Mike Schaeffer's Weblog
Thu, 12 Jan 2012
iPhone 4S
Not too long ago, I wrote a bit on life with an iPhone 3G. Since then, Apple has revised the platform a few times, and I'verecently upgraded to the iPhone 4S. This makes now as good a time as any to revisit the points in my earlier post to see what has changed:
  • Touch Screen - The Apple touch screen is about as good as it gets. The size is a good balance between utility and portability, the hardware is well executed, and the software is very, very fluid. That said, there's still the problem that touch screens eliminate the tactile feedback you get from physical buttons. It's harder to use the phone when your eyes aren't visually focused on the display. This limitation is innate to touch screens, but it's still annoying.
  • 'Ambient Information' - iOS 5 handles notifications much more nicely than in earlier versions of iOS. However, the homescreen is still largely dead to ambient information. The only two exceptions are the numeric badges attached to icons and the calendar icon (which displays the current date). The clock icon is wrong, the weather is wrong, and the map is wrong. My hunch is that this is partially to save on battery life, but given that the iPod nano can keep an analog clock icon current, some of this limitation seems gratuitous.
  • Inconvenient Portrait/Landscape Switching - Fixed with a nice lock facility in the task switcher. (Although I rarely use the lock, so maybe it wasn't a big problem after all.)
  • Multiple e-Mail boxes - Fixed in iOS 4 with the unified mailbox view.
  • Large e-mails - I'm not honestly sure if this has been fixed, or if I just get fewer large e-mails, but I haven't noticed this nearly as much.
  • Latency - The iPhone 4S is almost completely beyond reproach. (The latency on my old 3G got terrible, with the upgrade to iOS 4.0, and the subseuent patches did nothing to correct it.)
  • App Store Rejections - There seems to have been less public drama lately around App Store rejections and policy changes. However, I'm suspecting it's mainly because Apple has given a little and developers have come to grudgingly accept the limitations that Apple still imposes.
  • App Store - It's grown to 500,000 (!) applications, but Apple still controls the horizontal and the vertical. Because they control the way applications are displayed, they have a huge degree of control over the exposure their ISV's get and the revenues those ISV's earn.
  • Keyboard - After over three years, it's still tedious and error-prone. It works, but just. What's changed in my thinking over the last couple years is that I no longer care. For me, the iPhone is almost entirely about content consumption, and the keyboard doesn't really matter that much.
  • Industrial Design - I still love the way the phone looks and feels. What's different for me is that I no longer bother with the add on case.
A couple years ago, this is where I said I wouldn't switch away from an iPhone. I recently replaced one iPhone with another, so for me, this is still mostly true; The iPhone has evolved nicely over the years, and it still fits my needs better than the alternatives. However, two things have changed in the last few years. The first is that there's now a reasonable competitor. Unlike then, the alternative to iOS isn't Windows Mobile 6.5... the modern alternative, Android, has a touch screen, a modern web browser, and a fully stocked app store. Unless Apple sues Android into submission, it has lost these things as competitive differentiators.

The second thing that's changed for me in the last couple years is more personal. As much as I like the iPhone, I can't shake the feeling that it isn't a net improvement to my overall standard of living. Amy Breesman said it well when she was recently quoted in an NPR Story: " I would almost say it's, like, a negative effect that it's had on my life. It's just kind of this rabbit hole that you're always going down.". Maybe I'd miss it more if it were gone, but I can't shake the feeling that the time spent on the phone would be better spent elsewhere. Then again, I wouldn't have known about that NPR quotation, unless I had heard it on the NPR app in my phone.

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Wed, 05 Aug 2009
iPhone
I've been meaning to write this for months... after switching to an iPhone last October I have some thoughts on the transition away from Windows Mobile. Most of my detailed comments are complaints, so before I continue, it's worth saying that I do think the iPhone is the best smart phone you can buy. It is, by far, the best answer the industry has come up with for this class of device. That said, it's more fun (and potentially useful) to complain:
  • Touch Screen - I remember shopping with my parents for a car in the late 80's. One of the cars we looked at was a Buick Riveria with a touch screen in the center console. It was cool, but since it lacked tactile feedback, you had to be looking at it to use it. Flash forward 23 years, and you can replicate this experience in the palm of your hand, for better or for worse.
  • 'Ambient Information' - The phone does a poor job of making inforation ambiently available. To see your next appointment, you need to open the Calendar unless the reminder has already displayed. (This could go on the home page.) To be notified of a new e-mail, you need to unlock the phone and look at the home page. (This could be a LED on the case.) As notifications build up, they wind up truncated and incomplete, presumably so they can fit in an artificially small box on the screen.
  • Portrait/Landscape - I wake up in the morning and want to check e-mail before I get up.. I grab the phone off the nightstand, look at the display, and it... switches to landscape mode. I'm driving down the road and want to skip a track, so I grab the phone (eyes on the road), put my finger in the general area where the 'forward' button is, and it... switches to landscape mode. Landscape is useful when you need it, and a usability menace when you don't. There needs to be better control over when it engages and when it doesn't. (In this case, physical buttons for skipping forward and backward among tracks might be nice too... Buick ultimately dropped the touch screen entirely, and modern cars with navigation tend to also offer physical controls for key functions.)
  • e-Mail - I have two e-mail accounts set up on my phone: personal and business. It takes five taps to switch between them. A unified view would be nice. (A list of the union of all inboxes, color-coded by in-box). An easier way to pick an in-box would be almost as nice.
  • Large e-mails - By default, large e-mails are only partially downloaded to the phone and there's a button at the bottom of a one of these mails that lets you download the rest. Of course, once it does, it then zips you back to the top of the mail, so you have to manually scroll through the (remember, it's large) e-mail to get to where you were reading. Argh.
  • Latency - Maybe a 3GS would fix this, but the phone seems very slow to change modes and update the display. I find myself continually waiting split-seconds for the thing to animate the transition from one display to the next. I'm asking a lot here, but I don't care... I use the thing most waking hours of most days.
  • App Store Rejections - This is a problem, it sucks for app developers, and it won't matter to the success of the platform. The vast majority of customers will never hear that Apple censored a dictionary (!), and even if they did, it won't stop them from buying. In the short term, my guess is that Apple will make whatever minimal changes it needs to make to keep developers quiet enough, and the iPhone will continue to do very well. Phone buyers don't care enough about choice, and App developers will tend to always want to code for the platform where they have the best shot at making money, which is currently the iPhone. In the long term, my guess is that a lot more of this content will wind up on mobile web sites than through the store. After all, a website can be an icon on the home page, avoid the risk of Apple's rejecton, and also get to run on Android, Pre, and Windows Mobile.
  • App Store - 25,000 applications on the site, and I might look at 10 or 20 before deciding to make a purchase. The way the store presents applications (controlled by Apple) has a huge impact on which apps succeed and which apps fail. Even if the rejection problem magically goes away, Apple still controls the horizontal and the vertical. (A lot like Google's control over the fate of websites...)
  • Keyboard - After ten months, it's still tedious and error-prone for me. It works, but just. Apple should provide a keyboard layout that works like a Blackberry (or even T9) and trades off multiple letters per key in exchange for larger keys.
  • Industrial Design - I love the way the phone looks and feels, so I wrap it in a tacky add on case to 'protect it'. So does most everybody else. Last I heard, good design was about making a product that looks good and works well. The rampant sales of cases implies to me that something is missing with the 'works well' part of that equation.
I do like the thing, and I wouldn't switch away, but it's far from perfect. Let's hope it gets better.

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Mon, 18 Aug 2008
Macintosh vs. PC Pricing, and missing the point.
Harry McCracken just wrote a bit comparing the price of PC's to Macintosh's. Like most of these guys, he misses the point. Consider his methodology: "I chose a standard [Apple] MacBook configuration...Then I configured laptops as similarly as possible from the country's two largest PC manufacturers". The problem is that this methodology takes the set of Apple machines to be the set of valid configurations for comparison, excluding configurations that Apple does not offer. Just for the sake of a more full comparison, what does a MacBook cost with these configurations?
  • A TrackPoint.
  • A numeric keypad.
  • Two internal batteries.
  • Two internal mouse buttons.
  • A swappable drive bay.
  • A docking station.
  • A calibrated, high-gamut display and a digitizer.
  • A display smaller than 13" or bigger than 17".
  • No keyboard.
  • A convertable tablet configuration.
  • Embedded on a PXI card. The absolute minimum cost.
Of course, none of these configurations are available from Apple. If you need or want one of these options, you can't get it at any price from Apple. Similar comparisons can be made in the server and desktop PC spaces.

This is an unsuprising result. When you enlarge the playing field beyond Apple's relatively limited reach, it becomes even more apparant that these comparisons aren't 'Apple vs. PC' what they really are is 'Apple vs. The Entire Computer Industry'. Apple doesn't have the capability, desire, or brand to fare well in such a comparison: There are just too many market segments they don't address. Addressing all of these segments would leave them with a confusing product line, a highly taxed engineering group, and a muddled brand image.

Part of the value of the PC platform is that it not subject to the limitations of being confined to one highly image-sensitive company. Part of the value of the PC is that it allows other vendors to enlarge the platform into new segments. Missing out on this is one of the costs of picking an Apple that is missing in most comparisons, including McCracken's.

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Wed, 27 Jul 2005
Apple's new iBook
As rumored, Apple just refreshed the iBook. The other rumor, the one about a new chassis and a widescreen display, did not come true. Between that and Apple's desire not to encroach too much on the PowerBooks, there wasn't much headroom for major upgrades:
  • 2-finger trackpad scrolling.
  • Sudden motion sensing for the disk. (Is this done by the disk itself with a built in motion sensor or by the motherboard/CPU?)
  • Standard Bluetooth
  • A minor speed bump: the peak CPU is now a 1.42GHz G4 with a 142MHz bus.
I was hoping for more, but given Apple's total lack of manuvering room in the laptop space, this is an understandable bump. If they upgraded the iBook too much, there'd be little reason to pay extra for the PowerBook. Since they can't upgrade the PowerBook too much (thanks to the stagnant G4) they have a natural cap on the features in the iBook. Thus, Apple is restricted to selling up its five year old laptop with slogans like "a fast 133MHz or 142MHz system bus" (fast? Dell's $500 Inspiron 1200 runs its system bus at 400MHz) and "brilliant 1024 by 768 pixel resolution" (maybe it was brilliant five years ago).

Anyway, I've recently come to have a theory on the limited display resolution of Apple's notebooks. It seems obvious in retrospect, but Apple can't scale up the display resolution since they don't have the CPU or memory bandwidth to support higher resolutions as well as they want. With modern display stacks like Quartz and Quartz Extreme, pushing pixels around is one of the biggest user-visible performance burdens on a modern machine (hence, "the snappy"). While a GPU can help, there's no getting around the fact that if they doubled the resolution, they'd double the number of bytes their system has to process to render the same sized desktop on the screen. Given that Apple's best G4's have less than half the main memory bandwidth of the lowest end Centrinos, there's no wonder Apple's not chomping on the bit to eat up more of their bus.

Since Apple's first wave of Centrino laptops should bring fixes for all of this, the computing community has some pretty amazing hardware to look forwards to in a year or so.

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Thu, 30 Jun 2005
Some historical context around Apple/x86
I ran across this quote the other day from I, cringely:

"The market has stupidly decided that Intel microprocessors are better than Apple's preferred PowerPCs, so Apple will be at a disadvantage trying to sell PowerPC machines into the Intel market. This is what's right now killing Silicon Graphics, which is finding rough going pitting its MIPS processors against Intel. ... Yes, Apple will build computers with Intel processors. Their aim, as in all of these products, is for the high end. Based on Intel's new Merced chip, the new Apple machine will have PCI slots, Universal Serial Bus, Fast Ethernet, IEEE 1394 FireWire, IRDA, DIMM sockets, but no ISA slots and no backwards compatibility to DOS. So this is NOT a PC in the strictest sense, since it will only run Rhapsody, but not System 8 or Windows NT. It will run Mac applications inside Rhapsody. And because Apple is both the author of Rhapsody and the designer of this machine, Jobs believes that more customers will want to buy their Rhapsody wrapped in Apple hardware than not."

Funny thing is... that quote is from October of 1997. A lot has changed since then, but since the core reasoning was sound it probably shouldn't be too much of a suprise that he was ultimately right.

The other interesting bit was that Cringely wrote that piece around 1997, which is when the NDA for 'Project Star Trek' expired. Star Trek was a project in which a few Apple, Novell, and Intel software engineers got MacOS 7 running on PC hardware. I'm not sure what the business story would've been, but it was a nice technical accomplishment nonetheless.

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Mon, 06 Jun 2005
So it's true...
I didn't believe it was possible when I first heard the rumors a few weeks ago, but Here it is: Apple will transition to x86, specifically Intel, in 2006. The whole line will go x86 in 2007. Microsoft is behind the switch, as is Adobe. Interestingly, the developer transition kit has an Intel compiler at its core. I wonder why not GCC.

The next question is how well it will be pulled off. In theory it could be seamless. It needs to be.

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Apple on Intel - Not^H^H^H gonna happen
So, the big rumor is that Apple is switching to Intel processors, and Steve Jobs is going to make the announcement during his WWDC keynote address this morning (10:00AM PST). I had been planning on writing a debunking article, but now I'm not so sure. Here's why:

Reason not to switchCounterargument
If Apple switches to Intel, they introduce another archicture break into their hardware platform. Emulation can make existing binaries run seamlessly on Intel.
But isn't emulation really slow? Modern emulation technology has gotten a lot better, it can compile code on the fly, just like a modern JVM or Virtual PC.
But I've run virtual machines before, and they're still really slow. All of the operating system services can be made to run natively, at full speed. The only thing that will be emulated is the application code itself. So, except for very computation-intensive application code things could still run smoothly.
Okay, but a lot of OS X (like Quartz Extreme) is optimized to run on Macintosh hardware. Macintosh video hardware is the exact same as PC video hardware these days. In fact, most of the supporting hardware in Macintosh is the same as on a PC.
The PowerPC is part of Apple's 'uniqueness'. It doesn't matter to most consumers what chip or ISA is running their software. The reason people pay for Apple, their core unique value, is their appealing design and the attenion they spend developing a well integrated system. Even if Apple switches to Intel, there's no reason any of that has to change. (Anyway, they could still do something pretty unusual, like putting a Pentium M in a desktop).
Lots of new stuff in Tiger like CoreImage uses AltiVec a great deal. CoreImage actually compiles dataflow graphs to native hardware at runtime, picking the approach that runs best on the target hardware. CoreImage could well compile to x86/SSE2 (or whatever else). That means that even a PPC binary running emulated on an Intel Macintosh could have access to full speed CoreImage services compiled to SSE2.
This will alienate existing PowerPC customers. Why does it have to? If their emulation works well enough, Apple could easily introduce Intel hardware and retain PowerPC as the standard binary format for a while. The common case for ISV's would be to continue developing PowerPC binaries and selling into both the x86/OSX and PPC/OSX markets. The only 'schism' would be arise for software vendors who had to have full performance on x86/OSX. They'd have to worry about shipping some kind of fat binary that ran on both platforms. There still, PPC/OSX customers wouldn't see a difference.
Will Windows run on an Intel Mac? Won't that make it easier for Microsoft to drop Office for OS X? Apple could easily make it virtually impossible to run Windows on whatever hardware they sell. With respect to Office for OS X, Microsoft doesn't really care what the target archicture is: they just want to sell licenses to Office. They'll go where the money is, and that might end up being an OSX/Intel port.


Now that I think about it, the switch to Intel would basically boil down to the same story Apple told in 1993, when it initially switched from the Motorola 680X0 to the PowerPC. Apple pulled it off well in 1993, and now they have the benefit of experience (they've done it before), better emulation technology, and an already more standard hardware platform. It seems plausible to me. The only thing that's left is to figure out why they'd do it, and I have some ideas there too:
  • They could finally move their laptops to a faster chip than the G4.
  • x86 is not going away and it's not going to end up marginalized any time soon. This could be a 'final' switch.
  • If IBM is growing cold on the desktop CPU business (and who could blame them), Apple's hand might be forced into switching away from PPC. Right now, IBM is the only high performance CPU story Apple has.
Anyway, let's see what Jobs says...

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Wed, 01 Jun 2005
Some things never change...
I've been shopping for a laptop recently. My target specs are these:
  • Any modern laptop processor is probably adequate.
  • 1GB RAM.
  • 30-60GB Disk.
  • A DVD writer would be nice, but not necessary.
  • 14-15 inch display, the highest dot pitch I can find.
  • Reasonable 2D graphics performance, 3D is not that important to me.
  • Touchpad pointing device.
  • 3 year warranty, accident insurance is a nice plus
  • Long battery life, >3 hours.
  • Reasonable expectation of 2-3 years of reliable life.
  • Can run a couple small Windows applications I need to do my job.
  • Can run MS Office.
That's a long list, but nothing on it is very demanding. Let's see how close a couple vendors get:

Dell D610Thinkpad T4xApple 15" PowerBookApple 14" iBook
CPUPentium M, 1.6Pentium M, 1.8G4, 1.564, 1.33
Ram1GB, 2 DIMMS1GB, 1 DIMM1GB, 2 DIMMS768MB, 2 DIMMS
Hard Disk60GB60GB80GB60GB
Optical DiskDVD+/-RWDVD+/-RWDVD+/-RWDVD+/-RW
Screen14.1", 1.5MP14.1", 1.5MP15", 1MP14", 0.75MP
Warranty3 year3 year3 year3 year
Insurance3 yearnonenonenone
Price$1,893$2,306$2,648$1,948


So, as ever, Apple is the most expensive choice, even when compared to nicer PC's like the ThinkPad.

Maybe the thing that suprises me the most about this is that Apple isn't even close to the bleeding edge of display technology. Given the energy they've put into OS X's desktop rendering pipeline, I'd expect them to have displays that could compete with Sony's XBrite or maybe the 2MP 15" widescreen that Dell makes available on the D810. OS X could drive those displays better than pre-Avalon Windows. Maybe this is a artifact of the suppliers Apple is using?

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