Posts Tagged ‘Apple’

Hey Tim, Innovate This!

December 26, 2013

This is an open letter to Tim Cook at Apple.

Dear Tim,

Is the BOD challenging you to innovate more and put more distance between Apple and your competitors? Here is the top item of my “Wish List”:

Integrate every aspect of user context into operating system services.

For example, innovate this (please) for my iPhone:

Don’t bug me when I am busy in an important meeting!

Scenario – I am in a meeting, and that meeting appears on my iCal calendar. I don’t want my iPhone to ring unless a) the caller is on my VIP list, or b) the caller is on the meeting invitation list. I think that would be simple to do. … or c) don’t bug me unless the caller is a higher priority than my meeting (a little more difficult).  Do the same for Messenger notifications and perhaps e-mail notifications, too.

This third consideration requires me to prioritize meetings and also prioritize people with more granularity than “VIP” or “Not VIP”.

And another nuance to consider – don’t silence my calls when I am traveling at the airport or at some other location where I don’t mind the call. I put travel and personal business on my calendar – perhaps every event needs an election to manage notifications contextually or don’t… Perhaps we need a sense of a) public place context and b) private place context.

Another example from my wish list:

Direct the user interface to the best device at hand! And follow me as I move about…

Scenario – I am watching a YouTube video on my iPhone. When I step into my media room, the YouTube video is automatically directed to my AppleTV. When I leave the media room, the YouTube video is directed back to my iPhone. When I step into my office, the YouTube video is automatically directed to my iPad Air.

This is a toughie – tougher still, what if I don’t start watching that YouTube video on my iPhone and start the video on my desktop Mac? This requires a whole new generation of display devices that are bonjour-equipped, and/or wi-fi equipped and/or blue-tooth equipped so that display devices advertise their capabilities and location to my various computing devices.

Perhaps there is a new device concept lurking, here. I had a dream that I carried a futuristic iPhone in my pocket. It was mostly battery – very small and dense, and it did not have a display. Whenever I moved to a different environment, my iPhone would always utilize the best nearby display device and always have access to my many TB of local storage on my desktop, and to my iCloud storage, too. My futuristic iPhone would automatically use the best devices for audio I/O, video I/O, gesture interaction and text entry that were in my immediate environment. Wherever I was, my future iPhone was working in the background to optimize my user experience by making use of the variety of devices that fill my environment at work, at home, in the car, and at friends’ offices and homes, too. In this sense, my future iPhone’s phone function had faded way into the background, and it really became an intelligent user interface gateway.

I want my Apple devices to incorporate user context into their services, Tim. I know that’s a tall order. I really understand how difficult this is. I think that only Apple can pull it off!

By the way, I am really pleased with my new iPad Air! Tim, this is a terrific Apple product that meets every expectation of mine and even exceeds a few!

The AppleTV is Pretty Good! But…

May 23, 2013

I purchased an AppleTV. I did it on a whim. I was impressed, and I was disappointed. I think I see the next step for the product, though. You’ll like it!

The Good:

– The GUI (graphical user interface) is simple and efficient.
– Configuration is easy!
– Image quality is superb!
– iTunes integration is great; it  just works! Great!
– Airplay works – it just Works!
– Photoflow integration is great – it, too, just works!
– The remote commands the Apple TV through obstacles!
– My bluetooth keyboard works, too!
– It’s compact!  And no wallwort!

The Awkward:

– The top level interface is configurable by Parental Controls – huh…
– Not many free media choices. YouTube, iTunes podcasts and Trailers.
– Hulu Plus works fine, but not the free Hulu service – WHY NOT?
– Search text entry is arduous with the remote – get a keyboard.

The Bad:

– Image aspect ratio is fixed.
– Some media sources use HDCP (copy protection) – grrr.
– No way to browse the web.
– No way to install an iOS app.

At home, where we are not quite in the “modern World”, I need a gadget. At home, our TVs do not have HDMI interfaces (we also do not have a BluRay disc player). A burglar would just pass us by – our TV set weighs more than 100 KG and barely fits through the door. So, I have a simple gadget to satisfy the HDCP feature and convert the AppleTV’s HDMI output into an S-video output or an RF output depending which archaic device I want to plug into and watch. All is well with this gadget. It is a Sabrent DA-HDRC Converter for $50 from Amazon.

The remote is amazing. I swear that it commands the AppleTV around corners and through obstacles. JC says it must be UV, and not (or not just) IR. It bounces off of walls and furniture.

The AppleTV is great in a hotel. I take my Airport Express (another great product) and  AppleTV with me when I travel, and I plug the AppleTV into the TV in the room. It works anywhere in the world. If bandwidth is good enough, which it sadly may not be, I have entertainment! Not so bad…

But, I want more – I want to participate in WebEx video conferences (I don’t need a camera). I want my bluetooth headset to be supported by the AppleTV. I want my on-line ATT Uverse service. I want news channels like CNN, MSNBC, FOX, C-Span. I want access to more free media sources!

I want to be able to adjust the image aspect ratio – to stretch the image a little – a little more – a LOT more! The variety of media sources and display devices needs some accommodation in the AppleTV.

I want to be able to bring other video sources into the AppleTV. If  only it had a USB interface. I want to be able to watch a DVD – if only I could plug Apple’s nifty, slim DVD drive into the Apple TV. How about plugging an ElGato EyeTV USB TV tuner into the Apple TV. There are great possibilities, here!

I believe that the AppleTV will be transformed in the near future – give it two years… You just wait! Just as the Mac mini is an iMac without a display, the AppleTV will be an iPod without a display. Just you wait…

In the mean time, the Apple TV is pretty good! But…

How Fast can You Change?

May 12, 2013

A friend asked me, “Brian, why has the economy seemingly stalled?” My spontaneous answer was, “Well, I don’t think that people can change their behavior fast enough to take advantage of the changes happening all around them. I think that people are overwhelmed today by the chaos. The consumer has been left behind.”

The puzzled look on my friend’s face told me immediately that he did not see the connection I was making at all. Rather than taking a step backward, or taking a second step forward hoping to see indications of understanding, I let the conversation take a different course. Let me peel the onion that I did not peel that afternoon – let me make a few observations…

1) Product innovation that is too rapid leaves the consumer behind. Have you ever stopped upgrading software because the new features were not obviously of any use to you? Still using Windows XP? Well, the product innovation left you behind.

Perhaps the new features were not well thought out, and they were in fact duplicative or of no practical use to you. Phewy – why spend money for something you can’t use and don’t need for anything? That’s not a problem with you – blame the product designer for the ridiculous.

Perhaps, though, those new features are so different from what is familiar that you don’t see how they are useful. Even if someone points out how the new features are significant improvements on what was – significantly better tools, you might reason that if you don’t need those new features for what you do today, then why learn how to use them – nope, pass the upgrade by. Maybe that IS a problem with you. But you, my friend, are not alone if you fall in this second camp of consumer.

In the case of Windows, product innovation has left the consumer behind for a combination of both of the above reasons. If you discount Windows OS sales associated with new computers purchase, consumer upgrades from XP to Vista to 7 to 8 has been lethargic and reluctant and even painful – and getting more so with each successive release of the OS – and terribly disappointing for Microsoft financial results. Windows OS product innovation has left the consumer behind. And the Windows economy has stalled.

2) Product innovation that suddenly presents too many alternative products to the consumer leaves less room for a runner-up to succeed, and a bubble may emerge. Or a monopoly may emerge. How many consumers do you imagine shop for a large screen TV because of the 3D feature? In the near term, a crowded market quickly turns into a price-competitive market that squeezes new entrants out of the marketplace before a product sells a threshold amount that justifies the next cycle of innovation. Truly good products can disappear from a crowded market for no rational reason visible to the consumer. Companies fail. Innovators lose confidence and backers. In the near term, the good products in a crowded market don’t always win unless one product in particular is a true standout (Apple’s iPod). In the near term, this kind of market may become a bubble that bursts.

In the long term, mediocre products may be the only survivors simply as a result of deeper pockets of cash with their manufacturer, and being perceived as the least risk choice for the consumer. Monopolies of lackluster products may develop, and monopolies are inefficient markets over time. Inefficient markets full of ineffective products are not “vibrant” by any measure, and those markets will eventually stall or become declining markets. Monopoly markets are incredibly hard to upset with exciting competing products – after all, how fast can the consumer actually change?

Back to the question: How fast can you change?

I am a technology product manager. Once I launch a new product – a challenge in itself, I immediately plan for the innovation path. The problem for me in a nutshell is to innovate fast enough to challenge and out do the community of competitors, but slowly enough for the consumer to be able to appreciate the coming innovation, desire the coming innovation, and be able to change their behavior to utilize the coming innovation.

Apple succeeds in no small measure through evangelists. Apple recruits evangelists from their consumer population by engaging the consumer. Apple hosts developers conferences, hosts user forums, offers training in their stores, offers personalized shopping experiences, offers one-on-one services, etc. Apple has “genius” evangelists at every store to explain product features by way of solving customer problems. At every turn, Apple is working to propel the consumer forward through evangelism faster than if the consumer was left to their own devices.

Apple succeeds in no small measure by taking small incremental steps with their software. How different is MacOSX 10.8 from 10.7? 10.7 from 10,6? If you look at the release notes for the OS releases, Apple consistently touts more than 200 or 250 new features, but only several are significant, and the rest are nuances and polish. Apple sells the value of so many new features, but genuinely challenges the consumer to change their behavior on just a few. And how much is that new OS? Just $30 most recently… Heck, why not! Apple takes small steps with their current products.

Apple succeeds in no small measure by selling entire ecosystems that are smoothly integrated and virtually flawless. MacOSX / IOS / App Store / iTunes Store / iTunes Match / AppleTV / AirPlay / Photoflow / Bonjour is just one ecosystem. Apple has a communicator ecosystem (the iPhone is part), a developer ecosystem, an office productivity ecosystem, a hobbyist AV ecosystem, a pro AV ecosystem, an enterprise ecosystem. Apple sells a range of outstanding hardware platforms to suit these ecosystems. Apple ecosystems are all almost flawless – “and it all just works.”

Microsoft, on the other hand fails on all these strategies. Transitioning from Windows 7 to Windows 8 has compatibility headaches, fractured ecosystems, radical user interface changes (and challenges), steep pricing, and there is no one to sell the “goodness” or pull the consumer gently forward.

When I look around me, I see market after market filled with “Microsofts”, and not “Apples”. The consumer sees what I see, though they may nor comprehend what they see in the same way I do. The consumer sees a dizzying range of confusing products and services they don’t understand, fail to appreciate, and can’t really afford, and they are keeping their money in their pockets. How much money will YOU spend on a “flash in the pan” gimmick (if that’s how you perceive it)?

And by the way, more and more consumers over the past decade in particular are keeping more and more money in their pockets for essentials like food, shelter, medical care and transportation that combined are more and more often exceeding their incomes… You can’t understate this factor.

So, in summary, my friend, the economy is stalling because the vast middle class faces shrinking disposable incomes and mind-numbing, confounding choices in the market. There are exceptions, of course: the 1% is doing quite well, and there are in fact some excellent products and services in the market. But the 99% is largely keeping what little disposable income they have in their pockets (and not expanding their consumption of credit) because there is not much that is compelling to purchase.

Well, that’s my view when I wear my product manager hat!

Update – a follow-up question: “What do you think about Windows 8?”

I think Windows 8 is the most innovative Windows release in many, many years. The ability to flip from app to app with a swipe and the constant updating of the summary display with notifications are all terrific innovations I wish my iPhone had. This user interface is not quite ready for the desktop; however. And this user interface is a huge leap that brings too many changes too fast for the majority of consumers. I like it!

How fast can you change? Most consumers want to change rather slowly…

Contextual Communications Management – Do Away with I/O Overload!

February 18, 2013

I have been “cooking” this idea since about 2006. There was a day “in the day” when my ability to manage intrusive communications was obviously nil – a day of epiphany. On one miserable day, I was overwhelmed:

  • four meetings occupying more than 6 1/2 hours of the day;
  • more than 40 telephone calls to four phone numbers that I answered;
  • more than 40 voicemail messages on five messaging systems;
  • more than 250 e-mails sent to six addresses;
  • no complete record of calls I missed…

My clients were frustrated. I was frustrated.

I really faced three dilemmas:

  1. No Prioritization – the priority of one call was almost indistinguishable from the next unless I knew something related to the ID of the caller (if I even glanced at the Caller ID – if the ID was even displayed);
  2. No Integration – 15 separate communications portals…
  3. No Local Context – my telephone services interrupted my meetings as though every incoming call was more important than the meeting I was in (and some were).

I need only the sufficiently important communications right away – in only one stream – from any service – directed to any device – anywhere in the world I happen to be – with zero effort – without unnecessary distraction – all prioritized, summarized and logged. I call this concept Contextual Communications Management.

Since about 2008, I have been embarked on a campaign to influence AT&T, Apple and Google with features that will help me wrestle with the overwhelming communications environment I work in. I write letters, make phone calls, write white papers, draw pictures – anything that has a bit of promise to find implementations in AT&T, Apple and Google products and services.

Here is a simple process flow for incoming calls and voicemail messages to begin solving my problem (click for a higher res image):

Incoming Calls and Messages Managed

At first glance, I get two remarks from people – either “Huh?” or “Duh…” Either puzzlement or a brush-off as obvious. For any incoming call, I want to reject it (block it) if it will waste my time. If I don’t reject the call, I want to redirect it (forward it) if another person is a better resource to answer the call. If I don’t redirect the call, I want to ignore it for the time being (let the caller leave a message) if my present activity is more important. I want to answer the call if it is the best use of my time at the moment.

But it’s not obvious how to make the decision that the incoming call is the best use of my time. Let’s “peel the onion” just a bit. If you know the person calling or e-mailing or messaging, there is a basis to prioritize the call. Here is an example of that basis (again, click for higher res):

Who-Basis for PrioritizationIt’s not that complicated – my address book on my Mac has a category for “Priority” that I added long ago of Privileged (AT&T calls White-Listed; Apple calls VIP – their responses to my proposals), High, Medium, Low, Unknown or Denied (black-listed). Recognize the White List and Black List concepts from my Robocaller Blocker? Yup! My “RoboBlaster” focusses on identifying and blocking the lowest priority callers.

This just scratches the surface of Contextual Computing – utilizing the context of Who, What, When and Where to make automated decisions about communications, tasks, activities, collaboration and the presentation of information in the user environment.  A clever app will stop my phone from ringing in a meeting unless the caller has a higher priority than the meeting does. Get it? It’s not complicated, but that clever app will be! How to integrate all devices and services? That’s another problem I am writing about right now.

Look for my book on Contextual Computing at soon.  I’ll be sure to let you know how to order it when it is available.

Most Fans “blow”

January 3, 2013

Today, I have been in the bathroom running the exhaust fan, at the stove running the exhaust fan, listening to the furnace blowing air, sitting at my desk with the APS fan rumbling on its worn bearings, with the external drive enclosure fans whirring and the computer fan whirring, too, and in the car with the blower on high to defog my windshield. I am surrounded by fans, and they are noisy buggers for the most part with disappointing airflow.

Most fans “blow”. They are lousy compromises on size, airflow, power consumption, vibration – and noise. There is one standout in fan design that I am aware of, and that is the fan that Apple uses with asymmetrically spaced impeller blades in their MacBook Pro Retina Display laptops. See about half way down the webpage:

I listened closely to a MacBook Pro Retina Display laptop fan running full blast in a Best Buy the other day – it was a quiet whir with a terrific rush of air out the exhaust ports off the laptop. With my ear pressed up against the case bottom where the fan was directly behind, I could just hear a soft whir. Marvelous. I had taken great pains to turn off the sound from blaring TVs throughout the store during a customer lull, and it was quiet – almost silent on the store floor. A largish number of sales staff crowded around me as I booted from a thumb drive with a fan speed control utility installed and set the fan to max speed. The fan was really, genuinely quiet. Impressive. I passed the laptop around, and the Geek Squad fellow listened and smiled. “Quiet. Really quiet. You should hear the HP laptop fans – they screech at high speed. These Apple fans are amazingly quiet.” Yes, they really are quiet.

If these fans with asymmetrically spaced impeller blades were made for bathrooms and kitchens, our homes would be much quieter environments. For desktop computers, APS cabinets and drive enclosures, and our offices would be much quieter. Even car AC systems would benefit.

Heck, why not for nuclear submarine propellers…

I want quiet flow, not “blow”.

A Good Engineer can Simplify the World in Time

November 30, 2012

Engineering is the challenge of making something complicated actually work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. This might sound simple – maybe even trivial – it’s not at all. Most people take it for granted that pushing a button has the result you expect every time you do it – on your phone, microwave oven, television, automobile, etc. But, it is a complicated world, and between you, me and the fencepost, well, maybe you shouldn’t take those things for granted…

Two events prompted this post:

American Airlines records for personal information were updated today again and again (and again) until successful.

Apple iTunes 11 was released – more than a facelift – a redesign…

These two events today were meaningful for me as an engineer.  I’ll tell you why:


American Airlines – they need a good engineer to tweak their website. Type a number from a card into a blank – push SUBMIT – should be done and over with…  Nope.

Type in a three field number separated by dashes literally from the official card in hand. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and no change was actually made.

Type the number in again. Press SUMBIT. Get an “error – not a valid number” message, and I am scratching my head… The number on my Government card looks precisely like the number I typed.

Type the number again – without dashes. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and the change was made this time successfully. Were the dashes the problem? Or will I be plagued with issues because the dashes are necessary, and they aren’t there even though the entry was submitted successfully?

This should have been such a simple thing to do. But a false success status, then an error without any hints. And finally a true success status on the third try… BAD American Airlines needs a good engineer to make the website work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. I’ll volunteer – for a fee! It would be a simple matter to say, “Do Not Include Dashes” next to the field – if, in fact that was the problem. Frankly, I am not confident that the dashes were the problem, but they probably were…

The American Airlines website issues are deeper than this one issue. Make changes in your profile, and they do not “ripple through” to your reservations, and vice versa. There will be occasions when your profile information and reservation information differ, and the engineering challenge is to accommodate that. There will be occasions when the “ripple through” will require you to revisit some kind of resubmission or confirmation of something you did previously, and those steps must be presented to the user reliably and only when necessary – yup, challenging to do correctly. When a credential expires – a passport, for example, the website does not prompt you to update the stale record, and it should. Instead, every customer stumbles on these details in the website, and we all fume about it.

A good engineer could simplify greatly. It just takes time an money…


iTunes – it was starting to look clunky in version 10 with all the sidebar stuff and then the cloud stuff. I was a little frustrated with this application. It worked quite differently on my Mac and iPhone. The iCloud features were sometime a little mysterious. It was becoming a complicated media application. And it was really two applications – one for the Mac and one for the iPhone. Yesterday, I was accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. Today, well, frankly, I am not sure what I think. Most people do not like change – change requires relearning, and many people don’t do that very well. Apple tasked a bunch of engineers to make this complicated clunker a much simpler application.

I’m relearning right this minute! The new iTunes tries to be more “contextual” – it tries to do what you want it to do in the most convenient manner possible for the task you are performing. It may display the same information to you several different ways depending on what you are actually doing. Browsing? Browsing to see “what’s around the next corner”? Or browsing to find something that is right on the tip of your tongue. Or browsing to find something specific. Browsing music? Movies? Podcasts? The new iTunes tries to present your library to you in the best way possible depending on just exactly what you are doing.

My take right now is that the new iTunes only halfway succeeds in using context to present your library. You can’t “train” it very well. You can set some preferences – many on the fly to sharpen its behavior, but there are not enough cues to the user, and there are not enough injection points for preferences. I can see what Apple is trying to do, and they will do better over time.

For now, I can’t find any way to turn on the old iTunes cover flow display of album covers, and I liked that feature…  Maybe it is gone. Maybe I haven’t discovered how to turn it on. Instead, there is a nifty array of covers like what you might see in the iTunes Store, and any cover can be “exploded” to show the songs. Nifty, but I liked the cover flow and the comprehensive songs list right below. Well, maybe I can “relearn”! But, maybe I don’t have to – maybe there is a way to do what I want, and I don’t know how, yet… iTunes gets a “thumbs up” – it is simpler (it IS simpler where it can be), and it seems to work just fine. Done by good engineers!


Here is what we will see new in iTunes in the future, and I think that Apple will establish some challenging expectations for PC and phone application and website behavior in the near term:

Contextual features – subtle, intuitive differences in behavior for the same functionality depending on what you are actually trying to do at the moment:

Make it simpler when it can probably be simpler.

Say less when you probably just want to know the summary.

Say more when you want to know all the dirty details.

Know to do that all without the application asking or you telling.

Adaptive features – learn what you want to do and how you want to do it from what you just did. If you change a preference or setting, method or workflow, the computer will do one of four things depending on context and obtrusiveness and usage patterns:

Ask if this is “how you want to do it the next time, too?”

Or, ask the next time you do it if you “want to do it the same way you did it the last time?”

Or, just let the change “stick” or persist without a confirmation.

Or, revert back to the previous behavior without a confirmation.

You can imagine that contextual and adaptive features are rather “fuzzy”. Some shaaarp programmers and revolutionary new programming tools are required before software tries to do more than the new iTunes. It will take a couple of good engineers and some time for the next “spin” of iTunes.

My point here is that it takes a good engineer – maybe an exceptional engineer to truly simplify something complicated. As I work in this world day to day, I am convinced that money-making objectives tend to cast the exceptional engineer aside and opt for the mediocre instead of the refined from someone less talented and passionate. I have been told directly on more than one occasion, “Brian, we don’t need it to be as good as you want to make it.”

Well, a good engineer with enough time can be certain to simplify the world in some meaningful way and do something tremendous – and virtually unnoticed – because it just works the way it should every time for everybody.

So, “Stay tuned!”  Um, ah, “Stay iTuned!”

Where Next for My PC

August 25, 2010

I have been pondering this for quite some time:

Where is the PC going, and what substantial changes are likely for the operating system and for productivity software?

Keywords here for all of us: cloud, mobility and context.

Lately, Apple and Mac media has been asking, “What is Apple doing for Mac OSX 10.7? …for IOS 5?  Lately, Windows 7 has received some deservedly good press, and I wonder what is in store for Windows 8… Lately, there has been a lot of talk in the tech media about “thin clients” and “cloud apps” in lieu of locally executed productivity applications running on a “screamer” desktop PC. Hmmm… So, where is all this going? Well, I’ll tell you!

Minimal Local Storage – no petabytes, and probably not even terabytes. Here, the thin client pundits probably are on to something, but I don’t think they see the forrest for the trees just yet. What storage resources you have locally may really need to be quite small if you can utilize many devices and servers. The real evolution I expect to see will be with the file system…

Distributed File System – a combination of NAS and SAN functions with a substantial layer of security. I may have a folder of documents stored physically anywhere – on an Apple server, a Microsoft server, an AT&T server, a Google server, a Yahoo server, on my desktop hard drive, in flash in my iPhone – anywhere, and I don’t want to need to know where.

  • I need to be able to have instant access to my document files anywhere and anytime.
  • I need to be sure that I have exclusive access to my files.
  • I need to be sure that all my files are strongly encrypted to keep the server owner honest and to defeat the likely hacker.
  • I need to be able to share any file with anyone I designate.
  • I need to be able to define the organization of my documents and folders of documents without regard to the physical location of a file.
  • I need to have the same file organization presented to me regardless of which physical computing device I am using.
  • I need to be able to access certain files even when a local device is turned off or is not at hand (multiple device aware).
  • I need to be able to access certain files even in the event of a local computer failure (locally fault-tolerant).
  • I need to be able to access certain files even in the event of a remote server failure (remote fault-tolerant).
  • I need to be able to access certain files even in the event a network failure (network fault-tolerant).

Gesture-Based User Input System – gestures, but not necessarily touch or mouse. Here, I think that Apple is right on track. Mouse behavior has been exquisitely refined, touch interfaces are being diligently defined, cameras are being built into every display device. The next step is to extend type, point, click, touch and swipe to arbitrary surfaces and new hand gestures in the air. Any time, now… I’m waiting…

Agile Display System – my display “desktop” moves with me to the best display system that I have access to at any moment.  As I move from room to room, building to building or city to city, I want my work and my display desktop to follow me and be visible to me on the best display device I have access to wherever I am seamlessly and instantly at my command – with a gesture of some sort to cue and command the device and use it.

Contextual Environment Anticipates My Needs – community-aware, activity-aware, time-of-day-aware and location-aware. Who am I with with right now and who I am meeting with later in the day, what I was just doing and what is scheduled next on my calendar and what is queued on my To-Do List, what the time of day is and what do I usually do at this time of day and what is scheduled next, where am I now and where am I going next – all this has a direct bearing on what I want to do with my computer right now! I want my computer to anticipate my every move. This is a BIG effort to complete.

Unobtrusive Automatic Refinement – settings to accommodate the “cloud”, mobility and context should change automatically based upon limitations and failures encountered, additions to my community, appearances of new devices and services, and new collaborations.

Identification – this is key to secure sharing and hacker warfare. If your credentials are unknown, you don’t get in. How to assemble a set of trusted credentials? How to verify them unobtrusively? How to manage and maintain them? How to revoke them? How to detect spoofing and challenge the credential? Well, that requires some finesse, new standards and some user education.

If you ask me, this sounds like another decade of significant opportunity in this industry’s products and services – and a tremendous life cycle extension for the PC and its OS and applications.

What to do, what to do…

July 25, 2010

My PowerMac desktop computer gave up the ghost after six years of demanding use by me.  Sad, sad, sad… This puts me in an uncomfortable position of spending money, and right now, I don’t like the alternatives very much. What to do, what to do…

The PowerMac failed – this was an interesting failure!  One evening, I heard what I thought was a clattering sound from the area of the hard drives – “Ah-hah,” I thought, “a failing hard drive.” I have heard a hard drive or two in my lifetime “going south”, and this is exactly what I thought I was hearing. My hard drive in the PowerMac is mirrored, so I was reassured that everything would be quite salvageable. I also backup weekly, and I also use the Time Machine feature of MacOSX. “No Problem!” I figured I was in for some downtime, but I would be up the next day with a new drive in the drive bay to replace the bad drive. I finished up what I was doing, and shut down. I restarted from the MacOSX Install CD to diagnose my hard drives – the clattering sound persisted – even though both drives tested OK. Then, everything went “black screen”. What’s this? A wet handle under the rear of the computer?  Oh-oh – the liquid cooling system failed – I was hearing bursts of steam through a tiny hole… Rats – dead and beyond repair.

My dilemma:

  1. A new Mac Pro starts at $2500 plus an eSATA PCIe card (plus AppleCare plus tax) – OUCH! For that money, I want at least eight years of service lifetime, and I didn’t get it from my last PowerMac. It’s a lot of money and a physically large cabinet. This is the utility I want, but for a steep price I don’t think I want to pay this go-around.
  2. My PowerBook is more than ten years old, and I am really hampered by this computer if it is to be my principle machine – I can’t use it in this mode for more than a week or two without impacting my ability to do my job. I would like a 13″ MacBook Pro, but Apple has not updated the processor to the new Intel i3 chipset, yet, and it doesn’t come with a non-glare screen option. I looked closely at the 15′ MacBook Pro, too, and it is a large laptop that will also cost me $2149 with a non-glare screen (plus AppleCare plus tax) – OUCH again… The 13″ PowerBook is almost “good enough”, but it just misses the mark. And there is no good MacBook Pro solution to interface with my eSATA port multiplier disk array cabinet.
  3. The Mac mini is intriguing. The MacMini Server is even more intriguing – for $1000 (plus AppleCare plus tax) – much less than a new PowerMac Pro or MacBook Pro… I get mirrored drives with the Mini Server – I just don’t need the server software, and Apple doesn’t sell the server hardware with the client software. Worse, this product has also not been updated to the new Intel i3 chipset, yet. Finally, like the MacBooks, there is no good solution to interface with my eSATA port multiplier disk array cabinet. Again, almost “good enough”, but it just misses the mark.
  4. The iPad – no camera, yet, and no printing capability, yet. Again, almost “good enough”, but it just misses the mark.

I need something right now, and I will need a second something soon. I don’t want to collect Apple products like I am “made of money” (I’m not made of money…).

Ever see the movie “1984”?  When the newscaster is MC’ing a TV talk show early in the movie and turns directly to the camera and asks, “What would you do, Mary?” actually asking each home viewer by name to personally participate in the discussion? Remember that scene?

Well, “What would you do (John, Paul, George, Chuck (no, not Ringo – got’cha), Bob, Sheri,  Jim, Bill, Liz, etc.)?” I just don’t see an optimal or even a reasonably desirable solution. If only Apple would “think different” – like me.

My plea to Apple:

  • Finish the transition from the older Core2Duo chips with updates to the i3.
  • Put an eSATA port capable of interfacing to port multiplier cabinets on all your products.
  • Sell the mini with two hard drives and an external SuperDrive – just like the mini Server hardware configuration, but without the server – and while you are at it, toss in choices for bigger (750 GB) and faster (7200 RPM) hard drives… And don’t forget the i3 chip and the eSATA port!
  • Get on the stick and push out a 2nd generation iPad with a camera, and support printing with iOS4.

Can you please do all of this before my birthday – it’s coming right up, and it would be a spectacular present! I can limp along until my birthday with my soooo old PowerBook.

Curses to Microsoft

April 20, 2010

May the fleas of a thousand camels infest… Oh, oh, I should be a little less vehement. Microsoft – please fix your Word application! (I said please…)

I am trying to write a book with Microsoft Word. Word has every feature I could ask for: extensive headers and footers, table of contents and indexing, caption numbering, footnoting, page numbering. The feature list is mind blowing!

But Word doesn’t work 99.9% of the time – more like 90% of the time. An example: I mark an index entry, and then immediately edit the hidden text entry in the document because I misspelled the index entry, and Word will crash. Or caption numbers will usually update correctly when I rearrange sections – but not always. These are awful flaws in the application. I suspect that these features are not used by 99.9% of Word users in their work day to day, so these features were not tested extensively by Microsoft – ever.

This brings to mind an interesting element of complex system usage I have observed again and again. It is really a skill that children learn very quickly today: avoid actions that break a complex system. I find this fascinating. I was asking a very experienced Windows user one day why he did a certain action that I thought was a little quirky and indirect, and the answer was, “If you do it this other way, it will crash the computer…”. I will crash a Windows computer fairly often, but my good friend (a Windows enthusiast) never crashes his computer because he has learned to avoid the dangerous flaws of the Windows OS.

There is psychology working on us, here. Here is what I think it amounts to:

By learning to work around the flaws of a complex system, you feel like you are its “Master”, and you have “triumphed” over something somewhat difficult. Your victory was not easily won, and and you have overcome a number of challenges. You derive a good sense of self-satisfaction.

Windows’ flaws are just obvious enough for the average person to overcome by trial and error, but not so challenging that they will resolutely defeat the user before they are learned and worked around.

You like your Microsoft Windows experience because you “conquered” it!  You have mastered its flaws, and that is a highly satisfying accomplishment in your otherwise less-that-satisfying world. You are “in control.” It was rough going for a time, but you have won! Anything new that comes along threatens your “in charge” status and demands that you climb another painful learning curve… You covet your “victory” no matter what the pain of actually living it – because the victory is your reward for your hard work.

For the record, Windows 7 is a terrific improvement in usability over its predecessor versions, and it is “pretty”, too. I give Windows 7 a humble “thumbs-up”. I think that Windows 7 is “2-9’s” 99% reliable, but my experience with Windows 7 surely demonstrates that it is not yet “3-9’s” 99.9% reliable.

Contrarily, I like my Apple experience because I don’t need to do anything in particular to finish what I am doing – unless I am writing a Word document… The last time my computer crashed was – well, I can’t remember when. The last time an Apple application crashed was  – well – never that I can recall since Apple offered the iLife and iWork application suites – never. It all works 99.9% of the time.

I am learning to avoid the flaws in Microsoft Word – lately, Word has not crashed! I have my fingers crossed that Word for the Mac 2011 will be a better product – that it will graduate from 90% reliable to – well, maybe 99% reliable – I doubt that Microsoft can ever achieve three-nines availability. That, or Apple Pages will get a few more features for headers and footers and indexing – Pages is pretty darned good and needs to “stretch”.

iPad makes for Pretty Clouds

April 4, 2010

Yes, I am an Apple fan.  Not a “fanboi”, just a fan. I think the iPad will be highly impacting – I’m excited. Oh – and it will help to usher in the era of real cloud computing. There is a revolution coming in computing that really began just yesterday.

I have not been a fan of much-hyped “cloud computing”. Without continuous, ubiquitous, secure, high-speed “anywhere” net access, you can’t rely on the “cloud”.  Without a highly portable device with a large display and no other peripheral user IO attachments, whatever you could access through the cloud was certainly less convenient in a taxi that at the desk. The cloud was hyped as more than a remote content server architecture – it was envisioned for remote app services and “much more”, but if network performance was too  slow, the cloud became the weak link that would stymie productivity; and if the cloud was unavailable, productivity could come to a compete stop. Reliance on cloud computing architectures before now was simply premature or overreaching except for limited enterprise applications deployed on a relatively small-scale. If I can’t count on something 99.9% of the time, I won’t rely on it day-to-day (one reason I use a Mac). Until today, I was not excited about cloud computing. But its value equation has just changed.

Until now, a truly convenient, capable, portable client computing device with useful screen area has been a compromise with significant shortcomings. Smart phones – a four-inch display simply has too many limitations for me. A 6 pound laptop – overkill for much of what I do when I am on the run, and a strain on me if I lug it with me everywhere in the world I go. A netbook – nearly as large as a laptop, but compromises heavily on display and keyboard quality – not a desirable laptop replacement unless one is very highly price driven. I thought that the Apple MacBook Air was compelling, and it was joined by a small number of capable form-fit-function Windows competitors. The Air didn’t quite hit the “sweet spot”, though – close, but not quite – you still have to open it, boot it and connect it to a network to use it in the cloud. No 3G built is in, so you can’t count on the cloud always being available to you unless you use a peripheral cellular modem. The Air was not quite a paradigm shift in the product space – in form-fit-function it, like a netbook, was just a different laptop, and it was likely to be used like a laptop.

Enter the iPad! I won’t be buying the first version of Apple’s iPad. Give me a camera in the display bezel, though, and I am sold. Grab my pad of paper, a few magazines, my iPad and “dash”. It’s all the same size, all fits in my hand and bag. Over time, leave out the pad of paper and magazines and toss in a bluetooth keyboard, and I am set! But what does this new iPad product have to do with cloud computing? I’ll tell you:

1) The iPad has PAN/LAN/WAN networking (Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n and 3G HSPA/EDGE), and the 3G is speedy-fast, pay as you go and relatively inexpensive month to month.  The networking is as ubiquitous and as versatile as you can buy, and the 3G WAN carries only a first-cost penalty unless you use it. Can a netbook do all that networking out of the box without peripheral devices? The cloud is there 99.9% of the time right out of the box.

2) The iPad includes a super web browser, a flexible IMAP/POP-3/Exchange e-mail client, an address book, a calendar, a to-do-list, a photo browser, a movie presenter, and even more included with the supplied software. For a few dollars more, you can add a word processing, spreadsheet and presentation application suite. The iPAD is location-aware out of the box, and with the optional 3G data feature comes extensive GPS features, too. It does 99.9% of what I need to do on the run – anywhere in my office, my home, or in between, or anywhere else in the world I happen to be right out of the box.

3) The iPad is a spectacular content consumption and presentation engine – not a content creation engine. This is the paradigm shift that distinguishes the iPad from other devices in the same price range. The iPad displays H.264, MPEG-4, M-JPEG and AAC media and a large number of file formats including aiff, mp3, wav, avi, mov, m4v, mp4, html (supporting HTML5, Javascript and CSS3), jpg, gif, tiff, txt, rtf, pdf, Microsoft Office doc & docx, ppt and pptx, xls and xlsx formats, and Apple iWork key, numbers and pages formats. Flash aside, 99.9% of the files I use are supported by the iPad right out of the box. Can your smart phone display all those files? They will all come from the cloud right to you – whatever you want whenever you want it wherever you are.

4) The iPad is 1-1/2 pounds with a 10 inch touch display (no mouse required) and an all-day battery. It’s light in weight, and the display technology is superb. It’s touch-screen gesture interface is well designed and quickly learned – almost “natural”. The dock connector can connect to an external VGA display and to a limited range of USB devices including some comeras. It is “instant-on”. I will want to hold it and use it – and so will you. It connects to the cloud, and you will, too, through it.

5) The iPad lives seamlessly in the “Apple” cloud – the App store, the iBooks store, the iTunes store, your iTunes purchase library, your shared iPhoto library, your collaboration services, your sync’ed e-mail, calendar and address book – and your iDisk in time, I’m sure. Just like your Mac laptop and iPod Touch combined – it makes fuller use of the Apple cloud than any other single Apple product, in other words…

6) In time, the iPad will be able to live well in “other clouds”, too – I bet it does so right out of the box for many other cloud services by other providers – the Google “cloud” of GoogleApps, Docs or Gmail for starters (the Google cloud is comprehensive and extensive), or the Microsoft “cloud” of Live Meeting, Communications Online  or Web Apps for starters.

7) If your content lives securely and for the long-term in the cloud, you won’t need terabytes of local storage in your hands. A few gigabytes of local storage is all you need for what you need now. That’s another paradigm shift – a barrier that the iPad begins to shatter.

8) Competition is coming – you can count on it – maybe an Android/ChromeOS Google device that could take advantage of a much larger cloud of services than Apple’s. And Microsoft is always lurking – maybe a WindowsMobile/WindowsCE gadget in time, too…

I bet that in time – in a short time, the iPad will get: multitasking (maybe just window and memory management), a camera and iChat features, peripheral hard drive support, printing services and a wrist strap for those of us with the “dropsies”. Maybe even Flash flv content support, and maybe even GSM voice services in addition to the 3G data services.

Sometime, you don’t need a “killer-app” to start a revolution in computing – you need a “killer-it” – or in Apple’s vernacular, a “Killer-i” like the iPad. With one highly successful product will come a swarm of wannabes and capable competitors – a critical mass of devices and content consumers will finally flip the switch to the ON position for the cloud. Now, the cloud will be useful and something I can rely on – and you, too. And the iPad is as convenient as you can imagine. And there will be more to come. I’m sold on the iPad – and now on the “cloud”!