Archive for March, 2011

Losing Our Way

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Read a really great piece from the Op-Ed page of the New York Times before it goes behind the paywall.

So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Welcome to America in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Sean Parker looking to buy Warner Music Group

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If you’re lookin for the definition of irony, I think I just found it.  Sean Parker… you know… the guy that founded Napster?

No… you’re thinking of Shawn Fanning.  He’s the guy that wrote the software.  I’m talking about Sean Parker… the loose-cannon serial entrepe… oh brother.  The sushi-eating, borderline batshit insane money guy from the Social Network… THAT Sean Parker.

Anyhoo, Parker and a group of investors are currently attempting to purchase Warner Music Group.  In case you’re wondering how the irony fits into this, Warner Music Group is Metallica‘s record label.  It always seemed to me that the rest of the guys in Metallica could really give a shit about their music being downloaded.  Money really isn’t made on album sales anymore.  The real money is two things:  concert promotions and publishing rights.  Not sure about the publishing rights, but Metallica certainly has the concert thing down.  When you can wake up one morning and go, “You know, I need a new Ferrari.  I think I’ll announce a few club dates and then play Madison Square Garden,” and be supremely confident that all dates will sell out in 10 minutes or less, you know you have something good going.

That being said, who was it that was always in front of the camera complaining about Napster’s capabilities when some unreleased demos were found circulating on the file sharing service?  Lars Ulrich, Metallicas teeny little pint-size version of Gene Simmons, minus the coffin.  The critical mistake that Hetfield, Ulrich and company made when making the ill-conceived decision to go after Napster was in thinking that Napster was an annoying piece of technology, when in fact Napster was the beginning of a paradigm shift in music distribution.  Of course, nobody, myself included, knew this when it was just Napster and not much else on the landscape.  Napster was peer-to-peer, which meant Napster was basically the centralized hub of all of its activity.  Those of you in my age bracket, think of your Christmas tree lights when you were little:  one goes out, they all go out.  Instead of this being the end of it, what it turned out to be was more like a mushroom:  step on one and 10 more pop up around it later on.  After Napster came BearShare.  After Bearshare came LimeWire and Kazaa.  After these came a zillion more Gnutella clients and then after that came BitTorrent.  And yet Metallica still fights because they’re too stupid to realize that continuing to fight results in more of their music being illegally downloaded rather than not fighting and ushering in the iTunes era and the demise of the RIAA that much sooner.

The Future of Tablet Computing: It’s gonna be interesting.

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One of the cool things about working in I.T. in any capacity is that whenever new technologies are created, it’s akin to a new continent just popping up out of a newly expanded, larger planet which creates a whole new frontier to explore and attempt to conquer.  In the world of tablet computing, if you are not the iPad2, you dropped the ball in your quest to “get there first” and plant the proverbial flag, and you are currently in a battle for a distant 2nd place.  Apple dangled the carrot of hope of at least playing catch-up in front of Motorola, Samsung, and RIM, all of whom are really just now putting out technology that Apple had ready a year ago, while waving at Microsoft, whose attempt was so lame it was like the company wasn’t even trying, off in the far distance.  Then Steve Jobs stood there and ate said carrot when his company not only released the iPad2, but had Jobs himself announce it.  HP, who supposedly has a tablet offering, will be in Microsoft’s position if it’s not careful.  When you type in “HP” and “tablet” into Google and the homepage for your device doesn’t even list on the first two pages, you need to fire whoever is in charge of that (I had to find the link for the HP Touchpad by going through InfoWorld who had reviewed it).  Research In Motion’s Playbook isn’t even released yet and their device’s website rival’s Apple’s in being accessible and visually appealing.

But even with all the hype surrounding the iPad2, is it really defining the direction tablet PCs are going?  For the average consumer, that may very well be the case as right now, all the iPad has to do is play Angry Birds and if YouTube is any indication, amuse your pets.  However, for business and industry, the answer is not so cut and dry, and for other specialized industries like education for example, it’s also up in the air.  While Jobs, Apple, and the iPad team certainly have a lot to crow about for now, to extrapolate our “new frontier” analogy, the Apple ship made it to shore first, planted their flag, got an initial settlement going, and waded inland a few miles.

Let’s run with that analogy a bit further to show the kind of issues that the Apple ship will be facing in the not-too-distant future.

Instead of making the obvious (and incorrect) comparison of Jobs to Christopher Columbus, let’s instead look at him as a kind of Leif Ericson.  One “ship”, namely Apple, no external funding other than Apple’s own money, and a pioneering spirit coupled with a pair of titanium balls that Jobs has had since he and Wozniak founded the company.  So what does Jobs the Viking have to fear?  Hot on his trail and visible far off but still on the horizon is the Nina (Samsung), the Pinta (Motorola) and the Santa Maria (you can put who you prefere here… RIM, HP, whoever)… all backed by Queen Isabella of that peculiar not-so-little nation known as Android.  As empires go, Google is the new Portugal and Microsoft went from Sir Walter Raleigh (Gates) to the bumbling and insane George III that is Steve Ballmer.

OK, now that we’ve dispensed with the analogies of expedition, lets take a look at what inevitably follows once the discoveries are made, the territory is claimed, and the initial borders are established:  the war of market share.

In this case, Jobs is Napoleon and the other guys are the rest of Europe.  What was Napoleon’s downfall at Waterloo?  Having to fight multiple armies with one, and that is the scenario that Jobs is facing now… with one interesting twist.   It’s not Jobs and Apple’s iPad vs. the Xoom and the Playbook, etc., etc., etc., it’s Apple’s iOS vs. Google’s Android.  If these are the armies, the soldiers that are being deployed to the battlefield are the apps.

As far as sheer numbers go, Apple may be better compared to Xerxes than Napoleon.  Currently, Apple has 60,000 tablet-specific applications available through it’s App Store.  Motorola by comparison has less than 50.  That’s pretty striking, and the other Android tablets are not faring much better.  However, this where Android hasn’t capitalized on a key advantage… yet.   That advantage being that an Android application is deployable on any Android tablet, where as Apple’s will only run on the iPad.  Interestingly enough, Android has capitalized on this in the smartphone arena.  When the iPhone was released, Apple let you choose any provider you wanted, so long as that provider was AT&T.  What Apple learned very quickly, and what makes Android a very real threat, is that consumers love choice, and conversely, despise not having it.  Fortunately, the iPhone was dazzling enough initially to get enough early adopters to migrate cellular providers, but then after that, AT&T’s service issues were brought into glaring focus, and that just magnified Apple’s choice restrictions.

How can Apple cripple Android’s advantage?  One way is by giving the user choice via the app that the user didn’t get with the calling plan.  Apple’s API is apparently easy enough to use that apps are being cranked out at a rate that far exceeds Android’s.  When the Apple app store was less than a year-old, it was adding 7,000 apps per month.  The current total app count for Apple is ~ 170,000 apps, 60,000 of which are tablet-specific, while the Android count is only about 15,000 apps total.  The other key issue here is quality control.  Unlike the Android App Store, Apple’s App Store only accepts apps after a rigorous approval process.  This contrasts the Android store which accepts anything as long as it’s written for Android.

I think Apple has been able to maintain a lead in the tablet world because if you look at Apple’s product line, simply visually, the iPad appears as kind of like an iPhone with more screen real estate.  Think of it this way:  manufacturers that use Android build phones that run apps.  Apple builds a very powerful miniature touchpad PC that happens to have the ability to make calls.  Extrapolating those apps to the iPad doesn’t seem like a big deal, and in fact the Apple App Store has some very complex apps that run on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.

Hardware is something that used to be uni-directional:  time passed and hardware just got bigger or faster or both.  That is a paradigm that Apple seems to be trying to shift.

The original iPad gave you 256 MB of memory.  The new iPad2 gives you… that’s right… 256 MB of memory.  Now the iPad2 does give you more processor and tighter, crisper graphics, but to at least a certain extent, coding needs to remain tight and efficient to deal with that 256 MB constraint.  Having done programming myself back in the day that required memory management, it is a challenge, but the results of doing it right are worth it.  What this does when you do it right is make you look innovative.  The other tablets can boast their muscle car hardware specs all they want, but if you’re an Android tablet provider, and Apple delivers a more entertaining, useful, and/or visually appealing experience than Android with less memory, it just makes you look that much worse.

“Although some iPad competitors win on spec wars, none prevails where it counts: user experience and utility.”

– Galen Gruman, writer for InfoWorld

All this being said, the people that work at Google are no dummies and if anyone can knock Apple off it’s pedestal, it’s Google.  The important thing to note here is that the tablet has brought it into laser-sharp clarity that the era of Microsoft is over.  That company is certainly not synonymous with serious innovation, and it hasn’t had an original thought in a decade or more.  Office software is really its last stronghold.  The era of the tablet PC is here, and with it come a whole new list of players… some new, relatively young upstarts, the Mountain View mega-geeks who first revolutionized search engines and then thought “Why not revolutionize everything else,” and that Infinitely Loop-y company who was always innovative, but was once thought dead who has risen from the ashes by being completely unafraid to re-invent the wheel.

Related links:

Jobs’ jab suggests Apple Fears Android

The Future of the Tablet

The Droid vs. the iPhone:  Let’s count the apps

What’s behind Android’s race to No. 1?

Google’s Open Source Android OS will Free the Wireless Web (this is a great piece of internet history from Wired.  It not only describes how Google learned about Android, it shows what a short-sighted nincompoop Steve Ballmer is.)

Windows Tablets:  Be Careful What You Wish For