Thursday, May 20, 2010

A strange feeling about Google.

I have this strange feeling about Google. About how they seem dead-set on competing with Apple everywhere they can, even though they're really terrible at the things Apple is good at. And even though Apple isn't particularly good at the things Google is good at. And even though Google has such a mind-numbingly large head start in their two crucial technologies - search and contextual ads - that a company like Apple most likely can't pose any kind of existential threat any time soon, even if they do end up dominating the "rich mobile ad" market. Google was never any good at rich media ads to begin with.

The feeling: it's as if Schmidt went to a board meeting at Apple one day and a lightbulb went on above his confused little head, and he heard a choir of angels on a stack of pinheads say: they're making serious money with this shit! We can do that too!

But the thing is, on the evidence they actually can't.

Google has already proven, with YouTube, that it's perfectly willing to lose billions of dollars, and possibly never recover them, preventing someone else from dominating a potentially lucrative market that might be a good match to Google's talents. But in this case you already have a leader, the market's already proven very lucrative for that leader just as it was for the pack that leader just displaced, and there's very little overlap - possibly none at all - with Google's in-house talent. Not to mention there's a little company up in Redmond that's going to take its gloves off as soon as it can find the laces; and there's a little company in Palo Alto that just placed a small bet on following Apple's lead.

I'm curious what's going to become of Google's efforts here. I could easily see them spending many billions of dollars, which they do of course have, just to somehow stay in the game. But remember, Google makes money on advertising. It would be so much cheaper for them to simply extend their domination of that market into the mobile world.

I suppose it's at least theoretically possible to beat Microsoft and Apple at the same time, each on their home turf. But it's a little like racing your sailboat against Larry Ellison: are you really sure you've got the silicon cojones for that?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Early iPad Impressions

I just got back from a trip to Italy. While there I ate a lot of salted pig parts and picked up a shiny new iPad - and by shiny of course I mean smudgy. No, the Italians have not figured out now to make iPads out of salted pig parts and finely worked leather: I had a private courier bring it over. Here now are some initial impressions of the Jesus Tablet.

Smudgy and Reflective

The first two things I noticed about the iPad - literally before I turned it on - were its oleophilic qualities and the mad reflectiveness of its screen. As a MacBook user I long ago made peace with the reflectiveness, though I do wonder whether there isn't some kind of overlay one could use to make that go away, for example when writing in anything other than a dark tunnel. The iPad continues this Apple trend, and seemingly pushes it further. But then, the backlight is so powerful your experience is usually one of "wow this screen is gorgeous," except when it's not, and then you're shading the thing and trying angles like a geometry teacher and seeing little but your own self.

Oh, but did I say oleophilic? Isn't that supposed to be oleophobic as in repelling the oil of your dirty, dirty fingers? Isn't a single wipe across your equally dirty jeans all that's needed to make the iPad all shiny and hygienic again?

In a word: no.

This thing is a fingerprint magnet, a smudge magnet, and as such quite unsettling at certain angles. And while it's relatively easy to get it nice and clean, it's not a one-wipe operation: with a good glasses cloth it took me about 30 seconds to get the bugger fully clean. Clean enough to not bother me is another story: I get there in about 5-10 seconds with any old cotton cloth. Except of course the one I keep soaked in turpentine: don't want to mix any finger oil in there.

Fortunately, with the brightness of the screen you usually don't even notice the smudges. But even though I have no plans to share this iPad - mine mine mine! - I have a feeling I'll be giving it a good scrubbing once a week and also whenever I take it out of the house. Otherwise it just looks... icky.

As my private courier was testing the device in the US and is a mysophobe, I'm very lucky the iPad wasn't soaked in hand sanitizer for an hour after sneaking through customs.

And Yet So Much The Future

Smudges and reflections pretty much complete my complaints about the iPad's industrial design, and I even think the reflection problem is probably beatable. Beyond that, I think this is so obviously the mid-term future of general-purpose computing devices that it's laughable to think of "normal" people using anything else for their immediate computing needs.

The lack of a camera is puzzling only until you have an iPad in hand. Then you realize you'd never really want to take pictures with it. Video chat would of course be grand. We all expect a front-facing camera in the next version, and I strongly suspect they only left it out in order to have a single "must-have" upgrade feature in a year.

I encounter quite a lot of people, mostly online, asking "why not a Netbook?" Well, for me of course, and for my class of user - tech professionals, basically - it's really about which thing is the more useful extra computer. I have three laptops, two of them professional-grade; access to hundreds of servers at work; two smartphones and one dumbphone; and an iPad. This is by no means unusual in my line of work. And weirdly, the loudest anti-iPad, pro-Netbook voices are coming from people like me, for whom the issue is only about replacing the last in a chain of devices. Yes, it's true: you're never going to compile a Linux kernel in your hotel room on an iPad. But why would you want to? Ever heard of AWS?

So that leaves the other 99.5% of the developed world, for whom the iPad seems a great option as a second, portable computer (where the first might also be portable actually); and for many of whom it's more than sufficient as an only computer.

Remember that almost everything you're not satisfied with can be improved by Apple and provided in a free update. Including the need for another computer through which to get the updates. And I think that's the future: an iPad, or if you like an HP WebOSPad or an HTC DroidPad; and basta if you are not an actual professional producer of either code or some other crazily CPU-intensive product such as video. Even casual videographers will one day just have a tablet and a camera. Whatever they call "HTML Programmers" now, they'll need only an iPad. Ditto every garage bandista.

People Who Need No Computer Other Than a 2011 iPad

A partial list, assuming the iPad is fully untethered and has a videochat camera and a year's worth of software updates. Other devices might also fit the bill; I really hope they do, but I'm not holding my breath for five years.

  1. Journalists, including Bloggers
  2. Salespeople
  3. System Administrators
  4. Chefs
  5. Doctors
  6. University Students
  7. Clinical Researchers
  8. "HTML Programmers"
  9. Editors
  10. Tour Guides
  11. Senators, MPs et al.
  12. Zookeepers
  13. Teachers
  14. Kids
  15. Astronauts

The Keyboard

First let me say that I love my iPhone's virtual keyboard, and I also love my Apple Wireless Keyboard. So the iPad should be that much better, right?

Not quite. I haven't tried Apple's Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad yet but I expect it to be just fine - at a cost, of course, of portability. I've also seen some other interesting Bluetooth keyboards in use. But the virtual keyboard - really two keyboards, one slightly too wide in portrait orientation and one almost right in landscape - take a lot of getting used to.

I can touch-type a bit faster with large virtual keyboard than I can hunt and peck. With the small one I hunt and peck reasonably fast with two hands, but with one hand it gets very slow. I haven't clocked it yet but I strongly suspect I type faster with one hand on my iPhone virtual keyboard than with two on the smaller of the iPad keyboards (portrait orientation).

I imagine this will just take some getting used to. And maybe a little Mavis Beacon along the way. Dan Moren wrote a nice little MacWorld article on the keyboard situation, after using his iPad for a whole month.

While I don't expect Apple will change anything about the keypad, I do expect that a lot of people will start making highly portable Bluetooth keyboards in the next year or so. Why now, when so many have tried and, er, discontinued before? Well, we've long had mobile devices that could somehow talk to external keyboards. But this is the first one with which you can actually do serious shit. Sorry Palm, it's true. Good luck with the acquisition.

The Forming Apposphere

I was more than a little surprised to find that, despite Apple's practically taunting us with the 200,000 iPad/iPhone apps, there really isn't that much of high quality available yet.

Maybe my quality expectations are high. But no Facebook? No proper editor of Office files? (Pages is nice, but it isn't that.) No really serious photo editor? No full-featured blogging app?

All of these have apps either close to release or released and close to serious, but a month into it none of these fairly predictable needs has been met.

Of course, for me, a software guy, lack of iPad apps is an opportunity. I'm actually thrilled by the dearth of compelling apps, simply because it's going to take quite a while for me to learn how to make my own and become even slightly competitive. But I can also imagining it slowing the adoption rate, especially in conservative countries like Germany, where I currently live.

The Brushes app deserves special mention as a fun, creative, and very iPadesque program. In short, it's a finger-painting program, but it's a very very good one. It's been around for a long time for the iPhone, but that was more of an affair for fetishists. With the iPad it's a much more realistic proposition.

And even if you're not an artist, I recommend Brushes for two needs you will definitely encounter over the next year or so: giving the iPad up to kids (supervised of course), and showing it off to strangers. For the latter case you need something that "does something" without, say, showing off your e-mail. Brushes will play back your drawings as they were made, and with the bright iPad screen that's a hell of a demo.

I'll discuss more specific apps and app categories in depth at a later date, but in short there are a few categories I thought would be very well served out of the gate but were not:

  • Newspapers - there are few dedicated apps, and what there are suck, with the New York Times giving the most egregious face-plant.
  • Magazines - same story, plus no consensus on whether to sell issues as new apps or do them in-app (the latter being the obvious solution).
  • News aggregators - yep, no good ones for iPad yet. WTF?!
  • Social networking - duh. Double-WTF?!
  • General informational apps, like... wait for it... weather. There's buggy WeatherBug, but not much else.
  • Professional productivity.

That last category deserves a separate note. Pages is very interesting, and a steal at $10, and a good first cut of a document composer. But it's fairly unpolished on the usability end - no doubt because of the necessarily limited pre-launch testing - and it's not at all suited to serious composition. It's great for making a good-looking, short document in a hurry on the go, but you'd be a little crazy to try to write anything serious with it. I've read similar things about Numbers, though I haven't tried it yet; and Keynote is said to be quite awesome but with serious compatibility and sync issues.

I see no reason why Microsoft doesn't come in here and offer Office for iPad for $99. OmniGroup has already successfully (so far) set the price bar for software with which you actually get professional work done: $50 for OmniGraffle. I think a real, almost-fully-compatible package of Word, Excel and Powerpoint would fetch double that. Hell, I'd pay that much for Word and Excel.

Oh wait, I can think of one reason why they're not there. They're not agile enough to come up with plausible names for their products at the moment, so breaking this sort of new ground is asking a bit much of Redmond. Well, OK, I believe they'll get there within two years, and I'm patient - but I'm not sure they'll be able to charge $99 if they wait that long. I paid $30 for OmniFocus for iPhone way back when, and then saw the market drop to dollar apps.

Price Wars?

Lurking around the App Store I discovered an interesting thing. No, it's not that there are thousands of apps that are made of duct tape and sawdust for an audience of three; we both knew that already. It's that the magic price point is $4.99.

I think Apple moved the needle there by charging $10 each for Pages and Numbers and Keynote. They had the bully pulpit and could have charged more - I certainly wish they'd moved the needle higher, but I'm not sure they could have. iPhone apps have mostly been a race to the bottom both in price and in quality.

So if you want to charge more than $10, you have to either be very coveted (maybe a popular video game) or have a case for why you're "worth more" than something like Pages. Not that you could ever break even investing an iWork-like amount of software development into an app you sell for $10, but never mind: people have to think it's "worth more."

OmniGraffle can make this claim pretty easily: it's a tool used by professionals, for whom the convenience of doing even a small part of their diagramming on a plane or a train is worth radically more. If you use an app like that for work, $50 is a steal.

But others can't. If you don't have a very obvious selling point for well-compensated professionals, you're pretty much doomed to be called too expensive if you charge more than $4.99.

The good news, of course, is that you can charge $4.99 for anything bigger than a throwaway app. Remember, probably 99% of the Apposphere is throwaway apps, for which free is the only reasonable price but $0.99 is a commonly acceptable approximation of free.

It appears that $10 is also a key price point: the basic professional app. If you have something that's not earth-shattering, that won't necessarily make people money nor save the time of highly paid individuals, but is at least a professional tool - even for aspiring professionals - then $10 is your price point. But be prepared for some negative comments.

And the bad news is that if you charge $10.99 you might as well charge $50, since people will complain all day that you're too expensive unless you're obviously not.

I don't mind, but I find it interesting. Why that price exactly? And will it hold? Or will $0.99 be the new "cheap" with $4.99 the new "expensive" and anything above that only appealing to the pros?

The Awkwardness of Holding

Another thing that has surprised me about my iPad: it's rather awkward to hold the thing. I have not yet found a good angle at which to hold it even for watching videos, much less for surfing the web or reading an iBook or typing an email.

I predict this will create a huge, lucrative and hopefully also innovative market for accessories: stands, holders, cases, the like.

I also predict that over time it will influence Apple to make the thing lighter. It's already much lighter than a laptop, but it's also much heavier than a normal book: that is, it's a bit awkward to hold it in bed or on the couch, and your hand tends to get tired interacting with it. If I'm right and most people find this the defining ergonomic hitch, I believe Apple will be strongly motivated to go lighter before they go more powerful (or go for longer battery). Once the competition wakes up, there will be competitors who will try to offer more raw power and more battery, but I have a very hard time seeing anyone get close to the power/battery/weight ratio the iPad already has. Making it lighter would be a much faster way to increase the distance from the competition.

When and if there is competition, of course. At the moment there is none. Nothing. Nobody. Not even close.

HP, with its acquisition of Palm, is the most likely contender. Google's Android OS and/or Chrome OS (designed for Netbooks) still needs a credible hardware partner, and neither Nokia nor Sony has it together right now (they could though, soon, if they wake up).

Mine Mine Mine!

One truly glaring deficiency in the operating system itself has been noted elsewhere, and I'll note it again: we need a way to either have multiple user accounts on one iPad or, better, to lock the thing into a single app.

Even in a world where every man, woman and child has their own iPad, you're still going to hand your iPad to someone else to check out that one app or that one photo album. And then you're stuck in an awkward position: you don't want to hover over them and watch what they're doing, but you also don't want them to stumble into your email (or other important document), let alone trigger one of the juicy porn links in your browser history.

And I think I really have the One True Profitable Answer to this problem. Instead of having multiple accounts on an iPad - and thus an incentive to buy fewer, and a nightmare of resource management - simply have a fast and easy way for a user to lock to one app.

There's already a bit of a precedent for this: the Picture Frame app doesn't require login, it runs - if you like - instead of the normal iPhone home screen, until and unless you enter your PIN code.

So I envision an easy way to lock an iPad into a single, running app. Say, double-click the Sleep button and you get a dialog asking if you want to lock into the current app. Once locked, the Home button just gets you the PIN-code entry option. If the app crashes, the iPad goes to sleep. And you can put it to sleep in the normal way, and if you really want to quit an app but don't have the PIN code, just hold that Home button for a bit.

I'm sure if they did this, people would immediately start screaming for the ability to lock to a drawer full of apps instead of just one. But my problem would be completely solved if I could lock to one app. I don't even want multiple accounts on my iPad: it's mine mine mine, but I'll let you use it for this oooone little app, just don't break it.

Parting Thoughts

I've had my iPad for just over a week. Yes, it's magical. Yes, it's revolutionary. Yes, it's a steal for the price. Yes, it's much more - or at least much different - than a big iPhone. No, it's not fully baked. No, the keyboard isn't easy to use. No, the App Store isn't a magical repository of life-changing software. No, we don't quite know what we're going to use it for.

But I'm old enough to remember when we figured out what to use home computers for. You felt the potential in the machines, you were sure it was a turning point in history, and of course it was. You just had to figure out what to do with them, and write or build the software or hardware or accessory to make it possible.

Ever since the iPhone came out, I've had that same feeling about mobile computers. And now I feel it with the iPad - as if Apple were trying to pull the world of "home computing" into its iPhonetastic realm of the future - the Magical Jesus Tablet Future™ but hey, it was this or flying cars, right?