Apple, Condemned to Death by a Thousand Papercuts

Ever since Steve Jobs’ death, Apple pundits and fanboys all around the world began counting down the “inevitable death of Apple”. There can only be one Steve Jobs and he is dead. He defined an era when only an era can be defined. The emergence of the iPhone can only be described as a goldfish swallowing the whale. They say history repeats itself and once again we’re seeing the sequel of “PC overtaking Apple” as “Android overtaking iOS”. Funny how we never learn. Maybe someday Steve Jobs will be resurrected by bio technology and we’ll see this whole drama play out again in the bio field. But I digress.


Apple products are distinguished by the polish and intuitiveness of the interface backed by solid technology in both hardware and software. It’s quite a formidable package and one that is yet to be rivaled. Samsung, Google, and BlackBerry are still chasing Apple’s tail. The brilliance of Apple under Jobs’ second coming is that they made just the right trade offs with open and closed systems. They leveraged open technology to build an OS (OSX), even though I think they bet on the wrong horse (mach kernel) in the long run, and leveraged that for mobile. They created a new market for touch screen devices that created a whole new paradigm and even extended it to tablets.


Like any brilliant invention that revolutionizes the world, once people got hold of an iPhone they soon settle into a state where they can’t image a world without it. It feels natural, almost meant to be. Every time I try to use an Android, I feel like it’s a different beast. My mind locks up when I run into many of its unintuitive rabbit holes that come from logically inconsistent and/or unintuitive interaction designs. I’d frequently find myself forgetting how to access a certain setting or getting lost in an application’s menu. A lot of things just don’t feel right. The battery life was atrocious.


However, at the end of the day, the iPhone is simply a mini computer (that connects to the internet), camera, and media player with phone capabilities. That’s it. What sets it apart is the application eco system and all the innovations it introduced to the market. However, the company is now feels decidedly conservative. There’s no excitement on the horizon. What’s coming after the iPad Mini? The iPhone grande? Or maybe the iWatch? AppleTV as a gaming console anyone?


The app eco system will eventually be the downfall of Apple. They’ve created a culture of fear by acting as arbiters of taste rather than protectors (ensuring that malware isn’t circulated). Take away all the applications from any smartphone and you’re left with the internet, music, and movies for your entertainment; email, sms, and voice for communication. When you get banned from Apple’s App Store you have no recourse (other than public appeal). With Android, their Play store is much more permissive and moreover, users can choose to install non-market apps.


Without a visionary like Jobs, Apple needs all the help it can get with innovation and there’s no greater inspiration than an eco system of third-party developers. Interface improvements like the ubiquitous pull-to-refresh came from outside (apps like Facebook have a nice flick to go back from a picture view which I think should be standard). Also, Apple’s preference for sandboxing all data and more importantly locking down the music and video library is also another weakness that will irritate users more and more. The big issue at hand is Apple tries to control how we interact with our own data in the name of protection. We can’t download and play music or movie files from the internet without going through iTunes or syncing it via PC. Movie files can only be played if it’s in Apple’s mp4 format unless we use third party apps.


The smartphone revolution is far from over, it’s only beginning. As more and more of our lives go mobile, we need newer ways of interacting with the device. There are still lots of improvements to be made, such as text input, before they can completely replace computers. Social interactions are also another area ripe for innovation (I’m thinking device to device communication like Bump and more location-based networks that involve more than just checking in). Payment/point-of-sale is yet another are that will eventually become a major pat of smartphone usage (something with more substance than the Passbook, something that makes use of technology like RFCs).


As technology matures it’s only natural that there are no low hanging fruit to pick and that pushing the envelope involves great risk. However, with companies Samsung chasing them on the hardware front and Google chasing them on the software front, they really can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

Leverage iPhone Custom URL Schemes with Remember the Milk

One of the great things about having remember the milk on the iPhone is portability. You have access to your tasks anywhere with the wonderful official iphone app but it doesn’t have tight integration with mobile specific tasks like call or sms or email someone right? Not quite.


The trick is to use custom url schemes. You can add tasks to RTM with the url set as a custom url scheme and it will launch the designated app. With the quick add task syntax, it would be like:


call for appointment tel://5559898


text bob sms://5559898


Those custom urls can be clicked from the task’s url field and will launch the designated application. Unfortunately, mailto: doesn’t work too well (you get “mailto” prepended the address) but for calls and text it works great.

Digital Books

The other day I read “Time Machine” by H.G. Wells using Stanza. I’ve always had my doubts about digital books simply for the fact that it simply doesn’t “feel” the same. Plus, my experience with digital content is most with made for the web content such as blogs. It simply isn’t the same level of quality as long form writing whether it be fiction or non-fiction. This isn’t to detract from online works but it’s just an entirely different ball game. The demands placed on a writer to construct an extended narrative unfolding over hundreds of pages also pushes the reader to concentrate and digest more of the message. Of course, this is assuming a certain level of parity in quality regardless of the content’s length or form.


I found the act of reading a book on the iPhone’s small screen equal to books in many ways. Since the iPhone doesn’t offer multi-tasking about the only possible distraction would be an incoming phone call (it is a phone after all) or the occasional buzz from an email alert. However, it does require the reader to focus and concentrate on the content until you can really get into the experience and set aside the digital interface. Luckily, I’ve been spending more time with books of the paper variety lately so it wasn’t hard for me to get lost into the world of words on the iphone screen.


However, there are moments when you feel a tidal wave of temptations when you reflect for a moment that beyond the words on the screen there are a slew of time-wasting applications awaiting your touch. However, overall I think I can readjust my reading habits to really start reading more books using Stanza. It’s a really good app and very well-designed. I suppose the greatest challenge is to get people to start reading more as more people exclusively get their daily dose of prose exclusively from the internet.

TimeCapsule to the Rescue, Kinda

The first thing law about backups is that you’ll need it when you least expect it.  Me being the idiot optimist ordered the exact same Hitachi 2.5 inch SATA hard drive that failed on me last time.  What do you know, this time the hard drive failed last time.  I woke up in the morning to dreadful hard drive needle sounds and finally eerie silence.  I new the drill so I didn’t waste time ordering a new hard drive (this time a 320GB Western Digital) from amazon via iphone (they had a really good interface).

Unfortunately, I tried a TimeCapsule restore via wifi which was mass hysteria as my mac went into sleep while restoring 20% after a full day and a half running.  As a result, my TimeCapsule permissions got borked. 

I went out and bought a LAN cable (you don’t need a cross cable, just so you now) to connect the mac to TimeCapsule directly.  I tried a bunch of dirty tricks mounting the drive from terminal and repairing permissions both with fsck_hfs and Disk Utility.  After a couple tries, the TimeCapsule backup became mountable and showed up.  Next I ran migration assistant from a vanilla install which was all spectrums of FAIL.  So I reinstalled Leopard via DVD and ran the TimeMachine restore as part of the new install.  Aside from reinstalling developer tools all is well.  So yeah, I wish I had the TC last time but now I do, but if I had a choice I’d just back up to a USB external and save some money.  I also wish I had a spare mac or even one of those cheap unix PCs I could use.  The iPhone did suffice for most purposes though.

iPhone Sanyo Eneloop KBC-L3 Battery Longevity Roadtest

One of the biggest shortcomings of the iPhone is the dismal battery life. This is big problem if you’re on the go a lot and don’t have ready access to chargers or go partying. This leaves iPhone owners making hard choices like, should I find the restaurant I’m going to on the iPhone or accept one more phone call? Kind of ridiculous when you think about it.

I’ve been looking for a good solution (as in a spare battery) so I decided to check out Eneloops. These batteries are amazing. They have low self-discharge (hanging on to 85% of their charge sitting on a shelf for a year) and high output. So I bought the most compact Eneloop KBC-L3.

I fully charged the iPhone yesterday morning and set off about my day to see how long it would last on an Eneloop alone without plugging it into a computer at my desk or any other power source. The iPhone lasted 24 full hours after installing 5 apps, browsing the web, checking Facebook, going through Flickr through an iPhone app, and downloading emails. The Eneloop gave me roughly 1.5 full charges. Not bad. Definitely, enough power to last for a heavy night out or an extended amount of time on the road.

The only “issue” I had is, that I would have to press the Eneloop’s charge button 2-3 times to re-initiate charging when the iPhone ran really low. This is not an issue with the larger Eneloop KBC-L2. Has something to do with the heat/current setting off the safety switch. If you need something for the road, I highly recommend it.

iPhone 2.1 Firmware: Finally Out of Beta

My experience leading up to the iPhone 2.1 update was nothing short of horrendous. I think I had maybe a week or two as a honeymoon period and from there the wonder and awe quickly disintegrated into frustration and finally apathy. Before the iPhone would frequently crash and even get trapped in the black screen of death. Usually, the cause of failure was a typical application installation gone bad. It didn’t matter whether you installed via iTunes or wifi though wifi had a much higher failure rate. CJK input (converting characters into Japanese in my case) was a nightmare. The iPhone would freeze between input before finally showing conversion candidates. Then once in a while it would constantly crash until being reset. In the end, the iPhone became nothing more than a browser that was only marginally more useful than my jail-broken iPod touch. The worst part of the ordeal was the backup and restore process. Backups would take more than an hour on average and so would restores. In the end I tried to limit syncing to weekends, so I at least had time to reset everything should the occasion arise and there were plenty of occasions to do just that. Of course, during this whole time the iPhone was unusable as a phone.


With the 2.1 firmware update I can finally use the iPhone as intended. Japanese input is much snappier and I can even install apps via wifi without crashes or freezes, backups are much faster (though they could do more) and luckily I haven’t yet had the chance to test the restore process. I think Apple would have done better to delay the release of the iPhone here in Japan until the 2.1 update rather than tarnish their image. They certainly did a bad job releasing beta ware not only with the iPhone but leopard. I certainly hope they finally put priorities between solidifying current offerings and maybe create a stronger base to build upon for future releases so consumers don’t have to go through this heart break.

Road Warrior for Reals

As you can see there’s an ongoing love/hate saga with my phone. Despite what I say, I like the iPhone a lot and once they iron out the kinks with future releases I’ll be more than happy. Having the iPhone makes me want to be a businessman again. Traveling about from meeting to meeting, scheduling appointments, attending events etc. I could have really used this phone back then. We’ve had email on our phones here in Japan since forever but nothing really puts it together like the iPhone. To be honest, I don’t think the iPhone is quite ready to storm mainstream Japan. I still remember quite vividly how the initial line of people waiting for the iPhone were mid 30s IT types and all the people I know who own an iPhone are heavy geeks. The other day I logged into Mixi, Japan’s largest social network, to check out the iPhone community and was shocked to see so many people who wanted to sell their iPhones. The most common complaints were, “I just can’t figure out how to use all these features” or “my computer is incompatible/don’t have a computer”.


The youth have a whole different “keitai (Japanese for cell phone) culture” that abandoning would mean nothing short of social suicide. The iPhone isn’t compatible with the pictographic mail characters implemented by all the companies nor can it access all the “keitai” web sites that Japanese students spend so much time on. On the other hand, the potential of the iPhone as a businessman’s tool is awesome.


Despite all the recent complaints I’ve seen about MobileMe, to me this service is one of the saving graces that kept me sane when it came time to reset my iPhone to factory settings. All I did was log into my MobileMe account on the phone and gradually my entire address book materialized out of thin air with all my calendars intact (I wish they had notes sorted out as well). For the first time I can recall, I can literally add or edit my contacts or calendars on the home mac, on the iPhone, or from a work computer and still remain synced.


The only real danger here is going overboard and burning out with all this at your fingertips. So far 70,000 iphones have shipped in Japan so far but part of it is pent up demand since this is the first model to ship ever and still the U.S. shipped roughly 10 fold including owners who upgraded from previous models. I’m really not sure how much the iPhone will end up appealing to the fickle Japanese consumer market and have a feeling that they wont be making inroads into the youth market any time soon but I see great potential for the harried business people here, especially sales people (who have notoriously grueling sales calls to attend to since the typical Japanese sales person has to do lots of cold calls) and executives who are always out and about. The beauty of the iPhone for a sizable company they can connect their in-house systems via iPhone apps to achieve greater efficiency. Of course, it’s questionable whether Japanese companies would pursue this kind of efficiency on their own but consultants have a great opportunity to push a variety of custom solutions involving the iPhone.


I’ve read comments from two Japanese CEOs marveling about the fact that they not only didn’t have to open their PCs while on the road but also didn’t have much to do when they did finally get back to their desks. I’m pretty confident that I could operate a side business off this phone. It’s that good for enterprise. Unfortunately, Apple really doesn’t have that “enterprise” feel. Too stylish and bold. Plus, they need to fix a bunch of crap before they push their products to business. Of course, these days I play more and more sudoku on the iPhone and I suppose that would be an added allure for business types, they could be playing games and watching movies while shuttling from one sales call or appointment to the next and still not miss those phone calls.


I think Apple can really expand the enterprise side of the iPhone if they wanted to. It would probably involve the development of some kind of external keyboard and stealing some of BlackBerry’s input tricks that make thumb jockey’s lives easier.

iPhone, the Ugly Disgrace

Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth that Apple apologists and early adopters must face is that Apple, in its current incarnation (since it dropped “Computer” from its name), is that they knowingly violate the principles of what should be acceptable to release after a decade of OS X releases. Its as if we are back to square one or OS X 10.0.


This weekend I dealt with two issues. One was a kernel panic caused by a corrupt sparse image on my Time Capsule. Another was an iPhone rendered unresponsive by one too many app store installations. I’ve lost a month of so-called backups because of a corrupt sparse image and what’s worse is that a mere corrupt sparse image somehow triggers continuous kernel panics in the operating system!


For the iPhone, I was stuck re-installing the entire system as I was heading out the door. The so-called back up of my iPhone that on many occasions took over an hour to generate on iTunes was also “corrupt” and I ended up beginning my restoration process from the last backup of my long gone iPod Touch. I was frantically trying to restore contacts and restarting the iPhone on the train, a last gamble to make things right. During that time there were many “moments” I thought my iPhone would not snap out of of the dreaded “silver Apple on black” start up screen.


When you think about the iPhone 3G or specifically the iPhone OS 2.0, it may be acceptable as a glorified PDA but as a phone it is totally unacceptable. It takes forever to restart from scratch and is too unstable. I even had the preference panel of the iPhone crash on me. Really! Has Apple forgotten that a phone, and that is any phone, is a lifeline service. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether we can check out the whether or post updates to Facebook. It DOES matter whether we can quickly call the police or reach our dearest people in an emergency. The thought of having to depend on the iPhone for crucial moments literally scares me because I have a feeling it will fail me when I need it the most. I would never ever, recommend this phone to my parents and knowingly put them in danger of owning a phone that may not function when their life’s at stake.


And I’m being nice by not even going on a tirade about dead or “bright red” pixel or the fact that you often need to plug and unplug the headphones when the sound goes dead or lambasting the repeated failure of Mobile Me to properly “launch”.


When it works, the iPhone is an amazing piece of technology that puts the future firmly in your pocket. When it doesn’t, it’s a nightmare of epic proportions. If you haven’t memorized your most valuable contacts or at least have them written down in a black book with ready access to a public phone, you sir are screwed.


The same thing goes with the joke of an operating system that Leopard currently is. One thing obvious is that Apple engineers are spread thin. I’m sure they are doing brilliant things given current resources but either they put too many recent graduates on the job or lost too much talent to Google and other Silicon Valley startups that it makes you wonder what their priorities are. While I am a firm believer in “release early, release often”, I think there are limits to the quality of stuff that should be fit for release.


What kind of company makes a phone that fails as a lifeline service and an operating system that crashes in flames because of a backup image that easily becomes corrupt and rendered useless? The only reason that Apple continuously posts record financial gains is simply because they ARE Apple or specifically because Jobs and Co. can’t do wrong or can they? The recent trials and tribulations I’ve had with the latest Apple products make me wonder if they are any better than Microsoft, which many like myself, have willingly abandoned to be rid of buggy software that eats up countless hours just trying to get things to simply “work”.


Apple has always more or less screwed early adopters by releasing shoddy products that gradually get better until, you guessed it, they release another more shiny successor. However, recently they’ve really outdone themselves by releasing half-baked products even earlier in the development cycle. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was explicitly announced as a public beta. The fact is that they are charging us the same money they do for a final release as they iron out the bugs.


If Apple is going to build their future on the cornerstone of UNIX, they must not stray from the fundamentals of stability and reliability in a mad rush to throw shiny products out the door before competitors. The current state of affairs is simply unacceptable and a disgrace. Maybe the next iteration of the iPhone OS will finally bring us a phone that doesn’t crash before they finally nail cut and paste. Apple will most likely charge us a hefty price for OS X 10.6 or “Snow Leopard”, supposedly focused on stability and performance (as if these were after thoughts upon releasing OS X 10.5 Leper). My advice is that they stay focused on stability and performance for the foreseeable future because these are the only things that matter if Apple is to outlast its illustrious founder because once you let these things go, you’re on a slippery slope that nobody has managed to climb back up from but I’m sure they already know that from observing their Redmond colleagues that they are so quick to poke fun at.

My Favorite iPhone Apps

Who would’ve imagined a world where you wouldn’t miss jailbreaking your iPod Touch/iPhone. Of course, there are still issues such as apps not having access to background processes which stunts applications like that from Last.fm running constantly but such is life. I’ve been enjoying the wireless, anytime anywhere nature of the iPhone. The good and the bad is you’re taking the internet with you wherever you go. I hardly have any time to watch movies any more. Right now I’m waiting on my replacement head phones to come in. The default ear buds always suck for me. I got like five of them I don’t need really. The standard issue suck so bad I need to crank the volume full blast just to catch snippets of movie dialogue riding the train so by the time I get to the office my ears are ringing. And I still miss half the dialogue!


Oh yeah, enough with the rant. Here are some apps I’ve grown to love on the iPhone. All of them are free except one. Haven’t tried any of the non-free games but I’m sure I will when get really bored.


Ap News: Mobile News Network



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Ap News really delivered on this one. A free native iPhone client that delivers the world’s latest news right to your finger tips, right in the palm of your hand.


Bloomberg



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Again, another free news app that delivers. This one gives you both the latest financial news and can even track your stock portfolio if you want. It’s quite an app all and all. You really can’t ask for much more. Makes me feel like a businessman of sorts.


Social Networking on the iPhone


Alright enough with the news, obviously the iPhone wouldn’t be much without a little bit of fun. It’s first and foremost a phone and phones are for communicating with people. The internet is also a major social engine but we all know that it’s for communicating with people and psuedo-people, you know, you’re friends on with quotation marks around them like “friends”. Nonetheless important.


It’s no wonder that Twitter comes out the clear winner in terms of the sheer number of native clients. The amazing thing is that Twitter had no hand in developing any of these applications and that’s a true testament to their strength despite frequent outages.


Twinkle


The boys finally delivered on this one. I was at first taken aback by the rampant Tapulous branding. That was either an over-reaction or I got used to it quick. Either way, this is a great client. It’s quick and simply just like Twitter. It has all the basic functionality you want. Scope your replies, your network, while checking out the public feed.



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Twittelator


This is the twitter app I’ve used the most and always use for posting updates. It’s the lightest client of the bunch and gives you quick access.



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Twittervision



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I was honestly surprised that the developer went through the trouble of creating this but it brings the same coolness of the ajax version. Wish he gave us more access to Twitter functionality but those be the breaks. Good for dull moments and showing off to friends.


I’ve omitted Twitterific since I don’t use it. The problem is that the iphone version tries to hard and succeeds at replicating Twitterific and all its flaws. Twitterific was great when you only had like 20 friends but woe to the bastard that wants to go beyond that and explore. The main problem is the navigation, all the other apps allow you to quickly switch contexts easily between your replies, your network, and the public feed. Twitterific just locks you into the stream of updates from either your friends or everyone and your replies and directs get mixed into the massive flood of updates. Not really how I want to use twitter. None of the other clients suffer from this and on top of that the iPhone Twitterific is the slowest to load by far.


For my other social networking needs there is the official facebook app, Exposure for Flickr. Yeah, I don’t use MySpace.


Morocco


A free Othello game. What more can I say?



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BeatMaker



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Look at that sideways, it makes more sense. Anyone can make a beat with this.


Here’s the first beat I ever made in my life.


This makes it the first iphone app I ever bought.




One app I can’t wait for is the WordPress for iPhone app. This should be a killer app for all you bloggers out there! Of course, it’ll take you forever to type up a decent post but good when you have nothing else available and are on the road.


All in all, the best apps are ones that turn the limitations of a mobile platform like the iPhone and turns it into a strength. All the apps I like and use are focused around a single functionality and does it well. It doesn’t try to mimic a desktop app but gives you the functionality that you need for it to actually be useful.


I like the fact that I can get back into other forms of social networking since I know that I can keep up with happenings in bite-sized chunks and really hit the PC when I need to do something more involved. I don’t have to waste time playing catch up since I’ll be on top of things while being shuttled back and forth on the commuter train like a zombie.


Right now, the quality of apps vary and you can bet that a lot of the free apps in crowded areas like todo lists are more or less junk. Whether the paid apps will be worth the sticker price is up to debate. If you’re unsure of which one to go with, you could wait it out and pick one out of the winners and thus most likely to be properly supported. I see a common trend of dime-a-dozen junk apps dragging down the legitimately good ones. Of course, the games section are a whole different ball game as well as applications like BeatMaker that give you something that can’t be easily copied like todo apps.


Oh yeah, the default apps like Maps and the free Remote app are really cool too. In fact, the real-time location feature of maps is one of the features I enjoy using the most.

Using the 3G iPhone as a Phone

Now that I got my 3G iPhone juiced up with location awareness (I’m assuming this is a background thing) off by default, the batter life is actually not so bad.  The thing about the iPhone is that it’s a surprisingly good phone.  For some reason, I was under the impression that phone functionality was more a bonus but not so.

 

First, the bad.  In Japan, lots of reviewers are complaining about the lack of caller blocking options of which there are many available on all phones (i.e. block specific callers, connect them directly to answering service, don’t accept calls from phone booths, only accept calls from contacts, etc.).  Not sure if it’s because Japan has more creepy phone stalkers that the rest of the world but this functionality is sorely lacking.

Other than that I can’t think of much else faulting it.  I’ve only used the phone function with headphones since they’re always plugged in.  Plus, I’m a sweaty dude so putting that thing to my ear would likely cause water and salt damage in the sweltering summer of Japan.

Calling is a snap, nothing special here.  The magic happens in between.  For example, today I made a call to customer support about transferring ownership of my previous iPod Touch.  In order to do so I needed a variety of information: contact details, phone number, etc.  I sent myself the relevant info via email for quick reference but was missing the transferee’s phone number, so I supplemented that with a trip to the address book.  While I was being put on hold, I cruised Twitter and posted an update and also read up on current news.

After I gave all the info, I took notes on the next steps such as fax number, confirmation number, etc.  I jumped back and forth between email, notes, address book and diversions in between all without breaking the phone call.

The headphone’s mic reception is good.  You can let it dangle and use a low speaking voice without any difficulty being heard by the receiver.  You can hold the mic closer for really whispering.  All the while, the earphones ensure reception is crisp.  Also, the volume goes a bit higher than any other phone I’ve owned so that’s good too.  The only gripe is that the earphones are like any other Apple earphones, bad fit lots of sound escaping (can’t hear movie dialogue in crowded trains full blast) and no switch.

Other than that it’s a really good business cell phone that can boost your productivity if you have to juggle all kinds of things on the go.