How the hell can every other tech company be so bad at copying Apple?

Twenty years ago, I setup a computer on my breakfast bar. At a time before Wi-Fi this required me to route a cat 5 cable around my house from the location of my ADSL router. It was a bit messy but it worked. And I had an early 10 inch LCD screen above the bar, with a keyboard and mouse. It was great, and set me on a path to make it better.

Since then I’ve tried an amazing number of ways to be able to integrate my computing and my music/movie/internet viewing with my life, and to varying degrees I’ve had some success. Of course my success came with a lot of remote controls, script files, weird cables and lumps of technology sitting in strange places. Along with a plethora of applications to convert video formats and music types.

I’ve always loved to live on the forefront on consumer tech, but anyone else trying to use my setup has had a very hard time. When guests stayed it was almost impossible for them to use the setup without a significant level of training, and on a number of occasions enterprising house guests have assumed the setup wasn’t working and attempted to “rewire” it, causing me days of rework to get it back to life.

But these are the trials and tribulations of an integrated AV setup, and we have all become used to it.

Then along comes Apple and rewrites the entire world of home entertainment.

People complain about itunes, because it can seem a little restrictive (and it is), but there is nothing else in the world like the Apple setup. If you have an apple TV plugged into your TV and hifi, all of a sudden you have the absolutely best integrated home entertainment system in the world.

The glue that pulls all Apple products together into a near perfect home entertainment solution

I actually have 2 apple TV’s, one in the lounge and one in the bedroom, and this lets me watch movies and listen to music pretty much everywhere in my house. It’s incredibly easy. Now add Airplay and you can bounce music and videos from your macs, iPads and iPhones directly to your TV’s. It just works.

Now with Mountain Lion (the latest version of the Macs operating system), I can even show my laptops screen on the TV. Perfect for working at home, or presenting.

Even in a rented a house in the south of France, that just so happens they have an apple TV on their TV. I was able to watch movies from my ipad directly. No setup, no cables, it just worked.

This stuff is brilliant, and very simple. So how comes no other company or consortium has been able to get this very elegant and working idea in their devices.

There are many solutions out there from companies ranging from Roku to Sony that offer little bits of the apple solution, but in comparison they are terrible.

There is no excuse! I know windows 8 promises some of the features apple has today, but unless they seriously fix the X-box’s user interface and limited media compatibility this will be a non-starter. Sony talk about doing something similar with the PS3 as a home hub, but it is nowhere near as simple as Apple today. Again Sony’s pre-occupation with digital media rights and horrible to use user interfaces means they have a very high hill to climb.

Come on consumer tech companies, get out of your own way and bring out something that gives Apple a challenge.

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Where’s My Awesome Stuff???

I’m angry because I feel I’ve been cheated.  Shortchanged. Bait and Switched.  Overpromised and “Underdelivered to.”

Hoverboards, flying cars (or at least aqua cars), wristwatch TV/phone, holographic 3-D chess and much, much, more were “promised” to me as a child and now it’s 2012 they’re not here (iPhones and Droids don’t count btw – too big and Siri has a big voice recognition problem).

So to all of you involved in making me long for these things I say, “Shame on you and all the people that failed to make them happen!”

The Big Tease From Bergdorf Goodman

OK, I’ll survive.  I’ll be fine and I can live without those things for now; they’re just gadgets really.  But what about my “Monkey Butler?”  Weren’t we all really led to believe we’d each have a smartly dressed, exquisitely-trained monkey servant by now?  I certainly was and I’m ready to take delivery now.  Is he ready?  Well, the Bergdorf-Goodman department store (as well as a shop on Lexington Ave.), teased me a few years back by featuring Monkey Butlers in their 5th Avenue windows and I thought maybe the time had finally come… but alas, it hadn’t.

Michael Jackson had Bubbles, Homer Simpson had Mojo the Helper Monkey, Stacee Jaxx has one named “Hey Man” in the new Rock of Ages movie.  Even that schlub Ross had Marcel in TV’s “Friends,” so where’s mine?  Indiana Jones had an evil one, but he was still cool (right up until his “bad date”).

Famous “Monkey Butler-Man” duos in history.

Look, I know me having a Monkey Butler will eventually lead to the demise of the human race (see Monkey Shines, Outbreak, and of course Apes, Planet of), but that’s a while off and I really want one!  Making my co-workers/employees act like one just isn’t cutting it anymore (but I do appreciate the effort David).

“Planet of the Apes: The Musical” – Now playing at the Springfield Theater

I don’t want to be angry with the monkeys but I’m afraid I may start to blame them for not stepping up.  My favorite 70’s show “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp” shows us they can easily do the job and Downton Abby (if not the original Hobson from Arthur) shows that there should be no shame in having the job of butler, so it’s not that.  I’m just worried that if I don’t get my own real Monkey Butler soon it’ll be me, not Troy McClure from “Planet of the Apes: The Musical,” scream-singing the sad refrain, “I hate every ape I see, from chimpan A to chimpan…Z!

The Elusive Monkey Butler Store?
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When Technology companies lose the plot.

As I’ve mentioned before, I really like great technology. I love the connected world in which we live. I grew up through the emergence of today’s consumer technology.

I was there when we thought analog phone lines were better than digital, because they allowed higher bit rates through more granular trellis coded modulation and tighter phase angles. I used to be able to listen to the connecting tones of my modem and know what rate it was connecting at. Yes I relate to the term nerd.

I used to load my software from audio tapes onto my computer, and was okay that it could take several minutes and several attempts to load an 8K program.

I’ve coded in assembly on a 2Mhz 6502 with 32K of RAM.

So I know what it can be like when technology is great for developers but not good enough for the rest of the human race. I know and I can spot the difference.

So why is it so hard for companies that have thousands of people spending literally billions every year on developing new tech, to not see the obvious flaws in the user experience.

Here’s a simple example that I came across just this last week.

I use a wireless bluetooth speaker with my iphone and ipad to listen to music and the sound on movies when I’m travelling. I have a jambox from jawbone, it’s a great device and is perfect for travelling, but sometimes I wish it was a bit more…. Room filling. And sometimes I use it to listen to movies projected onto a big screen outside, and it’s just not meaty enough.

While downtown a couple of weeks ago I was browsing the Apple store in SoHo, and came across a new speaker from Phillips called the ShoqBox. It’s a pretty cool looking little tube, rubberized with metal grills. It looks a little bit like the love child of a Hummer and a thermos flask. I think it looks rugged and would take a lot of in and out of backpack damage. And best of all it has the ability to link with another ShoqBox to allow one to be the left speaker and one to be the right. This sounded great and would make my next extended trip a lot more immersive (sound wise), and be great outside, as two speakers means we can place them near the listeners and not necessarily annoy anyone else.

The great looking love child of a hummer and a thermos flask

So I picked up a pair with the expectation of some beach bashing sound goodness in my future.

Then the reality overtook the dreams of the original designers description to the marketing department, that had convinced me to invest.

Each speaker has a promixity sensor which is the only way to configure it. Before the proximity sensor can be used the speaker has to be turned on and then the on button has to be pressed twice to engage the proximity sensor. Sounds easy, except if the speaker thinks you turned it on with a long press, it thinks you want to change its language, and starts speaking to you in a series of languages until you press the button again, ANNOYING.

But once both speakers are on and in proximity sensor mode then you need to place them end to end and perform a philharmonic conductors action over the sensors to tell them to pair the speaker as left and right. It takes about 10 tries to get them to pair.

Oh and while they are pairing you must have your Bluetooth devices with their Bluetooth mode off, otherwise the speakers wont pair with each other, but will instead think your skipping tracks.

But once you have them paired and have then turned on your Bluetooth devices it actually works really well…. Until you turn off the speakers or have a 15 minute gap in your listening and the speakers automatically power off. Because when the speakers power off they loose their left and right pairing. So when you play again only one speaker works. STUPID!

It was a cool idea, and was implemented so badly as to be entirely useless.

The product manager, development team and the marketing department at Phillips probably feel really badly about the crappy way their great idea was implemented. And I’m sure that the reasons for this mistake will be a mix of rush to market need along with the pressures of various departments who don’t understand the customer.

The result though is a brilliant idea delivered as a disaster, and in my case returned to the store for a full refund (you have to love Apple stores).

A single ShoqBox is an okay device, a little more complex (due to the proximity sensor) than some others on the market, but okay. But their unique differentiator is currently a fail.

So close to a market leading innovation, maybe next time, they will think about the customer.

I suspect Mr Hummer and Ms Thermos will learn from this and think very carefully about using protection next time.
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Robots: Helpers or Horrors?

Robots.  I keep reading more and more about robots lately and the advances in robot technologies that will help improve our QoL (quality of life) quotient; it makes me wonder whether I should be happy, skeptical or angry about it.  In the same week that CERN found the elusive “God Particle” it just seemed appropriate to ponder Robots.

Japanese humanoid robot “Geminoid” at a press conference in Osaka.

Nanites for medical treatment, microbots (tiny black dots to the naked eye), tiny robots that resemble bees and bats, home helper robots for bartending, automated automobile assemblers, unmanned aircraft – robots are here and helping us already. According to a recent USA TODAY Technology article I read this week, “Experts predict that within 10 years, general-purpose robots — at $25,000 to $30,000 per unit — will perform house chores while consumers are at work; or serve as butlers at cocktail parties. “We are putting robots into people’s lives,” says Sarjoun Skaff, co-founder and chief technology officer of Bossa Nova Robotics, which is developing a robot maid modeled after The Jetsons’ Rosie for less than $5,000.”  C-3PO, R2-D2?  I’ll take one of each please thank you.

But I also see evidence of where robots are, or could easily be, used for nefarious means.   General Atomics’ Predator Drones patrol the skies for the US Military while at Carnegie Mellon University’s nano-robotics lab an inexpensive, 1 foot wide “vampire bat” surveillance robot loaded with a motor, camera, and sensors will be part of a “swarm” sent out soon to gather data.  Can a Cyberdyne Systems’ Model T-101 Terminator really be too far behind?

If this sounds far fetched or far off into the future consider this… my business partner just had his beloved dog implanted with a radio-frequency identification device (RFID), which is some sort of wireless non-contact tracking system that uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer data powered by the electromagnetic fields used to read them – essentially the poor dog was assimilated into the Borg Collective (and of course I would assume this means that, “Resistance is futile” for the rest of us as well).

Look, I saw the movie Cherry 2000 (with a young Melanie Griffith), and thought it sounded cool and I definitely still want a Roomba cleaning my apartment but I also saw Westworld with Yul Brynner, Bladerunner, A.I. and all the Terminator flicks so I’m thinking this robot business will likely all end badly for us (humans, that is).

I was pondering this and getting angrier and angrier by the day.  Luckily I caught a TV commercial with Sam Waterston (Law & Order), in which he is pitching “Robot Insurance” from Old Glory Insurance Company – so at least we can get some protection when our robots do inevitably attack.

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The incredible cost of free

There’s an old adage “what you get for free, you pay for twice”. And while this story doesn’t per-se make me angry, there is a pearl of frustration that I feel about the consumer society that I clearly cause.

About 15 years ago I purchased a display cabinet from IKEA. These modular units are great, allowing you to combine multiple modules into any number of shapes and sizes. At the time I purchased this unit I had a wall about 20 feet long which I decided to clad as one single display unit, and IKEA’s units were a perfect fit. Over the years I’ve moved house a few times and this unit has come with me.

About eight years ago I decided to replace my TV, and the most important criteria at the time was simply to find one that fit the space in the display unit as closely as possible. I was able to find a 44 inch rear projection unit that were a perfect fit, with no more than half an inch to spare at the sides and top, it looked great, so it was duly purchased and has performed wonderfully all this time.

Well a little while ago a little red light turned on below a label that said replace bulb. I no longer had the TV’s manual so popped onto the internet to look up the model number and identify the bulb. When I found the page, a notice popped up saying there was a class action settlement against this model of TV, and that if I called them they would possibly replace all the insides of my TV for free(which included the rather expensive bulb). I called the number and lo and behold my TV qualified. I local service center called me back and arranged a call to do their magic.

Well my TV was integrated into my display cabinet, so I decided to take the TV off the unit to give them clear access. Since they were basically giving me a new TV (except for the plastic surround), I felt duty bound to make their lives as easy as possible. But when I took the TV off the cabinet, I noticed that the wood of the cabinet was starting to crumble (fifteen years of great service and multiple disassemblies and assemlbies had taken their toll).

After some deliberation we decided that maybe after all these years of sterling service, maybe it was time to retire the IKEA units, in favor of something a little more interesting.

We found some incredible cabinets made from reclaimed Brazilian rainforest wood (actually it looks like it was reclaimed from a rainforest hut, but looks really cool).

Since we were now replacing the cabinet we thought maybe it was the right time to upgrade to a nice new LED flat screen TV, and we fell in love with a superb 55 inch model. These models are so thin, that it seemed a shame to mount them on a stand. They just look so much better mounted on the wall. So we had the TV wall mounted and the cables buried in the wall.

So then we had to redecorate the wall. We found some awesome wallpaper made from grass, and with the new cabinets this looks fantastic. But now we didn’t really want to see all the technical paraphanalia that’s associated with the TV, so we implemented a 50 feet HDMI cable routed around the room and placed all the tech on a rack on the other side of the room, hidden away in a corner. And I had to add more tech to ensure that the remote controls still worked.

We love the new tech setup, and we love the newly decorated room. We didn’t need to do it, but the free bulb for the TV forced us!

At the end of the day the free upgraded TV cost us ten thousand. It started with free and ended up being anything but.

We gave away the old reconditioned TV to friends, and I expect in 10 years when the bulb light comes on again, consumerism will consume them as well.

Non, je ne regrette rien

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Consultant Speak

Tech Blogging   —   Is it news or commentary?

Does anyone know the difference?

I am impressed that some authoring tools for wannabe and isarenow bloggers include  the following grammar and style rules checking to be invoked at some point in the writing / editing / approval and posting process

But gee willickers, Batman, I don’t how any decent opinionated nerd with words can produce a few thoughts to share without at least 2 or 3 of the following elements:

  • Bias Language
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I am not sure exactly why this makes me so angry,  But I am sure someone will tell me how I

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The fall and rise of the goggly box.

I remember a time, long long ago, when we had three television channels, no VCR, 90 minutes of children’s television, and the remote involved my brother throwing things at me with increasing force until I got up and pressed the button that offered a choice of two.

Sometimes it was more entertaining to change the channel than to watch the cherished programming that started with Dr Snuggles and ended with Crackerjack.

And then came the imaginatively name Channel 4, which was the first grains of sand of the landslide towards content saturation.  We didn’t see it coming at first.  BSB and BSkyB brought up the simpsons, which was…different, if not great,  and SKY gave us foreign shit, like RTL, a slightly larger remote, and later a hard disk recorder.  But with new channels simply diluting the good content, disbursing it further, and making it harder to find.  I seems that there is little more quality content now than there was back in the days of three channels and no VCR.  It’s just a bugger to find.

And finally the small trickily of sand turned into a landslide of content, with the occasional gem stone hidden in the shale.

But finally we come full circle.  After two decades of increasing choice, one or two channels have collected some of the better content into simple on demand services.  No more do we have to choose carefully between BBC1 and ITV for 90 minutes, channel hopping to find the best available TV.  We no longer have to juggle tapes and scower the radio times, hungry for the occasional decent program.  It’s all on my on demand service.

But even now, why do on demand services only have content over 2 years old.  Why am I still hunting for decent TV programmes, and why is there still only crap on most of the channels most of the time.

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Egotistical games developers make me angry

I enjoy a good computer game. Most of the games I’ve played tend to be reasonably anti-social, either you blast the crap out of everything that moves or they are very competitive (such as sports games). The exception to this has been the collaborative, non-violent games. Yep I know how can a game be any good it it’s not competitive and there is no gore. Well it turns out that if you add Lego into the mix this can be achieved.

And the best thing about these non-aggressive, U-rated, lego collaborative games is that my wife loves to play them with me. All of a sudden the PS3 is no longer the new golf when it comes to marriages (even though my missus loves to play the ancient and honorable sticks and eggs as well).

But and there is a huge BUT here. These lego games are no longer just about running around a pseudo 3D world of bricks filled will little Lego characters, now they are filled with absolutely horrible little movie vignettes. It can now feels like fifteen minutes from turning on the console to breaking your first lego brick while you watch corny and tedious segments from a movie rendered with the worst possible levels of creative acting and script work. And the creators of these games in their annoying style don’t even give you the option to skip these scenes.

Acting is a skill best left to professionals, it’s an art, and even most of its leading practitioners are not so good at it. So when games developers try, it’s not a pleasant experience. And forcing you to watch their work before you can progress to the actual game play, is beyond frustrating.

These little movie scenes are now getting longer and worse. And in the latest cut of this genre (Lego Batman 2) the characters have progressed from making little grunts to actually talking, and this is infinitely worse. This may be the last Lego game we play unless they either; get better at movie making or just add a skip option to the video scenes.

How difficult can it be to actually think about your user when you create? I may be forced to retreat to the anti-social single play destroy everything that moves games in the future, and my wife will have to just play solitaire on the ipad. Either that or well have to forget computer games and actually do something non-digital together (gasp).

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When Barnes and Noble go out of business it will be my fault

I love to read, but finding the right book or group of books is challenging. I find the New York Times bestseller list pretty useless, as it’s written for such a broad audience that 99.5% of its recommendations just don’t do it for me. I read the book section every week and normally find a couple that sound good, but when I start to read the books they were written about, I generally find that in long form the stories either suffer from annoying writers traits or just are tedious.

I’m not a fan of overly flowery descriptions of people or places, or tedious descriptions of family trees, so books about girls with dragon tattoos are totally out. Basically I like stories with guns, tech, weird worlds or things that go too fast. I think that’s a pretty standard bloke requirement for reading matter. But it can be incredibly hard to find good ones. Obviously anything by Gaiman or Pratchett works, but outside of that I find I need to evaluate books carefully.

Once I’ve found a book that sounds along the right kind of a line, I find the best method of confirming if I’ll enjoy reading it from cover to cover, is to randomly open it at a page and read a couple of paragraphs. This ensures that you avoid books that have a good start, but fail by the third chapter. And ensures that you are very unlikely to ruin the story, as randomly selected paragraphs by themselves don’t often tell you who did it or why.

To do this I visit actual bookstores. And since the only chain left seems to be Barnes and Noble, I do visit their stores and trawl their bookshelves. But I never ever purchase books from them, with the exception of the odd technical manual that I may want quickly to fix a specific issue, and am willing to waive the lower price of Amazon for immediacy.

There are several reasons why they don’t get my business. Firstly they are expensive unless you join their loyalty discount program. And since this costs a yearly fee, and I have no faith in their medium to long term viability, I have not done so.

But secondly I read most of my books now on an Amazon Kindle, and not a Barnes and Noble nook. And while travelling around the city or on planes I download audio books from audible.com. So instead of purchasing books at B&N I just photograph the desired book covers on my phone, and pick them up later online.

Every time I do this I know I am killing a little bit of the last bookstore chain in the country. And that one day when they are gone, I will regret their passing, but the simple fact is, I don’t want to carry physical books around with me, and their online services are less suitable for me that the others I do use.

I love real books, and I think I’ll always prefer reading from paper than in any of the various e-forms (my secrets out). But e just works better for portability and accessibility. It’s there when I need it and it’s cheaper to boot.

With a kindle book I can read it on the kindle, my laptop, my phone or my ipad and even move between all the devices. With audible books it’s on my phone, in my car, on my iPod and even in the bathroom when I’m having a bath.

Barnes and Noble do offer me a great service, for which I pay them absolutely nothing. They will die and I will miss them. Sad but true.

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Am I the Average Angry consumer of electronics?

Am I the Average Angry consumer of electronics?

Why is it that every single tech company seems to have at least one annoying trait?

I’m a huge fan of the digital age, and love to see, hear, touch and own pretty much every new innovation. And over the years I’ve come to realize that every single one of the coolest (or should be coolest) companies out there has there own personal annoyance factor. I have yet to find an exception.

There are so many consumer tech companies, but I want to pick on what I consider the top three. I’ll have to start with Apple. These guys are awesome, and they have taken a huge amount of time and effort to convince me of their awesomeness. But there is a hitch.

I love the ipod, ipad, imac, iphone, apple tv and even their networking hubs, but I have this feeling that I’m actually living inside of their distortion field. Sure the tech is great, but it’s not perfect, but somewhere deep inside it just feels wrong to complain, because they are generally so much better than everyone else. My mac’s don’t crash and everything just works together really well. But the pain to me is that they have taken away my ability to choose. I liked iweb, .mac was working for my photos, and in a million small ways they have guided my use of technology. They may be right more than they are wrong, but it’s still really annoying. If anyone did what Apple do better, or even nearly as well, like many I’d consider trying that green field, but as of today, by sucking least they are winning.

Next I’d like to vent on Microsoft. I grew up with DOS, it was not my first operating system, but I knew it inside and out. And then I saw windows, and from the very first version I hated it.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I think visual interfaces are great, but the whole point of them is to hide the mess that is the underlying infrastructure. So why, oh why does Microsoft insist on exposing that crap to me. When I plug a device in, just deal with it, stop asking me really annoying and pointless questions. I don’t care what the installer is doing, I really don’t care that you have found a new network device.

And don’t get me started on the office suite. I (pretty much) like everyone use excel, word and powerpoint. And like everyone I hate that you keep changing basic working elements with each version.

I know what you are doing, I’ve seen it from the inside. You have thousands of developers; they are highly intelligent people whose entire social existence happens inside a computer, so their ego’s are massaged every time their work is seen by the users. Inside we are all nerds (if we believe it or not) but we know that it’s embarrassing to snort when we do something cool. You (Microsoft execs) need to teach your developers the same skill. If you thought about the end user instead of comparing and wiggling your nerd accolades through pointless messages, the world would instantly be better.

I can forgive you for crap software that crashes, leaks or exposes personal information, that’s just the nature of technology. But being stupid is not in the nature of technologists and so please, please, stop it instantly.

Now I need to rant at Sony. This is a company with amazing intellectual property. These guys do everything from hi-fi to TV’s , to great games consoles to a wide range of computers to headphones and pro AV tech. And what should be awesome technology is in every single case ruined by at least one amazingly avoidable mistake. I pass their flagship store in New York a least once a week, and the window displays are the best anywhere in the city, but once you go inside you are struck by the pure lack of enthusiasm their staff have for their products. That is if you can find a member of staff that can serve you, as it seems nearly all of the staff are actually security guards. I fully understand why the staff is so detached from their tech, it’s just short of perfect, but that gap in every case drives you crazy.

I’ve owned enough Sony (close to) goodness to be able to say this. I’ve fallen for their cameras only to find that they use weird memory cards that no one else uses, and use a different method of encoding images with an extra bit of encoding that just makes them non-standard. And I know that as they own movie companies and music studios they are extra sensitive to copyright issues, but that doesn’t excuse them to create so many onerous digital rights management schemes that stop me using anything I buy from anyone else on their devices and anything I buy from them on any other devices. And how comes their hifi components only allows the remotes to control other Sony devices, really!

And I truly get annoyed every time I turn on the PS3 and it needs to do a software update before it allows me to do exactly the same thing I could do the day before. And the way their portable tech insists on telling me in great detail how it’s connecting to the internet (WTFC). With Sony there is always ONE thing with every device that creates a gap between their reality and perfection. And the gap can be too big for my imagination to bridge. I like Sony equipment, I like it a lot, but I just don’t love it.

Ah my spleen feels so much better now.

The Average Angry Tech Consumer

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