An argument for hardware buttons on mobile devices

Butter-side up or down? That’s the source of conflict in Dr. Seuss’s “The Butter Battle Book,” where, if you’re foggy on the details, two sides clash over their toast preferences, pushing one another to the brink of war. Less contentious but equally trivial to onlookers is the currently raging button battle: Are mechanical buttons necessary on mobile devices? One camp, Apple, says yes, and it’s sticking by the prominent Home buttons on its iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. The other camp, Google, disagrees and has moved away from physical buttons on its Android devices, embracing on-screen soft buttons in their place. So what’s the fuss about? And why should I care? Read on to find out.

Over the years, Apple’s Home button — featured on every iOS device, save for Apple TV — has added more tricks to its bag. In 2007, for instance, when the iPhone debuted, the Home button did little more than whisk users back to the home screen. Now, four major software upgrades later, the iPhone’s Home button handles multi-tasking, Siri, and the camera shortcut, too.

Then there’s Google, which has moved to abandon physical buttons in favor of on-screen soft buttons on its Android devices. Since the company took the wraps off its tablet-specific Honeycomb OS last February, an introduction that coincided with the launch of the Motorola Xoom, minimalism has been the order of the day. In fact, neither the Xoom nor the ICS-powered Samsung Galaxy Nexus — both flagship devices developed under the watchful eye of Google — sport a physical Home button.

And that’s an example Google hopes hardware and software developers will follow. It recently advised both to ditch the central Menu button (strangely present whether or not it’s accessed by a physical button) and fold those functions into an on-screen action bar.

So which has it right? I’m partial to physical buttons, myself. They offer something that soft buttons don’t. For one, tactile buttons give you the satisfaction of actually pushing something, which, stress relief aside, lets you know that you can expect a result. And they make reassuring sounds when you press them — even when the host devices are muted or asleep.

If you think either point is overrated, I challenge you to find someone who prefers an ATM-style virtual keyboard over its tangible cousin. Good luck.

What’s more, physical buttons promote accuracy, and they’re always where you left them, regardless of the device’s status. That makes them substantially more accessible, especially in the dark or for those with weaker eyesight. Play around with a Kindle Fire for an afternoon and you’ll see what I’m on about. That tablet has but a single button, and even the simplest tasks like adjusting the volume can be an exercise in frustration.

That said, physical buttons aren’t without their faults. Anything that’s continually pressed is bound to wear out eventually, and that’s a problem I’ve run into with my iPhone 4. A year and a half into ownership, there are times when pressing my phone’s Home button does absolutely nothing. In fact, sometimes I have to press it two or three times before the action registers, which can be extremely annoying when I’m trying to move quickly through the OS. It’s even withstood my attempts to fix or recalibrate it.

Soft buttons are immune to this pitfall. With fewer moving parts, reliability’s improved. The Galaxy Nexus, for example, won’t have any difficulty navigating to or from its home screen down the road, no matter how many times its user requires it. In my brief time with a Nexus, I grew to appreciate that dependability. It just worked. (Isn’t that supposed to be Apple’s motto?)

But that’s not enough to make up for the simplicity of physical buttons (when they work), in my mind. What’s so difficult about a soft button? you ask. Try explaining to your tech-illiterate grandma how to return to her buttonless device’s home screen, or how to adjust the volume on her Kindle Fire. Not so easy, huh? The buttoned approach will always win out with the lay crowd because it’s just more intuitive, which is precisely why user-friendliness-obsessed Apple has kept it around: Everyone knows how to get back home.

So what about the savvy among us? Which is better for people who don’t crochet in their spare time? For my money, it’s physical buttons. I can certainly understand the appeal of on-screen soft buttons, and they do have one major advantage (reliability), but it’s not enough to trump the convenience, accuracy, and satisfaction of a well-sorted, old-fashioned button.

Macworld: More metaphor than Macintosh

Macworld, the world’s premiere showcase of all things Apple, has peculiar branding. Its formal title, you see, is Macworld | iWorld, a name that implies costars of equal importance, or, alternatively, that iWorld is somehow secondary to the headlining Macworld. But neither is true, and as I walked the floors of the San Francisco, California, convention space, I was struck by iOS’s overwhelming presence — and its castmate’s stark absence. The shared signage, I thought, is no more accurate than a movie named for its principal actor and one its extras.

But that sells Mac short. It’s what put people in the seats all those years ago, after all. Its steady decline, then, is more like a one-time star whose looks have faded, her roles increasingly given to her younger, more relevant successor. And that’s an apt metaphor for not only the conference, but for Apple and the shifting industry, too.

Take Apple’s latest earnings tally, for instance. Sales of the company’s iOS devices, a whopping 62 million of them, accounted for the bulk of their quarterly haul. The iPhone alone raked in 52 percent of the company’s record revenue, and they moved more iPads in that period (15.4 million) than HP (14.7 million), Lenovo (12.9 million), and Dell (11.6 million) did computers.

If that’s not evidence enough of a changing of the guard, Tim Cook, captain of the world’s most valuable company, had this to say of the trend:

In fact it’s interesting to note that in the U.S., it’s clear from IDC’s recent data on desktop PCs that tablets exceeded desktop PC sales last quarter. You can already see different indicators that there is significant momentum in this space.

Cook, unlike many of his fellow movers and shakers, recognizes that mobile computing has taken center stage, and that’s why Apple has succeeded where rivals RIM, HP, Dell, and even Microsoft, which have failed to capitalize on the shift, have largely fallen flat.

Macworld | iWorld, inappropriately named as it might be, sums up perfectly an industry obsessed with fallen stars. And that rigidity, that stubborn refusal to recognize or react to an evolving landscape, may have sealed the fates of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names as the competition takes the scene by storm.

Source: Techmeme

Apple’s stock and earnings don’t go hand in hand

With Apple’s earnings announcement just hours away, investors, analysts, traders, and consumers alike are waiting with bated breath for what experts anticipate will be record receipts.

Independent analysts are a little bit more bullish than the affiliated analysts. The independent analysts expect earnings per share (EPS) of $12.01 on revenue of $43.14 billion. The institutional analysts expect EPS of $10.19 on $39.23 billion in revenue. Both are massive numbers that exceed any quarterly revenue that Apple has ever had.

But in the stock market, a company’s success rarely tells the whole story. In fact, it can be misleading. That’s why many new-age traders, myself included, have adopted a mathematical and technical approach to looking at the stock market. Rather than risk emotional missteps, we monitor price movement and stock charts — a by-the-numbers tactic that removes bias from predictions.

aapl chart Apples stock and earnings dont go hand in hand

The stock market sell-off of 2007-2009 bears out this cautionary approach. During that period, Apple released its original iPhone, followed by the iPhone 3G, the iPod touch, the MacBook Air, and a variety of updates to their Mac line. They were seeing record earnings quarter after quarter, not missing a single beat, yet the stock dropped from roughly $202 to $78 in that period. Why? Because stocks react to people, not analysts.

Today Apple will come out and post its most profitable quarter ever. Of this I’m all but certain. They’ll likely report record iPhone sales, and the company’s Mac and tablet lines probably enjoyed similar success. But that doesn’t mean Apple’s stock will move up.

Apple’s stock hinges on how that news is received by shareholders like you and me, not on quarterly successes. And an enthusiastic reaction isn’t a foregone conclusion. Some may look at Apple’s tally and think, wow, this is even better than I expected. Others may shrug, their expectations too high.

And there’s certainly a precedent for that kind of reception. Last quarter (Q3 2011), in fact. Apple came out and reported another record quarter, yet they missed “the street,” industry-speak for falling short of analysts’ expectations. The end result was a 5 percent hit in the market the following day.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not predicting deja vu, and I’m not here to give stock advice. I won’t tell you that Apple’s going to the moon or that they’re due for a plunge. But what I will say is that Apple will react the way Apple’s always reacted––the way we all collectively feel.

So, for those of you eagerly awaiting Apple’s Q4 2011 numbers with the expectation of a monster of a quarter, I think you’re likely right. But for the people expecting Apple’s stock to shadow those figures, going up or down in predictable fashion, brace yourself, because that mentality will bring you pain, more often than not.

Image Source: Dahlstroms

SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith refuses to give up on bill, predicts round two

20120117 220352 SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith refuses to give up on bill, predicts round twoSOPA sponsor Lamar Smith refuses to give up on bill, predicts round twoThe Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), recently shelved amid widespread private-sector and governmentobjections, has taken on a herpes-like quality. It just won’t die. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, who’s apparently deaf to public sentiment, not to mention hairstyles that don’t involve a side part, today announced his bill will likely resurface in February.

To enact legislation that protects consumers, businesses and jobs from foreign thieves who steal America’s intellectual property, we will continue to bring together industry representatives and Members to find ways to combat online piracy.

Due to the Republican and Democratic retreats taking place over the next two weeks, markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act is expected to resume in February.

I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property.

That last bit’s especially delusional. If Smith were truly committed to saving American jobs, he wouldn’t breathe life into a bill that threatens to put the stranglehold on some of the country’s biggest companies. And it seems he’s conveniently ignored the White House’s staunch opposition to the bill. They’ve all but promised a veto and would probably greet Smith and SOPA with water balloons on the White House lawn.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia and Reddit will black out their sites tomorrow in protest, and Google will feature a link spelling out its disapproval.

App review: Grid Lens

grid lens2 App review: Grid Lens

As a person who loves photography, I’m always on the hunt for new camera apps for my iPhone. There have been some great ones, too. Camera+ and Instagram are two of my favorites. However, a new one has emerged, and I’ve fallen in love. It’s called Grid Lens.

Grid Lens, an app created by Bucket Labs, lets you automatically create a photo grid, taking multiple photos at once, or allowing you to manually fill in each frame as you like. You can take photos in each frame to essentially create your own story.

The look of the app is slick and beautiful. When you launch Grid Lens, you’ll get a quick tutorial on how to use the app. Once you’re done, you can tap anywhere to dismiss it, and immediately jump right into the app.

grid lens 62 App review: Grid Lens

The app launches with a default grid layout of six spaces (2×3), and there are several buttons at the bottom: gallery, grid layout, shutter, automatic or manual mode, and single (one image divided by lines) or multi-lens mode. Controls such as flash and front-facing camera are found in the top left and right corners of the app.

If automatic shooting is on, Grid Lens will cycle through the frames and take photos automatically. Slide the button to manual, and you can tap an individual frame to get exactly the angle and feature you want. Pretty cool.

Tapping on the grid button will allow you to choose different layouts. The app comes with 17 layouts to choose from, but there is also the option to create your own. You can create your own layout by adding rows, then columns, and then splitting the spaces into smaller ones until you’re satisfied with the result. And if that’s not enough, there’s also a “random option” – if you’d rather have the app surprise you.

Another cool feature is the ability to choose the border color, thickness of border, and the ratio (1:1, 4:3, 5:7, 2:3, and 16:9).

Once you’ve snapped and composed an image, the app will process it (via a munching monster in the bottom left corner), and you’ll be able to view it in the gallery. The gallery shows all of the images you’ve composed with Grid Lens. Tapping on an image in the gallery will present you with a few saving and sharing options. You can save it to the Camera Roll, share it on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, email, and even Instagram.

grid lens ui2 App review: Grid Lens

But that’s not all. Grid Lens also features its own set of filters that you can apply directly to your own photos. It’s not exactly Instagram like, but they can definitely add some nice touch to your already unique images.

Altogether, I found Grid Lens to be a pretty sweet photography app. It’s not the app that you’d reach for every time you want to take a picture, like, say, Camera+ or Instragram. But for those situations when you want to create a collage of images, it’s the perfect solution. It’s one of those apps that makes you want to take more photos. Not only that, but the UI is absolutely gorgeous and I found it easy to use. So, if you love photography, and you’re looking for a photo app to capture and create more unique looking images, then you should definitely grab Grid Lens.

The death of point-and-shoot cameras

If you’re a camera manufacturer that relies on point-and-shoots to stay afloat, you should be worried as hell. Why? Because itty-bitty, ridiculously easy-to-use cameras are making their way into nearly everything — and they’re making your bread and butter irrelevant.

Just yesterday the rumor mill suggested the pint-size iPod nano will soon pack a camera. You know, in case you want to take a picture of that cute girl (or guy) you saw while you were out for a jog. Will it be able to pick out lunar footprints from your backyard? Probably not, but neither can your average point-and-shoot.

That’s not to say on-board cameras stack up against the best point-and-shoots. They don’t, but the average consumer doesn’t care. He’s more concerned with portability and versatility than he is with having the best equipment. And that’s why standalone cameras are in such dire straits. Consumers would rather tote an intuitive, all-in-one device than they would several, even if those separate devices are slightly better at their jobs.

If you don’t believe me, reach for the nearest cell phone. If it was made in the past few years, odds are it’s got a decent camera, because consumers demanded it. Now count how many people you see strolling around with cameras slung from their necks. Give up? You’re forgiven. They’re a rare breed these days, even at tourist destinations.

Put simply, the days of casual cameras as separate devices are coming to an end, and Canon and Sony can both attest to that. Each recently reported a decline in camera sales, especially point-and-shoots. And it’s only the beginning.

I’m sure I’ll catch a lot of flak for that prediction, but it wouldn’t be the first time. People called me crazy when I predicted the end of console gaming, too. But the same forces are at work here, and they’re no less devastating to cameras. Portability and convenience will be the death of point-and-shoots, just as they’re responsible for the bare-bones Macbook Air cannibalizing Macbook Pro sales. Mark my words.

And we can expect the pace to quicken as smartphones sport increasingly advanced optics. Macworld offered a glimpse of that next-gen hardware, with accessories like the Olloclip and the iPro lens on display, the latter of which adds additional lenses to an iPhone. And boy did it take it to the next level.

But I don’t expect people to nod their heads in agreement, nor do I think companies like Canon will suddenly wake up and acknowledge the revolution raging around them. Like RIM, Palm, and Microsoft before them, all of whom long denied that the iPhone’s touchscreen model would catch on, they’ll likely linger in their bubble of denial. But if they don’t get with it soon, if they don’t adapt and focus on making cameras for smaller devices –– something Sony has done by providing the lens and optics for the iPhone 4S –– they might not have Microsoft’s luxury of another shot.

News Apple TV’s success bodes well for rumored full-fledged television

If Apple needed further incentive to move forward with its widely rumored television, yesterday’s earning announcement was just the ticket. Apple TV, called a hobby and losing proposition by the late Jobs, was embraced by shoppers over the holiday quarter – 1.4 million times, to be exact. That’s nearly half as many units as Apple moved in the previous three quarters, and it represents one-third of the 4.2 million second-generation Apple TVs the company has sold since the product’s 2010 introduction, according to GigaOM.

To put those numbers in perspective, Roku, Apple TV’s hottest competition, sold 2.5 million streaming boxes in three years, roughly twice the time Apple TV 2.0 has been available.

Gigaom connected the dots:

Apple is expected to introduce a connected TV soon – possibly later this year – and Apple TV’s sales show that users are already interested in the company’s user interface and services that would likely be available on it.

Indeed, Apple TV’s built-in audience bodes well for Cupertino as it mulls rolling the dice on a full-fledged television.

Last year, Jobs said he’d finally cracked the question of how Apple would attract consumers in the ruthless TV market, but it seems they aren’t waiting around for an answer.

Source: GigaOMTechmeme

Apple rewards employees for record revenue, offers discounts on Macs, iPads

How do you thank your employees for a colossally profitable year? If you’re Apple, you give them a break on your hottest products – one that could knock as much as $500 off sticker prices.

Apple CEO Tim Cook broke the news to giddy employees at a town-hall meeting today, according to 9to5mac.  The discounts, dangled by a company not known for its sentimentality, will slash $500 from the price of new Macs (excluding the Mac mini) and $250 from iPads. They take effect this June.

To qualify for the discounts, and thwart opportunistic cheapskates, Cook said employees must bank at least 90 days with the company. Eligible employees can exercise the markdowns once every three years.

2012: The year iPhone reclaims its title from Android

The past few days have seen several reports of iOS’s recent inroads into Android’s mobile dominance. Neilsen reported that October’s iPhone 4S launch had an “enormous impact” on smartphone sales, boosting Apple’s share among new buyers by nearly 20 percent and putting its hardware neck and neck with Android’s in December. Verizon Wireless posted similarly encouraging numbers, revealing today that they’ve sold 4.2 million iPhones in the fourth quarter, a staggering figure that accounts for more than half of the 7.7 million smartphones they moved in that same period. And Apple, not one to be upstaged, trumpeted sales of 37 million iPhones in the latest quarter, a 128 percent year-over-year improvement.

So what gives? How is a single phone holding its own against dozens of Android alternatives, not to mention RIM’s BlackBerry lineup? And its not just keeping pace — it’s outselling its plentiful rivals, in some cases. That’s impressive, but not entirely unexpected. At least, not to me.

It boils down to this, in my mind: Most American smartphone shoppers want an iPhone. When those folks walk into a store prepared to fork over potentially hundreds of dollars, it never occurs to them to browse that store’s smartphone inventory. Their minds are made up, their hearts set on an iPhone. But why is Apple only now making up ground? you’ll say. After all, if most would prefer an iPhone, why is Apple playing catch up? Simple: It wasn’t available to a majority of smartphone shoppers until recently, forcing them to snatch up alternatives.

Not that they couldn’t spring for Apple’s latest phone before now. But reaching for one meant abandoning carriers that didn’t cater to the iPhone crowd — a costly, contract-breaking move that could also compromise prized service.

That changed only recently. So recently, in fact, that Sprint debuted the iPhone in 4S guise, and Verizon just marked the first iPhone launch of its year-old Apple relationship with that same model (the iPhone 4 was launched on Verizon nearly 6 months after it was available on AT&T).

Now, I’m not suggesting we stick a fork in Android, nor do I think they’re without a market or appeal. But I think we’re witnessing a redistribution of power on this newly level playing field. Before long, the smartphone race will resemble the iOS-dominated tablet market, where consumers have never been bound by finicky carriers and the iPad has enjoyed ubiquity.

Regardless of how it shakes out, 2012, the first full year that Android and iOS handhelds share shelves at the country’s three leading carriers, will be a defining one for smartphones.