The New York Times recently reported that Apple is working on a new smart watch (we already knew the iPod Nano can be converted into a wristwatch). The opportunity seems related to the new flexible glass developed by Corning, the company that is behind most of our glass touchscreens. Coincidentally, Dogday, a Swedish design firm, previously designed a mockup of what Apple’s take on wearable technology might resemble. As it turns out, they may not be too far off.
When the first mainstream pieces of wearable electronics – glasses and watches – created by technolgoy giants Google and Apple respecitvely, are released, a new category of electronic gadgets will be created: those that are meant to be worn, not carried. These objects may sync with smartphones and tablet devices, or they might have their own intelligence and connectivity. Everything remains to be seen, including the uses and the distribution of functions between intelligent devices.
Halfway between computers and the Internet of Things, smart gadgets will likely proliferate the consumer market, becoming a very lucrative investment for electronic manufacturers as they continue to face declinging desktop PC sales.
Read more from Jean Pascal at A Nos Vies Numériques.
Since the botched launch of iOS 6 (because of the failed Maps app that wasn’t up to snuff for Google Map users), and the consequent ‘release’ of the iOS boss, the signs that Apple has to get back on the innovation train – and fast – are starting to pile up.
If you still aren’t convinced, read this email addressed to Apple CEO Tim Cook from Ed Conway, a long-time Apple fan. Then there’s also the Android smartphone sales numbers (with Samsung in the lead) that continue to rise. With reasonable prices and a high level of quality, the Android ecosystem is attracting more and more converts from iOS devices.
It’s been said that Apple hasn’t really surprised us with anything else since the launch of the iPad on April 3, 2010. And if we look closely, there are dozens of other little signs signalling the end of an era. In short, Apple just isn’t as cool anymore.
Without Steve Jobs, but still with $121 billion in the bank, it’s hard to believe that they aren’t secretly working on something big to shake things up.
What could be their next big break?
One thing is for certain: Apple needs to innovate as boredom is going to weigh heavily on the company’s bottom line.
Read more from Jean Pascal at A Nos Vies Numériques.
It was only this past January that Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, announced the launch of iBooks 2 and iBooks Author. Dubbed the ‘new textbook experience’ these apps, in conjunction with the iPad, were part of Steve Jobs’ vision to disrupt the lucrative publishing industry –valued at an estimated $9 billion – and reset the education system.
The idea – partner with major textbook publishers and replace expensive and clunky textbooks with digital versions. Engaging, interactive and highly intuitive, these digital textbooks are exactly the type of product we’ve come to expect from Apple.
At Apple’s ‘little’ event in late October, Tim Cook took to the stage to share some impressive statistics: iBooks textbooks now cover 80% of US high school core curriculum and are used in more than 2,500 US classrooms. These numbers can only be expected to increase with the launch of iBooks 3. The biggest problem with textbooks – their tendency to be outdated the moment they leave the printer – is solved with this update. Apple has smartly allowed for publishers to revise current versions of textbooks, ensuring that the information being taught is always the most up to date.
A glaringly obvious, but often omitted, aspect of the digital textbooks story is that in order to read an iBooks textbook, you need to have an iPad (any iOS device would technically work but you probably wouldn’t want to read a biology textbook on your iPhone’s screen).
Sleek and portable, the new iPad Mini would seem like the ultimate classroom companion. Significantly cheaper than the $499 4th generation iPad, and slightly less expensive that the $399 iPad 2, the base model iPad Mini’s $329 price tag was still much higher than most pre-event estimates.
With tight budgets, it will be tough enough for school boards to justify buying tablets, let alone the iPad Mini, when similar tablets are much more affordable:
Bringing new resources like tablets and digital textbooks into the classroom will undoubtedly benefit students. How many students will be able to benefit from it, however, is a different story. Whether the onus is put on school boards or individual families to fund these purchases, it remains unrealistic to assume that everyone can afford to do so, especially at $329 per device.
Why settle for a traditional light bulb when you can create a personalized lighting scheme from your smartphone or tablet? New Hue LED lightbulbs are able to connect to your home’s wireless network and can create custom lighting palettes from the colours in your favourite photos.
That’s right. The operating system that almost single handedly forced website owners to design their website for different screen sizes and density was not able to handle it itself.
Even more absurd, the limitations were not technical at all. iOS is built on top of a powerful graphics system publicly called Quartz, which was developed for Mac OS X. This system is what enables high-end, graphically intense apps like the Final Cut Studio. It’s also what enabled smooth scrolling on the original iPhone. This graphics system could have handled responsive apps from day one; in fact, it has already done so. Quartz is what powers CSS transitions and rendering in WebKit, the engine behind Safari and Chrome.
So what about native apps? What or who imposed that limitation? Having followed Apple for a while, I blame Steve Jobs for that choice entirely. But, for the sake of this post, let’s blame Apple as a whole. Apple is known for its obsession with pixel perfection, and fixed layouts inherently enable pixel perfection. Since you don’t have to/can’t worry about variable screen sizes, you can design assets for the few screen resolutions that are available for the platform. Most importantly, there is no screen size scenario in which your app will appear unpolished, unless, of course, your app is unpolished. Until iPhone 5, that was all well and good.
On Android, a radically different decision was made from the start. Apart from some exceptions, most screens are entirely described in relative layouts. Screen resolutions are never considered a constant. This is how Android manages to run relatively well on the hundreds of different hardware models. However, it should be noted that pixel-perfection is very hard, if not impossible, to achieve with relative layouts.
In the browser, with media queries, CSS was able to describe even more complex relative layouts, and could almost achieve pixel perfection, but still not the kind that fixed layout offered.
Two elements in the evolution of Apple’s business plan challenged its earlier decision to impose a fixed layout, forcing it to re-evaluate a responsive system:
Hence, they had no choice but to build a new layout system. This is why the most important feature of iOS 6 is Auto Layout.
Auto Layout is the long awaited solution that combines true responsiveness and pixel perfection. It was introduced on the Mac two years ago.
Without going into specifics, Auto Layout is a way to semantically describe layouts by building a constraints tree organized by priority. By describing a layout in such a way, the system has enough information to make the same design decisions that a designer would under similar conditions. In other words, Auto Layout will preserve the intention of the designer, no matter which screen resolution is used, and no matter what content is shown.
Auto Layout has an important learning curve, but once understood, its capabilities are immense.
The most significant example is when trying to localize an application for two very challenging languages: Arabic and German. Arabic is written from right to left and German has very long words.
By describing what you, as an English-speaker, want the design to convey and look like, Auto Layout will adjust it to regional differences. In Arabic for instance, the screen will automatically flip, placing the most important elements on the right and preserving the other elements’ positions (because it would not be appropriate for those elements to be flipped). For German, and in tight screens, longer words require some decisions to be made about what to compress and what to reflow. For instance, a constraint that would manage this could be: “I want my title to always be centred, but if the button to the left of this title is too wide and starts clipping my title, then the title can stop staying centred and instead embrace the full width it has available and move to the right.”
Without Auto Layout, those two examples would have been almost impossible in iOS.
Now with iOS 6 and Auto Layout in their hands, developers will be able to create a new class of apps – apps that will work perfectly for everybody and for every screen.
In the mean time, Auto Layout turns up the volume on the importance of responsiveness in design in general.
An article recently shared on Nurun’s Yammer discussion boards caused a bit of a stir among our community. The basic premise: Why is the Save icon still showing a floppy disk? After all, when was the last time any of us used one of these things? (A quick yet extremely scientific survey confirms that the last time most of us did, years were beginning with a one. And yet, today’s users clearly have no difficulty correlating the “save” action with the floppy disk icon.
The use of partially symbolic depictions of this kind is part of the larger practice of skeuomorphism.
Skeuomorphs are material metaphors instantiated through our technologies in artifacts. They provide us with familiar cues to an unfamiliar domain, sometimes lighting our paths, sometimes leading us astray. (Nicholas Gessler, UCLA)
If we stop and think about it for a second, quite a few action behaviours are based on very concrete metaphors—the most obvious example being the button, which mimics something we interact with on anything from doorbells to air conditioners. Some other behaviours, however, are born with computing and need to be learned (blue underlined text = hyperlink).
The use of skeuomorphs, by offering known landmarks as a point of reference, creates an instant (yet superficial) understanding and puts a reassuring mask on some very abstract mechanics. Extensive skeuomorphism, as practiced by Apple (just think about iCal’s leather, PhotoBooth’s curtain or Notes’ writing lines), is known to annoy more than a few designers. It’s all fine and dandy to put users at ease by referring to the real world, to flatter nostalgia even, but is it not also staying prisoner to the physical object’s now irrelevant limitations? If skeuomorphism is welcome when first encountering a concept, doesn’t it become just an annoyance after a while? This is a recurring debate.
The battle lines are drawn: on one side, the iOS school of thought, on the other, the Windows Metro approach. The first camp refers repeatedly to the real world while the other creates its own patterns. Our viewpoint is from no man’s land: select what to use based on context.
For a functionality to be used again and again, and more so for an expert system, extensive use of skeuomorphism is going to interfere with the task by introducing artificial limitations and visual noise. However, tasks worthy of developing expertise to master them are far and few between. For more mundane tasks, skeuomorphism warrants consideration. In truth, we’re no great admirers of Photobooth’s red curtains, but if the alternative is having to check a user manual every time we want to upload a picture to our profile…
If there’s one principle to apply when creating user interfaces for the general public, it’s to avoid the “made by pros for pros” syndrome.
But let’s go back to our floppy disk, shall we?
Think about these users who have never used a 3.5″ floppy — soon, the majority of people — and observe their behaviour: The relationship with “saving” is understood. (The same phenomenon occurs for the two vertical bars used to pause a video, even if their meaning has been lost for almost everyone.) Thus, when disconnected from the tangible object it used to refer to, the floppy disk icon/save relationship becomes abstracted into a cultural code.
The floppy disk symbolism will endure as long as its visual representation stays in common use, evolving from a reference to a convention.
Seeing the floppy survive might bring a knowing smile to people old enough to know where it comes from. Younger folks, on the other hand, will simply read the “H” within a rounded square with a small off-centre vertical bar to mean “save.” The youngest ones, for their part, will have no clue about what that means. “Save? You mean that it was once necessary to manually declare you wanted to keep your data?!”