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Miscellaneous

WWDC 2011 – Part 2: iCloud

I think iCloud is fantastic. When it was first announced, we assumed generally that it would be the name for a new iTunes streaming service but it ended up being so much more, and all of it great.

I’ve been saying for such a long time now that I thought Apple should compete with Google in cloud services. Mobile me simply did not make sense when compared to Google’s free services like Gmail, Google calendar and documents among others. Sure, they were good but they cost money they probably weren’t worth.

iCloud takes everything good that Mobile Me did, makes it free and adds more besides. Whether me.com email addresses can challenge the traditional heavyweights in email like hotmail, yahoo, aol and gmail is another question, but I suppose just the fact that the domain is only two characters should help its cause somewhat. Whether they actually gain substantial market share in all of these cloud services is beside the point, just the fact that it’s free is great and it makes them competitive at least.

iCloud also expands on Mobile Me’s original syncing concept and takes things a lot further and really puts them far ahead of anyone else in terms of mainstream cloud syncing services. Not only does in sync the usual things, contacts, calendars and mail, but also practically everything else you could think of. Your photos, videos, iWork documents, a complete backup of all of your device settings and data from your apps.

These things are all fantastic, but the real star of the show here is the automatic syncing and backup of your purchases from all three of Apple’s stores. All of your music, apps and books will automatically download to all of your devices. No more syncing and homesharing across numerous devices and computers, and no worrying about backing up your precious music. If in future you somehow lose your music on all of your devices, you can just download it again for no extra charge. Apple say that there’s no limit to how many times you can re-download purchases but I assume they’ll be fairly lenient as long as you don’t abuse the function.

For me, this will completely change my purchasing of music in the future. Recently, I’ve been going exclusively to Amazon MP3 for my music, as it’s generally quite a bit cheaper than iTunes for almost everything, and sometimes by a very significant amount. However, the extra value you get from not having to worry about syncing anything and keeping a library in perfect order, as well as the peace of mind of not having to back up purchases make it worth the extra money in my opinion.

At first, I was a bit surprised that Apple didn’t do something more elaborate with iTunes in the cloud in the same vein as Spotify or possibly a locker type arrangement like Amazon cloud player or Google Music. When I thought about it more, I understood why they went in the direction they did.

The reason why they didn’t go with a locker type arrangement is because it’s complex, involves uploading an entire library to the cloud which is far from ideal and wastes storage space with potentially a huge number of copies of the same song being uploaded. I think the Spotify streaming model would make more sense but Ap[ple have traditionally stayed away from the renting model for music as they like people to feel that they own the music they download. The iTunes Match service is essentially the happy medium between these two options. It scans your library for music that wasn’t downloaded on iTunes. AKA: from another online service, ripped from CDs or obtained in less than legal ways and looks for matches in Apple’s catalogue. You pay a flat fee and any music you have that is available in iTunes match is either upgraded to 256kbps if it’s lower quality, or if the music is not on iTunes, those select songs will be uploaded. Everything will then be treated as if you bought it from iTunes originally, and will be synced to all of your devices automatically. This is a nice idea and I’m sure Apple will make it as easy to understand as possible, but it remains to be seen what will happen if you don’t renew your subscription. Hopefully you’ll get to keep any music that was upgraded in the new form, and perhaps even still be able to keep uploaded music synced, but that’s a long shot.

Either way, I can’t wait to check out iCloud when it launches in the autumn. Just the small taster we’ve been given in the UK of being able to sync Apps and books but not not music has got me excited to check out the whole package.

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Miscellaneous

Quick Recap of Last Week’s Tech News

There have been a number of things I’ve been meaning to comment on in the last couple of weeks and not got around to it until now. Rather than write long posts on each, I’ll quickly summarise what I think of these points.

AOL wants to buy Yahoo!

This is I think good news. They are both very similar companies and to me at least, it makes sense to create one bigger one to help them both better take on Microsoft and Google. At one stage, AOL even directly copied Yahoo’s own homepage so I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to integrate both of their services together if this were to happen.

BlackBerry Playbook Announced

You may say that this deserves a post of it’s own, but if you want to read that then you’d be on Engadget, TechCrunch, Gizmodo and all of the others. Personally, while I think it’s cool and probably a smart play for a very quickly maturing market, I can’t say I’m very excited for it.

From what I’ve always heard, touch screens by companies other than Apple tend to be more frustrating and hard to press than the multi-touch displays that are such a joy to use. On the software and hardware sides, I can’t see them making anything that can genuinely rival what Apple can do. I liken this to Android in a way. It tries to be mainstream but ends up being too geeky and confusing for a lot of that audience.

Android is making steps forward so it’s not to say Blackberry can’t do the same. I feel the same way about tablets from companies like Samsung. I just doubt whether they really have what it takes to go head to head with Apple, but we’ll find out soon.

Google Launches goo.gl URL Shortening Service Publically

This is hardly huge news, I just wish they had done it much earlier because now they are way too far behind everyone else to compete. Bit.ly, J.mp, fb.me, wp.me and many more including now Twitter‘s own t.co service are all established now and I don’t think Google are going to be able to get a foothold in the market.

In order for them to really be successful with this, they need to get two things started. Firstly, they need to get integrated into Twitter and other news apps on Apple’s and other devices so that more people will be likely to choose to use it. They also need to give users a bookmarklet so that they can shorten links much quicker. Currently, you have to copy the URL, visit goo.gl and paste it in the box to get the short code.

While they are some way behind the competition in the process or shortening the links, where they do shine is in the stats they provide. Google have the best servers in the world and they put them to good use here, tracking data such as clicks, browsers, locations and platform used.

I don’t think until they make the changes I’ve noted, they can challenge the heavyweights of this growing category of service, but it’s Google. If they wanted to take it seriously, they could surely trounce everyone else pretty easily.

My IGN Updates

MY IGN is the cool social networking service built into IGN.com. It replaces the original community aspect of the site and makes it much better. I’ve written a detailed post on it before, so check that out if you need to get up to speed on what it does.

The new updates now allow peace of mind regarding blogging. At first, they had stated that all blog posts written in the new wordpress powered blogging system would be deleted when the service left beta. That is now not an issue and all posts written with either platform will be kept. This is great news.

They have also made the service more stable, have given more security options to prevent people from spamming your wall by only allowing people you follow to do so. You can also block users now.

Finally, you can see who you follow and who follows you and quite a few other improvements including post deletion. I’m really excited to see how they keep improving MY IGN going forward, because it definitely fills a void in the social media market as I’ve said before, and it has great potential.

The next thing I’d like to see them do is integrate the service into the IGN app for iPhone and maybe their m.ign.com mobile site which appears to be inspired by YouTube‘s mobile version.

Apple Updates iTunes Ping

This happened quite a while ago now, but essentially what Apple did was remove the genius sidebar, which I and probably most other people never used to begin with, and replaced it with the Ping sidebar. The new sidebar shows your recent activity from bands or friends you follow. When you click on a song in your library you get the option to like or comment on that song in the sidebar, or by clicking a button next to the track you have highlighted.

When the artist of the song you’ve highlighted has a profile on Ping, you’ll be provided a link to that in the sidebar as well, which is useful if you didn’t know before that they were active on the social network or not, or if you want to quickly check their activity.

It’s not a major upgrade to Ping but it makes sense and probably should have been there from the start. Genius never really needed the sidebar so it’s good that they’re putting that space to better use now.

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Miscellaneous

Nike + Versus Adidas miCoach

Image representing Nike as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

Nike+ has been around for a about 4 years now. It originated as an iPod accessory that could only be used that way, and synced with iTunes, but in 2008 Nike released the sportband, a type of watch that does the same stat-tracking as the iPod version, but without music. It’s also very easy to control as it’s on your wrist the entire time your run. I have owned a sportband and a pair of Nike Plus compatible shoes for a few months now and I think it’s a great product. The technology seems magical at times but also very easy to grasp for practically anyone.

There are occasionally a few hiccups with the sensing and sometimes your walk or run can be quite poorly measured, but this is only rarely. Overall, considering I use it at least once each day, it’s a phenomenal product and a great motivational tool.

Recently, Adidas have released a competing product which is very similar. It’s called MiCoach and it works in a considerably different way to the traditional Nike Plus. There are two main ways to get setup with miCoach. The main way is to buy a pack which includes a pacer, which controls everything and links to an MP3 player so you can hear music along with your miCoach audio. Also in the bundle is a heart rate monitor, and a stride sensor which clips on your shoe laces. You don’t need to buy special shoes like you do with Nike+ which is an advantage if you already have good running shoes.

Personally, I don’t like being forced to wear a heart rate monitor. Nike lets you do that as an option and I think Adidas should have done the same. But if it works well, people who want that extra tough should benefit from it.

The system may work well, but they’re going to find it hard to grab a foothold in the market now with Nike so far ahead by this point. Nike do have several options for their system, but they do a good job of making it really clear what equipment you need whichever method you opt for, whether it be an an iPod Nano, Touch or iPhone. The price, at £120 is a lot to ask, especially as that doesn’t include shoes. A sportband with a sensor is £40 and a pair of Nike Plus shoes are around £60, so that’s still less money. The only thing you really gain with miCoach is the heart rate monitor and voice coaching, but you also get more complex and confusing aspects to deal with.

Of these traditional methods, I recommend Nike Plus to almost anyone. I think the miCoach system needs to evolve and become less complicated and more user friendly to really compete, especially for the average consumer looking to just keep fit and not take it too seriously. Those who do can buy a heart rate sensor for Nike Plus later, but the vast majority probably won’t want or need it.

The main reason I write this post today though, is because of another method that Adidas and Nike both now offer as an alternative to dedicated equipment specifically for this purpose. MiCoach offered a free iPhone and Blackberry app when the service first launched. Instead of using all of the hardware such as the pacer and stride sensor,  it actually just uses your phone and nothing else. It makes use of the GPS function in these phones to provide a very accurate recording of your distance, speed, time and of course, being GPS, your route taken.

Nike have in the past week also released their GPS enabled app for iPhone. Although it isn’t free, Nike are the proven force in this particular sector and It’s hard to go against them at this point. However, with that said, the miCoach app is free so I would recommend trying it first to check the technology works for you in the area you live. You may decide to keep that app on cost or performance basis. It’s a personal choice and may also come down to whether or not you’re already invested in one platform or the other, most likely Nike Plus.

GPS or future implementations of it are surely the direction these services are going to take in the future. They provide excellent accuracy with no calibration unlike the current bespoke systems. There are two issues here: cost and battery life. Almost all devices that have GPS are high end smart phones and are either only available on contract for a high cost per month, or sim free for a huge initial payment. Devices like iPod Touches don’t currently have GPS and until they do, I can’t see this method replacing wearing a sensor in your shoe.

For people who do have a compatible phone already and who therefore don’t consider this an extra investment, it can’t hurt to try it out. The main issue for you will be battery life. If you go walking or running often, for long distances, or both, you will find that you will need to charge your phone probably nightly, and this will become a frustration.

Until battery lives in our phones increase considerably, or we gain access to GPS in devices like the iPod Touch, I think these types of solutions will still take a back seat to the original sensor based technology. Then again, at only $2 or £1.19 in the app store, for people who are casual runners who want the convenience of just putting their phone in their pocket and going, this may prove very popular for them. If they don’t run often or very far, this may prove indispensable.

I just worry that maybe Adidas and Nike have shot themselves in the foot by offering this for so cheap (free in adidas’ case) and potentially eliminating the need for equipment they probably make a considerable profit on. Not to mention Nike Plus shoes which must be a big earner for the company. I suppose they must have thought it through and considered it a minority market for the time being, but we will see in time how well this new GPS based technology takes off in user adoption.

In conclusion, if you’re someone who wants to get into some casual running with a fairly simple and inexpensive product, I would recommend Nike Plus as it’s been great for me. If you have a compatible iPod Already you may want to buy either a sports kit (for nano) or a sensor only (newer touch). If you don’t, then grab a sportband bundle. You’ll also need compatible shoes.

If you own an iPhone with GPS then there’s no harm in downloading one or both apps to try them out and see how they work for you. Finally, if you’re a serious runner, then the Adidas pacer may be what you’re looking for, but Nike also now offer a heart rate monitor of couse.

In the end, there are a lot of different options. One of them will be right for you and whichever one you pick will certainly help you get fitter and more motivated so you can’t lose in that respect.

Categories
Miscellaneous

Apple Event: iTunes Ping

Image representing iTunes as depicted in Crunc...
The old iTunes logo. The new one ditches the CD. Image via CrunchBase

Ping is a new social network by Apple, only accessible within the iTunes application on Mac, PC or iDevice which is specifically about music, and nothing else.

When Steve first announced ping, I was initially sceptical, asking questions like: Do we really need another social network? Why is this not accessible in a browser? and so on. Not to mention that I think the name is a bit poor by Apple’s standards. I think they could have come up with a better one that didn’t sound like something Microsoft would come up with.

Both of the above questions have been answered for me though. In a similar fashion to how MY IGN meets the needs of gamers in a way no other social network does, Ping does the same thing in that it gives people a good place to discuss music and follow their favourite artists.

Other places have tried to integrate social networking and music, for example Spotify. They updated their app to integrate with Facebook. The issue there is that while it works well, you have to disable a lot of the settings to stop it from spamming your news feed with junk. To me, Facebook is about silly status updates that are rarely important, posting photos of family and friends that aren’t designed to be Flickr masterpieces, chatting to friends and playing browser games occasionally.

The problem is that when you get into integrating complex subjects like music or gaming into pure social sites like FB, you end up with clutter and spam, and that isn’t what the vast majority of people want from that type of site.

Because Ping is so closed off and accessible only via iTunes itself makes it interesting and unique, and you’re never going to have to deal with fake accounts for artists because there will be links to ping profiles from Artists bio pages on the iTunes store, if they have an account. It’s a very controlled and closed system, which some will disagree with, but in this case it works well and integrated into the iTunes experience nicely.

Another thing I noticed is that you can’t actually do a status update by itself. You can comment on activity, for example liking a song or purchasing something but you can’t type without a reason, which it definitely a good thing as it keeps things on subject as much as possible.

It’s interesting that despite the iTunes Store selling all kinds of content now from Apps to TV shows, they have nothing to do with Ping whatsoever. I wonder whether that will change any time soon. My guess would be no, as they seem to want to emphasize the link between iTunes and music once again, and go back to their roots so to speak. This is reinforced by their move to bring the nano back to its predominantly music origins and remove the distractions from the last couple of versions.

Once they get the rampant spam under control and possibly include some kind of friend importing tool from other networks and email accounts, I think they’ll be on to a winner. This isn’t supposed to replace Facebook or Twitter as Steve said during his keynote, but instead it’s a kind mini networking companion to iTunes with a clear single purpose in mind. For that reason I think many negative critics are reading far too much into what Apple are trying to do here.