On the Perils of Absorbed Device Users

A truly frightening story out of San Francisco, where passengers on a Muni train were so absorbed into their phones/tablets, that they failed to notice a stranger pulling out a gun next to them:

A man standing on a crowded Muni train pulls out a .45-caliber pistol.

He raises the gun, pointing it across the aisle, before tucking it back against his side. He draws it out several more times, once using the hand holding the gun to wipe his nose. Dozens of passengers stand and sit just feet away – but none reacts.

Their eyes, focused on smartphones and tablets, don’t lift until the gunman fires a bullet into the back of a San Francisco State student getting off the train.

Investigators say this scene was captured by a Muni camera on Sept. 23, the night Nikhom Thephakaysone, 30, allegedly killed 20-year-old Justin Valdez in an apparently random encounter.

For police and prosecutors, the details of the case were troubling – they believe the suspect had been out “hunting” for a stranger to kill – but so too was the train passengers’ collective inattention to imminent danger.

The D.A. said: “These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They’re just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They’re completely oblivious of their surroundings.”

I am not saying being more mindful of their surroundings would have stopped this crime, but this kind of absorption is mind-boggling to me. When I am on public transport, I make sure to look up and observe my surroundings every few minutes…

 

The Incredible Story of How the iPhone Came to Be

The best thing I’ve read today is this fascinating New York Times Magazine piece on how the iPhone was developed. From concept to prototype to Steve Jobs’s unveiling of the revolutionary device, this piece has it all. It is so much better than the section devoted to the iPhone in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Absolutely a must-read.

On how incredibly secretive Steve Jobs tried to keep the announcement of the iPhone:

Jobs was so obsessed with leaks that he tried to have all the contractors Apple hired — from people manning booths and doing demos to those responsible for lighting and sound — sleep in the building the night before his presentation. Aides talked him out of it.

Now this is a great way to phrase it:

Ponder the individual impacts of the book, the newspaper, the telephone, the radio, the tape recorder, the camera, the video camera, the compass, the television, the VCR and the DVD, the personal computer, the cellphone, the video game and the iPod. The smartphone is all those things, and it fits in your pocket

On the initial gamble of the iPhone and the buggy versions that existed at launch:

It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked. Even though the iPhone wouldn’t go on sale for another six months, he wanted the world to want one right then. In truth, the list of things that still needed to be done was enormous. A production line had yet to be set up. Only about a hundred iPhones even existed, all of them of varying quality. Some had noticeable gaps between the screen and the plastic edge; others had scuff marks on the screen. And the software that ran the phone was full of bugs.

This bit about the compromises that Apple took to make the demo iPhone work is phenomenal:

The software in the iPhone’s Wi-Fi radio was so unstable that Grignon and his team had to extend the phones’ antennas by connecting them to wires running offstage so the wireless signal wouldn’t have to travel as far. And audience members had to be prevented from getting on the frequency being used. “Even if the base station’s ID was hidden” — that is, not showing up when laptops scanned for Wi-Fi signals — “you had 5,000 nerds in the audience,” Grignon says. “They would have figured out how to hack into the signal.” The solution, he says, was to tweak the AirPort software so that it seemed to be operating in Japan instead of the United States. Japanese Wi-Fi uses some frequencies that are not permitted in the U.S.

There were multiple versions of the iPhone built near launch:

Many executives and engineers, riding high from their success with the iPod, assumed a phone would be like building a small Macintosh. Instead, Apple designed and built not one but three different early versions of the iPhone in 2005 and 2006. One person who worked on the project thinks Apple then made six fully working prototypes of the device it ultimately sold — each with its own set of hardware, software and design tweaks. 

The first iPhone prototype in 2005 had a wheel (like the iPod):

From the start of the project, Jobs hoped that he would be able to develop a touch-screen iPhone running OS X similar to what he ended up unveiling. But in 2005 he had no idea how long that would take. So Apple’s first iPhone looked very much like the joke slide Jobs put up when introducing the real iPhone — an iPod with an old-fashioned rotary dial on it. The prototype really was an iPod with a phone radio that used the iPod click wheel as a dialer. “It was an easy way to get to market, but it was not cool like the devices we have today,” Grignon says.

On how stressful the environment was:

The pressure to meet Jobs’s deadlines was so intense that normal discussions quickly devolved into shouting matches. Exhausted engineers quit their jobs — then came back to work a few days later once they had slept a little. Forstall’s chief of staff, Kim Vorrath, once slammed her office door so hard it got stuck and locked her in, and co-workers took more than an hour to get her out. “We were all standing there watching it,” Grignon says. “Part of it was funny. But it was also one of those moments where you step back and realize how [expletive] it all is.”

And that ending to the piece? What a tear jerker. It put a huge smile on my face.

Seriously, you should read the whole thing.

Russian Transporter Planes and FedEx: How Apple Ships its iPhones

Apple unveiled two new iPhones this week: iPhone 5C and the iPhone 5S. While the specs of the phones are somewhat interesting, I think this piece in Bloomberg on how Apple is set to deliver the devices on launch date is even more so:

The process starts in China, where pallets of iPhones are moved from factories in unmarked containers accompanied by a security detail. The containers are then loaded onto trucks and shipped via pre-bought airfreight space, including on old Russian military transports. The journey ends in stores where the world’s biggest technology company makes constant adjustments based on demand, said people who have worked on Apple’s logistics and asked not to be identified because the process is secret.

The multi-pronged operation has been built up under Cook, who oversaw Apple’s supply chain before being tapped as Steve Jobs’s successor in 2011. Getting iPhones seamlessly moved from factories to customers is critical for the Cupertino, California-based company, which derives more than half of its annual revenue from the flagship product. Apple also relies on a sales spike after a product’s release. It sold more than 5 million units in the debut weekend for the iPhone 5 last year.

There are seven countries that will launch the new iPhones on September 20:

Before Apple’s formal unveiling on stage, iPhones are shipped to distribution centers around the world, including Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Japan, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S., said one of the people with knowledge of the matter. Security personnel are with the devices every step of the way, from truck depots, airports, customs and storage warehouses until the product is finally unveiled, two people said.

FedEx ships Apple handsets to the U.S. mainly using Boeing 777s, according to Satish Jindel, a logistics-industry consultant and president of SJ Consulting Group. Those planes can make the 15-hour flight from China to the main U.S. hub for freight shipments in Memphis, Tennessee, without refueling, Jindel said. The 777s can carry about 450,000 iPhones and cost about $242,000 to charter, with fuel accounting for more than half the expense.

Read the rest here.

Is Your iPhone App Making You Fat?

Kathy Sierra hasn’t blogged in years(1), but she’s written something new this week about willpower, self-control, and cognitive drain. In particular, she posits that many apps that you use on your phone deplete your cognitive resources, which make it easy for you to succumb to unwanted things (like eating more cookies, etc):

An experiment asked one group of dogs to sit, just sit, nothing else, for a few minutes before being released to play with their favorite treat “puzzle” toy (the ones where the dog has to work at getting the treats out of it). The other group of dogs were allowed to just hang out in their crates before getting the treat puzzle.

You know where this goes: the dogs that had to sit — exercising self-control — gave up on the puzzle much earlier than the dogs that were just hanging out in their crate.The dogs that were NOT burning cognitive resources being obedient had more determination and mental/emotional energy for solving the puzzle. Think about that next time you ask Sparky to be patient. His cognitive resources are easily-depleted too.

Now think about what we’re doing to our users.

If your UX asks the user to make choices, for example, even if those choices are both clear and useful, the act of deciding is a cognitive drain. And not just while they’re deciding… even after we choose, an unconscious cognitive background thread is slowly consuming/leaking resources, “Wasthat the right choice?” 

If your app is confusing and your tech support / FAQ isn’t helpful, you’re drawing down my scarce, precious, cognitive resources. If your app behaves counter-intuitively – even just once – I’ll leak cog resources every time I use it, forever, wondering, “wait, did that do what I expected?”. Or let’s say your app is super easy to use, but designed and tuned for persuasive brain hacks (“nudges”, gamification, behavioral tricks, etc.) to keep me “engaged” for your benefit, not mine (lookin’ at you, Zynga)… you’ve still drained my cognitive resources.

And when I back away from the screen and walk to the kitchen…

 Your app makes me fat.

I am not convinced entirely, but it does raise some good questions about the direction of modern-day distractions and our cognitive load.

Worth reading in entirety here.

The Embarrassment of the BlackBerry

This New York Times piece on users dissatisfied with their BlackBerry phones is largely anecdotal; nevertheless, I enjoyed it (the quotes were hilarious).

The cultural divide between BlackBerry loyalists and everyone else has only grown more extreme over the last year as companies that previously issued employees BlackBerrys — and only BlackBerrys — have started surrendering to employee demands for iPhones and Android-powered smartphones.

Goldman Sachs recently gave its employees the option to use an iPhone. Covington & Burling, a major law firm, did the same at the urging of associates. Even the White House, which used the BlackBerry for security reasons, recently started supporting the iPhone. (Some staff members suspect that decision was influenced by President Obama, who now prefers his iPad for national security briefings. A spokesman for the White House declined to comment.)

Out in the world, the insults continue. Victoria Gossage, a 28-year-old hedge fund marketer, said she recently attended a work retreat at Piping Rock Club, an upscale country club in Locust Valley, N.Y., and asked the concierge for a phone charger. “First he said, ‘Sure.’ Then he saw my phone and — in this disgusted tone — said, ‘Oh no, no, not for that.’ ”

This was a very good dissenting comment:

Like people, one device can’t do everything we need. I use a Blackberry Torch for writing very quickly in full typo-free sentences and paragraphs. I use it to move text to and from legal documents. I write and send poetry and plays on it. I have created hundreds of macros to speed the typing of words and phrases. It’s also one of my phones. It does all of these things very very welll. I have an iPhone, which is terrific for many things, one of which is definitely not writing at length. I have an iPad for other terrific things. I am lucky to have a choice and to be able to afford it. If someone made fun of me for using my Blackberry, I would react as I would if they criticized my shirt or choice of coffee. I’m often on the Blackberry phone while using the iPhone. I have two hands. I use them both.

I was a BlackBerry user for about a year and a half. The biggest malaise was the Internet Browser, which took ages to load a webpage. The iPhone I have now is light years away from the BlackBerry device I used to own.

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.