Better tech writing

Brian Lam does technology writing differently at The Wirecutter. Instead of writing about every single dodad and gizmo, he writes “a list of great technology,” aiming to only tell readers what the best thing in a category is. Of course he wrote about the new iPhone:

These things are always the same. But better in small but meaningful ways. That’s all I remember from today’s news, really.

It’s also pretty much the same thing Apple says on their website and on the website of every other publication that writes about this stuff. It’s also pretty much what I wrote for the 4s and the 4 and the 3gs and the 3g, too. I feel despair when I am forced to write words that provide no service or additional value, but there’s a balancing act between saying what I think is useful and saying what people want to hear, so here we are.

Should you get one? If you want, sure.

His post is short, to the point, and not breathless, all of which is, sadly, refreshing in the world on online-gadget writing.

Microsoft could make the new Apple ads

Ken Segall on Apple’s new Mac ads that have been panned by Apple loyalists:

The idea of creating a “character” from an Apple employee is… well…. damn, I can’t even say this without feeling awful… it feels like something Best Buy would do. Maybe even Dell.

I think this is the problem. When I first saw them, I thought they could easily be Microsoft ads.

Even if the ads appeal to “people who’ve never bought a Mac but are thinking about buying their first,” which John Gruber says should be the test, there are ways to appeal to that segment and to current users that don’t stoop to the normally low comedic standards of the advertising industry.

I’m not a Mac owner, though if I bought a new computer today, it would most likely be a Mac. For what it’s worth, I think the ads are dumb, but they wouldn’t make a difference to me one way or the other. I asked my wife, also not a Mac owner and less likely than I to be one, what she thought when “Mayday” came on during a break in the Olympics last night. Her response: “I thought it was dumb that a guy felt he could make up for forgetting an anniversary making a video that didn’t take any work.”

A Twitter tit for Facebook tat is a win for Apple

Yesterday, Twitter cut Instagram’s API access that had allowed Instagram users to easily connect to the people they followed on Twitter on the photography network. Dan Frommer suggests it was payback for Instagram’s soon-to-be owner Facebook for blocking Twitter’s ability to let its users look up their Facebook friend on Twitter.

Users’ social graphs are valuable to social networks. Allowing users to find their friends on other services benefits the users, but it also benefits social networks by making them somewhat of a canonical list of your Internet friends. But when one network grows large enough to challenge another network, the interest changes to preventing users from moving easily to the new service.

Now here’s where I make a wild speculation there might not be evidence for: do these moves actually cede power to Apple? Maybe Apple, which has shown its social-network ineptitude, doesn’t care. But Apple’s iOS 6 (and, I believe, a future OS X Mountain Lion update) integrates Facebook, Twitter and contacts, making it, perhaps the way millions of iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and Mac users move between and integrate the two services.

Corporations paying more than customers

Marco Arment on the acquisition of a couple software companies, and his own ability to keep Instapaper independent:

If you want to keep the software and services around that you enjoy, do what you can to make their businesses successful enough that it’s more attractive to keep running them than to be hired by a big tech company.

The companies he mentions both sold paid Mac and iOS apps (Pulp, Wallet and Sparrow). The problem users face in this space strikes me as similar to the another point Arment made about advertisers outbidding users for their own attention.

I don’t know what Sparrow’s expected, but they knew they were competing with free when they built a paid Gmail client. Users bought the software. Development was still killed. How can users compete with that?

Update:
Rian van der Merwe writes a similar thing, more eloquently than I:

But… that’s what I did. I paid full price for every version of the Sparrow app I could find. I told everyone who would listen to buy it. I couldn’t have given them more money even if I wanted to. So, as a customer, what more could I have done to keep them running independently?

This is the core of the disappointment that many of us feel with the Sparrow acquisition. It’s not about the $15 or less we spent on the apps. It’s not about the team’s well-deserved payout. It’s about the loss of faith in a philosophy that we thought was a sustainable way to ensure a healthy future for independent software development, where most innovation happens.

Signing up to be sold out

Following my Facebook sex lube incident, I’ve become the posterboy for, first, a giant tub of lube, then the future of advertising, then for Facebook’s attempts to make money with its data and then for people who sued Facebook and sorta-but-not-really won $10 million in a settlement.

I wrote in my post “Of course Facebook is happily selling me out to advertisers. That’s its business. That’s what you sign up for when make an account.”

Some people disagreed. Here’s one:

I’d totally disagree, you don’t sign up for that. Surely the lawsuit proves this, users do NOT sign up to sell adverts.

First, it’s pretty clear that Facebook’s terms of service say that you sign up for exactly that.

10. About Advertisements and Other Commercial Content Served or Enhanced by Facebook

Our goal is to deliver ads and commercial content that are valuable to our users and advertisers. In order to help us do that, you agree to the following:
1. You can use your privacy settings to limit how your name and profile picture may be associated with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. You give us permission to use your name and profile picture in connection with that content, subject to the limits you place.
2. We do not give your content or information to advertisers without your consent.
3. You understand that we may not always identify paid services and communications as such.

That’s part of the problem. Facebook’s lawyers write the terms, and users only have the choice to not use the service if they don’t agree to them.

Second, the lawsuit, and its settlement don’t prove that you don’t sign up for that, either. In fact, the lawsuit proves nothing except that Facebook is willing to settle lawsuits.

It was an settlement in which, I’m sure, Facebook admits no wrongdoing. Companies settle for a multitude of reasons, including to avoid admitting wrong doing, to avoid a bad image from public trials, and to avoid setting legal precedents. It’s possible that a trial would have found that Facebook’s sponsored stories violate some right or law, but by settling, Facebook has avoided letting that become established; it’s still, I believe, an open question.

This isn’t to say that I don’t agree with the writer’s conclusion. Facebook is a “hungry information monster that wants nothing more than to take all your details, package them up and sell them on.” Users need to be aware of that and act accordingly. I don’t think users have to just grin and bear it. I wrote, long before the sex lube incident, that Facebook isn’t free.

Update: Today, The New York Times reported in a story by Somini Sengupta, the reporter who put me on A1:

Facebook has agreed to make it clear to users that when they click to like a product on Facebook, their names and photos can be used to plug the product. They will also be given a chance to decline the opportunity to be unpaid endorsers.

So, Facebook still has the right to use your content as ads, it’s just required to tell be slightly more upfront about it.

iPad lifespans

When Apple announced the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 6, it also raised an interesting question: what’s the expected useful life of an iPad?

I ask this because iOS 6 will not work on the first-generation iPad, which debuted a little more than two years ago and was the only iPad customers could buy as recently as March 2011, just 15 months ago. While consumers have gotten used to getting new phones every couple of years, even high-end phones only run a few hundred bucks once we sign a new phone contract.

Laptops, which iPads often seem to be replacing, don’t benefit from carrier subsidy, and users who upgrade every couple of years seem extravagant. But a five-year-old PC seems, to me, a little long in the tooth.

Doesn’t it seems reasonable for an iPad’s useful life to be somewhere in the middle? At $500 for the low-end iPad, it costs more than a subsidized phone, and is cheaper, in most reasonable cases, than a laptop.

I could reasonably, I think,  expect a new iPad to be kept up-to-date for three years. By cutting the original iPad out of iOS 6, Apple seems to have decided that less than a year and a half is enough.

I don’t know Apple’s reasons, and I don’t know what the technical limitations of iOS 6 are. It could be that the original iPad can’t handle the new software. I do know that, until last week, I was plodding along on an OG iPad, and, despite my complaints about the time the device took to swtich apps, and the lagginess when a notification would come in while I was playing a graphically intense game, it was a perfectly functional computer. It handled e-mail, writing and Internet browsing just fine. My 6-year-old, now the owner of a gently used first-generation iPad, chides me for ever complaining about it’s lack of snappiness.

To put it another way: my first-gerneration iPad was still an adequate post-PC device.

Maybe most people won’t care if their iPad is on iOS version 5.1.1 or 6.0. But Apple did just get done mocking Android for seeing so many users stuck on old versions of Google’s OS. It did a some chestbeating about how quickly OS X Lion was adopted. What would the reaction be if Apple or Microsoft didn’t offer an upgrade path to a two-year-old PC? I don’t know, but I don’t expect it would be positive.

The tablet market will, I have no doubt, be larger than the PC market ever was. That’s why Apple cutting off relatively new hardware from software upgrades makes me a little uncomfortable.

The ‘anyone else should be worried if Apple has any success whatsoever’ school of thought

John Gruber complained today that as soon as someone has success doing things differently than Apple, we get pundits saying Apple needs to start doing things differently or else.

But we get the inverse, too: Someone does something different than Apple, has little success with it, and pundits start arguing they need to change course and do what is Apple doing.

Memento, starring Siri

Marco Arment’s response to Boris at ReadWriteWeb’s question “Is it time to say goodbye to Siri?” prompts me to add more to my chronicle of chronic Siri struggle.

First, Siri’s response when I tried to use my wife’s phone to call my own. Yes, I tapped the phone number Siri offered and labeled “mobile” and she gave me a map of Mobile, Alabama. Obviously a bug of some sort, but how is that anything but seriously broken and embarrassing? Isn’t this exactly the sort of task Siri was built for?

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Then another short-term memory failure. In moments like this, Siri bears a striking similarity to Leonard from Memento.

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These aren’t reliability issues and these aren’t managing expectations issues. These are basic issues that a marquee feature of a marquee product of a marquee company.