Category Archives: Technology

Sweet Deal on an iPhone 4

Radio Shack has an amazing deal for people with older iPhone models that have passed the end of their service contract. If you’re in that category, here’s the deal:  you get $50 off a brand new 16GB iPhone 4 and a trade-in allowance for your old iPhone ($125 for the 3GS and $75 for the 3G).

My contract recently expired so today I traded in my two-year-old 3G and got a brand new iPhone 4 for $75. If you trade in a 3GS your price goes down to $25! It’s a great deal – the same upgrade at an Apple Store or an AT&T Store will run you $200.

Caveats:

  1. You need to be out of contract with AT&T – you can visit this link to see if you are eligible.
  2. The $50 off part expires on December 11 (no word on when the trade-in rebates expire).
  3. Supplies are limited –  I’d suggest calling ahead before making a trip to a store.

Apple Releases Facetime for Mac Beta

Today Apple announced the availability of a beta (i.e. pre-release, friendly user) version of their “facetime” app for the Mac. For those who haven’t heard of it, facetime is a feature that comes built into the iPhone 4, which lets you setup video calls, i.e. you see as well as speak to the other party and vice versa.

Over the past fifty years or so, many companies have tried and failed to introduce a video telephone. Computer-to-computer video calling has been available recently via Skype, Google Talk and other applications. The iPhone 4 added video calling on a cell phone, which is very cool but also very limited: you can only make video calls to other iPhone 4 users. The newly announced Mac version of Facetime expands the scope of this feature to include Mac-to-iPhone and Mac-to-Mac, in addition to iPhone-to-iPhone. Still, not everyone has a Mac and not everyone wants to use their computer to make calls so I wouldn’t call this a breakthrough but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

For those who want to try this out, here’s a summary of what I had to do to get it working, as well as a few pitfalls to avoid…

  1. Download free beta software here.
  2. After installing the software, start the facetime app. It will prompt you for an email address to register with your apple account. People who want to call you using facetime will use this email address, which makes sense – your computer doesn’t have a phone number, per se. This step will entail the usual round trip to your inbox, i.e. the service will send you an email, with a link you click on to verify your settings. This is Apple’s way of making sure the email address you provided is accurate.
  3. After registering my email address, I tried to make a call to my wife’s iPhone 4. I didn’t see any options to simply dial a phone number. The software requires you to click on a contact and I had no contact for my wife (!). Adding insult to injury, the software appears to provide no simple option for adding a contact. Realizing the software was accessing my native Mac address book (which explains why it’s empty, I manage all my contacts in gmail) I used the native Address Book app to add a contact for my wife’s iPhone.
  4. Once I added a contact for my wife, I was able to request a call but all such attempts failed with the message “called number not available for facetime”. Next I tried making a call from my wife’s iPhone to my Mac and found there was no way to specify an email address, only a phone number. Suspecting I needed a newer version of the iPhone software, I upgraded her phone to iOS 4.1 (using iTunes) and that did the trick. After that I was able to select email addresses when making iPhone calls so iOS 4.1 appears to be a requirement in order to call a Mac.
  5. At this point, I was able to make a video call from iPhone to Mac but I noticed that the incoming phone number was incorrect – it showed the original number assigned to the phone, not the one we ported over from Sprint. Fortunately, the solution was simple: on the iPhone 4, enter Settings->Phone and disable/re-enable the facetime feature. That causes the phone to “re-activate facetime” which causes facetime to adopt the new ported number.
  6. With that, I was able to initiate bi-directional audio+video calls in both directions with the correct phone number and email address displayed on each end. That’s where I stopped – I haven’t tried Mac-to-Mac calls yet.

After some additional experimentation, I found the Mac side to be a bit flaky (I guess that’s why they call it beta). In particular, I would occasionally get into the ringing state but would be unable to connect the call after answering on either side. A work-around for me was to logout, and then re-login on the Mac side.

Bottom line: nothing revolutionary here (and a mild amount of pain to get everything working) but a small step forward toward cheap, rich, ubiquitous communication technology.

The Six Month iPad Review

The hype over the iPad has finally died down. As far as I can tell, the print media has not gone the way of the dinosaur (at least not yet), and the media and communications industries have not been reborn. However, some pretty significant things have happened:

  1. In its initial rollout, the iPad outsold the iPhone, which is no mean feat.
  2. Apple is on target to sell 10 million iPads this year.
  3. On May 27, Apple eclipsed Microsoft to become the world’s most highly valued technology company.
  4. Every major player in the computer industry is scrambling to release a tablet computer as soon as possible.

By just about any measure, the iPad is a huge success and the computer industry is now adapting to the first major new computer paradigm in many years.

Back in April, I wrote The Five Minute iPad Review based on some limited tinkering with an iPad in an Apple Store. My assessment then was quite positive but, due to the price tag, I didn’t expect to buy one for some time. Later that month, I was delighted to receive an iPad for my 50th birthday:


Now, six months later, I’d like to share another assessment, one based on extensive hands-on experience.

Good

First of all, I use my iPad every day. That alone is significant – many tech products are fun to use for a few weeks but ultimately end up in a drawer or a closet. The very fact that, six months after obtaining it, I continue to actively use this device day in and day out tells you something about its utility.

My primary use is reading books, browsing the web, listening to music and watching movies at night in bed. Because of the backlit display and earphones, I’m able to do all those things with the lights off and without disturbing my wife. Before I had an iPad, I spent my late evenings sitting in front of my computer. Now I can be horizontal, which is much more relaxing and conducive to drifting off to sleep. As a result, I tend to fall asleep earlier than I used to and I have developed a more regular sleep cycle. So, in an indirect sort of way, the iPad has actually helped improve my health, which is a surprising result for an electronic gadget.

Some people claim that, unlike e-book readers which are optimized for the book reading experience, the general purpose iPad is not up to the challenge of extended reading sessions. With one notable exception (see below), I have no trouble reading the iPad, in dark or light conditions, for hours on end. For me, it’s just as comfortable as reading a book, except that I don’t need one of those annoying clip-on book lights when reading in the dark.

The user interface is fantastic. Browsing the web is very pleasant on this device. The display is very crisp and clear. Touching the screen to visit a hyperlink is the most natural user interface imaginable. Movies look amazing on this device. The built-in speaker is larger and much better sounding than that of an iPhone (admittedly, a low bar).

The iPad is great for consuming information but not so good for creating information. In other words, if you want to read/watch/listen, you’ll be a happy camper but don’t expect to use it to create/write/produce anything – while the keyboard is worlds better than the iPhone keyboard, it’s nowhere near as comfortable as a laptop or desktop computer keyboard.

So-So

The display screen seems to get extremely smudgy, very quickly. This comes with the territory with any touch screen device but, for some reason, iPads seems to accumulate and show the smudges more than iPhones and other touch screen devices I’ve used. This is easily remedied by occasional screen wiping so it’s not a big deal, just that the frequency with which you need to clean the screen can be a minor annoyance.

The iPad screen can be difficult to read in direct sunlight. I’ve read this is an area where the Kindle excels (JeffB – I’d be all too happy to review a Kindle if you’d care to send one my way). This is only a minor problem for me because I rarely need to use my iPad outdoors but on those occasions when I do, this can be frustrating.

The battery life could be better. Based on my typical usage pattern, I find that I need to recharge every 2-3 days or so which is a little too frequent for my taste. Often I find the battery is very low just when I want to use it. It’s not fatal but it could be better. I hear this is another area where the Kindle does much better.

Bad

I’m continually annoyed by the lack of support for Flash. Steve Jobs may have lots of good technical reasons (I’ve read his article) but none of that really matters to end users – all I know is lots of websites that work fine on every other computer I own don’t work properly on my iPad.

I’ve noticed that using my iPad when I first wake up in the morning leads to a condition I call MIHS – Morning iPad Headache Syndrome. For some reason, this only happens to me in the morning – I can use the device in the afternoon or evening for hours on end with no ill effects but there’s something about my morning brain which doesn’t react well to the iPad display. This is not a big problem for me because I am principally a night time iPad user, however, on several occasions when I’ve tried using it in the morning I’ve consistently experienced this problem. It’s not a brain-smashing migraine, just a mild headache but not a great way to start your day.

Summary

I suspect there are going to be quite a few iPads under the Christmas trees and Hanukkah bushes this year, as there should be – it’s a great device. I can wholeheartedly recommend it for people who want to consume media in a more relaxed way (e.g. in bed, on the couch) than sitting in front of a desk or with a hot, heavy notebook computer on your lap. For anyone wanting to use this device extensively in the morning, I would suggest trying an iPad for a morning or two to make sure you don’t suffer from my Morning iPad Headache Syndrome.

Song of the Day #84 – Garage Band & Me

It’s taken me almost a year since I bought my iMac but I finally got around to learning how to use Garage Band – wow, what an awesome program! The best part for me is you plug an electric guitar into your Mac and you can generate all sorts of cool guitar effects. To play around with this a bit, I improvised a short song, which you can listen to here:

What you’re hearing is three separate tracks:

  1. a drum track, which is entirely synthesized by the computer
  2. a rhythm guitar track, which is me playing a simple four chord sequence repeatedly
  3. a lead guitar track, which is me improvising, with a fuzzy Seattle-style grunge effect added

I think this is one reason why artists love Macs so much – I was amazed at how easy it was to produce a multi-track recording with special effects and computer generated percussion, using only software that came with my iMac and one real instrument (a cheap electric guitar).

iPhone to be Available from Verizon in Early 2011

Apple cut themselves a financially sweet deal when, back in 2007, they agreed to make AT&T the sole service provider for the iPhone:

The original Apple/AT&T revenue deal was so unfavorable to AT&T that only a half-dozen other carriers in the world would agree to Apple’s terms. Remember, Apple always prefers to take profit over market share. (source)

Today, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Apple has reached an agreement to give a forthcoming version of the iPhone to AT&T’s arch-rival Verizon Wireless. Why would Apple suddenly change their mind? Lately, (Google’s smart phone software) Android has been outselling the iPhone. Android is carrier agnostic, which has a lot to do with its success. If this report is true, Android has now officially gotten Apple’s attention in a big way.

Song of the Day #70 – Igor Presnyakov

One of the things I love most about Youtube, and the Internet in general, is the way it tends to level the playing field – anyone with a video camera can create and share their art with the rest of the world. And if it’s good, people will watch – today’s artist’s five most popular videos have been viewed, collectively, over 7 million times. You no longer need a contract with a big media company in order to share your music on a grand scale. I think (and I hope) this is leading to a world in which we have the ability to find and enjoy more of the artists we like best and we’re less dependent on major corporations to tell us who we should be listening to.

Igor Presnyakov is a classically trained musician, originally from Russia and now living in the Netherlands, who has recorded some wonderful solo guitar arrangements of popular songs. Enjoy this stunning performance of a beautiful song: Mark Knopfler‘s Brothers in Arms.

Bonus video: here’s Igor’s most popular video: an amazing solo guitar arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Beat It.

Amazon Pulls the Plug on Review Data

I just got word this morning that, as of November 8, developers will no longer have direct API access to the Amazon ratings and review information (the “Reviews response group” in Amazon’s API parlance). In one fell swoop, this kills my AmaZoom search engine. I’m guessing there are a few other sites out there that will suffer similarly. There’s no mention in the attached email as to a rationale:

Dear Product Advertising API Developer,

On November 8, 2010 the Reviews response group of the Product Advertising API will no longer return customer reviews content and instead will return a link to customer reviews content hosted on Amazon.com. You will be able to display customer reviews on your site using that link. Please refer to the Product Advertising API Developer guide found here for more details. The Reviews response group will continue to function as before until November 8 and the new link to customer reviews is available to you now through the Product Advertising API as well.

Thank you for advertising products for sale on Amazon.com.

Sincerely,

The Product Advertising API Team

I probably signed away several thousand rights when I clicked on “Agree” to join the Amazon Associates program so I suspect they are well within their rights to discontinue this service. Nevertheless, it does seems a bit unfair of them to entice developers with a powerful, open API and then disable a major component. They might argue they’re not “disabling” access to reviews, but rather changing to an indirect model (after Nov 8 they’ll provide a URL to their own hosting of review content). But for sites like mine, which add value by selectively mining the best reviewed products, this change from direct to indirect access effectively makes their review data (and our services) completely unusable.

The English Language is Doomed

While perusing used guitar ads on Craigslist today, I came across the following masterpiece:

this is my first guitar it still works awsome but i have to many so i half to let it go. it is not perfect but it plays it is a great beginer guitar so let me know if you are interested i might be interested in some sort of trade depending on what you got so shoot me a email.

What’s amazing about this advertisement is that it breaks so many rules in just two sentences. I count 13 errors in all. How many did you spot?

Sometimes I wonder if texting, twitter and facebook are making us dumber or if we were already dumb and social media give us new ways to demonstrate it.

A Better Way to Search Amazon.com

Which Beatles’ album is the one best loved by fans? I’ll answer that question below in a new and unique way, but first a brief detour…

A few months ago I wrote an article (A Killer Feature for Amazon.com) about how much I love Amazon.com and its gazillion product reviews but, at the same time, how difficult it can be to take advantage of all that useful information.  An example may help to illustrate the problem…let’s say you’re looking for a cordless phone so you search amazon with the keywords “cordless phone”. By default, you get a bunch of hits (as of today, 31,256 hits!), sorted by relevance, but what you really want to know is “which is the best cordless phone?”.

Of course, “best” is a subjective term but one useful definition is “which of my search results has the highest average rating”? OK, we can do that – Amazon lets you sort your results by average customer rating but when you do that, you get page after page of hits with high average ratings based on a low number of reviews. It’s not very interesting to know that three people gave a product a perfect 5 star rating – I want to know which product got high ratings from hundreds or thousands of people. If you multiply the (normalized) average rating by the number of ratings you get a kind of overall quality factor, which leads you directly to the best reviewed products. In the case of our cordless phone search, the product with the highest “quality factor” was found eight pages into the Amazon results!

With this problem in mind, I’ve devised a specialized search engine I call AmaZoom (because it helps you zoom in on the best products). You can try AmaZoom yourself here.

In addition to helping you find good products, it answers some interesting questions, like the one I posed above about the best reviewed Beatles album. It turns out to be a close call but, as of today, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” barely edges out “Abbey Road”. For completeness, here’s a screenshot showing the top ten best reviewed Beatles albums on amazon.com:

So now you know which Beatles album is, in some sense, the best loved of all time, courtesy of thousands of amazon customers. But more than that, thanks to amazon’s vast repository of product reviews and “the wisdom of crowds”, you now have an easy way to find the best reviewed products in the world’s largest department store.

Why I Won’t Buy Music From iTunes

Have you ever purchased music from iTunes and tried to save it to a non-Apple MP3 player? Trust me, it’s no fun. The iTunes software won’t let you do that, presumably because Apple wants you to play your music on an iPod. But once I buy a song, shouldn’t I be able to listen to it on any player I like?

Have you ever tried to play an iTunes file on another computer? That won’t work either. The reason is that the music in iTunes is encoded with something called DRM (Digital Rights Management), which is designed to prevent unauthorized copying of purchased music. It is possible to get unprotected music, but only in a format called AAC, which is much less widely supported than the industry standard MP3 format. Again, once I’ve purchased a song, shouldn’t I be able to listen to it on any computer?

I spend a non-trivial amount of my time and money on music and I don’t like the fact that Apple tries to limit what I can do with my music. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: Amazon.com’s MP3 store is the best way to buy digital music. When you download a track from Amazon it comes to your computer in pure, unadulterated MP3 format. You can copy it freely, in open MP3 format, to a memory stick, another computer or any other device you like. And you can listen to it on any MP3 player on the planet. Amazon’s catalog and prices are competitive with iTunes so there’s really no reason not to use Amazon. Here’s an excellent comparison of the two music stores, courtesy of the venerable tech review site cnet.com.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of Apple products. I have an iMac, an iPhone and an iPad and I love them all, however, until Apple does a better job giving me my music the way I want it, I’m sticking with Amazon’s music store.

By the way, today Apple surpassed Microsoft as the world’s most valuable technology company. For most of my life Apple has been a perennial underdog in the computer business. Their recent rise to the top of the heap is an amazing success story. Coincidentally, just yesterday the US Department of Justice announced an investigation into Apple’s potential anti-competitive practices in their iTunes music store. Ironically, after nipping at Microsoft’s heels for decades, in certain ways Apple is beginning to resemble it’s long-time rival.

Why Facebook is Completely Wrong, Part 2

In my last post I bemoaned the monolithic Facebook design and extolled the virtues of having an open, generic social networking platform, usable by any application or service provider. Shortly after writing that post, I happened upon this article about four young programmers attempting to build something very much like what I had in mind for “socialgraph.org”. They call their creation Diaspora* and you can read all about it here. I wish them luck!

Some readers weren’t entirely sure what I meant by the term “social graph” — I was referring to the data about you, your friends, and most importantly, the connections between people, which, in computer science terms, is represented by something called a directed graph, hence the term “social graph”.

One of the most frustrating things about the social graph is that you have to keep re-creating it over and over again. When I signed up for linkedin.com, I had to search for people I knew and build connections with them over time. Then I tried Facebook, where I got to do it all over again. Next I tried Twitter and I began to feel a profound sense of deja vu — why can’t I build my social network *once* such that any application I want to use can take advantage of that information? The reason you have to keep rebuilding your network is monoliths. Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace — they’re all monolithic services, which include their own private social graph. This, in my opinion, is the biggest problem with the current generation of social networking apps.

Above and beyond the hassle of continually rebuilding your social network is the protection of your data. On that subject, this excellent page, on the evolution of Facebook privacy, graphically and vividly illustrates how poorly Facebook has done protecting its user data over the years.

Why Facebook is Completely Wrong

It dawned on me today that  one of the most popular web sites on earth is improperly designed at the most fundamental level. Yup, Facebook is conceptually all wrong and in this post, I’ll explain why.

In order to justify the bold claim above, I need to review a quick bit of history. Let’s set the way back machine to the late 80s, in the days before the internet became the ubiquitous mother-of-all-networks it is today. Back in those days, computer networks were viewed as monolithic products:  network software came with the network infrastructure (protocols, etc.) AND the applications, all bundled together. The most popular product of this generation was Novell Netware, which at one time claimed 90% of the market share for computer networking software. Anyone used Netware lately? What made a product that owned 90% of the market virtually disappear in the blink of an eye?

The reason Netware failed is because a much better infrastructure (the internet) emerged, which was:

  • more open because it used standards based protocols, whereas Netware required the use of Novell’s proprietary protocols
  • more ubiquitous because it could by used by anyone, anywhere, whereas Netware was targeted to business users
  • more flexible because it worked with lots of applications, whereas Netware limited the set of available applications
  • and most important of all:  the internet was owned by no one, so no one party got to control it

The internet gradually chipped away at Netware’s dominance and in the mid-90s it really blew up with widespread use of the most successful app of all time: the World Wide Web. Some companies, like Cisco, Sun and Microsoft anticipated and exploited this sea change. Others, like Novell, desperately clung to their proprietary and monolithic vision of computer networking.

Why didn’t Novell adapt? Why didn’t they modify their software to embrace the internet protocols? My guess is that Novell rightly understood that the lion’s share of their investment and value was embedded in their network infrastructure and protocols. Unfortunately for them, the most strategic piece of their portfolio was precisely that which was replaced by the internet.

Ok, fast forward back to 2010. Facebook’s user base is growing exponentially. Even your grandmother is posting stuff on your wall. But take a closer look at what Facebook really is: it’s a monolith, just like Netware. It’s part infrastructure (the so-called “social graph”) and part application. And just like Novell in the 80s, Facebook wants to own both pieces.

In another parallel with Novell, Facebook’s real value is tied to their infrastructure, the social graph. Facebook, the application, is a nightmare. Yet despite the interface annoyances, dictatorial policy changes and security headaches, we all keep coming back like moths to a flame. The reason we keep returning is that we need access to that social graph. We need to communicate with our friends and loved ones. As long as Facebook owns that infrastructure, we’ll keep using their crummy app. If you want to access that social data, there are no alternatives; there is no competition.

Now let’s imagine a different world: one with a clean separation between social networking applications and infrastructure. Imagine a non-profit organization (sort of like the group that oversees internet engineering) that maintains the social graph. Let’s call this entity socialgraph.org (a made-up name, although I suspect that domain name is already taken). Imagine this group provides a repository of social information along with secure programmable interfaces (APIs) to access that data. Imagine complete and user-friendly control over who, when, where, how and with whom your social data is shared. Imagine policies that don’t change without your consent.

I contend that this organization would do a much better job of managing and protecting our data than Facebook does, for one simple reason:

  • This organization would care only about the social graph. It would not care about applications, user interfaces, acquisitions, revenue, ads, subscriber base or any of the other business concerns that drive Facebook’s policy makers. The top (and really, the only) priority of this organization would be to maintain and protect your, my and our social data.

This new world creates an ecosystem where social applications can flourish. Don’t like that Facebook UI? Try this new one I just read about. Don’t like having to maintain separate data for Facebook and Twitter? No need to do that any more – those and all other social networking apps feed off of  a common infrastructure. Got a great idea for a new social networking app? You can make your idea a reality by leveraging the common infrastructure.

Who wins in this world? We do – we get more services and more innovation and we get to choose the apps we want, with the services we like best, at the lowest price we can find, all tied into the social data we care about.

Who loses in this world? Facebook. Did you read about (or experience) the recent push to integrate facebook into every website in the free world? This is Facebook’s way of saying “we know we’re not going to build a lasting, winning business model with our app – our real value is tied to our social graph so we’re going to try to embed that infrastructure everywhere”. In essence, Facebooks wants to establish their social graph as the de facto standard.

In the late 80s, the roots of the internet tsunami were already well  underway – Novell was doomed and didn’t know it yet. But at the current time there is no obvious contender to replace Facebook’s social graph. It may already be too late. But wouldn’t it be great if some enterprising person or team created socialgraph.org and everyone joined it?  How awesome would it be to “take back our own data”? At the end of the day, this is our data, it represents who we are and who we care about, and it should be owned and managed by an entity whose top priority is keeping it safe, secure, reliable and easy to manage. I don’t know about you but my recent experiences with Facebook suggest that’s not their top priority.

The Five Minute iPad Review

I was headed to Jamba Juice last night to pick up a smoothie for my sick daughter (ok, I really wanted one too) and there happens to be an Apple Store about 100 feet away so I ducked in for a quick play with an iPad. Everyone seems to have an opinion about this device but it really helps to pick one up and try it out for yourself. Here are my findings based on five minutes of experimentation…

The Good

  • Beautiful, crisp display. Seems like a perfect personal video viewing device (e.g. watching a movie in flight or in bed).
  • Very nice web browsing experience – nothing beats clicking, scrolling and zooming by touching the screen.
  • The book reader seems quite nice. Very readable text and cute touch-driven page turning animation. With the backlit display, it looks great for one of my needs – reading in bed at night after the lights are out.
  • Email is much more usable compared with the iPhone. You get a list of message headers and a separate message preview window.
  • In landscape mode, the soft keyboard is pleasant to use (the cramped keyboard is easily my biggest problem with the iPhone) and you can type fast with two hands. It’s almost, but not quite, as good as a real physical keyboard.

The Bad

  • As noted in David Pogue’s excellent review, it’s a bit heavy. After holding it upright for a few minutes, you feel it. Although that may not be a problem when it’s on your lap (I was standing up, which is probably not the typical usage scenario).
  • I tried searching for something I actually wanted to know at the moment (“Jamba Juice hours”), but this failed because Jamba’s location finder page requires Flash, which Apple refuses to support. For a device that is marketed as the best web browsing experience ever, this is inexcusable. The good news is that if Apple ever changes this policy, it should be a software-only fix.
  • The iPad has the same uni-tasking user interface as the iPhone, which feels a bit constrained and simplistic to me. On the other hand, it’s also extremely simple, which makes life easier for non-power users. This video, which records the first meeting between a two-year-old and an iPad, makes a good case for its simple and intuitive user interface.

I understand some people are waiting for the more expensive 3G version (which will work with AT&T’s data network) coming later this month. Personally, I think that’s a waste of money – I don’t see this as much of a mobile device. Due to its size, it’s hard to imagine carrying it around with me, except when traveling long distances, in which case I can usually find a free or cheap wi-fi service.

In my opinion, the iPad doesn’t have any essential functionality that can’t be accomplished with other technologies. Rather, like the iPhone, it’s value is that it packages so many useful functions into one device with a unique and compelling user interface. In my book, that makes it a luxury product. The problem is that $499 is not a luxury price.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good price for all that functionality but I think it needs to come down a bit to attract a wider audience. That’s exactly what happened with the iPhone. In June 2007, the original iPhone cost $499 at launch. One year later (June 2008) Apple offered a higher functioning model (the iPhone 3G) for $199. I bought the iPhone 3G in late 2008 so I had to wait over a year to get my hands on one but by doing so a) I got a much better performing product and b) I saved $300.

The Bottom Line

I love the product but I don’t love the price. I’ll probably wait a year or so and see if I can get a better iPad at a better price. In the meantime, I’ll have to deal with a serious case of iPad envy.

The Coolest App Ever is Coming to an Apple iPad

The internet is abuzz over tomorrow’s unveiling of Apple’s new iPad computer. Will it be a game changer like the iPhone? Or just another overhyped misfire like the infamous Newton? Without knowing any facts (that’s never stopped me before), I think it’s going to have a very big impact. I’ll explain why in this article.

Amazon’s Kindle is a very cool product. It let’s you store your entire library in one device. It has a great, book-like user interface, optimized for reading, with an amazing battery life. And Amazon came up with a very clever way of implementing the wireless function so that you aren’t required to have a service contract with a wireless carrier. Got that? You buy a Kindle and it does its thing over the air with a ubiquitous network and you don’t need to sign up with Verizon or AT&T or anybody and you don’t have to shell out $75 dollars every month for wireless service. For people like me who love reading books, it’s a killer product with a killer service concept.

So you might ask, if it’s so great, why don’t I own one? The answer is simple: Kindle is a single purpose device. It’s really, really great for reading books and newspapers and magazines. But if you want to surf the web or play a game or do your taxes or watch a video, no can do. It’s a bit like buying a computer that only does spreadsheets.

Which brings me to the Apple iPad. Although the details are top secret, it seems reasonable to assume it will look like an iPhone scaled up to a bit larger than a Kindle, which has a 6″ screen. It will likely have the iPhone physical design with a beautiful, big, bright multi-touch screen. It will undoubtedly have WiFi and 3G connectivity so you’ll have internet access everywhere, just like you do with an iPhone. It will store music like a jumbo iPod. It will run iPhone apps natively and will spawn a whole new breed of apps specially designed to take advantage of this device’s unique hardware. And, of course, it will let you find, purchase, download, store and consume all kinds of media: newspapers, magazines, books, TV shows, movies and all sorts of new “hybrid media” combining elements of all of the above.

It will probably not be as perfect for reading as the Kindle, which uses a special technology called E Ink that is optimized for reading and low power consumption, but I suspect you’ll get very reasonable reading functionality and you’ll also have a general purpose computing device with the ability to run the 100,000+ apps now available in Apple’s app store. Still not sure how useful this will be? Here are a few scenarios that I find compelling:

  • I’m a night owl but my wife goes to bed early and likes the lights out so I have to sit in another room to read or surf the web at my desk. I would love to be able to read a book or surf the web in bed without disturbing my wife. Yes, I can do that with my iPhone but the screen is too small. Yes, I can do that with my laptop but it’s too big, too heavy and too hot.
  • Have you ever watched a movie on a iPhone or iPod Touch? It’s ok for a short youtube video but for anything substantial, the screen is just too small. I think this device will have the perfect size, weight and screen to serve as a
    personal video/TV viewing device.
  • Have you ever watched a movie on a iPhone or iPod Touch? It’s ok for a short youtube video but for anything substantial, the screen is just too small. I think this device will have the perfect size, weight and screen to serve as a
    personal video/TV viewing device.

And, finally, I will now reveal the coolest app ever…imagine a classroom in which each student has one of these iPads. All of those big heavy textbooks we used to have to lug around in our backpacks are now a bunch of bits inside your iPad. And those textbooks are retooled to incorporate audio and video and interactive features like end of chapter quizzes that tell you how well you are understanding the material. And there’s no blackboard in this classroom. Thanks to integrated WiFi, everything the teacher writes is automatically and instantly transmitted to all the students’ iPads where they have a complete record of the audio, video and whiteboard. Guess what? No more note taking; instead of spending your energy transcribing what the teacher is saying, you can focus on listening and learning the material.

I’ve been thinking about this app (really a family of apps) for a long time – I’ve always been interested in harnessing technology to enhance eduction. Until now there really was no viable hardware platform at a reasonable price point on which to realize this vision. If I’m right about Apple’s upcoming announcement, I think that will change tomorrow. We’ll see.

A Killer Feature For Amazon.com

Dear Amazon.com,

Nothing beats the convenience of browsing your huge catalog from home, reading reviews and seeing what people think about my prospective purchases, ordering something online and having it suddenly materialize at my door two days later. Thanks to you, I get a little buzz every time I hear a UPS truck. But there’s one feature I really wish you would add.

When searching for a product, if I select a department (like books or electronics), you give me the ability to sort the search results in various ways, like relevance and price. I really like sorting on the average customer rating (1-5 stars), because it gives me a sense of which products are best reviewed.

Here’s the problem: the value of a high average rating is proportional to the number of people who’ve rated the product. One thousand 5 star ratings are a lot more significant than one top rating. If my search happens to be somewhat broad (e.g. “bluetooth headsets”) I can easily generate several hundred hits and the highest rated hits are going to be a bunch of questionable products that happen to enjoy perfect 5 star ratings because exactly one person really, really liked them. But due to the nature of statistics, the bell curve, etc., any product with a lot of reviews will have a less than perfect average rating and will be found several pages down the list. Which means I have to tediously click and scan my way to the good stuff.

So, please consider this simple enhancement, for each product in your catalog:

  1. Take the average number of stars and subtract 2.5 (to normalize the rating around zero).
  2. Multiply the result of the last step by the number of people who rated the product.
  3. Store the resulting number in your database and make it visible (and sortable) to customers. Call it the “customer quality factor” (CQF) or some snazzy marketing term.

With the feature above, if one person rates a book 5 stars, it’ll have a CQF of 2.5. But if 1,000 people give a book 4.5 stars, it’ll have a CQF of 2,000! Negative numbers indicate a below average rating and a large negative CQF means a lot of people gave it a rating below 2.5 stars.

This enhancement would make the highly AND widely reviewed items stand out. It would make it easy for your customers to find your best reviewed products without spending their time scanning page after page of search hits. Using this data, Amazon.com could automatically generate “best rated” lists of products in various categories. I wonder which ten books and CDs in your catalog currently enjoy the highest CQF. Hmmm…

Please, Amazon.com, implement this one feature and make an old friend really happy.

Yours truly,

Marc Cohen

Trace the Source of Junk Mail (and Spam)

Have you ever wondered how you got signed up for all the junk mail you receive? I’m talking about old fashioned junk mail delivered by the postal service. Oftentimes, it’s those magazine subscriptions and other services you voluntarily sign up for. They don’t tell you they’re going to sell your name and address to bulk mail services (or perhaps they tell you in the fifteen pages of unreadable legalese you have to accept in order to finalize a transaction). In addition to the annoyance of going through all the extra mail, delivering all that useless stuff is a real waste of paper and energy.

A few years ago my wife came up with a cute idea for tracking this stuff. Whenever you sign up for a new service, like a magazine subscription, in the customer name field, enter your real last name but a first name that indicates the company you’re doing business with. For example, when I lived in the New York area, my New York Times subscription was under the name “Nytimes Cohen”. Yesterday I received a piece of junk mail addressed to “Atlantic Cohen”, which tells me The Atlantic magazine sold me out.

I’ve extended this idea into the email/spam realm. We have a family domain (mkcohen.com), which I use for my email address. I have setup a rule which forwards “marc at mkcohen.com” to my current email account. This way I have one email address for my entire life. If I change my email provider, I simply adjust my forwarding rule. Here’s the tie-in with spam detection: I also have a default routing rule which says “anything at mkcohen.com” should be routed to my main email account. So when I sign up for a new web service, I use a name that reflects the business providing the service. For example, my facebook account is setup with email address “facebook at mkcohen.com”. It’s the same trick, applied to the email address instead of the name.

Neither of these tricks will stop the initial flow of junk mail but they can give you some insight into the source of the problem. And if it bothers you enough, you’ll know who to contact in order to put a stop to it.

Google/Verizon Announcement Changes Everything

With its amazing combination of features and vast array of low cost applications, the iPhone has been a game changer – it’s been hugely profitable for Apple and has helped AT&T substantially expand its subscriber base. But due to an exclusivity agreement between the two companies, AT&T has been the only game in town for iPhone users. With a relatively quiet announcement from Google yesterday, the playing field for smart phones has shifted dramatically.

In 2008 google announced an open software platform, called Android, for use in smart phones like the iPhone. Android competes with Apple’s iPhone software because it provides an operating system or software core for smart, location aware touch screen mobile applications. But Google’s strategy also differs from Apple’s in some important ways:

  • The iPhone software is “open” in the sense that developers are encouraged to create their own applications, but Android is more open in the sense that the platform itself is available for inspection and modification.
  • Whereas the iPhone software is tied to a particular piece of hardware (the iPhone :), Android is hardware independent and is therefore portable to any mobile device.
  • The Android platform is available to all phone manufacturers and all service providers.

Thus, it’s easy to imagine a new generation of smart phones, provided by multiple service providers, all built on Android and competing purely on the basis of price, services, and applications.

At the end of 2008, I took a close look at Android but at the time there was only one phone available (the G-1) and it was available from only one carrier (T-Mobile). Yesterday’s announcement changes all that – the largest US carrier, Verizon Wireless, announced plans to deliver two new Android phones by the end of this year. Sprint has also announced a new Android phone to be available October 11 and T-Mobile has had one for over a year.

That makes three of the four major US carriers (basically everyone but AT&T) that have now committed to making Android phones available on their networks. Verizon also one-upped Apple/AT&T by announcing willingness to support Google voice, which would allow users to make free calls via the internet, bypassing their cellular voice network:

Verizon signaled its commitment to opening up its network by pledging to support Google Voice, a program that allows users to route their calls to one Google number and also receive advanced phone features all for free. AT&T and Apple set off a government inquiry earlier this summer when the same app was rejected from the iPhone App Store.

Don’t get me wrong – the iPhone is a once in a lifetime, killer product and it’s not going away any time soon. The main problem with the iPhone is not technical – it’s political in that it limits competition and flexibility. No one but Apple can see or modify the core software. No one but Apple can sell devices that run the iPhone software. And no one but AT&T can provide the voice and data services for the iPhone. The promise of Android is to knock down those barriers so that people can use the best software on any hardware with any carrier – isn’t that how it should be?

The New iPhone 3G S – Apple does it again!

So Apple announced their new iPhone 3G S today and it’s killer. Here are a few highlights:

  • The built-in camera on my 3G really sucks. It has no zoom capability and no flash and the light compensation mechanism never seems to work right. So if you are at all serious about photography (and who doesn’t want to take nice pictures?) then you still have to cart around a digital camera. Problem solved: the new iPhone 3G S includes a 3 megapixel camera (the 3G had a 2 MP camera) with auto-focus. And, it’s also got…
  • VIDEO CAPTURE! 30 fps VGA resolution with audio. Not too shabby. This feature alone probably means you’ll want to opt for the 16GB model. The 8GB 3G was workable but tight. If you do any video capture at all you’re going to want lots of RAM.
  • Finally, we get cut, copy and paste so we can move data from one app to another. This is actually an OS feature, not new hardware so iPhone 3G folks like me can take advantage of this when Apple releases the new OS later this Summer.
  • Landscape mode for all apps. This may not sound like a big deal but it’s nice for people (like me) who struggle with the tiny “soft” keyboard because the keys are bigger in landscape mode.
  • Mail search. Yup, you can finally search your email folders, just like you can on gmail.
  • New navigation app with turn-by-turn directions. The 3G is a decent GPS navigator but it lacks spoken directions (“turn left in .2 miles”). With this feature, the 3G S is a full blown navigator. Also, there is a new built-in compass, so you can always tell which in which direction you’re heading.
  • Speed – Apple claims the new device is 2X faster than the 3G.
  • Longer battery life – 30% improvement over the 3G, another pet peeve of mine as my 3G requires a daily recharge.
  • Price – same as the former price for the 3G ($199 for 8GB, $299 for 16GB). The 8GB 3G phone is now available for only $99.

In the words of the always insightful Junie B. Jones, “WOWIE WOW WOW!”. The 3G S goes on sale June 19th. Just in time for Father’s Day. :)

So you want to write an iPhone App (4)

I have to say, Apple really blew it here. They appear to require use of a custom object oriented variant of C for OS X developers only. Why not use C++? It’s technically mature, readily (and freely via GNU) available, widely used, works on nearly every computing platform and is an international standard. I’m sure this is because Objective-C has been around for a long time and is the de facto language for Mac developers but programmers care about the languages they use so this seems like something that will actually inhibit developer excitement. Don’t get me wrong – there are going to be legions of people writing iPhone apps, but it will be in spite of Objective-C, not because of it. Getting down off my soapbox now…

In my next post, I’ll take on a very important question: what should my app do? That may be the most important decision you can make because it influences the complexity, content and usefulness of your app.

So you want to write an iPhone app (3)

In my last post in this series, I promised to spend a day or two reading the iPhone developer’s getting started documents and then report back on what I’d learned. In typical fashion, it’s taken me more like 4 days. Not because it’s difficult – it’s just that I’m incredibly lazy. So without further ado, here are some things I’ve learned:

  • iPhone OS Overview – This document summarizes the various layers in the iPhone. The iPhone kernel is a variation of the same OS X kernel (derived from Mach) running in the Mac. Of the four layers described (core OS, core services, Media, and Cocoa Touch) the former is the one on which you’ll want to focus your attention. More specifically, there are two programming frameworks in the Cocoa Touch layer that serve as the most important API’s in your application: “foundation” and “UIkit”.
  • Tools for iPhone OS Development- This document summarizes three key developer tools: Xcode, which is the Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for both Mac OS X and iPhone (sorry PC, as noted in an earlier post, you’ll need a Mac to run these tools), Interface Builder, which is a drag and drop style UI construction tool, and Instruments, which is a real time performance data gathering facility. Another interesting developer tool is the iPhone simulator, whch allows you to test your app on a virtual iPhone. Xcode supports real time debugging of your apps on both the iPhone simulator and a real iPhone.
  • Learning Objective-C: A Primer - This isn’t really much of a primer – it’s more of a high level summary. Even if you are an old time C programmer, there is a lot to learn here. Give this a quick read but eventually you’ll want to review the authoritative source on Objective-C, which can be found here. I have to say, based on what I’ve seen so far, I am not a fan of this language. I’ll elaborate further in a future post but for now this is the only game in town so if you want to develop iPhone apps, you’ll have to swallow this pill.
  • Signing Code for iPhone Development – This is a high level summary of the code signing process Apple uses to ensure that you, as the author of  record of an iPhone app, are who you say you are and that you don’t change your code after it’s been released. Don’t worry about this too much for now – you can deal with code signing down the road when you have an application to sign.
  • Creating an iPhone Application – This is a very nice tutorial, which walks you through the creation of a sample application (“MoveMe”). Here’s what MoveMe does, in a nutshell: 
    Touching the Welcome button triggers an animation that causes the button to pulse and center itself under your finger. As you drag your finger around the screen, the button follows your finger. Lift your finger from the screen and, using another animation, the button snaps back to its original location. Double-tapping anywhere outside the button changes the language of the button’s greeting.

    You can download the code, build and test it yourself. The MoveMe app exercises a bunch of iPhone facilities so it gives you a good idea about how to do several specific tasks while at the same time giving you a general sense of how iPhone applications are structured and how the developer tools work.

  • iPhone OS for Cocoa Developers – This document is nothing more than a couple of paragraphs saying, basically, “if you’re already a Mac developer you already know how to use Cocoa”. Not a lot of help since I don’t fall into that category. Fortunately, the Cocoa Fundmentals Guide provides a comprehensive description of the Cocoa application environment. I’m (slowly) working my way through this document.
  • Frequently Asked Questions – This is a handy collection of commonly sought information, organized into neat categories. An ambitious developer might comb through these pearls of wisdom but I’ll read ‘em when I need ‘em.
Finally, one important document which is not mentioned in the list of getting started docs (it’s in the reference libary list) is the iPhone Application Programming Guide, which is a free, useful and comprehensive reference manual for iPhone app developers.
So, my next step is to download, build and test the MoveMe app, per the “Creating an iPhone App” doc, which should help me get the hang of a basic app and also some familiarity with Xcode and the other developer tools. At the same time, I’ll be working my through the Cocoa Fundamentals Guide. Someday, I’ll actually write some code of my own… :)