Apr 122011
 

Gartner is one of the most recognizable names in IT research. TMA doesn’t concern himself with most of what they do, because all consultants are useless people you pay to tell you what time it is by having them look at your watch.  If their smartphone market predictions are any indication, you’d be better off throwing a dart at a board. Seriously: it’s like their firm is populated by Scott Moritz clones.

Anyway, Gartner’s most recent forecasts for Apple’s iOS devices are a lot like their past predictions. Let’s take a look:

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Apr 082011
 

One of TMA’s major gripes about Apple’s media coverage is how really horribly malformed the technology press landscape is. If you combine the high-turnover nature of the consumer electronics industry – where major product announcements happen literally every day – with the general decline of journalistic standards for reporting them (another fine benefit of the pageview model of monetization – big ups, Google!), you can find yourself quickly immersed in an environment that makes you stupider with every word seared onto your retina.

Some habits are more awful than others. As a consumer (and sometime regurgitator) of copious amounts of bad tech writing, TMA has distilled the five most blood pressure-challenging writing habits in tech:

The “What company x can learn from company y” article

When a technology company does something right, it’s only a matter of time before some master the obvious points out that a company that does something poorly could benefit from doing that particular thing well – as if it were some transferable skill for which the failing company could go to night school. The reason so many people writing about technology companies don’t work for them – or for any company for that matter – is that they don’t understand what it takes to change behavior on a company-wide scale. Thank goodness they can oversimplify it and provide facile recommendations in their blog.

The interrogative headline

What does it mean when you read an Apple headline that ends with a question mark?

More than half the time, some asshole is trying to keyword his post in an attempt to drum up page views, yet cannot commit to a declarative statement in the headline. It’s almost like the writer thinks he’s invoking some trick of the trade designed to protect him against a lawsuit from Apple if he did, in fact, make an outrageous claim. These articles without exception are absolute crap. When I encounter a title in my RSS feed that contains a question mark at the end, I quietly answer “no” and move onto the next one.

What Apple needs to do with their cash on hand

There’s no more predictable activity for an Apple beat analyst than to call for Apple to do something with their cash reserves the day after they announce how much they have. I’m starting to think Apple may actually keep so much in reserve just to host a quarterly company-wide drinking game based on all the stupid suggestions that invariably come out of the woodwork. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Apple will buy Time Warner Cable” by Robert X. Cringely. Rest assured, Cringely: you’ve already got one of those “Reserved” table placards to hold your seat for the inevitable induction into Douchebag’s Row. Quick visual aid: what does this website header make you want to do?

If you answered “throw haymakers until I pass out from exhaustion”, you are correct.

Nice PS2 keyboard, BTW.

Douche.

  • “Apple is in late stage negotiations to buy Twitter and is hoping to announce it at WWDC in June” according to “a normally reliable source” by Mike Arrington. TMA has no doubt that the source was Google Analytics, who had notified him that his site hadn’t produced any eyeball-catching excrement in at least 14 minutes.

Here’s what Apple will do with their cash: continue to secure components like Flash RAM and LCD panels in bulk, which will allow them to beat competitors on price and help freeze the development of copycat products for a couple months. Oh- and they might buy TiVo.

Anecdotal sample sizing

Picture the image of the journalist from 20 years ago: determined, resourceful and quoting studies that are statistically significant. Possibly donning a cool fedora that didn’t make him look like a middle-aged man who for some reason started wearing a fedora (I’ve been seeing these people everywhere in NYC lately). Now contrast that with your average tech blogger: high word count, Wikipedia-driven and content to ask their three best friends’ opinion to substantiate a pivotal point in the article. Nothing says “I suck at journalism” as efficiently as the use of “everyone I asked” and “numerous people I talked to”. You’re writing about an industry made up of precision instruments – stop supporting your claims like someone who freelances for the National Enquirer, not that the two are mutually exclusive .

Asinine predictions to drive pageviews

If I could use one phrase to summarize the state of Apple’s coverage in the tech media, this would be it. I suppose it’s the biggest downside of being simultaneously super-successful and uber-secretive: every asshole’s sensationalistic projection for your products has a chance of seeing the light of day. Whereas Microsoft uses this tactic to play sites like Engadget like a fiddle to stifle competition with a product they have no intention of releasing, the constant generation of unrealistic expectations for companies that actually ship things could eventually lead to consumer disappointment. Thankfully, no one really listens to them. The sources of these predictions are usually “one and done” analysts/bloggers with a “strong connections to a reliable source” but many of them *cough* Scott Moritz *cough*remain bulletproof after several incorrect guesses fall squarely on their faces. Some of these asinine mouthforms are actually antithetical to their corresponding real-world events. Yet they persist. Guess TMA will have to keep writing.

So those are your top 5. I’m sure you can think of your own. I’d love to hear about them in comments as I’m in the market for a new drinking game.

Apr 042011
 

Some of you may recall that not too long ago Google had a small problem with its Android Market: malware representing a developer’s entire portfolio was downloaded over a quarter million times before Google yanked it after an Android hobbyist website discovered it. Now step back for a moment and imagine the fireball of rage that would have broke the internet if this was a problem discovered in the Apple’s App Store. The beauty of Google’s customer base is that it’s comprised of two polar opposites that together don’t really care about Google’s hilarious non-stance on protecting consumers in their own marketplace. One the one hand, you have freetard hobbyists; on the other people who believed the pre-iPhone Verizon salesman when he said that an Android phone is every bit as good as an iPhone. The hobbyists’ “free as in freedom” mentality that allows them to tinker with their kit without harassment classifies downloading malware as a small price to pay for the ability to steal apps. The customers who were bamboozled into thinking their shartphone was “just as good” as an iPhone probably don’t know how to download an app in the first place and don’t know this issue even exists.

If I were Google, I would actually be pursuing Amazon to take on the role of exclusive curator of the Android Market. Why?

1. The pay isn’t that good. I think people overestimate the rewards and downplay the responsibilities of running an app store. In exchange for 30% or so of an app’s cost, Google has to host all the content, manage (however reactively) the presence of apps that blatantly violate copyright, are malware, promote bad things like hate speech – whatever. This kind of management saps resources that significantly cut into that 30%. And let’s not forget that in the Market, free apps outnumber paid apps by a much greater margin than the App Store, which means that 30% is drawn from a much smaller pie. Here’s a business reality that may not resonate very popularly with the freetard community: when you destroy the value that a good or service is meant to have (“meant” as defined by the market, not necessarily what the developer wants you to pay), you’ll end up with an ecosystem devoid of value for the people providing the goods or services. Google has to realize this.

1a. This isn’t how Google makes its money. The Market is one of those “nice to have” things that allow clueless salespeople to claim that Android is competitive with the iPhone. It’s not Google’s core business – not even close. On some level, Google has to realize they’re not doing this very well. Amazon, on the other hand, possesses the infrastructure – and apparently the desire – to do this at least as well as Google does now.

2. Freedom to be a hypocrite. Check out the reaction to Google circling its wagons and telling manufacturers and carriers that they can’t mess with Android too much or they’ll risk getting shoved out of the ecosystem. Even as Android apologists are arguing (poorly) that this is the right move for Google, a lot of freetards aren’t too happy about it – basically because it’s the complete opposite of what folks like Andy Rubin and Vic Gundotra have been talking up about their ecosystem. Imagine what will happen if Google starts to aggressively bounce crapware from its Marketplace? If you look at its content, you have to wonder how much longer Google can not purge it. Between the “ringtones apps” that rip off Top 20 pop singles and movie wallpaper, It’s amazing to me that Google has been allowed to operate an appstore environment that turns a blind eye to flagrant copyright and trademark violations for this long. Where is the RIAA? The MPAA? Bueller? With Amazon, Google has a chance to offload the responsibility for the mess that the Market has become. With Amazon’s credibility on the line, it’ll take at least some care in screening which apps appear on their site and give Google plausible deniability. Lord knows they hate to come off looking like hypocrites.

So as much as I’d like to see Google continue to mismanage its app store so TMA can continue to point and laugh at it, I also feel like this is pointing out the obvious. The best place for the Android Market is with Amazon.

Jan 042011
 

Happy New Year to the TMA readership. My resolution: 2560 x 1440.

/boom-tish. Try the Salisbury steak.

With a new year, writers across the land feel compelled to make a bunch of baseless predictions and tech is no exception. I came across some from Google employee Tim Bray in his “ongoing” blog. I didn’t find any of the prognostications in “Year-end View of the Mobile Market” particularly insightful or interesting, but they do speak volumes about how Google thinks. Mercifully, Bray does prepare readers for how patently obvious many of his predictions are. I’ve taken up the challenge of summarizing each of his “things that seem obvious” in 5 words or less. You can click through to see how I did.

In 2011, the smartphone market will/be/continue to (OK, I cheated a bit):

  • Sell a lot of phones
  • Further squeeze “dumb” phone sales
  • Apple, Android > RIM, Nokia, Microsoft
  • Windows 7 Phones: Verdict Unclear

Then he says something about a $500 contract free phone being less than a $199 phone with a contract and wonders when someone will offer financing. Like they have for appliances. Really.

So what are Bray’s not-so-obvious things?

  • The major barrier for tablets replacing laptops? “High-speed low-friction text input”. Translation: the opposite of Android’s touchscreen input.
  • “I’m increasingly coming to think that people buy phones based on the quality and volume of old-fashioned advertising put behind the products. Not coincidentally, not only are the iPhones and iPad excellent devices, they have what is to my eye probably the best advertising in the mobile industry.” Ladies and gentlemen: our first moneyball. The difference between Apple’s and Android’s relative success is marketing. You can see this theory expanded on over at Paul Thurrott’s SuperSite.
  • Apple is going to do a 7″ device. That’s certainly not so obvious. In fact, that’s about 3 colors of the rainbow into Fantasyland. Why will Apple do a 7″ device? “(It) still fits in one hand and you can use for four hours in a row sitting up.” Does Bray mean you can’t use an iPad sitting up for 4 hours? I certainly can. Does he mean having a device that can be extended at arm’s length for 4 hours? Try doing that holding nothing. He concludes emphatically with “This argument is over“, and by the italics you can tell he means it. They should bring Bray in for closing arguments. He could be a Mariano Rivera-esque consultant to defense attorneys. James Spader’s character in Boston Legal just peed his pants a little.

But Bray is at his most compelling in the section titled “Apple vs. Android”, where he pits the advertising powerhouse in Cupertino against the Open Source champions in Mountain View. Who wins?

“I think Apple will sell a ton of devices because they’re good, and superbly marketed. I think a bunch of people will sell a ton of Android devices because they’re good and there are so many options for different needs and networks and price-points.” Emphasis mine

Both are good devices, but that goddamn marketing – those fucking unicorn tears – that’s what lands Apple those insanely high margins EVEN THOUGH THEY’RE ON ONE CARRIER IN THE U.S.!

Let me break it down for you, Tim. The difference – that most obvious of obvious factors you allude to but don’t quite concede – is Verizon. Here’s an illustration of Verizon’s current smartphone unit sales, a period of time I like to call “Before iOS” or “BiOS”, or as you’ll come to remember them: the Salad Years.

This is what will happen at “Zero Hour”, which is immediately after the iPhone becomes available on Verizon. This is also the beginning of “In the year of our Jobs” or “AiOS”.

Finally, once most people are able to rid themselves of their existing contracts and avoid cancellation fees, the landscape should be pretty-well stabilized. Until the iPhone 5…

To wrap up the piece, Bray waxes optimistic about future of the Android platform”

“And there’s nothing fundamental in Android that would get in the way of a industrial-design and user-experience rock-star team, whether at Google or one of the handset makers…”,

And there’s nothing fundamental in the way of my becoming the next Justin Bieber. I can inflect my speaking voice in a way that qualifies as singing, even though I’m not something you’d pay to listen to – or stick around for long if it were free. I have a blog, so there’s really minimal distance between, say, an entry in Douchebag’s Row and some hit single that makes sane people claw at their eyes. I can play chopsticks on the piano, so I am musically inclined – fundamentally. Everything between here and the Top 10 is details.

“…testing the hypothesis that these things are central to Apple’s success.”

Testing the hypothesis that something besides the snappy songs in those ads are what make Apple the most valuable brand in the technology sector. Because – you know – they’re engineers. They need to test all hypotheses, no matter how unlikely.

I’m picturing the Android team’s faces when smartphone unit sales are announced for the first and second quarter of 2011. The genuine looks of befuddlement will be the best part.

Oct 142010
 

Yesterday, Apple announced an event that will provide a sneak peek at its newest operating system, which may or may not be named “Lion”. With the downplayed and down-priced release of Snow Leopard in 2009, Apple has raised popular expectations regarding what new features will appear in 10.7. Sure, there will be the usual complement of eye candy improvements and maybe some marginal workflow streamlining, but the marquee feature has to be something big. Based on the pace of Apple’s proliferation as the digital media company of record, the scheduled construction of its North Carolina server farm and the likely release date of 10.7 (I’m guessing middle of 2011), Lion – or whatever its actually named – will decisively position OS X as the standard for digital content management.

In a nutshell, Apple will make iTunes the center of users’ media universes. Whatever content is purchased through Apple will be available to be streamed to any Apple device – maybe even any browser. So whether you’re streaming locally through Airplay or remotely through Apple’s servers, your media is always accessible. The capacity for ubiquity could extend far beyond iTunes. You can already sync things such as Notes and Dock Items via MobileMe; think about being able to sync all your application preferences, preference panes – even the contents of your Home folder – instantly. As I pointed out a while ago, Apple already has a number of the components in place necessary to realize this digital content ascension. By baking universal media availability into its operating system, Apple will fully realize of the original “digital hub” vision Steve Jobs alluded to when introducing the original iMac.

Sep 172010
 

Apple is usually pretty good about differentiating their product offerings, which is why the announcements of the 6G Nano and 4G Shuffle left me a little confused.

Apple’s PMPs fall along a line that runs from utility to features, like this:

Or, in product terms:

If you’re a gym rat, you likely bought a Shuffle – Nano ; if you were more of a multitasker, you went from Touch – Classic, depending on how many things you wanted to do besides listen to music.

As a product line, Apple’s PMPs were occasionally thrown a curve. In 2008, the Nano got a 240 x 320 screen and the last generation got an even bigger screen and a video camera, moving it closer to the Touch’s offerings. The last generation’s Shuffle lost its buttons, relying on the remote and its connection with iTunes to manage its contents. Although I believe Apple thought this would add convenience, the reality is that removing the buttons forced dependence on Apple’s inferior earbuds (or headsets with remote capabilities “blessed” by Apple) and made playlist control, for example, a bigger pain. So back came the buttons, which taken with the changes to the Nano, places these 2 products in almost the same place (for practical purposes, the Classic is a discontinued form factor):

They have a very similar footprint (1.14″H x 1.24″W vs. 1.48″H x 1.61″W). One has buttons; one has a 1.5″ touchscreen, which is 136 pixels shorter than the 5G Nano. The new Nano doesn’t (yet) play or shoot video like its previous incarnation, but it can show pictures. It is a Shuffle-sized iPod Touch, but it isn’t an iOS device (it runs only the menu items installed; no apps).

The question is: who will buy it? It’s not the kind of thing I’d want to poke at on a treadmill, and it doesn’t have any of the cool features of the Touch – or even the previous generation’s Nano. In the short term, people will buy it because its kind of cool and is a decent incarnation of MultiTouch. In the longer term, I think Apple has created its first true “Thunderdome” scenario across it’s PMP line. 2 form factors enter, which one will leave?

Although I could make a strong case for the Shuffle, I think the Nano will rule Bartertown. The next product refresh will drop the buttons and the Classic in favor of MultiTouch-only PMPs. Although this current Nano/Shuffle market spacing is slightly un-Apple, I think the ultimate direction of their product line is clear.

Aug 312010
 
I don’t usually do predictions, but for the Apple-shaped Guitar Sound Hole Thingy event tomorrow, I’m going to make an exception because it’s rumored to include my favorite Apple non-product: the AppleTV.

The Potential

The reason the AppleTV holds such a special place in my heart is because of its potential. In the land of the cloud, Apple is a media giant. It’s the de facto standard in electronic music distribution and a major supplier of movie, TV show and podcast content. They’ve also got a foot in Audiobooks and a major educational presence in iTunes University. So why hasn’t the AppleTV caught fire the way all of their other devices have?

The Problems

In a nutshell, the AppleTV is primarily a way to enjoy content you buy or to view content once (or however many times within a 24-hour window) that you rent from iTunes. Secondarily, it’s a device that allows you to view video content you got somewhere else. The difference? Apple only allows you to play video encoded in MPEG-4 or H.264 – so re-rip it (the content), hack it (the device -with the excellent ATV Flash or similar tool) or suck it. Ownership is the major distinction between Apple’s offering and subscription services like Netflix, which allows streaming from any browser, iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad (WiFi or 3G). Although content available for streaming is much thinner that Apple’s library, the entry-level streaming accounts priced at $9/month are very attractive option for consumers wanting to supplement – or eliminate – cable. You’d think that paying once and owning content would be superior to streaming content and paying in perpetuity, and you’d be right if the studios and networks weren’t still dicking around with the definition of “own”.

With the exception of music, Apple’s media presence is unleveraged because studios and networks are still making money with their current models.  In what probably cost Steve his liver, Jobs dragged the album-peddling studio dum-dums kicking and screaming to a distribution model that saved their businesses from piracy. With the successful access to content and its subsequent freeing from DRM, the success of Apple’s iPod was assured. Now we have another army of dum-dums: the studios and networks, which have different problems with a common theme. People want their movies and TV shows regardless of what device they reside on. They don’t want the movies they bought for $16.99 to come with a coupon to download the digital version of what they already own for $1.99, and have that copy cement-shoed by DRM. They don’t want to be locked into a timeslot to view their TV Shows, slogging through horrible program options and hours of commercials on the good stuff. The problem is that content providers are still making money with a model that doesn’t give a shit about what people want. So studios continue to layer copyright protection and people continue to flock to torrent sites to get their media.  Apple has been aggressively lobbying media outlets – particularly networks – to loosen their restriction on their content, but the it has been very slow going. Apple has made some progress with the “Authorized Devices” provision on content purchased from iTunes (you can share movies and TV shows with iTunes on up to 5 computers and unlimited the iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads they sync with), but the restrictions on video content need to be shaken loose if any set-top device is going to work – even one from Apple. And dealing with the networks and cable providers is even more facepalm-inducing than dealing with studios.

As the guys at Three Guys and a Podcast point out, networks have a deal with the cable companies: when you carry our content, you carry our stable. We’ll give you a couple of studs, like ESPN and a couple gluebags, like Lifetime (note that the examples given reflect a slight bias on the part of the author). Sounds a lot like the record studios, doesn’t it? Except this model is much more insidious. When you’re dealing with a cable company, you’re dealing with multiple networks, each with their own demands. Compound this with different geographical markets demanding different price points (imagine what they get for CMT in Nashville?) and the market power of the particular cable provider. As complex as this is, I’m sure I’m simplifying these relationships by orders of magnitude. You may think “Good luck unraveling a la carte network pricing in our lifetime”, but one should never underestimate the influence of a man who brought an end to DRM for music.

So because the AppleTV is primarily a device that plays content you buy from Apple, its fortunes track the restrictions placed on that content. While they are not particularly onerous now, when compared to the current state of music ownership, it’s enough to render the device a failure relative to the monster successes that douchebag analysts and tech bloggers are used to seeing from Apple.

The Predictions

A lot of people predict a refreshed AppleTV tomorrow. There’s a lot of speculation in the blogosphere about what this will look like, but most of them focus on 2 things that I have a problem with from a common sense perspective: that the AppleTV’s form factor will become somehow smaller or “sleeker” (a pundit term for what makes Apple products too expensive and port-barren) and that the device will become less expensive – in the $99 range.

1. Form factor. I can’t see a reason to change it, but a good one to keep it: it now shares the same footprint as the Mac Mini. I’m sure there’s some manufacturing advantage to having 2 different devices sharing similar dimensions.

2. Price. Apple doesn’t price marquis products at $99. If it does, it’s after a few generations at a premium point.

Of course, if Apple’s design assumptions for the device were predicated exclusively on streaming content (made possible by a revolutionary set of agreements with studios and networks), that would eliminate the need for the local storage currently contained in shipping ATVs. This in turn would probably change the form factor and lower the price. It’s possible that this thing was redesigned in advance of any game-changing content agreements.

The one thing I do agree with is that the device will receive an iOS (read app-centric) UI overhaul. Right now, Apple has 3 major UIs and only 2 of them are developer friendly. The ATV now essentially has a click-wheel iPod UI and no developer inroads. Bringing the ATV into the iOS fold allows Apple to better focus its UI effort for two UI genres instead of three and to open more virgin soil to developers via the iOS SDK.

I like to hedge as much as the next Apple blogger. If I had to commit to a prediction for the AppleTV (or, *sigh* iTV), I’d say yes to #1, although I don’t think the agreements with content providers are yet to a point where a storage-free device is optimal. I don’t agree with #2: that price is an analyst’s market-jerking wet dream and little else. I think the device’s move to iOS is a no-brainer.  Of course, TMA always has hope for that “one more thing” that will blow the roof off of yet another media paradigm.

An AppleTV that replaces Tivo, hosts content that can be played anywhere via MobileMe and has a la carte subscriptions by channel or network isn’t too much to ask, you know.

Update

So the event has come and gone and the iPod line has gotten its fall color. As far as the AppleTV, it looks like I got Apple’s pricing dead wrong. Like analysts, I could use the backdoor “if they made it smaller, they could drop the price”, but honestly I didn’t see it falling to $99. Market-jerking, indeed. Also wrong: iOS. I do think this is the future, though, especially if Apple wants to make it more than just a media terminal.

I also think Steve has to be pissed that rentals are the only option for (the device still called the) AppleTV. I think he had more ambitions for his network deals. Although $.99 is a throwaway as a rental, it’s for a TV show and you get squadoosh once your rental expires. If the offerings don’t include Showtime and HBO offerings, that’s a loser for me. I’ll snap me up some Weeds for $.99 in a second though.

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