Update on iPhone vs. Android

So where are we now. Android has taken over, in terms of number of handsets running it. That was rather obvious.

The consensus is, it’s “Mac OS vs. Windows all over again”. That’s also hard to escape : a “luxury” product being offset by a cheap, not quite as good but “good enough” version, that surely rings bells. But it’s a bit more complicated.

For one thing, the original Mac never had a market share comparable to the one of the iPhone. And, despite what old Apple fanboys would say, Windows quickly became better than Mac OS, at least because it had more useful programs running (boring, but useful : Lotus 1 2 3, Word, that kind of stuff). The original Mac was hardly a serious office machine, and Apple failed to turn it into one back then.

The other thing is, what’s happening now in the PC market is that the Mac is gaining market share, and Mac sales are growing much faster than PCs. Also, Apple makes quite a bit of profit out of Mac sales, while most PC makers have paper-thin margins.

This clearly demonstrates that there’s money not only in being the absolute market leader, but also in being able to offer better service and quality. Customers are willing to pay for that. The pre-sales numbers of the iPhone 4 on Verizon seem to corroborate it as well.

So a likely outcome is that, even though the iPhone market share will diminish compared to Android as a whole, it will still be much larger than any single Android handset, and also much more profitable (except may be for Google which will rake in the cash from ads and licenses).

On a related matter, there’s the issue of “user freedom”. iOS is a walled garden, no contest. But the claim that Android would make the user free is not being realised so far. Quite the contrary, all the mobile providers are taking advantage of Android’s openness to do precisely what they couldn’t do with the iPhone anymore : rebrand it. They have regained the power of control on the software updates and the services being provided. When Apple releases a new version of iOS, every iPhone upgrades in a matter of days (except for that big fuck-up that iOS 4 was on the 3G model), no matter the carrier. When Google releases a new version of Android… not much happens. There’s no telling when your handset will actually run it, because you don’t know when the handset maker or the carrier will decide push the update, and they need time to port their own added layer too.

There may be pressure from users against that, but I doubt it will make things any different. Only geeks will have a problem with that situation, regular users won’t care or even know about the problem.

And then, there’s the new Nokia/Microsoft partnership. And HP’s WebOS. It tempting to dismiss them as too-little-too-late, but who knows…

more random bits (told-you-so category)

Flash on mobile sucks : Avram Piltch from LaptopMag actually tests Flash on Android : “When Flash 10.1 for Android is good, it’s great, but when it’s bad, it can make even the harshest Apple critic want to e-mail Steve Jobs an apology video playing in HTML 5.”

There are also details on how a Flash UI isn’t exactly practical on a touch screen. Gee what a surprise.

Web apps aren’t the (only) future, native apps aren’t going anywhere. Quite the contrary, they are taking over : a long-winded article on Wired claiming (hyperbolically) that the Web is dead, while it actually just explains we’re more and more using specialized apps to access web sites : Twitter clients, iPad/iPhone apps, RSS readers, etc…

And finally, yet another step about the iPhone being used as a universal remote : Pioneer has developed iControlAV, a remote control app to drive its new line of AV receivers and Blu-ray players.

Random tidbits

Sooo,

First, I finally caved in and moved my site to Gandi, because my previous host had apparently stopped keeping its platform up to date.

Second, this article made me smile. It’s a pretty standard diatribe against overly geeky linux fanboys unable to grasp the needs of normal users, but the reactions (starting right with the first one) are hilarious. It got so bad so quickly that the author had to turn off the comments.

Third, Google Wave. It’s demise showed me one thing : I’m a very slow blogger :-). I’ve been meaning to blog about it ever since it was announced, and now it’s dead (although I hope the protocol will find its use eventually). Another thing I wanted to say is that a little thing Vic Gundotra said in the opening remarks of the presentation ticked me off. See the video at around 1’20” : (paraphrasing) “with this application you will be amazed by what is possible in the browser”. Yeah, well, indeed, the UI is impressive… for a browser-based app. But in absolute terms, it’s pretty dull. And that I think is another example of how doing something which would normally be easy, within an environment that makes it hard, skews your perception of what you’ve achieved. Because it was so hard to make, you think you’ve done something impressive. Viewed from within, yes, it is. But the end result is not.

About that Safari 5 reader…

Nice piece about the Safari 5 ‘reader’ feature from Nik Fletcher – (also, Jim Lynch’s post on the same topic is hilarious – it seems to be hard for a blogger to exercise restrain and not invoke impending doom at every turn).

Two comments on this : one, this may be Apple nagging Google a bit (less ads viewed…), but Safari’s market share is probably too small to make a dent (plus the feature is a port of Arc90’s Readability, and nobody made a fuss about that). Second, this may also be a way to tell newspaper that if they want to make a bit more money with their online content, they might want to look at selling iPad apps.

We’ll see :-).

Update 15th Jul. 2010 : Both John Gruber and Cédric remind me that I forgot to write about the most ironic thing in Jim Lynch’s post : his blog is the perfect example of the usefulness of the ‘reader’ feature. A post split into 3 pages where one would have been quite enough, tons of distracting blips all over… Yeah, no wonder he’s feeling attacked by this feature.

A quick reality check for Vic Gundotra

Something which occurred to me shortly after watching the now famous Google IO Android keynote. At one point, when about to demonstrate tethering, Vic Gundotra says“if you’re like me, you have a plethora of devices you carry around with you. And all those devices shouldn’t mean added complexity and yet another bill, right ?”.

OK, now, two things.

First : as far as I’m concerned, the added complexity comes from having to turn on a second device and set it up in order to get connectivity on the first. If by having an extra bill I can have that second device connect all on its own, I prefer that option. I already have several bills anyway, always will, it’s manageable.

Second : Android is meant as a competitor for the iPhone OS, therefore is meant to appeal to normal people, as in “non-geeks”. So a Google geek introducing a feature to other Google geeks at a geek conference by saying “if you’re like me…” kind of misses the mark. Yes, this is a tech conference, but that doesn’t change the fact this is supposed to be an end-user product, and if googlers use their own taste to determine their feature roadmap, they might encounter some problems.

The final irony is that this reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a looong time ago (say 10+ years). At that time, mobile phones were dumb, had tiny b&w screens, and the whole contact/calendar stuff was either done on paper (ok you had a lousy contact list on the phones already) or on a Palm Pilot. I was carrying one of those along with my mobile, and was wondering why my friend was no longer carrying his. He answered he preferred to travel light with only a single device, rather than “looking like Luke Skywalker” (think Luke’s belt in Episode IV here). My friend’s name was Cédric.

Android vs. iPhone : here we go…

As everybody could see, one thing obvious from Google I/O 2010 is : Google is after Apple. At least on the mobile market, and, with the announcement of Google TV, on the home appliance one too (as nascent as this one is for both of them).

It’s a bit puzzling to see these two companies at each other’s throat. They’re both supposed to be the “cool guys”. Google’s arch-enemy was Microsoft, since it wanted to be on the desktop (although so far they’re not making much progress on that front). But clearly, they both view the mobile market as a priority, and they both want the top spot. It’s hard to say which one fired first, apparently Google had intentions toward that market long ago (Android has been public for 18 months, but Google had been working on it 2.5 years before that). If we take at face value Steve’s words at the beginning of the famous keynote in 2007 when he introduced the original iPhone, Apple had been working on it for at least 2 years before that (probably more).

Anyway, watching Vic Gundotra’s Day 2 keynote, is most interesting. Consider the many quips at Apple (push notification as a palliative to lack of multitasking, tethering on the iPad, etc…). So yes, the first thing to get from that is that the two companies are no longer friends. The second thing is, Google has to position Android against iPhone OS. Even though Apple isn’t the market leader (that’s still RIM), at the moment it’s the most visible competitor and nobody expects RIM to last much longer at the top spot). Therefore they have to offer features that iPhone OS doesn’t : Flash, tethering, WiFi sync, openness, rather than features which RIM doesn’t (like, er… oh yeah, a UI which doesn’t look like it’s a decade old).

And here is the interesting part of this confrontation. Apple never adds a feature to a product unless it fits the “big picture”. It has to be integrated with the rest, to blend in. That means they often lose in the usual “feature list check” comparison. But they almost always win the “overall design” one. This way of doing is one of the reasons why they’re not leaders on the PC market, but it seems to have worked for the music player market. So I wonder what will happen next. Will Android overtake the iPhone like Windows overtook the Mac, or will the iPhone remain the iPod of smartphones ? The former seems pretty likely, given that, just like Windows, Android is available on virtually any hardware platform willing to use it. If not features, that alone should decide of the issue of this fight. It has apparently already happened in the US. Yes, this should be taken with a grain of salt, namely that with the almost-announced iPhone v4, it’s expected that sales of the iPhone 3GS are low. But I doubt it will make much of a difference in the long run : dozens of devices on many carriers, vs. a couple of devices on a single (for now?) – lousy carrier. Yes, elsewhere in the world we don’t have to suffer the scourge of AT&T – here in France the iPhone is available to all carriers (Orange, SFR, Bouyges) – but I remain sceptical that it will make a difference.

The only limiting factors I see against this is that users may still prefer Apple’s “experience” – something which operates smoothly, shielding them from security issues, and also potentially offensive content – the latter probably not so enticing to everybody, actually. Will iTunes Store elusive “adult” category finally be instated ?

Google simply can’t replicate this experience, since it has no control on how Android is used (and that’s the whole point of the thing). It doesn’t have the skills, either. Actually, just watching the keynote on YouTube is a perfect example of the difference between the two companies. The keynote is split into a bunch of 10mn long videos, which you have to chase through a rather long list of similarly-named ones, all over YouTube’s usual feature-full page. Apple’s version of this is a single Quicktime video, either directly from Apple’s homepage or in iTunes, as a podcast.

One thing worthy of note, though, is that Google’s offering of “freedom” as opposed to Apple’s walled garden is highly debatable. Yes, through an iPhone or an iPad you can only install apps that Apple has sanctioned, and you’ll never see anything Flash-based (both of these have positive sides, but that’s irrelevant here). However you do own your data. When you plug your iPhone in for sync, it’s backed up locally on the computer you’re synchronizing with. With Android the backup is done on Google’s servers. More generally, you need a Google account, and all your personal data – contacts, calendar, etc… is on Google’s system. I’m not aware of an alternative to this state of things with Android. Apple has MobileMe, but you’re under no obligation to use it.

Twitter, or how features through syntax still sucks

I like Twitter, find it practical for many a thing, and use it myself. At the MIDEM 2010 it really was the lifeline of the event. But in between the ‘RT’, ‘@username’, and ‘#keyword’, there’s even less space to express anything really useful. Oh, and let’s not forget URL shorteners which add to the crypticness of the resulting message.

So, what I’d like : 512 chars (half a kilobyte, c’mon) for the message, and an metadata part where you’d add keywords and URLs. I suppose usernames can stay in the message since they wouldn’t make much sense outside of it, but keywords I doubt it. Ideally, we could mark them as keywords while typing, but the marking would be removed in the final message and the keyword would be added in the metadata. e.g. type “this is a message with a #keyword”, results in “this is a message with a keyword” along with a metadata block containing “keyword” as a, well, keyword.

Just for that I think I’ll go check what Google Buzz looks like.

About that Section 3.3.1 of the new iPhone SDK

A quick recap : that section enforces the use of Objective C, C or C++ for iPhone app coding. First reaction is obviously hostile (quite legitimately, IMHO).

More interesting, however, are the following short exchange between an iPhone developer and Steve Jobs himself, and John Gruber’s rethinking on the subject. It boils down to Apple not liking layers over their SDK because they feel they hinder software quality.

My personal experience very much agrees with this. Unless you’re under exceptional circumstances or requirements, you generally don’t want to add some cross-platform layer between you and the native development framework. An exception is if the framework is really too low level and calls for a higher-level one, but if Objective C was higher level, it would be a scripting language. An intermediate layer generally means that it will make simple things easier, but will make everything else (anything not directly supported by the layer, and debugging) a lot harder (especially debugging). It also means you depend on the vendor of that layer to support the last available features of the platform it wraps. And if it’s a cross-platform one, you’ll only get the lowest common denominator.

That said, while I understand Apple’s effort to maintain a globally high level of quality on the App store (they do advertise quite a lot about it), I really don’t think actively blocking these other frameworks is a reasonable move. First, it looks paranoid and bitchy. Apple can be that, more often than not, so adding more to that trait doesn’t help. But more importantly, these frameworks still may serve a useful purpose. In many cases, an application can be just “good enough”. Even if that’s hardly Apple’s style, an ugly, poorly integrated but useful and working application is better than none at all.

Another possible reason I see for this is the need to be able to easily audit applications, especially given the new multitasking features of iPhone OS 4, which have some aftertaste of cooperative multitasking.

But ultimately, I think Apple should do what Google did with Android : an official App store where what you buy is Apple-certified, and allow alternative App stores where you’re on your own. That said, I don’t know how the average user would handle that.

While I’m at it, Apple should also do the same for Mac : create an official Mac OS X app store, along with the current means of software distribution (i.e. downloads from various http sites). Think Linux distribution repository.

Edit Apr. 17th 2010 : An interesting alternative view on the topic from Steve Cheney is that by enforcing the use of XCode, Apple ensures its independence of the hardware. Indeed the transition from PowerPC to Intel went remarkably smoothly, and the fact that Apple provides the main development toolchain for OS X is a big reason why.

Edit Apr. 21st 2010 : Right now the download pages at apple.com are no longer being updated. And from the comments on this tuaw post, it seems I’m not the only one thinking that a Mac App Store is in preparation :-).

Edit Apr. 26th 2010 : well, it seems that no, there won’t be a Mac App Store. Can’t be clearer than that.

Comments on Aperture 3

Aperture 3 is a huge breath of fresh air for me, opening up photo retouching to so many new possibilities while doing it faster.

Pretty much all the requested and hoped-for features are there (first of foremost, brushes, and curves), so I won’t get into that. Handling of the metadata is way better, and the idea of showing it like on the camera’s LCD screen is a very nice touch, and makes it much easier to read it a glance (in particular, I just love the display of the auto-focus points).

At first I was surprised that the “new features” page doesn’t mention anything about performance, beyond the fact that it’s now 64 bits. I was expecting stuff about some of Snow Leopard’s new technologies (Grand Central in particular), for which Aperture would have been a prime candidate, but no. However, after using it for several hours it is much faster and more responsive – the loupe in particular is almost lag-free. Loading images in is still a bit slow, but then again I’m dealing with 20-25Mb raw files here.

There’s no improvement on b&w conversion (still the same monochrome mixer) beyond the fact that it’s now “brushable” (b&w/color mixes here I come – back), but the presets are a step toward film/paper emulation. Surprisingly there are already two “black and white” sets of presets (may be a buglet of the trial version). The first one contains two “old film 1” and “old film 2” presets, neither of which are particularly well done, but that’s a clear indication of things to come. What’s more, the Aperture 3 plugins page also mentions presets (though marked as “coming soon” for now).

The disappointment comes with the Web export features. Be it to flickr, facebook or iWeb (that is, importing Aperture images on a photo gallery page from iWeb), there is almost no flexibility over the process. In the case of flickr, which gives you a lot of freedom over the resolution of the images you upload, Aperture gives only 3 settings without any technical indication on what they are. More annoying, no control over how the metadata of the Aperture image is reflected in the exported image, and the default behavior (using the Version Name as caption, ignore all the rest) is silly. Likewise, no control on the flickr keywords either.

This is quite annoying because Aperture is clearly pitched as iPhoto Pro. But with these features (flickr/facebook export), it’s still as basic as iPhoto, and certainly not “pro”. Still, Apple is clearly not letting Adobe being the sole player in that area – give the state of their relationship, that’s hardly surprising.