What Innovation?

Apple reinvents the phone

I was having a discussion with an old friend who declared that there has been no innovation in mobile devices for years now. I immediately took exception to this claim and set my mind to disproving his assertion.

There is no disputing that Apple “reinvented the phone” in 2007 when they launched the original iPhone to an expectant world. I’ll never forget the looks of joy and amazement when I first demonstrated the iPhone’s touch screen interface and clever pinch and zoom gestures.

Let’s not forget how tired and utilitarian other ‘smart’ phones of the time were!

2007 Smartphones

Apple’s early dominance in the smartphone market has been successfully challenged by Google’s Android operating system and the countless slab clones churned out by Far Eastern manufacturers, but do any of them truly innovate?

What have we seen in mobile phone design in the last six years which could be considered innovative? We’ve had different form factors, sizes, colours and storage capacities, but the fundamental iPhone design concept has hardly changed.

Certainly display technology has improved, with more vibrant colours and pixel densities higher than the human eye can distinguish, but that’s evolution not innovation.

Processor power has increased, the latest smartphones boasting quad-core CPUs with dazzling performance, but this is standard Moore’s Law territory.

Camera technology has gradually improved, with manufacturers attempting to out-gun each other in the megapixel arms race. Fundamentally though it’s still a digital camera on a phone.

Mobile apps are the emperor’s new clothes, but this is just a trendy new name for what we used to call ‘computer programs’ or software.

A few new features have appeared like voice recognition, Near Field Communication (NFC) and wireless inductive charging, but these technologies have been around for years and are just being retro-fitted to mobile devices.

The sad truth though is that there hasn’t been any innovation since the original iPhone. Yes there have been gimmicks and incremental improvements, but the iPhone’s simple touch screen design and user interface has remained largely unchanged and unbettered.

Unless Apple regains the ability to surprise and delight with the unveiling of their 7th generation iPhone later on today, I’ll have to concede that my friend is right.

Please don’t leave us in 2007.

Macworld 2007 Teaser

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iPhone 5

An industry insider told me that sales of Samsung’s Galaxy S III sky-rocketed the day after Apple’s big reveal of the iPhone 5. Evidently potential customers were holding off their upgrades until they had seen the new product, but what they saw disappointed.

I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but I have already used the iPhone 5 and I was underwhelmed too. iPhone has become the safe (even boring?) option, something you would confidently give to your Mum and Dad. Apple’s runaway success has become the de facto smartphone, but the commercial imperative not to alienate their mainstream customer base has stifled innovation.

The original popularity of iOS (then iPhone OS) was due to its perfect blend of technology, form and function. Often it wasn’t possible to customise something to your liking, but that was by design and the intention was to keep things deliberately simple.

I look at iOS 6 and wonder where Steve Jobs’ painstaking obsession with simplicity has gone. I never expected CEO Tim Cook to share the same ethos, but since Jobs had apparently described Sir Jonathan Ive as being his “spiritual partner” there was a hope that he would carry forward Jobs’ legacy. It’s likely however that Ive’s control only extends as far as the hardware design, not the operating system, which is the responsibility of Scott Forstall.

Watching the official iPhone 5 promo video, it’s hard not to be impressed by Apple’s manufacturing techniques and the obvious attention that has gone into the hardware design (like crystalline diamond-cut chamfers!), but it doesn’t detract from the hard truth that to the average customer the new iPhone just doesn’t seem all that different.

With each new iPhone Apple usually succeeds in generating enough excitement and desire to persuade existing customers to follow the natural upgrade path, but they also lose some customers to Android – and they rarely return. I don’t know anyone (including myself) who has switched to Android and then gone back to an iPhone. Once you’ve broken away from the closed iPhone ecosystem it feels quite liberating to have the freedom of open services and a wide range of devices.

Conversely with each evolution of the Android platform the gap has been closing and arguably the Android 4.1 ‘Jellybean’ release has leapfrogged iOS by delivering a simple intuitive user interface and powerful features – much like the original iOS.

Samsung are seizing the opportunity to capitalise on the apathy surrounding iPhone 5 with a marketing campaign directly comparing their two flagship products:

Apple fanbois have responded with their own parody advert, but when the best they have to brag about is ‘fits all pockets’ and ‘elastic bounce back’ (the subject of Apple’s recent patent dispute with Samsung), it doesn’t bode well.

It’s certainly not all doom and gloom for Apple. They will of course sell iPhone 5 by the millions, but the shine is starting to fade.

I do have an answer to their predicament. Apple needs another product with which to dazzle and showcase their technical excellence and suppressed innovation.

Dear Tim, how about you add a new model to the iPhone range? Call it the ‘iPhone X’, pack it with enough fancy gizmos and new technology to satisfy the Android crowd and demonstrate what the biggest company in the world can really do.

EvoCam vs SecuritySpy

The options for network camera recording software are a bit limited on Mac OS. The two most popular products in this space are Evological’s EvoCam and Bensoftware’s SecuritySpy.

So which is best?

On price alone you might be tempted by EvoCam as it costs just $30 (under £20) for an unlimited number of cameras, while SecuritySpy will set you back £30 for a single camera license and a whopping £500 for unlimited camera support.

I’ve had an opportunity to evaluate both products and have come to the conclusion that you really do get what you pay for.

EvoCam does the job well enough and has a more polished user interface, but it also suffers from a major problem that lets it down badly, almost to the point of being unusable. For reasons unknown it ties up the processor for even a simple one camera recording setup.

Activity Monitor output taken for identical recording sessions is below:

In these examples (from a Mac Mini 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 4GB RAM), EvoCam consumes 85% CPU and 90MB real memory, while in comparison SecuritySpy consumes a meagre 6% CPU and 21MB real memory. That’s quite a difference and it’s very noticeable when you try to use the same host machine for other work.

So if you have the luxury of a dedicated powerful server for your camera recording then EvoCam is probably the most cost effective option, but if you want something that works reliably and doesn’t take over your machine then SecuritySpy is well worth the extra investment.

Problems with 1Password Reader for Android

I’ve been using the 1Password application from AgileBits for a few years. It has been a Godsend for keeping track of the hundreds of logins and secure notes I need to keep in sync across multiple machines.

One of the more recent additions to the client portfolio is the free 1Password Reader app for Android.

The app allows you to read your secure credentials from a 1Password keychain stored on your SD card or Dropbox folder.

This app has been working well right up until the v1.8.1.1 update which was released to Android Market on 20th June. After that the app would no longer import my 1Password keychain and was reporting the error “Urecognizable keychain”.

After some investigation I found that the cause of the problem was that my 1Password keychain did not have the correct file extension, in fact it didn’t have a file extension at all and was displaying in Finder as a folder.

The 1Password keychain is in fact a package file and the latest version of the Android app needs the keychain to have the file extension of .agilekeychain.

To find out where your 1Password keychain file is have a look for a hidden file called .ws.agile.1Password.settings in the root of your Dropbox folder. The contents of this file is the location of your 1Password keychain file.

To fix my Android problem I closed the 1Password Mac client and then added the .agilekeychain file extension to my 1Password keychain folder in Dropbox. The next time I fired up the Mac client I went into Preferences > General and updated the Data File location to match the renamed keychain.

This has fixed the Android issue which now imports the Dropbox keychain without any problems.

Why I dislike 1&1

I couldn’t find a lot to like about 1&1.

Here are some of the reasons why I ditched them …

  • Loyal existing customers can’t benefit from the same offers as new customers
  • They took over 9 months to support the .me TLD in their Control Panel tools
  • You can’t add TXT DNS records for domains hosted by 1&1 (so you can’t use SPF)
  • They don’t renew UK domain names until the very day of the domain expiry
  • You can’t register a new domain name with different registrant details
  • Their anti-spam service sucks
  • Their support people discuss your personal account details with third parties
  • My web sites hosted by 1&1 kept suffering unexplained downtime
  • They ‘improved’ their Control Panel and removed support for Macs!

I have never known their service status page show anything other then “All systems functional” even when their own web sites are failing with spurious error messages:

Finally, to add insult to injury they rip you off when you leave.

1&1 invoiced me on 12th May for six months of pre-paid hosting service from 10th May to 10th November. I finally moved over all my domains to another provider and sent 1&1 notice of contract cancellation on 3rd June.

I contacted 1&1 and asked when my refund would be processed. Their response was “the charges are non refundable“. I asked them to re-instate my account in that case and was told “We regret to inform you that your account is already terminated to which our system can no longer activate.”

I had been a customer of 1&1 for over 5 years and that’s how they treat me.

Great customer service – thanks 1&1 !

Squeezebox Receiver without a controller

It is indeed possible to setup a standalone Logitech Squeezebox (Duet) media receiver without needing to fork out for the controller. To be frank there are much better (and cheaper) controller software solutions out there for iOS and Android, but an extra Squeezebox receiver can be very handy.

The Squeezebox receiver can currently be picked up for just shy of £80 from Superfi – inclusive of VAT and delivery!

Once you’ve got your receiver you’ll need to configure it with an IP address and server information. Usually this would be done via the controller, but thanks to Robin Bowes you can use his Net::UDAP Perl module to do it all from a PC or Mac.

As long as you’re comfortable using the command line and Perl, you will find the udap_shell.pl script very simple to use and be up and running within minutes.

Microsoft, what’s my MAC address?

Using MAC address filtering to add an extra layer of security to your WiFi network?

Need to know the MAC address of your shiny new Windows Phone 7 device?

You’re out of luck!

There is a rather illuminating discussion on Microsoft Answers – MAC address for WP7 Devices – that sheds light on the issue…

A WP7 customer asks:

I wanted to connect my WP7 device to my home WiFi. However, I will need to know the MAC address of the WP7 before I can connect.

Can anyone let me know where to get it?

Johan van Mierlo (a Microsoft MVP Windows Phone Specialist) replies with:

Yup, they only way is to make sure your wireless network is visible, connect with WEP or other security and afterward make your network invisible again.

Another couple of customers comment:

seems like microsoft just “forgot” to implement that…

I cannot believe this was missed..

My thoughts exactly.

Microsoft, are you for real? You don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to security and the only way of obtaining the WiFi MAC address of a WP7 device is to disable security?

A leopard never changes its spots!