What is the iPad really for?

Apple & Mac 3 Comments »

Let’s be honest. Apple make some very desirable gadgets. On Wednesday (27th January), they announced the iPad, the latest addition to their family of (serious) toys.

The iPad is a new handheld, touchscreen product that seems very much to have evolved from the iPhone, with a similar multi-touch interface and applications that are downloaded from a proprietary online store. On the face of it, the iPad looks like a touchscreen portable computer, and, technically, that’s true. However, there seems to be a lot that the iPad can’t do that a typical laptop can. While it does have Wi-Fi connectivity as standard, and 3G as an option, it isn’t a phone, either. The iPad has already received a good chunk of criticism and a chorus of “Meh”s for its ‘missing’ features.

However, what the iPad doesn’t do isn’t important. It’s what it does do. Apple have a knack of taking existing products and streamlining the feature set to improve the user experience. Just look at the iPod for a good example of that.

I don’t believe that the iPad should be compared to a PC, or a smartphone for that matter. It seems to me to be more of an everyday consumer device, just like an iPod or ebook reader: something that has a limited set of features that it does very well.

These features are, by today’s standards, pretty basic things that your average computer user wants to do, such as browsing the web or playing media like videos and music. These don’t require stacks of computing power or a complicated interface.

Instead, the iPad has some advantages over a conventional laptop computer. The most obvious is the touchscreen interface that has proved such a success on the iPhone. Less immediately obvious is that the device is designed to be powered on all the time, just like a phone, with Apple claiming a whole month of standby time. Having to boot a computer to quickly check something online can be a pain (for the impatient like me, at least).

The form factor also lends itself well to casual use: easy to keep on the coffee table or by the side of the bed for some late night Twitter action. I can imagine myself using it for a spot of catch-up TV on iPlayer or 4od in the evening (but not ITVplayer — all their programmes are crap!) or at last, ploughing through some of the many ebooks I’ve acquired on the bus.

The iPad is also able to run a variant of Apple’s iWork suit of applications, games and any applications from the iPhone app store. It will also be interesting to see how developers exploit the features of the iPad once they get their hands on it.

The price, while not cheap, is also much lower than that of one of Apple’s line of portable computers: $499 for the cheapest model, which I expect will convert up to £399 for the UK. More expensive models add more storage or 3G capability, so it really depends what you want to do with it how much you might want to invest.

I truly believe that Apple have hit an untapped niche with the iPad. More user-friendly, convenient and cheaper than a laptop or netbook, but more versatile and better suited to general use than a smartphone. It’s neither, but something that takes some of the most loved pieces of each and comes up with something new. Whether the marketplace agress with me, we’ll have to see.

IE8 Version Targeting Doesn’t Work

Computers, Web Stuff Comments Off on IE8 Version Targeting Doesn’t Work

If you’re a web developer, there’s only one issue this week that deserved your attention: Browser version targeting.

On Monday, A List Apart published an article — Beyond DOCTYPE: Web Standards, Forward Compatibility, and IE8 — that described a new, Microsoft-led method, of instructing browsers to use a particular version of its rendering engine to render a web page — in other words, which set of prior bugs or incorrect/missing parts of particular specifications a page needs to appear as originally intended. Version targeting uses a meta-tag in the head of a web page to specify what particular version of a browser the page was written to work with.

Questions about the motive or necessity for version targeting aside, one side-issue that has stirred up a lot of attention is the default behaviour of Internet Explorer 8, which will implement the proposed targeting. If the version targeting meta-tag is absent, IE8 will not use the most recent, standards compliant code to render your page, but will instead fall back to rendering as IE7!

To convince IE8 to render your nice, clean (X)HTML and CSS using its most standards-compliant engine, you need to add this meta-tag to your pages, which, I agree, sounds completely backwards.

The reasoning for this behaviour is that it is Standards-savvy developers that will know to implement the meta-tag, while legacy content that goes unmaintained will still render as originally intended. However, I’m not convinced that the proposed default behaviour will actually solve anything.

Surely, most of the problems that Microsoft are trying to address with this proposal are incorrectly coded sites, created for IE6 and earlier. Falling back to IE7’s rendering would only benefit those who have developed their sites using IE7’s ‘Standards’ mode, or at least updated it to render correctly in IE7.

IE7 was a big leap forward for Web Standards, as it was the first new release of Internet Explorer for around 5 years, and supported parts of the CSS 2.1 specification that had been missing or incorrect in Internet Explorer 6. However, this leap forward came at a cost for developers not adhering to Web Standards, as sites that looked correct in IE6 now looked broken in the more standards-compliant IE7.

If IE7 is the default choice for rendering sites that do not feature the meta-tag, then websites developed for earlier versions of Internet Explorer will still reveal their problems under ‘No meta-tag, IE7 mode’, anyway. Meanwhile, while IE7 does still have its issues, I believe that tightening up the Standards-support is hardly going to have catastrophic effects for any sites that were developed for IE7’s ‘Standards’ mode.

It’s also worth mentioning that sites that rendered in IE7’s ‘Quirks’ mode (that is, using IE5.5’s rendering engine) should be unaffected, as they will still be rendered in ‘Quirks’ mode in IE8.

I haven’t seen this particular point raised anywhere in the various blogs commenting on the proposal, or the associated comments left, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some detail that I have missed that may invalidate my point. However, the more I think about and read up on version targeting, the less I like the idea.

Amazon may have just saved the online music industry from itself

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Amazon recently launched their online music store, named amazonmp3. Unlike most other online music stores, though, Amazon’s offering is completely DRM free, and for this reason, the launch of the amazonmp3 store is a hugely significant event for the online music market.

There is already another large player in the DRM-free market — eMusic offer a completely DRM-free catalogue of independent music and is currently the second largest seller of online music behind iTunes — but amazonmp3 has some significant advantages. Needless to say, the Amazon name clearly already has a lot of trust in online sales, whereas eMusic is still relatively obscure, at least outside the US.

Amazon’s key advantage is that it is able to offer a completely DRM-free catalogue that also features music from two of the four major labels. It is also offering music on a per track/album basis rather than the subscription model used by eMusic — a far more attractive proposition for most people, I expect — but also at a lower cost than the iTunes Music Store. It is really taking the best bits of the two market leaders and undercutting them while it is at it.

I will almost certainly be using the service if/when it launches in the UK. The big draw for me is that it will work perfectly with the system I already use for portable music. The downloader used by the service will integrate almost seamlessly with iTunes on the Mac. Yes, on the Mac! As an iPod user, I rely on iTunes to sync music and manage podcasts for me (and I’m perfectly happy with this arrangement). Any tracks I download from Amazon will be automatically imported in to my iTunes library and subsequently sync’ed to my iPod. Nice.

Compare that with music from most other online music services, such as the now defunct Virgin Digital — their tracks wouldn’t even play on my iPod because of the Windows Media DRM, and that simple fact rules them out of something like 90% of the MP3 player market. Does that make any business sense?

Seeing such a big player as Amazon launching a DRM-free service with major-label support is a huge step towards creating the sort of marketplace that most online music consumers want, rather than a market that alienates customers, locks them in to services and technology, potentially encourages piracy as a less complicated route to obtaining music, and therefore seriously limits its potential to grow.

Instead, it will allow interoperability between computer platforms and portable devices, and give us the sort of market that consumers wanted all along — something more like the CD market, where you can purchase music on a medium that will play on any technically capable device without any added complications (rootkits and the like aside!). Hopefully the remaining two major labels will recognise and acknowledge the advantages of this approach and get onboard soon.

Cool things Ubuntu does #164

Computers, Ubuntu Comments Off on Cool things Ubuntu does #164

I noticed a nice feature of Ubuntu today when I plugged my iPod in to one of my PC‘s USB ports for a quick charge and logged in to do a bit of emailing.

Our PowerBook is the computer I use for most things, so my iPod is Mac formatted, and this means that Windows XP doesn’t even recognise it as a formatted drive (it offers to format it whenever I plug it in). Ubuntu recognised it, brought up the RhythmBox audio player, and started playing audio streamed from the iPod! Unfortunately I could only play MP3 files initially, but a quick web search revealed that I only had to install some extra ‘gstreamer’ codecs to play the AAC files which make up most of my library, and I was able to do this using the ‘Add/Remove Programs’ applet.

Just another of the things where Ubuntu says to Windows "Anything you can do, I can do better!" I’m finding myself doing more things with Ubuntu now than Windows. I’m even IMing again, and that’s saying something!

Feisty Fawn Installed!

Computers, Ubuntu Comments Off on Feisty Fawn Installed!

My home PC is now sporting Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn). Unfortunately, the installation took about 4 hours, so I didn’t get any time to play with it. About 3 and a half hours of this was downloading new packages, so I think a lot of other people must’ve been doing the same thing!

The update used an easy upgrade utility, which was pretty much a ‘one-click’ installer built in to the software update utility in version 6.10, and ran with very little user intervention (the odd ‘yes or no’ question). All seemed to go smoothly, although I only tested as far as booting up… Rumblings on the Interweb suggest that this release runs a little faster, which would be welcome on my creaky setup.

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