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.

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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.


A New Way to Count

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Over the weekend, we got news that AT&T will be buying T-Mobile USA for something to the tune of $39 billion. That’s a hefty chunk of change, but I’m going to focus down on a few things that I read in GigaOM that caught my eye. GigaOM present a fairly decent argument as to why this is really really bad for customers, and I have a tendency to agree with a lot of what was said, namely in this piece, look at what they say about Android smartphones:

Don’t be surprised if you see AT&T impose its own will on what apps and service are put on its Android smartphones. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the worst phone company in the U.S.(according to Consumer Reports) tries to create its own app store and force everyone to buy apps through it.

Notably, the paragraph talks specifically about Android-powered handsets (which are “open,” mind you). Not only are a whole pantload of atrocities to net neutrality being committed due in large part to this whole “open” malarkey (which is another story for another day), I’m sure we’re going to see even more horrible stuff perpetrated by AT&T and Verizon as time rolls on. Having a choice between all of two carriers in the US is not a happy solution to me, which is why I’m looking forward to a future that doesn’t explicitly involve me having to fork over half a paycheck every month just to use my phone. As these companies become more powerful, they limit the amount of innovation that can occur in the portable computers and smartphones that are out on the market, mostly because they can then restrict what devices can be used on their network. There are always ways around this, but it’s a scary future, backed up here:

Phone Handset Makers. Before the merger was announced, the handset makers such as HTC and Motorola had two major carriers who could buy their GSM-based phones. They just lost any ability to control price and profits on handsets because now there is a single buyer that can dictate what GSM phones come to market. Even with LTE becoming the standard for the 4G world, it would essentially be a market dominated by three buyers (should Sprint go with LTE), which would place handset makers at the mercy of the giants.

That isn’t to say that this is the end of the road for handset manufacturers, however. Specifically, I think Apple has seen this coming for a while, and has been looking at things from all angles for some time now. On the one hand, they had to give a lot to be able to partner with AT&T, but AT&T gave in and netted themselves with millions of subscribers because they took on Apple’s revolutionary phone when no one else would. I imagine they also looked at the uphill battle they had to fight to get there and said, “What if we couldn’t partner with a carrier, what then?”. The answer came in the form of last year’s iPod Touch. In an article from Engadget:

…and it’s the most glaring sign yet that the next generation touch will flippin’ finally boast a camera (or just a way around that SMS-based activation?)…

Emphasis mine.

Also, from Apple’s support site:

What information do I need to call someone using FaceTime?

To call someone using FaceTime, you need their phone number or email address. Which one you use is determined by the device you are calling:
When calling an iPhone 4: Use the phone number of the person you are calling.
When calling an iPad 2, iPod touch, or FaceTime for Mac user: Use the email address designated for FaceTime of the person you are calling.

So, in short: Apple is trying to craft an ecosystem that is not reliant upon any single carrier to deliver the sort of innovation, creativity, and communication that has taken the world by storm. All you need now is an Internet connection, and that can be found just about everywhere. Think about it: instead of paying through the nose (in addition to losing an arm, leg, and first-born child) to use an iPhone, all you’ll need in the future is a cheap mobile hotspot, the kind that are available everywhere right now. The kind that you can get for $50/month or less. The kind that can have five devices tethered to them. The kind that enable face-to-face conversations with your friends through FaceTime. Brilliant.

When I stood in line for an iPad 2 and came away from the experience empty-handed, I started wondering why. After asking the Apple folks that were present, it became pretty clear to me that they had massive stock of wifi-based models, but very few 3G models1. I considered that for a moment as I ordered my new one online, and realized that this was Apple’s gambit. They’re trying to push their devices away from reliance on anyone or anything. (via)

The end result is still grim for most people, however, since the average person shopping for an iPhone isn’t going to be savvy to Apple’s future plans, they’re just looking for nice piece of kit to throw in their pocket or handbag. If control is taken away from consumers (control=choice), then the carriers will dictate how much and when people pay for each device. They’ll be able to perpetuate this madness with words like this:

Further, we recognize that there have been meaningful recent moves toward openness, including the introduction of open operating systems like Android. In addition, we anticipate soon seeing the effects on the market of the openness conditions we imposed on mobile providers that operate on upper 700 MHz C-Block spectrum, which includes Verizon Wireless, one of the largest mobile wireless carriers in the U.S.

In light of these considerations, we conclude it is appropriate to take measured steps at this time to protect the openness of the Internet when accessed through mobile broadband.

What a crock. Also: scary, because that’s where we’re headed. Now that AT&T and Verizon are effectively the only carriers in the US, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be throwing their weight around in the government to try to get ignorant legislators to give them even more power.

AT&T points out that the combination of T-Mobile USA and AT&T “provides fast, efficient and certain solution to impending spectrum exhaust challenges facing AT&T and T-Mobile USA in key markets due to explosive demand for mobile broadband.” What we’re seeing here is AT&T using what some call a manufactured spectrum crisis — which the FCC has built to a fever pitch in the last two years — in order to shove this deal through the regulatory process. This is a deal that will ultimately be worse for consumers by reducing the number of nationwide wireless providers and consolidating much of the high-quality spectrum in the hands of the nation’s two largest carriers.

This is horrible for the consumer. Sure, AT&T will sugar coat the whole thing and make it look like they just handed you the world on a silver platter, but the bottom line is that they want to control what you get and how you get it.

Now I understand that carrier dependence is not the same as Net Neutrality, but there are certainly more similarities than differences. While Apple can’t necessarily fix the problems with Net Neutrlity, they can change the way people communicate around the world and create more alternatives for more people.

With iOS devices proliferating throughout the world at an amazing rate, it won’t be long until calling your friend in France and talking to them face-to-face from the palm of your hand will be commonplace and free. If you read the writing on the wall, you’ll see that it’s already begun.

1 I’d imagine that Apple also knows that 3G is reaching its EOL (end-of-life) soon, and doesn’t want its customers having a poor experience. If I were Apple, this would be something I’d be seriously considering, as well. The 3G versions are different from the wifi-only models in small ways, and it makes a difference to the overall experience. For the record, I do like the ease of the 3G model a whole lot more.

Thanks to Dazzie D for the picture.