The venerable PC: not dead yet

This morning’s Observer column.

Unless you have been holidaying on Mars, you will have gathered that Apple launched a new version of its iPad last Wednesday. They’re refusing to call it the iPad3 but everyone else is. I’d be more inclined to call it the iPad2S, following the nomenclature the company has adopted for its mobile phones. That’s because, no matter how the Apple Reality Distortion Field spins it, the latest iPad is really just an evolutionary advance on its predecessors.

Granted, it has a significantly better display, a more powerful processor (therefore better graphics performance), a better camera, which will record HD video, and a wider range of mobile connectivity options. But otherwise, it’s the mixture as before – though that didn’t stop the Apple website being swamped on Wednesday evening, presumably by folks anxious to pre-order the newest new thing. (Memo to Apple: why not set up a system whereby customers’ salaries are paid directly to the company and they are then issued with food stamps and other necessities as the need arises?)

Swamped by iPad3?

Interesting: it’s now 21.38 on March 7, just over three and a half hours since Apple announced the iPad3 and their website is clearly being swamped — to the point where they have had to put up a static page.

(Image from GDGT’s excellent live blog of the presentation.)

In the presentation, CEO Tim Cook claimed that Apple had sold 15.4 million iPads in the last quarter. That’s more than the number of PCs sold by any of the big computer manufacturers.

Other interesting factoids from the presentation: iPad, iPhone, and iPod sales accounted for 76% of Apple’s revenue during that quarter, and the company sold more than 172 million of these devices in total last year. In comparison, all PC makers combined shipped about 350 million PCs last year.

The dark underbelly of the iEconomy

Apple has just reported quarterly profits that are bigger than Google’s revenues for the same period. Today’s New York Times has a big report on the human costs of that commercial success. In one way, of course, this is an old story (and it’s not just about Apple, either — dozens of other successful Western technology companies are also exploiters of Chinese labour), but the NYT investigation is more extensive than I’ve seen before, and therefore more troubling.

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

It’s a long report. Worth reading in full.

Wired: not all fired up by Amazon Fire

Useful review in Wired of the upcoming Amazon Fire tablet. The verdict: don’t hold your breath.

If you already have $200 in your high-tech hardware slush fund, and you’re not willing to splurge one cent more, I suggest you wait longer before pulling the trigger on a tablet. Let that nest egg build. Let it grow interest. Wait for the Kindle Fire 2.

Or — yes, I’m going to go there — consider an iPad.

By the time iPad 3 comes out, Apple’s cheapest iPad 2 will almost certainly be even cheaper. And this could very well be the tablet for you: 9.7 inches of uncompromised screen real estate, a processor that rips through web pages like a chainsaw, and an app and digital content ecosystem that’s already commensurate to (if not better than; let’s be serious) anything Amazon offers.

iPad killer? No, the Kindle Fire is not. And it doesn’t even match the iPad in web browsing, the one area in which its hardware should have sufficient performance to compete. But the press has definitely supercharged Amazon’s product launch with a level of hype and enthusiasm that would make Apple proud.

WIRED A great platform for casual video playback. A perfectly fine Android 2.3 app device. A price that pleads “buy me,” repeatedly, until you crack a big grin, and give in like a good-natured father buying trinkets for the kids at Wal-Mart.

TIRED Small screen size and insufficient processing power. Crap browser performance. Near useless as a magazine reader, and roundly trumped by superb e-ink Kindles as a book reader.

Summing up Steve Jobs

What turned Apple into the most valuable company on the planet was that Jobs did more than just create cool new devices. Rather he presided over the creation of new market ecosystems, with those devices at their heart. And if the ecosystems were more chaotic than he might have liked, they were also more powerful and more profitable. It’s true that, by the standards of today’s open source computing world, Apple’s platforms are still very much closed… But, by the standards of its old ethos, Apple is much more open than one would ever have thought possible. In giving up a little control, Jobs found a lot more power.

James Surowiecki, “How Steve Jobs Changed”, The New Yorker, 17 October, 2011, p.29.

Kindle Fire: the tablet that knows your next move

This morning’s Observer column.

The prospect of the forthcoming battle between these two technology giants has led some excitable analysts to declare that, whichever company triumphs, “the consumer is going to be the winner”. Oh yeah? The reality is that both Apple and Amazon are aiming at the same thing: locking in the consumer to their system. Apple has done this via the iTunes and App Store, which ensures that nothing runs on an Apple iDevice that hasn’t been approved by the company. Amazon’s approach is only slightly more subtle. The Fire comes with only 8GB of memory, which means that most of the content that its users will access will come from Amazon’s Cloud storage. In that sense, the Fire is the ultimate network appliance.

But there’s an added twist. The Fire also comes with a pretty slick browser that loads pages faster than even browsers running on fast PCs. So 100 millisecond (ms) load times are reportedly reduced to 5ms. This is achieved by having the processing done not by the Fire but by remote virtual machines running in Amazon’s EC2 Cloud, and by clever caching and pre-emptive fetching of links. “This means,” writes Jason Calacanis, a well-known internet entrepreneur, “if you’re on the they have, in their cloud and possibly already on your device, the next five pages you’re going to click on. They know this because the last five folks to hit the’s homepage opened those pages. These kind of caching services have a ton of privacy implications”…

That’s putting it mildly.

LATER: Came on an interesting report of the thinking of a US market analyst. Horace Dediu. The nub of it is:

Amazon’s margins on the digital goods it will sell through the Kindle are razor-thin. That means it will take a large volume of sales to subsidize the Kindle’s sales cost, encouraging Amazon to wait a long time between updates to the underlying hardware. They’ll need to amortize that cost over several years to make the accounting balance out, rather than pushing customers to buy a new tablet every year or two.

As a result, the Kindle Fire is unlikely to advance rapidly in terms of its technology. Amazon is going to milk as many years as it can out of each generation of the tablet.

We’ll see.