Saturday, 25 October 2014

Humanity Sinks To An All New Low

What's the first thing that crosses your mind when you hear about people dying of a terrible, debilitating disease, with high communicability, and long term prospects for global health. If you're American businessman Jon Schultz it's probably how can I best turn this to a profit?

Schultz bought the ebola.com domain in 2011 after first hearing of the disease. He's now flipped it to a Russian company at a outrageous profit.

Unbelievable. Next up, bubonicplague.com, nucleararmageddon.com and airbornedeath.com.

The full story is here at The Verge.

F1: Caterham And Marussia To Miss Next Two Races, Three Car Teams On The Cards


Fernando Alonso may yet have a seat at Mercedes next year after all. The Double World Champion has been lusting after a seat with the all-conquering Silver Arrows all season but was frozen out thanks to the solid contracts in place for Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.

Which face does Fernando have on today?
New developments at the back of the grid mean that the possibility that teams might have to enter three cars in the 2015 Championship. Neither Caterham nor Marussia will be making the trip to the United States, and thanks to the double header nature of the following race in Brazil the following weekend, won't be making that race either.

Given that neither team's financial position looks viable it seems unlikely they'll make it to the season finale either. And next season? Not much chance there either.

As a result the agreement between the teams and rights holder (a certain Mr B. Ecclestone Esq.) will require that the remaining nine teams enter three cars in 2015. A prospect that no doubt has Fernando Alonso either bouncing in his seat with excitement (if he's still a free agent) or crying into his pillow (if he has signed a deal with Mclaren-Honda).

For Sauber this is likely to be the end of the road, leaving a grid of 24 cars, pending the arrival of the Haas F1 Team in 2016 - assuming that the prospect of having beat three car teams from some serious competitors (and the additional cost of a third car) doesn't scare them from the grid.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

How Much Will You Pay To Not Be A Product?

Facebook, Twitter and Gmail. We see them as useful services that allow us to run our lives on line. They see us as a product to be sold to advertisers. Neatly bundled up into extremely targeted demographics that identify potential buyers from the wider mass of humanity. It is advertising to a degree of finesse that TV, radio and print media could only ever dream about.

Personally I don't have a problem with that. If giving access to what I post online, the emails I send and receive; and the products I like means that I get to see adverts for things I'm interested in, rather than things I have no interest in but more of the population might, I'm all for it.

The alternative is to pay for added privacy. So how is that working out?

Twitter has had a subscription only competitor for a while now, App.net promising a higher quality of messaging platform for its users, based on the tenet that someone paying for the service brings more value than a free user. In theory that's probably right, but App.net doesn't seem to have taken off in a big way.

Ello is currently making some waves as a potentially less intrusive Facebook competitor. The company has promised that it will remain ad-free forever and recent announced that it had become a public-benefit company. Except that having taken just over $6m in investment capital there has to be a plan to acquire revenue somewhere in the model. That turns out to be in app purchases of stickers and other premium modules. Will user go for it? Well there's certainly been a swell of interest in Ello based on the promise of non-intrusion, however the thing with social networks - and especially those seeking to unseat Facebook - is that they only have value if the majority of the people you're seeking to be social with are on it too.

Ello's hope is that enough people move across to its service and then spend enough on add-ons to make a business that generates a profit. I'm sceptical because of the high inertia of Facebook users which will have to be overcome to get them switching.

Why Apple Pay Had To Be US Only At Launch

As users have started to use Apple Pay to... pay for things, there have been reports of some teething troubles. Double payments, having to enter a keypad pin even after authorising through TouchID, and the inability to add cards being just some of the reported problems.

Which is probably why Apple was sensible to launch the product in the US, where penetration of NFC equipped readers is low and existing touch to pay services aren't popular. In effect the US becomes a beta tester for the rest of the world.

In Europe and Asia NFC terminals are common and touch to pay using Mastercard and Visa's contact free payment cards is widely used. Had Apple made it's service available in these markets those teething problems would now be amounting to a serious amount of trouble for Apple and the banks.

I've no doubt that Apple Pay will rapidly roll out across the world, something that Google has apparently been unable to do with it's similar Wallet service. What I'm not sure of is whether the service as it currently stands reduces any of the friction from the payment process. Currently for any Apple Pay payment it requires tapping the terminal with your phone, selecting the card you want to use and then authorising with a fingerprint.

Paywave and Paypass support PIN free transactions under a certain value - $80 usually. As those are likely to be the majority of your transactions using your contactless card makes sense. Apple probably needs to make the same authorisation-free transaction limit available on Apple Pay to improve the service to its users.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Gmail Getting Google Now Built In

Google released details of its next major revision to the Gmail clients on Android, Chrome and iOS today - Inbox. This looks like a tool that takes the best of Google Now and applies it to your inbox. That means more intelligent grouping of email and Google Now like features for surfacing key information when you might need it.

It will be interesting to see how much Google is able to automate email. For example right now I use a combination of IFTTT and Evernote to provide some intelligence to my inbox, so I'll be delighted if Google can bring features from Google Now to Gmail and make that automation a single source task.



Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Apple Planning On Entering Bargain Basement With Beats

If the jungle drums are to believed, Apple is about to go bargain basement with its Beats streaming service and drop the price (in the US at least) to $5 a month - undercutting every other music service out there.

It's so unlike Apple to compete on price that it's worth reviewing what potential benefits Apple could realise from such a land grab.

Currently Spotify has number one status in the music rental market worldwide. That's not just subscriber numbers, but in mind share too. Whilst there are lesser services that offer radio style playlist streaming, in terms of open access to a music catalogue Spotify is top dog.

Google and Microsoft both have competitive services, but Beats is a bit of an outlier. It's not widely available and it's synonomous with a certain style of music (even if it offers the complete range of music). Beats uses people to create curated playlists - which users say work much better than the technology driven matching of other services.

Still, Beats hasn't really created much of a splash in the streaming market - in May the service was reported to have just over 100,000 paying subscribers. Against the 10 million that pay for Spotify that's weak. And Apple doesn't like to be in a weak position anywhere it's competing. It's an awful lot easier to bargain from a position of strength and as a result Apple needs to build Beats into a truly competitive offering.

Dropping the price to half of what the competition charges - knowing that they don't have the financial muscle to absorb such a price cut - is a good way of doing that. And Apple has shown that it's more than willing to trade short term pain for long term gain.

Why The Smartphone Industry Needs Fanboys

iSheep and Fandroids. Same-sung, Crapple and Micro$oft. The invective thrown around when two or more internet users gather to discuss phones, computers and operating systems can get far more extreme than just basic name calling. Most people will quite correctly treat this as the rantings of those with too much time or too little intelligence on their hands.

However, both the companies involved and you as a customer need these crazy voices on the edge of reason, because you are financially and emotionally invested in the products you use.

Unlike a car, where the brand you buy need not be influenced by any other factor than what you like; a smartphone or computer purchase requires the consideration of other factors if you aren't to be left with a redundant device and a hopelessly sunk investment. Imagine if your car could only run on Ford, Fiat or Ferrari petrol. Your journey is completely reliant on petrol stations stocking your particular brand of fuel. For companies with limited market share - the specialist market - they might decide that it isn't worth the effort to do so, and if enough make this decision your car becomes unviable as a transport mechanism.

In the smartphone market apps and third party support are the fuel that drives devices. If those new apps don't come to your platform of choice eventually it starves and dies. Which is why the shouting voices of those fanboys, ridiculing each other and generating plenty of passion, are important. We may shake our heads that people aren't able to have a civil discussion, but some comments will make us nod in agreement with the argument, if not the way it is put, reinforcing or debasing our decision to choose the phone or computer we use.

Microsoft, Apple and Samsung have been orchestrating their fans, with keynotes and adverts that look to score points off each other in the war to keep their devices relevant. Those machinations serve a dual purpose, increasing loyalty in existing customers whilst pointing out the flaws in the decisions of their opponents customers. Samsung's Next Big Thing advert is the perfect example of this tactic.

The platform wars date back decades (Spectrum v C64, Amiga v ST, PC v Mac, Palm v PPC) and the truth has always been that you need to pick a side and defend that decision vociferously.

Otherwise you end up backing a horse with three legs and miss out on all the good stuff that other users are enjoying.

Just ask Windows Phone users.

Windows 10 Preview Update

I've been running the technical preview of Windows 10 as my 'sort of' main operating system for around two weeks now. That is, whilst I'm using my Surface Pro for all of my paid consultancy work, my HP laptop is covering everything else.

The Start Menu is back in something approaching the form
that everyone knows and loves.
Two weeks in I've been very impressed. The HP is the sort of machine which is a nightmare scenario on Windows 8.1. It has a trackpad, no touch screen and is designed to be used in desktop mode. Windows 8.1 is better than Windows 8 in this respect but never really presents a comfortable transition between desktop and Start Menu.

Windows 10 is altogether more polished. When in desktop mode you are in desktop mode. It's as if Windows 8 never happened. Yes, the Start Menu is back bringing with it Microsoft's modern style interface in a much better interpretation of live tiles for a desktop environment.

Reliability has been pretty good so far. I found that Windows Explorer would crash when used to view images from a folder on Onedrive, and occasionally an app would fail to start. In the main though I could be using a production ready version of the OS. I've found that Chrome, Open Office and Steam all run without any problems; and more importantly my laptop feels like a laptop rather than the second class citizen it felt like in Windows 8.

Windows 10 feels like Windows 7 to Windows 8's Vista.

And that's a good thing.

Monday, 20 October 2014

iPhones Up, iPads Down, What Can We Learn From Apple's Latest Quarter

Apple had a record Q4 for iPhone sales, shipping just shy of 40 million of them in the three months ending September 30th. Given that the iPhone had a record first weekend - 10 million according to Apple's figures - that wasn't a surprise. There's no breakdown of how the sales looked per device, but it's safe to say that the majority of those phones were the iPhone 6 model.

What isn't clear from these sales numbers is that iPhone sales growth is slowing. In the same quarter in previous years Apple sold 17m (2011), 26.9m (2012) and 33.8m (2013). The rate of growth year on year is 58%, 26% and 18%. Given that this year's iPhone represents the biggest update since the iPhone 3G that's not such good news for Apple. Next quarter will need to be a massive one for the iPhone. For Q1 (which includes the busy holiday season) growth has been 131%, 29% and 8% respectively. For Apple to match Q1 2013 performance it will need to have sold at least 56 million iPhones by the time it reports in January. Something tells me that won't be a problem.

If the iPhone news was mixed, iPad sales were troubling. Sales were down for the third consecutive quarter and also year on year. Whilst the updates to the iPad line up are likely to boost sales (even if only temporarily) I don't think they are radical enough to fix the problems with Apple's third screen. Without major carrier subsidies it's being outsold by cheaper Android tablets because ultimately all of the fancy things that Apple portray users doing in their adverts aren't what customers buy a tablet for.

The Stock Market reacted well to Apple's figures and it's likely that another record quarter in January will send stock soaring once more.

Apple TV, What Happened?

Despite decent sales, Apple continues to
neglect its set top box.
I've long been an advocate of the Apple TV, even with all of its faults and problems. The potential of the platform is far greater than Apple seems to realise. That can be the only explanation for Apple's continued neglect of this landmark product.

Last week Apple once more missed out the Apple TV from its big unveiling, instead focusing on a couple of ho-hum iPad upgrades and a screen bump on an iMac. Disappointing.

And whilst Apple has been contemplating its navel (as far as the Apple TV is concerned) Sony and Google have both shipped products that do what it does much better and add the ability to play games from the Play Store and PS Vita Store respectively.

The Nexus Player looks like the pick of Google's Lollipop announcement, the sleek black player every bit as beautiful as the Apple TV, and having lagged behind in the past with some fairly dubious attempts to gain space in the living room, the Nexus Player looks like a breakthrough product.

Right now, in a complete reversal fortunes, Apple owners will look on jealously as Android customers enjoy the benefits of a home entertainment device that fills all the niches.

Right now Apple has fallen from the top to the bottom of the stack. Google, Microsoft and Sony all have better offerings that Apple if you want to connect your device to your home entertainment system.

And that's without the problems introduced into the equation by the incredible flakiness of iCloud.

It seems unlikely that Apple won't react to the Nexus Player, and a new Apple TV will appear on the horizon. However I remember suggesting that Apple had been left a huge open goal with the Apple TV a couple of years ago.

It's disappointing to find out that they missed it.