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.

Apple OS iOS

There have been two successful OS transformations on the desktop. One was Mac OS Classic to Mac OS X, which was implemented using virtualization. The other was DOS to Windows, which was a slightly weirder affair (initially, Windows was a DOS application, then Windows NT ran DOS under virtualization). You might argue Windows was a horrible kludge, but its more elegant step-sibling (OS/2) handled DOS compatibility by virtualization and failed miserably in the marketplace.

It seems pretty clear, especially given the power of current hardware, that virtualization is the way to handle an OS transformation. Indeed, many commentators have suggested that Microsoft should replace Windows with a brand new modern, lightweight OS, and manage compatibility by virtualization.

Right now, iPhone OS runs under Mac OS X via virtualization. Multitouch is not well-supported (for obvious reasons), but that’s simply a hardware issue (Macs don’t have touchscreens).

Of Apple’s two operating systems, one generates over two-thirds of its revenue, and an even larger proportion of its profits. And that OS isn’t Mac OS X. Apple is notorious (I might say famous, but chose not to) for doing a lot with a little — there are probably fewer people working on Mac OS X right now than on Microsoft Word. But we haven’t even heard a whisper about Mac OS X 10.7.

So, the question is, whither Mac OS X?

Merging it with iPhone OS is impractical for numerous reasons, not least of which is that iPhone OS runs very lean and mean and Mac OS X conspicuously does not. A virtualization solution would allow iPhone OS to continue working beautifully on low-powered devices (by not providing the compatibility box) while allowing higher-powered devices to offer full backwards compatibility.

Of course, Apple already has an iPhone virtualization box for Mac OS X, so a “unification OS” could be released tomorrow if Apple wanted to make Mac OS X that OS, but I think a Tablet computer that boots instantly into iPhone OS and lets you run Mac OS X in a virtual box as needed is far more desirable than a Tablet computer that boots in 30s into Mac OS X and lets you run iPhone OS in a virtual box. Either would be pretty compelling, though.

The other question is, what benefits are there to keeping the two platforms separate? I would argue there are none. iPhone OS devices with a Mac compatibility box would, in essence, answer all the “closed platform” criticisms — the Mac platform is rich and open, and running it on a virtual machine would sandbox it from the managed world of iPhone. Indeed, virtualization affords Apple the option of opening iPhone OS devices without adding risk for users who don’t want it. The only real reason not to go down this route right now is hardware.

There’s your Mac App Store, by the way. It’s the App Store, and iPhone OS running on your Mac.

So, I predict that iPhone OS will subsume Mac OS X within three years. Obviously, it will long since have ceased being iPhone OS, of course. Hence, the title of this post.

Windows Phone 7 Series: New Coke

Ultimate Browsing Experience
I wonder why no-one seems to mind the fact that Silverlight isn't available on the iPhone or iPad

Here’s a direct link to the Windows Phone 7 Series Youtube Videos (you don’t need to install Silverlight to view them). My impression of the videos is that the typographic user interface looks great, but—like a lot of dotcom boom web designs—I have no clue how you’re actually supposed to use the damn thing.

It seems to me that Windows Phone 7 Series is Pepsi or New Coke vs. the iPhone’s Coke Classic. It looks great and works dandy if your goal is to “aimlessly play around with it for five minutes”, but if you actually want to use the thing then you’re screwed. The top half of the home screen is achieving the same thing the row of buttons at the bottom of the iPhone home screen does. Yes, “Music” in huge sans serif white-on-black looks great, but … it’s occupying 20% of the screen.

iPhone 4 UI leak
As Apple desperately attempts to catch up with Microsoft's UI, who knows what we'll see?

One of the things the iPhone’s UI decidedly is not is “based on the iPod UI”. Indeed, the iPod functionality on the iPhone is a pared down Mac OS X, not a bulked up iPod. The original iPod’s minimalist UI is barely sufficient for the needs of someone trying to pick a song to play.

E.g. the lack of UI affordances in the classic iPod UI can make it quite difficult to differentiate “choosing a song” from “wanting to change the volume” from “wanting to see where you are in a song” from “wanting to change your rating for a song”. Each of these things takes a full screen and overloads the basic controls. To select a song you scroll to it and the press the middle button. The play the song you  press the middle button. To set a song’s rating you press the middle button, scroll the rating, then press the middle button. Er, I think.

Luckily for the iPod, it was competing against clueless vendors of audio hi-fi equipment whose idea of UI design was “if you want to select which tracks to play, follow the following twenty-seven step process that we guarantee you’ll never remember”. These are the people who left blinking “0:00” displays around the world. The iPod’s UI wasn’t so much “great” as decent.

Microsoft’s new phone is essentially taking a decent music player UI and using it for everything.

Oh, and I look forward to getting emails ending with… “from Steve Ballmer’s Windows Phone 7 Series Phone”.

Post Script

Edward Tufte has some things to say on the subject. “In the splashy panoramas, there are hints of design-by-focus-group (which is like hiring temps as your design consultants). Instead of impressing focus groups, designers should do a thought experiment: Imagine what Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive would have to say about your interface.” Which is pretty much in line with my whole “New Coke” comparison. It does raise the question of whether the purpose of WP7S is in fact a product or a publicity stunt.

The iPad isn’t a Prius. The iPad is the Mac.

128k Mac
The original 128kB Macintosh

The Economist has a piece on the iPad that is, as is often the case with said publication, a lot more on point than anything else I’ve heard or read on the topic.

The enthusiasm of the Apple faithful may be overdone, but Jobs’ record suggests that when he blesses a market, it takes off. And tablet computing promises to transform not just one industry, but three — computing, telecoms and media. Companies in the first two businesses view the iPad’s arrival with trepidation, for Apple’s history makes it a fearsome competitor. The media industry, by contrast, welcomes it wholeheartedly. Piracy, free content and the dispersal of advertising around the Web have made the Internet a difficult environment for media companies.

True, there are worries that Apple could end up wielding a lot of power in these new markets, as it already does in digital music. But a new market opened up and dominated by Apple is better than a shrinking market, or no market at all.

If Jobs manages to pull off another amazing trick with another brilliant device, then the benefits of the digital revolution to media companies with genuinely popular products may soon start to outweigh the costs.

I’m getting sick of tech bloggers who don’t understand why on earth anyone would want a tablet that doesn’t have insert feature here. I’m almost as sick of tech bloggers explaining to their friends (who agree with them) that it’s Utter Utter Genius because it’s like a Prius or an Automatic Transmission or even The Shape of Things to Come (although this last post is perhaps the most insightful and to-the-point).

If I were to pick an analogy, I’d pick a computer analogy. The iPad is the Mac. Or to put it another way, it is to the Mac what the Mac was to the IBM PC in 1984.

So, to all of my fellow tech bloggers struggling for meaningful analogies — go back in time to 1984 and review the Macintosh.

When the Mac came out you couldn’t write Mac programs on a Mac (not compiled ones, anyway). You needed a Lisa. It lacked a lot of capabilities that other computers had, e.g. it had no expansion slots, no hard disk, no color display. It’s actually quite normal for emerging computer platforms to be crippled from a development standpoint — tethered to the platform from which they were spawned by an umbilical cord of cross-compilers, etc.. This doesn’t mean that, if Apple were to transition its entire product line to what is now referred to as iPhone OS, the new platform would lack any significant capabilities possessed by “computers”.

The difference between a computer and a car is that a computer is a general-purpose device. A Prius is a car. You can’t hack a Prius to function as a food processor, even if you know exactly how it works. Cars aren’t general-purpose devices. The analogy sucks. The only reason you can’t write iPhone software using an iPhone is that Apple expressly won’t allow such apps in the app store (I have a friend who would have shipped one by now if it did). The Newton — a commercially unsuccessful platform by pretty much any measurement — had at least one native visual IDE.

Will the iPad ever be as “open” to third-party development as the Mac is? That’s an interesting question. There are reasons both for and against — would you rather be forced to get software through an “app store” if it made trojans (for example) a non-issue?

Is the iPad merely an information appliance for the “unwashed masses” which might be useful for “non-professionals” and casual use by “pros” but always merely a supplement to “real computers”? No. It’s the next incarnation of the personal computer. At least, it or things like it. Exactly how the security vs. openness issue is resolved is yet to be seen — Apple is at least trying something (and what Apple is doing is far less draconian than what game console vendors do). Four years ago Apple was shipping PowerPC computers; last year they stopped supporting the PowerPC altogether. I predict that if the iPad takes off, Mac OS’s days are numbered.

Post Script

I was beaten to the punch.

Selling The Future

Trees? Where we're going we don't need trees.

Dear J.J. Abrams,

The fundamental problem for Environmentalists is envisioning the future. Selling it, if you will.

The people who are best at selling the future are the creators of Science Fiction. William Gibson typed Neuromancer on a manual typewriter — creating a technological dystopia — and inspired generations of computer scientists to make the stuff he described come true. Star Trek showed people using “tricorders” and many companies, Apple included, squandered billions trying to make one.

One of the big problems for the Environmental Movement right now is that the people who are selling us the future — notably you and James Cameron — are assuming that we’ll just go on burning high octane gas and — in Cameron’s case — destroy the world or — in yours — somehow everything will be OK. Indeed, James Cameron started out at the tail-end of Mutually Assured Destruction assuming we’d blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, and then switched to assuming we’d live in an unending corporate dictatorship — presumably that’s what we have to look forward to if Sarah and John Connor ever actually manage to win. Star Trek has us burning prodigious quantities of gas for in our spare time, and antimatter in our day jobs. Awesome.

It’s fairly certain that — assuming some kind of sanity prevails — life in The Future will — for the lucky — just get better and better. But portraying a future in which everyone is continuing to waste natural resources and destroy the environment isn’t going to sell today’s people on trying not to. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were implied in Stargate Universe, for example, that The Ancients were really power efficient instead of good at pulling the guts out of stars to power their insanely (and pointlessly) huge spaceships? “Hey look, the Ancients have a gadget for recharging our stupidly inefficient flashlights” could be replaced with “Hey look, the Ancients have incredibly efficient flashlights”.

There’s no particular reason why we can’t have fantastic future lives and still live within an energy budget. Unfortunately, the only time Science Fiction portrays an efficient future it’s an unpleasant joke — think of Korben Dallas’s apartment in The Fifth Element, or poor people dying of asphyxiation after failing to put coins in their oxygen meters in Judge Dredd. I’m pretty sure that medieval people didn’t think the world would be so much better if they could just burn stupendous quantities of fossilized wood. Apocalyptic visions have their place — but if we’re going to be starry-eyed optimists (e.g. Trekkies) why not try to portray a future that makes sense?

Gene Roddenberry envisioned a future Earth without racism, sexism (until the network shut that idea down), or money. Instead of merely updating a 60s vision of the future (where problems from the 60s have been solved) with better special effects, why not refresh the franchise conceptually as well, and envision solutions to other problems we’ve discovered since?

Oh, and while your Star Trek remake was very well put together, could the plot of the next one make a little more sense please?

Cheers,

Tonio