Three New Things, And One More (Of Course)

Just some quick reactions to the Macworld Expo announcements.

iTunes. Well, Apple didn’t announce a new Mac Mini with a 9400M GPU, and it didn’t announce a new bigger or cheaper or somehow more compelling AppleTV. And it didn’t announce any new iPods or iPhones. But the iTunes announcement is probably going to turn out to be more significant than anything else — see the second item:

  • New pricing model. $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29 per song. This is not “pay more for 256 kbps”, but allowing Music labels to charge more for new shiny stuff and less for back catalogue.
  • Everything is going to be DRM free. (8M songs now; 10M soon.) In other words, the recording industry idiots have finally gotten a clue.
  • iPhone can now download music over cellular networks (not just Wi-Fi).

It doesn’t say whether our existing purchases will be stripped of their DRM though. I hope that devil is in the details.

The 17″ Macbook Pro looks great. I won’t buy one. When I get a notebook I’ve learned that its single most compelling feature is being small. (As small as possible without becoming dysfunctional.) There’s a perfect MacBook for me already, and it’s the new MacBook Air (which Apple quietly upgraded to the nVidia 9400M sometime in the last couple of months). Oh, and the new 17″ MacBook Pro has a non-removable battery which, apparently, gives you 8h (if you don’t use the faster GPU), and has a 5y lifespan — 1000 charge cycles — but, as already mentioned, isn’t removable.

iWork ’09 looks very compelling. The key missing features appear to have all been added (except for automatic indexing in Pages and perhaps pivot options in Numbers). It would be nice if Apple released a Tables database component but I guess that would make Filemaker’s Bento look silly. Wait, it already looks silly.

I wonder why Apple didn’t try to integrate Google documents into iWork rather than or instead of doing iWork.com. Do they really expect iWork.com to become a major profit center? If not, why not simply leverage something very good that does much the same thing that happens to be something Google is doing as a loss leader. iWork.com could be great, but how much better than Google docs will it have to be to make up for not being free?

iLife ’09 looks equally compelling. I’m one of the people who happens to like iMovie ’08 (I think we’re the silent majority). If you want to create an actual movie, iMovie ’08 is hopeless (mainly owing to poor audio functionality), but then so is iMovie ’06 (for much the same reasons). For cutting together a bunch of footage into something halfway decent in nothing flat, iMovie ’09 looks like it will let us have our cake and eat it. If the face recognition stuff in iPhoto ’09 is halfway decent it will be a huge, huge feature. Music lessons in GarageBand seem like a killer feature, but it really depends on how well it’s done.

iPhone Development

After over six months, I’ve finally got my act together (and waited for Apple to get its act together) and can build my own iPhone apps. So far I’m using Unity’s iPhone Advanced tool rather than the “bare” SDK (Unity essentially builds an iPhone project for you, you still need to build the final app in XCode).

Using Apple’s tools, and I don’t think I’m violating any remaining components of the NDA by saying this, makes it clear that the SDK was released on a highly accelerated schedule. The amount of silliness involved in getting “Hello World” working on your iPhone is pretty amazing. It’s all a consequence of Apple wanting to make the iPhone world as safe and secure as possible.

In essence you have to jump backwards through a bunch of hoops to produce encrypted digital signing certificates and registering all your developers, testers, and so forth and their iPhones and iPod Touches before you can do anything. I won’t go into gory details because it probably is covered by the vestiges of the NDA and it’s boring, but take my word that the process involves a lot of non-obvious (even with a step-by-step checklist) steps that involve telling your left hand what your right hand is doing (i.e. stuff that should be automatic). It’s all very reminiscent of using Lotus Notes. (If you don’t know me, that’s worse than comparing it to Blender 2.3.)

The purpose of all this is to prevent people from installing “any old app” on their iPhone, and to allow Apple to flip a “kill switch” and disable any app which proves to be toxic to users (e.g. steals/destroys data or violates user privacy) or violates Apple’s unstated rules (e.g. don’t build anything vaguely related to web browsing or email) or Apple’s relationship with AT&T (e.g. don’t facilitate people using their iPhone as a cellular modem/base station). I have no objection to the purpose served by all this annoying cruft, but I do think the annoying cruft should be much easier to handle. Basically, all I should need to do is associate my iPhone with my developer account and click OK to have all the necessary crap stored in my keychain and I am done. Instead it’s 25 steps disguised as 12.

Unity’s iPhone tool is simply amazing. (This is amazing above and beyond Unity itself, which is plenty amazing.) During testing you can run your app in the Unity IDE as normal and use your iPhone as a tethered controller/display — Unity sends compressed video to the iPhone and receives the iPhone’s state over USB via a small app that comes with the dev tools. The only downside to testing this way is that your app is running on your Mac, so you don’t see the actual performance you’ll get on the iPhone, and the video can be a little artifacty (woohoo new word!).

So far it looks like you can have around 7,000 triangles visible and still get action game performance, or up to 25,000 triangles for more sedate games. The shader support on the iPhone is limited so blowing out the video hardware’s performance with fancy shaders isn’t really an option, so expect to see a lot of lightmapped scenery.

Anyway, MANTA (which I conceived of as an iPhone game) weighs in at 100-150k triangles visible on screen right now, so it’s not going to be running on the iPhone without some major surgery. I would still like to get it out this year, but my original planned Nov 30 release is impossible. (I’ll try to release the Mac version on time.)

Apple’s Accidental Game Strategy

When Apple released the Macintosh its primary focus was on competing with the IBM PC as a “serious” computer. The Apple II was widely seen as being a “games machine”. It shipped with game paddles, and pretty much every classic computer game started out as an Apple II game. Ultima I-IV, Wizardry, Sierra’s first titles, EA’s first titles, Broderbund’s first titles… all started life on the Apple II.

Macs are not games machines, dammit

For computer games enthusiasts, the Mac was extremely frustrating. It had excellent graphics, but its CPU really wasn’t up to updating all those pixels really fast. And on top of that there were no decent native development tools for the first couple of years. Worst of all, Apple refused to provide standardized game controller specifications or even to allow games to go full screen without using evil hacks.

Apple’s anti-game bias was probably a result of Steve Jobs’s desire to have Macs taken seriously by business, but after he was forced out, this policy was continued mindlessly for over a decade. It’s highly unlikely that Jobs would have persisted with such a self-destructive policy had he remained in charge of Apple. (There are persistent rumors that Jobs hates games. Maybe so… even though he and Woz created games together. But he’s enough of a businessman not to piss in the hand that feeds him.)

But if we pretend really hard…

Since about 1993, Apple has periodically tried to recapture its lost opportunity in games, notably by employing games “evangelists” who tried to convince developers that Apple was serious about games and convince Apple to be serious about games, the introduction of “Game Sprockets” (libraries of code to make life easier for game developers, something Microsoft arguably imitated with DirectX, and which Apple spectacularly failed to follow through on, eventually abandoning the whole concept in the switchover to MacOS X), the ill-fated and underpowered Pippin games console, and, more recently, the highlighting of games in Mac marketing events and literature (starting with Steve Jobs bringing the Bungie folks on stage to show off early alpha code of HALO, shortly before they were bought by Microsoft and HALO was turned into a flagship launch title for the X-Box).

Accidental Victory

I don’t know if it’s an accident or not, but the iPhone turns out to be a very nice piece of game hardware with a very odd game control interface. Fortunately for Apple, the Nintendo Wii and DS have whetted people’s appetites for games which use weird control interfaces. As for the raw specifications, compared to the Sony PSP, it has more memory, a far better CPU, and a somewhat inferior GPU. Compared to the Nintendo DS it is grotesquely superior in every way except battery life. Unlike the original Mac, it can push pixels as fast as needed for games, and it has excellent developer tools that Apple gives away to anyone interested. Anyone complaining about the iPhone being a closed platform should try to get a PSP or DS dev kit.

So, suddenly, Apple has a game platform that is dominant in its obvious category (smart phones) and a serious contender in its less obvious category (handheld games consoles). Certainly in terms of available titles, the iPhone has more games available for it now than the PSP, DS, and all earlier Gameboys combined. Most iPhone games suck ass, but guess what, so do most PSP, DS, and Gameboy titles, and they’re way cheaper. What’s more, Apple can sell a $5 or $10 title direct to a consumer, collect 30% and pass on 70% — no middlemen involved. The developer of a $10 iPhone game probably gets more money per sale than the developer of a $29 DS title. (Last I heard, the developer of a AAA $40 PC game title nets about $14 per game sold at full price, but consoles take more money off the top, especially titles that ship on cartridges.)

This is all pretty cool, but there’s more: 

 

  • There’s no reason why iPhone games can’t run with a simple recompile on a Mac. Possibly without a recompile (via CPU emulation). iPhones are, after all, Macs running on an ARM CPU. We should start to see games developed for both platforms simply because it’s easy to do.
  • There’s no reason why iPhone games can’t run with a simple recompile on an AppleTV. AppleTV’s are, after all, Macs. It follows that Apple could reposition the AppleTV as a games platform with a system update.
  • The Unity game development system is going to be able to target iPhones as of this month. (It’s currently in beta.) The development process isn’t quite seamless with Windows/Web/Mac/Wii development, but there’s no reason not to expect to be able to target Windows/Web/Mac/Wii/iPhone from a single codebase in Unity within six months.

 

So, Apple could be in the process of becoming a serious contender in the game platform wars almost accidentally as a result of its success with the iPhone. And Apple has done this without flushing a ton of money down the toilet the way Microsoft has with both the XBox and XBox 360. And, unlike Sony, it doesn’t need to offset hardware losses with software profits — it made money from the iPhone from day one.

OS X Everywhere

Here’s my contribution to rampant speculation on the “Product Transition I Can’t Get Into” referred to in Apple’s recent Earnings Call. Let’s see how good a pundit I am. Now, there are many things I’d like the transition to be but which are highly unlikely. I may publish the long-winded article I’ve written on the subject eventually, but I thought I’d keep this brief…

By November, every iPod — except possibly the Nano — will be an iPod Touch of some kind, running OS X. To achieve this, Apple will have to drop the basic iPod Touch price down to $149 or less. iPod Touches are kind of expensive to make, so this will hurt margins and cannibalize some higher margin products.

The upside: within 12-24 months, Apple will — arguably — have the dominant computing platform on the planet — the largest games platform except for the PS2, the largest mobile computing platform except for the OSes embedded in commodity cell phones, and the largest platform that, as a whole, can natively run apps compiled against a single OS toolbox API.

For bonus points, they can merge the AppleTV into the Mac Mini (and put AppleTV functionality into every Mac) or simply expose extra functionality in [new?] AppleTVs (such as the ability to run iPhone games apps).

Now, I’m not sure this is a Good Thing™. Apple has, historically, been a pretty arrogant company. (Look at its treatment of game developers from 1985-2000.) I’m not sure whether the world would be a better place with Apple in the driver’s seat, but this is, I think, the plan: OS X everywhere.

Post Script

Another rumor I’ve seen is that there’ll be a MacBook Touch which will presumably draw attention away from Apple’s very successful MacBook Air and also the MacBook Pro (especially if the MacBook Touch has good stylus support). A MacBook Touch would help dissolve the dividing line between Mac and iPhone applications (it’s easy to imagine that some apps will appear that are, essentially, identical on both platforms) and turn OS X into a more unified platform.

Verizon Customer Retention, The LG Dare, iPhone Flaws

While we were in Denver visiting family we visited an Apple Store (it was the most crowded store in the Mall, of course) and, of course, started drooling at the prospect of replacing our aging Motorola Razr v3cs. “We’ll just wait until our Verizon contract expires,” we agreed, and continued wandering around. Then we stumbled across a Verizon store. “I’ll just go find out when our contract expires,” said my wife as she ran off, leaving me with the twins.

It turns out that our plans have already expired! “OK, let’s go to the Apple Store,” I said (loudly) at which point the Verizon reps (who outnumbered the customers in the store) tried to sell me on the virtues of the LG Dare which, they explained, is better rated by independent reviewers than the iPhone and is superior in most ways.

I won’t go into their sales pitch — I basically tried out the Dare’s web browser (which was an exercise in self-flagellation) and left the store — but I did check the LG Dare out online after I got home. (Of course, if I’d had an iPhone I could have checked it out on the spot.) Here’s the thing, the LG Dare does get better reviews than the iPhone from the likes of C|Net, but not from more critical reviewers such as Engadget. Indeed, MacWorld gave the iPhone 3G a four (out of five) mouse review.

It seems to me that this isn’t  because a lot of review sites are anti-Apple, or that people love to criticize the iPhone — although both things are true — but because when you use an iPhone you suddenly start comparing it to what you imagine it could be, versus what it actually is, whereas when you use most cell phones you compare them to other cell phones (say, your current cell phone). The iPhone isn’t a phone, it’s a touchscreen computer that happens to be a phone. As such, its connection is kind of slow, its screen is kind of small, its performance isn’t always stellar, the virtual keyboard is kind of lame, and so on. It’s easy to imagine a device that’s better in pretty much every way.

I like my Razr — I just wish it had a slightly bigger screen, a better menu system (which let me customize shortcuts to, say, the calendar), better battery life, and synced properly to my Mac. I don’t wish it let me use iWork applications, support pen drawing so I could use it as a sketchpad, and let me play Grand Theft Auto. I don’t mourn the lack of an SD card slot that would let me grab pictures from my D50, or videos from my TZ3. I don’t wonder when there’ll be a decent image editor for it.

The iPhone 3G doesn’t deserve better reviews. It just deserves its own category.

Anyway, we’ve decided: my wife will get an iPhone. I’ll get an ordinary cellphone (possibly a disposable, since I hardly call anyone ever) and an iPod Touch. And that way we’ll be able to test our apps on both the iPhone and Touch and pay AT&T as little money as possible. I wonder if Apple will release a Touch with GPS.