Fri 7/3 Hammerhead

When I worked behind the Genius Bar in 2003 there was no Concierge, no booking system, no appointments, and no Genius Bar assistant to help people get in line. Instead there was a sea of faces, impatient customers waiting to be assisted. In the old first come first serve model for Genius Bar management, it was not uncommon for a Mac Genius to help three people at once while trying to hold down a conversation with several onlookers. People used to race to the Bar when the Store’s doors first opened, playing musical chairs with the bar stools, fighting for their place in line. I will admit after leaving Apple in 2006 I would have nightmares about the faces staring back at me across the bar, and the stress that came from managing the queue.

As one might expect the first come first serve method of Genius Bar management was not well liked among customers and Mac Genius alike. At some stores a Genius would maintain a paper list of the people waiting in line. At others a limit of how many customers could be helped in an hour was enforced. We tried calling people on their cell phones when a appointment was available, and handing out buzzers that would ring when it was time to return to the bar. As the Genius Bar’s popularity grew it became harder to manage the flow of people gathered around the Apple Store’s primary attraction. My Store manager insisted we help everyone, but sometimes there wasn’t enough time in the day. Because we were one of the first Apple Store’s in the North East with a free parking lot people came from as far away as Upstate New York to see us. It was sometimes impossible to help everyone.

One day during a busy Saturday morning at the Genius Bar, a customer came in complaining his 17 inch PowerBook G4 would not boot. He was too impatient to wait in line, and wanted to leave it with me so I could take a look at it. With very few exceptions we never took in a machine without first reproducing the problem in front of the customer. There are just two many open ended interpretations to computer problems, and in order to know what is really going on, a Mac Genius needs to confirm the issue with the customer first. Because he was unwilling to wait, and because I was unwilling to take his computer from him without a diagnosis, he purchased a brand new 17 inch PowerBook G4 instead. While he was leaving he asked me what I wanted to do with it.

"What do I want to do with what" I asked.

"My old computer" he replied.
"If you don’t take it, I am just going to throw it in the trash."

I didn’t believe he was serious, and I still had a long line of customers in front of me. So I just shrugged, and told him maybe he could bring it in another day.

On his way out I watched in horror as he shoved his old 17 inch PowerBook G4 into the mall garbage can just outside of the Apple Store. When I found a free minute, I excused myself from the bar, and quickly chased after him to retrieve the PowerBook and see which way he had gone. By the time I had his 17 inch PowerBook G4 safely in my hands he was gone.

At the end of the day, after my shift was over, I went back to the 17 inch PowerBook G4 to diagnose what was wrong. It was a second generation model with a 1.33 GHz processor, 512 MBs of RAM, a 80 GB hard drive, and a slot-loading 2X "SuperDrive." At almost $3,000 new, it was a not a machine to be left in a mall trashcan. The only thing I could find wrong with it was bad stick of memory, and a quirky optical drive that required cleaning. It booted immediately after the RAM was replaced

Thu 7/2 Apple's History of Skeuomorphism

Calculator

A lot of people have been displeased by the skeuomorphic design elements appearing in Apple’s latest operating systems. Some attribute these design decisions to the tastes of Steve Jobs. I don’t think anyone could clearly define the tastes of Steve Jobs, not even himself. One minute he might be appreciating the craftsmanship of his Bsendorfer grand piano, the next he might be observing the minimalistic teachings of Zen sitting cross legged on the floor of his unfurnished home. If there is one thing that could be said for Steve Job’s taste it is that he only wanted the best. Apple’s history with skeuomorphism reflects the desire to present users with the best technology has to offer, even if that desire is misguided, and Steve is not around.

The Desktop Metaphor

Steve Jobs might not have started the desktop metaphor, but he did bring it the world’s eye with the introduction of the Macintosh. Before the Mac there was no skeuomorphism, because there was no graphical user interface. For almost thirty years the iconography of desktop objects have greeted users as they stare into their computer screens. The desktop metaphor has given new computer users a familiar foundation to ground their experiences upon, and expert users terminology such as "files" and "folders" we still use today.

The Classic Calculator

Steve Jobs was so concerned with the skeuomorphic design details of the Classic Mac OS Calculator that early Apple employee Chris Espinosa had to develop "the Steve Jobs Roll Your Own Calculator Construction Set" just so that he could get it right.

Every decision regarding graphical attributes of the calculator were parameterized by pull-down menus. You could select line thicknesses, button sizes, background patterns, etc.

Steve took a look at the new program, and immediately started fiddling with the parameters. After trying out alternatives for ten minutes or so, he settled on something that he liked.

The calculator Steve designed remained the standard calculator on the Macintosh for over sixteen years, all the way up through Mac OS 9.

Apple CD Audio Player

By the time System 7 shipped in 1991, Steve Jobs had long since left Apple, but his appreciation for the finer things in life was still ingrained in the minds of software engineers working on the Mac. One of their creations, the Apple CD Audio Player, brought an unconventional skeuomorphic design to the Mac that allowed users to adjust the color of the apps stereo receiver facade. This was a first for Mac software, and an unusual move for Apple who normally prohibited users from changing the appearance of the Mac OS. The trend of user customizable themes, and skeuomorphic app designs would continue with the release of Mac OS 8.

Mac OS 8

The introduction of Mac OS 8 on July 26, 1997, brought with it the Appearance Manager, and a new face to the Macintosh GUI called Platinum. The Appearance Manager was originally developed for Apple’s failed Copland project. It introduced a layer of abstraction between the Control Manager and QuickDraw allowing users to theme the Mac OS. Platinum, the default theme, introduced 3D elements into the Mac OS GUI through the use of subtle shadows and simple gradients. Platinum wasn’t the only Apple-developed theme though.

Hi-Tech is based on a shades-of-black color scheme that made the interface look like a piece of stereo equipment. Gizmo is a “kids” interface, using lots of bright colors and “wiggly” interface elements. Both changed every single element of the overall GUI leaving no trace of Apple Platinum. A third theme was later introduced, Drawing Board, developed at Apple Japan. This theme uses elements that make the interface look like it has been drawn in pencil on a drafting-board, including small “pencil marks” around the windows, a barely visible grid on the desktop, and “squarish” elements with low contrast. Although none of these themes were included with a released version of Mac OS, the files can be copied from the pre-release versions that contained them and successfully used on retail versions.

The optional themes in Mac OS 8 might have been Apple’s greatest example of skeuomorphism to date, but it was Steve Jobs who decided to officially drop support for themes in order to preserve a consistent user interface. Themeing would live on in later versions of the Classic Mac OS and even into the early days of Mac OS X, but only as third-party extensions and haxies.

QuickTime 4

Intended to showcase the technological improvements of the QuickTime 4.0 multimedia technology, the QuickTime 4.0 Player sported a completely re-imagined user interface designed to look like a "real-world" consumer electronics device. The QuickTime 4.0 interface represented an almost violent departure from the long established standards that had been the hallmark of Apple software by introducing skeuomorphic design elements such as drawers, brushed metal, dials, and borderless windows that would haunt the Macintosh GUI for years to come.

We find this trend toward “consumer” interfaces to be particularly disturbing. The design places a premium on aesthetics over usability. The emphasis is on creating a flashy product, and not on creating a useful and usable product. Rather than asking, “How can we make this look more like a real thing?”, the designers would do their users a far more important service by asking, “How can we make this operate better than the real thing”. To use the QuickTime 4.0 Player as an example, the designers spent far too much time making the software look like a hand-held player, and far too little time examining how they might add utility to such a player. A hand-held player is just that: a player. A software-based multimedia viewer can become an information device. It would appear that this latter approach was never considered in the design of QuickTime.

Apple DVD Player

The Apple DVD Player that shipped with Mac OS 9 went far beyond apps without windows. It shipped with a completely round user interface that more closely resembled the Puck Mouse from the first iMac than a traditional Mac OS application. It is hard to grasp the design decisions made around the Apple DVD Player, and even harder to grasp the app itself. Without a titlebar, or window border to speak of the Apple DVD Player was a skeuomorphic flop that kept users guessing how to drag it off screen long after the movie had started to play. In the age of the candy colored iMacs, and the dawn of brushed metal, Apple emphasized form over function to keep things cool and tide customers over until the arrival of Mac OS X.

iTunes

Another Skeuomorphic design that kept things cool before the arrival of Mac OS X’s Aqua interface was the deeply beveled, brushed metal interface of iTunes 1.0. Complete with jelly bean volume sliders, and Aqua blue accents, iTunes 1.0 looked like something straight out of the future, even running under Mac OS 9. The Faux LCD interface is still a part of iTunes today, but back in version 1.0 the screen was purposely left pixelated to preserve the look of a high-end stereo receiver. (Bitmapped greyscale displays were still a luxury feature on the stereos of 2001.) As an experiment the iTunes user interface was a complete success. Just the right mixture of skeuomorphic cool, combined with the usability of a conventional GUI. iTunes showed the world that skeuomorphic accents could work as long as user interface fundamentals were preserved.

Aqua

Aqua, the Mac OS X user interface, brought many of the accents that made Apple hardware cool and fun to use back to the Mac OS. There were jelly bean buttons, like the CD eject button on the very first iMac. There were translucent colors, like the blue apple on the Power Mac G3, G4, and G4 Cube, There were pinstripes, like those found on all of Apple’s Studio Displays and iMacs shipping at the time. For the first time in history, computer graphics were powerful enough to support photorealistic icons, smooth animations, high-definition textures, and deep drop shadows. Apple didn’t hesitate incorporating these features into Mac OS X, and in doing so changed what we thought of computer interfaces forever. Everything else looked dated in comparison.

As time progressed, the Aqua interface has evolved to reflect the changes in Apple hardware. Gone are the over the top transparencies, deep drop shadows, and distracting pinstripes. Subtle grays, mute reflections, and soft gradients now fill the retina displays of Apple’s latest portables. Some might say that Aqua is not a skeuomorphic interface because it does not resemble a specific real world object. To them I say Aqua is a mirror reflecting back the design decisions that have made Apple’s hardware so appealing over the last 10 years.

Brushed Metal

Despite the abundance of candy colored hues, silky blues, and soft gradients, Mac OS X imprisoned many of its apps in a colder metallic texture for several years. Born in the dark ages of QuickTime, Sherlock, and iTunes, Brushed Metal made its way into the world’s most advanced operating system as an optional interface theme. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines state that the brushed metal interface should be used for programs that mimic the operation of, or interface with, common devices, but that didn’t stop Apple from bringing Brushed Metal to the Finder and Safari in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. Out of all of Apple’s skeuomorphic faults, brushed metal might be the most loathed by long time Mac users. It was retired from Apple’s desktop operating system in October 2007 with the release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.

iOS & Back to the Mac

The runaway success of the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch have introduced a whole new generation of users, both young and old, to modern computing. To help them find their way, Apple has littered their path with real-world objects such as torn paper, Corinthian leather, wooden bookshelves, green tabletop felt, stitched pages, dark linen, reel-to-reel tapedecks, and highway road signs. Apologists for skeuomorphic design maintain that users will more readily be able to transfer their knowledge of real-world objects to software using these helpful guides. Unfortunately, the apologists fail to recognize that there are two likely consequences of this approach:

  1. The user is unable to transfer his or her existing knowledge of computer interaction.
  2. The software becomes needlessly subject to the limitations of the physical device.

With the release of Mountain Lion, Apple is bringing even more "helpful guides" back to the Mac, and needlessly limiting the capabilities of software. With the dawn of the Retina display, and more pixels to fill, I don’t think the trend of skeuomorphic design is going to stop anytime soon, even after the passing of Steve Jobs.

Wed 7/1 My Favorite Tech Support Story

Phone

When I was a Mac Genius, and the Genius Bar was new, a red phone with a direct line to Cupertino used to sit behind the bar. The phone didn’t call anyone important, but it did get you AppleCare Tier 2 support if you got stumped by a customer’s question or needed to ask a inquiry of your own. I never picked up the red phone to ask a technical question, that’s what the internet is for, but I did use it a couple of times to ask procedural questions on pending repairs. Most of these questions could have been answered by email, but when a customer visits the store because their mail-in repair is missing, or they were offered a deal by executive relations[1] the quickest answer is sometimes the phone behind you.

On this occasion I didn’t need to use the red phone at all, it was the customer who was making the phone calls. An elderly couple had sat down at the end of the bar with the tangerine iBook they used for connecting to the internet over AOL dial-up. When I asked them what was the problem he told me in a dry British accent that his computer was "swearing at him and saying the filthiest things."

I asked him if this was before or after he had gotten online, thinking the root of the problem was an inappropriate homepage or some sort of unseen audio pop-up. He said that he could never get online anymore and that when he tried his computer would swear at him several times over the speaker. I didn’t know if I truly believed him, but I went about trying to reproduce the issue anyway.

At first I tried connecting the iBook to the store’s front-of-house ethernet network. Everything worked fine, no swearing. Next I brought out a phone cable and connected to special dial-up server Apple provides for treoubleshooting purposes. Once again the modem worked fine, and the iBook was able to connect to the internet without profanity.

Finally with the phone line still connected I tried using the default ISP phone number AOL had listed and that is when the obscenity began. The phone rang a couple of times over the iBook’s speakers, but instead of being picked up by a computer at the other end a man’s voice answered. He was immediately greeted by the iBook’s computerized hissing, humming, and beeping, and before long lost his patience shouting a long list of profanities into the phone before hanging up.

The iBook’s speaker volume was loud enough that this was heard across the store, and as soon as the lesson in four-letter-words had ended the old gentleman turned to me with a stiff British lip and said "are we doing something wrong?"

I had to hold back my laughter because I immediately knew what was happening. His tangerine iBook was calling a unsuspecting neighbor in the same area code as his AOL ISP. Each time he tried to get online his iBook would call the same man and only answer with the kind of noises a dial-up modem uses to connect to a host server. The recipient had clearly lost his patience after numerous dial-up attempts and resorted to cursing several times before hanging up the phone.

Wed 7/1 ADB the Epitome of Apple

Lightning, the Epitome of Apple is one of the best things John Gruber has written all year.

The Lightning adapter epitomizes what makes Apple Apple. To the company’s fans, it provides elegance and convenience — it’s just so much nicer than micro-USB. To the company’s detractors, it exists to sell $29 proprietary adapters and to further enable Apple’s fetish for device thinness. Neither side is wrong.

Of course Apple wasn’t always this way.

In 1986 Apple needed a low-cost bus for connecting devices like keyboards and mice to its computers. The large headphone-style jack for the Lisa keyboard was too unreliable, and the phone-style jack used for the Macintosh 128K was too fragile. Apple needed a system that was rated for hundreds of insertions that could allow devices to be daisy-chained together without the need for hubs or complicated routing.

It took Steve Wozniak one month on his own to come up with the answer, the Apple Desktop Bus .

In keeping with Apple’s 1980’s philosophy of industrial design, ADB was intended to be as simple to use as possible, while still being inexpensive to implement. Instead of inventing a new port and cable, a suitable connector was found in the form of the 4 pin mini-DIN connector, which was already being used by S-Video .

The connectors were small, widely available, and can only be inserted the “correct way”. They do not lock into position, but even with a friction fit they are firm enough for light duties like those intended for ADB.

ADB could be implemented for less than a penny because Apple sold the decoding transceiver ASIC at a loss to encourage peripheral development and their own economy of scale. Can you imagine today’s Apple selling the Lightening adapter at a loss?

ADB’s protocol required only a single pin for data, labeled ADB . Two of the other pins were used for +5 V power supply and ground. The +5 V pin guaranteed at least 500 mA, and required devices to use only 100 mA each. ADB also included the PSW pin which was attached directly to the power supply of the host computer. This was included to allow a key on the keyboard to start up the machine without needing the ADB software to interpret the signal.

The ability to turn on the computer from the keyboard without the need of extra wires was one of the classier advancements Apple made to the personal computing industry. This capability was carried forth into the introduction of USB , but was lost around the same time the iMac G4  was introduced. Despite advances made in the new Mac Pro , it is a pain you still have to reach around back to turn it on.

Most serial digital interfaces use a separate clock pin to signal the arrival of individual bits of data. However, Wozniak decided that a separate wire for a clock signal was not necessary; and as ADB was designed to be low-cost, it made economical sense to leave it out. Like modems, the system locked onto the signal rise and fall times to recreate a clock signal.

Data rates on the bus were theoretically as high as 125 kbit/s. However, the actual speed was at best half that due to there being only one pin being shared between the computer and devices, and in practice throughput was even less as the entire system was driven by how fast the computer polled the bus. The Mac OS was not particularly well suited to this task, and the bus often got bogged down at about 10 kbit/s.

This slow data transfer rate limited ADB to the kind of devices it was originally intended; mice, keyboards, graphics tablets, joysticks, and software protection dongles .

Another problem with ADB was that despite having all of the basic capabilities needed for hot-swapping, you should never plug or unplug a ADB device once the system was on. Doing so could cause the opening of a soldered-in fuse on the motherboard, and a costly out-of-warranty repair.

In addition the ADB mini-DIN connector was only rated for 400 insertions and it was easy to bend a pin if not inserted with care. Sockets could become loose over time resulting in intermittent function, and while ADB cannot be plugged in the "wrong way," it is possible to have trouble finding the right way without looking inside the circular connector’s shroud.

The first system to use ADB was the Apple IIGS in 1986. It was subsequently used on all Apple Macintosh machines starting with the Macintosh II and Macintosh SE . ADB was also used on a number of other 680x0 -based microcomputers including later models of NeXT computers .

The first Macintosh to move away from ADB was the iMac in 1998, which featured USB in its place. The last Apple computer to have an ADB port was the "Yosemite" Power Macintosh G3  in 1999. No machines being built today use ADB, but up until February 2005, PowerBooks and iBooks still used the ADB protocol in the internal interface with the built-in keyboard and touchpad.

ADB epitomizes the Woz-era Apple of the 1970s and 80s, "intended to be as simple to use as possible, while still being inexpensive to implement." ADB may not be considered elegant when compared to modern connections like Lightening or USB, but it was designed to meet the customer’s basic needs at a lower cost. A philosophy foreign to the Apple we have today.

Mon 6/29 GoJGo

Favorite

My friend Stephen Hackett has a son who could have easily become an archived medical record number at any major children’s hospital. At six months old, baby Josiah was diagnosed with a Glioma Astrocytoma (brain cancer). He was unable to use the left side of his body. The doctors believed that he wouldn’t be able to see out of his left eye, that he wouldn’t be able to walk, and that he would lose his battle with cancer before his 3rd birthday.

Today, thanks to God’s blessing and the dedication of the people at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Josiah is more than just a number. He just celebrated 6th birthday. He is chasing his Uncle around the house. He is smiling in photos taken by his father. He is being held in his mother’s arms. And he is running with his sister through the laundry hanging on the line. Some people would say Josiah’s recovery is a miracle, but his fight for survival is a battle not yet won.

Josiah has undergone extensive treatment and care at St. Jude. He has been through brain surgery, shunt replacement, g-tube placement, port installation, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, countless hours of physical therapy, and a truckload of medications he must take every day for the rest of his life. As an outpatient, Josiah’s medical bills alone have reached over TWO MILLION DOLLARS. If it wasn’t for his proximity to St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee, he would have spent the majority of his young life living in a hospital, and his family would owe even more for his transportation and stay.

As of today, Josiah Hackett and his family don’t owe a thing. St. Jude doesn’t charge a family any more than their insurance will cover. That means that my friend Stephen has not paid a CENT in over FIVE YEARS for his son’s treatment and NEVER WILL! St. Jude covers not just the cost of treatment, medication, and PT, but the price of transportation to Memphis and all of the living expenses including meals. Imagine what it costs to send a hospital full of young cancer patients and their families to St. Jude for treatment, housing, food, and care. It should be no surprise that St. Jude spends over 1.7 MILLION DOLLARS a day towards caring.

I am asking for your help in raising money for St. Jude and to save a child’s life. Cancer is not a number. It is a terrible disease that is robbing us of our children and stealing away our future. Even if you don’t see the face of Cancer every day, you know the smiles of children we can’t afford to let slip away.

Last year I reached my goal by raising $5,000 for St. Jude. This year I hope to do the same. I have already donated another towards Josiah’s treatment, and look forward to spending the next several months training for December 5th when I can fly down to Memphis and run 26.2 miles with Josiah on my mind. In the past I have run races for myself, but this time I am doing it for a little boy with brain cancer who needs our help. Please consider giving what you can. If not for me, Stephen, Josiah, or St. Jude, then to fight a terrible disease that is stealing our children’s future one smile at a time.