Sunday, December 02, 2007

E-book readers: they look good on paper

There's been some talk about Amazon's new Kindle e-book reader being the "iPod of books." This analogy might be cute and catchy, but it's deeply flawed, and wishful thinking at best.

First, being the iPod of books is a very ambitious undertaking. Much more so than being the iPod of music. Here's why:

  1. With the iPod, the content that the device was built for is music. The display is only an organizer for it. The actual presentation of the content is audio playback. With an e-book reader, however, the display has to serve not only as an organizer, but also as the actual presentation canvas for the content itself. And that's hard, because
  2. electric devices have been able to play back music for decades. Most users were already satisfied with the sound quality of existing MP3 players even before the iPod debuted, so Apple's device didn't need to achieve a technological breakthrough in its core competence of music playback. However, no electric device exists today that could "play back" a book or a newspaper at an acceptable quality. Therefore, a successful e-book reader will need to break new ground.
  3. Listening is passive, while reading is active. Listening to a song only requires you to push the play button, and the rest will just happen to you. However, reading a book requires constant and conscious interaction: not just scanning the text with your eyeballs, but also physically navigating the book by turning pages.* A device for reading has to facilitate that as well in a very humane and user-friendly way, not to mention providing additional functionality such as annotation features**.
*What if an e-book reader could automatically scroll, tracking your eyeballs?

**This blog post of mine is serving me as a great lesson about procrastination. I've been working on it for over a week, and in the meantime, several other web authors have posted their opinions, which are in some cases very similar to mine. Ars Technica's John Stokes, for example, mentions annotation features, as well as several other points I also visit.

The Muzak of Books

But there's more on the iPod analogy front. The music you hear on an iPod is comparable to what you hear on your stereo. Sure, the quality is certainly not the same as on a high-end device, but it's is acceptable for the vast majority of users, most of whom would be hard-pressed to tell much of the difference anyway.

However, just imagine, for a moment, an iPod that could only play a MIDI version of any song. You would hear your favorite songs arranged for generic software instruments, and some machine voice would do all the vocals.

Would this device be a hit? Would you buy it?

I'm asking because this is more or less what Kindle, or any other e-book solution on the market today, does. What it presents is nothing but the MIDI version of a book. Layout is generated on the fly, using a generic font. Sure, the original words are kept, just like the original notes in a MIDI version of a song. But yet it's not the same song, and it's not the same book. It's the Muzak version of a book. It looks more like a webpage. Compared to the real thing, it's an abomination.

Readers want the real thing; the book as it has been designed and laid out by design professionals.

Sure, Muzak has its place in elevators and public toilets, but it's not the music you love, it's not what inspires your kids to write fan mail. And the same way, Kindle is perfectly suitable for reading an end-user license agreement or a shopping list – but not something you care about, not something you grow attached to.

A book reader? That's me!

And finally, there's a third thing. Your iPod does not equal to the music on it. The two are very separate things. An iPod is just the device that plays your music. The music is something you cannot touch, wherever it's coming from. A band, a stereo, a clock radio, an iPod: these are sources of music, you never think of them as the music itself. You don't even think of a CD as the music itself: it's just a recording that you have to get music out of by playing it in some device.

It's not that I have a penchant for stating the obvious, but this is a very important difference between music and books. Books have a physical representation that music or films lack: they are objects. The volume that you hold in you hand isn't a "source of book," or a "book recording" that you have to "play back." Nope. It's the book itself. It's a thing.* You need eyes and hands to read it, no other devices are necessary.

*Again, someone else has said it better as I was plugging away with this post. Damn.

Envisioning a device that will one day complement, substitute and perhaps even replace paper-based books, and calling it an "e-book reader" is a mistake. If such a device is to emerge, it won't be "playing back" a book: it will have to be the book.

I picture a featureless, lightweight, white or semitransparent, sublime-looking object, about the weight, size and shape of a book. Its surface would appear to be paper-like, with text and images apparently printed on it: it would show a page from a book. (Or maybe a spread. I know that there would be some serious and hard design decisions to be made, like how to accommodate oversized layouts such as a newspaper's.)

Looking at this thing from a distance, you could even mistake it for some high-tech version of a book. Not a reader: you're the reader. It's the book.

You would turn pages by imitating page-turning gestures on its touch-sensitive surface. You could flick it by manipulating its side. It would need to accommodate loads of other familiar gestures, in order to make you feel like you're reading a book (like, half-turning a page to see what's behind it, then turning it back). And the whole thing would need to bring you as much as possible of the whole book experience, such as layout, design, typography, look and feel, and even as many as humanly possible of these partly tongue-in-cheek, yet entirely perfectly valid points.

Maybe the world isn't ready for such a device. Not in the "world's not ready for Vista" sense, but simply because the hardware needed for such a device isn't feasible yet.

Of course, this thing will happen one day. Maybe it will work through directly stimulating parts of your brain to give you a complex multisensory illusion of reading a book, and you shouldn't expect it before 2100. Maybe it will happen next year. But it will be there.

We need to save trees. We need to simplify logistics. We need more interactivity: spoilt by the web experience, how many times did you wish you had hyperlinks or search boxes in a book or newspaper you were reading?

A real-world need

Two years ago, I left my home country. Among various other changes, I'm no longer able to read my favorite newspaper as it's not available where I live now.

Even though it's the year 2007, there's still no technology out there that could help me out. And no, Kindle won't be the answer either.

Back in the days, I would drive to work for an afternoon shift, and I'd make a stop at a drive-in restaurant for an early afternoon breakfast. I would buy my favorite paper, fold it out in front of me, and read it while eating.

I would look at the front page, and see what's above and below the fold. I would look at the teasers, the headlines, the subheads, the captions; the different fonts and typefaces, the weighing of contents by the size and position attributed to them by the editors and designers.

I would subconsciously use the placement of photos, the clever typographic solutions, and all the other subtle ways of presenting all the information and meta-information, to choose which stories I would read, and in what order. To this day, I can recall some of the stories the paper broke years ago, and my recollections are always complete with the entire layout, not just the words and the pictures.

After looking at the front page, I would go in. As I'd turn the pages, some familiarly distinct features would appear, making sure both that I feel at home and that I can find my way.

For instance, there was be the opinion page, one of my favorites. One big editorial, serious in tone, set in boldface (a bit of an assault on readability, but still, I'd grown to like it). A short, rather caustic opinion piece, in a larger font, set in italics. A small box with a short scathing op-ed always by the same guy, day in, day out. And in the center of the page, a large essay on some controversial issue, with an attention-grabbing pull quote: something I was almost certain to read every day.

When I moved halfway across Europe, I was looking for ways to keep reading that paper (which was not available on newsstands in my new adopted home). A subscription was out of the question: both the expense and the delay would have been forbidding.

So I subscribed online. I was looking for the same experience, or at least something similar. But it wasn't meant to be.

It's not just that I was unable to take my subscription to a restaurant. It's not just that I was confined to a computer for reading. All I could access was a page with a list of headlines. I could click on each, and the text would appear in my browser. As would the photos. I could also search, and get yet more clickable lists.

That was it. No layout, no design, no presentation. Just the words and the pictures. It was a website, except that the stories were not written for the web. They were cut and pasted from the paper. It was less than a website, and much less than a newspaper. It united the disadvangates of both.

I despised it and canceled after a few weeks.

Apparently, whoever was in charge of the online version thought that content was the only thing that mattered, where content would equal all the words and the pictures. According to this belief, when you buy a paper, you pay for words and pictures, and that's it. Today's newspapers place these things tediously on pages, requiring a lot of human effort, but that's only because a printed page has a limited capacity, and working with this limitation is hard. In a better, more advanced world, there will be no more paper, therefore there will be no need for laboriously placing the contents on these things called "pages." You would just present a table of contents, and the contents themselves, which are free to flow without any spatial limitation.

Therefore, a newspaper or a book would be just like a webpage, and all you'd do is search, click, and then scroll, scroll, scroll and scroll as you read.

Welcome to the brave new world. Luckily, this will never happen. Anyone who thinks that a newspaper, a magazine, a book, or basically anything that gets printed, is nothing but a sum of its words and pictures is seriously, sadly mistaken, and will not be the driving force behind a successfull e-book concept.

Anyone who doesn't know the vast, incredible importance of layout and presentation simply doesn't get publishing, period.

Anyone who gets publishing knows that an online HTML version of any print publication is not an equivalent of the original.

Apparently, Jeff Bezos doesn't get publishing. He's good at selling books and other things. He's a salesman. He may even be a sales visionary. But that's it.

An acceptable presentation of a book or a newspaper in an electric solution means that it has to look very close to the real thing. It has to make you forget that you're looking at a gadget.

Apple's chance

Currently, the only company that seems to even come close to "getting" things like these is Apple. In addition to its obvious lead in user interface design, its famous dedication to any design, and very specifically, typography, is a clear indication. Remember, the Mac was the device that kick-started desktop publishing in the eighties.

I think, or rather, I hope, that Apple will introduce a device to top Kindle, turning Amazon's attempt into the kind of roadkill that litters the technology highways. Kind of like the iPod did to the likes of the Archos Jukebox.

Three years ago, based on the success of the iPod, I thought Apple could probably be the one company to pull it off.

Now, in 2007, Apple has unveiled Multi-Touch, as well as an embedded version of OS X. If e-books are going to be more than a blip on the radar any time soon, they will be courtesy of Apple, not Amazon.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kindle: damn, they stole my idea. Here's my mail to Steve Jobs from 2004

Naive as I was, I sent the following e-mail to Steve Jobs back in 2004.
Needless to say, he never wrote back.

Dear Steve,

Here's a product/service idea I think Apple could pull off pretty decently.

We all hope that one day lots of trees will be spared by switching from paper to a digital alternative. Yet it's not happening. E-book readers crash and burn. People insist on real books and newspapers, and it seems to be an emotional thing.

Or is it? I think it's just that current devices suck. Apple could, once again, show the world how it's done, and make it a hit.

Here's what I think it needs.

(1) A reader (let's call it an iPad for now) needs to resemble a book. It should look non-technical, white, matte, and just beg to be read like a book. (Most of this is a display thing.)

(2) Once iPad resembles a book (breaking users' resistence), people will see incredible benefits. How about "A thousand volumes in your hands?" Readers easily navigate through book collections, take notes, use bookmarks, etc. (Touch-screen technology and on-screen keyboards should be considered. Miniaturization isn't such a big issue here.)

(3) PDF should be to the iPad what MP3 is to the iPod. Transferring these files for immediate access needs to be a breeze. One hidden benefit: users will stop printing long documents that they'd only read once (like software tutorials). People hate reading on computer screens – this should be a hardcopy replacement, not a computer replacement.

(4) Apple has good enough reputation in the contents business to launch an e-bookstore and get large publishers on board. If this catches on, it can be an even bigger cost saver than AAC vs CD. Not to mention periodicals like dailies that face stiff competition from the Web: they could fight back this way. DRM is needed, natch.

(5) You may want to take the computer partly out of the equation. Introduce a small, cheap flash-RAM dongle that retails free of charge as a supplement to books -- or is sold separately. It contains a DRM-protected copy of the book, and it plugs right into the iPad. You can read it while it's plugged (no piracy). Think about buying newspapers at the newsstands like this, on 1" by 1" cards! Quite revolutionary, saving huge printing costs and time.

That's it. If I got you started, I'll gratefully accept donations.

All the best,

András Puiz


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Maybe this iPhone will be an U.S. thing after all?

Despite all the hype, the response to the iPhone in Europe isn't nearly like it was in the U.S. Is T-Mobile happy with 10 thousand units sold in Germany on the first day?!

I hope Apple knows, but Europe is a different market. Mobile telephony was born here. There are several service providers, with competitive plans. People here live and breathe cellphones. They unlock phones. And there is a huge choice of devices. Oh, and the iPhone plans are horribly expensive.

Also, saying that the iPod doesn't enjoy a monopoly like in the U.S. (arguably an important factor in the iPhone's success) would be a huge understatement. The iPod's market share in Germany "hit a high" of around 28% in 2007: nowhere close to U.S. figures.

I wonder if Apple wants the iPhone to be a rock star in Europe, or just a device with respectable sales. In the former case, the company may soon be forced to go back to the drawing board and rethink its European iPhone strategy.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Behind the rumors: is it an iPhone Pro, or a Mac touch?

According to recent rumors, "Asus is helping Apple build a Tablet PC." This comes only a few weeks after a rumor suggesting the return of the Newton handheld computer.

I strongly believe that (a) a new device is coming indeed, and (b) it will sport a MultiTouch interface.

But is it going to be an extended iPod touch/iPhone, or will it be a modified Mac? I think both are possible. Here's what I think about these two (not mutually exclusive) scenarios.

Mac touch

Tablet PCs have failed only because they were horrendously badly executed, and were saddled with ridiculous ideas. No usable keyboard? Why the hell would anyone want to interact with a computer via handwriting? Isn't typing demonstrably faster? Hello?

That doesn't mean, however, that a tablet PC is inherently a bad idea. On the contrary: at worst, eliminating a physical keyboard could easily save space and cost, ushering in a new class of unexpensive, miniaturized PCs. At best, a new set of thoughful metaphors could emerge, with several advantages over traditional input mechanisms.

The iPhone has shown us all that Apple gets it. The iPhone interface features direct manipulation metaphors that arguably beat everything else out there, including the mouse and the trackball. It can also simulate a keyboard, though the lack of physical feedback is a disadvantage. (Apple may be working on a solution there: I sure hope they are.)

How difficult would it be for Apple to modify Mac OS X in order to accommodate a MultiTouch user interface, complete with a usable onscreen keyboard? A stylus would probably be included for precision work, but most tasks could be achieved using your fingers. Just imagine your daily work on a Mac, and imagine using your fingers instead of the mouse: I'm hard-pressed to find anything that would no longer be doable. (Things like right-clicking would need clever substitutes, though.)

It can be argued whether or not "direct manipulation" of objects on the screen would be better than using a pointing device on a different surface. However, some new metaphors, borrowed from the iPhone and from trackpads of Apple's laptops, could definitely provide a superior experience. Think about two-finger scrolling, page-turning gestures, or the zooming "pinch": these certainly beat scroll arrows or "next page" buttons. And yet further multi-finger gestures could be born, something that no mouse could ever accommodate. (And besides, even single-finger gestures are much easier and more natural than their mouse equivalents: operating a mouse is not that easy; we've just all gotten used to it.)

Specs: If Apple believes the "Mac touch" to be a potentially superior device, one that would one day supplant both the desktop and the notebook form factors, shipping large and powerful configurations would make a lot of sense. If Apple only views the "touch" as a companion device, whose main selling point is its miniaturization, then obviously, we're only talking about smaller configurations. Maybe there would be a "Pro" class, even, featuring different storage and size options.

There's a minimum screen size below which the device would be hard to use; thus I don't think we would see a Mac touch with a screen smaller than 8" or maybe even 10". Larger configurations could be just about any size, even 20", though I would be surprised if Apple actually shipped such a huge Mac touch at the device's debut.

The small version(s) would definitely represent a breakthrough in miniaturization, so it's questionable whether they would even feature optical drives. I imagine a very thin form factor, dominated by a huge screen, one or two buttons, speakers, a microphone, and Bluetooth, WiFi, Ethernet, USB and FireWire interfaces. It would definitely use batteries. As for internal storage, smaller models could avoid hard disks and use flash memory; a larger (Pro?) family could perhaps use both (as well as an optical drive).

Pros*: Compatible with existing Mac; full-featured; no need for Apple to port OS or apps
Cons*: Form factor too large for some uses; no real breakthrough in miniaturization; probably costly

iPhone Pro/Newton

I've always yearned for a time when miniaturization would endow a handheld device with the full functionality of a computer. Then I realized that it's not as simple as that. In order to be successful and usable, a tiny computer needs a different, well thought out user interface – it can't just run the OS of its full-sized siblings.

This is why I was so ecstatic about the birth of a new platform this January. Apple's handheld OS X and other related technologies have proven themselves to work beautifully, and they are bound to make their way into other products. Since then, they have already given birth to the iPod touch: a somewhat premature development in my opinion, but a necessary one to keep the freshness of the iPod brand (I'd wager heavily that most iPod sales come from the nano and maybe the classic.)

What if Apple were to release a similar, though somewhat larger device, one that could function as a supercharged PDA and/or a stripped-down Mac?

After all, most of the work is already done. The technology is there, all Apple needs to do is build a larger device, write some additional apps (or port some existing apps over to it), and voilà: there's your new Newton, powered by iPhone technologies (perhaps without the phone part, though)!

As an aside: I'm relieved that my iPhone predictions are turning out to be overly pessimistic in light of the SDK that Apple announced. We still don't know from Steve Jobs' musings how open the platform is going to get, or how smart Apple itself is going to make the phone – will it sprout a clipboard any time soon, for example –, but at least, the phone will further tap into the huge potential of having OS X running on a handheld device. However, I'm still not sure if the iPhone will ever be intended to become a true PDA or handheld computer. I think Apple will strive to keep simplicity as one of its main virtues. So, there may be room for a more powerful iPhone-like device in Apple's product matrix.

Specs: This would be a handheld device, though a somewhat larger one than the iPhone. It would expand on the capabilities and features of the iPhone – or of the iPod touch. (It's a good question whether it would double as a cellphone: such a functionality would certainly be welcome, especially for internet access, but having to commit to a monthly plan would also turn away some potential users. Maybe two versions would emerge, one with, and one without a phone.)

It would probably ship with enhanced versions of iPhone apps, as well as additional ones written by Apple. All in all, it would be a new-ish platform; an evolutionary development over the iPhone, but perhaps consummating the revoution it started.

Bluetooth, WiFi, flash memory would be a given, anything else (Ethernet, USB, etc.) could be anyone's guess.

Pros*: Smaller form factor; possible cellphone functionality; potentially lower price
Cons*: Incompatible with Mac software; still not a full-blown computer; yet another platform for Apple to support, and for third parties to develop for

* Pros and cons: a comparison between the two speculative scenarios.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Leopard's Stacks renders Dock even more useless

It's obvious by now that the Dock is Steve's pet feature, otherwise such a usability nightmare would have been scrapped long ago. Yeah, I've kind of gotten used to it, but still: it's awful.

It fails most prominently as an application launcher. First of all, it can only hold a handful of your apps. If you add too many, they will be too tiny to be practical.

Second, this is clearly the case when a word is worth a thousand pictures. If I look for Photoshop, I want to find it under "P," not "next to the icon with the QuickTime logo, not far from the stamp icon." You can alphabeticize names. You cannot put icons in any meaningful order. So every time I look for an app in the Dock, I waste several seconds, and grow just a bit more frustrated.

Luckily, there is (or rather, was) a solution. I put my Applications folder in the Dock. I click on it, and up pops the entire hierarchical list of all my apps. This is such a great shortcut that I cannot live without it.

In fact, every time I sit down to anyone's Mac, I make sure to put the Applications folder in their Dock. That's the only way I can even begin to work. After I'm done, I leave it there. Nobody complains.

It should be there by default.

Shockingly, Apple is disabling this functionality. According to David Pogue:

I'm not totally sold on the Stacks feature. That's where you click a folder icon on your Dock, and rather than a complete menu of the folder's contents, you get a fan or a grid that shows an array of the actual icons inside. Trouble is, if there are more than 24 items in that folder (depending on your screen size), you get only a partial list. To see the rest of the contents, you have to click the icon that says, "35 more in Finder," which opens that folder's actual desktop window.

There's no way to make the Dock show the complete list of folder contents anymore; nor can you stick your hard drive's icon in the Dock and have complete, drill-down, hierarchical access to your entire computer, as you could before.

Wow. I didn't see this one coming.

This can very easily be a dealbreaker for me. I'm not joking.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Apple, Jobs developing new, human side?

Ever since the return of Steve Jobs, Apple hasn't been about faces. Withe the exception of Apple's media events where Jobs, Phil Schiller, the occasional product manager or VP would take the stage, Apple's people have been mostly hiding in shadows.

When you interact with Apple's web page, you don't interact with people. You read news items or carefully crafted PR, search databases, buy with 1-Click™, or, at best, interact with other users in the support forums. It's all cool and impersonal.

Even video introductions for products show screencasts, and feature professional voice actors.

Under Jobs' tenure, "About" boxes of Apple's software products stopped listing the names of individuals (perhaps for fear of making the jobs of headhunters too easy). Even O'Reilly's Learning Cocoa book was, somewhat ridiculously, written by "Apple Computer, Inc." Not by people.

But that trend has been changing lately. First, there was the iPhone guy. Then Steve Jobs started to blog. And now we have the Leopard guy.


Jobs has "blogged" on the following occasions so far: when he delivered his open letter to record industry executives; when he addressed criticism by environmentalists and envisioned a greener Apple; when he announced a rebate for early iPhone customers; and finally, when promising an iPhone SDK (no link available, the announcement is simply a text-only item in Apple's Hot News section).

The first "blog post" is unique in that Jobs expresses a personal opinion and attempts to influence decisions by executives of an industry by summoning the power of media. It isn't something a company or a CEO does routinely, it certainly isn't business as usual, thus its unusual format is understandable and warranted.

However, the other items could easily be replaced by traditional Apple press releases. They do not really contain anything special that would necessitate their unorthodox format. There doesn't seem to be anything inherently suggesting a need for personal communication from Steve Jobs in those messages. Yet Jobs has chosen to present them as personally signed pieces of communication.

Again, why?

Similarly, the two new faces Apple has attributed to its iPhone and Leopard products (without names, though) mark a strange departure. None of the demos we see from these two guys would suffer one small bit, none would be any less informative or useful if we saw no faces, only narrated screencasts and close-up shots.

Yet Apple has decided to add those faces.


Is it just some PR stunt that Apple's advisers have come up with?

Or is Apple maybe concerned that it's growing too big and scary? Is it adding a human touch in order to counterbalance a (perceived or real) mean streak in its operations? The buy-me-twice ringtones, the options scandal, the monopoly accusations?

Or is Steve Jobs simply growing more vain, mellow or sentimental with age? Does he maybe think more and more about his image, his perception – maybe his legacy?

By the way. Did you notice how that Leopard guy really looks and sounds like Steve Jobs doing a keynote? By the time he talks about Quick Look, his voice could be mistaken for Steve's. He could be nicknamed Steve Lite. It's almost spooky.

Maybe this is what Jobs means when he keeps talking about Apple's DNA.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Quo vadis, iPhone?

People all over the web are giving Apple hell for breaking unauthorized and unsupported third-party iPhone hacks with its 1.1 software update. There are two types of these hacks: ones enabling the iPhone to be used with any SIM card; and others which just let users install third-party apps on the device. The former directly hurt Apple and AT&T, therefore Apple is actively trying to prevent these hacks. The latter, however, don't do much harm, thus Apple doesn't go out of its way to break them. Break them it does, nevertheless, prompting liberation movements to spring up and demand the franchisement of the iPhone from the evil tyranny of Apple. What could be more ridiculous than that?

Some of these critics jump to the conclusion that Apple doesn't get the importance of third-party applications. Well, chance may have it that Apple doesn't plan to ever allow third-party apps on the iPhone, but we don't know that.

I'm more inclined to believe that Apple wants to do it right.

There's a common sentiment out there that accuses Apple of some sort of haughty elitism. Wil Shipley put it this way:

I know Steve Jobs; he's actually amazingly like my old business partner Mike Matas. They both love closed systems, for a simple reason -- they both know they're smarter than anyone else on the planet, and they don't need anyone else mucking up their systems. Steve would rather have no third parties for Mac OS X if he could get away with it -- Apple, of course, would do a much better job on anything, but since customers insist on Photoshop and Office and other apps, he puts up with them. (Well, except, now Apple has their own office suite.) Steve knows that on a computer, having a broad spectrum of apps is more important that having them all be Apple-perfect.

But on iPods, Airports, Apple TVs, and now iPhones, Apple wants every app perfect. Which is nice, in theory. In practice, it means innovation only happens at Apple's pace. The marketplace of ideas is much smaller, and the devices are much poorer because of it. (Example: Why can't I stream music from my iPhone or iPod touch to my Airport Express?)
Emphasis mine.

Now, we don't know if Apple plans to open up the iPhone for third-party developers. But Wil is right: Apple doesn't need anyone else mucking up its systems. Some of those unsupported, unofficial third-party hacks would do just that. Muck up the system.

If Apple opens up the iPhone for developers, making third-party apps official and a supported feature of the phone, it won't be able to afford to have those apps crash the phone.

Apps on a computer can crash, sure. We're used to that. There are about five ways to force a misbehaving Mac app to quit, and a crashed Mac up will leave the rest of your system intact.

But remember the days before Mac OS X? Remember the bomb?

Remeber when a crash could render your entire computer unusable?

Do you also remember what happened when your frontmost app got unresponsive? Basically, so did your Mac.

With the limited user interface of the iPhone, a misbehaving app can easily create the illusion of a misbehaving iPhone. How do you know that it's only Johnnie's Shareware Recipe Editor that froze, not your iPhone? Will you blame Johnnie's Shareware Garage, LLC, or Apple, Inc?

Besides, people are far less forgiving about a frozen phone than about a frozen computer. A phone is just a phone, even if it can double as a computer.

What next? Your car keys freezing? Your beer opener?

If Apple does plan to allow third-party apps, it needs to perform some magic that prevents the user from just about ever having an iPhone locked up by third-party software.

Perhaps a daemon should be running, monitoring every application's responsiveness, and returning to the home screen when the frontmost app is having problems? Add a status message that informs the user of this incident? Or should there be a well-advertised, sure-fire, and foolproof user action that never fails to quit a misbehaving app? These things would need to be sorted out.

And besides, Apple would need to isolate parts of the system from direct access by third parties. We know that the iPhone was completed on a tight deadline, remember why Leopard hasn't shipped yet? So, it's not unreasonable to think that its software still has some rough edges, and nobody other than Apple's engineers should really be playing with it for a while.

So even if third-party application development is in the iPhone's future, it's only reasonable to expect that it takes time to implement properly.

I think that, for the near future, iPhone development will consist of the following:

  1. Apple delivering significant and free software updates: Notice how Apple's subscription-based iPhone accounting suggests that the iPhone will have more features in the future courtesy of Apple.
  2. Hand-picked third parties delivering applications, either for free or for a small fee: think about Google Maps already on the iPhone, and iPod games that are sold via iTunes. The iPod is also a closed platform, but there's still some third-party development going on, closely controlled by Apple. There's nothing stopping Apple from doing just that. As they would get to "bless" any third-party app before it becomes available, Apple could maintain its strict quality standards for the phone. A rumor to this effect is already out.
  3. Web applications may transition into Widgets. Rumors already suggest that improvements to the WebKit framework are on their way, enabling "web applications" to be stored offline. What exactly separates an "offline web app" from a Widget? Not much, mostly the capability to run arbitrary code (including Cocoa Objective-C). I'm inclined to think that a Dashboard-like SDK may be a compromise between the needs of Apple and developers: a sandbox with limited access to iPhone features, but at least not something that runs on a server.
Unlimited, no-holds-barred third-party development could turn the iPhone into a PDA and more. It could turn the iPhone into a VoIP device, causing a loss of revenue for AT&T (and thus for Apple as well).

Apple's new software updates for the iPhone will certainly serve as an indication as to where Apple wants the device to be heading. The first software update has come and gone, and we still don't have a clipboard, making the iPhone basically useless for any text editing apart from typing out a quick e-mail. There's no user-accessible file system, no SSH client, no instant messaging, no editing capabilities for Microsoft Office documents. In other words, the iPhone is not a PDA, and it's definitely not targeted at enterprise users or geeks.

The iPhone may be the smartest phone ever made, but it's not a smartphone.

Does Apple even want to change that? I'm getting the impression that Apple wants the iPhone to be pretty much what it is today, and those of us who expect software updates to turn it into a device with a greatly expanded set of capabilities will be ultimately disappointed.

I hope to be wrong, but I think Apple wants the vast, almost unlimited potential of the embedded OS X operating system to remain largely unfulfilled on the iPhone.

If the rumors of the Newton's revival are true, then perhaps those of us waiting for an ultrasmart PDA from Apple should set our sights on this new mythical beast, and resign to the fact that the iPhone is, and will always be, a cellphone.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Fake Steve: has he still got it?

This stuff is just brilliant:

You let me know what time and what to wear. I'll be there in jeans and a black turtleneck, two hours late.
It's quotes like these that make me forget that Fake Steve has been exposed as some Forbes editor. Daniel Lyons is just brilliant, brilliant.

Something has been bothering me, though, ever since he revealed his true identity, and I haven't realized until recently what it was.

I thought Fake Steve was a thoroughbred, inveterate, dyed-in-the-wool Apple and Mac zealot, someone with a Steve Jobs fetish, and exceptional writing skills. Okay, it was incredibly naive of me to think that he wasn't an accomplished writer, that he was a natural. He is way too good for that.

But after the revelation, I felt that somehow part of the magic was lost. I haven't been able to pinpoint it for a long time, but now I know why.

Even though Lyons says that he's an Apple fan, it's this quote (same source) that's been bothering me:
Mr. Lyons said he invented the Fake Steve character last year, when a small group of chief executives turned bloggers attracted some media attention. He noticed that they rarely spoke candidly. “I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if a C.E.O. kept a blog that really told you what he thought? That was the gist of it.”

Mr. Lyons says he recalled trying out the voices of several chief executives before settling on the colorful Apple co-founder.
See? He's not obsessed with Steve Jobs or Apple. He could (and would) have chosen any other CEO.

When he extols the virtues of the iPhone, the Mac, or Apple's strategy with over-the-top exaggeration, his parody isn't self-ironic: it's merely surgically accurate.

My impression is that Fake Steve is less soul and more brains than I've believed.

Fake Steve was unavailable for comment.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Numbers rocks: how I forgot about the review and ended up doing my budget

Apple has made a trial version of the iWork suite available as a free download. Pretty smart move: the suite is relatively small (it fits on a CD), so this is a great way to get people test drive the latest version of this emerging little office suite. (Let me get back to the "office suite" part later.) You can buy an activation code online to unlock the trial version, so basically, Apple is distributing iWork '08 as shareware. Cool.

I've put Keynote and Pages through their paces, and they're OK. But what I've been most interested in was Numbers. Why? Here's a list why:

  1. It's new. Duh.
  2. It's a spreadsheet app, and those are relatively rare. Word processors are a dime a dozen.
  3. I wanted to see if Numbers is competitive with Excel.
  4. I work with data a lot (Excel, FileMaker, and so on), and wanted to see if this new tool is of any use for me.

As anecdotal as it gets, but still, wow...

So I fired up Numbers, and started off by using one of its built-in templates. I noticed one that was called "Budget," [edit: originally I wrote "Home Budget," not sure how I'd got that wrong] and thought, what the hell, let me try that one.

I've been putting off drafting an annual personal budget for quite some time now. I was looking for the right tool for the job. Now, it's important to know that I'm a tool freak. (Also a Tool freak, but that's probably beside the point.) That is, I can obsess about the right tool for the job a lot more than about the job itself. It's almost a policy. Yep, I know this can be a flaw. But not always.

Anyway. So far, I've tried creating FileMaker Pro databases, using and extending Excel templates, and I've always given up after a certain point. Building a FileMaker database is almost like writing an application: you need to do a lot of work before you can start using it. About Excel, I just didn't know where to start. The built-in templates weren't much use, and as for rolling my own: the task seemed a little too intimidating. Before getting on with the already daunting task of drafting a budget, I would need to decide on how many worksheets to use, what kind of tables to design, and how to interconnect them, etc. I'm not bad with Excel, but whenever I embarked on this budget project, I must admit that I always ended up giving up.

So, last week, I fired up Numbers, and opened its Budget template. It was pretty straightforward, I just about immediately figured out how it worked. And to my utter surprise, it was almost exactly what I needed. I made some small adjustments, and started putting in my numbers. Then I made some more adjustments to the template, consulting the help file two or three times.

After about five hours, I was still frantically, furiously working on my budget. I was sweating, but what I was fighting was my numbers, not Numbers. I didn't even notice the app was there.

And that's just about the best thing you can say about an application. It gets out of the way, and lets you do your thing. Oh, and the template is very nice, too. Maybe that's where Excel lost me on this one, and Numbers won me.

These are my first main observations about Numbers

Numbers doesn't have one workbook with several infinitely large worksheets. It has pages with tables, which are the size you want them to be. This doesn't only make your numbers nicer to present, but also makes it easier to work with them: you can see all the tables at the same time, you don't need to switch between worksheets.

If you mouse near the border of a table, some controls pop up. You can insert, delete, or drag and drop columns and rows, you can sort and rename columns, and so on. These operations are extremely intuitive, though really mouse-heavy: there are no keyboard shortcuts for most of these. Working in Numbers feels a bit more like working in InDesign, and less like in Excel, where you can let go of the mouse for quite some time if you want. To me, this is a clear shortcoming, but a tolerable one.

Numbers is very good with defaults: it knows that most users will want their tables to have headers; and that when you sort, you'll usually want to sort the entire table. (This is a pet Excel peeve of mine: using auto-filters, you can never be sure if your entire table is being sorted. Some pesky little thing can prevent some columns from being sorted, and you'll end up with useless data.)

While sorting is dead simple, there are no auto-filters in Numbers. Filtering is dialog-based, and clearly more cumbersome than in the Microsoft suite. Also, the only way to tell if your data is filtered is by noticing missing row numbers. Excel has other visual clues, and they are important. Probably Apple's research shows that people don't really use filters that much. It's a pity, because I do.

Tables can have headers by default (there are several table templates you can choose from, but you can fully modify a table after creation), and they can also have titles (captions). These are great time savers as you add and arrange new tables to your work area (called a Canvas).

Numbers makes sure your spreadsheets are neatly organized and beautiful. Just like a great schoolteacher, it will instill a sense of work ethic in you, inviting you to keep your work clean and well-organized. (Don't use Numbers for committing tax fraud or plotting evil schemes. You will break down with guilt and give up.)

One annoying bit: as you move or resize a table that has another table on its right side, Numbers will always move that table too, keeping the distance constant between the two, even if that's not what you want. (Thanks to the reader who pointed out that this behavior can be turned off in Preferences.) And believe me: you will care about how your tables look. Numbers will make you.

Cross-references between tables and cells are quite like in Excel, except that they use column and table names, not numbers. Luckily, these names update dynamically.

There's a generous helping of functions, and for obvious reasons, they have the same syntax as in Excel. Not nearly all of Excel's functions are present, though. Worse, I've been relying heavily on Excel's extensive help system when constructing a function: as you type, it displays the syntax for you, and mousing over each part will show you additional details. It's very easy to get specific help for each function. Not so in Numbers: you're pretty much on your own, and help is awkward. Functions are probably also considered an advanced feature that relatively few users would be interested in. Hopefully, Apple will beef up this part of Numbers for the next version.

There is one very useful feature, though, that immediately made me a fan (that is, if one can get fanatic about spreadsheets). Select a few cells in Excel, and the app will display the sum of all the numbers in them. Numbers takes this concept a step further: not only does it display their sum, count, average, minimum and maximum, but also lets you drag these to your table, as a really quick and easy way to create a summary field. Well done, that one!

Bloatware vs. clutterware

So Lasso is here, and it's sexy indeed. But does it take on Excel? Well, yes, and no. Excel has macros (though you'll have to kiss them good-bye soon, as they will be absent from the next Mac version.) It also has tons and tons and tons of advanced features that Apple did not include in Numbers.

Now, there will certainly be people who dismiss all these tons of Excel features as "bloatware," but I will certainly not go down that road. I'm with Joel Spolsky here: he believes that the size (and the complexity and the feature count) of applications increases as do our needs. He also gives us his spin the 20/80 rule, i.e. that while it may be that 80% of users use only 20% of the features, it's not the same 20% for everyone.

I do believe that software can be too complicated and intimidating (and Microsoft Office is certainly like that). However, that doesn't have much to do with the number of features, but rather with their presentation. I would rather call it clutterware than bloatware. Features are necessary, but throwing them all at the user in a big scary mess is wrong.

For a version 1.0 release like Numbers, Apple did have to narrow its focus on the most commonly-used features. However, here's hoping that the scope of Numbers will grow in time. And knowing Apple, I'm fairly confident that Numbers will never become clutterware. Bloatware maybe -- but, as Joel says, that's actually a good thing.

Is iWork an office suite then? It would probably be an inaccurate moniker, and one that Apple seems to want to avoid (never calling it an office suite, going with "productivity suite" instead). This has to be at least partly due to a marketing effort that carefully tries to avoid the appearance of competing directly with Microsoft. But marketing materials, as well as iWork templates, also clearly indicate a focus on the home, small business, and educational markets, Apple's traditional strongholds. Besides, large corporations would need collaboration features clearly missing from iWork.

I wonder whether Apple will, over time, address the corporate market more aggressively. We can say that, with iWork '08, it's on the doorstep, but not yet knocking.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

iMacs ditch iPod look for iPhone colors

When the iMac G5 was released, its slogan was "From creators of iPod: iMac." I wasn't sure if the irony in that line was intentional, but it was pretty rich: how much has the world turned that the iMac brand, once a cultural icon, needed to be propped up by the popularity of a mere MP3 player?

But now, the iMac looks like the iPhone. It's silver and black, and its screen is made of glass (with its glossiness touted as a feature, which makes me shudder). Its screen has a black border. Even its iSight webcam looks a bit like the iPhone's single button.

Is this a new design trend for Apple's consumer products? Until now, Apple's professional hardware was very visibly made of aluminum, while most of its consumer products were black or white. The only exceptions were the colorful, metallic iPods (nanos and shuffles).

The iPhone is a brand new product category, and it comes as no surprise that its color scheme defies that of Apple's other products. But now the iMac is following suit. This can mean one of two things in my opinion, and only time will tell which one is the case:

1. Apple is shifting its design policies yet again, moving away from white/black plastics for consumer Macs. Such shifts have happened in the past, just think about the various color schemes for iMacs and iBooks (from bondi blue to various selections of multiple colors to psychedelic patterns to an elegant white) in the late nineties, or the similar changes in the professional line-up from the same bondi blue to various shades of graphite, and from black to titanium to aluminum in the case of pro laptops.

The color scheme has never been as straightforward and consistent as it was recently (until the arrival of the new iMac), we have to wonder whether Apple is giving up some of that consistency. Future revisions of the MacBook line will be a certain indication.

But luckily, I think every major color scheme transition so far has pointed to a classier direction (if we disregard the few last revisions of the G3 iMac).

2. The iMac is no longer a consumer Mac. Well, one can argue that it's now a pro-quality machine, or simply one that's sitting on the fence dividing the pro and consumer categories. Its software bundle doesn't contain any specifically consumer or pro apps, but then neither does any current Mac's: Tech Specs pages indicate that Apple seems to have quietly stopped bundling third-party apps with Macs.

In any case, the iMac seems to be a mighty machine. Some further random observations:

  • I wonder what the keyboard feels like. I have some doubts. Apple hasn't always exactly been a champion of input device ergonomy.
  • The mouse now looks out of place. Will there be one made of aluminum too?
  • Apple's digs at Windows PCs, specifically Dells, are back. The comparison photo is particularly mean.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Random anti-bad-idea post:

I learned about this a while ago via Daring Fireball. John Gruber was endorsing the idea.

Basically, Mike Davidson complains that answering even short e-mail questions may take very long, and also that as he gets too many e-mails, he tends to prioritize the easiest ones to answer, not the most important ones.

Don't we all. But his solution makes me shudder. He now always responds in five sentences. He wanted to do a word or char count, but that's difficult, so he arrived at counting sentences. He then posts a short Q&A at the end of all of his messages ("Q: Why is this e-mail five sentences or less? A:") linking to a little explanatory website he operates, where he sums up his policy.

What's wrong with this? Everything. First, writing short messages is not always easier than writing longer ones. You'll soon find yourself fighting the tool. Second, why be so damn restrictive and dogmatic? Couldn't you just strive to spend less time on answering e-mails? How about a timer? Or nothing at all, just an effort to keep it short? Maybe you'll average on five sentences, maybe you won't, but why this "one size fits all" approach?

And don't even get me started on the sociopathic explanatory link at the end. If your correspondants are insulted by your brevity, a pre-recorded explanation will only rub salt into their wounds. Guess what, you've been handled by a policy. You're not so important.

My suggestion: strive to spend less time on answering e-mails. If some of them end up too brief as a result, add this sentence at the end: "Sorry to be brief, I'm really busy."

No weblink or clever URL, though.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Are the boring years over for the Mac?

You might think I'm nuts for saying so, and I'd really like you to put my words into the right perspective, but here is what I have to say: the history of the Mac has been a pretty boring ride lately, and I hope it will change soon. In fact, I think it will change in a matter of weeks, as Apple releases the revamped iMac.

Let's see. Over the turn of the millennium, Apple changed the Mac drastically. It simplified the Mac product matrix. It threw out a lot of technologies, and adopted some new ones. USB, FireWire, WiFi, UATA (then SATA) took over from the likes of SCSI and ADB. The floppy was killed. And perhaps most significantly, Mac OS X was born. In addition, industrial design started to matter.

And that was it. Nothing has happened ever since.

What could a true Mac watcher rejoice about in the last six years or so? New enclosures.

They have been great, they have been sexy, and yes, I have raved about many of them, just check out the Applelust archives. Apple has shown us all that computers can be beautiful. But as far as technological innovation goes, Apple's huge advances in industrial design are only skin deep.

The iMac now ships in six colors! Now in three! It now looks psychedelic! It has DVD! Now it has CD-RW! Now it looks like a sunflower! Now it's like a monitor! I'm going to swoon!

No wonder the Dark Side ridicules us, Mac fanboys.

I desperately yearn for something really new. The iSight, while unoriginal, was quite a relief, as was the Apple Remote: simple, yet greatly useful touches… And finally, hardware additions! The scrolling trackpad was also a step in the right direction.

But while Apple serves as an R&D lab for the entire software industry, its hardware is decidedly conservative. Couldn't we really use some new keys on the keyboard? All Command-something keystrokes are reserved now for some Mac OS X function. All Function keys already do something, and really, however futuristic and useful Exposé is, launching it by pressing a key that's labeled something as geeky as "F9" instantly throws you back to the days of DOS.

I desperately yearn for new gestures, new metaphors, new input devices. New hardware directions. Are we stuck forever in 1984, or what? If Apple can't deliver the future, who will?

But I think that future is just around the corner. The iPhone shows that Apple can still think outside the box. We have proof that Apple has still got it.

And while people can argue whether or not the iPhone is a Mac, its modest cousin, the Apple TV, is undeniably one, and is taking the Mac platform to places it hasn't gone before. We have a Mac that feeds content to a TV, and is operated by a remote control. To me, this is a much more significant development than yet another iMac facelift, or any transition from titanium to aluminum.

Rumors abound about the new iMac. It is said to have a redesigned keyboard, with lots of new features. Hoorray! I can't wait to see what else the revision will bring. And I have a gut feeling that Apple and the Mac will re-ignite a hardware revolution that goes beyond prettier and prettier boxes that essentially do the same thing they have been doing for decades.


Thursday, June 28, 2007

The iPhone is the new Macintosh

Apple is releasing an expensive device that attempts to redefine an existing product category. Its user interface is so much more advanced, better-designed, more beautiful and more intuitive than any competitor's that it makes Steve Jobs burst into genuine tears of pride and joy. Apple's engineers have put incredible amounts of thought, love and care into details that competitors have largely overlooked so far.

Just about everyone loves the new device, recognizing it as a watershed. And just about everyone bitches about some glaring omissions and missing features.

And they are right. Apple could have conceivably added more and more features to the first shipping version of the product, delaying its launch, but eventually it had to draw the line somewhere. Of course, some (lots) of features didn't make the cut. And many of these are important. But it's a safe bet that most, if not all, of these will be added over time.

Initial reaction […] has been strongly, but not overpoweringly, favorable. A few traditional […] users see the [new user interface elements] as silly, useless frills, and others are outraged at the lack of [certain features], but most users are impressed by the machine and its capabilities. Still, some people have expressed concern about the relatively small [memory] size, the lack of [easy programmability], and the inconvenience of the single disk drive.
Of course, I'm talking about the Macintosh. The quote is from Byte, issue 5/1984, page 339.

As for the iPhone: I wonder how long it will take Apple and AT&T to sell the first million. One week? One weekend? One night?

Now that the reviews are in, the consensus seems to be that the iPhone is a revolutionary device with flaws. Everyone has his or her favorite missing feature.* But the iPhone is already off to a better start than the iPod was five years ago. And boy, did that product evolve from the clunky, heavy, boxy kludge with the one-bit screen!

Apple has apparently mastered the art of show-stopping omission management. It makes bold guesses about which features it can leave out without having people not just complain about them, but also refuse to buy the product. Remember: the original iPod lacked an equalizer, among other things. It was easy to ridicule an MP3 player without such a feature, yet Apple went ahead without it. The omission was later easily corrected in software.

And a lot of the iPhone's missing features are, theoretically, just a software update away. And Apple has, somewhat uncharacteristically, already promised lots of (unnamed) new features.

Now, if only one could also download a GPS chip, a 3G antenna, and some Flash memory…

*Mine is the lack of copy and paste. However, one should realize just how much work it would, or rather, hopefully, will, be to add this: it needs a new gesture or a new mode, new buttons, new decisions, new metaphors. My suggestion would be an "edit mode," where "Cut," "Copy" and "Paste" buttons appear, and you select text by dragging with one finger; and scroll around by dragging with two fingers, à la MacBook and MacBook Pro.


Friday, June 22, 2007

Here is my executive summary of the WWDC keynote

There's a new Desktop and Dock whose main feature is that they look much better in full page print ads. Call it marketing-optimization, but it looks good. Everyone hates the mimicry of the new menu bar, but I don't think I'll have any problems with it.

The number one top secret feature of Leopard is apparently Stacks. Huh? Dock folders done kinda right? Okay... Gimme some more RDF.

Brushed metal is dead, Aqua is dying. Welcome back, Platinum! Everyone, quickly redesign your apps now! I find the new look a bit too dark. But I like the huge shadow the frontmost window casts.

Now there is absolutely no way to tell the Finder apart from iTunes. Cover flow will be useful. Yes, I'm serious. Especially with inline preview, as well as Quick Look. These may become as revolutionary (that is, for people who actually work on their Macs) as Exposé was. But what about the new huge sidebar? Will there be a way to hide it? Or shall we all buy Macs with bigger screens?

The Finder is incomplete, though. Where's the online Finder Store? I want to buy files for 99 cents, folders for $9.99. And we need a good visualizer and an equalizer.

OK, maybe this iTunes fetish thing is going a bit too far. Maybe Steve needs therapy. But at least the iPhone holds strong, and fights back any attempted iTunes influence: no silly search field, no pesky visualizer, and definitely no connection to that stupid online store.

Core animation is still cool. It's being used in subtly cartoonish ways. I hoped, based on Wil Shipley's raving commentary, that Apple would use it in the OS in a lot of fun ways, but it's not the case. Maybe Steve's legendary taste won't allow that.

We're still going to get Spaces. Too bad that it still seems to break Exposé.

Dashboard. Apple is taking it to a whole new level by… adding, count it, one widget. Movies. Pretty slick. U.S. only, I suppose, though…

iChat never fails to impress. At least it never fails to impress Phil Schiller. (Actually, nothing ever fails to impress Phil Schiller, but we love the guy.) He was almost hyperventilating when he announced, "We can look at a PDF together!" Would you have thought that fifty years ago? Travel to Mars, maybe. Pimp your PDF over the Internet? No way, no how.

Time Machine is huge. Educating people about the importance of backing up. Changing habits of users worldwide. Boom. Dunno if it works, but definitely looks amazing. The retro sci-fi icon is insanely cool on so many levels. Time Machine seems to be the backbone of the whole marketing theme for Leopard. Aptly, this keynote already makes me feel like it's WWDC '06 all over again. But the "Final Countdown meets Star Wars" imagery is definitely refreshing after Tiger's unimaginative metal-on-fur logo.

A leaked screenshot mentions "hourly backups […] saved daily" until your disk is full, which is ambiguous and sounds potentially stupid, but I hope it will soon be clarified, and turn out to be something smarter. Like, only backing up files that have changed.

Mail is cool too. Notes are great, just great. Really. Too bad they look horrendous. It will be an open architecture, so third parties, please fix it ASAP. Mail also recognizes addresses. But will this work with non-English addresses as well?

There was no mention of iLife. I still cling on to my speculation that it will be bundled with Leopard for free. I guess I don't know when to give up. But anyway, iPhoto now integrates with Mail, so that's one more indication that iLife will be part of the OS. Right? Please?

iPhone: no additional features were revealed. We still haven't seen the Calendar or Notes, we still don't know how text editing works in any of the apps. Can you select text? Can you cut and paste? No sign of either has been revealed, ever. Still no Spotlight, either. OK, we have less than a week and we'll see, but I'm beginning to think that version 1.0 of the iPhone OS will be even more stripped-down than I'd thought.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

iPhone: a new platform for web applications that could revive the NC concept

Well, anyone hoping for a real SDK for the iPhone must be disappointed as hell. But then really, how reasonable was it to expect Apple to not just finish the iPhone in time (which we know was a close call), but also create a complete set of developer tools for it, including user interface guidelines and all? I think those who are disappointed kind of deserve to be.

So Steve tossed a bone to developers. His suggestion that they should develop web apps for the iPhone will certainly infuriate a lot of them, and it does seem a bit audacious to me as well. However, I'm sure that once Apple gets around to creating it, a real SDK will be there for all aspiring iPhone developers. But, seeing how carefully Apple wants to control both the stability and the public image of the iPhone, that should take a while. I agree with just about everything that Daniel Eran says on the subject.

However, I also think Steve Jobs is really on to something here. I don't doubt for a second that there will be hundreds, maybe thousands of websites or web applications written specifically for the iPhone. Not just because whenever Jobs speaks, people will start to listen, and stuff will be happening (though the Jobsian charisma is definitely part of it), but also because the iPhone and its Safari web browser will very likely create a new business: that of handheld web applications.

I don't think web applications will replace desktop apps any time soon, though they will certainly continue to complement them. We all know how networks, especially something as slow as EDGE can limit the usefulness of a web application.

However, I think a web app may make a lot more sense on a less powerful handheld device such as the iPhone than on a full-featured desktop or notebook. Here's why:
  1. The iPhone has limited resources, while a web app usually lives on a powerful and scalable server. Therefore the remote app can perform operations faster than a local iPhone application could.
  2. The user interface of a web application is closer to that of an iPhone app than it is to a desktop application. Due to their greatly simplified user interfaces, iPhone apps have fewer advantages over web applications than desktop apps do, so web applications will look less out of place on the device.
Case in point: I've always been struggling with the mail clients on my smartphones. They were slow to connect to the mail server, check for new messages, download them all, make decisions about attachments, and so on. There was also a limit on the number and size of messages that my phones could store. 

So I switched to webmail. Google Mail has an okay webmail page for mobile devices, and for my other accounts, I installed IlohaMail on one of my web servers. This open-source PHP script is actually a mail client that lets you access any POP or IMAP mail sever on the internet, much like Apple's Mail App, except that Iloha runs on a server, and you interact with it via a simple web interface. So my web server does the heavy lifting (checking and fetching and rendering mail), all my smartphone does is display it as a web page. I don't have to force my poor little phone to perform loads of network operations, or to store megabytes and megabytes of mails or attachments in its limited memory. It all happens on my web server, and all my phone does is let me interact with all that data. Perfect!

Of course, handling mail should cause no problems for the iPhone. But more complicated tasks might. Heck, even an image editing solution such as Snipshot could probably be rewritten for the iPhone, and fill an important void – at least for the time being, i.e. before Apple opens up development for real, or supplies a native iPhone app that does all of this and more.

Thin clients or network computers never really took off. Well, the iPhone could become one that does – without really trying that hard. There has never been a mass-market handheld device running a full-featured web browser like the iPhone. If this isn't the time for the Great Handheld-Targeted Web Application Revolution, I don't know what is.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

Leaked iPhone sales textbook reveals Spartan feature set, lack of AT&T crapware

Uncharacteristically, has posted an original story that got picked up by the entire Mac web, featuring the scanned pages of a sales training booklet that helps AT&T employees sell the iPhone.

No significant new features are revealed, though. As the workbook often states the obvious, it might be safe to assume that its failure to mention a functionality (e.g. voice dialing) probably means that the functionality in question is not going to be part of the iPhone, at least at the time of its launch.

The lack of GPS mapping is mentioned as a potential "objection" to be expected from prospective clients, and the guide even offers a canned answer, thanking the client for the feedback and promising to forward it to Apple. Unfortunately, there's no mention of any alternative geographical positioning solution.

Considering all of this, as well as the new TV ads, I'm getting more and more convinced that the iPhone's June 29 incarnation will to be a true 1.0 release, with the absolute minimum functionality Apple deemed necessary for the launch. MMS or voice dialing, which, frankly, nobody uses, have fallen victim to this strategy. The device should wow millions with its sex appeal and user-friendliness, and convert unsuspecting iPod users into smartphone owners.

As for business users, or even simple power users like yours truly: the iPhone will need some improvements to be truly useful for us. For example, I will definitely need to be able to select, copy and paste text, and so far, I haven't seen any indication that this would be possible.
But we are a small, hard-to-please crowd. Clearly, Apple isn't after us, at least not in the beginning.

By the way, for me, the most entertaining parts of the presentation have been the comparisons with other AT&T offerings. It's amazing how much crap AT&T is trying to feed to its customers, and Apple must really feel victorious about shielding iPhone users from all that: the AT&T Music Folder, MEdia Net, Cellular Video, and others all get a mention as no-shows on the device. Apple also doesn't believe in partnering with MobiTV or TeleNav.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

OK, it's time for some WWDC predictions

Let me grab my crystal ball. Damn, where have I put it… Uh, what the hell is it doing in the…? Never mind. I'll just wipe it off. OK, here's what I see.

I see Leopard, Leopard everywhere. It has been neglected. Everyone's talking about the iPhone, almost to the point where Leopard's only new feature seems to be its delayed launch. The WWDC will reverse that.

Speaking of the iPhone: it will definitely get a mention. If some iPhone integration thing is one of Leopard's secret features (outlook hazy), then there will be more talk and demos. Otherwise, just a recap of the January demo, answer to some FAQs, and an update on the then-missing features. As far as the rumored development options (lightweight apps or widgets): nope, I don't think so. It's way too early for that. Unless it's something really limited, like widgets with little or no custom code.

I see the iMac getting an update, not necessarily at the keynote, though. It could happen on Tuesday as well. Depends on how significant an update it is. Rumormongers are talking about a brushed aluminum enclosure, re-positioning the iMac as a pro machine, while discontinuing the 17" model. Well, maybe, but that would be a bit strange: will the Mac mini become the single consumer desktop Mac available? This might be one of the cases when the rumoristas are on to something, but they are getting confused by the reports they are receiving. (I just dropped my crystal ball, but before hitting the floor, it displayed the words "iMac Pro." Hmmmm… The "i" prefix used to be the antonym of the "Power" prefix, but now "Power" is out, and "Pro" is in… So iMac Pro is a possibility. Whatever. Stupid crystal ball. I think it's still under warranty.)

OK, back to Leopard. What will be its top secret features? Here's what I see.

Dot-Mac. I see that poor miserable excuse for a service finally undergoing a long-overdue relaunch, with increased disk space and functionality, tied in neatly to Leopard. I also happen to think that Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple's board for a reason: to teach Apple how to become a web services company. Remember what happened shortly after Gap CEO Millard Drexler joined Apple's board? (Hint: Apple became the best retailer in America.)

iLife. I think iLife will simply become a part of Leopard. It will be free, updates and all. It might be also integrated even more tightly into the OS, as in Finder contextual menus, etc.

Appearance. Will it change drastically, as everyone seems to hope, believe, or simply know? Nope. Brushed metal will be gone, Core Animation will be all over the place (I think Apple is the biggest customer of its own dog food when it comes to system frameworks.) But I don't think Aqua is going anywhere.

And… this is the point when the hard disk of my crystal ball died. I have checked it in for repair, but they say it won't be ready till Monday the earliest, and it will be far too late by then. Damn, it was just getting to the most exciting parts.

So I can't tell, for example, it Apple plans to announce some new device or new technology, like multi-touch input-output devices. I don't think so, though. Leopard needs to grab as much of the focus as it can.


Monday, June 04, 2007

Breaking news: Apple posts iPhone ads, sets release date

See here. Release date is confirmed at June 29.

Notice how the ads all mention the phone functionality as a punch line, almost as some extra bit that you wouldn't expect from the product, despite the "phone" in its name. The first ad extolls the virtues of the iPhone as an iPod, which seems to further corroborate the speculation that Apple won't release a "phoneless iPhone" true video iPod any time soon.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I hope Apple will buy its soul back from AT&T one day

Apple wants to make sure nothing goes wrong at the launch of the iPhone. For a while, everything else is taking a back seat, as customers are suffering in silence. You shouldn't expect any iPod updates any time soon. Leopard has been delayed. But the worse news is the oldest: Apple is teaming up with AT&T in an exclusive deal, tying all U.S. purchases of the phone to an AT&T subscription plan.

Apple gets help in something it has never done before: launching a mobile phone.

In exchange, it has agreed to sell its soul.

Everyone congratulated Apple for playing hardball with yet another industry (after successfully tackling record labels): there will be no stickers, no joint branding, no silly AT&T applications compromising the beautiful iPhone. Yet I beg to differ. I think buying an iPhone will be riddled with huge compromises.

Apple users are seen as discerning customers with a good taste, people who want value for money, who cannot be fooled into restrictive contracts.

This is why I think it's just simply against the DNA of Apple and its users to sell a cellphone that only works with one provider.

When I bought my Handspring Treo 270 smartphone four years ago (a revolutionary product in its own right), it came without a subscription or a subsidy. I took the SIM card out of my old phone, and put it into my Treo. That was it, I could start making phone calls right away. For data access, I had to change a few settings. It took me five minutes.

Later I switched mobile carriers. All I needed to do was replace the SIM card, and I was good to go. When I traveled abroad, I could just buy a pre-paid SIM card and pop it in, for much better rates. And if I wanted to, I could use my Treo without any SIM card at all, as it had lots of functionalities that didn't require one.

Today, Palm (previously Handspring, previously... never mind) offers subsidized as well as "unlocked" versions of its Treo phones. I think this is how a self-respecting customer buys an expensive, revolutionary smartphone. There should be a choice.

As for the iPhone: you absolutely have to get a plan from AT&T. There's no other way to buy one.

  • If you have another plan with another carrier, you have to cancel it or keep paying both.
  • If you go abroad, you have to pay roaming fees.
  • If you just want the device for its other uses (iPod, WiFi-enabled internet device) and aren't interested in a mobile carrier plan at the moment, again, you're out of luck.
In essence: If you want this date with the sexy iPhone, you'll just have to endure its big hairy uncle AT&T joining you for a threesome.

This isn't exactly the kind of hardball Apple plays with the music industry. Sure, if you want to purchase songs from iTunes, you'll have to settle for what the labels are selling you (though Apple is there to watch out for the terms). But that's where the analogy ends. if you don't like the iTunes Store, you never have to use it. Sales of iPod might be just fine without the approval of the five record labels. And Steve Jobs does display a "take it or leave it" mentality when dealing with the labels, when refusing to increase prices, when urging them to drop DRM in open letters. He's the last chance for a crumbling industry, and he knows it. His offers aren't supposed to be turned down.

Not so with the iPhone and AT&T. It's not the Apple with the pirate flag any more. It's not the defiant Apple we know and love. Nope, it's AT&T's little obedient lapdog that we see there. AT&T may significantly help Apple reach its iPhone sales goals, but I think Apple and its clients are paying a great price for this.

While I have no sources to back me up on this one, I'm also pretty sure AT&T has a say in what can and cannot go into the iPhone. I'm sure Skype or iChat, maybe the most natural applications for the device, were vetoed by the telecom giant as they could compete with its voice services. Basically any hope that the iPhone could truly change the mobile phone industry was lost when Apple went to bed with one of its giants.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a realist. I understand that initial sales of the iPhone are the single most important data that matters in the life of this product. This is what everyone, including investors, competitors, the entire cellphone industry and the media will be looking at. Apple has to get that right in order to establish itself in this new market. This is probably why it entered into such an uncharacteristic contract.

I just hope that eventually, Apple will be able to buy back its soul, and get out of this lousy, restrictive deal that screws its customers. I want to be able to buy an iPhone without being forever tethered to some big, dumb, evil telephone company.

Also, it remains to be seen how Apple plans to pull off the iPhone launch in Europe: a much bigger, more saturated, more mature cellphone market. A similar strategy might simply crash and burn in the old continent, where the iPod (a major iPhone component/selling point) isn't as strong as in America. For example, the iPod only has 28% of the German market.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Palm to compete against own OS: well done, folks!

According to a Register story (Palm distances itself from Windows), Palm, Inc. is dropping Windows Mobile and adopting Linux.

In reality, it is likely that Palm will emulate its former stablemate, Palmsource (formerly the software arm of the company, which was spun off and then acquired by Japan's Access and is now focused on adapting features of the Palm UI for a mobile Linux platform). In other words, it will concentrate for its uniqueness on navigation, widgets, and other critical features of the modern mobile UI
So, allow me to recap some of this sad saga. Execs from a struggling Palm left to create Handspring. It made a hit, the Treo. But Palm owned the OS. Palm bought Handspring, so everything was finally in one hand. Palm could have started to be building the whole widget, just like Apple.

But it wasn't meant to be. Palm spun off its OS to PalmSource, then licensed it back. Then Palm decided to use Windows Mobile. Meanwhile, PalmSource (now part of Access) was moving the Palm OS (now known as Garnet) to Linux. So what does Palm do? Also try to move the same OS to Linux on its own, so it can reduce licensing fees.

Let me guess: when Palm is done with its new OS (and renames itself about three more times, to maybe to PalmTwo, Treo, Inc., and then back to Palm), it will spin off the new OS as well. Or maybe spin off the Treo. Yeah, I think that one is certainly in the cards.

Or, at least, it will sell the Treo name and license it back.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Is Apple Planning iPhoto for Windows?



Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Honestly, I'm just sick of everyone in this stupid Edelman/PC Mag/Twitter story

This made news, I guess, because Twitter was involved. Do you remember the time when bloggers started explaining how they first heard of Twitter, and what the hell it is anyway? Me neither. You know, all bloggers have always known all about Twitter, so this is why they just started dropping its name whenever they felt the time was ripe. You know, me too. That Twitter. I'm not going to admit that I only got around to first reading about Twitter some three weeks ago. As a blogger, being well-informed is what I'm all about, and I always know about everything. Even if I don't say so.

Anyway, here's the story. Edelman PR is a company representing several tech firms. Its senior vice president Steve Rubel gets a free subscription to PC Magazine, and throws it in the trash. Tsk, tsk. Worse, he chooses to tell all the world about it via Twitter, even though his company routinely begs the editor of that very magazine in his trashcan if he could pretty please write about its clients.

I'm going out on a limb here, but my guess is that this may have been caused by Olympic-sized stupidity, and/or psychopathic tendencies that are not uncommon among senior vice presidents.

But anyway, PC Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jim Louderback learns this, and throws a hissy fit like I've last seen in fifth grade. He's taking his ball home:

Should I instruct the staff to avoid covering Edelman's clients? Ignore their requests for meetings, reviews and news stories?
I know Louderback meant this as a rhetorical question, but the answer actually exists: no.


Louderback is an editor. His job is to know what matters to his readers, and then instruct his reporters to write about those things.

I somehow doubt that many PC Magazine readers think along the lines of "I wish they stopped covering all the companies who happen to be the clients of that PR firm whose senior vice president wrote something nasty the other day."

Or is it just me?

Yet his childish rant goes on:
I did a quick search through my recent email, and found that over the past few weeks Edelman staff pitched me about news and new products from Palm, MarkMonitor, Mozilla/Firefox, Microsoft (hardware and Xbox),, Vulcan Flipstart and Dash Navigation. Heck, they even pitched me yesterday on the release of Adobe's new Creative Suite 3, which has to be relevant to at least some of the 11 million folks we reach across our magazine, web and video properties each month. And then I realized that this was probably just the callous act of a rogue Edelman exec, and it didn't necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the company. Still, it made me wonder. And in the future, if I'm on the fence, I'll probably be somewhat less inclined to take a meeting with one of Edelman's clients.
OK. So if it weren't for Edelman, PC Magazine would never have covered Palm, Microsoft or Adobe.


And if some psycho at the same Edelman, a PR firm that no PC Magazine reader has ever heard of, says something nasty, the magazine will stop covering all these companies.

Here's the slogan of PC Magazine: the independent guide to technology.

If I were a subscriber, I'd cancel now.

And Twitter about it.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Europe: a fragmented market for the iPhone, despite EU-wide carriers

According to AppleInsider, Vodafone is seen as the most likely European carrier for the iPhone. So, Europe will have a single iPhone carrier, just like the U.S., right?

Wrong. In Europe, Vodafone is not a company, it's a brand. In some countries, Vodafone Group Plc. has subsidiaries, in others, it has affiliates, and in yet others, only partners without any ownership affiliation. According to Wikipedia, Vodafone is present through partners only in as many as 12 of the 27 EU countries!

How fast will Vodafone get all these companies to launch the iPhone in their respective markets? Unless Apple bitches and moans and threatens the world's largest telecom company into getting its act together, there can be several-month differences between introductions in different member states, as has been the case with many cellphone launches. (One I have been experiencing, waiting for months in frustration, was the Sony Ericsson P910i a few years ago. The Hungarian launch came months after the UK and German introductions.)

The EU isn't a single telecom market yet: it's actually 27 separate markets, with their own separate national telecom authorities. This is supposed to change after this summer, but the iPhone will most likely still need 27 approvals.

Worse, the 27 Vodafones and Vodafone partners are very separate entities who don't really talk to each other. Yet another personal anecdote: when I moved abroad, I asked Vodafone if I could transfer my two-year subscription to the Vodafone in my new home country. Of course not.

Apart from the brand, there's very little in common between the different Vodafones in the EU. Terms, prices and services vary greatly. I wonder how Apple will manage.

So should Apple choose another carrier? Nope, my post wouldn't be much different if, say, T-Mobile were the most likely candidate. It's not a Vodafone problem, it's an EU problem.

Just think about the iTunes store. I'm not sure if everyone knows, but 12 of the EU's 27 member states still have no access to the store. (It's a different 12 from the countries without a Vodafone affiliate, so no, it's not a pattern.) Establishing a single European market is a great endeavor, and the EU has come a long way, but there's still a lot of distance to cover.