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I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Censoring myself for Apple

In his widely circulated “Fear of Apple” post, Eli Schiff accuses iOS developers of withholding criticism of Apple or censoring themselves to stay on Apple’s good side, prominently including and citing me.

I’ve heard from quite a few people who think my Functional High Ground article and my regretful follow-up indicate that I’m censoring myself for Apple’s benefit, afraid of getting on their bad side. This is a profound misinterpretation and misrepresentation of what I actually wrote and feel.

As anyone who’s read my site and listened to our podcast for a while would know, I criticize Apple all the time. A developer’s view of their computing platform and software distribution partner is like any developer’s view of their programming language of choice: if you don’t think there are any major shortcomings, you just don’t know it well enough yet.

No sensible developer should be worried about angering “Apple” by fairly expressing legitimate criticism.

There is no single “Apple” to anger, as the company comprises thousands of people across many different departments, all of whom can think for themselves. I’m sure some of them can’t take criticism well and may be vindictive — any large group of people will contain almost every personality type — but that’s not the attitude of any of the Apple people I’ve interacted with.

Quite the contrary, actually: every Apple employee I’ve spoken with has not only been receptive of criticism, but has practically begged for honest feedback from developers. The idea that you’d be penalized in the App Store for being critical of Apple on your blog is ridiculous and untrue.

Apple employees are also humans, Apple users, and often former or future independent app developers. Chances are very good that any criticism we have is also being criticized and debated inside Apple. Employees can only exert so much influence inside the company, and they need people like us to blog publicly about important issues to help convince the higher-ups to change policies or reallocate resources. One of the reasons I don’t expect to ever take a job at Apple is that I believe I can be more effective from the outside.

The reason I regretted publishing the Higher Ground post isn’t that I criticized Apple — it’s that I wrote it poorly by my standards, then my sloppy work spread like wildfire far beyond anything I’d ever written, with my name used to fuel a hamfisted and misleading narrative about Apple that I don’t really believe. I thought I’d made that clear, but apparently not.

My words on this site sometimes, and unpredictably, have a sizable influence, which is both flattering and terrifying. If I write something critical, there’s a decent chance that the people whose work I’m criticizing will see what I wrote and be hurt or offended by it. That doesn’t make me afraid to criticize anyone, but it demands that I choose my words very carefully to ensure that I’m making a solid, fair argument.

The Future of the Dumbwatch

A common theory among existing watch manufacturers and watch owners, exemplified by TAG Heuer CEO Jean-Claude Biver, is that the Apple Watch not only won’t hurt the existing high-end watch market, but will probably even help it:

“Apple will get young people used to wearing a watch and later maybe they will want to buy themselves a real watch.” …

Biver added that the Apple Watch will ignite a mass interest in the watch market when it is released in 24 April, benefiting traditional watch brands in addition to those with smart devices.

It’s a pretty optimistic take. That’s via John Gruber, who added:

This is how watch collecting works. You get hooked, and start buying more watches. And then you choose between them based on your mood or the occasion.

That’s how watches have worked to date, but I think that time is over for a big chunk of the market.

People will keep buying dumbwatches, and people who don’t buy dumbwatches will buy the Apple Watch. The big question is whether the people who buy dumbwatches and the Apple Watch will continue wearing and buying dumbwatches for very long.

Apple Watch Buyers ? Other Watch Buyers

The Apple Watch isn’t just a watch, interchangeable like any other. It’s an entire mobile computing and communication platform, and a significant enhancement to the smartphone, which is probably the most successful, ubiquitous, and disruptive electronic device in history.

Once you’re accustomed to wearing one, going out for a night without your Apple Watch is going to feel like going out without your phone.

I suspect smartwatches will be a one-way move for most of their owners, and most people won’t wear two watches at once. The iPod didn’t make people appreciate portable music enough to buy a Discman for the weekends, and the iPhone didn’t ignite interest in flip-phones or PDAs.

Some people will always want to own and wear traditional watches, but they’ll only become more of a niche, not a growing market. People will buy whichever kind of smartwatch works with their phone platform — iPhone owners will get Apple Watches, and Android owners will get Pebbles or Android Wear watches — and then, most of them will be effectively removed from the traditional watch world from that point forward.

The dumbwatch industry’s best hopes are either their own successful lines of Android Wear watches, or praying that the overlap between their customers and smartwatch buyers doesn’t get very big.

What if Apple Watch Edition pricing is boringly reasonable?

I’ve never seen a smartwatch that I’d wear except the Apple Watch. It’s not that I think the rest are all ugly — most are, some are less so. But they’ve all looked like too strong a combination of cheap,1 absurdly geeky,2 and chunky for my taste, even though I wear $40 jeans and a $10 black T-shirt every day. My outfit feels reasonably acceptable, but an exceptionally geeky watch doesn’t.

I cannot look past my fashion preferences for a smartwatch’s functionality benefits. Looking good to me and making me feel good about wearing it is a fundamental requirement. Watches are a combination of functionality and jewelry for most wearers, often with the jewelry side as a higher priority.

The biggest challenge Apple faced with the design of the Apple Watch has nothing to do with battery life or screen technology: How do you make a smartwatch that most people will want to wear?

Everyone draws that line differently. A lot of tech people will see the Pebble Time or Time Steel as within those lines, but I don’t think it stands a chance in the mass market, especially the upscale market. To me, it still looks like a relatively crude geekwatch, and to everyone else, it’s going to look like a bad Apple Watch knockoff.

Apple couldn’t release a product that didn’t appeal to the mass and upscale markets — they’re too high-profile. It would be seen as a colossal failure. People would call for Tim Cook to be fired and everyone would declare Apple’s impending death spiral, even more than usual.

Lots of writers and podcasters have speculated that Apple now fancies itself a high-fashion company and wants the insane profit margins that could result from that, with the solid-gold Apple Watch Edition as the leading example. Most credible guesses, considering the price of gold itself and the prices of other high-end gold watches, predict the Edition having about $1500 worth of gold and a retail price between $10,000–20,000.

What if Apple’s primary reason for offering the gold Apple Watch Edition isn’t absurd profit? Profit helps, of course. But I bet the primary reason is to get people using an Apple Watch who would only wear a gold watch.

The Sport, assuming it’s the cheapest at $350, looks about as nice as the Pebble Time Steel in photos. It’ll easily succeed, but I don’t think it’s for me — wearing a watch with a plastic band just won’t make me feel good, and I’m not crazy about the aluminum’s appearance in Apple’s photos.

I’ll probably get a stainless model with a leather or metal band. But they couldn’t just release the stainless one, because many people would consider it too expensive, heavy, or delicate for their use. They’d rather have a cheaper, lighter model that can take a beating without looking too bad.

Just as they probably need both the Sport and the stainless line, there’s a high end of the market — much of which is ignored by and unknown to the young white American men who dominate tech and tech media — who won’t want to wear a moderately priced stainless model. They want the gold one, and many of them will buy it.

But Apple can’t sell it to them at a truly ridiculous price without alienating their base. A $10,000–20,000 starting price would make the Edition relatively affordable compared to many gold watches but ludicrously out of reach for most iPhone owners, possibily alienating millions of Apple customers and tarnishing their image with all of the snobbery and exclusion that comes with the world of five-figure watches. At the same time, Apple needs to be careful not to fall on the wrong side of the Veblen effect by making the Edition too affordable, but I bet they’re looking to keep Veblen under control at a healthy level, not maximize its short-term profitability.

Apple’s letting the $10,000–20,000 guesses simmer in the press to set price expectations high, just as they stayed quiet when everyone thought the first iPad would cost $1000. Maybe it’s for the same reason: maybe the Edition won’t be completely unreasonably priced for a piece of electronic jewelry that will probably be completely obsolete in five years but happens to be encased in a thousand bucks worth of solid gold. Letting people believe it’ll cost so much will make the real price seem like a great deal when it’s announced.

I’m guessing the Edition is closer to $5,000: expensive and very profitable, but boringly reasonable for a solid-gold electronic gadget.

(This may all be proven comically wrong at next week’s event, like most of my predictions — seriously, my track record is terrible.)


  1. In this article, I mean “cheap” as both inexpensive and being of low build quality, made from low-quality materials, or looking crudely or poorly designed. Being inexpensive alone isn’t a problem if the quality is there. 

  2. In the Google Glass sense. 

The Matias Ergo Pro Keyboard

Matias is known for their mechanical keyboards, and — unusually for mechanical or ergonomic keyboards — available Mac key layouts and function keys. I’ve been looking forward to their first ergonomic keyboard for a while, and it’s finally here: the $200 Ergo Pro.

Ergonomic keyboards are always compromises. Usually, you need to choose between annoying non-standard key layouts, miserably mushy keyswitches, or ugly, clunky designs — sometimes all three. I’ve needed to use them to keep RSI at bay for the last decade, and I’ve never been completely satisfied with any of them. The closest I’ve come to keyboard satisfaction is the $60 Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic, which is very good overall, but has slightly mushy keys and a few non-standard key-layout annoyances (of course).

The Matias Ergo Pro strikes a similar balance. It’s very good overall, but with a few drawbacks.

Wires

Unlike the Sculpt’s one-piece design, the Ergo Pro’s two halves are physically separate and connected by a cable. This is a mixed bag: it provides flexibility, but it’s also frustrating to have no way to lock in your preferred setting, leaving you to figure it out again whenever it’s moved.

Fortunately, the split-halves design on the Ergo Pro stays in place much more than the frustratingly flimsy Kinesis Freestyle 2 because the Ergo Pro is much heavier with more stable feet. If you’re going to have disconnected halves, this is the way to do it.

It’s wired, so it doesn’t make for as clean of a desk as wireless models, but it’s also much more reliable. I’ve had occasional flakiness and reception issues with the wireless Sculpt, and ultimately I prefer the reliability of a wired keyboard if given the choice.


My trick for a clean desk with a wired keyboard: tuck the wire under the keyboard, around the front lip of the desk, and clip or tape it to the underside of the desk running straight back.

Unusually, the USB cable is standard and removable, and the Ergo Pro even comes with two different lengths. And since it’s wired, it can conveniently offer three extra USB 2.0 ports right on the keyboard — a rarity these days — although one of the three ports is puzzlingly located, facing directly into where the other half of the keyboard is likely to be.

The two halves of the keyboard are connected by a removable cable on a self-winding spool with 4-conductor TRRS male plugs on each end — the same connectors at the end of headphones with inline smartphone remotes. This is an unusual cable, but also cheaply and easily replaceable online, which is a very nice touch. But the supplied TRRS cable and spool are bulky and ugly — I’ve ordered one of many mysteriously cheap alternatives with right-angle plugs to tidy up the look a bit.


The main cable, left, with a right-angle Micro-USB plug. The halves connect with a spooled headphone-like cable, center. Above it is the USB port bizarrely facing into the center gap.

Ergonomics

Each half of the Ergo Pro has three flip-down legs that can be used in combinations to create either flat, negative tilt, or tented alignments. Negative tilt means the keyboard slopes downward from front to back, rather than the much more common inverse. Tenting means the middle of the keyboard is elevated higher than the left and right sides (like a tent). Both are widely regarded as ergonomically healthier keyboard shapes.

The negative tilt is pretty subtle, and it feels weird without tenting. I didn’t find negative-tilt mode comfortable, so I switched to tenting mode pretty quickly.

You can’t use tenting and negative tilt together, which is unfortunate — neither mode alone is as ergonomically comfortable as the Sculpt for me, but a combination of both might have been.


Top to bottom: Kinesis Freestyle 2, Matias Ergo Pro, Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic, Hops.



Left to right: Kinesis Freestyle 2, Matias Ergo Pro, Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic. Top is with the Ergo Pro in negative-tilt mode, bottom is tented mode. (The Kinesis is also capable of many other angles.)

As you can see, the Ergo Pro is noticeably thicker than the others, and the keys are noticeably taller off the desk than the Sculpt’s. To use it comfortably, I needed to lower my desk by about an inch. In addition to the inability to tent and negative-tilt simultaneously, the thickness seems to be the main limiting factor for its ergonomics. It’s still better than traditional keyboards, but not as comfortable for me as the others.

The built-in gel wrist pads are great — by far the thickest and most comfortable of the group. You’re not supposed to actually rest your wrists on them, but nearly everyone does (at least sometimes). I’ll often tend to lean forward and put an elbow on one while thinking or looking closely at the screen, and the Matias is the only one that can support that reliably: the Kinesis can’t support it at all, and the Sculpt’s stand pops off if you put too much pressure on it.

Keys and Layout

Matias is known for using great mechanical keyswitches, and the Ergo Pro lives up to that reputation. These switches feel substantially better than the Sculpt’s laptop-style scissor keys or the Freestyle 2’s light-touch membrane keys.

Compared to most other mechanical keyswitches, these are quieter and moderately springy. They’re still noticeably louder than laptop and membrane keys, but not as loud as common Cherry or old buckling-spring keys. Matias’ sound recordings are accurate: it’s still generally a loud keyboard, but not ridiculously so. If mechanical keyboards usually make your spouse or officemates want to kill you, a Matias keyboard might earn you a few more weeks to live.

The key layout is very good, but not perfect. I wish the Escape key was in the normal position above the tilde and Fn was below Shift, laptop-style. And I’d gladly do without the action buttons on the left, the Home/End cluster on the right, and the Num Lock that turns the right half into a number pad (which I keep hitting accidentally).

But these are really minor nitpicks. Given the inexplicable quirks of other ergonomic keyboards — the Freestyle 2’s non-standard Mac function keys, the Sculpt’s Esc/function chiclet buttons and Fn slider — the Ergo Pro is refreshingly normal. It’s mostly a native Mac keyboard with standard Mac function keys, and all of the functions work without installing any software.

You don’t want your keyboard layout to be exciting and different, and this isn’t, thankfully. It’s a high-quality Mac keyboard, cut in half. That’s exactly what a split-ergonomic Mac keyboard should be.

I Like It

The Ergo Pro is very good, but so is the Sculpt Ergonomic. I thought I’d have a harder time making a recommendation between them, but now having used both, the difference is clear.

The Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic is a more comfortable ergonomic keyboard, but the Matias Ergo Pro is a better overall keyboard. The Ergo Pro has better-feeling keys, a more reliable wired connection, better function keys for Mac, and USB ports.

If you need the highest degree of ergonomic comfort, the Sculpt is probably the better choice, as long as the one position it offers is compatible with your ergonomic needs. (It’s also significantly cheaper.)

If you want a high-quality mechanical keyboard that’s split down the middle and ergonomically better than most standard keyboards, check out the Ergo Pro.

The first run is sold out, but you can preorder for expected delivery in April.

Thanks to Matias for supplying an Ergo Pro for review.

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