Archive for the ‘Gadgets & Toys’ Category

What’s Wrong with That?

April 27th, 2011 1 comment

This is weird, at least to me:

Google says that 39% admit to having used their smarpthone [sic] while going to the bathroom….

OK, not “smarpthone,” that’s obviously just a typo. But first, why use the verb “admit to”? Is there something shameful about using your smartphone on the john? Heck, I sometimes take my iPad or even my laptop in there. Proudly!

The other odd thing is, only 39%? Does this tie in to the shame some people apparently feel? Using a smartphone would seem only natural, especially as it is an item we often carry with us and so is handy when no other material is available. I mean, really, some people resort to reading the labels on shampoo bottles; you’d think that people would be happy to be able to whip out their phone to play a few rounds of their favorite game or catch up on their email.

Instead of assuming that only 39% of people admit to using their smartphone in the bathroom, I would assume that 61% simply forgot to bring it with them.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:


October 7th, 2010 2 comments

Went to CEATEC today. Lots of cool stuff. Heard one piece of news that may make me change over: WiMAX, already tempting as an Internet-everywhere solution for $50/mo. for (theoretically) 40 Mbps, will be converting to WiMAX version 2 in 2012. The speed of the new wide-coverage wireless Internet? 330 Mbps. Yep–three times faster than current fiber-optic speeds offered in Japan. (Again, theoretically.) And it’ll work when you’re at high speed, like when the bullet train you’re on is going faster than 300 km/hr.

The portable, battery-powered WiFi converters (which take the WiMAX signal and translate it into WiFi emanating from your backpack or pocket) also are available, meaning you can have a mobile WiFi signal with you all the time (that you’re not underground) for your laptop, iPad, and even the iPhone if you want to keep the data plan charges to a minimum.

More on this later.

…And the Kitchen Sink in Five Weeks

September 2nd, 2010 7 comments

At least, that’s what it seemed like. Apple released just about everything else left, after all the product releases so far this year. The iPod Shuffle, Nano, and Touch; iOS 4.1, and a look at 4.2 for the iPad; iTunes 10 with Ping; Apple TV completely reworked, and AirPlay.

The iPods, perhaps, had to be reworked to keep ahead of the iPhone’s shadow, and there’s some pretty cool stuff–a lot of it for people who don’t want the phone.

iTunes 10 looks OK, but really it’s all about Ping. It’s a question as to whether it will actually take off, but frankly, it looks like a no-brainer. Me, I’m not so centered on my music, and I tend to stay with what I’ve had for some time. But I can see a lot of people doing this, and more significantly, use it as an engine to sell music. Bands can use it to popularize their music, and for people who are really into music, it’ll be with them quite a lot. Will it come close to Facebook or Twitter? If anything can, it probably will.

Between these products, it’s not a far stretch to say that Apple is keeping a pretty solid lock on the hold they have on the market by now.

But the potentially big thing is Apple TV. I didn’t used to want it. Now I kinda do. It’s affordable enough, and looks so versatile about content that I’d love to be able to have it there. My only problem is that I live in Japan, which is a crummy place for video content, alas. But even with that–and so much of what the product does closed off to me–I’m still thinking about this.

This could be Apple’s chance to finally have their TV box take off.

FInally, just a quick word about Apple’s streaming webcast: I like it. Not perfect–at some points, it sputtered and blacked out for a minute at a time, but it gave a great picture, high quality, despite streaming live–Apple is doing some pretty nice things with video. It looked perfect in its 850 x 480 window, and almost as good full-screen. Below are some screen shots, displayed here at 500 pixels, but they’re full-screen (1440 x 900) screenshots; click to see the full images. And it’s late, so good night!





Categories: Gadgets & Toys, Mac News Tags:

Blockbuster vs. Bluster

July 30th, 2010 2 comments

Steve Ballmer on the iPad:

They’ve sold certainly more than I’d like them to sell, let me just be clear about that. We have got to make things happen. Just like we had to make things happen on netbooks, we’ve got to make things happen with Windows 7 on slates, and we’re in the process of doing that as we speak.

Well, Steve, we’re waiting. And so far, we’re unimpressed. Despite having a multi-year head start on cell phone operating systems, Microsoft was caught off-guard and only now–three years after the iPhone first came out, three and a half since it was introduced–is their own product, Windows Phone 7, on the verge of coming out… kind of, maybe before the end of the year. And remember what Ballmer said about the iPhone back before its release:

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

Oh, Steve. What a card.

What happened was that Microsoft was arrogant and miscalculated. It had a crappy OS, and mistook a lack of competition for excellence. It didn’t get cell phones, didn’t see the same potential Apple saw. And as a result, they were left sitting in the iPhone’s dust, wondering what the hell went wrong. They had to completely abandon what they had and start over from scratch, putting them years behind.

So, what does this say about tablets? Ballmer introduced a few running Windows before the iPad was introduced; nobody was interested. Probably one of the biggest problems is that despite appearances, Microsoft doesn’t have an OS for tablets yet. All it has is its OS designed for desktops and laptops, which is particularly unsuited for tablets. Ballmer said at the beginning of the year that tablets “should take advantage of the touch and mobility capabilities of Windows 7.” But Windows was designed for a single-point user interface, tablets run best with multi-touch. Microsoft is still stuck in the past in this regard. Back at the beginning of the year, Bill Gates said:

You know, I’m a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard — in other words a netbook – will be the mainstream on that. So, it’s not like I sit there and feel the same way I did with iPhone where I say, “Oh my God, Microsoft didn’t aim high enough.” It’s a nice reader, but there’s nothing on the iPad I look at and say, “Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it.”

This shows one of the reasons why Microsoft was again caught off guard: it didn’t get tablets, just like it didn’t get the cell phone. Remember, Microsoft eschewed finger-based interfaces with cell phones right up until the iPhone became a runaway hit, thinking that people preferred using a stylus. Unbelievably, Gates still thinks people prefer a stylus over multitouch, and after seeing the iPad, still thought that netbooks would win out. With the iPad likely having sold around five million units so far, and aiming for 10 million by the end of the year, tablets–with the iPad predominating–are predicted to outsell netbooks within just a few years.

Ballmer now says that Microsoft will “make things happen” on tablets like they did on netbooks, but that’s not so likely. The way Microsoft “made things happen” on netbooks was to pressure manufacturers to replace Linux with Windows XP, until netbooks got powerful enough to run Windows 7. That’s not “making things happen,” that’s just throwing your weight around and (as usual) not really innovating anything. And on tablets, it’s not like Apple will be pressured to put Windows 7 on the iPad, not to mention that Microsoft will be up against Android tablets as well–and Google won’t be as easy a push-over as Linux was.

As usual, Microsoft got it wrong on its own, and is playing catch-up here. What else is new?

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, iPad Tags:

No Copying

March 19th, 2010 Comments off

Remember how the iPhone originally didn’t have copy and paste? And remember how critics, in particular Windows supporters making fun of the “Apple Fanbois,” put down the iPhone for not having copy and paste?

Guess what the Windows Phone 7 OS won’t have?

Some people are not happy. And this is not coming from somebody who was OK with the feature missing from the iPhone; I commented on the iPhone’s lack before (2008: “[a] negative … makes no sense,” 2009: “This is a biggie … they needed this”).

Microsoft’s explanation of why they’re not including it: people don’t use copy and paste. Yeah, I thought that was an exaggeration myself. But Gizmodo has the goods, including a recording of a Microsoft guy telling them that:

Microsoft says leaving clipboard operations out was a conscious design decision based on user research showing that people don’t actually use copy and paste very often, and that instead 7 Series features a systemwide data detection service which recognizes things [l]ike phone numbers and addresses so you can take action on them. Third-party apps can hook into this service, so that an email address can be routed to the email client of your choice, but there’s no copy and paste functionality. We specifically asked about Office and OneNote, and we were told that Microsoft’s research shows that people mostly want to view and comment on documents, not move things around. We also specifically asked if copy and paste was coming later and were told no, although we’d guess that it’s at least being worked on for a future version.

Wow. Did Apple ever say anything that stupid? I don’t recall anything like that–I believe Apple just didn’t say anything either way in their infuriating, cat-like take-it-or-leave-it attitude. But telling people they don’t use it is as arrogant as it is wrong: the point is not that people don’t use it every day, it’s that when they do use it, it is a huge convenience and saves a lot of trouble. Instead, Microsoft says that it’s sufficient that the phone smart-detects phone numbers and addresses and allows actions to be taken on those–something the iPhone

Oh yeah, and no multitasking for third-party apps, either. I think a few Windows fanboys have had choice words for the iPhone in regards to that as well.

Update: Microsoft, no doubt in response to the reactions everyone has been giving, is now saying that they “will continue to improve our feature set over time based on what we hear,” leaving the door open for copy-and-paste to be added. Interesting how the official line before the public reaction was that they simply were not going to have the feature. How did this really not occur to them in the planning stage? Did they completely miss the two-year firestorm of criticism over the iPhone’s similar lack?

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, iPhone Tags:

Windows Phone Series 7

February 17th, 2010 5 comments

Named only as awkwardly as Microsoft can name a thing, the new Windows Mobile OS is out, and making quite a bit of a fuss in the gadget community. What strikes me is that virtually everyone on the major tech sites is raving about this, saying it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread–and virtually no one is panning it. Looking at all the major sites, I can’t find a single person saying, “I don’t like this.” Which is immensely suspicious, because somebody always hates something new, and it’s not like there’s nothing to criticize about the new mobile OS. It’s almost as if people feel obligated to give the product raving reviews, either out of guilt (I don’t want to seem unfair after praising Apple’s products), relativism (this is great because it’s far better than WinMo 6.5!), or simply because it’s not by Apple.

The WPS7 (seriously, what will become the shorthand for this thing?) is based on the Zune, using its interface style and including the DAP within the new structure. Notably, Microsoft doesn’t want these to be called “Zune Phones,” for obvious reasons. Not that the Zune HD was bad–it was Microsoft’s first good version of the machine–but it was way too little, way too late, after having established a very bad image for the brand name. They have not banished the Zune name, but they are definitely burying it somewhat.

Microsoft definitely did a several things right with this OS. The design elements are very well done, taking the best from the Zune and adding more good stuff. The elemental colors are a Microsoft standard, but they are done with a classy, understated elegance which is hard to dislike. There are cool animated transitions that dazzle, at least at first. Microsoft seems to be adding Office functionality, but not much is out on that yet–if you can view and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on this, it’ll be a huge plus (albeit difficult on such a small device). But Microsoft’s smartest move is making the phone integrate seamlessly with social networking features, bound to be a big hit with the younger crowd–the one especially into the iPhone right now. And that’s a big giveaway–this is not aimed at Microsoft’s usual business crowd, this is a broadside directly aimed at the iPhone’s user base. Centering the OS around activities, defined under ‘hubs,’ Microsoft is trying to make this a user-centric, experience-based machine.

So, is it as good as everyone is raving? One very telling point is found in all the praise. There are several recurring themes that are common to the gush:

It’s not the piece of crap WinMo 6.5 was. This should be damning with faint praise–almost nobody liked the previous version of the OS. A blind chimp with Tourette’s could have designed a better OS for a touchscreen phone. But the improvement is commonly touted as a big deal, though usually with the added note that, “it’s not only not a piece of crap, it’s actually pretty good.”

It’s got great graphics. Fair enough–a lot of people loved the iPhone for similar reasons. The thing is, the same people now in love with the eye candy were the same ones dismissing it with the iPhone. The iPhone persevered because it functioned well in real use, something that only a few people issue caveats about concerning WPS7.

Praise for the same things the iPad was knocked for. Many are praising the WPS7 for borrowing an existing (Zune) style and functionality, something the iPad was criticized for. Nobody is saying, “Oh, it’s just a phone version of Zune” like they’re saying that the iPad is just “an oversized iPod Touch,” despite both going well beyond the original models in functionality. Similarly, people are avoiding criticism of WPS7 for things they gnash their teeth at where Apple’s products are concerned. No multitasking? We’ll mention it, but not whine about it like we’re doing with Apple’s gear. No Flash? Oh, who cares? In fact, nearly all potential points of criticism are muted, where they were highlighted not just with the iPad, but with the iPhone since it was first announced. Paucity of apps? Lack of an SDK? No details on major elements of the product? These were major complaints raised again and again after the iPhone was announced, and yet no one seems to mind or care much with WPS7. Why not? Then there’s the ecosystem: a major complaint about Apple mobile gear is that Apple controls it. Well, WPS7, with it’s hub-rather-than-app focus, seems designed even more to lock in control by Microsoft–but nobody’s getting on their high horse about it. Why not? Why fall all over Apple for all of these things, and then just a few weeks later have no objections when Microsoft comes out with a product with the exact same features? just about the only criticism I can find about WPS7 across more than one site is for the name. Even under the incredibly positive hype when the iPhone originally debuted, there was still far more focus on the negatives than Microsoft is getting now. Is this an IOKIYM deal?

Praise for nothing new. “You can see how many emails and phone messages are waiting right on the main screen!” Um… that’s been on the iPhone forever, dudes. “It’s minimalist!” Same deal. “It has a touch screen, multitouch no less!” Uhh…“It has cloud computing!” OK, maybe all of this belongs under the “It’s not the piece of crap that WinMo 6.5 was” category.

Unreserved Praise without hands-on. In contrast to people hating the iPad despite testimony that you need a hands-on to appreciate it, people are gushing about the WPS7 without really experiencing it. From Microsoft’s “Mojave” campaign, we know full well that Microsoft is very good at making their product look 100% better under strictly controlled conditions.

Finally, one should note what is absent from the praise: the OS’s functionality and ease-of-use. Everyone is talking about the appearance and the features, but no one seems to be talking about what it would be like to use it. Nobody is saying that it looks like it’s easy to use. Nobody is mentioning the smart design of the menus, or how simple it would be to navigate. All this despite the essential information on that being out there in full view. And I think the reason is because functionality seems to be the major flaw in this device. It’s designed to look cool, not to function well.

This is where the iPhone excelled: ease of use. Turn it on and there are the buttons. Flipping the screen to the next page is easy to learn. That’s it–the user takes over from there by adding the apps that they want and arranging them how they like. The iPhone is designed to be easy to understand, easy to use. It’s designed to simply function and then get out of your way. Lest we forget (and it looks like people have), that was the revolution that the iPhone brought: smartphones made simple.

The WPS7 seems to be oblivious to the design philosophy.That stands out right away: both the iPhone and the WPS7 OS try to be cool, but the WPS7 OS tries to be cool for the sake of being cool, at the expense of functionality. That’s a big no-no. When Apple has cute animation features, it stays within the confines of functionality; for example, when you scroll to the end of a list on the iPhone, it goes a little beyond the end so it can “bump” against the bottom and spring back. That’s a cutesy animation, but it is also functional and stays within good design parameters. It’s a visual reminder that you’ve reached the end of something, and it doesn’t detract in any way. When you want to rearrange app icons, they shake. Again, cutesy, but functional–it tells you that you’re in layout mode. Look at almost every animation in any Mac OS, and you’ll find that it conforms to this basic philosophy: in some way, each animation dovetails with the function.

Looking at the WPS7 animations, I see something comepletely different: cutesy animations purely for the sake of looking cool. For example, sometimes you tap on something, like a name, and it moves in an arc to a new location on the screen. For what purpose other than to be snazzy? Not much. How does that inform you about what you’re doing? Not at all. Then there are the too-wide scrolling screens, with five or six times more content than can show on the phone at once, where you have to wipe back and forth several times to see what’s there. the number of panes is not standard for any area, so you’ll be constantly wondering how far it goes. Worse, there’s no index from which you can jump to the part you want, nor any indicator to see what all the parts are. Then there’s the thing about a sliver of the next area being visible at the edge–which to me feels like a design flaw, not a feature. It’s a counter-intuitive way of handling what is essentially a bad design idea: presenting too much information in too small a space.

Then how about navigation? The WPS7 seems to have a steep learning curve–you have remember what’s buried in the too-big panels and get accustomed to a non-linear fashion of moving around. It does not look like the simple, easy interface that makes the iPhone stand out. Again, that was it’s big point–before the iPhone, smartphones were a dizzying maze of functions that took forever to learn. Most users didn’t access even a small percentage of the features for that reason. The iPhone was a hit not just because it looked snazzy–that was a plus, not the main point. It was a hit because it made using your smartphone easy.

People seem to have bought into the criticism that the iPhone depends primarily on eye candy, and Microsoft seems to have completely forgotten the simplicity part of the equation. While people who hate the iPhone or love social networking may be willing to accept WPS7’s design flaws, it could be that many will not. Or perhaps I am overestimating the apparent complexity of the OS. But I still ask the same question: why aren’t the tech sites talking about this? Does Microsoft get a bye simply because they’re not sucking as bad as usual? Is it the Apple guilt syndrome?

One last note: everybody is oohing and ahhing the animations now. Will they still be smitten when they’ve had to use this interface for a month or more? Like the “blink” tag, animated GIFs, and Flash animations, such overstated cutesyness is initially fun or even impressive, but after using them for a while, they positively grate on you. I can see the WPS7 animations doing the same thing–especially since they are not in the least bit functional. Hopefully, Microsoft will give you the ability to turn them off if you prefer.

As I’m sure someone will point out, this review will be suspect coming from me. I have a long history of liking Apple and not liking Microsoft, and own Apple stock to boot. So by all means, take this with a grain of salt–but that means to question it rationally, not to dismiss it out of hand. While I have been described as a “mindless” Apple fanboy, I beg to differ–my enthusiasm for the iPad has been expressed in great depth on this site in very specific terms regarding the design, function, and potential of the product. Far from just, “Oooo, something new from Apple, it’s gotta be kewl!,” I looked at it with the same initial skepticism I did with the Apple TV, with pretty much every Apple mouse that’s come out, and with Apple Mail app. If the WPS7 phone is much better than I think, please explain in terms as specific as those expressed above.

To help get a better idea, you might want to see this live demo, under less-controlled circumstances but still without letting non-Microsoft hands touch the device. Even with a trained and practiced Microsoft rep handling it, note how much trouble he has. Not a good sign. Microsoft does, of course, have 10 or 11 months to work out the kinks (huge lead time, that). Also note how the guy ignores a few specific requests to show features.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, iPhone Tags:

Why the iPad Is Deceptively Good

January 31st, 2010 5 comments

A lot of people are panning the iPad, voicing a variety of complaints. It’s not revolutionary, they say; there’s nothing new here, it’s just a giant iPod Touch. It’ll be too heavy, too awkward, I don’t see how I will hold it or use it for such-and-such an application. It doesn’t replace other devices like the iPhone did, putting the features of the cell phone, iPod, and PDA all in one place. There’s no multitasking, no front-facing camera for video conferencing, there’s no USB or video out without an adaptor, no HDMI at all, and Flash doesn’t work on it. The battery can’t be replaced. The screen is a bad aspect ratio for watching widescreen video, I hate touchscreen keyboards, and an LCD monitor is bad for my eyes when I read. And the name is terrible, just look at all the feminine hygeine jokes.

So, the iPad is the biggest disappointment in history relative to its hype, right? From how these people are complaining about it, you would think so. It seems like articles based on the “iPad sucks” thesis are in vogue now. The question is, are they right? Is the iPad being trashed for good reason? Well, you can easily see from the title of this blog entry that I disagree. So let me explain why. It helps to break down the complaints into categories: lack of features, lack of novelty, and the user experience.

Lack of Features

Many people are upset that the iPad lacks many things they expected. This is often because they heard about such features in pre-release rumors, and came to think of them as part of what the iPad should be. It has a powerful enough CPU, so there should be multitasking; why won’t Apple support Flash animations; the device is a natural for video conferencing so where’s the camera; and why doesn’t it have the ports I want?

There are three answers to cover all of these questions. First, some features are software-specific, like multi-tasking. As with the iPhone, multitasking can and will be added with a software upgrade. If you get an iPad today, expect improvements to come without having to purchase a new device. Just like early iPhone adopters eventually got features like the App Store and cut-and-paste despite them not existing on the original device, your iPad will similarly receive updates, and multi-tasking is an obvious one–not to mention that it is implied in OS upgrades even now being tested.

Second, some physical features were not included in the original model, but they will be eventually. Yes, there’s no camera–but you can fully expect the feature to come with a future model. Again, just like the iPhone originally had no GPS, no video camera, and no compass, the iPad comes with a relative paucity of features. This was an obvious thing to expect; I predicted it myself in a blog post published ten days before the iPad was announced. This is simply the way many products are released. If you feel that a front-facing camera is a must-have, then simply wait for the next model to come out.

Third, some features were not included for design and esthetic reasons. We all know that Steve Jobs is a stickler for seamless designs; it’s the reason he never added a separate, physical right-click button to any Apple mouse. Few people agreed with him, and maybe this aspect of his design preferences is unnecessarily off-base. But this is part of the overall package, both the good and the bad, and what it means in the end is just that there’s no seam for a removable battery, and fewer ports along the edges. Fewer ports may also be a pricing or manufacturing concern, but whatever the case, most of these issues can be worked around, or don’t matter as much as many may think. You can add USB, SD card, and video out with adaptors. HDMI adaptors may come in the future (just as third-party HDMI adaptors came out for the MacBook Pro), but VGA should suffice in most situations if you want to use it as an output device. As for the battery, ten hours is more than almost anyone would use the device in a single day, and plugging in the device to recharge at night is not a hardship.

Some people complain about the lack of sufficient storage. I myself am peeved by Apple’s pricing tiers: $100 is way too steep for an extra 16 or 32 GB of memory. They clearly want to lure people in with the base price, but get them to end up spending the extra cash on more memory after having decided to buy one. However, there is a possible reason why the amount of internal storage won’t matter as much: networking. The iPad is not designed to be a storage device any more than the iPhone is. You don’t store your entire film and music libraries on the iPhone, you leave them on your main device and then sync the media with iTunes; same with the iPad. With the iPhone, wireless syncing was not included due to certain issues, battery life being the most significant. With the iPad, that may not be an issue. If you need a file, then from what I hear, you will be able to get it from your main computer using the WiFi network. Most stuff will be stored over the network, and so more storage on the iPad won’t be a big issue.

That leaves the lack of Flash support, and that was not an oversight: Apple intentionally left it out. They did so because they see Flash as more of a vulnerability than a benefit. Flash is slow, buggy, and opens up security holes. Personally, I detest Flash; although it can be used beneficially in controlled moderation, most Flash designers go way overboard, creating a web-surfing blight unmatched by any other, including the animated GIF and the “blink” tag. Apple is right to abandon it–and not just because it would open up the iPhone and iPad to hacking attacks, which is a good enough reason by itself. Flash is so Internet Explorer 6, it’s the Floppy Disk of software. Apple abandoned floppies years ahead of Windows PC makers, and they are similarly ahead of the curve where Flash is concerned. HTML5 is where it’s at.

IducttapeLack of Novelty

The next category of complaint is that the iPad isn’t revolutionary. We again see the problem–once more, as I predicted before the iPad was debuted–where expectations raised by the rumor mill led to disappointment. Everyone was looking forward to something completely new, a revolutionary OS or a stunning new design. Instead, Apple came out with what was essentially just a big iPod Touch. Why did it takes years for the Apple design team to start from scratch several times over to come up with something so basic?

It helps to remember that Apple’s challenge here was not to make something completely new and unexpected; Apple’s challenge was to make a tablet computer that would be practical and fun to use. People just assumed that this would naturally involve something new and revolutionary. I was personally nervous about the rumored “steep learning curve” of the tablet: if Apple made it too revolutionary and different, then people might not be able to use it. Just look at the iPhone’s touchscreen keyboard–hardly a huge new concept, but people freaked out at the idea.

The lack of novelty in the iPad might be explained by the old saying, “That’s a feature, not a bug.” As Steve Jobs pointed out in the unveiling, there are about 75 million people who will know exactly how to use this device from the word go. Apple chose the exact opposite of a steep learning curve, and once you think about that in light of the challenge of making a tablet computer easy to use, it makes perfect sense. The iPad is not intended to wow you with its novelty, it’s intended to be comfortable and convenient. People who complain that it’s just a big iPod Touch are completely missing the whole point of this new device.

One other consideration along these lines is the iPad’s place in the spectrum of usability. Many have noted that it doesn’t replace anything, save possibly for ebook readers. The iPhone, for example, replaced the need for lugging around a cell phone, PDA, ipod, digital camera, and video recorder. That’s wonderful, but that doesn’t mean that every device has to accomplish the same goal. The iPad was not design to replace existing products, it was designed to fulfill an existing need. That need was for a mobile device which was more capable than a smartphone, but easier to tote and carry than a laptop. It may not be the widest category of need you can imagine, but a lot of people will greatly appreciate and desire exactly such a device. Students will go nuts over what this will do for textbooks, for example. People who want color, backlit ebook readers will love it. How many people have complained about laptops being too heavy, or burning their legs with the excess heat, but can’t do what they want on a tiny smartphone screen? And then there are the uses that nobody thinks they need right now, but the iPad will open up for them–a holy grail in product design.

The User Experience

That brings us to the last category of complaint: it looks like I won’t like it. It looks too heavy and awkward to hold, the size is wrong, the screen won’t be good for me, the touchscreen keyboard is no good. The problem is, people who have only seen the device and have never held one in their hands are already making judgments about what it feels like to use one. That may be why almost all of the criticisms are coming from those who have never had a hands-on with the device. Look at the reviews by those who have played with the device, however, and you’ll encounter the same advice that Jobs gave: you have to use it before you understand how right it is. Once you use it, you may find that your concerns were unwarranted or have easy solutions. It may be heavy, but so are some books; we compensate by holding such objects while resting them on our laps or whatever surface is available. The touch keyboard may seem awkward, but so did the iPhone’s, and most people seemed to have little trouble adapting to that. I myself took just a few hours to get used to it, and now type on my phone almost as fast as I do a full-sized keyboard (a miracle relative to the numeric-keypad hell that I avoided for so long). The screen may be brightly backlit, but that’s what the brightness control is for.

This is not to say that the iPad will be for everybody. Some will never get used to a virtual keyboard; others will never be comfortable holding it; many may be bothered by any level of light from a backlit LCD screen; some may hate the design and esthetics, or may never get over their high expectations from the pre-launch days. Apple has always had its haters, and always will. That doesn’t mean that the product is bad or doomed to failure.

Dispelling Criticisms Is Not Proof of Excellence

You may have noticed that I have spent the entire blog post so far explaining why the negative reviews are off base, and have not really explained why the iPad is “Deceptively Good,” as I claim in the title. So let me take a whack at it. The answer lies in two aspects: the user interface, and the product’s future potential. Both are inextricably linked, and both are right now vastly under-appreciated.

The UI

OlduisWhen the first “personal computer” came out, it was fully a geek’s plaything. The Altair computer had no monitor, no keyboard–just a few rows of switches and blinking lights to allow for communication in binary code. Very few people could actually use one for anything. A few years later, the “trinity” of PCs–the Apple II, the Commodore Pet, and the Tandy TRS-80–introduced a “CLI,” or a text-based interface. You either remember or have somewhere seen the old “green-screen” text displays. This allowed people who were not comfortable in binary to use the machines, although you did usually have to learn the language that the computer understood, which still kept most people too distant from the PC experience.

It only took seven years after that for the first commercially popular PC to use the GUI–the graphics user interface with visual metaphors like the Desktop, folders, icons, and menus–that we have become so accustomed to. The GUI was a godsend because it made the computer interface more recognizable, something we could relate to more easily. We understood that a desktop is a place where you begin your work, that you choose from menus, and that folders contain documents. Suddenly, almost everybody could use a computer, and PC sales took off. But we’ve had the GUI for a quarter of a century now, and it’s beginning to show it’s age. What’s next?

The answer is multitouch. Using a mouse may be a step up from a text-only interface, but it is still uncomfortable and clunky. Surely you have seen people trying to move something on the screen farther than their mousepad gives them room for, and clumsily attempt to pick up the mouse and reposition it–in fact, you may well have been that person, several times. The flaw with the mouse, and the trackpad as well, is that you are not directly controlling the content on the screen. It is one step removed from a “hands on” experience.

To get a good sense of how significant that is, try drawing a picture. Do it on paper first–I draw a pretty good Snoopy, for example. Then open a drawing app on your computer, and with the mouse, try drawing the same picture. You’ll most likely find the results appalling. A trackpad may not fare much better, unless you’re experienced at it. Whenever your hands and fingers are removed from the immediate action, you lose dexterity and control. Current cursor devices like the mouse and trackpad are remote devices; multitouch allows direct access, which is far more natural, comfortable, and accurate. However, you won’t realize this until you’ve actually used a device like the iPad where multitouch comes into far more appropriate use than it does with the smartphone.

The problem with multitouch is how the screen is placed when you’re doing your hands-on controlling. A desktop screen is much too distant, and even a laptop screen would require holding your hands out in an unnatural fashion. A smartphone screen is more suited for that, but it’s too small to do much with. The tablet PC is, if you’ll forgive the cliche, just right. Anything you control with your hands has to be in your hands. Yes, there are disadvantages, but the payoff in control will far outstrip any of those.

A good example is Apple’s multitouch trackpad on the MacBook Pro. When it came out, I thought it was cool, but not really revolutionary. I figured that I’d be able to do a few new things on it, but did not expect it to change they way I use computers. However, I only recently realized that I had completely stopped using a mouse–something I had depended upon for years with previous laptop models. The multitouch screen is the next step up from that; after getting used to it, you’ll laugh at how clunky a mouse is. But the catch is, you won’t realize it until after you’ve used it for a while. The true utility of the touchscreen sneaks up on you.

One Word: Potential

That brings us to the real promise of the product. A lot of people look at the iPad’s current state, and what we already know about using iPhone apps, and see that as the end result. That’s a big mistake. What you have seen is only the beginning. Most of what the iPad will wow you with hasn’t come out yet.

To get a better sense, watch the keynote, and pay special attention to the software demos. Pay attention to how Jobs used the photo viewing app. Watch what Phil Schiller does with programs like Numbers and Keynote, how the multitouch comes into play. Watch the Nova game demo, and note the grenade-throwing and door-opening gestures. Be sure to watch the users’ hands, not just the screen. These are just a few examples of what can be done, but there is far, far more. It is limited only by what software developers can come up with, and you’ve seen the amazing stuff people have come up with on the iPhone App Store. The closed ecosystem provides a sheltered environment which not only helps prevent malware incursions, but slows piracy so that apps can be sold more cheaply. But most significantly, it allows the individual, the small-time software tinkerer, to immediately offer their wares for sale in one of the biggest marketplaces in the world. And now the iPad blows that wide open by combining the novel and powerful multitouch interface with enough real estate to make almost anything possible.

I can appreciate the benefit to apps whose layouts have traditionally been hard to control, like Filemaker Pro for instance; creating, resizing, and placing fields and buttons has always been a bit of a pain. I can easily imagine multitouch being used to make that not only easier, but a lot of fun to boot.


The features most people have focused on so far–the music playing, movie viewing, browsing and email, and even the ebook reading–are all just background. They are little more than examples of what can be done with the machine. Once you take in the full potential of the device, you will come to understand that the concerns people are airing today miss the point entirely. Panning the iPad because the screen size doesn’t fit the aspect ratio of certain movies is like saying that your Porsche is abysmal because the gas cap is the wrong shade of grey. The iPad is way, way more than just one application. Watching movies on it is a perk, not a raison d’etre. Same goes for many of the other concerns.

Apple’s mission was very simple: make a platform, and they will come. The idea was not to introduce something with whiz-bang flashing lights that would knock people’s socks off, it was instead to do what computer makers have been trying for nearly a decade and failing at: creating a tablet computer which has enough going for it that it can succeed as a product category. Apple has, by all appearances, succeeded in doing that. By building on the achievements of the iPhone platform and the introducing full-scale multitouch UI in a low-cost product where that feature can flourish, Apple has created something which is truly groundbreaking.

Remember, ground-breaking innovations are not always appreciated or understood when they come out. A lot of people sneered at the original Mac, many thought the iPhone would fizz out after the buzz dissipated–heck, even the PC itself was dismissed as an expensive toy at first back in the late 70’s. So don’t count the iPad as DOA before it even arrives. It’s far more than it seems.


So, by now, you have probably thought, “If you’re criticizing others for coming to conclusions about the iPad sucking before they get their hands on it, how can you claim that the reverse is true if you’ve never held one yourself?” Well, you got me. Part of it is an educated assessment–I’ve been looking at this kind of technology for a while. But that’s not enough.

Call it an article of faith.

Ballmer Again

January 8th, 2010 1 comment

Steve Ballmer on the tablet computer:

This morning, I interviewed Ballmer and asked him about the market for tablet/slate computers. He made the excitement sound like empty chatter. He claimed to believe that there isn’t a sizeable market for the tablet.

“They’re interesting,” he said. “But it’s not like they’re big numbers compared to the total number of smart devices in the world.”

Well, Ballmer’s an expert in the field, isn’t he? Here’s Ballmer three years ago, on the iPhone:

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

Well, there you go.

It might have something to do with the fact that Ballmer had just attempted to steal Steve Jobs’ thunder by showing off three tablet computers at the CES in Las Vegas, to underwhelming disinterest. Since his presentation was a flop, it has to be because tablets just won’t work at all, right?

Cue Steve Jobs, January 27th.

No, Really! It Works! I Swear!

October 24th, 2009 8 comments


Looks like they forgot to plug in a cable. People have pointed out a touchscreen on a standard desktop computer monitor is pretty pointless–nobody is going to reach out to their screen like that to control it all day. The orientation problem will have to be fixed before it is actually something people will want to use. Microsoft’s jump into this functionality is an excellent example of kitchen-sink mentality: use something because it’s there, rather than because it’s a good idea.

CEATEC Japan, Part 2

October 13th, 2009 4 comments

On to wrap up the post about CEATEC. I was only there for most of one day, so I did not get to see everything; also, the fact that most everything was in Japanese only hampered my ability to fully understand everything I saw.

Nonetheless, there was some interesting stuff; though much was pre-existing tech, a lot was still fun to see and play with.

For example, this electronic whiteboard:

E Board

E Board2

The projector they had was at waist-level, so it was hard to write without blocking the area you were writing on; this setup is intended to be used with a ceiling-mounted projector (which would not solve all of the problems, but would help). It’s not the sexiest system–having a projector behind the screen, or making the whiteboard itself a display would be far better. But for $1000, it’s a relatively cheap setup–and I can imagine doing a lot with this in my computer class. The whiteboard software can call up any image or file on a computer and make it interactive with what the lecturer is doing. It can also call up saved screens with prepared content. There is a LOT I could do with this thing in my computer class.

Oled Sample

Strangely, I had never seen an OLED in person before this. They do seem very nice–high contrast, rich colors. I hear they’re weak outdoors, though.

Smallest Keyboard

One guy was pitching “the world’s smallest keyboard.” Um, maybe, if you mean one that’s a remote keyboard–I am pretty sure that smaller ones exist on portable devices. And I’m not really sure how he verified that no smaller remote keyboards exist, but OK. This device looks kinda fun, until you start trying to think of situations where you really need it. Like a lot of other tech at the show, this was more along the lines of “it looks cool but adds minimal functionality.”

Sony Datapad

Here’s another example of that ‘limited functionality’ thing: wireless upload of images from a digital camera to the computer. This was at Sony’s booth. Just place the camera on the pad, and presto! The photos download and display. Except that when it was displayed, it suffered from glitches (didn’t connect a few times; the rep had to fiddle with it), and was kind of slow uploading. Plus, there’s been an easier way to do this for a while: the Eye-Fi Wireless SD card, an SD memory card which will automatically upload your photos to a WiFi network as you take them, or when you come in range of a network. It was also at the show, looking for a distributor.

Tdk Superdiscs

TDK had several tech items on display, including these 320 GB optical disks. Promises, promises. There have been tons of “coming soon” super-high-capacity media promised over the years, with very few actually making it to market.

Flexi Solar

This is cool: flexible solar panels. I am sure that they are useful somewhere.

Fac Rec 00

Terminator-Vision!! No, actually, it was facial recognition software Sony was showing off.

Fac Rec 01

Fac Rec 02

This was more for industrial use, but was very interesting to see in action. As you can see, it tagged me as being 90% male, 100% adult, and definitely not a baby or a senior. It figured that I probably had both eyes open and had a hint of a smile, but didn’t see my glasses too well.

The use of this became apparent when the rep explained it to me: a camera would accompany a digital advertising display which would alter its content based upon who was looking at it. If mostly women were looking at the ad space, it would display ads aimed at women; same with different age groups. Presumably the smiling would help gauge the effectiveness of ads. One can imagine other uses for this as well.

Panel 01

Panel 02

Finally, there was the panel discussion on personal computing undergoing a transformation, which was, as I mentioned in the last post, mostly just PR pitches by the execs. I wish they had discussed advances in multi-touch and non-volatile RAM, the possible development of quantum computing, the implementation of facial and body recognition in UI development, specific timetables for adoption of wireless standards, and other stuff I hadn’t even heard of yet. But no, it was mostly about stuff they were actually currently doing, tame stuff like using cloud connectivity (heck, I use that now), with lots of references to how cool Windows 7 is going to be.

One thing that Fujitsu showed actually did seem pretty neat:

Slide 00

I think the name comes from the fact that the displays cover the entire surface of the devices, with no frames–and the devices communicate wirelessly to connect and make larger displays. The exec pulled out a non-functioning sample to show a netbook and a cell phone which both had the exact same depth, so that when you put the cell phone next to the side of the netbook, you essentially extend the netbook display by a few inches.

Slide 01

Then you could add any number of such devices to continue to increase the size of the display.

Slide 02

Pretty nifty concept. Once you think about actually using it, though, its value becomes less striking–maybe adding a few inches to one side could be nice, but when would you really get more than two devices together in a situation where joining them to make a larger display would be viable and useful? Hard to see that happening much.

But still, it’s cool. That’s the main point!

Unfortunately, the end of my visit to CEATEC was marred by NHK, something I should have seen coming when I approached their booth. NHK is Japan’s public TV network–more like the BBC than PBS in that it’s driven by ‘required’ payments by everyone, and their door-to-door collectors are more or less universally disliked. Most people in Japan refuse to pay when the collectors come–technically, you’re supposed to, but I believe there are no penalties for not paying. NHK is kind of like a state-run, state-friendly behemoth which many see as outdated and unnecessary.

The only thing I really wanted to know about was their progress on the next level of HDTV. Pre-HDTV sets had a resolution of 480 (or 525, depending on how you count them) vertical lines; HDTV goes up to 1080 lines. The next generation quadruples that, going up to 4320 lines of resolution. Imagine taking 16 HDTV screens in a 4 x 4 grid–that’s the same resolution you’d get with one single “Super-Hi-Vision” TV.

I came to the NHK booth to ask for info on that, and the guy there said they had one on display, urging me to enter their booth and see it for myself. OK, cool, I though, momentarily forgetting who I was speaking to. So I joined the queue, and waited for 20 minutes, using up the last half-hour of my time at CEATEC. Finally, I got in, and walked past lame displays of this-is-what-a-living-room-looked-like-in-the-60’s, and past a mini-theater showing what 5.1 Surround sound was like. I kept asking, “Where’s the Super-Hi-Vision?” and people kept saying, oh, it’s right over down that way, check it out!

So naturally, when I finally got there, they were shutting it down. Unapologetically, the NHK rep had a “too bad” attitude, and was even a bit condescending about it, as if it was perfectly natural to urge people to wait in line for something and then refuse to extend a display for two minutes to show them what was promised. What kind of idiot are you?

That sour end note aside, CEATEC was a fun event and I did get some fairly useful intel from it. Not as much as I expected, but I learned some stuff–in part, what to expect from such shows, and how I might better approach the show when it comes again next year.

iPhone Market Share: Come Again, Ballmer?

October 12th, 2009 3 comments

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, April 30, 2007:

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

And now? A recent news story about global smartphone market share:

The latest smart-phone numbers from Canalys show that Apple’s gaining share like a bat out of hell.

The company has gone from 2% global share to 14% share in a year.

And Apple is just beginning to make deals in China. In the U.S., the iPhone’s market share has rocketed from 7% to 23%, nearly a quarter of the entire market. Microsoft’s smartphone market share shrank globally from 14% to 9%, most of that being eaten up by Apple. Looks like Ballmer’s not getting the 80% he thought he’d get.

Here in Japan (where everyone is supposed to hate the iPhone), I don’t know what the numbers are, but the iPhone is definitely taking off. You can see them everywhere now–more and more, I keep seeing people tapping away at them. Not so much in school, where students are married to cheap plans which allow for low-cost cross-carrier calls, but among the general population, it’s evidently very popular. The iPhone has consistently been in the top 10 in smartphone sales, and the 32GB 3GS has held on to the #2 spot since September, with its 16GB sister unit bring up the rear between #9 and #5. As much as people claim this is only because SoftBank offers the 8GB 3G for free, both of Apple’s top-selling models are not free–the free unit held the #14 spot for the last two months. In short, the iPhone don’t need no free deal to make it big.

Meanwhile, Microsoft got a hell of a black eye this week when it revealed that it failed to back up data on its Sidekick cloud network. When the servers failed last week, the data went bye-bye. That means that many of the million or so people depending on Microsoft just lost all their contact, calendar, and photo data, permanently. Microsoft has been running the service for about a year now–presumably enough time that they can’t blame someone else for the failure.

For full disclosure: I own Apple stock, and not Microsoft stock, fortunately.

Categories: Corporate World, Gadgets & Toys, iPhone Tags:

CEATEC Japan, Part 1

October 12th, 2009 Comments off

Ceatec Front

So I visited CEATEC Japan last Friday. I thought that maybe I could get a look at some of the upcoming technology and bring back the goods to my Introduction to Computers class. But while there was some fun stuff, it didn’t really knock my socks off–there was lots of stuff I know is in the works which was not shown, a lot of the in-development stuff they did show was pretty tame, and most of the stuff was just current for-sale technology that people were trying to sell. Well, it’s a trade show, so that’s par for the course; I just thought there would be more ground-breaking stuff to be found.

I attended a panel discussion during the afternoon which I thought looked promising: titled “Personal Computing Will Undergo a Transformation!” it included high-level executives from Intel, NEC, Sony, Panasonic, Fujitsu, and Microsoft. It sounded like they were really going to get into a lot of the cool stuff coming up, maybe discuss how the user experience will dramatically change in the next five to ten years. Well, not so much. Each panel member took about 10 minutes to essentially present an infomercial for their company, then there were a few rather plain-vanilla questions (“How will that spiffy new Windows 7 change things?”), and not much else. There were very quick mentions of stuff like 3-D interactivity–but most of it was about stuff that’s pretty pedestrian, like cloud connectivity. Overall, a pretty disappointing show. I’m not sure if I even benefitted by the simultaneous translation–without it, I might have thought it was much cooler.

Anyway, here are some of the photos I took of a few of the more interesting things to see.

Kddi Polaris

This is an as-yet uncompleted project KDDI was showing off–a mini-robot pod which acts as a moving, motion-sensitive stand for your cell phone. It has built-in speakers, automatically closes or opens up (triggered by what I didn’t find out), and can roll about and do turns, presumably to face and be accessible to the user. It is also supposed to be able to interface with your TV or LCD, showing the cell phone’s data on whatever display you choose. Cool concept.

Overlay Keitai

Nearby, they were demo’ing a cell phone with virtual overlays of data on what the phone’s camera displayed; in this case, when they pointed the phone (presumably outfitted with an electronic compass) in a certain direction, it would tell you what interesting stuff exists in that direction, with images of each point appearing in frames. Not revolutionary–this kind of stuff is being played around with on iPhone and Android phones–but still an interesting concept which will undoubtedly be smoothed out and will be quite useful in the future.

Hellokitty Notebook

Some stuff was simply for show, like themed notebook cases (this was at the Intel booth, for some reason). Below are a netbook with a reversible monitor, and a smartphone with full-face display.

Flexscreen Netbook

Fullface Cellphone

They had a lot of touchscreens there, but nothing knocked my socks off. The only ones I found were not multi-touch–it was nothing more than a trackpad could do, and not all that impressive.

Touchscreen Pc

Wimax Display

One thing that surprised me: Tokyo has WiMAX, and has since July. I guess I didn’t get the memo. If you don’t know what WiMAX is, it’s a new-ish wireless Internet service. It’s kind of like WiFi, except it’s wide-area; the entire city is a hotspot. Think of it like 3G, except it’s a lot faster. Effectively, it’s an Internet connection that follows you wherever you go. Instead of getting broadband just at home, you get it everywhere you take your computer–except, presumably, in basement coffee shops or other areas where cell phone reception might also be spotty.

Tokyo’s service boasts 40 Mbps download, 10 Mbps upload, though such claims are always over-rated–I’m supposed to have 100 Mbps fiber-optic at home, but have never gotten anywhere near that speed. So figure that Tokyo’s WiMAX is at least a fair-speed broadband connection.

The catch: it’s expensive. They charge 4,480 yen (about $50) per month to subscribe; that’s not too bad, I pay about that much for fiber. The problem is, they don’t give you the reception devices for free. If your laptop does not have built-in WiMAX (few do), then each laptop will have to have a $140 USB dongle. For home networks, a reception base that will distribute the connection to home devices costs about $170. To set Sachi and myself up with this, we’d have to shell out $450. No thanks on that; I’m OK as-is. They do have a free 15-day trial they offer, and I may take them up on that just to test out the system.

Video Phone

This was a nice little gadget: a video phone which doubles as a photo frame. Probably has features I didn’t sniff out while there.

Sony 3D

The first of three large halls at Makuhari was dedicated mostly to the big home electronics firms, and it seems that every one of them had a 3-D HDTV system. They also had most of their good stuff inside the booths, all of which had long lines. I didn’t have enough time–the lines looked like they were about an hour long each. I figured I’d simply take their word for it.

Iphone Projector

This was a neat little gadget: a hand-held laser projector, which will take lots of inputs, including the iPhone shown here. For $500, this iPhone-sized dealio will project an image onto any surface you point it at–great for impromptu slide shows, when a TV or other projector is not available. The image was a bit weak, best in dark rooms or close-up. The American guys pitching it said that in a dark room, it was possible to use it as a “100-inch TV screen.” Uh, maybe. They said they can’t sell it in Japan yet, because the government made laser projectors illegal after some bad laser pointer incidents years back, and haven’t updated the legislation yet. This looks like a nice toy, but I couldn’t possibly justify buying one. Still, this is something I expect will shrink in size and price over the years and may eventually become a standard feature in hand-held devices.

Before I finish for today’s post, one more–this gadget being one that I frankly pray to god will never become popular. I show it here as a screen shot from the manufacturer’s web site: a wearable speaker vest.


Yes, that’s right. If you think it’s bad when a-holes outfit their cars with giant speaker systems so the entire county can be massively annoyed by their poor taste in music, then you’ll love this. The user just plugs in their digital audio device, and the music gets blasted out of speakers on the shoulders. And it’s loud, too–they guy demonstrated it for me. It is designed for joggers, bicyclists, and motorcyclists–yes, it is intended to be loud enough to be heard clearly when wearing a full-head helmet, over engine noise. He said it was for people who could be endangered by using headsets because they can’t hear traffic coming. So instead, they blast the music for everyone in the area to hear–and they still can’t hear traffic coming. But now everybody is getting pissed off to boot. Whee!

The rest tomorrow.

Is Microsoft Finally Getting the Zune Right?

September 17th, 2009 1 comment

Yes and no. But mainly no.

As I said when the Zune was first released, Microsoft usually releases stuff which sucks horribly at first (probably because they make stuff for the wrong reason, i.e. to copy a competitor so they can steal its market share), but slowly, over time, they improve the product bit by bit until eventually, it doesn’t suck so much.

This strategy worked very well with software because MS had the ultimate cudgel of the Windows OS, and the power to load it only with MS software. That’s why most people use Internet Explorer, despite the fact that it is the suckiest browser imaginable. In the past, when they released new products, they were almost always terrible out of the gate–but eventually they improved it just enough so that when MS made their software the default on their OS, people would suffer with it.

The Zune has no such advantage; MS can’t put anything on their desktop that would more or less force people to buy the Zune. In order for it to succeed, MS has to make the Zune good enough on its own. But there’s a problem with that: generally speaking, Microsoft’s talent has been to rip off ideas that other people come up with. While that has its advantages, there is one pretty major disadvantage: you can’t get ahead of someone you are intentionally trailing.

The new Zune HD is a lot better than the 2nd generation Zunes, which were lots better than the original Zunes. And if you compare the Zune HD with the current iPod Classic, the Zune wins. The problem with that is that the iPod Classic is a model which is several years old; Apple only keeps it around for people who want a high-capacity HDD to store tons of stuff. Apple’s real focus is on the iPod Nano, iPod Touch, and the iPhone.

Since all models of Zune except for the HD are being discontinued, there is no equivalent for the Nano, and since the Zune is not a phone, there is no competitor for the iPhone. The Zune seems pretty squarely aimed at the popular iPod Touch. While the iPod touch is available in 32 and 64 GB capacities, the Zune HD is available is 16 and 32 GB models; let’s compare the 32’s:

Category iPod Touch Zune
size (l/w/d) 110 x 61.8 x 8.5 102.1 x 52.7 x 8.9
weight 115 g 74 g
screen 3.5" 3.3"
pixels 480 x 320 480 x 272
capacity 32 GB 32 GB
Price (Amazon) $280 $290
Apps tens of thousands a few
WiFi yes yes
Bluetooth yes no
Built-in FM Radio no yes
Languages several dozen 3
Platforms Mac, Windows Windows
Available worldwide North America only

As you can see, it’s not really incredibly close. The Zune only exceeds in being smaller and it has an FM radio; otherwise, the subscription service is pretty much all that is attractive about it, and that only to some people. The Touch, meanwhile, has a bigger and higher-resolution screen (the Zune’s OLED is better indoors but crappy in sunlight), has Bluetooth (wireless headphones), is compatible with Mac and PC, and is sold internationally with a wide variety of languages.

But the big plus for the Touch is the App Store. OK, whittle away the apps made only for the iPhone, and all the fart apps and other programs which are stupid, and you’ve only got, what… several thousand good apps. The Zune has a browser and maybe a few other apps, with maybe a few dozen more promised by the end of the year… but don’t expect the avalanche of apps that Apple’s App Store has seen.

And the App Store is key: apps add functionality. The Zune has no maps application, no games (ironically, Apple’s product is where the gaming community lives now), no Twitter or Facebook, not even a stopwatch app–nor anything else except a browser. And the browser is some five to ten times slower than Safari on Apple’s handsets.

In short, the Zune is a great competitor… for what Apple had a few years ago. Zune just got stuff which Apple came out with in 2007, like the touch screen, or in 2008, like the App Store (of course, Zune doesn’t have an app store quite yet–though it is reported that they are offering truckloads of money to developers to port their apps to the Zune).

But the key point is that the Zune still lags behind; they are simply not catching up, at all. Yes, the Zune today is cooler, better-designed (remember the original crap-colored Zune?), and generally a much superior product. But it’s still way behind.

And it’s only in North America, only in a few languages, and still only for Windows. They actually cut out the lower-end “mini” models for some reason, not even keeping a “Classic” Zune.

Meanwhile, Apple still has a whole product line to sell: iPod Shuffle (3 capacities, 5 colors), iPod Classic, iPod Nano (2 capacities, 9 colors), iPod Touch (3 capacities), and the iPhone (3 capacities, two colors). And Apple’s high-end product, the iPhone, is available for cheap if you were going to pay for a cell phone plan anyway, and includes the camera (stills and movies), GPS, compass, voice recording, etc.

If Microsoft could somehow tie the Zune to the Windows Desktop, Apple would be in trouble. But they can’t. And when MS can’t force a product through their near-monopoly, we observe the actual talent of the company to innovate: in short, zilch.

Update: Microsoft is adding 9 apps, including a calculator, weather, and 7 basic game apps. All of the game apps reportedly play ads up to 15 seconds long before the app even begins to load. Zune fans are not pleased, and I can understand why. I’m annoyed by static ads on iPhone apps which display for a second before I can dismiss them. But a 15-second video ad that plays every time I open the app? Yech.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

The Next Generation of Computers

July 27th, 2009 2 comments

While recently giving a guest lecture in a class at my college, I was asked what computers and computing would be like in 30 years’ time, and I found it hard to respond; although that’s been about how long personal computers have been around, there have been so many developments, both incremental and evolutionary, that it’s hard to predict what the product of so many upcoming separate developments may add up to in that much time–and that’s without considering that advancements in technology tend to be exponential in growth.

But one thing that should not be too hard to see coming is the next generation, what will take us through the next 10 years or so of computing, perhaps longer.

To start with, we have the interface: the OS. Think back to some of the early interfaces maybe half a century ago, which included punching holes in paper tapes and cards and feeding them into scanners that would translate the code into data on the computer. After that, we got the CLI: the Command Line Interface, the quasi-dialect of English which much more resembled human communication, but was still clunky and difficult to learn and use. After that, we got the GUI: the Graphics User Interface, with the mouse, the window, the desktop, the menu–visual metaphors which were much more intuitive, much more related to our human experiences, and so much better suited for human beings to deal with.

That’s where we are now. So, what’s next? It appears to be multi-touch. Yes, the thing that you have on your iPhone or iPod Touch, where you can swipe or pinch or twist and make the phone do stuff. That’s an embryonic form of what you’ll use to control your computer soon. To get a better taste of how that will work, watch the video below, with multi-touch whiz Jeff Han demo’ing his version of the interface. The real action starts at 2:45, so I have (hopefully) queued up the YouTube video to start at that time when you click ‘play.’ (If you want to start from the beginning, manipulate the slider to bring it back to 0).

But at 2:45, Han shows you how you can manipulate images. Some of it will be familiar, similar to what the iPhone does (note that this presentation is from February 2006, before the iPhone came out), but in a much more developed way, involving both hands, and with images moving independently. At 3:45, notice that Han calls up a virtual keyboard, resizes it, and then dismisses it when he’s through with it. At 5:50, see what he does with a program similar to Google Earth. At 7:25, note his use of a program that allows him to create elements which then act like real, dynamic objects instead of static drawings.

As Han notes during the presentation, one of the great things about this is that the interface simply disappears, it’s so natural that you hardly even realize that there’s an OS anymore. He also notes that the OS conforms to you, rather than you conforming to any kind of hardware–his example being the virtual keyboard, which is resizable.

Itablet01So, when will this magical new OS come to a computer store near you? Well, potentially, we could be seeing it late this year or early next: very likely this is what Apple’s rumored multi-touch tablet device will use. It probably won’t be the total break from the current OS that the Mac OS was in 1985, but it should be the start of that evolution to the next interface. As I said, we’ve already seen elements in Apple devices already. Note, for example, not only the multi-touch features in the iPhone and the new Macbook trackpads, but also note the developments in screen technology, most notably the hard-surface screen that Apple snuck into the latest Macbooks–a must-have if you’re going to use a touch screen device–and the new Oleophobic surfaces on the iPhone 3Gs, also necessary to avoid a mess of smears on a tablet screen. New features in Snow Leopard may even facilitate the migration to the new interface. And patents filed by Apple over the past few years have pointed to pretty much exactly this.

But the tablet computer will be more than just a new interface: it may very well be a new composite device, rolling several previous devices into one handy gadget. Think of your current smartphone. (What, don’t you have one? How 2005 of you.) That’s not just one device, it’s 3 or 4. Remember when you used to have an iPod (or Walkman, if you want to go farther back) to keep your music, a PDA to keep calendars, contacts, and notes, and a cell phone to make phone calls? All three of those are now one device, with some functions from your laptop thrown in for good measure. I now kind of chuckle when I see one of my students in the elevator holding both a digital music player and a cell phone.

The tablet could be a similar rolled-up device. We already are moving from desktop computers to laptops; like the move from the big CRT screens to today’s flatscreen LCD monitors, laptops are more expensive and lower quality than desktop computers, but we are starting to buy more laptops than desktops, and they are quickly becoming the default computer to get. The tablet will be that computer, but it will also be an e-book reader, possibly even replacing the Kindle as the e-book device of choice. It could take over much of the netbook market, and could even take over some if not all of the functionality of your smartphone, should you find a way to handily lug the tablet around with you everywhere. Apple’s new tablet is supposed to come with a 3G connection, and with a Bluetooth headset, it could serve as a communications device, eventually doing more than just regular cell phone calls, but adding Skype/iChat communication as well. Phone carriers might see the future is in data plans rather than talk plans.

You may have heard people talk about how the new tablet from Apple will be a “revolutionary” device, and probably discounted that as hype, since we’ve heard that so often in recent years (we’re not all riding around on Segways now, are we?). And the tablet may not be that revolutionary–but it’s not a bad bet that it will signal the start of the next generation of computers. Just like the Lisa was the precursor to the Mac and the popularization of the GUI, the iPhone could be the precursor to the multi-touch tablet.

And yes, I do own Apple stock. But even if I didn’t, I’m pretty sure I would be saying the exact same thing as I am now.

1-Seg: Not So Hot. Next iPhone: Maybe Very Hot

March 26th, 2009 3 comments

The other day, Japan was playing Korea in the World Baseball Classic, and that apparently was a huge thing. Students all over my school were watching the game on their cell phones using the “1-Seg” TV-tuning feature.

You might think that this is a good example of why the iPhone isn’t doing better in Japan, but I didn’t get that impression. When I asked these students if they usually used the feature, I got the reply, “this is the first time I’ve used it.” Indeed, I never see them using this–and then today the student lounge had about 15 cell phones playing the game.

But then I saw the reason why:


I noted that most people were watching more than one cell phone at a time, together. Didn’t make sense until I saw the reception: it was horrible. The picture was constantly stopping and breaking up. And really, who wants a telescoping antenna like that on your cell phone?


Ironically, the people at China Unicom, the mobile provider that is claiming it got the iPhone contract there, is aggressively advertising the next iPhone as having a TV Tuner–at least, something called “UNITV,” which might be a broader technology interconnecting cell phones, PCs, and TVs–not sure about that.

Other leaked 3rd-Gen iPhone features: E-wallet, video conferencing, and PC tethering (i.e., using your iPhone as a modem to channel an Internet connection to your PC).

Sounds cool. Could even be true–SoftBank let loose with iPhone 3G news well before Apple announced it, and turned out to be on the money. Should be interesting to see how this develops.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, iPhone Tags:

The Problem with Photocopying Corporate Press Releases

January 3rd, 2009 Comments off

One news story:

Happy New Year: Microsoft Fixes Zune Bug

After its New Years Eve power outage, it seems that Microsoft has fixed the bug that caused the owners of its 30GB Zune portable music player to unexpectedly lose functionality.

Another story:

Zune Leap Year Bug Fixed, Microsoft Says

Microsoft says it has resolved a glitch that caused the 30-GB model of its Zune MP3 player to freeze up over the past week.

In case you don’t see the problem, it has to do with the fact that Microsoft didn’t “fix” anything; the bug is still present. It was a bit of programming that sends the Zune into an endless loop when the last day of a leap year comes around; all Microsoft did was to tell people to wait until the extra day passed (and then some), then told them how to restart the players (which involves a strange process of draining the battery, recharging fully, then booting). That’s it. No “fix,” no resolution. The bug applied to a time period, they simply told people to wait it out. If nothing were changed after today, the bug would happen again on December 31, 2012.

I also like the wording about how the bug caused Zunes to “unexpectedly lose functionality.” In a way, they “lost functionality,” all right. However, if you tried to start your car and nothing happened, I don’t think that you’d say that it “lost functionality.” If you turned on your TV and it just sat there, blank, I don’t think you’d use those words. “Lose functionality” usually means that the device works but a few of its features have been lost. The Zunes did not so much “lose functionality” as much as they “completely froze up” (note that the second article got it more accurately). As for “unexpectedly,” I suppose that depends on how accurately you judge Zunes.

Other headlines include “Microsoft sorts out Zune bug” and “Microsoft offers solution for Zune,” and there are more like those. It’s as if much of these stories were written by Microsoft itself, and knowing how news agencies often work, that probably what happened. All too often “reporters” just copy or paraphrase text from their sources, doing very little original writing.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Zunes Back–Mostly

January 2nd, 2009 Comments off

I’m glad I don’t have a 1st-gen Zune. Not only did you have to put up with it being bricked for a day and a half, not only did you have to fully drain the battery and restart and risk losing your data, but even that was not a guarantee: many are still reporting that their Zunes are bricks. Wow.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Not the Zune

December 31st, 2008 Comments off

For some reason or another, a lot of people like hitting Apple. Maybe it has to do with the David-and-Goliath, support-the-underdog-hit-the-corporate-giant mentality (which, ironically, is why a lot of people like Apple or at least favor it over Microsoft). Or maybe it’s the hard-core Windows people who just love to take any jab they can against what they perceive as a cult-like following of the opposition. Whatever. But there was a big fuss recently when a reporter wrote that he spotted Obama using a Zune. Suddenly a lot of people were laughing derisively at Apple and the iPod.

Of course, it wasn’t what it looked like. Obama is known to be a Mac user, and using a Zune wouldn’t make much sense, because Microsoft never bothered to make the Zune work with Macs (the only workaround being to use Windows on a Mac). And that even assuming that Obama would want to use a Zune in the first place. And, natch, we wind up seeing images of Obama with an iPod strapped to his belt, which makes a lot more sense. Turns out that Microsoft gave a whole truckload full of Zune freebies at the Democratic convention, and the Obama-using-a-Zune report was most likely Obama using a loaner from a staffer.

Good thing for Obama, too–looks like the Zune is not as well programmed as people had thought, at least not the original version. It turns out that the original Zune 30 was set to self-destruct right about now. Zune users who have the original model are all reporting their Zunes being bricked as of tonight–If the date is December 31st and you boot your Zune 30, chances are it will die. It’ll reach about 90% in the boot-up process, and then become the brick that it so closely resembles in design.

If you ask me, that’s a pretty serious bug–I mean, I don’t recall anything like that hitting an entire class of player before. You get what you pay for, I guess….

Update: Microsoft says it’s because 2008 was a leap year, and the Zunes should arise from the dead after midnight tonight (scary image, that). If you ask me, making software that kills the device every leap year is a wee bit of an obvious oversight. Not to mention that the whole device locking up is a bit of a dramatic effect; if it just reported the time incorrectly, that would be easier to see, but the whole device locking up? Tsk, tsk. BTW, if you look at the “Q&A” posted at Microsoft’s ZuneInsider site, it’s kind of funny; all the answers are essentially “wait until tomorrow.”

It’s also entertaining reading the comments there as well; a few readers were ecstatic at Microsoft’s quick reply and said Apple would never work so fast. Aside from Apple not making such a bone-headed mistake in the programming, they are essentially happy that it took Microsoft support half a day to tell people the obvious–that it was due to the date–and to bring a “fix” that was essentially, “wait until tomorrow,” for which all they had to do was reset a clock on a Zune and see what happened. Wow, incredibly fast work there, Zune team!

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?

December 21st, 2008 4 comments

So, when do you open your presents?

As I recall, my family did it more on Christmas eve, though I recall a combination sometimes. I think the eve works out better for little kids–sure, you have an excuse for getting them to bed early on the 24th, but then they drag you out of bed at 5 am, right? Better to end the suspense early and the kids can occupy themselves playing with the toys (at least the ones they did not immediately toss aside and disregard) rather than rousing their reluctant parents.

Aquo42Ds5I mention this simply because Sachi and I will be getting our presents on the 24th–that’s when the new TV will be delivered. I just got through the hard part–selecting and buying. What we’re getting: a 42“ Sharp Aquos LCD, the LC-42DS5-B (the final ”B“ designating the black color). I had been looking at Toshiba’s Regza Z- or ZH-7000 with the ability to use USB or LAN HDDs to record shows, but there were just too many problems caused by (DRM-equipped) HDMI input preventing recording. Sharp has a better reputation (not to mention it’s the only TV that had English menus), and quite frankly, I have come around to the idea that gadgety draws like the HDD option often cause more trouble than they’re worth.

For recording, I broke down and went with an alternative: the Sharp Aquos BD-HD22, a combination HDD and Blu-Ray recorder. First, it allows us to watch Blu-Ray titles, which are conveniently not region-disabled–Japan and America are in the same Blu-Ray region, conveniently. We can also rent stuff from the local video stores, which are just beginning to carry BD titles. It allows us to record on the new medium as well, a nice option, now that 50 GB discs are commonly found in Japan. But the recorder also plays and records standard DVDs as well, which is very nice. And, of course, there’s the HDD recorder, so we can record after watching, if we want. (You know, I just realized that I forgot to ask if I would be able to edit out commercials and stuff. Hmm.) Since the recorder and the TV are the same brand, they’ll work a little better together–at the very least, having better utility with the same remote.

Our content options are limited to a few: cable, satellite, or building satellite. Building satellite means that the building has an antenna on the roof which then feeds the signal to everyone; we just plug a co-ax into the wall and presto, we got satellite TV. We’re not going to do that, however: the service has no HDTV channels. Cable is the middle answer: easy because we already have it, and our cable box is even HDTV-ready. However, the HDTV channels are limited to about six or seven HDTV channels, none of them specializing in English-language TV shows. Satellite TV–specifically, SkyPerfect–is the best option, with 15 HDTV channels now and a full spread of 70 promised by next October. Currently, Movie Plus and Fox are two of those channels, with AXN, Super Drama, and a lot of others–including a newly-added SciFi Channel–coming soon. The down side: our building requires us to fill out a form and wait a week or two before they let us put up the antenna. (One reason why only 2 people in this 250-unit-plus building have such antennas up–or at least visibly, as some people may have skipped getting permission and found a way to mount the antennas from within the balcony instead of over the balcony edge.)

But I gotta tell you, getting all this information was not easy–and language was not the only factor involved in making things more difficult. For example, I only lucked into finding out that HDMI prevented recording, something that helped to torpedo the Regza. I had heard that HDMI was DRM’ed up, but I had not thought that HDMI was more or less required (or at least considered the best way) to get the signal from tuner box to TV. That’s what led me to find out about the building satellite, though that was like pulling teeth. I kept calling and calling the TV manufacturer and the SkyPerfect people, asking if there was a workaround that would make recording possible–and though the answer was right in front of them–the direct-to-TV solution (no tuner box), I had to discover that myself. Once I knew, I asked them and of course they were aware of it. They just wouldn’t mention it before then for some reason.

I tend to go through this every few years when I make a big purchase of some technology or other; I spend hours on the phone getting the runaround. I have come to the conclusion also that Japanese customer support representatives are congenitally incapable of speaking simple, easy-to-understand language. I ask them, for example, if the TV’s internal tuner can be used, and instead of a simple ”yes,“ ”no,“ or ”sometimes yes and sometimes no,“ I get a full thirty seconds of complex Japanese of which I understand squat. I then remind them that my Japanese isn’t as good as they think, and to please speak slowly and using simpler language, to which they agree, and then proceed to say the exact same words I just told them I could not understand at all. Maybe it’s this freak talent I have developed myself after teaching English to non-native speakers for the past 23 years and simply assume everybody can do it, but truly I don’t think it’s so hard. Instead of saying, ”the internal tuner accesses either of two available broadcast satellite services, bypassing the need for specialized external tuner equipment,“ just say ”yes, you can use the TV tuner.“ It’s not brain surgery–that is, it shouldn’t be brain surgery. I dunno, there must be some rule with customer service that if your language is not complex enough then you aren’t respecting the customer enough, or something like that. But it’s damned frustrating.

Anyway, the delivery is scheduled for the 24th. They wouldn’t specify a delivery time, but in Japan, they use a nice system: they call you the morning of or the night before and set a more specific time range. None of this wait-around-all-day-and-maybe-we’ll-show-up crap. For a $10 fee, the guy will set up the entire thing. I am pretty sure I could do it myself–it’s the same as the Internet and other setups you get charged for–you just plug in the LAN cable here, add the splitter there, simple as pie. But it’s cheap and what the heck, maybe there’s something I don’t know–I am completely new to HDMI and the whole HDTV thing. Better to see how it’s done first, just in case.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Buying an HDTV

December 14th, 2008 9 comments

RegzasmlSachi and I are probably going to spring for a 42“ HDTV in the next week or two. Any recommendations? I like the Toshiba Regza ZH7000 for the HDD recording feature, but am less than thrilled that the lack of a VGA port means I won’t be able to connect my new Macbook Pro, at least not yet. Sharp’s Aquos seems to be the only one to sport an English option for the menus, significant because I’m the one who usually uses the menus and the language is hard to decipher. Some have Internet browsing (but never with a keyboard), others have special split-screen capabilities, and so forth. We’re looking for something in the ¥200,000 ~ ¥230,000 range preferably.

Please clue me in on what models are best for you, and why! Help us choose a new TV!

Categories: Entertainment, Gadgets & Toys Tags: