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My gadget bag

Gadgets gather around me like iron filings gather around a magnet, which means I have to be pretty tough with myself about what I makes it into my bag. I try and keep things minimal – but, as you will see from what I carry, that’s often a forlorn hope.

Ally Capellino 11in laptop bag. I originally got this to tote around an 11in MacBook Air which sadly got stolen, but it’s proved to be a great bag for the iPad too. It’s not big enough for a weekend away, but overnight it suffices.

iPad Air 32Gb WiFi and Cellular. When I travel with my bag, this comes with me. It’s removed the need to carry a laptop on almost every occasion I travel. Combined with a Zagg Keyboard Folio case (recommended to me by Harry McCracken) it makes a great laptop replacement.

The big advantage it has over a laptop, apart from portability, is built-in mobile data. Yes, I could tether to my phone, but tethering is inelegant. It never feels robust enough to me.

The only regret I have about the Air is that I scrimped on memory. As you use the iPad more as a day-to-day computer, you end up needing more storage. My 32Gb feels cramped, and the next iPad I have will definitely have 128Gb instead.

On the rare occasions I need to carry a laptop (maybe once every three months), my MacBook Pro 13in with retina display comes along. Having a Chromebook Pixel (which acts as my “backup” computer) persuaded me I wouldn’t get a non-retina machine again. Once you get used to this kind of screen, you don’t want to go back. The MacBook Pro wins over the Pixel primarily for its battery life, which tops seven hours in regular use for me.

iPhone 5S. I’ve tried other phones – most recently a Nexus 5 – but the iPhone remains my phone of choice. That’s partly down to the apps (I spend a lot of time in my to do list, and OmniFocus is the best GTD-based list there is) but also the details. iPhones always feel like they’ve been put together with every detail thought through. Although other phones have some good points – I like the N5’s screen size, for example – nothing feels as good as an iPhone in my hand.

Mophie Helium iPhone battery. The iPhone usually lasts a full day for me, but there are odd occasions on long journeys where I get battery anxiety. Hence the Mophie Helium, which gives me enough battery life to make a full 24 hours. I don’t generally keep the Mophie on the iPhone unless I need it, but it’s nice to know it’s there and I can snap it on for a charge.

Moleskine Evernote notebook. Evernote is where I put all my notes, clippings and scans. I’ve used Moleskine notebooks for a while, and the Evernote ones come with three months free Evernote subscription. Evernote’s ability to recognise my scrawl and make it searchable is pretty amazing.

Doxie Go. The Doxie Go is a recent addition, and although I don’t always take it with me it’s incredibly useful and is becoming a more frequent traveller. I still get given a lot of paper, and having the ability to scan it quickly and send it to the cloud (via a Eye-Fi WiFi SD card) is great. When I first got it, I spent half a day clearing a vast amount of old paper which gave me back three shelves.

Apple VGA adaptors (Thunderbolt and Lightning). These are classic examples of “just in case”. I rarely go anywhere to present which doesn’t have a Mac or iOS adaptor, but when I do need one, you can guarantee there won’t be anywhere close by I could get one from if I didn’t have them with me.

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What business is Google really in?

What business is Google actually in? Benedict Evens thinks he knows – and it’s not "advertising" as most people would answer. Instead, Google is a company which is looking to exploit the potential of machine learning, in the same way that GE was all about taking advantage of the age of electrification:

Hence, one could argue that Nest or self-driving cars (and the next big hardware move that Google does) are not really about understanding ‘information’ in any sense, and certainly not about advertising, but about finding ways to deploy being very good at machine learning and, say, connected systems, just as GE’s business is to be very good at making big complicated precision-engineered pieces of capital equipment. In that sense, Tony Fadell’s vision is very apt – to ‘take unloved things’ and connect them to the software revolution than my new boss Marc Andreessen talks about. If software is eating the world, then much of what is eaten is probably running software that’s at least partly in the cloud (especially if it doesn’t really have a screen), and that can benefit from machine intelligence and big data, and isn’t that what Google does?

This is a brilliant insight, and for me starts to put all of Google’s technology moves into perspective.

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Can we please stop saying open source is more secure?

I’ve argued for a long time the "open source means more eyeballs means more secure" argument was complete bunk. I’m not particularly happy that the GnuTLS bug – which appears to have been there for up to nine years – has shown I was right. As John Moltz puts it:

This SSL bug may have been in the code for nine years. Please, tell me again that trope about how Mac users blindly think their computers are invulnerable to attack. And it’s not like it’s the only one the platform’s had.

The point is not how many eyeballs look through code (and as Watts Martin points out, no one looks through a lot of that old code). It’s the quality of the eyeballs which matters. If a hundred mediocre coders look through a bunch of code, they’ll never see the same issues that a single really good one will see. People aren’t functionally equivalent units of production.

As Steve Jobs put it:

"In most businesses, the difference between average and good is at best 2 to 1, right? Like, if you go to New York and you get the best cab driver in the city, you might get there 30% faster than with an average taxicab driver. A 2 to 1 gain would be pretty big.

"The difference between the best worker on computer hard-ware and the average may be 2 to 1, if you’re lucky. With automobiles, maybe 2 to 1. But in software, it’s at least 25 to 1. The difference between the average programmer and a great one is at least that.

"The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world. And when you’re in a field where the dynamic range is 25 to 1, boy, does it pay off."

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Microsoft culture must change, chairman says

Microsoft culture must change, chairman says – Fortune Tech:

“I would argue that there are some attributes to Microsoft today that do look vaguely like IBM circa 1990. The Windows monopoly is in fact under attack, and therefore we’re going to have to change or think differently about the management systems and the associated culture of the company as time goes on.”

I hope this reflects Satya Nadella’s thinking too.

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If you spend any amount of time reading technology news and opinion sites, you’ll know how high the percentage of bullshit is. It’s huge. Finding the decent stuff takes forever, and you’ll spend your time tripping over errant nonsense.

It takes a lot to excel in the field of writing bad technology stories, but I think Eric Jackson, writing for Forbes.com, may have beaten us all and written the worst article in tech history.

It is, naturally, about Apple. Apple attracts poor writing like nothing else, probably because posting articles about the company attracts page views like nothing else. Jackson spends hundreds of words chastising it for failing to buy companies. Everyone is doing it: Microsoft, Facebook, Google… just everyone. So why isn’t Apple?

It’s clear almost from the get-go Roberts knows remarkably little about how Apple works and what’s made it richer than Croesus. Take this:

It’s also clear that Apple has lots of weak areas that it should be more aggressive in filling in: cloud services (it would nice for iMessage not to go down), web/app services (hello Ping and MobileMe), adding key mobile apps beyond things like iPhoto and iMovie, and maybe even turning its back on the whole walled garden approach with iCloud and iMessage by acquiring a leading cloud company like DropBox and messaging app to open it beyond Apple users.

Sure, Apple could “turn its back on the whole walled garden approach”. But why? So it could lower its margins? So it could have to support more platforms, increasing its costs and complicating its business? Apple sells hardware, with high margins. Now I know this idea utterly offends blinkered pundits who think there’s only one way to make a profit (repeat after me: “MARKET SHARE”) but that’s the way it is. Everything else it does is to support and enhance the hardware.

Better is to come. Jackson isn’t just a Jeremiah: he has actual positive ideas for how Apple can spend some of its cash:

What’s a quick way Apple could deploy $50 billion in cash? Well, they could pay $400/share to take out Tesla (TSLA) and make an audacious huge play for the Internet-connected car, as well as snagging Musk into the fold in one fell swoop.

Leaving aside, for one second, the value of Elon Musk (not everyone thinks he’s a genius) what would Apple gain by this? Suppose AppleTesla becomes the biggest car company in the world, by force of will, hitting the levels of General Motors. That’s 10% of the market. What happens then? Simple: every other car company, which might all have bought Apple technology for their connected cars, uses someone else’s tech because there’s no way they’re benefitting a serious competitor.

Plus you’re now saddled with a high-revenue, low profit business: General Motors made just $18 billion gross profit for the whole of 2013, on revenues of $155bn. Over the same period, Apple generated $64bn gross profit on revenues of $174bn. Apple’s profit margin is 21%; GM’s profit margin is 3%. If Apple wanted to just put $50bn in an ordinary bank savings account, it could make a better annual return than buying a car company.

Fucking. Dumb. Idea. This is why people like Jackson don’t get to be CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies.

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The best of Google

google_london

It’s easy to forget.

I’ve spent much of the day at one of Google’s UK offices, being trained in how to make YouTube channels work better, something that’s of great interest to my employer. Whenever I visit the offices, tucked round the corner from the windy, desolate obelisk that is Centrepoint, I’m reminded of what makes Google awesome: the people.

I’ve never met a Googler that I didn’t like. I’m sure there are some, but in many years of dealing with them I’ve just not met one that wasn’t clever, engaged, interested in what you had to say and most of all fun. That makes it sound like there’s some kind of clone factory churning them out, but it’s true: The Googlers I’ve worked with have been, to a person, great.

That’s one of the things that I think about when someone says to me that Google is evil. It’s not, at all, simply because the kind of people who I’ve met who work there have mostly been anything but evil. They’ve also been incredibly switched on to the compromises that you have to make in running a service which lives or dies by the results of advertising, and that depends on harvesting as much of the world’s data as possible.

The issue I have with Google is simply fear: not that the current crop of Googlers might do bad things with all the power we’re handing over to them, but that in the future some other Googlers will. If there’s one thing history proves, it’s that the more you centralise power, the more likely that power is to be misused in the future.

Meanwhile, though, I’ll just carry on enjoying the products. I’ll keep on being able to find pretty-much anything published in the last 20 years online with just a few keystrokes. That’s the kind of thing which, as a graduate student, I would have died for.

Picture by  Kasya Shahovskaya

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Galaxy S5 Hands On: Samsung Galaxy S5 Review Part 1 | BGR:

“Chief among them is a novel new power-saving mode that only displays black and white, and restricts which apps can run.

When you’re nearing the end of a busy day and running out of juice, this feature is going to be amazing.”

AMAZING! I’m AMAZED! And if you’re not AMAZED you’re probably some kind of Apple fanboi.

Amazing!

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Steve Jobs, Gil Amelio’s advisor

Doing some research for a MacUser piece, I came across this from a Peter Burrows piece, writing for BusinessWeek in 1997, just after NeXT concluded the deal to take over Apple:

“After years of trying to take NeXT public, [Jobs will] get some $175 million in cash and stock for his 45%-plus stake. And other than a part-time consulting role–he'll even have an office at his old haunt–he's free to focus on Pixar Animation Studios and other interests. ''I'll advise Gil [Amelio] as much as I can, until I think they don't want my help or I decide they're not listening,'' he says.”

It really didn't quite work out that way – and I'm glad it didn't.

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Poor old David Carnoy. You write a post about a conversation between you and your brother in law Ken where you talk about Apple’s need to get a netbook, and you end up in Internet pundit infamy.

Let’s take a look at the “conversation”, piece by piece.

“Ken: “Apple really needs to do a Netbook.”
Me: “Yes, now. It’s the biggest growth category in laptops. They’re missing out on a big opportunity to take Windows’ share away.”

Mistake number one: A focus on market share. Even in 2009, it was obvious this wasn’t Apple’s focus . In its lean years, the company had learned that you could survive happily on market share of a single digit, and that what was important was simply profit. If you were profitable, you lived. If you weren’t, it didn’t matter how much share you had.

Ken: “Apple keeps saying it doesn’t want to go near the low-end and make crappy notebooks with low margins. Would tarnish the brand, hurt the bottom line.”
Me: “They’re lying. They know they have to go there.”

Mistake number two: Thinking Apple will make crappy products to grab share. Apple’s made its fair share of duffers over the years, but since the end of the Amelio era they’ve tended to be few and far between – and I can’t think of a single example where the product has been crap because Apple has tried to create something cheap with a low margin. Apple just doesn’t do that anymore. Instead, the company focuses on building the best things it can, and if it can’t make something “good enough” at a specific price point, it just doesn’t enter that part of the market.

The best example of this is the way Apple introduced new variants of the iPod. The original iPod was expensive, by the MP3 player standards of the day, but was also significantly better than anything else on the market. When the company extended the range and hit lower price points, it didn’t do so with something crap: the iPod mini was a better iPod, and cheaper. The iPod nano was much higher quality than its competitors. None of the iPods ever felt like “me too” products. None of them ever felt cheap. And none of them were crappy products with low margins.

Ken: “Agree.”
Me: “So they slap a little design flair on the thing, put one model out for $599 and another for $699. Sure, the Windows version would cost you $350-$450, but I’d have no problem paying the Apple premium on one of these.”

Mistake Number Three: Thinking design is something you “slap on”. There’s a phrase for this view of design: “putting lipstick on a pig”. It’s not what Apple does – or at least, it’s not what the Apple of 2014 does. It used to be what it did, back in the early 1990’s, and it’s one of the things which almost killed it. The likelihood of Apple starting to just put lipstick on pigs again is about the same as pigs growing wings and flying.

Ken: “A lot of people would pay $599 for an Apple Netbook.”
Me: “No one’s buying the Macbook Air at $1,800.”
Ken: “I wouldn’t say no one.”
Me: “OK, but it’s sort of the Apple TV of laptops. It’s just not that relevant. Most people would prefer buying a more powerful notebook that weighs a little more for a grand.”
Ken: “I agree. I almost bought an Air when it first came out, but I’m glad I didn’t pull the trigger.” [Note: Ken uses a MacBook Pro but he wants a Netbook for nonbusiness travel].

Mistake Number Four: Failing to understand how Apple pioneers product categories. Sometimes, Apple will produce something which is a little expensive, but which effectively reshapes or creates an entire product category. In the case of the MacBook Air, that category was what we now call ultrabooks: something expensive, high-margin, but thin and light.

Me: “Apple always talks about design–and they do have great designers–but what people want now is cheap. As I said, this thing doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. I’d rather see them keep things simple and elegant and keep the cost down to $599.””

Mistake Number Five: Believing mature markets are solely price-sensitive. Where to go with this one? It’s so obviously false that it almost beggars belief. No matter how tough the market, there’s always someone buying a £50,000 Mercedes rather than a functionally-equivalent £20,000 family car. And there’s always someone who will pay $2000 more to get exactly the model they want, even though it’s functionally the same as the cheaper alternative.

The thing which makes Carnoy’s post brilliant is how it manages to encapsulate every way of misunderstanding what Apple is about, while also misinterpreting the signs of the overall market. It’s not that Carnoy was an idiot – I’m sure he wasn’t, and isn’t – it’s simply that everything in his post illustrates how easy it is to get tech punditry wrong when talking about Apple. This is a company which has grown because it defied expectations, bucked trends, and followed its own path. If you want to write about Apple, this is the first thing you should always bear in mind.

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Oh Samsung

About the rumoured Samsung finger print sensor:

SamMobile claims that as you swipe over the sensor, a “real-time image of your fingerprint” appears on the display. Contrast that to the iPhone 5S, which doesn’t store actual fingerprint images on the device, and you’d think privacy advocates and grandstanding lawmakers would get more riled up with Samsung than they did with Apple. (They probably won’t.)

Oh Samsung.

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