Tuesday, 9 February 2016

F1: 1982 South African Grand Prix, The Race That Defined Modern F1

The first race of the 1982 season had something for every F1 fan, a driver’s strike, rules controversy and the return of a retired World Champion. 

In amongst all of this non-racing action the race itself tends to get forgotten, yet two incidents during the race would shape F1 and the resulting changes are still with us nearly three and half decades later.

Two of the main pre-race talking points were related to Niki Lauda. The Austrian returned to F1 on the back of a large payday from Marlboro, allowing him to bail out his struggling airline. Before he’d even sat in his Mclaren in anger he’d become embroiled in a battle with the FIA over new terms of the F1 driver’s Superlicence. The licence included new terms which tied a driver to a team, something Niki wasn’t happy with and together with other activist drivers he organised a driver’s strike which cancelled the first day of running.

Once the drivers and cars were reunited on the Saturday qualifying produced a unique result, with six of the turbocharged cars filling the first six places. For the Ford Cosworth runners this was a bit of a shock. The altitude of the Kyalami circuit favoured turbocharged engines, but the margin of the victory, plus the prospect of a year chasing minor places had the ‘garagistes’ looking for a way of levelling the playing field. They found one in time for the following race in Brazil, but the subsequent chain of events which lead to disqualifications, race boycotts and the death of Gilles Villeneuve all began in that single qualifying session in South Africa.

So to the race, which, if you just studied the results looked like comfortable win for Alain Prost in his Renault Turbo. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Prost made a great start from fifth on the grid to second place and followed teammate Arnoux before taking the lead thirteen laps in. Behind the Renault’s in third place Pironi’s Ferrari had eaten its Good Year tyres and the Frenchman stopped for a new set, dropping down the order before charging up it again, getting as far as second place before engine troubles retired the Ferrari.

Prost then suffered a tyre failure on his Renault, having to crawl back to the pits and endure an extended pitstop whilst new Michelins were fitted to his car. In the process he dropped down the field and fell a lap behind new leader, teammate Rene Arnoux.

Back on track on new tyres and with half the fuel in his Renault used up, Prost set a searing pace. He had unlapped himself and was charging back into the points in no time. Within twenty laps of unlapping himself Prost had recaught Arnoux and retook the race lead with four laps to go.

Arnoux, on tyres that were completely worn, was unable to resist his teammate or the Cosworth-powered Williams of Reutemann who snatched second place with two laps remaining.

So Prost and Renault won the first race of the season, the last ever to be held in January.

Far more importantly, a certain Mr Bernie Ecclestone and Herbie Blash, Brabham team owner and manager respectively, had noticed the prodigious speed of the Renault and Ferrari when running on new tyres with less than full fuel tanks. From this the team developed the idea of starting the race on half tanks and soft (i.e. faster) tyres and planning to pitstop halfway through to change tyres and refuel.

The concept of a mid-race pitstop has been with us ever since, and as a result the 1982 South African Grand Prix remains one of the most important races of modern times.

Error 53: The Wrong Thing For The Right Reasons


iPhone users who have had third party repairs to their devices are finding that their smartphones are turned  into not-so-smart bricks after an iOS update. Apple’s reasons for doing this are valid, however the way that it has engaged with customers is poor and the draconian measures it has taken are demonstrably wrong.

First of all what is Error 53? It’s a hard bricking of the iPhone firmware after a software upgrade, caused by the detection of non-standard parts, or possibly more specifically a non-standard repair.

Apple’s reasoning is that the replacement of certain parts (specifically the Touch ID sensor) with a non-standard component could compromise the security store. Fair enough, that sounds like the sort of thing that would be undesirable. After all, if the Touch ID security component is compromised as a result of a replacement that could potentially mean unlimited access to a device for a nefarious individual or individuals.

Except that this is complete nonsense.

If the security of the Touch ID component was of such concern to Apple why would it not be checking for the presence of an unauthorised replacement after every boot? Surely the time between purloining a device and it next needing an iOS update is sufficiently long that all the valuable data on the device can be extracted several times over? Indeed the device could potentially be resold to an unsuspecting individual who then gets trapped the next time an update is pushed out by Apple.

No, for the life of me I can’t see how Apple’s claim stands up. Blocking a device at upgrade time makes no sense from a security standpoint. Blocking it after a reboot would at least have saved customers paying for a repair that ultimately wouldn’t work.

Putting this right is going to be rough on Apple. The options seem to be either to repair customers devices, replacing the third party sensor with an official Apple repair. Alternatively Apple may decide to replace the whole device itself.

Whatever the case it seems unlikely that Apple can reverse its decision to block these devices. Failing to warn its customers about the implications of a third-party repair is poor. Potentially breaking EU law by blocking third party repairs is pretty bad too.

Whatever the resolution, leaving its customers with very expensive paperweights shouldn’t even be an option that’s under consideration at Apple.

Time to fess up, admit the mistake and put it right.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Kickstarter Is Not A Storefront


The re-emergence of Peter Molyneux to promote Godus Wars has dragged up a lot of the controversy around 22cans – Molyneux development house – and the way that it screwed over Kickstarter investors for three years before delivering anything like value for their combined £600k pledges.

Molyneux has been exposed before now, his life story is very much one of over-promising and under-delivering. Whilst he picked up the label of pathological liar a year ago I think it would be fairer to say that his problem is a childlike inability to understand that all things are verifiable. Like a child he pulls facts and figures from the top of his head (less charitable souls would say out of his backside) because the sound right to him.

However, it is Kickstarter that is the concern here, not Molyneux. Previously when he failed to deliver a game either wholly or partially it was the developer and publisher who took the bath. By taking to Kicksarter it was the ‘customers’ who got burned. Coincidentally this week we’ve also had the collapse of Jolla’s tablet kickstarter, with thousands of backers finding themselves out of pocket.

The truth is that Kickstarter backers are not customers. They are investors in a business idea, however unlike other investors who back business through venture capital, their upside is entirely limited to the product offered, plus any investor bonus. The downside is pretty much the same – a complete write-off.

Kickstarter is shortchanging the backers on the website, presenting itself as a storefront with a contract between the vendors and backers. There is no sale taking place. In raking in its fees via this misrepresentation Kickstarter is an accessory to duplicity.

Molyneux’s interview with RPS did contain some home truths, just that they were missed in the furore over the major part of the content. He didn’t know how much it would cost to bring the game to market, the figure requested was based on what was required to be successful on Kickstarter and was far from realistic.

Has Molyneux taken his numbers to a VC he would have been laughed out of the room (especially when they looked into his very revealing past performance) and the same is true of many if not all businesses that take to Kickstarter. Jolla certainly had no clue where its business was headed.

Beware of Kickstarter, because the dice is heavily loaded against backers. Only around one in three funded projects deliver. Great for Kickstarter, very bad for investors.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

HTC Results Looking Pretty Grim


The last quarter of 2015 demonstrated just how much trouble HTC is in. Although the company reduced the losses against preceding quarters, its holiday season results look horrendous when judged against those of one year previously.

Revenue fell by 46% year on year, whilst the small profit it made last year collapsed into a $100m loss.

That despite an apparently postive reception for the One A9.

The company has burnt through $0.5bn in the last twelve months and nothing in prospect for the next twelve months suggests things are going to be any better.

For all their history of innovation and plenty of customer goodwill, I don’t believe that HTC has the ability to find a large enough niche in the market to survive in its current form. Two years ago I thought the company’s pivot to accessories and associated technologies might save it, now even that looks a long shot.

Google Bats Adblockers From The Play Store And It Won’t Make A Difference

samsung internet

Of all the companies at risk from the arrival of widespread adblocking Google has the biggest exposure. Ads constitute the only part of its business which brings value. The very reason that Android was created was to protect its ad business on mobile from Microsoft’s ownership of the platform.

Ironically then, it is on Android that Google faces its next big challenge. Samsung updated its Internet Browser app to support plug-ins and the Play Store saw the arrival of ad blocking plugins.

Less than 24 hours later Google has booted them from the Play Store and that will have potentially zero effect on their popularity.

Unlike Apple, which has a monopoly on app distribution in iOS, Android users have other options. In order of preference, the Galaxy App Store, Amazon app store and direct install of APK files.

Google can’t prevent the installation of ad blocking software on its own platform and by attempting to do so it offers its competitors a huge opportunity.

For Samsung there’s the chance to guide its own customers to the Galaxy App Store, a chance to grow its revenue from existing customers. With Tizen likely to become the third most popular mobile platform in the near future, Samsung could do with converting its ‘Android customers who bought Samsung’ into Samsung customers full stop. This would ease any future transition to Tizen considerably.

The other competitor who can benefit from this opportunity is Microsoft. If it is considering following through on the Microsoft AOSP Android project (AKA Nokia X) the opportunity to ship with a browser that blocks ads by default could be a valuable weapon in its battle with Google.

Right now anything that’s bad for Google is good for Microsoft. There’s another opportunity here for Satya Nadella to exploit. A good indicator of Microsoft’s future success will be if it is able to execute such a strategy.

Microsoft Acquisition Of SwiftKey Another Nail In Windows Phone Coffin

SwiftKey is probably the best iOS keyboard available right now, it's certainly the one that I choose when using my iPhone.

It appears that Microsoft would agree, as it is reported to have dropped $250m on the company.

Whilst I'm sure the iOS keyboard will continue to live, the real desire for Microsoft would seem to be to  strengthen its Android software portfolio.

That suggests that the stillborn Nokia X project, which gave us Android devices running a Microsoft software stack, may be back on the table.

Microsoft has been unable to beat Google at the smartphone game, but it may yet best it at the Android game.

Taking AOSP and dropping in a Microsoft app store, Bing search and all of Microsoft's other Android software would certainly give it the sort of Android presence that would cause Google nightmares.

Amazon has had a reasonable amount of success with this plan, as have a number of Chinese OEMs. For Microsoft success is now about being able to ditch the past and reinvent the future.

And the brightest vision of that future is one that packs Microsoft services into a Microsoft flavour of Android. 

Could You Drive Something This Ugly?


This the Will Cypha. A sub-brand of Japanese car giant Toyota, apparently intent on delivering some of the ugliest cars to exit a production line. Believe me when I say that the camera flatters this car. In real life it is much, much worse.

When I see one on the road (an altogether too common experience here in Auckland) I’m a little bit sick in my mouth.

From the sad sack face and bizarre wheel arch creases, the mess of lines running through the profile and a rump that’s possibly even worse than the face this is a car designed by a group of people with no understanding of good design at all.

The only thing more inexplicible than the looks of the car is who looks at one of these and thinks ‘hey, I’ll look good in that’ and then spends money to buy one.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

F1: Oil Price Crisis Does For Maldonado


Having picked up a reputation as the wild man of F1, thanks to an almost cosmic ability to get involved in every racing incident and crash that happens in F1, it’s not surprising to find that Pastor Maldonado is out of F1.

Not because of the danger that he poses to himself annd others, but because his sponsorship money has run out. PDVSA, the Venezualan oil company which contributes a reported $40m a year to put Pastor in an F1 car, has been hit by the fall in oil prices and was unable to make its down payment for the 2016 season. Renault decided that it had better options than a Maldonado without money and dropped him for Kevin Magnusson.

Many fans have taken to berating Maldonado, calling him a pay driver and demanding that he be denied a seat.

That rather undersells Maldonado, who is both a race winner and GP2 champion, something that many far higher rated drivers can’t claim. I’m sure Martin Brundle, for example, bangs his head on the commentary box wall each time he has to say the words ‘Pastor Maldonado, race winner’.

That race was won with a beautifully judged drive, holding back Fernando Alonso in Spain no less. Before that he had crushed opposition like Sergio Perez and Jules Bianchi to win the GP2 title.

The truth is that Pastor Maldonado has all the speed necessary to be a contender in F1. What he didn’t have was the ability to learn from his mistakes. And in truth there was plenty of learning material there.

Apparently Williams asked him to work with a sports psychologist to improve his mental performance, an offer that was declined. An opportunity missed I think.

In the end Maldonado became a scapegoat, demonised for errors that others made without attracting comment. The irony of being punted out of his last race by Fernando Alonso wasn’t lost on Pastor, who pointedly remarked on the reaction if their roles had been reversed.

It’s a shame for the sport, Maldonado was a character in the car, wild, enthusiastic and very raw. With F1 currently almost completely lacking in personality he was a throwback to the seventies that would have been fun to keep around. Instead we look back on a career that totals a huge missed opportunity.

For Pastor there will always be that sunny day in Spain, 2012, to remember.

So, iPad Pro: Sales Success Or Total Flop?

IDC put some numbers around tablet sales last quarter and there's some interesting reading there. Most notably on the iPad Pro, which sucked in two million buyers - or roughly one in eight of Apple's iPad sales.

Pretty poor effort by Apple's standards wouldn't you say? In seven weeks on sale the big iPad averaged under 300k sales a week. And it hasn't even been in constrained supply at any time since launch.

For a new Apple product, two million sales is something you expect to find in the pre-order numbers. The iPad Pro is the biggest Apple flop since the Apple Watch.

Or is it?

Turns out that Microsoft managed to ship 1.6 million of its Surfaces in the same quarter - both Surface Pro and Surface, over a twelve week period.

Makes the iPad Pro look a pretty big success in comparison doesn't it?

Actually I don't think the truth is anything quite so black and white. I suspect that Apple will be disappointed with failing to up-sell more than an eighth of its iPad customers to the bigger, more profitable Pro. The imminent arrival of the iPad Air 3 will almost certainly hurt the Pro's numbers if it too sports a keyboard dock and pencil.

However, the iPad Pro went from zero to a minimum of $1.6bn in revenue in less than a quarter. That's not a small amount of revenue (unless your business is the size of Apple's). Apple created a Surface sized business in somewhat less than the three years it took Microsoft. 

Although you have to ask, how many of those iPad Pro purchases came at the expense of an iPad Air purchase and what was the cost to Apple in getting those two million sales? There has been an awful lot of iPad Pro in commercial breaks since its launch. A disproportionate amount for a device that sold only two million.

Personally I view the iPad Pro as a misstep from Apple and a worrying sign that it has misread the tablet market. If it had launched the iPad Air 3 with the keyboard and Pencil support before Christmas I'd have expected to be talking about ten million sales, not two million.

And an awful lot of those sales would be from customers being pushed to upgrade older iPads for the new functionality. Customers who clearly didn't see the size of the iPad Pro as suitable for the use case they had for it.

I wonder if the iPad Pro will exist in a year's time, or whether we'll see it replaced by the mythical and highly demanded (by me, if by no-one else) MacPad?

68 Years On, Time To Say Goodbye To The Land Rover


The final Land Rover rolled out of Solihull last week, 68 years and over two million cars since the first back in 1948. Whilst Land Rover the company moved upmarket and became all about selling gentrified Range Rovers to those wishing to project an image of British affluence, the Land Rover stayed true to its roots and for nearly seven decades defined the true work horse.

Having been the bedrock on which lives, businesses and even nations have been founded on its versatility and resilience. It is at once a mule and a dog, stubbornly loyal and faithful. Which is why its owners treasure and worship it.

There will (can) be no replacement. JLR suggests that the new Defender will be a range of vehicles, although whether they will retain the character of the original remains to be seen.

As we saw with that other British icon of motoring, the Mini, it is easy to build a successful pastiche of what went before without ever approaching the greatness of the original. Let’s hope that JLR will avoid that particular misstep.