Jargon watch: lights out production lines

If you are of a certain age, ‘hand made by robots’ brings to mind the Fiat Strada / Ritmo a thirtysomething year old hatchback design that was built in a factory with a high degree of automation for the time.

Fiat subsidiary Comau created Robogate, a highly automated system that speeds up body assembly. Robogate was eventually replaced in 2000. The reality is that ‘hand made by robots’ had a liberal amount of creative licence. Also it didn’t enable Fiat to shake off its rust bucket image. Beneath the skin, the car was essentially a Fiat 127. Car factories still aren’t fully automated.

Foxconn is looking to automate its own production lines and create products that truly are ‘hand-built by robots’. Like Fiat it has its own robots firm which is manufacturing 10,000 robots per year.

Foxconn has so far focused on production lines for larger product final assembly (like televisions) and workflow on automated machine lines: many consumer products use CNC (computer numeric control) machines. That’s how Apple iPhone and Macs chassis’ are made. These totally automated lines are called ‘lights out production lines’ by Foxconn.

Foxconn is looking to automate production because China is undergoing a labour shortfall as the population getting older. Foxconn uses a lot of manual workers for final assembly of devices Apple’s iPhone because the components are tightly packed together. It will be a while before Foxconn manages to automate this as robotic motor control isn’t fine enough to achieve this yet.

More information
Foxconn boosting automated production in China | DigiTimes – (paywall)

Just one more thing: Apple’s unpleasant surprise of a MacBook Pro

My initial reaction to Apple’s MacBook Pro wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. Now that I’ve tried one very briefly, I was even more unimpressed than I was at the launch.

Thin

I didn’t feel that much of a weight different between my current machine and the new model MacBook Pro. Who gives a flying fuck about the laptop being even thinner than the current MacBook Pro? You have to wonder if Apple really believes customers are gagging for a thin incompatible clamshell of mediocrity? I’d be more interested in power density of the battery – more charge and better performance from the laptop. Some connectors that I actually use would be great as well.

Display

If you already have a retina display laptop this is exactly the same.  The touchpad display is interesting, but it seems to take no account of finger span in the way the controls work on a couple of the default apps that I tried from the perspective of a touch typer.  I suspect that the 11″ MacBook Air was killed because Apple is desperately hoping sales will go to the iPad Pro.

Tactile experience

Apple made a big deal of the keyboard, but the truth of it is that it was wasted. The real effort was not about user experience and more about making things thinner. It isn’t the improvement on the previous MacBook Pro keyboard experience despite the clever engineering involved.

Real world performance

I’m a bit spoiled from a tech point of view. I am working on an early 2015 model MacBook Pro (Retina) 3.1GHz Intel Core i7 with 16GB of RAM and 1TB of solid state storage. I have an attached SuperDrive by USB and two Apple Thunderbolt displays.  The graphics performance is adequate with an Intel Iris Graphics 6100.
about this mac
Having had a quick play with the new MacBook Pro there didn’t seem to be a real world performance difference. You probably would need a machine that is five years old or more to get a speed bump.

China is making a product that Apple should have done

Trawling eBay gives access to a cottage industry of predominantly China-based suppliers. They take iPod Classics and remanufacture them. They get new cases and new batteries.

Real trick is in the new component put in the device. Out goes the Toshiba micro-hard drive of 120GB or 160GB and in goes a 256GB SSD. Apple had abandoned production of the iPod Classic because it couldn’t get the right parts any more. Technology had moved on and flash memory had replaced micro hard drive’s as storage technology of choice for portable consumer devices.
iPod ClassicSwapping out the hard drive for an SSD provides an iPod with a number of advantages:

  • Its a third lighter than Apple’s version of the iPod Classic. This changes dynamics in usage. It no longer has the same heft, you feel less conscious of it in a pocket or jacket
  • The battery lasts longer. I now get about 30 hours of listening from the iPod. By comparison I get 18 hours out of my smartphone. If I used the smartphone as a music player as well, that battery time would drop further. If I used a streaming service, that would sound worse, hammer the battery life and mobile phone bill even further
  • It holds more music. At 256GB up from 160GB in the last model of iPod Classic it makes the difference between being able to hold all of my music library with me or not. You don’t have Spotify when you have 15,000+ tracks to choose from
  • The same great iPod experience. iTunes still syncs with the device. It has a good quality DAC (digital-to-analogue convertor) chip. With the right headphones and a sufficiently high sample rate it is indistinguishable from CDs. Under normal circumstances it sounds better your typical smartphone – which is trying to do lots of job well
  • It is quieter than the original iPod Classic. There is no longer the noise of a hard drive spinning up and reading the music data from the disk
  • Vigorous movement is not a problem. Apple had done a good job with the original iPod Classic songs were cached in RAM to iron out temporary stoppages due to movement affecting the hard disk. An SSD had no moving parts so it isn’t an issue any more

What becomes apparent is that Apple wouldn’t have had to make that much effort to make the product itself, but for no known reason it didn’t want to.

I suspect that part of this is down to:

  • The law of big numbers. The iPod Classic revamped in this way would be a decent business for most companies, but just isn’t as big as Apple is used to
  • A modified iPod probably too simple a design solution. Apple likes to take a big step forward (even when it doesn’t) – there are no plaudits or design awards in an iPod Classic with a solid state drive

The reimagined iPod is a development in sharp contrast to Apple’s new product developments:

  • Loved products bought by key Apple advocates have not been updated or ignored: the Mac Pro and the Apple Display (which Apple has abandoned)
  • Moving out of entry level products. With the MacBook Pro and MacBook line-ups, the entry device is now a secondhand laptop rather than the 11″ MacBook Air or the non-Retina MacBook Pro
  • Big bets that aren’t resonating with the marketplace: the Apple Watch has been a best selling smart watch; but is in a category which lacks a compelling reason to purchase. The iPad is a passive content consumption device for most consumers. It has a replacement cycle that would be more familiar to television manufacturers than a computer company

 

Thoughts on the new Apple MacBook Pro

Having slept a few naps contemplating Apple’s new MacBook Pro. I have been a Mac user since it was the mark of eccentricity. I am writing this post on a 13″ MacBook Pro and have a house of other Macs and peripherals.

Theatre
Apple launched a new range of Apple MacBook Pro’s on October 27, 2016. This was a day after Microsoft’s reinvigoration of its Surface franchise.  Apple ignores timing and tries to plough its own furrow. But comparisons by journalists and market analysts are inevitable.

Microsoft has done a very good job at presenting a device that owes its build quality to the schooling that Apple has given to the Shenzhen eco-system over the past two decades.

The focus on touch computing feels like a step on a roadmap to Minority Report style computing interfaces.  Microsoft has finally mastered the showmanship of Apple at its best.

Apple’s presentation trod a well-worn formula. Tim Cook acts as the ringmaster and provides a business update. Angela Ahrendts sits at a prominent place in the audience and appears on a few cut-in shots. Craig Federighi presented the first product setting a light self-depreciating humour with in-jokes that pull the Apple watchers through the fourth wall and draws them inside ‘Apple’. Eddy Cue plays a similar role for more content related products. In that respect they are interchangeable like pieces of Lego.

Phil Schiller came in to do the heavy lifting on the product. While the design had some points of interest including TouchID and the touchpad the ports on the machine are a major issue.

Given the Pro nature of the computer, Apple couldn’t completely hide behind ‘design’ like it has done with the MacBook. So Phil Schiller was given the job of doing the heavy lifting on the product introduction.

There was the usual Jonny Ive voiceover video on how the product was made with identikit superlatives from previous launches. It could almost be done by a bot with the voice of Jonny Ive, rather than disturbing his creative process.

It all felt like it was dialled in, there wasn’t the sense of occasion that Apple has managed in the past.

User experience
Many people have pointed out that Microsoft’s products looked more innovative and seemed to be actively courting the creatives that have been the core of Apple’s support. In reality much of it was smoke and mirrors. Yes Apple has lost some of the video market because its machines just aren’t powerful, in comparison to other workstations out there.

The touch interface is more of a red herring. Ever since the HP-150 – touch hasn’t played that well with desktop computers because content creators don’t like to take their hands too far from the keyboard when work. It ruins the flow if you can touch type; or have muscle memory for your PhotoShop shortcuts.

Apple didn’t invent the Surface Dial because it already had an equivalent made by Griffin Technology – the PowerMate. In fact the PowerMate had originally been available for Windows Vista and Linux as well, but for some reason the device software didn’t work well with Windows 7 & 8.

I can see why Apple has gravitated towards the touchpad instead. But it needed to do a better job telling the story.

Heat
Regardless of the wrong headedness of Microsoft’s announcements, the company has managed to get much of the heat that Apple used to bring to announcements. By comparison Apple ploughed exactly the same furrow as it has done for the past few years – the products themselves where interchangeable.

The design provided little enthusiasm amongst the creatives that I know, beyond agitation at the pointless port changes and inconvenience that conveyed.

While these people aren’t going to move to Microsoft, the Surface announcements provided them with a compare and contrast experience which agitated the situation further.  To quote one friend

Apple doesn’t know who it is. It doesn’t know its customers and it no longer understands professionals.

Design
Apple’s design of the MacBook Pro shows a good deal of myopia. Yes, Apple saved weight in the laptops; but that doesn’t mean that the consumer saves weight. The move to USB C only has had a huge impact. A raft of new dongles, SD card readers and adaptors required. If like me you present to external parties, you will have a Thunderbolt to VGA dongle.

With the new laptop, you will need a new VGA dongle, and a new HDMI dongle. I have £2,000 of Thunderbolt displays that will need some way of connecting to Apple’s new USB C port. I replace my displays less often than my laptop. We have even earlier displays in the office.

Every so often I transfer files on to a disk for clients with locked down IT systems. Their IT department don’t like file transfer services like WeTransfer or FTP. They don’t like shared drives from Google or Box. I will need a USB C to USB adaptor to make this happen. Even the encrypted USB thumb drive on my ‘real life’ key chain will require an adaptor!

I will be swimming in a sea of extra cables and parts that will weigh more than the 1/2 pound that Apple managed to save. Thank you for nothing, Apple.  Where interfaces have changed before there was a strong industry argument. Apple hit the curve at the right time for standards such as USB and dispensing with optical drives.

The move to USB C seems to be more about having a long thing slot instead of a slightly taller one. Getting rid of the MagSafe power connector has actually made the laptop less safe. MagSafe is a connector that is still superior to anything else on the market.  Apple has moved from an obsession with ‘form and function’ to ‘form over function’.

The problem is one of Apple’s own making: it has obsessed about size zero design since Steve Jobs used to have a Motorola RAZR.

Price versus Value
So despite coming with a half pound less mass and a lot of inconvenience, the devices come in at $200 more expensive than their predecessors. It will be harder for Apple customers to upgrade to this device unless their current machine is at least five years old. I don’t think that this laptop will provide the injection in shipments that Apple believes it will.

A quick word on displays
Apple’s move away from external displays was an interesting one. There can’t be that much engineering difference between building the iMac and the Apple Display? Yet Apple seems to have abandoned the market. It gives some professionals a natural break point to review whether they should stay with Apple. Apple displays aren’t only a product line but a visible ambassador of Apple’s brand where you can see the sea of displays in agencies and know that they are an Apple shop. It is the classic ‘Carol Bartz’ school of technology product management.

More information
Initial thoughts on Windows 8 | renaissance chambara
Size Zero Design | renaissance chambara
Why I am sunsetting Yahoo! | renaissance chambara
Apple just told the world it has no idea who the Mac is for – Charged Tech – Medium
Apple (AAPL) removed MagSafe, its safest, smartest invention ever, from the new MacBook Pros — Quartz
How Apple’s New MacBook Pros Compare To Microsoft’s New Surface Studio | Fast Company | Business + Innovation – a subtly cutting article on the new MacBook Pro
New MacBook Pro touches at why computers still matter for Apple | CNet
Apple’s new MacBook Pro kills off most of the ports you probably need | TechCrunch

Throwback gadget: Danger Hiptop

Years ago I read an article which talked about the collective memory of London’s financial district being about eight years or so. Financiers with beautifully crafted models in Excel would be doomed to make the same mistake as their predecessors.
Hiptop
Marketers make the same mistakes, not being able to draw on the lines of universal human behaviour when it meets technology. Today’s obsession with the ‘dark social’ of OTT messaging platforms is very reminiscent of the culture that grew up around the Danger Hiptop. The  Hiptop drove a use of instant messaging platforms (Yahoo!, Aol and MSN) in a similar way to today’s use of Kik, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp by young people.

Heritage

Danger was started back in 1999, by veterans from Apple, Philips and WebTV.

Back then mobile data was very primitive, email was slow and the only people I knew who used mobile phones on a regular basis were press photographers, sending images back from early digital SLRs using a laptop connected up to their phone. At this time it was still sometimes easier to bike images over. 3G wireless was on the horizon, but there wasn’t a clear use case.

Apple was not the force it is now, but recovering from a near death experience. The iMac, blue and white G3 tower units and ‘Wall Street’ laptops reignited belief in core customers. Mac OSX Server 1.0 was released in March that year and pointed to the potential that future Macs would have.

WebTV at the time was a company that felt like it was at the apex of things. Before the internet took off, companies like Oracle and BT had tried providing interactive TV services including CD ROM type experiences and e-commerce in a walled garden environment. This was based on having a thin client connected to a TV as monitor. WebTV took that idea and built upon the internet of the mid-1990s. It wasn’t appreciated how commoditised the PC market would become over time. They were acquired by Microsoft in 1997,  later that year they would also buy Hotmail.

At the time, Philips was a force to be reckoned with in consumer electronics and product design. The company had a diverse portfolio of products and a reputation for unrewarded innovation including the compact cassette, interactive CD media and audio compact discs. Philips was the company that the Japanese wanted to beat and Samsung still made third-rate televisions.

Some of them were veterans of a failed start-up called General Magic that had spun out of Apple. A technology super-team of engineers and developers came up with a wireless communicator device that failed in the market place.  It’s name became a byword for a failed start-up years later.  Talent was no predictor of success. General Magic was the silicon valley equivalent of Manchester United getting relegated and going bankrupt in a single season. So it is understandable that they may have been leery of making yet another wireless device.

The device

The Hiptop was unapologetically a data first device. It was a thick device with a sliding screen which revealed a full keyboard and four-way directional button to move the cursor. On later devices this became a trackball. The screen was a then giant 240 x 160 pixels in size. It became available in colour during the device’s second iteration, later devices had a screen that was 854 pixels wide.

I was large enough provide a half decent browsing experience, read and write messages and email. It was held in landscape arrangement and the chunky frame worked well in a two handed hold not that different from a games console controller, with thumb based typing which worked better than the BlackBerry keyboard for me.  Early devices allowed you to move around the screen with four-way rocker switch. Later devices had a trackball. This keyboard rather than touchscreen orientation made sense for two reasons:

  • Touchscreen were much less responsive than they are now
  • It enabled quick fire communication in comparison to today’s virtual smartphone keyboard

Once the device went colour it also started to have LEDs that lit up for ringing and notifications, providing the kind of visual cues enjoyed by Palm and BlackBerry owners.

The Hiptop had a small (even by Symbian standards) amount of apps, but these were held in an app store. At the time, Symbian had signed apps as a precaution against malware, but you would usually download the apps from the maker’s website or the likes of download.com or TUCOWS and then side load on to the device from a Mac or PC.

The Hiptop didn’t need the mediation of a computer, in this respect it mirrored the smartphones of today.

Product life

When Danger was launched in 2002, carriers had much more sway over consumers. The user experience of devices was largely governed by carriers who usually made a mess of it. They decided what the default applications on a device and even the colour scheme of the default appearance theme.

Danger’s slow rise to popularity was because it had a limited amount of channels per market. In the UK it was only available via T-Mobile (now EE).

In the US, the Hiptop became a cult item primarily because IM had grown in the US in a similar way to SMS usage in Europe.

Many carriers viewed Hiptop as a competitor to BlackBerry and refused to carry it in case it would cannibalise sales.

Danger was acquired in 2008 and that is pretty much when the death of the Hiptop set in as Microsoft acquired the team to build something different. An incident with the Danger data centres losing consumers data and taking two months to restore full service from a month-old back-up didn’t help things. It was a forewarning of how dependent on cloud services that users would become.

Danger held much user data and functionality in the cloud, at the time it made sense as it kept the hardware cheaper. Danger devices came with a maximum of 2GB internal memory.

Even if Microsoft hadn’t acquired Danger it would have been challenged by the rise of both Android and iOS. Social platforms like Facebook would have offered both an opportunity and a challenge to existing messenger relationships. Finally the commoditisation of hardware would have made it harder for the Hiptop to differentiate on value for its millennial target market.

 

 

 

The confusing Labour brand

Ok lets ignore for a moment the divisive nature of the current leadership battle. Or a membership that is fractured between a self-destructive underclass, a squeezed public sector and a despised metropolitan elite.
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The thing that struck me about the hustings were not the words but the visual design. This wasn’t the socialist red that we saw from Kinnock onwards, but a dirty pink.
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There was a union jack at the back that would have made more sense at a Conservative party conference. The politics of Labour are confused, but not half as confused as current visual presentation.

The QRcode post

A few years ago, I was involved in a project that used QRcodes on OOH (out of home) activity for a retail launch. QRcode scanners varied in performance. In addition you had to think about:

  • Contrast – did the QRcode stand out?
  • Relative aspect – would it be too big or too small for the audience to scan?

In the UK, QRcodes are seen by marketers as old hat (but then they didn’t ‘get’ them in the same way that Asia did). Other people don’t really understand how to use them.
QRcode 101
Above is the picture of the local cafe around the corner from my office. The QRcode is too disjointed and blurred to read. I asked a member of staff about it and he told me that he thought it was some type of logo…

Benetton’s new positioning

For me Benetton was a brand of the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a family run business that pioneered the use of technology to automate clothing manufacturing in the face of globalisation. It has a famous series of adverts that provided progressive social commentary through shock tactics.
Benetton new positioning
It’s new positioning is a marked move away from this heritage. It’s ‘Clothes for Humans’ tag line moves the brand towards the everyday – almost norm core in its message. It positions the brands as clothes for everyone – more Uniqlo or Gap than designer wear.

Throwback gadget: SnapperMail

At the end of 2001, I started to prepare of leaving my job at Edelman. This meant upgrading my home IT set up. I picked up an iBook. The iBook was Apple’s consumer-orientated laptop made from 1999 to 2006. Mine was a second generation ‘Snow’ laptop with a G3 processor, dual USB sockets and a combo drive which allowed me to watch DVDs and burn  CDs.

I used the move to go on the first version of OSX. The move also meant that I got a new email account, my default account to date. It had two key attributes:

No adverts, so it looked professional in comparison to having a Yahoo! or Hotmail email address and it wasn’t tied to an ISP.

IMAP support which allowed me to use my email account across different devices that all sync across the devices. POP3 downloads the  emails from the server to the device

My iBook was my only source of email access whilst I left Edelman and then eventually joined Pirate Communications. My first smartphone was a Nokia 6600, which I used alongside a Palm  PDA – l got this sometime around the end of 2003. The 6600 supported IMAP out of the gate, it was slow, but I was connected.

The 6600 was eclipsed by Palm’s Treo devices which were a better device. I moved from the 6600 and a Palm Tungsten T3 combo to a Treo 600 smartphone in January 2005.

The process wasn’t smooth. The Treo was sufficiently fragile that I got a translucent silicon jacket that worked surprisingly well with the keyboard and screen protector to look after the touchscreen. Software wise the Treo 600 was a step back from the Tungsten T3 PDA. The screen was smaller and the software felt sluggish in comparison. I had deliberately chosen the 600 over the 650 because I had previously worked agency side on the Palm account and been a long-suffering device owner so knew how crap they were at bug fixes.
snapperfish limited
Unfortunately Palm had not been as progressive in comparison to Nokia with its default email client. The software didn’t support IMAP. Fortunately I used to follow Mitch Kapor’s blog and he had recommended an app from a small New Zealand company SnapperFish.

SnapperMail was a compact modern email client. It has a number of features that we would expect now:

  • It supported IMAP
  • It supported SSL client to mail box encryption*
  • it was really easy to use
  • You could work with attachments including zipped files**
  • There was no restriction on the file size of attachments, the only restriction was your email account rather than your email client

This looks like the kind of technology you would have thought Palm should have done. At the this time Palm were competing against Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003, BlackBerry 6200 series, 7100 series and early 8700 series. Yet the default email client was back in the 1990s.

*The full-fat application cost US$39.99

**SnapperMail came bundled with HandZipper Lite which handled the compressed files and JPEGWatch Lite image viewer

I used this alongside MetrO – a public transit directions app and QuickOffice Pro – to read Office documents as part of my modern smartphone experience. It wasn’t just me that loved SnapperMail, it was praised by Walt Mossberg back when he wrote at the Wall Street Journal.

SnapperMail won two Palm Source (Palm’s software licence business) Powered Up awards in 2003. It was recognised as Best Productivity and Best of the Best Solution.

More information
SnapperMail Has Solid Software For Savvy Mobile E-Mail Users | WSJ
QuickOffice
MetrO – open source mass transit application
PalmSource Welcomes Developers with Awards, New Tools; Announces New Licensees | PalmSource press room

This is what renaissance chambara has looked like through its various incarnations

Whilst looking at something else I decided to do an animated GIF showing what my blog had looked like in various incarnations over the years. Disappointingly flickr doesn’t host animated GIFs so had to use another service instead.
renaissance chambara since 2004

make animated gifs like this at MakeaGif

The website moved from Blogspot to WordPress on Yahoo! Small Business Hosting – which was a disaster (despite the fact that I got staff discount) and then on to WordPress on Media Temple.

Andreessen Horowitz on network effects and services

Andreessen Horowitz are a venture capital company based in Silicon Valley. They’ve put together this presentation which does a good job at providing a taxonomy on different products. It comes in handy when thinking about platform utility from a media planning point of view and also evaluating start-up ideas.

If it isn’t clear where they fall within these networks, it’s a warning flag.

My 10 most popular (trafficked) blog posts of 2015

These are the ten most trafficked posts that I wrote in 2015, in reverse order:

Throwback gadget: Nokia N900 – I tried Nokia’s first Maemo-based phone. It was amazing how useless it was as one forgets how linked the modern smartphone is to web services. Despite these problems one could see the now lost potential of the phone.

Generational user experience effects – a meditation on user experience from the analogue era to the present

2015: just where is it all going? – I had a think about where digital and technology would go over the next 12 months or so. You can see how I did here.

Reflecting on Yahoo!’s Q2 2015 progress report on product prioritisation – by June this year, the product rationalisation that Yahoo! underwent provided ample opportunity to show that it’s core offering was collapsing in many international markets. Rather than it being a market wide condition, the data pointed to Yahoo! specific issues.

Traackr – beyond the buzzword event – a post about how a diverse range of organisations from Coca-Cola to a luxury jeweller were thinking about influencer marketing.

Throwback gadget: Made 2 Fade (by KAM) GM-25 Mk II phono pre-amp and mixer – a review of a mixer that has been lost in dance music culture history, yet was responsible for much of its popularity outside the super clubs.

That Jeremy Clarkson post (or lies, damn lies and sentiment analysis) – or why everyone from the mainstream media to PR Week got the story so wrong about Jeremy Clarkson’s departure from Top Gear.

An experiment on fake Twitter followers – I spent some of my hard-earned cash to see what difference if any buying fake followers had. I chose Twitter as a channel mainly because it would be easier to measure any impact, otherwise it could have just as easily been Facebook followers, Pinterest subscribers or Instagram followers. My overall conclusion on the fake follower business is that it almost purely about personal vanity rather than gaming a system.

O2O (online to offline) or what we can learn from the Chinese – East Asia is way ahead of marketers in the west in terms of multi-channel marketing particularly the integration of of online with offline aspects.

48 hours with the Apple Watch – hands down the most popular post of this year on my blog was my short experience living with the Apple Watch. I felt that it was a nicely designed, but un-Apple experience. It also convinced me that the use case for wearables wasn’t here yet.

Generational user experience effects

This post fell out of a conversation I had about mobile applications in particular SnapChat. My experience of consumer electronics has crossed over from unwired and analogue devices through to the present day, which provides me with a wide perspective on how things have changed.

My parents grew up in an environment where the three most complex devices they would have been exposed to as a child were a watch or clock, a sewing machine owned by the local seamstress and the piano or organ in the parish church.

Form follows function
I was just old enough to remember electricity coming to the family farm. The 1960s vintage Bush TR82C radio still ran off a battery until the mid-1980s.  This provided the agricultural mart price changes and weather forecast, as well as the musical entertainment on a Saturday night.

My Dad saw electronics enter industry, where previously electro-mechanical systems and pneumatic circuits had driven simple processes that would now be governed by a microprocessor.

They were fine with new appliances and even the new 1970s Trinitron TV with touch controls; hi-fis and kitchen appliances usually had neatly labelled buttons that may have had logic controls rather than the physical ‘clunk’ behind them.
Sony Walkman DD

Modal interface design The problems started to come with digital watches and VCRs (video cassette recorders).  The user experience in these devices were different than anything that had gone before. VCRs and digital watches were like the computers of their day modal in nature. You had to understand what mode a device was in before you could know what pushing a given button would do.  In my case this wasn’t an intuitive experience, but I got there by reading the manual. If you own a G-Shock or similar Casio watch, you still experience this modal experience, this is the reason why a G-shock comes with a user manual the size of two packs of gum. g-shock modal nature
My Dad had the head to deal with these technologies but didn’t have the time to go through the manuals. In the late 1980s / early 1990s Gemstar launched a simple way of programming the video with the correct time and channel with a PIN number for each programme that was between six and eight digits long. It was known by different names in different regions; in Europe it was called VideoPlus. And it was easy enough for anyone who could use a touchpad phone to grasp. Panasonic launched a rival system based on scanning barcodes that wasn’t successful, though programming sheet still goes for £10 or so on eBay.

VideoPlus allowed me to skip duties as household VCR programmer. But I didn’t get away from modal interfaces. Menu driven interfaces where all the rage with friends digital synthesisers. None more than the Yamaha DX-series, which not only had a complex way of creating sounds and a byzantine menu system of accessing them. Knobs and dials in interfaces were expensive, menus driven by software were virtually free once the software was written – and the microprocessors to drive them continued to drop in cost. This was one of the main reasons why albums from that time often credited someone with being a ‘MIDI programmer’. From a manufacturing point of view robotic pick-and-place machines that automated the manufacture of consumer electronics (until the rise of the hand built Chinese electronics from Foxconn) were an added driver for having ‘dial-less’ circuit boards.

During the day, I worked with a range of computers at work and my first email account was on a DEC VAX as part of the All-In-1 productivity suite; think of it as a Google services type application on a private cloud with a ‘command line’ like interface that operated on the same modal principles as the VCR or digital watch.

All-In-1 had a simple email client, word processor, a ‘filing cabinet’ – think of it as Google Drive and the front end of business applications – we used VAX for stock management and to order supplies.

Given the spartan interface, it seemed appropriate that I learned how to touch type on an application for the VAX – mainly because after you had read the newspaper cover-to-cover there wasn’t much to do on a night shift.

We had a few other computers in the labs for running test equipment, usually some sort of DOS, a couple of Unix-variant boxes (HP, SGI and a solitary Sun Microsystems machine), an Amiga (because they had handy features for video) and  Macs.

WIMP
I naturally gravitated towards the Mac. Once you got the hang of the relationship between the movements of the mouse and the cursor on screen, the interface of Windows Icon Mouse Pointer (WIMP) was remarkably similar to the form follows function design of analogue consumer electronics. Interface design aped real-world button designs, folders and filing cabinets, even waste paper baskets. Even the spreadsheet mirrored a blackboard grid used at Harvard University to teach business students.

Once one you had got used to the WIMP environment it was remarkably simple. More complex devices required menus but for many applications, once you knew some basic rules you were up and running. Part of this was down to Apple laying down interface standards so cmd Q meant quit an application, cmd C meant copy, cmd X meant cut and cmd V meant paste in any programme.

This was something that Microsoft took as a design lesson for themselves when making Windows, however it was interesting that they started to break these rules in applications like Outlook.

Things became more complex with applications like Adobe PhotoShop which became so feature rich, it meant that there was more than one right way to achieve a particular task, so instruction manuals tend to be of limited value.

The leap from WIMP to hyper-media was a small one, the act of clicking on a link was relatively easy. What one didn’t realise at the time was the new world this opened up. We went from interlinked documents to surreal worlds created in Macromedia Flash and similar authoring tools on CD-ROMs and eventually the web. An immersive experience was promised that was never fully delivered mainly because we expected William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy to be our manifest destiny.

Icons under glass
MessagePad :: Retrocomputing on the green

In the early 1990s Newton had pioneered a simple version of the icons-under-glass metaphor that consumers would really take to heart with the iPhone and later Android devices. The Newton was too ambitious for the technology available at the time. The Palm series of devices pointed out the potential of icons-under-glass as a metaphor. The Palm V can be scene as a conceptual model for the modern smartphone. Please wait...

With a metallic case, slim lithium ion battery that was not removable and a bonded construction were all eerily reminiscent of the industrial design for the iPhone models rolled out some eight years later.

The launch of the iPhone marked a sea change in consumer adoption if not technology. Apple built on the prior generations of touch screen devices and improvements in technology to update the experience. They made one choice that made the iPhone stand out from its competitors, dominant player Nokia made devices that were designed to be used one handed – phones with a computer inside. Apple flipped it around so that it was selling a computer that happened to do phone things as well. When you went into a shop, it had a bigger screen and a more polished interface so was great for sales demonstrations.

Eventually the technology started to appear everywhere. The coffee machine at work has an iOS like interface complete with skeuomorphic icons for buttons.
Icons under glass

Social interfaces
In some ways, mobile interface design aped existing analogue devices. But things started to change within applications. Designers started to build applications that focused on a particular use case, which made sense given the software feature bloat that had happened on desktop applications and even web experiences like Facebook. Most social app designers haven’t managed to squeeze as much functionality out of their real estate as WeChat/Weixin. You then started to see the phenomena of app constellations where non-game single purpose apps deep linked to other applications.

Designers started to take a minimal approach, to cut down ono the screen real estate taken up by controls.

Instead controls only appeared in what might be broadly termed a contextual manner. The only difference that applications which have contextual menus tend to ‘telegraph’ the options and offer a help section in the app.

I am not sure when it started but Snapchat is a prime example of this phenomena of the ‘social interface’. Their interface features are not explained by a design or manual but are more like cheat codes in a game, shared socially.  It feels like a fad, minimalism taken to an extreme, a design language that will move on yet again.

More information
VCR Programming: Making Life Easier Using Bar Codes | LA Times
Quick History of ALL-IN-1 | The Museum of Email & Digital Communications
Jargon watch: app constellation

#LVSeries3 Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition, 180 Strand, London

Having been involved in a number of events over the past couple of years where creative digital work intersected with experiential marketing I was keen to look at Louis Vuitton’s Series 3 exhibition before it closed.

Burberry tends to get the plaudits for digital experiences in the luxury sector and they do a lot of interesting work. Louis Vuitton’s initiatives like an online service that allows ladies to personalise their bag a la Nike ID.

I found it interesting that Louis Vuitton’s approach seems to have been guided by exclusivity not being the same as accessibility. There was a wealth of helpful staff, you were positively encouraged to take your own pictures – again unusual for a luxury brand, many prefer to give you content that upholds their standards.

A few touches that I really liked

#LVSeries3 Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition, 180 Strand, LondonLV logo motion graphics at the start of the exhibition, no real surprise right? What the designers did was remove the polarisers from the LCD screens so that the screens are apparently blank. The polariser is laid out in vertical strips at different distances and widths from the screen. This gives a kind of lenticular effect when you walk past it. This modern logo morphs through matrix-like digital noise and on to the more traditional LV design.
#LVSeries3 Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition, 180 Strand, London
It seems absurdly simple, but the idea of using projecting mapping techniques on a flat LED screen to emphasise how Louis Vuitton products are cut from a common material before being assembled was clever. Just because you have projection mapping technology at your finger tips means that one often looks for complex shapes like building fronts rather than a flat panel.
#LVSeries3 Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition, 180 Strand, London
Getting the balance right between protecting the product so that it doesn’t look grubby from being over-handled, whilst still making it accessible and tactile rather than a museum experience.