Is Apple’s one-size-fits-all approach starting to fail?

My mother-in-law cracked me up when she asked “What’s the matter with Apple, how come they only make things in one or two sizes?” She’s as non-techie as they come and I think she nailed an important point. I’ve joked about this with friends and colleagues and even mocked about it in presentations. Yet, ever since the Apple September 10th announcement I’ve been wondering: can Apple innovate enough to stay a true technological leader, or are they starting to enter an era of simply copying others and wrapping ‘improvements’ under a luxury brand umbrella? I’m leaning towards to latter. After seeing Tim Cook’s presentation on September 10th, my opinion has started to solidify even more.

Factoid: Everyone will agree, for better or for worse, we are in an era of choice. Look at the variety of Androids. Think about the sheer number of cable and satellite TV channels, the variety of TV shows aimed at a dizzying variety of demographics, music has splintered from the days of major rock bands into hundreds of niche, self published indie groups.  Satellite radio. Most major car manufacturers now have dozens of car models and many of them you can significantly customize. And, even grocery stores now have a ridiculous number of choices for a lot of items that use to only have several manufacturers or producers.

So, what about Apple?

Apple has so far resisted playing to the status quo set by IBM, Microsoft and now Android of allowing endless variations of their products to fit a variety of needs and wants. It wasn’t that long ago, for example, that Dell Computer was a leader in selling desktop and laptop computers. That era has passed and I don’t believe Apple wants to follow in these giants footsteps. Perhaps there is some sort of evolutionary cycle that these leading public tech companies follow, like natural boom and bust cycles that we see in economics, neighborhoods, cities and world economies that Apple won’t be able to escape.

This leads me right back to the September 10th announcement.  Apple seems to have entered an era of incremental improvements in hardware and software: new colors (big whoop), finger print reader (Moto Atrix had that) and faster hardware.  But, the biggest pressure I think they’ll start facing is they are now behind the curve in allowing people to have choices. Real choices…not just new colors for custom cases made of soft silicon rubber. Choices are the way they world is headed right now. Case in point, how long have iPhones had 4-inch screens? How many tens of millions of larger Android screen phones have been sold? Can Apple simply ignore this and stick to their one-size-fits-all guns if the board of directors starts seeing missed opportunities and potentially lower sales?

Android, in comparison to iOS, has more varieties of sizes, manufacturers, shapes and colors than there are grapes for making wine. Buying an Android is like shopping for clothes at any mainstream department store. In addition to a bijillion patterns and colors, you have sizes like XS, SM, M, L, XL, XXL, etc. And then there is relaxed fit, straight fit and athletic fit along with different collar sizes.  This is brilliant from a consumer standpoint, and yes it’s a nightmare for application developers and IT shops that support them. But, developers and IT folks only represent a small fraction of an enormous world-wide porous marketplace full of more consumers, cultures and tastes than perhaps existed in history.

Buying a Mac is like walking into a top-notch art gallery. As you glide along into the next majestic room, shuffling your feet in hushed respect you can hear the mac genius say in an elegant foreign accent, “…and here on this masterfully carved solid white marble pedestal, fabulously embellished with an aluminum case and crystal clear retina view screen, and protected from theft by 12 visible and hidden security features is, ladies and gentlemen…the (audience gasps) Apple Macbook Pro.”

But, at some point even art galleries change up their exhibits as people’s tastes and interests change.  Even galleries have to innovate to stay ahead of the times. Can Apple change? Can Apple adapt to a new era of endless choices? Can Apple reinvent itself?

Mac vs PC: A developers perspective

I’ve been a PC person since the beginning of time, and I recently decided to switch to a Macbook Pro.  I’ve gotten questions recently from folks about how I like it. So, this post summarizes some of my thoughts and discussions on the Mac vs PC debate reframed into a software developer perspective – and without all the hype. I think it’s safe to say I’m a power user and my needs go well beyond a typical consumer. So my ratings reflect that mind set.

Chassis: Rating A++++

While this has nothing to do with functionality, per se, and everything to do with aesthetics I’ve never had a more beautifully built ‘machine’. The brushed aluminum looks great and the device feels rock solid. It doesn’t creak like old wooden stairs when you hold it like a dinner platter while carrying it from meeting to meeting. The construction of Windows laptops I’ve used, and some of them were considered top-of-the-line, mostly pale in comparison. It’s like comparing a brand new Porsche fresh off the factory line with all it’s power and state-of-the-art construction to my beloved but campy ’95 Camry.

Speed: Rating A

I have had this discussion with a number of colleagues. The speed from the Macbook Pro comes mainly from the SSD (Solid State Drive). I’ve seen Windows laptops with SSDs perform just as admirably when doing CPU intensive work such as large software builds.

Screen: Rating A++++

The screen on the Macbook Pro is…wow. In all fairness there are some really awesome screens on the latest generation of Windows machines too.

Easy of Use: Rating B

Now’s were things get controversial. Let me explain. I believe that Mac’s are just as easy to use for the 80% of things most every-day consumers use them for as Windows machines. But, remember I’m a power user. So, once you step off the cliff into the 20% of things that aren’t intuitive I think Windows machines are much easier to manage because it’s more GUI oriented. Let me give you an example.

Setting up Apache, creating virtual directories and ongoing management of the web server for newbies isn’t exactly intuitive. I’m not talking about cobbling together the pieces needed to host simple HTML web pages; I’m talking about hardcore web server abuse. Granted my bash skills have gotten rusty after years of using Windows, and yes some things are very easy to quickly do in a terminal window, but having lots of GUI interfaces are nice when you are feeling lazy. Some days you just don’t feel like recalling complex and arcane sequences to manipulate your github account. Case in point for GUIs, I’d say compare the easy-of-use of SourceTree to using the command line when doing intermediate to advanced github manipulation. When I started using my Mac I would have loved to have something similar to IIS for manipulating Apache.

Stability: Rating A-

I do want to point out that my Mac has locked up and I’ve had other miscellaneous hiccups with various parts of the operating system that required a reboot or a force quit. Some applications have given me fits for example, I’ve had to manually kill off Charles debugging proxy quite a few times when it went hog wild and chewed up vast chunks of my available CPU. Having used numerous Windows laptops and untold number of Windows-based applications, I haven’t seen anything like that in years. Granted these issues on my Mac have been few and far between, but they did happen…and it got my attention.

Attaching to other devices: A+

The bane of Windows was trying to connect to various devices and finding the right device driver from various manufactures is always lots of fun. Connecting to smartphones has never been easier for me than on my Mac. The only trouble I ever had was connecting to a network printer. That turned out to be counter-intuitive to a newbie and took several calls to tech support and two days to figure out. I’d say connecting to network printers, which is a common task in the typical work environment, is much easier with Windows.

Using with Corporate Software: C

This experience hasn’t been so great overall. Using a Mac on a PC-based network has its challenges, such as connecting to network printers. I’ve also noticed that the Mac versions of PC software typically have less functionality. I don’t know why this is the case. For example, for some strange reason the Mac version of PowerPoint has less functionality for drawing shapes, and it has a very limited selection of built-in clip art. Go figure. Why do I use PowerPoint? Because sometimes you have to collaborate on presentations with folks who use Windows machines, or maybe you have to share your presentation and the vast majority of users have Windows machines.

Battery Life: Rating A

I seriously debated with myself on including this. It’s so subjective but it always, always comes up in conversations. At what I’d consider a medium level of CPU usage, I can eke out about 4’ish hours of battery life. There, I said it. What I mean by medium level of usage is doing build after build using an IDE, or doing numerous intensive page refreshes while banging out a web app as opposed to hanging out and doing general internet surfing or using a Word processor.

But, to be honest it’s rare these days during anyone’s normal, everyday routine that you aren’t within close proximity to a power outlet. You can even get power adapters for use in your own car if you want. The exceptions are when you travel and then power can get scarce at some Airports, certain conferences, some particularly crowed coffee shops, and certain types of public transportation. Some airlines have graciously even gone to providing 110V outlets. I mean, short of those exceptions I rarely have need to exercise the full life of my laptops battery prowess.

Noise level: Rating A+

I’ll end this post on talking about fan noise. 99% of the time my Mac doesn’t emit any sounds other than the tappity-click-clack of my poking at the keyboard. I love it. All my other Windows laptops have had fans that often were noisy enough to make it hard to hear during meetings. I remember being shushed a couple of times during particularly intense meetings when the virus checker kicked off and caused the CPU to generate enough heat that the associated fan level noise exceeded that of an F-18 in full afterburner. The only time my Mac’s fan starts to get noticeable is when something I’m doing continuously drives the CPU past 30% for an extended period of time. Examples of this include video conference calls and some video based web pages.


There are certainly many more things I could discuss, but I felt these were the highlights. Overall my Macbook Pro has been a very nice machine and I’ll give it an A rating. It’s the nicest looking laptop I’ve ever used. But looks aside, it has proven to be a fairly stable and fast performer. Access to everyday functionality is easy enough to figure out. As a newbie Mac power user, some of the advanced settings are counter intuitive and some seem needlessly arcane. I’m glad I’ve been able to actually try out a Mac after all these years of hearing about them.

Review of the iPad 3 by an Android fanboy

These are my impressions of the iPad 3. I think it’s officially called the iPad with Retina Display and mine is Model MC733LL. Those who work with me know I’m, shall we say, impartial to Apple’s products. Prior to several months ago, I’ve never used an iPad other than giving a couple demos here and there. Now I have one that I’ve been using one somewhat extensively. So, I thought it would be fun to do a write-up and rate what I see as the key characteristics to me, as a consumer. Full disclosure: I am a strong user (and software developer) of Android-based products even with all their warts and inconsistencies, and this is also the first time I’ve rated a tablet. 

  1. Criteria: Native browser performance. Rating: 2.5 (out of 5) I’ve come to expect mobile web browsers to be snappy. The iPad 3 browser in my opinion is not speedy even with its dual-core A5X with quad-core graphics. I’m comparing this to my recent experience with the latest generation Android phones such as the Samsung Galaxy III S. If you don’t believe me on this rating, simply try visiting just about any image laden news site on an iPad 3. For example, I read a lot of NBA-related web pages and I’m usually one full paragraph into my reading before the article’s main image has finished loading. The page also typically jumps up and down as it loads making it hard to read, and forcing me to scroll up and down, until the page is fully loaded. And perhaps related to the poor browser performance, I thought the transitions between applications seem a bit sluggish. It’s not clear if this is a design aspect of the software, or because the hardware is chugging hard behind the scenes. Either way, whether the hardware or the browser I always felt like things were lagging just enough to be noticeable and slightly annoying.
  2. Criteria: Screen. Rating: 5 (out of 5) I like to be able to use the device in full sunlight as well as in darkened conference halls. iPad shines on all fronts. I can’t speak to previous models of iPad but version number three does an awesome job. I’m not even going to say much about the 2048×1536 (264ppi) HD screen quality other than to say it’s outstanding. Besides, most of you reading this already knew that.
  3. Criteria: Battery life. Rating: 4.5 (out of 5) Now this will vary for everyone based on “how” you use it. With my usage patterns of brief but intense sessions lasting four to five minutes three or four times a day using WiFi, the battery can last up to a week. Using cellular it unscientifically seems to last about 1/3 less. It’s easy to make a comparison against my Android phone which barely lasts 8 hours under similar conditions.
  4. Criteria: Weight. Rating: 4 (out of 5) The iPad I’m using has both WiFi and cellular. With the cover and according my to home digital scale it weighs in at one pound twelve ounces (793.79g). My guess is that the majority of the weight is taken up by the battery. Certainly that’s much lighter than my hulking laptop. However, if you plan to use it for anything lengthy such as using the eReader while sitting on a plane, then your arms can get pretty tired if you feel the urge to bring it closer to your eyes. If you want to recline while using it you’re better off either using your phone or getting a dedicated ultra-light eReader.
  5. Criteria: Charging time. Rating: 2.5 (out of 5) I expected the 10 Watt iPad charger to work significantly faster, but it usually takes hours to get a full charge when the battery is nearly empty. I can’t expect to slap on the charger and get a quick juice up with this device. It’s going to sit on the charger for at least a few hours if I want it to comfortably last any significant amount of time. I suspect the slow charging time is because Apple wanted to have a small, stylish (and less amperage) charger even though the iPad’s battery is huge. I can’t imagine Apple using something like the large laptop charger bricks on something as elegant as the iPad. The tradeoff is slooow charging times.
  6. Criteria: Look and feel. Rating: 4.9 (out of 5) We all know Apple does an amazing job with this. There’s no argument with this fact. You end up with essentially a piece of art. However, I only give it a 4.9 because with artistic license also comes compromises on maintainability. For example, you’ll (gasp!) never see a battery door on an iPad. Apple assumes that clutters the design or you’ll simply upgrade your device before or after the battery wears out. Apple has conditioned users that your battery should be an afterthought. Should the battery ever wear out you simply drop it off at the dealership and pay to get it fixed. Sniff. Sniff.
  7. Criteria: Finger-print resistance Rating: 5 (out of 5) The oleophobic coating does an outstanding job of this. In regular lighting I rarely noticed fingerprints. Under dim lighting I could occasionally see smudges that blurred the screen a tiny bit. I’ve noticed that the latest generation of glass and glass coatings on both iPad and Android really minimized the effects of finger smudges when the device is on. Now, the screen may still look like it was handled by a class full of sticky fingered kindergartners when the screen is off, but what really matters is what it looks like when it’s turned on.
  8. Criteria: Camera Rating: 3 (out of 5) I really struggled about including this because short of scientific analysis, everyone uses the camera differently. The camera on this device is simply okay. If picture size and resolution is your thing, it’s at least 3 mega-pixels fewer than the most advanced smartphones. It doesn’t have a flash so short range low light pictures are challenging. And, simply because of its size most of my use cases are work related. I wouldn’t take it to a basketball game and hold it up to take pictures. Besides the people behind me might just take it away from me if I did it often enough because it blocks their view and it looks dorky when you do it.
  9. Criteria: On screen keypad Rating: 4.5 (out of 5) Possibly because of its size of the buttons, the space separating them and my hand size makes it so I find typing on the iPad easy. The “.com” key is perfect for saving a few extra key strokes although there are many more legal aliases these days such as “.net”. I give it a 4.5 because the caps lock is not intuitive and the letters on the keys are always displayed as capital letters. This is confusing because I expected the letters to be lower case when not it caps lock mode and you have to rely on whether or not the arrow inside the caps lock button is blue or not.
  10. Criteria: SD Card compatible Rating: 2 (out of 5) Ah perhaps I saved the most controversial for last as the move to the cloud has many people gushing about how easy their data storage needs are. However, there are some use cases where SD Cards make things so much easier. For example, if you ever want to augment the on-device storage you are outta’ luck. If you ever have a need to simply want to hand over your data on a thumb-nail size SD Card to a friend or colleague then you will have to take a few extra steps and use someone’s laptop to pass the data over. If you have a need to work off-line with large data sets you’ll have to manually load them up onto the iPad before going off-line. Because of these use cases and the inconvenience and time associated with the extra steps I’m down rating this criteria to a 2. You can sort of work around this limitation otherwise I would have given this a big fat zero.

And with that I get an average rating of 3.79 out of 5. This seems to be a decent number even though it’s not  drop dead amazing. The iPad obviously works just fine for the majority of consumer use cases and does it an okay job within its limitations, or you work around them as I suspect most people do and just ignore the hassle. And like all electronic and mechanical devices it could always use some improvements that we can look forward to in future releases.

So this is all and well, but as I’ve mentioned before what I’d really like to see now is some revolutionary improvements in tablets and smartphones. I believe we’ve reached the current level of major innovations for a while and it will be some time, perhaps years, before we see the next big leap in capabilities such as vastly improved battery life. Until then we will need to be happy with the incremental improvements and listening to TV ads espousing some new minor feature that makes that device the one to buy now.