We changed our name! After 14 years of creating award-winning digital products & services, it’s time for a new identity that better reflects the human insights-driven, digital customer experiences we create.
We changed our name! After 14 years of creating award-winning digital products & services, it’s time for a new identity that better reflects the human insights-driven, digital customer experiences we create.

AIAIO: Our Blog

AIAIO: Our Blog

The pulse and reviews of Alexander Interactive

Archive for the ‘Gadgets’ Category

The (immediate) demand for evolving your website strategy


PSFK has published a report (disconcerting, damning or riotous, depending on your station) showing that many top luxury brand websites don’t function on the iPad. (That image above is the Prada home page.) Given that Apple buyers are often luxury product consumers, this is a glaring omission for some of the world’s strongest brands.

The iPad is a reminder that the web is now rapidly moving away from the “build a website, let it run” strategy. A growing diversity of web-enabled devices is going to force companies to build websites that make usability the prime directive. The direct problem is the use of Flash, but the real issue is the lack of universal accessibility.

The growth in broadband mobile networks has led to rapid adoption of web access by consumers. Smartphones are nearing 20% of the American cellular marketplace and are expected to reach 30% soon. Ai clients saw growth in mobile traffic as high as 600% over 2009 alone.

The iPad is the latest and most profound bellwether in this usage shift. Contemplating how to service users with 1.5″ BlackBerry screens was one thing; dealing with iPad users, with their 1024×768 screens and just-like-a-laptop-only-better expectations, is entirely another. And while the iPad may be just a first step in an evolution, a million unit sales in a month suggests someone found the keys to the steamroller.

Computers are not going away; manufacturers shipped 68 million of them in 2008 alone. More important is the fragmentation of the marketplace, which, years after homogenizing almost entirely in Internet Explorer for Windows, is now an open landscape. Four different browsers have substantial (greater than 3%) market share. And dozens of devices are now displaying web pages in displays ranging from 320 to 1920 pixels in width, both with and without Flash.

The requirement for 2010, then, is to adapt to the fragments. Good websites need to actively identify visitors’ platforms and deliver user-centric results–not just the Amazons and Facebooks of the web, but the many small- and medium-size sites that encourage exploration and engagement. As platforms continue to diversify, creating flexible, accessible sites is a must.

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The sum of its parts

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the iPad (how do you not?) since posting my initial, underwhelming reaction to its launch announcement last week. And, suffice to say, I’ve changed my opinion rather drastically.

The iPad will be, for many, greater than the sum of its parts.

Because on a checklist, the iPad disappoints. But then, this happens a lot. Consider the first iPhone: no physical keyboard, no picture messaging, no video, etc. But the device quickly overcame those detractions.

What the iPhone had, and what the iPad probably has, is totality. Apple’s genius in start-to-finish user experience design is well documented, and the iPad will be no exception. Interactions large and small, short and long, will all be easy to execute and fun to try. And it won’t take long before people yearn for one.

I noted last week that it’s likely a perfect complement for someone with a desktop computer: one device for heavy lifting, one for casual use. And the more I consider it, the more I think that’s the likely scenario.

This gadget is also a harbinger of the future. Apple is banking on people working more in the cloud, using shared and networked services, and interacting in new ways. It’s already happening; Ai, for one, despite griping about its flaws, uses Google Docs extensively. I know my own life has shifted from POP email and file hierarchies to IMAP and file search. Throw in a few multimedia subscriptions and the entire paradigm could shift for good.

Plenty of people have said this similarly and more eloquently than me; I particularly like Mike Monteiro’s observation, that the iPad is the cinema’s device of the future. So add me to the list of believers, with a dollop of humility.


First thoughts: iPad

I’ve been monitoring the Engadget feed like everyone else, and I can’t give a full verdict until I play with it, but at a glance, I’m not excited by Apple’s new iPad.

Why? First, because of what it is:

  • A big iPhone. Truly, that’s how it is modeled, from the OS outward. Which means it has a similar form factor, the same beautiful glossy screen, and the same interfaces… which makes it just as scary to drop and very hard to put in one’s pocket. True, the niche is different; Apple is targeting the “I don’t want to lug my laptop” crowd with the iPad’s 9.7″ screen, half-inch depth and 1.5-lb. weight, all good things. But it’s not a true laptop replacement, as I’ll detail later.
  • A 3G device–on AT&T’s network. The last thing AT&T needs (and that anyone is going to want) is more devices crowding its 3G bandwidth with unlimited-use devices. If this product is a hit, T is in for a rough year.

More important, though, is what it isn’t. Apple, of course, is often ahead of the game with its focus. The first iPod did nothing but play music; the iPhone didn’t do copy-paste or Exchange sync; and so on. And perhaps the iPad will be more successful because of what Apple deliberately left out of it.

For my $499 and up, though, I’d expect to have some of these things in the iPad, all of which are purposefully missing:

  • Multitasking. Apple spent a long time demonstrating iWork, but without multitasking, users can’t pingpong between apps to reference data, copy-paste or preview. Productivity is decidedly secondary.
  • Featherlight specs. Yes, one and a half pounds for this device is very nice. But a Kindle weighs 11 ounces, an iPhone less than 5. It’s a portable device that’s only somewhat portable. More like a coffee-table device (as expected) than one to tuck under the arm.
  • A camera. What self-respecting Internet-centric gadget ships without a camera in 2010? Between chat, photo and video, cameras have become an expectation, not a perk. And the last thing an iPod user will want is wired peripherals. (Also, as reminded by @chrisfahey: no handwriting or voice recognition.)
  • Enticing pricing. Sure, the $499 starting point is alluring, but at $829 for an all-in model, it’s not as cheap as it looks.

I’m no gadget prognosticator, and as an Apple shareholder, I hope I’m wrong. But this looks like it’s going to be a bit of a niche product, at least at first. It may turn out to be an incredible gaming and reading platform, in which case I will gladly make my retractions and add one to my own gadget stable. But from here, thus far? Color me iUnderwhelmed.

Of course, I could always be wrong.


Why the Nexus One isn’t exciting

The public release of Google’s phone was news but not an event yesterday. (The New York Times used “some polite applause” and “shakes but doesn’t upend” in its coverage headlines.)

Why? Because Google didn’t physically make the phone.

In partnering with HTC, a company that produces cell phones for every US carrier and two different operating systems, Google ceded control of the overall experience. Never mind that the handset is slim and fairly attractive. It’s also generic, and apparently imperfect. When David Pogue pushes your phone’s home button, you really don’t want it to fail.

There’s a huge difference between designing and engineering a device, as Apple did with the iPhone and Palm with the Pre, and a company having a device “built to its specifications”. Google was telling HTC, “We want our phone to do this,” and HTC was putting the requisite componentry in place. This tends to minimize holistic product definition and by its very nature waters down the innovation. In contrast, Palm and Apple (and Motorola and Nokia, for that matter) manage the entire process, and their software is designed to complement the hardware, maximizing user experience. Google, a company that is strictly virtual, doesn’t know how to do this.

Software companies that venture into hardware have to embrace the role of hardware manufacturer. This is true beyond smartphones: consider how Microsoft, which built an empire on software, hit a home run with its Xbox by controlling the end-to-end product creation. (Microsoft makes great computer accessories, too; I’m using a Microsoft keyboard and mouse right now.) But we never saw a Microsoft-branded PC produced by Compaq in the 1990s. All or nothing.

Google is a formidable company with incredible technological prowess. I’m not placing bets against Android just yet. The relative mediocrity of the Nexus One, though, is exactly what we should have expected.


The next Apple gadget

With sources as authoritative as the Wall Street Journal confirming the pending introduction of a tablet computer from Apple, one can assume the cat’s out of the bag for the big Apple news on January 27. But what does it mean?

I’m throwing my hat in the kill-the-small-laptop camp. The iPhone proved that people will use computing power in a portable manner and without a physical keyboard. Despite the name, the iPhone is indeed a computer, with a clever 3.5″ form factor. And people use it as such. Indeed, Ai has ecommerce clients generating sales from iPhone browsers on non-mobile-optimized websites.

Given that, why not continue to redefine the portable computing space? Steve Jobs must scoff at netbooks, with their minuscule keyboards and compromised feature sets. Better to redefine the experience with a new kind of device. Just like the iPhone has redefined pocket-sized power, so too can the tablet redefine the small-laptop market.

Apple is shooting for the personal, casual computing market, folks like me who like to get online sitting on the couch and folks like Nathan who want a three-pound computer to travel with. It will be big enough to type on and clear enough for reading, gaming and web browsing.

I bet the tablet’s pixels per inch will be impressively high, like the 160 ppi of the iPhone. Most Mac desktop and laptop displays hover around 110 ppi. An 11″ screen at 160 ppi will provide almost the same amount of pixel real estate as a 13.3″ MacBook screen does now. This will help minimize people’s perception that they’re giving up detail for size.

Yesterday I postulated to my coworkers that the 13″ MacBook is going to disappear. But now I suspect it will turn Pro a few months after the tablet comes out. Portable computing power is important, and with a tricked-out technology package, the MacBook will differentiate itself. Expect MacBooks to shift in price from $1199 and up to $1499 or higher, with the tablet coming in around the thousand-dollar mark.

Whatever it turns out to be, expect irrational and unrivaled consumer desire and interest for it, on a scale that only Apple creates. Google’s phone news is a business story: “Look at Google aiming for the smartphone market.” But Apple’s news is cultural. Which is why they may succeed in their latest attempt to change the game.



I find the pricing of the new iPod Touch interesting in light of the current iPhone pricing models.

A new 8GB iPod Touch, with all the functions of an iPhone except the phone, costs $229. A new 8GB iPhone, meanwhile, costs $199 before the data plan is factored in.

AT&T subsidizes iPhone prices to Apple in exchange for driving sales, at rates commonly assumed to be $325 per phone sold. This means Apple sees revenue of $524 per iPhone sold but only $229 for an iPod Touch.

Does this mean the phone and 3G capabilities of the iPhone cost Apple several hundred dollars per unit in production and R&D? Are the core components inexpensive enough that the iPod Touch provides the same profit margin? Or is the iPhone simply an outrageous cash cow?


UX Critic: the iPhone 3G Purchase Experience and Firstness

My wife bought an iPhone 3G on Friday morning. To do so, she had to have a friend sweet-talk her way into cutting a long line at our local AT&T store. My wife then took home a partially activated phone and, like everyone else, waited hours to get it to work.

Much has been written about the botched iPhone activation process surrounding the 3G/2.0 launch this weekend. But the entire experience of buying an iPhone is bordering on broken.

Apple generates extreme amounts of hype for its products, and the gotta-have-it nature of its launches creates untenable demand curves. This leads to a scarcity effect that, for Apple, has been hugely beneficial in its promotional efforts, and in its bottom line.

How should the user experience of first-day demand be viewed?

To hard-core fans, buying an iPhone is a singular thrill, complete with risk/reward and time/money trade-offs. Scoring an iPhone on Day One gives a person bragging rights, an invaluable perk atop the value of the phone itself.

The millions of iPhone buyers that don’t want this experience are stuck waiting until the hype dies down. But despite their disinterest in the crowds and lines, they probably don’t want to wait.

The iPhone appeals to Americans’ overwhelming desire to be first to experience something. Movies generate nearly half their box-office sales the first weekend; albums’ biggest sales come the week of their debuts. (Internet geeks know this feeling all too well.) This now applies to, of all things, a cellular phone, as I myself experienced last summer. (Full disclosure: despite my continued criticism of iPhone trends, I remain a satisfied iPhone owner who bought his phone on Day Two last summer.)

But scarcity and “firstness” can combine in ugly ways. To wit, my wife’s friend cutting a long line to get a coveted phone within hours of its release, a scenario which no doubt occurred elsewhere. This leads to even greater frustration for those waiting on line, and whose firstness is being usurped.

Layer onto this the technical problems Apple experienced. How does it feel to purchase a brand new, unusable phone? To be forced to open a sleek device and remove its SIM card just to make phone calls on an old phone? For some the first-day difficulty dissolves into the background as the satisfation of the iPhone UX takes hold, but for others the memory, and dissatisfaction, remains.

And don’t forget the basics. AT&T has not worked out a system for transferring SIM card data into an iPhone, so lengthy address books are obliterated, requiring immediate data entry. And the iTunes paradigm creates multiple payment paths: to AT&T for phone services and to Apple for everything else. Perhaps it has to be this way, but it’s an ungainly system for users who want to analyze their usage patterns and costs.

This is not to say that the iPhone isn’t a masterful device (it is) or that Apple could have done much differently (besides staggering the 2.0 software rollout, not really). It’s simply an observation of the sociological effects of consumer demand, and the potential drawbacks of immersing oneself in said demand.

Remember, when all is said and done, it’s just a phone.


Update: new iPhone pricing plans

AT&T has officially detailed its 3G iPhone pricing, and it’s actually a bit worse than I noted last month.

The cost of data has gone up $10/month, as previously discussed. What I forgot to include was the loss of free text messaging–current owners get 200 SMS messages included in their $20 data plan. Now those 200 texts cost an extra five bucks.

Redoing the comparison, what I had outlined as

Old: 399 + (24 x 20) = $879
New: 199 + (24 x 30) = $919

is, for users interested in the same level of access, actually

New: 199 + (24 x (30 + 5)) = $1039

Sure, the price increase includes the upgrade to 3G service, which can rightly be considered a premium. But the pricing strategy feels almost bait-and-switch-esque in its execution. They’re trumpeting a $200 savings in the price of the phone, yet users are paying $160 more for usage.

Ironically, what is classified as a win for the mobile phone industry–Apple’s moving to a subsidy model to make its prices more attractive–ultimately leaves AT&T with a horrible jack-up-the-prices publicity nightmare on its hands.

See you when the third-gen comes out in ’09.

Update: AT&T is not raising data rates on original iPhones with new activations, suggesting that the 3G network is the justification of the price bump. Well, that and the fact that they already made their money on the profit split of the initial iPhone sale.


The consumer cost of the iPhone

Everyone is all abuzz, as they always are, about Apple’s latest product news, in this case the $199 3G iPhone. As expected, the focus is on the price: $199 for an iPhone! What a deal!

Yet it’s not that great a deal. The entry price has been lowered but not the true cost. Of course, Apple and AT&T know this; it’s the foundation of the cellular industry, and AT&T Wireless is happy to exploit it here.

Full disclosure: I am a wildly satisfied iPhone owner. I’m not buying the new one, though, in part due to the economics. Here’s why.

The current (now previous) iPhone cost $399 for the device and $20 per month for a required AT&T Wireless data plan. Over the life of a two-year (24-month) contract, the total cost of ownership amounts to

399 + (24 x 20) = $879

This number excludes taxes, regulatory fees and marginal inflationary adjustments, but it’s an accurate gauge of what Apple and AT&T get from the consumer across two years.

For the new phone, the price drops to $199, but the monthly data fee has risen to $30. Sounds small, but over the course of two years, guess what?

199 + (24 x 30) = $919

By the end of two years, total cost of ownership for the new phone is actually higher for the half-price iPhone. Apple managed to get monstrous press coverage of its $199 price point with little mention of the data charge, which substantially affects the equation.

Now, I’m obviously simplifying a conversation with many other variables. (For example, over two years, “real cost” including inflation and float may benefit the monthly plan; people who renew contracts in less than two years have altered ownership costs; etc.) But my point is simply put: list price and true cost are not the same, and the 3G iPhone is no cheaper than its predecessor.


Ripple effects

Last Friday my iPhone’s vibrate feature failed. I had a day or two of odd brrrraap buzzes, wheezy ailing things, and on Saturday, pfft! no more vibrate.

I went to Apple’s Genius Bar on Sunday, fighting masses of bored tourists on Easter to get my phone inspected. The technician (genius?) took a quick look at my phone and decided that I had broken the external silence switch when I dropped it at some point. “There’s your problem, right there,” he said cheerily.

Before I had the chance to get defensive, he had opened a drawer and taken out a small white box. Out came a new iPhone–refurbished, I’m sure, but visually perfect–and within five minutes the genius (technician) had swapped SIM cards and activated the new phone. He took my phone–nine months old, dropped several times, with the scuff marks to prove it–and put it in the box with an explanatory label.

And that was it. “Here you go,” he said, “you’re all set.” And I went home with a new phone in my pocket.

I tell this story not simply to add to the “cult of Mac” but to examine just why Apple has been so successful.

  • Trust. The tech who met me listened to my request, quickly verified it, and moved onto solving the problem. No challenges, no curiosities, no wondering whether I had violated an arcane clause of my limited warranty. Heck, the tech even pointed out that I had dropped the phone–surely grounds for voiding my claim, and for which I had prepared an extensive explanation about timing, cause and effect, and so on. But it made no material difference to him.
  • Ease. All I did to get my phone replaced was make an appointment, hand over the phone, and sign a form acknowledging my receipt of a new one. No other paperwork or, as noted above, difficult questions.
  • Flow. The Genius Bar is, of course, free. I booked online, arrived late on Easter Sunday, and still got taken within minutes.
  • Goodwill. The net effect of the above: I am a newly satisfied Apple customer, not only proud of my iPhone (proud! of a phone!) but delighted with my recent experience. I’ve spent the week telling people my story, which routinely elicits amazement and wonder: what other company is this easy to work with? This in turn continues Apple’s amazing halo effect, which translates into ever stronger sales.

The message, to any company selling products: treat customers with respect and make life easy for them. Individual transactions may have a higher cost than a cost accountant may prefer. But the long-term impact is undeniable.