22 December 2005

The Evesham MiniPC Plus

A succinct review of this new machine is to be found from Trusted Reviews via The Register

Why mention it here? Well, read on....

The first two pages of the review appear to indicate that we have after 11 months (or 12 as it is not on sale until January according to the Evesham site) something that is a real competitor to the Mac mini. I was particularly surprised that they have replicated the Mac's ports pretty much exactly - 2 USB ports and one Firewire. Surprised? Well, firewire is less common in the Windows world, and 2 USB ports is pretty low by most standards. Apple do not target the Mac mini as a media centre device - though it is used by many of us that way. On the other hand, Evesham markets this specifically as a Media Centre device. Used in this way, you will almost certainly need both USB ports - one for a tv tuner, the other for a surround sound output. Even then, try connecting up an mp3 player. So, in the case of the Evesham machine where does the keyboard go? Unfortunately, there is no bluetooth option available (that I could see), so it seems it's one port short right away. A more logical approach would surely to have put 4 USB ports on it, and drop the firewire - probably a similar price in all? Apart from the mention of it being somewhat noisy - something the Mac mini is definitely not, at this stage in the review, the machines appear very similar indeed.

However, turn to page 4 of the review and it is clear that this is far from a competitor. The price is an astonishing £699 inc VAT - 40% more than the Mac mini equivalent. In the case of the Mac mini, that model has Bluetooth AND wifi installed (only wifi is an optional extra on the Evesham). The mini also includes a dedicated GPU, and, as mentioned, is much quieter. Software-wise Apple's iLife apps are considerably more advanced than anything offered on Windows today, and arguably Mac OS X 10.4 is more advanced than current Windows XP (and the Evesham will be constrained for running Vista given it's graphics architecture).

So, you may ask, I'm still not sure why this is relevant to what you normally blog about and why you're bothered by a review of a me-too copy.

Well, I think it is notable because it demonstrates to me clearly a problem that Apple is having in perception of it's (computer) products - most particularly that it is expensive. It has taken one year to have an off-the-shelf direct competitor to the mini (rather pathetically mimicking it in fact). During this year, I have heard over and over that even the Mac mini is expensive for what it is compared with PC products. Yet when a PC comes along that allows you to tick most of the same boxes, it's 40% more!

The issue for Apple is that there are hundreds of makes and thousands of models of PC available and that choice allows people to select a model that does what they want at a price point that they want. Want a cheaper laptop than anything Apple makes? You can find them by the dozen. Want a cheaper desktop than anything Apple makes? Loads of them. It's simple to ignore the models that are higher priced than Apple. Conclusion? Apple is expensive. And that's what sticks. I can see Apple doubling their market share over the next few years. But if it is to considerably exceed 10%, it is going to have to lose that perception or do a lot more to educate the masses as to what it's value is about.

21 December 2005

Intel Macs - Myth and Reality

It takes a brave man to go out on a limb so close to MacWorld and contradict rumours that are already considered facts by some of the mac faithful, but Paul Murphy at ZDNet has recently done just that. I'm not sure I agree with all that he's written. But I think he makes some excellent points in the article, which are worthy of serious debate (more so than a recent column suggesting Apple ditch Intel and move to Solaris/SPARC).

In a series of articles here between now and MacWorld in January, when all (well at least SOME) will be revealed, I'll be taking a look at some of the things that have gone from guesswork to firm predictions to expectations, without a single machine being released. I think expectations for this particular MacWorld are now running way ahead of anything else I've ever seen for Apple and indeed perhaps for any technology company ever.

Myth or Reality #1: TIMING. Intel Macs will arrive much sooner than Apple promised. Interestingly, I've seen conjecture for just about every Mac computer to be in the January announcement even though the transition was not expected to be complete until end of 2007. I have seen mention of Mac mini, iMac, iBook, eMac, Powerbook and even XServe for immediate release (missing is the dual core PowerMacs).

Myth or Reality #2: PRICING. Intel Macs will be cheaper/substantially cheaper than current Macs. A number of people believe that moving to Intel will allow Apple to suddenly become much more price competitive. Dell will be in the sights. We can expect equivalent Apple machines to today at $399 levels for instance, $599/$699 for laptops.

Myth or Reality #3: PERFORMANCE
. Intel Macs will blow away existing PowerPC Macs in just about everything. PowerPC Macs will be immediately obsoleted. Even with Rosetta (the emulation software required to run PowerPC applications), the Intel Macs will still outperform current machines.

Myth or Reality #4: FUNCTIONALITY. Intel Macs will do so much more. A new Mac Mini will be a full-featured "media-centre" machine using FrontRow software serving HD content to one or more display devices, acting as a dual channel Tivo-like device for TV (choose from cable, satellite, digital, analogue), video-on-demand downloads from the new Apple "locker" while streaming music to multiple locations, syncing your family iPods, oh, and running Windows at the same time...

Now, I hope that by bringing these all together, you can see that it certainly doesn't add up. Some of these myths are incompatible with the others. I'm going to be sticking my neck out looking at each of these areas and trying to take an (educated) guess as to which ones will be myth and which ones reality.

All Apple have said (of note) is that the first Intel Macs will become available by June 2006, and that the key driver was performance/watt. What I will say at this point is that come MacWorld, the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field is going to have to be operating in Hyper mode if there are not to be a large number of disappointed people, because Apple cannot and will not deliver on all of these areas. Which areas they do choose to focus on will be fascinating. But what might damage their reputation is NOT a failure to deliver on what has been promised, but a failure to deliver what the rumour sites have collectively ramped up as nothing less than Apple freeing the consumer from the tyranny of every technology or industry - insert your choice(s) of Microsoft, Dell, Sony, Music industry, Hollywood, Cable - they don't like at an affordable price.

Stay tuned....

14 December 2005

Bad Journalism #1 - BusinessWeek

I came across this BusinessWeek article late last week.

Now, I've had a few instances of this lately which are really getting me quite angry. With a scientific background, I am trained to think about proof. Proof can come about only through thinking about all possible scenarios. The worst science happens when a scientist has a single minded viewpoint and designs the experiments to prove that single viewpoint, when in fact the experiments should all be about disproving that.

Now, rightly or wrongly I expect similar standards in journalism - at least in what I consider to be the "quality" papers. I recently had a run-in with the Guardian when their long-time anti-Apple columnist Jack Schofield concluded that it was Apple's fault that Microsoft's XBox360 - while interfacing with the iPod - could not play music in the iTunes Music Store format. His evidence? A comment by a Microsoft person saying that they wanted to work with Apple but couldn't. The comment was not an original comment - it had been picked up from another article. Because Jack had failed to get a comment from Apple, he assumed that to be the truth. When queried he became quite defensive about this all being due to Apple's closed ecosystem, that they were unreasonably demanding 10% of all revenues for iPod accessories, and that they were monopolistic (and good ole' Microsoft was not). I pointed out that Bose, Alpine and others did not pay 10% to Apple for their product sales - just some percentage for adapters. Since then, I've noticed Pioneer and Denon hifi equipment with direct support for the iPod - including iTMS format material. My point to Jack was that he did not know enough information to blame one side in a business transaction, and that he was peddling one party's propaganda in this. What he could have said is that "it is a serious shame for the consumer that Apple and Microsoft could not agree how copy-protected music could be played via the XBox". I don't think I got anywhere. (Ironically, the Guardian runs an excellent "Bad Science" column - a pity they don't apply it to technology stories too).

And so to this article in BusinessWeek. The premise? That Apple itself is what is holding back the online music business. Full of quotes from Apple competitors and the music industry yet devoid of quotes from Apple itself. The article has an hypothesis - something that might get people's attention because it's controversial. But really the article has more holes than Swiss cheese.

Lets look at one bit of logic. Online music sales in the US appear to have plateaued. As the iTMS has the primary market share for this area, then clearly it is Apple that must be doing something wrong. Sounds plausible, doesn't it? Except it can't be. Apple does NOT have 100% market share. There are others in the market including Real, Napster and Yahoo. Some of these are quite recent entrants with aggressive tactics. So, if Apple is doing something wrong, surely these guys would be picking up the slack? Even if you take the iPod owning population out of it, there's still 25-30% non-iPod that would be buying more if it was just an Apple problem, surely? It could be true if the Apple store is actually LOSING market share so that while the overall market is flat, Apple's competitors are gaining. This possibility is ignored, so draw your own conclusions.

So, what reasons are put forth for the plateauing? Ah, it's the fixed price argument again. The article mentions that the labels have pressured Apple for variable pricing - essentially cheaper for older stuff and more expensive for newer stuff. To back that up, the article quotes a user as saying that he would buy more older music at a lower price. Duh! If the labels were arguing for a lower average selling price per unit, then this all makes sense. But it is quite obvious that they are not. Sure they want variable pricing. BUT, they want that with the AVERAGE price UP. Why am I so sure? Because it is Apple that has fought for the low fixed price (99cents). And it is Apple that has fought to maintain that. That's one reason. But let's looks at some others. If it was about variable pricing, the labels are free to explore this with other music stores are they not? And what has happened? Nothing. 99cents is basically as cheap as it gets. So, either the other stores agree with Apple, or can't afford to discount. Factor in the widely-held theory that Apple does NOT make money from the sale of music, it merely covers it's costs. So, why would Apple object to a reduction in pricing for online music? The point is they wouldn't - if there was an overall reduction. And that is how you conclude that what the labels mean by variable pricing is NOT what the consumer wants to see with variable pricing.

And it's worse than that. What Apple understands is that simplicity counts. Today's model is simple and easily understood. For consumers to grasp variable pricing will require a considerable cut in the average selling price or some other attractive offers. BusinessWeek attempts to head off some of these arguments by suggesting that Apple is sold out of iPod's so doesn't need to sell more music online. It even suggests that the labels will look beyond Cupertino if this doesn't correct itself soon! Really! Give me a break. Apple set out to make relatively little from the iTMS. But to artificially limit what it sells makes no business sense. They want people to buy as much as they can from this store for obvious (and selfish) reasons. And the labels should in fact be wishing for more partners like Apple who are prepared to forego profitting from online sales (of course, they're not happy with that - they now want a cut of the hardware sales as well!).

I sometimes wonder if I am representative of the general population. And on the point of music purchases I am to a degree and am not in other ways. I have a stack of vinyl I've never replaced. At a certain price point I would replace most of that via online. At a higher price point I'd replace SOME of it. And, as it is today, I've replaced none of it. (Given that I am an audiophile is the issue that makes me less representative) There are other artists I'd like to experiment with, but on an album pricing basis, I just won't do that. This year, I've tried a few things, mainly because I can now get new release CD's for as little as £6.99 via CDWow, and indeed very rarely need to pay more than £7.99 (that's about £1-2 less than a year ago via Amazon, and about £4-8 lower than a few years ago via shop). I prefer to get the physical item. It is a no-brainer that manufacturing/distribution costs for online are drastically lower than physical, so why am I still being asked £7.99 (and indeed more these days) for stuff online? Is that Apple's doing? I don't believe it is. I cannot see any reason for Apple to keep prices high. But the labels have a long history of hoping they can get a higher price. At this time, Madonna's album is £7.99 on iTMS and is number one. The Robbie Williams album is £9.48 and is not in the top ten. I can get Madonna's CD for £6.99 and Robbie's for £8.75 delivered from CDWow. The only question I've got is who is buying Madonna's album at £7.99 then!

So, why exactly am I going to buy a copy-protected, lower quality recording, that can't be resold if I don't like it from the Apple iTMS for MORE money than a physical CD? If that "more" was going to Apple, then I'd blame Apple. But we know that "more" is NOT going to Apple - quite the opposite. The record companies are making MUCH higher margins on the online sales at these price points. What is undermining their business models (among other things) is the global economy. They cannot exercise their geographic powers the way they used to when global logistics can correct the imbalances. Likewise, they have no long term geographic control over online. The geographic monopolies will crumble. The issue isn't VARIABLE pricing, it is about LOWER pricing. Especially lower pricing for older stuff that online delivers EXTREMELY economically. And lower pricing for new stuff too - at least at an album level. What happens when prices come down? Sales go up. And when cost of sales is very low (as it is in music) then profits rise that much faster. How many businesses has this been shown to be true in? Yet the labels consistently think these business rules do not apply to them.

I recently came across the usual intelligent comments at Ars Technica on Spitzer vs Sony. Towards the end is this gem of an insight...
....but it sure makes customers mad, and mad is good. One of the things that music execs want to accomplish in the short term with their DRM strategy is to put pressure on Apple to open up the iPod and its Fairplay DRM. The thinking (if you can call it that) apparently goes like this: angry customers can't rip a CD to their iPod and fire off a nasty note to Apple about how unhappy they are. Apple then caves, licensing Fairply or agreeing to support Windows Media. As one label executive told Variety, the hope is that when the great unwashed masses find themselves thwarted by DRM,
"Maybe they'll send Steve Jobs an e-mail."
Sony wants to turn its customers into a pressure group that will generate enough smoke and heat to crack Apple's stranglehold on the iPod, and DRM is one of the tools they're using to get the job done. It sounds strange, but does Sony want their customers angry?

What BusinessWeek has done by failing to peel off a layer of the onion and really investigate what is going on, is to become a mouthpiece for the labels' propaganda machine (and Apple's competitors to boot). The labels have a hero in Apple, but a hero they are worried has already turned into a monster. Once again, they are retreating from the real world into their imaginary world in which (they dream) the customer will pay more for their product, will re-pay every few years or so when the format changes again, and will be happy to limit their uses to those the labels deem acceptable (heh, I bet many of them think you and me should be buying BOTH a physical copy AND a digital copy!). I will be covering in a future article what things they COULD be doing to make the most of digital. Instead, they are using everything in their powers to mimic their past, slow the change, and paint the proponents of change as the bad guys. Headlines may sell papers, but over time consumers expect more from what they read. It is very simple to see. The online market does not belong to Apple (though it may be dominant), and the overall music market certainly does not. The labels know this, and an investigative business-oriented newspaper should too. The labels will have to deliver far more to the online buyer. That can come in partnership with Apple (and others), but must be driven by the labels. BusinessWeek should know and write better.

08 December 2005

Apple DVR - not!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the rumoured Apple DVR.

Yesterday provided another data point on why this will NOT happen - at least not as a complete Apple-branded product.

Variety carries some comments from NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker, focussing on their new deal with Apple for TV content. I particularly liked this gem commenting on moves by Tivo and Echostar:

"This is clearly not the proper way to behave," Zucker said. "We have worked in concert with Apple to benefit the consumer; where others are not working with content providers is clearly not in the best interest of the consumer"

So, Apple's head is clearly focused in one direction, and they will not do anything to undermine that at this stage while maximising participation of the content providers. Of course, you can get your programs free too - just use Elgato EyeTV or other devices from companies like Miglia.

Xbox360 and Class Action

Some of you may expect me to gloat on the news of a Class Action suit forming over XBox heat problems.

Well, I don't wish those sorts of things on my worst enemies (oh, ok perhaps Sony deserves one or two over the rootkit debacle!). This class-action-as-soon-as-I-have-a-problem is one of the worst things about our current society (well, the US one that is, but we have it here in sorts, and it will only get worse too).

Does MS not offer a warranty? Has it refused to honour that warranty? Just what percentage of units were defective? Has anyone's house burned down? While I reported on the heat issue with the XBoxes on this site last week, it does not seem that it is massively widespread, and while MS is not going to stand up and explain to the world (it doesn't have to), I've not heard big complaints about its handling of any XBox issues (except the shortage!).

Class action lawsuits do not benefit the consumer. Anti-trust actions do not benefit the consumer - they benefit the CURRENT shareholder of the company that wins (not the shareholder/employee at the time of the anti-trust actions). The only true beneficiary is the lawyer(s). And of course, that applies to the defense lawyers too! For instance, in all the EU action against MS, not once has there been mention of the consumer getting recompensed for being ripped off by the anti-trust practices. And in cases like Real vs Microsoft, why for instance isn't Apple also recompensed for losing out similarly with Quicktime (because they didn't/couldn't sue?). In an ideal world, one company would have succeeded reaping the profits (legally) or there would have been intense competition and no one would have made much. In this case, the consumer pays for the illegal-monopoly, and then sees those illegal gains distributed to the other protagonists. With class action lawsuits, we also lose out. Innovation is held back and the status quo is preserved, and the lawyers take it all.

Most products (cars, bikes, pvr, software, etc) I own have some flaw with them, yet only the massive hits are big enough for the lawyers to get their teeth into. We benefit as consumers from rigorous consumer rights laws that entitle us to get problems fixed and money back when something is not "fit for purpose". The law is already on our side. But we consumers also have a responsibility to investigate what we're buying too - that it fits our needs and expectations. If we don't want to chance, we don't buy something brand new. If we like something (despite it's flaws) then we recommend it. If not, we tell people why not. And only if a company has patently and severely broken the trust we should expect in them (eg the Sony Rootkit fiasco) should we need to resort to more serious measures. Wake up consumers of the world and exercise your buying power responsibly.

Firewire's even more on the way out

Back in October, I blogged that Firewire was finished. It's a subject that upsets loyal mac users because it's a technology (like Newton, SCSI, etc) that we BELIEVED was great and that we also shelled out hard-earned money for (drives, camcorders, iSights etc). I was led to my conclusion by the omission of Firewire from the newer iPod's and also an excellent article by James Wiebe posted on the WiebeTech website that I linked to in that blog entry above.

Today, I was contacted by someone I've never met, but feel I know well as a friend through countless interactions on one or more forum sites. He mentioned that the new iMac uses a USB iSight camera rather than a Firewire one (thanks Bosie!). While there could be many reasons for that other than the imminent death of Firewire (and let's face it, does it matter?), I then came across Jason O'Grady's blog at ZDNet. He is also addressing the Firewire-death thing and refers to rumours that the new Intel Macs will not sport Firewire.

Coincidentally, I had been postulating this as I struggle to work out how Apple will introduce Intel-based Macs alongside PowerPC-based systems - a topic I'll come to in more detail in the next few days (like the DRM stuff I promised which remains undelivered!). It seems to me that one way to avoid cannibalising the high-end lines is to remove "Pro" features from the consumer machines when something else (USB) is good enough. And, it also helps to squeeze a few more $ from the manufacturing costs of these machines (and cost is going to be a BIG factor in how they are judged).

While a pro-user today (in the old Apple sense of the word - a graphics/media person) may still require Firewire for sometime longer - like they did SCSI, the rest of us will have to make do with just USB which despite it's VHS comparison to the Betamax Firewire is probably good enough for what we need in the home/office environment. Of course, in the PC world, it would continue as a legacy port alongside Parallel ports and 3.5" floppy disc drives. But Apple doesn't believe in legacy ports. They balance a fine line between jumping to the new and upsetting their followers. I understand why they do this, but I'm not sure everyone is so forgiving.

So, Apple, for everytime you all gloat on how well you've done with the iPod, hark back to those things you haven't done so well but were sure they would be a huge success. You learn more through the humbling experiences than the triumphs everytime. And don't ever forget you've had a few humbling experiences in your time!

Footnote: For those who haven't followed this, USB will not completely take the place of Firewire. USB will be for lower-end devices; SATA is developing to satisfy the higher-end needs such as large storage and super-fast transfers that Firewire800 and future developments could have probably matched

07 December 2005

The first "iPod video-killer" headline

It's taken longer than I thought, but this is the first one I've seen (over at the Register).

Not surprisingly it's the folks at Creative that are behind this - the Creative Vision:M in 30GB capacity with a 2.5" LCD at 320x240, just like the smaller iPod-thats-not-called-video-but-happens-to-do-it model.

So, let's take a quick look at the rest of the specs (courtesy of the Register again).

Ah, it's a mere 122mm3 in volume. Just 75% bigger than the equivalent iPod and only 38% bigger than the 60GB iPod. Edit: I've seen sites already mention it as the same size but 2x thicker as if somehow 3D doesn't count!

It's 22% heavier, and still 5% heavier than the larger iPod.

It MAY have an FM tuner which MAY work in your country (or not).

It has a new dock-type connector (but not too many accessories available today, and hard to see how this could overturn the burgeoning 3rd party iPod market).

It plays more types of video than the iPod but H.264 which is the accepted format going forward is not mentioned. Only H.264 can give excellent video capacity.

It may have better battery life than the similar capacity iPod (could we have independent verification of battery life please someone?), but not over the larger capacity iPod (even though the Creative is physically bigger than that). Edit: In fact, I've read that it has 11 hours audio playback - less than the small iPod. So something gives. Possibly the video playback figure is only with simple low-compression files? That's why we need consumer standards here.

It may be available in mid-December in a few countries, just 2 months after the iPod.

It will be priced in Japan at the equivalent of US$329 a mere 10% more expensive than the iPod.

As far as I know, there is no direct downloadable content available for it either as music videos, short movies or tv programming. But someone somewhere will do it won't they?

So, what exactly is "killer" about this one? Well, in addition to black and white, it will be available in Green. Way-to-go, Creative! Those designers of yours have really excelled themselves this time round.

(And, just when are the media going to give up on this "killer" label just to get something noticed? Perhaps they should put something in a pot for charity everytime they use it, and just get their money back the very very rare occasion it comes true.)

02 December 2005

Opening up Comments

Those of you who've visited here may have been put off making comments because it required registering. A new setting (at least I think it's new) allows me to moderate posts. So, I have turned this ON, and turned OFF the need to register.

I have also turned on a feature that requires the commenter to input characters they see - called "word verification". While this may be superfluous given the moderation feature, it reduces the chance I'll have lots of spam comments. Let me know if this is too onerous.

I promise to moderate only spam or offensive comments. So if you've got something to add/correct/disagree with then now you've no excuse! We'll see if we can get some informed debate going.

I've now been doing this blog for about 4.5 months. I'd really appreciate some honest feedback on the blog as a whole? I know my writing isn't especially good and certainly not succinct (I'm trying to improve), but do you find the subjects interesting? Has anything helped you look differently at a subject? What would you like to see here? Do drop me an email directly, or comment here if you wish.