Saturday, March 17, 2012

Challenging the iPhone, Part IV

A lot has happened in the past year. Starting in the Android camp, Motorola has engineered a brilliant sale to Google, HTC has faltered, and Samsung has emerged as the big winner. It's not in Google's interests for any single company to dominate the Android manufacturers (just as it wasn't in Google's interest for Apple to dominate smartphones), so the dynamics between the two would be interesting to observe over the next year or two.

Google also released Ice Cream Sandwich to critical acclaim, but actual adoption remains low, accounting for just 1.6% of Android devices, less than a quarter of ancient Eclair version's share. Froyo is 22-months old now, yet it still runs on over a quarter of Android devices. This slow adoption is a problem for Google in matching iOS features, and makes it difficult for third party developers to make use of new features. Some developers are finding that supporting the multitudes of Android handsets costs more than the effort brings in.

The story of the year, however, should probably be the global patent war. Apple, Samsung, Motorola, and HTC appear to be the principal players, and skirmishes have been won and lost by each party, with no end in sight. An Apple-Microsoft consortium bought thousands of Nortel patents for US$4.5 billion, and shortly after patents again appear to have been the key reason Google paid US$12.5 billion for Motorola. Away from the spotlight, Microsoft has quietly hit up several Android manufacturers to collect patent taxes as well. Even Openwave contributed a patent or two to the war.

Apple had a very good year. The iPhone 4S was released to lukewarm critical response, but the customers loved it, and the Siri voice assistant became an instant icon, appearing even in late night comedy shows. Apple would sell a record 37 million iPhones in the Christmas quarter, part of the reason its market cap surpassed Exxon-Mobil and stands today at a staggering US$546 billion.

In other news, Nokia doesn't seem to be doing a great deal better shipping Windows Phone 7 handsets, RIM continues to circle the drain, and Palm has been put out to pasture. The Microsoft-Nokia alliance may inherit third place by default, but there's certainly no evidence of a third power forming right now. The consolidation I talked about last year has happened, and the mobile landscape of 2012 is iOS versus Android, maybe even Apple versus Samsung.

But RIM deserves a mention here. Falling behind in the smartphone market, RIM allowed itself to be distracted by the iPad, and developed the Playbook with newly-acquired QNX as an answer. The Playbook was a disaster (like just about every other competing tablet), shipping without even an email client, and is now selling at or below cost. Samsung is said to be interested in investing in RIM and perhaps building phones based on the upcoming BB10 software, but I don't think that will be enough. If RIM doesn't ship a killer phone in 2012 by itself, I think they're done as a force in this market.

As for Microsoft, they'll do what they always do: plug along and hope they come upon that magical version 3 that takes over the market. A very interesting factor in 2012 is whether any suspicion between Samsung and Google would overcome their mutual interests, and develop into a real falling out, making Samsung do a real switch to BB10, Windows, or its own Bada operating system. Android is too attractive for Samsung to give up easily, but if Google tries too hard to weaken Samsung's dominance, I think it's possible.

Engineering

Resolution independence has been a problem for user interface developers since shortly after an abundance of graphics hardware became available. I remember experimenting in the early 90's with floating point coordinates, normalizing each coordinate to between 0.0 and 1.0. This allowed me to scale my UI to whatever screen size. Of course, that was probably not original, and was certainly not effective. Things squeezed together on lower resolutions, and left way too much white space on higher resolutions.

Later, Microsoft also allowed the user to scale the Windows UI to use a bigger system font, but it was also a failure. It would mess up the UI of all sorts of apps that never expected to be scaled.

When the technology for ~300 ppi displays became available for the iPod in 2007, we simply used it as if it was any other screen. The iPod had no third-party apps to worry about, so we simply got the benefit of sharp text and detailed graphics. But when the technology became feasible for the iPhone 4's screen size in 2010, there were already hundreds of thousands of third-party apps that weren't written with this in mind, and could not be expected to all put in the work to fix.

This is when Apple engineers came up with a brilliant engineering solution. They pretended that the number of pixels stayed the same as the older iPhone. Because the OS was responsible for rendering text, most text in the apps (except those the app has baked into a graphic) would look better automatically. Graphics were easily updated by creating a double-resolution version with a special name, with no code changes required, but if they weren't provided the OS would just scale up the original version. This might horrify a computer graphics purist, but it worked startlingly well. Even coming on two years after the iPhone 4, as predicted many apps still haven't been updated to take advantage of the Retina display, yet they continue to work.

This is engineering at its best. Given the constraints, engineers came up with a practical solution that worked well. It's no breakthrough in computer science by any stretch, but the point is that not everything needs to be one. It reminds me of the fable of an elevator engineer who was asked to reduce waiting times, and simply installed mirrors on each floor to give people something to look at while waiting. Engineers will do well to remember this example.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Republican Rebuild

Joe Nocera wrote an op-ed in the New York Times to point out that Rick Santorum as the Republican presidential nominee may suffer a defeat so humiliating that the Republican center finally wrests control back from the fringe, which would actually be a good thing for the country. It's just surreal that we're talking about contraception at all in 2012.

I've long thought that the Republican Party was hopelessly contradictory, torn between the small-government types and the religious types who very much want to use the government to force others to do what they think is right. The only thing that seems to be keeping it together is the ability of people to compartmentalize contradictory thoughts - otherwise known as hypocrisy - but it already doesn't look like Ron Paul's supporters would necessarily just fall in behind Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum, and it certainly remains to be seen whether the bulk of the party can actually unite behind either Romney or Santorum.

Nocera is right that a Romney loss will be blamed on his ideological impurity, and the problem will persist. The Republicans need a wake-up call in the form of a massive Santorum defeat, one that is undeniably the American public's rejection of these fringe beliefs.

There was a moment during the enactment of the Affordable Care Act when I realized that the most right-wing Democrats were still left of the most left-wing Republicans (or at least as left as those Republicans dared to be in public). It's a dangerous sign for the nation that the two parties appear to have no ideological overlap, because that's a recipe for legislative stalemates during a critical period of recovery for the country. I believe that if we don't play our cards right soon, the US will not be a technological leader within a generation.

I do find the parliamentary system appealing, where no party would be dominant, and several parties have to compromise in order to govern. That's not going to happen, so the Republican Party needs to be torn down and rebuilt, for the country to get back on the move. Pragmatism must win. If we ever want our leaders to consider more than just two solutions to each problem we face, then at least some Republicans must learn to compromise. "My way or the highway" actually ends up standing still.