Tag - apple

Safari versus Flock: showdown at the OK corral

Almost exactly a month ago I started using Flock on all my computers. Now it’s time to evaluate: was it worth the switch?

  • User interface
    I came from Safari, so I expected a clean, simple, understatedly elegant application, and I got that in Flock. Without this, I’m not interested in using an app – which I why I never took up Firefox for long. But Flock made me forget Firefox. 

    Still, it’s hard to beat Safari for pure elegance – I still find myself hankerin’ for some brushed metal.

    Slight edge: Safari

  • Speed
    Safari is a fast browser, and one of my primary concerns with Flock has been speed. Loading pages and performing actions in Flock seems almost but not quite as fast. 

    But opening up a new window seems to take a looong time – almost 4 seconds – on my 1Ghz PowerBook G4. Not great.

    Also, Flock tends to run down with use. I’m a power web user, and it’s not unusual for me to have 10 or 15 tabs open. After a day of that – or several days, I reboot my Mac only every month or so – Flock slows way down, and the dreading spinning beachball of death becomes a constant companion.

    The solution is to quit Flock and restart it, and presto, it’s as fast as usual. Perhaps Flock’s memory management is not the best – I’m not sure. It took me a while to figure this one out, but now that I have, this is no major trouble.

    Advantage: Safari

  • Flickr integration
    OK, this is a no-brainer. Flock’s integrated Uploadr has become my preferred application for uploading photos to Flickr, even though I have an iPhoto plugin for that very purpose. 

    Uploadr is just better, seems quicker, and lets me properly tag and categorize (add to sets, in Flickrese) all my photos before they even get to Flickr.

    In a walk: Flock

  • Blogging
    Flock has strong blogging capability, includes a full WYSIWYG editor that can be configured for multiple blogs. Very cool. Also, it will save a local copy of your blog entries, which makes a lot of sense for people who are paranoid about data loss. 

    But I’ve actually decided that I like writing my posts in WordPress‘ admin interface better. It lets me write, then Save and Continue Editing, view what I’ve written in the context of my actual blog look and feel, and repeat the process until I’m ready to publish.

    Still, major kudos to the Flock team for incorporating this functionality. I’m certain that some, and maybe many, will really appreciate this feature.

    Decision: have to give the nod to Flock

  • Compatibility
    One of the things you know you might have some issues with when you’re using a browser like Safari with about 2% usage across the internet (if that) is that there will be sites that you can’t see, or that cause problems 

    (Aside: oh how I detest Windows Media Player for the Mac.)

    So I figured that Flock – being based on the mighty 15-20% market share Firefox – would be superior. Actually – not always.

    Not only does Safari render just about as many sites as Flock, it lets you lie. After enabling the Debug menu in Safari, you can tell websites that your browser is Internet Explorer, even MSIE 7.

    Which comes in very handy when you want to get a free domain name from Microsoft, but need IE on a PC to access the site. No you don’t – just set Safari’s user-agent to MSIE 6 or 7, and away you go. Some things won’t work, but most will … and that free domain name will be nicely wrapped up in your hot lying little hand.

    On the other hand, there are sites that say: only works in MSIE and Firefox (and Flock). Google, of course, has released many tools that are initially MSIE and Firefox only, such as Google Calendar. Usually Safari support comes along, but usually a little later.

    Verdict: hung jury

  • Extensibility
    One of Flock’s weaknesses in comparison to the multifaceted Swiss army knife that is Firefox is extensions: little bits of code to do cool things like see what the pagerank of the current page is, or expose all the tables on the page, or extract and download videos from YouTube so that you can cackle with glee at all the stupid things people do while you are safely offline. 

    But no longer: the unreadably understated Flocker to the rescue. And, if that does not suffice, no worries, Flock’d is there to help.

    Since you can now convert just about every Firefox extension to a Flock extension (note to Flock: it’d be a good idea to do this proactively, and offer the converted extensions on your site), and since Safari has a small (though growing) list of extensions, this one is farily easy to call:

    Advantage: Flock

  • Bookmarking/saving/tagging
    One of the things you want to do on the web is save important or interesting things. Why, I don’t know, because you never go back to them – new important or interesting things come every day. 

    But you still want to.

    Browser bookmarks are passe and have been for years now. Locked in one application on one computer (or on two or three, if you happen to be paying for .Mac), they not accessible, they’re not contextualized (other than one single attribute: category), can’t be mashed up and re-published as a clickstream elsewhere, and they’re simply not cool/social/hip and so on.

    Social bookmarking and tagging are in, bigtime.

    Safari integration (and Firefox and MSIE, for that matter) is limited to a toolbar link. It contains Javascript; it redirects you to your del.icio.us homepage, you wait for that to load, you tag your page and enter anything else you want, hit save and get redirected back to the page you just bookmarked.

    Flock, on the other hand, lets you click a little star just in front of the browser address bar, and, if you set it right in your search/bookmarking preferences, automatically tag the page right on the page, save it to del.icio.us, and stay right where you are the whole time. Easy, fast, clean, integrated, sweet.

    Distinct advantage: Flock

  • Searching
    I do a ton of searching. It’s probably one of the things I do most online, with the possible exception of reading blogs. So a browser has to have excellent search integration. 

    Safari was the first browser to recognize this and to incorporate search right into the browser itself. (I wonder how much money Apple makes from this; Firefox makes a significant sum via a relationship with Google on proceeds from the ads clicked by people searching with Firefox.) Who actually goes to www.google.com to search anymore? The only times I’m there is when I have to do a complex, advanced search.

    Flock also lets you search right from the browser interface, but it defaults to Yahoo! (Yup, revenue-sharing deal.) Well, sorry, Flock – I don’t want to deny you the revenue, but I think Google results are better and the result pages load faster.

    No fear, you can change the default, which I did. But here Flock shines, because you can change the default to a variety of search engines – and key sites, like Amazon.com, and Technorati.

    But a feature that Flock adds for the Yahoo! results is live search – similar to the Ajaxy live search you see on cutting-edge blogs or on Google suggest. And while I don’t use Yahoo! as the default, you can bet I am check that list as it appears, and if something stands out as a potential good choice, I click it. Fast, friendly, not in my face, but occasionally useful.

    Advantage: Flock

  • Rendering pages
    Well, last but not least, the primary function of a web browser is to retrieve and display web pages. And the question of any given browser is: does it properly render the pages that it’s fetching? 

    This one is too tight to call. Safari is probably just a little more standards-compliant, but Flock, being Firefox under the hood, is more often used in testing by web developers.

    Overall, I can say I haven’t had a significant problem with either.

    Upshot: dead heat

Well, those are some of the vectors that came to my mind when comparing browsers and trying to decide whether or not to stick with Flock or go back to Safari.

By my count, Flock wins 7 to 4.

And therefore, Flock remains my default browser.

The real Apple media center

Jason O’Grady has posted an article at ZDnet on MediaCentral, a very nice mac media center application.

Looks very capable, and – critical for a Mac app – has a very nice, understated user interface.

However, I have to say … when I think of a Mac media center, this is the first thing that comes to mind:

Yup – Apple’s iPod. For now, iPod is the media center.

I would dearly, dearly dearly love for Apple to get in the home theater game, because I can’t stand the tangle of wires and complexity that now accompanies home theater … but it’s not there yet.

Apple: set .Mac free (you’ll make more money!)

There’s been a lot of discussion in the Mac community about .Mac lately.

.Mac is Apple’s $99/year online service that is basically the online publishing component of the iLife application suite. It incorporates:

  • webmail
  • iPhoto publishing and sharing
  • easy website publishing from iWeb
  • online file storage
  • syncing of bookmarks and calendars between multiple Macs
  • groups

Much of the talk in the Mac community has been around price: is it really worth it? After all, Google gives you Gmail with 2+ GB (free), there are other sources of online file storage such as Yahoo’s Backpack (free), and $99 would easily buy you your own domain name and server space at a lot of web hosting companies … in fact, it could easily be a lot cheaper.

There’s no question that Apple’s integration of the tools with iLife, and the quality of the presentation is worth something. But the number of Mac owners actually using .Mac has to be minimal, even tiny.

So my question is: would Apple make more money if they made .Mac free, and slapped Google AdWords on it?

How much do they make?
Well, even if the percentage of Mac owners paying for .Mac is not high, there’s still a lot of money in it.

If 500,000 people were paying for .Mac, Apple would gross $50 million a year. I think that number would be very high. There’s a story at C|Net from 2002 claiming that Apple had almost 200,000 subscribers, but I seriously doubt that it’s grown immensely, even though pageviews on Alexa have grown somewhat over the past few years. Most of that increased page viewing is likely due to visitors, not subscribers.

Let’s say there are 300,000 subscribers today, and Apple makes $30 million/year from them. Could they do better?

Plentyoffish
Well, let’s take a look at an AdWords example: PlentyofFish. It’s an online dating site, it is entirely free and AdWords supported, and its owner just cashed a million-dollar check. Well, almost a million.

He says his CPM (cost per thousand) pageviews is under $1. Well, let’s do some math:

– $500,000 for a month
– CPM of about $1

He must have gotten about 500 million pageviews. Adjust the number up or down a bit, depending on your inputs, but that’s about where it stands.

A free .Mac: show me the money
Let’s assume, given that .Mac is a fairly good service and it’s tightly integrated into iLife, many, many Mac owners would be users of .Mac if it was free. I think a conservative guess would be that 10 times more owners would use .Mac … meaning that you’d have 3 million people instead of 300,000.

Well, if you compare .Mac and PlentyOfFish pageviews at Alexa, you’ll find that today, they’re almost neck-and-neck.

In other words, .Mac should have about 500 million pageviews a month.

Multiply that by 10, and you’re at a whopping 5 billion pageviews a month. Apply the same CPM metrics of PlentyOfFish, and a back-of-the-envelope analysis would tell you that a free .Mac would make Apple about $5 million each and every month.

Apple, set .Mac free: you’ll make more
Which means, that at $60 million/year, Apple would double its revenue by reducing the price of .Mac to free. Which would seem to be a great idea …

Plus …

A free .Mac would also be an excellent selling point for new Macs. And don’t forget: a wonderful marketing tool for all the non-Mac-owning relatives of Mac users who would visit .Mac to see their cool relations’ funky digital creations.

.Mac is already free as in speech. Maybe it’s time for Apple to make it free as in beer.

. . .
. . .

Some thoughts on the argument above:

  1. Would CPM on a non-dating site be lower, equal, or higher than a dating site? I don’t know, but obviously the answer is important. I could argue .Mac would have a lower CPM (people searching for dates are pretty focused, and if they see ads related to it, will probably click one or two) and I could argure more (there would be lots of profitable niches in .Mac sites, such as vacations, parties, special occasions, etc. … all the things that people take pictures of and blog about).
  2. Would Apple feel that putting advertising from Google on a Mac product adversely affect the Apple brand … even if the online product is full of user-generated content?
  3. Is a figure of 10x the number of Mac users using .Mac if it was free low? I know I’d be using photocasting in a second!
  4. What other tie-ins between iLife and .Mac could Apple make if there was a clear revenue model based on Mac users actually using .Mac? Video from iMovie? Syncing of your .Mac mail and your Mail.app mail?
  5. As Fred has commented below, you could easily have a user-option: pay and get an ad-free .Mac, or get it free and have an ad-supported .Mac.

And whatever else I might be missing …

[ update ]

A quick note spurred by one of the comments below: I did pay for and use .Mac for two years … so I do have some clue as to what the service is. However, if you think I’m missing the real point of it, or a large part of the value of it, please, please do enlighten me (and everyone else) in the comments. Thanks!

[tags] apple, .Mac, web 2.0, iLife, free, CPM, google, adwords, adsense, john koetsier [/tags]

Bumptop Piles: Apple, are you listening?

Check this out.

It reminds me of Apple’s Piles concept, which never really saw the light of day. But this is much cooler, and may be a significant step forward in UI design … if some big company takes the hint.

[ update July 1 ]

Niko Nyman disagrees with the idea that Bumptop has possibilities. Some good points.

My rejoinder, posted as a comment on his post, and recycled here:

There’s absolutely no question that as a metaphor for 1.5 million files, the desktop fails, and fails miserably.

Where I see something like Bumptop as useful, however, is the transient stuff: the files for the 5 projects you have on the go right now. That’s what is on your physical desktop: not all 1.5 million pieces of paper you’ve seen/touched/needed/wanted at some point in your entire life. And that’s what’s on your virtual desktop.

However, ultimately you’re right. The question is: what do we have to replace the desktop metaphor?

[tags] apple, microsoft, UI, desktop, john koetsier [/tags]

iPod Video

My new iPod just arrived – the 30 GB video version.

It somehow feels so much better than my 4th generation 20 GB version. It seems much slimmer (probably only a few millimeters), the screen seems much bigger (again, it’s probably not actually very much bigger at all) and overall just much more delicious.

Yum!

Now I’m figuring out how to get my music on the new iPod while leaving it on the old iPod. Hrmm … multiple playlists, sync these playlists to this iPod and those playlists to the other one … couldn’t this be a bit easier?

Grumble grumble.

[tags] iPod, video, apple, john koetsier [/tags]

Free iPod even AFTER Mac purchase

On Wednesday this week I bought a iMac. On Thursday, Apple Canada finally started the promotion that Apple USA has been doing for a week or more: free iPod Nano with the purchase of a Mac.

Oh sh*t, I thought.

Apple never, never bends the rules to let you get a discount or advertised bennie after the fact. But, hoping against hope, I called Apple last night.

And yes, wonder of wonders, songs bursting amongst the heavens, joy to the masses, they let me do it.

So. My new 30 GB iPod video is coming soon (I chose to apply the $275 Nano credit to the bigger, dare I say better, model).

If you’ve just bought too
I do not know if this will work for you. The iMac I ordered had not yet shipped, and so the customer support guy I talked to – a really professional and pleasant individual, by the way – was able to stick it on the same order, the same invoice.

If your iMac/MacBook/PowerMac has already shipped, Apple may not allow you to do this. But if you’ve just ordered, it’s definitely worth a shot. Apple is doing this in more than just my case, because I specifically asked the sales rep about it, and he confirmed that they are allowing some customers who purchased very recently to participate.

Sales up
Sales seem to be trending very nicely up for Apple as a result of this program, too. The rep I talked to mistakenly called my iPod the 30 GB Nano – not because he’s ignorant or anything, but, as he explained, because he’s been talking about the Nano all day long, adding them to orders for people who are purchasing computers.

That should mean that the promotion is successful and that Apple is generating significant additional sales because of it.

. . .
. . .

FYI, I qualify for the promotion because I’m taking a Masters degree at UBC.

Custom iPod skins by iFrogz

I bought the coolest iPod skin today … at the coolest store.

It’s iFrogz, and they sell iPod cases. But not just any iPod cases – custom iPod cases.

First you pick your iPod, then you pick your “wrap” color. The wrap color will be on the front and back of your iPod. You pick a band, which will go around your iPod, and, if you want, you pick a “screen.” The site is heavily Ajax-ed, so it’s fast and all happens on the same page.

Here’s the site:

See that iPod with the custom skin? That’s my custom skin, and here’s a close-up:

Did I mention this was fairly cool?

Here’s the best part: even though it’s custom, it’s still less than a standard 1-color iPod skin … about $30 versus $34.

[tags] apple, ipod, ifrogz, ipod skin, cool, design, john koetsier [/tags]

Why Apple sold PowerSchool

The rumors had been around for some time: PowerSchool was on the auction block. Now it’s official.

But why? Why did Apple sell PowerSchool? It appears that the division was not profitable enough for Apple, and there were always rumors of issues around the development of new versions of PowerSchool.

But I think there are two key reasons.

One: Not selling more Macs
One is that PowerSchool did not actually help Apple sell more Macs.

When Apple bought the company, PowerSchool had about 10,000 school clients, if memory serves. (I did a research project on student information systems (SIS) for my company about 5-6 years ago.)

The theory was that with PowerSchool as the foot in the door, Apple would be able to sell more Macs to education. And the magic of bundling would also make selling PowerSchool easier in schools that already had a significant Mac prescence.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, unfortunately, there is.

Apple’s penetration in education has at best held even over the past 5-6 years. More likely, it’s trended down. In fact, PowerSchool didn’t help Apple sell more Macs.

In retrospect, it’s not too hard to see why.

First of all, schools make buying decisions on SIS systems maybe every 10 years. It’s like buying Oracle. You don’t switch to DB2 next year just because somebody gives you a 10% off coupon.

Secondly, they are purchases made with two significantly different audiences. The people making buying decisions on SIS systems are principals, districts, and states. On the other hand, classroom teachers often have significant input into instruction computer buying practices.

And third, it’s not a works-better-together scenario. Because it’s web-based, PowerSchool will work for anyone with any modern computers: Windows, Mac, Linux, you name it. Have web browser, will travel. Same thing for most of the other modern SIS systems on the market. That’s as it should be: back-office and front-office applications are de-coupled and independently upgradable.

Two: Educational content on iPods
But the piece of the deal that’s most intriguing to me is the committment on the part of Pearson to bring their educational content to iPod.

There is no bigger company in educational technology than Pearson. They already have the leading SIS software in the market, SASI xp. But that’s not all they do.

Pearson is a quintessential international megacorp, with businesses all over the world. However, they’re biggest in publishing. In educational publishing, they make textbooks, they publish novels for age-targeted audiences, and more – particularly, curriculum-related products. As they so modestly state:

We are the leading pre K-12 curriculum, testing, and software company in the US, reaching every student and teacher in that country with one or more of our products and services. We offer a wide range of solutions that integrate our instructional, assessment, and reporting capabilities. These instructional offerings include basal and supplemental programmes, and technology-delivered adaptive learning solutions.

Well.

What if you were a company that had a strong historical presence in education with slightly declining market share, but also had an incredibly hot product in the general consumer market that can display text, play audio, and show movies?

You might try to make that incredibly hot product the basis for an educational trojan horse. If so, you’d probably be a well-known fruit-flavored company.

In fact, that’s just what I predicted three weeks ago. After, just for the heck of it, I put one of my company’s courses on my iPod, the lightbulb went on and it became clear to me that the iPod is a perfect vehicle for mobile, personalized course content delivery.

Not so good for interaction, necessarily. And not something that will take the place of discussion, teachers, and all the other needed accoutrements of school. But certainly an excellent way to distributed course text, images, audio, and video.

Education has been looking for e-books for some time now. Maybe the iPod … particularly a next-generation model with a larger screen … is precisely that, but we never realized it until now.

Hmmm. Starts some bells ringing, doesn’t it?

If you were Apple, wouldn’t that be something you wanted? You bet. And how would you get it? You might start by partnering with one of the largest education curriculum and supplemental materials producers out there.

You might start, in other words, with Pearson Education.

Mac OS X Screenshots w/o clutter

I take a ton of screenshots.

See something cool on the web: screenshot. See something I want to blog about: screenshot. Funky error condition: screenshot.

But it leaves a mess on my desktop: Picture 1, Picture 2, Picture 3, Picture 4 … you get the picture. (Ha. Ha.)

So it was very cool to see the secret-screen-capture tip on Apple’s new Pro website. This combination of keys takes a screenshot … and saves it immediately to your clipboard.

Meaning that you can take that screenshot, jump into Photoshop, and paste it right into a document. That’s cool – and that’s fast. So fast I thought I’d take a screenshot of the tip:

There’s only one problem: you need 13 fingers. (Well almost.) Here’s the key sequence:

  • Control-Command-Shift-3 (full screen screenshot)
  • Control-Command-Shift-4 (changer cursor into crosshairs; select portion of the screen you want to capture)

Sorta like this:

[tags] apple, mac, keyboard, screenshots, screen captures, john koetsier, photoshop [/tags]

Apple sues Creative: that’s what patents are for

Three days ago the inaptly named Creative Technology sued Apple for patent infringement, saying that organizing and navigating music by artists, albums, genre, etc., was covered by U.S. Patent 6,928,433.

Now the news is out that Apple is suing Creative, claiming that Creative infringes on not one, but four patented Apple technologies.

Creative’s patent
Creative’s patent seems, on the face of it, fairly obvious. Basically, what it claims to do is provided a method of browsing and selecting music with multiple filters: album, genre, artist. From the patent filing here’s one “summarized” description of it:

Categories include items that can also be included in other categories so that the categories “overlap” with each other. Thus, a song title can be accessed in multiple different ways by starting with different categories. For example, a preferred embodiment of the invention uses the top-level categories “Albums”, “Artists”, “Genres” (or styles), and “Play Lists”. Within the Albums category are names of different albums of songs stored in the device. Within each album are the album tracks, or songs, associated with that album. Similarly, the Artists category includes names of artists which are, in turn, associated with their albums and songs. The Genre category includes types of categories of music such as “Rock”, “Hip Hop”, “Rap”, “Easy Listening”, etc. Within these sub-categories are found associated songs. Finally, the “Play Lists” category includes collections of albums and/or songs which are typically defined by the user.

And here’s the supporting artwork Creative submitted to the US Patent Office. Note the mispelled “Configuration.”

I would argue that this is a fairly obvious application of technology to playing music, whether on a handheld MP3 player, or a computer. Software has been applying filters to sort and view custom datasets for a long time. Applying this to music, once music is digital, is not qualitatively different than applying it to any other bits and bytes on a hard disk.

Apple’s patents
That said, it’s hard to evaluate the merits of Apple’s four patents – no details about which have yet been released.

Whatever they are, however, I would not be surprised in the least to find them as obvious as the Creative patent. Time will tell.

The point of patents
That’s almost irrelevant, however. The point of patents for most big businesses today is self-defence. It’s about amassing a big enough portolio of both obvious and non-obvious patent so that anyone who thinks about suing you realizes very quickly that you are not a soft target. In fact, you’re a very hard target and, with all the patents in your warchest, there’s going to be at least one which the company suing you infringes against.

In which case, of course, it’s MUCH easier to come to some sort of understanding regarding patents and MUCH easier to settle lawsuits without excessive corporate bleeding..

(The only place where this breaks down, of course, is patent sharks: where the company that is suing you owns nothing but a series of patents. If they don’t actually do anything, produce anything of value, or sell something, it’s almost impossible to find a patent of yours that they infringe on.)

So that’s what Apple is doing. They’ll probably fight the Creative suit as far as they need to to get it thrown out. But just in case, they’re suing based on the 4 other patents that they say Creative is infringing on. It’s nothing but legal insurance.

The one point of danger
In this situation, Apple’s countersuit is only as good as Creative’s desire to stay in the MP3 player business.

After all, Apple is earning billions in the space, and Creative is losing money hand over fist. Faced with a patent infringement lawsuit on your money-losing division, what would you do? Maybe, you’d just drop the money-losing division. In this scenario, if Creative kills its MP3 business, the countersuit becomes irrelevant.

My guess, however, is that this is a fight Creative is not willing to concede just yet, and so they’ll stay in the business.

Which means we’ve got a ring-side seat on some very interesting legal maneuvering in the next weeks and months!

[tags] legal, law, creative, apple, ipod, zen, patent, USPTO, MP3 [/tags]

iPod Hi-Fi that doesn’t suck

This is what iPod hi-fi should have been:

Compare that to Apple’s iPod HiFi:

There’s no comparison. Minimalist design can be only so minimalist before it starves to a sad, pitiful, weak little end. And that’s what Apple’s iPod HiFi does, in my opinion.

See more at Geneva’s site. Note that you can actually play CDs in the system … and that it includes an FM tuner.

The stand is just amazing … I have a wonderful Harman Kardon system with Bose speakers, but I’m smacking my lips just thinking about it.

It’s the whole package that makes the Geneva system so much more compelling to me. iPods, CDs, radio: everything I might want to listen to. Apple’s iPod HiFi just isn’t a big enough solution … maybe it’s just too simple.

[tags] ipod, ipod hifi, hifi, home stereo, simplicity, design [/tags]

Expose




expose

Originally uploaded by johnkoetsier.

This was my colleague Carl Forde’s desktop today – he was working on an image-manipulation web app, had a ton of photos open at once, and hit the Mac OS X expose key.

I had to ask him to take a screenshot and email it to me.

I’m not a heavy Expose user on my Mac, but when you’re working with dozens of files at once, it can come in very, very handy.

[tags] desktop, apple, expose, photos [/tags]

iTunes Education Store (and library) Coming Soon?

This past Friday I spent some time publishing a course on my iPod. (Find out how you can, too).

It’s fairly simple to create a course to run on an iPod, but there’s one problem: installing.

Installing the course takes too many steps for the average person … dragging the audio content into iTunes, syncing, then putting the iPod into disk mode, and dragging the course’s text files into the Notes section of their iPod. (More info on installing.)

There has to be a better way – and there’s a couple of forms it could take. One is very simple and immediate. The other is long-term and strategic … and that’s the one that I think Apple will do.

One: iPod Markup Language, zipped course packages
Option A would be for Apple to extend the markup language that iPods already speak, making it just a little more sophisticated. In this scenario, Apple would invent some kind of configuration format that would tell iTunes just what to do with all the course components.

Example:

A course might consist of audio content, text content, some pictures, and perhaps a few videos. The configuration file would simply be used during installation – telling iTunes what’s included, where to put it, and how it’s all linked together.

Then content providers could zip up course packages and distribute them online. People who want to install the courses would just download the file and import it into iTunes. During the next sync with their iPod, iTunes would put the components in the right places on the iPod, and users would find the courses either in the Notes section of their iPod as they currently do, or, preferably, in a dedicated courses/learning section.

Two: iTunes Education Store (and library)
That’d be a great easy solution, but here’s what I think Apple will actually do.

Apple will do for iPod-based e-learning exactly what they did for podcasts: build in the ability for content providers (both professional and amateur) to register their content at the iTunes music store.

They’ve already done this for major universities, in a sense. Currently, it’s only for audio and maybe video content. But eventually, it will be for complex content that is a mix of text, audio, video, images, and even assessment.

Once that’s been done, then Apple will make it discoverable for people browsing the iTunes Music, err everything store. You’ll be able to can “subscribe” to it just like a podcast, and bango-wango, it’ll auto-magically appear on your iPods.

There’ll be a free option for free content (that’s the library part) and, you guessed it, a commercial model for courses people and companies want to sell.

(As an aside, this is why Microsoft is so worried about Apple’s iTunes/iPod empire. It’s not the music, it’s the ecosystem. What Apple has built is a media-delivery monster, and the only limit to what this pipe can carry is the rate at which people can absorb new uses for it without getting information overload and reacting against it.)

This will be completely revolutionary, because now you will not only have an easy way to create and publish courses, you’ve got a popular, common platform on which to do it. Who needs e-books? iPod is already here!

The content is easy to create – it took me about an hour to get from having no clue how to do it to successfully publishing my course on my iPod. And the reach of the platform is unparalleled, with probably 45 million iPods in the wild today.

It’s a content provider’s dream: fairly cheap, extremely portable, good battery life, flexible, easy to publish to, a built-in distribution model, and an ecosystem full of people used to paying for content.

Is this what Duke University had in mind when they did their iPod Duke Digital Initiative? Perhaps. I’m convinced it’s going to happen.

The only question is when.

How to publish a course on iPod

Friday nights, Friday nights. Friday nights are supposed to be for fun. For long dinners and late movies, and then a little nightcap before going to bed.

Except for geeks.

I’m only a mini-geek, so I only spent about 3 hours fiddling with technology.

But this past week Friday I got my first course up and running on an iPod. And it’s unbelievably simple.

The course consists of a series of text components – which can be basically any text you want – and some audio tracks. You access the course via the Notes menu in your iPod, and when the audio tracks are referenced, you simply click the middle select button on your iPod to play them while you continue reading the note.

How to publish a course on iPod
iPod speaks a subset of HTML – a very small subset, as far as I know. (Oddly enough, the files you transfer to your iPod have to be simple text (.txt) files and not HTML (.html) files.)

The syntax will be very familiar to anyone who has any experience with HTML:

  • Page titles: <title>this is the title</title>
  • Links: <a href=”link.txt”>this text is a link</a>
  • Line breaks: the standard <br>
  • Paragraphs: the standard <p>
  • Song/audio links: <a href=”song=My Unique Song Name”>Link to song</a>

There’s a few more – check Make Magazine for details.

Here’s a critical one, though, if you want to link audio into your course but do not want users to leave the environment of your course. Use the song/audio link mentioned about, but add the following meta tag to the top of your page: <meta name=”NowPlaying” content=”false”>. That will make the song (or audio track with training content) play while the text content remains on the screen … which is what I wanted for my little app.

All-in-all, very simple, and very cool.

My kingdom for an installer
There is one shortfall, however: no installer app or standard installer procedure. Apple needs to build something in for automatic installation.

Right now, the install procedure is as follows:

  1. Drag song/audio tracks to iTunes
  2. Sync
  3. In iTunes preferences, enable Disk Mode
  4. Drag notes bundle into iPods Notes area

That probably involves connecting/disconnecting the iPod twice, not to mention futzing with preferences. Dragging the notes bundle into the iPod notes area is dead easy, but I’ve seen way too many dead easy procedures on a computer give … umm … inexperienced users fits to believe this this is not a problem. And I haven’t even listed the part about re-connecting your iPod and disabling Disk Mode so that you can sync your music again.

Realistically, I think Apple sees the potential of iPods as learning devices with both audio and video content. Hopefully that will impell them to create some sort of mechanism that is drag-n-drop friendly for users – for example, download a zipped course, drop it on iTunes, and based on some metadata, iTunes just knows what to do with it.

Probably, however, Apple will create some kind of solution based on the iTunes Music Store.

And this is how I think they’ll do it.

More, more, more
As far as I can find out, however, there is no way of affecting either the font or size of the text you publish on iPod.

That would be a very nice feature, since (as you can see in the screenshot above) the default iPod Notes text is rather thin and spidery. I’d like to be able to beef it up a bit … make it bold or something like that.

In terms of courses, adding assessment is always a nice feature – even if it’s just self-assessment for the learner.

Currently, the only way you can add assessment to an iPod course is via branching: asking a question with a number of answers, each of which is a link. By following the link of the selected answer, the user both selects an option and (by virtue of what you put at the linked file) finds out if he/she is right or wrong.

Summing up
Adding a course to an iPod is incredibly easy … and will probably get even easier.

It would be nice if Apple would publish some specs on what you can or can’t do with Notes (in terms of tags that are supported). I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like that in the medium-term future.

But I can already see that iPod could become a very strong e-learning platform over the next 2-4 years.

Canadian iTunes Store

Why, oh why, if I want to buy Bruce Springsteen’s new We Shall Overcome, can’t I buy it in Canada?

I can see it in the Canadian store. Even listen to it. So why can’t I buy it?

Irritating.

(And yes, I realize it’s not Apple’s fault. It’s those bloody music labels. More specifically, it’s lawyers and people who think like lawyers.)

MicroChina: Quid pro quo

It never changes, does it?

I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.

Today, Microsoft basically purchased the privilege that it received a week or so ago: getting pre-installed on all of Lenovo computers made and sold in China. It’s a realpolitik manoevre that Microsoft basically had to make: buying $700 million of hardware in order to sell $1.2 billion of software.

Since software has few incremental costs to Microsoft, it’s a good deal as far as it goes. I’m sure that Microsoft views this as an investment in an ongoing campaign to fight piracy in China. At least it’s better than the alternative: continuing rampant piracy, and no revenue at all.

Of course, one wonders how an Apple or a Sun or a RedHat could compete against this. You need deep pockets to place these kinds of bribes.

Good thing China’s not in the EU.

Flickr is crack cocaine

Yup. I went and got a Pro account at Flickr.

Part of it is Rastin Mehr’s fault. He’s a colleaugue and a friend who is a great photographer and recently moved his image management to Flickr. He’s been raving about it to me recently.

And part of it is Flickr’s fault. Giving out the free account and then limiting uploads to 20 MB a month is a well-known marketing strategy: the first hit is always free.

Managing and organizing photos on Flick is fun. And easy. Crazy easy – as in pain-free.

This is the ridiculous part: it’s easier than iPhoto. I use iPhoto more days than not, and it’s great for storing all our images. But it’s simply not built for easy tagging and categorization of photos. Flickr is. How a web app can be easier and quicker and simpler to use than a desktop app is astounding.

(I guess it has something to do with this web 2.0 meme going around.)

The final reason for delving into Flickr is that it has some relevance to a project that I may be taking on for a rival photo-sharing service. I want to know what the “competition” is up to in detail, and the only way to do that is to join. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, huh?

I liked Flickr as a casual user. As a Pro member, I’m loving it.

Thurrot devastates Windows Vista

I don’t know that I’ve ever read such a devastating article on a piece of software as Paul Thurrot, a clueful PC guy, just wrote on Windows Vista, the next Windows operating system.

Thurrot writes about going to a conference in 2003, when Vista was still Longhorn, and how excited and passionate the Windows faithful were to hear Bill Gates intro the new operating system. Then he contrasts that feeling with today:

Two and a half years later, Microsoft has yet to ship Windows Vista, and it won’t actually ship this system in volume until 2007. Since the euphoria of PDC 2003, Microsoft’s handling of Windows Vista has been abysmal. Promises have been made and dismissed, again and again. Features have come and gone. Heck, the entire project was literally restarted from scratch after it became obvious that the initial code base was a teetering, technological house of cards. Windows Vista, in other words, has been an utter disaster. And it’s not even out yet. What the heck went wrong?

He doesn’t go overboard: what Microsoft ships late this year will at least be an improvement, he thinks over what’s out there now.

But meanwhile, Mac OS X and the various open source operating systems have continued to advance as well. And, of course, Apple is going to be releasing a new version of OS X later this year … and they’ve had years to study what Microsoft is doing and (you would imagine) try to one-up Gates & Co.

Ultimately, Thurrott fingers Bill Gates as the person responsible. He did, after all, retire from CEO to being “chief software architect.” He’s got to take responsibility for the “utter disaster” of the new Windows.

. . .

Update: The “mock Scoble” posted a fairly good response to this article … about the only one he could have. It basically boils down to: we’re learning from this feedback; thanks for being honest.

Blogging? Apple listens!

A couple of months ago I blogged about a way to crash Apple’s Mail reliably.

In about an hour, I had an email from an Apple employee. Dan Nolen said:

Hi,

I saw your blog post on crashing Mail reliably:

http://www.sparkplug9.com/index.php/2006/02/14/crash-os-xs-mail-reliably/

If you like, I’d be happy to review the crash log for Mail to see if I can spot the cause or at least make sure it’s logged in Apple’s tracking system.

The file is on your hard drive at:
~/Library/Logs/CrashReporter/Mail.crash.log

This is a text file that you can inspect. It contains your OS version and computer name, but no other personally identifiable information.

Looking forward to your response,

Unfortunately, though I corresponded with him a bit and gave him a few things, I was insanely busy at the time, and just about to leave on a couple of trips. So I didn’t help him out as much as I would have liked.

But a couple of days ago, I got an email from a Justin Garcia at Apple. While Dan was a quality control guy, I have the feeling that Justin is a developer on the Mail team. He went right to the point:

Can you still reproduce the crash described at:
http://www.sparkplug9.com/index.php/2006/02/14/crash-os-xs-mail-reliably/

If so, could you post your signature file? It’s in ~/Users/Library/Signatures/
Thanks

I sent him the sig file, and emailed Dan to let him know what was up. He replied that they seem to already be on the case. Hopefully we’ll see a fix in the next Mac OS update.

OK. I’ll attempt to consolidate efforts with him. I did file a bug on your behalf which was marked a duplicate of something we’re already investigating. I’ve asked Justin if he’s filed a bug too.

In terms of just this issue, it’s a fairly minor problem with Mail, and a fairly inconsequential exchange of emails.

But in the larger context of Apple engineers and employees working with actual customers, it’s very encouraging. This is how to work with the blogosphere!

Way to go, Apple! (Especially Dan and Justin!)

Apple: do no evil

Apple, it’s time to call off the legal dogs.

Jason O’Grady, the long-term publisher behind PowerPage, is being sued by Apple.

Would you ever want to be on the business end of legal action from a company with US$9 billion in cash? What about being targeted for deletion by one of most powerful multi-national corporations in the world? What if a company with US$14 billion in revenue and 14,000 employees wanted a piece of your ass?

Welcome to my world.

This is stupid, and not just because the story that O’Grady originally posted is about some dinky little Garageband add-on.

  • It’s stupid because Apple is suing someone who loves and supports Apple.
  • It’s stupid because Apple is hurting itself by suing O’Grady by getting tons of bad press.
  • It’s stupid because in the US, the first amendment right to free speech is fairly clear.
  • It’s stupid because Apple’s love of secrecy, blended with small leaks that tell part of the story, is the perfect guerrilla marketing mix.
  • It’s stupid because, even if you’re Steve Jobs, you can’t control the whole world or make every person do exactly what you want him or her to do.
  • It’s stupid because controlling all information at all times is impossible, or at least impractical.

Apple: stop this. It’s wrong, and almost everyone at Apple should know it. Call off the lawyers.

There’s a much newer company just up the road from you that has a fairly idealistic slogan: Do No Evil. Apple’s never explicitly adopted anything like it, but the community of Mac lovers and users has always felt that the people at Apple were “the good guys.”

Don’t let a little success get to your heads. More importantly, don’t let a little success get to your hearts.

Update:
John Welch at bynkii.com is solidly on Apple’s side in this discussion. I wonder if he’d feel differently if he was getting sued?

Popular-fruit-starting-with-A computer company

How can someone this clueless get a job writing for tech magazines?

John Dvorak is talking about the Apple versus Apple lawsuit: the Beatles versus Apple computer. Here’s his solution:

In an effort to save the money, though, I would suggest that the company change its name for good. Offer a million dollars to the public-at-large in a competition to rename the company. That would do the job and get the publicity needed for it to be promotional. Why not?

Last time I checked, Apple’s brand was worth $8 billion and growing. Apple Computer, that is. Apple Corps is, of course, not on the list.

Microsoft in trouble – big trouble

I would not like to be Steve Ballmer or Bill Gates right now. (Well, they are both billionaires, but still … )

Microsoft just simply cannot seem to execute lately. Release dates on everything are slipping, re-organizations of major divisions are coming every couple of months, the bad news is piling up, and they can’t even buy good press anymore.

Daniel Lyon’s recent article in Forbes is a case in point. He absolutely savages Microsoft. Not that he’s trying to be negative about the company or that he’s looking for bad news to report … it’s just that the facts are so bloody grim.

Let’s see … what’s going wrong?

  1. Vista slipped (again!)
  2. Ballmer and Co. did not reveal the slip to journalists at a press event just 2 days before the slip announcement came out. He must have known at that point that it would slip, but kept hyping the coming technology with never a hint of a problem. This does not help build your credibility with the chattering classes who write articles and file stories.
  3. The new stuff in Vista and the Office 2007 is not (yet) plug & play for non-techies.

    The new programs are phenomenally complex, with scores of buttons and pull-down menus and myriad connections among various applications. A Microsoft VP zipped through a demo, moving information from Outlook to Powerpoint to Groove to some kind of social networking program that lets you see how your colleagues and your colleagues’ colleagues rate various Web sites.

    Well, what do you expect when the new features are primarily about relationships between applications. Anyone in development knows that when you build X, things are simple. When you build X and Y, you have not doubled your complexity, you’ve tripled it – at least if X and Y have to be able to play together. Well, Microsoft is integrating dozens of applications – the complexities (and therefore the difficulties) must be staggering.

  4. The new features Microsoft is coming out with are inventive (great!) solutions for invented (uh oh) problems … using your a) cell phone to b) call your computer to c) access your email and d) have it read aloud to you is so laughably, stupidly complex and over-innovated and cumbersome a process that you wonder how on earth it got out of an new product ideas meeting. Must have been one of those “no-idea-is-bad” positive thinking sessions. They’re great, but at some point you have to apply the bullshit filter – you need a brutally honest Steve Jobs-ish person who will tell you you’re smoking something.
  5. Microsoft is not connecting with tech buyers and tech journalists anymore. Can you imagine people just ignoring them and talking out loud as Steve Ballmer or Bill Gates addresses the room 5-6 years ago? Another way of putting it: would Microsoft have created such a useless “media event” 5-6 years ago with nothing really amazing, startling, new, or different to say or show?
  6. Free alternatives to everything Microsoft are getting better and better every day.

I almost feel sorry for Microsoft. How can they be in such a rut, screwing up enormously month after month, year after year?

One thing to keep in mind, however. $50 billion in the bank buys you a lot of second chances. Maybe even a decade’s worth.

. . .
. . .

BTW, Lyon’s article is an example of good things that are happening in “real” journalism. It’s a much more real, personal, and authentic article than your typical journalist would ever write – even in an opinion piece. I think blogs are having an impact on the way reporters write their stories, and I think it’s a great direction to be moving in.

iTunes sold versus iPods sold

[ updated March 3 with a new graph ]

Today I noticed on Digg that someone had graphed iTunes songs sold since the iTunes music store was opened.

One of the comments on the site was: I’d like to see that contrasted with iPods sold. So I thought I’d take some data points from the web and play a little.

Note: when I first posted this, I posted a bit of a rough graph that just showed iPod sales … which means that visitors would have to look at both this site and the one mentioned above to compare.

So now I’ve put together a graph that shows both iTunes and iPod sales on a single graph:

itunesversusipods.jpg

Be aware that while the iPod y axis goes up by fours, the iTunes axis goes up by tens. It was the only way I could get both datasets on one graph (that fits on this web page without scrolling!)

Here’s the data that I found (all over the place online):

  • Jan 11 2006 42 million
  • Nov 29 2005 30 million
  • Nov 2 2005 28 milllion
  • March 31 2005 15 million
  • January 13 2005 10 million
  • Jan 6 2004 2 million
  • June 1 2003 1 million
  • Dec 31 2001 125,000
  • Oct 23 2001 0 sold

Cry for Microsoft? Yes!

I’m getting a little sick of the European Union extorting money from Microsoft.

I’m the last person to be a Microsoft apologist – I’m a Mac person through and through, as anyone who follows my blog knows.

But what the EU is doing smacks of a witchhunt. Worse, I’m getting the feeling that there’s more than a small amount of anti-Americanism in this whole legal shakedown. Not to mention a big slice of European protectionism.

(Note: I say that as both a proud Canadian and the son of European immigrants.)

I totally affirm the concept that a very successful company should not abuse its success to crowd out competitors through sheer bulk and ability to completely undercut a smaller enterprise’s business model. And I think that’s partially been what has happened in the US.

But in the EU case, the Europeans actually want Microsoft to not just avoid competing unfairly with other companies. The also want Microsoft to give those companies a friendly helping hand – a boost.

I think that’s unfair. How does that provide for free and open competition? Microsoft has to spend money – big money – stripping down to its skivvies and parading around in public so that its competitors can put them under a microscope and find all their weak spots? Microsoft has to do a big chunk of its competitor’s product development?

I also think that the Europeans keep setting the bar just a little higher, and in effect, are demonstrating that their minds are made up: they want to punish – they want to humble – Microsoft.

Perhaps they’d even prefer to legislate Microsoft out of existence.

It’s not fair. Not ethical. Not European.

Shame on them.

Apple switch to Windows? Dvorak switch to reality!

John C. Dvorak, the one-time Apple journalist who has a history of incredibly inane predictions of doom and gloom for the company he used to cover, has completely outdone himself this time by predicting that Apple will drop Mac OS X completely in favor of Windows.

Dvorak still, pathetically, does not get it.

Apple is a hardware company, he says, citing the iPod as an example. Apple could still make its cool hardware, and just fit an “executive layer” over Windows to customize the UI.

I know it’s common wisdom that Apple is a hardware company, but as is so often the case, wisdom is not common, and what’s common is not wisdom.

Apple is an aesthetics company – Apple is a lifestyle company. In a digital age, how do you organize, manage, and accomplish everything you want and need to do? You need a digital solution.

And that is Apple’s niche.

Because the most successful solutions are the simplest solutions, Apple wants to control as much of the hardware and software as is necessary to ensure that the solutions it sells are as simple as they can possibly be.

Apple is Steve Jobs.

And Steve Jobs wants to create wickedly cool widgets that help more people get more things accomplished easier, faster, and more beautifully.

That’s why the iMac is one piece. That’s why the long-cherished one-button mouse. That’s why Apple’s Cinema Displays have been displayed at MOMA. That’s why iTunes and iPod go together, like two peas in a …

OK.

That’s the emotional, aesthetic, and passionate side of the argument. It’s also the side of the argument that’s based on who Steve Jobs is and what he really wants, needs, to accomplish.

Now here’s the business side of the argument:

How could any company be so incredibly stupid as to let another company completely control its own destiny? That’s exactly what would happen if Apple built an “executive layer” on top of Windows.

Assume that Apple took leave of its senses and did this. What if, the next month, Microsoft releases a patch that kills the Apple layer? Where would Apple’s customers be? Especially if it was a “top priority” security patch?

Dead in the water, that’s where.

Dvorak might want that kind of solution, but it would so tie Apple to Microsoft – and in a completely slavish way – that Apple would cease to exist as an independent, passionate, innovative company.

Crazy.

Crash OS X’s Mail Reliably

Ran into an interesting crashing condition on Mac OS X’s Mail application today …

If I open a new message, insert the cursor at the bottom of the message, under my signature, and hit the delete key twice, Mail crashes and burns. Every time.

osx-mail-crash.jpg

I made a little movie of it while I was testing. Click the image above to see it in a new window. (It’s less than a megabyte.)

. . .
. . .

Note: I chatted with a co-worker and he tried it without, um, success. (In other words, his Mail did not crash.) I don’t know what might be different about mine … I have 3 sig files, while I’m pretty sure he has one, but I don’t see how that would change anything …

Want to be @ NECC

The National Education Computing Conference NECC 2006 keynote speakers were just annouced.

It hasn’t hit their website yet, but apparently Nicholas Negroponte will be there to give a speech about his one laptop per child project. NECC sent out an email about it this afternoon:

ISTE is pleased to announce that Nicholas Negroponte and Dewitt Jones will deliver the keynote speeches at NECC 2006! Both these innovative men will share their vision of how you can transform yourself, your school, your district … the world!

iPod hearing-loss lawsuit

Crazy Apple Rumors has a great – and just slightly tongue-in-cheek – article about the recent iPod hearing-loss lawsuits:

“We did a cost/benefit analysis,” said Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, “And it clearly is not cost effective to continue to have stupid people as our customers.”

That about sums up my opinion regarding silly class action lawsuits that attempt to penalize a company for an individual’s idiocy.

See the whole article here . . .