27
Jun 16

Compute Stick PCs – Flash in the pan?

A few years ago, following the success of many other HDMI-connected computing devices, a new type of PC arrived – the “compute stick”. Also referred to sometimes as an HDMI PC or a stick PC, the device immediately made me scratch my head a bit.

If Windows 10 still featured a Media Center edition, I guess I could sort of see the point. But Windows, outside of Surface Hub (which seemingly runs a proprietary edition of Windows), no longer features a 10′ UI in the box. Meaning, without third-party software and nerd-porn duct tape, it’s a computer with a TV as a display, and a very limited use case.

Unlike Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile, I’ve never had a licensing boot camp attendee ask me about compute sticks (almost none ever asked us about Windows To Go, the mode of booting Windows Enterprise edition off of USB on a random PC).

The early sticks featured 2GB of RAM or less, really limiting their use case even further. With 4GB, more modern versions will run Windows 10 well, but to what end?

I can see some cases where compute sticks might make sense for point of service, but a NUC is likely to be more affordable, powerful, and expandable, and not suffer from heat exhaustion like a compute stick is likely to.

I’ve also heard it suggested that a compute stick is a good potential for the business traveler. But I don’t get that. Using a compute stick requires you to have a keyboard and pointing device with you, and find an AC power source behind a hotel TV or shared workspace. Now I don’t know about you, but while I used to travel with a keyboard to use with my iPad, I don’t anymore… and I never travel with a spare pointing device. And as to finding AC power behind a hotel TV? Shoot me now.

The stick PC has some use cases, sure. Home theater where the user is willing to assemble the UX they want. But that’s nerd porn, not a primary use case, and not a long-term use case (see Media Center edition).

You eventually reach a point where, if you want a PC while you’re on the go, you should haul a PC with you. Laptops, convertibles, and tablets are ridiculously small, and you don’t always have to tote peripherals with you to make them work.

In short, I can see a very limited segment of use cases where compute sticks make sense. (Frankly, it’s a longer list than Windows To Go.) But I think in most cases, upon closer inspection, a NUC (or larger PC), Windows 10 tablet or laptop, or <gasp/> a Windows 10 Mobile device running Continuum is likely to make more sense.

 


24
Jun 16

An iPad Pro is not a Mac

Last year, Christopher Mims wrote about how Apple should kill off the Mac. Just this week, Apple alumnus Michael Gartenberg wrote that the iPad Pro is the new Mac.

It’s human nature to try and match things up… to simplify, organize, and categorize data points. To say a thing is like another thing, or a thing can replace another thing. But I think doing so today only confuses normal users.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how you shouldn’t cross-shop the iPad Pro and Surface Pro (or Surface, for that matter) because people kept pondering the two as alternatives of each other.

Someday, we will arrive at the point that an iOS device will be able to meet the requirements of many, perhaps even most, macOS (nee OS X) users. This day is not that day, and this year is not that year.

I travel a fair amount. Almost every other month, I have to fly for work. While my old 15″ Retina MacBook Pro had served me well for some time, I was growing frustrated with three issues (in order):

  1. Battery life
  2. Heat
  3. Screen size.

My Mac’s battery was to the point where no matter what I did, unless I dialed every possible thing back that I could, it was less than 3 hours of battery life. I write a lot… and I like to write remote. Having to find AC power all the time gets really frustrating, and AC also isn’t always available.

I use my laptop as a… laptop. The i5 in my old MBP got hot. Not as bad as the i7 in my old ThinkPad, but toasty – limiting when and where I could <ahem/> comfortably use it.

Finally, with the great unbundling, coach class seating is now hostile to machines over 13″. I found that on Alaska’s planes, if the seat in front reclined on me, I wasn’t going to be working.

So I needed something smaller. Lighter. More efficient.

I’m not a developer. So I don’t need Xcode. I don’t work with Mac versions of most legacy multimedia software from Apple, Adobe, or others. I don’t even play games on my computers. But I work in Microsoft Office every single day. And there are things that I need there. There is the mobile version of the Office applications, and I have an E3 subscription that entitles me to using them.

So as I winnowed down my device options, I was seriously looking at the large iPad Pro. While I’m all thumbs when it comes to drawing (or hand-writing), the Smart Keyboard and iPad Pro make an acceptable (although compromising) combination.

In particular, as I pondered life with the iPad Pro, several caveats came up with the hardware, before I’d even considered the software capabilities.

  1. Not “lappable”
  2. Keyboard of great compromise
  3. Fixed position screen
  4. No secondary pointing device.

Lappability. I hate the term. But it is a thing. “Lappability”. The iPad Pro, like the Surface line (outside of the Surface Book, which is arguably somewhat lappable) is not lappable. It isn’t. If you have to care about where the device sits on your lap before it falls (or how long you can leave it on your lap before the kickstand feels like it is cutting into your flesh), it is not “lappable”.

Compromising keyboard. As I said earlier, I write a lot. I’ve really fallen in love with the keyboard on my old MBP. It is really pleasant to use. The iPad Pro’s keyboard, like Microsoft’s original Touch Covers for the Surface devices, is squishy and has strange key travel. For a writer, I just find the contraption too compromising to work well. I would imagine most developers would as well. Frankly, I’d love to see Apple try a Surface Book like approach for keyboard (sans the wacky GPU in the base).

Fixed screen. In terms of the screen, sure – the position is probably positioned pretty well. But the inflexibility drives me nuts. Sometimes you’re in a plane or conference center, and the sun is hitting the screen just right so you can’t work. Or your neck hurts, so you want to subtly reposition it. Good luck fixing that.

Touch only. Finally, the lack of a pointing device, and the requirement to smear your screen to navigate the device, while standard operating procedure with iOS, and acceptable with certain device use cases, makes me stabby on my daily use work device. I’m staring at Word, PowerPoint, the Web, and a handful of other things throughout the day. I don’t want to be cleaning my screen all day.

So if I’d been willing to compromise on those 4 (I wasn’t), the iPad Pro might’ve been capable of becoming my primary device. But then we hit the software caveats.

  1. Word on iOS is far from full-featured
  2. Working with files in iOS is still a bear
  3. Collaboration through SMB shares is unworkable
  4. Tools I use regularly for workflow are absent.

Word limits. Word on the iPad is very limited compared to Word on the desktop (even just comparing Word on the Mac, let alone Windows. I don’t even use VBA, so don’t care that that is missing. As I mentioned, I have Office 365 for work, so don’t need additional licensing. But the editing tools on iOS are very… constrained. Tables and outlining, for example, are things I use all the time in Word on the Mac and Windows. No go on iOS. I also find the document reviewing tools on iOS excruciatingly frustrating to use vs. desktop equivalents.

File handling. Much has been made of the lack of a Finder equivalent in iOS. iOS doesn’t need  a finder per se. But it does need the ability to share certain “universal” files in one location and have any other app be able to open them. Trying to open a PPTX file with rich content in PowerPoint on iOS is ugly. Basically have to copy the file. Need to make edits and save the file back for a colleague to read? Good luck. You’re gonna hurt yourself by the time you finish.

Legacy collaboration. Collaboration through old Windows shares is not workable on iOS. If your org has moved completely to Dropbox or OneDrive (which would be impressive), then you can make this work. Otherwise, you’re using kludgy apps that try to make SMB fit within the parameters of iOS, and create similar problems to the ones I just outlined. (Even Microsoft’s own Work Folders technology seems basically dead on the vine in favor of OneDrive for Business. iOS was designed to be standalone and not need file shares. Which is all well and good if you’re a sole proprietor, Web-only or your whole org is all-in on SaaS-based collaboration software. But most orgs aren’t.

Specialty software. I have several tools that I use regularly – notably BetterTouchTool, and Paw, for work. These don’t have equivalents. I could perhaps get used to not having them, or perhaps find alternatives, but I’d rather not.

Contrary to what you might think, I wouldn’t describe myself as a power user. I run terminal on OS X about as often as I ran regedit on Windows (and for the same duct tapey reasons). But in the end, I found that the iPad Pro and iOS would not, in terms of either hardware or software, meet my needs, without me needing a Mac in addition for certain things.

In the end, I wound up getting the new MacBook, consciously choosing the low end model with the Intel m3 processor. It feels like I see beachballs a little more than with my old MBP, but it isn’t that frequent. More importantly, I have a screen that works great on flights, it runs cool almost all the time (plus it has no fan!), and I can go an insane amount of time without needing my charger.

Apple will surely come out with more iPad Pro hardware/peripherals over time, which will enable new scenarios and flexibility. And iOS and macOS will continue to harmonize, while iOS moves upmarket, to enable more and more software scenarios that were previously exclusive to the Mac. It’s a delicate dance. Building a walled garden around macOS, while expanding the walled garden of iOS.

But the reality is also that there are certain scenarios people should not ever expect iOS to support, like SMB file shares in-box, or replacing built-in apps with third-party equivalents. I just believe that’s not the kind of things that you should expect Apple to do.

In several years, perhaps as few as 2, maybe as many as 5, iOS devices will likely be able to meet the needs of most people who use Macs or Windows PCs today. Some users will compromise their behavior or requirements early and go to iOS. Some will find that iOS just meets their needs, and switch. Some will continue to use Windows and macOS for the foreseeable future. Some scenarios, like developing fully-featured OS X and macOS apps (or developing for Windows clients or Linux server on Macs), will continue to require a Mac, even as Swift development tools likely gain capabilities on iOS.

In the meantime, I think that saying the Mac should go away, or that the iPad is workable for most normals who are knowledge workers, is a real stretch. Probably in time. It’s the direction. But we’re not there yet… not for some time.


07
Jun 16

The Autostadt, brand spaces, and marketing

Following my recent trip to Germany, I’ve spent the last month thinking about the idea of brand spaces. By brand space, I mean the use of a space – be it a single store, a building, or a multi-building space, that a business uses to establish or grow a marketing relationship with their consumers.

Although I hate to fly, I love to travel. (As I like to tell people, “I like to be places”.) I took a few days this year between work events to visit Volkswagen’s hometown of Wolfsburg, Germany, and the Autostadt, located there, as well as VW’s museum. A child of the 1970’s, there is a special place in my heart for the Volkswagen brand. My parents owned a VW Fastback before I was born, and a Dasher and Westfalia camper when I was young, and that’s when I fell in love with cars… So there are considerable emotional links for me associated with the brand.

I had hoped to visit the factory, but it was closed while I was going to be there. But the trip was still worthwhile to me, just to visit the Autostadt.

If you haven’t heard of the Autostadt before, you may not completely understand what this place is. The Autostadt, which is completely owned by VW, was first opened in 2000.

If you’ve ever been to Epcot (as it was created, not as Walt imagined it), or a World’s Fair, you can get an idea what the Autostadt is like. It reminded me more than a little bit of Expo ’86, in Vancouver. Imagine an automotive Epcot, where each brand has a pavilion, instead of each country. It was apparent that brands each had a very different idea of what to do with their pavilion. (A few really struggle to tell a cohesive story.) But Škoda and Porsche’s pavilions, in particular, tell stories that really align with their brands. (The lack of any Bentley presence was odd to me, given that even Ducati, Lamborghini, and Bugatti – brands people often aren’t familiar with the ownership of – are represented at the Autostadt.)

When you enter the Autostadt, you go through a main pavilion to the “park” itself, where each of the pavilions are. It’s much like any Disney park. Single point of entry, and once you’re inside, it’s rather easy to get disoriented. Thankfully since it is situated next to the factory with its tall smokestacks, and the Autostadt itself features two large car towers that store 800 cars, it isn’t quite as mentally all-encompassing as Disney’s parks.

Supposedly, VW spent nearly US$500M initially building the Autostadt. What I can tell you is that they’ve created a fascinating tourist destination for car fans, car-tolerant families of car fans, and families picking up a VW for delivery. An on-premises Ritz-Carlton (with subsidized rooms for those picking up a car), numerous restaurants, several stores and a large design museum create a space that can occupy a day, at least, for fans of one or more of the VW brands. In essence, it’s a brand theme park.

As I walked the Autostadt, I began thinking about the fact that I paid what I did… to visit a marketing exercise. Like Apple and their retail stores, VW built the Autostadt to establish a physical presence for their brand(s) with consumers that want to engage with it. Sure, it’s synthetic. (So is Disney.) Sure, it’s contrived. Some of the brands honestly fail at making the most of their opportunity at the Autostadt (looking at you, Lamborghini), but in terms of creating consumer engagement, it’s an interesting concept.

This all loops back to the concept of brand spaces. A Disney theme park. An Apple Store. More and more consumer brands are struggling with how to nurture a brand space to be. Gateway tried for years. Sony did too. Microsoft tried in San Francisco, then tried again with their current foray into retail. I think that a brand space is a space that is welcoming, and created in a manner that reflects the design aesthetics of that brand. But you can’t force it. You can’t just riff off of Apple’s design aesthetic to build a space that consumers will just swarm to. Your brand space needs to reflect your brand, and what consumers like about your brand.

Years ago, Best Buy had a brand space. You walked in, and it felt like Best Buy. You either liked it or hated it. But now Best Buy, like most big box retailers, has turned into a micro-mall, infected with store-within-a-store parasites, compromising their own overarching brand. I believe that the creation of a unique brand space is an important component of brands that want to – and will increasingly need to – stay directly engaged with their consumers.

Bear in mind, there are brands, like Intel, that make no sense to establish a brand space for. Intel, like BASF, is really a wholesale brand, no matter how much people wish it wasn’t. Focusing on consumer-level messaging if you aren’t selling to consumers is tilting at windmills. (Here again, Microsoft’s massive presence in enterprise and struggles in the consumer space post-XP make a similar argument.)

I’m not saying that every consumer brand needs to build a retail presence or a theme park. PLEASE, no. But I am saying that it will become increasingly important for brands to consider when and how engagement with their consumers, in a physical way, makes sense, given their brand, their consumers, and the purchasing cycle of those consumers.


09
Feb 16

Taken for a ride

Last week, as I entered the elevator of the building, another tenant turned to me and gleefully exclaimed, pointing across the garage at a new Jeep, “See that Jeep? I think I’m going to buy it.” 

I could tell immediately that this guy (a younger man, in his 20’s) was in trouble. He was smitten. He was a stranger, but sharing all of this, unprovoked. I had just come home from work, after a long editorial review meeting, followed by a trip to the grocery. So the logic gates in my mind were pretty shot. But the dialog basically went as follows:

Him: “Yeah, I just went over to test drive it, and they wanted over $600 a month for it. But I got them down to $350.”

Me: (still sort of shocked at being pulled into this conversation): “Wow. That is… a big difference. Interesting that they’d do that after the end of the month.”*

Him: “I thought so too. He said their sales month ends on the second day of the month.”**

Me: “That’s… different.”

Him: “I told them that I needed to go home and let my dogs out, but if they’d get it down to $300, we’d have a deal.”

We arrive at his floor before mine, and I can’t process the whole conversation before he exits the elevator. He steps off, I say, “Well, good luck in your decision!”

I go up to my floor and head to my apartment. A few minutes pass, and I crunch those data points in my head. I think to myself, “Holy shit. I need to stop that kid.”

I went downstairs, but the Jeep was already gone. I felt guilty for a little bit, but I noticed the next day that the Jeep wasn’t there, an older vehicle was instead. Obviously the deal hadn’t occurred.

Let me explain why I was concerned. When I used to sell cars, there was this bullshit form that they insisted that we use as we sold the car. It was a con. This sales grid is basically it.

It works by trying to nail you down on one or two data points, by making all of the other (important) data points variable. For example, if they see you focus on the monthly payment as the most important vector, they’ll swizzle the deal by making the payment term longer, or lifting your down payment. Other variables that come into play are your trade-in (but you’ll generally get stiffed on that), any options or extended warranties they’ll try to tack on, or the interest rate you’ll pay. Effectively it’s the old shell game con – and they try to appease you by meeting the one or two numbers you won’t waffle on, but do so by being vague about others.

Of course, all of these terms are available when you’re signing the contract, but by that time, backing out of it can be physically or psychologically challenging, if your brain can clearly process all of the key paperwork being thrown at you.

I don’t necessarily wish I could go back and talk the young man out of buying the Jeep, per se. But I would really like to know more of the metrics involved in the dealer’s side of the negotiations. I suspect that the dealer was primarily playing with the payment term or the down payment.

Many purchases, like a car or a home, can easily become driven primarily by emotion rather than logic. Some salespeople will prey upon this. Never be afraid to walk away from a potential purchase if your emotions are guiding you, and not your brain.

*This dialog happened on February 1. Car dealers are famous for offering deals that expire at the end of the month, as that’s often how sales bonuses from manufacturers line up.

**That the dealer told him this was extremely suspect. I don’t think I believe it. It’s possible, but doubtful. Instead, I think the date given to him was arbitrary, to try and close the deal.


03
Feb 16

Surface Pro and iPad Pro – incomparable

0.12 of a pound less in weight. 0.6 inches more in display area.

That’s all that separates the iPad Pro from the Surface Pro (lightest model of each). Add in the fact that both feature the modifier “Pro” in their name, and that they look kind of similar, and it’s hard to not invite comparisons, right? (Of course, what tablets in 2016 don’t look like tablets?)

Over the past few weeks, several reports have suggested that perhaps Apple’s Tablet Grande and Microsoft’s collection of tablet and tablet-like devices may have affected at holiday quarter sales of tablet-like devices from the other. Given what I’ve said above, I’ve surely even suggested that I might cross-shop one with the other when shopping. But man, that would be a mistake.

I’m not going to throw any more numbers at you to try and explain why the iPad Pro and Surface devices aren’t competitors, and shouldn’t be cross-shopped. Okay, only a few more; but it’ll be a minute. Before I do, let’s take a step back and consider the two product lines we’re dealing with.

The iPad Pro is physically Apple’s largest iOS device, by far. But that’s just it. It runs iOS, not OS X. It does not include a keyboard of any kind. It does not include a stylus of any kind. It can’t be used with an external pointing device, or almost any other traditional PC peripheral. (There are a handful of exceptions.)

The Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft’s most recent tablet. It is considered by many pundits to be a “detachable” tablet, which it is – if you buy the keyboard, which is not included. (As an aside, inventing a category called detachables when the brunt of devices in the category feature removable, but completely optional keyboards seems slightly sketchy to me.) Unlike the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro 4 does include the stylus for the device. You can also connect almost any traditional PC peripheral to a Surface Pro 4 (or Surface 3, or Surface Book.)

Again, at this point, you might say, “See, look how much they have in common. 1) A tablet. 2) A standardized keyboard peripheral. 3) A Stylus.”

Sure. That’s a few similarities, but certainly not enough to say they’re the same thing. A 120 volt light fixture for use in your home and a handheld flashlight also both offer a standard way to have a light source powered by electrical energy. But you wouldn’t jumble the two together as one category, as they aren’t interchangeable at all. You use them to perform completely different tasks.

The iPad Pro can’t run any legacy applications at all. None for Windows (of course), and none for OS X. There is it’s Achilles heel; it’s great at running iOS apps that have been tuned for it. But if the application you want to run isn’t there, or lacks features found in the Windows or OS X desktop variant you’d normally use (glares at you, Microsoft Word), you’re up the creek. (Here’s where someone will helpfully point out VDI, which is a bogus solution to running legacy business-critical applications that you need with any regularity.)

The Surface Pro offers a contrast at this point. It can run universal Windows platform (UWP) applications, AKA Windows Store apps, AKA Modern apps, AKA Metro apps. (Visualize my hand getting slapped here by platform fans for belaboring the name shifts.) And while the Surface Pro may have an even more constrained selection of platform-optimized UWP apps to choose from, if the one you want isn’t available in the Windows Store, you’ve got over two decades worth of Win32 applications that you can turn to.

Anybody who tells you that either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro are “no compromise” devices is either lying to you, or they just don’t know that they’re lying to you. They’re both great devices for what they try to be. But both come with compromises.

Several people have also said that the iPad Pro is a “companion device”. But it depends upon the use case as to whether that is true or not. If you’re a hard-core Windows power user, then yes, the iPad Pro must be a companion device. If you regularly need features only offered by Outlook, Excel, Access, or similar Win32 apps of old, then the iPad Pro is not the device for you. But if every app you need is either available in the App Store, you can live within the confines of the limited versions of Microsoft Office for Office 365 on the iPad Pro, or your productivity tools are all Web accessible, then the iPad Pro might not only be a good device for you, but it might actually be the only device you need. It all comes down to your own requirements. Some PC using readers at this point will helpfully chime in that the user I’ve identified above doesn’t exist. Not true – they’re just not that user.

If a friend or family member came to me and said, “I’m trying to decide which one to buy – an iPad Pro or Surface Pro.”, I’d step them through several questions:

  1. What do you want to do with it?
  2. How much will you type on it? Will you use it on your lap?
  3. How much will you draw on it? Is this the main thing you see yourself using it for
  4. How important is running older applications to you?
  5. How important is battery life?
  6. Do you ever want to use it with a second monitor?
  7. Do you have old peripherals that you simply can’t live without? (And what are they?)
  8. Have you bought or ripped a lot of audio or video content in formats that Apple won’t let you easily use anymore? (And how important is that to you?)

These questions will each have a wide variety of answers – in particular question 1. (Question 2 is a trap, as the need to use the device as a true laptop will lead most away from either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro.) But these questions can easily steer the conversation, and their decision, the right direction.

I mentioned that I would throw a few more numbers at you:

  • US$1,028.99 and
  • US$1,067.00

These are the base prices for a Surface Pro 4 (Core m3) and iPad Pro, respectively, equipped with a stylus and keyboard. Just a few cups of Starbucks apart from each other. The Surface Pro 4 can go wildly north of this price, depending upon CPU options (iPad Pro offers none) or storage options (iPad Pro only offers one). The iPad Pro also offers cellular connectivity for an additional charge in the premium storage model (not available in the Surface Pro). My point is, at this base price, they’re close to each other, but that is a matter of convenience. It invites comparisons, but deciding upon these devices based purely on price is a fool’s errand.

The more you want the Surface Pro 4 (or a Surface Book) to act like a workstation PC, the more you will pay. But there is the rub; it can be a workstation too – the iPad Pro can’t ever be. Conversely, the iPad Pro can be a great tablet, where it offers few compromises as a tablet – you could read on it, it has a phenomenal stylus experience for artists, and it’s a great, big, blank canvas for whatever you want to run on it (if you can run it). But it will never run legacy software.

The iPad Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that puts power optimization ahead of everything else
  2. Every application you need is available in the App Store
  3. The are available in an iPad Pro optimized form
  4. The available version of the app has all of the features you need
  5. All of your media content is in Apple formats or available through applications blessed by Apple.

The Surface Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that is a traditional Windows PC first and foremost
  2. Enough of the applications you want to run on it as a tablet are available in the Windows Store
  3. They support features like Snap and resizing when the app is running on the desktop
  4. You need to run more full-featured, older, or more power hungry applications, or applications that cannot live within the sandboxed confines of an “app store” platform
  5. You have media content (or apps) that are in formats or categories that Apple will not bless, but will run on Windows.

From the introduction of both devices last year, many people have been comparing and contrasting these two “Pro” devices. I think that doing so is a disservice. In general, a consumer who cross-shops the two devices and buys the wrong one will wind up sorely disappointed. It’s much better to figure out what you really want to do with the device, and buy the right option that will meet your personal requirements.


31
Oct 15

Simulated gambling in the App Store? The only winning move is not to play.

From the arrival of Apple’s iPhone App Store, they’ve elected to keep the platform, shall we say, “Family Friendly”.

While the guidelines for developers who elect to sell their software through the App Store are always evolving, they seem much more constant and consistent versus when the store first opened. In general, it’s still about keeping it a warm fuzzy place, while allowing some evolution so the App Store can grow and thrive. Apps which which violate terms include those that offer pornography, violence (simulated or other), targeted defamatory or offensive content at a given race, ethnicity, or or culture, or include objectionable content. What’s objectionable? Ask Apple, as they use the Potter Stewart school of content screening. Things like Metadata+ and Ephemeral+, which provide information unavailable anywhere else, but which could be found “unpleasant” by some, are not available on Apple’s platforms. Personally, the justification of that is ridiculous, but that’s a matter for another day.

Instead, I want to talk about “simulated gambling” games. This week, I found myself on the App Store search page, and noticed among the Trending Searches, the string “777”. As someone who flies regularly (but doesn’t gamble), I was curious what this even was. I clicked, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I clicked the link, and discovered an endless parade of “simulated” slot machine games.

What’s really both fascinating and terrifying to me is how much the Trending Searches space seems to include “simulated gambling” titles at night, and how many of the Top Grossing apps in the App Store are simulated gambling.

I really dislike that much of the iOS ecosystem has become overgrown by free-to-play (F2P) apps and games. I’ve started referring to these as free-to-p(l)ay instead, as because they generally require you to pay if you want to actually get to the most desirable content or levels in the title. I’ve only ever interacted with a handful of F2P games, and as a general rule, they are basically a Skinner box that conditions the user into paying for content in order to receive gratification.

Here’s where the problems begin, though. I believe there are basically two ways to classify titles in the App Store that offer in-app purchase (IAP):

  1. À la carte IAP
  2. Bottomless IAP.

À la carte IAP apps offer one price for entry (either free or some base currency), and then a set menu of items that can enable a set collection of functionality within or interconnected to the app. For example, a drawing app could offer a set of pens or brushes, or a range of colors. The point is, a given amount of currency will buy you a set piece of functionality. One could argue that you can IAP subscribe to services and that can be ongoing, but I contend that is still a set currency over time.

Bottomless IAP apps, on the other hand, have an almost endless supply of offers to exchange currency for downloadable content, “lives”, “coins” or other virtual (but financially worthless) tchotchkes to help you progress within the app (game). While the apps may have a cap on how much can be spent over time, many offer ridiculously expensive IAP items that can be repeatedly purchased, ideal for targeting and manipulating impressionable individuals. These are the IAP titles that we’ve all heard about, where people of all ages get duped into paying real dollars, without realizing how big the financial hole is that they’ve created for themselves. Many of these simulated gaming titles offer IAP items up to US$99!

I have two problems with “simulated gambling” apps in the store. In reverse priority order:

  1. They might be violating numerous gaming laws around the world
  2. They are preying upon people, including those dealing with real-world gambling addiction problems.

As a general rule, Apple’s guidelines on apps that include gambling state:

“Apps that offer real money gaming (e.g. sports betting, poker, casino games, horse racing) or lotteries must have necessary licensing and permissions in the locations where the App is used, must be restricted to those locations, and must be free on the App Store.”

and

“Apps that use IAP to purchase credit or currency to use in conjunction with real money gaming will be rejected”

So “gaming” apps like simulated slot machines are in an interesting wedge. They ride a fine line, seemingly all following the first guideline, and making themselves free for download, but with the opportunity for the consumer to bleed out significant cash through bottomless IAP. They can’t ever convert any winnings in the app to actual real-world winnings, or arguably they’d violate the second term.

Now here’s where things get interesting. Let’s take a look at that first term more closely. These apps are supposed to be licensed according to the location where they are used. This is a distinct problem to me. Though these are “simulated gaming”, I believe that since they are simulated slot machines (among other categories of gambling available in the App Store), they should follow the jurisdiction where they are used.

Thing is, there are very specific rules in many jurisdictions on what the payout must be for a given device used for a given category of game. For example, on the Las Vegas strip on the percentage of cash that must be paid out to gamblers, which ranges from 88.06% (penny slots) to 93.69% (US$1 slots). Arguably, the old line that “the house always wins” isn’t completely true. But statistically, it isn’t going to be you, either.

But these games are all “simulated”. There is literally no opportunity for payout. Any winnings are generally returned as an opportunity to play again. There are no winnings. None. Arguably, by being a “simulation”, these titles do not need to abide by payout terms within the locales they are being used. But as they aren’t real gaming, I personally feel Apple should reconsider having this category of title in the store at all.

Gambling addiction is a real thing. People get sucked in by the lure of easy money, and can quickly lose more than they had to begin with. The National Council on Problem Gambling has an interesting survey, the 2013 National Survey of Problem Gambling Services discusses how much money is spent on gambling addiction services across the U.S. The App Store lets consumers link credit cards to IAP. By offering bottomless IAP, these titles are effectively allowed to shake out the wallets of vulnerable consumers to an extent they cannot financially bear.

The problem with these “games”, is that they play upon the same emotions as real slot machines, luring the consumer into wasting untold dollars on a game that is completely unwinnable, financially. To quote the movie WarGames, “The only winning move is not to play.”

My contention is that if games offering simulated gambling must be allowed on the App Store at all, they should not be allowed to offer bottomless IAP, or perhaps even offer IAP at all. Take a look at this game review from a user of top-tier “simulated slot” game Slotomania from Playtika Games (A division of Caesars Interactive Entertainment):

Slotomania

That makes me so sad. These games offer no redeeming value (literally). From Playtika’s own Terms of Service (linked incorrectly within their App Store entry, by the way):

“The Service may include an opportunity to purchase virtual, in-game currency (“Coins”) that may require you to pay a fee using real money to obtain the Coins. Coins can never be redeemed for real money, goods, or any other item of monetary value from Playtika or any other party. You understand that you have no right or title in the virtual in-game items, spins or Coins.”

These titles are all about killing time while burning your wallet at the same time. They’re all about taking money from the easily impressionable – youth, adults, retirees… across the board. When I posted on Twitter about simulated gambling, a follower of mine replied back with the following:

“grandma uses her iPad 2 almost exclusively for slot apps. :*(“

If Apple is going to hold up the App Store as a family friendly place for commerce, with reasonable consumer protections, I think they need to re-examine what role, if any, simulated gambling apps with IAP are allowed to play there.


27
Sep 15

The Apple Watch is perfect. On paper.

This week, I’m doing something that I don’t remember ever actually doing before. I’m taking back an Apple device, for a refund.

After spending less than a week with the Apple Watch, I have to say, I’m disappointed. A bit in the device. But more in Apple. The software is simply not done. Perhaps it’s my use of a 5s as the host device for it. Perhaps my expectations are too high. Perhaps I’m right, that it’s not ready for prime time. Regardless, it’s definitely not worth the price of entry in the device’s current condition. As Nilay Patel said, “If you’ll like toys, you’ll like it.

As I checked out at a grocery this week, and performed my first Apple Pay transaction, the  following interchange happened between the cashier and myself:

Her: “Ooh. Is that it (the Watch)?”

Me: “Yes.”

Her: “How do you like it?”

Me: “It’s okay. I’ve only had it for about a day.”

Her: “What can it do?”

Me: <silence/>

I hesitated, struggling to really list out the things that the Watch could do that were relevant to me. It was in that moment that I think I switched from “I think I’ll return it.” to “I’m going to return it.” I understand that apparently most normals are quite happy with their Watches, and that only technophiles (if you can still call me that) like myself found all the foibles in the way the device works.

The Watch isn’t without positive attributes. I just don’t feel that they outweigh the negatives.

What’s good:

  • As a bauble, it is gorgeous. I bought the stainless Watch, with the new, more traditional Saddle Brown Classic Buckle. As a piece of jewelry, I think it looks really good. (Although my 14YO would tell you that my free opinions on style are worth what you pay me for them.)
  • As a watch, it’s pretty good. I mean, it keeps time, and the interchangeable faces are fun for a bit.
  • Given the space, the user interface works pretty well.
  • When it all works, there are some neat conveniences that you can’t do (or can’t do as easily) with an iPhone. Apple Pay and other Wallet (nee Passbook) features on your wrist are handy. But not “OMG!” useful.
  • There’s a pretty amazing supply of Apple Watch apps that already exist. (See caveat to this, below.)

I was really hoping I could come up with some more positive aspects here. But honestly, I’ve run out already.

So… what’s bad about Apple Watch? In no explicit order:

  • It is very expensive, for what it does. My mind boggles that Apple has sold any of the Watch Edition models.
  • Updating sucked. It took over an hour and a half to install the 500MB update from my iPhone. That is inexcusable.
  • It’s heavy. I’ve got tiny T-rex arms, but the weight of the Watch on my ulnar styloid (the bump of bone on the outside of your wrists) was painful after only a few minutes.
  • It’s slow. In tandem with my 5s, there are far too many beach balls waiting for apps to launch. This may get better over time as apps are updated for the new version of the OS. But I fear that it may be indicative of the real resource constraints on such a small device. Time will tell.
  • I had hope that Watch would make my Phone better. That is, it would add utility to my phone. Instead, because of the app model, it made my phone’s battery life horrible.
  • The version of the SpringBoard shell used by the Apple watch is atrocious. I have small fingers, so don’t have much trouble selecting apps. But the UI of the Watch comes the closest to being the “sea of icons” on iOS that Microsoft derided for so long. Doing anything rapidly on the watch with this UI is… complicated.
  • Too many app developers don’t seem to understand what the Watch is, and is not, ideal for. I guess that’s both a good and bad thing. But to the caveat I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of apps for the Watch – many of which aren’t even on Windows Phone. But there’s a lot of crap – it seems many developers are lost in the wilderness.
  • It shows every single fingerprint you place on the face.
  • The packaging for the Apple Watch is… overwhelming. There’s plastic on plastic on plastic. Wrapping device subcomponents in one-time use plastic is horrifically wasteful.

The former product manager (and former development manager) in me sees how we arrived at this point. The Apple Watch team was established long ago, and started on their project. At one point, pressure from above, from outside, from investors, who knows… forced Apple to push up a launch date. The hardware was reasonably ready. But the software was a hot mess.

Traditionally, Apple excelled when they discarded features that weren’t ready, even if competitors already did them in a half-assed way – winning over consumers by delivering those features later when they’re actually ready. Unfortunately, you often get a product manager in the mix that pushes for a feature, even if it can’t really be implemented well or reliably. The Apple Watch feels like this. It offers a mix of checkbox features that, yes, you can argue, kind of work. But they don’t have the finish that they should. The software doesn’t respect the hardware. In fact, it’s giving a middle finger to the hardware. Even WatchOS 2 fails to deliver adequate finish. The list of features that the Watch promises sound nifty. But actually living with the Watch is disappointing. It isn’t what it should be, given the Apple brand on the outside. I expect better from Apple. Maybe next time.


22
Sep 15

You have the right… to reverse engineer

This NYTimes article about the VW diesel issue and the DMCA made me think about how, 10 years ago next month, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) almost kept Mark Russinovich from disclosing the Sony BMG Rootkit. While the DMCA provides exceptions for reporting security vulnerabilities, it does nothing to allow for reporting breaches of… integrity.

I believe that we need to consider an expansion of how researchers are permitted to, without question, reverse engineer certain systems. While entities need a level of protection in terms of their copyright and their ability to protect their IP, VW’s behavior highlights the risks to all of us when of commercial entities can ship black box code and ensure nobody can question it – technically or legally.

In October of 2005, Mark learned that a putting a particular Sony BMG CD in a Windows computer would result in it installing a rootkit. Simplistically, a rootkit is a piece of software – usually installed by malicious individuals – that sits at a low level within the operating system and returns forged results when a piece of software at a higher level asks the operating system to perform an action. Rootkits are usually put in place to allow malware to hide. In this case, the rootkit was being put in place to prevent CDs from being copied. Basically, a lame attempt at digital rights management (DRM) gone too far.

In late October, Mark researched this, and prepped a blog post outlining what was going on. We talked at length, as he was concerned that his debugging and disclosure of the rootkit might violate the DMCA, a piece of legislation put in place to protect copyrights and prevent reverse engineering of DRM software, among other things. So in essence, to stop exactly what Mark had done. I read over the DMCA several times during the last week of October, and although I’m not a lawyer, I was pretty satisfied that Mark’s actions fit smack dab within the part of the DMCA that was placed there to enable security professionals to diagnose and report security holes. The rootkit that Sony BMG had used to “protect” their CD media had several issues in it, and was indeed creating security holes that were endangering the integrity of Windows systems where the software had unwittingly been installed.

Mark decided to go ahead and publish the blog post announcing the rootkit on October 31, 2005 – Halloween. Within 48 hours, Mark was being pulled in on television interviews, quoted in major press publications, and was repeatedly a headline on Slashdot, the open-source focused news site over the next several months – an interesting occurrence for someone who had spent almost his entire career in the Windows realm.

The Sony BMG disclosure was very important – but it almost never happened. Exceptions that allow reverse engineering are great. But security isn’t the only kind of integrity that researchers need to diagnose today. I don’t think we should tolerate laws that keep researchers from ensuring our systems are secure, and that they operate the way that we’ve been told they do.


07
Sep 15

How I learned to stop worrying and love the cloud

For years, companies have regularly asked me for my opinion on using cloud-based services. For the longest time, my response was one about, “You should investigate what types of services might fit best for your business,” followed by a selection of caveats reminding them about privacy, risk, and compliance, since their information will be stored off-premises.

But I’ve decided to change my tune.

Beginning now, I’m going to simply start telling them to use cloud where it makes sense, but use the same procedures for privacy, risk, and compliance that they use on-premises.

See what I did there?

The problem is that we’ve treated hosted services (née cloud) as something distinctly different from the way we do things on-premises. But… is it really? Should it be?

It’s hard to find a company today that doesn’t do some form of outsourcing. You’re trusting people who don’t work “for” you with some of your company’s key secrets. Every company I can think of does it. If you don’t want to trust a contract-based employee with your secrets, you don’t give them access, right? Deny them access to your network, key server, or files shares (or SharePoint servers<ahem/>). Protect documents with things like Azure Rights Management. Encrypt data that needs to be protected.

These are all things that you should have been doing anyway, even before you might have had any of your data or operations off-premises. If you had contract/contingent staff, those systems should have been properly secured in order to avoid <ahem/> an overzealous admin (see link above) from liberating information that they shouldn’t really have access to. Microsoft and Amazon (and to a lesser extent at this point), have been putting a lot of effort into securing your data while it lives within their clouds, and that’s going to continue over the next 2-5 years, to the point where, honestly, with a little investment in tech and process – and likely a handful of new subscription services that you won’t be able to leave – you’ll be able to secure data better than you can in your infrastructure today.

Yeah. I said it.

A lot of orgs talk big about how awesome their on-premises infrastructure is, and how uncompromisingly secure it is. And that’s nice. Some of them are right. Many of them aren’t. In the end, in addition to systems and employees you can name, you’re probably relying on a human element of contractors, vendors, part-time employees, “air-gapped” systems that really aren’t, sketchy apps that should have been retired years ago, and security software that promised the world, but that can’t really even secure a tupperware container. We assume that cloud is something distinctly different from on-premises outsourcing of labor. But it isn’t really that different. The only difference is that today, unsecured (or unsecurable) data may have to leave your premises. That will improve over time, if you work at it. The perimeter, like that of smart phones has since 2007, will allow you to secure data flow between systems you own, and on systems you own – whether those live on physical hardware in your datacenter, or in AWS or Azure. But it means recognizing this perimeter shift – and working to reinforce that new perimeter in terms of security and auditing.

Today, we tend to fear cloud because it is foreign. It’s not what we’re all used to. Yet. Within the next 10 years, that will change. It probably already has changed within the periphery (aka the rogue edges) or your organization today. Current technology lets users deploy “personal cloud” tools, whether business intelligence, synchronization, desktop access, and more – without letting you have veto power, unless you own and audit the entirety of your network (and any telecom access), and admin access to all PCs. And you don’t.

The future involves IT being proactive about providing cloud access ahead of rogue users. Deciding where to be more liberal about access to tools than orgs are used to, and being able to secure perimeters that you may not even be aware of. Otherwise, you get to be dragged along on the choose your own adventure that your employees decide on for you.


21
Aug 15

The curse of the second mover

When I lived in Alaska, there was an obnoxious shirt that I used to see all the time, with a group of sled dogs pictured on it. The cutesy saying on it was, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” While driving home last night and considering multiple tech marketplaces today, it came to mind.

Consider the following. If you were:

  1. Building an application for phones and tablets today, whose OS would you build it for first?
  2. Building a peripheral device for smartphones, what device platform would you build it for?
  3. Selling music today, whose digital music store would you make sure it was in first?
  4. Selling a movie today, whose digital video store would you make sure it was in first?
  5. Publishing a book, whose digital book store would you make sure it was in first?

Unless you’ve got a lot of time or money on your hands, and feel like dealing with the bureaucracy of multiple stores, the answer to all of the above is going to be exactly the same.

Except that last one.

If you’re building apps, smartphone peripherals, or selling music or movies, you’re probably building for Apple first. If you’re publishing or self-publishing a book, you’re probably going to Amazon first. One could argue that you might go to Amazon with music or a movie – but I’m not sure that’s true – at least if you wanted to actually sell full-fare copies vs. getting them placed on Prime Music/Prime Instant Video.

In the list above, that doesn’t tell a great tale for second movers. If you’re building a marketplace, you’ve got to offer some form of exceptional value over Apple (or Amazon for 5) in order to dethrone them. You’ve also got to offer something to consumers to get them to use your technology, and content purveyors/device manufacturers to get them to invest in your platform(s).

For the first three, Apple won those markets through pure first mover advantage.

The early arrival of the iPhone and iOS, and the premium buyers who purchase them, ensure that 1 & 2 will be answered “Apple”. The early arrival of the iPod, iTunes, and “Steve’s compromise”, allowing iTunes on Windows – as horrible as the software was/is – ensures that iTunes Music is still the answer to 3.

Video is a squishy one – as the market is meandering between streaming content (Netflix/Hulu), over-the-top (OTT) video services like Amazon Instant Video, MLB At Bat, HBO Now, etc., and direct purchase video like iTunes or Google Play. But the wide availability of Apple TV devices, entrenchment of iTunes in the life of lots of music consumers, and disposable income mean that a video content purveyor is highly likely to hit iTunes first – as we often see happen with movies today.

The last one is the most interesting though.

If we look at eBooks, something interesting happened. Amazon wasn’t the first mover – not by a long shot. Microsoft made their Reader software available back in 2000. But their device strategy wasn’t harmonized with the ideas from the team building the software. It was all based around using your desktop (ew), chunky laptop (eventually chunky tablet), or Windows Pocket PC device for reading. Basically, it was trying to sell eBooks as a way to read content on Windows, not really trying to sell eBooks themselves. Amazon revealed their first Kindle in 2007. (This was the first in a line of devices that I personally loathe, because of the screen quality and flicker when you change pages.) Apple revealed the iPad, and rapidly launched iBooks in 2010, eventually taking it to the iPhone and OS X. But the first two generations of iPad were expensive, chunky device to try and read on, and iBooks not being available on the iPhone and OS X didn’t help. (Microsoft finally put down the Reader products in 2012, just ahead of the arrival of the best Windows tablets…<sigh/>) So even though Apple has a strong device story today, and a strong content play in so many other areas, they are (at least) the second fiddle in eBooks. They tout strong numbers of active iBooks users… but since every user of iOS and OS X can be an iBooks users, numbers mean little without book sales numbers behind them. Although Amazon’s value driven marketplace may not be the healthiest place for authors to publish their wares, it appears to be the number one place by far, without much potential for it to be displaced anytime soon.

If your platform isn’t in the leader for a specific type of content, pulling ahead from second place is going to be quite difficult, unless you’ve somehow found some silver bullet. If you’re in third, you have an incredible battle ahead.