June 21, 2012

One TINY way Apple should imitate Microsoft

Normally Microsoft makes software and leaves it up to other companies to build the hardware. But with their upcoming product the Surface, they’re keeping control of both the OS and the hardware, not unlike a certain multi-billion dollar company named after a fruit. Apple’s strategy of tight integration and control of both hardware and software is definitely working for them. I’ve pretty much already covered that, but the point I’m trying to make is: Microsoft is borrowing Apple’s strategy for one part of its market. But Apple should be doing the same thing to Microsoft.

They’ve actually tried it before. Does anyone remember that Apple used to let other companies build Apple (clone) computers? Here’s an article (link) from when that was a thing, waaaay back in the late 90’s. Apple should start doing this again, not for their laptops or all-in-one devices, but for the Mac Pro. Apple should let an outside company (or companies) build the Mac Pro. Based on their barely-incremental update of the Mac Pro, some users are complaining that Apple isn’t making products for pros anymore (one example here, though this are also articles to the contrary). There is already a fairly vibrant community of users who build “Hackintosh” computers that run Mac OS on off-the-shelf hardware (link). The legality of these DIY Macs is questionable, but they are proof of what’s possible.

I understand that Apple has a certain reputation to uphold; they make beautiful computers that work intuitively. Though Apple's entire line of computers is nice to look at, Mac Pro towers are just that—towers. I don't have one myself, but I'm assuming plenty of Mac Pro users keep their towers out of sight anyway. Mac Pro users also represent a customer willing to spend extra money for the latest hardware, and yet Apple is very slow to upgrade these machines. They could pick one or two computer companies to manufacturer a Mac Pro line (preferably two, for competition). They could have a VERY limited license agreement that allows the companies to create only high-end towers (nothing that would really compete with MBP or iMac). These companies could then work with Apple, Intel, and other motherboard and video card manufacturers to create something that is both worthy of the Mac OS and can stay completely up-to-date from a hardware perspective.

Mac Pro
Only USB 2?
Last year’s graphics?
No Thunderbolt?

One issue might be Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is actually a joint venture of Intel and Apple, but I’ve only ever seen it on Apple computers and peripherals designed to work with them. Are motherboard manufacturers allowed to include Thunderbolt on their products? I can’t find a definitive answer. While Apple fanatics might resent the inclusion of this I/O in non-Apple devices, I think it would jumpstart the creation of more peripherals that make use of the technology.

This is my second post in a row directed at an industry that will never see what I’m saying, but it feels nice to post it on the Internet anyway. Thanks for reading!

June 19, 2012

Flash drive console games

Recently we got some maybe-true details about the next generation Xbox system (link). The specs include a Blu-ray drive, which totally makes sense. Microsoft wants the Xbox to be viewed as a gaming console as well as an entertainment device. It also makes sense because you can stuff something like five times the amount of data on a Blu-ray than you can on a standard DVD. This will become more useful as games get larger.

My question is, why do we still put games on optical discs? I can’t speak for the PS3 or Wii, but the optical drive is by far the loudest and slowest part of the Xbox, not to mention the easiest to break. USB flash drives continue to come down in price and go up in capacity. Many would say “why bother with physical media at all?” but I think going strictly digital isn’t viable as long as ISPs are considering bandwidth and/or data caps. There’s also gamers without access to broadband connections and the second-hand game business to think about (though I’m sure game companies would love to get rid of that industry).

Flash drives are still physical media that you can require to be plugged in for the game to be played. Since Xbox has two front USB ports and supports USB hubs, you can have more than one game plugged in at one time for easier game switching. And you can’t ruin a flash drive by scratching it. USB data rates (or at least seek times) are much faster than that of optical drives. This would mean faster load times and less (or at least less noticeable) load screens. You can already cut down on some of this by copying the game to the hard drive, but you still must have the disc in the drive to play. If a wholesale switch were made, this could mean a second, optical drive-less Xbox hardware device could be available for those not interested in playing movies or old games. Something closer in size to the Apple TV. Or you could put the whole system on the Kinect sensor!

I’m sure this has already been considered, so there must be significant downsides that I’m not thinking about. The cost of a 32 or 64 gigabyte flash drive is likely much higher than your typical optical disc, but I’m thinking the cost would become worth it when more games outgrow optical media. Disc switching isn’t fun. They would also have to put new, untested measures in place to protect against copying, but it doesn’t seem like this would be that difficult, and DRM is a fact of life for optical and digital games already. What do you think? Are console games on flash drives a good idea? What downsides am I overlooking?


Before Apple ever released their millions-sold iPad, Microsoft had a video floating around the internet with its own tablet concept—the Courier, which looked pretty awesome. And then they killed it. And then the iPad came out and it killed everything else. But apparently Microsoft wasn’t quite done with the tablet concept, despite the market being much more crowded than when its Courier video originally appeared. So they just announced the Surface:

Surface front Surface side

While there certainly isn’t anything all that new or different (two words that figured prominently in the release event), I’m personally excited. While Microsoft is generally viewed as a software company which prefers to partner with hardware makers, they realize that in some cases you have to do it yourself if you want it done right. It also makes sense for Microsoft to make this themselves because they don’t have to pay to license their own OS and they can sell it at a loss, something it might be hard to talk another company into. Speaking of which, will this anger hardware makers who typically sell products that run Windows? Time will tell, but so far this is sufficiently different from most of the PC hardware out there (though it comes pretty close to the much-hyped line of “Ultrabooks”). Microsoft could also be helping PC companies by revitalizing interest in the platform overall. Again, time will tell.

Right now we don’t know too much in the way of specs. The device is made (at least in part) of magnesium. It has a built-in kickstand. It has Gorilla Glass. It has front-facing and rear-facing cameras. It’s equipped with USB and microSD connections. It’s available in 32 or 64 gigabyte capacity. The “pro” model (which features a full- or at least fuller-fledged version of Windows 8, as opposed to Windows RT on the standard version) is thicker, more powerful, and comes in a 128 gigabyte capacity as well. The spec sheet doesn’t exactly spell out resolution but both models have a 10.6” screen. I’m guessing the standard model (listed as “HD”) has something close to 1366x768 and the “pro” model (listed as “Full HD”) has 1920x1080. While this is nowhere near the resolution of Apple’s latest iPad, it should still look pretty good on the 10.6” screen. I’m curious about power, specifically battery life, and what the AC adapter will look like. If they could run this thing on USB power that would be a feat, since it is becoming ubiquitous and typical laptop power supplies are annoying. UPDATE: The Verge has some more info on the power adapter here: link (looks pretty cool)

Surface rear

What sets this device apart from the pack (from a hardware standpoint) is the built-in kickstand and the available covers. The Touch Cover is a 3mm touch-screen keyboard, and the Type Cover is a 5mm fully-functioning keyboard with built-in trackpad. These are options that typically might come from a third party when using other tablet PCs. The covers feature a Lumia-esque color scheme, presumably to set the product apart from all those monochromatic iOS devices. The “pro” model also features a pen input device. That is interesting, but it remains to be seen how well it’s implemented. On the software side, Microsoft Office 2013 RT is also bundled (and possibly a “full” version on the “pro” model, but I can’t tell). Hopefully this bears a closer resemblance to Office 2010 than the current Office Web Apps. Speaking of Apps, the Windows Phone app marketplace has been a bit of a disappointment so far. Since this device will eventually share apps with the Windows Phone platform, this will hopefully provide the kick in the pants Microsoft needs to improve the quantity and quality of available apps. Besides Office, the only app that was featured at the release event was Netflix.

Besides some of the hardware specs, the largest detail that was conspicuously missing from the release event was pricing. I believe the word they used was “competitive” which doesn’t really tell us anything. Competitive with other tablets? Competitive with other full-fledged PCs around this same size? I guess we’ll find out. If Microsoft can deliver on the promise of a full PC, not dependent in any way on another computer, they have something that so far has been somewhat elusive. And I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if it actually captured imaginations. But I’m not sure if that’s what this is. If not, there’s always version 2.0.

June 17, 2012

What is Apple up to?

Apple’s new MacBook Pro with Retina Display has met with almost universal praise, and for good reason. It’s gorgeous. The only real problem anyone seems to have with it is the general lack of upgradeability. I agree that it’s kind of a bummer. Some months ago, my friend Isaac lost the hard drive in his MacBook Pro. He borrowed my SATA-to-USB bridge and was able to get nearly all his data off the defective drive. Isaac also doubled the RAM in his MBP fairly inexpensively. The days of DIY repairs and upgrades appears to be over for MBP users. This is somewhat lamentable for me personally but overall I don’t think it’s that big a deal, and I certainly don’t think most typical Apple product users will care, seeing as how none of their nearly-ubiquitous iOS devices are upgradeable either. The upshot for Apple is they’ll make more money from people paying up front to “max out” their computers, or possibly from people buying new computers more often. It also allows them to design a more simple, elegant, and thin device…and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display


Can’t really upgrade this guy…

…but can’t really upgrade this guy either.

The bigger point of contention from some in the creative fields isn’t what they released, but what they DIDN’T release: a major refresh of the Mac Pro line. Some have taken this (along with the latest iterations of their Aperture and Final Cut Pro software) as a signal that Apple is no longer making “professional” products, and that they are steering their products more toward consumers. For the most part, I agree with this assessment. If it is true, it would be difficult to blame Apple for doing so. They’ve made billions of dollars from consumer products. But I also don’t think it’s unreasonable for professional creatives to be a little upset about it since they are the ones who kept Apple alive for several years.

But is that really what’s going on? Personally I think what Apple intends to do is slowly level the playing field, particularly with Final Cut Pro X. One couldn’t easily make the leap from iMovie to Final Cut Pro 7. There’s a steep learning curve and one is obviously aimed at consumers and one is obviously aimed at pros. Final Cut Pro X represents a much easier leap from consumer to “pro” product, both in usability and price. Apple can slowly add pro-level features and plug-ins to what is right now only a “pro” (with air quotes) product and the learning curve becomes even easier to manage, while still placating pro users. Meanwhile, a generation of young iMovie users finds this popular “pro” product (assuming it maintains its popularity) familiar and intuitive. The result is not unlike the HDSLR filmmaking “revolution”: semi-pro level products with consumer pricing and usability.

Final Cut Pro X
FCPX: The Future?

For creatives in general and aspiring editors in particular, this means paying attention to “the craft” will become even more important than it already is. The ability to use an NLE will be virtually meaningless. A grasp of the principles of good editing—and to a lesser extent the speed and thrift with which you edit—will become your selling point.

Other stuff on the subject: