What’s so Neue about Helvetica?

So, I was just reading Rani Molla’s post on GigaOM called What’s all the fuss about Apple and Helvetica Neue? and I felt compelled (as I so often do, about so many things) to comment on the issue here.

Contrary to how the GigaOM article seems to frame it, the controversy — the, if you will, fontroversy (I regret it already) — when Apple demoed iOS 7 at WWDC last month was not that they were switching to Helvetica Neue as the iOS 7 system font. It’s that they were switching to Helvetica Neue Ultra Light, a particularly delicate weight of the general Helvetica Neue font family. (I’ve read some things that suggest they’re reversing course on that decision based on developer feedback, but the GigaOM post doesn’t even touch that.)

The fact is, Helvetica Neue has been the iOS system font ever since the introduction of the iPhone 4. When the iPhone was first introduced, it used plain old Helvetica as the system font. But with the introduction of the Retina Display, Apple switched to the slightly more refined Helvetica Neue.

So the concern with iOS 7 is not Helvetica Neue itself — that’s been working out just fine. It’s this extra thin weight of the font, which becomes difficult to read at smaller sizes.

Personally I like Helvetica Neue Ultra Light. I think it continues the trend towards refinement Apple began with the switch to Helvetica Neue itself, and is demonstrated effectively in Cabel Sasser’s animated GIF featured in the GigaOM article. The version using Helvetica Neue Regular feels heavier and clunkier to me. That said, I do understand and appreciate the legibility concerns with Ultra Light at very small sizes.

I’m not sure how this will work itself out. I doubt Apple will switch to a different typeface, though they may increase the weight of the font in the final version of iOS 7. But part of the reason Apple went with Helvetica in the first place is that it’s neutral (at least in principle). It gets out of the way and isn’t distracting. It doesn’t convey any particular personality. It’s a “blank canvas” of a font, which makes it a perfect fit for iOS devices, where the device itself disappears and becomes the app you’re using. Developers don’t have to use the system font in their apps, but a lot of them do, and by keeping the system font as neutral as possible, Apple avoids predisposing apps to a certain personality or style.

This is exactly the opposite of the opinions expressed in the closing of the GigaOM article, and is I think the opposite of Apple’s intentions with the iOS experience. Using a custom font that “reinforces a more distinctive brand voice” would be the equivalent of sticking a big Apple logo on the front of the iPhone. Apple’s branding goes on the back (where it can be an effective marketing tool). It’s never a part of the user experience.

Defense Against the Dark Arts (of iMessage Configuration)

Ever since upgrading to iOS 6, I’ve had a problem. The glorious promise of iMessage with its seamless integration of SMS/MMS and Apple’s messaging services between iPad, iPhone and Mac has mostly worked, with one infuriating, deal-breaking exception.

Texts to my phone number go to my iPad and not to my iPhone.

Look, all of this integrated messaging is cool. Being able to have text messages show up not only on my phone but on my other devices is awesome. But they have to at least show up on my phone or the whole thing is a failure.

I’ve researched the problem and found some people with somewhat similar issues, lots of stuff involving jailbroken iPhones (which mine is not), etc. but no clear answers to my exact problem. Several people in forums suggested shutting off iMessage on the various devices, deleting accounts, full-blown factory restore, you name it. All of which were either things I tried and found didn’t work, or wasn’t willing to try due to the amount of time and tedious work involved.

iMessage SettingsSo I began experimenting. There was one distinct problem I could see in settings. On both iOS devices and my Mac, the Messages app was showing both my phone number and email address. But in some cases one was grayed out. Infuriatingly, on my iPad and Mac, the phone number was grayed out and checked, and on the iPhone the phone number was grayed out and not checked. I could easily add or remove the connection of my email address to any of the devices, but my phone number was stubbornly locked into my iPad only. (Or, well, my iPad and my Mac… I guess. Honestly I hardly ever use Messages on my Mac so I haven’t really paid attention.)

I wish I could give a clear account of what came next, but I started tapping various buttons and clicking various boxes with such a fury that it all became a blur. What I do remember is that I clicked the checkbox next to my email on my Mac, which un-grayed the phone number. I was then able to uncheck the phone number, and the email now became grayed out.

So, if I understand correctly, the way iMessage settings work, at least one receiving phone number/email address must be checked at all times, so if only one is checked, it’s also grayed out so you can’t uncheck it. Then, if you check the other one, you may be able to uncheck the first.

That wasn’t working on my iPhone, however. Strangely though (at least as I recall from the aforementioned blur), when I repeated the process from my Mac on my iPad, then took a look at my phone, it was already switched to having the phone number checked and grayed out.

So then I began running some tests. This is where things get muddy, and since all of this just happened a few minutes ago, I still may not have a complete solution. I tried sending a text to my phone number from SLP’s iPhone. Never got it. Then I tried sending a text to my phone number from my iPad and it went to my phone within seconds. Cool. Then I tried sending a text to my email address from SLP’s iPhone, and it immediately showed up on all three of my devices.

Everything then is working as expected except that I did not get the text from SLP’s iPhone to my phone number at all, on any device. It’s hard to say what that’s all about. Are things working now? I don’t know.

Here’s another weird thing to throw into the mix. SLP and I share an iTunes Store account, but we have separate iCloud accounts. I also have a separate iCloud account apart from the iTunes Store account. The iTunes Store account uses my “real” email address, and I have a separate me.com email address I use on iCloud. So that’s all kind of a big mess, yes I know. Anyway, whenever I made these various changes to my configurations, the iOS devices would pop up alerts regarding the change. These alerts also appeared on SLP’s iPhone, even though her Messages settings don’t have any of my account info associated with them.

The bottom line here, for me, is that Apple really has not dealt with the reality of multiple users on the same device, multiple family members sharing an iTunes Store account but needing their own iCloud accounts, etc. They may be trying to deal with it all, but they’re trying to integrate too many things that had developed for too long as independent products. And they’re not having as much success at it as they think they are.

This post began as many others here do, as an attempt to share my solution to an Apple conundrum. Unfortunately in this case I just can’t quite make sense of what’s happening, and it seems to be one of those dark-clouds-on-the-horizon portents of more trouble to come with Apple’s tendency for its ambitions to exceed its capabilities in the realm of networked services.

I just want it to work. Isn’t that the Apple promise?

Follow up: Just after posting this I had our neighbor — who also has an iPhone but of course does not share our iTunes/iCloud accounts — send a text to my phone number, and I got it. So the problem seems mostly resolved. But let’s leave it at this: if you share your iTunes Store account with another family member and you both have iPhones, you might need to send your text to each other’s email addresses instead of phone numbers, if you’re running into the same problems I’ve been having.

State of browser/OS/device usage on Underdog of Perfection, June 2012

I just had a look at my Google Analytics stats for this site. I made some interesting observations.

First, I saw iOS, iPhone and iPad showing up as separate devices. I wondered if iOS was a composite of both, but I realized Google was actually counting them separately. Looking at the daily stats it was clear that they made this switch on May 29, where before that date iPhone and iPad were being reported, and afterward it was just iOS. I’m not sure why they did that, but I am sure there was a very deliberate reason behind it.

Anyway, uncovering this switch was not relevant to my data observations, so I changed the date range to only encompass dates after the switch, June 1 to 20.

Here’s what I found:

True, I am a Mac user, and have for a long time favored Safari (although I recently switched my default browser to Chrome). But I don’t really spend that much time admiring my own work here on the blog. (Yes… not that much time.) So I don’t think my own activity skews the data here too much.

Do I then think this reflects the Internet as a whole? Absolutely not. I’ve learned over time that most of the people visiting my blog are stumbling upon specific posts based on a Google search, and these are almost always posts that are about diagnosing and fixing particular Mac-related problems. So, Safari’s dominance is logical (especially if Mobile Safari for iOS is lumped in here, which I have to assume is the case).

It’s nice to see Internet Explorer under 10%. And that’s all versions of Internet Explorer. But… what the heck is RockMelt? Yes, I am asking the two of you who use it.

Yes, even despite my blatant and unrepentant Apple bias, Windows still slightly edges out Mac in the stats. Interesting, then, that Safari is the most popular browser, since I suspect there are even fewer Windows Safari users than there are RockMelt users. But of course, we’re back to iOS. If you combine Mac and iOS, the total is well above that for Windows, and explains Safari’s #1 spot on the browser list.

Among mobile operating systems, iOS demonstrates a Windows-in-the-late-’90s level dominance. This despite the fact that Android famously holds greater market share in the US. Yes, my content will naturally skew my stats Apple-ward, but this data also, I think, reinforces the idea that iOS users actually use the web a lot more than Android users do.

BlackBerry and Nokia… how cute. Where’s Windows Phone?

And finally, we have mobile screen resolution. Now that Google doesn’t separate iPhone and iPad anymore, this is pretty much the way to distinguish between them in the stats. These resolutions are not the actual resolution of the screens but the pixel-doubled effective resolution used in the web browsers on Retina Display devices. 320×480 is the iPhone (even though the iPhone 4 and 4S have 640×960 screens), and 768×1024 is the iPad (even though the new iPad has a 1536×2048 display).

0x0? Really?

What I think is most significant here though is not the iPhone/iPad split at all, interesting as it is. It’s the fact that once you get past those, there’s no standard whatsoever on Android. That’s something to remember for those of us working on Responsive Web Design.

A childhood fantasy (almost) realized: 100 Atari games in my pocket

Owners of 1980s technology intellectual property are in an unenviable position. Their IP has very little value beyond historical significance or nostalgia. No one (well, I hope no one) is going to use an Apple IIe computer for serious productivity work these days, but that doesn’t diminish its importance in computing history, nor the strong positive memories its once loyal users may still hold onto.

There are few properties from the ’80s whose value is more purely historical and nostalgic than those bearing the brand of Atari. Sure, there’s still a company today named Atari, and it still makes modern video games for modern consoles, but this Atari shares only its name with the hallowed institution founded in Sunnyvale, California in 1972. The name and all of the properties that go with it have been sold and re-sold and re-re-sold so many times over the intervening years that any minute connection to the past, beyond the games themselves, has been lost.

So, what is a modern company that owns all of this (relatively speaking) useless IP to do? Trying to cash in on it is obvious, but doing it right is a huge challenge. The biggest hurdle is the very historical significance and nostalgia that give these games any lingering value in the first place. The only people who are really going to want to play Combat or Yars’ Revenge or — ah-hem — Math Gran Prix on an iPhone are people who either owned (and played the hell out of) these games as kids 30 years ago, or their kids, who harbor a morbid curiosity about this old crap their parents like for some reason. In order to satisfy these customers, the company that now calls itself Atari needs to achieve perfection in recreating the experience people remember. Not just the graphics and the sounds and the program mechanics of the games, but the feel… the essence of what it meant to play video games in the days when Ronald Reagan was president, pastels were popular in men’s fashion, and MTV still showed music videos.

Yesterday Atari released Atari’s Greatest Hits as a universal app for iOS devices. (To the non-nerd[s] in my audience: that means the same app works on iPhone/iPod touch and iPad.) The game comes free with arcade Pong, and 99 other classic (and not-so-classic, but… well… old) Atari games, both from the arcades and for the Atari 2600 VCS, available as in-app purchases. The games are sold in packs of four for 99 cents, or the entire set can be downloaded for $14.99. Let’s be serious: anyone who cares about this at all should just get it over with and download the works, immediately.

So did Atari live up to my unrealistic expectations? Read on after the screenshot gallery to find out.

First impressions

It’s clear from the moment you load Atari’s Greatest Hits on your iPhone or iPad that a great deal of attention and care went into putting this package together. And yet, it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. The graphic design of the menu interface bears plenty of superficial nods to the vintage Atari experience: plenty of use of Bauhaus font (the font Atari used with the original 7 cartridges released with the Atari VCS in 1977), lots of browns and oranges, and of course the carousel navigation that uses the original cabinet and/or game box art to help you select a game to play. But despite fonts and colors, this doesn’t look ’80s, and it certainly doesn’t sound ’80s. The entire time you’re on the menu, loud 21st century techno music booms from your speaker. To be fair, I like this kind of music, and the music they chose is decent. But it’s a distracting anachronism.

I compare this to the Williams Pinball Collection that came out a few years ago on the modern consoles. Its interface looks like an arcade, with the pinball tables lined up along the wall, and over the din of a dozen pinball machines blasts licensed ’80s popular music. (The song that stands out for me is the quite-possibly-perfect Loverboy hit “Workin’ for the Weekend.”) This is what I would have liked (if not downright expected) in a properly executed Atari collection.

Lamentations about “what could have been” aside, it is truly great to see the original game box art and arcade cabinets on the menu, and the menu itself is intuitive and fun to navigate. And it’s great that each game also includes a full high-resolution scan of the original instruction manual, which also explains why a collection of 100 games, most of which were only about 4 KB each on the original cartridges, could add up to a 68 MB download on iOS.

The sound and the fury

There was almost no question for me which game I would try first: Yars’ Revenge. I logged hundreds of hours (sometimes in a single game, it seemed) playing this game in the ’80s, long past the date when I should have moved on to the NES or PC games. Any true Atari retro experience needs to deliver a perfect rendition of Yars’ Revenge for me to consider it a success.

I started the game, picked my favorite game variation (Game 6), and then… WHAAAAA!!! Playing the game on my iPad, I was assaulted by hideous distorted grinding noises. I tried a few other games and confirmed that all of the 2600 games had horribly distorted sound. (It also didn’t help that Yars’ Revenge gets most of its intensity from a constant droning buzz, making this quite possibly the worst game I could begin this experience with.)

Fortunately, later in the evening I loaded the game onto my iPhone 3GS, and found absolutely no sound issues with the 2600 games, even Yars’ Revenge. So I’m not sure if this is a general issue with the game on the iPad, or if it was an isolated problem that could have been resolved with a reboot. I’ll follow up on that when I know more.

Playing the game

With my worries about sound allayed, I was able to focus my attention on the quality of the game experience. All of the games are presented in a relatively small area of the screen, with ample space above and below devoted to on-screen controls. There have been some complaints in App Store reviews about the games not using the full display, but I think those complaints are misguided. These Atari games in their original form were so low-res that even when shrunk down to a little less than half the size of an iPhone screen, they’re still easily viewable. Plus, displaying the games in full-screen mode would mean you’d need to obscure part of the display with your fingers in order to control the game. Unacceptable.

The developers and designers who worked on this collection put considerable thought into translating the original game controls to on-screen counterparts that do not necessarily mimic the original feel, but that usually (but not always) contribute to a satisfying game experience.

A good pair of games to consider in reviewing the merits of these control systems are the arcade versions of Asteroids and Tempest. Both games translate quite well to the iOS experience. They look fantastic (all of the vector games, in particular, come through well here), and are just as fun to play as ever. With Tempest, the original control mechanism was a flywheel-like spinner. That is replaced with a thumbwheel that reminds me of the volume controls on old transistor radios. It’s way different from the original control, but it feels surprisingly natural and it’s very easy to adapt to this type of play.

Asteroids, on the other hand, does not benefit from this new alternate control mechanism, at least for the way I like to play the game. (I should probably note that I own an actual Asteroids cocktail table, so I’m very accustomed to the arcade controls.) The default control mechanism is a combination rotate/thrust “disc,” not unlike the disc controller on an old Intellivision. (Intellivision controls on an Atari game? Blasphemy!) Some people may prefer this, but I found it absolutely unusable, mainly because of my preferred Asteroids playing style: I don’t thrust all over the screen. I stay in one spot and just rotate, and I move around only when absolutely necessary. The disc control makes it nearly impossible, for me at least, to rotate without thrusting. Luckily, Asteroids (and apparently most of the arcade games, though I haven’t tried them all yet) offers multiple control schemes, including the original arcade-style five-button configuration. This worked well for me on the iPad, but I didn’t try it yet on the iPhone, and I imagine size could be an issue there, not to mention just holding the iPhone while fiddling with five on-screen buttons at the bottom of the display.

A few other miscellaneous game notes:

No licensed games. This was a no-brainer for me, but apparently (based on reviews on the App Store) it’s confusing to some users. This collection only consists of games Atari owns the rights to. That means games that were licensed for the original Atari 2600 won’t show up here, not even if Atari developed those games. You won’t find arcade classics like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Defender or Berzerk, and you won’t find licensed movie properties like Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark or E.T. And you definitely won’t find games that were originally released by other game companies like Activision, Imagic or Parker Brothers. Although… one wonders. Atari licensed Pitfall! and River Raid from Activision for inclusion on the plug-and-play Atari Flashback 2 console a few years back. Maybe a similar license could be in the works. It wouldn’t be difficult for Atari to offer additional in-app purchases of more games in the future.

I think the funniest instance of licensing issues popping up here though is the matter of Pong Sports. Back in the ’80s Atari manufactured the 2600 and a number of its games under special branding for sale at Sears stores, and there were three Sears exclusive titles (Steeplechase, Submarine Commander and Stellar Track), all of which are included here. And then there’s Pong Sports. Atari released this game as Video Olympics, and sold it as Pong Sports in Sears stores. But here it’s called Pong Sports, presumably because they couldn’t get the rights to use the word “Olympics” this time around.

Unreleased and homebrew games. If you’re not a hardcore Atari fanatic, you probably don’t realize that in recent years a number of unreleased prototype games have come to light as downloadable ROMs to play in computer-based Atari 2600 emulation software. And a rabid homebrew community has developed as well, creating brand new games for the system. This collection includes a few of these prototype and homebrew games, such as the Atari 2600 version of Tempest and an unreleased game called Save Mary. I find it funny that Atari had to, of course, come up with box art for these games for the menu interface, and they went with some really low-quality homemade art for most of them. But Save Mary is the weirdest… it uses the cover art that originally went with the Atari 2600 BASIC Programming cartridge.

It’s also funny… and probably an intentional joke… that for these games, the manual scans that are displayed are not for the games (since they don’t have instruction manuals) but for the Atari 2600 console itself. Somewhat of an Easter egg, I think.

God (or is it the devil?) is in the details

Atari got a lot of things right with this collection, but there is definitely room for improvement. Here are a few things that come to mind, some of which I’ve already mentioned.

License some great ’80s music for the menu. The aforementioned Loverboy hit would certainly be great, but really just about any music that was in heavy rotation on MTV circa 1983 would work. Personally I’d love to hear plenty of Duran Duran and Men at Work.

Alternate control schemes for the 2600 titles. Here’s the one thing that I think would make the biggest difference in creating an authentic Atari 2600 experience: position the on-screen controls to better mimic the feeling of holding an old CX-40 joystick. The space is already there; they’d just need to rearrange the controls. Move the fire button to the upper left where the pause button is; move the d-pad to the lower right where the fire button is; and move the pause button to the lower right where the d-pad is. Holding a square-ish device in the left hand and pressing a button with one’s left thumb while using one’s right hand to control movement is the natural way of the Atari 2600 experience. Ideally the d-pad would be tweaked a bit as well… it’s a little too restrictive feeling. A lot of iOS games with a virtual d-pad allow you to place your thumb anywhere in a general region of the screen and that instantly becomes the “zero” position of the d-pad. I suspect (or at least hope) that, given the nature of iOS apps, Atari will continue to refine the controls in future updates.

Better “cabinet art.” I have to be honest… I can live with the graphic design of the main menus, but the graphics framing the game itself while in play are downright ugly. Better to have it look like an actual vintage TV set like VH1’s (yes, VH1’s) Intellivision collection for iOS. And I’d prefer that the on-screen buttons look exactly like the real buttons on the arcade cabinets and console controllers, without the unnecessary added visual junk. It also seems like they phoned in the design of the on-screen slider for the paddle-based games. (Why doesn’t it at least look like the control they developed for Tempest?)

Final thoughts

I could nitpick details only an OCD Atari junkie will notice, much less care about, but in the end there’s only one thing I can say about this collection. Back in the early days of the App Store, Atari released a few of its classic arcade games as standalone apps, each consisting of both the original and a new version with modernized graphics and sound: Centipede, Super Breakout, Missile Command. Then they disappeared, and were gone for ages. A month or two ago, they reappeared, but with only the modernized portions. For ages I’ve been speculating that Atari had a massive collection app in the works, and finally yesterday it arrived. I was absolutely giddy. And while it will probably never fully live up to my expectations, it’s damn close. I’ve dreamed ever since I first got my Atari 2600 console in 1982, when I was 8 years old, that one day I’d be able to carry the experience around in my pocket. And now I can… almost. It’s not perfect, and it couldn’t be. But I’ll take it anyway.

What would you have needed to carry with you in 1986 to match the utility of an iPhone today?

I’ve always been into electronic gadgets. I’ve also always been into carrying a bunch of crap that I “need” (or perceive that I need) around with me. My dream since I was a kid was always to be able to carry “everything” with me at once, in a convenient way.

It’s hard to get more convenient than a thin piece of glass, metal and plastic that fits easily into a jeans pocket. That’s the iPhone, and that’s today. My iPhone is almost unquestionably my most prized possession. Probably not just now, but of all time. It seems like it can do almost everything, which got me thinking.

25 years ago, I was a 12-year-old burgeoning tech nerd. I loved the Atari 2600 (yes, still) and was just a year away from getting my first computer. I had hundreds of cassette tapes and was already on my third or fourth Walkman. If you’d given me something like an iPhone back then, I probably would have died of ecstasy on the spot. But what 1980s stuff would I have had to lug around in my satchel back then to (roughly) approximate the functional capabilities I now (almost) take for granted in this one little device? I decided to compile a list.

1986 device: Sony Walkman portable cassette radio

In the mid-’80s, the Sony Walkman was the symbol of portable technology. As CDs overtook the popularity of cassettes in the ’90s, and Sony finally figured out how to make a portable CD player that didn’t skip if you so much as breathed on it, the Walkman was gradually replaced by the Discman.

And then along came the iPod, which itself has, ten years later, essentially become an iPhone minus the phone.

2011 app: iPod

1986 device: Microcassette recorder

As cool as the Walkman was, you couldn’t actually record with it (at least with most models). You could always lug a full-sized cassette recorder around, but if you were going for the latest and greatest in portability, that would be a microcassette recorder. Microcassettes never could match the audio fidelity of their full-sized siblings though, and were eventually replaced by digital devices that stored audio on a small hard disk and later on flash ROM. But why bother with one of those today?

2011 app: Voice Memo

1986 device: Nintendo Game & Watch LCD handheld

When I went into writing this post, I really hoped to at least give 1986 the original Game Boy, but my research says it wasn’t actually released until 1989. I never had one, so I didn’t remember. Yes, it’s true… if you wanted a handheld video game device in 1986, the best you could do was one of Nintendo’s single-game “Game & Watch” devices. As rudimentary as they seem today, their design was a clear inspiration for Nintendo’s current line of DS portable game devices.

I’ve owned two Game Boy Advance systems and three DSes over the past decade, but these days my DSi gathers dust in a cabinet while I carry over 50 video games in my pocket everywhere I go… thanks to my iPhone. iPhone gaming is still young, and in many ways the control schemes have yet to be perfected, but considering the significant price difference ($10 or less for almost all iOS games, vs. $30 or so for most DS games), the lack of a need for physical media, and the iPhone’s superior technical specs, it’s hard to see much of a future for the DS. (We’ll see what impact the soon-to-be-released 3DS has.)

2011 app: Angry Birds… or any of the 100,000 or so other iOS games

1986 device: Casio calculator watch

Calculator watches were so cool (at least, if you weren’t) in the ’80s, it’s hard to believe they would ever fade into laughable irrelevance. They were pretty impressive technology for the time though, and were irresistibly futuristic. It’s no wonder Marty McFly conspicuously sported one on his journey back to 1955… it bolstered his “future boy” cred in a way no nylon vest ever could.

2011 apps: Clock and Calculator

1986 device: Portable alarm clock

If you were too cool for a nerdy calculator watch back in the ’80s, your only option when traveling was to purchase a dedicated travel alarm clock. Some of these were pretty well-designed, but such a single-purpose device is anathema today. Besides, I’m sure the sight of one of these in a carry-on would raise a TSA eyebrow or two.

2011 app: Alarm Clock

1986 device: Pocket calendar/datebook

Pocket calendars have come in countless variations for almost as long as printing has existed, some more useful than others. Wallet card calendars like the one shown here are about as useless as they get, but that didn’t stop me from having at least one of them in my wallet at all times as a 12-year-old… especially since I didn’t have any money to put in it.

Now, not only does the iPhone’s calendar provide all of the capabilities of even the most overstuffed datebook, it can update automatically and even beep to remind you that you’re running late for that important business meeting.

2011 apps: Calendar and Contacts

1986 device: Pocket compass

I admit, I’ve never really had much use for a compass. I don’t spend a lot of time out in the wilderness, and I think a compass would only confuse my natural sense of direction in the city. But I recognize the importance of these devices, and thanks to the iPhone’s various internal sensors, all of the capabilities of a real magnetic compass can now live in software.

2011 app: Compass

1986 device: Mead memo book

Ah, the trusty Mead memo book. My dad wrote a thousand grocery lists in these while I was growing up, and the little bits of paper that tore off the spiral binding over repeated openings and closings were everywhere. These days there are more sophisticated alternatives if you still like to put pen to paper and then stuff it all in your pocket, but I prefer not to have to try to decipher my own handwriting.

2011 app: Notes

1986 device: Minolta Talker point-and-shoot 35mm camera

Sure, there were plenty of pocketable point-and-shoot cameras back in the ’80s, and of course the venerable Polaroid instant camera was still going strong. But no camera — truly, no device of any kind — epitomizes pointless ’80s novelty technology better than the Minolta Talker. I wasn’t able to verify that the Talker existed in 1986 — I think more likely it dates to 1987 or 1988 — but we had one, and I’ll never forget such helpful photographic advice as “Load film” or the classic “Too dark… use flash.”

Even at that credulous age, I wondered, if it can tell you need the flash, why can’t it just turn the flash on automatically?

2011 apps: Camera, Hipstamatic, Instagram, etc.

1986 device: JVC camcorder

Ah yes, the JVC VideoMovie. That distinctive red and black camcorder, immortalized by my hero Marty McFly. We owned one of these. It was the stuff of legend. It also, despite its considerable size, used the bizarre VHS-C format tapes. These were about 1/3 the physical size of a regular VHS cassette, but the tape itself was the same width and was compatible with regular VHS VCRs… with the help of a VHS tape-sized adapter that the VHS-C tapes would snap into. Unfortunately, since the cassettes were so small, they only had enough room to hold 20 minutes’ worth of tape. I hope Doc packed a couple of cases of blanks along with his plutonium.

(And, yes, Ć¼bergeeks, I know Doc forgot to pack the plutonium. What, you think you’re the only ones who’ve watched the movie 500 times?)

2011 app: Camera

1986 device: Motorola DynaTAC mobile phone

When you look at early cell phones, it’s a wonder the devices ever caught on. Of course, they didn’t really catch on when they were the size of a small refrigerator and emitted enough radiation to make your head glow in the dark. But the fact is, you could own a cell phone back in 1986 and, well, that’s saying a lot right there, isn’t it?

OK… I really can’t come up with anything to justify the existence of this monstrosity. Incidentally, the guy in the picture is Martin Cooper, inventor of the modern cell phone. Depending on your definition of “modern.” Note his seeming reluctance to get it too close to his head.

2011 app: Phone

1986 device: Rand McNally pocket road atlas

I recently watched the classic 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, and was amused by the GPS-like device Bond had in his car. (GPS was just becoming available to civilians in the ’80s, and it looked like this.) As far as I know, not even Her Majesty’s Secret Service had anything approaching this kind of technology in the ’60s. In many ways it seemed as futuristic (or more so) as some of the stuff that would appear on Star Trek a couple years later. And yet, it’s now something that is not only common in a lot of ordinary cars, but we even carry it in our pockets.

Back in the ’80s, though, the only way to carry road maps in your pocket was with a little book like this, which was only useful if you were willing to limit yourself to freeways and a lot of guessing.

2011 app: Maps

1986 device: Newspapers, magazines, books

No industry is reeling from the iPhone (and the iPad) the way publishing is. Newspapers, magazines, books… publishers of all kinds are trying to discover viable business models in the world of paperless publishing. (And here I thought we’d already worked all of this stuff out with the web over the past 15 years.)

One thing is certain, though: however you like to get your news, information and entertainment, with an iPhone it’s already in your pocket.

2011 apps: Reeder, Instapaper, newspaper/magazine apps, iBooks, Kindle, etc.

1986 device: Citizen portable LCD TV with 2-inch B&W screen

Yes… a portable LCD TV in the mid-’80s. Don’t believe it? I had one of these, exactly as shown. It had a 2-inch black-and-white screen. And, strangely, the screen was in the top of that flip-up lid. The bottom part had a mirror, which was what you looked at to view your program. Why? Well… backlight technology was feeble and battery-sucking. The lid was translucent, and if you were in a bright enough environment, the ambient light would shine through, illuminating the screen. There was also a bulky snap-on backlight attachment for use in dimmer surroundings, but if this was in one of your pockets, the rest of them better be filled with AAA batteries or you wouldn’t be watching much.

True, TV tuner technology doesn’t exist in the iPhone. But what the iPhone has is better… with iTunes, Netflix, PBS and more, you’ve got on demand TV… in full color, backlit, no snap-ons or AAA batteries required.

2011 apps: iPod, Netflix, PBS, etc.

1986 device: Flashlight

OK, OK. This flashlight is from the 1960s. But my grandparents had one exactly like this when I was a kid in the ’80s. The big black thing on the side had magnets in it, allowing it to stick to the side of the refrigerator, which is where they always kept it.

If you don’t have an iPhone 4 (which I don’t, but which has an LED flash for the camera), the only source of light is the screen itself. Pretty dim for a flashlight, but it works in a pinch. There are flashlight apps out there, but unless it’s one that powers on the camera LED, I think just turning the thing on so the screen lights up is as good as any of the dedicated apps.

2011 app: Any one of the countless flashlight apps

1986 device: TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer

It’s a bit of a stretch to call the iPhone a portable computer, at least when compared to modern portable computers. But considering the capabilities (and perhaps I’m using that term ironically) of the portable computers that existed in 1986, the iPhone is like having a Cray supercomputer in your pocket. A 3.5-inch touchscreen is never going to replace a full-fledged computer for serious work, but still, if you really have to, you can get some work done. I’ve managed to do some emergency sysadmin work from my iPhone sitting in a gas station parking lot while traveling.

2011 apps: Documents To Go, AirSharing, iSSH, etc.

All of this just barely scratches the surface, of course. But I think it demonstrates the huge impact the iPhone has had on me as a manifestation of all of my childhood fantasies about futuristic technology. You can keep your flying cars. Just let me keep my iPhone.

Image sources:
Marty McFly with JVC VideoMovie camcorder and calculator watch
Sony Walkman portable cassette player
Aiwa microcassette recorder
Nintendo Game & Watch handheld LCD video game
Casio calculator watch
Braun travel alarm clock
Coca-Cola pocket calendar
Pocket compass
Mead memo book
Minolta Talker camera
JVC VideoMovie camcorder
Cell phone inventor Martin Cooper with a Motorola DynaTAC
Rand McNally Pocket Road Atlas
Time magazine cover featuring Space Shuttle Challenger explosion
Citizen portable LCD TV
Rayovac 1960s flashlight
TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer
1980s GPS equipment

Addendum, April 2, 2011: If you’re hoping to truly recreate that 1986 experience on your iPhone, check out this Game and Watch-inspired iOS game, Monkey Labour!