Friday, 27 May 2011

Digital Locker or Lightener?

Apple's acquisition of the iCloud domain name suggests that their soon to be revamped MobileMe online services will be re-titled as well as re-purposed. But what purpose will the Cupertino company put its huge data server farms in the 'Cloud' to? Much has been written about the idea of a digital locker to securely store and stream content (such as music libraries) to any devices. But the cost of licences that Apple are paying for to rights holders of the content will have to be clawed back and I don't see them going down the advertisement route. So if the streaming part of iCloud is to cost users, then the value proposition will need to be very clear. I don't think the secure storage (i.e. backup) aspect of the digital locker is enough. Neither do I think that the ability to stream content to various devices will be enough. Users will compare the benefits of iCloud streaming with what they are already able to do. For most people, syncing and carrying the content they own on their devices is not an issue. It's there, it works so why pay more to achieve the same? One additional possible benefit is if the cloud based versions are better quality (e.g. higher bit rate, hence larger files). Well I'm still unconvinced. Most people cannot tell the difference in the quality beyond a point and they won't therefore see much value in paying for higher quality which is hard to perceive. That's not to say that all of these benefits would be rejected or complained about. I just don't think that the general masses will perceive enough value to pay for the service if they don't already!

But there is one thing which would cause a large number of those people who currently don't pay for MobileMe or other content streaming services to do so. If Apple were to launch a lightweight iPhone 'Nano' which has very little flash memory for content at a massively cheaper price, then it would put an iOS device in the hands of many more people, and allow those owners to effectively spread the cost of device ownership via a content subscription service. It would also fit the pattern of Apple later launching a cut-down version of successful high end products, and also be a model which is hard for many competitors to copy, requiring the server farm / data warehousing, licence agreements etc. to work. This would signal a shift, a digital device lightener, shifting content from devices towards the network. For quality to be maintained, better streaming/buffering technology will be needed than is currently used.

But I would be surprised if such a device came as soon as the revamped service ... rather it is likely to follow a while later. The initial marketing impetus for iCloud will be the benefits already mentioned as well as some additional facilities such as finally making it out of beta status, and a family/friend location tracking service which people explicitly trust to keep them in control of their privacy, whilst letting their loved ones follow their progress.

The Privacy thing again...

Quite a lot has been happening in the privacy debate recently. There was the froth about Apple iOS and Google Android based mobile phones tracking users' every moves. Well of course the smart device in your pocket knows where you are and stores it internally from time to time. Anyone who has either owned one of the early standalone GPS units (and knows how long it took to get a decent accurate reading) or who understands the idea of 'assisted-GPS' will realise that more information is required than simple GPS from Satellites to instantly show you your location on a map on your smartphone. People also need to understand how much of their movements are tracked in all sorts of ways in the modern age (ATM machines, CCTV, credit card payments, etc.) in addition to their mobile phones.

Of course there is a debate to be had about how this information is stored, where it is used and who can get access to it. But users have to understand that in order to benefit from technology they have to give something up too. And most people won't worry about this; they have nothing to hide and their location information is not leaked to anyone, and certainly not to anyone they would be concerned about. But some US senators seem to be having a good time asking representatives of Google and Apple to explain themselves. I suppose it's an easy way to look as if they are attempting to protect the people who elected them.

Then in the UK recently we have had examples of how privacy afforded by secret court injunctions has been shown as farcical when 70,000 people have twittered online about something which national newspapers have been barred from printing to their readers. It demonstrates nicely how the legal system and current legislation is outdated in all sorts of ways, due to the changes that new technology and the Internet has brought about. This will continue to get worse as more cases of irrelevance happen in law. It's a part of the social change which is happening in society and which is leaving the established old laws of the land behind.

Microsoft Musings ...

Most of you reading this will have read by now about Microsoft's purchase of Skype. I would think the recipients of the cash they paid are quite overjoyed to have sold the company which was/is losing money for such a hefty price tag. I somehow think Microsoft will struggle to turn this around. Despite vague signals that the cross-platform availability of the popular communications package will be maintained, one has to wonder if the Windows (especially Phone) versions won't be updated with more features earlier and at the expense of others... Skype on X-Box comes to mind, despite the uncertain effectiveness of a gaming interface for communications. Anyway we will see if Skype is safe in their hands as time goes on.

Then we had the retracted Ballmer statement! Most CEOs are careful about what they say as head of their companies, but last week Steve Ballmer declared that Windows 8 was to be launched next year in 2012. More recently the Redmond PR machine has corrected the "mis-statement" by their CEO as not in fact being true. It was hardly a technical detail so one has to wonder what Steve was thinking about? Either way I am not sure the world is ready to change the Microsoft operating systems out there again just yet, especially given the time it takes most Corporate IT departments to do in-house testing and deployment and at a time where economics are tough. WIndows upgrades of the past have tended to require significant shifts in hardware specs too, now in a world where both desktop and notebook sales are declining. Ballmer looks and sounds clumsy in his operations at the top of Microsoft, and key investors in the city have noticed and started to comment on it. Maybe change from the top is what the company needs. Then in my view it needs a complete revision of its business strategy for the future.

And finally on the topic of Microsoft, following its strategic deal with Nokia, the latest Windows Phone adverts seem to have taken a slightly new direction, including the notion of X-Box on your phone. Well, certainly the processing power of Windows Phone and the OS layered on it will make it hard to create an exhilarating experience for users and an attractive environment for developers. Interesting in passing that the Ovi branded Nokia app store has died a death. Microsoft's biggest success recently was Kinnect for X-Box ... people love the idea that was 'borrowed' from Nintendo's Wii ... but its not an interface that is easily imagined in conjunction with a Windows Phone ... so why would a marketing message raise expectations of X-Box on that platform. It all seems a bit muddled and slightly desperate.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Catchup from hiatus!

Hi all. This blog has been quiet for over a month and a half due to some professional commitments of the author, but I hope to put this right from now as I return to comment on aspects of the tech scene. There are some interesting activities going on in the world of the leading companies ... Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft for example. I'll cover most of these in some separate articles. Anyway those of you reading this in the UK, I hope you have been enjoying the early dry and warm summer weather. This is bound to change now that the England Test Cricket season is beginning!