iPhone 5 – a reality check

Apple just finished the highly anticipated iPhone 5 event and rest assured, the Comic Book Guys have been on the Internet within minutes to register their disgust throughout the world.

One well-known Finnish technology writer was quick to dismiss iPhone 5 with sharp analysis:

“”The most advanced operating system in any mobile device.” with old-fashioned, static icons? LOL”

Apparently it’s the icons that define how advanced an operating system is.

I would have expected less teenager lolling and more in terms of actual analysis from him, but the reaction wasn’t unexpected, let alone the only one of its kind. Before the event I said that it’s become almost impossible for Apple to meet the expectations of the market, let alone the fanboys – and obviously nothing Apple releases can ever be met with approval by those who for whatever reasons just hate Apple and everything it stands for.

Of course, the real reason why the market may be disappointed with the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 is that the jury is still out on what kind of a company post-Jobs Apple is, and whether Apple can still shake the markets and awe us with products and services that almost feel like they’ve come from the future.

Apple is smart enough not to jump onto that bandwagon, but to steadily execute on their strategy, and quite honestly it surprises me that the markets aren’t intelligent enough to understand how this is A Good Thing. Time will tell when or if Apple will truly wow the market again, but my bet is that they will. When the time is right, and everything is dialed in.

The situation isn’t new. When Nokia was the king of the hill in mobile phones, it reached a similar situation where it became almost impossible for them to release anything that would impress the market or the hard-core users. Nothing was good enough. Now, for different reasons, ironically Nokia finds itself again in a somewhat similar predicament. Lumia 920 seems brilliant, yet even that wasn’t enough for the market. Of course it wasn’t. Technological prowess, not even beautiful design isn’t enough for Nokia at this point. They need to build trust and show that their strategy carries in the long term, and to make the entire ecosystem as polished and attractive as their latest phone. It’s about technology and liberal arts, bringing together advanced transformative technologies, consistent, polished usability, and services that make a difference to people. Nokia may get there yet, but they have some ways to go to build an ecosystem that consistently delivers, not just on one area. I wish them luck, sincerely.

Now, back to Apple: valid criticism towards products and services is valuable and stubbornly defending a position that deserves criticism is naïve. Hard core Apple fans are as guilty of that as others, yet the knee jerk reactions to iPhone 5 are strange. When you look at what was announced, it’s hard to see how it’s a let-down. Apple delivered an evolution on a product that was already extremely well polished, and made it even better. There wasn’t a need for a revolution. Not yet.

Apple didn’t have a faulty or a broken product they needed to fix before the release of iPhone 5 and iOS 6, quite the opposite. The whole package, the hardware, the operating system, the App Store, integration with the Apple product family all worked smoothly – not quite without a hitch, but very smoothly.

Apple chooses the technologies it introduces carefully, and even more carefully those that it leaves out either for good (like optical drives) or until the market and the ecosystem exists to make them viable. And if such an ecosystem doesn’t exist yet, Apple has the resources, the track record and the leverage to bring it about as has been demonstrated before. It all has to come together. For Apple it’s never about the technology alone, but transforming a market and a user experience enabled by technology.

Expectations of iPhone 5 features ranged from NFC to fingerprint recognition, and after Nokia’s Lumia 920 announcement also wireless charging and PureView-challenging optics were speculated. NFC will find its way to a next iPhone, when Apple considers the market penetration and service offerings have reached a level of maturity they’re comfortable with. Apple didn’t leave NFC out of the iPhone 5 because they couldn’t technologically deliver it, but because they chose not to. And Apple always has good reasons for choosing not to include something in their products.

But my point isn’t to go into platform and ecosystem comparison. So let’s do a reality check, and see what Apple delivered with iPhone 5.

A better, faster, thinner version of an already incredibly polished product and ecosystem. More screen estate without sacrificing usability (you can still access the whole screen with your thumb). iOS 6, building on an extremely smooth user experience of iOS 5, delivering new features and functionality. Improved services with iTunes, social media integration, maps and navigation, et cetera.

Better hardware, better software, better services, and a continued, consistent user experience without disruptions.

It’s not a let-down. It’s exactly what I expected Apple to deliver. A great looking product, solidly building on an established market, evolving a product when the time doesn’t yet call for a revolution.


Complexity and all that jazz…

One thing I’ve always liked about Twitter is how it sparks new thoughts and ideas.  It’s fragmented nature lends itself to serendipitous discovery and connection of thoughts, people and ideas.  Not always profound, but often delightful, and interesting enough to explore a bit further.

Like a couple of days ago.

With CALMalpha, which I’m eagerly anticipating, only a few days away now I’ve been thinking about the nature of complexity perhaps more than usually. Now, complexity and complex adaptive systems theory are getting traction as the next Big Thing in management and social business – a thought that quite frankly scares the hell out of me.  Complexity and complex adaptive systems theory, among other disciplines like evolutionary biology and cognitive sciences have real utility in management science (and I use the word science here only illustratively), but they are also easy prey to airport management book authors who get enthralled by the language and references to natural systems, and quickly churn out a new book and a series of keynotes and lectures with complexity slapped on as a superstructure to old thinking and old ideas.  Dave Snowden speaks about this often, and addressed it in a recent blog post, and I agree with him.

So I recognize the folly of trying to see complexity in everything because not all systems, human made or natural, are complex adaptive systems.

But sometimes complexity metaphors – even imperfect ones – have utility, which takes me back to a Twitter exchange earlier between Heimo Laukkanen (@huima) and myself.

It happened to be about jazz.

Heimo tweeted that he’d been searching for jazz playlists on Spotify (an indication that he’d become an old fart nearing retirement age – his words), and being a jazz devotee of sorts myself, I replied with a couple of recommendations of the usual suspects.  Turned out that Joseph Pelrine, another complexity scholar and part of the CALMalpha faculty, had beat me to it with great recommendations so I wrapped up by saying how it occurred to me that jazz and complexity have interesting parallels, and with a few caveats jazz serves as a useful metaphor for a complex adaptive system.

Complex adaptive systems have certain common characteristics, such as self-similarity, emergence, and self-organization (Wikipedia).  They have high degree of adaptive capacity, and they’re resilient to perturbations.  Complex adaptive systems have many independent but interacting agents acting mostly locally but with global, system wide consequences.  The agents and the system co-evolve.  Small changes may have system wide results, interactions in the system have feedback loops, the systems are dynamic and dissipative exchanging energy and never functioning at an equilibrium.  It’s also impossible to determine the system’s behavior by observing individual agents; complex adaptive systems exhibit emergent behaviour, and their dynamics evolve towards a representation of the systems typical behaviour, an expression of the dynamics of the system at some point in time, also known as an attractor. The system’s history defines its future states, the agents and the system co-evolve, and the system’s boundaries may be fuzzy.

Jazz is a mix of musical styles, and it’s probably easier to say what is not jazz than what is, although even then interesting debates would surely follow.  There are certain common characteristics, including improvisation, and group interaction, call-response patterns, use of blue notes, polyrythms, syncopation and swung notes (Wikipedia), but jazz is constantly evolving and seeking new paths, experimenting and breaking form, exploring and stretching its boundaries.  Trombonist J.J. Johnson has said “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will”, and according to Pat Metheny, it’s not the music of Kenny G.

It’s not a big stretch to draw parallels and to create a metaphor of complexity from jazz.

Finding self-similarity in a jazz combo is perhaps a bit of a stretch. I suppose we could imagine jazz exhibiting self-similarity with regard to the size of the combo and the dynamics of jazz, in the rhythmic patterns of instruments and so on, but there are better parallels.

Like unpredictability.  As with a complex adaptive system and its agents, a jazz band’s performance and what kind of music they will be playing cannot be determined by listening to the individual players. We’ll only know when the musicians start playing together, and the band starts swinging – when the system starts exploring its phase space, the possible outcomes of the session.  A jazz session doesn’t have a set destination which has to be reached. Instead, to borrow Snowden, the musicians explore the evolutionary potential of the present.

Small changes may have large consequences. Musicians play off of each other, picking up subtle cues and responding to them.  Every new note played, every bar, every modulation is like a probe into the complex adaptive system of a jazz combo, a safe-to-fail experiment, using Cognitive Edge’s Cynefin


The Cynefin framework

terminology.   If the response of the experiment is beneficial and the band picks up on it, it gets amplified.  If it doesn’t get picked up and reciprocated, it gets dampened. It’s a constant feedback loop, where improvisations, cues, notes, melodies, body movements, and even audience reactions affect the future direction of the music.

The history of the system determines its future direction, and history is created every second.  Every note played up until any given time determines the direction that the music will take, and this gets repeated every moment.  It’s a dynamical session.

Jazz sessions are also irreversible.  It is not possible to call “halt”, rewind back time and start over, playing exactly like before.  Everything in the band (the system), including the players (agents) and the band have changed, co-evolved, and what has happened is not perfectly repeatable.  It may be close, but not just like it.

Emergence is an obvious characteristic of a jazz session.  Swinging, improvising, experimenting, interacting, will produce patterns that we perceive as pleasant or exhibiting coherence.  The musicians call it the groove.  Groove is not a pre-decided goal where the jazz session is merely the means of transport towards it; instead it’s an emergent pattern arising from the complex interactions of the jazz band and the session.  Groove is an attractor of the system of a jazz band.

Modulators.  To quote Wikipedia, modulation in music refers to “the act or process of changing from one key to another”.  Modulations “articulate or create the structure or form of many pieces, as well as add interest.”  In complex adaptive systems modulation is a form of perturbance, an intentional or unintentional influence on the system tending to alter its behaviour.  Modulation is an oblique way, as opposed to a direct driver, of trying to influence the behaviour of a system.  In jazz and in music generally, (musical) modulation techniques belong to the fundaments; they are a part of improvisational techniques and constructs of melodic and harmonic progressions.  They’re also system modulators.  They perturb the system by introducing variations, gentle nudges to the rest of the band to keep exploring the possibilities and to avoid an equilibrium.

While jazz can serve as a metaphor for complexity and emergence, obviously grooves and albums like Kind of Blue don’t ‘just happen’ through emergence if you put a bunch of musicians in a room with instruments, and make them play.  Even jazz has constraints, and creative processes can be managed, only not directly; in a complex space you “manage the beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries.” (Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge).

Other parallels could easily be drawn for instance between jazz and Cynefin domain boundaries, but that perhaps goes beyond what my intention was writing this entry.  Mostly, I’m just thinking out loud by writing.

Metaphors are useful because they can have a basis in everyday experience, and therefore have a subjective interpretive layer.  Interpretation introduces variation to the sense-making process between individuals, and helps to avoid early convergence of thoughts and ideas.  In discourse it increases beneficial dissent and as a consequence improves decision making and scanning range of available options. In short, it makes for more interesting conversation.

But when I put on Kind of Blue, there’s no room for analysis.  There’s only music.