Libraries And The Story Of Apple

[Note: I’m President of the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, but this post is only my own view.]

For some time now, the library world and its supporters have worried about the rise of the Google search engine. Here’s just a sample of articles from the last ten years that express this concern and, of course, push back against the Google tide:

And there was also John Palfrey’s 2015 book, “BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google”, which shares some themes of this post.

This concern has had such a profound effect that many libraries have effectively curtailed their reference librarian services as people instead “Google it”.

No doubt Google is formidable. While there have been ups and downs (like 2015) in Google’s share of the search engine market, it is obviously very high. Some estimates put it at 80% or higher.

But the world is changing and perhaps librarians aren’t aware of a nascent opportunity.

In an article about a month ago, the data scientist Vincent Granville took a closer look at the data about the ways people search and get information. He found “The Slow Decline of Google Search”. Here are some of the highlights:

“Google’s influence (as a search engine) is declining. Not that their traffic share or revenue is shrinking, to the contrary, both are probably increasing.”

“The decline (and weakening of monopoly) is taking place in a subtle way. In short, Google is no longer the first source of information, for people to find an article, a document, or anything on the Internet.”

“What has happened over the last few years is that many websites are now getting most of their traffic from sources other than Google.”

“Google has lost its monopoly when it comes to finding interesting information on the Internet.”

“Interestingly, this creates an opportunity for entrepreneurs willing to develop a search engine.”

As the New York Times reported recently about the announcement of the new Pixel phone, Google has noticed all this and is strategically re-positioning itself as an artificial intelligence company.

What has this got to do with the Apple story?

Apple is now the most valuable company in the world. That wasn’t always so. Indeed, it almost was headed for oblivion as the chart shows. Even now, its earlier business of selling personal computers hasn’t grown that much. It was able to add to its mix of products and services in a compelling way. It is one of the great turnaround stories in business history.

That history offers a lesson for librarians. The battle against what Google originally offered has been a tough one and libraries have suffered in the eyes of many people, especially the public officials and other leaders who provide their funding.

But looking forward, libraries should consider the opportunities arising from the fact that Google’s impact on Internet users is lessening, that the shine of Google’s “do no evil” slogan has worn off in the face of greater public skepticism and that artificial intelligence – really augmented human intelligence – is now a viable, disruptive technology.

As many once great and now defunct companies, other than Apple, show, there aren’t many second chances. Libraries should take advantage of its second chance to play the role that they should

in a knowledge and innovation economy.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Has Apple Design Lost Its Way?

Jony Ive, who is credited with the design of many of Apple’s greatest products, was promoted to the position of Chief Design Officer last week.  The company’s announcement seemed to say that Ive would now be bringing “design thinking” to all of the company, not just its products.  Some pundits said this was a graceful way to ease him out of the picture.  Others said it freed him to spend more time on the “next big thing.”

Maybe he should indeed be refocusing on product design, since for me, his promotion renewed the question as to whether Apple has lost its way in the design of tech products.  

Apple can still create nice feature improvements in its products, but they seem to missing the larger aims of design.  Specifically, think back to Apple’s showing of the iPad 3 in 2012.  Its video introduction of that product began with these words:

“We believe technology is at its very best when it’s invisible. When you’re conscious only of what you’re doing, not the device you’re doing it with.”

This is as good as it gets in describing the role of design in technology products.  Yet over the last couple of years, Apple’s products have gotten mostly bigger and more obvious.

The iPhone 6 grew bigger than the iPhone 5, mostly it would seem to catch up to the competition.  The iPod Nano, a useful and small device, was discontinued and replaced by a larger version.

So now, instead of seeing someone holding an Apple product like this …


people go around absurdly armed like this.


The Apple Watch is another example where Apple did anything but hide the technology.  This is all the more perplexing when you look at what they could have designed, something more like the Neptune Hub that is an attempt to create an elegant new product category.


Given its small size and dependency on crowdfunding, there’s every conventional reason to question how long Neptune can last.  

Given its marketing power and reputation, there’s no reason to think that the Apple Watch will not be at least a conventional, moderate business success.  But, whatever success the Watch has and will have cannot mostly be attributed to design – which Apple used to claim to be among its chief differentiators.

I’m not predicting the demise of Apple, which has been heralded ever since Steve Jobs’ death.  It’s very hard to drive a company, with $150 billion in the bank, to extinction any time soon.  And Apple’s products are not bad at all.  (I suppose that’s faint praise 😉

It may seem churlish to criticize the largest company in the world, one that seems headed toward being the first with a trillion dollar stock market valuation.  But money is not the measure of all things, as the old line goes and Jobs himself inferred.

What Apple perhaps is facing is a kind of typical corporate maturity – with solid products, but a greater emphasis on sales/marketing and management processes, rather than on design and the user’s needs.  It was exactly that kind of shift that Steve Jobs criticized in Robert Cringely’s Lost Interview with him.   Jobs’ target was IBM and HP.  But no company is immune, as he knew.

The observations that Jobs made about what it takes for both small and big companies to make great leaps are even more relevant today than twenty years ago when the video was recorded.  Those of us who consume new technology can only hope that somewhere out there is another Jobs who has learned his lessons– and who will ensure newly designed products that get closer to being invisible, after all.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis


Simplicity In Government?

The idea of simplicity in government is not new. 

Thomas Jefferson was an advocate of “republican simplicity.”  As he wrote in the year before he was elected President:

“I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple…”

Among others in the 18th century, Thomas Paine also was an advocate of simplicity in government.  That was one reason he supported a single house of Congress which would control the national government, rather than the complex system we have. 

Coming closer to our time, the last couple of years have seen a renewal of this idea. “Simpler: The Future of Government” was published in 2013.  The book’s author, Cass Sunstein, was a long time professor at University of Chicago Law School and then ran the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for President Obama.  In that role, he was a continual advocate for simplicity.


Partly, the complaints of the business community have encouraged the desire for simplicity in government regulations.  More broadly, overly complex government operations have also been tied to higher than necessary taxes – so they affect everyone’s pocketbook.

It almost seems that no one can argue against simplification. 

But Syracuse University’s Professor David Driesen argues in a review of Sunstein’s work, for example, that “complexity bears no fixed relationship to costs or benefits.”  Moreover, he points out that there is often a trade-off between simplicity and other values; or looking at it another way, complexity in government is often a result of compromises that are necessary for a law to be enacted.  

He’s also not the first to notice that some who advocate simplicity, attribute simplicity only to those policies and actions that they support on other grounds.

So perhaps simplicity of laws and regulations is not so simple, after all.

But simplicity has many forms.  Is there a way of thinking about simplicity in government that bypasses underlying ideological motivations?

I think so, but it has less to do with debates about political philosophy and law, and more to do with the concrete interactions between government and people – the citizen’s experience.

For that, there are examples and inspiration from outside the public sector.  Perhaps one of the best is Apple, especially as explained in the book, “Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success”.  In this book,

Ken Segall, one of the company’s former marketing experts, points out the many ways that Apple and Steve Jobs worked to simplify the experience of dealing with Apple’s products and services – despite the ways that this might increase the complexity of the problems facing its designers, engineers and other staff.

Although this approach hasn’t been used much in governments in the US, it is not a completely outlandish idea.  Tim Brown, the CEO of the famous design firm, Ideo, proclaimed in his blog that the “The UK Government Shows How to Design for Simplicity” – at least with respect to its Internet presence and digital public services.  

The implication of Apple’s obsession with simplicity is that it starts out by subordinating everything it does to the user’s needs.  And isn’t that what a democratic government is supposed to do too?


© 2015 Norman Jacknis


Internet Everywhere Where It Isn’t Yet?

Here are some news items that caught my eye as part of the ever expanding Internet and associated technologies – to places where people don’t have it yet, to personal things near you and even into your head.

Facebook’s Connectivity Lab aims to spread Internet access via satellites, drones and lasers : Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a prime backer of, aims to connect the several billion unconnected people in the world, using a variety of technologies.  With all the emphasis on fiber optics for broadband over the last few years, this is a useful contribution to the discussion because it points out that there is more than one way to provide Internet connectivity.  And, as he said: “connecting the whole world will require inventing new technology too.”  There’s video with Yael Maguire explaining the Connectivity Lab at  I hope succeeds in its goals.

MLBAM completes initial iBeacon installations – Petco Park, Dodger Stadium first of 20 ballparks to receive cutting-edge technology :  Major League Baseball is deploying iBeacon proximity sensors in ball parks to personal the experience in various ways.  Apple’s iBeacon has so far mostly been a retail store phenomenon.  It will be interesting to see how much it will be used in sports venues and other large public venues.

OCHO introduces world’s first cloud-connected smart key tray : This is another example of proximity devices that consumers will be offered.  OCHO is now raising funds on Kickstarter, but their goal is clear.  As they say “OCHO technology connects common items people rely on every day, such as keys, phones and wallets, to notifications that help organize time and their daily routines”.

Electric “thinking cap” controls learning speed : Getting even closer to your body, there’s Vanderbilt University’s announcement about two of their psychology researchers who have developed a “thinking cap”.  This device helps a person learn better by the application of electric current to the brain.

3D-printed skull implanted in patient : Not quite the Internet inside your head (yet!), but certainly an intrusion of technology.  A surgeon at University Medical Center Utrecht, Netherlands, has replaced the complete skull of a young woman with a 3D-printed skull, as pictured here.



Can governments innovate?

Among the many articles/blogs about Steve Jobs after his death were two in Governing Magazine last month.  One was by Robert Knisely, entitled “What Government Can (and Can’t) Learn From Steve Jobs”.  (See ttp:// .)

The other was by Ken Miller, entitled “Steve Jobs’ Legacy For Government” (  Miller argues that public leaders can adopt (adapt?) Jobs’ pattern of passion and his focus on user-centered design and simplicity.  (On a personal level, Miller suggests that public leaders adopt Jobs’ attitude to life.)

At the heart of this debate is whether government can innovate.  

First there is the assumption that public services are inherently boring.  As Miller writes:

We don’t make shiny gadgets or deliver entertainment. Our stuff isn’t magical or sexy.

Our public parks do deliver entertainment.  Everyday in public school rooms, many students are exposed to delightful experiences.  Even the creation of a water system or a highway can seem magical to those living outside big cities where these are now taken for granted, but weren’t even normal there not that long ago.

Then there is the assumption that public officials are inherently conservative.  It is true that they most often hear from the established parts of society – those who have been successful by whatever the rules have been, rather than those who are creating the new rules.  And the media does a good job of discouraging innovations by highlighting and exaggerating any failure, when some failures are a natural part of the innovation process.

Nevertheless, there is such a thing as innovation in public services and there is evidence of it, particularly at the sub-national level of government.  

Also, as politicians, public officials have the skills to accomplish dramatic organizational change if they put their minds to the task.  Indeed, they are much better organizational leaders than the typical business executive.

Today, with a majority of citizens connected via the Internet, the opportunities to be innovative in government are greater than at any time in the past.

So we should encourage public officials to innovate more.  And we should remind them of the words of perhaps America’s most successful politician, President Franklin Roosevelt:

"The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. .. We need enthusiasm, imagination …”

© 2011 Norman Jacknis