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More Apple Car Thoughts: Software Culture

Apple, software By November 1, 2015 Tags: 23 Comments
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Fueled by a significant number of hires from other car makers and real estate expansion beyond the upcoming hypergalactic spaceship HQ in Cupertino, rumors of an Apple Car keep percolating. I hope to drive an Apple Car someday… but does Apple’s personal computing software knowhow translate into the high-reliability real-time code required for a safe, reliable and, of course, elegant electric car?

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A Salute To Solo Programmers

software By August 24, 2015 42 Comments
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Parkinson’s Law tells us that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Applied to software, this means that applications tend to bloatware, obese programs whose complexity makes them nearly impossible to debug and maintain. Today, we look at happier counterexamples, past and current, of ambitious products created by “hermit programmers”.

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Microsoft Makes Clever Moves

mobile internet, software By February 1, 2015 Tags: , , , 19 Comments

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

While Microsoft Office for mobile is a satisfying success, the company can’t seem to create — or even buy — a mobile operating system that can compete with iOS and Android. Perhaps they’ve been looking in the wrong direction and can return to their “trusted” Embrace and Extend tactics.

Microsoft published its numbers for its Fiscal Year 2015 2nd quarter ending in December 2014. While the company isn’t the money machine it once was, it is healthy: Revenue grew 8% to $26.5B, Operating Income declined only a bit (- 2%) at $7.8B, there will be another $.31 dividend for the quarter, and cash reserves stand at $90B.

Such numbers give Satya Nadella the space he needs to implement the Mobile First – Cloud First vision he outlined last year. A key component of this plan is to spread Office applications across all platforms and devices: PCs, tablets, and smartphones – native apps as well as Web versions. Last week, Microsoft took another step in this direction with the release of its historic Outlook PIM (Personal Information Manager) app for Android and iOS.

While the Outlook release was warmly received, I’ve learned to take enthusiastic press reviews with caution. I prefer to “play customer”: I buy and use the product in klutzy ways engineers can’t foresee and, as a result, I get a better idea of how the product will fare in the real world. So, I installed Outlook on my iPad mini and, not to pour salt on some wounds… It Just Works. It runs my Exchange account at work, and it speaks Gmail and iCloud as well. No ifs, no buts.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the release is that it completes the core components of the native MS Office bundle: Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and now Outlook. It doesn’t matter which platform you use — Windows, Mac, Android, or iOS — you now have the full complement of Microsoft’s productivity apps built specifically for your device.

I used to think that if Apple could get its software house in order and work out the  (numerous) bugs, iWork could easily displace Microsoft Office on Mac, iCloud, and iOS. After all, iWork is free… Now, I’m not so sure. With this release, MS Office provides a fit and finish, a safe and effective cross-platform solution that’s worth the price of admission, particularly in the Enterprise world.

But Apple isn’t the competitor Microsoft worries about. Cross-platform Office is a powerful countermove against Google Apps. Microsoft doesn’t have a dog in the old Web vs. Native Apps fight, it offers both everywhere.

In other matters, however, things aren’t entirely rosy for Microsoft. Its smartphone hardware business isn’t doing well. A look at the recent 10-Q and at the slide presentation for the Earnings Release shows hardware revenue of $2.3B, for 10.5M Lumia phones and 39.7M on-Lumia devices:

Phone Hardware

Microsoft’s smartphone business is still dealing with the Nokia acquisition trauma, so these numbers are less reliable than in a stable business. But even if we proceed with caution, when we divide the $2.3B revenue number by 50.2M (the total number of devices), we get a meager ASP (Average System Price) of $46.

One could argue that the computation is misleading because it throws Non-Lumia phones — such as the Nokia X running Android — into the same pot as worthier Lumia devices. So let’s take take another stab at the numbers: Let’s imagine that all non-Lumia phones are simply given away, $0 ASP. That leaves us with 10.5M Lumia phones divided into $2.3B revenue for a yield of $219 ASP. Compare this to the $687 ASP Apple got for its iPhones last quarter. Playing with numbers a bit more, if you assume a $20 ASP for non-Lumia “dumbphones”, the ASP for Lumia smart devices comes to $143.

As discussed here last December, even with “forever” cash reserves, why bother? Big enterprises such as Bank of America and Chase that have discontinued Windows Phone support agree.

After fruitlessly jumping into a Broad Strategic Partnership with Nokia and then promptly Osborning it, Microsoft acquired the company’s smartphone business rather than letting it die. It’s still not working and, as the most recent industry numbers show, there’s little hope that Microsoft’s phone hardware business, while saddled with the hapless Windows Phone OS, will be anything other than a waste of time, money, and reputation. Many have suggested that Microsoft drop its OS efforts and fork Android, returning, in Ben Thompson’s words, to “its roots of embracing and extending”.

That brings us to Cyanogen. In the grand tradition of Homebrew Computing that gave birth to Microsoft, Apple and countless others, developers have taken the Open Android operating system and opened it even more, creating a raft of improved versions.

Initially, many thought these variants were just for the hacker who wanted to play with his Android device, reflash its ROM, and grow hair on his chest. But one Android strain, CyanogenMod, exhibited such vitality hat it spawned an organized, for-profit company. In 2012, Benchmark and Redpoint led a $7M Series A investment in Cyanogen, Inc. (“Series A” is typically the first serious VC money, after a Seed Round.) In December, 2014, there was a more substantial $23M Series B round, led by another member of the Valley’s VC nobility, Andreessen Horowitz. And now, there is talk of a $70M round…  in which Microsoft might be a “minority” player.

Kirk McMaster, Cyanogen’s CEO, has been unusually candid about the company’s goal [emphasis mine]:

“I’m the CEO of Cyanogen. We’re attempting to take Android away from Google.”

and…

We’ve barely scratched the surface in regards to what mobile can be. Today, Cyanogen has some dependence on Google. Tomorrow, it will not. We will not be based on some derivative of Google in three to five years. There will be services that are doing the same old bulls— with Android, and then there will be something different. That is where we’re going here.”

Ambitious words, indeed, but they’re backed by some of the Valley’s smartest money.

Microsoft’s role in Cyanogen is probably just a minor one; perhaps it will help with the patent portfolio it unleashes on Android OEMs. But the company’s involvement at all could be seen as part of its long battle with Google. Recall that “Google acquired Android in 2005 as a defense against Windows Mobile dominating smartphones just as Windows dominated PCs.” Later, in 2008, Microsoft acquired Android founder Andy Rubin’s previous company Danger, whose Sidekick design inspired Google’s pre-iPhone G1 devices.

Cyanogen has long been in Google’s cross-hairs. In its early days, CyanogenMod (since renamed to Cyanogen OS) was perceived as such a nuisance — or a threat — that its users suddenly found that they needed to perform contorted workarounds to load Google’s proprietary apps (Google Map, YouTube, GTalk, and so on). Can Microsoft resist the temptation to aid this Google irritant?

Tantalizing as the Cyanogen investment is, it might not be enough to keep Microsoft in the brutal smartphone hardware business, but it’s consistent with the company’s efforts to undermine Google’s ecosystem by any means necessary. Including gathering allies to do to Android what Bill Gates once did to Lotus 1-2-3.

Let’s keep in mind that the mobile industry is no more mature than the PC industry was in the mid eighties. Things could get interesting as Cyanogen reveals more of the business model its muscular investors have bought into. And they will become particularly interesting if the company can corral support from industry players who are eager to get out from under Google’s thumb.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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Apple Software Quality Questions

software By January 18, 2015 68 Comments

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

A flurry of recent software accidents in iOS and OS X raises questions about Apple’s management of its relentless increase in R&D spending.

For the past six months or so, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the quality of Apple software. From the painful gestation of OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) with its damaged iWork apps, to the chaotic iOS 8 launch, iCloud glitches, and the trouble with Continuity, I’ve gotten a bad feeling about Apple’s software quality management. “It Just Works”, the company’s pleasant-sounding motto, became an easy target, giving rise to jibes of “it just needs more work”.

I felt this was an appropriate Monday Note topic but kept procrastinating. Then the Holidays break came, including time on a boat with worse than no Internet – meaning frustratingly unpredictable and slow when on.

Coming back to the Valley, I read Marco Arment’s January 4th, 2015 post titled Apple has lost the functional high ground:

“We don’t need major OS releases every year. We don’t need each OS release to have a huge list of new features. We need our computers, phones, and tablets to work well first so we can enjoy new features released at a healthy, gradual, sustainable pace.

I fear that Apple’s leadership doesn’t realize quite how badly and deeply their software flaws have damaged their reputation, because if they realized it, they’d make serious changes that don’t appear to be happening. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening: the pace of rapid updates on multiple product lines seems to be expanding and accelerating.”

(Unfortunately, this well-meaning, reasoned critique from a respected Apple developer became fodder for the usual click-baiters, leading Arment to regret that he wrote it. This is sad.)

Arment isn’t the only one lamenting Apple’s software quality. See Glenn Fleishman’s well-documented list of nontrivial issues, or Michael Tsai’s compilation of comments from developers and engineers, such as this one from Geoff Wozniak (no relation to Woz):

“At this point, my default position on Apple software in OS X has moved from ‘probably good’ to ‘probably not OK’. They seem more interested in pumping out quantity by way of more upgrades. It’s death by a thousand cuts, but it’s death nonetheless.”

I’m late to this discussion but I’d like to add a few detailed observations of my own, examples of questionable design decisions, poor implementation, and other “broken windows”. Boredom may ensue.

We’ll start with Apple’s Pages word processor. When it was introduced ten years ago, I found it mostly pleasant, easy for my limited use, progressively improved over a succession of releases, with welcome features such as Google Search, Wikipedia, and Dictionary/Thesaurus integration.

Curiously, however, Pages did some things differently. Hyperlink creation, for example, was inconsistent with Apple Mail, TextEdit, and Microsoft Word conventions. With these “older” products, you select some text, press cmd-K, paste the URL of the desired destination, and you’re good to go:

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In the new Pages, no cmd-K joy. You have to bring up the Inspector, paste the link in the URL field, and press Enter.

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It’s not overly complicated, but why abandon the simple ⌘-K convention used elsewhere on the Mac?

With each Pages update I hoped for a return to the ancient ways, and when Pages 5 came out in late 2013, I thought my prayers had been answered. I select some text, type ⌘-K, and up pops the link editor:

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I paste the target URL into the Link field, press Enter, and I’m done, right? I’ve just created a link to a MacWorld story.

But, no. If I go back to the link I just entered, I see this:

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The MacWorld URL I entered is gone, replaced by the “helpful” default, www.apple.com. I also try clicking on Go to Page; indeed, it takes me to www.apple.com.

This can’t be right…I click Edit and go through the process again, the intended link sticks this time. Out of fear of having stumbled on an unreproducible phantom quirk, I carefully step through the procedure several times from different angles.

If I tiptoe to the File menu and click Save after I’ve pasted the URL but without pressing Enter, the intended link stays; it’s not replaced by www.apple.com:

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However, this only works if I Tab into the Link field and paste my URL. If I double-click on the pre-filled www.apple.com, paste the URL, and Save from the File menu, the link is gone. (Again, I carefully reproduced the procedure.)

This is madness.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Befuddled users found they couldn’t send Pages 5 files through Gmail. It’s now fixed, as the What’s New in Pages screen proudly claims…

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…but how could such an obvious, non-esoteric bug escape Apple’s attention in the first place?

Then we have “deprecated” features. Gone are the convenient Writing Tools:

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Search with Google is still there, but it’s harder to find; a Look-Up function bundles the Dictionary and Wikipedia but, believe it or not, there’s no Thesaurus. I also liked the Search function in Pages 4.3:

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It’s gone in Pages 5. Admittedly, this might not be a big deal for most users, but it allowed me to have kremlinology fun with executive abuse of words such as “incredible” and other platitudinous phrases.

We know the official excuse for removing features: iOS compatibility. It’s a noble goal on paper, and it sounds good on stage and in Keynote slides, but iWork on iOS is far from a godsend. Creating even a moderately complex document on an iPad is an unpleasant, frustrating experience.

Even if we concede that iOS compatibility may mean some amount of “dumbing down” (and we’ll note that the MacWorld review was careful to call Pages 5 a different product rather than a mere update), why didn’t Apple catch more of the obvious bugs? I’d like to have a quiet on-on-one with the Pages product manager to hear his/her explanations for the state of the product.

I can’t leave Pages without a stop at the iCloud version. (Apple, probably taking a page from Google’s old playbook, labels all three iWork products “beta”.) I tried writing a Monday Note article in iCloud. Impossible, no links. If I turn to the version of Microsoft Word on their One Drive service…It Just Works:

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Imagine Microsoft running an ad campaign: I’m One Drive, You’re iCloud…

To be complete, Microsoft’s Office Online isn’t without its own quirks. It loves me so much it refuses to sign me out:

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We now turn to iTunes. Pages might not concern a majority of Mac users, but iTunes sure does, and it presents an even sorrier spectacle than Apple’s productivity apps.

A good product allows its users to build a mental model of what it does and how it does it. Paraphrasing Alan Kay, the user forms a what/how idea at the product’s door, then walks in and finds an Ali Baba cave full of pleasant surprises. How this applies to iTunes is left to the reader. iTunes is a mess, an accumulation of debris and additions without a discernible backbone. I won’t go as far as the Valley wag who calls iTunes Apple’s Vista, but iTunes reflects poorly on a company that takes prides in the fit and finish of its products.

For example, this is what I see when I open iTunes on my Mac:

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If you squint, you’ll see the same Bach Orchestral Suites repeated six times, and Mozart’s Requiem four times. Entries in the Playlist are duplicated for no apparent reason. And let’s not even try to make and manage folders to group playlists by artist or other criteria. Nor can I make sense of the presentation of TV Show episodes. On my Apple TV, iTunes sometimes shows episodes in natural order, but then reverses them for no reason.

No need to continue the litany, the One Cockroach Theory tells us there are many more under the sink. Such as, I can’t resist, iMessages inconsistencies between devices.

Of course, making bugs lists is easier than finding solutions, particularly if we want to avoid “all you have to do” bromides. So, we’ll proceed with caution and look at some numbers.

In 2012, Apple revenue grew by 45% to $156.5B and R&D went up by 39% to $3.4B.
In 2013, revenue grew 9% to $171B but R&D went up 32% to $4.5B.
In 2014, revenue went up 7% to $183B while R&D grew 35% to $6B.

Such relentless increase in R&D spending isn’t “free”, it means hiring lots of people and starting many projects, or, worse, piling more people onto existing ones. This results in management problems, less visibility over a larger number of teams and, vertically, more opaque layers, less ability to diagnose people problems.

Another consideration is priorities. The received wisdom is that Apple engineers hail from Lake Wobegon: They’re “all above average”. But in a fight for resources, where do you put your best soldiers, on iOS or OS X? On Pages or Mail?

Apple execs aren’t indifferent to the company’s software quality problems, and they’re not unaware of the management pitfalls in fixing them. Take Apple Mail: For several years (close to five by my memory of conversations with Bertrand Serlet, then Apple’s head of OS development), Apple Mail had been a painful, many times a day irritant. It consumed so much computing power that the Activity Monitor on my MacBook Pro sometimes showed a CPU usage number as high as 257%, with fans spinning loudly, and general mail operations getting mysteriously stuck. Messages would disappear from a mailbox and yet be found by Spotlight, the Mac’s internal Search engine.

A recent OS X update seems have fixed these problems. A better manager was put in charge, people decisions were finally made, and Apple Mail is now (almost) boringly normal, receiving, sending, deleting, and sorting junk without fuss.

Let’s just hope that the all-important iTunes development team gets the “cure” it deserves, and iWorks after that.

Last, there is the mixed bag of comparisons. One side of the coin is Apple’s numbers are splendid. The quarterly results that will be disclosed next week (January 27th) are likely to show strong iPhone 6 sales and a continuation of Mac progress. And despite my bug list, Apple software still compares favorably to Windows 8 and Android offerings.

The other view is that the quality lapses we observe are the beginning of a slide into satisfied mediocrity, into organizations and projects that “run themselves”, that are allowed to continue for political reasons without regard for the joy of customers.

I know what I hope for. I don’t expect perfection, I’ve lived inside several sausage factories and remember the smell. If Apple were to spend a year concentrating on solid fixes rather than releasing software that’s pushed out to fit a hardware schedule, that would show an ascent rather than a slide.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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App Store Curation: An Open Letter To Tim Cook

software By August 10, 2014 Tags: , 90 Comments

 

With one million titles and no human guides, the Apple App Store has become incomprehensible for mere mortals. A simple solution exists: curation by humans instead of algorithms.

Dear Tim,

You know the numbers better than anyone — I don’t need to quote them to you — but we all know that the iOS App Store is a veritable gold mine. Unfortunately, the App Store isn’t being mined in the best interests of Apple’s customers and developers, nor, in the end, in the interests of the company itself.

The App Store may be a gold mine, but it’s buried in an impenetrable jungle.

Instead of continuing with this complaint, I’ll offer a suggestion: Let humans curate the App Store.

Instead of using algorithms to sort and promote the apps that you permit on your shelves, why not assign a small group of adepts to create and shepherd an App Store Guide, with sections such as Productivity, Photography, Education, and so on. Within each section, this team of respected but unnamed (and so “ungiftable”) critics will review the best-in-class apps. Moreover, they’ll offer seasoned opinions on must-have features, UI aesthetics, and tips and tricks. A weekly newsletter will identify notable new titles, respond to counter-opinions, perhaps present a developer profile, footnote the occasional errata and mea culpa…

The result will be a more intelligible App Store that makes iOS users happier.

If I’m so convinced, why don’t I drive it myself? You might recall that I offered to do so — for free — in a brief lobby conversation at the All Things D conference a couple of years ago. The ever-hovering Katie Cotton gave me the evil eye and that was the end of the exchange.

I look back on my years at Apple with a certain affection, and would be happy to repay the company for what it did for me, so, yes, I would do it for free… but I can’t bankroll a half dozen tech writers, nor can I underwrite the infrastructure costs. And it won’t pay for itself: As an independent publication (or, more likely, an app) an App Store Guide isn’t financially viable. We know it’s next to impossible to entice people to pay for information and, as the Monday Note proves, I have no appetite for becoming a nano-pennies-per-pageview netwalker.

So, the App Store Guide must be an Apple publication, a part of its ecosystem.

Best,

JLG

PS:  We both understand that ideas are just ideas, they’re not actual products. As Apple has shown time and again — and most vividly with the 30-year old tablet idea vs. the actual iPad — it’s the product that counts. If you see the wisdom of a human-curated Apple App Guide, and I hope you do, I will not seek credit.

——————————-

Regular Monday Note readers will remember I already tilted at the App Store curation windmill: Why Apple Should Follow Michelin and  the tongue-in-cheek Google’s Red Guide to the Android App Store. Who knows, the third time might be the charm.

To play devil’s advocate, let’s consider a developer’s bad reaction to an Apple App Guide review. Let’s say MyNewApp gets a thumbs down in the Productivity section of the Guide. I’m furious; I write Tim or Eddy Cue an angry letter, I huffs and puff, threaten to take my business elsewhere — to Windows Phone, for example. I exhort my friends, family, and satisfied customers to contribute to a letter-writing campaign…

Why risk this sort of backlash? Particularly when today’s formula of “featuring” apps seems to be working:

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But…does it really work all that well? Today’s way of choosing this app over that one already upsets the non-chosen. Further, the stars used to “measure” user feedback are known to be less than reliable. A thoughtful, detailed, well-reasoned review would serve customers and developers alike.

This leads us to the Guide’s most important contribution to the app universe: Trust. An Apple-sponsored App Guide can be trusted for a simple reason: The company’s one and only motive is to advance its users’ interests by making the App Store more trustworthy, more navigable. As for developers, they can rely on a fair and balanced (seriously) treatment of their work. The best ones will be happier and the “almost best” others will see an opportunity to get their improved work noticed in a future review cycle.

There is also the temptation to shrug the suggestion off with the customary ‘Don’t fix it, it’s not broken.’  Sorry, no, it is broken. See what Marco Arment, a successful Apple developer, says on his blog [emphasis mine]:

“Apple’s App Store design is a big part of the problem. The dominance and prominence of “top lists” stratifies the top 0.02% so far above everyone else that the entire ecosystem is encouraged to design for a theoretical top-list placement that, by definition, won’t happen to 99.98% of them. Top lists reward apps that get people to download them, regardless of quality or long-term use, so that’s what most developers optimize for. Profits at the top are so massive that the promise alone attracts vast floods of spam, sleaziness, clones, and ripoffs.”

and…

Quality, sustainability, and updates are almost irrelevant to App Store success and usually aren’t rewarded as much as we think they should be, and that’s mostly the fault of Apple’s lazy reliance on top lists instead of more editorial selections and better search.

The best thing Apple could do to increase the quality of apps is remove every top list from the App Store.”

We can now turn to my own biases.

Why do I care? Good question, I’m now 70 and could just sit in zazen and enjoy the show. And there’s a lot of show to enjoy: The tech industry is more exciting now than when I was a rookie at HP France in 1968. But in today’s app stores, the excitement fades — and I’m not just talking about Apple, Android’s Google Play is every bit as frustrating. I see poorly exploited gold mines where quantity obscures quality and the lack of human curation ruins the Joy of Apps. There are caves full of riches but, most of of the time, I can’t find a path to the mother lode.

Is it a lack of courage in anticipation of imagined protests? Hunger sated by too much success too soon? An addiction to solving all problems by algorithm instead of by human judgment?

I hope its none of these, and that we’ll soon see a newsletter/blog and a reasoned, regularly enriched guide that leads us to the better App Store titles.

—JLG

 

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