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.