During the slow news week that marks the calm before the storm of the upcoming September 21st announcement of a slew of new devices, we turn to a recent report from OSX Daily concerning another big news item- the Mars Curiosity Rover.
The proliferation of Macs in the hands of NASA engineers was already a point of discussion, but the use of Apple computers goes even further. The Curiosity Lander is apparently a PowerMac G3 at heart- ExtremeTech went so far as to label it an “Apple Airport Extreme with wheels”. The system is running a PowerPC 750 CPU operating at 200 MHz, 256 MB RAM, 2 GB of flash hard drive, and a custom VxWorks operating system to control the PC, as well as cameras and other peripherals.
It’s astounding that NASA is able to get so much performance from technology the everyday user would consider so out of date. Bear in mind, compared to the technology used to get the Apollo 11 mission to the moon the PowerMac G3 is a titan of computing muscle. So here’s a tip of the hat to the good folks at Apple- on top of the world in more was than one!
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Apple didn’t garner a tremendous amount of press when they first introduced the App Store in OSX Lion. While it was mentioned as one of the new features in the operating system refresh, it wasn’t one of the primary points that pundits pontificated on. The OSX version of iOS‘ App Store was a logical extension of Apple’s offerings; one stop shopping for trustworthy, vetted software with immediate gratification and an effortless method of keeping that software up to date. Now with Mountain Lion the App Store has been brought to the forefront as the only means of distribution, and new safety features built into OSX 10.8 favor software downloaded from the trusted source (even to the point of excluding other sources should the user decide this level of protection).
I’ve checked the App Store first for any needed software due to the software update integration. While I feel savvy enough to know what sources to trust for downloads, I’d happily endorse relying on just it for an Apple neophyte unsure of the lay of the land. It’s that reliance by design that turns many off of Apple’s ecosystem; the walled garden might be safe but for some that safety is stifling.
As with any unmet demand, there is an alternative to the App Store on the horizon. MacRumors reports that my favorite source of games Steam will be expanding their offerings to non-game software September 5th. The free downloadable Steam client already offers Windows, OSX, and even Linux users an iTunes-like experience with immediate access to a large library of games and built-in social networking features.
The article points to guidelines set in place by Apple for apps hosted in the App Store as both creating the need for an alternative digital software marketplace and a new distribution house for software that can’t meet Apple’s stated guidelines. Limitations such as sandboxing requirements place a hurdle that some programs can’t overcome without losing key components of their functionality, and a Steam-hosted OSX app store will likely be much more lenient with their requirements.
I for one welcome the additional marketplace (especially from a retailer I already love)- competition is always a good thing, and this may allow non-App Store compliant software developers a better chance to make their software accessible enough to spur more development.
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There isn’t a tremendous amount of open source software written for the Mac that I’m immediately aware of, but I do love the concept of it. For the uninitiated, open source refers to users having free and ready access to the source code of software, and the right to alter it to whatever purpose they choose provided that they continue to provide the same access to their modified version. The movement was spawned in reaction to budding copyright and control issues that early technology aficionados saw hampering the development of software. The open source movement led to a burgeoning underground community that has produced some amazing software (my personal favorite being VLC, a simple but powerful media player that can handle just about any format you throw at it). The crown jewel of open source has arguably been Linux in all its vast flavors. Once the tool of uber geeks, Linux has matured to the point that it’s possible for novice users to rely on it as their primary operating system. From Ubuntu to Red Hat, there’s a version of Linux out there that has been tailored to fit what you need of an operating system.
Now the concept of open source has been taken to its logical conclusion in a recent post by the knowledgeable anthonyvenable110. The practice of providing access to the inner workings of software has been transferred to something near and dear to my heart- soda. Yes, I’m a self admitted carbonation junkie, and OpenCola has opened new doors to my addiction. Unlike Coca Cola‘s secret formula, OpenCola provides instructions and ingredients so that end users may freely change it to tailor their tastes and needs (provided they observe the guidelines of the GNU Public License and allow others to do the same) , fully embracing the spirit of the open source movement. Now if I could only get Guinness to open source their brewery…
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As time marches on and Apple improves a product line, some things that customers value are bound to get caught in the gears of progress. One such dreaded change strongly indicated has been Apple’s dramatic shift from the iconic 32 pin connector used since the introduction of the iPod for a smaller caliber input cable. While the new cable may be easier to use and could offer some additional functionality (such as a Magsafe-like connection) many users and practically all accessory manufacturers will be at least inconvenienced by the changing form factor requiring a new adaptor or new cables, docks, or new accessories outright.
Another such casualty of progress comes to us via a post from TUAW (The Unofficial Apple Weblog). According to the article the competition between Apple and Google have resulted in another change to the upcoming iOS6 release, as the imbedded YouTube App that’s been a part of iOS before there was an iOS will now be discontinued. The article references the ending of the contract between Apple and Google that provided the integration as the true source of the change, but with Apple distancing themselves from their primary mobile device competitor other motives are impossible to overlook. Apple has already announced that they will be replacing the original Maps App that used Google Maps with one of their own design; completely cutting iOS integration with Google’s non-web search products would seem to be the logical conclusion of this strategy.
Apple officials don’t expect iOS users to do without, claiming that mobile Safari is capable of providing the same level of access as the stand alone app. Google is also thought to be working on a downloadable free app for the iTunes App Store so that iOS users that still crave a direct portal will still have the option of one.
It is notable that this change will only be on iOS6; earlier versions of Apple’s mobile operating system will still have the YouTube app in place.
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With the flurry of news and rumors of Apple’s upcoming product releases I wanted to take some time and reflect on what I consider to be the iPhone’s greatest weakness- it’s reliance on cellular providers. The iPhone is a marvel of engineering and aesthetics, a groundbreaking device that rapidly became an irreplaceable tool in my daily and professional life. No device is perfect; I’ve had the rare app crash and have needed to reboot my various iPhones from time to time, but as a whole they have been rock solid and have provided more benefit that I had anticipated with each model. The one facet that sours the experience is my cell provider. From poor signal quality to throttled network speeds, the product I get from my provider fairly consistently leaves much to be desired (and their service has been documented as dramatically worse in larger cities than my hometown). Couple this with the typically poor customer service and expensive coverage prices, and the iPhone’s Achilles Heel becomes all too apparent.
Sadly, there’s naught to be done about it, is there? There is scant difference between data plan prices, and I don’t use enough talk minutes for the regular cell plan to be a factor. To date my strategy has been to select the provider with the best coverage map and make the best of it, being extra thankful that the majority of my day is spent within the warm embrace of a wifi signal.
A recent article posted by AllThingsD on startup company FreedomPop offers a very appealing alternative. The company is taking preorders now for a device that will provide wireless data capabilities to any third generation (or later) iPod Touch. This data connection would allow the iPod Touch phone-like ability via voice-over-internet services such as Skype; in effect making your Touch a cell carrier-free iPhone.
The accessory looks like a hard case for the iPod, clipping to the back of the device without blocking any ports, and relies on the Touch’s internal battery for power. FreedomPop provides its data service via Clearwire‘s WiMax network- somewhat of a hindrance for those that don’t have the service in their hometown or those that travel extensively. Not only does the device connect your iPod Touch, it acts as a wifi hotspot for other devices as well.
The most intriguing facet of FreedomPop’s offering is the cost- the first 500 MB of data every month is free. An additional 10MB of monthly data can be procured for each friend you refer to FreedomPop’s service; the less outgoing subscribers can purchase data a la carte for $10 per gigabyte.
FreedomPop originally created their device to provide 4G service to existing iPhones, but quickly expanded their product line to include the iPod Touch model to accommodate customer interest. Their business model is still developing, with hints of Facebook partnerships and other initiatives to generate enough profit to keep their free bandwidth flowing.
The concept is an exciting one, and hopefully puts the cellular providers on notice. With the advent of digital cells, all transmission to and from the device is merely data: voice, texts, email, browsing, what have you; all are parsed into the same data. Providers need to update their pricing and billing models to reflect this, instead of gouging uneducated customers by charging for different silos of service.
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Numerous reports are surfacing today on the unwritten policy of the two larger cellular providers AT&T and Verizon to have associates steer in-store customers away from iPhones and to Android or Windows handsets. Activations of new phones on AT&T service seem to reflect this policy as iPhone sales have fallen from approximately 80% of all smartphones to between 50-60%.
There are numerous reasons for carriers to convince customers to purchase something other than an iPhone. The iPhone has closed architecture, and can’t be preloaded with proprietary software or front ends like some Android handsets. The margin on the iPhone is likely less than other handsets thanks to both Apple’s negotiating might and competitor’s willingness to take less to gain a foothold in the market. iPhones don’t support LTE yet, so those customers aren’t going to purchase the more expensive LTE data plans being offered (and needing more of it thanks to LTE’s blazing speed compared to 3G). iPhone users have also been shown to actually use their devices more than Android owners, spending far more time browsing and interacting with their network connection thus costing carriers more to provide service.
I’ve witnessed this gentle bullying secondhand. I’ve been called to help a friend who lost their iPhone and wanted a replacement, only to be strongarmed by an AT&T associate that insisted a Samsung handset was better. For some it may very well be, but for my friend it was a disaster- she lacks any technological aptitude and just couldn’t navigate Android’s inner workings like she could with the familiar iPhone. I instructed her to return the handset for something she was comfortable with, but the story didn’t have a completely happy ending- AT&T charged her a $30 restocking fee, and refused to issue refunds for the $35 case or microSD card they insisted she purchase with the handset.
Whether the inspiration is financial or in retaliation to a company they see as having too large of market share, there is a palpable push to steer customers away from the iPhone. Even before this bit of news I have advised family and friends to just go to our local Apple store instead of the carrier’s outlet; the customer service is vastly better and the level of support can’t be compared. For those that don’t have the luxury of an Apple store your best bet is to order the device directly from Apple.
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