AnalogSenses

By ÁLVARO SERRANO

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"S" stands for "Siri"

October 05, 2011

Well, you all know it by now: Apple unveiled the new iPhone 4S yesterday, along with mild updates to their iPod line. They also set a specific date for the official rollout of iCloud and iOS 5: October 12.

Also interesting about yesterday’s keynote was that somehow, I managed to get each and every single one of my predictions wrong. That’s got to be difficult. It certainly gave me a greater appreciation for the people that make these sorts of predictions for a living, and get them right most of the times. In retrospective, I probably should have called them “wishful thoughts” instead of predictions but hey, at least it was fun to try.

Apart from my very well deserved claim chowder, I’m actually pretty excited about yesterday’s announcements, and not disappointed at all. The iPod refreshments were really just minor changes, mostly on the software end, but there was no need for drastic improvements there. The iPhone, however, is a different story. I think the iPhone 4S will be an excellent follow-up to the iPhone 4. It’s got just the right hardware improvements to keep it leading the industry, and I’ve always loved the design of the iPhone 4, so I didn’t feel they needed to change it in the first place. And boy, that sweet new camera. I’m dying to try it. I understand that some people were expecting bigger news, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel every year.

On another note, the new iPhone comes with a built-in personal assistant, which is just unreal. The Siri voice recognition software is amazing. That was clearly the most exciting moment of the entire event, and probably the only thing we will still remember 5 or 10 years from now. It is another example of what Apple does best: they take a technology that’s been around for some time, and they make it usable for everybody. Some writers, like Paul Miller from This is my Next, are already weighing in on the possible implications of such a service, especially for people with disabilities: as a Biomedical Engineer, the possibilities of integration that Siri provides are really exciting.

The only thing I found surprising is that there was no new Apple TV. This seemed like a no-brainer to me, but perhaps Apple just couldn’t focus on everything at once, and the Apple TV got pushed back. After all, it is “just a hobby”. I still think we will see an A5-equipped Apple TV soon, but maybe it’s not important enough to mention on a high-profile event like yesterday’s. Or maybe they’re just making A5 chips as fast as they can, and they still can’t make them fast enough to put it into all of their products. Between the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2, those are a lot of chips.

Then there’s the keynote itself. The presenters were all correct, and for the most part Steve’s absence wasn’t noticed too much. The structure of the presentation was the same as the last few times: a general presenter (Cook) introducing the global areas, and then the responsible for each team (Forstall, Schiller, etc.) diving into the technical details. Hey, that’s one prediction I didn’t get totally wrong. Yay me. What I didn’t like was the pace. The first part of the keynote was just a rehash of the features that were announced at WWDC, and apart from a couple minor new apps, nothing new was introduced there. I think they should just skip that part, or make it as brief as possible.

And that was pretty much it. Apple continues to steadily improve all of their devices while maintaining or slightly reducing prices across the board. It’s a winning formula, so why change it? They also continue the naming convention they introduced with the iPhone 3G S, which I don’t particularly like, but maybe this time there’s a significant change there. If the “S” on the iPhone 3G S stood for “speed”, I don’t think there’s any doubt that this time around, “S” stands for “Siri”.

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"Let's talk iPhone"

October 04, 2011

It’s that time of the year again. There’s an Apple keynote today, which means that every writer covering Apple has been busy over the last few weeks, making predictions and analyses about what we’re likely going to see. I don’t normally engage in that game, but this year I will be following the keynote with special interest, so I thought I would make an exception and join in the fun.

Apple Invite - Let's Talk iPhone

Here it goes. My first prediction is this: by the end of the day, my wallet will be thinner and lighter. A few hundred bucks lighter, to be precise.

Let me elaborate: I’ve been a happy-but-seriously-frustrated-as-of-late owner of an iPhone 3G since its release, back in 2008. I got it on day one. That was the first iPhone to be released in Spain, which means that so far I’ve only owned one iPhone. For me there have been no multi-tasking, no compass, no AirPlay, no fancy iOS 4.3 features. None. The phone itself works great, and the battery still lasts almost two days, but the whole thing has been slowed down to a crawl with the last few software updates, ever since iOS 4.0 and up to iOS 4.2.1. How Apple allowed those updates to be installed on this device, I will never know.

The point is I’m clearly due for an upgrade, so I’m the ideal audience for today’s keynote. They would have to seriously screw things up for me not to buy the next iPhone as soon as I can get my hands on it. And even then, I would probably just buy an iPhone 4 instead. But I digress.

What we (don’t) know

There has been much talk and the usual crazy rumors about the next iPhone: some purported leaks, some mysterious sources “close to the matter” and even a lost prototype that nobody saw, but for the most part we all remain in the dark about how it will look like, its new features, etc. We don’t even know if there will be more than one new iPhone. iPhone 4S? iPhone 5? No clue. Bigger screen? I doubt it. It’s remarkable how Apple has been able to keep everything under control this time around.

There are several points of agreement among the different rumors: pretty much everyone believes that the new iPhone will be built around Apple’s A5 chip, the one that debuted in the iPad 2. There is also a general consensus that it will probably be thinner and lighter, and possibly with an aluminum back. My opinion is that the A5 is a sure thing, but that’s about as much as we can say with some degree of certainty. So instead of speculating about it, I will focus on the rest of Apple’s product line and analyze how today’s event might affect each one of them, individually. Take these predictions with a grain of salt.

The Apple TV

First, let’s state the obvious: there will be a new Apple TV today, and it will include the A5 chip. It seems appropriate that Apple will use this event to present all of their next-generation iOS devices, not just the new iPhone (except for the iPad 3, which we won’t see until early 2012). The A5 is a sure bet for the new Apple TV because it enables the one feature that was sorely missing from last year’s version: Full 1080p hardware video decoding. If you ask me, that’s more than enough to justify a new Apple TV. Whether it will get more new features, I don’t know. Definitely iCloud integration, and it will probably run iOS 5, but other than that it’s a mystery. Apps? I don’t think so, but it’s certainly possible. We’ll see. In any case, the price stays at $99.

The iPod family

This is where things get tricky. Will this event also affect the iPod line? If so, what’s going to happen to them? Will they be old history after today? I don’t think they will eliminate the whole lineup, but something tells me there will be blood. Remember, this is Apple. They have a knack for terminating successful product lines well before their commercial demise. It’s still a pretty big part of their business, but it’s been heavily dominated by the iPod touch lately, which is really much closer to an iPhone that an iPod if you think about it.

I could imagine the following scenario: The iPod nano and the iPod shuffle merge into one unique product. Call it whatever you want. I believe it will have a storage capacity between 4-8GB, definitely with physical buttons, and with a basic display. Gone is the 2” touchscreen. It looked really nice and I was very excited about it, but then I bought one and it was a pain to use when jogging, and pretty much always. If I had to guess a price point, I believe $99 is the sweet spot for an 8GB model, and probably $59 for a 4GB model.

Then there’s the iPod touch. Call me crazy, but I think they’re killing it. It makes so much sense. Why do people love the iPod touch? Because it’s an iPhone without the phone. Or, more precisely, an iPhone without a 2-year contract and a $100 monthly bill. But what if Apple were to release a new, prepaid iPhone instead of a new iPod touch? Then the whole contract problem goes away immediately. Who wouldn’t want such a device? Besides, it would help Apple in the market share statistics against Android, because as of today, iPod touches don’t count. And they have sold a gazillion of them. If all those were iPhones, maybe Android wouldn’t be looking as dominant as it does today. Remember, this is a public perception battle as much as it is an economic one. Apple is beating the heck out of everybody else in the economic front, but such a move would help them in the other front, too.

This is just nitpicking, of course, but after seeing the invitation: “Let’s talk iPhone” I kind of feel they’re hinting at it. Surely any new features that may be included in the new iPhone would also find their way into a hypothetical new iPod touch, so why leave it out? Why not “Let’s talk iOS”? Or something else, less explicit, to make room for more devices? Nope. They’re just talking iPhone, maybe because after today it’s all about the iPhone, and there’s no new iPod touch. To me it seems clear: Apple needs a low-end iPhone, and the only way to do that without confusing people is to kill the iPod touch.

And what about the iPod classic? Well, I believe they’re killing it, too. Or at least they’re forgetting about it: no upgrades, same price, until everybody forgets it ever existed. Marco Arment has a good theory about why that makes sense, and I agree with him. Its role in the lineup is confusing, it’s more than ever a niche product, and its days of glory are way behind us.

The new iPhone(s)

My money is on a brand new top-of-the-line iPhone, probably called iPhone 5, with the same current pricing structure: $199 / $299 with a 2-year contract, or $649 / $749 contract-free and carrier unlocked. Maybe the unlocked iPhone will see its price cut  down to $599 / $699. Storage-wise, I’m not sure we will see any changes, after all iCloud will significantly reduce the need for on-device storage of most iPhone users, so 32 GB seems plenty. However, a 64GB version is not totally out of the picture.

Then, a lower-end iPhone, still on-par or slightly better than the current iPhone 4. I don’t like the name iPhone 4S. This one will be sold at the price of the current higher end iPod touch models: $299 / $399, but  for 16 / 32 GB versions instead of 32 / 64GB. The message is clear: sacrifice some storage, get a built-in phone instead. This one doesn’t get the 64GB version. It will be sold without a contract, and carrier unlocked. Maybe they’ll announce some deals with the carriers to provide voice + data plans at an affordable pay-as-you-go price, like they did with the iPad 3G.

The presenter(s)

The only thing missing from the picture is the actual presenter: who will take the stage to unveil the new stuff? There have been reports that it will be Tim Cook, and if we take the past as reference, it certainly seems logical. However, I haven’t ruled out a Steve Jobs appearance. Maybe a brief one, introducing the general ideas, and then leaving it up to other team members to walk the audience through the technical details. That was the arrangement on the past couple of keynotes, and it works. I agree with John Gruber, I don’t think Jobs gave all these keynotes in the past because he was the CEO. He gave them because he was the best presenter in the company, and he still is. If he’s healthy enough, why not have him do it? After all, he was on medical leave during WWDC, and that didn’t stop him from taking the stage. I realize this is a long shot, but I would really like to see him up there.

The take-away

That’s all I got. If I were to nail all of these predictions (and none of them seem too far fetched), the resulting product line would be a lot cleaner and more appealing in my opinion. There would be a very clear distinction between the different product ranges, and all of them would have a specific, well-defined role (iPods for music, iPhones for everything else). Besides, it would be a lot easier for Apple to manage the different iOS branches going forward, since they wouldn’t need to support a dedicated iOS version for the iPod touch anymore.

Anyway, we are just a few short hours away from finding out. Whatever they end up announcing, one thing is certain: we will all be watching closely. Some people will love it, others will hate it, but everyone will care. Everything we say or write about it will only be because we care. That’s a critical battle Apple has already won.

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Amazon unveils the new Kindle Fire

September 29, 2011

It’s official. It’s out there. Amazon’s tablet was unveiled yesterday and yes, you guessed it: it was surrounded by great hype from the media. Several tech publications were live-blogging Jeff Bezos’ keynote with an anticipation usually reserved for Apple events. But this time there was no Steve Jobs on stage, and for once it didn’t matter. Everybody knew Amazon was about to pull a rabbit out of their hat. And that’s exactly what they did, in the form of the brand new Kindle Fire.

Amazon Kindle Fire - Image from the Official Amazon Website.

This thing looks good. It has all the strength of the Amazon ecosystem behind, perfectly integrated and ready to be used from the moment you take it out of the box. Amazon has taken everything they did right with the Kindle, and used it to build what will clearly be the best selling Android tablet on the planet. Not that it was difficult, but still. What’s funny about it is that, for the most part, people won’t even know it’s an Android tablet. Amazon has put their brand on every imaginable corner of this thing, and that’s a clever move. People will not buy the Fire for the Android part, they will buy it for the Amazon experience they already know and love. Just for fun, do you know how many times the “Android” word is mentioned in the official Amazon page for the Fire? Once. Just once in a whole page full of text. Clearly they don’t want you to focus on that.

Amazon wants people to think of the Fire as the Amazon tablet, not just another flavor of Android. For all we know, Android is just a commodity for them: if they had access to the Windows Phone or WebOS source code, they might as well have used one of those instead. And who’s to say they won’t do that tomorrow. What Amazon brings to the table is a consumer experience to rival Apple’s. Actually, they are the only company I can think of who has all the strategic components necessary to produce this type of device. It’s not about specs, it’s about covering the whole experience, end to end. And Amazon knows how to do that.

What does this mean for Google? Well, in a word, Amazon has screwed them big time. They have beaten them at their own game. Google has always used early access to the latest Android version as a negotiating tool to control their associated OEMs. They’ve used the rest of Google’s own services as leverage to make them play along with their rules, too. Access to GMail, Google Maps, etc. That’s what the OEMs get for free if they play nice with Google on the Android front. Take all those services away and the smartphone or tablet experience is significantly compromised.

However, enter Amazon: They have an entire ecosystem of services to rival Google’s, they don’t need their help to make this work, and they’ve made it perfectly clear that they don’t want them sticking their nose around, either: The Fire doesn’t include the official Android Market, but instead comes loaded with the Amazon appstore. That’s just one example. Amazon has taken the Android core and is running with it straight to the finish line. And they’re not looking back. Meanwhile, Google and the rest of the Android OEMs are still trying to tie their shoelaces.

In a market where trying to compete with the iPad playing to its strengths is pretty much a synonym for suicide, Amazon has made a genius move: they’re not trying to compete with the iPad at all. The price of the Fire alone tells you that: it’s just $199. As John Gruber pointed out, you could buy a Kindle Fire and a brand new top-of-the-line Kindle touch for less than the price of an iPad. And that’s just the entry-level iPad. It’s clear that this new device is aimed at a different segment of the market. At $199, it’s still within the impulse-buy range, specially with the holiday season getting closer. I’m convinced that if they manage to make them fast enough, they’re going to sell a gazillion of these during the holiday quarter.

Also, though the iPad and the Fire are very different, it will be interesting to see if the Fire cuts into the iPad’s sales this holiday quarter. The iPad is a great holiday gift, no doubt, but it is more expensive than most people typically think of spending on a gift. I bet that until now, some people ended up buying an iPad (and spending more than they would have liked) simply because there was no real alternative available that they knew about and that didn’t feel like a waste of their money. Now the Fire changes all that. I think many parents are going to choose to save some money and get their kids a Fire, thinking that it’s pretty much like an iPad (even though it’s not). Whatever happens, it may be difficult to judge, since both the iPad and the Fire are poised to have a terrific holiday quarter, but the question is out there: of the many million Kindle Fires Amazon will sell during the holidays, how many of those would have been iPads? It’s funny that the other way around is not so interesting: clearly when you buy an iPad you know what you want, so this may be a tricky comparison. We’ll see.

Truth be told, when all is said and done the Fire remains purely a content consumption device, although backed up by a huge content offering by Amazon. Now, some people may think of that as a critic, but it sounds pretty sweet to me. By the way, remember when they said the same thing about the iPad? It’s ridiculous. Who knows what kinds of apps people will come up with now, finally knowing that there is a device out there, selling well enough to turn a profit? Until know, Android development was hindered by too many devices, too many specs, too many screen sizes… developing an Android app had an extra degree of complexity when compared to developing an iOS app. The situation hasn’t changed dramatically overnight, of course, but now developers at least have a clear target when making a new Android app: make pretty damn sure that it runs spectacularly well on the Fire. Then, let’s see how it does on the rest of the Android tablets out there. If they’re still around, that is.

We have interesting months ahead. Let’s see how the rest of the industry reacts to this move. For Google and some Android OEMs, pulling their pants up might be a good way to start. For consumers, it’s clear that this is good news: it means more choice, more innovation, and a brighter future. For developers, it’s equally exciting. Now let’s sit back and watch how the holiday season plays out, and what the New Year brings.

Ready? Set? Go.

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Quote of the Day →

August 30, 2011 |

Blessed are those who can give without remembering, and take without forgetting.

Princess Elizabeth Bibesco (1897-1945)

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iTunes in the Cloud will support streaming | TechCrunch →

August 30, 2011 |

It looks like Apple had a trick up its sleeve:

Both [iOS 5 and iCloud] are in the process of being tested by that community [developers]. And that means things are starting to leak out. Tonight brought perhaps the biggest surprise revelation yet: iTunes in the Cloud will support streaming as well as downloading of music.

Apparently it will also support streaming of your previously purchased TV shows. This is great news. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Apple’s response to the recent launch of Spotify in the US. Things just got a whole lot more interesting in the music streaming business, and customers now have at least two credible alternatives to choose from (I’m sorry but Google Music Beta and Amazon Cloud Player are not quite there yet).

Now, can we please get these mouth-watering features here on this side of the Atlantic ocean? Please?

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Beginnings

August 27, 2011

By the time you read this, my words will have become a digital stream of ones and zeroes that have somehow found their way to your screen across the Internet. But you must know, they weren’t always like this. In their original form they were not made of pixels and electrons, no. They were carefully formed by precise traces of blue ink, flowing through the tip of my pen onto the first page of a brand new Moleskine notebook. There’s something incredibly refreshing about a new notebook. That first empty page is very special. It represents a clean slate, a sea of possibilities. A new beginning.

Analog Writing

What is it about beginnings that we love so much? It may be the promise of what’s still to come. It may be the hope for better things as they inch closer, slowly but surely finding their way towards us. Each new beginning brings a unique feeling of anticipation that to me is very much like reading a good book.

There’s a part of you, the impulsive part, that wants to know how the story ends. It wants to know it so badly that you can almost feel a small twinge in your fingers, urging you to turn the page before your eyes can reach the bottom. The other part, the rational part, knows of course that this would be wrong. No matter how phenomenal the ending, getting to know it ahead of time will certainly destroy the experience way beyond the point where it could possibly be worth it.

And so, whenever a story is really special, this internal battle between the two sides of your mind is fought in every chapter, every page and every word until the very last one. However, the insightful, patient reader who loves reading every bit as much as he loves a good ending, can find the strength inside him to resist those urges. One page at a time, each one a small victory, he patiently makes his way through every twist and turn, carefully watching how the story unfolds before his eyes. It is this type of reader that is often rewarded in the end.

The same analogy applies to many other things in life. Take cinema, for instance. Would The Usual Suspects have been the same if you had known Kayser Soze’s identity all along? Or take sports. Do you feel the same way when you watch a nerve-wracking game of your favorite team from start to finish, than you do when you only watch a replay of the decisive moment that came at the very end? No, you don’t. Of course you don’t. You need to build up your emotions in order to care. You need to be aware of the context in which things have happened, otherwise you’re missing the best part. It’s not just the destination, it’s the journey that matters.

Everyone is writing and talking about endings these days. The one that we just had, and the next one that will inevitably come. Many are weighing in and predicting that it will come soon. Others, the sane ones, believe that it’s really far away. But all of them are feeling the urge to know exactly how and when it will be. Personally, I have never cared much for endings. I never felt that it was worth it to spend much of my time and energy going on about them, so this week’s news is not something I enjoy thinking about, and certainly not something I would enjoy writing about. Too many of the pieces I’ve read over the last few days feel way too much like eulogies. Rest assured, I won’t be adding to the pile.

Luckily, they say that every ending brings with it a new beginning. It has long been one of my favorite sayings, mostly because it’s very true. And now we find ourselves with an exciting new beginning ahead of us for the first time in fourteen years. This is a historic moment and as such it is a moment to savor. It’s a beginning full of promise, of new and exciting things to come. It is also one of uncertainty and fear for the unknown, just like every good beginning should be.

Whatever happens now, this book is far from over. And when your favorite author says that the best is yet to come, you could do a lot worse than believing him. Especially considering that up until now he was the one with the pen. So I suggest we all forget about the ending for now, find ourselves a nice, comfortable chair and get ready to continue reading because boy, it’s going to be one hell of a story.

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Quote of the Day →

August 25, 2011 |

However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), American filmmaker.

Words to live by.

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Thank You, Steve →

August 25, 2011 |

I hereby resign as CEO of Apple. I would like to serve, if the Board sees fit, as Chairman of the Board, director and Apple employee.

Steve Jobs announced earlier today via a press release on Apple.com that he is officially stepping down as CEO of Apple, effective immediately. As expected, Tim Cook has been named as the new CEO by the Board of Directors.

Now, the only thing I have to say about this for now is right there in the title. Everything else is just speculation and will have to wait.

So there it goes,

Thank You, Steve.

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