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LimpingMe: Apple’s Cloudy Service.

mobile internet By December 13, 2010 Tags: 15 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Friday morning, I stop at Il Fornaio to get my last caffeine fix of the morning. Once arrived at the office across the street, I realize I “lost” my iPad. Not to worry, I’ve done this before. Find My iPhone will tell me where it is. It worked a couple of months ago when I left an earlier 3G iPad at a California Street burger joint. When I came back, 10 mins later, the iPad was gone. I fired up the iPhone app and saw the lost puppy still was in neighborhood. I got in my car as I saw the iPad move South on El Camino Real, ending up around a Hobee’s restaurant. Going there and asking around got me nothing. I remotely locked the iPad, displayed a message asking to call me. No joy. I then wiped it, that is erased its contents from my iPhone. Only a consolation, but an important one.
Still, thanks to the presence of mind of an IT consultant who was asked to unlock an iPad “found in a bus”, I was reunited with my tablet a few weeks later.
Interestingly, Apple recently made Find My iPhone a free service. Before, you had to be a $99/year MobileMe subscriber. This is another confirmation of Apple’s business model focus, anything and everything in the service of the real margins engine: hardware.
Still on the positive side, Back to My Mac, another MobileMe service, was recently and discreetly improved: it now works through (most of) aggressively firewalled corporate networks. This makes Screen Sharing (an Apple VNC implementation) even more useful.

So, MobileMe works, right?

Let’s see, I must have forgotten this iPad on the counter as I picked up my latte. It’ll be just a minute, I’ll log on MobileMe and confirm its location. No such luck, the system doesn’t know me anymore. Breathe three times, slow down, this is just a typo. Nope.
Same on my iPhone. Foraging around, I notice the App Store update tells me something like my password is locked because of a security problem.
Sigh. I go back to my computer and click on the Lost Password link. I land on a page offering to email a link to a password update page to my alternate email address. Done. I answer questions, set up a new password, log out and back in to my Apple ID account. No problem, I’m recognized again.
But back to MobileMe, no joy. I’m still locked out.
Another path to the Apple ID password restoration page, answering more questions. Success. New password. Out and back in. Success.
But no, I’m still locked out of MobileMe and can’t locate my iPad.
I still get MobileMe mail. But not for long. When I try and change the password to the latest one, I’m out. And reverting to the old one doesn’t work either.

One could see this as a banal security incident. Perhaps someone tried to log into my account and tripped the alarm system. I ended up on the phone and on email with a competent and pleasant support person and, around dinner time, I was back in business with a fresh temp password, changed to a new one of mine and a new secret question this morning. What’s to complain about?

Unfortunately, many things.

Let’s start with iDisk. A great idea if you want to share and synchronize files between machines. In practice, things can turn mystifying as some but not all files stubbornly refuse to synch between computers. I went to Apple’s support pages on the matter for guidance and to related discussion forums for empathy and reassurance about my mental state. Those dives weren’t entirely comforting. I tried progressively aggressive remedies and ended up having to nuke the entire set up — after careful backups — and rebuild the connections. Today, things work nicely, but I no longer try to sync “the most recent version” of a file, the burns still hurt. I just store and retrieve as I move from one machine to another as I write pieces like this one.
Unnamed Apple friends roll their eyes and tell me to go Dropbox myself. Not the Drop Box in my Public folder but the very successful backup and syncing service. The company is well-financed, supported by noted philanthropists such as Accel and Sequoia.
Still on Cloud services, we have iWork.com, not to be confused with the iWork suite for Macs and iPads. Not even a hobby. Contrary to the likes of Google Docs, Office Live and other Zohos, iWork.com won’t let you edit documents online.

MobileMe other offerings involve photo galleries. They work nicely but expensively. For $200/year one gets MobileMe and 60Gb of storage. For $100/year, Google will get you 400Gb and the free Picasa/PicasaWeb combo, which also works nicely. Actually nicer as it accepts bigger uploads than MobileMe.
For Web sites, MobileMe can be combined with the free iWeb desktop application, they work really well. But iWeb was left behind in the latest iLife iteration, no update. And, contrary to Google, MobileMe won’t host your domain name.

iTunes is a terrific product. Without iTunes there would be no iPhone, no App Store, no Ratatouille on my iPhone. And yet, it gives us a glimpse of how disjointed Apple’s Cloud services are. From time to time, for no stated reason, I’m asked to reenter the security code on my credit card. A security precaution or a bug? Amazon asks once and my credentials are valid in the US as well as on Amazon.fr, for example.
Not with MobileMe. This morning, after a full update of my Apple ID account, including the credit card security code, I’m asked again for it on iTunes when I re-synced my Apple TV which started by declaring my Mac wasn’t authorized. This got me a “This Mac is already authorized” message when I asked iTunes for the connection. Same trouble on my iPad when I updated an application. The new and improved password was accepted, but I had to state credit card security number again, for a free update, mind you.

Continuing to iCal. In the Mac, there is a Preference panel for MobileMe. You state your Apple ID, a mac.com or me.com adress and your password. (It used to be you didn’t need the suffix, just the first part, luser rather than luser@me.com, but that was too simple, let’s leave it to Google to accept spj for spj@gmail.com.) OK, you might think you’re done, you’re authorized. But no, if you have a MobileMe account in iCal, it doesn’t work. Hello iCal account, it’s me@me.com again and my password is moimême.

In the process of working with the Apple support person, I got another peek at how disjointed things appear to be in MobileMe. This individual explained that the new password validation process didn’t do anything. Yes my Apple ID account appear to work with the new password but, for unexplained reasons, the update didn’t propagate. I got a couple of emails to verify my information and was (no longer) surprised to see that the screen snapshot the support tech emailed me had obsolete information. I also fell into a Secret Question trap: Yes, you can design the question and the answer. But better make sure you remember everything down to the last detail. In particular, the answer recognition is case-sensitive: “boarding school” will get you locked out if the correct answer is “Boarding school”. Making progress in the obstacle course, I now have a simpler one word answer with an unforgettable capitalization.

MobileMe was launched in 2008, with a little bit of grandiosity: the new service was offered as Exchange For The Rest Of Us. That proclamation was quickly withdrawn. In August 2008, I wrote a less than laudatory Monday Note piece on the new service’s difficult beginnings. Sacrebleu! I shouldn’t have done that, such an infraction got me a robust personal attack from a Guardian of the Apple Faith who frequently posts on one of the dedicated Apple blogs. The individual, who otherwise produces very good, thoroughly researched pieces, applied his skills to a long litany of my misdeeds. That was good for my soul but didn’t do anything for the disquisition. So it goes: slam the man if you can’t take the argument apart.
In this vein, as an experiment, David Pogue, the NY Times tech expert, once wrote a two-part review of an Apple product, one laudatory, the other critical. You can guess what happened: rabid Apple fans latched on the negative half and labeled him anti-Apple; others, who object to Apple’s products or ways, focused on the positive half and accused him of having sold his soul to Apple. (See David’s piece here. A little tip of the hat to the NYT geeks, and to their bosses who didn’t get in the way: when you hit the Shift key twice on a NYT page, you see paragraph signs, like this ¶. A right click will get you the URL to that paragraph, as the relevant one on Pogue’s piece. Neat. Well… It doesn’t always work.)
Back to the MobileMe early days, Steve Jobs apologized to MobileMe users a bit later and extended their subscriptions.

Two and half years later, things are better, but MobileMe still looks disjointed, half-hearted, not very competitive. And certainly devoid of the flair and finish of most other Apple offerings.
When Steve returned to Apple, the difference between Mac 1.0 and Mac 2.0 was the team of computer scientists Jobs brought with him from Carnegie Mellon, Xerox Parc and Inria. They successfully remade the Mac OS into a modern operating system. Today, much engineering effort seems to go into securing the lead Apple got with iOS. Think hardware margins.
It would be a shame for Apple to leave its Cloud flank unguarded by not enforcing the high standards of OS X and iOS in its Cloud services.
Steve secured Apple’s independence from carriers for iTunes, the App Store and installed apps on its devices. A similar independence or preeminence in Cloud services is equally strategic.
Put another way, it’s a great opportunity.

We’ll review Google’s array, or disarray, of such products in a future Monday Note once the dust from this past week’s three announcements (books, Chrom Web Apps and Chrome OS) settles.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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Measuring the Nomads

mobile internet By December 5, 2010 58 Comments

The more diverse and ubiquitous the internet gets, the harder it becomes to measure. Especially with the mobile version’s rapid growth. A few weeks ago, my friends from the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA) asked for a presentation discussing audience measurements for smartphones and tablets. The target was a conference held last Friday in Boston. Since I didn’t have a clue, I assumed I could work on the presentation in a journalistic way, by reaching out to people in the trade and by doing my own research. Only to realize the mobile internet is well ahead of any of today’s usage measurement tools.

Audience measurement is much more complex on mobile devices than it is on PCs. The world of personal computers is relatively simple. PCs surf through a well-documented set of browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari (see their respective market shares here). The connection happens either through an ISP wire or via wifi. On the server side, each request is compiled into a log for further analysis.

In the mobile world, there are many more variations. The first dimension is the diversity of devices and operating systems. The real mobile ecosystem extends well beyond the pristine simplicity of the Apple world with its two main devices — the iPhone and the iPad, only one screen size for each — powered by iOS.

Android, the ultra fast growing mobile OS made by Google, is found on 95 170 (!) different devices. Each comes with its (almost) unique combination of screen size and hardware/software features; “small” differences translate into a nightmare for applications developers. There is more: the mobile ecosystem also comprises platforms such as Windows Phone devices, the well-controlled Blackberry, Palm’s WebOS (now in HP’s hands), Samsung’s Bada and the multiple flavors of Symbian, to be followed by Meego. Each platform sprouts many devices and browsing variants.

Then, we have applications. Apps are fantastic at taking advantage of the senses of smartphones and tablets. An app can see (though the device’s camera), hear (with the microphone), understand language, talk back; it can search — the Yellow Pages for a location or the web for an explanation; it can feel motion thanks to the smartphone motion detectors and gyroscopes ; it can navigate through GPS or cell tower/wifi triangulation; and of course, it can connect to a world of other devices. This results in an unprecedented canvas for the creativity of app developers. According to recents studies, apps account for about half of the internet connections coming from smartphones. It is therefore critical to analyze such traffic. But, to say the least, we are not there yet.

One example of the measurement challenge: a news related application. The first measure of an app’s success is its downloads count. In theory, pretty simple. Each time an app is downloaded, the store (Apple’s or any other) records the transaction. Then, things gets fuzzier as the application lives on and gets regular updates. Sometimes, updates are upgrades, with new features. At which point should the app be considered new — especially when it’s free, like most of the news-related ones? Second difficulty: a growing number of apps will be preloaded into smartphones and tablets. Rightly or wrongly, Apple nixes such meddling with its devices. But, outside of the iOS world, cellphone carriers do strike deals with content providers and preload apps on Android devices. That’s another hard to get number.

We might believe the app’s activation provides a measurable event that settles the issue. It doesn’t. Let’s continue with the news app example. When launched from a smartphone or a tablet, the app sends a burst of “http” requests to the web server. How many? It depends on the app’s design and default settings. There could be 20, 30, or more streams loading in the background. The purpose is instant gratification: when the user requests the most likely item, such as “hottest news”, the content shows instantly for having been preloaded. This results in several uncertainties in the counting process.
From the server standpoint, the pages have been served. But how many of those have been actually read and for how long? What if I tweak my app’s setting, selecting some items and removing others? In an ideal world, a tracking task running inside the application would provide the accurate, up-to-date information. Each time the app runs, the tracker records every finger stroke (or swipe) and, whenever possible, feeds everything back to the publisher.  But the OS gamut and other technical permutations makes this difficult. As for Apple, tracker code inside its apps is a no-no (although there are signs of an upcoming flexibility in that matter).

Even a well-implemented tracker module isn’t the perfect solution, though. For example, it doesn’t solve the issue of apps running in the background and downloading streams of data, unbeknownst to the user. Such requests are recorded as page views by the server, but the content is not necessarily seen by the user.

The French company Mediamétrie Net Ratings (in partnership with Nielsen), came up with a solution that might pave the way to useable hybrid measurements. Nielsen Net Ratings, NNR, is known for its technology built around panelsof users (details here) who agree to have trackers running on their PCs. To improve mobile measurement, NNR recently teamed up with the three French cellular carriers and built a new massive log analysis system. The structure looks like this:

The (simplified) sequence follows:

1 / Cell carriers. They compile millions of logs, i.e. requests coming from their 3G/Edge networks to websites (no distinction between a request coming from an Android web browser or an iPhone application). Basically the log ticket says: P. Smith, number ###, sent this http://www… request on Dec 3rd at 22:34:55.

2/ The third party aggregator. Its main job is to anonymize data thanks to an encryption key it gets form the carriers. France’s privacy authority is very serious about data protection. Neither the cell carrier, nor the measurement company can have a full view on what people do on the internet.

3/ The audience analysis company. Here, Nielsen Net Rating France. In our example, along with cell numbers for its 10,000 others panelists, NNR sends the third party aggregator John Doe’s number.

4/ The aggregator encrypts the John Doe’s number in a “fdsg4…” sequence and sends it back to NNR.

5/ The carriers then send huge log files to NNR.

6/ NNR’s job is to retrieve its encrypted panelist from within the logs haystack. When it does spot the “fdsg4…” sequence, it can tell that John Doe, whom NNR knows everything about, has gone to xyz websites via its cell phone at such and such dates, times and, perhaps, locations.The rest of the log remains encrypted, therefore useless.

This system has only been in operation for a few months. And it is not perfect either. For instance, it tracks only requests going through cell phone networks; it ignores web requests sent through wifi — that account for 30% of total usage! The new system also ignores Blackberry users using RIM’s proprietary network. And the NNR algorithms need help from a huge database of URLs provided by the sites publishers. These URLs will be used to differentiate web browser requests from the ones generated by an app; we are talking of millions of URLs here, growing by the thousands every single day. A daunting task. In addition to this complication, large amounts of data still reside in the publishers servers. Hence a certification issue, as for all site centric measurements.

So much work ahead. The future lies in a deeper merger of site centric (log analysis) and user centric (panel) techniques. And also in a wider deployment of HTML 5 apps. We’ll explore the new web Lingua Franca’s potential in an upcoming Monday Note.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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The Carriers’ Rebellion

hardware, mobile internet By September 26, 2010 Tags: , , , , 27 Comments

Before the Steve Jobs hypnosis session, AT&T ruled. Handsets, their prices, branding, applications, contractual terms, content sales…AT&T decided everything and made pennies on each bit that flowed through its network. Then the Great Mesmerizer swept the table. Apple provided the hardware, the operating system, and “everything else”: applications, music, ringtones, movies, books… The iTunes cash register rang and AT&T didn’t make a red cent on content.

In the eyes of other carriers, AT&T sold its birthright. But they didn’t sell cheap. The industry-wide ARPU (Average Revenue Per User per month) is a little more than $50. AT&T’s iPhone ARPU hovers above $100. Subtract $25 kicked back to Apple, and AT&T still wins. More important, AT&T’s iPhone exclusivity in the US “stole” millions of subscribers from rivals Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile—more than 1 million per quarter since the iPhone came out in June, 2007.

(Legend has it that Jobs approached Verizon before AT&T, but Apple’s demands were deemed “obscene”. If the story is true, Verizon’s disgust lost them 10 million subscribers and billions in revenue—much more than it would have made in content sales putatively under its control. Another theory, unprovable but preferable, is that Apple went for the worldwide “GSM’’ standard, hence AT&T.)

To the industry at large, the damage had been done. Jobs disintermediated carriers. Consumers woke up to a different life, one where the carrier supplied the bit pipe and nothing else. Yesterday’s smartphones became today’s mobile personal computers and carriers devolved into wireless ISPs, their worst fear.

Enter Android.

Android is like Linux, it’s Open Source, it’s free. And it’s very good, and rabidly getting better. But with two important differences. Android is Linux with money, Google’s money. And Android is Linux without a Microsoft adversary. There’s no legally—or illegally—dominant player in the smartphone/really personal computer space. Nokia, Palm, Microsoft, and RIM were and still are much larger than the Disintermediating Devil from Cupertino.

Handset makers and software developers love Android, new handsets and new applications are released daily; see the Android Market here. The current guess is that Android will grab the lion’s share of the handset market by 2012. Nokia, RIM, and Microsoft may disagree with that forecast, and Apple is certain to stick to its small market share/high margin, vertical, bare-metal-to-flesh strategy.

Carriers get excited about Android, too. For two reasons. First, Android (and the very good bundled Google apps) allows handset makers to make inexpensive devices. Carriers and Google both encourage a race to the bottom where handsets are commoditized, but smart.

Second, because Android is an Open Source platform, carriers can work with handset makers, they can dictate the feature set and, as a result, revitalize the revenue stream. They can promote their favorite apps, content, and services sales that have been choked by disintermediation.

But it’s not a straight shot. Android lays out the playing field for a contest between Google and carriers.

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Nokia’s New CEO: Challenges

hardware, mobile internet By September 12, 2010 Tags: , , 41 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Here we are, back from last June’s Nokia science-fiction romp. The company has finally elected a new CEO to replace OPK, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo. 43-year-old Stephen Elop’s bona fides are in order: As President of Microsoft’s Business Division (since January 2008) he was in charge of the Microsoft Office money machine and was part of the company’s “Leadership Team”. He was well-paid (the 2009 proxy pegged him at $4.8M, excluding longer-term items) and rumor placed him at the top of the short list to succeed Ballmer…

So what possessed Elop to take the Nokia job?

The answer must be that he’s been given the opportunity to make his mark. Having seen Microsoft from the inside, he must have realized that he was being groomed to be no more than a competent caretaker. He might even have decided he wouldn’t get, or wouldn’t want, the big prize, the CEO crown. So, I speculate, he went for the challenges of a turn-around situation.

The goal is clear: Restore Nokia to its former glory as the ne plus ultra of smartphones. But the path to this renaissance isn’t a straight shot—it’s an obstacle course.

Numbers

Mr. Elop’s most immediate challenge lies in Nokia’s financial performance. During the last three years of OPK’s tenure, Nokia lost 75% of its market cap, plunging from $40/sh in 2007 (the year the iPhone came out) to less than $10 today, although with a nice 2% uptick following the CEO announcement:

A more direct way to look at the numbers challenge is a single datum: Today, Nokia gets about €155 ($196) per smartphone, down from €190 last year. In the meantime, Apple gets more than $600 per iPhone. (See the June 2010 Financial Times story here.)

It gets worse when the total average number is considered, smartphones and not-so-smartphones together. That average now hovers around €60, which means Nokia sells very large numbers of low-end phones that yield very little profit. They’re in great danger of being squeezed by the incoming low-end Android horde.

But the numbers are a mere proxy for the bigger trial: The product itself, the smartphone.

Once the category leader, Nokia is now struggling to catch up with HTC, Motorola, Samsung and, of course, RIM/Blackberry and Apple. Pugnacious Nokia die-hards adhere to the company’s sisu, but the market has spoken—and it enunciates more distinctly every quarter. See this Business Insider chart:

Given today’s market turbulence, one can’t help but admire the charter’s ability to “see” as far as 2014—but the trend is obvious. Will upcoming products such as the N8 reverse it? Early reviews are mixed. For Nokia, the N8 isn’t likely to do what the Razr did for Motorola in 2003 or what the latest Droids are doing now. Motorola’s conversion to Android seems to have righted the ship and Sanjay Jah, the Co-CEO in charge of the company’s mobile business, is on his way to leading a self-sustaining entity, one that could finally be spun off as planned.

Software

Today, Nokia pushes devices that use older Symbian S60 stacks, newer Symbian^3 and Symbian^4 engines, as well as a mobile Linux derivative: Meego. Imagine the chuckles in the halls of Cupertino, Mountain View, and Palo Alto. Even with plenty of money and management/engineering talent, updating one software platform is a struggle. Ask Apple, Google, or HP, and the chuckles quickly become groans. Nokia thinks it can stay on the field when it’s playing the game in such a disorganized fashion?

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Science Fiction: An Apple-Curated App Store

mobile internet, software By September 6, 2010 Tags: , 16 Comments

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.

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A Toolkit for the Cognitive Container

mobile internet, online publishing By August 29, 2010 Tags: 19 Comments

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.

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Curious Summer

mobile internet, software By August 29, 2010 Tags: , , 14 Comments

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!

hardware, mobile internet, Uncategorized By July 18, 2010 85 Comments

…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.

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Free Spy Novel

mobile internet By July 11, 2010 14 Comments

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.

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Under the hood: Google Apps and Apple

mobile internet, software By May 24, 2010 16 Comments

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.

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