There Are Two Ways To Do This, And Your Way Isn’t One Of Them

SONY DSC-TX5
Sony made the camera she’s holding. No it isn’t very relevant, but I was getting nothing else except pictures of old videotape players. (Photo credit: cattias.photos)

Sony Corporation has just filed a record loss of $6.4 billion. How does anyone lose that much money? Particularly, how does one of the biggest makers of electronics, movies and music lose that much money? Maybe it’s piracy. After all when they lobby governments for new media-control legislation, record companies talk as if every download is a loss of a sale. Perhaps they’re actually putting that on their balance sheet now.

OK, the real reasons are probably more complicated. Sony is a complicated company. (Did you know it has a financial services arm?) But I think this in itself causes much of their problems. Making the content and the equipment to play it on is a strategy born of the format wars. Sony’s technically superior Betamax design lost out to VHS, in part because its rivals had better deals for film distribution. So when it came to the the battle between Blu-Ray and HD DVD, Sony was better prepared; it now owns about one sixth of Hollywood.

But format is now irrelevant, an anachronism. Sony won a war over a wasteland.

The makers of audio and video equipment are, to put it crudely, on our side. They know we don’t want the machines we buy hobbled to suit Big Entertainment. So hardware makers quietly let slip the codes that region-unlock their DVD players, Apple decides to sell only DRM-free music through iTunes, so on. But as a maker of both content and equipment, Sony is a house divided against itself. The most notorious example: the day one of the world’s bigger PC builders also became a distributor of malware. If you bought music from them, they returned the favour by taking control of your PC. I haven’t bought a Sony product since.

They must choose now. Only by getting out of entertainment production – an industry already past its best days anyway – will they be able to return to doing what they always did best: Shiny things.

The Obligatory iPad 3 Post

Apple have launched another iPad. Hooray.

Oh all right, I suppose it does merit a little more analysis than that. Rather like the iPhone 4S it’s another no-surprises upgrade. Solid – and in the case of the screen, substantial – improvements, but no hoverboots. Or maybe in Steve’s day we would have been convinced that the synergy of 4G connection speeds, high resolution screen and image-stabilizing camera creates an entirely new product with previously-unimagined purposes. Now it seems more for the stockholders than some mysterious cause.

What didn’t we get? A smaller iPad. An iPad with a pen input tool. An iPad with an iPhone in it. An iPad with an iPhone in it and a pen input tool that is also a Bluetooth phone receiver. Stuff like that. (I have to admit, in maybe a decade of designing tablets and phones in my head, nothing as out there as a pen you can make phone calls on ever occurred to me.) OK, gimmicky perhaps, but fun. Apple boringly stick to making a really good product that sells by the freighter-load.

Only one annoying element really. They’re not calling it the iPad 3 or the iPad 4G. They insist it will just be called “the iPad”, as if we’re expected to forget the existence of any previous, lesser iPads. A little Orwellian for my liking.

What Phone Is Right For You? – Index

Articles I’ve written to help you choose a phone.

English: Windows Phone 7 powered LG Panther(GW...

1 – The Scene

Why are there so many competing kinds of phone now?

2 – But First…

Remember you don’t have to get a high-end smartphone.

3 – Enter The Gladiators

A quick overview of the types available.

4 – The Business End

Phones for work: Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, and Blackberry.

5 – Apple Changes Everything

It’s the biggest thing to happen to mobile phones – and perhaps even computing – for years. What makes the iPhone so special?

6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

An aside on the present and future of mobile computing, and what the rise of the smartphone really means.

7 – I, Android

Only Google it seems were able to learn from what Apple did and react fast enough. Have they actually beaten them at their own game?

8 – Nokia Not Dead

One last throw of the die.

Tax The Rich – Bill Gates

Historic Microsoft photo of Paul Allen (left) ...
Little known fact: Microsoft were raised by a pack of wild Commodore home computers

With deficits the way they are, the rich are going to have to pay more. Unfortunately, almost everyone’s going to have to pay more, and it should fall more heavily on the rich… Just raising taxes on the rich won’t solve the crisis, but it seems reasonable to people – and there’s plenty of room to do that without creating disincentives or distortions.Bill Gates

I always did like Bill Gates.

No I mean it. In fact I liked Microsoft  – at least, more than most people I know. Now OK, a lot of that was just my perverse nature. You were meant to hate Microsoft with the burning passion of a thousand suns, so I had to see the other side.

But there is another side. Yes it’s true that Microsoft took advantage of ideas pioneered by Apple (and others, including IBM). It’s true that they leveraged their strategic market position to gain ever greater dominance. But I’m convinced that the world would be a poorer place without Microsoft and its vision of getting a personal computer onto every office and home. Others thought big, but not that big.

Sure, I would have preferred if they’d never become a virtual monopoly. Monopolies are always unhealthy and unfair. But the need to easily transfer data between organisations, alongside huge economies of scale in manufacture, maintenance, and training, meant that office computing was a monopoly waiting to happen. We are fortunate I think that it was not won by a business like IBM or Apple, who would have wanted to make both hardware and software. That would have been a far more total and stultifying monopoly.

Microsoft’s approach was to make only the key software, and encourage an ecosystem of hardware makers, application developers and services around that. It was an innovative business model that Apple and others learned a lot from. And though the ‘Wintel treadmill’ of ever-more-capable hardware inspiring ever-more-demanding software seemed endless, it meant that powerful computers quickly became cheap and commonplace, laying the path that brought the Internet into our lives.

No one should ever have as much power in business as Bill Gates did, but somebody was going to. I’m glad at least he is that rarest of capitalists, one not afraid to admit he has too much money.

Too Tired To Think Of A Headline

Windows Vista WOW - iBook?
Attention to detail is important

Oh God, I am now officially exhausted. That iBook proved more recalcitrant than expected. The fragile power connector came away from the logic board – again – requiring me to make a microscopic soldering iron out of the finest screwdriver in my kit. Even then though, the tiny soldered joint didn’t have enough physical strength. In the end nothing would work short of setting it in epoxy. Lots of epoxy.

So I didn’t get a lot of sleep – and I hadn’t recovered from the night I lost repairing someone’s PC. Or more probably, repairing the repairs somebody else did to someone’s PC. That was a weird one. It’s normally well hidden in Windows, but there’s a system of permissions telling it who can do what with every single file. So there was nothing much wrong with this computer – except for the fact that nobody had permission to do anything to anything. Thus while apparently running perfectly, it was utterly useless. You can guess how long it took to figure out what the hell was causing that.

So that’s two nights’ sleep missed in the last week. Meanwhile I have three cartoon commissions going on at once – about as many as I had in all of last year. The Christmas tree is still indoors. I have to seriously consider rewiring the kitchen. I need a shower badly. I haven’t seen my girlfriend in more than two weeks. Those last two are not connected. I’m not keeping up with this blog, I’ve had to put my play on hold, my website redesign on the hold that comes after hold, the other thing I really need to get done on too-depressing-to-even-clearly-recall.

You know what though? These are the good times.

OK, I’m going to bed.

No wait, wash dishes first. Then bed.

Once More Into The Mac

So Many Screws. So Many, Many Screws

Not for the first, not for the second, but for the third time, Niceol’s damn Mac has thrown its Airport card. I am now convinced that this¹ is the worst piece of shit that Apple ever made. Oh, it’s a fine design in some ways. More anonymous than the wild G3 generation, but more refined and cool – indeed the motif seems to be a 1960s fridge. But the attention to detail makes it all the more strange that there’s a huge flaw right at its heart – and getting into the heart means performing dangerous heart surgery.

Don't Try This At Home

Well never again. Not if a wooden splint and a load of impact adhesive have anything to do with it. That WiFi card is staying put.

It’s that grey rectangular thing on the left side there. The white stripe at the front of it is the wood I put in. To be honest, it’s a match – well, a section cut from a kitchen match, much chunkier than the usual kind. It turned out to be the precise thickness to fit between the card and a convenient ledge in the chassis above it. Held both by glue and the original clamp, it should keep this end of the card – the end with the connector that continually worked loose – pressed firmly against the motherboard for ever and ever.

Again.

  1. iBook G4 12″ 1.33GHz Model M9846LL/A, if you need to know.

Truth – There’s An App For That

Back in the day – which, to clear this up once and for all, ran from 1997 until 2003 – I was a big fan of The Brunching Shuttlecocks, perhaps the first really successful Web-based comedy team. Sure there were funny sites before, but they tended to be collections of jokes that could have – and often had – been published in other forms. There were Web incarnations of humour that already existed in other media, such as The Onion. There were webcomics, but again they could have appeared anywhere – if anywhere much still published comics. The Brunching Shuttlecocks though did humour that was, to a large extent, native to the Web.

Which didn’t just mean it was geek humour – though yeah, a lot of it was. More importantly though, much of it was among the first comedy that simply could not have appeared in any other medium. Items like The Bjork Song or Tina The Troubled Teen took advantage of technologies like scripting and object embedding to do jokes in new ways.

The Brunching Shuttlecocks are with us no more alas. The website isn’t even available now due to a hosting dispute, (though word is it will return soon). Main contributors Lore Fitzgerald Sjöberg and Dave Neilsen have long moved on to other things. Despite its eight-year lack of existence though, there’s still a surprisingly active fan community.

And now, you can Brunch (as we say) on your favourite portable Apple product. One of the best-loved items on the site was Good Or Bad?, an interactive feature where readers could vote on whether a random range of bizarre things were, well, good or bad. Votes were collated, and their fundamental value discovered. The free app actually expands on the original idea because it allows you to add your own items for the crowd-sourced assessment of other users, though it comes with the original (and hilarious) Good or Bad? content as ‘seed truth’.

Ever wanted to know whether that feeling you get in your stomach when a lift goes down, or the weirdly satisfying sensation of accidentally treading on a snail, or the big button at the pedestrian crossing that doesn’t apparently do anything is a good thing or bad? Now you can, definitively.

Patents – The New Rock ‘n’ Roll

Phone patent litigation in US courts alone ©The Daily Beast

With what I want to believe was ill-disguised glee, Samsung has taken out injunctions against sale of the iPhone 4S in France and Italy over alleged patent infringement. Why just there? It’s difficult not to believe that they’re keeping it commensurate with Apple’s blocking of Galaxy Tab sales in Germany and the Netherlands, that basically they’re saying “If you want to go there, we can go there”.

Do they have a case? Who can tell. The only thing certain is that patents are the new Rock ‘n’ Roll.

And not in a good way. Like Rock ‘n’ Roll in its heyday, the mobile technology world is turning into a filthy quagmire, with pretty much everybody accusing everyone else of stealing about everything – as the illustration shows. The main reason Google purchased Motorola‘s mobile arm was that otherwise the two companies could have sued each other out of existence¹. R&D is rapidly becoming the new A&R, with phone makers patenting about anything in the hope of finding the one elusive hit technology that will rake in unimaginable sums. This wasn’t very good for music, and it won’t be so good for technological innovation either.

While being able to profit from research and invention is a good thing, current law allows companies to charge exorbitant fees or even refuse to license their patents, essentially granting them a monopoly to a lucrative technology. While this was fine in the days when you might patent a tangible device like a mousetrap, now they can be used more or less as intellectual property land-grabs, claiming rights to possible designs. A cause célèbre of course is the granting to Apple of patents so fundamental to a multitouch interface on a mobile touchscreen device that it is hard to see how anyone can now create one without infringing them. Yet Apple did not invent either the multitouch interface or the mobile touchscreen, they were merely the first to put one on the other. Does that really mean they deserve to control the entire concept for the next twenty years?

What might work much better is a short period – maybe only a year or two – of exclusive use. That would decrease the incentive to take out speculative patents on everything, and greatly increase the incentive to, you know, innovate.

  1. To give the actual science of this: When two corporations collide at sufficiently high financial energies, they either fuse into a single entity or annihilate one another in a shower of fundamental business particles known as “happy lawyers”.

The Passing Of Steve Jobs

Perhaps we should have expected it. Why would have Steve Jobs stopped doing the job he loved one moment before he had to? It is a great loss. I’ve never been an Apple fan, I liked to criticise him. But I liked to criticise *him*. Criticising lesser mortals will never be as much fun.

The image above is a detail of one posted by BoingBoing.net, of people leaving tributes at the San Francisco Apple Store. If you’re feeling particularly sad it’s a good size to use as your desktop.

Yeah Yeah, New iPhone

Photograph showing Apple Newton hand held comp...
Here it is, the iPhone 5... Wait.

Who would have thought this day would come? The day when they release a boring iPhone.

The 4S is by no means a minor update. It is significantly better than the 4. Dual core. iOS 5. The 8 Mpx camera alone will be enough to change the minds of many waverers. But it is a consolidation, a strategic market repositioning, not a shock. It perhaps takes back the lead, after the Galaxy S II being seen by many as the new messiah. But it’s still neck and neck, and that is not what we have come to expect from an iPhone release. On its day of launch, the latest iPhone is supposed to be the most desirable piece of consumer electronics on Earth. Unequivocally.

It’s Tim Cook I feel sorry for, Apple’s new CEO. In place of the showman, they’ve got the man credited with the sound strategic business decisions. Decisions like closing down Apple’s manufacturing in the US (and indeed, Ireland) and moving it to such questionable locations as Foxconn‘s giant plants in China. It is just his misfortune that his first product launch happens to be of a rather strategic and businesslike update to the iPhone.

But people are bound to say that if Steve were still in charge, there would have been surprises. Steve would have taken some feature of the new iPhone – probably Siri, the voice recognition ‘valet’ – and make it sound like God’s personal gift to you. Actually no, Steve wouldn’t even have presented us with something as lacklustre as mere voice recognition. It would have read your mind, and granted desires you had not yet even consciously formed. Steve could do it, why can’t this phone?

Yeah. Basically people are mostly just missing Steve.