Autumn in Japan, and some observations

We paid Tokyo and Osaka a visit last fall, following up on my life’s goal of visiting Japan at least once every two years, and nothing disappointed — not the food, people, weather, galleries, nor multi-storey complexes designed to make me buy media and electronics. As Craig Mod alluded to recently on Twitter, Tokyo is a place that fulfills the city’s promise as a tool for human life.

The thing I love about its density and intensity is how that translates into support for all manner of subcultures and obscure hobbies. Today, you can barely find a functioning and interesting bookstore in Singapore, while in Tokyo it’s not just bookstores that thrive. One can wander into massive stores selling model train and forest diorama-building supplies, or records curated from a specific period, or vintage camera parts emporiums. We’re not large enough to incubate that kind of diversity, and the city dweller’s life suffers for it.

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Singapore Gets An Apple Store

Finally.

After years of waiting, Singapore got its own Apple Store on Orchard Road (where else?) in May of 2017.

I’ve been in the ecosystem for about 14 years now, and getting good sales service and support from third-party resellers has been consistently hard. Back when Funan the IT Mall was still around, there were a few small shops that knew what they were doing with Macs, but for the most part, the bigger chains gave people bad advice, installed RAM chips facing the wrong way, and stocked some pretty abysmal accessories at outrageous prices. Apple Retail have done all of the above on a bad day, too, I’m sure, but at least they’re held to higher standards.

The two-level store follows the recent round of store designs by Norman Foster, with lots of large indoor plants and round headphone stands on the far end. You get upstairs via a symmetrical pair of spiral staircases cut into cool stone walls on either side; no glass staircases or elevators here. I read in some press release that the materials are meant to echo the Apple Park campus’s design language, which I guess is … fine.

Processed with VSCO with kp8 preset

While it’s nice to have a place to buy devices and “feel part of a community” with the new Today At Apple events, I think the main benefit of having this here is going to be accessible, proper customer support in the city. I’ve been down to industrial parks way too many times to get my iPhone looked at in the past, and it’s not fun.


 

A word about my current setup, for future reference: I’ve not bought a new Mac in 7 years. The current iMac struggles along and is only used once every couple of months to do the things only a Mac can do for arbitrary reasons. I get most of my work done on a MacBook Pro supplied by the company, but for personal use, my iPhone and a couple of iPad Pros do everything I need or have time for. The 12.9” version gets a lot of use as a desk-bound typing machine and a bed-bound Netflix player, which is really underutilizing it, I know. The smaller one gets taken everywhere because of its size, and I’m hoping for it to replace the MBP for a lot of little things at work like note taking and task management. Who wants to bring a big laptop home every night anyway?

iOS 10 Makes the Timeline UI a Reality

Wired: Apple May Have Figured Out the iPhone’s Most Promising Feature

3D Touch is instrumental to Apple’s newly rethought lock screen, in a way that could fundamentally change how you interact with your iPhone.

But with iOS 10, you’ll use your home screen a whole lot less.

This article from Wired today recalls the thinking of many UX designers who believe that homescreens tiled with app icons will soon give way to a new kind of smartphone UI: the timeline. Over the last few years, both iOS and Android have been making their notifications richer, with simple functions like deleting new emails, quickly replying to texts, or faving tweets, amongst others.

lockscreenBut iOS 10 looks to be taking it to a whole new level. iPhones will light up when you raise them, and interactive notifications can expand into whole widget-like apps with live maps and data, and house more complex options than a dialog box or text input field can provide. And the best place for this new timeline UI to live is on the lock screen of your phone, the starting point of any interaction, and an arguably more valuable space for accomplishing tasks than the homescreen.

And it’s 3D Touch, launched to public disinterest with last year’s iPhone 6S, that’s been the missing piece all along. Without pressure sensitivity and Apple’s Peek & Pop gestures, a self-activating lock screen might be a pretty bad place to have action buttons that can accidentally touched. I’d be interested to see how it works on phones without it, such as the new iPhone SE. Perhaps they just won’t have Raise to Wake.

Also worth remembering that this new timeline of Things That Need Your Attention Most will live beside the Today screen of widgets (swipe to the right), which should do a lot for the idea that we’ll all be unlocking our iPhones a lot less and getting stuff done quicker later this September.

“Onions” Breaks One of Apple’s Oldest Advertising Rules

Apple’s new iPhone ad departs from some of their oldest and most inspiring advertising by making fun of what customers do.

I’m curious what people make of the new iPhone 6S ad from Apple, the comedy one called “Onions”. On the surface, it looks like another one of the fun, irreverent ads that have been made for the 6S series so far — the previous ones leaned heavily on their sassy, self-reflexive voiceovers by the actress Lake Bell. It only has a brief product demo lasting about 3 seconds, followed by nearly a minute of story; it has a celebrity appearance; some humor; and a quirky sign-off that says “Onions on iPhone 6S” before “Onions” becomes “4K Video”.

While I enjoyed it, I think it perverts one of the unspoken rules that have made past Apple ads great. The people in those ads were always more creative, more talented, doing better work, and living fuller lives than the average viewer. But the ads seemed to believe that you were that person, and always spoke up to you. In other words, they assumed the best of their customers.

That’s just a company that knows how to utilize aspiration. You see it in fashion advertising, but you’re either model material or you’re not. When it comes to products that let anyone create, the dream is ever alive!

The Apple Pencil lets an artist draw beautiful lines, an app on the Mac lets a young musician record a touching song for her mom, photographers take billboard-worthy photos on their iPhones, an architect edits blueprints on his iPad Pro at the coffee shop, a misunderstood teenager cuts a family film over Christmas. These are scenes you’ve probably seen, and I’ll bet they inspired you to make more stuff more often, or convinced you that upgrading to the new one would upgrade the quality of your work, or both. The examples were aspirational, but completely relatable.

“Onions” takes a different tone. It’s a somewhat sarcastic, belittling parody that pokes fun at what its protagonist shoots, pretending to have a bit of fun with exaggeration. It says, “this is what YOU will probably make with the power of a 4K movie camera in your pocket, and this is what you probably think it’s worth: an award presented by Neil Patrick Harris. So, please enjoy your comical fantasy!”. Instead of showing an example of great accomplishment, as was the tradition, it goes for the cheap laugh. It fails at showing us something we should aspire to achieve with an iPhone 6S of our own. It’s an odd departure from a winning formula that has long defined the brand’s outlook on technology enabling creativity, and I hope not to see many more like it.


I also watched Samsung’s new celebrity-laden ads for the Galaxy S7 phone, and some of them were really entertaining, well-written, and funny. A couple fell flat.

In comparison with Apple’s style, about 3 of them featured Lil’ Wayne absurdly pouring bottles of expensive champagne all over his waterproof S7, which made the existence of that feature absolutely clear, but didn’t do anything to make me want one. I’m not in the habit of intentionally drowning my phone.

The waterproofing ad that worked better? A script that meanders about how water is everywhere on earth, making up 72% of our bodies, etc. etc. before ending on a scene where a phone gets dropped into a fountain while taking a photo. The owner picks it back up, and continues getting the shot, no beats missed. Anecdotally, lots of phones have been dropped into water by people I know, and I think this crucial point would resonate with them. A relatable real life moment, real people, and a real problem we’d love to suddenly go away overnight.

iPad Pros

  
When the 12.9″ iPad Pro was first unveiled, I was pretty sure I didn’t want or need one. Then I held it in the Ginza Apple Store while on vacation and bought one later that same day. The experience of holding such a large screen in your hands and touching it directly is more impressive than it sounds. But what you won’t realize while handling one in the store is how heavy it gets once you add a Smart Cover or Smart Keyboard and a silicone case for the back, if so inclined.

In the couple of months since, I’ve merely used it like a big iPad, watching movies in bed and occasionally reading comics or news on it; that sort of thing. But I knew it was meant for more and wanted to try bringing it to work with the Pencil and Smart Keyboard. Spoiler: it’s awesome, and I could probably do a lot of my daily stuff on it while moving easily from meeting to desk. The main problem has been its weight, especially when carried in my bag with a camera and power bank and umbrella every day. It’s also too much to hold in one hand while sketching with the other.

So after a few weeks of deliberation and bugging other people with the pros and cons, I decided to pony up for the new 9.7″ size and try to see if I could make justifiable use of two iPad Pros in one life. The Smart Keyboard hasn’t arrived yet, but I expect it will be even easier to type on than the Logitech and Belkin ones I’ve had for earlier iPads. The size and weight are perfect for one-handed use with the Pencil, although the back is slippery without a silicone case. I don’t think adding one is worth the weight gain, though. The larger iPad Pro is going to stay home and try to become a desktop computer in place of my ageing 2010 iMac. It was an unnecessary and guilt-inducing expense, but the thing that helped justify this dual-iPad setup was asking why I’ve allowed the iMac to go so long without an upgrade.

I got old! Which makes one treat computers differently, not to mention the nature of the tasks have changed.

Years ago, I would replace my PC/Mac every couple of years, usually by the end of every three-year AppleCare cycle. My computer was at the center of my life, and as a student living in a single bedroom, I’d spend most of the day in front of its screen; it was TV, telephone, game console, word processor, and library. I ate meals in front of it, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

These days, I spend most of my time at the office in front of a MacBook Pro, and at all other times, the job of that home computer is being done by an iOS device or Apple TV. I have a bigger house to move around in, and I’m almost never found sitting in front of the iMac. Having a desktop for those purposes seems awfully restrictive now, and confronting the mess of my HDD and locally stored files feels tiresome and archaic. Doing everyday tasks on an iPad without that legacy is a sort of escape, and there’s some measure of security to be had in knowing I could use one of the Macs if I really needed to. Chances are, I won’t. With music and photos on iCloud and other files on Dropbox, the iPad has all it takes to be a primary computer most days. I’ve stopped editing photos in Aperture and Lightroom and do it all with an iOS workflow now. You just have to let go and not look back.

I think all of us iPad Pro owners are waiting on iOS 10 to see Apple’s grand plan to bring this post-PC vision to maturity, but in the meantime it’s not bad at all.

Because we love Twitter

Randi Harper: Putting out the Twitter trashfire

8. Fix Tweetdeck. Fix Twitter for Android. Fix Twitter for OSX. Twitter for OSX still has a hard limit on how many blocks it can apply because they didn’t bother updating the API call when they switched to paged requests. It also crashes a lot if you’re receiving a lot of notifications. Tweetdeck doesn’t use server side mutes. The ability to mute users originated from Tweetdeck prior to Twitter buying it. They then added this functionality to Twitter itself, but never updated the client to store these mutes server side.

What a fantastic to-do list for the people at Twitter. Reading this, what strikes me most is that the product really is a shitheap on fire sailing down a river with passengers onboard. It’s got so much legacy crap; so much inscrutable complexity built up from rounds of careless iteration and business priorities, that it’s really hard for a team still working under said priorities to fix it all within further digging the UX a grave. Same goes for iTunes, really, but so much harder for a real-time social service that people are posting to thousands of times a second.

The good news is that the most toxic parts of Twitter, the abuse and management of noise, are probably the most within reach for a quick fix without anyone having to relearn anything.

Mobile or Console, the Name of the Game is the Same

Playing Oceanhorn on the new Apple TV, with a Bluetooth game controller like the SteelSeries Nimbus, feels distinctly like a traditional console gaming experience. It’s been compared to a modern Zelda title, and if you’re in the mood to explore, its large world lends itself to leaning back on the couch for a good hour or more.

What’s interesting is that you can pick up your iPhone later and continue your savegame synced over iCloud, at which point its modified-for-touch controls and mini quest structure actually turn it into a modern mobile gaming experience.

What might be undersold by a simple bullet point — “Cloud Saves” — is really significant: one game that can be played in very different contexts, made possible by having the same OS in your pocket and living room (and car, one day). It’s probably the future of gaming.

Much like how we now commonly design for the web, going mobile-first in gaming makes sense for companies looking to the players to come. That means not making the mobile bit just a simplified companion app with minigames connecting back to the “proper” console version. The level of control complexity and engagement can and should scale to the device, all within the same game.

Geometry Wars 3

Many of the guidelines for apps on the new Apple TV force developers to adapt the experience to the available controller. Geometry Wars goes from a dual-analog stick shooter on a regular gamepad to an auto-shooter when on Siri Remote, where the player only has to steer. You get what fits, but never less than the whole story.

The experience of seamlessly jumping from a phone to a 60” TV reminds me of how it felt to play the first iPhone games. I remember Crash Bandicoot, in particular, as a sign of things to come. You could get games like it on the Nintendo DS, but they weren’t downloaded over Wi-Fi in seconds, for mere dollars, or paid for electronically. It made the portable gaming systems of 2008 feel dated. And as Apple added more power, multitasking, social features, and cloud saves to iOS, the iPhone overtook them completely.

Games on the new Apple TV have more than a whiff of that to them. Even if the platform doesn’t come to dominate gaming a decade from now, I believe the winner will work and feel like it.

In a sea of diminished companies out-innovated from changes they didn’t see coming, it’s gratifying to think that Nintendo may have played their cards right with the upcoming NX. It’s rumored to be a home console with a detachable mobile device, playing games that also work with smartphones and networks from its rivals. God knows how they’ll do it, but that describes the right shape to survive: experiences designed to shift context, open to different forms of interaction (hey, even VR), ready to fill varied slices of time, long or short, in a busy user’s day.

Pebble Time Steel: First Impressions

As a user of the first-generation Pebble since last December, I eagerly ordered the new Time Steel model when it hit Kickstarter earlier this year. And then the Apple Watch went on sale in Singapore earlier than I’d expected it to, and that’s a whole other story about my irrational spending.

Fast forward to the present, and my new Pebble has arrived! But I’m probably selling it!

  
Let’s open this shipping box up.

  
There’s the Pebble Time Steel (which ships on a genuine Italian leather band, this one’s a gunmetal gray body, so the band is a matching gray/black), and a separate box containing the steel link bracelet in gunmetal. As a Kickstarter edition, it comes with both. With the retail model, the steel bracelet will be sold separately for US$50.

  
Previous Pebble watches have had pretty lackluster packaging, so this is quite a step up. Look at that display box; it’s good enough to be sold on the accessory shelves of an Apple Store, except they won’t be.

  
Here’s the back of the box with a list of standout features. Of course, the main improvement to the hardware is a new color e-ink/e-paper display. It’s always on, unlike the Apple Watch’s, so you can glance at it any time over the 10 DAYS that its battery will last, and know the time or your latest notification, without having to raise your wrist or press any buttons. It’s got a microphone now, which is useful for Android users who can dictate responses to messages and emails. It’s slightly less useful for iPhone users. And of course, it’s still waterproof to 30M. I don’t think anything else is.

 

Here it is next to my Apple Watch on the right. The watch case is very slightly smaller than the Apple one, and is also gently curved on the underside to sit neatly on your wrist. In that regard, it’s very nice and possibly more comfortable and natural looking on the wrist.

 

Here it is all set up and charging via a magnetic cable attached to the back. Nothing as sexy as Apple’s inductive charger; this one only uses magnets to draw two magnetic points to their respective spots. It works.

As you can see, the e-paper display shows colors even when not lit, although they’re not as vibrant as you’d see on a printed page. The sun icon has a mild yellow to it, and blue shows up very well. In direct sunlight, it looks crisp and strong, and is easy to read. Indoors, it can be a little muddy and dark, perhaps a touch dimmer looking than even the original Pebble. A backlight comes on when you press a button or flick your wrist. This also looks dimmer than I remember the original Pebble being, but perhaps I’ve just been spoilt by the Apple Watch’s super bright and colorful OLED display (which wantonly consumes more power in a day than the Pebble Time Steel does in 2 weeks).

  

Here’s what it looks like on the wrist (thanks to my dumb use of a wide-angle lens, the watch looks larger here than it is). I wear a 42mm Apple Watch and it looks smaller than this, and as shown above, the Pebble is even smaller than Apple’s. So if you normally wear a 38mm Apple Watch, this is probably what the Pebble Time Steel will look like on you.

  
Here’s a more accurate shot, this time with an imitation Casio watchface complete with Timex Indiglo color scheme. That statement alone tells you who the Pebble is aimed at; you have so much opportunity to customise the face of this. Many of the color faces I saw let you specify the color of every element and make your own themes. It strikes me as the sort of thing some people jailbreak iPhones or choose Android smartphones to be able to do. I’ve decided I’m not that person these days, so I’m probably going to sell it. But the build quality is solid and the leather strap is really quite soft and lovely. It’s a real improvement from Pebble, and if they can get the cost down, it might work out.

Oh, the new software works as advertised, but without using it for a few days, it’s hard to say how useful seeing your apps and events laid out on a timeline is. On paper it sounds like a great idea and it was one of the main reasons I ordered this at the time. Apple’s watchOS 2 is also going to have something along the same lines with its Time Travel feature, so I guess it doesn’t matter what platform you eventually choose — we will all soon be consuming time-sensitive content on our timepieces using contextual timeline interfaces.*

*Did it strike anyone else as odd that after Pebble showed their hand with Timeline on Kickstarter, Jonny Ive or someone on his team dropped a casual interview comment that they had tried a similar concept in an earlier prototype of the Apple Watch, but it didn’t work out? And then a few months later we see Time Travel as one of the key new features of the next watchOS?

Beats Solo2 Headphones (Space Gray) Unboxing

I haven’t made a video in ages and wasn’t planning to, but my colleague Jose suggested today that since I was about to open my new headphones, we make an unboxing video of it. The coolest thing was that I was able to make the whole thing from start to publish without leaving my iPhone 6 Plus (okay, I looked for music while on my MacBook Pro).

The headphones themselves sound about as good as my Beats Studio 2 (2013), which is to say good enough for daily listening and most modern music types. But they’re nowhere near as comfortable as those, which along with the Beoplay H6, are my favorite pair of headphones to wear for hours at a time. Granted, those are both over-ears, and I guess that’s my personal preference. Still, the clamping force is significant, and is probably best for smaller, non-glasses-wearing heads.

Disappointingly for the price these go for, my pair also has a defective hinge on one side, so I’ll be returning these to Apple next week. These new colorways are interesting though. It reminds me of Nintendo putting out new shades on an old handheld before they launch the next generation. Here’s hoping we’ll see a new Jony-designed model in June alongside the new Beats Music service.

Apple Watch Numbers and Ive’s Materials

Back in December, I wrote a bit of a rambly post about what I thought might happen with the Apple Watch, and the possibility of it having hardware you could actually upgrade to preserve your precious metals investment. I’ve since changed my mind on that, and think they’ll be replaced like any other Apple product: buy a whole new one if you want it. I also had a prediction about how many they’d make:

In terms of mix, I’d wager an approximate 60% Sport, 30% Apple Watch, and a maximum of 10% Edition in the first year. At the prices above, the 10% sales of Edition watches will probably drive half the overall revenue.

The Wall Street Journal (paywall) has just reported some numbers, and my guess was pretty close. They’re saying Apple will have up to 6 million units ready at launch. iMore has reprinted the breakdown:

The report suggests that half of the production run is for the entry-level Apple Watch Sport, which will be priced at $349. One third will be the stainless steel Apple Watch. That would leave the remaining one-sixth of the production run — which comes out to around 850,000 units — for the gold Apple Watch Edition.

If you’ve been active online today, you would have seen (and hopefully made time for) the New Yorker’s epic profile of Jony Ive. Many of the insights are new, and the writing is kinetic and marvelous, with gems like this one about Ive having an opinion about iOS’s skeuomorphic design, and eventually becoming involved in making it over:

He’d had that conversation with Jobs. “He knew, absolutely, my views,” Ive recalled. “I’m not going to second-guess what he would have done if—had he been well.” I asked Cook if, after he became C.E.O., Ive had pressed for a software role. “We clearly spent a lot of time talking about it,” Cook said. “And I think it became clear to him that he could add a lot.” Ive’s career sometimes suggests the movements of a man who, engrossed in a furrowed, deferential conversation, somehow backs onto a throne.

Or this one, which credits Ive with suggesting the new sputtering lightsaber effect in Star Wars: The Force Awakens to JJ Abrams at a dinner party. For the record, I think it’s a brilliant update which gives the business end of the weapon more heft, more fire and laser menace. Ars Technica has a debate in the comments section.

After the release of the film’s first trailer—which featured a fiery new lightsabre, with a cross guard, and a resemblance to a burning crucifix—I asked Ive about his contribution. “It was just a conversation,” he said, then explained that, although he’d said nothing about cross guards, he had made a case for unevenness: “I thought it would be interesting if it were less precise, and just a little bit more spitty.” A redesigned weapon could be “more analog and more primitive, and I think, in that way, somehow more ominous.”

If I wasn’t already sold on the standard Apple Watch (as opposed to the Sport and Edition versions) as my choice this coming April, this paragraph of remarks by two members of Ive’s design team present at the unveiling event would have done it:

“The materials in this thing are insane,” Howarth said. People, he noted, were saying that the watch’s face was made of “sapphire glass”: “It’s not glass, it’s sapphire crystal—completely different structure. And then the stainless steel is super-hardened. And the zirconia ceramic on the back is co-finished with sapphire as well.” He added, “This would cost so much money if a different company was making it—Rolex or something. It would be a hundred grand or something.”

“We sell it for just fifty thousand,” Hönig said, joking.

Darkroom Photo App Shows Why UX Details Are Everything

A new photo editor for iOS launched today, and it’s called Darkroom (free, with a $2.99 in-app purchase to unlock Curves).

“Another photo editing app? What does this one bring to the table?” I’ve seen a few early reviews of Darkroom begin along those lines. It seems a sense of fatigue has set in amongst people watching this space, and it interests me to find that I don’t feel the same way. I’ve dived into every new release with optimism, because there are still so many ways to improve upon what we can currently do on our mobile devices.

The Verge mentions Darkroom in the same breath as VSCO Cam, suggesting that the latter has a new challenger. That’s somewhat wrong-headed; they aren’t anymore alike than, say, how Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are as ways of passing time. Both apps allow you to tune the look of a photo, and apply presets, but it’s how they’ve been engineered to do it that counts.

Darkroom’s most exciting development, if you listen to what people are saying, is that it allows you to edit photos by adjusting RGB curves. Except that’s not especially new in the iPhone app space — Photoforge did it years ago, Filterstorm has that and much more in the way of professional tools, and there are others. The next feature to get attention is that you can save any of your adjustments as a custom preset, ready for future photos, and it’s like making your own filters. Again, this is territory that Mattebox, PicTapGo, Mextures, et al pioneered awhile ago.

The reason Darkroom is exciting, is that it seems to have absolutely nailed the UX of these features, and made them feel manageable, comfortable, and pleasurable to use as a whole. I want to emphasize that this is hard, and that their solutions are so subtle and executional, they might not have convinced anyone of their worth if presented as bullet points on a slide at some early point in the process.

Using other apps with curves and pro adjustments can feel claustrophobic and stressful on a small screen. I’ve hated almost every single one (Adobe’s own Photoshop Touch is so awful at it) and keep them on my phone as last resorts. If I’m on holiday and take a problematic photo with potential, I’m more likely to wait till I get home just so I can do it on a Mac than try to fiddle with it on the go. Snapseed is one powerful exception, but that uses its own control metaphors, not curves.

Darkroom’s UI is blissfully open in design. It will likely get more complicated as they add more promised features, but I’m hopeful the team finds a way to keep this incredible simplicity. As you page through its 5 key sections (composition, filters, adjustments, curves, history), you never lose your place in the mental model. Nothing is buried in a submenu or out of sight.

You don’t have to click a checkmark to save an adjustment before tapping another, because everything can be undone to an infinite degree, and one can undo hundreds of minute actions back to the beginning of an edit if necessary. Because that step (so annoying in apps like Afterlight, Faded, and VSCO Cam) has been eliminated, using Darkroom’s tools feels close to direct manipulation of the colors and pixels on your screen. One more nice touch: you can tap to the left or right of a slider knob to nudge it in that direction. Simple, but I can’t remember the last time a photo app let me do that.

Loading up a photo is seamless. The app starts with a view of your entire photo library. Tapping a photo pulls it forward, straight into editing mode. At this point, you can swipe to either side to start editing adjacent photos in your library. Flicking a photo down tosses it back into the pile, and you’re looking at all your photos again. In use, it feels gloriously fast and uncomplicated. As that bullet point on a slide, “Seamless browsing and editing flow” wouldn’t have done it justice. This is the kind of feature that needs to be designed, prototyped, tweaked, and tuned over and over to create something subtle, but innovative. A team rushing their project out would have missed the opportunity.

The difference between Darkroom and apps that require stepping in and out of different editing modes, especially when the placement of those modes is obscured, is like Apple’s own (now discontinued) iPhoto for iOS and the new built-in photo editing options in Photos.app. The former was a confusing mess with plenty of user-undiscoverable gestures and submenus, while the latter gives most users all the power they need in a more approachable UI.

iPhoto Photos

I’ve stopped using half of the other apps I’ve listed above as problematic, and forgotten the names of twice as many more. The ones I remember tend to be the ones I really wanted to succeed; I’ll unfairly single out Mattebox as an app with great technology and features, but suffered from confounding UX design. Countless times, I actually got lost inside the mess of buttons and menus that were hidden at the “back” of its camera mode. Thinking about the Darkroom icon sitting on my homescreen now doesn’t fill me with the same dread. I’m dreaming about using it later tonight, and tomorrow, and anticipating what will be new in the first update. Although its name is generic, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon. I imagine it’s the beginning of a new phase of using my iPhone as a camera, one in which I can send better photos home while still on holiday.

Singaporean Telcos and Their Chinese Mobile Gambit

One of the immutable truths of living in Singapore and reading our national broadsheet, The Straits Times, is that your Saturday morning news will be interrupted by three large and distinctly color-coded blocks of full-page advertising taken out by the major telcos: red for Singtel, green for StarHub, and orange for M1.

In the late 90s, the brands advertised consisted mainly of Nokia, Motorola, Alcatel, Sony-Ericsson, with a few models from minor players like Sharp, HTC, and Panasonic. You’ve probably recognized the ones still around. Apart from a few new entrants like Apple, Samsung, and LG, the Saturday ad landscape was quite stable for over a decade.

Something started happening this year, around the time Xiaomi launched local operations — their first market outside of the Chinese territories. New brands have started to share space alongside the established premium brands. Oppo/OnePlus. Huawei. Asus. ZTE. All very competitive spec for spec, dollar for dollar.

It’s significant that these Chinese-designed products now share equal space with the Samsungs and LGs in expensive telco media buys, in one of the world’s most saturated and advanced smartphone markets.1 There are similar products coming out of other Asian countries2, but the Chinese brands have far more visibility here.

I won’t go into how Xiaomi employs a differentiated, social media-driven sales model, but I will say that they got a lot of positive press at the start, driving home the idea that they offered comparable quality and reliability at a fraction of the cost. But they’ve been the only ones to get such an image in the mainstream mind, to my knowledge.

The rest are coming into town aggressively — Oppo opened a flagship store at Suntec City, a central mall, and I swear I’ve seen a Huawei store along Orchard Road — but their cachet seems strongest amongst the small group of tech and Android enthusiasts attracted to low-cost, high-value devices, which are replaced frequently.3 These are not mass market items yet, and I wonder when their moment will come, if at all.

What interests me is why the telcos are throwing their weight behind these entrants. Are they a bargaining chip to negotiate better hardware prices with the others, regardless of sales? Or do the postpaid 4 margins on selling already-cheap Chinese phones to consumers just look that much better? Or could it be driven by actual market demand?

My leading theory is that it’s simply a reactionary move that doesn’t consider the longer-term effects of promoting these price-disruptive products. Why? Because telcos are instinctively programmed to serve products at every available price point.

But the low price, contract-free nature of how consumers can otherwise obtain these devices is a threat to the lucrative business of locking people into contracts. Including such devices alongside premium devices in weekly advertising validates them. In the past, doing the same with a $50 Alcatel featurephone and a $500 Nokia “multimedia computer” was apples and oranges. Now, the products at both price points are much more similar, and one of them doesn’t need to be paid off in monthly installments. Legitimising cheaper smartphones inspires potential postpaid customers to simply buy a contract-free phone online (or pick one up in a store), and then save with a prepaid mobile line instead. At least that explains why Oppo is paying downtown rent on a flagship store. The telco strategy, though, that isn’t so clear.


  1. As of January 2014, Singapore had 87% smartphone penetration, with 29% of people owning more than one device. Anecdotally, the vast majority are on subsidized/contracted premium devices: iPhones, Galaxy S and Note models, etc. 
  2.  Joi Ito has a post about visiting Shenzhen that may be enlightening. 
  3. I think of this one friend as an edge case, but it’d be interesting if there were more like her: a former iPhone user, she found herself too clumsy to trust with expensive phones (they were smashed, stolen, or fell into toilets), and now uses Xiaomis because they are pretty much disposable at around USD$140 a pop. 
  4. Singapore has a bit in common with the U.S. phone market, in that only a minority pay full price or even know what the actual prices of their phones are. Everyone else pays a smaller sum upfront, with the rest of the device cost bundled into monthly fees. Some of the new Chinese phones are free/virtually free at their subsidized prices, but so are older iPhones and Samsungs, and it’s hard to see the price advantage lasting. For any brand that doesn’t enjoy the recognition of a Xiaomi, that window may close when current large-screened iPhones get priced down.