mobile internet

Science Fiction: An Apple-Curated App Store

In an alternate universe, Apple has announced the App Store Guide and Blog. Choice morsels from the PR material follow.

“We came to realize that a quarter million apps meant worse than nothing to Apple users”, said Apple’s CEO. “I get confused too! Reviews are often fake, lame, or downright incompetent. PR firms have been caught astroturfing reviews, publishers have resorted to flooding the App Store with shameful clones of successful applications. I won’t let one of Apple’s most important, most imitated innovations sink into anomie.”

[Remember, this is sci-fi.]

“So…Today we’re proud to introduce the Real App Store Guide, written and maintained by Apple experts. We’ll review new and existing iOS apps. We’ll tell you which ones we grok (and that grok us) and give you the straight dope on the offerings you shouldn’t touch, even if they’re free. In our Guide, you’ll find a series of paths: For the Traveler, the Gamer, the Music Lover, the Graphic Artist, the Oppressed Enterprise Windows User, Teachers, Parents, Doctors… The Guide will also feature a blog, a running commentary on the iOS App landscape with intelligent answers to cogent questions. And in keeping with our usual standards for decorum and IQ, the blog will be moderated…”

And so it is, the App Store is fully curated, at long last.

As always, this doesn’t please everyone…at least on the surface. In reality, the usual naysayers are thrilled: More pageviews! Ryan Tate jumps on the opportunity and frenetically fires at Steve Jobs’ inbox, trying to start another late night email séance. But this time the Emailer In Chief doesn’t bite.

Customers, on the other hand, like the Real App Store Guide. Users can finally find their way through the twisted and confusing maze of programs. They learn to adjust for a particular writer’s opinions, much as we’ve all learned to compensate for the biases of, say, movie reviewers. The blog gives civilians a forum where they can argue (politely) with the named authors of the reviews—there’s no anonymous corpospeak here.

App authors…some of them aren’t so keen on the idea. The ones that get tepid reviews are understandably furious and threaten lawsuits (in vain…their attorneys are told to re-read the App Store T&Cs). With a modicum of care with words, that’s what the Guide’s editors are for: Safe negative opinions. More

A Toolkit for the Cognitive Container

We now live in an apps world. “The web is dead” shouts Chris Anderson, Wired’s editor-in-chief. To make his point, he teamed up with Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair writer. According his latest theory, the internet is taken over by mobile applications, and the web as we know it, will be soon dead. Wired produces a Cisco-originated graph (below) showing the decrease in “web” traffic, down to a quarter of the traffic of the internet. The other 75%, says Anderson, include video, peer-to-peer, gaming, voice-over-IP telephony, a large part of it encapsulated in apps, blah-bla-blah.

Well. Two things. To begin with, Chris Anderson isn’t the first to notice the rise in applications used to access the internet. Every news outlet’s digital division witnesses a sharp increase in its apps-related traffic. Here in France, Le Monde just said its iPhone apps now contribute about 20% of its entire traffic; its iPad application (a bit crude but efficient reader) has been downloaded 150,000 times. This is just the beginning as publishers are working on new apps, for the iPhone, the iPad, but also for Android, Windows 7 for Mobile and even Bada, Samsung’s proprietary OS. Many publishers forecast a share of 30% of their traffic originating from mobile devices. This is consistent with Morgan Stanley’s predictions of smartphones shipments overtaking the PC two years from now (see below).

Such trends, when repackaged in Chris Anderson’s craft, ascend close to papal encyclical status (that Anderson’s particular skill; in a recent lecture, the British journalism professor George Brock calls him “a professional exaggerator”). Never mind the data he presents are not of the utmost rigor. As we can see here, he magnifies the demise of the web.

But byte-flow analysis is misleading. A more accurate measure would be time spent on the traditional web versus apps. For instance, neither Anderson nor the graph say in which category Facebook traffic falls. Is it an app? A web-based service? All we know is American users spends a quarter of their time on it. I wouldn’t dare wrecking such an attractive intellectual scaffolding with mere facts, but we can’t compare video and text-based pages on the basis of their byte-stream. I did the test: a 3 minutes of You Tube video weighs 16 megabytes; the same time spent on text will only require a 20 kilobytes page, 800 times lighter. (The 8000 words Anderson/Wolff story — devoured in 15 minutes at a normal reading speed, weighs only 117 kilobytes). When measuring things, the metric does alter the perspective…

Nevertheless, Anderson’s fatwa is gaining traction, as did, in its time, his Long Tail theory. Later, Anderson amended the postulate, using the concept of “strong head” (mandatory if you expect to make money with the tail). His “Free!” edict was also updated with the Freemium notion – a paid-for model tied to an incentive. But no more sarcasm, such silicon snake oil is a charming ingredient of our e-times.

Caution with Anderson’s theory aside, there is no doubt the app phenomenon will significantly impact the way we consume news: apps might become their main cognitive container. More

Curious Summer

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Nothing much happens in August, we thought. Wrong. Our three-week break has been filled with a number of “interesting” events.

Curious Yellow

Let’s start with Mark Hurd’s exit from HP after five years of great financial performance as CEO. If you missed the fireworks, you can get a refresher in this Business Insider post by Henry Blodget, or this excellent NYT piece by ace columnist Joe Nocera.

In twitter terms, it looks like this: A “marketing contractor” claims Hurd sexually harassed her; an inquiry fails to substantiate sexual harassment but finds “an inappropriate close relationship”; the investigation also reveals that expense reports were fudged in order to conceal a tête-à-tête with the female. Mistakes were made, Hurd is fired. End of story.

Not quite.

When a CEO gets the boot, a modicum of decorum is usually observed . Not this time. From HP’s General Counsel we hear that “Mark demonstrated a profound lack of judgment that seriously undermined his credibility and damaged his effectiveness in leading HP”. And that’s on the record.

In her memo to the troops, Cathy Lesjak, HP’s CFO and now interim CEO, accuses Hurd of “misusing corporate assets,” referring to the illegitimate expense reports and alleged payments to the erstwhile soft-porn actress for work not performed.

But forget the salacious details; there’s always Google for that. What puzzles most of us is the exit package story. HP maligns Hurd, accuses him of what lay people call fraud… and then grants him an exit package worth tens of millions of dollars, $35M according to unverified estimates. Attorneys, less puzzled than supercilious, sue HP’s Board on behalf of despoiled shareholders.

In the next few weeks we’re certain to get a clearer picture of the inside animosity directed at the cost-cutting, Wall Street-pleasing CEO. His alleged misconduct may turn out to have been nothing more than a convenient pretext, a word that resonates in HP’s history.

Curiouser and Curiouser

This one’s harder to explain: Intel’s acquisition of McAfee. If you own a Windows PC with Intel Inside, there’s a good chance your computer came with bundled anti-virus/anti-spam/anti-spyware software from companies such as Symantec or McAfee. Microsoft entered the fray a few years ago and provides what they call Security Essentials—for free (Microsoft also offers a free safety scan here). PC Tools, AVG, Kaspersky Labs and many others provide the now customary combination of free and paid-for software security products.

In short, this is an active, thriving scene: Symantec’s revenues are at the top of the $5B range and McAfee’s are close to $2B, despite the competition with “free” products from Microsoft and others.

So what possessed Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini to risk his reputation—and more than $7B of his shareholders’ cash—by wading into such a complex, competitive sector? Seasoned Valley observers such as the WSJ’s Don Clark are politely puzzled (see here and here). Otellini intones a new mantra: Security Is Job One. This marks “Intel’s move from a PC company to a computing company”. Sonorous words, certainly, but without a story of higher revenue and profit for the combined companies, there’s not much to back them up.

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Antennagate: If you can’t fix it, feature it!

…and don’t diss your customer, or the media!

Rewind the clock to June 7th 2010. Steve’s on stage at the WWDC in San Francisco. He’s introducing the iPhone 4 and proudly shows off the new external antenna design. Antennae actually, there are two of them wrapped around the side. Steve touts the very Apple-like combination of function (better reception), and form (elegant design).

And now we enter another part of the multiverse. Jobs stops…and after a slightly pregnant pause, continues: The improved reception comes at a price. If you hold the iPhone like this, if your hand or finger bridges the lower-left gap between the two antennae, the signal strength indicator will go down by two or even three bars. He proceeds to demo the phenomenon. Indeed, within ten seconds of putting the heel of his left thumb on the gap, the iPhone loses two bars. Just to make sure, he repeats the experiment with his index finger, all the while making a live call to show how the connection isn’t killed.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature! It’s a trade-off: Better reception in the vast majority of cases; some degradation, easily remedied, in a smaller set of circumstances.

Actually, it’s a well-known issues with smartphones. Steve demonstrates how a similar thing happens to Apple’s very own 3GS, and to Nokia, HTC/Android, and RIM phones. Within the smartphone species, it’s endemic but not lethal.

Nonetheless, adds Apple’s CEO, we can’t afford even one unhappy customer. Buy in confidence, explore all the new features. If you’re not satisfied, do us the favor of returning the phone within two weeks. At the very least, we want you to say the iPhone didn’t work for you but we treated you well. If you fill out a detailed customer feedback report, we’ll give you an iPod Shuffle in consideration for your time.

One last thing. Knowing the downside of the improved antennae arrangement, we’ve designed a “bumper”, a rubber and plastic accessory that fits snuggly around the iPhone 4’s edges and isolates the antennae from your hands. The bumpers come in six colors—very helpful in multi-iPhone 4 families—and costs a symbolic $2.99.

The antenna “feature” excites curiosity for a few days, early adopters confirm its existence as well as the often improved connections (often but not always—it’s still an AT&T world). The Great Communicator is lauded for his forthright handling of the design trade-off and the matter recedes into the background.

If you can’t fix it, feature it.

End of science fiction.

In a different part of the multiverse, things don’t go as well.

Jobs makes no mention of the trade-off. Did he know, did Apple engineers, execs, marketeers know about the antenna problem? I don’t know for sure and let’s not draw any conclusions from the way Jobs avoids holding the iPhone 4 by its sides while showing it off to Dmitry Medvedev:

There’s a more telling hint. Apple had never before offered an iPhone case or protector of any kind, leaving it to third parties. But now, for the iPhone 4, a first: We have the bumper…at $29, not $2.99. (And which, by the way, prevents the phone from fitting into the new iPhone 4 dock.)

As usual for an Apple product, the new iPhone gets a thorough examination from enterprising early adopters, and many of them discover the antenna gap “feature”. As one wrote Jobs:

It’s kind of a worry. Is it possible this is a design flaw? Regards – Rory Sinclair

Steve’s reply:

Nope. Just don’t hold it that way.

Steve, No! Don’t diss your beloved customer. No tough love with someone who’s holding your money in his/her pocket. More

Free Spy Novel

A spy thriller from the DOJ…for free!

Instead of spending your hard-earned dollars loading your Kindle or iPad with fictional potboilers, head over to Scribd and download the Department of Justice Complaint vs. Russian spies (June 2010).

Why submit yourself to the tedium of ponderous DOJ prose? Aren’t such legal documents boring, repetitive, written in an esoteric English argot meant to confuse lay people? Yes, and this one is no exception. But it also contains fascinating and, at times, amusing insights into the people, scope, and technology of the long term embedding of Russian spies into the US.

Deployed by the SVR, Russia’s spook agency and successor to the fabled KGB, the wannabe saboteurs used carefully built American identities and led “unremarkable” lives. Their exact purpose isn’t clear from the DOJ story. They didn’t seem to be engaged in active spying, they appeared to have been planted “just in case”. This could be evidence of Russia’s very long view, of the SVR’s willingness to make investments for a distant future, or of a plan to build a support base for other agents. We won’t know for awhile, and may never know. The agents have pleaded guilty to activities other than spying, such as money laundering and using false identities…and now they’re gone, handed over in a Vienna trade, just like the Good Old Cold War days.

For us geeks, the amusing part is the collection of hackerdom gems contained in the DOJ file. From social engineering to ad-hoc WiFi networking, MAC-address filtering, steganography, and unsecured passwords, these supposedly “highly trained” individuals looked more like Keystone Spooks than Hollywood superspies.

A good example of social engineering is described when one of the culprits experiences unspecified software problems with a laptop. (Sound familiar? We’ll refrain from the easy jabs.) Enter an FBI agent passing as a Russian Consulate employee, “I’m here to help”, who borrows the laptop with a promise to fix the problem. The machine is broken into, fully explored, and yields a rich trove of unprotected files.

In another case, the Feds, while “inspecting” a home (legally, of course), find a password left in the open, helpfully written down on a plain piece of paper. More

iPad Media Apps: can do better

It’s time for a first assessment of a few iPad media applications. To sum up: a) most are disappointing;  b) no need to worry. Instead of subjectively pointing fingers at hits and misses, let’s rise to a bird’s eye view and see if we can understand why some apps work and why others don’t. Then we’ll proceed to a wish list for the next round of new and revised apps.

No one expected competition to come straight from… Safari, the web browser that comes with the iPad. Last week, while planning this column, I asked friends in the industry how they use their tablet and which their preferred media apps are. Many of them mentioned Safari as one of their favorites. Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group e-mailed back : “You don’t need the apps! The Safari browser is a great way to navigate magazines and newspapers. As I wrote in that column, the PDF-type magazine apps feel like a huge step backwards – remember Zinio? I don’t like being locked in a walled garden within a walled garden. But I hold out hope for the next generation of apps [Slate is about to release its own, inspired by BBC and NPR]“.
Alan Mutter who writes the excellent Newsosaur blog, was finishing his own column (he’s more like a Friday guy) and said “[Safari] makes it possible to access a beautiful rendition of any site on the web, including those operated by publishers offering sub-par iPad apps”, he was referring explicitly to Time Magazine and the New York Times.
Marion Maneker, contributor to Slate’s business website The Big Money, responded fully in a post discussing his favorite apps but underlined the advantages of Safari: “Right now many newspapers are better read through the websites. It’s great to be able to save the site URL as its own app-tile on the iPad’s Home screen”.
Even Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian said in an interview, a couple of months ago, how he was surprised to see how well his site renders on the iPad. (That could be one of the reasons why 2ergo, the company that designed the excellent Guardian app for the iPhone, is not rushing to deliver for the iPad).

So, that’s the first idea: simply browsing the web through Safari appears to seriously challenge publishers’ efforts to create good applications.

That could explain why many apps appear stuck in two weird modes. The first one involves encapsulating the web experience into an app, and coming up with a design closer to the original paper. For the second mode, newspapers and magazines choose to replicate the carbon-based reading experience on the iPad with PDF-based reading applications. Not exactly a great leap forward either. But it is convenient: over the last weeks, I found myself buying more newspapers on my iPad than I did on newsstands.

It works fine as long as three conditions are met.

- The price has to be right. When a physical newspaper costs €1.30-1.50, it doesn’t make sense to demand €1.59 on-line for exactly the same content. Apple’s rigid pricing policy doesn’t help in the matter. In the Euro zone for instance, a newspaper will sport one of two prices: €0.79 or €1.59 (which translates into $0.99 and $1.99 in the US store). Many editors find this pricing either too low or too expensive, especially when, in a country like France, a 20% VAT applies on digitally delivered content – which undermines the profitability. Most of went for the €0.79 price, which is a good thing.
The price issue is especially critical critical for magazines. For glossies, the equation is pretty simple: for the same price, it must offer more. Otherwise, it’s a much better deal to pickup a copy at the newsstand. Except for foreign publications: Vanity Fair costs $4.95 in the US and £4.20 in the UK, versus  €8 to €9 in Paris; this is a case where the iPad version of the magazine is a good bargain. More

Under the hood: Google Apps and Apple

With its Cloud Apps, Google tells a nice, simple story: All you need is a browser. Life is simple, we take care of everything, no more fighting with fat, expensive desktop bloatware.
You can access your data and our apps Anywhere, Anytime…if you have an Internet connection. If you don’t, as we’ll see in a moment, things become more complicated. More like yesterday.

Let’s start with a simple Web app. How does it work?

Somewhere, a computer runs a Web server. In turn, the Web server runs an application whose job is to pull the strings of the browser marionette hiding inside my computer at the other end of a Net connection. The app tells my browser to display ‘Monday Note’ at these coordinates inside such-and-such a window, using this font, that size, and this color. Or the Web app sends a file and tells the browser where and how to play it, and so on.
But what happens if I lose the Net connection? The server no longer pulls the string, the marionette collapses, my Web application is dead.

To achieve its strategic goal of displacing Microsoft Office, Google knew it had to provide an off-line version of Google Apps. Off-line capability is implemented by dropping a replica of the Cloud—a Web server, the application code running on that server, and a local cache of my data—into my computer. My work will be uploaded to the Cloud when the Net connection is restored. With today’s software technology, with abundant storage and computing power on desktops and laptops, Google’s goal isn’t unreachable.

But…the Cloud can be replicated inside my laptop?

It’s not as fantastic as it sounds. While the Cloud evokes images of Google server farms and Big Iron, even the flimsiest of netbooks now provide ample RAM space (at least 1Gbyte, often 2), plenty of disk space (160 Gb or more), and an Intel processor running at 1 GHz or faster. Recreating the server, storage, and applications is well within their power.

Furthermore, your PC/laptop/netbook already contains a Web server. Every Mac carries a copy of the Apache Web server (“the most popular HTTP server software in use” says the Wikipedia article), as so do most Linux “distros” on netbooks and DVDs. Windows provides a Web server called IIS, Internet Information Services, the “second most popular web server in terms of overall websites…” (Wikipedia). If you want Apache on Windows, it’s free and easy, go here. The Windows Installer package (née MSI) weighs in at 6Mbytes, that’s all. More

Very Personal Computing

The center of financial gravity in the computing world—the Center of Money—has shifted. No longer directed at the PC, the money pump now gushes full blast at the smartphones market. One of my colleagues, Bob Ackerman, calls smartphones the very personal computers. Measured by size and potential, they’re both smaller and bigger than today’s PCs.

The Math

Consider the numbers: HP, the world’s foremost PC maker, sold $10B of “Personal Systems” in its last reported quarter:

(turn “on” display image in your mail reader
to see the graphics)

Despite their premier position, HP isn’t making much PC money: $500M, 5% Operating Profit. (The full HP Q1 report in PDF can be found here.)

Now let’s turn to Apple’s most recent quarter. Smartphones constituted 40% of the company’s revenue:

When we add up the numbers, we see that the iPhone = Mac + iPods. And this rough calculation “misunderestimates” the weight of the iPhone OS. In the more mature iPod category, the iPod Touch (the iPhone without a phone) grew by 63% year-to-year according to Apple COO Tim Cook in the most recent earnings conference call. (Full Q2 2010 SEC filing available here.) More

Data Schizophrenia

Let’s discuss a developing data management contradiction. People thinking in strategic terms about the monetization of digital medias, publishers, marketers, are unanimous. Collecting and poring over data has become more important than ever.
That’s one trend.

The other involves the gatekeepers. As I briefly explained last week, we now face a small club of high tech giants — Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo and Apple — who, over the years, acquired an unprecedented ability to gather and process data. As competition is heating up among them, the data they’ll be able to get will continue to increase in tactical and strategical value. As a corollary, they are increasingly inclined to keep such data close to the vest.

The latest example came up with the April 8th launch of Apple’s iAd initiative for the iPhone platform. As Steve Jobs delicately puts it, mobile ads “suck”, his own words for what we’ve been saying all along in the Monday Note (see The future of content navigation). Digital ads suffers from an inherent flaw: they are designed to take the viewer away from the content (again: see Jobs’ keynote speech for details, go directly to the 44 minutes mark to watch the ad chapter). Hence the solution envisioned by the Cupertino boys: embedding the ad within the application – which, in the process, becomes the commercial Trojan Horse of mobile computing. Next step: connecting the ad to a transaction system that will collect a 40% commission fee.

The data? Apple keeps them. Publisher, consider yourself lucky, you get the money and a set of basic numbers. As pointed out by Peter Kafka in The Wall Street Journal’s blog All Things D, contractually speaking, the terms are unambiguous.

Section 3.3.9 of the developer agreement, stipulates:

“Notwithstanding anything else in this Agreement, Device Data may not be provided or disclosed to a third party without Apple’s prior written consent. Accordingly, the use of third party software in Your Application to collect and send Device Data to a third party for processing or analysis is expressly prohibited.” More

The Adobe – Apple Flame War

The short version:

Who, in his right mind, expects Steve Jobs to let Adobe (and other) cross-platform application development tools control his (I mean the iPhone OS) future? Cross-platform tools dangle the old “write once, run everywhere” promise. But, by being cross-platform, they don’t use, they erase “uncommon” features. To Apple, this is anathema as it wants apps developers to use, to promote its differentiation. It’s that simple. Losing differentiation is death by low margins. It’s that simple. It’s business. Apple is right to keep control of its platform’s future.

The longer version:

The upcoming 4.0 release of the iPhone OS will come with licensing language that prohibits the use of Adobe’s Flash-to-iPhone compiler. The compiler is a clever way around the absence of a Flash interpreter on Apple’s smartphone OS. It takes Flash code in and outputs iPhone OS code, allowing Flash content and apps to run on the iPhone (and iPad). Problem solved.

Not so fast, says Apple, we’ll only allow applications that are written “natively” with our tools. No cross-platform tools, no Flash-to-iPhone compiler, no Flash.

Less than 24 hours later, an Adobe employee, Lee Brimelow, posts a virulent critique of Apple’s latest prohibition, titled “Apple Slaps Developers In The Face”. He concludes with a vigorous ‘Go screw yourself Apple’ and then adds a postscript: ‘Comments disabled as I’m not interested in hearing from the Cupertino Comment SPAM bots.’ Ah, yes. The one-way mirror…
[What the irate gentleman fails to say is this: The only developers slapped in the face are those who don’t use Apple development tools because they want to write a cross-platform app that may or may not use the particular features of the iPhone OS.]

He’s not alone in condemning Apple. In his blog, sunnily called “Why does everything suck?”, Hank Williams asks if “Steve Jobs Has Just Gone Mad” and wonders about “Insane Restraint of Trade”.

Adobe appears to be worried. In its latest SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission, the stock market regulator) filing, the company admits that its ‘business could be harmed’. If Apple succeeds in turning developers away from Adobe’s tools, a new version of which, CS5, is about to be announced, well, the money pump will stutter.

There are calmer minds, however. In his highly-recommended blog, Daring Fireball, John Gruber explains why Apple changed the iPhone OS licensing agreement. It’s strategic, really: Apple doesn’t want anyone else to have control over which OS features the applications have or don’t have access to. I’ll explain in a moment why it’s rational for Apple to fend off cross-compilers, and why it’s not too rational for Adobe employees and others to criticize Apple for keeping control of its future.

But, first, a bit of history.

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