The Special Relationship

As users of Apple's hardware and software, we do have a weird relationship with that company, don’t we?

A little while ago, iTunes helpfully informed me that Apple had released an update to the iPad edition of Keynote. I read through the list of new features: additional stability, a vague bug that I’d never encountered had been fixed, it no longer invisibly sends your bio slide to the big Jumbotron in Times Square so that thousands of people can laugh at your CV, blah blah blah…

Enhanced presenter display shows the current slide, the next slide, or your notes when connected to an external display.

Yippee! I’ve wanted this feature for ages! I felt like the luckiest boy in the world… for I held, in my very hand, Wonka’s Golden Ticket!

I have a love-hate relationship with most pieces of technology. I think I love the iPad so much because over the past nine months it’s been, at worst, love-irked. If I’m traveling for just a couple of days to give a talk, I don’t even really think about taking my MacBook. I just toss the iPad and a display adapter in my smallest laptop bag and I’m good to go.

The one thing I didn’t like about it as a presentation device is the fact that I needed to keep twisting my neck around to see what slide I was on. Pre-Keynote 1.3, the app would keep this huge 10” screen almost completely dark.

It honestly felt like the developers of this app were lashing out passive-aggressively against me for something I’d said at dinner. That screen, pointedly cleansed of anything that would be useful to a person who’s speaking in front of a few hundred people, was the equivalent of a spouse dropping you off at work and making sure that they pulled the car to a stop with the passenger door aligned precisely in the middle of a puddle the size of one of the lesser Great Lakes.

But now! I get to see the slide that the rest of the room is seeing! Huzzah!

…Wait. Shouldn’t that have been built into Keynote 1.0? I mean, obviously?

It’s not as though Keynote’s developers needed to overcome some sort of huge technical hurdle. I’d been using a wonderful alternative to Keynote that worked The Right Way from day one. Picture Link (by Zuhanden GmbH) is a trim little presentation app that offers clean iPad/projector mirroring. It also scores above Keynote in its ability to host nonlinear presentations (where you might not necessarily be running through your slides in any set order). Plus, you’re not limited to a preso app’s conventional “Next/Back” buttons: you can also add invisible HyperCard-style hot links to any or all of your slides and forge multiple paths through your images.

The one drawback of Picture Link is that it only works with existing images. Well, no worries. I use Keynote to build my preso and then use the iPad’s built-in screen capture feature (hold down the Home button and then push the Power switch) to save all ten or twenty of those screens to my Saved Pictures roll.

I’m not going to presume that a garage startup like Apple has all of the staff and resources of Zuhanden GmbH, of course. Still, the omission of a seemingly-basic feature is a signature move for Apple. We’re often so grateful for a terrific new feature that we forget that it sort of should have been there all along.

The new edition of Keynote rolled out alongside iOS 4.2. A dispassionate observer might have said that multitasking and printing were two things that the iPad should have supported from Day One. You might have wondered why the iPhone had to wait even longer for those two things, to say nothing of cut-and-paste.

The usual answer is that Apple would rather develop broad infrastructures than simple features. Allowing multiple third-party apps to run simultaneously takes no time at all; developing a framework and an API so that arbitrary third-party apps can run together without knocking heads takes time. Cut-and-paste is so simple that even I wrote a routine like that in a few hours. A cut-and-paste system that works consistently across all apps with all forms of media takes time.

And that same personality quirk holds true with things like iPad printing. It’s easy to forget that iOS, like Mac OS X, is built on a flavor of Unix and that all of the architecture for printing is baked right in. Just add printer drivers and two eggs (three if you’re at altitude) and your iPad can print… at least on the level of “what’s technically possible.” Apple wanted to create an infrastructure for driverless printing, a concept which seems to becoming increasingly important as mobile devices keep taking on more and more of a conventional computer’s workload.

We tend to forgive the features that Apple left behind, though. We’re confident that Apple will get around to it in time. It’s like loaning money. We understand that there’s a risk in giving Apple our $499, but the company is a good credit risk and we’re confident that within 12 months they’ll give us a feature that they never outright promised to deliver.

Lovely. The danger there is that we might someday accept all of this as normal. It isn’t. Our expectations should always be high and should never lose our ability to feel a sense of disappointment.

I’ve been playing with the Samsung Galaxy Tab for the past few weeks. While it’s a stretch to call it an outright challenger to the iPad, it’s correct to say that it’s the first tablet to roll down the tracks that the iPad laid. One of the first things I did with it was point my browser at a TV network’s website and see how well the Tab played Flash video.

And I’ll be damned: it plays just fine.

It’s not a full-on Win for Adobe. Interactive Flash games are hopeless and when playing video, it works most reliably for shows where the camera’s locked down (talk shows work great). But even when you’re watching a sports video, it’s within the realm of Watchable.

So why can’t we have Flash on our iOS devices? Why must we wait for Apple’s vision of a broad HTML5 infrastructure, when Flash might give us an adequate feature? Sure, Flash isn’t perfect, and it does run down the battery a little. But it’s the difference between being able to watch the Doctor Who special edition of “The Craig Ferguson Show”… and not.

I recently read something about Walt Disney that seemed very familiar. A man who worked with him said (I’m paraphrasing) Walt wanted to make sure that if you came to Disney World, you would have a fantastic time. And he succeeded. But he also wanted to make sure that you wouldn’t even have the option of having a bad time.

That’s everything you need to know about Apple. Its roller coaster is smooth, clean, and well-maintained. But sometimes there’s a little extra thrill to going on the shaky old wooden coaster, particularly if you know that a kid got killed on it three summers ago.

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