Steve Jobs died yesterday and I have to admit I’m gutted. A true visionary, Steve Jobs did more than anyone else to shape the digital age. And now that vision is gone.
I’ve just written his obituary for my my alma mater, Stuff. I was lucky enough to be at stuff from the birth of the iMac all the way through to the iPad, so I followed the third act of Steve’s story from… Well, from about four rows back.
If you ever want to feel unworthy, make the mistake of measuring your achievements against Steve’s: the college dropout who (loosely) helped Atari develop the arcade classic Break-out, before launching the personal computer revolution with the Apple II, overseeing the most successful floatation in history and then redefining the computing paradigm with Macintosh. And all before he was 30.
OK, Jobs didn’t do all the work (woz did the Breakout coding and Apple II innards; the mouse/GUI was developed at Xerox) but his design and marketing instincts were way ahead of everyone. Take the meticulous casework and fanless operation of the Apple II in an era when computers sold as circuit boards; or the Ridley Scott ad for the launch of the Mac, which the Apple board hated so much they tried to pull it.
The second act of Jobs’ life began when he was ousted from Apple after poor Mac sales. He launched NeXT computers, and failed to sell any significant numbers. He bought Pixar from George Lucas for $10m and failed to sell much of their hardware either. He’d lost his magical touch. After all the arrogance of Apple, it seemed he was human, after all.
But when most would have thrown in the towel, Steve kept going. He turned Pixar into an animation business almost by accident, and ended up swapping it for 7% of Disney. That $10m investment ended up being worth over $3bn. And then he sold NeXT’s software to Apple for around $300m – and took over as CEO. In less than 15 years, he turned Apple from a loss-making business desperate to be bought by Sun Microsystems to the most valuable company in the world.
The rest is fresh memory, but it’s worth noting that Jobs changed the way we listened to and bought music with iPod and iTunes and redefined mobile computing with iPhone and iPad. Each of those moments is arguably as significant as the Apple II. Jobs – and his talented team – shook the world. They changed things.
Apple is often criticised for repackaging existing technology so that people want to buy it, to use it. They say Apple is all about design and eye-candy. I don’t think it’s a fair criticism – There’s no point in developing new technology if people won’t use it. Time and again, Steve Jobs has redefined the interface between man and machine: popularising the mouse, the touchscreen, the scroll wheel, the one-click music purchase, the invisible sync.
Of course, Steve Jobs also upset a lot of people along the way. His singular vision was a blessing and a curse. But today isn’t the day to dwell on negatives. It’s the day to celebrate genius, and mourn the loss of a visionary. Because what Steve jobs instinctively understood – that so few others do – is that technology itself won’t change the world: it’s the way we use it that matters.
I’ve never been a big Nintendoid, but it’s hard not to be impressed by its new porta-console, the 3DS.
3D games are pretty thin on the ground – Streetfighter 3D seems a little pointless, given it’s still essentially 2D sprite game – but I’m blown away by the 3D augmented reality game built into the 3DS. I’m not saying it’s something I’ll be playing in a year’s time, but watching a video of your table being warped and overrun by dragons is pretty compelling. Particularly in glasses-free 3D.
The other toy I’ve been fondling this weekend is the iPad 2. I’ll have more on that in a later post, but I was asked in a radio interview “which will win”, which is clearly the sort of question that only someone with a deep-seated hatred of technology would ask. These are hugely different products – not just in function (I suppose you could argue they’re both converged portable gaming devices) but also in approach. Apple’s sleek second-generation tablet is an ultrathin slice of sophistication, stripped of extraneous ports and inputs and packaged with nothing more than a cable and a pin. The 3DS, on the other hand, is a chunk of plastic toting two screens, a vast array of controls including a stylus and touchscreen, SD card slot, infra-red port and a manual that’ larger – no joke – than War & Peace.
The geek in me loves Nintendo’s no-holds-barred approach. But I can’t help but be drawn to the sleek allure of the iPad; if only it did 3D augmented reality…
As you probably noticed, the first iPad-only newspaper was launched by News Corp yesterday. After months of phone-tapping scandal, Rupert Murdoch must be glad to move on. And, having had a quick look at the first edition of The Daily, I’m impressed by the scale of its ambition.
Unlike the print-infatuated apps from The Times et al, The Daily really does feel like it was designed for the iPad. It’s packed (perhaps too packed) with rich media – audio, video, 360-degree photos and even its own built-in news anchor (sadly not a patch on Ron Burgundy).
At times it’s unresponsive – particularly when navigating features on the carousel – and of course all the news is US-focussed (it’s only available on the US iTunes store). But you can see where News Corp spent its $80m – The Daily is an epic publication that, once it relaxes a little, could be winner. It benefits from fairly intuitive navigation, too, unlike most magazine apps (WIRED is always a challenging read in print, but on iPad it’s like Rubiks puzzle). Still, I do wish that app makers would stop showing off with the whole ‘now switch to landscape mode to view pictures’ thing. I don’t want to be challenged – I want read great editorial, often with my iPad propped up on the table rather than in my hands.
Or: why I’m launching Life of Android.
I’ve been a technology journalist for over a decade. Which means I’ve tested a lot of phones. For the first six years, I had a new phone in my pocket every two or three months. And it was usually a phone so ‘smart’ that it required a degree in engineering to use it. Stuff readers loved them, the world at large just shrugged.
Then the iPhone came along and every other phone seemed like an afterthought. Steve Jobs is prone to hyperbole, but when he announced in 2007 that the iPhone was 18 months ahead of the competition he was being cautious. In fact, it’s taken over three years for proper rivals to arrive. And every time it looks like there’s an iPhone killer in the works, Apple unveils a new generation of wonder.
My iPhone addiction was so strong that when I tested rivals, I rarely switched my SIM for more than 24 hours. Once iPhone withdrawal started kicking in, I simply couldn’t resist the iPhone’s slick, comfortable allure.
So it was with some trepidation that I decided to make the switch to Android. I’m going cold turkey.
Why? Well, I’ve been a Mac fan for longer than I’ve been a technology journalist, and I still love my Macs, my iPad and my iPhone. Hell, I even love my Apple TV. But just as I baulked at the idea of a Sony-only world in the 90s, so I fear the impact of Apple totality in my life now.
But I’m also amazed at Android’s phenomenal growth – with 300,000 activations a day, Android phones are now neck-and-neck with iOS products in terms of sales, and growing faster (though it’s worth remembering that those figures compare a heap of different smartphones from a crowd of manufacturers with just a handful of products from one company).
Despite the growth of Android, media coverage is piffling compared to Apple. As I’m setting up my own publishing business, it seemed logical to start with a product that filled a gap in the market. Which is where we came up with the idea for Life Of Android, which launches in the new year (although you can already see a preview of the lifeofandroid.com, which is dedicated to reviewing the best Android apps)
Of course, I’m not ditching my Apple products. Life Of Android is the first tentative step on my journey to global media domination. Or something like that. On the way, I’ll continue to use, love and write about my Macs, iPad and iPhone.
But there’s plenty to love about Android, too: the flexibility, the free navigation, the Wi-Fi tethering – and, of course, the excuse to upgrade my handset every 3 months.
So for now my SIM will stay firmly gaffer-taped inside an Android. Now, if only I could work out how to use it with all my iPod docks…
Visit the preview of my new site lifeofandroid.com
Follow Life of Android on Twitter
I’ve just returned from a whistlestop visit to Cupertino, CA, where I witnessed the unveiling of Apple’s delightfully dinky new 11.6in MacBook Air. It’s still pretty low-powered – the 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor is the same as my two-and-a-half-year-old MacBook Air – but the improved graphics chip helps it zing along for most portable computing tasks. And it really does live up to its name – it’s so small and light, you simply won’t notice it’s in your bag.
I think the new Air will sell better than its predecessor – while £850 is way more than comparable Windows netbooks, it’s cheap for a Mac. And people are willing to pay for these beautifully crafted slices of desire – as Steve Jobs was keen to point out, Apple now owns over 20% of the consumer PC market in the US (and probably a similar figure in the UK). That’s a massive change from the sub-5% share in the era before ‘i’.
Even more interesting, though, was the sneak peak of Apple’s next Mac operating system, Lion. It incorporates a bunch of features that people love in the iPad and iPhone – including app-like fullscreen modes and a Mac App Store. I think it could be a real leap forward for computing, as I wrote on Stuff.tv:
With Lion, Apple aims to move beyond a standard window-and-mouse interface produce a joyful user experience that complements the company’s seductive hardware. This tactic will win little favour with the hardcore geeks who value function over eye-candy: but for the rest of us, it might just rekindle our love for the computer.
Apple’s Ping social network for iTunes has the potential to be massive. Enormo-huge. But at the moment, it’s far too limiting. It’s like going to a pub and only allowing you to talk about beer. And only the beer they have on tap, too. And no sharing drinks.
If I had Steve Jobs’ ear, these are the five improvements I’d suggest (before diving for cover):
1 Base Ping around your music library, not the iTunes store. I want to talk about the songs I’m listening to from my hard drive, not the handful I’ve downloaded from iTunes.
2 Allow streaming of full songs. If mFlow can do it, surely Apple can? Even if you’re limited to a single listen to any track (a la mFlow) it would surely lead to people buying more songs. What’s the point in a social network around songs that only allows you to listen to 30-second clips? (I’d also love to share in the profits if Apple sells songs I’ve recommended, but I’ll be realistic here – and leave mFlow with a USP…)
3 Support unsigned bands. The only artists you can follow at the moment are bands with content on iTunes. But the really interesting and engaging bands are the ones that are only just emerging. Apple needs to let them sign up as artists so they can post pictures, videos and music to their followers. Then it’s really bye-bye MySpace.
4 Integrate Social media. Apparently Apple’s currently having a little contretemps with Facebook, which explains the current lack of Facebook Connect. Fair enough, but you need to be able to share Pings (or Pongs?) on Twitter and Facebook. And you need to be able to import your social media contacts into Ping. And if Apple’s not going to allow full song streaming, plug Spotify in there to (wait, Steve, stop throwing things at me).
5 Allow me to post comments about anything. Does Ping have to be so music focussed? It would be great to recommend apps or movies. And does every new post have to be related to a bit of media? Sometimes it’s nice to say something that isn’t related to an album. Something that doesn’t have a pricetag next to it.
Ultimately, iTunes has a lot going for it: its catalogue, its iPhone/iPod integration, its vast user base… but with Ping, Apple needs to do something very un-Apple: loosen the reigns, and let the users take control.
The iPhone 4 went on sale just four hours ago, but it’s already a massive hit. And I mean MASSIVE. I’ve just returned from central London – I visited six Carphone Warehouse shops and two Phones4U – all had sold out within the first two hours.
So I cycled up to Apple’s flagship Regent Street store, which had been open for two and a half hours. And yet people were still queueing round the block. Here’s what I saw (incidentally, I took the picture with the iPhone 4 – click to see it full res).
There were a few phone network stores that obviously had some stock left, because there were queues outside. This is certainly the most demand I’ve ever seen for a mobile phone. I’m guessing Apple’s going to make a lot of money today – and the iPhone 4 will lose its exclusive cool remarkably quickly. Fortunately, it’s still an amazing phone. Here’s my video review for Stuff.tv:
(BTW As many Toobers have pointed out, I make a mistake about the pixel count – it has four times the number of pixels, not double the number. What I meant to say was it has double the resolution (960×640 as opposed to the 480×320 on the 3GS).)
And finally, my favourite pic of the iPhone 4. It’s truly a thing of beauty. Click to embiggen.
I paid £9.99 for a month-long iPad subscription to The Times on Saturday. I wasn’t sure what i was going to get – i’d looked at the new paid-for website and found little that sets it apart from free sites from The Telegraph and The Guardian. Apart from a forest of serifs.
The Times iPad app, however, delivers a ‘proper’ newspaper experience – you download a daily edition and read through pages repurposed for the iPad, with a few picture galleries and videos to remind you that you are using a digital device. The idea is to give a sense of value – and it almost works.
Yes, the editorial quality is top-notch. And I’ll forgive the lack of interactivity or social features. This is, after all, the UK’s paper of record. But I before i buy another month’s subscription, I’d need to see the app’s two big problems addressed.
Firstly, design. The rigid adherence to multiple columns with force-justified text may make the Times app look like a paper, but it also makes it a pain to read on a screen. And there’s no way of increasing font size, which is bizarre when you consider that the pages appear to be text flowed into templates rather than human-designed.
Secondly, the publication process. The daily paper analogy may feel reassuringly familiar to publishers, but it strikes me as bizarre that The Times app doesn’t update its headlines during the day. I spent Saturday morning reading a positive profile of David Laws in The Times, not realising that he’d become embroiled in a scandal in the hours since the virtual presses stopped turning. In short, the Times app is yesterday’s news – understandable in print, unforgivable in pixels.
Of course, we’re all finding our way in the brave new world of editorial apps, and the Times app is providing a great service for those of us in publishing without the money or guts to dive in immediately. There’s an advantage to being first, too – the Times has managed to make me buy a month-long subscription when I rarely but its physical incarnation. I can confidently say I’ve never spend £10 on the Times in one month before. Probably not even in a year. Similarly, Wired’s magazine app managed to sell 24,000 in it’s first day on sale.
I still have grave doubts about The Times as a paid-for desktop experience. But its iPad app suggests there is a moneymaking future for publishing beyond paper – just so long as we publishers don’t rely too heavily on print analogies.
Oh, and as long as a few people in the UK actually buy iPads, too.
With every hour I spend with the Apple iPad, my initial skepticism evaporates a little more. I thought it was a beautiful gadget looking for a purpose. Now I’m starting to realise that it’s slicing a tidy little niche all of its own.
The iPad isn’t a replacement for a laptop. Nor even a netbook. It’s not a serious work tool. Its DNA is far more iPod than MacBook – but that is its strength. The large screen and zippy processor of the iPad open up a incredible new range of possibilities.
This is the computer reborn as a cross-generational leisure device. Its unbeatable when you’re sitting back on the sofa reading or watching TV. It’s also a social computer, perfect for sharing videos, pictures and games with friends. It lands firmly in between the sit-forward experience of traditional computing and the lie-back experience of passively consuming TV.
But if you’re thinking of buying one, it’s worth noting what the iPad can and can’t do. You can read my full stream-of-consciousness review of the Apple iPad Wi-Fi + 3G over at Stuff.tv.
This has been a thrilling election. Not just because the outcome is so unclear; but because the depressing dominance of the newspapers has been challenged by new media.
Ok, TV isn’t exactly new media – and there’s no denying the leaders debates have engaged the voters and thrust Nick Clegg into the limelight. But what made the debates interesting for me was the meta-debates happening on Twitter and Facebook as the leaders wrangled on TV. Watching viewers’ minds change in realtime during that first debate was amazing. And reading Malcolm Tucker’s tweets made the boring bits bearable, too.
Since that first debate, most of the press has been working at hard to undermine the Lib Dems, churning out the usual fear-and-smear tricks. I don’t usually mind the antics of the press, but at election times I find the blatant bias sickening. But the web and TV debates have provided a more direct forum for people to make up their own minds without being muddied by the dark motives of newspaper editors and proprietors.
It feels like we’re close to something spectacular: an upgrade to the UK’s operating system.