Home Automation: At the Intersection of HD DVD and Blu Ray

The title to this piece was paraphrased from a recent episode of the Mac Power Users podcast in which special guest Merlin Mann, as well as hosts David Sparks and Katie Floyd, discussed how they’d incorporated home automation products into their domiciles.

Some of the products/brands mentioned were:

* SmartThings
* Belkin WeMo
* Dropcam
* Revolv
* Z-Wave
* Philips Hue

Those just scratch the surface of what’s available. The dream of home automation has been a part of our imaginations since the 1950s when Monsanto and Disney engineered the “House of Tomorrow” at Disneyland.

Today, we’re dazzled with the Hollywood stylings of Iron Man’s “J.A.R.V.I.S.“, Tony Stark’s artificially intelligent home operating system and assistant, also built into every one of his armored suits. J.A.R.V.I.S. understands conversational speech and can predict the needs of the user before being asked, like Siri, Google Now, and HAL all rolled into one.

J.A.R.V.I.S. represents the goal of home automation–an invisible brain that doesn’t require constant interaction to get things done. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way. Our homes can now automatically turn the lights off when we leave a room, sense the temperature of an area, whether a door is open and at what angle. Our coffee machines can start brewing before we get up and our Sonoses (Sonii?) can greet us with the news and weather while we get ready for work. These are steps forward, but we have some hurdles to clear before we get close to Hollywood’s computer-generated dream.

First and foremost, home automation solutions are not exactly unified. Going back to this article’s title, we’re in the midst of a quiet revolution while early adopters and tinkerers test all their toys before they pick the one with which they want stick. Having numerous platforms means investing money in something that either won’t be around forever or won’t play well with others.

Products like Revolv, WeMo, and SmartThings currently all work together in some capacity. Sensors from one ecosystem are recognized by others and vice versa. Thanks to a project called SmartThings Labs, SmartThings integrates with WeMo, Sonos, and Philips Hue to provide one solution for lights and sound in a home. However, it currently doesn’t work with the Nest thermostat (without a workaround). Revolv does, but now that Nest is owned by Google, it’s entirely possible Google could shut Revolv out and take on the home automation industry itself by releasing its own brand of switches and sensors that tie together seamlessly with Nest.

Also related to home automation’s current “fragmentation” problem (for lack of a better term) is how everything is controlled. Revolv, WeMo, Sonos, Hue, and SmartThings rely on apps. For the most part, the main system’s “hub” app, be it from Revolv, WeMo, or SmartThings, can handle changing the Hue’s colors or what’s playing on the Sonos. Unfortunately, certain components won’t always hook in with one another, so users will need to rely on multiple apps to control various parts of their homes. The more apps cluttering one’s homescreen, the more confusing and less “automated” it all becomes.

What I’d like to see is either one ecosystem step forward as the de facto standard in home automation or better yet, a unified protocol they all can use to talk to each other. Using components from multiple companies wouldn’t be so daunting if they all spoke the same language.

The phone can also present its own issues. It always needs to be charged and notifications of who’s entering the house and opening doors can bombard a phone along with the usual incoming emails and text messages. It also means always having the device nearby.

VoicePod addresses the problem by using voice activation to accomplish certain tasks. Microphones wired into a home’s ceilings or within VoicePod’s central hub can pick up commands that trigger light switches, window blinds, and door locks. It doesn’t appear to work with SmartThings or WeMo, but it does integrate with professionally installed systems like Control4 and through those, with Philips Hue and other components. Although VoicePod does have its own app for iPhone and Android, it seems geared towards voice activation, thus bringing us one step closer to becoming Iron Man.

Watching home automation go from something only nerdy billionaires could afford to something almost anyone could afford is exciting. The buy-in is still a bit steep ($200-$300 for most starter kits + $50 per sensor), but it’s a far cry from the professional systems that cost thousands of dollars only ten years ago. WeMo and SmartThings don’t require contractors to come to a home and tear down walls. It’s all plug-and-play with some mild finagling, which is what we wanted. It’s portable, endlessly configurable, and does not require a degree in electrical engineering.

But as excited as I am to stick sensors over all my doors and windows, I’m also hesitant to open my wallet to an industry just getting started. The ground here is fertile and I’d like to see what grows before I commit to one platform. I want to see continuous development. I want to see growth. I want to see who stays independent and who gets bought by larger companies. It’s becoming frustratingly common for successful Kickstarter projects to get bought out by less-than-trustful companies.

In the coming years, we’ll see which platforms automatically light their way to the top while the others fade out, but for now I’ll just try to remember to shut the lights off myself when I leave a room.

In Defense of Yahoo Tech

Ever since Marissa Mayer took hold of Yahoo, she and her team have been updgrading the company’s online offerings to better compete in a rapidly changing arena. First came Flickr and the Yahoo Weather App, and now the former search giant is upping its news presence.

Yahoo recently partnered with former New York Times tech columnist David Pogue to launch a less-“gearheded” technology site. One that speaks to a wider swath of readers than most. Enter Yahoo Tech.

In an introductory column, Pogue describes what readers can expect from the new site:

I’m not interested in knowing which processor model is in a phone. I want to know if the phone is _fast. _Which may or may not have anything to do with what processor is in a phone.

So in my columns, you’ll find an emphasis on the human side of tech. On the _context _of a new product. How it feels, how it works, how it’s designed, whether it’s worth the money, of course—but also how it changes the game, changes society, changes us.

This declaration of independence from the nerdier side of tech blogging, combined with a less-than-flattering slide during his CES presentation, certainly rankled several prominent writers on Twitter, like The Verge’s Nilay Patel:

and Om Malik:

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 8.44.32 PM

and the hilariously self-unaware John Herrman of Buzzfeed:

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 8.44.59 PM

iMore’s Peter Cohen, however, stands up for Yahoo Tech in a reflective piece on the knee-jerk reactions of he and his fellow tech writers who didn’t take kindly to being mocked onstage:

To my colleagues in the tech press: Stop taking yourselves so seriously. Really. Lighten up. Whether you believe it or not, the vast majority of people out there don’t care about what you’re talking about (and yes, I’m talking to myself a bit here too).

Trying to make tech accessible and more human is a _good_ thing. It’s something we in the tech press should _all_ aspire to do more often.

With Yahoo’s purchase of Aviate, the developers of an Android app launcher, as well as its launch of a new News Digest app and the aforementioned Yahoo Tech, it’s clear Yahoo is gunning for the position it once held for millions of people during the mid-to-late ‘90s—as the center of an internet user’s daily life.

TechCrunch’s Matt Panzarino expands on Yahoo’s acquisition of Aviate, which plays into Yahoo’s “hub” mentality:

Yahoo SVP of Mobile and Emerging Products Adam Cahan says that the company isn’t interested in turning Aviate into some sort of ‘all Yahoo apps’ portal. For now, it will expand the beta program and get more users checking it out. “Think of this as an extension of [Yahoo] Search,” Cahan says.

The extension of search metaphor is an apt one, as contextually aware home screens will be all about using anticipatory ‘searching’ through our apps, habits and use cases to provide us with better experiences. Aviate will now be able to tap deeply into Yahoo data like search, weather, maps and more to inform contextual experiences.

When Yahoo still had the exclamation point at the end and those yodeling TV ads on every channel, it was the king of search. There was Yahoo! and everybody else. Your email address ended in @yahoo.com (and for many, it still does). Your homepage was yahoo.com. It’s where you got your news, your weather, your horoscope, and the winning lotto numbers. Yahoo! was the information dashboard for several years. Then came Google.

Marissa Mayer seems to be steering Yahoo back in that direction—as a center for news and information for mainstream readers. The company even hired Katie Couric as its Global News Anchor. If anything, Yahoo is competing with The Huffington Post, the stew pot of online publications.

Yahoo Tech won’t attract the gadget-freaks who read sites like The Verge, or Engadget, or even Tech.pinions, but that’s because it’s not trying to. Instead, Yahoo is focusing on providing readers with a central hub for the important news of the day devoid of jargon and inside baseball. Tech bloggers hate it because they feel threatened, but Yahoo Tech isn’t competing with them. Rather, it’s catering to a crowd long ignored by gadget nerds.

Some consider it “dumbing down” tech news and reviews, but it takes smart people to make difficult topics approachable by the masses and if it means more people reading and understanding the gadgets entering their lives, then more power to Yahoo.

Apple’s Most Over-Looked Innovation

Do you own a computer, cell phone, or tablet? Has that device ever stopped working for no reason (or have you ever dropped it in the toilet and not told anyone)? Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic?

If the answer is “yes,” then you’ve probably tried to have that product (and others like it) repaired or replaced at some point. For most companies, the customer support route is thus:

  • 1. Go to the company’s website and look for the Support page.
  • 2. Hunt for the support phone number so you can talk to someone about your problem. Oh, there are different numbers based on the type of product you’re calling about? Better find the right one.
  • 3. Call the number and navigate a labyrinth of menu options until you ultimately give up and repeatedly slam your head into the “0” in the vain hopes that a real person will pick up on the other line.
  • 4. Wait.
  • 5. Wait some more.
  • 6. Go through the motions of repeating every step on that support rep’s script, including powering the device off and on again, even though you’ve already done that and you really just want to know why the “Z” key keeps popping off the keyboard and nailing you in the eye.
  • 7. Be informed that your device either just crossed over the limited 1-year warranty deadline, or that your problem, no matter how easy it is to fix, is somehow not covered and you’ll have to send the product to their repair facility at your expense.
  • 8. Wait 6-8 weeks for the company to repair it, only to have it come back just as, if not more broken than before.
  • 9. Rinse, repeat.


  • 1. Go to your original place of purchase (Best Buy, Walmart, etc…)
  • 2. Be told your product is either out of warranty or that a repair will cost you money.
  • 3. Argue with the support technician.
  • 4. Leave with one of two things: 1) Your broken device still broken, or 2) Having spent several hundred dollars to fix the problem, including an extra $50 for a “diagnostic fee.”

Most electronics companies do not operate stores in the same fashion as Apple. If they do have stores, they’re either showrooms where you can demo the latest products, or they’re mini-stores that pop up inside larger “big-box” retailers. They may have staff trained to answer simple questions about the products, but they most certainly do not have one of the most valuable benefits of the Apple Store experience: the Genius Bar. Microsoft is the only company I’ve seen that has modeled its stores after Apple’s (in some cases, quite literally), with its own version of the Genius Bar–the Answer Desk.

Before we go any further, I’m sure there are plenty of readers who have Genius Bar horror stories, or who have experienced less-than-stellar customer service, but going off of my own experiences, I can safely say I’ve never had a better experience getting a product repaired or replaced than at an Apple Genius Bar. The Genius Bar represents the Apple we all romanticize, the Apple we imagine has our backs whenever we need it. The one that says, “We’re with you every step of the way, even if you stumble sometimes.”

The beauty of the Genius Bar is in its forehead-slapping simplicity: a place to take your questions and your broken products so you can yell at a real live person about them. Samsung doesn’t give you that in the U.S., though it does have Apple Store clones in certain countries around the world, like Australia. But little is known about Samsung’s “Smart Tutors”. Are they like Geniuses, in that they are able to provide actual technical support for customers’ devices, or are they there to answer simple questions, like “How do I send a tweet?” and “How can I get my email on my phone?”

HP doesn’t have anything like the Genius Bar. Sony has showroom stores, but forget about getting your busted VAIO screen fixed. With all the imitation happening on the product side, why hasn’t a company thought to clone what makes Apple truly special–the complete experience?

Obviously, money is a problem. Opening up and running retail operations won’t work for all companies. Samsung could do it, considering its extensive line of televisions, phones, tablets, and cameras, and it sounds like it might be experimenting with its “Experience” shops in Best Buy. However, something like this might be harder for the HTCs and HPs of the world, though a company could take a page from Apple’s and Microsoft’s books and start by opening up a few stores in some key areas around the country to gauge performance.

There are other ways to offer superior customer support if you can’t be there in person. Amazon has started to think outside the box with its “Mayday” button on its Kindle Fire tablets, allowing owners to press a button and talk to a live human about their devices. Hover, the domain registrar, promises that whenever you call, you’ll always talk to a real person–never a menu. For most companies, I’d even settle for fewer menu options.

On Samsung’s support page, there are six consumer-focused support categories and six separate phone numbers. That alone wouldn’t be terrible, but how the categories are separated makes matters worse.

Mobile phones is one category and Laptop, Printer, Galaxy Tabs (Wifi Only) is another. Tell me:

  1. Are Galaxy Note 10.1 tablets considered mobile phones, or part of the Galaxy Tab category?
  2. Where do the Galaxy Tabs with cellular capabilities fall?
  3. Why not just make a “tablets” category with its own number?

On Sony’s main support number, the first thing the eerily perky prerecorded voice tells the customer is to go to esupport.sony.com first to try to troubleshoot any problems. In other words, Sony doesn’t want its call centers to be a customer’s first destination. It wants that person to flounder for a while before throwing in the towel.

That’s the case with almost all of these corporations. They bury their contact information and live help links deep within the bowels of their support pages while shoving the DIY solutions in your face first. They want you to do the leg work before you have to rely on their employees and even then, it’s no picnic. Below are some choice horror stories pulled from Consumerist:

Samsung Wants To Patch Up My Defective Phone So It Can Break Again

3 Years Is The Warranty Length, Not How Long It Should Take To Get Your Computer Back

HP: No, Downgrading To Windows 7 Doesn’t Really Void Your Warranty“–On this last one, an HP Enterprise support rep originally told the customer that downgrading to Windows 7 would void his computer’s warranty. The customer then found out that wasn’t true, but what’s maddening is that he was told that in the first place.

Apple is not without its own problems. There are less-capable Geniuses, as well as employees who may not be as forgiving or helpful as others. No customer support entity is perfect, but being able to hand your computer to a properly trained individual and have him or her look at it in front of you is incredibly satisfying. You don’t have to hope your technician is familiar enough with your device or problem and you don’t have to wade through a script on the other end of the line, as Apple has specific Geniuses designated to specific products. There’s an iPod guy and a Mac girl and an iPad dude, all of whom are presumably familiar with anything life throws at the products they’re trained in.

This brings us to the other benefit of Apple’s in-person support system. A random voice on the other line isn’t a face. It isn’t a real person to the customer, nor the support rep. However, seeing a person and talking to him or her one-on-one adds a sorely-needed dose of humanity to an otherwise inhumane process. The Genius can see the horror in the customer’s eyes when she realizes she just lost all her photos. The customer can see that the Genius is doing everything in her power to make her client happy. I’ve had several occurrences where my laptop was just outside of its warranty and the Genius I’d spoken to had waived a fee or replaced a broken power cord free of charge just to make sure I was happy. Those little things make a difference and it’s evidence that Apple isn’t just ahead of its competitors in the consumer electronics space, but in the customer support space as well. This is a huge phase of the product life cycle that needs to change across the board.

Today’s tech companies need to provide easy and clear ways for customers to receive support for their devices. Traversing the Wild West landscape of telephone menus and online support forums isn’t how loyalty is won, nor is having to deal with the ineptitude of non-official support services. These tired practices don’t instill confidence in buyers when making their purchases. I know that when I buy a new Mac, iPhone, or iPad, I’m not only getting a high-end machine, but also a high-end support experience with it.

That’s not to say all companies should open retail locations and Genius Bars, but if they are going to provide only telephone- and/or internet-based customer services, those services have to be as streamlined and user-friendly as possible. They should want their first lines of defense to be the last, not the first of six or seven.

And yes, I understand Apple does not have stores in every country, nor in every city in the U.S., but its presence is definitely felt and its support philosophies extend from the Genius Bar to its other support avenues all over the world. Apple Stores may not be everywhere, but the steps the company is taking to push customer support forward are not being followed almost anywhere else.

People can (wrongly) lament the lack of innovation in Apple’s products all they want. They can cry about how their Retina iPad minis don’t have TouchID, or how their iPad Airs are still too heavy to hold in one hand, but they need to check their priorities. When their tablets and phones and computers break, there is a company behind them to fix them. There are real people to talk to in-person who can hopefully come to some consensus about how to solve these problems. Customers don’t have to wait for return postage in the mail, they don’t have to hope their devices make it back to the repair facilities once they mail them out, and if the problems are easy to fix, they can most likely have the services performed on-site while they wait–or have the device swapped out for a new one entirely.

Without us even realizing, Apple revolutionized customer service by doing what it does best: thinking like a consumer.

Attention Developers and Publishers: Apple is Not Your Publicist

Apple’s App Store is a boon for many developers and budding entrepreneurs. It offers individuals the ability to create something from nothing with a worldwide distribution channel that costs them $99 per year to use. Apple is the portal. It is not, however, where a developer’s marketing ends.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber recently posted a link to a Tumblr blog called “Eff Your Review“, a website that highlights developers’ egregious demand for star ratings from the people who use their apps. Gruber has offered a tongue-in-cheek way for everyone to get what they want:

…I’d encourage Daring Fireball readers, whenever they encounter these “Please rate this app” prompts, to go ahead and take the time to do it — but to rate the app with just one star and to leave a review along the lines of, “One star for annoying me with a prompt to review the app.”

Eff Your Review’s tagline is “If I wanted to leave a review of your app I would have,” a passive aggressive dig at developers looking for feedback in what the blog’s operator(s) deem to be annoying and distracting. Except, both Gruber and Eff Your Review are shrugging off a big detriment to the App Store’s popularity: discovery.

Reviews are necessary for both developers and users. A highly rated app is more likely to both be found and downloaded by a customer. Low-rated apps get bumped down in the list. They’re ignored for better-rated ones in the same category. How does it help anyone if a fantastic app gets a one- or two-star rating simply because it deigned to ask for a quick review?

Of course, there’s always another side to an argument, as Ben Brooks states:

__Your__ app isn’t the only one nagging them to review. In fact, if it was just one app every once and a while nagging the users, then users would likely never care — but it’s not just one app every once and a while. Actually most apps, most of the time, are nagging thus creating a feeling of constantly being nagged.

Being asked by one app for a review is one thing, but when every app takes you out of the experience, it can seem maddening. Even worse is when an app you’ve already rated keeps nagging for another review and it doesn’t look like Apple is providing alternative means for developers to solicit the necessary feedback to keep their app ratings up, but does it have to?

Apple’s alleged lack of attention has also affected another area of the App Store: Newsstand visibility.

For those who may not be aware, Newsstand, Apple’s homescreen folder for iOS publications, can now be tucked inside another folder. Users rejoiced at the ability to hide an app they never used, but publishers, such as The Magazine‘s Glenn Fleishman, aren’t thrilled with the UX change. Fleishman was interviewed by Pando Daily’s Hamish McKenzie for an article about Newsstand and had this to say:

“I get email regularly from readers who say that they forget that issues come out.”

McKenzie continues:

Fleishman uses push notifications to remind readers when a new issue is available, but there’s a limit on how many such reminders you can send before you start getting on people’s nerves. He’s considering changing The Magazine to a weekly publication, even if it publishes the same number of stories as it currently does, just as a way to justify reaching out to readers on a more frequent basis.

So, users don’t like being nagged by push notifications on the availability of new issues. What about email blasts? Twitter, Facebook, and App.net announcements?

(Author’s note: I have contributed to The Magazine in the past.)

He believes Apple doesn’t think the Newsstand is as important as it once was, because the company hasn’t made enough changes to improve it. His view is supported by Marko Karppinen of digital publishing startup Richie, who has argued that it now makes more sense for publishers to prioritize a stand-alone app over a Newsstand app because, to paraphrase John Gruber, the Newsstand is now more than ever a place where apps go to be forgotten.

The job of marketing a publication is up to the publisher, not Apple. If Newsstand is where “apps go to be forgotten”, it is because publishers have let them become forgotten. It’s like saying Amazon is where Kindle books go to die, or Barnes & Noble should do a better job at promoting one particular magazine.

Marko Karppinen believed, like many early Newsstand publishers, readers would adjust to Apple’s decision:

The segregation of Newsstand apps into the Newsstand folder wasn’t ever a positive aspect of Newsstand, but we were optimistic and thought that perhaps readers would form new habits around it. As an industry, we decided to give it a go. Apart from some early successes, attributable to a first-mover advantage, that was a mistake.

What if obscurity isn’t the real issue here? What if constant reminders aren’t the true problem with subscriber loss? Perhaps Newsstand publications are losing subscribers because people just aren’t interested in the content.

The Magazine of 2012 is much different from The Magazine of today. As Federico Viticci of MacStories put it back when The Magazine first launched, “Marco Arment’s The Magazine falls exactly under this aspect of writing. It’s about people who love technology, delivered as a curated collection of articles from great writers.” Unfortunately, this model didn’t sit well with a portion of early subscribers. Here are some reviews plucked directly from the App Store:

__Won’t last…__

Love the clean look but for basically 8 articles a month, the Magazine won’t last. Marco said he’s gonna give it two months to see if it turns a profit. Might as well close up shop now.

Words are cheap and $2 a month for some tech pontificating isn’t worth the cost in my opinion.

— BB92647

> __This is a Blog not an App__

After reading several tech blogs hyping The Magazine, I thought I’d try it. Okay, it’s a collective blog in an app and not even a rich one – just text no images, no videos, no interactivity. While I’m plenty techy, maybe I’m just not geeky enough to understand why this is a) worth being an App rather than a web blog and b) why I would want to pay for this content

— DLwhite6

Over the last year, The Magazine‘s content has shifted away from primarily tech-focused pieces and delved into such topics as typewriter repair, bicycling in the Netherlands, and caffeine’s effect on runners. To call its content “eclectic” would be an understatement. When people subscribe to publications like Men’s Fitness and Forbes, they know what kind of articles to expect, but The Magazine isn’t targeting a specific niche anymore. They’re publishing interesting articles, but the topics vary so wildly the chance an average subscriber is going to read a few paragraphs to see if she enjoys a piece is slim. App Store obscurity may be the least of its worries.

What about other Newsstand entities that do cater to more niche-focused readers? Jamie Smyth, co-founder of TypeEngine, had this to say about Newsstand’s role in subscriber loss:

Ultimately the responsibility to retain subscribers is up to the publication. They need to produce content of a quality and on a schedule that resonates with their readers. There any number of things that can result in a publication to lose subscribers over time, but I don’t think the mechanics of using Newsstand is one of those factors.

Smyth points out that marketing efforts vary for publishers large and small, including simple tactics like posting links on blogs and social media, all the way to taking out ads on Facebook and topic-oriented websites. For example, “a dog magazine has purchased some ad space on a couple of dog web sites, and that seems to have helped.”

He also goes on to mention how important push notifications are to the marketing process, as “they bring the content to the user and remind them of the new adventures that are just a swipe away.” TypeEngine actually delivers two push notifications automatically to its apps.

One is an invisible one and wakes up the app and tells it to download the new issue in the background. We delay sending the visible one by a few minutes to give the app a chance to finish download the issue. That way, when the user sees the notification, the content is (should be) already there.

Publishers can also customize the notifications so they don’t say the same stock message every time. The result of these combined marketing and push notification efforts? “Some of our publications have done remarkably well…some people are making a living from selling TypeEngine Newsstand apps.”

This brings us back to the topic of review notifications from earlier. Smyth doesn’t think they’re a problem if they’re handled properly.

Regarding prompting the user for reviews, it’s a solved problem in my opinion. The publisher wants reviews, but they only want __good__ reviews. You can subtly guide the user to leave a review if they like the app, and send you an email if the user sees a problem. Guidelines: – If you decide to pop up the prompt to rate the app (which I don’t recommend) only do so once. __Ever__. – In the settings panel show an action something like “Love our app? Leave a review” and guide the user to rate the app.

He also suggests offering a way to email bugs and issues to the developer via an action in the settings panel. “The trick is to answer those emails or else those people will leave you a bad review.”

But in not recommending the modal prompt, this still leaves the problem open. How do developers solicit reviews from users without bothering them? In reality, they can’t. This is the Internet and its denizens want what they want the way they want it without any hindrance. To them, review reminders are the pop-up ads of the mobile era, a problem in need of a solution no one has yet to provide. Sure, we hate having to take the one second is requires to dismiss a dialog box, but in all the blog posts whining about this issue, no one has suggested any real ways in which developers can fix it.

In fact, more time was probably spent writing those pieces than it would’ve taken each writer to review five apps on their iPhones. Priorities shift when you feel you’ve been wronged, even over something as trivial to the user as a review request.

Not everyone has the reach of a John Gruber. Marco Arment’s forthcoming podcatching app may lack the features of its more mature brethren, but that won’t stop hundreds of people from downloading it day one. For those individuals, reviews may not be as necessary to their apps’ success as they are to lesser-known developers and we must remember that.

Until Apple modifies its App Store ranking algorithms, or until users wise up and leave the reviews developers need, nothing is going to change. I’d like to think we’ll all become benevolent customers and give the people who build the things we use what they need, but since we still complain every time a developer dares to charge two dollars for a software update, I’m not holding out much hope.

Independent developers and publishers most likely don’t have large marketing budgets. Aside from social media, blog posts, and the occasional reviews on high-traffic sites, they depend on user reviews for decent App Store placement and, in turn, financial stability.

Apple is not to blame for a magazine’s loss in subscribers. It’s not to blame for an app’s poor sales. It’s not up to Apple to promote one’s work. The onus is on us to give Apple a reason to do so.

Apple’s Vision of Computing is a Lot Simpler Than We Realize

With the introduction of the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display, Apple has given customers more freedom than it (as well as other manufacturers) ever did with desktop computers. It’s not freedom of choice, but rather freedom from choice.

I know, it sounds like Apple has taken choice away, which usually results in a disappointing and often frustrating experience for the consumer. However, what’s happened here is Apple has taken the headache out of purchasing a line of its products, which I predict will spread in the coming years to its other categories. It’s no longer a paralyzing decision between bigger and faster vs. smaller and slower. Now, we just need to know how big we want our screens.

As Engadget’s Brad Molen points out in his iPad mini review:

This year is a different story. Not only did the iPad (now called the iPad Air) get redesigned to look just like the mini, but it also offers virtually the same specs as the smaller model. In many respects, the smaller tablet is now a scaled-down iPad Air — precisely what Apple seemed to be avoiding last year when it debuted the original mini with inferior specs. Now, the company wants its tablets to be equal in everything but screen size, so you don’t have to feel like you’re making any sacrifices by choosing the mini.

When we buy a new computer, be it desktop or laptop, we’re always asking ourselves the same questions. What will I use it for? How fast should it be? How much RAM do I need? Which screen size is best? When I purchased my MacBook Air in 2011, I asked myself all of those questions before and *during* the transaction, then followed them up with, “Did I make the right choice?” and “Should I have gotten more RAM?”

But Apple is changing the game now. Ben Bajarin writes:

With the new iPad Mini Retina being available, I know many are still wrestling with which iPad to get. My true sense is that for those computer users who are stationary for long periods of time and use a notebook or desktop in that context they will favor the iPad Mini as a companion to that computing context. But I share my experience for those who are more mobile than they are stationary and are looking for a device that lends itself to more heavy lifting while still being extremely mobile friendly. Which for me is the iPad Air.

The question of, “What kind of user am I?” once involved the level of power required of one’s device. Are you a music or video producer? Perhaps a Mac Pro or a fully decked-out iMac are your go-to computing choices. Maybe you’re a student looking to write papers, watch Netflix, and play Candy Crush at the back of the class. In that case, a 13-inch MacBook Pro might be up your alley. Or a MacBook Air. But which size? 11-inch? Thirteen? It’s maddening.

Now, with the iPad, the “What kind of user am I?” question really only applies to the types of activities you plan on performing. Are you a heavy content consumer focused on reading and watching movies on your daily train commute? Maybe you want something to accompany you to the doctor’s office while you wait to be called. The mini could be for you. Or you might be the exec-on-the-go, required to take notes during meetings and create numerous documents for an upcoming client pitch. Or you’re a novelist who actually enjoys writing in Pages (I’ve heard those people exist…somewhere) and you just need a lot of room to read your words. I bet that Air looks pretty good right now.

And if you plan on podcasting, or recording an indie album, or editing a home movie, or any number of formerly processor-intensive tasks, either model works. They’re nearly identical in power and speed, just not in size. Both devices are equally capable at running the same apps and doing the same things–it just comes down to preference of size.

Federico Viticci at MacStories puts it best:

You don’t hear people saying that, because of the size differences, the 13-inch MacBook Air is for consumption and the 15-inch MacBook Pro is for creation. The new iPads should be treated just like MacBooks: choose the size you prefer, and expect creation and consumption capabilities from both.

The 2013 iPads represent a new era of computing where the the hassles of checklists and charts have been removed from the equation. Of course, this will irk some who think we’re increasingly dumbing things down for the end user, but I see this as a necessary evolution of technology. Computers are tools, like hammers and cars and OXO’s version of the Slap Chop (seriously, I haven’t had to dice onions with a knife in years. Look into it.) Geeks and the more computer literate may care how much RAM or raw processing power is available in the latest iMac, but we’re getting to a point where that won’t matter for the majority of users anymore.

One day, we’ll be able to walk into an Apple Store and step up to a table with three different laptops on it–one at 11-inches, one at 13-inches, and one at 15-inches. They’ll all have the same processors, the same graphics capabilities, the same RAM, and the same form factor. It’ll just be a matter of which size fits us best. Will that annoy those who require more flexibility and customization from their machines? Absolutely. But then again, they weren’t the intended audience anyway.

So, while we wait for that day to come, let’s prepare by visiting the table across the aisle.

Apple Isn’t Hurting Microsoft, Microsoft is Hurting Microsoft

We always hurt the ones we love, and nobody loves Microsoft more than Microsoft. In a recent blog post, Frank Shaw, the company’s Corporate Vice President of Communications, took aim at Apple’s October 22nd keynote–specifically the part where Apple made its iWork suite of productivity applications free for new Mac and iPad/iPhone buyers.

Now, since iWork has never gotten much traction, and was already priced like an afterthought, it’s hardly that surprising or significant a move. And it doesn’t change the fact that it’s much harder to get work done on a device that lacks precision input and a desktop for true side-by-side multitasking.

There are many parts of this post that read like Shaw wrote them half curled up on his bathroom floor, slowly rocking himself back and forth, so it’s entirely possible he couldn’t see the differences between his company and Apple. I’ll try to spell them out.

Apple is not a software company. It is a hardware company that makes software. Want to know why Apple didn’t release a cheap-o plastic iPhone running lower-end hardware for the Chinese market as so many tech pundits wrongly assumed would happen? Margins. And because Apple derives so much of its profits from hardware, it’s able to give away its operating system and first-party apps without taking a significant hit. In fact, it may help boost sales of desktops and laptops if potential customers learn they won’t have to shell out money every time they need to update.

On the other side of the coin, there’s Microsoft, which obtains a solid chunk of its revenue through software (Windows and Office), as well as through its enterprise deals. There is no right way or wrong way here. Both methods are completely valid as long as one knows what one is doing. This is where Microsoft starts to fall apart.

Since Jobs’s return to Apple in the late nineties, the company has been primarily a consumer electronics company. The iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and all the rest were designed for average consumers (read: non-enterprise customers). That’s not to say businesses haven’t benefited from these devices, but they were not the original targets. Apple knew that in order to penetrate the business sector, it had to become a hit with consumers first, which it inevitably did and led to a massive increase in the BYOD trend.

Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn’t had as much success in the consumer market since the early 2000s. What was once a major player in the smartphone arena pre-2007 lost out on market share and customer loyalty when the iPhone hit the scene. The soon-to-be-ex-CEO’s arrogance at the time also did not help things. Microsoft introduced tablets in 2002 and they went very few places except certain industries, like engineering and medicine–and they weren’t even that widespread there, either. It wasn’t until Apple unveiled the iPad, complete with its own App Store, that non-business consumers saw the benefit of a personal touchscreen slate device.

It’s not the nineties anymore. Microsoft can’t rest its laurels upon its ubiquity, especially in the new areas being dominated by Apple and Samsung. In the phone and tablet markets, Microsoft is, sadly, irrelevant. But why? Where did it go wrong? It wasn’t just because it skipped a few cycles and emerged on the scene later than it should have. And it’s not because Microsoft isn’t capable of making good hardware. It comes down to one simple problem that has held the company back for a long time: Microsoft refuses to choose.

Apple chose to focus its products on the consumer market. Even its Pro desktops and laptops, which are used in high-level industries like video and audio production, are accessible enough for customers of all types, not just professionals. Its operating system, Mac OS X, is a one-size-fits-all regardless of your needs (servers excluded). There are no versions for “Home”, “Business”, “Home Plus Except on Weekends and the High Holy Days”, et al.

Microsoft, however, tried to have it both ways. It wanted to retain the grip it had on the consumer space in the 1990s, while also catering to its loyal business users and what it got was an operating system and a tablet/laptop (tabtop? laplet? tabletoplet?) with an identity crisis. By refusing to make a decision as to which direction the company should go–consumer vs. business–it alienated both segments equally.

Windows 8, specifically the RT version, doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a touchscreen OS? If so, why does the user have to access legacy Windows to run certain apps? And if old-style Windows is there, why doesn’t it run regular Windows applications like Windows 8 proper does?

As for the Surface, Microsoft can pretend its creation is a tablet all it wants. Frank Shaw’s imagination certainly hasn’t slowed down:

And it’s why the Surface is the most productive tablet you can buy today. We also knew that it would make our competitors take notice. That as consumers got a taste of devices that could really help them get things done, they would see alternatives as being more limited.

If you watch the video Tim Cook introduces about 62 minutes into the keynote, it really drives home the fact that the iPad is as productive as its owner wants it to be. The device is not limited by an extra attachment, nor must it be situated in a single position in order to be useful. Would combine operators be able to manage their machines if they had to balance their tablets on their laps with a flimsy keyboard attached? Are desktop tap targets still as tappable when you’re trying to see them while navigating a shipwreck? How long will you be able to hold a Surface one-handed while drawing plays on the sideline so the rest of your team can see?

The reality is the Surface tries to be a laptop and it tries even harder to be a tablet, but it doesn’t accomplish either particularly well. The running joke among the tech press has been that Microsoft’s “no compromise” approach is actually one big compromise. The sad reality is that it’s not a joke. The other reality facing Microsoft is that one of its two major cash cows is no longer the reason people buy its devices.

[The Surface and Surface 2] come with full versions of Office 2013, including Outlook, not non-standard, non-cross-platform, imitation apps that can’t share docs with the rest of the world.

You used to buy a Windows PC because everyone had Windows PCs. All the major programs were written for Windows and it became the de facto standard for almost every office and home on the planet. Windows ran the world and because of its wide reach, we all grew accustomed to the Office suite of applications. Writing a report? You used Word. Needed to do a presentation on plant life in the rainforest? PowerPoint and its atrocious sound effects were there to add glass-shattering emphasis to that clip art on slide two. Your email was stored in Outlook and your numbers were crunched in Excel and there was nothing you could do about it because nothing else came close to the power and reach of Microsoft Office.

Then came the iPad.

Netbooks all but died out. PC sales declined. Customers opted for small and lightweight vs. big and cumbersome. And all the while, PC makers and Microsoft assumed customers would come crawling back because the iPad was for fun, not work.

While Apple may not have the most capable productivity software suite around, its App Store has opened the gate for independent developers and larger software houses to fill the gap left by Microsoft’s absence. No one seemed to care that Microsoft Office was missing and they certainly weren’t won over when it finally arrived for only the iPhone and as a subscription service.

As for the other work you’re able to get done on the iPad, name an industry and you’re sure to find an app (or six) that perform the work as easily, if not more so, than their desktop counterparts.

Apple chose to attack a market it knew it could penetrate by creating beautiful, focused products that ran easily accessible software. Does Apple make the best software? Not always, but the user experiences afforded by its devices combined with fabulous third party software more than make up for its shortcomings.

Microsoft chose to hit two different segments at once. Windows 8 promised the same great taste people have enjoyed for over 20 years with the new shininess of Metro. Its refusal to commit to one OS, or at the very least one OS per form factor a la Apple, left a sour taste in customers’ mouths. They were confused and angry and Microsoft was forced to back-pedal on some of its more “egregious” decisions. Businesses are just starting to upgrade from XP to Windows 7 and it doesn’t look like Windows 8 is even on their radars.

On the hardware side, the Surface hit the same flat notes as Windows 8 did. Customers didn’t want a heavy, widescreen tablet with a bulky cover they couldn’t operate with one hand. Oh, but it has Office? How about OmniFocus? Editorial? GarageBand? The countless niche apps one may need to perform certain specialized tasks? Microsoft has yet to learn that productivity does not begin and end with Office.

So, with Microsoft’s dominance waning and its software sales slipping, where does it go from here? It could prove worthy competition for Android in the low-end smartphone market, but it will still continue to struggle against Apple in the high-end. But other than that gamble, there’s nothing about the company’s current consumer strategy that’s hope-inducing–and yours truly is doing his best to remain hopeful. Some might chalk it up to a lack of focus or too much focus on the wrong things, but Microsoft’s biggest challenge right now is making up its mind.

Its dominance in the business sector is still relatively unchallenged, but times are changing and the Surface isn’t generating the numbers it needs to thrive with consumers. Which market does Microsoft want to focus on? Until it’s able to answer that question with anything other than “both”, it will continue to stumble along. The question then becomes for how long?

Pay TV Isn’t Going Anywhere

With each new day comes a new article about a tech writer’s failed attempt to cut the cord and a follow-up about how the Netflix model is the future of television. TechHive’s Mark Sullivan gazes into his crystal ball and predicts cable TV will be a relic of the past by 2025.

At the end of the first half of 2013, roughly 55 percent of the U.S. population (age 13 and up) had some type of streaming video subscription, says research house NPD. Of that total, 30 million subscribe to Netflix, at least 7 million watch the Amazon Instant Video service, and Hulu counts more than 4 million Hulu Plus subscribers.


“Over-the-top video is not small anymore,” says Brightcove’s Lai. “Netflix has 100 million subscribers, 30 million of those are [U.S.] streaming customers. Apple has sold 13 million Apple TV devices. Compare that to the cable operators. The biggest of them, Comcast, has no more than 22 million subscribers. All the pay TV operators combined have about 95 million subscribers.”

According to Netflix’s quarterly earnings statements, the company currently serves roughly 30 million U.S. subscribers and 9 million international subscribers. That’s a far cry from 100 million. Let’s look at the numbers from the major cable service providers. I’ll pick the big three in the United States: Comcast, Cablevision, and Verizon.


  1. Number of subscribers: 24.4 million
  2. Revenue Q2 2013: $5.175 billion (video only)
  3. Base monthly cost: [$70.49](http://www.oregonlive.com/silicon-forest/index.ssf/2013/08/comcast_cable_tv_rates_going_u.html)

Cablevision (PDF download)

  1. Number of subscribers: 3.224 million
  2. Revenue Q2 2013: $1.402 billion
  3. Base monthly cost: $54.95


  1. Number of subscribers: 5.035 million
  2. Revenue Q2 2013 (includes all FiOS services): $2.7 billion
  3. Base monthly video cost: $49.99

Side note: Could not locate individual video revenue for Verizon.

Compared with the big Internet streaming services:


  1. Number of Subscribers: 38.6 million
  2. Revenue Q2 2013: $1.1 billion
  3. Base monthly cost: $9

Amazon Instant Video

  1. Number of Subscribers: Amazon doesn’t release this information, but Prime subscriptions were at around 7.2 million in 2012.
  2. Revenue Q2 2013 (Amazon Prime subscriptions only): Amazon doesn’t release this information, but back of the napkin grain-of-salt math would put Prime revenue at $568.8 million in 2012.
  3. Base monthly cost: $6.59 ($79 per year)

Hulu Plus

  1. Number of Subscribers: 4 million
  2. Revenue Q2 2013: Hasn’t released this information, but allegedly earned $695 million in 2012
  3. Base monthly cost: $7.99

Netflix has 14 million more subscribers than Comcast and pulls in a fraction of the revenue. This is understandable since Comcast charges eight times the amount for its basic service and more than 10 times the amount once you’ve added on your movie and sports packages, but Netflix’s paltry income doesn’t mean its costs are less than those of the cable companies.

Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic breaks down the economics of it all:

With Netflix spending a reported $100 million to produce two 13-episode seasons of House of Cards, they need 520,834 people to sign up for a $7.99 subscription for two years to break even. To do that five times every year, then, the streaming TV site would have to sign up 2.6 million more subscribers than they would have. That sounds daunting, but at the moment, Netflix has 33.3 million subscribers, so this is an increase of less than 10 percent on their current *customer base.

Remember, Comcast, which serves 40 states, has 24.4 million subscribers. Netflix’s U.S. base is almost six million more than that, so they’ve already recouped their cost on House of Cards.

Then there’s HBO (emphasis mine):

HBO gets about $7 per month per subscriber from its 30 million or so fans, according to an analyst at SNL Kagain. Although the charge for HBO on your cable bill is something like $15, HBO splits the fee 50-50 or so with your cable company, according to The Economist. That puts it pretty close to Netflix. Those revenues also pay for some of the most expensive TV on cable: True Blood came in at around $5 million per episode. The debut of Boardwalk Empire cost $20 million alone. Then again, HBO is a prosperous outpost in a huge media empire, which helps with marketing and infrastructure costs. Netflix is all on its own.

HBO has the full backing of the cable companies (fueled by commissions from sales staff) working to build up its customer base. It has an established infrastructure that allows it to produce its own content, as well as license content from various movie studios. It’s been at this a long time and knows how much it has to pay to air the latest and greatest films once they’ve reached video. To studios and cable operators, HBO isn’t just a channel, but a globally known and beloved brand. As the slogan says, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”

Netflix, however, continues to shoot itself in the foot:

The real problem for Netflix is that their subscription revenue is not growing as fast as their content costs. Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, told Bloomberg News’ Cliff Edwards. “Netflix will continue to generate negative cash flow going forward, driven by the company’s ever-increasing streaming commitments,” he said


Basically, subscriptions haven’t kept up with high costs for content, like this $200 million one with Epix to lease Paramount, Lionsgate, and MGM hits.

Netflix has seen the effect original programming has had on channels like HBO and Showtime. The key to obtaining and maintaining subscribers is to provide content they can’t get anywhere else. I can only watch Boardwalk Empire on HBO and I can only watch House of Cards on Netflix.

However, I (and I’m sure many other people) also subscribe to HBO in order to watch hot new releases without wanting to rent or buy them from iTunes. I come for Game of Thrones, but I stay to watch Les Miserables on a Sunday afternoon. That’s where Netflix is seriously lacking. Its current average rate of nine million subscribers a year won’t go on much longer while its non-original content offerings are as sparse as they are. Aside from some great TV shows, the film selection looks like a SyFy channel B-movie marathon.

Compounded with its chronic overpayment for content from all over the world, Netflix’s current strategy doesn’t seem sustainable. Will it focus more on providing exclusive original content, or will it pump money into licensing deals with studios for better films? Since it doesn’t have the support of a filthy rich daddy like HBO does, it needs to choose wisely, especially since it’s working overtime to pay off its $500 million debt.

I completely understand the want and need to cut the cord. I’d love to see Sullivan’s fantasy come true. Paying upwards of $150 per month for cable and Internet from price-gouging, customer-hostile cable companies is awful and expensive. I hope the future will be different, but 10 years isn’t that long, especially when we’re talking about a glacial industry such as television. And if the music industry is any indication, streaming is not the solution everyone had hoped it would be.

In order for Internet television to truly take off, broadband needs to be available everywhere and it needs to be faster. Rural areas still have no viable option for speedy Internet except for cost-prohibitive satellite services. The same goes for cable TV, which is probably why products like these still exist. Speeds must also be unthrottled and increased across the board, and that will require substantial upgrades to existing infrastructure, the cost of which will be passed down to the consumer.

Bottom line: You’re either paying a lot for cable, or you’re paying a lot for Internet. The idea that getting rid of cable will be cheaper in the long run is merely a myth.

Netflix is growing and it’s becoming a major player in content distribution. However, it is not an empire. It does not have the pull in the industry that the cable companies command. It believes in overpaying for content in the hopes that the investment will encourage new members to sign up, but spending hundreds of millions of dollars on 6-7 original shows with very little (or no) return on investment is a dangerous way of conducting business.

I have no doubt that streaming content services will grow substantially in the coming years, but will they kill cable within that time? To quote Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: No.

What’s Wrong With the Windows Phone?

If you read the gadget blogs, especially those run by people who focus primarily on a single company, the overwhelming feeling is that Microsoft should just give up the consumer phone market and let Apple and Android duke it out. After all, what good is trying when you only have 4 percent market share I certainly hope none of these people are teachers.

I’m not here to argue in favor of one operating system over the other, nor am I here to declare my allegiance to any particular flavor. I don’t want any OS to fail. I want competition. How boring would the mobile market be if the only two contenders left were iOS and Android? It wouldn’t benefit anyone.

Instead, I’m going to ask some questions: Why isn’t Windows Phone gaining the traction it needs to thrive in such a cut-throat industry? What’s holding it back and what can be done to fix the problem? And I do want this problem fixed because Windows Phone has a lot to offer and the mobile world would be worse off without it.

How It’s Sold

I performed a little experiment recently which led me to a few carrier stores to see how they pitch phones to customers. I went in with a story, one that isn’t entirely untrue, about how my wife is planning on buying her first smartphone soon (she carries an old school Nokia flip phone) and was looking for some recommendations. I told the sales people she needed:

* Something easy to use
* A decent web browser
* Apps for reading, social media, and watching TV

At the Verizon store, the salesman immediately said, “She’s going to want a Galaxy S4 or a Droid.” I asked why and he said, “She’ll be able to run a ton of apps and the browser’s pretty good.” I asked him about the iPhone and he said it was also great, but she wouldn’t be able to download attachments from the browser. I wasn’t sure why that was such an important feature, but I let it go.

When I asked about Windows Phone, he said, “I love Windows Phone. I really liked it when I had it as my work phone, but there just aren’t enough apps.” From my brief interaction with this gentleman, it sounded like he was pushing Android because he used Android personally, but I wasn’t entirely sure.

At the AT&T store, I spun the same yarn about my wife and the salesman’s first choice this time was the iPhone. Not only that, but he suggested that if this was her first smartphone, she might want to skip the iPhone 5 and just get the 4S. He said it’d have the same great apps and browser, and it was super easy to use.

Once again, I had to ask the sales person for information on Windows Phone and once again, he said he loved it and that it was also very easy to get the hang of, but it lacked a lot of the apps people wanted.

So, two recurring issues I encountered in the carrier stores were:

1. Lack of mention of Windows Phone at all without further prodding from the customer.
2. A lack of apps when compared to the ginormous app stores of iOS and Android.

It was a matter of, “We love it, but we can’t recommend it.”


Okay, so carriers aren’t exactly encouraging customers to buy Windows Phone devices. Surely then, a phone that isn’t the iPhone needs solid advertising to propel it forward. What’s fascinating about Microsoft’s Windows Phone ads is that many of them are quite fun and charming, unlike the Surface ads with break-dancing office workers.

The “Really?” ad that first appeared with the launch of Windows Phone 7 made it clear what the OS was all about: getting you your information without the need to open individual apps. It was funny and poignant and told the audience, “Here’s something new and different.”

Then came the celebrity-endorsed commercials featuring Jessica Alba and Gwen Stefani, which featured the entertainers explaining to the audience why they loved their Windows Phones. These ads were what we’d been clamoring for from the likes of Motorola and Samsung, who decided being robots and insulting prospective buyers were the ways into shoppers’ hearts. These new celeb ads demoed the capabilities of Windows Phone, like the Kid Zone, pinning apps to the Start screen, and getting pertinent information via Live Tiles, similar to how Apple’s first ads for the iPhone were essentially 30 second tutorials.

It’s hard to say whether celebrity endorsements matter much these days. Some of the least beloved iPhone ads were the ones where actors like Zooey Deschanel and Samuel L. Jackson used Siri to order soup and make gazpacho. And since many smartphones offer the same basic functions, ads need to show off the “killer features” and leave an impression with viewers, which is where the Siri ads work, but would they have worked just as well with “normal” people?

Enter the “Wedding” and “Perfect Shot” Microsoft/Nokia ads. In the first commercial, feuding guests take verbal and physical shots at one another while defending their respective “tribes” (iOS and Android), all while the Windows Phone-wielding catering staff mock them for their silliness. This commercial didn’t demo any features, but it did make a splash when it first aired and for two good reasons:

1. It was funny.
2. It prominently featured Microsoft’s competitors, Apple and Samsung.

Number two is what confused many. Microsoft/Nokia, already a distant third in the mobile race, were airing an advertisement that clearly displayed devices made by the competition. What made matters worse was the line uttered by the male waiter: “Do you think if they knew about the Nokia Lumia, they’d stop fighting all the time?” The Lumia 920 featured in the ad had been out for almost a year before the commercial aired. If they didn’t already, why would they want to know about a phone that was going to be obsolete in a matter of months?

The Microsoft/Nokia “Perfect Shot” ad for the Lumia 1020 features much of the same cast from the “Wedding” ad and shows off a new, currently available phone. More specifically, it advertises the biggest draw of the device: the 41-megapixel camera and its impressive zoom.

“Perfect Shot” has a similar theme to “Wedding” in that an audience of proud moms, dads, and grandparents are all fighting with one another in order to get a prime view of their kids putting on a play. Again, the ad is chock full of iPhones, iPads, and Galaxies. Perhaps that fact doesn’t matter so much for this commercial, since there’s a clear narrative here: the Lumia 1020’s camera blows all other phone cameras and tablets out of the water.

It seems Microsoft/Nokia are getting a better idea of what advertisements work vs. which ones don’t. Got an amazing feature the other guys lack? Show it off and leave the break-dancing at home. But are these ads working for customers? Based on the growth of the platform over the last year, it’s certainly possible.


Let’s put the whole “Windows Phone is stagnant” idea to bed. You might not know it from the articles out there, but Windows Phone has grown since Nokia began exclusively making devices for it in 2012. Shipments nearly doubled from Q2 2012 to Q2 2013 and Nokia sold a record 7.4 million Lumia handsets last quarter, a 32% quarter-to-quarter increase in sales. Those aren’t the double-digit numbers of a Samsung or an Apple, but growth is growth and it’s good to see a company actually gaining market share instead of losing it.

What most bloggers tend to forget or ignore is that Nokia (the predominant and almost sole manufacturer of Windows Phones) makes a lot of its money outside the United States. The majority of Nokia’s sales occur in Europe and Asia where the company has held onto a sizable chunk of the market. Last quarter, sales in North America fell by 100,000 units from 600,000 to 500,000, but it will be interesting to see where things fall after the holidays. The Lumia 1020 with its 41-megapixel camera has been hyped up by several prominent bloggers and it’s all but convinced this fearless commentator to switch from iOS to Windows Phone when his contract is up next year.

Yes, that’s right. Pending any major breakthroughs announced between Apple’s iPhone event on September 10 and the end of my contract in the spring, yours truly will be switching to Windows Phone–specifically, to the next iteration of the Lumia 1020. That camera is the killer feature and enough to sway me away from iOS.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Harry, that’s crazy talk and it’s making me uncomfortable. Up is down, black is white, and I’m starting to think Hayden Christensen might not be that bad of an actor.” The world is indeed a scary place, but I was lucky enough to talk to some others who took the Metro-fied leap before me and inquire about their experiences with Windows Phone 8. What I found may shed some light on why the OS isn’t taking off, but why those who use it really love it.


I interviewed several people who use Windows Phone daily about their phones. What do they love? What do they hate? What do they wish they had?

The overwhelming theme I heard was that Windows Phone is a “polished” and “fluid” OS with a coherent, cohesive UX.

Kevin R. says:

“I still really love the flat design – particularly after maturing with Windows Phone 8. And I love the fluidity of live tiles, and that I can get headlines delivered right to my start screen. I also really love that it’s the best of both worlds between iOS and Android. It’s all very tightly controlled and integrated like Apple’s OS, but has a wide range of hardware options like Android.”

While the people I talk to on Twitter write off Live Tiles as a pointless gimmick, those who actually use them on a daily basis see much value in them. Additionally, Windows Phone 8’s “Me” tile, which brings a user’s social media content all under one roof, has gone over surprisingly well.

As Zack W. puts it:

Being able to go to my Me tile and post a quick update to Twitter or FB is really handy, and seeing my social notifications in a single stream is just so damn convenient.

But all is not well in Windows Phone land. There are some serious issues Microsoft needs to work out to appease most users. Zack W once again:

“There are some simple features that I feel are missing (custom alert sounds being one of them). What needs the most work? As a dev, I think it’s gotta be API access to developers. There needs to be more access to OS-level code, and more congruency with the WinRT API on the desktop.”

Zack wasn’t the only one who mentioned Windows on the desktop. Kevin R. noticed a serious schism between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8:

The way you share content is completely different, each platform has its own gestures for the same function, live tiles animate differently and display differently, selecting text works differently, the way the time and connectivity icons are display is different etc. Even when Windows Phone 8.1 drops the new app killing feature requires a different technique to Windows 8.

Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 may have Metro-style Start screens, but that’s where the similarities end. If Microsoft isn’t going to split Windows 8 into proper tablet and desktop operating systems, it’s going to have to work at unifying the experiences between its mobile and desktop platforms to make adoption easier on users.

Daniel, a third interviewee, rattled off a list of issues plaguing Windows Phone:

I believe OS functionality needs the most work. It’s missing core features and some of the current features need much improvement; the overall impression I get is that many aspects are half-baked. Here are some examples that I can remember off the top of my head:

  1. Push notifications totally disappear after only appearing very briefly, and sometimes only appear after I’ve unlocked the phone and used it for a bit. Also, the banners don’t show enough information.*
  2. Text selection is annoying; I find myself wrestling with it often.
  3. Autocorrect doesn’t correct often enough.
  4. I’ve found that Internet Explorer doesn’t render some websites properly.
  5. Mail shows emails that are in the spam folder in Inbox for my Yahoo Mail account.
    You can’t set a static IP address.

The lack of a proper notification center is a problem that keeps coming up and it’s something Microsoft is allegedly working on for an upcoming update.

Finally, the biggest complaint from sales staff, casual users, and the press is, of course, the lack of apps. But how accurate is that claim? And is it a matter of Windows Phone not having *enough* apps or not having *the right* apps?

Kevin R. thinks the “not enough” claim is bogus:

Windows Phone has some great developers who have brought Vine (6sec) and Instagram (6tag) apps that even official apps would find difficult to improve upon. The biggest issue is immediacy. We get everything too late, often when nobody cares any more. By the time w got Draw Something nobody remembered if even existed. That’s a common tale. And Words With Friends is a slow, buggy iOS app squeezed onto my Lumia.

It’s not a matter of which apps are coming to the platform, but, rather, a matter of *when* and their quality. There are already a number of great photo editing apps, productivity apps, note-taking apps, and games available on the platform, including FlipBoard, Jetpack Joyride, Hulu Plus, and apps from major content publishers like CNN and ABC News.

Obviously, iOS and Android get the best apps first and sometimes exclusively, but that’s not to say Windows Phone is lacking anything substantial. It’s just a matter of looking for the equivalent on the other side.

But none of the problems listed have been horrible enough to prevent these users from sharing the love. When I asked Daniel if he’d recommend Windows Phone to others, he said:

If they disliked iOS/Apple, yes. The kind of person who would benefit from it is someone who wants a fairly basic, but good smartphone.

Zack was even more forthcoming about his feelings:

I absolutely would, and do on a daily basis. If you want a smartphone that has modern style, plenty of speed, and provides a unified experience, no matter which device you choose to own/use, Windows Phone is definitely the platform for you.

The tech press is only too happy to declare Microsoft a failure and its deal with Nokia as a “strategic blunder“, but I’m going to take the optimistic route. I do think there’s room for a third contender and Windows Phone could very well fit that role.

Windows Phone is a platform hindered by poor word of mouth and Microsoft’s lack of updates. However, Nokia’s hardware execution is, in this writer’s opinion, on par with the HTC One and anything coming out of Cupertino. I’m hopeful Nokia will have a positive influence on Microsoft and force the company to take its mobile OS seriously. There’s so much good in there, it’d be a shame to see it disappear.

iTunes Radio: Apple’s Dark Horse for Streaming Music

After Apple’s keynote at WWDC 2013, all anyone could talk about was iOS 7. “It’s so different,” they gasped and everyone carried on about it for weeks. Unfortunately, they disregarded another important announcement from the event: iTunes Radio, the company’s foray into online music streaming.

Ask Pandora CEO Joe Kennedy about it and he’ll tell you he isn’t worried one bit:

“We’ve now been around for eight years. We’ve seen competitors large and small enter the market and, in some cases, exit the market […] I’ve never seen an analysis that identifies an effect from any competitor … we don’t see the picture changing.”

We’ve heard this before. BlackBerry neé RIM, Nokia, and Microsoft all shrugged off Apple’s iPhone when it was first announced and look how well that went.

Competitors are quick to write off Apple as a mild nuisance until it proves itself as not only a worthy adversary, but an industry-changing one. It happened with the iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air, and the iPad. On the services side, iTunes influenced Best Buy, Wal Mart, Microsoft, Nokia, Google, and many others to open their own music stores. Why should iTunes Radio be any different?

Pandora has three things to worry about with iTunes Radio coming up the walkway:

  • Innovation
  • Expansion
  • Revenue


Apple didn’t just decide to clone Pandora and offer another streaming service to confuse users. iTunes Radio offers numerous new features, aside from a recommendation engine powered by a user base of millions.

Like Pandora, iTunes Radio tracks what a person listens to over the air. However, it can also see what he or she downloads from iTunes. If the team behind iTunes Radio thinks the way other online radio listeners do, they’ll know what to stream based on that listener’s downloads. Online radio is a discovery and testing ground, but our libraries are for keeps. The more music we hear that’s like the music we own, the more we’ll use the service, leading to more purchases on iTunes. And because it will have access to years of previous iTunes purchases, it means fine tuning a station won’t have to be done from scratch the way it is with Pandora. iTunes Radio will know a listener’s tastes from day one.

Pandora still offers a very powerful recommendation service and is available on countless devices, like the Roku set-top box, Apple TV, certain car audio systems, and through its mobile apps, but has there been growth? Aside from its ubiquity, Pandora hasn’t changed much since 2007. iTunes Radio allows for finer tuning of personal stations, while Pandora only gives users the “thumb” buttons to determine “good” and “bad” for current tracks. iTunes Radio suggests full stations and genres, like “Dance Party” or “Summer Country” or “Trending on Twitter”, while Pandora languishes, waiting for you to tell it what to play. The addition of Siri to iTunes Radio lets users simply tell it to play a particular station or genre without having to type it in. That’s good news for car listeners. Even in beta, iTunes Radio shows more potential than Pandora.

From a service standpoint, Pandora has remained stagnant, resting on its laurels without a true competitor to challenge it. Spotify and Rdio are popular services for people who know what they want to listen to (and they do have their own discovery capabilities, as well), but Pandora has remained king for those times when we don’t know what we want to hear. When we think “discovery”, we tend to think “Pandora”.

For now.


As stated before, Pandora is widely available on a variety of devices and vehicles, but presence isn’t what’s key here. There needs to be a compelling reason to keep people coming back. Due to competitors like Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Rdio, Pandora recently lost some of its radio market share and with the introduction of iTunes Radio in the coming weeks, we should expect to see that share drop even more.

iTunes Radio will be built into every device running iOS 7 and the next iTunes update beginning this fall. Millions of Apple TV, iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone, and Mac users will be able to stream to their devices automatically without any additional accounts or software needed. Pandora is ubiquitous. iTunes Radio is seamless.

Apple’s push into motor vehicles with its iOS in the Car initiative will also give iTunes Radio an even bigger boost by incorporating it directly into the car’s computer system. Imagine heading out for your daily commute and accessing your own personalized radio station with the controls only a few inches (or a voice command) away, then carrying that station with you out of the car without having to reload it or lose your spot in a song.

At launch, iTunes Radio will be available in only the United States with thousands of songs from the iTunes Store behind it. This might sound like a problem, but Pandora hasn’t fared much better. It’s only available in the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia.

Considering Apple’s weight and influence in the music industry, I doubt iTunes Radio will remain exclusive for long. The U.S. is a large enough audience to gain traction and small enough for Apple to work out any kinks before going international. If you remember back in December 2003, the iTunes Store debuted only in the U.S. originally. One year later, it arrived in three new countries. Four months after that, nine more countries were added and it’s been growing exponentially ever since. iTunes Radio may spread even faster and I anticipate it will.

Apple’s radio service won’t find its way to Blu Ray players or TiVos, but it doesn’t have to in order to be successful. With over 300 million iOS devices in circulation all over the world, it’ll have plenty of reach, which means even more money in its coffers.


A few months ago, musician David Lowery revealed the woes of doing business with Pandora, claiming “My Song Got Played On Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make From a Single T-Shirt Sale!“. His story was debunked rather quickly by Michael DeGusta, armed only with a blog and basic math. DeGusta calculated that Lowery actually made $1,370 for his million plays on Pandora. Still not a great amount, but it’s not $17 either.

Unfortunately, according to Mark Rogowsky at Forbes that number isn’t going to get any better:

Pandora doesn’t make much money because it pays out a huge portion of revenues to record companies. That number at last is headed strongly in the right directly. It was roughly 52% of total revenues on the quarter against nearly 60% last year. This is huge progress, but the company didn’t have much to say about it, suggesting future improvement is likely to be minimal.

Apple, on the other hand, has bigger plans for its artists:

During iTunes Radio’s first year, Apple will pay a label 0.13 cents each time a song is played, as well as 15% of net advertising revenue, proportionate to a given label’s share of the music played on iTunes. In the second year, that bumps up to 0.14 cents per listen, plus 19% of ad revenue.

That compares to the 0.12 cents Pandora pays labels per listen on its free service. Apple is also offering music publishers more than twice as much in royalties than Pandora does.

Pandora’s struggles both in innovation and international expansion are most likely affected by its lack of profitability. When nearly 60% of a company’s quarterly revenue is being paid to record companies and the remaining 40% has to be split over employees and other overhead costs, what else is left to spend on R&D and licensing?

This isn’t helped by the recent decision to lift the 40-hour playing limit for free members. If Pandora One users don’t have to pay for unlimited use, why not just drop down to the free tier and sit through an ad every few songs?

Apple is making iTunes Radio free ad-supported for all users with an ad-free option for iTunes Match subscribers. For $25 a year, listeners will get iTunes Radio without any ads, as well as access to their iTunes libraries stored in the cloud from any device. Not a bad deal when compared with Pandora’s annual $36 fee for better streaming quality, no ads, and “custom skins”.

And let’s not forget the additional revenue generated by iTunes Radio’s direct integration with the iTunes Store. Like what you’re hearing? Buy it immediately without interrupting the current song or leaving the app. Quick access like that means a more pleasant (and widely used) checkout process for consumers and more money in Apple’s pocket, regardless of whether they paid for iTunes Match or not.

To clarify:

  • Bought a song while listening to iTunes Radio? Apple and the artist make money.
  • Paid for iTunes Match and listen to iTunes Radio? Apple and the artist make money.
  • Clicked on an ad in iTunes Radio? Apple, the advertiser, and the artist make money.

Noticing a pattern?

The Future

It’s not enough to just have a presence on numerous devices if a business like Pandora wants to be successful, especially when there are other competitors breathing down its neck. Spotify, Rdio, iHeartRadio are gaining steam and with iTunes Radio entering the fray, the threat’s as great as it’s ever been.

Apple has the money and the clout to do what it wants to do and go where it wants to go. It has 575 million iTunes users across the globe and hundreds of millions of devices in the hands of waiting listeners. It can afford to pay labels and artists better than Pandora currently does and there’s a plan in place to increase earnings further along down the road. How long before it branches out with an on-demand subscription service like Spotify?

When iTunes Radio was announced at WWDC 2013, it was talked about like just another feature among a long list of more important, flashier ones, and perhaps that was deliberate–look at the new shiny iOS and pay no attention to the streaming service jammed in the middle of the presentation. Apple’s known for releasing some major dogs of online services, like Ping and MobileMe, and it’s possible it didn’t want iTunes Radio to be seen in the same light.

Or, much like the Apple TV began as a “hobby” and a small part of Apple’s entrance into television, so too will iTunes Radio begin as a tiny step towards a new era of music commerce. Apple has the luxury of not expecting much from iTunes Radio for a long time. It makes the majority of its money on hardware sales, not from what’s sold on iTunes, so it can pump as much or as little as it wants into iTunes Radio over the next few years without worrying about which direction the needle is moving.

So, what does this all come down to? The people want music. No, they want their music, the songs they love and the ones they don’t know about yet. Most importantly, they want their music their way and as conveniently as possible and iTunes Radio is going to give it to them in a way Pandora currently cannot.

There’s still time before iTunes Radio hits the market and I’d wager there’s a little more time before it really gains some ground, but if Pandora wants to keep up, it needs to figure out its next step because Apple’s already three ahead.