James Scariati

Category: Articles

CNET gets FairPlay wrong

Nick Statt at CNET on the current trial against Apple for preventing music sold by RealNetworks from playing on the iPod:

Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management system, a technology that would detect other music stores’ song files and prevent users from loading them onto the iPod…

This is a completely incorrect description. FairPlay was the DRM that Apple wrapped around the song files it sold from the iTunes Store, ensuring that they would only play within iTunes and on iPods. It had absolutely nothing to do with music sold from other stores, and certainly didn’t actively “detect” music from other sources and block it. Multiple online music stores sold DRM-free music before iTunes did – eMusic, Amazon, CD Baby, etc. – and you were always able to load purchased music from those services into iTunes and sync it to your iPod. Always.

Had Real simply sold DRM-free music like those other retailers, they would have been compatible with iTunes and the iPod as well. Instead, they sold music in their own DRM-encumbered format, then reverse-engineered FairPlay to trick iTunes and the iPod into supporting those files. Apple had no obligation to allow that, and were actually required to prevent it, because a breach of FairPlay gave the record labels the right to pull their music from iTunes. So Apple updated FairPlay to break Real’s reverse-engineering and maintain the terms of their contract with the labels.

This article, and the above quote in particular, make it seem like Apple was blocking music from any competing stores and doing so purely to prevent competition, which is simply untrue. There were (and are) multiple alternative sources for legally purchased online music that were compatible with iTunes and the iPod.

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On the Surface

I think the Surface solves a problem that Microsoft thinks exists, but doesn’t: the desire to run traditional Windows applications on a device with a tablet form factor.

Microsoft looks at the iPad and sees it as limiting: sure, it’s cool and people seem to like it, but there’s all these “traditional” PC tasks that you can’t do with it, or can’t do as well. So their response is to mimic the form factor (because that’s what’s “cool” about it) but load it with a “real” operating system so you can continue doing all the same stuff you’d be doing on a regular PC.

What they don’t get is that the iPad is a huge success because of its limitations, not despite them. No ability to run desktop apps means the iPad can have its own UI completely designed for touch input from the ground up. No ability to sideload apps or browse the filesystem means you can’t “mess it up” by installing something malicious or deleting critical files. No removable battery means the built-in battery can be very precisely designed to give you the longest possible battery life. Etc., etc.

Surface is really just a rehashing of the same failed tablet initiatives that Microsoft has been trying to push for a decade, only this time with a “touch-friendly” UI (Metro) added onto the side of it to help counteract the desktop UI being unsuitable for the form factor. But the selling point of the Surface really is (supposed to be) the desktop UI: why else would you buy it? Metro is effectively unproven and no one is asking for it (look at Windows Phone 7 sales), and it has far fewer apps than iOS or Android. And note that instead of creating a Metro version of Office, Microsoft ported Windows to ARM just so that the Surface RT and other ARM-based tablets could run desktop Office.

What I think they’ll find is that this supposed dream that people have of running desktop apps on a tablet doesn’t really exist, or not nearly to the extent that they think it does. I won’t argue that certainly some people want that, and more power to them – but clearly if that’s what the mass market was looking for, Microsoft’s earlier initiatives would have been successful (and the iPad wouldn’t have sold 100 million units in only 3 years). The mass market has already moved on; Microsoft just hasn’t caught up to it.

Thoughts on the iPhone 5

The Name

The name “iPhone 5” is interesting. When the third-generation iPad was introduced, Apple simply called it “the new iPad” rather than incrementing the version number from 2 to 3. That led many (myself included) to assume that the next iPhone would be called “the new iPhone.”

Dropping the version number from the iPad makes sense if you accept Horace Dediu‘s theory that this was done in order to make room for a sub-brand, such as “iPad Mini.” Using sub-brands in place of version numbers lets Apple update all the models in a particular product line without causing confusion as to which one is the newest – they all are. As an example, just look at iPods, which are updated yearly and simply called “the new iPod Nano,” “the new iPod Shuffle,” etc. every year.

Since there are no sub-brands for the iPhone, it then follows that the new model would retain the version number.

One other oddity: the iPhone 5 is actually the sixth iPhone, not the fifth:

  1. iPhone
  2. iPhone 3G
  3. iPhone 3GS
  4. iPhone 4
  5. iPhone 4S
  6. iPhone 5

If Apple continues the pattern of releasing an “S” model every other year, the version number and actual generation will become increasingly out of sync: iPhone 6 will be the eighth version, iPhone 7 will be the tenth, etc.

The New Lineup

Speaking of patterns, Apple has also continued to offer three generations of iPhones alongside each other, with the new model occupying the top position and the others sliding down a notch: iPhone 4 (“free”) / iPhone 4S ($99) / iPhone 5 ($199/$299/$399).

The iPhone 4 makes for a damn nice “free” phone. A mere two years ago, this was the top-of-the-line model, introducing the Retina display and a new industrial design. Now you get it for free with a new contract. And with the iPhone 4 occupying the bottom position in the lineup, this means that all iPhones now have Retina displays.

Another interesting point about the iPhone 4 replacing the iPhone 3GS: Verizon and Sprint now gain a “free” model (the 3GS was only ever a GSM phone, so it was restricted to AT&T).

The 4″ Display

The iPhone 5’s taller 4″ display marks the first time that the display’s physical dimensions have changed since the original iPhone was introduced in 2007 – which means that iPhone app developers will also have to support two different display sizes for the first time. Assuming Apple continues to release new iPhones on a yearly schedule, and assuming they continue to sell three generations alongside each other (both of which seem likely), it will take until 2014 for the 4″ display to filter down to all models – but even then, there will still be tons of iPhone 4Ss and 4s in use. So developers are going to have to support both display sizes for many years to come.

I was skeptical of Apple making the display larger, but I think they’ve done it in a way that makes sense: the physical phone has only gotten slightly taller, while the larger display occupies a greater percentage of the front face than the display on previous iPhones. The width remains exactly the same. This means you get more vertical room for content – emails, webpages, etc. – without the phone becoming so much bigger or wider that you can’t comfortably hold it and use it with one hand.

iOS 6 and the iPhone 3GS

I was surprised that the iPhone 3GS didn’t stick around for another year, mainly because iOS 6 will still support it. For the first time, Apple is supporting the current version of iOS on an iPhone model that they no longer sell.

If you bought an iPhone 3GS within the first year of its release, you’ll receive your third free, major-version iOS update next week (iOS 6, following iOS 5 in 2011 and iOS 4 in 2010). This is in stark contrast to Android smartphones, which are lucky to receive even one major-version update over their lifetimes (many Android phones even ship with out-of-date operating systems and are never fully brought up to date).

Of course, the iPhone 3GS (and older iPhones in general) won’t actually support many features of iOS 6 – but, crucially, they’ll remain capable of running third-party apps that require iOS 6. I believe this is the real reason behind extending OS support so far back.

Product Secrecy

Alongside the iPhone 5, Apple introduced new headphones, which they’ve dubbed EarPods. Obviously, I can’t comment on the sound quality or comfort of the new headphones as I haven’t used them, but something struck me during the keynote: it was mentioned that EarPods had been in development for three years.

This is why secrecy is so important to Apple – by not revealing products until they’re done, Apple’s competitors can’t get a head start and match or beat them to market. If a competitor wants to do their own take on EarPods, for example, but they don’t start on development until they actually see the final product from Apple, they’re now already three years behind.

Which makes it all the more interesting how much information about the iPhone 5 itself leaked ahead of time. This must be the “most-leaked” product in Apple’s history. We knew literally everything about the phone before it was released: the taller display, the exact display resolution and pixel density, the new industrial design, the internal specs (LTE, the A6 processor, etc.), the new “Lightning” dock connector, and more. I don’t believe there was a single “surprise” detail of the iPhone 5 that no one knew about earlier.

The New Dock Connector

Apple is calling the new dock connector Lightning, which is interesting, because the former 30-pin connector never had a brand name associated with it (also, it’s a cute pun – Thunderbolt for Macs, Lightning for iOS devices).

This is the first time that the dock connector has been changed on an iOS device (“classic” iPods briefly used a standard Firewire connector before the 30-pin connector was introduced).

Aside from the significantly reduced size, another benefit of the new connector is that it’s reversible – you can insert it with either side facing up, just like a MagSafe connector on a Mac.

The next iPhone

Obviously, Apple is not going to change the iPhone’s display or dock connector again any time soon. Combined with the now-traditional pattern of a new iPhone model followed up by an “S” model the year after, it seems highly likely that next year’s new iPhone will be the iPhone 5S – the same physical design with improved internal specs.

Why Hasn’t Windows Phone Taken Off?

This question comes up a lot in tech circles: why hasn’t Windows Phone taken off?

The product has been showered with near-unanimous praise – reviewers love it, the consumers who use it rate it highly, and its design is innovative and unique. It seems to check all the boxes for a smash hit product, and yet…it has had virtually no impact on the market.

I think Windows Phone isn’t taking off because it occupies a weird in-between space where it doesn’t have support from consumers, carriers, or OEMs.

The iPhone has huge support from consumers: it’s a highly-desireable product, everyone knows and trusts the brand, etc. People will go as far as to switch carriers to get an iPhone, which is virtually unheard of otherwise. That, in turn, creates huge support from carriers for the iPhone, since offering it can draw in tons of new customers.

Android has huge support from the carriers: it gives them something “iPhone-like” that they can offer if they either (a) don’t carry the iPhone, or (b) want more control over the product than Apple will give them. Android also has huge support from OEMs: they can use it for free and tweak it however they see fit.

Windows Phone, however, fails on all three counts:

  • Consumers either have no idea it exists or think it’s related to Windows Mobile
  • Carriers have no incentive to carry the product when consumers aren’t asking for it
  • OEMs have no incentive to use it since they have to both pay for it and cede control to Microsoft

So I think in order for Windows Phone to succeed, Microsoft has to do something to give at least one of those groups reason to support it.

Removing the Unnecessary, a Followup

In my article about Apple’s removal of sleep indicator lights from their machines, I wrote:

Apple is striving for an ideal where “state” doesn’t matter at all. They’re effectively already there with their mobile devices, and are in the process of getting there with their PCs.

It occurred to me that it’s not just the indicator lights on the physical hardware that Apple has removed; OS X Lion also includes an option to hide the indicator lights for running applications in the Dock (though they’re still toggled on by default).

Much like how it shouldn’t matter whether your computer is “booting up” or “waking from sleep” – it should just be ready – it also shouldn’t matter whether you’re “launching” an application or “switching” to it. This is already the case on iOS, and Apple is in the process of bringing the same concept to the Mac as well: proper OS X Lion applications restore their state upon relaunch, erasing the distinction between whether an app is already “running” or not (and thus making the indicator lights unnecessary).

The difference with the Mac is that the process takes much longer because all pre-existing applications have to be brought up to date; iOS had the advantage of being a brand new system, so it could be designed like this from the start. Since OS X isn’t quite there yet, Apple took the pragmatic approach of making the indicator lights optional, rather than removing them entirely before all (or at least most) Mac apps supported auto-restore.

There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that the indicator lights will disappear for good one day – and we’ll find it amusing that we not only used to keep track of which apps were running, but had to manually (!) quit the ones we were done with!

Removing the Unnecessary

Ben Brooks has a great theory about why indicator lights have been gradually disappearing from Apple’s products:

I think removing lit indicators is Apple’s way of saying: stop worrying about the state the device is in and start using it.

Definitely. Apple is striving for an ideal where “state” doesn’t matter at all. They’re effectively already there with their mobile devices, and are in the process of getting there with their PCs.

If you think about it, what’s the purpose of indicating a “state,” anyway? It’s to let you, the user, know that certain actions or tasks have to be performed in a different way – or maybe can’t be performed at all – because of the nature of the state that the system is in.

Mac laptops have traditionally had a sleep indicator light to inform you that you can simply flip the lid open to start working, as opposed to sitting through a lengthy boot process when the machine is fully turned off. Nowadays, that distinction doesn’t matter: SSDs cut boot times down to mere seconds, and OS X Lion automatically restores whatever apps and windows you had open before you last shut down.

So what difference does it make to you whether the computer is technically “booting” or “waking from sleep”? That distinction has been reduced to a mere implementation detail that no longer affects how you actually use your machine, and thus the sleep indicator light has become unnecessary.

Removing the overhead of technical implementation details in order to improve the user experience: that’s been Apple’s mission since the beginning.

On Readability’s Business Model

There’s an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry writes a TV script that somehow ends up getting into the hands of his lawyer. Unbeknownst to him, she voluntarily reads the script, records her own notes and suggestions on how to improve it – and then demands that he pay her for her time. Larry, of course, refuses, on the grounds that he shouldn’t have to compensate her for doing something that he never asked of her in the first place.

This is how I feel about Readability and their now-defunct publisher payment plan. In short, Readability is a free service that lets you save articles from the web for later reading in a clean and distraction-free layout. As a means of, presumably, “giving back” to the authors whose articles were saved by Readability users, they also introduced a payment model: users would pay a fee to Readability, and Readability would then distribute the money to the original publishers.

It sounds like a win-win: Readability provides a service users want, users pay for the service, and Readability takes that money and gives it back to the publishers whose content is what makes their service attractive in the first place.

The problem is that, in reality, the system didn’t work. Because publishers had to opt in in order to receive payment from Readability, it created a situation much like Larry found himself in: Readability was collecting money on behalf of publishers who had never explicitly authorized them to do any such thing. And even publishers who were aware of this couldn’t actually collect “their” money unless they signed up and agreed to Readability’s terms.

The system was flawed from the perspective of users, as well – users were paying the fee on the premise that their money would go toward the publishers whose articles they were saving, whereas that was really only the case if the publishers had also agreed to participate.

Readability now admits that the publisher payment plan didn’t work because too few publishers opted in, and has therefore decided to donate the unclaimed money to charity. But that’s a bit like if Larry were to donate the equivalent of his lawyer’s fee to a charity instead – it doesn’t change the fact that she shouldn’t have demanded the fee in the first place.

To me, a business model of collecting money on someone else’s behalf – without their authorization and potentially even without their knowledge – seems to cause more problems than it solves.