We’re in a fast changing digital landscape; innovation has worked into almost every device I use regularly and with cloud syncing my content is accessible from anywhere. So why do higher end cameras, most notably digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) ones, feel absent from the picture? Big manufacturers like Canon and Nikon push out better sensors and higher end lenses year after year, but the core design remains unchanged. Contrast that progress with the rapid evolution in smaller, camera-equipped devices like the iPhone and Canon S95, both in terms of technology advances and mainstream adoption. If the trend continues the DSLR will be relegated to a niche device for professionals only.
The problem starts with perception: compared to hot new consumer tech like the Kinect and iPhone, DSLRs, at least to a mainstream audience, are run of the mill if not behind the curve. First and foremost, in a golden age of lightweight, powerful technology, DSLRs remain heavy and bulky. They also have a higher learning curve than most other tech devices: even using its simplest operation, the most basic DSLR offers a bewildering array of dial settings, zoom levels and menu adjustments.
Minimalist text editors of the likes of WriteRoom have been growing in popularity lately, both in terms of their user base and the download options in the Mac App Store. That’s a great trend. I’ve found text editors to be a wonderful tool for writing, and the more users that come to the same conclusions, the better. But which app is the best option for your money? I’ve spent the past few weeks on this subject comparing three popular options: Byword, iA Writer and WriteRoom.
Byword is the newest of the three text editors I tested. The app offers some, but not all, of the customization of the more mature WriteRoom. It’s a hybrid approach that picks and chooses elements from both programs and spins them off in a new direction.
On the positive side, I found Byword’s features set striking a good balance between flexibility and minimalism; enough customization for users to write in a way they feel comfortable, yet not so much to feel overwhelmed. In addition, I’d predict Byword will push the ball forward more than its competitors for raw functionality in future releases. I already find its markdown and HTML export support to be more robust than its competitors, along with providing a slick HTML and Markdown preview functionality the other tested text editors don’t offer at all. Finally, I can’t overlook that at $10 it’s half the price of its competitors. That’s a factor for those on the fence about spending money for a text editor with such a seemingly simple purpose.
I was relieved when Apple debuted iCloud last Monday; finally the company was addressing its subpar cloud connectivity head on. Given Apple’s penchant for great design, combined with its large install base and investment (a.k.a. its gigantic North Carolina data center) iCloud could move cloud computing to a much more mainstream level of integration and accessibility.
However, I’ve seen way too much hype from financial investors to tech pundits who are all accepting the Apple PR mantra of “it just works” as fact. Please, stop with the hyperbole. iCloud is not revolutionary. iCloud is very much a hard drive in the sky; Apple is merely obfuscating the details by burying them within their native apps.
In reality, Apple’s iCloud is less technical revolution and more philosophical shift. The company’s cloud system centers on tight vertical integration with iOS or Mac-friendly apps that have integrated Apple’s iCloud API. It’s a classic Apple move. An attempt to move an existing technology to the company?s comfort zone: its native user interfaces, hardware and software. I’d suspect iCloud will be easier, at first glance, for users heavily invested within Apple’s iOS and Mac ecosystem. A document will be saved, and given the likely heavy restrictions placed under the iCloud API, there’s only a few places it can go, namely the same file name and app on every other Apple vetted app.
In contrast, existing cloud sync systems from the likes of Google and Dropbox embrace a far more open, flexible structure that can be accessed in many ways (on any operating system, on the web, within native apps via APIs). Yet, that openness comes at a cost; more options and flexibility means a less unified, harder to understand interface, especially for the non-tech crowd.
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.