Frosted Glass Effects — Why I switched to Android after all these years

Some people have called me an Apple fanboy. I stood in line for hours for the first iPhone and then again for almost every new iOS device that came out. I own more Apple devices than t-shirts (I’m not a big t-shirt fan, but still, it’s a lot of devices…). And I have convinced quite a few people over the years to switch to Macs, iPhones and iPads.

Two weeks ago, I switched to Android. I bought a Galaxy S4 (Google Play stock Android version) and a Samsung Note 8.0 tablet. They’re now my primary mobile devices.

Why? My theory of frosted glass effects: When a technology vendor can’t keep up with the speed of innovation anymore, it resorts to incrementally copying other’s innovations and starts adding pointless visual gimmicks, such as frosted glass effects. Such effects are cool, set your product apart, make it look modern, but unfortunately they are also entirely useless and just consume system resources without really improving the user experience.

Case in point: Windows Vista.

I switched to Macs in 2006, after almost two decades using Microsoft OSes. Microsoft in the 90s and early 2000s was much more innovative than people give it credit for. Tablet computing, simple Internet programming, productivity software, the first really powerful PDAs — those were all sectors where Microsoft was the leader.

But then Windows Vista came out, almost five years after XP. And what was the most remarkable new feature of this next-gen OS?

Very cool-looking frosted glass effects in windows titles.

 Vista Glass Effect

The rest was unremarkable at best, copying many of the features Mac OS X had had for years and fixing some old problems. It was clear at that point that Microsoft had lost its way, the beginning of Microsoft’s current malaise. And for me it was time to switch to the platform where the real innovation was happening – Mac OS X, mostly with web-based applications, and a bit later from Windows CE to iOS.

A few weeks ago Apple introduced iOS 7, the first major overhaul since the iPhone came out. It has a ton of new features, almost all of which Android users have enjoyed for years. It fixes a lot of old problems, and…

…it has frosted glass effects. Lots of them.

ios-7-control-center

A few minutes after installing the IOS 7 beta I just knew I needed to switch to Android.

I have found myself using more and more Google apps on my iPhone over the past 18 months or so. Google Maps replaced (surprise) Apple Maps, Gmail replaced Apple Mail, Chrome replaced Safari. I did voice search through Google’s search app, not Siri. And so on. Why? Because Google’s services are not only much more powerful but also very neatly integrated. The amazing Google Now is the best example for that.

In fact, I was already using a Google phone running iOS underneath, and there’s simply nothing in iOS 7 that makes me think I might switch back to Apple’s stock apps.

There’s just frustration that iOS 7 has barely caught up with Android’s current state.

Android fanboys tend to think that this has always been the case. Not so. When Apple came out with the original iOS, the first real browser on a mobile device, multi-touch, the original app store, photo stream, AirPlay, etc., it was years ahead of everybody else. But that was then, and iOS 7 is now. Unfortunately, it feels a lot like Window Vista.

Just to be clear: I’m not feature obsessed when it comes to mobile devices. I spend much of my working day wrestling with technology, and the last thing I need is a high-maintenance phone or tablet. But Android has matured to a point where it’s (almost) as easy to use and polished as iOS, with a ton of added flexibility.

And without question, the real innovation now happens in the Android ecosystem. Smartphone functionality has matured to the point of saturation, and real progress can only be made in Internet-based services that integrate seamlessly with a smartphone OS. Google’s superiority in information services and Android’s general openness are perfect for that.

I’m not an Apple fanboy, I’m a fanboy of great products. And as much as I hate to see Apple lose its lead, it’s time to switch.

FCP X: Apple’s strategic focus and the consumerization of video editing

faq_icon.jpg The “consumerization of IT” is a trend that started about 5 years ago and that has been reshaping the world of information technology quite radically. Consumer technology such as smartphones, lightweight web-based applications and now tablets has invaded more and more enterprises, to the shock of IT managers everywhere.

The biggest winner of this trend is of course Apple, which now has a market cap close to that of the old Wintel (Microsoft/Intel) monopoly. Apple basically owns the high-end laptop market, even though MacBooks are still not considered “enterprise technology” by most IT departments. It totally dominates tablets, and it makes more than 50% of all profits of the mobile phone industry, even though its market share is still small.

Consumerization is what took Apple from a barely surviving also-ran to the dominant technology company of our time. Is it surprising that Steve Jobs and his lieutenants are focusing all their resources on this successful strategy? For instance, Apple recently killed its pro-level server business (Xserve), effectively exiting the data center market.

The latest victim of this strategy is the Final Cut Pro (FCP) line of video editing applications. FCP Studio is probably the most popular suite of video production software in the market. It started small a decade ago as a cheap alternative to Avid, but it is now the choice of many high-end editors in broadcast TV and even Hollywood. Nowadays even editor legend Walter Murch uses FCP, which once was ridiculed as a toy by the movie tech intelligentsia.

The new version of Final Cut, FCP X, caused a major sh*tstorm in the editor community when it was released two weeks ago. It gets only a 3-star rating in the App Store, attracting comments such as “FCP X = Windows Vista” (which probably is not meant as a compliment). Countless articles complain about all the missing features that professional editors can’t do without, not least the baffling fact that FCP X can’t import projects from older versions of FCP.

So what’s going on here?

First of all, FCP X is a great product, if still a bit 1.0. I’ve been playing with it for a couple of weeks now, and I certainly won’t go back to the old FCP or any of its clones (such as Adobe Premiere Pro). FCP X reinvented quite a few things in how editing is done, and most of the changes are really great, speeding up the editing process considerably.

But FCP X also asks you to relearn a lot of things. It can do practically everything FCP 7 could do and a lot more, but many tasks are just done very differently. There are a lot of “WTF?” moments when you switch to FCP X, but once you discover what the new way of doing things is, it all makes a lot of sense. I’ve only encountered one or two things that I still find more elegant in the old FCP.

To use a metaphor from my other field of work: it’s like learning a new programming language. When you switch from something like C++ or Java to Python or Ruby, a lot of things look strange or even ridiculously simplistic. But after a while, you don’t miss the overhead that the old tool required you to deal with. You recognize that the irritating, seemingly amateurish simplicity is actually productivity-enhancing elegance.

That’s great for prosumers and lone-wolf freelancers, but it’s no consolation for the high-end editing pros who depend on sophisticated, highly specialized workflows. Relearning everything and reorganizing your corporate workflow is not a great proposition for somebody who constantly works under tight deadlines.

So is Apple trying to consciously scare off the high-end pro market? In some ways, yes. Every successful business has to decide what its focus is, who its customers are. Even for a giant company like Apple it’s incredibly difficult to serve entirely different target markets.

High-end video production houses and broadcast stations often run their video production infrastructure like traditional enterprise IT: A central department decides which platform to use. Then internal technical people and consultants implement the system, endlessly tweaking every detail, and the maintenance of the whole system takes considerable resources. Individual workers don’t get to choose what tools they want to work with, but have to adapt to the rules of the organization (Don’t like our Avid system? Go look for another job).

Apple is great at selling stuff to people who make their own purchasing decisions, be it consumers, freelancers or even employees of larger corporations who have enough authority to choose their own tools. Apple is not very good at dealing with IT departments and at adapting its products to the myriad specialized requirements that larger organizations have.

The old FCP clearly suffered from feature creep that was dictated by larger customers, and that made the product difficult to use for the broader prosumer market. It looks like Apple made a clear decision with FCP X: It’s going after the big mass market, and if that means it’s going to lose the high-end segment, so be it. There’s really no other good explanation for the fact that Apple released FCP X without some crucial pro-level features.

Always remember that software is a tiny piece of Apple’s business, and the pro segment is even tinier. But pros are a tough crowd to please, and Apple probably just decided that this can’t be a priority anymore. It looks like it will deliver some of the missing features, but probably not on the scale the pros hoped for. Tough for the professionals who invested a lot in FCP, but this kind of gut-wrenching change is the reality of technology markets. Remember IBM selling off its PC business? Didn’t please a lot of people either.

Without a doubt Apple will lose a lot of fans in the video editing community. But it now has an editing product that is years ahead of everything else, perfect for the big and growing market of serious hobbyists, freelance editors (particularly in online media), independent filmmakers and corporate marketing users. It’s a big bet, but it could pay off.

High-tech consumer marketing: Why Apple plays in a league of its own

Remember October of 2001? A long-awaited product announcement out of Silicon Valley caused a lot of disappointment in the world of tech. The reactions were not kind: “I still can’t believe this! All this hype for something so ridiculous!” “Break-thru digital device? The Reality Distortion Field is starting to warp Steve’s mind if he thinks for one second that this thing is gonna take off.”

Or how about January of 2007? Another much hyped product caused quite a bit of frustration. Was this supposed to be all? Nice design, sure, but this lackluster feature list, the closed platform, all these technical restrictions — and this had been hyped as a revolutionary product?

Well, the iPod and the iPhone went on to become big successes anyway. To be more precise, they revolutionized their respective industries, even though many geeks and tech experts predicted their inevitable failure when these two products were originally announced.

Sounds familiar, right? The reactions to Apple’s iPad announcement were strikingly similar. Expectations had run so high previously that the actual product was almost certain to disappoint many. And as with Apple’s previous major new products, tech geeks and “experts” of all kinds were particularly critical.

But exactly as last time, these opinions will not really matter. Apple doesn’t play the same game as the rest of the gadget industry. To understand why, let’s have a look at how high-tech consumer products are typically marketed.

The definitive book on this topic is still Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm“. Moore explains how new products are gradually adopted in the market and which hurdles they have to clear.

New technologies are initially bought by “innovators”. These tech enthusiasts are ready to deal with immature, complex products and pay high prices, just as long as they can get their hands on the latest tech toys. In the next phase, the “early adopters” take over. These are people who want to see a certain degree of usefulness in a new product, but are still willing to pay substantial amounts of money and tolerate problems.

After that, according to Moore, new products have to overcome a “chasm”. The next segment of consumers, the “early majority”, is not really crazy about technology. These people first want to see that a Blu-ray player is really better than their old DVD machine, or that a wireless LAN at home is really useful. They want to pay a reasonable price, not spend all their disposable income on technology. Typically, they follow recommendations from their early adopter friends, but with a healthy degree of skepticism.

That’s why technology vendors target innovators and early adopters first when they want to sell new products. Once these early target groups adopt a new technology, vendors hope to reach the mainstream market. Early adopters are crucial as technology advocates. And since they pay high prices, they are important to refinance development costs, even if a product doesn’t turn out to be a mainstream hit.

There are many technologies that have crossed the chasm successfully: MP3, WiFi, smartphones, DVRs, IPTV, GPS systems. Others are still waiting for their big break: netbooks, internet appliances like the Chumby, or home servers. And many, many other products have failed to cross the chasm into the mainstream market: UMPCs, the Segway or the repeatedly failed video phone come to mind.

With the introduction of the iPod, Apple started to ignore this traditional marketing playbook, and the iPad is the latest and most dramatic example of an entirely different strategy. Steve Jobs’ company doesn’t make products for geeks, but targets the mainstream market from the very beginning.

The iPod obviously wasn’t the first MP3 player, and it didn’t offer anything that would have particularly interested the early adopter segment. On the contrary: Its closed architecture made it unattractive to serious MP3 fans. Instead, the iPod made strong technology available to normal users who didn’t have the patience to deal with the complicated players of the day. Same thing with the iPhone: No technical feature was outstanding, but the superior usability and simplicity of Apple’s phone targeted average consumers who were frustrated with overly complex smartphones.
Apple’s particular approach can’t be easily copied by its competitors. There are three preconditions for this to work. First of all, massive ad spending in mass media is essential. Apple spends a lot on TV ads, but very little on alternative new channels like social media marketing (which still mainly reaches early adopter target groups). Steve Jobs’ reputation as a gadget wizard and “CEO of the decade” helps a lot, since personified marketing works particularly well in mainstream markets.

Secondly, there have to be clear differentiators that are important to the target group. And for mainstream electronics products, it’s not about the latest tech features, but things like beautiful design and ease of use — things that no other tech company does as well as Apple. Simplicity is essential, and that’s why Apple’s closed approach with iTunes is exactly right for the mainstream market. Early majority customers want to buy content as easily as possible. They don’t really care if the songs or movies bought on iTunes are protected by DRM, simply because they don’t know what DRM is and don’t care to learn about it.

Thirdly, mainstream distribution channels are important. Apple’s stores in malls and great downtown locations are exactly the right way to sell tech products to non-technical consumers. Most people want to touch a relatively expensive product before they buy it, and many will be influenced in their buying decision by the nicely designed store and the friendly staff, not so much by long feature lists.

With the iPad, Apple is driving this strategic approach to new extremes. All the elements of its proven formula are there, but one thing is really new: For the first time, Apple doesn’t simply try to sell a product category that is stuck in early adopter land to mainstream consumers. It’s trying to define a new category out of the fragments of several niche markets.

The iPad is a bit like a portable media player, a bit like a netbook, a bit like an e-book reader and a bit like a tablet PC. All these device types have found a niche market, but none of them have really crossed the chasm. Apple is now trying to enter the mainstream market with this recombination of existing, but not yet mainstream-compatible devices.

That’s a bold move that could easily go wrong. But Apple is one of the very few companies in the world that has the marketing power and unique capabilities to pull this off.

(This article originally appeared on netzwertig.com, the leading German tech blog)