31 January 2006

More iMac Core Duo Performance Data

It seems it takes someone outside the typical Mac supporter community to do a thorough job on testing the new iMac Intel Core Duo against the iMac G5. To be fair, Anand Lai Shimpi - the man behind AnandTech - has written some excellent articles on his Mac experiences since becoming interested in Macs and Mac OS X early last year when he adopted a Powerbook computer for a time. This 16-page analysis is very detailed indeed and provides many different metrics about the two computers. If you don't have time for the whole analysis, do read the final page for his conclusions.

I'd like to refer to some of Anand's observations with the occasional quibble (though nothing serious - this is a solid piece of work, which I admire a great deal):

1. Anand's tests used a default memory configuration of 512MB. He points out that memory use of the Intel Macs seems slightly higher (see page 5 of the report), and particularly so for Rosetta apps. I made this point in a previous entry, and am glad to see it confirmed. While it is indeed fair to compare the 2 machines with the same config, I would still guess that extra memory would benefit the Intel iMac disproportionately - especially for Rosetta-based tests. If you intend to buy an Intel iMac and do serious work, do not consider anything less than 1GB, preferably 2GB. It would be interesting to do the same comparisons with both machines more heavily RAM-loaded.

2. Partially as an aside, Anand shows what has oft been mentioned, but never actually resolved: that the iMac G5 default setting for Automatic for Power consumption significantly lowers the performance of many of the tasks performed (example provided was H.264 conversion which took over 25 minutes with Automatic on, and 12.3 minutes with Automatic off, even though theoretically the processor should have adjusted. The Intel test was done in 9.8 minutes incidentally). All of Anand's tests were ultimately performed with this setting OFF, allowing the G5 iMac to perform at its highest levels. iMac users who have not changed this setting would experience considerable extra performance improvements in moving to an Intel iMac (or they could turn Automatic Off!).

3. Perhaps the most interesting finding is on page 7 where Anand looks at performance per watt by measuring power usage for the whole system plugged into the wall. Remember this is the primary reason Steve gave for the switch. The Core Duo uses about 2/'3 the total power of the G5 iMac at both idle and full load. And, this is total system power - including other components - especially the screen. Given that these other components are by and large the same (Core Duo/G5), the contribution to the drop in power usage due to the chip is possibly 2x or better. (Incidentally, for a 24x7 operation, the saving in electricity is likely to be around £15-20 per year). Applying these figures to a particular performance test for a native application (a Quicktime H.264 encode) actually demonstrates a 90% performance per watt improvement over the G5, according to Anand's tests.

4. Is this (QT H.264) test fair to either machine? Anand says "You should also keep in mind that the Quicktime encode test is actually one of the Core Duo's weakest tests, so the actual performance per watt advantage may be even higher in tests where the Core Duo has a larger performance advantage over the G5. This is just a good test to show power consumption since it is fairly CPU bound and consistent in its CPU load."

5. On other real world tests (native applications) the Intel iMac is generally considerably faster. In tests where the applications are not multi-threaded, the performance is much closer - indicating one of the cores closely resembles the G5. But when both cores are used, there is usually a substantial difference. Remember these are real world tests.

6. Once again, I would note one weakness in these tests - there is no parallelism. While Anand identifies tests where there are multiple threads which would take advantage of the Core Duo, he does not run tests combining one application with another. I still think this would be a valid test to run. For example what's the effect on browsing on either machine when an H.264 export is being done? (Given the number of tests performed I'm not really complaining - just identifying another area that would be of interest).

7. The Rosetta results are a bit disappointing - especially compared with some others I've seen. Anand finds performance frequently at 30% of G5 level. However, I think he is stressing it quite a bit - very large Word documents for instance. While I question what he uses to determine memory footprint, he does point out that with a 116 page word document open, memory use on the Intel iMac is about 3x that on the G5. This to me indicates that many of his Rosetta tests are suffering from low memory. It would also be interesting to do these tests on a machine while it was doing an H.264 conversion. Nevertheless, Rosetta's invisibleness is a positive, and even these performance numbers are pretty good when considering that this is emulation.

8. Anand provides some performance numbers for the Core Duo with one processor turned off. Most of these show the chip a reasonable match for the G5 on many native applications. This bodes well for (likely) single core Mac minis and iBook replacements.

9. And, I still think the $64,000 question is how do these Macs compare with similar Windows machines at everyday tasks - iTunes encoding, H.264 encoding etc. Are we just waiting for real shipments of Windows-based Core Duo machines before these tests are available?

But all in all, I think this is yet more evidence that these machines are fast - and represent a leap in performance in a single machine iteration that we haven't seen for many years. Providing the apps are native, that is. If you are a fulltime PhotoShop user (in which case you'd probably not be using an iMac) or are regularly editing large Word documents, then perhaps you'll want to wait a while longer.

But let's leave some of the concluding comments to Anand:

I like the iMac, I like it a lot...It took me this long to look at it, but I think it could quite possibly be Apple's strongest offering as it accomplishes exactly what they are trying to do - which is build lifestyle computers. ...
...Just about every application I'd use is already available as a Universal binary, the only exceptions being anything from Microsoft or Adobe/Macromedia...
...It's also worth noting that a pair of G5s could never make it into an iMac of this form factor, meaning that the Core Duo's dual core performance advantages are reasonable to flaunt...
...so I tend to believe that things will get faster for Intel based Macs over time. Not only when Rosetta is no longer needed, but also as applications are better optimized for their architecture (e.g. Quicktime)...
...I'll close, as always, on a note about the future. We've seen that today, Intel already has the performance per watt crown with the Core Duo, and they also have the power advantage, consuming a third less power than a similarly clocked G5. Yet the first Intel based Macs are nothing more than the G5 versions with a different motherboard and cooling. You tend to not over design your chassis when you are Apple, you design them to be as sleek and as minimal as possible. With the Core Duo based iMac consistently consuming 20 - 30W less than the G5 version, you can expect that the truly exciting Intel based Macs are the ones that don't look like these. It's those that I would personally wait for.

Incidentally, Anand makes no mention here that Low Voltage and Ultra Low Voltage Core Duo chips will also become available over the next 2 quarters giving Apple even more flexibility in product design while maintaining G5 beating levels of performance (1.83GHz in the Low Voltage; down to 1.06GHz in the Ultra Low Voltage design). So, the first fruits of the Apple Intel partnership look very sound and 2 year old G4 users would likely experience a significant performance leap. But the really exciting products may be for round 2.

Great work AnandTech!

Google Fights for Our Privacy?

I remarked on Google's resistance to the U.S. authorities concerning its demands for data in this post last week. I casually remarked that perhaps its objections were a bit overblown. While concerned that lessening privacy is a slippery slope (you very rarely get freedoms back), I wondered, cynically, if it was an attempt to counter other negative news that week.

Well, reading this article at Security Focus by Mark D. Rasch, J.D., (a former head of the Justice Department's computer crime unit) certainly clears my mind up! (Link found via Paul Kedrosky's Infectious Greed site).

The Google subpoena fight isn't really about the anonymous data at issue here today. It is really about the way the government can "deputize" unwilling private companies who collect and maintain massive databases to act as their agents in the future.
Let's just create a single massive database of what everyone is doing all the time, and let anyone "dip" into it whenever it is deemed to be relevant to settling some dispute.

And just to add dramatic flourish, Mark finishes with:

It seems Orwell was off by about 22 years.

I have to say it's a compelling article (should make you a bit paranoid about using GMail, Linked-In and Plaxo if not the whole internet!). And, I think things in Europe are heading the same way too, if not worse (at least the US has Free Speech as a fundamental component of its Constitution).

There are dangerous signs of our freedoms being eroded, and we need to become more vigilant and more organised about this. Can we rely on people like Google to do it for us? Absolutely not. Returning to my cynicism, Mark makes many points in his article showing how the provision of such data to 3rd parties could become a huge burden to Google and also risk exposing many of its trade secrets and business model practices. While I applaud Google's stance here, given their recent decision on doing business with China, this again is at least as much about "do no evil to Google" as it is "do no evil".

30 January 2006

Advice on Digital Cameras?

Since starting to blog, I have included one or two photos, usually of pretty poor quality. A bad workman always blames his tools...

I have a lot to learn about photography and indeed digital photography, and most of the quality problems lay firmly with the photographer! Nevertheless, I've decided I would like a new digital camera, and I'm interested in any views of the readers out there!

Most of the photos I've shown have come either from my Nokia phone (quality just about ok for very low expectations), or my 4 year old Sony DSC P5. I may be on an anti-Sony rant at the moment, but the P5 has been a big disappointment however I view Sony as a brand. It's Li-ion battery never seemed to work properly, and the camera failed me at key moments, even when charged. I will never forgive it for not working when visiting the Golden Temple in Kyoto forcing me to use a throw-away camera that afternoon. I think it might have had something wrong with moisture as some of the times it didn't work, the weather was a bit wet (though the camera had not got wet). I've also been disappointed in other aspects of the camera - flash performance for instance.

Now, I've always liked the idea of a camera that fits in the pocket, and I know some of the newer cameras are smaller than my Sony, have more MP's and many more features. But I also find myself looking for zoom features, and for macro. The worst postings here are when I've missed those features (see Hoar Frost, Whale, and Hummingbird Hawkmoth blog postings).

So, I've convinced myself that I need some kind of near-SLR camera without the bulk of a real SLR and the hassle of carrying multiple lenses. I've narrowed down my search to the Canon Powershot S2 IS, or Panasonic DMC-FZ5/FZ7. I would have considered the Sony DSC-H1, but, as I say, I'm a bit down on Sony.

I quite like what these compact zooms offer - 10x optical, lots of control, good battery life, video (in the case of the Canon), image stabilisation, for instance. And the prices also seem right. But I'm a bit concerned with size, with the lack of MPEG4 for video (very large file sizes) and the Electronic ViewFinders. Has anyone got views on either of these cameras, or some strong reasons why I might be making the wrong choice? Do let me know with a comment here, or an email.

Sony Kills Pets

Update: Changed links to my pages after small modifications and addition of photos:

I was sad to see the news that Sony has canned it's Aibo robotic dog.

One of the highlights of a trip to Japan a couple of years ago was seeing a demonstration of the QRIO biped robots in the Sony Store. By coincidence, I put a rather poor movie I made from my digital camera (Sony) on my iWeb test personal website just a couple of weeks ago, showing these in action (I've now added a couple of photos too on the photos page). While it may not be obvious, these robots are incredibly clever. I believe they are the first 2 legged robots which are able to stand on one leg, and also to get up themselves after falling over. I have no idea how much effort was required to get them to perform the synchronised act in the movie, or how close they were to enabling domestic use, but the demonstration had everyone smiling. I haven't seen anywhere whether the Aibo announcement also includes halting work on QRIO or other derivatives, but I assume it's not good news in this regard.

Sony has received a fair amount of negative publicity recently - the DRM rootkit debacle, Sony's Connect software failing, etc. As a company, they have gone down significantly in my estimation because of these anti-consumer/user actions. But everytime I see this movie or see news of Aibo, I was always more forgiving.

I understand Sony may have valid business reasons for the decision. But I can't help feeling that there have been considerable benefits to the overall Sony brand from Aibo and QRIO. Showing you have a fun side (as well as great R&D) makes you stand out next to your competitors like Panasonic, Samsung etc. It is these companies that will welcome Sony's decision most. For those that enjoyed Aibo and/or QRIO, we have just a little less to smile about and a little less admiration for Sony.

27 January 2006

Three articles you should read

Not much time over the next few days, so posting will be a bit light.

But here are three articles you should read and perhaps delve into.

The first is on some new US proposals for faster processing of people through security checks in airports, providing they have signed up for it under the guise of the Registered Traveler Program. Covered here at ArsTechnica, this is just a BAD, BAD, BAD idea for so many reasons. I hope it doesn't happen here, but I'll be the first to write to my MP if it does.

The second is some coverage of the Google foray into China which has been heavily criticised - especially coming in the same week that they seek to gain positive publicity by shunning a US government request that is in fact far more innocuous. I am really disappointed in Google for this. But I think again Ars' coverage is right (which is why I've used that particular link). Surely the issue here is that ALL our companies should be held to such standards? Google would be seriously disadvantaged when compared to its Western peers. I don't think it excuses their behaviour entirely, but it is time for governments to stand up to this.

Finally, some more Ars coverage on a BBC project to have the music industry answer questions. It is very enlightening and, indeed worrying. I'd like to think it backs up many of the postings I've made here. As consumers we need to start making our voices heard.

26 January 2006

The Value of Market Research (Not)

Although these two bits of research are Apple-related (and why they drew my attention) the points I want to make are about the complete uselessness of the research and how I see it only leading to stupid conclusions.

First up is this story picked up by (among others) the BBC, and read by lots of people as a consequence. Let's concentrate on the following statement which was almost portrayed as the most interesting bit of the survey in the BBC's eyes (and a few others too)

For instance, Nielsen said, iTunes users were 2.2 times more likely to own a Volkswagen than the average internet user. Audi and Subaru were also popular with regular users of the Apple store.

The research also revealed that the most popular alcohol drink was cider followed by imported beers. Top magazine among iTunes fans was hi-tech bible Wired.

This comes from the same Nielsen who I found this week
The company's ratings are extrapolated from the viewing habits of 9,000 households, of which only 60 have DVR's.

I don't know about you, but reading that made me seriously question the validity of any of their research!

Back to the iTunes research... the key finding that struck me as bizarre is that Cider is the favourite alcoholic drink, followed by imported beer. I'm sorry, but there is no way that this makes any sense! If the survey was done just in the US, (when I lived there cider was a very, very infrequent drink at least in alcoholic form - though apple juice was sold as cider), I believe it even less. Even in the UK and Ireland, cider's market share is below 10% of "long alcoholic drinks". Now, if the question had been asked such as what is your favourite alcoholic drink:
a. Bud
b. Bud Light
c. Miller
d. Coors
e. Miller Light
f. Other american beer
g. Imported beer
h. Cider
Perhaps I could see how cider might come close to being dominant (but I'm still not sure). Otherwise, this result is completely bogus.

As for the Volkswagen finding, well, VW's market share in the US is what? 3%? 5%? So, how many people do you need to survey to get something significant like the fact that iTunes users are 2.2x likely to drive VW's? And is it any surprise? I'm sure not so many drive Oldsmobiles or Cadillacs. VW's are often the cars of the young in the US and in the more liberal (iPod-loving!) states anyway.

No, this research is completely useless (at least the way it has been portrayed). It is research that is done and publicised not for value but purely to push your own name out to the world.

Next up, is this piece of garbage reported by, among others, CNet

Admittedly I'm not the first to pan this, though I can't find the links. But essentially they claim that iWork has now taken 2nd spot in the Office software market after Microsoft Office, with a 2.7% market share. Anyone with an inkling of knowledge about market shares knows this cannot be true. Firstly, iWork does not have a spreadsheet application, so personally I don't believe it should be categorised in with these suites. But even if you count it, Apple's market share even in the US is, what, 5%? That implies at least half of all Apple users are using iWork instead of Office. And I do not believe for one minute that is true. I know of few iWork users (I am one). But even many of them would still use Office and particularly Excel some of the time.

I'm sure this story boils down more to bad research - not covering all the channels through which such software is sold (eg OEM, corporate channels), or not covering a long enough time slot (eg software sales will surge after a new release and decline hugely before a new one is expected).

So, to all those quoting these bits of research, please do a bit more investigation into what is being researched, why it is being researched and promoted to you, and whether it really is valid.

Footnote: I would note my part-time involvement in a small internet-based market research company http://www.tpoll.com. I would be horrified if they produced such garbage

25 January 2006

Apple Thoughts and Myths/Realities Follow-up

I've been working on a number of pieces since the MacWorld article, and the Apple financials, but they've usually been usurped by something else I've read which is much better (and usually more concise) than I can possibly write. So, instead, I'm going to provide a few links to the more interesting comments, and also summarise my current thinking as regards Apple's challenges ahead. This is still going to be a very long article, but hopefully will cover a lot of ground.

I felt leading up to MacWorld that expectations had got far ahead of what could reasonably be delivered. I analysed views relating to Timing, Pricing, Performance and Functionality, and felt that, on balance, there could only be disappointment. And I think in general among the Mac Faithful, there has been an unusual amount of negative postings (example: see O'Grady Powerpage posting today). Many of these are so at odds with each other, that it perhaps highlights that Apple probably got it about right!

Let's talk about the new machines first. As I mentioned at the time, most forecasts were for the lower end machines to get upgraded to Intel first. While I hedged a bit here (expecting Apple to only use a dual core chip in some up-market new product), I succumbed to their overall views. In the end, Apple surprised (most of) us by releasing the mid-range higher margin machines first - iMac and MacBook Pro. In my myth/reality series, I had highlighted the problems of introducing the low-end machines first. So, business-wise, Apple took the right decision, though more on the risks, later. I was hoping to have some informed insight on the new machines, and some comments on what I felt were some silly objections. But instead, I'm going to refer you to the excellent Mr John Gruber's Daring Fireball blog (currently the first article) where he has provided a really good commentary on the new machines. Please also read his comments on the ridiculous iSuppli analysis on cost of an iMac that has been given over-coverage by some of the press.

There have been all sorts of comments on the price of the new machines, their performance, etc and I want to cover some of these a bit below - as they relate to the myths/realities I posted before.

On balance I think Apple provided a very solid engineering solution way ahead of the time they had originally outlined, and indeed brought forward the migration across the whole range. They used current designs for the most part which some feel is very unambitious. But in doing so, that also provides a comfort factor to many of the faithful. And I think many people truly underestimate how much work was involved in the migration and what compromises had to be made. Changing the form factors would have been extremely risky, and probably unnecessary. The iMac and MacBook Pro (ex-Powerbook) form factors are generally best-of-breed still and are relatively well-tested in the field. The changes to the MacBook Pro are generally forward looking rather than mean - at the end of the day there's more in this machine than there is today, without accounting for the performance leap.

So, let's take a look at the myths/realities in more detail.

1. Timing. I had bet we would have Intel Macs and we do. And, as I mentioned above, financially-speaking, these are the right machines to do first. Apple has also announced the whole transition will be completed by the end of this calendar year - about 12 months earlier than originally planned. This is great - it reduced the period of uncertainty for many and for Apple as a company. But it will also place great strain on the resources of the company this year, and the effects of the uncertainty may be magnified, even as the timing is reduced. As I will cover in the financials review later, this is going to be a rocky year.

2. Pricing.
I have seen so much poorly written stuff on pricing that it is hard to know where to begin. I had written that an advantage of the move in the end would be transparency with the competition, and I'd hoped this would paint Apple in a more rosy picture. But for everyone who can do a price comparison, there's several who can't. There is little to compare to an iMac, save a desktop all-in-one Sony Vaio. But for the MacBook Pro, there are already several PC competitors out there, including models from Dell, Acer, Lenovo, HP and Gateway. I have looked in detail at many of these offerings, and I have to say that Apple has priced the new MacBook Pro positively and reasonably. As I originally mentioned for every machine an Apple compares favourably to in the PC World, there will be many others seemingly priced better. You want a 15" windows laptop - there are hundreds to choose from. You want a 15" Apple laptop, and there is just one. But if you look at the other models and what they offer, the Mac does NOT carry a price premium anymore than a good Dell (and less than a Dell XPS?) or a good Thinkpad. Of course, if you didn't want that level of finish/features, then it might be out of your price bracket. But please don't call it expensive, when it's not for what it includes and relative to similarly-equipped other models. A key observation I made was that the MacBook appears to be 1lb lighter - or about 20% - than any other 15" widescreen model I saw. (and a word to UK observers, please, please please price in VAT when you do comparisons. How many times do I have to tell you!).

3. Performance.
This is an area where I've been equally disappointed with what I've read. While I had suggested that performance wouldn't be earth-shattering, I had written this on the basis that it would be low end machines first. Instead, Apple has taken the mid-range machines and turned them into potentially PowerMac killers. I say "potentially" because there are several caveats I will come to. So, let's see what some people have said:

Let's go to The Register first to see how it covered a report produced by MacWorld.

This is a really poor report and they have gone down significantly in my estimation on this article alone. For instance, they quote 4 times as the benchmark expectation. That is ridiculous. Apple claimed that the iMac was 2-3 times faster on certain benchmarks demonstrating the theoretical performance of the insides. At the same time it showed other stats demonstrating that real world (native) applications could be as much as 1.9 - 2.6 times faster. SJ also pointedly noted at the keynote that real world speeds would be affected by many other circumstances such as RAM, hard disk speed, application type etc. Steve also deliberately showed Photoshop working under Rosetta and demonstrated that it was usable but on balance slower than on a G5. So, for the iMac, Apple's position has reasonably been to expect some aspects of performance to be about 2x better, and overtime for that performance improvement to apply to other applications. So, let's look at the other part of the Register story - that it is in fact just 1/4 faster or 25%. (Incidentally, a figure that is not in the least embarrassing given that the iMac already used a fast G5 chip, and is priced at the same price as it's predecessor). To look at the 1/4 claim, let's go to the MacWorld story itself.

Jason Snell, MacWorld editor has in fact done quite a commendable job and he has suffered a lot of abuse over the article. Some of it's his own problem by failing to comprehend the concept of percentages. He has fortunately corrected that in the article you will read, but not all coverage reflects that. Currently headline figures show performance improvements of zero to 1.84 times (with one slightly negative figure). So, Andrew Orlowski's headline figure is just that - a generalisation he has pulled out of the air to prove a cyncial point. While Jason's article is more detailed than many and he has tried to offset some issues, I think the problems are clear if you can be bothered to wade through the comments left by some observers. Let me summarise some though:

a. Dual core tests. Almost none of MacWorld's tests will have tested the dual core performance of the machine, on which a lot of Apple's claims rest. Perhaps the one test to do this is the boot up test, as we assume Apple has managed to optimise some of Mac OS 10.4.4 to use a dual core when on offer. In this regards a 1.84x improvement is pretty decent - especially considering disk and RAM will play a part in this too. While some may claim dual performance isn't reasonable, I would say it very much is. Increasingly we are really using our machines to do many things - some in the background. Converting a video to MPEG 4 for iPod while browsing and having an iChat are good examples of things we are all doing more and more. I'm surprised that MacWorld didn't design the tests to show how things work better (assuming they do) when we're doing more than one thing - which is when we probably most want the performance improvement.

b. RAM. While it may of course be fair to use the stock RAM (512MB) in both test machines, the level of RAM chosen seems strange given the design of many of the tests. Many media tests and certainly Photoshop tests will be RAM constrained on a 512MB system. I would imagine Rosetta would only serve to squeeze that more (though it would be unreasonable to compare a 1GB Intel iMac with a 512MB G5 iMac). But given that SJ said other factors came into it, I would have thought MacWorld could have designed the tests a little better to isolate the effect of RAM on such tests.

c. Scenarios used. The MacWorld tests were limited to a few scenarios which are overly focused on just a few applications, and do not focus on what people do much of the time. For instance, why not cover application loading time? Why not cover page rendering time for websites? Another way to look at performance would have been to see the free CPU available when running tests. I have seen reports of HD replaying that are very positive indeed - putting a MacBook Pro (pre-production) easily on a par with a dual core G5 PowerMac, for instance (40% overall CPU usage vs 55% for full frame performance). While graphics card changes might help with this test, these are important numbers - especially going forward.
On another review of the iMac, David Pogue
at the NYTimes
quotes a massive speed improvement - certainly of the order of 2x for page rendering and application start-up. While I'm not sure of the scientific nature of these tests, these strike me as more meaningful than the MacWorld tests.

d. Last but not least, on performance, I am really surprised that we have not seen some performance comparisons between Windows machines and the iMac. There are some Yonah-based laptops around that could be compared with an iMac. Or use a Pentium D or something similar in price. iTunes would be a good application to compare against. Boot up times, wake from sleep, times to duplicate files etc, would all be interesting benchmarks, as would HD playback or other Quicktime tests. In the end, these are the tests that will determine whether the Mac succeeds or not.

And, in the end, this story is only going to improve from here. We'll have more native applications, and more optimisation for Intel via improved compilers and code improvements as people become familiar. And later this year, we'll be moving towards the first 64-bit dual core chips. Finally, remember Steve's reason for moving to Intel was performance per watt, not absolute performance. By all accounts the new iMacs are very quiet which implies lower heat even with 2 cores versus single core G5.

As an aside here as well, it's worth commenting on Rosetta. The reports in so far seem to indicate that this has been indispensable technology to Apple in achieving this switch. Performance numbers combined with excellent application compatibility are really good stories and have been frequently overlooked.

So, I can summarise this by stating that I believe the performance numbers are looking pretty good already, and this performance combined with lower power consumption will provide Apple a springboard to introduce the great new leaps forward in functionality that some expected would come immediately with the shift to Intel. Don't believe all that you read unless you really dig deep (read the comments if they're available). And in the end, don't compare an old Mac to a new Mac - compare it to a Windows box as that's what is going to count long term. I don't know how they would stack up, but I can't believe that Steve made this move without believing that Mac OS X shows up pretty well against Windows.

4. Functionality. - the final one of the four myths/realities. I think many were disappointed that MacWorld did not herald a great leap in functionality - into the living room for instance, or perhaps a well-rounded iWork suite including a decent spreadsheet. We got very little other than an improved iWork and iLife. I have covered iLife a little here already and maintain a generally positive view on it (though feel iWeb is still very much a v0.9 application). I am using iWork but not in anger yet, so can't comment too much. With the hole left by Appleworks not being made available on the Intel Macs, I think Apple has a problem in providing a complete Home Office package competing with all-in-one packages available on the Windows platform and often included in the low end machines. Hopefully it has something up its sleeve to fill this void. But more importantly, what happened to the convergence functionality being expected? Some people expected an Apple DVR. Some (me included) expected a video-capable Airport Express. Others expected FrontRow to be made available across the range of Macs (though I think this is just a slightly cynical marketing move).

There have been reports that the MacWorld keynote was changed at the last minute with some key announcements dropped. It's difficult to know how true this is - especially as the keynote was already significantly longer than previous ones. In the end, I think Apple's MacWorld was indeed conservative but partly because it had to be. SJ made a deliberate statement about it being MACWorld, not iPodWorld. He focused his major announcements on the Mac platform, and hopefully re-assured the faithful that Apple's strategy is about Macs and Mac OS more than it is about the iPod which could be a transient (though, of course, huge) phenomenon. The conservative introductions (form-factor-wise of the new Macs) showed it was taking the migration seriously - not flippantly. It is also possible that some things were just not ready for primetime. The video airport express for instance might be dependent upon 802.11n - the next generation wireless specification. It had been expected this would be finalised last year, but in fact, it is only in the last week that this has happened. While Apple has always been at the forefront of wireless adoption, I think it could not afford to announce products at that time - and probably didn't need to. With the finalisation of this spec, I think we can expect an Apple announcement about using it within the next 3 months. I'm sure 802.11n is a vital part of Apple's whole-house strategy. But, if so, it also belongs with announcements about affordable home Macs - including iBook and Mac mini updates. The pieces are appearing - remote controls for new Macs, FrontRow, iSight built-in, Photocasting directly, more display connections (in the iMac)... The big missing piece though remains Apple's ability to incorporate broadcast/cable TV into the platform. I did not expect an Apple DVR this time round, and I don't underestimate the difficulties of doing this across the many technologies of terrestrial, cable and satellite in multiple world markets. But eventually, Apple must bite the bullet on this and make this an integral part of the Mac-in-the-home experience.


Finally, I'd like to wrap this analysis up with some commentary on the financials. Apple's numbers for the last quarter were staggering. Over 14million iPods sold is an incredible achievement, especially considering previous problems with inventory on new models (eg iPod mini). (As an aside, I believe Sony Ericsson shifted about 14million phones in the quarter, so that demonstrates the scale of this achievement) And the Mac numbers too were on balance very good. Year-on-year Mac shipments up 19%, and Mac revenue up 7.5%, with record Mac sales. Over 2 years, Mac shipments are now up over 51%. Most PC companies would kill for such numbers. But, in reality the growth was much reduced from the previous quarter and started to show that people were indeed holding off. Did Apple see this coming and cause it to concentrate on the higher end machines first? I'm not sure, as looking back, it is obvious to see that it is the dual core variants of Yonah that are in supply first and that these were always going to find their way into high end machines.

But, one does wonder whether Apple is responding to this dip rather than leading it. Furthermore, the next quarter's predictions - while a Q2 record if they're hit - are not awe-inspiring. Personally, I think they may struggle to hit even these numbers. iPod shipments in the final quarter benefitted hugely from the holiday season and the release almost simultaneously of major improvements in the product. As the market matures the buyers become less "influencers" and more "influenced". The latter category are more likely to concentrate their purchases around events such as Christmas or birthdays. I know many people who bought one or more iPods last quarter. I know of no one who has bought one or who is contemplating one this quarter.

So, I think we'll see a return to more normal levels (if 6 million a quarter can be described as normal). Mac sales I'm particularly worried about. Apple cannot begin shipping MacBook Pros until at least mid-quarter. I know many people who will hold off from the first release (though I've seen anecdotal evidence of many switchers stating their intent to buy). As for the iMac, it's not clear whether they'll either have enough, or whether the first release will attract more people than it loses due to initial compatibility and overall FUD factor. iBooks, and minis will barely shift, and even Powermac sales may be disrupted now people know what the Intel Macs can do, and know that new Intel-based Powermacs will be available starting this year - not the end of next year.

Of course, Apple will have achieved its transition to Intel completely by the time Microsoft is shipping Vista, and the importance of that as people make buying decisions cannot be underestimated. I also think we'll see some block-buster products this year - with new form factors and functionality following on behind successful product transitions. Apple had a window (sorry) in which to do all of this, and so far, they're doing really well on that. But the halo effect can be easily dented and much harder to re-light. And I find it slightly ironic that just as Apple is executing better than ever (eg iPod fulfillment, first Intel macs ahead of expectations) there are rumblings among the Mac faithful (perhaps encouraged by others who'd like to see Apple fail) whose expectations seemed to reach beyond what even Steve's infamous Reality Distortion Field (RDF) could conjure up this time round.

Here's the reality folks, and you should be enjoying and revelling in it: Apple is delivering well on products; it is transitioning faster and with the products needed; the performance numbers ARE good and even more so looking ahead; the compatibility backwards is also good; and it is maintaining and even growing its leadership in digital music. All-in-all what a strange time for Steve's RDF to evaporate!

20 January 2006

iLife/iWeb and Google here today

In all the excitement about whales, don't forget to check out my other posts today on iLife/iWeb and also about Google, which will have been relegated much lower on the page today.

Do send me your comments on iWeb/iLife.

Whale Watching in London

A bizarre event captivated London today, and your roving reporter was on hand to capture the fun, albeit with his clapped-out Sony digital camera with a battery life of about 5 minutes in the cold.

Anyhow, for those not in the UK (just about everybody here has had continuous news coverage of this event for 5-6 hours), a bottle-nosed whale about 5m (17') in length has swum up the Thames, as far as Albert Bridge near Battersea, where currently I believe it has evaded all the boats trying to look after it. It almost beached itself a couple of times, but with a bit of encouragement seemed to get going again (see photo here with the fin between boat and man).

Sorry about the poor photos - time for a new camera I think. But at least it was an excuse to get a photo of my favourite bridge - Albert - at dusk with lots of people standing on it watching for the whale.

The other amusing aspect to this story for those that know me is to picture my state trying to photograph the whale. I had just returned from the gym, shorts on, grabbed my camera, and set off, no gloves of course. I could barely move my fingers!

More Whale Watching on Thames

More Whale Watching on Thames
Originally uploaded by Hobflickr.

Whale Watching on the Thames...

Whale Watching on the Thames...
Originally uploaded by Hobflickr.

Whale watching on the Thames - people only!


iLife06 and the new iWeb

Edit 31.01.06: Since posting this article, I have made a few minor changes to the personal website, though nothing taking more than a few seconds. I have also switched my corporate website to use the new iWeb version, and changed the links in the article to allow you to see the old one. Finally, in the corporate website, I have removed the blog features provided by iWeb and replaced them only by a link to this blog for reasons that are obvious as you read the article.

You reader(s) have probably thought there has been a bit of a dearth of Apple coverage here since MacWorld. Where are the articles proclaiming the iMac Core Duo and MacBook Pro, you may very well ask?

Well, I'm trying to be a bit considered in my responses. There has been a lot of garbage written so far with all sorts of jumps to (usually incorrect) conclusions, more conspiracy theories etc etc. I am particularly watching how general reaction pans out in reference to the myths/realities of moving to Intel that I wrote about before MacWorld. I'm also waiting to see more real world reports coming in rather than people quoting one or two simple performance metrics to either support or condemn a theory. So, stay tuned....

But, I did get my hands on both iLife06 and iWork06 pretty quickly, and while I've been a bit busy with other things, I have managed to play around a little with iLife06 and in particular iWeb. While this is far from a review of the applications, I thought you might be interested on my initial observations:

1. iLife06 is a huge installation. It pretty much looks for 10GB on your hard disk at install. Now if you don't need Garageband or are prepared to have less of the loops etc, then you can save quite a bit on this (IF you use a custom install). But don't expect to install the whole caboodle on an aging laptop.

2. iPhoto. Steve claimed iPhoto was massively improved in performance. A few people suggested it was all in his demo on the Core Duo iMac. Well, I can tell you Stevie-boy is right. iPhoto really does scroll much faster, and generally feels snappier in all sorts of regards. There are some nice new features, though I haven't really had a chance to play with them much yet. If you do use iPhoto, you should jump at the new version.

3. I haven't tried the other applications yet (iTunes doesn't really count as it is available free). But there are some improvements over last year's versions for both iMovie and iDVD that would make them of interest - especially if you also use iPhoto. Unless you use Garageband extensively or are keen to produce your own podcasts (a major new feature in this release), I'm not sure how important you'll rate the GB improvements.

So that brings me onto iWeb. This is a new addition to iLife that promises the ultimate in simple but beautiful (!) and functional website creation. While it is especially useful to someone with a .Mac account, it can also be used without, subject to a couple of limitations. How does it stack up?

I have created 2 websites. The first was a really simple test to see how quickly I could publish a 3-4 page website with a movie, some photos and a blog page. And the answer is VERY quickly (about 20 minutes total - 2-3 minutes for each additional page). You can take a look at the site here if you're interested. It is hard for me to express just how easy it is to do this, and how you need to know NOTHING about html to do so. Navigation is straightforward, and some of the functionality Apple have provided (eg photo slideshows) is very good indeed. Note that this site is not a functional site - the choice of photos, movies, text etc have little or no meaning. It is merely a demonstration of what can be done very quickly indeed.

So, if you've always wanted to build a simple personal website (or know someone who wants to) but has been put off my having to learn HTML, editors, ftp etc or couldn't get past the installation of Frontpage, then iWeb is well worth investigating. There are a few disadvantages still with iWeb, but you really can achieve some great results in no time at all, and perhaps more importantly, the site would be easy to maintain thereafter (that's often the biggest problem). If you don't have a .Mac account, you'll still need to know how to upload a site to your ISP, and you won't be able to do photoslideshows for instance, but much of the other functionality should work.

Now moving on to more ambitious things, I wondered if I could replicate my rather simple company website with iWeb? You can compare my former website with my new iWeb-created version here. What do you think?

Well, looking at the new version in Safari, I think it looks quite good. I was able to do it quite quickly - over a couple of hours. If I had accepted a few more compromises, I could have done it much faster. Moreover, I think it will be much easier to maintain going forward - easier to add pages, or to edit content on them. And it would be easier to do things I hadn't thought of before - use of more media for instance. I was surprised how often I could just copy and paste the page from a browser and all functionality would come through (eg the links page was copied straightover and all links actually worked straight off!). So it would be easy to move a simple site over from an existing website into iWeb - even if you'd lost the original source.

As comparison my previous website was built using an html editor, and was my first attempt to make limited use of CSS. Production of buttons for the website and the navigation editing and testing took a fair part of the time.

But, let me deal with some of the limitations I found along the way because it is quite clear that iWeb will be a severe disappointment for people with certain requirements.

1. File structure, and uploading. In the current version, there is only one iWeb project so to speak. The two websites I did are in the same "file" (though you don't really ever access that file). A new site is added within your current site. If you maintain more than one site and they are in different locations or for different people, iWeb would be a hindrance. While it seems it only reloads things that have changed, uploading to .Mac ALWAYS takes an age. I don't know why - whether it's an iDisk thing or what, but its slow.

2. Multiple machines. I cannot figure out how to manage the website from multiple machines. I don't need to do this, so I haven't had sleepless nights on it, but essentially the iWeb files live on one computer, and must be edited using iWeb on that same computer. If you were to have your site located on other than a .Mac account, you could edit the html before uploading it, so it maybe not such a limitation. But I think this would be a dangerous thing to do. I've heard the html is not a pretty sight (pardon the pun). I wouldn't use iWeb to create some basic html which I then intended to tweak.

3. Templates. This is where I started to see the biggest limitations - at least with the 1.0 version. While you have a lot of flexibility in changing the look of any page, you cannot save that page as a template to be reused again. So, for instance, on the company website, I have added a colour gradient, changed the text colour slightly, and added a blue line underneath the navigation (compared with the default iWeb template I used). But if I add a new page, it will still use that provided template, and I will have to do these actions again for this new page. Furthermore, it is not possible to edit the navigation part - font size and style is fixed for navigation elements. The best you can do is let a page be excluded from the navigation (or not use iWeb's navigation at all).

4. HTML extensions, Javascript etc. When I built my company website, I created the buttons as PNG's, without realising that good old IE still doesn't support the PNG format and that such objects display badly. I came across some simple Java code that I inserted into the site (and eventually in the CSS header) that alleviated this problem (I think). But I couldn't do such things here, and I suspect the company site looks like **** in IE (anyone care to comment?). Now is this a problem for many? Not necessarily. Nor is it Apple's "fault". Safari is now the most compliant browser out there. But unfortunately, that doesn't cut it in the real world. I can't say for sure (perhaps others can), but I'm not sure how good and functional sites built using iWeb would be in IE (it seems ok in Firefox). And, you won't be able to tweak it in anyway to fix it.

Edit 31.01.06: I have deleted blog pages/entries created by iWeb from the website as it is now in fulltime use. The blog feature is just not good enough for my purposes, so the link is back to here. The paragraph below may therefore be hard to understand without the visible example.

5. The Blog tool. Now, here is where we get to see the biggest limitations of iWeb. I had hoped to be able to make the blog tool be a reasonable replacement for this site, but it is far, far from it in the current incarnation. Where do we start? First problem is that of the template issue I identified above really causing problems. If you have chosen a style for the rest of the website, you will choose the blog sheet from that same style. But every blog entry starts with the default layout. So for each new blog entry, I had to resize and move the boxes, remove the photo (all blog entry templates allow for one photo per entry), move stuff around, add the fill gradient, blue line and text colour to match the other pages. I didn't HAVE to do this, but it means I would end up with a blog that doesn't match the rest of the site.

Continuing with blog limitations, the uploading of new blog entries is slow; there is no capability for categories (though there isn't on blogger.com either); there is no capability to handle comments (I knew of this already, but it's a disappointment nonetheless); and blog entries MUST be done in iWeb. As far as I can see, you can't add blog entries from another source. This is a huge limitation. With blogger.com I can place entries from any web browser; I can email entries; I can email entries with photos either directly or via flickr - even via the cameraphone in my camera. None of these opportunities exist to iWeb bloggers. Fair enough perhaps - its aimed at family bloggers and the like - certainly not professional bloggers. But, even family bloggers would arguably be limited. A key example used in the marketing is a holiday blog. Now how many people take away their mac on holiday and would have a reasonable internet connection to upload to .Mac on a regular basis? Finally, iWeb is touted as offering features for the new groups feature on .Mac. Once again, though it is highly limited by this file structure and fixed link to one mac. Only the group owner would be able to blog on the group site for instance. So, if you're interested in iWeb for the blogging, be VERY careful indeed.

In summary, I really like iWeb a lot for certain things, and for a particular audience it is the application they may have been waiting for. If you're reading this article however, I doubt you're in that audience (though you may know some people who are). It is an application that could be used by my mum to create a great looking family site with truly excellent photo and movie features; and it is an application that could be used by businesses requiring a simple web presence (eg landscape gardener with a portfolio of projects); or ideal for building a simple site for a scientist/researcher or student. While the out-of-box templates are really nice, those wanting a slightly unique look will find frustrations with the file structure and lack of template editing. And most importantly, those looking at incorporating even a simple blog will come up against limits very quickly. I don't see why blogging could not have been done better and with some email support for mobile entries for instance (with .Mac/iDisk handling the photos). True, this is version 1.0, and no doubt iLife07 will be there with more features.

So, I welcome iLife06 as a valuable upgrade for many users (especially .Mac holders, iPhoto users and those needing iWeb). At a price of UK£55 (£69 for family pack) inc. VAT it is probably a reasonable price if you are a heavy user of these apps. Of course, as this becomes an "annual" upgrade fee, it is more like an annual service charge (and over 4-5 years would cost equivalent to a license for MS Office). For those considering a new computer and interested in what iLife06 has to offer, it certainly presents one very compelling extra reason to go Mac over PC/Windows given that it is included for free with all new Macs. Let me know your thoughts on iLife or any questions you might have.

More Google News...

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, some of Google's recent output has been less than impressive.

And this week an analyst (Scott Kessler at S&P) had the temerity to rate Google a SELL! The BusinessWeek article covering Scott's views is here. It is a very interesting read, not least about the risks of click fraud.

David Pogue at the NY Times also had this to say about the Google Video Store (userid may be required for this article, but it can probably be sourced at least in part elsewhere). David concludes with this indictment:
Even if you give Google every benefit of every doubt, this video store doesn't live up to Google's usual standards of excellence. This, after all, is the company whose unofficial motto is "Don't be evil." In the case of Google Video, the company's fans might have settled for "Don't be mediocre
So, is there something to the timing of the release of this story on Google fighting back against the US Government in the name of privacy? While I wholly support Google's stance in theory, and condemn recent actions by Microsoft, Yahoo (and I think AOL too) in places like China, I suspect this story is a little bit overblown (though the problem of privacy is a slippery slope)! While the actions this week seem to have originated from the US Government itself (filing court papers), it does seem like Google has been presented with an excellent PR opportunity to show it is still in touch with its public, and that it knows when to milk such opportunities.

19 January 2006

More "iPod Killer" News

A couple of recent articles got my attention on this phenomenon. I suggested a while back that journalists should put money into a fund everytime they use this phrase, and it should go to charity until and if someone is actually right. The headline is being used merely to attract attention (and I have fallen victim again). But, on with the story...

Article number one comes from Wil Harris at Bit-tech, who does not use the above headline at all, and generally sees things the same way as I do about the Creative Zen Vision M Player which I attacked last year. Here in the UK, the price is £249 - a full £30 more than the same capacity iPod, and almost £50 more than an early UK review saying how great it was (turned out the price specified then was a complete guess and hadn't allowed for VAT). And note, the Creative player still does not seem to be available in the UK, though you can order it from a couple of sites. That's a full 3 months after the iPod. Anyway, Wil's article is spot on with the same criticisms I had (but less words!). His particular beef is why it was given an accolade at CES when it is so obviously a me-too inferior product. I couldn't agree more Wil, well said, and a good read in general on the state of the competition.

And today (which sort of reminded me of Wil's article from last week) comes The Register (a publication which has certainly used the phrase iPod killer more than just about anyone else) with a review of iRiver's new U10 player (article linked to is conclusion page). Fortunately, the journalist here, DOES basically get it. A 1GB player that's bigger and the same price as the 2GB iPod Nano. And, as usual it's not as easy to use as the Apple experience.

One minor quibble with the review above is that it states
Only the Apple-flavoured AAC is conspicuous by its absence, though that's hardly surprising

Well, of course, AAC is NOT an Apple format. It stands for Advanced Audio Codec and is part of the MPEG-4 standard produced by the mpeg industry forum representing 80 companies. Only music purchased from the Apple store is in a proprietary (ie DRM'ed) AAC format. This got me thinking. Why are these players NOT supporting the open AAC format? I have used AAC to rip most of my CD's in preference to MP3 format. I'm sure that's the same for many other iTunes users. While Apple is occasionally reprimanded for NOT including support for the totally proprietary (but theoretically licenseable) WMA format, why are journalists so forgiving for players not including AAC support? And perhaps more importantly, why do the manufacturers trying to play catch-up avoid offering a feature that would be a clear benefit to many PC users (if not Mac users) who were somehow not happy with the iPod but had a lot of music ripped in AAC format?

Having ripped something like 250 CD's to AAC format, I'm not about to do it again. I can't be the only one, and if you don't target the iPod-owning demographic, you've aleady reduced your potential market significantly. It is another demonstration to me that the other manufacturers still haven't "got it".

Music Labels...again...

Two interesting news stories today on digital music:

First from MacWorld about growth in digital downloads last year. Apparently downloads TRIPLED last year to a value of $1.1bn. Again this is trumpeted as positive. However, as I pointed out a week or so ago in this post, I don't think this is at all impressive. During the last year, we've had a doubling in the number of tracks available for download (to 2 million apparently). In addition, we've had growth in the number of countries with online music stores. When added to the growth in broadband users, and the growth of people with MP3 players (number of iPods in use tripled last year), I think a tripling of digital downloads represents a very poor result indeed.

Aside - read the rest of the MacWorld article for a ridiculous view spouted by John Kennedy IFPI Chairman and CEO claiming that ISP's have a responsibility back to the music labels. What planet is he on?

Next up is this report from Reuters on Universal going back through its archives and making 100,000 recordings available for download only. Many of these have never been available in any format except vinyl. This seems like a good thing, surely? Yes, I think it is. But surely it shows how profitable the digital market is? This will be a costly exercise indeed, yet will payback from just the comparatively small number of people who are paying for digital music online. I've always maintained this long-tail economics is a great advantage for digital music economics. But, if Universal can do this, could they not also reduce the price for older recordings which ARE already available digitally? There are NO additional costs for them - it's already done, yet opportunities for sales are being missed and artists are going unrewarded.

And before you blame Apple for its (supposed) intransigence on adopting variable pricing, remember that the labels would be free to do this with any other music store. But they haven't. As I've pointed out before, in the minds of the music labels, variable pricing is only variable from a baseline they think they've set with Apple - it's a one-way upward revision to the more popular stuff. The consumer should be under no illusion that they will benefit.

Universal's move is indeed to be welcomed, but until they recognise that it is in everyone's interest to lower prices of online music - so that consumers benefit from some of the economies, I feel we will continue to see online music being an underdeveloped proposition. And as long as industry executives like John Kennedy (and countless others from RIAA, SonyBMG, Warner, etc) spout the nonsense they do, is a further indication why it will remain so.

17 January 2006

Broadcasters reap benefits from TV on iTunes

I came across this article at tvweek via a few other news services.

In a nutshell, both NBC and ABC have experienced increased ratings for shows that have been made available on the iTunes Music Store.

I would not have guessed this would happen, but it is surely a real positive coup for Apple as it attempts to get more content for the store. Whether the networks banked on such an effect is open to question (my guess is they couldn't have foreseen it, even if they claim they did).

But really, the effect is quite obvious if you think about it. There are numerous ways in which availability via a different method than just the broadcast can have a positive effect back on viewing numbers. In my own experience (not much of a tv watcher!) I've often followed a series quite closely until I've missed an episode. That has served as a trigger not to continue watching any more. If I'd been able to download the missing episode, then perhaps I would have continued longer? Another way, is that people get introduced to it via the online method, and then become regular viewers. In another example, I've shown some friends episodes of some comedy shows recorded using EyeTV as filler after watching a DVD together. It is easy to see someone becoming attached to that series after being exposed to it this way.

When tv shows were first made available via the iTMS, there were many sceptics. Why pay anything for something that is avalilable free? But the iTunes experience is showing that there are many subtle benefits to having additional distribution. How many people never even find a show because they weren't in to watch it and never set up to record it, but find it much later?

Whether this will encourage the broadcasters to delve deeper into the online world and get a bit more adventurous (how about pilot episodes for free?), and whether it will encourage some content in the UK (come on BBC!), I don't know. But such news won't harm such prospects. Perhaps the music industry should also take a look at this and see how digital methods could actually reinforce their physical/traditional models rather than seeing it just as an alternative?

Story of the Day...

I found the following story in today's Guardian hilarious...
Somewhere in Yorkshire, there lurks a proverbially nauseous parrot. Ziggy, an eight-year-old African Grey, had provided Chris Taylor with years of companionship until the fateful day when he opened his beak to mimic his owner's girlfriend and squawked out one word: Gary.

Ziggy's obsession with his latest impression grew and he began uttering "Hi Gary!" every time Suzy Collins' mobile phone rang. Chris's suspicions deepened after Ziggy started to make long kissing noises whenever he heard the name Gary on television or the radio.

Things between Chris and Suzy finally came to a head the night Ziggy decided to blurt out: "I love you, Gary" in her voice.

When Chris confronted Suzy about his pet'sobsession, she admitted to having had a four-month affair with Gary, a former colleague. (story continued at link)

I have a soft spot for Parrot stories. Last year I particularly enjoyed this one about Barney who has a strong anti-authority streak!

And, just in case you think all these birds can do is mimic, do read this article at the BBC showing just how amazing these birds really are.

11 January 2006

Myth or Reality: A follow-up

I wrote last week about the collective wisdom being bandied about and whether such wisdom would turn out to be myth or reality. I had categorised these under the areas of Timing, Pricing, Performance, and Functionality.

Compared with my actual rumour predictions where I did as well as the average monkey on a roulette table, I'd like to think this analysis was a bit more accurate. In fact of the predictions for myth or reality (which I'd scored 2.5 to myth, and 1.5 to reality), I'd give myself 3.5 out of 4 (you may disagree). Here goes for each:

1. Timing. I was obviously wrong about mini and iBook, but right that Intel Macs would come sooner than later. I was also right about guessing they would introduce new machines at higher capabilities overlapping (well, replacing) the current range including a possible name change. I was also right about use of Yonah chips rather than older Intel chips. So, on balance score a half here.

2. Pricing. I think I got this one pretty much right. The new MacBook Pro looks to be a great machine, and as I'll cover in a review coming shortly, is priced very reasonably (if you don't believe me, check out Core duo machines from Dell, Lenovo etc). But the pricing is no lower (and in fact is higher in some ways) than the previous models. I also predicted transparency would make it easier to compare models. I think this is happening - its much easier to see which Dell/Lenovo models compare with it (though of course, not everyone is doing this). With these releases, Apple has made their point it will NOT compete on price but on it's other strengths - as indeed it should.

3. Performance. I think I was also mostly right on this one, though from a different perspective. I had written it on the basis of minis and iBooks being released. I argued that these could NOT be powerhouses. I also argued that there would be some positive performance numbers to whet the appetite. Clearly, Steve has pushed the fact that these new machines are much faster than previous models. But they are dual core, so they should be, and he has chosen his numbers wisely. If we assume that single core machines would be used in the low end machines, then it is reasonable to suggest that these would NOT be beating the older iMacs and Powerbooks by a large factor. And even with the super performance it is notable that apps like Office and Photoshop run about as fast on the new models using Rosetta as on the old. Presumably on the single core machines this would in fact have been a potential problem area. We can't say much about Rosetta yet, but it clearly doesn't give 70-80% of performance as had been promised last year. (Any one with any experience of emulation said they'd never achieve that anyway).

What we don't yet have is some decent numbers to compare dual core Macs running against Windows dual core machines. It is perhaps interesting that Apple hasn't done this (but excusable in that there are no machines actually available today to do that). So, in performance, we've had a good leap - perhaps the biggest step up in many, many years, and a leap that will improve in the coming year with faster yonah's, 64-bit Merom etc. But we do not obviously have an order of magnitude performance leap as some had predicted. The dual core Powermac G5's for instance will still look decent machines for a while longer.

4. Functionality. Again, I predicted mostly myth here. And, I think that's largely true. In fact, perhaps its more true than even I had expected. I had thought there would be SOME announcements to demonstrate living room convergence, but there were pretty much none (I had expected these to apply to all macs as well, not favouring the low end even more). There are some incremental functionality improvements of course, but nothing radical - especially so in the design side, the highlight of which is probably the magnetic attach method for the power cord (pure Apple!). There is nothing that puts these machines in a different league than existing machines. And they probably can't run Windows TODAY due to use of EFI and lack of Windows XP for 32-bit based EFI machines.

Indeed it looks like this was a very conservative MacWorld in many ways (which I also predicted). There were no radical introductions of new designs - most changes were "under-the-hood", not much to do with Apple's media-centre-killer strategy (if they have one); and little to do with content. Even on software, expectations for iLife and iWork seemed to run ahead of what was delivered (more on that later).

However, what is clear is that Apple (with Intel) has completed a superhuman engineering effort ahead of schedule and proved that it can come up with competitive machines - competitive in price and functionality. The transition was never going to be easy and is full of risks. To focus on getting Intel inside first, then moving forward on design is absolutely the right thing to do, and in hindsight, obvious. To do this with the "bread and butter" machines too is a smart choice financially to protect their margins. A focus on design first would have been dangerous.

If the machines announced can deliver as promised and reliably, then Apple has a great foundation to begin differentiating significantly by design AND functionality going forward. I will post a comparison of these machines to others in coming days, but my earliest evidence is that the new MacBook Pro is indeed competitive and I've anecdotal evidence of switchers already jumping on them. But for new form factors and materials as well as exciting functionality, these will surely come as the confidence comes and as the transition gathers pace.

Disappointed with the announcements? Ecstatic? Agree/Disagree with anything here? Let me know!

A jovial look back at the Hobsblog Predictions...

In a couple of posts here, before I review the announcements in detail, let's look objectively (if I can) at my performance leading up to the announcements.

First, we'll consider my 10 MacWorld Expo predictions. I had predicted the following:
1. More iTunes video content announcements (more tv and maybe full length movies)
2. New 1GB iPod
3. Intel-based iBook
4. Intel-based Mac mini
5. iLife 06 (oh, I think I've been trumped on this one!)
yes (hardly earth-shattering)
6. Wireless video distribution device (AirportExpress2?)
7. iWork 06 (plus new spreadsheet package?)
yes - but not a full spreadsheet app
8. Mid-range Intel-based dual core laptop
9. iPod accessory - audio or video recorder; wireless add-on?
yes - fm tuner/remote but not earth shattering
10. Just one more thing....
well, i guess iMac (since I did somewhat guess the MacBook)

So, I would give myself a score of 50% and a verdict of pretty poor on the basis that a monkey and a dartboard would probably score the same.

What about the rest of the blogging Mac community? From a rumours perspective Apple did pretty well - at wrongfooting most people!

I think there were some deliberate leaks ahead of time that were just wrong and sent people on the wrong track. Such rumours (Mini and iBook for instance) quickly became almost-fact. It is especially interesting that rumour sites such as ThinkSecret and O'Grady's Powerpage were especially wrong. These sites were both sued by Apple over reports made a year ago. Jason O'Grady's report of plasma displays which were picked up by lots of sites (not that fanciful really - dell and hp both sell plasmas), is particularly embarassing. I think there was more than just poor guesswork here - some deliberate misinformation got sent their way. It is also interesting that Steve Jobs made fun of the rumour sites in his presentation with the 8lb iPod joke.

From my own perspective, I am disappointed at falling for the rumours (facts) about the mini and iBook. I hadn't been able to reconcile these releases business-wise as you can see if you review the blog entries on myth/reality. And I couldn't understand sites reporting that such machines would be dual core, when all evidence pointed to dual core machines being in pricing territory at least 2x the mini/iBook range. I had concluded they would be single core releases. And I still stand by this (for low-end models). It always made perfect business sense to do the iMac and the PowerBook first - these are the bread and butter products. I'm sure the powermac would have been done too if it wasn't for Intel not having the 64bit chips ready for that (64-bit matters much more there).

The evidence which sent me the wrong way was the sheer number of reports on mini/iBook, interpreting too much from revisions to both iMac and PowerBook very late last year (very unusual, but in hindsight another ploy to confuse?), and also the belief that the iMac wouldn't go "backwards" from 64-bit computing to 32-bit. Again, though, if we're honest, not many (any?) of the 64-bit computing for the iMac has been utilised. Most iMac users won't give 2 hoots.

On the whole though well done Apple on a few counts:
1. Wrongfooting most of the rumour community to the last.
2. For the engineering effort of producing the important machines first ahead of schedule.
3. For dressing up MacWorld (the Steve RDF) to make it seem so much more when what was really announced was that 1) Didn't we do well last year and 2) We've successfully changed the engines in two of our cars which have loads more power though the cars are essentially the same.

Next up... How do the announcements stack up against the Myth/Reality analysis I did?

One Little but Important Observation

In the next few days, I'll wrap up my coverage on what we've just heard at MacWorld - looking at the predictions I made, and more importantly covering what it all means. But in the meantime, I haven't seen this commented on yet, but I have made the following observations:

1. I do not see Intel stickers/logos on any of the pictures of the new machines. This fear had been articulated by many of the mac fans who did not want such stickers on their Macs. Can you guys shut up yet? Or do you want to wait until they actually come out?

2. Apple is using the Intel branding eg Core Duo, but it is strangely NOT using the new Intel logos (neither company or chip logo). Here's a comparison from the Intel site for the Core duo and the Apple site for the iMac using the same chip.

Whether all this means that Apple has declined the usual Intel marketing money for logo placement etc is not clear yet. And whether it will cause upset among other Intel customers who religiously attach such logos, use the jingles etc, is also unclear. I suspect we might hear more speculation in coming months. But for now, at least, I think this is one "worst fear" that we can put to bed.

10 January 2006

Digital Music Sales

Couldn't let this pass without comment.

In December, some sites reported on statistics seeming to show that growth in digital music downloads had stalled. Now, it seems the opposite. Two reports and analysis today from ars technica and in Macworld UK seem to show that there has been significant growth year on year - culminating in an incredible December. The December performance is put down to lots of iPod owners also getting gift tokens.

Now indeed, 147% annual growth is not to be sneezed at. Indeed, ars technica uses some clever techniques to show the growth in market share from 2.3% to 7.3% - a 220% increase from 2004 to 2005. But I'm not sure I think this performance is cause for celebration. Here's why.

By the end of 2004, there were, say, 10million iPods in circulation. Sales this year were at least 24-28 million. So there should now be 34-38million iPods around. That's growth of at least 240%. So growth in downloads has not kept pace with growth in iPods.

Fair enough, there are arguments against such analysis. You might argue that iPods are not the only players, and that downloads don't require an iPod. You might also argue that the newer iPod users are probably lower down the music purchasing league than the keen early adopters. And all these points are valid.

But set against this, I would argue that if digital music was successful, then it should be benefiting not just from the extra owners of iPods but from greater market share among existing owners. And if the argument that it is keen music fans who have adopted iPods and other portable players is true, then surely these people would be the ones who were purchasing most music online?

Taken another way, I think I know less people who DON'T have an iPod than I know people WITH an iPod (excluding extreme age groups). iPod penetration therefore is pretty high among the music loving population. What is therefore amazing to me is that market share of digital music versus physical is only 7.3%. That means 92.7% of purchases are physical. If we assume half of music lovers have a digital player, then the vast majority of purchases made by those people are still physical.

Finally, it should also be pointed out that there are a lot more music stores around - the industry has matured a lot in the last 12 months, so, that extra choice should also have helped growth exceed the figures given. Indeed, for some of 2004, even Apple's store was not available in the UK, and at first did not have a large choice.

So, I'd say that digital music is far from a success at this point. And I think the reasons are pretty obvious.

1.Even assuming I live in some extreme demographic (financially comfortable, audiophile....) I'm still a tight b***ard. Digital music is still too expensive. From a UK perspective an album price of £7.99 is about the same I pay on Amazon or CDWow, and indeed some material is quite a bit more on the iTMS (if I can get it!). While 79p is still pretty good value by track, no wonder albums are not selling well - it's not just that people can pick and choose. If you want the album you'd be mad to get it digitally. The labels think that they can still set prices individually in each country. But they can't. I've had albums delivered from Hong Kong, and the US all within the £7.99 price point no extra taxes and including shipping. There is a global price now for physical music. And, you know that's a GOOD thing (I'll experiment a LOT more at that price).

2. Digital downloads are still comparatively low quality. If I have the choice at the same price between physical CD quality which I can store losslessly, or 128kbps AAC, it's pretty obvious. Now if the labels throw silly DRM around CDs (I think they might have learned their lesson from Sony), maybe that changes the equation. But putting more restrictions on physical music is not going to have a positive effect. Sure there's a convenince angle of online purchases, but if the quality isn't there, I'm going to be very selective when I buy such material.

3. Longtail phenomenon*. While this is also a price issue, there's an availability issue too. Digital music is perfect for older material. If you ship hundreds of copies of a chart-topper there's a certain economic that's wildly different from shipping one-off copies of some old David Bowie CD to record stores dotted around the country. The price of such CD's is often less - bargain bins, making the economics worse. Yet, on all digital services, such albums (if available) cost the same as other albums, yet they carry an indentical profit margin to the chart topper. Why can't I buy the 200 odd vinyl albums we have in digital format at knock-down prices? I've spoken with others about this, and I know it's not just me. Artists would get a sudden inrush, labels would sell more, and we'd all be happy to rekindle a love of an old album. (Note, I don't blame Apple for this, record companies have the option of reducing price of an album - see the US music store for evidence of this. Apple has merely set a top end price).

4. Give me the complete package. For God's sake why do you not get the cover in pdf format? Or why don't we get access to the lyrics digitally too? I'm afraid when I buy digital music I feel I'm getting less for my money in too many ways.

5. Lack of innovation. Sure, there are a few nice things on these digital music stores - recommendations, celebrity playlists etc, but can't we have more innovative ideas? Why don't labels make use of RSS for instance to tell you about a new impending release? (I know one or two do a little, but it's far from widespread). There also could be far more done with special material - 12" mixes, covers etc. Why not include a video or 2 for a full purchase album? What about easy links to concert information (or even live online concerts tickets to which you get by purchasing a complete album or whatever). What are you waiting for?

Unlike others, I don't think the failure is down to DRM - though it's eventually going to cause a halt in growth and upset many people. But right now, the consumer is not getting a great deal from digital music. I cannot see a scenario whereby digital exceeds 15% of market share unless things radically change in this regard.

In some ways, I'm not sure the record companies really want digital to succeed. So, I'm not sure how unhappy they'll be with this situation. But they should be. They're losing sales of physical material which are not being replaced by digital. I know that I buy a LOT more the lower the price, and I'm sure many people are like me. If you want to increase the quantity sold guys, then buck up your ideas!

* For those unfamiliar with the term "Longtail" it refers to the suitability of digital distribution methods to deal far more effectively with the large quantity of recordings which sell in very low quantities - whether arcane new recordings or older popular ones.

Challenge #3 - Content

You might suggest that the problem of content is just another variation on the theme of partnerships (Challenge #1). But I think it's a special case. There is such a lot of content of all types (music, spoken, musicvideo, movie, tv show, other video, etc) and with such diverse and unique international requirements that partnerships cannot alone cover this area adequately. As the availability of digital content explodes, Apple will end up as a bit-provider of such content if it keeps a locked-in approach to providing it.

Sure, today, the iTunes + iTMS combination provides a level of ease-of-use that is still unparalleled. But once a user goes somewhere else for some content, and then somewhere else, then that combination becomes less important. The function of iTunes has to become the organiser of all forms of content and as a portal to that content. It's traditional value of syncing to portable players is still vital (even more so), but if it is exclusive to the iTMS then it will be marginalised. Apple has always maintained the purpose of the iTMS is to sell iPods, not to make money. I hope the success of the iTMS doesn't blind them into changing that mindset. You can likely do one thing very well (portable players), and maybe two things quite well (desktop content management with portable player integration). But don't stretch it too far.

I'm not saying Apple should get out of the content business, but it cannot be the single gateway. Perhaps this is where Google's strategy is better. But Apple could trump that easily. An approach similar to Amazon would be a good starting point (but probably not ultimately sufficient). Amazon provides a storefront for many other mainstream companies as well as the Amazon marketplace for smaller companies - even competing with itself. I think this model could work well for Apple too. And indeed, this could be another way in which the companies could work together.

Another important factor on content is that Apple is eventually going to have to relinquish control of the Fairplay DRM. As far as I know, it is the only mainstream company to have a DRM that is applicable to content using open standard formats (ie MPEG-4). Microsoft's DRM is applied only to Windows Media formatted material - a proprietary format. Sony's Connect is similarly limited. I think Google's DRM is proprietary and since I think they are using Flash, that's another closed standard. Real's format is also proprietary (for the most part). Apple's adherence to standards publicly available from the MPEG forum (eg AAC, MPEG-4 AVC/H.264) give it a significant advantage if it is prepared to open the DRM up. The MPEG forum has it's own DRM in the works (Part 21 I believe). I don't know if this has any commonality with Fairplay. Apple could leverage the fact that all it's music formats use industry standards if it was to place Fairplay with an independent body to manage it. Apple needs to do this from a position of strength - not weakness. The timing may not be right today, but the test of whether Apple has learned lessons from the past is that it does this at the right time.

While I have considered that a common proprietary DRM could emerge, I can only see this coming from a collective of music/content labels or a collective of software companies. The collusion neccessary to do this would almost certainly fall foul of competition authorities around the globe (and I'm sure is a contributing factor to why it hasn't happened). If Apple takes the lead with Fairplay, it could be a real weapon to fight the WMA/WMV formats that otherwise will come to dominate as Microsoft's strategy unfolds.

For all these challenges - partnerships, communication and content, Apple must select carefully, choose its timing, and then put everything in to them to make them a success. Otherwise, the history books will record how Apple blew not just one great opportunity but two.

Challenge #2 - Communication

You might think that Apple needs little help in communication. But you'd be wrong. Sure MacWorld is truly unique and every other technology company would sell their soul to be the centre of such attention, but it is not enough to have the stage to yourself for a couple of days a year.

Apple has done a great job with communicating the value of the iPod, and some of it's advertising here has been excellent. But the iPod doesn't need a lot of communication. It's (currently) dominant. Word of mouth has helped hugely and the lack of credible competition. Now that Apple has such a stranglehold, it can even price aggressively. But in computers it's a different ball game completely. Apple is almost a second-tier player (certainly in volume). Not only does it have to fight on the hardware front against lots of competitors, it has to fight on the OS front against the monopoly that is Microsoft. I still believe the move to Intel was in part due to a realisation that they couldn't fight on the processor front as well - they had to simplify. And I do think that Intel has the potential to be a great partner to Apple, partly because I think Intel has been frustrated about it's influence in an MS-dominated world. Intel feels it has more to offer and is held back by a new Windows release every 5 years with features dictated entirely by Redmond. But of course, Intel cannot afford to favour Apple at the expense of its many customers - some of whom are much more important financially to them than Apple can ever be. So, Apple cannot look too much to the Intel relationship to provide great PR for it. But, I digress.

When you have 5% of a market, and you're not a price leader, you have to communicate much more effectively your value proposition. Apple has failed to do this throughout the lifetime of the Mac. Apple is conspicuously absent from billboards and tv screens when it comes to the computer side of the business. If Apple is to be long-term healthy in this business, it must find a way to get towards a 20% market share from the 5% (or so) today. It will not do that waiting for word-of-mouth to work. That 20% is more likely to come from the consumer marketplace - the barriers to wholesale acceptance in the business world are even higher (though in my opinion it is businesses that have most to gain today if they could get over their inertia). So, for Apple to get a 20% share of PC's they might need 30-50% share of the consumer market. It's not going to do that without a LOT more advertising. That advertising has to encompass the same excitement as seen in the iPod world. But it has to be more than that. iPods are primarily for fun, computers are more than that. There is a serious side to this that Apple needs to address - how easy it is moving from a PC, the benefits a user gets NOW, reducing FUD in general for example. If Apple got this right, it could have a truly amazing effect. I'm afraid I'm not sure it can get it right, and once again it will come close but not enough. Throw some resources at this Apple with your usual flair, please!

Challenge #1 - Partnerships

I firmly believe Apple will soon need to strike a large number of major partnerships with all sorts of companies - domestically and internationally. They cannot go it alone. Intel is an example, but is not sufficient. Those partnerships are about mutual success - each company must feel they need the other. And, Apple has to be more open about what's in it for those companies. Some of you might suggest the iPod accessory market shows Apple can do this, but I would maintain this is a very poor example of that. The partnerships are little more than hangers-on. For the most part, Apple makes the pie bigger, and these guys get a cut of it. Nothing wrong with this model for this purpose. But, the great partnerships of the business world do not work that way. They rely on two or more companies BOTH contributing something that grows their market significantly to mutual benefit.

The two major partnerships in the iPod/iTunes music world that were set in motion have been a complete failure. The first was the HP relationship. The second appears to be the Motorola relationship. Whoever is at fault, and I'm sure it's not ALL Apple, doesn't matter. These have not been a success, and yet they were important. How much of the potential in these relationships was held back by Apple paranoia we'll not likely know, but the end results are damning.

Apple is still a minnow in the world of PC's. If it is to capitalise on the infamous iPod halo effect, then it will not be able to do this without corporate friends. I'm going to suggest a few obvious (to me) partnerships. Apple will need as many big partnerships as I list here, though of course, they could be completely different companies. But the proof will not be the signing of the partnership or the CEO or Company X appearing on the stage at MacWorld (as surely one will do today). The proof is in the delivery and the end result for both companies.

Here's my list (I have tried to choose companies which could also benefit from an Apple relationship of course):

1. Nokia. Apple and Nokia's relationship today is limited to Nokia licensing components of the Safari browser from Apple. But really these two companies could benefit a lot from each other. Despite the new N91 music phone, Nokia really isn't anywhere yet in music. And, they have a big threat in the high-end market from Windows Mobile. Nokia has a generally good open approach to technology. My ringtone is an AAC file downloaded via bluetooth straight from iTunes. The wonderful Salling Clicker remote control app works on more Nokia phones than any other brand. They have little to fear from each other (unless they have ambitions beyond reasonableness). These guys really could work together if they wanted to.

Examples: the long-rumoured iPhone could be a Nokia/Symbian device. Apple could also use/co-develop the new Nokia internet tablet - for instance helping it as a great remote control for FrontRow or as a portable screen for a mini. (Another option of course would be Palm, but I think their days of importance are somewhat numbered)

2. Yahoo (or maybe Google). Yahoo needs friends. When it steps up against Google, it is increasingly finding itself marginalised in the bigger Google/Microsoft battle. There is a lot that Yahoo does that Apple doesn't, and vice versa. Sure there's a lot of overlap with Apple's .mac services versus yahoo services, but Apple's could be seen as a premium offering. Flickr integration with iPhoto is an opportunity for instance, as is music search. And, Apple's .mac services are overkill for many people. The Yahoo services could be a .mac lite for many people if better integrated into the mac experience. Google is a longer shot. I think Google is still business-immature and probably doesn't THINK it needs partners. Doing a deal with the already-difficult-to-work-with Apple would be unthinkable. The premise of any deal with these companies would be Yahoo/Google taking the advertising dollars - the relationship with the supplier if you like, and Apple taking the paid-for consumer dollar. There's enough in it for both, and a focus on what each company does best would be better than each company going for everything (which Microsoft is attempting to do to take on Google).

3. Amazon. Amazon accounts for a lot of sales of Apple equipment, especially iPods. But Amazon's physical logistics side surely offers some potential for both companies. Why can I not listen to a sample of music in iTunes and then with 1-click (after all, you guys licensed it between you!), purchase the physical CD? Apple would get as big a cut off the physical sale as they do from the sale of digital music (not much, but something), and the important thing is that iTunes is the jukebox with that integration. Of course, even better would be that you got an instant download of the digital version too to tide you over until the CD arrived, but then that would be asking too much wouldn't it? An Apple-Amazon partnership in music delivery would be very effective at putting further pressure on music labels and other content firms to develop a consumer-friendly distribution strategy embracing physical and digital distribution.

I have suggested before that Apple purchase Tivo as well. I still think this is a reasonable idea. It would give Apple a pincer movement strategy into the living room which it doesn't have today (even predicting MacWorld announcements). While Tivo is not the company it was, it has a good brand name still, and some technology that could certainly help Apple move into the home in a much stronger way (Tivo + iPod + Intel Mac + AirportVideo would be as compelling a product line up as any Microsoft effort). If Apple doesn't buy Tivo, it perhaps should buy or establish a much stronger relationship with Elgato - makers of the EyeTV/EyeHome products.

Without partnerships like these, Apple is becoming the target of far too many other companies (often much larger) across diverse fields and in some cases ganging up in an effort to seize the initiative. Apple is not big enough or important enough to withstand a complete barrage - someone somewhere will get it right. How much Apple sees this I don't know, but even if they see it, the bigger challenge is actually to find the right companies and make these partnerships work.