CategoryTechnology

Innovation-Schmovation

It’s that time of the year when the major tech companies try to flex their “innovation” muscles. Samsung tried kicking off the season early but it literally blew up in their face so they’re kicked to the curb for now. Let’s hope they get their shit together.

Google put its Fiber plans on hold and laid off more than half of its team in addition to firing off its CEO (he wrote a nice blogpost full of MBA jargon but call that Google’s exit interview). We are slated to get Fiber installed in our home very soon now but my enthusiasm is somewhat muted because you want to be assured that your utilities company is going to stick around. It’s not like your every other photo storage startup that abruptly shuts down and offers a zip file of your uploads.

Apple announced its ‘same old’ iPhone and ‘nearly same as before’ Macs minus the ports [1]. But they added a ‘Touch Bar’ that added a smidgeon of touch interface to their vaunted Mac lineup. Everyone else has skipped straight to making their screens touch-based but Apple has (rightfully, in my opinion) so far resisted. Keep the touch controls where your hands always are, I say. In fact, many of the touchpad controls are located on the Touch Bar. E.g. no longer using the trackpad to select a menu item when it’s right there on your contextual touch bar. Apple is more likely to replace its hardware keyboard with a touch interface with oodles of haptic feedback before it makes the screen with touch interface. So if you want a touch screen laptop, you’re better off jumping ship right now but empirical evidence suggests no one is in a hurry.

Microsoft, on the other hand, egged on by its new young CEO is upping the ante on innovation. It launched the admittedly cool looking Microsoft Studio, a virtual drawing board with a hinge. The video looks great and it definitely seems great to use. But…you knew a ‘but’ was coming…it suffers from the Google Glass problem. Everyone you know says they are definitely not going to buy coz it’s not for them but they definitely see the use for ‘creative professionals’. Yup, that’s what they said about Google Glass and turns out only dorks ended up buying it.

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Footnotes:
  1. Removal of the ports always causes consternation but within a year no one even remembers their anger []

Apple OS Updates from WWDC 2014

I’ve long given up on reading and being interested in Apple rumors. I rather wait for Apple’s official announcements and keynotes when they unveil all the goodies with specific launch dates. The rumor sites got this WWDC 2014 mostly wrong because apart from the HealthKit, which was a minor feature, they missed most of the awesome features. Perhaps because it is easier to keep software development that happens in Cupertino under wraps than hardware whose supply chain reaches as far as China.

Anyway, this is in no way an overview of the changes in OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 because there are dedicated blogs that do that for a living. And yeah, yeah, lots of these features were available in Android before. I’m just listing some changes or features that are great from my perspective.

OS X Yosemite

Continuity, continuity, continuity – the most exciting feature for average and pro users alike. Your iPhone, iPad, and Mac will now effortlessly talk to each other. You can start writing an email on your phone and continue where you left off on the Mac. Best of all, you can take your phone calls on the Mac and use its speakers/earphones to talk. Similarly, you can make phone calls using your Mac if your phone is nearby.

iCloud Drive – Apple seems to have given up on its efforts to create a space for documents and files without the file-folder hierarchy. Earlier you could open a document only in the app you created it in. Now, iCloud Drive is basically like Dropbox where you can save any kind of document and open it with any application that has access to it. You get 5GB free and can pay $3.99 per month for 200GB. That’s Google-level pricing [1] Of course, iCloud Drive is a OS X and iOS feature.

A New Look – Following the UI overhaul for iOS last year, OS X also got a major UI revamp. Overall, it looks nice but unless I get to use it [2] The default font is now Helvetica, a distinct change from Lucida Grande.

Spotlight – The nifty spotlight feature get placed center stage, like the Alfred app. Now you can quickly launch apps, do searches and “view rich suggestions from Wikipedia, Maps, Bing, App Store, iTunes Store, iBooks Store, top websites, news and movie showtimes.” I use Alfred to do quick calculations and since Spotlight does it too right now, the center placement will make me use Spotlight more often.

Mail and Safari – I’m one of the Mac users who relies on the default Mail app (for work/exchange emails) and Safari app for my Internet browsing needs. I have Chrome and Firefox too but I use them for specific purposes [3]. Most changes are improvements and bug fixes along with nifty features like birds-eye grid view for tabs. I had wished for pinned tabs but guess Apple wants you to scroll thru tabs instead of pinning them.  As they joke, Safari always seems snappier after every update so I hope that’s true this time too. DuckDuckGo as a built-in default search engine is interesting and perhaps worth a try for privacy sake. Previous extensions to make it so weren’t really good. I don’t enable saving my Google Search history anyway and don’t use Google Now either so apart from sheer quality of search results, it may not be different.

iOS 8

Family Sharing – “Family Sharing accounts will get access to purchases made by a family member without having to log into iTunes with the same Apple ID; the same credit card will still be used, but each family member will keep their own Apple ID and won’t have to switch to another account to redownload purchased items for free [MacStories]” This is awesome on so many levels. Ash and I have two different iTunes accounts since our app needs are different. But this feature will let us share some apps that we both love. Perhaps this is the nudge she needed to hop on the 1Password bandwagon.

Touch ID APIs for apps – This change will let developers of third-party apps to use Touch ID as authentication. No longer do we have to tap in 4-digit pass codes in Mint and Betterment and the long master password for 1Password. All you do is hold your finger on the home button and you’re in. Touch ID is one device feature I’m glad Apple implemented and in typical Apple-style, it works smoothly and is something that I can no longer live without on my phone.

App Extensions – This may be the most Android-like feature but it comes with the Apple-backed guarantee of working seamlessly. Basically, it is the ability to use one app’s features within another and customization of the notifications screen with widgets you want. I’m not much of a widgets guy since I keep the apps I frequently use on my home screen but the inter-app compatibility sounds useful.

App Battery Shaming – Although this wasn’t demonstrated on stage, iOS will finally list apps by the degree in which they are consuming battery power. Unless we see a leapfrog development in battery technology, conserving battery is the top priority for all smartphone users.

Homekit – This is a feature that will not see its full potential unless devices and developers tap into it. HomeKit will offer a common network protocol to let iOS apps control compatible locks, lights, cameras, plugs, switches, and more. So now all we have to do is to make all our household devices compatible to the iPhone.

Third-party keyboards – I have heard how third-party keyboards like Swype, Swiftkey, etc. are great on Android. I don’t know how useful they will be until I use them. So I’m just curious at this point.

So it promises to be an exciting fall when both these operating systems come to the devices near you. Hopefully, developers will get going on developing some cool features and even new apps based on slightly-more open Apple.

Footnotes:
  1. I’m paying $1.99 per month currently for Google Drive for 100GB. I primarily use it to manually backup my RAW photos and Lightroom catalog. []
  2. Technically, I download a now-available-for-public beta and give it a shot but I don’t have a spare Mac that I can experiment on. My primary one belongs to my employer and my personal one is late-2008 so I doubt it will be the best test machine. []
  3. Firefox is specific to my work-related web data system and Chrome for things that sometimes don’t work in Safari []

My Brief iPhone 5S Review

After getting the new iPhone after standing in a line outside the Apple Store for 40 minutes and braving an unexpected thunderstorm, was it all worth it? If you are expecting unicorn dust and a glorious rainbow, you will probably be disappointed. But if you were expecting a faster device with a better camera and the expected superior hardware, then probably.

Since I upgrade every two years and now every six months as some ‘pro smartphone users’, whoever they may be, the upgrades always feel more significant. At the first feel, the phone is insanely light compared to the 4S; at times even too light for comfort. It’s almost we expect a little heft in order to keep us from dropping it. I always feel that I’m going to drop it so I handle it very gingerly or perhaps just that it is a new phone that I have opted not to take AppleCare+ for. The retina screen, just like on the previous three editions, makes iOS 7 and its thin fonts shine. Lots of people hate the colorful iOS 7 but I love it. I dislike some icons but overall, the change was good.

The phone feels much faster. No lag in launching any apps including FourSquare which took forever (read 4-5 seconds) and everything seems more spiffy. The touchscreen scrolls just right and data refresh is quicker. Of course, being on 4G LTE also makes a big difference. The camera, for me, was the biggest upgrade-worthy aspect. The quality is noticeably better (sensor size makes the difference) and is much faster to launch. Also, the quality in low light is the best I have seen and even comparable to dedicated cameras. The video quality has an upgrade. The slo-mo feature is fun and almost anything you shoot with it, be it your kid or dog running around, looks super cool.

Another feature that Apple launched with the 5S is the Touch ID. You scan your fingerprints unto 5 fingers and it uses that to unlock your phone. The way this is designed and implemented, it makes having a passcode on your phone frictionless for your use. I was using my iPhone for the past year without a passcode except when I was traveling. This was a big security risk but given my use with the constant locking and unlocking, it was far more convenient to not have one. Now with the iPhone 5S, you just tap on the home screen button once and keep your finger on the button for a second and bam! you’ve unlocked your phone. It hasn’t failed me yet no matter what angle I place my finger in.

To give an example, this is especially useful for launching the ‘Find my Friends’ app which is an underrated app that I’ve not heard many people use. Earlier, you needed to either set a passcode to launch it immediately or enter your Apple ID password, if you didn’t enable a passcode on your phone. This made it extremely cumbersome to use and you couldn’t use it with the help of Siri either. Now I enable my passcode so you don’t need to enter Apple ID’s password to launch the app and can access it quickly when you unlock your phone with Touch ID. So when I want to know if my wife has left work, I just ask Siri – “Where is my wife?” – and it looks up her location on the map and shows it to me on the lock screen. that usually is enough but I can always touch the home button and go directly to the app for more details.

Finally, the most significant upgrade for me is battery life. I always had a subpar experience with battery life on my 4S. It almost never lasted the entire day and it was in the 20% range by 6pm even with limited use. As part of calibrating my phone, I charged it fully and let it run out completely. The results are below:

Photo

If you used my previous phone, this was mind-blowing! [1] I was almost willing the battery to die as it got late in the night. I unplugged it at 8am and plugged it back at 1am. I used Twitter and Facebook as I usually do. I took the average number of photos, used iTunes Radio for an hour, used driving directions on Apple Maps for 30 mins, etc. It lasted me almost twice as much as my last phone. The standby time is astounding. Future uses gave me similar times. I used FaceTime with folks in India and it used up 20% of my battery life for a 40-minute call. Earlier it used up 80%. Now I can safely use my phone all day without keeping an eye on the battery (I might just turn off the percentage).

So this is my very brief non-technical review. My photos and videos should give you a better idea of the photo quality. I’ll try to also load them directly on Flickr to avoid compression that Twitter or Facebook does.

Footnotes:
  1. Apple says, 10 hours LTE browsing but the cell coverage near my home and office sucks so that takes a hit []

Getting the iPhone 5S

Given how the cellular business is structured in the U.S., every two years, I’m eligible for a smartphone upgrade at the subsidized price of $199 (+tax). I was eligible in May but decided to hold out for the new iPhone to be announced in September. Of course, if you know me well, you know I’m not switching away from Apple yet. The new iPhone was announced on September 10 and as expected, it being the ‘S’ year, it was a modest update over the iPhone 5 announced last year. I have always been aligned with the ‘S’ years due to my contract since I owned the 3GS and 4S earlier.

Strangely, this year, the iPhone 5S was not up for pre-order but the newly-released 5C was. I always go for the top of the line model so I wanted the 5S from the start. I guess, I would have to wait until release day. I would just go to the store [1] and see if it is available. After hearing about it on Twitter, I also placed a ‘pre-order’ at a local Target store [2]. As the release day got closer, rumors were swirling in the tech blogosphere that supplies were running low and surprisingly, the new gold model was getting tons of interest. I wanted the Space Grey 16GB model so was hoping it wouldn’t get as much interest.

On September 20th aka release day, Twitter tells me that orders are already backed up by 7-10 business days and I hadn’t heard from Target by noon. So we thought, what the heck, let’s go to the Apple Store and see how bad is it. It was a Friday so basically a slow workday. The only hitch, thunderstorms were rolling in. We passed the AT&T store in the mall where we were told that only the 5C and 64GB iPhone 5S White were available. From a distance we saw the Apple Store still had a long line outside so decided to forget about it and go home after lunch. We had lunch at the food court and just on a lark decided to at least go check out the phones in person.

The line now looked shorter and the girl handing out the tickets for the line said that only Space Grey 16GB phones were available and the wait was approximately one hour. Now I had swore never to stand in line to get any product…

So as the wife browsed around the mall, I stood in line with a bottle of water and ‘enjoying’ the line experience. The line moved quicker than I expected and we were ushered in after only a 40 minute wait. Was ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ at play here too? The buying process took hardly anytime and the only delay was in processing the wife’s old iPhone 4 for which we received a $121 credit. Not bad for a 3-year-old phone, huh? I was offered $225 by Gazelle and my workplace offers me a $100 credit every two years for a new phone so in fact, we were making $8 after including all taxes.

We picked up two iPhones 5S and were set up in no time, thanks to our iCloud backups. The staff, as widely known, is super friendly and very helpful. They make small talk but not the kind that seems scripted. The girl helping us said, it was her first day working on a new iPhone release but had heard from her colleagues that it was less crazy than when the iPhone 4 released. The lines snaked around the mall and outside at that time. I was glad I wasn’t eligible then.

Finally, new iPhones in hand we drove home in pelting rain. It still gives me joy on the first day of owning a new tech gadget. Yup, Buddha couldn’t convince me to give up on materialistic pleasures.

Footnotes:
  1. Now I live in a city with an Apple Store []
  2. I got a call from Target only on Wednesday that my phone was available. Four days later was not bad in hindsight []

Apple’s Gamble

I’m neither a Wall Street analyst nor a MBA-types who knows much about running successful companies. So the following arguments about Apple can be taken with a grain of salt or you can stop reading now to avoid thinking how much more stupid I can get.

Everyone was surprised (not in a good way) when Apple announced a new ‘cheaper’ version of its flagship product, the iPhone and called it the iPhone 5C. Some had hoped the ‘C’ stood for cheap but perhaps Apple meant it as color. It is priced at $99 for its base model under a two-year contract or for $549 unsubsidized. People had expected it to be much lower; some even posited that it would be as much as an iPod Touch ~$250-300. For months leading up to the keynote, rumors floated around first on the product specs starting with the existence of a plastic (actually polycarbonate) around a steel-reinforced frame. If you see the video of its manufacturing, it is pretty cool. But it is still a plastic iPhone even though Jonny Ive calls it ‘unapologetically plastic’. After the existence of the plastic iPhone were almost confirmed prior to the keynote, the rumor blogs moved on to why was Apple doing it? And this is where the wheels come off.

iPhone 5c Colors

Tech blogs are great at reviewing technical specifications and analyzing OS features but in judging and predicting business strategy especially for Apple, it doesn’t have even a modicum of success. Not just Apple, the tech pundits have no clue why Amazon enjoys unprecedented trust from its investors in spite of zero profits. But then if everyone could tell what made a successful business, we all would’ve had successful businesses. So after the plastic iPhone was near-confirmed, people rumored that perhaps Apple was targeting China and India where most smartphones are sold unsubsidized and need to be cheap. Based on my anecdotal evidence when I was visiting India and spent 10 minutes in a cell phone shop, the first thing new customers (almost 10 people) mentioned was their budget and asked to see what phones were available in that budget.

So Apple targeting these huge growing market almost seemed obvious. Of course, known for their secrecy, Apple said nothing. This supposed foray into India and China was based on the assumption that Apple needed to expand marketshare after Samsung was handily beating them. Apple still said nothing. If it needs to expand marketshare, Apple needs to sell a cheaper iPhone because that’s what most customers in India and China will buy. Apple still said nothing. The near-confirmed iPhone 5C will be the cheaper iPhone and price points ranging from $200 to $350 were being floated in spite of having no knowledge or understanding of the manufacturing cost, supply chain management, and ability to maintain high profit margins. So now the stage was set – Apple was going to announce a plastic iPhone 5C costing somewhere between $200-$350 aimed at China and India to expand marketshare. All this time, Apple still hadn’t even hinted at anything being discussed furiously online.

The disappointment and fall in stock price was almost as unexpected as the continued high price of the iPhone 5C. Even I was disappointed.

You may argue that Apple’s secrecy that had served so well in the past is now biting them in the ass and setting unrealistic expectations that they repeatedly fail to meet. But was Apple really aiming for India or China to expand their marketshare? Does it really need to?

Sameer Singh makes the case that it was never aimed at emerging markets[1]:

The iPhone 5C effectively replaces the iPhone 5 as Apple’s new “mid-range” device and retains the same subsidized/unsubsidized pricing structure of $99/$549. The most obvious question to ask is why Apple felt the need to replace the iPhone 5 with the 5C when they’re practically the same device, at the same price.

I believe the answer is related to the level of cannibalization caused by the iPad Mini. Apple was spooked when it saw a “new”, “good enough” product sharply eat into sales of their flagship tablet. As a result, Apple attempted to minimize the pricing gap between the two “new” iPhones and attempted to differentiate them based on casing and color. Therefore, I don’t believe the iPhone 5C is targeted at emerging markets at all, but is an attempt to defend the iPhone’s margins & ASP in subsidized markets.

Apple furiously guards its margins that generates tremendous amount of profit to the tune of $500+ per iPhone sold. It is also its luxury and premium brand status that still makes it special. Contrary to popular opinion, it was never the most popular smartphone. It was always Nokia and Blackberry and then when those declined, Android-powered Samsung phones took over. As crass as it may sound, perhaps Apple is not interested in diminishing its brand value by flooding the market and joining the ranks of cheap smartphones. As in any product category (clothing, cars, etc.), there is a luxury segment and brands in those segments do exceedingly well.Something that 37signals argued several years ago:

If you try to please everyone, you won’t please anyone. When we built Basecamp we focused our marketing on design firms. By narrowing our market this way, we made it more likely to attract passionate customers who, in turn, would evan gelize the product. Know who your app is really intended for and focus on pleasing them.

Perhaps Apple is better off with not having a large marketshare and tons of more customers for cheaper iPhones. More customers means more infrastructure in handling their needs and keeping them happy. You attract a certain segment of the market whose first criteria is not product quality but price then you’re never going to keep them happy. So why should Apple take a hit on its profit margins to attract more customers who are more likely to be unhappy? When Apple was silent on all this speculation of expanding into emerging markets, it perhaps was not. If you think about it from that sense, the iPhone 5C pricing is right where Apple’s prices usually are. The iPhone 5 is discontinued and its innards are put in a new plastic shell and sold for $100 less than its premier product, the iPhone 5S.

Now Apple may choose to do a complete about-turn and in fact, trade profits for marketshare next year. After all, this year’s iPhones 5C will be a year old and can be sold for cheap. But considering the iPhone 4 still sells for $420 in China, I’ll be surprised. Then again, as I mentioned, I’m no business guru.

From a personal perspective, why should you be worry about a company expanding its marketshare just because you bought a phone from them? As long as you can buy it for a reasonable price in your country, why should it matter to you if they sell a cheaper one in India or China? Most people making prognostications aren’t even Apple stockholders. I own shares in a mutual fund in which 3% are Apple stocks. Given the amount I’ve invested in the mutual fund, I’m sure I own less than 10%…of a single Apple share. I couldn’t care less what its stock price is as long as the iPhone I buy every two years serves me good. I care about the customer service they provide me and not how many customers they will gain in India. In fact, I don’t want them to serve more customers than they can reasonably handle. I’ll gift an iPad to my parents so we can FaceTime once a week but otherwise, even your family in India not owning an iPhone is no biggie.

Why anyone gets into serious Apple-Android debates is beyond me. I like to tweet out a few zingers on Twitter but you should know better than to take me seriously on there. You buy the phone you like the best and might better your life. At most, you can influence your immediate family because it may make things easier to share (Shared Photostream, FaceTime, etc.) but apart from that, it shouldn’t matter if a hundred million more people in a faraway country also use the same phone as you do. If your phone is discontinued or the company shuts down due to bad business decisions (like not selling for customers in India or China), you can always buy a phone from its erstwhile competitor. It’s not like your investment of less than 10% of a single share in the market capitalization of the said company will ruin your life. It will be sad to see a design-conscious company decline (and it isn’t really any time soon) but there will always be others.

Footnotes:
  1. strange term now after the economies have stopped growing as rapidly []

Other Places for Conversation

It’s that time for the year again when The New York Times dusts off its archival pages and rehashes a column written when the telephone or even the telegraph was first invented. It is a column that continues to be popular even if most of its readers will go back to doing what the column laments. Technology as a conversation and real-world interaction killer; sounds ominous and even real except it never has been.

A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn’t stop by to talk; he doesn’t call. He says that he doesn’t want to interrupt them. He says they’re “too busy on their e-mail.” But then he pauses and corrects himself. “I’m not telling the truth. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted. I think I should. But I’d rather just do things on my BlackBerry.”

A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

Source: The Flight From Conversation.

People are intrinsically social animals and they seek interaction. Technology especially innovations like Facebook has made it possible now to extend that interaction across geographic borders. You need not be limited by geographic constraints to seek people that you may or may not get along with or rather just do because you have no choice. You can share as much or as little as you wish with your friends without being rebuked because chances are they are doing the same too. Even in real life, whatever that means, not all friendships are equal much less soul-baring so why hold on to this ephemeral idea that ‘real-world’ friends are the real deal.

Some of my prized friendships have been with people that I met online and nope, I did not sign up on eHarmony. My then girlfriend and now wife read my blog (when I was more prolific) and knew more about my thoughts on things we didn’t talk about in real life and then ended up talking about them. As a graduate student, I wasn’t as close to some of my classmates in class as I am to them on Facebook. Technology, in fact, has been a boon to introverted personalities like me and has allowed us to reach out to the world in ways that were inconceivable in the past. So let us cut out the sanctimonious rebuke of holding on to our communication past in which everyone waved each other hello and wished everyone good morning in person. We all still wish each other and tell what we had for breakfast except we do it with far more people and across borders. So why is that a bad thing?

Usability: Windows 8 and Mac OS X Lion

Chris Prillo’s dad, a Windows XP user is shown the Consumer Preview of Windows 8:

Change is good but as I mentioned in my quick review, it shouldn’t be that drastic as to alienate your base. It is like Google+ trying to imitate Facebook, Windows is letting Mac’s modest gains among consumers scare it into trying some radically different. Windows 8 would’ve been great on a MSFT-recommended tablet and once you get people used to the interface, you port it to the desktop. This also gives you time to iron out any usability bugs.

Taking cues from the feedback on his video and also from the last word by his dad, he gave his Dad a Mac to use for the first time. Although the following video is 30 mins long, it is fascinating to see someone who is not at all familiar with the Mac interface potter around trying to figure stuff out.

Like Chris says, “there’s no such thing as a perfect operating system. They all have their strengths and weaknesses; it’s how we navigate around them to suit our needs that makes the difference for each of us.” But it does matter if a computer works hard enough to make the user interface easier and more intuitive.

Windows 8 Preview

There is a new version of Windows out there. Right now, it is at a Consumer Preview level. Regardless of my infamous Apple fanboi status in the Twitterverse, I had to try it out. I managed to installed Windows 8 Consumer Preview on my now-six-year-old Lenovo Thinkpad. That by itself is commendable since I couldn’t install Windows 7 on it. Of course, I had to uninstall almost every program on my Windows XP machine since the hard disk is a mere 50GB (my first computer had a whopping 0.54 GB). It took couple of hours to install but I blame my old slow machine.

So what do I think of it? It is…well, as everyone says…different. Not to be mistaken with the Maggi Hot-n-Sweet commercial of the 80s, the Metro interface is indeed a bold step by Microsoft to redefine the Windows experience. It looks well designed and make it more accessible to technophobes. It focuses on large widgets with even larger text. You can be forgiven for mistaking that you may have ventured into the computer lab of an old age home. Now even Microsoft has an ‘app store’ where you install apps for the Metro home screen but you have to scroll horizontally to see more apps. Strangely no murmurs of protest yet about this transposing of scrolling behavior.

One more important distinction about Windows 8 is the increased push to create a Hotmail or Live account. I no longer have a Hotmail account since Microsoft wiped my account clean after I didn’t log in for three months taking all the emails from my ex (perhaps a good thing). So I went ahead and created a Live account to use Windows 8. Microsoft thus already won Round 1; just like Google and Apple makes you create IDs to use their services. Another change is the push to use the Skydrive which in my opinion is a good idea. Skydrive gives you 25 GB free compared to Dropbox’s 2 GB. However, Skydrive is different from iCloud since it still uses the legacy file management folder system but nevertheless a welcome change.

Although there are plenty of things to like about Windows 8, I’m not sold on it. I still Windows at work since the two primary programs I use at work – SAS and ArcGIS – are still Windows-only. I don’t see anyone at work or rather at the Enterprise level being that enthused about Metro. I don’t customize my work PC like I do my home PC. At work, everyone is busy using Office and other enterprise-level programs on the local network (so no Skydrive at work). So it is clear that Microsoft is going about the consumer and not businesses but have they already lost that race to Apple? To maximize the new Metro experience, it is best if you have a Windows phone, tablet, and PCs. Apple fanboys are more likely to own all three Apple products than Windows users to own all three Microsoft products. It is going to be tough for Microsoft to imitate the Apple strategy of convincing users to buy all three of their products to maximize the Metro experience. And oh yes, the stores. Microsoft needs to have cooler stores to showcase the Metro and let people play around with it and not leave it to a Geek Squad employee to convince you.

The Metro experience is also best experienced on a tablet but almost everyone I know has installed it on their PC. I’m not sure if Microsoft is promoting a particular tablet as optimal for their OS. Without the supporting hardware, selling your OS is going to be difficult. I don’t see the primary customers of Windows (at least the high-end paying ones) – the businesses – going in for tablets any time soon for their primary work. Also, if installed on a PC, the way Metro is structured, it seems that a trackpad would be better than a mouse. If you use a mouse, most of the interaction on Metro seems counter-intuitive, right from the scrolling up the login wallpaper to reveal the login window to the horizontal scrolling of the Metro page. Perhaps they are making a superior trackpad now but I haven’t seen anyone apart from Apple make a good trackpad. It would be ironic if the best device to install Windows 8 would be a Macbook Air via VMWare Fusion or Bootcamp (Apple would not like it but wouldn’t mind it if hordes of users bought MacBook Airs).

Lastly, the whole goodness of Metro falls apart when you click the Windows Explorer tab. You are immediately taken to the familiar legacy interface of previous Windows system. It is almost like they didn’t even try to design a Metro look for the Explorer. If they had pulled that off, I would be visibly impressed because I feel even Apple hasn’t managed to master their own Finder. As soon as you click Windows Explorer, you feel like the Metro look is just a skin on a spruced up Windows 7. How many people will ooh-aah at the Metro interface and then go back to using the legacy interface? I fear quite a few at least in the business and corporate world.

Anyway, since my use of Windows is currently restricted to at work only, it will be a while till we get the official release. The system administrator tends to wait several months for Microsoft to iron out the bugs. Once he waited so long that we completely missed out on Vista. I’m told that is not a bad thing.

Apple’s FoxConn Factory in China via Nightline

[via Nightline on YouTube; Original here]

Apple recently allowed ABC News’ Nightline to tour their FoxConn manufacturer to give American viewers an inside look into the working conditions. It is balanced and fair reporting and touches on several aspects unique to China. The reporter even visits the villages the young workers come from to contrast the working and living conditions there. The hunger to work long hours is palpable among the thousands who line up everyday outside the FoxConn gates and from what I saw, the conditions although arduous seem to be safer than any place in India I have seen. It can be likened to migrant workers who come from U.P and Bihar and live & work in Dharavi. There were similar reports about warehouse employees working for Amazon in potentially unhealthy conditions…in the United States!

Of course, the working conditions could be better but as long as no one is enslaved, misled or duped from their honest wages, there is not much here to complain about. As consumers, we too are similarly free to not buy products that we consider, as per our relative standards, are made in unsafe conditions.

Twitter Screen on the Wall

[via Joshua Topolsky – Google+]

Joshua Topolosky, editor of the tech website, The Verge shared his office workspace. Apart from being clutter free for a guy who probably reviews a dozen gadgets a day, the first thing that you notice is that large vertical monitor displaying tweets. The app I assume is Tweetdeck with its multiple columns. With the needs of his job, I’m sure he needs to be constantly updated on the latest but I have always wondered if something like this would be a normal accessory in a household.

Before you scoff, hear me out first. There is no denying that news often breaks on Twitter first and more often than not, people post personal updates of immediate interest on Twitter. So why not have a photo frame sized digital display on our wall at home? Probably not in the bedroom but somewhere you usually hang out like the family room.It will perhaps not be as detailed as Joshua’s screen and perhaps will have only one column that constantly updates its stream without having you to scroll it down. It will simply display either your timeline or any Twitter list you choose to view on the wall e.g. news sources like Breaking News, etc. A quick glance at the screen as you go about your business should be enough instead of having it reside as an app on your computer especially if you are the lurking Twitter user.

Obviously, there are downsides to certain content that Twitter shows like links that you have to click or embedded images that you have to click to view large but I’m sure there can be either pointer devices or voice commands that can let you do so. Or not.

Sounds like an idea worth exploring? What? Your wife threatens to kill you if you ever do that? Ok then, all you single guys out there, make a mockup and share please.

Two Killer Features of Mountain Lion

Apple unexpectedly announced the next version of their Mac operating system, Mountain Lion. Unexpected because it has been mere seven months since Lion, the previous major upgrade was released. Also, surprising because of the way it was announced. Apple’s VP for worldwide marketing along with two other PR and Marketing guys gave personalized briefings to prominent tech journalists and bloggers; something that the usually secretive Apple had never done before. It was told that they are trying to do things differently after you know what happened in October last year. You can get the rundown of all the interesting features of Mountain Lion on Apple’s website or Andy Inhatko’s review. Messages (SMS + chat) on the Mac apart, this post is about the two killer features that I consider very important.

Mountain lion Apple

AirPlay

As I mentioned few weeks ago, we ditched cable and are now completely reliant on online streaming options. Most of the problems in this solution lie with content providers playing hardball with either not providing easily accessible digital content or restricting the content to their websites only instead of making it widely available on apps. In some instances, even if the content is available on apps like Hulu, the AirPlay option is not available which is absolutely befuddling. We’re willing to sit through ads but prefer to watch them on the big screen instead of crowding around the iPad. Of course, we simply mirror our iPad to the TV via AirPlay and use the ‘Scale to Fit’ option on our HDTV’s picture options. There is very little loss of quality but it does make it a bit cumbersome since I can’t use my iPad while watching TV (cue #FirstWorldProblems).

However, the main problem is with content providers offering content on their websites only and sometimes using only *shudder* Flash. We can watch such content on the Mac but apart from hooking your Mac to the TV using two sets of cable (HDMI + Aux for audio), there is little option to watch it on your TV. But now with AirPlay mirroring, you simply mirror your Mac to your TV and hit the fullscreen option on the videos you want to watch. Content providers now can try to resist the digital revolution by restricting access and short of not providing their content online, they can do little to prevent us from streaming it to our TV. So the natural question would be, why not make it easier and convenient and let the consumer pay for that convenience? But I assume, candle makers will be always around until they are driven out of business.

I think this AirPlay mirroring option as a systemwide option for the OS is a giant FU by Apple to the traditional media and may just be part of their negotiating strategy in the rumored iTV.

Documents in the Cloud

As Andy Inhatko points out, this might be a stealth change in the way we work with documents. Although iCloud has already been in our lives for a while now and Apple tried to get us to ignore the file system structure in our OSes, it didn’t really catch on. In our traditional system, we can see files in Finder or Windows Explorer and then choose to open them with their respective applications. Of course, the Recently Opened files within applications don’t require us to know where the files are saved but traditionally only 5-10 recent files are available.

Instead Apple wants us to not bother with the file system or Explorer-Finder type utilities. It merely wants us to open the apps and get started on the files we are working on while saving them continuously to the iCloud. So when we want to continue working on the same file on our iPhone or iPad or any other connected Mac, we don’t have to worry about copying files over or syncing them. This subtle yet drastic change is a step beyond the Dropbox solution. Dropbox still requires us to install a physical folder on our hard drives and keeps them synced across devices. Apple wants you to forget that file and folder structure and go directly to the files.

Obviously, since this is a drastic change, you will still have the option to save the file physically to your local drive if you choose not to save it to the cloud. Also, non-Apple apps like Lightroom that don’t yet have a hook to iCloud can’t use this feature yet but for day to day word processing, editing, and spreadsheet stuff, this would work great. If only MS Office would follow suit and if not hook to iCloud would at least sync to its Skydrive (iPad and iPhone apps for MS Office are already rumored to be in development).

Other

Apart from these two game-changing features in Mountain Lion, there are other changes that bring the Mac OS X (now just called OS X) closer to iOS. Features like systemwide Notification Center, Share Sheets for seamless sharing of photos, videos, and URLs (Twitter is now Apple’s social network), Gaming, and of course, Messages. Gatekeeper gives third-party developers the shivers but the three options to run apps make it fair to all. Obviously, since it is still in development, there might be other changes planned (Siri?) that we will only know in the months to come.

All this iOS-ification of the Mac will only help Apple sell more Macs and as we know, Apple is primarily a hardware company so those profits will just keep going up but only if the Mac experience remains constant. These Mountain Lion changes are aimed just to do that.

Working in the top tech companies

The stress from keeping such secrets becomes too much for some. Jobs made a habit of personally conveying to employees the confidentiality of all-company broadcasts. Recalled one ex?employee: “He’d say, ‘Anything disclosed from this meeting will result not just in termination but in the prosecution to the fullest extent that our lawyers can.’ This made me very uncomfortable. You have to watch everything you do. I’d have nightmares.”

As much as I like Apple products, I wouldn’t want to work there.

Google does offer free food, massages, and nap time so it may seem like a fun place to work at. Unless you have a family. But it is definitely more open, no sarcasm intended.

Android = Box of Chocolates

The “Android” Nook won’t run the Kindle app, because Barnes & Noble doesn’t allow it.

The “Android” Kindle Fire doesn’t offer Gmail or Twitter, along with other apps, because Amazon doesn’t allow it.

Hulu Plus is available for Android, but not for Android-based Google TV, because Hulu doesn’t allow it to work there.

The Nexus S for Sprint, which is perfectly capable of working on Sprint’s pay-by-the-month Boost Mobile sister-company, can’t work there because Sprint doesn’t allow it.

My Droid Charge Verizon LTE phone can’t run Android 4 now, and perhaps never, because Samsung hasn’t said anything about it.

[Source: For Consumers, Android Is More “Clopen” Than Open]

So much for “open”, huh? This article was too awesome to not share. Yup, it is about the perennial iOS-Android battles. I couldn’t care less what you use (why?) but if you asked for my opinion, you know what I’ll recommend. This article perfectly describes why I stay away from Android. Because it is, as Mr.Gump’s momma said, like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’ll get.

Secrets of Innovation

China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs’s career showed.

[Source: Steve Jobs’s Genius – NYTimes.com]

Walter Isaacson, biographer for Steve Jobs, ends his op-ed in the New York Times with this gem of wisdom that is often neglected by countries. India and China graduate millions of engineers every year but very few of them end up entrepreneurs and the United States is starting to make the same mistake to make up for tepid economic growth. Humanities and liberal art programs across universities in the U.S. are being defunded and eliminated because they are thought of as ‘useless’. Little do they understand that reading the classics, cultivating good writing skills or understanding basic statistics makes for a better engineer who is more likely to have better foresight and understand his consumers better. You can be a simple engineer and get by in life but to be a real creative genius like Steve Jobs or even Bill Gates, you’ve to possess a well-rounded education.

AT&T Woes – Now Resolved

See UPDATE below on how to instantly activate your iPhone 4S.

I used to scratch my head wondering what the fuss was all about when people use to complain about AT&T. But seeing this screen for the past 3 hours helps me understand.

I received my new iPhone 4S at noon today and have been unable to activate it hence not able to use it. A visit to the AT&T store didn’t help either. The customer service representative insisted I call Apple since I bought it via the Apple Store. Why would a hardware and software company be able to resolve what is clearly a cellular carrier issue is beyond me. But his insistence that they were told that by the management implied he too knew it was a load of bull. Also, note how the two paragraphs in the error message contradict each other (Am I in an activation queue that will eventually get addressed or should I keep trying?) Well, I hope it gets activated soon until then you can chalk it up as a first world problem.

PS. My 3GS is still working fine and unaware that it will soon be replaced.

UPDATE: Finally figured out how to get your iPhone 4S activated. Get out of your WiFi zone and attempt to activate it in a 3G zone. Voila! Worked for me the first time I tried and within a minute.

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