Nov 172014
 
apple-pay-screens

Has Apple Pay legitimised mobile payments? It appears so, reports the New York Times. Since the launch of Apple’s payments service, Google and other mobile payment providers are claiming usage has doubled with customers exploring the systems.

If this is true, it’s similar to how Apple legitimised the USB port in 1998 with the release of the iMac.

Prior to the iMac the USB port was a bit of an oddity, on most PCs the sockets sat unused and the few devices available on Windows computers worked reliably, as Bill Gates himself found out during a live demonstration at the 1998 Comdex show.

Unlike Apple Pay, the move to USB on Macs wasn’t welcome and it was a high stakes decision by Steve Jobs given that Apple’s existence was still precarious and its user base was still made up of largely of true believers who had been through years in the wilderness with the company.

Those users also had many thousands of dollars invested in Apple Device Bus (ADB) devices, all of which became redundant with the move to USB. Many customers at the time swore this was the last straw and they would move to Windows PCs.

Apple’s users didn’t carry out their threats and stayed with the company whose move to USB turned out to be a winner for the entire computer industry.

For Apple USB’s success meant their customers were no longer locked into a proprietary technology, for manufacturers they were able to start moving off archaic serial and parallel ports while for Microsoft the shift meant a better range of more reliable devices — although their operating systems struggled with USB until the release of the far more stable Windows XP.

It appears in this respect Apple Pay is repeating history in giving a boost to a technology that has been struggling to find traction in the market place.

The difference this time is that the payments industry is a far bigger market with far more implications for the broader economy than the computer peripherals segment.

If Apple raise the boat on payment systems, there are some incumbent businesses who are going to find themselves in a very different marketplace in five years time.

Oct 162014
 
using an iPad and the cloud for a point of sale cash register

Ahead of tomorrow’s announcements by Apple, the strategic leaks are happening fast on both the next version of the iPad and Google’s Nexus appearing in the media today.

The problem for tablet manufacturers is that sales have stagnated in recent times with the products no longer flying off the shelves.

Part of the reason for this is customers are happy with their existing products; a three year old tablet will do most of things a brand new one will do so there’s little reason for upgrading.

For vendors like Apple and Google it’s further proof that the PC industry model of three year upgrades is firmly dead, the sector will need something more than planned obsolescence to drive growth.

Sep 282014
 
windows-surface-at-microsoft-store

On Tuesday Microsoft are expected to announce their new Windows 9 operating system at a media event in San Francisco.

If the rumours are true, then the new system will be launched almost exactly two years after Windows 8 was released amid hopes that it would stem the PC industry’s decline.

Windows 8 didn’t deliver with most people being frustrated with the system’s inconsistent interface that tried to be unified desktop, laptop and tablet operating system which managed to be unsatisfactory on all of them.

As a consequence, users avoided Windows 8 like the plague with industry analysts Netmarketshare claiming most of Microsoft’s customers are buying systems kitted out with Windows 7 or just sticking with decade old Windows XP systems.

Courtesy of Netmarketshare http://www.netmarketshare.com

Courtesy of Netmarketshare http://www.netmarketshare.com

Making matters worse for Microsoft is the decline in personal computer sales in general with IDC estimating global shipments of both portable and desktop system will drop 3.8% in 2014.

These declines are already well established in the trends being seen in Microsoft’s business with the company’s Windows division showing an accelerating decline in profit margins.

Microsoft Windows division financial performance

Microsoft Windows division financial performance ($ million)

Should that decline continue with Windows 9, it may well be that Microsoft will have to consider the future of product.

As it is, the market may be deciding for them as users increasingly switch to tablets and smartphones. We may also see a wave of cheap Chinese made laptops running versions of Google Chrome or other Linux based systems also threatening the existing PC sales base.

Either way, a lot rides on what Microsoft announces in San Francisco this week. It could be the end of an era that defined the mass adoption of computers.

Sep 282014
 
lenovo-yoga-2-pro-in-laptop-mode

Can a laptop be a tablet computer? The Lenovo Yoga Pro 2 tries to balance the needs of both in a package designed for home and small business users.

The laptop computer market is in a difficult place at the moment as both consumers and businesses move to tablets and smartphones so it’s interesting to get hold of the Lenovo Yoga Pro 2 to see how one of the leading portable manufacturers is responding to the changing industry.

One of the best ways of testing a portable device is to take it on a long trip, so a couple of 14 hour transpacific flights and trips around San Francisco, the Napa Valley and Silicon Valley proved a good workout for the Yoga Pro.

As a laptop

From a hardware perspective the Yoga is an impressive device with 8Gb of RAM, 256Gb solid state hard drive and a 1.8GHz i7 chip. The screen is a very nice 13.3″ 3200 x 1800 high-resolution display.

Rounding out the hardware specs are two USB ports — one 3.0 and the other 2.0 — along with a Micro HDMI output, webcam, inbuilt mic, headphone jack and an SD Card reader. All the basics expected in a mid range ultrabook that weighs in at a respectable 1.4kg.

lenovo-yoga-2-pro-in-laptop-mode-on-desktop

In using the Yoga as a laptop, the device works well with the keys being crisp and responsive although the position of the glidepad and the backspace key being alongside the home key caused problems for this clumsy touch typist.

One of the problems with the larger form of ultrabooks is their usability when travelling economy on a plane; if the passenger in front of you reclines then it becomes difficult to use the device. This isn’t a problem specific to the Lenovo Yoga, but it is a drawback that the industry seems not to have considered in its move to the larger screens.

In the office

If you’re not travelling on planes, the weight and form factor works well and makes the Yoga 2 Pro a nice device to use while on the move. In an office environment it’s a standard mid to upper range laptop with good fast specifications.

For battery life, Lenovo claim “up to nine hours” for the Yoga Pro but in practice standard office use sees about five hours worth of juice with a full recharge taking under an hour. It’s lucky most transpacific flights now have power sockets.

Flipping to a tablet

While 1.4kg is good for a laptop it’s lousy for a tablet computer with the Yoga Pro 2 weighing in a kilo heavier than the iPad and 500g (one pound) heavier than the Microsoft Surface Pro. This makes it awkward to use over extended periods and the keyboard doesn’t feel right as the backing to a tablet.

lenovo-yoga-2-pro-in-tablet-mode

The Yoga’s weight problem illustrates the core conflict for a device that wants to be a laptop and a tablet as the different demands for each type of device make if difficult for designers to meet both markets.

In the Yoga 2 Pro’s design, it’s clear the engineers had to make a choice between compromising either on the tablet or laptop functionality. As it turns out the designers decided to go with releasing a good Ultrabook laptop with compromised tablet functions — this was the correct choice for the Yoga.

Windows 8 limitations

Probably the greatest problem though for the Yoga Pro 2 in tablet mode lies in software with Windows 8 being far from adequate as a tablet operating system with a confused interface, an inconsistent user experience and unpredictable responses to touch screen commands.

For companies like Lenovo who are persisting with Windows as their operating system, it’s becoming critical that they start demanding better design from Microsoft before they find their market being overwhelmed by Android and iOS devices offering a superior user interface.

lenovo-yoga-2-pro-closed-mode-on-desktop

While the Windows 8 irritations aren’t a deal breaker for the Yoga, it does limit the device as a tablet computer and its something anyone considering it instead of an iPad or Android tablet should keep in mind.

A good general duty small business laptop

Overall, the Lenovo Yoga Pro 2 is good Windows Ultrabook for home and small business use offering the benefits of an ultrabook with the flexibility of being able to flip into a tablet for specific uses.

The device isn’t cheap, but the range of features and good hardware specs make it a decent purchase for small businesses, sole proprietors or workers operating from home who need a versatile Windows computer.

Sep 102014
 
apple-play

As expected, Apple announced their new range of iPhones and a smart watch today with many digital trees being felled as the tech media falls over to describe all the shiny features of the new devices.

Buried in Apple’s announcements though are the company’s real long game in payments and the Internet of Things.

For the IoT, the various ‘kits’ Apple have announced in the last year — HomeKit, HealthKit and now CloudKit — are the serious plays in this space as they bundle together programs, devices and data streams across health and smarthome applications.

CloudKit moves Apple onto another level as it makes it easier for developers to build back end applications that tie into smart devices; even if someone isn’t using Apple equipment they still may find themselves firmly in the walled garden of Cuptertino.

The long awaiting release of Apple Pay leverages iTunes’ strength as a payment platform, bundling a secure chip into the new iPhone adds to the company’s pitch of being a trusted partner to merchants and payments processors.

What today’s announcements of new hardware, software and APIs indicate is Apple’s shoring up the perimeters of its walled garden.

For it’s competitors, this raises the ante; Google Wallet has nothing like the market penetration or customer acceptance that iTunes has and earlier this week Amazon effectively admitted the Fire smartphone has been a failure by slashing prices. Facebook has made promising noises about payments but still remains locked in an advertising driven business model.

While there’s no doubt the new iPhone will be a success, although the jury is out on the smart watch, Apple’s real game is in controlling a large part of the payments industry and the internet of things. Today’s announcements are a key step in that strategy.

Sep 012014
 
broken-computer

A briefcase sized device could wreak havoc in today’s networked world warns William Radasky in the IEEE Journal.

Fans of the  wave of nuclear war movies like The War Game or The Day After will remember the first bomb detonated in the attacks was a high level explosion designed to knock out electronic equipment.

The resultant Electro Magnetic Pulse leaves everything from military radar to civilian communications systems unusable.

In both The Day After and The War Game the high altitude detonations over Rochester and Kansas City destroyed motor cars’ ignitions leaving a key part of the nation’s infrastructure paralysed.

Unlike a zombie TV series, the unlucky survivors of a nuclear strike weren’t going to leap into the nearest abandoned Camaro and speed away from the heaving hungry masses.

What should be considered is The War Game was filmed in 1965 when electronics were not ubiquitous. Even then the scale of the damage from an EMP was substantial.

In today’s world, an wide scale EMP would bring down a region’s entire economy.

I’m writing this post on the 28th Floor of San Francisco’s St Francis hotel and were such a blast to happen now I’m not sure I’d be able to find the fire escapes as the emergency lighting would be fried — it’s not even worth considering the lifts.

What a first world city like San Francisco would like after all its technology, including electrical and communications systems, were knocked out doesn’t bear thinking out.

On the bright side, this means a devastating nuclear war killing millions may not be useful military strategy any more. To bomb a first world nation ‘back to the stone age’ just needs a handful of well targeted high altitude nukes.

The IEEE article is a timely reminder of both the fragility of our systems and the society that depends upon them.

Aug 112014
 
Apple launches a new smaller iPad

Today Australian electronics retailer JB Hi Fi released its annual results. They confirm what’s been becoming apparent over the last year that tablet computer sales seem to have peaked.

A plateauing of tablet sales is bad news for retailers like JB whose stock price fell by 8% on the news.

It’s not surprising that tablet computer sales have peaked as the growth had been spectacular and, unlike PCs of a decade ago, there isn’t an obvious five year replacement cycle.

That the old PC industry business model doesn’t apply to tablets is why Apple is focusing on other revenue sources like the App Store and internet of things plays such as HomeKit and HealthKit.

Once again, the industry leaders are finding they have to pivot to stay up with a rapidly evolving market.

The other notable point from JB’s management was that Australian consumer confidence is tanking, which might indicate the economy is entering its first recession in twenty years.

If it is true that the Aussie economy is entering a recession, then it might be time for the adults to take charge in a very immature government. Some of the Liberal Party’s pampered princelings may have to start earning their salaries soon.