hardware

The iParanoid Scenario

I’m not through with the iPad. Actually, I’m just warming up. For today’s column, let’s focus on the perils of a closed system.

I live in a country (France) where censorship is a big deal. It comes mostly from greedy celebrities (sorry for the truism); they use a legal system that largely favors them. Often, they find a compassionate judge when it comes to extracting money as compensation for a supposed privacy violation or for some other unauthorized disclosure. Convictions are frequent and expensive; they can lead to the seizure of a magazine or even of a book. France has a long history of such practices. In the early sixties, the country was waging a colonial war in Algeria. Then, for the most avid news readers, the game was to get the weekly magazine l’Express at the kiosk as early as possible before French authorities seized it. (No such risk with today’s Gallic newsmagazines).

Let me reframe this in the context of an upcoming iPad era. An iPad newsmagazine publishes an investigative piece that triggers a legal injunction: remove that from the publication or face a $10,000 penalty per day. No, says the publisher, who has guts and money (proof this is a fiction), we want to fight in court. The plaintiff then turns to Apple. Same talk: face a huge fine, or remove the offending content. Furthermore, says the plaintiff’s attorneys, thanks to your permanent and unique electronic link to your proprietary devices and the fact that the electronic kiosk now resides on the device – yes we can argue that point, they say– , you must extend the deletion to each user’s tablet. C’mon, you keep pushing updates, and various contents bits to these gizmos, you can push a delete instruction code.

What would Apple do? This is a question of balance of power. If the legal action involves some neuron-challenged celebrity, chances are Apple won’t balk. But what if Nicolas Sarkozy or his whispering-singer wife are the plaintiffs? Truth is, given the pattern of legal actions against the press in France, it is more than certain a French judge will be tempted to request an immediate remote deletion of a presumed infringing content. Then we’ll see a replay of what happened last summer in the 1984 case, when Amazon remotely deleted a copy of George Orwell’s novel in the Kindle of buyers for copyrights issues. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos apologized profusely for the mishap (plus it involved 1984 not Alice in Wonderland, tough luck). More

iPad Thoughts

Let me start with an important caveat. For this I’ll refer you to a post from my favorite high-tech blogger, David Pogue. “Don’t pass judgment until you’ve tried it!” Wise counsel: three years ago, industry sages “knew” Apple had no business making a phone. Normal humans voted with their wallet.

Customers come in two categories: cats and dogs. Put new cat food before your feline companion, she’ll walk around the dish, indifferent to your entreaties, suspicious, bidding her time. Dogs aren’t that complicated: they jump on the new dog food and greedily scarf it down.
I’m a dog, I’ll try (almost) any new high-tech product. But, as the advertising lore likes to say: Will the dog come back to the dog food? That’s how you know you have a viable product. We’ll see in a couple of months if I keep my new iPad or if our daughter Marie resells it for me on eBay – for a fee, she’s a businesswoman.

In the meantime, five thoughts.

First, we have no idea of what the iTunes App Store will do for the iPad. As usual, the temptation is use derivative thinking: The iPad is like ___ only bigger, or smaller. A bigger iPod Touch is the more common thought. So, yes, most iPhone or iPod Touch apps will scale nicely. But this much bigger XGA (1024 by 768) screen is “more enough” for iPad applications to be genuinely different as opposed to mere derivations of iPhone apps. Apple comes up with their own iWork apps showing but one example of uses that aren’t just an extension of the iPhone world.

Gizmodo has one of the few posts, among the tens of thousands of iPad-related blog entries, focusing on in-app purchases. Last Summer, a new iPhone OS release introduced the ability to make purchases from within an application, without jumping out to a Web site. As a counter-example, look at the current iPhone Kindle app: when you want to buy books you leave the app and go to a dedicated page on Amazon’s site to order the book and direct its digital delivery to your iPhone. Apple offers a simpler mechanism: buy what you need, weapons or lives in a game, virtual reality clothes, furniture or buildings from within the gaming or VR app. Apple smoothes out the transaction, billed to your iTunes account, takes 30% for its services. This is great for some merchant but Amazon doesn’t see it that way.
This is relevant to Frederic’s point about newspapers and magazines in today’s note: the Financial Times could deploy a free FT app on the iPad, complete with teasers for today’s paper or for a special research report. Click and you download the paper, or a magazine. See here what the Swedish group Bonnier thinks of the new possibilities afforded by powerful tablets. The Mag+ demo is very Apple-like, I’ll even say Jon Ive-like, complete with a veddy Briddish accent.
I can’t wait for the things I can’t imagine coming out of the brains and loins of my fellow geeks.

Second, real users, paying customers, as opposed to geeks and braying critics.

I’m going to get in trouble for this, but hear me out.

More

The Apple Licensing Myth

Legends die hard. In the pre-Web days, they got printed and reprinted, told and retold and so became official, like spinach being good for you because it held the iron your red cells needed. After decades of the disgusting veggie inflicted upon young kids – I remember, a scientist went back to the bench and found out there was no digestible iron whatsoever in spinach. You don’t get calcium by ingesting chalk, you need a calcium compound that’ll get through the sophisticated filters in the digestive system. Eating spinach gives you as much  digestible iron as sucking nails.

The spread of legends gets worse with the Web. Stories, I’m avoiding the word “information”, travel fast, I’ll sidestep “light-speed”. Yarns bounce around a world-wide echo chamber. If I hear it from five sources, it must be true. Never mind the so-called sources heard it from one another in sequence. Worse indeed, as the Web never forgets, everything gets cached, archived and will be unearthed by search engines.
This creates a need and entrepreneurs pop out of the quantum vacuum ready to fill it: a Google search reveals at least three companies, reputationrestore.org, reputationrestorer.net and restore-reputation.com who promise to clean up your besmirched Web image. Actually, these three look like the same company and, at the risk of unfairly tarnishing their own rep, they look like one of these only too frequent scams purporting to protect you from scams. Ah well…

So it goes for a tenacious legend, the one that Apple “lost” the market because it failed to license the Mac operating system to “everyone” and thus get to own the market instead of losing it to the “obviously inferior” Microsoft product.
A few days ago, no less than über-blogger Henry Blodget, the Internet Bubble repentito now head of Business Insider blog hub fell for it. This industry observer who admitted he never set foot in an Apple Store, not a sin if your territory is the quick oil-change industry, chides Apple for “making the same mistake again”. In Dear Henry’s view, just like in the 80’s, Apple insists “on selling fully integrated hardware and software devices, instead of focusing on low-cost, widely distributed software”. As a result, Apple will lose to the Open Source Android, just like Apple lost to Microsoft.

I know we shouldn’t let facts get in the way of a good story, but let’s take a closer look at today’s as well as yesterday’s data. More

The 2010 Tech Watch List

Looking back at last year’s “Things to watch in 2009”, I’ll narrow the field a little bit: no more discussion of the auto industry, electric car markitecture notwithstanding, nor disquisitions of congress shenanigans, too much raw sewage material. Let’s stay with safer and generally cleaner/happier computer industry topics.

Microsoft 2.0 a.k.a. Google.

What is known: In its heyday, Microsoft strived to be all things to all people, from Office applications to Consumer Electronics (Windows CE), to Enterprise Computing (Exchange, Windows Server, SQL and Jet Servers and more), to mobile phones (WIndows Mobile just re-christened Windows Phone), to games (MSX and now the Xbox), to the Internet Explorer, .Net and now various Windows Live offerings and the Bing search product. And even more, such as various attempts at image processing for pros and consumers.
Now, we have Google with a similarly all-embracing land grab on the Web, from books to smartphones, from CAD software (yes, Sketchup) to music, video, “office” applications, collaboration, digital photography, application hosting, a payment system and more.

What is worth watching: When will Google’s “organic” growth start showing its limits? No tree ever reaches the sky. Google’s current strategy is eerily similar to Microsoft’s old “jump on anything that moves”. And, yes, it is smart to make Google a universal destination by using advertising revenue to finance free offerings that, in turn, channel more viewers to Google advertising.
But, eventually, the organism starts drowning in its toxic waste, meaning Google will face management tasks beyond its reach, or advertising revenue wont be able to subsidize everything else for ever, or it will slip and miss an important emerging trend such as social networks, see Facebook below.

Or, Google will become too powerful for the public good, destroying competition only too well and politicians will have their way with the Mountain View company. Unless Google learns, gets the better lobbyists and has its way with us like Wall Street, Big Pharma and Telecom companies, to name the best, do. More

The e-book tractor application

Let’s rejoice: French teachers embrace the internet. Well, calm down. I’m not saying they embrace it the way I would like them to. This week saw two technological breakthroughs at my son’s Parisian high-school. The first one is a decision-support tool on the school’s website: it helps parents decide whether or not to send their kids to school when a protest blocks the gates, something that happens several times a year. Usually, my son whips up his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning : “Hey, dad, this just in: a text-message… gates are jammed by a barricade of trash bins (the kids’ touching expression of solidarity to last week’s teacher union action), I can go back to sleep”. Now, I’ll be able to fact-check the SMS alert on the web. (No webcam, though, I’ll have to rely on teachers’ good faith).

The second breakthrough happens as I immerse myself in the Life Science course for the same text-message freak, Abercrombie-clad kid who happens to be my offspring. Then, an epiphany. His science professor is an internet fan. Don’t get me wrong, here. As 90% of the 1.3m members of L’éducation Nationale (the world’s biggest employer after the erstwhile Red Army or, worse, today’s Wal-Mart), I’m sure the lady loathes the internet. You see: the net flaunts apalling attributes of foreign technology, it is the vector of free market ideology. Sorry, Larry and Sergei. Your Google is definitely evil, down here.

OK, the web can be convenient for educators. Actually, there is ample evidence the science teacher I’m referring to doesn’t understand what she teaches but, at least, she tries. Parts of her course come straight form the net. To the point where kids systematically google (sorry) excerpts to see where they come from. Needless to say, this is a powerful boost to the teacher’s credibility — to be found in one of the trash bins at the school’s gates.

Stay with me please, I’m coming back to this column’s subject: e-books. Last week, as my son and I lose ourselves in the genome’s arcana for an upcoming school-test, I get my own revelation. As I struggle to decipher the absurdly complex definition of amino acid in a textbook totally deprived of any practical example, my son browses the web in search of an explanation designed for normal humans. He googles genetic terms, lands on Wikipedia, which sends him to Inserm, a world-class French medical research lab. There, the lab’s site links to a better definition which, in turn, opens the door to a more detailed explanation, and so on. All the beauty and grandeur of hypertext, whose structure a 15-year-old boy navigates as if he were born in it — which, actually, is the case: the browser was invented about 15 years ago.

The e-book needs its tractor application and textbooks might be the “killer” one. Way better than the press (its time will come, but at a second stage). Still, media could benefit from a switch to the e-book form. More

The End Of Megapixel Wars – Part II – The Canon S90

Last August, I wrote about picture quality finally winning against macho marketing. In other words, it seemed Canon, Nikon and Sony were giving up the simplistic escalation: my camera has more pixels than yours, therefore it is better. In the P&S (Point & Shoot) category especially, the facts were that more pixels ended up producing mediocre pictures.

P&S cameras are the smaller (not necessarily simpler…) models you carry in your pocket and purse, as opposed to “superzooms”, bigger lenses with a wider range of focal length, or DSLR, bigger, heavier but also better, more flexible.
As discussed earlier, a look at DP Review’s excellent camera database will make the problem clearer: pixel density per cm² varies from 1.4 million, for high-end DSLRs, to 43 million for some P&S models. The smaller the pixel, the less photons received. The less photons per pixel, the less electrons they convert to in the sensor. This makes it harder to separate the “good” (picture) electrons from the “bad” (circuitry noise) ones. Everything else being equal, the result is higher pixel density means higher picture noise, that is worse picture quality, especially in low light when fewer photons fall on each sensor pixel.
(DP Review, arguably one of the 3 to 5 best photo sites on the Net, is now owned by Amazon. IMHO a smart move considering Amazon’s general reliance on user reviews to help its customers make good choices and, as a result, come back, and come back…) More

The Meaning of Droid

Literally, Droid is the new Motorola phone sold by Verizon and running Google’s latest Android 2.0 release. The early reviews are good and, cleverly, Google issued a new turn-by-turn navigation application for the platform, also well received, complete with voice control and street view pictures. The Droid starts selling later this week, on November 6th, I’ll get one ASAP and report.

Earlier Android-powered phones weren’t so great, I bought a T-Mobile G1 exactly one year ago and wasn’t overwhelmed. I then called it “just a first effort” and wrote: “It’s only a question of time before most phone makers and cellular carriers offer an Android model, 12 months or less.  Motorola, for example, is building a “social networking” Android phone.  This is precisely the beauty of the Android Open Source, it lets phone makers and carriers try different implementations, specialized models, vertical applications.”

One year later, we have a new situation, a real contender for the lead position in the exploding smartphone market. How will Android impact the rest of the industry: Motorola, Garmin, TomTom, Palm, Nokia, Microsoft, RIM and, of course, the iPhone’s meteoric rise?

For Apple, the short answer is: the iPhone will continue to apply the Macintosh method, that is controlling all or most of the user’s experience, with similar results: smaller market share, disproportionally larger profits than the separate hardware-software crowd. More on this later.

Let’s start with a tip of the hat to Motorola. Last year, I questioned Motorola’s strategy and even its survival. Their “mobile devices” business was going to be spun off, the smell perhaps, from the more dignified “institutional” business, selling communications gear to government and enterprise customers. Fortunately, the new co-CEO for the mobile devices business, Sanjay Jha, came in, saw the on-going wreckage, dumped everything, starting with the Windows Mobile anchor. Then, listening to his techies’ advice, Jha bet on Google’s Android. The result is the Droid smartphone, making Motorola a strong contender again. More

Microsoft ambivalence

Lots of earnings reports this week, mostly good ones. Apple did better than expected, even by the most enthusiastic earnings seers, so did Amazon whose shares went up 26.8% today, adding more than $10B to its market cap in one day. I’m happy to see a quality company, one that treats its customer better than the vast majority of short-term oriented businesses, reap rewards for a combination of long-term vision and everyday attention to detail. We’ll get back to Amazon in a future Monday Note, when we discuss the flurry of e-book readers.

You might have heard Microsoft just launched Windows 7 this past Thursday, to good reviews and newish Apple ads, more installments of the ‘I’m a PC, I’m a Mac’ age-old campaign. The gent who plays the PC, John Hodgman, is much more than the character he’s become known for. See the speech he wrote and delivered at the June 2009 White House Correspondents dinner: he roasts the newly elected Barack Obama, calling him the first nerd president. This YouTube video won’t bore you, I’m not sure I can say the same for the latest, somewhat repetitious Apple ads.

As for Windows 7 itself, I haven’t updated any of the four candidate computers I mentioned last week. In part because I want to hear from early upgraders before I take the plunge, I still have the expensive and painful memories of being a Vista early adopter in 2007. I was the first one in line at Fry’s, in Palo Alto, at 8:00 am on January 30th — and proud of it. When the door opened, I turned around and saw I was also the only one in line. Instead of taking the hint, I forged ahead, bought a big HP laptop and the full Office 2007 Professional DVD. I had grown reasonably adept at running Windows Xp machines and couldn’t imagine how painful the Vista experience would turn out to be. I’m more careful, this time.
There is also the money. Upgrading the four machines, including a first install on a Linux netbook will cost me about $800, plus some application software, plus my time. Upgrading five Macs in my family cost me $49 and not too much time as the process was, for me at least, uneventful.
(This said, I plan to write a few short subjects on strange bugs, UI caprice or ergonomics non-sense in Apple’s products. Being a polite optimist, I’ll marvel: if the products sell so well in spite of these kinks, imagine what would happen if these problems disappeared!) More

Processors: More, yes, but better?

Last week’s Intel Developers’ Forum brought the expected crop of new CPU chips. The simplest way to summarize what’s taking place is this:

  • We’re stuck at 3GHz, so we add more processors on the CPU chip.
  • Intel continues to lead with small “geometries”, 32 nanometers today, 22 nm tomorrow.
  • The company pitches its x-86 processors for mobile devices.

More processors: Once upon a time, each year brought a significant increase in processor speed. Not to be too wistful about the early PC days, but a 1 MHz processor ran “perfectly good” spreadsheets. Like many bouts of nostalgia, this one omits important bits of context such as the complexity of said VisiCalc model, what other software ran concurrently, if any, what storage and networking devices were supported, what kind of display and audio devices were offered. Still, I’d love to see the original assembly language version of Lotus 1-2-3 run on a “bare metal” DOS configuration brought up on a 3GHz Intel machine — a CPU clock 3,000 times faster than the 1983 vintage machine.


In the early 90’s, luxury was a 33MHz Pentium. Now we’re at 3GHz, apparently stuck there  for the last 4-5 years. (A history of Intel processors can be found here.).
Why?
The faster you move something around, the more power you need. Try lifting and lowering a 10 pound weight. Slowly at first, once every 5 seconds, then every second, then twice per second. Your own body temperature will give you the answer.
Inside a processor, we have transistors. These are logic gates, they open and close. In doing so, they shuttle electrons back and forth at the circuit’s clock speed. These electrons are not “weightless”, moving them consumes power, just as we do lifting weight. As the clock rate increases, more power is needed, the transistor temperature increases. There are more precise, more technical ways of expressing this; but the basic fact remains: faster chips are hotter chips. Knowing this, chip designers found ways to counter the temperature rise such as using smaller gates shuttling a smaller “mass of electrons” back and forth. Air or liquid cooling of chips does help as well. Still, we hit a wall. With today’s (and tomorrow’s foreseeable) silicon technology, we’re out of GHz.
So, what do we do for more powerful CPU chips? More

Technology: It’s Over…

In an “Entrepreneurial Thought Leader” lecture given at Stanford University earlier this year, Tom Siebel argues that all of the great technological advances and development of great companies are behind us – and the growth rate for the tech sector is just on par with the rate of current economic growth.

The previous sentence introduces a segment of the February 2009 Stanford lecture, see here for the event’s full video.

It’s not the first time some killjoy predicts the end of tech fun: in 1899, a Charles H. Duell, none less than the Commissioner of the US Patent and Trademark Office, the USPTO reportedly said: “Everything that can be invented has been invented”.
There is a distinct possibility the infamous quote is nothing but an urban legend but, time and again, some sage comes to a forum and tells us the great times are behind us, the tech industry has now entered a grey era of incrementalism.
I’ve personally heard it a few times. In the early 1970s, at Hewlett-Packard where Bill Hewlett told such skeptics where to file their predictions away. In 1985, when I moved to Silicon Valley to take over Apple’s Product Development. I was told Silicon Valley was doomed, it was becoming a ghost town as unheard of layoffs were taking place. In the early 90’s, when the first Gulf War and a bad economy emptied shopping centers and restaurants.
Soon thereafter, the Internet came out of the research lab closet, the browser was invented and yet another wave of innovation came about.
As for Tom Siebel, his background makes the gloomy prediction more puzzling: he’s not part of the kommentariat, he is an industry mensch, the inventor of CRM, rising to the industry’s firmament and later selling Siebel Systems to Oracle for $5.8 billion. Perhaps he was merely trying to arouse his audience and start a reaction.

Still, is he right? Have we entered an era where all of the great technological advances and development of great companies are behind us – and where the growth rate for the tech sector is just on par with the rate of current economic growth?

Absolutely not. More