Apple hurting innovation? I think not.

I promised pownce friends a reply to this article, so here goes.

I have to admit I find it difficult to respond to the article, principally because it starts out with the premise that companies are out to make money, and that Apple is a late adopter that steals innovation by making new technologies useable once they have matured.

This sentence here is key, “In fact, it may be that [the more innovative competitors of Apple] can’t, but that doesn’t mean the public doesn’t win by them trying.”

So Apple can make money, while everybody else has to work hard to please the public without any direct benefit. Doesn’t sound very fair, nor particularly sound advice.

So let’s see where the problem is. First off, why are there so many tech companies throwing new gadgets onto the market? Well, why are there so many bloggers, podcasters and vloggers? Because there’s a market for it? No, because people want to talk/write/be rock stars. Are they making any money? For 99% of bloggers, the answer would be no: on an economic analysis, it’s a waste of time.

Good companies are driven by demand, bad companies are driven by supply. This is what is happening in the tech industry: Microsoft, Archos, Creative, SanDisk et al. (hereafter MACS) have engineers who are fascinated with the technology and want to bring it to end users as quickly as possible. Apple, by contrast, will only release a polished product, for a market that has been proven to exist, and only after it has passed the test of usability consultants, not to mention the usability aspect. Every good CEO should know that only 8% of industries are dominated by the market leader, and yet companies continue to push themselves to be pioneers.

This brings us to another flaw in the article, which is the implicit assumption that without MACS pushing the envelope, innovation would cease. This is clearly not the case, because by the article’s argument, Apple’s business would shrink if they did not innovate. Last I checked, consumer electronics devices were the largest money earner in Apple’s business, and if they can’t “out-date” last year’s devices, they’re stuck. So if you believe yourself to be unfairly parasitised, just cease innovating and let Apple take the lead. Plug your holes, keep your R&D bottled up, as Apple has done for years. Let’s assume an unrealistic worst case scenario for illustration here. Let’s assume MACS refuse to innovate, and Apple bites the dust because they’ve forgotten how to do it (remember, I said it was going to be unrealistic!) Where would innovation come from? (Insert your choice of smurf or gummi bears intro music.) A long, long time ago, there was a little forest in whom little creatures dwelled – dashing and daring, courageous and caring, faithful and friendly, I’ll spare you the rest. Yes, universities, academics. They develop technologies, see?

All that would result from MACS taking a back seat would be mature devices with better interoperability, using standard protocols. I cannot but applaud Apple for showing that mature products can win consumers, even though I may individually criticise their devices and software, their business model, standards compliance, and thinly veiled desire for consumer lock-in.

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Firefox extensions, broadband speed, and why software should be modular

I remember blogging some time ago about how the browser was becoming the new platform, in effect being the only part of the operating system that the user should have to see. I have for some time been using Scrapbook, and now the advent of Zotero has convinced me that “build it and they will come” really works, and the developers are taking on the browser as the new platform. What I am very pleased to note is that after years of different GUI applications doing things in isolation (and notwithstanding Apple’s very clever, if underused, Automator), there are finally some interaction effects emerging, where several extensions in combination are allowing you to do things that none of the developers would have foreseen. To give an example, I can capture a page in Scrapbook, stripping off most of the JavaScript while maintaining the layout, and then edit the source. This has countless applications that I shan’t go into here.

This is very similar to an idea that Jef Raskin presented many years ago in his book, namely to create an operating system that allowed users to add commands. If I remember correctly, Jef envisaged these commands to be purchased rather than downloaded for free, not foreseeing that open source software would replace much of the commercial market of this kind. I remember wondering at the time how this was any different from Unix, where you can string together commands using pipes to gain additional functionality. From my recollection of reading the book, I don’t recall that Jef explained in detail why users should extend the command set themselves. Having used Firefox for a while now, I think I understand what was intended

I use about a dozen extensions in Firefox (and it remains stable, touch wood!), but if you’d put me in front of a machine that had all of these extensions available to start with, I would not have known what to do. This is why I can’t bear to use Opera: it has a lot of nice features, but they aren’t very accessible. If Opera were modular, I might like it better. So the message is to allow people to extend functionality themselves, because that way, they grow with the technology and can better adapt to it.

Web applications are often limited by current broadband speed and availability, as well as server response times; Firefox extensions are helping to fill this temporary lag.

Incidentally, has anyone tried Onspeed? Their proprietary compression technologies sound impressive, but I wonder whether they have the bandwidth and processing power to match their claims that they can speed up even 8Mb/s broadband.

Zooooom

Right, I was going to tell you the other thing that Linux developers don’t get about OS X. The problem starts with the fact that most Linux developers haven’t read Jef Raskin’s equivalent of  Mein Kampf (in the sense that Hitler laid out what he was going to do in Mein Kampf, but most liberals in Germany did not read the book and so came up against an avoidable surprise). Microsoft would have only needed to read Jef Raskin’s book thoroughly and develop quicker than Apple – which they were well poised to do – in order to edge ahead on usability (avoiding certain patents such as having the application menu on the screen edge).

Here’s a quick hint:

  • Expose: Zoom
  • Spaces: Zoom
  • Time machine: Zoom

Okay, I think we’re getting the idea here. And did you know that the green button on the title bar was called a “zoom” button? It’s not for maximising, it’s for zooming. And then there are the zoom sliders on apps such as iPhoto and Yep. What chronology is to storytelling, zooming is to work environment visualisation. Google Earth? PhotoSynth? Bingo. And zooming is extensible indefinitely. As an aside, this is also how the iPod works: you zoom into the artist, then the album, then the song. Hierarchical layers. And the column view in Finder is the same idea broad side on. I would really, really like to see this clarity of paradigm in Linux.

Sidebar design done right

I’m not usually fond of Microsoft’s UI designs, but in the case of MS Office 2003 products, they’ve outdone themselves. Look at this example of easy navigation between different sidebar options:

Microsoft PowerPoint sidebar design
Now compare this to how it looks in Firefox:

Bookmarks sidebar in Firefox

The search bar is a nice touch and somewhat redeeming feature, but having fast navigation between different sidebar options would be even better!