage are more appropriate.

ABC News published a great article about how to approach your daily deluge of emails and what to do when you return from time away from the office. You should definitely take the time to read it, as each of the quoted contributors suggest strategies such as bulk-deleting unimportant emails that arrived whilst you were away and rewording your auto-reply to have more personality. There is also caution about the use of tools like Slack, which I mentioned above, as over-reliance on them can lead to similar problems or even a reduction in face-to-face communication between colleagues. I think that’s a fair argument, unless you work remotely all the time.

My own system is simple: if I’m at work and I’m writing something that is to be sent within the organisation, I will share it and attach any necessary files with a chat app, unless otherwise instructed. If it’s external or part of my personal life and there’s no other way to get in touch with someone reliably, then I will use email. If emails are important, then I keep them. If they’re not, then I delete them. When I’m on holiday, I remove my email account from my iPhone entirely, so that I’m not tempted to check it or accidentally stumble on something with the wrong tap of a button.

My biggest suggestion, however, regards the use of app-icon badges and lock-screen notifications. It’s also very simple: don’t use them. If you have your work email on your personal smartphone, do not enable such notifications for that account. If you must have some form of reminder or easy access, leave notifications enabled in your notification centre or equivalent pull-down pane, so that you can check them with intention.

So much of the anxiety in our daily lives comes from our devices flashing a number of useless things in our faces. If something is an emergency at work and someone needs to get in contact with you, they will send you a message in a chat app, flick a text or (dare I even suggest?) call you on the phone. Furthermore, if you’re at work, your email client is going to be open in front of you anyway.

Our smartphones and tablets are meant to be tools of creativity, productivity and daily empowerment, not vortices of distraction, depression and despair. Email will probably never die… but that is a good thing. Email offers us a way to receive the information that is important to us and get in touch with people around the world. It’s a kind of standard and just needs to be used moderately and appropriately.

If we choose to have email access on our portable devices, like the social networks that have taken over so many other aspects of our lives, then let’s be deliberate in the way that we use it.