Friday, September 22, 2017

Features vs. Innovation

I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about innovation and features. For the most part, Apple is focused on innovation. They add new functionality to products (like the dual cameras on the iPhone 7 and 8 plus, and the iPhone X). This is not to say that this functionality didn't exist before. But typically, Apple takes a different tact than others, and thinks about the value a feature can bring to a product from a systemic view.

The dual cameras was a feature which existed before on other handsets. It was used for various things, such as black and white photography and zoom effects. But it is important to note here that these are just features. They are not baked into the DNA of the product at a system level. That is often up to the Android developers to add this functionality.

As a further example, I have written about Apple's depth sensing technology. It is innovative, not because it didn't exist before, but it is so integral to the OS that developers can leverage it in new and exciting ways. Apple makes it easy for them to do this. Who knows what interesting Apps we will see in a years time that will use this functionality. This is not true of other handsets that have not thought system-wide about a new feature. Dual Cameras on an Android phone is an island. It is for taking pictures.

I think a lot of people confuse innovation with features. Features are new things that are added to a device, which may or may not extend functionality in integral ways that move the product significantly beyond where it was before. Innovation does just that - it is a point of inflection where it is clear that what came before is now hopelessly outdated. The touchscreen on the original iPhone is such an example. I think the depth sensing and AR are examples on Apple's newest phones and OS 11 are as well, simply because Apple has an integration between software and hardware that Android phone manufactures don't have. It is not that they can offer features that are innovative (sometimes they do), but it is harder to do so.

I have written in the past about Samsung and Apple, two very different companies that both make highly regarded handsets. Samsung often adds features (such as the curved display of the Edge), and sometimes innovates. So does Apple. But I think this comes from a different place for both companies. Samsung makes washing machines, refrigerators, Televisions and Cell Phones. They are often thinking about product differentiation in a crowded market. Apple sometimes thinks the same way, but more often than not, they don't. They come from a more solid design discipline, where you are always thinking about extending functionality in ways that don't just make the product different, but extend the capability in fundamental ways. Adding cellular to the Apple watch was an obvious thing to do, but what it really does is significantly extend functionality in ways that will continually delight it's users, such as Apple music integration. While it is indeed a new feature, it is also a moment of inflection that now makes what came before, including previous smart watches from Samsung, Apple and others, now outdated. It is the true rise of the wearable computer.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

iPhone X No Brainer

This will be quick. I see no reason for the iPhone 8 to exist other than to plug a hole in the iPhone line. Certainly, the price of the iPhone X gives pause. It is expensive, but the price differential between it and the iPhone 8 Plus (which is what you have to compare it to, not the iPhone 8) is not that much.

The only reasons I can come up with are:

  • The iPhone X is harder to make.
  • Apple is constrained on how many OLED displays it can get for the iPhone X
  • Some people are still going to want a home button
  • Apple needs to have a slightly cheaper phone

The first two are a result of constraints on market delivery. Apple can sell more than they make, so the iPhone X will be next to impossible to get. That is a safe bet, even given the high price. People will gladly pay it. If you hate Apple with the burning hate of a million suns, you will chalk it up to Apple fanboys who will buy whatever new thing that Apple makes.

I think it is that the iPhone X makes the rest of the line look old. Clearly it is the future of the iPhone, for better or worse (worse, if you love the home button, and touch ID).

So, I see the iPhone 8 as a lead balloon. They will sell plenty of them, hell I might buy one. I give up, I want the dual cameras after Apple's demo's at WWDC, which I highlighted in a earlier post. This will be the first time I have upgraded phones in one year. It is a dumb financial decision, but not necessarily a bad artistic decision. I shoot a lot of photos with my phone. A lot. It makes sense for me to have the best camera I will always have with me.

So, this is probably the last year of the home button. Buy it while it's hot. Next year the iPhone 8 will take the place of the iPhone 7 at the bottom of the line, and the iPhone X will be the midline phone. We will see.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Depth Sensing with Apple's Dual Cameras

Apple's developer conference videos are always worth digging through, even if you are not a programmer. Some give an insight into Apple's technology, and a few clues as to where Apple is headed. Apple's dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus does a neat parlor trick, mainly a simulated bokeh effect. Watch this video:

I have read that Samsung had this blurred background effect "two years ago", which I am not sure is true. It is a "selective focus" mode where you select where the area of focus is to be on the photo. It is not really bokeh, but it's something.

The difference with Apple's implementation is that they are using the dual cameras to measure depth. This allows them to apply effects based on this information. This is an entirely different way of working than Samsung's approach. For one thing, since the depth information is recorded with the image, this bokeh effect can be applied after the image has been taken. In the demos in the video, the programmers show other effects that can be applied after the fact. And the most important thing of all is that all of this is available in a newly minted API that any programmer can use for their imaging or photography application. Plus they have now implemented dual camera capture. Plus, there is ARkit (more on this later).

There is a companion video where Apple's programmers show how to work with images that have depth data. It's interesting as well, but not necessarily as eye-opening for me as the video I have linked to.

I hope that Apple manages to squeeze dual cameras into their "non-plus" version of their next phone. I'm there.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Google Pixel On Sale

The Google Pixel is now up to $200 off and is bundled with a Daydream headset. Why now?

  • Completely subjective evidence. I have actually never seen someone with one. I think most Android users have not either.
  • It is a nice phone, but most users don't care. Their friends have a Samsung phone, so that's what they ask for. People don't mind spending for a nice phone, since they can pay for them on an installment plan. On top of that, Samsung phones are often discounted.
  • Project Daydream has failed to get any traction at all, since it only works with a handful of phones. Unlike Google cardboard.
  • Apple is getting ready to release a new phone, whatever they will call it. There is possibly a high end model (according to all the rumors). Selling the Pixel at a discount is a pre-emptive strike. There is most likely a new Pixel in the works. Dual cameras, augmented reality.
  • Speaking of which, Apple's AR push will steal the limelight from the nascent low-end VR efforts. I know that AR and VR are only distantly related, but people will kind of lump them together. Dumb headset that you have to wear, versus just pointing your phone - win for Apple.
I think Google's handset efforts are doing OK, but not gangbusters. They have sold Pixels, but not a lot of them. It is hard now to break out in the Android marketplace, since there are many good, capable phones now. Google has yet to find that killer feature. The phone's camera is good, but the iPhone 7 Plus's dual camera crushes it. Running stock Android is not a killer feature. Only geeks care about that. Most people just want a good handset with a nice screen which works well.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The imminent fall of Apple

WWDC 2015 was yesterday. It was a day of modest improvements, not sweeping changes. The big news was no surprise to anyone at all, which was Apple's music service.

I have a co-worker that repeats to me frequently that "Apple has lost it's way". That is the belief of some after Steve Jobs left the building.

It bears to be repeated - Apple was not Steve Jobs. He left his imprint on the company, but a part of that is a legacy of good design above all else. Apple doesn't invent many new things; it refines things that exist in ways that become obvious once Apple does it. The Watch is an example of what is right and wrong about Apple. They rushed a product to market that isn't still fully formed. It is definitely a work in progress. But, on the other hand, it is probably the best of the current devices out there that try to fuse digital assistant and timepiece.

A study of contrasts to be sure - I watch Google's developer keynote last week, and was impressed, but it ultimately I have to remember that Google is not Santa Claus. It is giving us things because it wants to get better at mining data on it's users. Why does it give so much space for people to upload photos, with some really slick tools for discovery? It uses these very same tools to mine even more data on it's users. In that picture it sees a user holding a can of Pepsi - it now knows one more thing about you. Are you on vacation in Hawaii? It knows one more thing about you that it can now use to better target you for advertising and services, data it shares with it's "partners".

There is much talk about the evils of Apple's "walled garden" versus Google's "openness", but it is really a matter of choosing your poison. This article points to a world where people are willing to give up their privacy for convenience - which  the author claims puts Apple at a disadvantage. But it is really comparing two different things. Apple is not in the business of mining it's users - Facebook and Google are. Will people gladly hand over all the small details of their lives for a little more simplicity - to the point where both of these companies become truly intrusive? It remains to be seen - the cynics have already decided.

I remember someone telling me that REM (the band) sucked after their first album. Really. REM went from indy darlings to a band that sold a lot of records. This doomed them for the early adopters, because they were popular, they must be bad. It is a form of close mindedness. Hipsters would write off Madonna as she became a pop diva, but "Ray of Light" is really a pretty great album -  if it had been recorded by a complete unknown, it would have been hailed as a masterpiece. Success breeds contempt in small minded people.

Is Apple failing? No. It is true that the Watch is not the groundbreaking success that the iPhone was, but behind the scenes, there are a lot of little things that Apple is doing profoundly right. When I heard of Apple pay last year, I told folks that it was the important thing that Apple had announced at WWDC. Google had tried to implement something similar, and had failed. Apple succeeded because their "walled garden" (so to speak) gave them an advantage that others don't (and continue to not) have. It allowed them to build a consistent user experience. It taps into something that people routinely do, and makes it better. People talked on phones before the iPhone, but the iPhone changed what people could use their phones for. I owned several smart phones before the iPhone, and they were all half-baked. Apple had the secret sauce.

Apple sells a bunch of Apple TVs. Google has tried three times to sell something similar, and the first two tries were failures. They are now back for a third try, but I think it is too late. If I had to pin anyone as the company that came in late, but has been successful, it is Amazon with FireTV. They have a ecosystem that mirrors Apple's - a superior one to Google's Play store - which is functional but hardly compelling. Google has a store because they have to - not because it offers something that is better than anything else out there - in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really fit into their overarching strategy. Android is a way to get people to use phones tied to Google services - keeping them in the Google ecoverse so that they can be further mined for information.

I think much is written about Apple because what they do is what other companies wish they could do. People really like their products. I doubt anyone really likes their Samsung phone in a way an iPhone user feels about their phone. Detractors call this a "cult" but it is not that at all - Apple doesn't force users to buy their products. People buy Apple products because they suck less. It really is that simple. Which confounds the detractors. It has to be more complicated than this - but really it isn't. Companies that focus on making great stuff do well. Sony for a long time made the very best TV sets you could buy, and it was because their TV's had a polish to them in not just the picture quality, but in the way they looked and worked. They lost that magic. Let's hope that doesn't happen to Apple.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

That iPhone bump and what it means for Apple

I haven't posted here in a very long time. This will probably be my last post on technology for a while. I have been thinking a lot of how I can make writing a blog interesting again. It's time to write about other stuff.

But I can't avoid spending a few minutes writing about Apple's new product announcements yesterday, because it represents a pivotal point in Apple's history, but not necessarily for the reasons that are outwardly obvious.

A new iPhone 6 and the Watch. Both are technical achievements that illustrate Apple's technical abilities. Faster, thinner and also bigger, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus represent another chapter in iPhone physical design, perhaps the biggest change since the iPhone 3. There is the curved glass on the side of the phone that makes it nice to hold. Moving the power/lock button to the side. Details.

But there is weirdness as well. The bump on the back of the phone for the camera? What is that? It is obviously ugly and not finished. I know why they did it; they were so intent on making the phone slimmer (given it's increased screen size) that they couldn't make it any slimmer with the camera module. But it looks terrible. It will be a constant reminder. The phone will not lie flat on a surface. It may snag on stuff and get damaged.

The Watch is also a compromised product. It is not attractive. It is a big thing that sits on the wrist. Not elegant at all like Apple's best products. It looks clunky. The best things about it are the new UI with the "cloud" interface that groups applications in a cluster instead of a grid. Look for it to be copied by other manufactures. But it is tethered to an iPhone to some of it's key features to work. No internal GPS means that it is of marginal use to runners, for instance. It is one more thing you have to carry along, and doesn't do anything that the iPhone already does, other than sit on your wrist. It is a bunch of features (many extraneous - really - I want to send someone my heartbeat?).

The iPhone 6 and the Watch represent an Apple that is looking at the market, and reacting to it, instead of leading it. Samsung can't innovate because they don't have that culture, but they can cram in more features, make stuff bigger, make stuff thinner. But they don't have Apple's ecosystem and tight integration of software and hardware that blur together. Samsung's attempts to brand Android with their own look is half-baked - useable but not something that makes people take a step back in awe. It is serviceable, maybe even attractive, if a little annoying.

But what Samsung did do is make phones bigger. And some people wanted that. Not everyone, but some people. My own opinion is that they look dumb and have a marginalized experience. They won't fit in a pair of pants that fit well, but perhaps a pair of baggy jeans. And I want my device to be unobtrusive.

So Apple made a bigger phone, because it is being reactive and "giving the people what they want". Apple has at times been successful at this - when Apple added Windows support for the iPod, the iPod crushed it's competitors. It was what people wanted all along. When Apple let developers write Apps for the iPhone, instead of just having them create web applications, it creates an incredibly rich eco system.

But the watch represents Apple attempting to find it's way by creating a new product, in a space that is still attempting to make a good rationale for existing at all. It is a product for technically inclined and those that want something just because it is new and shiny.

But not all is glum. Apple's payment system is a stroke of brilliance. They may indeed be the ones to really put the credit card to rest, the same way that the iTunes store started the slow decline of music CD sales. Their health integration framework looks to be better realized that competing environments. It will create a whole little ecosystem for fitness applications. An elliptical trainer that can talk to your iPhone and add in data - most likely.

Apple's software front looks solid. There are a lot of things under the hood of iOS 8 that could be innovative. But their newest products - arguably the biggest changes in a post-Jobs existence, are not a home run. They represent an Apple that is working to be relevant in a world of increased competition.

Will I get a new iPhone, though? Yes, I will. I like the iPhone 6, and it has enough new stuff over my iPhone 5 to make it a good upgrade. But at the same time, it is still incremental, and that camera bump really bothers me. As for the Watch - let's check back in on it in 2 years and see where Apple has gone with the next version, if there is one.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Microsoft on the Surface

Today Microsoft released a second version of their Surface products, named Surface 2. They are both worthwhile replacements, with better processors, better screens (on what used to their RT model) and better keyboards. The Pro model, tellingly enough, now supports a stylus.

They are to be commended for trying to win in a market that has already become somewhat entrenched. For tablets, it is typically summed up as a battle between Android and iOS, but in reality it is more of a battle between several Android tablet manufacturers and Apple. Microsoft's tablets are but a speck.

There are two Surface models; the Pro model using Windows 8, and the cheaper Surface using Windows RT, which has the same UI elements of the Pro model, but doesn't run Windows 8 applications. Confusing the naming between the two is probably a mistake for Microsoft, for they are in reality very different products. It is as if Apple was to release a "Pro" version of the iPad, that couldn't run Apps made for the iPad (okay, this analogy is a little weak, bear with me).

I wish Microsoft well. I had a Windows 8 laptop, and thought it was interesting, but ultimately flawed. It always felt like I was being forced to work the way it wanted me to work. Some things felt arbitrary in how they were conceived. It was the first OS in quite a while that left be perplexed at times, wondering how the thing worked. I ended up spending time on the internet to learn how to do things such as fixing my wireless networking so that it would work correctly. It wasn't obvious to me how to work with the wireless settings.

Microsoft is clearly following the lead of Apple, as it has done for a while now. There was the Zune, which again had a nice UI but suffered a poor adoption rate for a variety of reasons - mostly because of Apple's better ecosystem and management software. Apple actually made the iPod and iPhone work better on a Windows machine than Microsoft's own product.

I think the Surface (not the Pro) should never have been made. I would abdicate the low end of the market to cheap Android tablets and possibly the iPad. It is watered down KoolAid, a confusing product that isn't quite a full Windows experience, with little 3rd party software support. That simply will never happen.

The bright spot is actually their Windows mobile efforts.The Windows Phone experience is actually pretty good, some nice UI design touches that are innovative. Their market share is very weak, and will likely always be in 3rd place, but it gives them the product differentiation they need. A Windows mobile tablet at an affordable price makes a lot of sense. It is a product that is easier for people to understand - just like Apple, you could buy software for your Windows mobile handset, and have it work on a tablet as well. This represents a good value for customers.

So, I think the Surface (not the Pro) is kind of a doomed product. I can envision people perplexed to find that their new Windows tablet really isn't a Windows tablet, but some sort of weird kind of a Windows tablet. Third party application support will be tepid; I can't imagine many developers wanting to write software for this thing.

The key to Microsoft's success is not by copying others. It is by innovating. It is not driven by making something that is kind of like something else. It comes from envisioning what people want to do, and creating products that empower them to do that. This is a key part of Apple's success. They do not throw things out on the market just to see if it will catch on. That is what Samsung does (such as their watch). Apple may seem to be a step or two behind in terms of features, but a feature list is not the same thing as innovation. That is a lesson that Microsoft can take to the bank.