Friday, 28 September 2012

Emperor's New Clothes

Have you heard about the latest feature of Apple's iOS 6 operating system? The "VIP" e-mail assistant? No? No loss, really. It is only mildly interesting - if at all.

Still, it did seem to warrant enough media attention for Ars Technica to publish a "comparison" of VIP and GMail's Priority Inbox.

I will first address the "comparison" part. It won't take long, as there really isn't very much to compare between the two.

First, let's see what VIP reportedly is (you didn't think I bought an iIdol, did you?)...


From all I read about it is a simple e-mail filter. Not even a glorified one, IMHO. Just your bog standard e-mail filter, the likes of which we all knew and loved (or hated) pretty much ever since e-mail was invented. I sure remember using e-mail filters with more or less clever actions for well over a decade. So, as simple as it gets, you select a number of contacts and if an e-mail arrives from one of them iOS e-mail app can notify you in a special way you define.

Handy, yes. Clever, quite. Novel? Come on!

And then we have GMail Priority Inbox. True, it does not have much in the way of choosing fancy ways of being notified of an e-mail that finds its way into it. Also, you do not have complete control over how it does its magic - it is purely algorithm based. The more you use it, the more it should learn about you and become better, but you never can tell it how to do things in exactly the way you want them.

And here, as far as comparisons go, I rest my case. There is no comparison between the two. VIP just automates what you'd be doing manually anyway. Yes, useful because we sometimes forget to do what we should, and that's where computers are good to serve reminders or do stuff for us. Priority Inbox, on the other hand tries to be that little bit extra helpful by maybe alerting you to an important e-mail even your manual rules might have mixed. It serves an entirely different purpose! There is no comparison!

Now for the fuzzier bit, involving emperors and high fashion...

If I wanted to be really mean, I'd say Apple's attempt to pain VIP as a special new feature is disingenuous. After all, I am sure that their mail application already has a filter feature. I haven't tried it, but this is 21st century, and this is Apple we're talking about, so let's cut them some slack.

But Apple, being in it to flog their fare, such as it is, can be excused to get overexcited about an e-mail filter with a new name and some extra polish. IT press, on the other hand, has little excuse. Well, OK. They too have the excuse of flogging their wares, but then there's supposed to be a bit more backbone to a journalist than a consumer electronics peddler. Even Apple.

Worse, for IT press, is to not only hype up the new "feature", but to do it in a way that implies it is somehow equivalent to another when the two really bear little resemblance. The former would be just a sin against reason and possibly good taste, the latter undermines the "independence" of IT journalism (such as we have it - which is not entirely stellar to start with). This is not unlike a non-IT newspaper running an article titled: "Apples vs Beans: Fight! (Our correspondent compares the two to see which one makes a better steak)".

Oh, and I just realise I still haven't properly threaded in the Emperor's New Clothes into this rant. Not that I necessarily have to, at least when it comes to Apple and it's latest iGadgets. Nice, clever, and shiny as these all are, they have always - from the very original iPhone - been much less than they were hyped up to be. Which never stopped Apple, and its iSychopants, to claim brilliant plumage which if not exactly not there, most certainly did not belong to them. The clever arrangement - yes, the pure innovativeness - sorry, but no. Which, I think, really comes to a head with VIP: one "new" feature one hopes even Apple won't dare try to patent.

So, while already scantily clad, it seems Apple now has to dig really deep into the bottom drawer where it keeps invisible feathers, like VIP, to try and pluck up its plumage. It's that, or suing the world+dog over pretty much anything they set their eyes on.

I'm not really saying Apple's entered its endgame scenario, but watch this space...