Whither iLife?

Written by Chris Oaten Monday, 14 February 2011 23:35

Am I missing something here? Can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps a headcount of iLife 11’s new features is in order?

Let’s see, then. iPhoto? Check. iMovie? Check. GarageBand? Check. iTunes? No, hang on, sorry, that one stopped being an iLife feature ages ago. That leaves ... iDVD? Oh, now we’re getting somewhere. And ... iWeb? Yep, now it’s all clear to me. Something is definitely amiss. Like two apps completely being ignored kind of amiss.

You’ll pardon my cynicism, I hope, because not only is something amiss, but there’s something on the nose as well.

Let’s visit the not-too-distant past, when iLife was the central plank in Apple’s plan to provide a beautifully integrated set of media creation and management tools that also worked well to woo new users from the dark side. Back then, Apple didn’t focus much on the prowess of its consumer-grade hardware, preferring instead to impress potential new customers with what you could do with a Mac. Who remembers Jobs’ “chain of pain” pitch about iPhoto? The simplicity with which iPhoto could eliminate the horrors of a digital image workflow was typical of iLife’s capabilities and at the crux of what appealed to many switchers.

If I recall correctly, it worked. Or at least it did when I showed the iLife suite to PC-using friends of mine. They were impressed with the integration, the simplicity, the whole box and dice. Some of them even bought Macs because of it.

However, if I were about to proselytise for the Mac today, with a copy of iLife '11 as ammo, I expect I’d be a little embarrassed because Apple doesn’t seem to be as committed as it once was to this particular cornucopia of digital goodness.

How exactly would I go about explaining to a PC user that the latest iLife update is only 60 per cent there? Did Apple just lose interest? Perhaps the Cupertino team had something better to do? They may well have, such as building an app store for Mac Lion. Come to think of it ... no, hang on, hold that thought ... the Mac App Store killing off iLife is a whole other train of thought worth coming back to later.

I can understand that iDVD didn’t get any new features. The challenge with DVD creation software is the scope of creativity you can apply to authoring a DVD is a wee bit hemmed in by the specifications governing the media. Yet while new functionality can’t really be bolted on within the constraints of keeping the software consumer-friendly, it’s surprising that Apple couldn’t throw in a bunch of new themes, as indeed it has done with previous iLife release. Gosh, Apple couldn’t do even that much. The fact iDVD has no new features whatsoever has that special flavour about it that comes out of Cupertino every now and then. It tastes like we’ve-moved-on-and-so-should-you-so-shut-the-hell-up-about-it. What, haven’t you people heard? Nobody does DVDs anymore.

Well, actually, people do. I’m doing one right now. Having shot my source in HDV I would have preferred to author a Blu-ray but, well ... you know how that story ends. In any case, I’m lucky enough to have DVD Studio Pro to author it with, so I don’t need iDVD. Had I been hoping for a fresh menu theme in iDVD to give my authoring effort a little more polish I would be, as they say, SOL. And a bit PO, because if I had paid the full price for the upgrade (due to a recent hardware purchase I qualified for a freebie) I would reasonably expect that the whole suite got some new bits. It’s not too much to ask, surely? I mean, it’s not as if Apple is so strapped for cash that it had to cut back on a software engineering team. Right?

So, leaving iDVD behind — and I don’t really mind leaving it behind because there’s not a very strong argument to be made for new features — brings us to iWeb. That iWeb was similarly left standing at the altar by its team leader is a great mystery.

Apple has been one of the most, if not the most, vocal supporters of the HTML5 standard. It also has been a vehement toe-cutter of Flash. It also has been building new features into MobileMe of late, and we all know the company is building a behemoth of a data centre in North Carolina, the purpose for which has not yet been made clear. It might be just a vanilla-flavoured data centre. Or it may be the hub of an ambitious conglomeration of web services into which the iLife 11 suite could not be dovetailed without showing Apple’s hand. We shall soon see which way those cards fall.

Put all of that into an equation and the product should be something along the lines of a bold new iWeb release, with not only the potential to dazzle its users with functionality that has long been missing (synced editing on more than one Mac, anyone?) but a showcase for Apple; a consumer-grade site-building app that  could be brandished as a banner for progress... “we believe in HTML5 and here’s all of its power and wonder in the palm of your hand”.

Or not. Perhaps Apple isn't so committed to HTML5 after all?

So what’s the message? Foregoing the possibility that Apple has a game-changer waiting in the wings — say, system-wide web publishing tools built into OS X Lion — I’m left coddling a familiar disappointment because iLife '11, while it has a few new bits and bobs, just doesn’t come close to the feature leaps of previous iterations. Worse yet, iLife '11 is a bit lacklustre. Not only are iDVD and iWeb untouched, but iPhoto was actually destructive to users’ libraries prior to the (astonishingly quickly released) 9.0.1 update. GarageBand has a couple of features that bring a little polish but why have we had to wait so long to see any new music lessons? As for iMovie, the improvements are so incremental that the whole 11 suite adds up to one big “meh”.

Consequently, whether Apple is trying to send a message or not, I’m left wondering what happens next.

Will iLife '12 offer no new features in GarageBand? And iLife '13, will it have iDVD at all? Will either of these releases even happen? You know, I reckon ignoring 40 per cent of the apps in the iLife '11 suite feels like the thin end of the wedge.

Should this be surprising? The iLife suite was a great product in an age when the data cloud had no real meaning for most of us. It was a product for its time and a very good one at that. Times change, though. User needs and habits evolve, and you get to a point where a set of software tools arrives at the end of its evolutionary cycle and simply fades away.

Apple is perhaps prepping us for a new direction in software purchasing; one that doesn’t tie its software teams into delivering a regular iLife update. It might be progress, though calling it as much doesn’t fetter the disappointment of having your favourite software tools consigned to a slow death.

My strongest expectation is that iLife '11 will be the last upgrade to this suite any of us buy, or perhaps the penultimate one. I may be wrong but I’m willing to wager that a few years down the track, Apple will be issuing an advisory that it no longer officially supports iLife software at all.


Will Lion be king of the cats?

Written by Matthew JC Powell Thursday, 21 October 2010 05:55

Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his minions showed off a few headline features planned for the next version of Mac OS X at this morning's "Back to the Mac" event. The final release of Mac OS X 10.7 — "Lion" — is planned for the northern summer of 2011, so it's not far away. Yet the highlights we've seen so far look more incremental than revolutionary.

The philosophical drive behind the features demonstrated in Lion is bringing technological lessons learned in developing the multitouch iOS devices back to the Mac. That is, the next version of Mac OS X looks, at least from some angles, much more like an iPad. And I'm not at all sure that's a good thing.

Let's start with the Launchpad idea, with pages of applications as found on iOS devices, arranged in grids of big colourful icons all over the desktop. Pretty. If you haven't got many applications, it might even be a nice way to launch them.

Of course, if you have a lot of applications, and many Mac users do, you're going to end up with a bewildering array of icons out there. The same thing happened on the iPhone, with users downloading and installing many more apps than Apple had envisaged. The solution was first to increase the number of screenfuls of icons you could have, and when that wasn't enough to allow users to create folders to keep their apps sorted. If that's too confusing, go to the Spotlight screen, type in the name of the app you want to use, and tap it.

On the Mac we already have such a system. It's called the Application folder, and inside it you can have a Utilities folder, and a Games folder, and whatever else you want. It works. It's always worked. If you don't like digging in folders you've got the Dock for your main things, and there's always the Spotlight trick (press Command and the space bar, then type a few letters of the name of the application you want to start, and hit return).

I'm prepared to give this some thought over the coming days and weeks, but I have to say, at first blush, it looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Beyond that, there really wasn't much to talk about. Take for example Full Screen Apps, a system in which an application appropriately designed to do so can take over the entire screen, leaving you without so much as a menu bar to remind you you're using a Mac. You know, the way iPhoto '11 can, right now in Snow Leopard. Or, for that matter, the way almost any "serious" game does.

Full Screen Apps aren't actually a feature of Lion.

Then there's the App Store, an iOS-like method for distribution of applications whereby Apple becomes the conduit for developers to get their wares onto people's computers. This could be a good thing, in terms of getting developers a quick and easy way to get their apps in front of people, not to mention quick distribution of updates. It could be a bad thing, if Apple ends up being the gatekeeper as it does on iOS and stops some applications being distributed via its App Store.

Either way, it will be available within 90 days, according to Jobs. So it's not a feature of Lion.

Let's not forget FaceTime, the I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-iChat video calling system that Apple is bringing over from the iPhone 4. It's cool, to be sure and once I know anyone who's installed it I'll be sure to have a play with it. I've installed the beta already, tried to place a call from my Mac to my iPhone, and failed. Oh well, it's a beta.

And it's available today. Not exactly waiting for Lion on this one either.

Mission Control looks interesting, as a way to manage multiple apps that are running, including Full Screen applications, multiple-window applications, even Dashboard widgets (and I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing Dashboard got a bit more attention). It's an enhancement to Exposé and Spaces, and could just as easily have been added to 10.6 — I don't see anything architectural about Mission Control that requires it to be a part of a new operating system.

I'm not saying the demo today wasn't impressive — it was, and I'm sure some of these features will enhance the way I work with my Mac. But I was hoping to see something that made me look forward to Lion with bated breath. Something that made me think the next version of Mac OS X was going to be a big leap forward.

What I saw looks more like Mac OS X 10.6.5. Sure, Mac OS X is a stable, mature operating system now, and it's not lacking big things like a backup system or file encryption, or a search function — the stuff that headlined previous OS X revisions has already been done and doesn't need to be done again.

But Apple's business is innovation. It sells revolution as much as it sells technology. Apple is a company that changes the world. Maybe that's an unfair bar to set, but it's a bar Apple set for itself. Today's preview was not a revolution.

Before this Lion can walk with pride, it's going to need some more teeth.

Discuss this with me in MacTheForum!


Traffic is key

Written by Chris Oaten Thursday, 21 October 2010 00:00

When it comes to making a living at photography, I’ll let you into a little secret. It’s hard. It’s really hard. While the few photographers perched at the top of the industry may be commanding big sums, most photographers struggle to make a living.

Earlier this week I was speaking to the manager of Adelaide’s leading professional photo lab, who offered a very good example of how tough times are. He said a well-known wedding and portrait photographer of 20 years standing had told him that if she had to pay rent, she’d be broke. This is a photographer I know (or know of, more accurately) who does superb work yet, despite regular bookings, is struggling to make a buck.

People don’t value photography as much as they once did. Pricing for photography services has been driven down, although photographers themselves are partly to blame for that. Whatever the reasons for the difficult economic conditions and uncertain business climate, photographers need to manage their costs of production very carefully.

Here, the internet can come to the rescue, providing a very cost-effective way to sell photos. Or does it? I’ve had a go at it and only recently derived a formula, or an approach, that makes selling photos online viable.

Here’s the problem.

But first, rewind. Do you remember when the world wide web was in its infancy? When all the cool kids were signing on with GeoCities for a free web page? Yeah, you remember. It was all so exciting back then. A frontier waiting to be conquered. Not any more.

The thing is that back then there was a saying among the sceptical: “Building a web site is like putting up a billboard on the Nullarbor. Who’s going to see it?” It was the sort of luddite reaction to the web that made those of us embracing the new frontier cringe. But there was, and still is, a lot of truth in it.

The web these days is a very busy place and trying to sell photos through the medium is a tough job. You first need to get some traffic, then you need to offer something people want to buy. Then you have to deliver. Then you have to be certain that your customers are happy with what they bought because if they aren’t the whole world will know about it in as much time as it takes to type 140 characters or less.

The flip side, of course, is that if you do a good job of it, you’ll have a lot of people driven to your site for next to no cost. We like it when that happens.

So what can you sell that makes money? Beautiful landscapes? Stunning macro studies of frogs? Sports? You probably could sell all that stuff online, but not directly, though of course there are always going to be some shooters who for whatever reason manage to sell such images off their own bat.

Mostly, though, photo agencies for images with short use-by dates and stock photo libraries for all the other stuff is where that action is. Or perhaps not.

People do make a living through news photo agencies such as Getty but they are strongly committed to the task. And there’s a lot of them doing it and doing a good job of it, so if you want to break in you’d better be ready to work hard.

When it comes to stock photos, the news there is not so encouraging. Digital photography has fuelled a glut in stock photos, payments for stock have diminished, and to be successful with agencies such as iStockphoto you need to have as much skill at networking and keywording as you do with your camera. Perhaps more.

I am only a conduit for the opinions of others more closely connected to the industry. I keep an eye on the stock industry because I’ve always been interested in shooting for it. But what I keep reading from those in the know is that it’s a very tough game.

All of that said, I’m selling photos online. Not through an agency, but through my own site, and last month I reached a milestone. For the first time, I actually made a decent return for my efforts.

What was I selling? Sports and school photos.

My online sales involve an industry partner who provides server space for my images and an e-commerce facility, so I can send customers there to buy photos and not have to worry about processing credit card payments. It took me a while to decide on a lab, but in the end I went with a local pro photo lab, which prints on photographic paper for much better results than can be obtained with even the best inkjet printer. Also, since it's a local business I can easily liaise with the lab, so if my customers are having a problem there’s a short loop between a complaint and a resolution.

So far, feedback has been very good, bar one customer who had some hassles with her credit card payment, though as it turned out this was more of a problem between chair and keyboard. The lab I use isn’t the cheapest but the quality of print output is dependable and in the long run that’s more important to me than squeezing some extra margin by sending prints to a cheap online photo finisher.

Yet what you may find surprising is what drove me to engaging this industry partner. Let me clue you in to something that most people don’t properly account for. Your time. I started out printing my own images for sale to customers. This was when I had more time than money and less money than sense. After a while, as I got busier with assignments, the time I had to set aside for receiving a print order, printing it, packaging it and delivering it was getting in the way of getting other stuff done, not to mention the time that was gobbled up by managing printer consumables.

Under closer examination, I realised that doing my own prints wasn’t making money. It was costing me money. It was around then that I decided I’d hand off the printing side of my business to a pro lab. Now, when a job comes along that has a lot of potential buyers (such as school and sports photography) the biggest challenge is not finding the time to print the orders, it’s the task of gathering email addresses so that I can market the images by driving interested buyers to my online galleries.

So this is my advice to you if you’re interested in selling photos online: it doesn’t matter what you’re shooting; what matters is driving buyers to your online store. In my case, I manage this by targeting buyers with an email campaign and leveraging exposure through the web sites of the organisations involved in the event that I shot. In your case, the best solution may be social media, or a combination of this, my approach and some other method.

However you do it, just do it. Because creating an online gallery of even the best photos on the planet won’t make you any money if your site is just another billboard on the Nullarbor.

Discuss this with me in MacTheForum!


The value of an App

Written by Alex Kidman Monday, 18 October 2010 18:05

Last week, I had a meeting with my accountant. Perhaps you're different, but I don't particularly enjoy meeting my accountant. Not that he isn't a nice man, or anything like that. For all I know, he spends his spare time helping old ladies cross the road and rescuing lost kittens from trees.

No, I don't enjoy meeting with my accountant for the simple reason that I don't much like accounting. Fiddly numbers, the burden of taxes and the worry that I've got something wrong. Essentially, that's what I pay him for, and for the most part things went as smoothly as could be expected.

Right up until he asked me for a bit of information that I flat out forgot to bring with me. A rather vital bit of information. I'm not going to say what it was (because it was private commercial information), but suffice it to say that without it I was going to have to book another meeting with him — and pay him for at least another hour of his time.

Luckily, I had my iPad on me, and a copy of LogMeIn Ignition on it. A bit of waiting for 3G, and I could log into my home system and grab the relevant information with ease. To say I was rather grateful I'd brought the iPad with me would be an understatement. To say that LogMeIn was rather worth its purchase price would equally be an understatement.

Quick ethical disclosure: The copy of LogMeIn Ignition running on my iPad was provided to me as a complimentary review copy. My point still stands, however, as it occurred to me as I was checking my home system that I could have bought it and downloaded it over 3G and still saved myself a bucketload of accountancy fees on the spot anyway.

I tweeted at the time how grateful I was for the combination, and got various feedback commenting that it was decent software, but "too expensive". The whole argument about what an App is worth is something that's often mulled over, and there's no doubt that as consumers we've benefited from low cost and plenty of free applications.

Still, I'd argue strongly that an application is worth to you exactly what benefit it conveys. I've purchased plenty of applications that have later gone "free", but that doesn't fuss me. I still feel like I've had decent value from them. The average purchase price of an App is still exceptionally low, so arguing over pennies seems particularly pointless. In the case of higher priced applications, however, if you're going to use them in a way that provides a direct benefit (as per my LogMeIn example above), they can still be excellent "value".

Discuss this with me in MacTheForum!


Not ready for Lion just yet

Written by Matthew JC Powell Thursday, 14 October 2010 10:16

I’m glad to see the theme for next week’s Apple announcement is “Back to the Mac”. I’m something of a Mac enthusiast myself, and while all the iGadgets are very cool and revolutionary and magical and whatever else, the Mac is my main area of interest. Lately — I’m not the only one who’s thought this — Apple’s interest seems to have been elsewhere.

Welcome back.

One thing that does give me cause for slight disquiet, though, is the glimpse of a lion’s face barely visible through the small “opening” in the invitation sent out to media. It’s certainly in keeping with the trend of naming Mac OS X releases after big cats — but isn’t it a little early?

The sequence so far — Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard — hasn’t really been in any particular order. It’s possible but not at all certain that, somewhere in Cupertino, there’s been a piece of paper all this time with the entire sequence of code names spelt out. How could it have been known back in 2001, for instance, that by about Mac OS X 10.5 people would be getting a bit tired of the pace of upgrades and 10.6 really ought to focus on performance improvements and getting the code base settled on Intel? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Nonetheless, even without the notion of a pre-ordained sequence of big cats, I had always assumed that “Lion” would be the last of them. It’s the King of the Jungle, the biggest of the big cats, the mighty Mufasa. What could possibly follow it? Whatever version of Mac OS X comes after Lion would have to be a step down in rank, wouldn’t it?

So I expected that Lion would be Mac OS X 10.9. “Lynx” and “Cougar” have not been used yet, nor have some lesser big cats such as “Bobcat” or “Clouded Leopard”. OK, maybe that last one wouldn’t have been so great. And you might argue that a cougar and a puma are the same thing, but a jaguar and a panther are the same thing too and that didn’t stop Apple. (For that matter, leopards, lions and tigers are all types of panther and in genetic terms a snow leopard is actually a tiger — but let’s not get technical.) I thought there’d be something in between 10.6 and Lion is all I’m saying.

I assumed that whatever followed Lion in the sequence of Apple’s operating system releases would not be a big cat — it would not, in fact, be OS X but whatever it is that will follow OS X.

The original Mac OS lasted from its first introduction on the Lisa in 1983 to its last significant update in 2000 — after that it was just tweaks to improve the compatibility of the “Classic” environment in Mac OS X. 17 years is actually not a bad life for an operating system.

When Mac OS was replaced with Mac OS X it was a complete transplant — Mac OS X is not a version of Mac OS, it’s a version of Unix that looks like Mac OS.  Gil Amelio put the mockers on Mac OS when he killed the Copland project in 1996 and started looking for something to acquire instead. With the acquisition of NeXT, OpenStep (formerly NeXTStep) was renamed Mac OS X, but out of nostalgia more than anything else.

Will what follows Mac OS X even be called Mac OS? I can’t help but wonder, given Apple’s toying about with the name of the operating system on iPhones and iPads. “iOS” is a terrible name and surely can’t stay for long, but “Mac OS X iPhone” has already been tried and dropped — will iOS go Back to the Mac?

All of that is pure speculation of course and I invite you to excoriate me for it on MacTheForum.

My point, though, before I got sidetracked, was that I believed we had another two versions (three to four years) before we got to Lion, and a couple of years of Lion before we found out what would be next. That would have put whatever follows Mac OS X around 2017 — 17 years after its introduction. Seem like a familiar number?

Of course it’s by no means a given that Mac OS X will be “replaced” in the way Mac OS was. Mac OS X has roots dating back several decades. Its underpinnings are tested, proved, and solid. Where Mac OS lacked capabilities that were required of a modern operating system, Mac OS X shows no such lack. Its adaptability even to the radically altered world of touch-based mobile computing is testament to that.

Still you can’t help wondering. And I’m far from the first pundit to wonder about it. But didn’t you think we had a little more time before we had to know the answer?

Discuss this with me in MacTheForum!