Oh harsh and gentle Amman, when will you smile?

July 18th, 2012

A story about love and life in Amman unfolds on an outdoor screen on an unusually hot summer evening. Behind that very screen, the lights from thousands of windows glimmer. It is there, on those hills, where the story plays out.

But the hills of of Amman where not the only backdrop of the story of Monaliza, the sad office girl with an usual name and Hamdi, the cheerful egyptian “coffee boy”, who also fixes computers. As the curtains of this cinematic experience lifted, the emotional and mental backdrop of a city, a country, welled up in my heart and mind as I sat among the small audience that gathered at the Royal Film Commission’s outdoor cinema yesterday to watch the advance screening of “When Monaliza Smiled“.

Ammani films are a rare and precious thing. I tend to have my hand on my heart every time one comes out. It is just too easy to screw them up, given the way we, Ammanis, Jordanian tend to see ourselves and our society. But what writer/director Fadi Haddad has accomplished with his first feature film is nothing short of a stroke of genius.

“Monaliza” is full of little details and vignettes of Ammani life. In that sense, it resembles the work of Jordan’s most successful cartoonist, Imad Hajjaj. And in the same way Hajjaj makes us laugh while confronting us with our very real and very serious issues, Haddad makes us laugh and cry about ourselves and our city as he tells us a boy-meets-girl story in the context of Amman’s crumbling stairs, chaotic government offices, abandoned buildings, guest worker cafes and through intimate wounded conversations behind closed doors.

Going for a “romantic comedy” is, in itself, a brilliant decision, given the undertones of political, economic and social tensions that have been gripping us for the past couple of years. The last thing we need right now is more grimness. For that we just need to read the news websites and their reader comments.

The tears of laughter and sadness were shed yesterday over a reality that has been pushing many of us in this city to the edge, sometimes beyond. Monaliza is about the peaceful equilibrium of Amman that masks our wounded stories, behind our neutral faces. It is a story of everyday coexistence, constantly fragile, always under threat from a bigoted outburst. It is about the divisions in a country that has settled for a semblance of normalcy, but is stubbornly refusing to take the next step toward gentleness.

Monaliza’s Executive producer Nadine Toukan, Amman’s unrelenting good fairy of storytelling, believes films can change the world. We certainly need a film that can change Amman, that can change Jordan.

Maybe the boy from the Nile valley and the rose from one of Amman’s “Jabals” can tell us something about ourselves and maybe remind us to take off that stern mask and allow ourselves a moment of gentleness.

my new year’s book buying binge

January 2nd, 2012

2012 books

Looks like Prime Books at Baraka Mall is doing a clearance sale. I was lured into the store by a “50% off” sign. I walked out with so many books, a shop assistant had to actually help carry them to the car. Most of these books will end on the shelves of company’s library. The whole experience provoked some thoughts on how I view books. Read more on the SYNTAX CONTEXT blog if you care.

Google’s design mess: Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich adds to the problem

December 27th, 2011

Andoid Ice Cream Sandwich on a Galaxy Nexus. The unlock screen

That lock screen looks promising, doesn’t it. That’s how Google’s newest version of Android looks. It is a major release of Android, and one of its major features was to supposedly make its design “lovable”. As Android’s design chief Matias Duarte himself said: people sort of respected Android, but no one loved it. Its latest release, called Ice Cream Sandwich (ICE) was supposed to change that.

There is a an interesting discussion going on in the mobile world these days. It is a discussion of design and style. Apple’s iOS changed the industry with the highly attractive and friendly iPhone user interface. Now that other operating systems are catching up with iOS, the word “design” is becoming central to the discussion.

Apple’s competitors are trying to describe iOS’s design as gimmicky and “fake”. You now: Apple uses leather, paper and wood textures here and there. It incorporates highly stylized icons. You even see a torn note paper on the iPad’s note taking app.

Then you have Microsoft and its relatively new Windows Phone. Even if you are a Microsoft hater you have to admit that they did an amazing job with Windows Phone 7. What they are adopting is what they call an “authentic digital” design style. No realistic looking icons. No leather. No torn paper. Just pure, modern typography and lots of empty space. It really appeals to the modern designer in me.

But Android’s design people claim they don’t want to be neither this nor that. They make fun of Apple’s cute icons and they claim that WIndow’s approach is too starkly modern.

Matias Durate went as far as saying “I give you the web” when he revealed Android’s ICE to the editor of a major tech blog. What he meant by that is: I give you the diversity of the web. It’s all about the diversity of content.

Interesting. Ha?

Google even designed a special modern font for ICE: called Roboto.

I was eagerly awaiting ICE’s update on my Nexus S precisely because I wanted to really experience that new, improved Android design philosophy.

But I have to say I was pretty disappointed.

The first signs of trouble appeared when I watched a promotional video about ICE. That video clearly shows that someone at Google/Android is totally in love with Tron! (droid on light bikes!). And lo and behold, ICE’s interface is full of Tron-ish references, complete with that electric blue/wireframe/glassy appearance.

To me, attacking iOS as gimmicky because of all the wood and leather, then adopting Sci-Fi gimmicks in your own phone interface seems a bit ridiculous.

To be fair, I feel that ICE is somewhat better designed. There is also a novelly factor in all this Tron-like stuff and it is obvious that some sort of design revolution has gone on in AndroindLand. My goodness, they even changed the key color from green to blue. Icons where changed. A lot was thrown out and new stuff was brought in.

But a revolution doesn’t always mean an improvement.

I think the icon situation in ICE is a total design mess. Android really looks a lot like Windows (for desktop computers). Too colorful. Too many shapes. Too many styles. Including a number of icons that adopt an illustrative 3D style (like the new Camera icon, see below).

One of the most annoying looking icons is the new “People” icon, with its simplistic round face. It makes an appearance all over ICE’s interface.

Even the shortcut bar at the bottom of the screen (which by default contains the phone, people, messaging and browser icons, as well as the apps icon in the middle) is a mess. I can count three design approaches there if I want to be kind.

This reveals a deeper issue at Google. Google has always been the no-design company. It’s interface where designed by techies/engineers. I even heard that they did not employ designers unless they knew how to write code!

Now, as the company operates in a web and a mobile world where design and branding plays an ever increasing role, Google is trying to catch up.

Their recent Google iPad app looks very promising, design-wise. The Google icons used in that app show off the new “matt” and subtly stylized icon design approach first used on the Chrome icon. There is a nice consistency across different icons.

But at the same time, I can now count 3 different icon design for Gmail alone across different Google properties.

Same goes for their News icon. And so on.

I’ve been living with ICE for a week now. I don’t think Android has become much easier to use. Yes, there is more attention to visual design, but I am not a big fan of the Tron look. And I just feel the whole thing is still inconsistent visually and even functionally. I feel that every time I go back to my iPad. And I felt it when I was carrying a Nokia N9 which runs Nokia’s (now-pretty-much-doomed) MeeGo. Now here is an OS that could tech both Apple and Google some design and user interface lessons.

I leave you with some screen shots and comments..

Android Ice Cream Sndwich dial pad

ICE’s dial pad. Looks quite neat. But the novelty wears off fast.

201112270215.jpg

Android doesn’t have a specific icon shape. So you end up have all kind of shapes, styles and colors. To me, it looks messy.

20111217_012.jpg

See the glassy 3D Tron effect when you try to “pull” at the last home screen. You get a tilting animation, which looks kind of cool, but ultimately is very useless.

Android ICE settings

In the setting screen we suddenly get this 2D look and angular buttons

Music, Camera, People, Messaging icons on Android

Just look at those Music and Camera icons. Then compare to the slightly stylized People icon with the simplistic face and then the other face on the almost flat Messaging icon.

201112212333.jpg

Doesn’t this icon mix look like something straight out of the 1990′s?

Gmail icon on Android ICE

This is the Gmail icon in Android..

201112212335.jpg

And the Gmail ice on the Google iPad app.

  

Google icons on iPad app

Why can’t Android look like this? The icons on the Google iPad app.

google web icons

Even more icons on Google’s web offering.

Google icons on Google+

And yet another design language on Google+

And now look at the elegance of MeeGo Harmattan!

Nokia N9 home screen

Nokia N9 email screen

And for reference.. Windows Phone 7′s “digital modernity”..

Windows Phone 7

And Apple’s iOS.. You can call it to cute. But it works damn well and people seem to love it.

201112270220.jpg

If you read this far you are a true design geek. Congratulations!

  

Upgrade your European Nexus S i9023 to Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.03

December 17th, 2011

Happy to report that I have just successfully upgraded my European GSM Nexus S (i9023) to Android 4.03 Ice Cream Sandwich, manually. I didn’t want to wait for the Other The Air (OTA) update to be rolled out in my territory (Jordan).

I was a little reluctant to use the instructions on Android Central because they mentioned that the update was intended for i9020T T-Mobile Nexus S. But after reading on a Austrian site that people have used that same update for their European devices I decided to go ahead and do it.

It’s really super easy. The change in the look and feel of the Nexus S user interface is quite dramatic, right from the unlock screen. And by the way, the Nexus S now runs Android 4.03, while the newer Google flagship phone the Galaxy Nexus runs 4.03, so we Nexus S owners are one step ahead.

A very important aspect of this update is the addition of Arab language support to Android, officially. This was one of the glaring omission of Android Gingerbread. Yes I know that custom ROMs with Arabic support exist, but I really thought that it was crazy for Google not to support Arabic input so far. Androids Arabization, however, does not go as far as the Nokia N9 goes, which has full Arabic menus/user interface.

One little disappointment so far is that the Nexus S does not seem to have the face unlock feature that was shown as a cool feature of the Galaxy Nexus. Oh well..

Excited to explore this biggest upgrade of the Android OS so far.

Talent of community: sketch-a-talk videos animate Arab Spring themes on Ikbis

December 14th, 2011

What happens when you interview a diverse bunch of Arab activists and new media geeks one Skype, edit all of it dow to a few minutes, get an amazingly talented cartoonist, mix in a video camera and some video and sound editing dudes?

Ikbis has been experimenting with “community produced videos”. By pulling in different talents from across the Ikbis community of creative and technical people it was able to produce these two videos for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and the Arab Thought Forum in record time.

Have a look..

ikbis sketch a theme

ikbis sketch a theme

The Nokia N9: a phone for real rebels (and normal people too)

December 12th, 2011

Nokia N9 in white

The Nokia N9 has a strange story. It’s an exciting story. It’s a sad story. It’s an amazing story that is still unfolding.

But if you walk today into any of the shops of Amman’s “mobile phone district” near the 7th Circle, you might not even feel that there is a whole saga around the Nokia N9.

To the casual observer, the N9 was, for the past few months, simply Nokia’s newest flagship phone. It is, till the date of this writing, being heavily promoted with huge posters and stickers in almost every big or small mobile shop in town. Try to browse the web in Jordan and N9 banners will pop up here and there.

Normal, you think. This is Nokia and it is trying to sell its latest flagship..

But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Ask any serious phone geek about the N9 and the word “orphan” will immediately be used. The N9 has NOTHING to do withe the N8. And if Nokia sticks to its declared strategy, this N9 will have no brothers, sisters, sons or daughters.

Here is what happened in a nutshell. Around a couple of years ago Nokia realized it is in deep trouble when it comes to smart phones. Apple, then Google’s Android, have eaten their lunch. Their Symbian operating system was a total mess and they seemed to be hitting a wall.

But, Nokia had something up its sleeve. Namely an operating system called Maemo which they used on some niche-market “internet tablets” but also on one phone: The legendary N900. Anyone with any sense could see that if Nokia wanted to save itself it should place all its bets on Maemo, a modern, fast phone system that had the potential to rival Apple’s and Google’s offerings.

But Nokia, being a big corporate giant and all, decided they need another step before unleashing Maemo. They partnered up with Intel to merge Maemo with another similar system called Moblin to create something called MeeGo: a linux based, open source 21st century mobile operating system.

This whole thing was taking too long. Nokia got nervous (for a good reason. They were being hammered by Apple and Google). The CEO and other big managers got shown the door and an ex-Microsoft executive, Stephen Elop became Nokia’s boss. He decided the mobile war was getting too big and that Nokia can’t fight it alone. So he threw the entire weight of Nokia behind Microsoft’s Windows Phone system. In the mobile world this was like an earthquake. It is like a superpower country declaring that it is giving up its sovereignty. Nokia, which at one point the absolute mobile superpower, was getting out go the phone operating system business.

But for some reason, maybe a miracle, or a mistake or something, the MeeGo people were allowed to finish their work. What they were working on was something amazing. Something very beautiful, something pure. That something was the N9.

Nokia N9

During the past three weeks I lived with a black N9 review unit. I read countless articles about it. I even looked at some of the blog posts written by the some of the phone’s engineers. What an experience it must have been! At one point working so hard on what they thought was Nokia’s future, then at one point being told they are not Nokia’s future anymore, but still somehow they were allowed to bring out this one phone that showed their work to the world.

I really think a Hollywood movie should be made about that team and that project!

Do you understand now why it is strange that Amman’s mobile shops are heavily promoting this phone?

It is a phone, we are told by the experts and by Nokia itself, without a future.

A phone without a future means a phone without new applications. Mobile app developers will not waste their time writing software for a platform that has been abandoned.

I actually find it outrageous that Nokia isn’t even willing to treat MeeGo as a serious hobby, like Apple treats the AppleTV, or like Samsung treats its own Bada operating system. I mean, OK Nokia, go to war with Microsoft as your fighting buddy. But why not put a little bet on your own innovation. My goodness!

Anyway.. so the question is: should you buy this phone. After all, who wants a “dead” product?

But wait a minute. There is another way of looking at the N9.

This “dead” product has an amazing industrial design. Extremely modern, made out of a slab of hard plastic with an amazing screen embedded in it. With the N9, Nokia can teach Samsung a lesson or two in original industrial design. It doesn’t look like the iPhone. It doesn’t imitate other Android phones. The N9 has its own powerful personality.

This “orphan” product has a really, really great looking and highly functional operating system. It doesn’t have any buttons on the front. It uses one natural gesture, a swipe, to do things like moving between home screens, closing applications or chucking them out of view. Nokia can teach Android a few lessons in user interface design here.

The “lone” N9 has a great, very fast, 8 megapixel camera. Nokia are well known for their great camera phones. This is no exception.

This “abandoned” product has great Twitter, Facebook and Skype integrations. It even comes with a Foursquare app. Hell it even has a copy of Angry Brids on it!

This “dead end” product has the best map and navigation solution for the Jordanian (and maybe even global) market. The Nokia Amman map is great and voice navigation works as it does on other Nokias.

So..

Who should buy this product?

If you are a mobile gamer and you always want the latest games, don’t buy this phone. Go buy an iPhone.

If you are someone addicted to certain mobile apps don’t buy this phone. Get an iPhone or an Android phone.

But if you want a very distinctive smartphone to do web browsing, emailing, messaging and some social media stuff, you can actually consider it, especially if you are the kind of person who wants to be different. This is simply a modern smartphone that is well connected to the web, email and social media. Read some review before you buy it then decide for yourself if this could be a phone for you.

Then there is another kind of buyer for the phone. The total tech rebel. This phone is more open than Android. It’s basically running Linux. I actually got in touch with my inner geek last week: I rooted the N9 (for you who are not geeky enough to understand what that means, well, that’s your problem!) and installed a Debian file manager on it.

MeeGo as a project (which by the way co-run by a Jordanian Intel manager called Imad Sousou) lives on in the form of a new project called Tizen. Who knows where all of this will end up, but the N9 would be a great machine for experimentation. Read this inspiring article about the N9 to get a taste of the geeky thinking of some of its fans.

One of the comments I read about the N9 said that one should not worry about the N9′s “deadness”. Whatever phone you have today, will probably be replaced in a couple of years anyway.

At around JD 430, this is not a cheap phone. I personally would consider getting one after the price drops, maybe a a second phone. Or maybe just a souvenir cult object!

Taj Mall opens: the (still dusty) crown of Jordan’s shopping?

December 11th, 2011

Taj Mall Amman  

The opening of a major mall in Jordan in this post-financial-crisis era is certainly an event to watch. We live in very different times compared to, say, 2005, when we were awash in Gulf money and grand real estate dreams. Can developers and retailers pull off another mall in a market were people are under financial pressure and the political climate is uncertain.
Furthermore, I am always interested to see if major projects in Jordan can be delivered at a high level of quality and perfection or if we still are stuck in mediocrity.
Now, I honestly do not want to come across as a whining armchair critic here. As someone involved in designing and delivering projects of all sorts, I know how hard it is, anywhere, to deliver a perfect building, service or product. I also know how hard it is to deliver anything perfect particularly here in Jordan. One’s best intentions get compromised and compromised and compromised by a variety of factors, small budgets, sub-par craftsmanship and a work ethic that, frankly, sucks.
Developing a big mall like this one is not easy, especially given the climate of financial crunch.
Another thing: I am not a fan of the proliferation of malls in Jordan. I think we should stop building them and come up with other, more organic, more authentic, more sustainable and more outdoor urban experiences. But hey, who am I to tell people what to like. Jordanians still seem to love shopping in malls and so it seems we will keep building them.
To its credit, Taj Mall will introduce some novel concepts like outdoor spaces that will differentiate it from other closed-box malls. I think this is a great idea and I am pretty sure they will work nicely with the mild Amman weather. Once all the shops are open, Taj Mall will set a new milestone in Amman’s shopping scene.
But what kind of first impression does it make today?

Taj Mall exterior

First encounter

So, yesterday, 9 days after its soft opening, I went to Taj Mall with my wife.
A visit to a new, big mall always is an experience of anticipation. And I had quite a bit of expectations, even though I knew that the mall was not fully open yet.
But the “we-just-can’t-get-it-right” feeling started creeping in as soon as we approached the building. Against the advice of my wife who wanted us to “just park in one of the near streets and walk to the mall” I insisted we use the underground parking.
It is a well known fact by now that the huge Taj Mall already sits uncomfortably close to the Blue Fig bridge in Abdoun and that the street corner adjacent to it is narrow. “No Parking” signs have been installed on the street, but, you guessed it, the entire length of the street corner was occupied by parked cars.
I took the entrance road preparing to descend into the underground parking. Now remember, this was a Saturday morning, so there was no huge onslaught of shoppers, and things were moving along reasonably fast.
Of course, this being Jordan’s most important new mall, it has “security measures” to match. Get this: someone comes with the “mirror on wheels thing” to look under the car (for car bombs). Is this really necessary? It actually makes me sick because it is just a show. We could have hidden a bomb elsewhere in the car and I could have had guns in my pockets (more about that in a bit). This security check just slows down the process of entering and I don’t want to be there on a weekend!
I am no security expert: but what kind of message about the country do these mall security checks send? A constant reminder that we are unsafe? I don’t know.
Anyway, we made our way past the security check after they made sure we have no car bomb, and down into the parking we went. On the big ramp down the first signs of littering were visible. Yes.. on the ramp! That combination of “grandeur” and “imperfection” proved to be a constant theme of the visit.
Every few minutes during our visit we saw or experienced something odd.
The underground parking signs, which unlike the directional signs outside the mall, looked rather well designed, where covered by weird pieces of paper with additional information (see photo above). A week into operation and the first thing you use in the mall already feels cluttered.
We proceeded to the escalators. I went through the metal detector with pockets full of keys and mobile phones. I beeped like hell but the security man (and woman) just waved me through (seriously, what kind of employment “solution” is that and what kind of fake security does this provide?).
We saw construction workers with a big metal construction cart using the super slick panoramic glass elevators. That elevator was totally very. All its visible structures were covered in dust and its glass-mounted control panels smeared with silicon gel.
The elevators not only allow you to go to the still unfinished food court area (!) but also to the unfinished and potentially dangerous cinema floor (!!)
I won’t comment much on the level of architectural finishing. It is not horrible, but certainly not Dubai standards. And yes we had to see some unfinished wiring coming out here and there.
Our main destination was the H&M clothing store. It’s cool that we have that in Amman now. The prices are reasonable and the selection is good. But even H&M seems to have trouble keeping standards in Jordan. The store was crammed with too much merchandise, placed on racks that were randomly placed on the shop floor. There was something wrong with the sound system and certainly something wrong with the ventilation.
Oh yes, it so happened to be Spinneys opening day in Jordan. Spinneys is bringing its showy retailing practices to Jordan. I’ve seen their stores in the Gulf and Beirut. They are designed like temples dedicated to shampoo, milk and vegetables (and a million other consumer items on the shelves). It’s quite impressive. But even here, problems with craftsmanship and even floor cleanliness where evident.

A strange exit

The grand finale was when we made our way out of the mall. The exit signage consisted of pieces of A4 paper stuck on the walls with the word “exit” or the letter “E” scrawled on them with a marker. We found ourselves going up a tightly winding ramp up, then left, then right, then left again and out of what I SWEAR is something like a hole in the wall, opening onto a back street behind the mall. That experience was closer to leaving a military camp and certainly not an upscale retail temple.
Ironically, that back street puts you right into that area of Abdoun that is not posh. An enclave of humble concrete houses that stand in stark contrast with the imposing luxury of the Abdoun that has grown around them. Quite a surreal Ammani experience.
I always ask myself after such experiences: aren’t we living beyond our means in Jordan. I mean, this is the affluent, high end of our economy. And even there it is obvious that we have quite a long way to go to perfect the craft and management skills that are necessary to deliver Dubai-style shopping experiences.

Taj Mall outdoor areas

Once it is finished, Taj Mall will be quite something (not withstanding the traffic jams it will create due to its cramped location). But today it is clearly a place that was opened to the public too soon, probably under the pressure of the big retailers who needed to open.
I am sure that the operators of the mall l will fix a lot of the problems over time. But why not deal with some of the avoidable stuff right from the start, especially when it comes to safety?
I declared above that I am not a mall fan. But you know what? I secretly wanted Taj Mall to be an example of perfection. Some proof that we in Amman can do something that reaches the best global standards.
But this conspiracy of rushed work, lack of tight management, unnecessary “security” practices and lack of maintenance was a sad reminder that we still end up occupying that strange middle ground between good and bad, that we are able to “do OK” but not achieve “amazing”.