Zach's PEN #11: Diminishing Digital Returns

2020 Week 42

Dearest PENpals,

Apple finally, finally is going back to the best iPhone design they ever had: the flat-sided iPhone 5s/SE form factor that fit perfectly in the hand, was easy to grip in camera mode, and actually fit in a pocket. I’ve been waiting for this phone ever since they went to the stupid “polished glassen space egg” design that we’ve suffered all these years. Of course, because they need to punish us for the indignity of having to own up to their own mistakes, they are still putting the lock button opposite the volume buttons so that, like animals, we can accidentally turn off our phone while taking a priceless photo and then take four accidental screenshots. But… this is such a better design than what we’ve been getting from one of the greatest companies of all time, and it does deserve some thanks and praise. I downgraded to the SE last year when I’d finally had enough. Note the perfect size and correct lock button location.

At the beginning, I was one of those who would stand in line each year for the new iPhone, and my career has proven over and over again that my fanaticism was 100% justified. Apple products paid huge dividends for me. They are the tools I’ve used to create just about everything I’ve ever exchanged in the marketplace. The improvements year over year were reliably excellent and I credit the iOS software developer ecosystem for any design thinking (and most of the skills) I have.

I follow software developers and user interface designers the way some people follow musicians and actors. I’ve been fascinated by creative tools of all kinds for my entire life, and software is particularly exciting for this reason: Someone can make a tool that allows an entirely new means of creation, and then that tool can be distributed to anyone and everyone else in the world, at scale, and virtually for free. The person building one of these tools, like an Excel or a JavaScript web framework or Roam Research, are 100% equivalent to the first human to figure out how to use a hammer/nail combination. And here’s the thing: The world of software tools is still in its terribly awkward adolescence. It’s somewhere in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, with braces and bad acne… It’s a real mess, but with so much potential.

The current class of hardware, however, is pretty mature. Consider the last time you’ve thought the following:

  1. “Man… This phone is slow.”
  2. “I wish my screens had higher resolution or better color fidelity.”
  3. “This camera sucks.”

I bet it’s been a while. There’s a good reason for this: The speed of microprocessors has reached a totally acceptable speed for our brains and fingers to be able to accomplish most of the tasks we need to do. There hasn’t been a noticeable difference in iPhone performance for 99.9% of people since the iPhone X. While this portends bad things for Apple’s annual-upgrade business plan of the past 13 years, it also means it’s a really great moment for the age-old question that I get asked about once a week: “Should I buy XXXXX now or wait for the new one?”

Allison and I just bought our first 4K TV, the TCL one recommended by The Wirecutter as the Best TV for 2020. It’s not just good… It’s great… and the biggest one, the 75-inch one, is $1,400. And here’s a claim you can file away for later: 8K TVs will not be a thing. Of course, some companies will try to sell 8K TVs to justify an upgrade (some already are), but even the most skilled eyes in the world cannot tell the difference between 4K and 8K. Camera lenses and even the lenses in our eyes don’t really resolve to 8K.

This is it. We’ve made it. We’re here. Our TVs, screens, camera sensors, and microprocessors are pretty damned good. Image quality for cameras has mostly caught up to film finally (though film is still better/cooler/more fun/cheaper/friendlier for the environment, so many claims here I won’t try to defend in this week’s PEN). TVs are high resolution enough that you won’t need to build and then throw out the equivalent of another DVD collection. Phones are fast. Hell, even Internet is pretty fast.

Most tech people right now are focused on: What’s NEXT? Augmented reality glasses? Artificial Intelligence? Plugging computers right into our brains? But hold up, nerdsWe don’t even have good tools/abilities/ecosystems for the devices we have. You think you’re going to be able to make good/useful things for AR glasses that will make as big an impact as multitouch screens did in 2007 or the mouse did in 1984? Look around… People are mostly scrolling Facebook and Instagram right now. We haven’t done shit with these platforms yet. So I’m pretty skeptical.

My two favorite questions right now are below:

  1. Now that digital devices are finally good, how can we take them further up-market, with more premium/long-lasting/repairable/upgradeable versions, or create single-purpose devices that can last dozens of years doing one thing the best (like writing or photo editing).

This may sound ridiculous, and it does seem absurd in the context of the computer platform world we’ve been living in, but there are already examples of this in the wild. Right now, I’m sitting in front a synthesizer, the teenage engineering OP-1, a digital device created a decade ago, but designed and built so perfectly that it could have been created yesterday or three decades in the future, and it’s still being sold (at ever higher prices) in exactly the same form as the day it launched in 2011.

Consider the following wild-and-crazy idea: There’s nothing inherent to digital devices that means they have to be garbage in 3-5 years. Nothing. We’ve only accepted that because of how fast things have been moving, which the Apples of the world have taken full advantage of as we all set aside $800-$1,000 for them every 1-3 years (Note: iOS devices are nice enough that they hold good used market prices making them a better value than Android devices, but they’re still on a maximum five-year cycle to worthlessness).

Well, things have stopped moving so fast. At some point I’ll write more about why I think this could be great news for the environment, the economy, and satisfying work.

And the other question:

  1. When will we get the software tools that truly realize and leverage the promise of digital?

This is what I’ll be devoted to working on for a substantial portion of the next several years.

Thanks for indulging me, y’all,


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