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What Apple could do to make 2013 a really great year

Demonstraticomputer is shown display how teacher student use technology assign do homework Jacobs High School Algonquin. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

Demonstration on a computer is shown to display how a teacher and student use technology to assign and do homework at Jacobs High School in Algonquin. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 3, 2013 6:21AM

Many times over the past 15 years, Apple’s made pronouncements about What Other Companies Simply Don’t Understand, only to later contradict themselves in the most absolute manner possible: by producing the exact product or feature that they once mocked or dismissed.

Is that a sign of hypocrisy, or of an embarrassing lack of vision? Of course not. Sometimes the technology wasn’t ready. Sometimes, consumers weren’t ready. And sometimes, Apple just couldn’t come right out and say “That’s a great idea and we’re already planning to use it in a future product.”

Apple’s done well with iBooks, movies that can be watched on tiny screens, and computers that lack the full feature set of a conventional notebook but are ultra-compact and sell for half the cost. One of those computers, the iPad Mini, is selling gangbusters despite the fact that it doesn’t ship with a sheet of sandpaper, as Steve Jobs once promised that every small tablet would require.

You grind down the tips of your fingers so that they’ll be narrow enough to operate the interface.

What other turnabouts does Apple have in store for 2013 and beyond? Here’s what I’m hoping for:

1) iOS and iOS devices should support active, pressure-sensitive styluses.

There’s a famous Steve Jobs quote, from the introduction of the iPhone: “If your phone ships with a stylus, you’ve failed.”

And at the time, he was right. Before 2007, touchscreen phones came with stylii because their screens responded to presses, not touches. So Step One of almost any interaction was to unsheath a skinny little metal stick that was tough to maintain a grip on. Often, Step One was actually to poke at the hole where the stylus was supposed to be, and then suddenly remember that you left it on the desk of your room in the hotel in the city that you left four hours ago.

Interacting with the screen with your fingertips instead of through a plastic stick is simpler, it enables elegant multitouch gestures, and it evokes a pure, emotional connection to the device and the software. Apple’s rejection of the stylus also demonstrated the company’s full support for multitouch, in a “Cortez burned his ships when he reached the New World” way. If the iPhone or the iPad had shipped with a stylus, developers and users wouldn’t have been forced to embrace multitouch and see its enormous potential.

Here in 2013, however, I’m routinely reminded of how much more fun my iPad would be if the OS included support for a true, pressure-sensitive stylus. Like the one in the Samsung Galaxy Note tablets.

The first time I started drawing with the Note’s active stylus, I felt as though I had chucked my crutches away and could dance. The device comes with a simple notebook app. I opened it to a sheet of blank graph paper.

“Praise be to God!” I shouted. As two Starbucks employees hustled me out the door, I attempted to give my testimony to all those present. “This thing is so precise, I can put a dot of ink dead-center in each of these squares!”

I recalled my time in an art gallery with my iPad earlier in the year. Sketching the room was easy. Sketching the paintings on the walls was easy (to clarify: they were paintings of blobs of color in roughly square patterns). But indicating the security cameras in the corners of the gallery was damned-near impossible. The iPad, lacking any kind of precisely-accurate input, limits you to fingerpainting. Even with a passive stylus in my hand, putting a line exactly where you want it only happens through trial and error.

I also find it tough to write notes on my iPad. Same reason: the notetaking or drawing program is putting nice, thin, fountain pen-sized lines on the screen, but I’m applying them with a thick sign marker.

The Note lets me write and sketch in smaller letters. And the lines I’m writing and drawing have weight and life as the pen moves across the screen and it reacts to the changes in pressure just as a real pen would. This lively, natural, precise stylus makes me want to pull the Note out of my pocket and use it. Like any great Apple feature, the active stylus gets out of my way and lets me focus on creating instead of on trying to make a balky tool work properly.

The best art apps are all either iPad-exclusive or else they began life on the iPad. Apple devices are the darlings of the creative set, and of kids. Both of these groups like to draw and paint, right?

A true, active, pressure-sensitive stylus for the iPad — one that’s backed by the full might and authority of an OS-level feature, not a third-party hack — is a no-brainer for the iPad. It’s such a natural fit that I’m a little giddy here at my keyboard, just imagining how much fun I’d have with an iPad 5, iOS 6.5, and my new pressure-sensitive drawing stylus.

2) Keyboard support for the iPad should be as complete as it is on MacOS.

I endorse Apple’s initial weak iPad keyboard support for the same reasons why I support the initial choice not to support styluses. The iPad was a brand-new thing and it could have easily failed if Apple hadn’t been so crystal-clear about their commitment to multitouch. They had to be aggressive. By forcing developers and users to interact with the iPad almost exclusively via multitouch, they prevented both of those groups from missing the plot and labeling the iPad as a clumsy notebook instead of an exceptional computer that makes notebooks almost irrelevant.

Roughly 100,000,000 iPad sales later, it’s time to open up keyboard support. I ought to be able to switch between open applications with a command-tab. I should be able to scroll up and down through a document one screen at a time. When I try to select text, Apple’s own word processor shouldn’t automatically try to guess at what I’m trying to do, and extend the selection range to the top of the paragraph when I only want to extend it to the previous sentence. There should be command-key equivalents for all common functions. I should be able to navigate lists using arrow keys.

In a nutshell: when I’m using my iPad to Get Things Done, I shouldn’t have to take my hands off of the keyboard nearly as frequently as I do. I get cut-copy-paste and the basic library of text selection shortcuts (until the iOS’ “help” makes those shortcuts useless) and that’s about all.

Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet, while something less than a complete success, is a huge leap forward in this regard. I can blaze through hours of real work with it because almost everything I could possibly need the touchscreen for has a keyboard equivalent.

The sugar-frosted side of my argument: Apple’s created an amazing computer that only becomes stronger and more relevant with each new iteration. It doesn’t need to be shoved into a “junior computer” role; for so many people -- myself included -- it’s a much better notebook computer than an actual notebook computer. Adding more keyboard shortcuts and making them work system-wide won’t ding the purity of the iPad. It’ll just make it easier to use, and allow me to Get Those Things Done much more quickly and easily.

The toasted-wheat side of this argument: a latest-generation iPad costs, at minimum, as much as a budget-range (but nonetheless well-made) Windows notebook. It isn’t priced like a fun gadget, or like an entertainment device. Omitting simple but transformatively-useful keyboard features for purely ideological reasons isn’t acceptable. And once we dismiss that as the justification, what’s left?

3) Stop making things thinner just to make them thinner.

I’m starting to wonder if — not predict, just “wonder if” — if 20 years from now we’re going to look back at the iPhone 5 and the late 2012 iMac and even the Retina MacBooks and think of them with the same air of befuddled amusement with which we regard the huge tailfins on cars from the 1950s. Stripped of the context of novelty, will that design choice make any sense? Is it a timeless design? Or just a sign of the madness of a certain era?

Well, I’m not qualified to make that kind of prediction. But I’ve written before about the cost of thinness. Useful features are often dropped, or they’re reconfigured in such a way that they’re harder to use. It’s also sensible to argue that optical drives are easy to live without. It’s less-sensible to argue that here in the push-button jet-age wireless world of tomorrow, a wired Ethernet port is something that can easily be offloaded onto a dongle. I disagree, but I respect that point of view.

Where does it end, however? My main beef with this design aesthetic is that it rarely delivers any benefit to the user.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder what Apple’s engineers would be free to accomplish if they didn’t constantly feel a mandate to make the World’s Thinnest Whatsit.

One example: I want a thicker iPhone. I’m even eager for a thicker iPhone. And I’m about to bring you to my side with this simple question:

What if Apple made the iPhone a little thicker, and in doing so they kicked the iPhone’s picture-taking abilities into a whole higher orbit?

Better glass in the lens. A wider aperture. Optical image stabilization, like you’d find in a conventional camera. A larger sensor. A more powerful, balanced flash.

It’s not as though Apple designs and builds the iPhone camera from scratch; they have to rely on component suppliers. But I think about all of the miracles that Apple engineers managed to perform in order to make the iPhone 5 thinner than the iPhone 4 and maintain the quality of its camera. And I wonder how much better the iPhone 5 camera could have been if they’d put the exact same effort into exploiting an extra five millimeters of distance in the thickness of the device. The Nokia Lumia 920 is a thick phone, by 2012 standards. But it’s not obnoxiously thick. And when I see the kind of photos it can take with its stabilized lens and f2.0, that’s a trade I’m happy to make.

I present the camera, and the iPhone, as just an example. Thin design works great for some devices (like the MacBook Air), but only to a certain extent. Making a thick device just a little bit thinner, or taking an already quite thin device and shaving off a few more millimeters, is a purely aesthetic choice. It’s a shame when an aesthetic choice requires the deletion of practical features. And its a damned shame when it limits the forward progress of the device in general.

4) Multi-touch on desktops.

I used to think that an iMac or a MacBook with a multi-touch display would just be Interesting. Now, I think it’s imperative.

I’d ignored something important: mobile devices are computers. Many people spend more hours per week interacting with their multi-touch phones than with a desktop or notebook. And — here comes the forehead-slap moment — there’s a whole generation of users whose very first, defining moment with a computer was to reach out and touch a screen. They weren’t moving a mouse or stroking a trackpad.

Plop a little kid in front of a desktop and they’ll reach out to the screen, not to the keyboard. That’s how they define “interface.” Criminy, even the grownups are doing it. If I sit down in front of my iMac after several hours of using my phone or my iPad a lot, I’m apt to touch an onscreen button or swipe to scroll some text. It’s a Pavlovian response.

I fear that a company that doesn’t put multi-touch on the desktop is at risk of losing a generation of users. Yes, I know that Mac OS has been “multi-touch” for a couple of years now. But cryptic four-finger trackpads gestures don’t count. It won’t be long before a computer screen that doesn’t respond directly to touch will seem like a screen bereft of color, or a computer that can’t make any sound...or, God help us, MS-DOS.

2013 will probably be too soon to see a fully multitouch Mac. But I hope Apple has set a timetable for it.

5) What happened to color user interfaces?

Apple’s been steadily streamlining and simplifying the interface. There’s a sensible grounding behind the choice to remove colors from the user interface: it encourages the user to focus on the content of the app (the reason why he or she launched it) rather than the app itself.

When I launch the new iTunes, though, I think Apple has skidded through “simple” and crashed into “stark.” Dare I say “Soviet”? The Mac and iOS experience is so bleak at times that I yearn for a graffiti artist to break into my desktop and add a little life and energy to it.

The ideal isn’t to strip out all color from the user interface: it’s to make color mean something, to guide the user. I’m thinking of a terrific Electronic Arts game (for iPad and other platforms), “Mirror’s Edge.” Your character is free-running through a complex city, which is rendered in near-monochrome shades of light blue. How do you know where you should be going to complete your missions? Well, you run towards and follow pipes and walls and elements that are rendered in red. It couldn’t be more intuitive.

The Mac’s flat-gray interface (and the iPhone’s, and the iPad’s) doesn’t create any distractions. That’s good. It also doesn’t offer any help. That’s a missed opportunity. I’ve been using the new iTunes for weeks now. I still get confused when I’m trying to move the view from my music library to the App Store to the contents of a docked device. I wind up randomly clicking things. What if these top-of-the-marquee destinations were gently backlit in blue?

The lack of color guidance is a larger problem with MacOS than in iOS. iOS, with its one-window interface, is uncluttered by nature. A desktop OS is splattered with windows and tool palettes as the day progresses. I’m writing this on my Mac, with Pages. I’m grateful as hell that the tool icons are in color. If the iTunes aesthetic were to infect Apple’s iWork suite, these productivity tools would instantly become more confusing and harder to navigate.

I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed color until I started my deep-soak tests with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. Microsoft’s operating systems use colors stylishly and usefully. I’d compare the experience of (temporarily) switching to Windows 8 from Mac OS to that of Dorothy Gale stepping out of her bleak farmhouse and into Oz, but that’s not accurate. Remember, the farmhouse wasn’t black and white, like Mac OS and iOS. It was sepiatoned. That’s practically psychedelic, by comparison.

Apple is driven to create products that they themselves consider important. That doesn’t mean that the success of other devices can’t convince them to challenge their own thinking...or to move an idea from their “someday, maybe” list to “definitely, soon.”

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