I Hope Apple Improves Voice Recognition…

Here we are on the eve of another Apple press event. There are all kinds of rumors and speculation about what the famous electronic maker will unveil but the one I am most looking forward to is the extensive voice controls supposedly built-in to the core of iOS5.

Voice recognition is hard. Google has had the capability built-in to their devices (and even their browser) for some time. The quality of the interpretation is iffy at best. I have never felt like voice commands were worth the effort. When Google guesses wrong you have to go back and correct it’s shoddy work by pecking at the tiny screen to get the text cursor in the right place and delete all of the letters and retype the word you originally meant to input. Like I said, voice recognition is tough.

I believe voice is the next big computer interaction. Smartphones have taken off because it allowed us to have a computer in our pocket. The same way we could query the world’s knowledge for answers to our mundane questions at our desks is now available most anywhere we are. But voice will certainly not become the primary form of computer interaction (just imagine a group of cubicle dwellers yelling over one another so their computers can hear them). Instead voice will become prevalent in more intimate settings like in your car (see Ford SYNC) where your hands aren’t free or in your own home.

Imagine being able to ask your computer a question from your couch and having the computer speak the answer back to you. When you’re getting ready in the morning wouldn’t it be great to simply ask aloud “What’s the weather out today?” and then get your answer spoken back to you? This will lead to a more passive computing experience, where it’s just there in the background. Smartphones are a stepping stone to this reality, but I predict it will be at least 5 years until a voice aware home is even viable.

What’s Available Today?

There are a couple of interesting voice automation projects out there today.

CMU Sphinx is an open source toolkit for speech recognition. It’s a bit too complicated for me to get up and running so I could at least play around with it. The home automation project, MisterHouse, uses it for some basic voice commands (video demo).

Windows users have the add-on Bill’s Voice Commander for the Active Home Pro software to do similar things.

Samir Ahmed created the open source Iris project, a Java app for utilizing Speech Recognition and Synthesis to make a desktop assistant. It looks like a really interesting proof-of-concept.

Google uses a web service to convert speech to text which Mike Pultz reverse engineered for his own purposes.

U.S.News & World Report Needs To Bet On The Web

Disclaimer: I worked as a developer at U.S.News & World Report from 2006 – 2009.

News broke late on Friday that U.S.News & World Report was ending the monthly print version of it’s magazine. The focus going forward will be “a predominantly digital publishing model” according to editor Brian Kelly. The leaked  e-mail mentioned shifting their focus to emerging platforms, specifically tablet computers.

“…these latest moves will accelerate our ability to grow our online businesses and position ourselves to take advantage of the emerging platforms for distributing information such as the iPad and Android tablets.”

I’m generally a fan of this position but I really hope USNews executes their strategy the right way. When it comes to mobile platforms, their are two options: web apps and native apps. When most people think of apps on phones and tablets they are thinking about native apps. Apple’s App Store and the Android Marketplace distribute and sell native apps; apps which need to be built specifically for each platform and need to be downloaded and installed. Web apps, on the other hand, are open to anything running a web browser.

Mobile web apps are what USNews should be focused on. Chances are they don’t have anyone in-house with knowledge of building native apps, so that task would have to be outsourced at an additional cost. Meanwhile the stable of talented in-house web developers could start work on building a platform-independent experience as soon as possible. In the meantime they should read this online book, Building iPhone Apps with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: Making App Store Apps Without Objective-C or Cocoa.

But development talent aside, building on top of the open web is flexible. Updates can be pushed out nearly instantly without the need to go through a gatekeeper or approval process. As new platforms emerge, you’re brand is covered so long as it can connect to the web. Much of the functionality of native apps can be accomplished in non-desktop browsers like those found on phones and tablets. See check.in, iphone.netvibes.com, and even Apple’s own webapps catalog for examples of apps built on the web. For content publishers, native apps present far more problems than they appear to solve.

But what about money? Perhaps the biggest allure of native apps is the fact that they are attached to marketplaces where everyone browsing has a credit card attached to their account and purchases can happen with a single click. But do you get direct contact with your customers? Apps that want to span many platforms need their own payment process that they can be in control of. That way regardless of how or what platform your audience uses to accesses your content, they will get a consistent experience. And if you want to charge a recurring subscription for premium access your only option is to run your own payment platform. USNews already has this up and running with their Best Colleges and Digital Weekly products so why not extend that?

And judging from the past releases of magazine brands on the iPad, the industry is getting it wrong. They can’t just shove their traditional print product onto a touchscreen device with a few gestural interactions and call it a day. Jeffery Zeldman sums it up best in his post iPad as the new Flash

“Everything we’ve learned in the past decade about preferring open standards to proprietary platforms and user-focused interfaces to masturbatory ones is forgotten as designers and publishers once again scramble to create novelty interfaces no one but them cares about.”

So usnews.com is at a pivotal point where the company can focus on building a proprietary native app or an open web app. Today, it just seems so obvious to me to go the web app route. Native apps may seem like the answer today in the short term, but in the long term, their fragmentation overhead will hold them back for publishers while the open web will reign supreme.

I hope U.S.News & World Report doesn’t fuck this up.

Who Needs An Apple Tablet?

Rumors that Apple is building a tablet computer have reached a fever-pitch over the past six months. The basic gist is it will have a 7 inch screen and run a version of the iPhone OS making a good chunk of the apps available to also run on this new tablet. But why do we even need such a thing?

This thing sounds too big to be carried around with you wherever you go like an iPhone or iPod Touch but too small for long periods of work. It almost seems like it is aimed at two lifestyles: 1) Frequent flyers, 2) a TV watching companion device. This sounds just like the MacBook Air which was introduced on January 15, 2008.

I wonder, how long the battery will last in order to power a 7 inch display? And what extra functionality will this bring to our lives? According to one rumor blog, Apple Insider,

“The tablet is expected to be portrayed as a multimedia device capable of browsing the Web, watching movies, and reading content.”

Wow, you mean just like my laptop of today? Again, why is everyone getting worked up over this?

There have also been rumors swirling that the iPhone is coming to Verizon, which seems less likely from a technical stance (CDMA vs. GSM). I think if we ever see an Apple/Verizon partnership it will be for a data plan for this tablet device so you can use the web wherever you go. Verizon currently does this with a few netbooks, though it is a horrible deal. $199.99 + a 2 year contract of at least $39.99 per month ($1,159.75 total), all for a dinky, underpowered netbook that retails for $399.99 on HP’s own site.

So the idea of an Apple tablet looks lackluster from my point of view pre-announcement. Maybe Apple has a card up its sleeve when it announces the device and the world will wonder how we lived in the pre-tablet era. Perhaps this post will go down in Apple fanboy history just like all the negative reactions when Apple first introduced the iPod in October, 2001. Or maybe the Apple Tablet will just fade away into gadget history just like the Apple Hi-Fi.

“Great just what the world needs, another freaking MP3 player. Go Steve! Where’s the Newton?!”

—WeezerX80’s reaction to the announcement of the iPod.

HTC Hero With Sense UI Takes On Apple’s iPhone

Big news in the cell phone world this week. On Monday T-Mobile announced the MyTouch 3G as the follow-up to the G1. This morning HTC, maker of the MyTouch 3G as well as a slew of other phones, announced a new device called the Hero. While the two devices both run Android and sport nearly the exact same specs (MyTouch 3g specs, HTC Hero specs), the Hero gets a sparkling new interface which will make even Apple die-hards drool:

The MyTouch 3G will go on sale in the US in August while the superior Hero device will only be available in Europe and Asia by the end of the summer. There are rumors that the Sense UI will be available for the MyTouch 3G, but that could be a long time. While this could be my next phone I might just wait to see how some of the rumored Android phones pan out like the Samsung Bigfoot, Motorola Morrison, and the Samsung i7500. At least there are finally phones to choose from now.

The New RED Cameras Are Ridiculous

Today RED camera announced the follow ups to it’s industry-changing RED One camera. As expected the Scarlet and Epic offer higher super high-definition resolutions. What wasn’t expected was the fact that the cameras are completely modular allowing for 2,251,799,813,685,248 possible configurations according to the company.

Configure Your RED Epic or RED Scarlet Camera

But what might be more impressive number is the CPU/hard-drive devastating 28K resolution of the Epic sensor. That’s right, the images off of this sensor will be 28,000 pixels wide by 9,334 pixels high… at up to 25 frames per second. For the non high definition geek this means a camera with this sensor will be able to shoot video that is 8 times bigger than the 30″ Apple Cinema display you see all over Apple Stores in your local high-end mall. You know all of those fancy flat-panel TVs you see in electronics stores? They max out at 1920×1080 video. IMAX is about 10,000 pixels wide by 7,000 pixels tall. If you need a visual, Stu Maschwitz put together what the 28K sensor would look like (in gray) compared to a full HD frame size (in red). A single 28K image takes up about 768 MB of space. Holy Crap!

RED Epic and RED Scarlet Cameras

Ironically, the announcement was made with a 1020 x 18,320 JPEG image posted to the RED User forums. This did make it easy to grab these images which I used in this post though.

The New Apple Cinema Display Sure Looks Familiar…

Apple announced a new 24″ Cinema Display today at their press event. Besides looking like a gutted iMac, the display shares a similar look to the HP w2007 20-inch widescreen monitor.

New Apple Cinema Display

HP w2007 20-inch Monitor

Irony: MacBook Pro And A Zune

Irony:A MacbookPro and a Zune (closeup)

That’s right, I use a Zune with my MacBook Pro and it works just fine.

Irony:A MacbookPro and a Zune (wide)

Steve Jobs Cannot Design A Mouse

Over the weekend I began reading Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney which has given me an insight into the control-freak that is Steve Jobs. Take the design of the mouse for the first Mac computer:

“Jobs paid close attention to every detail. Even the mouse was designed to reflect the shape of the computer: it has the same dimensions, and its single square button corresponds to the shape and placement of the screen.”

Macintosh SE and the ADB mouse were designed with the same proportions in mind.

Fast forward 24 years and when I go to use the Mighty Mouse connected to my fiance’s 24″ iMac I find the scrollball unwilling to scroll down. The gray nipple-like scroll mechanism might have been good on paper but after just a year of normal, everyday use the thing becomes flaky and useless. About every other week I need to flip the mouse upside down and rub the scroll ball vigorously along the length of my finger to restore functionality (video demonstration). In extreme cases when that doesn’t work I apply a dab of rubbing alcohol on the ball and gently turn the ball around in all possible directions to scrub the runners clean. Some people have even taken the Mighty Mouse apart in order to clean it. Since Apple’s products have won numerous industrial design awards, it escapes me how the mouse has been so neglected considering it is one of the most frequently used input devices on a computer.

The Mighty Mouse wasn’t the first unsuccessful mouse released by the Cupertino company. In 1998 to coincide the release of the first iMac, Apple created the USB Mouse which became known as the “hockey puck”. While considered stylish with it’s translucent colors and circular design the USB mouse was actually very uncomfortable to use. Third parties released USB to ADB converters so people could use the older, more comfortable Apple mouses with their new iMac computers. There was even an adaptive shell called the iCatch which elongated the circular mouse making it more comfortable to hold and similar looking to the old Desktop Mouse II.

The Apple USB mouse that came with new iMacs looked and felt like a hockey puck.

So while Apple dared to be different by making computers that were easy to use while being gorgeous to look at, their mice could never compare. But on the other hand the trackpads on Apple’s new MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops are marvelously responsive and a joy to use. Apple is at the top of it’s game when it comes to user inputs on non-desktop products. Perhaps Steve Jobs should ditch the whole mouse concept and bundle his desktops with a USB powered trackpad. That would certainly be better than licensing the trademark of a popular cartoon series to tack on to a crappy product.

Finger gestures make using an Apple laptop easy.

P.S. I had to “clean” the trackball 3 times while writing this blog post.

Steve Jobs Announces New iMac

… 10 years ago today!

That’s right today is the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the iMac. Check out Steve Jobs sporting a suit instead of his trademark jeans and a black turtleneck. This also marks the 10th anniversary of that god-awful hockey puck mouse which solidifies the fact that Apple can’t make a good mouse.

Take a look at that “screaming” 233mhz iMac that comes with a whopping 32MB of RAM. Watching old keynote speeches sure is amusing as technology just keeps on progressing.

(via Crunchgear)

And The Point Of Safari For Windows Is…

The special Apple event announcing the iPhone SDK has come and gone. While lots of exciting developments were announced we are still clueless about the purpose of Safari for Windows.

On June 11th, 2007, Steve Jobs announced Safari will have the same features on Vista and XP as on Apple’s flagship OSX operating system. Apple’s official reason for the expansion was to increase the market share of the browser but the blogosphere hinted at something bigger up Steve’s sleeve.

Many thought the browser would become an integral component of developing applications for the iPhone. But as we saw last Thursday, that proved not to be the case. So what is the real point of moving Safari to Windows?

Now that Apple moved to the Intel platform porting applications to Windows requires a whole lot less work. And if Apple has compatible code for the PC platform it would be foolish not to put it out there to test new water with it’s niche web browser. It’s hard to fathom why anyone would choose Safari over Firefox, the massively popular open-source browser that includes a host of user created add-ons. In fact it is those add-ons that keep me tied to the Firefox browser, helping me do my job as a web developer. And most web surfers who aren’t savvy to the other browsers out there will be contempt with the default Internet Explorer. After all, Safari is a pruned down, no frills browser that is a hard sell on features alone. The performance and speed of Safari are certainly ahead of the competition but most people would hardly notice. Perhaps we should look at Apple’s core business as it relates to why they release the software that they do.

The Relationship Between Apple’s Software and Hardware

Everything that Apple does points back to their core business as a hardware company. Think about it, everything Apple does is to enhance the appeal of it’s hardware. They developed an operating system in order to sell more computers, the iTunes music store has sold billions of songs with only a slim profit in order to lure people to iPods, and the iPhone SDK will allow developers to make whatever applications they can imagine making the phone a more appealing device. If we connect the dots from the past, Safari needs to be a part of some kind of hardware project.

Now how does Safari for Windows fit into this type of plan? It’s not obvious at this time. But maybe come this June the answer will become clear as Apple continues to direct our attention to more shiny new devices with a premium price tag.