The stench of desperation must be getting pretty thick on the Infinite Loop. Can it be that the generator for Steve Jobs’s notorious Reality Distortion Field has finally broken down?
Two days ago, we learned that Jobs knew of the iPhone 4′s antenna problem before launch. They had warnings both from an in-house antenna engineer and “carrier partner”, presumably AT&T. Yes, this means all the Apple fanboys who had hissy fits at me when I said fifteen days ago that Apple was lying about the problem now get to go sit in the stupid corner.
Also two days ago, New York Senator Charles Schumer issued an open letter to Steve Jobs regarding the iPhone 4 antenna issues. Chuckie Schumer is the worst sort of political bottom-feeder, a power-worshiping greaseball with a spine of pure jelly; when such as he thinks it’s good politics to pile on Apple, you may be sure that Jobs’s teflon coating has definitively worn off.
I’ve been thinking for some time now that the smartphone has achieved a kind of singularity, becoming a black hole that sucks all portable electronics into itself. PDAs – absorbed. Music players – consumed. Handset GPSes – eaten. Travel-alarm clocks, not to mention ordinary watches – subsumed. Calculators – history. E-readers under serious pressure, and surviving only because e-paper displays have lower battery drain and are a bit larger. Compasses – munched. Pocket flashlights – crunched. Fobs for keyless locks – being scarfed down as we speak, though not gone yet.
This raises an interesting question: what else is natural prey for the smartphones of the future? Given my software interests, one low-hanging fruit that seems obvious to me is marine AIS receivers. If the frequency of any of the RF receiver stages in a phone were tunable, writing an app that would pull AIS data out of the air wouldn’t be very difficult. I’ve written a lot of the required code myself, and I know where to find most of the rest.
But in an entertaining inversion, one device of the future actually works on smartphones now. Because I thought it would be funny, I searched for “tricorder” in the Android market. For those of you who have been living in a hole since 1965, a tricorder is a fictional gadget from the Star Trek universe, an all-purpose sensor package carried by planetary survey parties. I expected a geek joke, a fancy mock-up with mildly impressive visuals and no actual function. I was utterly gobsmacked to discover instead that I had an arguably real tricorder in my hand.
Every few months I trip over another earnest attempt to rectify the gender imbalance in software and computing fields. Very few women opt to become programmers, system administrators, or hardware/software engineers. Indeed, the number of women who try seems to be falling rather than rising. This observation is invariably accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing and proposals for elaborate and (too often) coercive schemes to achieve “gender parity” – all doomed, because the actual problem is misdiagnosed.
I’m writing about this because I think the misdiagnosis arises largely from a refusal to speak uncomfortable truths. Discussion of the problem is nearly suffocated under a cloud of political correctness, cant, and willful blindness to the actual conditions of working in this field. Honesty won’t automatically fix the problems, but it’s a prerequisite to fixing the problems.
Forward-thinking technologists, including me, have been predicting for some time that adaptive mesh networking would be the doom of the telecomms-carrier and broadband oligopoly. Now comes a scientist from Australia with an idea so diabolically clever that I’m annoyed with myself for not thinking of it sooner: put the mesh networking in smartphones!
I just found an informative article about the origin, life, and astonishing persistence of my favorite keyboard. Nearly every article on this blog was hammered out on the same Unicomp Model M I’m typing on now. The design is 25 years old and still going strong, a nearly unique longevity in computing devices.
I endorse every bit of snarkiness and ergonomic wisdom in that article. I find the lack of tactile feeback and noise from modern “soft-touch” keyboards disconcerting and uncomfortable. It does my heart good to know the model M is still being produced, now with USB interfaces even. I expect I’ll be using these until I die or we get brain/computer interfaces, whichever comes first.
The over-the-air update for Android 2.2, aka FroYo, landed on my Nexus One this morning.
The WiFi hotspot feature works perfectly when tested with my ThinkPad X61 running Linux.
I am liberated. No more per-diem WiFi charges in hotels. No more cursing as I discover that the airport hotspots are all pay-for-play. Internet on my laptop in the shotgun seat of the car!
This feature will be a must for road warriors everywhere. And the iPhone 4 doesn’t have it. The screams of denial from the Apple fanboys as that absence costs Apple another hunk of market share that it will never get back should be most entertaining.
UPDATE: Have verified that USB tethering just works, too. Plug it in and go!
One of the predictable responses to my recent writings on the smartphone market and the rise of Android has been a deluge of scornful invective by Apple fans confidently predicting that Android’s 1Q2010 surge in unit share represented a bubble that would pop under pressure from Apple’s “superior user experience”.
Then came the flap over the iPhone4′s antenna problems, and the silence of the fans. Yeah, that’s a superior user experience, all right – huge percentages of dropped calls (including reports that it drops 100% of calls when the bottom left corner is touched), and Steve Jobs telling iPhone 4 users it’s all their fault because they’re holding their phones wrong. The satirical backlash at Jobs on the Internet has been merciless, and completely deserved. Nokia even had the cheek to post a blog entry on the many ways you can hold your Nokia phone.
Now comes Apple’s attempt to spin the problem out of existence. The tone of desperation is palpable. “Oops…” Apple says “…we fucked up the display algorithm for the signal strength meter.” Oh, yeah, that’s a superior user experience all right. It’s Apple, and It Just Works!(tm).
But there’s a story behind this story. Actually, two stories. One is that Apple is lying outright about the scope and nature of the problems. And the second, more important one, is that the fragility of the single-carrier, single-platform strategy for iOS has come around to bite Apple hard. There’s a lesson here for the future.
One Farhad Manjoo has attracted some attention by projecting in an article written for Slate that desktop PCs are headed for extinction, outcompeted by laptops and netbooks.
I have seen the future and I say “Balderdash!” It is undoubtedly true that computers will continue to get smaller and lighter and more portable. Indeed, I’m expecting that for most people, descendants of smartphones will become their primary computing devices. I am, however also certain that this does not imply the demise of “desktop” systems.
Manjoo, and other enthusiasts for the imminent death of the desktop PC, are missing a basic ergonomic point. Computers themselves could shrink to the size of a matchbox without inconveniencing anyone – but some of the things attached to them are scaled to humans and don’t shrink so easily. Of these, the two most significant are display screens and keyboards.
The responses to my last several posts on the smartphone wars (The iPhone 4: Too little, too late; More dispatches from the smartphone wars; Steve Jobsâ€™ Snow Job; Flattening the Smartphone Market; Nowâ€™s a bad time to be an Apple fanboyâ€¦; Android Rising) demonstrate that many of my readers continue to miss the real stakes in the smartphone wars and the real point of my analyses of them.
It’s not about whether or not Apple will be crushed. It’s not about who makes the “best” products, where “best” is measured by some interaction between the product and the speaker’s evaluation of the relative importance of various features and costs. It’s about what the next generation of personal computing platforms will be. Down one fork they’ll be open, hackable, and user-controlled. Down the other they’ll be closed, locked down, and vendor-controlled. Though there are others on each side of this struggle, in 2010 it comes down to whether Apple or Android wins the race to over 50% smartphone market share; after that point, network effects will become self-reinforcing until the next technology disruption.
As I write, the announcement of the iPhone 4 at WWDC is just a few hours old. See the Engadget coverage for details. The bottom line? This is too little, too late to stop the Android deluge.
There are some very cool individual features on this phone, no doubt. The two that stand out the most to me are the onboard gyroscope and the “retina display” – yes, 960 x 640 at 326ppi will be damn nice, and if I were writing apps I would seriously lust for that six-axis motion sensing. But the improvements are mainly in the hardware; Apple has conspicuously failed to address the areas where it has fallen behind Android 2.2 in software. There’s no progress on voice recognition, Flash, or WiFi hotspot capability. And even the hardware falls short of where it needs to be; while 802.11n is nice, the “G” after that “4″ is conspicuously missing.
If I were an Apple marketing guy, I’d be asking “How the hell can I compete against the EVO 4G with this?”
Well, it was fun carrying the most advanced smartphone on the planet. For a whole 32 days. But the Sprint EVO 4G launched today and its specs – especially the larger OLED display and WiMAX capability – put the Nexus One in the shade.
The bigger story today, though, is the ripple effects of AT&T consigning its unlimited-data plans to the dustbin of history. Gizmodo’s take, AT&T Just Killed Unlimited Wireless Data (and Screwed Everybody in the Process), is pretty representative.
Because I understand how network costs scale I’m more sanguine about the longer-term prospects than Gizmodo is. Unlimited flat rate will return when someone – probably Sprint, given the nature of their network buildout – decides it’s a useful competitive weapon. That will force others to follow suit; the market-equilibrium condition will be all flat rate, same as it is in voice calling today and for exactly the same reasons.
One of my predictions in Flattening The Cellphone Market came true today. It suggests that the iPhone’s Android-induced troubles are about to get much worse.
One Kelly Sweeney is publicly advocating that public access to AIS ship information should be prohibited in order to foil pirates and terrorists.
I must respectfully disagree with the premise of this article. I’m the lead of GPSD, a widely-used open-source GPS/AIS monitor daemon, and I am thus both a domain expert on AIS and a systems architect who is required to think about data security issues all the time. Attempting to “secure” AIS data would harm the public and have no security benefits. In fact, the second-order effects would be seriously bad.
The shape of the cost curves that show up as we build and run communications networks have properties that seem counterintuitive to many people, but that have been surprisingly consistent across lots of different technologies since at least the days of the telegraph, and probably further back than that.
Herewith, the Iron Laws of Network Cost Scaling:
1. Upgrade cost per increment of capacity decreases as capacity rises.
2. Network costs scale primarily with the number of troubleshooters required to run them, not with capacity.
3. Under market pressure, network pricing evolves from metered to flat-rate.
When you learn to apply all three of these together, you can make useful qualitative predictions across a surprisingly broad set of real-world cases.
Common cellphone operating systems like Android, WebOS, and Maemo are depriving cellphone carriers of one of their most treasured means of keeping customers in the dark and feeding them bullshit. They’re making smartphones comparable to each other, and by doing so brutally intensifying the competitive pressure on the carriers.
Before these common platforms, one of the ways carriers had to quell customer demand for features like tethering was simply that the feature sets of different phones were difficult for customers to compare in meaningful ways, and there was no real benchmark for what a cellphone could or should do (I mean, other than make phone calls).
That’s all changed now. To see how, consider the impact of the Froyo announcement – Android 2.2. This was a feature list of what upcoming cellphones would be able to do that wasn’t censored by a carrier. Every actual Android phone offering from now on will be compared against the Froyo feature list and against all other Android cellphones. And if any come out with an Android feature disabled or available only at extra cost, the pressure won’t be on Google – it will be on the carrier.
It’s an unhappy day for Apple fanboys. Dan Lyons Newsweek’s tech correspondent just ditched the iPhone for Android, slamming the phone and Steve Jobs’s control-freak strategy in very harsh terms.
It might be tempting to dismiss this on the grounds that Dan Lyons is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fool whose confidence in his own judgment is in inverse proportion to its quality; his gullibility about SCO’s allegations in their lawsuit against IBM became legendary, and some of the stuff he’s written about blogging is hilariously stupid. Given his track record, betting directly against his technology and market projections would be smarter than betting on them.
Yes, but…Newsweek is an awfully big megaphone. And the larger news isn’t the bad stuff that pushed him away from Apple, it’s the good stuff the pulled him towards Android. The Android 2.2 feature list is a body blow from which the iPhone, already trailing Android devices in unit sales, may not be able to recover.
The news comes to us today that in 1Q 2010 Android phones outsold Apple’s iPhone by a significant 7%. As it said on the gunslinger’s gravestone, “I was expecting this, but not so soon.”
Business Week and the Wall Street Journal are on the story, but the most interesting version is from the story they’re apparently deriving from at All Things Digital, because it includes a graph showing recent market share trends that conveys a lot more information than the present-time numbers.
One of my regulars pointed me at Is Android Evil?, an article by one Andreas Constantinou which purports to be a brave and hardhitting contrarian take on Android.
I read this, and I’m asking myself “Wow. How many different ways can one guy be wrong in the same article?” Particularly entertaining, and the main reason I’m bothering to rebut this nonsense, is the part where Mr. Brave Contrarian Guy claims that the success of Android has nothing to do with open source and then lists three “key factors” of its success in every one of which open source is critically involved.
It’s been an eventful week here at Eric Conspiracy Secret Labs, what with robot submarines busting out all over and a “Disruptive Innovation Award” from the Tribeca Film Festival (!) landing on my somewhat bemused head (possible topic of a later post). And I’m writing from Penguicon, where in about an hour I’m going to be starring in an event billed as “Jam Session with ESR – Ask Him Anything!” Whoever scheduled this for 9AM on the morning after Saturday night at a convention needs to be found and seriously hurt, but I figure anyone with enough willpower to show up at that unGoddessly hour of the morning deserves the best of me.
Which is all, in this case, a lead-in to observing that I’ve now been using a Google Nexus One under field and travel stress for about a week. The differences from the G-1 I had been carrying are, I think, suggestive about how Android-based smartphones are evolving and their competitive posture against the iPhone, Symbian, and Windows Mobile.
Google sent me one of the unlocked developer Nexus One phones. It arrived today. And, in the wake of recent news about Verizon not after all carrying the Nexus, stimulated some interesting thoughts in my mind about where the cellphone market is going. The balance of power is changing fast in ways that are going to be very good for consumers.