Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I read the exciting announcement today, by Facebook CEO, that Microsoft and Facebook are collaborating to host, an online document sharing platform based on Microsoft Office 2010. 

For nearly a year, Microsoft has been testing the concept of putting Microsoft Office on the Internet with the Office Online initiative. Office Online was based based on Microsoft Office 2010 whose desktop versions were scheduled for release in early to Middle 2010. But all along, I wasn't sure how quickly or how well  the Office in the cloud concept would catch on. Again, I didn't know how the platform would work for persons that don't have Office installed locally. The little I remember of the beta product, it was like it still uses rendering engines available on your local machine from the Office mother ship, which sort of limited its appeal as a cloud-based document platform like Google docs.

Now, this announcement of with its deep Facebook integration is really a good thing for Microsoft. First, it launches an Office alternative on a generic, distributed platform and second,  it logs right into the FaceWitter (facebook+twitter) mentality of our day. I hope it works out for Microsoft and for Facebook. If it does, the Facebook platform will change drastically into a collaborative platform for productivity not just for fun and games. 

I see a few huddles, though: The current website is a Silverlight site. The controls that render those Office docs are Silverlight controls. This can be a problem for mobile system users on non-Flash, non-Silverlight platforms. Lots of Facebook users are on the move and casual. Many of them use mobile phone apps to connect to Facebook and a significant number of these don't have Flash or Silverlight. Notable among these are the iPhone and iPad.

In a previous post, I spoke about how disappointed I was that Microsoft did not release iPad apps for Microsoft Office. With this new move towards, it's perfectly possible to use on the iPad just as easily as using it on the desktop. The only catch is that the iPad does not support Silverlight, which the site requires. I think that can really fly well on the wings of the iPad but Microsoft will have to think seriously about supporting the iPad. To do this, they would have to create an iPad compatible HTML5 version of in the minimum or just go on and show some leadership with this new emerging web standard altogether.

So, hello,! What do you have for the modern user?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Israel's iPad ban and the Wi-Fi specification

Everyone has been tumbling over the news item that Israel banned iPad imporation and has actually impounded a few of those at the port of entry. Everyone opinion I've read including those of even Israeli lawmakers seems to beat up that decision as unreasonable. Some blog commentaries have even suggested ulterior theories. I am using the same facts proposed by some of these opinions to argue the opposite case: that Israel may actually have a point.

It is a fact that requires no evidence that there are many iPhones and Blackberry devices in Israel. Many have argued that the iPad Wi-Fi chip is the same standard unit that is installed in these other hand-helds and so advance an argument that Israel's decision to selectively ban the iPad is arbitrary and unreasonable. An unnamed Apple spokeswoman was even quoted as saying, "iPad complies with international industry standards for Wi-Fi specifications."

When I heard that response, i wondered, "international industry standard for Wi-Fi specifications"! Up to that moment, I was also like, "Israel should relax, men, what's all that about?". But this statement got me thinking. I said, anytime a corporation equivocates, there must be a need for it. What are my problems with these statements? First, if it's just as simple as using an identical Wi-Fi chip, then, yes Israel's action sounds arbitrary. But then, turn it around and ask yourself, does the same argument not make a credibility point for Israel? Israel could say, "We don't have a problem with Apple products or mobile devices. We allow iPhone, we allow BlackBerry, we allow MacBook Pro. So, believe us when we say that iPad has something that the others do not." My issue with the "international standards" statement is not so simple to explain without some geek speak, but I'll try. The statement can be both true and false. Yes, there is one and the same set of international industry standared for Wi-Fi specifications. That set of specifications is the IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n. But what is missing in that statement is that it does not show that different countries have laws that further restrict the use of all 14 Wi-Fi channels defined by IEEE 802.11. To help you understand this, 802.11 was originally reserved for medical equipment. Later when it became successful in computer networks, it became necessary for countries to determine which channels they allow for use on internet equipment based perhaps on what channels they have already assigned to, say MRI equipment or heart pacemaker diagnostic equipment. Europe (like Israel) allows all channels except channel 14 while North America further disallows channel 12 and 13. This would look like US equipment would be compliant in Europe and Israel. Some have advanced this claim as evidence of compatibility. But wait.

Aside from specifying the central spectrum and power restrictions of each channel, there's also the little known but major interference concern of 802.11 clause 17 which restricts spectral mask. Spectral mask defines the permitted distribution of power across each channel. In essense, within the channels allowed in your contry, a station can only use every 4th or 5th channel without overlap. A theoretical simplification is that American devices may 1,6,11 while European devices uses 1,5,9 and 13. This is designed to produce signal attenuation that would produce minimal interference of devices on other channels (provided it is farther than 1 meter away and operating within allowed power levels. You can see further geek details here or see a summary here and here.

So, there are several ways that something can get screwed up for one country but not the other and if a country is prudent enough to discover it, we should not bully them for looking out for themselves.

It's not like iPad can do no wrong, anyway! I love the device, I am going to buy one but it's still built by man. For instance, even though it alse uses a well-tested, well-understood DHCP algorithm for leasing IP addresses, Princeton University has reported iPad problems on their network and has gone ahead to block some iPads from access because the devices were not playing well on that network. It is reported that Apple is currently engaging Princeton to create a patch. My point being, iPad could still use well known chips or technologies but yet have some flaws that may need to be fixed.

On a more social note, do you think we'll show this surprise if these were equipment made in Russia and impounded by US customs? We'll jump to believe the US communications people and expect Russia to clean up the problem.

So, I suggest, we give Israel a break. It's called benefit of the doubt. Let Apple engage Israel and address the problem. The Israeli market is bigger than it seems. The whole world goes to Israel quite often. It is a large tourist nation of extreme historical, political and religious importance. The iPad is going to be an ultra-mobile gadget even more than the phone, since they come unlocked. It should be configured to play well in all countries. Bravado won't do it. Just as Apple has engaged Princeton to solve the DHCP bug, they should engage Israel to study the complaint with a view to a solution.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Apple should respect non-US iPad Customers

If a company with a large and enthusiastic International following (like Apple) begins to operate so ethnically, you would think that they don't appreciate the business of the rest of the world as much. I have started a facebook group entitled "Apple should respect non-US iPad Customers" to help others sound off on this iPad release dichotomy. I am also sending this link to Apple.

(Credit: James Martin/CNET)

Apple is one of the few computers in the world that is actually loved, yes loved, by its customers. There is this comradeship among mac users. When I bought my first mac in Greenville NC, I attended a Mac user group and couldn't help sensing the bonding that was both reminiscent of a religious fellowship and a closely-knit social club wrapped in one. Today, if you brandish your shiny aluminium in public, other Apple users would nod to you instinctively especially in parks, at beaches, on campuses and at airports. You can't believe the instant connection to this hive mind. It is real.

For a living, I write software on the Windows platform but there are 10 Apple devices in my home right this moment ranging from iPod classic through iPhone 3GS to Apple TV & MacBook Pros. Now that Apple laptops can dual-boot with Windows, I even take my mac to work, and in the midst of all the grey-scale official laptops around the conference table,  the aluminium flourish stands like the scene in "Legally Blond" when the lady in a pink suit steps into Harvard Law School amidst all the black and gray of the usual business suits.

As an Apple lover, I am just an Apple lover. So is my wife, so is my 16 year old daughter. We were living in the US and now live in Canada. Then and now, we were and are just simply Apple lovers. So, don't be surprised if I say that I loose sleep over the anxious expectation of the iPad. I may even have worked myself into a frenzy.

In one of my earlier posts, I reported that days after the iPad announcement, I sold my Sony eBook Reader. I really loved that Sony reader but I sold it for less than it was worth. And then, the wait for iPad began. First, I waited for end of March. Then, we learnt that it was releasing only to the US. Canada was to wait for end of April. To douse my feeling, I started downloading iPad apps in advance and reading every review. Once or twice, I had considered and given up driving 1200 km south to go buy one. I gave it up because Canada release date was just around the corner and I really now want the 3G model, since am not getting tethering post.

A few days ago when Apple announced the iPhone OS 4.0 sneak preview when I followed by a live blog, Steve Jobs still said, "International release of the iPad is coming late April".

So, you can imagine how just a few days later, Apple announced this move back by a whole month! If they has said, "We are having problem with local content developers in some countries", or international law or something like that ... if that was the problem, I would understand. It was so annoying that they said something like, "we are doing this because US buyers just want more than we thought they'd want. And we have more pre-orders for the US that we want to fill end of April. So, we'll just go ahead and do that and push International release to late May. How audacious!

The impression I get from this is that Apple treats the rest of the world as "Consumers of the Crumbs". They serve the main loaf to the US market, even offer seconds for anyone in the US who wasn't hungry the first time around. And then, if there are left-overs, offer that to the rest of the world. One early sign that a law is too arbitrary is that normally law-abiding people begin to go around it. Imagine how many people traveled to the US from the rest of the world to buy an iPad. Even till today, I believe that beyond the initial spike, the rest of the steady rise is attributable to international purchases. Is it a surprise that all the states that have sold the most iPads judging by Chikita real-time tracking are states on the borders with high-traffic international airports?

Apple should have shown respect to non-US customers by honoring the release date they were promised. It does not matter if they have products lasting a whole month at a go. But it would have gone a long way to dousing the  passion of early, unconditional adopters. Even those early adopters should be part of a smart marketing strategy. 

I have started a facebook group "Apple should respect non-US iPad Customers" so people can to and express their opinion on the matter. You are welcome to go there and sound off. I am sure Apple will hear because I am also sending the link to them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why iPad and iPhone cannot tether

When the iPad WIFI edition was launched on April 3, 2010, the first thing I kept listening out for was whether it had tethering. I had previously blogged on this column that I really want tethering on the iPad. When I realized that it didn't support this feature, it began to look like the terse 'No' email reply on this subject credited to Apple CEO Steve jobs may have an element of truth in it. One wonders why the iPad would not support a service that will allow you to use your own existing cellular data plan on through gadget in your pocket but will encourage you to buy yet another data plan.

When I first got my first generation iPhone, it did not have a data plan. iPhone had just been released in the US. It would not arrive Canada for another year+ and I had purchased it on eBay. Those pre-iphone days, data plan cost more than molten gold with cellular companies. So, I mostly used my iPhone without data plan. Once in a while, I would brouse and get billed by kiloBytes and believe me, it wasn't funny. Because of this, most of what made the iPhone fun was not accessible on my phone outside my home network. In my home network, I would browse on fuller screens, anyway.

It wasn't till we got the 3GS that I slapped on a full data plan on my iPhone and the device truly came to life. The power of the iPhone is not so much as in phone calling but in its "information anywhere" concept. And you can't do that if you were not always connected. This fact is much more so for the iPad because much as you can use a data-cripped iPhone as a phone, you can't use a data-cripped iPad as much anything else without limitation. Even Amazon Kindle gets that.

Several iPhone users I know have data plans that are less that 20% utilized. The major cellular data providers in Canada provide tethering for free so you can use your iPhone data on other computers. That is why it would only have made sense if Apple allowed the iPad to consume this same available iPhone service. But then, we hear that Steve Jobs said 'No'. It looks like the bigger Apple gets, their chief spokesperson sound more and more like Bill Gates. Or even worse! Bill Gates never called Adobe and Google lazy in the same month!

Within 1 week of iPad release, it got Jailbroken and following quickly the next week is a $9.99 app called MyWi, as reported here, which provides iPhone/iPad tethering support. When I read that, it felt sad that a company like Apple, whose percieved social model over the years has been to brand Microsoft as the evil empire, is turning into a worse-than-Microsoft just after a few years of mobile device dominance. If they owned Windows, they probably would control who you married by now -- "All marriages must go through the iWed app. Every Minister must register with us and we share the proceeds 60/40. We decide which marriage to allow. We can also annul a marriage after the fact". If this sounds similar to what happens at the Apple AppStore, that's probably because it is.

I was in a conversation Saturday night with a guy that lived in Russia. This guy told me that capitalism in Russian language is transliterated as "Man's exploitation of Man". It felt too extreme then. But I believe that every iPad user who has to buy a separate data plan while at the same time has 80% of his/her iPhone data plan lying waste every month is being deliberately exploited.

This smells the same as a "pre-existing condition" in the US healthcare system. Man's exploitation of man!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What do iBook and iE have in common?

When Apple released the iPad version of iPhone OS, they chose not to include iBooks as one of the base apps of the iPhone OS. I am just wondering if they did this to avoid antitrust issues or just doing the right thing.

Anyone who has been around long enough will remember the world’s most celebrated antitrust suit in the United States. The main gist of this is that Microsoft got sued for bundling the Internet Explorer (IE) browser with the dominant Windows OS was presenting unfair competition for other browser manufacturers. The lawsuit also  argued that giving IE away was an unfair competitive practice against the Netscape browser since Microsoft could still cover IE cost indirectly through Windows pricing. Microsoft argued that IE was an integral part of Windows and that the two could not be separated.

When Apple announced the iPad, it also positioned the tablet as an eBook reader by the announcement that it was coming with iBooks. Many pundits saw that announcement as an Amazon Kindle killer move. So, when Apple decided that iBooks would not be a base app in the OS, I started thinking. (By the way, base apps are those ones that come basically installed with the OS and you can’t delete them).

Some blogger reported that Apple decision to make iBooks a separate download was because they want iBooks to be freely updateable instead of  having to wait for OS updates.  Anyway, I think that Apple’s excuse is plain odd. In the first place, there are several things that come down OS X install that get trickle updated anytime and out of phase with the core OS. Even for the core OS, service release cycles would be frequent enough for updating any app, even the iBook. Moreover, when Apple announced the 7 iPhone OS 4.0 tentposts, iBooks for iPhone was one of those. This simply suggests that iBooks is more than just any app. It’s more like the Calendar or Mail or iTunes (apps that you just can’t choose to install or uninstall). But in this case, Apple has learned that eBook sellers may pick on this as a cage-rattling opportunity and they’re not allowing that to happen.

Anyway, I am just wondering and thinking, “Well played, Apple!”. If you buy an iPad, you make a choice to download an iBooks or Kindle or Nook or B&N Reader. Thus, Apple cannot be accused of  leveraging platform advantage over the competition. If  in the next 5-10 years, Apple succeeds in getting iPhone OS to become the dorminant  consumer OS and then prices it at double what it’s worth (like $1000) and then appear to be throwing in all-you-can-read eBooks, they would actually be making $500 for eBooks. That would make people stop buying Kindle books.  Then, Amazon Kindle as we know it will be threatened for certain extinction.

I think it makes more sense to me now but it’s little too late for Netscape. I wish I understood it this clearly then.

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

The iPad era: Is Microsoft hard of hearing, or just too heavy to respond?

As a Microsoft shareholder, I have reason to be concerned. I really do. When everything else around you is moving and you choose to stand still, you make a big target. Worse still, if you are a large one. 

I will dispense with the background quickly: On January 27, 2010, Apple announced a new breed of computing devices called the iPad. Launch date was set for end of March and the item was available in stores on April 3. This thing has no need for a pointing device, no need for third party chips, no need for Windows and actually, no need for any of the things that make normal computers dove-tail into some Microsoft service.

In the 2-month period between the announcement and release, so many companies jumped on and designed something that would take advantage of the iPad. Till today, I have heard nothing coming from Microsoft. At first, I was like ... "Microsoft can't be so stupid as to ignore this. They have to have Word, Excel and PowerPoint out there on day 1. They can't afford the risk of Office devotees discovering Pages, Numbers and Keynote." But what do I know? Launch day came and Microsoft released and announced nothing. Nothing!

You know, there was that time when WordPerfect was king. It was great on DOS and beat WordStar hand-down, in my opinion. Most people may think that it was the greatness of Microsoft Word that killed WordPerfect. But I don't think so. I think it was WordPerfect for Windows that killed WordPerfect. The then WordPerfect Corporation did not respond well to the new world and people learned Word. And guess what? They like Word. 
No one would need to learn a new productivity app if the one they like is available on their platform of choice.
I am sure that some old soldiers at Microsoft are so callused in their joints that they don't know how to stay alive through agility. Before now, Microsoft was good at playing on its own field because it was a very large field but now, it needs to learn to strategize in a multi-faceted way. It needs to learn the times. It needs to be nimble at the feet. It needs to walkout more. 

Jealousy has no place in modern business. An old-fashioned way of thinking would go this way: "If we build for a non-Windows platform, we are encouraging it and hurting our main bread and butter. So, ignore it and use our sheer strength to suffocate the market place." And that's so sad, if you ask me! Amazon is my hero company in this regard. The iPad came head-on with Kindle, and the press sensationalized it. What did Amazon do? Sulk, wine and play the ignore game, wishing that iPad crashes and burns? No. It made an iPad-compatible Kindle. Apple played a similar genius game when they made BootCamp, a Windows-compatible apple machine. And believe me, there's little more to know about how well a company is run or how smart and nimble its execs are. By comparison, AMZN shares stood at $131.81, AAPL at $235.97, and MSFT at $29.16. When last did you see such a large company equity worth so little? Ford and GM kinda come to mind.

I have a personal investment in Microsoft and so I have an interest in advising them not to be stupid. If the iPad makes the iPhone OS the dominant breed of consumer OS, then Microsoft may be positioning itself for certain extinction. No one company has a monopoly control on what people like. A good company should always position itself well for every eventuality.