Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ditch the Product Reform of Jobs II - Think Sim City for Jobs III

I think iMacs are going to get evolved up to spec for another six months. Upon Jobs' return, he will bring with him a one hundred twenty foot scroll detailing all necessary hardware changes for four years going forward.

The product scheme started in 1997 (and continued to this day), is ill-fitting. The famous de-Performafying of Apple, into a seller of a four-part grid of products, no longer works. The idea of computer market segments (desktops and laptops) addressed with call-and-response models (MacBook and iMac, [Air and Mini], 17in and Mac Pro) and consumer products called i-something, with some networking gear and random peripherals, is outmoded. 

Think like Maxis for the restoration of Jobs. A new split: industrial, commercial and residential.

The remaining iProducts are all Residential. This includes iWork, iLife, iMovie, i-everything, and the MacBook. The Airport Express and Time Capsule, too. And Bento for fun.

The commercial products. The MacBook Pro/Air, Mac Pro, the 24in LED and 30in display, and the Airport Extreme. Final Cut Studio, FileMaker, iWork Pro [think of a Mac Write Pro Pages that drops the pretense of competing with InDesign, but really takes on Word.]

The industrial products are Xanything and server-anything. XServe, XSAN, etc. Final Cut Server, etc.

A focus on these three going forward yields livingroom iMac 42s that look like TVs with dock connectors, a fusion of i-hub stuff that keeps all the media and files in a home cloud, and makes the iMac the ONLY Mac. It is Mac, and it is the center of the hub, and it is Residential.

The Mac Pro can split into a many-model range that can take 100% of the over-1200 market, and has the virtualization and management hooks (in hardware and software) that let Apple into the business market, without getting confusing, or even making people think of them as "Macs." Mac Pros are OS X Workstations, with different performance emphasised, and cost profiles that need not step around any residential-model price/performance comparisons, because the other hardware differences (6 USB ports? quad cores? redundant power supply?) set them apart prima facie.

Industrial products are kept current to assist the commercial market drive. I have little to say, though I know the Mac Mini is used like an Apple blade these days, 4 up in 1U. The demand for a real industrial push is there. Even Cisco is doing it.

On the Meaning of Application and "App"

In judging the latest crop of laptops from Apple, specifically the 17in/8 hour MacBook Pro, there are mostly the same complaints and compliments. The design is great, a considered evolution of aesthetic and revolution of structure. There aren't BluRay drives, and the batteries are only removable from some of the models. Glossy screens are irritating to some, as they always have been, and will be, for eternity. The GPU is nice, could be better, or is more than adequate, pick your poison, and all are waiting for 10.6 to see how dual cores and dual GPUs can be made to work. End review.

Consider the iPhone. It runs OS X. Many have called it an Apple laptop for your hand. The App Store has given it something new, "signed software multi-functionality", but not "applications", at least not as the Mac (and wider) computing community has come to define the term. Bound up in "applications" when in context with "OS X" or "Apple", are implied functions that are simply not there in our App Store iPhone.

"Applications" include versatile options for user transport of the result of running this code and performing, or applying, its function. Consider not Palm Desktop or some complex app that has conduits and pipelines for all sorts of proprietary data from other applications. Rather, look at the "output" of iTunes. A session with iTunes alone increments play counts, destroys and creates anew lists it keeps of user play order desire, moves files around main storage, interacts and alters hardware both peripheral and integral to it per user wishes implicit and explicit. 

Some clarifications. "As per user wishes" or more simply "a session with", are both phrases with implied meaning. The user may want to purchase a song and put it on an iPod. They don't have to explicitly do the store hosting, song encoding, or iTunes to computer-speaker work. They don't do the nuts and bolts of the HD to iPod move beyond a GUI dragging action. User wishes are something user sessions try to accomplish, with varying accuracy. Examples of inaccuracy with output abound; an MP3 CD burned in iTunes that does not work in the old boom box run off the car power in the tour van.

"Application" as the term of art exegesized here has other latent implications. A program which instantiates a computing function in the set of functions superfluous to the operating system, such that it runs alongside the operating system. The advent of multitasking, or even time-sharing cooperative-tasking, meant "application" implied operating as one among many in userspace. Whether the computer juggled things to make applications seem to be working all at once, or they "actually were" as today on multi-core systems, is irrelevant. Expectations of, and popular use of, "application" as term has come to mean be there and useful, but not to the exclusion of other computing.

So, the App Store vends not a single "application", only lots of "App" code that can be used on the iPhone under OS X. Some Apple bundled App work approaches conforming to the meaning of "application", but only through "push notifications." Even the wildest-eyed anticipator of the Push Notifications SDK release does not hope for something that yields applications. 

User output after a session with an App is universally trivial. An On the Go playlist yields just that, and visible only on the iPhone, or in one row as an entry on Desktop iTunes. User output with an App like Notes is determined before the user pens a single word, save for the user's creativity.

Apps are not applications. The absence of Copy and Paste, filesystem access, dialog boxes, user access to user session output outside of the session originating program, the dearest aspects of our applications, are not part of the App as we have received it from Apple.

A Mac OS X-model for true iPhone applications would mean an ecosystem explosion, like the iPod had, not diktats reporting high App Store acceptance. iPhone external monitors? iPhone external keyboards? iPhone apps that take the output of all the chat protocols (Facebook to AIM) and agglomerate as formatted Note? I have to restrain myself lest I get too excited.

I only do work to break out App from application here.

Via DJ

I don't know what hand-wringing is.

I think he can read the WSJ for h-w, or crap, about him now, too. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thinking positive thoughts

This heartwarming link was brought to my attention by Daring Fireball. The era of Apple and the wild concept was an exciting one. The infamous Knowledge Navigator. Leather-wrapped Nautilus PowerBook and Newton concepts. Impossible dreams but "startlingly" prescient in the mode of a science fiction author happening upon the idea of a communications satellite. The literal currency exchanger, from greenback to pound or yen, I forget, is a seminal moment in demo history.

This was also the era of the Advanced Technology Group, smalltalk Squeak, which persisted until just now, being murdered, I mean cut, from the OLPC 2. Squeak is a totem of Apple (and Disney, only-now oddly linked entities) creativity and vitality.

Steve Jobs is vital for infinite reasons. We should send him only the best wishes. However, it was Jobs who taught the industry to dare not once, with the consumer oriented Apple II, but twice with the Mac, putting the "dent in the world", and left Apple, mismanaged but at its root brilliant. Pink, Taligent, PowerTalk, Copland, all the failed work was not for nothing, and the people numbering thousands at Apple still kept the original fervor alive.

Jobs returned to shake the dormant Apple from its laconic slumber, has pushed it to heroic heights, and has possibly now taught it to always push, and execute. He won't be replaced (I think he'll be back), but the lessons of his return are as valuable as any known succession plan.

I should note Squeak is still available at squeak.org for those inclined to see the future of tomorrow from yesterday, today.

Braeburned

I, uneducated and maybe wrong here, see a dark spot in Apple's reports of late. Their hush-hush hived-off money arm, Braeburn Capital, was for years the vehicle for investing Apple's ever-rising cash position. Their guesses must have been as bad as everyone else's in 2008, because here it is clear that over $8bn was lost in the year, and $8.6bn in the last quarter. This compares with a 2bn gain in 2007.

I am not panicking, but, it does go to show that "hidden" deferred iPhone revenue isn't the only money, good or bad, sloshing around the nether regions of Apple Inc. filings. Did Apple have exposure to bad banks? Bad homebuilders? Chinese or clean-energy ETFs? Madoff? What led to a 10 million dollar a day evaporation?

Don't forget the point of all this

What is lost and drowned out by the daily thrashing, over technology in finance, ranging wide and shallow on energy, pumping fears of you-name-it imminent, say, Apple-ocalypse, to rumorology about the latest incoming, storm-churning gadgets, but everything?

Entertainment is video and audio on a screen. It has been since the dawn of radio, television, cable, and computers, and people still want more choice in more ways.

The desire for interpersonal communication, from telegraph to twitter, for business, pleasure, or custom, is accepted and exploited any way it can be.

In both cases, mass acceptance of a methodology dictates methodological victory. Near-consensus by the consumer generates dominant uptake rates, and forges standards from the trial balloons of all associated companies. The cognoscenti are all too quick to forget the buzzing confusion of competing techniques once a pick is made.

Let us never lose sight of the point. Epic clashes over cloud apps, home disc standards, web browser markets share, operating system uptake, and more are simple news. The point is to deliver that which people have been proven to crave for a century, more options for entertainment and the least resistant method available to access them, and a similar formulation for interpersonal communication.

(As an aside, communication technologies are preserved past their point of optimal uptake and market leadership as custom accumulates around them. Note the thank you card, or even home phone. The VHS tape was defeated by DVD, the iPod did the same to the Discman. We shall never be rid of voicemail. )

Recession or controversy or market shift or not, it is those companies which satisfy communicative, entertainment/information consumption needs that will prosper. Few companies can do this today. No one buyer cares about the technology, they want more of the same as before, better and easier.

Apple, Microsoft, and Sony are the only communication/home media platform providers. Microsoft stretches higher into corporate and HPC realms, but on the consumer side all three provide personal computers, broad and muscular vectors for entertainment, and portability.

Sony had a chance to own the space, but its PS3 is not providing the uptake necessary to begin setting standards. BluRay is evolutionary and consumers are phasing in acceptance, not hammering on doors. Sony PS3 Online, in Home and Store iterations, does nothing for integration of media and communication between console, computer, and mobile product. Indeed, neither are preferable methods for delivery of communication or media, and will be adopted by fiat in isolated cases. Sony's cloud holds only the little data its users wish to awkwardly thumb into their PS3 via controller. Conversation is virtually impossible.

Microsoft too has an axis, one that covers communication and information/entertainment from the network news desk to the palm of one's hand. Indeed, the company has too many axes. Windows Mobiles are not Zunes, and they don't talk to each other, but both extend Windows into the subway. The WinMo phones allow for communication, and talk with adequate personal business computers, while XBoxes and media centers speak other tongues. The cloud Sony can't begin to conjure offers an opportunity for an Esperanto-alike synthesis of disparate languages. Proper integration would mean Surface touch tables collaborating with a user's Outlook data because of the HTC they carry.

Microsoft will someday shoehorn a .PSD onto a Zune that can also talk to Dell Inspiron Mini 10s in the necessary language, that of human names, faces, and conduits for communication. The point is not to make Windows Mobile read Zune album art. No, it is to provide the user with their desired media, and the very best interoperation triggers come hell or high water, rather than relying on dozens of fragile Rube Goldberg interactions as it does today.

HP, Dell, et. al. are working to sculpt these discombobulated jousts as best they can, but their lack of core competencies binds them to Microsoft's best effort. Cisco, Sun, and others face a similar dilemma, even if their hardware and virtual metal is top notch. In the end, the point is never met esoterica like Thumper, Niagara, Solaris, and IOS. These are ocean fiber cables, not what hits the street in the "last mile."

The scenario that facilitates communication and media consumption most effectively, where the iPod, iMac, MacBook, and attendant cloud cohere to most closely meet our aged desires, is found with Apple. The desire to relate, view, play, and consume, the point, is met by the iPhone, Mac, iPod, and associated software. What Apple lacks is credibility in the minds of its consumers. Original or early Mac users had the future of capitalist interaction in their homes, desktop publishing, HTML authoring, the GUI itself!, almost a decade before Windows made the benefits of computing spread among "the rest of us" stick. Apple is an untrustworthy owner of the zeitgeist, for its past mismanagement, and its current uncertain leadership.

Aside:
Google lacks a platform despite its best work to use web services and lightweight software to seep into the transit network. The Search Appliance was not a lark, it should have been seen as the point. I wonder if ad and media companies, even ones as super-cool-yeah! as Google, can play in the platform game. The game to own the devices and services that people touch, use, and want is more Sony's, by dint of the PSP, than Google's via the G1. Sony beating Google in a race to own a tiny niche...not a positive sign.

Who has the strength to weather the recession? Who delivers on the promises of the mythical digital hub (really, the dream of Leave it to Beaver in the family station wagon reincarnated) most aptly? Apple by leagues, now.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Learning from Las Vegas

Whatever people say about the economy, our country is frothy enough to make the check-in line at Ceasars on a Sunday a twenty minute affair.

Certain things are cut back, like the hours of the Diamond Club, and games dip into the $10 prices, but people are still there. Vegas in the winter was shoulder to shoulder urban on the strip, unlike any part of Columbus, Ohio, say, downtown.

10¢ apples aren't for sale anywhere that's for sure. There's an Apple Store in Caesar's Forum Shops though. It was actually the least trafficked store I have witnessed. In a sea of completely hedonist luxury gifts and games, buying a computer to do work, even among other things, doesn't make sense.

That said, it was abuzz with e-mail-checkers, and iPod Touch/iPhone toddlers, flubbing out some perfunctory text in an early stumble around the eventually-ingenious keyboard. (I can touch type on my iPhone now, a dubious achievement.)

Vegas is truly a cataclysmic nightmare outgrowth of culture in its loosest definition, but the experience of being under the mathematical gun. Dodging fate alone hitting on 16, but tabled and roomed and fed together, sharing a common goal with easily stoked fervor. Elevators, slots, tables, triple-split hands that all hit 18 when a dealer hits 19, all performative acts of the set of the "tourist."

And nothing besides employee and player can be found, rendering only residents outsiders, outnumbered, bored with the neon cancer bauble called the Strip. Imagine New York with every tourist attraction, from Tad's Steakhouse to the Empire State Building, the Bronx Zoo with all of museum mile and a short walk to the NY Aquarium, stretched along the shuttle to Grand Central. Then make planes land on 86th st. instead of at the rims of outer boroughs. Finally, ensure those who visit New York are unaware of anything beyond this impossibly unwalkable, train-laced district. Nothing would be, besides New Yorkers and adequate civil services, so go for it.

Poker tourneys are hard. Blackjack is not as hard. I had my mind blown when someone tipped a dealer a $1000 chip.

Short Garmin and Tom Tom

Cell phone GPS with real voice synthesis and electric car integration opportunities, along with OS improvement on the smartphone front, mean no more silly GPS boxes and mounts. Remember "car phones" and curly pig-tail antennae?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lost in Cairo

Vista was bad, and XP is the walking dead, so there's been nothing to give Leopard a run for its money. Until now. A beta of Windows 7 has the fervent Microsoft media crew ecstatic. I find that Gizmodo is usually a half sane outlet. It is no bastion of journalistic ethics, but the stories it carries are either self-aware fanboy excess, or composed with some reality coming into the picture. 

Well, forget that, because Giz, and countless others, are ready to start slinging the hosannas around. The media has reached the conclusion that Windows 7 has a better "dock" than OS X. Remember that Windows 7 isn't shipping, and Microsoft has never shipped on time. Then, include Apple's upcoming OS release, and the comparison is truly moot. No beta of Snow Leopard has been made to strut around as Windows 7 has, because Apple doesn't work that way.

I am going to respectfully decline all Windows 7 related articles until Microsoft has GC1 shipped for duplication. OS X and Windows comparisons are always subjective, but Windows 7 is not even a fixed target.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

With: Apple TV Commentary as my leaping-off point, I am delighted to be able to consider the Apple TV with some fresh sales data for once (3x growth year over year!)

Apple's "hobby" is a mutt of a product, with a bit of Mac Mini, though carefully shortened and made monolithic (drive-slot-less) as an 802.11n AirPort Base Station or Time Capsule looks. Thus Apple TV straddles the gap between Apple's Macintosh products, and Apple's "Appliance" products. Or, it did so when it was new, and the OS X on other-Intel move was a game-changer. Now, the product has languished, and the relic of a bygone creative impulse is Apple's barely adequate iTunes-injecting TV hangaround.

Apple TV prices have not changed as the hardware has aged. The tech specs on Apple TV are very unkind, as it has not been updated since release. It began life as a compromise of sorts, with a bowdlerized Intel Pentium M. Apple TV is not the iPhone/iPod Touch platform, which has already seen a speed jump without breaking compatibility, and represented the cutting edge through 2009. No, the Apple TV is a slick home theater PC from a bygone era, at this point.

Hey, OS X on iPhone runs apps compiled for it on two iterations of the platform and preserves compatibility. (Eventually, original iPhones will strain under the newest games for technical reasons.) At some point, Apple can bifurcate the market with a "iPhone OS 3.0" that leaves the original model out, ala non-Dock connector iPod models, which is required to run the new, complex apps that are too taxing for the rev. A hardware. It seems future cross-compatible iterations of the iPhone OS X platform will coexist. The phone may always be a graphical step behind, but as the beneficiary of pro-equivalent features (like phone calling and SMS) that the Touch will never get, the trade-off is "reasonable."

So what of Apple TV? I have posited a switch from Apple TV to ATV.app for the Mac Mini/a future living room Mac, with everything Apple TV delivers in a Front Row-replacing App. Why not, right? But, Apple is a hardware company...the last project to make the leap from hardware widget to coded app was the GeoPort modem. Maybe there are others, but that came to mind, and sometimes it's nice to get back to the roots.

My point is, Apple usually doesn't lead with hardware, then try to transition to software. They love to make the whole device, and I don't see that changing. A Mac Mini with Apple TV is a Mac with a bolt-on. Apple TV is a pure expression of iTunes on TV. While downplayed, Apple would be unlikely to retreat to Front Row after doing so many "Take"s on their v1.0 living room curiosity. And it will remain that, unless Apple truly cannot build a competitive box without co-opting the price expectations the Mac Mini brand carries, and is forced to merge the lines. That seems unlikely, as $249 to $700 is a leap few would make for a hobbled Mac HTPC. The hardware diversity on the low end of the market, with the Atom, ULV Core chips, and AMD hanging around, has mushroomed. A $249 device with contemporary specs is the new purest expression of an iTunes and TV-centric hardware platform.

As a final prediction, I see Apple TV getting a lot smaller, and inheriting the best of the AirPort stations. Perhaps an antenna port, and certainly an AirTunes/VideoTunes (please?) transport. Perhaps it will gain DisplayPort, too, ensuring that, with enough adapters, it will work with any TV. I think the Atom and Intel Integrated graphics are not going to cut it, and the ATV will continue to ship with Mac-class processors. Apple's move into gaming would be reinforced by a contemporary nVidia/Apple TV, as such a platform begins to crossover into console territory.

So what happens when our posited Apple TV 2.0 lands. Time Capsule functionality (narrowly implemented to ensure your iTunes content is especially safe. I foresee entertainment Macs that backup the agglomerated media of all local computers, and sort and organize it by Apple TV standards.) and, Apple TV is finally able to provide the appliance-style performance of AirPort as well. Display Port, wireless tunes and video, and a Core 2 Duo processor with nVidia graphics that hits the high end-laptop parts bin. Then, Apple's got an iTunes appliance solution (no DVDs, BluRays or CDs; monolithic, driveless, eschewing physical media like the Air), positioned at the very crossroads of content. No keyboard, just the current remote-driven media browsing/buying, Bonjour streaming stuff, and perhaps a mode where a docked iPod Touch or iPhone can act as a game controller or interface device. (Why leave the Wii off of the hit list?)

Ah, flights of fancy. But I mean to say, Apple TV is a hobby like Dreamcast was a hobby for the Windows CE team. Microsoft was learning every step of the way on that dry run before bringing out XBox. Apple TV is a fact finding mission in the wilds of the varied species of digital hubs, each uniquely pruned and tended, a complex market.

Apple TV is a few revisions, probably a small one and then the total redo, away from a revamp that will push it into the middle of the digital media livingroom. At WWDC 2009 I see seminars on porting Touch apps to Apple TV, with the Touch acting as input device.

The Gates/Jobs vision of 2001 supposed a desktop behemoth at the core of the digital hub, providing the logic and the pixel-pushing 'umpf for a galaxy of rather less capable "digital hub" accessories, like digital cameras, DVRs, or video cameras. Indeed, the centralized computational point, the set top box of legend and lore, was sacrosanct to more than Apple and WebTV/Microsoft. No, Vudu, Boxee, and others treat the honing of the perfect hub as the transcendent goal. Meanwhile, media want users, traffic and ads, and they better be measurable. The computer industry agenda is to forge a system in the kiln of company R&D, then obliterate every other box in a battle to set standards. Television is waiting for the squabble to be over. I hope Apple joins the battle, and with a real TV Appliance Mac as described.

The Airport portion of Apple's product line has to get serious about wireless video soon.

AAPL 30,000

Apple Inc. stock has taken a steep drop from a bubbly peak. This is not unlike all companies on Earth, who have seen orders fall by half overnight, or are faced with high rates and crippling, excessive demands for collateral. Intel is at $13, Microsoft at $18, and Google at $309. AMD and ATI merged, and promptly sunk to the single digits, then sub-$5, and now a dreadful 2.35.

What is different about Apple is it's business trajectory. Sales are rising, all product lines increased sales volume, and margins faced no deterioration. The quarter was the best in Apple's history. Ever, and in spite of a deferral of income due to conscription accounting that meant a billion or so dollars fit under the radar.

The classic problem with the "Mac silo", is that it is impossible to measure the market value of say, owning the home and small business database market, Windows and Mac, with FileMaker, or any other of these examples.

Think of Apple's old race to own digital video. The medium had a computational-needs profile that meshed with Motorola/sorta-IBM AltiVec acceleration, and was in the service of content creation. Desktop video sold Apple hardware just as desktop publishing sold Macs and LaserWriters. Now, it is a fillip in Apple's hat, a nice tie-in point for Pixar/Disney or whoever else uses Macs for movies, and the death of Avid's high-end editing station cash cow.

What halo does a working MobileMe cast on the Mac? Is the Google Mail/Docs/Chat/Images/Videos Cloud in action, Mac only, something that anyone cares about? It is either a seminal integration of web services and forever alters the personal computing product proposition, or perhaps no one ever cares, or, worse, it never works. iWork and iLife are difficult to evaluate competitive advantages.

Apple owns the iLife, and Adobe is pushed hard to keep its pro customers against Aperture, too. Microsoft, and Open Office all offer desktop app competence, and Google Docs are effective for lightweight use. Apple has both ends covered and is now saying the packages are part of the "Mac Box Experience" bundle. Either no one will care and Office will continue to dominate, with a slowly growing Google Docs share. The goal is to make it so cool that you get a Mac just to be able to use iWork Online and do sophisticated collaboration in an Apple-forged, Jobs-ordained, vertically integrated environment.

But many will be forced to sell panache and convenience down the river for compatibility. As long as iWork.app remains siloed, it is a Mac-only way to blow MS Word out of the water for fun and career advancement, and is a hard thing to value. A Mac-only set of consumer multimedia applications has no value to anyone besides Apple. Apple brings everything in its arsenal to bear on iL/iW09, an investment no one else could make, and one which may make the whole software line a net financial loss, even if it is a great, impossible to account for "halo."

Never mind iTunes Music Store paid-download domination, even OS X itself. Snow Leopard is going to reset the bar, and Apple has paid for it already. Now they need only wait for the revenue to flow in whenever it is ready for release. I hope we don't get a WWDC final beta, as it needs to be out and getting tested for real before Back To School and Christmas '09. If Apple releases Snow Leopard into either of those key buying seasons, there better be a quick 10.6.1 when the inevitable deal-killer problems are uncovered in the first few weeks.

So what is Apple worth? They have a nascent cell phone handset business and application platform, a mature desktop computing platform, one of only two or three, depending on how you count, in wide use, and a blockbuster music player platform. They own media delivery and creation from the upper levels of the high end all the way to MacBooks with iMovie. The iPod Touch is in gaming, as well as adding real estate for App Store developers.

All of Apple's various trajectories point up. The horrendous Christmas buying season seems to have done little damage to Apple. I think it is time to revisit valuations of $150 or $180 within a year.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Palm Pre reconsidered

The Palm Pre is good enough to keep Palm users (those that are left, that is) in the fold. The Pre is evidence of intellect and creativity at Palm. Few companies are capable of creating a vertically integrated, cutting-edge smartphone. RIM does, though it relies on Exchange and Microsoft in a symbiotic relationship. Apple is capable of it. Nokia is unreliably able to produce; the e71 is great, the N-Gage terrible.

The lack of an SDK is a stick in the spokes for any application market on the Palm. Historically, Palm has been as open as Microsoft regarding apps. Run anything anytime. Maybe that will come with an update. For now, web widgets is all there is to see.

A touch keyboard is vital, too. Having to flip the phone and open the keyboard for every entry field will become deeply annoying.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Symbol PALM

In an earlier note I discussed the state of Palm Inc. If they could hit it out of the park with hardware and shelve the archaic Palm OS, then they would once again be a serious rival. With Rubenstein around, Palm has not only made a hardware gem, but seem to have done a great job on the OS side, too.

Look for Palm to pick up share quickly, as Treo devotees ditch their aging hardware all at once.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

On the Palm Pre

The Palm Pre introduction at CES '09 today both impressed and informed my understanding of the handset industry.

Palm has put together an impressive, differentiated product. 

They use the latest OMAP CPUs from TI, model number 3430. The chip is part of TIs "High Performance" segment. The OMAP CPU is really a "System on a Chip" (SoC.) It has multiple cores. The OMAP looks like this:



 
Apple's iPhone chip is harder to find info about, but it is best understood to be the ARM 1176JZ(F)-S. Look here for more on that. Both chips feature the ARM CPUs. The 3430 has the newest "Cortex" CPU, which is a newer iteration of the ARM11 family CPU core featured in the iPhone. The 3430 is a 600 Mhz part, though Apple and other hardware makers seem to clock the chips down in practice. Nokia also uses the OMAP SoC line, so I assume they will get a crack at the 3430 soon. Nokia outsells Palm by multiple digits after all. The OMAP is certainly competitive.

I am less able to assemble a report on the other cores. The vagaries of OpenWhatever X.X this, "streams", and the difference between OS X and Palm WebOS GPU implementations means it comes down to gut. Apple has more experience here, and has proven games shipping that are competing with the PSP graphically. I give Palm second place, but a knowledgeable reader might know and have real facts to back it up.

Palm has built WebOS to compete in the software realm, and it is impressive as well. 

The aim is clearly to give users the best of all worlds. Desktop-style application architecture, broad interoperability with other OSes and relevant web services, and a slick, non-ideological interface. 

Palm Cards is Spaces done right for iPhones. No spatiality, rather, something like an "all windows Expose" of multiple concurrent Finder sessions, organized in a Vista-ish stack view. (Palm doesn't moronically overlap them, though. Microsoft renders the metaphor literally and makes the second page mostly covered by the first, as it would be in a stack.)    On a PD-, ahem, smartphone, the sessions are simple enough to be nearly iconic even at a small size. That is not true for desktops, and I am not suggesting this beats "desktop Spaces", but it does beat the almost Classical Mac dogma of single-tasking, pre MultiFinder (prescient name) reigning over the iPhone.

WebOS applications are akin to pre-SDK iPhone web apps, but more liberal with the hardware. Or, that was my interpretation. Palm may introduce signed apps or something like the app store and shift directions. Palm is small enough that a WinMobile-alike model with independent software houses building businesses on shipping free or paid applications makes more sense. It is also the model that Palm has used in the past. Newton, too, really. Perhaps Sprint will muscle a share of the overall application revenue stream, something AT&T would dearly like to have done. Apple gets a spiff from AT&T for signing up iPhone customers, and then Apple gets all the money for the programs shipped across the network. Surely Sprint will not allow wireless app delivery without exacting some tariff.

So the software is good, at least in demo form, and the hardware appears performance-competitive. The industrial design is solid, but relatively uninteresting, besides the cool inductive charger, and make-or-break (for some) hardware keyboard. Hopefully it is reliable. I have little doubt it will be a solid piece of hardware, at the least competent, and perhaps excellent, given Palm's culture and history. 

The Palm V was sublime. It is next to the iPod Nano in my mind as most transcendent, paradigm-forming iteration of handheld technology. Palm Pilots were impressive hardware, sized for the hand, unlike the relatively-enormous Newton. The Palm V seemed an impossible feat, it surely couldn't exist given its features and size. In the hand, it was perfectly sized for use, and felt extremely solid. The design was visually appealing, with a well-executed metal finish. 

[The iPod and iPod Mini were great MP3 players, the latter a logical extension of the flagship player. The Nano was a "whoa they can fit the iPod Photo into the battery of the iPod Mini" moment, and doomed hard disk MP3 players forever. The iPod was already second place in sales behind the Mini, though mostly because the iPod was still prohibitively expensive, and the Mini offered cheaper entry to the already-dominant iPod/iTunes ecosystem. The nano made the disk iPods (and especially the Rokr) seem quaint, solving the problem of carrying lots of music, sure, but not addressing how best to listen to music. From then on, the iPod was classic(al)...]

Jon Rubenstein is also on the scene, and he seems to have been given enough leeway to shape Palm up. The Treo x00s of the last few years were stagnant. The industrial design was cutesy 90s blobby pablum, and Palm screens were sunken and small. The Treo Pro demonstrated that Rubenstein could make the company move, advancing the form more in one shot than Palm had in many generations. The software, though not Rubenstein's avocation at Apple, has also made a Radical leap forward that is not simply a coincidence. If Palm dies, it will not be the former Apple executive's fault. The Pre is the result of real management chops.

Hardware, software, OS, all a go. But what about price? Palm seems unable to get it below the cost of an iPhone, and their network partner is not advantageous, let alone better enough to justify a large price premium. I bet the Palm hardware in a tear-down would be a bit over the cost of the iPhone, but not by enough to explain the retail price disadvantage.  

People forget, though, that Apple orders parts by the million, and has a specifically advantageous position when buying flash memory. Apple has every advantage in this market. Moreover, their OS development is funded by app sales, and addresses a far broader range of markets than does Palm's WebOS hardware lineup of one. The XServe and iPhone are both improved when Apple iterates Mac OS X. Expecting the Pre to equal the iPhone is like asking for a PowerMac at the price of a Dell in 1998.

The Pre will do a lot to make Palm competitive again, which is to say make it attractive to future large-scale investors like their current main squeeze, Elevation. I also think it will get Sprint some buzz, and buzz that resonates and snowballs. The G1 and, to a lesser extent, the RIM Storm, got buzz, but only a burst of noise that withered with real-world usage reports. The Pre could be good enough to get people talking about switching cell carriers for it. Friends will tell friends, the product experience will be different, good, and rare/low-volume enough to give the Pre some cachet.

These competitors are the ones that Apple should fear. They don't need to "knife the baby" Palm, but it is a left-field, well done, differentiated product that will make the iPhone shine begin to fade. Nothing is better now, but once the Pre ships mobile users will have a choice that is damn close.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

FileMaker is the new Pixar

What Apple subsidiary released a significant update to their flagship software package today, before MacWorld? FileMaker! 

They do make a really fun product called Bento that is something for the modern mac prosumer. If they never made a new version again, then people would lament it as they do HyperCard and Emailer maybe. Bento is at v2.0 and on most display Macs at last check. No one reading this needs to gin up much of a reason to visit their local Apple Store I suspect, but that's a new one to use anyway.

Steve Jobs seems to be leaving FileMaker well enough alone, to the point where they have had the same retail box design for multiple X.0 versions. Shocking for an Apple product, but then again, it had huge marketshare when Jobs came back. Might as well leave it alone, I suppose.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Google Mobile on iPhone means Apple will merge with Google

How did this happen? 

Maybe Apple is killing Safari and partnering to make one true WebKit browser with Google. Or maybe they are merging corporate operations? The wilder rumors get press, but the fact that Chrome is on the iPhone means the very oddest things could be true about what is, upon consideration, a closer relationship than Apple has with any other corporation. Eric Schmidt is on Apple's board is all you have to say to prove that. Maybe Jobs will cram Apple and Google together, and take a Pixar-Disney-alike role in the background of what would be a trillion dollar steamroller (if one gives both corporations an A right now and assume they'll keep that up, as I do.)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Apple's Hardware Roadmap 2009

No Blu-Ray - Steve Jobs once said BluRay should never be put into PCs. At the time, people assumed it was for fear of the super-quality content getting freed from its DRM shackles. Now it seems he wants to emphasize downloads over physical media, and it will be some time until iTunes serves up anything approaching disc-delivered quality. iDVD was truly a classic Apple masterwork, in the sense that authoring decent-quality DVDs with menus went from really arcane to dead simple overnight. Forget that the program had bugs, they all do, DVDs were Apple's flagship home media push, even before CD burning and the iPod. Indeed, Jobs said in his first iTunes reveal event that Apple had dropped the ball on CDs while hitting DVD out of the park. I do not believe BluRay will ever be offered by Apple, and it won't be trumpeted when it is.
 
Desktops - 

The Mac Pro will continue to be a high end PC-alike Intel chipset machine, with much the same case design. The Intel transition has made Apple's high-end desktop into a bundle of foregone conclusions, where it used to be the most fun hardware to anticipate and Apple's most radical Wintel-alternative package. It was the G-series, and before that the 60x or even 680x0, where Apple would trumpet its advantage over the Wintel commodity box of the day. 

What will be interesting is which graphics card supplier Apple chooses to make the default option, as OpenCL and Snow Leopard will make the GPU pick a true performance differentiator. If nVidia is way slower than ATI for "GP"GPU, Apple may have to offend its laptop chipset supplier and CPU supplier in a stroke, and pick AMD ATI. I do not see that happening, so look for Mac Pros with Intel's latest chips and chipsets, and nVidia GPUs released as Intel's roadmap dictates.

iMac - Apple may make the iMac 24in-only (except for the 20in school model), and try to push almost everyone to a MacBook/Pro with display arrangement. A single quad-core iMac may make an appearance at the high end. The likelihood of that depends on three factors. If a quad iMac is so fast it makes the Mac Pro necessary only for extreme, rarified computing, then Apple won't risk cannibalizing high-margin tower sales. On the other hand, if the quad-core chip finds its way into a Mac Book Pro, then the iMac would almost certainly also have it as an option. Finally, there is the outside chance of an anniversary Mac this year, and that would be a good place to do something wacky with the iMac, GPGPU, and four cores.

Mac Mini - Boring hardware updates aside, including "gee whiz" Intel integrated graphics iterations and DisplayPort, the Mini is only worth discussing if it gets melded with the Apple TV. Perhaps the ATV becomes an application that runs best on a Mini near a TV? Maybe Apple makes the Mini $350, kills the Apple TV, and splits the difference of its two brushed metal round-rect offerings? An iPhone-style locked down Apple TV with the hardware of a revised Mac Mini is a potent living room "console", especially if it has accelerometer-ified input hardware shipped in-box. I put the odds of this happening at a billion in one, but it's fun to think about.

Laptops

You're looking at them already, except the 17 will finally come along for the ride.