58 Keys

Just to say, it kills me beginning a blog title or actually any sentence with a number. It’s as knife-scraping as beginning one with a lowercase letter. Consequently, having written very many articles and news stories about the likes of the iPhone, I’m used to contorting headlines to fit in one word, any word, before the offending digit or lowercase. In this one situation, though, putting anything before “58 Keys” would change it.

“The 58 Keys” would make you think of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, for instance. “The Mystery of the 58 Keys” is Agatha Christie if you’re normal, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators if you’re less so.

Mind you, just saying 58 Keys is at risk of putting you in mind of either Edgar Allen Poe or, in a slightly different chain of thought, Florida.

Somehow I think it’s fitting, however, that you are very unlikely to read that title and know what this is about yet it is impossible that you haven’t been affected by it. Now it sounds like a disease.

It’s just this. I offer that every artistic, sporting, engineering, scientific, medical, architectural, sculptural, scriptural, design or really any human endeavour, any human thought of the last thirty years has gone via a keyboard. That’s obviously true for writers but a sculptural artist, say, he or she may work with stone and chisels but at some point they email a gallery describing it.

Amateur photographers not intending to ever sell their work and, let’s go to an extreme here, too illiterate to write a caption, they still use a keyboard. Whether it’s holding down the Option key as they choose a function in Photoshop or it’s logging in to Flickr as CrazyNutBoy99, they use a keyboard.

We never think about this, most especially not if we’re touch typists, because we’re thinking about the work we do. The keyboard and our fingers on it are the bridge from our thoughts to the physical reality of what we’re creating. And I’m just fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by how pressing these keys means I get to talk to you. By how using exactly the same keys I will unthinkingly, unconsciously switch from writing words to issuing commands: I press Command-S to save my work do much that the S key is worn down.

If you’re reading this on a phone or a tablet then you’ve got an onscreen keyboard that pops up when you need it and hides away again when you don’t. If you’re on a laptop then these days the keys are probably what’s called a Chiclet style unless it’s a Butterfly mechanism or in Microsoft’s case a curious cloth-like one.

The type of key varies from silent and virtual to the mechanical Cherry keyboard that clacks away terribly satisfyingly to the ears of those of us trained on manual typewriters. The number of keys varies a lot too. It’s not that I usually go around counting them, honest, it’s more that for decades the standard layout for a computer keyboard has been what’s called the PC AT one with 102 keys. When you see the QWERTY layout with a numeric keypad to the right and arrow keys between the two, it’s probably 102 keys.

That is a standard, whether you’re using QWERTY or something like France’s AZERTY. That is also a standard whether you’re in the UK or the US, though for unfathomable historical reasons, our two nations have different keyboards. In the UK, the Return key is a tall one that takes up the space of two keys vertically. In America, it’s a wide one that takes up two key spaces horizontally. Nutters.

Even so, it’s the same number of keys and you have never looked at me so strangely before. Let me hurry to explain why I’ve called this 58 Keys and not 102.

It’s the Mac.

The original Apple Macintosh is the reason we have iPhones and iPads, it’s the reason we have Windows. And, yes, that original Mac had 58 keys on it.

There should’ve been 62. People at Apple fought over four more keys and they lost. Steve Jobs rejected four keys. He rejected the arrow keys. You can think that’s taking micro-management too far, but there was a reason.

He refused to allow the original Mac keyboard to have these arrow or cursor keys because if it had them, people would use them. Since it didn’t, there was no other way to move your cursor around the screen than to use the mouse. This was the first time any public computer had included a mouse and, as strange as it seems today, it was bloody hard to grasp what in the world this thing was for.

Taking away four keys meant you had to use the mouse and it’s part of why we did so it’s part of why we got to move away from those green or yellow phosphorus text displays into full-screen, full-colour, overlapping windows.

Even if you have never used a Mac, even if you’re a die-hard PC fan and even if you’ve only ever had your phone as a computer, the decision to give the Mac just 58 keys shaped everything we do today.

There’s no reason to say this to you now, no particular anniversary, no keyboard launch and definitely no way to explain why I currently have about nine keyboards in my house. But you will spend time at some keyboard today, whether that’s onscreen or physical, and you will every day. We could get really deep into how mechanical keys work, we could dive into how onscreen keyboards invisibly expand the letter you’re most likely to type next. But let’s just take a moment to notice how this small thing has world-changing impact.

It happened on my watch

An editor I particularly liked working for once told me she knew I was serious about what I did because of my watch. This was Helen Hackworthy on Radio Times and she is smart. She’s the only editor who ever spotted that I signed off emails with a capital W when things were fine and a lowercase w when they really, really, really were not.

What she’d also seen was that when I’d sit down at that BBC desk, I would take off my watch and place it next to the keyboard. She saw that as my being conscious of time, determined to get things done, all sorts of professional things that I’d love to have been correct and I hope weren’t entirely wrong.

But they were a bit wrong.

Quite a lot wrong.

I used to take it off because that watch had a metal strap and it kept scraping against the keyboard.

I remember this, I know this, I remember Helen and I talking about it, I remember her laughing when I explained but I cannot remember that watch. I’ve had many watches over the years and – exactly like you, admit this now – I haven’t worn one regularly since I got a mobile phone.

Somewhere in the set of watches I’ve had there was that one with the metal strap and I know there was a Casio thing in the early 80s because the same watch is a plot point in the 1983 movie Blue Thunder. That was a helicopter adventure, an aerial paranoid thriller and apparently it’s going to be remade now with drones instead of the chopper. This is either modernising the tale or making it cheaper.

But of all the watches in all the bars in all the towns, there are three that matter to me. And they’re all in this shot.

watches

The one on the left there with the brown leather strap is the watch I was wearing when I first met Alan Plater and Shirley Rubinstein in the late 1980s. They became friends of mine but then, on that day, I was just meeting and interviewing Alan. I was all kinds of nervous: not just because he was already a writing hero to me but because this was my first big interview with anyone.

That man was so interesting in that interview that 25 years later or so, quotes from it were used in a set of DVD liner notes and about five years further on, I used quotes from it myself for my first book.

But for all that, there was this: the watch stopped working soon after I met Alan. I don’t know how to blame him but I do. Except that I kept the watch because of him and I quietly wore it again just one more time at his funeral in 2010.

See the watch in the middle of that shot? The one that looks like it says ‘now’ underneath the watch face hands? It does say now but it’s not underneath anything: there are no hands. That is it. The word now. I have to tell you, it is the most accurate watch I’ve ever had. Never have to wind it, either.

I do think it’s been losing a little time lately but I still wore it because I like it and because it was given to me by Angela.

But then it would be Angela who pointed out a few months ago that this watch’s time was up, so to speak, that its days were numbered. She said that as soon as the existence of the third one in that shot was announced. It’s an Apple Watch and I could do you a review here but instead let’s just take one fact about it.

Apart from the Now watch which I’ve worn a lot yet far from constantly, I have not had a regular watch since I got my phone in 1997. That’s over. I have a watch again and it has slipped into my life as if I’ve always had it on me.

My watches up to now, where I can remember them, have been reminders of things that have happened or of people who matter to me. Now my Apple Watch actually reminds me of things I have to make happen and it is how I keep in touch with those people. Quite literally keep in touch as you can send tap, tap, taps to fellow Apple Watch owners.

But it will also always remind me of buying Angela one at the same time. It will remind me of how hers came ages before mine. And now it will remind me of talking about this with you.

Don’t tell anyone that bit about my only taking my watch off because it scratches, okay? Who knows, maybe other editors projected qualities on to me like that.

Watch out

It’s 24 April 2015 and today is the official launch of a new press release from Apple. Crowds of Apple fans will be lining up outside stores to get the new press release while legions of PC fans will be writing blogs about how Windows has always had press releases and in fact little else. I don’t disagree.

I have this slight push-pull thing about technology: I swear to you that I am not interested in hardware or software, only in what I can get to do with it. I’m into the work I can do, what I can write, what I can make, not in what setting does which. Yet I’m steeped in this stuff and it makes my life run. And there are business and drama issues in all this for me. One of which is the, to me, fascinating way that from today you can but also can’t buy the new Apple Watch.

Mainly, you can’t. Don’t bother going to an Apple Store. Well, you’ll be able to see them and I imagine there will be a way for Apple to take your money there but it’s likely to be via saying go use that Mac over there.

The Apple Watch has only been made available to order online. I can’t remember when these orders started but it was a couple of weeks ago and in theory if you were quick enough, you would today have a watch in your hands. I was quick enough: I knew I wanted one, I knew what I wanted, I ordered and I ordered quickly. My watch is still a few weeks away.

I don’t think there’s a way to see this as the slickest Apple release ever. But on the other wrist, I have been using an Apple Watch because I’m doing a thing that needed it. And they are good. I am going to be using the hell out of mine, when it finally gets here.

Except, I think when you first put one on, you rather wonder why you did. Until you do something, the watch face is black and blank. It looks a lot smaller than you expected but it’s also a bit meh. Then you move your wrist and the watch face switches on. Or you press a button to go do something. Then that screen is gorgeous. I mean, meh to wow.

But you’re meant to glance at this thing and you will, that’s exactly what you’ll do, just not at first. At first you’ll be looking at this constantly, waving it around like a new toy, and in some unconscious way trying to justify why you spent all this money. (The cheapest is £300, the most expensive is heading toward £10,000. The difference is solely in the materials used: aluminium for the cheaper one, gold for the most expensive. Everything else is the same, works the same, does the same things.)

So the first times that you lift it to look at that watch face, you will barely have finished thinking cor before it switches off again. No question, it would be better if the watch were visibly on all the time but, no question, it would run out of battery power in an hour instead of lasting all day. (I haven’t had one on for long enough in a straight run to know how long it lasts in practice but this is what I understand.)

I want to get my own and to get past the initial new toy feeling. I still have that sometimes with my three-year-old iPhone but I want to get to the point where I’m using it because I’m using it, not because I want to see what it does. I’ve seen what it does. Exhaustively, in fact.

And as I had to go through every setting – you know how much I love settings – I did find one key thing. The Apple Watch is a grower. You don’t have to learn how to use it, you don’t have to ever use every feature, but you will keep finding new bits, new things that make you glad you’ve got one. I’d be standing there with a checklist of what I had to try out and I’d keep going ooooh, I’m having that. I’m using that.

Sending Angela a message by just tapping on my watch and knowing that her watch will tap her. (When she gets hers: I bought us one each but they’re both weeks away.) Walking down a street being told with the smallest of nudges that it’s time to turn left. Getting one of those incessant emails and just seeing with a glance that it’s not one I need to deal with. Setting timers – I cook a lot and have no skill so I’m reliant on timings in recipes. I listen to a lot of things when I’m cooking and if the kettle’s boiling it’s so loud I can’t hear much worth a damn but now a tap on my watch will pause the radio or the music or the podcast and a tap will start it again.

I once counted that I took out my iPhone 200 times on a particular day. Apparently the average is 120. I can’t guess what the figures will be now, but the watch will surely decimate that. Especially if non-Apple apps work as well as the Apple ones: that’s something I’ve not been able to test yet and I am itching to see how my beloved OmniFocus works on it.

I’m not sure how well that will work and I’m not sure why Apple has struggled so much to do launch this watch on its launch day. But the one thing I am not in any doubt about is that I’m glad I’ve bought one.

Why the Apple Watch means you should keep writing

wg_Apple Watch-og_apple_watch-580This is going to take a time to get to its point, sorry. But Apple released details of its new Watch this week and a certain segment of the world has fallen apart.

It’s a pretty small segment yet it’s a loud one. And it’s saying Apple is bad, very bad. The watch does this or it doesn’t do that, it costs this or it doesn’t cost that, every bit of it is being criticised in volume. Mind you, what it does is also being praised in volume.

I was just disappointed – not surprised, to be fair – but disappointed at some of the reactions. I’ve nothing to do with Apple, they didn’t ask my advice on anything, but still I was disappointed because in many ways and at many times I’ve been a professional reactor. I’ve been a critic, I am now again writing software reviews. So I can’t help looking at critics with one eye on what they’re doing and one eye on whether I’m doing it too.

Here’s a criticism of Apple: one version of the Apple Watch costs £8,000 ($10,000). To me that’s one fact with an implicit second one – that I will never be able to afford that version – and this is all. Nothing else. I can’t extrapolate from that anything but that it’s a lot of money that I neither can or want to spend on a watch.

But to some critics this is ostensibly the end of Apple’s ambition to be “for the rest of us”. That’s it, Apple is cashing in, Apple is just out to make money, it is the end of days.

There is that word ‘ostensibly”, though. It is a fact that articles slamming Apple get more readers than ones praising it. Most people wouldn’t bother reading either, but if you’re an Apple hater then you enjoy the criticism. If you’re an Apple fan, you rather enjoy riffing on how pathetic the criticism is.

So I look at these criticism and I can’t tell whether they are genuine or just after getting some more readers. If it’s the latter then what can you do, haters gotta type.

But that does niggle at me. Professionally, I’m twitching at the thought of writing something whose sole purpose and existence is to get people to read it. Personally, I’ve realised that these criticisms have an impact.

Follow. I was on the MacNN podcast this week when Malcolm Owen talked about various Android phones that have been announced. He was quite dismissive of them and I asked about one Android feature that I think sounds really good: the way that if you put your phone face down on a desk, it mutes. Goes into Airplane Mode. Whatever the Android term is for not interrupting you while you’re working. I like that and, okay, I accept that a feature touted as being on Android first usually means it’s on one Android phone somewhere in the world first.

It’s on Malcolm’s phone and he says nope, he only ever got it to work once.

The hype of an Android feature had convinced me this was useful and I unthinkingly, certainly naively, assumed that it worked. Silly me.

So doubtlessly there are people out in the world reading and hearing criticisms of the Apple Watch and consciously or unconsciously making a decision about it. If all you hear is that it costs £8,000, you’re not going to consider buying one even though the real price is £299. That’s 26 times lower, by the way.

Now, someone buying or not buying an Apple Watch isn’t significant. They might love it if only they’d bought it; they might buy it and hate it. It’s just that seeing everything through the lens of perhaps self-serving criticism and being quick to diss before hearing anything substantial is so familiar to a writer. We have to be hard as writers and we are, it’s just that the thickness of our skin only protects us, it does not protect the work.

A piece of mine got a lot of criticism last year, criticism that – hand on heart – was in part so asinine that I had to bury a laugh. (“It should be a supernatural novel, I like supernatural novels.”) I went in to that session ready for a promised skin-tearing time and didn’t get it. Yet I haven’t written one word more of that book since. The criticism didn’t affect me, the critics didn’t affect me, but something affected that novel.

Nobody is ever going to get more readers because they’re criticising me but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other issues at play. The need to be heard, an inability to not say anything because you’ve got nothing to say. The expression of your own issues instead of anything to do with the book, the presumptions that one’s own preoccupations are correct and vital and important.

In that group, there was someone who’s set a novel in some particular area of London I’d never heard of. We weren’t in London, I’m not from the city and it’s not like the area was Westminster. I got the most deeply pitying look for asking where it was. The look was: you should know this, you aren’t a real writer, are you?

I’m just minded of this by a Facebook status I read this week about the Apple Watch. This is someone on Facebook, there’s no issue of getting more readers or not. It’s their real opinion. And their opinion is that the Apple Watch is of no interest because it doesn’t have X or Y, I can’t remember what. It wasn’t that the Apple Watch was of no interest to that Facebook writer, that would’ve been fine and normal, it was a dismissing dissing of the watch.

Whatever it is in us that makes us judge things before we see them ourselves, whatever it is that makes us slot ideas into categories and then judge those categories, let’s give it a rest.

Apple will keep on making that Watch unless the real thing, the actual physical product in people’s hands, proves to be a failure. It won’t stop because someone thinks it should run UNIX or needs to be set in a particularly obscure part of London.

Whatever you’re writing, write the damn thing and bollocks to anyone else. Get it done.

How about them Apples?

I do think it’s interesting and of course it’s newsworthy that Apple has just made more profit than any other public company ever. Weirdly, though, none of the many, many news reports I saw about this mentioned that it’s inspiring for writers.

Now, making lots of money could be inspiring for anyone, but I’m not actually thinking of the cash here. I’m talking inspiration and I’m thinking heartwarming. Seriously.

Apple just made $18bn, that’s £11.8bn and that bn is billion. Billion. I’m suddenly wondering if that’s a US billion or a UK one, but either way, it’s a lot. Doubtlessly, it is very easy to find the idea of lots of money inspiring if only because the idea of lots of not having to worry about bills is pretty great. Yet if you are driven by money, if you are drawn by money, you haven’t gone in to writing.

Here’s the thing. What none of the news reports really mentioned was that Apple nearly died.

There was a point when this company was within 90 days of going bankrupt.

Ninety days.

You and I are used to working under pressure but imagine being ninety days from bankruptcy while having thousands of staff on salary. As writers, our business is comparatively easy as we usually don’t have staff and we very rarely have any stock in warehouses. So imagine the staff and imagine having warehouses full of computers that aren’t selling.

This is where Apple was around the time that it brought back its co-founder Steve Jobs. So now imagine coming back to the company you made into a success and was ousted from in a boardroom fight by a fella you’d lobbied to bring in to the firm. No wonder there’s going to be a film about this guy.

Run the list with me. Immense pressure. Close to death. And deeply, personally invested in this firm. The degree and the volume and the sheer loudness of each of those must be more than any of us will ever face but we all face all of them. We all also have one specific problem that Apple did: our media and publishing seem to be these fast-paced worlds yet we know it takes centuries to make anything happen. Computers are this whizzy-fast technology revolution but pretend you’re designing fridges instead. It takes a lot of time, an immense amount of money, and with the technology available to you the very best you’re going to do is make a fridge that is slightly better than someone else’s. Then you have to get thousands of them made on spec and do everything you can to get those fridges in front of buyers.

Preferably in ninety days.

There was a lot that Apple could’ve done and there was a fairly infinite supply of advice from other companies and the technology press. They boiled down to two things. Sell the company or allow other firms to make Apple computers too.

What Apple did instead was hard and it was what writers need to do too. They simplified and they gambled on making something new that they thought was right.

The simplification was radical at the time. I don’t know how many different computers Apple had then but it was a lot. If you’ve ever asked a salesman or woman exactly what the difference between these six PCs are and they’ve recited something to do with gigahertz, that’s where Apple was then. A mess.

They dropped everything and instead planned to make just four things. A desktop and a laptop for consumers and the same again for professionals.

And for the consumer desktop computer, they designed the iMac.

I didn’t like it. The semi-translucent, brightly coloured, bulbous computer was garish but I admit that at least it wasn’t another grey box. Microsoft’s Bill Gates mocked it, saying that Apple was now the market leader in colours but he had a feeling PCs might just be able to catch up.

I don’t believe that Gates really thought that, I don’t imagine the man really missed what Apple had actually done. Yet he didn’t or couldn’t do anything then to compete with it. For what Apple had done with this (to my mind) ugly machine was to make it appealing. Computers weren’t appealing before: their audience already knew they wanted computers. Now Apple was reaching people who needed to be convinced to buy computers – and it convinced them. A lot.

PC stands for Personal Computer and this was suddenly personal. Apple put a handle on the machine not so you could lift it but so that you just instinctively understood that you could touch it. This was yours. And it was Apple’s: it wasn’t a commodity slapped together at a budget price, it was crafted and it was personal to them as well as to you.

When we’ve had umpteen rejections as writers, that’s what we need to do. Cut down on the number of projects we’re trying. Focus. And then write something new, something very personal, something if not with colour necessarily – this romcom needs more purple! – then definitely with vibrancy.

One more thing. That iMac was such a giant success that, yes, of course all other computer companies followed suit – or thought they did. They slapped a blue plastic bit on the front and waited for the money to roll in. They’re still waiting.

Apple isn’t. That ugly original iMac begat many variations and a couple of generations but then Apple chose to end it. They do this a lot. Make a hit and then kill it. Replace it with a better one. The brightly-coloured iMac became the plain white one and then iterated through I don’t know how many variations until it’s reached the beautiful one on my desk. I don’t use the word casually: this screen and this iMac are a pleasure to look at and since I might be looking at it 16 hours a day, it matters.

So there’s another thought. Write something you can bear looking at for 16 hours a day.

I like Apple products, I very much like their approach to design, but $18bn is so huge that I don’t think I can really imagine how much it is. Consequently I’m not that interested. Yet watching all those news reports, I really did find it heartening. You can be at death’s door and pressing the bell and you can turn that around completely by ignoring your critics and carrying on doing what you think is right.

Scotland Decides: iPhone 6 or 6 Plus?

Yes, yes, Scotland’s vote over whether to stay in the UK is overwhelming me, it’s occupied me a lot lately and quite a bit for 18 months or so. But a schism in the UK and the potential loss to the union of one of the finest nations in the in the world, that happens every day.

Plus I’m not Scottish nor am I in Scotland so I can’t actually do anything.

Whereas having two iPhone models to pick from, that’s new. Plus if I think very hard about it, I can make a decision and do something about that.

Look, I have nothing to add to the Scotland debate yet I can’t let this moment pass without acknowledging how important is. How important it is in every way but also how important it is to me.

Wait, I do think this one thing that I’ve not heard in the debates. The UK’s sudden promises of new powers and extra autonomy for Scotland sounds to me exactly like a bloke saying “I’ll be better, things will be different now”. You know that’s never true and I’m afraid neither is what’s being said about new powers: if Scotland decides to stay in the UK, that’s a done deal, we’ll get back to you about those new powers. Right. Sure.

Already you think I’m pro Scotland leaving.

And I don’t know.

My automatic, natural, default position is that we are all better off together. It kills me, though, that “better together” is the line for the No side that wants Scotland to stay in the union. It kills me because while I don’t generally think about being English, there are things in that campaign that make me wish I weren’t.

Being in England, it’s only very recently that I’ve got to see much detail about the debate. (I think that’s very bad, I think that’s made it sound like we’ve had a week talking about it instead of all these months. But at least it’s a big thing on the news now.)

I hope I’m wrong, then, but of the bits I’ve managed to hear over the whole campaign, everything from the No side has seemed to be patronising, fearmongering and – I’m struggling to remember a specific thing here so let me throw in the word allegedly – allegedly just an out and out lie.

That’s not something to make you proud.

That is something to make you want to run away.

But wanting to run away is an emotional response: if I were able to vote in this and I did so based on how furious the No campaign makes me feel, would that be right? We can’t know what will happen if Scotland leaves – or if we can, neither side has been very convincingly informative – so it’s hard to be coldly logical or analytical. I’m not sure that I would entirely want to be coldly logical or analytical: this isn’t a maths problem.

It’s not like, for instance, a 4.7in iPhone screen versus a 5.5in one. That’s a toughie.