31 December 2012

Google Smack

Normally when you are shopping for devices your goal is to try to pay less than the list price. Major cell carriers regularly sell their devices at a discount to hook you on a new two year service. Apple has deals at Christmas time and a wonderful refurbished store to get a deal on their products. Even Xbox and PS3 units can be found for a few bucks less than list on occasion. Yes, if you are truly desperate then you might be forced to pay the full amount, but none of us would ever - EVER - pay more than that. Unless it is a new Google product, that is.

Google has worked with manufacturers to create some wonderful new hardware with the Nexus 4 and Samsung Chromebook. Both of these devices are sold on the Google Play store for under $300 which is an unbelievable bargain. An unlocked top of the line phone for about the same price as a contract iPhone 5 where you can have cell and unlimited data service for $30 a month is impossible to ignore. The Chromebook is listed at such a low price that every corporate CIO should be begging to put it in the hands of every one of their road warriors. Unfortunately, they have both been sold out after the first 30 minutes they were released.

If you want a Chromebook, Amazon has them for sale as much as a $100 over the $250 price, or around 40% more. The Nexus 4 can be found on eBay for around a $150 premium or about half again as much. They are still a a good deal at these prices, but that dramatically changes the financial picture.

Sellers recognized early on that these products are so wonderful that they can gobble up every available device and sell them at a premium. Basically, Google hardware has become a tech drug - Nexus Cocaine or Chrome Meth. If you want it then I know a guy over on this site that can get it for you, but it'll cost you. What is even more interesting is that most of these sellers appear to be coming from the greater Mountain View area. Google headquarters. Yes, our drug dealers may have connections directly to the drug source.

If Google wants their Play Store and hardware to be taken seriously then they are going to need to clean house. When they release a device they need to make certain you have enough product to last longer than 30 minutes. They should verify that your own employees are not pulling in extra cash on the side through eBay and Amazon sales. Heck, getting their Play Store to actually work when it is taking order for devices would be good, too.

These are truly great pieces of hardware. If you have a Nexus 4 and/or Chromebook then you are probably quite happy no matter what price you paid. Still, it is ridiculous that no one can buy them at the price Google has listed.

03 December 2012

A bad Microsoft morning.

A quick bitch session to make me feel better:

I have been using an iPad as my notebook for a couple of months and recently replaced it with a Surface RT. In fact, the Surface, minus a few blemishes, is a more enjoyable device for that task, overall. Still, this morning I decided I needed to edit a Microsoft Word document on there and it was too slow. More critically, the sucker was out of battery life after sitting all weekend long at our home. Yes - the standby power on the Surface appears to be only a couple of days. So, now I have to research whether this is a bad unit or whether it really is that poor. By comparison, the iPad it replaced could (and sometimes did) sit untouched for weeks and still have juice left over. (The iPad would still "ding" every time an email came in, so it was, technically, still receiving Wi-Fi and running some mail tracking app while hibernating for weeks.)

Were that not enough on the annoyance scale - I have been using Microsoft SkyDrive for part of my personal document collection. I do not run the app at work because it has this annoying habit of copying all of my information to the local machine (!!) and dramatically impacting performance. So I visited their web site to upload a folder and quickly discovered that it appears to only support single file uploading. No problem - I will just drag the folder into the web page to copy it. That, of course, did not work. So, I opened up Google Drive in my browser and drag the folder over and viola! It worked! Dropbox was equally successful.

There. Done bitching. I would feel better, too, if I didn't have to consider moving my personal stuff to Google Drive or Dropbox or I was not tied to making this Windows RT tablet work in the office.

29 November 2012

Surface versus Slate

Microsoft finally announced the "pro" version of the Microsoft Surface tablet. The device runs a full version of Windows 8, so it will be completely compatible with legacy software. The problem is distinguishing this new Microsoft Surface from, for example, the previous slate of Windows tablet like the Samsung Slate.

I know - it is early. Way early. Who knows what this product will look like or the generation after it that will include a lower energy Intel CPU. And, yes, I am a very pessimistic guy when it comes to technology, a trait allows me to be pleasantly surprised when I am wrong. With those disclaimers out of the way:

The Slate is a Windows 7 11.6" tablet made by Samsung that runs in the retail circle under a grand and has a battery life of under 4 hours. The new Surface from Microsoft is a Windows 8 tablet running under a grand and will have a battery life of (you will never guess!) under 4 hours. So, the big change Microsoft is bringing is ... A new operating system? Neeto.

No question, I firmly believe from a consumer perspective that these devices are, at best, a niche product today outside of the greater Seattle area. From a corporate view there is a real need for a business capable tablet. We need the corporate licensing options, Microsoft Office, a good app selection, a mostly compatible Internet Explorer, a cellular data connection when Wi-Fi isn't available, a good enough keyboard, the ability to manage centrally, a cheap price (under $750) and a battery life in the 10 hour range. The concept is to put these in the hands of employees and they can take their work with them anywhere they go and not need to plug in for juice until the end of the day.

The iPad does not work today because there is no Microsoft Office and Apple only licenses consumers. (I could dig into the problems with that, but .. another day.) The Surface RT is missing a cellular data connection, a good app selection and a way to manage these devices centrally. This Pro version addresses the software and central management issues but kills us on the battery life and price.

The more critical question is, if the specs in the Surface Pro were what we wanted, why didn't we buy the Windows 7 tablets that existed already?

Does it really take this long to put on your lipstick, Microsoft?

05 November 2012

Fielding a Japanese Baseball Team


My passion for the Seattle Supersonics and Mariners has not worked out too well. One day I woke up and the Sonics were stolen away and the Mariners have still yet to reach the big game. On the face of it, they appear doomed to be a team with an empty stadium. That is, unless the Mariners organization decide to take a different approach entirely.

The fact is that the Mariners may never be able to be consistently competitive with the teams at the top of the salary list. Our owner, Nintendo of America, is hardly rolling in greenbacks these days. They need the Mariners to be a profitable investment by filling those seats at Safeco Field and securing top dollar for television rights. Unfortunately, the only reason any tickets were sold at Safeco Field was to see Ichiro. He looks lovely in a Yankees uniform, eh?

Seattle’s total payroll is at around 80 million, or 50% less than the Texas Rangers who are the division top dog. It is possible to have a run at a Pennant in that salary category but it takes the big dollar teams to make missteps (Phillies) and your team to suddenly play much better ball than expected (Atlanta). It does not happen often and it will not last long without raising the salaries of those star players. Short of that miracle, the Mariners ownership needs money to invest in better players, money that does not exist because there is no reason to buy a ticket to a team with nothing to offer but losses. It is the perfect recipe to be competitive with the Houston Astros.

There is a somewhat easy fix for Nintendo. Japanese baseball.

All of the ingredients are in place for this to be a success. The Mariners are at rock bottom and need to create something entirely new. Why not speak with the Japanese baseball clubs about an agreement that brings their best players to the Mariners when they are in the off-season in Japan? There is some overlap in the two, but not significant enough that it could keep this from working. If sharing players would not work then bring over some of the experienced ones as full time MLB players. The M’s do not need an entire team of ball players from the Pacific islands, just enough that the press and fans are focused on this unique approach.

Would the Mariners make it to the playoffs with this plan? Not likely, but they are not going there today, either. Tourism from Japan would skyrocket. The Seattle area, which already embraces their Pacific Rim neighbors, will love attending games on the chance that their low payroll team could upset the high salaried big boys. Nintendo of America is the perfect owner for this situation, for obvious reasons, and might start making significant profits on their baseball investment, ultimately allowing them to invest in better players. Who knows. Maybe Ichiro would be tempted to return to Seattle for his final season.

Aside from the potential of having a ball club that is as uncompetitive as the one we have now, there really is not much down side. If the fans do not fill the seats then the team could return their players to their previously terrible state. Which is to say that they really would not need to change a thing. The most important thing is that this would be a heck of a lot of fun.

So, what do you say, Nintendo? Want to take a shot at fielding a team in America from your home country? I would love to buy season ticket to see how it works out. 

03 November 2012

I HATE GOOGLE!

How many companies have an entire world of people (outside Redmond) that will settle for nothing less than their product, which has delivered to them an endless supply of revenue. This is a company that has enough financial resources to do, within reason, anything they want. And they have. They envision the ideal of how things should work, and still generate revenue for them, then they take their best shot at it. Sure, they often fail, or sometimes their vision does not mix with reality, but this is a company turning profit into amazing free or near free products for everyone. And that is why competitors and even some consumers hate Google and their crazy business model.

You know Gmail, YouTube, Google Voice, Google+, Google Maps, Street View, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Analytics, Google Calendar and the dozens of other web-based products. They are fabulous and, for the most part, they are free. Google collects your information and creates unique advertising opportunities that allow them to make revenue while limiting the disturbance by said promotions. Provided you are not dealing in highly confidential material, this is a trade made in heaven for consumers.

Some will argue that Google is destroying the competition by giving stuff away for free but common sense tells us otherwise. Internet Explorer did not destroy web browser competition, Kroger did not put Whole Foods into chapter 11, McDonalds did not destroy steak houses and tap water did not move Coca-Cola to the toilet paper business. This is capitalism and consumers will choose what fits their needs best.

Google's true world-changing opportunity is happening on the hardware end of the equation. While Android may have have sent Steve Jobs to the nuclear front as a theft of iPhone, today this product is truly a unique operating system that makes iOS look as imaginative as Melba Toast. (Though many people love Melba Toast.) The continuous innovation and a "free" price has helped Google's little piece of software turn into the Windows of mobile phones. Were that not enough, it is now starting to eat up huge chunks of the tablet world, too, thanks to Amazon's Android variant and the Google's own Nexus devices.

In the United States, the change being injected is even more insidious. Google appears to be on a mission to end the domination of the cellular carrier and, with a little luck, they may actually succeed.

Google's new Nexus 4 appears to be an amazing piece of hardware with specs on par or better than anything on the market, including the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S3. Screen resolution, speed, NFC, wireless charging, camera quality - it has it. No surprise there since it is just now being released.

What is amazing about this new phone is the price. For three hundred bucks you own the device. No contract. You own it and can use it on any carrier you want at deep discounts over contract monthly costs. Suddenly abandoning two year contracts from T-MobileVerizon, AT&T and Sprint are in reach of everyone. Even more crazy is that you can run this phone (thanks to Google Voice) without any cellular contract at all! Yes, you can get phone calls, text messages and run all the apps you like with nothing more than Wi-Fi connections.

Some are complaining, "but it doesn't have LTE!" Like it matters. Yes, theoretically LTE can run much faster, but in practice the HSPA+ on Nexus 4 will keep data flowing much faster than 3G. The critical element here is that most of us spend the bulk of our day clouded in Wi-Fi networks at home or the office, a connection much more consistent and faster than cellular networks of any kind, and this device will run better than anything on that pipe while saving you fifty bucks a month on your cellular bill. One can easily envision a future where people carry Google mobile devices that are all free from wireless carriers.

This move is consistent with everything Google does. They build products that give individuals what they want for as little as possible and in return they continue to collect information that feeds their bottom line to fund more products that give us what we want for free. It is the circle of Google. Yes, all the while they continue to piss off nearly any company that sells something that competes with their products. They have a very good reason to hate Google because it is tough to win against a company that is giving great things away to the masses, but until someone can find a way to cut off the river of cash flowing their way consumers like us will be forced to continue to use all of their wonderful toys.

We Need One Flat Tax


Not long ago the world was controlled by those who owned the property. Their children would inherit this land and the family was safe in the knowledge that they would forever rule. They, rightly, enjoyed the spoils of a world that worked for their pleasure. With few exceptions, no one would dare stand up to this oppressive system because it was the only system they knew. That is, until a few stubborn folks hanging out in Philadelphia invented the “United States of America”.

When John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Lee and the other members of the First Continental Congress gave a middle finger salute to King George, they were planning a system of government that would never allow a precious few to forever be in power. Everyone would have an equal opportunity to succeed. Yes, they also wanted a nation free from religious persecution, the right to arms, a separation of church and state and a few other crazy things, but you get the point.

So, how has this been working out lately?

Sales of ultra luxury vehicles are at an all time high. Art galleries are expanding because the uber-wealthy have clearly found nearly everyone to be a young Monet. CEO salaries and Wall Street bonuses are breaking records on a daily basis. And yet we keep talking about a sluggish economy and low jobs numbers. How is this possible? Well, it is quite simple, actually.

The two primary taxation methods in America are income and sales. They try to make these semi-progressive by adjusting it based on your income or limiting sales tax to non-necessities. However, the bottom and top one percent rarely pay either. Neither have a “job”, so they skip that 30% tax bracket business, and they already own everything (or nothing) they need but food which, surprisingly, is often not taxed because it is a necessity.

How the top end is often taxed is on capital gains at nowhere near the top income tax bracket. However, even that is often more than they will pay thanks to countless loopholes of moving funds through foreign subsidiaries. Another nifty trick is using losses on one investment to offset the gains on the other so their investments and income are rarely ever truly at risk.

This is why Democrats are wrongly harping Mitt Romney about his tax rate. When I hit a certain income level I pay more than 30% of my income to the Feds, but Mitt can get his down to a fraction of that amount. In fact, I would be disappointed in Mitt if he paid more than 15% because it is relatively easy to do. After all, why should he be the one rich person to pay more?

Instead of beating up Mr. Romney, we should be beating up our elected officials. The problem is easy to solve and could be done in a way that crosses party lines. The Republicans want to have a flat tax with no deductions. The Democrats want a progressive system that gives everyone a fair chance. Both can be achieved with the same proposal.

Create a single flat tax at a national level. Eliminate the income tax, death tax, capital gains – all of it. One tax with no deductions, no skirting earnings in other countries – no tricks. That tax percentage would be assessed annually based on your total world-wide net worth and each of us pays a flat percentage of it annually. Everything you own today totaled and you pay a fraction of a percent annually to the Feds. If you cannot pay then the IRS would keep a tally of what you owe until the day you can. Simple and fair. The entire country pays their percentage with no loopholes at the top and bottom of the ownership club.

Some will argue this is unfair to the rich since they would be paying more in total dollars than the poor, but you can take that argument up with our forefathers. Their goal was an even playing field for all and that means we all pay the same percentage. Some might argue this is unfair to the poor since they may have no income. Some day they will be earning money again and we all need to pay our share, even if they may be paying it later with interest.

If we see past the silly extremes we may find this idea would create a beautiful new tax system and allow our country to focus on the bigger problems. Heck, we could take it a step further and require a balanced budget (please!) that automatically adjusts the percentage we pay based on our government expenditures. There is nothing that would spur on a bigger change in Congress than sudden increases in taxes because they spent too much money.

Anyway, that is my crazy proposal to fix our ridiculous tax system. I am quite certain everyone will have their individual reason why they do not like it. Who has ever liked taxes? And that part, I am afraid, even this idea cannot fix.

31 October 2012

TOO MANY TWEETS!

In my completely unscientifically developed opinion, where Twitter breaks down is when you start following a hundred or more feeds. There are new posts coming in every couple of seconds, often with links to full articles of information. Who has time to read all this? Sure, if I am sitting around in a waiting room pondering between picking my nose or opening TweetBot then I am usually going to opt for the latter, but that limits my Twitter reading time to a half dozen moments a month. I am sad to admit that my nose gets more attention than that.

While I am no Twitter expert, I do manage three accounts. One for my kids' elementary school PTSA that posts educational related items. Another is for a users' group where we post technology stories for insurance brokers. Finally there is my own tweet land where I toss stupid comments on there occasionally. I am now a couple years into this 140 character universe and I feel mildly qualified to say that Twitter is a complete waste of time.


As with any of my stupid grandiose statements, there are exceptions. Many of the younger persuasion use the platform as a time-sink replacement for Facebook. There are also countless individuals that are nothing but feeders by providing comedy, news or other insight that you can focus in on that information.

That is where I have found success in using Twitter: Feeding information. Does anyone read what I post? Barely. Every so often a friend will respond, or maybe I will post something really idiotic and it might get re-tweeted. Once. That's about it. You can set up alerts on particular feeds, which is semi useful. You can reduce the number of folks you are following which would make it easier to read through the posts. Still, all of this misses the advertised point of using Twitter as a useful news source. It really isn't.

Oh well. At least it is a step up from public schnoz cleaning.

28 October 2012

This Surface Was Already Scratched

Microsoft's Surface tablet is a cute puppy dog. So perfectly crafted to make you want to take it home with you and give it love but much like that canine, this adorable creature is going to need a lot of time and work before this dog'll ever hunt in the tablet world. No question, there is a lot of potential here but, with potty training and torn up shoes today, it is hard to imagine many people taking this pup home when the competition has fully functional dogs ready go.

Let's start where Microsoft got it right: There is no finer crafted tablet hardware on the market today. You could argue that Microsoft out-Apple'd Apple. The screen looks beautiful, despite a non-retina resolution. The kick-out stand made me question why every tablet does not have it. The battery life is outstanding. Even the cover keyboard idea is brilliantly designed and a major advantage over the touch screen version, even if the zero travel in the keys limits typing speeds.

Even with this perfection, I have a couple of issues. The tablet is too heavy, comparable to the weight of an 11" MacBook Air. This is not an issue with a laptop that sits on your lap but you would get a serious workout holding this device in the air for hours at a time. The touch screen also needs adjustment. Surface often was unable to register properly my touching a selection on the screen without multiple attempts. Not end of the world stuff.

Where this full misery hits, though, is when we look at the software.

Setup
The initial startup process is quite a change from the typical turn-it-on-and-go with competitors but I understand the purpose of making the platform connect with all of your other Windows devices. Of course, if you are not using Windows 8 devices anywhere else then this seems unusually long, even with a demo of the device while you wait. I would recommend a guest login or skip process for customers that are, otherwise, independent of a Windows 8 world.

Interface
While using Metro is easily understood, I am not convinced this is a step forward in usability. The variety of block sizes and groupings can make it more difficult to mentally organize the options while the rectangle information animations are a challenge to find useful. Interestingly, configuration and other sub pages do not use the domino tiles and instead rely on a text and white space design held over from the Zune which does not seem to fit will with original tombstone theme. I really want to love this design because it is so refreshing but I think I still prefer Android's middle ground between iOS and Metro thanks to the usability of the options and information presented.

Apps
Form a consumer standpoint, a handful of big names are there and work well. Neflix, Hulu, Skype and Angry Birds can be installed in seconds. Provided consumers buy into the platform there will be countless more popular ones in the months ahead but today there is not much important beyond what I listed. What happens if customs do not stand on this Surface? Then it is yet another version of a mobile Windows platform that cracks without any usable code.

Software
You know the those hundreds of thousands of Windows programs that we all swim around in to pick the absolute best product to fit our daily productivity and entertainment needs? Fugetaboutit. None of them work here. At least they give you a somewhat crippled version of Microsoft Office with the device. So, Surface has the one program no other tablet has and that is the only thing it has.

Google
If you are a fan of Google then this device is a waste of your time. Bing is the black hole at the center of this galaxy where Google does not exist. There are no apps for any Google product and no settings to change the built-in items to point to Google Maps, Google Search, Google Voice, Google Docs, Google Drive, ... You get the idea. Sure, you can sneak it in by using POP3/IMAP with the Mail app or changing the IE home page and setting favorites. However, without specific Google apps, this is a device that Google fans will want to skip.

Web Browsing
This is one area where the Surface software works fairly well. Many of the web sites I visit each day were not compatible with this new version of Internet Explorer but this may be the quickest item to get corrected since Microsoft patches and web developers will eventually get those problems corrected. Nearly all of the mainstream web sites worked perfectly. The only problem is the touchscreen sensitivity issues I mentioned earlier.

Exchange
You would think that a Microsoft device that has a big "Mail" application on the main interface would be able to connect to a MICROSOFT Exchange Server - arguably Redmond's most critical product in the workplace. Not so much. The device did not support the standard security settings enforced by our server that every corporation in the world should be using. I think that means the device does not locally encrypt the data which is a big problem for anyone who was hoping to use this to check work email like (ahem) every other tablet on the market can do.

Corporate
We desperately need a "work" laptop that allows employees to connect with VPN, access file servers, be controlled by group policy, connect to Exchange mail servers, access document management, work on a CRM and use agency management systems. This device could not authenticate with Active Directory which killed the file servers and central control. Exchange did not work at all. Our document management and agency management system software was not compatible. Fortunately, our in-house CRM and intranet worked when we were on our network but it does not have a working Cisco VPN connection. To sum up: It failed on every front for our use. Fine. I will install the Citrix Receiver app to just control a remote desktop to get to everything. That did not work, either.

Conclusion
Okay, Microsoft - WTF? I know you needed to get this product out before Christmas, and hardware design-wise this thing is close to perfect. Stunning work for a software company. So, why is is the software, or lack of it, so ridiculously awful? Most consumers use their laptop for checking email, calendar, playing games and web browsing. This device is acceptable at web browsing and not much else. I still cannot get over the fact that your device cannot natively connect to Gmail or my Exchange Server without employing email technology I was using in 1997. Seriously?

I have no doubt that people employed by the Redmond empire might think this adorable device is fabulous but, for those of us not high on Microsoft crack, this thing is still nothing more than a conceptual design. That is unfortunate because there is a desperate need for a corporate minded tablet with iPad-like features, and Microsoft really needs a successful consumer mobile strategy. Surface is not there yet. There is another version coming that runs a full version of Windows 8 but it remains to be seen how that product will measure up. My advice is to check back on this thing in six months to see if this puppy has grown up or whether we need to look at an entirely different doggie.

26 October 2012

iPhone 5 is a beautiful ornament

Ah, smart phones. How we love to gaze into your shining face. To hold you. To stroke your buttons. To fondle your every crevice. And there is none more beautiful than the iPhone 5. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of technology ever made. A telephonic Mona Lisa. An aluminum Scarlett Johansson. We lust for this black (or white) slab that is being purchased primarily as a piece of cellular jewelry. It accurately screams to the world that you will accept nothing but the best. And, ultimately, that is the reason I had to send mine back.

Nearly everyone today carries a smart phone, and those that do not have crafted a life enjoying tweets from real birds. (Envy them.) These miniature personal mainframes are morphing from practical and entertaining ways to pass the time into a true fashion accessory. When you wait for your table and stare blindly into a four inch glowing bar, you are advertising an extension of who you are.

Manufacturers fully recognize this new role. Now these devices come in a variety of colors and form factors, within rectangular limitations, so your phone can match the imagery you wish to present to the world around you. You may think covers, cases and bands are there to protect the device, but often that is a ruse. It is defining the device to match who they are personally with many collecting multiple to change their device to match the season or just the mood they are embracing on any given day.

When it comes to perfection in mobile technology, Apple is second to none. The iPhone 5 is so perfectly designed and difficult to construct that the craftsman in China actually walked off the job because the demands were too high. Apple, rightly, chose to build their precious-es in a country with lax labor laws so they would not complain about workload, yet they had to take a break from building Cupertino's crown jewel because it was too difficult to craft perfection. Note to Apple's marketing wing: That is an iPhone commercial waiting to happen.

When it comes to practicality - the original purpose of carrying a smart phone (BlackBerry, how we miss you) - the iPhone 5 is a step backwards, even from previous iPhones. It was always so-so at making phone calls, but their new maps program cannot determine intersections or default to key locations in a city based on your current location. The new connectors makes all of your existing iPhone gadgets useless without buying expensive converters and gives little appreciable improvement. The camera turns photos into a Purple Rain poster. It scratches more than a cat living in a carpet factory. The small screen size is justified only to one handed individuals with all fingers turned to stone except the thumb. I could go on, but you get my point. If your primary reason to buy a smart phone is to get "work" done, this is the wrong device.

Still, according to nearly everyone, the iPhone 5 is the greatest smart phone ever made because of the hardware design. It feels like a precious ornament stolen from Westminster Abbey. Talking to Siri on that slab of aluminum is a communication portal to a goddess. Sure, sometimes the channel gets garbled and she sends you on a false crusade, but what does it matter when you are able to hold a conversation with the heavens?

For this reason, no matter the faults, the iPhone 5 is a device that nearly no one will complain about owning. Unless, of course, you only carry a smart phone because you are forced to by modern communication needs. Which is where I come in.

This silly device is in my pocket because it needs to be. So work can contact me on the phone, so I can work through support tickets, so the family can call me, so I can load a game and hand the sucker to my son. Were it not a requirement to look good at the office, I would probably wear jeans and a Jack the Pumpkin King t-shirt every day and there is no requirement for my mobile talk toy to meet a corporate dress code. In fact, given what I put this thing through, it is a blessing to have something that already looks ready for an abusive relationship. But, perhaps most important of all: I am cheap.

When you carry the Rolex of cells you pay for that spinning hand that rolls smoothly across the surface rather than the cheap imitation that stutters for each second. The iPhone 5 is a few hundred dollars up-front with a two year contracts at a hundred bucks a month. A comparable Android on a pre-paid plan will cost you the same initial cost with zero contract and less than half the monthly cost. Yes, there are variations to this comparison, but the bottom line is you can get a device that is functionally as good or better than the iPhone for less than half the total cost of ownership. However, everyone will know you are carrying the fake Rolex.

In this new era of fashion phoneia, your device should reflect who you are. For me, I carry grocery store branded re-usable bags, not the artistic embellishments splattered on Trader Joe's tote. I truly embrace my imperfection and fashion inadequacy. And, yes, I am a cheap bastard that refuses to pay more than I have to. That is my reality. So, with a small pang of sadness I slapped the return label on the box. Back to Apple went my sleek black beauty of an iPhone for someone who needs a perfect jewel in their pocket while I happily soldier on with my practical imperfect piece of plastic.

29 September 2012

Pass on Passbook

While everyone is blowing the Apple Maps thing out of proportion we seem to have ignored a rather worthless new feature of iOS 6: Passbook. Tried it? Even if you have, you haven't because the bloody thing does not work yet. This thing allows you to add your coupons, gift certificates, tickets and rewards cards into your iOS device so you do not need to carry your wallet into the store anymore. Wow! Who needs NFC (Near-Field Communications) and that fancy-shmancy wireless purchase nonsense? Take that, Google Wallet!

I have been using Starbucks, Walgreens, Alaska Airlines, Delta and American Airlines apps in iOS for about a year now. The most handy of the bunch is the Starbucks app which functions just like my plastic coffee card. Less successful are the airlines apps which usually work (I'm frowning at you Delta) but the TSA agents often force you to grab paper tickets anyway. Passbook, as demoed, was going to put all of this stuff in one spot. The problem is that all it does today is take you to the iTunes store so you can see that it only supports about a dozen companies today. When you select Walgreens it merely allows me to download the app that I already had.

The image above is from Apple's own demo where they show all my cards in one handy place, including that useful Starbucks card. You might be suckered into believing that this lovely program will put all of those card apps in a single app. You might even be stupid enough to believe that Starbucks was one of the companies available out of the gate with Passbook. I sure did.

So what does this thing do? Not a damn thing for me. If I could move the apps into Passbook and save screen real-estate, that would be handy - but you cannot do that. If I could launch the apps from Passbook then I would have at least one stop shopping - but you cannot do that. If I could put whatever shopping apps you want into the software, that might be nice - but you cannot do that. Sure, if someone gives me a gift certificate this Christmas and it happens to match one of the dozen companies they support then I might be able to put it into Passbook. I suppose that might be handy for my kids who actually get gift cards for Christmas, but I am not buying them an iPhone.

If you compare recent Cupertino mistakes, it seems this one is should get the prize. (Hopefully that prize is a gift certificate that Passbook is compatible with, though.) Apple Maps is a lacking piece of code compared to Google Maps, but it is still a very useful program that millions of iPhone users will be using every single day. Passbook is a promise to maybe be useful someday, but not today. So why did they even release this thing? Why not wait until it actually had a purpose?

The reason is NFC. This was the one feature now showing up as standard equipment on high-end Android devices that the iPhone is missing and Apple had to have an answer, even if the answer is an illusion. No doubt, very few places allow you to make purchases with an NFC equipped device, but in the past couple weeks I have visited a Radio Shack and a Noah's Bagels that supposedly did support it. More critically, it seems likely that NFC purchases will be hitting your neighborhood 7-Eleven before the iPhone 6 is released, and that has the folks in Cupertino a bit nervous. The iPhone is the best mobile gadget out there today but come April of 2013 the market may require NFC and Apple hopes Passbook can ease that need.

That forces me to conclude that this product is currently nothing more than marketing fluff. Tomorrow, if NFC finally gains acceptance, it may look like an app written by Henry George. In the 1930's.

Still, there are a whole lot of us that will be carrying iPhone 5's with two year commitments, so I hope we will see some updates to the software in the coming months to at least make it somewhat useful. If Apple could fulfill their promise of having my Starbucks card show up in there then it might save my trying to figure out how to delete the thing.

Speaking of which, Apple, how do I get rid of that stupid Newsstand app, again?

17 September 2012

iPhone Growth Pill Improves Length - Not Girth

Some companies take the road less traveled. Then there is Apple. They take a road few have even heard of in a world most only daydream about. That is certainly the case with an iPhone 5 design that features a longer (widescreen) look rather than the traditional enlargement in all directions. Apple says the width of the iPhone is the perfect size for being able to click it all with a thumb and the new widescreen length enhances movies and reading longer sets of information. Sure, there is truth in there somewhere but it is a small part of the story.

The tablet-esque sizes coming in Android flavors, like the Galaxy Note, are designed for a subset of the smart phone customer base. However, the core droid market that is supposedly eating Apple's sales has long ago moved to devices in the 4-4.5" range. Despite what we have been told, they are completely usable with a thumb for anyone with hands larger than a chimp, and that wider screen has some ease of use benefits over the long design the fruity elves picked. That screen growth pill allows for larger on-screen keyboard buttons which can greatly improve accuracy and speed. For app developers, keeping the dimensions the same allows for design compatibility with all existing apps, a feature that is critical in the already too segmented Android market. Visiting web sites is also greatly enhanced since it is the width that is at least as problematic when you consider how we normally hold our phone.

Practical reasons aside, while many may have preferred a screen size similar to an HTC EVO 4G, I firmly believe Apple made the right choice. They needed a design that made their most profitable product distinct from the "cheap plastic" that flood the market today. You will be able to recognize an iPhone 5 from a football field away, and that is important not just from a free Apple advertising perspective but for differentiating their customer base.

After years of the iPhone trade secrets being pilfered, it is also critical for Apple to secure a design that they can (attempt to) claim as theirs and theirs alone. If Samsung, HTC or anyone else were to steal the pseudo-widescreen dimensions of this device you can bet the Apple legal wasp nest will swarm quickly. However, given Samsung's recent court troubles, it is highly unlikely any other company will go down this road, so Apple has created a product that will be completely unique for years to come.

This design choice also keeps Cupertino from getting egg on their pretty new building. They have been saying for years that the 3.5" phone is the perfect size and that they would not consider making a larger screen. However, the market has said with their wallets that the small iPhone is the opposite end of the silly scale from the Galaxy Note phablet. This design allows Apple to stand by their statement that the width of the iPhone is still perfection while also yielding to the core market that wants more screen real estate.

As usual, Apple has found the perfect compromise between saying they were right while giving their customers want they want. The result is a distinct look that may be linked forever to only the iPhone. It would not surprise me to see this widescreen design land on a new version of the iPad. We will see.

16 August 2012

Missing the video store yet?


My amazing significant other and I were enjoying a sort-of second honeymoon this past week after we sent our 9 and 10-year-old troublemakers off on a one-way ticket to Alaska to terrorize my mother for a week. We had completely forgotten what it was like to get to the end of a day of work and be able to go do whatever the heck we wanted. Suck it, kids! The entire week we only had one minor quibble: We were not able to watch whatever movie we wanted whenever we wanted it.

This is the very definition of first world whining. We have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, MLB and all the other usual streaming suspects, so I really need to suck down a giant can of STFU. We found other ways to occupy our time, such as endless games of Parcheesi. Still, at the risk of looking like a snobby American cry baby, it is worth exploring what we lost on our road to the land of streaming.

Back in the Jurassic era (1999) we were shoveling out a couple hundred a year to Blockbuster for a couple flicks a week. Today the well-connected geek is paying for Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu which is stealing away about the same number of Benjamins annually. Yes, Netflix and Hulu have a wealth of TV shows to cut the cable and Amazon’s movies could be considered an add-on to free two day shipping, but these suspects with Redbox slamming the coffin door, helped kill the video store.

If I am telling my beautiful wife about this darling story about this young girl name Carol Ann who is trying desperately to get home to her family in the nice suburban home and avoid going into the light, in the past I would have rented it from the video store. Today, it is difficult if not impossible to find in streaming land. Fine. That is why DVD/BR rental from Netflix lives on. Perhaps the DVD will be here when I drag the kids back from rainy Sitka tomorrow.

New releases are another category to consider. A couple years ago, thanks to a now defunct agreement with Starz, new movies would show up for a period of time for streaming as part of the dollars we were already shuffling to Netflix each month. Today, if you want to watch “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” (fabulous movie, by the way), you are either going to drive to a Redbox in the couple weeks it is available or pay money to the Apple gold palaces or go slumming in Amazon Prime.

In addition to the maze of finding a movie is the issue of diminished quality. Amazon has a good example of the resolution opportunities: Standard is a couple bucks and HD will run you a finsky. If you believe the wacky-weed smoking folks at Gizmodo, the standard is on par with a DVD and the HD is nearly as good as Blu-ray. Don’t believe it. What they are comparing there is the pixel count, but because the material is so compressed, they are both significantly worse quality than what they are being compared against. A DVD played on a PS3 (yes, it upscales the quality) looks as good as the HD quality video on Amazon. It makes sence the quality would be much lower since a BR quality movie streamed would hit the bandwidth cap of a typical Comcast customer before the folks at Gizmodo finished their first joint.

So, yes, todays home movie viewing is typically lower quality with a confusing and expensive affair of balancing all sorts of different services to find the movie you want at the time you want it and the price you are wiling to pay. Would I go back to the days of Blockbuster? F-no. Geeks love a challenge, and watching a movie today is nothing if not that. Besides, spending an evening playing Parcheesi with my wife was much better than any movie we were going to watch, anyway.

12 August 2012

Why the iPhone is so cheap.

Walk into a Verizon or AT&T store and you can pick up the latest iPhone for a couple hundred bucks. If you are willing to settle for the previous gen model, you can cut the price in half. And when we all line up to buy the next iPhone, we need to give a big thanks to the people responsible for making this amazing device so inexpensive: Google.

The iPhone is by far Apple's most profitable product. While you may only pay two Benjamins for a new one, Apple is actually getting paid closer to six. How? Pre-paid services have unmasked the true cost of each device and have shown that an Android device running 4G costs a carrier about half the cost of Apple's hardware. Yet, when you visit a carrier, they both cost about the same amount.

How is it possible that carriers can sell a device that costs twice as much for the same price? By making the Android customers pay for it. It is well known that Verizon has been pushing customers to buy Android devices instead and it is not simply because they want everyone to have a fast LTE connection. Verizon makes approximately three hundred dollars more profit on a two year contract with a Samsung Galaxy SIII than they do on an iPhone. If all of Verizon's customers purchased Android devices then Verizon would be considerably more profitable and could consider lowering their monthly rates, but that additional profit it used to offset the premium required to sell the iPhone - so do not expect to see the monthly rates decreasing. In fact, we are seeing the price move up, instead.

Verizon and AT&T both had sizable profits this past quarter following a period of lower profits or losses, in the case of AT&T. Of course they did. No one is buying the iPhone right now and Android has four times the number of sales. The next quarter and Christmas will show a significant decrease in profit as these companies need to shell out huge dollars to Apple for the new version of the iPhone as anyone upgrades to the latest model.

Carriers could easily make it more equitable if they wanted to. If they doubled the price to buy an iPhone then the profitability point for both would be similar. However, no carrier (so far) has been willing to make that leap. Verizon has grumbled about potentially raising the price, but if they were the first to jump then all of the Apple fans would run to AT&T or Sprint. It seems likely that if anyone raises their price it will be a small change - perhaps $50 at a time to allow the competitors to slowly follow suit. Still, there is no indication that will be happening any day soon.

So, thank you, Google. Thank you so much for creating the Android market. Sure, you outright copied Apple's amazing concept, but by doing so you have allowed consumers to enjoy their products at a much reduced price. Sure, your customers are paying more than they should, but it seems like a small price to pay for Apple fans to get their favorite product at a discount.

20 July 2012

Geeky Hangouts



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