05.27.2016 Intuitive Design
When a teacher walks into an unfamiliar classroom, how easy is it to figure out the technology? The experience depends not so much on the technical skills of the instructor, but on the thought and planning that has gone into the design of the controls. Here's a great example. Assuming you know what a stovetop is for, which of these sets of controls is more intuitive?
The second layout is better because it is a natural mapping of the controls to the burners. Upper left controls the upper left burner. In the first layout, you don't know which control operates which burner unless additional labelling is provided. Now how about another example? If there are three light switches that control three lights above the switches arranged left, center, and right, which switch is best?
The natural mapping favors the third choice. Now, what if the lights on the wall were vertical, in top, middle and bottom positions? In this case, the first choice is the best because it mirrors the positions of the lights on the wall. It is better than the middle choice because up is the default for on, and down is the default for off. The middle choice, with toggles arranged left to right, is less clear about the state of the light.
Does left position map to on or off? If it's intuitive, you don't need a label for the control. When we design controls for things like raising and lowering a projector screen, for example, the up and down buttons should map to the desired function. To do otherwise would be very confusing. We should always use natural mapping when possible.
If there are multiple switches, how does the user even know what is controlled by each switch unless it is somehow labelled? In a newly designed classroom I recently visited, there is a switch plate near the front of the room with buttons numbered one through four, but with no labels. When you push a button it lights up, but nothing else happens. This is not intuitive. There was no label. It turns out that these were controls for banks of lights in the room, and that this swich selects which banks you will be controlling. A second switch turns the lights on and off. None of this was labelled. An experienced user of the room can train someone on how to use it pretty easily, but that wouldn't be necessary at all if the controls are done right in the first place.
04.12.2016 Fixing OS X
Sadly, many of the recent additions and other changes to Mac OS X have not been improvements, at least in my opinion. However, from reading the blogs, I'm not alone in that view. Here's a long list of things I "fix" after a base install of OS X. By fix, I mean change the default setting to improve usability; usually back to the way it used to be. While I am happy that at least I can make these changes, Apple sometimes takes that ability away in future releases, assuming you'll get used to the new default.
- Finder Prefs
- Show on desktop
- Hard Disks: Check
- External Disks: Check
- CDs, DVDs, iPods: Check
- Connected Servers: Check
- Hard disk: View: Columns
- New Finder Window shows: Computer
- Sidebar: Show these items in sidebar: Check all
- Advanced: Show warning before emptying trash: Uncheck
- View Options for Desktop
- Show Icon Preview: Uncheck
- Sort by: Kind
- System Prefs
- Do not disturb from 7:00 am to 6:59 am
- Show mirroring options in menu bar: Check
- Mouse or Trackpad
- Scroll direction: "Natural": Uncheck
- Play Feedback when volume is changed: Check
- Show in Menubar: Check
- Move Ethernet to top of Service Order
- Users & Groups
- Fast User Switching: Uncheck
- Reduce Transparency: Check
- Add Applications folder to dock
- Display as Folder, View as List
- Add User's Home folder in dock
- Display as Folder, View as List
04.04.2016 Battle of the Tablets: Apple iPad Pro vs Microsoft Surface Pro
Apple iPad Pro
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Apple's iPad Pro has now been out for about 6 months, and so has the Surface Pro 4 from Microsoft. Let's compare these two high end tablets and see how they measure up. Apple and Microsoft, when faced with developing software for touchscreen devices years ago, faced a crossroads and, interestingly, they went in opposite directions. What did they do, and why? How did it work out?
Microsoft has been trying for years to differentiate its devices by adding touchscreen functionality to the Windows platform. The Tablet PC was to be, according to Microsoft and the hardware vendors that went along, the next big thing in computing. But Tablet PCs, while they had their devotees, never took off, and most PC users instead opted for cheaper laptops without these features. It looked, for a number of years, as though Microsoft had piled more code onto Windows that few users wanted, and the main selling point of Windows 8 was not just a flop, but a major annoyance to anyone who had a traditional PC without a touchscreen. Unwelcome software changes had many users looking for ways to downgrade their new PC purchases to Windows 7, even when that option cost extra!
Apple, on the other hand, already had OS X for its Macintosh computers, and iOS, a significantly simpler operating system (really a stripped down version of OS X) for the iPod Touch, iPhone and, finally, the iPad. The early benefit of this approach was that iOS was lean and ran well on inexpensive devices with less horsepower than a full-fledged PC. Microsoft could not compete, and was beginning to look like an also-ran behind Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms in the mobile device world. Gradually, as the devices became more powerful, Apple has been adding features such as cut-and-paste and multitasking. Right from the start, though, this meant that Macs were made for serious work, and iPads were made for play. While the Tablet PC was a relative flop, the popularity of the iPod and iPhone drove sales of the iPad, and it became a major hit. So successful was Apple with iOS that they have actually been dumbing down OS X on the Mac in order to facilitate Mac sales to the throngs of new iOS users; something that has not gone without protest from the Mac loyalists, who generally agree that the Mac OS has been going downhill since Snow Leopard.
Things were looking pretty bad for Microsoft until people, who had become very enamored of their iPads, began to clamor for them to do more. The general refrain was that "I shouldn't have to carry a laptop and a tablet. I want my tablet to do everything." So that's how we arrived at today. Apple produced the iPad Pro for the iPad user who wanted more. And Microsoft has been plugging away at its Tablet PC concept, releasing version after version of the Surface tablet, each a little better than the previous, and marketing it as the only device you need. Now Apple's Mac line is looking a bit forlorn, having been ignored except for getting hand-me-down, ill-fitting clothes from iOS, and still without a touchscreen. And the Tablet PC, now rebranded as the Surface Pro 4, has finally come of age.
Surface Pro 4
||4 GB, 8 GB, or 16 GB
||32 GB, 128 GB, 256 GB
||128 GB, 256 GB
*Nobody should buy the base model iPad Pro with 32 GB of storage. That's not enough.
Differences: There are a lot of similarities. The Surface came out first, and it appears that Apple took a close look at the competition and copied liberally when designing its own high end tablet. The smart connector, the keyboard cover, and the stylus are all pretty similar. The specs and pricing are pretty similar too. The differences, however, may help you decide which one is right for you, and left me with some clear impressions.
The Microsoft keyboard includes a trackpad, and illuminated keys. The Apple keyboard costs more, but lacks both of these features. The Microsoft stylus is magnetic and has one flat side, so it won't roll off your desk, but it takes AAAA disposable batteries, which may be a nuisance to find. The Apple Pencil is rechargeable, but has no storage location, and is round, so it tends to roll off your desk. There is also an odd method of charging, involving taking the cap off the pencil and inserting the pencil into the lightning connector of the iPad. This seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Apple claims that its new Force Touch technology makes the device more sensitive than anything else on the market, and it really does have a great feel. However, the number of applications for serious graphical work is limited on iOS. Despite calling it a "Pro" the iPad lacks the pro apps that designers want to use; namely, the Adobe Creative Suite, including Photoshop and Illustrator. Because the Surface Pro runs full WIndows, the Adobe Suite is available, but has not yet been designed to take full advantage of the stylus and touch features of the Surface. The Surface Pro 4 is slightly more expensive than the larger iPad Pro, but the accessories cost less. However, the base model iPad Pros come with a ridiculously low 32 GB of storage, and nobody should buy those. This is classic bait and switch. The Surface Pro also beats the iPad on RAM, where the low end Surface matches the high end iPad Pro spec. To be fair though, the Surface probably needs more RAM to do the same job, since it's running the full Windows 10 OS. Performance wise, both devices are responsive and quick, and that's what matters most. Finally, the Surface Pro has a file system, a USB port, a video out port, and an SD Card slot, and the iPad lacks all of these. For graphic designers who need mobility, the Surface Pro looks like the better option. For the consumer who wants to do more with an iPad, the iPad Pro might be the better choice.
In the long run, Apple has the harder path because they are maintaining one code base for the Mac, and another for the iOS devices, and they have to figure out what to do with the Mac line, which is still popular and profitable, but hasn't received much attention in the past few years. The iPad Pro, despite what Apple's slick marketing might tell you, is not really a replacement for your desktop computer. Not yet at least. But it's the best iPad yet, and it's a lot of fun. I expect the new, smaller iPad Pro to sell well. The Surface Pro, on the other hand, is as good as any PC laptop you can buy, and it doubles as a tablet. Competition is good. These two products should keep pushing each other forward in the next few years, and that's good for all of us.
09.09.2015: Apple's Latest Releases
Apple's September event introduced new phones that were largely the expected incremental improvements over the previous models. They also introduced two new things: the so called "iPad Pro" and a significantly updated AppleTV. The iPad Pro is a bigger iPad with a faster processor positioned at the top of the iPad line, and it includes the promising new pressure sensitivity feature that Apple calls "force touch." This is not to be confused with Darth Vader's force choke, which was decidedly more mailicious. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad to the world back in 2010, he famously said, "if you see a stylus, they blew it." Well, here it is five years later, and there's a stylus, uh, I mean, pencil. But, in typical Apple fashion, it’s a bad thing right up until Apple makes the un-stylus; the $99 Apple Pencil, and Apple fans rush out to buy it. Clearly the iPad Pro is positioned to compete with the Microsoft Surface Pro. The iPad Pro's new add-on $169 smart keyboard is the sincerest form of flattery to Microsoft. But the two products are actually quite different and, for a change, Microsoft has the upper hand. Did I just say that? Here's the difference. The Surface actually runs Pro apps. If you want Photoshop and Illustrator, and full versions of Microsoft Office, they are all available for the $1000 Surface Pro. But the $1000 iPad Pro (the Apple Pencil and Keyboard add several hundred to the base price) only runs iOS, and, appearances from Adobe and Microsoft notwithstanding, the iPad Pro isn't Pro because it only runs iOS apps that pale in comparison to the Pro software products. The iPad remains a great device for consuming media, but still not a very good one for producing things. Now this is all based on just seeing the keynote. If, in real life, force touch and the pencil are significantly better than anything Wacom or Microsoft has produced, it may find a niche among graphic designers. That will be even more true if the apps designed specifically for this device take full advantage of its new features in ways that the Adobe tools for the MS Surface do not. Time will tell.
04.07.2015: Memo to Apple: You can be Too Rich and Too Thin!
When form follows function, we get great design. When form stops following function however, we end up with design driven by style, such as with the elaborate fins on American automobiles of the 1950s. While styles come and go, good design is longer lasting. Styles change not to improve on earlier designs, but to grab attention by being different from what came before. While I'm not opposed to stylistic change, I don't think that good design should ever be sacrificed for the sake of style. Historically, Apple has struck a good balance between great design and eye-catching style, but recent products have upset that balance. To illustrate my point, let's take a look at the iMac. Apple's iconic machine has gone through several iterations, from the attention getting candy-colored, egg-shaped object that revived the company's fortunes, to the clever swing arm model evocative of a desk lamp, until the emergence of the present design, which keeps getting thinner but has, design-wise, devolved since 2004. It has gotten more attractive but at the expense of servicability, which is a bad trade-off.
The original iMac looked so different from its boxy beige competitors that it grabbed attention at a time when Apple was building good machines but failing to gain market share. Stylistically, it was a home run, but it also introduced some really nice functional improvements. Technically, the iMac was really nothing more than a repackaged PowerMac G3; a reliable but unexciting beige box. The iMac was an all-in-one, easy-to-set-up Internet appliance introduced just as people were becoming interested in getting online. It had built-in speakers, a built-in modem, a built-in optical drive and a high-resolution built-in monitor. Pull it out of the box by its handle, plug in the power, keyboard and mouse, and turn it on. It took only a few minutes to get an iMac online at a time when comparable Windows PCs were a nightmare of cables and arcane configuration settings. The iMac's style got your attention, but intuitive design gave you longer-lasting satisfaction. The next generation "iLamp" was equally innovative. The flatscreen monitor could be adjusted in all three dimensions, and the footprint was not much more than that of a CD. It was truly elegant. The third generation iMac continued to improve. The monitor got bigger and the computer itself just got hidden on the back of the display. Best of all, this machine was designed to be very user-serviceable! In just a few simple steps, a novice could pop open the back cover and replace the hard drive and RAM, extending the life of the machine. From this point forward however, Apple has embarked on an effort to slim the machine down at the expense of user-servicability. Unlike a laptop, a desktop machine sits in one place. It doesn't have to keep getting slimmer every year! Not that I'd mind it getting slimmer, so long as you could continue to easily upgrade the components. Sadly, it keeps getting harder to do so because of glued down parts, incredibly tiny screws, anti-tamper measures, buried components, soldered on components, proprietary components, etc. If the iMac was redesigned as an iPad Pro (something Microsoft has been trying to do with the Surface) so that it had a touchscreen and sat flat on a desk, and ran a full copy of OS X, then perhaps the sacrifice could be justified. If that's where the iMac is headed, I could get on board. Until then, I wouldn't mind it getting a little thicker if I could easily swap out RAM and storage. That would extend the longevity of the machine and make me a more satisfied consumer. Macs are expensive and are designed to last. It's a shame when a machine has to be junked early because of one inadequate or faulty component. Continuing to slim down the iMac while making it less user-serviceable is sacrificing function to style.
No more MagSafe!
Now, lest you think this is just an iMac problem, take a look at Apple power adapters. A few years back, they came out with the really clever MagSafe power adapter, which breaks away from the laptop if the cord is pulled, saving you from a laptop crashing to the floor. Brilliant, and a great reason to abandon the old fixed power adapters. But then, they wanted to make the new laptops even slimmer, so they came out MagSafe2. Ok, frustrating, but if MagSafe2 would be around for a while, one could live with it. However, the latest MacBook, which Apple tells us is years ahead of its time, uses yet another connector, USB-C, and is no longer Mag Safe! Sacrificing the magnetic attachment for a few more millimeters of slimness is favoring style over function. Adding insult to injury, the new MacBook has, of necessity since it is so thin, a shallower keyboard with not enough travel in the keys, making typing awkward. It is also fanless, and only time will tell whether that was a good idea, but Apple's track record on fanless devices has not been good. Finally, reports of the performance indicate that it is a step backwards. So, Apple's latest and greatest laptop won't work with any of your devices unless you buy adapters, it is underpowered, has a lousy keyboard, and no more magsafe! Quite a sacrifice for a few more millimeters of slim. Good thing in comes in three stylish colors!
03.01.2015: Apple Watch Pricing
There is lots of speculation about the pricing of the new Apple Watch, which will be introduced to the world in a March 9 Apple Event. While I'm confident that the low end pricing is correct, at about $350, the high end is anybody's guess. If, as Gruber and some others predict, it is upwards of $20,000 for the Edition models, it raises an interesting question. If I buy an expensive Rolex, the timepiece is timeless and, if I take good care of it, I could hand it down through the generations. Will anybody pay that kind of money for a product that will be obsolete in a year, when the next, and inevitably better, model comes out? Sure, I know, people who have $20,000 to spend on a watch can probably afford a new one every year. But I think, because I'm not so foolish as to imagine that an Apple product designed by Jony Ive will be upgradeable, that one of two things is likely to happen. Either their will be a big aftermarket for "new to you" watches (only $10,000 for last year's model!), or, more likely, Apple (or some very smart entrepreneur) will offer a trade-in, trade-up program. After all, if the reason the Edition watch costs so much is that it is full of gold, it would make sense for Apple to recover the gold and sell you a new watch every year with the same amount of gold and upgraded electronics for just a service charge and the cost of the electronic components. That way, the beautiful people with the disposable incomes can always be wearing the latest fashion, dahling. Because this is a fashion accessory as much as it is a timepiece, having the beautiful people wear your brand benefits Apple as much as it does the celebrities. Don't own the gold. Loan it. Of course, if you lose it, I hope it was insured. And, for a while at least, wearing one of these things is also going to make you a prime target for getting robbed.
12.23.2014: Mac OS X Version History
Macs tend to last a long time. If you acquire an old one, which version of Mac OS X should you run? It's not simple because older machines won't run the latest OS, and Apple typically doesn't allow a machine to run an OS older than the one it first sold with. Sometimes you might need to keep an old Mac running for some critical piece of older software that has not been updated. If you need to keep running Classic (MacOS 9 or earlier) apps, then 10.4 "Tiger" is the last OS for your machine (unless you want to try emulation). If you have a Mac with a PowerPC processor (you can get this info from the Apple Menu, under "About this Mac") and you don't need Classic, then 10.5 "Leopard" is the end. 10.6 "Snow Leopard" is the last Mac OS version with Rosetta, the compatibility layer that lets newer Intel processor Macs run PowerPC programs. Snow Leopard was also just a really good one, so I'd recommend it for any old machine that can run it. You should continue to run Software Update with any Mac OS to patch security holes and install bug fixes. Nobody should be running 10.3 or older on any machine that can run a newer version of the MacOS. If holding back from the latest Mac OS isn't appealing, another solution is to keep an old unupdated Mac around to run "legacy" apps.
2014.10.20 FOMO Culture
Drop everything! You have 2 unread messages!!!
A friend of mine recently remarked that the best month of his life in the modern world was when, due to some kind of line malfunction, he was able to dial out from his home phone, but incoming calls could not connect. The freedom to call out when he needed to without being pestered by telemarketers, wrong numbers, political robocalls, etc. is a truly beautiful thing. One of the things that annoys me most about my tech gadgets is that it is increasingly difficult to achieve that state of leave-me-alone-nirvana. It seems that the millenials, who now drive focus group studies, have an uncontrollable fear of missing out. A recent t-Mobile commercial effectively makes the point to the millenials that, if you are not connected all the time, you could lead a boring life and miss a lot of opportunities for fun. Therefore, it's important that we are always notified by our devices when someone posts to Facebook, or when one of our friends is nearby, or when a new message, even spam, arrives via e-mail, and not just by persistent notification bubble, but by sound as well. On the Mac platform, notifications have become notoriously difficult to disable. This has been gifted upon us via feature creep from the mobile iOS. Notifications are a serious hindrance to doing mentally challenging, contempletative work because the notifications jump right in front of what you're working on. As I write this, my clothes dryer insistently beeps because the latest load of laundry is dry, and it will keep on beeping until the end of days unless I get up and open the dryer door! Who wants this? Why can't I turn that "feature" off? Clearly the designers of these notification systems think that the fear of missing out trumps the...just a second...I need to go deal with the dryer...laser focus that solitude brings. Studies of young adults show that while they are quite good at devoting continuous partial attention to a wide variety of stimuli, the sum of their multi-tasking activities does not equal the results they could achieve if they devoted their full attention to one thing, such as studying for a test or writing a term paper. Of course, children whose synapses have wired themselves in a world of incessant distraction may consider solitude a form of torture. How can one just sit in the doctor's office waiting for an appointment without playing with one's phone while the television nobody's watching blares in the background? I begin to see why older people loathe new technology.
2014.10.15 It's been way too long.
Tomorrow is Apple's latest press event, streaming live (maybe) at 10:00 am Pacific time. The teaser "It's been way too long." got me thinking about what I've been waiting for. The rumor sites predict new retina display iMacs and new iPad Airs. These are things I'm not terribly interested in. What have I been waiting for way too long? An enhanced AppleTV. A new Mac Mini. A new standalone Apple display. A new MacBook Air. Some real innovation on the Mac platform rather than just making things slimmer that don't need to be slimmer (if it means making it harder to cool, service, upgrade, such as with the last generation iMac), and porting of more silly iOS iCandy. How about some attention to good user interface guidelines? While the faux leather, green felt and reel to reel tape deck went way too far in the skeuomorphic direction, the new flat design and gray interface that removes useful visual cues goes too far to the other extreme. I want some feedback when I click on a button, and I want to have some sense, before I click, of what might happen when I do. It would also be nice if there was some indication of what is clickable in the first place! Apple used to do this right. Interfaces were intuitive. It's been way too long since that was the case.
Results: Apple released an impressive 5K retina iMac but no corresponding monitor for the Mac Pro. If we own the most powerful Mac Pro money can buy, we still can't have the nicest monitor? Perhaps we can buy a pair of iMacs and hook them up as monitors and ignore the computers inside? In other news, the new Mac Mini has returned to the original $499 price point, which is great, but there's a reason they didn't say much more about it. The rest is all bad news. You can no longer upgrade the RAM. Like the 21" iMac and MacBook Air, it is now soldered to the board. This, despite any external changes in case dimensions, is sure to annoy. Also, it now appears more difficult to add a second drive inside the box, both by design and by Apple's use of anti-tamper screws on the case. Finally, they removed the build-to-order option of a quad-core i7 processor from the list, so the new top of the line is not as good as the old top of the line model. Clearly, they don't want the Mini competing with the iMac. That's too bad, because I've never been a fan of all-in-one machines. My current Mac Mini is 5 years old and has been upgraded several times, but I had been waiting for this refresh to replace it. My monitor is closer to 10 years old and does not need replacing. But, since I'm not likely to go out and buy a PC, I guess my options are 1) keep the current Mini, 2) buy a previous gen Mini while supplies last, 3) buy a new Mini even if it's not exactly what I wanted. Clearly it doesn't matter to Apple. 80% of their computer sales come from laptops and most of the rest is iMacs. If the Pro and the Mini don't sell well, it's not hurting them at all. Although they haven't said so, the Mini is probably, with the Pro, the latest "Made in USA" model. Good PR for Apple, and they only have to make a few thousand a year. Oh, and I'm still not quite sure what it was Apple thought had been way too long! Odd messaging.
2014.10.13 Malware and the Mac
Coming soon to a computer near you...Mac Malware! Just a few weeks ago, I recommended to a faculty client that she uninstall Sophos Anti-Virus from her Mac because it was more trouble than it was worth. While that is still my general recommendation, based both on the, ahem, utility of Sophos and the lack of present day risks to the Mac and iOS, the Apple pastures aren't as green as they once were. The following statements have long been made, and are, to a great extent, still true. Apple systems are intrinsically secure because the Mac is UNIX based. Software security updates install smoothly, and Mac users tend to run them. Security features built into MacOS X and iOS protect users more than Windows or Android do. The Apple App Store is more of a "walled garden" compared to the weedlots of the Android Market and bargain basement Windows software. Finally, part of the reason that Windows has so many viruses is that there are so many Windows users, so the return on investment of a malware designer has been greater there. We all knew however that, with the ascendence of Apple, the makers of malware would someday turn their eyes toward us. That day has come.
In just the past few weeks, I have encountered three Macs infected by the Genieo adware, which also sometimes goes by the name of InstallMac. Another contained the ransomware TuneupMyMac, which doesn't do much of anything except report that your Mac has problems that it won't fix until you pay for a license. (Even then it doesn't do much.) This software gets onto your machine when you go to an unscrupulous download site and try to download a free program. In one case, it was Download.com and the software was the useful VLC video player, which you can safely get here. In another, it was the Softonic download site and the desired app was some kind of Minecraft mod utility. Avoid these download sites. MacUpdate has also started pushing this malware. A safer bet is to go to the vendor's site, or to the Mac App Store. Due to a bit of carelessness or naivete on the part of the users, and a lot of deceptiveness on the part of the software distributers, programs that the users did not want got installed on their machines, and immediately installed url redirection tools, changed search engine preferences, and possibly more. If the user, during the installation process, checks (or unchecks, as appropriate) the boxes to prevent the offered software from being installed, it installs anyway. The uninstallers for these undesirable programs do not uninstall them; the uninstaller for Install Mac actually installs more stuff in hidden folders! The makers of these services (Genieo calls itself a personalized home page and search tool) redirect users to their ads, and track user activity. A useful site called The Safe Mac has some tools and advice for removing this malicious software, but it can still take some work. Even after the user tracking software is gone, the user still has to manually fix the problems in each web browser by going to Settings and fixing the default url, home url, default search engine, etc. In Firefox, disabling the plug-in was even more difficult. The bottom line is that the growth of malicious software for the Mac platform is on the rise, and that we all need to be more careful about what we download, and from where.
Tips: There are a few things you can do if you get infected, and a few settings you can change to make it harder for malware to get onto your system without handing full control over to an anti-virus program that will bog down your machine.
1) In the System Preferences/Users and Groups pane, check the Login Items tab in the upper right. Anything listed there is set to start up when your Mac does, and you won't be able to delete these things while they are running. If you find something in there that you don't want, select it, click the minus (+/-) button at the bottom of the pane to remove it from the automatic startup list, and then restart the computer. At that point, you can delete the offending item.
2) In the System Preferences/Security and Privacy pane, check the General tab, and make sure that Allow Apps downloaded from Anywhere is not selected. You can override this manually when you need to, but it's an additional layer of protection.
2014.10.12 And the beat goes on...
At various times, both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have reflected on how fast the technology industry moves. Success, they say, requires the ability to anticipate the next big thing and, particularly in the case of Jobs, willingness to abandon the past, and sometimes even the present, in order to get to the future. It seems that this is hardest to do when you're currently on top, basking in the glory of a fawning press, and raking in mountains of cash. Why change? Won't the good times just keep rolling? When Microsoft was at its peak in the 1990s, they almost let Netscape own the Internet but, thanks to quick if unscrupulous action, they were able to wrestle control back for another decade. But it must be tough for Gates to watch as Microsoft has fallen from its once dominant position, mostly because the company stayed the course while the industry changed direction beneath them. Microsoft has failed to grab a foothold in the mobile devices arena, so its Windows PC monopoly has become increasingly irrelevant. Now Apple is facing a similar dilemma. With the iPod and iTunes, Apple became so successful that they reshaped the entire entertainment industry and revived the company. So pervasive was the iPod, that Bill Gates's children were forbidden to bring one into the house! But then Apple took their eyes off the ball. Or, the music ball, at least.
What goes up usually comes down.
For ten years, Apple saw near exponential growth in music sales, due to the simplicity of iTunes and the intuitive design of the pre-iOS "clickwheel" iPods that Apple has now largely abandoned. But Apple's music ecosystem was based on music downloads, and upstart companies like Pandora
, which stream music, slowly eroded that dominance while Apple was busy disrupting the cell phone industry. With downloads in decline
and streams now on the rise, Apple has to figure out how to smoothly transition its products and its customers from a download-based market to a streaming service. It's easy to make drastic changes like this when you're small and nimble, and you have only a few customers. It's much harder when every change you make to iTunes results in news headlines and confused, angry customers. Its fun to speculate on whether Jobs might have seen it coming, and would have taken decisive action but, just as likely, he might have said, "Music is done. We've moved on to phones." But more conventional business executives don't like to see their past empires crumble. That's the real reason why Apple CEO Tim Cook recently authorized the purchase
of Beats Music for 3 billion dollars. To his credit, he took action when he recognized that they were slipping, and Apple certainly has the money. That's not an easy thing to do. For years after the introduction of the iPhone, the competition at Microsoft and Blackberry denied its importance rather than responding to it. We all know how well that worked out. With the purchase of Beats, Apple acquires a series of assets which may help them reassert their dominance. Which of these assets is the primary reason for the acquisition is unclear. Apple isn't saying, and nobody on the outside seems to know for sure. Here are my best guesses and, of course, there may be more than one right answer.
1) Jimmy Iovine: This guy is a businessman who understands how to make deals with the recording studios. That is something that Jobs was good at, but nobody at Apple besides Jobs had the clout or the ego to do it. He is clearly a big part of the deal, and I expect he's working hard. Iovine was acquired for the long term gain.
2) Dr. Dre: Apple can't just keep going back to Bono. I don't think the kids even know who the old man is anymore. Dr. Dre is a celebrity endorsement acquired to convince the kids that Apple is still cool. Of course, the only reason you need celebrity endorsements is when your cool is starting to slip! I don't think the Doctor does much day-to-day to earn his salary but perhaps he keeps the kids coming back to iTunes at a time when Apple needs that. Dre also adds some diversity to the executive ranks and possibly to the future musical offerings as well.
3) The Headphones: Apple had nothing in the over ear headphones category, and they just bought the top brand among teens. Beats headphones are wildly profitable and they will add a new revenue line to Apple immediately. If the audiophiles criticize them for being poorly made and muddy in the low range, the kids certainly don't care. They are good looking, comfortable, visually distinctive, and all the cool kids are wearing them. Maybe Apple will even improve them and make the critics happy? The headphones will keep making money, and keep Apple in the cool zone in the eyes of teens. That is worth 3 billion right away.
4) Beats Streaming Music Service: Some have argued that the code for the streaming music service was the reason for the purchase. While possible, this seems among the least likely explanations given the programming talent inside Apple, and the amount they could buy for 3 billion dollars. On the other hand, iTunes is such a mess these days that I begin to wonder about the programmers at Apple. Maybe starting from scratch is not such a bad idea? Also unlikely is that they bought it for the client base, which is tiny. A more interesting possibility is that Apple has, with the acquisition of Beats Music, acquired their streaming contracts with the record companies, and this is something that the record companies might never have given away so cheaply if dealing directly with the colossus.
2014.10.05 The Vision Thing
I get the sense that the upper management at Apple, while clearly competent, is lacking one important thing since Steve Jobs passed three years ago, and that's a high end consumer with a clear vision of how a great product should work. Cook, Schiller, Cue, Federighi and the rest just don't seem to use technology the way Jobs did. His ability to play with a technology for a few minutes and identify its flaws, and then to clearly outline the features it should have to make it brilliant, was what made him special. Jobs may not have been an engineer or a programmer, but his sense of how things ought to work was rarely off target, and nobody at Apple today seems to be as demanding of perfection, or as inventive, as he was. While Jony Ive knows how to make things pretty, his domain is the physical world, and his efforts at interface design, something Apple used to do really, really, well, have led to more mixed results. While Forstall took us too far towards skueomorphism, Ive's designs are too flat and lacking in visual cues. On the third anniversary of his death, Cook commented that Steve's vision is still alive at Apple, but that most of the products rolling out today were developed after his passing. I think we can all see that the latter is true. As to the former, I'm not so sure. That might be wishful thinking.
September 9, 2013 was a day that Apple fans were looking forward to for a long time. A new Apple product line! The smartwatch that would define the category and put the competition on notice! I watched the live Tim Cook keynote and the carefully choreographed Jony Ive "film," and considered my take on this for a few weeks. Since the device is not available to the public yet, it's hard to assess it fully, but below are some thoughts I've had that I haven't seen elsewhere, and questions that remain open.
A wide variety of styles!
1) Naming. The new product has an odd name(s). If Apple had named it the iWatch, that would be consistent with previous products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. But, instead, it is the WATCH. The only other product from Apple with a similar name is the TV. The TV was originally the iTV but Apple had problems licensing that name so they changed it. That "TV" is capitalized makes sense, since that's how it's typically written. It's an abbreviation of TeleVision. So did Apple look at iWatch and discover that someone already owned that? Possibly. But capitalizing WATCH is a bit weird. It's like they're shouting at us. This is out of sync with Apple's usually slick marketing choices. Are we supposed to conclude that these two products are somehow similar? Is the watch just a hobby project at this point? On just this one page on Apple's site, the watch is referred to variously as Watch, WATCH, APPLE WATCH, and Apple Watch. What the heck?
2) Designation. Tim Cook calls this device a whole new product category. In the sense that Apple has never made a watch before, this is true. But in the sense that this is a standalone device, I would argue that, at present, the WATCH is an expensive iPhone accessory. The WATCH can do some things on its own, but other things require that it be tethered to a nearby iPhone. The cost of the watch starts at $350 but, really, you might want to put an asterisk after that because the device is handicapped without an iPhone. (Apple seems to assume that everyone already has one of those. I suppose those who can afford the watch mostly do!) The tethering limitation that I'm most curious about involves the Health/Sport functions. The watch would be a cool device to own if one is a runner, for example, because it can monitor various things like pulse, distance covered, elevation gained, etc. But can the watch, which lacks a GPS, barometer, cellular connectivity, etc. do this only if you are carrying your phone along on the run? Unclear but, if so, that's a bit disappointing. The WATCH will only be a true product category when it functions as a standalone device. That will happen eventually and, when it does, it should extend the "halo effect" in the same way that making the old clickwheel iPod work with iTunes for Windows did. If the watch was a standalone device, I could see that, for many buyers, this might compel a first foray into the Apple ecosystem.
iPod Nano (Gen 6)
3) User Interface. The "digital crown" is Apple's latest invention for interacting with the watch. By adding it, they are implicitly pointing out that the way you interacted with their recent iPod Nano (6th gen--the one that many people converted to a watch!) was kind of unfortunate. But it's true! A finger is not the optimal pointing device on a tiny screen. It gets in the way. Apple realized that and enlarged the Nano (7th gen) screen. Since that wouldn't work for the watch, we have the digital crown. While I don't like that name (it sounds dental) I think the interface is clever. Even more impressive is the pressure sensitive screen, which creates a whole new way to interact with the device. I hope this makes it over to future iPads. My concern, though, is that if the crown is a moving part, it can break and is a point of possible water intrusion into the watch interior. At the very least, the sport watch should be waterproof to 10 meters. That's the whole point of not having any physical openings on the watch and, with inductive charging and bluetooth, they were there! Microphone and speaker both use a membrane, so those parts could be water resistant. On the plus side, you can design the watch screen yourself. I hope they give people tons of options, so that everyone can build a unique looking face. This is my favorite software feature. Creepiest is sharing your heartbeat with another watch user. Ick.
4) Battery. It simply had to last all day. Nothing less would be tolerable. And by all day, I mean about 12 hours. If the watch couldn't hold a charge from when you got up in the morning and put it on until you went to bed and took it off, it would be ridiculed. Apple's inductive charging solution is a nice one, and I'm so glad they did this. It shows the way forward for their other mobile devices, and I'm excited for this transition. However, as others have noted, this is why the watch looks bulky. Small, thin batteries don't hold a charge long. Samsung, with their giant phablet phones, was able to boast about long battery life exactly because their phones are so big. Big phone means big battery. But, for a watch, bulky is not desirable. Clearly the current bulk of the watch was the result of a compromise between the need for sleekness and battery life requirements.
5) Style. I'm a watch guy, and I don't mind paying for quality. I don't own a Rolex or TAG Heuer, but I do admire their looks. They look like precision instruments. They look expensive. While my $40 Timex Ironman digital keeps better time, the interface is stupefying. It seems like there's a huge market space for a digital watch with a great interface. I just don't care for the styling of the WATCH. I know that we should all think of it, in words Jony Ive might use, as "the most beautiful object in the built world, artisanally crafted by the hand of man, with exquisite materials and precision machining techniques found nowhere else." But no, the plastic bits look Swatchy and the shiny bits make it look cheap. The brushed aluminum and space gray of the Sport versions are the best, but the standard shiny silver, and the high end shiny gold ones, are tacky looking. Will people buy it? I have no idea. But I don't think the Rolex guys are going to be lining up for WATCHes. Sure, they've gathered a collection of fashionable people to be photographed wearing them, but nobody has any real money on the line except Apple.
6) Reaction. I personally don't want one, and I usually want the latest Apple product. Is that a cause for concern? Just because I don't like the current WATCH doesn't mean it won't be a big hit. The original iPod was too, and I was unwilling to pay for one until storage capacity increased and price came down. I'm now on my fourth iPod, so things change.The WATCH will get slimmer, more capable and, as I mentioned above, will eventually be a standalone device. When that time comes, I will probably want one too! But I'm going to take my general advice with new Apple products. Skip the first generation. A better one is already being designed.
2014.03.31 Microsoft makes an important decision
Microsoft Word for iPad
Microsoft has made a very important decision. You may be thinking it was the one that made the news; the release of Office for the iPad but, no, that's not it exactly. Personally, I'd rather put an icepick in my eye than try to do serious work on a tablet but hey, for those who want it, I'm happy for them. No, the other decision is related, but it's much more important. The decision was to stop trying to prop up the mobile Windows platform at the expense of their other products. Microsoft had a tough choice to make. Withhold Office from iOS and Android platforms in order to drive people to the floundering Windows Phone and Surface devices, or sell Office to everyone who wants it. In the end, withholding Office didn't drive anyone to the Windows mobile devices, so Satya Nadella, the new CEO of Microsoft made the right call. As I see it, Microsoft has two, maybe three, profit centers. Windows and Office are the big ones, and there are a lot of other things, bankrolled by those profitable divisions, that either don't make much of a difference to the bottom line, like Internet Explorer and XBox, or actually lose money like a house on fire, like the now discontinued Zune, the Surface and Windows Phone, and Bing. The company has had enough money to invest in these other things because the profit centers have been wildly profitable. Past tense. But Windows 8 is a mess, and it's not selling. So much so that if they just reverted back to Windows 7, most people would be happier. Office is also in trouble because fewer people are buying computers. That's why depriving Office of the profits to be had from Android and iOS users was just a foolish move. The profit centers must remain profitable. Without the cash from sales of Windows and Office, Microsoft's rate of burn on its unprofitable divisions becomes unsustainable in a big hurry. Ultimately, that's why Ballmer is out and Nadella is in. Ballmer could never acknowledge that every major decision he made since taking over from Gates was bungled, and therefore he had to go. Now that he's gone, the logical thing happened. I don't think we know yet whether this decision means Nadella will be a good CEO or not, but it's a big step in the right direction for Microsoft. It means Microsoft will continue to be a major player for some time to come, even if they don't have a strong platform in the mobile space. This decision may reflect a major shift in thinking in Redmond, Washington.
2014.03.10 A Match Made in Consumer Electronics Heaven!
Best Buy is the biggest retail consumer electronics chain in the U.S. So why is the company struggling? It's a thin margin business, to be sure, but I have recently heard the argument, even from Best Buy employees, that many consumers go to the store to check out the merchandise, and then go online to buy it cheaper. I think there is some truth to that and, while that must be frustrating to the company, it suggests a possible win-win scenario for both Best Buy and Amazon, the biggest online consumer electronics store. You see, Amazon has problems too. Shipping is one. Returns are another. The third is that you can't touch the merchandise. Best Buy's best feature is its showrooms, right there in every population center in America. If you need it today and don't want to pay an outrageous shipping fee, Best Buy is your best bet. But Amazon wins on price and choice, because they only ship what they sell, and it costs very little to put up a picture of an item in their store, whether it sells or not. So what if Amazon bought up Best Buy and, like Apple, created a brick and mortar storefront for its online business? The showrooms could serve as local distribution points for online orders (like pizza, cheaper if you pick it up rather than having it delivered to your door) and as a clearinghouse for returns, because big bulky items like flatscreen televisions are a pain if they need to be returned to an online seller. But, perhaps most importantly, it gives the consumer the chance to touch the merchandise and ask a few questions before they buy. If it's in stock, they can have it today. If not, they can have it ordered for later pickup or delivery. Cheaper, faster, better for both the sellers and the buyers!
2014.01.30 Macintosh is 30 years old!
The Mac just turned 30! The original Macintosh really was an amazing device, particularly compared to anything else you could buy in 1984. Although it may look clunky now, it was the first modern computer, and a person born decades later could still sit down at one today and use it without difficulty. Extrapolating from the original Macintosh, you could envision the next 30 years of computing. Steve Jobs was right when he said that the 1977 Apple ][ and the 1981 IBM PC were the two major milestones in personal computing and that Macintosh would be the third. Although the Mac never captured the market share of its inferior copy, the Windows PC, the Mac has been the prototype for almost all of the original and good ideas in hardware and interface design. Some would argue that the credit goes to the smart people at Xerox PARC, but Xerox was unlikely to mass market the Alto that inspired the Apple engineers, and most of those smart people defected to Apple in order to realize their vision. Likewise, Microsoft's Windows was a superficial copy of the Mac's intuitive operating system, but it would be 11 years later, with Windows 95, before Microsoft had anything that approached the capabilities of the original Mac.
2014.01.15 CES 2014 Trends
The big Consumer Electronics Trade Show just wrapped up and two trends emerged. Wearables and the Internet of Things are apparently very popular with the nerds in attendance. I will now put on my curmudgeon hat (who am I kidding? I wear that hat every day!) and comment on these two exciting developments.
1) Wearable Technology: Until wearables are also washables, I think people may end up with a lot of damaged devices, though I did recently wash some earbuds to no ill effect. Seriously though, the bigger issue with wearable technology is that nobody has come up with a compelling, useful device that doesn't further isolate us from the rest of the world and make us look like complete dorks. Let's face it, even Lt. Uhura, sexy as she was in Classic Star Trek, could barely sell that big honking earbud. But the "bluetools" walking around in public rambling about their big business deal or what to pick up at the store are barely distinguishable from the mentally ill. The problem is not so much the technology itself, but the failure of people to exercise good judgment about when and where to use it. I really wish we could preserve the phone booth as a place where people take and make phone calls. Just rip out the payphone and add a strong cellular antenna so you get better reception and eliminate background noise. Why don't fancy restaurants do this? A rich walnut trimmed booth with fine leather upholstery, or maybe a classic UK red one, would be a wonderful place for an important call. I always find it so sad to see a nice young couple at a restaurant paying more attention to their phones than to each other. It's only going to get worse as we block more of our senses. Can you imagine everyone wearing Google Glass(es) in public, filming you without permission? People are already wandering out in front of cars because they forget to look up while texting. Now you can walk and watch television at the same time! Yay?
The Nest thermostat
Bluetooth door lock
Camera equipped drone
2) The Internet of Things: The Internet is no longer just a collection of websites. There is a recent push to put all manner of electronic devices online so that you can do things like monitor from a remote location or control them with your phone. For example, there is a new home door lock that you can open with your phone. The Nest Thermostat (the company was just bought by Google) can be used to remotely adjust the temperature of your home. There are little remote controlled vehicles (some with wheels, some with propellors) equipped with webcams that can be operated with your smartphone. Personal drones that can be programmed to follow you around and record you! What could possibly go wrong? None of these "things" used to have an Internet connection but more and more do. Why is this an issue? Well, if your phone opens your door and you lose your phone (or if its battery runs down), you could get locked out of your house. Of greater concern will be the point at which your phone can open all your doors, so obtaining it is like getting a master key to your life. What happens when there's a power failure? Are you locked out? Do you need to replace batteries in all these remote gizmos? What happens if a hacker compromises your devices, as Target's customer database was recently downloaded? Not a problem right now, but what if a virus or a hacker causes all of the door locks to open, or all of the drones to drop from the sky, or all the thermostats to shut off the heat? And besides, does anyone really need a web connected refrigerator?
Both of these trends are interesting, but I think we're headed somewhere and I'm not entirely certain that most of us really want to live in that world. Do we?
2013.11.21 The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
In the beginning, people watched television over the airwaves. For Americans, ABC, NBC and CBS were the only games in town. Watching required constant fiddling with the rabbit ears but fortunately, most of the time, there was nothing on worth watching anyway. Eventually, black and white gave way to color, and then came the age of cable. We still had only about a dozen channels, but the reception was great, and there was, in theory, so much more to watch. But while cable expanded our options, much of it was filler and channel surfing was rarely fruitful. Bruce Springsteen said it well. Fifty seven channels and nothin' on. The one amazing thing about that era, though, was that everyone watched TV synchronously, at the moment it was broadcast (or not at all), so you could show up at school or work the next day and discuss what was on last night, and almost everyone was in on the conversation. Remember who shot J.R.? It's hard to explain this to the net generation kids, who expect to be able to watch anything, anytime, anywhere, on any device.
Movie Rentals: But then, in the 1990s, things began to change. If you owned a VCR or, later, a DVD player, you could rent a movie from the local video rental store and watch what you wanted, when you wanted. This was a pleasant alternative to bad tv. Blockbuster became the biggest of these video rental chains, and they were once as common as Starbucks coffee shops. The movie studios loved it because movies, after their premiere release in the theatres, had a second opportunity to make money in the rental market. But, more often than not, you would show up at the video store and they they didn't have what you wanted to watch, or you would forget to return a movie within 24 hours and get hit with a late return fee. By the early 2000s, Netflix had improved on that model by letting you select the video you wanted to watch online and then just wait for it to show up in your mailbox. Watch it and drop it back in the mail. No more driving, no more late fees, and you could get almost any title, no matter how obscure. Netflix steadily ate away at Blockbuster's market and Blockbuster failed to respond until it was too late. They finally shut down in 2013.
Blockbuster's local stores couldn't compete with Netflix's convenience or selection.
Asynchronous TV: It wasn't just movies that were changing. For many people, television changed from a synchronous to an asynchronous activity. The old question, "I wonder what's on TV?" became "What do I want to watch?" and the concept of a spoiler came into being. "Don't tell me how it ends. I haven't seen it yet!" This has been an extremely disruptive change for the old television networks, who have long depended on their Neilson ratings. It has become much more difficult for the networks to figure out who's watching their shows and, importantly to their sponsors, who's watching the commercials. This lack of information has led to the early cancellation of some promising shows before most people knew about them. Firefly was a classic example.
TV Episodes on DVD: Because the DVD and later optical disc formats had so much more storage capacity than a video cassette tape, and because the content rights holders figured it was another source of revenue, old episodes of many popular TV shows became available for rental too. Starting in the early 2000s, it became possible to binge-watch the entire multi-season run of a tv series sequentially! No wonder it has gotten so hard to get kids to play outside!
Parents loved it, because tv episodes are shorter than full length movies and easier to get through after putting the kids to bed. This also influenced the way shows were written, allowing more complex story-arcs, because viewers could hear about a show from a friend, go back to the beginning and watch the whole series in order. No longer did a plot element need to be contained within a single episode or, at most, a two part cliff-hanger. No longer did a show need to spend a lot of time recapping past events in case viewers missed an episode. Shows became much more complex and engaging. Characters were allowed to change, and television has gotten spectacularly good! So, if you didn't follow The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad, or Mad Men from the start, you could rent the early seasons and catch up.
Recording Live TV: Beginning with the video cassette recorder (VCR) in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, you could record new tv series episodes as they were broadcast. You could go out to dinner on the night your favorite tv show was on, and timeshift your viewing. However, the VCR was technically daunting for many people, who never got past the blinking 12:00. In 1999, TiVo combined a DVR (digital video recorder) with an intuitive interface that made it easy enough for almost everyone.
HDTVs have dropped well below $1000 and they keep getting bigger and better!
Hi-Def: When the flatscreen digital high definition television (HDTV) finally arrived and dropped (by the mid- to late-2000s) to a price point most people could afford, it started a new format war. Standard definition DVD didn't look so great on the new HDTVs. Some old titles were remastered. For the rest, a technology called upconverting is used to make the old DVDs look better. For the highest quality video, two competing standards emerged: HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Eventually Blu-ray beat out HD-DVD, but it took a long time and I would argue that both sides lost, because some people are giving up on physical media altogether in favor of streaming, while others, with large libraries of DVDs, have opted not to repurchase their collections.
Streaming Video: As most people moved from slow dial-up Internet connections to high-speed Internet, Netflix introduced another innovation: the ability to stream content directly to your computer. For those with a laptop or tablet and wireless Internet, you could watch from anywhere in the home! For a long time though, this has appealed only to the geeky, because it requried a lot of technology that most people didn't have. Also, the average person would prefer to watch tv on their tv rather than their computer. That's now possible.
Hardware: Once you have a digital television and high speed Internet, the next step is easy. You can hook your TV up to one of a wide variety of inexpensive hardware devices (like the Roku, the AppleTV, the Chromecast etc., or, if you're also a gamer, to your network enabled Wii, XBOX or PS3, or to an Internet capable BluRay player) and stream content to your TV over your Internet connection. Warning: Not all devices work with all content providers (see below). For example, the AppleTV does iTunes, but not Amazon. Roku does Amazon but not iTunes. Both do Netflix and Hulu Plus. The newest HDTVs are coming with these Internet services built-in, and with the WiFi receiver and/or an ethernet connection to deliver them, so you may not even need an additional box. And, for those of you with money to burn, you could even hook up a dedicated computer like a Mac Mini or Media Center PC to your new TV and have it all.
Stream video to your HDTV through any of these Internet connected devices.
Content Providers: In the new asynchronous, on-demand world of digital television entertainment, the old networks are done, though they may not realize it yet. The old tv networks were content creators and distribution systems all rolled into one. But now the content can come from anywhere and the distribution is covered by four online channels: Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and Amazon. This renders the old networks largely irrelevant.
Watch TV episodes and/or movies using one or more of these web services.
Service Comparisons: So how do the services compare? Some services require you to buy, while others allow you to rent. Some allow both. Others deliver free content with advertising. The big problem is that the copyright holders are being stingy with the licensing rights. Netflix in particular has lost the right to distribute a significant number of titles that it once had. Despite its popularity, you won't find Star Wars on Netflix's streaming content list, for example. Blame the content owners, not the distributers. Still, Netflix has lots of titles and Netflix has the best streaming by far. Amazon may, at present, have the best selection. Hulu has more content than Hulu Plus, but you need Plus if you want to view on a mobile device (iOS or Android). Both versions of Hulu have commercials. Although Hulu is owned by a consortium of networks, the networks have been pulling back some of their content back to their own sites. This is almost uniformly bad news, as these sites have poor user interfaces, do a sloppy job cutting to commercials, etc. On the computer, iTunes requires you to download your content, which means higher quality with fewer hiccups, but you have to wait, and we hate that! The content owners have also been especially reluctant to make deals with Apple, because Apple became so powerful in the music distribution genre.
Device Comparisons: If you can afford a dedicated computer connected by an HDMI cable to your television, that's generally the nicest option. If your budget requires something more modest, there are still quite a few choices. The Roku and AppleTV are similar. They function primarily as standalone devices but can also receive a wireless stream from a nearby mobile device. The AppleTV does this better than the Roku, but only works with Apple devices (laptops, iPads, iPhones, etc.). The Chromecast, on the other hand, is not a standalone device. It was designed to serve as the "middle man" between your mobile device and your HDTV. It works with both iOS and Android, but only if the mobile app is designed for casting. Chromecast also has a beta feature (very buggy at present) that allows you to cast from a tab in the Chrome browser on your computer (Mac or Windows). One annoyance with the Chromecast is that it lacks dual-band N WiFi, which the Roku stick does have. Which one you choose depends a lot on which devices you already own, on what you like to watch, and which services have the titles you're looking for. In my opinion, the Roku 3 is best for people who aren't heavily invested in Apple products, but if you own a Mac and an iPad or iPhone, the AppleTV's Airplay feature tips the balance. Similarly, if you are already paying for Amazon Prime, the FireTV may be the best choice, but it's missing some of the popular channels available on the other devices. Among the sticks, pay a little more and get the Roku. It is a much more capable device than Google's Chromecast. The best argument for the Chromecast is that it is cheap. You can get it to do some cool things, but it's a bit buggy.
||Slower than Roku 3
2013.07.13 Why Microsoft's re-org won't right the sinking ship, but what might...
Microsoft rearranges the deck chairs.
The once mighty Microsoft is undergoing a deep reorganization. Is this a cause for concern? After all, the company has stumbled before and recovered. At the height of its power, Microsoft was caught flat-footed by the rise of the Internet and the Netscape browser that let people navigate it. But Netscape had no revenue model other than to sell its browser. By giving away Internet Explorer for free, and by making it the default browser on every Windows computer, Microsoft thwarted Netscape and extended its dominance, using one product monopoly to build another. They further locked in users, whether intentionally or not, by making IE render pages differently than standards based browsers, causing much of the web to be rewritten so that it was "best viewed with Internet Explorer." While terrible for the consumer, it worked great for the monopoly. This time though, Microsoft has a much bigger problem.
Windows remains the dominant operating system on personal computers, which sounds like a good thing. But it just doesn't matter anymore. What Microsoft didn't foresee was that computers are no longer very important compared to the personal mobile devices, the smartphones and tablets, that everybody wants instead of a PC. The problem, of course, is that most of these new devices run either Apple's iOS or Google's Android. Less than 10% run Windows. Without that leverage, Microsoft has had an uphill battle. For several years now, they have tried the trick that worked before; withhold the Office monopoly from iOS and Android devices to drive people to buy Windows-based smartphones and tablets. But it isn't working. Most people don't want to do work on a mobile device and haven't really noticed or cared that Office isn't there. All of a sudden, now that the Post-PC era has arrived, Microsoft's dead in the water. So they are reorganizing. Rather than product-based divisions, like Windows, Office, and Servers, the new Microsoft will be divided functionally into Marketing, Engineering, Sales, etc. The re-org is expected to take 4-6 months. How will this help? It's unclear, because although their organizational structure may be a problem, it was never really the problem. But I'm sure the stockholders expect CEO Steve Ballmer to do something, anything, even if it seems a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In a rambling memo to the company, Ballmer says, "Today's announcement will enable us to execute even better on our strategy to deliver a family of devices and services that best empower people for the activities they value most and the enterprise extensions and services that are most valuable to business." Can you imagine Steve Jobs saying that? Microsoft's new, sharper focus is still a blunt instrument. Six months from now, Microsoft will be worse off, reeling from a confusing internal realignment and declining morale, and Ballmer will be done. At that point, unless they can find someone to engineer a substantive reshaping of the business, Microsoft will have taken on so much water that nothing can refloat it.
So what could Microsoft do? In my opinion, they should do what Steve Jobs did when he returned to Apple in the late '90s, when the company was only a few months from insolvency. Shore up the revenue generators, invest heavily in the future products that could help them make the transition from PCs to mobile devices, and cut everything else to the bone. What are the revenue generators? There are only three. 1) The Windows OS for the PC. 2) Microsoft Office for the PC. 3) Server software for the PC. But wait, didn't I just say the PC was history? Yes, but the PC will not disappear entirely. It will remain the primary business productivity tool long after most people have abandoned it for personal use. There's still a lot of money to be made in this niche. In terms of shoring up the revenue sources, the one in need of the most help is Windows. They need to revert Windows 8 back to Windows 7 and start again. PCs don't need multi-touch, but they do need a Start menu and a familiar interface. Microsoft also needs to cut the dead wood; the products that don't make it money and that aren't guaranteed future goldmines. They might even consider selling off some promising or profitable divisions in order to focus on what really matters. In my mind, the XBOX would be the first to go. It just never fit with the rest of the buttoned down business culture. They need to use whatever cash they can get to push the products that will extend the life of the company. From all accounts, the new mobile Windows OS is pretty good. They should start with a new name. Metro was a good name. Why did they drop it? Tiles would be a good name. "Windows Mobile" is tainted and "Windows Phone 8" is just terrible. Windows is tired. Windows is for PCs. Mobile is something new and different. A big marketing push would be a good place to start. But Microsoft is so far behind in apps and mindshare that they can't win on a level playing field. That means seriously undercutting Apple and Samsung by subsidizing the heck out of Windows phones and tablets, while simultaneously pumping serious sums of money into app development. It could work. iOS is popular because it's good, and Android is popular because it's cheap, and not terrible. If Windows phones and Windows tablets are cheaper than Android devices as well as better, and if app development takes off, and if they can shed the baggage of the Windows legacy, they have a chance of getting out of third place. That would not just save the company; it might even put them back on top.
Update: A week after my analysis, this article was published, and this one. Sound familiar? And only a month after the re-org, Ballmer is on the way out. Now Christmas is looking pretty bleak!
2013.07.11 It's not whether but when the post-PC era arrived!
Whether you want to call it the "PC-Plus" era or the "Post-PC" era, I don't think it's so much a matter anymore of whether it has arrived but, rather, when it did. Much like a recession, which can't be officially declared until one is deep in the throes of it, the decline of PCs appears to be no mere blip. Five consecutive quarters of falling personal computer sales after two decades of steady growth can't be denied or explained away by a shortage of iMacs or weak demand for Windows 8. The Wall Street Journal says PC sales are in free fall. Studies by rivals IDC and Gartner agree. So let's look back and see if we can identify the signs that it was beginning. Was it in 2007 when Apple dropped "Computer" from the company name? Or in 2010 when Steve Jobs declared the computer a relic of the past, like the farm truck? But so much of what Jobs says is hype or spin that it wasn't immediately accepted. And when Microsoft came out with its own take that PCs weren't really dead but merely one segment of the future of computing, it seemed more like wishful thinking, given that neither Windows nor Office run on any of these popular post-PC devices. If we look at Apple in particular, since they have a range of popular products across the device spectrum, it's pretty clear. Philip Elmer-DeWitt and Horace Dediu, the gurus of Apple financials, agree. The future is all about the i-Devices.
Apple Revenue by Product
This graph illustrates it well. In 2006, the iPhone didn't exist. Only six years later, it is responsible for more than half of Apple's profits. The iPad is only three years old and has been even more disruptive to the industry. Taken together, the iPhone and the iPad (which, according to Dediu, is growing 60% year over year!) already account for over two thirds of the company's profit, and that number is only likely to climb. Once a computer company, Apple's Mac laptops (9%) and desktops (4%) now account for a paltry share of Apple's total revenues. Every company that depends primarily on the sales of computers is struggling. Long dominant Windows PC vendors like Dell, which never gained a foothold in the Post-PC era, are in deep trouble. Microsoft is also reorganizing but, based on what has been announced, it's not going to help much. Apple has successfully transitioned from a computer company to a personal electronics company, displacing once mighty Sony as the dominant player in that realm. Apple remains a hardware company; over 90% of its profits come from devices rather than software or services, but most of those devices are no longer PCs in the traditional sense. The Post-PC era has most assuredly arrived, and the companies that are still in denial of that fact are the ones with the most to lose.
2013.06.23 Apple's Yin and Yang
G4 Cube and new MacPro
When a confident and healthy Steve Jobs introduced the G4 cube back in 2000, it was a gorgeous machine that demonstrated some of the best industrial design we have seen from Apple before or since. Unfortunately, it was a flop. That's a shame because the cube really was a great product at a bad price point. Now, 13 years later, Apple has announced a new machine that takes many of its cues from the old cube. For someone who has watched the industry since the early days, it's a marvel. A 1976 Cray Supercomputer cost $8.8 million for 160 megaflops. The new Mac Pro delivers 7.5 teraflops (~47,000 times faster) for a few grand. Another technological objet d'art, the new Mac Pro is a cylinder with a central cooling cone, limited internal expansion, and an as-of-yet unannounced price tag that is expected to be rather high. Has Apple learned anything from its cube mistake? Can the ominous looking jet black Mac Pro succeed where its aluminum and crystal predecessor failed? I think so, because what Apple really learned from Steve Jobs was to simplify the product grid. When they tried to insert the cube into the desktop lineup between the PowerMac G4 Tower and the iMac, they broke the symmetry of the 4 quadrants. Therefore the market of potential cube buyers was squeezed from above by a more powerful machine, and from below by a cheaper one. By the time Apple recognized the problem and cut the price, it was too late. The cube was declared a dud and put on ice before the end of 2001. Reimagined in 2005 as the much more affordable and therefore more popular Mac Mini, the "headless" low budget alternative to the iMac lacks the design elegance of the cube, with everything crammed into a small, hard-to-open box. You can see in the keynote that Jobs doesn't love the mini the way he did the cube, but seems resigned to give the people what they want. This from the man who famously said that "people don't know what they want until you show it to them!" This time though, Apple took no chances. The new Mac Pro doesn't compete with a similarly priced but more expandable tower; it replaces it! So, if you want the most powerful Mac money can buy, this is it. That strategy is likely to work. It may also help to jump-start the market for more affordable, high-performance Thunderbolt devices, which has gotten off to a painfully slow start. Once people adjust to the new design, I think they're going to like it. So there's my prediction. Despite similarities to the ill-fated cube, the new Mac Pro will be a hit and, before long, PC manufacturers will start making cylindrical computers too ;-)
2013.03.05 Ten years of iTunes
iTunes Song Sales 2003-2013
The iTunes Music Store is 10 years old! I thought it might be fun to take a look at iTunes song sales since the tool was introduced back in 2003. Apple announced that the 25 billionth song was sold back on February 6, 2013. Below are some links to selected press releases from Apple, and the data used to make this chart.
1 Million | 10 Million | 100 Million | 500 Million | 1 Billion | 5 Billion | 10 Billion | 25 Billion
03.03.2013 Say goodbye to Macintosh?
Say goodbye to Mac?
I was 20 years old when the Mac was first introduced to the world, back in 1984. Now, approaching my 50th year, I'm wondering if the Mac will make it to 30! For the first time since Apple's late-'90s resurgence, Mac sales have declined, and dramatically so. A new IDC study shows that things are even worse in the Windows world! There are several possible explanations. 1. This may be a temporary blip, but that seems unlikely. 2. Or it may be a sign of changing times. Sales of touch based devices like the iPhone and iPad are strong, and this may herald the beginning of the much discussed "post-PC" era. As Steve Jobs said, there was a time when the most common vehicles on the road were trucks, because we were an agrarian nation and that's what people needed. Over time though, trucks declined in importance and now represent only a niche market. Initially, iOS devices seemed to be taking more of a bite out of PC sales while the "halo effect" on Mac sales remained strong, but erosion of Mac sales may have finally begun. 3. Or there's a third possibility; a failure of the computer industry to innovate. Demand for Windows 8 machines is weak, and sales of Macs are also down. Part of this is clearly erosion by alternative products like Smartphones and Tablets; not everybody needs a computer anymore. But I also think part of it is that the industry has shifted attention away from enhancing the computer. Now that Apple is so strong in the consumer space, perhaps they no longer need their loyal computer customers? That seems to be the message they were sending back in 2007 (has it been that long?) when they dropped "Computer" from the company name. It would be a shame though, because Apple has always made terrific "trucks." But computer innovation has indeed stagnated, because Apple doesn't seem to care so much about the Mac anymore, and the PC industry mostly just follows Apple. So maybe it's not that the personal computer is at the end of its rope, but that Apple and the rest of the industry seem to have lost interest in its future. This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My concern is that Apple will use this decline in Mac sales, created at least in part by lack of attention to their computer platform, to shift even more resources away from the Mac, arguing prematurely that nobody wants a computer anymore.
If they choose this path, I think it would be a mistake. Research and development spent on high-end equipment trickles down into the next generation of low-end devices as technology keeps getting smaller and more powerful. As an example, the iOS that runs on iPhones and iPads is actually a descendant of Mac OS X. I miss the innovation and the excitement that used to accompany each new Mac release. Computers continue to improve, but only incrementally; they get more RAM and bigger drives, but no significant new features. Have they run out of ideas? Why hasn't the flagship Mac Pro been overhauled in four years? Why doesn't the new iMac have a touch-screen? Why doesn't my MacBook Air have a built-in cellular modem? Why doesn't the Mac OS have speech recognition that would put Siri to shame? Why is Microsoft Office so damned slow on an 8 core Mac with 32 GB of RAM? There is still so much room for real computer innovation. The Mac doesn't need hand me down eye-candy and other fluff from iOS. It needs serious work-related enhancements. But Apple is notorious for abandoning the old when they come up with something new and, if Steve was still around, I'd be even more worried about the fate of the Mac. He was already over the Mac and planning the next big thing when he rejoined Apple.
"If I were running Apple, I would milk the Macintosh for all it's worth -- and get busy on the next great thing."
-- Steve Jobs. Fortune, Feb. 19, 1996
Should they choose to do so, Apple is big enough and creative enough to keep making the best trucks money can buy for years to come, even while also rolling plenty of sporty little cars off the assembly lines. Oh, and in case you were wondering, this page was not "sent from my iPad." It was made on my Mac!
02.28.2013 Time for some new Apple Ads
Samsung phone commercial.
I'd love to see Apple respond to one of those smug Samsung ads with the hipsters waiting in line for a new iPhone. Here's my idea: You're at the making of the very same Samsung commercial, and all of the actors are standing around waiting for shooting to start and the frantic director is yelling at them to put their iPhones away because they can't be visible during the shoot. Then, the actors keep flubbing the name of the Samsung product because it's ridiculous and they've never heard of it. Then they can't believe you have to touch phones to share songs, and they say, "That's lame." One actor is asking "What's my motivation for owning this thing? It won't fit in my pocket. It takes two hands to use it!" All the time, the director is trying to get them back on track. Meanwhile one geeky actor is joking about how (airquotes) "ice cream sandwich" was supposed to fix everything, if people could just figure out how to download it. Then everyone pulls out their iPhones again. Fade to caption: iPhone: it's the one you really want.
Marissa Mayer: Yahoo! CEO
When former Googler and expecting mother Marissa Mayer was brought on last July to fix Yahoo! the pundits said she was a smart choice but they were not so optimistic about her chances of reforming the company. She's got a tough assignment. Yahoo! has been struggling for years, and we're still waiting to see how the new Yahoo will be different from the old one. Her first moves were morale boosters: free food in the cafeteria and new smartphones for all! Yay! Now, she's shutting down telecommuting in a move that is seen by some as a betrayal of her fellow working mothers. Boo! So is she a good CEO or a bad one? Based on the tonedeaf way she dealt with the telecommuting issue, I'd say she's got a lot to learn about how to motivate people. Measuring hours spent warming a seat is not a good way to assess productivity. If productivity is based on quality of work and progress towards goals, then it doesn't matter where or when the work gets done, but just that progress or results are good. This decision demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of how people get things done. Setting up a daycare in the office next door so she can spend more time in the office also sends a very odd message; nobody else has that luxury. But, as CEO, nobody has so much responsibility either, so I'm willing to give her a pass on that one. So how's Mayer doing on the bigger and much more important question; has Yahoo turned it around under her leadership? She hasn't done much yet that really changes the disfunctional culture at Yahoo, and Yahoo is in desperate need of change. Why do I say so? Ask yourself this: What is the thing Yahoo does better than anyone else? If you can't come up with anything, we can lower the bar a little. Just tell me one thing Yahoo does well that they could focus on being the best at. Put another way, why do you go to Yahoo's website? What? You don't go there? Ever? Ok, I think we have our answer. To me, Mayer's failure to date is a lack of vision for where to take Yahoo. Making it a second rate Google isn't going to cut it. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he slashed many projects, some of them promising, and presented a sharply focused vision of where the company needed to go. It worked. Mayer could do that too, but not with better cafeteria food or more restrictive workplace policies. She needs to present her vision of how Yahoo can be great at something, and slash everything that stands in the way of achieving that goal. I wish I could help her with what that might be, but I don't think I could work there. I'm way more productive when working away from the office, without distraction, on my self-imposed deadlines and goals ;-)
11.03.2012 When form deviates from function
For many years I have admired Apple products because the designers have created incredibly sophisticated devices that are also, for the most part, incredibly intuitive to use. See my Why Mac? (PPT) presentation for a long list of Apple innovations. As a technology enthusiast, I have valued Apple because I want average people to be able to use technology without the need for intensive training even though I realize that, if this dream comes true, I'm out of a job! We have grown to expect that complex things are hard to use, but Apple products show us that this isn't necessarily so. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that "any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic." I have felt that way about many Apple products. The first was the original Macintosh, which banished the command line in exchange for the mouse and graphical user interface. The Mac was, in 1984, so far ahead of its time (and the competition) that it was immediately obvious that, some day, all computers would work that way. Wireless Internet also seemed magical when it first appeared and yet, only a decade later, it's hard to imagine life without it. The kids walking around campus, zombie like, texting while they walk, sure can't! The iPad is the most recent device that made me feel this way, and I was convinced of it when I watched my parents and my very young children pick one up and immediately "get it," as they never could with the computer. For this reason, I am sorry to say that Apple seems to have gotten lost in the wilderness on some of their recent design choices. With their great success, I think some at Apple seem to have forgotton that form needs to follow function. Here are a few examples:
iCal's faux stitched leather look
Skeuomorphism: It's out of control on iOS and a lot of the bad design ideas are creeping back to the Mac. When done right, skeuomorphism is just analogy. The Stickies program on the Mac uses little yellow notes that you can type on. Because you "get" the metaphor, you understand that this is not the place to write a term paper, so it works. But it can go too far. In the Notes app on iOS, you are presented with a sheet of yellow lined paper with the remains of a previously torn out page at the top. Cute, maybe, but I think it's going a bit too far. So is the stitched leather border around the iCal app. The worst example yet is the Podcast app with its reel to reel tape deck visuals. Does any kid born after 1980 even know what a tape deck is? I used to laugh at Microsoft's continued use of the floppy disk icon on the Save button, but now Apple's outdone them. Rumor has it that, post-Steve Jobs, Scott Forstall was the main proponent of this stuff and, with his recent ouster, maybe cooler heads with better design sense like Jony Ive will prevail. Let's hope so!
the new thinner iMac
The new iMac: The new iMac is slimmer and more beautiful than ever before. As every supermodel knows, there's no such thing as too thin. Or is there? The iMac is a desktop computer that has not gained any impressive new features in quite some time, so Apple has focused on just making each new iteration slimmer than the last. You can make the argument that, with mobile devices, this is of value even when some design compromises need to be made, because it cuts the weight and size. But a desktop machine like the iMac should not be made thinner if that makes it harder to upgrade and service than the previous model. Yet that's exactly what Apple just did. They pushed the form without considering the function. The new model has a screen that is glued on rather than attached by the elegant magnets found in previous models, and now both the RAM and the internal drive, which used to be user serviceable, can only be upgraded by sending the entire unit back to Apple. Apple likes to talk about how the future of computing (what Apple calls the post-PC world and Microsoft, a little desperately because they have very little foothold in it, calls the PC+ world) is touch devices like the iPad. Unfortunately, Apple seems to have forgotten how to innovate on the Mac platform, and that bodes ill for computers in general, because everybody else copies Apple. The computer is a different animal from the tablet. Computers are for work and tablets are for entertainment and casual web browsing. There's still plenty of room for innovation in computers, and that doesn't mean porting cheezy, dumbed down interfaces from the tablet to the computer. If, for example, the iMac is a great machine for graphic artists, why doesn't it have a touchscreen interface and lay flat on the designer's desk? Sure, thin is nice, but a thinner machine doesn't make a graphic artist more productive and, if the machine breaks down, it makes her less so.
iTunes: Even the name of the product tells you that iTunes is a mess, because iTunes contains, in addition to your tunes, tv shows, movies, podcasts, eBooks, iOS apps and an online storefront for all of the aforementioned, plus an interface for syncing with the various Apple devices one might want to connect to one's computer even though, for any recent iOS gadget, this is no longer necessary or desirable. iTunes 11 attempts to jettison some of this baggage but, clearly, the heavy lifting is yet to be done.
09.14.2012 Three rants for the price of one!
1. Apple just announced the iPhone 5 and, as usual, it looks like a great phone, and a nice improvement over what came before. I almost want one. Not that there's anything wrong with the phone per se, though some are unhappy about the new proprietary connector, others about the Maps downgrade, and others about the tendency to scuff, and still others because there were no big surprises. But none of that matters to Apple because the new iPhone is selling like hotcakes. In fact, the biggest problem Apple's having is keeping enough in stock to meet demand. Apple will use the sales numbers to say, "See? Nobody cares about any of that stuff." They're probably right. No, my main gripe is with the carriers. Just as the long distance carriers used to drive us all nuts in the '90s, the cell phone carriers of today are all bad. The four main choices here in the U.S. are Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. That means choosing between an expensive good network with no simultaneous voice/data (Verizon), or an expensive bad network with simultaneous voice/data (ATT), or an expensive unlimited service with still worse network (Sprint), or a cheaper but unsupported service with the worst of all network (T-Mobile). I want none of the above. If Steve was still alive, he would have started a new network just for the iPhone by now. Why does anyone own an iPhone or any smartphone with trade-offs like this? In Flagstaff, I think Verizon is probably the best choice, but they are just the best of a bad lot, especially when you consider what you have to pay for the monthly service.
Apple's new look?
2. I realize I might come off sounding like a fashionista by complaining about how the presenters from Apple looked during the iPhone 5 event, but when everything Apple does is so style-conscious, and so scripted and carefully thought out, the faux casual look of the untucked dress shirts (especially when all of them adopted variations on this odd look) seems calculated, but for what? It's not convincing me that a collection of paunchy middle aged multi-millionaires with combovers are hip. As Heidi Klum says of the world of style and high fashion, "one day you are in, and the next day, you are out." Beware these prophetic words, Apple, because the iPhone is kind of like a tattoo. If everyone's got one, how cool can it be? About as cool as the new Fall fashion line at K-Mart, or as cool as the phone your parents have. Samsung's new ad is painfully true. Steve Jobs was cool and would know what to do. But every day that Apple doesn't respond to these Samsung ads, they slip a little more into their mom jeans with the elasticized comfort fit waist.
3. I'm glad someone finally put a name to the thing I hate most about iOS. The word is "skeuomorphism." It's when you take things that were necessary in the original version of an object, but maintain them as decoration after the function is no longer necessary. While the desktop metaphor with its folders and files made sense in the early days of computing, it can be pushed too far. With Apple's recent skeuomorphs, it's like an actor who plays his role so big that it's a bit tacky. Yes, William Shatner, I'm talking to you. I don't want a stitched leather interface in my calendar app, and my notepad doesn't have to be on yellow lined "paper" with dog-eared or torn edges. That is silly and, frankly, a little bit patronizing. The brushed metal and aqua buttons were bad enough. Apparently, with regard to the skeuomorphism stuff, it's a battle within Apple between Ive and Forstall (who is rumored to be a jerk but who was protected by Steve Jobs). But I know who's taste I prefer. Ive wins hands down. He's the bulked up dude in the t-shirt who gives Apple's products their sleek physical designs. No untucked dress shirt for him!
06.14.2012 Microsoft in a Pickle
Microsoft is truly in a pickle. With two widely adopted and highly profitable franchises, the Windows platform and Microsoft Office, Microsoft has been the dominant computer company through the '90s and early '00s. But, as is the way with all great empires, they stagnated and smaller more nimble companies like Apple and Google began to nip at their heels. Today, Microsoft remains profitable and powerful, but more like IBM or post-WW II England; still influential but no longer the juggernaut of its glory days. The reason Microsoft is right to worry is that the ground is shifting out from under them. People are buying more mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, and Microsoft has no foothold in these emerging markets. Neither Windows nor Office runs on iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad, or the wide variety of Android smartphones and knockoff tablets. Microsoft knows that they need to get back in the game, and the Windows Phone was a good effort. However, it appears unlikely that it's going to take off. Much like the Zune was to the iPod, Windows Phone is a good device but too late to displace the market leaders. Which brings us to the pickle. Microsoft can promote the Windows Phone by making it the exclusive smartphone to run Microsoft Office. To some extent, that worked back in the day to help Windows Mobile devices compete against the Palm Pilot. But that wouldn't result in much revenue, because almost nobody has a Windows Phone. And it might be considered anti-competitive, though I doubt it because nobody is scared of Microsoft the way they used to be. Meanwhile, staying off iOS and Android, Microsoft risks Office becoming irrelevant if a good substitute emerges. As more people replace PCs with tablets and smartphones, Microsoft's Office revenues will dwindle. So Microsoft has to choose. Build a version of Office for iOS and Android that hurts their own chances for Windows Phone. Or risk not developing a version of Office for Android and iOS and possibly harming the future of Office. Since Windows Phone is a money sink and Office is a money source, I'm betting, and the pundits generally agree, that they will eventually release Office for iOS and Android. But maybe they'll find a way to make it work better on the Windows Phone. That would be a fairly typical Microsoft strategy. I'm sure that a lot hinges on Windows 8. Microsoft will try to leapfrog iOS by copying its look and feel. But early reviews of Windows 8 are not promising. Reviewers say it's pretty and innovative but completely disruptive and disorientating for anyone who has used previous versions of Windows. As the joke goes, Windows versions are like Star Trek movies. None are great, but every other one is really bad. So sure, Windows 8 is risky, but as I predicted back in October of 2011, Microsoft has to take some risks to get back in the game.
04.13.2012 Mobile Device Platform Wars
Only two remain.
Time for an update on the mobile device platform wars. To start, let's haul some casualties off the battlefield. HP has announced plans to open source its WebOS (acquired from Palm) but nobody cares anymore. RIM (Blackberry) is shedding executives like rats from a sinking ship as the company circles the drain. Microsoft has struggled to get back in the game with its Windows Phone and, despite a good try, it's time to stop giving Windows Phone a pass. Too little, too late. In terms of platforms, it's over people. It's down to iOS and Android. Always two there are. What's interesting to me is that, depending on the metrics you choose, you can draw very different conclusions about what's going to happen next. There have been several major battles in the mobile OS war, and victories have gone to both sides. There are three possible outcomes: either Android will win, Apple will win, or there will be a two OS environment for the foreseeable future.
1) Smartphone Market Share: The Android platform (when you combine all of the various hardware vendors) leads in SmartPhone market share, even though Apple's iPhone remains the device with the strongest brand recognition. In the 3rd quarter of 2011, Android market share had doubled from a year earlier to 53% compared to Apple's fairly flat 15%. To be fair, this snapshot was just before the iPhone 4 product refresh. Apple's activation numbers are more cyclical because buyers tend to avoid purchasing in advance of new hardware releases, whereas there's always a new Android phone coming out and there doesn't seem to be much Android hardware brand loyalty. Since that time, at least in the U.S., Apple has made a big comeback. However it does appear that, in the smartphone market, the Android phones are sufficiently good and sufficiently better subsidized (though why people obsess over the price of the phone, when that's a drop in the bucket compared to the price of the service contract, remains a mystery to me!) that we can declare a market share lead to Android in the smartphone category. This lead is even greater internationally than it is in the U.S. The greatest threat to Apple is a big Android win in China. Win to Android on market share.
2) Profit share: Market share is great, but profit share is something else entirely. Apple has a slam dunk in this category. Apple phones have, historically, cost a lot and Apple rakes in much of that profit. While Google makes the Android OS, they actually get very little of the profit from sales of Android devices. In fact, Microsoft makes more from the sale of an Android phone than Google does due to some old patent licenses. Apple earns 80% of all the profit in the smartphone industry (this excludes service contracts with carriers). Profit from Android smartphone hardware sales is scattered across a wide array of vendors. At the moment, Samsung is doing pretty well with 15%, but that part changes frequently. Apple also takes a cut from every app sale, and there are more paid apps in the Apple store. Major win to Apple on profit.
3) App Stores: The Apple App Store and the Android Marketplace(s) are both huge. Probably sufficiently huge that it no longer matters exactly how big. Both have long since achieved critical mass. Third party developers tend to come out with iOS apps first, because more iOS users purchase apps, and developers like getting paid. It's not that apps are expensive, but the Android culture expects things to be free. The Apple app store is better managed, easier to use, less likely to contain malware, but more of the apps cost a buck or two. People have strong opinions about the open/unregulated approach of the Android Market vs. the closed/curated approach of Apple's App store, but there are good arguments on both sides. No clear winner here.
4) Usage: It appears that many Android users simply use their smartphones as phones and do very little else with them, whereas iPhone users make heavy use of the data functions. For this reason, the service providers actually favor Android. Android users don't push their networks as hard. Also interesting is the fragmentation of Android OS versions. Apparently Android users either don't or can't update their phones, because as of April, 2012, about 86% of Android devices are still on version 2.x despite the release of version 3 over a year ago, and version 4 more recently. In the Enterprise market, this fragmentation across OS versions and hardware brands is making support for Android very challenging, whereas supporting iOS is a relative breeze. An interesting recent move by Google, presumably frustrated by the fragmentation problem, was to buy Motorola's Mobility division and enter the hardware market themselves. The other hardware vendors have got to be privately worried that this move will hurt them, as much as they may put up a brave front. This move emulates Apple's more integrated approach. Win to the iPhone on usage.
5) Tablets: Android has been nowhere near as successful in the tablet market. As I predicted months ago, the low end market is now owned by the lacklustre but cheap Kindle Fire and the high end is owned by the iPad. The Android tablets could not compete at iPad prices, so now they are going to try to compete with the Fire. That's not likely to work either, because Amazon is able to subsidize the hardware with eBook profits. The Android tablet makers have no way to do the same. If rumors of a smaller iPad in the 7 inch screen size come to pass, at about a $300 price point, then everyone else is in trouble. As Apple did with the iPod, they first came out with a high end model and later invaded the low end space with the Nano and Shuffle. We all know how that one turned out. Major win for Apple in tablets. Minor win for Amazon.
6) Demographics: Android has a strong following among geeks, Apple haters, and the price conscious. But the kids love their Apple products. As kids grow up, they tend to stick with their brand of choice. And, as the kids like to say about any brand they don't care for, "Ew. Seriously? So Gross." Win to Apple on demographics.
7) Synergies: Back in the '90s, the Windows platform became dominant among personal computers because there were so many vendors of hardware and software that there was more competition on choice and price. Clearly Google is trying out a Microsoft-like strategy, while Apple remains, to a great extent, Apple. This time however, there are some differences that may prove important. Apple has the synergy advantage. If you own an iPhone, the transition to an iPad is easy, and vice versa. Apple is even extending many iOS metaphors back to the profitable Macintosh platform, where market share is now growing. In the Android world however, hardware and OS fragmentation make moving from one device to another more complicated. Back in the PC era, Microsoft had a profitable OS monopoly while the PC hardware vendors competitively beat each other to death. Google, unlike Microsoft did with Windows, earns almost nothing from Android. The hardware vendors also don't seem to be doing too well. Price and choice are not the issues they used to be. Apple is now on all three of the big U.S. carriers (Verizon, AT&T and Sprint), and since the iPhone 4 came out and they continued to offer the iPhone 3 at a lower price, they now have phones at the same price points as the Android competition. Leaning Apple on this one too.
The bottom line: Still too close to call but Apple's future looks strong and Android seems to have some challenges ahead. But for the near term it's Coke and Pepsi.
04.02.2012 Having Our Cake and Eating it Too
You can't have it both ways!
I was recently invited by the author to look at an interesting anti-iPhone graphic. Take a look for yourself. While I haven't fact checked the piece, it doesn't appear to get things materially wrong. The subject isn't news anymore. But all the hubbub that focused on the revealed fabrications of Mike Daisey and the subsequent retraction of This American Life's Apple exposé kind of distracted us from the truth of the matter. The real issue, in my mind, isn't whether Apple is making buckets of money on the backs of Chinese workers in factories with un-American standards of workplace safety, environmental regulation, and human rights. Sure they are. Apple is at the top of its capitalist game. The real issue is that the sellers of all the consumer electronics we covet, and the sellers of almost every product we have purchased in the last quarter century, do the same. Apple didn't create this problem; they're just doing what everyone else does. We have exported almost all manufacturing to second world countries where labor is cheap and people are willing to work in deplorable conditions that most Americans would not tolerate. But either we care about the plight of the exploited foreign workers and the directly related loss of an American manufacturing industry and the decline of our middle class, or we want cheap stuff above all else and don't care about the long term consequences. It's the big downside of free trade and the strategy that WalMart "perfected" and everyone else adopted. But nobody's putting it that way, because it's far easier to be sanctimonious about greedy Apple than to realize that it's really greedy us at the root of the problem. Why pay more, right? It seems obvious until you think about the long term consequences of paying less.
I take issue with singling out Apple (and even WalMart) for blame. I accept that the iPhone is iconic, and that it's fair to apply pressure to Apple as a leader in consumer electronics, but singling out one company or one product misleads people into thinking this is an isolated problem. Aren't all of these issues also true of Apple's competitors; the makers of the knockoff tablets, the various Android phones and other smartphones, the not so smart "feature phones," the Kindles, XBoxes, Wiis, Playstations, Blu-Ray players, laptops, flatscreen TVs and, really, every "must have" electronic gadget that people stand in line for? I suspect that Apple is actually trying harder than most of its competitors to change the practices that occur at Chinese manufacturing plants, despite resistance from the Chinese government and the very workers they are trying to protect, many of whom put their good salaries ahead of their personal well-being. Because Chinese people are capable of short term thinking too! I'm sorry to say that, by Chinese standards, working at a Foxconn plant assembling Apple products is actually about as good as it gets. It's the Chinese equivalent of winning the lottery! Eventually things will change there, but at great cost in human suffering, much as it was for laborers in Europe in the 1800s and in America in the 1900s. China will become a first world country, its people will become more prosperous, workplace standards will improve, costs will rise, and then they will have to export their manufacturing to someplace worse off. There will always be someplace worse off if I'm any judge of human history. It might even be here!
So if our goal is to get people to reduce consumption and to put pressure on industry to improve environmental conditions, human rights, and workplace safety (all noble and worthwhile goals, mind you), we need to make sure that the people who are saying "Shame on Apple!" don't just go out and buy Android phones or other gadgets instead, thinking that they are somehow saving the world by boycotting Apple but not changing their own consumptive habits. This is the bigger picture of our guilt; we can't have our cake and eat it too. If we really want to change things, we need to start saying, "Shame on us!"
Is there a better way? Perhaps. The automobile industry may be a good model. Honda and Toyota cars sold in the American market are mostly assembled here, by Americans. If iPhones for the American market were assembled here, then they would cost more, but we could still afford them. Trade restrictions would have to block the flood of cheaper products manufactured elsewhere. Goods for sale in America must be made here. We could pass such a law. Think of the jobs that would create! Goods for sale in China could still be manfactured there. Then the cost of the manufacture would scale to the cost of labor. An iPhone made in China would cost a fraction of what one made in America does, but as a proportion of a person's annual income, they would be fairly similar. It might work, and it wouldn't require a world where the wealthy nations exploit the less well off. But who wants to pay more? Only those who think long term about the benefits.
Apple's next announcement could be big for higher ed!
Rumors are swirling about Apple's next announcement, scheduled for January 19th at 10:00 am ET in New York City, the heart of the publishing world. Promised to be an "education announcement" involving no new hardware, the blogs speculate that this could have to do with textbooks. While an iPad is a very expensive "bookbag," I have been excited about the concept of carrying all of one's college textbooks in electronic form ever since I took Intro Chemistry, Calculus, Biology, English, and Political Science in my first semester of college. The cumulative weight of those books must have been 50 pounds! So, for the backstrain of the kids, once again, Apple may come to the rescue. Ok, sure, this is all more than a little premature. As at the recent 2012 Consumer Electronics Trade Show in Vegas, all Apple had to do, without even showing up, was let a few rumors slip about revolutionizing the television and all of the other vendors panicked. Ceding the market to Apple before they even release a product doesn't seem like such a good idea, but I will say this. If they do it right, as they so often do, Apple really could revolutionize the textbook industry in K-12 and higher education. The iPad is the best reader for rich media, and iBooks is a fine delivery system. All that remains is to get McGraw-Hill, Wiley, Cengage, MacMillan, Houghton-Mifflin, and Pearson on board. If you've already got an iPad, it's a no-brainer. Think of the trees it will save! But boys won't be able to hit on girls by offering to carry their books anymore. On the other hand, it's not 1950 anymore.
Update: 01/19/2012 Apple has released an inspiring video, a free eContent authoring system for the Mac, and the eContent will be delivered, of course, via iPad only (or so it would appear). Some samples are already available from a few of the big publishers. Apple is starting in K-12 because schools that participate will have class sets of iPads. Maybe they'll even let the kids take them home if the parents sign a damage deposit! The best arguments from the student perspective for eContent are: 1) textbook weight, 2) textbook cost, 3) textbook limitations (can't be updated, can't do multimedia). Similarly, from the publishers' perspective, there are one time costs to create the new eContent, but then it's got to be cheaper to distribute if you don't have to print, bind, and ship physical books. Keeping them up-to-date is another opportunity to charge a little more each year. The problems that are being downplayed are: 1) price of an iPad, 2) fragility of an iPad, 3) theft target of an iPad, 4) the changed metaphor; books are linear and multimedia is non-linear, 5) the interface; it's often hard to know what one can swipe and pinch, and what is going to happen when one does, 6) the distractions; how do you keep your students "in the book" when the iPad has so many distractions? There is no doubt that eContent is coming to K-12 and higher ed, but will Apple's format win? Also up in the air is whether this fancy technology will do anything to enhance education in America. Call me a skeptic, but that's not something I'd put money on. I often think about the fact that the educational software I bought for my kids when they were little won't work anymore, but the books I bought for them still work great ;)
01.03.2012 Fanboys & Fandroids
Samsung phone commercial.
Hats off to you Samsung. You may not have any original ideas when it comes to making phones, but this is one funny ad.
11.10.2011 iPad + AppleTV + HDMI LCD Projector = Wireless Presenter Combo
Three great tools made greater together!
Q. What do you get when you combine a stylus, an iPad 2 (or newer), an Apple TV, WiFi, and an HDMI equipped LCD projector?
A. You've got a magical and revolutionary wireless whiteboard and mobile presenter tool, that's what!
I'm not sure anyone at Apple intended it for this purpose, but this combination has enormous potential as a teaching tool. It's the digital equivalent of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup! Here's what you need and why:
- A stylus (optional but I think it would help)
- iPad 2 or 3 (the original iPad does video out but not video mirroring)
- Apple TV (not the old white one, the newer $99 black one; either the 2010 or 2012 model)
- HDMI to HDMI cable and an LCD projector or HDTV with HDMI inputs or...
- LCD projector with VGA input and this adapter
- A local wireless network to which both the AppleTV and iPad are joined. (An Airport Express works well if you need to buy a wireless access point.)
Wireless: A few important tips. The AppleTV and the iPad need to be on the same wireless network or the iPad won't see the AppleTV. Also, the AppleTV doesn't work with WPA2 Enterprise level security (but works with WPA2 Personal) so you may need to check your wireless security settings. If your network blocks ports, you might also have some issues. Check Apple's Knowledge Base article on the ports that need to be opened.
AirPlay: This all works because of a proprietary technology called AirPlay that wirelessly sends video from the iPad to the AppleTV. It was designed as a way to let you watch iTunes videos you purchased on your iPad on your big flatscreen tv, but we see lots of potential for this combination as a roaming presentation tool.
Tap the AirPlay button to select an AppleTV
Mirroring Video: To begin sending video, double-tap the iPad's home button and then swipe to the right. A control panel will appear. Next, tap the AirPlay button and a menu pops up. Select your AppleTV from the list and set the iPad to mirror video. If the projector to which the AppleTV is connected is not displaying the iPad's screen, search the projector's sources until HDMI comes up.
Select AppleTV and turn Mirroring On
Now you can walk around the room wirelessly projecting your iPad's display to the class. Simply reverse your steps (bring up the control panel, tap the AirPlay button, turn mirroring off and switch back from AppleTV to your iPad) to disconnect.
One important note: You might want to put a passcode on the AppleTV because anyone in wireless range with an iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) can potentially take over your screen while you are presenting. Share the passcode only with those who you want to allow to display to the projector. Tip: when you want someone to share, you can have them get to the password screen and then enter it for them.
Remote Control : If you don't have an AppleTV, another way to gain mobility during presentations is to use Remote HD to wirelessly control your lectern computer, which is already wired to a projector or big screen TV, from your iPhone or iPad. Purchase RemoteHD for $7.99 from the iPad's App Store and download/install the free Remote Helper (for either Mac or Windows) to the host computer that listens for commands. Because the Remote Helper component is free, you can put it on the computer in every classroom you use. Start up Remote Helper on the computer, then launch RemoteHD on the iPad and scan for the computer. Connect and control! A few tips: Use a stylus for finer control, and pinch to zoom in and out if your target area is too small. Practice helps, but you'll get the hang of it pretty quickly.
Tablet Labs: If you want to deploy a classroom set of iPads and not spend all day getting them configured, Apple Configurator is the free software, and Griffin's MultiDock is the hardware you need. To keep them secure and charged up between classes, you could use a tablet cart. Remember that iPads have a high street value and you'll need to have some kind of system for collecting them before classes end or they will walk away.
11.01.2011 Dual boot computer lab management
Dual Boot Machine
Not the most glamourous topic, but I've had a lot of inquiries lately, so I created an expanded tutorial with how-to instructions and links to useful tools. Creating a dual-boot Mac/Windows machine (or a whole lab of them) can be very useful. Even though I spend 90% of my time on the Mac, there are certain programs I need to teach, support, or test on Windows and Apple just so happens to make some of the best Windows PC hardware in town!
10.05.2011 Thanks for everything, Steve!
Apple founder and visionary, Steve Jobs
You made a dent in the universe.
10.04.2011 Oh no, it doesn't have a 5 on it!
Apple's new iPhone 4S looks pretty impressive, but the analysts are calling it a letdown. Why? This is one of those situations where Apple's legendary secrecy has backfired, because the rumors have gotten really out of control. All of the bloggers were referring to the unreleased device as the "iPhone 5," and when Apple came out with a phone labelled 4S, that suggests only small improvements over the 4. The 4S is actually quite impressive, and significantly improved over the previous model. Siri, the new voice recognition tool, distinguishes the 4S from any other phone on the market today, and Apple appears to have gotten it right. Android voice recognition is still a year away and I'd be surprised if it works when first released. But, you know, the new iPhone doesn't have a 5 on it. Don't worry. The fanboys always get worked up to a fever pitch, and begin predicting all kinds of crazy stuff like teleportation and holographic death beam features right before any new Apple product release. Reality is always a bit of a disappointment. But if you need a new phone, this one will be a winner. Here is a comparison of the iPhone 4 and 4S models. As you can see, the "S" is significant.
||$199, $299, $399
|8 GB storage
||16, 32, 64 GB storage
||Dual Core A5 processor (2x faster)
|7 hour battery life on 3G
||8 hour battery life on 3G
|5 megapixel camera
||8 Megapixel camera
|720p video recording
||1080p HD video recording
|GSM or CDMA
||GSM and CDMA (worldphone)
||Siri voice recognition
|Minor Antenna issues
||Redesigned, intelligent antenna
Other improvements include the addition of Sprint, the last of the big three U.S. carriers to the list of cell service providers. And, despite having a processor that is twice as fast, the battery life has improved! For those who complain that the new iPhone doesn't have 4G (LTE), check the coverage maps for 4G before you get too hot and bothered. The case, which was described as the pinnacle of industrial design only a year ago, has not changed (except for the antenna improvements). Apparently this is a major issue for the pundits, who wanted something visually even more stunning. I guess I personally care more about the internals, but perhaps a case redesign would have allowed people to show off that their iPhone is better than your iPhone. Whatever!
10.04.2011 Stuff you "must" have. Stuff you no longer need.
It struck me while watching the introduction of Apple's new and very impressive iPhone 4S today that I am in the dwindling minority of people who still don't feel they "need" a SmartPhone. My pay-as-you-go phone costs about $100 per year. If you want the latest iPhone, you'll need to pony up for the price of the phone (that's the "cheap" part) and then sign a 2-year contract with one of the major cell phone carriers (Verizon, AT&T or Sprint). This means, at about $80 per month and a minimum 24 months, you will be spending $2000 before the contract is up. Is any phone worth that? If you're a frequent traveller or live in a big city, possibly, and moreso if you can write it off as a business expense. Otherwise probably not. And don't kid yourself. While the Android phones may be a little cheaper up front, the phones aren't as good and the contract is just as bad. But, if you want a smartphone anyway, perhaps I can help you come up with a justification. Digital convergence has reached the point where you no longer need to go out and buy (or replace) a wristwatch, an iPod, a video camera, a point and shoot camera, a GPS navigation system, or a standalone cell phone. You might also be able to forego a netbook or iPad if you were thinking about one of those mobile devices. You can skip the Kindle too. You can reap additional savings by disconnecting your land line at home. If you're into games, you can now skip the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP. Unless you're a hard core gamer, you can also ditch the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo GameCube or Microsoft XBOX 360 console system. Most of the functionality of all of these devices, and more, is now packed into your smartphone. And while the individual devices might each be slightly better at the one thing they do best, the smartphone is very rapidly closing the gap. Someday soon, almost all phones will be smartphones. Expect that many of the single purpose devices we now own will fall by the wayside as the smartphone ascends. Apparently sales of wristwatches are already in steep decline among the cell phone generation. But if you're over 40, there's at least one accessory you'll never want to lose: A pair of reading glasses is essential for viewing that tiny smartphone screen :p
All the gadgets you can do without after you get a SmartPhone (but keep the reading glasses).
10.03.2011 Why discontinuing the Zune is a "Big Deal"
Microsoft has quietly discontinued the Zune MP3 player this week. This story is not going to get much attention. No big deal, right? After all, it was never a big seller. Wrong! While killing it is a sensible move, the Zune is emblematic of a deadly serious problem at the still mighty but not-so-influential-as-it-used-to-be software mega-corporation. Microsoft is really only a two product company. It has the Office Suite, composed of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and some other minor pieces, and the Windows operating system that most of the personal computers in the world run. Both of those products have been so incredibly successful for so long that they have allowed the company to bankroll various other ventures, like the Zune and the Xbox 360. None of those other ventures have been particularly successful from a return on investment (ROI) standpoint, but they create the impression that Microsoft is into a lot of things. Cancelling the Zune is sensible because, despite being a fine MP3 player, it never caught on. It was too little, too late to challenge the intuitive and elegant iPod with its convenient and well-stocked iTunes Music Store. The second reason is that with the rise of the smartphone, which does everything an iPod can, and more, even Apple is experiencing the first ever decline in iPod sales since the iPod was introduced by Steve Jobs 10 years ago. If Apple can't sell iPods, there's no way Microsoft can sell Zunes. The third reason is the most serious. With the rise of tablets and smartphones, Microsoft finds itself very suddenly on the ropes, because these popular "post-PC" devices run neither Windows nor Office. If Microsoft is to survive, they need, and Steve Ballmer needs even faster, a winner. That winner might just be WIndows Phone. It is not, like Google's Android, just an inferior copy of Apple's iOS. Rather, it is a careful rethinking and an original take on what a smartphone should be. But more than that, it's Microsoft's big chance to get back in the game. If they fail, Ballmer is done. It won't be easy for Microsoft to claw its way back, because Microsoft is the embodiment of all that is uncool. Apple's I'm a Mac ads so damaged Microsoft's brand, and Microsoft so ineffectively fought back, that next-gen gadget owners are kind of embarrassed by Microsoft products. Expect the new, more desperate, Microsoft to be more willing to take chances, make alliances, and push the Windows Phone harder than it's pushed any product in years. And expect Microsoft to cut away anything, like the Zune, the Xbox, and Ballmer, that doesn't help them to recover their position of former dominance. It's time for Microsoft to bet the farm or fade into history.
9.29.2011 Multi-touch Tablet status report
Amazon's new $199 Kindle Fire
While Apple's iPad remains a hot seller, the rest of the tablet manufacturers seem to keep struggling to come up with a winner. Sales of NetBooks, the diminutive low cost laptops that were all the rage before the iPad came out, have all but dried up. Google's recently released ChromeBooks, which are basically a NetBook that is nothing more than a web browser, have also apparently flopped. The PlayBook from RIM, which was supposed to herald the end of iPad "amateur hour," has been described as a "dog with fleas" that nobody wants. Inventory is piling up and price drops are imminent. HP, who bought the WebOS and Palm, was getting nowhere with its TouchPad but has finally started selling them briskly at fire sale prices to move stale inventory. While some try to spin this as a success, I think HP's strategy is to try to recoup some money for them rather than have them all returned from retailers to be buried in a hole. But selling them at $100 rather than the original $500 just has to represent a loss, and is an unsustainable last ditch hope to generate some excitement. HP has acknowledged their failure with the termination, along with the WebOS division, of their entire PC line and shortly thereafter of their CEO, Leo Apotheker, who was only on the job for 11 months. But both the RIM and HP tablets were at a huge disadvantage because they ran neither Apple's iOS nor Google's Android OS. Both of these platforms had a huge and unsurmountable lead with tons of apps in their respective app store/marketplaces. But sales tell us that for consumers, it's still not much of a competition. Faced with buying either an iPad or an Android tablet of similar price, why wouldn't you get the iPad? Amazon has taken a different tack. While their just released tablet, called the Fire, runs the Android OS, it only runs Amazon's special version of that OS and is not able to install and run apps from the regular Android Marketplace. But as a media consumption device (Amazon has a huge library of books, tv shows and movies it wants to sell you) priced at only $199, it may not matter that it only delivers media and doesn't run apps. In fact, expect these devices from Amazon to be sold at cost (I bet $199 is pretty close to cost) or eventually given away for free as loss-leaders. Because Amazon makes its money on sales of content. The Kindle tablet is just a content delivery vehicle, like the cardboard box the paper books used to come in. So, does the Fire threaten Apple's iPad, the top-of-the-line tablet that consumes media and runs apps, or the also-ran Android tablets that cost as much as an iPad but aren't as good? My bet is on the latter.
11.21.2011 Update: Here's an interesting read that appears to confirm what I predicted a few months ago.
8.1.2011 Essential Tech Tools for the Modern Traveler
CampWhere: A guide to campsites across the nation!
The family recently went on a cross-country camping road trip. We drove our Honda Element with the eCamper conversion, and the car performed beautifully. On this trip, I discovered that my wife is much more of an early adopter of technology than I am. She used a variety of tech tools to help us get where we were going as economically and enjoyably as possible. We brought along her Mac laptop and an iPad with Verizon 3G. The laptop only got used at hotels, where free wifi was available. I installed a second user account on the Mac so I could stay out of her way and set up the basics: email and a browser. I brought along my trusty Garmin Nuvi 360, which Alice hates. The Nuvi is fantastic if you're navigationally challenged like me, but she has a good map sense and frequently second guesses it, which leads to conflict. The Nuvi is usually right, but my wife is always right (this is the secret to a good marriage) so there were times when I had to turn the Nuvi off. The iPad turned out to be the device in most demand, but as I have described previously, it's much better for consuming information than for composing. Great for web surfing, terrible for anything more involved than a Facebook status update. As Verizon advertises, we had 3G coverage (though it often dropped to 2G) across most of the U.S., but we had to turn the 3G off when we crossed into Canada to avoid exorbitant roaming charges. We used a cigarette lighter power inverter to keep our electronics charged up while driving. It was absolutely essential to keep the boys' Nintendo DSes operational at certain points of the journey :D While my cell phone plan doesn't cover Canada, I kept in touch with my parents by calling them via Skype *. Alice effectively used Priceline and Expedia to find us some sweet deals on hotels when the weather was predicted to be bad. She used the WeatherBug app to check the forecasts. We used a book, and later discovered there's an app for that, called The Next Exit, which tells you what you'll find in the way of facilities as you're barreling down the Interstate at 75 mph with small boys who drank too much juice at breakfast. Alice also found Trip Advisor very handy as a way to find a good hotel. We used Yelp and Urban Spoon to get restaurant recommendations. Alice likes the Yelp interface better. Both are fairly accurate. Google Maps was handy for plotting routes, and the Maps app on the iPad is way cooler than a map book. It includes a moving blue dot that shows you where you are, and you can zoom the map in and out with a quick swipe of the fingers. CampWhere is another great app for picking and reserving your campground, and they have details about amenities and comments on each site within the campground. Perhaps the finest moment for tech on the trip was when we discovered in Devil's Den, Arkansas, that we were leaking coolant. While I was driving, Alice found us three Honda Dealers in Memphis and we selected the Wolfchase dealer because it was near the mall so we could occupy the boys while the car was being checked out. We replaced a cracked radiator and were back on the road with loss of only a half day. In the airport on the return home, a fellow traveler raved about FlightTrack, so check that one out too! Maybe I'm just getting old, but I have to admit that I was amazed by being able to access the Internet and all of these services while zooming down the highway. Just don't try any of this stuff while you're driving please. There are enough distracted drivers already.
*8.1.2011 Trouble with Skype
Skype: I think I'm over you
Worst moment for tech on the trip? My Skype account was somehow hacked, despite a strong password. Each time the hackers ran down the account to zero, Skype's auto-replenish "feature" kicked in and PayPal cheerfully recharged it with money. B of A flagged the suspicious activity, but then wanted to shut down my credit card, which would not have been a good thing while I was on the road. I was able to talk them out of that by killing my Skype account and discontinuing the billing agreement between PayPal and Skype. Skype, of course, was difficult to reach and was not owning up to any responsibility and charged me for a bunch of calls from Yemen to Qatar and Indonesia to Saudi Arabia. Yikes! I argued with them that this was very suspicious activity for my account given my past usage, and while they agreed that it appeared to be fraudulent, they also said, "sucks for you." While Skype remains a very useful tool, they seem to be aware that there is a lot of fraudulent activity but are willing to look the other way because they always get paid. Blaming the customer is not going to serve them well in the long run. If you depend on Skype, my advice is to immediately turn off the auto-replenish option (though a hacker with your password can re-enable it) and change your Skype password frequently. I learned along the way that one reason Skype is vulnerable to hacking is because they don't lock an account after too many failed attempts. They just let the hacker try again. With automated dictionary attacks, this is often successful though I still don't know how they got me. In any case I'm done with Skype for a while and I withdraw any previous endorsement of the service because of their policy of "blame the customer." Even the credit card companies aren't that disreputable! If you require another reason to give up on Skype, they just got bought by Microsoft.
07.31.2011 Competing Standards: Is dominance inevitable or a fluke?
Sony's BetaMax: Loser in the video format war
Recently, and I'll try to dig up the reference, someone said that Apple was clearly in trouble because Android's market share is growing fastest and they will eventually take over as the standard smartphone, just like Windows did in the world of computer operating systems, with Apple once again relegated to a small sliver of the pie if they survive at all. This claim has the air of inevitability. Evidence cited includes the classic example of the VHS vs Beta struggle that eventually resulted in the dominance of JVC's VHS format as the video standard. Google became the search standard. Facebook won the social network battle. Does one standard always win out? When does the market tolerate competing standards? In which cases is one standard most likely to dominate? It is important to distinguish that "the Apple way" has always been to combine hardware and OS. The iPhone is a piece of hardware that exclusively runs the iOS. In the case of Android, Google makes the OS but various hardware manufacturers make the phones. And, to further confuse things, phones run on one or another carrier such as AT&T or Verizon. Although they look the same, Apple actually makes a GSM iPhone for AT&T and a CDMA iPhone for Verizon, these being the two most common carrier standards. Ok, now consider some of the following:
- Cell Phone Companies: Why are there so many? In the U.S., Verizon and AT&T both seem very strong, yet they are incompatible. I must buy a new phone if I want to switch carriers.
- Credit Card types: Visa and Mastercard. Can anyone tell me why one is more popular than the other? And why are Discover and American Express still in the game given their more limited acceptance?
- Camera Lens Mounts: Why does every vendor have its own type, incompatible with the rest?
- MP3 players: Why did Apple's iPod win out? The same files can be played on many devices, yet one brand became dominant.
- Electric outlets: In the modern world, it seems silly that we haven't standardized on one. But yet, here we are.
- Railway gauges: There are so many. Why?
- Weights and measures: Most of the world has gone to the metric system, but America continues to use the old English system which even the English have given up!
- Currency: While each country has its own, there are multiple currencies against which each monetary unit is benchmarked, including the yen, the dollar, the pound and the euro. Even metals like gold remain in use.
- Soft drinks: Coke and Pepsi have continued to coexist for close to 100 years.
- Fuels: Natural gas, propane, gasoline, diesel, coal, nuclear, electric. None has won out.
- Automobile brands: Chevy, Chrysler, GM, Honda, Toyota, VW, and so many more coexist. And style even wins out over interoperability, since parts aren't always compatible even within brand from one year to the next.
- Side of the road on which we drive: This clearly is a source of confusion and sometimes great danger, yet we continue to tolerate it.
- Languages: Some nations have one language, but many have numerous languages. Why has none become dominant?
As I see it, several factors drive things towards a single standard: 1) a significant price or performance advantage over the alternative, 2) network effects; the utility of a service grows as the number of its users grows, and that effect tends to snowball. 3) Degree of lock-in of users and lock-out of the competing standard.
Android phones compete with each other on price and some will be cheaper than the iPhone (win for the Android platform, but not for a particular hardware vendor on point 1) even if they are sometimes inferior to the iPhone, and this appears to be the primary driver of Android's growth in popularity. This lead may be mitigated if Apple releases a cheaper iPhone. Both the Android Market and Apple App Store are huge and offer enough variety that choosing based on apps is not a factor. Phones can make calls to each other regardless of platform, and many apps allow interaction between Android and iPhone users, so there is minimal lock-out, and network effects are minimal. Both the iPhone and its Android competitors work on all major carriers, but purchased apps don't run on the other platform's devices so once one chooses and starts paying for apps, there is some degree of lock-in to a platform. In favor of the iPhone is a base of more affluent customers who are more willing to pay for apps, which is favorable to continued app development. Apple holds the reputation as having the standard setting smartphone, though there are competing Android phones that beat it in some feature categories. Apple is also making more money than the rest, and owns a considerable number of important patents which it may use to its advantage in the courts. At this point, I'd say it's too close to call a winner (if there will be one), but it's likely game over for RIM and Nokia, who are in decline, and Microsoft and Palm, who are unlikely to gain sufficient momentum without massive investment and years of losses.
6.17.2011 Forecast: Cloudy Skies
Cloudy skies ahead
The iCloud announcement from Apple is not getting me too excited. iCloud combines the media management functionality of iTunes with the syncing functions of MobileMe, the flop formerly known as dotMac. The best change is that you should no longer need a computer to activate or manage an iOS device. You should be able to sync with the cloud. For the longest time, it has baffled me that I can't delete something from my iPod without first connecting it to a computer and launching iTunes. It's high time Apple cut the tether between the computer with iTunes and the smart web connected iOS device, which is a wifi capable computer its own right. There is no longer a need. Tethering is a throwback to the days of "dumb" pre-iOS iPods that had to have stuff loaded onto them from a computer because they had no processing power or wifi of their own. The original iPod was, in fact, little more than a portable hard drive. But what annoys me is that while Apple now wants me to store my music (and presumably movies and other media purchases too) in the cloud, I still have to download it and save it to my iDevice to consume it. iCloud could have served an immensely useful role (and perhaps someday it will?) as a streaming service. iOS devices are flash based, and storage is still quite limited compared to devices with voluminous hard drives like the classic iPod. So streaming content from the cloud, whenever I've got an internet connection, would be fantastic. That way, I could consume media without having to download it and fill up my iDevice. But, at least for now, iCloud is still not a streaming service and therefore has virtually no appeal to me. My 16 GB iPad is completely full of really cool apps. It has no media on it, and it won't get any because there's no room. I can use it to watch streaming videos from Hulu Plus and Netflix because they take up no space on the device, but Apple's not getting my purchases because they want me to download before using. Well, it's still iCloud beta. Maybe the clouds will break and Apple will see the light of day before the iCloud rollout this Fall?
06.17.2011 King of Cats?!?
Lion: King of Cats?!
The lion is supposed to be the king of cats, but it lacks the speed of the cheetah and the grace of the panther. It's actually kind of a lumbering brute who often steals from the harder working animals that made the kill. Or so the nature shows tell me. I don't like most of what I've seen so far of Lion, the next installment of Mac OS X, version 10.7. Making it available only as a download seems like a horrible idea for starters. Lion is dropping the Rosetta emulation layer, so the last vestiges of PowerPC software will be gone from the Mac. Not happy about it, but I was expecting that. Apple doesn't care about legacy support. That's one of the reasons they can innovate; they throw yesterday's stuff out with the trash. I can still run Claris HomePage on Windows 7, but haven't been able to use it on a Mac for years! Microsoft works hard on legacy support and that's why they deserve at least a little respect and loyalty. They won't drop you for the latest shiny thing. But it's also what makes Microsoft so boring. Of greater concern is that Lion is adopting lots of clunky iOS interface elements. I understand why Apple is doing this, but it troubles me. The Mac is old (even OS X is 10 years old!) and lacks the pizzazz of the iOS devices, the iPhone and iPad. To convert newbies from the hugely successful iPhone and iPad to the Mac, it helps to make the Mac look more like an iOS device. I find myself very much in agreement with this review. This means adding lots of cutesy interface elements that don't work well for power users. Take Cover Flow for example. Why would anyone in their right mind use Cover Flow to browse files? But it looks so cool in a demo, and all those people who use iTunes are familiar with it. Among Lion's iOS inspired interface elements that I don't really want on my Mac are Launch Pad, which gets cumbersome when you have a lot of apps, or Mission Control, which won't work well if you have more than a few things open at once. The application menu (in list view, NOT the ridiculous fan or grid) already works great and should not be messed with. And while full screen view is ideal for watching movies, it actually makes multi-tasking harder. I don't need or want full screen view for most apps. Disappearing scroll bars are another nuisance. I want to know where on a scrolling page I am just by looking. And with all this talk of gestures, will Mac Pros be coming with trackpads instead of mice from now on? Or perhaps I'm not thinking big enough. Will the next iMac lay almost flat on your desk and sport a stylus and touch screen? Well, that might actually be cool. But my point is that all of these iOS features are designed for simplicity, whereas power users want flexibility and, well, power; not a dumbed down interface. At least for now, I can bypass this fluff and continue to work the way I want to. What worries me is that Apple is increasingly chasing the consumer at the expense of the sophisticated creative professionals (scientists, publishers, designers, artists) who have sustained the Mac for so long. This is the first major OS update in a long time that I'm in no rush to install.
05.12.2011 ChromeBook: Another Google misstep?
ChromeBook: A device of diminishing appeal
Google yesterday announced the ChromeBooks. Oddly, they did this on Day 2 of their annual developer conference, as if it wasn't big news. Google doesn't actually make the hardware. The first two ChromeBooks are made by Samsung and Acer, but the operating system is Google's "ChromeOS." That makes two OSes that Google is giving away: Chrome and Android. That's the first problem. Google didn't develop Android internally; they bought a small unknown company because Chrome wasn't anywhere near ready, and gave it away to the SmartPhone competitors of the iPhone, knowing that iPhone's lead would be too great if they waited for Chrome. Android remains buggy and fragmented across a wide range of hardware, but the platform has succeeded. So much so that it's unclear whether Android has stolen Chrome's thunder. The ChromeBooks are odd beasts too. They are basically low budget "netbooks," the last big thing in computing before the iPad and copycat tablet craze. Nobody's buying netbooks anymore. But they are even more limited in function than netbooks, because they are nothing but a web browser. I can see why Google wants them to succeed. People who surf the web support Google's highly profitable ads based on search. The non-web world, which includes closed services like Facebook and the "Apps" found on smartphones and tablets, locks Google out. The ChromeBook would have been a huge hit before the iOS and Android. Today, a device that only surfs the web is limited to what's on the web. And, increasingly, the momentum is shifting towards web connected apps that can do more than the most sophisticated websites viewed through a browser.
05.11.2011 Tablet Wars
iPad 2: Something new to copy
I've been watching with fascination as Apple continues to steal headlines with the iPad, while the naysayers keep finding ways to spin it as doomed. They aren't calling the iPad an outright failure any more. That prediction has no remaining credibility given the 15 million sold in the first year. As Steve Jobs points out, that's more than all the Windows Tablet PCs ever sold! Instead the argument has shifted to something like, "There's no way Apple will maintain its position of dominance in this market." While they'd never admit it, this is implicit acknowledgement that Apple has once again defined an entirely new category of consumer electronics. And yet, competing tablet after tablet is introduced as the "iPad Killer" and is then panned by the tech reviews and sells poorly. Often the argument is that the Android alternatives aren't as good as the iPad, but they're more open. But the Android platform is more unregulated than it is open. The complaint that the iPad doesn't run Flash has certainly died down; I don't miss it at all, and I doubt most people are even aware of its absence. Netflix and Hulu Plus work great without it and clearly the lack of Flash is not doing any harm to iPad sales. Also common is the argument that when the next major Android update (insert Froyo/Honeycomb/Gingerbread here) comes out, the tablets will be more functional. "Just you wait, Android tablets will be as good as the iPad soon..." is the never ending refrain. In the beginning, there was the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Flawed, smaller and cheaper than the iPad, it was the first alternative to make it to market. Then the Motorola Xoom; similar in specs to an iPad, but more expensive and with only half the apps. Most recently, it was the proprietary PlayBook from RIM, the makers of the Blackberry. There are others, too numerous to mention, but all are very forgettable. A friend in the office recently got the boss to buy him a Motorola Xoom, which runs the Android OS. He loves it, but acknowledges he's never used an iPad. I think that's a bit like saying, "These soy burgers are delicious but I've never actually tasted real meat." RIM CEO Jim Balsillie recently said, after the release of the PlayBook, that it's not fair to compare it to the iPad. Maybe so. Apple defined what a tablet was supposed to be, and the PlayBook was rushed out the door over a year late with a long list of missing features that are promised "soon." And just as most competitors are coming out with their first generation tablets, Apple has released the iPad 2. Is it fair that Apple has a fantastic product and a year's head start on the competition? It is to the consumer. Which Tablet do you want? Take the poll on the right -->
01.30.2011 Too much of a good thing
In-N-Out's philosophy: Do a few things really well
Burger King had a slogan a few years back. "Have it your way." Choice is great, right? Who doesn't want things their way? But when I ask people which fast food chain makes the best burger, the answer I most often get is "In-n-Out." Now wait a minute. Sure, In-n-Out makes good burgers but their menu is really simple and choices are limited, right? Exactly. They do a few things really well. I bought a Garmin Nuvi 360 in the Spring of 2007, back when these automotive navigation devices were both rare and expensive. I paid about $600 for it, and I have been more satisfied with this gadget than any other device I've owned. It did everything I wanted, nothing I didn't want, and it was both powerful and simple to use. Four years later, when the battery died, I went back to Garmin's site to look for a replacement. I was faced with a bewildering array of choices, none of which offered all the features the original one had, although most had new features that I didn't care about. In fact, there are so many models to choose from that Garmin figures you need the help of their Product Finder wizard to pick the one you want. In the end, I bought a used Nuvi 360 on eBay for $60 and then took apart and successfully replaced the battery in the original for $30. Garmin lost its way and lost a sale. Apple's Steve Jobs understands this. Make only a few products. Make all of them terrific. And don't make junk. I just read a great article along these lines that describes how Steve's Apple out Sony'd Sony. It's right on the money. Give it a read. And, just for fun, take the poll on the right -->
01.15.2011 WinClone, I hardly knew you!
WinClone: Apple should have bought you!
As with so many good tv shows like Firefly and The Good Guys, that I only found out about after they were cancelled, I lament the loss of WinClone. I've been using Apple's Boot Camp Utility to make dual boot Macs for several years now, and I just stumbled across a real life saver: a little shareware utility called WinClone. It is fully functional even if you don't pay a dime to the author. Not that I wouldn't pay for such a useful tool. Unfortunately, it seems that not many did and the website where it used to be hosted is gone. You can still find the utility on some of the download archives, but some day when it stops working, there is little hope it will be updated. This brilliant tool is a lab manager's dream; it lets me make an image of the Windows partition I created, and redeploy that image to a lab full of machines. A process that used to take days to get right now takes about a half hour per machine. Here's a good description of the technique involved. Why oh why people didn't you pay for this? And why Apple, didn't you buy this tool and make it a part of Apple Remote Desktop? Professional lab management tools like Ghost work great on a PC, but the Mac side suffers in comparison. And when it comes to creating a Mac lab that can also run Windows, something that is very popular these days, why hasn't Apple made this easy? It would certainly sell more Macs to schools and universities! Maybe Apple only cares about selling iPads and iPhones anymore. Too bad. I'd like to see the author get some credit. Winclone sure helps me out! And hats off (and checkbooks out) for the authors of a few other really useful Mac Manager's tools: ReFit, Super Duper, and Carbon Copy Cloner. Thanks guys! You make my day!
03.25.2012 Update: Winclone lives on! The author has resurfaced and rewritten it from the ground up to support Lion. Support this great Mac utility by paying the modest licensing fee!
12.02.2010 Facebook vs. Google
A clash of tech cultures
What do you mean, Facebook vs. Google? They're not the same thing at all! Bear with me here. Guess what just happened back in March of 2010 that you probably didn't hear about? For the first time ever, Facebook got more visits in a day than Google! About nine months before that, back in June of 2009, Wired wrote an article cryptically entitled the "Great Wall of Facebook." I don't think it got the attention it deserves, but I find myself going back to it again and again. The point was that Facebook is a major threat to Google. Not because Facebook has a killer search engine. It doesn't. And not even because it's something Google doesn't own and has failed, with Buzz and Orkut before that, to compete against. Although I'm sure that's a sore spot. Facebook is a threat because they disagree with Google about who we should trust. Why is this important? Because Google wants you to trust the masses; that's how they assign the relevance of every page out there on the web when you do a search. Google uses brute force and complex algorithms and cold rationality to figure out what you want. But Facebook knows that you trust your buddies about what movie to see this weekend more than you trust the wisdom of the crowds. It's social, it's personal, it's friendly, but more importantly, it's your own demographic. And of course, you can't use Google to search Facebook. Google is completely locked out. Facebook is in fact another walled garden, like Apple's app store. So that's why Google is freaking out a little bit. Without the ability to get inside and search Facebook, they can't put ads on the page and they can't get the revenue from those ads. So as Facebook grows, Google shrinks. And really, Facebook is right. You're more likely to "like" what your friends do. And Facebook owns that.
Further thoughts: How could Google fight back? Well, they could ask you to reveal your likes and dislikes to them. Actually, they're already gathering that information. Didn't you know? (Note: you can opt out, and so far they're not even very good at it. They think I like Cadillacs!) That way, you get search results tailored to your interests. But somehow letting Google know too much about us creeps people out whereas giving all this information about ourselves to Facebook is done without a second thought. Why is that? Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Zuckerberg is any more or less trustworthy than Larry and Sergey, who used to be not quite so evil. Just stop and think about it, ok? Decide for yourself.
Apple's App Store
12.01.2010 The Web is dead. Who stands to inherit?
I think Wired's got it right. The web is dead. Read all about it here. While the Internet is alive and well, the world wide web, as accessed via a web browser on a computer, is in decline. We now live in the "age of the app." Apps are the little programs found on smart mobile devices running Apple's iOS or Google's Android OS. Apps access the Internet directly rather than through a web browser. The majority of those apps are running on Apple's iOS, and are therefore invisible to Google and its ad-funded search business. If you ever wondered why Google is giving away the Android OS to mobile device makers, now you know. They need a toehold in this increasingly important space. There is also no Microsoft presence in this new world. Neither Windows nor Office, Microsoft's only big money makers, are found on these mobile devices. Now Microsoft is trying to get back into the game with Windows Phone, but I suspect they're too late. This makes the iPad a much more important product than people think, and it makes Apple an even more dominant technology company. Just last week, Oprah declared the iPad her "favorite thing ever." Sure, she was pitching her new magazine but, still, how does a significantly smaller, clunkier, and just-as-expensive tablet from Samsung or Dell or RIM or Acer compete with Oprah and Apple? They don't. With more than twice the number of apps available on the Android Market, and with a "magical and revolutionary" delivery device that far outclasses the competition, Apple is the heir apparent to the new post-www age.
11.02.2010 Triple Boot Machine
Triple Boot Machine
It's been a while since I've written anything here. It's been a busy Fall semester. One project that I was able to slip in was re-doing a triple boot Mac the right way. Near perfect instructions were provided by LifeHacker. I bought a big 500 GB Seagate Momentus 7200 rpm SATA drive for the MacBook and used Apple's Disk Utility to format and partition it. I used SuperDuper to migrate the contents of my old Mac drive to the new partition and then installed Windows 7 and Ubuntu Linux as the directions instructed. I used ReFit as a bootloader. It's all working beautifully and has been stable for over a month. I am less enchanted with the virtualization products every day, but this way you get the full power of each OS in a single box. I don't think I can ever go back!
07.12.2010 Wireless Woes
I have been reading a lot about the new iPhone 4
and its "antennagate"
woes. In fact, iPhone and AT&T
bashing seems to be a sport of growing popularity among IT dweebs, who are increasingly brandishing Verizon's Android devices with the hope that it will make them seem cool. Good luck with that, guys. I just read a report
on the issues you will face when switching from an iPhone to a Droid, and what I gleaned from it is that if you want an elegant intuitive phone, the iPhone is still the one. If you like to constantly jigger (as tech dweebs do) with your phone to make it work better, Android is for you. Most of this stuff is pretty well trodden ground, so I'll simply try to add a few points that I haven't read much about in the tech blogosphere. 1) Not Apple or AT&T's fault. The iPhone is a victim of its own overwhelming success
. There are so many iPhone users and so many of them are doing things with their phones that nobody did before that AT&T's network is simply being overwhelmed. AT&T is slowly responding, but blaming AT&T is fun, right? While some criticize Apple for going with AT&T, they had the largest network. If Apple had gone with Verizon, iPhone users would be having very similar, and possibly worse, problems right now. Going with more than one carrier would have helped, but technical issues prevented that from being a good strategy at the beginning, and it's all changing soon
anyway. But guess what Android lovers? When all those iPhone users move to Verizon, they are going to cripple your network too, and take some of the lustre off of your precious Droid. 2) This one is Apple's fault. Apple's wireless sucks. I personally think the blame rests with Jonny Ive, though Steve should take some heat for it too, since nothing at Apple happens without Steve's approval. Apple has been dressing up its machines in metal cases going all the way back to the Titanium Powerbook. That trend has extended to the iPhone and iPad. All of these devices have lousy wireless reception and it is, in large part, due to the metal case. Apple's consumer level machines, dressed in plastic, do not have these problems. It's not the hardware, as Apple uses the same wireless components as everyone else in the industry. So we are slaves to fashion. Want better wireless reception? Don't buy devices wrapped in metal skins. Steve and Jonny need to look up the definition of a Faraday Cage
06.30.2010 iPad Roadtrip
Instead of my laptop, I took the iPad along on two recent road trips to Nova Scotia, Canada and to the Big Island of Hawaii. I used the iPad exclusively for a week in each location as my only computer, and I got along pretty well. Here are my findings:
- This is a very personal device. It really is designed to be set up for a single user. Sure, you can share it, but only one person will be the owner. There is no concept of multiple users as there has been for some time on the computer.
- Fat fingers and insertion points don't mix. Steve says Apple did "cut and paste" better than anyone else. I say they've still got a ways to go.
- I don't mind the virtual keyboard at all, but I also wouldn't try to write a novel on the thing. Even responding to email gets a bit tedious.
- The iPad should be great at web surfing, but Safari still needs a lot of work. Instead of tabs, you go to another screen to select a thumbnail of the screen you want. Annoying. Creating and managing bookmarks is also more difficult than it ought to be.
- Lack of an accessible file system and lack of ability to print. I suppose they will eventually fix the latter, but not so sure about the former. The lack of a file system seems more of a deliberate decision whereas the lack of printing seems like an oversight. That will take some getting used to.
- Very weak wireless reception, and no way to enhance it with an external antenna. Alice's plastic MacBook worked far better.
- Super long battery life. This thing easily lasts all day without a charge.
- Multitasking: didn't miss it. Don't really care all that much. On a device like the iPad, you are usually only doing one thing at a time. Like Words With Friends. That game is addictive.
- My 4 year old has trouble with the mouse, and the left click right click drag and drop concepts are lost on him. But he sure gets this multitouch thing. It's really impressive watching a four year old swipe and pinch the screen like a pro.
- My parents and the other older relatives, most of whom have no clue about computers, were enthralled by it. It was truly magical to them. And yet, they were interested and wanted to touch it, unlike the computer.
- Free games are a killer app. The kids love it. But they now want to buy games and nag us all the time. So paid games are likely in our future.
- You would need to plan ahead if you wanted to watch a movie on the plane (unless the plane has wireless; this is becoming available on some long distance flights)...downloads take a really long time; almost a minute of download time for every minute watched... streaming is far preferable when there's WiFi available. Not only that. Your iPad will fill up fast if you download movies to it. But the Netflix app is great!
- Usability gripe: as I rotate the iPad, the volume controls should adjust. When aligned vertically, the upper button should raise the volume and the lower button should lower it. When aligned horizontally, left should lower the volume and right should raise it.
- Missing Flash? I wouldn't exactly say I'm missing it. I barely noticed its absence. Of course, we did pay for Hulu Plus. Don't bother with Skyfire. Waste of $3; only low res 1x mode, and still doesn't work with Hulu.
- Way lighter than a laptop, but too heavy to be a good book reader, and too much screen glare to use it in full sun. If you want a device primarily for books, the Kindle is better. If you want something that does more than books, the iPad is it.
06.29.2010 The Mac is dead. Long live the Mac.
Is the Mac dead? Fake Steve Jobs blogger Dan Lyons and tech blogger Bob Cringely say so. Steve says not. Let's look at some of the reasons people could argue that the Mac is on the way out, if not officially dead just yet. Steve killed MacWorld Expo several years ago. That was the big Mac event of the year. At the last two WWDCs (that's World Wide Developer Conference, the remaining big Apple event of the year), the Mac was hardly mentioned and the iPhone and related devices took center stage. Remember that back in January of 2007, Apple Computer changed its name to just plain Apple? And when's the last time you saw a Mac in the spotlight on Apple's home page? You could also argue that Macs these days aren't as different as they used to be either, since the move to more industry standard hardware. But nobody has recently mentioned an old quote so I'm digging it up for your consideration. Back when Steve returned to Apple, he made a claim that seems to have been borne out:
"If I were running Apple, I would milk the Macintosh for all it's worth -- and get busy on the next great thing. The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago." -- Fortune, Feb. 19, 1996
But wait. The Mac is selling better than ever. The halo effect is working. Apple's net worth just passed Microsoft's! All true. But Steve is always looking ahead, and the Mac is not the future. So the man with the famous reality distortion field may have been caught in a rare moment of candor. I don't think the Mac is truly dead, but it's increasingly dull. The future is in media and small portable devices with innovative interfaces, like the iPhone and iPad. But as far as the obituary goes, the Mac has died and been reborn several times already. The jump from Motorola's 680x0 processors to PowerPC was a rebirth. The jump from the classic Mac OS to OS X was a rebirth. The jump from PPC to Intel was a rebirth. And now, the leap from Mac OS X to iOS 4 is another rebirth. So don't mourn for the Mac. Even the dinosaurs didn't really die out, so much as they evolved into birds.
Update: 12.01.2010: Gruber has, as usual, some interesting thoughts on this.
04.13.2010 Apple II Forever? No Thanks
Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
Slate did a recent retrospective on Woz, Jobs and the Apple II. They laud the Apple II as a tinkerer's dream and long for the good old days when you could crack open your computer like a cold Budweiser. Back in 1986, I owned an Apple IIc. It was the most expensive computer I have ever purchased with my own money; and a shockingly large percentage of the money I had at my disposal! It was the machine on which I learned to write software, and where I gained an appreciation for those who do it well. That was at least partly because there was no software that did what I needed! The lab I worked in had a number of Apple IIe machines, most with expansion cards and rainbow colored ribbon cables coming out the back to drive various devices such as HPLC rigs, pH probes and other data collection devices. The Apple ][ was indeed an open box and, as Apple likes to say in their PR releases, it ignited the personal computer industry in the late '70s and early '80s. But when I first laid hands on a Macintosh, my jaw dropped. It was so clearly a superior experience. Yes it was a sealed box and there was no BASIC programming language, but I didn't mind because the thing was so damned brilliant, and the software for it was equally brilliant. In line with Farhad Manjoo, I'm feeling the same way now about Apple's new iPad, as I watch my 4 year old use it without frustration. My parents, who are complete technophobes, had the same reaction. Steve's right. This thing IS magical and revolutionary. Which is why I am saddened but not surprised by the negative reaction to the iPad from some tech bloggers. They complain about the app store approval process, the DRM, and the sealed, tamper (and tinker) resistant case. All true but also, I think, acceptable tradeoffs in order to get such a remarkable device. Allowing third party apps is what has made Apple's multi-touch platform such a hit, but Apple is obsessive about quality control and so the app store approval process was born. Is the process sometimes heavy handed or silly? Sure, but it also keeps the lousy apps out and the quality high. For Apple at least, control is working. DRM is the entertainment industry's response to piracy. As annoying as it is, I understand why it's there. That was the deal Apple had to make to get music on the iPod when the industry was in ruins. The industry was in ruins, of course, because of a new technology, the CD burner, and a new mentality, that you didn't have to pay for anything you could copy. As for the sealed unit, well it's a design aesthetic, but it's also a philosophy that you shouldn't have to crack open your computer and spend all day tinkering to make it work right. Remember one of the Mac's early slogans? It's "The Computer for the Rest of Us."
03.07.2010 The Walled Garden of Good and Evil
iTunes App Store
The iTunes App Store, the place where you get software for the iPhone, the iPod Touch and the new iPad, is sometimes referred to as a "walled garden." Since its inception, Apple has acted as gatekeeper in order to ensure the consistency and quality of the experience. The app store, now with close to 150,000 apps, has been a huge hit and may ultimately be the thing that seals the success of the iPhone and related devices. Third party developers are encouraged to submit their apps for approval, but Apple has not provided clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptible. Even worse, they seem to apply those unpublished and changing guidelines inconsistently. Apple's resurgence is in large part due to Steve Jobs's obsessive urge to control every aspect of the user experience, but they may have gone too far. Starting with the crude, Apple then began banning apps it deems as duplicative of the built-in functionality of the device, such as Google Voice. Recently, Apple began banning the sexually suggestive and pornographic but extended the ban to a company that sells women's swimwear (which has now been unbanned again), all while inexplicably leaving the Playboy app on the store. And now, Apple is deciding which apps are useful and banning some of the ones it says provide little utility. Likely there are unspoken motives here, and Apple is having trouble deciding where to draw the line. But one thing is very clear: the backlash is driving tech-savvy customers to the Android platform, where the experience is more open. I'm beginning to hear it and I expect the problem to grow. My advice to Apple would be for them to unclench a little and let the market decide what is useful but, since this is Apple, I doubt that will happen. Meanwhile, the open versus closed debate rages on.
Further thoughts: You know what's another walled garden that seems to be doing just great? Facebook.
02.28.2010 Smartphone Wars: Survivors and Casualties
By now, just about everyone who wants a cell phone owns one. But competition to convert people from dumb phones to smartphones is fierce, and Apple has set the technology standard with the iPhone. Only six months ago, I wrote about the emergence of challengers to the iPhone. Let's take a fresh look at the battlefield and see how they're doing. At the time, the Palm Pre was being hailed as the putative iPhone Killer. Only just released, the specs looked great and there was lots of buzz about the Pre. But Palm went with Sprint, the weakest of the big three US carriers, there were only a handful of apps, and the early commercials were not well received, so sales faltered. Now Palm has issued a warning that earnings will be significantly below their estimates, and the stock just lost 20% of its value in a single day. There might still be time to turn it around, but Palm is down for the count. Nokia, with its Symbian platform, is the biggest worldwide but has not been successful in the U.S., and market share is stagnant. RIM continues to do very well, and has carved out a niche among the obsessive texters and business people that Apple has not been able to penetrate. Loyalty to the Blackberry is mostly due to its good physical keyboard, which the iPhone lacks. Windows Mobile stagnated years ago and has been in marketshare freefall since the release of the iPhone back in January 2007. Microsoft is starting over with Windows Phone 7 but the WiMo brand is tarnished and it will be a rough road back. The most interesting up-and-comer is Google's Android platform, with some nice devices like the Motorola Droid and Google's own hardware entry, the Nexus One. But Google's challenge with the Android platform will be fragmentation. Can they make their software work well on hardware with different features from a variety of device makers? Expect growth of the Android platform in the coming year, but remember that numbers can deceive; it's pretty easy to go from 1 to 2 percent market share, which can be reported as a doubling of growth. The bigger you get, the slower the percentage gains. With well over 100,000 apps for its iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad platform, a number that dwarfs the competition, Apple's share of the pie is growing rapidly and they remain the most likely victor in the smartphone war. Which Smartphone do you want? Take the poll on the right -->
12.03.2010 Update: Palm has been bought by HP. I don't think that will end well; they can't figure out what to do with it. Apple has sold a staggering 1.7 million iPhone 4 devices in its first three days. Loyalty of iPhone users is twice that of Android device owners, but the Droid has reached critical mass and will be a strong contender. Apple is likely coming to Verizon in January. Expect many holdouts, myself included, to jump on board.
02.23.2010 Why the AppleTV is still a "hobby"
According to Tim Cook, Apple's Chief Operating Officer, they have a gut feeling that the AppleTV will develop into something, but today it's still just a hobby project. This is marketing speak for, "We don't sell very many AppleTVs." It's very clear to me why the AppleTV has not yet taken off, and why it might never do so as an Apple product. It should be free. "Free?" you say. Yes, and this is exactly why Apple doesn't get it. Apple is, down deep in their DNA (as Steve Jobs likes to say), a hardware company. Because of that mindset, they can't figure out what they've got in the AppleTV. What they've got is... a media distribution system where they own the tollbooth! Steve says they can't sell the AppleTV because people are used to the cable model where the set-top box is "free." I say if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Apple simply needs to turn their business model on its head and think of the AppleTV as an inside out iPod. Giving away the AppleTV to consumers of iTunes content makes good business sense. If you're selling lots of blades, you can afford to give away the razors, right? Netflix is on the right track with their Roku box. (The Roku is a sweet deal and it also works with Amazon's Video On Demand. For Apple, this could work one of two ways. They could make up the cost of the unit either by skimming a tiny bit of profit from every iTunes sale, or by letting the networks subsidize the cost of the device, just as AT&T does for the iPhone. There are also many unexplored content pricing options: own (multiple views, no DRM) or rent (single view, DRM), download (high quality) or stream (low quality), and ad-free or ad-laden. Price the content right for each option and the consumer will bite, especially as more and more households get fancy new HDTVs. While streaming offers instant gratification, downloading gives you quality. Someday, with sufficicent broadband, we may get both but for now it's a choice. Oh, and one more thing...unlike music, people don't tend to watch the same movie over and over so an ownership strategy has limited appeal. If anything can, it will be childrens' videos that make ownership a winner, because kids like to watch the same content again and again, they are murder on DVDs, and they hate commercials. But if Apple wants to get in on the action, they better move soon because Walmart just acquired VuDu and a certain search company we all know is developing the GoogleTV. And very soon, there won't even be a separate box to sell. My friends have a brand new Blu-Ray disc player, and it has built-in wi-fi, ethernet and a dumbed down interface for Netflix, Pandora, YouTube and a few other web services I've never heard of. New TVs are going to have these services built-in, so you can control it all with one remote. The Internet connected TV is the next big thing in entertainment, and you can bet that all the major players will be building them or partnering with those who do. But right now it's anybody's game.
12.3.2010 Update: Apple's second generation AppleTV is priced much better at $99, but the Roku still beats it on content, and on price at $59. Reviews of the GoogleTV call it a big step in the wrong direction. Ouch! Larry recommends Roku, and gets no commission on any sale, and loses money on his Apple stock. How can he be wrong?
Amazon's $489 Kindle DX
Amazon's Kindle is aptly named, as it has indeed ignited the eBook industry. Amazon says that it now sells 6 eBooks for every 10 paper books. The Kindle has a great screen for reading books, but that's all it does, and some complain it's slow. With the introduction of the $499 iPad, a comparably priced multi-purpose device that is also a book reader, rumors that Amazon is "rethinking" the Kindle, or offering to give it away, might at first seem like acts of desperation. But it actually makes perfect sense, because ultimately the Kindle is a loss-leader; it's only as important as the match that started the fire. As long as eBook sales remain brisk, the fire keeps burning and what happens to the Kindle is unimportant. Apple, for example, makes very little money from iTunes sales; the content is passed along without any markup. But Apple can do it because all that content goes on their very profitable iPods. Amazon on the other hand sells books. So no matter who builds the eBook readers, what counts for Amazon is that people buy their eBooks. Amazon doesn't care if the iPad kills the Kindle, because the Kindle has done its job and gotten the fire started. In fact Amazon makes a great Kindle reader app for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. What Amazon does care about is eBook piracy and competing eBook formats, so expect them to push their proprietaty format and strong DRM (digital rights management), just as the music industry insisted upon with Apple. Apple sells razors. Amazon sells blades. There is no conflict here.
12.3.2010 Update: Amazon's new Kindle has found a great price point at $139, well below that of the iPad, and will fly off the shelves as the best dedicated eBook reader.
02.10.2010 iPad Arrives; threatens Kindle and Flash
Apple introduced the iPad on January 27, 2010. Interesting device, surprisingly low price, terrible name. The buzz over the new device was almost swamped by the jokes. Maybe if Apple had a woman on the board of directors they could have caught that one? Despite the spin from Apple, the device is neither magical nor revolutionary, but it is a nice addition to a very successful product line. In essence, it's a giant iPod Touch, which is itself just an iPhone minus the phone. Not the Netbook killer people were expecting, but still significant enough to send wannabe competitors back to the drawing board. Not really a productivity device at all. Not yet the device I wanted for watching movies, because it came without Flash for streaming and without the storage capacity for downloads. On the other hand, as Jobs killed the floppy, maybe this is also the death knell for Adobe's Flash and a big boost for HTML5? And the iPad will keep getting better. Either because of technical problems or to keep costs down, or to sell you another one later, the first generation model lacks a camera. Dont worry. It will come. Not being revolutionary doesn't make it a flop. It's just that this device was so hyped and we have come to expect so much from Apple that reality was bound to disappoint. Whether it's a Kindle-killer remains to be seen, though its introduction has clearly given eBook publishers short-term pricing leverage over Amazon. Even if the Kindle is extinguished, Amazon and the iPad will both win big as eBooks take off. With 140,000 apps and counting, I think this device will find its niche. I just don't think that Steve Jobs or anyone else knows yet what that niche will be. Maybe this?
10.20.09 New MacBook: Better in Every Way? Not!
Apple does it again. After making several really nice improvements to the last of the plasic, oh, sorry, polycarbonate, MacBooks, they discontinued it and replaced it with a completely redesigned model. Ok, so that sounds good. Improve on a winner, make it cheaper, and we're on the right track. So what did Apple do? They advertize it as "Better in Every Way." I'm sure there are some improvements, but the previous model had Firewire, which is now gone. The old model had an IR sensor so you could use it with the Front Row remote, which was also included free at one point. Both the sensor and, not surprisingly, the remote are gone. The old model had a handy battery charge indicator so you could check your power level without turning on the computer. Gone. And the old model was designed so that replacing the hard drive, RAM, and battery were a snap. Not any more. The separate jacks for audio in and out have been reduced into one combo jack so you can't use both at the same time. And the price, which really needed to come down to compete with the Netbooks, didn't. Still $999 for the base model. So I would call the new MacBook a disappointment in just about every way. Bump up to a MacBook Pro 13" for $200 more and you'll be much happier. Maybe that was Apple's plan to start with?
10.18.09 Trouble with Time Capsule!
Dead Time Capsules
Uh oh. It looks like Time Capsule will not be lauded as one of Apple's many reliable products. The idea is a good one; combining a wireless access point and a network attached storage device is clever and useful. But the choice to enclose a power supply and hard drive in a fanless and underventilated plastic case was just plain dumb. We've had many similar problems with recent LaCie drives. Sure, fans can be noisy and annoying, but they keep your devices cool. Heat reduces the data fidelity of drives as well as shortening the life of many electronic components such as capacitors. So now there's a website where you can log the death date of your Time Capsue. The average failure time among units that have failed is about 17 months. But given that the product is only about 24 months old, this is not good. If you're in the market for that particular functionality, I'd suggest an Airport Extreme and an external OWC hard drive attached to it via USB. Separating the components also means that if one part fails, you have less to replace. Or, if you do need a Time Capsule, add AppleCare to extend the warrantly to 3 years and make Apple pay to replace it when it dies. But AppleCare won't get your data back :(
7.6.10 Update: It now appears that Apple may replace your dead Time Machine free of charge even if it is out of warranty. However, if your data is more important than the unit, which still suffers from an overheating problem due to lack of adequate ventilation, you can always take it apart. Hint: use a hair dryer to melt the glue under the big rubber foot or it will tear. On the other hand, if it's dead and you take it apart, who cares? It doesn't need to go back together. Just grab the drive.
10.13.09 Top 10 Reasons to Get A Mac
- Innovative industrial design. Want to see tomorrow's PC? Look at today's Mac.
- No PC viruses, malware, spyware, worms, or trojan horses. Is that one reason or five?
- Macs last longer, are more reliable, have higher resale value and best overall TCO.
- Apple's software works seamlessly with the hardware.
- Your current devices (external drive, camera, printer) will move right over. True plug and play.
- Microsoft Office and Open Office are both available for the Mac.
- Your Mac can also run Windows, either simultaneously or as a boot option.
- There are no stripped down Macs. They come standard with stuff that costs extra on most PCs.
- The Mac OS is stable, secure and easy to use, and the "pro" version doesn't cost extra.
- The highest customer satisfaction rating of any computer, year after year.
Top 10 Reasons Not to Get A Mac
- It won't make you cool.
- It is not completely idiot proof.
- You don't mind that your computer is always screwed up.
- You don't see any important difference between American and Japanese cars.
- You love shopping at WalMart.
- You love Internet Explorer.
- You think you need a Mac to use iTunes, an iPod, iPad, or iPhone
- You beat the crap out of your computer.
- You like to replace your computer frequently.
- Cheap matters to you more than quality.
10.13.09 Apple Education Licensing Program
Apple has discontinued its Apple Maintenance Program, and replaced it with the new Apple Education Licensing Program. It looks like a good deal because Apple comes out with new versions of the OS and other products pretty frequently compared to Microsoft, for example, where a new version of Office comes out only every 4 years and the Windows OS is refreshed about every 3-4 years. That got me thinking...how often does Apple renew its core pieces; the Mac OS, iLife (which everyone uses) and iWork (which hardly anyone uses)? The following graph is the result of that research. Across all versions of OS X, Apple has refreshed the OS on average every 1.46 years. Of course, as the system has become more refined, the time between refreshes has slowed. iLife versions average 1.11 years, and iWork versions average 1.33 years.
Graph of MacOS X, iLife and iWork version lifespans, in days.
9.30.09 What is the point of iWork?
Back in the late 1990s, Microsoft made some threatening noises about dropping Office for the Mac. It sent a chill through the Mac community at a time when Apple was struggling to get back on its feet. Of course, Apple had ClarisWorks (later renamed AppleWorks) but that was seen as not professional enough, even though it was and still is a great program that meets most people's needs. In fact I would argue that AppleWorks which, sadly, you can no longer buy, is superior to iWork because, in addition to competent Word Processor, Spreadsheet, and Presentation modules, it also included good Draw, Paint, and Database modules. So Apple went off and developed Pages, Numbers and Keynote to replace Word, Excel and PowerPoint just in case the worst case scenario happened. The bundled package is known as iWork. But sales of iWork must be dismal. I know this even though Apple doesn't talk about it, because almost nobody I know who uses a Mac uses any of these tools and I know lots of Mac users. But if MS Office wasn't free at work, would I buy iWork? Probably not. With Open Office and Google Docs as solid MS Office alternatives, I just don't see the need for a Mac only Office suite. Kill it off Steve. Put the money you save into usability enhancements for iTunes. It sure could use 'em.
5/31/2011 Update: With iWork Lite versions now available for iPad, there is actually another reason to try iWork. However, I still wouldn't try to do any serious work on an iPad, or any tablet, in the first place. Tablets are great for games, watching movies, and web surfing, but not for productivity.
9.23.09 So now Microsoft's got a tablet concept?!
Wow. That makes things interesting. Microsoft has leaked a concept tablet that the folks over at Apple are probably studying pretty carefully. Usually, it's the other way around. A dual screen model that folds like a book is interesting, but I'm not sure how practical it is. The interface looks slick, but complicated. Will this thing ever see the light of day? Will it be the new Origami? You know. Origami. When Microsoft changed the world back in February 2006? Oh, right. That never happened. Well, keep trying guys. One thing you can say about Microsoft. They're pluggers. And they do an amazing job when they've got something to copy. Cough. Zune HD. Cough.
9.9.09 New iPods, More Capacity, Same Prices
Steve Lives! And He bringeth new iPods from heaven.
New iPods arrived as expected today. The Nano got some great upgrades. A built-in FM tuner, a pedometer, a speaker, a microphone and a video camera. Everything but the kitchen sink! Ok, but what happened with the Touch? Kind of a disappointment there. According to Steve Jobs, who we're all happy to see back, there's no camera in the iPod Touch because it's for gaming and their focus was on making the Touch more affordable. But if you compare the old prices with the new, you will see that the 8GB Touch (the one Apple calls "updated") dropped only $30 in price and got no new features; it's essentially a discounted year old model. The $299 and $399 models got more capacity but those are the same price points as last year. So while the same money gets you more capacity, they haven't really gotten any more affordable. Rumors suggest that there were hardware problems and the cameras got pulled at the last minute. The teardown shows there's a hole where the camera could have gone. If that 8GB model was a 16GB with a camera for $199, I'd be ordering it right now. As it is, I think I'll wait and see if Apple releases an off-cycle update after the holidays. Or possibly a software update to enable a few hidden features? Apparently the wireless chip in the new iPod Touch is capable of FM transmission and reception and 802.11N wireless, but none are currently implemented. But as my lovely and very smart wife points out, this sleight to the Touch may have been done to sell more Nanos, which are starting to look increasingly clunky compared to the ultra-slick multi-touch devices. Indeed, sales of click wheel iPods are in decline and probably won't recover. They can always add a camera to the Touch later, after everyone has bought a Nano. And they may need to. Apple will be facing some new, and much needed competiton soon from the Palm Pre, the Zune HD and maybe even some Android phones like Motorola's Droid. That's a good thing because it would drive down prices and add features in a market that Apple has dominated for too long. I recently read a review in Consumer Reports that compares the Touch to the Palm Pre and they came out about equal. As far as the review goes, they are correct. But that's clearly wrong. The iPhone platform just passed 100,000 apps. Palm's Pre has, maybe, a hundred. As Steven Levy of Wired argues convincingly, the Apps make all the difference and that's why Apple is winning the Smartphone War.
|Old iPod Touch (2G) Price Points
||New iPod Touch (3G) Price Points
8.13.09 More thoughts on the coming MacBook Touch
Brian Lam just wrote a new article at Gizmodo about the unannounced Apple product everybody's waiting for. Based on no insider information at all, but just on probabilities as a long time Apple watcher, here's what I think:1) It has to be priced above $500 and the entry model at least will be priced below $1000, but closer to $1000 than $500 because Apple likes its profit margin and, at least initially, there is pent up demand for this product and people will pay it. Remember what the first iPhone cost? This does not preclude a tricked out version that costs more than $1000 2) It will be called the MacBook Touch, representing a hybrid between the venerable low end MacBook and the iPod Touch. On the day it is available for sale (or possibly the day it is announced), the low end white MacBook will drop out of the product grid. 3) If it was just a scaled up iPod Touch it would run the iPhone OS and would have been released already. But I think Apple is more likely to add multi-touch to Mac OS X, and this technology will later sweep across the whole product line. There are no iPhone apps for a 10" screen. There are lots of Mac apps for one. So the OS will be a hybrid too. 4) This thing is too expensive to be just an e-book reader, but it will do that too. OLED would make the screen readable in full sun, and the selling point will be "Why spend the money on a Kindle when this does so much more?" 5) It will not be a giant phone, because that would look dumb.
12.03.2010 Update: Ok, I'll admit it. I couldn't have been more wrong. The iPad was cheaper than I or anyone expected. And it was just a giant iPod Touch.
6.20.09 The soon to be announced "MacBook Touch"?
A concept for Apple's MacBook Touch, by Adam Benton
There are some great concepts out there on what Apple's rumored new iTablet will look like. I'm linking to some of the best ones. Let's examine some of them just for fun. Will it be a slate, a convertible, or a netbook? It's useful to consider some of the things Jobs has said because, sick or not, you know he's been all over the design of anything this important. Steve says they don't know how to make a $500 Netbook that isn't junk and he doesn't like the cramped keyboard. But he loves the iPhone and the iPod touch, which lack an actual keyboard, even if some would say typing on the virtual keypad is also somewhat cumbersome. If you figure that this theoretical device has Bluetooth and WiFi, it barely needs physical ports or attached peripherals and can still work with lots of external devices. Can't you see Steve boasting about the first computer with no ports at all? Not even a headphone jack. A completely sealed unit! Apple has been messing around with handwriting recognition for years (they call their version Inkwell) and has, for the MacBook Air, created a Remote Disk solution for sharing an optical drive over the network. The latest MacBook Pros now sport a tiny SDHC slot. And the iPhone's multi-touch is now quite refined. So some or all of these things could make their way into this new product. Your electric toothbrush has inductive charging, so why not this new device? Just set it in a cradle and it charges itself wirelessly with no exposed contacts. It will compete with the Kindle as a book reader, and it will compete with netbooks as a fully functional computer in an ultra-slim, lightweight package. But as I mention above, it won't be cheap. Apple doesn't do cheap. It will do more than the Kindle, with a color multi-touch screen, and will definitely be more than $500. It will be beefier than an iPod Touch, so it will likely have an Intel Atom processor, and maybe even 3G for connectivity even when out of range of WiFi. Remember that a 10" capacitive touchscreen does not come cheap, but Apple can buy in volume, just like they did with Flash RAM for the iPod. So $999 feels about right. And given that they've made room for it in the product grid, I'm expecting it to be announced very soon. Welcome back Steve!
More concepts: Fortune Mag | MacFormat | O'Grady | Popular Mechanics | Gizmodo
6.12.09 Apple refreshes laptops, creates giant hole in Product Grid
Apple has a brilliantly simple product grid. Three laptops and three desktops at low, intermediate and high performance and price points. But after the most recent refresh of the laptop line, the only remaining MacBook is the dated polycarbonate white model at $999. The sleek unibody 13" aluminum MacBooks got Firewire 800 (fantastic!) and illuminated keyboards (great!) but, oddly, Apple moved them over into the already crowded MacBook Pro category, which is now crammed with six base models over a $1000 price range. Steve doesn't believe in selling last year's computer at a discount and there is now a big gap in the MacBook part of the grid. What could Apple be up to? I think the old MacBook, which should really have been discontinued by now, is only there as a placeholder until something new at the same price point is ready. There have been lots of rumors about a 10" touchscreen device and Apple really needs an answer to the Netbook. Steve is due to return in late June after his medical leave of absence, but you know he's been working on something. I'm predicting that moving the 13" MacBooks into the low end of the MacBook Pro line was because something else needed the MacBook name. And this new product will be announced by Steve in a special event sometime in July or August. The new MacBook, reinvented, with multi-touch will come in at the low, low Apple price of $999. It will look like a scaled up iPod Touch. Could be a Kindle killer if they do it right. And you know Steve wouldn't do it at all if he couldn't do it right.
Apple's Product Grid: Low End, Mid-Range, and High End Laptops and Desktops
4.15.09 Netbooks and Hackintoshes
Time for a new project. According to a chart I recently discovered at Boing Boing, those braver than me have figured out which Netbook is most compatible with Mac OSX. And the winner is...Dell Mini 9. Then along comes Gizmodo and lays it all out for me. WIth just a bit of tinkering, I have a fully functional netbook running MacOS 10.5.7. The screen is a bit small and the keyboard a bit cramped, but the performance is far better than I expected. With an external mouse and keyboard, it works well as a second machine. We got the 32 GB SSD with 2 GB of RAM and the higher end camera for about $400.00 Pretty sure it will blow up when 10.6 comes out, but in the meantime, it's working great. Here's a new link for anyone trying to create a Hackintosh using the latest Snow Leopard 10.6 software.
6.18.09 Closer to wanting an iPhone, no closer to wanting to pay $80/month for a data plan.
The iPhone just keeps getting better. Now that GPS turn by turn stuff is maturing, they added video, copy/paste is delivered, and the speed has improved, I only have one reason left for not owning one. AT&T and their pricey data plan. Over the mandatory 2-year contract you end up spending over $2000 on the thing! Too rich for me. I'm glad to see that the Palm Pre looks like a hit and that Blackberry continues to do well. Apple can use some competition in this market. But good luck. The app store has 50,000 iPhone/iPod Touch programs and counting. Nobody else even comes close. This is Apple's greatest advantage beyond the phone itself. Like the iPod/iTunes synergy, others can produce a great phone but without the apps, it's not nearly as compelling. I love my tiny flash based 8GB iPod nano; especially the little radio add-on so I can listen to the BBC world service at 3:00 am after I get a bottle for Thomas the sleepless. "This is Owen Bennet Jones with the latest cricket scores." I'm an NPR junkie. So maybe an iPod Touch with Skype? After all, I'm rarely out of range of a WiFi network. If you have an iPod Touch 2nd gen (the one that has microphone integration), pick up an iPhone mic from the Apple store and install Skype for $0.02/minute long distance. If you find it works for you, buy a Skype number so you can receive calls as well. This summer, you can get a new Mac and they throw in an iPod Touch for free. And that means new Touch models in the Fall. Twice the storage for the same price. Buy now or buy later. You win either way.
3.29.2009 TCO: Total cost of ownership.
Everybody's got less disposable income these days. The economy is doing wonders for the sales of super cheap, low performance laptops known as netbooks. There's also a new series of attack ads that Microsoft is testing. In them, they make the argument that Macs are more expensive that PCs. It's the first attack in a while that has a shot at working, because it's based on a half truth. Macs are indeed more expensive than no-name brand bargain basement PCs. But when comparing Macs to reputable brand PCs such as those made by Dell and HP, which come with a "Pro" version of Windows and have comparable hardware specs, the purchase prices are actually remarkably similar. The difference is that there are no* low-budget no-name brand Macs. But this is also one of the key reasons that customer satisfaction with Macs is so much higher; the hardware is reliable and software is designed to work with it. But while the up front price of a Mac is higher, the total cost of ownership, spread across the lifetime of the computer, is actually much lower than that of a cheap PC. Read all about it. While there are a handful of hard core build-your-own-box types out there, most Windows PC owners don't know how to fix their computer so, when something goes wrong, they just buy a new one. They often do this far sooner than necessary. Macs go bad less often because they are less prone to viruses and the hardware is of generally high quality, so people run them into the ground only after years of faithful service. So if you really want to save money, go open source and put Ubuntu Linux and Open Office on your old PC. Why every school in America is not doing this is beyond me. Yes, if you want quality, get a Mac. But if you're tempted by that that bargain Windows PC at WalMart, just remember that when it gets sluggish or dies due to spyware, viruses and cheap components, you got what you paid for. And don't forget to factor the cost of downtime, buying another computer, and migrating your data to it in the not-too-distant future.
Mac Clones and Hackintoshes
There is some interesting stuff happening in the world of Mac. The iPhone has both been jailbroken, meaning that you can run apps not approved by Apple, and unlocked, meaning that you can use a carrier other than AT&T on it. Apple releases periodic software updates that can either inadvertantly or maliciously (depending on who you ask) "brick" your hacked phone so all of this is risky stuff. One might argue that if a few hackers do this, it's no big deal to Apple because they already sold them the phone and AT&T is the big loser. Since Apple moved its Macs to Intel processors, one has been able to run a full copy of Windows on a Mac using various methods. This is useful. But this also means that it is possible to run the MacOS on a generic PC clone with only a few alterations. Apple must really hate this, because hardware is their bread and butter, but again, the risk is still small because only the fairly technical can accomplish this task. But as tutorials on how to do this are starting to pop up all over the Internet, what will Apple do? And now there are a couple of PC vendors like Psystar and PearPC who are selling PCs with legally purchased copies of OS X on them. And even more interesting, they are suing Apple for monopoly practices, arguing that Apple is preserving an artificial hardware monopoly with their software. Apple freely admits that they produce great products explicitly because they control both the hardware and the software. Clones would, and did the last time Apple experimented with clones, both degrade that experience and undercut sales of Apple hardware rather than significantly grow the market share. Shouldn't Apple be allowed to be the exclusive seller of hardware that runs the Mac OS, given that Apple owns both pieces? I guess only the lawyers know for sure. Take the poll on the lower right...
Cinema Displays, Old and New
2.23.2009 It is worth reminding people that Apple has never had a problem abandoning old standards (even the proprietary ones they foisted upon us) and leaving their loyal fans twisting in the wind with a bunch of useless legacy hardware. Remember the floppy? SCSI? ADB? ADC? Firewire? Well they did it again. Say hello to Mini Display Port, the latest in a long line of new video adapters that may or may not catch on. Apple just came out with a brand new line of Cinema Displays after years without a major revision or much of a price drop. They finally added a built-in iSight camera, which is great, and a MagSafe power cable to charge your laptop if you should choose to use one as a dock. They dropped Firewire ports from the hub, and there's no matte option; only glossy finish, which should annoy the graphic design and photo purists as well as people with sticky fingered small children. But the oddest thing? They discontinued the old displays (except for the giant 30" model) while Apple's entire desktop line, including the lucrative Mac Pro which sells to Hollywood types and graphic designers with deep pockets, still has DVI and can't use these new displays. This makes no sense. Unless Apple is about to refresh the entire desktop line to include Display Port. So which Mac interests you most? Take the poll on the right...
*Update: March 3, 2009: Less than two weeks later, Apple introduces, without the usual fanfare, new Mac Mini, iMac and Mac Pro towers. So you still can't buy a new Cinema Display to use with your old Mac, but at least all the new Macs will work with the new Cinema Display.
Firewire: 1999-2008 RIP?
So long IEEE 1394 aka i.Link aka Firewire. It was good to know you. Apple really bungled this one, and it's a shame. Licensing greed during the early days led to naming confusion and a reduced rate of adoption among PC vendors, and failure of Apple to promote the technology in all of its machines led to a smaller market for the makers of Firewire peripherals. Except in the area of DV Cameras, Apple's emerging standard never quite made it to the mainstream and USB2 eventually became an "almost-as-good" alternative. Although there has been plenty of foreshadowing (James Wiebe wrote the "Evolution of FireWire" white paper in 2004 and reduxxed it in 2006), the removal of FireWire from the latest MacBooks is still a bit of a shock. Mac tech people rely on Target Disk Mode and the Migration Assistant, and Mac users depend heavily on external Firewire drives and DV Cameras. It appears we can use Ethernet for the Migration Assistant and since Apple made the MacBook hard disk much easier to grab, maybe this gizmo will be a decent substitute for Target Disk Mode. USB2 works to drive a DV Camera in Windows Movie Maker, so maybe iMovie will work via USB on some legacy cameras. Fearing this eventuality, I have been hedging my bets for several years by purchasing external hard drives from OWC with FireWire 400, 800 and USB2 connectors. Since the new MacBooks came out, Apple has been deleting posts on their discussion boards regarding the removal of FireWire from the MacBook, so they are certainly aware of customer concerns, and are apparently hoping they (the concerns, not the customers) will go away. But maybe Apple will recover from this temporary insanity and put FW back in Rev B. They did add FW800 in Rev B of the original Intel MacBook Pro, so there is precedence. But unless I miss my guess, the new MacBooks will sell well and Steve will be able to justify the decision. And who knows? Maybe eSATA or USB3 will fill the hole. Or is Firewire about to make a revival? The new Mac Mini has FW 800! That's promising.
Update: June, 2009: The Rev. B unibody MacBook gets Firewire 800. So the RIP is for FW400, but FW800 looks safe for a while. Big sigh of relief. That means target disk mode lives! But does Firewire have life beyond 800? Will FW1600 and 3200 ever see the light of day? Doubtful.
BootCamp, Parallels or VMWare?
The recent Intel based Macs use the same processors that power Windows PCs. If you need Windows on your Intel Mac, there are several ways to do it. Which one is best? Well, that depends. If you want convenience, the answer is VMWare. If you want performance, the answer is Boot Camp. If you want to waste your money, get Parallels. All three require a full version of Windows to install. I recommend Windows XP because even though Vista works as well on a Mac as it does on a PC, there is no compelling reason to upgrade, and the OS is more demanding. VMWare and Parallels are similar products except that VMWare works better and costs about half as much. Both allow you to run Windows alongside the MacOS and go back and forth between the two without a restart. Both also resize the Windows partition as needed, which is nice. But both are slower than BootCamp because you are running one OS on top of another. In contrast BootCamp, which is the hardest of the three to configure, requires that you create a separate Windows partition (FAT or NTFS) on your hard drive and that you reboot the machine when you want to run Windows. This means you cannot copy and paste across OSes. FAT has a maximum partition size of 32GB, but is readable/writeable from the Mac side, making file transfer from PC to Mac a bit easier. NTFS partitions can be larger but are only readable, not writeable, from the Mac side. Therefore, a handy trick is to use a FAT formatted Flash drive for file transfers. BootCamp works well with as little as 2 GB of RAM on Apple's wimpiest machines, the Mac Mini and MacBook AIr. The virtualization programs require more RAM and beefier processors for acceptable performance. BootCamp comes free with MacOS X 10.5 (Leopard). After you install Windows on your Boot Camp Mac, be sure to install the Mac drivers that come on the Leopard DVD to make all the custom Mac hardware work under Windows. A word of caution: Once you've got Windows on your Mac, you will need to pay more attention to security. Run Windows Update regularly and keep your anti-virus software up to date.
Update: A fourth option, called CrossOver, lets you run Windows applications in the Mac OS without a copy of Windows. This uses a technology called WINE, but I haven't tried it yet.
News flash: AAPL anounces amazing stuff. Stock price plummets.
What is the deal, people? Why is it that when Steve pulls a golden rabbit from his, um, hat, all people can say is "I wanted a platinum rabbit." Overall, my AAPL stock has been doing quite well, thank you very much. But right after a keynote, the stock drops precipitously. When Apple announces a big profit, the stock drops. Why? Because it wasn't enough. Man, it's gotta be tough to be Steve. No matter what he gives, the fanboys want more. There is just no satisfying the stratospheric expectations of a fanboy. Even Steve's trademark "Reality Distortion Field" can't do that. My advice? Sell on the rumor and buy on the announcement. And while AAPL is in the tank right now, buy all you can. Don't worry. Apple has lots of life beyond Steve, even though he has been, and I hope will continue to be for a long time to come, the iCEO. Happy B-day and get well Steve. Hey, we're all interim if you stop and think about it.
2.26.2009 Update: Apple just passed WalMart to become the #1 music seller in the world. Not digital music. Music. Period. And as usual in the tech industry, nobody saw that one coming. Beating WalMart at the volume game is quite a feat. Apple to the Music Industry: "All your payola are belong to us."
AppleTV? Sold! To the highest bidder. And good riddance.
Between the Hollywood writers' strike and Apple's battle with NBC over iTunes content, which ultimately ended in a loss for both sides, I finally decided my AppleTV was not doing it for me. Another factor was the much touted and much anticipated Take 2.0 software announced at MacWorld 2008 which, frankly, kinda sucked. So we put the AppleTV on e-Bay and sold it. Not missing it a bit. But here's the question I'm sure you're asking. What is your new media hub now that AppleTV is gone? Easy. It's an Intel Mac Mini. Sure it costs a bit more, but it does everything the AppleTV did and it's a real computer too. Which means I can still buy things from iTunes. Or I can go to Hulu and watch stuff for free. Or I can stream video from Netflix, which is working pretty well. While Boxee looked briefly promising as a means to extend the functionality the AppleTV, Hulu just pulled their stuff from Boxee so there goes that. I'd still like to see a new revision of the Mac Mini. It's the right computer for these tough economic times.
Update: 3.3.2009: New Mac Mini released on my birthday. Bought one. It rocks.
6.9.2008: MobileMe? Bite Me!
I saw a homeless guy walking down the sidewalk the other day. On the front of his t-shirt, in big bold letters, it said "Bite Me!" Hunh. I think not. Sorry, but that doesn't appeal. On virtually any level. "Bite me!" is an expression that I've never really gotten. At daycare, they will expel your kid if he bites. Maybe it was my sheltered Canadian upbringing or maybe it's just a lame expression. In fact, most of the marketing things that end in "-Me" don't work for, um, me. Like WindowsMe. That whole "me and my" thing that Microsoft started just bugs. It's like the boomer mantra or something. SocialSecurityMe! Humvee-Me! ViagraMe! Steve's a boomer too, you know. And he couldn't resist messing with .Mac and renaming it MobileMe. Ugh. Not that it was a great service mind you, with all the good free Web2.0 stuff that's available now, but it just wasn't quite bad enough to stop using. Until they changed the name, that is. That was the last straw. So I'll be Flickring and g-mailing and del.icio.us-ing and Facebooking and Twittering from now on. UnsubscribeMe.