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Petri Wessman's weblog

Apple getting more and more Big Brotherish

There’s a big fight brewing out there, between Apple, Google, Adobe and many other companies. Apple is slowly edging into the “big player” role and is fighting very dirty. Not that Adobe’s slate is totally clean either, and bad old Microsoft is infamous for stuff like this… but as I’ve said before, Apple in a monopoly position would be much worse than anything Microsoft did even during their worst periods of dominance.

The latest spate of control freakish dickery is a modification to the app developer agreement, in which Apple forbids iPhone/iPad app development with languages (and tools) which aren’t natively Objective-C, C, C++ or Javascript. This targets a lot of stuff, including (critically) all cross-platform tools. In other words, Apple is dictating the programming languages that apps need to be originally written in. Techically, in this day and age, this is fucking insane. Sure, Jobs has some excuses on the subject, but ArsTechnica nicely picks those apart.

Daring Fireball provides an analysis that sounds right on the money. Apple doesn’t want developers developing for any other platforms, and they are doing all they can to hinder any sort of cross-platform apps. The moment the iPhone becomes “just one more phone”, they’ll have problems. Apple wants apps only on their phones, not on competitors’ models. And hey, I can understand that, from a pure business perspective. It’s a ruthless move, but it makes sense.

That doesn’t make it something that anyone sane wants to support. The whole of Apple’s Disneyfied walled garden app ecosystem is something that makes me deeply uneasy. Also, I have zero doubt that Jobs would push the same model on the OS X computer front, if he could just figure out how. Walled gardens and a captive audience? Sure. It’s a license to print money, without all that nasty “competition” stuff.

It’s actually quite analogous to DRM in music. When that came out, the “geeks” and technical people were vehemently opposed. The ordinary “man on the street”? He didn’t care. He thought the geeks were overreacting. He just wanted something easy, “who cares about all that technical and ‘freedom’ stuff”. Then, slowly, he discovered what the geeks had figured out long before: the system was broken, the music was nonportable and often stopped working at some point.

I feel a bit the same way about Apple’s iPhone/iPad ecosystem. It’s not something I want to support, sending money in its direction would feel “dirty” in the same way as paying for DRM’ed music would. Voting with your wallet is, after all, still a valid form of expressing an opinion.

The other side of the coin is the fact that Apple does tend to do beautiful and very polished products. At some point I do want a portable PDF reader, and at that point I hope there is an alternative to the iPad available. Me, I’m hoping to see an Android-based tablet. Rumor has it that Google is working on such, but… well, rumors are just that.

I’m rooting for Google to kick Apple’s ass, somewhat. Jobs is both the best thing that Apple has going for them and the worst. His perfectionist attitude has resulted in Apple climbing out of the 1990s proprietary, ultra-expensive pit that they had sunk into. However, that same perfectionism manifests in a total control freak, “Jobs way or the highway” attitude. With the more and more proprietary and closed direction Apple is heading in, there is a real danger that they will repeat the mistakes of the 1990s all over again.

I’m sure that hordes of Apple apologists will totally disagree, and quote some tired old “well, don’t buy one then!” refrain. That’s fine. Instead of typing additional words, I’ll just link to iPad: The Disneyland of Computers and Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either), both of which are views I mostly agree with.

I’ll have to reiterate: I do like many of Apple’s products, and love the attention to detail in them. I just hate the more and more obnoxious walled garden restrictions that surround the iPhone and iPad. That’s also the reason I’m more and more interested in Android.

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Do No Evil & musical collaboration

A couple of interesting blog posts today.

First off, Tim Bray (the man behind this small thing called XML, in case you didn’t know), is now at Google. As such this is interesting, but his blog post about it is an especially fun read. He makes no bones about his hate for the Apple iPhone/iPad closed ecosystem:

The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.

Amen.

I don’t own any Apple products right now, but I’m far from hating them. In fact, I have a definite love/hate relationship with the company. Like Tim, I really like their open(ish) products: Macbooks, OS X, etc. If and when I buy a “big” laptop (as opposed to my current nifty-but-limited netbook) it’ll quite probably be a Mac. Apple is really good at polishing products, and after years and years of fighting with various Linux desktops, you know… the idea of a desktop environment with a lot of polish and emphasis on the user experience is a nice idea. I like Apple computers and the OS seems decent enough (hey, it’s a Unix variant).

…but the new Apple focus on the ultra-closed iPhone/iPad ecosystem is horrible, for lots and lots of reasons. In this mode, Apple makes Microsoft seem like the Spirit of All Things Open; Apple is ridiculously control-freakish. While this has resulted in a lot of polish in the past, now it’s (imho) clearly going into areas I do not like. The idea of needing to (semi-illegally) hack my own device in order to get reasonable use out of it (“jailbreak”) isn’t a sane one to me.

So Android has been looking more and more interesting to me, as a platform. Will be interesting to see what develops, and above all: Apple needs something to give them competition and keep them in line. A future where Apple is the major player is not a future I want: they are well on the way to becoming the very same Big Brother their old 1980’s ads fought against. I suspect they’d be a lot worse than Microsoft ever was, given a monopoly position. “Think different”, my ass. “Think like Steve Jobs, or else…” more like it.

Things might become very interesting during the next few years, in this arena. Apple and Google are more and more set on a collision course.

The other interesting read this morning was a blog post by the great David Byrne about musical collaboration. While I’m purely in the “listener, not creator” box when it comes to music, I love music and find it fascinating to read “behind the scenes” stuff like this. Professionals discussing how they work is always interesting, and David’s discussions on how collaboration works for him, along with snapshots of his workspace(es), is especially nifty stuff.

I found this bit especially interesting:

The unwritten game rules in these remote collaborations seem to be to leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you can. Work with what you’re given; don’t try to imagine it as something other than what it is.

This presents some musical challenges, of course, but the benefits generally outweigh them. The fact that half the musical decision-making has already been done bypasses a lot of waffling and worrying. I didn’t have to think about what to do and what direction to take musically — the train had already left the station and my job was to see where it wanted to go. This restriction on one’s freedom — that some creative decisions have already been made — turns out to be a great blessing. Complete creative freedom is as much a curse as a boon.

I’ve also found (in some quite different contexts) that some limits can greatly enhance creativity and productivity. It’s a weird thing, but… complete design freedom all too often result in “analysis paralysis”, too many good possible design choices start to overshadow the whole point of what you’re doing. Setting some constraints (internal or external) can smooth things, sometimes significantly. Well, it’s worked for me at least, YMMV and all that.

…and David Byrne collaborating with St. Vincent? Very nice. Looking forward to see what (if anything) results from that.

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Pushing Ice (and mobile phone crimes against humanity)

I haven’t read all that much fiction lately; I’m a fairly slow reader compared to some, and I’ve also read a lot of roleplaying sourcebooks which further cut down on fiction. Anyway, the Akateeminen bookstore had (and maybe still has?) a 20% sale on all paperbacks, prompting me to pay them a visit and grab few – well, 8 or so – books that had been on my “should buy” list.

Last night I finished the first of those, Alastair Reynold’s Pushing Ice. Quite a ride. As one SF Site review says:

Alastair Reynolds’s novels are reliably fascinating at the “big idea” level. He’s got a truly first rate hard-SF imagination, and the chops to take cool ideas and reveal them via action plots, often hiding the really neat ideas convincingly until the end. He is a “light speed limit” author, and fascinated with Deep Time. And all this describes Pushing Ice quite excellently.

Quite. It starts off fairly low-key and low-tech, for a Reynolds book: in the year 2057, Janus – one of Saturn’s moons – suddenly starts behaving in a decidedly un-moonlike manner and accelerates towards Spica. The ice miner ship Rockhopper is the only ship in position to rendezvous, and despite some crew misgivings is diverted to investigate. Needless to say, things get dangerous and weird at a very fast pace, and without spoiling things I’ll just note that there are quite a few surprising plot turns along the way.

Central to the story is also the relation between captain Bella Lind and her friend, engineer Svetlana Borghesian. It’s perhaps not totally believable all the time and gets a little too long-term bitchy, but it still grounds all the ultra-tech in a human foundation. As always, Reynolds’ characters are not quite 3d enough, but it’s not bad – he’s a lot better at characterization than many other hard-sf writers are.

While I’ve always liked Reynolds (his debut Revelation Space kicked serious ass), this is maybe the most intresting thing I’ve read from him in a while; Century Rain, which I’ve also heard good things about, is still in the reading list pile. Sense of wonder, twists you don’t see coming, and enough action to keep things moving: what else can you ask of a summer book?


On to something else: I’ve always said that Nokia’s mobile phone UIs suck. I still hold by that claim, they suck mightily. Anyone who works at Nokia and has anything to do with UI design: game over, you’ve failed, sorry no bonus. Try sheepherding, it’s much more relaxing and people will hate you less.

The newer Symbian phones are actually more difficult to use than my ancient 7110 – and that’s no mean feat. My current theory is that the Nokia UI R&D department is actually manned by aliens who have no idea how actual humans think or work, but are trying to figure it out with fiendish experiments in UI design. That, or it’s drunk gerbils. Not sure.

Anyway… my “personal work phone”, a Nokia 6630, suffered a hardware breakdown during the weekend; the screen just started blinking and became unreadable. Luckily there’s still warranty left, so I took it to a shop and they sent it off for repairs, “it’ll take 2-3 weeks” I’m told. So we scrounged around at work for some phone I could use in the interim, and found an older Siemens phone. Mistake.

Now, as I’ve said, Nokia sucks in the UI department. But compared to the Siemens, it’s like sweet nectar from heaven. That thing is totally fucking awful, there is no logic to any part of it. Buttons change semantic meaning totally at random, the menus are confusing (if you can even find them), and to top it off, the damn thing just froze when someone tried to call it earlier, total software crash. It’s so bad that at the moment I’m charging the batteries on my ancient 7110 (yes, the “Matrix phone”, and yes, mine still works). I’d much rather use that stone-age piece of tech than suffer one more day with the craptastic Siemens.

Sigh. Why can’t we get a nice mobile phone that has both a good UI and reasonable technical specs? Don’t mention the iPhone, please, since in order for the iPhone to be even worth mentioning here in Finland it would need:

  • 3G
  • MMS
  • lack of lock-in to a single provider
  • reasonable price (300-400e max)

At the moment it looks like the iPhone will be a fancy dud, at least here in Europe where expectations of what a mobile phone needs to do are considerably higher than in the U.S. Pay 600-700e for a provider-locked phone without reasonable modern network support? What sort of idiot, other than the random Apple fanboy, would do that?

So the wait continues.

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