Some personal news: my book is out!
In case you don't remember, or are new here, I've written a fifth of a book of essays about ways the coronavirus response could make the world better. If you like this newsletter, I hope you'll like my contribution to the book. It's just £4.99, and is available on Kindle, Apple Books, er… Kobo? And I'm sure there are other ebook platforms but I've not heard of them if so. If you're a physical book fan, the hardcover should hit in a couple of months.
It's easy to be critical of Apple. See last week's issue for just one example. The company has always had its problems: a love of consumer lock-in, a tendency to oversimplify its technology, a moderate disdain for people who can't afford its products.
And that's not even really touching upon the unique problems of modern Apple, which has the power to make or break entire industries depending on the arbitrary rules it sets for its App Store, has an obscene relationship with the Chinese state, and spent four years selling a broken keyboard just because it could.
But the thing about Apple is that it has so successfully remade the technology industry in its own image that it's easy to forget what that world was like beforehand. Until, suddenly, you're forced back into that world.
I bought a TV at the weekend.
The market is truly a journey to the land before time. Just one example: Models are named with bizarre strings of letters and numbers. Take my TV, the LG OLED48CX6LB. Some of it I could work out because of my job – I'm aware what an OLED screen is, for instance, and why I would want one, so the first part makes sense. The 48 is comprehensible when you see the rest of the range is 55, 65 and 75 and realise it's the size, in inches, of the screen.
The CX is harder; X is because this is the 2020 model, and they apparently decided to keep it one character after iterating through 7, 8 and 9 for the past three years. The C is completely meaningless on its own, but marks this TV out as part of the C range. Quite why it's C, I don't know, but the company broadly seems to prefer later in the alphabet for more expensive models. The G line, for instance, features ultra-thin screens and seems to broadly stand for "gallery".
Then there's the 6LB. This is my favourite part: those letters exist, purely and deliberately, to make life hard on the consumer. The TV industry long ago decided that consumer price comparison was a scourge to be fought, and so manufacturers produce minor tweaks to the same model which can be slapped with different names to obscure the similarities. I have genuinely no idea what distinguishes my TV from the 5LC that you can buy on Amazon for almost £500 more, but I know that if I'd found the 5LC first and tried to find it elsewhere, I'd have been stuck.
Then, when you get the TV – a beautiful, valuable piece of industrial design that you may have spent thousands of pounds on – the experience of opening it up is straight out of the 1990s. Pull out a box cutter to get open the poorly-applied sellotape, and you're greeted with wads of styrofoam, manuals in 48 languages which tell you precisely nothing important, and endless cable ties.
Thankfully, an Ikea-style wordless leaflet at least revealed how to physically screw together the base, and the initial set-up is one of the few parts of the experience that has felt the touch of a designer (follow the prompts and you rapidly end up with a working laptop). But at the other end of that, it's back to the bad old days. Endless undocumented features hidden in menus give no guidance as to what will happen if you turn them on or off. Do I want AI sound? I think I want AI sound. It sounds like a thing I'd want. But what does it do? No-one knows.
I can complain too much. I now have a gorgeous telly with an image to die for. LG know how to do that, and to a certain extent, the rest doesn't matter: this is going to be in my house for (fingers crossed) a good decade, and the momentary unpleasantness will fade.
But come on. You don't need to reinvent consumer electronics single-handedly. Someone's done the hard work of for you! JUST COPY THEM.