Thursday, January 22, 2009

Things #2.1: Apple's Developing Strategy.

Ok, so in my last post I tried to sketch out the position that Apple has secured over the years since the launch of OS X, but it's worth noting too that it's been handed some significant things largely because of others' greed, laziness or downright incompetence. Here I might mention that it seems Microsoft has largely given up on usability or innovation in the GUI space, and a is mostly reduced to introducing interface features, which isn't the same thing at all. A half-dozen different, all non-optimal ways to achieve the same task isn't the way forward anymore, though it worked for Windows 95 and eventually for the NT team. Neither does a $10k back-projection table count, though I might concede that the photosynth purchase was a real coup. If those guys can deliver within Live Labs then MS might just get its UI mojo back. But I digress.

Stability and security is another area where Apple has been handed the prize without really trying. Building on NextStep with its UNIX roots was natural for Steve's incoming team, and the sluggishness of Redmond's response to the whole 'broken Windows' security nightmare has left Apple able to claim leadership in that area too, whilst doing relatively little. It's been said often that the almost non-existence of Mac OS X malware and viruses is because there's no point in writing such things for a tiny installed base, and that the advantages of OS X's supposedly superior architecture will crumble if and when Apple's market share grows significantly. Actually the opposite is true: Truly dangerous viruses are significantly harder to architect and construct on the Mac, and when one finally emerges the relatively low concentration of Macs in an explosively expanding universe of connected devices will make propogation much harder.

When it comes to Apple's newer role as a producer of consumer electronics goods and associated services, the apparent lack of amy real competition is even more startling. Do we even need to recount how the major music recording labels handed Apple the keys to the digital music kingdom when they assumed that technologists couldn't possibly know more about their audiences than they did? Suffice to say that Apple were allowed to take the lead in the digital music revolution by providing simple hardware solutions tied into services while the competition were either offering clunky hardware players or betting on a software solution that would work anywhere. That last strategy belonged to Microsoft of course, until they rolled over their Plays for Sure partners to emulate Apple's model, just as Apple was building its own 'iPod as software' strategy with re iPhone and iPod touch. Now MS is back singing the 'software running anywhere' refrain, but it might just be too late to catch up again.

When it comes time to write the history of the post-macintosh Apple, then I'm willing to bet that the extraordinary hubris of the entrenched phone manufacturers and carriers will feature heavily. This might just dwarf the foolishness of the record industry, and contribute even more to Apple's success over the next decade. Remember, we're talking here not of an industry which produces things that people like in a generally unpleasant fashion, but of one that has systematically placed its own ability to extort money from what it laughingly calls its customers at the very top of its agenda.

People love recording artists, if not the companies that record them; I've never met anyone who loves their phone company, and until recently no-one went misty-eyed talking about their handset. The phone companies, and most handsets, are tolerated because they provide something we generally can't do without, and many of us dream of replacing the carriers with an IP-solution.

It's in this context that the attitude of the entrenched players to Apple's 2007 launch of the iPhone seems hubristic, even downright foolish, and I'll talk a little more about that as I try to unpick Apple's forward momentum in my next post.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Things #2: The future of Apple.

Ok, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way: Steve Jobs is taking time out for medical treatment, and plans to return to Apple in the summer. Too many words have been written on this, and I don't need to add to them.

Instead, this is the post that I've been gestating since before MacWorld, but wanted to delay lest I look like another wishful thinker pushing his own fantasy technology list. That's not my intention, so forgive me if I lapse into indulgent fandom now and then. What I hope to do is to rehearse a few possibilities in the hope that we can be better prepared should the future actually work out even vaguely similarly.

Steve Jobs aside, it's clear that Apple has since the turn of the century been putting in place the technological pieces necessary to dominate the next fifteen to twenty years of consumer computing, just as Microsoft dominated the last, and IBM the twenty before that.

This architecture wasn't all planned at the beginning, but then these things never are: They grow organically and benefit from the mistakes (and greed) of others, as much as the genius and opportunism of the prime movers. Thus Microsoft was able to blindside hardware-focused IBM, turn its command line advantage into a GUI one, and then hold onto it through successive generations of upgrade. Pretty much all of these software upgrades required hardware upgrades too, but they were relatively painless and distributed over the 3-5 year buying cycles of most corporations. For consumers the deal was harder but pretty inevitable: you buy what industry uses.

This remained true until the skyrocketing demands and specialised requirements of consumer apps (home media, digital appliances, gaming) began to direct the market. In each of these areas specialised technology starts to look like the way forward and then there's little to be gained from buying the same tech as the Fortune 500. The Internet was a great leveller too: it's remarkable now to recall the difficulty and cost of cross-platform work back in the late 80s and early 90s. Now it's truly trivial, and matters much less that you're running distinct platforms.

So just at the moment that a generic single OS running on existing hardware starts to look less important, and just as a simplified, largely consistent and usable interface gets more critical, Apple positions itself with a solid OS that's up to the tasks that consumers want to throw at it, and none of the architectural baggage of backward compatibility with four or five generations of PC software. This is good, and while it may not have been entirely part of Apple's gameplan, neither was it entirely the result of Microsoft's mistakes.

Track forward by 3 years or so and Apple is also in the consumer electronics game, with what's beginning to look like a fairly major hit on its hands. The upshot of this is that Apple is shipping vastly more devices with an embedded OS than it is traditional computers by about 2003. That's quite a game changer for the whole company, and for the corporate culture, and by my reading nowhere more so than in the mind of Steve Jobs, who has been pretty focused on the desktop up until this point. Remember, he's the guy who killed the Newton. Three years later they're building Apple TV and the iPhone platform, leveraging the work done on Mac OS X for sure, but fundamentally thinking about platforms in a way that's new both for Apple and for the mobile industry.

It's this platform focus that's central to Apple's future, and hence to all of us who live and work with digital technology. While it's fun to speculate about specific devices or software functions that Apple might choose to introduce, it's a largely futile exercise and matters much less than the overall emerging strategy. A few aspects of this seem fairly clear now and I'll talk about those in a later post.

Things #1: Seeing the future.

Just before Christmas, as if to pre-empt the usual spate of 2009 predictions from anyone who fancies themselves a technology pundit, music industry consultant Andrew Dubber wrote a passionate rant (his term, so no criticism implied) against prediction.

I've never been afraid to critique punditry, especially where it's based upon little else than speculation, but Dubber's post got me thinking about the whole area of prediction in technology and everything that's mediated by technology (which might just mean everything that involves people and their myriad interactions over distances). Is it really a fool's game? Is prediction and speculation so meaningless as to be consigned forever to the realm of charlatans and snake-oil? When I (only half jokingly) described myself as a "network futurist" did I condemn myself to ridicule and mistrust?

The weeks pre-CES and MacWorld are notable each year for a dramatic increase in idle speculation and opinion, and this year was no exception, with dozens of analysts and bloggers producing thousands of words telling us just what we should expect from the technology companies.

Apple in particular is subject to this kind of empty analysis, partly because of the secrecy surrounding their future moves, but also because Apple and its various products touch us culturally and creatively in ways that few other technology companies do. The various developments around iTunes and the iPod ecosystem, for example, have ramifications for the whole music industry and for the digital distribution of all kinds of intellectual property (some of which I'll expand upon over the next few days).

It's this degree of influence that brings analysts, speculators, pundits and, yes, self-proclaimed network futurists out in a cold sweat, and leaves us feverish over the possibilities. In our predictions we embody our wishes for the future of technology, media and ways of living, as if the words on the screen (and the attention they garner) will magically bring our desires into being.

Now for the most part this is a futile exercise, and little better than sitting in a bar waxing lyrical over the future of digital media, politics, or sport. If the past is a foreign country then the future is another universe entirely, and we have no right to expect it to behave as we wish. Most of us are condemned to live in the future as tolerated outsiders, watching the next generation unpick the mess we left behind and bring something decidely alien and unexpected into being.

Sometimes though, this act of prediction is less selfish, motivated not by a desire for recognition (or worse, profiteering) but by an acceptance of constant change and the need for social advancement. The genuine spirit of futurism lies not in pretending to see the future, but in recognising that we all have to live there, and that although the best way to predict the future is to invent it, first we have to imagine the possibilities and work out which of them we want. Or, just as importantly, which of them we wish to avoid.

So while Andrew Dubber is right, I intend nevertheless to spend the next few days recklessly gazing over the horizon. Here in Bangkok, seven hours in the future from the UK and on the continent which will likely dominate the next fifty years, I'm looking forward. Not from a position of special insight, but from one of optimism and excitement, tempered by the knowledge that there are crucial things we need to imagine now if we, and the alien race we call the next generation, are to actually make it happen.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Few Things

As I write I'm several thousand metres in the air, en route to Bangkok once again for another five days teaching and the required weekends which bookend the work and allow a little recovery from the jet lag. The altitude must be doing something to my head, as I've finally determined to revive this long-dormant blog in order to get a few things done.

Over the ten days or so of my time in BKK I'll be posting every day. At least, that's my intention, but we'll see how I get on. The aim is to rehearse a few ideas which might turn into some other things. Or not. When I hit the ground I'll be checking in, sleeping, and then beginning the weekend afresh with some posts that I've been meaning to make for a while. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

EOS 450D first impressions

After eagerly anticipating the release of Canon's new 'entry level plus' DSLR, I finally got my hands on one this afternoon, and I was decidedly underwhelmed. It was the briefest of hands-on, and it's possible that with more time I'll really grow to love it, but the first impression was that Canon still haven't managed to build a starter DSLR that feels good in the hands. I can't help comparing it with the Nikon D40 that I've been using for the last month (and the new D60), which manages to be affordable and still feel substantial. I prefer Canon's control layout, and the newly-added ISO button and superb display are very welcome, but as a long time user of metal-bodied compacts (my lovely Ixus 700 is still going strong) and of bricks like the T90, I really can't get excited about paying over £600 for something that feels so flimsy (I'm sure it's perfectly sturdy in reality, but perception is everything here). I'm much more likely to step up to the EOS 40D. Maybe that's the intention, but I think it's a misstep on Canon's part that will hand a chunk of the first-time market to Nikon, and quite possibly Sony.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Personal Use isn't Fair Use

Almost as if on cue, to stress the point I made in response to Pete Ashton in this post's comments, the RIAA are now ready to take on even those of us who steer well clear of piracy:
In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry's lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are "unauthorized copies" of copyrighted recordings. (via DF)

It's tempting to laugh at this kind of action in a 'what can they do?' kind of way, but it's more serious than that. This is essentially direct action against iTunes and the iPod, as that's almost certainly where most legally purchased but format-shifted content resides. The industry will pretend (again) that they're happy with some kind of kick-back from iPod sales, but that's the thin end of the wedge for them to wring whatever kind of money they can out of the electronics industry in order to compensate for the failure of their business model. More hope perhaps lies in Apple's ability to convincingly put in place technology that lets owners of CDs legitimately and securely format-shift content in a way the industry can grudgingly accept. In the long term, Pete (and others) are right and DRM isn't the answer, and we need to press for the recommendations of the Gower Review to be implemented soon in this regard.

I'll say it again though: I'd sooner have a unintrusive (and Pete, while I've no desire to be some kind of DRM-apologist, it is largely unintrusive as long as you're staying within your usage rights) Fairplay-style lock to my devices than have the music industry propped up with cash from device sales.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cracking open the new aluminum iMac

This detail is lovely, but begs a question: How do you get inside?
With iMac, details make all the difference. For example, because it’s made from a single sheet of aluminum, you won’t see any seams or screws except for a single compartment on the bottom that provides easy access to the memory slots.

Well wonder no longer, design lovers. The lovely glass panel which sits over the screen (which BTW is a non-glossy panel under shiny glass, AFAIK) is secured by sixteen small magnets. Apple service engineers use a glazier-style suction pad to pull it away from aluminum frame. It's this kind of detail which makes Apple so special.

The one place you won't find a magnet however, is in the side of the case, where the Apple Remote used to hang. You'll need to find some other way of remembering where you put the old-fashioned glossy white plastic remote, which is begging for a shiny metal replacement now, natch.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

In Lisa Milroy's garden

Actually, it's in the Ikon Gallery, but a kind of garden as her rich chalk pastel sketches and expansive oil canvases create a garden of the senses, all roses and oranges, and evocative sense-provoking objects. I'm writing from the third section of the three-part show, where sofas, free orange juice and books about gardens await the jaded gallery visitor. I chose to peruse Infinite Spaces: The Art and Wisdom of the Japanese Garden as I sipped my Pago.

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Monday, June 11, 2007


Long overdue I know, but done.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


As posting here has turned into a less-frequent, more long-winded affair, I've decided to try something a little different. Newsgland is a sort-of little-sister site. Check it out, and I promise a proper posting here soon. Much more to come.