Larry MacPhee: Technology


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03.13.2018 Streaming Music Services

There was a time, not too long ago, when Apple saved the music industry from ruin by introducing the one-two punch of the iPod (2001) and the iTunes Music Store (2003). Due to the advent of the recordable CD player in the late 1990s, pirating and sharing music with free tools like Napster and Limewire was rampant, but Apple created an integrated hardware-software ecosystem that made it easy and affordable to purchase music, and to return most of the revenue back to the labels and the artists. Apple didn't need to make a lot of money from the music because they made a tidy profit selling the players. So, for over 10 years, Apple dictated the price of music and had so much clout over the resentful recording labels that, as digital video downloads started to go online, the motion picture industry vowed not to let Apple gain the same level of dominance over movie downloads.

As often happens though, in the fast paced technology industry, while Apple was sitting back and the profits were rolling in on music downloads, the technology changed, and caught them flat-footed. The iPhone, introduced in 2007, started a new trend. Over the next few years, smartphones began to replace iPods as the devices where people listened to their music, and smartphones had limited storage capacity. Rather than store music on the device, a few innovative companies began to offer music as free streams with ads, or as ad-free streams by monthly subscription. This began slowly, and didn't seem like much of a threat at first, but Pandora, and later Spotify, began to gradually make a dent in the music download business, until download revenues peaked around 2012 and then began to fall off. (The reason it doesn't look like downloads are tailing off in the graph above is that the data points represent cumulative sales.)

I suspect that, around that time, Apple was trying to figure out what to do about streaming music, and may have spun up an internal development group to explore adding music streaming capabilities to the already bloated iTunes app. However, by 2014, they elected to use their large cash stockpile to buy a product rather than develop one, and they purchased Beats for the astounding price of $2.6 billion.

As you can see from the second graph (data), Spotify is currently the dominant player, with 70 million paid subscribers, but the company has yet to make money, and has the worst reputation for underpayment of royalties to the recording studios and the artists. Pandora has been around the longest, but its rate of growth is linear, and fairly shallow. When Spotify arrived, it had better features and Pandora is only now adding some of those features. AppleMusic, the rebranded Beats Streaming Service, is experiencing rapid growth, and has almost hit 40 million users, but this still represents only about 3% of iOS users, so it's still too early to tell where the majority of streaming music consumers will go. There is speculation that Apple will, at some point, discontinue music downloads and that may force users to streaming subscriptions, but whether they will move to AppleMusic or an alternative service makes this somewhat risky.

For Spotify, the curve fit for exponential growth is pretty strong, but the last few data points might indicate that adoption is slowing. Watch those numbers over the next year or two. Both Spotify and Pandora have free (with ads) options, whereas AppleMusic has a 3-month free trial, but then you have to move to the paid service. The "freemium" model has become established in the web services economy as a way to hook people on the basic service and later convert them to paying customers. All of the services are comparably priced. Spotify's Premium service is $9.99/month. AppleMusic is $9.99/month or $14.99/month for a family subscription of up to 6 people. Pandora Plus (ad-free, but some restrictions) is $4.99/month, and Pandora Premium is $9.99/month.


03.12.2018 The Butterfly Effect

Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It's the idea that small things can have big consequences, in the way that the flap of a butterfly's wings in South America can build to a hurricane that ravages the Atlantic coastline. Apple's recent laptop keyboards, in order to shave a few millimeters off the total thickness of the device, have abandoned the trusty scissor mechanism in favor of a new, lower profile, butterfly switch design. After being first introduced on the new MacBooks, this design has made its way into all of Apple's laptops, including the high priced Pro models that can run upwards of $3000. Unfortunately, after about six months, a serious design flaw has become apparent, and it's one that Apple quietly acknowledges but would rather not talk about. It would seem that tiny specks of dust, as insubstantial as the beat of a butterfly's wings, can gum up the switch mechanism and make the key unresponsive. That would be bad enough, but repairing the problem with compressed air is only occasionally effective, and the entire keyboard needs to be replaced when that doesn't work. If you don't have AppleCare, that's going to cost close to $1000. It is good to hear that Apple has patented a fix, because most of Apple's computer sales these days are laptops. It can't arrive too soon because, for many people, this will permanently damage Apple's reputation for reliable hardware. In the meantime, my advice is to avoid the entire MacBook and MacBook Pro line or, if you can't, be sure to purchase the 3-year extended AppleCare warranty and plan on making regular trips to the Apple store for service. Or just sing along.

Update: Apple just filed a patent for a keyless keyboard. How that might work would be to present pictures of keys on a pressure sensitive touchscreen that provides haptic as well as visual feedback when the target area is touched. Interesting idea. Virtual keys can't get crud stuck under them, and it would certainly allow for a thinner device, but I wonder how well this will work. It's worth pointing out that the trackpad already provides a haptic response when pressed, so this technology might be fairly far along and make an appearance within a year or two. It is a logical extension of the 3D touch technology deployed on recent iPhones.

11.14.2017 Pushing Computer Design Forward

There are two computers you could buy today that push the state of the art forward in significant ways. Neither is cheap, and neither is perfect. Neither is made by Apple. And chances are you haven't heard of either of them. The first is the Surface Studio, by Microsoft, aimed at graphic designers, and it's been out for about a year. The second is the Sprout, by HP, aimed at the education market, and it's been out since 2014. Both of these markets are former Apple strongholds, but no significant computer advance has come out of Apple in years. That timing coincides with the rise of the iPhone and the iPad where, clearly, most of Apple's R&D has been going. What I'm curious about is whether either of these new, striking, innovative computer designs will take off, or whether we're all so squarely in the "post-PC era" at this point that a computer, no matter how innovative, just doesn't matter much anymore.

Part of the reason these devices are interesting is that they run the full-blown Windows 10, and touchscreen support is built into the operating system. Apple, on the other hand, divided OS development into the touch-driven iOS for phones and tablets, and the mouse-driven macOS for legacy laptop and desktop devices. Up to this point, Apple's has been the more effective strategy, because software developers have not found many practical uses for the touchscreen version of Windows. But perhaps that's on the verge of changing.

surface studio

The Surface Studio transforms from a desktop to a drafting tablet

I'm intrigued by the Surface Studio because this machine, which costs between $3000 and $4000 depending on specs, runs Photoshop and Illustrator the way I'd want to use them if I was a graphic designer. You can use the machine in desktop mode with its display facing you, or you can easily swing the display down to become a sloped work surface. It's elegant in the way that Apple's computer designs used to be, and it looks like what the iMac should have become, but didn't, because the macOS painted them into a corner. However, we have several graphic designers in the office, and none want this machine. Granted, they are all Mac loyalists, but I'm surprised. Once you're running Photoshop or Illustrator, there's not much difference between a Mac and a PC. And neither of those mission critical apps is available on the relatively underpowered iPad Pro.

hp sprout pro
The HP Sprout Pro

The HP Sprout, introduced late in 2014, has a camera above the touchscreen display that points down at an active work surface. The camera allows you to take physical objects and convert them into 3-D digital ones. The pressure sensitive work surface is simultaneously a second display, a virtual keyboard, and a drawing tablet. The potential of this device is huge, and yet it's not easy to anticipate where it will go. A lot will depend on the level of committment and ongoing support it gets from HP, on the quality of the custom software developed for it, and on whether it gains a foothold in the education market. Starting at over $2000, and going to almost $4000 for the top of the line model, the Sprout Pro, no matter how cool, may be a tough sell in cost-conscious K-12 schools where Chromebooks that cost 1/10 as much are the most popular technology today.

10.23.2017 Osborne Effect?

Apple just announced the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X simultaneously. The 8 is no slouch. Twice as fast as the iPhone 7, it is a worthy upgrade, costs $650, is available now, but is reportedly selling poorly. The iPhone X is the next-gen phone; it will cost over $1000 and feature all of the newest technologies, and will be available in limited quantities beginning in November. Could Apple have committed the cardinal sin in the technology world? By pre-announcing a better device, as Osborne did in the early days of personal computers, they accidentally caused buyers to hold off and harmed sales of their current product. This won't kill Apple the way it did Osborne, but it's a rookie mistake. I must confess that it surprises me that there are a lot of people willing to pay over $1000 for a phone, but it's the only good explanation for why the 8 would be in lower than expected demand.

05.09.2017 Remember iPads in the Classroom?

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Technology trends may be even more fleeting than Fall fashions. Only a few years ago, the iPad was being lauded as a textbook replacement, and large K-12 school districts were signing massive contracts to bring the iPad to the classroom. Much of that excitement has since fizzled. What went wrong? A mix of the usual suspects, I'm sorry to say. High cost and low durability were certainly factors. Kids don't take very good care of textbooks, and they are no better with fragile electronics; especially those with glass screens wrapped in a thin aluminum skin. Poor management tools also made it hard to keep a consistent set of apps loaded on the fleets of iPads. If Apple had kept working on iBooks and Configurator, maybe that problem would have gotten resolved over time, but they seemed to lose interest once the tools reached the "good enough" stage. (Configurator currently gets a 2.5 out of 5 star rating in the App Store.) Another problem is that the iPad was designed as a personal device, but the classroom need was for multi-user devices, so it wasn't a great fit. But what was probably the biggest issue is that classrooms needed machines for work, not play, and for creation, more than consumption, which is what the iPad is best at. Although Apple CEO Tim Cook disparaged the rugged, low-cost Chromebooks as only "test machines," these devices are much better suited to classroom needs than the shiny but somewhat impractical iPads. Many kids now have tablets at home, and what they use them for, mostly, is watching YouTube and playing video games. It should come as no great surprise, then, that kids want to use them the same way in the classroom, which is a problem for the teacher. The Chromebook, on the other hand, is something of a barebones laptop. With a battery that lasts all day, connected wirelessly to the Internet, and to the cloud-based Google Office Suite, these devices, with real keyboards, are not glamorous, but are great for taking notes, for writing papers, for making presentations, and for doing research on Wikipedia. Nobody wants to pull one out for fun! And while that may sound cynical, there's a time for play, and there's a time for work. Teachers can imagine lots of uses for Chromebooks. For iPads to be useful in the classroom, they had to be locked down so students couldn't have any fun with them, and without a keyboard or stylus, they aren't as easy to use for creating. The new iPad Pro has rectified those issues, but still costs at least three to four times what a Chromebook does. Moreover, the Chromebook management software treats the hardware as a multi-user device and it works like a dream. As Apple once had a lock on music, only to let it slip away as they failed to anticipate the next big thing, the classroom now belongs to Google.

09.09.2016 New iPhones

05.27.2016 Intuitive Design

04.12.2016 Fixing OS X

04.04.2016 Battle of the Pro Tablets

09.09.2015: Apple's Latest Releases

04.07.2015: Memo to Apple: You can be Too Rich and Too Thin!

03.01.2015: Apple Watch Pricing

12.23.2014: Mac OS X Version History

10.20.2014 FOMO Culture

10.15.2014 It's been way too long.

10.13.2014 Malware and the Mac

10.12.2014 And the beat goes on...

10.05.2014 The Vision Thing

09.30.2014 WATCH?

03.31.2014 Microsoft makes an important decision

03.10.2014 A Match Made in Consumer Electronics Heaven!

01.30.2014 Macintosh is 30 years old!

01.15.2014 CES 2014 Trends

11.21.2013 The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

07.13.2013 Why Microsoft's re-org won't help, but what might!

07.11.2013 It's not whether but when the post-PC era arrived!

06.23.2013 Apple's Yin and Yang

03.05.2013 Eleven years of iTunes

03.03.2013 Say goodbye to Macintosh?

02.28.2013 Time for some new Apple Ads

02.27.2013 Yahoo!?

11.03.2012 When form deviates from function

09.14.2012 Three rants for the price of one!

06.14.2012 Microsoft in a Pickle

04.13.2012 Mobile Device Platform Wars

04.02.2012 Having Our Cake and Eating it Too

01.18.2012 iTextbooks?

01.03.2012 Fanboys & Fandroids

11.10.2011 iPad + AppleTV + HDMI LCD Projector = Wireless Projection

11.01.2011 Dual boot computer lab management

10.05.2011 Thanks for everything, Steve!

10.04.2011 Oh no, it doesn't have a 5 on it!

10.04.2011 Stuff you "must" have. Stuff you no longer need.

10.03.2011 Why discontinuing the Zune is a "Big Deal"

09.29.2011 Multi-touch Tablet status report

08.01.2011 Essential Tech Tools for the Modern Traveler

08.01.2011 Trouble with Skype

07.31.2011 When does a standard emerge?

06.17.2011 Forecast: Cloudy Skies

06.17.2011 King of Cats?!?

05.12.2011 ChromeBook: Another Google misstep?

05.11.2011 Tablet Wars

01.30.2011 Too much of a good thing

01.15.2011 WinClone, I hardly knew you!

12.02.2010 Facebook vs. Google

12.01.2010 The Web is dead. Who stands to inherit?

11.02.2010 Triple Boot Machine

07.12.2010 Wireless Woes

06.30.2010 iPad Roadtrip

06.29.2010 The Mac is dead. Long live the Mac.

04.13.2010 Apple II Forever? No Thanks

03.07.2010 The Walled Garden of Good and Evil

02.28.2010 Smartphone Wars: Survivors and Casualties

02.23.2010 Why the AppleTV is still a "hobby"

02.13.2010 Kindles, iPods, razors and blades

02.10.2010 iPad Arrives; threatens Kindle and Flash

10.20.2009 New MacBook: Better in Every Way? Not!

10.18.2009 Trouble with Time Capsule!

10.13.2009 Top 10 Reasons to Get A Mac

10.13.2009 Apple Education Licensing Program

09.30.2009 What is the point of iWork?

09.23.2009 So now Microsoft's got a tablet concept?!

09.09.2009 New iPods, More Capacity, Same Prices

08.13.2009 More thoughts on the coming MacBook Touch

06.20.2009 The soon to be announced "MacBook Touch"?

06.12.2009 Apple refreshes laptops, creates giant hole in Product Grid

04.15.2009 Netbooks and Hackintoshes

06.18.2009 Closer to wanting an iPhone, no closer to wanting to pay $80/month for a data plan.

03.29.2009 TCO: Total cost of ownership.

Mac Clones and Hackintoshes

Cinema Displays, Old and New

Firewire: 1999-2008 RIP?

BootCamp, Parallels or VMWare?

News flash: AAPL anounces amazing stuff. Stock price plummets.

AppleTV? Sold! To the highest bidder. And good riddance.

MobileMe? Bite Me!