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.