Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Sant-Exupery
Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
Most people live with stuff whose value in their lives is never questioned. They continue to add with little regard to the physical, mental or emotional clutter they are introducing. These practices make it harder for people to find their stuff, it often reduces the aesthetic beauty of a place for others, and, worst of all, it dulls one’s response to those things that are truly beautiful, valuable, important, when one finds them.
I used to love those quotes. I still enjoy them, and I still, for the most part, try to live by them. These are very powerful ideas and, I think, are patently lost on the majority. But I think that these ideas are now so warped by overuse and by overreaching of their meaning as to have become dangerous.
People say, “I love minimalism”, or “I am a minimalist”. Those words ring hollow; they are simply meaningless in the context that most people use them. When I read them, all I see is a person with an imagined value so thin and anemic that it is like tissue paper; I sense that people are afraid that if you were to prod it even slightly you might rip right through it and find that there is really nothing there. And they should feel that way: they are pretending they have a value when what they really have is a preference.
What does “minimalism” even mean? I think I know what people think it means. I think people typically refer to themselves as “minimalists” because they enjoy a lack of clutter, or maybe because they enjoy clean lines in design, or the Bauhaus aesthetic, or, in a way that certainly doesn’t help the perceived arrogance of Apples fans, because they enjoy Macs, iPhones or iPads. None of these are about “minimalism” — if you enjoy a lack of clutter, then you enjoy a lack of clutter, and that is that. There is no need to wrap up those preferences in a word to which people often attribute a connotation of higher value. If you enjoy clean lines, modernism, or Apple products, the same applies.
“Minimalism” is not a synonym for simple, uncluttered, or clean. It is something else entirely. I do think it is about a higher value about how things should be, but when it is used (and abused) so universally as being merely about the physical qualities of the object, that message gets lost.
I have a different idea of what “minimalism” means. It is about something that is entirely and unchangeably honest to its purpose. It may be a graphic design, a user interface, a product, a piece of furniture, a room, a house, or anything of any size and any tangibility. So long as it is unassuming and uncompromising with regards to its intended use, it qualifies.
It’s certainly not an easy definition to pin down, and its application is challenging to say the least. I think the largest objection to this may be on the grounds of just how we can define an object’s purpose, and on that I would agree — the purpose is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Like all deeper values of a thing (as opposed to attributes or descriptions, i.e. “clean” or “uncluttered”), the degree to which something is “minimalist” will not be agreed-upon by everyone. But, and I feel this is key, we do have an innate sense of when something is honest to its purpose (just as we have an innate sense of when something is “right” or “fair”); in many cases, it is clear when something is less or more than its purpose requires (both typically manifest themselves as usability problems).
The one example I think of most when I consider this topic is a desk. A desk can really say so much about a person, and you will often find not-so-subtle undertones of derision or praise when someone’s desk is cluttered or clean, respectively. I used to think that too but, in light of what I wrote in the two prior paragraphs, I changed my mind. I think a desk strewn with papers, books and devices can be so incredibly beautiful, can be a picturesque example of minimalism, if no item is farther out of reach than need be simply for the sake of appearing clean. An artist does not need to organize their pencils and papers neatly if that is not honest to how they use them; if your work is violent and original, why should that not be reflected on your desk? If you need one of a dozen reference books at any given time your desk is no more beautiful or “minimalist” for having them tucked neatly away in an unusable way; in fact, I think it loses much of its beauty as it becomes dishonest, a clean modernist caricature of what it really should be.
I’m guilty of losing sight of this idea sometimes, even though I think about it regularly. I catch myself being attracted to surface “minimalism” even when it clearly comes at the expense of honesty of purpose. I often take form over function to an extreme, far past the point where form adds to function. I’m sitting at large, relatively empty desk, with many items I may have to grab well out of arm’s reach. My desk is clean, but it (and I) are being dishonest, and so it would be wrong to call it “beautiful” or “minimalist” in any but the most superficial sense of the words.
As with all things in life, it’s a matter of balance. I’ll end this with a far better quote than the two at the top of this article, this time from Duane Elgin:
The intention of voluntary simplicity is not to dogmatically live with less. It’s a more demanding intention of living with balance. This is a middle way that moves between the extremes of poverty and indulgence.
There is, after all, a radical inequality between a creator and an audience. A designer, artist, or author acquires, through whatever varieties of education, a universe of technical and formal information; a familiarity with tens or hundreds of techniques, styles, contexts, traditions; an awareness of movements and ideas, developments and limitations; and so on. Indeed, meanings and consequences exist in a creator’s field with such density that they are a common impediment to progress; for an artist, a creative work is supersaturated with crucial facts and their connections to other work, other artists, other scenes, culture at large; at times, every detail carries too much with it.
Here’s a quick update on Android fragmentation, based on the newest Android data provided by Google.
Gingerbread has continued to dominate the Android user base; its share is now at 62.0%, which is among the highest market shares a single version of Android has ever had. While the rate of increase in share is decreasing, Gingerbread is still gaining an additional 0.74% of market share per week.
We now have three data points on ICS and, while it is not enough to make conclusive statements about its rate of uptake, it does hint at ICS having the worst rollout of new devices/ upgrades of any Android version to date. ICS has been available for 19 weeks and has just 1.6% share; for the sake of comparison, Gingerbread, Froyo and Eclair at the same age (approximately 4%, 35% and 25%, respectively). Comparisons between Android versions are the best apples-to-apples analysis we can do and, by the measure of version uptake, ICS has performed extremely poorly.
On my original post on Android fragmentation I made a fairly egregious mistake that no one caught (despite my data being available). I miscalculated the total Android devices in use, which led to incorrect absolute unit and sales rate numbers. The charts above rectify these errors, and actually paint an even bleaker picture for ICS. Gingerbread continues to add devices at a rate of 25:2 relative to ICS (ICS is adding approximately 430,000 devices per week, most of which are likely still the Galaxy Nexus — I will leave it to the reader to compare this to, say, the iPhone weekly sales rate, though I will hint that one is significantly larger than the other).
As usual, feel free to download the updated data that I have uploaded here. You can also follow me on Twitter, subscribe to the RSS feed, or send me an email at chris [at] pxldot.com.
I’d like to fill in the picture I began in my recent post on Android fragmentation by examining the changes in version distribution of the other major mobile operating system: iOS.
Unfortunately, this was no quite as easy as it was for Android. Unlike Google, Apple does not publish the version distribution of its user base. What we do have, however, is a number of developers who have published the version distribution within their own apps, and if we can collect a large enough sample it may be feasible to use these in lieu of direct vendor-supplied data.
Using 50 data points from different developers, we can indeed build an image of version distribution over time for iOS just as we did for Android. Note that these are bundled into major releases. Grouping these into the major releases reduced noise and also matched the groupings more closely to those I used for the Android post — while it may not be a direct Apples-to-Apples comparison, it is likely the best we can do.
The data is obviously imperfect as it comes from multiple sources, but the trend lines have R-squared values of between 0.8 and 0.97 (R-squared of 1 indicates that the line perfectly fits the data), so we can feel confident in their use. It’s interesting to see the symmetry as one iOS version rises to power and the previous version falls, a pattern that was not strong in Android as multiple version coexisted simultaneously.
As we did with Android, let’s index these versions to the same starting point so that we can see how quickly versions gained and lost share relative to the number of weeks after their launch (same colors as the previous chart):
If we include the Android versions (again indexed to the same starting point), we get an extremely telling image of the differences between the two platforms:
iOS 5 captured approximately 75% of all iOS users in the same amount of time it took Gingerbread to get 4% of all Android users. Even more astounding is that 15 weeks after launch iOS 4 was at 70% and iOS 5 was at 60% while Ice Cream Sandwich got to just 1% share at the same age. If there were any question as to whether iOS had a less fragmented ecosystem than Android, the past two charts provide a fairly definitive answer.
Some folks have told me that it is unfair to compare iOS and Android on this metric because iOS is effectively just three devices (iPod Touch, iPad, iPhone), whereas Android is a multi-manufacturer ecosystem with dozens of devices. This line of thinking is extremely frustrating to me. Developers and users don’t care that the two platforms aren’t the same. Users want the most recent features and security updates, and will demand them either directly (by complaining) or indirectly (by making a different purchasing decision), and developers want a unified base to minimize testing. Android apologists can list off the differences between the two all day long but it doesn’t change the fact that more versions with smaller share is worse for, at the very least, developers and users.
I would like to try and provide some value to (iOS) developers in the form of a model to estimate the proportion of the iOS user base on a given version after its launch.
To do so, I took every data point available that showed the percentage of all iOS users on the most recent version at the time the data was generated (so, this data will be an average of iOS 3.X, 4.X and 5.X). These were plotted against the number of weeks that had passed since the version was introduced.
The data isn’t a perfect fit (R-squared value of about 0.7), but there is a fairly clear upward trend with gradual levelling out. Based on the average uptake pattern, it takes less than a week for iOS versions to reach 25% share of all devices, and a little less than six weeks to reach 50%. On the other side of the coin, older versions tend to lose an average of 3% of their installed base per week. Though I have been performing my analysis using major version groupings, this pattern seems to apply equally well to the point releases as it does to the major releases, and we can assume that it will only accelerate now that Apple has introduced over-the-air updates for iOS.
Let’s again take a look at how this compares to Android versions:
iOS devices have, on average, reached 10% version share 300 times faster than Android versions, 30% share 19 times faster, and 50% share 7 times faster.
In a way, I think that iOS buyers are paying to be on the cutting edge of software. Android OEMs have been one-upping each other on the hardware front (the Android spec race has reached almost ridiculous proportions), but this is a shallow, easily-duplicated strategy. An ecosystem that has been developed instead with a software focus affords many advantages that are not easily mimicked: ease of development, users being able to learn about apps and the OS from friends without the frustration of fragmented device capabilities, and more.
As a brief aside: we can use the numbers above to come up with an approximate number for developers looking to target only iOS 5 users as their addressable market. If we assume 100% year-over-year growth for both iPhone and iPad sales, we can estimate that about 170 million devices are now on iOS 5. Comparing this to the largest single installed base on Android, Gingerbread, which runs on about 112 million devices, shows us that iOS makes up for a lower absolute number of devices by presenting an extremely large and unified base for developers to market their apps.
Thanks to the following individuals/ companies for providing iOS version share data in a publicly accessible manner: Marco Arment of Instapaper, David Lieb of Bump, David Smith of Cross Forward Consulting, game4mob, Chitika Insights, Flurry Analytics, and Apprupt.
You can follow me on Twitter as @pxldots.
All of the data used for this post can be freely downloaded:
A word on the most common reaction to my Android post (aside from casual disregard from those who clearly didn’t bother to read it). I agree (though, have no evidence to support) that fragmentation is not a concern for many Android owners; it is a common knock against Android that many users don’t even realize they are running it, so it would be a silly contradiction to assume that they would care about what percentage of other users are on the same version as them. Fragmentation may not, per se, be an issue in this sense, but it does increase the burden on developers and is probably responsible for the relative dearth of fine Android apps when compared to iOS. Developers will pass this burden on to consumers by supplying fewer and lower quality apps, and without the robust ecosystem that these quality apps create it is unlikely that Android can prevent significant churn in its user base when they renew their contract.
Keep your eyes pealed — I am working on an iOS comparison to the Android post that should go up over the next few days.