Posts Tagged ‘apple’

I briefly considered writing a blog post about Steve Jobs’ departure from Apple last week, but it seemed rather unnecessary – the last thing the world needed was another blogger pitching in on the subject when it seemed everyone on the Internet was already doing exactly that. So instead, I’ll be very brief on the subject now that the immediate furore about it has quietened down.

Obviously, Apple will miss Jobs – how could it not? He transformed the company, and through Apple he transformed our lives. That’s literally no exaggeration, as I sit here surrounded by my iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod …

But perhaps one of Steve Jobs top ten achievements is how he finally managed to write himself out of the Apple story. A few years back, when the news about his ill health first broke, he and Apple were blasted for (a) concealing the information, and (b) having no transition plan, no line of succession for a post-Jobs era. They were right to be criticised on both counts.

Fast forward to last week: Apple and Jobs have used the intervening time to bring along and put in place the people they needed for the transition. Jobs’ long heath sabbaticals had allowed the transition to be road-tested and the next generation leaders to become established and well known in the industry. By the time Jobs handed in his letter of resignation it no longer seemed alarming or unplanned for, just confirmation of what we knew had been the situation for some time. Apple hadn’t crumbled in the meantime with Jobs off ill, and so we are reassured that it wasn’t going to go horribly wrong now he’s stepped down, either.

The moment for succession has arrived; it had been planned for; and it has worked, in just the way that five years ago it never could have.

In the meantime the general reaction of the blogosphere was a slew of near-eulogies for Steve Jobs, which slightly irked me – he hasn’t died after all, just stepped down as CEO. That’s no cause for weeping and wailing and the rending of garments. Not yet, at least.

Of course in the back of our minds we wonder about Steve Jobs’ health and prognosis in the light of his resignation. But you know what? It really isn’t any of our business now. Five years ago, when Jobs and the Apple board were borderline-illegally concealing relevant information about the company from shareholders by refusing to discuss the state of Jobs’ health, it was very much a matter of public concern and debate. But not now, not that he’s stepped down as CEO and left the shop in the hands of Tim Cook – now it’s a private matter for Jobs once again, and rightly so.

So it really is none of our damn business, and I’m not going to comment or prognosticate on the issue at all. Instead I’ll just wish Steve Jobs and his family all the best for the future, whatever it may hold, and thank him and the team at Apple for the ways in which they have contributed to all of our lives. And also, thanks for not screwing up the company in the leaving of it.

Hmm, the last few posts here have all been on a very similar governmental theme; time to vary the tone somewhat, I think.

Last week, I bought, read and finished an Apple iBook for the very first time.

It’s not, I hasten to add, the first e-book that I’ve purchased and read on the iPad – but all the others have been through the Amazon Kindle app, whereas this was of the Apple-flavoured variety instead. I’ve preferred purchasing e-books via the Kindle for various reasons, starting with a greater range of books and generally lower prices. Initially as well I didn’t have iOS 4 on my antiquated iPhone 3G (because of early performance problems with the upgrade on that phone) which meant that I couldn’t run the Apple iBooks app on my phone and hence couldn’t take my reading out and about with me unless I took the whole iPad instead. That’s no longer an issue and the latest iOS 4 and iBooks work a treat even on my venerable hardware.

However, the Kindle still seems to me to offer a greater assurance of longevity: Amazon’s core business is still books and it had made Kindle e-readers available not just for its own hardware but also for Apple’s iOS, Android systems, Macs and PCs. Apple, by contrast, see e-books as a very, very minor outlier in their activities and the books they sell can only be read on iOS devices – not even Macs. Of the two companies, Apple is by far the more likely to suddenly decide the book market isn’t worth the trouble and make one of its autocratic decisions to pull out and take its iBooks app with it, leaving tus with books that can no longer be read. Amazon, on the other hand, would have to fold as a company before that’s likely to happen.

There’s also a matter of principle involved in my choice of Kindle over iBook: the fact that Apple are trying to extend their “30% of all in-app purchases” to “30% of anything that is sold to be consumed on the iPad.” Amazon have got around the surcharge till now by not using the Apple-run in-app purchasing system that processes payments via the iTunes Store: instead, purchases are made on the Amazon web site and then ‘delivered’ onto the iPad directly by the app’s network connection. Apple aren’t amused by that dodge and are clamping down, potentially meaning that Amazon will either have to cough up or be booted out of the App Store. As far as I’m concerned, this is a nasty, vicious move by an Apple that’s increasingly believing in its own hubris and thinking it can do whatever it likes. Presumably Apple have sought legal advice on this and have been assured that they’re not breaching monopoly or restraint of trade laws in the various countries in which it operates, based on the fact that it only affects Apple’s own iOS devices and that other mobile devices are available, hence no monopoly. But frankly I’m astounded: if it looks like restraint of trade, and smells like it, then surely that’s what it is. I’d go so far as to say it comes over like a Mafia protection racket, where a business is told to pay over a large chunk of change or be forced out of business in the gang’s territory. Apple fan I may generally be, but not when they start behaving like hoodlums.

So with all this swirling around, how come I suddenly switch from Kindle books to iBooks? Well, it’s a one off; the price was the same on both Kindle and iBooks, and I happened to have a Christmas gift voucher for the iTunes Store hanging around, so I thought I’d give it a try. Actually the real tipping point was when I initially picked up the first chapter of a iBook through the ‘get sample’ button, read it … And then, there at the end, was a simple button to buy the rest. It’s a minor thing, but it was just so easy to press the button and carry on reading there and then rather than duck out and faff around surfing over to Amazon to log on and buy it and then back to the Kindle app to download it. It’s moments like this that Apple actually merits that cut of theirs.

It’s also the little details that continually set Apple hardware and software apart and make them so damnably good even when you’re feeling mad at the company. Even though Amazon had a head start with the e-reader concept, Apple have come with a version that is just that bit classier, slicker and, well, better than anyone else. Again, the devil’s in the details and in many ways they’re superficial cosmetic details at that: the wood panelling in your ‘library’ of e-books; the way the pages of the book you’re reading actually look like the pages of a book; the animation when you ‘turn’ a page. The type is just that bit better rendered and the balance of line length and white space around the borders just perfect. It feels like it’s been designed by a book lover.

Apple also manages to put in that attention to detail in the user interface: the presence of a slider bar at the bottom tracking where you are in the book; a line telling you how many pages there are left in the current chapter; a nice search utility in case you need to go back and find and double-check that vital clue five chapters ago; and, if you do navigate away from the current page, a link pops up to return you to the previous location without your having to remember page or chapter numbers or insert a bookmark of your own.

Apple’s iBooks also has “page numbers” whereas the Kindle has previously relied on “paragraph numbers”, a less immediately friendly or helpful concept and one of those minor details that knocks you out of the “book” paradigm. After criticism that it’s impossible to cite the page number of a reference from an e-book, Amazon have recently upgraded their Kindle software so that it does now display an absolute, unchanging page number from books formatted to support it; Apple’s iBooks, on the other hand, might have ‘page numbers” but they are not absolute and will change depending on the size and style of the typeface used on the display. Technically that’s one-up to the Kindle, except that in practice most people will be fine with the more friendly “relative” page numbers of iBooks.

Having read books in both Kindle and iBooks formats, I have to say that the iBooks environment is just that bit better, more comfortable and more stylish; but that the Kindle is fine and does its job okay as well. It’s just surprising that Amazon haven’t studied the little details of the Apple app and been “inspired” to introduce their own variants in the Kindle by now.

But having spent a few days happily reading a distinctly lightweight thriller (a review is over on the Taking The Short View blog if you’re interested), when I came to the end I found that I was actually rather relieved to be able to put aside the iPad and go lo-tech for my next book selection.

The e-book route is fine when you want something immediately or if your local book stores don’t have it (and with Borders long gone and Waterstones looking shaky, finding books locally is an increasing problem) and I was pleased to make use of it in this case. E-books are also great because they takes up no storage space, and my flat is awash with physical books already. But even so, and even having had no trouble reading the e-book version (indeed, enjoyed it), when I decided I wanted to read the next one in the series I ended up picking up the second title as a paperback in an honest-to-goodness bookshop while I was still reading the first, instead of buying it as a follow-on e-book.

I’m still trying to work out why I felt that sense of relief at the thought that I could go back to proper paper-based media – I hadn’t expected it to be quite such a powerful feeling as it was. There are certain practical advantages to the paper book, such as being able to read in the bath, but that hardly explains the relief I felt, surely? At the moment I’m putting it down to the fact that so much of my time is spent looking at screens that it’s the relief of “a change is as good as a rest”. I use my iPad throughout the day to check emails, tweet, check-in with Facebook, surf and follow my RSS feeds that the addition of book reading on top just felt a little like the device was smothering me. I need the break every now and then or else like every such suffocating relationship I’ll begin to resent the iPad as a whole, and I really wouldn’t want to fall out with it.

Nor do I think it’s the iPad itself per se that I need the break away from – it’s the whole screen-based electronic media that I need time away from every now and then, so buying an Amazon Kindle doesn’t seem like it would be any help and hence is off the agenda for now (I’d been vaguely considering buying one since Christmas.) Audiobooks are a possible alternative, although I have to confess that I find it very hard to stay awake listening to an audiobook or play for longer than 15 minutes, or else I’ll get distracted by visual stimulation and forget to listen to the book.

On the whole, though, it seems that for the time being at least I just like to pick up a good old fashioned paperback book when it comes to a taking a restful break. Obviously I’m not yet as 21st century as I like to think I am.

There are lots of reports today that the iPad 2 is in production and will be officially announced and in US stores soon (although the signs are that the UK will have to wait a couple of months, just as we did for the launch of the original iPad.)

Now the iPad 2 story has been picked to death by news outlets and tech blogs almost since the day after the original iPad was released, and frankly I’m sick to death of speculation about what it might or might not contain in the way of new features. It used to be accepted in computing that however long you waited, however wise you were in selecting a PC to buy, it didn’t matter: it would still be out of date the day after you finally put down the money. These days it’s even worse: the speculation about new products (and particularly Apple products) is so incessant that the product feels old hat and is yesterday’s news some six months before it even exists.

Hence now, as the iPad 2 launch finally grows near, we’re seeing stories like ReadWriteWeb’s “iPad 2.0: Can Faster, Thinner, Lighter Compete with Android Tablets?” which are taking the “oh – is that it? Is there no more?” line of disappointment.

To recap the story (which itself is similar to hundreds of others about iPad 2), it seems that – as the headline states – the new iPad will be faster, lighter and thinner; and that it will gain at least one front-facing camera for use with Apple’s Facetime video conferencing software. And, err, that’s about it. It might have slightly improved screen resolution, but it won’t be anything of the order of an upgrade to the stunning Retina-level display debuted on the iPhone 4 last July.

As the ReadWriteWeb article asks, “Where is the “wow” factor, though?” The reality has been thoroughly eclipsed by the wild speculation online for the last six months, which has been so overheated that frankly an iPad 2 that doesn’t boast artificial intelligence, come with a free jetpack and hovercar, and is altogether more capable than you are of running your life and pleasuring your partner is just going to be a bit of a damp squib.

But then, what do Apple really need to do with the iPad to make the follow-up sell like hot cakes? The answer, ironically, is: as little as possible.

A lot of people I know were very interested in the iPad when it launched last year, played with it in the Apple Store – but pointedly held off buying. “I’ll wait for the second generation model”, I heard time and again. I’m going to dub this “the Windows Mindset”, because I think it stems from peoples’ experiences with previous Windows products where the first release of anything (including some versions of Windows itself) has all too often been shockingly poor and bug-ridden, ill-developed and barely good enough to be labelled a work-in-progress.

No one in their right minds gets the first gen version of such flawed products, waiting instead for the second gen when the problems are all worked out. That way, they gain some extra, new features in the process and possibly a lower price to boot. (However, anyone holding off the original iPad expecting prices to go down over time doesn’t know Apple at all: the company sees itself as a premium product retailer and doesn’t discount or drop prices, until a given model stops being at the “top” of the line and is downgraded to a budget position while a new model takes up the top price spot.)

But I think with Apple, that “Windows Mindset” is irrelevant. Apple’s products these days seem to be good to go and pretty much flawless from the very first generation. Even the very first iPhone remains serviceable and problem-free to this day, and my own iPhone 3G (the second gen) is absolutely perfect for my needs despite its relative age. In fact, strangely enough it’s not the older iPhones that have been problematic but the most recent iPhone 4 that’s had all the issues and which I still wouldn’t personally buy as a result.

As far as I’m concerned, Apple certainly nailed the iPad concept right from the start, but then they had to – failing to make the iPad a huge hit from its very start would have killed the entire tablet concept stone dead and left the company with a Newton-shaped hole in their accounts. The iPad had to be perfect and glitch-free from the get-go, and … It was. (There were a few early software issues with wifi connectivity at the start but these were quickly fixed; I’m not aware of any hardware problems in the range whatsoever.) Compare that to the other manufacturers like Samsung or those using the Android OS who are having to scramble to get into the market after the iPad’s success, and who have ended up fielding typical flawed first gen tablets in line with the “Windows Mindset”.

So those people who held off on getting the original iPad because of potential flaws have been thwarted – they could have bought nine months ago with peace of mind, it turns out. The only thing now that stops them from buying is the fact that the first generation is genuinely approaching end of life as a premium product, and the iPad 2 is nigh. Who wants something that looks so 2010 when the 2011 model is upon us? In other words: Apple could pretty much bring out the same product again, whack a ‘2’ on it in white correction fluid, and they’d still unlock that huge potential market of people who have been waiting for months and kicking themselves for their caution.

Given that Apple really doesn’t have to do that much to get the delayed first-time purchasers and the eager second-time upgraders to shell out their cash for any new model they put out, it’s no wonder that they’re sticking with pretty much low-key tinkering around the edges: “thinner and lighter” addresses one of the few criticisms of the original iPad made last year; “faster” is mandatory for any new computer product. And the camera is really only there because Apple are pushing Facetime as an international standard in order to dominate the video conferencing market; it’s already on the latest iPhone and iPod Touch, and also available on the Mac computer ranges, so it’s important for the growth of Facetime that iPad users now swell the ranks. Hence the camera addition – it’s about Apple’s ambitions for Facetime, not about the iPad.

But beyond that, why should Apple do any more? For one thing, it presumably leaves them with more ideas and potential left over that they can start planning to add to the functionality of iPad 3, rumours about which you should be able to start reading within minutes of iPad 2 going on sale. (I sometimes think that Apple use the internet blogs and forum speculation as a useful arm of their R&D department to generate new ideas to pursue – in which case, if they do, good on them. Listening to customers and delivering at and above their expectations is what makes a successful company.) For another, if any iPad 2 is already likely to be a sell-out, then why even try and over-excite demand when there is no hope of the supply chain being able to meet it for months to come? You’ll only frustrate potential buyers and possibly drive them into the arms of other manufacturers that way.

Another reason for not wanting to fiddle with the iPad too much at this point is that sticking with the basic model and just tinkering around the edges will exude an overwhelming confidence in the product: “Yes, it’s so good, why mess with it? It’s a winner, tried and tested and proven, all but perfect – come on in, the water’s fine.” It’s reassuring to potential buyers to see a manufacturer serene and confident in their product to the point of smugness, whereas too much tinkering can give the impression of insecurity, of basic problems, or just that any buyer is going to find their purchase out of date in five seconds because of the latest tweak.

In fact Apple’s only potential problem is if they really can’t actually think of any way of improving it in the future, if they can’t think of any more features to add to later iPad models. And the creative well does go dry at times, even for Apple. The development of iPod range, for example, is looking like being reduced to shuffling round the colours and bumping up the memory chips because there’s not much else you can do to them now; the iPhone 4 also lacked any big new ideas and indeed many of its well-publicised problems (antenna-gate; the failure-to-fly of the white model; problems with the all-glass case) seem to be the result of having to push things too far, too soon just to be able to come up with something that could go on the press releases boasting the all-important new features critical to moving units of any new retail product.

But Apple’s problem is that the iPhone as it stands is pretty much perfect, at least as perfect as the current state of technology allows and in accordance with people’s actual requirements of a mobile smartphone. It will take a seismic shift in thinking to produce something genuinely new to simulate a whole new growth spurt – as big a shift as the one the original iPhone itself wrought on the mobile phone handset market. Does anyone have any genuinely new ideas, or have we restored equilibrium for now?

The iPad didn’t so much create a seismic shift as magic a completely new market out of thin air. The iPad now defines the tablet market; and it did so by delivering everything that people wanted out of such a device, even if they didn’t know it before they saw it. But if the iPad already does everything, and near-perfectly at that, then where does it go from here other than the odd new feature and refinement of form factor and newer chips that allow older models to be slowly dropped from support by later releases of iOS and apps to cajole people to upgrade eventually?

That’s already the reason why, when the “faster, thinner, lighter” and camera-enabled new iPad comes out, I won’t be buying – for the very simple reason that I love my current iPad and there’s no improvement I need to it. But hopefully those hold-outs who recoiled from buying a first gen product will be lining up at the checkouts and joining the club, and that’ll do very nicely for Apple’s corporate accounts in 2011.

The iPad 2 may turn out to be “the very least Apple can do” in a second generation product, but that’s likely to be more than enough.

Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of future-gazing and trying to spot the Next Big Thing in technology before it arrives in the mainstream? I know I do, and the last few years have been wonderfully active and fast-moving in that regard. I have lots of news feeds to keep me up to date with the latest in social media, technology and media, and use them to inspire me to write new blog posts and reports.

But recently I’ve found myself somewhat bereft of any such inspiration. In other words: is it just me, or is there nothing much new happening at the moment?

The social media news scene is still dominated by Facebook and Twitter, as evidenced by this week’s substantial coverage over the protests in Egypt and whether it was Facebook or Twitter ‘wot won it’. But this is nothing new and we’ve been having “the impact of social media on the headline of the day” stories run almost every month for the last year or two. These days both companies are getting on a bit in online terms – Facebook was created in 2004 and Twitter in 2006 so neither are spring chickens any more – and while Facebook’s current dominance is astounding (something like one page in every ten viewed in the US is a Facebook page apparently) there are also signs that Facebook may be losing its momentum in the demographic where it all started – American college students – if the vox pop at the end of the second episode of Rory Cellan-Jones’ excellent BBC Radio 4 series Secret History of Social Networking is anything to go by.

Outside of the Big Two and the social media scene is not exactly healthy. Friends Reunited withered long ago, and now it seems MySpace is on its way out. Bebo was sold off at a huge loss by AOL last year, Jaiku is gone and Google’s forays into the sector such as Buzz and Wave have fallen flat. Ning, a service to allow groups to set up their own white label online communities for free, has now retreated to premium services only.

Only LinkedIn, the business-orientated social network, seems to be thriving at the moment (its planning an IPO this year) – perhaps the reality of people being thrown out of their jobs and looking for work has had one beneficiary at least? But as a concept and business, LinkedIn is even older than the Big Two and founded at the end of 2002.

Otherwise all we’re seeing is business ideas built into small niches into the existing social media ecosphere; for example, the likes of Foursquare and GetGlue to expand the functionality of existing networks. They can’t survive on their own so they’re unlikely to be anything more than background players, and if they get too successful then you can bet that Facebook or Twitter will either buy them up or more likely simply include the functionality into their own core product, so it’s a precarious and short-lived position for those businesses to be in.

Looking further afield to technology, last year was supposed to be the Year of the Mobile. But then the mobile got its backside kicked by the iPad and the whole game changed. Now it’s all about tablets, and phones are so 2009. Everyone is trying to come up with the “iPad killer” (and aren’t we already as fed up of that notion as we are about the perennial annual parade of “iPhone killer” launches?) Trouble is, it takes time for rivals to create an entirely new type of product – look how long it took Nokia, RIM and Microsoft to get into the position of finally having phones that could genuinely rival Apple’s iPhone, for example. Accelerating a product to market too fast can leave it looking very poor and under-developed, leading to user disappointment (no wonder the Samsung Galaxy Tab has such high return rates) and just reinforce the market leader’s dominance by giving them an aura of untouchable quality in the meantime.

Except for games consoles such as the Wii and Xbox Kinnect, Apple tends to dominate technology announcements these days, but even here there’s a sense of “is that it? what can we do now?” Last year’s iPad was certainly a triumph, but this year Apple are busy making merely incremental improvements year-on-year to their product line to keep the customers buying the next model. In their computer range, iPods, iPhone and even the iPad going forward there’s a distinct lack of any new big leap on the horizon and almost a sense that the changes that are being introduced are being done simply to differentiate the 2011 model from the 2010 and hence drive the upgrade sales. The really significant changes tend to be in things like underlying chipsets which, let’s be honest, means nothing to the ordinary punter on the high street – or even the majority of geeks.

Along with the iPad, last year’s Next Big Thing contender was possibly the freeing up of public sector data initially with data.gov.uk and the Cabinet Office transparency initiative, and this this year with the Public Data Corporation, but even here a sense of ennui and frustration has started to develop as people ask “Well, this is all very well, but what do we do with all this data?” The public sector is having the usual problems of getting the bureaucracy to release genuinely useful data from its stores, in a consistent and reusable format and not just a load of tables in PDF. As a result it seems that public data has already become part of the furniture and just something else to be griped about.

There’s no better example of this then this week’s launch of the www.police.uk site to allow people to look up details of crimes committed in their local area. A year ago such an initiative would have been greeted with unbridled delight, but this week it’s just been criticised for: a) being overwhelmed with demand and going down; b) not making the data available in a reusable format outside the site; c) that the site itself is poorly designed; d) that its functionality is limited and error-prone; and e) that it apparently cost in the region of £300,000 in order to ‘free’ this data. In other words, it’s being seen as an awful lot of money to allow people to have a quick voyeuristic look at their neighbourhood and then never make use of it again. It’s a shame that it seems to have no bigger idea, play no part in a wider communications strategy.

Looking through the rest of the technology headlines we see stories not about the Next Big Thing but about the day-to-day grind of technology reduced to glitches, consolidation and business haggles: rows about whether Apple disallowing various apps in its iOS App Store; will the iPad 2 have a retina display or not (and who cares about the incessant speculation anyway?); HTML5 vs Flash; legal issues about film sales in iTunes breaking copyright; an email bug on the Windows 7 phone and a browser flaw in IE; the running out of internet addresses in IPv4 format; Google accusing Microsoft of copying search results. And an awful lot of stories about governments increasingly barging in, from the UK government looking into how to block sites that infringe copyright to the Indian authorities looking set to ban Blackberrys because the makers (RIM) won’t allow the government to access users’ messages (in the name of terrorism prevention of course.)

There are stories about the slow build in Google Chrome usage stats to 10% (and iOS devices up to 2%); Facebook scrambling to fix an authentication flaw; a new tablet on the horizon (from LG); Amazon looking at film streaming (a concept that’s been with us for years but only now practical with increased broadband speeds and capacities); the slow death of Yahoo!; the rise of e-books at long last, after almost as long a build-up as the mythical Year of Mobile; various services being shut down by the BBC; perennial stories about the death of blogging, or the death of RSS, or the death of something else. And so on, and so on.

But if we’re honest, it’s all very dull and uninspiring: like watching something that was recently shiny, new and exciting suddenly start to age badly and look rather old and frail. “End of life”, as the technology retailers would phrase it. If everything’s wearing out, then what’s going to come next – or have we peaked and it’s all a gentle slump downhill from here? Is this the evidence of the chill that the dire economic situation and the age of austerity is having all round?

Maybe I’m missing something – or indeed allowing my own winter gloom to paint the scene in shades of grey – but nothing has been exciting me in the last few months in the way that I was in 2006 and 2007 when social media came onto the scene and started to change not just how we did things but indeed what we did. Perhaps this will simply prove to be just a dramatic pause before the triumphant appearance of the next giant leap forward; it’s just annoying that it’s taking so long to make itself known.

Still, we’ll keep watching the feeds for signs of intelligent life on the horizon.

About this time last year, I had a bit of a spasm on tech updates, which included opting for the then-brand new Magic Mouse – a mouse that did away with the scroll wheel and buttons and replaced it with a touch-sensitive surface instead. Initial reports were good, I had none of the feared ergonomics/RSI consequences from its slim, low-profile form factor that doubters had predicted.

Since then, the Magic Mouse has become somewhat eclipsed by the latest trendy young thing in Apple’s line-up, the Magic Trackpad. That basically extends the touch sensitive surface of the Magic Mouse to a flat slate surface, allowing Apple to introduce all the swiping and pinching gestures that have taken the mobile world by storm on the iPhone and and iPad.

I kind of should like the Magic Trackpad, and yet I find myself slightly non-plussed. The Magic Mouse by contrast may seem to be an awkward, slightly cludgy combination of old (mouse) and new (touch), but the fact is I like that compromise and it seems to me to be the best of both worlds. So I haven’t really seriously considered a Magic Trackpad and am happy with my current set-up.

Well – with one caveat. As reported in my Tech Update post, the Magic Mouse is greedy when it comes to batteries and certainly offers nothing close to the suggested 3 month life before expiring. Maybe I’m using it too much, or maybe I’m just not holding it the right way? No, wait, that’s a different Apple product …

In fact it’s not really all that bad in the grand scheme of things – I know some people with wireless/Bluetooth mice who are changing batteries every month. But something about having to buy batteries on a too-regular basis and feed them into hungry tech devices really irritates the heck out of me; especially when, as in the case of a mouse, I would be perfectly happy if it wasn’t wireless at all and was fed power by a nice USB cable like my old mouse was. But no, that would spoil the design of Apple’s beautiful Magic Mouse, wouldn’t it, so we can’t have a cable.

It actually irks me so much that periodically I’ll switch back to using the old Mighty Mouse with its gunged-up nipple scroll-wheel and its jumping optical tracking – until those get me so riled up that I remember why I got the new mouse in the first place and how much better it is. If not for those damn batteries …

Well, you can see what’s coming: the obvious direction to go in at this point is to say, “why not rechargeable batteries”? Quite so. And this week, as the low battery sign came on my Mac again, I was kicked into action to do just that.

Now it’s not like I haven’t had rechargeable batteries before now. But somehow I always manage to end up losing the recharger. It gets stuffed into a cupboard and never seen again, because it’s never exactly the nicest bit of electrical kit – it’s exactly the sort of thing that gets stuffed in that messy drawer with the leftover plugs and spare fuses. It’s not like a piece of Apple kit where even a laptop power supply or a remote control becomes a work of art that you practically want to put in a display case in the middle of your lounge to show off. If only Apple did a battery charger … But then, what could even Apple do with something so dull, utilitarian and long in the tooth as a battery recharger?

Informed readers will know what’s coming next: Apple have indeed recently brought out a battery charger. And it has brought the unmistakable hallmark of Apple design to it as well, looking for all the world like one of those gorgeous laptop power suppliers … but then in the hollowed-out back of the unit, there’s space to insert two batteries. (Only two? Why yes, because anything more wouldn’t fit, would be ugly and spoil the form factor, and we can’t have that!)

The unit comes with six rechargeable batteries in total and a nice bit of reasoning that two are for your wireless Magic Mouse or Trackpad, two more for your Apple Wireless Keyboard, and two on charge waiting to swap in. Go on, admit it – that level of insight (explaining why six and not four or eight which most battery packs come in) is somehow really, really effective and gives you a nice warm feeling somewhere deep inside that someone understands you and is looking out for you. The batteries aren’t Apple branded thankfully (that would be just too twee) but they’re silver and stylishly plain and there’s no question that they’re meant to stand proudly alongside every Apple iMac/mouse/keyboard/trackpad in the range.

You can of course get cheaper – much cheaper rechargers, but I don’t care – this is a unit that’s actually going to stay with me for years to come: I wouldn’t dare put it into an electrical odds-and-sods drawer and lose it.

Postscript

In fact the real downside of buying the Apple recharger at the Regent Street store is that little retail accidents can happen as a result. I somehow hadn’t allowed for the fact that the recharger would be on the shelves next to the Magic Trackpad and the Apple Wireless Keyboard. But they were – right in front of me as I picked up the item I came in for.

Now the trackpad still has very little appeal to me. And I have no interest in replacing my iMac keyboard with a wireless one. So on the face of it, this moment of temptation should have been easily overcome.

Except …

Whenever anyone asks me what I use my iPad for (stay with me here, I haven’t veered totally off-topic!) I invariably say that it’s a great consumer device for reading emails, tweets, RSS feeds, browsing, playing games, watching TV recordings; but that I never use it for content creation. I wouldn’t write this blog post on it, for example.

Why? Well, the on-screen touch-keyboard is fine for pecking out short message, but for anything longer I invariably start resting my fingers where I shouldn’t, or my fingers stray out of position, or brush somewhere they shouldn’t, and before I know it I have complete gobbledegook on the screen and have to start again. It’s frustrating enough to limit its use as a proper input/content creation device.

Dear reader, you can see what’s coming next: the idea of an Apple Wireless Keyboard that can be used to input into the iPad, right? Yup, that was all it took for me to swipe one of those keyboards form the shelves (and take directly to the checkout, he adds hurriedly, lest you think this is a tale of shoplifting!)

It’s a bit of a cliché these days to talk about “plug-and-play”, but it still impresses the hell out of me when I can turn a device on, activate Bluetooth on the iPad and select the device, type in an ID number as instructed on-screen … and the whole thing just works. Straight away. With no problems, nothing else to configure. I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over how great such easy moments are.

So now I’m going to see whether that set-up allows me to start writing up motorsports reports during the race, without having to decamp to the computer; whether it will be a good set-up for using out of the home, at meetings and other places. I’ll report back in a while once I know more.

But in the meantime, an immediate impression of the Apple Wireless Keyboard: wow, it’s gorgeous. Incredibly slim, light, and yet at the same time solid and tough and hard wearing. It’s tiny and rather cute and yet completely full-sized as a keyboard should be. I remember the plastic, breakable keyboard on my old Powerbook G4 ten years ago, and compare it with this – the difference in build quality and attention to detail is something else. And I loved (and still love) that Powerbook G4.

Once again, then, Apple win and triumphantly extract more money from me. And once again, I not only don’t mind – I thank them for it. How do they manage this retail alchemy? If the rest of us knew we’d all be a lot better off.

So Apple have unveiled the most extensive revamp of their iPod range this week. And yet, despite being an Apple fanboi going way back (before iPads, iPhones, iPods or even iMacs) I find myself in an odd fugue state of indifference, topped off with the first early warning signs of anxiety about Apple’s direction and future.

Last year the company unveiled the fifth generation iPod nano, and I was so excited that I had bought one within a couple of days. Far from being a rash decision, I can happily say that I’ve used the nano virtually every day of the year since and certainly never regretted the purchase.

The new nano is the most far-reaching redesign in the 2010 iPod line-up revamp, changing it to a square touchscreen device that continues Apple’s strategy of progressively cascading the ‘touch’ paradigm through its line-up. The touchscreen is clearly the thing to have these days and anything else with physical buttons and sliders is starting to look a bit tired and old hat: users used to iPhones start prodding the screen and wondering why it’s not working, until they reload the old and dated way of doing things back into their brain. And there’s no doubt that the simple clickable scroll-wheel – so effective when first introduced – is now creaking under the weight of finding ways to access all the gazillion new features that have crept onto the iPod since its launch.

So the addition of touch technology brings a little of that Apple glamour and pizzazz back to the nano, and helps stop it being potentially overlooked in a crowded market. But the sixth generation nano’s touchscreen implementation seems a rather halfway house solution, because the screen – while looking at first glance like the iPod touch/iPhone iOS – is purely cosmetic. It doesn’t run iOS and can’t have apps added to it, so it’s a bit of sleight-of-hand that doesn’t really hide the fact that its beauty is barely skin deep, and I suspect this limitation will disappoint as many people as the redesign will delight. In addition, the screen is now rather too small to easily navigate through lots of music, and the touchscreen makes it hard to use when out for a run or any other time you can’t stop, take out the nano to look at and fiddle with.

But the main reason I’m disappointed in the new nano is that it removes video capability. I’m not referring to the video camera/recording per se – I’ve not used that very often on my nano, but on the other hand it does nicely fit a gap in functionality on my old iPhone 3G phone – but I do find the removal of a much-touted fifth generation feature to be a somewhat retrograde step. No, my main complaint on video is that the new iPod nano can’t play video. At all. No more vodcasts, no more watching TV programmes recorded through my Elgato tuner (which I’ve gone a fair amount of over the year.) That’s a real drawback, actually a dealbreaker for me. Why remove that feature? Not being able to pack in the video camera hardware into the diminished casing I can understand, but how can the nano software suddenly lose the ability to play video after all this time?

At least the new nano retains its FM radio, which I was particularly excited about with the fifth generation last year. I actually feared that it, too, would be swept away by the change in physical form, so it’s nice to see it retained. It actually makes me surprised that the revamped iPod touch is singularly lacking an FM radio chip in its latest incarnation. Otherwise, the new iPod touch delivers everything that was expected – in particular the front-facing camera and the Facetime video conferencing capability. This was an absolute top priority for Apple, because establishing Facetime as a video conferencing standard needs it to be on more devices than simply the top-of-the-line iPhone 4, and so this iPod touch brings it “to the masses” – or at least as mass as it’s ever likely to get.

The one thing that surprises me with the iPod touch upgrade is that its appearance looks … Well, pretty much the same as the previous model. Apparently it’s a little thinner, but not by so much as you’d notice. That means the general overall aesthetic is still the same as the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and fairly close to the iPad. What it’s not like, however, is the iPhone 4, and that leaves the iPhone 4 looking like the odd one out: “one of these things is not like the other ones.” As a result, its sleek, metal, sharp-edged design looks rather un-Applelike against the carefully curved other models in the mobile range. Now it could be that Apple just wants the iPhone 4 to remain unique and special, or it could be that the iPhone 4 style simply doesn’t work well with an ultraslim physical form. But by leaving the iPhone 4 looking so different, it does raise the suggestion that someone, somewhere has already decided that it’s not the future of Apple’s mobile devices and that the iPhone 4 design has already been consigned to the “lame duck” category of history.

Because it’s true, Apple do make mistakes when it comes to product design: and you only have to look at the overhaul of the iPod shuffle to see this. The new model is fairly square, with buttons on its front face, while the previous model was longer and thinner with all the controls on the headphone lead. But look a generation back from that, and you’ll find that the 2008 shuffle is squarer, with buttons on its front face … Exactly like the 2010 model. Okay, the new model is thinner, and brings in the VoiceOver technology lacking from the 2008 model, but in all other respects this is one of the clearest examples yet we’ve had of Apple holdings its hands up and admitting “yeah, sorry about that 2009 model, it was a complete dog.”

Having the courage to own up and backtrack is actually quite laudable, but what’s missing here is that Apple seem to be completely out of ideas for what to do with the product than put it back to how it was before they broke it. A first sign of Apple’s design maestros running on empty? Or simply an illustration of how difficult even Apple finds it to deliver striking products to their usual dazzling standard at the low-cost end of the market?

You sense that Apple would love to just do away with the shuffle – that the new iPod nano touchscreen is really where they see this part of the market, being quite small enough (in fact – rather too small, especially for a touchscreen device). But the shuffle is a key part of Apple’s business strategy, its low price protecting the iPod range from the attacking hoards of budget MP3 players that are out there. In the same way, Apple clearly hate having to continue the iPod classic line and would love to get rid of it and have the iPod touch as the unchallenged king of the iPods, but they can’t – 128Gb RAM chips are proving elusive, and so the hard disc technology of the iPod classic is necessary for those music obsessives that need over 100Gb of storage on their device. But for the meantime the classic is a necessary evil, and so it sits in Apple’s product line-up, looking old and tired and neglected – just merely indispensable at the same time.

There were a few other launches at Apple’s September 1 event other than the refreshed iPod line-up: the next iPhone operating system, iOS 4.1, was announced – and top of the list was a fix for using it on the old iPhone 3G hardware. This (even more than antenna-gate, which was massively overhyped by blogs and media) has been a real black mark against Apple of late: when iOS 4.0 came out, the 3G was still part of the current iPhone range being sold by Apple. Even if that was only for a week overlap, there were still people buying a new phone on up to a 18 month contract who instantly could not use the current recommended OS for it without serious performance issues. It’s one thing to remove support and deprecate an out-of-date product, but to make a model obsolete while it’s still in your retail line-up is reprehensible.

There’s also the Apple TV, but outside the US this is rather hobbled by international licensing deals and consequently still feels like a dispensable sideline for Apple. What’s raised most eyebrows about Apple TV in the UK has been the price – the £99 matching the $99, the first time we’ve seen pound/dollar parity. The Apple TV seems a bit of a blip on Apple’s pricing, but other Apple prices are also skyrocketing (the new nano is about 25% more than the old one, for example) and even Apple seem to be getting a little uncomfortable about how this is coming across, carefully adding information to their UK Store pages detailing how much of that is down to sales taxes (VAT) and import duties. While it’s true that the pound has fared poorly on the money markets in the last year, and VAT will be going up to 20% in January, it’s still astonishing just how much Apple are hiking their prices, while all the other IT retailers are slashing prices to nothing (for example, under £300 for a laptop) – but then, Apple sales are exploding despite the price, so maybe it just shows that Apple know more about this than I do. Or indeed most economists do! Apple seem happy shooting for the premium crowd, where “if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it” – but will this last or prove to be a bubble?

And there was also the launch of iTunes 10, the latest version of Apple’s media player/manager. Here’s a program that urgently needs a complete reboot – it’s got large, bloated, confusing and disorganised over the years as more and more demands and features have been foisted upon it. For a simple media player, the amount of system resources it hogs these days is astonishing. But instead of tackling all of this, Apple have simply landed it with another whole chunk of stuff to take care of – this time social networking via music, a network they call Ping. I can honestly say that another social network was not something I was thinking as being missing from my life, and while it’s been hailed as “the final nail in MySpace’s coffin” I can’t help but think this is far too little and far too late in the day to be getting into this game. Then again, I’d have said the same about Apple’s clearly doomed attempt to infiltrate the mature mobile phone market just before they launched the iPhone, so if anyone can pull off the impossible then it’s Apple.

However, there are a few things about iTunes 10 and Ping (other than feature-bloat) that make me scratch my head and worry that Apple are starting to falter at keeping all these plates spinning. Early users of Ping have been trying to set up user accounts … And finding that their avatar pictures don’t appear, until they have been “approved”. It’s Apple’s control tendencies showing again, mixed with the same puritanical streak that sees them censor anything remotely smutty or sleazy from the App Store. But having to get an avatar approved by the all-seeing Apple? Even for committed Apple fanbois this is surely a level of central control beyond a joke. And for everyone else, is this a network that you’d be happy joining? Apple clearly don’t have a grasp on social media or understand that it cannot be directed and controlled without killing it off. On just this one piece of early evidence, I have grave doubts Ping will ever make any impact and that it may quickly whither and die, much as its original foray into online communities, eWorld, similarly suffocated and died.

The other point about iTunes 10 is a very, very minor one: they’ve moved the three buttons for closing, minimising or expanding so that they now run vertically like traffic lights – instead of horizontally, as they appear on every other piece of software on the Mac OS. It’s a OS interface constant, a standard, so that everyone knows where the buttons are, what they do, how they work. And Apple have mucked around with this for no good apparent reason, but just because they felt like it. Interface designers know that you don’t monkey around with such things on a whim, so what are Apple playing at?

It is, as I have already admitted, a very minor detail. And yet there is something about it that seems telling to me, where such attention to small detail that used to be the defining characteristic of the company. And it’s in this and in the other parts of the iPod line-up covered in this article, either through highly uncharacteristic carelessness perhaps simply from being overstretched. The volume of output from Apple over the past few years has been astonishing, and we’re talking about a company a fraction of the size of Microsoft – which had been all but inert for years now, God alone knows what all those people are doing up in Seattle. Apple’s “start-up” size has worked for them over the years but now it might be catching up with them, the cracks showing as they take on more than they can carry, and as a result some of the plates can no longer be kept spinning: just look back at the iPhone 4 antenna-gate problem, the early iPad wi-fi problems, the issues with iOS4, the fact that iWorks hasn’t had a major upgrade in two years, and then add the sense that the latest iterations of products frankly aren’t as interesting or innovative as we’re used to from Apple. Too much to do, too little time to allow for innovation and inspiration.

And also … I do wonder whether any of this might stem from Steve Job’s medical leave last year. There’s things here that I wouldn’t have expected Jobs to let go through if he’d been in charge at the time, little slips that would have had him been in a rage and demanding to fix. Maybe the experience has changed him, and that infuriating, dynamic, demanding, contrary, driving, unique, charismatic dynamo at the heart of Apple is no longer the force it was. And if Apple’s core starts to falter, then will Apple itself decline and fall in turn?

Or perhaps this is just a simple blip, and all will be well with the Applesphere next time around. Let’s hope.

A couple of weeks ago, Amazon.com put out a press release revealing that e-book sales now top those of hardback books in the US. It called this a “tipping point”, but to be honest it was more a case of being a nice hook on which to hang a bit of PR. After all, who really buys hardbacks anymore? I actively hate and loathe hardbacks for fiction books and avoid them at all costs. What really will be a major moment in this history of publishing will be when e-books outsell paperbacks – and Amazon reckon that will come as soon as 2011.

As it turns out, the original press release was simply the opening salvo in a big product launch by Amazon – a new-model Kindle e-book reader was announced last week so it’s no surprise that the company had been talking up e-books. The significance of the new Kindle isn’t just the usual collection of faster/better/much cheaper, but also that the device will be on sale outside the US for the first time – customers in the UK will be able to buy direct from Amazon.co.uk rather than having it shipped over. Clearly, Amazon are looking at the recent launch of the iPad and concluding their window of opportunity to establish the Kindle as the international e-book standard is closing fast and they have to get a move on to hold off Apple from taking over.

By coincidence, the day the first Amazon press release came on the day that I paid for an e-book for the very first time. I’d downloaded free ones before (all the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, are public domain now) but this was the first time I’d actually paid out good money for a modern title. I’d been put off before this by scepticism – would I actually read an e-book, or would it languish unread? (Why should it be any different from the piles of dozens of unread physical books, after all?!) I’ve seen a few people on the train using e-book (usually the Sony e-Reader which is the main one that can be bought from high street shops in the UK) but never felt they had much appeal for me – certainly not enough to get me to shell out hundreds of pounds for the device itself.

It took a very particular set of circumstances to get me to overcome my reluctance to go virtual when it came to books. Specifically, the book I was interested in wasn’t actually in print in the UK until next year, but was available now for downloading via the likes of Apple’s iBooks and Amazon’s own Kindle platform. While I don’t have a Kindle device, Amazon have very cleverly developed a range of applications that put the Kindle reader onto many different platforms – iPhones, iPads, PCs and Macs. That gave me a certain reassurance about not being too tied to a specific device in order to still be able to read and access any book I’d bought. It’s back to the early days of music downloads: would MP3 sales have taken off if you could only play the file on one specific player and if the manufacturer stopped making it then tough luck – the books were gone too?

So I ended up going for the Kindle version. the main reason being that I wanted to be able to read during my daily commute to work. I don’t take my iPad into the office on a regular basis but I do take my iPhone – but it’s a 3G which doesn’t play well with the new iOS4 required to run iBooks. The Kindle iPhone app, on the other hand, works just fine on the old 3G and old operating system.

There were other factors that persuaded me to go Kindle as well. Some time ago, some very generous relations of mine gave me a sizeable gift token for Amazon.com; but since it was not transferable to the UK store, it’s actually proved oddly difficult to use up. I don’t have a multiregion DVD player, so they’re out; books and CDs are costly and slow to have shipped over; MP3 downloads are restricted to the US only. But it turned out that not only are Kindle books available from Amazon.com for download in the UK, you actually have to download them through the US store – at least until the end of August, when the Kindle goes international and the UK store commences its own Kindle edition e-book sales. That gift certificate suddenly became a little gold mine!

So the book (just a trashy summer action thriller, nothing high brow) was bought and downloaded within a minute – it’s really amazingly satisfying to be able to start reading a book just seconds after having decided to buy it. And then we arrived the moment of truth – would I actually carry on reading the book, or would it be a novelty quickly forgotten?

I’m actually surprised by the answer: I’m reading, and quite regularly. I’m near finished the book, and in about my normal reading time for a book of that size and type. I’ve not found it a strain reading from the screen: that’s mostly been on the iPad where a page is roughly the same size and layout as a printed book, but the iPhone has proved remarkably easy as well despite my initial doubts about the small size of the screen. I love how the Kindle software will automatically sync the book, so wherever I get up to is automatically bookmarked and offered to me as the point to read from on the other device.

Some people find they get eye-strain reading on backlit screens, but I’ve not had any problem or even really thought about it – I turn the iPad to low brightness and use the sepia colour scheme which works just fine. (The physical Kindle device, on the other hand, uses a monochrome “e-ink” system which doesn’t use backlighting and instead more closely simulates the ink-on-page of regular books.) The physical Kindle seems to be often criticised for slow page turn speeds, but on the iPad and iPhone these are quick, responsive and nicely animated.

Overall, I’m amazed how quickly the novelty wears off and you’re quickly just ‘reading a book’ and the medium doesn’t matter, but that’s something the iPad is very good at doing – disappearing into the background and letting the content take centre stage. I’m so comfortable with this set-up already that I’ve bought the sequel to the book I’m currently reading, and another as well by an author whose new detective novels I always buy when they come out in paperback. Now, instead of waiting, I have the e-book.

I’m so impressed that I’m actually mildly considering buying a physical Kindle device when they finally land in the UK at the end of August, just to try out the experience and see whether it’s different/better than the Kindle apps on the iPad and iPhone – and to see if it makes any difference to my commute.

About the only remaining frustration with e-books is if you want to read near water – say, in the bath. How are you going to feel about your pricey e-book reader coming anywhere close to liquid? So if I’m looking for a relaxing soak in the bath then it’s back to fishing out an alternate paperback from the shelf rather than carrying on with the e-book. It’s not much of an advantage, but it definitely is one – the paperback isn’t quite dead yet and still has a couple of advantages all its own!

The iPad has landed!

And so the iPad finally touches down in the UK, and Friday saw impressive news coverage of around-the-block queues at the central London Apple Store on Regent Street. Twitter has been full of people tracking their package deliveries via FedEx, TNT and the like (some with more success than others …) or regaling us with tales of getting their new babies home and unwrapping them for the first time, and I don’t mind admitting that I’m as jealous as hell.

For all the sound and fury, through, I wonder if the launch is as wildly successful as it initially appeared? At my local Apple Store (in Kingston-upon-Thames in the Bentalls Centre) there was certainly a long line first thing on launch day, but by the time I ambled in mid-morning the store – while undoubtedly busy – was not unreasonable. I got to have some hands-on time with an iPad, and even spoke to a member of staff about what the deal was with 3G contracts in the UK. I repeated the feat mid-morning on the Saturday, too – more hands-on time with an iPad, and a question (about Mac OS upgrades) with a different member of staff.

Apparently things did get busier later on (I was told on good authority that by mid-afternoon on Saturday, the store was operating a “one in, one out” system of letting people in, and the waiting line was a good 20 people long.) But crowds do not make for sales, and I had it from another reliable source that they had sold only 40 units in the first 24 hours and that there were plenty of stocks of all the different types of iPads. Maybe 40 is a high figure for a product of this type and cost, but it did seem like there were more watchers and triers than actual buyers out there.

So anyway, how do I feel about the iPad now I’ve had some actual hands-on experience with it? I always say that you can’t know your true feelings about an Apple product until you’ve seen in the in the flesh (the iPhone wowed me far more than I could believe; the iPod nano 5th gen was also quietly more impressive in person than just looking at photos, whereas the 2007 white iMac model is a computer that looked fine in pictures but which I took against viscerally in person because of its cheap, plastic feel. Fortunately later models set this right.)

So the surprising thing about my encounter with the iPad is that there was absolutely no surprise at all. No re-evaluation required. That’s not a bad thing – it delivered on my every expectation – but it’s not a great thing, in that I didn’t get swept away by the emotion to go and buy one. Possibly it’s because I have an iPhone, and let’s be honest – the iPad is, physically at least, a very large iPhone/iPod Touch, so it’s form can’t really surprise you if you’re familiar with its siblings. However, the friend I went with who doesn’t have an iPhone seemed to fall completely and utterly in love at their first swipe, pinch and scroll so maybe the iPad allure will work on the less technically blasé.

Okay, there were a few things: it wasn’t as heavy as reviews had led me to expect, although a few minutes of holding it did make me think that some weight training down the gym might be required to prepare for extended use. The screen was utterly dazzling – very bright, incredibly high resolution, making even the most ordinary web sites look gorgeous in Safari. And the speed of it was stunning too, so much faster and responsive than anything else I’d tried. But overall, what I saw was exactly what I had expected.

So I end up at the same place I was back in January, when I asked “iPad, but do iWant“? And in fact my thinking has moved on some way from this early bewilderment as to what I would actually use an iPad for, should I fork out the £500 or so required.

I can really see this replacing magazines and newspapers; perhaps Murdoch is right to firewall the Times after all, despite my scepticism, because with a custom iPad app it would be like having the paper to hand to flick over some stories, put down, come back to, read over lunch. That would be worth a sub, although I still reckon that Murdoch’s initial pricing is wildly over-ambitious.

For myself, I find that I leave my desktop Mac system on for most of the day because I’ll want to pop over, check email and Twitter messages, or look up something on the Internet that’s occurred to me; during motor races I’ll want to look up the live news, commentary and timing services. So rather than waking and sleeping the Mac every 20 minutes, I’ll leave it on for much of the day, which is both convenient and also distracting (since “because it’s on, I should use it”) and of course not exactly environmentally responsible.

An iPad would replace much if not all of that use. Want to look up something on IMDb? No problem. Tweets? Right there. Mail? Sure thing. All of it right there, and instantly (the iPad wakes up and connects to wifi with astonishing speed; a second would be sluggish for it.) In other words, it makes the Internet and everything on it as convenient to access as picking up a magazine.

So, yes, alright, I admit it. I finally get the iPad. I want the iPad. I’m struggling to resist actually going and buying one. Like, right now. But did I mention it’s my birthday in three and a half weeks?

iPad; but do iWant?

So, that’s the long-awaited Apple tablet, then? Hmmm. I think I’ll file that under “Interesting, but …”

On one level you have to feel sorry for Apple – there’s so much frenzied anticipation ahead of their product launches that the details can’t help but leak in advance and then get multiplied dozens of times over by the hyperactive Chinese whispers building upon one another. By the time the product finally makes its début it’s hard not to be left with the overriding feelings of “is that it?” and find many of the features that were by-now expected to be missing. So let’s start with: it’s really just a large iPhone. Is that a game changer; is it going to be a huge success?

It’s hard to tell with Apple products – I always think that you really have no idea whether you’ll want an Apple product until you see it in the flesh. Products I’ve been very ‘meh’ about when I’ve seen pictures or videos of, I’ve ended up falling in love with then I actually see it in the store. My original PowerBook G4 for example, or the current iMac range. But sometimes it doesn’t work, and an example of that is the white iMac from about 4 years ago, that was too thick and plastic-looking and looked cheap and rather like a Fisher Price toy rather than an expensive piece of hardware. Or the current Mac Pro range, which are just too big, starkly industrial and domineering for any real domestic setting, no matter how stylish that aluminium casing looks.

No, you have to sit yourself in front of an Apple product to know whether you’ll fall in love with it or not. The new iPod nano might not look very different in photos, but you compare one of them side by side with its predecessor and lust instantly sets in. And of course, the iPhone is proof of this – on paper it’s just a phone with a touch screen, but spend five minutes in the company of someone with an iPhone and you’ll be as addicted to it as you would be if they had been feeding you crack cocaine.

So putting the “iWant” lust factor to one side for a moment, I’ll address the bigger concern I have with the iPad. (And no, it’s not the name – you can titter if you want and make smirking references to Tampons, but that will quickly pass. Remember how stupid the name “iPod” sounded for a music player all those years ago? And yet now people struggle not to say “iPod” when they talk about mobile music players, and the name has entered the word and the concept of “podcasting” to the English language. We smirked at iPod, but it worked; I’m betting the same will be true of iPad.)

Nor is the big problem any teething problem about things such as data plans, product availability, or how robust it will be (will the screen scratch easily? What if you drop it? Will it bend if you’re carrying it in a bad? What sort of case will you need for it to protect it from all these hazards? Will a case bulk it up so much that it’s no different to carry around than a netbook or small laptop?)

No, the biggest problem with the iPad is: I’m not really sure what it’s for.

It’s been a question that’s been nagging at me for the past year or so, as speculation mounted and Apple gradually got closer to confirming that they were producing a tablet computer. I never saw the point of tablets when Microsoft tried to tout them as the Next Big Thing either, and while those were heavy, ugly, ill-conceived things, I still don’t “get” them today even with the beautiful, shiny gloss of an Apple design added to the mix. What’s it for?

I think that’s what I expected – no, needed – Apple to provide an answer to in this product launch. Give me a reason to want one, to think this is will be an inevitable, invaluable part of my life. Teach me, open my eyes, show me what I’ve been missing.

Big ask? Certainly. But nothing Apple hasn’t done before. It was crystal clear what the iPod was for the minute it was launched – a music player. That it’s grown so much bigger in the intervening years doesn’t change the fact that it’s still basically a music player. That’s a basic function that we can understand, see the need for, and which then directly taps into the “iNeed therefore iGet” circuit in our consumer brain.

Similarly the iPhone for all its functionality can still be boiled down to “it’s a phone. With an iPod!” That was the equation that led to my rationalising the expenditure (I needed to replace an antique mobile phone and an even older iPod, therefore the iPhone was an obvious purchase.) Looking further afield, the business case for a laptop is also just as evident: you need to take your computer with you and not just leave it at the office, hence the explosion in the laptop market.

But a tablet? What does it offer that my current set-up doesn’t? If I’m at home or the office, won’t I use my desktop computer? If I’m on the move won’t I stick with the fully-featured laptop rather than the cut down features of the iPad? Or if I can use a limited feature set, just stick with an iPhone?

I simply can’t see the point of getting one right now. It might fit into the gap between iPhone and laptop very neatly, but is there actually a user/market need in that tiny sliver? I’d expected Apple to sell me the concept by, say, making the iPad the de facto book reader for people on the move – the saviour of the book, magazine and newspaper, and the slayer of the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader just Apple brushed aside Sony Walkman and “ordinary” mobile phones in the past. Instead the launch seemed to oddly sideline the e-book aspect: yes it’s there but it’s no a core reason to buy the iPad. If anything, it looks as though it is the gaming aspect that will rise to become the main selling point of the iPad, and the problem there is that I’m really not much a gamer. At all. So I just don’t see why I would want one of these, even if I do end up walking into an Apple Store in a few months time and falling in lust-at-first-sight with one of these.

One undoubted triumph however is the pricing – just $499 for the entry level model? Even with an aggressively anti-UK conversation rate that should make it no more than £450, which for something so much bigger than the entry-level, lower-spec iPhone is really amazingly good value. In fact – will it undermine sales of the iPhone? Is the iPhone due a pricing revision?

But of course this is just iPad 1.0. The first version of the iPhone was rather uninspiring too, and critics predicted it would be a major failure. Now it’s merrily on its way to taking over the world (okay, I exaggerate. A little.) The iPad may well do the same, especially if it builds a comparable ecosystem of App Stores around it, and in two years time the laptop market might be in freefall as the iPad takes over and we’re all carrying one around with us.

That’s especially when and if it gains some of the features attributed to it by the overcranked pre-launch gossip – things like cameras for video conferencing, which seems so obvious a use for a tablet of this kind that its omission does seem rather odd. But maybe Apple like stocking up all this feverish speculation so that they can capture all the fanboy expectations, and then take them away and package them into the v2.0 user requirements speculation.

In which case, 12 months from now could prove to be a far more interesting and significant moment in the history of tablet computing. But 27 January 2010? Not so much. I’m just not that sold on it, not yet. Even if I’m seen salivating at the Apple Store in months to come, I’m going to need a lot of convincing before iLust turns into iPay.

For the last of this loose trilogy of tech-themed blog postings, I’m going to talk about having bought a backup hard disc. Yep, this is a post about backing up your hard drive: those of you with a non-geek disposition should look away now.

Yes, my final purchase this week has been a backup hard disc, and I have a confession to make that is surely shameful to all geeks: it’s the first backup drive I’ve ever owned.

Now in mitigation, this isn’t the first time I’ve held backups of key files, of course. I’ve always kept copies of my key files on an array of backup media, starting with the old SyQuest cartridges back in the 90s, then seguing to the Iomega ZIp drives that succeeded them, and then we got into burning first to CDs and then to DVDs.

And when even 4.3Gb of backup started to feel a bit restrictive, along came the rise of USB key sticks. The first one of those I bought was 2Gb for about thirty pounds, and that was impressive in its day; a few months ago, however, I got a 16Gb stick for sixteens pounds – Houston, we have pound-gigabyte parity!

These storage amounts are utterly staggering when you stop to think about it. I remember loading programs into a BBC Mirco by cassette tape, and being amazed by these new-fangled floppy discs for my Amstrad CPC that held unimaginable amounts of 180K per side. A little later and I was trying out Pagemaker on an Apple Macintosh Plus: since it didn’t have an internal hard disc, running the program meant juggling two different floppy discs in and out of the single drive. It made it quite fun as a computer game of speed and dexterity, but a complete non-starter as an efficient business machine for achieving anything.

When I was working at a magazine publisher’s in the early 90s, in the repro department that scanned in all the pictures at high resolution, we had the problem of how to store the photos and completed layouts. A typical page would need up to 256Mb of storage, and back then there were no High Street solutions offering that kind of capacity. We ended up with a technology called ‘OptiDisc’, a forerunner of DVDs, but at a cost of something like fifty pounds per disk. When you’re storing literally hundreds of pages on these things at any given time, that’s a huge outlay on media alone.

Arund this time, the first Mac I ever owned myself had a 105Mb hard drive when most models had a 80Mb drive – how could I ever fill up such a vast space I wondered? – and the next Mac, my first laptop, had a 1Gb drive. Four years on and my next computer, a Powerbook G4, had ten times that capacity. It still sits on my desk, the hard disc crammed full, its once mighty storage capacity humbled by the tiny nano sitting on top of it – let alone the desktop iMac with a 320Gb drive.

But even so, I’m still feeling the cold dead hand of file bloat creeping up on me. I have 20Gb in downloaded podcasts alone, and now that I have a TV tuner and can store TV programs at a size of 3.8Gb per hour-long program. All of a sudden my ad hoc storage routine of saving “key files” down to portable media – even when it’s cheap at 16Gb at a time – is increasingly under strain, unable to keep up.

Hence the decision to finally get a proper back-up disc to do a proper job of it. No more “saving key files when I feel like it” and “hope I haven’t missed anything” – I want to now that everything’s back-up. And if the Mac crashes, that I haven’t lost a week or a month’s worth of files since my last amateur back-up: I want to know everything up to an hour ago is safe.

Fortunately Apple have put disc back up software directly into the current operating system, so all I had to do was get the hardware, and I duly found a 1Tb (that’s terabyte, or 1000Gb) hard drive that looked ideal, for £130. That’s 12.9p per gigabyte – remember how excited I was at the pound-gigabyte parity? Keep watching and it’ll be a penny-gigabyte balance instead, and not too far in the future. To put this sort of capacity into context, I have it on good authority that the BBC’s MP3 archive of all its surviving radio output to date is around 30Tb.

Remember that old marketing chestnut phrase ‘plug and play’? It used to be all the rage and now most things claim that they are ‘plug and play’, but rarely is it a case that you literally plug it in and it gets right to work without any further action. But the back up software (called Time Machine) recognised the hard disc drive and … Well, basically just got on with it. The first truly “plug and play’ experience I’ve ever had with any piece of hardware short of mouse and keyboard. “Set it, then forget it,” says the info page on Time Machine.

And so it is: there it sits on my desk, occasionally jumping into life for a minute and making some copies before retiring again for another hour. From that respect it’s the most boring piece of hardware that I’ve ever bought, because of course it’s the thing you never want to have to need to use. To need the backup drive means there has been a disaster, at the very least a mistakenly deleted key file but more likely a disastrous failure of the main computer in some way. I’m hoping that owning a backup drive is like taking an umbrella with me on a day of dubious weather and that the very taking of it means that it won’t rain.

(Actually, Apple make the backup software a little too dazzling for its own good. Time Machine has such a startlingly different interface on the world of backups that you almost want something to fail to give you an excuse to go play with it: it presents you with a timeline going right back to the earliest backup, and you move down the timeline seeing the state of the Mac as it was at each save point. Literally, it’s like travelling back in time – all against a nice sci-fi background of stars to complete the effect. It’s quite awesome – at least, as awesome as backup technology can ever really be!)

In the meantime I can bask in the pleasure of being among the Properly Prepared for the first time, and I look back upon the says of ZIP drives and USB sticks with the kind of patronising smugness typical of the newly converted. While it might be a boring piece of hardware (although it does have a nice LED display on it that moves back and forth like a Cylon … Ahem.) it’s already contributed positively to my peace of mind. And I can marvel at the fact that I own a storage device with one terabyte of capacity.

And yet … And yet …

At the back of my mind, I’m wondering: how long before that one terabyte starts to feel just that little bit too snug for my liking?





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