Friday, September 21, 2012

Where in the world am I?

This week saw the launch of iOS6, the latest in Apple's mobile operating system iterations. For the most part, it's been a decent incremental upgrade, with lots of new little tweaks, such as Facebook integration, and the ability to update applications without inputing a password. However, the big feature that's been getting all the press is the new mapping app.

In Apple's bid to rid themselves of Google "taint", they decided to make their own mapping service, but I think it's become very apparent, that it's not as easy as it looks. Many places are mis-located, or labels are wrong (especially internationally), causing no end to the hilarity of people posting screenshots of mistakes. There's a reason why Google Maps is king, and it's based on why my friend Wes so aptly put forth, that Google is a data company, and Apple is not (yet). Providing good mapping data requires good... well... data. Google has it. Apple, and other competitors don't. I think eventually Apple will get there, but for the time being, they're going to take a beating on this one for quite a while.

There is one positive I want to point out however. Apple utilizes vector drawn maps, as opposed to image tiles. This speeds up map rendering tremendously, and I think is the real winning feature of the new Apple maps. It also allows for much more dynamic rendering of labels, and will give a much better user experience overall. If Apple can get over this bad data hump, I think their mapping solution will shine, but they're playing catch-up right now to the big data daddy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A crab in the Apple tree

Today, I was among many geeks who, like the high school guy nervously awaiting the prom dance to end and the exit to the hotel room, awaited my semi regular dose of Apple branded technology porn. When the announcement of the iPhone 5 arrived, it was the same drug, administered with all the flourish and expectation of many similar injections of years past. We got to see all the leaked features put on full display, from the larger screen, to the oh so luscious LTE wireless speed. The device had everything we've been asking for, and even a few nice surprises like the new connector that you can insert in the dark, and it doesn't matter if it's upside down or not. The display was beautiful, the design and form factor was polished, and everything was exactly as we expected.

But wait! There was more! The iPod Nano got a complete redesign as well. The Nano is one of those products that can't seem to settle on a shirt to put on in the morning. It's worn the skinny tie, the shirt that makes it look fat, and even the shirt that resembled Falvor Flav by making you think about wearing it as a wrist watch. This poor device can't settle down, but it seems that every iteration is still a great work of art. This latest incarnation also impresses. Overall, it's a welcome refresh to the iPod line.

But wait! Yet another update! The iPod Touch got a refresh! Wow, it has the same screen as the iPhone 5, and a better camera, and a new A5 chip! Sweet! Multiple colors? Rock on! It can be yours for... wait.. what was that price again? You're kidding me right? $300??? And just like that... the crab has entered the Apple tree. But unlike most instances where I laugh at the silly pundits who complain that they didn't get everything they wanted, as I watch my single share of Apple stock grow and grow... this time... I'm the crab.

The iPod Touch was always a unique device. It allowed Apple to bring iOS to the masses that couldn't afford, or didn't want, an iPhone. I owned one for many years, and loved it. I took it to China with me, and it was a great tool in lieu of a smartphone. But the world has changed. Smartphones are everywhere, and even people who I never would have thought of having one in the past, are now sporting the latest Android or iOS device. So what is the role of the iPod Touch? Apple claims that it's also a great gaming device. I can see that, as it's got some of the best games around, and a beautiful screen and touch interface. But it's main competitor in the handheld gaming market, the Nintendo DSi, is often found for much less than $150. Yet, Apple decided to release this device for $300. This is one of those moments where I become the person I despise and ask the question... "Would Steve Jobs really have done this?"

The problem is, that although Apple has always been able to demand a premium, I feel that in this case they went too far. When you look at the marketplace that they are competing with, it's no longer JUST the small mp3 players, or the handheld video game devices. It's the mini-tablet. Both the Google Nexus 7, and the Kindle Fire have started to reshape the landscape, albeit slowly. In many ways, with the Nexus 7, Google 'out-Apple'd Apple. The Nexus 7 tablet is a really nice device, and has shown itself quite useful for various people that I know that have one. So it's only logical that Apple will enter this space soon, and in fact the current rumors put their unveiling somewhere around October. But with today's announcement, they've already telegraphed the price point, and it's nowhere near the price point of the Nexus 7. The base level Nexus 7 retails for $199. This is a great price point to get people in to the mini-tablet world, and exposing them to an application ecosystem. But if Apple plans to release an iPad Mini, the price with need to START at $300, so that they have a clear diferentiation with their iPod Touch line.

This disappoints me tremendously. My hope had been that we would see an iPad mini for around $250. A bit more than the Nexus 7, but hey, you have to be willing to pay the premium for an Apple product. But a full $100 more than the closest competitor will put it far out of reach of many prospective buyers. Sure the Nexus 7 doesn't have a Retina display, but honestly, for most pople, a 7 inch device doesn't need that. Instead of trying to beat Google at the game that they think they can win, Apple is choosing to distance themselves in a way that I think will be most unhelpful.

So like the prom guy who realizes when he gets to the hotel room that he's not getting everything he hoped for, I sit here let down by Apple. But who knows, maybe something will change, and the announcement in October will blow our socks off. It's your move Apple... what are you going to do?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Start a fire with some kindling

Yesterday was a big day for Amazon.com. They announced a whole new lineup of e-readers and tablets for their Kindle line of products. Many a pundit said that they were going after Apple in their latest play, and to some degree I think there's some small truth to that, but I don't think that's the whole story.

In fact, I think the first person that Amazon is trying to take down is Barnes & Noble. B&N's Nook tablet has been their answer to the Kindle for a few years now, and from a technology and feature standpoint, the two have been leap-frogging each other. Before the Kindle announcements yesterday there was the Nook with glow-light, so you can read in the dark. The ad for this device played constantly on TV in recent months, and I'm sure it caught the eye of more than a few customers. Yesterday Amazon answered with a version of it's own, that also upped the ante by including a capacitive touch screen, a step up from the Nook version.

On the high end, B&N has struggled to define what it's Nook Color really is. Once you put a color screen on an e-reader, it opens up a whole new set of content, but you need an ecosystem to support that content. B&N has always been a top notch bookstore, and is pretty much the only big-box bookstore left around. But their music business is a hold-over from the pre-digital age, and they've never been big in the DVD world. So that leaves books. As an e-reader, B&N's offering is really top notch, and I'm personally a big fan of their product. But, it's obvious that first up on Amazon's list of goals, it taking down this competitor once and for all.

At the heart of it all is the issue of ecosystem. Amazon, over the past couple of decades, has built a tremendous ecosystem of products that mesh well into a digital lifestyle. They were one of the first to the online book business, they embraced the digital music revolution (albeit a bit later than others), and because of their wide range of products most people think of them first when looking for everything from DVD's to diapers. This ecosystem is what Amazon is hoping will draw you away from being simple a book reader, which you can do on a B&N Nook quite easily, to being an Amazon.com 'digital consumer'. They're hoping that once you realize that you can do more than read books on a Kindle that you'll choose their ecosystem over the competitors. For many people, that may be a very compelling argument.

Sadly, the range of offerings that Amazon put out yesterday may be the beginning of the end for Nook. Or maybe it's an opportunity for B&N to realize that they can't compete in the ecosystem game, and focus on letting the Nook be the best e-reader it can be. Perhaps it's OK for B&N to look at a smaller portion of marketshare and be content with that, if they can be the best at what they do. Only time will tell if consumers would go along with that notion however, and for the time being it looks like the next move on the chess board is Barnes & Noble's.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Swinging a sack of doorknobs

This past weekend, the traditional Fall ritual took place, of stuffing hundreds of dollars of school supplies into backpacks that will then be placed on my children's backs, giving them a hunchback that would make Quasimodo jealous. As I was trying to cram in just one more 1.5-inch 3 ring binder, I started asking myself... "Self, why in the world are we teaching these kids to subsist on physical media still???" I didn't bother to answer my own question, because that would have made it a 2-way conversation, and I think there's supposedly something wrong with talking to yourself. But, I did start to take stock of all the paper, pens, pencils and composition books, and realized that maybe our education system needs to start embracing technology beyond learning PowerPoint, and playing Math Blaster.

OK, I realize I'm being a little harsh there, but my point is that when I look at how I use technology in my work and personal life, it's very often as a productivity and communication tool. For example, one of the most common uses for an iPad around my office, is running Evernote, and using it as a virtual notebook for meetings. A tablet is a great tool for meetings because it's not as distracting as an entire laptop, but it can get the job done for most meeting tasks. So as I packed one more composition notebook in my son's bulging chiropractor-financial-support-device, I wondered... shouldn't our kids be learning to use tablets for note taking now? Before they get into the workforce?

Then I started having memories of last Spring when school ended. My son literally threw away his entire backpack on the last day of school. Ya we weren't too happy about that, and had to go back and retrieve some stuff, but the point was that 90% of what his backpack was filled with was notes that he didn't need anymore. I then remembered the box in the basement that contains my graduate degree files. It's filled with folders and folders of notes that I don't ever look at, and probably never will again. That's reams and reams of paper that will just hit the recycling bin and be made in to paper again that will get notes written on it and then thrown into a recycling bin...

So maybe the time as come to trim back to school shopping lists. I'd love to have a list for my kids that looks more like this:

  1. Pack of Pencils and one notebook (Still need an occasional physical note)
  2. DropBox.net school sponsored account for cloud storage of documents
  3. Tablet computer with a school sponsored package of software
I realize this is a tall order to change things so dramatically, but I'd love to see it happen in my kids educational lifetime. To start, it will require heavy sponsorship of the technology in areas where families can't afford a tablet or a home computer, but I think the pay-off would be incredible in equipping our kids for the workforce of the future.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Computers as work

The history of Labor Day is one of a celebration of work. For most people, work is a part of our lives, and taking a moment to honor that reality, and the history of how labor has developed is a worthwhile pursuit. But it got me thinking about how what we look at as work has changed in my lifetime.

When I was growing up, the career path for the computer field involved going to school to study Computer Science, and spending a lot of time working with mainframes, microchip design and so on. It wasn't really a field that interested me. With the advent of the internet, suddenly everything changed, and the practical nature of technology started to shape and create a new reality in our lives. Suddenly we were all able to interact with a growing, networked, world in a completely different way than we ever had before, and it was in this practical environment that my love of technology was nurtured.

This wasn't something that only existed for myself, but millions of other individuals suddenly found a new career path open to them, working with technology to get things done in ways that had never been available before. There has always been white-collar work, but computers have allowed the spectrum of desk jobs to expand to incredible proportions. Now, computers are a standard tool for almost everything. Police, education, medicine and even financial markets, all depend heavily on computers to get things done.

This transformation of the very nature of work in our society has come with some growing pains, as we learn how to adapt our lives to more and more technological options. But in the end, I think it's clear that despite the bad, there is so much good to be had in this new technological world, that we should embrace and encourage the future of positive uses of technology.

So on this Labor Day, let's remember how things have changed in our work environments, and raise a toast to the future. Thankful for the pioneers that came before us in the labor movements, as we take up the torch to make the work of the future simply great.