31 May 2006

Using iWeb and .Mac for blogging

When I first got my hands on iWeb I was very impressed with how simple it was to put websites together. I wrote a brief review back in early January here which also includes brief coverage of other iLife06 components. Unfortunately, I noted some severe limitations which restricted it's use for me as a replacement for the blogger.com service for instance. There have been other frustrations with iWeb too. But with the release of iWeb 1.1, there have been some massive improvements in functionality and suddenly it starts to look like a viable tool for more than just the very simplest sites.

The biggest improvements have been in the blogging area where comments are now permitted. While anyone can post comments, and they can only be moderated after the fact, there is the usual authentication (type the letters/numbers in the image above) method.

Another area that is improved is the photo album component (though this may have been a hidden feature before). It is now possible to add new photoalbums by just dragging an image from an album created in iPhoto into a page which serves as the index to the albums. A detailed photo page is created with all the photos in the album automatically. Combined with the neat AJAX-based slideshow features, it becomes incredibly easy to manage and publish new photo albums.

I have now updated my personal site and this shows both of these features in use. The blogging is sufficiently improved for me to consider moving over to that permanently. The blog search feature works well (it has never worked for me on blogger.com!), and it is easy to put photos in. There are weaknesses still - many I suspect I don't even yet know of. Most irritatingly, the main blog page has a font format that I don't seem to be able to change. You will also see that I've been forced to include a blank template entry. I should be able to hide this from the posted site, but I haven't found a way to do this.

iWeb's publishing speed has also improved, but it seems when I access the site that it's still quite slow to serve pages for whatever reason. Photos though do seem to work quite well - it's just the first page loading that seems especially slow.

Please feel free to visit both the sites I've made with iWeb - my company site, and my personal site. You can make comments or even note questions back here or on the iWeb blog, whichever suits. Remember the company site was set up to replace a site I'd created with a simple html editor which can still be seen here. The iWeb version took around 30 minutes.

I'm certainly looking forward to iWeb 2.0. With some rounding of the features (template management PLEASE), and the .mac groups feature (which I think well surpasses yahoogroups these days), Apple has truly created a simple but sophisticated web publishing system for individuals, clubs, societies, etc that anyone can truly use. With blogs, photos, calendars, file sharing/downloading well integrated, it is really very powerful indeed. You just need to have a Mac of course to do the publishing with in the first place. That restriction (obvious though it is) may be a limiting factor for greater adoption as those with Macs may feel that they'll never be able to involve other people in the process and be saddled with website maintenance forever!

25 May 2006

Apple's Intel Choice Looks Inspired

Apple's announcement that it was moving it's Mac line to Intel chips last year was met with shock and some disbelief. Those that thought the move was long overdue criticised their selection of Intel - they should have gone for AMD who have been beating the pants off Intel in the last few quarters. There were also a few that insisted the PowerPC was still the right choice. A few of them have even being trying to resurrect the hope of the PowerPC being a future contender by clinging onto stories such as this "exclusive" from the Register last week which got some attention. Essentially this introduced the fact that Apple had another choice other than IBM or Freescale - a small start-up called PA-Semi. While I'm sure Apple looked carefully at this, it is hard to see how the company offered a viable option for Apple in a suitable timeframe. While one version of a chip would have been shipping in quantity early next year (theoretically), that would not have met the needs of Apple across the range of machines. And quite where Apple would be now with a G4 line of laptops is hard to imagine.

But back to the Intel/AMD argument. Dell's recent selection of AMD is being used by some to reinforce the argument about Apple making the wrong choice. But it is increasingly clear that Apple's timings on selecting Intel have been either inspired or fortuitous. The Core Duo chips used in the all the consumer models have been very well received indeed by the mainstream PC press. AMD has only recently been able to respond with a Dual core Turion model suitable for laptops. And, within the next two-three months, Intel will have introduced the next generation of Core chips - the Core 2 architecture. This architecture is the basis for a whole range of chips from the "Merom" versions for laptops, through "Conroe" for the higher end desktop to "Woodcrest" for the server market. All of these chips are fabricated using 65nm technology (AMD is still on 90nm until the end of 2006). This article from Ars Technica is a great summary of the situation with Woodcrest and links to three detailed reviews and benchmarks next to older Intel chips and current AMD leaders. Merom has already been reviewed well in other places. These chips are going to catapult Intel into a lead that AMD will struggle to match for the next 18 months or longer across the board, with the exception of high end 4-way or more servers. The chips perform well both on absolute performance but also when considering power usage, we are witnessing one of the biggest improvements in chip performance for many years. We will no doubt see Woodcrest in replacements for the Powermac line, as well as LV versions to be used in the XServe replacement. It will be interesting to see where the Conroe versions end up (if at all). Will we see a new model using these or will they sit in the iMac?

Of course, there were other factors in Apple's choice. While Apple represents a tiny fraction of Intel production, AMD might have actually struggled to meet Apple's demand which would have necessitated an increase in production of perhaps 25% or more. Intel seems even to have actually exceeded its own expectations of production - Woodcrest is coming in ahead of time, and it seems to have had no problem shipping quantities of Core Duo chips so far.

While there is little doubt that AMD will bounce back, and that financially at least, they are still causing Intel all sorts of problems, all of this represents the sort of healthy competition that Apple can now benefit from - in terms of price, performance and choice.

Of course, we may never know whether Steve went Intel because he wanted to offer machines that could also run Windows easily, or whether he was genuinely seduced by what was being offered and saw the Windows opportunity as an extra benefit. But with the choice and timing (any earlier and Intel looked quite sick; anything later would have missed building on the iPod halo effect) it is increasingly looking like he's made one of his best ever business decisions.

Ballmer's gotta go!

I wrote back in March about who should carry the can for Microsoft's failings. I concluded that Steve Ballmer was the logical candidate.

Since then, things have only worsened - with a poor 1st quarter, and the stock even further down - now back to something around 1998 levels. That's amazing for a convicted (and essentially unreformed) monopoly. Just yesterday, while Microsoft is trying to rally its supporters with lots of good announcements at the annual WinHEC Conference, Ballmer (who is absent that event on a trip to Japan) seemed to put his foor in it again by indicating Vista might be further delayed (here's a link from DailyTech that came easily to hand).

A considerably more intelligent and informed writer than me, Paul Kedrosky, in a not-so-subtle post yesterday entitled "Fire Steve Ballmer Now" is obviously of the same view. I particularly liked the link Paul had in his article to a Google video of a recent Mr Ballmer performance. I wonder if he had been watching Ricky Gervais in The Office for inspiration? Unbelievable.

I've heard other rumblings from the Wall Street/Financial press about this, and there have also been clamourings from within Microsoft itself - read the Mini-Microsoft blog for more on those.

But really who should we be listening to on this topic? How about from the man himself in a conference at the Institute of Directors in London last month? Maybe he's not so dumb after all, and perhaps he's in Japan to learn how to gracefully fall on his sword?

24 May 2006

Law Profession Should be Ashamed

There is an almost unbelievable post being linked to from a number of sites today from Jason Tomczak (but first noticed by me from John Gruber's Daring Fireball).

Jason has written an open letter to the Mac community - but really it should be read by a much broader group. His notoriety has come because he was involved in publicising the iPod nano susceptibility to scratching. A class action lawsuit was quickly started by a law firm who used his name as Lead Plaintiff on the case. Amazingly, Jason had never given them permission to do this, and by all accounts has wanted to distance himself from such actions.

If that is not amazing enough, it's the story of his subsequent fight to correct the misappropriation of his name and the tactics used by the law firms involved that really should strike fear into any person who thought for one minute that our justice systems are for the purposes of protecting the individual.

I have respect for most lawyers and believe they do an important job. But this renegade bunch of the profession exist almost only for their own aims. It may be legal, but it is as close to extortion as it gets. I have long worried that our governments are made up of a very high percentage of lawyers and that their inclination is to create more and ever complex laws. Even if the intention is for good it is the law community that benefits from this the most - a massive job creation scheme for themselves. But as it is a self-regulated profession, it serves to drive up rates to ludicrous levels putting justice out of the reach of ordinary people who can neither understand it or fight the intricacies of different laws - as shown by Jason's experience to extricate himself from this.

The law profession needs to be externally regulated and we need to apply greater rigour to ensure our laws are being created for the good of the people not for the benefit of the law firms. If this is not going to happen, the lawyers themselves need to ensure their profession is cleaned up. What we have going on is nothing short of Enron levels of behaviour. If justice is only about money it has lost its raison d'être. Who's going to clean up this system?

Footnote: Those who argue this couldn't happen in the UK are deluding themselves!

23 May 2006

Apple mid-term review

It's been 14 posts here since the last significant article on Apple, so I know you're all looking for a big one, so here it is! Please join the debate by submitting a reasoned comment.

The release of the MacBook this week marks a major milestone in Apple's strategy to be a major force (and leading innovator) in the post-PC era* of converged lifestyle devices. Less than a year ago, Apple surprised most of the technology world by announcing a switch to Intel chips, a move which was not especially popular with the faithful, or even the hardcore techies (who believed if anything it should be an AMD chip inside). They announced that the transition would begin within 12 months, and be complete within 18 months after that. In fact, apart from the Pro tower line and Servers, the transition has been COMPLETED within the first 12 months. We also now have an idea that with Intel's release of Conroe/Woodcrest/Merom chips starting in June through August, we will see the completion of the plan all within a 14-15 month period (though I'm hedging on whether the IntelXServe will come out in that timeframe).

While Apple, perhaps, set expectations ludicrously low in terms of the timeframe, and that financial pressures meant they had to be faster, I think most people would accept the speed and quality of the transition has been on the whole incredible. There have been issues reported with the MacBook Pro of course, but none more than I've seen with most other laptop releases (my last-iteration Powerbook had well-publicised battery and sound problems, both fixed). All-in-all the rev A. machines have actually been relatively problem free. Some might say that Apple has accomplished this by in fact being comparatively un-radical in design - all machines were basically very similar in form factor at least to the previous PowerPC based machines.

The MacBook represents perhaps the first diversion from that - with it's wide screen and thinner profile, but is still similar to older iBooks in terms of materials used, port configurations etc. Apple can now move on to the super exciting products that Steve has been telling the press are in the pipeline. The MacBook is of course a vital computer for Apple - the laptop market is still growing much faster than the desktop one, the previous iBook was getting VERY long in the tooth, and Apple was conspicuous by its absence in the low-price notebook category. It is also a vital machine in the education market too.

I am surprised at the overall specification of the machines. They seem quite close to the MacBook Pros, and yet are priced pretty aggressively for Dual Core notebooks. I had perhaps expected a lower-end single core machine and I am also surprised that the lowest spec machine still uses the 1.83Ghz processor rather than the 1.66Ghz baseline Core Duo. Inclusion of the iSight and magsafe are also pleasant surprises if not completely unexpected. I'm not quite sure about the rationale for the Black machine effectively having a premium of $150, but then that's a choice that people can make for themselves. Compared with MacBook Pros, the MacBooks lose a few features - eg the Expresscard slot and perhaps they are heavier in relation to their size - the 15" and 17" MacBook Pros are weight class-leaders in that size and feature set. Apple could clearly have made a single core machine at a price point of $999 quite easily, but has chosen not to (yet?). For comparison, I priced a brand new HP DV1000T with similar Core Duo, memory, wi-fi etc and it came in at $1216. The new HP's have been well reviewed as price competitive.

The Challenges

With this announcement behind us what can we look forward to, and what are the problems Apple has to face?

In December - before the MacWorld announcement of the first Intel products I covered 4 areas in which much was being said and written about Apple and termed this series the "Myth or Reality" series. Essentially I tried to look at what was being said that Apple would do or needed to do in each area and then concluded whether much of the thinking would turn out to be Myth or Reality. The 4 areas I covered were 1. Timing; 2. Pricing; 3. Performance and 4. Functionality. It's time to review those areas again and see how things have changed.

1. Timing. There were commentators questioning how quickly Apple could move given Intel chip availability and other factors. Who would have thought in early January that in a little over 4 months Apple would be SHIPPING it's four major product lines on Intel? I expected that Apple would attempt to move quickly, and that indeed the Intel chips they needed were essentially available. But, I think Apple has exceeded even my expectations here, and they have been backed up by pretty impressive Intel availability - including, we now hear, the earlier availability of the new Core line of chips code-named Conroe/Woodcrest/Merom. These represent the REAL Core chips (with the Yonah 32bit chips being an interim offering). These three chips should slot in nicely into the Apple line quickly upon their release, as they are pin-compatible, meaning that Apple may well be onto 2nd generation Intel products on iMac and MacBook Pro models before the start of their next fiscal year.

I think Apple has also done a much better job over previous years in product availability. There were serious delays to the iMac line for instance under PowerPC. We've not had that here. Products announced have been shipped pretty much on time with decent availability.

But Apple's challenge on timing now will be to match the other manufacturers in keeping products updated. Apple's product lifecycle has typically in the past been 9 months or so even for minor upgrades, with major product refreshes every 2-3 years or more. How quickly will Apple have products using Conroe/Merom/Woodcrest? What happens when the next/faster variant of those chips is released? Will Apple match other manufacturers in this regard? In fact, we may already have that evidence. Since the MacBook Pro was announced for instance, it has essentially had 2 speed bumps and a small price cut in the UK. That bodes well for Apple's flexibility.

2. Pricing. In this article, I argued that for those thinking Apple was already expensive, things wouldn't change. Moving to Intel was not done to reduce prices. In my conclusion to this article I said:

While I think Apple will have SOME room on pricing - especially if it gets clever on cutting a few bits and pieces without compromising the system - this is mostly myth. For those who think Apple is already expensive today, it will be complete myth. But it will be as much about perception and value. What I think Apple will have to do at the same time as this is advertise more heavily. It will need to get over to people the functionality of the hardware in comparison with others, as well as the superiority of the Apple experience. It needs more than anything to demolish the view that it is SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive. With Vista not expected until much later in 2006, it's best economic argument revolves around the notion that a Mac today with 10.4 and iLife is better value than a Wintel machine with XP and a separate copy of Vista later, especially if people realise that many Wintel machines sold today are not fully capable of exploiting the Vista featureset.

I'd like to think that was a fairly accurate comment. Mac mini pricing certainly was not cut (though one could argue that machine is still very good value today). Other machines came out pretty much on a par (or cheaper - eg 17" MacBook Pro) with previous PowerPC models. But I think it is now becoming easier to compare Apple products to others, and that, with the announcement of the MacBook, there is now a product that covers just about all price points. While that may not be the exact product someone was looking for, it is at least easier to compare the models. It is also easier to look at the Apple premium for features and software and understand how large that is. I believe that if people really add up the featureset then that premium ranges between -10% and +10%.

Those that argue you can have another vendor's laptop that does what a MacBook Pro does for half the price are exposed more easily now. Apple's problem in the price arena is that there are thousands of competing products giving truly huge choice. If you don't want to pay for a built-in iSight camera, Firewire, magsafe adaptor for a MacBook Pro you have no alternative in the Apple range. Or, if you're happy with a single core laptop, you've no product in the Apple line-up. In the WIntel world, you choose a model that has exactly what you want, and no more (though how many people do that is open to question as emotions enter this area more than most people care to admit).

What has also changed of course is that Apple IS advertising the Mac again, and stressing the superiority of the experience (that was prescient then!). Vista is delayed at least into early 2007, and perhaps what many of us didn't see coming was Apple's positive support of allowing Macs to run Windows XP via Bootcamp,

Pricing is a very difficult area. Apple is making good, but not enormous, margins on it's computers, so its room for manoeuvre is limited. It must do its best to offer a great choice of models covering most price points and needs, and stress the value offering. But if a PC price war breaks out, this will hurt Apple too. Last week, several news sites carried coverage of research by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster about Apple pricing showing it in a favourable light (net: on average only 10% premium for Apple experience). I have my own criticisms of this coverage (eg comparison of Mac OS X next to XP Home rather than XP Pro), but nevertheless I think the world is starting to get the message that Apple is not 30% or so more expensive if at all. That image certainly resulted in a lot of people dismissing Apple outright. If they start to include a Mac in their purchase considerations that's a big hurdle overcome for Apple. Most people can afford 10% more for something with greater value. Now the challenge is convincing them of that value - the affordable argument should go out the window.

3. Performance. I covered this topic by saying that performance couldn't be so radically different from PowerPC machines that it would cannibalise the top end machines immediately. I had assumed at the time that the first machines would be the low-end machines - mini and iBook. Of course, Apple surprised most of us by dealing with the mid-range machines - iMac and Powerbook first. And the numbers were certainly attractive. But held back by some applications not being universal, this allowed the top end PowerMacs to still look good. Apple's early problem was that for the mainstream market it now only had old stodgy slow products. With the mini and now MacBook that has changed.

So, for the most part, the performance area has turned out well - very well. I expected this would take until late 2006, or 2007, and for certain pro apps such as those from Adobe, that may be true. But for most Mac users, most of the time, I think Apple can now claim to have a great-performing solution. The debate will now move on to absolute performance of OS X and its applications next to Windows. That's not a bad thing.

Now the interesting thing for Apple is if it can use it's control of the whole chain to drive performance significantly better than in the Windows world. This may not become apparent until Leopard, or even after that. But Apple will be supporting far fewer chip types in it's machines than Microsoft. It may therefore be in a position to make significant optimisations for such chips in both the OS and its applications (eg video encoding).

4. Functionality. I concluded the article on functionality thus

How easy will Apple make it to run Windows on the same machines? Will Apple increase support for switchers - perhaps by bundling something like move2mac into? Will we see greater integration for iPods? Will they open up FrontRow to run on all machines?

Well, we have answers to many of these questions now. Certainly, Apple didn't push the Mac mini as a media center-like device, which many commentators were asking for but nor did they discourage it (see "Big Ideas" on right side of page). And in the other areas, Apple has made huge strides. FrontRow is now on all Intel Macs, and all Intel Macs can of course run Windows XP in various fashions. Their capability in this regard will be enhanced as Leopard emerges, and as third party solutions become more mature.

I think where Apple is still weak - and needlessly so as there are solutions - is in making it really easy for people to switch. A very bright friend recently switched and while impressed by much of the capability, he was also frustrated at the difficulty of moving things across AND that he didn't find the Mac intuitive. In fact, he is an expert computer user who does most things via the keyboard. He had not picked up that he could do many of the things that way (eg Ctrl key combinations were not apparent, nor Command Tab or indeed many keyboard shortcuts). Combined with not having his second mouse button, this created frustrations that in fact (mostly) didn't need to be there. While he was able to move most of his stuff (eg iTunes) across, this was also not as easy as it might have been.

If Apple is to satisfy the switchers with the experience most of us regular users expect, then it has to do more to get them productive quickly. That means appealing both to low end users for moving a few photos, documents and tunes over, as well as to the really sophisticated user who still wants that part easy, but also wants to be super productive on the new machine quickly. I've not used move2mac, but something like that would clearly make some sense to offer for a very low price or ideally bundled.

And, I think Apple still has holes in the functional areas that are not the preserve of the PC (or iPod). If Apple is to be one of the leaders in the post-PC era, then it has to have broad appeal in a range of devices both mobile and fixed. If it doesn't produce such devices, it has to make sure that it has partnerships and can deliver top quality devices in that realm. At the very least it will need devices that allow the Mac and iPod worlds to be fully integrated into users' mobile experiences. The iPod nano was a great device to push out convergence in that market but it will happen. And Apple will need to ensure it has products that do not allow it to be found lacking in the areas that Windows Mobile and Windows XP Tablet edition cover today. In the home, Apple will need more than an informal EyeTV partnership and it's iPod/iTunes success.

So, timing, pricing and performance have all successfully (or just about) been negotiated. It now comes down to functionality. Apple lost the PC wars as the integrated experience didn't win out. In the post PC-era, it is betting that the integrated model can win out. If the PC is still relevant as the hub, it is what the hub does that is important, not what O/S it runs on. iLife and the whole Mac OS experience are critical in that battle - as exemplified in the new ads. But Apple has to make navigating into that experience easier. It is lacking in a low-end integrated office package (eg an Intel-based Appleworks) so is now exposed there. And, as new games consoles come out, new phone types, new tablet form factors, and even just simple consumer electronics devices like Tivo move on, it has to make sure that having buried its disadvantages in the old world, it doesn't become marginalised in the new world.

It cannot take the lessons of the iPod and just apply that to the Mac world - it is vastly different having a single-digit percentage of the market than having ownership of that market. But it must apply the relevant lessons of the iPod success to both the Mac market and it's future markets. It must build on it's new partnerships such as with Intel and its (as I've argued before) co-existence with Microsoft to make significant headway against Dell, HP, Sony, Lenovo, Gateway and others.

The Future

What have we to look forward to?

First of all, Apple has really just moved it's existing line over to one set of Intel chips - the Yonah Core Duo (and in one case Solo) range. It is using exclusively (so I believe) the T range of chips. Intel also offers L (Low Voltage) and U (Ultra Low Voltage) ranges of these chips. Such chips could be used in different types of products - or just to save weight and/or increase battery life. I think Apple's initial stress on performance is no bad thing. But it will need a wider portfolio of products. With Conroe, Woodcrest and Merom, it will also have greater choice (and these also will have LV and ULV variations). So, that's one area in which things will get even better. I'm sure its this variety of processors that is allowing Steve to be so bullish about the products in the pipeline.

Next up is 802.11n. I certainly expected products in this area by now. Apple was the first mainstream PC manufacturer to really push 802.11b and then g. I think it really needs "n" for further integration into the home. However, while some pre-n products are available the standard has been delayed and introducing such products now might be a PR disaster for Apple when the final specification renders such products obsolete. Without 802.11n Apple will be reluctant to introduce a video airport express which would be a key product in the living room. Perhaps this will come by MacWorld 2007 time, but really its outside of Apple's control and must be quite frustrating.

Finally, we have Leopard of course. If people compare Vista with the current Tiger release (which many commentators do, and not that favourably), then the arrival of Leopard with no prospect of a catch-up Microsoft product for, say, another 5 years will send a pretty clear message to consumers. I wonder if Apple will in fact wait for Vista to arrive before releasing Leopard and use that extra time (assuming it is extra time) to add a few more killer features. Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in August may clarify this a bit more. Key to Leopard's success I believe will be the way it allows Macs to co-exist in a Windows world so nullifying the main arguments for not going Mac and indeed giving everyone a best-of-both-worlds experience.

Apple's business success in the next twelve months will be judged based on significant market share gains in the PC world combined with further iPod volume growth (and with little sign of marketshare loss), while not getting engaged in a price war to damage margins. In the PC business, nothing less than 50% growth of units in a market growing at just 10% will be considered sustainable in this area. Thus, in 2 years time, if Apple has not grown worldwide marketshare to at least 5% (which may imply a more sustainable 10% marketshare in the developed economies), then it will still be too small to have long term influence in this marketplace. Instead, history will judge this period as just another in which Apple had a chance and blew it. Ideally, Apple will also be seen to be inventing/succeeding in a 3rd area. I will allow a grace period of this quarter for things to settle down.

But, Apple's final fiscal quarter and final calendar quarter this year will need to show evidence of this absolute growth and marketshare growth (I would consider sales of 1.7m Macs in each of those quarters evidence that Apple can do: 2005 equivalent - just over 1.2m). Without that growth, even I will withdraw my bullish stance and recognise that Apple will forever be a bit player in the PC world and even the post-PC era. What do you think? Is this a low expectation or a high expectation? What should be considered success criteria for Apple?

For Mac evangelists, it's time to put up or shut up. There are no excuses any longer. The next twelve months should be really interesting!

*"Post-PC era": I have seen mention of this term frequently in recent months. I am assuming in this article that such an era is coming into existence. A definition of this is highly debatable and I'm going to skip this issue for another day! For now, let's consider that it does exist and refers to the new level of consumer choice in devices through convergence of hardware, software and services.

18 May 2006

Rainbow Warrier

From Airbus back to nature - all in one day. Glorious rainbows this evening. Here are a few shots

Airbus A380 London Visit Photos

The Airbus A380 made a London flypast today as it headed into Heathrow airport, primarily to test it's capability to handle such a large aircraft. A special new pier has been built at Terminal 3, as well as additional changes at the airport.

To give an idea of scale here. This aircraft can conceivably carry up to 840 passengers compared with a theoretical max on a 747 of 524. That's 60% higher. In typical passenger configuration, that increase is more like 33% with 555 passengers in the A380. The length of the aircraft is a mere 3.5% longer, but the wingspan is 24% wider at 79.8m, and the aircraft is 24% taller. (analysis courtesy of figures supplied on the BBC website).

Your roving reporter was on hand to capture it flying over Battersea. One thing that I was most struck by was just how quiet it was. I would have said that it was quieter than any other large jet (even twin-enginer versions) that regularly fly overhead.

Additional and higher resolution photos will be posted up on my main .mac home page later.

16 May 2006

The URGE to blog

My first reactions on hearing about the release of the MTV/Microsoft joint venture music download service is that this is not so much a threat to Apple as a serious threat to the other non-iPod download services. If you had invested lots of money in a WMA-based music store business only to see Microsoft launch their own, I expect you might be a bit upset. Why Rob Glaser was banging on about Apple last week is beyond me. It will be Microsoft that will hit the final blow, Rob. Napster, Yahoo and others are going to find it tough when the default store is set as something else.

But, I think there is another obvious weakness here. While the store may launch now as a beta in the US (would you buy something from a beta?), it is not due outside the US until the final release of WMP11 as part of Vista. So that gives Apple another 9 months on the rest of the world. In fact, it is in the rest of the world that Apple is more vulnerable as it does not hold market-strangling marketshares in countries other than the US, Canada and the UK. While of course the logistics of launching stores in many lands are not to be sniffed at, it seems that this will be too little and too late.

MacBook released!

Worst-kept secret - MacBook - is now released. (Though Apple has done a good job foiling the rumour sites about it's release!)

Specifications here

Sony VGN-A11S

I have always found it inexplicable how Sony names and numbers it's products. Their response to the iPod has been such memorable devices as the NWA1000B, NW-E407, NWA3000B to name just three taken from Amazon (so, is the hyphen required or not, please?). Now, I would probably guess that the NW means Network Walkman, but does anyone really relate to these products the way we related to Walkman, Trinitron and others back when Sony was successful?

But today, I had to burst out with laughter when I saw the model name for the new 17" laptop with Blu-ray drive. A simple anagram of VGN-A11S immediately sprang to mind which, while not perfect, seemed rather obvious whichever way I looked at it (even just the VGN bit). Perhaps this is a reference to what content will be most frequently viewed with that Blu-ray drive? Or, perhaps I should seek help?

Poor Guardian Writing

The lead headline in today's Guardian is "New figures reveal scale of industry's impact on climate".

As someone concerned about climate change I read this a bit more to see what all the fuss was about. First paragraph:

Five companies in Britain produce more carbon dioxide pollution together than all the motorists on UK roads combined, according to new figures which reveal heavy industry's contribution to climate change.

and then:
The figures, which have prompted new calls for tighter restrictions on corporate pollution, show that efforts by individuals and households to cut their carbon footprints will make little difference unless accompanied by greater action by industry.

Indeed. What's the point in doing anything when just one of these nasty industrial polluters is spewing out more CO2 than the whole of Croatia (does that comparison enlighten anyone, incidentally?)?

So, I was keen to find who is doing this polluting. And, lo and behold, 4 of the 5 companies are electricity power generation companies. The other company is Corus, the steel manufacturer, supplying the steel used in, er, those cars that we all drive, or the concrete in the roads/tunnels that we use, or the steel in the out-of-town malls we all drive to. There is not a single mention in the article about who the customers of these polluting industrialists are - only the suggestion that you're all wasting your time on your own initiatives.

I don't consider such reporting to be passable in any newspaper, and certainly not the Guardian. While there are plenty of people who can see the anomaly here, there are many who will read the article, decide who the enemy is and have one less reason to change their own behaviour. Then, when the companies charge more for their product to invest in reduction technology, they will encounter even more opposition from their less-informed customers.

It is also ironic that the article is based on statistics produced as part of an effort to reduce emissions through trading - a perfectly legitimate way to achieve a result. While a certain shame factor may be a useful tactic applied on top of the actual emissions trading to achieve better results, promoting the fallacy that it all starts and ends with the big guy is just ridiculous.

I should also suggest that the reporters of such articles be forced to write as a footnote their own preferred alternatives such as massive expansion of wind power or nuclear.

15 May 2006

Skype raises the bar

How big is this story, widely circulated on the newswires today that Skype is now offering free skype out calls to US and Canadian landlines and mobiles (from within the US and Canada only)? The FT reported it like this (subscription required)

Skype, the internet voice-calling service, stepped up its efforts to gain a stronger foothold in the US on Monday, announcing free calls to landlines and mobile phones until the end of the year.

Remember mobile numbers work differently in the US - the mobile user gets charged for airtime for incoming calls, so caller only has a normal landline rate call. So, it doesn't translate exactly here in Europe.

But, the landline and especially the mobile carriers who spent so much on 3G licenses must be getting VERY worried indeed!

More on Chirac...

I've written a few articles over the last few months about how France seems to be struggling to come to terms with the new world, including this one about the youth (un)employment law which caused such a frenzy. I blame much of France's difficulties on poor leadership from President Chirac.

I know a lot of French people are not happy with the situation either. Loic Le Meur who is a leading light in the European Blog movement (and EVP at SixApart) has written on a few occasions about this on his blog.

So, it is nice to see that a new film about Chirac is getting lots of laughs - "Being Jacques Chirac". It is a documentary using real footage of Chirac done by the people who did the March of the Penguins film. The Liberation newspaper considers it part of a trend "Chiracophobia: the new national sport".

I think this will be one to go and see when it arrives in London.

11 May 2006

Rob Glaser and UnReal Networks

I was so astonished to read of Rob Glaser's statements in a Guardian interview today (widely reported elsewhere) that I broke my self-imposed exile of visiting the Technology Section to see what all the fuss was about (If Charles is still reading, I'm sure he'll be pleased). Actually, Kate Bulkley's interview is a good one and she asks all the right questions. Mr Glaser's answers came up short I'm afraid, very short. The question/answer which illicited the "iPod users are all thieves" headlines does not need to be repeated here. What I was taken with however was just how far off the mark Mr Glaser is with his views and the strategy for his company. He must be glad of the close to $1bn settlement he got from Microsoft as otherwise, he'd be struggling to support that diet of his.

What you won't see in the Guardian interview I've linked to is the nice photograph of Mr Glaser posed Jabba-the-Hut style next to a Dell PC with perhaps the least inspiring screen display I've ever seen. So, I've taken the liberty of abusing my Guardian Digital subscription to bring you this photograph because if Mr Glaser can accuse me of being a thief, I'd like to show him for the fat-schmuck-lost-it-businessman that he is.

For Whom The Dell Tolls

(Apologies for the headline, but I couldn't resist. Although I've seen it somewhere in the last few days, a google search shows it's hardly original. If I could attribute my plagiarism to the deserving originator, I would).

A few weeks ago, I wrote here that Apple was in reality not competing with Microsoft - but with Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony and the other successful Hardware and Consumer Electronics makers. I had hoped to be writing an obituary to Dell in about a year's time when Apple's Intel transition is well behind it, Vista is achieving only moderate success, Apple's market share has doubled, etc. But, instead Dell has gone and shot itself in the foot well before that time, and Apple has had very little (if anything) to do with it.

Of course, I don't REALLY believe Apple is going to overthrow Dell, nor do I believe Dell would be the major or unique casualty of an Apple revolution. I do think Apple has a chance to inflict pain on Dell by taking away a percentage or so of marketshare which in a slowing PC market would cause Dell some severe embarrassment with Wall Street, but in all honesty, Dell is going to be around for sometime yet, irrespective of what Apple does. I worked out that if Apple doubled its worldwide market share (an achievement it would be happy with over a couple of years) it could do so by taking relatively tiny amounts of marketshare from the other top 8 manufacturers (in proportion to their own marketshare) such that they would barely notice the difference in a growing market. The effect on Dell for instance would be considerably less than 1%. So, while Dell may fear Apple if they radically could overhaul the whole PC market, in reality, Apple is not the company that should be worrying Michael Dell when he gets up in the morning.

To recap, Dell has had a few disappointing consecutive quarters showing slower growth. Dell has typically grown faster than an already fast-growing market. When that market growth becomes slower AND your own growth falls below average, then problems set in. Just this week, Dell gave a profit warning:

"During Q1 we continued to execute on our strategy to reinvigorate growth by making investments in our support infrastructure and product quality and by accelerating pricing adjustments," said Kevin Rollins, Dell's Chief Executive Officer. "We are committed to delivering industry leading value to our customers, which ultimately results in industry leading growth for the company."

What does that mean? Well, Paul Kedrosky - a witty observer of technology and investing - has kindly translated the DellSpeak so we can all understand it:
Paul wrote:

"During Q1 we tried to fix our support problems in hopes that would spike growth in the crummy PC market, but that didn't work so we tried to save the quarter by cutting prices earlier and more than expected. Trouble is, those bastards at HP cut prices too, which made us drop prices further. Now we're left with losing money on PC sales and trying to make it up on volume."

Thanks, Paul (check out Paul's views on Google too).

Of course, Dell represents a classic business case study - and mostly for the right reasons. It has shaken up the PC industry as it commoditised more and more. Dell's innovations are not in hardware but in supply chain. It has been a phenomenal low-cost operator and reaped the benefits of that strategy. But the problem with being the low-cost operator in a market is that it is not sustainable unless you have some unique advantages. In Dell's case, its competition is still of a reasonable size (eg HP) so can get the same economies of purchasing. What the competitors had to learn was to copy Dell as far as possible and perhaps add a bit of their own spice on top. It's a bit like low-cost airlines. Ryanair in Europe has been a leading protagonist of this model. But as it reaches the limits it is left with getting rid of window shades to save weight and fuel (what? 5cents per flight?) - ever decreasing yields for each idea. It relies on the inertia of its outdated competitors to stay ahead. In Dell's case, their competitors have not stood still. Furthermore, Dell is also recognising that in some cases (eg support) it has perhaps taken too much cost out (as witnessed by its poorer customer sat ratings), and needs to put a bit back in.

But Dell's previous strengths may start to become its weaknesses. It does not really have the same sales channels that, say, HP has to business - relying on the direct model primarily. In retail it is lacking partnerships and/or its own physical retail outlets. Just a few years ago, that looked a wise strategy as Gateway failed so emphatically. But Apple has shown that a retail strategy CAN work. And if Apple and others can show that there is more to a computer than just low price, then people will need to experience it before buying. Whether that's PC World, John Lewis, or your own retail store may not matter - you allow people to come and see and play. What Apple has shown with its retail strategy is that Gateway wasn't wrong about retail, just that the way it went about it was wrong. Whether the lack of channels worries Dell or not it is the fact that its competitors have also learned how to operate the direct model too that should be worrying it. So, they may not be THE lowest cost operator, but if they are thereabouts AND with a reassuring retail presence, good customer satisfaction ratings etc. then that maybe enough to tempt the serious buyer. Of course, Dell is the master at advertising incredible prices and at bait and switch tactics. But it is already on the limit of what it can do here.

I honestly think Dell is in a difficult position at this point. And it will take several quarters at least before it can regain its crown. It is too late to switch to AMD chips which some have said it should have done. Right now, Intel is bouncing back with very tempting offerings, and Dell should reap it's loyalty reward from Intel (in both supply and cost). Vista is late and not going to help in the usual wonderful Q4 (in fact it may hinder). In a way, Intel's problems and now Microsoft's have shown how little control Dell has over its own innovation and destiny. Dell, will have to innovate better and to improve it's customer satisfaction ratings again. How it can innovate when it doesn't control much of the hardware or the software is hard to see except through design or customer service. These efforts will take time to do and to feed through to perceptions. It may have to explore alternative channels to market - perhaps with its own branded Dell stores (though I'm not convinced this would work). Of course, the low cost leader can always cut prices more (which it is doing). But this is a dangerous move that not just hurts your competitors but you as well. Dell has few manufacturing advantages over it's competitors - just its supply chain scale. Would Dell risk starting a vicious price war?

Perhaps its best alternative is to buy one of its smaller competitors that has complementary channels and apply the Dell financial magic on it. If it could boost its marketshare above 20% it would be in a unique position in the market again. IBM's business would have been good in hindsight, but I doubt they could get Lenovo off the Chinese. Assuming the Japanese companies are staying put, that leaves possibly Gateway or Acer out of the top 8.

It is far too early to write off Dell as the hardware powerhouse. And it's competitors (including Apple) should be fearful of what a wounded giant could do. But unless it can come up with some new lessons to teach it's competitors, I think it is Dell that's going to be doing the learning for a while, and it's shares are not going to command the heady premium of the past until it can demonstrate it has learned those lessons.

Footnote: There are lots of articles on Dell's predicament over at Wall Street Journal and FT to name just two, with similar musings, but of course, they require a subscription!

Edit/Update 24/5/06: Dell has announced the first two retail stores! However, such stores will be used to allow people to try Dell products and to order. The stores will not carry inventory for take-away purchases. Is this too little, too late?

Tales of Greed from around the World

From John Gruber's Daring Fireball comes this link to a New Yorker story on supposedly-intelligent people getting taken in by 419-type scams (eg e-mails from Nigeria promising millions). It's a long article but worthy of a read. I can't quite make up my mind on whether the treatment meted out to Mr Worley was reasonable, but next to that received by fellow idiot Marcia Cartwright (who got off) it seems pretty harsh. Certainly Mrs Worley suffers far more as a result than Ms Cartwright, and that doesn't seem fair. (Oh, and along the way, I think some of the banks come out of this story very badly indeed, yet don't seem to have faced the consequences).

Next up is the story from Spain (plenty of other sources on this one too) about 350,000 Spanish and Portuguese people who put their life savings into a stamps investment scheme (yes, postal stamps!) with promises of fantastic returns. A hardly surprising outcome ensued. Consequential damages of such a story though hit other people. Shareholders in the famous UK company Stanley Gibbons saw the value of their shares plummet by 12% in reaction to this news, despite no involvement by the company whatsoever in the Spanish scheme - merely a reaction to how the stamp business will be tarnished.

Finally, closer to home is this story from the Guardian about how so-called "Carousel" fraud might now be accounting for 10% of the UK exports with losses to the treasury estimated (may be exaggerated) at £10bn in this year alone. That's a lot of retirement villas on the Costa del Sol. Of course, whereas in the other two cases, the primary victims and perpetrators were united in their greed, this scheme is clever in that it does not rely on the active participation of the victim - just an incompetent government department to give it away on our (taxpayer) behalf.

In all three stories the real perpetrators/beneficiaries have yet to face justice, and that the real victims (60million of us in the UK for instance) will never likely be restituted.

10 May 2006

Google and the Californian Economy

Amazing report here about the scale of insider selling at Google and the impact on tax receipts for the Californian Economy!

Is Sony finally waking up? (Part 2)

The second part of this series (Part 1 dealt with Sony offering support for AAC file formats with the answer to the title being a guarded "yes") has a negative answer I'm afraid.

This week (lots of coverage of this everywhere) Sony announced more information about it's next generation game player - the PS3. This will go on sale in the 4th quarter this year and will cost $499 in the US for the basic version. The version that most people will want will be $599. Now this represents a considerable premium on either XBox360 model. In the UK, we can assume the list price will be over £400 for the top model (once VAT is added). That is before the cost of any games. Given that the games need to pay for the subsidies for the box, we can expect the price of these to be significant.

I wrote about this topic a little in November when I questioned whether the XBox360 heat output and design made it as suitable for the living room as it needed to be. My view at the time was that Microsoft and Nintendo were going to clean up and Sony was going to be left behind (though I indicated that Microsoft's failure to sort out the XBox360 design might hinder it). But I think the news from Sony shows that they have really messed up here. The price is far too high, and the features are not just tempting enough except perhaps for the real hard core gamers. As important, there will be 10m XBox360's in circulation by the time the PS3 is first on the market.

Nintendo on the other hand have taken a different approach to both competitors. They are aiming at a device that is only focussed on gaming, and will cost the least of the three (theoretically). Their marketing goal appears to be to bring more people into gaming (more of the family, etc) rather than be the über-gaming console. Despite the new name - Wii - rather than the codename of Revolution - Nintendo also seem to be winning the praise of developers.

Now it is also true that I am completely uninterested in gaming and know nothing about consoles. I do not even have one. I find this topic important because it impacts on convergence in the home (convergence via gaming console/extender-TV or via computer-TV is still in the air). But I have been careful to come to these opinions by looking at the more intelligent comments on the various discussion boards outlining these stories. Despite Microsoft's failings on the XBox360 (inventory particularly, heat perhaps), it is way ahead into the market at a price point that is considered reasonable with some decent features. Nintendo has taken another approach that is also being praised. But I can find few people standing up for Sony from a business perspective. The PS3 looks to be too much, too late - a classic case of overengineering. Sony needs the PS3 to succeed - both for holding it's own in the games market and for ensuring Blu-ray is the format of choice. It cannot afford to fail, but at this point, failure is all I can see ahead. And if it is not to fail in the market, it is most likely that the shareholders will bear the brunt of that failure.

Any gamers out there wishing to argue this point? Please explain why little Johnny's parents will shell out over £400 for one Christmas present for one person, when perhaps they could spend half that and get a console (Nintendo) for all the family and a few games too?

Is Sony finally waking up? (Part 1)

Via MacNN and a few other places, it is reported that Sony will be including support for AAC file formats in it's latest software release, and (presumably) going forward with its music players. What does this mean, you may well ask?

I have never understood why companies wishing to take on Apple in the iPod arena have seemingly avoided adding support for AAC (and also for MPEG-4 H.264/AVC on video). Unlike Microsoft's WMA, AAC is NOT an Apple standard - it is an open standard (indeed, Sony itself is a member of the MPEG consortium). AAC is basically a better MP3. iTunes default conversion I believe is to AAC format, so many users will have ripped their CD's into AAC format without realising it. If I was hoping to poach some disillusioned iPod users (and I'm sure there are one or two out there), then offering AAC would surely be a tick in the box for such users (or, given such users might indeed be ignorant of the differences, more likely it would result in not immediately upsetting your hard-won new customers as they move their music collection over to SonicStage).

Of course, Sony is not adding support for protected AAC - the format designed and used by Apple for it's iTMS-purchased songs. For the time being, Apple will keep this proprietary (whatever the French government might have to say about it). And, perhaps this distinction (which is certainly frequently mis-reported by the mainstream press and therefore misunderstood by the general populace - is it just that everyone assumes one of the A's stands for Apple?) is a reason why other manufacturers have not adopted AAC. But remember that the iTMS still does not exist in many countries, and that many iPod users have not bought any music from the iTMS, and even if they had, the vast majority of most people's music collections will be their own rips.

Some might say this move may help Apple, and in as much as it gets people to better understand that AAC is NOT an Apple proprietary format, that may be a good thing. There are also many happy iPod users who do understand the issues and have refrained from using AAC because of potential re-ripping if they wish to preserve their music player choice, and have therefore stuck with the less-efficient MP3 format. But, I can't see that this will actually sell more iPods, so in that respect, it's a common-sense move from Sony and well overdue (how about abandoning ATRAC while you're at it?).

The next logical development a music player manufacturer could do would be to make the switching from an iPod to your own device REALLY simple - a few scripts that could run within iTunes for instance and do all that was necessary to put the files (and metadata of course) into their software and resync the new device. This could even happen with the protected AAC files too.

If anyone from Creative, SanDisk, iRiver, and the rest are reading, perhaps you could enlighten us why you haven't already done these things?

Footnote: My Nokia phone supported AAC out of the box and I was simply able to transfer an AAC file from iTunes via Bluetooth and configure this as my ringtone in a couple of clicks.

09 May 2006

More on Apple vs Apple

I came across the full writeup of Justice Edward Mann's decision on the Apple Corps vs Apple Computer case. It is very interesting reading - even for the lay legal person. It also shows that the judge had a pretty complete grasp of the issues. I strongly advise anyone who thinks they have a good idea of who is right and wrong on this to read the full decision write-up.

How I read his ruling was that he felt that what Apple Computer had done was fair enough anyway even without resorting to Clause 4.3 of the 1991 agreement - at least for most parts of the complaint (clause 4.3 seemed to give Apple Computer the right to distribute music in non-physical form). There is considerable effort given by the judge to understanding why clause 4.3 was inserted and what it was doing, and he comes down pretty much in favour of Apple Computer on that too - giving them additional ammunition in an appeal. It seems the judge found in favour of Apple Computer on most if not all of the issues because of what a normal person would construe.

Interestingly he did not consider that because Neil Aspinall (of Apple Corps) had seen a demo of iTMS and did not complain, meant that Apple Corps did not basically object. I think in a way that is reasonable as Mr Aspinall is not a lawyer and if we're honest, most of us non-lawyers would not be considering such things if we did get a demo of such software/service. But he did accuse Mr Aspinall of exaggerating his technical incompetence!

What became clear to me reading this judgement is that Apple Computer have understood the details of the 1991 agreement very clearly from day 1, and have studiously attempted not to go outside the boundaries - at least of their interpretation. They have been incredibly careful to limit where the word "Apple" and the Apple logo are used in the music store, in ads and other material - even with the iPod itself. The judge cleverly picked up when marketing speak was used which might have been interpreted to show infringement. But Apple Computer have had to tread a very fine line indeed - presumably with inhouse lawyers involved in interface design, advertisements, marketing materials etc. This might also explain why Apple hasn't done anything to promote physical + digital sales combinations (eg buy the digital version now and have the CD delivered). Ultimately, winning this case may allow Apple more freedom to innovate in crossing the physical/digital divide (should they need to). I think they may have to do this in the face of competition from people such as Amazon, MTV, etc.

Whoever at Apple Computer worked on the 1991 agreement deserves a medal from Steve. But apart from Apple Computer, I think the clear winner in this case is the British judicial system who have come out of it as modern clear thinkers.

08 May 2006

Racing car fun

I deny it's a midlife crisis (shame on you for such thoughts). I just got an offer too good to refuse from my friend, neighbour and UK 2005 Formula Ford Sprint Champion Iain Houston to use his car for a few events this year. So, after a practice on Friday, and expenditure on fire-proof clothing, helmets, memberships etc, I actually got round to participating in an event at Curborough near Lichfield at the weekend. I knew very little about club motorsport in the UK, but came away very impressed with both the organisation behind such events (very slick indeed) and the incredible participation and enthusiasm of everyone involved.

Sprints are different from races in that each driver goes out for 1 or 2 laps attempting to set the fastest time - a bit like qualifying for F1, but without anyone else on the track. I liked the idea of that - the blame for damage and injury lies only with yourself! There were 86 entrants on the day in a variety of classes from saloon cars through vintage racing cars. We each had 2 practice and 2 timed laps - around 70 seconds each, which means it's pretty much non-stop from 9am till 5pm for that many cars.

I am pleased to say that I finished 4th in our Formula Ford class. Unfortunately there were just 4 entrants in our class that day! I was about 6 seconds off the next fastest person and close to 10 seconds off the fastest. However, on a positive note, there were some drivers that were slower and I succeeded in staying on the track on each lap.

A huge thank you to Iain and Julie Houston particularly for giving me such a fun day (and all the preparation and encouragement leading up to it), and to others at the event who showed such courtesy and encouragement to a "newbie". I will definitely be doing a few more events this year, and maybe reporting back if I manage to make any progress.

I've put a few more photos on my website here.

UK Train Folly

I took a train from Burton-upon-Trent to Ledbury on Saturday. As I wasn't sure upon my departure point, I had downloaded a number of departure times from Burton, Tamworth and Lichfield which were all close by. It was clear that Burton and Tamworth services were faster (many listed as direct without change). I checked the pricing from Tamworth and saw that it was possible to get an open single (walk-up price) for about £11.20, which I thought was just about acceptable. I did not check prices from Burton, which is 12 minutes earlier on the same line (about 8-10 miles or so). The direct service is run by Central Trains (though some changing services include other companies).

I got to the station with about 10 minutes to spare and asked for the price of the ticket to Ledbury. I was told it was £18.xx (can't remember pence exactly). I asked again requesting the very cheapest fare, and the same figure was quoted back. I said "surely this can't be as the fare from Tamworth is £11.xx?". All trains from Burton to Ledbury stop in Tamworth, so there is no "express" that misses out Tamworth. Surely it cannot be £7.xx from Burton to Tamworth - an approximate 70% fare increase for a distance increase of perhaps 15%? She said that she could do me 2 tickets - one from Burton to Tamworth and one from Tamworth to Ledbury. Cost £14.xx. Saving about £4. While still higher than I'd expected, my decision was obvious. The tickets were valid on any trains.

I consider this actually quite fraudulent. I specifically asked about the cheapest fare, and yet was offered a fare 30% or so higher than that. That is just plain wrong. There is a separate issue of why a train company can charge 70% more for a distance increase of about 15%, given that they do not offer any value added - eg an express service skipping the closer station.

On a side note, the train was NOT a no-change service. We had to change trains at Birmingham from a quite plush train to a very old and loud two-coach diesel with standing room only. We traversed from one end of the platform to the other passing a train to Stansted sitting in the middle of the same platform (i.e. 3 trains arranged along the same platform). We were only told this after sitting on the train for a few minutes after entering Birmingham New Street. I could have chosen a faster service to Gloucester that did involve a change, but had stuck with the Ledbury train as I thought it would be hassle free!

I keep hoping that Britain's railways have turned a corner, but there is still so much wrong. The fare structure is incomprehensible and generally very expensive (compared even to 1 person driving) unless such fares are booked considerably in advance. The services are slower than they need be (even the £10billion West Coast mainline has only shaved about 10-15 minutes off many 2.5 hour services I believe) often with unnecessary long stops (ours stopped for 5-10 minutes twice plus the long changeover at Birmingham). Of course, no one really wants to encourage people to use the trains because there actually isn't the capacity (as shown on a full suburban service late on a Saturday!). Where is the joined up thinking in transport policy we were promised?

Apple Computer vs Apple Corp Result

This looks like a verdict of common sense. Well done to Justice Edward Mann who seems to have had a firm grasp of both the law (as expected) and technology (as not necessarily expected).

While we may never know the details here (the 1991 agreement does not seem to be spelt out anywhere) (Update: We DO know the details* and they're here if you're interested. Clause 4.3 is particularly relevant, and also check Definitions 1.2 ) it seems that Apple Computer were certainly able to do things with music as a result of that agreement. It would also seem that they have gone to quite extraordinary lengths to ensure the branding of the store is kept quite separate from Apple itself (which of course does hurt it to a degree). When coupled with the fact that Apple Corp were fully briefed on the iTMS before it commenced operation and did not object, I'm left with the view that this was a very opportunistic lawsuit launched when it became clear that Apple had a lot to lose if it went wrong. The fact that Apple clung on and fought it shows their faith in their own legal basis was well founded.

I hope the Beatles just put up and shut up. They have made sufficient money from Apple Computer already to finance the pensions of hundreds of people let alone those of their already very wealthy founders. It is hard to have sympathy for a company that appears to completely live on in the past appearing in the law courts every once in a while to show it still exists. It is also particularly ironic that they take the tactics of the Establishment that they so eschewed when they were actually a band making music in the 60's.

Whether Apple Computer's name is a tribute to the Beatles or was just a way to be ahead of Atari in the Bay Area Phonebook we may never know, but Apple Corp should embrace and enjoy the possibility (and kudos) it was the former, and show it is still relevant in the 21st Century (e.g. by creating digital versions).

UPDATE: Added link to legal agreement.
* This agreement indicates a payment of US$100,000 from Apple Computer to Apple Corps. I can see no other payments mentioned. Yet, the payment reported was supposed to be around $26m. So, can anyone clarify what was actually paid, and if higher than the $100k in the agreement what the amount paid was for in addition to the contract?

02 May 2006

Microsoft vs Google

Google (and Yahoo) are up in arms about the new IE7 release which provides an integrated search bar, and, you guessed it, uses MSN. While it is possible to change it quite easily even, all parties know that people don't. I never understood why people accepted the home page of every browser instead of selecting a blank page - at the very least that would have saved bandwidth especially on the dial-up connections at the time. The point is, the average user is just lazy. Only techies choose Preferences or Options the first time they run a program to see what they can change (and this also gives a good overview to what the application can do). To everyone else, they never want to go there!

Google has a point of course - it's this type of approach that killed Netscape, and similar to Real Player arguments which ended up with a large settlement. But it's a little bit rich of Google as they have the same advantages out-of-the-box with Firefox and with Safari, though of course on a much smaller marketshare.

But whether Google is right or Microsoft is right, it highlights once again the box that Microsoft is locked in. This is a relatively trivial (though useful) feature, and yet it causes such contention. It may well end up in court. Whether Microsoft can actually innovate may be debatable (I think there's enough evidence they're struggling with that aspect of their business), but even when they do, passions are aroused (and lawyers called) at just about any new feature that Redmond bundles. Any feature that a user may need is likely to a) send some service revenue to Microsoft that might have gone somewhere else before and/or b) deprive some software company of revenue for a feature that was previously sold. That bodes very badly for the release of Vista which might just signal the start of a whole new raft of lawsuits from companies and regulators all with MS as the defendant. I suspect Vista is already compromised from day one by such (internal) fears, but I think this sort of story will become even more common in the next 12-18 months.

New Apple Ads

A couple of people asked me how I square up my contention recently that Apple and Microsoft no longer compete with the launch of the new Apple TV ads.

The ads actually are quite good (and can be seen here), and will be welcomed by many Apple fans who have complained for a long time about Apple's comparative lack of marketing of the Mac brand (especially next to iPod). They all revolve around 2 characters - PC and Mac. So, surely, Apple is taking aim at Microsoft with this?

I don't think most viewers will see it that way. The ads take aim at the PC experience - viruses, iLife, etc. And, a few of the ads specifically mention Microsoft in the positive - that both machines run Microsoft Office. Even "Windows" is not mentioned once. Sure, the technical elite may know where some of the blame lies for the failings of "PC", but for the average user, they're more likely to blame Dell, HP, etc. This is simply Apple going after PC buyers with a similar message from the iPod world - it just works and does what you want it to, oh and of course it's compatible too - with anything (Camera, Office, etc).

I was recently "told" by a reasonably intelligent, computer-using person that Macs could now run Word and Powerpoint for instance. He was quite amazed at this revelation. What he was referring to was Bootcamp! The fact that Word and Powerpoint have been available on the Mac BEFORE being available on a PC was completely unknown to him (and still is as I was too gobsmacked to correct him and walking out the door). His view obviously was that Mac users could not enjoy such standard software before now - they must be just toys.

I think these ads therefore will work on the level they're intended - not to those of us who understand the differences between OS's, hardware, software, networking etc. but for those (the vast majority) who buy a computer to use it and enjoy it. They use Microsoft in the positive, and they hit on all the areas in which the integrated Apple experience delivers something that a separated OS + hardware strategy never can.

I don't know whether these ads will actually make it to the UK and whether they'd be shown in the same form (the characters are quite American). But this is certainly the type of approach Apple should adopt (much better than the "Intel chip being set free" earlier this year) as the complete picture starts to unfold.

What do you think about the ads?