Twitter Question: Nexus 5X as a primary camera?

Cory Hixson asked me a question about the Nexus 5X that was interesting and complicated enough that my reply became a blog post:


I’ve just finished recording an Ihnatko Almanac about traveling with a phone as your sole camera, and about camera choices in general, so this topic is still on my mind. I’m a little stuck on the phrase “primary camera.”

In a way, I’m the least helpful person to ask for camera advice. I’m an Enthusiastic Amateur, plus I’m a technology columnist. This means I don’t know about the needs of the average camera user and I’m way too arrogant to try to find out.

I’m going to zero in on the word “you” in this question. I wouldn’t be choosing a phone as my primary camera. I’m too persnickety about the results, and I want to have lots of control. I’ve just come back from a week at Yosemite and I would have missed my flight rather than leave home without my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and some lenses.

Nonetheless, for three days in New York city the week before that, I left the gear at home and relied solely on the Nexus 5X. Mostly because I had to catch a 6:30 AM train, so I was grumpy, and in no mood to sling a camera around my neck and find room in my bag for an extra lens.

I also knew that the Nexus 5X camera was up to the job of Taking Swell Photos:

 

Added another Daniel Chester French to my Life List. Outside the Hamilton Custom House, NYC.

A photo posted by Andy Ihnatko (@ihnatko) onMar 9, 2016 at 12:00pm PST

When I choose a daily carry phone, I want the best camera I can get but I’m trying to maximize other variables as well. I think the iPhone 6S Plus has the best camera overall, but I wouldn’t switch back to iOS just to get the camera. I think the Samsung Galaxy S series has the best camera on any Android phone (and it’s better than the iPhone’s in many ways), but I see many advantages to Nexus devices, and their “fresh from Google” updates, that I want more than that camera. If I had bought something else, I’d only be trading an excellent camera for a better one.

It’d be hard for me to choose a phone as my primary camera. I tend to think in terms of an arsenal of devices. I’ve got the Olympus for situations where I foresee myself immersing myself in photography and wanting to come away with the best photo possible. I’ve can trust the Nexus for those situations where I’m expecting to take mostly snapshots, or didn’t know that I’d be confronted with something amazing, or I just couldn’t be arsed to carry the howitzer with me all day. I keep attempting to seduce myself into buying a nice, tiny camera, such as a first-gen Sony RX100. The argument for is “teensy camera with a big sensor, a big lens, full manual controls and handling, and RAW capture.” The argument against is “$400, and don’t you already have a nice camera, doofus?” But I keep wishing for a “daily carry” camera that was a big leap better than my phone.

One shouldn’t become like one of those weekend golfers who keeps buying new and increasingly-exotic putters, thinking it’ll improve their performance. Every camera has limits. Even this Olympus that I love so much has limits. But great things happen when you try to find a solution to a creative problem that works within those limits. Phones don’t have zoom lenses. Okay, but is the photo of that Daniel Chester French sculpture no good because it’s a tight crop of a much larger photo? The resulting 3 megapixel resolution forced me to be even more careful about the composition; every pixel was carrying such a great load.

Plus, our desktop tools for massaging photos are extraordinary. I can do things with exposure, depth of color, and addressing sensor noise that would have been a fantasy just a few years ago. So really, I could just concentrate on framing the shot correctly and tapping the shutter button at the right moment.

The direct answer to Cory’s question is that any premium phone, and even most midrange ones, will take excellent photos. So don’t worry about it. Buy the phone that presents the best total package for you.

These sorts of answers can be very very frustrating, however. So if pressed, I will sigh and say “If I had to rely on a phone as my primary camera, it’d be an iPhone 6s Plus. Image quality is a real tossup between it and the Samsung Galaxy, but the iPhone’s speed and reliability tilt the scales.”

Yeah. That answer definitely took more than 140 characters, eh?

Phone batteries

Apple announced a new Smart Battery Case today. Which seems like the sort of Product Opportunity that they’ve historically preferred to leave for third party makers. It just goes to show that only a fool thinks they know what Apple could, should, or will do. Does Apple plan to ship a new iPhone next fall? Er…I’d say so. But please don’t quote me.

Based solely on the photo, I’m going to rock the boat and say that I’m kind of pleased by this design. It’s quite literal. It looks like Apple just added enough extra volume to their standard silicone case to accommodate the battery. Their silicone cases are awesome, and because Apple took the simple route, the Smart Battery Case will work with any cable or charging dock that works with the standard version.

If I worked for Apple and had been part of the design or marketing team, I would have pitched a killer idea:

“We will also make one in Teal. It will ship with no battery. That empty space will contain a little note that says ‘You can hide weed or LSD in here. If you don’t use recreational drugs, bring your case back to the Apple Store and we will swap it for either a black or white one. Plus, we’ll give you a $15 iTunes Store card as a token of our appreciation for your continued silence about the truth about the teal ones’.”

I am a damn genius.

Why is Apple making a battery case at all? See Paragraph One. I imagine it’s just something they wanted to make (like when they started making their own rechargeable batteries and charger), and/or they saw the market for battery extenders and asked themselves why they were leaving that money on the table.

It does seem odd as an Apple-logoed product, given the iPhone’s killer battery life. I expect a device maker to design every accessory that the product needs, such as the keyboards for the iPad Pro and Surface Pro. Unlike most Android phones, the iPhone doesn’t “need” a battery extender. But that’s not true for everybody. Some people can’t even count on ending every day near an outlet.

Speaking of phones and power, I had another great experience with the Nexus 5X. I was out of the house all day on a meeting and was so tired at the end of the day that I just dropped my phone on the kitchen counter, got myself a drink, and slouched upstairs to bed.

I ease myself into the day by spending the first hour on my MacBook, in bed. Nothing gets me dressed and downstairs faster, though, than realizing that I forgot to recharge my phone. My old Nexus 5 would run out of juice after just six or eight hours off-leash, even if it was just in the pocket of the pants on my bedroom floor.

The 5X, with Android 6, is way way better. Even so, I wasn’t expecting it to light up this morning. But, yay! I still had 40% battery left. I plugged it into the charger anyway to make sure it’d be ready to go in an hour, when I was heading off for breakfast somewhere.

And then I left for breakfast without it. I kind of preferred it when I didn’t have a phone with me in the morning and I had something else to blame.

I should stop saying “Real Camera” versus “Phone Camera”

It's A Nice Day For A Light Wedding

Language is tricky. A camera is a camera is a camera. Sometimes I need to clarify that I’m referring to a traditional device and not a hardware feature on a phone. One answer is to refer to such things as a “real” camera, and yes, please, include the quotes Mr./Ms. Editor.

I won’t do that any more, even if I’d done it half-jokingly in the past. Last night I was at the LA County Museum of Art and happened across a couple getting professional photos taken in their wedding clothes. I was spending the afternoon in tourist mode so of course I had my full Urban Guerrilla camera on a sling, and two lenses. I wound up using the iPhone 6s Plus for this instead.

This photo is about 90% as the iPhone shot it. I did push some sliders around in Lightroom. A hardware generation or two ago, I’d be doing that to rescue the photo. Here, I was just improving it adjusting it to my taste, as I do with the stuff I shoot with my Olympus E-M1.

I’ve been deep-testing the cameras of the iPhone and the new Nexus phones. Modern phone camera photo quality is excellent across the board in flagship-class devices. Now, “it’s a good camera” means it <em>handles</em> extremely well, and (like my Olympus) acts as an extension of my brain’s visual center.

There were a couple of practical (boring) reasons why I used the iPhone instead of the Olympus. Yes, one of them was that I knew it’d make a cool demo photo for my Sun-Times review. Another: I hoped that if I used the iPhone’s burst mode, I might get lucky and catch a frame illuminated by the photographer’s flash.

But just as important is the fact that I trust the iPhone. If I have a tiny window in which to get the shot, I know that the iPhone will come up with a halfway decent photo. (So long as the subject isn’t moving. The iPhone loooovvveeessss slow shutter speeds.)

At my skill level, getting a good photo with the E-M1 in a lighting situation I’ve rarely had to deal with requires some trial and error. A woman in white in front of 200 densely-packed streetlamps at night certainly qualifies.

Sometimes, I even just want a snapshot. I enjoy the immersive creative nature of photography but the risk is that I go into my Photo Trance and I’m no longer really there. In this case, it was the end of a long and fun day, my brain was in “dinner and bed” mode, and I no longer had enough mental bandwidth for immersive photography. I was in “push a button and get a photo” mode.

This year, time and time again, I found myself treating a phone in my pocket as a “second camera”…part of my arsenal, alongside the Olympus on my shoulder, to be used when it felt to me like the more appropriate camera for the situation.

A camera is much more than a good picture. A camera is how you take that picture. Today, a phone camera is manifestly a “real” camera.

Want

It’s New iPhones Day, a tradition that’s so well-understood among our community  at this point that I believe we’re only a couple of years away from all of the other stores in the mall making it into a relentless and overbearing nightmare. The CEO of Sears called in his team a few months ago and asked them why their stores don’t open at 2 AM that day, with suspiciously-low sale prices on objects shaped like TV and other electronics. And that’s when his staff finally told him that Sears has been a mail-order seed company since 2011, when their last retail store closed.

I’ve been bothered by the hype of New iPhones Day for a few years. My Twitter feed is full of stories of people lining up overnight. Big and small tech blogs are all clamoring around the first buyers, for photos and interviews.

I find it all very off-putting. I didn’t always. I used to think of it is something akin to the excitement of seeing a new “Star Wars” movie on opening day. I had a ticket to the first screening of “Episode 1” and I wanted to spend the nine hours leading up to it with other people who were way, way too excited to stay at home.

Somehow, new iPhone Day feels different today. The iconography hasn’t changed. I look at the same kinds of Tweets, and the same kinds of photos, and the same videos of cheering, waving Apple Store employees and shoppers. Only now, I can’t push away a fundamental clinical observation: people are cheering because someone, you know, bought a $900 high-end consumer item.

Am I…okay with that?

So I’m conflicted. I can’t fault anyone for experiencing and expressing pleasure. (PSA: People who say “Hey! You’re having fun wrong!” are wastes of good protein). At the same time, yeah, this kind of celebration and sense of gratitude and wonderment over what should be a simple walk-in, pay the person, get item, walk-out transaction makes me uncomfortable. It seems undignified. Why are we all making these people look lucky?

Yeah, yeah: there’s a huge initial demand and if you don’t get the phone you want on the first day, you could be waiting for weeks. But is waiting for a new phone such a terrible ordeal?

I don’t mean for this to be a scold. I’m scolding myself more than anybody because I feel like I contributed to this environment. No doubt it’s a big factor in my growing unease.

But let’s all take a moment to reflect a little. The mere acquisition of a new iPhone is exciting, but it’s a surface joy, at best; it’s a squirt of Happy Brain Chemicals. We should stop and reflect on the idea that true joy of a great new phone is in the pictures that it takes; the time and tedium that a new feature can save you, which frees up time and mental bandwidth for things that are more important to you; and the thoughts and activities that they enable you to indulge that were just too hard to mess with before.

I’m not going to tell people not to be excited about getting a new iPhone on the first day. And I’m not going to tell other journalists not to write about those people, either. Nor do I believe that either of these two groups should feel bad about themselves.

Speaking solely for myself: I don’t want to just make people want things. My covering New iPhone Day as a cultural event would be a step away from my goals.

iPhone 5 Photo Quiz – Part 5

Face---Mystery-Photo

Same as before. One of the photos in this group was shot with an iPhone 5. The others were shot with other phones…and one was shot with a conventional camera. For the big finale, I’ve expanded the lineup to seven perps instead of just five:

Faces-Times-7

(Click on the image to go to Flickr and embiggen. Come back to comment.)

And just like before, I haven’t made any changes to exposure, color, or sharpness. All I’ve done is crop the same section of each photo and scale it to 300×400 pixels for comparison.

Which is your favorite? And can you spot the iPhone 5 image?

Thanks for all of your comments, by the way. This isn’t a scientific test by any means, but all of these subjective reactions to these side-by-side comparisons are very useful to me.

My three-part review of the iPhone 5 begins tomorrow…with a discussion of the iPhone 5’s camera. When the column hits the web, I’ll publish the answers to each of these little quizzes.

iPhone 5 Photo Quiz – Part 4

Some-Kind-Of-Bust---Mystery-Photo


Finally — at least as far as these little Quizzes are concerned — is my test of low-light performance. This feller is in a shadowy corner of an unlit hallway.


Some-Kind-Of-Bust-(no-answers)

As before, none of these have been modified in any way, apart from a crop. Oh, and: apparently I was careless and only used four cameras on this. But I promise you that one of these four was shot with an iPhone 5.

Which is your favorite?

Which one was shot with an iPhone 5?

iPhone 5 Photo Quiz – Part 3

Bates-Hall---Mystery-Photo


And now we’ve finally reached The Boston Public Library, the site of so many of my standard test photos. I take two shots here in Bates Hall. The first is a straight shot down the middle of the hall; this is the second. Why aren’t I using the first one in this quiz?

Because: (oh dear) two of the cameras failed to take a usable photo. Too blurry. My usual protocol is to take three in a row, and then use the best of the three for comparison with other cameras. Nope…these two cameras screwed up three times.

Hmm!

Well, let’s just take a look at View 2 then. As with the others: I’ve made no adjustments to exposure, color, or sharpness. I’ve just cropped the file that came out of the camera.

Bates-Hall-Times-5-(no-answers)

(Click to visit Flickr and embiggen. Come on back here to comment.)

Which is your favorite?

Which one do you think was shot with the iPhone 5?

Apple vs. Samsung: Influence, or Copying?

Yup, I’ve been following the court proceedings almost as closely as I’ve been following the Olympics. “Almost,” only because NBC isn’t broadcasting it 20 hours a day. On the plus side, if NBC were covering it, we’d be getting our news 9 hours after it actually happened.

Yesterday’s designated bombshell was an enormous and hitherto confidential PowerPoint presentation that Samsung assembled a couple of years ago. The company’s own engineers compared the iPhone to the Galaxy and point for point…yeah, they pretty much agreed with what the public was telling them.

Many folks have pointed to this document (and attendant internal quotes from Samsung, describing the need for a real “come to Jesus” moment for their smartphones) as a smoking gun. Aha! Slide after slide, comparing a different element of the iPhone and its software to the Galaxy! Prepare to line up for the spanking machine, Samsung executive board!

I’m not so sure. I’ve read most of it. A credible interpretation is that this document represents a company’s frank and unflinching evaluation of the limitations of their own products. Each slide and photo and user element is carefully annotated and scrutinized. Even though this was an internal report never intended for outside eyes, nearly every note is a smart observation. What does the user expect at this point in the interface? What’s the most important function? What are the points of confusion in the Galaxy interface? It seems as though most of these notes points out a mistake that the Galaxy’s designers made, and teaches a broader lesson that Samsung should learn, as opposed to just blandly adding another item to the “Steal This Element” list. Nearly every recommended action item seems to say “We should make our phone better,” not “We should make our phone look like the iPhone.”

Does this document point to outright theft? Fortunately, two companies (whose annual profits somewhat exceed my own) are paying lots of people (much smarter than me) to argue that one out.

Sometimes, a company blandly treats other companies and creative people as their own free product R&D division. That’s arrogant and damaging. Sometimes, an idea is just so simple and natural and obvious that nobody can credibly claim that they “invented” it. That’s arrogant and damaging, too.

Sometimes, a company looks at the competition’s work and thinks “Wow. We got smoked. Why aren’t our own products that good? What do we need to do to improve them?” As I read through this document, it’s hard for me to push that third possibility from my mind. I don’t think it’s a smoking gun at all. Just another data point, subject to interpretation.

Twisted Beginnings

I’m trying out “Twist,” an iOS app that I didn’t know existed an hour ago. Just a minute after hearing about it and downloading it, I started hoping that I wind up using it every day of my life. It was just released this morning.

[Edited to add: and I was so excited to leave the house and try it out that I forgot to embed a link. Here’s where to find it in the iTunes store.]

It’s exactly what I’ve been wishing for ever since I got a GPS-enabled phone. It’s a destination-oriented social app. I regularly meet with a friend an hour away to get comics and then eat lunch. I can usually predict my arrival time within a half an hour. I thought I was out the door, but then I got an email as I was docking my iPhone in the car that forced me to turn around and reopen my office. To say nothing of the problems of traffic.

So usually, after I pull off the highway I pull into a gas station and send him an updated text that tells him I’m close. He acknowledges, he starts to wrap up what he’s doing, and then heads out. He can have his own troubles. I don’t know how long I’ll be waiting for him at the comic book shop.

Twist attempts to fix all of that. I’ve defined “Comics with Karl” as a regular event, and set it up with info about the destination, the people I’m meeting there, and how I’d like them to be informed about my progress. Karl will know that I’ve only just left the house, despite the fact that I IM’d him twenty minutes ago to say I’m “headed out the door right now,” and he can get a predicted ETA (based on current traffic conditions) any time he likes.

Let’s see if I like Twist enough to write a formal review. But they’re definitely on to something. A great product usually solves a universal problem. ETAs are the pain and stress that unite us all, whether you’re worried about making people wait or wandering the aisles of a comic book shop and wondering if something’s happened to Karl.

Nice touch: it works great if the people you’re meeting are using Twist, but the app can also just send plain text messages.

They done good by getting lots of press attention with their launch. They done…maybe not so good with the first-launch fit and finish experience of the app. Four grumbles so far:

1) Slight shock when the “walkthru of the features” slideshow pulled data from my address book and integrated it into the presentation. “Isn’t that interesting?” I thought. “The developer is a big fan of comics. Cool, he seems to know a lot of the same artists I know. Hey…those are their real addresses!”

2) When setting a destination, the search feature seems to think that Proximity is more valuable than Familiarity. I typed in the name of the comic book store (which is in my address book) but Twist actually found and Destinated a flower shop three miles away, which it found via a websearch. Whiskey tango foxtrot?

3) In choosing people to add to the event, it sorts the list by first name. Oh, dear.

4) Didn’t I read somewhere that you could trigger an “ETA in X minutes” alert? I thought I read somewhere that you could set things up to trigger an “ETA in X minutes” alert. Maybe I was wrong about the “ETA in X minutes” alert. I can’t seem to find it.

And none of these are buzzkills. But it goes to show you the value of every single hour a developer spends spends on honing that first-launch experience.

Well, off I go. I borrowed a friend’s Bluetooth mouse last week and I was going to return it in a few days…but now I’ve a good business excuse to actually treat the timely return of a friend’s kindly-lent property as though it were a high priority.

Cool! It’s also smart enough that if I choose “Gern Blansten” from my address book as my destination address, it automatically chooses Gern’s mobile number for automatic notifications. Off to a great start already.

Push the button, Frank…

[Second update: it seems to work great. My pal showed me his phone. He got a message alerting him that he was about to receive some texts related to my trip (sent when I activated the Twist), a second one when I was underway (which included an ETA), and a third when I was nearly there.

I still wish there was a way for the app to generate a “I’m 10 minutes away” heads-up. That’s my killer feature. An initial ETA is subject to wild adjustments and an “arrival imminent” alert isn’t as useful as one that says “Yes, you have time to visit the men’s room before he gets here.”]

Unmuting on The Mute Question

In the question “Should the ‘Silence’ switch mute everything, or just some things?” I do believe the iPhone community has found its “Should the end of the toilet paper hang in front of or behind the roll?” debate. We could go on forever and ever and we’d still go out for drinks afterward.

It seems like there’s only one universally-acceptable answer to “How should the ‘Ringer/Silence’ switch work?” question:

“The switch should behave flawlessly for the specific way that I want it to work.”

When others complain that Your Way totally fails for their personal use of the feature, the proper response is

“Yours is an edge case scenario.”

And when a solution is suggested, the response is

“That makes the feature way, way more complicated than it needs to be.”

(…in the sense that from the perspective of this user, the switch doesn’t need to be any more complicated than “Behaves exactly as I, personally, expect it to when I slide it to the ‘Silence’ position.”)

Mind you, I’m not saying “The people who agree with me are right, and everybody else is just a wrong stupid mister stupid-head wrongy-man.” I’m saying that I and the people who agree with me are no different from anybody else: we expect this switch to work the way that we, personally need it to.

For instance, one of the strongest arguments for the switch’s current operation is “I use my iPhone to wake me up in the morning. If the switch worked the way you want it to work, I’d be woken up by phone calls all during the night.”

To which my insensitive, knee-jerk response would be:

“I understand that Alarm Clock technology has matured to the point where an alarm clock that once would have been housed in the bell tower of a cathedral can now easily fit in a footprint no larger than that of a small bedside table.”

Plus, if someone tries to call me at 4 AM, it’s got to be a complete disaster of some kind and the very last thing I’d want my phone to do is allow me to miss the call. So why would you want to leave your phone on Mute while you sleep? “It’s an edge case!” the knee-jerk responder is therefore tempted to say. “Why must a basic feature be ruined just to address an issue that so few people need to deal with?”

These are all Perfectly Sensible arguments…but only from my personal perspective, which is worthless to anybody but me. For many other people, alarm-clockage is far more relevant to their lives than silencing a device in a public social situation.

“If you need your phone to be completely silent,” the Perfectly Sensible Argument goes, “Just switch it off. Or, take a moment to glance at the screen and see if there are any alarms pending before putting it back in your pocket.”

From that perspective, yes: perfectly sensible. But it’s worthless for users like me. My retort would be “Great: you’ve taken a clear, simple, two-position switch and turned it into a multi-step process. Also, I don’t want a dead phone in my pocket; I just want this device to be both useful and silent.”

Overall, the lesson is that silencing a phone is far too idiosyncratic a feature for any “one answer fits all” implementation. As I said in the blog post, no locked-in definition of “Mute” is going to work for everybody. Worse, any definition will fail for every user at some point, either in the form of a missed alarm or a humiliating disturbance of public silence.

Which is why the only solution is to allow the user to adjust those settings. The iPad has its own little sliding switch. The user can define its function as either “Mute” or “Lock screen rotation.” If the default function of the switch works fine for you, then this “added complexity” is invisible. If you wonder why on God’s green earth any rational human being would prefer an iPad that rotates willy-nilly as you recline on your sofa with a good ebook, you can fix it in about fifteen seconds. And then you never have to touch that Settings panel ever again.

There’s no good reason not to add that sort of customization to the iPhone’s Mute switch. The Mute switch will continue to screw up royally at least once for every user. But when that happens, his faith in Apple will cause them to think “I bet there’s a way to fix that.” After spending a second or five hunting through Settings, they’ll find it: a bank of toggle switches for the four or five different ways that an iPhone can make noise. On-Off-Off-On and presto: the Mute switch works exactly the way it should.

For you, it might be On-On-On-Off.

Possibly Off-Off-Off-On.

Or maybe Off-Off-Off-Off is more to your liking.

Why, I could go on forever. Actually, no, I could only go on for twelve more times but I think you already get the idea.

I still think the default for the Mute switch should be “No noise of any kind under any circumstances.” My argument comes down to this:

  • Ask an average person “Your phone has a switch which is described in the documentation as ‘Ringer/Silent’. You’ve set it to ‘Silent.’ Under what circumstances would you expect it to still make noise?” and the most common answer will be “None. None circumstances.” Not everyone will give that absolute response. But I suspect that there will be three or maybe four different answers, and only a single-digit percentage will correctly describe the current behavior of that switch.
  • In general, if it’s impossible to identify a canonically-correct default behavior then the default should be the one that’s easiest to understand. “Silence means complete silence” is easier to grok than “…except when it doesn’t. Here, let me explain the thinking behind this switch…” This general theory of UI wouldn’t apply if there were one obvious “right” default. There isn’t one here.
  • The “Ringer/Silence” switch is unique among iPhone UI. It’s a mechanical toggle switch. Toggle switches have only two positions: ON and OFF. Not “Mostly On” and “Sort of Off.” This is how the Humans have been taught to think about two-position switches and it’s far more natural for them to translate that same all-or-nothing nature to the feature itself.

But the right answer isn’t “This switch mutes everything.” The absolutely right answer is “If the user doesn’t like the default behavior, the user can go into Settings and tailor this feature to his or her personal needs.” The only canonically wrong answer is to lock the user into one mode.

A Settings panel wouldn’t change the operation of the Mute switch in any way. Slide the switch and the iPhone Mutes. The only difference would be that it’d work properly, as defined by the user’s individual preferences.

The only bits of this discussion that have left me completely confused are those from people who insist that such a Settings panel would overly-complicate the feature. A few people on Twitter actually categorized that as “An Android-like implementation,” and I’m 99.44% sure they didn’t mean it as a compliment for Google.

They could have. There’s only one thing I envy about Android: its underlying instinct to give the user more control of his or her device.

The upside of Apple’s approach is that the iPhone is coherent and consistent and it represents a considered point of view. Apple puts a monumental amount of thought into almost every human-surface detail of every device they make. They make great choices. But the downside is that institutionally, the thought “How can we give the user more freedom?” is lower on the list of priorities than it should be. Apple sometimes defaults to “No, if we let the user do that, it’ll just make things more complicated” even when that’s not the case.

I believe that a different company would have made this switch customizable long before iOS 5.0.

What did I tell you? Tech questions are dull and dispensable. It’s these philosophical questions that make for interesting discussions. Now, about that drink…

Oh, and for the record, when I went out to a comedy club last night…I turned my iPhone all the way off.

Daring Fireball: On the Behavior of the iPhone Mute Switch

This is probably my favorite kind of discussion of a tech product or feature: the philosophical kind. Why isn’t there an LTE version of the iPhone? Answer: because with the currently available chipsets, the added speed of 4G isn’t worth the tradeoff in battery life.

Boring. Next?

Why does the iPhone’s “Mute” switch silence some alerts but not all of them? Is that wrong?

Well, gee, I don’t know. I suppose it depends on what you believe the natural mindset of the user is. And, how a device can best support its user. Should it do what the user asks, or what the user would ask it to do, if he or she knew such a thing were possible? Because…

Ahhhhh. That’s much better! Wait here in the living room…I’ll be back with a bottle of claret and a few glasses. In the meantime, switch off the Xbox so we won’t have any distractions during what I’m certain is going to be an awesome discussion. Wait, I’ll even silence my iPhone so that we won’t get interrupted…

Oh, right.

So that’s why I’m moved to post my own thoughts about this Daring Fireball piece. I think Brother Gruber is wrong when he says that Brother Jim is wrong. John’s point is that the iPhone handles the Mute switch in a friendly and sophisticated way. The iPhone doesn’t treat it like a modal function (speaker is on, speaker is off). The iPhone does a contextual mute. It’ll mute any alert that you didn’t specifically tell it to make. You weren’t expecting a phone call to come in at 8:31 PM. It mutes the ringer. You told it to sound an alarm at 7 AM the next morning. The iPhone wakes you up as scheduled.

That’s a reflection of a valid specific philosophy. I just think it’s wrong in this specific feature. The key question to ask is “When the user slides the switch to ‘Mute’, what does he or she think is going to happen?” They’re most likely to think that their iPhone will be completely silent until they flip that switch back.

I also try to think about how the user will react when things go wrong.

Case “A”: he Mutes his phone before a movie. He forgets to reset it afterward. His morning wakeup alarm vibrates instead of making air horn noises, so he oversleeps. He’s late for work, and misses an important meeting.

Case “B”: he Unmutes his phone after the movie and gets to the meeting on time. His boss tells the 20 people present that she needs everyone’s full attention and she asks everybody to mute their phones and please close their laptops. Our man duly flips the switch. At 10:30 AM, just as his boss’ boss is about to make an important point, his iPhone starts quacking to remind him about an eBay auction that ends in 15 minutes. He had totally forgotten that alarm…he set it almost a week ago.

In both scenarios, his iPhone has royally tripped him up. In both scenarios, he’s going to walk back to his office — hopefully not carrying an empty cardboard box and accompanied by someone from HR — and he’s going to immediately have a frank discussion with his iPhone.

“What the hell, man?” he says, as soon as the door’s closed. “I thought you were supposed to be on my side!” he says.

In Case “A”, the iPhone replies “Dude. You told me to be quiet and to stay quiet. If you wanted me to stop being quiet, you had every means and opportunity to do so. You just had to slide the exact same damned switch! You wouldn’t even have had to wake me from sleep! The switch is even marked in orange!!! Nothing else on any Apple product is marked in orange!!! So, gee, Einstein…you think maybe the day-glow orange was warning you that you’d enabled a mode that could have had unexpected, but easily-predictable consequences?”

In case “B”, the iPhone says “Oh. I thought you meant ‘Just be mute in some situations but not others’. No, I didn’t bother telling you what situations those would be. I do that sometimes. I’m a very people-oriented bit of engineering. I were a dumb device, I’d just observe the state of the switch and do exactly as I was told and never use my own discretion at all. Oh, and: not that you bothered to thank me for waking you up on time this morning despite the fact that you’d left me on ‘Mute’, but you’re welcome.

(Of course the iPhone wouldn’t actually say these things. The user would be so angry that the phone would still be on “Mute.” But the iPhone would definitely be thinking them.)

My philosophy is “It’s much better to be upset with yourself for having done something stupid than to be upset with a device that made the wrong decision on its own initiative.” Every time I screw up and take responsibility for my own stupidity, it’s another Pavlovian stimulus that encourages smarter future behavior. If I forgot to unmute my phone after a movie, I’m a dumbass. But if my iPhone makes noise during the movie despite the fact that I’d deliberately chosen to silence it, I can only conclude that the dumbasses in this equation reside about 3,000 miles west of here.

I can’t give Apple a free pass on this. I was just as upset with an Android phone I once tested. I was getting a demo photo inside Bates Hall, the gorgeous, cathedral-like reading room at the Boston Public Library. I put the phone on “Mute”, I walked quietly to my desired position in the middle of the room, I tapped the shutter button…and then a maximum-volume CLICKKKK!!!!! resounded and reverberated through the cavern walls.

I felt like a total hayseed. “Stupid piece of crap,” I muttered, as I tried my best to adopt an apologetic facial expression and slinked away. Yes: this phone, at that moment, was a stupid piece of crap and I felt, correctly, that none of the responsibility for this screwup was mine.

Great technology locates a sweet spot between anticipating your intentions and only doing exactly what you tell it to do. Apple’s very good at this but like any company, they succeed and they fail. Apple’s most notable successes and failures usually spring from the same basic company mindset: “We know what the customer wants better than the customer does. After all, the customer doesn’t spend every working hour of the day thinking about how to make a great phone.”

The Mute behavior of the iPhone is just wrong; it’s an important function and its behavior isn’t transparent. The correct answer is so clear to me. Whether the switch silences everything or just some things, the behavior is going to trip people up sometimes. It’s unavoidable. Apple can only choose how users get tripped up. The right answer to most feature design problems the one that puts more control in the hands of the user. If screwups are inevitable, then the iPhone should choose to screw up in a way where the user feels like he understands what went wrong, takes responsibility for that mistake, and knows how to avoid repeating it. I shouldn’t be forced to consult a little laminated wallet card every time I slide a two-state “Mute” switch, to remind myself of all of the iPhone’s independent exceptions to the concept of “silence.” I can’t review all pending alerts and notifications to anticipate future problems.

No. I should slide the switch to “Mute,” and then the phone goes SILENT. If I miss an appointment because I did that, it’s completely on me. If my phone disrupts a performance despite the fact that I took clear and deliberate action to prevent that from happening…that’s the result of sloppy design. Or arrogant design, which is harder to forgive.

“Why not switch the phone off when you need complete silence?” comes the counter-argument. That’ll certainly work. But if you’re claiming that the Mute switch’s current behavior is correct, shouldn’t you argue that the iPhone should refuse to shut down if there are alarms and reminders scheduled?

You see where this line of thought leads? Straight to that scene in “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide” where a hundred passengers on a commercial spaceflight are kept in suspended animation for centuries. The computer that operates the flight is awaiting a shipment of moist towelettes for the courtesy and comfort of the passengers. It’s the ultimate example of a computer preferring to do what it thinks its users want, instead of just doing what the user asked it to do.

No, I’m fine with Mute meaning M-U-T-E. Particularly if the phone defaults to “vibrate” when muted. But the right answer seems clear. The iPhone must never let a user down the way it let down that man at the philharmonic.

During those endless moments when the conductor and members of a 40 piece orchestra and the 600 people in the audience were fixing him with icy glares of utter hatred, and he frantically clicked and re-clicked the “Mute” switch on his quacking iPhone to no effect, and he was desperately trying to convey that goddamnit, he put this thing on Mute before he even sat down…yes, the iPhone was a stupid piece of crap.

I almost never say that about my iPhone or iPad. This problem is so easy to fix. Even something as simple as a Settings option (“Mute switch silences all alerts”) would do the trick. You don’t have to ask me what the default setting should be.

The iPhone: Five years later… | Macworld

The memory that sticks with me, in fact, is that I was temporarily dumbstruck by the sheer feel of the device. I was testing it while sitting with a couple of Apple executives as well as an Apple PR handler. The idea was that I could try out the device while also asking them questions. As I used the iPhone, I found it very difficult to speak questions or even listen to the answers. The iPhone was so unlike anything I’d ever handled.

The iPhone: Five years later… | Macworld.

I had to link to my pal Jason Snell’s reminiscence about his first hands-on experience with the iPhone. It was so very familiar. I probably had my own briefing on the same day. I was a room with a VP, a senior executive, and a PR person. I had about a half an hour or maybe 45 minutes, tops, to ask as many questions as I could about a device that I knew nothing about until that morning. So what was the first thing I said after they handed me the iPhone?

Well, I said “Go help yourself to a cookie,” nodding towards the catering table. “I wanna play with this for a while.”

Yes. I don’t regret it, either. I had been blown away by Steve Jobs’ demo. I didn’t want to be led or coached. I wanted to see if I could make it do absolutely everything I wanted it to just by poking around with it.

It lived up to every expectation. Nothing — nothing — about the iPhone or the way it worked was in any way similar to anything else I’d ever used. Every tap and swipe and pinch and zoom was accompanied by the exhilaration of discovery and of new experiences. And the only time I couldn’t get something to work was when I launched the Notes app. None of its buttons responded. I finally asked for help…and was told that what I had been trying to use was just an image file taking the place of an app that wasn’t on the device yet.

I’ll never, ever get bored with my job. Every now and again, a device like the iPhone comes along. Great, groundbreaking technology provokes a physiological response: a tingling at the base of my neck. When a thing sets off my Spidey-Sense like that it means This is effing brilliant. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I’m certain that this marks a real moment of history.

Devices like the iPhone come along rarely. In between, I look at hundreds of phones and laptops and social networks and generic apps and gadgets which are each about 80% interchangeable with anything else in their product category. I have to check all of these things out. It’s part of the job. I keep right on looking and it’s for the same reason why movie critics keep coming to the screening room day after day even they know damned well that the first film of the day is going to be the second sequel to a movie based on an 80’s TV show: we love what we do and when we find something special, we feel like that love’s being returned.

Oh, and Jason was 100% right on another point. Man, oh, man…as someone who had actually had substantial hands-on time with a working iPhone, there were a few months in 2007 when paying for your own meals and drinks was purely optional. Everybody wanted to hear the story, everybody wanted to ask questions and hear more.

It was just like that scene from “Bull Durham,” only more so.

“Yeah, I used an iPhone once. It was the best 37 minutes of my life…”

One More Thing…remember “Back To The Mac”?

Oh, and one more thing:

(This wouldn’t be a column about a Steve Jobs keynote if there weren’t One More Thing, yes?)

Let’s not forget that Apple’s whole message during their last (and first) Mac OS X 10.7 demo was “Back To The Mac.” A stated goal for the future of the Mac is to take some of the technologies they developed for the iPad and some of what they’ve learned from a year’s worth of apps and users and bring them into Mac OS.

Many worry that this means that Apple will do away with MacOS entirely. Naw, it means that they think “my computer wakes from sleep in less than a second” and “multitouch gestures enhance the vocabulary of a GUI” are good things to keep in mind when figuring out the Mac’s next step.

Another lesson Apple could have learned from iOS is that “syncing data” is less powerful and handy a concept than “your data is just there.” After more than a year with my iPad I can state that I rarely put data on the thing via iTunes. It’s always a process where I decide “I want to use that file I was working on this morning with my Mac” and after a brief detour through Dropbox, bango, I’ve got that file I was working on this morning with my Mac.

So when I say that I suspect that Apple’s overall plan for iCloud is to make the device irrelevant, I’m not saying “It doesn’t matter if you have a phone or a tablet: all of your desktop files will be available to you.” I mean that your desktop and your notebook will be no different from anything else. It’ll just be another device that can access and articulate your data in a manner that makes sense for that specific kind of device.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple minimizes MacOS’ whole file system in some near release. Not 10.7, of course. But it’s becoming more and more clear that most of the accepted rules for desktop operating systems are now…well, off the desktop. Even such quaint 1980’s concepts as “windows where you drill through directories filled with files.”

Hey, wonderful: there’s a location-tracking file on my iPhone.

What sort of data does your phone log to a file…and why?

That’s the most annoying mystery of these superphones that we carry everywhere. It’s a master key to pretty much everything we’ve got going on in our lives: where we’ve been, the people with whom we associate, what we say, and all of the things we’ve seen that we considered worth snapshotting. The phone maker should be both completely open about the data the device collects and should act as though disastrous things would happen if that data were ever to fall into the wrong hands. Because they would. The worst-case scenario of a lost or stolen or otherwise compromised phone is pretty goddamned bad.

So imagine my disappointment when I visited this page (thoughtfully forwarded to me by Dave Bittner). Developers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, while working on some mobile data-visualization tools, poked around inside their iPhones and found an SQL database containing a detailed log of the phone’s locations over the past several months. To demonstrate the problem, they wrote a little app that will pull up this file from your desktop iPhone backup, analyze it, and “replay” your movements over time on a map.

Yeah, it works. The app was written just as an illustration, so it intentionally fudges the accuracy. But if I fast-forward to last summer, I reveal a very rough track of the day I decided to blow off work and go to the Cape for an afternoon of swimming and fried clams. Here’s a video demo of the map, provided by the developers:

Washington DC to New York from Alasdair Allan on Vimeo.

A few reality checks, lest I inadvertently do a Glenn Beck number on all of you, here:

  • This database isn’t storing GPS data. It’s just making a rough location fix based on nearby cell towers. The database can’t reveal where you were…only that you were in a certain vicinity. Sometimes it’s miles and miles off. This implies that the logfile’s purpose is to track the performance of the phone and the network, and not the movements of the user.
  • A third party couldn’t get access to this file without physical access to your computer or your iPhone. Not unless you’ve jailbroken your iPhone and didn’t bother resetting its remote-access password…or there’s an unpatched exploit that would give Random Person On The Internet root access to your phone.
  • It’s pretty much a non-issue if you’ve clicked the “Encrypt iPhone Backup” option in iTunes. Even with physical access to your desktop, a no-goodnik wouldn’t be able to access the logfile.

But still! What a nervous can of worms. This is an open, unlocked file in a known location in a standard database format that anybody can read. If someone has physical access to your Mac — or remote access to your user account — it’s a simple matter of copying a file and opening it. And while the logfile can’t tell someone that you were at a specific house, it can obviously tell your boss that you went to the Cape on the day you called in sick.

And it’s not as though Apple and these two developers are the only people who know that this file exists and that it’s so easy to access. By the time the Good Guys blow the whistle, the Bad Guys have had it for months. Lord only knows what they’ve been doing with this information.

It’s also, frankly, another reason why I value my iPhone’s “remote nuke” feature and wish it were possible to nuke all data directly from the handset. I can’t think of any circumstance under which my location data would possibly be damaging, incriminating, or even just embarrassing. That’s not the point: if I can’t control the data that my phone is collecting, I should at least have the power to destroy it utterly.

[Edited to clarify: what I want is a real “overwrite with zeros” feature, like the one you see in Disk Utility. Yup, you can go to Preferences and restore your iPhone to factory settings but I believe that this leaves your data vulnerable to recovery. I imagine a made-for-TV kind of scene in which the Angry Lawyer Bringing A Frivolous Lawsuit Against Me is fumbling for his phone, trying to get a court order to mine data off of my iPhone but before the paperwork comes through, I’ve already tapped nineteen buttons and there’s nothing on that phone that can be recovered.]

Finally, there’s “The ‘Ick’ Factor.” I don’t believe that Apple is up to anything nefarious here (again, I think it’s tracking the performance of the phone and not the movements of the user) but it makes the iPhone look very, very bad. That’s not to say that other phones don’t do even ickier things with user data…but this one’s big and public and easy to demonstrate on a nightly newscast.

Apple should treat this like a serious problem. I’ll be very, very pleased if I or anybody else can get a statement from them explaining what this file is for, and how the next iOS update will secure it.

Amazon to Apple: Oh, it is sooo ON!!!

Screenshot of Amazon.com browser window, showing the Cloud Player; foreground window is the Amazon MP3 Uploader, copying iTunes playlists into Amazon Cloud Drive.
Screenshot of Amazon.com browser window, showing the CloudPlayer; foreground window is the Amazon MP3 Uploader, copying iTunes playlists into Amazon CloudDrive.

This is why I love my job. Today, Amazon enabled two new features to their site: Amazon Cloud Player and Amazon Cloud Drive.

Cloud Drive is iDisk via Amazon storage, pretty much. You get 5 gigs of storage for free and can buy more as you need it. Your Cloud Drive can store anything…documents, photos, movies, music.

Cloud Player…lets you stream all of the music you’ve stored on your Cloud Drive. Annnnd everything you purchase via Amazon MP3 (from now on, anyway) is automatically added to your Cloud Drive and doesn’t count towards your storage limit. If you buy 100 gigs of Amazon MP3, you can play all of it for free without paying a dime. In fact, if you buy MP3s from Amazon, they’ll up your “regular” storage to 20 gigs anyway.

And there’s a helper app that’ll scan your existing iTunes library for music files that are compatible with the service. Click a button and all of it — or selected playlists — get uploaded to your Cloud Drive…even files you didn’t purchase through Amazon MP3.

The Cloud Player works through any web browser that supports Adobe Air. So: your Mac is in the club…but your iOS devices are out. But good news if you have an Android phone: the Amazon MP3 app will stream alllllll of your content just great.

Photo of the Amazon MP3 app for Android phones.
The Amazon MP3 app for Android devices...all of the music I've put into my CloudDrive is streamable. Even the stuff I didn't buy from Amazon!

I’ve already transferred four gigs of music to the cloud and yup, it works great. Any computer, anywhere there’s Internet, I get an iPod Nano’s worth of music. I’ve also downloaded the new Amazon MP3 app to my Android phone and…yup…there’s my music.

I tried opening the webplayer on my iPad and it warned me that I’ve got the wrong kind of browser. The player loads up, I can see my music, I can tap a Play button, it selects the track…but nothing happens.

iPad browser with the Amazon CloudPlayer.
You can visit your Cloud Player on the iPad, and it looks like it could be playing your music...but nothing will play. It seems to require Adobe Air/Flash.

Well, isn’t this very interesting!

I wrote a column last week about the new Amazon AppStore and how this signaled a start to some more direct and aggressive competition between Amazon and Apple as the elite seller of digital content and as the Great and Powerful Oz of your mobile experience. This is the second shoe to drop in that battle and there’s a centipede’s worth yet to come.

I’ve used this service for just a half an hour but yes, I already like it a lot. It’s a much simpler and more robust way to cloud-stream your online music purchases than anything else going at the moment. It’s a reason why I’ll continue to buy music from Amazon instead of iTunes.

And — God help me — it makes all Android phones that much more cool.

[Added: and to anyone who wonders where the money is for Amazon in this…you should think bigger. Think of the next Kindle as an entirely cloud-oriented media player. It always has ample local storage for books and a playlist or two, but it has an intimate connection with all of your Amazon purchases and can retrieve — or stream — any of them at any time. Someone deciding between an iPod Touch or a 7″ Kindle Color could be swayed by that kind of feature, couldn’t they?]

I’ve sent an email off to Amazon about any plans for an iOS player. I reckon they’ll make one if Apple will let them release it. Amazon’s always been about selling content, not operating systems and hardware and it’s always benefitted them to get the Kindle reader on as many devices as they can.

I actually first heard about this when I hit Amazon.com to buy a couple of things an hour ago. As soon as I saw it, and I set to work downloading things and uploading things and playing with it, I had to stop and think “Damn…I love my job. Apple versus Amazon is like Ali versus Frasier. This is two evenly-matched fighters and the outcome of their battle can only benefit consumers.

This is what I’ve been hoping for: a company with the skill, vision, clarity, and competence to truly compete with Apple. It wasn’t going to be Google. It was never going to be Google. I’m grinning at the thought of how high these two companies can push each other. What a great time to be a geek and to be alive.