August 13, 2009

This week’s Switched On column delves into Apple’s strength in desktop widgets and progressively declining widget strength as one looks across its product line to the iPhone and Apple TV. As I mentioned in the column, no company has implemented widgets effectively across the three platforms, and even gadget-happy Microsoft has encountered the same challenges in the living room with Xbox that Apple has with Apple TV despite the former’s much larger installed base. It’s hard to see anyone but Apple and Microsoft owning widgets on the desktop, but Samsung looks uniquely positioned to offer them across cell phones and televisions, where they are a more strategic play anyway.

In the comments, one person suggested that iPhone widgets could be activated by double-press of the Home button, but I would see it as either an extended button press option or a gesture. (If Apple allowed third parties to modify the iPhone system’s behavior, you can bet that someone would have come up with extended gesture options for the iPhone. Apple has barely scratched their surface. Indeed, the Mac trackpad’s gestures are more developed than the iPhone’s.)

Let me call upon my user interface design expertise, which consists of my having sent an idea via AppleLink to Don Norrman about a way that Automator-style macros could be built in the Finder that wasn’t dismissed as completely nonsensical. Another option would be a mashup of the HTC Sense user interface and Microsoft’s Windows 6.5 lock screen. Enable an app to run active as a lock screen. When you turn on the iPhone, instead of just having the one lock screen, you could swipe to multiple screens that would display Sense-style applications without turning on the device.

This would not be as flexible as Dashboard, but would be better than what we have today, fit well with the phone usage model,  and require only minimal, closed Apple-controlled basic multitasking since widgets aren’t much different than Web pages. When you unlock the device, the HTML rendering engine part of mobile Safari quits and you’re presented with the last app you had open or the home screen..

This approach could also maintain Apple’s blurring of apps and widgets, which might be a good distinction to dissolve on the iPhone, at least judging from the confusing way it’s handled in Android’s application market.

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June 4, 2009

Prior to the first reviews hitting the Web, there had already been some backlash against Palm and the Pre with Mike Elgan presuming that the Pre wouldn’t be able to top the iPhone with consumers and David Coursey offering five reasons the Palm Pre would not prevail. (While I share some of David’s concerns about the long-term high competitive stakes, though, I don’t think it would be realistic for any true “startup” to land a coveted hero smartphone slot at a major US carrier).

Palm was also somewhat notorious throughout the Pre’s development cycle about not letting people get much hands-on time with the device, leading some to suspect that it had something to hide.

Well, if it did, it has sure fixed it by now. The Palm Pre is a compelling handset, and easily the strongest competitor to the iPhone to date. It is good enough to attract consumers to Sprint based on its merits, but may not be as successful in that as the iPhone has been for AT&T due to Palm’s lack of brand cachet relative to Apple and the relatively limited exclusivity window that was revealed by Verizon Wireless recently.

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March 18, 2009

image It’s paradoxical that Apple will support a wild array of devices in iPhone 3.0 but, at least as of yesterday, the company did not announce general support for external keyboards via either the dock connector or the HID Bluetooth profile. I’ve blogged before that a small folding case enclosing a keyboard and an iPhone/iPod touch would be a popular accessory and provide a competitive response to other smartphones that include a QWERTY keyboard. The iPhone software will be in an even better position to capitalize on such a keyboard once mail and other applications are available in a landscape orientation.

I believe that external keyboards are something Apple hasn’t yet supported as opposed to doesn’t want to support. However, there may be hope for one even if Apple doesn’t support them generally. Here’s how it would work. You purchase the keyboard and when you plug it in to Apple’s dock connector, it pops up a special writing application custom-developed for use with the keyboard. When you’re done writing, the app could take advantage of the new in-app e-mail or copy and paste functionality to transfer the text elsewhere. This is similar to how the now-endangered landscape-orientation mail writing applications work today. Of course, it’s all a giant kludge, but one I’d be willing to endure.

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image I disagree with the Gizmodo assessment that Kevin Rose was spot on with his iPhone predictions. It was a pretty safe bet to say that copy and paste would be in and multitasking would remain out. Of course, he was wrong on MMS and ignored the new functionality available to developers. But where he really missed the mark was saying that iPhone OS 3.0 would answer the functionality of the forthcoming Palm Pre.

Some of the Pre’s signature software features are (foremost to me) the Synergy integration of Web data, unobtrusive notifications, and a sleek multitasking “card” interface for applications. (The last has already seen a similar implementation for Web pages in Safari for iPhone.) Still, here was no mention of support of anything like those features. iPhone OS 3.0 adds universal search, but the implementation is different than Palm’s. Besides, I see that mostly as more of a blow against RIM, as the BlackBerry’s e-mail search was a distinct advantage that it had over the iPhone. I was surprised (although pleased) to see stereo Bluetooth support added, but this is of course a feature that many phones support.

Indeed, much of the focus yesterday was on the richness of the iPhone’s API that now incorporates even more of the capabilities available in desktop Mac OS as well as a wide range of new device support for the dock connector (although maddeningly no keyboard support via it or Bluetooth). Palm has likely avoided competing head-to-head against Apple’s rich developer infrastructure and dock connector ecosystem because of Apple’s strength.

There may well be more that Apple has up its sleeve before iPhone 3.0 rolls out. For example, given the multitouch conflict between Apple and Palm, I was surprised to see no new multitouch gestures rolled out. (Even MacBook trackpads are evolving their use of multitouch faster than the iPhone.) But for the moment, it appears that Apple and Palm are each playing to their strengths.

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March 8, 2009

imageThere’s been a lot already written about Kindle for iPhone and I’ll have more to say about it soon. The Kindle iPhone app is pretty basic, in line with one might expect for a 1.0 product, but represents an auspicious start for electronic books branching out from dedicated readers, which will be a niche market for the foreseeable future.

One of the best best features of the iPhone Kindle app is support for WhilsperSync, Amazon’s synchronization technology that keeps your library and  multiple instances of a book updated to the latest reading “location”. It’s a great idea that fits in well with how one might use e-books on an iPhone, catching up on a few pages during some downtime. Wouldst that other sellers of rights-managed content were so generous and flexible with product that has been legitimately bought. Unfortunately, due to the iPhone’s multitasking limitation, one must remember to start up the Kindle application to sync book locations prior to going offline in a train or airplane and to keep it connected (or reconnect it) to get the sync back to the on Kindle. I’m sure this could all be resolved through MobileMe, but that doesn’t seem to be the case yet.

Clearly OS X is a its heart a multiasking operating system. I don’t think Apple will capitulate to the increasing competitive pressure of the Pre and other operating systems per se, but if compelling applications appear on rival platforms that require true multitasking, Apple may need to reconsider.

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February 23, 2009

Gizmodo highlights an interesting demo video of how Apple could use iTunes to do a far more efficient and effective job of app management than is resident on the iPhone itself using the richer object manipulation capabilities of the PC. Some capabilities I’ve been hoping for that are demoed include reordering screens and selecting multiple icons. I’m not sure I need the “space locking feature.” But on the other hand, it doesn’t include the screen-naming feature I’d like to see.

I think Apple would have been more open to this back at the debut of the iPhone where the device was more dependent on the computer for tasks such as activation and sideloading. Gradually, though, as the iPhone becomes a more robust platform in its own right, the notion of the computer as the digital hub – at least for peripherals – seems to be fading. What replaces it? Perhaps the PC is disintegrating into fragment computing – notebooks and netbooks depending on the mobile usage model, MIDs to rival consumer electronics, and a home server for housekeeping and personal media distribution around the home.

In related iPhone wish list news, CrunchGear reports that someone has hacked Apple’s handset to accept input from an external keyboard via Bluetooth.

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January 30, 2009

image Predictions that we would see an iPhone nano at Macworkd Expo this year turned out to be wrong but rumors persist nonetheless. There’s no indication that this alleged new iPhone is cheaper or smaller, but that’s a direction that would be in step with how Apple evolved the iPod. And if you really want something iPhone-like but smaller with multitouch and a keyboard, that’s coming soon.

Given the relatively big font size used throughout the iPhone display, Apple could probably get away with a somewhat smaller screen, perhaps 3.2”, but I couldn’t see it getting much smaller than that. It’s just that other technologies in the device seem so intrinsic to its operation that it’s difficult to see where Apple would reasonably cut corners. Flash memory is one variable and we’ve certainly seen Sony and Microsoft experiment with different storage capacities to diversify their fixed videogame platform.

I’m actually more interested in what Apple will do to advance the iPhone in the next generation or high end and that is an even bigger quandary. The iPhone 3G nailed the two biggest targets in faster data and GPS and I’d expect the next iPhone to have a higher-resolution camera with autofocus. That’s an easy win.. Video capture would of course be nice especially for early adopters who use Qik and similar services. It would be great to see the iPhone be a more active contributor to iLife content.

But the other hardware gaps seem like things that Apple purposely wants to avoid – a physical keyboard, a memory card slot, and stereo Bluetooth. Perhaps, though, Apple will finally open the dock connector to third parties. It would probably take about three days for companies to announce add-on keyboard cases that turn the iPhone or iPod touch into a clamshell device, which would be a godsend for composing anything longer than a paragraph on the go.

The other big opportunities are software improvements. There are three that top my wish list:

  1. Just as the original Mac moved from single-tasking to multitasking, so must the iPhone. Apple displays Safari pages in a manner similar to the way Palm isplays applications and could extend that system to applications. If Apple isn’t going to embrace true multitasking yet, at least use a tile metaphor to streamline application launching. But true multitasking seems like an eventuality to me as Moore’s Law continues to reign.
  2. Organizing icons around the home screen gets unwieldy with many applications and screens. Screens should have names like folders. While we’re at it, how about a setting to automatically update applications?
  3. Universal – or at least e-mail – search. This is the killer Blackberry feature.
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January 14, 2009

imageNot long after the release of the iPhone, I pleaded for a version of Slacker for the device. The application has arrived but, unfortunately without the feature that motivated me to want it — offline listening. According to Slacker, implementing offline caching of Slacker radio stations of the iPhone would require significantly more development. However, the feature is available today for Blackberry Bold users and some have got it working on the Storm even though an updated version officially supporting the touchscreen Blackberry is in the works..

While there are a number of fine Internet radio applications from Pandora, FineTune, last.fm, Deezer and others already for the iPhone, the Slacker Radio application will at least allow users of the service to access their favorite channels. Slacker has certainly been belying its name, churning out versions of its service that runs on the new Audiovox Internet radio and Sony Bravias, but those are home products that have limited need for offline access the iPhone version could really use.

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December 6, 2008

The pictured Cidco iPhone, one of the last gasps of a company that had made its name in Caller ID boxes and part of a class of information appliances called “screenphones” in the mid-’90s, may have predated Apple’s sleeker 3G version by a decade. But among the technoddities on display at Gizmodo Gallery last night, I was far more interested in some even older vintage tech than he 103″ Panasonic plasma TV since I will be seeing my fill of freakishly large televisions next month.

Among a 19th Century vintage portable typewriter, the first Sony Walkman, and the Bell Labs’ videophone used at the 1964 World’s Fair, there were also two Frog Design prototypes of an Apple tablet Mac and an Apple screenphone. You could almost hear all the iPhones packed in the room whispering, “Mommy?”

There’s a gallery of the gallery after the break.

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October 15, 2008

MacBookWith Apple’s new MacBooks, the company’s notebooks and cell phone share more in common than ever. The iPhone already had the same core operating system as the MacBook. And now the two share more of a black and silver design motif as well as more multitouch support than ever via the MacBook’s big glass trackpad.

As leaks about the trackpad’s surface preceded the MacBook unveiling, there was speculation that the trackpad might act as second screen (because, you know, SideShow has been such a smashing success for Vista), but I was always skeptical. Sure, a creative pro might throw a few palette buttons on such a screen or perhaps it could accommodate a few Dashboard widgets, but how useful is a screen your hands are constantly hovering over? Besides, it would add significant cost with marginal benefit and just felt too gimmicky for Apple. If you need more screen real estate, buy a notebook that has a bigger screen.

But Apple did make a significant change by making the trackpad pressable and obscuring button separation, two ideas borrowed from its Mighty Mouse. In fact, the new trackpad looks like such a strong input device, there’s a case to be made for Apple offering it as a desktop peripheral. Ironically, in moving from one button to no buttons, the MacBook has become more neutral to Windows users more accustomed to two buttons as these can be designated by zones on the trackpad. I’d also like to see the capability for a third zone for power users or Unix converts.

But an even bigger win could come from moving the technology beyond the Mac. Adding some key travel to a glass surface is essentially the trick that RIM has used to make its imminent Blackberry Storm screen feel more like a physical keyboard, and early feedback toward its tactile feedback has been very positive. If Apple is willing and able to make the iPhone surface go down, the device’s appeal could go up.

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