Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

2011: Year of The Media App

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I predict this year that we’ll settle on a way to make people pay for stuff they so far have proven reluctant to pay for—namely information. This won’t be done by pay walls, exactly, but by what we’re now calling apps. Apps are applications that people seem very willing to pay for when they’re doing it from a device that isn’t a desktop computer.

So people are buying these things because what’s a buck when you know you can get to hurl Angry Birds onto flimsy structures sheltering evil pigs on your device in a couple of seconds? Or listen to Yesterday on your iPod Touch a few seconds after buying it?

Compare this with the laborious process of signing up for an online subscription, or having to download, install and pay for some software and then have to enter a serial number longer than most emails you’ve written.

Others are now trying this route. Google has the Android Marketplace, which lets you do more or less the same thing. In fact, it’s even easier—you don’t get prompted for your password when you buy something. And now they’re trying something on your computer: their own browser, Chrome, now have apps which you can buy or get for free. (Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, will revolve around these apps.)

In fact these aren’t really anything new—they’re what we might call web-services which are accessible via a website, rather than by downloading software. But by packaging them up as apps Google make it easier for us to get at them and, crucially, break down our resistance to buying something online.

This is how we’ll pay for news in the future. Smart companies like The Economist will give the print edition away free with the iPad version, or vice versa, since we’ll start resisting the idea that we have to pay twice for the same information, whether it’s all glitzy and interactive or not. We will expect to be rewarded for paying for something we know we can get from somewhere else if we tried hard enough. If you’re a news organization use whatever lure you can think of to get the reader back into the paying habit again.

This is the point of the payment process. It has to be easier than getting the information/music/entertainment/book through another means. If I find a book for my Kindle ereader on Amazon I’ll check to see whether there’s a cheaper version—which there quite often is. If it’s under ten bucks I’ll buy it. If not, I’ll read the reviews below to see whether there is a free version somewhere—which is sometimes possible. If there isn’t, I’ll check out Google books to see whether the chapters I’m interested in are there.

OK, I’m a cheapskate. But my thinking is basically this: $10 is my threshold for an eBook. It might be more if I got access to a physical version, or was able to clip bits from it and store it somewhere else. But I’m not, so I won’t pay more than that. Moreover, I don’t want to be the mug who pays for something others get for free.

Everyone else has their own logic, but they’re probably not dissimilar to mine. We pay for things if we think the price is right for the convenience, and if we think that we’re not being suckered—which means that other people aren’t shelling out for it.

This is basically micropayments. It’s what we’d been hoping would happen for some time, and it took Apple’s megalomania and micromanagement to get us there. Now we’re nearly there, but we could still mess up. Some newspapers try to charge us for single articles, for example, misunderstanding that micropayment doesn’t mean microproduct. I don’t want to pay every time I visit your site: I want to pay for something that gets me seamless access to your product.

In other words, we’re paying for not having to pay (or register, or download, or enter codes, or any of that kind of nonsense.) This is why the term pay wall is so revealing—and why it’s doomed as a concept. We’re not buying information with our iPhone or Android app, we’re buying frictionless access to something—an icon on our display that may be a shortcut to a web page, or open an application,  we don’t care. All we care about is that it gets us to where we want to go, when we want to go there.

We’ve some ways to go before this works well. I can’t stand the idea that my Kindle book doesn’t belong to me in the way a real book does, and I refuse to buy any music that I can’t move around as I wish. I succumbed to buying some apps for an iPad I borrowed but Steve Jobs will rue the day if I can’t easily move them onto another iDevice if I ever end up getting one.

But the good thing is that we’ve found a way to make this palatable to people, and I am optimistic that the media, booksellers, music sellers and web developers can turn this into revenue streams that keep them going.

Still Sneaky After All These Years

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I still retain the capacity to get bummed out by the intrusiveness of software from companies you’d think would be trying to make us happy these days, not make us madder.

My friend Scotty, the Winpatrol watchdog, has been doing a great job of keeping an eye on these things. The culprits either try to change file associations or add a program to the boot sequence, without telling us. Some recent examples:

Windows Live Mail, without me doing anything at all, suddenly tried to wrest control of my emails by grabbing the extension EML from Thunderbird:

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This was unconnected to anything I was doing, or had asked. I didn’t even know I still had Live Mail installed. Shocking. Imagine if I hadn’t been asking Scotty to keep guard? Or that I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing? (OK, don’t answer that one.)

(Just out of interest, launching Outlook Express will do the same thing:)

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Still, I suppose the Microsoft defence is that everyone else is doing it. I installed WordPerfect Office the other day and found that, without asking, it tried to take over handling DOC files without asking first. Luckily, Scotty woofed a warning:

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No wonder users are baffled about what is going on with their computer and end up heading off to the Apple Store for some TLC. Software companies have got to stop doing this kind of thing. (And no, I’m not saying that Apple are any better at this. It’s just they reduce the choices so people feel their computers behave more predictably. This, after all, is what people yearn for.)

Likewise with starting programs. Once again it’s about predictability: If software starts loading without the user being asked first, then a) the computer is going to slow down and b) the user will have a bunch of new icons and activities to figure out. A couple of examples:

Windows Live forces its Family Safety Client to boot without asking:

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as does eFax, the online faxing service:

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These companies need to stop this. They need to stop it now. Consumer confidence is low, but so is user confidence. I am inundated with letters from readers of the columns who talk about their bafflement and sense of alienation from their computer. (Meanwhile, I read love stories from those who switch to Macs.) The point is this: Not that people believe Macs are better computers—although they may well be—but they are simpler to use, more predictable, more understandable, more, well, user-friendly.

What’s user-friendly about changing the settings on someone’s computer without asking them? Would a company try that with someone’s car, fridge, or dishwasher?

Sleazy Practices Cont.

Fired up by Google’s move into the crapware domain by foisting an “updater” on customers who want to install (otherwise great) programs like Google Earth, I took another look at what was happening in the updater sphere.

Apple drew some heat for its own bit of underhandedness recently, when its own Apple Software Updater automatically included downloading the company’s Safari browser. After a backlash, it dropped the Safari from the “Updates” section to a “New Software” section, but still prechecked it:

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In other words, run the updater and not concentrate, and you’ll find yourself downloading 22 MB of browser you didn’t ask for, and didn’t have before.

So no, I don’t think Apple did the right thing here. Apple fans can protest as much as they like, but there’s a clear move here to get new software to users to install software they didn’t ask for and, if they don’t actively intervene, will have it installed by default. Browsers, like media players, are particularly significant because they will try to make themselves the default browser, and users once again need to act against the default process to avoid this.

Needless to say, Apple’s bid has been modestly successful, apparently at least doubling its modest market share for Safari. Still miniscule, but a start.

Of course, software is one thing, but it has to be used. For that it has to be visible to the user. No point in hiding the program launch icons somewhere they can’t be found. On Windows, there are three places you want to be: the desktop, the system tray, or the start menu. Apple is particularly smart about this, ensuring that all its products sit, not in some side-alley subfolder, but in the ‘root’ menu:

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and

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as well as on the desktop:

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(though not, interestingly, the Updater.)

Of course, Apple isn’t alone. Microsoft has long been doing this, as has Adobe.

Folk argue this is all besides the point, that users retain control over their computer and can remove all this stuff if they want. But to me it’s worrying that Apple, Microsoft, Google, Sun, Adobe et al think that this is OK, and, like their defenders, fail to understand that for the vast majority of users, installing software is not an everyday experience, and that these sleights of hand merely cause extra stress, confusion and uncertainty. That can’t be good.

The Leopard’s Spot (On)

Just gotten back from a demo of the new version of Mac’s operating system, Mac OS X Leopard (must confess I don’t like the names. It’s slightly better than Vista, but still a bit lame in my view.) But that’s not the point. I arrived halfway through the demo and so missed a lot of the stuff, but, still. Wow. There’s something about Mac software that makes you go ‘ooo’ even when you don’t really want to.

I won’t bore you with details, but watching it unfold made me think a few things:

  • Rarely is there anything startlingly new here. It’s intuitive, obvious, like all good innovation. But it’s also “why couldn’t we already do this?” And sometimes we could, at least for a while. Like widgets that are actually just segments of a webpage — a daily cartoon, or a CNN news section. I remember we could do this in 2001 in Windows, courtesy of some company that later went bust. Wish I could remember the name.
    (It also made me think of Active Desktop, which I’ve never seen people use, probably because it was fiddly and because very few of us actually saw our desktop for all the programs we had open.) Of course, Apple made it fun, easy and the kind of thing you want to do, rather than do because you can. But it’s still something that should have been around a half decade ago.
  • Then there’s stuff that’s not new, just better. Spaces lets you have lots of desktops. We could do this on Windows years ago, and even Ubuntu has had it as a standard feature for a while, but on a Mac it just looks good, and works as you would want it to. You can drag programs, for example, between virtual desktops (one day, I hope, you will be able to drag data) and the animation is both fun and strangely helpful.
  • Then there’s stuff that looks a bit like a ripoff — data connectors, for example, that will grab addresses from emails for you. Anagram, among other programs, do this already. It’s good that Mac has recognised the usefulness of this application, but you can’t help feeling sorry for the folks who have spent so long developing a feature like this, only to see themselves being overtaken by the Leopard
  • Then there’s true innovation, based on watching how people work. Like the demo guy (who used the word “cool” about 398 times too many in the presentation) said, a lot of us use email software in a way that wasn’t intended — as a kind of word processor cum note taker cum to do list. Apple realised this, and have turned Mail into exactly that, allowing you to add to do lists with images and stuff embedded. Nothing startling, but acknowledging how we work and making it easier for us.

This is not to detract from Apple’s achievement. Leopard looks hot, and makes Vista look impoverished and, I suspect, somewhat irrelevant, like someone trying to sell aluminum siding to people who realise that while people still have it on their houses, no one really wants it anymore. Apple see what people want and give it to them.

Not once did the guy mention speed, or having lots of applications open, or ‘experience’. I find that telling. Maybe he forgot to, but I always shiver when I hear these words. I know that users don’t think like that; they want to know what they can do, not whether screen redraws are quicker or the edges of windows bend like willow. (They’re happy if they do, but that’s not why they buy an OS.) Neither do they want an “experience” — they want to do stuff. Leopard, it seems will, let them to do that.

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Podcasting Is Big, Led By Mac Lovers

Podcasting is big. Well, not as big as paying bills online, but almost as big as blogs. According to Nielsen//NetRatings (PDF file), 6.6 percent of the U.S. adult online population are downloading audio podcasts. That’s more than 9 million people. But in case you get all excited about that, compare it with viewing and paying bills online (51.6 percent) or online job hunting, (24.6 percent). Still it’s bigger than I thought. Videocasting is also popular, at about 4 percent of the population, which is slightly less than the blogging population (4.8 percent) and a touch larger than the online dating population (3.9 percent).

Most of these folk are, unsurprisingly, young. They’re also Apple fans — and not just in terms of using iPods. Audio and video podcasters (i.e. the folk producing the stuff) are more than three times as likely to be using a Mac (known by the fact they’re using Safari). Given that they’re also two times as likely to be using Firefox, this Mac figure could be higher. Macworld is also the largest visited podcast site by some margin. This is interesting, and perhaps another sign, if one were needed, that the iPod is having a huge impact on the sales of other Apple products.

Apple and Google AdWords

Further to my piece about Apple going after web sites using “iPod” somewhere in their name, is the company Apple going after third party developers using Google AdWords? A piece in TidBITS (“Apple Cracks Down on Google AdWords”) paints a worrying picture of trademark protection gone mad:

some recent unsettling events indicate that Apple may in fact be moving in the direction of preventing third-parties from using Apple trademarks in advertising. Last week, I received a confusing email message from Google AdWords Support, telling me that they had “disapproved” several of the ads I placed for “Take Control of Mac OS X Backups” because the ads used the trademarked term “Mac” in their text (there was no complaint about the fact that I was using “Mac” as one of the keywords that triggered my ads).

It’s a good piece, and errs on the side of caution as to Apple’s motives (suggesting it may be some over eager legal eagle.) But I do worry about this kind of thing. The developers of third party products for Apple have been instrumental in the company’s success, and this kind of misstep will damage their appetite to continue. Also, the non-response to this article by Apple PR is a familiar story and a disappointment. Contrary to what some folk have written I’m a huge fan of Apple’s products, but that’s not the point here. Every company needs to reach some basic standard of transparency and accountability, however great the stuff they put out.

Apple, Nano, and the Cost of Silence

It’s been nearly a week since the first stories about problems with the Apple iPod Nano screen started to surface, and, according to The Register, they’re spreading:

More importantly, the post on Apple’s discussion boards discussing the issue has grown from 188 posts to 583 (at last count), and now includes people who have cancelled their orders. Ooooh dear.

Indeed, the screen-scratching problems don’t seem to be the only ones with the Nano. Some people have been complaining about wholesale screen failures and others about the battery life, which they say doesn’t match the claimed 14 hours, even when you follow Apple’s instructions (backlight off, no skipping songs). Except in the latter, Apple carefully claims “up to 14”, and some have managed more.

What worries me more than anything is Apple’s response. Or rather, its non-response. I had very little joy getting a specific response to my query to them about problems installing iTunes for a piece I wrote in last week’s WSJ.com (subscription only I’m afraid) and it seems they’re adopting the same position with the Nano problem, according to The Register:

So what, we asked Apple, is it going to do about those screens? The reply: “Apple has no comment at this time.” Stores will decide for themselves whether to swap scratched or broken machines.

In the long run this approach can only harm the company. In the case of software, end users can at least clamber to the assistance of flailing fellow users where the company’s own support staff don’t, but what happens in the case of faulty hardware? Inaction and silence merely give free rein to angry customers on Apple’s own discussion boards to lambast the company and persuade uncommitted customers not to buy. Can’t be good for business or Apple’s image.

Why Does Apple Take So Long to Bite?

Apple is again protecting itself, as Wired News reports: E-Tailers Get Apple Nastygrams

Apple is ordering several online iPod accessory vendors to stop using the word “iPod” in their names or URLs. Apple has sent legal notices to accessory vendors everythingipod.co.uk and iPodlife. “I’m very nervous that this whole affair will hurt our business financially,” said Barry Mann, director of everythingipod.

In August, Apple threatened legal action against iPod Essentials, which changed its name to mp3Essentials and handed ownership of the iPodEssentials.co.uk domain name to Apple.

Apple has my sympathy for this, and it makes sense to protect consumers from rubbish products that might to the untutored eye look like an Apple creation. But a couple of things confuse me. First off, why does it take them so long to get around to warning these guys? Everythingipod.com as a domain was first registered in December 2001: It takes Apple lawyers four years to track them down? What were they using? Snow shoes?

The cynic might be forgiven for thinking that Apple waits for these accessory businesses to get successful and then dumps on them. After all, as Wired News points out, Apple has its own Made for iPod program, which requires manufacturers to comply with set standards, use certain manufacturers for some components and pay a percentage of wholesale earnings to Apple.

So, the cynic would argue, there’s no point in crushing these third party web sites until they’re up and running. Wait until they’re successful and then start milking them. After all, these third party vendors and manufacturers are useful since they enhance the product, encourage retailers to give over more space to the whole iPod thing, and keep users interested. I’m sure there’s no truth to such a cynical view but it does leave some questions unanswered.

For instance: You might argue it’s hard for Apple to keep tabs on these third party websites. But I find that hard to believe. One short DNS search throws up literally hundreds of websites registered with ipod somewhere in the name, many of them more than a year old. (Just out of interest, what is planned at www.ipod-dating.com and http://www.ipod-porn.co.uk/?) This is easy stuff to keep an eye on. Either Apple’s lawyers are not doing their job or else there’s something else afoot here.

This week’s column – Software To Change Your Life

This week’s Loose Wire column is about software:

IT’S TIME TO GET PERSONAL. Here’s a list of software I–and a few folk I know–can’t live without. These items may not be for everyone, but some of them could change your life. (Unfortunately for Apple and Linux users, they’re all for Windows.)

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at WSJ.com (subscription required). Old columns at feer.com here.

Apple Excites, Disappoints With iPod Mini

As expected, sort of, Steve Jobs has unveiled a new Apple iPod — smaller, more colourful and cheaper (but not as cheap as people thought). About 3.5 inches long and just half an inch thick, the iPod mini looks a bit like the old iPod, with the same jog dial, but comes in five colours, stores only 4 GB (against up to 40 for the old iPod) and costs $250.

That’s pricier than people thought. A lot pricier: I wrote last month on talk that it would sell for about $100. And given you can now get a bigger iPod carrying 15 GB for $300, Apple may find themselves cannibalizing their own market, rather than opening up a new one. As Techdirt points out, for a lot of folk 4 GB pretty much covers their music collection, and even Apple describe the iPod mini as “enough music for a three-day weekend getaway in a package so small you’ll forget you’re carrying it”. Expect a backlash against Apple from folk who thought they would be getting a cheap iPod as their new year’s present.

What’s interesting is what is under the hood. Whereas rumour had it the iPod mini would be using flash memory, CNET says it is in a fact a mini hard drive made by Hitachi. Hitachi’s success with what was IBM’s technology seems to indicate a resurgence of interest in small devices that can store a lot of data. While CNET talks of video cameras — Samsung apparently uses a 1 inch hard drive in one of their models — I wonder when you’re going to see PDAs and phones using them. Wouldn’t it be useful to store 4 or more GB of stuff on your PDA? Or has it already happened and I’ve missed it?