Apple’s Megapixel Year

Nikon D800 Sensor

When camera companies add megapixels it’s usually a bad thing — since most digital cameras hit around 6MP in the early 2000s, image quality usually goes down when pixel count goes up (with the notable exception of full frame DSLRs and medium format cameras). Yet all that Apple has really done this year is add megapixels (and Siri) to its devices.

Per pixel image quality hasn’t gone down per se, but when we’re talking about the limits of human perception, it’s a one-off improvement and the end results are mixed — suddenly we need much more storage space for applications, and more CPU/GPU performance to simply maintain responsiveness.

It’s been about a year since Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple’s CEO (it was August 24, 2011) and what has Apple done since then?

  • iPhone 4S. A minor upgrade, although compared to the new iPad and Retina MBP it at least offers tangible performance improvements. (And, hey, I like Siri.)
  • The New iPad“. Thicker, heavier, potentially less battery life. Cellular model offers 4G. A5X performance advantage entirely eaten by extra display resolution. Retina apps are bigger, so effectively less storage capacity (not that this doesn’t also affect non-retina iPad users). I know lots of folks rave about the display, but I can’t tell it apart from an iPad 2 until I pick it up (where its slightly thicker and heavier frame becomes noticeable).
  • Retina Macbook Pro. The new MBP’s display is more useful than the iPad (because you can scale your resolution to taste) but the GPU load in particular is tremendous. Meanwhile, it has a chipset that supports 32GB of RAM, but a maximum of 16GB of RAM is soldered onto the motherboard. It may be the best Mac Apple has ever produced, but not being able to upgrade the RAM next year will lead to buyer’s remorse.
  • 1080P AppleTV. If you look closely at your giant 1080P TV you may notice the difference (although models which do bad interpolation can make it more obvious). The recent addition of Hulu Plus is a nice bonus (at last, the Daily Show!), but that’s almost certainly more legal/business than technical.
  • I’m using Mountain Lion. Safari is significantly improved (a cynic might say it’s kind of like using Chrome with Lion). Aside from Safari and Notifications, I can’t say I’ve noticed any change working with ML.
  • I haven’t played with iOS6, but I expect it will be a significant improvement over iOS5.x since there’s so much low-hanging fruit in the mobile space.

It seems relatively certain that there will be major announcements on October 4th (one day before the anniversary of Steve Jobs’s death) — the iPhone 5 and possibly a new 7-8″ iPad. Aside from anything else this means that Apple’s (by recent standards) anæmic Q3 will be followed by an equally disappointing Q4 as more consumers hold back their iPhone purchases or — worse for Apple — buy rival phones.

iLab iPhone 5 Photo
Image of the “iPhone 5” assembled by Japanese fixit site iLab. Looks pretty credible to me — I just hope it’s harder to break and easier to repair than the iPhone 4/4S (for my wife’s sake).

I think it’s fair to say that we all have high expectations for the iPhone 5:

  • We’re due for a design refresh. (Although the rumored new design looks remarkably similar to the current design — that said, the current design is totally gorgeous.)
  • A slightly larger display has been much rumored (taller without making device itself bigger).
  • Better CPU. Four cores?
  • More RAM?
  • More storage (at least as an option)?
  • Better GPU (A5X doubled the A5’s pixel pipelines if I recall correctly).
  • 4G.
  • Smaller (better?) connector.

With the iPhone and the iPad both “retina” now, the iPad will likely have ~ 4x the pixels for the foreseeable future, might we see the iPad and iPhone getting permanently separate CPU lines (A6, A6X)? I hope the iPhone 5 doesn’t sport an A5X.

But it’s getting late in the year, we were promised lots of stuff, and much of Apple’s product line is lagging:

  • Where’s the Mac Pro successor / replacement / alternative that was hinted at around WWDC?
  • Will we get Grand Central Dispatch to the cloud? (See previous!)
  • A lot of Macs — Mac Mini, Macbook Air, and of course Mac Pro — are getting a bit old in the tooth, does Apple care any more?
  • Will we see an iPod Nano with wireless capabilities? (Does this even make sense?) Or perhaps a true iOS Nano.
  • The iPod Touch hasn’t been revved since forever. Even if Apple maintains the uglier form factor and poor quality camera to keep the iPhone’s key (non-Phone-related) advantages.
  • Might we see a quick refresh of the iPad, since “the new iPad” was kind of a downgrade in some ways? (I note that Apple has gone from offering the iPad 2 16GB at $100 less than the equivalent retina model to continuing to sell the entire iPad 2 range. Personally, I find the iPad 2 a more compelling product than the new iPad, and it’s over a year old. Well, not counting the 32nm die shrink which further improves battery life.)
  • Will Apple open up AppleTV to third party developers?
  • Will we see low latency AirPlay such that AppleTV becomes viable for gaming with iOS devices?

Perhaps unsurprisingly this has been something of a lost year for Apple. I’d like to see things back on track.

In terms of epic changes (i.e. of iPad / iPhone / iPod proportions) it’s hard to see where Apple can go. And it’s not like the iPad or iPhone came totally out of the blue — Apple had long been known to be working on phones and tablets, and rumors of their imminent release were perennial. The only rumor of this nature emanating from Apple is Apple branded TVs. How could these possibly make sense?

Hulu Plus on AppleTV

Obviously, a TV with an AppleTV built into it would be pretty nice, especially compared to the pathetic crap recent TVs have built into them. (My new TV actually shows advertising when it’s turned on.) But it’s only a tiny bit nicer than a TV plugged into an AppleTV, and I just don’t see Apple being interested in supporting the myriad of options people expect from TVs, nor of the masses rushing to buy expensive TVs with relatively limited features.

But, consider Apple TVs as giant iPads. Maybe they’re gesture, rather than touch, -based devices. My kids already try to treat any large screen TV as an iPad, so it’s obviously pretty intuitive.

Windows 8 Surface Pro

The devices Apple is selling today are at the center of the digital vortex. (Well, aside from the network and server stuff.) Other markets, e.g. photography, are likely to be sucked into the vortex faster than Apple could conquer them, even if they were worth conquering. The iPhone is already the most popular camera on Flickr, right? (I’ve written a whole meandering blog post — not published — on the desperation evident in the Camera industry.) Apple probably needs to start thinking about making its own devices better integrated and/or obsolete. What comes after the iPad and the Mac?

Codea for the iPad
Codea for the iPad — seen here editing the parameters of a synthesized sound. It lets you create iPad games on an iPad. To actually sell them in the App Store you simply export your project and insert it in an open source wrapper provided by the developer.

One thing Microsoft is right about is that eventually tablets need to do everything. What Microsoft is wrong about is the need for a tablet OS to do everything by supporting legacy apps in some kind of bastardized way. (But hey, “the enterprise” loves bastardized.) The only reason there are no “real development tools” on the iPad today is that Apple won’t allow them in the App Store. (This is not speculation: Andrew Barry — creator of Realbasic — would have released an iPad-based development tool two years ago if Apple had let him.) Even so, there are some pretty nice development tools for the iPad (ignoring iPad tools for developers, a slightly different thing, such as Diet Coda and Python for iOS) written so as to navigate App Store restrictions.

RFID Tag

Back in — I think — the mid-to-late-80s there was a Scientific American article on what was going on at the time at Xerox PARC. The basic idea was very straightforward — your data and most of your computer horsepower were on the network (substitute “cloud”) and there were three basic kinds of devices — whiteboards (wall screens), tablets, and post-it notes. According to the article the first two were real and actually worked (and the researchers were using them for their day-to-day work) while the last were crude hacks using LCD displays with very limited capability.

We still can’t make post-it-note-sized networked computer displays cheap and small enough to completely fulfill that vision, but we’re getting there. Certainly, being able to cheaply print RFID-tagged notes is totally doable. Xerox PARC may not have been very good at producing commercial products, but it certainly did a great job of pointing the way.

Three kinds of interactive displays — tiny, cheap, and disposable; portable; and big. Seamless networked computing. (And maybe there’s room for immersive VR in there somewhere.) That’s where the puck is going to be. Time for Apple to saddle up (again) and help get us there.

Microsoft vs. Google

I’ve been seeing some comparisons of Google and Microsoft lately, with the word “monopoly” being bandied about. It seems like it might be time to do a bit of comparison for perspective.

Update: Microsoft Files Monopoly Complaint Against Google (The Register). Better coverage of Microsoft’s case (which seems pretty solid to me, but nowhere near as solid as the case against Microsoft in the 90s, and we all know how that went).

Microsoft Google
Alleged Monopoly Desktop OS (and Applications?) Search (and Web Advertising?)
Using revenues from monopoly to damage/destroy competitors Created Internet Explorer and bundled it in a deliberate and eventually successful bid to destroy NetScape Created Android and gave it away to make more phones able to use Google Search and see Google Ads, incidentally perhaps damaging rival smartphone vendors (mainly Apple) — and possibly not helping Google in the long run.
And then… Made it impossible to remove IE or even hide its icon. Can’t think of any similar thing Google has done.
Did I mention… Developed Access and bundled it with Office in a successful attempt to take desktop database market away from Borland. Tried similar things with Microsoft Money and Expression Studio with marked lack of success. Arguably Google’s purchase of Writely which formed the basis for Google Docs was an attempt to replace Microsoft Office. It’s hard to get worked up about someone trying to break a monopoly by giving stuff away, though.
Oh and… Allegedly introduced incompatibilities into its OS to damage reputation of rival software products (e.g. Lotus 1-2-3) I’m at a loss here.
Used control of market dominating product to make rivals look bad Inserted error messages in operating system application loader to make rival development tools (from Borland) seem less reliable Either deliberately or incidentally reduces visibility of rival search sites in rankings because they’re “just sites with links to other sites”.
And let’s not forget… Inserted error messages in Windows to make rival versions of DOS (from Digital Research) seem less reliable Nope.
and… Designed the Video for Windows installer to remap QuickTime’s files to make QuickTime seem less reliable Arguably Google’s attempt to derail h264 support in HTML5 is similarly motivated, but it’s not even in the ballpark. The stakes, however, are much higher.
Created its own version of the JVM Created its own version of the JVM which worked better than the original, and then added functionality designed to break its cross-platform mission. Created its own version of the JVM which works better than the original.

There’s all kinds of stuff Google is doing that might be considered “evil” outside this topic, e.g. the way it’s handling copyright in its effort to put all books online, or its attitudes to privacy, but these aren’t really anything to do with its being a “monopoly”. (And there’s a ton of nasty stuff Microsoft does that constitute normal operating practice in the software world that are egregious even when you aren’t a “monopoly” but even worse when you are, such as using file format obfuscation to create lock-in.)

On the whole though, I don’t think Google is in Microsoft’s super-villain league. (That said, if the founders of Google take their cash and spend it on curing malaria, or some similarly laudable cause, all will be forgiven, right?)

iPhone Nano, NoWin, and Other Stories

Apple is, according to Bloomberg, working on an iPhone that’s one-third smaller than th current model (one half, according to WSJ) that will sell without contract for $200 (or presumably with ridiculous incentives, such as buy one get one free, with a contract). The question is, if this is true, how does it not create fragmentation in iOS land?

The answer is pretty simple. It could be an iPod Touch with a microphone and a cell phone radio. In other words, an iPod Touch that can make phone calls and use WiFi but which does not have a 3G modem. For bonus points it could easily be thinner than an iPhone 4 and smaller without sacrificing screen size (which is how to avoid fragmentation).

Of course Apple could just sell a tiny 3GS (or even a tiny iPhone 4). Especially if the iPhone 5 has some kind of ridiculously compelling advantage over the iPhone 4/3GS (remember that most iPhone 4 users will not upgrade this year) — e.g. twice the CPU and GPU and RAM, all of which is totally plausible.

Post Script: if Apple starts selling unsubsidized $200 iPhones comparable to a 3GS or 4, they can turn the US cell phone market (where almost everyone upgrades every two years and is locked to carriers) into the European market (where everyone upgrades constantly and few are locked to vendors). Assuming they can maintain decent margins, this could be a huge play and get Apple where it always wants to be — selling great products to end users.

P.P.S: the NY Times has debunked these rumors. (But if Apple is planning on releasing said phones just before Christmas then the NY Times could be right without the WSJ and others being entirely wrong.)

NoWin

My first, second, third, and I think fourth cell phones were Nokias. The first was a behemoth that barely fit in a jacket pocket, could last for maybe six hours on standby but drastically less if you actually made calls with it, and had no features beyond storing contacts (and making phone calls) and potentially allowing a 4800 bps modem to be attached (a factor in choosing it which I never took advantage of). I remember envying my friends’ Ericssons for their minuscule size and superior audio quality, but deciding I had the better deal after trying to make sense of their menus.

It’s a testament to how good Nokia’s original menu system was that it survived so many years and generations of phones essentially unchanged without Nokia going out of business, but you can only sleep at the wheel for so long. (And we don’t know how long yet — a year from now Nokia will still have serious market share and may be shipping Android phones for all we know.)

My last cell phone was a Motorola RAZR*. Nice hardware (although its case was made of pieces whose color and finish didn’t match). It’s a testament to just how incompetent the cell phone handset industry that a product with such an awful menu system could dominate the market for two or three years. My RAZR offered “3G”, apps (written in Java), email, a web browser, and video. It only failed to be a “smart” phone because it lacked a qwerty keyboard. Oh, and all the features sucked. It was a decent phone though.

* The iPhone is, of course, not a phone but a pocket computer with a mediocre phone built in.

I think the NoWin alliance makes sense for Nokia if, and only if, it leaves Nokia free to switch to other options in a reasonable time frame and Nokia is exploring them right now. There’s no question that WP7 at least potentially offers a far superior end-user experience than Android. (Android phones and tablets still aren’t as fluid as lower-powered iOS devices — expecting Google to fix it Real Soon Now is as stupid as expecting Adobe to fix Acrobat. If they could have, they would have.)

In a sense, WP7s “failure” in the market thus far probably plays in favor of Nokia’s decision. If WP8 (say) rocks, it will help differentiate Nokia in ways Android never would or could have even if Nokia could somehow ship Android phones in a timely manner.

(And if getting the latest version of Android running on a new cell phone is so easy, how come the handset makers most invested in Android seem to have so much trouble doing it?)

I’m guessing Nokia had three obvious alternatives — MeeGo, Android, and WP7. (Their best alternative was buying Palm before HP got to it. Oops. Didn’t think we had a problem back then.) The question was, which will get us back in the game fastest with a good enough product? My guess is that Nokia hadn’t even really figured out how to get Android working on some of their existing handsets. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple has Android working on iPhone hardware and iOS working on Android hardware.) If Nokia could flip a switch and start shipping Android handsets in three months, say, they’d probably have gone that way.

I’m guessing the equation went like this — if we go Android we need to build or retrain a team to do the transition and in twelve months we’re a second tier Android vendor… Maybe. If everything works perfectly. If we go Microsoft… Oh wow MS just demoed WP7 working on five of our handsets, WTF? They said they’d do all the heavy lifting.

(As an aside, this is exactly how NeXT did an end-run around the stalled Apple-BeOS deal.)

In short, I’m guessing the reason Nokia went with Microsoft is that Microsoft basically offered to do the software part for them (that’s the “billions” Nokia gets from the deal). Nokia can retrain its existing software people or simply fire them, doesn’t matter, they’re not on the critical path. The key thing Microsoft offered that Android did not is Google’s classic failing and Microsoft’s classic strength — tech support.

Google offered a product, Microsoft offered a solution.

Cruft

So, which of the following do you think affords you more screen real estate for word-processing “out of the box”: Word 2011, Pages, or Pages for iPad? (Note: the Mac screenshots are from a 1440 x 900 Macbook Pro 15″ display.)

Word 2011 (thanks to Boy Genius Report for original screen shot)
Pages 08 (09 is identical)
Pages 08 (09 is identical)
Pages on the iPad
Pages for iPad

I think these pictures pretty much speak for themselves (the bottom figures on the iPad screenshot are for using the iPad with an external keyboard, but since it’s already ahead that’s just rubbing salt in wounds). Here’s the real Hallelujah moment, though:

Pages on the iPad isn’t even hurting for room on its toolbar!

What’s more, it’s easy to see how even this very minimalist UI could be simplified. All you really need is to move the “tab” button to the keyboard (where it belongs) and eliminate everything except paragraph and character style selectors. (The ruler can be eliminated too — except when editing tables.)

Annals of Insecurity: Please, don’t buy a Mac

Up to 88% of Fortune 500 companies may have been affected by the Zeus trojan, according to research by RSA’s Fraud Action Anti-Trojan division, part of EMC. The trojan installs keystroke loggers to steal login credentials to banking, social networking, and e-mail accounts.

The botnet was first identified in 2007 and is still around today. The malware tends to be difficult to detect and remove, and several million machines worldwide are believed to be infected.

And also:

The malware itself predominantly attacks Windows XP machines, though Windows Vista and Windows 7 variants are available for sale too.

And later:

Smaller companies (those with fewer than 75,000 employees) appeared to have a higher proportion of infected employees, suggesting that perhaps larger corporations are more effective at securing their systems and data. Home computers not subject to corporate IT policy but used to access corporate mail and networks are a particularly high risk.

From Ars Technica,  Almost all Fortune 500 companies show Zeus botnet activity

So, despite all the anti-malware software typical IT departments (and PC vendors) inflict on users and all the restrictions those users have to put up with (a typical user in a typical large corporation can’t install software for themselves, for example), we get this result. (I wonder if there’s a keylogger on my PC at work…

BTW Zeus is freaking scary. Of course, Microsoft is there to help:

About a year ago the state of the art in malware advanced to the point where Windows indexing or Outlook preview would automatically open PDF attachments and allow infection without any explicit user action at all.

From a comment on krebsonsecurity.com, Zeus Attack Spoofs NSA, Targets .gov and .mil

And, from the same series (of very intelligent comments) there’s this reminder that root access isn’t important:

Keep in mind that this is the same trojan which will, according to BK in a previous Security Fix column, happily run under LUAs. That would, in turn, defeat the previous advice to use a LUA for day-to-day use.

Users live in user accounts. User data lives in user accounts. Everything valuable is in user accounts. Root access is for compromising systems — when the system essentially has one user it’s no comfort to know that “well, they may have stolen my identity but my PC still boots”.

Now, it’s worth noting that the Zeus botnet is based on trojans (which should, of course, be called Greeks) — there’s pretty much nothing one can do about trojans short of never downloading or installing anything on your computer. Perhaps Charlie Miller and other security researchers should be called Cassandras.

(Meanwhile, the first reports of Apple’s latest patch I saw were along the lines of “Apple forced to release patch just two weeks after last one”. Either Apple is too slow to patch, or it’s forced to hurry I suppose. At least PCWorld has stopped being weirdly hostile again and pointed out that Microsoft is yet to patch the IE8 vulnerability revealed at Pwn2Own.)

I’m pretty sure I’ve linked this site before, but it remains simply staggering how much malware activity there is on the Windows side of things. If Apple’s lack of market share is preventing this from leaking over onto my favorite platform, I have just one thing to say: please do not buy a Mac. Thank you.