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So, This Just Happened:

Cheap-ass Windows tablet

Yes, that’s a Windows tablet. Yes, mine. Yes, I still don’t like Windows. But I now own a Windows tablet. For personal use, not work even. Explanation and excuses after the jump.

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The Execution, Of All Things

It’s easy enough to get hits with bad tech journalism: just rile the Apple fanboys. The Mobile Technology Weblog’s Microsoft Announces iPhone Killer deserves accolades for not involving any kind of actual announcement, nor in any way substantiating how its topic might be capable of “kill”ing the iPhone.

Android is a far more credible competitor to the iPhone, and as I said earlier, I’m interested to see if it can disprove some of Apple’s assertions about the way it conducts the iPhone ecosystem, such as the tightly-restricted review process or the prohibition on background apps, or if it will fail and thereby vindicate Apple. Still, whatever success Android might achieve, it’s hyperbole to posit it as an iPhone killer, at least at this stage.

Honestly, the two biggest threats I see to the iPhone come from the iPhone ecosystem itself.

In the worst case, one leads to mere tragedy, the other to catastrophe. Not that I’m predicting such a thing; I’m not a Cassandra (except when playing Soul Calibur, but that’s another story). But I do think these are issues that have the potential to cause great harm to Apple, its users, and its developers.

1. iPhone development is a bubble economy, already severely overinflated

Rilo Kiley, “The Execution of All Things“:
Soldiers come quickly, I feel the earth beneath my feet.
I’m feeling badly, it’s not an attempt at decency.

Surely only the most foolish and greedy developers at this point think they’re going to write a simple game and make a million dollars, like Steve Demeter, who pulled $250,000 in two months with the indie game Trism. The easy, early money has been made. Now there are 100,000 apps to compete with for attention, and only the top 2,000 have any significant usership.

But still, lots of developers are picking up Objective-C, learning from books like ours (thank you!), and putting their own time and money into writing their own indie apps. Even if they don’t expect to become iPhone millionaires, they’d at least like a shot at being, as Dan Grigsby aptly put it, warm, clothed, and fed with the proceeds of their iPhone work.

It’s possible the door has already largely closed to this too.

When I say that iPhone development is a bubble, I welcome you to interpret that in very literal economic terms. A developer who puts time and money into learning iPhone development does so in hopes of realizing a significant return.

And if you’re well off, well then I’m happy some for you.
But I’d rather not celebrate my defeat and humiliation here with you.

Personal case study: I put about two months of full time work into RoadTip… actually, three when you account for the month spent on the nightmare of implementing in-app purchase. That was time that I lived off a credit card, meaning I used a high-interest loan from Capital One to fund my development. I also put fixed costs, like artwork for the icon (from a former CNN colleague who used to work in the graphics department) and trademark registration on my card. So this is serious skin in the game.

After two weeks of sales, it is clear that I will never make back this investment. Not even close. I may never even make back the fixed costs, to say nothing of paying myself.

OK, there are reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that there were no exit-finder apps when I started, and at least four others now (none of which seem to have bothered licensing their map data… would love to know how they’re not violating their providers’ terms of service). In the hit-driven App Store, you fall off your section’s “recently released” page after just a day or two, and unless you make the top 20 or have something else that makes you findable (a brand name, a well-travelled incoming link), you’re already dead.

Someone come quickly, this place was built for moving out.
Leave behind buildings, the city planners got mapped out.
Bring with you history, and make your hard earned feast.
Then we’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene, and humility.

If this is a hit-driven business, then the winners may be the ones who best understand marketing. And that’s the scenario by which we get lots of name-brand big-company apps, where there’s enough money to get the app in front of lots of people. The indie developer, who knows more about code than marketing, is at a severe disadvantage.

And if the risk of failure is not paying the mortgage, then it’s probably time for a lot of indies to bail out.

And this is still classic economics: too much money is in the iPhone market, chasing too little reward, and eventually there’ll be a pullback.

The question is if anyone will notice. Will the average user really miss 200 different Twitter clients or unit converters? Or is there some special, unique, topic-specific niche app that some tiny group of users would dearly love, and now will never get, because the developer who could write it is instead going to go take a contract to write the “American Idol Sing-A-Long Fun Kit”™ or god fucking knows what else?

Who knows? But much as I continue to think the world needs a touch-driven “IDE for podcasts”, something that might be extraordinary on a hypothetical OS X-powered tablet, I’m not going to risk any more of my own precious lucre developing such a thing. At this point, I expect my iPhone development to be largely for-hire works.

And we’ve been talking all night….

So that’s just sad, this one is dangerous:

2. Some of Apple’s iPhone development policies could violate anti-trust law

Anti-trust?! You should think I’m nuts. You’re probably thinking: Apple’s just a small player in a very competitive market, prone to lose their position at any time to strong competitors. You want to talk monopolies, let’s talk Microsoft.

No, I don’t want to talk monopolies. That’s the Sherman Act. I want to talk restraint of trade… the Clayton Act.

Consider this: the crux of the 90’s antitrust case against Microsoft — successfully prosecuted, if you’ll recall — was that Microsoft abused its dominant position by bundling its Internet Explorer web browser with Windows, to the disadvantage of Netscape Navigator, which had to be installed separately. Microsoft was branded as evil incarnate for the act of simply including a browser.

On the iPhone, Apple not only includes a browser, it prohibits developers from using any web-rendering technology other than WebKit.

Oh god come quickly, the execution of all things.
Let’s start with the bears and the air and mountains, rivers, and streams.
Then we’ll murder what matters to you and move on to your neighbors and kids.
Crush all hopes of happiness with disease ‘cause of what you did.

But that’s just the beginning. Consider some other technological and commercial restraints put on developers:

  • You may not use any interpreted language or a virtual machine in an app.
  • You must use Apple’s in-app purchase API, and pay Apple a 30% cut, for any post-sale commerce in your app.
  • Effective December 2009, streaming video to an iPhone can only be delivered with HTTP Live Streaming

There’s more, but that’s enough to get us started talking about tying, the practice of compelling a customer to purchase one product as a condition of buying another. The crux of my argument is: could this be applied to Apple’s App Store policies?

Maybe, if a court is sufficiently inventive. It’s been 18 years since I took Prof. Litman’s telecomm economics class in grad school, but he was particularly interested in antitrust law, and I recall the significant issues of that area of case law. In one case — and I’m sorry, I forget if it was FTC vs. Proctor & Gamble (the “Clorox Case”) or U.S. vs. Alcoa — the court was basically willing to invent a market within the defendant company’s operations, in order to claim that the market was closed to competition.

Let’s play with this line of reasoning. Can we imagine parties that might have a complaint against Apple for shutting off a market to them?

  • Sun (Java) and Adobe (Flash) for code-execution environments (i.e., interpreters and virtual machines)
  • PayPal and other payment processors for selling apps and handling in-app purchases
  • Adobe (Flash) and Microsoft (Silverlight) for video playback and streaming technologies
  • Opera and the Mozilla Foundation for web rendering technologies

All of these companies have services that they could sell to iPhone developers, but for the fact that Apple forbids their use on iPhone by fiat. Of course developers contractually agree to that, but they don’t really have a choice: it’s Apple’s way or the highway. And you may agree that it’s better that way; that’s entirely reasonable.

But if you successfully make the argument that things like in-app purchase processing or video streaming are competitive markets, then you might have a case that Apple’s App Store terms violate the Clayton Act.

Granted, I’m not a lawyer, and if it were such a slam dunk, then it’s fair to ask: why haven’t Adobe, Sun, PayPal and the rest sued on exactly this basis? Fair enough.

Still, if we woke up next week to an antitrust investigation of Apple’s App Store practices, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

And lastly, you’re all alone with nothing left but sleep.
But sleep never comes to you, it’s just the guilt and forever wakefulness of the weak.
It’s just you and me….

The execution of all things.
The execution of all things.
The execution of all things.

What’s New, Blue Q?

One-time self-described “World’s Greatest Compressionist” Ben Waggoner posts a pointed question to the quicktime-api list:

http://www.apple.com/macosx/what-is-macosx/quicktime.html

What I’d like to know is if QuickTime X is going to be available for Windows and older versions of Mac OS X.

It’s an important issue, because despite iTunes’ insistence on installing QuickTime on Windows, the future of that product seems completely unknown. For years, every question I’ve seen about the future of QuickTime on Windows has been met with absolute silence from Apple. Yeah, I know, “Apple does not comment on unannounced products,” and all… Still, Apple has left this technology in limbo for a remarkably long time. I recall asking ADC reps about QuickTime for Windows back at Leopard Tech Day Atlanta in 2006, as I was considering calling it from Java with JNI, and (as previously noted), I got no reply at all. And every other public question I’ve seen about the future of QuickTime on Windows has gone similarly unanswered, for years.

Smell that? That’s the scent of Abandoned Code Rot. We got that from QuickTime for Java for a few years before they managed to finally deprecate it (though they apparently haven’t gotten the message out).

It wouldn’t be too surprising to see QT for Windows fall by the wayside… Apple probably cares more about the popularity of its favorite formats and codecs (AAC and H.264) than of the QuickTime APIs and QuickTime’s interactive features like Wired Sprites that have been clearly and unequivocally beaten by Flash.

But if that’s true of Windows, is it also true on the Mac? QuickTime developers are right to be a little worried. The old C-based QuickTime API remains a 32-bit only option, intended to be replaced by the Objective-C QTKit. But in the four years since its introduction in Tiger, QTKit has only taken on part of the capabilities of the old QuickTime API. With Leopard, you could finally do capture and some significant editing (e.g., inserting segments at the movie or track levels), but raw sample level data was unavailable for any track type other than video, and some of the more interesting track types (like effects and especially tweens, useful for fading an audio track’s volume between specific times) are effectively useless in QTKit.

With Snow Leopard, the big news isn’t a more capable QTKit API, it’s QuickTime X. And as Apple’s QuickTime X page points out, QTX is all about a highly-optimized playback path (using decode hardware if available) and polished presentation. Great news if you’re playing 1080p movies on your computer or living room PC, not so much if you want to edit them: if you want to edit anything, you’re back in the old 32-bit QuickTime (and the code is probably still written in C against the old APIs, given QTKit’s numerous limitations). You don’t see a 64-bit Final Cut Pro, now do you? (BTW, here’s a nice blog on that topic.)

When you all install Snow Leopard tomorrow and run the QTX-based QuickTime Player, you’ll immediately understand why the $30 QuickTime Pro (which bought you editing and exporting from the Player app and the plug-in) is gone. Follow up in the comments tomorrow (after the NDA drops) and we’ll discuss further.

If I were starting a major new multimedia project that wasn’t solely playback-based — imagine, say, a podcast studio that would combine the editing, exporting, and publishing tasks that you might currently perform with Garage Band, iTunes, and FTP — I would be very confused as to which technology to adopt. QuickTime’s cross-platform story seems to be finished (QTJ deprecated, QTW rotting away), and everything we hear on the Mac side is about playback. Would it be safer to assume that QuickTime doesn’t have a future as a media creation framework, and drop down to the engine level (Core Audio and Core Video)? And if not QuickTime… then what?

Oh, and as for the first question from the quicktime-api thread:

… How about Apple throwing us a bone as to what QuickTime X will offer those of us that use QT and QTSS?

From what I can tell, Apple has all but ditched QTSS in favor of HTTP Live Streaming, supported by QuickTime X and iPhone 3.0.

She’s Got Issues

I saw one of these Microsoft “PCs are cheaper” ads during the basketball game last night. It’s probably best of me to leave the advocacy to those who are good at it (e.g., Daring Fireball), but even setting aside tiresome evangelism, this campaign still seems like an odd duck:

  • One of the classic rules of advertising is that #2 trashes #1, but never vice versa. Avis says “we try harder” to catch Hertz, but Hertz never even acknowledges Avis. As the market leader for decades, it doesn’t have to. So why does Microsoft, still enjoying at least a 10-to-1 advantage over Mac in market share, feel the need to take potshots?
  • And did you notice the fallacy with that point? It’s that Microsoft isn’t even advertising its own product, which is the operating system. They’re forced into telling you how great PC hardware in general is, not why Windows is great. I suppose the Linux community could expect a free ride off this campaign, if it works, because it too benefits from a “buy a cheap PC” message.
  • The big question is, how much does price and feature set matter? If it’s the only thing that matters, then the iPod never had a chance against the Zen Nomad.
  • That said, there is a perception that Macs are more expensive, largely driven by the fact that Apple doesn’t even bother making zero-margin el cheapo computers. Saying that you’re “paying $500 for a logo” is rubbish, but I think some people will buy it.
  • But is it really just about styling? The ads seem to make the point that Macs are “sexy” – are they admitting that most PCs are ugly? – but I don’t know how many Mac users really pay that much heed to appearance. If it’s just about the sexy, then why would people try so hard to get OS X running on admittedly ugly-ass PCs?

Finally, couldn’t Microsoft use this exact same line of reasoning in selling the XBox 360 against the PlayStation 3? The cheapest PS3 is double the price of the cheapest 360, yet Microsoft hesitates to do so, even though the 360 is something they actually make and sell (as opposed to PCs, which they do not).

Maybe the difference is that – for this console generation and in North America at least – they know they have Sony beat. But can’t we say the same for desktop operating systems? I mean come on, it’s still 10-to-1 right? Maybe, but there’s a sense that a lot of innovators have switched to Mac, as Fortune noted in a recent article about Boxee. If cool new stuff is all on the web, is multi-platform, or (heaven forbid) is Mac first, then Microsoft’s classic advantages are lost.

But if that’s the case, then unless “Lauren” from the ads is a developer – oops, wait, she’s an actress – then it’s hard to see how selling her a cheap-ass laptop does much for Microsoft.

Maple Fail

I went ahead and upgraded Parallels, kind of in hopes that Maple Story would work without a) having to run in Boot Camp, or b) running without DirectX support (and therefore at a crawl), or c) having the Windows .exe terminate with a dialog accusing me of an “Illegal hacking attempt”.

The result: my character (“Quaoar”, near the center of the screen) seems to have picked up the texture from a “Wizet Wizard” label elsewhere on the screen:

Fail. Amusingly, turning off 3D acceleration now completely fails (instead of just making the game hopelessly slow), with Maple Story complaining of an unsupported graphics mode.

If Windows is only good for games, and this game still doesn’t work in Parallels… I don’t suspect I’ll be using Parallels that much after all.