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, 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.

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.

Why We Need To Kill Flash

Anytime there’s a discussion these days about the iPhone and its competitors, Flash is usually mentioned early on in the discussion along with Multitasking. Today I want to address Flash because it’s something I strongly believe we need to kill. The topic came to me last week when the news came out that Adobe was blocking the adoption of HTML5. We still don’t have all the details there, but it did remind me of my hatred for Flash in general.

Flash is a weird product. On the one hand, it did things very well. When Macromedia (now Adobe) introduced it in 1996, they managed to make it so ubiquitous that it now has 98%+ install base. That’s quite the achievement.

On the other hand, Flash is terrible and that’s something most people agree with except perhaps for Flash designers. It’s being used today mainly for 3 things : video streaming/playback, entire or parts of web sites and banner ads.

It’s too bad Web standards are so slow to be adopted because for video streaming, there’s already a much better solution than Flash. Youtube, UStream and many others are (slowly) moving to it as more and more browsers are supporting it. Of course, as always, Internet Explorer will be the one slowing us down for this. For Web sites, the “new” technologies like the latest revisions of Javascript and DOM scripting can absolutely compete with Flash.

There are 3 major problems with Flash. Let’s review:

First, the flash player is very poorly implemented on OS X and Linux. Performance is terrible and it sucks battery life out of your laptop in record time since it pegs the CPU to 100% in seconds. That makes it inappropriate for things like cellphones in my opinion. If you visit a site with banner ads and a few flash movies, does this means you will lose 20-30% of your battery life in minutes?

As a second issue, I would point out that the flash authoring app is way too pricy. In a world where everything gets pirated, it may not seem like a big deal, but Flash, unlike Visual Studio from Microsoft and XCode from Apple has no free versions for people at home to play with. Coupled with Adobe’s usual upgrade routine every 18 months, it make Flash to be extremely expensive.

The third problem is that Flash is controlled by one company. That company decides if the Mac OS X version will be performing well. That company alone decides when a new version is released.

Add to these 3 problems the fact that many Flash websites are terribly designed and would be hard to see on a smaller screen and that these sites are usually badly (if at all) indexed in search engines and you start to understand why Apple is refusing to include it on the iPhone.

Because of all this, I’m actually happy Apple is doing this. It has forced some sites to reconsider the use of Flash and I hope it’s a trend that will continue.

Hopefully more companies will be bullish like Apple and take a stand.

Adding Hardware to Your Software

It’s fascinating to look at the multitude similarities and differences between Apple and Microsoft or even Google. One of the key differentiator is that Apple never releases only a software, they always pair it up with an hardware release whereas Microsoft rarely does. The reason is obvious, Microsoft chooses to work with 3rd party to create an “open” ecosystem whereas Apple does it all alone.

While there’s no denying Microsoft’s successes in the past (and even present) with the PC, embedded and portable devices are another world completely. Take a look at the iPod Touch, the iPhone or the iPad. Microsoft had a tablet PC all the way back in 2001 but the thing never caught on. It was an OK piece of software (Windows & Office, neither quite well adapted) tied to a series of OK devices by 3rd parties. Where Apple succeeds is by not only creating a great piece of software (the iPhone OS) but by also coupling it with a great piece of hardware of its own. What you get is the optimal use of that hardware and an attention to detail you don’t get when you have several 3rd parties working together to create a device.

A lot of people online clamor for a more open device from Apple or for Apple to license Mac OS X to PC manufacturers. To ask for that is to not understand what makes Apple products so compelling. You need that tight relationship with your hardware for the software to make any sense and vice-versa. An open-specced iPhone means multiple devices, some with a big screen, some with a small screen. Some with keyboards, some without. What you get, is the Android situation. A great OS tied to a potentially great App store crippled by the fact that 3rd parties are creating the phones and as such, there are tens of different configurations already and the App store is fragmented beyond belief because no small developer can support every phone. Let’s face it, none of us have 10 phones to test on.

This is why Google released the Nexus One. This is why Apple is dominating the App store business. And this is why the iPad will succeed to some extent. On day one, there will be more than 150 000 apps available for it. On day one, developers will make money on it. That’s unfortunately not the case with the myriads of other tablets that will be hitting the market in 2010.

Speaking of the iPad. I’ll have a full post on it early this week.

How About an App Store for the Desktop?

When Apple released the iTunes Store back in 2003, the company revolutionized online sales of Music. It did the same for mobile Application in 2008 when it released the iTunes App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch. While many would argue that the App Store is far from perfect (long delay in approbation, you can only publish stuff that Apple deems acceptable, etc.), there’s no denying the numerous advantages of having an App Store. Search for “football” and you’ll get a bunch of games and apps that relates to your favorite sports. From a developer perspective, there’s certainly a big advantage. On a personal note, there’s no way my application would sell as much without the centralized listing.

Even with as many as 100 000 apps, even a listing of only compatible apps for your device come up when you search for “football” is basically the equivalent of coming out on page 1 of a Google search for that same term.

This whole thing begs the question, should Apple and Microsoft create a centralized App Store for the desktop? When you think about it, we already have that for games. It’s called Steam and it’s been a huge success ever since it came out back in 2004. As is the case with Steam for gaming, having an App Store for the desktop doesn’t mean you cannot sell your app any other way, it just gives you an additional place to sell it.

The gaming consoles also have that same concept. All the major consoles today have their own integrated store where you can buy games and add-ons for your device. So far, computer software is the exception to the rule and the negativity surrounding the App Store policies might make Apple or Microsoft think twice, but I don’t see why it would be a bad thing. Again, it’s an additional place to sell your stuff, not the only place to sell your stuff.

With the success of the iTunes App Store and Apple’s way of doing things, I wouldn’t be surprised if the company came out with such a concept in the near future. It could be one more way for the company to differentiate Mac OS X from Windows and add to the list of reasons why “OS X is easy to use”.

Unlocked & Unsubsidized, The Future of Cell Phones

While I’m a big geek and a guy who loves coding many hours everyday, I’ve been spending a lot of time on this blog talking about business. I love business aspect of technology and it’s obvious there’s a lot going on and it’s sometime worthwhile to analyze things a bit.

Techcrunch has an interesting post on long-rumored (and hopefully soon to be released) official Google phone. The parallels to Apple are quite interesting. When Apple first came out with an “iTunes phone”, they went to Motorola to create it and it ended up being a mixed bag. Not a terrible product, but clearly not Apple’s vision. The next logical step was obvious and from that the iPhone was born.

When the iPhone was first released, Apple decided to try and change the way the industry worked by selling the phone unsubsidized. It worked pretty well, sales-wise, but obviously Apple released that selling a 600$ (or even 400$ phone limits the number of people who will buy your phone compared to a 99$ phone.

With its first in-house phone, Google is taking a similar route and going one (important) step further : according to Techcrunch they will sell the phone unlocked and will forgo the carrier. Buy the device, insert your sim card and you’re good to go. It’s something I was hoping Apple would do and it’s clear that AT&T in the US hasn’t been the best of partner for Apple. If Google does succeed with this plan, hopefully it’ll pave the way for Apple and others to follow suit.

It’s interesting to see the newcomers in the telecommunication industry change the way things work. The iPhone has done quite the revolution with regards to user interface and acceptance of the smart phone for the general public and hopefully Google will be able to make even more changes to get that industry to be a little bit more user friendly.

Why More Choices is Not Always a Good Thing

The mobile application business has been exploding for the 2-3 few years. The iPhone is certainly part of the reason, but the explosion of smart phones in general means we now have a ton of little apps and widgets running on our phones. These apps allow us to check the starting time of our movie at the theater and the next bus route or maybe just relax for a few minutes by playing a little game on the go. The phones we have, be it a Blackberry, an Android-based phone, an iPhone or a Windows Mobile phone are incredibly powerful.

And while that’s all good, as a mobile application developer (my first iPhone app, Tarot : Guide de vie is now live on the iTunes Store), it seems clear to me why Apple has been dominating so far : standardization. While there’s an ever increasing number of different iPhone and iPod Touch models out there, by and large, they are very similar. RAM and CPU speed have both been upgraded, but the screen size, the buttons on the device, the OS and API features are fairly stable and consistent and as a developer, that’s important.

If I develop for the Blackberry, which devices do I target? Some of them have a physical keyboard and some don’t. Screen sizes vary a lot. Same for Android really and while it can be argued that choice is a good thing for end users, in this case, I believe a lack of choice is also a benefit. Most apps are developed by a very small team. If I’m doing a game or an app by myself or with a few friends, chances are we won’t have 25 different devices to test it with. With the iPhone OS platform, it’s still important to test on many devices if possible, but you can target pretty much anyone running a given OS version with most apps (unless you app is highly CPU or RAM intensive).

The benefits of a closed platform is something that is rarely talked about. It’s easy to say that more choice is a great thing for consumers and certainly Google Voice users who can’t use the iPhone app because Apple said no have a good reason to be upset but as with most things in life, it’s rarely all white or all black. While there are without a doubt several downsides to a closed platform, there’s also several good things about it. So far, Apple has bet on the closed platform model and it’s hard to argue that perhaps they are right in saying the benefits outweighs the downsides. The results are certainly there to back them up.

It’ll be interesting to see where the market will go in the next few years.