Entries in Apple (3)


Back to the Mac

So Apple had their big announcement yesterday, and I caught bits of it sitting in a Starbucks in Oxford Street, London. (I should have stayed in the hotel, I would have had better connectivity.)

 I haven’t really had time to go over everything, since I couldn’t watch the whole presentation yet, and have mostly been going from the commentary, but here are some thoughts about the whole thing.

 The key piece of “Back to the Mac” seems to have been that they were taking things learned from the development of iOS and implementing them in MacOS. This has led to (further) speculation that MacOS is on the way out, to be replaced with iOS on all the desktop platforms as well as portable devices, but such an idea seems ridiculous.

 Essentially, iOS and MacOS are designed to do quite different things. As such, while there are opportunities to replicate features from one platform to another, there will always be a need for a desktop OS to be more full featured, and for a phone OS to be simpler and more efficient. (This has been Microsoft’s historic problem with Windows CE/Pocket PC/Windows Mobile/Windows Phone Mobile Series. They tried to make it look exactly like the full Windows OS, assuming people wanted familiarity over ease of use. I haven’t seen Windows Phone 7 etc, so I don’t know if they’ve fixed this problem.)

 The different requirements and constraints of desktop and mobile platforms are also good arguments against a touchscreen desktop or notebook. There are some very niche uses for such a device, but these are outweighed by the problems. “Gorilla arm” has been recognised as a problem since the first attempts at touchscreen computers. On a small, portable device, however, it’s an extremely good solution to a set of problems. Basically, touch is really useful in a situation where you can’t have a keyboard or pointing device. The situations in which this arises with an actual PC are limited. Those touchscreen information booths in shopping malls and the like are the main one, but those have a very limited usage requirement. Some have suggested that a “kitchen PC” (IE a computer used in the kitchen or somewhere else where counter space and free hands are at a premium) would be a good use of touch. This may be, but despite some tech journalists I don’t see this being a big market.

 Of course, Steve mentioned, at least in passing, that they weren’t going to do a touchscreen computer, and yet that hasn’t stopped speculation that they will do it at some point. I don’t see why they would, myself, nor do I feel a great need for it.

 Since the presentation, I have managed to get hands on a MacBook Air at the Apple Store in Regent Street. Apart from being confused by the keyboard configuration, which turned out to be standard for UK keyboards, they are neat little machines. I’m not sure I’ll buy one, I’ll probably upgrade to a 13 inch MacBook Pro if/when they upgrade the processors to i3, but they are tempting.

 I haven’t had a chance to look at iLife or iWork 11 yet. Buying a copy of iLife while in the UK may lead to licensing problems, and it would be yet more stuff I’d have to get home somehow. I have had a chance to look at the beta of Facetime for the Mac, but haven’t been able to use it at all. The security problem seems typical of a beta release, and has allegedly been fixed already, but I tend not to leave my computer unattended in cafes.

 Finally, let me just make a couple of comments about the release of Windows Phone 7. I haven’t seen it myself, nor did I see the apparently awkward early morning release party. I have to say that I’m still surprised that Microsoft have released a phone OS that doesn’t do Flash, or have Copy and Paste (unless they fixed that) and not get the same level of bollocking that Apple did. Maybe it’s just happening on forums that I don’t frequent, or podcasts I don’t listen to. There has been some criticism, but not the same extent. 

Anyway, as I have mentioned earlier, I hope they succeed in some way. Preferably in a way that results in them having a decent product, as opposed to previous versions of Windows Mobile.


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, CES, VMWare Fusion, and Windows 7

Of course, the big news this week has been the two huge tradeshows. The last Apple attended Macworld, and the first post-Gates CES. The big question is: Was the Phil-note better than the Monkeynote?

In previous years, I have attempted to watch both the Steve-note and the Bill Gates Keynote. Usually, the difference was clear. Steve has on-stage presence which Bill doesn't. Plus, in 2007, everyone was agog over the iPhone, while watching Bill demonstrate a Windows Bus Stop was hardly thrilling. (It's a bus stop! And it runs Windows!)

I dare say if Steve had given the keynote at Macworld, he would have clearly given a better presentation than Ballmer could hope to. (Or is that my bias showing? Maybe it is.) But it was not to be a battle of the Steves. Perhaps Steve was worried about being compared to Monkey-boy. Maybe he felt that Apple didn't have the product to compare with news on Windows 7. Or perhaps he was, as they said, ill and just not up to it this week. (Although, in a bit over a week I expect to see him on stage at Cupertino. Probably wanted to conserve his strength.)

Anyway, I haven't actually watched either keynote (although I have seen the edited highlights), and I will thus reserve final judgement until I finally get around to it. I'm in no rush. I often feel that you should actually be at a keynote, or at least watching live to make it worthwhile. If it's actually going to be worthwhile. I regret I will never have been to a live Steve-note, and will never get the chance now (unless I maybe get to WWDC, but I'm not actually a developer, so not much point in spending the money).

Anyway, what I did do as a direct result of the announcement at one of the keynotes, was download a copy of VMWare Fusion and install the Windows 7 beta on my iMac. As an IT Professional, I have some experience installing copies of Windows on PCs, even Virtual PCs. I have to say that Microsoft have been (slowly) getting better at the OS install process. Windows 95 was horrid. You had to sit there and constantly reassure it and pick things from menus, then wait for it to fall over, reboot and recover. (Well, we did because of a hardware issue with our PCs, but it was still a pain.) XP wasn't nearly as bad. (I don't remember 2000 much, and never had anything to do with 98 or ME.) It seemed with XP they'd finally realised that you could collect all the information up front, then let the user go away for a bit. Plus we started using disk images to deploy instead of having to run Setup every time.

The Windows 7 install, as it now stands, seems to be fairly straightforward. It possibly ran slower than normal since I was installing on a virtual machine with limited resources, but it ran without much interference on my part. And what I've seen of it so far looks to be an improvement on Vista.

Anyway, it's getting late, and I need to work in the morning. I wish to examine the whole Windows upgrade paths and installation issues thing further. Maybe I'll remember to do that soon-ish.