Thursday, December 10, 2015

I was the first person to see Star Wars

Well maybe not the first in the world, but I did see it at the Edmonton Meadowlark Cinema theatre in 1977, the day it opened, and I can tell you, there weren't many people at the theatre.

My Dad's worked at CFRN, Edmonton's CTV affiliate, where film reviewer George Kelso told him I might like to see this new movie - kind of a space cowboys movie, he called it, after seeing the review screening the day before.  George knew I was a science-fiction nut, and having just returned from a three-month trip through Israel and Europe, I had some free time while I looked for a summer job before going to UBC the next fall.

Meadowlark's Cinerama theatre was my favourite movie location. Opened in 1969 with Krakatoa East of Java, it went on to play movies that were highly influential in my film appreciation.  The legendary print of 2001:A Space Odyssey in 70mm with the first magnetic sound strip in production was a huge event. 2001 also set the bar for state of the art optical effects and highly detailed models, a standard I though was unassailable until Star Wars took it to the next level.

And I knew about what it took to create special effects in movies - somehow it was an ongoing source of fascination to me, and also it seems to my cousin Stu Bass, who has gone on to edit numerous TV shows. Optical printers, travelling mattes, all that stuff came from perusing Dad's books on special effects. So after seeing the crawl and the tilt down to the planets, I thought that after almost ten years, the effects were not going to be much better than what Kubrick could do in 1968.

Until I saw the star destroyer. It was pretty clear right then that Industrial Light and Magic had done something only dreamed about in film production - a motion controlled camera that could repeatedly reproduce the same sequence of moves. Motion control is key to photographing miniatures, where the camera usually is the one that moves around the model, and in a way to be able to later blend background, foregrounds, and multiple objects in the frame from the correct camera position.

Now, almost 40 years later, we have tickets to go see Episode VII. Little did the 19-year old me imagine I'd be going to a new Star Wars movie with my wife and son 40 years from then.

Some things are sweet on every level.

May the Force be with you.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Another brick falls from the Apple facade

At one time, Apple prided itself on not having focus groups, of not listening to what customers said they wanted.

That was the Steve Jobs way.

Steve was not driven by market data. Steve just designed the things he thought the world needed, and that he would love to use, then made an organization that he drove very hard to create and ship them. Those of us who happened to also like those same qualities of fine workmanship and ease-of-use, also bought the products and were very grateful for having tangible things in our lives of that quality. Unlike most CEOs, you could sense that Steve used almost every feature of every product that Apple made. When its design fell short, that's when the difference between Apple and every other tech company became crystal clear:

If Steve didn't personally love his experience of using an Apple product, he made sure it didn't ship until it did. 

No other computer company had the unified vision to drive to a integrated and seamless user experience. There are, and have been, designers with as good taste as Steve, with the ability to articulate and lead a team to create that kind of user experience. But few of them succeed at bringing the entire product to market with that design integrity, and the reason is that the organizational structures prevents the kind of cross-organization head-bashing required to drive the compromises out of the product, and to drive the unity of the user experience forward as a corporate goal. (As I write this, after hearing from my friends who drive the electric coupe, it looks like Tesla CEO Elon Musk might be another exception - the driving experience of the Tesla is often exclaimed to be in that same manner, someone with the taste to know and articulate the quality they seek, and the power to demand the organization work together to achieve it).

Ironically, few CEOs care about their products enough to fight their own organization to achieve as uniformly great products as Apple did. Bill Gates may not have had Steve Jobs' taste, but from watching the many times he demo'd Windows it was very clear that every BSOD event was not the way he wanted it to work. It takes a maniac to drive an entire organization to attend to every excruciating detail that makes a great product. And the larger the organization the more personal energy it takes to keep the compromises from creeping in. It's tiring, as Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki remarked "Don't let the bozos grind you down."

In a few years, when the history books look back at the post-Jobs era at Apple with the benefit of more obvious hind-sight, they might begin with the new Apple TV - the first introduction of a new Apple product (not service, as many of those half fallen flat - remember MobileMe?) that sucks, and sucks in the exact manner that Steve worked tirelessly for many years to prevent.

JasonSnell reviews the new Apple TV and outlines the exact kinds of details that drive him crazy - the same kind of details that would have made Steve throw the thing across the room at the design meeting. and yell at the team about falling so short of the expectations of an Apple product. The examples Jason talks about are the exact kind of issues many of us in the user experience role face when we are the expected to be the lone voice of the customer in a large organization. A good example - having to enter a password multiple times, probably because the Apple TV software group, and the iTunes software group have competing requirements, and their VPs trying to meet their quarterly objectives don’t have someone demanding they overcome their small-minded group objectives to ensure the overall user experience doesn’t suck. The new Apple TV doesn't link to the iCloud keychain, so you have to enter passwords again. The iOS Remote App that made it so much easier to enter alphanumerics and used the touch screen as a remote - doesn't work with the new Apple TV. The iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad screen is the perfect remote for a new Apple TV, while the physical remote could have been just a stand-in for those folks who didn't have an iOS device in the house. Whether Steve thought the killer feature for moving Apple TV from a "hobby" to a product was Siri control, cross-channel search, or physical gestures, none of these is done as well from the new remote. To abandon the iOS Remote app is a tragic lack of vision - the one thing we had come to count on from Apple.

Steve used to do that for us. He was our user experience advocate, and used his influence and deep commitment to ease-of-use to force the organization into aligning itself to the user experience. Tim doesn’t seem to be as driven by it. Jony could - if he starts spending more time using the products than on how they look and how they are packaged.

Because in the end, that’s what makes a product so beloved. That someone cared as much about saving my time and frustration as much as Steve did, and overcame structure, titles, and organizational entropy to demand it. As someone who had the privilege to create a few small products that people told me they loved to use, I know that is the great gift Steve Jobs gave to us all.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

iOS vs OS X - Doesn't Apple "Get It" Anymore?

I've often been puzzled and mystified by the adulation poured out on behalf of Steve Jobs. I mean, I admired Steve Jobs long before it was fashionable, as a product designer he had excellent taste, combined with the unusual skills for a product designer of being able to command the respect and resources to deliver that uncompromised vision to the market.

While current Apple executives tell us that Steve didn't want Apple to be run by the question, "What would Steve Do?" the cadre of us Steve-as-superlative-product-designer people think that sometimes they should.

Because Apple isn't designing good stuff for me anymore. That wasn't a problem when Steve was designing or at least vetting the products before they got to market. Apple was not run by focus groups, its products were what Steve loved to use, and those of us who shared his taste were satisfied, and it was good.

Don't get me wrong, I think Steve Jobs' narcissism led to great products, because they had to pass that critical filter. If Steve didn't love to use it, we wouldn't either.  And there are more things coming from Apple that I don't think Steve would have loved, and I certainly don't. Apple Music for one. iCloud for another.  Apple seems to struggle on all their cloud-based services, and I think it's because they lose focus on who it's for. It's for me.  My music has to be front and center in Apple Music, not U2 or Beats One. I'm supposed to be able to share my family's music. My iCloud photos are supposed to show up on my and my friends devices.

But these are quibbles. There is a much bigger piece missing from Apple's puzzle, one that without Steve, will not be obvious to the executive suite until we help show them.

It's time to bring together OS X and iOS, cause it's a mess.

Apple struggles with reduced iPad sales and scratches their heads as to why. Seems real simple to us. My iPhone is a fantastic device to handle phone calls, messages, email and apps.  But for the real work, I put my Macbook Pro on my lap and get to it.  The reason is simple:

No one creates serious content on an iOS device. Can't be done. We may knock off the quick email reply, or tweet a few bon mots, but it was designed to be a reader device. For Steve. And for a few million other folks.

The MacBook retains its role as the beautiful, speedy machine I work at. When we are in pro mode, it's Microsoft office, with multiple open Word files, and cutting and pasting with Excel. Or immersed in Adobe Creative Suite, sketching content, rendering animations, collecting an article. The Mac crept in to corporations under the arms of creative professionals, and we use Macs to do our work.

That's why the iPad Pro and Pencil are so misplaced.  While Jony Ives has done the regular masterful job on the weight, aesthetics and chamfers, and Eddy has packed the iPad Pro with sweet processing power and the Taptic Engine that smoothly fools me into thinking I cam being stroked by a cashmere cat on my iWatch, there is a fundamental problem with the iPad Pro that Apple has probably considered and rejected.  It's just the kind of big leap idea that made Steve so many friends and enemies, when the inevitable has to be faced, as he did moving the company from OS 9 to OS X, and from PowerPC to Intel.

It's this: The innovations that Apple is bringing to iOS are exceeding that of OS X, and the user experience is diverging.  This is very dangerous ground for a company that taught millions of people that they should care about user experience, and in fact it might be the most important thing to care about in technical products.

Consider this: Many creative pros use a stylus, and pressure sensitive tablets from Wacom are standard fare. But coordinating your hand on a table and your eye on the screen is tedious and unintuitive. But holding your hand in the air to draw on a vertical screen is tedious. So useful tablets are actually now displays, with a pressure-sensitive stylus (ala Cintiq). Doesn't this sound a lot like an iPad? Of course it does, and apps like Astropad serve to fill that gap that Apple has left.  But the iPad is lower resolution that a large screen iMac or MacBook Pro, and variable pressure is coarse compared to the pro tablets.

Until the iPad Pro.

Now there is sufficient CPU, memory, and screen resolution that the gap between the iPad Pro and MacBook Pro is closing. We want to use the power of that A9 processor, and the resolution of the new screen and Pencil, but want to use it on the full Adobe suite, not the "light" version for iPad.

The resolution to this problem is really simple and clear, just the kind of solution Steve loved. It's this: The iPad Pro should run OS X, iOS should be a sandbox on OS X (like dashboard), and Apple needs to merge the Cocoa and Cocoa Touch user experiences. The results? Adobe could run the full Creative Suite and users could design with Pencil. The decision developers have to make about whether they support an OS X app or an iOS app start to converge.

Will there be transition pain? Possibly, but far less than moving millions of users from OS 9 to OS X, or entire applications from PowerPC to Intel.

iOS in an OS X sandbox. Bring together Cocoa and Cocoa Touch. Obvious. It's what the army of creative professionals who create on Mac are awaiting. It's what Steve would have done. And that was good enough for me.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Bye Jurgen

Many people know Jurgen Gothe from his 23-year stint on CBC Radio 2's DiskDrive.  I worked with him before that, when he was a relatively unknown programer and voice on CHQM-FM in the late 1970s.

℅ Vancouver Radio Museum -

CHQM was at the time the premiere Easy Listening station in Vancouver, and FM radio was still finding its feet with diverse and eclectic stations and listeners. Jurgen programmed the 9pm-midnight FM Opera segment on QM-FM every Sunday. Hope I'm not letting the cat out of the bag to say that Jurgen was not actually in studio from 9pm to midnight every Sunday - that was me. A UBC student paid $4/hour in a quiet radio studio with a set of albums and a tape. The tape had Jurgen's mellifluous voice, describing the opera selected for that evening, and several voice segments to be played while I flipped the record over the other side (remember those - two sided records!). It was a great shift for a student, especially for someone inexperienced with Opera - After managing some technical stuff for a few minutes, I then had 20 minutes of unbroken listening through fantastic studio speakers, while I did some math homework.  Heard some good operas too.

CHQM was a great employer for me during my years at UBC. The operations director Terry Higgs, arranged one summer for everyone to take their holidays in sequence, with me filling in while they were away, giving me a chance to do lots of radio station jobs, from erasing and dubbing tapes, to recording and editing commercials, especially on their new Neve-equipped studio.

CBC long-timer David Grierson was also a CHQM grad before he moved to Vancouver Island. David handed the reins of his show Vancouver Live to me and to John Dritmanis where we carried on the tradition of recording new musicians performing and bringing them to a wider audience. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Spock Down

Long of digit and of nose,
A face for the dark villain

Redemption in transition
Karellen ears and upturned brow
Half an alien from planet and from cyril
On the struggling path to unity

A hand person
ancient blessing now a greeting
disabling with a pinch
caressing with the back of two fingers

outside looking in
deep sight unhindered
by coloured feelings

live long and prosper
for you are and shall always be our friend.

one to beam up