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MacStories Interviews: Brian X. Chen

[MacStories Interviews is a new series of email interviews with with well-known developers, bloggers, journalists, geeks. We hope you’ll like it.]

Please welcome Brian Chen, writer at Wired and author of the upcoming book Always On. Brian was one of the first people to accept my invitation for MacStories Interviews. You can follow him on Twitter as @bxchen. The interview was conducted on October 13th.

Tell me a little about yourself: who are you, what do you do, etc…?

I was a test-tube baby, created from stem cells scraped off Gizmodo director Brian Lam’s upper lip and Jason Chen’s right ear lobe. They refuse to acknowledge me, so I compete with them over at Wired, where I cover cutting-edge gadgets in hopes that one day Brian and Jason will accept me as their legitimate love child. (Weep.)

Some more background: I grew up in the bay area in a suburban town called Milpitas, home to the well known Great Mall, which has an Old Navy, a Burlington Coat Factory, a Dave and Buster’s, a Hot Dog on a Stick and pretty much every chain you could ever imagine. I hope to never set foot in there again.

I eventually went to school at UC Davis, where I studied English and film studies. Frankly I never really liked school — the classroom setting never really did it for me; it felt stifling. So I kept myself busy with extracurricular activities and work. I tried a gig at a student-run TV station for a while, where I was technical director (supervisor of video editors) and decided it was too time-consuming (life is too short to wait for Final Cut to render) and not much fun. So then I joined the student newspaper, The California Aggie, as a news reporter, and that’s where I really kicked ass. I got a nice high writing breaking news stories about crimes, deaths, student-government scandals, the whole she-bang. I became news editor by my senior year and directed 13 awesome news reporters. (I miss my team dearly.)

Eventually after graduating I ended up at Macworld as a a lab tester, where I benchmarked all the new Macs and wrote product reviews. And then when Wired was hiring an Apple reporter, I applied, got the job, and here I am today.

What’s your current setup?

I live in San Francisco, and I work primarily at the Wired office downtown near the ballpark. Nowadays I’m writing about Microsoft, too, and on the weekends I’m working on a book called Always On. It’s about the impact of smartphones and other web-connected gadgets on society and human psychology. I look at the iPhone as a major starting point that unlocked the “anything, anytime, anywhere” future, which has huge implications for medicine, education, law enforcement, privacy and other aspects of our everyday lives. The book’s scheduled to publish around April 2011 by Da Capo. And yes, it will be available in the iBooks store for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

If you had to pick 5 iPhone apps from the App Store, what would your favorite ones be? And why?

Twitter: It’s indisputably the best Twitter client out there. I also have some personal attachment to this app, because I was one of the first writers at a mainstream publication to highlight Loren Brichter’s baby back when it was still called Tweetie – before he was acquired by Twitter. My writeup is still quoted on his old website; I’d like to think I played a small part in getting him where he is today. He deserves it.

Instapaper: This app changed the way that I read. I’m way too busy and can’t read every link tossed at me, and I click Instapaper’s “Read Later” button so many times throughout the day. Ridding articles of all the crap (ads, multiple page breaks, etc.) so we can focus on content has made me a more intelligent reader.

Facebook: Gotta hand it to Joe Hewitt. He really polished a gem with this one. I like the Facebook app more than Facebook.com itself because it’s so much more usable. Facebook is a hugely relevant service, and it’s unfortunate the website is so terribly designed.

Dropbox: I use this a hell of a lot because I own a lot of gadgets, and I need to be able to access important files from as many devices as possible. Dropbox is the most seamless cloud-based storage service I’ve ever used.

CameraBag: Particularly because I wrote a story about a completely blind photographer who used this app to edit his photos (with the help of the iPhone’s VoiceOver accessibility feature). That’s still one of my favorite articles today, because it shows the awesome potential of always-on gadgets to enhance human beings. Plus, I just love the photo filters.

iOS 4 brought multitasking, folders and lots of new little features to the iPhone. iOS 4.2 will bring multitasking and folders to the iPad. What are you expecting from iOS 5? Frankly, a new notification system is at the top my list.

WI-Fi syncing with iTunes along with support for a streaming, cloud-based iTunes. These features seem overdue, but they’re actually not. This type of integration is difficult — especially for something as massive as iTunes — so I wouldn’t expect these features until iOS 5.

How has the iPad become a part of your workflow? As a journalist, have you found yourself using it on a regular basis to create content? There’s quite a debate going on about this.

I use the iPad primarily for reading, especially with Instapaper. I also throw a lot of research paper PDFs into Dropbox and load them up in iBooks. But as a journalist, I can’t produce a lot on it. I need multiple windows open to display information from more than one source at a time to verify facts while writing stories. That’s the trade-off of the iPad: The single-screen interface of the iPad is great for concentration, but it sacrifices the ability to solve complex problems that require multiple data points. Fast app switching doesn’t really remedy this problem.

That doesn’t go to say the iPad’s not good for content creation, period. Plenty of artists enjoy painting on the iPad or creating music with it, for example.

The new Apple TV: what’s your take on it? Do you think Apple’s solution of putting the focus on streaming is the way to go for the next years? Also, apps: I can’t wait for Apple to open the platform, but I really don’t know what kind of apps we would want to run on our TVs.

I just got mine, and I’ve barely used it. It’s boring. Unfortunately there isn’t much to rent yet (two studios and not even all their best TV shows), and AirPlay streaming isn’t working yet in iOS 4.1. I have faith it will get much more interesting when iOS ships in November with AirPlay. Streaming Pandora or ABC Video Player to the Apple TV? Yes, please.

Mac OS X: many say Apple needs to implement revolutionary features such as 3D interfaces and multitouch technology on “desktop surface devices”, I think OS X is just fine as it is. Do you think a complete revamp is really needed in 10.7?

In my years covering Apple, I haven’t seen Apple do anything radical or mindblowing, so a complete revamp doesn’t sound realistic. Apple’s M.O. seems to be to train us into getting hooked on a quality experience and then luring us in further by iterating the products.That requires keeping us in some sort of a comfort zone. Last I heard, Macs were selling great; Apple wouldn’t do a complete revamp unless it really had to. With all that said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Mac with a touchscreen in the future, but I doubt the familiar experience of OS X is just going to evaporate. iOS is just a specialized version of Mac OS X, so we’ll probably see some sort of fusion occurring later.

In the era of real-time Internet, staying up to date with the information stream on all our devices has turned into a difficult task. Sync services like MobileMe and Google Sync come to rescue us, but do you think have we really explored all the possibilities of constant, persistent sync? iTunes in the cloud comes to mind.

I sort of answered this question earlier when guessing about iOS 5. I’ll just add that MobileMe really sucks, though, and Google Sync is just all right. Nobody’s really nailed this yet. I think Dropbox’s syncing is the best yet, and it’s unfortunate Apple and Google haven’t either bought Dropbox or integrated a similarly user-friendly service into their products.

What’s the app you need no one ever developed?

An app that locates the nearest motorcycle parking anywhere you are.

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