19 September 2006

(Old) Football News...

I've been a bit late in reporting on this - general tardiness combined with the hope that last Saturday things were going to get even better. But a 2-2 draw with Wigan ruined that hope and the brief top of the table stint from the previous weekend was not repeated.

Nevertheless, I would just like to trumpet the performance of Everton in the first few games of this season and in particular, to celebrate the 3-0 defeat of arch-rivals Liverpool - the best scoreline seen since 1964 (which pre-dates my memory, if not support). Well done David Moyes and team!

If only the glory days of the late sixties and the mid-eighties could be recaptured!


Guardian, Apple, iTV and Ignorance

Charles referring to my article on the new Apple announcements (and specifically about my criticism of the Guardian) posted in the comments to that article the following which I'm reprinting so it doesn't get lost:

You don't specify what, though, which is quite a clever way of disagreeing without having to do the difficult stuff, like being specific. Bobbie Johnson and Jack Schofield have also posted followup posts. Perhaps you'll find criticisms in those too.

The key point though is this. You can buy a DVD player for £30. You can join a DVD rental scheme, or just go down to your local library. With those you can watch the films as many times as you like (which is generally going to be once) or just buy the DVD, in which case you have a physical object that you can rip to your HD and watch on your PC etc.

And you'll have a wider choice. And lots of people also have VOD through Sky (which is NVOD) or NTL (which really is VOD). No waiting for the download to happen and hoping your broadband line doesn't crap out (mine runs now at 128K and falls over a couple of times a night).

This all leaves aside the iPods, which obviously are going to sell big. It's the other things - the movies and the "iTV" - which seem like squibs. Unless the movies get a lot cheaper, there's no point bothering. Unless the iTV has a lot more capability, there are other things which do the job just as well or better already, and have been for years.

This article is VERY long and represents a detailed piece of research and writing that I've conducted in order to answer Charles' criticisms.

First of all, I would acknowledge (and did acknowledge in the article) that it was a QUICK reaction to that day's news and I apologise for not posting the usual links that I do. At the time, the only Guardian commentary was from Victor Keegan to my knowledge which was featured heavily on the Guardian site. There was no intention for it to be "a clever way of disagreeing without having to do the difficult stuff, like being specific." But now as you ask....

(Before I launch into this, I should point out that my research has been hampered by the inability of me to browse parts of the Guardian weblog using either Safari or Firefox; at the time I tried - selecting the category Apple, Safari would freeze completely and had to be force-quitted; the behaviour was repeated 3 times before I moved on to Firefox; with this, cpu use went to 100%, and the display was quite garbled; after numerous attempts, I was able to copy and paste Charles' post so I could look at it in more detail and/or get to the permalinks. I've never had this experience with Safari before or Firefox. Is this another subtle anti-Apple ploy by the Guardian or just incompetence in adhering to web standards?)

Let's take all the articles one correspondent at a time and expose the ignorance:

First off, Victor Keegan, whose remarks were the only ones I'd seen at the time of my first article. I know Victor's not anti-Apple per se - I think he was the only journalist I know who praised the Motorola iTunes phone which even Steve Jobs is rumoured to believe was a POS. But...."Every Empire Crumbles" tagline "Apple is losing its hip and unpredictable edge as it risks being left behind by the very technology it helped to proliferate"?

Just what is the basis for this? It seems like a follow-on to the previous Sunday's Observer full one pager in the MAIN paper saying that the iPod was no longer cool. You know, Guardian/Observer Group, if you write it enough, you will believe it.

But what is Victor's evidence of the decline of the empire? It's not Apple's stock price obviously, or their recent financial performance (the last quarter of which had revenues up 24% over last year and 117% over 2 years ago). Neither of which are mentioned. It's not Apple's market share of music players, which is not mentioned. Instead, Victor uses 2 quarters of consecutive sales drops on iPods and refers to the number of mobile phones sold which have music playing capabilities. I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that Christmas comes but once a year, and that last year, new nanos AND 5G iPods had been introduced in that quarter causing a truly huge leap in iPod sales resulting in a baseline from which consecutive drops were inevitable. If Apple had not expected this, it would be sitting on huge inventory which it would now be writing off. Instead iPod sales in the last quarter were 32% ahead of the same quarter in the previous year. Hardly an empire crumbling.

But what about Victor's point on mobile phones with media player capabilities? Just because a mobile phone has a built-in media player, does not mean its being used in that way. If mobile phones had crept up and taken over the iPod mantle, would we not be seeing a massive drop in iTunes share of music downloads? I know many people with mp3-capable mobile phones, and the vast majority do NOT use the music player capabilities. Of course, that may change, and Apple knows that and has admitted that. It has a huge chasm to cross, but since the mobile phone manufacturers and the operators have collectively failed to find a business model that works for both of them, there is still a gap for someone to come along who does it right.

To Victor: If this holiday season's iPod sales fall significantly below last year's, then maybe you're on to something. If the iTunes music store nosedives in its sales, then maybe you're on to something. If some other music players get into 2 of the top 5 best sellers on Amazon UK (let alone Amazon US), then maybe you're on to something. But at this time, your story is without foundation.

Let's move on. I wouldn't normally bother with Jack Schofield as we all know he hasn't a clue and writes the most ridiculous anti-Apple comments. But let's just focus on some of the stupid things he says (and believes) about Apple's announcements and what's out there from the company behind the market-leading, virus-ridden OS.

First off, Jack comments on Zune - as pre-announced as the iTV product, but with less detail. We don't know the price and we don't even know whether it works in the Plays-for-(un)sure universe, though the answer to the latter appears to be an unbelievable "NO". There is not a single criticism of Zune in Jack's piece, nor even some critical questioning. What about battery life? What about price - originally the 30GB was rumoured at $399, then matching the 30GB iPod at $299. But then Steve went and dropped the price of both 5G iPods (something no Guardian commentator noted in any article I saw) so, it will now have to be $249 surely? No questioning of the music sharing feature which seems (from what I read) to be very limited - even assuming you run into another Zune-carrier. No questioning of Plays-for-Sure. Jack, can you not think of ANY faults with this device or Microsoft's strategy?

Then Jack talks about iTV in "How much is a Media Center PC, Bobbie". Jack makes numerous points to show how far Apple is behind. He quotes media centre PC's being available for $399, then goes on to say that the iTV is not a media centre PC. So why mention the comparison, Jack? Then he says that "Media Center capability is built into Windows Vista, so most standard PCs next year will be Media Centers too." Yes, indeed, Jack, key words "next year". And, actually it is not buit into Windows Vista, it is built into the more expensive versions of Windows Vista. If you buy a machine today (assuming it can really handle full-blown Vista next year), then expect to pay another $159 just for the software - that's half the price of an iTV before any hardware is considered. And, we're mixing the future with today, yet again. How many media centre PCs are even four times the size of the iTV? How many are quiet? How many can sit in your living room and look the part?

Jack then talks about the Linksys Media Centre extender, a device which costs a similar amount to Apple's proposed list price for iTV at $313 according to my searches. Jack calls it "similar". Well, perhaps it's closer in looks to the iTV than any of the media center PC's he talks about. But, the Linksys doesn't do HD, nor does it do H.264. Both of these are very demanding applications requiring state-of-the-art chips. Neither does the Linksys have a HD port - either DVI or HDMI. The iTV has an HDMI port meaning it can provide a digital signal to a digital TV. The Linksys uses 802.11g standard. It is highly likely that the iTV will use the new 802.11n standard, and indeed a key reason why the product is not released yet, is because that standard is still not ratified, and Apple would be opening itself up for major problems if it shipped a pre-N consumer device which couldn't be made compatible with the final n standard. Jack, as always, fails to appreciate these differences. They are not mere subtleties, they are fundamental differences affecting price, delivery date, and overall user experience. Failure to read a spec sheet and/or to understand should disqualify you from writing about technology in an opinionated way.

Then, he notes the XBox360 as a media centre extender. A device significantly bigger than the iTV, with a large external power brick and reportedly high heat output (from both brick and device). Is this the device you want next to your plasma TV? Will you leave it on all the time? What about the noise from the fans? Hardly audiophile is it? Only the basic XBox360 is at an equivalent price to the iTV. And it's at that price because Microsoft loses money on everyone it sells. Sure, you could be clever and pay that and never buy a game - ha, ha, Microsoft. But if you want a media centre extender, get one that is designed for the job - not doubles up as one.

Then Jack comes up with this amazing statement
"But by the time iTV gets going, millions of homes could already have PCs running Vista beaming movies to Xbox 360 consoles attached to TV sets, synchronising with portable media players (Archos, Creative etc), PDAs and Windows Mobile phones, among other things. Maybe even the odd Tablet PC!"

What? VIsta isn't shipping either, Jack. Same sort of timeframe as iTV for home users. And if Apple is late to the party, why is not everyone doing what you suggest with XP today? The fact is they're not, and Vista by itself is not going to solve that. And, if Microsoft thought it had it nailed, it wouldn't be converting itself to Microhard and creating its own incompatible music players, and potentially its own Microsoft phone.

Jack finishes with this final dig at Steve and Apple
"The one thing you can bet on is that most of these users won't be paying Steve Jobs-style prices to download movies."

What (again)? As far as I know, Apple's prices for online movies are the lowest there are. The reason they aren't lower has been well-publicised. Does Jack think that a key reason the other movie studios have not signed on for the Apple vision is because Apple priced them too HIGH? If you don't like the price, then don't buy. But, Jack completely misses or avoids the point that iTV does not force you to use the Apple movie store any more than Microsoft's MediaCenter technology forces you to use Amazon (rip a DVD, play a recorded TV show off Elgato EyeTV etc). Movie stores all have DRM, and all provide limits. Apple has been careful to come up with limits that seem at least reasonable for the typical family home situation.

Finally, let's move on to Charles himself. I like Charles, really I do. And he visits here regularly to give his comments. He's a bright guy. But he doesn't get video. Plenty of people have commented on the Guardian blog about his factual errors in this piece. But let's just cover this paragraph:

"Movies? In 640 by 480, it's a giant leap forward to 1985, and VGA, isn't it? Jobs called it "near DVD quality at 640x480 resolution". Yes, but the average TV screen roughly equates to 1024 x 768. Anything less isn't "near" DVD. It's a quarter the size. The rights will be the same as the TV shows - so no burning to disc. It's hardly terrific for a backup strategy. We think that at those prices, the likes of Netflix - and indeed Amazon - can sleep easy. When the physical product is cheaper than the virtual one, it's only a contest where people won't travel. And even then, the file-sharing networks haven't gone away."

Where to start, really. The average TV screen is certainly not 1024 x 768, though this may be the average computer monitor. The average TV screen has a resolution of something less than 576 lines in this country and 480 lines in the US. Until very recently, most top-end plasma screens sold in this country from even good names like Panasonic were 852 x 480. Oh, 480, isn't that a coincidence? Of course not, it's what NTSC is built upon. So, even top end TV's have not supported the 576 lines of real resolution offered by PAL. Resolution of 640 x 480 for videos is in theory as good as US DVD's. We can get into esoteric arguments about PAL vs NTSC (number of lines, frame rates) etc, but it doesn't belong here and has little to do with Apple's movie store. In the US, it would be relatively easy for Apple to deliver near-DVD quality with a 640 by 480 video, because the resolutions are very similar indeed. In fact, it could probably exceed DVD quality if it was able to re-master from the original using better H.264 compression than the older and less efficient MPEG2 compression used on DVDs. Most likely however, much of the material available on the store could come from DVD's converted. In which case, there would clearly be some loss going from a lossy scheme like MPEG2 to another lossy scheme like H.264. From the demos we saw on a large screen, I don't think quality will be an issue. In reality, there is massive variation between the quality of DVDs available in both NTSC and PAL (I watched a truly badly encoded Japanese movie last night on DVD). I see no reason why the choices Apple has made and with appropriate quality control should not lead to a quality output to both computer screen or to TV monitor that most people would find indistinguishable from the equivalent DVD.

In Europe (once we get such videos) maybe things are not so simple, and it will be interesting to see whether the European stores will offer different resolutions. But 640 by 480 on 30 frames a second with a progressive output and a decent quality master to start with, should again be able to provide excellent quality output to most computer monitors and TV sets (even here). To improve from this would really require a jump to High Definition. Is this what Charles wanted? But no one else offers HD movies digitally today. And, as Charles alluded to with his broadband comments, many people would find their download speeds the obstacle for true HD delivery, even if their computer could handle it, and their tv screen display it (true HD is at least 7-8 times the data size of Standard Definition TV). The point you have missed Charles, is that 640 by 480 is NOT "quarter the size", and you have given people a very bad impression because of this serious factual error. Apple's movie resolution choices are as good as any other digital delivery service available today, and their choice of H.264 probably will lead to it being better than any of them and/or with a lower file size. Furthermore, it requires just ONE download to serve computer, tv, AND iPod. Contrast with the Amazon Unboxed store which requires two files to be downloaded, stored and managed. (Most other stores to my knowledge don't even support portable devices at all) Is it for everyone? I'm sure not. I'm a rental user, and generally do not own videos. But I can see times when I would buy it this way (DVDs of concerts for instance). And, for people with kids, having a digital version may be a lot safer than a physical one. The movies can be copied to DVD, and can be copied to other hard disks. So, there IS a backup strategy - one that is arguably better than a single flimsy disk). It's not one where you can create a playable DVD directly. Whose fault is that? If you don't like the rights and you don't like the price, the way to change it is not to boycott online sales, it's to boycott ALL movie sales - physical and digital - until the studios wake up to give you products and rights on those products that are more reasonable. What Charles also doesn't mention is that with a simple cable it will be possible to watch the movies at 640 by 480 on a TV straight from the iPod (and in fact last year's 5G models too with a software upgrade). Imagine the convenience of carrying an iPod on holiday and connecting into a hotel TV? There's a convenience and simplicity about all this that IS absent from a physical product, and from other stores. Apple has made some good choices, despite the limits put on it by those studios (and by companies like Walmart who are rumoured to have threatened the studios). Another point Charles made (in his comments to my blog) is to infer that videos cannot be played until they have been downloaded. But from my interpretation of the keynote, they are available within a minute of downloading starting. That is pretty much VOD. Sure, if you've got an unreliable broadband, you may want to wait till there's a decent buffer. But I think again, Charles, you've erred in your criticism, and your poor broadband is another story altogether.

Now, let's come on to iTV. What Charles seemed to gloss over is that iTV CAN do HD as far as I am aware. So, we are not talking a technology limitation here - we are talking about the practical implementation of the movie store to meet the needs of the studios, and matching that to the practical limitations of the average person's broadband line (and also not forgetting pricing!). Photos, HD movies from other sources (including likely Blu-ray players next year) should all be capable of being displayed at the maximum resolution of the TV connected to the iTV. I can assure Charles that my projector at 1280 x 720 does a great job of displaying both DVD's from a Mac as well as my photos using a DVI (digital cable). So, apart from the errors in the statements, there is also a considerable misunderstanding of the issues involved and the choices made by Apple - which on the whole seem to be good (and why I praised it). Also widely unnoticed is the promise that iTV is multi-platform - a PC AND a Mac Media Centre Extender. Who else provides one of them today?

You can all look on and say this is all dull and me-too, but it absolutely is NOT. Apple has bided their time and waited for technology to come together to provide the key ingredients to build a quality integrated video delivery system. Those bits of technology include H.264 (don't underestimate this), appropriate and affordable H.264 decoders and encoders (faster Macs/PCs; lower cost system-on-a-chip for iTV and iPod), decent, ubiquitous broadband, and (almost certainly) 802.11n. Without ALL of these pieces, any solution WOULD be a compromise. With these pieces and Apple's legendary integration skills, it is possible to come close to high quality, reliable handling of music, movies, tv programmes and photos on both portable and home devices. And it will be possible to move into HD as that becomes established. I know of no other technology that can do that today. The closest will be the XBox360 (but it's hot and quite large - certainly not suitable for many living rooms), and perhaps the PlayStation3 if/when its available here (but with many of the same weaknesses of the XBox360). Both would require Vista (to accomplish what the iTV does), and both will be Windows only, and also come with their own proprietary DRM's. I'm not saying Apple is light years ahead - in some ways they've come from behind. But they are delivering a solid, affordable, attractive and practical solution that is multi-platform and extendible for the future. Apple is taking on the home network - that is a big commitment for the company when the average person knows nothing about networking. And just as Airport made it easy for the masses to share broadband wirelessly, then airport express for music, iTV and the FrontRow strategy will make it easy for everyone too.

Is it ALL rosy? No. Are there questions that COULD have been asked by an intrepid reporter? Yes. Here's what I'd like to know:
Movie Store:
1. Are movies re-mastered from the original film, or are they taken from DVD?
2. Do we get DVD Extras?
3. For Europe, will we get PAL-style movies? If so, will they play on iPods? Or is this pushing us all towards an NTSC-led world?
4. What will be the European pricing?
5. When are we going to get UK TV shows (even ones offered on iTunes in the US such as CSI, Jon Stewart Daily Show).

1. Component and HDMI output is supported. But what about composite signals, S-Video or (Europe) SCART? Without these, many TV sets will not be capable of being supported.
2. Will it also work as a wireless base station (ie is it REALLY the Video version of the Airport Express for 802.11n)?
3. How will PC's work with it - they don't have Front Row, so is it limited here to iTunes-managed content only?
4. Will it be able to route video signals to a TV and separate the audio to a surround sound system in all cases or will we need cables back out from the TV?
5. Can I plug my iPod into the USB port of the iTV and use it to play video, or must I connect the iPod to a TV separately?
6. What other uses has the USB port (printer output, iPod sync to a remote PC/Mac, TV tuner input?)
7. Will 3rd parties be able to send content to an iTV?

I don't expect the first version to do all these things, but if the device can do some of them, then it will increase its utility value to most people.

And criticisms? Yes, I have those too. I think those who've bought TV shows in the past should be able to download the higher resolution ones now available. Kicking early adopters in the teeth is not a good business strategy. While I love the new iPod Shuffle, I think it's a mistake to require a dock to connect it (I use my current one as a USB disk frequently, and its utility would be reduced if I had to have the dock with me). Finally, use of Dolby Surround is disappointing when compared with DTS and Dolby 5.1 which are on most DVD's. (This is mostly a technology limitation within current video/audio compression systems, but Apple will have to work with MPEG and others to improve this situation).

So, that's my rather long-winded response to the articles that were written. I should point out in fairness that Bobby Johnson of all the journalists seemed to get most of the points. It's taken me a long time to go through this, and, yes, I could probably write even more (heaven help you!).

If you're going to write about technology, do your research first. A good read of projectorcentral.com and/or the AVSForums is a great way to learn about video - PAL, NTSC, SD,ED and HDTV, interlacing, progressive scans, HDMI, DVI, Component etc. Then I'd advise reading the spec sheets of products you compare. If one product has something that another doesn't, then why is that, and who will it affect?
And, while business and economics is perhaps only tangential to the stories, understand that it has a huge effect on what is being offered and why. Educate your readers on who they should be aiming their anger (eg at movie prices, or digital rights).

Yes, I know I love most things Apple does. Yes, I want them to succeed (and not just as a small shareholder). At some point, Apple may well need taking down a peg or two. But if we, as consumers, wish to see a credible contender to the Windows world in which WMP was (pre iPod/iTunes) about to become Microsoft's next monopoly product together with a single Microsoft-owned DRM, we need to welcome competition. Apple has a long way to go still - even with its iPod marketshare - before it can be a long-term credible contender. Perhaps Sony once could have been. But right now, it's a two horse race (unless you believe that Linux is going to come up with the goods), and Apple is still the big underfunded underdog against a cash-rich Redmond. We need to welcome advances that make it easier for us to use our paid-for and self-generated media in our homes whoever provides the technology. Criticism is just - but only if its founded on a solid understanding. Hopefully, I've pointed out here that there has been a woeful lack of understanding behind the Guardian/Observer's recent spate of criticisms.

Tags: , , , ,

12 September 2006

Apple, Movies, iPods etc

Just a quick commentary on the Showtime announcement today (excuse any typos and omissions and general stupid comment).

Just yesterday, my friend Tim emailed me for my thoughts pre-event. I wrote back with the following:

1. Will it work on my iPod?
2. Will it work with my PC?
3. Will it only work on a Mac (and a new Mac at that)? If it's limited to Macs I think that will of course limit the appeal. But it's also a potential reason to switch if used cleverly.
4. What resolution will it be? iPod video is not enough for full length movie at $10-15. It's got to be 480p or the videophiles will slam it.
5. What different TV's will be supported? Top of the line plasma/lcd, or bog standard CRT in kids room? It's gotta be both surely?
6. Will it do Dolby 5.1 etc if available? Again, videophiles will turn away.
7. If there is wireless distribution, real world performance of wireless is typically fraught with problems due to building design and configuration, interfering networks and even microwaves.
8. Can I burn it to a DVD? And if so, can I play back from that? (If DVD's are 1-2GB, that's only 20-30 before you've filled up most people's laptop hard drive).
9. The movie studios are dinosaurs clinging on to the olde worlde as long as they can (with pressure from Walmart etc). So, hitting the optimum price (eg 99p music) will be hard to do.
10. Oh, I almost forgot, it's got to include DVD Extras as well. Don't short-change us of material.

I think the answer is a pretty affirmative yes to just about all of these questions - including the pre-announced iTV device. Question 8 looks like a "no" but then, as with TV shows, you can back up that way. And with iTV, there is distribution to other TVs. Question 10 is up in the air at this time.

Compared to the train-wreck that is Amazon unboxed (see various non-Apple sites for that), this is a huge announcement which shows they understand what they need to do. Even the $12.99 pre-order price is smart and was not predicted. The other movie studios will be on this within months, as they were with TV.

But with the iPod announcements, Apple has again reimposed its lead. The silly commentary given in recent weeks (when it was already widely reported that there would be new iPods) to other announcements culminating in the ludicrous Observer full page article on iPod "losing its cool" is put in its place. Apple is shipping today higher capacity iPod nanos, that also deal with key objections on battery life and scratching. The Sandisk players trumpeted 2 weeks ago with higher capacity are still not shipping (to my knowledge). The new Shuffle is cute. And the changes to the iPod video are important - especially in terms of pricing. Microsoft now has to find a way to shave another $50 off its Zune player just to keep up. Playback of 640 by 480 videos is another leap forward including H.264 compression. No other media player can do that - as witnessed by Amazon's need to increase download time with a second lower-res file for portable players. Subtle other changes - including input of letters for search presages a whole new range of iPod accessories. And don't forget the iPods are still the smallest devices in each category.

Sure iTV isn't here today, and nor is the iPhone. But with the announcements, Apple has demonstrated a complete end-to-end solution including the home office, the living room, the car and your pocket. No one else has anything like that integration today, nor on the horizon.

Press reaction will be interesting, and I've already seen Guardian commentary that the announcements were underwhelming. I just cannot agree with that at all (as usual) and some of their criticisms seem very offbase.

While I'm not interested in buying movies myself - preferring my DVD rental service for that - I think they've gone about it superbly, and the products on offer allow anyone interested in video - from home movies to video podcasts, to benefit, right down to the TV in the kids room.

My one complaint is the complete failure to deal with the market outside the US. We still don't have TV shows. I think I know where the blame lies, but no doubt many will chastise Apple for that, while at the same time criticising the Apple lock-in (the alternative of course being a far more anti-consumer and poorly integrated Microsoft lock-in).

Update: Here's a link to JupiterResearch Analyst Michael Gartenberg with what he has to say. Spot on Michael.

Great stuff!

Tags: , , ,

09 September 2006

Hewlett Packard Spying Scandal Reporting

Just a quick word on the HP spying scandal (tons of links around on this).

I find the episode quite amazing - and really a very bad commentary on HP, a company I have always admired. Identity theft, which was essentially used here, is a serious crime. Patricia Dunn should resign immediately. However, you're not interested in my opinion on this.

Instead I wanted to remark particularly on the press treatment of this article, as this is a topic near and dear to my heart as you frequent readers may know!

The issue has gained huge notoriety in the US, perhaps unsurprisingly, and most articles are indeed highly critical. I would note however a bit too much focus on the fact that certain journalists phone records were tapped. Let's face it, it's bad whoever you are (and a few journalists themselves are not above similarly illegal activities - hands up News of the World).

Whereas in the US the article has been widely reported, in the UK, it's been consigned to the business pages as far as I can see. Fair enough? Perhaps. But I can't help feeling that if this story had been about another smaller company a few miles further south, and a certain Mr Jobs had been behind this, it would have been all over the main news pages, and probably even the Daily Hate (where the HP incident has not even been mentioned at all).

Tags: , , ,

07 September 2006

Apple and Google?

The news that Google's CEO Eric Schmidt (also a former Novell and Sun Microsystems Executive) is to join Apple's board has created a bit of a stir this week. On the one hand it is tempting to dismiss it as a bit of a Silicon Valley lovefest, or a bit of mischief-making on both sides aimed at Redmond.

But is there more to it than that?

Back in January this year, I posted about 3 challenges for Apple, the first of which I wrote about was Partnerships. I criticised Apple (yes, really!) for it's poor record on partnerships - citing examples with both HP and Motorola as attempts which had underdelivered and not stood the test of time. I specifically suggested 3 partners Apple could consider getting into bed with - Nokia on the mobile side, Amazon for logistics to merge the physical and virtual (eg listen to a track of iTunes and buy the physical CD), and Yahoo on the services side. When discussing Yahoo, I also said "maybe Google". At the time, I felt Yahoo was in more need of friends, and that Google, being on a roll, perhaps didn't feel it needed anybody.

There were many elements to a tie-in with Yahoo (or Google) that I liked then. One suggestion was a .mac lite service - an ad-supported service that had some of the features of .mac but could be free. I also suggested Flickr integration with iPhoto, and tie-ins on music search and sampling. Essentially Yahoo becoming the provider of free, ad-supported services for both Mac and iPod users.

But an Apple-Yahoo partnership wouldn't threaten Microsoft, and it wouldn't have worried Google, though it might have pushed Google away from proactively supporting the Mac platform. Instead of course, Microsoft themselves have partnered with Yahoo, and upped the ante there.

An Apple-Google alliance - even a loose one - has the potential to radically alter the landscape if we look into the post-PC future. In this world of services and data anytime, anywhere, there's lots of opportunity for both companies. Whether it's access to your (reliably-stored) photo library or music collection anywhere you want on any device you want, or getting a map/guide to whatever part of town you're in (or museum/gallery, etc). Apple wants to be the key player in providing the physical devices, and perhaps some premium services, and Google will store it for you, let you access it wherever you are (and on any gadget) and put it in context for you (ie ontop of a map of where you currently are).

Pressure from Google on the services side weakens Microsoft, and continued Apple success with the Mac and the iPod squeezes from the other side. I've argued before that Apple and Microsoft don't really compete at this time - that Apple has embraced Microsoft essentially with Office for Mac, with Bootcamp and with the use of Intel so that users don't have to choose Apple vs Microsoft, they choose Apple vs Dell for instance. And, from Apple's perspective, I think that's where the battleground still is, though Steve Jobs almost certainly harbours greater ambitions than that. But, with the Zune strategy unfolding, it is clear that Microsoft isn't ignoring Apple's rise, and is jealous enough of their success to justify upsetting current partners in going it alone. With Microsoft's recent announcement that they are discontinuing Virtual PC (what a surprise, there), and not carrying support for Visual Basic into the native version of Office for Mac, there's more than a hint of upset, even if there are justifiable technical reasons for it.

Apple's strategy with Microsoft has been defensive of course - make sure a Microsoft product is not a barrier to using a Mac or an iPod. That's done with the OS, with iTunes and much of Office for Mac is secure for a few more years. But Apple is vulnerable to Microsoft discontinuing Office for Mac ultimately. While it needs alternative applications (Keynote is a great Powerpoint replacement, Pages, a not-so-substitutable Word replacement; and Excel is er, unique), for the masses, Apple is probably better helped by the application as a service (though a decent Open Office native product would also help). Nobody has this in their sights better than Google, and it is the threat to the MS Office monopoly from Google that I think most worries Microsoft.

The opening up of the MS Office file formats will only help this, and it is no surprise MS avoided this for so long (why didn't the EU force that on them all that time ago?). It is in both Google's and Apple's interests that the MS Office monopoly is ended, and working together, they could help hasten that.

So, Apple will be helped if Google is successful with its application strategy, and perhaps we can look for closer tie-ins between the Apple iApps and Google's products.

But I think there are some more speculative opportunities building upon Google's strong services and Apple's iPod mobile device. For some time there was speculation about Google entering into the music market, and of course, there is also the Google video offering. But I wonder if this is an area Google will not focus on, but instead beef up its value in helping people find music and videos etc. in a tie-in with Apple? But even this pales into insignificance next to where some real excitement could be.

For sometime now (having jumped on the GPS bandwagon and also observed the iPod + Nike products) I've been deliberating about how Apple could bring location services onto the iPod - as the iPod matures into a complete mobile platform. While the mobile phone industry has seemed likely to provide solutions here, they seem expensive and unintegrated and with users forced into extra addons, software that may or may not work, and expensive 3G data connections.

Let me put it another way. Anyone visiting here ever use an Apple Newton? Irrespective of your views, one of the best applications out there was TimeOut's London guide with maps, basic navigation, restaurants, attractions etc. It was actually very nicely done for the most part but with two fundamental problems. First, the data was static - it was out-of-date the moment you bought the card on which it came (I used it recently and had to laugh at the phone numbers using a format 3 BritishTelecom changes ago!). The second problem is that it didn't know where you were. Now fast forward to an iPod with a GPS add-on connecting to the iPod via bluetooth or wi-fi (similar to the Nike solution). Add in Google maps for showing you were you are, and the Google mapping services for finding locations and you've got a live TimeOut for London - and indeed any other place in the world. Lots of opportunity for other companies to supply content for such a service (eg Lonely Planet/Rough Guide; TimeOut for event listings) perhaps via a podcast like feature (note such guides already exist for the video iPod). Companies could also provide downloadable files for a user to show their own points of interest on the maps (eg all Starbucks in Manchester). Loads of advertising revenue for Google! If anyone can make this stuff simple to use, it would be Apple, built around data provided by Google.

Apple and Google could sow this market up before Nokia/Motorola/Microsoft and the phone companies themselves have even woken up to why they've failed so far. Sure there are weaknesses with this solution (which an iPod phone could go some way to fix). But if I was visiting another Town or City or just living in a big one, this is a solution that would make me carry my iPod with me everytime, everywhere - probably attached to the handlebars of my bike! I'd have the equivalent of Time Out, an A-Z book, Rough Guide all in one place (with my music too). Wouldn't this be cool?

I've been thinking there will be more on mapping and location features in Mac OS X 10.5 (aka Leopard) - perhaps one of the top secret features? I was thinking along the lines of interfacing this with iPods. The weakness though with this argument is it would mean iPod users on Windows would be second-class citizens - something Apple has been careful to avoid. Working with Google on this is a classic win-win for both companies. While Google doesn't want to marginalise itself by being seen as an Apple-flavoured solution, it would surely jump at the opportunity to be a significant part of the iPod universe, and much of it could be done without formal relationships as such a tie-in is already consistent with both companies directions.

Obviously this is all wild speculation. What do you think? Is there more to the Google/Apple story? Would you like this sort of information on your iPod?

Tags: , , , ,