From Eye to iPad: The Technology Behind Paper

FastCompany has a profile of the iPad app Paper (by FiftyThree) and the technology behind it:

What vaulted FiftyThree over a hot pile of math was a major insight gleaned from two dead German scientists named Paul Kubelka and Franz Munk. In 1931, they published a paper called Ein Beitrag zur Optik der Farbanstriche, or “a contribution to the optics of paints,” which showed that this color-space question predated computing by several decades. The paper laid out a “theory of reflectance” with an equation which could model color blending on the physical experience you have with the naked eye. That is, how light is reflected or absorbed by various colors.

Today, computers store color as three values: one for red, green and blue, also known as RGB channels. But the Kubelka-Munk model had at least six values for each color, including reflection and absorption values for each of the RGB colors. “While the appearance of a color on a screen can be described in three dimensions, the blending of color actually is happening in a six dimensional space,” explains Georg Petschnigg, FiftyThree’s cofounder and CEO. The Kubelka-Munk paper had allowed the team to translate an aesthetic problem into a mathematical framework.

 Moving from a three-dimensional color-space to six dimensions was the difference between old drab color-mixing and absolute realism. “What creates the shades you see between paints is this interplay of absorption and reflection,” says Petschnigg. “Compare red nail polish to red ink: both are red, but the nail polish will be visible on black paper because it reflects light. The ink won’t be, because it absorbs light.”

Paper is one of the most beautiful apps on the iPad. I highly recommend getting it (the basic version is free) if you don’t have it.

Touch: The Future of Computing

Jeff Atwood got his hands on the newly released tablet Microsoft Surface RT. He reviews his experience with the device in his provocatively titled post “Do You Wana Touch” But it is his take on the future of computing which I thought was worth highlighting here:

love computers, always have, always will. My strategy with new computing devices is simple: I buy ‘em all, then try living with them.The devices that fall away from me over time – the ones that gather dust, or that I forget about – are the ones I eventually get rid of. So long, Kindle Fire! I knew that the Nexus 7 was really working for me when I gave mine to my father as a spontaneous gift while he was visiting, then missed it sorely when waiting for the replacement to arrive.

As I use these devices, I’ve grown more and more sold on the idea that touch is going to dominate the next era of computing. This reductionism is inevitable and part of the natural evolution of computers. Remove the mouse. Remove the keyboard. Remove the monitor. Reducing a computer to its absolute minumum leads us inexorably, inevitably to the tablet (or, if a bit smaller, the phone). All you’re left with is a flat, featureless slate that invites you to touch it. Welcome to the future, here’s your … rectangle.

He rationalizes:

I’ve stopped thinking of touch as some exotic, add-in technology contained in specialized devices. I belatedly realized that I love to touch computers. And why not? We constantly point and gesture at everything in our lives, including our screens. It’s completely natural to want to interact with computers by touching them. That’s why the more unfortunate among us have displays covered in filthy fingerprints.

I don’t disagree. I love my iPhone and iPad. But I also love my MacBook Air, on which I am composing this post. Will we see a touch MacBook Air (with an uncompromised keyboard) from Apple in a few years? After reading Jeff’s post, I want to say yes.

Apple is Secretariat at Belmont

Musing on Apple’s latest announcement of the new iPad, John Gruber makes a brilliant analogy of Apple’s dominance:

Two years after announcing the original iPad, Apple has produced a version that simply blows that original model away in every single regard. It’s faster, it’s thinner, it feels better in hand, it supports LTE networking, and yet battery life is better. The retina display is simply astounding to behold. Eight days from today they’re shipping a product that two years ago would have been impossible at any price, and they’ve made it look easy.

Nothing is guaranteed to last. The future’s uncertain and the end is always near. Apple’s position atop the industry may prove fleeting. But right now, Apple is Secretariat at the Belmont. And the company, to a person, seems hell-bent on not letting any competitor catch up.

I’ve pre-ordered the new iPad. I can’t wait to see how my photos look on the new retina display.

Why the iPhone isn’t Made in America

Why isn’t the iPhone made in the United States? Sure, Apple brands its product as “designed in California,” but the actual production happens in China. In this excellent New York Times piece, where more than thirty individuals were interviewed, we learn why the largest company in America has made the dramatic shift of producing its product in America to China. Apple executives believe there simply aren’t enough American workers with the skills the company needs or factories with sufficient speed and flexibility.

First, mind-boggling statistics about the scale of production at Foxconn, the factory in which iPhones and iPads are made:

The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. “The scale is unimaginable,” he said.

Foxconn employs nearly 300 guards to direct foot traffic so workers are not crushed in doorway bottlenecks. The facility’s central kitchen cooks an average of three tons of pork and 13 tons of rice a day.

This anecdote sounded familiar. I first read it in Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs:

In 2007, a little over a month before the iPhone was scheduled to appear in stores, Mr. Jobs beckoned a handful of lieutenants into an office. For weeks, he had been carrying a prototype of the device in his pocket.

Mr. Jobs angrily held up his iPhone, angling it so everyone could see the dozens of tiny scratches marring its plastic screen, according to someone who attended the meeting. He then pulled his keys from his jeans.

People will carry this phone in their pocket, he said. People also carry their keys in their pocket. “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched,” he said tensely. The only solution was using unscratchable glass instead. “I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”

After one executive left that meeting, he booked a flight to Shenzhen, China. If Mr. Jobs wanted perfect, there was nowhere else to go.

On the Chinese preparation for a contract. So methodical:

When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day.

So why is the iPhone made in China? It’s not just the low wages paid to Chinese workers. The flexibility, scale, and the formidable supply chain of Chinese factories, combined with the ability to raise an army of workers (sometimes literally overnight), cannot be matched in the United States.

And so, as quoted in the article, the consumer electronics business has become an Asian business. On a final note: while other companies have sent call centers abroad, Apple has kept its centers in the United States. It’s only a matter of time when Apple decides to outsource the call centers abroad…

Apple and the Legacy of Steve Jobs

You might have heard that the CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, has taken an indefinite medical leave. This is the third time in the last ten years that Steve Jobs has stepped aside from the biggest technology company in the United States.

If you don’t know much about the company or Steve Jobs’s nature, then there is one article that is an absolute must-read. It is this Esquire piece, written by Tom Junod in 2008. It may appear dated, but it’s as every bit as relevant today as when it was first published. I highlight a few quotes which grabbed my attention

On Steve Jobs’s health and perseverance:

Steve Jobs has been saying that Steve Jobs is dying for years. From the beginning, death has been the hellhound on his trail; from the beginning, he has based his claim on immortality on the knowledge that he isn’t going to make it. In the commencement speech he gave to the graduates of Stanford University a year after his cancer surgery, he diagnosed himself as “fine now,” and hopeful to live “a few more decades.” At the same time, he spoke of death as though it were a new Apple product — that is, as “very likely the single best invention of life.” He said that since he was seventeen, “I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?”

I love this passage on the bravado and Jobs’s stubborn demeanor. Must he always win?

Nobody wants to be the guy who points out that Jobs is “an obnoxious asshole” or “just a horrifying human being” — because then Jobs has already won, simply on the basis of scale. Better to be the ex-Apple-employee who says, “The question is not whether he’s an asshole. That’s beside the point. The question is whether he [Steve Jobs] can be an asshole and a good Buddhist.” Now, that’s a good one, because it concedes the obvious and moves on to the question of whether Jobs’s epic simplifications hide, well, inconsistencies. How can the Buddhist — the strict vegetarian — squash so many people like bugs? How can the Apollonian artist of our technological moment also be the Machiavellian corporate executive? How can the guy who implicitly put himself in league with Gandhi, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Martin Luther King while urging us to “think different” think, in fact, only of winning? “For most people, he’ll go down in history as the guy who made technology user-friendly,” says one executive. “But to people in business, he’ll be remembered as the guy who only did deals where he had all the leverage — and used every bit of it. It’s not enough that he wins. You have to lose. He’s completely unreasonable.”

That part about you having to lose, that’s gladiatorial. I was immediately reminded of Derek Sivers’s post “The Day Steve Jobs Dissed Me in a Keynote.” I highly recommend reading it.

An excellent paragraph about Jobs’s ruthlessness (if you weren’t getting the picture just yet). But also: why are Apple products something the consumers desire so much?

Now they start with what makes an existing experience crappy. And that’s where Jobs is a genius. That’s where his ruthlessness comes in. He’s ruthless with himself, ruthless with other people — he’s also ruthless with technology. He knows exactly what makes it work, and what makes it suck. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but they sucked. So he’s like, Okay, what do we have to do so that they don’t suck? Same with the iPhone. A lot of phones had Web browsers before the iPhone, but nobody used them. Why? Because they sucked. Now even people without iPhones are using the Web browsers on their cell phones. But that’s because of the iPhone. And that’s what he does. He makes the experience of technology better.”

Lastly, I love this wisdom from Steve Jobs: shortly after he showed off the iPad last year, Steve Jobs was asked what consumer and market research guided its creation. Steve Jobs’s response was illuminating:

None.  It isn’t the consumer’s job to know what they want.

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There’s a lot more in the Esquire piece which I didn’t highlight here. If you have a half hour, I highly recommend reading the entire piece. It paints a portrait of Steve Jobs better than any I’ve ever read.


Readings: Apple’s iPad, Photography, Superstar Effect, Unpaid Internships

Here’s what I have been reading over the weekend:

(1) “Apple IPad’s Debut-Weekend Sales May Be Surpassing Estimates” [Business Week] – the numbers are in, and it looks like Apple had a spectacular weekend in terms of iPad sales.

The iPad’s initial sales may have reached 700,000 units, Piper Jaffray & Co.’s Gene Munster said in an interview today. The Minneapolis-based analyst previously predicted sales of 200,000 to 300,000, while Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.’s Toni Sacconaghi projected 300,000 to 400,000.

With the cheapest iPad selling for $499 and the top of the line model selling for $829, one can make an early estimate from retail sales of the iPad in just one weekend. If you assume that the average iPad sold for $600 (taking account three things: taxes, that Apple sold a significant number of 32GB and 64GB iPad models as well the 3G iPad models, and that shoppers probably bought accessories and other items from Apple in addition to the iPad), and the number is astonishing: at least $400 million of revenue this weekend.

(2) “Is Photography Over?” [San Francisco Museum of Fine Art] – a spectrum of answers from critics and photographers on the state of photography.

(3) “Tiger Woods and the Superstar Effect” [Wall Street Journal] – an excellent piece by Jonah Lehrer on this interesting effect observed in sports, schools, and businesses. This is an interesting discovery:

The same phenomenon seems to also affect students taking the SAT. In a paper released last year, researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Haifa compared average SAT scores with the average number of students in test-taking venues in all 50 states, and found that students who took the SAT in larger groups did worse. They concluded that the mere knowledge of their competitors—the sight of all of those other students scratching in their answers in the same room—decreased motivation.

(4) “Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say” [New York Times] – a timely article about students trying to find jobs and sometimes choosing to work for free. I was surprised by this quote from an N.Y.U. student:

It would have been nice to be paid, but at this point, it’s so expected of me to do this for free…If you want to be in the music industry that’s the way it works. If you want to get your foot in the door somehow, this is the easiest way to do it. You suck it up.

It seems like such a resigned attitude. Can that possibly be true of the music industry?