Life at Apple revisited….

As an ex-Apple person who was there for a long time, a common question I get is “Would you ever go back?”

And that’s a complicated answer. My normal answer is “If the right situation came up, yes”.

Well, Don Melton and Nitin Ganatra, also veterans of the Apple wars, sat down on the Debug Podcast, opened up bottles of wine, and out poured an episode that talks about what life was like working in the Shadow of Steve on stuff you can’t tell your family about. It’s a fascinating and very accurate look at life being the six color curtains.

It is the best, if not the shortest, answer to why I left Apple.

It is the best, if not the shortest, answer to why I would return to Apple.

I will note however that Apple has never asked me to return, and I’ve rarely gone rattling cages to see if there was anything interesting enough to make me want to try. I think I’ve investigated four positions since I left, and in all four cases, the positions I found interesting enough to call people and make back channel connections with had internal candidates identified from the start.

That for some reason didn’t surprise me, either.

They’re both great guys who came out of Apple with good attitudes about it and fully understand the culture in all its glory, positive and negative. Far too often stories about Apple get written either by people guessing what it’s like, or because some ex-Apple person with an axe to grind talks and wants to accentuate the negative. Reality isn’t that simple, and while Apple is far from perfect, it’s not so different from other high tech companies on the inside, either. If you’re at all curious about life inside the Apple culture, you want to listen to this.

 

 

Posted in Computers and Technology

A first look at the Health app in IOS 8

(9/28, 12PM — edited to add a few notes at the end about some other things the ICE feature needs to do but doesn’t — chuq)

One of the things that intrigued me was the new Health app that came with IOS 8. Even before the events of the last week, I was hoping it would be something worth adopting.

My initial reaction — it’s a good start. It’s still very incomplete. But I think Apple is on the right track.

The first thing I really like: it implements an ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact area on the phone available even if you’ve put in a PIN lock. That was something I called for in IOS 7, and something I argued about when I was at Palm, where the suggestion was routinely ignored. I’m happy to see it here, and I think the implementation is good, and allows for a rational choice of information to display that fits your feeling on the compromises between needed disclosure in an emergency and your privacy the rest of the time.

Everyone should set this up. You do so by firing up the Health app and going into the Medical ID area.

The other thing it does is track information you feed it. I’ve long kept the data I track about myself in a spreadsheet, and I keep hoping to find a better way to manage it. At one point I was seriously looking at writing an App for IOS to do just that, but when I heard IOS 8 was rumored to move into the space, I killed that project (and I’m happy I did).

I’ve got mine set up to track glucose readings, blood pressure, pulse, Steps and Walking/Running distance. It pulls the last two automatically from the phone’s tracker chip, which is nice. I’ve put in some sample data on the others to get a feel for it, but for now, I won’t be using it as a primary data storage.

Why?

The first problem is the app has no way to back up data — I’ve already heard of someone who reset and restored a device and lost the data collected. There’s no way to export the data, there’s no way for me to import my existing data — and I have years of it accumulated. There’s no web version on iCloud so there’s no way I can look at or share the data, and it doesn’t sync the data to the cloud. The app isn’t available on the iPad, either, so the data can’t be views/manipulated there.

In other words, it’s a write-only data hole, and if you have to restore your device or lose it, the data’s gone. So using this “in production” is a non-starter. The app has a feel of a working demo, not a final app. I fully expect these to be fixed in the coming days, so this is a temporary problem, assuming the product manager isn’t a total idiot — and the rest of the app design indicates they aren’t. Some nice thinking went into it, but it’s incomplete.

It tracks a lot of potential data, most of which I haven’t yet started to explore. There’s no food management within the App, but there’s a lot of reporting on the pieces that come from food management being part of the system. Given that this is a huge, complex area with some really good third party apps already in existence, so I expect Apple is going to let them continue to do what they do well, and I can’t wait to see how an app like Lose It! connects in. I think that will really improve the usefulness of both apps when they do.

There are two curiously missing data categories this app doesn’t have:

  • There is no way for a woman to track her period, and there’s no capability for fertility monitoring. Why not? This is an important category for most women who will adopt the app, and for many couples trying to conceive. Was the entire development team male?
  • There is no “notes” section. One thing I do in my spreadsheet is keep notes about various things that happen on specific days, like when I change dosage on a prescription or switch drugs. I can go back three years and see what I was taking and what dosages. there’s no way to do that in this app. I also keep key events documented that give context to the readings at that time, like “Norovirus” or “Visited the Emergency room”.  To me, unless I can annotate notes onto a given day, this app is a lot less useful than it could be.

There are a few UI issues, too.

  • I don’t like the presentation of the data in “Day” mode. It should be compact, perhaps even a list. I should be able to get a reasonable amount of data on one screen without scrolling. They used the same graphs they used in other parts of the app, and they don’t work for me. The day summary should be “at a glance”, not something I have to scroll through to see everything.
  • The step counter isn’t in the notification section? Really? Apple should be showcasing itself here — new app that’s a big focus of IOS8, and a new notification capability that they also pushed in the release, and the two don’t talk to each other? Missed opportunity. Again, the Health app, more than anything else, seems to be incomplete because it had to ship. I can’t see any other rational reason for this to be missing.
  • The medical ID area is pretty basic. Other apps do similar things better, like helping you through drug names, allowing you to include dosages and timing of the dose and other notes. The medical ID area feels like a bare minimum usable for the release, not a finished product.

Before I’ll use this app for more than a pedometer, here’s what I need to see:

  • Syncing data to iCloud, and access to that data via the web
  • Making sure the data is backed up off the device (accomplished by the first item, of course)
  • A good, robust way to import existing data so all my info is in one place
  • A good, robust way to export the data via CSV and/or other forms so I can use it in other ways off device)
  • A way to pull together data and share it via email so I can, for instance, send a report to my doctor.
  • Some way to get my television to stop playing that U2 song every five minutes.

Okay, not the last, but man…

The interface with the food management’s another key piece, but that’s up to the third party apps, and I expect to see good ones show up in the next month or two.

But for now, I’m rating the health app “Great start, but incomplete — check back in six weeks”

I think a year from now this is going to be a huge, usable, important tool on the devices. But now? it’s a glimmer of hope for what it should be, but too much of it isn’t there yet.

Edit 1: 9/28, 12PM:

I realized this morning there were a few other things the ICE capability should do but doesn’t in this release:

  • Some people want to donate organs, but only some organs, not all (for instance, corneas but not internal organs), often on religious beliefs. The ICE app needs a way for those people to specify what organs they’re choosing to donate.
  • The ICE capability needs a general “notes” section where we can write free text for specialty notes that aren’t covered elsewhere.
  • The ICE capability needs to allow me to specific what medical program I’m enrolled in, so if there’s an option I can be transmitted to a program hospital if I’m unable to communicate. Oh, and who my doctor is…
  • The ICE capability needs to allow me to specify if I have a living will and/or a Do Not Resucitate order in effect. And FWIW, I’ve had one almost completed for a few months now (not exactly a fun concept, but necessary) that I’ll be completing and recording with my doctor monday, although he knows that’s my intent.

As big a deal as Apple wants the Health app and it’s interfaces to be, I’m a little — no, moderately — disappointed at how incomplete it is. Not just missing features (like import or export of data) but the pieces they did implement show a rather superficial analysis of how the tools ought to be built and how they’ll be used. I can’t conceive of an ICE app that doesn’t let me document a DNR or medical program, and I can’t believe they shipped a data capture tool that can’t capture a woman’s periods. This is a lot like an app a product manager would spec out in two hours, not a fully built out app. In other words, while I think the health tools and the interfaces they built show great promise, the health app they actually shipped is a pretty piece of demo ware.

I’ll keep a close eye, though, because I expect (hope) it’ll get built out quickly now that they’re past launch. But for now, I can’t recommend it for use beyond the pedometer functions (and I haven’t validated those are accurate yet). right now, it’s presenting promise, not productivity.

 

 

Posted in About Chuq, Computers and Technology, Health and Fitness

Not Dead Yet #2: Social Media and the Always On Lifestyle

From the time the event started until I settled down in the ER bed, exactly what happened and when it happened became a bit of a blur. I was busy trying to figure out if I was about to die, stressed to the gills and frankly scared out of my head. At the same time, I was evidently thinking about what needed to be, since by the time the medics arrived, I’d put on shoes, stuffed my keys and wallet (with medical ID) in one pocket, my phone in another, and I was taking my blood pressure as they entered the room (in case you were wondering, it was 158/94, with a pulse of 115, but my unit is typically metering heavy compared to when I’m checked in the office — I consider that a positive since I still track it as if it were accurate). I wrote that down in Evernote, by the way.

I can guess what my thinking was: if I’m going to the hospital, I’ll need shoes when I leave, keys in case the door is locked, and my wallet for ID when I check in, and I never leave without my phone. Also, I need to let people know what was going on. Note that Laurie is in the room with me and will be picking me up from the hospital if I’m released, so I’m not claiming my thinking was 100% correct, but the intention was there.

As we left, the last thing I did before walking out to the ambulance was grab my iPad, so I’d have the Kindle books with me for the slack times.

Once I got to the hospital and things started to settle down, I checked and I had decent network, so I did what came to mind and took a selfie and posted it to Twitter. Because it amused me. That was about 11PM, or about 100 minutes into the event.

As I was posting it, I realized that without context, that image was likely to cause some freaking, and with that, the live-tweet session started. It needed context so people didn’t. I quickly realized I needed to make sure people understood things were (mostly) under control. Since I’m me, the obvious answer was to steal from Monty Python, and suddenly my motto for the night became “I’m not dead yet”. And once I opened with Monty Python, the live tweet becomes a bit of a standup routine, until I was too tired to actually think up things that I thought were funny.

There were a number of reasons for doing this. First, I could. I was amused to be in an emergency room with network and without burly interns wrestling me for my phone. On a personal level, though, it gave me a distraction and let me try to get my mind off of the situation, which helped me as I worked to get the stress under control.  The response I got back — in real time — also really helped, and thanks to everyone. Mostly, though, what I was doing was sidetracking my brain so it wouldn’t obsess about what we didn’t know about what was going on, and get the stress levels reduced. And it really helped.

Along the way I realized I wasn’t going to make meetings on Thursday (duh), so I sent out some email warning people at work of that. Unfortunately I missed one key meeting, and I woke up to a couple of phone calls and voice mails (I’ve since apologized and I’ll reschedule once I’m back in the office).

So along the way, I worked in multiple references to Monty Python, then tossed out a couple of obscure movie references (Phantom of the Paradise and All that Jazz, the latter being the most in-appropriate movie I could think of for the situation. Gideon!). I started working in some recent memes from twitter, including Pumpkin Spice flavored IVs, iPhone battery life, a snide comment about Apple’s new Health app, and a Siri snark. In other words, a fairly normal conversation with me.

As I got tired, my eyes were too tired to read, my iPad battery was too low to play a movie (I’d swapped to the phone for email and twitter, and the iPhone 6 handled it very nicely, and didn’t bend), so I settled in and shifted to just giving an occasional “Not dead yet” update. I could have slept, maybe, and I think I nodded off once, but in all honesty I wasn’t ready to sleep, because I didn’t want to be asleep if something bad happened. Despite being wired up like a Terminator and networked into the duty desk, I just wanted to be awake. I wound it down when I was released and able to go home.

Thinking back at all this, there are some interesting things worthy of some discussion about our relationship with life in a universe where you’re always connected and online. I’ve lived online for a long time, and in general, I’m comfortable — and most of my social circle is online. It’s natural for me to be interacting with it and I think that’s one reason I seem to be able to do Community Management pretty well.

One thing that’s important to understand is that everything you do online in a social setting has side effects. I realized as I was posting the selfie that if that went out without some context setting it would likely upset people beyond the severity of the situation, so I felt it was important to manage that so people didn’t freak out.  After that, I felt as long as I was online, I might as well have a bit of fun with it.

The response was nice to see, and to everyone who checked in, thank you. It was definitely appreciated and helped. But imagine a scenario where nobody responds. I know I sometimes wonder just how much what I put online is actually read; I also know it’s unrealistic to presume everyone else is going to react to everything I write, because I sure don’t to all of you. Still, at one point I started wondering what my reaction would have been to silence, and I don’t think that would have been fun. Fortunately, didn’t happen.

Think about another scenario: what if somewhere along the way things did go sideways. Or (ahem) really sideways. I presumed a happy ending to the event, and while I think by the time I started this I felt that was where it was going (at the least, “not tonight, not now”), what if I was wrong? At the least I’ve created a confusing situation and some complications for Laurie to deal with. That would have taken a really bad situation for her and made it worse. Not good. Fortunately, I guessed right, and I’m not dead.

For anyone doing social media, I think there are a few lessons to be learned.

  • Everything you do online has a context and side effects. I think it’s important that you help your social circle understand the context and not assume they’ll guess it.
  • We have to remember many social cues in our conversation are lost, and we need to compensate for that loss or risk being misinterpreted. That’s part of the reason for proliferation of emoji and emoticons — for better or worse.
  • Even if it seems simple or fun, it might have deeper connections or cause side effects, so you really do need to think through the possible problems you’re creating for yourself if you do something. Since so much of the online social space is a “shoot from the hip” environment (comment first, think about what you should say later), this can be tough, but it’s important to slow down a bit and engage both brain and fingers. I’m not saying you have to be paranoid, but a bit of “careful” and a bit of “measured” never hurt.
  • If you’re going to take your gear to the emergency room, don’t forget your earbuds. It’s impolite to play your stuff on speaker in that situation.

Overall I think it turned out well (and I’m not dead, which helps). But as I thought it through later, I realized there were some deeper aspects of something like this, and I wanted to discuss them in the context of people using these social tools and especially those of us using them professionally as well as personally. The key thing for me is to always be aware of how the people you’re speaking to will react to what you say, and try to make sure they have enough context to get the message you’re sending. Often, we make assumptions and leave stuff out, and they make assumptions. most of the time, it’s harmless, but  not always.

These social worlds are still new to all of us. We’re still figuring out how to interact and be human on them. One challenge is that sometimes we use them seriously, and sometimes we use them humorously or frivolously, and there’s enough context missing that it’s easy to mistake one for the other. That’s something we all need to stay aware of and help each other bridge that gap between what we can accomplish in person with all of the non-verbal pieces of the discussion, and what we try to do here online.

That, and carry earbuds when you go to the emergency room. It’s only polite for your neighbors.

chuq (was glad I had the shoes, since it started raining. That’s called planning ahead. Or something…)

Posted in About Chuq