June 24, 2006

Bumptop Interface

It took be stumbling into this link a few times before I actually was willing to watch the video, but if you are into computer interfaces it's well worth it, very well prototyped and thought out. My only suggestion would be that now that they've gotten the insights they wanted off the desktop/paper metaphor, they then ditch the metaphor and see what happens when they extract the techniques. Metaphors after all tend to hang around far past their expiration dates, crossing a point were they stop being useful and sometimes get in the way...

Posted by Abe at 11:07 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 23, 2006

Reading SF

Does anyone in San Francisco read magazines?

Somehow it took me two days to track down a copy of the latest super obscure design magazine, Business Week's quarterly mag within a mag Inside Innovation. SF is shockingly devoid of newstands and magazine shops, things that pretty much occupy every major corner of New York. Perhaps it's just a population density thing, but SF has plenty of great bookstores in that same magazine free area, more perhaps than New York even. Maybe SF readers are just more sophisticated, they want the full book not the magazine lite. One specialist shop managed to stock the Journal of Palestinian Affairs and not Business Week. Yet the various drugstores I ducked into all seemed to feel Business Week was a bit to obscure to fit their microscopic racks. Perhaps people just don't read magazines here because the public transportation sucks so hard, although it's worth noting that at least it's fit to be called public transportation and that's a big improvement over most American cities...

Posted by Abe at 10:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 19, 2006

Open Apples and Rotten iPods

Is the iPod rotting Apple at the core? If the recent stories about the atrocious working conditions in the Chinese factories making iPods are true, than there is a simple and obvious answer. Yes. Apple to my knowledge has until recently maintained very close ties to it's factories, and if working conditions were an issue, I certainly have never been aware of it. But with the success of the iPod, as well as the Chinese tech explosion, Apple is now just another company shopping for cheap Chinese labor, and it's subcontracted out to companies that make whatever electronics device you pay them for. Apple is well funded and I'm sure their design team is more involved in production issues than many companies, but they are no long in charge of the end production the way they once were, and the result is sweatshop labor. Labor I might add, that if my shipped straight from Suzhou BlackBook is any indication, appears to be hard at work on the new Intel Macs as well.

That's the simple answer, yes the iPod and its mass appeal is rotting Apple's ethics away. Fortunately that has a relatively simple answer too, one that Apple's massive brand investment gives leverage too, Apple can demand better labor conditions. The brand comes in because Apple needs to defend it, and that means it can't afford to have people start thinking of iPods as sweatPods. Then again if the recent iPod/Nike collab is an indicator, perhaps that's not a great assumption. For now though this is the first news on the Apple exploitation front, it's a strike against them for sure, but they aren't out of the game yet. Plenty of time for them to make amends.

It's the complicated answer that really worries me. It's an answer that stems from a long, twisted and ubergeeky series of blog posts, starting with Mark Pilgrim announcing he's switching from Mac to Linux and including an epic response from John Gruber and
Mark's incredibly insightful reply. It's that last one that is the killer, detailing an old school Mac hacker's constant frustration with digital data decay. What is scary is it's culmination, detailing how Apple's Mail.app program moved from an open data format to a closed proprietary one, without bothering to warn anyone. As an isolated case it's an annoyance, but it's not an isolated case and Tom Yager's detailing of Apple's attempt to shut him up, makes that very clear.

Now Apple's never been known as an open company, so in many regards none of this should be surprising. In fact it's only newsworthy in that it marks the end of what history might see as Apple's golden open era. In it's very early $666 computer days Apple was of course part of an open source culture that didn't even have a name yet. But from the Macintosh era onward they were very much an instrumental force in the closed source computing that dedicated up the eyes of the idealistic programmers and birthed the free software and open source movements. Despite it's brief experiment licensing it's operating system the Apple of the 80's and 90's was all about close proprietary hardware running a closed proprietary operating system and for the most part closed proprietary software. And in this exact time period Apple developed into an awkward and bloated company that stayed alive mainly on the inertia of innovations dating back to 1984.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple and began to turn the company around, he essentially stripped the company down to it's core competency. In order to survive and thrive Apple had to be about making great computers. It's widespread commercial success depended selling lots of computers in the mass market of course, but in order to do that it relied upon a core of dedicated power users, designers, programers, and other digital geeks. Apple could only thrive by making great (or at least greater than the competition) computers, and with that as a foundation is was able to sell tons of good computers in form of iMacs and iBooks. But with the entry of the iPod suddenly that story has changed.

In that one little window, the post Steve Jobs return, pre iPod era* of Apple history, the company became increasingly tied to the idea of open computing. Plenty was still closed for sure, but with OS X built on the open source Unix core of Darwin, Safari built on the open source KHTML project, and iTunes and earliest iPods driven by the open MP3 format. It was in this golden era when people like Mark Pilgrim were very much part of Apple's core user base, and the fact that Mail.app was designed to use the open mbox format completely reflected this reality. This was also the time of Apple's infamous "Rip, Mix, Burn" advertisements and for a while the MP3 driven iPod was actually part of the company's open wave.

The iPod though was not just successful, it was dominant. Suddenly Apple did not just have another small product in it's line up, it had a cultural icon. An icon that sold by the boatload from China at correspondingly large profit margins. In the iMac era Apple had been a computer company first and a cultural icon second. With the iPod Apple has become first and foremost a brand, with computers relegated to second place, or perhaps even third behind consumer electronics. This doesn't mean Apple is going stop making good computers, but it does mean that making excellent computers is no longer crucial to their success. The core of the Apple is no longer the expert user but instead made cheaply in China.

What exactly this means for the future is of course uncertain, but what is clear is that Apple is already backing away from its short romance with open computing. It probably won't effect the stock price, it might even increase the profit margins, but it just might threaten what was once Apple's key strength, the overall usability of it's technology. The Apple isn't rotten yet, but man there sure are some suspicious marks on that skin...

*I by this I don't really mean the era ended with the introduction of the iPod in 2001, but instead the era slowly faded away as the iPod became a mass pop culture success over the next five years.

Posted by Abe at 02:39 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 12, 2006

Espresso Counter-Cultures


Ritual Coffee pulls one of the two or three best espresso shots in San Francisco, but it's not the coffee that hit me when walking in, but the laptops instead. I spent nearly four years living and working out of a carry on bag, so I'm certainly no stranger to cafe's filled with laptops, but I can't recall ever walking into a storefront so large are so completely overflowing with white people lined up and devoted to the screen. I couldn't quite tell if it was a sweatshop for freelancers or a sweatshop for laptops, but there certainly was way too much work going on to classify this place as a cafe. In fact the main thing that seems to distinguish it from an open plan office with an expensive espresso machine is that you need to fight for a deskspace... That and there are people there trained to pull that coffee deliciously.

I've been spending far too much time and money on delicious coffee lately. Ritual is part of the new school of American coffee, the post Starbucks wave of shops that aim to distinguish themselves via an obsessive devotion to the perfectly pulled espresso shot. Visually this tends to manifest itself in the rosetta, or latte art, that the barista will cap off your milky drinks with. But the root identifier is probably behind the counter or in the office, where you'll likely find a devout fan (or perhaps knowledgeable critic) of David Schomer of Seattle's Espresso Vivace. Through books, videos, and extensive semi-scientific experimentation Schomer is the lead evangelist or perhaps religious leader of the next generation coffee house.

The last few weeks have taken me from New York to Montréal to San Francisco and inevitably to these new coffee shops. Coffee shops that all seem to share the same awkward discord between the two sides of the counter. Coffee shops once came in two flavors, local and Starbucks (a category that of course includes Starbucks many corporate imitators.) Follow the online trails to your local espresso obsessive shop though and more likely find a space that feels like a teenager struggling to grow out of local and into something that maybe doesn't quite exist yet. Perhaps it's the counter Starbucks, perhaps it's the future replacement, or maybe something else entirely.

Whatever it is though, it's clear it will be well branded. The new school of espresso shops is almost always well branded, often too well branded for local comfort. Perhaps the fact that the shops are always filled with designers (you know like me) is to blame for this, but then again the whole western world seems to be filling up with designers... Ritual's knock off of the Soviet flag, with a coffee cup replacing the sickle and the hammer of labor absent entirely is slickest and most symbolically relevant of the brands I've seen. The revolution might not be televised but it will cost $3 a cup.

The rise of $3 cup (aka coffee culture) in America over the past decade or so has dovetailed nicely with the napsterization of music, ably sucking up the daytime jobs for musicians slot that the decline of the record store opened up. In an indie record store though there is a relative homogeneity you won't find in a new school espresso shop. It's a high end product and the crowds tend to vary from the sort you'd expect to find in a high end car dealership and a high end drug dealership. The only common bonds are a shared addiction to caffeine, electricity and wifi. Sitting in the packed and well branded cavern that is Ritual Coffee makes it pretty clear that this uneasy mix has a clear economic viability, but just what it will look like as it grows beyond adolesence is beyond my powers to forcast. In the meantime I guess I'll just enjoy the espresso.

Posted by Abe at 04:12 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 04, 2006

Economies of Design and Other Adventures in Nomad Economics

Ok, time to go a bit more public. That image that should be showing above is the front cover of the public draft of my first book Economies of Design and Other Adventures in Nomad Economics which you can buy by following this link. You can also download the pdf for free. It's a public draft which means its far from done, filled with typos, and due to the magic of print on demand it should be updated frequently. It's also the first(ish) draft of my first book, which means I've learned a tremendous amount just in pulling it together. If things work out the second draft will be a complete rewrite and a far better organized one at that. But the raw ideas are out on paper and I'd love to get as much feedback as possible, so please read, enjoy and comment!

The book also has a site, and like the book it's so far been semi-public. No longer. Feel free to point your browsers to nomadeconomics.org just what will happen there is slightly indeterminate, but hopefully informative and entertaining.

Posted by Abe at 11:47 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack