Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm.

Notes From The West Coast

West Coast collage

I spent last week at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. Everything beyond the keynote was under NDA, so I can’t tell you about it. And this week, I’m on vacation in Portland and Vancouver, so I won’t be writing much, either. But here are some thoughts from the road.

  1. It’s easy to get the idea, reading the Apple/Mac/tech press, that Apple isn’t particularly nice to developers: Stories about app rejections, greedy terms, whatever. There’s no denying the relationship can be uncertain and crappy sometimes. But, really, Apple loves developers. They add way more value to Apple’s products than Apple ever could by itself. Apple is constantly remaking its tools and platforms to make things better, easier, and more efficient for developers (and itself, of course). It’s never going to be perfect, but never forget how good it is.
  2. If your main exposure to Apple Inc. is its keynote videos starring the same five executives, you could easily get the impression that Apple might be hosed without them. (Thus, some of the “OMG! Apple will be toast without Steve Jobs” thinking from the last few years. Actually, no, it’s not.) But, holy cow, was I impressed by the rank-and-file Apple employees I saw at WWDC the entire week. I know a lot of work goes into the conference presentations, and I assume all of Apple’s speakers are heavily coached to give them that trademark company gloss. But it was just really impressive. Apple has thousands of brilliant people working there, and they’re the ones who make most of the stuff that goes into the tools we love. It would be a bummer, no doubt, if Jony Ive or Scott Forstall left the company. But Apple’s simply not going to collapse.
  3. WWDC is a worthwhile investment, even for non-coders like myself. Because it sold out so quickly, I felt a little bad “stealing” a seat from a programmer who probably could have gotten even more value from the week than I did. (It’s more useful if you have specific app problems you need help with — you can actually get help from the Apple engineers who built the stuff you’re coding with.) It’s true that you can do almost all of the socializing — one of the most valuable parts of WWDC — after hours, without a conference pass. But if you can attend WWDC, and have any desire to, it’s worth it. You’ll learn a lot and meet interesting people.
  4. Apple’s new Passbook seems more of an opportunity than a challenge for Square. If you think about what Square really is, it’s a software suite for merchants, including cash register, payments, loyalty, and analytics features. Passbook isn’t really any of that, at least not yet. Today, it’s an app in your phone that organizes barcode passes, and a service for merchants to get those passes into your phone. The ideal Square customer today is a coffee shop or masseuse. The ideal Passbook customer is a huge retail chain or airline that has already built out its own barcode-based identity and payments system. Given Passbook’s on-deck visibility, Square might as well add barcode support to its suite to help its customers get into Passbook — few will be able to on their own. Of course, Apple could eventually turn Passbook into more of a payments service, taking advantage of the 400 million iTunes accounts with credit cards. But that might not even hurt Square, either. And based on Apple’s major-iOS-update schedule, that’s at least a year away, and a year is a very long time for a fast-growing company like Square. By then, Square could easily be part of PayPal or AmEx, with different priorities, or in some entirely different predicament. If I’m Square, I’m thinking about how I can take advantage of Passbook, not how I can defend against it.
  5. Speaking of, I finally used Square’s geofence-based “tab” feature this past week, and it’s pretty cool. All three times, I was able to pay just by telling the cashier my name, add a tip, and keep my wallet in my pocket. It wasn’t a huge time saver, and I still needed to take my phone out to open my tab. But it was fun and novel, and I liked it. Square still has big hurdles getting merchants to use its software instead of a growing number of competitors, but the brand it’s building is impressive.
  6. Note to fancy cafés: If you have espresso, milk, and ice, but refuse to make me an iced latté, you’re a jerk. I get the whole “do one thing and do it well” idea. And if you’re trying to push your cold-brewed iced coffee, that’s wonderful for you. But some people don’t like iced coffee. Why be an ass about it?
  7. I also used Über for the first time this trip. I am generally anti-cab, pro-transit-and-walking. But I was in San Francisco with my wife, and it got a little cold at night, and we needed to get back to our hotel. So we did a few Über rides. It was, as advertised, a great experience. The cars were nice, the drivers were nice, and the idea of ordering a ride from your phone and having it auto-billed to your credit card feels like living in the future. It wound up costing about 50% more than comparable cab rides, but that was only $5-$10 extra per ride. In the context of a nice dinner or a fun night out with friends, that’s not extraordinary enough to complain about. I probably won’t be using it in New York, but in car cities, it makes sense.
  8. The Taxi Magic people could afford to spend some more time using the Über app. In Portland, there’s no Über, but you can book a regular cab using the Taxi Magic app. Both times I’ve used it, the cab came quickly enough and the ride was fine. But the app itself is nowhere near as nice as Über’s. It feels cheap and flaky, and that didn’t make me a confident customer. Lesson: The quality of your app really matters. (Attn: Facebook.)
  9. I’m torn by Apple’s decision to take Google’s transit directions out of its iOS 6 Maps app. I use it daily; it’s been a great help in San Francisco and Portland, and was super-useful earlier this year in Tokyo, Barcelona, and Berlin. Andy Baio has clarified some of the myths around Apple’s move, and who knows, maybe Apple didn’t have a choice. But an essential feature that exists today won’t exist tomorrow, and that sucks. It’s fine that Apple is providing a way for transit agencies and developers to handle these requests; that may eventually end up being a better service in the long run, especially for tackling things like construction interruptions. But when speed is crucial — often the case when looking up directions — and when the bandwidth to download new apps can be costly — often the case when traveling overseas — the new way seems like a significant downgrade. I really hope Google makes an iOS Maps app, including transit directions and Street View, another feature I use almost every day and will hate to lose.
  10. Portland is a great city. I’d never been there before, but I’ll be sure to come back. If you’re a first-timer, you need to check out Andy Baio’s Geek’s Guide to Portland. In addition to Foursquare Explore and some tips from friends, it’s been a good guide. Great meals: In Portland, Tasty n Sons for breakfast, Riffle NW for seafood, Grüner for beet-pickled deviled eggs and burgers, and Por Que No? for tacos. In San Francisco, Blue Bottle Mint Plaza for the polenta/eggs/sausage breakfast, Fatted Calf for an amazing pulled pork lunch, smoked ribs by Techmeme’s Gabe Rivera, and Flour and Water for a special dinner, even if you’re avoiding gluten.