Around the Internet (July 2013)

A few things discovered or linked to across the Internet the past couple of weeks that I've either saved for later reading or pinned to my Pinboard account.

  • We Never Look Up
    • Photo blog that focuses on people in public places that are constantly looking at their phone, tablet, etc.
  • Calca App for iOS
    • Modern calculator and text editor merged into one (ala Soulver, but more powerful)
  • Practical Typography
    • Fantastic resource for typography education and rationale. As Erik Spiekermann states in his foreward: "A few hun­dred years of type and ty­pog­ra­phy have es­tab­lished rules that only a fool would ig­nore."
  • Beer Labels in Motion
    • I don't know what's more impressive - the animations themselves, or the effort it took to make them all GIFs after cleverly animating them (via Daring Fireball)
  • Frietag
    • Interesting bags and accessories reincarnated from an annual scrounge and repurposing of "390 tons of well-traveled truck tarps, 36,000 worn-out bicycle inner tubes, 22,000 discarded seatbelts and 1400 sq yds of recycled airbags"
  • International Space Station in Transit
    • Just what it sounds like. (via Kottke)
  • Authentic Design
    • Great write-up on designing for the medium of delivery.
  • True-ish Grit
    • Tom Bissell's review of his experience with Naughty Dog's latest game, The Last of Us (on PS3).
  • Brian K. Vaughan's The Private Eye is a Bold Move Forward for Digital Comics
    • Been enjoying this one (only three issues thus far), and AV Club has a write-up on it, proclaiming the digital-only distribution of the new IP is paving an interesting way forward for the comics book industry. Of course, Panel Syndicate (the "publishing" company run by artist Marcos Martin and writer Brian K. Vaughan) is likely only successful because of the built-in fanbase of their work, much akin to the popularizing of the self-published music album from Radiohead, (arguably one of the most popular bands on the planet)
  • Through a Glass Darkly
    • The Magazine's Nate Berg takes a look into the Museum of Jurassic Technology and its "realities" and "fictions"

Analog <> Digital

An easy guess would be to assume there will be an outcry over the big change when iOS 7 hits Apple devices in a few months. But anyone paying attention to the challenging states of designing for digital canvases should know that this was inevitable. Skeumorphism (digital assets that draw likeness to real-world counterparts) was a decided method in the early days of iOS to guide people into using a device that was so digitally malleable it could manifest into nearly any kind of object or operation -- many of which had physical equivalents (like a calculator or notebook). Sure, we've had digital representaions of calculators and notebooks before, but we've never been able to interact with them through a sophisticated touch interface.

While digital skeumorphism is top of mind right now, Smashing Magazine takes a look back at the history of design ornamentations across mediums in their essay, Authentic Design. I remember when I first bought my way into the iOS ecosystem with an iPod touch in the fall of 2007. I'd grown accostomed to Apple's flourishes with photorealistic icon design in Mac OS X (which still holds up functionally and appropriately today), so the Braun-inspired calculator definitely looked and felt good to use on the iPod touch's surface. We all have to remember that iOS (or iPhone OS back then) was a magical thing -- a multi-touch interface on a powerful, pocket computer was way ahead of its time. And maybe, as an unexpected side effect, no one cared that the applications we were using on it ludicrously mimicked physical world objects. I mean, the Notes app is a damn tacky looking thing (and was even worse when it used the Marker Felt typeface by default).1

If you TLDR-the-article, let me take you through the motions, starting with the beginning: the history of mass-produced ornamentation can be blamed on over-zealous capitalists using steam-powered manufacturing to their impulsive fantasies.

Historically, handcrafted decoration has been expensive to produce, serving as a symbol of wealth and luxury. With the advent of mechanization, imitations of those same sought-after ornaments could be stamped out cheaply and quickly. Rather than stop and think about what sort of design would be best suited for mass production, manufacturers jumped at the opportunity to copy historicized styles at low cost. The result was the flood of garish, low-quality products that Adolf Loos, along with other pioneers of modern design, railed against.

Makes you think twice about that Braun-inspired iOS calculator app.

Instead of attacking ornament, other pioneers of modern design focused on elevating functional form on a pedestal. In 1934, an exhibition curated by modernist architect Philip Johnson was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, titled Machine Art. On display were various pieces of mechanical equipment, such as airplane propellers and industrial insulators. The idea was to highlight beauty of form in objects that were purely functional. For the modern design movement, decoration was not necessary. Beauty and elegance were to emerge from the design of the content itself, not from a superficial coat of decoration.

The transition into digital canvases afforded designers to do whatever they wanted. Rendering ornamentation back in the early days of Windows and Mac OS was possible, and "real-world metaphors were used where they could be, such as for images of folders to denote file directories and buttons with bevels to let the user know they could click on them -- But the overall aesthetic was fairly flat and restrained." The strange transition into full-on skeumorphism in iOS was a curious choice, likely stemming from Jobs's wish to showcase the fun mechanics of operating a touch device.

So, the real kicker of the article: while skeumorphic designs "provide visual interest, they are also relics of another time, relics that tie an interface to static real-life objects that are incompatible with the fluidity and dynamism of digital interfaces". Drenching iOS in a new coat of paint and under-the-hood mechanics will enable designers to continue shedding ornamentation and focus on the content of their apps. This fall's release of iOS 7 is going to be grand.

  1. As John Gruber originally wrote": "The weakest app on the iPhone. Cosmetically, it’s a train wreck. The entire iPhone UI is set in one typeface — Helvetica — and it’s gorgeous. But Notes, in a lame attempt to be “friendly”, displays a UI that looks like a pad of yellow legal paper, and uses the handwriting-esque Marker Felt as the font for note text. This is not adjustable. Marker Felt is silly, ugly, and worst of all, hard to read."

For What Shall It Profit

An informed follow-up piece to the Verge's article prematurely proclaiming Pocket as the victor and future of "Internet DVR" by The Magazine's Glenn Fleishman.

I don’t see how [Pocket's] current situation with 9m free users is “beating” anyone. If Instapaper has millions of free users and 100,000s of who have paid for the app or for a Web subscription, has it been “beaten”? And if so, is it “beaten” at this point in time when it is cash-flow positive and Pocket is not? These questions aren’t asked nor answered in the Pocket profile.

Free & Pro Options for Services

Devir Kahan evaluates the merits of pricing digital services with free and paid options, using Dropbox as the evaluative lens. While Dropbox is a private company and does not release financial information, he's pieced together what has been made publicly available (e.g., "Dropbox manages to bring in upwards of $500 million in revenue a year, no doubt from their Pro accounts", and "96% of Dropbox users stick with the free account") and makes the following assessment:

"Dropbox seems to be doing fine financially bringing in half a billion dollars every year, but most people are not paying anything at all. Most people are using the product for free, just as they would any other free product. And yet the company is chugging along just fine. They might not be making as much money as they could if they charged every costumer, but as a whole, they are bringing in cash and are doing just fine. But again, to their average customer, they are a free product. And this makes Dropbox a rather interesting example."

Doing it Right

Would other services -- could other services -- do the same? Why doesn't Instagram do this, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Flipboard, or __? Dropbox has positioned itself as an exemplary product that exhibits a model of free and pro/paid versions, existing and working well (or so we can assume based on the revenue number unearthed by GigaOm; revenue of $2mm per employee isn't shabby). Following the 96/4 logic of Dropbox's reported paid userbase, other services could assess a monthly or yearly subscription fee for pro users that earns them "more" or "better" of something, incentivizing them to stay within the ecosystem (after all, they would be helping fund it). If only other companies that current do this would come out and state (I'd hope) successful numbers, we'd have a genuine case for larger companies to do the same (and perhaps pull back from their reliance on advertising). Additionally, services (or products -- because let's face it, the news industry could really use a rejuvenation shock with compelling paid subscriptions) could establish a baseline expectation of worth instead of offering everything perceptively free.

A few examples of other companies that, I'll assume, do this well and successfully:

  • Checkvist (free service and pro version at $20/6 months)
  • Simplenote (free service with ads and pro version at $20/year)
  • Instapaper (free service with paid app and pro version at $1/month)
  • Letterboxd (free service with paid version at $19/year)
  • Rdio (limited free service with paid version at $10/month)

These services all allow free usage of their products for anyone willing to sign up. While some of the free versions of the service are limited (Rdio has limited play sessions per month, and Checkvist doesn't allow for automatic backups of outlines, for instance), they are still very functional variations of the full product. Dropbox is aligned in a similar way -- it allows for full functionality and usage of its service for free but has a limited amount of space available for free users: 2GB. The paid service is priced at $99/year for 100GB (a massive hike in storage). Apparently there are enough paying users for Dropbox to sustain its service for the non-paying userbase.

So what would the revenue numbers look like if Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr would have charged for a pro version beginning today? I've compiled a little table showcasing this based on the Dropbox 96/4 model, and assuming a relatively nominal charge of $1/month for a pro version for each service.

Service & Revenue Estimates for Paid Subscriptions Based on 96/4 Model

As you can see, both Twitter and Tumblr would exceed their current annual revenues by successfully charging for a pro version of their services. Sure, they could charge more (or less), or even offer tiered pricing. If the need is only for 4% of the userbase to pay, I'm sure these numbers are absolutely achievable. For some users, a meatier version of a service they use everyday or rely on is worth the cost.

Doing it Wrong

There are ways to do this model wrong, however. Apple's iCloud service is one such example. Since launching iCloud, most users have unknowingly relied on the service to backup their data every night, as well as sync various data between apps and servers. The storage available for free (5GB and the ambiguously free Photo Stream of 1,000 photos) to iOS users is paltry for 2013 standards, especially when you consider that many Apple users own more than one iOS device (say, an iPhone and iPad). Pricing for "pro" versions of iCloud are as follows:

  • 10GB: $20/year
  • 20GB: $40/year
  • 50GB: $100/year

Not only are these prices absurd, they also grind against the goodwill of Apple customers purchasing and relying on the iOS device software ecosystem. They're taking photos and videos as part of their expectation of the device, and little do they perhaps know that the Photos app is weighing heavily on their iCloud storage at 4.8GB alone. And let's not forget that the use of Apple's @me/@icloud mail service is also tied to iCloud storage. So 5GB can fuck itself -- my iPhone alone has a 7.5GB backup.

The reason Apple is perceivably doing this wrong is because of the intrinsic nature of iCloud and its oblivious reliance by owners. If several iOS owners have Gmail -- and let's assume a great number use Google's mail service -- they know never have to worry about space (Google offers 15GB+ of free space across Gmail, Google Drive, and Google+ Photos). But to be harassed by the device you bought because you're creeping on the backup limit that you may not even know how to deactivate is a frustrating friction that is a dangerous misstep. If you're using Dropbox to backup all your photos and videos, you are well aware you're a freeloader riding on 2GB. If you value the service that you chose to sign up for, and begin to rely on it, you'll likely upgrade to a paying user for more space. iCloud was never positioned this way.

The Way Forward

While I doubt many, if any, of the social platforms will offer a paid tier to their service anytime soon, it's worth contemplating for smaller products moving forward. There is no harm in offering a better version of your service for a price, especially if you can garner a large enough percentage of users to pay and sustain your entire business (including the free users). Some products, like Basecamp, probably don't work well enough to permit a free and paid option (their free option is ludicrously limited). Then again, they really aren't appealing to freeloaders to begin with -- it's positioned as a paid SaaS, and the owners won't let you argue about it. But other services most certainly should offer something compelling (hello IFTTT?).

What happens when you start paying for too many things and can't reasonably afford it? Pay for the services with the best paid options and use the other ones for free. Someone else out there will value each service in their own way and likely pick up your slack.