Friday, 14 November 2008

The Apple Search Engine Non-Rumor

MacPredictions anticipated a rumor recession, but never anything quite this severe! Now we're being subjected to non-rumors: yesterday's hot news first reported by Tech Crunch, is that Apple isn't building a search engine. This is probably just as well, since Apple would probably be just as bad at search engines as Google has proved to be with smart phones.

But, on the basis that where there's smoke, there's fire, we can infer from the reports that there is something up with Apple and search. Albeit that interpreting the rumorsphere is sometimes a little like talking to lassie.

Of Apple's various bits of kit, the one most desperately in need of a search engine is undoubtedly iPhone. Whilst the recent 2.0 update introduced search to Contacts, it bizarrely didn't introduce it to the iPod app, despite the fact that regular iPods (at a fraction of iPhone's price) have offered this feature for years.

What's really required is a system-wide search tool - probably called Spotlight, with a nice blue magnifier icon, which searches metadata across all installed apps, including Mail, SMS, iPod and Contacts. An especially handy feature for the well-connected, who may search for Bono, in order to get both his phone number and back catalog in a single, unified search result.

It's hardly rocket science - this is a feature that the humble Palm Pilot (remember them?) was able to offer from day one. Let's hope it's on the iPhone team's to-do list... oh no, they don't have one of those yet either...

Delays to new headphones may point the way to voice memos and speech recognition on iPhone and touch

Recently, this blog argued that optimizations in Snow Leopard may result in Speech Recognition and Text to Speech making their way into the iPhone. Of course, iPhone already offers some speech recognition support via 3rd party apps, such as Say Who. And today, Google has made a big splash with their announcement of speech recognition for their iPhone Google app. But the true potential for speech recognition on iPhone will only be realized when it is introduced system-wide. And here's some unadulterated speculation of just how that might work...

Firstly, there are two categories of speech recognition: speech-to-text processing and direct voice input. The former is what you get from apps such as MacSpeech Dictate. The latter is what you get out of the box with a Mac - in Apple parlance, it's known as "Speakable Items". The advantage of Speakable Items is that the system only needs to listen out for a short list of possible commands, rather than attempting to interpret infinite possible combinations of words from the entire dictionary. Speech-to-text is processor intensive, and may be tricky to get working on an iPhone. Direct voice input is pretty straightforward by comparison, and is already offered on numerous competitor handsets.

So what kinds of services would direct voice input enable? Firstly, I'd argue that it's all to do with headphones. It's not interesting to be able to bark voice commands when you're already interacting with the touch interface. It's only really interesting when you're on the move, and can't get the phone out of your bag - say you're driving, or walking, listening to music. Imagine being able to press the headphone button once (to pause the music, plus to activate the speakable items listen command). Then you could give one of the following commands:
  • time: the phone's voice tells you the time
  • call [name]: this one's obvious!
  • last call: the phone's voice tells you the last caller
  • last text: the phone's voice tells you who just sent you a text
  • last e-mail: the phone's voice tells you who just sent you an e-mail
  • open [app name]: the app is launched (ideal for apps with voice interface)
  • play [song name]: play's song in iPod app
This feature may even be one of the reasons why Apple's new headphones with mic have been delayed. We've already had software updates for the 4GB iPod nano, and the 120GB Classic iPod, but notably no update (yet) for the iPod touch. Rumor has it that the iPhone 2.2 update is due imminently - this will presumably add support for the new headphones, although, Apple claims the mic will only be supported on the 2nd generation touch. Apple will also presumably add an iPod Touch (and iPhone) app for voice memos, since it would be strange to offer this on the iPod nano, but not the more powerful touch. Since the latest builds of the 2.2 software don't appear to contain a built-in Voice Memo app, Apple probably plans to distribute it as a free download from the store - in a similar fashion to Remote.

Is Kevin Rose untouchable?

Have you seen this month's Inc magazine? OK, so it's not the kind of magazine I normally read either. But whilst waiting for a flight at Philadelphia airport tonight, I saw Kevin Rose staring at me from the front cover of Inc, on the newsstand.

I bought a copy, to read the article, entitled "How Kevin Rose captured the hearts and minds of the most desirable customers on the face of the planet." It painted a picture that was somewhat different from the convivial bon-vivant we know and love from Diggnation.

It portrayed Rose as the next Rupert Murdoch - you decide whether that's a compliment or not, I couldn't tell. It also described the breathless adulation that Rose encountered at a recent Diggnation live event in New York. This certainly tallies with my experience in (attempting to) attend Diggnation at FOWA in London, last month. This was not like attending an esoteric geek-meet, it was more like a U2 stadium gig.

Well, to cut to the chase, this article got me thinking. Many have speculated that Apple's policy towards protecting their secrets has changed in the light of the company's lack of response to Rose's iPod nano leak. But an alternative explanation comes to mind. Has Rose become untouchable? As Nicholas Ciarelli (aka Nick De Plume, aka Think Secret) himself speculates, "perhaps Apple is now seeking to avoid legal fisticuffs with more established companies that are less likely to cave in to its demands." Rose is more than just a company, of course, he's an online legend, with thousands of follows (whom, if Inc's photoshoot is to be believed, chase him around wherever he goes, like dewey-eyed sycophants.)

Unlike Inc magazine, I'm not implying that Rose is powerful on a Rupert Murdoch/Mr Burns level, but rather that he's become what is known in the UK as a "Queen Mum." Or in other words, someone in the public eye who is regarded so fondly that not a word can be said against them. It turns out that Manuel from Faulty Towers also falls into this category, as Russell Brand learned to his cost, whilst George W Bush and the Jonas Brothers do not.

Of course, it is possible that Apple have decided to relax their attitude towards leaks, but I doubt it. It's very likely that their security efforts are focusing more on prevention, rather than those tell-tale take down notices of yore. But I can't help suspecting that Apple doesn't dare to take on Rose, because they can't afford to incur the wrath of his fan base.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

The implications of Snow Leopard for iPhone

Apple are in the process of performing origami on Mac OS X, to reduce the disk space footprint of everyone's favorite OS. This effort will be much appreciated by all those who have forgone a spacious hard drive for the tighter confines of a solid-state drive.

But MacBooks are not the only OS X based systems to come with solid-state drives. iPhone and iPod Touch are even more constrained in terms of storage. Of course, the iPhone version of OS X is a very different beast to Mac OS X, and we shouldn't expect iPhone to be running Snow Leopard.

Nonetheless, system components from the Mac, such as QuickTime, have, in some form, made their way onto the iPhone, and it is reasonable to expect others to find there way there in due course - especially once they've been re-factored to reduce their storage footprint.

Next up to make the transition in MacPredictions opinion is Speech Recognition and Text to Speech (TTS). Plenty of mobile phones already boast voice interfaces, but not the iPhone. And it would be a very Jobsian sentiment to say that they held off on introducing this until they'd got it exactly right, and that it turned out they'd already solved it in Leopard in a way that outclasses any voice functionality currently available on a mobile device. The challenge is, of course, cramming such a storage-intensive component into a confined space. And that's where Snow Leopard's refactoring comes in.

Expect to see Job's proudly demonstrating Apple's Alex Voice reading an e-mail at high speed on an iPhone at January's MacWorld.