Artistry & The Mediated Experience

In thinking about the passing of Steve Jobs, as everyone in the universe seems to be doing, I think about the legacy he leaves behind.  All of the numerous voices recalling his work at Apple reflect on his unique vision and attention to detail.

That is true.  The look and feel of Apple products has been superb for years. The chrome, glass, and simple interfaces are beautiful.  There is indeed a level of design artistry that no other manufacturer has ever been able to capture.

But what we get with Apple is also a monoculture.  The devices love each other, and reinforce internal consistency.  In order to make an apple product compatible with other devices you often need a special Apple converter, with unique settings.  And nowadays they are building internal controls on things as simple as cords and AC adapters for iPods and iPads, such that you have to buy an official Apple connecter and adapter. As a user, this is probably the most frustrating element of Apple.  Only the most dedicated Apple fanboy will have the intricate levels of product consistency to maintain this Apple driven reality, and he will have to pay for it. Not to mention that devices like the iPod and iPad are considered unique extensions of your desktop/laptop computer, and thus have no backward compatibility to share files from the iPad/iPod back to the desktop.

While I love the iPad apps that have made my use of the web better, I long for the day when I can abandon this beautiful and dysfunctional device. I want devices that like to talk to other devices, regardless of their OS, and can operate on their own, and share files backward and forward.  That sounds like a fairly simple request, but it is one that Apple doesn’t want to accommodate.

This is what we sacrifice with Apple.  We get beautiful products, but that beautiful package has issues you don’t realize until you’re really using the hell out of it.

No other computer system (except maybe the new Kindle Fire) is this heavily controlled.  This is why the market for other computer companies is so wide and variable.  You buy an OS from one place, get a motherboard and CPU here, some hard drives here, a DVD-RW with Blu-Ray capability there, a monitor from over there, a keyboard you like and a mouse that does some interesting things, maybe some peripheral things like a scanner, printer, capacitive tablet for delicate drawing…  It’s a kind of chaos.  But it is a chaos that drives many of the largest design and manufacturing firms in the world.  And it’s built on standards that are mutually agreed upon so that most all of these components are interoperable.

Consider the same thing with iPhone vs Android commentary.  There have been a lot of people, especially Mac people, who have said that it’s erroneous to compare iPhone against the Android, because iPhone is one piece of hardware while the Android is an OS on multiple devices.  To some degree that’s true, but for the most part it’s a semantic argument.  Yes, the iPhone is a handset, but it also bundled with their iOS for phones.  Apple here, controlling their product from start to finish comes out with one phone, take it or leave it.  Google on the other hand, much like Microsoft and Linux have done for desktop computers, just build the OS, and leave the creation of handsets to companies better suited to that endeavor.  So you can go and get an Android handset from a whole suite of different companies, pay vastly different prices depending on which model you buy.

Steve Jobs’ legacy, to me, is that of artisan computing.  There is a vision of a product, and that product is designed, built and sold all under one company.  It is a heavily mediated experience, that works diligently to keep you a part of their world.  Many of their products are absolutely amazing.  That works for a lot of people, but it doesn’t work for everyone, nor should it.  Internal control can only take a user and a company so far.  There is always someone out there with a new processor, a new touch-screen, a newer, smaller storage medium, and to cut oneself out of those options means that you will eventually be lagging behind.

Heavily mediated experiences are fun for a while, but don’t hold up under extended scrutiny.  Children go to amusement parks and see their favorite cartoon characters and they believe them to be real.  It fills them with a sense of magic to see princesses and evil witches and silly animals.  But an adult looks and sees the gears the drive The Mouse, and knows that there is a person inside, probably sweating like crazy and needing a bottle of water.  We don’t live in Disneyland. We live in the world where the costumes come off, the scenery is put away and we look to each other for what we’re going to do next.

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