Category Archives: Computing

Tag Me – a Paragraft update

I really like the tag lozenges in Paragraft.

Their creation began with having an idea of how they might look, how they might be dragged between an ‘available’ to a ‘selected’ bucket, and  how, with a bit of animation, they might neatly re-order themselves after every disruption.

The idea was quickly formed. Then there was the long process of initial implementation followed by the even longer process of debugging and refining the operation of the feature.

What looks great in the mind’s eye can all too easily lose its lustre when it’s realised in pixels and code. But I found that months on I was still enjoying tagging my Paragraft documents. Often, I would idly re-order the tags just to watch them do their little dance as they shuffled themselves into their right places.

But for all that I liked tagging my documents, over time it began to dawn on me that I just wasn’t making use of the tags for finding my documents. The process felt too fiddly. And so I just didn’t use it.

Oh dear.

The problem was that although the process of applying tags to a given document was a delight, the process of selecting tags in order to filter the document list was awkward. Of course, describing the problem like this – a description only available in hindsight – immediately suggests a solution: adapt the process of applying tags to a document to the operation of applying tag filters to the document list.

After a short burst of intense activity, I had a rough but working version of the new approach. And now I found that I was using tag filtering all the time. Applying tag filters and removing them was quick. And fun: I got to do more dragging of those lozenges and more watching them do their little shuffle dance.

This shows all the documents tagged both Paragraft and coding, but excludes any documents tagged v05.

As ever, the rough implementation required plenty of polish to get ready for release. And, along the way, many further developments to the user interface now seemed obvious, such as:

  • an indication of how many filtered documents were being shown
  • a tap or drag on the title of the document list to change what meta-data is shown, i.e. tags, edit date, creation date, or key date
  • an option to flip a tag over to make it exclude rather than include matching items (see the grey tag in the picture)
  • an overhaul of the iPad interface so a tag filtering pane was shown side by side with the document list.

Of course, what people do and don’t like in a user interface varies a lot. And just because I now feel that the first shot at tag filtering was catastrophically clunky, doesn’t mean this iteration will suit everyone. But I think the odds of it suiting more people are definitely on the up.

Paragraft v05 is available now.


Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs makes some play of the fact that Jobs deliberately ceded control of the ‘product’. Aside from an intervention over the cover photographs, Jobs put his trust entirely in Isaacson, declining to set in train a relentless round of design iterations. It certainly shows.

If Jobs had been in charge of this ‘product’ you can bet the quality of the paper, the presentation of the photographs, the typesetting, the binding, and many other details, would all have been remarkable. And you can bet there would be some aspect of the ‘product’ that would have been innovative, perhaps the first instance of a new technology beautifully perfected, made ready, attractive and accessible to a large audience. By contrast, Isaacson’s ‘product’, with the exception of its subject, is no more than run of the mill.

It’s easy to make these bets, because that was how Jobs got things made. He didn’t repeat existing formulae – that held no interest for him. Rather, he pulled the future, kicking and screaming, out of the present. His gift was that he could see that future, a future in which technical products didn’t just do amazing things, but did so in a way that delighted rather than alienated. Technology’s good fortune was that he was reliably able to surround himself with people from which he could drag the technical and aesthetic solutions to make his vision of the future real.

Clearly, Jobs wasn’t always easy to be around – he was rude, capricious and sometimes cruel. Isaacson’s biography is strong, if occasionally repetitive, when it comes to illustrating this. The book also demonstrates one reason why the best designers and engineers chose to hang around – Jobs’s vision and taste, along with his sheer drive, created an environment where people achieved more than they ever believed possible.

The book is weaker in other areas. It barely addresses Jobs’s key role in creating the desktop publishing revolution, for example. And Isaacson rarely offers us intimate details – moments of humour, kindness or vulnerability – that would thicken the plot by providing counterpoint to the dominant narrative. This lack means that the Jobs shown here sometimes seems cartoon like, only abstractly drawn.

Isaacson also does little to bring out what I suspect is a key reason for Jobs ceding control over the biography project, a key reason why this is not an iBiography. That reason is that Jobs was just not interested in looking back. He didn’t choose to deploy his energy and focus on the past, because he was so fixated on looking to the future.

Consider that when Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, one of his early actions was to have dumped the company’s extensive historical archive. This was not some carefully weighed act of ‘decluttering’. To ‘declutter’ is to give up something you care about in the reasonable hope that it will bring renewed focus on the future. But, for Jobs, this archive was, literally, junk. It cost him nothing to give it up. It was simply taking up space. It had nothing to do with what lay ahead.

A friend, whom I mildly annoy with my enthusiasm for Apple products, asked me, in all open curiosity, whether Jobs had an interesting story. He did. There’s all sorts of big drama in his personal life, in the big arc of his career and in the very many smaller arcs that made up each product development cycle. While it might not have been Jobs’s cup of tea, for those of us not single-mindedly inventing the future, his is a fascinating and edifying story. Isaacson’s book tells it well enough. But it left me wondering what a ‘product’ setting out to do this job might have been like if someone with Steve-like standards had been in control.

References and Links

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography – Walter Isaacson
–the book under review.

Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story – Pamela Pfiffner
—includes coverage of Jobs’s role in the introduction of the LaserWriter printer. has a PDF extract.
—transcript of a Steve Jobs and Bill Gates interview in 2007. It covers Jobs’s donation of Apple archive material to Stanford University on his return after ten years away.

Inside Steve’s Brain: Business Lessons from Steve Jobs, the Man Who Saved Apple – Leander Kahney
—an excellent book on Jobs which, no doubt, will soon be updated to cover the iPhone and iPad era.

What is Narrative Therapy? An Easy to Read Introduction – Alice Morgan
–a great read if you are interested in the battle between dominant narrative (‘thin descriptions’) and thickened plots (‘rich descriptions’).

Note: the links to books on Amazon generate a tiny kickback for me if you make a purchase.


Tom’s not buying an iPad

This is a very techie post – so feel free to move on if tech is not your thing.

So Tom’s not buying an iPad on principle and he’s written a wee blog post attempting to explain why. Tom’s particularly bothered that the iPad doesn’t run Flash, a type of web content that’s widely used and been around for ages. Because the iPad (and iPhone) doesn’t use Flash, some websites don’t work on the iPad. But more than that, Tom’s bothered about Apple being anti-competitive, taking away choice from users as well as being unfair to developers and content producers. (Apple takes a 30% slice of everything sold through it iTunes store: apps, music and, most recently, magazine subscriptions.)

Since Tom asked me what I thought about his post, I thought I’d write something down…

So Tom’s not buying an iPad on principle. I’m trying to get my head around what the principle is and if I can make sense of it.

My first shot is this: it is as if Tom was a petrol head and saying that, as a matter of principle, he won’t buy a car that can’t fill up with petrol. Of course, he doesn’t mind it working on electric too. It is just he wants the choice: fill her up or plug her in. But the makers of these new electric-only iCars – you know, the ones with the cool design and smug adverts – they are taking that choice away. Tom cries foul. Fuel should be cross-platform. If I go to the trouble of refining some oil, how dare a car maker stop people putting my fumes in their tank?

Tom and others have pointed out how, unlike in the car case, technology makes it easy to be cross-platform. There is no technical reason not to run Flash on the iPad. And between improvements Adobe has been making and the increasing speed of Apple’s mobile devices, it might even run well.

Does this mean it is just about the money, a desire from Apple to rake it, to extort developers and, now, content publishers, ruthlessly exploiting their stranglehold on the phone and tablet market?

Well, it might be a bit. Apple is a business after all. But it’s not only about that. Tom is bang on when he says Apple is set against the “browser-based web becoming a platform for rich device-independent applications”. That makes Tom sad — and a little cross. My emotions are different. Whenever I hear ‘cross-platform’ or ‘device-independent” I associate to “lowest common denominator’ and ‘shocking user experience’. Of course, there are exceptions to this – Adobe do a pretty good job at supporting two platforms with a good user experience on both. But you know, less work by the developer, usually means a less positive experience for the user. With mobile and tablet devices that’s especially so.

There is nothing like writing an iPhone app for reinforcing this point. Until you start to really sweat the details, you have no idea how many details there are to sweat. Having seen my app on the iPod touch, my pal Martyn asked if I had plans to produce a version to run on his Android phone. Tom’s argument might be that if I’d used a good cross-platform tool to develop it, I’d be able to tell Martyn, no problem, porting between platforms is small beer. My argument, having sweated all the user interface details I couldn’t port ‘my’ app (the one that is polished), even if I could port some version of it. But it is my app, the one with the polish, that I care about and want to share. The price of sharing it with Martyn turns out to be quite high. Sorry Martyn. But I’m sure there are lots of great Android apps out there, the makers of which have really given their heart to, the details of which are super-polished. (And if that is the case, if those developers want to move across to an Apple product, they’ll have to sweat those details again.)

It’s worth nothing that Apple’s business model is hardly uglier than anyone else’s. I’m not saying it’s OK, but any reservations would need to be targeted at the capitalist system rather than individual players within it. Yes, they are a big and ambitious player. Yes, they want to change the landscape and not merely compete within it. Whenever a landscape is changing, competition is fierce and some businesses get hurt. (Read up on alternating vs direct current at the end of the 19th century and the Adobe-Apple spat seems positively mild.) But Apple’s moves will only work if the market follows them. If they weren’t selling bucket loads, the lack of Flash and the 30% cut would simply seem eccentric or idiot risk-taking. As it is, the evidence is unequivocal: both end users and developers will stand for this. End users because the products are great to use, despite some websites appearing to be broken. Developers and content producers because 70% of a decent sized chocolate cake is way, way better than 90+% of dried up muffin.

So Tom is missing out on the fun of being an iPad user just now. I hope that when he jumps to a rival tablet some time down the line, that his tablet runs great software, software made with love and polished to within an inch of its life. And that’s a definite possibility. After all, manufacturers and developers for those rival tablets have some stiff competition.

By the way, Tom is as far from a petrol head as it is possible to be and has an admirably low ecological footprint.