Thursday, August 08, 2013

Mediocrity Creeps Back: A Review of iPhoto '11

iPhoto, You've Changed...

I led the original team that built iPhoto 1.0 (I have the custom-printed T-shirt and scars to prove it). I still use iPhoto and I still love it, 12 years later.  But I also have some criticisms.  For the record, I was responsible for iPhoto 1.0 through (I think) iPhoto 4.0, but I have not worked at Apple since the end of 2003.

I just now started using iPhoto '11 because I have resisted updating to Lion and Mountain Lion (I still like Snow Leopard better). But I bought a new laptop, so I'm using all the new stuff, like it or not. I mention this only because my perspective on iPhoto '11 is fresh, having just started using it.

Overall, my impression of iPhoto '11 is that it has some interesting new features that I won't use, and some old ones that I wish would go away (Face Recognition), but worse, the user interface has gradually degraded. It is pretty, and it is "easy to use", but it does not strike the right balance between power and ease of use.  It just isn't as good as previous versions, for the same level of functionality.

The mantra for iPhoto 1.0 was essentially that the user interface should disappear — photos are something you look at, so you want a very visual interface, with more photo, less UI.  This is the balance that is largely missing in iPhoto '11.  There is much more UI, and a lot less Photo.

The biggest problem is that the tools in iPhoto '11 are inside the area used for the photo itself, so if you click on Info or Edit, the photo gets [dramatically] smaller to make room for the tools.  This is maybe good for "ease of use", but bad for "usability".  The buttons in the Edit panel are way wider than they need to be, because the Info/Edit space is fixed size — but what a waste of space for labeled buttons that say things like "Crop" and "Adjust".

In the screen shots here, you can see the photo before and after the Info button is clicked, and how much the photo is reduced in size.

The whole point of iPhoto is the photos -- they should be as large as possible.  Calculating the area in pixels, I see that the photo occupies only 42.9% of the pixels within the window.  Less than half of the area of the screen is devoted to the photo!  It's much worse when a photo is in Portrait orientation — only 30% of the available pixels are used for the photograph!

A couple of versions back, the Adjust user interface was a floating panel, and the other features (like Crop and Enhance) were along the bottom bar, using far less screen real estate. The functionality of this new vertical strip of space is the same, but its use of space is dramatically worse. This is a step in the wrong direction. I know how decisions like this are made: in the name of "consistency".  Put all the features in the same piece of real estate, because they are similar.  But this is a programmer's point of view, not necessarily a user's point of view, and if it has consequences like reducing the amount of space to display the photo (and also changing the view when you Edit, so it changes size up and down as you're viewing) then it is a bad decision.  To quote the late Steve Jobs, "consistency is overrated."

Next topic: Manage Keywords:

Where did these keywords come from? I certainly didn't create them, and I don't want to look through them, much less use them.  What the heck is this?!  It's surprising, confusing, and useless. The keywords bear a vague resemblance to some of my photos, including words such as "barrel" and "cloud", leading me to believe that there is some kind of feature recognition going on — like face recognition but for barrels and clouds — that suggests these keywords for me to use.


And if the features are all now in the window as Edit and Create and Add To (which I don't like, obviously) why are Keywords in their own floating panel?  Why not put Adjust back in a floating panel, which is better than where it is now, since I can see my photo better?  There isn't much cohesive thought going into these features, or their arrangement.  I suspect Design By Committee.

I could find fault with many more features, as everything I look at has gotten slightly more cluttered, less good, or otherwise muddled, but I will stop there on the laundy list, and consider the more philosophical underpinnings of these choices...


Software design is about making tradeoffs: space vs. accessibility, speed vs. fidelity, ease of use vs. power. We thought a lot about these issues 10-12 years ago, and struck a good balance where you mostly saw your photos, and didn't have a bunch of useless features.  I think that balance has gradually eroded since then, each release being slightly less good than the one that came before it. It is amusing, and saddening, to see some of the tradeoffs that we made so long ago being reversed — with the outcome that was predicted those long years ago:

Maybe it's slightly easier to find the Adjust controls (which you only need to do once ever), and it's more consistent now (which doesn't matter that much), but the photo is now a lot smaller when you're editing it — and that's not worth it!  Bad tradeoff.

Sort Photos...

One of the few anecdotes I tell about Steve Jobs is from iPhoto 1.0, when we were just about to ship it. And I mean just about to ship it!  It was December, and we were in Golden Master Candidate 3 or something close to that.  No more changes, other than very high-priority bug fixes, and those only cautiously.  We had a Sort Photos submenu, just exactly as it appears in iPhoto '11

Steve was going through the menus one final time before we shipped it, and he stopped on this submenu.  The conversation went something like this:

Steve: "What is this menu for?"
Glenn: "So you can sort your photos by different things."
Steve [looking through them]: "They are sorted by Date by default, right?"
Glenn: "Yes."
Steve: "Get rid of that menu item" [Sort By Date]
Glenn: "Okay."
Steve: "Why would you want to Sort By Caption?"
Glenn: "I can't think of any good reason to sort by caption"
Steve: "Get rid of it."
Glenn: "Okay."
Steve: "Why would you want to sort by any of these other things?"
Glenn: [some lame possibilities provided]
Steve: "Get rid of the whole menu."
Glenn: "I can do that easily, as you know, in Interface Builder — but the documentation, particularly the localized documentation, will need to be changed, too, and we don't have enough time for that."
Steve: [after a few moments thought]: "Fuck the French and German documentation."

So of course we made the change, and of course Cheryl Thomas' team managed to update the French and German documentation on time anyway, by working late hours, and we shipped it without the Sort Photos submenu.  I realized that Steve was right, that you really didn't need to sort your photos by this and that, when there were already so many other ways to organize and view your photos, and probably few people would ever use the Sort Photos menu, and all it did was clutter up the application.

So it seems odd to me that the Sort Photos menu is now back, and Steve is gone. It makes me sad, considering both of those points.  Will mediocrity start to take over, now that he is gone? It is as though Sort Photos won out, in the end.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mobile is the Future! Or is it?

I hear this every day: "The future is mobile."  Yahoo is getting on that train now, everybody is getting on board.  I am not so sure this is a smart bet in the long term, unless you're betting against the U.S. economy.  Here's why I think that.

The information economy is a combination of two basic things:

  1. Doing work and producing things.
  2. Talking about work, and talking about producing things.
The United States, as a whole, has been transitioning from (1) to (2) over the past 50 years, although we are also, to some extent, reinventing the ways in which we do work and produce things, in digital terms. But the transition away from production toward "making money as a sir effect of other people producing things" is showing pretty strong.
After everything is said and done, there's always a lot more said than done. 
You can make a case that mortgage-backed securities, insurance, Gmail, Facebook, Goldman Sachs as a whole, and Skype are all Category 2 activities, as are the meetings in which we all spend half our days, talking about what we're going to do.

You can also make a good case that Tesla Motors, Make Magazine, SpaceX, and Google Glass  are proof that we're making a resurgence back to Category 1 production-based roots.

But this is all backdrop against which I am considering the computer industry itself, the purveyor of tools for the information economy: where is the growth market for people using computing technology: Category 1, or Category 2, and which way is it trending?

I believe that real computers -- laptops and desktops -- will hold a firm grip on the part of the economy that actually produces work product, whether it's manufacturing or spreadsheets, images, video, or the written word. You need a real keyboard, a big screen, and a file system to "do work".

Mobile platforms, on the other hand, are great for communication, keeping up in real time, touching base, chatting, updating status, checking in. You just can't actually type a paragraph or edit anything meaningful.

The real reason that Mobile is a high-growth area right now, outselling computers and seeming like a trend, is that people are backfilling a void that has existed, where these tools were not part of the workflow -- and also that the phones/tablets themselves have short-life obsolescence built in, so you need to update them a lot more often.

But I simply do not believe that mobile technology is replacing desktop/laptop technology. I think it is augmenting it, as a better communications platform, which is why the phone itself has proven to be the perfect platform for this: it's communications technology, not work-producing technology.

If you believe that people doing real work and producing things is disappearing and we're all going to just be talking about it on our tablets and phones -- and if you're actually right about that -- then I'm moving to some other country.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Blow up your TV. Throw Away Your Paper. Move to the Country.

A hear a lot of complaining recently about Google and Facebook and how evil they might be, and how they are taking over the world, and invading your privacy, and blah blah blah.

News flash: using a credit card is far more invasive of your privacy than anything on the internet. They know everything about you at Visa, and they sell it to everybody else.  It has been going on for a long time, and you don't seem to care. Facebook has very little information, comparatively.  Quit worrying about it.

The internet is the TV of the new generation. Remember when hippies were yelling about turning off the "boob tube" and how it was rotting our collective brains and how TV alone would destroy modern civilization?  Farmville is equivalent to "Green Acres".  The internet is equivalent to TV -- it is an entertainment medium, supported by advertising. The only real difference is that TV has become really expensive (yet still ad-supported) and the internet is still mostly free.  Though I suppose Comcast has their hands in both of those pockets, don't they?

You don't have to use Google search, or Gmail, or Google Calendars, or any of the rest of it.  You don't.  But you can if you want to, and it's [mostly] free, so why not?

It's just that simple.  People need to shut up and make their choices.  Watch TV if you want to.  Create a Tumblr if you want to.  And if you don't want to, or are worried about your privacy, then don't.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Adobe Creative Cloud 1 - First Impressions

Adobe is really launching the Creative Cloud with CS6.  I decided to have a look.  I'm a very long-term power user of Adobe products, so I have been very curious to see what the Creative Cloud is all about.

The first thing you have to deal with (note that I didn't say "enjoy") is the Adobe Application Manager.  It's a little bit better than its predecessor, but stills seems to think that it is better about downloading apps than, say, the browser. I'm not sure I agree.  It also has some issues (see below).

I have a pretty strong feeling that it brought down my internet connection, which is normally rock solid.  I clicked on a large number of apps to download (who wouldn't, with a new Cloud offering?), and after a few minutes and one successful download/install, the internet connection was hung up so badly that I had to hard reset the Comcast router.  Maybe that was a coincidence.  I started a whole bunch of downloads after reboot, to see.

The next thing I noticed is that two of the apps that I downloaded -- directly from Adobe -- needed updates immediately after I downloaded them!  What's up with that?!

Adobe Lightroom 4.4 shows that it downloaded, but the "Launch App" link is grayed out, and the app seems not to be present in the Applications folder (!?).

This is a fairly major problem because (1) it seems not to have installed the app, and (2) I can't click "Install" because there is no Install link.  Re-launching the Application Manager shows Lightroom 4.4 as "Up to date" but it's not in Applications and I don't believe it's installed.  This seems like a MAJOR BUG.  IT also shows Photoshop and Illustrator and Flash Professional and Premiere all need Updates.  Aaaargh!  I *just* downloaded them, guys!

The installer should have links that take you to a page describing these apps.  I didn't know what Prelude was, or Muse, or Audition, and there was no way to find out from the Application Manager, which is where I was making the download decisions.  The Application Manager also has a fixed-size window.  Why?  It has a scroll bar (more content than will fit) and I have a huge screen. It's annoying to have to scroll to see things that I have plenty of room to see.  How hard is it to make the window resizable?  They even disable the green "maximize" button, which is harder to do, programmatically, than to actually make the window resizable.  And the names of three of their apps don't fit in the window without ellipses (...), which would display easily if I could resize the window (see screen shot above).  A little thing, perhaps, but after 25+ years of app development, you'd think Adobe would be leading the way on UX design, not trailing behind the pack on basic usability issues.

The next thing I noticed is that Dreamweaver CS6 is a lot like CS5.  A lot.  I'm not a big Dw user, but I haven't noticed any differences at all so far.  It's the first app that downloaded so it's the first I'm trying out.  I'll try some of the others.

Hmmm.  There are some serious glitches in mainstay applications that I discover within seconds of using them:

  • If you drag a file onto Photoshop to open it, the app launches but does not open the file.  This behavior has worked (on the Mac) for 20 years. After it is running, if I drop the same file onto Photoshop, it opens.  Bug.
  • The cursor in Illustrator displays with a really bad artifact.  I suspect it's because my "graphics card is not supported", which I learned from Photoshop, but not from Illustrator.  I have a Mac Pro that is about six years old, and works with literally every other app that I have ever tried.  Sorry, Adobe, but "fail".  Below this list is a screen shot of the cursor artifact.  Unusable, right?

All in all, I'm not terribly impressed by the quality of this major release.  Luckily I still have my CS5 apps installed.  I think I'll be going back to them, and possibly canceling my subscription -- a definite downside to the subscription model.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Starbucks Pisses Me Off [and is forgiven]

I have been a VERY loyal Starbucks customer for many years, as anyone who knows me will attest. I say good things about them.  I am a brand ambassador for them.  I go to Starbucks every day, though I took a few months off for health reasons at the end of last year.

My drink for the past couple of years has been a "triple short no-whip mocha" which seems to fall into the cracks of their policies, because I like a small amount of milk, but it costs as much as a Venti with 3 shots.  I pay $4.65 for an 8-ounce coffee drink.  Every day.  By conservative estimate, I spend about $1500/year at Starbucks.

But that's not what I'm pissed about.  That's just background.

A few years back, I bought a Gold Card when they cost $25.  It gave me a 10% discount on all purchases.  I loved it.

Since then, I've watched as they changed the "rewards program" to reward me less and less for my loyalty.  First they got rid of the 10% discount in favor of a free drink every time you bought 10 drinks, but they mailed you a post card to redeem to freebie, knowing that few people would get it together to redeem the post cards. Then it was 12 drinks, now I think it is up to 13 drinks.  But it gets worse.

There now is some kind of minimum threshold you have to meet to maintain "gold status", which is 30 stars within some time frame.  As if somehow I am no longer a "gold customer", which by most retail standards I certainly am.  They have my history in their little computers, since I always use my card (now the app) for my purchases.

Here's what pisses me off.  Yesterday I was getting close to a free drink, I noticed in the little app.  Two more stars to go.  Woo hoo!  Today I bought a $4.65 mocha, a panini sandwich, and a water, and used my app to pay....

I got an incredibly unfriendly alert that popped up and said, "You have failed to meet the minimum criteria to maintain membership.  Your reward stars have been reset to 0."

I stared at it in disbelief.  This is how they reward their best customers!  Gamification is one thing, but actually penalizing me for not earning 30 stars in some arbitrary amount of time -- and how exactly am I supposed to do that if you reset my count to 0?

This is appalling to me, and actually made me upset, right there at the cash register.  I got totally, completely pissed off at Starbucks, and vowed to boycott them.

Is that what you want with your "Rewards" program, Starbucks?  To piss off one of your best customers with your little star program, to the point where he doesn't want to come back into your stores, and will be considering Peet's or some other worthy competitor from now on?

Congratulations to your brain-dead rewards marketing team for totally screwing up what once really did feel like a "gold" program, and made me happy to buy coffee at absurdly inflated prices.  No more.  No more.

[Epilogue/update: 5/2/13]

A friend happened to post something on Starbucks wall at almost the same time yesterday that I posted this, complaining in almost the same way about no longer wanting to remain loyal to Starbucks.  I put a comment on her post, mentioning this blog entry.  I think a Starbucks employee must have read my comment, and this blog post, because I got the below email today.  I am undecided whether or not this suggests great customer service and I am happy again (a possibility) or whether it is impersonal (no actual contact from customer service, just this email) and lame and would not have happened had I not complained publicly.  Whether or not I am Gold is somewhat beside the point -- they need to seriously revisit the reward system because it is not, in fact, set up to reward actual loyal customers; it's more like a video game where you can periodically get a "game over" screen and have to replay the whole level.  Who wants that in a coffee rewards system?

My Starbucks Rewards? Rewards Status Check Balance Reload a Card Send an eGift
Here's to another glowing year at Gold. Raise a mug to celebrate.
Thanks for staying. The 30 Stars you earned keeps you at the Gold level another year. Here's to another year of rewards galore.

You're on a roll, so keep earning those Stars. Another 30 within a year keeps you at Gold level for yet another year. We're hoping this will be a happily ever after type of thing.

[Epilogue/update: 5/22/13]

I've decided I forgive Starbucks, and have reloaded my card twice since posting this article.  The baristas are great, and overall it's a great company.