Apple, Microsoft in Mobile Phone scandal. Film at 11.

I don’t really see why people are so surprised that Apple approved Opera for the App Store. Various tech pundits were convinced that, since it duplicates functionality in Safari, by being a web browser, it would be rejected. And yet, if one looks in the App Store, and searches for “Web Browser”, there are actually a number already available. Including iCab, a browser I used for some years on the Mac, and a variety of others promising “Full Browsing” or “Private Browsing”. (After all, the web experience is nothing if you can’t watch porn.) One wonders why not one pundit or journalist reporting on the story noticed this. Did none of them look? (Maybe it’s a self-selecting thing. The only people who thought it worth remarking on were the ones who couldn’t be bothered checking their facts before publishing.)

So it seems that Opera really had nothing to worry about. In fact, it’s probably a bit of a let down in marketing terms. They can’t claim to be a champion of the people oppressed by the almighty Jobs.

Of course, the question remains, which browsers have been rejected, and why? I suspect there was a reason other than “duplication of core functionality”. (Security, perhaps? Or it was just crap?)

In other news, you have no doubt heard about the big mobile phone announcement in the last week. Sure the critics have had a lot to say, but I’m sure the lack of features will be made up for by the ease of use and smooth interface.

I am, of course, referring to the finally announced, long anticipated “Pink” project from Microsoft. Microsoft announced this week that they were releasing a “social” phone platform, with two MS branded handsets, the compact Kin 1, and the Sidekick-reminiscent Kin 2.

No doubt, the blogosphere, and the pundit-verse, are full of the hate already. After all, neither device runs Flash, or even MS’s own Silverlight, there’s no e-mail, and 3rd party apps aren’t supported. Also, as I can’t find reliable technical specs online, the battery life must suck, and it must be really slow. We know from experience, that these are the things people care about in a mobile phone.

Or maybe it’s just what people expect from an Apple branded mobile phone. Still, it’s interesting that less than a week after the much anticipated announcement of multitasking on the iPhone, MS have announced two “feature phones” (ie phones with very few features). It’s an interesting move from Redmond. While not a direct competitor to Windows Mobile Phone Seven Series Phone Series 7, it does compete against products made by companies that manufacture Windows Mobile handsets.

Perhaps more intelligently, it’s also not a direct competitor to the iPhone. Apple make one handset with one set of features. The iPhone is a smartphone, and is designed to do many things. It seems that “Pink” or “Kin” or whatever, is aimed at the sort of people who used to have a Sidekick (before the...unpleasantness), who aren’t necessarily after the functionality of an iPhone or a Blackberry.

Of course, the lack of features will be the kiss of death. Plus tying it to one carrier in the US, and not even one that uses the same network as the rest of the world (thus requiring two sets of hardware, a CDMA one for the domestic market, and GSM/3G for the rest of the world).

I look forward to further developments in these stories. Just not very enthusiastically.

iPad to about 1500 words

I don’t have an iPad.

Let me clarify, for those of you who have no real idea who I am, if there is anyone out there reading this who doesn’t know me personally. (There must be, otherwise who’s leaving those weird comments about penis enlargements and smuggling money out of Nigeria?)

I live in a small, inland city in Australia called Canberra. It happens to be the nation’s capital, but that’s not strictly relevant. I suppose neither is the name, but I just wanted to provide some context. Unlike those of you in the US (assuming you exist), the iPad hasn’t been released in Australia as yet.

The Apple Australia page lists it as being available in late April, which is not only vague, it’s also at least 3 weeks away. To date, no pricing has been announced, even for the WiFi version, which is presumably the version that will be available in late April. So I don’t know when it will be available, or how much I will have to fork over for it as yet.

The upshot of all this is that I am currently being bombarded with tech reports from the US about the pros and cons of the iPad, but can’t really verify any of them for myself. For instance, I was listening to one person complain about how heavy the device is (700 grams? Heavy?), while a friend has said it’s no heavier than a hardcover book.

In fact, the commentary, which is the only part of the iPad experience I’ve been able to share in, has been fascinating. Admittedly, it shares a lot with the commentary on the iPhone before its release, but it’s worthy of independent assessment.

Firstly, everyone is complaining again about Apple’s “walled garden”. I have to admit the App Store worried me when they recently got rid of all the content deemed “Adult” in nature. (Although, Wobble iBoobs doesn’t strike me as a very “Adult” concept.) I don’t want Apple telling me I can’t download porn on my iPhone any more than I want the Minister for Communications telling me I can’t download it on my computer. (Whether I actually do so or not is irrelevant.) Still, it’s their product, and their distribution system. In a capitalist society, that enables them to do what they like, and if people don’t like it, then they won’t buy the product. This isn’t a monopoly, there are other phones available. In any case, despite claims of vague criteria, and petty vindictiveness, it seems that in most cases, Apple has only stopped apps that either didn’t follow the developer guidelines, or would cause a problem for their US telecoms partner - AT&T.

Consider, for example, the news last week that the mobile version of the Opera browser had been submitted to the iTunes App Store. The general mood of the blogosphere and, more specifically, the punditsphere was that it would be rejected out of hand for “duplicating core iPhone functionality”. This is allegedly the excuse for banning Google Voice, and a few other apps. However, if Apple is so against other web browsers, why is iCab available in the App Store? In fact, do a search on “Web Browser” in the App Store, and you’ll notice a dozen or so browsers available, some of them for free. (There’s also some other apps that include browsing functionality while not actually being web browsers themselves.) Does this mean Apple will approve Opera? Not necessarily. They may actually find some other reasons for stopping it. Maybe it’s buggy, or leaks memory like Windows on a rainy day. In any event, it sounds more like people are assuming that Apple is being capricious because it suits their world view, rather than for any real reason.

This is possibly related to the surprise many expressed on discovering that the Kindle app was available on the iPad. I don’t see what the surprise is. Apple wants to sell iPads. Amazon wants to sell books. These two objectives are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they each stand a better chance of succeeding if Kindle is available on the iPad. What you may not see any time soon is iPad books on a Kindle. At least not without a lot of fiddling.

Finally, there have been a lot of complaints, as per usual, about the perceived lack of features of the iPad. The iPad doesn’t run Flash. Personally, I could care less. Flash is overused, and, despite claims to the contrary, is a processor hog. However, a lot of people seem to think that Flash is vital for the device to be worthwhile. Meanwhile, content providers who previously used Flash to deliver their content, are moving towards HTML 5, and other alternatives. Including native Apps made available in iTunes. Personally, I see anything that moves us away from so-called “de-facto standards” which are actually proprietary formats (I’m looking at you, Microsoft Office) is a good thing. Having such a large amount of the internet dependent on the whims of a single company (yes, I appreciate that some of you see the way Apple is behaving as being exactly that) is a bad thing. Of course, Adobe still has a stranglehold on document formats with the widespread use of the Acrobat Portable Document Format (.pdf), but there are alternatives that will read and even create PDFs. With Flash, it’s a closed Adobe shop. (Remember how upset people were with Apple for that sort of thing?) I could be wrong, but I don’t know of an alternative to Adobe’s products for creating Flash content, or of alternative Flash runtime environments.

And then there are the perceived hardware deficiencies, like the lack of camera, USB ports, user-changeable battery, and even a kick stand. I’m not entirely sure why a device like an iPad needs any of these things, but there are people out there who seem to think it’s their God-given right to demand these things on Apple’s new device. I suspect, however, most of them haven’t given any real thought as to what they need them for, other than just because they “need” them. And they’re all rather self-defeating inclusions, anyway. A good camera would have driven the cost up. A cheap camera would be criticised for being a cheap camera. Anyway, people would no doubt complain that it was in the wrong place. Put it on the front of the device, and people will complain they can’t take pictures with it easily, put it on the back, and they’ll complain they can’t video conference with it. Put two in, and your nice, simple device just got a lot more complicated.

USB ports? Why? To connect peripherals that will drain the battery faster? The iPad, in many ways *is* a peripheral. You transfer files to and from it via iTunes on your computer. The Kindle doesn’t have a USB-out port, and no-one seems to mind. Admittedly the iPad is a bit more than a Kindle, but still, you have options.

Removable battery? Apple haven’t been putting removable batteries in anything for years. As has been pointed out elsewhere, a non-removable battery means a longer battery life, since there’s more space for actual battery. It also means the case can be slimmer, and stronger, since a large opening in the case would be a weakness in the structure. Also, the battery itself would need to be more rugged so that it wasn’t damaged when being removed or inserted.

Last of all, there’s the kickstand. Leaving aside why anyone needs a stand (there are legitimate reasons for it, I accept), why is $40 for a case that doubles as a stand such a big deal. Also, wouldn’t including one make it harder for case and accessory manufacturers? Trying to make a cover that fits over the stand, or even lets you use it without removing the cover would be awkward. Plus it’s preventing the accessory manufacturers from making money by supplying the stand for the people that feel they need it, and it would annoy the people who don’t want one. Again, I note no-one complains about the absence of a stand on the Kindle.

Anyway, the iPad is here. Well, not *here*, but over there. And it is what it is. There is no doubt that it will change the IT market in ways we don’t fully understand yet, just as the Macintosh did for computers, the iPod did for music players, and the iPhone did for phones. (Not to mention the Newton and the PDA market it created.) If there’s anything about the iPad you don’t like, then maybe you should wait for something else to come along. The great thing about IT is that it accommodates a wide range of people with different tastes. If one manufacturer doesn’t make what you want, someone else will. Complaining that the iPad isn’t exactly what you want just means you shouldn’t buy one. You should buy the one from Dell that comes out next year. Or the Chrome-based Google pad. Or maybe something else entirely. Meanwhile spare a thought for those of us who do want one, and are willing to live with its “shortcomings” but can’t get it yet. (If Apple Australia are looking for people to review it prior to release, I’m available. Although I would like to test the 64GB 3G version, if at all possible.)

MacWorld 2010: The Ultimate Survival Guide

So, the final day of the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, and after I've been hanging around here for the past three days, the question on everybody's lips is "Did MacWorld survive?" (Well, that and "Are you Andy Ihnatko?", "Where did you get that pastry?", and "Do you work here?")

They are, of course, talking about whether MacWorld has survived the absence of Apple, the move to February, and a severe downsizing in terms of exhibitors. Not whether MacWorld survived me hanging around here. At least I hope that's not what they mean. After all, it's not like any of these people actually know me, so they're probably not so judgmental.

My answer to the original question is "Probably". Sure, the show floor is much smaller than in previous years (so they tell me), and the absence of a really big product announcement seems to have taken some of the edge off, but it seems that the show is actually doing OK. Of course, you can't really tell much about the long term life expectancy until a) IDG get the numbers in, and b) we see who turns up next year. Many people may have turned up in the hope that it would still be worth attending, but decided it wasn't.

In fact, that may be reflected in the day-to-day attendance patterns. Thursday, the floor was fairly busy with people rushing in to find the latest iPhone case, or MacBook back up battery. There were some of those here, but not as many as at CES last month. The initial rush may have been why Friday and Saturday were quieter.There are, of course, considerations other than disappointment at the show floor. Kevin Smith gave his speech on Thursday, so there may have been a lot of people who just turned up for that, while the sort of crowd that would go to a Guy Kawasaki or Leo LaPorte event would probably turn up anyway. (I missed both, due to poor planning on my part. And I wasn't really interested in the Smith event.)

So, what was the show floor actually like? Well, it was small. With a lot of empty space. Which is a bad thing for a trade show. The organisers should have made sure there were no empty spaces by shuffling around the exhibitors, and putting in more seating space, because as it was the show looked like a whole bunch of people didn't turn up. The show didn't even take up all the space in the North Hall, so around the actual exhibition there was even more empty space.

So, in short, the organisers need to make it at least look like they're using all of the space. Some empty space around the outside is OK, but it was almost as much as the actual show floor. If they'd enlarged the central stage area, and the music "studio", included a larger seating area for the cafe...anyway, they could have made better use of the space.

Another thing I found annoying was the iPhone app show guide. As with the CES one, it wasn't really as useful as it might have been. The map was too small, and the app too sluggish to make zooming in worthwhile. And given the size of the floor, it was just easier to navigate by feel. What really needs to happen, is that someone needs to set up infrastructure to give triangulated location information to the app. Probably only need a bunch of off-the-shelf WiFi repeaters, and location information stored for the MAC addresses. (Getting the precision down would probably take some work, but it ought to be doable. Someone write the software, and give me a cut.) The point is, that this would make these iPhone (or Android, or whatever) guides useful in so many ways that they aren't now.

Another issue, to my mind, is cost. The conference tracks are about typical for this kind of thing - about US$295 for one of the light tracks, to US$1295 for the full access - which is actually a bit too steep for your average user. Even the show floor cost of US$45 is kind of steep for the casual attendee. Especially when you consider that it's easy to get in for free, if you know in advance that you're going. Obviously you can't make it free for people to walk in, and make those that are planning in advance pay. That would be stupid. But, perhaps you could provide a single-day registration at a lower cost (more than US$15 would be too much, so that might mean rethinking the US$45 for all three).

Another serious consideration should be whether to continue to call it "MacWorld". Increasingly, especially with the departure of Apple, the main focus is on the iPod and iPhone. And even the iPad (Targus had cases, Gelaskin had transfers, etc...). Apple's product focus is shifting from the Mac, and it seems the show, particularly without Apple's presence, is increasingly about the iPhone/Pod/Pad. Maybe it should be "AppleWorld". Maybe it should become "iWorld". Maybe it should stay "MacWorld", but I think it needs to be discussed. Maybe it has. I don't know, it's not like they call me about these things.

So, what was at MacWorld? Well, the big new market seems to be gloves that let you use your iPhone/Pod Touch/Pad without getting cold fingers. This is apparently an issue, with people in South Korea even using sausages to operate their devices without taking their gloves off. So expect more of those. And decals to stick on your device are still common, with one company providing software to let you cover your iPhone in such a way that the picture is continuous from the cover to the desktop image. Headphones were also big. Shure and Sennheiser seemed to have the two largest booths, with only Targus and Western Digital really competing.

In terms of software, the big word was..."iPhone", oddly enough. There were a lot of small companies with one or two iPhone apps being demonstrated. The Mac software seemed restricted to Microsoft (selling Office), IBM, Rogue Amoeba, and one or two others.

So what of the long-tern survival of MacWorld? Well it has at least one year left in it. Apart from the banners proclaiming next year's show in the last week of January (better for me, at least), the release of the iPad should mean an influx of content creators, including (potentially) book publishers. Now, I wouldn't expect too many of the big names, but it could provide an opportunity for smaller publishing houses to market their books directly to the consumers.

Anyway, this probably won't be the last MacWorld, and hopefully won't be the second last either. But if they want to continue to be a social hub for MacUsers, they may need to look at the pricing of the conference tracks, or at least access to the show floor.


Unspecified Apple Product Announcement Pre-Report

We here at the department of pre-announcement, well...OK, I'm actually going to be travelling during Steve's big announcement tomorrow, so I thought I'd get in early with what I think or maybe hope will happen.

Everybody is talking about Apple's big event tomorrow, with most people concentrating on the announcement of the rumoured tablet device, allegedly an iPhone with a 10 inch screen. Some of the speculation seems grounded in credible reports from content partners about negotiations with Apple, while much of it seems to be people making stuff up on the spot. (Hell, that's how I do most of my analysis. It's not like anyone pays me for it anyway.)

Anyway, at this stage I'm really hoping that Steve has something else up the mock-turtleneck's sleeve (had to make a reference to that, didn't I?) that not only isn't a tablet, but that will make people forget about tablets as an entire product class. This is mostly because of the wild speculation about a tablet device. It's like I feel at this point it would be a let down.

Whatever it is, we can be sure that other vendors will be trying to match it. Arguably, this started already with the launch of numerous tablet PCs at (and around) CES. Apple has moved from setting trends in the industry with its products, to setting trends in the industry with wild rumours about products that not only haven't been announced, but that cannot actually be verified as existing in the first place.

Let's face it, there have been no credible pictures, no leaks with details specific enough to be believable (hearing vague statements about Steve's feelings on the product hardly count, no matter how many times you hear them from how many different sources). Now, Apple have been cracking down on their leak problem, but still, we had much better information on each of the iPhone versions by this time before the launch. Where are the blank forms for the accessory manufacturers? Where are the photos smuggled off the assembly line in China? Even people who swear blind to have held one in their hands provide us with conflicting reports, and none of them have pictures to back them up.

"The greatest trick Apple ever pulled, was convincing the world the tablet didn't exist..."

One source of wild speculation has been "sightings" by analytics firm Flurry of 50 iPhone OS 3.2 devices that don't leave the Cupertino campus. The only thing they know for sure is that they stay on campus, and they don't report as iPhones. Therefore, they must be a tablet, right?

Well, Apple have been known to run their OS on non-Apple hardware in the past as a proof of concept. Project "Star Trek" (Where no Mac has gone before) was one in a series of projects to run Mac OS on Intel hardware long before they moved to the Intel platform. It's a way Apple makes sure that, if necessary, they can make major changes in architecture quickly and seamlessly. This raises another possibility for the 3.2 devices Flurry have detected. Who is to say that they haven't ported the iPhone OS to a number of other platforms, such as the Droid, the Palm Pre, the Nexus One, or even the Blackberry, just to show they can? After all, wouldn't it make more sense to have a new tablet device running iPhone OS 4.0?

Of course, that doesn't explain what Steve is going to announce tomorrow. MacPaint X? Socks for the iPhone 3GS? The Apple HiFi 2? Any of these will be a complete letdown, of course. Everyone wants a tablet. Anything less than a tablet will be derided as a failure. Even if it runs on sunspots, and reverses climate change.

There is another possibility, that frankly troubles me. It may turn out that, as many have suspected for sometime, Steve Jobs is a Super-Villain. And tomorrow's announcement is where he will reveal his plans for world domination. And, after talking about Apple's performance, and how many iPhone Apps have been sold this week, there will be one more thing. And Steve will put on the gas mask...

The incredibly late CES report, sort of...

I started this on the first day of CES, got halfway through, stopped. Typed out an update on my iPhone that got lost in the æther somewhere over Las Vegas, and have finally got back to it while killing time at the airport on my way out of town, almost a week later.

So what was at CES this year?

There were three things everyone seemed excited about. 3D TV, eBook readers, and "Slate" PCs. I didn't get much of a look at these last two, and only really got around to the first on the last day or so.

Everybody had a 3D television of some sort. Polarising filters seemed to be the most common way of viewing it. Intel did have one that allegedly didn't need glasses, but you had to stand at the right distance, directly in line with the centre of the screen, so it wasn't the greatest experience. Their other offering, directly underneath it, did require polarised glasses, but ha a similarly restrictive field of view. Stand off to the side, and the effect stopped working, the two images separated, and I felt queasy. (I was admonished for doing this by one of the Intel people, as if trying to watch TV from any angle other than dead on at exactly 8 feet was ludicrous.)

With the 3D TVs, I did a couple of basic tests. Apart from moving from one side to the other to see how wide the viewing range was, I also tried watching with my head on one side, and with the glasses upside down. In most cases, this continued to provide an adequate 3D experience, but I did notice that in most instances, everything looked like it was projected onto stage flats arranged in discrete layers.

With one notable exception. JVC were demonstrating a system in which a polarising film was laid on the screen by hand, so that the left eye saw even rows, and the right odd rows. (This may be how other systems worked as well, but no-one explained it to me except at the JVC stand.) The 3D effect was much more striking than on other screens. This may have been the result of carefully selected demonstration material, but it does show something that they put the effort in to produce a decent demo. They also had 2D content being re-rendered (albeit somewhat passively) into 3D for display. This was also impressive, and showed how you might be able to make 3D work.

In terms of "Slates" and eReaders, the influence of Apple was everywhere. Everyone seemed to be jumping in on the bandwagon, when the supposed band leader hasn't even thought about picking up the baton. Apple are still yet to announce the alleged "iSlate", but this didn't stop Steve Ballmer from demonstrating an HP "Slate" PC in his keynote, and numerous other manufacturers presenting their interpretation. Most interesting seemed to be the Lenovo IdeaPad, in which the screen detaches from a standard enough Windows notebook to become a Linux tablet. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to look at one, despite it being exactly the sort of thing I should be reporting on back at work.

eReaders were also apparent everywhere, although the main problem seems to be the lack of consistency in the infrastructure supporting them. I need to be able to buy my books from any store and read it on any reader, much in the same way people have talked about music for some years now. What's likely to happen is, as with music, Apple (if they announce anything) will have their infrastructure that will quickly dominate, while Amazon will remain popular with the more savvy users.

Anyway, what were my picks of CES? (Everyone seems to be doing it, so why not me?)

Well, first of all, I'd like to acknowledge the USB Star Trek (TOS) Communicator shaped Skype handset. Fully licensed, and retails for about US$50. Being licensed puts it ahead of the X-Wing shaped Remote Control 4-fan helicopter being sold by one guy in a stall in the lower rent booths. It was impressive, but as has been noted on other blogs, likely to be sued out of existence shortly. Anyway, everyone was more excited about the iPhone/iPod Touch controlled ADR Drone, which used a similar fan configuration, but had the advantage of being easily controlled using a Multitouch Apple device.

The most impressive, to me at any rate, stand was the Miniwiz Sed stand. Aside from an interesting collapsible bicycle with a hub-generator and USB charging ports (available with mounts for BlackBerry or iPhone, or even GPS), and a selection of solar and/or wind powered device rechargers, they had a temporary wall made from their own components. Basically, each cell of the wall is a 2 litre cylindrical bottle made from recycled plastic bottles, and with an optional bottlecap mounted LED lighting system, that can be hooked up in series to provide illumination. While I generally have no use for such things, the design is impressive, and deserves to be considered for temporary structures, such as, for example, Convention booths.

Anyway, that's about all. Next I may well type up my tips on attending a convention like CES, if only for my own reference. I don't know if I'll be back next year. Maybe if I can get enough views on this blog to qualify for a Blogger or Press pass so I can get in when it's quieter.