Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface

Right now, people are burying Windows 8. Even people you’d normally expect to be on Microsoft’s side are unhappy with it. Me, though? I kind of like it.

When Apple originally brought out the first iPad, I bought one as soon as I could. I always liked touchscreen devices. Long before1 Steve Jobs held the first iPhone prototype in his hands, I carried a button-less, touchscreen-only SonyEricsson P800.

Picture of SonyEricsson P800, a mobile phone with a capacitive touchscreen and no buttons

Heck, I owned various Newtons,2 and used them to take notes in school. So the iPad really made sense to me.

The Problem that Surface Solves (For Me)

When Jobs introduced the iPad, he wanted it to be seen as a productivity device. He had Phil Schiller demo Keynote, Numbers, and Pages.

I used the Newton as a productivity device. I used the P800 as a productivity device. But at least for me, the iPad never turned out to be a good productivity device. It turned out to be great for browsing the web, watching movies, and playing games. Great for reading books and comics. Great for consumption. But not great for production.

To be sure, it’s absolutely possible to use iPads productively.3 In fact, Apple blogs love to point to examples of people who do use iPads to produce things. And yes, these people exist. There are artists who draw on iPads, and musicians who make music on iPads, and writers who write novels on iPads, and movie makers who cut their movies on iPads. But the fact that you have to point to these people, the fact that there are articles about these people, shows that they’re unusual. An artist drawing a painting on an iPad is a novelty.

If it was normal for people to use their iPads for creative tasks, there would not be newspaper articles about people using their iPads for creative tasks. The iPad will have arrived as a productivity device when news sites stop reporting about people who use iPads for productivity. So in the end, all of these links to articles about people who use their iPads to create things only seem to support the notion that this is not how most people use their iPads.

Responding to people who note that the iPad seems to be mostly used for content consumption, John Gruber writes: «for these people, the iPad is unsuitable for content creation for anyone unless it’s suitable for them,» implying that there’s something special about people who don’t use iPads productively. But I don’t think that’s fair. On the contrary, I think it’s somewhat unusual to find iPad owners who do use their iPads for content creation on a regular basis. Even when you just look at very basic creative tasks — say, responding to email, rather than just reading email — most people seem to prefer PCs overs iPads.

It’s not an accident that the best selling, highest grossing iPad apps are almost exclusively games.4

Some people point out that most PC users don’t use their PCs to make music, and paint pictures, either. That’s true. But they do use their PCs to write letters, presentations, invitations, create birthday cards, or send emails. And while you can use your iPad for these things — and I know that there are people who do — it’s often easier to do it on a PC. The same things that make iPads easy to use for some things can make them harder to use for others.

Consider a creative task that almost everybody has to do: writing a job application.

When you write your cover letter, you might want to also look at the job ad on the Internet, so you can tailor your letter to the job. On an iPad, you can’t see your letter and the job ad at the same time.

You might want to send your letter to a friend to read. Maybe that friend will send back some suggestions. On an iPad, you can’t see the email with the suggestions and your letter at the same time.

Your CV probably includes a picture. Maybe you went to a photographer who gave you a CD with copies of the pictures she took. You can’t easily copy them to your iPad. Once there, you probably want to touch them up a bit, and crop them. It might be inconvenient to move the image file between all of the apps you’ll use to work on it.

Finally, you might want to export your letter and CV as PDFs, maybe combine them into a single PDF, or maybe ZIP them. You want to attach the resulting file to an email. It’s reasonably simple on a Mac or PC, but I’m not sure if some of these things are even possible on an iPad.

Apple has decided to make the iPad as simple as possible, but sometimes, this simplicity comes at the expense of power. Not having any kind of window management or split-screen view makes the iPad much easier to use, but it also means you can’t look at an email and at a Pages document at the same time. Preventing apps from interacting with each other cuts down on complexity, but it also means that it is difficult or sometimes even impossible to use multiple apps in conjunction on the same task. Not having any kind of system-level concept of a file or a document means that people are less likely to lose track of their files or documents,5 but it also means that you are often very limited in what you can do with the things you create in an iPad app.

As Joanna Stern puts it, «if I’m writing long emails or working on office documents, I want a larger screen, a roomy keyboard and the ability to easily juggle programs.»

Fraser Speirs, whom nobody will suspect of being against using iPads in productive settings, points out that Apple seems to be stagnating in this area:

I still think it’s a fair question to ask after the relative functional (if not visual) stasis of iOS 6 and iOS 7: where does iOS go from here?

At the launch of iOS 5, Scott Forstall said that Apple had undertaken an exercise to identify and remove all the missing functionality in iOS that caused people to go back to a computer. The examples he gave were creating new calendars and mailboxes. Perhaps it’s time to do that exercise again.

And that’s the problem I’m trying to solve. I acknowledge that there are people for whom the iPad works well as a productivity device. For me personally, though, that was never the case (and I don’t think I’m alone in this). But I do want to use a tablet as a productivity device. Fraser Speirs is asking Apple to make iOS a better platform for these kinds of tasks, but I’m not waiting anymore. I want to use a tablet that has an elegant user interface, but also works well for productivity.

A few months ago, I gave away my iPad,6 and replaced it with, of all things, a Microsoft Surface Pro 2.

What I Like

Almost everything that happens inside the Metro7 environment is fantastic. It’s clean, fast, and powerful. The apps are easy to use, but still offer a lot. The gesture-based user interface requires you to learn8 a few new things, but takes very little time to get used to.

The spatial way that apps are arranged on the home screen is great. It’s very easy to group apps, name groups, rearrange apps or groups, zoom out to see an overview of all of your apps, change the size of individual apps to emphasize ones you use often, or deemphasize ones you use less often. Apps can provide a live preview (which is very useful for, say, an email client). And finally, changing the device’s orientation doesn’t move your tiles around. They stay where they are, or, when they do move, do so in more predictable ways.

Example showing a messaging app using Windows 8's live tiles
(Image from Microsoft’s guidelines for tiles and badges)

Metro looks very clean, and most of the screen can be used for content, because UI elements that aren’t constantly needed are hidden behind the screen edges.

Swipe in from the right to see a global menu that contains five entries.

Right side menu

«Search» searches your computer, the Internet, and the current app.

«Share» allows you to share whatever you’re currently looking at. It keeps track of people you’ve shared things with, so sending, say, a web page to an email address often requires as few gestures as a single swipe and three taps: open the menu, tap «Share», tap the address, tap «Send».

«Start» brings you back to the home screen. This is so convenient that I only ever use the actual home button on my Surface by accident. Unfortunately, it’s a capacitive button, so accidental activation does happen from time to time.

«Devices» allows you to send whatever you’re currently looking at to devices like printers or projectors.

«Settings» allows you to change settings (both global and for the current application), and turn the Surface off.

Since you’re typically holding the Surface on the side, this menu is easily accessible, and very convenient. I was initially confused by the fact that the menu combines global and local features (e.g. «Search» is always available and looks as if it was always a global search of your entire Surface, but when you’re in an app, you can sometimes change the Search scope to the current app), but I figured out how it worked quite quickly.

If you swipe in from the left side of the screen, you’ll get the task switcher. The default behavior of the task switcher is problematic, since you basically drag in an application. Which application? That’s not always immediately predictable. Fortunately, it’s easy to fix this problem by simply going to the «Corner and edges» setting, and turning off the somewhat oddly and verbosely named setting «When I swipe in from the left edge, switch between my recent apps instead of showing a list of them». Once this is changed, swiping in simply shows a list of running apps. Tap one to jump to it, or drag it into the screen to turn on split screen mode.9

Again, extremely convenient.

Finally, swiping in from the bottom brings up the current application’s menu. For example, in Internet Explorer,10 this brings up open tabs, your address bar, and some buttons.

Internet Explorer's menu

Again, the buttons are typically arranged around the edges, making them easy accessible when holding the device in landscape mode.

Hiding these UI elements by default allows the applications to use the screen for actual content. Since this gesture works the same in every application, it’s an easily learnable way of accessing features. This allows the app’s designer to clean up its user interface.

I’ve kind of glossed over it, but a few of the things I’ve just mentioned make the Surface quite different from an iPad.

One of them is the Share menu, which is one way in which Windows 8 apps can interact with each other. Via Contracts, apps can register themselves as sharing sources, sharing recipients, or both.11

Metro apps have access to any cloud storage app that you install (and to any other app that wants to make its «data silo» available). Fresh Paint,12 a painting app that comes with the Surface, automatically shows Dropbox and Box as file sources, once you’ve installed these apps.

Screenshot of a Surface app's open image mode, showing the dropdown that lists different file sources

But since this is regular old Windows, that’s not the only way to access files. You can access the full file system, if you want to (but you don’t have to). This allows you to easily exchange files between different apps, even if they don’t support the appropriate Contracts, or don’t run in Metro.

Another difference between the Surface and an iPad is the Surface’s split screen mode. iPad owners often note that the iPad’s «one app owns the screen» system is a good idea, since people can’t multitask anyway. But that ignores that people often need multiple apps to work on a single task. I can’t count the instances where I’ve used split screen mode just in the last few days. I’m in a meeting, taking notes in OneNote while looking at last week’s meeting notes. I’m responding to an email while looking at a spec. I’m making a drawing while looking at a reference. I’m changing a mockup based on feedback in an email. I’m taking notes during a Skype call.

Screenshot of Surface's split-screen mode, showing a Skype call on the left, and a notes-taking app on the right
This is just an illustration of the concept. I do realize that it doesn’t really make sense to take notes while looking at the test call icon. Typically, I’m looking at a presentation or a shared screen during these kinds of calls, so switching away to another app entirely is not a good solution.

When the Surface is in split-screen mode and you launch another app, it «asks» you which side of the screen to show the app.

Opening in new app in split-screen mode allows you to pick on which side of the split the app should open

This seems slightly strange to me. I’m looking at two apps side-by-side because I want to see these specific two apps side by side, not because I want to see any two apps side-by-side. In most situations, when opening a new app, I would have preferred if the new app simply opened in full-screen mode,13 and the Surface then allowed me to jump back to the split-screen view with the previous two apps using the task switcher. That would have allowed me to easily switch between a full-screen app and two other apps in split-screen mode.

Metro’s split-screen mode isn’t perfect. It doesn’t cover every use case. But at least for me, it covered surprisingly many of them, and it made the Surface a much better option for creative work than an iPad.

A final difference I want to mention: the Surface Pro comes with a pen. I’ve used the pen for annotating drafts, for sketching out user interfaces, for drawing logic diagrams, for taking notes, and for many other things.14

I’ve tried using the iPad for this, I really have. I’ve tried using my fingers. It’s cumbersome. I also have a drawer full of iPad pens. I have every pen imaginable. I have pens that look like brushes, pens that look like markers, pens that have little discs on the tip, pens that create a change in capacitance using electricity, Bluetooth pens, infrared pens that require little cameras you attach to the iPad… I have all of them. I’ve supported ever iPad pen Kickstarter project I could find. Some of these pens are terrible, and some are acceptable, depending on what I want to use them for.

None of them are even in the same ballpark as the Surface’s pen.

The Surface’s pen is almost as good as my Cintiq’s.15 Tracking is fast, it’s pressure-sensitive, it works everywhere, and it feels like a real pen. It’s great, unlike every iPad pen I’ve ever tried.

In general, I really love the Surface, and I use it much more, and for many more things, than I ever used any iPad I ever owned.16 But it’s not perfect.

What I Find Disappointing

Windows’ handwriting recognition is interesting. Technically, it performs flawlessly.17 I thought that the later Newton models had acceptable handwriting recognition, but Windows completely blows that out of the water. To give you an idea of how good it is: my handwriting is terrible,18 and I’m writing a lot of German text using the English-language handwriting recognition. Yet it works.

The handwriting recognition keyboard

Unfortunately, this fantastic technology is package in an absolutely terrible user interface. First of all, handwriting recognition only works inside a handwriting recognition keyboard. Yep, you have to activate an on-screen keyboard that covers half the screen, then write inside that keyboard. Like on a Palm. Back in the 90s.

As of right now, I’ve not discovered how to write continuously. You have to write text until the keyboard is «full», then hit the «Insert» button. That clears the keyboard, and you can continue writing text.

The way I want handwriting recognition to work is to take notes by jotting them down inside an app like OneNote, and have Windows recognize that automatically, behind the scenes, optionally without replacing my handwritten notes with printed text. Then, I want to be able to search my handwritten notes using full-text search.19

The Newton offered a similar feature called Ink Text (PDF). It allowed you to write text directly onto the screen. Then, at a later date, you could have the Newton convert the handwritten text to printed text, either word by word, or for the whole text. Here’s an example showing handwritten text, some of which has been converted.

Ink Text on the Newton
(This screenshot was taken using Einstein, which inexplicably even allows you to emulate the Newton’s garish backlight.)

If the Newton could do this (and a lot more) back in the 90s, there’s no reason why Windows 8 should be any worse.

One final thing I want back from the Newton is modeless error correction. When the Newton got a letter in a word wrong, you could simply overwrite it with the correct letter. On Windows, you have to enter a special correction mode, which completely does not work the way I expect it to, and always causes me to gradually make the text worse and worse when I try to fix mistakes, until I just give up, erase the whole word, and start fresh.

Presenting such beautiful technology in such a frustrating user interface is sad. But to be fair, it’s not a real problem; It’s just a huge missed opportunity. The actual problems only show up once tap one particular button: the «Desktop» button. Basically, you’re dumped back into the old Windows user interface, and all bets are off.

What I Dislike

The regular old Windows desktop user interface was never particularly inspiring, but on a Surface, it’s even worse. It barely works with touch interactions. Many of the touch targets are minuscule. Just closing a window becomes a chore.

Apps are not integrated into Metro at all. For example, I use ArtRage a lot. ArtRage is a full screen app. It would fit into Metro perfectly well. But ArtRage is not visible from within Metro. If I launch ArtRage and switch to a Metro app, ArtRage does not appear in Metro’s app switcher. There’s a generic «Desktop» entry in the app switcher, and this entry «contains» all running desktop apps. This isn’t just cumbersome, it has an effect on utility. For example, it’s not possible to use Metro’s split-screen mode to see two regular Windows apps side-by-side.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that I can use ArtRage on my Surface. The device would be a lot less useful to me if it did not have support for «legacy» apps. But it seems to me that the integration of legacy apps into Metro should have been handled much better.

The problems with Windows 8 don’t end with the integration between desktop and Metro. There’s also the problem that good old Windows seems to be a pretty terrible operating system.

It’s technically terrible.20 There’s the problem where installing 1Password causes handwriting recognition to stop working. There’s the problem where, after a few days of using the Surface, I suddenly started getting an error message about some DLL every time I restarted the Surface (which you sometimes have to do when you get updates, which you get often).21 There’s the problem where games randomly don’t start correctly and complain about some .net dependency. And all of this this after just a few weeks of using a factory-sealed, completely new Surface.

DLL Error
(The non-native resolution is the Surface’s default desktop setting. Unlike a retina MacBook, the Surface screen’s resolution is not high enough to get away with it.)

This is probably a good point to acknowledge that Microsoft’s job is much harder than Apple’s. Apple only has to support a very limited range of hardware. Microsoft has to support a potentially limitless range of hardware. Problems are bound to occur. As a user, though, I don’t really care how hard Microsoft’s job is. I only care whether stuff works. When my computer doesn’t work right, the difficulty of Microsoft’s job doesn’t magically fix my problem.

The visual design is inconsistent. Windows’ user interface is a mess built on top of three decades of other messes that were built on top of even earlier messes. It’s turtles all the way down, except these aren’t turtles. There are countless options and settings and apps scattered all over the place, and there are still situations where you only recourse is to open a command prompt and start a DOS executable.

For example, there seem to be three different ways of formatting disks (that I could find). There’s diskpart, which you start from the command prompt. There’s an ancient-looking application called Disk Management (which, by the way, you’ll find under «System and Security», not under «Hardware and Sound», which is where I would expect it — but perhaps I’m just weird). And I think there’s a popup window you get when you insert an empty, unformatted disk.

Disk Management running under Windows 8

Yep, despite looking like it’s coming straight out of Windows 95, this app ships with Windows 8.

It’s fine to have a GUI app and a command line app, of course. As long as users are not forced to fall back to the command line tool. I’m guessing that each of these apps were added to Windows to add more convenience, but the problem is that none of them really replaced their predecessors. So they’re still around, cluttering up Windows with stuff that should have been obsoleted a long time ago, forcing users to open 1981-style DOS shells on their Windows devices bought in 2014.

Why isn’t there one single Metro-style disk management app that does 100% of the jobs any user will reasonably be expected to do when using a Windows PC?

The UX is erratic. Some of the apps in Windows are just bad. Go back to the Disk Management app above. I’d expect to see something like that in Linux, except that even today’s better Linux distros have progressed beyond user interfaces like this.

Basic things that should really not be complicated are borderline impossible on Windows. For example, how do you create a bootable clone of your hard disk, so that you can boot from an identical external USB hard disk in case the internal disk goes belly-up? On a Mac, you just download Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper22 and run it.23 In case of emergency, connect the external disk, start the Mac, hit Option, select the external disk, you’re done.

On Windows? I’m still not sure. People recommended Acronis True Image for backing up Windows disks.24 Sure enough, it has a «Make this media bootable» option. Except it’s greyed out. Why? Acronis says that you can only make CDs or FAT32 USB flash drives bootable. Why? I don’t know.

Windows’ technical limitations seem to be bubbling up into the UI, making things really hard that should be really simple. It’s just a bad user experience.

The culture is terrible. At one point during the last few weeks, while working on my gaming PC, I had to copy my Windows 8 installation DVD onto a bootable USB flash drive. I googled for solutions, and lots of people recommended a specific app. So I downloaded it, and ran the installer.

«Do you want to also install some spyware?»
«No, just the app, please.»
«Are you sure? It’s really great!»
«No, thank you, no need.»
«Click No if you want to install this browser plugin!»
Wait, uhm… «YES! Yes, I don’t want it!»
«Damn, I really thought that would work. Are you sure you don’t want it? It will improve your Internet search results!»
«No, please! NO! DO NOT WANT!»
«Okay! Installing Spyware now!»25

That’s not an isolated example. Finding software for Windows is a nightmare. Windows users sometimes complain that Mac software is expensive. Maybe it is, but on the plus side, it generally tends to work, and typically doesn’t fill your computer with adware and browser toolbars and background processes that install weird buttons in the toolbars of all of your freaking windows.

But it’s not just that a lot of software comes with crummy installers. It’s also that a lot of software is, itself, quite crummy. The average quality of Mac software has probably deteriorated somewhat during the last decade, as the Mac has become more popular, but it’s nothing compared to what Windows users have to put up with. You could respond to that by noting that, perhaps, the average Windows app is worse than the average Mac app, but surely, the best Windows apps still beat the best Mac apps? At least in my experience, this is often not the case. The selection of Windows apps is huge, but it’s not uncommon to find that all of the apps in a specific category are various levels of terrible.26

To be fair, some of these issues also exist on the Mac. Perhaps I just notice them less, because I’m more used to them. But I’m quite sure that this does not account for all of the difference I’m noticing.

Metro on a Desktop

So using the «legacy» desktop on a tablet is not a good user experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s there. I’d rather have access to it than not. I’m not complaining about the fact that I can go to the desktop, I’m complaining about the fact that Microsoft didn’t do more to improve the desktop, and to integrate desktop apps into Metro.

But that’s about using the desktop on a tablet. What about the reverse? What about using Metro on a desktop PC?

Large Everything

People note that designing for touch screens requires you to have much larger tap targets, because tapping is less precise than clicking — your finger is way bigger than a mouse pointer. They conclude that this creates user interfaces that are inherently bad for desktop PCs, because desktop PCs use mice.

But if you’ve ever seen normal people use computers, squinting at the screen to position the mouse cursor just exactly over the icon, and then carefully clicking it to make sure that they don’t accidentally move the mouse while clicking and initiate a drag, you’ll probably agree that desktops can really benefit from larger click targets, too. And it’s not just people who are not proficient with mice. It’s also people using trackballs, people working with drawing tablets, and so on.

In other words, I think the exact same design patterns that make touch screen apps work well on touch screens — large buttons, large text, uncluttered user interfaces — also make them good desktop apps.

Split Screen

A bigger issue is Metro’s split screen mode. This works great on a widescreen tablet, where it seems to cover most use cases (at least in my subjective experience). On a desktop PC with a larger screen, more proficient users might want to have more power than that.27 There’s also no concept of multiple desktops, which would make a lot of sense in combination with split screen windows.

I think this is a solvable problem, though. Split-screen mode is a first step in the right direction, and there’s nothing preventing Microsoft from expanding on that concept for devices with larger screens.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that most IDEs don’t use the host operating system’s window manager. Instead, they implement their own tiling window managers, which might be something Microsoft could do on the OS level.

One OS To Rule Them All

In the end, I don’t think Microsoft’s idea of having a single system that works on desktops and tablets is inherently flawed. I think it’s a good idea. I think Metro can work well on a desktop,28 and I think it makes sense to give people on tablets the power of the Windows desktop. The Surface shows that this can work; some small tweaks to how Windows 8 handles desktop apps could already go a long way towards making this a better experience. But it’s definitely true that Microsoft’s execution of this idea is far from perfect.

The solution, though, should be to fix the execution, not to kill the whole idea.

The Problem with Windows 8

I have no doubt that there are people who will read what I’ve just written about Windows’ flaws, and will write me emails, saying things like «you’re so wrong! All of the things you hate are great! You just don’t understand the genius that is Windows!»

I think that’s the problem with Windows. There are people who enjoy tinkering with their BIOS, playing around in DOS, and installing bootloaders. And that’s fine. I think it’s even great. I think everybody should have the freedom to install whichever bootloader they want. The problem comes up when these people see something like Metro, do not like what they see, and then tell everybody else how terrible it is. When it’s really not terrible; it’s just not for them.

The things I love about Windows 8 are exactly the things that the most vocal Windows users hate, and the things I hate about Windows 8 are the things they love. So maybe the problem with Windows 8 is that Windows 8 appeals much more to me, a Mac user of 20 years, than to your typical Slashdot-commenting Ars-Technica-reading29 Windows user who frequents online forums to talk about Windows. And because these people are the most vocal Windows users, and because they tell their friends which versions of Windows to like and which to avoid, that has real effects on Microsoft’s success with Windows 8.

Despite of what the most vocal Windows users say, I don’t think Windows 8 is bad for your average Windows user. I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Windows and Me

In the end, I really, really like Metro, but don’t love Windows as a whole. It’s flawed.30 But even so, I like my Surface a lot more than I ever liked any of my iPads.

When Apple introduced the iPad, they made a point of showing productivity apps. I feel like the Surface finally makes good on Apple’s promise: Metro is a UI that actually works well for productivity. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than acceptable.

The problem with Metro might not be that it’s performing badly at its intended function. The problem might simply be that, unlike me, most people don’t want to use their tablets for productivity. They’d rather keep using their old Windows PC for that, and also have an iPad for watching movies and playing games.

Further Reading

Good follow-up from Shawn Blanc, who notes that it is important to discuss these topics, because we’re currently in the midst of shaping what our children’s computers will look like.

Anand Babu writes about different usage scenarios for Windows 8 and the Surface.

About Windows’ future, Tim Anderson notes that «a revitalised desktop in Windows 9 will do little to arrest its decline.»

Robert McGinley Myers points out that the iPad is better at some kinds of productivity tasks than a desktop PCs. He mentions grading papers as an example. He could not be more right; marking up PDFs is definitely much more enjoyable on a tablet with a pen than on a desktop PC with a mouse. This is exactly why I want to use a tablet for work, and why I think that Microsoft’s basic idea — combining the advantages of a tablet with the advantages of a desktop PC — is fundamentally sound, and worth pursuing.


  1. Probably. back

  2. It’s insane how futuristic Einstein running on a Galaxy Note still feels to me. Also, Columbo’s Mystery Capers is still great. back

  3. If this whole section of this article reads like I’m trying to apologize for the fact that the iPad doesn’t work for me as a productivity device, that’s because I am. The linked article, written by Matt Gemmell, concludes that «anyone trotting out that old chestnut [that the iPad isn’t a tool for productivity and creation] is either labouring under some astonishingly wrong-headed preconceptions, or is making excuses for their own failings.»
    Gemmell has written some great, empathetic, thoughtful pieces on usability and design (and other things). That he attributes people’s inability to figure out how to use iPads for productivity to their own failings illustrates, I think, just how charged this whole topic is, and perhaps helps explain why I’m feeling the need to apologize for the fact that I haven’t figured out how to use my iPad for actual work. back

  4. While games also sell well on Windows, there does seem to be a visible difference. The top 100 selling and grossing iPad apps are almost exclusively games, while the Windows 8 app store shows plenty of other apps. It’s difficult to compare the two platforms directly, because a lot of gamers buy Windows games from platforms like Steam. back

  5. Rather than finding them in a file system, you just have to find them inside the app you used to create them. back

  6. Although I kept my other, older iPad 2 that powers my iCade :-) back

  7. I know it’s not called that anymore, but Microsoft’s replacement name is not usable as a word, and everybody knows what Metro is, so I’ll continue to use Metro. back

  8. There are videos out there of people using Metro for the first time, and not immediately figuring out how everything works. I still remember that the first Mac I owned came with a tutorial application that taught people how to use the mouse. Does this mean that the mouse is a bad idea? Once we get used to it, it’s easy to forget how unintuitive a lot of the stuff we use really is. Sometimes it’s okay to ask users to learn a few things. Indeed, Metro doesn’t even require you to learn that much — much less than any Mac ever did. back

  9. It’s actually called «snap», but I think «split screen» is more descriptive. back

  10. By the way, unlike on iOS, it’s possible to change the default browser, and other default appsback

  11. Lest I anger any more Android users, I should mention that Android offers a similar feature. back

  12. Please add layers to this app, Microsoft! back

  13. Instead of picking one of the two sides, you can drag the app up, and it will open in full-screen mode. back

  14. Yep, the fact that I love pens so much is partially related to my job, and doesn’t apply to everybody. On the other hand, it’s no coincidence that we use pens so much in everyday life. For any kind of task that requires even slightly precise input, from painting a still life to writing a shopping list, pens work much better than fingers. back

  15. Although I’m missing some advanced stuff like tilt recognition. back

  16. And I don’t need to carry it in a case, because it has a built-in stand, which is pure genius. back

  17. A few days after I wrote this, I installed 1Password, and handwriting recognition stopped working. Fix: kill the 1Password processes when the problem occurs. back

  18. Twenty years of typing on a keyboards hasn’t been kind to my handwriting. back

  19. The desktop version of OneNote has a feature similar to this. Somewhat weirdly, the Metro version, the one that people actually use on tablets with pens, does not. Anyway, this should be a consistent, always available system-level feature, and not left up to individual applications. back

  20. I literally spent three days installing Windows 8 on a new SSD I had put into my gaming PC. I eventually got it working by randomly changing BIOS options until I found a permutation that worked. back

  21. The DLL seems to be from a Logitech driver. However, while I did at one point plug a Logitech keyboard into the Surface, I definitely did not intentionally install any Logitech drivers. It’s something Windows put there by itself, only for it to become a problem later. back

  22. I apologize for the oversight, Dave :-) back

  23. Or use Disk Utility as a slightly less convenient, but built-in alternative. back

  24. Here’s another recommendationback

  25. At least Windows has a pretty good uninstaller that works for almost any installed application, something the Mac still lacks. back

  26. On a related note, there’s still this idea that it is a good idea to have an app store with as many apps inside as possible, even if most of the apps are complete crap. On this metric, Metro is losing. However, when actually using Metro’s app store, I think that, just like iOS and Android, it has stepped over that threshold where there are so many apps that it becomes impossible to use the store for discovering new apps. So… bully for Microsoft? I’m still waiting for an app store that prides itself on selecting for quality, rather than quantity (which isn’t possible on the iPhone, because apps can’t be sold outside of the App Store, so Apple has to be as inclusive as possible — but it would be possible for Microsoft, were it not for this inane idea that more always means better when it comes to app stores). back

  27. I initially wrote that you can only see two windows side-by-side when running Metro on larger screens. This is false. Depending on your screen size, you can see three or more windows side-by-side. back

  28. Just replacing the messy, crowded Start menu with Metro’s home screen is already a huge improvement. If you want to launch an application, why not use the whole screen to provide a good UI, rather than a tiny part of the screen to provide a terrible UI? All of the arguments I’ve seen in favor of bringing back the old Start menu seem to boil down to change aversionback

  29. See the comments on this article for an example. back

  30. Before I forget it, here’s another flaw: Windows 8’s calendar app doesn’t support Google Calendarback

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Marco Arment:

I’m glad Apple’s improving iOS 7’s visual usability by adding yet another toggle, but the need for Button Shapes, Bold Text, Increase Contrast, On/Off Labels, and Reduce Motion shows significant flaws in iOS 7’s design.

If you find yourself forced to introduce settings for purely visual UI changes, it’s time to ask yourself if there might be something going wrong.

Craig Grannell:

My concern is more that Apple has created an operating system that clearly has a ton of UX and UI issues, and yet is now burying ‘fixes’ within accessibility, away from where the typical user will see it.

If your default UI is so bad that there are large segments of your user base that can’t even use it properly, you’re probably also hurting people who aren’t part of these segments. Not having visual differentiation between buttons and labels makes your UI almost impossible to use for some people, but it also makes your UI a little bit harder to use for everybody else. Most people won’t think to look for solutions to these issues under their accessibility settings.

To be clear, making your UI a bit harder to use in order to make it prettier might sometimes be a worthwhile tradeoff. But it’s a tradeoff you should never make lightly.

Learning Avoidance

Jakob Nielsen:

However, while users might have a mathematically true ROI from learning more about user interfaces, the ROI might not be so clear from a behavioral standpoint. The problem is that the investment occurs immediately: users must suffer the interaction cost of navigating through obscure parts of the user interface. In contrast, the benefit is deferred: users realize it only in small increments in some undefined future moments when they might use newly discovered features.

This is a type of behavior I see constantly.1 Rather than doing extra upfront work that will provide benefits in the long run, people will continually pick the choice that is easier in the short run.

For example, when encountering a bug in an application, users typically tend to find a workaround, and then tend to just keep doing that workaround, rather than submitting a bug report which might result in a better long-term outcome.

Another example: whenever possible, people will use applications or app features they’re familiar with, rather than learning new applications or features — even if what they already know is only barely suitable for the task they’re performing. A particularly extreme example I’ve experienced recently was a user who would do spreadsheet-like calculations in Word. The user would enter the numbers into Word, columns delimited by tabs, and then use a calculator app on an iPhone to do calculations.

Rather than learning how to use an application like Excel, it was easier to combine two familiar applications: Word and an iPhone calculator app.

As a result of this behavior, many users are perennial beginners. They reach a basic skill level that allows them to get the job done, but then stop learning.

Nielsen continues:

People don’t read manuals. People don’t go exploring all over the user interface in search of neat features. People don’t investigate whether there’s a better way of doing something once they’ve learned an approach that works. (Maybe you do these things, but you’re not an average user.)

Learning is hard work, and users don’t want to do it.

To remedy this, Nielsen suggests a number of things UI designers can do. I particularly like these three:

Just-in-time learning

Since users don’t read manuals, you should design the UI so that it is self-documenting. Sometimes, this means using clear, plain, self-explanatory language in your user interface. Other times, it can go as far as including documentation right in the application itself, where and when people actually need it, rather than in an external, separate manual.

I particularly like how Acorn automatically shows contextual help popups while you use it.2

Acorn's inline help tooltips

Exploit teachable moments

When things go wrong, don’t just point out that things whent wrong. Explain why they go wrong, and what the user can do to fix the problem.

Appway, a process management software I work on, constantly validates processes while the user is working on them. An unintrusive widget tells the user how well she is currently doing, a bit like playing a game. The more potential problems there are in a process, the more dire the widget’s icon becomes. When asked, Appway then suggests actions to fix these problems.

Forgiveness

If users trust that mistakes won’t be punished, they’re more likely to explore your application, and thus more likely to learn how to use it better. This doesn’t just mean allowing undo. BBEdit, for example, can keep a history of the text files it edits, so that you can go back to earlier versions even after the app was restarted.

You can find more strategies in Nielsen’s article.


  1. Both in other people, as well as in myself. back

  2. Cleverly, Acorn uses the same popups to prevent mode errors. Since the popups communicate what tool you’re currently using, you’re never confused about the mode the application is in. I’ve written about this in my bookback

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Investment Creates Pride

It’s no secret that people are proud of the things they make on their own. The more you’ve invested in something, the prouder you are. I love the feeling of holding something I’ve built in my own hands; the more work I put into it, the better. I love my own sketches and drawings, even if, objectively, most aren’t that great. I think the food I cook on my own tastes much better than food from a restaurant.

This doesn’t just apply to physical things. It also applies to computer work. I love writing code and letting it run, the feeling of having created something that works. I love drawing in ArtRage, creating things in OmniGraffle or Sketch, even writing text in BBEdit.

I’m much less fond of Pages, though. When I start Pages and create a new document, it asks me to pick from a template. Usually, I just pick one, and change the text to whatever I need. I’m not proud of that. I don’t own the result, I’m just riding somebody else’s coattails. True, I’m making something, but I’m not making it mine. It’ll never be mine.

I love tweaking a photo I’ve shot in iPhoto, messing with the sliders until it looks good. Conversely, I don’t like the photo apps that allow you to pick a predefined filter. I didn’t make that filter. It’s not because of me that the photo looks good. Somebody else put in the work, I just clicked on a button.

There’s an oft-repeated anecdote about cake mixes. Supposedly, they didn’t sell well until one manufacturer decided to allow people to add their own eggs, thus giving them the feeling of «owning» the resulting cake, rather than just making somebody else’s cake. The anecdote is false, but the underlying sentiment is real. It’s not your cake if you’re just putting it into the oven.

GM offers buyers of certain Corvettes the option of hand-building the engine that powers their new car. Buying a car is already an emotional experience, but imagine how much more invested in your car you become when you yourself have hand-built its engine!

When designing creative apps, the line between giving people so much rope that they can’t help but hang themselves, and giving them so little that they can’t even tie a knot in it, is often very fine. Most Corvette owners probably couldn’t build their cars from scratch, but they are perfectly capable of putting together an engine with some help from a Corvette employee.

When working on an application, think about this. Are you letting your users own the things they create, or are they just following in somebody else’s footsteps? What’s your application’s hand-built Corvette engine?


This is one of the 61 essays published in The Thing About Jetpacks. If you want to read more, you can buy the book here.

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The Thing About Jetpacks

Jon Bell and I have written a book. It’s a collection of essays. It contains the entirety of fuckjetpacks.com, and all of the essays we’ve written for the For 100 Of Our Closest Friends project. Altogether, it’s 61 essays about design, spanning 150 pages.

You can order a copy of the book at blurb.com.

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The Videogame System Sales Cycle

There’s an article over at Asymco.com looking at videogame hardware sales during the last decade.1 It comes to the conclusion that the videogame market is being eaten up by smartphones and tablets. Here’s a quote:

It’s one thing to suggest that Nintendo consoles have “failed”, it’s another to show that Nintendo consoles and portables have failed, and yet another to show that two competitors in the games business seem to be failing in unison across all their product lines. The cyclicality is also over a long period of time: The peak for the combined Sony/Nintendo was in 2008, five years ago.

Gruber weights in, noting:

No coincidence about the timing of that peak. It coincides with the beginning of the post-PC era.

Let’s look at one of the consoles in question. Here’s the Wii’s yearly sales data:

Indeed, there’s a peak around 2008, and a steady decline afterwards. Looks terribly suspicious! But before we jump to conclusions, there are two questions that need to be answered.

First, before we argue about what might have caused the Wii’s declining sales, we should evaluate whether anything unusual actually happened here.2 In other words, is the Wii’s sales cycle atypical for a videogame console, and likely caused by an external factor?

Second, assuming that something unusual did happen to the Wii, what caused it? Is it really «no coincidence» that the Wii’s sales peak coincides with the iPhone’s release, and the beginning of the «post-PC era», or are there other, more likely factors influencing the Wii’s sales?

Humans are pattern seekers. We see patterns everywhere. That’s why people see the golden ratio everywhere, even when nobody put it there. If you look at the world through the lense of Apple, you see Apple’s influence everywhere. Sometimes, you’re right. But sometimes, you’re not.

When scientists do studies, they get around this problem by having a control. To see if a new medication really works, you give the medication to a group of test subjects, and a placebo to a control group. If there’s a statistically significant difference between the two groups, that’s evidence that the medication works.

With historical data, you can’t do this type of experiment. But you can get close. If the Wii’s sales pattern truly is unusual, and mainly caused by the «post-PC era», then the following things should be true:

  1. The Wii’s sales pattern should be distinctly different from previous console sales patterns.
  2. The «post-PC era» decline, coinciding with the iPhone’s release in 2007, should also be reflected in the sales pattern of other consoles sold at the same time.
  3. There should be no other, better explanations for the Wii’s sales pattern.

Let’s look at these three points in turn.

Is the data you’re seeing unique, and distinct from the sales pattern of older consoles?

Again, this is what the Wii’s sales look like:

Here’s how the PS2 sold over its lifespan:

A pretty steep increase in sales after release, followed by a steady decline over the rest of its lifespan.3 Apple didn’t have to release an iPhone in 2002 to cause the PS2 to peak; that’s just how consoles sell.

Here’s the Gamecube:

Same pattern. The graph looks basically identical to the Wii’s.

This kind of console sales graph is nothing unusual. It’s a typical console sales pattern. Many consoles peak in their second or third year, and then decline steadily after that. Why? During the first years, manufacturers are often still ramping up production. Then, after about two or three years on the market, two things usually happen:

  1. Console manufacturers lower the price substantially. Depending on how well a console sells, the exact time when this happens can change.
  2. The second generation of games come out; the ones that actually make good use of the hardware, and are compelling system sellers.

So that’s when console sales are highest. After that, sales decline steadily, as a console’s hardware becomes increasingly outdated, and more and more potential buyers already own the device.

The Wii’s sales pattern is not unusual. It’s not an indicator that anything special happened around 2008. It’s a typical console sales pattern.

Do other consoles show the same peak around 2008?

If something special happened around 2008, you’d see that reflected in the sales patterns of the Wii’s contemporaries. They should also peak in or around 2008.

Well, here’s the PS3’s sales pattern:4

Asymco notes that the «combined Sony/Nintendo peak» was in 2008, making it sound as if the PS3’s sales followed a similar trajectory. If you look at the actual data, the PS3 didn’t peak in 2008 at all.

The PSP did peak around that time (which is unsurprising, because it launched three years earlier, and follows a typical console sales pattern). But the «combined Sony/Nintendo peak» is almost exclusively due to the Wii’s peak in 2008. Sony’s combined console sales do peak in 2008, but only barely. They continue selling steadily until 2011, and only start to decline at the end of the two consoles’ lifespans.

The Xbox 360’s sales pattern looks very similar to the PS3’s, and also peaks much later than 2008:

If you combine sales of all TV consoles, the 2008 peak simply disappears:

If the «post-PC era» truly had such a devastating effect on the console market that the Wii’s sales just deflated after 2008, it’s unlikely that the same effect would not also be seen in the PS3’s and Xbox 360’s sales. But Asymco’s huge 2008 peak mainly exists because the Wii peaked in 2008, and because back then, it outsold its competitors by large margin.

In other words, many consoles show Wii-like sales curves - but not the Wii’s direct competitors, the PS3 and the Xbox 360. If the Wii’s sales peak in 2008 was indeed mainly caused by the «post-PC era», you’d expect the Wii’s direct competitors to be similarly affected. They’re not.

Is there a better explanation for the Wii’s sales pattern?

If you go back up and compare the Wii to the PS2, you’ll notice that the Wii declined much faster. If the «post-PC era» didn’t cause the Wii’s quicker decline, what did?

Look at the PS3 and Xbox 360’s sales patterns: they start to really climb once the Wii starts to go down. I don’t think it’s hard to figure out what happened.

In 2007, a console that didn’t support HD graphics was still acceptable — but only barely. Market share of HD TVs increased dramatically after 2008. Around the same time, both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 received substantial hardware revisions and price cuts, while third-party support for the Wii failed to materialize in any meaningful way. As a result, attention simply moved from the Wii to HD-capable consoles, which caused Wii sales to decline each year, and caused PS3 and Xbox 360 sales to peak much later than you’d expect in a typical console sales cycle.

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s attempts to launch another Wii Sports-like success and get some more wind under the Wii’s wings failed. They weren’t nearly as compelling as Wii Sports, or even Wii Fit.

Look at the chart for combined TV console sales again:

It’s pretty clear that TV console sales remained steady until 2011. Attention simply shifted from the Wii to the other two consoles.5

And what happened in 2011 to make console sales decline so suddenly? Well, that’s when it became clear that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft would soon bring out new consoles. The Wii U was announced at E3 2011, and it was only a matter of time until the other two companies would follow suit. At the same time, developers received dev kits for the Xbox One and PS4, which caused leaks about the new consoles, and helped establish that they were not too far off.

Here’s the same chart of total TV console sales, annotated with a few6 notable events that influenced console sales:

(Larger version of this chart)

Did the «post-PC era» have an influence on the Wii’s sales? Maybe. But I don’t see how they could be substantially different even without the iPhone and iPad. The «post-PC era» isn’t required to explain the Wii’s sales pattern.

So, what’s the console market’s future?

Who knows. Personally, I don’t think much will change. There will always be a market for consoles, and there will always be more generic, multi-purpose devices competing with them.

People have always noticed when sales started to decline rapidly at the end of a console generation, and have always been very quick to proclaim the end of videogame consoles. At the end of the PS1’s cycle, Asymco’s exact same argument that could have been made. «Console sales are declining, and the Dreamcast, the first console of the new generation, is selling terribly! PCs have finally destroyed the market for videogame consoles!»

Historically, people attributed the console’s demise to the power of PCs. Nowadays, it’s smartphones and tablets that will supposedly kill consoles. And maybe that’s true. Maybe this time really is different. But I doubt it.

There’s really nothing unusual happening this time around. We’ve all seen this exact thing happening before. What Asymco’s charts show is very likely not Apple crushing the console market. It’s simply the end of a generation of consoles, and the beginning of another. Sales of the previous generation are petering off, and the new consoles haven’t yet taken over. No need to panic. At least not just yet.

If nobody buys the PS4, then you should start panicking.

And with that, I promise that the next article I publish here will be about design, and have nothing to do with videogames.7


  1. Sigh. I wish I could stop writing about videogames. I feel like I’m spamming my RSS feed with articles most of its subscribers really don’t care about. So I hope this is the last article on this topic. Fingers crossed. back

  2. Before you can start to figure out which genus Bigfoot belongs to, you should establish that he actually exists. back

  3. The PS2 peaked a little later and declined much less rapidly than the Wii, but that’s mainly because it didn’t have any real competition. The Gamecube and the Xbox never sold well, so the PS2 had the market to itself. It’s no coincidence that the PS2 ended up being the best-selling console of all time.
    This cycle, on the other hand, the Wii was completely outdated the day it came out, and the Xbox 360 and particularly the PS3 peaked later during the Wii’s life. Both of these factors helped the Wii’s decline. back

  4. Note that these charts make the decline in 2013 look steeper than it really is, because we’re only in September, and haven’t yet had the 2013 holiday sales. back

  5. If anything, combined console sales during this generation of consoles was much steadier than during the previous. back

  6. Yes, I realize that I’m leaving off dozens and dozens of relevant things. If there’s something specific you have in mind that really should be on the list, please do tell me, but keep in mind that I can’t put dozens of things on such a tiny chart :-) back

  7. Here you goback

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Where Do People Use Portable Gaming Systems?

Follow-up from Gruber to my previous article. I’ll try to keep it short this time, because I think I’ve identified the main reason why we come to different conclusions.

I think our disagreement boils down to this quote from Gruber’s essay:

The key factor is that these devices are already in our pockets. You can take better photographs with a dedicated camera, but, more and more as time goes on, we are choosing to use our mobile devices as our primary cameras. A BlackBerry was a better messaging device than an iPhone, but that was not enough, because the iPhone was better at so many other things, and people do not want to carry another device when their first one is good enough.

(…)

The trend is clearly toward carrying fewer and fewer devices.

I completely agree.

To the extent that people carry mobile gaming devices in their pockets, mobile phones have almost completely displaced them.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think most people buy portable gaming systems with the intention of regularly carrying them in their pockets. I don’t think they ever did.1 I don’t remember knowing even a single person who routinely carried a portable gaming device in his or her pocket.

In my experience, most people buy portable gaming systems to play games at home, but not on the TV. In bed, on the toilet, on the balcony, or while watching TV. If they carry it outside, it’s incidental, and not the device’s main purpose.

(There’s one exception to this: one area where mobile phones have mostly displaced gaming devices is commuting. People used to carry a DS for public transport commutes. Subjectively, this seems much less common now, at least in the US. But for the most part, this displacement has already occurred, and should already be reflected in 3DS sales.2)

Kids might take portable gaming devices on trips, but even for kids, the place they play them most is at home.

The only time I ever take (and ever took) a portable gaming device with me is when I carry a backpack anyway. When going on holidays, for example.3 In those cases, I don’t mind taking a 3DS with me, because it doesn’t add a ton of weight compared to all the stuff I’m already carrying.

The rest of the time, I use it at home, just like I used every other portable videogame I ever owned.

And, purely from observing other people, I think most people use portable gaming devices in exactly the same way.

This also explains the difference between games on a 3DS, and games on an iPhone. The former are often deep, long games that don’t work well in short bursts, while the latter are typically small time fillers that can be played in short intervals. The two systems are used in different ways, and the games that are available on them reflect that.4

And it explains why the 3DS still sells well. If it were in the market for «things people carry along all the time», I agree that nobody would buy a 3DS. Hell, I wouldn’t. But people do buy it.

Just look at how portable videogame systems are designed. Even the regular-sized 3DS is not a small device. It’s not pocketable.5 Everything else — the PlayStation Vita, the 3DS XL, the 2DS, the Nvidia Shield — is even bigger. These devices are not designed for pockets, and never were.6

Picture of hand holding Nvidia Shield

Multi-purpose devices that do many things well enough are preferable in situations where space is limited. Most people don’t wear watches anymore, because phones work well enough for that purpose. Conversely, where you have much space, you want dedicated devices that do one thing perfectly. You probably own a TV, and maybe you own a tablet, even though you could use your PC to replace both of these devices.

If people use portable gaming systems where room is limited, phones will crowd them out. If they use them where room is not limited, phones will not crowd them out.

Gruber thinks that portable gaming is doomed because it competes in the market for «things to carry in addition to the mobile device people already carry everywhere». I agree that mobile phones will eventually crowd out almost all other devices in that market — but I don’t think portable gaming devices are in that market.

I’ll acknowledge that I might be wrong. I’ve looked for studies or statistics on the topic, and could find none. If it is indeed true that people mainly buy portable gaming systems to carry them along outside of their homes, then I agree that the market for portable gaming systems should be pretty much gone by now.

I think the evidence is not in favor of the «pocket displacement» hypothesis. The form factor of most mobile gaming devices make it clear that they were never intended for pockets, and the 3DS would not be selling so well if it only sold into the «things I carry in my pocket in addition to my mobile phone» market.

Further Reading

Pierre Lebeaupin:

When my little sister got a Game Boy Color in 1998 or so, we all used it at home (including her), with only a few exceptions like road trips (where we would take a lot of things with us anyway). On the other hand, these days I use my Nintendo DS Lite during my daily commute, and it seems from various online and offline interactions that I am not alone; it is hard for me to tell whether Nintendo portable consoles are being displaced in that market: I do see a lot of people playing on their iPhones and Android devices in the commuter train, but would have (even part of) these people been playing on portable consoles instead were it not for smartphones?


  1. Just look at how huge the original Game Boy is. That thing never fit into most people’s pockets. back

  2. Maybe this accounts for part of the difference in DS sales, and 3DS sales. But personally, I think it’s mostly due to games. The 3DS lacks the kind of fresh, novel killer games that made the DS such a compelling device: Nintendogs, Pokémon, Brain Age. Given its current selection of games, I actually think the 3DS is selling better than it should. back

  3. Or, as a kid, when I went to school. But even then, bringing the Game Boy along was a rare occurrence. back

  4. The difference in the games available for the two types of devices also shows why this is not the same as mobile phones displacing point-and-shoot cameras. Point-and-shoot cameras provide a specific feature: they allow you to take an okay picture quickly, without knowing much about photography. Well, mobile phones do the exact same thing. Mobile phones cover that feature flawlessly.
    The same is not true with portable videogames. Mobile phones don’t provide the same kind of gaming experiences that portable videogames do. They don’t cover that feature. back

  5. Unless you wear Tactical Internet Pantsback

  6. Game Boy Micro excluded. back

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Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

A while ago, I wrote about Chabudai Gaeshi, Nintendo’s design philosophy that entails effectively restarting a project when it is already well underway. Here’s another one of Nintendo’s design philosophies: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology («Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō»).1

You only need to have a superficial knowledge of Nintendo to know who Shigeru Miyamoto is. He’s the guy who invented Mario and Zelda; how could you not know him. Fewer people know Gunpei Yokoi, even though he’s equally important to Nintendo’s history. Gunpei Yokoi was a videogame designer who created Nintendo’s Game & Watch handheld systems, and the Game Boy. He invented the D-pad, and designed Metroid.2

Game Boy's D-Pad3

But perhaps even more importantly, he came up with the concept of «Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology». The basic idea is to use existing, cheap, well-established technology, and use it in new ways, thus allowing Nintendo to introduce new, innovative concepts at affordable prices.

It’s always seductive to take a single aspect of a company, and view that company’s whole history through that lens. It’s also usually wrong. But it’s surprising how well it works in this particular case. «Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology» seems to correlate quite well with Nintendo’s ups and downs. Whenever Nintendo produced videogame systems that used established technology in surprising ways, it did well. When it tried to compete on specs, it did poorly.

The Game Boy won against better-specced competitors, because it used cheaply available parts in an innovative package. The better-specced Game Gear and Atari Lynx could not compete. It’s even more plain with the Nintendo DS and the Wii. Both used cheaply available components (the low-end ARM chips in the DS, or the cheap accelerometers and infrared camera in the Wii Remote) in interesting new ways, and were able to outsell technologically superior competitors.

Nintendo tends to do less well when it tries to compete on specs. The Gamecube’s specs were easily superior to the PS2’s, and roughly on par with the Xbox’s, but the console failed. It was just a better version of Sony’s console, with fewer games. The Wii U’s controller sports a huge screen and increases the price of the Wii U, but fails to turn the console into something unique. We’ve all seen enough iPads to not be impressed or intrigued by the Wii U’s controller.4

The philosophy of Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology isn’t relegated to Nintendo. Apple, in particular, often tends to use established technology in new ways. Back in 2001, Apple noticed that small harddisks were becoming available in larger numbers, and at cheaper prices. Using these cheaply available disks in a new way — inside an MP3 player, instead of a laptop — allowed Apple to introduce a new kind of product. Of course, industry analysts didn’t realize what Apple had done, discounting the iPod for its mediocre specs.5

Which is exactly the same thing that happens to Nintendo every time it releases a new product that follows this design philosophy.

Addendum

Marco Arment writes:

Game-system successes are made by specific, exclusive, new, mass-market, category-defining hit games. That’s it.

I agree completely. Games are ultimately almost the only factor in a console’s success.6 But I think there’s a causal relationship between Nintendo’s philosophy of «Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology» and fresh, compelling games.


  1. To my eternal shame, I actually didn’t know that this concept had a name, or originated with Gunpei Yokoi, until reader Mario Vukina sent me an email and pointed this out to me. back

  2. And more. The Escapist has a good article on Gunpei Yokoi’s contributionsback

  3. Image Credit: William Warbyback

  4. Now, if every controller had its own reasonably good screen, and you could play local multiplayer games where players could keep secrets from other players (like this, but better), you might have an entirely different story. back

  5. «No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.» back

  6. And the fact that the 3DS still lacks the kind of unique system seller that Nintendogs was for the DS explains the discrepancy in sales between the two consoles, in my opinion. In fact, the 3DS is selling better than it should, given its games. back

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More Nintendo

Gruber responds to some of the feedback he’s received about Nintendo’s situation. He writes:

Nintendo is doing poorly because they seem incapable of producing best-of-breed hardware, both in console and handheld.

Nintendo’s biggest success, the DS, was outdated by years the day it came out. For reference, it competed with the PlayStation Portable, which brought PS2-level graphics to portables. Meanwhile, the DS barely managed to produce 3D graphics at all.

The Wii, a success by any account, is the furthest Nintendo ever got from producing best-of-breed hardware. The Wii’s chipset was outdated by half a decade when it came out, its motion controls barely worked, and the console had no real online system.

The Wii and the DS succeeded because Nintendo made machines that enabled interesting games, not because it made best-of-breed hardware.

The criticisms levelled against the DS and the Wii were exactly the same ones Gruber now levels against the current Nintendo consoles. But Nintendo is at its best when it doesn’t try to compete with other devices on the market, and often at its worst when it does.1 Nintendo is not competing on hardware. It’s competing on entertainment value.

Put differently, Nintendo doesn’t sell technology. Nintendo sells toys.

Here’s an example of that. Gruber mentions the resistive touchscreens Nintendo uses as an example of where Nintendo’s hardware falls short. It’s true that Nintendo’s touchscreens would be terrible on a mobile phone. But I think this is actually an example that illustrates how it can be to Nintendo’s advantage that it doesn’t have to compete with mobile phones. Nintendo’s stylus-based resistive touchscreens enable interesting games and experiences that would work less well on a capacitive touchscreen. New Super Mario Bros. U, for example, is filled with handdrawn notes drawn by other players on their Wii U gamepads. Yes, you could do the same on a capacitive touchscreen, but drawing with a stylus works much better on a resistive screen, so Nintendo includes that feature in many of its games.

A touchscreen is better technology, but a resistive screen with a stylus might, in some cases, make for a better toy.2

The problem with the Wii U isn’t that it’s bad technology. It’s that it is, in many ways, a bad toy.3

Gruber writes:

No one is arguing the 3DS hasn’t sold OK, but they’re certainly not great. They only look good compared to the Wii U, which appears to be a failed platform.

The 3DS is currently the 12th best-selling console of all times, after only three years on the market.

I’d turn this around: the 3DS sales only look bad compared to the DS, which is on track to becoming the best-selling console of all time. It’s true that the 3DS is not on the same track. But I think it’s unreasonable to expect every Nintendo console to be on track to becoming the best-selling console of all time.

Nintendo’s story has never been one of continuous growth. It’s been one of constant ups and downs. Look at this chart, which shows Nintendo’s total console sales numbers:4

The GBA didn’t beat the Game Boy. The SNES didn’t beat the NES. What’s going on with Nintendo today is nothing unusual. It’s what’s been happening ever since it started making videogame hardware.

I’m sure Nintendo wants the 3DS to sell better than the DS, and the Wii U to sell better than the Wii. Fortunately, Nintendo doesn’t need every console to sell 120 million units. Nintendo is a small company. It only has 5000 employees. It doesn’t need to be the number one videogame hardware maker to sustain itself.

And that brings me to one final company to compare Nintendo to: RIM.

If you buy an iPhone, you’re not going to also buy a Blackberry.5 The same doesn’t apply to videogame consoles.

This is not like RIM, where competition made BlackBerries obsolete. The Wii U isn’t failing because of competition, or because there’s no market for TV consoles.6 It’s failing because it is a bad product.7 Nintendo, not Apple, and not anyone else, caused the Wii U to fail.

The way to fix this is to make a better toy, not to make games for Apple.

Make two great games for iOS (iPhone-only if necessary, but universal iPhone/iPad if it works with the concept). Not ports of existing 3DS or Wii games, but two brand new games designed from the ground up with iOS’s touchscreen, accelerometer, (cameras?), and lack of D-pad/action buttons in mind. (“Mario Kart Touch” would be my suggestion; I’d buy that sight unseen.) Put the same amount of effort into these games that Nintendo does for their Wii and 3DS games. When they’re ready, promote the hell out of them. Steal Steve Jobs’s angle and position them not as in any way giving up on their own platforms but as some much-needed ice water for people in hell. Sell them for $14.99 or maybe even $19.99.

Nintendo will release Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U at the end of this year. Despite of the Wii U selling poorly, I would be very surprised if Mario Kart 8 sold less than 5 million copies over the course of its life. Nintendo never discounts games much, so it’ll make at least 30 bucks a game.8 That’s 150 million US$.9

Nintendo would have to sell 15 million copies of a Mario Kart game at 15$10 on iOS to make the same amount of money, and they’d end up devaluing the Mario Kart brand.11 I just don’t see how this could possibly work, or be a good idea.

Here’s what I think the most likely scenario is for this console generation: the 3DS will continue selling well, though not at DS levels. The Wii U won’t, but will get some good games (mostly from Nintendo), and eventually sell about as well as the Gamecube. Meanwhile, as hardware prices fall, the installed base of its consoles goes up, and more first-party games are released, Nintendo’s profits will increase gradually. Nintendo won’t go out of business, nothing spectacular will happen, the world won’t end.

If Nintendo releases any iOS apps, it’ll be more Pokémon stuff.

Most of this whole discussion is based on the expectation that Nintendo will continue (and must continue) being as dominant as it was during the Wii/DS years. But these years were a fluke. Nintendo never did that well before, and possibly won’t do that well again. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to.

Further Reading

Matt Leatherbarrow:

Nintendo is not a tech company. It is a toy company who use technology to make their toys work.

Rob Fahey:

Nintendo has a long-term outlook that’s quite unusual in the games business. It does not answer to shareholders and investors to the same extent that other games companies must, thanks to a combination of large shareholdings by individuals and organisations connected to senior management or to the Yamauchi family, and general passivity on the part of Japanese institutional investors. It is sitting on an enormous pile of cash, easily enough to fund years of loss-making activities, or indeed the launch of an entire new console platform. It could launch new platforms several times over before the accountants started breaking a sweat, in fact, which sets Nintendo apart from much of the rest of the industry - and crucially, makes it into a very different proposition from early 2000s SEGA, for whom the Dreamcast truly was the last roll of the dice.

(…)

Few people in the games business would call the N64 or the GameCube a success story, yet from Nintendo’s point of view, both consoles made enormous amounts of money and helped to launch or cement the reputation of some of the company’s most beloved and enduring games. Would Nintendo like to sell over 100 million units of the Wii U, as it has with the Wii? Of course it would. Will it throw up its hands in abject despair if it only sells 30 million units? Absolutely not. 30 million units with a great tie ratio is still a hugely profitable console - and while the markets may abhor the notion of a company’s market share declining in this way, Nintendo is far less in thrall to stock price than most companies in this industry.

Via Johann Visagie, who also recommends this article on the 2DS and this article on Nintendo and smartphones.

Update

Gruber responds. Some more thoughts from me.

Asymco notes that videogame sales are currently going down. This isn’t that surprising, because we’re at the tail end of a console generation. They write:

The chief criticism to the industry-wide view of decline is that there is a new generation of consoles right around the corner. This is the eighth generation of consoles which, it is presumed, will bring growth back to the industry.

But the Nintendo 3DS, launched two years ago was meant to kick off the eighth generation, and the PlayStation Vita was Sony’s response. Then the Wii U was also billed as the successor to the Wii. They have so far failed to re-ignite growth. One might reply that they were merely appetizers and that the main course of the next gen are the PS4 and Xbox One.

Will they create growth again? Surely not for Nintendo, but I would argue that not for Sony and Microsoft either.

I think it’s problematic to extrapolate from the Wii U to other consoles, because the Wii U is a highly flawed piece of hardware (it’s a bit like proclaiming the PS2 a failure before it’s even released, just because the Dreamcast isn’t selling well). And while the peak of console sales coincides with the beginning of the «post-PC» era, it also just happens to coincide with the first price decreases of the last console generation, which seems to me like a more probable reason for the sales peak.

At any rate, we will see quite soon how this all turns out.


  1. See: Gamecube. back

  2. They also seem to have lower latency than capacitive touchscreens, which is very important for gaming. back

  3. Of course, there is a company selling a best-of-breed portable gaming device. The company is Sony, and the device is called the PlayStation Vita. It’s a great device. I own one. It’s well made, it has fantastic analog sticks and really good buttons, it has a huge, bright, beautiful screen, and its graphics are about on par with the PS3. Its current total sales are a whopping 5.63 million units after almost two years on the market.
    Strangely, there’s still nobody calling for Sony to exit the hardware market. back

  4. The Virtual Boy sold so poorly that it doesn’t even have a graph, and the Pokémon mini, another failed Nintendo console, is not listed, because I couldn’t find sales numbers. back

  5. Yes, there are exceptions. But they are just that: exceptions. back

  6. The PS4 is going to do just fine. Not so sure about the Xbox One, though. back

  7. The new controller isn’t compelling, it’s unwieldy. There’s no clear story that shows why you’d want or need this controller. What kinds of unique games does it enable? We don’t know, because Nintendo hasn’t made any games that use the Wii U’s controller in a way that is so compelling that you want to buy a Wii U.
    There are not enough good, unique Wii U games, and there are currently zero games that justify the Wii U’s unique hardware. back

  8. Probably much more than that. Games sold in the online store are pure profit, and retail barely makes any money on game sales, so most of a game’s price goes to Nintendo back

  9. Pokémon, and the hardware boost it provides, shows a strong Nintendo: «These numbers should serve to show you the power and nearly limitless earning potential of Nintendo franchises, and this is why you should never take anyone seriously when they suggest that Nintendo games should come to iOS or Android devices as a way to boost revenue. Anyone who thinks Nintendo would be better off selling $3 versions of games that now move 10 million units at $40, often selling multiple copies to the same family, is insane.» back

  10. Of which 5 bucks goes to Apple. back

  11. Since the Wii U’s capabilities aren’t that far ahead of a modern smartphone, it’s unlikely that an iPhone version of Mario Kart would be substantially cheaper to develop than a Wii U version. back

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Nintendo

For the longest time, Microsoft analysts had this unhealthy obsession with Apple. The logic went a bit like this: Apple is doing poorly because Microsoft won the PC war. If only Apple stopped making hardware and licensed their OS to other manufacturers, surely, it would do much better.

Of course, Mac users thought this notion quite odd, for good reasons. They liked Macs precisely because the same company made both hardware and software, which resulted in a product that worked much better than your average Windows PC.

Nowadays, Mac analysts have a similar obsession with Nintendo. The logic goes a bit like this: Nintendo is doing poorly because Apple and Samsung own the market for portable devices. If only Nintendo stopped making hardware and published their games for iOS instead, surely, it would do much better.1

Mac users should understand why this argument is flawed.2 Fantastic games3 like Super Mario 3DS Land can only exist because Nintendo makes both the hardware and the software. That game simply could not exist on an iPhone. Nintendo makes its own hardware because that allows it to make better, more interesting, unique games.4

But there’s an additional problem with this argument: the premise is completely wrong. Nintendo is actually not doing poorly in the portable market. iPhones have not destroyed the market for portable gaming devices. The 3DS is, in fact, doing very well.

Let’s look at the numbers. The 3DS’s predecessor, the Nintendo DS, is currently the second-best selling console of all time, slightly behind Sony’s PS2. It’s possible that the DS will end up taking that crown from the PS2, and become the best-selling console of all time. How do the 3DS’s sales compare to its predecessor’s? This graph compares weekly sales during the first 130 weeks of the DS and 3DS (aligned to their launch dates).5

Graph of weekly sales numbers for Nintend DS and Nintendo 3DS showing the 3DS slightly lagging the DS's sales for the same period of their lives

Because the two launches didn’t occur during the same time of the year, the holiday spikes don’t align, but I think the picture is clear: sales of the 3DS are not that far behind the second-most popular videogames console of all time. After 130 weeks on the market, the DS sold 43 million units, while the 3DS sold 33 million units.6

The hypothesis that Nintendo needs to abandon the hardware market because the iPhone destroyed the market for portable gaming just isn’t consistent with reality.

Console sales are typically dictated by the games that run on those consoles, not by their competition. Different devices can coexist peacefully, if each of them has unique games. The Wii, the Xbox 360, and the PS3 all sold quite well during the last generation, because all of them had good, exclusive games. Many people ended up buying more than one console, because they wanted to play exclusive games.7 In other words, if you want to play a Mario game, or the new Zelda, the fact that you own an iPhone won’t prevent you from also buying a 3DS.

What’s more, Nintendo doesn’t need to sell many consoles to make a lot of money. The Gamecube, for example, clearly lost against its competitors. Yet even when its console did poorly, Nintendo’s own games did very well. Super Mario Sunshine for the Gamecube sold over 6 million units, in a market where a million units sold is usually considered a success. The Gamecube «failed» against its competitors, selling only 21 million units over its whole lifespan, but Nintendo still came out ahead.

Nintendo had around 3000 employees in 2006, when the Wii was introduced. Today, after seven years of unprecedented8 success with the Wii, Nintendo has 5000 employees. That’s a lot of growth in relative numbers, but in absolute numbers, Nintendo has remained a comparatively small company despite of the Wii’s success. Nintendo’s revenue per employee is off the charts. Nintendo does not need to continue selling consoles at the level of the Wii to sustain itself, especially when the 3DS is doing well.

I understand that Nintendo’s games running on an iPhone is an attractive notion. I’d like to have some Nintendo games on my phone. But Nintendo would have to sell a lot of iOS games at iOS game prices9 to make up for the console games it sells a console game prices.10

Is everything rosy for Nintendo? No, of course not. The Wii U is doing very poorly. But this isn’t because the Apple TV is preventing anyone else from entering the market for stuff that connects to TVs.

Further Reading

John Gruber’s short comment on the 2DS prompted me to write this (though he’s not the only Apple analyst who wrote something along those lines).

Craig Grannell’s take on the situation:

I might think the 2DS is ugly and might not be that nice to hold, but that doesn’t make it a dumb idea. It’s cheap and very obviously positioned for holiday sales. It’s $100 cheaper than the cheapest iPod touch (i.e. about half the price), which immediately places it in a totally different market.

More data on Nintendo from Federico Viticci over at macstories.net, including this important point:

The idea that Nintendo should make games for iOS is fascinating, easy to grasp and follow, but flawed. Nintendo doesn’t work like Apple. And, more importantly, Nintendo can’t — and doesn’t want to — be Apple. Nintendo is a mix of a toy company and a game company: consoles exist to support Nintendo’s crown jewels — the games and first-party franchises.

(…)

Here’s just one data point: Animal Crossing sold 1.54 million copies in the last quarter (a month ago, it was up to 4.5 million copies sold since its original release). Assuming that Nintendo makes around $30 in average revenue on first-party games, that would make for $46 million in revenue, in a single quarter, on a single game.

John Siracusa talks about the 2DS and Nintendo’s future on the Accidental Tech Podcast:

I love [Nintendo’s] games, and I would not want to play their games on a touchscreen, or with any of these little controller things that Apple now supports. It’s not the same thing. (…) I don’t think it would make anyone happy. It would turn them into Sega. (…) I want Nintendo to keep being Nintendo.

John Siracusa, again:

Now consider the Nintendo 64, the company’s first 3D console. The Saturn and the PlayStation beat it to market by years, and both had the good sense to use optical disks instead of cartridges. Though the PlayStation came to dominate that generation, it was the Nintendo that transformed 3D gaming forever with the potent combination of Super Mario 64 and the Nintendo 64 controller—hardware and software products that were designed together, and it showed.

(…)

But if the time of the game console is not yet at an end (handheld or otherwise), then Nintendo has a lot of work to do. It needs to get better at all of the game-related things that iOS is good at. It needs to produce software that clearly demonstrates the value of its hardware—or, if that’s not possible, then it needs to make new hardware.

Any advice that leads in a different direction is a distraction. There’s no point in any plan to “save” Nintendo that fails to preserve what’s best about the company. Nintendo needs to do what Nintendo does best: create amazing combinations of hardware and software. That’s what has saved the company in the past, and it’s the only thing that will ensure its future.

Garrett Murray writes:

So let me get this straight: Your company is circling the drain, your latest console was a flop, your first-party software comes out way too infrequently and even when it does it’s not nearly as good as it used to be, and all you’ve really got going for you is an awkward, no-one-ever-mentions-wanting-one hand-held gaming device that does 3D at the expense of having graphics one could even possibly call modern in 2013, and so you decide to spend your time building a new version of said hand-held system which does not do that unique 3D feature and instead is big, ugly, clunky and only $40 USD cheaper than the 3D version which is ugly too but less so?

I want to make three points about this.

First, Nintendo isn’t circling the drain. Nintendo has billions of cash reserves, and zero debt. Feel free to peruse their balance sheet. Nintendo actually increased its cash reserves in 2013. Nintendo does have pretty big issues, but it’s nowhere near the drain.

Second, a lot of feedback I’ve received mentions personal experience, as in «my niece doesn’t want a 3DS», or «I don’t see any 3DS on the subway», or «no one ever mentions wanting one». These are all interesting anecdotes, and they probably do tell us something about Nintendo’s mindshare, but the fact remains: the 3DS is selling very well. We have this data. We know it sells well. Perhaps just not to the people you personally know.11

Third, many of the complaints about the 2DS feel a bit as if somebody picked up a box of Lego Ninjago and declared it a failure because «there are not enough regular Lego blocks in this box!» Well, yes. You’re right, there are probably almost no regular Lego blocks in a box of Ninjago. And if you want regular Lego blocks, then Lego Ninjago is not for you. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad product. It just means you’re not in the target audience.

The kinds of people who write design blogs and Apple blogs on the Internet are, like me, used to being the target audience of most tech products. The iPhone is made by people like me, for people like me. The HTC One is made by people like me, for people like me. The MacBook Pro is made by people like me, for people like me. The Nexus 7 is made by people like me, for people like me. The Pebble is made by people like me, for people like me. And because we’re the target audience, our own opinions are usually relatively good indicators for how well a product is going to do.

But the 2DS just isn’t made for people like us. That doesn’t mean it’s going to fail. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad product. It just means it’s not for us.12

And this, finally, brings all of this back to the topic of design. If you want to design a successful product, don’t design a product that’s only good for people like you, because most people aren’t like you.13

Update

Follow-up to this essay.


  1. A future where you can run Zelda on an iPhone might seem quite inviting, until you consider the trajectory of the quality of Sega’s games, post their own exit of the hardware market. back

  2. «All you need to do in order to be successful is to stop doing what made you unique and successful in the first place.» back

  3. People sometimes complain that Nintendo’s games aren’t as good as they used to be. For some of its franchises, this is probably true. Newer Zelda games never seem to be as good as their 8- and 16-Bit siblings. But for other franchises, it’s pure nostalgia. In my opinion, some of the best Mario platformers were released during the last few years. back

  4. Compare this to Apple. Apple makes hardware, and sells that at a profit. Apple makes its own software to help sell its hardware. The opposite is true with Nintendo. Unlike Apple, Nintendo’s money comes from selling software. Nintendo makes its own hardware to help improve, differentiate, and sell its software. When Nintendo can make a profit on hardware, it does, but hardware is sometimes even sold at a slight loss. Both companies have something in common: they use one to support the other. Apple’s hardware would be less valuable without its software, and Nintendo’s games would be less interesting and unique without their hardware.
    An important effect of this is that hardware sales are less important to Nintendo than to Apple. Nintendo needs to sell software. The more hardware it sells, the more software it can sell, but since Nintendo’s games have such a huge attach rate, it can do quite well even when its hardware is only a mediocre seller. back

  5. The sales numbers are from VGChartz.comback

  6. This already ranks the 3DS as number 12 on the list of all-time best selling consoles. By the way, the PS Vita has sold less than 6 million units so far. Why not ask Sony to exit the console business? back

  7. One of the reasons why this is the case is because the upfront investment of buying a console is not that big, compared to the cost of the games people are going to buy for it. Attach rates of consoles are typically around six games per console. Gamers easily spend 300 bucks for games alone, usually much more than they’ve spent for the console; so the cost of the console is not that significant, compared to the total cost of ownership. The same is not true for the typical iOS gamer, where games are much cheaper than the hardware they run on. back

  8. Unprecedented for Nintendo, that is. No other Nintendo TV console sold as well as the Wii. The Wii sold 100 million units. The NES sold 62 million units, and the SNES only sold 49 million units. The N64 clocked in at 33 million units, and the Gamecube at a bit over 21 million units. back

  9. Most of Nintendo’s franchises would work poorly with a touchscreen. Maybe they could release playable, full-scale versions of Mario or Zelda games if they targeted Apple’s controller API, but then they’d limit their audience to the few people who actually buy controllers for their iOS devices, and they would still have to charge iOS App Store prices. Just look how well Square Enix’s premium-priced games sell on iOS. It just doesn’t add up. back

  10. It’s easy to misunderstand Apple if you assume that they work like Microsoft or Lenovo, but the same is true for Nintendo if you assume that they work like Apple. Check out Nintendo’s current assets and debtback

  11. If I extrapolated from my own personal experience, I’d come to the conclusion that Apple owned 90% of the desktop PC market, that Windows Phone was a serious contender in the mobile phone market, and that at least half of the world’s population only ate vegan food. back

  12. Personally, I think the 2DS serves two purposes: first, it’s a device for parents who worry that a 3D screen will harm their kids’ eyes. Second, it’s there to get people into the store with the promise of a cheaper 3DS, and then upsell them to a «real» 3DS. Wired has more on the 2DS’s function as a cheap entry into the 3DS ecosystem. back

  13. Related: John Siracusa’s explanation of how regular people use iOS devicesback

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