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Is the Future Random and Faceless?


April, 2005: Is the Future Random and Faceless?

Michael is editor-at-large for DDJ. He can be contacted at mike@swaine.com.


According to Apple, the future is random. Also faceless. Headless, even. Sounds pretty grim to me, but since it's Apple we're talking about, the future they are talking about is bound to be stylish and upbeat, wearing a smile on its faceless face.

This month, I examine Apple's remarkable move toward unremarkableness with its headless Mac Mini and faceless iPod. I also worry over a new development that threatens to make the world more faceless. And I end this month's column with some random thoughts. By that I mean thoughts about randomness, not thoughts that are random, although come to think of it, they may be that as well. Form follows function.

Off With Their Heads

Every January, Steve Jobs delivers another feverishly anticipated keynote address at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco. And every year, the hype leading up to the keynote threatens to overwhelm the actual announcements. This year I decided not to try to predict what Steve would announce. Everybody else was doing that, and some of the predictions seemed to be well founded.

Okay, ex post Expo facto, I will hazard one prediction. With Apple profits and stock price defying gravity and Apple looking like it is on the verge of a new aggressive phase in its computer business and the company just looking so doggoned exciting right now, I'm boldly predicting that Steve Jobs will not run off to become CEO of Disney. This year.

As it turned out, the predictions from the rumor sites were almost spot on. In fact, some of them were so accurate that Apple sued one web-site owner for knowing too much. Does this mean that Apple has ceased to be a corporation with populist values? Naw, it just means that the legal department doesn't subscribe to those values. Proving that Apple values diversity, you see.

Moving Right Along...

Every year, too, the pundits and analysts and columnists feel a strong tug after the Expo, either to catch a ride on the hype balloon or to try to puncture it. I'd rather do neither, but I also feel compelled to comment. Here, then, are some thoughts about the Macworld Expo announcements, about where Apple seems to be headed, and about this season's punditry.

As you know, Apple announced a new computer, a new music player, and a new software suite.

The computer, the Mac Mini, is a stylish little (6.5×6.5×2-inch) box without a display, mouse, or keyboard. Jobs says it's BYODMK (bring your own display, mouse, and keyboard) and makes it pretty clear that at least one target market for the machine is those who already have spare DMKs in their equipment closets or garages—wherever they warehouse the someday-this-might-come-in-handy parts from their retired PCs. The Mini's base price is $499, and the story is that it is intended to appeal to iPod buyers willing to spend a little more to replace a clunky basic PC with a stylish basic Macintosh. More about the Mini shortly.

The iPod Shuffle is of less interest to me, except as it supports the message of the Mac Mini: That Apple is finding a way to move downmarket without sacrificing style. But my minimal interest in owning a portable music player may make my reaction to the iPod Shuffle more significant, because if I were to buy an iPod, this would be the one. Listening to a collection of songs I like while jogging: I get that. Spending time twiddling a dial and reading a tiny screen to pick individual songs to listen to through earbuds: That I don't get. A shortcoming on my part, I'm sure, but how many other people are like me? Or rather, how many are like me but just slightly more inclined to plunk down $99 for a portable music player—which I haven't yet done. I don't know how big that market is, but Apple has apparently concluded that it's large enough.

The software suite—although with only two products, it's more like a studio apartment—is iWork, comprising the latest version of Apple's presentation program, Keynote, and a new word processing/page layout program called Pages. I don't think that there's any question about these products being worth the combined $79 price; the questions are all about market placement. The iWork "suite" can't replace AppleWorks yet and isn't yet a full-on challenge to Microsoft Office, but clearly Apple intends to add programs to the suite. Does this portend a real challenge to Microsoft Office? Or some shift in the market shares of Microsoft Office for Mac and iWork? When can we expect iWork to fully replace AppleWorks? When, in particular, will Apple add the spreadsheet module, and will it be good enough to challenge Excel? I don't think anyone today outside of Apple (or possibly inside) has the answers to these questions, but it certainly looks like Apple is moving to at least make Microsoft Office less than essential for Mac users. Bill won't appreciate that.

The Appeal of Headlessness

That's about all I have to say about the iPod Shuffle and iWork, but I have more to say about the Mini. But first, some criticism of the critics.

Michael Kanellos of CNet was one of the writers who felt compelled to puncture Apple's Expo balloon. His premise, that Apple wants to turn us all into designers of commercials for our lives, was not exactly wrong, but it was a pretty trivial and peripheral point to hang a story on when the real story is so much more significant. The real story, surely, is that Apple is reinventing itself, taking on Dell and HP and Gateway and maybe even placing one foot on the line at the beginning of a challenge to Microsoft.

Other pundits took equally off-target shots. David Coursey at eWeek warned us that the Mini won't drive enterprise sales, as if that were its purpose. Other writers compared the Mac Mini to similarly configured PCs without allowing any value for Apple's bundled software. The Mini is clearly competitive with other low-priced computers when you fairly take into consideration iLife and the complete lack of virus worries. The real question is, is the $499 price low enough?

Low enough, that is, for Apple to reach the magic tipping point. The tipping point is a concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in a book of the same name (subtitle: "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference"). The tipping point is the point when the disease becomes an epidemic, when the center of gravity is no longer over the base, when the early adopters convert the early majority and ding an inflection point into the sales curve.

Now, I realize that we're not talking about revolutionary technology in the Mini. Apple's competitors understand that as well as anyone; perhaps they even understand it too well. It's not like PC makers haven't tried selling small-footprint PCs. It may be hard for Dell, HP, Gateway, and the like not to see the Mac Mini as a pretty face on an incremental change in form, something they could emulate in a heartbeat.

But the right way to look at the Mini may instead be as a new category of computer. Since both Apple and the rest of the PC makers have done such a good job of convincing consumers that a Mac is a premium product, something more than a mere PC, a bargain-priced Mac that doesn't appear to have sacrificed much importance to get to that price could in fact be a new box in the matrix of choices that computer buyers face.

Yes, Dell can do what Apple did, packing a full PC into an attractive DVD player-sized box. Probably will. But Dude, it'll still be a Dell.

Apple is the hottest company, the hottest stock, the hottest brand right now. That's largely because of the iPod line, but there is preliminary evidence that the so-called halo effect may be working: that Apple is managing to use the iPod image to pull a few PC users toward the Macintosh. Put it this way: Apple has proved it can walk on water. Now Steve has decided to build on that foundation.

Missing Face at the Expo

One familiar face not seen at the Macworld Expo this year was that of your humble editor-at-large. I was a no-show at the show and since Steve steved the live broadcast of his own Keynoted keynote, I had to rely on text descriptions until later in the day. So I won't summarize all the neat stuff I saw at the show, but there was one neat product being demoed by one of my neighbors here in Southern Oregon, and I didn't need to go to San Francisco to see him. Or it.

Alan Oppenheimer of Open Door Networks (http://www.opendoor.com/) was showing off the 1.1 release of his product Envision. Envision, if you haven't encountered it, is a different way of experiencing the Web: Not a browser, but a Macintosh-only tool for collecting and displaying images from the Web.

You can point it to a URL and it starts grabbing images, either from that page or deeper into the links from that page, filtering out pictures by size or other criteria. Or you can give it search criteria and let it use Google to collect pictures of the Taj Mahal by moonlight, for example. Or you can build and share "web shows" that are basically collections of links to images and settings for displaying them.

As for the display options, there are more in Version 1.1. You can show the images on your computer in a window or full-screen, as a screensaver or changing desktop, as a slideshow or as thumbnails or an overlapping montage, or on your television or iPod Photo or digital picture frame.

Envision is clever and rich and engaging, but it doesn't fit into any existing product category. Since it so nicely complements a web browser, I wonder if Apple won't eventually buy it and make it a part of Safari. I haven't asked Alan about that, though.

Apple Faces Developers

Apple is reaching out to developers, but not in the way that it's reaching out to rumor sites. The company has come up with a branding program that lets third-party product developers slap a logo on their products that says they meet Apple's high standards. Of course this is just for iPod add-ons, so the main beneficiaries will be the myriad makers of iPod sleeves or holders or socks or whatever the generic term is.

Of more interest to software developers are these new Apple technologies:

  • Dashboard. Create your own tiny task-specific applications, called Widgets, based on HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. Real programmers can move beyond mere scripting by creating custom plug-ins. Widgets can be standalone apps, like a calculator, can frontend UNIX commands or Internet searches or serve as shortcut interfaces to features of existing full applications, and take advantage of Apple Quartz graphics.
  • Automator. Give users new doorways into your applications with Actions and Workflows, automation tools that expose functionality of your apps to help users perform common tasks automatically. Actions can be created in AppleScript or Objective-C. Automator also comes with some Actions specifically designed for software development work, including Actions for building Xcode projects, handling versioning, and creating an installation package.
  • Spotlight. This is Apple's major new system-wide search capability, including fast content searching, based on metadata, integrated tightly into its own apps. You can incorporate its capabilities into your apps, too. To users, it will be immediately evident as a gray search box in the upper-right corner of the screen. To a developer, it's a database consisting of a metadata store and a content index built on top of the current file system, APIs for querying the metadata store and the content index, and plug-ins for informing the system about files on the file system and any custom file formats your app may use. This is a big deal in the evolution of OS X, and if it works as advertised, will be impressive.

Dashboard, Automator, and Spotlight are all features of the next release of Mac OS X, code-named "Tiger." If you're a Mac developer, you're already up on these technologies. If you're not yet a Mac developer but are looking into the platform because the Mac market looks like it might expand, you need to familiarize yourself with these technologies, especially Spotlight.

Still, it's true that the biggest market for third-party companies really is those iPod add-ons. Although I think that Phil Schiller's implication that Ferrari will be putting "Made for iPod" stickers on its cars may be an exaggeration.

Face off

Would you like to be more faceless, like on those mornings when you go out for the newspaper without combing your hair?

A Hewlett-Packard engineer in Bristol, England, has patented a solution to your problem of those annoying paparazzi who are always dogging your footsteps and taking pictures of you when you're having a bad hair day. His technology, incorporated into cameras, would let you blur your face—and only your face—in any picture taken of you. Click a button on your HP Obfuscator (well, what would you call it?) and your privacy is preserved. Nearby cameras get their photos selectively fuzzed—if they happen to have a recognizable image of your face. Nobody can say for sure that the fuzzed-out face atop that pot-bellied, wild-haired body is yours.

Not actually a problem of yours, you say? Maybe not: The technology, assuming that its use in cameras was mandated by the government, would not benefit the average software developer or engineer—unless he works for HP and lives in Bristol, England—so much as it would Hollywood celebrities. But I can think of a few other folks who might be in the market for the Obfuscator.

Can you imagine how popular this would be with drug dealers? Or rogue police officers, shady lawyers, embezzling accountants, cheating spouses? There are indeed many people who would prefer not to have their pictures taken. But I'm afraid that I don't see how giving them the ability to prevent it would be a boon to society. Small, cheap cameras have made it easier to catch crooks in the act, easier to nail cops who abuse citizens, and easier for corporate whistle-blowers to document their cases. Let's not have the government mandate a technology whose main beneficiaries would be bad guys, okay?

Apparently HP has no plans to commercialize the technology, and thus no plans to petition governments to mandate that cameras be fitted up to support it. Good.

Life Is Random

Apple's iPod Shuffle slogan actually says "Life is random." I think we already knew that. I know I wrote about randomness here, both in my January "Programming Paradigms" column "Random Thoughts" and a while back in "Swaine's Flames" in a column that celebrated unconscious decision making and dynamic stability and quoted the Sundance Kid ("I'm better when I move").

Anagram expert Mike Morton thought that I should have included a review of a particular book in that "Programming Paradigms" column. Hmm. I think that it's been reviewed adequately: A number of reviews of the book A Million Random Digits With 100,000 Normal Deviates can be found at Amazon.com. These customer reviewers generally found the story gripping, the prose tight, and the characters engaging. Amazon's "Search Inside This Book" feature reveals such moving passages as "51924 33729 65394 59593 42582 60527" and "04401 10518." I couldn't put it down.

I'd be more likely to review, or at least to read, a different book: Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. It's about what the author calls "Rapid Cognition"—that ability by which we make decisions unconsciously, a topic I covered, or rather took random shots at, in that "Swaine's Flames" column. It was Blink author Malcolm Gladwell, by the way, who popularized the meme "tipping point" in his earlier book of that name.

Finally, this clarification from the aforementioned anagram expert: "Your January column says, 'Randomize letters and you have an anagram.' More specifically, randomize letters and you have trestle." Indeed you do.

DDJ


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