It’s Not About The Rendering Engine Anymore

Today, RIM launched their new 6.0 OS (and the new BlackBerry Torch) and by doing so, added its name to the ever growing list of products using WebKit as the basis for their Web browser. RIM’s move isn’t really all that interesting: they had no good browser anyway and it’s not as if they are first to do this.

The interesting discussion in my opinion is what Microsoft should do. Back in the Netscape / IE war, Microsoft was convinced that Web browsers would ultimately replace desktops apps (they weren’t wrong) and they invested a lot of money in creating Internet Explorer. That war is still on, although nowadays the players have changed. With IE, we’re now talking about Firefox and Chrome as the main competitors.

But what really changed however, is that the HTML/CSS rendering engine shouldn’t matter that much. We went from a 1 browser = 1 engine model to a model where we now have a couple of really good open engines powering many browsers.

Controlling the world’s browser market is one thing, but as Google is proving, that doesn’t mean you need to have your own engine. Chrome is built on top of Web kit, just like Safari is and countless mobile web browsers are. These products are still competing with each others and are still different from each other yet they are built on the same foundation.

What that means of course, is easier Web development and less browser-specific bugs. This is why I think Microsoft needs to stop developing its own engine and start using either WebKit or Gecko. Both of these are well done, support many web standards and are fairly easy to integrate in a product.

Of course, such a change can’t happen overnight and it’s a difficult thing for Microsoft to do, but I do believe that in the long term, it’d make the Web a lot better. Trident, Microsoft’s rendering engine since IE 4 isn’t exactly renowned for its spectacular support for standards. And really, I’d much rather see Microsoft invest 18 months developing Internet Explorer proper rather than waste 80% of that time coding the engine.

The Sad State of The Tech Journalism

I’ve been insanely busy for the past 2 months (gotta love moving), but I should be back on track for regular posting now. Since my last post the iPhone 4 has been released to the world and has been selling very, very well. 3M units in 22 days is nothing to scoff at.

Of course, the release was covered by just about every tech outlets in excruciating details, but before the iPhone had become old news, these sites got a gift : the AntennaGate. I don’t plan on spending too much time on the problem itself, although I have to say that as someone who has an iPhone 4 and who has a friend who has one (in Canada, the phone isn’t out yet so it’s not common), I have had no problem with the signal. The proximity sensor issue is much more prevalent in my opinion.

That doesn’t really interest me though, I don’t care about the issue enough to spend a lot of time discussing wether or not there’s a problem. As I said, I have no problem and it seems there’s a lot of people that are quite happy with their phone. Then again, the signal degradation does exist under certain conditions (if your signal is weak in the first place).

My biggest issue is the coverage of the problem. The problem with tech journalism is that it’s all on the Web and everything on the Web these days is driven by the number of clicks you can get. Because of this, Techcrunch, Mashable, Endgaget, Gizmodo, Twit.tv and all the others decided they needed trashy headlines and incendiary content. Thus was born the “AntennaGate”. It’s not enough anymore to just report the news, you have to drive clicks. You have to create a problem where there is none or make a small issue a big one. After all, who would read a story titled “iPhone 4 antenna can be attenuated under certain condition. Might affect some users.”.

And I’m not just saying this because it was bad coverage against Apple. It’s true for every tech businesses out there, from Microsoft to Google to Apple to others. I really wish there was a respectable tech news site out there, one that isn’t about getting the most clicks. It’s sad that we’re to the point where tech journalism is at the same level of professionalism than tabloids in Hollywood.

Make it More Expensive : A Valid Strategy

Today, the great team over at 37signals launched their first iPad app : Draft for iPad. It’s a nice little app, that allows you to quickly draw on a black background using either white or red pen color. The key feature in this case is the tight integration with BaseCamp. The kicker? The 10$ price point for the App.

That’s an interesting move because there are some very good competitors that are much less expensive. Penultimate is my current favorite, but there are others. Twitter users quickly reacted to the price, with many saying it was too expensive. @dhh (37signals co-founder & Ruby on Rails creator)¬†actually answered me with this line:

Thanks, Jonathan. We built Draft for us. Selling it at a higher price means less customers w/ poor expectation fit. That’s good.

37signals are not the first to use that strategy. Apple is doing this very same thing in a way. If you want to buy a computer, it’s easy to find one cheaper than even the cheapest Mac. On the App Store, the also-excellent OmniGroup also used this strategy with OmniGraffle for iPad (50$). Last I heard, OmniGroup was quite pleased with their results.

So is the strategy good? Well, certainly I suspect 37 Signals will sell a lot less units, despite strong initial sales. Once the buzz goes down, they’ll sell a steady stream of units to their customers, but have a smaller set of customers is not always a bad thing. As long as you make money on the App and that your customers are happy, then why not? Less noise, less distraction.

At 0.99$, the app would have attracted a lot of new customers to 37signals, but how many of these would have been good fit with the rest of the services offered there? At 10$, you’re attracting professionals, users who need Basecamp as a tool to do their work.

The other point to consider is product valuation. A great local software developer here in Montreal is Druide Informatique. They create the best french-language dictionary and corrector for the Mac & PC. When they launched their app for iPhone a year ago, they decided to price it at 20$. The reason? The “real” (desktop) version is priced at 129$. It’s a very good product and it’s well worth its price tag so for the iPhone version, they didn’t want to devalue the desktop product and price it at 0.99$. The result? The president of the company told me several months ago they were very satisfied with sales.

So the strategy is maybe not for everyone, but it can certainly work. Are you better off with a few sales at an higher price or many sales at a lower price? Let’s wish the 37signals team the best of luck. These guys are talented and deserve the success they’ve been having.

Is Objective-C Really a Bad Thing For Apple?

Whenever flash on iPhone is debated, one of the thing that’s mentioned is that Objective-C is really terrible and Flash (or Action Script) is a much easier language to learn and to use. Of course, Action Script is loosely based on Javascript, a scripting language and Objective-C is a layer on top of C, so that does confer Action Script an advantage when it comes to ease of use.

What people seem to be forgetting however is that there’s more to life than ease of use. By using Objective-C and the Cocoa Touch APIs, Apple has a set of technology that’s not that hard to use (really, try to learn it, you’ll see) but also, a set of technology that while open, is also pretty much only used by them. I’ve said this before in my last post, but forcing people to learn Apple technologies is not a bad thing. It’s certainly a bad thing for flash developers looking to make quick bucks by quickly porting existing code, but for the rest of us, it means the developer has to spend some time on the Mac, learning how it works, what the UI paradigms are and why things work the way things work. Ultimately, this leads to a developer that might spend more time thinking about the UI issues and how to really optimize the interface for an iOS device.

Objective-C has been pretty successful for Apple on the desktop for years. When Apple “forced” developers to ditch Carbon APIs (C APIs) for Cocoa APIs a few years ago to benefit from the latest advances in the OS, many balked and predictions of doom were also thrown by many. As far as I can tell, my Mac seems to have survived and so did all of the apps I’ve used. Certainly it means that companies like Adobe and Microsoft had and have a lot more work ahead of them rewriting large portions of legacy code. You know what though? At the end of the day, we get stuff like Outlook for Mac, a newly written app that takes full advantage of Mac OS X instead of Entourage.

During WWDC, Apple announced that Farmville was coming to iOS. It’ll be interesting to see if that version will take advantage of iOS 4’s Game Center feature when it launches. By being a native app, it certainly has the potential.

Meanwhile, iOS 4 is coming out today for all users. Grab it, it’s a great update.

Apple Versus Flash : Round 1

Something funny happened lately and I’m not talking about me moving and me being away from this blog for several weeks. No, I’m talking about Apple and the fact that everyone and their mother seem to now be against them.

Of course, that’s not a bad thing. It usually means you’re doing things correctly when your competitors start considering you as a worthy opponent. With the many weeks away from the blog, there’s so much to talk about. Let’s start with Flash.

When Steve Jobs wrote his open letter explaining why Apple wouldn’t support Flash, it started arguments all over the Web between Apple fans and Adobe fans. Clearly, Apple believes Flash is bad for the Web and they have no intention of caving in. Adobe obviously disagrees. Unfortunately for Adobe however, Jobs’ points are pretty good. Sure, you can laugh at the irony of Steve Jobs admonishing Adobe for creating a closed platform, but at the end of the day, performance of Flash on Macs (and Linux) has sucked for years and years. Why should we think it’ll be different on a mobile device? Ends up it’s not. Shocked yet?

That whole thing is just stupid anyway. Flash, clearly, isn’t that good. It’s not good for the Web, and it certainly isn’t a good tool to create mobile apps. Not because Adobe makes it, but because Adobe has never been able to make Flash performance acceptable on OS X. They’ve had more than 10 years now. If I was Adobe, I’d create great tools to easily create HTML5 and JS/Ajax piece of software. Instead of creating Action Script, output to standard JS.

Google, itself in a fight with Apple was quick to ally itself with Adobe and announce Flash support in Android during Google I/O. If I was Adobe however, I’d be a little worried because during that same conference, Google spent a few minutes on Flash and the rest of the conference talking about how HTML5 was the answer and how their JS engine was faster than the competition. Google is Adobe’s friend for now, because it gives them a way to differentiate themselves from Apple, but let’s face it, Google isn’t a huge fan of Flash. Just look at all the Google products. None of them ever use Flash, except for Youtube. The same Youtube that’s slowly moving to HTML5 and H.264.

Some people have construed by Anti-flash tweets as being anti-android but that really isn’t true. I’ll be blogging about Froyo soon, but I’ll say right away that I’m quite impressed and I’m glad to see some great competition for Apple. iPhoneOS needs to innovate. Hopefully that competition will help speed things up.

Flash for me is in the same category as IE6. It used to be great, it used to be the best way to go, but we’ve moved past and now it’s time to put it to rest. Adobe loves to say you don’t get the full web without Flash on the iPhone and iPad, but for the most part, all I’m missing these days is flash banners. Somehow, I think I’ll live.

Keep it Pure (I’m Going To Sound Selfish Here)

Today, Apple announced a new version of the iPhone OS, the software that powers their mobile platforms like the iPhone, the iPod Touch and the newly released iPad (I’ll have my review soon). As part of that announcement, they have released a beta version of the SDK for us developers to play with but so far, the biggest news to come out of this is a little something they added to the license agreement.

John Gruber on Daring Fireball has a couple of post on this. To sum it up, Apple seems to have banned the use of Adobe’s Flash CS5 to iPhone technology or anything similar to that. What Apple has done basically, is force everyone to use their standards and their tools to code on their platform. Anything else is forbidden. That also impacts other tools like the Mono to iPhone stuff that’s also available.

John makes the point that it’s in Apple’s best interest and his arguments are good. I highly recommend you read the article in question but I’m going to go one step further here : I’m actually glad they did it and I think it’s a great thing for everyone involved except of course for Adobe and Flash-only developers. Here’s why.

If the Mac is known for anything, it’s for being a platform where attention to details is important. On OS X, we’ve seen a lot of application succeed because of the look and usability alone. The name “Delicious generation” was used to describe apps like these. Mac users expect apps to not only function well, but to look good, to act like a native app and to work like a native app. As such, the vast majority of apps available on OS X today are apps coded using Apple’s standards.

So what about the iPhone OS then? Well, by forcing people to use Apple’s tools, it forces people to be Mac users to develop for the iPhone platform. By doing so, it at least forces people to have a minimal knowledge of what it’s like to be on that platform. With any luck, that’ll end up improving the quality of apps on available on the App Store. Most people switching to Macs in my experience tend to become addicted to nice Apps anyway even if that was never really a concern before. It’s just part of the Mac mentality I guess.

I can understand why Flash developers are not happy and I can certainly sympathize with them, but I’m glad Apple did this. Let’s face it, Flash apps and Flash sites are not known for their great usability. They are known for flashy animations, terrible performance and for being generally harder to use.

From the start, the iPhone platform has never been an “open platform”. There are other platforms out there that are more open and equally great like Android. This is a closed garden. That comes with big advantages, but it also means you need to conform to the rules if you want to play in it.