Pixel 2 XL thoughts after 1 week

There has been a lot of talk about the woes of the Pixel 2 XL’s screen, enough that I got nervous about my pre-order.  My thoughts:

  • I don’t notice the graininess.
  • I like the colors, and maybe just never got used to the oversaturated colors that some other Android phones have.
  • The blue cast when not at a straight on viewing angle is real and annoying, though not so annoying that it really bothers me day-to-day.

Other than that:

I like the low-bezel screen size thing, and wish it was a little more in the “low-bezel” direction.

The camera is straight-up amazing.  I didn’t get any hands-on time with last year’s phones, so maybe it’s not a revelation to people who had the iPhone 7s or the Pixel 1, but compared to my old Nexus 5x, iPhone 6+, or my wife’s iPhone 6s, it’s startling how good the camera is.

Also of significant note:  The fingerprint reader works on the first try every time for me.  In comparison, other fingerprint readers I’ve used (Nexus 5x, iPhone 6+, Macbook Pro Touchbar Version) never have.

Ok Google doesn’t work as flawlessly as I would like, and is still noticeably slow.

I don’t know what possessed Google to put all their app icons in little white circles.  That’s super dumb.  But not actually related to the phone.

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Has “Design-led” Failed in Tech?

The mantra of the last few years in the Silicon Valley has been that your company needs to be “design-led.”  So here’s a question for you:  Besides Apple, what are the design-led success stories?

I think that the basic answer is that there are none, and that we need to put a big asterisk near Apple, too.

The “design-led” label is hazy in that kind of productively-ambiguous-for-business-consultants way, so it’s hard to come up with a canonical list of what companies are design-led.  But clearly the canonical example is Apple, an organization in which industrial design appears to initiate projects, veto initiatives from the product or engineering team, and be central to the brand of the company.  Do any of the other big companies embrace leadership from design?

Google is an engineering-led organization.  To the extent that it’s had a flirtation with unifying its diverse initiatives under a design manifesto, that flirtation was Google Plus, and it was a failure.  Google has had a fairly successful “material design” initiative which ties its products together in a visual way, but material design is design as UI.  It’s a coat of paint (a pretty and useful one, to my eyes) that you apply to your project before release, not a driving force within the company.

Facebook is also obviously engineering-led, famously and almost autistically reflective of its founder.  It toyed with a more design-centric approach with Paper, a colossal failure, and perhaps more arguably with Home phone concept, another resounding dud.

Amazon is, I don’t even know.  A set of loosely competing internal organizations integrated only by a shared digital language?  Some of its sub-units might be design-led in some meaningful sense, but certainly not all of them, and one look at http://amazon.com makes it clear that design is not central to the organization.

Uber’s redesign was famously absurd and its major initiatives are technology or data-driven.  Netflix is product and data-driven in a way that is actively hostile to designers.  The big B2B success stories, from Palantir to SalesForce, make no concessions to design.  AirBnB might be an example of a design-led organization, but it’s worthwhile to note that their head of design specifically disclaims the label.  You can make an argument that Tesla is design-led, but if so it’s the company’s automotive side, not its high-tech side.

What’s left?  Is there anything to address besides the elephant in the room?

I’m tempted to just wave Apple away.  However successful design leadership has or hasn’t been for Apple, it’s the outlier of outliers.  Generalizing from Apple is famously fraught.

But if Apple is to be the central example, we should at least consider how well design leadership has worked for them.

Apple is interesting to us only because of the iPhone.  The revitalization of the company’s fortune through the iPod is certainly an interesting business story, but if they had never leapt from iPod to iPhone, nobody in the tech world would care about them.  The iPad has settled into being a niche device.  The Apple Watch is an accessory.  Macs owe nearly 100% of their limited success to being part of the infrastructure of iOS development (at this point, despite their storied history).

The iPhone is perhaps the single most successful product of all time, certainly the most successful product of anything remotely similar: the consumer electronics space, or post-personal-computing high tech.  Central to its brand is the idea that it is desirable, fashionable, and recognizable, and it wouldn’t do to discount that brand.

But the initial success of the iPhone was due to timing and technology, not design per se.  The idea of an all-screen phone was dreamt of as the future five years and more before the iPhone came around.  It just appears that nobody thought it would be possible for another several years, and Steve Jobs, through vision or luck, pushed for the creation of a device that was by no means impossible to conceive, but rather thought to be impossible to make.  And when Apple proved that the iPhone was indeed possible, it certainly appears that its competitors started from essentially nothing in terms of trying to bring competing products to market.  It was years before a credible iPhone competitor hit the markets.

During those years, the iPhone solidified its position as an iconic device, and again, it would be absurd to pretend that design was not central to that process.

And then the iPhone suffered a catastrophic loss in market share as Android caught up to the iPhone in unit sales and at least competed in terms of profits.  And while the iPhone remains a uniquely successful product, it’s worth looking at what caused it to lose its utter dominance, its position without compare, that it had from 2007 to about 2010 or 2011.

Android, when it came on the scene, clearly had real design deficiencies compared to iOS.  My first Android phone, the Motorola Droid, came onto the market two years later than the first iPhone and was clearly in almost every respect inferior to the first generation iPhone, as a consumer device if not in technical specs.  It had none of the famous obsession with smooth scrolling or unified user experience that the iPhone did.

I owned that Motorola Droid because iPhones were, at the time, available only on AT&T, and my home got crappy AT&T coverage.  It was worthwhile for me to deal with a worse user experience on the Droid in order to get a phone that, you know, worked in my apartment.  iPhones were available only on AT&T precisely because of design: because Apple had wanted full control over the user experience of the iPhone, and had signed an exclusive contract with AT&T in return for that control.

My father got the next Android phone in our family, a Droid X the following year.  Android still had considerably worse user experience than the iPhone, but my father was also having trouble with AT&T coverage, and the 4.3″ screen of the Droid X was also interesting to him as a man then in his 60’s whose short-distance eyesight was not as keen as it had been.

And screen sizes became the wedge that Android inserted into the iPhone’s dominance.  The Droid X was one of the first generation of Android phones to have notably larger screens than the iPhone.  It wasn’t until two years later, in 2012, that Apple increased the size of the iPhone screen from its original 3.5″ diagonal, and the iPhone 5’s expanded screen was still substantially smaller than the screens of Android phones from earlier generations.  Only with the iPhone 6, in 2014, did Apple finally release phones with screen sizes competitive with Androids.  By then, Android was firmly entrenched as a major competitor to the iPhone.  Pent up demand for an iPhone with a modern screen size was overwhelming, making the iPhone 6 a high water mark for Apple.

Because, at the end of the day, the iPhone is a hugely successful, iconic product, and a uniquely profitable one, it’s tempting to imagine that Apple has had only successes with it.  But it’s worthwhile to consider the counterfactual.  In wealthy countries, iPhones have about 40-50% of the smartphone market share (Android does better in poorer countries).  This number is up from a few years ago, when Android was competing more against iPhones with smaller screens.  People really, really, really like large screens on their phones.  Given the dominant position that iPhones enjoyed in 2007-2011 in terms of overall user experience, I think that an Apple that more rapidly embraced large screen sizes (and a variety of carriers) could have had a 60-75% market share today.  Perhaps more.  As big and as successful as Apple is today, it could have been 50% bigger.

With Apple’s famously secretive decision-making, I can’t say for sure what caused Apple to delay so long in making phones with large screens.  But they weren’t technologically impossible: Android proved that.  The fact that users were eager to purchase them was hardly a secret.  Why didn’t Apple move faster?  A plausible explanation is that their powerful design team stood in the way.  Supporting a variety of screen sizes complicates a lot of the unified user interface that iOS was and is famous for.  Screens that are too large for many users to reach with one thumb necessitate a rethinking of where to put controls.  Larger screens may have been more difficult to get with obsessively perfect color balance.  They involved rethinking the industrial design of the overall phone enclosure.  These weren’t engineering challenges — again, Android proved that this was a very doable technological device.  But they are the kind of thing that a design-led organization drags its feet doing.

This is worth considering if you’re a young organization that is thinking about being design-led.

Grand Claims Turn Out To Be False

In August, 2014, Techcrunch reported that:

Helion Energy, a Redmond, Washingon-based startup that says it has a plan to build a fusion reactor that breaks even on energy input and output, a challenge whose solution has been considered decades away for, well, decades. Helion CEO David Kirtley says that his company can do it in three years.

It has now been three years.  You may be shocked to hear that Helion has not achieved break-even fusion.  I’m willing to bet that they won’t achieve break-even fusion in the next three years, either (or ever).

Comey

So Donald Trump fired the man who probably tipped Trump into electoral victory.

I have no idea whether Trump is, as the current Democratic narrative has it, concerned that Comey would find damning evidence against him in the Russia investigation.  But regardless of that, I think it’s possibly instructive to see this as a fundamental conflict between Trump and not Comey in particular, but the deep state in general — or perhaps a less fraught phrase would just be the institutional bureaucracy of the US federal government.

It’s clear that Trump wants to be a transformative President, and it’s equally clear that he’s not very popular with the US deep state.  I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the power of these institutions — they seemed very effective at very rapidly turning Obama from a number of anti-military campaign promises — and part of my relative sanguinity about Trump’s Presidency has stemmed from a belief that Washington tends to tame the President, not vice versa.  (Usually, in my opinion, for ill, but in the case of Trump probably for good).

But the US is not Turkey, and a President who is bold about breaking tradition and who perhaps has little to lose on the public approval front can in fact fire a lot of figures in the deep state.  It’ll be interesting — and discomforting — to see the war if this is in fact the first shot fired.

(Not to sound too alarmist.  Probably an 80% chance that this is nothing more than either Trump not liking Comey or some ham-fisted attempt to cover up ethical problems.)

See?

Me, a few weeks ago:

Maybe a move to the right on health care will alienate as many moderates as it appeases right wingers, but that’s far from proven. There is no reason to assume that right wingers and moderates are equal-but-opposite, or that they react to whipping in the same way. This seems like a case where 538’s statistics-oriented analysis lacks nuance and depth.

Congress, a few minutes ago, passed the moved-to-the-right health care bill with all the Freedom Caucus plus enough of the moderates whipped into shape to pass it.

The bill may not pass the Senate and so forth, but this was a case where, I think, the wishes and hopes of the media got turned into “facts” through superficial statistical analyses, by the people whose exact claim-to-fame is that they won’t do any of that.

 

Trailers

I know it’s not in the nominal topic-space of this blog, but:

The Thor Ragnarok teaser:

Looks decent on its own merits, but it is literally impossible for me to see a trailer that heavily features the Immigrant Song and not compare it to:

Which is rough, because the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo teaser trailer is the best trailer that has ever been filmed, and likely the best one that ever will be filmed.

Simple Health-Care Analyses

538 has a piece saying basically that Republican health care reform is doomed because if the bill moves to the right to placate the Freedom Caucus, it will alienate moderate Republicans.

Maybe!

But this seems like a simplistic analysis.  During the last round of health care reform, the whip efforts seemed to center on the Freedom Caucus, and they basically told Trump to jump in a lake.  Note that the Freedom Caucus had enough votes in and of itself to doom the bill (and also the bill was not expected to pass the Senate).  We have to understand that when a bill is doomed, whip counts become less accurate.  The moderate Republicans who opposed the bill were not heavily whipped, and we don’t know how susceptible they are to being whipped.

It may be that if the Freedom Caucus comes into line, and the moderates go from being joiners to the opposition of an already-doomed-bill to being the people who can be squarely blamed for the bill’s failure, they will come on board their party’s bill.  In fact, we can assume that some of them certainly will.

It’s also reasonable to believe that people on the right wing of the Republican party are less susceptible to whipping than are those on the left wing.  Right wing Republican congresspeople are likely from districts that are very safely Republican, and a primary challenge from the left seems more difficult to mount than a primary challenge from the right.  As such, it’s not clear that they have much to lose by resisting the Republican party line.

In contrast, moderate Republicans are probably considerably more at risk both in the primary and general elections, and thus are more dependent on Republican party support to continue their careers.  And they may just be less ideological than those on the other extreme of their party.

Maybe a move to the right on health care will alienate as many moderates as it appeases right wingers, but that’s far from proven.  There is no reason to assume that right wingers and moderates are equal-but-opposite, or that they react to whipping in the same way.  This seems like a case where 538’s statistics-oriented analysis lacks nuance and depth.