Apple Bashers, Don’t Start Your Photocopiers — Do Think Different

Apple is frequently bashed for not being first to the punch with an idea. And if that’s the way your mind works there was no shortage of material to riff off of coming out of the latest Cupertino gearfest this week.

From that supersized iPad Pro (Microsoft Surface Pro got there sooner, yo); to the tablet cover with the built in keyboard (Microsoft Surface keyboard cover, yo!); or the Apple Pencil stylus (see, er, Microsoft Surface Pen, or to a lesser degree Samsung’s Galaxy Note stylus-packing phablet-range, to name just two of the more recent styli tabs); or — on the software side — iOS’s new Live Photos: aka photos that aren’t actually photos but record sound and movement too (Nokia was on this tip back in 2014 with Cinemagraph, and Living Photos. More generally, animated GIFs have been enlivening photos, since, well practically the dawn of Internet time…); or Apple’s voice assistant now having an expanded ability to be always listening for a ‘Hey Siri’ prompt, not just when devices are plugged into a power source (Motorola launched a ‘touchless control’ for voice commands on its Moto X handset back in 2013).

Even Apple’s flagship reveal — the 3D Touch addition to the touchscreens on its new iPhones — could be said to have been (vaguely) prefigured by BlackBerry attempting that ill-fated ‘clickable touchscreen’ all the way back in 2008. Add to that, the ‘peek and pop‘ interface additions which 3D Touch ushers in to iOS on these iPhones are a little reminiscent of gesture-based UI elements found at the also-ran edges of the smartphone OS landscape — such as BlackBerry’s next-gen BB10 OS, and even facets of Jolla’s Sailfish OS. (Indeed, with some of the new gestures that 3D Touch introduces I couldn’t help thinking Apple should probably *ehem* ‘borrow’ Sailfish’s pulley menu selection mechanism too, to eliminate an additional tap…)

Pointing out that Apple is a copy-cat is easy, but it also misses the wider point. And that is: design, design, design. Apple’s informal motto is ‘it just works’. And, well, the opposite was true of the BlackBerry Storm’s clickable touchscreen. That design SNAFU brought extra complexity and added confusion to an already out-dated interface. Likely because RIM’s physical-keyboard-focused designers had tried to solve a problem that wasn’t actually a problem: touchscreens — although they were clearly a problem for RIM’s business — rather than just pushing the OS reset button, as the company really needed to.

Touchscreens aren’t the problem. And Apple isn’t trying to ‘fix touchscreens’ with 3D Touch. Rather it’s looking for a way to evolve what touchscreens can do, while also smoothing out some small usability wrinkles created by mobile users doing so much on such a (relatively) small screen — aka all that back and forth navigating required because multitasking doesn’t have room to provide parallel workflows. So with 3D Touch Apple is focused on improving user workflow by utilizing degrees of finger pressure as an additional, time-saving navigation layer. And it engineered pressure-sensitive touchscreen hardware to support this design goal. Ergo it’s user-focused design with tech as the enabler.

Even a new feature as apparently superficial as Live Photos, which I’m not personally a fan of (imo photos should most definitely be still and composed), have arguably been designed with specific users/use-cases in mind. For one: parents whose iOS devices are invariably taking a portion of the ‘keep the kids entertained’ strain. (TC colleagues with kids were universally thrilled by the prospect of iOS photos that auto-animate.) It also strikes me that Live Photos are a more battery-friendly way to implement animated wallpaper, since they animate only as and when the user touches them, so the user gets a more personalized look and feel, without (presumably) it being a big battery drain.

If you want to bash Apple for copying Microsoft Surface, there’s undeniably plenty of mileage in the iPad Pro. Although it’s notable that Cupertino invited Microsoft on stage to demo its software running on the Pro, so Redmond itself looks pretty flattered by the flow of ideas here. Again the wider point is Apple is rarely first to market with a new technology. It wasn’t first with phablets either. It was basically bringing up the rear there. It’s modus operandi is not about speed; it’s about refining and honing and testing, designing for the flow of use and users with an eye on the mainstream, and on how usage can evolve to bring new benefits; applying technologies once they become proven, or once it’s convinced they will be genuinely useful. This is why Apple took its time before implementing NFC, for instance. And why it continues to shun wireless charging.

And why there’s no curved screen iPhone. And no chance of one, either. Apple has evidently been spending its energy developing its own distinct curveball to scramble rivals there. A pressure-sensitive touchscreen pane puts a far more interesting slant on glass slabs than a few superficial curves. (If it’s *actual curved glass* you want, you’ll have to stick with LG or Samsung.)

If you really want to criticize Apple, it’s more pertinent to focus on any inconsistencies in its own messaging, rather than crying foul over ‘copycat tendencies’.

And on the inconsistencies front, one thing did strike me as out of step with some of its new features. Given how much noise Apple has made recently about privacy, including CEO Tim Cook making a public defense of encryption, it’s rather surprising to see Apple expand Siri’s always-on capabilities without going into more detail about how it’s safeguarding user data in the context of expanding pervasive technological surveillance of the background noise of their lives. (Sure it may be only ‘local on-device listening’ for the trigger term “Hey Siri”, but Apple’s voice recognition tech is far from perfect, so what about all the stuff Siri is going to hear by accident?)

Ditto the Live Photos recording feature — which apparently defaults to being switched on, rather than off. People may not immediately realize that when they snap a photo with their new iPhone the phone is also listening and recording. Or might toggle it on by accident, given the icon sits permanently at the top of the camera view.

“We believe that people have a fundamental right to privacy. The American people demand it, the constitution demands it, morality demands it,” said Cook, in his pro-encryption speech this June, before going on to add: “I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”

So, Apple, tell us how an always-on Siri will avoid gobbling up users’ private data? And how you’ll make it clear to users that the camera on the new iPhones is now actually a video camera by default? (We’ve asked Apple for comment on these points and will update this post with any response.)

If you want to get really sensitive about Apple and privacy, consider also that a pressure-sensitive touchscreen might provide a trove of additional personal data for the company — given that a person’s mood could affect how hard or soft they push on the touchscreen. Will Apple be gathering such mood-sensitive data from its users? And if Apple itself avoids doing this, what’s to stop third party developers making inferences about the emotional state of their users, based on signals from Apple’s new pressure-sensitive pane? Spanish researchers have already apparently developed a way to use machine-learning to detect when mobile users are bored, based on how they interact with content on their phones. Think of the additional intel a pressure-sensitive screen could be used to glean…

As the lattice of technologies that surrounds our lives get ever more sensitive and sensory, then the risks to individual privacy are increasing exponentially. How powerful technology giants like Apple act — and lead — is therefore hugely important. The dystopic view, as one Twitter user put it to me this week, is that ‘user privacy and individual privacy are very different things’. So I for one hope Apple really is thinking different.