WWDC 2014 Wishlist

My first Apple product was the original iPod touch. I just missed out on the iPod with video a few years earlier, buying instead the COWON iAudio X5 (seriously) because, well, it played video and the iPod at the time didn’t. It wasn’t the first time I consciously chose a non-Apple product over an Apple product. It was, however, the first time I’d been reluctant to make that decision—a reluctance which marked a significant turning point in my relationship with Apple.

Since then, every new computer and gadget I’ve acquired or recommended has come from Apple. I’ve now owned several Macbook Pros, iPhones, and iPads to go along with an iPod and an Apple TV. They’re hardly perfect, but individually they outshine their competition and collectively the whole is surely greater than the sum of its parts. The software, hardware, and ecosystem work together as a polyglot array of products from Microsoft and Google and Amazon that might exceed a spec here or offer a feature there that Apple doesn’t have yet simply can’t.

Microsoft is in turmoil. Google is weird. Amazon is cheap. If you have to pick a horse, you could do a lot worse than Apple. With that in mind, let’s talk about everything that drives me crazy about Apple software that they can fix this year.

iOS

Despite being Apple’s focal area for the last seven years, iOS still has the most room for improvement, at least superficially. As my iOS devices also outnumber my OS X devices 3:2, let’s start there.

Multiple Accounts

You know that Samsung commercial about multiple accounts on a single device? Nail, head. I bought the original iPad a few months after canonizing it in this post. It was everything anyone could have wanted. Size, capability, price—everything exceeded our expectations at the time. It was revolutionary. I could forgive a lot in a machine that did so much so well. But when major version after major version of iOS rolled by without so much as a hint that more than one person might want to use my—nay, the family—iPad, it became more difficult to explain that particular liability away. The earliest, baseline iPads didn’t have much storage space. The RAM was paltry. What, pray tell, could possibly be the reason we don’t have the option to at least switch the iPad into guest mode? The only answers that make sense aren’t satisfying. Either Apple genuinely believes every man, woman, and child should own his or her own personal iPad, or the interface challenge so easily solved on your Macbook befuddles the highly lauded designers of iOS. I can’t accept either of those answers. Apple, get it right in iOS 8: multiple user accounts.

Pinned Apps

Did you know you can see and use apps side-by-side on other tablet operating systems? It’s true. Again, given the constraints of the early models and the desire to make the iPad easy for everyone to use, enforcing a one-app-at-a-time policy made a lot of sense. As the capabilities of the iPad increase, so should our own. It’s time to put away childish things. The iPad should allow us to write a blog post while referencing an email, to watch a video while keeping up with Twitter, to message a friend while seeing the pictures she took in your photo stream. The power and real estate is available. The ability to pin apps at 25 and 50 percent of the screen is a necessary step in the evolution of tablets from toys to general purpose computers. It’s not complicated.

Widgets

To steal another page from Google and Microsoft: where are the widgets? It’s fine to argue that the simplicity of iOS’s launcher is part of its charm, or even that it makes iOS accessible to more people. But I don’t buy it. Consider the following hypothetical: you follow your local baseball team. You like to know the score. You don’t like to be interrupted every time the inning ends or someone scores or a home run is hit. You just want to casually reach into your pocket, look at your phone, and see the score on the home screen. That’s right. On. The. Home. Screen. Or the weather or your favorite tech company’s stock price or the latest world news story or maybe a picture of your kid that your wife just took. The iOS launcher is painfully simplistic in a world where rich data is everywhere. You can do this, Apple. We believe in you.

Siri

My vision for Siri (from 2011) hasn’t changed, and Microsoft just shipped* it. A selection from that post:

Voice-driven user interfaces were fantasy or science fiction at best. Now, we have one that works reasonably well within a narrow enough context. Even better, Siri is available on the computer we carry with us all the time rather than the one sitting on a desk. Yet, for now, the magic actually takes place not on this pocketable device but instead on battalions of servers in a distant data center. The delays we experience while using Siri are crucial. Audio files of the sounds recorded by Siri as we uhm and uhh our way through asking her to do us a favor need to be shipped across the Internet, processed into her best guess at the words we intended to communicate, submitted to her vast database for comparison with all possible ways we could have asked her assistance, and, eventually, offered back to us as a discrete action she is able to take on our behalf.

That Siri works at all is a tribute to modern advancements in processing strength, power consumption, and network speed and ubiquity. That Siri is not yet the omnipresent, omniscient, omnicapable Computer of Star Trek is in all likelihood a difference in scale not kind. It is not unthinkable to imagine a future only a few years from now in which a device the size of the iPhone can remove the quirks and sources of friction we currently experience. With better batteries, more storage, faster processors, smarter algorithms, and speedier connections, it may not guaranteed to happen, but who will deny the realistic possibility?

*is going to ship

Please read the whole thing. We’re just scratching the surface of conversational interfaces. Everything I wrote at the time still applies. Siri still needs an API. Siri should still be processed on device when possible. Siri should still anticipate our needs like Google Now. Apple built (or bought) something pretty good. Imagine how much better Siri could be, though, and you see how far we still have to go.

Coherent Notifications

The roller coaster ride we’ve been on with notifications is a little nauseating. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to get off. My current setup involves very, very few notifications. Partly that’s a result of seeing the decreasing utility in notifications in general, but partly that’s a result of the absolute mess notifications are in iOS 7. For all the progress iOS 7 made in putting frequently used items at hand, the new notification center has been a disaster. That said, I don’t have any particular recommendations for improving it. Notifications need to be improved in both big and small ways. Live tiles or widgets would go a long way toward reducing notification noise. The rumored consolidation of the “All” and “Missed” panes makes sense to me. Better yet, I think, would be separating the “Today” and notifications areas into different gestures or apps. Bring back the left-to-right edge swipe for “Today”? I don’t know, but I hope Apple does.

General App Improvements

Adjustable map routes, better App Store search and discovery, a slew of user experience enhancements already present in third-party apps would be welcome additions to Calendar, Mail, Notes, etc. . There are any (large) number of refinements that can and should be made in iOS 8. To be honest, though, I’m mostly concerned about the big stuff. I’d like to see a conceptual leap in iOS 8 to match the visual leap in iOS 7. I’ve no doubt Apple has a roadmap for where they see iOS going. Many of the features I conjure in my crystal ball likely aren’t on it, however, and that’s a shame.

OS X

My OS X wishlist is shorter but no less ambitious. Let’s start with the easy stuff.

Reliability

Along with everyone else, I’ve had some hiccups on a brand new, mostly stock (retina) Macbook Pro: occasional menu bar display weirdness, wifi trouble, and—most disconcertingly—several system crashes. That’s not acceptable in 2014. Mavericks was a tremendous leap forward in battery life and performance. If the next version of OS X was nothing but updated aesthetics and reliability, I wouldn’t complain. That said, I’ve got a few requests as long as we’re all here.

Coherent Window Management

I’ve been a decade-long user of window management utilities to help me juggle and snap the various applications I have open at any given time. My current go-to app is Moom. Not being able to snap windows to the device’s sides natively is an inconvenience for me and a serious handicap to casual users. I’ve never been a fan of Apple’s window management strategy—Exposé, Mission Control, the Dock—they’re all just ineffectual bandages on self-inflicted bullet wounds. Maybe a little less choice and flexibility in this situation is better. I’m grasping at straws here, but I feel at least that Apple’s heart is in the right place. Anything that can be done to make window management less painful for novice users is a step in the right direction.

Cloud File Management

Dropbox may be a feature not a product, but it’s one feature Apple has been completely unable to adequately replicate over the years. I have two terabytes of video files and who knows how many gigabytes of photos. Every computer in my house (save one) is made by Apple. When it comes to the storage and safe-keeping of these files, I’m completely on my own. My wife and I share hundreds of other, non-media files via Dropbox. As I (and most likely you as well) do with your immediate and extended family, your friends and acquaintances, colleagues and business partners. Apple has a vested interested (the most vested interest possible), in providing a first-party solution to this problem. Ideally it would be free, at least for the majority of people, but even some kind of paid solution is preferable to nothing at all. A decent cloud storage solution is table stakes today. It’s time for Apple to up the ante.

Hybrid iOS / OS X Mode

Aha! I’ve saved the best for (almost) last. Bootcamp for iOS! I don’t know if Apple will ever make a device with a detachable keyboard and a touchscreen, but they absolutely should. Call it the iPad Pro or the Macbook touch or whatever their precious marketing hearts desire. One device should be capable of running both operating systems. No doubt there’s a non-trivial amount of work to do figuring out how shared storage can work, whether (and how) to accept touch input in desktop mode, what kind of awesome stylus should be included (haha. ha?), and myriad more questions. It may be beyond debate that keyboard + lap mode and lean-back-and-touch mode are separated by an unbridgeable gulf, but that hardly means one device can’t switch between modes. Using an external keyboard and iOS is possible right now. One of these days it’s going to be possible for both operating systems to share the same hardware. When that happens, Apple’s product line is suddenly going to be a lot clearer, and people that struggle to decide between for a 10” iPad and an 11” Macbook Air will have the best of both worlds.

There’s a lot of fertile ground in the hardware space that won’t be explored during WWDC or likely any time this year. Apple’s reluctance to merge touch interfaces with traditional point-and-click interfaces has been a wise course for many years, but it’s not one I believe is sustainable forever. Touch is a fantastic tool (as is voice). Someone, somewhere, someday is going to harmonize these inputs into a single device running a single operating system. Apple’s strategy tax may ultimately prevent them from being the ones to do it, but I wouldn’t rule them out.

Apple TV

The shortcomings of the Apple TV are well-documented, especially recently. No third-party apps, no games, no voice search, no RF / Bluetooth remote, minimally viable hardware. I don’t want to dwell on those things. For me, the little black box below my TV has been an unqualified success. AirPlay is the only thing that matters. As long as it works, I’m happy. Having said that, any improvements are welcome; particularly improvements that injure the satellite and cable television industry. For all I know, Apple may view the Apple TV as a permanent accessory to its iPhone / iPad / laptop lines. If the streaming ability improves enough, I don’t even think I mind.

Coda

That’s it. Those are my pain points, the ones that it seems like a company with more money than Midas should have addressed long ago. With Google’s ongoing investment in design, Microsoft’s renewed focus, and Amazon’s willingness to push margins to zero, Apple has its work cut out. I don’t have any particular allegiance to Apple, but at this point I do have a lot invested in the company’s products. I like their devices, I (mostly) like their software, and I like the way they take care of business as a company. I wouldn’t say I’m rooting for them as much as I’m rooting for myself. Computers that make my life simpler are good. Nobody is better positioned than Apple to make my life simpler. Let’s see what June brings us.

 

The Category Moat

That’s the key. The fact that it’s so hard to think outside of a category is the moat. Staying focused on why you made the features you did, what specific situations call for them, and how that combo creates progress for people requires diligence and confidence and unyielding attention to actual behavior. Sticking to the truth of the matter instead of the walls of a category keeps you on your own path and away from the pitfalls of conventional thinking. That’s hard to compete with.

For five years, every dollar I’ve made has come from one of the companies Jay and I started together. The very real and disconcerting peril of coming up short is a constant, nagging cloud. Yet each day my thoughts drift past our costs and revenues and come to rest on what those companies mean to me and to our customers. Harmonizing the product, the business plan, and the people is excruciating. A thousand thousand shortcuts beckon. To what end, though? A banal, lowest-common-denominator product? A conventional culture? No, we press on to the truth of the matter.

pCell

What in the world is he talking about? “What else is radio used for besides communication?” I asked myself. Nothing, besides radio astronomy. But then I asked myself “What else could radio be used for?” and the answer became clear: wireless power transmission!

Super-fast Internet connections and, oh yeah, wireless power.

“10 Years of Coding Horror”

One of my philosophies is to always pick the choice that scares you a little. The status quo, the path of least resistance, the everyday routine — that stuff is easy. Anyone can do that. But the right decisions, the decisions that challenge you, the ones that push you to evolve and grow and learn, are always a little scary.

Big fan, Jeff. Big fan.

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor

Years from now—maybe in a decade, maybe sooner—if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built will be switched on in an Alpine forest in the South of France. The machine, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons—more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower. At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful that it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius—more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.

I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction lately. This is (not?) one of those things.