Wednesday, March 25, 2009

10.6 is the new OS 8

As I wrote earlier, the most important Apple product in the near-term pipeline is OS X 10.6. Speculation is ramping up about the look and feel, capabilities, and changes coming soon.

The release of Mac and iPhone variants of the OS is set for WWDC in June, according to the best guesses of Mac Rumors and Apple Insider. I see no reason to doubt that, though Apple is now late in announcing the exact date of the developer conference. It may be that progress is uneven, and the company is waiting to set a deadline (only speculation.) OS development is so complicated that a delay of a few months is almost assured. The "polish and enhance" mandate of Snow Leopard might make it especially susceptible to long slogs through legacy code, though the predicted end of PowerPC support lifts the burden of targeting that platform. All told, Apple may be planning on a WWDC preview, with a month-or-so-later ship date.

The last major OS revision and Mac platform shift was, of course, OS X. The move to the UNIX-based OS is without a doubt the most significant change in Mac software history. Snow Leopard is no such leap. The most similar past update to the Mac is the shipped Mac OS 8 (not Copland of course.) When that revision arrived, it represented a significant rework of the internals of System 7, came clad in a new but not-unfamiliar UI, and ended support for 680x0 (non PowerPC) Macs.

OS 8 was probably the relative peak of the original Macintosh, as XP compared far more favorably to OS 9 than Windows ME did to the earlier Mac OS. The same may hold true for Snow Leopard, shipped at the tail end of a disastrous Windows release cycle, with future OS X releases coming after Windows 7 (in theory.) Indeed, OS X has been shipping for almost ten years now. Is it becoming as dated as its predecessor? What comes after OS X?

Another possibility is that this revamp represents the start of a new, even better era, as MultiFinder and System 6.0.8 (or 7.something, when that OS finally worked) were the start of a sort-of second generation of the Mac. In this scenario, the OS is "rebuilt in flight", giving Apple a few more years to plan the next complete overhaul, but possibly leading the OS into a spiral of senescence from which it is unable to recover. Apple pushed Classic about as far as possible, and it would be best to avoid being in that risky and desperate a position.

Dumbest article ever?

This article breaks new ground for stupid Apple commentary. I am trying my hardest to lower the bar for pundits with this blog, but I doubt I'll ever hit these lows.

That an Apple tablet is coming is far from a foregone conclusion. If it does exist, we don't know what it looks like or costs, or even if it would be marketed as a Mac or an iPod-something. That's not a problem for Mr. Moritz, though, who calls this non-existent product a failure already.

I have no inside information, but my predictions are as follows. Apple will never release anything like a tablet, because the form factor is designed for stylii, and Apple is pushing touch. Any non-iPhone-sized touch device is unlikely. Furthermore, the Mac will never be sold as a laptop for less than $700. No netbook Mac is coming! The "consumer hit" Moritz describes is only replacing sales of laptops, not generating new sales itself, so it is useless, or worse, to Apple.

The state of the Wintel consumer laptop today is a direct consequence of the failings of Vista. If a PC laptop running Vista was a compelling product, it would sell for $1000+ like a real laptop. Such a thing cannot be built, as nobody wants Vista, especially in the low-end, hobbled incarnation found on low-end PCs. Don't believe the Linux hype either, as the standard netbook purchase is not the $200 generic option, but the $400 model from a name brand running XP. By dint of age that OS runs on what is now very cheap hardware.

Fixing the OS won't fix the problem, because expectations have been forever shifted. The "digital hub" vision of a muscular computer (almost a server, really) powering one's ever-more-computationally-intense "lifestyle", was the (very profitable) holy grail for Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the entire industry. Now, only Apple continues to compete for the many-cycle user. Indeed, who would have thought any popular computer in 2009 would struggle with video editing?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quarterly Mac sales numbers are irrelevant

The recession has Mac pundits frantically calculating the impact of a down economy on Apple's sales. Many project static or declining Mac sales, with cheap netbooks gaining market share quickly. Surely Apple's Waterloo has arrived? Hardly.

The technology industry is almost entirely divided into two types of company, those that make standards, and those that have to follow them. Typically, leaders risk only market share with poor implementation, while followers face an existential threat if they fail to conform.

The pre-"Jobs 2" Apple was the rarest breed, a company that knew it was too small to dictate terms to the industry, but was determined not to try to adhere to the acknowledged industry standard. To survive at all it was thought the Mac had to hold on to standard-bearer status, or relevance, in niches (graphics, publishing, education) and build consumer and corporate market share from a beachhead.

The strategy was impossible to execute. Apple had uniquely expensive R&D overhead (OS, hardware, Claris), and, with less sales volume, could not get equal component pricing. The Mac had a flawed cost structure that no technical edge could overcome. Every quarter of decline represented a trend towards Wintel standardization, and every lost sale pushed the Mac farther from price parity. A recession in this scenario would indeed be dangerous, speeding up market share losses as buyers focused on cost, making the Mac even pricier, and eventually killing it and Apple. (Cool looking Windows PCs coming from Cupertino with Apple badges may have persisted. Yuck.)

The Apple of today faces a far different market. Partial standardization (on Intel) has allowed Apple to direct still-costly R&D towards moving the user-facing platform forward, driving improvements in OS X. That is far different from the old mandate that Apple spend richly to match the competition, or else face a cataclysmic shortfall. The risk that a single misstep in hardware would lower sales and threaten the relevance of the platform has also been lifted. Software availability is no longer completely contingent on rising Mac market share.

So, while sales of "luxury" items may decline, and Mac sales numbers might even fall year-over-year, the consequences are no longer existentially dire should that occur. It is the idea that a Mac works a certain way, not structural costs, keeping Apple out of the netbook market.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Considering the Shuffle 3.0

Apple's new iPod Shuffle is the most controversial iPod since CmdrTaco preferred the Nomad Jukebox. The reviews are not mixed, either, but downright negative.

The recipe for a thumbs-down is the same every time, too. Nobody minds when electronics get smaller, but this shrink of the Shuffle has cost too much usability, say pundits. Moving the buttons off the player and onto the headphone cord is bad, because you cannot use anything besides the included Apple earbuds. The new controls are hard to use unless you're standing still, but the device is designed for every situation besides that.

Outside of the Great Headphone Debacle, reviewers note that the player is way easy to lose, the "colors" are boring, the clip is not as strong as before, and the old dock was preferable to the new headphone-to-USB cord.

Pluses are hard to come by, but increased capacity always plays well, and VoiceOver liberates the Shuffle from its old single-playlist cap in a cool way.

But these reviews miss the broader intent of the Shuffle 3. Like all Shuffles before it, the hardware was not designed to meet Apple's typical brief. The Macintosh, the iPod and iPod Mini/Nano have prosumer market positioning. If you pay a premium, Apple's best-in-class hardware and software interface will deliver the best available listening/computing experience.

The Shuffle 1 was a defensive product. Apple's desire to own digital music distribution to all consumers meant AAC/FairPlay hardware had to address the entire market, or risk losing the battle over DRM standards to Microsoft. Though the true goal, profit, lay in high-end sales, the 50% market share of flash players meant the segment could not be ignored. Also, disk-based iPods crash when they are used during exercise, which was beginning to weigh on the perceived reliability of the iPod. The Shuffle was therefore only an ideal second MP3 player. All of the reviews at the time considered it in isolation, though, and thought it was dead-on-arrival for lacking a screen.

The Shuffle 3 is also defensive, but a more subtle maneuver.

The recession has accelerated the decline of the stand-alone MP3 player. The mass-market for these players seems to be around a thousand songs to choose from between syncs, especially with the Genius and other features making it easier to sync "the right 1000" each time. Since even the 8GB Nano allows for 2000 songs, that base is covered. The Nano is so small, though, that non-music features, like gaming, notes, or calendaring, are hard to implement well. Since the music industry has given up on DRM, the Music Store is also no longer a value-adding feature, either.

Thus, the trend towards multipurpose devices like the iPhone makes the Nano a Cadillac in a world of sidecars. The Shuffle 2 does everything the Nano does except require you to look at it, an act reserved for the iPhone these days, so naturally customers opted for the low-margin Shuffle when they went looking for a music player.

This is a rather destructive trend for Apple's profit margins. The Shuffle 3 takes away the universal headphone compatibility, no-look controls, and panache of the Shuffle 2, once again restricting those features to the Nano.

So what do you get? Nothing less than a new Apple interface, here in beta. VoiceOver is a big shift, and Apple is using the new Shuffle as a testbed for mainstream user interaction with spoken interfaces. The iPod Touch with a two-way spoken interface is Apple's end goal, so they never have to put a volume control on it. As a nice bonus, the Shuffle pushes the sophistication and technological edge of the Mac, too, installing "smooth human" in all languages when synced with a Mac, instead of the "clunky Scandinavian-inflected robot" gone AWOL from the depths of Windows.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hegemony and verve

People who reading this blog probably agree with the following few statements:

* Microsoft dominated consumer and business computing from 1995-2005. They set standards and had first crack at any given media or software market. If something was not Windows-only, it was at least compatible with the relevant Microsoft offering.
Apple was marginalized in that time period, and often had to adjust its offerings to accommodate de facto standards in the wider market. Mac support was an afterthought for most companies, and keeping the Mac viable was Apple's burden.

* Microsoft is large and complacent, and attained dominance through imitation, relentless bullying, and business acumen.

* Apple made it in thin times by being fundamentally innovative and differentiated, and succeeds today, on a huge scale, for the same reasons.

* Microsoft is seen as uncool, a version behind, and so oriented to corporate needs they necessarily are not "the new."

* Apple is perceived as a hip alternative to the status quo.

Apple started its comeback with either the iMac or iPod. Certainly, the dot-com crash took the wind out of the Bondi-colored recovery, so start with the latter. Apple initially played defense, releasing a player and media store Mac-first, and for some while, Mac-only. This guaranteed Mac compatibility with a music player, and the projected (and eventual) standard in DRM. (Both areas were contended [poorly] by Microsoft, too.)

The iPhone was Apple on offense. Smartphones were a business-driven niche. Limited Mac-compatible options did not damage the platform all that much. Apple's offering was not Mac-related, but instead a move to compete in a new market. That it would be innovative was taken for granted. Apple delivered a product that met expectations, and has become a hegemon.

With the recent media attention focused on the Palm Pre, Apple may be in danger of losing its pole position. All that is required to push Apple from alternative to mediocre mainstream would be such a loss. Palm is a tiny company that may pack a gigantic mindshare punch. Apple should eliminate them any way they can.

iPod Touch Tablet or Netbook?

The Mac web is being flooded with "Apple is building a netbook" rumors on a daily basis. Some claim a MacBook Cheap is coming, others a tablet-sized iPhone/iPod Touch variant. Neither makes much sense.

A "MacNetBook" isn't coming. A super-cheap OS X laptop is detrimental for too many reasons. Cannibalization of profitable, full-freight Mac Mini and MacBook sales seems inevitable, and Apple hates that. The netbook price point means a MacNetBook would have a mediocre screen, no GPU, and a dated or sub-notebook class CPU. It would be a cruddy computing experience, sullying a Mac brand Apple has intentionally positioned as the opposite. Finally, creating a slow, cheap general purpose computer means supporting it with software and OS updates, and Apple hardly needs another platform worth of development work.

The iPod Tablet isn't coming either. Such a device dodges cannibalization, Mac brand confusion, and "new platform" issues, but adds a host of other problems. The iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod Touch 1 and 2 have all had the same screen size, touch keyboard layout, and input hardware design. Making a "giant iPod Touch" splits Apple's carefully-tended, homogenous offering in a number of ways.

All of the user learning that has made the touch keyboard a successful alternative to hard keys is gone, as all Tablet users would learn a larger, different soft keyboard. Switching between iPhone thumb input and whatever the tablet requires is as drastic as switching from any other platform, even if both are now OS X-based. A tablet with a hard keyboard is the alternative, but can anyone imagine an Apple OS X Kindle-alike formfactor being released?

App development would be complicated by a new form factor, and the simplicity of the "it works if you can see the App Store" model would be lost. Never mind that users will not tolerate a "more expensive iPod" that has fewer available Apps, certainly at first if not forever, as the market for such a device is way smaller than the multi-million per quarter Touch venue.

Finally, a tablet with the strictures of the iPhone/Touch offering is not as palatable for those who see the openness of other offerings in the price range. It is one thing to trade a Razr for the iPhone with App Store. A netbook switcher confronted with no USB, no disk drive, and the constraints of the rest of the iPhone OS X scheme would have some reason to complain.

So why the rumors? Apple is working on a true iPhone/iPod Touch 2, such a thing is a certainty, and that work is probably generating a lot of speculation. Along with future Mac development, this work is likely coalescing around the most important Apple product right now, OS X 10.6. Once 10.6 is out, Apple will have their next base platform in place, with all the right accommodations for a range of cross-compatible iPhone 2 offerings, and a range of (GPU-heavy) Macs. A Tablet sprung from the last days of the PPC/Intel/Classic mishmash of Leopard is massively unlikely.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tip for Google: How to destroy Twitter

When visitors are logged in, pop up a "say" button next to the search field. Send relevant gMail/chat notifications when people say "@google_user".

Overnight Twitter will be second-place in tweet volume.

Radical proposal / The quieted "Quadra"

Apple should use a tiny fraction of its cash to buy Palm. For just under $800m (of a reported $35b), Palm is extremely cheap. What to do after a purchase is also a quandary.

Acquiring Palm makes sense for a number of reasons. Patents are great to have, and Palm is one of the earliest movers in the handheld computer industry. Lawsuits are already flying over the Pre's iPhone-alike gestures after all, surely Palm's intellectual property hoard is being undervalued. Not relevant to handheld IP, but remember that Palm bought Be Inc. a while back too, representing another relevant pile of research and patents. On a potentially sappy note, reuniting Apple with Jon Rubenstein, who managed to get shambling, desiccated Palm to produce the Treo Pro and Pre, would be a positive, if he is amenable to a return. Finally, taking over Palm eliminates any possibility of the wily competitor producing a really unpleasant surprise.

Apple could go a few different ways with Palm post-acquisition.

They could invest in Palm but leave it separate, producing phones for non-AT&T networks. (Is that eventuality is covered in the exclusivity agreement?) This is obviously unlikely. In some ways a sustaining infusion of cash, and perhaps software (OS X iPhone "licensing" allows for platform diversification without hurting the brand or lessening platform control) mirrors Microsoft's earlier move when Jobs returned, though on a grander scale.

Apple could shut Palm down, unwind its operations, and absorb the best parts of its personnel and technology.

Apple could allow Palm to operate independently for the most part, like FileMaker, and when it went bankrupt as it is on track to do, unwind it in court.

(Jobs is still angry about being under 3Ghz all these years and paradigm shifts later.)

The quieted Quadra

All new Mac desktops
revamped in secret, revealed
in silence by release

The days of Quadras
or the fx blowing the
doors off are long gone.

Where is my midrange
quad-core desktop? You know which...
fit under the screen