We are now at the mercy of de­vices we don’t un­der­stand John Har­ris

The iPhone X is a thing of beauty, but I won­der about its true value. Have we reached peak com­plex­ity?

The Guardian - - OPINION -

It was just be­fore 10am, Pa­cific time, on Tues­day, and as the crowd gath­ered at the new Steve Jobs the­atre in Cal­i­for­nia for the launch of Ap­ple’s lat­est prod­uctscum-mir­a­cles, they were ser­e­naded with the Bea­tles’ All You Need Is Love. It had been cho­sen, pre­sum­ably, as a sig­ni­fier of the boomer supremacism still built into Ap­ple’s cul­ture, the com­pany’s bound­less am­bi­tion – John Len­non’s first line, let’s not for­get, is “There’s noth­ing you can do that can’t be done” – and its se­nior man­age­ment’s ap­par­ent be­lief that mak­ing bil­lions of dol­lars is a serendip­i­tous byprod­uct of the com­pany’s mix­ture of phi­lan­thropy and art.

God knows, cap­i­tal­ists have al­ways been at pains to as­sure us that they are in the busi­ness of self­lessly help­ing the rest of us, rather than turn­ing a profit. But the gi­ants of Sil­i­con Val­ley are in a league of their own, as Ap­ple com­petes with Face­book for pole po­si­tion, and any­one with any sense bog­gles at their hubris. Ap­ple Stores, said An­gela Ahrendts (se­nior vice-president of retail), are now noth­ing less than “town squares”. At one point it was im­plied that the Ap­ple Watch’s cut­ting-edge bio­met­rics were go­ing to save hu­man­ity from heart at­tacks and strokes.

At the event’s end Tim Cook, Ap­ple’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, quoted the om­nipresent Jobs: “One of the ways that I be­lieve peo­ple ex­press their appreciation to the rest of hu­man­ity is to make some­thing won­der­ful and put it out there.”

In the build-up to the launch, an­other Jobs quote had been rat­tling round my head – ut­tered in 1998, and long held up as an­other em­bod­i­ment of what Ap­ple is all about. “Sim­ple can be harder than com­plex,” he said. “You have to work hard to get your think­ing clean to make it sim­ple. But it’s worth it in the end be­cause once you get there, you can move moun­tains.” The pre­vi­ous year – when he had re­turned to Ap­ple, and cut down its num­ber of prod­ucts by 70% – he had made the same point in slightly more Con­fu­cian terms: “De­cid­ing what not to do is as im­por­tant as de­cid­ing what to do.”

Is this some­thing the peo­ple at Ap­ple still grasp as soundly as their im­mor­tal guru did? I won­der. As well as the Ap­ple Watch 3, this week’s launch was all about the iPhone X (pro­nounced “ten”), the iPhone 8 and the iPhone 8 Plus – which ap­par­ently ren­der ob­so­lete such re­cent tri­umphs as the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus (2016), the iPhone SE (ditto), the iPhone 6S (2015), and the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (2014).

In ad­di­tion to in­no­va­tions such as face-recog­ni­tion se­cu­rity – which failed its first pub­lic demon­stra­tion, but is pre­sum­ably ready to go – and wire­less charg­ing, Ap­ple also an­nounced the ar­rival of An­i­mo­jis: “cus­tom-an­i­mated mes­sages that use your voice and re­flect your fa­cial ex­pres­sions”. If you find the process of man­u­ally se­lect­ing emo­jis hope­lessly tax­ing, and have long craved pan­das, frogs and lit­tle yel­low peo­ple that sound eerily like you and your friends, you may now re­joice.

De­spite their price tags – the iPhone X goes for $999, or a very post-Brexi­tish £999 – the new phones will doubt­less fly out of all those “town squares”. So, for all their air of Gareth-from-The-Of­fice silli­ness, might the watches. But I have a good idea where many of the as­so­ci­ated soft­ware in­no­va­tions will go: into that great soup of in­dif­fer­ence and an­noy­ance that now de­fines too much of the Ap­ple user ex­pe­ri­ence.

Just to make this clear, I have been a loyal Ap­ple cus­tomer and bor­der­line junkie since the mid-1990s. But how come each in­car­na­tion of iTunes seems more mad­den­ing than the last? If I can­not un­der­stand how Key­chain works (it ap­par­ently keeps “your Sa­fari web­site user­names and pass­words, credit card in­for­ma­tion, and wifi net­work in­for­ma­tion up to date across all of your ap­proved de­vices that are us­ing iOS 7.0.3 or later …”), is that im­por­tant?

The Ap­ple prom­ise is that if you run your life on their de­vices ev­ery­thing will be grace­fully in­te­grated, but the frag­ile tan­gle of threads you end up weav­ing can eas­ily un­ravel. A cau­tion­ary tale. Last Mon­day, I was stay­ing the night in a Pre­mier Inn on a ring road in Hat­field. At around 9pm, my iPhone 6 parped with a soft­ware-up­date prompt. Out of habit, I pressed “Later”, and thought noth­ing of it. Then, at 11pm, I no­ticed that un­der­neath the Ap­ple logo was the progress bar that denotes some­thing se­ri­ous has been loaded in: in this case, seem­ingly to bring me up to date just be­fore ev­ery­thing changed once more, iOs 10, the op­er­at­ing sys­tem first in­tro­duced last Septem­ber.

Then, cold fear: the phone blinked again, and showed only the icon of a charger ca­ble, and the sug­ges­tion that I plugged it into iTunes. As with many vic­tims of the new sys­tem, my phone had been “bricked”: ren­dered un­us­able, pend­ing its con­nec­tion with a com­puter I didn’t have with me. When I got home, for rea­sons that may or may not have been con­nected to the aborted up­date, my iTunes li­brary had dis­ap­peared. I then dis­cov­ered that I had not backed up my phone since spring last year, and had there­fore lost no end of text mes­sages, con­tacts and apps.

I’ve a good idea where many of the soft­ware in­no­va­tions will go: into that great soup of in­dif­fer­ence and an­noy­ance

When I tried to raise my spir­its by watch­ing Curb Your En­thu­si­asm on Ap­ple TV, my re­booted phone kept re­ceiv­ing ver­i­fi­ca­tion codes I sud­denly needed to in­put, but none of them worked. The alerts said: “Your Ap­ple ID is be­ing used to sign in to a de­vice near Trow­bridge, Wilt­shire.” That was right; that’s where I live. For a while, I mu­tated into Larry David in full tantrum. Then I switched the TV unit off and on again, and ev­ery­thing sud­denly worked.

Since then, I have been won­der­ing whether all those lit­tle black rec­tan­gles – with their alerts, up­dates, atro­cious bat­tery life and ab­surd cen­tral­ity to ev­ery­day life – might be more trou­ble than they’re worth. Given that the fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges of mo­bile tele­phony, email, good-qual­ity pho­to­graphs and GPS nav­i­ga­tion have been solved, are the de­vel­op­ers and en­gi­neers now in the realm of in­no­va­tion for in­no­va­tion’s sake, even as they claim that their lat­est leaps might take us all to new heights of en­light­en­ment and “func­tion­al­ity”?

In that sense, the hype of Tues­day’s launch put me in mind not of the hippy dreams con­jured by the Bea­tles, but the Smiths, and a line from their anti-con­sumerist an­them Sho­plifters of the World Unite, which might res­onate with an in­creas­ingly large army of Ap­ple users: “I was bored be­fore I even be­gan.”

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