Doing What’s Right, Not Necessarily Profitable

From Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in response to questions raised at a recent shareholder meeting about the company’s investment in sustainable energy and the it’s impact on profits.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,” he said, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI.”1 He said that the same thing about environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas where Apple is a leader.

He didn’t stop there, however, as he looked directly at the NCPPR representative and said, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Argue all you want about the merits of their products, iPhone vs. Android, Mac vs. PC, this is an attitude and corporate policy we should see from more CEOs.

  1. ROI=Return on Investment

Happy Birthday, Mac

Ok, this is going to be a very geeky bit of nostalgia, so you may want to just move on to something more substantial right now.

Anyway, today is the 30th anniversary of the announcement of the Apple Macintosh computer1 and, having owned and used a variety of command-line computers prior to 19842, the graphical interface in this new machine grabbed my attention like nothing before it. Based on the message boards I frequented at the time (Facebook’s great grandfather), I wasn’t alone.

My first Mac was the 512K, the second edition, released in the fall of 1984. I sorta kinda bought it illegally. Apple was allowing a few colleges to offer Macs to faculty and students for large discounts through their bookstores and a colleague at my school arranged for his daughter to buy one for me. She was an English major, owned a top of the line IBM Selectric, and had no interest in computers of any kind.

Since then I’ve lost track of how many Macs I’ve owned and used, certainly more than two dozen different desktops and portable machines. The only representative of those earliest editions I still have is that SE/30 (on the left in that picture), which was my second purchase. It still works (booting from that massive 40mb hard drive) and is still an amazing piece of engineering.

There’s no need to go into any more details. Someone else can relate the rest of the history of the Macintosh (like this list of favorite models), I’m more interested in the future of personal, portable, connected devices, regardless of whether they are called computer or Mac.

However, for as far forward as I’m able to predict technology (which frankly, is not very far), I’m pretty sure I’ll be buying the best of that category from Apple.3

Happy birthday, Mac.

  1. That video makes clear that Jobs had already developed his Reality Distortion Field™.

  2. Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore PET among them

  3. Feel free to tell me why I’m totally wrong, either the “best” part or about me continuing to waste my money on their overpriced products. :-)

Design is More Than Good Looks

Steve Jobs on design:

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

When it comes to most products, it’s always been true that functionality is more important than appearance. But there are still plenty of people who believe the outward style of Apple’s devices is the primary reason why they have a loyal customer base, one that’s steadily growing.

If rumors are correct, at tomorrow’s keynote for their annual developer’s conference, Apple execs will present new models in the MacBook Pro line. Soon after, I’ll be replacing my nearly five year old MacBook Pro with one of them.

No computer is going to be perfect, and the Mac OS has it’s quirks. However, more than any other company I can think of, I’m very sure their engineers will have sweated the details on both hardware and software to assure that the device is far more than just good looks.

Now if they can just do something about updating Aperture. :-)

Work That Means Something

According to a post at, Apple gives this welcome note to all new employees at the company.

There’s work and there’s your life’s work.

The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it. The kind of work that you’d never compromise on. That you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at Apple. People don’t come here to play it safe. They come here to swim in the deep end.

They want their work to add up to something.

Something big. Something that couldn’t happen anywhere else.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could swap out “Apple” and insert the name of our school or district? And mean it?

Plenty of Choices. Just Not Good Ones.

With the next version of the iPad being announced later today, I was thinking about the way some in leadership positions here in the overly-large school district talk about using “tablets”, using the generic term when it’s pretty clear that most others are hearing iPads.

They try very hard not to lean toward a specific product since the system has also blessed the purchase of the Xoom device by Motorola and running Android. In effect, they want schools and offices to think of the two operating systems as equal and to make a choice based on needs. Or something like that.

Early in the school year when we started working with tablets in the system, I tried to be balanced when discussing which device someone should consider, with a collection of plusses and minuses for each. Now, after spending some time with the Xoom and watching others struggling with it, I’ve pretty much given up on being “fair”.

The big problem is that iOS and Android are not equal, not even close, especially when implemented on tablets.

I could go into my long list of reasons why, but instead read what Fraser Speirs, who has a whole lot more experience using mobile devices in a classroom, has to say on the matter.

His conclusion is that Android represents solid engineering on the part of Google. However, the way manufacturers deploy it – with multiple versions, confusing upgrade policies, inconsistent user interfaces and hardware integration – is a “deal breaker”.

Read the whole post which is a great analysis of Android’s problems. Speirs is focusing on a school environment but many of the points he makes will be relevant to anyone considering purchasing any mobile device.

Other than the rumors being passed around, I have no idea what Apple will show in their presentation. But I do know that whatever the products, the hardware and software involved will be tightly integrated, producing a user experience that’s just not available on any Android device.

You may not like Apple or iPads or stuff with i names. But the company’s recent successes (computers sales are also growing fast) shows that there are plenty of us who like our technology to just work smoothly without a lot of fuss.

And, of course, when it comes to tablets you do have plenty of choices. Just not good ones.

Split Decision

Unless you’re part of the ed-tech community, you might have missed the news from Apple’s product announcement last Thursday. After all, they didn’t have any new devices with i stuck in front of the name1, so most of the popular media didn’t cover it.

But since the event was focused on publishing and electronic books, I was very curious what they would have. The rumor sites had the company bringing a “revolution” to the textbook industry (is that even possible?).

Although not revolutionary, they did have some very good stuff to show, with lots of potential.  And there were also a few disturbing pieces and more than a few questions, especially regarding distribution. If you have time, watch the full presentation on Apple’s site.

Anyway, I’ve had a few days to play with everything and read reactions from parts of my network so consider this post a rambling collection of first impressions.

First the good stuff. The core of the announcement was the release of a major new software tool for creating ebooks called iBooks Author. Watching the demo, my first thought was that the interface was very similar to Pages and Keynote, Apple’s word processor and presentation software that blows away Office when it comes to power and ease of use. Not to mention being much less expensive.

Even better, Author is free and was available that same day2 so I was able to play with the software for a couple of hours this weekend. Not a long time to evaluate a piece of complex software but I’m already sold on the potential for easily building applications (it’s hard to call them books) that seamlessly combine text with images, audio, video, and interactive elements.

Of course creating any worthwhile multimedia project requires a lot of planning and what I was able to put together from disconnected pieces of media found on my computer is not worth publishing. However, the process was dirt simple, offering plenty of layout options. This is a potentially powerful application that I’d really love to get into the hands of some creative students with time to work.

Ok, that’s the good news of Author. The problems start once the project is ready for distribution.

The software allows you to send the final book directly to an iPad but other than that the only real option appears to be uploading it to the Apple iBookstore. There’s no requirement to charge for your work but if you do, the license agreement on the software says you can only sell it through Apple, who gets 30%.

While the EULA seems pretty restrictive (check this post for far more details), it actually makes sense from Apple’s perspective. They view these “books” in the same way as they do apps for their iOS devices. They give away the tools necessary to create apps but lock them into the Apple distribution system. They’re doing the same for the books created with Author.

It’s no wonder the big publishers like Pearson were on that stage in support of their new textbook model. They see an opportunity to continue the traditional school market for their materials, one that doesn’t allow for resales.

However, I think there are several larger problems than locking the documents created by one piece of software to one particular set of devices.

Start with the need for an open format for publishing interactive media.  Most reports say that Apple is using ePub3, a free and open ebook publishing format, but with some non standard markup code that would prevent the documents from opening in other epub readers.

But then there’s the whole concept of “textbook”, which was the primary motivator behind Apple’s presentation on Thursday. Do we really want to lock schools and teachers into more materials over which they have no control? And pay the big publishers far too much for the privilege?

In advance of Apple’s event, some people were writing about how the company was going to “disrupt” the textbook industry the same way they did with music. There are lots of reasons why it won’t happen soon3, although I think iBooks Author is a good start.

1 Anyone else getting tired of i-everything?

2 I know it’s only available on the Mac. I don’t care. Someone else can complain about it being restricted on one platform.

3 I won’t go so far as David Thornburg to say that Apple wants to kill education, but he does make some good points in his post.


Here’s to the Crazy One Who Changed the World

Much has been written about the legacy of Steve Jobs over the past couple of days and I don’t know that I have anything original to add.

However, when I think about the incredible innovations he brought to the world and the major impact his work has had on my life, this Apple ad from the late 90’s always comes to mind.

This is the rarely heard version narrated by Jobs himself (instead of Richard Dreyfuss), and now ending with a simple tribute at the end.

Thanks, Steve.

Is This What You’d Call a “PC”?

I’ve been working on a presentation for the VSTE Mobile Learning Conferences (one next week and another the week after), which means I’m paying more attention to anything related to the subject at hand.

Like this view of the tablet business from the president of Microsoft phone division.

The use of the mobile OS would be “in conflict” with Microsoft’s notion of having the full speed of a computer in any design, including truly mobile tablets. He insisted that users would want to do PC-style activities on a tablet and saw Windows 8’s networking and printing support as being important.

“We view a tablet as a PC,” Lees said.

Interesting. I think I’m doing a “PC-style” activity, namely writing this post, on this iPad right now.

Anyway, I suppose it really depends on what you want, when, and how you want to do those PC-style activities. Certainly I’m not going to write the great American novel on this thing (not without using a bluetooth keyboard) or work with complex spreadsheets.

But I can edit video, record audio, and create music, as well as do a whole host of other things that a few years ago would be considered “PC activities”. And more functionality is being added every day, some of which would be difficult to do on your standard PC.

So, while the concept of what is considered a computer is getting fuzzier, the remarks of this exec makes very clear the distinction between Apple’s concept of post-PC devices and Microsoft’s dedication to more PCs.

I rather like the post-PC vision.

One More Thing…

Following up on the previous post about leadership, during the interview with Steve Jobs he discussed Apple’s approach to business.

And he made this observation about the difference between producing computing devices for consumers, in which Apple has been very successful over the past decade, and the business market.

What I love about the consumer market that I always hated about the enterprise market is that we come up with a product, we try to tell everybody about it, and every person decides for themselves.  They vote yes or no.  And if enough of them say yes, we get to come to work tomorrow.  That’s how it works.  It’s really simple.

As for the enterprise market, it’s not so simple.  The people who use the products don’t decide for themselves.  And the people who make those decisions sometimes are confused.

Confused indeed!

Here in the overly-large school district, we are regularly reminded that we are not really a school system.

We work for an “enterprise” (and that we are all “clients”).

And that last part of Jobs’ remarks may offer a clue as to why the use of instructional technology is not what it should be here in the overly-large enterprise.

Picture from Wikipedia and I’m only guessing that it’s legal to link to it and not get sued by Paramount. :-)

What Do You Do All Day?

This is going to be one of those I-think-there’s-a-connection-here sort of posts that will wander around until either stumbling across that link, or ending abruptly.

Anyway, last night I sat in on an online discussion around the topic of leadership, specifically in schools and school districts, let by Will and Shelly, and one of the fundamental questions we tossed around was “does a good leader need to also be a visionary?”.

I put forward the idea (and was probably in the minority in supporting it) that good leaders don’t necessarily need to be big visionaries as long as they surround themselves with creative, imaginative people and are open to the change that comes with new ideas.

This morning on my longer-than-usual drive I was thinking about that conversation as I listened to an interview with Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple and, no matter how you feel about the company’s products, someone most would credit with being a “visionary” leader in the world of personal digital products.

During the program, one of the reporters asked him a simple but very relevant question: What do you do all day?

She was, of course, trying to get Jobs to talk about his role in the development of products at the company but maybe that’s a question we should also be asking our school leaders.

What do you do all day to produce “insanely great” products (in Steve’s frequently quoted phrasing), which in our case are well-educated students, prepared to be successful after graduation?

Jobs’ response to the question was very business-oriented, as you might expect.

But the nutshell version basically boils down to Apple employs many creative and talented people and his primary role is to clear the obstacles, foster collaboration, and allow them to use their talents to the greatest degree possible.

I would hope our leaders, both inside and outside of the education structure, would view their role exactly the same way when it comes to improving student learning.

Unfortunately, these days things seem to be heading in the opposite direction.

To more standardized classrooms, rigid, narrow curriculums, and prescriptive teaching designed to meet the growing demand for more standardized testing.

So, I wonder how things might change if Steve Jobs was leading American education.

Instead of Bill Gates.

iPad: A Few Upgrades Short of Perfect

Don’t let the title of this post deceive you… I love my iPad.

In the time since it arrive (has it really been less than two months), I have found myself picking it up almost as often as my laptop.

Still, Apple’s little tablet is not perfect and, especially before it’s ready for classroom use, the designers need to implement several major upgrades to the OS.

First, they must develop an easy, consistent way to get files on and off the machine.

Plugging into a computer so it can act as an intermediary doesn’t make a lot of sense when this device has the potential to completely fulfill the computing/communications needs for many people.

The iPad should be able to connect with web-based storage utilities like Dropbox in order that files can be sent to and from various programs.

A few apps like GoodReader can already get files wirelessly from many different sources (even if the process is a little clunky) but this needs to be available from anywhere on the device.

Next, we need to be able to edit Google Docs, and other cloud-based documents creation systems, and not just view them.

It’s not likely the iPad will replace “normal” computers as the primary document creation device for most people but it still needs the capability to edit and update many common types of files, often in collaboration with others.

Then there’s the video out issue.

One essential function for any computing device used in a classroom is the ability to show materials to groups of students on a large screen or projector.

This is a feature in a few apps but Apple needs to make it possible with most, if not all parts of the tablet.  Starting with their own Safari browser!  Why wasn’t that a feature from day 1?

Finally, if Apple expects schools to use large numbers of iPads, they must develop an easy process to buy or license multiple copies of apps and make it simple to distribute those apps to large numbers of devices.

Considering how I dislike computer labs, I hesitated to add this last item but it’s still a practical necessity in the near term.

Ok, Apple. That’s my short list of what should be included in the next major upgrade.

As for Flash… I really don’t care.

What’s On My iPad

For those who have an iPad, or are considering one, here’s a short list of the apps on my device that get the most use. (everything is free unless otherwise noted)

Remember, this is what’s current. A few months from now you might find a completely different collection. I’m always open to consider the good stuff others have found.

Evernote: The app is great, but it’s their service, providing access to all your files anywhere with an internet connection, that makes this a must have. And it’s all free! This has become my default word processor.

Feeddler: There are lots of RSS aggregator apps but this one is free, handles large numbers of feeds, and syncs with Google Reader. A paid version will cache posts for offline reading but I haven’t found a need for it.

Twitterrific & Tweetdeck: Both are good but neither is great. I’m waiting for the iPad version of Tweetie, which is what I use on the iPhone and desktop, and which is soon to be the “official” Twitter app.

GoodReader: At only 99 cents this PDF reader is a great bargain. While you can sync documents through iTunes, this app also offers an easy way to add files through wifi. More apps, including those from Apple, need the same feature.

BBC News: The best of the free news readers, mostly because of their great coverage outside the US pundit echo chamber. NPR’s app is also good. Not impressed at all with what the New York Times did.

WordPress: Which is what I’m using to post this. However it has enough annoying little problems that I’m considering paying for BlogPress ($2.99) rather than waiting for the WP community to fix the bugs.

Safari: Like we get a choice. :-) While it could use some improvements (adding Flash support is not one of them; I don’t care), this default web browser is actually very good. Even our crappy Blackboard interface works for the most part.

Mail: As much as I’d like to ignore it, a good email app is essential on any portable device and they did a great job with adapting this for the iPad. Looking forward to the unified mailbox that’s in the OS version 4.

Video: The iPad video player is excellent but other web-connected apps like YouTube and the one from ABC work very well as long as you have a good wifi connection. But where’s Hulu?

As I said, that’s the short list.  I’m up to five screens so far, although very few are paid for since there aren’t many apps yet that provide enough compelling features over the free equivalents.

And I will admit to having a few apps that some people might consider frivolous.

But how am I supposed to determine whether something like Plants vs Zombies could be educational unless I check it out personally? :-)

Thirty Days With The iPad

Ok, so I’ve had this iPad for a month now. Has it brought about unalterable changes in my life?

Not quite, but I’m still very happy with it and can see how it’s already altering some things about the way I work and manage my life.

And, of course, there are the things that need improvement but I’ll get to that later.

Starting with the good stuff, the hardware itself is outstanding, solidly built with an excellent display. Those who complain about the glare are right but it hasn’t been a problem, especially since since I don’t plan to use it in direct sunlight anyway.

There have also been reports of wireless problems but that’s hasn’t affected my unit. I’ve had no difficulties connecting and staying connected with a good strong signal. I don’t regret not getting the 3G model (and another bill from AT&T).

As to the software, some claim the iPad is just a big iPhone and I suppose there’s something to that. But the extra screen real estate makes a huge difference for many applications and the Phone OS on the iPad is excellent, very fast, very responsive.

So, what’s in need of upgrading?

I’ll join the chorus of those screaming for multitasking. It doesn’t bother me not having it on the phone but on this new format it is essential. We’ll see if Apple really does get it right when version 4 of the OS arrives in the fall.

I especially want to leave a browser page open while I switch to something else without it having to reload when I come back to it. Very annoying.

The other apps I’ve got are good or very good but none rise to the level of excellent yet. Some of the developers seem to have a good understanding of how to create software for the iPad and their stuff just needs a few tweaks.

Others? Well, it’s a good thing they were free. Except for Keynote which is rather disappointing for the price. Hopefully they will fix the problems in an update or two.

I was going to add a list of the apps I’m using to this rant but it’s running longer than I planned so maybe I’ll post that later in the week (if anyone cares).

Finally, the virtual keyboard on which I’ve been typing this is really quite useable, very good even. I’ve become rather adept at four-finger non-touch typing.