Leaving Chrome Behind

When Chrome first came onto the scene it was a revolution. A browser that was minimal, fast and did one thing really really well – display web pages. At the time there was lots of scoffing from the established players (ahem Internet Explorer ahem) that the value proposition of Chrome was lacking. It didn’t have all the whizz-bang features that IE 8 offered (what were those again?), and besides, with such a minimal marketshare which website authors would even care about it? At best it would be relegated to the dusty annals of browser quirkdome alongside other noble efforts like Opera.

At the time I was working as a Program Manager at Microsoft and tried everything I could to get my team to care about Chrome. It was receiving rave reviews from early adopters, Google was promoting it heavily on two of the most popular websites on the planet (Google Search and Youtube), and more importantly it could easily be seen to be of strategic importance to Google. It was their one chance to disintermediate themselves from their chief rival at the time, Microsoft.

To me at least, it seemed abundantly obvious that Chrome was going to be a tremendous success and shake up the browser world. I wasn’t able to get my team to do more than fix a few bugs so we didn’t suck quite as much on Chrome, and over the comings months and years the obvious happened. Chrome went from 1% to 5% to 20% to overtaking Firefox, to overtaking IE, to commanding more than 50% of the browser marketshare.

As a side note to all who would quote Netmarketshare numbers, measuring by site visits, not uniques, is the correct way to measure market share. It measures impact on the market. Just like usage, profit and app revenue are superior to devices sold as a way to compare mobile operating systems.

Chrome’s Slow Decline

All along Chrome kept true to it’s core value proposition – a fast, unobstructed way to browse the Internet. Many of the best features faded silently into the background – performance improvements, cross device sync, mobile versions for iOS and Android, advances to Internet standards like HTML 5 video.

Chrome seemed to keep getting better. Until it didn’t. It started losing it’s edge in performance, started becoming a questionable choice for those concerned about battery life. Apple had tied Chrome’s hands behind it’s back when they denied them access to use their own web rendered on iOS, but Chrome shot itself in the foot by straying from what made it great to begin with.

Bloat crept in. Google took a page out of Microsot’s playbook and authored web sites that hark back to the olden days of ‘Best viewed in Netscape Navigator 4’. Features wouldn’t work quite right on Firefox.

Today Chrome is slower, less battery efficient and it shows. Never more so than on a performance constrained experience of the new Macbook. And the comparison to Safari is stark. It’s not a few microseconds here and there, but a fundamental shift in the experience.

It is with much sadness that I bid adieu to what once was my favorite desktop application to join the legion of Safari users. I’ll still have to use Chrome at work for most things, but at home I’m a Safari gal all the way now.

Perhaps John Gruber and Marco Arment were on to something. Perhaps it is possible to let Google have slightly less hold over your digital life and still thrive.

Time will tell. I’m still an avid user of Google products. Search, Gmail (being supplanted by Mailbox on the front end), Maps (slowly being supplanted by Apple Maps), Docs (I don’t see myself switching to anything else).

The new Google Photos is phenomenal, but I’ve already shifted all my video and photos over to iCloud. And Apple has one thing Google Photos will never have – a desktop app.

Perhaps moving away from Google products is less an indictment of the direction of any one of them, but my questioning Google’s lack of app strategy across all platforms and realizing that a native app will almost always provide a superior experience to a website.

The difference between compromise and mediocrity

I’m tired of mediocraty. I’m tired of experiences that deliver half the value at twice the price – promising something that is never delivered. I’m tired of half done, rushed, full of compromise devices.

I work in technology and I rely on my computing devices to get my work done, but I also enjoy technology and want my time spent with devices to be… well, magical.

Have you ever used a keyboard that had one key that would stick? Maybe it was one of the lesser used keys, the y that you used just often enough to get frustrated when it didn’t work right, but not often enough to really do something about it?

That’s the way I feel about most of the computing devices I use. In a way it’s the curse of designing software for a living – all the flaws in experiences are apparent.

Take one recent example tonight – the otherwise gorgeous Mailbox App for Mac OS X. It is a simple, streamined experience with a subtle interface, lots of white space and a focus on text. Except. Except the last two email messages I got didn’t wrap correctly and required me to scroll right to see the last two words in the email. (They were from Vanguard and Buffer, in case you’re wondering).

This small issue was compounded by the fact that there was no way for me to adjust my interface to make it just a little bit bigger so it would all fit on one screen. *sigh* So close.

Searching for excellence

Yet I’ve found there is one company that consistently avoids mediocraty in their products. At least, they avoid mediocraty in ways that most people will notice. If you’ve read my blog for a while you’ve probably guessed that this company is Apple.

Beyond all the marketing hype, which many would have you believe is all the substance Apple has, they really do produce truly gorgeous and functional products.

I just recently received my new Macbook – a svelte alumininium <insert English accent chasis covers the thinnest, lightest, most awesome portable device with a keyboard that I’ve ever used.

This is a device filled with compromises but devoid of mediocrity.

The retina screen is a gorgeous upgrade from my old Macbook air, and it’s battery life easily doubles the circa 2013 machine I used to own.

However the screen is not quite 13”, and the resolution does not quite allow for as much space on the screen as I’m used to. It’s 1152×720 compared with 1440×900.

And yet, apart from a few moments where I need a little extra room because an app or website isn’t responsive, I would gladly take this tradeoff. In fact the beautiful text is a writing inspiration, especially in gorgeous apps like Desk.

Many others point to the keyboard as another compromise. The keys have less travel, and aren’t as scrumptiously delicious to type on as other Macbooks. And it’s true – little things make the keyboard not perfect, or at least not the same as what I’m used to. The arrow keys have weird large left and right arrows, which I think is good design for the majority of my use cases, except I’m trained in the old style arrow keys.

How about typing performance? While I’m no Barbara Blackburn, who typed for 50 minutes at an average speed of 150wpm on a Dvorak keyboard, I’m no slouch either. I just recently did this typing test, and managed 90-95 words per minute. This is slightly below my usual speed of around 110 wpm on a Macbook air. Call it a 15% reduction in typing speed.

And I can see why many journalists complain about this. Doubtless they spend a lot more time than I do just typing – though even then I would argue that the context switching between typing still consumes a large amount of time. Yet if you’re spending 6 hours a day just typing, a slowdown of 10-15% could legitimately be a problem for you. That’s an extra 30 minutes a day.

For a very very small majority of people. The average typing speed is for professionals ranges from 50-80 wpm, and for many who don’t spend their day typing it can dip below 40 wpm.

So the keyboard isn’t quite as awesome. Hardly anyone will notice, and in my opinion this is a find compromise to deliver a thinner and lighter computer. One that I’m more likely to take with me to more places.

The difference between compromise and mediocrity

Mediocre products compromise in ways that most people will notice, and is generally because of a lack of care, a lack of polish. The core of the product does what it is supposed to, but without a refined elegance that makes you fall in love. This is usually the result of trying to do too much too quickly. Of saying “Yes” to too many things, and “No” to too few.

Great products have compromises, but those compromises live on the boundaries that only outliers will experience in a meaningful way. Great products don’t do things, they leave out things – these are intentional, and as much care is taken discerning what not to do as what to do.

Pick a few things, do them really really well and your product will inspire true fans.

It’s More Than an Engineering Problem – Why Apple Pay will succeed

Ever since Apple announced Apply Pay my Twitter and Facebook streams have more than a few posts comparing iPhone 6 to the Nexus 4.

iPhone 6 vs Nexus 4

Usually they all poke fun at the fact that various features that Apple is hyping have been around in Android for years. Like the image above.

They all miss the point.
Throwing a grab bag of half working features together to create a confusing and crummy experience does not indicate that your product is more advanced. It only indicates that the manufacturer valued feature lists over customers actually using and enjoying the scenarios you enable.
In just one example, NFC payments has been a failure up until now. Despite Android having this for years. I’m willing to bet that Apple make NFC successful. And because Samsung and everyone else will copy Apple, they will drag Android along for the NFC party.

Android fans will yell that NFC was first on Android. But it is so much more than just an engineering problem. It requires a keen design over the end to end scenario, doing the hard partnership work to seed an ecosystem with payment processors and a platform that app developers can build on. And as Ars points out, timing is a crucial part of delivering a successful product as well.

Apple is about so much more than just blindly implementing the latest technology. They focus on how to make it work in the lives of people outside the tech industry.

I’ve worked in the tech industry as a Product Manager for 14 years, and have seen this mistake over and over again. Tech companies approaching a problem as an engineering problem when it required so much more. Most successful products are a combination of brilliant engineering, thoughtful design, well executed partnerships and a keen business strategy. If you think about it for a moment, some great products you know and use every day fall into this category:

  • Xbox: Microsoft entered a market that Sony had won and brought a combination of hardware, software and services engineering together with solid design, strong partnerships with game developers and a long term strategy that allowed them to invest heavily for the eventual payoff. 10 years ago it would have been unfathomable that Sony would have such a strong competitor in the game console market.
  • Google AdWords: AdWords is more than just a scalable 2nd price auction system on top of the most popular search engine. When the rest of the search world was destroying their interfaces with banner ads everywhere and polluting their search results Google took the strategic decision to make both search AND ads good for users. Using and refining metrics to rank ads was an important tool in Google’s design toolbox. Just as important was creating an ecosystem for advertisers.
  • Apple iPod: It may be difficult to remember back to a time when the iPod wasn’t synonymous with MP3 player. Back when various manufacturers released devices with interfaces that made even the tech savvy want for some assistance. Apple’s genius wasn’t in just building great hardware and software (iTunes), it was the broad partnerships with the music industry and the revolutionary iTunes service that turned iPod from just another MP3 player into a category defining device. Apple displayed keen business acumen to go against everything in the company DNA to release iTunes for Windows.

As a technologist it’s easy to get wrapped up in the technology, and miss the true genius behind a great product. Avoid that temptation. Deliver something that users, partners, and your shareholders will love!

Google is freaking me out

Last week Google acquired Skybox, a satellite imaging company. This is hot on the heels of acquiring Titan Aerospace – a drone company, Boston Dynamics – a robot company that had military contracts at the time of acquisition, and Deepmind – an artificial intelligence company with technology so powerful they forced Google to setup an ethics board before they would sell it.

Google is building skynet

Google is building SkyNet

This alone would be terrifying – a single company with the capability to surveil the entire world from space, build military robots and command them with an artificial intelligence too powerful to control. Except this is just the tip of Google’s power. Google has self driving cars, control of most of the world’s smart phones through Android, and much of the world’s communication through gmail.

Think about that for a second – Google has an army of billions of video cameras around the world and control over vital phone and electronic communications, and a super intelligent artificial robot army and air force. Totalitarian governments at their height could barely comprehend such power, and that’s just the start of it.

Google controls the world’s information source. Google search has a more than two thirds share of search in the US, globally it approaches 90%, with total domination in some markets like Germany.  Youtube serves more than 6 billion hours of video each months. They have used their power over information politically before to kill SOPA.

Ponder for a moment. – Google is the gateway through which most users access information, controls one of the most popular video networks and has used their power over information to change policy. They can monitor the entire planet from space, inside your pocket or through email and voice communication. And they have a computer controlled robot military.

Google is freaking me out, and I think we need to be very careful about ceding so much power to a single private corporation – no matter how well intentioned they may seem to be.

Image from this interesting Fast Company article.

Tesla wraps shrewdness in altruism

I have a little more cynical take on

Tesla’s announcement. I think it’s a play to get other auto makers reliant on Tesla’s infrastructure as a way to:
1. Give them scale to build charging stations and batteries
2. Make electric cars more compatible so they can grow the pie of electric cars vs gas cars (rising tide lifts all boats)

The car business is a scrappy zero sum fight. Tesla is in the gas station business. Or the electric car equivalent: batteries and charging stations

A shrewd move, not an altruistic one.