Posted tagged ‘Apple’

Shutting it all out

January 17, 2012

Last year I was asked to deliver a lecture to a group of students. As I began my talk, displaying my usual skills of eloquence and persuasiveness, I couldn’t help noticing that a young person in the front row was wearing those little white earphones we have come to see everywhere ever since Apple launched the iPod. Not only was he definitely focused on what must have been his music, his fingers were drumming along on the desk, and there were small but visible nods of his head to accompany the beat. And then I noticed that another student, further back, also had earphones, though in her case I couldn’t tell whether she was equally distracted by music.

I shrugged and got on with it. It’s life. But it’s not just in the classroom. If you walk down any major city street, you will see dozens of people who are more or less oblivious to their surroundings and who are somewhere else entirely, wherever their music is taking them. It’s a modern equivalent of the account by the 19th century German satirical poet, Wilhelm Busch, of an English traveller walking along while looking through a telescope. Busch has him saying:

‘Warum soll ich nicht beim Gehen – sprach er – in die Ferne sehen?
Schön ist es auch anderswo, und hier bin ich sowieso.’

[‘Why shouldn’t I, he said, look into the distance while walking?
It’s beautiful elsewhere too, and I’m here anyway’]

In fact, Busch’s ‘Mister Pief’ ends up falling into a swamp because he doesn’t see where he’s going. Today’s earphone addicts run similar risks, or worse ones. A recent report found that there has been a significant increase in deaths or serious injuries to pedestrians wearing earphones. Looking occasionally at the conduct of road users with their white earpieces, you can see why.

Personally I love the iPod and its successors, and I will often sit at home with earphones listening to music. But that’s where it should be done. The rest of the time, we should live where we are, and experience what’s there. Including my lectures.


Steve Jobs

October 6, 2011

The home page of Apple Inc this morning features only a photo of company co-founder and long term chief executive, Steve Jobs, who died yesterday after his long struggle with illness.

Apple, and its products, are his legacy, as is his extraordinary understanding of the importance in this digital age of uniting information, art and design. This understanding, and his ability to communicate it both in words and in products, changed consumer electronics and associated industries beyond all recognition. It was an extraordinary achievement.

Grabbing the Apple

July 19, 2011

I was trying to remember today when I first, consciously, installed a new operating system on a computer. To be honest, I’m not sure I really understood the concept of a ‘new’ version of an operating system until Microsoft introduced Windows (which at first was really just an application that sat on top of MS-DOS, of blessed memory), and Apple introduced System 7 (before that I was never aware there was a System 6, or whatever) – both of which happened in the late 1980s. Then again, before that time operating systems were really odd things – you had them on a floppy disk (remember them?) which you inserted into the disk drive as you switched on your computer, and once it was loaded you removed the floppy and inserted another with your documents. Can you imagine that now, an entire operating system on a 1MB disk?

By the time Microsoft launched Windows 95 the thing was (if I recall) on 11 floppy disks which you had to insert one after another, each one taking ages to load. Not long after that operating systems appeared on CDs and eventually DVDs.

But today there’s another change. Apple is introducing its latest operating system – OS X Lion – online; you go to the Apple website and purchase it. You then download and instal it. That’s it. And it costs $29.99. It doesn’t seem that long ago when a new operating system was several times that price.

Apple’s Lion is being launched a day after the company announced record quarterly profits of $7.3 billion, on revenues of $28.6 billion. Not only are the revenues staggering, but profits amounting to nearly 25 per cent of revenues also show the extraordinary power of this company, which 20 or so years ago looked like a basket case. How times change.

The power of design

April 29, 2011

Welcome to the wedding-free zone…

Two news items yesterday told an interesting story. The Guardian newspaper (and others) reported that, for the first time in many years, the IT company Apple reported higher revenues and profits than Microsoft, thereby bringing to an end an era in which, at first, Apple was thought to be dying and Microsoft was thought to be so dominant that its power eclipsed that of many countries. Now Microsoft is stagnating, while Apple is the company that appears to be unable to do anything wrong in business terms.

Also yesterday, there were reports all over the world of customers queuing in extraordinary numbers to buy the newly released white iPhone 4. In Hong Kong all available supplies had been sold within hours. The extraordinary aspect of this news item is that the white iPhone does absolutely nothing that its non-white counterpart (which has been on sale for nearly a year) cannot do – and yet hordes of people, many of whom already own the iPhone 4, are buying it; and are doing so despite that fact that insiders believe the iPhone 5 will be launched later this year.

In fact, it is likely that many iPhone customers are standing in line not because the handset is technologically superior to what is offered by the competition, but because of its aesthetic appeal. It just looks good. It feels right. And according to this report, some customers believe it makes them appear younger and more attractive. Apparently.

So what’s all this then? Is this the world gone mad, sacrificing substance to superficiality? No, I don’t think so. Design and appearance matter to humans, on the whole. We appreciate art; we are influenced by style and fashion. Commercial design that engages these instincts, as Apple has been so good at showing, triggers something that goes beyond appreciation of technological discovery. When the two are combined, however, the result is powerful. Apple’s rise and rise has been due to the way in which Steve Jobs and his team have understood this and harnessed its potential. It is an interesting story.

I’ll bet that when the in-crowd in Westminster Abbey switch their phones to silent, a majority will be handling iPhones. Oh wait, I wasn’t going to mention that.

Motherhood and Apple pie

January 18, 2011

I have mentioned previously that, in technology terms, I am an Apple man. I have two Apple Macintosh desktop computers and one laptop; I have an iPhone; I have an iPad; I have two iPods; I have an Apple TV. At times in my long life I have used PCs, and I am proficient in the use of Windows, but I am always glad to get back to my Apple stuff.

But part of the Apple culture I subscribe to was formed in days of, if not adversity, then at least underdog status. First it was the hegemony of ‘IBM-compatible’ computers (a term the younger generation will never even have heard of), then of MS-DOS (which was the dawn of Microsoft), then of Windows. While these systems controlled 90 per cent or thereabouts of personal computing, it was fun to be part of the alternative Apple culture. Or at least, it was fun until Steve Jobs left Apple and its products started to look like the faceless IBM/Microsoft competition. Those were the days that I moved over for a while to Windows, made more fun by the fact that my computers were home-made by my Faculty’s then technology officer.

But Jobs returned to Apple, the Truth was re-discovered and made more Perfect still, and everything in my house went back to Purity and Good Design. Then came the iPod and the iPhone and the iPad, and all this is even more perfect than anything before. Indeed, the iPad is probably signalling the New Age of electronic enlightenment. But something is not the same. We are not the oppressed minority, we are not the under-dogs. Apple has become the largest global technology company, it almost totally controls online music sales. It does not have the dominant market share in either smartphones or computers, but it has the recognised leading product in each. Out-manoeuvered for so long by Microsoft, Apple is now thought by some analysts to be getting ready to take over its old rival. The future is Apple.

Or is it? The question mark in the story hovers over Steve Jobs himself. Here is the man who, without a doubt, gives Apple its identity, its style, its ability to fuse technology with design and culture. And he is ill. Yesterday he announced, again, that he is taking leave from the company to deal with health issues. How dependent is the world’s Apple future on this one man? Or has he now instilled in the company a sense of design and destiny that will survive him if he were to retire?

Indeed, the question is this: is computing success the product of better technology, or is it a cultural matter? I must do a bit of research on this. On my iPad of course.

The rise of the ‘app’, the fall of the application?

January 15, 2011

I don’t know if I was behind the times, but three years ago I had never heard the term ‘app’, and if someone had said the word to me I wouldn’t have know what it meant. Today, ‘apps’ are everywhere. It’s not just that we need to get used to what, to some, might be a slightly annoying word, we also have to get used to the facts that apps are changing computing, in the technological sense, in the economic sense and even in a cultural sense.

Of course apps are just software programs, but that doesn’t get close to describing them. Put it like this. I have looked back at my records, and in 2007 – just four years ago – I bought three major software applications: Microsoft Office (the then latest version), Adobe’s Photoshop, and Parallels Desktop for the Mac. The total bill for these programs was over €800. So far this year I have already bought five software applications for my Macintosh, and I haven’t yet spent €20. Has there been a revolution? Well, not exactly. Even in 2007 I could have ‘bought’ five applications for €20, though they would presumably have been ‘shareware’. Many of the ‘apps’ now sold online in the new Apple App Store are really also just shareware in a new shop window. But the point is something different: the culture of this whole market has changed, and amongst the apps that are really just dodgy games and minor utilities there are also major business and productivity programs now retailing there for €2.99 each.

Of course the change came via smartphones, and more recently the iPad, and now this has spread to more traditional computing. Computer programs are not seen any more as instruments for geeks, but as tools and entertainment for the masses. And it has changed the business model. Possibly the most expensive thing you’ll find at first glance in the App Store is Apple’s photo editing programme, Aperture. It is retailing there for €62.99. When it was first sold by Apple in 2005 it cost over €500. The industry leader in photo software, Adobe PhotoShop, still retails for over €800; how long will that last? Within a year or so the company will need to make it available, with all bells and whistles, for a fraction of that price.

Will this affect software quality, as developers receive much less income from sales? Or will a mass market and virtually no physical product (all is down via downloads) actually increase revenues? Whatever the answer to that may be, we can be sure that the future will be very different. And interesting.

Taking the tablets

September 29, 2010

I’ve now had my iPad for over three months, and I continue to use it more and more. Most recently I have taken to propping it up at meetings and taking notes on it, since I discovered that I can actually write faster on it than on a traditional keyboard (I don’t touch type, however). Most of my reading is now done on the iPad, and quite a bit of my web browsing.I have found that as a gadget it kind of adapts to my needs and preferences in a very intuitive way. The thing works for me.

Now I see that the iPad is to get a competitor, in the form of a slightly smaller device to be known as the Blackberry Playbook. Like many people, I started my mobile computing on a Blackberry, and indeed had three of these in sequence. Then along came the iPhone, and to me at least the Blackberry suddenly looked dated and sort of boring; and I’ve been with Apple ever since. But the Blackberry has stayed in business, and remains very powerful. And now it has decided to follow Apple’s lead into the tablet market. Its sales pitch is that this is going to be the device for business – as distinct from the perceived idea that the iPad is for media and leisure. If that is the target, I do wonder about the ‘Playbook’ name, which just doesn’t conjure up seriousness. But it does look neat, and some may prefer its smaller size. It also has some features that the original iPad doesn’t have, such as a USB port.

I’ll stick with the iPad (a new model is now rumoured), but competition is always good, so I hope that Blackberry does manage to get a foothold with this device.


September 4, 2010

Exactly 12 years ago today, the company Google was formed by two Stanford University students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. A dozen years on, and their little enterprise is everywhere, having entered the language and provided people the world over with indispensable search tools – a kind of map for modern life that we all need in order to get where we are going. In the late 1990s there were several respected search engines (remember Infoseek or Altavista, anyone?), but within a very short space of time they had all pretty much disappeared.

And of course, a company as large as Google, and with so little apparent competition, must also be looked at closely to see what it is doing. Since you and I use Google entirely free of charge, you might wonder what creates all that shareholder value. And once you start looking at it that way, the commercial essence of Google is not based on providing searches, but rather being an advertising agency. All over every Google page you look at it subtle advertising, some of it based on the electronic analysis of what you are searching and what you are writing. And Google is also engaged in a competition with Apple, as its Android operating system for mobile devices goes head-to-head with the iPhone.

Google has an academic background, and from an academic perspective it has become a vital tool: its search function, Google Scholar, the digitisation of books – all of this has placed Google at the heart of the academic experience.

Alongside the useful, even vital, functionality Google has, its size is on the other hand vaguely scary, and its near monopoly status in searches should perhaps be a little troubling. Though I like what it offers, I also make sure that, at least every so often, I use the competitors who offer something reasonably good also: Yahoo, or Bing, for example. Keeping Google to a reasonable scale is a way of ensuring that it also stays useful.

Taking the tablets

August 22, 2010

Two months have passed since I acquired my Apple iPad, and so I have had a little time to explore whether this is the future of computing, or indeed of entertainment and mobile-everything. The verdict so far: I’ve been taking it everywhere, and have been using it principally as a notetaker at meetings, as a mobile internet browser and as an ebook reader, probably all three in equal measure. I occasionally (but more rarely) use it as a music device or as a viewer for video content, or as a tool for presentations (when linked to a projector). The combination of document creation and editing, and reading books, somehow makes it a perfect tool for an academic, as far as I am concerned.

So am I persuaded? Absolutely. There have been a few moments when not everything is as intuitive as I would like; for example, it took me longer than it should have to work out how to transfer documents between the iPad and my Macintosh, and indeed it somehow annoys me (not sure why) that I have to do this via iTunes. I also had to learn to switch off all wireless functions whenever I wasn’t using them, as they run down the battery much faster. But on the whole these are minor gripes. Overall, the device is doing everything for me that I wanted it to do, and as an ebook reader it is as close to perfect as I could wish for.

So what about the competition? Obviously, Apple didn’t invent the tablet concept, though it certainly has turned it from something that frankly wasn’t finding a market to something that is now visible everywhere. But there is no reason why others shouldn’t get in on the act. So far, I don’t see anything. But there are announcements. HP ha announced two different models for 2011, and LG (a company which often impresses with the visual style of its gadgets and equipment) has declared that it will shortly launch something that will be much better than the iPad – you can read a prediction here that it will fail in that perhaps rather bold ambition. Apple itself may be unveiling a new iPad or two early next year.

Competition is always good. And this user of a tablet at any rate is persuaded that the market for this kind of device is going to be big. Very big.

Welcoming the iPad to Ireland

July 24, 2010

Yesterday Apple’s iPad finally came to Ireland, having teased us for a while with its appearance in the United States, Britain and indeed Northern Ireland. As readers of this blog will know, I have had my own iPad now for a few weeks, purchased while I was in Belfast on business.

Well for those who didn’t make the pilgrimage to Northern Ireland or elsewhere, it’s now available in Dublin. News reports say that trade was brisk, and there were some queues of people when the shops opened, but nothing too hysterical, and there were still iPads available at the end of the day. My guess is that the excitement was slightly less intense here because many of the real fanatics had already purchased one in Belfast or Britain.

As for me, I have now had the iPad for exactly five weeks. I take it everywhere. I write notes at meetings on it, I listen to music, I consult my online calendar, I read books. In fact, I have just finished the first work of fiction read entirely on the iPad. I was already the owner of two Amazon Kindles, and I have to say that the reading experience on the iPad is much better, in the sense that it feels more book-like and handles better. And for Kindle owners, you can continue to use your iPad as a Kindle also; you can transfer your Kindle purchases to it and also buy and download new Kindle books from Amazon directly on the iPad. On addition, you have Apple’s iBookstore – and books purchased there have some slight advantages, such as genuine page numbering (which is important if you are consulting academic books).

Some reviewers have talked about the iPad’s limitations, but I have to confess I haven’t experienced that at all. Yes, Flash is missing, and if you want to print you have to transfer whatever it is to your PC or Mac first; and yes, whatever little grumble this or that reviewer had is probably correct. But for me, none of this has mattered.

So would I recommend it? Oh yes, absolutely. Just don’t try to get mine!