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Tag Archives: tech

Apps and social media fatigue

If I were to graph the number of apps installed on any device I own since I got my first Android phone in the summer of 2011 (an HTC Inspire), it would be left-skewed. A combination of concerns about battery life and storage space, the realization that some websites offer better experiences than their respective apps (especially Facebook), and an overall desire to just have few sources of information has led to delete nearly everything but preloaded apps.

What’s left? Not much.

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What’s more, I haven’t actively searched for a new app in a while. I’m not sure if this says more about me being burned out on data and notifications (they feel so distracting, and I know I have written/read less because of them) or about the maturity of the app market.

I remember when “apps” became part of the lexicon some time in the summer of 2008. I had just moved to Chicago and I still had a Motorola RAZR that might have been cutting-edge in 2005, during my first year of college. When I got online for the first time ever in my first Chicago apartment – via a Dell desktop PC – the App Store was only 2 months old and Google Chrome was less than a week old. On my PC, I didn’t really think of “apps” except for Web browsers and games, and even then I thought of them as “programs.”

In 2009, I had my first brushes apps like Shazam and Grindr that offered something a lot different than what had been available from a PC or Mac. In 2010, I learned about Instagram and was for the first time jealous of people who had iPhones (I still had a dumb phone of some sort at that time). In 2012, I found out about Uber and was briefly enamored with it before it revealed itself as an ethically-challenged organization.

But since then, there haven’t been many “a-ha” moments for me in using mobile apps. The ones I use every day are based on age-old phone conventions like being able to send text messages (starting with SMS and now evolving into iMessage, LINE, etc.) and photos.

There’s also DuckDuckGo (a search engine, one of the oldest forms of exploring the Web), Lyft (since I can’t stand Uber), Flickr (for photo backup) and Tumblr (where I do some of my creative writing). There are ways to pay for my coffee (Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks) and then there’s Yo, which is a novel way to get updates on RSS feeds, Twitter accounts, etc. Although it started a gimmick, I think Yo has a lot of potential. There’s Pocket, my favorite. And 1Password, which simplifies so many headaches.

Part of the reason for the paucity of apps on my phone is that I have never been in love with social networking. With Tumblr, I can just publish from time to time and not worry about my real identity. But I steer clear of Facebook and Twitter on mobile since they just demand too much attention for too little return. I use Snapchat but have never used Secret (I don’t get it) or any dating app like Tinder (I’m married).

What is the future of social networking? Bleak, I hope, since it seems to make so many people anxious or unhappy, worrying about what others are doing and keeping track of when certain people are awake or active. I liked this passage from Tyler Brule:

“I have a theory about social media: that is exists not because people are dying to share everything but because of poor urban planning. The reason these channels have developed on the U.S. west coast stems from millions of people being lonely and trapped in sprawling suburbs. Apparently, the Swiss are among the lowest users of social media in Europe. I’d venture that this is due to village life, good public transport and a sense of community.”

In America, for someone born after 1980, there are so many barriers to meeting up with others unless: 1) you have a car; 2) have access to good public transportation. #1 is an issue for the cash-challenged Millennial generation, yet so much of American infrastructure – from sprawling parking complexes to office parks located in the middle of nowhere – assumes the ownership of one. #2 is surprisingly rare – I would venture to say that one can only comfortably be out and about in a city without having a car as back-up in exactly two American cities: New York and Chicago.

What fills the void? Social media and messaging apps. Maybe part of my own gravitation away from social media has been the fact that I have lived in one of these two cities for the past 7 years. Plus, no longer being single has also eroded a lot of the youthful fascination that once made, say, Facebook so exciting to use. It’s hard for anyone who joined Facebook after roughly 2006 or 2007 to know what it was like in the early years, when it was all single college students who send each other Pokes and edited each other’s Walls at will.

Less social media (and storage space – I settled for a 16GB iPhone 6 Plus) has led to a pretty spartan, utilitarian home screen. But it’s also, I suspect, left me happier since I don’t have to keep tabs on others as part of a lonely suburban existence.

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Strong versus weak dollar (also, Apple)

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.

Apple
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.

Turnaround
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.”

Why I Don’t Care About Google Glass

Short version: this photo

Long version: For a field that so lionizes technical chops and scientific knowledge, tech is oddly fascinated with fantasy. The geekery of Google’s Project Glass and its computer-on-face ethos is perhaps the most obvious evidence for this phenomenon, but one can grasp it nearly any time that someone references the technology from Star Trek or Star Wars (or Blade Runner, or a cyborg movie) as an aspirational endpoint, or describes something as “the future.”

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?

Maybe. I think that viewing “technology” as the product not simply of a linear progression of machinery but also of contemporaneous creative artistic visions (which don’t necessarily follow a similarly linear path) can elucidate those aspects which make devices, software, and services appealing to people. Most individuals don’t know that much (and don’t care) about specifications, and in many cases likely cannot notice a huge difference between one product generation and another. But despite this general lack of hairsplitting over spec bumps and generation-to-generation changes, people do gravitate toward general product categories while shying away from others. iPad vs Surface, or Android vs BlackBerry, are some examples. In other words, people have good sense in differentiating categories, if not technical details.

But what do some of those more attractive categories have in common? For one, they were not totally obvious when they debuted. The iPad was based on almost no market research and resurrected a category – tablet PCs – which had been abandoned by other companies marching along on their own paths of “progress,” and which completed a circle back to nigh-ancient means of human interface design and input. Android made a wonky Linux-based cellphone OS successful during an era when most computing was still done thru closed-source Windows. And the iPhone? Well “[S]ometimes you see a new innovation and it so upsets the world’s expectations, it’s such a brilliant non sequitur, that you can’t imagine the events that must have lead to such an invention. You wonder what the story was,” is how one man put it.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have too-obvious devices like touch-enabled ultrabooks, the Surface line, and basically everything BlackBerry has released in the wake of the iPhone 3G shattering its reason to exist. They don’t fit into coherent categories, don’t do any single thing well, and only exist to loudly announce that they’re The Future, without doing the work necessary to qualify as such.

Google Glass is obvious. It hasn’t even been released yet and it already has its own mythology, about how it is driving (despite not being widely available) us into the era of “wearable computing” and, more importantly, stealing the mantle of innovation from Apple, who still prefers to do quaint things like wait until a product is finished and salable before thrusting it upon the public. Heads-up displays may someday be a viable product category, but this specific product – Google Glass – is going to be a flop.

Now, I’m obviously no Apple apologist, but the tech press has just gone nuts searching for any sign of weakness at Apple, such that they’re willing to drape Samsung’s specs-loaded, capable but boring phones with the mantle of “innovation” and, now, they’re eager to deem Glass the next phase in computing. It is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-Apple wave, as well as a great litmus test of just how nuts said wave has become: “look! this unreleased product is already disrupting the iPhone!”

I agree with Guy English that wearable computing, for all the presumptive nods it gets in the tech media, is hardly a sure thing and possibly something that just won’t strike a chord with normals who don’t want to become cyborgs. As with the way-overblown demise of Google Reader, the tech press often forgets that it occupies a geeky echo-chamber fed by sites like The Verge and Reddit, in which reactions to things like the end-of-life of an RSS client and the impending release of a cyborg hat have much different currency and urgency than they do with the population at large. What I’m saying is: Google Glass is not a consumer product for average consumer.

It’s perfect for the geek loner/showoff. Accordingly, it has about the degree of decorum and respect for others’ privacy that one might expect from the CEO of the similarly “futuristic” product, Uber, or from Glass-happy Mark Zuckerberg, who will surely bring Facebook’s exhaustive, intrusive status updates to the device. Ok, ok: some point out that we used to be afraid of how cellphone cameras would end privacy and decorum, too. But most cellphones aren’t made by advertising companies who offer lots of “free” services in exchange for data collection, and who also make the 2nd-largest social network in the West. How easy will it be for a secretly captured Glass photo/film to “accidentally” make its way onto YouTube or G+?

Silver-lining: Google Glass, to the extent that anyone uses it, will team up with services like Facebook Home to accelerate social-network fatigue. There will be no escape from carrying your friends list and wall posts everywhere, to the extent that reality itself may end up as a sadder place. The current attitude, often described as solutionism, sees Google Glass a way to “fix” apparent issues like smartphones apparently not being immersive enough (you can turn them off and put them in your pocket very easily, after all, and it’s obvious when you are/are not paying attention to bystanders while using one). It even seems to attempt “fixing” the issue of paying for stuff – Glass doesn’t even allow app makers to charge for their Glass services, or serve any ads.

Google Glass (the specific product/preview) isn’t “the future.” It’s just the best evidence yet of Google’s insistence on force-feeding the world questionable solutions to “problems,” like privacy and smartphones, which aren’t real problems for anyone except for iteration-/sci-fi-minded executives. If someone says something is “the future,” don’t take his word for it – after all, age-old inventions like silverware, shoes, and restaurants (to quote some of Nassim Taleb’s favorite examples) have outlasted literally thousands of years of disruption, and even CDs are still going strong. What we see as “progress” is often nothing of the sort, and Google Glass is a good reminder of that.