Patent Obsolescence

The Lodsys debacle over the past 2 weeks as really shaken up our little (or not so little) community of iOS developers. The patent itself is now obvious to anyone who has ever done any kind of programming over the past 10 years. The concept of an “Upgrade” button after all is pretty simple. Especially in 2011 where we now have app stores and complex frameworks abstracting the work for us.

Beyond the validity of the patent and wether or not Apple has the right to sub-licence their rights, this case for me is the perfect example of why software patents as they exist today are ridiculous. Now we could argue that software patents should not be possible at all, a position I’m more than willing to agree with, but at the very least, the current 20 years period of protection in the US for a patent makes no sense in the insanely-rapidely evolving world of technology.

When the patent law was drafted in the US, those kinds of periods made sense. It works beautifully for example with the pharmaceutical industry where developing a new drug can take billions of dollars in research. Where it doesn’t work however is when a software developer thinks of a new algorithm to fix his problem. Regardless of how imaginative the solution is, protecting it for 20 years makes no sense on the Web.

This particular case affects me and my clients greatly so I’m obviously eager to see what will happen, but beyond that, I hope this example will be the drop that overflows the bucket and will convince the US congress to re-examine the law. It’s much needed. In fact it was much needed 2 years ago.

Textastic for iPad

The beauty of an App Store is that you sometime stumble upon neat little gems and Textastic (iTunes Store link) certainly is one for me. Despite the hard to pronounce name, the app is amazing if you are a programmer that wants to edit text files either locally or on remote servers. The app supports FTP, FTPS and SFTP connections, with a password or a private key.

It also supports Dropbox and it does syntax highlighting for a ton of different file types and programming languages. The app is well done, well designed and, in my opinion, well worth the 10$ price tag.

The Story of two Launches

Today is the international launch date for the iPad 2 and as usual with Apple product launches, there seems to be a lot of demand for the new gadget. It seems every store in the city that had some had lines in front of it with a ton of people hoping to get their preferred model.

I was lucky enough to be in the US 2 weeks ago to get mine. I ended up visiting a Best Buy in Vermont to get it on launch day and today I was once again in line, this time buying it as a gift for my parents. The difference between the two is astonishing. This is of course completely anecdotal, but it shows the difference in a well organized store and a disorganized one.

In Vermont, the Best Buy had pre-printed coupons. One coupon per iPad in stock. At around 4PM, they distributed the coupons and it took maybe 20 minutes to get through the line. At the Futureshop downtown here in Montreal, employees had no idea what to do, coupons were distributed using the most complicated way they could find. The wait, which should have been painless ended up taking 3 times as long as it should have.

When people ask me where they should buy their Apple gear on day 1, I always say the Apple Store. The lines are often longer, but Apple knows how to handle popular product launch.

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”.

Forget Market share, It’s All About Mindshare

When you think about it, Apple’s place in the tech industry is a bit weird. Even before the iPod took the MP3 player market lead and at the same time helped Apple go from fledging computer company to tech industry leader, Apple has always been included in almost every tech discussions. Even today, with both the iPod and the iPhone being huge successes, Apple has managed to keep its Mac computers in the news despite the smallish market share.

Same with Safari on Windows really. Whatever Apple does these days, it will be discussed, it will be analyzed and it will bring about both very ardent fans and very ardent detractors. Contrast this with a new computer released by HP or Dell and you’ll understand why mindshare is what matters.

Apple has always done things differently. “Think Different” was their slogan for a while and it certainly applies to what Apple does, even to this day. When Apple updates its online store, the store goes offline for a few hours. When they release major new products or major updates to a product, Apple invites journalists to a special event. When Apple created the Mighty Mouse, they ceded on the 2 buttons issue but still did it their own way by having a 1 button mouse with a sensor. When Apple created the iTunes App Store, instead of going the open route, the company decided to control everything that goes on sale. Instead of using Linux or Windows, Apple has its own operating system and for a long time was using its own special CPU architecture.

Why? I don’t know the answer to that for sure, but I can certainly say that it’s been working to their advantage for many years now. Since they never do things like everybody else, whatever they do is discussed. There’s no doubt the Droid is a very good phone, but other than “can it beat the iPhone” stories, it hasn’t come close to getting the kind of attention the iPhone gets. Dell is a very big company that has had a lot of successes, but they release stuff that many other companies release and they do so the way many other companies do. The result? They get the same “normal” coverage and buzz everyone else get.

With the success its had in the past 10-12 years, Apple will no doubt be studied for a while in business classes around the world. Hopefully people will understand what it is that make Steve’s company a different beast. Apple may only have 5-12% market share worldwide, but it doesn’t really matter. They are winning the mindshare war, and that’s what will matter in the long run.