Don't worry about "Microbe"

Written by Matthew JC Powell Monday, 11 October 2010 23:59

Last week the CEO of Microsoft met with the CEO of Adobe Systems. These two gentlemen have met before and they will meet again, but rumour had it that this meeting was special. Rumour had it this meeting was to discuss strategies for dealing with their common foe: Apple. And rumour had it this meeting would raise the possibility of partnership or even acquisition by one of the other to bolster strength.

Rumour had balderdash.

Adobe and Microsoft have both, in their own ways, faltered before the juggernaut that is Apple's mobile devices strategy. Microsoft has failed to prove that Windows Mobile (soon to be Windows Phone) will offer a compelling alternative to the iPhone or indeed to Android, and Adobe has failed to convince anyone (except people who were already of that opinion) that there's a compelling case for the iPhone to run Flash.

The obvious solution would be for these two to put their heads together and make Flash run so well on Windows Phone that both Flash and Windows Phone appeared to be compelling alternatives to the iPhone. Easy-peasy, problem solved.

They won't do it.

The simple fact is that Flash is built on technology that dates back decades. It is resource-hungry and not well-suited to modern operating systems. if it were not for the large amount of compelling content on YouTube and elsewhere encoded in Flash, the technology would have been abandoned long ago. It is time for a serious bare-metal rethink of what Flash is, what it is expected to do, and how it might achieve that.

Only Adobe can do that, and it won't because there is too much to be lost if it abandons the massive installed base of Flash players for the sake of modernisation. Platform migrations are difficult and painful. Ask Apple. Or, for that matter, Microsoft.

Without that kind of back to basics rethink of Flash, Adobe and Microsoft are left trying to make the existing product compelling on a mobile, touch-oriented platform. It isn't and it can't be. It is too fundamentally rooted in mouse interactions. Anyone who has used it on Android can tell you it's one of those things you think looks pretty clever for a minute, then you realise the drawbacks and go back to what you were doing — probably on an iPhone.

If Adobe and Microsoft are thinking that maybe, together, they would have sufficient industry clout to migrate everyone to a modern, compelling Flash, they're wrong. The effort and expense involved in doing so might as well go towards creating something better than Flash. Like, say, HTML5. Oh, someone already created that? My bad.

Not to mention that after the Danger acquisition and the Kin disaster, Steve Ballmer does not want to ask his shareholders to take another leap of acquisitive faith with him any time soon.

Aside from a Flash/Windows Phone collaboration, can anyone tell me what would be a compelling reason for Microsoft to acquire Adobe?

(A quick aside on the name. I've suggested "Microbe" in the headline just because thats the funniest one I've read elsewhere. In truth, a merged Adobe-Microsoft entity would more than likely be called Microsoft.)

Does Adobe want to be in the operating system business? I've seen no sign of it. Does Microsoft want to be in image-editing? Maybe a little. Getting the execrable Microsoft Publisher off the market would make just about everyone I know in the pre-press field happy, but I don't know that's compelling enough. InDesign and Publisher are not meant for the same customers.

A lot of the "analysis" I've read on the subject has gone to great pains to illustrate that the barriers that might once have existed to stop such a takeover — monopoly concerns, largely — are no longer in play. But just because there isn't a strong reason not to do something doesn't mean you ought to do it. Especially when billions of dollars are involved.

Adobe and Microsoft are talking. They have talked before and they will talk again. Meetings of their CEOs notwithstanding, the companies have a lot of customers in common. And they do indeed have a common enemy in Apple. No doubt the titans of industry mentioned that fact over drinks and nibblies during their meeting.

But that's about all.

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OS X: where to now?

Written by John Chidgey Sunday, 10 October 2010 23:44

OS X is the most popular Unix-based operating system in the world today, and with good reason. It is a tried and tested code base that is stable, scalable and reliable. However, given Apple’s recent focus on its iPhone, iPad and other touchscreen-based devices, some have speculated that OS X is dead. I disagree.

When Apple launched the iPhone Operating System (recently redubbed iOS) it simply took the core of OS X and added a whole bunch of touch input APIs, whilst stripping out the mouse- and keyboard-related controls (to some extent) and swapped the Dock and Finder for Springboard (that’s the grid of app icons on your iOS device).

With iOS now past its third birthday and nary a mention of the next release of OS X (10.7) since Snow Leopard debuted over a year ago, many speculate that OS X is being put on hold or some have said it is dead in the water. Whilst I certainly don’t believe it’s dead, I do believe that the true integration of the touch-based input is what’s just around the corner in the next revision of OS X.

There can be little argument that touch-based input is the flavour of the month for Apple just now, with 120 million+ iOS devices in the field. The new iPad has shown that apps can be written for a bigger screen in a better way yet still support full touch and approach desktop usability/productivity.

So then what for the desktop? It seems that integrating touch is the next logical step but experiments in the past have proven difficult for users who are constantly lifting and lowering their hand/arm to touch the screen, which is too far away for regular touch input. Also the issue of how the software responds is key — simply taking desktop software and using the touch to simulate a mouse click has proven unsuccessful in years of attempts by Microsoft.

I see the solution in a two-fold paradigm shift: one for hardware and one for software.

First the hardware must be convertible between desktop mode and touch mode. This could include a lighter, thinner detachable screen, or perhaps an iMac that can tilt forward and down to rest at desk level for easy touch input. Other laptop manufacturers have already provided solutions such as twistable screens or reverse folding screens, but why not have a detachable screen with its own battery that communicates over WiFi/Bluetooth back to the powerhouse (the bit with the keyboard, CPU etc). Even better, why not sell a Mac Mini as the powerhouse and use your iPad as a UI for it? Decentralised processing is something Apple already does with xGrid.

Second, the software also needs to be switchable between touch and desktop (anything other than a touchscreen, including a mouse) input modes. In the past we have had Universal Binaries in OS X that support PPC and Intel CPUs. We also currently have Universal Apps that run on both iPad and iPhone/iPod touch iOS variants in the same binary. Why not introduce a third variant of a Universal App — one that uses either touch input (for iPad, iPod touch, iPhone or iMac in “Touch Mode”) or desktop input. In the ultimate seamless blend of the two operating systems Apple could transition between the Applications folder and the Dock into a home-screen style of Springboard icons as the iMac moves into touch input position. Microsoft Word could change from pull-down menus and the iconic “ribbon” toolbar into pop-over buttons and iOS-style navigation.

With a large number of developers working on both OS X and iOS applications it should be possible to merge the two code streams into common, truly universal applications that will work on any Apple device. If Apple goes down such a path OS X would indeed be gone — usurped by its own offspring as it were with all Apple hardware running iOS, and only minor changes based on the device it is installed on.

Whilst this is fun to imagine, putting all speculation aside Apple will need to do something in the next 6-12 months to indicate where it is heading with OS X or Windows 7 (which is winning Microsoft back some its lost mind-share) will begin to erode away what Apple has achieved with Leopard and Snow Leopard in recent years.

Microsoft has already tried to integrate touch into its operating systems with no real success. Can Apple step up and do it right? For Apple’s sake, I hope so.

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The iPad: digital photo book killer?

Written by Chris Oaten Wednesday, 06 October 2010 23:28

More than a year ago, in another publication, I waxed lyrical about Digital Foci’s digital photo album.

I feel kind of stupid about that now. A bit like you would feel if you championed the convenience of lava for cave warming in the week preceding the invention of fire. At the time, however, I really did think it was a pretty hot product.

If you’re not familiar with it, imagine a digital photo frame. Yes, the kind you bought two years ago thinking that nana would love it. She did, of course. For as long as it took to make you feel good about buying it. Bless her.

Foci’s digital photo album is like a frame but with a leatherette cover that protects the 20cm 800x600 pixel (yes, you read that right) LCD screen, thus adding some durability to portability, and controls on the front for managing the contents. It has CF, SD and USB slots on the side, a reasonable battery life, a speaker, and supports JPEG, RAW and video files. Actually, it’s a champ at handling RAW files, screening them up quickly off a memory card. This was its greatest appeal for me. Pity that the internal memory was limited to 4GB.

I mention this device now because I recently received a stream of emails from Digital Foci. September was Photokina month, so I received quite a lot of this kind of email. Foci’s publicist was spruiking all of the company’s products, among them a handy but kludgy 500GB portable hard drive. However, it was the digital photo book that caught my attention because since trying one I’ve had time with an iPad.

It should come as no surprise to you to read that if I had to make a choice between the two, the iPad would win hands down. So I asked the publicist how Digital Foci believed its digital photo album had any relevance in a market in which the iPad holds court, with a rush of suitors hot on its heels.

“Unlike the iPad, Photo Book is a dedicated photo device for viewing your pictures and is simple to use, so it serves a different purpose,” began the response. “vs iPod, Photo Book’s screen size is larger and there are specific photo related features:  Photo Book lets consumers organise their photos into different album collections and choose a specific album to view.  The Photo Album View displays each folder as a separate photo album, showing its folder name and a preview image of the first photo in the album. Photos can be organised into different albums by event, which makes it easy to select a particular album to view. The Photo Thumbnail View lets you browse through the thumbnails of the photos in a selected photo album. In addition to running a full screen photo slideshow with adjustable time intervals, you also have the option of running the slideshow with a realistic page-turning effect.  It is just like you were flipping through an actual photo album. You can also add music to play in the background along with your slideshow.

“Another big thing is the RAW image support. Finally, Photo Book is easy to pass around among a group of people; you don't always want to pass your phone around necessarily. For photographers that want to package their portrait or wedding shoots with a digital album, Photo Book would also be a much better/cheaper choice than an iPad.”

I’m not so sure about that. She was right on a few counts. You don’t always want to pass your phone around. The RAW file handling is better. It is a lot cheaper at about half the price of the basic iPad.

One thing she missed, though. At least on Foci’s photo book you can see the file names, so if I use it on site to display an image to a prospective buyer, I can easily cross-reference the file on display with the file later on. But even this benefit can’t outweigh the package of features the iPad offers.

Imagine bringing Foci’s photo book to a party where all the cool kids have iPads. It’s the stuff nerd nightmares are made of. Yet Digital Foci, apparently, still finds enough demand to keep making them. Or, at least, enough confidence in their product to be showing it off at Photokina.

I think their confidence may be misplaced. I could be wrong. Perhaps there is a market for the digital photo book. What do you think?

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How the Apple Stores make money

Written by Alex Kidman Tuesday, 05 October 2010 15:06

This week's blog entry comes to you from a rather unusual location, a fair ways from my usual haunts. Specifically, I'm in London (ethical disclaimer: I travelled to London as a guest of HTC for the launch of the Desire HD and Desire Z phones) and specifically in Leytonstone E11. I previously lived here back in the late 1980s, but it's been quite a while since I was here.

Now, just up the road is something that's not that unusual. A McDonald's. Genuinely not that unusual, but when I lived here more than twenty years ago and the place opened, it did have something unusual about it. Specifically (as I was told at the time; I've never properly checked) it was the first McDonald's in the UK to have a drive-through. Not that spectacular in an Australian context, but newsworthy here, at least at a local level at the time.

Head into that McDonald's, though, and it was (and probably still is) depressingly familiar. Plastic tables, plastic food. There's no real variety in McDonald's, and that's what sells. You can head into any McDonalds anywhere on the planet and it never appreciably differs, but it's also not what I'd say anyone could describe as a "nice" retail environment, merely a depressingly functional one.

Before you wonder if you're at the wrong MacTheMag, I'm setting a scene here. Because wandering past that McDonald's this morning got me thinking about Apple's stores. Apple and McDonald's have a few things in common aside from their country of origin. Both companies don't vary the items sold in stores to any great extent; they're the same wherever you go. In Apple's case that's arguably a more striking problem, as its offerings are also sold elsewhere. Apple's computers, phones and music devices are very widely available. You most certainly don't have to go to an Apple store to buy Apple products.

And yet Apple stores bring in the masses in extraordinary numbers and generate an awful lot of cash along the way. I think I've worked out why, and my comment about McDonald's above is the key to it. It's about having something unique to most of the "big" stores, and transferring that feeling to the smaller ones.

While I'd never planned to, I've now been to all of Apple's stores in Sydney. Chatswood is tiny, Castle Hill isn't, and Bondi has trees. Still, the undisputed "showcase" store remains the truly massive George Street Sydney store, which stands out from a distance and sells the brand and the Apple experience very well. There was a time when the Sydney store was the talk of the Apple world, but that time has passed. The recent opening of Apple's 300th store in Covent Garden London has generated a lot of buzz, and while I've been here, I took the chance to go and have a stickybeak.

Unlike the Sydney store, the branding is pretty subtle. You could pretty easily miss it from this side.

The store itself, once you're inside, is simply stunning. I'm not being paid to say that, but it's a great mix of design ideas that gives a feeling space no matter where you are.

There's even a choice of the trademark glass staircases, including an impressive spiral staircase.

Ultimately, while it's an impressive design, it's also a very comfortable and relaxing one. It's a nice environment to browse Apple's products in, and undoubtedly Apple is hoping folks will open up their wallet while they do. Based on the claims that Apple's amongst the top tier for making money from each and every square metre of their stores, it's clearly working.

Getting back to my original analogy: twenty years ago, the McDonald's just up the road from me generated some interest and sales by having something special and new. It's neither special nor new any more at all. It's just another plastic franchise restaurant serving food of debatable nutritional value. Its "new" thing was just another sales strategy that didn't make any appreciable difference to the enjoyment of the sales experience.

Presuming Apple keeps it neat and tidy, there's nothing that's going to make flagship stores such as the Covent Garden one look and feel any less impressive in twenty years' time. I think that's largely the secret of Apple's retail success. It's not as true of the smaller stores, which tend to more of a mall feeling, but again the existence of the bigger flagships does allow the smaller stores to pick up some of the rub and easygoing feeling.

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The App Store (it's all about the numbers)

Written by John Chidgey Tuesday, 21 September 2010 01:23

In what is becoming an increasingly regular occurrence of late, Apple changed its mind regarding publishing a list of rules for applications to be submitted to the App Store. Some have seen it as bowing to developer and possibly even government pressure (the FCC investigation that started out of the Google Voice rejection mid 2009 may have contributed — but we can’t be sure). Either way, now a list of “rules” exist with some highly emotively-worded statements. More on that later.

Since its inception the App Store has been lauded by Apple, mostly for its numbers. With every keynote or public speaking opportunity Apple executives including Steve Jobs, Phil Schiller and Scott Forestall would make a point of mentioning the number of apps in the store as it rocketed ever higher and ever faster with no immediate end in sight.

Some pundits have speculated that the App Store has become the Crap Store where the number of apps that crash excessively or perform little useful function outnumber the well-designed and well-thought-out apps. Indeed this appears to be Apple’s own opinion now to some extent with this line barely halfway down the first page of the App Guidelines: “We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don't need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn't do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.”

On the surface that seems fair enough, but does such a position stifle competition? Surely in an open marketplace the best product would (or should) win in the end due to its features and quality? Let's say there are 100 fart Apps but then only a few will be regularly downloaded and supposedly then only the best, surely?

We know that Apps that sell well in the first week or two of release tend to develop a critical mass of user reviews and downloads, which puts them into the Top 100 or even Top 10 lists in their category (Utilities, Games etc) or even overall. This visibility extends their popularity significantly leading to better overall sales. For new App developers wishing to enter the market it’s a big problem trying to get that momentum to stay in the charts and compete with other similar Apps. So if a certain class of App (like Fart apps, I suppose is as good an example as any) has some critical number of Apps for sale, will Apple just draw a line and say, “That’s it — no more fart apps”? It certainly looks like it’s intending to do just that.

So the argument begins — my fart app has a knobby/flicky button here that isn’t on that guys fart app which makes mine better. Acceptable or not? Before long this becomes impossible to police. If there are 100 fart apps (I stopped counting at 100 by the way when I searched the App Store — there are lots more) is any one reviewer at Apple going to be able to tell the subtle differences between each of them and a new submission? It’s unlikely. Does that mean there will be uncategorical rejections based on the App Class?

If so, it means no new developer will be able to submit a new app in an established class and, hence, the developers that were there first will be the only ones in the game.

Forget fart apps for a moment. There are plenty of other App classes such as clocks, calculators, planners that also have an abundance of Apps in them. If Apple does indeed start capping the numbers, then clearly the size of the App Store is no longer what it wants to achieve. Unfortunately, improving the quality of what's in the App Store already is difficult without developer backlash — as the removal of "widget-like" Apps a few months ago proved.

So if you can't clean out the garbage, you leave it in the Store and stop new ideas coming into established App classes? Seems to be a little counter-productive. Therefore, where is the incentive for a new App developer to enter into the App Store, if their app won't be approved since there are already too many Apps like it?

The App Store risks becoming a group of existing Apps with few updates made by the same developers with little new blood and stale Apps in another year or so. So the App Store, which (until now at least) has always been about quantity, has suddenly become all about quality. It only took three years to go from no platform, to huge platform, to what may need a huge platform-wide App garbage collection.

Instead of focussing on what can and can’t be allowed into the Store, Apple should direct its energies into better search and categorisation techniques in the App Store and improve the customer experience to find the right App for them. If they don't, the Store may become an even more polar opposite to an open marketplace, and its slide downwards might be as quick as its ascent.

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