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.