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.
A discussion sometimes goes like this:
Well, that would be the Rolls Royce version, but it’s not clear we can afford that, so we may have to go for something more modest.
It doesn’t matter so much what the thing is. It could be a washing machine, a content management system, a bicycle, or even, for the love of Kurt, a motor car.
At the opposite end of the spectrum to the Rolls Royce version we have let’s say, the bargain basement model. Our resources are limited. If they weren’t we’d go straight to Rolls Royce.
So that’s the Rolls Royce metaphor at work. I’m here to complain about it.
I’m complaining because it turns out that I don’t want my decision making to be informed by the Rolls Royce – bargain basement spectrum. Why not? Well, mostly because I don’t want to wind up with a Rolls Royce.
The Rolls Royce will be too big. It will use too much fuel. It will maximise values that I don’t care about, such as production methods that contribute to a narrative about status and not about the things that really matter to me.
Sometimes hand crafting and hand polishing parts makes them better, makes them easier or more attractive to use. But sometimes, and this is at the heart of my doubts about the Rolls Royce metaphor, they are simply a demonstration of power. Buy this product and, like an Egyptian Pharaoh, you too can show how much labour you can bend to your will.
I’m no apologist for the bargain basement either, even though sometimes it is all that can be afforded. The bargain basement is a dark territory where, by maximising the value of minimum expense, we place in jeopardy the values of joy of use, utility, and reliability.
The scratchy biro and the commodity keyboard that comes as standard with most PCs are classic examples in the bargain basement category.
The defenders of cheap biros and commodity keyboards insist that they get the job done and that fusspots such as me have had their heads turned by mere aesthetic frills.
My response to those who think I’m a fusspot is that while they may be right over a short time frame, when you factor in repeated use of an artefact, their vision often turns out to be short sighted. Let me work through two cases.
A pen is a tool I use a lot and I don’t want to have to put up with low level and quite easily avoidable annoyance. With something you use a lot, you’re not just disappointed once, you’re disappointed again and again. It may be a small and quiet disappointment, but the effect is cumulative.
The keyboard is another tool with which I spend many hours. For typing in one sentence, the gain to be had from a more refined artefact is negligible. But if the keyboard I use is even just marginally more pleasant to use, then this small and (ideally) quiet benefit is one that will add up over time.
But for all my eschewal of the bargain basement, I still don’t want a Rolls Royce pen. That would be some truly dreadful and terribly expensive artefact, probably a fountain pen, that I’d be paranoid about losing. I certainly don’t want some shocking product like that in the mix when I’m trying to work out where I want to land on the continuum between ‘best for me if cost were not an issue’ and ‘cheapest option that could be considered to meet the need at hand’.
Most of the time using ‘Rolls Royce’ as proxy for ‘the best we can get’ is unlikely to have too toxic an effect on good decision making. But all the same, I’m having a go at seeking out the ‘VW Golf’ versions to sit opposite bargain basement on my cost-quality continuum. No doubt, the ‘VW Golf’ will also bring some unwanted baggage. But it’s more closely synonymous with the things I actually care about. Of course, if you care about different things, then you’ll care to choose a different metaphor.
It has been brought to my attention that not everyone is familiar with the term ‘shonky’. If you’re not, then thinking shoddy and wonky, will get you close enough. I commend the term to you. Shonky is the VW Golf of wryly critical metaphors.