Tag Archives: apple

The End of Being Organized

Software is getting better and better at helping manage your life, so that you don’t need stay as organized as you used to. In fact, this article from one tech journalist is even titled “stay disorganized.” In the abstract, this is a good thing. Why should people have to remember stuff, or spend time organizing their lives, when computers can do it for them? Isn’t that one of the reasons we have computers…to do the boring stuff for us? But for people who are really organized, like me, this means that technology is taking away one of our comparative advantages. Historically I have been more productive than average, since I was really organized about my work. Now technology has reduced that advantage.

I think the first step in this direction was when Google introduced Desktop in 2004. It searched your PC much faster than the old Windows Explorer search, so that you could find files (word docs, spreadsheets, etc.) even if you couldn’t remember where you saved them or what you named them. That was awesome, except that I already knew where all my files were, because I was an aggressive user of folders and subfolders (sharp-eyed readers know that I have previously commented on folder people vs. non-folder people). Thanks to Desktop, the five minutes I spent working while someone else was searching for a spreadsheet was reduced to five seconds. My productivity advantage disappeared.

Then Google brought that functionality to email (no folders at all when Gmail launched), again eliminating the advantage of my clever folder systems. And now we are seeing apps that apply that same computerized organization to your entire life. What if you forgot to print a travel itinerary, or even write down your flight number? No problem, Google Now will do all that for you. So much for my advantage of having a detailed itinerary prepared, breezing me to my destination ahead of everyone else. EasilyDo and its competitors will help manage your duplicate contacts, remind you of your mom’s birthday, and even buzz you when you haven’t returned your CEO’s phone call.

For society, this is great, freeing up space in people’s brains to write, or cure cancer, or develop more organizational apps. For me, it’s a disaster. I had one claim to fame – being organized – and now it’s gone. I guess I need to find an old has-been app.

Folder People vs. Non-Folder People

In reading reviews of the new Apple OS X (Lion), I was struck by how many reviewers mentioned the All My Files, Mission Control and Launchpad features, all of which display files and applications in a way so that users don’t have to organize their work in folders. I was reminded of when Gmail first came out, and everyone talked about how it didn’t have folders, because you could just search for whatever email you wanted to see.

This was alien to me. I have always organized my work in folders, both in my computer and in real life. When I worked in finance, each new deal got its own accordion file into which went a series of manila folders: due diligence, projections, legal issues, etc. So organizing my computer files and email into folders and sub-folders seemed completely natural to me. How else could you display your work on a computer?

Folders. Very neat, very organized. Even with a mustache.

And there I went, blithely assuming that everyone was comfortable with the folder metaphor. Sometimes I would look at someone’s computer where the desktop was a mass of unorganized icons, but I assumed that was an aberration; I must have just caught them in the middle of a crazy project.

It wasn’t until I read about computer scientist David Gelernter that I realized there might be other ways to look at your information. He developed something called Lifestreams in order “to minimize the time users spend managing their documents.” Lifestreams dumped the file and folder metaphor in favor of “a time-ordered stream of documents.” That seemed crazy to me – I would much rather look for documents “from Project Neptune” than “from sometime in 2003, which I think is when I worked on Neptune” – but it was clear that other people, even computer science people, didn’t think that way.

It appears that lots of people don’t think the way I do. Maybe most people. But whether the count is lots or most, clearly many would prefer to avoid the folder metaphor. To quote from one review of Lion, “The addition and prominence of “All My Files” is yet another vote of no-confidence in the user’s ability to understand and navigate the file system.”

So let’s add another dichotomy into which we can divide people: folder people vs. non-folder people. While improvements in search technology may eventually make this distinction obsolete, right now it seems like the non-folderites have the upper hand, with user interface designers catering to them. That’s fine, as long as folder capability still exists. But if that capability disappears, folder thinkers will have no choice but to rise up and let the Lifestreamers tremble. We have nothing to lose but our files!

Do Angel Investors Make Technology Shallow?

Just two days ago I wrote about super angels potentially crowding out VCs in the funding of technology companies, and I noted that this dynamic was mostly relevant to consumer internet companies rather than hardware companies. And I didn’t even mention biotech, medical device or energy companies, most of which take far more capital than even the superest of angels could provide.

Now, lo and behold, a former Gartner analyst comes out with an article about how Silicon Valley is too focused on consumer internet, on “the glitz and the superficial,” rather than on solving big problems, like medical and environmental ones. He notes that the new innovators in those areas are big companies, who are focusing their R&D budgets on these big problems with big markets, rather than entrepreneurs, who are focusing their energies on figuring out the best way to get you to “check in” at your local bar.

Amazon and the Future of Books

A recent New Yorker article about book publishing in the era of Amazon Kindles and Apple iPads indicated that Amazon is thinking about cutting book publishers out of the loop completely and striking deals directly with authors. Such deals would allow Amazon to price e-books however they wanted and to provide more generous royalties to authors. Sounds great, right? Cheaper books and richer authors.

Sure, in the short run, for certain authors. But in the long run, this is a highly destructive strategy. Destructive for the book industry, and even for Amazon itself. What Amazon will do is poach the big name authors, the ones who don’t need publishers any more. John Grisham, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and other authors of such stature can sell books no matter who publishes them. They can move to Amazon, bump their royalty rate from 15% to 50% and make a ton of money.

But the publishing business, like much of entertainment, uses the hits to subsidize the misses. Simon and Schuster, for example, reinvests the money it makes publishing Stephen King and uses it to find authors like Susanne Dunlap, who might be the next Stephen King. If the big authors leave their publishing houses to go to Amazon, then the publishers won’t have the money to find and support emerging authors. The publishers will likely go out of business.

This will be bad. Books entertain us, they teach us, they can be a way for a culture to bond over shared values. A society without new literature is not a society I want to live in. Moreover, this will be bad for Amazon in the long run. Eventually, Stephen King and the other big authors will die, and if the publishers are out of business, who will discover the new authors, the Stephen Kings of tomorrow? Nobody. Then Amazon’s book business will also die, since there will be no new books.

You might try to analogize this to the music business, with Napster disintermediating the record labels, but that analogy is flawed. New music can be absorbed quickly: listen to 2-minute samples of three songs and you’ll have a sense for a band. This is why new music is being effectively crowd sourced. But spend 6 minutes reading a passage from a new novel and you will have no idea if you will like the novel as a whole, or any other piece by that author. The current system of literary agents and publishing houses works to discover and nurture new authors. Moreover, the current system improves authors’ works by editing them. Most authors need editors, as the recently publicity about Raymond Carver’s editor has shown. In Amazon’s world, who will play that role?

Best Commentary Yet Regarding the iPad

From GigaOm, which notes that the iPad is cool, but does not yet have the killer app that makes it a game-changer.

iPad A Mixed Bag

I’m a little late in commenting on the iPad, but I did want to make a couple of quick points.

First, for those who call the iPad a PC-killer, think again. The iPad may be great for consuming information, but it’s not so good if you have to actually create information. In other words, if all you need is to browse the web, read things, and type a few emails, the Pad could be your everyday machine. If, in other words, you are a techie who wants a toy, or possibly a senior executive who reads documents but doesn’t create them. But if you actually have to produce work – documents, presentations, spreadsheets, accounting reports – then you are still going to want a device with a full-sized screen and keyboard, and the ability to easily cut and paste among the various applications. In other words, you want a real computer.

Second, the population of people who only need to consume information is probably pretty high, and the Pad pricing is low enough to appeal fairly broadly, so it could be a successful product. Could. But the tech business is littered with the carcasses of products that had feet in two different markets, but weren’t entirely comfortable with either. Too big to fit in a pocket but too small to be really useful can be an unpleasant place to be, as my friends at OQO can attest. And if the Pad is an incremental gadget, rather than a replacement, as my first paragraph indicates, that too will cause problems, since it limits the market to those willing and able to acquire a new device. Finally, using a custom chip designed in-house certainly can improve performance, especially because of hardware/software integration, but as countless companies have learned, the in-house approach leaves you falling further and further behind the cost curves of your competitors. Just ask Jonathan Schwartz of Sun, who lost his job when Oracle saved Sun from oblivion.

That being said, if anybody can defeat the tweener curse, it’s Apple.

iPhone Bad For the Psyche?

I recently saw a magazine ad for the iPhone. This ad was promoting the app store, and was specifically pushing small business apps. “Helping you run your small business, one app at a time” was the headline of the ad. This post isn’t about the iPhone per se, although my friends know how I mock their Apple toys, and how I compare the iPhone to the Range Rover: overpriced, unreliable, and purchased primarily for brand status. Hmmm, maybe I should compare it to a Gucci purse instead….

Anyway, the point is not the iPhone; the point is some of these ridiculous apps. I call them ridiculous because they do things that nobody needs to do while mobile. Let me list a few here:

  • Nomia: Get help picking a business name, finding available domain names and running trademark searches.
  • Analytics: See how your website is doing with reports showing visitors, page views, etc.
  • Credit Card Terminal: Accept customer credit card payments right on your phone.

Here’s the thing: I do run a small business, and I have never had the urge to do any of those things while mobile. When I’m analyzing my website or processing orders, I’m doing it at my computer, so that I can make adjustments or run things through my accounting software. I can certainly imagine circumstances where one might want to do such things while on the run, but those circumstances are rare.

Some might say: why be tethered to your computer? But I retort: why be connected all the time? Do you really want to check your website performance while at the beach? I relish the chance to disconnect. As more and more Americans are complaining about lack of time to think, or play, or spend with their kids, do we really need to be online more? Instead of apps that let you look at your website stats while on the bus, maybe Apple should promote apps that remind you to read to your children.