Category Archives: apple

Apple killed the Flash star

Ding dong, the witch is dead. And by witch, I mean Flash, that multimedia web platform that enables everything from video to games. That’s good news for just about everybody, except for the people who are losing their jobs, natch.

Adobe announced on Wednesday that it is ceasing development of Flash for mobile devices, which basically translates into its death knell. The company says it will concentrate its Flash development on computers, but with more and more web traffic happening on phones and tablets, there really isn’t much of a future there. After all, if you want people to view your website, you’re going to want to make sure they can look at it on their mobile devices. From this day forward, only the foolish will bother using Flash in their website design.

Many observers have already pointed out that Steve Jobs was right. A year and a half ago, the recently departed Apple guru famously wrote his declaration of war on Flash. The software was unstable, proprietary, not friendly to touch interfaces and a drag on battery life:

Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short. The avalanche of media outlets offering their content for Apple’s mobile devices demonstrates that Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content… New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

On the surface of it, it looks like Jobs was indeed right, or even prescient. In reality, though, it’s more of a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Was Apple correct in its criticisms, or did Apple itself kill the Flash star?

With zillions of iPods, iPhones and iPads out there not running Flash, it’s more a case of the latter. Apple simply brought its considerable weight to bear and killed Flash.

Google, which has long said it supports openness on the web in all its forms, could have done the same thing but didn’t. It’s understandable why. With Apple’s big lead in mobile devices to overcome, Google had to look for every possible leg up, which is why Android devices have so far run Flash. That’s also why porn is big on Android - Jobs was notoriously against porn and probably would have liked to have killed it too. Apple may not be able to achieve that particular goal, but piracy is doing a nice job of it.

Ultimately, HTML5 - which is supported by both Apple and Google - looks like it will rule both mobile devices and computers. It shouldn’t be too much longer before those infuriating blue boxes with questions marks - illustrated so ingeniously by the picture above (where is it from, anyway?) - become a thing of the past.

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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in apple, Google, mobile


Motorola’s path forward looks easier than RIM’s

As many had speculated, Motorola has indeed dusted off the old Razr name for its new smartphone, unveiled here in New York Tuesday. In the U.S., where the handset maker has licensing rights with the Star Wars folks, the phone actually combines two of Motorola’s most successful brands - it’s called the Droid Razr. For the rest of the world, including Canada, it’s just the Razr.

The new Razr: super-thin and very light.

If you’re into specification porn, Mobile Syrup has you covered. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that the phone is ridiculously light and thin, yet still sturdy, fast and powerful. I played with one briefly and was amazed at how light it felt in my hand. It’s got a steel core and Kevlar on the outside though, so it’s made not to break. Sadly, as a Motorola representative told me, it’s not strong enough to stop bullets (vests apparently have many layers of Kevlar while the phone only has one).

What I found most interesting during Motorola chief executive Sanjay Jha’s presentation was the mention of how the Razr will be aimed at corporate customers as well as the every-day consumer. The device can accommodate secure enterprise email systems and has remote wipe capabilities, which means it’ll probably pass muster with many businesses’ IT departments.

This has bearing on Canada, particularly BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, which counts business users as its main bread and butter. RIM’s recent woes have been well documented here and elsewhere, but its problem ultimately comes down to this very factor: it is much easier for consumer-facing companies such as Motorola to delve into the business world than it is to go the other way, which is what RIM has been trying and failing to do for some time now.

I asked Jha about this afterward and he agreed to an extent, although he isn’t taking RIM lightly. The BlackBerry maker, which was coincidentally showing off its upcoming BBX operating system at a developer conference in San Francisco, is still a very strong competitor, he said:

There is something at the gut level that resonates with consumers about Android, and we know it because we’ve tried something like three or four OSes. To win in this business, the only learning for me so far is that there is not just one factor that gets you a win. It’s a combination of multiple factors that gets you there. It’s not just cheap, it’s not just the best, you have to hit the appropriate [spots]. They have to do that and it’s work in front of them. Can they do it? Absolutely, it has been done before and it can be done again.

Motorola Canada president Michelle Digulla also acknowledged RIM’s position, but she was a bit more specific in the opportunity for her company:

At the beginning it was the CTOs saying here are the three phones you can pick from or that you can use. That whole dynamic is completely changing. People are like, ‘No, no, no, I’ll pick the phone, you just make it work.’ To be honest, iPhone really pushed the envelope for enterprise people to start doing that. We need to start educating the market about Android for business. It’s an uphill battle, especially in Canada where people are entrenched with RIM, but this is exactly what we need to take hold of.

As I put it on Twitter, Motorola’s hip and cool phones (i.e. the Droid and the original Razr before it) seem to be almost the antithesis of business devices, where staid, sturdy and reliable are the watch words. Motorola could therefore have as much of a tough time getting accepted within companies as RIM is having in the consumer space. The difference, however, is that all the momentum is coming from the much bigger consumer market. It’s obvious which side any handset maker would rather be on.

Motorola will likely benefit greatly in this regard once it is absorbed by Google, a topic that Jha also discussed. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

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Posted by on October 18, 2011 in apple, Google, mobile, motorola, RIM


Is Siri artificially intelligent or just a robot?

Having just returned from a trip to New York on Sunday evening, I haven’t had much time to play with the week’s biggest and hottest new gadget - the iPhone 4S - but I have been able to formulate some initial impressions, especially in regards to its main new feature: the Siri personal assistant.

First, the basics. Yup, the iPhone 4S works as advertised. It’s faster, slicker and generally better than its predecessor, the iPhone 4. Some nifty additions to the operating system make things easier, like you can fire the thing up initially without having to connect it to your computer and you can share iTunes purchases between devices by turning on the iCloud storage option. Both options do a lot for eliminating cables and computers from the iPhone equation.

I particularly like the camera as well. The iPhone 4 had the best camera on any phone I’d tried so far and the 4S is yet another step up. Apple is continuing to strengthen the case for leaving the full camera behind and simply relying on a phone to take photos, at least in casual situations.

Much of the brouhaha over the new device, however, lies with Siri, the voice-recognition feature that can tell the user about everything from the weather to sports scores to scheduled meetings. In Canada, Siri’s capabilities are somewhat more limited for now - it can’t, for example, give directions because it is not yet programmed with Canadian maps.

I have to admit to being fairly skeptical when Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the feature a few weeks ago. It seemed similar to what’s already available on Android phones, which allow voice searches and other functions, while voice recognition in general is a technology that has come a long way but is still plagued by problems.

Siri is, however, remarkably accurate. Despite never having been exposed to my voice before, the tool got all sorts of proper names (mostly) correct, even if it didn’t always know the correct answer. For instance, I asked “What is Neil Gaiman’s best book?” Siri didn’t know and suggested a web search (the right answer, of course, is American Gods), but it did at least identify the author’s name correctly, albeit spelled with a “y” instead of an “i.”

The tool works well with features embedded in the iPhone, such as weather forecasts, calling up contacts, scheduling notifications and launching media. Indeed, after a few hours of playing with it, I may just be ready to say it’s more accurate than anything I’ve seen on Android. And that’s impressive, given how much effort Google has been exerting to gather voice samples.

What really got my attention over the weekend, however, was all the fun and crazy stuff people were trying with Siri, which is now being documented by various websites including “Shit That Siri Says.” Some gems from that site include people asking about - and getting funny answers on - topics ranging from boobs, glory holes and Spongebob Squarepants.

That got me wondering as to the level of Siri’s artificial intelligence. It’s a loaded term that means different things to different people, so I asked Siri to define it. Here’s what I got back:

Under that definition, which is as good as any, the key to AI is the ability to creatively solve a problem. There’s no denying that Siri’s ability to recognize and translate voice plus grammar into usable data or actions qualifies. In that sense, Siri possesses what seems to be a good level of artificial intelligence.

However, with the sort of stuff showing up on the websites above, a good portion of Siri’s capabilities are likely simple programmed responses. It’s doubtful that even IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which not too long ago whupped human butt on Jeopardy, could construct such creative and funny responses as, “No comment, douche bag” to questions such as “Are you menstruating?”

In such regards, Siri is more of a programmed robot than a thinking entity. Somebody somewhere - or more likely, many people somewhere - have spent a good deal of time anticipating and then programming Siri with potential questions and their respective answers, humourous or otherwise.

None of that is meant to take away from the tool. It’s a cool little bell/whistle to have on a phone and it should be fascinating to see if it raises the stakes in this particular aspect of the smartphone war with Google.

Incidentally, where did Siri come from? The military, of course. As the video here explains, Apple’s tool started as a DARPA project called Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO). If you’ve read Sex, Bombs and Burgers, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

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Posted by on October 17, 2011 in apple, artificial intelligence, iphone


Steve Jobs is America (and so can you)

In a classic case of “where were you when,” I was just finishing up as a guest discussant at York University in Toronto Wednesday night when I found out Steve Jobs had passed away. It was sad news, especially given that Jobs, Apple and the iPhone had ironically come up many times during the class, which is all about broadband, the internet and technology.

My book Sex, Bombs and Burgers is actually part of the course reading, presumably selected to give students a break from the dry TCP/IP protocols and CRTC regulatory issues they normally have to digest. The chapters assigned for reading and then discussion in class were those dealing with the internet’s formation, as well as the pornography industry’s influence in helping to develop it.

One student put forward a question that I found to be particularly poignant later, after learning of Jobs’ death: If pornography is such a big driver of innovation, aren’t countries that ban it stunting their ability to innovate?

It was a thought-provoking query, not because of Apple’s own half-hearted attempt to ban porn from its products, but because of the deeper societal and economic issues it touched on.

I meandered through the answer until concluding that yes, countries that ban porn are doing themselves significant harm. It’s not just porn, though - outlawing smut is almost always just the top of the slippery slope, which inevitably leads to other rights being curtailed. Countries that place such limits on citizens’ freedoms - whether it’s looking at dirty pictures, being able to speak freely or protesting online or in the streets - are usually not very progressive or innovative.

China, where porn and many other freedoms are technically banned, is a great example. The country desperately wants to transform itself from the world’s manufacturing centre into an innovation hub and is throwing billions of dollars at emerging technology research, such as nanotech, to do so. But what the country isn’t doing - and what it is effectively preventing with its various limitations - is encouraging regular people to invent and create. China is trying to innovate on an institutional level, but it isn’t creating a culture of innovation.

The United States has fostered and nurtured just such a culture better than anyone for at least the past century. It has given the world the likes of Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and, yes, Steve Jobs, not to mention a whole slew of others. These are individuals who were consumed with the ability to create something new, but more importantly - whether it was in a garage or a basement - they had the freedom to follow their visions.

True innovation, therefore, doesn’t come from up on high. It comes from below, sometimes literally in the case of those businesses that started in basements.

Everything Apple is today is a testament to that culture and way of life. Jobs, along with his friend Steve Wozniak, started business literally in his family’s garage and now, almost 40 years later, it’s the most valuable technology company in the world. If that’s not the perfect example of the quintessential American dream, nothing is.

Steve Jobs really is more than just an entrepreneur and an inventor, he’s a symbol of that culture of innovation, and one that you don’t have to be an American to admire. His accomplishments have doubtlessly inspired many people around the world and hopefully will continue to do so.

The title of this post comes from Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (and So Can You). It’s a weirdly worded title for a book, but with a slight alteration, I think it perfectly describes the life and legacy of Steve Jobs.


Posted by on October 6, 2011 in apple


Apple a victim of its own high expectations

It was inevitable - Apple has become a victim of its own success. By repeatedly coming up with fancy new toys desired by zillions of people around the world, the much ballyhooed press events at which these gizmos are launched have become the tech world’s equivalent of must-see TV (except, ironically, they’re not video streamed, forcing interested parties to follow along on live blogs that frequently crash). So, whenever one of these things takes place, the pressure is on to deliver something to inspire oohs and ahhs.

That didn’t happen Tuesday with the company’s unveiling of its latest gadget, the iPhone 4S. The new device - which will be available in Canada on Oct. 14, presumably through Bell, Rogers and Telus - features faster download speeds, a better processor, a sharper camera and some voice recognition bells and whistles, some of which are already found in competing Android phones. But there wasn’t anything along the lines of “magical,” to use one of Steve Jobs’ favourite words, with everything new simply representing incremental improvements. Not only were the nerds not impressed, neither were investors, who sent Apple’s stock down nearly 3%.

Apple itself seems to have known that its new iPhone is only a marginal improvement, thereby opting with the “4S” rather than the “5″ appellation many had been expecting.

You almost couldn’t help but wonder if there’s some secret conspiracy going on where Jobs, who recently stepped down as CEO of Apple because of health concerns, had set up his successor Tim Cook with some dull material to work with in his first outing, thereby setting up for triumphant return somewhere down the line.

More likely, though, is the fact that smartphone technology has hit a wall in terms of amazing new developments. Someone, whether it’s Apple or one of its competitors, will eventually figure out how to revolutionize mobile technology and take it to another, higher level - perhaps with SIM cards that are inserted directly into our brains? Until then, it looks like it’s going to be more memory (ooh!) and sharper photos (ahh!).

Apple has a history of taking ideas and shining them up - it didn’t invent the smartphone or the tablet, but it made them spiffy enough for the masses to want one. If the company wants to maintain the rapt attention of tech enthusiasts and media everywhere, it’s going to have to keep coming up with such “new” categories. After all, people don’t tune in to Apple for incremental, they want “revolutionary” and “magical.”

That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s a position Apple has put itself in.


Posted by on October 5, 2011 in apple, iphone


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