Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for November, 2011

On That NPD Tablets-Apart-From-the-iPad Sales Debacle

So Context is telling us that Apple sold more tablets in western Europe in September. Well, why not say so?

Perhaps because there’s a feeling that telling the same story – “Apple still dominates tablet market” – is a bit boring for them to put out on press releases. But this also leads to the faintly misleading releases that don’t actually reflect how the market actually is.

It’s obvious that Apple is dominating the tablet market right now by such a huge margin that it requires specific studies about the rest of the market. Their competition is presently irrelevant.

You Get What You Pay For

Felix Salmon published an article yesterday on Wired’s website in which he argues that Apple customers are both cheap and willing to pay too much for a better experience. It’s a pretty shitty article, and I’m nearly certain it’s linkbait, but let’s roll in the mud and see what turds we can dig up.

Back when Apple sold widgets, things were easy: you paid through the nose for your widget, and then you were happy.

Typical Apple customers buy expensive things and are happy to do so. Keep that in mind.

But now Apple makes mobile devices like iPhones and iPads, an that means it has no choice but to get into bed with the much-hated wireless companies. It tries to control the experience as best it can — but people still end up being faced with ludicrous charges like $30 a month for text messaging.

$30 a month for text messaging is ridiculous. To be fair to AT&T, it’s only $20 a month for unlimited text messaging (it’s also $20 per month on Sprint and Verizon, too). Salmon is arguing that the price he’s being charged for a simple feature mars his experience with the phone.

It is indeed possible to get around extortionate wireless charges. Rather than buy a 3G iPad, for instance, you can use one with only WiFi, and then connect it when you’re on the go to a tethered smartphone or some kind of MiFi device.

I thought we were talking about text messaging? Way to change the subject there, Salmon.

It certainly is possible to tether a WiFi iPad to a smartphone, and it’s quite easy. But I’ll get back to that because I want to discuss this text messaging thing first.

And rather than spend lots of money on text messages, you can sign up for Google Voice, and do all your texting with that number. […] Yes, you get to check your text messages on the web, which can be useful — although it’s not that useful. But you also break a lot of things which otherwise work seamlessly in iOS. There’s no MMS, for instance.

This is a paragraph filled with drawbacks of Google Voice. The very next sentence says exactly what you, dear reader, are thinking:

There’s no iMessage.

That’s the stuff. Salmon has spent a great deal of time arguing that text messaging plans suck, and that Google Voice’s implementation of text messaging sucks, and that Google Voice doesn’t have a lot of things that are included in the default iPhone Messages, which sucks. But he fails to mention that iMessage would solve all of these problems until nearly at the end of the article, where he says:

Text-messaging plans are ludicrously expensive, and I support anybody who comes up with a way of avoiding having to pay those bills. (Including, it must be said, Apple, whose iMessage platform, if it catches on, neatly circumvents existing text-messaging systems.)

Precisely. He includes the “if it catches on” caveat, but Apple already includes a way to never pay for text messaging if you have a lot of friends with iOS devices.

But it does seem to me that so long as Apple has to deal with the hated wireless providers, people will always be voluntarily accepting a subpar user experience because they want to save on monthly charges.

The iMessage experience is effectively identical to the text messaging experience, except without the cost. I fail to see his point, unless he’s still griping about Google Voice.

Alright, onto this WiFi/3G iPad thing.

Take the iPad, for instance: I can attest from personal experience that the 3G iPad is just miles better than trying to use a wifi-only iPad with a MiFi. It downloads e-mails automatically, even when you don’t ask it to; you can pull it out of your bag and look up anything you like instantly; there’s no waiting around for the wireless modem to get online and generate its wifi signal; you don’t need to worry about how charged up your MiFi is, or where you left it; you get all the advantages of real GPS; etc etc.

So if you’re frequently outside of places where you have WiFi, a 3G iPad makes more sense. Why not buy one of those if you need your email to receive while your iPad is in your bag?

But the 3G iPad is why people love Apple. And it costs $300 a year over and above the cost of the iPad, which is itself $130 more than the WiFi-only version. There are definitely cheaper ways of getting your iPad online. But you lose a significant amount of elegance and ease of use in the process.

Granted, a 3G iPad is clearly more elegant than tethering, but it’s such a minute difference. It’s one toggle on an iPhone to turn on tethering. If your WiFi-only iPad has already connected to your iPhone, you don’t have to type in the password again, or change any other settings. It’s certainly more cumbersome than having a 3G card in the iPad, but not by much. And once again, it’s a built-in option that doesn’t require the purchase of a MiFi, if you have a smartphone that supports tethering.

Wrap it up, Felix. What’s your big point?

[T]hese techniques are most attractive to people who are tempted by Apple products but can only just afford them, or can’t quite afford them. As it seeks to increase its market share, Apple has to sell its products to more and more of these people, who will often be buying an Apple product for the first time. And the last thing that Apple wants is for its carefully-crafted user experience to be sullied by something as banal as an attempt to avoid text-messaging charges.

So the real problem isn’t poor financial planning, but that Apple and wireless carriers can’t accommodate for these users? I want to be very clear that I’m not setting up some sort of class rivalry — in fact, that’s what Salmon has done throughout his article. But it should be noted that buying an expensive phone with an expensive plan is an expensive prospect, no matter which way you slice it.

Apple has always hated it when its customers have a subpar user experience, but this problem isn’t going to go away: in fact, it’s only going to get worse.

Why? What? How? I am not taking this out of context — Salmon simply doesn’t finish this thought.

To sum up, then: Apple’s customers have traditionally been willing to pay more for a better user experience, but as they produce products of a more mainstream calibre, they risk corrupting their user experience with customers who actually can’t afford their products, and with wireless carriers that charge too much. This is Salmon’s thesis, in a nut.

His article then uses incorrect prices, forgets about built-in workarounds and exaggerates the difficulties that one might find while using these circumventions, all the while ignoring every other manufacturer that faces these same problems. In addition, while the United States may currently be Apple’s biggest market, carriers in Europe and Asia often have much better pricing for wireless plans, and Apple hasn’t fully tapped into those markets.

F for effort, Felix.

Addendum

The always-alert Carter Allen noted on Twitter:

Re: Felix’s piece, a MiFi costs $50/month, minimum. So his “cheaper but worse” argument doesn’t even work mathematically.

And it’s $30 to buy one on a two-year contract. True, the 3G iPad is $130 more than a WiFi-only equivalent model, but the plan is $15-25 per month without any contract at all.

The X-Factor

I consider myself something of an advertisement aficionado. That is not to say that I enjoy all ads, but rather that I like the concept of advertising. It’s a blank canvas on which motion graphics, video, music, text and any number of other elements can culminate in an attempt to sell me on a product or service. The thirty-second TV spot is a playful limitation in which an ad firm can experiment.

Apple’s advertising has traditionally been some of the best out there. It has been recognised the world over and hailed as an example of what good advertising looks like. From the iconic “1984” Superbowl spot (which was more like a very short film) to the “Think Different” campaign, and right through the “Mac vs. PC” ads and the ubiquitous iPod silhouette campaign, Apple is the king of buzz (with the help of TBWA Chiat/Day, of course).

I think Apple’s recent ads have lived up to this precedent. “There’s an app for that” is a phrase oft heard in non-tech circles, for instance. “We Believe” is an ad that isn’t so much regarding the iPad, but Apple itself, and it works marvellously. Recent iPhone ads are also particularly effective, with their shallow depth-of-field creating an air of quality, and the careful framing emphasising the use of speech when communicating with Siri.

A couple of days ago, Apple released a new ad for the iPod touch, and it feels somehow different. It has all of the right elements: the white backdrop, the indie pop soundtrack, a youthful cast and high production values. But something about it is missing. An indescribable x-factor.

Consider some previous iPod touch ads, such as “The Funnest iPod Ever”. It has similar elements, but is immediately more engaging. The music is that much stronger, the action more fulfilling. Aside from the hands in the foreground, there isn’t a cast. But that’s okay, because the ad is strong enough without one. Likewise for “All Kinds of Fun”, the penultimate iPod touch ad. The inclusion of a cast cannot be the issue, however, as this old iPod nano ad demonstrates. It has all the right ingredients, resulting in an excellent spot.

The new iPod touch ad lacks the magic of these ads, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on. It could be the tempo, or the people, or the editing. There’s something missing, and since the ad will be playing frequently for the next month, it’s bound to irritate me every single time.

The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin

Benjamin Wallace, reporting for Wired Magazine:

From early April to the end of May, the going rate for a bitcoin rose from 86 cents to $8.89. Then, after Gawker published a story on June 1 about the currency’s popularity among online drug dealers, it more than tripled in a week, soaring to about $27. The market value of all bitcoins in circulation was approaching $130 million.

[…]

“People have the mistaken impression that virtual currency means you can trust a random person over the Internet,” says Jeff Garzik, a member of bitcoin’s core developer group.

In between these two pull quotes is a story of betrayal, experimentation and disaster. It’s what you should be reading.

Dark Sky

How is it possible predict the weather down to the minute? What’s the catch?

Well, the catch is that it only works over a short period of time: a half hour to an hour in the future. But, as it turns out, this timespan is crucially important. Our lives are filled with short-term outdoor activities: Travelling to and from work, walking the dog, lunch with friends, outdoor sports, etc.

If this works half as well as they say it does, it will soon be indispensable. They’re nearly at their $35,000 goal, but it would be great to get to even more than that, to allow the expansion of the service around the world.

TellMe vs Siri

Yesterday:

“The Tellme facility’s been in the Windows 7 phone for more than a year,” [Microsoft Chief Research Officer Craig] Mundie said. “So I mean I just think people are infatuated with Apple announcing [Siri].”

Today:

Create a meeting tomorrow at 10:00 AM

The punchline is in the video.

Ice Cream Sandwich

Ryan Heise:

There are still two big problems, though. First, the ecosystem is the same: shitty compared to iOS. Second, this really feels like a complete reinvention of Android. Even the guy whose phone it was, who is a stalwart Android user, agreed that he was having to relearn a lot of the OS.

Far from a shit sandwich. In some places, it’s a complete rethinking of what the OS needs to accomplish, occasionally to the detriment of initial user experience. In some places, it’s just a buff and a shine, keeping Android familiar to long-time users.

But in some places, particularly the marketplace, there has been little progress, if any. That’s the one massive area that needs to be fixed. In iOS, the sticking point used to be notifications, which Apple fixed in iOS 5. The ecosystem is Android’s notifications dilemma.

Heise also makes a couple of notes regarding the Galaxy Nexus. Overall, he likes the phone and he likes the OS. I agree — Ice Cream Sandwich is a massive improvement.

Apple Removes Big Fish Game Subscription Plan From App Store

Just yesterday, Big Fish Games was allowed to sell subscriptions to their gaming service through the App Store. The idea was that one could pay seven dollars a month and get access to the entire Big Fish library.

But I used the past-tense “was” up there because Apple has removed the app from the Store.

Apple Inc. removed Big Fish Games Inc.’s subscription service from its App Store, reversing a move that would have given iPad users access to dozens of video games for a monthly fee.

“We were notified that the app was removed,” said Paul Thelen, founder of Big Fish, a game publisher in Seattle. The app had been available since Nov. 18, he said. “We’re trying to follow up with Apple to try to figure out what happened.”

John Gruber is one of a number of writers speculating that the app was approved indadvertedly:

I suspect […] that there was no such plan to allow for subscription games. The app was there earlier today, but I think whoever at Apple approved it did so incorrectly.

I think that this is incorrect, however, as shown in the following few paragraphs in the Bloomberg story.

Thelen said he was surprised by the move because Big Fish had worked with Apple for several weeks to ensure that it met the requirements for recurring monthly charges made through the App Store, a method most commonly used by magazines and newspaper publishers.

“It was officially approved,” Thelen said. Apple had even seen the app’s press release before it went out earlier today, he said.

It’s unlikely that there was a several-week-long miscommunication which was not clarified at any point up until, and including, the press release.

Will Amazon Take Over Android App Distribution?

Marco Arment thinks so:

All it would take is a deal between Amazon and one of the big handset manufacturers to preload the Amazon Appstore, placed more prominently than Google’s Android Market, on all of their phones for a little while. Amazon knows how to play the retail game — it’s their business, and they’re incredibly good at it.

Avichal Garg disagrees:

Owning the platform is Google’s way of making sure they own search — both on the web and for apps.

Kindle Fire is about selling more digital content and facilitating e-commerce. Apps happen to be one type of digital content, but they’re far from the focal point for Amazon.

I’d side with Marco, though. Avichal is under the impression that Google owns the platform, but since they’ve open-sourced it, it can be implemented by anyone without giving Google any sort of credit or royalties.

Amazon is in the business of selling things. It began with physical products, then they offered digital music. Apps are something else they can sell.

Please Let This Not Be the Future of Reading on the Web

I echo these sentiments, and I’d add that it’s even worse for those who pay for extra features or better access on a number of news sites. Ads will often prevail even for subscribers in an annoying and pervasive manner.

Also, sharing buttons must disappear. I enjoy links to good content in my Twitter feed as much as anyone, but it’s easy enough to do without putting a plethora of buttons on every page.

Are They Coding These Apps with Pen and Paper?

BlackBerryCool has posted some quick shots of the [new native calendar and email apps].

You mean that PlayBook users will be able to have an offline calendar? Holy shit. You could knock me over with a coffee stirrer at this point.

The apps won’t be arriving until February 17th, and there won’t be a native BBM client by then either.

Take your time, RIM. It isn’t like it’s a competitive market or anything.

Grooveshark Sued by Universal

No big surprises here. Grooveshark has always seemed to exist on very shaky legal ground. YouTube frequently avoids similar lawsuits because they’re part of a big company, and because they employ content filtering to try to screen out potential infringement. Grooveshark does not employ what any judge would consider “reasonable measures” to avoid issues.

UMG is seeking maximum damages of up to $150,000 per infringement from Grooveshark, which could mean more than a $15 billion payout if the lawsuit is successful.

It’s pretty clear that they’re not after the money; they just want Grooveshark shut down.

Nokia’s Microsoft Phones May Not Get Traction, Analyst Says

I don’t usually put a lot of faith in analysts, as they’re usually talking out of their asses (it’s right in the name). But this article by Brian X. Chen might actually be right. Take this quote:

James Faucette, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities, cut his forecast for Nokia Windows phone sales this quarter to 500,000 units from two million on Tuesday…

That’s disappointing news. You have me there, because Windows phones aren’t doing that well to begin with. Now, in the same sentence, lose me with your reasoning.

… explaining that Windows phones designed by Nokia had no clear advantage over other manufacturers’ devices that would allow them to compete.

I disagree completely. The hardware quality alone is better than any other phone on the market, save for the iPhone 4(S).

Can the iPhone 4S Replace a “Real” Digital Camera?

Chris Foresman, for Ars Technica:

Would a professional photographer replace her trusty DSLR with an iPhone 4S? No. But, might a casual snap shooter replace a pocket camera with an iPhone 4S? It’s pretty likely.

This is pretty much my conclusion as well. On a recent trip to Vancouver, I left my DSLR at home and brought only my 4S. It freed up my bag, kept my daily carry lightweight and provided shots that are decent enough to print.

The Story of “Beats” Headphones

Time was, manufacturers marketed high-priced audio equipment by emphasizing technical merits like frequency response, optimum impedance, ambient noise attenuation and so on. The audience was mostly a small cadre of audiophiles tuned to the finer points of sound quality.

But, three years ago, Beats by Dr. Dre set out to change all that by appealing to more primal desires: good looks, celebrity and bone-rattling bass.

Compare and contrast with MG Siegler’s post:

We’re starting to see backlash against reviews of products that just do spec-by-spec rundown. Because really, who cares how the device sounds on paper? It’s how it feels that matters. Is the Kindle Fire smooth? Is the Nook Tablet fast? Is the iPad a joy to use?

This mindset is spreading throughout the industry, as made evident by the overwhelming sales of Beats.

He dismissed those who criticize the sound quality of Beats. Competitors use fancy equipment to determine how headphones should sound, he said, whereas he and Mr. Young simply know how they should sound.

“The way we hear music is almost the opposite of the way these sound companies hear music,” he said.

True enough, but I fear there’s a line that cannot be crossed with headphones. Dr. Dre’s headphones get awfully close to crossing that line with their intentionally, yet artificially overwhelming bass levels.