iPad Growth

The uptick in iPad sales this quarter has caught people’s attention. One detail John Gruber noted is that:

iPad revenue was only up about 2 percent. That suggests to me, strongly, that this sales bump was driven strongly by the new 9.7-inch iPad that starts at $329.

In response to this, Michael Tsai commented:

I don’t quite understand why people are treating this as a bad thing. It’s good that Apple has made a more affordable iPad that customers seemingly like (unless they just didn’t want to be stuck on iOS 9). And more units sold will be good for the app market.

It is a good thing that Apple makes an affordable iPad that is selling well. I love seeing Apple compete at the low end of the market, something I’ve only truly seen them do a couple of times.1

At the same time, it’s important that the iPad continue to grow at the high end. So much iPad commentary over the past two years of falling sales has been about the fear that the device has already reached its peak potential utility. And if so, that peak has been far lower than what many dreamed of when it first debuted.

The iPad’s average selling price can be seen as an indication of whether the iPad has the potential to continue evolving into a more capable tool. If sales of the Pro line are weak, it’s a sign that Apple hasn’t succeeded in creating useful functionality that takes advantage of improved hardware. And if users don’t need improved hardware, Apple’s business model can’t justify continued iPad software development long term.2

For what it’s worth, iOS 11 seems to me to be the first sign in a long time that Apple can make the iPad significantly more useful for a wider range of people than it has served to date. So while I hope that low end sales continue to grow, I also hope that future quarterly reports show their Pro line growing strongly.

  1. The iPod lineup during its heyday was inspired, and even the MacBook Air had a long reign as an aggressively priced laptop. Both approaches are markedly different than the iPhone strategy of selling yesterday’s models at reduced prices. ↩︎
  2. Unless they manage to build a services business that allows them to profit from users regardless of whether they buy new hardware. ↩︎

Compelled to Share

At a prominent tech company where I worked, I looked into the usage of the share-to-Facebook/Twitter/etc. buttons that were placed on the most visited pages of our site. We didn’t use a persistent share bar, but I still wanted to make sure there was good reason for giving these buttons space at the top of the page.

What I found was that on desktop, the button for sharing to Facebook saw some usage. By “some”, I mean that less than 0.1% of people who viewed a page ended up sharing to Facebook.1 Depending on your perspective, this is either negligible or enough to justify keeping a share button there.

On mobile, out of millions of pageviews in a given time period, shares to Facebook were in the single digits. I don’t mean single digits percentage-wise, I mean that out of millions of people viewing a page, less than 10 individuals used the in-page share button to post to Facebook. And yet that button was fighting for top real estate alongside many other critical pieces of the page.

When it came to other types of sharing, I found that Facebook was the only service people bothered with. Sharing to all other services via the in-page buttons happened at a rate of essentially 0% on all devices,2 making those buttons pointless.

I would never pretend that this one case is representative of the web as a whole. Every site obviously has its own unique set of user behaviors and audience segments that are considered valuable. What I will say is this: I hope every site that has in-page share buttons has analyzed their usage stats to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs in screen real estate, brand advertising, and analytics data given to social media companies.

When it comes to mobile in particular, the site I worked on showed that in-page share buttons were irrelevant. On this I have a stronger opinion as iOS and Android have strong platform-wide design patterns for sharing, whether through share sheets, copy/paste, drag and drop, voice control, or whatever else may come in the future. The data I looked at suggested that these platform controls are what people use, not the social share buttons that junk up webpages the world over.

  1. We used a strict definition of sharing, where we counted a share only if the user successfully posted to their timeline. We didn’t count if the user clicked the initial share button without following through. ↩︎
  2. Even extending out to a generous number of significant digits. ↩︎

Wearable Distractions

For the past couple of months I’ve had a post about wearable technology sitting in a drafts folder, waiting to be edited for the 10th time and published. It was born out of the frustration of spending time with people, constantly being interrupted by the wondrous technology we all surround ourselves with.

Sometimes you struggle to find the right angle on a topic. This piece of writing in particular kept bending towards the “rant” rather than the “insightful” end of the spectrum. Luckily, one day before Apple’s expected announcement of their first wearable device, Josh Clark created a far more interesting article than I could have:

[Wearables] should reinforce connections with the people we love and the places we visit, instead of isolating us under a torrent of data. They should draw us into the world instead of drawing our eyes to a screen.

The entire piece is worth a read.

Tools Not Toys

Google's Project Ara has a wonderfully misleading sales pitch. It's a cell phone that lets you choose the parts you want in order to create your perfect phone. Interested in photography? Buy a high quality camera component and snap it on. Sounds simple. However, dig a little deeper and fundamental problems with this idea start to emerge.1

What if the camera you buy has features that the camera app you use doesn't support? What if the camera's drivers are buggy? What if the camera hardware requires two component spaces on the phone frame instead of one? Is everyone meant to play a game of geometry to figure out what set of components fit together to allow the features they want?

How about a different scenario. What if you buy a higher resolution screen, only to find out that your phone's GPU is too slow to support it? What if you buy a faster GPU and it requires a faster interconnect than your cell phone frame uses? Why should anyone even need to know what a GPU is?

There's also the tradeoff of bulk, where making every component removable means losing significant space to external housing and interconnects. Even worse, each component is forced into a predetermined size whether it needs the space or not.

An optimist would say that Google is working on solutions to these challenges. On the other hand, you could look at 30 years of history with PCs and predict a bleaker outcome for Project Ara. In this more likely scenario, customers will need to figure out what components work together, which have stable drivers, where to buy them, and how to configure them.

It should be clear by now that the reality of piecing together technology components never lives up to the promise of a seamless product. Every time the tech industry tries to do this, it finds out that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Exhibit A: Compare any laptop to Apple's MacBooks. Exhibit B: Compare any Android phone to Google's Nexus line. Exhibit C: Compare any Windows tablet to Microsoft's Surface.

Fraser Speirs once wrote:

The Real Work is not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS.

The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table's order, designing the house and organising the party.

As someone who works to make technology transparent, Project Ara strikes me as a wrongheaded concept. It rewinds the clock on the last decade of progress in the tech industry. Instead of ushering in a new generation of personalized, upgradeable phones, it will be a mess of barely functioning components from different companies, with limited compatibility across generations of hardware.

We should be making tools that people can use effortlessly instead of pretending tech products are toys that people want to spend time tinkering with.

  1. Let's temporarily ignore the fact that Project Ara is vaporware, despite a puff piece in Time and the usual breathless coverage in the tech press.