Longform

Lessons from DIY + Design

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– 5 minutes –

Last June 2-7, I participated in something called a “DIY + Design” workshop.

The first half was a design thinking workshop in which students collaborated with partners in the local community to create solutions for them and their businesses. The second half was a woodworking workshop that taught the students and community partners how to work with scarcity of materials – only three sizes of lumber (2x2’s, 2x4’s, and 2x6’s), screws, and nails were available.

What resulted was an experience I’ll never forget.

 

About the organizers

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Ishinomaki Lab handled the woodworking workshop. It was spawned from the wreckage created during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's east coast. They began running workshops for the local community to restore businesses in Ishinomaki, Miyagi. They’ve since taken their workshops across the world.

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Hub of Innovation For Inclusion, or HiFi, is a space for students of De La Salle-College of St. Benilde to capitalize on their ideas to create social good in their community. They helped connect us with the community partners.

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The design thinking workshop was handled by Habi Education Lab. They exist to educate people, from students to professionals, about the design process, design thinking, and how design can benefit businesses and communities.

 

Managing expectations

The first lesson I learned was one that was learned collectively. The community partners, most of them being street vendors, expected that we were going to be making food carts. Even I expected food carts – it wasn’t until we started woodworking, and finding that there were no wheels available, that we realized that wasn’t the case.

Thankfully, nothing spiraled out of control. Earlier in the workshop, we defined a design statement and design principles, which acted as a set of parameters that made sure that we were solving the right problems with our product, regardless of its form.

Our group aimed to create an environment that encouraged people to stick around rather than leave immediately after purchasing. The community partners we teamed with remarked that when there’s a place for them to stay, people become more attracted to buy their products. I liken it to the business model of coffeeshops.

 

Working within constraints

I mentioned already our constraints with materials, which was entirely the point of the workshop, but we were also pressed for time. We didn’t know that there was another batch of participants for the woodworking workshop, so that cut our total working time by about 4 hours. This is partly why making food carts became a blurry possibility.

On top of that, not all the community partners could be there for the whole duration of the workshop, and one of the later batches of lumber was significantly thicker than the previous ones.

Our team had to focus on what could be done, rather than overshooting expectations and ending up being constrained by insufficient resources, whether that be by a lack of materials or time. We settled on a design that was simple enough to exist within all our parameters.

 

 

We designed a bench and table that could be quickly taken apart and stored in a light, compact form.

 

 

 

Total number of parts for the bench.

Total number of parts for the bench.

 

They’re easy to repair. They each have a small number of parts that are easily replaceable.

 

Designing with purpose

To me, design without the end user in mind is vain and vacuous. I’ve always thought this, but it seems much truer having been a part of something like this.

Beyond the catharsis of coming up with an idea and seeing it through, or the enjoyment of working at wood with various tools, or even the excitement of working with people I’ve never met before, what I’m really glad about is that our product won’t be sticking around at some exhibit somewhere for the rest of its lifespan. It will be used and enjoyed by people.

It puts things into perspective. It makes an obvious notion like design itself – bringing about something new into the world to achieve a goal – a lot more real to me.

 

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Thoughts on Avengers: Infinity War

– 6 minutes –

Warning: This is as spoiler-filled as a spoiler-filled write-up on Infinity War can get. Please, watch the movie before reading.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first...

On the Black Order

Marvel Studios had a ton of things to juggle, in this movie more than ever: not just the 20+ superheroes from previous films, but all the new characters as well. (I’ll include Thanos in there, since all we really know about him is that he’s big and OP.) Even with two and a half hours of screen time, it remains a tall order, if not the tallest in cinema history, perhaps after what Star Wars Episodes I and VII had to do.

Among the new characters are the members of the Black Order, aka “Children of Thanos”. Whatever they were, they weren’t much of it.

Now, by-and-large, Marvel did a tremendous job, but the poor treatment of the Black Order kind of sticks out. To a non-comic-book fan like myself, the Black Order were just a little band of tough, but run-of-the-mill, henchmen: there was the big tough guy, the wizard tough guy, the tough ninja girl… and their dog army. That’s about all I can remember. 

Sure, the MCU’s had plenty of forgettable villains. I’m not even one to complain about underdeveloped villains, as long as they give the heroes a legitimate conflict. But my particular issue with the Black Order was that, given their almost non-existent introduction into the universe, none of them were tough enough that it felt like they had influence over any of the events onscreen, but they were tough enough that it was annoying how they could let up a fight against the freaking 10-years-of-movies’-worth-of-battle-worn Avengers. Then of course comes the “Where were they this whole time?” sentiment for new characters that only grows as the MCU progresses.

On the MCU TV shows

Although that pales in comparison with how egregiously left-out any acknowledgement or influence the TV shows should have had in the MCU by now, much more at this point where everything is supposed to culminate, much much more where one of the epicenters of the chaos is New York City. Isn’t this where the TV shows take place or something?

Case in point: I haven’t watched a single episode of any MCU TV show. Not one. Avengers: Infinity War did the worse possible job at making me feel left out in any way.

On deaths

That about does it for negatives. This is an otherwise amazing roller coaster of a film – it’s the biggest crossover event in cinematic history, how could it not?

The deaths in this movie takes everything up a notch. It’s what the fanbase has been clamoring about for years now – it really does drastically raise the stakes – and I’m glad Marvel held off until now to kill off major characters.

Loki’s demeaning death – after simply being choked out by Thanos, before which he’d totally laid out Hulk – was an excellent start and set-up for the movie. From this point on, every scene with Thanos interacting with someone is like playing roulette.

The deaths come one-by-one, each one heart-wrenching in its own way, then all of a sudden half of all life in the universe – heroes included – simply turns to dust. Then comes the somber credits sequence – a stark contrast to previous ones… It’s one of the more artful moments in the MCU arc of movies. I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

On Thanos

Coming into Avengers: Infinity War, I already knew that Thanos had it in him to simply flick off any offense and annihilate the heroes where they stood. But after having seen the movie and having mulled over his story arc… I realize that there’s a surprising amount of it with just him simply letting things happen rather than him forcing things to happen.

He was slow to speak, methodical, and never dealt his best hand, at least not immediately – and still got the job done. Thanos, the godlike villain and soon-to-be decider of the universe’s fate, was the quiet eye in every storm. He was so scarily calm that even talking at all risked wasting motions. He knew, just as much as anyone did, how insanely powerful he already was and was to become.

Giving his character the history that they gave him, and his arc those emotional beats, particularly having to sacrifice Gamora for the Soul Stone, just did that much more for him. Thanos, in my book, is one of the best movie villains already, and the best – definitively – in MCU.

It’s hard to articulate about him further... I’ll probably have to follow up after watching again.

Thoughts on Apple Slowing Down Devices

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– 5 minutes –

I thought that this was a big enough thing that I’d break my silence on here, especially since it’s something that personally impacts me and my device usage. I’ve also found myself in casual conversations with friends regarding this.

The general conclusion derived from this whole fiasco is really feeding into the often-believed notion that Apple builds in something called “planned obsolescence” into their devices, in which Apple intentionally shortens the lifespan of devices by somehow impairing usability so that customers will feel the need to upgrade to a newer model of the device they’re using.

This, to me, is as easy a notion to debunk as it is to believe. The issue of Apple prioritizing profits and margins is one thing – and I personally believe that it is very much a thing – but it’s been so often conflated with the issue of Apple devices not lasting as long as they’re desired to last, and that seems to be coming to a head now.

Apple elaborates that their reason for slowing down devices, particularly iPhones, is to preserve battery life. I believe this to be true, and the reason is simple – it’s the same reason why I believe planned obsolescence is a myth. It’s in Apple's interest to have the usability of iPhones last a long time, not the opposite.

According to Apple themselves in the letter I just linked to:

 

We’ve always wanted our customers to be able to use their iPhones as long as possible. We’re proud that Apple products are known for their durability, and for holding their value longer than our competitors’ devices.

 

I don’t think the single most profitable product in the history of the world would’ve found its success in being systematically made unusable. People buy iPhones because they’re good products – because they’re of good use – and people vote with their purchases. If people’s needs are no longer satisfied by a product, they’ll look at alternatives. If the alternatives don’t meet their needs – device lifespan being a criterion – then they’ll stick to buying iPhones.

I might come off reductionist in my thinking, but at the very least, it’s unlikely that there are any hidden motives here. Apple’s business model has always been that straightforward.

 

Now, this isn’t to say that bad decisions haven’t been made. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Apple’s problem is a communication problem. The problem is two-fold in that,

  1. if this had been communicated at all in the first place, the consumer and media backlash would at least be controllable; and

  2. if they’d made their initial statement clear and made their initial solution better for customers ($79 for a battery replacement is untenable), I think there might have been a chance at saving face.

Now Apple finds itself in a spot they're rarely in. In my experience, I’ve always found there to be a subset of people who’ve latched onto beliefs that Apple does x, y, and z to wring every last dollar out of customers besides using high profit margins. For example, in the 00’s, there was a sizable number people frustrated at Apple not making batteries removable.

The beliefs are conceivable to some extent, but now there’s a whole lot of people going to be part of that subset after this debacle. How big it’ll be, time will tell. I don’t think a lot of iPhone users are going to be jumping ship, but I think repeat purchasers are going to have a bit more buyer’s remorse knowing Apple, whether for better or for worse, might be doing something behind the scenes they don’t know about.

Thoughts on Apple's iPhone X Event

via Mashable

via Mashable

– 8 minutes –

The Steve Jobs Theater

Heck of a building. I’ve always been a fan of the aesthetic Apple’s created with Foster + Partners in retail over the years, and it’s great to see it tastefully and consistently applied here.

This Mashable article does a good job at unraveling the details of the space. The elevator is particularly impressive – the fact that it corkscrews is one thing, but it also does a good job obscuring anything unsightly, keeping in line with the theater’s minimal aesthetic, which I’d imagine was a challenge.

The building is as good an example as any of Apple’s attention to detail. If for some reason you still don’t understand why I’m obsessed with this company, take a look at that article.

 

The Steve Jobs tribute

Speaking of tasteful, I don’t know anyone who could’ve asked for a better opening tribute. (Well… maybe one.) The quote from the tribute was nothing I’ve ever heard before, which was a nice surprise. It was also a good way for the company to reaffirm to everyone that they have no intention of changing who they are at their core. (Pun intended.)

 

via Apple

via Apple

The industrial design of the new iPhones

There’s no question in my mind that these are the best iPhone designs to date.

Glass backs have made their triumphant return. Function-wise, I’d imagine the better grip is welcome. But it’s also just extremely visually appealing.

I remember being more bullish on the round-edge form factor than most when they made their debut with the 6 iPhones – something about the curves screamed space age to me. Three iterations on the design later, I’m glad they continued in that direction cause these are jaw-droppingly gorgeous and I struggle to see how they can be made to look any better. Kudos (and good luck) Apple.

My only problem is that the new design is so freaking good, it might immediately antiquate previous models’ designs (the 6/6s camera bumps already look comical in my mind), perhaps bar the Jet Black iPhone 7. I’ll have to see it for myself to confirm.

I should also note that the gold model finally looks good. I almost want it.

 

via Apple

via Apple

The notch

Now, onto the biggest point of contention with the new iPhone X design… long story short, I’m in Camp Show-The-Notch-Only-When-It-Doesn’t-Create-UI-Compromises.

Long story long, my feelings towards the notch seem to change on a case-by-case basis, from what I’ve seen so far at least. For example, video playback seems to deal with the notch pretty well, in that you can obscure it by double-tapping the screen, while Safari adds grotesque white bars on either side in landscape mode. (Not that the notch has to be completely hidden to look acceptable.)

I think generally speaking, I’m with John Gruber on how I feel about the notch:

 
My objection (again, after admittedly only spending 10-15 minutes with an iPhone X in hand) remains that Apple could embrace the notch on the lock and home screens, allowing for this new iconic silhouette, without embracing it all the time.
 

For the iPhone X design to become iconic, the notch – a key visual feature – should be embraced to some extent.

 

“Ten” vs. “ex”

Here’s what I think should be the biggest point of contention with the iPhone X: that the X is pronounced “ten” and not “ex”. This is what offends me. It’s so incredibly stupid.

Firstly, people are absolutely going to be calling this the “iPhone ex”. Why? Because in today’s world, that’s what X is to everyone in English-speaking countries – X as a Roman numeral is almost totally obscure in comparison. You’d think Apple would’ve learned their lesson with “Mac OS X” being pronounced “OS ex” for all those years… now, not only is it back, but the naming convention is under the brightest of spotlights for everyone to see: on the flagship iPhone.

Secondly, what does X as “ten” even denote? The 10th iPhone? It’s the 14th by my count, including the 5c, SE, and the new 8 iPhones. Maybe the 10th anniversary of the iPhone? Most probably, but it’s still a tad uncharacteristic of Apple to make reference to a product’s age, let alone in the very name of the product.

Lastly, what are they naming future iPhones? If they went with X as “ex”, they could still number subsequent models X2, X3, etc. – whether or not they’d actually do that is a matter of taste. But it being X as “ten”, that can’t be the case at all. The only logical outcome, at least in the mid-long term, is that they’d ditch the numbers completely.

 

via Apple

via Apple

The red dot on the Watch crown

I honestly don’t know which of these things I’m more mad about.

I take it that the dot’s purpose is to be an accent to the watch body. While I find the dot too large, I think the dot does that job well, even with the gold models.

The problem is that the watch strap already does that job, and if the strap you want to put on doesn’t look good with that big red clown nose, tough luck.

 

via Apple

via Apple

The Smartphone Mark II

I refuse to end on a sour note – not when there’s this amazing new iPhone X form factor to gush about.

Developer and podcaster Marco Arment touched on the significance of the new design:

 
This is the new shape of the iPhone. As long as the notch is clearly present and of approximately these proportions, it’s unique, simple, and recognizable.

It’s probably not going to significantly change for a long time, and Apple needs to make sure that the entire world recognizes it as well as we could recognize previous iPhones…

Apple just completely changed the fundamental shape of the most important, most successful, and most recognizable tech product that the world has ever seen.
 

Apple defined the form factor of the smartphone with the first iPhone, and have largely kept it consistent, until now.

Discussions regarding who was first to edge-to-edge aside, it’s Apple that moves the needle. The iPhone X form factor could be the smartphone as we’ll now know it to be.

AirPods – A Review

- 10 minutes -

I bought myself these little guys last Friday and used them over the weekend. Here are my thoughts.

Straight off the bat, I have to mention that AirPods are far from perfect. They aren’t always reliable – sometimes tapping for Siri doesn’t activate – and they aren’t always seamless – pairing sometimes isn’t automatic. But when they are those things, they’re every bit as amazing as people say they are.

 

Initial pairing

I was in a hurry to get these things paired as I was running late for something when I purchased them. I quickly realized that the AirPods involved learning new habits that weren't immediately obvious. For example, to check the battery on both the case and AirPods, you need to bring out the case and flip it open within close proximity of the iPhone.

Thankfully, I think these will be easy habits to learn. AirPods have to become intuitive, but they are intuitive eventually.

 

Reliability

These are my first wireless headphones, so I’m not familiar with the friction points with other Bluetooth headphones. Complaints I’ve heard are sound quality being subpar and connectivity issues standard of anything Bluetooth. 

There are latency issues now and then – some delay between the left and right AirPods have occurred – but they’re very minor and don’t bother me in the slightest.

What does bother me is when key functions fail to work – and this happens much more frequently. I already mentioned one example: Siri failing to activate on the double-tap. There’s reason to believe this is the primary reason the optical sensors are in the AirPods to begin with, so it’s really disappointing this doesn’t work as often as it probably should.

Another thing is taking off one AirPod to pause. It works often enough that I rely on it to play/pause, but either a) it doesn’t pause (the other AirPod that’s still on continues to play audio), or b) it does pause but holding the removed AirPod a certain way tricks the sensors into thinking it was put back on, so it plays audio again.

I’ve learned to circumvent this by holding the removed AirPod upside down so there’s a smaller chance of it sensing it’s been put back on. Still, for the times it doesn’t pause for some reason, I have to take off both AirPods. Again, you’d think Apple would make this more reliable if they went through the effort of putting sensors inside these to begin with.

 

Seamlessness

I think Apple did better in this department.

The pairing process every time after the initial process is button-/tap-less. You put them on, you hear the chime indicating it’s connected, and you’re good to go… most of the time (again). Although, even when it isn’t automatic, just go into Settings > Bluetooth, tap your connected AirPods and they’ll connect within 3-5 seconds – faster than any other wireless device I’ve connected to with my iPhone or Mac.

Same with connecting to the Mac. (There is no initial pairing process with the Mac thanks to iCloud.) Tap the Bluetooth icon, locate your AirPods to connect, and it connects instantly. Switching between devices occurs in similar time.

 

Comfort

The fit and feel of AirPods are completely identical to that of EarPods to me. So any problems you might have with EarPods in that regard, you’ll most likely have them with AirPods. (On that note, sound quality is also identical.)

You wouldn’t think it at first, but simply removing the AirPods from its case can be an issue – again, something that has to become intuitive. John Gruber of Daring Fireball has this solution: 

 
 

 

I’ve mentioned before my skepticism regarding tapping on the earbud as an interaction method. I can now confirm that skepticism – it’s pretty uncomfortable. On top of it sounding and feeling weirdly invasive, it distorts the audio being played. And, again, sometimes there isn’t any payoff cause it fails to work.

All the negatives aside, dealing with them doesn’t steal enough of my attention to have me stop using the AirPods, because most of the time, I end up forgetting that I’m even wearing wireless headphones. While there are habits to unlearn with wired headphones – like using a controller for volume and play/pause – there actually aren’t that many.

Bear in mind also the inconveniences – many of them grating – that are taken away along with the wires. You can now distance yourself from your device without taking off the headphones and putting them back on again. There’s no cable for the doorknob to tug on anymore. If you often wear multiple bags or layers of clothing like I have to, there’s one less step in the “take everything off” dance.

 

Magic

“Magic” is a word I’ve seen tossed around when describing the experience of using AirPods. I personally wouldn’t use that word. I’d use “normal”, and that’s not bad.

Once you understand all the interaction methods, you suddenly just start using it naturally. It’s kind of surprising. You start minding the annoyances less, as with any new device. I might not be at the stage where I’m wondering how I even dealt with wired headphones in the first place, but I could see myself getting there.

 

Miscellaneous

  • Connectivity is pretty good – better than my mediocre Bluetooth speaker, at least. I can walk across my studio apartment without the connection dropping on either my iPhone or Mac (although walking into the bathroom severs the connection).
  • In classic Apple fashion, battery life is better than advertised – much better. Apple claims the buds have 5 hours of battery life – I think I’m pressing on 8 with my current charge and they’re both at 40+%. I think it’s possible to go two days without charging via Lightning, even with heavy use.
  • Removing one AirPod to pause works with YouTube videos on both the iPhone and Mac.
  • I’ve had one of my AirPods fall once (the day I got them… sigh) thinking I still had my EarPods on. So yes, there’ll be a bit of babying them in the beginning, but I’ve stopped worrying about it already. Expect nicks eventually, but don’t worry too much about functional damage.
  • Checking the battery on the iPhone is great, but what about the Mac, where that information is tucked away in the Bluetooth dropdown menu? Why can’t I open the case near my Mac and have a pop-up tell me the battery? Or have it in the Today tab of Notification Center like on my iPhone?
  • Also, it’d be nice if the battery life of the case could be displayed in the Today tab widget.
  • While it’s a bit annoying not having physical controls anymore, I’m strangely okay with telling Siri to adjust the volume and play/pause. (Although sometimes it tells you it’s sorry that it can’t do that. Then I’m annoyed again.)
  • Siri understands my words noticeably better thanks to the mics – just bear in mind, again, it’s still as bad at knowing what to do with those words.
  • Speaking of mics, taking calls on AirPods is pretty cool – like, futuristic cool. They’re pretty good at phasing out external noise and picking up on my voice even in low volume.
  • AirPods being another thing to charge isn’t much of a problem. If you’re already used to charging more than one device, this will easily become habitual.
  • I like the heft of the case, with or without the AirPods. Definitely premium-feeling.

 

Verdict

Problems aside, this is a seriously astounding v1.0 product.

 

There's now a computer in my ear. We live in the future.

Thoughts on Nintendo Switch

- 11 minutes -

While I was gone, Nintendo released a video just over three minutes long previewing their upcoming console, Nintendo Switch. The video was pretty short, but it revealed quite a lot of things, particularly in regards to Nintendo’s direction, as a company, going forward.

 

 
 

 

Experience over mechanics

It’s hard to not compare the Switch with Nintendo’s current home console, the Wii U: the Switch is the Wii U’s successor, but also its actualization. It’s what Nintendo really wanted the Wii U to be. Well, sort of.

Particularly absent in the Switch trailer was motion control, a staple of Nintendo gameplay for the past decade. There weren’t many unfamiliar gimmicks present either. I think it shows Nintendo realizing that these are things people don’t latch onto, and what people do latch onto is their IP: Pokémon, Mario, Zelda, Fire Emblem, Animal Crossing, etc.

There are signs that Nintendo, while having done this all along to some extent, are taking advantage of their IP more than ever. See their various ventures into mobile thus far, for instance. See Super Mario Maker. See their t-shirt competition with Uniqlo. See their upcoming park at Universal Studios. Also, while not entirely Nintendo’s doing, I don’t think the resurgence of Pokémon in pop culture is a coincidence at all – Nintendo, along with the Pokémon Company, Game Freak, and now Niantic, have been firing on all cylinders to try and make 2016 the best year in the history of the franchise.

What Nintendo also seems to have realized is why people latch onto their IP: it's because of the quality of the games that have brought them to life. This is Nintendo’s claim to fame, and I think it will be for as long as they make games.

The Switch seems to be a product of that realization. The Wii U was a console only Nintendo could take advantage of because it was a playground for them and their style of game development. As I mentioned before, Nintendo had a bit of a fixation with gimmicks, and a lot of them were found in the Wii U (see the GamePad and Amiibo). On top of that, while the quality of their games were still great overall, nothing seemed novel or noteworthy (with Splatoon as an exception) – nothing seemed to set it apart from games on the Wii and prior consoles. Neither third-party developers nor customers were particularly receptive to the Wii U as a result.

Instead, the Switch is a playground not just for Nintendo, but for everyone else. Sure, the Switch has its bells and whistles like the Wii U had, but I think these are things that people will appreciate more. With the Wii U, it was a matter of people maybe getting into Amiibo or maybe using the GamePad while the TV was used for something else. With the Switch, the features that set it apart from the Wii U have more definitive appeal – either that, or they’re designed to have their defining features taken full advantage of. (We’ll get to that later.)

This, alongside their mean streak of milestone games in recent years from doubling down on IP, boils down to one objective: making the Nintendo experience better for everyone.

Nintendo’s product portfolio – how will the Switch fit?

All that said, it’s safe to say that this will effectively replace the Wii U. I’m sure Nintendo will continue to support the Wii U through some games in the pipeline and software updates, but nothing substantial.

What I’ve been hearing a bit about is how the Switch also aims to replace the 3DS, which I think is totally wrong. The 3DS is, in its essence, a handheld console, meaning it’s a more personal console. The 3D capability is exclusive to one person, and doesn’t work for two sets of eyeballs at the same time. In addition, many of the DS commercials over the years featured only one person enjoying a game by themselves.

The Switch teaser video not only featured, but made sure to emphasize the social aspect of the gaming experience with the console. Sure, it’s also a portable console, but that’s where the similarities end – it’s basically a home console with the TV included. The multiplayer experience will probably be the Switch’s key differentiator from the 3DS, apart from its catalogue of games.

The hardware will have to be great

I think people know by now to not expect the highest-grade hardware and processing power to come from a Nintendo console, but there’s still a base-level of power and quality the hardware should have to fulfill the promises and expectations they’ve set.

I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I think those expectations – even for Nintendo – will be a challenge to meet, and I don’t know if they’ll go at length to prioritize having the hardware be optimized for third-party games, especially as Nintendo’s been explicit in their adamancy towards mainstream gaming, at least through the decisions they’ve made.

There’s also the fact that the console is really, really small. In my understanding, all the hardware of a basic home console ought to be packed into the small “tablet” component of the Switch, unless additional capabilities are enabled by other hardware components in the dock connector. In that case, there’d have to be limitations when the Switch is in “portable mode” and not connected to the dock, which seems off-putting to me. Oh, and a battery has to fit in there, too – with sufficient power, no less.

Home-console-quality games seem to be a big selling point of the console, and it would be a shame if, one way or another, it would be limited by hardware constraints. I’m a little pessimistic that the staggering expectations will be met, but I’ll be happy if I’m proven wrong. I’ll keep my eye out for news about this as the launch approaches.

Quality gaming outside the living room

The Wii U dabbled a bit with the concept of bringing a more immersive gaming experience from the living room to elsewhere. I think the Switch is Nintendo’s more serious attempt at doing that.

With the Wii U, there wouldn’t be much detracted from the console’s appeal if the GamePad – supposedly its biggest draw – suddenly ceased to exist. Lots of games could still operate with just a Wii Remote. With the Switch, it would be a shame if the the portable functionality was neglected. I think the video suggested that, again, the Switch is primarily a portable device – still a home console at heart, but in a portable form factor.

Also, regardless of potential latency issues for now, if the multiplayer functionality works as advertised, that’s also an amazing thing that would be a shame to neglect. It won’t be as much an afterthought as, say, the 3DS’s multiplayer capabilities. (Then again, connecting to anything with the 3DS, even the internet, is an archaic experience at best. That said, there are a few big ways the 3DS can improve that I can think of – perhaps that’s for another post – which is to say, again, the 3DS probably won't be going anywhere as long as it has that room for improvement.)

Following up on the Wii

I mentioned how the Switch has potential to be what Nintendo wanted the Wii U to be, but what I think nudged the steering wheel in the wrong direction for the Wii U was that it also wanted to be the Wii 2. Hence the compatibility with Wii Remotes and sequel titles to Wii games (Wii Fit U, for example), among other similarities. The result was a confused product – still honest, still high-quality, but confused nonetheless.

Thankfully, the flaw was plain as day and Nintendo made sure that the Switch was not the Wii – instead, it's the best aspects of the Wii U, and more. Nintendo seems to have also made sure that they weren’t the same Nintendo they were during the years of the Wii’s dominance and popularity. When people were receptive to the control method they wanted to develop for, everything went well – that wasn’t the case anymore with the Wii U, so they’re now banking on their IP to draw eyeballs and interest to the fullest Nintendo experience possible, not just with gimmicks.

Considering the conditions of today, I think that’s a recipe for success. We’ll see if Nintendo can pull off the balancing act once again.

Thoughts on Apple’s iPhone 7 Event Pt. 2

 
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- 7 minutes -

Nintendo’s announcements

Oftentimes I hear that Apple’s veil of secrecy simply doesn’t exist anymore, but that’s only true for certain things, most especially for the iPhone. Stuff like this, however, that doesn’t involve their supply chain, Apple can keep under wraps almost perfectly.

Nintendo not only creating what seems to be a partnership with Apple, but doing so by speaking at one of their events, is pretty big for both companies. In recent years, Nintendo’s been announcing new games and consoles discreetly, opting out of the annual E3 presentations and instead announcing via their Nintendo Direct videos on their YouTube channel. Again, this is big for Nintendo because what it shows is that this foray into mobile gaming is something they’re pretty serious about.

They announced Super Mario Run, a mobile game exclusive to iPhone in the meantime. I’m guessing they’ll eventually port it over to Android – they’d be dumb to ignore the potential due to scale – but I think this is a great first move for Nintendo. The game will be selling through a one-time purchase – no in-app purchases – which is what I think totally in-line with what Nintendo would do. It's straightforward, not a money grab, and could potentially influence other developers to do the same.

I really hope this blossoms into a more solid partnership. While the benefits remain unclear – apart from Apple handling a portion of the marketing for their mobile games – I have a gut feeling that these two companies are a match made in heaven. I think this will be the case in terms of culture and for what Nintendo wants their collection of mobile games to achieve in the future. Quality games need quality hardware and software (and scale, lots of it).

 

Apple Watch Series 1 and 2

Overall, a pretty solid update. Let's start with the Series 2.

The emphasis on waterproofing and swimming was interesting. I don’t know exactly how many more units the Series 2 will sell because it has capabilities that can help swimmers get better – I see it as one of those things that Apple can do, wants to do, and wants other people to know they can do, but won’t necessarily benefit too much from financially. 

What I think is more of a draw is the built-in GPS, effectively cutting one of the few leashes that keep the device tethered to the iPhone for most users. Apple seems to be doubling down on the Watch as a fitness device, as they’re marketing it as such – a major segment of their target market seems to be runners, and I’m guessing this is the one thing that’s keeping them from leaving their iPhone at home. I think the Watch will become much more of an essential device compared to its predecessor as a result.

The Watch’s new S2 chip is probably the biggest update from the original Apple Watch. Apple claims it’s 50% faster with 2x the GPU performance, which sounds pretty drastic. They tend to under-promise and overachieve on their marketed benchmarks, so I’m optimistic that the increased speed will be noticeable and will delight users.

What’s more interesting, though, is that the same chip is in the Apple Watch Series 1, which is basically the first Apple Watch but with the S2 inside. It doesn’t just show, but blatantly proves, that the S1 chip wasn’t good enough for either users or Apple themselves, especially considering how the obvious option was to just sell the first Apple Watch as is, but at a lower price, similar to the current iPhones. That said, I think Apple made the right choice here.

I still don’t know what all this means in terms of sales, though. While it has been a long time since the unveiling of the previous Apple Watch (two years now!), it’s still very early in the product life cycle, making it hard to determine the product’s viability for success based on previous sales figures. I’m cautiously optimistic that this will reach Apple’s internal goals, but I wouldn’t bet on it selling like hotcakes.

Finally, San Francisco

Yuck.

Yuck.

San Francisco is a font that was developed internally by Apple for their own use. It’s now the system font of both iOS and macOS, but only now has it appeared in their product marketing. It’s used specifically for names of products on their website, on printed material (e.g. pamphlets in packaging), and on the products themselves.

After giving it some time, I can’t say I like it. I can accept it as a system font, but in their marketing, it seems to dilute the sophisticated look Apple has been so good at pulling off over the years. Of course, this is in context of Myriad (and variants) having been used for so long, and now replaced in some places. This also means that the two juxtaposing fonts now co-exist, which is even worse to me.

At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t really matter all that much. These things are relative, after all – it’s easy to spot far, far worse misuse of fonts almost anywhere on the internet.

Trying to Understand Apple's Automotive Efforts

- 8 minutes -

TL;DR: It’s confusing.

Mark Gurman and Alex Webb for Bloomberg Technology:

 
Apple Inc. has drastically scaled back its automotive ambitions, leading to hundreds of job cuts and a new direction that, for now, no longer includes building its own car, according to people familiar with the project.

Hundreds of members of the car team, which comprises about 1,000 people, have been reassigned, let go, or have left of their own volition in recent months, the people said, asking not to be identified because the moves aren’t public.

New leadership of the initiative, known internally as Project Titan, has re-focused on developing an autonomous driving system that gives Apple flexibility to either partner with existing carmakers, or return to designing its own vehicle in the future, the people also said. Apple has kept staff numbers in the team steady by hiring people to help with the new focus, according to another person.
 

It’s so confusing to follow Project Titan, which is why I almost never talk about it on here despite me being bullish on the future of cars.

Just as confusing to me is the idea of a completely Apple-designed, Apple-branded car. Even in a very basic sense, it just seems silly to see a car with the Apple logo on it, particularly alongside German brands that have been established for a near-century. I’m not saying the market isn’t there, it’s just that there aren’t enough indicators of Apple being a viable competitor apart from their past successes. Extrapolating based on the little we know about Apple directly relevant to their viability for success in the car industry is oversimplifying how difficult it is to enter this industry.

I was still expecting Apple to pull through with something like this, though, given how entrenched they already are in developing whatever it is they’re developing. I mean, they’re Apple, right? They have all the money and expertise in the world, surely they could pull it off? Well, let’s face the facts…

What are they building in there?

Gurman and Webb again:

 
“For a quality Apple-branded car they could probably get a healthy margin,” said Eric Paul Dennis, an analyst at the Center for Automotive Research. “They probably weren’t willing to compromise on quality issues” because that could hurt the perception of its other products, he added.

Apple started Titan in 2014 with grand ambitions to make a dent in an auto industry that consultant McKinsey & Co. estimates will be worth $6.7 trillion by 2030. The iPhone maker embarked upon an aggressive hiring spree, and an Apple-designed vehicle was targeted by the early 2020s. The hope was to revolutionize cars in the way the iPhone upended the mobile industry in 2007.
 

As with any new product category their pursue, there are lots of forces working against an Apple car becoming a reality. But I’m of the opinion that in this case, it’s at the point of becoming overwhelming.

There’s their uncompromising stance on quality, there’s their lack of expertise and experience in manufacturing a premium car at the scale they want (which is probably an order of magnitude larger than the entire luxury car industry combined, at least in the really long term if the iPhone is anything to go by), and there’s the opportunity cost of not being able to collect real data and feedback with each year they aren’t in the market, among others I’m probably missing.

And suppose that a car is not in the works. What else can they make that’s primarily product-based? (I’m assuming Apple’s approach is to continue using their current business model, which is why I’ve crossed out the self-driving platform suggested by Gurman and Webb as a possibility.) A smart battery for electric vehicles? A tracker? A dashboard console? Maybe. Maybe it’s something that I can’t even conceive of yet. But on top of that, Apple’s most probably going to want control over the entire user-experience – over the hardware, software, and services. 

That in itself is an already immense thing to achieve, given that they want to have some level of control over the cars they’ll install their product onto, which would likely require deals with car makers, making those deals nearly unavoidable. And assuming that some of the deals they want to establish won’t come to fruition, whatever Apple’s working on would have a slower roll-out and (again, maybe) provide a fragmented experience across different car models/brands depending on the terms of the deals they’re able to make. (That said, I recognize that Apple has a lot of power in the negotiations they make with other companies in general. I’m just talking about the odd cases wherein they may not be able to have their way, especially if cultural differences with car brands become an issue.)

And even after all that, I think that’s aiming low. This is Apple we’re talking about, and it would be disappointing to learn by 2020 that a tracker is all they’ll have to show for Project Titan.

Or, I could be looking at it all wrong. Maybe CarPlay is the seed that’ll eventually grow into something that people (and car makers alike) will really want to have in the car. At least there are already deals established pertaining to CarPlay, right? Yeah, but what that does is stress a ton more importance on Siri for Apple, as I’m assuming voice will be the main interface with CarPlay in the future. (Unless AR is somewhere in the long-term pipeline. What exists now – a subpar touch-based interface on a subpar console – is tragic.) Going by the rate of improvement for Siri thus far, can it be a good enough primary interface by 2020? I don’t know for sure, but I really don’t think so.

Like I said, it’s confusing to try and make sense of Apple’s automotive efforts, and I really can’t blame them if they pull the plug on it tomorrow – it’s a loss they can take. It’s now just a question of whether or not its a loss they’re willing to take... I think there’s a reason why we don’t hear much about Apple’s pursuits hitting dead ends. (Well, besides TV for the most part.)

Thoughts on Apple’s iPhone 7 Event Pt. 1

- 10 minutes -

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about Apple’s competition – it was mainly in response to an article by Daniel Eran Dilger, writing for Apple Insider, called “Apple's competition is going to have a tough year in 2016”. In that piece, I made this comment on the smartphone market:

 
With 94% profit share of the global smartphone market, essentially the whole thing, it’s impossible to look away from Apple, as it’s impossible to associate any credibility with any other smartphone manufacturer attempting to “compete” in the same premier tier as iPhone.
 

That was in February.

Since then, the Android flagship season passed, this time around bringing the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, Google’s major announcements on Project Ara, the “modular” LG G5, and the OnePlus 3, among other things.

How did those phones fare? Well, there are two major benchmarks I want to observe here: first being sales. Yes, iPhone sales dropped year-over-year for the first time during their last fiscal quarter. In fact, it was the company’s first year-over-year decline in general since 2003. Lots of doomsaying went around, but was it warranted? 51.2 million iPhone unit sales during that quarter says absolutely not, in my opinion. If any of the aforementioned phones sold anywhere close to that number, even over the span of its entire product cycle, much less a single quarter, I think we’d be hearing about it by now.

Second benchmark: sheer performance. Remember that video by PhoneBuff I linked to of the year-old iPhone 6s outpacing the Note 7? Well I went ahead and gone through PhoneBuff’s archive of comprehensive speed test videos, and it turns out that the 6s is still the reigning champ, having beat the S7 and the OnePlus 3. (Although, to its credit, the OnePlus 3 came around 3 seconds close to matching the 6s… which is still not saying a lot for a phone announced 9 months after the phone it's competing against.)

I’m not saying these Android phones are bad or useless – they just can’t claim to be better than the iPhone.

Now Apple’s rolling out their 7 iPhones this week. Let’s take a look at them.

 

iPhone 7 and 7 Plus

The industrial design of these phones is the 6/6s perfected. The antenna lines are sleeker and subtly-colored, the darker black on the Black model makes instantly you wonder why Space Grey was even a thing, and of course, the addition of the sleek and glossy Jet Black. Complains have already come about of its potentially scratch-prone surface, but if it will attract scratches anyways, I think it’s best to see how that would look on the surface over time. Even more scratch-prone surfaces on Apple’s plastic phones – the 3G, 3GS, and 5c – didn’t stop customers from buying and enjoying them. (In fact, remember when almost all of Apple’s products consisted of white plastic surfaces?)

Two of the most important innards – the processor and the camera – received massive improvements. The A10 Fusion chip isn’t just a faster chip – it’s a more optimized chip, which will switch between cores depending on your use. If you need the performance, the high-performance cores will make the phone run at 2x the speed of the 6 iPhones. If you’re doing simple tasks, the power-efficiency cores will run instead, which operate at one-fifth the power of the high-performance cores. Apple claims about 1-2 hours of additional battery life as a result. It's a case in point why traditional spec sheets used to contrast Android phones to the iPhone can't tell the whole story.

Bearing this in mind, as well as the iPhone 6s’ lead in performance before the 7, here’s John Gruber on the evolution of the A-series chips and how it continues to set the iPhone apart from the competition:

 
The iPhone has all the benefits (in short: superior design) that would keep me, and I think most other iPhone users, on the platform even if it didn’t have a performance advantage. But it does have a significant performance advantage, and it is exclusive to Apple. This is an extraordinary situation, historically. And year-over-year, it looks like Apple’s lead is growing, not shrinking. It’s not a fluke, but a sustained advantage.
 

It’s hard to imagine Android flagships catching up next year.

The camera (well, just that of the 7 Plus) now uses a dual-lens system. We’ve seen it before (even if only because it was rumored that Apple would make one to begin with), but I can’t help but think that this is really the best implementation we’ve seen of it. It’s used for depth mapping to create artificial bokeh (coming later), and for better zoom. I’m curious to see how both the bokeh and zoom work myself. Also, according to Matthew Panzarino on Twitter, the dual-lens system can do a bit more:

I’m not expecting the cameras to at all match DLSR-grade quality, but if it can come close, that’s still an incredible, incredible feat.

And of course, while not a feature exclusive to iPhone 7, the upgrade to AirPods will give customers a glimpse into Apple’s ideal vision for a wireless world. To me, this is one of the more exciting announcements – as always, it’s a matter of implications. Apple went as far as to develop another chip, the W1, out of dissatisfaction with Bluetooth. Sure, only the AirPods and some Beats wireless headphones have them now, but I’ll be keeping my eye out for this chip in other devices. To me, this is one of those “Touch ID” technologies that offers convenience now, but will eventually be vital to Apple’s product strategy as it becomes integrated into new products.

Even sans AirPods, customers should expect a solidly updated iPhone with the 7.


 

Apple is absolutely not resting on their laurels here, which they certainly deserve to do given that the 6s is still comparable to – even better than, in many cases – 2016’s flagships. While deserved, it’s not the Apple way of doing things. The only competition at this point is the previous iPhone and customers’ expectations, so if it can be done better, it will, and it was.

How this will translate to sales and profits, I’m not sure exactly. While I’m optimistic this will sell really well, as iPhones do, I don’t see this update aiming to attract new market segments. Apple has already targeted major markets such as the big phone users, the Android user looking for something better, and Chinese users. Apple’s made it explicit that they want to target the Indian market, but I fail to see how the iPhone 7 addresses them specifically. Maybe they’re now targeting prosumer/amateur photographers with the 7 Plus camera technologies, which is fine, but it won’t be boosting sales enough to drive them out of their current slump. I think it really rests on how many sales they achieve in their current segments, and like I said, I’m optimistic it will at least be in line with expectations this time around.

So now that has all been said, it’s easy to see the iPhone 7 being another multi-billion-dollar rake-in for the company – it’s kind of a tired narrative at this point, but it’s simply the truth. Millions were already guaranteed to buy it, so did Apple create an update worthy of the excitement that now surrounds iPhone? Absolutely.

I’m not a believer of the notion that the smartphone market and category of device are well into its maturation phase – I think that comes from the lack of anything really exciting that could scale at a consumer market level that isn’t on the iPhone. It seems the only hope left for any true innovation in the industry is with the iPhone.

In the next post, everything else from the iPhone 7 event, including Nintendo’s appearance and Apple Watch...

Thoughts on Pokémon Go

- 11 minutes -

I knew I had to talk about this sometime or other, even just from my unending affinity for the franchise. But, at this point, it’s become not just unavoidable, but bogglingly ubiquitous to the point where it’s a little unsettling seeing types of people who you wouldn’t peg as Pokémon fans at any point in their life engage with this game.

I knew I was going to probably link to an article or video about it, but after seeing Casey Neistat dedicate an entire one of his vlogs to the phenomenon, I think I’ve got a lot more to say than I initially thought.

 
 

Ubiquity

First things first, this thing is unbelievably popular. Even if you consider the factors — for example, Pokémon being a household name already, or the game, somewhat ironically, encouraging people to go out and walk around their neighborhoods, which is a relatively unprecedented and original concept — even with all that considered, it still boggles my mind how quickly this became a cultural phenomenon, perhaps more so than any other Pokémon game before it.

Here’s what I’m talking about: it not only outpaced Clash Royale as the fastest game ever to top revenue charts, but it is already the biggest mobile game in US history. It did all of that before launching in other continents like Europe and Asia. In fact, it isn’t even in Asia at my time of writing, and I still feel compelled to address it. (Update: Yes, an update before actually publishing my post. Nintendo is now almost worth twice as much as itself pre-PoGo. All because of this one game.)

Success

With that brings Nintendo immense and continued success: the game alone added $7 billion to Nintendo’s market value, and that figure is still growing. At first you wonder how a game like Super Mario Maker couldn’t do anything close to this for Nintendo, but it goes to show how big the mobile gaming industry really is.

It also tells Nintendo that mobile really is the best way forward. If this and Miitomo is anything to go by, their mobile efforts are almost guaranteed to go mainstream at this point. They would be incredulous not to pursue it further, but there isn’t any reason to believe that’s the case.

In fact, if any one company can see a future in mobile gaming, it absolutely has to be Nintendo. Only they have the IP with mass market attraction (e.g. Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Animal Crossing, just to name a few franchises) that appeals to almost every demographic, ranging from the long-standing nostalgic fanbase to completely new fans. (I think Neistat’s video should be enough evidence.)

They also have an understanding of casual games no one else has — to the point where “hardcore” gamers would scoff at their offerings, especially with the Wii a few years back — which lends itself to the smartphone gaming platform and how popular titles on that platform are developed. (There’s a reason why AAA titles on PlayStation and Xbox don’t have just-as-popular equivalents on mobile.) Thinking about it now, it’s strange that it’s taken this long for Nintendo to pop up as a big name in mobile gaming, which they’re mostly at fault for.

It’s just that good

I have the app installed on my phone — though I haven’t really got into the game as Pokémon have yet to pop up in my region, the tutorial procedures were refreshing to experience.

They weren’t an insult to my intelligence like many other mobile games. It just fleshed out almost exactly like in a regular Pokémon game, asking for a name, some customization of my avatar, and a quick walkthrough of how the mechanics work. They didn’t reveal everything — in fact, there are things in my inventory I have no idea what they do yet.

While there are in-app purchases, I wasn’t at all reminded of them by the game. I’m guessing they want me to compelled to purchase items and/or capabilities as I would need them in real-time, which I think is pretty smart.

The app itself is pretty solid. The design, while not very Nintendo-like (I’ll get to that in a bit), is tasteful, more similar to a productivity app than a more gaudy interface typical of mobile games. Also, I think the simulated map loads quicker than any of my ride-sharing apps. We’ll see how it fares once Go’s operational in Asia. (Update: Yes, another update before actually publishing my post. Apparently there are no plans to release the game in Asia. What a bummer. A little sad to think that even Japan of all places will not be receiving the game.)

Some nitpicks, though. As I already mentioned, you can tell Nintendo didn’t have much control over the development of the game. It was developed mostly by Niantic Inc., which was funded by Google along with Nintendo and the Pokémon Company. That’s why the app asks for your Google account information before letting you play, which is the only annoying part I’ve encountered in the game thus far.

While I can easily deal with that, what might grate at my mind a bit more is the art direction. Not only is it inconsistent, but it’s as if Nintendo just let Niantic do whatever they wanted, especially with the style of the avatars. (I will say, though, that the Pokémon themselves look terrific.)

Where the game lacks refinement, it totally makes up for in the concept, at least that’s how I feel from everyone else’s experience with the game. What fascinates me is the concept of a smartphone app, let alone a game, actively encouraging its users to not just be outside to play the game, but to roam around and never stay put to have the game be a rewarding experience. The closest thing to this that I can think of is Geocaching, but to have the action occur partially in the digital realm (being the capturing of the actual Pokémon) puts Niantic and Nintendo at an advantage, in that the rewards are made unlimited.

When we look back at the smartphone revolution years from now, I’m confident we’ll be looking back at Pokémon Go as a milestone.

Potential updates

That brings me to how the game could be improved over time. I think there’s lots of room for improvement, which Nintendo definitely wants considering the ephemerality associated with mobile games.

An obvious one, I think, would be to increase the number of available Pokémon to catch, especially as the average number of Pokémon caught among active users increases over time. This could be done every time a new generation of Pokémon comes out — one of those times happens to be some time soon with Pokémon Sun and Moon coming to the 3DS later this year. How convenient. It’s one of the easier ways to avoid stagnancy.

Compatibility with the traditional line of Pokémon games could be established, perhaps with Sun and Moon. For example, Nintendo could somehow create a link between Pokémon Bank and Pokémon Go, or create a reward system that rewards players using both games with items.

Speaking of the traditional games, traditional Pokémon mechanics could be introduced in the future. A lot of them seem to be missing from this game, I think to create a strong initial focus on the capturing aspect (“Gotta catch ‘em all” and all that). One that should be introduced later on is the use of Pokémon moves (i.e. limited to four moves and PP, use of TM’s, etc.) as opposed to the tap-based and level-based combat that exists now.

My bigger point, though, is that there’s a lot of stuff for Nintendo to draw from to keep the game exciting, which Nintendo has plenty of incentive to do given the game’s massive success — brand recognition isn’t the only advantage this game has by being backed by an established franchise.