The Datastick. Again.

Note: the datastick is a device I first encountered in Colorvision by Ron Cobb. While working on production design for Alien, Cobb assumed the crew of the Nostromo would carry around a device that was a combination flashlight, audio/video recorder, and computer. I incorporated such a device (along with standardized mass storage) into my science fiction setting. Reality has far exceeded any of this, but — at least since the Newtonnothing quite like the Datastick has yet emerged, even though it makes a huge amount of sense.

The 2008 MacWorld Keynote is fast approaching and of course there are plenty of predictions out there, along with John Siracusa’s keynote bingo. So I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts — more wishful thinking than predictions — as to what Apple might have in store for us this year (if not on January 15th).

Everyone knows Apple will release a 3G iPhone sometime this year, so that’s hardly worth mentioning. The pundits are pretty confident Apple will release an ultralight flash-based tablet and/or notebook, which I think may be wishful thinking. There’s also a patent-filing-based rumor of a new dockable liquid-cooled MacBook, which sounds interesting but unless it’s actually not quite what it seems is probably a little nuts. Who knows?

I think that the key factor behind every major Apple announcement since 2001 is convergence. The problem with AppleTV isn’t so much what it does or doesn’t do, so much as that it’s another damn thing. At least a Sony PS3 can play DVDs and blu-ray disks (your library of blu-ray disks is huge, right?). Again, as with cell phones, the key is to reduce clutter, cables, and complexity.

The problem with the AppleTV is that it is missing obvious functionality, including (a) a DVD player, and (b) a DVR. Oh and once you add a DVD player, a DVD-R seems like an obvious next step. Each of these functions would add very little to the bottom-line price of the product, but enormously to its desirability. (You can currently buy brand-name DVD-Rs for well under $200. I have one, and boy do I wish I had one designed by Apple. Of course, Apple already sells an AppleTV with a DVD, and even with a DVD-R — it’s called a Mac Mini — but it’s kind of a major price hike and it lacks HDMI output.)

Here are two major convergence points Apple is poised to exploit, and I hope we’ll see announcements accordingly.

The Truly Personal Computer: the Datastick

Here are several devices Apple’s customers pretty much all own and wish could be converged: phone, notebook computer, desktop computer, iPod. Even if a customer only has a phone and laptop, they probably have a bunch of peripheral crap they do not carry with them, so that — in effect — their notebook becomes a desktop by way of a bunch of tangled cables and hubs.

Apple will (I hope) release a convergence device that replaces all these things, or at least absorbs them. Think of a notebook with phone circuitry and bluetooth support that can dock into an iMac-like display. Fundamentally, the overlap between phone, notebook, and desktop computer is so great that you’re currently buying three devices and simply swapping data between them. And a lot of us have two or more desktop computers (one at home, the other at work, for instance).

Personal Server: the Hub

There’s a huge demand for a modular gamers’ Mac, but — as I and others have noted — anything too good in this category would probably kill — or seriously undermine — the Mac Pro market. There is a point at which killing the Mac Pro market would make a lot of sense, however, and this dovetails with Apple’s overall strategy (since the second coming of Steve Jobs) and that is to make a lot of money from high volume, high margin, low cost products (like iPods) rather than a rather smaller amount of money from low volume, high margin, high cost products (like Mac Pros).

Consider this next time you’re in Wal-Mart: to make a 5% margin on a $400 desktop computer, Dell has to ship a huge box to Wal-Mart and that box occupies a huge amount of shelf-space. In that same store, Apple is making 20% or more margins on iPod nanos that take up about as much space as a pack of 8 AA batteries, or a box of Zantac ($10 products sold on fairly low margins).

If Apple can converge a bunch of devices into a single, very compelling consumer device, sell it at a reasonable (slightly high) price, and make a solid profit, why that would be pretty amazing, no?

Here are a few devices Apple could converge into an xMac that would sell enough units at a high enough margin to justify gutting the Mac Pro market:

  • Windows PC
  • DOS PC
  • Macintosh
  • DVR / AppleTV
  • Console Gaming Device(s)
  • DVD Player / Recorder
  • MediaCenter / Digital Hub

If I were Apple I’d try something like this: build a big Mac Mini or a small Mac Pro with very strong onboard video as a BTO option, Cablecard support, HDMI, etc., a DVD-R, lots of RAM, fast hard disk, slots. This device has a standard wireless games controller as an option — ideally, it’s a shameless ripoff of the PS2 controller, and/or possibly the Wii controller.

This hypothetical product offers TiVo-like simplicity for timeshifting TV shows (but you need to buy a .Mac subscription — all of a sudden, .Mac looks incredibly compelling since it’s cheaper than a TiVo subscription and does so much more) but with the added bonus that .mac will let you watch stuff on your Mac DVR from your hotel room when on the road (and allow you to modify your season passes, etc.), you can effortlessly sync programs to your iPod, iPhone, iDatastick, etc., and you can (eventually — when the lawyers have done their dirty deeds) burn your favorite shows to DVD.

This new product also comes with a version of WINE optimized to play Windows games. It could easily be bundled with a couple of games that are known to work (e.g. The Sims). (The WINE component is already announced, and the necessary hooks for Leopard to support this have been revealed to already be in place.) Of course, you still have BootCamp for full Windows (and Linux) compatibility.

For bonus points, Apple could develop and include a PS1 and PS2 emulator (we know that Connectix knocked together a PS1 emulator in a few weeks and survived Sony’s lawsuit). If they were really clever, they could scale the graphics resolution so that PS1/PS2 games actually run at full resolution (something Sony could have done pretty easily with the PS2 and PS3, but chose not to for obvious, if stupid, reasons). Note that Apple doesn’t have to do this in spite of Sony — they could cross-license OS X to Sony for consumer electronics devices and get PS1/PS2 (and more?) support for OS X in return.

For more bonus points, Apple could include FreeDOS in a Window to run your old DOS games. In any event, the Open Source community could easily produce something that bundled VirtualBox and FreeDOS into a legacy DOS games platform along the lines of MAME.

Synergy

My original datastick concept missed one key technology — ubiquitous networking. The problem with the original datastick is that if you lose it you’re seriously screwed. But if the datastick is really just a local point-of-presence for your data store (which, ideally but not yet practically, is redundantly stored in the “Cloud”) then that problem (and several others) go away. In this case, the xMac is your “base station” where your main data (and, unfortunately, your backups) reside, while your MacBook/iPhone/iTablet … the thing I’m calling the Datastick … is essentially your portable client.

You do want two computing devices (Macs) and not a dock. You do not want your base station to have to access your main storage hub via the net — not just yet, anyway. And if you only have one computer and it docks when you’re home, then what’s going to talk to your 2TB of local storage when you’re on the road? What’s going to record Scrubs for you when you’re on the road, and what’s going to convert your near-DVD-quality video library to low-bandwidth streaming video on the fly so you can watch it in your hotel room?

Similarly, it’s great to be able to grab photos or video off a camera and do rough edits on location. Wouldn’t it be even greater if you could get all your data onto your main storage system from your hotel room?

So, each device is amazingly compelling on its own. One replaces pretty much every device you need to carry around with you and recharge, as well as your office computer, while the other keeps all your data in one place, backs it up, and lets you access it from anywhere. And all the groundwork is in place.

Let’s see what we see on January 15th.

What’s Wrong with the Kindle™?

I’m late to the party commenting on the Kindle, and I don’t own one and haven’t touched one. The physical layout (e.g. easily mishit next page buttons) is dumb and the UI seems sluggish from videos. I have touched several Sony whatever-they’re-calleds: none of them were working properly, but I could see the display well enough to not care for it that much.

Here’s my one line summary of what’s wrong with the Kindle that no-one I’ve read seems to have picked up on:

It’s yet another damn thing.

Here’s a secret to setting the world afire with a new gizmo. It should be better, smaller, more convenient than a market dominating thing at some particular task, e.g. taking photographs, reading books, keeping track of contacts and appointments, browsing and playing music, or making phone calls, or watching videos, or browsing the web. And it should be at least adequate at a bunch of other things you either already do but carry other devices around for, or think you might do but don’t because you can’t stand carrying around other devices for.

Examples: cell phones didn’t really break out of the niche market until they replaced address books and business diaries. There was that moment when hundreds of thousands of business professionals suddenly stopped copying phone numbers from their Filofax (Dayplanner for Americans) and started doing the reverse. Suddenly you got a pocket-sized electronic diary and, oh, look, it’s also a cellphone, which is quite handy.

The iPhone is awesome precisely because it’s a world-beater at a couple of things you already do (e.g. use an iPod) and it’s perfectly adequate at a ton of other things.

I already carry a laptop, a cellphone, a Nintendo DS, a digital camera, and several other gadgets everywhere. I don’t want to add a frickin’ Kindle. Do I need to take that out of my bag at airport security as well?

Cringely’s latest column revives the biggest ongoing unfulfilled rumor in the Apple world (predating the Newton, I believe):

The fact that an iTablet could be a great e-book reader, too, is not a driving reason for such a device, I don’t believe. But it’s a nice capability. Read the book and watch the movie. Then watch Amazon’s new Kindle go up in flames.

My MacBook Pro has a great display and automatically adjusts its screen’s brightness to the ambient light level, making it a superb book reader — if it didn’t run so damn hot and had sufficient battery life, it would have everything the Kindle has as a bookreader (except the free Sprint network connection) with the advantage of not being one more damn thing. Rip off the keyboard and add wireless keyboard support, and yeah, where do I buy one?

Oops, I predicted the iPhone

I’ve been going over some of my old blog posts (removing embarrassing typos, failing to remove others) and discovered I had accidentally predicted the iPhone in July 2006 (note that Apple had probably been building the iPhone for a couple of years or more at that point, there were plenty of rumors/patents of touch screen technology, and it was part of my ongoing “datastick” hobby horse).

My Newton iPhone would probably have easily replaceable batteries, an SD card slot, and the camera would point at the user (as an option at least) to allow video conferencing, but that’s about it.

The fact is, it’s not the feature set that is impressive, it’s the UI. And it’s the UI which will give Apple a multi-year lead on its competitors (just consider that the virtual keyboard can have a proper shift key).

Thinking out loud about Leopard

The Leopard announcements have been widely judged as disappointing. Pretty much every SteveNote is judged disappointing just afterwards, and then folks gradually absorb the information and recast it all as amazing later (I, for one, thought the iPod was an overpriced useless gizmo that only geeks would buy; if you find reportage at the time, you’ll see I was not alone), forgetting that at the time they were disappointed.

I wasn’t disappointed. I’m writing this little note to myself as a kind of open diary entry (hmm I guess that’s what a blog is 🙂 ). Maybe I’ll laugh at myself in six months’ time.

First of all, the Mac Pros are the most droolworthy pieces of hardware Apple has ever released. Well, at least since the Quadra 700 or perhaps the Mach 5 boxes (anyone remember those? Photoshop launched instantly on those suckers…). Sure, I think the cases look ugly and are freaking huge, but you get a whole pile of grunt for not much money. And after reading HardMac I discover that the CPUs aren’t soldered in, so you can buy a 2GHz box and swap in faster CPUs at your leisure (more useful to folks outside the US where Apple’s prices are ridiculous). The only real complaint is that there’s no midrange graphics card option (e.g. an X1600 or a GeForce 7800).

But on the OS front, Time Machine — if it works — is a reason to buy Leopard on its own. Backups are a huge deal. We’re reaching the point at which the hard disks on which millions of people are storing their entire photo and/or music libraries are going to die of old age and you can only imagine the kinds of horror stories that will start circulating by word of mouth. Similarly, the “but I was just magically saved by Time Machine” stories could become a serious selling point. For serious users developers, Time Machine could make, at minimum, version control for small, single-developer projects completely irrelevant. Whether it will have the ability to roll back servers, etc., remains to be seen, but just this much is a serious win (for me, anyway).

I might note that Time Machine — at least as shown — directly supports everything at file level via Finder, but it appears to offer an API for application developers to allow application specific and/or finer grained support. This is what makes having something like Time Machine implemented as OS level so powerful.

The ability to turn any part of any web page into a Dashboard Widget is not only incredibly cool, but it has the potential to both change the way we browse the web AND make Dashboard actually useful and amazing rather than a use-three-times-and-forget piece of eye candy (as it is now). Dashcode sounds pretty compelling, but a lot of that will hinge on whether its JavaScript debugger is as good as advertised.

iChat’s screen sharing features (mentioned on the website but ignored during the KeyNote) are pretty mind-blowing. First of all, having this functionality for free at OS level is pretty amazing (but will iChat be able to broadcast and/or connect to non-Mac clients?) and might make remote meetings and collaboration a lot more doable than is currently the case with half-assed tools such as GoToMyPC or WebEx. The big question for me is the extent to which this functionality may be available independently of iChat. E.g. can we log in to a Mac OS X box remotely with a GUI, or can we only screenshare via iChat?

Next, there’s Spaces. I’ve used several virtual screen programs over the years and at some point, such as when I stopped using the computer it was installed on, just given up on them. This is because while they are great in theory, they all suck in practice. It looks to me like Spaces may address this suckage in a number of ways, not least of which is by making it an OS feature so I don’t need to install it (or license it) on specific machines. But it also appears to be much more intelligently and simply designed than other virtual screen implementations, in part because it’s implemented at OS level:

1. When you jump to an app (e.g. by clicking on it in the dock) you automatically go to its space.

2. There’s a well-defined spatial relationship between the spaces which is consistently reinforced with animations and screen layouts. This is really important (and one of the reasons why many people think the OS X Finder sucks*).

3. I’m hoping that it will be well-integrated with Expose (i.e. that dropping into the Spaces overview is, in essence, what Expose will do now).

I’m not convinced that Spaces will be wonderful; but it has the potential to suck less than its predecessors.

* I think the OS X Finder sucks too, but not because it isn’t spatial. I think the OS X Finder sucks because it is trying to do a really hard job (manage hundreds or thousands of files in a directory, etc.) with a really bad UI design (arrays of icons or lists of text labels) that dates back to when users only had 500 files on their hard disk.

That said, most of the other announcements are pretty ho-hum. 64-bit — yeah, whatever. Being able to install 16GB of RAM is all the 64-bit support I really need for now. Core Animation — cute but will it lead to anything useful or just more cute screensavers? Spotlight — stealing some ideas from QuickSilver and adding remote searches; cool but hardly earthshaking. Mail 3 looks nice, but I don’t currently use Mail 2 (I use gmail) — although I must say when I do launch it to check my old mail (from before gmail) it does make me think I should go back :-).

Finally, the new voice synthesiser rocks. It’s a minor thing but still, it has useful applications. I could actually imagine writing a little app to turn texts from Project Gutenberg into iPod tracks or CDs for road trips … it sounds THAT good.

Permadeath and MMORPGs

(The following originated in response to a posting on Lum the Mad’s brokentoys.org regarding permadeath as a way of improving online rpgs.)

Surprisingly enough, in the real world (where permadeath appears to have been implemented) people still (a) do interesting things, and (b) live quite a long time. In many paper RPGs permadeath is assumed, and people also (a) do interesting things, and (b) live quite a long time.

Bushido basically implemented the thing your wife suggested about 25 years ago via the concept of karma. Your character dies leaving a certain amount of “karma” — derived from your character’s level of advancement and manner of death (e.g. heroic death or honorable suicide to express a just grievance == huge karma). This lets you build a better character next time.

Actually I think permadeath is a good idea but only one side of the coin. The other side is the tacit model of character development (inherited from D&D but which most RPGs assume) which is “you start as a weeny, run on a treadmill in a desperate effort to make the character you want to play, and then if you’re lucky end up as a super powerful atrocity that you don’t want to play anymore, probably never having been the character you wanted to play in the first place.”

In particular, a typical protagonist from a good story is not incredibly powerful, merely adequately powerful, and usually has a strange smattering of abilities without being a “combat optimized” horror. This is because the character has to make sense as a person with a history (other than “everything he did was with a view to being the ultimate killing machine”).

So:

1) Permadeath would be good thing.
2) Start with the character you want to play (more-or-less).

Finally, there’s a question of implementing (1) without killing people all the time. After all, action adventures are often dangerous.

The way to do this is to deal with most potentially fatal situations in a non fatal way. E.g. instead of characters fighting (at full capability) until dead (another D&Dism), maybe make severe injury kind of debilitating. Then when someone gets hurt, they’re out of the fight, but only if their entire group is wiped out or their opponent would rather finish off an incapacitated enemy than defend him/her-self against a live one, will the character die. Similarly, characters could find themselves imprisoned rather than dead.

Another is to occasionally allow people to come back from the dead via plausible excuses (the way they do in long-running TV shows) but only if the right groundwork is laid. (E.g. getting someone brought back to life might involve a complex quest).

All of this involves throwing off the mental shackles created by D&D.