Mobile is just the beginning

Not in my best interest

The new iPad is so far less than thrilling.

I’m not saying that as a geek (or fanboy), but as a customer.

The new iPad certainly isn’t cheap. The screen is of course gorgeous, but good designers know that perfection isn’t always what a customer is after. (Or as Peter Drucker famously put it… “The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it sells him.”).

Apple has just released a device that makes them look good (or at the very least clever), but at the expense of everyone else (including the customer). Sure, the fonts are so crisp they could cut glass, but absolutely everything else on screen is fuzzy.

(Everything except Apple’s own site where for possibly the first time ever, they’ve acknowledged that the web is now multi-context, and have taken the time to swap some images. Pigs may however fly before Apple honours us with a small-screen and bandwidth optimised experience).

The past week has been full of frantic tweets, articles and GitHub commits aiming to “solve the retina image problem” that the new iPad has thrust upon us. (And matters are not much rosier on the native app side of the world.)

The optimist in me thinks this episode may finally compel the standards bodies to properly discuss a multi-context image tag. The pessimist in me sees the second coming of the Y2K bug, as we all scurry around to solve a problem that could have been avoided through pragmatism and good design.

In this case, the pragmatism would have been needed on Apple’s part.

Everyone already loves the iPad. They’ve already sold more tablets than anyone else, and competitors are still struggling to catch up.

Releasing a retina-display version hasn’t really improved the device (which is now also noticeably heavier and feels awkwardly out of balance). What it’s merely done is create hype that no one (including Apple) actually needed.

What I would have loved to see from them is an admission that releasing a retina display iPad was not in anyone’s best interest at the moment. They could have even (as they do so well…) spun a story around that fact; explaining that in matters of user experience the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This quote by Maya Angelou sums it up very well for me (the customer…not the web designer):

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The iPad used to make me feel happy. The new iPad no longer does. 


Update: This post is certainly generating some vibrant conversations on Twitter :-)

What i’m first finding interesting is that it’s really quite hard to be a user, designer and developer at the same time. There is a clear value in innovating, but no technology operates in a vacuum, and once the technology is there, it’s often the social change we struggle with the most.

Many people have responded that Apple is simply innovating, and that in the end, we will all be better for it. And on the one hand, I don’t disagree. I just find it sad that with fast release cycles and the need to compete, this innovation often occurs at the expense of users (and of course other times it doesn’t…hopefully it all balances out).

Bryan also mentioned something interesting after chatting with a few folks on Twitter. If Apple really wanted to use this as an opportunity to innovate, they would have also included their version (or vision?) of how to gracefully solve the multi-context image problem (and maybe even the bandwidth detection problem) in the latest version of Safari and iOS. There’s nothing like a new bit of implemented ‘spec’ to jumpstart progress.

22 Responses to “Not in my best interest”

  1. Alexandre P

    Frankly, i totally agree with you. The retina display is actually hurting the iPad 3-whatever users: because content is not ready, and because mobile bandwidth is still expensive, unless behind a wifi.
    Do we really need this image resolution at this point? Some do i guess: photographers, professional image makers of all kinds. But that’s not the majority of ipad users. They want more pretty images? It would be more widely beneficial if they worked on, say, improving the quality of image compression algorithms (like jpeg hdr) rather than pushing the limits of already saturated fiber optic networks.

    • steph

      It handles it well but many other mobile browsers still don’t (i.e. there, but not behaving as expected). Feature detection is also not particularly helpful in this regard as SVG tests return ‘supported’ even when support is poor. SVG also won’t help with photographs, which is (i’m pretty sur by far) most of the content you find on the web.

  2. Frank

    I haven’t yet seen any of the new iPads, so I have no idea how great the new Retina screen actually looks or how bad “old” site designs look on it.

    But there’s one thing I’d like to mention: Pigs do fly since 1977 ;-)

  3. Matt Wilcox

    I fail to see the problem. The same arguments could have been levelled at the iPhone 4, but you try and get retina phone users to ever use another device that isn’t as high density. They won’t like you for it.

    What the iPad3 does is bring print quality to a screen device. It will allow a revolution in those industries. There’s nothing bad about the new iPad at all, except that current websites aren’t ready for it. That’s not the iPads problem, and this post will look more than a bit creaky and odd when people look back at it in five years time. “What, they were complaining about getting a sharp display? Ugh.”

    • steph

      But I think that’s actually the difference.

      Purely as a user, the retina display on the iPhone felt much better to me. The balance felt right between some occasionally fuzzy images and the overall crispness of the copy. On the iPad, that balance has shifted. It no longer feels right. Some of this may be due to the overall screen size (being physically larger, and with larger layouts served given that on the iPhone you often encounter a mobile optimized layouts). Some may aslo be due to slightly lower ppi (don’t have the exact figures handy but from what I recall there’s a good 50ppi difference). The ppi difference was intentional as people apparently hold the device about 15″ from their face but I think they got it wrong this time.

      Independent of that (…developer hat), duplicating hundreds of images on millions of sites (if they even have the assets any more, or the way the site is built even enables them to) is not a good way for many of our clients to spend their budgets. Budgets that could/should be far better spent making their sites more future friendly overall (yet many will be compelled to focus those resources on images because this is the iPad and there may be pressure to do so.

      • Matt Wilcox

        I see your points, I just think they’re too set in the here-and-now, which is not where Apple are focusing.

        Your complaints are not actually complaints about the device at all, they are complaints that the current infrastructure the device is working with can’t fully support the capabilities of the device. That’s not the iPad’s problem, that’s everyone else’s problem. And it’s temporary.

        Put it another way: there is nothing that the current iPad does *less* well than the last one. A CSS pixel is a CSS pixel and it renders exactly the same on iPad3 as on iPad 1 and 2. It’s just the enhanced resolution of the *text* that puts the previous quality of experience into perspective. I’ll say it again to be clear: the new iPad does not degrade *anything*. It merely upgrades some things but not others.

        Now, if the iPad (or any other popular device with a high dpi) did not exist right now, why would our web infrastructure push forward beyond what any real device was capable of? It wouldn’t – which is exactly why we don’t already have multi-resolution image resources, despite the fact that mobile aside, there was never anything stopping us developing that sort of tech for the last decade and more.

        The iPad is the push that says “get your act together, stop being confortable with the status quo, solve your issues – the future is over here”. And it does that at *no cost* to current quality.

        Complaining about the quality of the display is like complaining about your home decor after you got a new pair of glasses. Suddenly you see the problems that were *always* there. But that decor is the same decor.

      • Dwight

        “The ppi difference was intentional as people apparently hold the device about 15″ from their face but I think they got it wrong this time.”

        The difference is the same difference as between iPhone 3GS and earlier, and the iPad 2 and earlier. It had to be because doing something other than x2 per side increase would create compatibility problems with existing program’s use of UI elements.

  4. Dwight

    Stephanie, you are shooting the messenger.

    This line “In this case, the pragmatism would have been needed on Apple’s part.” does not square with “The optimist in me thinks this episode may finally compel the standards bodies to properly discuss a multi-context image tag.”

    The future has long been coming and as usual there were people that decided to put things off till it wasn’t the future anymore. The web was NEVER going to be ready for the future until the future forced its hand. Or you haven’t been paying attention to the IP6 saga that’s raged the last decade, plus? Really Y2K was an example of that, as well, and you’ve made it an even closer match with your addition of over-wringing of hands.

  5. Andrew Durdin

    So we will have growing pains—that is inevitable. High DPI displays are good per se. That image content is not yet suited for them is normal. There has been no incentive for anyone to serve high DPI images online yet, and without a large deployment of high DPI devices to generate demand, there never would be.

    In the meantime, the early adopters of high DPI devices will have to live with something that is not quite as good as it could be, yet still better than the low DPI device they had before, until the world changes.

    Accepting a temporary drawback in order to eventually achieve a better goal is nothing if not pragmatic.

  6. Tom Hermans

    These were my thoughts too when I read the announcement of the resolutionary (what a bad pun) device.

    @Matt : “What the iPad3 does is bring print quality to a screen device. ”
    > No, not entirely. It brings the “possibility” .. that’s what people like Stephanie, me and a few others (Peter-Paul Koch e.g. > ) are pointing out.

    In a time where the size of the average web page has risen substantially, the use of mobile devices has risen even more, this brings even more load on the already not-too-performant mobile networks..

    My guess it’ll take indeed 5 years til we fully can enjoy the wonders of this technology.. meanwhile I don’t think many site owners will bring this load to their servers or make their users wait even more than they do already to access the content they’re providing. Speed is more important to a User Experience than pixel density.

    • Matt Wilcox

      I agree that speed is indeed very important. But it’s not an ‘always prefer speed’ thing. If good imagery had no value to users we’d have an internet made up of nothing but text. The thing is, users actually want *both* high speed and good imagery.

      Networks will catch up (although no network is ever ‘fast enough’), but in the mean time it’s up to web developers to decide where the trade-off should lie – as always. iPad is nothing new in this respect, we always trade off between speed and appearance in any project – the only thing iPad does is put into the hands of the public a large screen that a lot of people will use – as opposed to the 27″ iMacs that have an equally large screen, but that we never bother to cater for.

      Well, larger screens becoming more popular and un-ignorable has happened time and again. It will be fine.

      • Stuart Robson

        “Networks will catch up (although no network is ever ‘fast enough’)”

        Networks may catch up to serve devices that require ti for a god user experience.
        The network providers would still probably throttle your data allowance so that all these lovely crisp images at some point will cost the user so ££s and they’ll still transcode your images unless you tell them not to.

    • Dwight

      The speed requirement was likely what pushed Apple into LTE. LTE tech is still slightly behind maturity of what I’d expect Apple to use, by maybe 6 months.

  7. Josh Stevenson

    I couldn’t disagree more with you. Infrastructure adapts to fit demand. Not too many years ago, the same argument could be made for cars. They were expensive, they made all the horses and buggies look bad, and the roads simply weren’t built to handle them. But as cars became more prevalent the infrastructure adapted to accommodate them, and we all _as consumers_ still benefit from the early pioneers who were willing to put up with bad roads till they caught up.

    The retina display is no different. So the infrastructure of the web now seems outdated; big deal. It’ll have to adapt to catch up. There will be challenges associated with that, no doubt, but in the end it will be worth it. In the meantime, we as consumers benefit from crisper pictures, clearer media, and better reading.

    • steph

      Actually the big difference there is that with cars, we had a good 50 years to adapt to the changes. This will be one of the big challenges going forward with technology in general. Innovations take time to settle into society (and the overall ecosystem…which often doesn’t even exits) but these days, we need solutions that can be implemented in years rather than many decades.

      See slides 46 onwards in this presentation.

  8. Alex Holt

    @Steph : It’s nice to see somebody looking beyond the shininess ;) There is definitely some merit to your point, however as a long time apple user, don’t you think it’s fair to say that they do it to us every single release cycle? Whether it’s a processor bump in the laptop you just bought or a new SD reader in the laptop… or more ram capacity – it invariably happens within a couple of months of any apple purchase.

    On a more finicky note… you mentioned at the end of your post:
    “There’s nothing like a new bit of implemented ‘spec’ to jumpstart progress.”

    That’s what everyone said about vendor prefixes… yet here we are, with nothing standardised and other browser makers talking about just implementing the innovations produced with the -webkit- prefix.

    It’s at least arguable (perhaps even true) that Apple would in fact have just been causing even more fragmentation if they’d included some proprietary browser implementation to solve multicontext images…

    • steph

      Ah yes, the vendor prefixes.
      I’m completely conflicted about this stuff lately because there is value on both sides. I’d love to wait for standards (because standards help provide stability) but the pace they work at is can be extremely slow…and just because it’s a standard doesn’t mean they will get it right.

      If however a company with some level of clout/user base jumps ahead (the viewport meta tag for example) you end up with everyone rushing to catch up (i.e. mimic), but you also end up with an opportunity to consider what this new pseudo-spec is actually good for (kicking the tires and iterating if you will)….that is, unless of course everyone uses it as an excuse to only support that one initial spec. So in this case…Apple innovating with image tags might be yet another reason for people to only build for iOS.

      In either case, users somewhat become guinea pigs while we all sort it out.

  9. Kathleen

    Fantastic comments on both sides. I too am a user and developer. I’m not much disturbed as a developer because, while not making things more standards-compliant or easier to develop for, it doesn’t actually change the status quo. It’s just one more thing to develop for, in the end. In about five years, everyone will obey the standards for about a week before some new sparkly thing is invented.

    As an iPad1 owner, I was interested in the possibility that retina display could cause less eyestrain while reading (esp my O’Reilly books). The 72° increase in temperature however is a real bummer. I don’t do a lot of website-based stuff, and I don’t need 4G as my Android phone acts as a hotspot, so now I just have to go test one out. I’m prepared to wait, as usual, for the rest of the world to catch up to Apple. On the other hand, I’m not in a rush to buy “TNiP,” as The Old iPad works just fine.

  10. Adrienne Adams

    I think Apple hit the need square-on. Is the iPad a mobile device, as is “use it on the bus going to work” or mobile as “reading a magazine in the living room couch”? Based on some emerging data on iPad use, it’s mostly the latter. (See, etc)

    Personally, the iPad’s highest value for me is as a reading device. I’m transitioning all my magazine subcriptions to iPad. My morning news come thru Reeder. I will definitely be upgrading in order to get a retina display. Crisper text? Yes please! Gorgeous photos? You bet! My content is coming via wifi, often downloaded for later consumption, so cellular data speeds & limits are not an issue.

    As for websites with standard-res images… as many commenters have noted, it’s up to developers to figure out how to serve content in the best, most efficient way possible. It’s our problem and we just have to suck it up and get to work. Sure, lots of sites will have fuzzy images. A few years back it was easy enough to land on a site where all the images were tiny gifs. How many developers are working with ten-year-old content? Hopefully not too many!

  11. Michael

    I absolutely agree with you, especially that the experience surfing the web on the new Ipad is not better at all and may get even worse if developer try to implement a solution to serve high dpi images, which has to result in an increased file size (probably 4x the size).

    I just wrote an article about that we shouldn’t worry that much and I am interested about your opinion if Apple could have done it better like explained there.



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