Saturday, 26 June 2010

iPhone 4 reception issues and spoon bending

This phenomenon of people sending their home movies of iPhone 4 reception issues to impartial reporters Gizmodo reminds me more than anything of Uri Geller and spoon bending.

Geller, if you recall, used to make frequent TV appearances where he would empower people at home to bend cutlery using nothing more than their minds. Thousands of kids (of all ages) across the country would phone in, claiming that they too were able to bend a spoon with their minds, (when in practice, the application of manual force was the explanation that best matched Occam's razor).

While there may be a drop in reception in certain conditions: if you hold the phone in certain ways; if you have particularly sweaty palms; etc., I suspect that for most users, in most contexts, this is not a problem. And since, in sensitive reception areas, simply moving the phone as you pick it up can have an effect on signal strength, making an evidence video for Gizmodo needn't be much of a challenge.

But if there isn't a real problem, how do we account for the fact that so many people are sending in video evidence? Are they all crazy, like the physics-defying spoon benders?

Well consider this. In order to make one of these videos, you need to own an iPhone 4, and in order to be in possession of such a device this particular weekend, you need to have either found one "left behind" in a bar, or have been willing to stand in line for hours, just to be the first to own a phone that will be freely available in a few weeks time.

Draw your own conclusions.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

PCs are not trucks. They're gas stations.

I love listening to Steve Jobs. If that makes me a "fan-boy" then so be it.

Much of his genius is as a technology visionary, but there's more to it than that. There's his flair for PR as well, which is lazily referred to by hackneyed journalists as his "reality distortion field". In practice, this means that you need to take care to separate the candid visionary stuff from the carefully crafted spin.

Maybe that's why Kara Swisher was glowering so disturbingly throughout her moment of fame interviewing Steve Jobs at this week's All Things D conference. She didn't want to let Jobs get away with anything, like the time he said people didn't want to watch videos on MP3 players, only to release a video iPod 12 months later. Or the time he said that tablet computers were a gimmick for rich people, only to release the iPad a couple of years later. Steve Jobs's answers are always factually correct, but he can be the king of misdirection when he chooses.

In a wide ranging discussion this week, Kara, Walt and Steve touched on many fascinating topics. Jobs illustrated how he has mastered his temper, learned to take a breath and then deliver a devastating, targeted blow in response, as Gizmodo and Flurry now know to their cost. Goodness only knows what kind of retaliation is heading Google's way, but I wouldn't take Jobs's remark that "just because we are competing with somebody, doesn't mean we have to be rude," at face value. Sure he won't be rude, as he politely lobs a grenade at them.

But perhaps their most interesting topic of conversation was the future of the PC, and the potential for tablet devices, like the iPad, to replace it. Job's take on this was that the age of the PC is almost over, (and in this context, by "PC" he includes Macs too.) Jobs argues that for most users, they will increasingly be replaced by mobile devices like iPads and iPhones. PCs will still be around, but they'll be like trucks - only driven by those who really need that kind of heavy lifting.

The next day, Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer, who was also at All Things D, was asked to comment on Jobs's prediction. He argued that Jobs's vision was a little self-serving, given that he had lost the battle over PCs, and was now heavily invested in mobile devices. Ballmer was equally self-serving, however, when he went on to define any digital device that does not fit into one's pocket as a PC.

Having used an iPad for several weeks, I am now convinced that it could replace the PC in many contexts, but there is still something about Jobs's prediction that doesn't ring true - at least not yet. If a new generation of computer users are going to forsake PCs and Macs in favor of iPad's, what are they going to do the first time they switch on their new iPad and find it is insisting on being connected to iTunes before you can start using it?

This is not a facetious question. It is hard to see how an iPad can replace a PC when it has so many dependancies upon PCs. Photos can be viewed on an iPad, but must be managed on iPhoto. Music can be played on an iPad, but smart playlists can only be created on a PC. Videos and songs can be purchased on an iPad, but can only be backed up on transferred to an iPod or iPhone via a PC.

You might say that these are just small details that can be addressed over time, but they are indicative of an underlying approach to the iPad OS, modeled as it is on the iPhone OS, which makes the assumption that it is a companion to a PC, not a replacement. Far from becoming trucks, this positions PCs as gas stations that are essentially for filling up iPads that are out and about on the roads.

Next week, at Apple's WWDC conference, Jobs looks set to unveil a major overhaul of their cloud-based MobileMe service, which is rumored to be moving to a fremium model. Doubtless services for iPad, including a new MobileMe iPad app, will be at heart of the new offering. And MobileMe me looks like the most promising solution to remove iPad's dependence on the PC over time. But it will be a while before Apple can be rid of that pesky "Connect to iTunes" launch screen. The PC looks likely to continue to perform the function of gas station for a while longer, before it finally fulfils Jobs's vision and becomes a truck.