Thursday, January 28, 2010

Apple's Vocabulary

The iPad: What's In A Name?
Apple announced the iMac last century to showcase that buyers could afford a small, friendly, lower-power Mac that wasn't a PowerMac but would handle common user tasks with cheer and aplomb. ("The excitement of the internet. The simplicity of the Macintosh.") While colorful, the things were criticized as slower than Intel products and as elevating form over substance. (The fact that they all came with network interfaces and modern I/O was largely ignored by critics; the fact that it didn't have ancient I/O interfaces for compatibility was the primary observation of critics.) The iMac was a huge success, widely credited for saving Apple from its 1990s-era cash hemorrhage and single-digit market share.

A bit later, Apple bought SoundJam, formerly published by Casaday & Greene, and released the rebadged product as iTunes to help folks manage music collections. It was criticized as lacking the features of some not-free music players, though since it was a free download there was little discussion among analysts what iTunes meant to Apple other than that it provided an out-of-the-box music manager. Ho-hum, right? After the release of the Firewire-only iPod, Apple leveraged iTunes to provide an interface for Mac users to access digital music that was not in a Microsoft-licensed format. Microsoft threatened to dominate digital content, and Apple's defensive move was designed to make sure that Apple's customers weren't dragged onto PCs due to file format incompatibility (or, worse, to turn Apple into a Microserf forced to tithe to Redmond for every song or movie played with Apple's hardware). Part of the iPod's success can be attributed to this Apple Store concept, which Apple renamed during litigation with Apple Corp. and has been for years known as the iTunes Music Store. The iTunes Music Store, however, sells movies and audio books, and has in essence been rebadged as iTunes, so that the distinction between the player and the store interface has blurred. Apple probably likes this. iTunes passed WalMart years ago as the top music vendor in the U.S. is now the world's largest retailer of music in any format. Along the way, Apple started selling DRM-free music, and the fear Redmond would overtake all content's file formats faded.

In the beginning of this century, Apple announced the iPod, which was a music player. People expressed some puzzlement why the name said nothing about music, and I speculated that the name suggested Apple might over time morph the thing into a bigger-than-just-music tool intended to extend one's computer. I understand some folks use iPods now to run video presentations and back up or transport key files and files too large for email, CD, or the like. The iPod was criticized at launch as having less storage than some competitors (5GB), being more expensive than other competitors ($399), and lacking features like radio or a contact manager that would support input on the device. (Soon, one could buy a 10GB version for $499, or even more with optional engraving!) Most concerning, Apple was offering the most expensive MP3 player anyone had seen, and the market for all MP3 players was tiny. It was obvious that Apple would sell to Kool-Aid-drinking loyalists but – especially with the product's Firewire-only interface – no-one else. The iPod was a huge success, and was credited with enhancing Apple's profitability beyond that achievable with its high-end PC sales, and bringing Apple from a niche computer company to a mainstream tech company. The iPod was credited with aiding Apple sales through network effects and by creating a "halo" effect that improved Apple's power to sell costlier Apple products ... like iMacs and iBooks (well, in the post-Intel world, this is iMacs and MacBooks).

A few years ago, Apple announced the phone everyone expected Apple to announce, and it was immediately criticized as lacking a keypad, having a slick-looking UI that prioritized appearance over substance, and having less memory than some high-end portable devices (among other complaints). In particular, it was criticized as useless to business due to supposed limitations of its contact syncing and its messaging tools. The kiss of death? It was supposed to run only one application at a time, so you could not leave an instant message client open to receive messages while using the browser. No multitasking! What geek would want that? This phone -- which Apple called the iPhone -- synced to one's computer for contacts, music, movies, and whatever else one wanted (though one could buy from Apple's store over the airwaves, and back these purchases up on sync with a host computer). The synch tool for the iPhone was iTunes, which had long ago been ported not only to Apple's new Unix operating system but also to Microsoft's DEC-derived operating systems that descend from NT. Anyone with a mainstream operating system could download and use Apple's iTunes software, and synch with iPods or iPhones at will. The iPhone is has progressed from being in beta testing by a third of the Fortune 500 to being piloted or deployed at 70% of Fortune 500 companies. The App Store – another section of the iTunes Store – has transmitted over three billion applications to users. Apple sells millions of the phones per quarter and holds a large and growing fraction of the growing smartphone market.

Apple recently announced a long-awaited tablet device. Rumors about its name abounded, and there were two camps: it would be an "i-device" or it would have some name that transmitted that it was a powerful stand-alone tool. Some voted for the name Canvas. Some hoped that the tablet would be all about creating content, and others predicted a revolution in publishing content. My own pre-announcement comment on the likelihood that shedding the i moniker to escape the association with smaller-powered appliances was: "I will be unsurprised if the product doesn't have an i moniker, though I must say that the success of iMac and iPhone have made the moniker also ring with quality. It's not a bad badge at all, really." Apple, to the amusement of everyone who recalled this Apple lampoon from MadTV, named the thing iPad.

The iPad, which is not yet on sale, is currently being criticized as being too big for your pocket or for using as a camera, lacking storage, lacking battery life compared to the Kindle eBook reader, and lacking any discernible market. Business Insider's take is that the iPad is "A Big Yawn." The announcement didn't help Apple's shares. It has no keyboard and its bulky keyboard-dock draws derision to the iPad already. It's been panned as useless for business because it follows the iPhone's model on application management and closes applications not in the foreground.

Given that this machine is already hated, what's there not to love? Already, major companies with services the not-yet-released device is expected to impact have changed their services and pricing in reaction. With major book sellers already lined up to sell content on the device, school bookstores may start saving inventory capital by telling students to click a link (for an affiliate fee, no doubt) to download everything on their syllabus. Students will have every book needed for class, every day. Magazines and newspapers interested in selling to students who don't leave campus can reach their audience on the iPad, and those old National Geographic magazines (or whatever) will be easier to store digitally than in box after box in the basement. Presumably one can search those electronic book versions ... do you remember how hard it was to find quotes and make citations from that huge pile of books and notes next to your desk? Ubiquitous electronic books could make that hassle a thing of the past. (If one can't copy text selections from a book, making a book report could be hard on a machine that won't run Pages while running the reader application, and can't run them side-by-side.)

Of course, this is only talking about students. As Jobs described in the iMac announcement, many people want a simple way to get connected to the internet for email and web access. The iPad, especially with 3G and an unlimited data plan, makes this connection simpler than ever before. You need someplace to plug it in at night, and it runs all day. In the right kind of holder, it doubles as a picture frame when you aren't using it. It's the ideal invisible computer: ready for use, but not requiring the clutter or cabling of a desk or even a short-battery-life notebook.

The fly in the ointment? As an "i" product, it seems to be tethered to a "real computer" for software updates and other maintenance. Can a person take this to school without also taking "a computer"? Is the iPad a substitute for a netbook, or is it always the little sibling of some general-purpose computer? Or, as in the case of the original iMac, perhaps Apple intends the iPad to be a simple, stand-alone, fully-powerful device whose lack of input connectors signals movement to new interfaces (bluetooth, WiFi, G3) rather than a signal that it's unable to connect.

Steve Jobs told Walt Mossberg at the announcement event that the screen is the biggest power-eater, that the chip serving as its brains uses hardly any power at all. Apple makes that chip. The chip is called the A4.

Apple's A4 Announcement
Apple, which is ordinarily fairly quiet about what goes on inside its AppleTV, AirPort, iPod, iPhone, and other products that aren't running head-to-head with other manufacturers' products advertised chiefly on CPU specs, did an unusual thing yesterday. Apple announced what amounts to an iPhone on steroids – an iPod Touch with the capability of always-on wireless broadband and enough size and battery to watch movies on intercontinental flights – and Apple spoke directly about the new device's processor.

Sure, we expect to hear about the capacity: without knowing what it'll store, it's impossible to know if it'll hold your library of music or movies and users can't evaluate its utility. But Apple ordinarily offers scant hope of discerning without disassembly the suppliers of such components as the memory controller, processor ...

... but on this product Steve Jobs made clear whose processor it was: Apple's. The processor's name is interesting, too.

What is the A4?
A4 is the most common size of paper. You can do anything with it.

Apple's decision not to talk about the specific graphics support, types and number of processor cores, and so forth continue Apple's tradition of making its device announcements about what you can expect to do with the device rather than making them about announcing to competitors what it's charging for a box full of a specific component set. Apple's A4 announcement is that Apple controls the hardware, and that hardware is a blank slate on which users can do anything -- and which Apple will upgrade, change, or modify as it chooses, without warning to competitors, to improve its margins and its competitiveness, in an endless number of versions of the A4.

Apple's choice of the name A4 is Apple's announcement that it is the new supplier of paper to the digital world. It invites developers to build wild things for users, and suggests to creative users that they might use it to fold the next world-record paper airplane. Apple will sell the A4 of the future, and users of that digital paper will be handling the iPad.

Expect A5 or A6 in a future iPhone (A5 is 1/2 the size of the A4, which is a bit bigger than the Apple tablet). Expect Apple to leverage volumes to make margins attractive, and to leverage the unknown content of its chips to force practical comparisons rather than hardware spec match-ups. Expect Apple to sell iPads based on how they feel in your hand.

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