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What I want for my Mac

mobile internet, software By February 27, 2011 Tags: , 10 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

I was a happy man. After twelve years of Windows use at work — the usual Outlook excuse — I was about to be saved by Vista.

On January 30th 2007, 8:00 am, the doors opened at Fry’s in Palo Alto. I showed up early to claim my prize, a 17” HP laptop with Vista factory-installed. I walked in and found that I was more than first in line — I was alone. Unfortunately, I didn’t take this as a warning. I bought the macho machine and completed the expedition with a $400 Office 2007 DVD.

That same morning, I flew to an industry conference, sat in the last row (as usual) so I could play with my new machine — and began to realize my mistake. I had become comfortable with Windows XP, deriving geek pride from my ability to juggle firewall settings, virus and malware countermeasures, I answered the Genuine Windows Advantage challenges and made coffee while the system checked for updates.

But Vista defeated me. I cracked. I walked down University Avenue to the Palo Alto Apple Store and bought a black MacBook (and Parallels software so I could still run Windows XP during the detox period).

The following Monday, my VC partners did a double take when they walked into the conference room: They saw the big Apple logo on the laptop and Microsoft Outlook projected on the big screen. Four years later, one by one, my partners are moving to the Light Side. (I also have a Dell netbook running Windows 7 — but it’s for “research.”)

During those four years, (some of) my Apple prayers have been answered: I have a new 11” MacBook Air, a neatbook I can really use on an airplane — even when the large gentleman sitting one row ahead suddenly reclines the back of his seat. Some days I wish I had a Mac as small and pocketable as my 2001 Toshiba Libretto but, all in all, my 11” Air is the most pleasant laptop I’ve ever owned, even more so than my dearly departed (stolen in Paris) 1991 PowerBook Duo.

Enough nostalgia, I also have unanswered prayers. We’ll start with two easy ones.

My iPad, which I use less often now that I have the MacBook Air, has 3G connectivity. On my laptop I have to use a modem, the Verizon MiFi 3G. It converts the cellular data connection into a WiFi hotspot in my pocket and can support up to five ‘clients’. I use a similar but even smaller device from Orange when I’m in France. I could, of course, use my Android phone as a hotspot (again, for ‘‘research’’), and there are recurrent rumors that someday AT&T will let my iPhone play the same role, but I’d like to cut out the middle man. Now that we know the Verizon iPhone 4 uses the bi-sexual ecumenical CDMA/GSM radio chip, there is hope that all future mobile devices from Apple, MacBook Air included, will have worldwide cellular connectivity.

Less important, but still helpful for this klutz who breaks toes in the dark against furniture, I’d like Jon Ive, Apple’s design guru, to take a weekend afternoon and whip up a black envelope for my laptop. The one he designed for the iPad spares me embarrassment and money every time I drop my tablet.

More difficult: I’d like a MobileMe that works.

MobileMe is erratic, the Back to My Mac feature works, then stops working, and then works again for no apparent reason. Synchronization between machines is so haphazard I finally switched to DropBox — it’s free for up to 2GB of impeccably Cloud-synced files, and a mere $10/month for 50Gb. DropBox hasn’t always worked well on OS X, but the latest version seems to be stable and manages to sync data for a large number of platforms and applications. As an example, it syncs my 1Password passwords across all my desktop and mobile devices, including Android and Windows.

As described in a previous Note, I bought the family pack for OS X and iLife updates even though the ‘’single” version can be installed on any number of machines. That alone probably gets me into the lower tier of the Friendly Idiot database somewhere in Apple’s Cloud, but the fact that I also pay $100/yr for MobileMe upgrades me to Platinum status.

Two days ago, I left a Word file open on my office iMac. At home, when I realized my mistake, I thought I could reach into the office using Back to My Mac, close the file and then open the copy that had been stored/synced through DropBox. Back to My Mac refused to work that night, but I could still open the file from DropBox and continue writing.

At the office the next day, the “old” document was tagged for deletion when I opened the newer version from DropBox. It sounds complicated and it is: Subtle conflicts of timing and location can make syncing difficult for normal humans.

I thought that’s why we have Apple, the non-IT company that caters to The Rest of Us, but, unfortunately, its Cloud services are messy, unpredictable, and filled with rigid silos. The Apple Cloud is supposed to smooth the seams of synchronization but fails to do so because information isn’t properly shared between its various functions.

I experienced another example of Cloud rigidity when I bought a new $99 Developer subscription. I used the Apple ID and the credit card I use all the time for MobileMe and iTunes purchases. The sale went through, Apple took my money…

…but right after the successful cashectomy a cranky algorithm complained about inconsistencies and refused to activate my subscription. Instead, I got an email message asking me to send a notarized copy of my ID by fax:

I’m sure the robot meant well; perhaps its poorly-fed algorithm causes it to bark at shadows. I emailed twice, requesting help and conceding that I may have contributed to the problem. But, ahem, why did you take my money? And why resort to such antiquated means to resolve the situation? Can’t a human use judgment and an email or phone call to correct the misunderstanding?

24 hours later, no one had gotten back to me.

So, why am I enrolling in the Apple Developer Program? I want to test an early version of the next OS X release, Lion, which is rumored to borrow some of the look and spirit of the iPad. In last November’s Monday Note, I criticized the Finder for being too complicated. I’m curious to see if Lion will simplify the UI, fulfill its promise of moving to a more intuitive way of organizing and navigating the content of our machines.

[Apple Insider just published a neat series of posts covering many of Lion’s new features.]

(Interestingly, the new developer release is distributed through one of Apple’s Cloud services, the Mac App Store, the one that continues to enthusiastically embrace my Apple ID — and credit card.)

Still, if I could have only one wish, what would it be?

Without a doubt, it’d be a working MobileMe. Free? Nice, but I’ll take working over free.

[This isn’t my lucky week. After I wrote the above, I bought the $0.99 FaceTime app for Brigitte’s Mac and for mine. This turned into another obstacle course of inconsistencies in Apple’s Cloud, to say nothing of UI trouble. Who tests these things? Engineers or mere mortals?]


Mobile World Clusterf#^k — 2011 Edition

software By February 20, 2011 Tags: , 5 Comments

Plus ça change…et plus.

We are at this year’s Mobile World Congress, held last week in Barcelona. One of the usual suspects, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, stands and delivers the new and improved party line: App Stores are bad. Stephenson wants cross-platform apps delivered through the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC), whose “commercial launch’’ takes place at the conference.

At last year’s conference, carriers made similar noises, dutifully reported in this 2010 Mobile World Clusterf#^k Monday Note, and no less diligently mocked in TechCrunch

(“The Wholesale Applications Community Sounds Like a Disaster in the Making.”) Now that AT&T is no longer the exclusive iPhone carrier in the US, the App Store that used to boost their iPhone sales (with a fat $100/month ARPU) also benefits Verizon.

AT&T’s carrier-centric view of the world remains unchanged: Phones are a commodity. Their sole raison d’être is to act as a transmission medium, a hard-to-disconnect hose attached to our wallets that sucks out as much money as possible…in legal ways, of course…most of the time.

To Mr. Stephenson, a financial executive (he used to be CFO of Southwestern Bell), Apple’s App Store and its ilk violate the carrier’s birthright. Unveiled last year and re-announced last week, the path to redemption is clear: WAC, a cross-carrier, cross-platform “community.” Who wouldn’t want the security of a carrier-hosted universal application library? Simple, no?


Software is the music of smartphones. Picture two musical instruments, a pipe organ and a spinet piano. Consider the organ in the picture, three keyboards, a pedalboard, the “ranks” (sets of pipes) controlled by stops along the sides:

The organ’s sonic palette is broad and deep: A wide ambitus of pitch, from the gut-wrenching near-subsonic to the hair-raising upper reaches; a panoply of timbres; infinite sustain; capable of terrifying volume…

The spinet…

Music written for an organ transcribed — cross-platformed — for a spinet…it’s just not the same. Why aim for the lowest common denominator?

Metaphor aside, restricting the features and capabilities of an app so it fits on every smartphone doesn’t inspire hardware and software innovation.

Just as important — and I’m not sure I can put this diplomatically — in matters of application software and, more generally, taste, what’s the carriers’ record? Do they think customers care more about “one size fits all” sophistry than they do about quality? Subscribers have proven their willingness to pay a premium for products that demonstrate attention to form and function.

AT&T’s “get off my lawn” attitude reeks of nostalgia for the Good Old Days when carriers dictated features and prices. The inevitable disintermediation of their business started with the iPhone apostasy and will soon expand when an unlocked smartphone from Mediatek (see Stephen Elop’s memo) running an Android derivative (OMS/oPhone or Tapas) can be had for $79 or less.

The cross-carrier/cross-platform WAC will make as much progress this year as it did in the last 12 months. Next year’s PowerPoint slides won’t need much editing.

But that was just the appetizer.

The pièce de résistance at this year’s MWC was the MicroNokia CF:

Nokia has given up on its smartphone platforms and has adopted Windows Phone 7.

  • Symbian (Nokia’s current platform) will be “harvested,” which mean Symbian will be flogged until MicroNokia handsets ship in sufficient volume.
  • Meego (a Linux derivative and Nokia’s former future) has been put to pasture…but will ship as a face-saving “research project.”
  • Qt, Nokia’s cross-platform UI framework, has been abandoned. Microsoft will provide the UI.

This is supposed to reverse Nokia’s well-documented market share and profit decline.

Last year, Nokia fired its CEO, OPK (Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo) and hired a Microsoft executive, Stephen Elop. If you click on the link, you’ll see Nokia’s future CEO with a Nokia exec, Kai Öistämö, now reporting to him. Titillating as they might be, we’ll skip the conspiracy theories, they shed no light on the MicroNokia’s future.

It’s not going to be pretty.

Nokia faces an extremely difficult business model transition. One foot in the “we own everything” boat, the other in the Windows Phone 7 skiff. The integrated business model is sinking, and the new Microsoft smartphone platform isn’t floating very well. Consumers and carriers might desert Symbian devices faster than MicroNokia handsets gain acceptance. (Actually, “handsets” is the wrong word. As discussed in Elop’s Burning Platform memo, “ecosystem” is more appropriate: devices + applications + app store + services + content distribution + carriers.)

It gets worse. Today, Nokia sells huge volumes everywhere around the world (except in the US), more than 120M phones per quarter, of which 28M are Symbian devices. How will Nokia’s business fare against the surge of unlocked $79 “Android” derivatives?

We hear Nokia’s explanation for not choosing Android: Not enough differentiation, Windows Phone 7 will give us more control over our destiny, we have a “special partnership” with Microsoft. Special, differentiated…but how? What about other Windows Phone 7 licensees? How will Microsoft succeed in creating a thriving ecosystem if one partner is more equal than the others?

Then there’s the money behind the deal. “Billions,” we’re told, but without further details. Will it be cash, considerations in kind, support, licensing rebates, marketing budget? In time, we’ll get more data.

Such alliances have a way of not working with Microsoft, whose record on the matter is terrible. On his Asymco site, Horace Dediu lists Microsoft’s failed smartphone partnerships. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the common factor in those failures is Microsoft, its culture, its ways.

(But wait, the MicroNokia alliance is different. Stephen Elop is a cultural diplomat, he’s familiar with the Microsoft ethos, he was the executive in charge of the Office documents partnership with Nokia…)

Microsoft is no longer the successful, dominant player that it was in the PC business. It’s trying to get back into a race that RIM, Google, and Apple are winning. As a result, Microsoft is willing to provide incentives to application developers and handset makers. Big incentives.

And big incentives are justifiable. Microsoft execs realize they no longer have the upper hand, that they must use “all means necessary” to get back into the smartphone revolution, the biggest high-tech rocket we’ve ever seen, combining three engines: Cloud, Social, and Very Personal Computers a.k.a. Smartphones.

To Microsoft’s credit, another tenet of its culture is “never give up.” Like the Harvard football coach he once was, Steve Ballmer tells his troops to keep trying and trying until they succeed, and he has the resources, the money, the people — and his board’s support — to keep at it. I take issue with his wanton disregard for annoying facts, but, good faith or not, I can’t help but admire the unwavering leader and the expert showman.

Still, I doubt this MicroNokia deal will be enough to put Microsoft back in the smartphone and tablets race.

With this in mind, why not acquire Nokia and its worldwide manufacturing and distribution?  For Microsoft, this wouldn’t be a first. They went “integrated” (or, if you prefer, “Apple”) with the Xbox business and controlled the platform in its entirety. The MicroNokia marriage would be a difficult one, certainly, but it would give Microsoft more control over its own destiny. Suitable explanations would be provided: It’s a new era, we have an opportunity to become the largest smartphone maker, and (while we’re being cheeky) it’s a way to thwart the looming Google/Android licensing monopoly.

Who knows, Ballmer might change his mind. If he doesn’t, he might put yet another failed partnership on his résumé.


Mac App Store: Soon But Controversial

software By December 5, 2010 Tags: , 21 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

This year, three wishes were on top of my list: A smaller, lighter MacBook, an app store for the Mac, and a curated iOS app store. I got two out of three. The 11” MacBook Air works quite well when the passenger in front of me fully reclines his seat; and Apple, following its own iOS example, did indeed launch a Mac App store. We’ll have to wait for curated help finding our way through the hundreds of thousands of apps for iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches, but there’s always next year.

The Mac App Store, announced October 20th, is still in the Coming Soon state, likely to open its ports mid-to-late January 2011. Mac developers have been able to bring their offerings to Apple’s altar since the beginning of November and, last week, we got a new set of Mac App Store Review Guidelines (see the PDF here). No real surprise, and a nice conclusion I’ll quote in full:

Thank you for developing for Mac OS X. Even though this document is a formidable list of what not to do, please also keep in mind the much shorter list of what you must do. Above all else, join us in trying to surprise and delight users. Show them their world in innovative ways, and let them interact with it like never before. In our experience, users really respond to polish, both in functionality and user interface. Go the extra mile. Give them more than they expect. And take them places where they have never been before. We are ready to help.

Except for the tired “surprise and delight” marketing BS, it’s a crisp envoi, a sendoff to a fresh set of tasks and opportunities. And, as befits anything Apple does, the Mac App Store kicks up a new and improved set of arguments.

Unavoidably, we have the C-word heat: ‘Steve Jobs is a Control freak. After Closing the iPhone ecosystem, he wants to exert the same dictatorial control over the Mac. Yet another Walled Garden’. The following Fair and Balanced extract from the Wikipedia Mac App Store article lays it out:

The centralization of downloads in the Mac App Store have caused controversy among apple developers in the blogosphere. It has been criticized for creating a monopoly since users are encouraged to get their applications from one specific place. This creates a hard situation for programmers that might feel like they can’t afford to stay outside apple store. Apple also charges a fee for programmers to publish their applications in the store. In order to host an application a user need to give 30% of the applications sales price. This is way more than the 8% that software providers like Kagi, eSellerate, or FastSpring charges. The developers doesn’t only have to pay for selling their apps but also to develop them. Special tools are needed that can only be licensed from Apple. Developers have also criticized Apple for cutting their connections with the customers when App store is being used, since they have to follow Apples rules it’s impossible to use for example Shareware versions and control how updates are done.

This hasty, one-sided—and badly written—piece is a good illustration of Wikipedia’s limits. As a counter, I’ll hasten to point you to the much more complete App Store article. The latter exemplifies Wikipedia at its best: Wide, deep, accurate, filled with numbers and links to other sources.

The main beef against the Mac App store seems to be that it will hurt developers. In an extension of the iOS App Store authoritarian regime, developers will lose the freedom to sell their software as they please.

That’s simply unfounded, and counterproductive paranoia: Mac software will continue to be sold (and sellable) on shelves and on Web sites. But who gets to approach these venues? Small, independent app developers have a terrible time getting shelf space in retail stores. Making money by selling one’s wares on the Web isn’t an easy task either. See here a 1995 Dilbert strip that depicts the hard life of an application developer trying to raise VC money. Fifteen years later, having moved to The Dark Side, I can assure you VCs haven’t gotten more generous…unless you write code for the Apple or Google app stores. In 2008, Kleiner Perkins, the famed Sand Hill Road VC firm, launched a special $100M iFund dedicated to iPhone apps. Two years later, the iFund has doubled in size. Knowing we VCs aren’t non-profit charities, one has to assume we see the victims of app store monopolies making lots of money, of which we’ll get our customarily modest share.

When the Wikipedia piece professes to lament Apple’s 30% take, it shows a deep misunderstanding of the money one needs to sell application software on the Web. You must build and run a commercial site, and, if you’re too small to get a commercial Visa or PayPal account, you also pay a commission to Kagi and similar agents. Then you have to attract customers by spending advertising dollars and buying Google AdWords. That’s why Google’s rich and you’re not.

Microsoft can afford to get shelf and Web space for Office, but a small developer who’s written a neat text editor, or a Website design tool, or a small $10 UI-tweaking utility has a hard time making a living.

At least for today.

Tomorrow, just like with Android and Apple smartphones, the most expensive process will be writing the app, and the occasionally irritating part will be the review process.

Yes, there will be a loss of “freedom.” Today on Macs (and PCs) you can sell code that modifies the machine at any level. It can yield very useful results, or it can wreak havoc, there are (almost) no limits. Tomorrow, the Mac App Store will impose restrictions. Some will irritate, some will be acceptable. We’ve seen Apple back down from some of the more aggressive interpreter restrictions for iOS apps, for example. But your neat $10 utility will find customers, updates will be managed, payment processing won’t be a problem.

And there will be other beneficial effects. Most Mac applications install with a simple drag and drop to the Application folder or icon on the Dock. Uninstalling is equally simple: Drag the app to the Trash and you’re done…most of the time. I won’t name the apps that are, in my experience, the worst offenders but suffice it to say that they sprinkle my system with bits that are very hard to cleanly uninstall. And, just like in Windows, removing one application might maim another program from the same vendor because they both rely on the same module. This is likely to disappear over time as Mac users contrast and compare app installation and updating behaviors inside and outside the walled garden.

It’ll be interesting to watch how prices evolve, if they do. The iPad version of Pages, Apple’s Word processor, sells for a mere $9.99. On the Macintosh, Pages is part of the iWork suite which includes Numbers (a spreadsheet) and Keynote (Steve Jobs’ own presentation software) and sells for $79, or a Family Pack (5 licenses) for $99. Will those prices stand? Perhaps, especially if Apple wants to make room for Scrivener or DevonThink, to name but two examples.

And what about Microsoft? Today, Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 retail prices ranges from $149 to $279, depending upon the version and number of licenses (two for the priciest).

Do we think Microsoft gives less than 30% margin to the total wholesaler + retailer food chain? Of course not, the distribution network’s take is traditionally much higher, sometimes exceeding 50%. Which is to say even Microsoft will like the Mac App Store “strictures”. We’ll have to see how they whine if they’re rejected for infringing some arcane guideline…

This is a good moment to remind ourselves of Apple’s true nature and goals: Apple is a hardware company. For all the beautiful noises they make about software, they don’t care much about making money from it. Software is a means to an end: Hardware margins.

Microsoft puts a code on the Windows disk to protect its OS revenue. Have you seen a license number on an OS X disk? No, you can install it on as many machines as you like…Apple machines, that is. A multiple install from a “single” disk might be in breach of the formal licensing agreement, but unless you’re manufacturing Mac clones, I doubt Apple’s attorneys will be looking for you. (They seem to be very busy fighting patent wars.)

The “blogosphere controversy” blithely ignores the only source of money that matters: The paying customer. Does the new Mac App Store benefit the user? Easier everything: buying, installing, updating. On the iOS platform, there have been more than 7 billion downloads from a library of more than 300,000 apps. We’re probably not going to see such numbers on the Mac version. There are far fewer applications, a smaller installed base (in approximate quarterly numbers, think 3 million Macs versus 15 million iPhones), and alternate venues for selling applications. Nonetheless, even if the new app store has a more modest debut and subsequent growth, it’ll be a good vehicle for smaller developers who struggle with the inconvenience and cost of today’s channels. It might even have the effect of attracting new developers to the OS X platform.

A controversial idea indeed.

And as for Steve Jobs’ controlling manners, who’s complaining? Customers, shareholders?
Oppressed employees? See the Stockholm Syndrome at work below:


Google Apps: The Future or Yesterday’s War?

software By November 22, 2010 Tags: 11 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

One must be at least a little skeptical of product reviews, and, even more so, product reviewers. They usually don’t spend their own money on the product and they’re under constant pressure to produce more newspaper columns, or blog post after blog post.
There are exceptions: I trust Consumer Reports (they buy the products they test); Walt Mossberg and David Pogue provide consistent, intelligent reviews. I don’t always agree with them, but I respect their intellect and ethics.

I’m not a “professional” reviewer; I buy the gadgets that I read about (just ask my wife, Brigitte, who claims there’s “one of each” in various rats nests around the house). And I don’t test them; instead, I do my best to use them in a real project.

This brings us to Google Apps. (For a look Under The Hood, see the May 24th 2010 Monday Note here.)

For Google Apps, the real project was (and still is) a French newsletter and blog imaginatively named Note du Lundi. I buy a domain name and the paid-for Premiere version, the one where they answer your tech support questions. If you do it right—that is, if you buy your domain with your Google Checkout account and register it through—the process is easy, the domain registrar offers hosting services, and the on-phone tech support is competent and pleasant.

I fire up the Google Docs app that comes with my newly-purchased domain and start writing a newsletter article. Wanting to make a point by using a graphic, I drag and drop a picture from my Pictures folder. No dice. Instead of this:

I get this:

Google Docs knows where the image lives, and it also knows its type (PDF)—but it can’t insert it into the document I’m creating. An “antique” desktop word processor would have no trouble with the task.

I try another path: There’s an Insert Image icon in Docs that lets you browse to an image file on your hard drive. You click on the file and it’s uploaded to the Cloud and into your Docs repository.


The iPadification of OS X – Part II

software By November 14, 2010 Tags: 23 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Two weeks ago, I argued that iOS will evolve into the operating system for future incarnations of iMacs and MacBooks. The comments on the article provided abundant food for thought, so much so that I decided to argue the opposite point of view: Yes, OS X and iOS share some bits of DNA…but that’s irrelevant. No, iOS will not evolve into an OS X replacement for future iMacs and MacBooks.

The OS hairball is ugly enough as it is. Why try and merge two feature sets, two philosophies? More lines of code inside the OS. That’s what the world needs!

Take a look at this:

And now this:

Same company, but two very different views of personal computing.

Today’s Macintosh is the result of more than a quarter century of evolution, refinement, fixes, and additions. It’s highly functional but complicated, perhaps needlessly so. Ask most Mac users if they know what this Finder button is for:

Or ask about Exposé, Spaces, Stacks in Grid or Fan view… The first two are helpful for advanced users who work with a large number of documents and windows at the same time. As for the Grid and Fan, I’m not a fan, I think they add new modes without providing a payoff for the investment in learning.

Or try the joy of writing UNIX commands in a Terminal window:

defaults write showhidden -bool YES

defaults write QLEnableXRayFolders 1

Both are cute and harmless. The first causes the Dock icon of an app to become translucent when the app is hidden. The second adds a clever flourish to the Quick Look of a folder, letting you peek at the folder’s content through its semi-transparent cover.

See Mac OS X Tips for more such neat, well-crafted features that you can add and subtract almost ad infinitum—if you have the need or the lust. Or, depending on the type of user you are, the tips present a mind-boggling array of functions, buttons to click, keyboard shortcuts to memorize, uncountable ways of doing things that aren’t always coherent.

That said, Apple’s personal computers are doing just fine, Consumer Reports and others invariably rate them high, their market share grows year after year. One is tempted to resort to a post hoc ergo propter hoc justification: Adding features adds market share.

Looking at the iPad’s Home screen, we see the other extreme. Apple’s tablet is so “transparent” that most users, this geek included, forget that it doesn’t have a windowing system. Yes, it has a Dock, but there’s no Finder, no windows, no file system, no sidebar. Just icons, applications that launch and quit without delay. Downloading and installing applications is simple (although finding them isn’t always easy. I think the App Store needs curation and better discovery tools; see a past Monday Note on this very topic here).

We iPad users lead a simpler, cleaner life. Why would we want the bewilderment of a slower, more complicated OS? The answer is as old as mankind: Because we want to have it both ways. Intuitive and simple but loaded with features,  “optioned-out” says the car salesman.
We want both postures: Leaning back to watch NetFlix, and leaning forward to type these Monday Notes.

Today, that’s not really possible. Going back to the example I cited two weeks ago, adding a docking keyboard to an iPad creates awkward ergonomics. You have to lift your hand and reach out and touch the screen to move the insertion point in your text. So, then, can’t we have a Magic Trackpad next to the keyboard, or a keyboard with an integrated trackpad, like a laptop? For the time being, the answer is no. As discussed here, the iPad doesn’t “know” what a pointing device is, it doesn’t have cursor control. A hypothetical clamshell iPad, with a laptop-like folding keyboard and trackpad wouldn’t help.


Turning Points

software By November 8, 2010 Tags: 6 Comments

Once upon a time, Microsoft reigned supreme, they were IBM 2.0, having wrestled control of the PC from Big Blue. According to some critics, Microsoft took over the office application market through a combination of embrace, extend, and extinguish and tied sales. The MS M.O. followed this trajectory: First, Bill Gates and his troops would paint a bullseye on a product category—spreadsheets, words processors. Then they’d add features, creating a superset of those offered by Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect. The next move involved the relationship with PC manufacturers: Microsoft (it’s said) tied the sale of the Microsoft Office suite to a Windows license. You want “favorable” terms on Windows? Install Office on the PCs that you sell.

MS Office applications became the Colossus of the business sector. And they established a de facto lingua franca. If you wanted to write a productivity app, you had to speak the MS language—you had to translate to and from Microsoft’s file formats. But these formats were under Microsoft’s sole control, they could “extend” the language at will, and—surprise!—these enhancements favored their own applications. For third-party developers, complete, full-featured compatibility was next to impossible to achieve. Ask the OpenOffice folks.

It worked. For more than 20 years, the Windows + Office combo has been Microsoft’s cash cow. In its 2010 Annual Report, MS reported $37B in revenue—60% of the company—for what is officially called Windows & Windows Live and the Business Division. With an operating profit of $24.7B and a beefy 67% operating margin, Windows + Office accounts for…102% of the company’s operating income?

(The percentage anomaly is due, in part, to the $2.3B lost by the Online Services business. With $2.2B in revenues, that’s more than $2 spent for every $1 in sales. For another part, we have an opaque category, Corporate Level activities, which adds another $4.5B of red ink.)

The mid-90’s, the browser wars. Microsoft seemed content to let Netscape’s Navigator own the scene… until the nascent Web wafted the aroma of monetization. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer began life as an add-on, almost an afterthought, a sop to “unproductive” Web surfers. But with the release of Windows ’95, IE was wired into the operating system, for free (which would eventually land Microsoft in various kinds of legal troubles, now largely forgotten). And, true to the MS M.O., subsequent versions offered “enhancements” to HTML that only IE knew how to interpret. Embrace, extend, extinguish…that was the end of Netscape’s hopes for a revenue stream.

Those were the days. Since then, all of Microsoft’s efforts to control standards have gone nowhere.


Time to rethink Word Processors — Seriously

software By October 31, 2010 20 Comments

Last Friday, at the Apple Store near the Paris Opera House, I paid my annual Microsoft tax: €140 ($194) for the 2011 edition of Microsoft Office. My hopes: more speed, less bugs, and smarter features. All in the service of producing all manners of text and presentations required by my multiple jobs. So far, no mind-blowing features, nothing more than a superficial makeover.
To look at this new iteration of Word, I use the framework built on my experience of Microsoft’s R&D effort.  A few months ago, I spent three days at the Microsoft Tech Fest in Redmond. At first, I felt like a kid in a candy store, chatting with some of Microsoft Research 900 plus PhDs who work on exotic fields such as Machine Learning or Epidemiology. But the amazement subsided and was replaced by doubt: How did this tremendous intellectual firepower actually make a difference in the Microsoft products I’ve been using for 15 years. In fact, Microsoft R&D has very little impact of everyday products. This is but one of Microsoft’s many problems: see the long piece I wrote in Le Monde Magazine.

Let’s go back to the subject of this column. Knowing what I know about Microsoft’s vision of computer science, I had envisioned of a quantum leap for applications I use the most, such as the very word processor on which I’m using “as we speak”.  No joy. Let’s ignore the letdown and, instead, speculate a little bit about the next generation of text creation tools branded Microsoft Word, or Apple Pages (which comes with fewer bells and whistles, but is tidier).

First, text creation. One of the biggest challenges, and a growing one, is spelling, syntax, and grammar. In a country such as France, whose language is loaded with utmost (and sometimes absurd) complexity, the quality of writing is in steep decline. For the youngest part of the population, it is accelerated by the demise of a school system where teachers in effect gave up on written language. As for the 30-40 age bracket, the bombardment of daily interactions (email at work, SMS, chat on social networks) has made proper spelling and syntax secondary. Quite often, coming from a manager or even an attorney, you’ll receive a business document riddled with spelling errors well beyond the typos acceptable in a hastily written piece.

Unfortunately, today’s word processors do a very poor job when dealing with mangled spelling and grammar. All of us have in mind examples where the Word application becomes absurdly creative when dealing with the unknown: regardless of context, and with no learning capabilities whatsoever, Word will stubbornly keep suggesting an alternate spelling instead of simply skipping an unrecognized term.

Let’s dream for a moment; let’s picture what a text processing software could look like in the light of existing technologies.

When I install my 2013 version of MS Word or Apple Pages, it asks me to load a “reference corpus” of texts it will learn from. Since I write both in French and in English, I will feed the app with the final versions (edited, and proof-read) of articles I published and I’m comfortable with. Grammar and syntax will be helpful for English and thesauruses will be used for both. Since I currently write about media and technology, the application dictionary will soon be filled with the names of people, places, companies I mention, as well as with the technical jargon I allow myself to use. Alternately, if I don’t want to feed the word processor with my own writings, I can direct it to URLs of texts I find trustworthy: great newspapers, magazines, or academic papers…

Similarly, a lawyer or a doctor will feed the word processor with texts (from his own production, or found online) to be used as reference for professional vocabulary and turns of phrase. In my dream, third-party software vendors have seen a business opportunity: they sell industry- or occupation-specific plugins loaded with high-quality reference corpuses. This results in reliable auto-correct for Word and Pages. Some vendors even provide their corpuses as on-line subscriptions, constantly updated with state-of-the art content.
Then, as I write, the application watches my typing and matches it against the relevant corpus. Instead of relying on rigid hit-or-miss grammatical rules, it uses a statistical algorithm to analyze a word, or a group of words within their context of intended or inferred meaning. Take this gross mistake: “GM increased its sails by 10 percent”. The word is spelled correctly but, in this context, wrong. Because it lacks a context in which to detect the misspelling, the 1998-vintage word processor won’t change “sails” into “sales”. Conversely, the 2013 statistical-based language model flags the mistake by using the proper body of reference to see that “sails” is unlikely in an auto industry context.

Just a year ago, Google introduced Wave, an ambitious reinvention of email, seemingly ahead of its time. Among other advances, Wave featured a spectacular implementation of Google’s huge statistical model of language. In this video (go to the 45th minute) you’ll see Google Wave’s product manager Lars Rasmussen type the following sentences: “Can I have some been soup? It has bean a long time. Icland is an icland”, etc. Each time, the software automagically corrects the mistakes as they are typed, confident in the power of its algorithm and of its immense body of reference.  This statistical approach works with gross, obvious mistakes, but also with more subtle ones.
Of course, I am aware of the difficulties in applying statistical language models to personal software: such algorithms are bandwidth and CPU intensive. This could explain why Google did not deploy the Wave spelling demonstrator on Gmail, or on Google docs. But the underlying algorithms do exist. A less sophisticated version, limited to professional dictionaries and thesauruses at first, could be fantastically helpful in properly spelling Zhengzhou, if you happen to write about Asia, or Neuroborreliosis, if you are a medical student.

Second, the use of texts. A significant proportion of writings goes to blogs and other social environments.  As a serious user of the WordPress platform [today’s Word can’t even change WordPress into the correct WordPress, I had to check on Google…], I would gladly pay for a Word or Pages plug-in allowing me to compose a clean post with text, images, tables, links, typographical enrichments and, when done, letting me click “publish on my blog” or “send it to the mailing list”. No more cut & paste surprises or image resizing headaches.  The word processor plug-in could be provided by the same developer who designed the style sheet (CSS) for my WordPress (or Blogspot, or TypePad) site. Or I could go for the auto-settings by inserting the CSS code in the plug-in that will, in turn adjust the word processor’s dials, from fonts and sizes, to background colors, etc.

You get my point: self-correcting spelling systems that guarantee (or at least vastly improve) decent grammar, syntax and the proper spelling of nouns and names can be a huge improvement for all professional writers – especially in a globalized economy where a greater number of us produce documents in a foreign language. Such auto-correct systems can even offer educational value in helping bloggers improve their basic writing skills.

I’m writing this on Word version 14 (yes, fourteen).  How long will I have to wait for this quantum leap, Mr. Ballmer? Or Mr. Jobs?



Apple’s Next Macintosh OS

software By October 31, 2010 Tags: , , 64 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Operating systems don’t age well. Some have better genes than others or they have more competent caretakers, but sooner or later they are stricken by a cancer of bug fixes upon bug fixes, upgrades upon upgrades. I know, I lived inside two OS sausage factories, Apple and Be, and was closely associated with a third, PalmSource. I can recall the smell.
The main cause of OS cancer is backwards compatibility, the need to stay compatible with existing application software. OS designers are caught between yesterday and tomorrow. Customers want the benefit of the future, new features, hardware and software, but without having to jettison their investment in the past, in their applications.

OS architects dream of a pure rebirth, a pristine architecture born of their hard won knowledge without having to accommodate the sins of their fathers. But, in the morning—and in the market—the dream vanishes and backwards compatibility wins.

Enter the iPhone.

The iPhone OS, iOS, is a Macintosh OS X derivative…but without having to support Macintosh applications. Pared down to run on a smaller hardware platform, cleaned up to be more secure and tuned for a Touch UI, iOS is the dream without the ugly past. Tens of millions of iPhones, hundreds of thousands of applications, and billions of downloads later, this is a new morning without the hangover.

And now we have the iPad, another iOS device. (I’ll omit the newer Apple TV for the time being.) 8.5 million iPads were shipped by September, a mere six months after its introduction. The installed base will reach 14 to 15 million units by the end of this year.
To paraphrase the always modest Apple PR boilerplate phrase (“Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s …”) the iPad re-ignited the marginal tablet category.

After more than 30 years of stalled attempts, the tablet genre has finally gelled. We see a flurry of tablet announcements from Asus, HP, Samsung, Dell, Archos, and many others, using Windows 7, WebOS, and Android. Surprisingly, we have yet to hear a pundit declare 2011 ‘The Year of The Tablet’. It’ll come.

On the other hand… Apple held a Back to the Mac event at its Cupertino HQ last week. As the name implies, Apple wants to make it clear that it’s still committed to personal computers. (You can see the full keynote here…but that’s 90 minutes. A tongue-in-cheek, adjective-laden 104 second montage gets to the essence here.) The iPhone may generate half of Apple’s revenue, but the event reminded us that Macintosh desktops and laptops are a $20B/yr business—a business that’s growing faster than the rest of the PC industry. Apple made a point of showing how the iPad, after taking its genes from the Mac, was feeding DNA back to its progenitor by way of the Touch UI that will appear in the release dubbed “Lion”, OS X 10.7.

During the Back to the Mac presentation, two prayers of mine were answered: A Macintosh App Store and a smaller laptop. The App Store has received the expected “walled garden” critique, but having seen how difficult it is for small Mac software developers to get retail shelf space or to make money selling their wares on line, I like the idea. A few days ago, I downloaded a neat little utility to silence the startup sound on my new 11” MacBook Air. How much did the developer make? Zero, it’s freeware; the programmer didn’t want to spend the time and money to set up a commercial site. How much would I have paid for it from a Mac App Store? Less than $5, more than 99 cents.

As for the 11” MacBook Air, Walt Mossberg, WSJ’s tech guru, penned an insightful review that’s neatly summed up in its title: “MacBook Air Has the Feel Of an iPad In a Laptop”.

So: A clean, fresh iOS; we’re not abandoning the Mac…What are we to make of these competing messages? My theory:

  • Today’s PC operating systems have advanced cancer
  • Personal computers as we know them are here to stay
  • Apple will move to something like an iOS Macintosh

Easier said than done. Steve Jobs remembers well the trouble Apple had getting apps for the first Macintosh, the painful failures of Lotus Jazz, the lame Mac software from Software Publishing Corp., creator of the best-selling PFS: series for the Apple ][. Ironically, some of the best software came from Microsoft—the word frenemy hadn’t been coined yet but retroactively fits. So, just like the iPhone App Store made the iPhone, the Macintosh needs a marketplace, an agora in preparation for the transition.

But a transition to what?

An evolution of the iPad? Certainly not something I saw at Il Fornaio, one of the local Valley watering holes. There, a very serious woman had her iPad standing on the official Apple keyboard dock, writing and, from time to time, raising her hand and touching something on the screen. As Jobs pointed out in the keynote above, it’s an ergonomic no-no.
Now, turn to the laptop. As one of my colleagues says: “It’s dark inside the box.” It’s what the machine does that matters, not what’s inside. Indeed. Imagine a port of OS X on an ARM, or A4, or AX processor, or even a Loongson CPU for that matter. If the right applications have been ported or adapted or, even better, created de novo for the platform —and made available through the App Store—would we object?

But, you’ll argue, “Aren’t these processors much less powerful than Intel’s?” Ask an iPad user: The machine feels swift and fluid, much more than a conventional PC.

Yes, there are no heavy-duty apps such as Photoshop or AutoCAD for the iPad. (AutoDesk publishes an AutoCAD companion app for the iPad and the iPhone.), but who knows? Adobe might be tempted to do for Photoshop what Apple has done for its OS: Scrap the past and build a modern Photoshop that’s written from the ground up.
Intel processors suffer the same type of cancer that afflicts operating systems. Their instruction sets and, therefore, their hardware, power consumption, and cost are beset by the tortuous need to stay compatible with existing code while offering an endless procession of new features. Intel has tried a fresh approach at least three times: the iPAX 32 in the early 80s, the Itanium (promptly renamed Itanic, a political compromise hammered out to keep HP’s PA architecture out of contention), and a brief fling with ARM called the XScale. Each time, the company (or the market) decided backwards compatibility was the way to go. Intel’s position is transparent: They believe that the might of their technology and manufacturing will bulldoze the cost and power consumption obstacles of the x86 architecture.

(We’ll note in passing that there is no Wintel in smartphones. For its Really Personal Computers, for its Windows Phone 7 devices, Microsoft is all ARM.)

Compare the bulldozer approach to what Apple did when it designed the A4, the “dark inside” of the iPad. Apple’s next Mac processor could be a multicore (or multi-chip) ARM derivative. And the company has proven time and again that it knows how to port software, and its support of the Open Source LLVM and Clang projects give it additional hardware independence. We all know the Apple Way: Integration. From bare metal to the flesh, from the processor to the Apple Store. Hardware, OS, applications, distribution… Apple knows how to control its own destiny.

Tomorrow’s MacBook Air might have even more of the “Feel of an iPad in a Laptop” that Walt Mossberg detected. The tablet and the laptop could run on the same “dark insides”, with the same software, and the same Touch UI interface. And, for a desktop machine, an iMac successor, we already have the Magic Trackpad for touch input.

(IMCO, the current Trackpad doesn’t feel magical enough: on the two devices I own, the touch input isn’t as reliable, pleasant and “second nature” as it is with existing mice or a laptop trackpads. I gave up after two weeks. I’m not the only one with that view, I’ve asked. And the local Apple Store doesn’t push appear eager to push the device either.)

All this doesn’t mean the x86-based Macs would disappear overnight: high-end Mac Pros, for example, might continue for a while as they do today for applications such as Logic Studio or Final Cut.

If this sounds farfetched, one question and an observation.

The question: Would you bet the longer term future of your $20B Mac business on an endless series of painfully debugged x86-based OS X incremental releases? Or would you rather find a way to move that franchise to a fresh hardware/software platform fully under your control?

The observation: Last week, the other Steve, Ballmer, was on stage at the Gartner Symposium. There, he was asked about Microsoft’s “biggest gamble”. Without missing a beat, as this forceful public speaker never does, he answered: “The next revision of Windows.” Not Windows Phone 7, not the Kinect game device, all near and dear to his heart, but Windows 8. (See here and here.)

He, too, is thinking about the future of the PC business.

PS: As I edited this note, I found this TechCrunch post dealing with the same iPad-Mac convergence.


HP’s Board Gets No Respect

hardware, software By October 11, 2010 Tags: 8 Comments


And rightly so.

You recall: Last August, HP’s Board of Directors dismissed its wunder-CEO, Mark Hurd. Well-loved by Wall Street, although not so much by employees, Hurd turned HP around after the lackluster Fiorina years. He made acquisitions, cut costs, and put the company at the very top of the IT industry. But HP’s fearless leader was accused of having entangled himself, carnally and emotionally, with a female “marketing contractor”, and of having engaged in a few financial peccadilloes in the process of covering up the relationship.

I’ll hasten to add that Hurd reached an amiable—and solid—settlement with the former soft-porn actress. By “solid settlement” I mean we’ve heard exactly nothing from the aggrieved woman, or from Gloria Allred, her highly expressive Hollywood attorney. (As a self-described “Fearless Advocate for Justice and Equality”, Ms. Allred appears to dig gold on behalf of the rejected/dejected paramours of media and sports celebrities.)

While Hurd tried to do the right thing after his alleged mistakes, HP’s Board and management repeatedly and needlessly pilloried him, barely stopping short of accusing their former CEO of fraud. (See more sorry details in this Monday Note.)

All this led Larry Ellison to publicly lambaste the HP Board for kicking Hurd to the curb—and to promptly hire him as co-president of Oracle.

Ignoring the “when you’re in a hole, stop digging” maxim, HP doubles down and sues Hurd. Their complaint? As Oracle co-president, Hurd will inevitably misuse HP’s confidential information and cause his ex-employer grievous harm.

Larry chuckles and lashes out again. He calls HP’s suit vindictive, which is true, and adds that it will make it impossible to continue as business partners, only somewhat true as each had already recently moved into the other’s business. Oracle bought Sun and HP got into software and services by acquiring EDS.

A few days later, on the eve of Oracle’s OpenWorld, the suit is settled. HP’s pain is salved by a few million dollars, and the threat of the misuse of confidential information is suddenly, mysteriously no longer an issue. One wonders about the damage HP’s Board did to the company’s reputation by treating this alleged sinner in such a bullying and ultimately lame way.

While Hurd stays out of the limelight plotting Oracle’s next moves, HP directors keep stoking the coals for their critics. In their quest for a new CEO, the Board rejects internal candidates for the third time and pick an outsider: Léo Apotheker, ex-CEO of SAP Germany. This leads to another salvo of Ellison jibes. (When Larry calls himself “speechless”, you know he’s having a good time.)

But wait, there’s more.

What does the Board do besides recruiting Apotheker? They hire Ray Lane as Chairman. As the link to his Kleiner Perkins bio proves, Lane is, without a doubt, an “industry figure”, the type Kleiner Perkins, one of the largest VC firms in the world, likes to co-opt. But the slick KPCB bio (there is, significantly, nothing on him on Wikipedia) omits an important episode: Ray’s acrimonious departure from Oracle. The more charitable souls among us hope that everything is forgiven and forgotten. But knowing the protagonists, Larry and Ray, a more realistic view is that HP’s Board brought Ray in with a specific intent: They want to strengthen the team for a fight against Oracle.

There are three problems with such a move.

First, we now have two muscular venture capitalists on HP’s BoD: Lane and Marc Andreesen, from Andreesen Horowitz (as an aside, admire the firm’s spartan site). While some argue that it’s great that HP has such connections in the VC world (as if any executive or Board member couldn’t get us VCs to return their calls), there’s a governance problem. There will be many situations in which Mark’s or Ray’s existing investments and connections will raise conflict of interest questions; they won’t be deemed independent directors.


The OS Doesn’t Matter…

software By October 3, 2010 Tags: , 76 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Once upon a time, operating systems used to matter a lot; they defined what a computer could and couldn’t do. The “old” OS orchestrated the use of resources: memory, processors, I/O (input/output) to external devices (screen, keyboard, disks, network, printers…). It’s a complicated set of tasks that requires delicate juggling of conflicting constraints, and every OS handled them differently—or not at all. In those days, the OS was married to the hardware and only a handful of “wizards” with Electrical Engineering degrees—and a deep understanding of circuitry—understood (and invented, and protected) the arcana of OS construction.

Over time, the secrets of these illuminati leaked out. About 20 years ago, the OS lost its mystery. We had learned enough about writing an OS kernel that it became a college-level topic and a Christmas break hack.

Today, there’s only one operating system: Unix. (Okay, there are two, but we’ll get to that.) This is why I contend that the OS doesn’t matter—or that we need to take another look at the word’s content, at what we mean when we say ‘Operating System’.

When RIM decides to go with QNX for its upcoming tablet, the PlayBook, tongues wag. After calling its Blackberry OS the “best of breed” (a tired markitecture phrase), RIM is surrendering to reality: The “proven OS” foundation proved to be unfixable. Because of the layers of software silt that had accumulated over the years, the edifice couldn’t be modernized. Better to quit and make a fresh start. QNX is based on a Unix OS for embedded applications that dates back to 1982(!) when it was first released for the Intel 8088 microprocessor.

The same thing happened at Apple…twice. The Apple ][ OS (or lack thereof, purists will say) couldn’t be brought up to modern standards, so the Macintosh had to be built on a fresh foundation. The original Mac OS foundered on its own beachhead and was replaced by OS X. Based on the Mach kernel, OS X is another Unix derivative, co-authored at CMU by Avie Tevanian. Mr Tevanian improved the system during his tenure as head of software at NeXT and was instrumental in convincing Apple that their purchase of NeXT would breathe new life into the company.

Open the Terminal application on a Mac and what do you see? A noble and worthy Unix “shell”, a program that geeks use to interact with the OS. Terminal uses the bash shell (for Bourne Again Shell. Created by Brian Fox, bash is based on the sh shell, which was invented by Stephen Bourne. Unix mavens love their word-play acronyms).

And now we have the Apple iOS, an OS X derivative that uses bits from the same kernel.

Regard Palm. The sine qua non of handset makers saw that their PalmOS couldn’t be fixed, so they pressed the restart button and created WebOS, a Linux derivative.

Android? It’s based on a Linux kernel. Nokia’s MeeGo? Ditto.

The list goes on. We have the spiritual children of Unix living inside the Cloud, powering the millions of Linux servers running at Google, Facebook, Amazon…

The only exception is Windows. Initially built on top of DOS, Microsoft painstakingly added version after version, always striving for backward compatibility while, at the same time, adding new features. It didn’t always work well (who wants to remember Windows Me and Vista?) but it worked well enough because Microsoft never gave up. They fixed mistakes that they claimed didn’t exist, and now we have the well-respected Windows 7. (Inevitably, critics will say that Microsoft wouldn’t have gotten away with such a tortuous path if it weren’t for its vigorously enforced monopoly.)

Windows will live on — in a PC industry now at a plateau. But otherwise, in the high-growth Cloud and smartphone segments, it’s a Unix/Linux world. We need to look elsewhere to find the differences that matter.

The technical challenges have migrated to two areas: UI (User Interface, or the more poetic—and more accurate—UX, for User Experience) and programming tools.

Now that all “system functions” are similar, the game for hardware and software makers is to convince the user that his/her experience will be smooth and intuitive. Your device will walk on water (with the programmer right under the surface), catch you as you fall, make sure you don’t get your feet wet.

For the developer, what we now call the OS must supply ever-growing expressive power—think a fife versus a twelve-keyboard organ. To wield that expressive power, the programmer needs software tools. The industry uses acronyms such as API (Application Programming Interface), IDE (Integrated Development Environment) or phrases such as Application Frameworks. They define the rules and conventions—which ideas are allowed and how to express them—and the software tools that programmers need to develop an application.

This is today’s OS. User experience. Development tools.

One last element that is and isn’t the OS: This new creature called an App Store (or Marketplace, depending upon the…OS). In my non-technical view, the App Store must be considered part of the OS totality, part of its gestalt. Applications have always been in a feedback loop with the OS. A program can only do as much as the OS allows it, so it played tricks to create multi-tasking, to allow smooth audio/video playback. These “tricks” were incorporated into the OS (and the hardware—think GPU), which then bred another generation of apps that wanted more, and so on.

The App Store genre, invented or not in Cupertino, is now part of that loop, a killer OS component, one that deserves a Monday Note of its own.