Apr 232010

If you get yourself one of Apple’s iThingies (an iPhone, iPad, or iTouch) you are officially restricted to installing software onto it from the selection in Apple’s App store. Which is hardly news, as is the news that geeky types do not like this – which is why the iThingies have been “jailbroken” to allow the addition of unauthorised software.

At this point I would like to point out that I am not an Apple hater – I own an iPhone 3G and intend to upgrade to an iPhone 4G (when it comes out). I also use a Macbook Pro as my work laptop. I like Apple products. But Apple gets and deserves some criticism …

Much of the criticism of Apple’s software model for the iThingies has revolved around the continual censorship of the applications allowed into the App store. This is fair enough, and indeed Apple has made itself a laughing stock with inconsistency applied standards with applications rejected for breaching conditions not applied to other applications. In addition even Apple’s published standards can be become more restrictive leading to situations where you can find it impossible to restore an application that you have paid for!

But despite these disadvantages, the App Store method of software distribution does on the surface offer something genuinely advantageous to the average consumer. The applications in the App Store have been verified by Apple as being appropriate for use – reducing the malware problem considerably. One of the regulations is that applications should not be capable of interpreting code (approximately) which reduces if not eliminates the damage a compromised application can cause.

But a single source of applications is limiting and potentially dangerous. Indeed it can even be considered to be a restriction on trade as Apple is the gatekeeper (and insists on a rather large toll) for any developer who wants to develop for the iThingies. Perhaps ordinary consumers do not care about this especially when you consider that many applications have a very reasonable cost.

But it is still of some concern. The restrictions make experimentation more difficult.

But perhaps more seriously it prevents tinkering by ordinary consumers. This can be an advantage but is also a significant disadvantage as the very people who developed the iThingies would have tinkered with consumer devices as children on their way to becoming developers. By restricting tinkering by children we restrict the size of possible people who go on to become the techies of the future.

The obvious counter to this are the existence of other devices that are far more open – even equivalent devices to Apple’s iThingies such as the various Google Android devices. But if Apple’s App store model is successful enough (and it certainly seems to be heading that way), we could find ourselves with the same model being extended to not only competitors to Apple’s iThingies, but to more general purpose computing devices – netbooks, laptops, desktops, or even servers.

We could end up in a situation where the only devices you can buy are devices that can only run software sanctioned by the vendor. A dangerous possibility.

Jan 302010

According to an article on The Register, our friends at Adobe are  somewhat irritated by Apple’s insistence on not allowing Flash to run on the iPhone and now the iPad. Because Apple’s platform for both products is closed, Adobe has to live with Apple’s decision on whether to allow it or not. Complaining about it amuses me, because Adobe is effectively guilty of the same kind of actions.

Almost all desktop web browsers have had the Flash plugin installed so “enhance the web browsing experience”. The fact is that we do not have much choice in the matter – many web developers insist on putting Flash elements onto web pages; sometimes the lack of Flash is merely irritating, but in many cases the whole purpose of the web service is list without Flash. For instance a Flash-less YouTube would be somewhat short on video (there is an experimental HTML5 video interface for YouTube which looks interesting but I am overlooking that for now).

Mind you that Flash plugin is also responsible for most the occasions when your web browser crashes, and it also has a tendency to “spin the wheel” and consume huge quantities of cpu time to no purpose. Admittedly it may be that the Flash experience on more conservative platforms (such as Windows) may be less unpleasant, but from what I have heard, Flash doesn’t much like Windows either.

Perhaps Apple does not want their products to get the reputation of being unreliable and unresponsive ? Of course the reason that Apple gives is that the Flash plugin is an interpreter and that they do not allow such software onto the iPhone/iPad platform for security reasons. Now on a phone, the lack of Flash can be overcome by producing specialist applications such as the YouTube app, or by accepting a phone just is not as effective at browsing the web. Of course on something like the iPad, it is going to be a little harder to accept when web sites appear broken.

Which is of course Adobe’s point. And to some extent they are right. But you do suspect that Adobe are actually more worried about their own business than the interests of consumers.

If the iPad takes off, those web sites that use Flash extensively are going to have a big incentive to produce alternate versions of their sites. Some may well opt to “wrap” their site into a iPhone/iPad app; others may simply opt to switch to HTML5 and it’s support for video (which is not quite ready for prime time just yet). The modern standard of HTML provides for much more options in generating dynamic content.

Of course this hypothetical shift away from Flash content would be bad for Adobe, because people will be less interested in paying for Adobe’s content production software. Perhaps Adobe should admit defeat and modify their software to generate standards-based web pages rather than closed binary “blobs”. It will certainly be easier to do that than to persuade Apple to unlock their platform!

Jan 272010

Enough details have leaked from the announcement to talk a little about Apple’s new toy – the iPad (which seems to be one of the less popular guesses about the name – I went with the “iSlate” possibility). For those looking for the specifications :-

  • 1.25cm thick.
  • 700g heavy
  • 25cm multitouch display
  • 1GHz Apple A4 chip – presumably an ARM variant.
  • Between 16GB and 64GB of flash memory
  • Around 10 hours of battery life.

And it starts at $499 for a 16Gbyte one limited to WiFi access – what’s the betting that means £499 in the UK ?

Basically it’s a big iPhone with all the advantages and disadvantages that brings – both great usability and savage vendor lock-in. There are a few new presumably built-in applications to allow for the greater functionality possibilities – an eBook reader, iWorks, etc.

Interestingly Apple also announced a keyboard for the iPad and implies that it should work with any bluetooth keyboard. Finally admitted that not allowing keyboards on the iPhone was a mistake ? Maybe Steve Jobs finally listened to me 🙂 Who knows ? Maybe the next version of the iPhone software will include keyboard support.

And where’s the forward facing webcam ? That is perhaps the biggest missing feature. Whilst you may want a separate device for making normal videos, a webcam suitably placed for video chatting is pretty much the norm for those little Netbooks that Steve hates so much.

There are other things missing too :-

  • A set of magnets to let you stick the iPad to your fridge in the kitchen – get a recipe up on the iPad, stick it onto the fridge whilst you cook.
  • An SD card slot or two. Who wants to buy a replacement iPad if you find that the 16Gbyte version is not quite big enough. Well Steve wants you to, but an SD card slow would let you hold off on that extra purchase.
  • A USB port or four. Sure there’s Apple’s dock connector and I’m not suggesting they get rid of it. But not have a USB port to allow emergency charging and connecting to a portable hard disk ? Or a USB keyboard ?

The funny thing about the Apple site is that special section proclaiming how green Apple is with their iPad. Total rubbish of course. There is no user replaceable battery and no expandable storage, so the only option you are left with when the battery life declines to a level where it becomes useless or you run out of storage, is to throw the old iPad away and buy a new one. Being green isn’t just about using less environmentally hostile materials.

But does it do anything about the vendor lock-in for content ? It does not seem very likely – this is Apple we are talking about after all. However it does seem that the iBook application (and it used to be the name of a nifty Apple laptop) does support the ePub format. Whether that means that content bought through iBook will be transportable to other devices remains to be seen.

Whilst most of us are used to vendor lock-in when it comes to software – Windows software runs on machines running Windows; OSX software runs on Apple computers, and Linux software runs everywhere(!). We are not so used to the idea that content is only available on one device.

If I buy a book, a film on disc, a magazine, I own a physical object that I can put on shelves and go back to later. If I buy an eBook to go on the iPad, can I read it on anything else ? My Sony reader ? Anything else ? Well we do not have enough details to say, but I doubt it.

Content “hoarders” who accumulate scarily large piles of books, etc. are unlikely to be too keen on a content paradigm that means that content stays locked to a device. I have books that are in the region of 100 years old, and even some tatty paperbacks that belonged to my grandfather; will I still be able to read eBooks that I bought on the iPad in 40 years time ?

As it is an Apple product is has a certain “cool” aura, and I am sure it will sell. Heck, if Apple announced a downgraded iPod Classic they would have fans who would buy it without checking that the new hard disk (120Gbytes) was smaller than the old (160Gbytes). Will it change the way we think of consuming content ? I somehow doubt it. It will however push forward the idea of tablet type devices as a way of consuming content; not enough to gain iPhone-like status (which effectively put the smartphone into the hands of the ordinary consumer, and gave a swift sharp kick to other smartphone manufacturers).

Would I buy one ? Well if I had not already bought a netbook/slate to use as a couch potato machine – I tend to look things up whilst watching TV – I might very well do so. But would it replace my Sony eReader if I managed to put my own DRM-free eBooks onto it in a satisfactory manner. Hmm … will Stanza adapt well to the iPad ?

Hey! Apple, want to donate one in return for a review ? 🙂

Still not convinced by the name – iPad ? Sounds kind of American and comes across kind of odd to British ears – Apple’s crash-pad, a pad for dealing with spills, not a notebook that we use for scribbling notes in.

Jan 252010

According to an article from The Register, there has been a study to show that people in Britain rarely use their smartphones to “connect to the Internet”, and in the very next sentence mentions “surfing the web”. Well which one do they mean ?

Yes there is a difference, and that difference is important as we’ll go on to find out …

The exception to the trend are iPhone users who do use their smartphones to connect to the Internet more than other smartphone users. As an iPhone user myself, I can point out two things that to anyone who thinks that “accessing the Internet” and “surfing the web” are the same thing appears to be contradictory :-

  1. I very rarely browse the web on the iPhone.
  2. I frequently connect to the Internet using different applications on the iPhone – in particular instant messaging, email, and various reference tools (such as Wikipanion).

Now that’s got most of the dumb IT industry analysts going “Uh?”.

The reason that nobody browses the web on a smartphone is that the screen is just too small. Ok, the iPhone screen is pretty nice, but it is still too small for browsing the web – all that pinching in and out so you can see the web page as a whole and then read the content, is just a little tedious. And why not wait a few minutes until you have access to a better screen ?

Where the Internet usage comes from are the little applications that effectively present the Internet in an appropriate way for such a small screen – the map that shows the nearest bars, the search tool that looks up what you enter in a dictionary, in Wikipedia, etc. And of course instant messaging and VoIP.

Jan 252010

For those coming by a bit late, this was written before the Apple “iSlate” (if it gets called that) is released. I am not intending to update this when it does get released – making changes to star-gazing blog entries after the event comes close to cheating.

The suspicion is that Apple’s new tablet computer will be a scaled up iPhone rather than a scaled down Macbook, although what difference this makes when both run essentially the same operating system is open to question (for those who question this, have you logged into a jail-broken iPhone? No? Well you don’t know what you’re talking about then). After all a number of Hackintosh people have put OSX onto tablet PCs to roll their own iSlates complete with handwriting recognition with software provided in every copy of OSX.

The funny thing about all the fuss about Apple’s new device is that the numerous ARM-based slates that showed up at CES gathered far less fuss that you might expect.

The interesting thing are the number of people who believe Apple could well succeed where other Tablet computers have “failed”. Not everyone believes this of course, although I’m not sure how seriously you need to take someone who believes that Microsoft invented the tablet computer in 2001. After all Microsoft released “Pen Windows” to sabotage GO’s PenPoint OS (and apparently stole many of the basic concepts) way back in 1992!

So have tablet computers really failed ?

Perhaps you do not see A5-A4 sized tablets at every business meeting, but tablets are still widespread in particular markets. It would seem that those declaring doom and despondency have limited visions of what “success” means – if someone makes a profit selling tablet PCs, they are a success.

But those watching Apple are expecting or hoping that Apple will turn the tablet into a mainstream product – to have as much success with their tablet as they have had with their iPhone. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. It all depends on the whimsical nature of the marketplace.

Do tablet computers have a place in the mainstream ? Quite possibly as long as it is not seen as a competitor to the laptop or the desktop. This is chiefly because the screen size is just not going to be big enough to work in the way we are used to.

There are those who claim that the lack of a keyboard will stop a tablet from succeeding. There are two mistakes here – firstly they are assuming that tablets will be used like laptops. And secondly they are assuming that a large on screen keyboard is not sufficient for the occasional bit of typing – a few instant messaging comments, commenting on a video, etc.

Of course there is nothing stopping you from adding a bluetooth keyboard (or even wired) to a tablet computer. You would need some form of stand to hold the tablet in a laptop configuration – like this (ok that is not really a stand, but you get the idea).

But what will make a tablet computer big is the content – tablets are by their nature devices for consuming content. Reading books, watching videos, browsing the web, etc. The rumour is that Apple is looking to get subsidies for their tablet by going to content creators; the danger with that is that the content creators will expect their investment back and then some – with the risk that they will overprice the content discouraging it’s use.

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