Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for January, 2012

Sony Unveils Tiny 13-Megapixel CMOS Image Sensor

I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the Sony sensor in my iPhone 4S, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple adopted this for the next-generation iPhone. Aside from the high megapixel count, this camera has a couple of interesting refinements. The first is the addition of white light sensors, in addition to the standard red, blue and green ones. Theoretically, this should mean that it can provide better exposure in low-light situations and more accurate white balancing. The camera also features something Sony calls “HDR video”, which simultaneously combines two video recordings of different exposures.

If history has any bearing on the future, the next iPhone should be a massive leap forward in every facet.

Samsung Galaxy Note Review

Vlad Savov:

Pocketing the Note is an exercise in either frustration or denial. Oh, it will fit inside your pants pocket, but try walking around with it there and you’ll see that fitting inside a space is only half the battle

Summary: the answer to a question nobody asked. Also, it has a built-in stylus for a little slice of 1998.

Publishers And Booksellers See A ‘Predatory’ Amazon

Lynn Neary:

Publishers have a problem when it comes to discussing Amazon: They may fear its power, but they are also dependent on it, because like it or not, Amazon sells a lot of books. But lately, the grumbling about Amazon has been growing louder, with some in the book industry openly describing Amazon’s tactics as “predatory.”

Publishers have long complained about Amazon’s pricing policies; it sold e-books at cut-rate prices in order to win customers for the Kindle. Now, explains Joe Wikert, general manager and publisher at O’Reilly Media, Amazon is undercutting competitors by selling e-readers, like the new Kindle Fire, at a loss.

Massive companies with the power to sell products at lower prices are always going to be a problem for smaller retailers. But it’s up to them to stay nimble and work around these limitations.

RIM’s Balsillie and Lazaridis Step Aside

Ian Austen, for the New York Times:

Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, who made the BlackBerry a leading business tool but then presided over its precipitous decline, said they would step down on Monday as co-chairmen and co-chief executives of Research in Motion.

Probably too little, and definitely much too late.

The company named Thorsten Heins, currently one of RIM’s two chief operating officers, as chief executive. He pledged during an interview on Sunday to follow the strategy Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis set in place.

That’s precisely the wrong approach.

Camera-Less iPhone 4S Launches in Singapore

What do you love in your iPhone 4S? You may answer various things, and its 8 Mega Pixel camera must be in that list. What if we say that soon iPhone 4S will be available without camera? It may seem weird, but it is true. As per a recent report by JakartaGlobe, the three Singapore carrier partners of Apple are going to launch a camera-less iPhone 4S soon.

This was extensively reported today, however almost none of the links have a photo of the back of one of these iPhones. My link, on the other hand, does. Neener neener.

Product Lines Need to Simplify

Joshua Topolsky:

Nowhere is that deluge of products more visible — literally — than at CES. The millions of square feet on the LVCC’s show floor are jam-packed with model after model of what could easily be the same product. HDTVs line booth after booth, sprout up towards the ceiling, and tumble over garish, elaborate displays. Smartphones and their accessories (mostly docks) dot outlines and make paths through massive Sony and Samsung micro-worlds, while the smudged glare of anonymous Android tablets greets you at every new spectacle. Nothing seems original.

For a journalist, it’s daunting — for shoppers, it’s starting to seem impossible.

Microsoft Keeps It Old-School With a Pricey Text Adventure Game

As with the Damien Hirst memorial, this is another piece of satirical brilliance. The aptly-named Peter Bright, for Ars Technica:

Microsoft has jumped onto the free-to-play bandwagon with its latest game, a text-driven adventure called Visual Studio 2010. The innovative new game marries the traditional interactive fiction text adventure with its arcane commands and exploration with the free-form, open-ended gaming pioneered by the likes of SimCity.

Damien Hirst (1965–2012)

Christian Viveros-Faune, writing for the Village Voice:

Damien Steven Hirst, the world’s richest artist ($332 million according to Britain’s Sunday Times), full-time businessman, part time art-collector, sometime restaurateur, P.T. Barnum imitator, and most famous member of the Young British Artists (or YBAs), a creative covey who came to prominence in the 1990s, died last Thursday, January 12, in New York following complications from acute diverticulitis brought on by a swinishly speculative, grossly cynical, intellectually constipated effort to pinch out 11 concurrent exhibitions of rehashed expensive crap.

Genius. Sorry about the pagination. I can assure you it’s worth reading despite that inconvenience.

Android Really Isn’t Making Money

[Larry] Page described Android as a young product with lots of potential during the company’s quarterly earnings call on Thursday. That’s a modest way to describe a piece of software that is installed on about 50 percent of smartphones worldwide.

“We are in the early stages of monetization for a number of our new products, and Android is one of those,” said Mr. Page, in response to an analyst’s questions about making money with Android.

I wouldn’t describe a five-year-old tech product as “new”, and using that to justify why it doesn’t make money seems misleading.

McGraw-Hill’s New Math

Earlier today, I noted why $15 textbooks on a $500 iPad still makes for a good deal for consumers. Peter Kafka has the key on why McGraw-Hill has agreed to such a steep price cut:

McGraw-Hill normally sells high school textbooks for $75 a pop. Now it says it will sell electronic versions of the same books, via Apple, for $15 apiece. How can the publisher make that work?

“Volume,” says McGraw-Hill CEO Terry McGraw

But of course.

The New Education

On Thursday morning in New York, Phil Schiller outlined a number of problems in the current state of the American education system. He cited the low graduation rates of high school students, and noted that the United States wasn’t in the international top ten for reading, math or science. One of challenges, he noted, was keeping kids engaged in an era of constant entertainment. Apple, he said, could overcome this hurdle with three enhancements to the technology they currently ship and, as he pointed out, is already in use by millions of students.

iBooks 2: Textbooks

Textbooks are loathed by students and teachers alike. In the last century, the rate of scientific and historical discovery ensures that textbooks are out of date the minute they are printed. They aren’t interactive, and cannot present anything animated. This becomes evident the moment anything living is analysed. Static diagrams cannot represent these dramatic changes and movements effectively.

Apple’s solution is to provide students with digital textbooks filled with animations, live information and interviews. This isn’t unprecedented, as Kyle Rose notes:

This isn’t exciting because Apple’s the first company to create worthwhile digital textbooks. That honor goes to Inkling. It’s exciting because Apple’s the only company that is in a position to completely change how we learn, and iBooks certainly has the power to do so.

Apple is putting these digital textbooks on devices that students often already own, in a way that’s convenient and accessible. Aside from Amazon, nobody else has this level of content distribution, and Amazon isn’t doing this.

One can gush at length about the new possibilities offered by digital textbooks. I highly recommend watching the keynote or buying one of the books to experience it. Though if you’re concerned about price, you are in for a shock. There are a number of free samples on the store, and the full textbooks are only $14.99. Fifteen dollars for a textbook. That’s an unheard-of deal.

Of course there are drawbacks with this just-launched product. Textbooks are only available in the US, for now, and they’ve only announced high school books, and therefore only high school pricing. Expect post-secondary books to be more expensive, but to significantly undercut the price of the physical books by a similarly-huge margin. On a curious note, despite the use of the iBooks application, there are no page-turn animations. Rather, the pages slide left-to-right like a PDF. I suspect Apple was aching to remove their interpretation of textbooks from the physical version as much as possible.

But these limitations are quickly forgotten as you discover how simple it is to highlight a section, how quick it is to jump to a specific concept, and how effortless studying becomes. Apple has created a marvellous and delightful product from the oft-loathed textbook. Welcome to the new education.

iBooks Author

Along with the revamped iBooks application for iOS, Apple unveiled a curious and controversial counterpart for Mac OS X. It’s an iBooks-authouring application, but it isn’t quite that straightforward.

At first glance, iBooks Author could be mistaken an addition to the iWork suite. It is something of a hybrid of Keynote and Dashcode, from Apple’s developer tools. And because it’s free, I highly recommend you grab it from the Mac App Store and take it for a spin.

There are a few quirks with the app. The most notable one that I’ve discovered is that it’s set up only to produce the highly interactive books, and is therefore an inadequate self-publishing solution for those that would prefer to publish a more text-heavy novel or short story. Amazon does a much better job with their Kindle Singles. There’s also no option to embed fonts. John Gruber hopes that it’s just a 1.0 omission, but I suspect that it’s a licensing issue. iBooks Author is a free app, and anyone can publish a book to the iBookstore. Sorting out potentially thousands of font licenses would grind the submission process to a halt.

But the biggest issue with the app comes in the form of its end user license agreement (EULA). Dan Wineman calls it “audacious” and “unprecedented”, referring to this section:

If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.

That is to say that any book created through iBooks Author may only be sold for more than free through the iBookstore. You’re allowed to export and distribute it in other formats provided you do not charge for it. The EULA’s control over the product of the app that is what’s outrageous, as Wineman explains:

Apple, in this EULA, is claiming a right not just to its software, but to its software’s output. It’s akin to Microsoft trying to restrict what people can do with Word documents, or Adobe declaring that if you use Photoshop to export a JPEG, you can’t freely sell it to Getty.

I wholly agree that this is Apple overstepping its legal boundaries. They wanted to gain as much traction in the market as possible, and the quickest way of doing that is to release the software for free. But Apple needs to protect its investment and take its 30% cut. In the end, it’s controlling in a way that no other software is.

iTunes U App

After Apple had concluded the above announcements, the keynote felt like it was going to be over. Yet Schiller stood on stage and announced that there was something else that they had been working on to enhance education. Eddy Cue presented an app that I feel is one of the most beautiful they’ve ever shipped.

iTunes U is Apple’s free educational lecture collection on the iTunes Store. Since launching in 2007, Cue announced that it had become the world’s largest selection of free university courses. Conversely, I have treated iTunes U as a curiosity in the store. Today, Apple injected a little bit of life into it with their iTunes U app.

It is — quite simply — beautiful. It looks like iBooks made out of mahogany and brass. Everything looks rich, nobel and musty. Downloading a course is a joy, as the app bundles all the materials needed into the file structure. They’re not necessarily included in the initial download, but are made available to stream as needed. Every course gets broken down into a series of lectures, topics or themes, and the app connects with the new textbooks in iBooks where appropriate. It’s an exquisite experience, and one I cannot believe is provided for free.

The New Education

Nothing above will be remembered if Apple fails on its core premise of creating an education experience for the twenty-first century. This depends on wide acceptance, and could come to a grinding halt if any of the textbook publishers decide that it isn’t worth it. It’s good that Apple has the balls to disrupt the market in this way.

Though Schiller did not mention it, the students that have a higher likelihood of doing poorly in school or dropping out altogether are those from low-income families, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This presents an unusual problem for Apple. The students that can afford — and probably already own — an iPad are higher-income students. This is an issue that Business Insider raised in their decidedly awful response to today’s announcements. If they did the math using their own figures, however, the iPad ranks favourably.

Depending on the school, a full courseload is anywhere from 4-8 classes per semester, so for this example, 6 classes will suffice. Business Insider cites a typical textbook price of $75 and notes Apple’s maximum price for high school books is $15. Therefore, the first term will cost $450 for traditional textbooks, or $90 for Apple’s textbooks plus $500 for an iPad, for a total of $590. The traditional books lose their advantage in the second term, however, as it’s another $450 for those, for a total of $900. The student with the iPad is only going to pay another $90, for a year-total of $680.

This is, of course, a hypothetical example. A student probably won’t need textbooks in every class they’re taking. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that a high school student will be purchasing all of their books; instead, they’ll likely be borrowing them from the school’s library. However, the burden that shared textbooks place on a school is obvious. Students can’t mark the books up because they don’t own them. The school must purchase enough books for an entire class, or several classes, and a number of these will need to be replaced at the end of each term.

To maximise their success, Apple has offered schools an easy way to purchase a large number of digital textbooks. They could then distribute the redemption codes on the first day of class. It has a cost advantage, too: for the price of a single physical textbook, a school could purchase 6 of the digital textbooks. For some schools, this will be a wise investment. For others — likely those with much lower budgets — paper textbooks will prevail. They don’t have the wiggle room to experiment.

For what it’s worth, I hope that this works out. This won’t just benefit Apple; rather, it will change the textbook industry permanently. It’s one that’s desperate for disruption.

The Wrong Kind of Kodak Moment

On January 18th Eastman Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York. The firm was laid low by the rapid shift to digital photography and away from film, where Kodak once earned 70% margins and enjoyed a 90% market share in America.

Move with the times or get crushed. The textbook industry is next.

How I Test Ideas

Shawn Blanc describes his methods for identifying great ideas, discerning them from merely good ideas, and how he keeps track of them:

I suspect many of you can relate to the dilemma of having more ideas than time. Which means that, in addition to endurance, we also need discernment to know what ideas are worth pursuing and what ideas we should let go of.

Discernment is anything but an exact science, but I do have a bit of a routine that I find myself acting out every time one of my ideas seems to have an extra amount of energy behind it.

Great post. I keep a notebook beside my bed for those times when I think of something worth writing down as I’m attempting to sleep.

Megaupload Shut Down

Federal prosecutors in Virginia have shut down one of the world’s largest file-sharing sites, Megaupload.com, and charged its founder and others with violating piracy laws.

Huge.

Apple in Education

These enhancements have made great strides in terms of educational value, convenience and price. However, Mike Matas has pointed out a peculiarity:

Even though I no longer work for Apple apparently I’m still designing some of their products. http://pushpoppress.com ➜ http://apple.com/education

The reactions from across the web are plentiful, to say the least. It will be interesting to see how successful this venture becomes. I’m willing to bet that the iBookstore isn’t an enormous success. It’s doing well, but not spectacularly.

Public-Private Domain

Congress may take books, musical compositions and other works out of the public domain, where they can be freely used and adapted, and grant them copyright status again, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In a 6-2 ruling, the court said that, just because material enters the public domain, it is not “territory that works may never exit.”

As if the current state of copyright law wasn’t detrimental to content creators and the general public.

Feather for Twitter

Chris Masterson has just update his phenomenal Safari extension to version 3.0. The update brings a much cleaner design to the refreshed Twitter website. Even though I prefer a third-party client, I still end up on twitter.com throughout any given day. This extension is essential.

So Far, 2012 Isn’t So Hot For Google

Less than a week ago, Google found themselves caught in a bit of a scandal when Mocality, a Kenyan business directory, reported that they had conducted a sting operation to track down a recent rise in help desk inquiries regarding a Google-Mocality partnership. No such deal existed. Employees at two Google-owned offices were found to have lied to businesses on Mocality’s site in order to gain listings on Google’s competing database. Google apologised to Mocality and claimed to be investigating. It seemed like this scandal was over.

But it’s a new week, after all. Yesterday, an entry was posted on OpenStreetMap’s company blog, and it’s a doozy:

Preliminary results show users from Google IP address ranges in India deleting, moving and abusing OSM data including subtle edits like reversing one-way streets.

Two OpenStreetMap accounts have been vandalizing OSM in London, New York and elsewhere from Google’s IP address, the same address in India reported by Mocality.

The vandalism includes editing incorrect street names and adding fake Olympic stadiums. In short, there’s a Google office in India that is actively sabotaging competitors.

Don’t be evil.

This link is from John Gruber, who was tipped by Kontra. Kontra notes that this has been the fourth scandal in three weeks for Google. Have they lost control of just one office, or is this permeating their culture?

Update: Google confirmed to ReadWriteWeb that the employees responsible have been fired:

A source familiar with Google’s actions said the two were terminated because they used Google’s network for unauthorized activity, which is against Google’s rules, not because of what they actually did on their own initiative.