Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Hidden Genius at the Apple Store

Every time I take an Apple product into an Apple Store to get it looked at by a Genius, two thoughts run through my mind. The first is how freaking packed they are these days. I haven’t been in an Apple store that wasn’t full of humanity of all stripes in years. People checking stuff out, buying stuff, or just surfing the net on one of the demo machines. Even people trying to get inside information out of the helpful employees who don’t know anything more about the next magical product in the pipeline than do you or I.

The second thought is that surely one of the secrets of Apple’s product design in the last decade has been the use of the data that these stores generate. There’s the obvious real-time point-of-sale and visitor data. But that’s not what catches my attention. Instead, it’s the data that’s generated at the Genius bar that fascinates me.

This data, in aggregate, can tell Apple a lot about what machines break, how they break, and after how long in a much more direct way than what would come out of a third party service center. And, when Apple is interested in more information about certain failures, they can start asking customers for more information with very little delay.

Remember when Apple introduced the Intel-based MacBook Pros and they changed the power connector from a plug to the new MagSafe adapter? I’m pretty sure I recall Steve saying on stage they made the change in response to seeing lots of broken laptops caused by people tripping over the cord.

Sure, tripping over power cords was a well known problem, but I’d imagine that data collected at the Genius Bars helped underline the magnitude of the problem with solid data. Data that would have been less apparent and recognizable if it had filtered through from third party service centers.

Imagine, for a moment, you’re in charge of the development of a product. What’s more compelling? A) Somebody on your staff telling you that third party services centers seem to be buying lots of widgets and their reports indicate that there could be a problem with a particular feature of your product. Or, B) The head of your own service organization coming over with graphs and charts about exactly which parts break, why customers say they break, and that the cost for fixing the damage caused by a simple bumbling accident averages $593.

I wonder how many other issues in Apple products get addressed, in part, because of the data gathered in Apple stores by Apple employees. There are several trends in Apple’s product design, but a very clear one is the simplification of parts that can break.

The newer laptop designs, culminating with the unibody, not only have introduced stronger cases, but simpler ones as well. For example, through the various iterations of laptops Apple has produced, they’ve eliminated the little latch in the top lid. The magnetically retractable latch in the lid of PowerBooks and MacBook Pros was cool. Designing the hinge so that it wasn’t needed at all is much cooler.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part. Only Apple really knows what they do with the data. Maybe Jony Ive solves all of his design problems in the shower without any input from the outside world except for Steve’s persistent phone calls every morning at 4:45AM telling him the last prototype sucked and to make the next one better.

In this age where companies want to outsource everything, however, I can’t help but think there’s a very powerful long-term advantage in not outsourcing the opportunity to see how your products react to the real world first hand.

So why was I seeing a Genius today? My iPad’s dock connector wasn’t working any more. No USB connection to a computer. No charging. Total bummer. The Genius I talked to replaced it straight away and the failure is now recorded in some database somewhere. Another bit of data.

Hidden Genius and Public Schools

How Some Schools Are Cheating Gifted Students by Abusing Their Talents and Abilities for Personal Classroom Gain or Simply Declaring Gifted Students "special"

Growing up in Dallas, Texas was just fine, but the school system was a whole other story at the time. While numerous teachers and faculty recognized my abilities to learn quickly and be creative, others shunned my behavior as “special needs” material, and I do not mean “special needs” as in gifted classes, but special education.

Sometime between my 3rd and 4th grade year, my grades for some reason started to slip. This was at the same time that I had trouble seeing in class. I was fitted for glasses, and that handled my seeing problem, but trouble followed.

I could see my work, but I slowly couldn’t understand the content in several of my classes. It started to become a serious mystery, and after long drawn out discussions between me, my parents, and a special ed. teacher, and my mainstream teachers, I found myself the next few weeks later sitting in a small room with 4 other students.

My parents fought as hard as they can…and most of there fighting succeeded, due to the fact there was a moment that some of my mainstream teachers wanted me to take pills for what they declared “hyperactivity.” Otherwise, I spent endless time in special education with my obligated focus on math and reading. Needless to say it was rather embarrassing both inside and outside of class.

Having to walk out during the middle of your regular class and than walk back in not but a few minutes later, and having your classmates look as you as if you just came from a psychiatric evaluation. Although it could be considered funny now, for thousands of kids and there bewildered parents, it is no laughing matter! Like only a few children, I had a different way of thinking compared to my other classmates. I was able to comprehend different things in different ways, almost as if my brain was working a different wave length compared to the rest of the other kids in my mainstream classes.

Hidden Genius? or Complete Failure?

I'm quite lazy when it comes to school, yet people somehow regard me as an intelligent person. I dislike both. I don't really like school, and I don't think I'm very intelligent, though evidence seems to suggest otherwise, for the latter.

I find school fairly boring and redundant. Half the time we revise older things, and in the other half, most of the teachers are not very good at explaining the new things. I find homework useless and boring. More revision. Assignments and exams are just a way of determining our level compared to everyone else. I quite dislike assignments, too, as they are done in my free time.

I always stay up late and come to school tired. I usually try to sleep in often, to the point where I have to be forcibly woken up to get to school on time, on a daily basis. I never touch assignments except in-class or mere hours before midnight, on the night before.

I always got A's and B's nonetheless, for some reason...
However, in recent years, that has gone down to B's and C's, since I pay less attention in class, and generally being more lazy now. I've also been getting a few D's, but they balance out with the B's, so I pretty much barely passed Grade 11.

I continuously get in the top 10% of the state when I do those competitions with the multiple choice questions. So many "Distinction" awards, that I don't really care anymore. I still do it though, since it's a good way to get out of class. I've gotten a two "High Distinction"s, which is the top 1% in the state. I remember being extremely tired and depressed one time when I did one of these last year, and I still got a Distinction...

I still don't really have a goal in life, other than to just live it. I've always adopted a style of "going with the flow", living carefree and watching the currents go by, and following it. Because of this, I don't have much motivation to work towards something. I usually get quite depressed about this...

I feel like I have this incredible potential in me. But in order to tap into that, I must first fill the emptiness inside me, and inspire myself, to give me power to tap into this.

I'm not so sure on what to use this unused potential for. I like lots of things, but being a jack of all trades doesn't lead you anywhere in a normal life. Hm...

The hidden genius of the "You Rock"

Any story about Guitar Hero or Rock Band isn't complete without some yahoo in the comments claiming that people should stop having fun playing games and should start learning how to play an actual guitar. One product at CES was pitched to us as an advanced Guitar Hero controller, but what we saw at the booth was a surprisingly robust musical product that will retail for $179.99.

The guitar, called the "You Rock Guitar" from Inspired Instruments, features six metal "strings" and a full-sized neck with rows of pressure-sensitive lines that act and feel like the strings of a real instrument. You can strum, you can fingerpick, and you can play chords and solos. The controller has clearly laid out sections for Rock Band, and by hitting a button on the body of the guitar you turn on "game mode" so you can use it on your video game system—a $25 add-on gives the guitar Bluetooth support for wireless play—but the guitar has many more tricks up its sleeve.

The neck is removable so you can travel with it. You can plug the guitar directly into an amplifier and play with a number of voices built into the product. You can plug into a PC or Mac and use the You Rock guitar as a MIDI controller, expanding your options for what you can do with the hardware.

I was given the opportunity to play for myself. After only a few stumbles, I felt like I was playing a real guitar; it's a very effective illusion that does a great job of simulating the feel and response of a stringed instrument.

For those learning their scales, you can play along with the included backing tracks, and the guitar will mute itself if you play a note out of key. When you're playing a solo in the correct scale, you'll hear every note. If you mess up, you'll know. It's instant feedback for your playing, and could be a great tool for budding axmen (and axwomen).

For students, musicians on the go, video game fans, or people with a home studio, this guitar will have some worth. We put in a request for a review sample when the product is released in the coming months; this is an item that doesn't fall into one easy category but, based on our hands-on time with the hardware, it does everything it promises.

Hidden Genius in the (Bogus) Huntsman Story?

I mentioned yesterday how preposterous I thought it was for Newsweek to tout the idea that Jon Huntsman Jr, the Republican ex-governor of Utah now serving as US Ambassador to China, was about to enter the 2012 presidential race to unseat Barack Obama, rather than aiming at 2016 or whenever.

Summary version of the "are you kidding?" case:

1) In the primaries, why would Republican voters choose an Obama Administration team member as the leader of the anti-Obama crusade?
2) In the general election, how would an Obama Administration team member argue that returning the Obama Administration to power would be a horrible mistake?
3) Even before the elections, how could a person as plugged-in and savvy as Huntsman not have thought of points 1 and 2? And in any case, he needed to have started yesterday if he were planning a serious run this time.

But a friend in Beijing writes to say that there may be a hidden logic or silver lining to the rumor -- on Huntsman's side, if not on Newsweek's. This friend is neither American nor Chinese, but he knows Huntsman, and he deals every day with Chinese officialdom. In the haiku eloquence of a tweet he writes:

Ie, there is nothing that will get the attention of the Zhongnanhai leadership like the idea that the mere ambassador they are humoring today could be back another day as a mighty American President. That vague future possibility is already built in with Huntsman, but this story, which Chinese officials won't be sure they can dismiss, should concentrate their minds.

I'd love to think that Obama and Huntsman deliberately planted this rumor as a way of ramping up US diplomatic effectiveness in China. (After all, there was nothing in it hostile to Obama, which adds to the weirdness of the idea that Huntsman would soon be challenging his current boss.) But usually the explanation for events is more blunder-filled than that. I'll write this off to holiday-weekend press hype -- while hoping that, as my friend says, the commissars take it seriously and therefore take America's representative all the more seriously too.