Sunday, 21 February 2010

Dashboard for iPad

Kevin Fox (via Mac Rumors) has made the insightful observation that several apps are missing from the iPad visuals on, and that what all the missing apps have in common is that there is an equivalent Dashboard widget for them in Mac OS X. He therefore concludes, (convincingly in my opinion) that Apple is keeping a few more surprising up its sleeve for the iPad launch, and that one of them is probably Dashboard for iPad.

This would be a smart move on Apple's part. There are already thousands of Mac Dashboard widgets in existence for Mac OS X, and since they're written in HTML/CSS and JavaScript, they don't need to be re-compiled for the iPad's ARM architecture - they can just run out of the box. So the barrier to entry to developing a Dashboard widget is much lower than that of a fully fledged iPhone app, and it is likely to prompt a mini-renaissance in widget development. This is great news for the iPad, and good news for Mac users, who should also see the benefit.

Of course, the question is, how will Dashboard be implemented? As a stand-alone app, as a part of the Springboard app (home screen), or as a system-wide resource that can be accessed while another app is running in the background. The latter scenario is obviously the one most favoured by those hankering for any conscession towards "multitasking" (or more correctly, running multiple apps concurrently).

It's plausible that Apple may implement Dashboard as a system-wide service to be invoked in front of the active app. After all, the neat thing about Dashboard is that it's one process, which is running multiple gadget threads - so it can be implemented in a way that's pretty efficient in terms of processor cycles. However, the downside of this approach is that you might inadvertently trigger the Dashboard when you're in the middle of some other task - like playing a game.

I think it's more likely that Apple will introduce Dashboard as a part of the Springboard (home screen). While you can scroll from left to right to access Spotlight and the icon grids, I suspect that you will access Dashboard by scrolling down. And since Springboard remembers your state when you return to it, this means that you could have Dashboard appearing as your home screen every time you turn your iPad on.

The final touch would be to enable Mac users to sync the Dashboard widgets on their Mac with their iPad. Nice.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Comment: WIRED Magazine is leading the retreat of the publishing industry from the Web

Was I alone in being baffled by reports of the magazine industry getting hot under the collar about Apple's revenue model for the App Store, and renewed excitement about Adobe's Flash and Acrobat Reader? All this fuss seems so pointless when the future of digital publishing was already solved way back in 1990 with the invention of the World Wide Web.

I should declare an interest here. I run a Web design and build agency. I believe in the Web and I always have done. This might seem like a strange thing to say - like believing in the merits of breathing, eating and sleeping. The benefits of the Web are so self evident, and it has been adopted so widely that you would think that the technology hardly needs advocates.

But apparently this is not the case. This month, WIRED Magazine's UK edition declared that HTML is a "clunky" language. Their US Creative Director Scott Dadich is instead advocating a proprietary format for the iPad version of WIRED magazine, based on Adobe's Flash, Air and PDF technologies, which will apparently enable them "to retain control of the quality of the product in a way we weren't able to do with HTML". This is wrong in so many ways.

It is shocking and ironic for WIRED Magazine to reveal such an ignorance for the Web, and what it represents. HTML is not a "clunky" language*. It is a clean, simple, elegant document format that introduced two key concepts: hypertext and interoperability.
  • Hypertext revolutionised the written word with the concept of hyperlinks (otherwise known as "links"), enabling words within a passage of text to link to text on separate pages, within separate documents stored on separate servers in separate geographies.
  • Interoperability means that you could read any page on the Web with one piece of software - a Web browser. Gone were the days of not being able to read Mac files on a PC, Word files in Word Perfect, or whatever.
Without these two key developments, the web would never have taken off, and Google would never have been possible. For everything that is wonderful about the Web today, we must thank HTML.

Newspaper and magazine publishers recognised the Web as a disruptive technology that represented both an opportunity and a threat. They could see that writing on the Web was the writing on the wall for print-based publishing. It threatened their advertising sales, and circulation revenue. Plus, the democratising nature of the web meant that editors would be forced to come down from their ivory towers to occupy the same media as amateur bloggers. How ghastly.

So, reluctantly, magazines and newspapers set up their websites, usually in the form of a second rate version of their print publication. The mediocrity of these sites meant that they largely failed to attract an audience and advertisers. Few sites dared to charge subscription fees, and those that did tended to adopt a "freemium" model where much of their content was free, but some content resided behind a paywall. And that was it. They waited, watching their print circulation dwindle, and hoping for a salvation that would never come.

Then, one day, Steve Jobs uttered the word "iPad", and the slumbering publishing industry twitched back to life. Was Steve going to be their knight in shining armour, dashing to their rescue as he had done for the music industry, when he saved them from Napster? The simple answer is "no". While Apple is somewhat interested in selling digital books, they have shown no interest in creating a digital magazine store. But of course, publishers are welcome to create their own iPad Apps if they wish.

Adobe, on the other hand, is in the same boat as the publishing industry. Their business is predicated on propriety locked-in formats such as Flash and Acrobat, which have increasingly become redundant as HTML has gone from strength to strength. With the advent of HTML5, there will soon be no need for Flash, as users increasingly adopt modern HTML5 capable web browsers like Safari and Chrome.

Several publishing companies have demoed their vision for electronic magazines. In every case, they have essentially been the same thing: repurposed print layouts in PDF and Flash, with embedded video, which can only be browsed in a linear way, like an old fashioned magazine. Hardly visionary. Worse still, since Flash publications are locked into a binary, proprietary format, the core principles of the web - linking and interoperability - are broken. I can see why this model is appealing to editors and art directors, since it gives them a kind of control that simply doesn't existing on the Web: precision layouts, undivided reader attention, and user feedback restricted to a few stately "Sir!" epistles on the letters page. Heaven forbid that their pristine PDF pages should be tarnished with messy hyperlinks and user generated content.

But that boat sailed a long time ago. The Web is already a fact of life, and publishers can't afford to hide from it, cowering behind Adobe's back. They need to respond to it. They need to be bold. There is no rule that says how a Web page should look. Scott Dadich is a very talented designer - if he believes that WIRED's digital publication should look more funky, then he should focus on their website. With HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, there really is no limit to what is possible. And if publishing is not sustainable without revenue from subscriptions, then it is time to start looking for ways to charge users for content - on the Web, not on iPad apps or Adobe abominations.

True publishing visionaries will embrace the Web - not avoid it.

* albeit, it has been used in clumsy ways in the past, but the days of table-based layouts are now long-gone.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

News Flash: Apple to launch iPad solution for magazine and newspaper publishers

One feature of Apple's hotly anticipated new iPad that has gone largely unnoticed is that, in addition to the iBook Store, Apple is bundling an application for magazine and newspaper publishers that enables them to distribute their content as well. Periodicals can be richly formatted, including video and color imagery, taking full advantage of Apple's multi-touch interface. Publishers may choose to distribute their content for free, or charge for single issues or subscriptions. What's more, Apple will not be charging an agency fee - publishers may keep all revenue for themselves. These electronic magazines will be built upon an open standard, which means content developed for the iPad can be easily accessed on other devices.

Newspapers and magazines are hesitant about adopting this technology, however. One source said "I don't know, it just seems too easy, too obvious somehow. There's got to be a catch. We prefer to do our own thing. We got our guys in the studio to put together this great mockup in Flash. Neat huh?"

Apple's new solution for magazine publishers will be called Safari, and is expected to ship pre-installed on every new iPad.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Why is Steve Jobs shopping at The Gap for his new gadget?

Some supporters of creationism argue that any gap in the fossil record undermines the evidential basis for evolution. So if no fossil has been found that is a perfect fit between homo sapien and neanderthal, they argue that no link exists. The irony is that when such a specimen is eventually found, there are two new gaps - two missing links where before there was one.

And so it is with Apple's new iPad. During Steve Job's presentation for the iPad launch, he showed a slide with a mobile phone on the left, a laptop on the right, and a gap in the middle, and raised the rhetorical question of what should go in the gap. He then argued that Apple's competitors had attempted to plug this gap with netbooks, only to reject this solution. The netbook is apparently not the missing link. Instead, Jobs argued, anything that plugged this gap would have to do some things far better than either a mobile phone or a laptop. With his highly polished showmanship, he then revealed the iPad as the true missing link to plug this gap.

This argument is built upon four questionable presuppositions:
  1. There is a continuum of device types, with phones at one end and laptops at the other;
  2. There is a gap in this continuum;
  3. There is consumer demand for a product to plug this gap;
  4. Netbooks try and fail to meet this demand.
I am not at all sure that any of these presuppositions are correct, and I don't think that Steve Jobs really believes them either. This part of his presentation sounded suspiciously like post-rationalization. After all, this is not the way in which Jobs normally thinks. He's not one for market research and gap analysis. As Leander Kahney explains in his excellent book, Inside Steve's Brain, Jobs looks at himself in the mirror and asks himself what he wants: "Almost everyone else takes the opposite approach: they develop new technologies and then go in search of problems for these technologies to solve."

When the iPhone was announced, from day one it leapt onto the world stage as a fully formed, perfectly conceived product. To look at it was to know that you wanted it. There was no need to hesitate and ponder what it was for. No reason to come up with excuses for why you needed to buy one. It was so obviously right. The iPad, in contrast, looks like lots of fun, but it is far from clear what it is for, and why you would want one.

The iPad is a rare example of Jobs launching a technology, rather than a product. Like George Mallory who famously ascended Mount Everest "because it was there," Jobs has built the iPad because it was possible, rather than because there was an obvious need for it. He had this beautiful new multi-touch operating system, and he wanted to put it to the test and see what could be done with it on a larger device.

This does not mean that the iPad is doomed - it just means that it is not being launched into the world fully formed. When the Mac was first launched, it too did not initially seem to have a purpose. It was only with the subsequent advent of desktop publishing that the true potential of a graphical user interface became apparent. And so it may be with the iPad. Some killer apps may come along that turn this technological novelty into a mass-market desirable product.

And this brings us back to Jobs's supposed gap. It's an example of the well-constructed spin that is sometimes referred to as Steve Jobs's reality distortion field. But even supposing we do accept his presuppositions, then like the creationist's analysis of the fossil record, we might point out that Jobs's new chart, with the iPad neatly plugging the gap between mobile phone and laptop, has merely created two more gaps. What product plugs the gap between phone and iPad? What product plugs the gap between iPad and laptop?

In other words, the gap argument fails the reductio ad absurdum test. Doubtless Jobs knows this. He just couldn't resist working on this fun new toy, and seeing what was possible. And I must confess, I can't wait to play with it myself.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Are Apple feeling the pressure? - New pressure sensitive touch screen technology

The BBC yesterday reported on a new technology developed by a British company called Peratech which has developed a "Quantum Tunnelling Composite" technology for an entirely new generation of pressure sensitive touch screens, which enables a "third dimension" in user interface design.
Intriguingly, the article states:
"In January, Japanese touch-screen maker Nissha also licensed the approach from Yorkshire-based Peratech, who make the composite material QTC.
However, as part of the licensing agreements, Peratech could not reveal the phone, gaming, and device makers that could soon be using the technology to bring pressure sensitivity to a raft of new devices."
Now what company with a notorious taste for secrecy do we know that may be interested in touch screen technology and 3D user interfaces? Hmm...

Oh yeah, and by the way, did I mention - quantum frickkin physics!

Monday, 8 February 2010

Like men, iPhones supposedly can't multitask. Who cares.

Beware the echo chamber of the blogosphere. If you listen to too many geek-blogs, you might get a skewed perspective and end up spending a fortune on ads with indecipherable headlines like "multi-multitasking" .

Nokia currently has an ad running with the headline "multi-multitasking," and an extremely busy screenshot of many windows open and crammed into a small mobile phone display. At the tiny size of these windows, any text is rendered unreadably small, and thus the contents of these windows are incomprehensible.

The term "multi-multistasking" is not the most user friendly, and the accompanying image serves to illustrate all of the problems associated with enabling multiple applications to run concurrently in a compact handheld device.

Since this image and headline reveal such an evident shortcoming in the product category, it may seem like an odd approach for Nokia's marketing bods to take. One might wonder why they don't instead focus on some of the advantages of smart phones. The explanation lies in their paranoid desire to differentiate themselves from Apple's iPhone, combined with a bad habit of spending excessive time reading geek blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget, (full disclosure: I confessed to being guilty of this same addiction).

As any geek will tell you - the iPhone's achilles heel is its inability to multitask. The argument goes that whereas other devices let you run as many apps as you like, with iPhone, Apple restricts you to one app at a time, and this is a problem. This argument is erroneous on three counts: 1. the iPhone does support multitasking, it just doesn't allow third party apps to run in the background; 2. this is a deliberate design decision on Apple's part - they chose to disable it, rather than struggling to enable it; and most important of all 3. if this is such a shortcoming, why is the iPhone so insanely popular and why are all the other handset manufacturers perpetually trying to ape it?

The fact that the iPhone does not support background applications is not a shortcoming, it is a deliberate design decision. Apple judges the improvements in battery life, performance and user experience (associated with restricting background processes) to be of greater value to the majority of users than the ability to run multiple third party applications at once. Of course, they make an exception to this rule for certain of their own key applications: such as the Phone app (you need calls to come through when you're in a different app) and the iPod app (you want to be able to listen to music regardless of whatever else you're doing). And the result is a phone that is perfect for the vast majority of users - and the tiny subset who would prefer shorter battery life, poor performance and multi-multitasking are free to go buy a Nokia... or better still to jailbreak their iPhone and "multi-multitask" to their heart's content.

Nokia are not the first to mistake Apple's design decision for a weakness. When Palm launched the Palm Pre, they put multitasking at the heart of their marketing campaign. 12 months later, the product is all but forgotten. Interestingly, the one company that can always be relied upon to faithfully copy Apple's ideas is at it again. The word is that Microsoft are removing the ability to run applications in the background from Windows Mobile 7.