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3-D Mapping, the Next Frontier

I/O 2012, Google’s annual tech conference, is scheduled to begin June 27 at the Moscone West Convention Center.

WWDC 2012, Apple’s annual tech conference, is scheduled to begin June 11 at the Moscone West Convention Center.

If Apple announces, as rumored, a new 3-D mapping initiative that ends the company’s reliance on the Google Maps API, that leaves 16 days for people to speculate, or for Google to respond in apparent haste.

On June 6, five days from today’s annoucement and five days before the beginning of WWDC 2012, Google is holding a special event about 3-D mapping. The event is not yet listed on Google’s Developer Events page, but presumably will be soon.

Presumably Google believes their June 6 demonstration will be more impressive than whatever Apple might demonstrate the following week.

Me, I’ll be happy if Apple delivers turn-by-turn directions on par with the free and excellent MapQuest 4 Mobile

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OpenStreetMap

A post on Slashdot covering some marketing information from TomTom prompted me to check out the quality of OpenStreetMap, widely rumored to be the primary source of data for mapping in the next version of iOS. I typed in my zip code and scrolled around a bit. I quickly focused on a housing development within a couple of miles of my house.

Google Maps has it about right.

OpenStreetMap, not so much.

It appears that OpenStreetMap is quite a few years behind Google when it comes to Castle Hills. Entire completed neighborhoods are just missing. That’s a little scary.

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Apples to Oranges

Apple laptops are more expensive than their Windows-running equivalents. We know this is true, right? You can see it in the ads:

Except, well, nobody seems to be able to deliver anything like the MacBook Air for prices anywhere near Apple’s. The iPad poses a similar challenge, and I suspect for much the same reasons. Ars Technica explains why:

Apple didn’t achieve this overnight; it was the result of close cooperation with its supply chain (changes driven by Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook), greater vertical integration, a deliberate policy of not shipping a million different models, and an absolute willingness to offer premium products at premium prices. That’s why Apple, and only Apple, can now make the MacBook Air and sell it for $999.

It’s possible that one doesn’t value what the MacBook Air provides, or that one has odd requirements (keyboard layout?) that make a Mac unacceptable. As the article points out, you’ll be giving up on the best value available once you start looking at Windows 7. One could even not have $999 to spend, and therefore be forced to go with a Windows laptop (or an iPad). That’s fine, too, but again: the $999 pricepoint from Apple is the best value available.

Maybe someday the general perception will shift to match the new reality. 

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Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I was out the night before last with a friend who was raving, absolutely raving about the laptop he’s just ordered. He went on and on about how it beats “anything Apple’s got” in every conceivable way. I told him that was great. Good for him.

I wasn’t aware Dell had started to ship Mac OS X preinstalled, so there’s one way Apple still has the competition beat!

Still, my own personal preferences aside, he kept saying things like “Apple is being left in the dust by Dell, man.” He went on about the screen, and the processor, and how Apple will be playing catch-up for years, but that Apple’s similar products were all “thousands more.” I didn’t know anything about the production he was describing, and arguing would have felt a bit like competing in the Special Olympics anyway.

I don’t buy computers based on specs anymore. The days when I needed the fastest computer available because none of them were quite fast enough have long passed for me. I use external monitors most of the time, so whether a laptop’s screen is 1050 or 1080 pixels high doesn’t get me excited. My 17” MacBook Pro has 1200 pixels of vertical resolution, so that’s what I sometimes use to watch HD movies, but then, I wouldn’t travel with that one, as it’s too unwieldy. 

All that to say that I was perfectly willing to concede that Dell’s laptop suited my friend better than a MacBook Pro would. He’s a guy who runs custom ROMs on the Windows Mobile phone, because he can. If he could build his own laptop from parts, he might try. So I nodded encouragingly, suggesting corrections only when he misspoke and said that Apple doesn’t offer the Sandy Bridge CPU, and commiserating with him that only glossy screens were available. 

I stumbled across a review of the laptop in question this morning, the Dell XPs 15z. Sigh.

I’m sure he’ll be happy with his new laptop. He’s unlikely to ever find out how wrong he is in thinking that he’s found feature-parity with a MacBook Pro, because he’s unlikely to ever really use a MacBook Pro. He’s got a laptop that looks more or less like a MacBook Pro on paper, so it must be just as good, right? Add to that the higher resolution screen, and an 8GB RAM upgrade, and there you go!

To be fair, he was also wanting on-site repair in Spain, an option provided by Dell, but not (as far as I know) by Apple. 

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Android : MySpace :: iOS : Facebook

The argument is pretty simple, and some people feel very strongly that one side or the other is so amazingly clearly obviously correct that there shouldn’t even be an argument.

On the one hand, Apple is incredibly restrictive about what it allows iOS devices to do.

(Of course, iOS is vastly, mind-bogglingly less restrictive in many ways than anything that came before it, and still is in many ways less restrictive than many of the devices now available, but in one sense, it’s certainly more restrictive than it could be, as jailbroken devices demonstrate.)

On the other hand, Android devices are completely open, allowing owners to do anything they wish.

(Of course, much of that openness is taken by manufacturers and carriers, who lock down some things for end users, but from one narrow perspective, one need not jailbreak to run arbitrary apps, so the perception remains, and is true to a point.)

Are there perhaps similar situations we can use as a lens though which to view this one? It’s possible that issues involve Google and Apple are skewing our views of Android and iPhone unfairly. It’s possible that we’re considering concepts in the abstract rather than thinking about the practical implications, or vice-versa.

As a devoted iPhone user, what leaps to my mind as a parallel is MySpace versus Facebook.

There are obvious differences: MySpace preceded Facebook, while Android didn’t hit the market until after iPhone, for one. Still, the difference in philosophy is not so far different, and I think the results tend to be similar as well. 

MySpace allowed users to customize nearly every aspect of the experience. You want your own colors, your own styles, your own buttons and widgets? Go right ahead! The result, as you may remember, was generally ugliness and chaos. There were (and probably still are) certainly MySpace pages that didn’t look like dog vomit, but they became more rare with time. It turns out that most MySpace users had no sense of reasonable style, and the result was truly ugly. 

Facebook allows far less customization, and in the years I’ve had a Facebook account, has actually allowed for less customization several times, removing features on which users once depended. The end result is that one Facebook profile looks much like another, and while they don’t look as stylish as they could, they also don’t look as nasty as the average MySpace page.

Facebook has chosen the middle, and we all end up with above-average but not great pages, rather than some of us ending up with great pages and most of us with crap. Clearly we have collectively chosen the orderliness of Facebook over the Chaos of MySpace.

Obviously social network effects play a part, but let’s be real: your grandmother was never going to use MySpace daily the way she uses Facebook.

The post is illustrated with some examples of what happens when the MySpace philosophy is applied to smartphones, courtesy of Fugly Android. When people complain that iPhone doesn’t allow for enough customization, this is the sort of thing they mean. 

Perhaps the people complaining have a little more style than this. Perhaps not. If the choices are as stark as this, between the “monotony” of similar or identical iOS devices on the one hand and the freedom to make your expensive phone look like garbage on the other, well, I know my limitations, and I’ll stick with the Facebook of smartphones.

(thanks to John Gruber for the Fugly Android link)

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Google’s New Subscriptions

I’m trying not to think of Google as anxiously trying to do everything just like Apple, desperately hoping to earn Apple’s approval, like a little child trying to please a parent. I’m trying not to, but Google is making it hard when they make announcements within a day of Apple making announcements, or when they hold stage events in a poor imitation of Apple’s stage events. 

Still, there’s substance today, as Google has their answer to Apple’s new subscription policies. Let’s pretend, as Google has, that this isn’t just a new feature for Google Checkout.

Overall, it seems that Google is taking the same approach with subscriptions that they’ve taken with Android and with Google TV, with mixed results. Namely, they’ve focused on working with the publishers (carriers, networks) rather than users. At first blush, that would seem to be the wise approach, since the publishers (carriers, networks) have the power. In practice, though, the ring of power answers to Sauron only, and he does not easily share his power. So Google TV is blocked by the networks, and the carriers are making money with Android while Google mostly isn’t. And into this we go again.

One big source of revenue for publishers is their mailing lists. Subscribe to most magazines and you’ll find yourself the target of an amazing amount of junk mail. Publishers are very aggressive about subscriber information, and Google is playing ball: your name, zipcode, and email address will be supplied to publishers if you use Google’s OnePass. None of that information is supplied to publishers by Apple. You can opt-out with OnePass, and you can opt-in with iTunes, so it might seem like a small thing, but I think the defaults reveal much.

The other big piece of news is that Google is “only” taking 10% for their share, one-third of Apple’s 30% share.

In many cases, that’s because Google is doing much less work for their 10%, but it does add a new wrinkle. With Apple’s subscription option, there seems to be more value Apple is providing than just the payment and user management. There seems to be the idea that publishers can provide their content to Apple, and Apple will manage delivering that content to subscribers, bearing the storage and bandwidth costs involved in the delivery. Google leaves delivering the content completely up to the publishers, providing only payment options.

Of course, Apple won’t be providing that service for everyone, so perhaps that’s a point of future compromise? Netflix will presumably continue to host their own video content, so maybe Apple will take a smaller percentage in exchange for providing fewer services? Amazon is unlikely to need or want any help from Apple, so perhaps a much lower percentage would work for them?

There’s much more that’s different about OnePass. Perhaps most importantly, Google’s offering applies to much more than just in-app purchasing. They only got in-app purchasing working for Android within the last few weeks, so their focus is still on web transactions. On the one hand, that makes OnePass seem far more complicated, but that’s the nature of Google products: If it makes sense to software engineers in Mountain View, it goes in the product.

Practically speaking, what does this mean for users and for publishers? Publishers will have to choose which product to use, or whether to use both. If they want to release an iPad version of their publication, it’s Apple’s 30%. For something like The Daily, an iPad-only publication, there’s no decision to make. If The Daily decides to expand to future Android tablets, Apple’s solution won’t work for them. But Google’s solution won’t work for them on iPad, either. So to be available on both, a publisher has to sign up for both.

Unless Google’s solution doesn’t specify no weblinks, as Apple’s does. If Android tablet apps are still allowed to use alternate payment methods, why would a publisher choose Google’s? Existing publishers surely have their own payment methods that given them the full customer details they want, and will be forced to use Apple’s method for iPad, but the only reason I can see for using Google’s is if Google forces them to, as Apple does.

It’s tempting to think it’s as simple as “10% beats 30%,” but it isn’t that simple at all, because 3% beats 10%, and Paypal’s subscription option only charges 1.9% to 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction. This is the problem Google Checkout has faced from the beginning: why would anyone use Google Checkout instead of Paypal? There are a couple of small technical advantages, but are they worth more than triple the cost?

Perhaps Apple is to Google as Google is to Paypal. Apple has simple stated that publishers must use their service, and that’s that. Paypal appeals to the budget-minded. To whom does Google appeal? They have neither the installed base of 160 million devices (all linked to an account with a credit card!) that Apple has, nor the several hundred million accounts that eBay has, and I don’t believe Google Checkout is trusted as much as either Apple or eBay.

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Apple’s New iOS In-App Subscriptions

Apple has announced their subscription plans. For the most part, great stuff. I do have a big concern, though.

It’s not hard to see how Apple can pitch this: Here is a graph of your subscribers currently:

Maybe the decline is more steep, or maybe not, but it sure isn’t rocketing upward.

Now, here’s what an iPad subscription plan can do for you:

Just look at all that new revenue! Your publication on iPad, blah, blah, blah. We don’t want to touch your existing revenue, of course. We’ll need 30% of new subscriber revenues to help cover our costs (we don’t run this operation as a profit center, but we don’t run it as a charity, either), but that’s just for new subscribers that we bring to you, not your existing subscribers.

Given a pitch like that, which is more important, the light green wedge that Apple keeps, or the dark green wedge, slightly more than twice as large, that Apple delivers to existing publications?

This is essentially the same pitch Apple made to existing Mac developers with the Mac App Store, and some were outraged at Apple’s 30% cut, while others jumped in with both feet. Pixelmator jumped in with both feet, and are positively giddy about the results. (Full disclosure: I scribbled out the above charts with Pixelmator.) Those who disdained the Mac App Store have not much to report, except that they still hope the Mac App Store doesn’t catch on, and maybe it will, or maybe it won’t. So, Apple can say, do you want to be a Pixelmator, or site on the sidelines? Do you want to try to explain to people that they can’t subscribe to your publication on iPad like they can your competitors?

Given those choices, it seems like an easy answer for the majority of publishers. They’ll want in. Print publications have a long history of spending large amounts of money to acquire new subscribers, such that many (most?) publications don’t actually profit from people who cancel after less than a year has passed. They’re much more likely to make money sooner with iPad. 

There are a few more wrinkles, some of which make good sense, but one of which bothers me.

Apple doesn’t want companies making offers outside the app that aren’t available inside the app, which makes sense. “Subscribe today for half-off!” in print, with only full-price options within the app, means few subscriptions within the app. A clause preventing that is pretty common in most industries, and understandable. Any offer made outside of the app will have to be supported by a fulfillment process of some kind, and while those fulfillment costs may not be 30% of the subscription price, they’ll be non-zero.

Let’s consider a few hypotheticals. Netflix has been extraordinarily successful with iPad, and with streaming in general. The process to date has been to sign up at Netflix.com, then download the app. Or download the app and follow the link therein to sign up at Netflix.com. That’s going to change. The wrinkle is that subscription apps must allow in-app purchasing (with Apple’s 30% cut), and that the app may not link to a website where people may bypass that in-app purchase.

Consider now the rules for Netflix. People responding to mailers may sign up at Netflix.com and then download the app, at which point Netflix keeps all the money, the same as they do now. People may instead download the app first, at which point there will be no link to sign up at Netflix.com, so presumably people will use the in-app subscription option, and Apple gets 30% thereafter. That said, Apple can legitimately claim to have brought that subscriber to Netflix, and whether that subscriber would have found Netflix otherwise is debatable, so you could say Apple has earned their 30%. Overall, not too bad for Netflix.

Print magazines want to get onto iPad, and Netflix is a true subscription service. Where things get ugly is with Amazon’s Kindle app.

Amazon’s Kindle app currently sends users to Amazon’s website for every purchase. Those purchases are not subscriptions, so one might assume Amazon would be unaffected by the new subscription rules, except that Apple has already applied these rules to Sony’s Reader app, which seems very similar to Amazon’s Kindle app.

If Amazon is asked to give up 30% of all purchases, the most likely outcome is that the Kindle app disappears. If Amazon is granted an exemption from these new rules, then every developer from Sony to the tiniest magazine startup will want to know why.

Amazon is quite successful already, maybe successful enough on their own without new downloads of the Kindle app. Existing users, like me, will presumably be able to continue to buy Kindle books through Amazon’s website and download them onto my iPad, but what about new users? Will Amazon be required to offer an in-app purchase option with the same prices as Amazon.com? I have a hard time seeing that happening.

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eMusic, CDBaby, and iTunes

I had an interesting conversation with someone yesterday about Apple that was wide-ranging, but two thoughts have stuck with me.

1. It’s really foolish for me to defend an outrageously successful company with a mind-blowing market cap. I tell myself that their apparent vow of silence leaves them open to too much misinformation, but the truth is that they’re doing just fine.

2. There is still an amazing amount of misinformation out there.

The specific point I’ve been pondering has to do with iTunes. We talked about many issues my friend has with Apple, and then he listed one as “iTunes from the artist’s perspective.” When I asked for clarity, he added, “There is a reason starting artists and independents still use eMusic.”

I’m confused by this.

Last time I checked, eMusic charged customers 49 cents per song download. I’m not sure what percentage of that they pay as royalties to the artist. For a starting or independent artist to get into iTunes, the path is well-known: CDBaby. iTunes charges 99 cents per song, of which Apple takes their chunk and CDBaby takes their chunk, leaving 54 cents as royalties to the artist.

Like I said, I’m not sure how much eMusic pays out, but I’m pretty certain it’s not five cents more than they take in.

Come to think of it, maybe this is my answer to the first point above. No, Apple does not need my defense. But the truth does. I can’t rest while someone is wrong on the internet!

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Sandy Bridge Schadenfreude

Hey, remember not-quite-three-weeks ago when I overreacted to a guy who claimed that Apple holds their customers back? His starting point seemed to be frustration that Apple was taking too long to use Intel’s brand-new Sandy Bridge processors. From there, the author branched out into other misguided criticisms, but the root cause seemed to be Apple’s slow uptake of Intel’s chipsets.

New information has come to light. It turns out that Intel screwed up—hey, it happens—and all the Sandy Bridge chipsets they’ve shipped since January 9 have a nasty design flaw. Oops!

If Apple had rushed into production, I suppose they would be among the manufacturers now responsible for handling the recall. The new, better-designed chips should be available in late February, at which point I suppose frustrated technology writers can resume complaining that Apple still hasn’t integrated Sandy Bridge, three days into March.

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Is Apple Holding Their Customers Back? (Spoiler: No)

I saw a blog post earlier today that suggested that Apple is holding their customers back. It seemed an exercise in straining at gnats and swallowing camels, or missing the forest for the trees, or something else equally foolish. The company that created the modern smartphone, created the modern tablet computer, and dragged desktop computing into the present or recent past is not holding anyone back.

I suspect trolling, but it occurs to me that there might be readers who share this opinion, so I’ll pretend the blog author is serious when he compares an item released in April 2010 with unreleased items expected some months in the future, most after iPad 2 is expected to ship.

Rather than agreeing that “Windows and Linux users are leaping and skipping into the future,” I wonder why neither WIndows nor Linux has managed to catch up to OSX despite years to do so. Both have closed the gap, Windows more than Linux, but both seem to be almost willfully clumsy by comparison. A month of “higher performance” due to faster chipsets, a few milliseconds here and a few milliseconds there, are easily canceled out in an hour of using an operating system with odd mouse-focus and click-through rules. The relaxation and peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re running the absolute fastest available hardware on the market (for the two months before the something faster comes out) is easily undone by the exercise of “some common sense and a good protection suit” to help with “worry about malware and viruses.”

But hey, Intel’s got a new CPU. That’s the most important thing. They announced it nine days ago, started shipping it three days ago, and Apple doesn’t have it yet! Apple is expected to use the CPUs at some point this year, but it could be months, and who can wait that long? Months! Apple is holding us all back!

Apparently Apple is losing the “Pad Wars,” have you heard? Google is coming out on top, based on… well, not sales certainly. Not features, either. Not price, either. At CES last week, many companies announced plans to introduce tablet computers at some point in 2011, and unlike a year ago when Microsoft’s “slate” products completely failed to materialize, this time everything will happen just as planned. These products will all be wonderful, much better than whatever Apple has planned for their second-generation iPad, and based on these absolute certainties, without any doubts, Google is clearly coming out on top.

"This proves to both Apple and Microsoft that open platforms can make money." For whom? Nobody is making more money than Apple right now. Nobody.

Hardware manufacturers need pay nothing to Google to use Android, so Google’s not making money, and won’t be even once some of these tablet devices finally ship. We’ve seen this with smartphones, where Google has no idea how many Android devices have even shipped, because it’s all happening without any input from them. The profit per iPhone is far and away above devices from any competitors, so it’s hard to see how announcements of possible future products prove anything to anybody.

Oh, a list of “suggestions” for Apple. Let’s see:

  • Allow your OS to run any Intel based system because you’re tired of the profits that come from selling fantastic hardware, and want to give it all up to make pennies on software alone, while driving up support costs due to lousy hardware combinations.
  • Open up IOS, Allow other people to make devices that can run it because hardware is easy and cheap, which is why other companies are still—in 2011, four years after iPhone—producing devices that are flimsy and error-prone, with poor battery life. By licensing iOS, you can give up all those crazy profits depicted in the chart above, which much surely bring headaches, and you can also take the blame for every ridiculous device companies poop out.  
  • Keep up with new technology, so don’t wait 3 years to get the the latest processors and technology in your devices, or, you know, three months (see note about Sandy Bridge above). Never mind that best-in-class iPad processor you created, and it’s phenomenal battery life. Never mind that Microsoft is also abandoning Intel. Forget the lessons of the past, with Motorola and IBM, and just hitch your wagon to Intel completely.
  • Games, Games, Games – Apple learned gaming is key on mobile, the same goes for the computer market. Maybe.

A couple of cappers: “I know one thing they will be doing, multi-touch displays on notebooks.” How does he know this? It’s possible, of course, but unlikely to happen any time soon. Apple has researched it, and determined that arm fatigue makes the idea unappealing, according to Steve Jobs. He’s been known to mislead in the past, but I think this is right in line with another issue that Microsoft and Google are both in the process of learning the hard way: touch interfaces and WIMP interfaces are simply different, with much in common but much that simply doesn’t translate well. I’m highly doubtful that Apple will introduce multi-touch displays on MacBooks any time soon, but time will tell.

To close? “For Apple sake I hope they can change.” For my sake, I’d love them to make less money selling me things. For Apple’s sake, I hope they don’t change at all.

Update: On January 31, Intel announced that they have discovered a design flaw in their Sandy Bridge chips. They’ve stopped production, redesigned, and will resume delivering chips in late February. For those who’ve already gotten their chips, you’ll have to work out with your manufacturer how to handle things.