Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Ebook Tangle

The Kindle and other e-readers are gaining popularity. They are small portable devices, with long battery life, that excel at mimicking books. People who have bought one love it, swear by it and claim that it has enhanced their reading experience.

I'm just not convinced. I've been trying out the Barnes and Noble Nook which is a promising product. But once you look past the novelty value, there are a lot of things that are broken with the ebook model.

First, let's look at costs.

Here's the rough breakup of costs for a bestselling book:
  • 45%: Retail
  • 15%: Author royalty
  • 10%: Wholesaler
  • 30%: Publisher, of which printing is roughly 10%, marketing is roughly 7%

That is for a bestselling book. For the average book, author royalties are lesser, and the publisher takes a bigger cut since the average book fails more often. Publishers buy back all unsold books, which raises their costs. So logic would dictate that for average books, which are inherently riskier to print, ebook prices should be dramatically lower.

For a $10 book, the printer, the retail and wholesale contribute $6.5 to the cost of the book. Ebook distribution is nearly cost-free, but even if we say that the distribution of the ebook costs $1, we can reduce printing, retail and wholesale from $6.5 to $1, bringing the price of the book down to $4.50 from $10. Why aren't ebooks at this level? Many books I've seen at Amazon and Barnes and Noble are roughly the same price as a discounted paperback. At that price, and free shipping for orders over $25, why would I bother with a book that requires a special device to use?

Some Kindle books are cheaper: these are usually mass-market paperbacks. But even here, the paperback version is discounted to be about the same cost as the ebook. This is true of many books on Amazon, and only in rare cases are there differences between the paperback and Kindle edition. Hardcover books are more expensive than ebooks, no doubt.

Ebooks aren't currently cheaper, which is usually countered by the argument that ebooks are a superior product. I don't agree with this. Ebooks are closer to book rental than book purchase. Amazon doesn't allow you to loan a book you have purchased. Barnes and Noble has a feature called "LendMe", which allows you to loan a book to someone with a compatible reader. For 14 days. Once. I couldn't believe this till I saw it myself. What's worse, I'm reading an old translation of "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy, which is in the public domain. I bought that on Barnes and Noble's Nook reader. It costs $1, which is reasonable, even though it is in the public domain and available on Feedbooks. But the real problem is that I don't get any rights over this content, even though the copyright has long-since expired. The LendMe feature just allows a single 14 day loan of this public domain book. After I am done with a book, I usually give it to a friend who I know will enjoy reading it. In many cases, I don't want the book back, and I won't be reading it again. But my friend certainly can enjoy it, and perhaps loan it out to somebody he knows. This cannot be done with ebooks.

An often hyped feature of ebooks is the ability to keep your entire library with you at all times. I doubt I'll be reading Anna Karenina again, at least for a decade. How often do people re-read a fiction book, anyway? This notion that people would like to carry their entire collection at all times is marketing make-believe. The only books I'd like to do this to are reference books or textbooks, both of which are currently unavailable in ebook format. Students might benefit the most from being able to carry a single device rather than a heavy backpack, but look at the textbook publishers. They aren't about to give their lucrative monopoly on textbooks away for nothing. I haven't come across any college textbook that is either cheap or electronic.

Another problem with ebooks is that you don't actually own the book. When you buy a paper book, you have some rights as the owner. You get a first-sale right: you can sell it to your friend for half the price you got it at. This keeps the textbook market lucrative for second-hand shops, and affordable for students who drank their summer paycheck away. You get the right to lend it to friends and family, for as long as you'd like, without letting the store know. You get the right to leave it in a busy train for the next commuter to read. None of these are available to you with ebooks. With ebooks, you are purchasing the right to read the book, and nothing else.


As a book rental, ebooks might work. The screen on the reader is crisp, and it makes for easy reading. But it is no better than a real physical book.

At the very least, I'd want a few fixes before I subscribe to this model:
  1. Ability to lend/borrow books without constraints. Multiple times, and with no time limit.
  2. Ability to transfer ownership: even if it is a limited number of times. Publishers are fine with physical books changing owners because physical books degrade over time. In that case, allowing a book to change hands fifteen times seems reasonable.
If ebooks are going to cost as much as paperbacks, they should carry the same privileges. If you want to restrict the rights the owner has, you have to make them cheaper.


Edit: August 2, 2010: In case it isn't clear from the article: I think ebooks hold a lot of promise. I'd be happy if I could substitute my heavy bookshelf with a lightweight device. I have tried looking for textbooks (Computer Science and Statistics), and those are unavailable. Two recent purchases were: Introduction to Data Mining, and India After Gandhi. Both these are unavailable as ebooks.

Also, I'm aware of Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, which is how I read books on my phone. I wanted to see if buying a public domain book (from Barnes & Noble) granted you the rights you had. It doesn't.

Finally, if people have websites from where they buy ebooks, especially technical content, I'd be glad if you could leave a comment for everyone to read. A person pointed me to pragprog.com, which is a good website. O'Reilly media sells ebooks too, though they are more expensive than Amazon's price for the paper books.

Cheers, and thanks for the comments.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The democratization of culture

Back in the day, before the age of the Internet, culture was something that was given to us. Back before the age of the TV, culture was participatory: you made music, you played music. TV ruined that all, people were stuck to the television set, and discussions revolved around what everyone watched at home. When I was growing up, we didn't have TV for our formative years, and it was annoying that I couldn't discuss television shows with my peers. TV used to create culture: when someone you knew appeared on TV, it was a big thing!

Fast forward fifteen years, and TV has lost much of its culture-making powers. For one, there are too many channels, thinning out what people watch. For another, most of TV is a colossal waste of time: ten minutes of good programming inside a forty minute show, with twenty minutes of advertising: for a total of one mind-numbing hour. Even news shows have sunk to pointless blabbery: I was watching a show one day and they were reading messages that people sent to them via Twitter!

A lot of popular culture now is created by people. Some wonderful, down-to-earth videos have hit it big on online video sites. This wedding entrance won the attention of many people. Watch the video: it is simple, beautiful, and has 53 Million hits. It made Chris Brown's song famous. Or Russell Peters, the brilliant comedian. I first heard about him through friends. His videos became massively popular on youtube: college kids were mailing each other the video. Long before TV was aware of him, he was a celebrity. And when he toured, people showed up because they had seen him earlier. Or this kid, playing Paschelbel on his guitar, became insanely popular. A news reporter went to find him, and write an article on the mysterious funtwo. Culture was created by someone that mainstream media was unaware of.

This is just the way it should be: creation is an essential human activity: we want to make, to create, rather than just be passive consumers.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

When monkeys record movies

I'm disappointed by popular TV shows. My friend recently introduced me to 24, a TV show that he said I would completely fall in love with. He has the complete DVD set, which was thrust in my hands, in the hopes that I'd enjoy the show, and we'd have something to talk about.

We started watching the show, and what first struck us was the mad camera shake. It felt like the camera work was done by a monkey. On crack. It wasn't long before my nerves gave up, and I paused to have a shot of vodka to steady my nerves. My wife stuck with it, and watched the entire show. But at the end, she too had a headache.

This isn't the first time we've had to suffer at the hand of monkeys. The recent Star Trek movie had abysmal camera work: every scene was shaking madly, which was headache-inducing in the theater. At the end of the movie, I was glad to be out of the hall. Some Indian movies have had this as well: Wednesday had similar camera work, as did Yuva. In these two movies, the story is gripping and nice, but the shaky camera spoils the entire scene. I've been told that it is supposed to convey suspense or drama. To me, all it conveys is amateurish recording, and a director who is asleep.

Yesterday, we watched "Murder on the Orient Express", directed by Sidney Lumet. The comparison couldn't have been more striking. Scenes were beautifully done: emotion was portrayed by excellent acting, great direction, and a sober human behind the camera. Ingrid Bergman's acting was excellent: as was Lauren Bacall and Anthony Perkins. Despite the weak ending, the film was remarkable and gripping. The scene with Lauren Bacall holding the blood-stained knife was so dramatic, it made me jump from my seat. It was enough for Lauren to have a stern expression, for you to know what she had in her hand. If the director can't make the actor convey emotion, you either need a better actor, or a better director. Placing on a monkey behind the camera doesn't help.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Open Source, it isn't just a buzzword

I have got a few Android phones: in addition to my shiny new Nexus One, I also have a first generation HTC G1, also lovingly called the Dream. It is the very first Android phone to ever hit the market. The latest Android version is 2.2 (Froyo), and vendors are pushing this release to their devices. It is more common to see verion 2.1 (Eclair) on devices. In addition to these version numbers, you might also see versions like 1.6 (Donut) or 1.5 (Cupcake).

The G1 came out with the very first version of the OS: 1.0. A user who bought a G1 with a two-year commitment will see his contract expire in December this year, and there are many users still with G1s. In the space of two years, more than four new versions have rolled by, a remarkable achievement for any platform.

Android is open source, which means that the source code is available for anyone to view. Love the alarm clock but want to change one little thing? Here's the source code for the alarm clock: go right ahead. The source code is a wonderful reference when you want to see how the 'official' applications do things: which can save you hours of reading documentation. I referred to the source code for my recent bug fix in Barcode Scanner, for instance. It saved me hours of experimentation, since I could see how the official Settings program worked. There was nothing to guess, nobody to ask. Most of all, I didn't need anyone's permission.

The general view is that customers don't care whether something is open source, that they're not interested in the source. It might be true that the average customer won't read Android source code, but there is an important distinction here. Even if the average customer can't read the source, the availability itself is valuable. Let's go back to my G1 for a second. The final version of the OS that it can support is 1.6. HTC, the manufacturer, doesn't want to put much effort into this device. They would like to invest their valuable engineering effort in their new products. G1 customers, on the other hand, cannot move so fast. Some are tied to a 2-year contract, and might not want to pay $180 for a new phone. If there are a few smart software engineers with G1 devices, they can probably figure out how to load new versions of the Android Operating System on their phones. Once they get it working, they can make it available for everyone to use.

This is exactly what has happened with community-produced firmwares like Cyanogen. There is a vibrant community of software engineers, who have old devices, and can take advantage of the Android source code. Even if it takes a month of developer time, spread over thirty developers, that is a day each: well within the reach of recreational hacking. They recently released Cyanogen 5.0.8, which is based on version 2.1 of the Android source code. They didn't have to ask anyone for permission, and all the work was done in their spare time. I recently downloaded this release, after using Android 1.5 on that phone for a long time. While I downloaded the release mostly out of curiosity, I was amazed at the effort and the skill of the hackers. It is one of the best Android firmwares I have used on the G1. It is stable, it has all the critical Eclair features, and it supports a few features that Eclair did not have: applications can be stored on the SD card, USB and WiFi tethering is available, and the interface is beautiful. That a few hackers can produce something this good is remarkable. Of course, they didn't have to write everything from scratch: they had the source code. An old device like the G1 is given a new lease on life because of the efforts of a few hobbyist hackers and the existence of the source code. Cyanogen is available to everyone, at no charge, and it is very easy to load the new version on phones. Even if you couldn't read and understand source code, you can get the firmware, load it on your phone, and benefit from the source code being available.

The source code gives customers a lot of control over their destiny. Like Cyanogen, customers can develop their own releases. They can add features (tethering, Apps on SD card) that are missing in the official release. They can remove features they don't need or find offensive (privacy intrusions). They can verify that the source code is not malicious. They can continue development if the original project dies out completely. Something like this is impossible with proprietary systems, where customers are completely at the mercy of the vendor to provide updates, features, and releases.

With Cyanogen 5.0.8, I'm loving the Dream even more. Thanks, Cyanogen!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Teach me something!

Just came across "Show me do", a website that contains a wealth of tutorials about programming. All the videos can be downloaded at no charge, and they form a wonderful introduction to computer programming. I wanted to learn Blender for quite some time now, and this series of lectures look perfect for a beginner like me.

Show me do also has great Python tutorials. Python is probably the best introductory language: perfect for kids and adults alike. It works on every computer, and is free to download and use. Give it a shot!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Crying to Uncle Steve

Will Verizon work with iPhone 4?
Mail Steve!
Mail Steve!

Mail Steve!
Mail Steve!

Waiting for the iPhone, and can't wait a bit?
Mail Steve!
Mail Steve!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The dictatorship in India

I was recently reading "India: After Gandhi", and was shocked to find out how close India came to a dictatorship with Indira Gandhi. Everyone knows about Emergency, but I didn't know that Indira successfully repealed the writ of Habeas Corpus. And that four out of the five judges of the Supreme Court agreed to having it repealed!

I wonder why this stuff isn't taught in schools: this is exactly the kind of history that is useful and cautionary, unlike the pointless memorization of dates and figures.

At some level, Indians are poor historians. We get a fair amount of our history from external records of visitors: the Arabs, the Greek, the Chinese. We just don't consider History important enough to record and pass to the next generation.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Development tools and host platforms

I've spent the last few days hacking up some Android code, and it has been a lot of fun. Android has an excellent development environment, which works on Linux and Mac, in addition to Windows. Once this is done, I will probably hack up a remote control for my Nikon camera using an Arduino board. The Arduino board can also be programmed in Linux and Mac, in addition to Windows.

It is tiring to see embedded hardware makers provide a development environment that only works on a specific platform. It is understandable if Windows software can only be developed on Windows, or Mac software on a Macintosh. I wouldn't advocate it, but I understand it. On the other hand, embedded devices rarely host the dev environment. You could develop Android software using the Android Scripting Environment, but that isn't a common practice. Most probably, you'll be on a big computer. With a big keyboard, and a bigger monitor. In that case, why limit yourself to one environment? Every platform wants developers, and it isn't hard to support at least Windows, Mac and Linux.

Parallax lost out to Arduino, even though Arduino initially could not match all the functionality of a Parallax board. The Arduino board is easy to hack in Linux and Mac, and there are lots of developers with Linux or Mac as a primary computer. Now, partly because of these Mac and Linux hackers, Arduino has a crazy momentum: the number of hardware and software add-ons is mind-boggling.

Something similar is happening with Android. I see much more momentum around Android hacking. Here is a sample:
  1. Serial port on an Android G1 device.
  2. Using a Wii controller to play games on Android.
  3. USB Host mode on a Nexus One.
On that last video, notice how Sven, the person giving the demo, is using Linux?

I thought I'd spend some time learning how to program a Nintendo DS, or Nintendo WII, using the variety of tools that people have written in their spare time. These tools don't always work, and they don't always work well. Nintendo is selective about who should be allowed to program their devices, and will not support these tools. In fact, they'll go out of their way to ensure that you can't program their devices. After some time of struggling with it, I figured it was futile. The tools and dev kits of free environments is so much better. It is a lot more fun to program Arduino or Android instead of a Nintendo device. You don't have to struggle with random library versions, you can make your software available to others, and more importantly, you aren't treated as a criminal. So with that, my DS was quickly sold, my Wii will be given away, and I'm back to devices that I am welcome to program.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dogfights!

Lately, I've been watching the Dogfights series (link starts a video). It recounts tales of air-to-air combat. The series brings veteran pilots to discuss tactics, and they've recreated the actual battles using computer graphics. It is fascinating to watch how pilots battle at high speed in three dimensions. Air combat require strategic thinking, a good knowledge of the aircraft's capability, and a body that can handle high G-forces.

Worth a watch if you haven't seen this before. Netflix has all the DVDs of the show.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ramchandran Guha, and rediscovering India

I am reading "India: After Gandhi", by Ramchandran Guha. It is a book of Indian History, which starts around the time of independence, and goes all the way to the present time. Strangely, there are very few books of Indian political history after independence. For some reason, we don't chronicle history well.

I am also listening to a series of lectures about Chinese history. It is fascinating how well the Chinese kept records. There are few breaks in their history, and there are good records of what was happening, as far back as the second century BC! In comparison, Indian history is very spotty. We of major dynasties, but there are large gaps in our knowledge. I suspect it is a cultural thing. Even major freedom fighters did not think it necessary to write an autobiography, and we are all poorer for it.

Luckily, Ramchandran Guha fills one of these gaps. I've spoken to many friends, and they mirror my sentiment. This is a book that many people have been waiting for. Grab a copy today. If you are buying it in India, get it from Indiaplaza. They have a hardbound copy for Rs.542, which is a great price. This is a book that is best in hardbound: you will want all your friends and family to read it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Installing Windows XP, and Kulchas!

I spent the better part of last evening installing Windows XP on a brand new computer. I must say it was very, very painful. At this point, I don't know what people mean any more when they say Linux is difficult to install. On this specific Acer computer, Ubuntu boots off a USB stick, and does everything just fine. That reminds me, why can't Windows boot off a USB stick? Ancient, outdated tech.

After much struggle, I realized that there were memory issues on the computer. Running memtest86+ found memory errors. Eeek! This computer is headed back to the vendor, and I'm getting a replacement: something that can run Windows XP.

On an unrelated note, we found a wonderful new Indian restaurant: Naan and Masala. Don't let the ambience fool you, and make sure you go there with an empty stomach. Their paneer kulcha is delightful. Avoid the seekh kababs: they aren't very authentic. But the standard curry fare is crazy good.


Trying something new: after having ignored my blog for months, I'm going to try posting something new every day. I expect the quality to plummet shortly, stay low for a while. Then, it will probably drop a lot more. Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

WyScan: Android Wifi Configuration from Barcode


I wrote an application called WyScan. WyScan is a utility to configure your wifi settings automatically. Instead of typing out complex network names and passwords, you scan a barcode containing the information. WyScan will set up the network, and connect to it!

Try it out, tell me what you think!



Sunday, April 04, 2010

iWant

Just as I got out of the bed this morning, I realized that computing is all wrong!

My old laptops have all been the same: the same keyboard, the same mouse. Perhaps my next laptop shouldn't have a keyboard. Not that I have anything against a keyboard, but my friends make fun of how fast I type. It looks too nerdy. I need something that will slow me down, like an on-screen keyboard. Even cooler if I need to hold it with one hand while I tap with the other. That's bound to get me noticed at Starbucks. It would be ideal if this thing was uncomfortable to use on a desk, so I am forced to use it outside the home.

When I started thinking about replacing my laptop, I began imagining what my next computer would be like. For once, I wanted something you couldn't connect to my home network easily, because ethernet sounds so dorky! Wi-Fi, now that's cool. This thing should have Wi-Fi. Only Wi-fi. I have been growing tired of my home movie collection, so it would be best if I couldn't copy it onto this new device. Perhaps some program could disallow me from copying my music and movies freely. So I can buy newer, cooler stuff. And, I can donate my DVD collection to the less fortunate.

Ideally it should be difficult, if not impossible, to change the battery. I don't want to give people the impression that I know how this computer works! If someone asks me how it works, I can just tell them, "It's magical"! Technology is so confusing. Oh, and Barbie is right and Math is hard. No, really!

It also occurred to me that cables are too confusing and messy. No cables anymore. Actually, no connections at all. If the computer had a USB connector, it might look too messy. Ok, maybe just one connector. But it better be something totally different, so I cannot plug in anything old.

I'm tired of all the companies making different computers, all of which do the same thing. Ideally my next computer would only be made by one company, so I don't have to think about the replacement. It would help if the computer was also more expensive, because this would show that I'm a man of good taste, and would justify my purchase. And don't even think of upgrading. Poor people upgrade to first class. I'm already there.

I know that there are many useful desktop applications. But most of them are used by boring people that do work on them. Eww. This new computer must match my fun personality. It shouldn't have any application that could be remotely connected to work. Everything should be newly written for this magical device. All for me. Everything should say, "This dude's having fun. He isn't working. He doesn't need to." After all, laptops are used for work, and only boring people work! Also, common riff-raff shouldn't be allowed to write apps for my computer. Hackers and geeks can go do their Linux elsewhere. (Or is it Lunix? Who cares.) This computer should do as much as a phone can. Minimalism, you know. Someone should also control my computer for me, because I already think it will be too magical for me to understand. Only the most perfect applications should be allowed, so I don't have to choose between two music players. Who needs different music players anyway?

You know, I spend most of my time browsing the web. So this computer should be able to do that. But not the whole web: especially those with video might look too different. So no video sites, probably no video at all. Just news sites, and sites where I can buy hipster gear. But no low-quality, cheap-ass video. Just the highest quality content for me: piped straight to my computer through some high-quality program, written by the best of the best: dudes like me.

See, computing can be so much better! I hope some company makes this so I can express my individuality, um, ..., by buying it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Voice recognition on the Nexus One

The voice recognition on the Nexus one is a game changer in many ways. I depended on the hardware keyboard on the Android G1, and I enjoyed the physical feedback that a keyboard provides. By comparison, an on-screen keyboard is error-prone, and sometimes tricky to use. With voice recognition on the Nexus One, Google has done away with many issues regarding data entry.

We all know that phones are too big when they have a physical keyboard, and useless for long emails when they don't have one. With voice recognition, you could speak out a major part of the email, and perhaps edit it to perfection. It is a huge time-saver. Even if this phone had a physical keyboard, I would consider using voice recognition for notes and emails.

I was hesitant about it working with my voice, since I have an Indian accent. Here is a demonstration of it working with my voice. See what you think of it.



In this video, I tested it on two sentences that were perfectly recognized. Of course, like any other software, it isn't perfect. It does make mistakes. That said, it is better than anything else I have seen, and works well for most common words. It certainly exceeded my initial expectations.

True to Google's openness, this is something available to every program on the Android platform, not a specific set of Google-only applications. My demonstration used a third-party application, a sticky note, to highlight this.

Here is a much better video demonstrating the voice input feature:

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Acronym hell in wireless connectivity-land

I've been learning about encryption used when making a Wi-Fi connection between a computer and an access point. What I found was the most ridiculous mix of acronyms. Here is a sampler: WPA, WPA2, WEP, EAP, TKIP, PSK, TLS, TTLS, PEAP, EAP-TLS, EAP-TTLS, MSCHAPv2, PEAPv0, EAP-MSCHAPv2, PEAPv1, EAP-GTC, EAP-SIM, PMK, PKI.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The cell phone battle between Apple's iPhone and Google's Android

Apple and Google have received much publicity over their move into the mobile space. Apple has a very good handset, the iPhone, which combines their usual offering of iTunes with a capable cell-phone. Google has a mobile 'platform', an operating system that anyone can use to create a mobile device. Many such devices have been developed, some with the help of Google, and some independently. In the US, you can get an iPhone with AT&T alone, and an Android with T-mobile, Verizon and Sprint.

While most people see this as a clash of devices, the issue is much deeper: what computers will be in the future, and how we will interact with them.

Let us consider the two devices: a new iPhone versus a new Motorola Droid (an Android phone). The specific Android device does not matter for this argument, pick any Android device of your choice. At the store you compare device sizes, the screen quality, the network quality: AT&T and Verizon in this case. You might compare the user-interface, and notice the programs that come for free with each device.

Both devices are fairly sophisticated computers, hence the term smartphones. Both have increasingly complicated programs which previous phones were not capable of running, like full turn-by-turn navigation, or comparison shopping tools, or full browsers. These are tasks that were earlier accomplished by separate devices. Both can be programmed and software can be purchased for both. In short, both look very much like real computers. Computers that can also make calls.

What is not obvious at the store are very important, deeper differences: while the tools to write programs for both are free, Android applications can be distributed without permission. iPhone applications must be distributed through the Apple store, and only after Apple's explicit permission. I can write an Android program and put it on my website, allowing everyone to download it. Google and Motorola might be blissfully ignorant of this, and even if they dislike my program, they cannot stop me. Apple maintains a draconian control over what programs can be written for the device. Imagine if Microsoft had to power to disallow specific programs on the Windows platform. Imagine if they had disallowed the Netscape browser, because it 'duplicated existing functionality'.

Here's another difference: the Android software runs on many hardware vendors, while the iPhone software only runs on an iPhone device. This is similar to Windows running on Dell, Lenovo, and HP machines, while MacOS only runs on Macs. Apple has sued vendors who try to run MacOS on non-Mac hardware, so it is highly unlikely that the iPhone system software will run on anything except an Apple iPhone device. If you want Android, you could get it from many device makers: HTC, Samsung, Motorola. For an iPhone, you must get Apple.

Everyone agrees that the mobile space is the next big thing. Many more people will experience the Internet on a mobile device than a full laptop or desktop computer. Even in households where computers are common, mobile devices are being used more often: it is so convenient to use something that is always with you. Computers are being relegated to specialized activities, and more of their role is being taken up by mobile devices. A few years ago you would have got your parents a computer just so they can check email. Then you'd have to make sure their DSL modem can talk to their wireless router, which works with their ethernet card, for which they have the right drivers. And then, after Service Pack 6 and Anti-Virus 2010, perhaps they can see your photos. All too complicated. Today, you'd probably just get them a phone. It beeps when they have email, and they can check email even when they are on vacation.


If mobile phones will supplant general-purpose computers, an Apple dominated world is a bleak future to aim for. You get a single vendor of hardware (Apple), a single vendor of system software (Apple), and as a bonus, that single vendor exerts unprecedented control over the software distributed on that device. This is dominance that will surpass anything Microsoft ever had. Imagine if every laptop and desktop was sold only by Microsoft, not by Dell, IBM, HP. Imagine if Microsoft could arbitrarily decide what applications can run on its platform. Every media player (except theirs) would be disallowed, since it 'duplicates existing functionality'. Even if they didn't have a competing product they could disallow an application, if it threatened their business model. For example, they might disallow Netscape's browser, even if they didn't have a browser of their own. This is similar to what Apple did, when they disallowed Google Voice. Even though Google Voice doesn't compete with anything Apple offers.

Microsoft's monopoly gave them the power to hold back progress on the web. When Internet Explorer 6 successfully killed Netscape, they never bothered to update it to adhere to web standards. Web developers were forced to waste time dealing with Internet Explorer's incorrect behavior, because a majority of the world used it. Microsoft probably hoped that web applications would never succeed, and people would be forced to write desktop applications, which would run on their platform, thus furthering their goals. I know it is fashionable to loath Microsoft, but Apple would be far worse since they control not just the system software (Windows or MacOS) but also the hardware, and in case of the iPhone, the software distribution.


An Apple dominated world would be much easier to control, since the hardware, software, and software distribution are all tightly controlled by Apple. What's worse, the mobile phone can only be on a single network, while a computer can be connected to the Internet through a variety of means. An Apple dominated world would dictate your choice of wireless provider as well. Today in the US, you can buy an Android phone on at least three networks, but if you want an iPhone, you have to choose AT&T. Perhaps this will change in the future, but it is a sign of the extreme control that is available in Apple's hands.


I don't begrudge Apple's success: they have a very good device, with excellent UI. They've put a lot of thought into the product, and it shows. I am extremely wary of the iPhone becoming the dominant mobile platform, though.


Edit on 3 Jan 2010: Comments brought up an important point about Google spying, my comment is included here.

1. If you are paranoid, you can buy a developer phone, and use a firmware that does not require a Google login. Can you buy an iPhone and install a software that gets around their device lock, legally?
2. If you are wary of Google, are you also wary of Facebook and credit card companies? Are you wary of your cell-phone company (which has minute-by-minute information of where you are, who you called, where you live)? I hope you don't use AT&T, which tapped many phones without warrants?
3. In Ken Auletta's book, he talks of a situation when Google was asked to hand over information without a subpeona, and they refused while Bing agreed to hand over information. Are you sure that your views are supported by facts?
4. Is there a single case where Google abused the information in any way? As a comparison, Apple has abused its iPhone control repeatedly, to disallow apps that competed with them.
5. Google does make changes to its policies to comply with the local law. Would you wish Google did not follow the law?
6. How do you know that the iPhone platform is respecting your privacy? Many independent people have looked through the Android source code (it is freely available). How many have done so for Apple's source?

My point is that a lot of privacy concerns about Google are ill-founded. You could sign out before doing searches. You could clear cookies, if you are concerned. Finally, employees at Google are keenly aware of privacy issues: our families and friends are Google users too. And we know what a death-blow it will be if we misuse the information. There are many ways in which you can find what information Google has for you, like the Google Dashboard (https://www.google.com/dashboard/)

Disclaimer: While I am a Google employee, this blog post consists entirely of publicly available information. Also, this post is my opinion alone, and reflects on neither Google, nor my employment with them.