Where are the good iPad competitors?

Written by Alex Kidman Sunday, 15 August 2010 21:06

I've been using my iPad quite a bit out and about recently as a primary notetaker. It never fails to draw somebody's attention when I do. Given the tech-centric circles I operate in (some of whom like Apple stuff, some of whom are indifferent and plenty of whom are downright hostile), somebody inevitably asks me about the limitations of the device.

I'm not going to say that the iPad doesn't have its limitations, and indeed there are some things that downright annoy me about it that Apple could change with a change of policy and a snap of Steve's fingers.

But the thought that's been striking me more and more as the questions come thick and fast over the months is this: It's been more than six months since the iPad was unveiled to the world. Where on earth are the alternative tablets?

So far I've seen Microsoft's Courier tablet fail to leave the "incubation" stage. Dell has the Streak, which it's launched in the UK and shown off to plenty of local tech journalists (I'm not one of them), but it's a half-sized unit on Android 1.6 with an unclear release path, if indeed it will be released here at all. I've seen and had testing time with a to-be-Kogan-branded Android/Windows tablet, but that product never actually made it to market. I've seen a Huawei S7 Android tablet with a resistive screen that looked OK from a distance, but had me cringing within minutes of trying to use the thing.

That wasn't Android's fault, by the way; matching it up with a resistive touchscreen rather than a capacitive one was always going to be a recipe for disaster.

I've even seen tablets that are trying ever so hard to actually be iPads. Mid-last week, I was in the offices of (disclosure: I freelance heavily for CNET and at launch was the site's editor) and they were kind enough to let me have a small play on a a "fake" iPad that they've now published a review of, which you can find here.

Having had a couple of minutes to test the device — most of which was burnt away waiting and waiting and waiting for it to start up — all I can say about the Editor's Rating is that it's perhaps five or six points too generous. That was one ugly system, and a terrible fake iPad.

The thing is, it arguably shouldn't be. It's got a lot of what the iPad itself could use. MicroSD and USB storage built in. Full access to the file system. I could definitely see a use for those in a future iPad, and I could see a competing device using those factors as a key point of differentiation against the iPad.

If only I could see them, because so far, they don't exist at all. I'm honestly not sure why. You could pre-order an Axon Logic "Hackintosh" Tablet — but who knows when that'll actually exist? "Soon", according to Axon Logic's web site. Try as I might, I can't find a date for "Soon" on my calendar. Equally, you could wait for Asus' Eee Pad line to come out ... but that's apparently not due until next March!

Given Apple's general mantra of annual product releases (not that I know anything more than you; remember "Apple does not comment on unannounced products", after all), that means that system will compete with whatever Apple comes up with next. Whatever that is, and even if that is a "new" product at all.

That's the crux of why I want some decent iPad competitors, by the way. At the moment, there's none, or none worth consideration. That's bad for the competitors, obviously, but it's also bad for Apple's consumers. Folks like you and me. Without a push in the competitive space, there's much less impetus for Apple to innovate and re-engineer the iPad.

I'd expect the next iPad to perhaps carry a camera, maybe inbuilt USB or card reader, and maybe be a little thinner or lighter. But if Apple doesn't feel that the market is pushing it that way, who knows whether we'll get a heavily-rebaked iPad with all the trimmings, or just the crumbs that Steve feels are best for us?

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It doesn't just work

Written by Alex Kidman Monday, 09 August 2010 12:53

I'm not a big fan of the whole PC vs Mac argument, mainly because I find it tiresome, with the same old arguments going back and forth endlessly. Macs have no games, one-button mice and are for people who can't be handed anything more complex than crayons because they might chew them. PCs crash endlessly, are over-run with viruses and built out of cardboard and string with the aesthetic sensibility of a dead sparrow.

I could go on and on, but I won't. It's dead boring. As a Mac user, I reckon we, the Mac community, could do a whole lot better. If for no other reason than it's boring, but it's also so inaccurate in places.

That extends to the obvious things that Macs get attacked for — the one-button mouse being the most prominent example — but also some things that the Mac is touted for that simply aren't true. The worst of which is this reliance on the "it just works" mentality.

You know what? Sometimes — more than most Mac fans would like to admit — it just doesn't work. I suspect I'm going to get some scorn for this, but it's true. I'll illustrate with a couple of real world, recent examples of my own, as well as how I've solved them.

Shifting content from one Mac to another is easy, right? Not necessarily. A while ago, I picked up an ex-demo iMac for my wife to use. The same kinds of machines you can find in Apple's refurb store if you're after a bargain, albeit one that may be a little dated. The term used by Apple for this particular machine was "obsolete", so we're not talking cutting edge.

As an already set up machine, it was configured with a user called "Apple Demo", but my wife used it for a while as it was. Keen to set up her own account, and clear out any ex-review detritus that might be cluttering up the system, I set up a fresh installation of Snow Leopard on the machine and restored her documents folder from Time Machine. All good and squeaky clean and "just works", right?

It was, right up until she tried to save a document. Restoring from Time Machine had left all the read/write permissions with the the previous user, not the new user. They were her documents, but she couldn't edit them in any way. I could re-create the Apple Demo user and change the permissions on a file-by-file basis, but that's slow and tedious for several thousand files. Digging around online I discovered there are terminal-based ways to accomplish mass permission changes, but I'm no terminal guru.

For what it's worth, I did fix the problem, and I'll note it here. When you're restoring from Time Machine, permissions persist — which is in line with what most users would want. The same isn't true if you copy the files over to a USB flash drive. Switching into the old Apple Demo user I'd restored, I copied the entire folder over to a connected flash drive, then switched back to the new user and copied from the flash drive to the new user's documents directory. End result? A folder full of free to edit files.

There's probably a mild security hole there, now that I think of it.

"It just works" isn't just limited to Mac OS, either. On the smartphone front, more than a few users have had problems with iOS4 and 3G iPhones. I figured I'd avoided those issues, as the iPhone 3G in the house updated without a hitch, but a friend of mine wasn't so lucky. Being a friend of mine, who do they call when Apple stuff goes wrong? Me.

More specifically, the iOS4 upgrade had wiped all my friend's contacts. iTunes could find one backup, but it had no contacts in it. In other words, it just didn't work. A little further digging found older backups, but for whatever reason iTunes decided that those backups didn't exist at all.

Again, off I head to the font of wisdom that is Google. This one was trickier, as the contacts database is an SQL database, and that's solidly not my thing. Using iPhone Backup Extractor and sqlitebrowser I was able to get a screenshot of the contacts database in a format where my friend could manually re-enter them into their phone.

Problem solved, but it wasn't particularly easy, the solution didn't come from anywhere near Apple itself and ultimately, it didn't "just work".

I reckon that's OK. Not OK in that it took time, persistence and a small amount of growling under my breath to get things working, but OK in that computers are just computers, designed, built and programmed by people, and people are entirely fallible. Stuff goes wrong, and hiding behind a mantra of "it just works" only makes you look daft when it doesn't. Just work, that is.

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Apple's secret (blue) strategy

Written by Alex Kidman Monday, 26 July 2010 08:36

As I write this, it's four days until Apple releases the iPhone 4 in Australia.

That's pretty much all I know, and even that's only based on two bits of information. First, there's Steve Jobs' reveal of launch dates at the recent press announcement regarding free bumpers and antenna problems, and then (with a tip of the hat to Clinton Philips for tweeting it) there's Apple's retail page which at the time of writing even lists a time Apple stores might be open on Friday to sell it.

Beyond that ... nothing. Likely to cost more than $A719, because that's what an 8GB 3GS now costs. Probably not a lot more than $A1000, because that's what a 32GB 3GS used to cost. Probably available on plans from carriers starting at around $A59 a month, because that's still prime territory for smartphones, and there are a lot of rather nice Android models on the market right now at that kind of price point. All of that is just slightly informed guesswork, though.

Trying to follow Apple's product strategies is rather like being a mushroom. You know. Being kept in the dark and being fed ... well, you might be eating, so I won't finish that particular phrase. I'm sure you know where I was headed.

Sitting down and pondering the facts on Apple, and for that matter mushrooms yesterday, I came to a stunning realisation. A realisation that reveals once, for all time, Apple's exact marketing strategy. The pieces fit together so neatly, so perfectly that I'm stunned nobody's ever noticed it before.

The company once known as Apple Computer is run by Smurfs.

Stop giggling in the back there. I'm serious. Let's consider the facts.

First, the broad sweep.

Remember when Steve Jobs said that the iPad was "Magical and Revolutionary"? Smurfs are magical creatures. Magical creatures who live in mushrooms. Magical creatures who live under broadly communist rule. One might say … revolutionary.

Looking at leadership styles. Papa Smurf rules over the utopian Smurf community with absolute authority, a beard, and a costume that never actually changes, but is distinctively different to everyone around him.

Remind you of anyone?

When Papa Smurf is deposed from the throne by "King Smurf" — clearly a thinly veiled reference to John Sculley — everything goes wrong for the Smurfs, and only Papa Smurf can save the day.

Papa Smurf is into herbal medicine, as is Steve Jobs. Sure, Jobs doesn't appear to have blue skin, but that's just because the Steve Jobs we see is a complicated robot body, run by Papa Smurf himself. That whole issue with the liver transplant was, I suspect, an excuse for the robot body inhabited by Papa Smurf to be rebuilt with A4 processors inside of it, instead of the ageing PowerPC processors he'd been running on since the mid '90s.

That presumably means Grey Powell is Drunkard Smurf, and Jonathan Ive is Painter Smurf. Phil Schiller is Greedy Smurf. Woz is clearly Handy Smurf, as he does all the heavy lifting around the Apple Campus. I could point out exactly who Smurfette is, but then I suspect Apple Australia's PR team would never talk to me again.

The whole issue of iPhone 4 reception woes? The result of an argument between Brainy Smurf — the clear technical designer in Cupertino — and Jokey Smurf, who likes things that explode. It's clearly not often that Jokey is allowed input into the design process, but he's also to blame for MacBooks that overheat, graphics cards that don't fit properly and every mouse Apple's released for the past decade.

Gargamel's original primary interest in the Smurfs was so that he could figure out how to turn them into gold. Have you looked at Apple's share price recently?

Getting back to the iPhone 4 and the lack of information surrounding it, any time that humans (I think I still broadly count under that definition) attempt to come near to the Smurf village, they get hopelessly lost and confused. Unless a Smurf is willing to show you the way to the village, you'll never find anything out about them. As someone who has tried on countless occasions to get comment out of Apple, I recognise this strategy implicitly.

Just in case you're still shaking your head in disbelief, consider the classical description of Smurf characteristics.

They're blue. What colour was the original iMac?

They're exceptionally small — something that Apple has worked for with every iPhone and iPod release to date.

In fact, they're not just described as small. It's rather more explicit than that. Consider the classical description of exactly how tall Smurfs are. They're not three inches tall. Not three retail copies of Windows Vista tall.

They're always described as being three apples tall.

I wonder if it's actually legal for small magical blue creatures to run a major US corporation?

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iPad, iFolio, iSuccumbed (well, almost)

Written by Chris Oaten Tuesday, 20 July 2010 14:09

Surprisingly, the Oaten household has been iPad-free up until only recently, when it rained iPads. One was bought for junior as a 16th birthday present, another arrived soon after on loan from Apple. A double epiphany, as it turns out.

The time for a review of Apple’s wunderkind pad/tablet has long passed but I figured I’d share my thoughts on it as a photographer’s aid. This is quite the challenge because every time I pick the iPad up I find myself drawn to playing Doodle Jump or Need for Speed Shift. As a gaming device, the iPad gets the thumbs up from me.

But I digress. I knew that would happen. Didn’t beat my Doodle Jump high score, either. Again.

What I did manage to confirm in my time with an iPad is that it can be a terrific tool for previewing images. I’ve got some runs on the board here, so let me share with you the devices against which I’m comparing the iPad.

My Canon M80 is a pretty good photo box. Epson makes something very similar called the P-7000. At 140x81x34mm, the M80 is a small device that wears well as a belt attachment. With an 80GB drive and slots for CD and SD cards, it’s hard to beat for portability. I’ve used it whenever I knew there’d be a long time between laptop drinks, such as when roaming a racing circuit.

Two problems with the M80. It’s slow, and the battery life is terrible. Best I’ve ever got from it is about three hours. The 3.7in TFT screen, however, is excellent. The M80, at $1100, also is expensive. Especially as it’s a one-trick pony. It stores pictures and videos. That’s it.

Another device I’ve wanted to like a lot is a digital photo album from Digital Foci. This is very much like a digital photo frame, with a leatherette cover and front-mounted controls. It has only a 4GB internal memory capacity, which is its biggest downfall but its screen, about the same size as an iPad but with a coarser resolution, is its saving grace. Photos go into it via CF, SD or USB and, as such, makes for a handy sales tool. However, it, too, is a bit slow.

I had long hoped for a device that combined the portability of the M80 with the visual appeal of the Foci’s large-enough screen. Hello, iPad.

The iPad doesn’t quite measure up to the M80 on the portability front. I don’t see myself attaching one to a belt while I go walkabout. The iPad does slip into my camera bag a lot easier than a MacBook, though of course the iPad has neither the versatility or the processing grunt to match. What it does have is a quicksilver response to user input, which is great.

Why? Because if you are going to use it to preview images for someone, as I did on the night before writing this, you want to be able to flick away the dud shots you don’t want to share. Either that, or be more selective in the first place about which images you choose to import. Sitting in front of someone while ticking or unticking import previews is not only tedious but kind of spoils the mood of the moment. A bit like when you’re talking to someone more interested in their text messages.

Few professional photographers would ever expose themselves to this kind of potential for embarrassment. I, too, see it as a risk. Indeed, there was a series of shots that I thought was working really well while firing them off but, in reality, not so much. It was a bit humiliating to reveal my misdirected creativity.

Even so, it’s high marks to the iPad as a preview tool, though I would always make clear to anyone previewing images with me in this way that they shouldn’t judge the image quality. This will come later, after the RAW versions have been processed.

The other use for the iPad is as a portfolio. I reckon on this score the iPad is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can’t be beaten for versatility. You could store a number of portfolios that show your different styles or strengths and easily combine a new set of images tailored to a specific interview. What’s more, with the visual grace that a Keynote presentation offers, you can make your portfolio really shine and help it stand out from the crowd. Until, that is, the rest of the crowd has an iPad, too.

The flip side is that while the iPad is a great portfolio tool when displaying to anyone who buys images for 72dpi applications (web pages and so on), the size of the iPad’s display can do little to demonstrate that the quality of your technique and equipment are up to the task of producing fine art quality prints. If you were thinking you could use an iPad exclusively as a portfolio tool, I wouldn’t advise you against it, but I would say you should still have a set of your finest prints, just in case some old-fashioned fuddy-duddy like me wanted to be reassured your print workflow was up to the same standard as your digital presentation.

So if you were to ask me if I would buy an iPad to help me with my photography, the answer would be “no, not for now”. And here’s why.

For a start, my daughter has one. So when the occasion calls for it, her iPad can be put to work.

However, the thing I most want to do with an iPad, which is to set up a workflow that allows for wireless transmission of images into the iPad’s photo album, is simply not feasible. I can’t do this because the iPad doesn’t allow for creating ad-hoc network set-ups. Sure, I can create an ad-hoc from a laptop and shunt images in a folder via a third-party app such as Air Sharing. And, to be fair, this works OK, except that the folder of images is locked inside the Air Sharing app. I want them in the Photos app, where they are fun to share.

Also useful would be the ability to import/export between apps. This would allow me to, for instance, shunt images wirelessly from a laptop to the iPad using Air Sharing, and then export an image into a Bento library from which a sales order could be generated, along with a model release if needed.

Better yet would be the ability to link the iPad to an SD Eye-Fi card. I’d shoot to CF card and SD simultaneously, allowing f or wireless transmission of JPEGs from SD card to iPad without interfering with accessing RAW files from the CF card.

Even better than that would be for Apple to recognise that users may want to use the iPad in ways that don’t fit within Apple’s definition of the way it should be used, and give developers the tools to create the support for a workflow of the type I just described. An import button in Photos that lets me grab images stored in other iPad apps would make a great start. Unless it can already be done with a third-party solution. The App Store is a forest of possibilities in which it can be difficult to spot the tree with the solution that fits.

If anyone knows of that magic faraway tree that does support the workflow I just described, please let me know about it in the forum. Please. I desperately need an ironclad excuse for buying an iPad.

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Apps Gone Crazy

Written by Alex Kidman Tuesday, 20 July 2010 00:31

Prince made headlines recently by declaring that the "internet is over".

Before you panic, no, he's wrong. Quite wrong. Especially the part where he declares computers and digital gadgets to be no good because "they just fill your head with numbers and that can't be good for you".

Utter rubbish. I've never had a problem with my iPad besides the 000001010101010101010101011110101011111010101010WOZWOZERE10100001010101010110101

Sorry, where was I?

It was part of an interview the minuscule Minneapolis musician did with the UK's Daily Mirror to promote an album he was giving away with the newspaper and, naturally enough, generate a little controversy. He's no stranger to controversy. It was the name of his fourth album, after all. He also went on to declare that releasing albums via a newspaper made perfect sense because it eliminated online piracy.

That bit didn't work there are copies all over the net right now, probably more than there would have been had he not said that. For the record, I've sourced a completely legitimate copy of the album via a relative of mine in the UK who bought (with some embarrassment) the paper in question. It's not very good. The album, that is. I already had a low opinion of the Mirror.

Anyway, before you worry — that you've somehow slipped from MacTheMag into PrinceTheMag — there is an interesting tale to tell here for App developers.

Prince's problem — well, one of them, anyway — is that it's increasingly hard to sell music in a crowded marketplace, especially if you don't like the established labels that much. Sales are down for everyone, even with the remarkable success of iTunes. There's a generation out there who happily just download every skerrick of music they can find without ever expecting to pay for it. It's a bit tough to keep yourself in shiny white doves and purple motorbikes in that kind of environment.

Aside from generating controversy, which helps sell newspapers and promote the deal, there's some sensible business here for Prince. He got paid upfront by the paper (and apparently by several other European publications) for delivering the music to them. For all I know, they may have even paid for pressing the CDs and sleeves to put them in. He writes, gets paid for the music and in one sense can happily ignore the piracy problem because he's already got the money. Depending on the nature of the deal, quite possibly more money than either a record company or ongoing sales might have netted him in this day and age.

So then, a market where there's a flood of content, much of it acquired for free, in which it's hard to compete or even stand out. That's the music market today. Does it remind you of anything else?

It reminds me of the App market. For every Angry Birds there's countless other games. For every Hipstamatic, countless other photography apps. And so on, and so forth. The established method for getting noticed tends to be radical price drops in order to shoot up the App charts. That might net you some notice, but not a significant chunk of cash, and you're gambling that word of mouth and App chart placement will reap some kind of reward down the track. Unless, that is, everyone's moved on to the next free App of the day. Otherwise, you're just blithely hoping somebody at Apple will notice your app and decide to feature it on the iTunes front page.

This is where I reckon a little clever marketing might just make a world of difference. There's established precedent in the Australian marketplace for iTunes giveaways, for a start. The Herald/Age newspapers gave away iTunes music and video content over Christmas last year, a deal that undoubtedly involved Apple and the papers playing nicely together along with the content providers. Clearly, the infrastructure exists, whether it's a matter of a website to generate the codes, or a one-day-only code.

The trick is a marketing one convincing an established outlet (whether it's a newspaper, magazine, coffee chain or petrol station doesn't matter, as long as it's mass market enough) that it's worth paying you upfront for the App in question. Sure, you'd perhaps lose out on a percentage of sales to people who might have otherwise handed over the cash, but you get instant prominence (and potentially the same shooting up the App store rankings boost you'd get out of a "free" app switch) and a payout upfront. That to me seems better than the financial Russian Roulette than current App development seems to be.

Or perhaps, as Prince would have put it once upon a time, I've gone crazy. If you'll excuse me, I'm off to look for the purple banana before they put me in the truck.

What do you think? Do App developers need to innovate in their marketing and sales approaches in order to make actual money?

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