September 28, 2008
Or, I Test-Drove a Tesla and All I Got Was These Lousy Adrenaline ShakesShort version:
I've had insomnia since I was a wee lad, and at night I often calm my brain by thinking up idealized objects. Optimal house cooling, unpowered water purification, the ultimate graphics card, the coolest car ever
. It's a good exercise, I think: if you don't have an idea of what you'd like something to become, you won't ever get it there.
Some of these crazy dreams have come true, which is particularly disturbing. When I was 10 or so I thought up a crazy idea for fonts that would be described by curves, and rendered in real-time by the graphics card at the best possible resolution, instead of having hand-tuned bitmaps. Of course, I was 10, so I had no idea what the math would be, I just figured, THIS would be the coolest, ultimate form of fonts. A few years later PostScript was in printers, and a few years after that Display PostScript hit the desktop, then TrueType, and now nobody even remembers bitmap-only fonts.
Also as a kid I'd try to think up the ultimate car... What if you had no gearbox - you just had one gear and an electric motor that could spin as fast as you wanted directly driving the wheels, so the mapping between the accelerator pedal and your speed would be practically linear — the way kids imagine all
cars work until they actually learn to drive and have to figure out gears and clutches and all that.
But, wait, this ideal car would have so much power, you'd end up jump off the road if you accidentally used the slightest bit too much pressure on the accelerator. Oh, I know, the car would have a computer controlling the wheels, and it'd detect when you started to slip and automatically compensate. But, hold on again, isn't the fun in driving being able to burn out and spin around and stuff? Maybe we need the ability to disable the computer, sometimes.
And, now, again: Tesla
. Here it is; the crazy dream-car that a kid might design in his naivety of how the world really works, except some engineers didn't get the memo on what's possible, and went ahead and built it.
It's crazy-fast. It handles like a jet fighter. It gets the equivalent of about 140 mpg. It has no gears. It requires almost no maintenance.e It's gorgeous. It's whisper-quiet. And, in Seattle, runs off hydro power.
So, yes, I test-drove a Tesla today, for five laps on a closed course in the parking lot of a defunct K-mart. Then I took my supercharged Lotus Elise around the same course. (The Tesla I drove was an engineering prototype but is said to be very close to the one I'll get next year.)
I expected the Tesla to have more power than the Elise (based on the Tesla's 0-60 of about 4 seconds, as opposed to the supercharged Elise's estimated 4.5-7-ish), and it didn't disappoint.
The first part of the course was a straight, wide-open acceleration towards two tiny cones, which were where you were supposed to brake "as hard as you can" so you didn't end up flying out of the lot and into the street. It turns out they were conservative on this by a bit; by my fifth lap I'd found the Tesla could brake down enough to make the turn in about half the space they'd given me. The car was nimble.
And, compared to the Lotus, the Tesla seemed faster to the cones; at first not by a huge amount, but the huge difference came when the Lotus hit the top of its first gear it started stuttering from the electronic limiter, and I had get out of gear and shift. The Tesla just kept accelerating the whole time, so by the time it hit the cones it was going WAY faster.
Remember: this car is NOT an automatic: there are no damn gears. It's not shifting for you; there's no annoying pauses where the car decides what gear you might want, right in the middle of your burn. The engine is basically hooked up directly to the damn wheels. It's amazing. It has that responsive feeling of when you are driving a normal car in first gear, except it has that no matter how fast you are going.
Taking the 'S' cones in the Tesla, on the second or third lap I was finally able to get the tires to chirp if I turned at the highest speed I could get out of the turn. But the car never slid out of control, even a little bit. The nose was always pointed where I wanted, and the back tires were always ready to accelerate.
This was a huge advantage of the Tesla; I'm not a race-car driver, and I admit that it's pretty hard for me to take a sharp turn at high speed AND be shifting in the Elise. Hell, it's enough hard to hold the damn steering wheel with two
hands at that speed. In the Tesla, at any point during a turn I could tap the accelerator and I was (a) guaranteed to be in gear, and (b) guaranteed to be in the RIGHT gear. Because, you know... there's only one gear, and it was "fast" gear.
Call me a wuss if you like, but I found it a lot more fun to be concentrating on just pointing the wheel and calculating the amount of slide, and NOT trying to shift and steer and clutch all at once. I'm just not that good.
The big surprise from the Tesla was when I took my Elise through the same course. The Elise is several hundred pounds lighter and has stickier tires on the front and the same on the rear. And the Elise slid around the cones out-of-control.
I'd take a cone at high speed and the Elise would start jump-skipping its tires sideways, and steering and acceleration were offline until it'd stop. I'd lose momentum and end up kind of off-course.
I don't really have a good explanation for why the Elise handled worse for me than the heavier Tesla. Maybe having precise control of the accelerator throughout turns enabled me to keep the tires spinning in the road-wise direction? Maybe the Tesla's slightly longer wheelbase or different weight distribution made a big difference? Maybe the traction control on the Tesla is really that good? I don't know.
I do know that, going around the cones as fast as I could, the Elise lost control sliding sideways for a little bit on both laps, where the Tesla merely chirped her tires and drove on.
Normally, features like "traction control" or "no shifting" put me off of a car, because they essentially translate to "low-performance-idiot-mode." You turn them on and you feel like the car is driving and you're a passenger. I've hated 'em in Ferraris and Mercedes SLs.
With the Tesla, these features are put in to allow you to drive harder
and still feel completely in command. *I* am driving. I feel the road. I feel the wheels.
The only drawbacks I found were: the Tesla seemed a little slow immediately off the line - full-throttle starts have a slight pause, and THEN you are pressed back against your seat. I guess this is the price you pay for the One Gear also allowing you to go 100 mph (or so). The other drawback is that, yah, the Tesla really doesn't want to maintain a speed above 100 mph for very long. It just isn't designed for that.
Sure, I don't drive about 100 very often
, but, you know — sometimes it's nice. Not a deal-breaker, though.
In Seattle, I've been told a law just got passed where we pay no sales tax on very efficient vehicles, so I avoid the ~9% extra charge. Also, it looks as though the president will sign into law a bill that gives a $7,500 tax credit
(NOT a deduction, but a full CREDIT), to people that buy a car with a battery at least as big as the one in the upcoming Chevy Volt, and the Tesla happens to qualify as well.
This doesn't make the Tesla exactly cheap, but it's sure nice to save $16,000.
The Tesla people were uniformly cool and real
and fun. During the open house there wasn't a single question they dodged. They offered up problems they'd found, troubles they'd had getting into production, issues that loom on the horizon.
They test-drove the car themselves because they still all love it so much. One guy turned off traction control (we were not allowed to) and demonstrated how much power the car really has — it was, frankly, daunting, and he got waved down after two laps because the guy in charge thought he was going to power-slide into the defunct K-mart. (A very real possibility.)
My friend commented as we left how nice the Tesla executives were. I am excited about this company, again. Excited to be little tiny part of a team that is so committed to changing the world AND having fun. Excited to have a dealer that is a "company store," where the salespeople aren't on commission, and really want
to help you love their product.
I like to spend my money with companies whose philosophies align with mine: in my life I've only made one purchase at Wal*mart, I don't eat Domino's pizza, I have vegetables delivered from small organic local farms, etc, etc, blah blah blah. My point is, I am *happy* to give these guys my money.
I am happy to have a chance to say, with my dollars, "You guys are doing the right things, and I support you."
For sale: Ardent Red 2005 Lotus Elise, with aftermarket supercharger. One driver, excellent condition.
Labels: random ideas
September 22, 2008
Call me a proponent of free markets, but I think Apple needs to have a clearly-documented policy for approving submissions to the iPhone App Store, and it should be:
all software submitted to Apple, as long as the software isn't actively harmful to users, illegal, and does not violate Apple's agreements with cell phone vendors.
The iPhone app store is, at heart, incredible. Every software developer's dream store looks a lot like this:
- 100% of the devices that can run my software have a link directly to this store.
- And only this store.
- And the user can't remove the link to this store from the device.
- There's no other way to buy software, so users are never confused as to whether they should go to some website or physical store or the online store to find software for their devices.
- Users never wonder if there's some other, better software out there - if it's not on the store, it doesn't exist.
- Users can buy with a click.
- Software is instantly installed and enabled for users.
- "Good enough" copy-protection is handled invisibly for all developers.
- Apple hosts the software makes the pretty, professional website.
- Credit card transactions are handled automatically.
- Apple's percentage is MUCH lower than traditional distribution.
- The store actually pays out the money it owes you, unlike the vast majority of physical distributors.
- There's already a market of something around ten million users for iPhone apps.
- The market is increasing by the day.
That's a LOT of plusses. A LOT. And it's working. Developers are reporting making thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars every MONTH and the store is only a couple months old.
Some of this is likely because of the novelty of the device and the store itself — there's a mini-gold rush effect happening, and already I suspect that if you weren't one of the guys to get rich selling a flashlight app or sudoku, well, you probably shouldn't start writing one now.
So, yay Apple, and yay developers who are rolling in fat, filthy lucre. (I'm not bitter that I didn't get in on that first round. No, no.)
As with any pioneering effort that succeeds (c.f. Twitter's constant whale-fails when it took off), Apple is encountering problems it never anticipated, and having to make up solutions on-the-fly.
Which is fine, and good, except, well... maybe we developers need to give Apple a loving nudge, so the problems are solved in a conscious way that helps everyone, instead of being solved ad-hoc and turning into policies which punish us all.
--Problem: Most Software is Crap
There's a LOT of crap out there for the iPhone. A LOT. And a bunch of neat apps. How does the the user tell them apart? Should Apple's model be like Nintendo, where Apple only allows software through that meets their rigorous standards for being fun and cool and stable? It sounds nice, except (a) it requires a ton of effort on Apple's part, and Apple's success or failure is determined entirely by the tastes of the people doing the vetting, and (b) it stifles innovation. (Look at the number of titles available for the Nintendo Wii, which has been out for years, vs. the number for the iPhone, whose SDK has been available for months.)
The other problem with Apple vetting apps for quality is that Apple gets blamed if crappy apps slip through the process. Once you appoint yourself censor, you've taken responsibility. If an App Store app crashes, it'll be blamed on Apple. If an App Store app has a bug, it'll be blamed on Apple. If an... well, you see where I'm going.
Recently Apple decided to go ice-skating on the slippery slope of censorship by removing the "I am Rich" application from its store. Briefly: some prankster priced an app at $999 that did nothing but show some text and a picture, congratulating the purchaser for being rich and stupid. Apple pulled the app after a few days, citing "not enough functionality" or some such.
Now, this application did point real problems in the system
, but not in the app
. The problems are in the App Store, and they are: it's not really clear how to get refunds, and it's a little TOO easy to click on something that says "$999" without realizing that, seriously, this is a grand you're blowing.
Let's solve the real
problems so that we don't need
to censor apps, and so that developers don't need to guess if their apps are "functional" enough to pass muster with whichever App Store censor they happen to get:
• Apple needs to have a clearly posted refund policy that applies across-the-board. They may already have a policy, but, honestly, I've bought 15 or so apps and I've never seen it, and I'm going to say that if users don't see the policy, you might as well not have it.
I'd suggest something like, "You can get a full refund any time in the first two weeks of ownership of any app." This would solve many problems: if the app turns out to be buggy, or have limited functionality, or insult your mom, or whatever... well, it's not Apple's problem any more. They refund your money and everyone's happy.
• For apps over some threshold ($30? $100?), Apple needs to add a click to the purchase process. Something like, "Note: this is A HUNDRED REAL LIVE SMACKERS, here, so MAKE SURE you really want this, OK?"
After that first rejection, there have been two more reports of rejections. I can't verify them myself, of course, but I also have no reason to doubt the reports. One of these applications had 'podcasting' as part of its functionality, and one had fetching mail from Google as part of its functionality.
Both were censored because of a new criterion Apple has invented, which is "duplicates existing functionality." Let me make my position on this perfectly clear: it in unethical and antithetical to the whole IDEA of an App Store for Apple to be censoring applications based on criteria they have never
given to developers, and only told developers after
the developers put in all the work of writing an app.
Even TV network censors produce a "standards and practices" document, so writers can tell if they are pushing the envelope. Apple's censors have acted capriciously and against the interests of all of its developers, its customers, and itself.
This situation is worsened because it's obvious that Apple is only worried about applications duplicating the functionality of Apple
's iPhone applications — there are twenty "sudoku" apps and a dozen "flashlights" and a bunch of pokers and, heck, there's more than one racing game.
But it was only when a developer added functionality that Apple considered sacrosanct to Apple itself
that she was censored. Apple wasn't worried about customer confusion, Apple was worried about getting some competition.
I have to be clear: it simply will not stand for Apple to prevent applications on the iPhone from competing with Apple's own applications. Besides chasing away all decent developers, besides hurting their customers by stifling competition and innovation, besides it simply being evil, it will, shortly, be illegal. This kind of behavior is illegal when you hit a certain point in market saturation for your product; Microsoft was slapped for it constantly in the late '80s. If the iPhone is the success Apple thinks it will be, they will find themselves the target of a huge class-action lawsuit.
I can see how the iPhone App Store could be some short-sighted Apple marketing dude's dream: "Hey, we can nip all competing applications in the bud and completely own any market we choose! Imagine how well Final Cut Pro would do without Premiere! Imagine iPhoto without Lightroom! We own it all, baby!"
Those of us who actually write software know that, in fact, killing your competition is a sword that's not just double-edged, but in fact has a blade as its handle, as well. Without competition there is no innovation.
competing apps. As they add features or speed or UI innovations, Apple can copy them and make Apple's apps better.
Competition is how nature has made strong organisms since literally the beginning of time. You simply won't get stronger if you don't have adversity. It is demonstrated in any system you can think of, from virus resistance in operating systems to the relative strength of the huns versus the northern Chinese.
There's a simple proof of why competing apps should exist: (1) If customers use the third-party app, it clearly provides some functionality Apple's version does not, and customers benefit and the platform is stronger. (2) If customer do not use the third-party app, that app withers and dies and nobody is hurt.
But, ignoring how Premiere actually helps Final Cut, let's imagine a world in which Apple DID censor Premiere and Lightroom for "duplication [Apple's] existing functionality." What do you think Adobe would do with Photoshop? Flash? InDesign?
If you voted, "Make those suckers Windows-only," give yourself a gold star. Now think about how not having those applications would have affected where the Mac market is today. (Remember the lag in selling Intel machines until Adobe made Photoshop "Universal?" Imagine if it didn't run at all
Now imagine the next revolutionary application for phones, and what platform it's going to be on if Apple doesn't cut this crap out. (Hint: rhymes with "manbloid.")
"What about all the crap-ware? Aren't decent applications getting buried be all the stuff that's just being dumped out there in hopes of a few pity clicks?"
This is actually surprisingly easy to solve. Eventually, there are going to be tens and tens of thousands of apps on the App Store. Just simply paging randomly through applications to find one is already far too onerous to be practical.
The App Store needs to think of itself as two different parts - it already implements these parts, but the people who run the store need to understand that these two parts are fundamentally separate
• Part one is a giant warehouse, where every piece of software that is not actively harmful
is kept in case someone wants to buy it (remember, users can always get a refund). This warehouse can be searched with titles and keywords or an item can be directly linked.
• Part two is like a traditional storefront, with limited real estate, so only the best or coolest applications are highlighted. It's a recommendation engine, that highlights popular, highly-rated, or innovative applications.Everyone
can get into the warehouse. Only the select few can get into the storefront.
Customers win because they can choose whatever software they like, regardless of whether Apple "approves" of their choice or not. Apple wins because developers aren't alienated and don't all go develop for Android, and so Apple has the device where all the innovation is happening. And developers win because the obviously cool apps will be featured by Apple and get tons of his, but even if their app isn't "blessed" by Apple, if it's a neat enough idea it'll become popular on its own, through word-of-mouth.
It's a huge mistake for Apple to appoint themselves arbitrator of what's cool, or to even appear
to do so. It's an equally huge mistake for Apple to decide that all innovation must come from Apple.
Let's list a handful of cool Apple apps: Safari. iTunes. Preview. Mail. iSync.
Did Apple invent the ideas or protocols behind any of these? Nope. Did Apple write the first implementations? Nope. Did Apple even write the original code they are using for their versions? Nope. (They licensed them all from third parties, except for Mail.)
When the next cool app comes out, and the next one after that, is it going to be on the iPhone, or on Android? It's really Apple's call.
UPDATE 9/23: Apple's response is reportedly to put the rejection letters under nondisclosure
, as well. That's, uh, not a solution, guys. In fact, it's the opposite. It makes you look more draconian. And it's a useless gesture.
Do you REALLY think developers are not going to talk among ourselves, or leak info to the press, after we've worked for months on an application and then had it capriciously rejected by Apple? All the press has to say is, "we've heard of several developers who have been rejected" and there's nothing you can do; you can't subpoena people who aren't under NDA, and you won't know who among your NDA'd rejectees talked.
Seriously, Android is open and free. The tighter you try to clench your fists, the more developers you are going to drive away. Yes, you have the nicest frameworks and the prettiest hardware. But that's only the first part of what you need.
Labels: business, mac community