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You Are The Product

August 3, 2015 Leave a comment
(With invisible close buttons.)

Our grim, multicolour, flashing future.

One of the quieter announcements that Apple made during its WorldWide Developers Conference recently was that its forthcoming MacOS and iOS updates will give developers the ability to create “Content Blockers” for its mobile and desktop Safari browsers. While the exact content blocked is up to the developer (you could block the Daily Mail if you want—and you really should), no one is under any illusions as to the target of this feature: ads.

Ad blockers already exist as extensions to most existing browsers, but the majority of users probably don’t avail of them, especially in the mobile sphere. Apple’s decision to push this feature and the reaction to its quiet announcement says a lot about the current state of the mobile web and the dominant role that ads have come to play in it.

Faster computers, mobile phones and broadband have contributed to a smoother experience online, but this has helped to hide the fact that the vast majority of what we download is ads and spyware. Blocking out most of that would massively speed up browsing and have the simultaneous benefit of cutting down on the amount of activity tracked online.

As pleasant an outcome as this sounds though, there’s a downside: online advertising pays the bills for many of the sites we enjoy, some of them from smaller content providers. Killing off that revenue stream would likely kill off a lot of the richness and the niche content that the web provides. It’s not like the people running these sites are preying on you through the ads either—they’re often stuck in a system that they don’t like, making do as well as they can.

The power blocs behind online advertising inform the nature of the system and the conflict that Apple is wading into. Facebook and Google ensure that web users have access to a wealth of content for free by harvesting their data and selling it, funnelling a portion of the proceeds back to the content creators in order to keep the whole thing going. This is the system that’s driven the growth of the web to date, but it’s far from perfect, and web site bloat is just one of the symptoms.

Whatever your thoughts on Apple—you won’t look at the comments on any Apple article on a non-Apple site for long before you find mentions of ‘iSheep’ or ‘Apple fanboys’—the fact is that Apple’s profit model is completely different from that of the web titans. Apple’s iAds platform is distinctly small scale, and its money comes from the sale of hardware instead. Providing an improved user experience is vital to enhancing the sale of that hardware, and enabling the creation of content blockers achieves that.

Safari is a minority browser on desktop machines, but it’s a major player on the mobile web, and iOS users are a lucrative market. So while this initiative isn’t going to bring down the current financial underpinnings of the mobile web, it’s a definite shot across Google’s bows. (Less so Facebook, which has a closed ecosystem of its own that it can profit from.) For users, it raises the question: are we happy to receive things for free, with the understanding that we’re being sold in return, or are we going to accept that we should pay for the things we value?

There’s an interesting parallel to be seen in the U.K., where the Tory government is once again taking the knives to the public broadcaster, the BBC. U.K. TV viewers have long been accustomed to paying a TV licence, and in return they’ve gained a globally renowned service that entertains, educates, and informs. Of course, a publicly funded broadcaster has a head start over its private sector rivals, and in the view of the Tories, that’s unfair competition. Speaking as someone who was raised on a diet of BBC television, I’d call the licence fee a small price to pay, but the future that the private sector envisions could look a lot like YouTube: ostensibly free to use but scattered with pop-up ads and laden with user tracking.

When we’re offered something free, it’s convenient to overlook the fine print. We’re okay with being the product as long as it’s not thrown back in our face. It would be nice to think that users’ desire for speed and convenience would eventually find a balance with providers’ need for compensation. But while Apple’s intervention might be to our benefit, Apple doesn’t fund web content, only content provided through its own app store ecosystem. So if its ad blocking does gain traction, either we’re going to have to learn to pay for our content or some of those content providers are going to go under.

Watching the Apple Watch

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment
Go on, admit it. You want to at least play with them for a while.

All these can be yours, for a (to be determined) price.

I’ve been an Apple user long enough that the company’s regular keynote events are a recognisable form of entertainment. Unusually, I didn’t watch this week’s well-publicised event until the day after it happened. (Possibly a good thing given the problems that the live streaming coverage faced.) By that time I’d already read enough of the media reaction to know exactly what I’d be seeing. Spoilers aren’t really the point with an event like this.

The first part of the event, to be fair, had already been well spoiled by leaks. Enough prototype parts and schematics had trickled out from Apple’s supply chain that only a few details remained to be filled in about the new iPhones. The 6 and 6 Plus looked much as expected and neatly relegated last year’s 5s and 5c to the minor places in Apple’s product lineup. A one-year-old free (on contract) iPhone is a better trick than a two-year-old free offering, but the 6 and 6 Plus are now the stars. The former seems the better bet, though the 6 Plus has its own appeal if you can handle its unwieldy dimensions—in its case, battery life and an improved screen are bigger draws than the optical image stabilisation of its slightly protruding camera.

Next up after the phones was something only hinted at in pre-show leaks: Apple Pay. A solution to the hassle of everyday credit card payments, it positions Apple well in the race to made commercial life more convenient. It’s the biggest leveraging to date of Apple’s credit-card enabled iTunes customers, bringing together a lot of pieces (iBeacon, Passbook) that Apple has been putting into place for some time now. However, given that it’s only usable with NFC-enabled devices (both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as well as this article’s titular device) and is only to be deployed in the U.S. for the moment, its reach will initially be limited. Over the long term though, it could well be the most important announcement of the entire show.

Last up was the fabled “One More Thing,” returning to a very warm welcome from the crowd. This was, of course, the Apple Watch, likewise rumoured in the media but barely even glimpsed in advance of the show itself. It seems that Apple’s secrecy can still hold when they really need it to.

A handful of smartwatches have already hit the market. I owned one briefly, in the form of the Pebble, but most of them are now running Google’s Android in one form or another, and yet more are on the way. If the Apple Watch is going to be a success, Apple’s going to have to repeat a trick it’s already pulled with the iPod, iPhone and iPad: to enter an existing but nascent market and turn it upside down. So has it done so?

Well no, not yet, if only for the reason that the Apple Watch won’t be released until early next year and many important facts about it remain uncertain, but at least one watch industry watcher has been impressed by the unveiling, not just its implications for the smartwatch industry but for watches in general.

Whereas its competitors seem to have focused primarily on providing an adjunct to their Android phones, Apple is coming from the other direction. The Apple Watch is tethered to the iPhone (or possibly the iPad too?) true, but it’s as much a fashion accessory as it is a computing accessory. The fact that Apple paid attention to what people might actually want to put on their wrist can be seen in the simplest fact about the Apple Watch: it comes in two sizes, small and large. Just like non-smart watches do.

Physically, it’s arguably more attractive than any of the other smartwatches already out there. More importantly to potential buyers, it’s massively customisable, more so than any other Apple product before it. Between size, colour and strap type, as long as you fancy having an Apple Watch on your wrist, you’ll be able to make it look exactly the way you want it to. Moreover, Apple has gone to great lengths to design its straps so that you can fit and adjust them yourself, rather than heading to a jeweller to have it done for you, as is the case with several of the Android smartwatches.

As for the software, it certainly looks the part, with Apple once again tailoring an operating system to suit the device. The Apple Watch has a touch screen, but given that any touching finger would obscure a significant portion of the screen, it also has a “digital crown,” refashioning the traditional watch crown into a multifunction control wheel with an integrated home button. Another button devoted to bringing up a “favourite contacts” screen is a reminder that the Apple Watch, above all else, is meant to leverage the power of its linked iOS device, faster and with greater ease than ever, and preferably without needing to take it out of your pocket or bag.

As for whether I plan to get one or not, that depends. Depends on the battery life of the final device and the price of the various options. Depends on whether or not the eventual software manages to live up to the promises of the keynote speech. For, whatever else it may be good at, Apple is very good at selling its devices as objects of desire. I’ll be looking out for reasons not to break open the piggy bank come early 2015. It’s up to Apple to match its own hype.

Until then, I have iOS 8 (coming next week) and OS X Yosemite (coming a little later) to refresh my own devices, making them seem like new again. There’s a new U2 album as well, offered as an awkward freebie at the end of the keynote, but that can’t really compete as an attraction. After all, what we get for free, we never really appreciate as we should.

Changing the World in 3/4 Decades

January 27, 2014 Leave a comment
D&D games on the Mac? Yeah, I remember that.

Kicking it old-style…

Last week was a week of anniversaries. World-changing anniversaries, in fact, though I’m going have to make an argument for at least one of them.

The anniversary that got the most press inches was the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984. The launch is best known for that Ridley Scott advertisement invoking Orwell’s Big Brother, but recently a video came to light revealing a launch event in front of the Boston Computer society.

It’s a fascinating watch, mostly for the fact that it contains so much of the future. The Mac is front and centre, and it’s amazing just how much of what we take for granted in our computers today appeared right at the start of the Mac age. It’s not just the MacOS that still bears the ancestral marks of its progenitor. Every modern desktop/laptop OS can trace its ancestry back to 1984. Amazingly, it’s a trick Apple has pulled off more than once: its iOS is similarly the root from which the modern smartphone/tablet ecosystem arose.

It’s also instructive to watch Steve Jobs at work, long before his keynote speeches grabbed attention around the world. The delivery isn’t as smooth as it later became, but so much of those keynotes is already in place: the idea of the intersection of art and technology, the attention-grabbing video segments, the on-stage demonstrations to wow the audience. Jobs would soon be ousted from Apple, only to return and lead it to world leadership years later, and his keynotes would be much more controlled, so getting to see him do a question-and-answer with the original Mac team is a rare treat.

The other anniversary is for an event ten years earlier and one less easy to nail down. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons also changed the world, albeit in a less direct way than the Mac. It birthed, of course, the roleplaying game (RPG), a combination of board game and improvisational storytelling. RPGs have never been a big industry, but their influence has spread far and wide.

D&D drove an interest in fantasy, and followup RPGs drove interest in science fiction and horror, even as they followed trends in wider culture: Star Wars, Anne Rice, Ghostbusters, etc. RPG players got involved in the growing computer games industry and the entertainment industry, leading to a lot of what is now mainstream. Game of Thrones’ George RR Martin? A roleplayer. Joss Whedon? Roleplayer.

The Mac is still going strong, despite some dodgy moments along the way. D&D has lost its leading position everywhere except cultural memory, but the hobby it kicked off has endured and spread like a weed, its roots and tendrils going everywhere. The Mac changed how we interact with the world. D&D created a new spawning ground for content, and an avenue for storytelling and offbeat genres that wasn’t there before. Happy birthday to them both.

Don’t Be Evil?

January 20, 2014 1 comment
Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/7181655884/

My Photo-fu ain’t getting any prettier. (Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/7181655884/)

It’s one of the best—and best known—corporate mottos of the technology age. Google’s three-word mantra positioned it as something different from the corporate behemoths it disrupted as a scrappy startup. It was also an implicit promise, that as a company it was on the side of the customers it served.

Except, that was years ago, and Google is now one of the biggest of those corporate behemoths. Many of its products may still be loved (just witness the Android/iOS flamewars) but the company itself? The reaction to its recent acquisition of Nest shows that beyond a sense of confusion as to what Google was paying all that much money for, Google itself just isn’t trusted all that much.

Nest is an odd little company in and of itself: founded by Tony Fadell, one of the creators of Apple’s iPod, it looks to bring the same design ethos to neglected home products and add some Internet-era connectivity and device awareness. Nest are one of the leading lights of the “Internet of Things”, so it’s not a surprise that Google has swooped in, but the reaction from technology pundits has been broadly negative.

Why? Well, we tend not to trust those with too great a power over us, and Google’s huge collection of information and ability to leverage it gives it immense power. Nest’s connected devices suggest a desire to extend its awareness of our activities even further into our homes and our every waking moment.

Paranoia? Maybe, but in this case they are watching us. Wasn’t Nest doing the same thing already? It was, but there’s a difference between communicating with devices that form part of our lives, and having those devices communicating with a vast database that already contains details on our lives.

A company like Nest, as with Apple, makes its money by selling products to consumers. A company like Google makes its money by selling advertising and licensing software, both to other companies. As long as there’s a viable alternative, it’s vital for Google to retain the goodwill of consumers, but the fact that their money comes from elsewhere means that they’re always going to be a servant of two masters, and the temptation is to rely on PR to deal with consumer attitudes.

This is not to say that Google, much less the people who work for it, is evil, but the company relegated its famous motto to the backburner a while ago. The pressures of capitalism, as practiced in the modern world, don’t leave much room for moral scruples. The law and how to follow or sidestep it is the main limiting factor on the goal of maximising profits.

The fact is, the Nest acquisition is a good deal, expensive though it may be for Google. Nest gets funding and the chance to supercharge its entry into homes around the world. Google gets not only the hardware design expertise of Fadell and his team of ex-Apple employees (something it badly needs) but also that extra angle of attack for visualising our lives in data.

As for whether Google can regain its standing in the eyes of consumers, the question is does it want to? It’s become one of the world’s largest corporations and it’s hugely profitable. There’s an inevitable sense of sadness at the loss of innocence from those idealistic startup days, but maybe that’s always the price to be paid for success.

Tiny Death Star

November 18, 2013 Leave a comment

20131118-150036.jpg
It’s a hard life as building manager of the Death Star…

Nimblebit, iOS, Free

It’s a mark of how watered-down Star Wars has become that Tiny Death Star even exists. The villains of the original trilogy, a bunch of faceless, menacing, planet-destroying quasi-fascists are here rendered down into cutesy 8-bit form, as you’re asked to fund the construction of the planet-destroying battle station by turning it into a residential/commercial emporium.

Yeah, someone didn’t put a lot of thought into that. Best to just roll with it.

Tiny Death Star is, of course, a reskin and slight reworking of Nimblebit’s hugely popular Tiny Tower, taking the basic mechanics of building a tower block and filling it with inhabitants and things for them to buy and tweaking it for a kiddiefied version of the Star Wars universe. As such, anyone who’s played Tiny Tower will find themselves right at home. However, they may also find themselves uncomfortably constrained.

The big draw of Tiny Death Star is the Star Wars ambience, and the game sprinkles it around liberally, with famous figures from the movies roaming the levels of your growing battle station, sometimes incongruously so. Fittingly, the soundtrack also consists of musak versions of famous Star Wars themes, though these soon enough grate through repetition alone.

Tiny Tower’s gameplay has also been tweaked in several ways. In addition to the standard residential and commercial floors, you can also build Imperial levels, which allow you to complete missions (about which more later). Since these levels don’t make you money though, this slows down the process of building new levels, which was already slow in the original game.

Of the game’s two currencies, then—credits and bux—the former, used to build and stock new floors, comes more slowly than before. Not half so slowly as bux though, which are used to buy elevator upgrades and hurry various other aspects of the game. As purchases of bux are the main form of in-app purchases the game offers, it’s understandable that Nimblebit have chosen to strangle in-game opportunities to earn them, but in doing so they’ve also strangled the sense of progress for players who don’t want to spend extra coin.

Providing at least a modicum of variety to gameplay that strays close at times to Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker (click on things to earn more things, then click on them to earn yet more things) are the missions, provided by Darth Vader and the Emperor. Both provide credits as rewards, but although the Emperor’s missions are designed to guide your construction efforts, the rewards are meagre. Vader’s missions are slightly more rewarding, but I ran into one that required me to build a specific level (the game chooses which levels in a specific category are built at random), stalling any progress in that direction.

In the end, this is a Star Wars game, offered for free. If that appeals to you, go for it. But be aware that unless you’re willing to pay up, it’s going to present you with a choice between a long, hard slog and an escape route from this doomed battle station.

The Invisible Phone

November 5, 2013 Leave a comment

20131105-171024.jpg
The box of delights…

The piggy bank has been broken open, and the necessary pieces of paper (actually web forms) have been signed, sealed and delivered. As of last week, I have a new piece of shiny in my life in the form of an iPhone 5S. None of your gold-plated rubbish here, just the standard black for me. “Space Gray,” if you’re an Apple marketer.

Given that my previous phone was an iPhone 4, this marks a three-generation jump. It’s been interesting to observe what that change means in concrete terms. As it turns out, it all comes back to something I’ve mentioned before: the 5S is a phone that’s even better than its predecessor at disappearing when not needed.

The speed of the 5S is the first enabler of this. The 4 was far from a sluggard, but I had to switch off some of the frippery of iOS 7 in order to avoid stuttering animations. With the 5S, everything is silky smooth and instantly responsive. Apps launch without hesitation, and the notification and control centre overlays pop up immediately. Being able to deal with everything swiftly also helps with the already decent battery life—the more time the phone spends snoozing, the less its battery drains.

One of the 5S’s most marketable features is another time saver: the TouchID fingerprint sensor. Like most of the best Apple developments, it verges on being a gimmick but is saved by the fact that it just works. The time saved by using it instead of entering a security code is minimal, but the ability to jump directly to what you want to be doing rather than through a security hoop makes a meaningful difference, and it’s going to encourage people to use security if they weren’t already.

Something of a surprise to me was just how useful an older feature of the iPhone is: Siri. I tend to use features like the timer and alarm a lot, and while iOS 7’s control centre made it easier to get to that functionality, Siri pushes it up another level. You have to speak clearly, as the poor dear gets confused by enunciation that falls too short of BBC diction, but it’s already proven itself more than a toy.

I’ve yet to make more than a cursory acquaintance with the rest of the 5S’s feature set. The camera is clearly an improvement, especially in low light conditions, though I’ve not toyed with slow motion or burst shooting yet. The GPS seems to work a lot faster than in the 4, though as yet few apps make use of the phone’s vaunted motion coprocessor. Battery life seems solid enough, though this can dip quickly when the phone is searching for a decent connection, as mine was at last week’s Dublin Web Summit.

Taken together though, the theme stays the same. This is a phone that does what you want it to, faster and with fewer hurdles than before.

Categories: Technology Tags: , , , ,

The New Baseline

September 12, 2013 Leave a comment
All the colours of the candy rainbow.

Lickable shiny. Just … keep your tongue away from mine, okay?

The announcement this week of Apple’s new range of iPhones has generated some new and some standard complaints from pundits. For the new top-of-the-line iPhone 5s, the complaint is that it’s not all that different from the previous model. For the new midrange 5c, it’s that it isn’t a cheap iPhone. Oh, and the colourful plastic shells look tacky.

To deal briefly with the 5s: yes, it’s a speedbump. Everyone saw that one coming. However, initial reports suggest that it’s a substantial speed bump, and there are new and useful features in the form of an improved camera, an intriguing standalone motion detection chip and the much-discussed fingerprint sensor. Perhaps most importantly, it shifts the iPhone towards 64-bit computing, providing some decent futureproofing.

I’m not going to comment on the looks of the 5c until I have one in hand, other than to note that those who have handled them seem to have come away impressed. The issue of whether the 5c is too expensive to work for Apple as a “cheap” iPhone is the more interesting question, and it’s one where most critics (including the perennially misled markets) seem to have missed the point.

For all the talk of a “cheap” iPhone prior to the arrival of the 5c, Apple doesn’t do cheap, certainly not since the second coming of Steve Jobs. Its products tend to fit between “premium” and “affordable luxury”, depending on how you view those scales. In that sense, the 5c has been positioned as a “midrange” iPhone, fitting just beneath the new 5s.

Except that doesn’t tell the entire story either. Up until now, Apple had only one model of iPhone: the new iPhone. (It also sold last year’s new iPhone, and the previous year’s new iPhone too.) Selling older iPhones alongside the new model allowed Apple to leverage investments in manufacturing and economies of scale, but those old iPhones always felt a little second-hand.

With the release of the 5s, Apple has doubled the breadth of its new-iPhone product line in a stroke, giving consumers a choice much more appealing than one between the “new shiny” and the “old shiny that you can actually afford.” Relatively expensive the 5c may be, but to balance that it’s still a fully capable smartphone, in a brand new form factor that offers a splash of colour never seen on iPhones before.

Yes, an old-new iPhone still remains on the product list, in the form of the 4s, but I’m not sure that’ll last even a year. With two lines of iPhones above it, both using the iPhone 5 form factor and manufacturing lines, Apple is going to be shifting as quickly as it can to focus solely on these products. Improved manufacturing techniques and greater output lead to economies of scale and enhanced margins for Apple—or lower prices.

Because that’s really the thing with the 5s. Once the 4s goes, it becomes the new baseline for the iPhone line, and while it will never be “cheap”, I can see Apple cutting its price by €100 or so in about six months, making it even more price-competitive with Android smartphones.

After that, Apple suddenly has two product lines to work with—the “top-end iPhone” for those who want the latest and best iOS device, and the “iPhone for everybody” who wants an iPhone device but doesn’t want to break the bank for the latest and greatest.

What the 5c means is that the latter group no longer has to see themselves as buying last year’s cast-offs. The 5c isn’t about what it is now, as much as it might sell on its release. It’s about what it’s going to be a year from now. Because Apple always plays the long game, and it’s just shifted the iPhone baseline.