It Just Works

English: 2008 Computex: ASUS SP-BT23 Bluetooth...

English: 2008 Computex: ASUS SP-BT23 Bluetooth Speaker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The phrase “it just works” is one of Apple’s key marketing ideas and it encompasses the concept that users should be able to pick up an iPhone, iPad and use it, without any instructions and if they want to connect it to their Macbook, their Airplay speakers or to another iDevice then that will all Just Work too.  They achieve this by having a limited range of products and by using mostly proprietary standards – like Airplay – and because of these two things the technology doesn’t have to deal with the massive variations of hardware encountered by other devices; one Apple device knows what another one is called and how it talks, so to speak, already.

The thing is this illusion, that this is as a result of their products being better designed, is a half-truth – competing technologies only tend to require a couple of clicks to work together, like getting my Sony phone to play music via my bluetooth headset adaptor or hi-fi adaptor – all I need to do is press a button on the adaptor and select the output source on the phone, or my tablet, or laptop even.  The thing is that there is an increasing expectation that you shouldn’t need to do anything yourself to make it work, even if it is just pressing a button.

To this ends we see products like a set of £1200 speakers which, instead of connecting via bluetooth, require a dongle to be plugged into the bottom of your phone or tablet like some kind of digital limpet, making your device more cumbersome but meaning that all you have to do is plug it in.  A case of making it easy taking precedence over the handling of the technology.  And then there’s another side to all this – the ecosystem.  Apple in particular make all these add-ons, or licence the technology to other companies to make docks etc, that all work seamlessly together but the same limitation to Apple hardware that makes it possible for it to all work together means it’d be awfully expensive to switch brands later.

The situation in the Android/PC camp though is improving though.  Near Field Communication (NFC) tech is allowing speakers and more that connect using bluetooth via a simple tap of the phone on the top of the peripheral, the proximity allowing the two devices to know that they’re compatible and meant to be together, like silicon blind-date, if you like.  I have a smart BluRay player that has a companion Android app that automatically found and connected to the player via the WiFi network and on a similar vein modern WiFi routers can even connect to devices automatically using Wireless Protected Setup – although the latter still needs some user input, after all it’s not practical to carry your desktop PC and tap it on the router.  Another example is the WiFi printer that only requires a single button press to connect to your PC the first time it’s installed.

The dream of smart appliances all talking to each other via wireless networks is starting to come true but for it to be truly universal manufacturers need to use open standards and as users we need to accept that sometimes we’ll need to read the manual, or on-screen instructions, and push some buttons to help them along.

If You Liked It Then You Shoulda Put a Case on It

Case Mate iPhone case

Case Mate iPhone case (Photo credit: The Style PA)  

My first mobile phone was a Motorola in 1998, it was about the same size and shape as a hot-dog bun but weighed significantly more, it had a single line display and a pull-out aerial that the instructions warned you not to touch in use for reasons that seemed unnecessarily sinister at the time and was so solid that it felt like if you dropped it the surface onto which it fell would suffer more than the phone.

Today though advances in materials and phone technology have given us phones that we cosset and cradle like tiny woodland creatures.  Just a couple of days ago my belt buckle, for reasons only known to it, decided to attack my Xperia which was in my pocket, I heard the metal hit the glass screen.  I winced as I pulled the phone out.  Thankfully it wasn’t damaged, working in the glass industry I should have had a bit more confidence in its direct impact resistance but had it been hit from the side it might have been a different story.

We hear stories of iPhones’ metal bodies scratching and the anodization flaking off, of screens being cracked by light falls onto floors and so on, often very soon after getting the thing.  Product designers for Apple, Samsung, HTC, Sony etc spend months meticulously researching and creating these shiny devices and the first thing people feel the need to do is clamp them inside cases meticulously created in parallel by case designers.  It is a bizarre paradox that people buy something and the appearance of it is part of the decision but then have to hide it away to maintain its integrity.  I put my phone in a fleece-lined sleeve when it’s in my bag or in a pocket sans-keys etc otherwise but I still feel anxious when it’s in my hand, constantly thinking of how much a new screen would be.  This anxiety has also created the new market of gadget insurance.

Fashions don’t help, so many phones are now made with shiny, glossy materials which are not exactly the best at adhering to either your hand or a surface.  At this point I will defer to the commenters of Gizmodo UK:

ollypercival “I CANNOT BELIEVE how slippery the N4 is. I put it down on what I swear is a flat surface and 5 minutes later I hear the clunk of it hitting the floor. I actually got the spirit level out to check I wasn’t going mental.  If it’s on my bedside table and someone calls me, it’s practically in the bathroom before I can catch up with it.”

hyperspacey “My manager warned me to keep an eye on it seeing as it’s like an air-hockey puck with a death wish.”

Ebbysantos “I’ve not got a case for it, I just can’t get used to the things, plus what’s the point of covering such a pretty thing with a utilitarian bit of plastic?  Would be like putting Jennifer Lawrence in a bright yellow waterproof onesie!”

Quite.

Material Love

English: Apple iPhone (left) vs HTC Hero (righ...

English: Apple iPhone (left) vs HTC Hero (right). Adapted from original source, to scramble screenshot of non-free software. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My phone’s outer shell is made from plastic and a piece of thin glass.  My car’s made of metal.  If the car was made of carbon fibre it would be seen as premium and special, yet the new Samsung Galaxy S4 has been criticised for being made of plastic, because it’s not metal like the iPhone 5.

It’s not the first time the tech industry has had a metal fetish, in the seventies and eighties everything “premium” had to have a brushed aluminium fascia, then we went through the period where clear coloured plastic was fashionable, a fad caused in a large part by Apple again with the original iMac and its guts-and-all on show design approach.  Sleek black plastic in exotic moulded shapes was the future.  For a while.

Today it doesn’t matter how good quality the plastic, or more accurately in expensive phones, polycarbonate is the legions of gadget blog and mag writers and commenters will whinge that it feels cheap compared to the metal iPhone or new HTC One purely because it isn’t metal.  The idea that metal is premium comes from the sense that it’s more resilient, like high-end granite kitchen worktops, and that it takes more effort, more craftsmanship to make, hewn from blocks of aluminium by bespectacled artisans.  A CNC milling machine in reality is a little less romantic and premium.

The strange thing is that the metal phones are more prone to the screen cracking, easier to scratch and more likely to be permanently dented when dropped.  But despite this and despite the fact that the plastics in even my sub-£100 phone feel solid and quality as far as I’m concerned metal is the thing to have.  But it’s all image, until the iPhone gained a metal body no-one cared about it, there were plastic phones that felt sturdy and plastic phones that felt like they were made out of microwave meal cartons and the iPhone 3G was one of the former (for better signal strength).  In fact many old phones had metal backplates that many people probably didn’t even think about.  It’s also marketing, use a different material for the case, tell people its revolutionary and so much cooler and better and people will snap it up.

The next big thing?  I’ve heard it’s going to be ceramic phones*, you know shiny, glossy, tough enamelled ceramics.  It’ll be the thing to have.   “Aluminium?  The same stuff they make Coke cans out of?  So cheap feeling, so cold, look at my new phone, it’s ceramic.”

(* – I may have imagined this.)

Keep Calm and Carry British Tech

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the United Kingdom reading “Keep Calm and Carry On”, created during World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look at your phone or tablet, most will say Made in China, Korea or Taiwan, some will say Designed in California, but what about the technology at the very heart of the device?  Where were the creators of that based?  Silicone Valley?  Shenzhen?

More than likely they were based in the UK.

Despite the likes of Jeremy Clarkson implying that if it’s designed or made in Britain then it’ll inevitably go wrong our nation has produced some of the best minds in technology, architecture, literature and science…  in the world.

Most PCs, even Apple Macs run on chips that are designed to be compatible with the Intel processors that powered the earliest IBM PC and their dependents.  Mobiles though need less power-hungry processors and this is where the Brits come in.

Back in the eighties Acorn (who had created the BBC Micro computer to accompany a pioneering TV show intended to teach computing to the public, and one of the first computers I learnt on) created the Acorn Archimedes which used a RISC processor – which basically uses a simplified set of instructions to run programs which allows for powerful processors using less actual power – perfect for mobile devices which was why Apple chose the processor for their Newton handheld and were one of the three partners that formed ARM.  Our school had an Archimedes and it seemed like a glimpse of the future compared to the BBCs and PCs.  We had no idea.

Since then ARM has developed the core designs that they licence to manufacturers such as Samsung who build the chips that drive iPhones, Galaxy SIIIs, HTC One Xs, LG Nexus 4s, Nexus 7s, Kindle Fires…  You get the idea.

The other company that has done the same with graphics chips is Imagination Technologies.  In the early nineties Hossein Yassaie joined the company and decided that computer graphics were the future, shortly afterwards he decided that people would one day want to do everything they could do on a PC on a mobile – a vision that seemed impossible to many at the time due to limits of the available technology.  However, like ARM, Imagination’s technology had lower power demands.  As smartphones have taken off, so has demand for both ARM and Imagination’s designs.

Their strength lies in the demand for new phones, the latest, faster, brighter, better, smarter every year; chipmakers couldn’t each dedicate the kind of design teams that the British firms have to such projects and so licensing from these independents is the perfect solution, and of course having so much design talent and experience in just two companies helps to ensure constant innovation to keep us all equipped for the future.

[Also BBC News]