Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: Apple (page 1 of 7)

Google’s NYC Hurricane Sandy Map

From Google Maps: Hurricane Sandy: NYC

This is what I was talking about the other day when I talked about developing a capability in mapping. If Apple is going to catch up with Google in this area at all, they need more than a mobile app.

MG Seigler on the Apple difference

Apple’s Magic Is In The Turn, Not The Prestige

MG Siegler’s explanation of what makes the iPhone an extraordinary product. Put me in the group of people who thinks there’s an elegance to the fact that the new iPhone always looks a lot like the one you already have, but is better in many substantial ways. You get this massively different product that looks almost the same on the outside. I appreciate that.

And that’s what makes this so uncomfortable: Android’s and particularly Samsung’s copying of Apple was egregious and shameless, but since that itself is not illegal (and how could you even codify that as law?), then does settling for a victory over stuff that probably shouldn’t even be patentable count as a victory at all? Making things worse, the jury had the option of invalidating patents on both sides, and declined to do so on every count.

Chris Adamson in Bittersweet Ending

JC Penney and price shrouding

I, like many people, thought that when Ron Johnson left his job running Apple’s retail operation to take over JC Penney, he’d turn things around completely. Not long after he took the job, he promised to completely remake the department store experience. One of the biggest experiments he tried was completely bucking the industry trend when it comes to pricing.

In January, the New York Time ran an article explaining Johnson’s plan, which involved simplifying the pricing structure and eliminating most large sales and promotions relating to those sales. This sounded like a great idea to me. The idea of going into a store and buying things without wondering whether I could get a better discount later by gaming the system seemed like a relief.

Based on the early results, I was completely wrong. JC Penney’s since they changed their pricing model have been incredibly bad. MSNBC’s Bob Sullivan explains why, in an article about price shrouding. In short, people feel like they get a better deal when they’re playing the game. The open question remains whether JC Penney is suffering poor results now but will rebound once consumers better understand what they’re doing. I wouldn’t count on it.

I think the lesson here for any product designer is that we have to really understand human behavior when we’re making decisions that depend on it. The Apple Store sells products that cannot be purchased more cheaply anywhere else. Furthermore, Apple’s profits are roughly the same whether you buy an iPod at an Apple Store or you buy that iPod at Best Buy. JC Penney does not retain either of those advantages.

The most interesting feature in OS X Mountain Lion

Panic Software has a long post explaining code signing and Apple’s new Gatekeeper feature in OS X Mountain Lion. Gatekeeper provides a way for developers to digitally sign their applications, verifying their origin, and for those signatures to be revoked so that the applications cannot run any longer if they are shown to be compromised by malware. Users can decide for themselves whether they want to let their Mac run any application or only applications which have been signed. (Or only applications from the App Store, although I think you’d have to be crazy to do that.) What I find particularly interesting about this is that Apple had decided last year to implement much more draconian rules that would essentially force developers into the App Store by making that the only way that developers could distribute signed applications. Wil Shipley beseeched Apple to take another course and allow developers to sign apps themselves. Here’s the recommendation he made last November:

My suggestion is for Apple to provide certificates directly to developers and allow the developers to sign their own code. And, by doing this, Apple can then reasonably say, “Ok, now we’re going to, by default, not allow the user to run any code whose certificate wasn’t issued by us and signed by a real third-party developer (except the stuff the user checks in the control panel).”

Apple then has the power, if any app is found to be malware, to shut it down remotely, immediately. This is a power Apple doesn’t have now over malware, and that won’t come from more sandboxing or more code audits. I have shown the only way to achieve it is to require developers to sign their code with a certificate from Apple.

At the time, I read the post, linked to it, and thought that it made too much sense for Apple to do it. I was pleasantly surprised to see Apple take that advice.

Update: Nelson Minar reminds us that features like Gatekeeper require users to put a lot of trust in the gatekeeper. I think one reason people are happy about Gatekeeper is that it’s such a retreat from Apple’s previous untenable position.

Daniel Jalkut’s post on Gatekeeper is also worth reading. Gatekeeper is important because it’s a step back from Apple’s previous decision to essentially force developers to distribute their apps via the App Store. That was problematic because App Store apps will be required to operate within a very limited Sandbox. Daniel Jalkut argues that the next step for Apple should take is to greatly increase the rights granted to apps in the Sandbox. Even though Apple has climbed back from its stance that would force developers into the App Store (and Sandbox), it is still making some new features of the OS available only to apps that are distributed through the App Store, so it’s important that the Sandbox be flexible enough to satisfy as many independent developers as possible.

What kind of precedent does iBooks Author set?

There’s been a lot of talk about the licensing terms of iBook Author today. Apple’s new application for creating e-books is cheap, but books created with it can only be distributed through the App Store unless they are free. Gus Mueller wonders about the precedent this sets for Apple’s other tools:

I really hope Xcode doesn’t ship with the same restrictions some day. “Binaries created through Xcode can only be sold through the App Store, and you can’t charge more than $15.99”.

Apple is free to distribute its tools under any terms that it likes, what I am pondering is what authors should do.

As an author, I can say that this doesn’t seem fundamentally different from signing a contract with a publisher. If Publisher A agrees to publish my book, that usually means I can’t also let Publisher B publish it as well. When you use iBooks Author, Apple is your publisher. If you want to give it away for free, that’s fine, but you’re not going to be able to sell a Kindle version published using Apple’s tools.

That doesn’t strike me as horribly unreasonable. The big difference, though, is that if Publisher A publishes my book, it can be sold in any bookstore, online or offline. In the new electronic world, choosing a certain publisher means that you are also choosing only one channel of distribution. If you choose iBooks, you’re also constrained in terms of devices. There are Kindle apps for most platforms, but iBooks is iOS only. It’ll be interesting to see if going with iBooks turns out to be a better economic proposition for authors, or more precisely, to see which authors benefit from going with iBooks rather than Kindle.

It’s a lot to think about, in any case.

Apple is showing more concern about working conditions

Back in July, I argued that Apple’s labor costs should be higher. The company is very profitable, and it wouldn’t cut into their profits much to better compensate employees. This week, there have been a lot of developments on this front. Employees at a Foxconn factory in China threatened mass suicide if they were not given better pay. Also, Mike Daisey, who has travelled to China to observe working conditions there himself, appeared on This American Life to perform part of his one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Today, Apple has made some announcements that indicate it is taking more responsibility for labor conditions in its factories. They have released a full list of their suppliers along with a detailed report on working conditions in its factories. Apple has also joined the Fair Labor Association and will allow independent inspections of its factories. Hopefully other electronics makers will follow suit.

Addressing the issues Apple has found in its inspections will cost the company more money, but they can afford it. Here’s to them spending even more in the future. As an aside, I can’t help but wonder whether this is happening now because it’s something that’s more important to Tim Cook than it was to Steve Jobs.

The good and bad of the OS X sandbox

Lots of thoughtful posts are cropping up about the new restrictions Apple plans to implement for OS X applications that will be distributed through the App Store. The occasion is, I suppose, the news that Apple is pushing back the deadline for all applications distributed through the App Store to be Sandbox-compliant from the middle of this month to March 2012.

For a basic rundown of the new rules and what they mean, check out this post from Pauli Olavi Ojala.

For an argument that Apple could take a more realistic, less restrictive approach to securing applications, see Will Shipley. In it, he explains why entitlements and code auditing may be useful in theory, but certificates are a more straightforward solution:

But, in the real world, security exploits get discovered by users or researchers outside of Apple, and what’s important is having a fast response to security holes as they are discovered. Certificates give Apple this.

His proposed solution makes a lot of sense, I’d love to see Apple adopt it.

Ars Technica’s Infinite Loop blog has a useful post on the sandbox features in OS X Lion as well.

What’s responsible for Tivo’s decline?

Marco Arment speculates on what an Apple television might be. He talks about the beauty of on-demand television, and the fact that DVRs are a poor substitute:

Cable TV customers have attempted to gain these benefits with the DVR, but it’s a bad hack. Even the best results are more like an automated VCR than true on-demand video, and almost nobody reliably gets perfect results. The way to escape the dysfunction of broadcast TV isn’t to record it and play it back later.

I want to talk about this part of his post.

As a long term TiVo customer and reluctant user of a DVR provided by Time-Warner Cable, I agree with this. Here’s the thing, though. When TiVo arrived, it was incredibly disruptive. The ability to pause and rewind live television as well as easily record shows and watch them at your convenience was something completely new in the world. Even today, the DVRs provided by cable companies cannot compete with TiVo in terms of user interface.

TiVo’s original capabilities are particularly impressive when you consider the network infrastructure available when it was introduced. For a very long time, TiVo downloaded its guide data over a telephone line using a built-in modem overnight. Broadband wasn’t pervasive enough for TiVo to ship a product that could assume a persistent Internet connection.

I, and a lot of other people, thought TiVo would become a major player in the television industry, mainly because once people experienced television on a TiVo, they would never go back to watching television without it. I was right about that — once you’ve had a DVR, you can give up on TV, or you can shift to a fully on-demand lifestyle, but you can never go back to regular broadcast television. It’s too painful.

Sadly, TiVo has not been doing well for a long time. Here’a report from earlier this year describing TiVo’s shrinking subscriber base. The question is, why has TiVo performed so poorly given their entry into the market as an incredibly disruptive force?

I can think of a few reasons, not all of which are entirely TiVo’s fault.

TiVo’s biggest problem is that they were unable to successfully license its software to cable companies. Cable companies don’t build their own DVRs or write the software. For whatever reason, they have gotten into bed with companies that provide awful hardware with slow, difficult-to-use software. The remotes are terrible, the units are unresponsive, and the on-screen interfaces are embarrassing. TiVo’s software would have been infinitely better. Unfortunately, those licensing deals never happened. What the cable companies offer instead is good enough for most people. The inferior boxes from the cable companies cost less per month and you don’t have to buy the hardware yourself. Most people, given the choice of hundreds of dollars in up-front costs (TiVos cost less now) and upwards of $10 a month, will instead choose to just tack on $5 to their cable bill for the lesser but still functional DVR.

The second problem for TiVo is digital cable and switched digital video. TiVo was at its best when the box at the end of the cable line just needed an analog cable tuner in order to work. Then the instructions for the TiVo just involved plugging the coax into the back of the TiVo and giving it power. When digital cable arrived, you had to connect an IR transmitter to the TiVo so that it could change channels on the cable box your cable company provided. When HDTV became available, the government mandated that cable companies support a standard CableCard interface so that people could tune in HD channels on their televisions. Theoretically, this should have simplified things. TiVo added CableCard support, but the cable companies have never done a good job of supporting them, and in practice, getting a Tivo set up with CableCards has traditionally involved multiple phone calls with the cable company and often a home visit from cable technicians.

Finally, cable companies started using switched video, which requires even more intelligence in the client. My TiVo has two CableCards and a separate tuning adapter, which is required to tune in switched videos. The setup is very flaky and the TiVo fails to record shows on a regular basis. None of that is TiVo’s fault, nor is there much they can do about it. They are dependent on the cable companies, who are ambivalent if not actively hostile when it comes to supporting anything other than their own boxes. The complexity of the required setup has eaten away at the user experience TiVo provides. It was once rock solid and dead simple, but that’s no longer the case.

And the third problem is that TiVo missed the boat on video-on-demand. TiVo supports most of the popular on-demand video services now, but that’s a minimum requirement for anyone who wants to sell you something to connect to your television these days. Netflix, Hulu Plus, Apple, and Amazon.com are the ones making money from video-on-demand. Netflix captured a bunch of subscribers via DVD rentals and has been moving them to video-on-demand. Apple is selling on-demand video through iTunes, and Hulu has key deals with broadcasters. TiVo could perhaps be in a better position had they offered a service that provides downloadable videos (as many people thought they would) long ago, but it’s certainly too late now for them to become a player in that market on their own.

What’s interesting to me is that TiVo clearly saw that cable television was just a data stream that they could tap into in order to let people watch whatever they want on their own time. Before downloading high-quality video of television shows over the Internet on a regular basis was really feasible, tapping into the cable stream and picking what you wanted really was the best option available. I don’t know whether TiVo didn’t see that transmitting shows directly over the Internet was in the nearer future than they predicted, or they saw it but were unable to put the deals into place to become a player in the on-demand market, but their inability to do so perhaps cements their decline.

It really is a shame. I am still a happy TiVo subscriber, and it’s still much, much better than the alternatives if you want to watch cable programming. Services like Hulu Plus and Netflix Instant aren’t viable options if you want to watch sports, or Food TV, or plenty of other channels. But it’s hard not to look at TiVo and think about what might have been. In spite of all of the difficulties, they still offer the best product on the market. The TiVo Premiere Elite looks awesome. You should ask for one for Christmas.

Mike Daisey on Steve Jobs

I encourage you to read Mike Daisey’s New York Times op-ed eulogizing Steve Jobs. It is both tough and fair.

For what it’s worth, I think that Apple’s move toward a closed model of computing, which I have discussed before is justifiable as a technical choice. Is it what I would prefer? No. But it provides customers with both benefits and costs, and each of us can choose whether we think the tradeoffs are worth it.

The more damning indictment is that Steve Jobs failed to lead Apple to a more humane and fair labor arrangement when it comes to manufacturing its devices. I’ve written about that before as well. Apple generates huge amounts of cash — if they wanted to move all of their manufacturing to Long Island over the course of a decade, they could. Sure, it wouldn’t be easy, but it would be truly world changing. At a time when other technology companies are importing sweatshop conditions to America, it really would be a way to Think Different.

The death of Steve Jobs is, of course, sad, and is also notable. He is arguably the greatest businessman of his generation. If we’re going to dwell on it, it should be to reflect on which aspects of his legacy we should emulate and which we should discard.

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