A fistful of dollars/for a few barrels more
Everyone wants a strong dollar, right? In the U.S., politicians will pay lip service to the notion of a strong dollar – i.e., in their minds, a dollar that trades more evenly against the other major world currencies (sterling, euro, yen) – because A) it sounds good; B) it feels good for American travelers who travel to Europe and Japan and realize that their greenbacks go pretty far.
When I visited Italy in 2008, I remember that the USD-EUR exchange rate was unfavorable to me (I’m American) and accordingly I felt the pinch of 50 EUR cab rides and 14 EUR gelato cones in Florence. At the same time, I remember fuel being expensive that entire year, with it peaking at near $150 per barrel that summer when Russia invaded Georgia.
That all feels like a 1000 years ago now. The dollar has strengthened mightily against the euro and oil trading for less than one-third of what it did the summer before Barack Obama was first elected. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia, whom George W. Bush begged that same year to increase oil production as energy costs skyrocketed in the run-up to the Lehman collapse, is dead. Bush himself is reduced to speaking at events in the Cayman Islands, an unmentionable even among his own party. Russia, though still ruled with vim by Vladimir Putin, is in economic and diplomatic free-fall.
But the strong dollar isn’t everyone’s friend. For starters, it is burden on corporations that sell goods around the world. Tech analyst Ben Thompson recently framed the problem in stunning terms, in ridiculing the widespread perception that Apple is always on the verge of catastrophe:
“It’s difficult to overstate just how absurd this is, but here’s my best attempt: last quarter Apple’s revenue was downright decimated by the strengthening U.S. dollar; currency fluctuations reduced Apple’s revenue by 5% — a cool $3.73 billion dollars. That, though, is more than Google made in profit last quarter ($2.83 billion). Apple lost more money to currency fluctuations than Google makes in a quarter. And yet it’s Google that is feared, and Apple that is feared for.”
I have been trying to wrap my head around this all day. All those seemingly minor variations in currency trading, piled up over and entire quarter at the scale of Apple’s business, ended up taking a cut out of Apple larger than Google’s entire quarterly profit – and Apple still managed the best quarter of all time, with $18 billion in profit.
Apple’s turnaround over the past 18 years is probably the greatest business story of all time. if you look at a chart of all the biggest quarterly results in history, it’s dominated by oil companies (Gazprom, Royal Dutch Shell, etc.) and Apple and no one else. It’s a neat coincidence that Apple keeps outdoing itself at a time when oil – seemingly its only competitor in terms of product profitability – is taking a nosedive.
Growing up in the 1990s, this is all so surreal. For a kid growing up in rural America, at the peak of Windows (I had just turned 9 when Windows 95 was released) era, when every class at school was built largely around writing things in MS Works/Word and saving it to a floppy, Apple was nowhere to be seen. I remember reading about Macs when playing some Sierra On-Line games that were built for both PC and Mac, but I never even used one until 1999, in a school in Gallipolis, Ohio. Apple was on the margins.
Not anymore. To quote almost any stat about Apple anymore is to send the mind fruitlessly in search of anything else like it. The company’s iPhone business alone – just the iPhone, without even taking the iPad, Mac, iPod and iTunes into account – brought in more revenue than Google and Microsoft combined in the most recent quarter. Each quarter, it makes more profit than Amazon has ever made. It has enough cash to buy IBM outright at IBM’s current market cap – and still have tens of billions left over.
Paradoxically, the vast complexities of Apple’s supply chains as well as the efficiency of its manufacturing and marketing processes have ensured that simplicity wins out. The iPhone and its brethren feel natural and easy to use (despite mounting software issues, which is a topic for another conversation), reinforcing what I have always thought: that one significant part of the success of iOS in particular is that it eliminates the paradox of choice that is so paralyzing with Android or almost any other computing platform. It’s a good design, like John Gruber recently noted:
“Who knows how long Apple’s ride at the top will last, but this is a moment worth savoring. A toast to the value of good design.”
Just started reading a Stephen King novel from 2006, “Cell.” Right before 9/11, I went through a phase in which I read most of his 1970s and 1980s work, before my reading time was taken up by more academic novels for English classes. I eventually got back into him in late 2011, ten years later, following the release of his novel “11.22.1963” about the Kennedy assassination.
During my sophomore year in high school, everyone in our English class had to do a study about a literary author. I don’t remember whom I choose, but one of my best friends at the time picked King, a choice that our teacher initially balked at but acquiesced to after admitting that he had produced a “significant enough” body of work. I was jealous. Plus, I agreed with her final judgment – my experience of King superseded whatever criticism I had read about his work.
“Cell,” even in its first pages, reminds me of why King is an enduring institution. There’s the distinctive, seen-it-all-before narrative voice that comes off as both grizzled and humorous, as well as the sharp cultural observations. “Cell” was released on the eve of the first iPhone and it captured the peak of a different mobile era, when phones were all very different from each other, with fanciful designs, custom ringtones, and dramatically different apps depending on the manufacturer and carrier:
“The peppermint-colored phone played the opening notes of that Crazy Frog tune that Johnny loved – was it called ‘Axel F’? … The two girls had exactly the same haircut above their iPod headphones, but the one with the peppermint-colored cell phone was blond and her friend was brunette; they were Pixie Light and Pixie Dark.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Peppermint-colored? Crazy Frog (“who” topped the charts around this time, with a ringtone)? They became relics almost overnight as the iPhone and its imitators made standard-issue ringtones and a limited selection of design options – black or white; silver/gold/space gray in the iPhone’s case – the norm. Phones, from 2007 on, became part of the tradition that Andy Warhol once identified:
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
The president’s iPhone and your iPhone are essentially the same, give or take storage capacity differences and coloration. There’s an attractive egalitarianism and homogeneity there. What I like about the above passage from “Cell” is how it hints at what’s to come: there’s the “exactly the same” haircuts, conveniently about the “iPod headphones,” which had already done to the MP3 player and headphones markets what iPhone would do to phones. Then there’s “Pixie Light and Pixie Dark” – it’s like “Cloud White” or “Midnight Blue” or “Space Grey” or “Gold” when buying a phone.
Excited about this book already. Expect a few more entries, especially about its premise of mobile phones spreading an apocalyptic disease.
One of creative writing’s decisive advantages over similar arts is its low barrier to entry. The writer needs little more than a way to produce text, whether word processor, blog template, or pen and paper. Great work can be created at minimal expense; the labor is mostly in the head.
This doesn’t mean that the writer should become complacent and be contented with standbys like Word and iWork or even higher-grade tools such as Scrivener. Writing-specific apps, especially distraction-free and corrective ones, have come to the fore over the past decade, and while many of them aren’t so useful (for example, I wasn’t so high on the overbearing Hemingway) there are some that can be hacked for neat effects.
I previously discussed how both Google Keep and Notif Pro – neither one a “writing” app per se – can be used to improve the writing process. Although one may never find herself composing “Ulysses” in Google Keep, it serves as a scrapbook and a way to air mental dirty laundry. Notif Pro is great way to see and manipulate the top idea in your mind, through persistent notifications with lists and photos.
Simple, barebones text editors are powerful creative writing tools. Many were designed for composing source code, but they have features that make them uniquely conducive to offbeat poetry and prose composition. In these examples, I mostly consider TextWrangler, a free text editor for OS X that I first started using in early 2013 to write Python files:
Writing poetry in Word or Google Drive is painful because it feels like a prose tool is being contorted into a poetry one. TextWrangler et al treat text as a collection of discrete lines rather than a blob of contiguous words.
This paradigm is naturally suited to poetry. Plus, the white space that naturally occurs between blocks of code and poem stanzas, and the source code comments that are often written in apps like TextWranger, inspires avant-garde approaches to creative writing.
Through TextWrangler, I got the idea for commented poetry. By that I mean poetry in which a blank line is left above each line so that the poet can make meta-comments on the poetry. It’s easier to show than tell:
I doubt I’m the first person to take this approach, but I know that I would not have thought of it had I stuck to Word or Drive. The notion of text as just lines on a page is utilitarian and literalist, but effective for unlocking new creative angles.
Text is text in text editors. Fonts, sizing, and automatic spacings from copy/paste cease to be bottlenecks. Writers can focus on ideas and execution instead of wrangling with style. Poetry, more so than prose, has little need for elaborate formatting or supplementary material. A text editor like TextWrangler helps because it gets out of the way.
The upgraded version of TextWrangler, BBEdit, has other features such as clippings and scratchpad (no need to create an entirely new file just to temporarily hold text you may not end up needing) that ease poetry and prose composition. Repetitive poetry, even on a super-simple level, can be powerful, while advanced pieces often employ motifs (“The Raven,” anyone?).
One of my favorite workflows in TextWrangler is writing a poem, taking a screenshot of its finished state, and then editing the photo in something straightforward like Pixlr Express. The stark interface of TextWrangler provides an earthy grounding to the eventual visual poem:
A recent thread in /r/AskReddit posed a similar question. The comments were revelatory, with plenty of resigned jokes about the heat death of the universe, antitrust proceedings, and the (unlikely) rise of Bing being the only ways for Mountain View’s best to be bested:
- “The first and most obvious way to cause a decline might be from some sort of anti-monopoly judgement being levied on them causing say for example the search engine portion of google, to be split from the part of google that manages android and chrome.” – /u/icantrecallaccnt
- “The heat death of the universe. Though they’ll probably buy some quirky startup that’s figured out how to reverse entropy and remain in business forever.” – /u/SoresuMakashi
- ‘The Big Bing’ – /u/tenillusions
- “If Chinese mega-sites and portals decide to really take expansion outside of their borders seriously. Baidu, Tencent et al are well on their way.” – /u/Tuxedo_Superman
Granted, there were some thoughtful responses that probed Google’s complacence and ongoing alienation of its important demographics (advertisers, developers – note: not end-users). But I think the issue isn’t so much that Google has gotten fat and happy and turned into Microsoft 2.0 (riding Search, Maps and Gmail the same way Ballmer et al rode Windows XP and Office). Rather, the issue is that Google is desperate.
Odd word choice? Not really – Wired picked up on it recently, too, with the keen observation that the middling Google+ has left Google clinging to ever-declining per-click costs while trying to find something – anything – to help it keep pace with rivals such as Facebook, that, despite having nowhere near Google’s profits, have arguably staked out a better slice of smartphone attention spans. I have often made fun of Facebook for being essentially a channeling of some of the best talents in computer science toward the end of designing hamburger buttons and click-by-accident advertising, but I admit that its new mobile strategy – discrete offerings for messaging, news, etc. – amplifies the threats to Google’s Web-centric business model that have always resided in walled-garden apps.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find much appetite in the mainstream technology media for examining Google’s weaknesses. In contrast, Apple – the world’s most profitable company – is often construed as facing near-constant extinction if it doesn’t, say, release a smart watch in the next two months. The inimitable Horace Dediu succinctly broke down the double standard in his post, “Invulnerable” –
“I suspect the absence of scrutiny comes from Google being seen as an analogy of the Internet itself. We don’t question the survival of the Internet so we don’t question the survival of Google — its backbone, its index, and its pervasive ads which, somehow, keep the lights on. We believe Google is infrastructure. We don’t dwell on whether electric grids are vulnerable, or supplies of fuel, or the weather.”
I would go a step further and say that Google is like a church or a cathedral. That is, it is frequently visited, assumed to be a mainstay of the cultural fabric regardless of external economic conditions and – most importantly – it collects little to no money from any of the end users who interact with it. Sure, parishioners may make a slight donation to the local church, but the real funding comes from other sources; likewise, Joe Surfer doesn’t directly pay Google for anything, with the possible exception of a buck or two for extra Google Drive space or Google Play Music All Access. Hence, the actual business of Google is abstracted from consumers, who end up spending little or no time contemplating how or why it could go belly up – it’s not like they can point to reduced foot traffic or ridiculous clearance sales as harbingers of decline.
The signs are there, though:
-Let’s start with Android. Android was a defensive land grab to stop Microsoft and then Apple from shutting Google out of mobile. It has succeeded in terms of worldwide adoption, but it confers on Google nowhere near the profits that iOS has on Apple. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s symbolic of how Android was never designed from the ground up as a sustainable business but as a vehicle for legacy Google services (there hasn’t been a really great new Google service since Maps in 2005).
As such, Google is always tinkering with Android to make it less like an open source project and more like its own Google service. Peter Bright’s article on forking Android understandably struck a nerve with Google, which is awkwardly trying to maintain Android’s chief competitive advantage (no licensing fees, tons of customization possibilities for OEMs and carriers) while bringing it further under Mountain View’s umbrella.
-One of the best revelations of the ongoing Samsung-Apple legal battle is that Samsung really would like to move on from Android. Samsung isn’t a great leader, but the fact that it would even consider something as nascent as Tizen to take the place of Android on its smartphones lines is telling.
-Google Glass reeks of desperation. Jay Yarow of Business Insider insisted that Google botched Glass’ launch, ensuring that it would never take its apparently rightful place as the successor to the iPad as the next big thing in consumer tech. It’s a computer for the face, with no obvious use case as yet, a crazy price tag, and understandable cultural stigma. Tech media were wrong to puff it up as the Next Big Thing, but consider also the absurdity of this situation: Google is trying to sell a terrible HUD in order to get out ahead of the competition, like Apple did to much better effect with the iPod and then the iPhone.
-It’s not just Glass, either. The Nest acqusition, the Boston Dynamics aquisition, and the obsession with “sci-fi” projects at GoogleX. – Google could be looked at as “shooting for the moon.” Or, it could be viewed instead as desperately trying to find any revenue stream alternative to mobile ads, which just don’t work like desktop ones do and, moreover, are subject to intense competition from social networks and messaging platforms.
-The sci-fi thing merits more attention. Forever ago, I wrote this about Google Glass and its ilk:
“By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?”
Trying to actualize the fantasies of sci-fi is not forward-looking; it is, by definition, backward-looking, with respect to someone’s text or vision about what was possible in the past. If someone created a real Death Star today, it would be impressive – as a testament to madness. Why would someone exert such enormous, concerted effort at recreating a technology conceived for recreational purposes in the 1970s, by individuals who had no idea that smartphones, MP3s, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and on on would be invented?
To analyze sci-fi is often to analyze what it doesn’t conceive of. I watched Gattaca recently, a 1997 movie with a setting in the far future. What was in this high-tech future? Big, hulking desktop PCs and keyboards. Sci-fi is the product of constrained imagination (“the future is hard to predict” – Captain Obvious), but imitating it is even more self-defeating. For this reason, I am immensely pessimistic about the prospects of any of Google’s top-secret projects being a breakthrough that would expand its business or appeal in meaningful ways. Sci-fi is a small porthole on the future.
-Google’s customers are advertisers and other businesses, not individuals. It reaches the latter by its presence on platforms that belong to the former – think its default search engine deals for Firefox and Safari. There’s not any real competition on those fronts for now – Bing is good but has lithe mindshare, and Yahoo is still locked into its deal with Microsoft. But Marissa Mayer is driven to displace Google on iOS, and Apple and Yahoo have a good relationship (Yahoo provides the data for Weather on iOS, for example). As MG Siegler has pointed out, it seems implausible that Apple would go on subsidizing Google, enabling it to make so much money off of iOS, money that it can channel into Android.
-Once one gets into the “Google isn’t invulnerable” mindset, it’s easy to see everything as a weakness, sometimes without good reason. But think about its efforts to bring Chrome OS apps to mobile devices. Such a tack seems defensive – a way to halt the decline of the Web and keep matters squarely in the realm of JS, HTML and CSS. I’ve often argued that Chrome OS is more of a breakthrough than Android (it has the potential to disrupt both the business model of Windows PCs and the essential appeal of tablets), but it looks like it could turn into just a moat for Google’s existing (and, to be fair, highly profitable, at least for now) Web businesses.
-Google+ has become the DNA of Google services. Its profile system is a way of indexing Internet users. It has succeeded in helping Google collect more nuanced data, even if it hasn’t exactly done much to blunt the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and others. But now that Vic Gundotra is leaving, Google+ looks weirdly quaint – like nothing more than Gundotra’s messy senior project for getting hired by another firm. There are already rumors that the Google+ team will be split up and sent to other projects (in the same way that the Google Reader team was once chopped up to work on Google’s initial forays into social).
Look, Google isn’t going to turn into AOL or Yahoo. But it should be increasingly apparent that Google is not synonymous with the Internet at large, and is not guaranteed to constantly occupy so much mind share.
^ That’s a compliment, not an insult. The similarities between Nintendo and Apple seem overwhelming at first blush:
- They both develop tightly integrated hardware/software experiences. Apple’s minimalist, Rams-inspired aesthetic is an unmistakable as Nintendo’s dorky neoclassicism.
- They share conservative attitudes toward specs. The iPhone didn’t have LTE til late 2012, and still has considerably less RAM than its Android rivals; the best-selling Wii was standard-def.
- They’ve both had to compete with Microsoft, with varying levels of success. Apple has basically defeated Microsoft in mobile; Nintendo won a surprising victory over the Xbox 360 in the seventh generation, but the Wii U’s prospects don’t look so good against the upcoming Xbox One.
For these superficial similarities, Nintendo attracts a lot of attention (most of it negative) from Apple-centric bloggers who are eager to suggest remedies for Nintendo’s current struggles (also, many of these individuals are of an age that would have been the prime audience for Nintendo’s gold/silver ages with the NES and SNES, respectively). Perhaps they also see Nintendo’s predicament as similar to Apple’s dismal 1997, when it needed Office and a cash injection from its main rival just to stay afloat.
But there are a number of differences that make the Apple/Nintendo comparison faulty:
- Making one’s own hardware is a given for the dedicated gaming industry’s major players, and it alone does not make Nintendo special or different from its rivals. Starting with Atari, and continuing on to Sega, Nintendo, and Sony, if you made a gaming platform, you made your own own hardware. Even Microsoft – a software company, at least during its heyday – had to delve into hardware as an entry fee to the console business. In this respect, the gaming world is a lot different than the consumer/enterprise software realm, in which software-first or software-mostly companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook can wield great influence without dabbling in hardware (tho that is certainly changing)
- Accordingly, Nintendo is not a hardware company. It’s a software company that makes hardware that makes its software better. Look at the N64 controller: examining its analog stick and trigger button, you just know that Nintendo’s hardware team was future-proofing it for Ocarina of Time and Super Mario World 64. In this respect, Nintendo is the opposite of Apple, which is a hardware company that makes software that enhances its hardware – iOS is much like a virtuosic exercise in preserving battery and maximizing touch technology.
- The suggested remedy for Nintendo – that they make iOS games – is appropriately the reverse of the remedy that Apple needed and got back in 1997, i.e., the porting of Microsoft Office to Mac OS. Since Nintendo is a software company at heart, it would seem to make sense that, if desperate, they take those assets to other platforms; by contrast, Apple is a hardware company, so dire straits fittingly translated into trying to attract more software to their own platform.
- If it’s not clear by now, you should realize that Nintendo is uninterested in making a platform. It makes toys and the workshop/play space in which those toys are used. That’s the total opposite of what Apple has done, especially with iOS.
John Gruber and John Siracusa recently had a great deover Nintendo’s future. Gruber argued that the lucrative DS line could be jeopardized by its basic requirement that users carry a dedicated handheld in addition to their phones – I can definitely see this happening. But Siracusa hit upon some subtle advantages that Nintendo may still have, especially in terms of gaming experience.
Discussions of Apple vs. Nintendo (or Nintendo vs Nokia/RIM) often lead with anecdotal stories like “my kid doesn’t know what Nintendo is,” which I think are unhelpful. The tech literati are not really Nintendo’s audience, and their children are probably a small subset of all Nintendo fans. The recently announced 2DS is not a device to be analyzed with the same eye as a new iPhone or Nexus device. Still, I’ll contribute my own – I’m already fatigued of Android/iOS gaming. The limited input mechanism (touch) means that games cannot do as much with on-screen information or elements since fingers get in the way, and the freemium pricing of so many mobile games means that they often do not over immersive experiences but rather play–by-ear arcade-like ones.
Sure, there was a time when people defended BlackBerry’s hardware keyboard as a non-negotiable feature for plowing through “serious work” and email. But as Siracusa pointed out, hardware keyboards were superseded because software keyboards imitate their every last functionality while adding exclusive features like predicative typing. Touch screens cannot do that with gaming controls, if only because there’s no QWERTY-like standard for controls: every controller may have buttons, but their arrangements and numbers are radically different from one system to the next. The fact that Nintendo has realized this has been a historic source of strength – it’s hard to appreciate now, for example, how groundbreaking that N64 controller was in introducing analog sticks to the console world.
The variety of controller layouts is matched by the variety of software that they power. Games are, on the whole, a much more fragmented sector, in terms of design and input, than mobile apps. What are mobile devices used for? Standards like email and Web browsing, mostly similar social media clients with a standard set of gestures, passive content consumption. They don’t need varied controls or inputs because their specialty tasks don’t require them
Now, imagine Nintendo trying to bring its quirky, unique sense of sophisticated hardware-specific software to iOS, a platform which takes for granted that no third-party app is more special than any other one and as such. Even with an iOS controller peripheral, I don’t think it would work – not only would it de-incentivize customers to purchase Nintendo’s own hardware, but it would create a bad experience, topped off with the inevitable long string of 1-star App Store reviews bemoaning users’ unawareness that they needed a separately sold item to play the $14.99 app they purchased.
Whether Nintendo can make its traditional approach work going forward is a separate question from whether porting software to iOS would be a good idea. For now, the company appears to be in sound financial shape, and even a minor rebound in Wii U sales would help buoy its already robust DS business. And mobile device sophistication need not be synonymous with consolidation – a breakthrough gaming device, like the original Wii was 2006, could fit alongside the growing fleet or smart wristbands, HUD displays, and smart watches that co-exist peacefully with phones and tablets.