15 November 2014

Now Apple could truly own the sapphire market.

As has been widely reported, Apple has a long history of controlling and sometimes manipulating any vendor they work with. Those are the perks of being the largest company in the world with a similarly sized ego to match. Their contract terms are often worded in such a way to corner the market on that product and leave rivals scrambling. This was the approach used with GTAT, a solar power company who also had invented a low-cost method of manufacturing sapphire screens.

Sapphie was, for at least a brief moment, the holy grail of touch screens. It could withstand impact from asteroids with barely a scratch and was forcing Corning to consider renaming "Gorilla Glass" to "Monkey Poo". Apple created contract terms that forced GTAT to only sell their product to Apple and to build up infrastructure for whatever Apple needed. At the same time, Apple could set the price and cancel the deal at any time while holding huge financial penalties over GTAT if they did not comply. Basically, if Apple wanted to crush the company they could do so easily. And they did.

Ignoring the fact that Apple just crushed a fairly innovative solar power company that was helping to make us a slightly more environmentally responsible world, they might have done so to outright own most of the sapphire screen market in their battle-to-the-death with the Samsung OLED king.

GTAT was left holding huge loans for building infrastructure for every iPhone that Apple sells. Unfortunately for their long term health, Apple set a price for the product that meant GTAT would lose money on every order. Their investment in the furnaces continued but, behind the scenes, Apple knew that this company was going to collapse. In fact, they made certain of it.

Why would Apple do such a thing? I suspect it was so Apple could purchase GTAT's infrastructure at bankruptcy prices. Not only did they keep the competition from getting this innovative product, they also set themselves in a position to own the manufacturing plants going forward. If the technology proved to not be as useful as expected, they could simply let someone else buy up the furnaces and move on. It was a perfect scenario for the geniuses on that infinite profit loop.

It will be interesting to see in the months ahead whether Apple does purchase part or all of GTAT. No question, there would be a small collection of anti-Apple zealots who would cause a commotion if they did, but the fact is that this is all part of the profit game of capitalism. Apple did nothing illegal. Just the same, if I were a tech supplier considering a contract with Apple, I would shop the competition first.

13 November 2014

Spotify is still music piracy.

The new wave of media is to never own or rent anything. Stream whatever we want from wherever we want. Sure, depending on the media type and the location, your options will vary, but the consumer pays a nominal fee and can get instant access to a nice library of material without specifically paying for that viewing. Perfection!

For movies this scenario works relatively well. The studios that paid the bucks to film those shows and they get to dictate what they get paid for your 90 minutes of pleasure. If they believe they are getting screwed they can pull their line-up from Amazon or Netflix. For new movies, they are only available at the box office and flicks just released on plastic coasters will be limited to rental options where they can more specifically collect their fortunes.

This scenario is far more problematic when it comes to music. With a service like Pandora where they are creating custom radio stations the issue is less messy because if you want to hear Shake It Off twice in a row you will need to buy it from the iTunes store. Products like Spotify, Beats and the upcoming Google entry make this far more messy because a good portion of those customers will never buy the song. From their perspective, they paid their $5 to $10 a month and that is all they will ever pay for music.

That is the greatest deal ever for the consumer pocketbook but terrible for the artists who receive next to nothing while their work is available at your audio whim. Essentially, by never actually buying the music you are, from the perspective of the artist, stealing their product. Again - not a problem if you actually buy your favorite tunes but the vast majority of the customers of these new services are rarely doing that. Many consumers would just turn to piracy if it were not for streaming. Since the musician gets paid in pocket lint from streaming royalties, there is no difference in their mind if you pirate the song or stream it.

Consumers are justified in saying "It's legal, unlike piracy. I am just buying what the recording industry is allowing, so there is nothing wrong with that." True. Much like paying for access to a BitTorrent feed, we certainly are paying for free access to any music we like. The RIAA is currently living with this deal because they get to keep nearly all of the money made. Artists are getting wise to it and those with leverage (Taylor Swift) are pulling their works from certain streaming services.

The question for consumers is whether we want to be an enabler to a system that essentially forces artists to go on tour to make any money from their creation. Just because we do not label streaming as "piracy" does not mean it is not exactly that. We are stealing the work of artists by paying the recording industry for access to the "legal" Pirate Bay. What an amazing deal.

11 November 2014

Our dreams for corporate led astrophysics is lost in space.

NASA and the Soviet space program have transformed the world. It was not enough to inspire millions of children and make us all want to reach for the stars. In order to reach new heights and explore new worlds these programs had to invent their way there and our every day lives have been the beneficiaries. Scratch resistant glass, ear thermometers, memory foam, long distance communications systems, invisible braces, smoke detectors, filtration systems and so on.

Today's mindset that government is inefficient, expensive and broken has taken over much of the American psyche and we have tossed NASA in a permanent penalty box. While we might have dreams of exploring the galaxy or reaching other solar systems, Congress has reminded us how cold it is in space by freezing their funding. The Space Shuttles, astronauts and dreams of fusion reactors are collecting dust in museums where we can pay top dollar to dream of what used to be.

Do not fret, my friends. Private space programs will save us! While government might represent all that is wrong on our small blue marble, corporations represent everything that can go right. Capitalism will ride in on a tidal wave stallion and be able to efficiently ride off with all our astrophysical dreams for a small fraction of the price.

The unfortunate thing about that vision is that rocket science is rocket science. The Space Shuttle cost a small fortune because creating a re-usable space station is so ridiculously complicated that the Soviets gave up after a single launch. Taking every step you can to assure every life is as safe as possible is extremely time consuming. In order to create new inventions to overcome the impossible you need all of the most brilliant minds available focused on that common goal. And, yes.. This stuff is expensive.

This is not to say that corporate involvement is all bad. Elon Musk is a brilliant man and Space X is certainly pushing territory that NASA has talked about but never had the funding to explore. However, he is the exception to the rule. Nearly every other program involves older astronauts using old NASA concepts to beg for money to fund an unrealistic dream. Golden Spike claims they can sell landings on the Moon to anyone willing to fit the bill, despite the fact that they have barely a scrap of evidence they could pull it off. The Mars One program believes they can put people on Mars for six billion dollars, or the smallest fraction of NASA's 600 billion plus estimate. Again - big vision but no proof of concept.

These are dreams and illusions written as mission statements on start-up financing. Richard Branson has some brilliant people working for him and very deep pockets but his dreams of space crashed before even leaving our atmosphere. Imagine what will happen during a stock market crash or, heaven forbid, when we hit our next recession? How many of these companies will survive? Mars One and Golden Spike surely will not.

Then there is the issue of what these programs are giving back to society. While today they are fumbling around to hobble in NASA's disco-era technno shoes, it seems that they are at least a decade away from truly inventing something that could transform every day life. And even if they were lucky enough to survive that long and actually innovate something semi-interesting, there is a near zero chance they will simply give that brilliance away to anyone who wants to use it.

However, the most important issue we face is that the next era of space exploration requires dedication and money bags far larger than any single corporate entity could justify. If we are to regularly visit other planets and eventually other solar systems then we will need trillions of dollars being spent on the most brilliant plans imaginable. For all the brilliance and finances that Mr. Musk brings to the table, he can never match the funding and genius possible by a government that can print their own money. And that, ultimately, is why NASA needs our support and our blank check to take our species to the next frontier.

09 November 2014

Utopia is still hiding in a Google Inbox.

In the past couple of years, Google has done a stunning impersonation of Microsoft. Not just in operating system market share but also in their lack of innovation. To be fair to Redmond, while the prodigies of Gates design a unique smart watch on top of their Azure cloud, it appeared that all of Google's brilliance got sucked into a giant glasshole in the center of Mountain View. Well. No more.

I could sing the hallelujah chorus of the new Google Drive and Docs but no praise is deserved on a product that was ripe for an overhaul. These cloud systems were, and still are, far more useful, productive and reliable than the competition but looked like the crap designs of 2007. Because they were designed in 2007. Now they are starting to actually resemble the quality that they represent. [slow clap]

Instead, it is Google Inbox that caught my imagination. While Gmail easily transformed the face of email and all but killed every other web-based competitor that existed when Gwen Stefani was a high school idol, those game changing days got stale not long after Taylor Swift dumped her sixth boyfriend oh those million men ago. Now that Outlook.com looks prettier and Yahoo Mail copied the Gmail structure, what is left is a Gmail that still functions a little better than the competition but is no longer that interesting.

Enter the Inbox. Suddenly your inbox is treated like the to-do list that it always has been and allows you to "bundle" like categories, treat incoming items as tasks, create follow-up, pin important mail and unclutter the entire mess into a clean interface. Overall I would stay these new concepts work really well and, depending on your tolerance for change, you can adjust to the interface in just a few minutes. Admittedly, it helped my handicapped brain cells that I could move my current key "labels" into "bundles" so I could start running immediately.

Still, I would not recommend it to everyone quite yet. It is still a beta product that requires continued use of Gmail if you are dealing with 50+ emails a day. Basics, like deleting an email, take additional clicks to accomplish which should never be the case on a clean system. (Would a trash icon really take that much extra space?) More damning is the lack of access to all of the settings that are available in Gmail: Signatures, accounts, filters, themes - the list goes on. Not all of that stuff is needed by everyone, but having nearly none of it will surely limit the potential audience. These are mostly functions that will not break up the tidy Inbox interface, either, so bringing them to the party is a needed step to acceptance as a Gmail (or Outlook.com) replacement.

Still. Nice first step, Google. It is good to see you trying something your competitors never considered and making us re-think what we expect from our software. Now if you could just stop imitating the hardware prices of your competition ($650 for a Nexus phone?!) you will really be flying again.