Not Quite

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The rumors of an Apple-branded HDTV have been around for a long time (although perhaps not as long as the iconic iPhone). For many reasons and for many years, this didn’t make sense. Having an Apple-branded phone was ludicrous since so many other companies controlled the market in terms of handset design, technology, carrier availability, etc. Apple had no leverage; they were just getting their feet under them after recovering from an almost-inevitable downfall, and they weren’t seen as competitive in the marketplace due to the highly exclusive nature of their products. Then they started designing their own hardware, coupled it with some amazing software, and all that changed.

Now, the world looks to Apple for guidance on just about everything.

Now, we’re seeing the same thing with TVs, and it smacks of WebOS.

One of the big announcements that came out of the HP Think Beyond event was that webOS will be shipping on every PC, laptop, and some printers that they sell by the end of this year. We have pondered what that will do to the scale of webOS and how HP would implement it.

To be honest, I don’t know how this is going to play out, but it looks like these companies want to get their OS into everything in your home. I think the idea here is to have a network of appliances, devices, and screens that are discoverable and OS-aware, meaning that they can sniff out other devices/appliances on the network and interface with them. A person might be able to control his or her washing machine with a phone, or monitor the state of the vegetables in the refrigerator by glancing at a widget in the dock of a tablet, or activate a Roomba to clean the floors while he or she is away. The more devices run your flavor of OS, the more is possible on the network. Naturally, this might also lead to Skynet, but whatever.

It’s the “home of the future”, and it started with your phone.

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How Much for that Cloud in the Window?

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So the big announcement is iCloud, iOS 5, and Lion. These are all good things, and probably make clever use of a new, powerful back-end that will hopefully be a major part of Apple’s strategy going forward. One of the interesting thing to see is how Apple will be pricing this “new” service, if it’s going to be considered “new” at all.

I agree with what TUAW has to say about Apple’s paid vs. free options being a part of its iCloud (née MobileMe) plans. I can’t imagine that Apple would ignore the vast potential in this market. There’s just no way that any company in their right mind would ignore the power that a uniting backbone would have in its ecosystem.

It’s been a perennial rumor that Apple will stop charging $99/year for much of its MobileMe service. The rumors have always suggested Apple will offer basic services (like email and over-the-air device syncing) for free, while paying subscribers will have access to things like website hosting, online photo galleries, storage options through iDisk, and now potentially wireless streaming of music via the rumored iCloud service.

Then there’s this article by AppleInsider that offers up another possible interpretation, namely that offer will be introducing a “tiered” pricing model to their new iCloud service based on the user’s operating system. I don’t think this is going to happen, since tiered pricing is uncharacteristic of Apple.

That price tag may remain for users who do not make the upgrade to Lion, or for Windows users. But it is expected that the cloud services will become free to Mac users who run the latest version of Mac OS X.

My opinion is that Apple will introduce some kind of free option. Just about every big tech player out there offers some sort of free email option, and that’s by design. By pulling people into your ecosystem, you grab mindshare and envelop them in whatever “culture” your product or service suite represents.

There’s also the increasing awareness of what email addresses mean. A person with an “@me.com” email address is telling the world “I probably own a Mac or iOS device, and have the ability to view whatever files you’d like to email me or access just about any site you send my way.” This is important in today’s business world, where the data is less important than the connections they represent. A business owner isn’t going to say, “Hey, can you send me that file in a keynote? I have an iPhone.” No, they’re just going to be able to open because they have an iPhone. Offering their customers even more integration, stability, and ease-of-use would be a huge selling point for Apple, and will also pave the way for their future plans for FaceTime (which I believe Apple will push heavily as a replacement for phone calls in the coming years).

Exciting stuff, can’t wait for the Keynote.


Singing in the Rain

When the MacBook Air came out last year with its super-sexy new design and blazing fast SSD, I knew I was in trouble. It’s hard for me to resist the siren call of a new Apple product, but it’s even harder when the thing looks and performs as well as that li’l guy. I was even looking to upgrade my Mac Mini, and saw that as the perfect opportunity to dive into something portable. Since that day, I’ve had to fight off the urge to buy one nearly every single day.

Then I realize that I have an amazing iPad 2, and I the conversation with myself ends. I don’t need a laptop, I already have an incredible machine. Sure, there are shortcomings, and there are certain incompatibilities here and there that make it difficult and/or frustrating, but by and large the experience is incredible, and very freeing. I have something with me at all times that I can use for *gasp* serious work (almost every blog post I’ve ever written has been with the help of an iPad, and all of my Grad school papers come from this tiny beast) as well as having fun and playing games. Truth be told, this is the best computer I’ve ever owned, and the reason is baked into the OS.

What a glorious feeling!

A while back, I went to the Apple store to ask some questions to the friendly folks there about the MacBook Air, to see if I should choose that over the Mac Mini. I came away with this realization: if you already have an iPad, skip the MacBook Air, and if you already have a MacBook Air, skip the iPad. They’re pretty close in form and function, anyway (despite one being a “laptop” and one being a tablet). The reason I say that is because of the use-case. People buy a MacBook Air because they need a computer that is:

  1. Portable
  2. Fast
  3. Long-lasting
  4. Simple
  5. With a full keyboard

The MacBook Air is that machine, among other things. So is the iPad, however, and I’ve found that the pseudo-multitasking of the iPad is far more preferable to me when I’m working because I know that the apps won’t crash, won’t interfere with anything else, and won’t start to bog down. The’re lean, simple, and engage me physically, why I need when I’m writing. The MacBook Air is essentially redundant…except that it runs the full MacOS, instead of iOS. This seems great, until you start trying to manage multiple media libraries, apps, save files, etc. Then it gets to be more of a pain to work with MacOS than an iOS device. But wait…the new version of MacOS, Lion, looks and behaves a LOT like iOS, doesn’t it? I mean…Apple expressly talked about the similarities in their “Back to the Mac” event. So then there’s this:

Most people had dismissed that rumor due to the compatibility issues that would be introduced with such a transition. Another major issue is that while ARM processors are more power efficient, they presently offer significantly lower performance than their Intel counterparts.

Sure, an ARM-based A5 wouldn’t make sense running MacOS…but what about iOS? Let’s even blow it up a bit and look further down the road a year or two. Let’s focus on a time in the not-too-distant future when iOS and MacOS start to merge, when the distinctions between the various Apple OSs start to become blurry. Then, ARM chips would make sense. They sip power, and (currently) iOS sings on those chips. It’s built for exactly that type of chipset. The two work in perfect synergy, and you can bet that Apple is spending a lot of time making sure that, when it’s time to make that jump, that they’ve gotten the whole machine tuned and tweaked so the transition is beautiful. If you look at it that way, it makes a whole lot more sense to be using ARM-based chips for your supermodel MacBook Air, while the MacBook Pros would still run Intel chips due to their more “Pro” nature. I’m willing to be dollars to donuts that most people are going to start shifting away from MacOS “Classic” and will absolutely love the new look and feel of Lion. Who knows, maybe the Mac OS “Classic” look and feel will persist, while everything else will run some new version of iOS that is fully scalable across any hardware, much like HP is planning to do with their new version of WebOS.

There’s also this little nugget:

Although not mentioned in the most recent rumor, one of the largest features may be over-the-air updates that would finally make iOS independent of a computer for all but backup and local media syncing.

So…like a “real” computer? Can you see it? Can you see how the walls are disintegrating? The distinction between a “mobile” OS and a “desktop” OS is not as clear now, and I think the lines will continue to blur.
And this, too:

Talk of Apple using Nuance voice commands in iOS was already supported recently by code mentions in Lion. Most also presume that Apple’s cloud music service may play an integral role in the new mobile software.

So we can infer here that iOS and Lion are very closely related (doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out, Apple said so), but that they share code is telling of Apple’s long-term strategy, and the strategies of several major players out there (Google, Microsoft, natch).

The jump from what we see in our hands and on our laps and desks and what we will be seeing over the next few years will be immense, and will change what every single person recognizes as a computer.

Mind the gap.


A Long, Slow Spiral

In my recent post regarding Google Voice and life integration, one of the main points that I may have failed to mention explicitly is the purpose of all this stuff: to live better, to be able to connect with the people who matter to you seamlessly, without stuff getting in the way.

As I say again and again, technology is designed to help us be better people, live better, feel more human. When people become frustrated with technology, it’s because what they’re dealing with isn’t good technology, it has failed. Thankfully, we’re getting to the point that we’re finally able to create good technology. Then, I ran across this article regarding the integration of T-Mobile’s Bobsled service into Facebook. Awesome stuff.

In case you missed it, the Facebook component is simply a basic VoIP service that lets you make free voice calls to any of your Facebook friends, and it now boasts a redesigned interface that promises to “more clearly differentiate it from a Facebook owned service.”

GigaOM has a great explanation of the whole thing.

Here’s how the new product works: After downloading and installing Bobsled for Facebook on a Windows or Mac PC, the software adds a phone icon next each friend in your Facebook Chat window. Tap the phone icon, and a free voice call is initiated, even if the call recipient hasn’t installed the Bobsled application yet.

Further:

Aside from one-touch calling, the service also supports voice mails in case the personal you’re calling isn’t available or doesn’t pick up. I ran a quick, early test with Mike Wolf, one of my GigaOM colleagues, and the sound quality wasn’t bad. More importantly, I didn’t have to worry about what phone number to dial.

This is it, folks, this is where we start to see the death of the phone number. If you read the above article, you see how powerful this technology really is. Now that Skype (and, concurrently, Microsoft) and T-Mobile are throwing their weight behind VoIP for everyone, we’re going to see a radical shift in the way people communicate. Voice may once again rise in popularity (I’ll only bite if people understand that a five minute conversation is an eternity to me).

We’re changing rapidly, and this is a beautiful thing, but the venerable Phone Number is staring death in the face now. It’s been a long time coming, but I believe the next ten years (even five, possibly) will see the functional demise of the phone number as the most widely identifiable and understood method of communication. As these technologies evolve and improve, we’re going to see even more features begin to emerge that will enable us to lead better lives and communicate even more efficiently. I, for one, am still looking forward to the collective human consciousness that we’ll all be tapped into one day. For those of you who have heard my theory, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched anymore, does it?


Back and Forth

For a while now, I’ve been using an app called Audiogalaxy to get back to my music library at home and essentially have access to my library with over 100 gigs of music to supplement whatever tracks I have synced to my iPhone/iPad. It’s fantastic, mostly because I know two things:

  1. I have music on my iPhone that I can listen to anywhere, regardless of whether I have a data connection or not.
  2. I can, with a data connection, get access to my huge music library.

The recently-uncovered Apple patent application is simultaneously awesome and horrific for a few reasons, all of which have to do with #2.

One of the most explosive and formative things to happen to America recently is the widespread adoption of mobile data and internet usage. As I’ve discussed before, the mobile telecom providers have used this to push their agendas and create an awful dystopian future that the American wireless subscriber is going to end up paying dearly for. It’s going to be ugly, folks. Get ready for a future based on as-yet-unwritten disgusting rates based on AT&T’s greed.

If you think this reaction is a bit overblown, let’s dissect the groundwork that needs to be in place for a person to listen to music with Apple’s new system. A person would need:

  1. A computer running iTunes (for syncing purposes). This is pretty much standard, and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
  2. An iOS device with a data connection. Not everyone wants to or can run a persistent data connection. iPod touch devices are reliant on wifi, and people with the lower-tier AT&T or Verizon data plan (250 MB for $15.00/month, in AT&T’s case) may not be comfortable with a service that sucks up data every time they wan to listen to a song.
  3. Possibly: the above computer with a persistent connection to the internet. This is a variable, and the future is hazy here. Depending on how the whole “Music Locker” thing will work, or how MacOS Lion home server is structured, this may or may not be necessary. We’ll see.

Let’s assume that a person has an iPhone, is using AT&T, and is using the $15.00/month data plan for 250 MB of data per month. We don’t know how much of each song will be synced to the iOS device, but let’s assume it’s about 30% of each song to allow ample buffering time. We can then “fit” three times the number of songs on the iOS device due to the reduced footprint of each song on the device’s memory. The remaining amount of each song would then be pulled from a cloud. I say “a” cloud because it’s unclear if that cloud will be the individual’s computer or this “Music Locker” service. Let’s assume it will be from this person’s computer, so as not to incur any additional fees (yet). The computer will have to be on in order to access the library data, which means an extra power demand and a load on the person’s internet usage (we’re also assuming that internet usage is capped, which, despite some companies claiming their data is “unlimited,” is most likely the case). Most likely, the data usage through a home internet connection is insignificant (especially relative to a theoretical cap of 50-250 GB). The proposed data usage relative to mobile internet connection with a 250 MB cap is significant, however, and listening to a day’s worth of music can potentially eat up all of a person’s monthly data before they have to pony up another $25.00 for the higher 2 GB plan.

Did you catch that? Let’s look at it again.

The folks who want to use this feature will be streaming data every single time they listen to music. The amount of data that will be used is unclear, but I predict that listening to music for a prolonged period of time (even a few hours a day) will cut deeply into or completely use up a person’s data for the month (again, assuming usage of a cheaper $15.00/month, 250 MB plan). Even on a 2 GB plan, monthly data usage can quickly skyrocket, shooting people dangerously close to the ceiling or their plan. I use about 1.5 GB/month right now with occasional usage of my Audiogalaxy service to get at my home library. If I were to switch over to a model that used data every single time I played a song, I’d find myself breaking that 2 GB barrier on a monthly basis, which would cost me more money.

AT&T and Verizon made a long-term move here, and we’re staring it in the face right now. Back when AT&T first introduced tiered data pricing, I could see the act as predatory. More and more services are being pushed online, to the cloud, and so forth. What AT&T did was squeeze the pipes before the water started flowing. Netflix is growing in popularity and capability, and their long-term dominance in the mobile media marketplace (I love alliteration!), while not guaranteed, is just shy of that. How are we going to watch movies on our mobile devices if we’re being pinched to do so? How will companies innovate if they know they’re going to be dealing with hamstrung devices? People are going to be paying for subscription services and the bandwidth it takes to use them, a double whammy. The outlook doesn’t look good.

Boy am I glad I got that unlimited Clear iSpot subscription while it was still around.


Mixed Messages

CHART OF THE DAY: Surprise! Microsoft Has Sold 3 Times As Many Windows 7 Licenses As All Apple Products Combined.

Apple’s humongous success has made it the most valuable tech company in the world. The market value of the former tech alpha dog, Microsoft, meanwhile, has shriveled.
But let’s keep things in perspective!

For all of its mind-blowing success, sales of Apple’s computing products are still just a fraction of Microsoft’s Windows 7 licenses.

As you can see in the chart below, since Microsoft launched Windows 7, Apple has sold ~150 million iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, and Macs. Microsoft, meanwhile, has sold ~350 million Windows 7 licenses.

Let’s think about this. On the one hand, this chart asserts that Microsoft is a powerhouse in the desktop computing space. There’s no question there. What this chart also says, however, is that mobile OS products (like iOS) are becoming powerful in their own right. I would venture that iOS adoption will continue to rise as Apple integrates the powerful OS into their primary computer line. People will like it more, and businesses will begin to see incredible value in an easy-to-use, bulletproof OS for their road warriors.

Let’s see where this chart is in five years.


The Fourth Dimension…er…Generation

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One of my recent blog posts detailed the transition from a carrier-centric model of communicating to a user-centric model. This transition has been, for many people, difficult to understand and/or accomplish due to the ingrained carrier model that so many people are programmed to know. There are so many other ways to communicate, and people who embrace rapidly evolving technology will find themselves on the forefront of a new paradigm of that communication. It’s ridiculous that, in our world of super fast mobile broadband, we still pay carriers ridiculous fees for “minutes” that many of us never use.

The thing is, carriers know this. Carriers know that the future of communication looks more like what I’m doing on my own right now, and not like what they’re trying to push on everyone in American with their advertising wars. Sure, iPhones are great, but when your carrier is cutting your neck and hanging you upside-down over a bucket just so you can use the latest and greatest phone, you’ve got a problem. Phones should not have a “privilege tax” associated with them just because they can run apps.

In a recent discussion with a family member, the topic of “outrageous” pricing for data plans was mentioned. The family member in question pays around $40-50 monthly for a regional voice plan that includes far more minutes than he will ever use (obviously long-distance calls are extra). Up until recently, he did not have any means of communicating via SMS, and added on a $5/month messaging package. Recently, he wanted to upgrade his phone to something running the Android operating system so that he could browse the internet from his phone. He was taken aback, however, when the carrier representative told him that this phone required a $30/month data package. He was upset, but for the wrong reason.

“Can you believe it?” he asked me, “They wanted to charge me $30 a month for data! That’s crazy!”

“No,” I told him, “what’s crazy is that you’re paying $40-$50 each month for voice. I’m talking to you right now on a $25/month data plan. Talking.”

This took a little while to sink in. He didn’t quite get what I was saying, so I explained it to him.

Carriers charge their customers for voice airtime “minutes,” which are essentially packets of data that are prioritized over all other forms of communication in their cell towers. Each minute of talk time is like a reservation of the cell tower’s resources, requiring that the cell tower allocates a certain amount of its processing power and bandwidth to handle that single call. SMS messages consume such a tiny, infinitesimally small amount of that bandwidth that they have no impact whatsoever on the network. Other data (e.g. the Internet) is doled out as the cell tower allocates it. Carriers regularly cite all sorts of statistics regarding their mobile data usage, saying that it’s been increasing exponentially, uses more network backhaul than ever before and yadda yadda yadda. The true killer here is voice, and the shift to pure data will happen right under your nose. That being said, carriers will try to mask it all they can in order to charge you an arm and a leg for something that is not inherently different from anything else they offer.

4G, which is this buzzword that all sorts of carriers are throwing around now (some of whom don’t even have a true 4G network), is a data-only service right now. Data. 4G technology gives users more than enough bandwidth to be able to talk and browse the internet simultaneously. Heck, 4G networks have enough power to allow people to simultaneously video chat and and browse the internet simultaneously. I know, I’ve tried it, and they’re fast. A carrier could easily offer just a simple, flat-rate 4G internet plan for…say $40/month. For that, a person could talk, “text,” and browse the internet essentially without being limited by arbitrary caps to minutes, messages, or data consumption. Heck, we could even say $60/month could get you those privileges. “Wow, that’s cheap!” you might say. That’s right, it is, because those plans aren’t accompanied by the all-too-familiar “voice minutes” that we’re used to seeing now. All our voice is data right now, anyway, but carriers simply charge you differently for it.

Now, here’s the kicker. The carriers want to keep swindling you out of your money. They want to keep pulling every last dime they can out of you, and the way things are looking for mobile net neutrality, it looks like they’ll be able to. Recent laws that have been passed by Congress limit the amount of power the FCC has over mobile carriers, which essential allows them to charge you whatever they want for the “services” they offer. With the possible consolidation of T-Mobile under AT&T later this year (or early next year), this puts the American mobile consumer in dangerous territory. Verizon and AT&T will rule the air, and Sprint will carve out a niche (hopefully by offering real value in their services).

Ultimately, the mobile giants will find ways to squeeze extra money out of America by differentiating “voice” and “data.” This is insane, and you shouldn’t stand for it.

My next article will outline a plan to circumvent the impending storm, essentially to sandbag against a possible assault agains the mobile consumer space. This sounds crazy, I know, but it’s already happening. 4G will be the de facto standard very soon, and 5G will start to peek its head out from the horizon. What then? If Verizon and AT&T are doing this now, what will they do in five years? Ten? The future looks bleak, but stay tuned for ways to skirt the whole thing and save a pretty penny in the process.