This month marks the 19th anniversary of TidBITS, and Adam takes a look at how far the industry has come, and where it will likely go in the future. If that’s not enough opinion for you, Adam also argues that the optimal move for Apple would be to make Mac OS X Snow Leopard free (or as close to free as is reasonable), given its lack of marquee features for users. In other news, Apple reported a $1.21 billion profit for Q2 2009 and, after user protests, pulled the Baby Shaker app from the App Store. We also look at how Microsoft’s Windows 7 will take a page from Apple’s Classic mode, warn readers about the latest in GPS thievery, and announce a pair of Take Control ebooks about GarageBand ’09. Notable software releases this week include Mactracker 5.0.7, MercuryMover 2.0.5, Firefox 3.0.9, and PopChar X 4.2.
The weak economy is hurting Mac sales to professional and educational customers, but consumer sales and the iPhone and iPod touch have lifted Apple to another impressive financial quarter. Ending the second quarter of 2009, Apple reported a $1.21 billion profit on revenue of $8.16 billion, or $1.33 per diluted share (those numbers compare to a $1.05 billion profit on $7.51 billion in the year-ago quarter). Also contributing to the strong bottom line were low prices for components such as RAM, better freight and warranty costs, and better sales of high-margin products, all of which helped push Apple’s gross margin to 36.4 percent (up from 32.9 percent last year).
In a conference call with analysts, Apple Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer called it Apple’s “best non-holiday quarter in history.” The company reported $28.9 billion in cash on hand, noting that it’s focusing on “preservation of capital” with that cash (and presumably not looking at any major acquisitions).
Macs and iPods — During the quarter ending 31-Mar-09, Apple sold 2.2 million Macs, a 3 percent decline from last year. Apple attributed the drop to professionals, such as design firms, who are likely holding off purchases to save costs until the economy improves, and to educational customers who have seen state and federal funding dry up. Although U.S. educational sales dropped 11 percent, the company is optimistic that the recently passed U.S. stimulus package will help in future quarters. The desktop refresh in early March (which updated all of Apple’s desktop models) boosted sales.
As part of the discussion of Mac sales, the question of netbooks arose during the call. Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook expressed Apple’s opinion of the current netbook market, saying, “When I look at what’s being sold in the netbook space today, I see cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens, and just not a consumer experience and not something that we would put the Mac brand on, quite frankly.”
As with his comments during the last quarter’s conference call, Cook pointed out that Apple has “some interesting ideas in this space.” He also pointed out that the features for which people are buying netbooks – Web browsing and email – can be accomplished with the iPhone or iPod touch.
Led by strong sales of the iPod touch, Apple racked up 11.01 million iPod sales during the quarter, a 3 percent year-over-year improvement. During the call, Oppenheimer and Cook reiterated the strength of the App Store and the iPhone OS (which also runs the iPod touch) as fueling those sales, and reminded listeners that they expected the App Store to mark its 1 billionth download sometime on Thursday. (The billionth app was indeed downloaded on Thursday, by a 13-year-old in Connecticut.) Apple claims it owns 70 percent of the market for music players in the United States.
iPhone 3G — The star of Apple’s financial results, once again, is the iPhone, with 3.8 million iPhones sold in 81 countries, a 123 percent growth over the year-ago quarter. Those numbers represent the GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) results – Apple spreads the income for the iPhone and Apple TV over their expected lifespan. Non-GAAP results push Apple’s quarterly totals to a $1.66 billion profit on $9.06 billion in revenue (that’s money directly received during the quarter).
Apple is also delaying revenue recognition for sales of all iPhones after 17-Mar-09, which is when it announced the iPhone OS 3.0; current iPhones will be able to upgrade to the new operating system for free when it appears later this year.
Unlike the last earnings call, this one didn’t offer any incendiary questions or statements. Only one mention of Steve Jobs’s health came up, and that was as an aside: Oppenheimer said, “We look forward to Steve returning at the end of June.” Analysts also tried to elicit comments about possible legal skirmishes over the Palm Pre and whether it violates Apple’s intellectual property (or whether Apple is infringing on Palm’s patents), which prompted Cook to end the call with a generic statement about how competition is healthy for the industry and that “we think it’s best that other companies invent their own stuff.”
Following a day-long eruption of protest on Twitter and in blogs, on Wednesday afternoon Apple removed an app from the App Store that allowed iPhone and iPod touch users to shake a picture of a baby to stop it from crying. The Baby Shaker app, which was posted for sale for 99 cents on Monday, is just another head-scratching example of apps approved by Apple for inclusion in the App Store when other seemingly innocuous apps are held for months, or rejected.
The app can no longer be found in the App Store, but curious readers can find a screen shot in CNET coverage and even a video on YouTube. The app, published by Sikalosoft, which also offers an image mosaic creator app called Dice Mosaic, featured shaded line drawings and lifelike recordings of a baby’s cry. The app’s listing encouraged users to “See how long you can endure his or her adorable cries before you just have to find a way to quiet the baby down!”
Apple later apologized for allowing the Baby Shaker app through.
Adam was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article on the topic; reporter Yukari Iwatani Kane focused on the risks that Apple runs in acting as a gatekeeper for the App Store. Similar situations could crop up, as apps continue to be developed that fall on one side or another of any controversial issue. It will be interesting to see how Apple deals with such situations, or if the company eventually moves to a “common carrier” approach in which the App Store is open to all comers.
Good documentation can be hard to find these days, and Apple’s GarageBand has particularly suffered in this regard, since relatively few books have focused on it over the years, with even fewer titles for later versions of GarageBand. Our guess is that most publishers didn’t sell enough books about earlier GarageBand versions to make it worthwhile to release new editions. It’s also tricky to find someone who is good at writing about how to use the Mac, who has time to write book-length documentation, and who is well-versed in real-world GarageBand usage.
In an example of ebooks breaking the constraints of the physical world, our two GarageBand titles have been steady sellers, and interest in them has grown over time, so naturally we wanted to update them for GarageBand ’09. We were relieved that author Jeff Tolbert found the necessary time while working on his ever-increasing number of music-related projects. (We’re hoping that we don’t regret our flip “remember us when you’re famous” line by having Jeff sucked out of the Take Control orbit when he hits it big.)
So, we’ve just released new editions of the 117-page “Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand ’09” and the 134-page “Take Control of Recording with GarageBand ’09.” They cost $10 individually or $17.50 in a bundle. To purchase both books with the bundle discount, use this direct link or look for the “Buy Both” option in the left margin of either Web page.
- “Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand ’09“: This 117-page ebook provides step-by-step instructions and linked-in audio examples for using GarageBand’s built-in loops to create three songs, explaining not only how to use GarageBand’s editing and mixing features but also how to be playful and creative while composing tunes that please the ear. Readers will learn how to plan a song, get the most out of Magic GarageBand, edit and arrange Real Instrument and Software Instrument loops, create exciting mixes, and export projects. The ebook also covers how to change track volume, tempo, and panning dynamically, and how to work with GarageBand’s effects.
- “Take Control of Recording with GarageBand ’09“: This 134-page ebook explains how to create musical compositions with vocals, drums, guitars, MIDI keyboards, and even the kitchen sink. Readers will learn how to get the most out of their existing gear or purchase new equipment that fits their budget and style. The ebook covers how to plan a recording session, and it discusses real-world recording studio techniques for tasks such as using a microphone effectively, getting the best sounds from your gear, applying effects, fixing mistakes, using the new Electric Guitar track and new stompbox effects, and recording multiple tracks at once. Two example songs
demonstrate many of the techniques discussed.
If you own an earlier version of one of the Take Control GarageBand titles, you may have received an email message about getting a free (for those who purchased after 01-Jan-09) or discounted update; otherwise, open your PDF and click Check for Updates on the cover to get update details.
We spent last weekend in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, visiting friends and spending a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan so Tristan could see the Armor Room. The only dark spot in an otherwise enjoyable trip was that the passenger-side window of our Honda Civic was smashed one night while the car was parked on the street, and the power cable to the Garmin nuvi 255W GPS that we were borrowing from my parents was stolen.
Needless to say, we weren’t so clueless that we had left the GPS itself, or any other valuables, in the car, so losing a $30 cable wasn’t a big deal. Even having to pay $20 to park the car in a garage that night and $120 to have the window fixed the next day wasn’t the end of the world. Everyone – from the people who drove by while I was leaving the parking space to the garage attendant to Joe of Joe’s Auto Glass (highly recommended) – was extremely nice and sympathetic.
But the reason I tell this tale of minor woe is because Joe, with corroboration from others who have suffered similar misfortunes, told me that thefts of GPSes are exceedingly common in New York City these days – he had repaired 10 such broken windows that week. The thieves walk down the street looking for the tell-tale ring left on the windshield by a GPS suction cup mount, smash a side window, open the glove compartment, and remove any GPS left there. It’s over in seconds.
So the moral of the story is, if you’re leaving your car on the street in an urban neighborhood overnight – even in a nice neighborhood like Park Slope – take the GPS with you, hide both the suction cup mount for your GPS and the power cable, and clean the inside of the windshield to remove that subtle mark left by the suction cup mount. You may also be able to get a beanbag-style mount for your GPS – Garmin sells one that’s compatible with the nuvi series that we picked up from Amazon.
Microsoft has revealed that Windows 7 will offer an optional, downloadable Windows XP virtual machine to provide full backwards compatibility. Veteran Windows watchers Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott of SuperSite for Windows were given the nod to release the secret. Microsoft’s Windows Team blog later confirmed the feature.
The Windows XP Mode won’t ship with Windows 7, but will be available as a free download for Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate system owners. The XP mode will comprise a Virtual PC 7 virtual machine and a fully licensed copy of Windows XP Service Pack 3. While this might weigh in at a couple of gigabytes, that’s no longer an onerous one-time download even for many home users. (I have to download nearly a gigabyte of Leopard updates if I install Mac OS X 10.5.0 on a new hard disk.)
Windows XP Mode will be a separate environment, but will allow running programs to appear alongside Windows 7 programs, rather than locking them inside a window – this sounds just like the Coherence mode that Parallels initially introduced for Windows applications running under Parallels Desktop in Mac OS X; VMware later matched Coherence with VMware Fusion’s Unity mode (see “Parallels Desktop Ups the Ante,” 2006-12-04, and “VMware Announces Fusion 1.0 Release,” 2007-08-06).
The strategy is clear. Including XP in a virtual machine enables XP users to make an immediate leap to Windows 7, buying new hardware that will run XP far faster, while preserving a functionally identical operating environment (one that’s likely to be more stable and portable, too). Microsoft can break all the compatibility it wants with Windows XP (and perhaps Vista, too) in Windows 7, jettisoning old code, obsolete programming hooks, and other detritus.
Last year, I wondered why Microsoft hadn’t simply coupled its Virtual PC division with XP for the release of Vista in “Microsoft Needs to Empty Windows Trash, Reboot” (2008-06-29) when I recounted how many times Apple repackaged compatibility layers and virtual machines as it cast off successive older operating systems or architectures. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in asking that question.
This is a brilliant move for Microsoft, and one that’s somewhat out of keeping with a company that has made backwards compatibility one of the hallmarks of how it moves forward. The move may provide a compelling carrot to firms and individuals who are concerned about upgrading applications but might want to take advantage of some of the advances in Windows 7.
At some point in the next two to six months, Apple will unleash their latest big cat: Mac OS X Snow Leopard. It’s no secret – Apple has been talking about Snow Leopard for ages, with particular emphasis on how Snow Leopard will focus on performance, efficiency, and “core innovation” rather than user-focused features.
Specific improvements promised for Snow Leopard include support for up to 16 TB of RAM; improved multi-core support for applications; a next-generation version of QuickTime; out-of-the-box support for Microsoft Exchange in Mail, iCal, and Address Book; and support for OpenCL, which is designed to expose the computing power of modern graphics processing units. Other Snow Leopard promises have included a smaller memory and disk footprint, a faster installation time, and a tweak to Stacks to allow subfolders.
Sound exciting? From a developer standpoint, absolutely. From a user standpoint, not so much. Based on everything Apple has said so far, Snow Leopard won’t, on its own, bring any of the marquee features that could change the way you use your Mac, much as past releases of Mac OS X brought us Time Machine, Screen Sharing, Spotlight, Dashboard, Expose, Automator, Front Row, Spaces, Stacks, and more. So how much are you willing to pay for an operating system upgrade that does exactly what your current one does, but uses a little less RAM in the process?
Don’t get me wrong. I applaud Apple for taking a break from the feature-based rat race to concentrate on the underpinnings of Mac OS X – along with all those slick features has come bloat. Mac OS X has grown portly, a change largely swept under the rug by increases in CPU performance and decreases in hard drive and RAM costs.
I suspect that some of the changes Apple promises in terms of reduced memory and hard disk footprint are related to the work done at the core of OS X for the iPhone. The world is moving to ever-more-mobile devices, and as a result, toward RAM-based storage that won’t compete with rotating disk storage on a price-per-gigabyte basis for some time. If Apple is to be able to innovate in the hardware world – perhaps with much-rumored devices that fit between the iPhone and the Mac in size and capability – a leaner, more efficient operating system can only help.
All this leads to my main point: Assuming that Snow Leopard will indeed feature only the under-the-hood improvements promised so far, Apple should release it for free, instead of the $129 price of most releases. Although I say “free,” I could easily be talked into the $29.95 charged for the Mac OS X Public Beta (which could be deducted from the cost of Mac OS X 10.0); Apple’s standard $9.95 media cost for those who want to receive it in the mail on DVD also doesn’t bother me at all. But it should become a no-brainer to upgrade to Snow Leopard, whether you’re running Leopard or Tiger now.
I have no inside information here, and I am not arguing from an “information wants to be free” point of view. But based on what we currently know about Snow Leopard, I think Apple – and the Macintosh industry as a whole – stands to benefit more from making Snow Leopard free for anyone whose Mac meets the hardware requirements than from charging for it. The reasons break down into two basic categories: the benefit of a coherent Macintosh platform and the difficulty of marketing purely under-the-hood changes.
One OS to Rule Them All — This is the crux of the matter. From a business standpoint, older versions of Mac OS X do nothing but create costs for Apple and for developers, but it’s difficult to encourage users to upgrade without an incentive. With the bold move of making Snow Leopard free or very cheap, Apple would attract not just all Leopard users, but every user of Tiger (with compatible hardware) who had put off upgrading to Leopard because the new features weren’t worth $129.
Apple wouldn’t earn any money from getting laggard users to upgrade, of course, but with Snow Leopard as the sole target platform, users with Macs that were too old for Snow Leopard would have even more reason to buy a new Mac. Let’s not forget that new Mac sales are still the core of Apple’s business.
Why would this be worthwhile? Developers must continually decide how far back in the evolution of Mac OS X to aim their code. If Snow Leopard became nearly ubiquitous, developers could concentrate their efforts on it, rather than spending resources on Tiger and Leopard as well. That might result in faster development times, better applications, and more total applications, all of which benefit Mac users and Apple too. As more applications begin to require Snow Leopard, the pressure to upgrade would increase on those who had stuck with much older Macs.
The single coherent platform could have other benefits for Apple too. I’m going out on a speculative limb here, but if I were in charge of Snow Leopard, I’d put a lot of effort into improving Mac OS X’s security architecture. Were that to happen, Apple might want Snow Leopard to be as widespread as possible to reduce the chance of a high-profile security exploit hurting Mac OS X’s reputation for being relatively free of malware.
The final reason I think it makes sense for Apple to move the Macintosh to a single coherent operating system platform is that it has already worked once. Just look at the iPhone and iPod touch, which have sold a combined 37 million units so far. With them, Apple has made major operating system upgrades either free or inexpensive (iPod touch users have had to pay small fees for upgrades). As a result, there’s a single target for developers, and a better experience for users. As far as I’m aware, almost no one has passed on the iPhone software updates.
The alternative – charging the full $129 price for Snow Leopard – could have deleterious effects. Were Apple to charge a significant amount for Snow Leopard, a high proportion of users wouldn’t upgrade, further fragmenting the installed base, and making it harder for developers to justify new Mac products that take advantage of Apple’s latest technologies. This could also hurt the overall reputation of the Macintosh platform, much as the security problems plaguing Windows XP still count as a strike against Microsoft’s reputation for security, even though Windows Vista offers much better security.
It’s hard to know exactly how the Macintosh user base breaks down right now. The Omni Group tracks the version of Mac OS X reported by their Omni Software Update technology, and their stats show that only in February 2009 did Leopard’s installed base overtake Tiger’s. (These stats are specific to The Omni Group’s customers, of course, but other numbers, such as the 87.5 to 12.5 ratio of Intel to PowerPC processors, seem reasonable. Plus, since The Omni Group’s applications are likely to be used by early adopters and power users, the stats would seem especially relevant to this discussion.) If Leopard, with all its user-focused features, managed to capture only half the installed base in 18
months, a full-price Snow Leopard would have even more trouble.
Selling Ice to Eskimos — On a more practical matter, I think marketing a Mac OS X release that doesn’t offer significant user-focused features would be tricky at best. It’s not that Apple couldn’t describe the advantages of Snow Leopard – larger RAM ceilings, better multiprocessing support, QuickTime X, faster installation time, and so on – but that those improvements largely address problems most users don’t have. When was the last time your average Mac user thought, “If only Mac OS X installed faster!” or “I sure wish I could put a terabyte of RAM in this Mac”?
The entire point of Snow Leopard is to focus on improvements that will make future innovation possible, but it’s hard, especially in this economy, to sell something based entirely on deferred benefits.
Worse, if done poorly, pushing the under-the-hood features of Snow Leopard could conceivably undermine any benefit-based marketing Apple might want to use to promote the next version of Mac OS X. In particular, Apple could risk being seen as nickel-and-diming users, which could in turn hurt Snow Leopard’s adoption rate.
Finally, although a strong case could be made for making Snow Leopard free for Leopard users and charging Tiger users the full $129 price that they would have paid for Leopard, I’d argue that if someone running Tiger hasn’t upgraded to Leopard yet, they’re not going to, unless Apple makes the upgrade compellingly cheap. Plus, many Tiger users are probably running on PowerPC-based Macs, and the scuttlebutt is that Snow Leopard will run only on Intel-based Macs (so the only possible way to get Snow Leopard would be to purchase a new Mac anyway). While splitting the upgrade path would avoid sour grapes on the part of those who purchased the Leopard upgrade, anyone who purchased Leopard receives the benefit of using it until Snow Leopard
ships, so it’s not like it was wasted money.
Arguments Against Free — There are a number of reasons why Apple might still choose to charge for Snow Leopard despite the arguments I’ve laid out above. And, to be clear, I wouldn’t be upset if Apple charged just enough – somewhere between $10 and $30 – to cover the materials and distribution costs of a boxed product to the retail channel.
Some sort of a charge might be necessary if Snow Leopard proves too large to download. Also, for non-Apple retail stores, a high-enough price would be necessary for them to carry the box at all. A fee may even be necessary to meet accounting rules surrounding products like the Mac that are not accounted for on a subscription basis, like the iPhone and Apple TV.
We’ve also become accustomed to paying for major updates, and Apple may not want to break that habit, even if the price is somewhat lower than normal. Though of course, selling something for which people don’t see the value could also break that habit and hurt Snow Leopard’s adoption rate.
Lastly, although Apple has never released retail sales numbers for Mac OS X that I’m aware of, the company undoubtedly makes tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrade fees. Despite posting record profits in recent quarters, Apple may be unwilling to leave that money on the table, even if there’s a chance such a strategy might not be in the long-term interests of the platform. It’s also possible that Apple’s internal accounting requires upgrade revenue to pay off Snow Leopard’s development costs.
Free the Snow Leopard — In the end, I believe that making Snow Leopard available for as little as is feasible – perhaps a free automatic-update download and a low-cost mailed media or retail box option – would help create a single coherent Macintosh platform that Apple and independent developers could build upon without worrying about supporting the past. Some short term profit would be missed, of course, but it would offer numerous long-term advantages and put the Mac on a firmer competitive footing with the upcoming Windows 7, especially given Microsoft’s recent cost-based advertising and recent announcement of an optional virtualized Windows XP for Windows 7 users (see “Windows 7 Adds Optional Virtualized XP,” 2009-04-24).
Besides the simple benefit of a Mac that works better (in theory, of course), users would also gain from software that would take advantage of Snow Leopard’s features and would be easier and faster to develop without support for legacy versions of Mac OS X. And anything that makes users and developers happy benefits Apple in the end, through the sales of ever more Macs.
This month marks the 19th anniversary of the founding of TidBITS, making it (and us!) almost inconceivably ancient in Internet years. When Tonya and I started TidBITS back in April of 1990, we communicated with one another via email and telephone; moved files around the Internet with FTP; and did our social networking on mailing lists, Usenet news, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat).
Our Internet connection initially consisted of a slow modem hookup to one of Cornell University’s IBM mainframes and to a Unix box run by Cornell’s Theory Center. Back then, if you wanted an Internet connection, you just asked someone who had one already if you could connect to them – there was no Comcast Internet or Road Runner or EarthLink. We’ve used the tidbits.com domain for many years, but well before that became an option, we operated a UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy Program) node – the first email address I controlled was [email protected], and messages would hop their way from machine to machine on their way to me.
There was no World Wide Web – that wouldn’t start to become real until 1993 and 1994. The concept of an affordable always-on Internet connection in the home didn’t start to become common until the later 1990s. We installed the first “high-speed” Internet connection – a 56 Kbps frame relay connection – in our house in 1994 (see “Mainlining the Internet”, 1994-11-14).
Apple and Microsoft existed, and would be entirely recognizable to someone who went back in time, but of course, there was no Google, no Yahoo, no eBay, no Amazon, no Skype, no Flickr, no YouTube, no Facebook, no Twitter. Companies like Compaq, WordPerfect, Lotus, and Ashton-Tate muscled their way around the industry like raging thunder lizards, but all would eventually succumb to the force of change and be consumed by other, more successful competitors.
Mobile phones also existed, at least in the cars of the well-off, but their eventual ubiquity was merely in the dreams of phone manufacturers like Motorola. Portable music players used either cassette tapes (launched by the Sony Walkman) or CDs (like the Sony Discman). And the only wireless signals most people were going to receive were AM/FM radio and UHF/VHF television.
So we’ve come one heck of a long way, with our modern Macs, our iPods, and our iPhones, all using Wi-Fi and 3G data to search the Web via Google, watch video via YouTube, talk via Skype, and connect with far-flung friends via Facebook and Twitter.
The TidBITS anniversary rolled around this year while we were in New York City for spring break, which got me to thinking about some of these sea changes and what they mean for the future.
Computing to Communication — Perhaps the most significant change in the face of computing over the 19 years we’ve been publishing TidBITS is the extent to which computing resources are used largely for communication of one sort or another. Perhaps this trend should have been obvious from the earliest days of computing: after all, Alan Turing, considered by many to be the father of modern computer science, was best known for his work on decoding German communications during World War II.
But when the age of the personal computer started, most people considered computers to be computing devices for crunching numbers and sorting databases. One significant aspect of the Macintosh, with applications like MacWrite that offered font-handling and layout capabilities, was its emphasis on creating print materials for communication. The arrival of Aldus PageMaker and the Apple LaserWriter cemented that role, but many people failed to see it, instead thinking about these applications as “productivity” apps, perhaps because the costs limited their use to professionals who could justify the expense.
During the 1990s, we all stumbled onto the Internet in various ways, and looking back, it’s fascinating to see just how tentative those early steps were. Apple may have had an early FTP site in ftp.apple.com, but it took the company several more years before the necessary system software was in place for every Mac to be able to connect to the Internet. Today, a computer that can’t connect to the Internet is nearly inconceivable.
I’m struck by how we continue trying to improve our communications methods. Every technological method of communication is an effort to break time and place constraints on in-person talking – postal mail, the telephone, email, instant messaging, Twitter, and so on. Every so often, when I’m trying to explain Twitter to someone, I flash back to the same earnest explanations of email in the 1990s.
All modern Internet communication services are really just refinements on what email provided from the beginning. Viewed that way, you can see how email will never go away – it’s ubiquitous, the lowest common denominator, and based entirely on open standards. As popular as Facebook and Twitter are, they’ll never replace email, being proprietary (not to mention the fact that they come from companies that aren’t exactly stable businesses).
We’ve even seen computers become our primary news and entertainment devices, displaying our news stories and playing our audio, video, and games. For things that don’t work quite as well on a traditional computer, we’ve seen specialized devices – game consoles, portable music players, and even ebook readers – appear. But this is all communication as well – even these forms of mass entertainment are just particular forms of communication within our culture as a whole.
Lastly, even those things we once thought of as pure productivity applications – word processors, spreadsheets, and databases – are embracing communication technologies, becoming collaborative in the process. It makes sense – in most cases, there’s no point in producing something unless you’ll be communicating the results to other people, and of course, much of what is done in this world is too complex for a single person to accomplish it alone, making collaboration essential.
Modern Necessities of Life — In the decade before we started TidBITS, personal computers were a luxury of the well-off – the kind of thing parents bought their kids instead of a set of encyclopedias, based on the belief that computer literacy would be necessary for their children’s future job prospects. Starting in the 1990s, that changed, as computers become increasingly inexpensive and capable. When Tonya and I were at Cornell in the late 1980s, we were unusual in having our own computers, but on my last trip through a Cornell dormitory a few years ago, every student’s desk had a computer on it. (And when was the last time you heard the term “computer literacy” used in conversation?)
Those students, once they graduate, don’t stop using computers, since computers have become their connection to the outside world via email, instant messaging, Facebook, and the Web in general. Plus, these computers also act as stereos and TVs, and, with the rise of Skype, allow them to talk with college friends around the globe for free. In short, the computer has become a necessity of life in the modern age – almost no one is willing to give up that ability to communicate and to consume the products of our entertainment industry.
Want one reason Apple’s Mac sales haven’t been suffering badly despite the difficult economic climate? People can’t avoid buying a computer any more – they might put off upgrading or buy a cheaper one, but an educated individual today simply needs a computer. It’s not just adults – the age at which children need computers is dropping all the time. (The reason other computer manufacturers haven’t done as well, I’d argue, is that a higher proportion of their sales come from businesses, which are more likely to delay purchases until things improve.)
The iPod is in somewhat the same situation – it may not be necessary in the way that a computer is, but if you’ve had an iPod and arranged your life around having it available, you won’t go without if it breaks or you lose it. I don’t see Apple’s iPod business slowing for some time because of this.
Similarly, mobile phones, which were an expensive luxury back when we started TidBITS, have become far more prevalent in the United States, and even more so elsewhere in the world. As of 2008, there were 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, and nearly 15 percent of U.S. households have opted for a mobile phone rather than a landline. You want to talk about a modern necessity, look no further than the mobile phone.
The convergence of the computer and the mobile phone into smartphones like the iPhone further cements the mobile phone’s position of dominance. Computing is communication, and mobility increases the need for communication. I don’t talk or text on my iPhone much, but on our recent trip to New York City, I found myself pulling the iPhone out of my pocket constantly. Sometimes it was for basic calls or text messaging, but other times I was using its computer-capabilities – viewing a map of the subway system, getting walking directions to the museum, finding an auto-glass repair shop, and so on. After that trip, I can’t imagine living in an urban environment without an iPhone.
The Bar Keeps Rising — While it’s becoming ever easier to publish, thanks to the Internet technologies that have sprung up in the last 19 years, there’s a contrary trend as well: the rising bar of what it means to be professional in your publishing.
When we started TidBITS, email was all that was necessary (and, largely, was all that was possible). With the advent of the Web, it became necessary to build a Web site, something done for us originally by friends at Dartmouth College. Then it made sense for us to run our own Web site, which involved getting a high-speed connection and administering a server. Soon afterwards, it wasn’t enough to have a Web site comprised of static HTML files, and the entire thing had to be served from a database. Now we’re to the point where even a database-driven Web site isn’t really sufficient, and AJAX-style interactivity is necessary.
But it gets worse. Although text won’t ever go away, it’s become clear that the addition of graphics, sound, and video are becoming increasingly important for anyone who considers themselves a publisher. (That’s one reason we have audio versions of our articles – look for the Listen link at the top of every article, or subscribe to our podcast.) Some publications are going even further, such as the New York Times Visualization Lab, where anyone can mix and match from various data sets. It’s clearly an experiment, but this sort of thing may be far more common in the next decade.
I say all this in part to note that although TidBITS may not have changed outwardly all that much for those who receive the email edition, we have put a ton of effort into our Web site over the last few years. Partly we want to do this because it’s interesting, but we also feel pushed – if we can’t keep up with the Joneses on the technology front, we worry that we’ll have an increasingly hard time attracting new readers. It’s not easy being in a state of constant flux and reorganization and improvement, but the world around us is moving so quickly that we’re running just to keep up.
There’s another concern hidden inside this worry about the publication bar constantly rising. TidBITS is a testament to the fact that the Internet provides everyone with a printing press, and if you look at the major blogs, they all started out small as well. But I feel some concern that the difficulty of producing a full-featured Web site will mean that the number of voices on the Internet will be dropping – we’ve already seen blogs falling away in favor of microblogging services like Twitter. Blogging is becoming too hard, and very few bloggers even try to produce enough original content to earn a living any more.
Following this to the next step, are we looking toward the demise of the publication? Is a publication anything more than an LP album, an arbitrary collection of articles that made sense to bundle together largely because of economies of scale when printing? Yes, I know there are artistic and other reasons for content collections, but still, how many people read an entire publication these days instead of just cherry-picking articles from around the Web? Maybe the Planet Money podcast has a great explanation on the latest move in the financial crisis, and ESPN has the wrap-up on last night’s game, and comics come from XKCD and
Joy of Tech, and… You get the picture.
In the end, we’re happy both that we cover a world that changes as much as it does and that we do so with original content, since that hopefully means that people read TidBITS for our perspective on a wide range of industry happenings.
A Little Bit Here, a Little Bit There — Finally, the last topic that’s been on my mind as I think back through our history is how we’ve scraped together a living all these years. The entire content industry is having conniptions right now about whether content should be ad-supported, subscription-supported, subsidized by a government, supported by sales of ancillary products, sponsored in some other way, or just given away for free.
Our experience since 1990 tell us that the answer is, “Yes.” All of these models can be made to work, and the main thing that publications must realize is that it’s worth using multiple approaches simultaneously. It’s likely that in any given business climate, one particular approach will generate the lion’s share of the revenue stream, but when times change – and they always do – other approaches may become more important.
As far as I know, we created the very first advertising program on the Internet back in 1992, before the Web had even arrived (see “TidBITS Sponsorship Program,” 1992-07-20). We were sufficiently concerned about the NSF’s Acceptable Use Policy that we modeled it after the PBS sponsorship model, and have kept it low-key all along. Being low-key, our sponsorship program has never scaled to the point where it could generate gazillions of dollars, like Google’s search-based advertising innovation did, but it has kept our lights on. We’ve supplemented the sponsorship program over the years with direct contributions from readers, Amazon affiliate referral earnings, and some Google AdSense income.
The major change for us came with the creation of our Take Control ebook series, which was possible only because of the skills and contacts we had built while publishing TidBITS, and it got off the ground only because of the TidBITS audience. Take Control is a lot of work, but it has also provided a structure in which some of our friends can supplement their income. It’s great when a business can build a close-knit community in addition to generating profit.
Just as we’re constantly working on our Internet infrastructure (both the parts you see and behind-the-scenes tools that make our lives easier), we’re also always thinking about things we can do to help the bottom line. It’s tricky, since the lesson of “If you build it, they will come” is no longer true on the Internet, and the amount of traffic needed to make advertising, affiliate referrals, or any other per-visit income stream sufficiently large is nearly impossible to achieve these days. We have ideas, though, and will let you know when we’re ready to pull the curtains back.
Despite the doom and gloom surrounding the content industry (with newspapers especially up against the wall), I believe there are plenty of solid livings to be made publishing content on the Internet. Publishing hasn’t been easy in the past, and it won’t be easy in the future, and serious money will accrue only to a lucky few. But with an eye toward producing original content and creating an appropriate scale of business, I think we will be able to keep publishing TidBITS as far into the future as we can reasonably see. Another 19 years? Maybe, but considering how far we’ve come in the past 19 years, I can’t even imagine what the world will be like in 2028.
Mactracker 5.0.7 from Ian Page is the latest version of the freeware utility that provides detailed technical information on Apple hardware. The update includes information for all early 2009 hardware, country of manufacture information for My Models items, Liquid Sensor details for notebooks, the capability to determine the number of recent years in the Timeline, and improved support for obsolete and vintage Apple products. Finally, a new Mactracker app for the iPhone and iPod touch with much the same information is now available from the App Store. (Free, 21.6 MB)
MercuryMover 2.0.5 from Helium Foot Software is a minor maintenance update to the keyboard shortcut utility for moving and resizing windows. Issues that have been fixed include an occasional system freeze when connecting or disconnecting a second display, and a bug that could prevent windows from being centered or maximized on a second display below a primary display. Also, the buttons in the heads-up display have been refreshed with a new look and feel. ($20, free update, 1.9 MB)
Firefox 3.0.9 from Mozilla is a security and stability update to the popular Web browser. The update addresses a number of security issues, including one critical vulnerability that caused crashes possibly leading to memory corruption. Also fixed is an issue wherein a corrupt local database caused Firefox to lose stored cookies, a bug preventing inline image attachments from appearing on webmail services, an issue causing sluggish uploads for large online forms, and some unnamed stability issues. (Free update, 17.2 MB)
PopChar X 4.2 from Ergonis Software is a maintenance update to the long-standing tool for finding and inserting special characters. A new feature, Reverse Font Search, enables users to locate all fonts that contain a specific character. The update also brings a handful of bug fixes for issues including one that caused a system freeze when opening PopChar X in combination with certain third party utilities, one that caused PopChar X to forget license information when syncing preferences with MobileMe, and one that caused crashes when PopChar X was used with certain keyboard layouts. (29.99 euros new, free update for purchases made in the last 2 years, 1.8 MB)
Billionth App Prizes Go to 13-Year-Old — Apple passed its 1 billionth download from the App Store on 23-Apr-09, but it hadn’t yet revealed who crossed the mark and won the company’s prize. Well, now we know who to envy. Connor Mulcahey, age 13, of Weston, CT is now the happy owner of not only a downloaded app, but also a $10,000 iTunes gift card, an iPod touch, a Time Capsule, and a MacBook Pro. Congratulations Connor! (Posted 2009-04-24)
Adam Talks about Apple’s Q2 2009 Earnings on MacNotables — For additional thoughts on Apple’s stellar earnings report, and just why Apple is bucking the downward trend in the economy as a whole, listen in on the discussion between Adam and Chuck Joiner in this MacNotables podcast. (Posted 2009-04-23)
Earth to Apple — In honor of Earth Day, Jeff Bertolucci reflects on Apple’s
true, err, green, colors. In this three-part series on Macworld about Apple’s position towards the environment, he takes a look at the company’s supply chain, recycling program, and corporate motivations for environmental change. (Posted 2009-04-22)
Spam’s Role in Environmental Damage — You can quibble with particular numbers or with the fact that this report (PDF link) was sponsored by McAfee, a company that sells spam filtering software. But its basic conclusion – that spam has a significant and deleterious effect on the environment – is entirely valid. Just another reason that spam is evil. Happy Earth Day. (Posted 2009-04-22)
Rich Mogull to Discuss Evaluating Security Stories on Your Mac Life — Tune in to Your Mac Life on 22-Apr-09 at 5:30 PM Pacific to hear TidBITS Security Editor Rich Mogull discuss his article on how to evaluate Mac security stories. The live audio stream will remain available through 29-Apr-09. (Posted 2009-04-22)
The Evolution of Apple Design, in One Image — Want to see how Apple’s industrial design has evolved over the years? Edible Apple has a graphic that shows every Apple product released (computers, iPods, displays, mice, and keyboards), in chronological order. Someone should make a poster. (Posted 2009-04-21)
Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus Says Nice Things about TidBITS — Thanks to the estimable Bob LeVitus for his kind words about our efforts to provide original, thoughtful content in TidBITS! (Posted 2009-04-21)
Copy and Paste Locations in iPhoto ’09 — Derrick Story has found yet another hidden feature in iPhoto ’09 8.0.2. You can Control-click a photo with geotags attached, choose Copy, then Control-click another photo (or selection of photos) and choose the new command Paste Location. Sneaky, but useful! (Posted 2009-04-21)
Rich Mogull Discusses Mac Malware on MacVoices — TidBITS Security Editor Rich Mogull talked with MacVoices host Chuck Joiner about the facts and fictions surrounding Macintosh viruses and the recent “botnet” fuss. Listen to this MacVoices podcast episode for real-world advice about both avoiding malware and evaluating security stories in the media. (Posted 2009-04-21)
The Lifecycle of Microsoft Office — We recently noted that Microsoft Office 2004 will hit its end-of-life date (after which it won’t receive any more updates) on 13-Oct-09. You can look up this date for other Office products at Microsoft’s Web site, or just keep in mind that Microsoft offers “mainstream support” for a minimum of 5 years or 2 years after the successor product is released, whichever is longer. (Posted 2009-04-21)
Canceling AT&T contracts — When your iPhone contract is up, does AT&T (or other carrier) unlock the device? (3 messages)
Spotlight GUI — Spotlight strives to stay out of the way, which is a problem when you’re trying to use it. Readers discuss how to perform better Spotlight searches. (17 messages)
MS Word 2008 — A protected Word file from a Windows user can’t be opened in Word 2008 for Mac. Other software may be helpful. (9 messages)
Scanner for slides Recommendations — What options or services are available for scanning slides? Readers make lots of excellent suggestions. (34 messages)
Navigating the Next Generation of Mac Twitter Apps — Readers compare the latest applications for viewing Twitter streams. (10 messages)
Two different MacBook Pro problems — Booting from older DiskWarrior discs may not work for the latest versions of Mac hardware. (3 messages)
Why Snow Leopard Should Be (Almost) Free — Readers debate Adam’s article questioning whether the next version of Mac OS X should be a free update. (35 messages)