Technomicon Media's Channel

Apple WWDC 2011

by Mark W. Hibben

Jobs Announces iCloud

The announcement that Jobs would lead the keynote at the WWDC on June 6, 2011 produced an uptick in Apple’s share price, as investors and analysts apparently interpreted this as a sign that Jobs was reassuming day-to-day leadership.  Those hopes were largely dashed by Jobs’ actual appearance at WWDC.  He seemed, if anything, even more weary and frail than in past appearances, and his opening comment “Thank you. . . this always helps”  seemed to be an acknowledgement that he needed the appearance at the conference to boost his spirits and energy.  We can only hope it worked.  It certainly seemed to. His opening remarks seemed breathless and strained, and we were relieved when he quickly ceded the stage to Phil Schiller and then Scott Forstall, who discussed the upcoming OS X Lion and iOS 5 releases respectively.  But he seemed reinvigorated for the final part of the presentation in which he touted Apple’s cloud computing service iCloud.  Although iCloud was presented last, in this article I’ll discuss it first, for iCloud was clearly the unifying theme of WWDC 2011.

Heads in the Cloud

In presenting the Apple vision, Jobs couldn’t resist taking a swipe at perennial fall guy, Microsoft, when he stated that some people think that the cloud is just a “hard drive in the sky”.  This was a reference to a component of Microsoft’s cloud computing offering, called Skydrive.  However, both Microsoft and Apple have roughly equivalent visions of cloud computing in which the Cloud becomes the new hub of your digital life with the PC becoming just another device.

Both Microsoft and Apple assume that people will want this, but both never seem to get around to saying what exactly the Cloud is.  Instead, they prefer to describe it functionally or in terms of its presumptive benefits:  “It will sync all your digital media for you across all your devices; it will provide automatic backup of your files and data; it will distribute mail and messages to all devices automatically . . .” 

It’s time to cut through all this cloudiness and talk about what Cloud computing really is.  The Cloud is just a bunch of servers, often a very large bunch of servers, like the new Apple data center Jobs showed off at the end of his iCloud presentation.  These servers are doing the kinds of things that servers usually do, storing digital files and making them available to anyone who wants them and is authorized to have them, and executing application programs under the remote control of a user.  The main difference is that Cloud servers communicate with their clients over the Internet rather than through a Local Area Network (LAN).  The high speed internet connection providing download speeds in the 1-15 Mbps (million bits per second) is the key enabling technology that has made cloud computing possible.  The sponsors of Cloud computing expect that Internet connections will only get faster, so they expect more and more functions that are currently performed locally on a personal computer to be moved to the Cloud.  The Cloud is the computing world’s Safe Bet for the Future.  But here are some reasons why at least some parts of your digital life might not move to the cloud:

1) Trust.  Most people will be reluctant to put important identity information on a Cloud computer.  My tax returns, my Quicken financial data, my important passwords, my Social Security number, they’re all staying put on planet Earth.  Yeah, I know that credit card companies and banks all store my personal data electronically, but here I don’t have any choice in the matter, since it’s either give them the information or forego credit cards and electronic banking.  I don’t have to put my personal and confidential information on anyone’s Cloud, especially for no better reason than it’s convenient and “safe” backup.
2) Bandwidth.  Sure, Internet access gets faster all the time, but I’m pretty confident that it will always lag behind LANs and storage technologies like hard disks and flash drives, which can transfer data roughly 10-100 times faster than a 10 Mbps Internet download speed. Bandwidth becomes an issue for certain kinds of digital content where the file sizes are just too large for cloud storage to be practical, mostly premium digital content like Blu-ray movies.

Dual layer Blu-ray movies hold 50 GB of data and play back at a maximum data rate of 48 Mbps in order to display 1080p60 (1920x1080 pixels at 60 frames/sec) video with multichannel sound.  Bandwidth limitations are the main reason why iTunes doesn’t offer any 1080p video content.  Similarly, DVD audio provides a maximum bit rate of 9.6 Mbps, far in excess of the supposedly high quality 256 kbps AAC format provided by iTunes.  This higher data rate can be used to provide both multi-channel sound and sound at higher sample rates and bit depths (see my review of the Fireface 800 for a discussion of why this is important), which many prefer to CD audio or the compressed audio provided by online music services. Is it possible that in the future, Internet connection speeds will catch up to the requirements of current premium digital content?  Yes, inevitably, connection speeds will improve, but the content creation industry isn’t standing still either.  Already, higher capacity (100-128 GB) Blu-ray formats have been defined.  How will these be used? They’ll be used to hold things like 3D movies and video, as well as even higher resolution video formats such as 2560x1440 pixels.  Disk sales are a significant profit center for the digital media industry (movies and TV), and they’re strongly motivated to keep it that way.  I expect premium digital video content to remain beyond the reach of on-line services for 5-10 years.
3) Storage Capacity.  Both Apple and Microsoft provide 5 GB of free online Cloud storage for user created files like text, spreadsheet and presentation documents.  The 5 GB excludes purchased media and apps, which is already stored in the on-line stores of the respective companies.  Most of us with PCs will not be able to squeeze our storage needs into a measly 5 GB.  Personally, I’m working on filling up a 2 TB NAS with video, uncompressed audio, photos, and endless hard drive backups.  Like most people, I could probably cull through this and reduce the storage requirement by at least a factor of 2, but it’s not worth the time.  Storage is so cheap that it’s always more cost effective to just buy more storage.  Both Microsoft and Apple are kidding themselves if they think that 5 GB of online storage is going to support a “Post PC” or even “PC Free” digital life style.  This 5 GB is just convenience storage for non-critical documents that you want to use the Cloud to distribute.  Is it possible that on-line storage will catch up to the needs of most PC users?  Very unlikely.  Users’ storage needs seem to expand to fill the capacity of their hard drives, and hard drive capacity continues to grow rapidly.  A TB hard drive can be had for a few hundred dollars (US), whereas I don’t expect Apple or MS to offer a TB of free individual on-line storage any time in the foreseeable future.

Despite the above 3 caveats, it’s clear that cloud computing will become increasingly important, and fortunately, nothing in the offerings of either Apple or MS requires an unreserved embracing of their vision of the Cloud as the new hub of your digital life.  Users are free to pick and choose what parts of the Cloud service they want to use, and there’s a lot to like in Apple’s iCloud offerings.  Apple will of course provide seamless integration across their iOS, Mac OS, and in-house developed apps for both platforms.  I regard it as a given that they’ve done a better job integrating Cloud computing than Microsoft.  I expect that using iCloud will be nearly effortless, whereas not using it may require a little work.  Here are my favorite iCloud features:

1) Automatic lifetime storage of purchased content and distribution to up to 10 user authorized devices.  This DRM change was actually forced by Microsoft, which had announced a similar approach at last year’s July FAM.  Gone is the requirement to employ a single PC to sync your iPhone or iPad to.  Anything you’ve ever purchased will be retrievable from the Cloud.  iTunes, the Mac and iOS app stores, iBooks  and iCloud have been mind-melded.
2) Mobile Me is gone.  Contacts, Calendar and Mail have been completely re-architected for the Cloud, and these Cloud based services are now free.  The Cloud provides automatic syncing of all three apps across all your devices.
3) Automatic wireless backup of apps and iOS.
4) Ability to save documents for mobile apps such as iWorks apps to the cloud.  This is a great capability to have, especially if you’re on the go, even if you don’t use it all the time.

My not so favorite iCloud features:

1) The paltry 5 GB of online storage.  This seems to be a set-up to offer a pay-per-GB online storage service. 
2) Limited support for non-iTunes media.  There seems to be no support whatsoever for non-iTunes video, except perhaps to use up the 5 GB of online storage.  As for ripped audio, you might as well just keep syncing with your PC.  Apple offers an iTunes Match service that provides a “matching” iTunes AAC audio file for each CD-sourced audio file in your music library for a flat yearly fee of US$ 25.  The service certainly has convenience going for it, since these matching files will be available to all your mobile devices, but this kind of defeats the purpose of using the higher quality CD format.  I wouldn’t bother.

iCloud's software integration across so many operating systems and apps is an achievement in itself.  In addition to superior integration, there appears to be another key difference between Apple and Microsoft.  Microsoft is big on Cloud based apps, such as the Internet version of Microsoft Office.  Web-based apps of all types are becoming increasingly important, so the movement of apps to the Cloud will continue to trend upward.  Apple seems to be bucking this trend, at least for now.  Apps are things that users download and install on their local devices in the Apple world.  Certainly, iCloud itself can be thought of as a Cloud based app, but it remains in the background, and tends only to manifest itself through local app clients like Mail or iTunes.  Apple is offering Cloud APIs to its developers, so that any app can potentially access Cloud services, thereby blurring the distinction between local and Cloud based applications. 

The Lion Roars

Before Phil Schiller launched into the discussion of the next Mac OS X release, Lion, he had a few pointed comments about the Mac sales growth.  He stated that the Mac market grew 28 % year over year in the latest quarter while the PC market actually shrank by 1 %.  His use of the term “market” is a little vague.  What specifically happened is that Mac unit sales grew by 28 % y/y in the latest quarter, as stated by Apple in the latest quarterly financial statements.  As Microsoft stated in their latest quarterly financial statements, unit sales of PCs declined by 1 – 3 %.  But there are still a lot more PCs than Macs being sold, and the 54 million Macs installed worldwide, of which Phil was so proud, are completely dwarfed by the over 1 Billion installed Windows PCs.  The installed base of Macs is even dwarfed by the population of iOS devices, which I estimate stood at about 160 million at the end of the first quarter of  CY2011.  Even now, Macs remain something of a niche market.

Lion is unlikely to change this, but for those with a Mac, myself included, it’s a must have upgrade.  Unlike Phil, I won’t keep the best news about Lion for last.  The best news about Lion is that it will only cost US$ 30.  For that price, Mac users won’t get a DVD, since the upgrade will only be available through the Mac App Store, but I can live with that.

As was indicated by Apple back at the October 2010 Special Event, Lion incorporates many features derived from iOS, specifically support for multi-touch gestures using a notebook or desktop trackpad and support for full screen apps, and a built in Mac App Store.  There’s even an application launcher reminiscent of the iOS home screen with single icon buttons for all the apps installed on the Mac, and side-swiping to switch between transparent “pages” of app icons that overlay the Mac desktop.  For the most part, Apple has brought over just the right amount of functionality from iOS to be a genuine enhancement.  The desktop Magic Track Pad has been my favorite user interface device since Apple introduced it, and now, with multi-touch gesture recognition built into Lion, it gets even better.  Hopefully, users will not find the large array of gestures (single and multifinger swipes and more) bewildering. 

Apple seems to be particularly proud of the fact that gestures allow the elimination of “ugly” scroll bars, but it’s not clear why.  This was demonstrated in the new Safari browser, and presumably will be a “feature” for other apps when a track pad is available for the system.  The enthusiasm for scroll bar elimination seems misguided.  For very long documents, scroll bars afford a kind of random access to any part of the document simply by dragging to the appropriate position.  Granted, the search process is often unguided, but it’s usually faster than scrolling continuously from the beginning of the document.  Having to use gestures to swipe from the beginning of the document in order to get to the place that you want amounts to a form of sequential access of the file, with the UI forcing you to start at the top of the document and scroll continuously (by swiping repeatedly) until you finally get where you want to be.  I already find this to be rather tedious for documents on the iPad and consider it one of the few disadvantages of the iPad’s touch interface.  The last thing Apple should do is afflict all Mac users with the same problem.  Presumably, scroll bars will still be available to Mac users with mice, so this may become a disincentive for desktop Mac users to switch to what is otherwise a wonderful interface device, the Magic Trackpad.  In the current OS X, the trackpad handles scroll bars just fine, so I hope Apple backs off from eliminating scroll bars, or at least provides an option for scroll bars that the user can select.

In Lion, users will have the option to display apps in a borderless full screen mode once again reminiscent of iOS.  The built in system apps such as Mail, Safari, and Calendar, iLife, iWork, and Xcode will all have full screen capability.  Besides the extra room, the cool thing about full screen apps is gesture based switching between them.  A horizontal swipe causes the app screen to scroll in or out from the side, and you can use this to switch between multiple full screen apps and the desktop. 

According to Apple, the Mac App Store has been hugely successful, becoming the #1 retailer of PC software, regardless of OS.  The visibility provided by the Mac app store should be a huge boost for Mac OS app development.  Now it’s built into Lion. 

My personal favorite for iOS derived features is Launch Pad, which displays all the user’s applications as clickable icons similar to the iOS home screen, with the ability to scroll through multiple pages by swiping horizonally.  Since time immemorial there have been application launchers for PC and Mac, but this is by far the best.  Its best feature?  Applications are added to Launch Pad automatically. 

Lion also adds a host of features that are not iOS inspired, but still very desirable.  Foremost among them is Mission Control, which seems much improved compared to what was first shown back in October 2010.  Mission Control unifies the functionality of Expose, Spaces, and Dashboard, and gives you a bird’s eye view of the all spaces and desktops.  It provides a way to easily add desktops, and organize windows between them, including full screen apps. 

Also built into Lion are some features that have been tried in various forms before, and we’ll just have to wait and see how well they work in practice.  Resume should automatically allow users to return to the state of application at the time it was closed, including open files, windows, tool palettes, and even highlighted text.  This sounds like a feature that really depends on the application developer to get right.  I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them don’t.  Also included in Lion is OS based automatic saving and backing up of documents, including the ability to browse conveniently through saved versions of a document.  Once again, this probably depends somewhat on the app developer, but probably works well for Apple provided applications such as iWork.

My favorite non-iOS flavored feature, by a mile, is Air Drop.  Air Drop is a peer-to-peer WiFi connection between Lion OS computers.  Set up is completely automatic and transparent to the user.  Air Drop allows you to transfer documents via this wireless connection to another Lion OS computer.  Transfer is even encrypted for security.  Finally, Lion OS users can leave their thumb drives at home.  Unless they’re transferring files to a PC. 

Mac fans won’t have much longer to wait for Lion, as it’s due out in July. 

iOS to the Cloud

Scott Forstall began his discussion of upcoming iOS 5 features with a pep talk for developers designed to reassure them of Apple’s dominant position in the mobile OS market place.  He had plenty of ammunition.  iOS has the largest market share at 44 %, compared to Android at 28 %, RIM with 19 % and all others at just 9%.  These market share numbers appear to apply to US sales only, and while impressive, ignore how different the story for Android market share was just a year ago when Android was just getting started and iOS devices outnumbered Android by more than 3 to 1 worldwide.  Apple continues to be dominant, for the moment. 

He also stated that Apple has sold over 200 M iOS devices to date, including 25 M iPads.  Actually, it appears that Forstall may have understated the number of iOS devices sold, since my tally, based on Apple’s published data in their quarterly reports going back to 2007 shows 238 M iOS devices sold to date, but I’ll go back and check my numbers.  Getting specific numbers on sales from companies like Apple, Google, or Microsoft is a rare and valuable opportunity to check models and make adjustments accordingly. 

iOS 5 does offer a lot of great new features along with significant improvements to existing features.  Winning the award for Most Improved Feature has to be push notifications, which have been completely reworked.  iOS 5 now incorporates a Notification Center that affords viewing of all notifications at any time, a vast improvement over the current approach in which notifications disappear permanently once the device is unlocked, or after being dismissed.  Another great improvement is that notifications no longer interrupt an app.  Instead, there’s a fairly unobtrusive announcement at the top of the screen, which goes away if ignored.  To view the notification, you just swipe downward.  Push notifications are, in effect, an iCloud service, so reworking the interface was very much a part of fully integrating iOS and iCloud, as I’ll describe more fully below. 

New features include Newsstand, an iBook like organizer for magazine and newspaper subscriptions, Reminder, a sophisticated to-do list app, and for non-iPhone iOS users,and iMessage instant messaging.  Reminder is a location based service in the sense that user location information can be used to trigger reminders, as well as date and time.  iMessage has been part of iPhone for some time, but it’s great to finally have it on iPad and iPod Touch.  iMessage uses Apple’s existing push notification system, and is supported by 3G and WiFi.  All messages are encrypted, and delivery and read receipts are available.  In keeping with Apple’s Cloud approach, all messages are automatically pushed to all the user’s mobile devices.

My favorite new feature didn’t quite make Forstall’s top ten list, but I consider it very important: Airplay video mirroring.  This was a capability that I had predicted would become part of Apple’s approach to integrating iOS devices into home networks, which was eventually revealed as the new Apple TV.  This capability may seem redundant with the HDMI interface accessory that Apple now provides, but the cable is somewhat cumbersome to use, especially if you’re actively using the iPad for demos, as opposed to just watching a movie. 

I’ll be curious to see how well wireless mirroring works, how much UI lag there is, if any, and if it will be possible to use the iPad as a game controller with the game video mirrored on the TV screen.

Near the top of the Forstall’s list of new or improved features was Safari.  For the most part, Safari is improved.  Safari now provides tabbed browsing, with instantaneous switching between web pages.  Very welcome.  There’s also a Reading List that allows saving of pages to read off-line, and the ability to email the contents of an web article, rather than just the link to the page. 

Now we come to Reader, which figured most prominently in the list of new Safari features.  Reader provides a way to view a web based article which strips out the accompanying advertising on the web page.  Reader also has the capability to combine multiple web page articles into a single continuous quasi-document that the user can swipe-scroll through, with the separate HTML pages indicated by page breaks in the Reader view.  On the surface, it seems a well intended attempt to circumvent what has become a common abusive practice on advertising supported web sites of spreading articles needlessly over many HTML pages simply to force the reader to look at a lot of advertising.  Reader is also a part of the latest Mac OS version of Safari, so that any Mac users can try out Reader for themselves.  Reader has two fundamental problems:

1) It often doesn’t work. Oh, it always provides a nice, advertising free, view of the first page of the article, but whether it detects the links to the subsequent pages of a multi-page article and loads them is hit or miss.  I imagine that Reader has specific format and HTML tag requirements that Web pages must conform to in order for the page concatenation function to work properly. 
2) Reader constitutes a frontal assault on the advertising based revenue on which so many commercial web sites depend.  As such, commercial site designers and operators will only greet Reader with hostility and loathing and do everything in their power to ensure that Reader doesn’t work on their sites.  As of right now, that seems to be relatively easy to do, but one can imagine this easily devolving into a tit for tat battle of wits in which each side attempts to counter the other’s countermeasures. 

As the reader may have noticed, the problem of presenting multi-page articles is something we gave a lot of thought to in the design of Technomicon.  We wanted to avoid the multi-HTML page approach because we regarded it as abusive of the site user as well as inefficient, since the multiple downloads involve some server request processing overhead for each page as well as often forcing the download of redundant page content and advertising.  We adopted the tabbed panel approach in order to provide an uncluttered layout while being able to accommodate an article of almost any length.  Our article HTML pages load efficiently nevertheless, and the panel icons provide a way to conveniently access any point in the article, much the way bookmarks do for long PDF documents.  Through our own extensive user testing, we came to the conclusion that this was the most convenient way to present our articles while preserving advertising visibility, and it had the advantage of working well for any browser or OS. We still think this is the right approach and is even more convenient than Reader (when it works), since no equivalent “bookmarking” feature exists in Reader.  By the way, Reader doesn’t work for Technomicon article pages either, but then, it’s not really needed.

Part and parcel to iOS iCloud integration is the new PC Free functionality, which is really a set of features that ride along with iCloud.  Since Apple seeks to demote the PC from its hub status and substitute the Cloud, Apple needed to provide a way for iOS users to dispense with using a PC.  Gone is the requirement to connect to a PC in order to start up a newly purchased iOS device.  New owners will be greeted with a welcome screen instead with set up and activation occurring directly between the device and the Cloud.  iOS updates and backup can occur between the Cloud and device wirelessly without a PC as well.  PC free is about allowing iOS device users to make their iPad or iPhone their only personal computing device.  As I indicated in my iCloud discussion above, this probably doesn’t work for those who already have a PC, but for those who don’t, iCloud provides an entrée to personal computing that may work for them.  Given that virtually all Apple provided iOS apps are now iCloud aware, users will be able to easily save iWork and iLife documents to the Cloud, as well as push them to their various devices.  This is about reaching (and selling to) the “next billion” of non-PC owners who want a personal computing capability but can’t use or afford a personal computer.  Through their extensive investment in facilities and sweeping software architecture revisions, Apple may well have locked up this market.  iOS 5 arrives this Fall.

  • 1.
  • 2.
    The Safe Bet
  • 3.
  • 4.
    iCloud Features
  • 5.
    The Lion Roars
  • 6.
    No Scroll Bars?
  • 7.
    Other New Features
  • 8.
    iOS to the Cloud
  • 9.
    Safari Reader
  • 10.
    PC Free
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