Things Left Unsaid

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While my posts haven’t been coming fast and furious lately, I’ve been watching the tech landscape recently and have seen some interesting shifts in where I believe a lot of things are heading.

Whither the iPod Nano?

This has been a perennial issue for me. When the iPhone 4S (aka the iPhone 5), was released, people did two things:

    1. Thought that it was an inferior phone because the character “5” was not in the title
    2. Forgot about everything else for a little while.

I, however, did not forget about the iPod nano. Conversely, I began to think more about it, mostly from the perspective of “How can Apple make use of this new Bluetooth 4.0 thing?” While Bluetooth may not be very important to many people in the world, or may be synonymous with “headset”, Bluetooth information exchange technology makes possible a great many things that people basically don’t take advantage of. Case and point, a friend of mine just saw me typing this blog post on a wireless Bluetooth keyboard and said “Wow, a wireless keyboard? I didn’t even know they made those.” Naturally, he’s a little behind the times (friar, vow of poverty), but that doesn’t stop the concept from being foreign to many people. An iPad-toting client of mine didn’t know that Bluetooth could be used to connect an iPad to a wireless keyboard, either (see “headset” equivocation above).

At any rate, that’s where we’re at. Bluetooth having effectively been relegated to another name for “headset”

The iPod Nano has the opportunity to become something so far beyond what it is right now. It can be a gateway to the information stored on an iPhone, a supplement to an iPad (remote control, keyfob, microphone, etc.), and, possibly even more importantly, a front-end for Siri. Naturally, the iPod Nano’s screen isn’t designed for displaying large amounts of information, but that doesn’t preclude it from being an information portal.

Smaller is…Smaller

When talk of an “iPad Mini” started swirling about, I immediately started thinking about the whole Steve Jobs “people don’t like these ‘tweener’ sizes for tablets” statement. Whenever he says that, you know that a product isn’t too very far away. The issue for Apple wasn’t creating a product in that size, but rather timing their entry into that size category. One of the things that I’ve noticed about a great deal of the other 7″ (ish) tablets on the market is that they lack anything truly compelling for me. I wouldn’t want a Kindle/Kindle Fire because its primary purpose is to read books purchased through Amazon.

The Nexus 7 was almost enough to get me on board until I used one. “Why would I spend any money on this?” I found myself asking over and over. The only truly compelling thing that I saw in the Nexus 7 was the NFC capability, but even that was a stretch. I need a product like that to be an iPad, but smaller, capable of all the things my iPad is capable of. I’m sure there are many people in the same boat.

I’ve been using the iPad to take notes, draw, read, and write since its introduction to the market. People tried to tell me that it wouldn’t be capable of much, and I would just quietly continue working, nodding as I continued to accomplish goals I set out for myself from the comfort of a tablet that I could use comfortably all day.

I knew there was one problem, though: it was too big (and not by much) for me to carry in my hoodie pocket. There were times that I only wanted to carry my tablet with me and nothing else, lack of charging equipment and extra tubes for my bike being reasonable things to forego in favor of a tablet that could slip easily into my back pocket. My iPad was literally a half inch too big, and I resigned myself to carrying the things I needed in addition to my wundertablet.

It was a hard life, I know, but I made it through. Thanks for your concern

Now, however, I feel like Apple is going to make a lot of people happy by creating a device that is perfectly capable of an absolutely ludicrous number of things (vis a vis other tablets), yet still has an extremely portable form factor (as though the iPad wasn’t portable enough).

Here’s the thing, though: Apple needed to time this whole thing. Releasing a 7″ (ish) tablet shortly after the iPad would have been great, and people would have really liked it, sure, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact that I believe it will have now. By releasing an “iPad Mini” now, Apple has allowed all the trash to sift itself out. Plenty of other companies have brought “me too” devices to market, and each has captured some small part of the iPad experience that people love, but left even more behind. Other companies thought that, if they could only have gotten that 7″ tablet to market first, that they would have ruled that space. The issue with that type of thinking is that it leads to sloppiness. Should this “iPad Mini” be released soon, it will be released with the entire weight of Apple behind it. It will have access to the iTunes store, it will have access to the App Store. All the apps that people have already purchased will be available on their device from day one. Their contacts and calendars will be synced through iCloud, and, while the same can be said for any Android tablet in that form factor, a person toting both Android and Apple devices would have to manage two devices with two different stores to shop from, two places to store their media, and no convenient way to slosh purchases around between devices.

With a device having a smaller screen size and profile, Apple will be making their signature store/device integration available in an even more portable form factor. The market will respond, and it will respond favorably.

Keep Your Friends Close

The last thing that I haven’t been hearing much about recently is NFC. Samsung released the Galaxy S III to a mediocre amount of fanfare, touting all of this NFC magic…but I have yet to see anything really interesting come out of it. I love the idea of NFC, but, like the Nexus 7, I see no one using it. I don’t see any stores with NFC tags on their doors, no restaurants with NFC tags on the tables to allow patrons to silence their phones and join their wifi with a single tap. None of this is real because I have a sneaking suspicion that Samsung has no idea what it’s doing. They put products on the market that have checkboxes in all the right places, but no real-world application of any of the things that those boxes relate to. Great job, Sammie, your phone has NFC! Does that honestly play a role in most people’s buying decisions? No, no it doesn’t. A friend of mine recently purchased a new GSIII and, when asked about the NFC feature, had no idea what I was talking about.

Truth be told, I’m not sure NFC will ever be a truly compelling technology, but I believe that, if it is, that Apple will do it right. They’ll do it right because they’re really the only company that can make something as obscure as NFC relevant enough to matter to the world. When the world’s most valuable company throws its weight behind something, you’re pretty safe betting that people are going to pay attention.

Now What?

All of this assumes a few things

    1. Apple is releasing a new iPod Nano.
    2. Apple is releasing an “iPad Mini”.
    3. The aforementioned products, in addition to the new iPhone, will contain NFC technology.

Those are a great deal of assumptions, but they all seem to make sense. I’m not one to start making assumptions and thinking that I’ve got it all right, but, based on what I’ve been seeing and, perhaps even more importantly, what I haven’t been seeing, I believe that all of these things are very close to reality.

I haven’t even touched on the possible integration with a refresh of the Apple TV, but I think that all those things are around the corner, as well.

It’s gonna be a helluva September

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Storing Sentience

When Siri was unveiled with the introduction of the iPhone 4S, there were a lot of very intrigued, very happy people. Already, in my usage of Siri with my new iPhone 4S, I find myself pleasantly surprised with the things I’m able to do, and how easy Siri makes so many of the things I’m used to doing. Naturally, there are some shortcomings. Since I use an unlocked 4S with the T-Mobile network, I’m relegated to EDGE when not on wi-fi (how was this speed ever acceptable?), and communication with Siri is woefully slow. I wish I had the scratch to pull off an AT&T subscription, but I just don’t right now.

This got me thinking, however. Since the 4S relies on a persistent, high-speed network to deliver results to the user, what happens when a person has a slow connection, or is in a wireless dead zone? The ability for Siri to function as an interface diminishes dramatically, leaving a person only able to interact with the data that is already on his or her phone. While this normally would not be a problem, anyone looking for Siri functionality in a wireless dead zone is going to be frustrated, period. Naturally, the last thing Apple wants is unhappy customers, so what can Apple do to circumvent this situation?

I found the answer in the iPod Shuffle.

This little device, as many know, is what one might call one of Apple’s lesser-loved projects. At the time of its inception, it filled a necessary void–that of a low-cost music player bearing the iconic Apple logo and “iPod” name. It was my first iPod, and, I’d wager, the first iPod for many others, as well. The problem with the iPod Shuffle, now, is it lacks features. It isn’t relevant anymore. When the shuffle was introduced, MP3 players, including the iPod Classic, were large and relatively bulky, and their battery life left something to be desired. The Shuffle had long battery life, was capable of syncing with iTunes, and offered people an interesting alternative to the blue-hued screens and click wheels of their larger cousins. The storage was all flash, which meant that it wasn’t prone to hard drive failures in the same way the iPod Classic was, and that it could play all day on a single charge.

Since the Shuffle lacked a screen, however, there was no way for a user to really know what was about to play. Apple solved this with their “VoiceOver” feature, which was able to announce the name of the playing track or playlist, or the remaining battery life. In order to do this, however, the user needs to give up some storage space on their device to make room for the VoiceOver data. For some, this is an easy tradeoff, since it adds a sense of depth to the diminutive device. Tuck that in the back of your mind for a moment.

It was recently discovered that the iPhone 4S contains a dedicated sound-processing chip that enables it to better separate your voice from background noise, which increases its ability to recognize what you’re saying before sending that data off to Siri for processing and language recognition. All this data being sent to Siri means that there are a great deal of sound snippets that Apple has at its disposal to refine and improve its voice-recognition and accuracy. The more people use Siri, the better it gets, and the better it gets, the more people use it. Eventually, I believe, Apple will be able to “distill” certain Siri queries down to their core components, picking out speech patterns and pull user voices away from background noises more easily. Furthermore, Apple will be able to condense certain components of Siri down to include that functionality on devices that don’t have a persistent wireless connection, and significantly speed up Siri queries on devices that do. Naturally, looking up restaurants on Yelp or finding out data from Wolfram is going to require a connection to the internet, but things like setting reminders, calendar appointments, taking notes, and playing music can all (theoretically) be done locally, without a persistent data connection. This would allow Apple to install Siri on all of its devices. When the device has a wireless connection, it would be able to upload usage statistics, and download changes to the onboard Siri database while doing its nightly iCloud backup.

Naturally, the user might have to sacrifice some storage space, but it would allow even the iPod shuffle to become a “personal computer”, with the ability to store notes, read emails, and access a user’s information in the cloud when a connection becomes available. Who knows? Apple may even negotiate a wireless deal with service providers that allow all its devices to connect to a Kindle WhisperNet-style “SiriNet” for free, for the purposes of communicating with the Siri servers.

Until we have ubiquitous worldwide wireless coverage, we can talk to the little Siri in our Shuffle.


When “Magical” Isn’t “Good Enough”

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The consumer electronics market is a tough field to navigate. On the one hand, you have amazing, magical devices for sale that have revolutionized industries, on the other, you have devices that aren’t those devices, but look like them, or may behave similarly, or provide an experience that is “not unlike” the real thing.

They’re “good enough.”

This is an interesting predicament.

Most people want the real thing. They’ve seen it and held it and talked to it and had a great experience with it. When it comes to price, however, they start to squirm.

“It costs how much?”
“I have to get the contract?”
“But what if I transfer from another carrier?”

Or, the killer:

“The guy at the other store told me that the other phones are open. And open is better.”

So, at some point, people start looking for this thing called “good enough”. Truth be told, it’s a pale shadow of what the real thing is, and it’s really not necessarily all that much cheaper, but it usually is cheaper, which makes people feel like they’re being thrifty and smart by not spending the extra $100 and getting the real thing.

I fell into that trap, too. You feel good about yourself for maybe all of a few days, until you realize you spent a lot of money for something that simply isn’t, well, real. It’s close, it’s almost there, but it’s not. Then you get a week into it, then a month, and soon you realize that this thing you’re using ever single day, something that you’re essentially integrating into part of your life, falls short. You purposely didn’t get the real thing in order to save a little money, but the gap widens as time increases. After a few months, you start to wish you had dropped the extra Benjamin and picked up something that will actually satisfy you, instead of something that leaves you perpetually empty.

One of the interesting trends this year (and highlighted by CES), as pointed out by many websites and commentators, is the rampant Apple-copying taking place. It has now become systemic. Manufacturers left and right are creating products to compete with Apple products that don’t even exist yet. Furthermore, they’re building software to match what Apple has in a way that will undeniably leave consumers saddened and confused.

What will happen when a person buys a rip-off Apple phone with a rip-off Siri voice interface that connects to a rip-off cloud service? They will, inevitably, feel ripped off. They’ll see people who actually considered the long-term cost of their purchase and feel resentful towards them, because they had the chance to buy something real and didn’t.

Take, for instance, this:

The consensus is competing voice control technology demonstrated at CES does not yet outperform Apple’s Siri, but the expectation is companies will continue to invest in the technology and result in great improvements in the years to come. Nuance, which licenses its voice recognition technology to Apple for Siri, said competing smartphones with improved speech technology will arrive in the fall of 2012, or one year after Apple launched the iPhone 4S.

The issue here is that these companies are reacting to Apple’s presence and innovative use of technologies that they may have disregarded for being too clunky. Instead of simply waiting for another company to come along and show them “how it’s done”, however, Apple decided to actually do something. Now that their competitors see how good it can be, they’re scrambling to put something on the market that people will also like.

But it’s not, however, the “real thing”, it’s “good enough”.

Now, people are going to start looking around, they’re going to see more of this voice-recognition and voice-control software out there, and they’re going to think “Siri? Who needs Siri? This is just as good as Siri!” Only it won’t be, and they’ll realize that after a few weeks of using it, they paid almost as much as their Apple-toting friends for something that’s not even close to what Siri can provide. Add to that the ability for Apple to continue to improve their software and Siri backend. Do you think Samsung is going to continue to improve their software for free? No, they’re going to include their speech recognition technology as a bullet point on a slideshow, to pay lip service to the consumer, to sucker them in. Then, when it’s time to sell more phones or tablets, include a new version of the speech recognition engine, weather the storm of insults and complaints, and collect money.

“Good enough” isn’t. Remember that.


The Revolution Will Be…Worn?

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Looking at the state of mobile technology today, it’s clear that the tablet form factor is the flavor of the week. A decade ago, however, the future of mobility looked a lot less like a clipboard and a lot more like a wristwatch.

For years, people were focused on wearing their computers. What is a thin, rectangular window to endless content now was a wrist-mounted portal to information then. The problem that designers always ended up getting stuck on, however, was the interface.

Designers tried to tackle this in a wearable computer concept, but the end result is still a mashup of the ideas of the last few decades and the fancy swirly graphics of today. The input method in the aforementioned concept (a swing-out keyboard? really?) is kludgy, at best, and the whole thing looks, well…huge. Would anyone actually wear that? No, no they wouldn’t because that sort of thing is a fashion nightmare.

Then there’s this one. Ouch. Really? I mean, sure this is military technology, so we’re not looking for haute couture here, but…I mean…really? This just won’t do.

The problem is that the input method for all of these concepts still involves directly interacting with the device, touching buttons, or tapping the screen with a tiny stylus. All of these options are unacceptable when it comes to wearable computing. A person cannot have devices oozing out of every pore and orifice just to get at a Wikipedia article. What they need is a device that is intuitive and simple, something that “just works”.

This is where it gets difficult.

Apple has already developed a powerful, revolutionary computing interface powered by speech. They call it Siri, and I’m sure that most people are familiar with it at this point. If not, the link should tell you everything you need to know. The bottom line is that it’s intuitive, and allows a person to perform almost every single task they usually need a computer to do with little else than a functional set of vocal cords. This powerful computing interface, however, requires a persistent connection to the internet to be able to send your voice to Siri, and to receive Siri’s reply. Furthermore, access to Siri’s beautiful mind is limited solely to owners of Apple’s iPhone 4S, at the moment.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Apple designs hardware. They also design software and build empires on their intuitive, simple interfaces. Siri is about as simple as you can get, but not everyone has the ability to talk to Siri, and there may be those who simply don’t want to purchase a new phone for the privilege. What if, however, access to Siri could be granted by wearing a watch? Apple’s design team could surely design a beautiful watch. What if this watch was actually a computer, however? Or, perhaps not a computer, but rather a gateway to this magical, intuitive, almost infinitely powerful computer? Follow me, child, the path to this potential future is an interesting one.

Apple has been doing a lot of work behind the scenes, as it usually does. It’s been chugging away at the internal components of the iPhone 4S, upgrading a little-loved part of the phone that may actually end up being the key to this whole new ecosystem that Apple has developed: Bluetooth 4.0. The main thing about the new Bluetooth 4.0 specification is that it allows for a very low-power state, which keeps certain communication avenues open while allowing others to close. This versatility means that a wrist-mounted “computer” doesn’t actually need to do any processing of its own, but requires a connection to a device that can. Furthermore, while previous iPhone models may not sport the swanky new Bluetooth 4.0-compatible chips, they can still perform admirably with normal Bluetooth connections. This opens up the possibility for previous iPhone models to access Siri through a special piece of hardware that piggybacks off of the existing iPhone data connection through Bluetooth in much the same manner a headset would.

The end result is that a person will be able to talk to Siri, but do so without any sort of visual feedback. Ultimately, this is the sort of interaction that Apple is going for anyway. The device doesn’t need a screen (but may have one like the iPod Nano) because the interface is completely invisible. Much like the iPod Shuffle’s tiny form factor that can still communicate with the user, the new “wearable computer” does not have to be anything more than a gateway. The magic of the iPod Shuffle is that it feels like it’s so much bigger. The power of the new wearable computer is not that it is super fast and spec’ed to the gills. The power is that it feels like the world is no more than a question away.

Dick Tracy would be jealous.