After one day of release (actually, just less than 24 hours), CNet is reporting that Google’s Chrome is now the top free app offered on the iOS App Store. And, I can confirm from personal use on my iPad, it offers a far-superior browsing experience as compared to Mobile Safari, despite the technical limitations that Apple places on third-party browsers on iOS (namely, they’re crippled because Apple limits access to their Nitro engine, slowing down browser as compared to Mobile Safari). Despite this limitation (and despite the limitation that you cannot choose a default browser in iOS, so anytime you click a link from an email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. it will always load in Mobile Safari), I think the overall package is incredibly smooth. Tab management is easier, page synchronization across your devices is smooth, I can access my bookmarks using my Google account; the whole thing is tightly integrated and polished.
Google, keep up the good work. It’s no surprise that your Chrome browser is the top desktop web-browser, and I suspect that it will soon be people’s browser of choice (limited choice, but choice) on iOS.
Apple, it’s time to quit being such a spoiled brat when it comes to alternative browsers on your iPad. You made a great product with the iPad. Now, someone else is offering something that will make it better. This is the nature of competition, and if you can’t make it better, don’t use your platform as a way to keep other people from making superior software accessible to more people.
Last week, in the wake of Apple’s WWDC keynote and press attention, Microsoft sent out invitations to the members of the tech press, indicating that they were going to have a press announcement for this past Monday. It took virtually everyone by surprise, and gave every indication of something hastily arranged – a sort of “Apple’s beaten us to the punch again, we’d better get something on everyone’s radar NOW” announcement.
In itself, this isn’t much of a surprise. Apple has been eating Microsoft’s lunch now for some time, for while their market share in the “traditional” PC segment has been stuck about 10% (compared to the Windows juggernaut, which claims approximately 85% of that segment), their tablet operating system is definitely the dominant OS. Perhaps more to the point, their market capitalization is roughly twice Microsoft’s, and their profit per-unit is sky-high relative to the rest of the tech industry. That said, Apple’s WWDC keynote spent a lot of its focus (and hype) on the new Macbook Pro with Retina Display (awkwardly named, but doing quite well sales-wise, despite my “meh” feelings towards the machine), while it’s iOS announcements seemed to focus on their new Maps application. With not a lot of “new” coming out of Cupertino, and Apple taking potshots at Google, this is actually the perfect time for Microsoft to make its move.
Which explains the timing of their Surface announcement; Microsoft needed to take advantage of the relative stagnation of iOS (and by extension, the iPad) and get some positive buzz going about its new tablet endeavour. So, even though there’s no mention of exact specs, or pricing, or even a release date, Ballmer and company got up in front of a room of mystified tech press – and if I may take the liberty to say so – knocked one out of the park.
Surface looks good. No, it looks fantastic. Think about all this:
- It looks well-designed and well-built. The styling is crisp, they seem to have done a lot of thought about usage and made the design functional.
- The integrated kickstand is clever, and unlike the kickstands in some Android tablets or cases, it looks solid.
- The covers (both the multitouch keyboard and tactile keyboard) are brilliant. Third-parties have made these sorts of things for the iPad, but they’ve always felt like a third-party offering. Having Microsoft design and make this themselves adds a certain authenticity.
- Windows 8, as I think I made very clear in my last post, is definitely oriented at tablets, and I imagine that Metro as a tablet UI will be very smooth.
There are still a few ways that this can fall flat, however. The elephant in the room with any tablet announcement is, of course, the iPad. With such a commanding lead in market share (not to mention mindshare, both for developers and consumers), any new offering in the tablet space is going to need to offer people a compelling reason to choose it over the iPad. Android tablets initially tried to compete on specs (e.g. this has 4G, this has a faster processor, this has a widescreen display) with little success, only finding a (small) toehold at the lower-price segments of the market (such as the $199 Kindle Fire). Microsoft is clearly not going to play that game, and while Microsoft didn’t say anything about the pricing (merely offering that it would be “competitive”), I think they are going to try and present the Surface as a legitimate, direct competitor to the iPad on the experience. Nobody cares about the specs in the iPad, because you don’t buy the iPad because it has the A5 processor, or because it has 512MB of ram, or even because of the 9.7″ Retina display; you buy it because it’s an iPad. Surface is going to need to present this argument, and then back it up with some follow-through.
Which brings me to my final point here: Microsoft is finally learning that the “open” software approach (where you produce the operating system and rely on third-party companies – OEM’s like Asus, Samsung, or Motorola – to actually make the product that makes it to consumers) doesn’t work. We see this same approach with phones, where Google makes the operating system (Android), OEMs add their own “enhancements” to the base UI (like MotoBlur, HTC Sense, or TouchWiz), and finally carriers like AT&T and Verizon add their own crapware (like my phone’s “Sprint Zone, Sprint ID, Sprint Mobile Wallet, and Sprint Worldwide”) – senseless additions that detract from the user experience. This is rather akin to inviting some close friends to your birthday party, only to have one of them show up with his drinking buddies (people you don’t know or want), who then proceed to eat all the food and birthday cake.
All of this is possible because the OS developer doesn’t exert any control over the OEMs, who are in turn beholden to the whims of the carriers (which explains the popularity of Google’s “Nexus” phone lineup, virginal phones untouched by the grubby hands of carriers). Unlike a traditional computer, the tablet (and phone, for that matter) lends itself very well to the vertically integrated, closed ecosystem. Where the designer of the OS, the designer of the equipment, and the seller of the finished unit are all one and the same company. Considering the importance of the Surface (both as a check on the hegemony of the iPad and as what must be a critical keystone of Microsoft’s sales strategy for the next few years), it’s vitally important that this stands on Microsoft and Microsoft alone. They can’t afford to let anyone else screw it up.
Since Microsoft released it a few weeks ago, I’ve had the Windows 8 Release Preview installed on a couple of test computers for evaluation and testing purposes. As with others on the Internet, I’ve had mixed reactions to this iteration of what will be Microsoft’s next OS; there’s some really nice things about it, and some that are frustrating about it. This post isn’t really a formal review, it’s more of a free-form commentary on what I’ve experienced.
The good part? Speed. This OS seems to perform quite well on older/slower hardware, even moreso than Windows 7/XP, previous standard-bearers for “lightweight” versions of Windows. The main computer I had been testing this OS on is an older ultraportable with a 1.2GHz Core2Duo and 2GB of memory, and while I won’t go so far as to say that it’s “fast”, it’s certainly not sluggish either. Everything about it – the boot process, actual operation (including Metro and Desktop mode), suspend and resume – all feels faster than it does under XP (the OS that shipped with this computer). My gut tells me that this is because Windows 8 is supposed to behave on x86 processors as well as (typically slower clocked) ARM processors, and if so, then excellent. This speed/optimization bears even greater fruit when installed on a more modern computer (I’ve also tested this on a 2.5GHz Sandy Bridge i5), especially if you bring an SSD to the party. Windows 8 boots incredibly quickly in this configuration, and suspend/resumes feel almost instantaneous.
The bad part? In a word, it’s Metro. Metro is the first real innovation in Windows UI since the inclusion of the Start Menu in Windows 95 (Before you tell me that Windows 7 had the unified taskbar/quicklaunch and Vista integrated the Run/Search function into Start, those were just iterations of previous UI design). Fitting, then, that Metro is replacing the Start Menu; the result, however, is a complete metaphor break. The Windows that you knew is gone, and it will take you many occasions of pressing the Windows key on your keyboard to expect Metro to pop up instead of the traditional Start Menu (it’s rather jarring, like coming home to find a bear sitting at your dinner table instead of your significant other).
I tried to like Metro, I really did. The problem is twofold: 1) I actually use the Start menu constantly in my daily computing, and 2) Metro itself is unfamiliar, poorly documented, and often unintuitive to use. Missing the Start menu is actually a huge deal for me, because it initiates the overwhelming majority of my computing tasks. I don’t keep icons on my desktop, and I don’t have very many programs pinned to my taskbar; on the work computer I’m using now, they are: Windows Explorer, Chrome, Outlook, Word, Excel, and Remote Desktop, and I keep them pinned more for the jump lists than for ease of launching. Virtually every other program I use is launched with Start (most commonly by hitting the Windows key and typing in the first few letters of the app I need to use, like “calc” to launch the calculator). I can’t do that anymore.
Metro also suffers from an overall unfriendliness to non-touchscreen devices. For older devices (like the ultraportable mentioned above) without multitouch trackpads, scrolling in Metro means having to actually use the on-screen scrollbars, which is anything but efficient. Even with a multitouch trackpad, scrolling left-to-right in the Store (or any other Metro app, for that matter) is a hassle. I shudder to think how this will behave on a desktop computer (where you have a mouse instead of a trackpad). I can see where Microsoft is coming from with this interface design, swipe scrolling would be very intuitive on a touchscreen device (like the Windows 8 ARM tablets that various OEMs demoed at Computex), but on a traditional trackpad- or mouse-based computer, it just doesn’t work.
Last, Metro just does not feel intuitive, nor is it particularly well-documented. I actually had to search the Internet for how to shut the machine off (for those of you keeping score, you have to hover your pointer at the top right of the screen in Metro to bring up the hidden “Charms” menu, then go to Settings, then Power, and finally Shut Down). This “hidden UI” element is echoed several times throughout Metro; multitasking apps are on the left, Charms are on the right, tabs in IE pull down from the top. I once read Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning Was the Command Line, where he notes that the fundamental advantage to the GUI over older text-based command line interfaces was that you have the ability to show context clues, instead of having to memorize commands. For example, if I want to exit Outlook, I can go to File > Exit (or just hit the X); whereas in a command-line style interface, I’d have to input the command (which could be as friendly as “quit” or “exit”, but could be more complicated. With the inclusion of hidden UI elements, it feels like Windows is taking a step backward here.
As mentioned above, it’s clear that Microsoft is developing for touch and tablets when it comes to the Metro interface, at the cost of usability on “traditional” computers. It is possible that Microsoft has deliberately forced the Release Preview to use Metro, in order to get reviewers and testers to give feedback on it. If that turns out to be the case, I can only hope that Windows 8 RT goes the route of “Metro with some Desktop capability”, and Windows 8 “Normal” uses the traditional “Desktop mode with some Metro capability” route. If not, however, then I suspect we’re going to have Windows 7 turn in to the new Windows XP, where customers (especially enterprise customers) reject 8 and cling desperately to 7.
In the last post, we talked about the software side of Apple’s WWDC keynote (iOS and OSX), but that’s not what has the internet abuzz. No, the announcements that have everyone excited (or up-in-arms, always one of the two extremes) are the ones concerning the Mac hardware lineup and their various refreshes.
From an architecture standpoint, shifting from Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge is a pretty good deal; across the board performance increases, as well as a better integrated graphics processor? Yes please! But that’s not the sort of thing that gets everyone excited, and so it was a little disappointing to find out that the refreshes to the Macbook Air and Macbook Pro line were relatively uninspired. The Macbook Air really was the breakout product of last year, when the architecture shift to Sandy Bridge brought the performance level of these ultraportables into the mainstream. In fact, they were mainstream enough that Apple actually went so far as to do away with their Macbook (regular) lineup altogether, assuming (correctly) that people didn’t need optical drives and spinning hard drives enough to warrant two separate lines of computers. I suppose that’s a tough act to follow up, and it shows with the “refreshes” Apple has done to the Air line. Except for the processor shift, the changes are hard to find – the shift to USB 3.0 ports, and minor pricing changes, really.
Which is all well and good, except when you have a solid competitor knocking at your doorstep. I’m linking to the stunning ASUS Zenbook Prime, although I have no doubt that we’ll see a number of solid Ultrabook competitors this summer: OEM’s realize that people demand world-class industrial design, build quality, and features. What’s particularly noticeable about the Zenbook Prime as compared to the Macbook Air is that ASUS has very clearly listened to their audience. The first Zenbook (last year) suffered from a poor-quality display, poor-quality touchpad, and poor-quality keyboard. And what are the three big features on the new Zenbook Prime? A better display, a better touchpad, and a better keyboard. I do believe that, the 1920×1080 resolution IPS display on this new Zenbook will be (when it launches) the second highest DPI (189.91) laptop display on the market (some of you know where I’m going with this, but we’ll get to that later). I fully expect this to be my next laptop, and I fully expect it to be brilliant.
Contrast all this this with the Macbook Air refresh. While you can argue that very little refresh was needed (Apple’s keyboards and touchpads are already best-in-class), 1366×768 is so dated that it’s unbelievable that manufacturers can still get away with it. My CRT monitor in 1996 was capable of 1024×768!
The same story is told on the Macbook Pro front: processor refresh, and graphics chip refresh, and maybe a little mucking around on the pricing front. Nothing major …
Until the new “Next Generation Macbook Pro”. Or the Macbook Pro-Air (Air-Pro? Prair?). The Retina One? Let’s deal with the good first. I like the eschewing of the optical drive – as the Air proved last year, it’s trending out. Most of the software I have installed over the past year has come from the internet (utilities, games, etc.), and in the Mac ecosystem, they’ve now got the App Store covering OSX as well. This is all a good thing, because that space can now be used to stack more battery and various laptop internals. I like the focus on thinner and lighter; this 15.4″ machine is lighter the 14″ Dell Latitude E6420 that my work uses, and has a bigger display, a better onboard battery, and is just a hair over half as thick. It’s a serious achievement, and I like this direction. I’m not, however, quite sure what to make of the Retina display. 2880×1800 is a serious chunk of pixels, but I can think of a few problems:
First, 2880×1800 is ridiculous amount of pixels to be driving at once. As Apple themselves point out, that’s four times as many pixels as in the 1440×900 iteration of the Macbook Pro, but the graphics card powering it will not be four times as powerful. I’m very skeptical about the graphics performance of something trying to drive this display, especially in a gaming scenario. As a point of reference, my gaming PC at home is running a Radeon 6970, powering a display resolution of 1920×1200 (under half the pixels in this new Retina display), and this is in a desktop computer with good airflow and fan power. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t see this performing well in any sort of gaming scenario.
Second, the type of people who would use a Retina-class display (graphic designers, 3d modelers, CAD professionals, and gamers) are either a) the type of person who will do this performance work on a desktop, or b) the type of person who will be making use of an external monitor. The Retina display, while I’m sure it’s stunning, is only 15.4″, and that’s not “power user” territory.
Third (and admittedly, this is much more niche than my other observations), users who want to install Windows or Linux on this machine will find that the high-DPI support that Apple has put into OSX will not help them (imagine your Windows 7 taskbar; now imagine it at half-height).
Last, the cost. This new Retina-enabled Macbook Pro comes at a $400 price premium over an equivalent 15″ Macbook Pro (and to put that in perspective, that’s the cost of an iPad 2, or 80% the cost of a Retina-enabled iPad 3). And cost is not something that has typically been a factor when considering a Retina display; the iPhone 4 and 4s come with the Retina as standard, as does the iPad 3. The Retina display is definitely a feature that could drive sales of the iPhone/iPad as compared to their alternatives (Android phones or tablets), but it’s not something for which you have to fork out additional cash. Perhaps I’m wrong, and I’m probably not Apple’s target market on this laptop, but $2200 is a hell of a lot of money to be spending on a laptop (that’s essentially two Macbook Airs, or four and a half iPads). Of course, Apple has announced a 2-3 week lead time on shipping this morning (indicating high initial sales), so the cost must not be blunting enthusiasm for many people.
Ultimately, the upshot is this: Apple can still innovate, and if this new Retina laptop (and ASUS’ Zenbook Prime) helps pave the way for higher resolution displays, then I’m all for it.
So, everyone seen yesterday’s keynote at WWDC? Had time to digest and decompress afterward? Good, let’s talk about it now. Apple focused on three key areas: iOS6, Mac OSX Mountain Lion, and the refresh across the Macbook line. Each brought something interesting to the table, and each merits its own discussion, but I’ll be breaking this into two posts: one about the hardware (later), and one about software (now).
Starting with iOS, everything about yesterday’s announcement looks good. In the three years since I got my first iOS device (and note that, at the time, it was “iPhone OS”), there has been a huge amount of improvement. As much as I want to favor a more open approach with my computing devices (which is why I switched from an iPhone to an Android last year), I must also admit that iOS is – by far – the most mature of the mobile OS’s available. As I see it, the argument against iOS (for being a vertically-integrated, walled-garden, closed OS) is actually one of the stronger selling points for it. And, having owned an iPhone and currently owning an Android, I can actually see that – on a phone – I prefer Apple’s approach to Google’s.
There’s actually a good article published today that sort of crystallizes a lot of the fundamental problem with Android, but you have to do some thinking to arrive at that conclusion. It’s titled “Android ICS already offers more than what is coming in iOS 6″, and it’s published as a sort of cheerleader for Android and it’s current iteration, ICS. But what the article fails to take into account is the fundamental problem with Android is one of the discordant relationship between Google (author of the OS) and the phone OEMs (makers of the phones), particularly when it comes to upgrades. Yes, ICS includes many of the features included in iOS, but ICS accounts for less than 10 percent of all Android installations, whereas Froyo and Gingerbread account for an overwhelming 84% of Android installations. Many of the phones released under those iterations of Android will not be receiving updates, and those that are will be delayed almost to the point of irrelevance (Google will likely be announcing Jellybean in the coming months).
Compare this with iOS, where even the iPhone 3GS (which was released in 2009) will be receiving iOS 6. Sure, it won’t be getting all the bells and whistles (notably, Siri will not be coming to the older iPhones), but the fact that it’s even getting this update in the first place puts it well above anything Google is doing in the mobile space (even the Galaxy phones have delays as newer iterations of the OS is adapted to fit the older hardware). It’s a sort of loyalty for existing users, if you will; the notion that the hardware maker won’t abandon you as it pursues new users.
The other striking feature about iOS 6 – Apple’s new Maps application – isn’t notable so much for being a good app (although it likely is), rather that it’s a broadside into Google. Apple and Google have had a sort of strained relationship for years now, but Apple has had to rely on Google for key components that make the iPhone package so popular (think what the iPhone would be without a Maps app). Now that Apple is making this app in-house, what will come next? It’s already obvious that Apple and Google compete in so many spaces (mobile OS, now maps, cloud services, music services, just to name a few), but this relationship will likely increase in tension in the future.
The other major area I’d like to address is the OSX Mountain Lion. I’m not going to delve into the specific features of the OS (as I’m no longer an owner of Mac hardware, I’m not really an OS X user anymore), other people have done that much better than I could. What I’d like to focus on is the price: $20 for owners of Snow Leopard or Lion. What’s so significant about this, you ask? The significance is that with such a low cost, the barriers to entry for upgrading are made so insignificant that almost everyone will actually do it. Net result? Expect to see the percentage of Mountain Lion users to make up a sizable percentage of overall OS X users, meaning that homogeneity in the OS X ecosystem is a very real goal that will soon be idealized.
Contrast this with Windows (the ecosystem with which I’m most intimately familiar), where Windows 7 is really just over half of all Windows installations, with the older iterations (XP, Vista, and others) making up the other half. That’s all well and good until you remember that Windows XP was released a decade ago, is now in “extended support” phase, and is just plain old. Upgrading XP will set you back at least $99 or more, depending on the version, and in many cases the decision is simply to just buy another PC. If Microsoft were to radically reduce the cost of these Windows upgrades, I suspect you’d see a few trends: users would be much more likely to upgrade to the current iteration of Windows, developers would be apt to stop focusing on supporting old versions, and this would in turn increase the demand for current versions of the OS. Microsoft could also stop spending as much time and effort on supporting the older versions of Windows (seriously? Windows XP is still supported until 2014? That’s a 13 year life-cycle!), time and effort that could be rolled in to making the new versions of Windows great.
Alright, that’s enough for now. Will write about the Mac hardware refresh later.