There’s a reason Steve Jobs saved the presentation of iCloud for himself; it’s one of the company’s biggest announcements in years, arguably second only to the debut of the original iPhone and iPad. The ramifications of Apple’s cloud service are so big it makes my head hurt, and I’m mostly positive on what I’ve heard. That said, I’ve got a few questions and concerns:
The first step
Make no mistake, iCloud is fundamentally a syncing service. John Gruber can gush how it’s different and there will be “no conflicts or merging” but at some point an offline device has to sync with the latest iCloud copy. If both copies have changes, how will files be merged accurately? How will conflicts be conveyed and settled with the user?
It’s clear from their North Carolina venture Apple is betting big. But it’s a huge bet on something fundamentally not in Apple’s core competency. I still think they’ll pull through, but it’s not a guaranteed knock out of the park yet.
Judging from the response of tech companies (and the bloggers that cover them) this is the year of the cloud music service: Amazon came out of the gate a bit early, followed by Google and now Apple later this year, the details of which will be announced next week. I’d bet heavily on Apple and their stellar design work coming out on top, especially if rumors are true that Apple will provide cloud streaming for iTunes Store music sans uploads.
Yet the Apple vs. Amazon vs. Google music locker battle in the end is minor; the far more interesting question is Apple vs. Rdio; ownership ? la carte versus a nearly limitless collection for a flat subscription fee. It’s in that battle that I think Apple/Amazon/Google could lose. A few reasons why:
Music’s half life is short; ownership is overrated
One of the primary arguments made against music streaming is that its lack of ownership is a significant downside; unlike movies or TV shows that are only watched once or twice, good albums are listened to tens, even hundreds of times. I disagree; music is a lot more fickle than people give it credit for. In particular, people’s tastes can change quickly; hard core niche music fans look aggressively for new material while more mainstream users want to hear the latest pop hits, the roster of which changes often. In addition, streaming’s sound quality and mobile connectivity have improved a lot over the past year, blurring the lines between a streaming experience and true song ownership.
There?s an irritating trend I?m noticing more often with new technology offered up online: It starts as the curious and technologically adept download apps, read from new publications, and sign up for services with a lot of buzz and discussion on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Many are free but some of the most interesting, from huge music streaming services to small scale, members only audio content are not.
It’s on these payment models which give many pause. Clich?d arguments usually appear which emphasize how online models only succeed when they are free, and how many equally good free alternatives already exist. The majority move on to other options.
That’s a problem.
Free always has a cost. I?ve downloaded ?free? apps that crash, are rarely updated, or have pixelated, annoying ads that waste my time. I?ve read from ?free? blogs that carbon copy press releases with little insight or unique analysis. I?ve watched ?free? video clips that are poorly edited and produced.
Given the high volume of content I read online, Readability, a new subscription based web and mobile reading app, seemed like a good fit; I decided to sign up for a month and try it out on my Mac, iPad and iPhone. Four weeks and over a hundred read articles later, while the experience isn’t perfect, I’d recommend it to almost anyone, especially those that read frequently from blogs and other online sources. The HTML5 mobile app has some bugs, but my current pairing of Readability on the desktop and Instapaper for mobile makes for an excellent experience.
Readability is a twist on existing apps like Instapaper with a built in compensation scheme for content writers and publishers. The app’s foremost objective is to deliver an uncluttered reading experience for what’s online. Users find any web page article of interest (e.g. blog post, news story) and use a browser based extension or bookmarklet to strip the article down to its essence: No ads, ample white space, clear typography, and sparse imagery. In addition, 70% of subscribers’ membership fees go directly to the publishers and writers behind articles read through Readability. That often translates to pennies to the writer per article read, but cumulatively it adds up. I see Readability’s payment system as one step closer to a paid ecosystem that doesn’t rely on traditional sources of revenue like banner ads and paywalls. The whole process also requires almost zero commitment on the part of content publishers, just a registration with readability.com to receive revenue.
This week Amazon unveiled Cloud Drive, an online storage system for Amazon users to upload their music collections for both on demand streaming and backup. It’s unquestionably huge tech news; Amazon is the first company of this size and stature to provide a cloud based service on this large of a scale. Intrigued, I’ve spent the last two days putting the service through its paces and in the process have come to several conclusions:
Mainstream users will rush to embrace cloud-based services (albeit slowly at first)
While it’s true that the tech community has heavily utilized cloud-based file services like Dropbox and Crashplan for years, Amazon’s Cloud Service is really the first to nail it for a mainstream audience: Unlike most other cloud solutions, there’s no additional drives to be mounted or cumbersome software to download. Instead, Amazon requires just a small Adobe Air app used to upload music (in a nice touch, Amazon auto scans your HD), the music player itself just a web site. Given that level of simplicity, Amazon’s solid customer service, not to mention 5GB free for anyone that has an Amazon account, a lot of households will jump onboard.
Expect this to be the first major step for mainstream users to incorporate cloud-based computing into their day. Music is a great starting point: millions already use web-based streaming clients like Pandora and Rdio so jumping over to an Amazon website to listen to their music library is a natural progression. I’d predict that competitors like Dropbox and Apple will make great efforts to make their services more enticing for a non tech audience (simpler UI, more competitive pricing plans, more devices) and in the process their respective user bases should grow exponentially.
This all takes time; it’s a big step from uploading songs from one’s music library to enterprise sharing and larger scale backup plans. Nevertheless, as the other heavyweights like Apple, Sony and others join in (post Amazon’s move, it’s inevitable), demand will spike.
Like its iOS counterpart, the Mac App Store excels in its variety; I regularly scan the top download lists and I?ve stumbled on a few inexpensive, focused apps that fit my interests well.
While there?s been at least six such apps that I?ve tried since the App Store?s debut, two have gotten by far the heaviest use: Folder Watch, a file syncing utility and Minutes, a simple, colorful timer app. I?d recommend checking out both. Continue reading…
I tend to be cynical when I hear journalists talk about how a new technology is a “glimpse of the future.” It’s often terminology synonymous with the overly ambitious, exotic and doomed to fail.
Real glimpses of the future for me instead come in surprisingly subtle forms, the most impressive being cloud syncing: Core bits of data are stored online in the “cloud”, in turn automatically referenced by different digital devices to keep media seamlessly in sync. Just as surprisingly? The usually innovative Apple has almost nothing to do with it.
Since the Mac App Store opened yesterday and general online hysteria ensued (seemingly around 30% of my Twitter content focused on the App Store) I, like almost every other tech guy on the planet poured over the interface and content in depth. Now that I’ve had a day to get my hands dirty, I wanted to elaborate with a few thoughts and, in a sea of 1000 plus initial applications, a few download recommendations. Continue reading…
As we head into December, two things happen: A lot of people will be given an iPod Touch or iPhone, and lots more already own an iOS device but want a distraction from the holiday grind. Inevitably that leads to a lot of iPhone game downloads (the majority of the App Store), many of which are uneven experiences at best.
In response, below I’ve compiled three varied and underrated games well worth your attention. Each has gotten heavy usage from time to time on my daily commute. My criteria were simple: The game had to be cheap – under $4. It also had to be approachable, with rules understandable under a minute. Finally, I only considered games outside of the top 100 game downloads on the App Store; I like highlighting smaller, independent developers that otherwise get little attention.
As attention turns to Mac applications with Apple’s upcoming launch of the Mac App Store, it’s worth highlighting the work of three small, independent teams that I use regularly: Helvetireader, Alfred and Hibari. All have the hallmarks of what makes the indie Mac software scene so great, namely focused functionality, minimalist design and excellent value for the money (two of the three apps are free.)
The three I’m highlighting today cover high trafficked areas of many users’ workflow: Quick app launching and web browsing, RSS feeds (in the form of Google Reader) and staying abrest of the latest on Twitter.