The Fall of the Apple Empire…It’s the Little Things

Apple’s new Macbook magsafe power connector and it’s new commercials:  The beginning of the end.

Simple stuff.  The first is the new Magsafe connector for Macbooks.  Here’s a quote from the Apple forums on The Verge website:

“The new MagSafe 2 connector sucks. Apple blew it. It’s hard to argue that they changed the adapter for the sake of room when the MBA accommodates it fine. This new adapter is quick to pop out when you are using the notebook on a couch, plush chair or somewhere where it can get forced up while in use.”

This is a common complaint.  So what does this tell you?  It tells me Apple is getting sloppy, already.  Do you think Steve Jobs would have allowed something that was badly designed to ever leave the lab to be proto-typed let alone ship?  I think not.

I know this is a small thing, but it’s the culmination of the small things that made Apple products great.  It will be the culmination of small things that destroys the ‘magic’ so many Apple enthusiasts wax poetic about.  The tiny details that are so well thought out and that people notice, sometimes only after months of use, or when they use a non-Apple product.  It’s subtle, but it’s very very important.

Next up are the new Apple Genius ads.

Take 2 minutes and compare the Nexus 7 (Googles new 7″ table) add with Apple’s Olympic ad(s):

Nexus 7:

Apple Genius:

Even Ad Age agrees that Google’s advertising is better than Apples.

“Google’s Nexus 7 TV Spot Tops Apple’s ‘Genius’ Ads in Effectiveness”

Think about that:  Google’s TV ads are better than Apple’s TV ads.  This is just flat out heresy in the marketing world.  Apple, since Jobs return to the company, has consistantly created the best marketing and advertising compaigns, for any product, on the planet.  Now, here we are, months after Steve Job’s dies, and Google, a company not known for making brilliant (or even interesting) TV ads, is beating Apple at it’s own game.

Do you really think Steve Jobs would have let those genius ads anywhere near a production studio after seeing the pitch for them?  I know that when I first saw them I thought “Apple ad?  Really?  WTF happened?”.

So this is how it begins.  The many little things that add up to a really big thing.  The inevitable fall is starting sooner than I thought it would.

Apple’s ‘Secret’ Lab and the Knight Ridder Folks

Did you know Apple had a secret lab in Boulder, CO for several years?  Yep.  It was called the AEML (Apple Electronic Media Lab) and it was a part of the eWorld division, basically, it’s research group.

I know because I started it and, along with my local proxy (a brilliant guy named Dennis Dube)  ran it for several years.
Why bring this up now you ask?  Well, this weekend, I attended a 20 year reunion party with a few folks from the AEML, but the parties main event was to bring together Roger Fidler and his crew from Knight Ridders IDL (Information Design Lab). 

The IDL was a ‘futures’ lab that ran from 1992 to 1995 and Roger Fidler was it’s director.

Roger’s IDL was the reason I started Apple’s secret lab in Boulder in the first place.  I visited him there shortly after he opened his lab and knew, just knew, this was the kind of thing Apple needed to get’s it’s head around. .  At the time I was the head of R and D for eWorld (Apple’s attempt at competing with AOL and other now long gone online services) and believed that the printed mainstream media of the time (primarily newspapers, magazines and books) would translate best to the online world.  This was way before video was possible due to slow bandwidth being the norm.  Hell, it was basically pre-internet (which I date to being born along with the first brower…Mosaic-1993 and it’s commercial brother Netscape- 1994).

So I set up the AEML.  I rented the office space across the hall from his offices in the Randolph Building on the corner of Walnut and Broadway in Boulder, CO (Top floor, NW corner looking out on the flatirons and down on Walnut St) and set up our own lab.  One of the things we were trying to nail down was what good is the Newton PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) in a connected online world.  It was handheld, battery powered and it was supposed to fit in your coat pocket.  It was also slow and it wasn’t connected to anything.  There was no wifi back then and data over the air was a Motorola engineers wet dream, but little more.

Here’s what it looked like:

At around the same time, Roger and his guys were making an online newspaper tablet prototype.  Here’s a video mockup of what he was doing from 1994:

He, spot on, envisioned tablets as data consumption devices, not data creation devices.  Here’s a closeup of the mocked up tablet:

I’m not going to get into did Roger Fidler or Steve Jobs invent the Tablet Computer, but it’s worth spending 13 minutes and watching that video up above.
Some things to keep in mind:
In 1994, you couldn’t build something like Roger’s tablet.  You could barely build something like Apple’s Newton in 1994.  The technology hadn’t caught up to (what was effectively) an interface design.

There were mocked up ‘big Newtons’ in Apples own labs (below) so you could make the argument it was only a matter of time.
But, everyone likes to be first and get credit where credit is due.  The Knight Ridder folks were first with the interface ideas of how to put a newspaper onto a tablet, that’s clear.  The problem was Rogers vision just couldn’t happen until a few other things happened.  With the iPhone (and then iPad) those stars lined up and it came together:  Fast low power consumption processors, much better battery technology and highspeed wireless networks.  It was 15ish years after the Knight Ridder video was made before these things got good enough.  Until then, it just wasn’t technically possible.
We (AEML) played around with trying to figure out how to build one back then (using, of all things, a Mac Powerbook)….
Take off the screen, flip it, put a touch overlay on it, bolt it to the back of the CPU and pretend it’s a working tablet (actually, worked pretty well and would have been build-able almost immediately).  But the idea just didn’t fly.  Hungry processors, lousy battery life and no wireless bandwidth was still the issue.  It was, quite simply, too soon.  And, it was an ugly hack.  If Jobs had seen it he would have laughed his ass off and fired everyone who’d had anything to do with it on the spot.
But…… we (meaning Knight Ridder, Apple, and all the rest of us) were building on top of other people’s ideas all the while.  I could put a LONG list in here as examples, but I suspect you already know this is true.  It’s always true with technology.  Hell, just watch a few episodes of a Star Trek series (any will do) and you’ll get plenty of ideas.

I don’t think any one person (or even any one group at a specific moment in time) can “claim” they truly own, lock stock and barrel, an idea.  Of course, the patent system would disagree with me on this, but that’s a topic for another post another day.

I did enjoy catching up with all those folks though.  It was great to see people that, 20 years ago, did indeed help move the needle a little closer to where we are today.

Privacy, Identity and Your Local Grocery Store

If you think Facebook knows alot about you, take a look at what your local grocery store is tracking.  If you want (sometimes significant) discounts, you are likely a member of a loyalty program with your local grocery store.  You get a card you scan before you checkout (or just your phone number) and viola! you save $10-20 bucks.  Who wouldn’t?

Imagine how that information (what you – mostly – eat) can be interpreted.  Buy a lot of vegetables fruits and chicken?  How about a medical insurance discount to go along with that?  Oh, you like candy, Nutella and pizza?  We’ll pass that along to your doctor and your insurance company for a future checkup and premium increase.

If they have a pharmacy (and many stores do) they’re able to track that as well.

I’m not saying that’s happening today, but, it easily could.  I mean, really.. did you read that Terms of Service for that loyalty program card? 

And it’s getting even more all encompassing.

Now, of course, there’s an app for that.  Safeway, in this case.

When I walked into the store recently, I was approached by two store employees asking me to ‘sign up for our app’.

They were hitting everyone and they had both doors covered to make sure.  This went on for about a week, every day.

So, of course, I signed up.  It’s an app!  Yay apps!  I asked them some questions about it but they didn’t really know much other than they’d been told to do it.  They had an iPad right there and I was able to set up an account that sent me a link via email to download the app to my phone or tablet.

It’s pretty simple really.  You put in your shopping list (which you can use as a check off list while you’re shopping) and it finds coupons and deals for things you’re looking for.  It also suggests ‘additional’ purchases (with an associated coupon to prod you toward ‘trying it’) that might go with what’s already on your list.  It also gives you coupons for alternative products (let the competition begin!).

What I find fascinating about this, beyond the privacy and identity tracking issues, is how they are creating an entirely new marketplace via coupons.  It’s a little like those endcaps at the end of the aisle- if you sell products at Safeway and you want great placement (end of the aisle) you PAY Safeway to put your products there.  They now have a virtual equivalent that they can sell to companies (pay us X dollars and we’ll put up your Jiff coupon for that peanut butter and not your competitors, even though it says Skippy in their shopping list).

They’re also creating an incredibly powerful direct relationship with their customer base.

This direct relationship effectively destroys traditional local advertising for third parties.  What grocery store is going to put expensive four color ads in a local newspaper when it has a direct, on their phone, relationship with a majority of their customers, for free.

It also means those coupon aggregation services  (Groupon, Living Social, etc.) are about to be cut out of the equation if the local merchants can get everyone to put an app on their phone that links them directly to that local merchant.

And you think no one’s going to put that app on their phone because it’s too many apps?  Think again.  How many places do you go on a regular basis?  I’ll bet it’s one grocery store.  one general purpose store (like Target).  one home improvement store.  Even restaruants… it’s likely you favor only a few.

I’ll bet it’s less than 10 total.  More likely around 5 that you actually go to on a monthly or weekly basis. 

5 apps?  That’s nothing.  That’s less than 30% of one screen on your iPhone.

What about actually reaching all these people with an app?  I shop at the grocery.  All of us do.  It’s part of life as we know it in America.  No avoiding it.  I have a smartphone, everyone I know does and, although it’s not the population as a whole, like broadband internet, it’ll reach 75%+ in, at most, another decade; most likely sooner.  Phone’s are too expensive?  Nope.  Many perfectly useful Android based smart phones are free with a contract.

Imagine some of the big data tricks a store like Safeway could pull off.  Here’s one:

That’s a smartphone.  Trackable to within 30 feet via GPS and a couple of feet if you add in local wifi hotspots.  I can see store managers pulling up real time heat maps of the store layout showing where people go as they shop.  The path they take.  The displays that are ignored and the displays that draw people in like flies.

You think IKEAs (somewhat blatant) way of  forcing you to walk through the entire store to see what they want you to see via a maze… think about doing that in a way that’s far more subtle (and really, manipulative).  But hey.. that’s marketing eh?  Talk about real world data manipulation potentials. 

So, who owns all that data on you?  It’s clearly not yours.  It’s a free service.  Remember this and do not forget it:  If the service is free, you are the product.  Someone is selling all your data to someone, somewhere.

So, privacy.  Big issue.

And identity as well.  What you do is very closely tied up with who you are.  And who sees that data (health insurance company anyone?) can directly effect your finances, and your life.

But damn, I love all those discounts and coupons I get, so I leave the app on the phone.  Just remember it’s there, and know, someone, somewhere, is watching.

Book Review: Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez

I can’t say this is science fiction so much as a near (actually, really near) future war story.  I know a guy in Boulder, CO. that consults for the military creating a specialized Android OS specific to the US Air Force designed to fly, remotely, jets.  As in F18 type jets.  He told me almost 2 years ago about how they had to have autonomous operations if they were cut off from remote control and much of what I read in this book sounds very similar to concepts my friend told me about over lunch at a restaurant on Pearl street in 2010.

2010.

So, not so ‘near future’ as ‘tomorrow or the day after’ future.

As far as this book is concerned.. exceptionally well written.  He’s using a Tom Clancy like style and, for a story like this, it works beautifully.  Fast paced, (reasonably) believable characters and an excellent plot line.  It’s also all a bit close to home.  Police forces are considering (and in some municipalities, have already implemented) drone technology similar to what’s used in the middle east now by our own military.  What if that were to go a little haywire?  That’s what this book is about.  The engineers among you will love it, as will those who just like a good well told fast paced action story.

The only thing that bugs me (and the reason I’d give this a 4 instead of a 5 star rating) is his trick of getting me to buy the ‘whole’ story twice.  He did this with his first two books (Daemon and Freedom).  It’s effectively a clever selling technique to make more money.  He’s not exactly serializing the story like the old SciFi guys used to.  He takes a longer story, finds a good break point in the middle, and prints the first book (1/2 the story) at full price, then the second book (finishing the story), also at full price.  You’ll notice this book is a little short.  That’s because, I’m betting, he’s not done (at least, I hope not.  There were some major plot lines left unanswered). 

Still, if you like his first two (really one) books, and Tom Clancy’s style, you’ll love Kill Decision. 

[[ASIN:0525952616 Kill Decision]]

Community Broadband: An apparent threat to big business

Every so often you see the real harm that comes from big companies having too much say in the local politics of your town, state or region.

Community broadband is one of those areas.  Just recently, we saw an example of this.  N. Carolina, effectively, made it illegal for a town to have it’s own broadband services.

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/06/south-carolina-passes-bill-against-municipal-broadband/

I live in a town that owns it’s own power and water sources.  It also has a fiber loop that could easily be adapted to provide high speed internet services to businesses and households.  When the town started making noises like it might do just that, Comcast and others created an astro-turf ‘group’ that opposed the town’s interest in being an actual ‘smart’ city.  They spent over a quarter of  million dollars (this is a smallish town; less than 100K people) to get the local population to vote against it.

The first time this happened (in the mid 2000′s), they succeeded.  The second time (last year) they failed.  Now, the city council is visiting places like Chattanooga Tn. to see what a gigbit to the home network can create.  They are impressed, and I am very hopeful our little town here will become one of the dozen or so cities that actually has real broadband services available, to all.

Introduction to Arduino Class this Saturday!

Hi, all.  I’m a little bit late with this, but, hey, I wanted to get it out there….

Coming up this Saturday, 1:00 p.m. at the Denver Hackerspace, I’m teaching the “Introduction to Arduino” class. (Click that link up there if you need a map or directions.)

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s Wikipedia’s first paragraph on the Arduino:

Arduino is a popular open-source single-board microcontroller, descendant of the open-source Wiring platform, designed to make the process of using electronics in multidisciplinary projects more accessible. The hardware consists of a simple open hardware design for the Arduino board with an Atmel AVR processor and on-board input/output support. The software consists of a standard programming language compiler and the boot loader that runs on the board.

In short, though, it’s an incredibly useful little critter for people who are looking to get started with a number of different kinds of hacking, including hardware setups, programming, art projects, costumery, and many others, really.

If I’ve intrigued you just enough to have some interest in joining us, feel free to just show up, there is no charge to attend and learn.  However, there are some recommendations, which I will list below:

  • If you have a laptop, bring it.
  • If you bring a laptop, and have time, download, and ideally, set up the software, from here: http://arduino.cc/en/Main/Software, although part of the class will, indeed, be to provide assistance with that.
  • Bring any Arduino hardware you already have, and other electronics, if you’ve got ‘em, to connect up.  Yannow, blinky lights, buzzers, whatever.  We’ll find something cool to do.
  • There will be a few loaner boards, as well as, I hope, a few available for purchase, so come even if you don’t have your own hardware, to learn.

Please drop me a message, in whatever form you like, if you plan to attend, and don’t already have an Arduino of some sort, but would like to purchase one.  I intend to get several of these to make available for sale: http://www.sparkfun.com/products/10817 Pricing is unknown yet, but should be at least a moderate discount from the price on the website, and definitely not more.

Converting KVM virtual machines to VirtualBox

Recently the requirement came up to take a KVM based virtual machine and
move it over to a VirtualBox image. Which turned out to be a fairly simple
endeavour, and was fairly painless. The longest part was transferring over the
40 GB image from one machine to the other where the conversion could take
place. The machine the image was coming from was only on a 100 Mbit/sec
connection so that took a good hour.

Converting from KVM to VirtualBox for a FreeBSD image was pretty
simple, the VBoxManage command has a convertdd command that allows you to
convert from raw disk .img format to .vdi format.

VBoxManage convertdd KVM-image.img VB-image.vdi

After this, unfortunately, there is no way to to automatically convert over the
settings that the virtual machine had, such as the network cards, the memory
allocations and hard drive settings. You will have to go to VirtualBox and
create a new virtual machine and replicate all of the settings. Once that is
done make sure to select the same type of disk controller (SATA or IDE) so that
the drive will hopefully be assigned the same name in the device tree so that
you don’t need to alter your /etc/fstab.

Hopefully everything boots without any issues. If not try creating a new
virtual machine, attach the converted image as a secondary drive and see if you
can mount the converted image within your new install. If so maybe transferring
the data using rsync or dump/restore would be an option.