hardware

Privacy: You Have Nothing To Fear

 

Pervasive sensors and IP connections, coupled with the “infinite” storage and computing power in the Cloud, threaten our privacy. We need to defend ourselves and get control of our personal data amassed by private companies and government agencies.

Optimists and pessimists may inhabit opposing camps, but they do have one thing in common: Their inclinations lead to behaviors that verify their prophecies. I’ve chosen my side: I’m an optimist and have been rewarded accordingly. As a reminder of my attitude, to make sure that the occasional frustrations don’t derail my determination, I keep a little figurine from the Provençal Crèche (Nativity Scene) on my desk. He’s called Lou Ravi, the Enraptured One:

The traditional characterization is that of a gent who wanders the world, innocently marveling at the simplest of miracles. (At times, I wonder if he isn’t just a polite version of the village idiot.)

Recently, a seemingly trivial incident cast a shadow over my life-long optimism, an event that awakened dark thoughts about technology’s impact on our privacy.

As I’m driving on the A10 not-so-freeway towards the Loire châteaux, I see my license plate displayed on a sign that tells me that I’m exceeding the speed limit (130kph, about 80mph). This is novel… where we used to have an anonymous flashing nag, now we’re individually fingered. On the one hand, it’s certainly more helpful than a broad, impersonal warning; on the other, it’s now personal.

Stirred from my enraptured stupor, I start counting other ways in which we’re targeted.

Staying within the realm of license plates, we have an official, Wikipedia-sanctioned acronym: ALPR, the Automatic License Plate Reader, a device that’s used (or mis-used) by municipalities to scan every vehicle that enters the city’s limits. An ALPR system is already operational in ritzy Tiburon just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s being considered in ritzier Piedmont, an island of wealth surrounded by Oakland. The NYPD has used mobile license plate readers to build a “database of 16 million license plates, along with locations where the car was spotted”. (A Google search for Automatic License Plate Reader yields more than 1M hits.)

We also have various flavors of “event data recorders” in our cars. Similar to a plane’s black box, an EDR can regurgitate the sequence of events that preceded a crash. According to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), 96% of all 2013 vehicles carry such a device and there is a proposal to make them mandatory in 2015 models.

Insurance companies see the EDR as an opportunity to better evaluate risk so they can offer lower premiums to good drivers. Privacy advocates are concerned that the data could be used for less benevolent purposes:

Though the information is being collected with the best of intentions – safer cars or to provide drivers with more services and conveniences – there is always the danger it can end up in lawsuits, or in the hands of the government or with marketers looking to drum up business from passing motorists.

Again, if you Google “car black box recorder”, you get about 6M hits and a wide range of third-party devices. Some come with a dashboard camera such as we see in American patrol cars (and that have been adopted by a huge number of Russian drivers); others plug into the OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostic) connector that’s present on all modern cars. Combined with accelerometers and precision GPS recording, these draw a very accurate picture of everything we do at the wheel, where, when and how.

It’s not all sinister: With appropriate software, weekend track drivers can visualize and analyze their braking, acceleration, and effective use of apexes. Still, the overall picture is one of omnipresent surveillance. And I’m certainly not encouraged when I read that “anyone with a handheld scanner and access to the port under your steering column can download a wealth of information about your vehicle.”

The regard for privacy that’s demonstrated by the public sector — the government agencies that can have an enormous impact on our lives — is also less than encouraging. We now realize that the IRS reads our email without requiring any authorization or judicial supervision; the DEA complains about iMessage encryption; we have National Security Letters that confer broad and little-supervised snooping powers to US government agencies.

On the private side, Google, Facebook, and cellular carriers amass and trade on our personal data, again, with little or no practical oversight. Try asking any of these companies what sort of information they have on you, to whom they sell it, and if you can have a peek at it.

The litany goes on: Escalating healthcare expenditures give insurers equally escalating incentives to acquire personal behavior data in order to improve their risk calculation (and reject claims). We’re photographed, videoed, and, now, face-recognized everywhere. Try counting the cameras that see you on the street, in stores, elevators, offices.

When we worry about such practices, we get the sort of rote retort infelicitously typified by Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Sure, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. All you need to do is lead a pristine life. Drive carefully; wait for the green light before you cross the street; eat a balanced diet; don’t take, view, or exchange the wrong pictures; don’t consort with undesirable people; don’t say or write bad words; don’t inhale the wrong smoke…

This is unrealistic.

If there is nowhere to hide, how can disagreements safely ferment in political life, at work, in relationships? By definition, change disturbs something or annoys someone. And, moving to paranoia, or full awareness, the age-old question arises: Who will guard us from the guardians?

Returning to my now slightly-strained optimism, I hope we’ll support the people and organizations, such as the ACLU and many others, who work for our privacy, and that we’ll use our votes to unseat those who sell us out to private and state encroachers. We can start with demanding a handle on who has what data on us. Playing on Habeas Corpus, it’s already called Habeas Data.

I’m curious to see what Google, Verizon, Orange, Facebook, Amazon and many others know about me. Insights await…

JLG@mondaynote.com

Apple is Losing The War – Of Words

 

Besides its ads, Apple says very little, confident numbers will do the talking. This no longer works as others have seized the opportunity to drive the narrative. 

The day before Samsung’s big Galaxy S4 announcement, Apple’s VP of Marketing, Phil Schiller, sat down for an interview with Reuters and promptly committed what Daring Fireball’s John Gruber calls an unforced error:

“…the news we are hearing this week [is] that the Samsung Galaxy S4 is being rumored to ship with an OS that is nearly a year old,” [Schiller] said, “Customers will have to wait to get an update.”

Not so, as Gruber quickly corrects:

But it ends up the S4 is — to Samsung’s credit — shipping with Android 4.2.2, the latest available version. Not sure why Schiller would speculate on something like this based solely on rumors.

To Samsung’s delight, we can be sure, the interview received wide coverage in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, just hours before the S4 was unveiled, complete with the month-old Android operating system.

This didn’t go over well. Even before the “year old Android version” was exposed as unfounded conjecture, reactions to Schiller’s trash talk were uniformly negative. Apple was accused of being on the defensive.

But, the true-believers ask, isn’t this something of a double-standard? What about the trash talk Samsung ads that depicted the iPhone as old-fashioned and its users as either cult sheep or doddering golden agers, weren’t they also a form of defensiveness? Why were Samsung’s mean-spirited ads seen as fun and creative, while Schiller’s slight misstep is called “defensive”?

Yes, Apple is held to a (well earned) different standard. Once a challenger with an uncertain future, Apple has become The Man. Years ago, it could productively poke fun at Microsoft in the great I’m a Mac, You’re a PC campaign (the full series of ads is here), but the days of taking potshots at the incumbent are over. Because of its position at the top, Apple should have the grace to not trash its competitors, especially when the digs are humorless and further weakened by error.

Schiller’s faux pas will soon be forgotten — it was a minor infraction, a five yard penalty — but it stoked my enduring frustration with a different sort of Apple-speak characteristic: The way Apple execs abuse words such as incredible“, “great“, “best when they’re discussing the company’s products and business.

My accusation of language molestation needs examples. Citing a page from W. Edwards Deming’s gospel, In God We Trust, Everyone Else Brings Data, I downloaded a handful of Apple earnings calls, such as this one, courtesy of Seeking Alpha, and began to dig.

[Speaking of language faux pas, Deming’s saying was shamelessly and badly appropriated — without attribution — by Google’s Eric Schmidt in a talk at MIT.)

Looking just for the words that emanated from the horses’ mouths, I stripped the intros and outros and the question parts of the Q&As, and pasted into Pages (which has, sadly, lain fallow since January 2009).  Pages has a handy Search function (in the Edit > Find submenu) that compiles a list of all occurrences of a word in a document; here’s what I found… .

  • Across the five earnings statements, some form of the word “incredible” appears 7, 9, 9, 11 and 9 times. The Search function offers a handy snippet display so you can check the context in which the word was used:

  • “Tremendous”, in its various forms, appears 12 times.
  • Amazing: 8
  • Strong: 58
  • Thrilled: 13
  • Maniacally focused: 2
  • All told, “great” appears 70 times. A bit more than half are pathetic superlatives (“great products”, “great progress”, “we feel great about…”), some are innocuous (“greater visibility”), but there’s an interesting twist: The snippet display showed that six were part of the phrase “Greater China”:

“Greater” or not, China is mentioned 71 times, much more than any other country or region I checked (Korea =  1, Japan = 6, Europe = 12).

(In the interest of warding off accusations of a near-obsessive waste of energy, I used a command line program to generate some of these numbers. Android? give me a second…4. Google=0, Facebook=4, Samsung=2.)

Now let’s try some “sad” words:

  • Disappoint: 0
  • Weak: 7. Six of these were part of “weak dollar”; the other was “weak PC market”. By contrast, only five or six of the 58 “strongs” referred to the dollar; the rest were along the lines of “strong iPad sales”.
  • Bad: 0
  • Fail: 0

The dissection can go on and on, but let’s end it with a comparison between more and less . Eliminating instances of less as a suffix (“wireless”), the result shows a remarkable unbalance: morewins each of the five sessions with a consistently lopsided score: 28 to 3…more or less.

But, you’ll object, what’s wrong with being positive?

Nothing, but this isn’t about optimism, it’s about hyperbole and the abuse of language. Saying “incredible” too many times leads to incredulity. Saying “maniacally focused” at all is out of place and gauche in an earnings call. One doesn’t brag about one’s performance in the boudoir; let happy partners sing your praise.

When words become empty, the listener loses faith in the speaker. Apple has lost control of the narrative; the company has let others define its story. This is a war of words and Apple is proving to be inept at verbal warfare.

In another of his sharply worded analyses titled Ceding the Crown, John Gruber makes the same point, although from a different angle:

The desire for the “Oh, how the mighty Apple has fallen” narrative is so strong that the narrative is simply being stated as fact, evidence to the contrary be damned. It’s reported as true simply because they want it to be true. They’re declaring “The King is dead; long live the King” not because the king has actually died or abdicated the throne, but because they’re bored with the king and want to write a new coronation story.

I agree with the perception, but blaming the media rarely produces results, we shouldn’t point our criticism in the wrong direction. The media have their priorities, which more often than not veer in the direction of entertainment passed as fair and balanced information (see Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman). If Apple won’t feed them an interesting, captivating story, they’ll find it elsewhere, even in rumors and senseless hand-wringing.

Attacking competitors, pointing to their weaknesses, and trumpeting one’s achievements is better done by hired media assassins. A company, directly or through a PR firm, engages oft-quoted consultants who provide the required third-party stats, barbs, and encomiums. This isn’t theorizing, I once was a director at a company, one of many, that used such an arrangement to good effect.

A brief anecdote: When Microsoft was Microsoft, Waggener Edstrom, the company’s PR powerhouse, was an exemplary propagandist. I distinctly remember a journalist from a white-shoe East Coast business publication coming to my office more than twenty years ago, asking very pointed questions. I asked my own questions in return and realized that the individual didn’t quite know the meaning of certain terms that he was throwing around. A bit of hectoring and cajoling, and the individual finally admitted that the questions were talking points provided by the Seattle PR firm. A few years later, I got a comminatory phone call from one of the firm’s founders. My offense? I had made an unflattering quip about Microsoft when it was having legal troubles with Apple (the IP battle that was later settled as part of the 1997 “investment” in Apple and Steve Jobs). PR firms have long memories and sharp knives.

The approach may seem cynical, but it’s convenient and effective. The PR firm maintains a net (and that’s the right word) of relationships with the media and their pilot fish. If it has the talent of a Waggener Edstrom, it provides sound strategic advice, position papers, talking points, and freeze-dried one-liners.

Furthermore, a PR firm has the power of providing access. I once asked a journalist friend how his respected newspaper could have allowed one of its writers to publish a fellacious piece that described, in dulcet tones, a worldwide Microsoft R&D tour by the company’s missus dominicus. “Access, Jean-Louis, access. That’s the price you pay to get the next Ballmer interview…”

Today, look at the truly admirable job Frank Shaw does for Microsoft. Always on Twitter, frequently writing learned and assertive pieces for the company’s official blog. By the way, where’s Apple’s blog?

The popular notion is that Apple rose to the top without these tools and tactics, but that’s not entirely true. Dear Leader was a one-man propagandastaffel, maintaining his own small network of trusted friends in the media. Jobs also managed to get exemptions from good-behavior rules, exemptions that seem to have expired with him…

Before leaving us, Jobs famously admonished “left-behind” Apple execs to think for themselves instead of trying to guess what he would have done. Perhaps it’s time for senior execs to rethink the kind of control they want to exercise on what others say about Apple. Either stay the old course and try to let the numbers do the talking, or go out and really fight the war of words. Last week’s misstep didn’t belong to either approach.

One last word: In the two trading days bracketing the Samsung S4 launch Schiller clumsily attempted to trash, Apple shares respectively gained 1%, followed by a 2.58% jump the day after the intro. Schiller could have said nothing before the launch and, today, let others point to early criticism of the S4’s apparent featuritis.

JLG@mondaynote.com

More iWatch Fun

 

When looking at the potential for a really smart watch, the idea of an Apple iWatch looks almost sensible. Still, there is a long way between the attractive idea and stuffing the required computer power in a wristwatch.

As I somberly contemplate the death of personal privacy, our being spied upon everywhere, at all times (for our own good, you understand), a tweet from an ex-coworker known for his stiletto wit evokes a welcome smile:

Frank is referring to Nick Hayek Jr., the cigar-wielding head of Swatch Group AG (and Zino Davidoff doppelgänger):

In a Bloomberg article (from which the above photo is extracted), Hayek dismisses the iWatch rumors:

“Personally, I don’t believe it’s the next revolution,” the chief of the largest Swiss watchmaker said at a press conference on annual results in Grenchen, Switzerland. “Replacing an iPhone with an interactive terminal on your wrist is difficult. You can’t have an immense display.”

Hayek’s pronouncement triggered many sharp reactions, such as this history lesson from another sharp tweeter:

As Kontra (a “veteran design and management surgeon”) reminds us, Palm CEO Ed Colligan once famously pooh-poohed the unannounced iPhone

We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone, […] PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.

Colligan’s brush-off wasn’t the first time, or the last, that Apple’s “unauthorized intrusions” were decried by industry incumbents and arbiters of business taste:

  • The iPod: A doomed foray into the saturated, profitless market of commodity MP3 players.
  • iTunes: Single tracks for 99 cents? Not a chance against free online music sites.
  • Apple Stores: Another folly, zero experience in the cutthroat and manpower intensive retail business.
  • iPhone: The status quotidians scoff.
  • Homegrown ARM-based processors: A billion dollar mistake.
  • iPad: Ridiculous name. Steve Ballmer derides its lack of keyboard and mouse.

This isn’t to deny that the Apple Midas Touch is occasionally fat fingered. Prior to its launch, Steve Jobs touted MobileMe as Exchange For The Rest of Us; afterwards, he told the MobileMe team they should “hate each other for letting each other down”. Last year, Tim Cook had no choice but to apologize for the iMaps fiasco (and then showed a couple Apple executives the door).

So how would this hypothetical iWatch play out? Can Apple re-invent a known device à la the iPod, or are they venturing into territory without a map (or, one can’t resist, with an iMap)?

First, a brief look at today’s watches, smart and not.

After five centuries of improvements to their time keeping mechanisms (or movements), mechanical watches are no longer judged for their temporal accuracy, but for their beauty and, just as important, for the number and ingeniousness of their complications — what non-horologists would call “additional functions”. It’s not enough to just tell the time, watches must display the phases of the moon and positions of the planets, function as a  chronograph, provide a perpetual calendar… The moniker grande complication is applied to the most advanced, such as this one from the Gallet company (founded in 1466):

These complications come at a price: For $300k you can pick up the double-faced Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon with its 2800-star celestial chart. The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, which holds the record with 36 complications and 1400 parts, will set you back $2.7M:

These luxury watches function more as engineering marvels than utilitarian timepieces, and, accordingly, they’re worn as adornments — and status symbols.

The more common electronic watch, which uses a precise quartz oscillator and typically has no moving parts, hasn’t entirely killed the mechanical watch, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Electronic watchmakers, aided by the tiny microprocessors embedded in many of these devices, have piled on even more more functions — calculators, multiple repeating alarms, even circular slide rules…it’s simply an exercise in the proverbial mere matter of software.

But each new function introduces UI complexity, as this page from the instruction manual for my Seiko multi-function watch establishes:

Most of the manual’s 33 pages are in the same vein. As a result, normal humans find these electronic complications baffling and leave most of the functions unmolested.

And now we have the smartwatch, a true computer that’s strapped to your wrist. Today’s smartwatch will tell you the time and run some rudimentary applications, but its primary role is to act as an extension of the smartphone that you’ve paired through Bluetooth. A phone call comes in, your watch shows you the number; an email message arrives, your watch scrolls the sender’s address; if the music you’re streaming on your phone is too quiet, just tap your watch to turn it up…at least in theory.

These are all good ideas, but, as the NYT’s David Pogue found after test driving a sampling of these devices, their execution leaves something to be desired. His conclusion:

…you have to wonder if there’s a curse on this blossoming category. Why are these smartwatches so buggy, half-baked and delayed?
The Casio and Martian watches are worth considering. But if you ask the other watches what time it is, they’ll tell you: too soon.

So, again, where does the putative iWatch fit into all of this?

Let’s start with the UI. If we just regard the traditional chronological functions (date and time formats, alarms, stopwatch) an iPhone-like touch interface, albeit on a smaller screen, would easily eclipse the clunky buttons-along-the perimeter controls on my Seiko. For the more advanced “smart” functions, one assumes that Apple won’t be satisfied unless the user experience far exceeds the competition. (Of the five smartwatches that Pogue reviews, only one, the Cukoo, has even a hint of touch screen capability.)

Then there’s the matter of overall style. This isn’t a fair fight; there’s something viscerally compelling about a traditional mechanical watch with exposed movement. Even on the low end of the market you can find a mechanical watch that displays its inner beauty. Nonetheless, we can trust Sir Jony to rise to the challenge, to imagine the kind of style we’ve come to expect.

There’s also the battery question. Will the iWatch suffer from having a two or three days battery life as suggested by “[s]ources close to Apples [sic] project team”? Leaving aside conjectures about the anatomical location whence emerged these sources’ information, two thoughts come up…

First, it’s a safe assumption that the target audience for the iWatch are iDevice owners that Apple has “trained” (subjugated, critics will say) to charge their devices at night. For them, charging the iWatch, as well, won’t be a dealbreaker. The Lightning connector and charger for an iPhone or iPad should be small enough to fit a largish watch. Or perhaps the addition of the iWatch to the iDevice constellation will convince Apple to incorporate wireless charging (despite the diffidence of Phil Schiller, Apple’s VP of marketing).

Second, some electronic watches don’t need batteries at all. In Seiko’s Kinetic line, the kinetic motion of the wearer’s hand drives a tiny generator that feeds electricity into a capacitor for storage. (For the inert watch wearer, stem winding works as well. In a clever twist, some of newer models preserve the stored charge by halting the motion of the hands when the watch isn’t being worn.) It’s unclear whether the energy captured from hand movements will suffice to feed an ambitious Apple smartwatch, but the technology exists.

Turning to more advanced functionality: Will the iWatch be an iOS device? I think it’s very likely. That doesn’t mean that the iWatch will be an iPhone/iPod Touch, only smaller. Instead, and as we see with today’s Apple TV, the iWatch will enrich the iOS ecosystem: Reasonably useful on its own, but most important as a way to increase the value/enjoyment of other iDevices…at least for now.

Eventually, and as I’ve written here several times, I believe the Apple TV will become a first class citizen, it will have its own versions of apps that were written for the iPhone/iPad, as well as apps that are for TV alone. With iOS as the lingua franca, the iWatch could be treated with the same respect.

There are plenty of examples of apps that would work on a very small screen, either in conjunction with existing data (calendar, address book, stock market, iMessage, weather) or as a remote for other devices, including non-Apple products (the Nest thermostat comes to mind).

We should also consider biometric applications. The intimate contact of the iWatch makes it a natural carrier for the ever-improving sensors we find in today’s health monitors, devices that measure and record heart rate and perspiration during a workout, or that monitor sleep patterns and analyze food intake. What we don’t find, in these existing gadgets, is the ability to download new apps. An iWatch with health sensors coupled with the App Store would open whole new health and wellness avenues.

Finally, there’s (always) the money question. Would our mythical iWatch sell in sufficient volume — and with a high enough margin — to make it a significant product line for Apple? Given that watches easily sell for hundreds of dollars, and that we would almost certainly use an Apple iWatch more often and for more purposes than an Apple TV, the volume/margin question isn’t too hard to answer.

Back to reality, translating a fantasy into a real product is by no means a sure thing. A pleasant, instantaneous user experience requires computing power. Computing power requires energy; energy means battery drain and heat dissipation. These are challenges for real grown-ups. And sometimes a grown-up has to make the vital No We Won’t Do This decision that separates bloated demi-failures from truly elegant genre-creating breakthroughs.

JLG@mondaynote.com

iPad and File Systems: Failure of Empathy

 

The iPad placed a clear bet on simplicity — and was criticized for it. The bet won. But now, can the iPad evolve toward more business applications without sacrificing its simplicity, without becoming a “fridge-toaster”?

Three years ago, the iPad came out. The device was an immediate hit with customers and (most) critics. Steve Jobs’ latest — and, unfortunately, last — creation truly deserved the oft-abused game changer moniker.

But, as always, there were grumblings up in the cheap seats. As Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design observed:

“Following along on Twitter I was seeing things like ‘underwhelming’, ‘meh’ , ‘it’s not open’, ‘it’s just a big iPhone’, etc. And most of this stuff was coming from people who design and build interactive experiences.”

Monteiro penned a sharp, relevant response to the naysayers. Titled “The Failure of Empathy“, his post is summarized by this picture:

A generation ago, geeks were the arbiters of taste in the world of personal computing. Programmers, designers, hobbyists and tinkerers…these were the inhabitants of “user space”, and we built computers with them in mind. By designing the Apple ][ for himself (and his fellow travelers) Steve Wozniak hit the bull’s eye of a large, untapped target.

Today, geeks are but a smallish subset of computer users. Their (typically exaggerated) negative comments may have some sting if you’re responsible for engineering the “brain dead” backing store for a windowing system, but in the real world, no one cares about “byte sex” or “loop unrolling”. What counts is how non-technical users think, feel, and respond. Again, from Monteiro’s post:

“As an industry, we need to understand that not wanting root access doesn’t make you stupid. It simply means you do not want root access. Failing to comprehend this is not only a failure of empathy, but a failure of service.”

This was written in February 2010; I doubt that anyone at the time thought the iPad would ascend to such heights so quickly: 65.7M sold in 2012, 121M since the 2010 debut, rising even faster than the iPhone.

This is all well and good, but with success comes side effects. As the iPad gets used in ways its progenitors didn’t anticipate, another failure of empathy looms: Ignoring the needs of people who want to perform “complicated” tasks on their iPads.

When the iPad was introduced, even the most obliging reviewers saw the device as a vehicle for consumption, not creation. David Pogue in the New York Times:

“…the iPad is not a laptop. It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on.”

This is still true…but that hasn’t stopped users from trying — struggling — to use their iPads for more ambitious tasks: Building rich media presentations and product brochures, preparing course material, even running a business. Conventional wisdom tells us that these are tasks that fall into the province of “true” personal computers, but these driven users can’t help themselves, they want to do it all on their iPads. They want the best of both worlds: The power of a PC but without its size, weight, (relative) unresponsiveness, and, certainly, price.

The evidence is all around us. Look at how many people in cafés, offices and airport lounges use a keyboard with their iPad, such as this Origami combo:

Or the Logitech Keyboard Cover:

Both keyboards are prominently displayed in the Apple Store. We’ll assume that shelf space isn’t doled out by lottery (or philanthropically), so these devices must be selling briskly.

Of course, this could just be anecdotal evidence. What isn’t anecdotal is that Apple itself claims that the iPad has penetrated a large proportion of Fortune 500 companies. In some of its stores, the company conducts sessions to promote the use of iPads in business applications.

I attended one such gathering last year. There was a very basic demonstration of Keynote, iPad’s presentation app, plus the testimony of a happy customer who described the usefulness of the iPad in sales situations. All quite pleasant, but the Q&A session that followed was brutal and embarrassing: How do you compose real-world, mixed-document presentation? No real answer. Why can’t the iPad access all the documents — not just iWork files — that I dropped into iCloud from my Mac? No answer there, either.

This brings us to a major iPad obstacle: On a “real” PC the file system is visible, accessible; on the iPad, it’s hidden. The act of creating, arranging, accessing files on a PC is trivial and natural. We know how to use Finder on the Mac and Explorer on Windows. We’re not perplexed by folder hierarchies: The MyGreatNovel folder might contain a lengthy set of “MGN-1″, “MGN-2″, “MGN-3″ drafts, as well as subfolders such as ArtWork, Reference, and RejectionLetters, each of which contain further subfolder refinements (RejectedByGrove, RejectedByPenguin, RejectedByRandomHouse…).

On an iPad you don’t navigate a file system but, instead, you launch an app that has it’s own trove of documents that it understands — but it can’t “see” anything else.

For example: Keynote doesn’t let you see the graphics, videos, and PDFs that you want to assemble into your presentation. Unlike on the Mac, there’s no Finder, no place where you can see “everything” at one glance. Even more important, there’s no natural way to combine heterogeneous documents into one.

On the other hand, we all know users who love the iPad for its simplicity. They can download and play music, read books, respond to email and tweets, view photos, and stream movies without having to navigate a file hierarchy. For them, the notion of a “file system” is neither natural nor trivial — it’s foreign and geeky. Why throw them into a maze of folders and files?

Apple’s decision to hide the iOS file system from iPad (and iPhone) users comforts the non-geek and is consistent with Steve Jobs’ idea that applications such as Mail, iTunes, iPhoto, iCal, and Contacts shouldn’t reveal their files and folders. Under the hood, the application stores its data in the Mac’s file system but, on the surface, the user sees appointments, photo albums and events, mailboxes and messages.

Still, some of us see this as the storage equivalent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: No File System For You!

App developers and customers keep trying. iOS apps such as GoodReader and File Manager Pro valiantly attempt to work around the iPad strictures. PhoneView will expose and manipulate your iPad’s file system (not recommended). But success with any of these apps is limited and comes at a price: The iPad’s simplicity and fluidity is long gone by the time you achieve the desired result, the multimedia brochure or HR tutorial.

This places Apple at a fork on the road. On the left is the current path: more/better/lighter/faster of the same. Only evolutionary changes to the simple and successful worldview. This is today’s trajectory, validated by history (think of the evolution of the MacBook) and strong revenue numbers.

On the right, Apple could transform the iPad so that power users can see and combine data in ways that are impossible today. This could attract business customers who are hesitant about making the plunge into the world of tablets, or who may be considering alternatives such as Microsoft’s PC/tablet combo or Android devices with Google services.

The easiest decision is no decision. Let’s have two user interfaces, two modes: The Easy mode for my Mother-In-Law, and the Pro Mode for engineers, McKinsey consultants, and investment bankers. Such dual-mode systems haven’t been very popular so far, it’s been tried without success on PCs and Macs. (Re-reading this, I realize the Mac itself could be considered such a dual-mode machine: Fire up the Terminal app and you have access to a certified Unix engine living inside…)

The drive to “pervert” the iPad is unmistakable. I think it will prove irresistible in the end. But I have trouble forming a coherent picture of an evolution that would let Apple open the iPad to more demanding users — without sacrificing its great simplicity and falling into the fridge + toaster trap.
It’s a delicate balancing act.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

The Next Apple TV: iWatch

 

Rumors don’t actual Apple products make, see the perennial Apple TV — and the latest iWatch rumors. This is an opportunity to step back, look at Apple’s one and only love –personal computers — and use this thought to sift through rumors. 

Every week brings new rumors of soon-to-be-released Apple products. The mythical Apple TV set is always a favorite: Gossip of an Apple buyout of troubled TV maker Löwe has sent the German company’s stock soaring. We also hear of a radio streaming service that will challenge Pandora and Spotify, and there’s the usual gaggle of iPhone, iPad, and Mac variations. More interesting is the racket surrounding Apple’s “stealth” projects:  an iWatch and other wearable devices (and “racket” is the right word — see these intimations of stock manipulation).

There is a way to see through the dust, to bring some clarity, to organize our thoughts when considering what Apple might actually do, why the company would (or wouldn’t) do it, and how a rumored product would fit into the game plan.

The formula is simple: Apple engineers may wax poetic about the crystalline purity of the software architecture, execs take pride in the manufacturing chain and distribution channels (and rightly so), marketing can point to the Apple Customer Experience (when they’re not pitching regrettable Genius ads or an ill-timed campaign featuring Venus and Serena Williams). But what really floats their bots, what hardens Apple’s resolve is designing, making, and selling large numbers of personal computers, from the traditional desktop/laptop Mac, to the genre-validating iPad, and on to the iPhone — the Very Personal Computer. Everything else is an ingredient, a booster, a means to the noblest end.

Look at Apple’s report to its owners: there’s only one Profit and Loss (P&L) statement for the entire $200B business. Unlike Microsoft or HP, for example, there is no P&L by division. As Tim Cook put it:

We manage the company at the top and just have one P&L and don’t worry about the iCloud team making money and the Siri team making money…we don’t do that–we don’t believe in that…

Apple’s appreciation for the importance and great economic potential of personal computers — which were invented to act as dumb servants to help us with data storage, text manipulation, math operations — may have been, at first, more instinctual than reasoned. But it doesn’t matter; the company’s monomania, it’s collective passion is undeniable. More than any other company, Apple has made computers personal, machines we can lift with our hands and our credit cards.

With these personal computer glasses on, we see a bit more clearly.

For example: Is Apple a media distribution company? Take a look at Apple’s latest 10-Q SEC filing, especially the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section starting page 21. iTunes, now reported separately, clocked $3.7B for the last quarter of 2012.  Elsewhere, Horace Dediu sees $13.5B for the entire year. A big number indeed, and, certainly, iTunes is a key to Apple’s success: Without iTunes there would have been no iPod, Apple’s “halo product“, proof that the company could come up with a winner.  Later, iTunes begat the App Store, a service that solidified the App Phone genre.

Some misguided analysts look at the numbers and argue that Apple ought to spin off iTunes. They use the old “shareholder value” gambit, but the “value” simply isn’t there: Horace Dediu puts iTunes margins in the 15% region, well below Apple’s overall 38%. iTunes is a hugely important means to the personal computer end, but it’s not a separate business.

How about Apple as a retail company? The success of the Apple Store is stellar, a word that’s almost too weak: The Apple Stores welcomed three times more visitors than all of the Disney parks, and generated more than $20B in revenue last year — that works out to an astonishing $6000 per square foot, twice as much as the #2 shop (Tiffany and Co.). But Apple’s 400 stores aren’t a business, they only exist to create an experience that will lead to more sales, enhanced customer satisfaction, and, as a consequence, increased margins.

Apple as a software company? No. The raison d’être for OS X, iOS, iWork, and even Garage Band is to breathe life into Apple hardware. By now, the calls for Apple to see the error of its ways, to not repeat the original sin of not licensing Mac OS, to sell iOS licenses to all comers have (almost) died.
During my first visit to Apple’s hypergalactic headquarters and warehouse in February 1981, I was astonished at the sight of forklifts moving pallets of Apple ][ software. The term “ecosystem” wasn’t part of the industry lingo yet, but I had witnessed the birth of the notion.
Apple had a much harder time building a similarly rich set of applications for the Macintosh, but the lesson was eventually learned, partly due to the NeXT acquisition and the adoption of object oriented programming. We now have a multi-dimensional macrocosm — a true ecosystem — in which our various forms of personal computing work together, share data, media, services.

Where does the current Apple TV device (the black puck, not the mythical TV set) fit into this scheme? Apple TV runs on a version of iOS, and it knows how to communicate with a Bluetooth keyboard — but that doesn’t mean the device is a personal computer. Perhaps Apple will (someday) provide a TV Software Development Kit (SDK) so developers can adapt existing iOS apps or write new ones. But I still see it as a lean-back device, as opposed to a lean-forward PC.

In any case, sales of the $100 black puck don’t move the needle. Four million Apple TVs were sold in 2012; even if ten million are sold this year — and that’s a very optimistic estimate — it won’t make a noticeable difference, at least not directly. Apple TV is a neat part of the ecosystem, it makes iPhones, iPads, Macs and our iTunes libraries more valuable, but it’s still just a member of the supporting cast.

This brings us back to the putative iWatch. Computer history buffs will recall the HP 01 watch. Buoyed by the success of its handheld calculators, including the programable HP 65 with its magnetic card reader, HP convinced itself it could make a calculator watch, introduced in 1977:

A technology tour de force, fondly remembered by aging geeks, but a market failure: too expensive, too hard to use, ill-fitting distribution channels.

Apple is in a different spot. Today, you can find a number of iPod watchbands such as this one:

It’s hard to imagine that Apple would merely integrate an existing accessory into a new iPod. Sales of the iPod proper are decelerating, so the iPod-as-iWatch could give the line a much needed boost, but it’s difficult to reconcile the rumors of “100 people” working on the project if it’s just a retrofit job. Is Apple working on an iWatch that can be experienced as an Even More Personal personal computer — an “intimate computer”? If so, many questions arise: user interface, sensors, iOS version, new types of apps, connection with other iDevices… And, of course price.

This would be much more interesting than the perennially in-the-future Apple TV set. Of course, iWatch and Apple TV aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If the Löwe buyout rumors are true, Apple could do both — the company could develop its own watch device and repurpose Löwe’s TV. (I still doubt the TV set part, as opposed to enhancing the black puck.)

But once we understand what Apple’s only business is, and that the related software, retail, and services are simply part of the supporting cast, Apple’s attitude towards big acquisitions becomes clearer. Apple isn’t looking at buying a big new business, it already owns The Big One. So, no movie studio, no retail chain or cable company, no HP or Dell, or Yahoo!. (But… a big law firm, perhaps?) Integrating a large group of people into Apple’s strong, unbending culture would, alone, prove to be impossible.

A small acquisition to absorb technology (and talented people) makes sense. The cultural integration risks remain, but at a manageable scale, unlike what happened to Exxon in the early eighties when it burned $4B (that was real money, then) in a failed attempt to become an information systems company — you know, the Oil of the Twenty-First Century.

Let’s just hope Apple doesn’t talk itself into a “because we can” move.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

iPad Pro: The Missing Workflow

 

The iPad started simple, one window at a time, putting it in the “media consumption” category as a result. Over time, such category proved too narrow, the iPad did well in some content creation activities. Can the new 128 GB iPad continue the trend and acquire better workflow capabilities?

Last week, without great fanfare, Apple announced a new 128 GB version of its fourth generation iPad, a configuration popularly known as the “iPad Pro“. The “Pro” monicker isn’t official, but you wouldn’t know that from Apple’s press release:

Companies regularly utilizing large amounts of data such as 3D CAD files, X-rays, film edits, music tracks, project blueprints, training videos and service manuals all benefit from having a greater choice of storage options for iPad. 

Cue the quotes from execs at seriously data storage-intense companies such as AutoCAD; WaveMachine Labs (audio software); and, quirkily, Global Aptitude, a company that makes film analysis software for football teams:

“The bottom line for our customers is winning football games, and iPad running our GamePlan solution unquestionably helps players be as prepared as possible,” said Randall Fusee, Global Apptitude Co-Founder. 

The naysayers grumble: Who needs this much memory on a “media tablet”? As Gizmodo put it:

The new iPad has the same retina display as its brothers, and the same design, and the same guts, with one notable exception: a metric crap-ton of storage. More storage than any decent or sane human being could ever want from a pure tablet…

(Increased storage is…indecent? This reminds me of the lambasting Apple received for putting 1 — one! — megabyte of memory in the 1986 Mac Plus. And we all recall Bill Gates’ assertion that 640 Kbytes ought to be enough for anyone. He now claims that the quote is apocryphal, but I have a different recollection.)

Or maybe this is simply Apple’s attempt to shore up the iPad’s average selling price ($467, down 18% from the year ago quarter), which took a hit following the introduction of the lower-priced iPad mini. (What? Apple is trying to make more money?)

The critics are right to be skeptical, but they’re questioning the wrong part of the equation.

When we compare iPad prices, the Pro is a bargain, at least by Apple standards:

The jump from 16GB to 32GB costs $100. Another doubling to 64GB costs the same $100. And, on February 5th, you’ll get an additional 64GB for yet another mere $100. (By comparison, extra solid state storage on a MacBook costs between $125 and $150 per 64GB.)

We get a bit more clarity when we consider the iPad’s place in Apple’s product line: As sales of the Mac slow down, the iPad Pro represents the future. Look at Dan Frommer’s analysis of 10 years of Mac sales. First, the Mac alone:

This leads Dan to ask if the Mac has peaked. Mac numbers for the most recent quarter  were disappointing. The newer iMacs were announced in October, with delivery dates in November and December for the 21.5″ and 27″ models respectively. But Apple missed the Xmas quarter window by about a million units, which cut revenue by as much as $1.5B and margin by half a billion or so (these are all very rough numbers). We’ll probably never find out how Apple’s well-oiled Supply Chain Management machine managed to strip a gear, but one can’t help wonder who will be exiled to Outer Mongolia Enterprise Sales.

Now consider another of Dan Frommer’s graphs:

This is units, not revenue. Mac and iPad ASPs are a 3 to 1 ratio but, still, this paints a picture of a slow-growth Mac vs. the galloping iPad.

The iPad — and tablets in general — are usurping the Mac/PC space. In the media consumption domain, the war is all but won. But when we take a closer look at the iPad “Pro”, we see that Apple’s tablet is far from realizing its “professional” potential.

This is where the critics have it wrong: Increased storage isn’t “insane”, it’s a necessary element…but it isn’t sufficient.

For example, can I compose this Monday Note on an iPad? Answering in the affirmative would be to commit the Third Lie of Computing: You Can Do It. (The first two are Of Course It’s Compatible and Chief, We’ll be in Golden Master by Monday.)

I do research on the Web and accumulate documents, such as Dan Frommer’s blog post mentioned above. On a PC or Mac, saving a Web page to Evernote for future reference takes a right click (or a two finger tap).

On an iPad, things get complicated. The Share button in Safari gives me two clumsy choices: I can mail the page to my Evernote account, or I can Copy the URL, launch Evernote, paste the URL, compose a title for the note I just created, and perhaps add a few tags.

Once I start writing, I want to look through the research material I’ve compiled. On a Mac, I simply open an Evernote window, side-by-side with my Pages document: select, drag, drop. I take some partial screenshots, annotate graphs (such as the iPad Pro prices above), convert images to the .png format used to put the Monday Note on the Web…

On the iPad, these tasks are complicated and cumbersome.

For starters — and to belabor the obvious — I can’t open multiple windows. iOS uses the “one thing at a time” model. I can’t select/drag/drop, I have to switch from Pages to Evernote or Safari, select and copy a quote, and then switch back to the document and paste.

Adding a hyperlink is even more tortuous and, at times, confusing. I can copy a link from Safari, switch back to Pages, paste…but I want to “slide” the link under a phrase. I consult Help, which suggests that I tap on the link, to no avail. If I want to attach a link to a phrase in my document, I have to hit the Space key after pasting, go to Settings and then enter the text that will “cover” the link — perfectly obvious.

This order of operations is intuitively backwards. On a Mac (or PC), I select the target text and then decide which link to paste under it.

Things get worse for graphics. On the iPad, I can’t take a partial screenshot. I can take a full screenshot by simultaneously pressing the Home and Sleep buttons, or I can tap on a picture in Safari and select Save. In both cases, the screenshot ends up in the Photos app where I can perform some amount of cropping and enhancing, followed by a Copy, then switch back to Pages and Paste into my opus.

Annotations? No known way. Control over the image file format? Same answer. There’s no iPad equivalent to the wonderful Preview app on the Mac. And while I’m at it, if I store a Preview document in iCloud, how do I see it from my iPad?

This gets us into the more general — and “professional” — topic of assembling a trove of parts that can be assembled into a “rich” document, such as a Keynote presentation. On a personal computer, there are plenty of choices. With the iPad, Apple doesn’t provide a solution, there’s no general document repository, no iCloud analog to Dropbox or Microsoft’s Skydrive, both of which are simple to use, quasi-free and, in my experience, quite reliable. (One wonders: Is the absence of a Dropbox-like general documents folder in iCloud a matter of technology or theology?)

Simply throwing storage at the problem is, clearly, not enough to make the iPad a “Pro” device.  But there is good news. Some of it is anecdotal, such as the more sophisticated editing provided by the iPad version of iPhoto. The better news is that iOS is a mature, stable operating system that takes advantage of fast and spacious hardware.

But the best news is that Apple has, finally, some competition when it comes to User Experience. For example, tablets that run Microsoft or Google software let users slide the current window to show portions of another one below, making it easier to select parts of a document and drop them into another. (Come to think of it, the sliding Notifications “drawer” on the iPad and iPhone isn’t too far off.)

This competition might spur Apple to move the already very successful iPad into authentically “Pro” territory.

The more complex the task, the more our beloved 30-year-old personal computer is up to it. But there is now room above the enforced simplicity that made the iPad’s success for UI changes allowing a modicum of real-world “Pro” workflow on iPads.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Dell Buyout: Microsoft’s Generosity

 

To perform painful surgery on its business model, Dell needs to take the company private. Seeing challenges in raising the needed $22B, Microsoft “generously” proposes to contribute a few billions. Is this helping or killing the deal?

The news broke two weeks ago: Dell wants to go private. The company would like to buy back all of its publicly traded shares.

The Apple forums are abuzz with memories of Michael Dell’s dismissal of Steve Jobs’ efforts to breathe new life into Apple in 1997:

What would I do? I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.

Is it now Michael’s turn to offer a refund?

Now we hear that Microsoft wants to lend a hand, as in “several billion dollars”. The forums buzz again: It’s just like when Bill Gates came to Jobs’ rescue and invested $150M in the Cupertino company, thus avoiding a liquidity crisis.

The analogy is amusing but facile. Dell 2013 isn’t Apple 1997. A look at Dell’s latest financials shows that the company still enjoys a solid cash position ($14B) and a profitable business (3.5% net profit margin). It’s profits may not be growing (-11% year to year), but the company is cash-flow positive nonetheless ($1.3B from the latest quarter). There’s no reason to fold up the tents.

As for Microsoft’s involvement: The Redmond company’s “investment” in Apple was part of a settlement of an on-going IP dispute. Microsoft avoided accusations of monopoly by keeping alive a highly visible but not overly dangerous adversary.

So what is Dell trying to accomplish by going private? To answer the question, let’s step back a bit and explore the whys and hows of such a move.

First, we have the Management Buyout. Frustrated with Wall Street’s low valuation, executives buy back their company “on the cheap” and run it in private for their own benefit. This rarely ends well.  Second-guessing the market is never a good idea, and the enormous amount of money that’s needed to pay off shareholders puts the execs at the mercy of bigger, smarter predators who turn out to be the ones who end up running the company for their benefit.

A good reason for going private is to allow a company to shift to a radically different business model without being distracted by Wall Street’s annoying glare and hysterics. This is what Dell is trying to do. They’re not shutting down shop, they’re merely closing the curtain.

Is it necessary to privatize for such a move? For an example that never came to pass, recall Bill Gates’ suggestion, in 1985, that Apple should get out of the hardware business and, instead, license the Mac operating system. At the time, the average revenue per Mac exceeded $2,500; a putative Mac OS license would have sold for $100. The theory was that Apple would eventually sell many, many more OS licenses than it did Macs.

The pundits agreed: “Just look at Microsoft!”.  Apple would jump from one slowly ascending earnings curve to a much steeper one.

Now picture yourself as John Sculley, Apple CEO, going to Wall Street with the following message: “We heard you, we’ve seen the light. Today, we’re announcing a new era for our company, we’ll be licensing Mac OS licenses to all comers for $100 apiece. Of course, there’ll be a trough; licensing revenue won’t immediately compensate the loss of Mac hardware sales. We need am ‘earnings holiday’ of about 36 months before the huge software profits flow in.”

You just became the ex-CEO. Wall Street dumps your shares, effectively telling you to take them back and only return after your “holiday” is over.

As another example that didn’t happen but probably should have, imagine if Nokia CEO Stephen Elop had taken his company private in 2011. Instead of osborning its Symbian business, Nokia would have had the latitude to perform the OS gender change behind closed doors and reemerge with a shiny new range of Microsoft-powered smartphones.

I’ll hasten to add that these made-up examples are somewhat unrealistic: To engineer a buyout, one must raise amounts of money commensurate with the company’s current valuation. Around 1987, Apple was worth about $2B, a great deal of money a quarter of century ago. In early 2011, Nokia’s market capitalization was about $40B, an impossibly large sum.

Still, thanks to these buyout fantasies, we get the two key ideas: First, Dell wants to go private because it plans to alter its business model in ways that would scare nervous, short-term Wall Street shareholders; second, the required amount of money (Dell’s market cap is about $22B) is a potential deal-killer.

We don’t have to look very far for the changes Dell wants to make. Dell no longer likes its legacy PC business and has made efforts to reposition itself as an enterprise player (expensive iron, software and services). Going private will allow it to perform the needed surgery, stanch the bleeding, and reemerge with a much stronger income statement, rid of low-margin commodity PCs.

When we look at the money that needs to be raised, things become really interesting. Michael Dell’s 15.7% ownership of the company undoubtedly helps, but the $22B market cap is still a big hill to climb. Several buyout firms and banks got involved in preliminary discussions; one group, TPG Capital, dropped out, but another, Silver Lake, has persisted in its attempt to round up big banks and other investors with enough funds to vacuum up Dell’s publicly traded shares.

That’s when Microsoft walks in on the discussions and offers to save Private Dell.

Clearly, Microsoft’s money will help in the buyout…but will its involvement torpedo Dell’s intentions? The NY Times DealBook article makes the case for Microsoft propping up the leading PC maker:

A vibrant Dell is an important part of Microsoft’s plans to make Windows more relevant for the tablet era, when more and more devices come with touch screens.

This would give Microsoft some amount of control over the restructured Dell, a seat on the Board of Directors, perhaps, with ways to better align the PC maker’s hardware with Redmond’s software. Microsoft wants Dell’s reinvigorated participation in the “Windows Reimagined” business.

But note the phrasing above: “Dell is an important part of Microsoft’s plans…” Better vertical integration without having to pay the full price for ownership, the putative “several billion dollars” would give Microsoft a significant ownership, 10% or 15%. This is completely at odds with the buyout’s supposed intent: Getting out of the PC clone race to the bottom.

Or maybe there’s another story behind Microsoft’s beneficence: The investor syndicate struggles and can’t quite reach the $22B finish line. Microsoft generously — and very publicly — offers to contribute the few missing billions. Investors see Microsoft trying to reattach the PC millstone to their necks — and run away.

Hats off to Steve Ballmer: Microsoft looks generous – without having to spend a dime – and forces Dell keep making PCs.

JLG@mondaynote.com