Pressing Apple’s Buttons

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

When iOS 4.2 arrives next month, the iPad will at last be updated to have feature parity with the iPhone and iPod touch. One seemingly minor change packaged with this update has generated quite a stir: The physical Position Lock button on the side of the iPad will be transformed to a Mute button, more closely mimicking how things work on the iPhone.

Why all the fuss? Two reasons.

First, there are those who prefer keeping a Lock switch on the iPad and are upset about the change. Balancing this out, there are at least an equal number of users (me included, having never used the Position Lock) who welcome a Mute switch’s arrival on the iPad. The result? A controversy. Most likely, the majority of iPad users don’t care about this one way or the other and will adapt to whatever the switch/button does. As such, I don’t see it as a big deal in the long run.

However, it does lead to a second and larger issue — one which is a potentially big deal. The question has been asked: Why not please everyone? As the function of this switch is clearly under software control, why not put an option in the Settings app that allows the user to decide which function to assign to the switch?

Who’s in control? Why not indeed? Offering a choice seems simple enough to do. And it would put an end to all complaints one way or the other. 

An iPad user sent Steve Jobs an email asking precisely this question. As recently reported, Steve answered the email using one of his favorite and most succinct replies: “Nope.”

Neither Steve nor anyone else at Apple has offered further clarification as why Nope is Apple’s apparent final word on this matter. If Apple PR did respond, I can imagine what they might say: “Apple believes that iOS devices should have a unified and consistent interface. Users expect that all iPads will work the same way. We want to live up to that expectation.”

Of course, such an answer ignores the fact that the Settings app provides a host of options for customizing how an iOS device works — although Apple seems mainly reluctant to include settings that modify physical buttons as opposed to virtual ones.

“Okay,” you may be saying at this point, “If Apple doesn’t want to go this route, how about allowing a third-party to create an app that adds the feature?” You’re kidding, right? If Apple doesn’t want to provide this sort of option itself, it certainly isn’t going to farm it out to some third-party. Indeed, as I understand things, Apple specifically prohibits any app from including any modification to any physical button on an iOS device. That’s the main reason that, as reported a few months ago, a camera app was rejected from the App Store: with this app, the iPhone’s Volume button would have acted as camera shutter button. 

Apple’s rationale for this restriction is surely about the same as just cited — except with more force. With third-parties, Apple would have less control over the consistency and reliability of such implementations. It would open up the door to problems caused by the third-party apps — problems for which users would none-the-less blame Apple. At least that would be Apple’s logic.

Too bad. I would have liked the shutter button. It would give the iPhone a more natural camera-like feel when taking pictures. In the same way, I would prefer if holding down a physical button on the side of the iPhone could access Voice Control. Instead, I have to use the front-facing Home button. When holding the iPhone to my ear and wanting to use voice dialing, I find the Home button awkward to access.

In any case, I don’t think Apple’s argument holds up well. I certainly can’t imagine any trouble resulting from Apple offering us such choices. True, I can see a case made for not allowing just any developer to make any modification they might want to a physical button. And a system-wide change to a button certainly goes beyond the sandbox limitations that Apple generally imposes on third-party apps. Still, I believe even this could be accommodated. The third-party app would still have to go through the App Store approval process. If Apple found bugs or other problems with an implementation, they could reject the app on that basis. I don’t see why Apple has to act as the “sphincter police” here (a nod to Kit De Luca) and reject all such modifications out-of-hand. I’d rather trust endusers to intelligently decide what they want or don’t want on their devices than have Apple act as the lone gatekeeper. But I’m not surprised with Apple’s decision. It’s consistent with their tight control over all aspects of iOS devices.

The Mac App Store — revisited. Thinking about all of this, I return to speculating about what Apple’s penchant for control may portend for the Mac and the coming Mac App Store. A lot of ink has already been spilt on this topic — with opinions ranging from a declaration that the App Store marks the end of the Mac as we know it to criticism of such claims as alarmist hogwash. As is often the case, my views fall somewhere in the middle.

I am especially concerned about the survival of third-party utilities — such as WindowShade X, Default Folder X, and LaunchBar. Until this trio of essential utilities are up and running on any new Mac that I buy, the machine feels embarrassingly naked to me. Apple doesn’t provide every feature I want in Mac OS X. It’s great that third-parties are able to fill in the gaps. (I know that some users have found some of these popular utilities to be a common source of OS conflicts, but that has not been my experience.)

The problem is that, given Apple’s current review guidelines, these utilities will not be for sale in the App Store. They will be rejected due to the “behind-the scenes” nature of how they work. The list of App Store excluded software doesn’t end here. As exhaustively detailed by Dan Frakes in Macworld, the full list will be much much longer.

There is no immediate crisis here. As I have previously affirmed, there is absolutely no chance that the Mac App Store will be the only means of installing software in Mac OS X Lion. If I want LaunchBar in Lion, I will be able to download it and install it the same way I now do in Leopard (assuming an updated Lion-compatible version is released).

Still, over time, an increasingly popular App Store could spell doom for the future of such utilities — assuming Apple continues to reject them from the Store. Even if Apple doesn’t require all software to siphon through the App Store, it may cease being profitable for developers — especially from smaller companies — to go any other way. And in the end, users may accept the loss of such utilities — in the same way that they now accept the absence of these sort of customization features on iOS devices.

I am not saying it is certain that is what will happen. However, I do believe that this is what Apple would like to see happen. Everything Apple has done in the past year — from limiting the most recent WWDC to just iOS, to having iOS as the basis of a revised Apple TV, to a more iOS-like MacBook Air that Apple claims is the future of all Mac laptops, to adding an App Store and other iOS-like features in Mac OS X Lion — shows the direction that Apple hopes and expects to go. For better or worse, iOS — and its “curated” world — is at the center of Apple’s universe.

Comments

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

The thing I don’t understand is why Apple customers put up with this crap when the alternatives (Android and Windows 7) are quite adequate (objectively) and actually pretty nifty in their own ways. The continued angst has to be killing you Ted. Switch to Android on a Google experience phone (N1 now, but others seem to be trickling out) and there is no drama. When a built in app doesn’t meet your needs (i.e. Google Email), there’s a popular 3rd party app to switch to (K9 mail) and no scolds telling you how you’re about to hurt the feelings of delicate turtleneck wearing designers.

And Ted… You would immediately own a niche in Android space for being able to explain things, especially to switchers or those who keep their Macs but reject this iOS mentality.

jfbiii

Because the vast majority of customers don’t really care whether there’s a position lock or a mute button (personally I think a mute button is redundant).

Look at it this way: Apple over-controls their customers’ user experience; but the vast majority of computer users are coming from a personal history of using Windows and being unable to make Windows function the way they would like it to function. Because of this, they don’t really have an expectation that they should be able to make their phones or devices function the way they would like them too, either. Apple steps in with an overwhelmingly better user experience and puts it on better-built equipment and reinforces that experience right down to opening the package. If customers can’t get a position-lock button, oh well. Everything else that they get is still a better experience than having to cobble together their own crappy user environment that still isn’t what they want out of pieces from four or eight or dozens of different third-party vendors.

The crappy experience most people have had trying to live with Windows is driving people who want and can afford something better right into Apple’s arms. As long as the Apple experience is better than what they have come to expect, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

wab95

Ted:

I think your assessment regarding button action being one where most iPad users will not care one way or the other, and as such, it not being a big deal in the long run, is insightful.

I also believe it characterises the feelings of most iPad (and other iOS device) users about issues related to control over the hard and software in general. In this sense, it is as one might regard any other dis-ease or dis-ability; something that compromises or impairs normal or essential function, things that people care about and need and/or want to do. Only then does a condition become a problem.

Unless and until Apple, or any other company’s, policies compromise the average user’s ability to do what they care about; i.e. things that they want or need to do, are they likely to perceive it as a disability and care enough to demand a change. Otherwise, they are more likely to adapt and move on.

I think that threshold differs for iOS devices vs the Mac. Given the history of the iOS devices, I do not see this happening in near term. People are accustomed to those rules and perceive a favourable benefit/cost ratio. Disallowing staple applications on the Mac that people rely on for work and play, which would be a game changer, could have such an effect.

Nothing I have read so far, other than speculation, even suggests that this is where Apple are headed, nor is it clear how such a change could benefit the Mac platform, or Apple’s bottom line, or its customers’ user experience.

webjprgm

I almost agree with Bosco and I agree with Ted in fearing for the future of the Mac platform (to some extent).

The trouble with Apple’s restrictions on iOS devices would tend to push me towards Android.  I say I almost agree with Bosco, though, because like jfbiii and wab95 have said, the restrictions just aren’t affecting me yet.  Also, since I have an iPhone now it’s easier to stay with one.

But it’s the Mac where I worry.  I really just don’t like Windows, and the main reason is that I prefer Unix tools for software development and for general power-user features.  Whenever I use a Windows machine for an extended time period I inevitably install either Cygwin or MinGW. (Those are a pain sometimes.)  I have tried Linux (mainly Ubuntu), but the software just isn’t good enough, and the user experience and configuration is worse than on Windows.  So the only good option for me is Mac OS X.  In fact, I’d say it’s an excellent option, as long as it has enough software available.

So if Apple does anything stupid to restrict the use of Mac OS X, I’ll be forced to leave.  However, they just aren’t that stupid.  The real fear is that the Mac App Store will become popular enough that most apps are purchased through there and destroy some portions of the current software business.  I like Apple well enough, but I certainly don’t want to buy everything from them.  I don’t like their hand in 30% of the pie either.  (Especially not if it’s my pie, and as a software developer I might want to sell Mac software sometime.)

Jamie

So if Apple does anything stupid to restrict the use of Mac OS X, I?ll be forced to leave.

The death of the power user?

That’s my concern too. I agree it’s unlikely, but one never knows (*cough*Intel*cough*)! I genuinely hate using Windows. Even 7 is clunky as hell compared to OS X if one is a real power user (and Linux is not even the remotest of possibilities, I doubt it ever will be, frankly) for the kind of work I do, and I really, really don’t want to have to even consider it. If this spells the end of MacUpdate et. al., I’ll be mighty pissed.

The main reason I haven’t been too distraught over the iOS devices’ limited functionality up to this point is the ability to compensate somewhat with OS X. If all of that goes away, it will be a real shame; after I’m finished being pissed, I guess I may have to look for other tools. iPhoto will simply not do the trick.

I’ve been using the Mac going on two decades now, and OS X from it’s buggy, lick-able, beta days. This would be a real slap in the face to all of us that have invested years and countless dollars in the company.

nytesky

What I don’t like about the iPad volume control is that if you hold it down, it starts to gradually lower the volume and then it just jumps to mute. I would like it to gradually lower all the way down, just as it does on the iPod touch and iPhone.

I hope changing the switch to a mute button also means changing the volume control to one that doesn’t automatically mute the iPad.

Ted Landau

I hope changing the switch to a mute button also means changing the volume control to one that doesn?t automatically mute the iPad.

I assume that this is exactly what will happen.

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