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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, 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, 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, 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 or adress and your password. (It used to be you didn’t need the suffix, just the first part, luser rather than, but that was too simple, let’s leave it to Google to accept spj for 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 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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


Thus spake Steve Jobs: The PC isn’t dead yet

hardware By June 13, 2010 Tags: 31 Comments

Daniel Lyons, the Newsweek tech writer notorious for his Fake Steve Jobs blog, penned an epistolary piece last week (R.I.P., Macintosh) in which he asks and answers the question: “Is Apple ignoring its signature line of computers and laptops? Yup.”

The columnist claims that with the iPhone and the iPad as the Dear Leader’s new pets, Steve Jobs has kicked the Mac to the curb (or kerb for our British readers). Lyons backs his claim with the following evidence: Apple’s 2010 WWDC was focused on the iPhone OS only; there were no Best Applications awards for the Mac, only for iPhone/iPad apps; and, drum roll, the iPhone OS was renamed iOS (the name is licensed from Cisco, just as the iPhone moniker was).

Lyons may be onto something, but in his desperate quest for page views at Newsweek (itself kicked to the curb by its soon former owner, the Washington Post Company) our columnist has yielded to the crass motives and hyperbole he loves to lampoon.

Yes, Steve Jobs said the PC (including the Mac) isn’t “the future”, but he didn’t go on to euthanize it.

Let’s go back to the evening of June 1st, 2010. We’re at the D8 conference discussed here last week. Steve Jobs is interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher; you can find the entire 95-minute video here.
(Sorry, iPad users, it’s Flash…but, wait…nevermind. Although the interview shows up as Flash on my antique personal computer, when I watch it on my iPad, behold!, the site detects the iPad client and spews an H.264 video stream. We can take this as a sign that the WSJ doesn’t want to miss the advertising revenue of 100 million iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad devices out there, and as a preview of what other sites will do, as well. And perhaps it’s a problem with my old desktop machine or older eyes, but the video look better on the iPad than it does on my PC.)

I’m watching the video as I write this. It completes and, in places, corrects my recollection of the event. Whatever one thinks of Steve Jobs—and the video won’t change many minds—the conversation contains a number of gems, such as Steve’s pithy view of the enterprise market (between 28:30 and 29:15), his take on the Adobe controversy, his pronouncement of carriers as “orifices” (that was a few years ago, recalled by Walt for laughs), the importance of editorial functions (Jobs doesn’t want us to “descend into a nation of bloggers”), how he looks at his job (around 59:00), and more. I know an hour and a half is a lot, but pay attention to what’s said and not said and, just as important, the face and body language.
The bit about the future of the PC comes between minutes 45 and 51. There, Apple’s CEO lays out his vision of the post-PC era in a string of very carefully weighed statements, interspersed with personal insights into the changes in user interaction brought about by the new very personal devices.

As Apple unties the software platform from the iPhone, one can imagine a number of iOS-powered devices in its future. Apple won’t necessarily follow HP’s example, but the latter has made it clear that they’ll use the newly-acquired Palm WebOS in devices such as printers. This is a high volume business, one where the traditional embedded software is user-hostile. Just imagine a Palm Pre screen grafted onto a printer.


Launchpad Chicken: MobileMe and Sync Trouble

Uncategorized By August 11, 2008 Tags: , , , 27 Comments
by Jean-Louis Gassée

Simple is hard. Easy is harder. Invisible is hardest. So goes one of the many proverbs of our computer lore. As Apple found out last month with the MobileMe launch misfires, the lofty promise of “Exchange for the rest of us” translated into a user experience that was neither simple nor easy — in a highly visible way. Four weeks later, the service appears stable but doubts linger: Is Apple able to run a worldwide wireless data synchronization service for tens of millions of users.

What happened and what does it mean for MobileMe’s future?

Let’s start by decoding the “Launchpad Chicken” phrase. The game of Chicken is one by which two young males test their virility in the following way: from opposite directions, two cars speed towards each other on the same lane of a country road. The one who steers away first obviously lacks cojones and is derisively called chicken. You might ask about brains versus testes but here we are, the chicken is the one who “blinks first”. Now, let’s turn to the launchpad. Picture the NASA control room before the launch of an expedition to the Moon. Hundreds of (mostly) men in white short-sleeves shirts, pocket protectors and eyeglasses, hunched before screens, keyboards and telephones. Each one monitors a subsystem: left liquid hydrogen tank, backup gyroscopes, main engine telemetry… In the huge air-conditioned control room, five of these men are sweating, something’s not quite right with their baby. The temperature keeps rising, the pressure is falling, the telemetry link is weakening. Almost but not quite in the red zone. If the parameters keep drifting like this, they’ll have to pick up the red phone. But who wants to be the one who aborts the launch? So, they sweat some more and hope someone else blinks first. There you have it: Launchpad Chicken.

Now, move the imagery to projects with complicated subsystems. You see how the NASA metaphor made its way to Silicon Valley. There is always hope some other engineer will raise a hand and spare me the embarrassment of admitting my part of the project could crash the launch. This is what happened for MobileMe, with a twist on the cojones, so to speak. No one had enough brains and guts to risk humiliation, to raise a hand and say: Chief, we’re not ready here, let’s stop everything. As a result, MobileMe badly crashed on launch. A couple of weeks later, we have a leak: an “internal” memo from Steve Jobs. The email states the retroactively obvious, the project should have been delayed or at least launched in stages. No less obviously, a new leader is appointed, Eddy Cue, he’ll continue to run the iTunes systems as well. Charitably, the deposed MobileMe boss is granted anonymity, he might have been misinformed by his charges, or he might not have asked the right questions at the right times, it doesn’t matter anymore.

But, you’ll ask, that doesn’t tell us what went wrong, which liquid hydrogen tank sprung a leak. This now gets us into two more topics: sync and size. Sync here means keeping information identical, consistent over two or more devices. Less abstractly, for a simple example, I have a phone and a computer, I want their address books to identical or, at least, consistent. On simple cell phones, I use a cable (or a Bluetooth wireless connection) plus software to copy (parts of) my computer address book to the phone. But, wait a minute, I entered numbers on the phone that are not on my computer; I don’t want the copy from the computer to wipe out those new numbers. Trouble starts, as if connecting the cell phone to the computer and running the program wasn’t buggy enough. Tou want the software to compare the two address books, the phone’s and the laptop’s and decide what to keep and what to change, on both devices. But what about homonyms, or different numbers for the same person’s home? The program, hopefully, raises those “exceptions” and lets a human arbitrate.

We’re just warming up. Now picture a more real-life situation. One traveling consultant with one laptop, one smartphone, both carrying mail, address books and calendars and one assistant in the office with a desktop computer. In Microsoft Exchange’s lingo, the assistant is a “delegate”, has access, including modifications and new entries, to the traveling consultant’s data. Everything must be kept identical, consistent, in sync. How is this done?

Using the Exchange server as an example, it keeps the “true” data. And the “clients”, meaning the smartphone, the laptop, the assistant’s PC submit changes, new mail, an updated appointment, a new contact home phone to the Exchange server. In turn, the server propagates changes to the clients. We say the updates are “pushed” to the smartphone or the laptop, just as they “push” new mail or a new calendar item to the server. You can easily imagine conflict situations: the same appointment changed by the consultant and the assistant, address updates and the like. By now, at least on Exchange, these “exceptions” are well understood and generally well-handled. But it took years of practice. Just as it has taken years for RIM (founded in 1984), the Blackberry (launched in 1999) creators to polish what is the best-selling synchronized smartphone. Details, details and more subtle mistakes and special cases found and fixed. The Blackberry got its stardom from truly delivering the Simple, Easy, Invisible proposition referred to in the beginning of this essay.

MobileMe aspires to deliver a similarly invisible level of synchronization for people who don’t have an Exchange server, hence the “Exchange for the rest if us” slogan. But seeing the launch glitches, I wonder how many people at Apple stooped to using a Blackberry with an Exchange account. Doing this would have sobered them a little in advance of the launch, or delayed the whole thing, or tempered the boasts. Shortly after MobileMe’s first missteps, Apple publicly and smartly retracted its use of “Push” to describe MobileMe’s synchronization and the “Exchange for the rest of us” motto is no longer seen on the company’s Web site.

Moving to size: quantity begets nature. At some (often mysterious) point, more of the same becomes something different. One server, ten servers, more of the same. One thousand servers or, in Google’s case, running one million servers is of a different nature. Meaning different people with different knowledge and appetites than the ones needed to run a company’s email server. If every other iPhone customer wants to sync a PC or Mac with the newly (or old, with the 2.0 software update) purchased iPhone, MobileMe will soon serve millions and, in a not too distant future, tens of millions of iPhones. Besides knowing or not knowing the Buddha of sync, did the MobileMe team have the experience, the knowledge, the appreciation of the “size” problem before them? Very few people in our industry do. Ask Google’s rivals why they were trounced by someone coming late to the game but with a better handle on the “size” or “scale” problem. (See this paper from UC Berkeley, where ultra-large scale computing is actively researched, with private industry subsidies.)
In passing, 10 million MobileMe subscriptions at $100/year is a nice piece of change, one billion dollars, worth the trouble.

Let’s step back a little. Apple “pushes” somewhere between 100 and 200 megabytes of updates per month to each Mac user. Last week, the iPhone 2.0.1 update was announced, I connected two iPhones within minutes, the 200Mb files were downloaded and installed without a hitch and I haven’t heard any blogosphere complaints on the matter. iTunes has sold billions of songs, serves tens of millions of customers everyday and everything works with very few exceptions. In other words, some very large scale Apple systems do work. As discussed above, the iTunes boss (some say slave driver, a meliorative term in context) in now also in charge of MobileMe.

And, last week, parts of the Gmail service were down for 15 hours or so. Last month, Amazon’s respected Web Services went down. And, last year, RIM’s servers went down for about half a day in the Western Hemisphere, freaking out Wall Street investment bankers and management consultants. Even the best players must endure their share of false notes.

Back to MobileMe today:if you ask subscribers who’ve never experienced a Blackberry’s smooth delivery of sync, they love MobileMe. It works, it’s easy to set up and in the simple (most frequent) case of a PC/Mac with an iPhone, it does the wireless (OTA, Off The Air) sync job as now advertised. We’ll see how this scales once iPhones are sold in 21 more countries, 43 total starting August 22nd.



iPhone 3G — One Week Later

Uncategorized By July 21, 2008 Tags: , , No Comments

Contrary to what I expected, the dust hasn’t settled yet. A week later, people still queue, 2h30 Friday morning before being admitted to the sanctum sanctorum in San Francisco. Besides the long lines, there were glitches: activation problems, trouble with the new MobileMe service, with getting access to software updates for the “old” iPhones. Apple claims 1 million phones sold worldwide for the first weekend, probably 400,000 in the US alone. The latter number could explain the activation servers overload: in more normal times, AT&T must activate “only” 25,000 phones a day. Apple apologized for MobileMe problems and even conceded they should suspend some of the verbiage used to promote the service. Calling “Push” the way email and other information is coordinated between computers and the iPhone was found a little “anticipatory”, meaning promises made couldn’t yet be fulfilled. [“Push” means your phone or your computer will receive information without asking for it, without “Pulling”. The Blackberry is still the king of “Push”.]

But this is mostly folklore, fun but transitory. Something more important is taking place: the advent of the App Store. On iTunes, the App Store is a section where you find new applications for the iPhone. On the iPhone, the App Store is an icon that enables the one-click purchase and wireless download of new applications, just like a song and often costing the same, 99 cents, or less. In about the same time it took Apple to sell 1 million phones, users (this includes the updated first generation iPhones) downloaded 10 million applications. Half of these were free. For the paid for ones, about half were games, the rest range from software for general aviation pilots, medical students, bloggers, to light sabers, yes, you read it right, translation with voicing of phrases, nice when you go to China, subway maps, newsreaders, CRM, social networking, instant messaging and music streaming. Apple signed in with a nice, free, flourish: a program transforms your iPhone into a remote control for iTunes or AppleTV, works anywhere in the house through your WiFi network. And on and on… I was going to forget the Chanel Haute Couture Show. Free. Highest Karl Lagerfeld quality. How did this get in? Let me guess, friends in a common advertising agency? Is this one the new business models discussed below?

When the App Store opened a week ago, the catalog featured 27 pages, we’re now at 42. It’s fair to say some applications are silly, useless or unstable. The user review system in the App Store is merciless and deals harshly with stupidity, bad code or dysfunctional UI (User Interface). Also, there is an automatic update mechanism and applications such as Facebook have already been improved. The bad ones will die quickly.

The BFD, as in Big Fundable (or other F words) Deal here is the Great American Instant Gratification. The mental transaction cost of getting an application is very low: lots of choices, small price, one-click transaction. This is the magic of using the existing iTunes infrastructure and exisiting customer behavior. I can’t help but wonder whem Apple (or its competitors) will also use the model for desktop applications, Cloud Computing notwithstanding. I buy iTunes music for my personal computer, why not buy applications for my Mac or my PC from the same store?

Wait, as we say in America, there is more: business models. We’re beginning to see ads on the iPhone, with photos, music or the New York Times. We, VC, will be watching carefully as we wonder if advertising on such small screens will work, will generate real money. Another form of advertising looks more promising: free music channels on the Pandora application. You first set “channels” on from your PC, say Mozart, Bach, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. On your iPhone, you click Miles Davis and you either get Miles Davis works or music deemed to belong to the same genre, with a nice note explaining why the piece was put on this channel. And…, if you like it, one click buys it form iTunes. Clever and clever a second time because not convoluted.

Lastly, content presented as, wrapped in applications. For 99 cents you buy and load an application called The Art of War. You’ve recognized Sun Tzu’s book. But, instead of having a separate book reader and content purchased for it, with the risk of “unwanted duplication”, content and reader are now budled as one application for each book. When I pitch my next book to the publisher, I’ll make sur to mention the 45 million iPhones to be sold next year. This number is an admittedly wildly optimistic (and widely criticized) forecast by Gene Munster from Piper Jaffray. Unless RIM (Blackberry), Nokia and Google fight back, which is very likely, they don’t like Steve Jobs wiping his Birkenstocks on their back. —JLG


iPhone Applications: Apple people now believe in a Supreme Being

Uncategorized By June 16, 2008 Tags: , , , 3 Comments

No, no, not Steve Jobs but an even higher entity smiling upon the company. As I hope to show, Apple’s hard work years ago is now about to pay huge unexpected dividends on the iPhone. When the iPhone first came out of Steve Jobs’ quasi-divine hands in January 2007, it was a hack, the result of clever handcrafting by Apple engineers, a crazed last-minute rush to the show deadline. As such, it lacked the basics of what we call a platform, an industry term of art – or BS. Here, a platform means a combination software, or hardware, or both on which software developers build applications. A platform requires documentation, where the building blocks are, what they do, how to use them. The platform also comes with tools, software to build and test the applications. Last but not least, a platform implies some stability, meaning it works often enough, and it’s predictable, it doesn’t take brutal turns that undo the work of developers.

Early 2007, the iPhone had none of these attributes. So, Steve resorted to proven industry maneuver: If you can’t fix it, feature it. No need for “native” (meaning running on the iPhone itself) applications. This is the New World of Web 2.0, bleated the propagandastaffel. Use the iPhone’s browser (the best in the business, it helped immensely) to run server-based applications. No need to download anything, centralized maintenance, easy updates… The faithful heretics would have none of that and a new game started. One week the hackers managed to break Apple’s barriers preventing the installation of native applications. A few days later Apple issued an update to the iPhone firmware that broke the hacks.

Let’s pause for a lemma, a building block in the story: from day one, the iPhone had something no competitor had: iTunes. Apple made having an iTunes account a sine qua non requirement for using an iPhone. For downloading songs and movies, just like its younger brother the iPod? That and more. With iTunes you backup your iPhone, you bring it back to “factory settings”, helpful if a hack “bricked” it, meaning if it became as lively of a brick, you install software updates, most of which defeated the impudent hacks.

Moving forward, the pressure was building: Apple made a very smart move by using a trimmed down version of OS X (the Mac’s software… platform) as the software engine for the iPhone. We know and love OS X, said the developers. Mr. Jobs, tear down that wall! It now looks like Google’s Android helped Dear Leader make up his mind. Rumors were mounting: RSN (Real Soon, Now), Google would announce a free, open-source platform for smartphones. Just as Steve smartly turned around and touted Intel processors after years of expounding the superior PowerPC architecture, on October 17th, 2007, he stood up and announced the SDK (Software Development Kit) for the iPhone. Availability by the end of February 2008.

The belief in Providence benignly smiling on Apple now comes in. In 2001, Apple sweated the servers, the legal agreements with publishers, the one-click payment system, the client software on PC and Mac. All this to create the still-unequaled iTunes experience. Now, one bright 2007 morning, they have an epiphany: Songs are zeroes and ones. One click and they land in a bin, a directory in the iPhone. But applications are also strings of zeroes and ones. If we put up iPhone applications in the iTunes store, they land in a different bin inside the iPhone but the one-click purchase and download is the same. Halleluiah! All the work to build the iTunes business now pays off for the applications. We must be The Chosen Ones. This is no small detail. Today, if you’re an independent software developer, writing good code is the easy part. The Evil S&M, Sales and Marketing, await you. Shelf space, physical or on the Web, is very expensive. Setting up download and payment systems isn’t for the faint of wallet either. With the iPhone, Apple removes (most of) these hurdles. All you have to do is write good code.

Picture the young developer still living in his mother’s basement, he sells 50,000 copies of his work for $10, the price of an iTunes album. Apple keeps $3, he gets $7. Times 50,000, he makes $350,000 and can now pay rent to his mother and buy her a car. (For perspective, the current forecast is for between 30 and 45 million iPhones sold by the end of 2009.) Picture also the competition. No one else has such a well-oiled, widely known system to add applications to a smartphone as Itunes. (Google says they will eventually offer one for Android.) This is a billion dollars business. Actually, $1.2 billion in 2009, according to Gene Munster a Piper Jaffray analyst. (For a healthy counterpoint, see the snarky comments on TechCrunch.) Regardless, the arrival of native applications on the iPhone is a big event, one made possible by an unintended – and rather amusing – consequence of the iTunes music distribution system. How will this be written up in books and Harvard Business School case studies? –JLG