An idea for Apple: An ultra low-cost ARM-based PC for the masses

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday February 9 @ 6:00 pm

Maybe it was due to the cold I’m currently struggling with, or a by-product of the medicine I’m taking for it, or it could just be my brain’s attempt to keep me sane while I power through exhaustion until my holiday in May – but last night I had the most peculiar, vivid and financially plausible technology dream ever.

Let me explain…..

I dreamt, in surprising detail, that Apple had launched an ultra low-cost desktop PC/media player called the iSocket (yes, the name is terrible, but stick with it), which had a striking resemblance to the company’s AirPort Expresspocket Wifi router.

However, instead of containing a Wifi router, the casing in fact contains a very small, basic but effective ARM-based PC, not unlike the one about to go on sale from the Raspberry Pi project. Only Apple’s one ran a complete version of iOS along with the Apple TV big screen media player interface, giving you all the capabilities of an Apple TV, but also the full iOS application set and the ability to buy and install additional apps like you would on an iPhone or iPod Touch does.

The iSocket featured a HDMI connector (with audio), 3.5mm audio out, two USB ports, an Ethernet port, an SD card slot and a mains plug. It also had built-in Wifi and on-board Bluetooth, should you prefer to connect a keyboard and mouse to it wirelessly. As previously mentioned the chassis was a slightly oversized version of the Airport Express, with the intention that you plug the device straight into the wall socket, keeping it neat and tidy, as well as keeping it compact and reducing the production cost by keeping everything on one very simple motherboard.

Ultimately, what we are talking about here is an Apple TV with some additional connectors, a different casing, and a full iPod Touch-style iOS build embedded, rather than the cut down media player version of iOS currently used in the Apple TV.

The most curious thing about the iSocket was the price. In the dream, Apple planned to sell this device for $1, working on the basis that the hiding it would take on the initial hardware sale would be more than clawed back through the combination of higher app and content sales. Or even content subscriptions…..

When I woke up this morning, I was so convinced of the detail and plausibility of the dream, I had to go and double-check that it wasn’t a real product that had been announced overnight by Apple and that I’d heard about on the radio or TV while sleeping.

Suffice to say the iSocket had not been launched by Apple, and neither had it launched any other $1 ultra-basic PC with a less stupid name than the one my lucid sleep-deprived brain conjured up.

But, it is a plausible device, and the $1 price tag isn’t completely mad either. With Apple’s gargantuan cash reserves, the company could afford to take a massive up-front hit to seed these devices globally, in order to achieve longer-term recurring revenues. However, whether it would fit Apple’s product strategy or be deemed too geeky for a company that is now firmly in the mainstream is unclear.

Apple’s interest in desktop computing has waned in recent years, as demonstrated by the slowing in development of its iMac, Mac Pro and Mac Mini products. You can’t blame the company – desktop PC sales are in decline globally. The big money and big interest right now is in portable devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, desktop computing is still a cost-effective starting point for the next generation of software developers to start (it’s where I started, writing software for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore Amiga and early Windows PCs). Also, desktop PC technology does make for a good media player platform – and internet-connected media players are growing in popularity thanks to ubiquitous broadband availability and the growth in online content delivery services such as iTunes, LoveFilm and Netflix.

Also, a low-cost, small and simple to deploy desktop computer wouldn’t hurt Apple’s market share in emerging economies where a £1,500 MacBook Pro or £600 Mac Mini just won’t fly in volume just yet, but a cheap and cheerful ARM-based iOS desktop mated to a cheap monitor or flat panel TV will, seeding interest and desire for bigger, more expensive Apple products in the future. Finally, a very cheap, discreet PC connected to a TV would be appealing to those put off by the complexity and cumbersome look and feel of Windows and MacOS laptops.

The guys working on the Raspberry Pi project have already demonstrated that you can build and sell – profitably – a decent spec ARM-based micro computer for about $25 (£17). On that basis, the likes of Apple could easily sell a similar device, running iOS or an embedded ARM-port of full MacOS X, as a loss-leader for $1. Such a device, due to its minimal on-board storage, would be heavily reliant on either external storage drives or Apple’s iCloud service for storage and file-sharing (another upsell opportunity), while the ability to access and purchase (or rent) content and apps from the iTunes Music and App Stores would generate suitable additional revenue to more than offset the initial loss on the hardware.

Contrary to the company’s current strategy, iOS apps are extremely well-suited to a TV/Living Room environment and are a more friendly way of delivering Internet-based services into a non-computing environment than a web browser on a big-screen TV.

Apple then gets to make massive inroads into the consumer PC space and complete the integration of Apple mobile devices within the home, but moreover, gets to move even more into the home media player space than it has achieved so far with the Apple TV devices.

Yes, there is all likelihood that Apple is going to launch a TV with all of the above integrated into it. But as we have seen with Freeview boxes, until people are ready to replace their TV, bring them along for the ride with an external box that does everything the integrated unit can do, rather than just the limited Apple TV feature set we have today.

In the meantime, as I mentioned earlier in this post, the first Raspberry Pi devices are set to go on sale very soon – I think they will be extremely interesting and disruptive devices. If I’m quick enough, I plan on purchasing a couple.

Until then, I’ll keep dreaming of the Apple iSocket, or at the very least, a price cut for the Mac Mini.

Steve Jobs: One Man, One Incredible Vision

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday October 6 @ 10:14 am

stevejobs

People come and go throughout our lives and throughout history. Yet, while we are here we all change the world by our actions, hopefully for the better. Be it building a loving family and helping to bring new life into the world, building a stable business that creates work and better lives for others, creating new technologies, new ideas and new approaches that change and improve the way we did things before, or simply changing the world by making the people around you smile. The things we do define us and define the world we live in and leave behind. While we all make a contribution, the impact that some make on the lives of all of us can be simply staggering.

Steve Jobs was one of those people. As co-founder of Apple Computer (now Apple Inc) he helped bring about a new era in computing, shaping the way we would use personal computers for decades to follow, while showing that computers could be a thing of beauty on the outside, as well as incredible inside. He also played a key role in transforming computing from geek hobby into an aspirational mainstream activity.

Even after he was ousted from Apple, his wonder and excitement about technology refused to wilt, leading him to found NeXT and invest in Pixar Animation Studios, creating not only the technology that would later become the foundation of MacOS X and help save Apple, but also the animation technology (and of course bringing together talented people) that delivered some of the most popular family movies in modern history, bringing joy to millions and raising the bar for what can be achieved with computer generated imagery and animation.

His return to Apple unquestionably helped save the company, which was on the brink despite the efforts of previous CEO Gil Amelio to steady a sinking ship. On his return, Jobs not only brought fresh ideas and new approaches with him, he helped inspire a demoralised workforce, and encouraged them to do more and do better with the limited resources left at the company.

The subsequent products that Apple produced, while not necessarily technologically advanced, achieved an important goal – they changed the way we lived, worked, communicated and had fun – all for the better. The iMac, which helped kill off the anonymous beige box design ethos of personal computers, or the MacBook, that helped trigger a massive shift towards portable computing among both consumers and business users. Then there was the iPod. Not that advanced, and among the last products to market, it was the one that learned from the mistakes of its predecessors. Combining good looks, massive storage, and ease of use. When combined with a revamped iTunes app and one-click purchasing of music, it revolutionised the way we chose, purchased and listened to music and audio content.

The iPhone has had a profound effect on the mobile phone industry, While still accounting for a small percentage of the overall market, it is still a very lucrative product and has not only become a must-have item, it has inspired the rest of the industry to raise its game and advance product development far beyond where it would be today without such robust and creative competition from Apple.

As for the iPad, it is another example of a product and market sector (tablet computers) that Apple has achieved huge success with where others have failed, doing so by creating something that did not fall foul of the mistakes made by those before it. I would be absolutely lost without my iPad 2 – it goes with me almost everywhere.

These are just a few of the creations that Apple produced during Steve’s second period at the company, and all were produced with Steve taking a major hands-on role in their design, usability testing and even the packaging. Steve believed that every Apple product should feel special every time you use it, including when you unbox it for the first time. It is an approach that always appealed to my child-like wonder of technology and something that is neglected by so many other companies.

Steve Jobs has always been at the top of the list of people that have inspired me to do more, do better and to be passionate and excited about technology and what it can do for the greater good. His passing is deeply sad, but at the same time we should try not to dwell on the fact he is no longer with us, but be happy that for 56 years he was here and during that time he had a profound and positive effect on the way millions of us live and enjoy our daily lives.

As I write this, I am sitting at a desk surrounded by Apple technology. From my MacBook laptop to my iPad 2, to my iPhone and my iPod, Apple is a major part of my life thanks to Steve Jobs and his vision, determination and passion for technology. Most of us will have at least one piece of Apple technology in active use, or have done so in the past. That alone speaks volumes for the lasting legacy created by Steve’s work.

Steve Jobs showed the world (and me) how to “Think Different” and with it, he changed the world, for the better.

Thank You, Steve.

BBC Interview: Will Japan’s problems damage Apple’s supply chain?

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday April 21 @ 11:16 am
Chris Green - BBC News Interview - April 20 2011

Yesterday morning I was on BBC News previewing Apple’s results and talking about how the disruption in the global component supply chain is likely to impact Apple’s plans for new devices (iPhone 5) and its ability to meet demand for current products (iPad 2 etc).

The interview is now up on the BBC News web site and can be viewed here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-13143021

In case you are not aware, Apple last night reported its best Q2 ever, generating $5.99 billion in profit. However, combined iPad and iPad 2 sales undershot expectations at 4.7 million units, against analyst expectations of 6-6.2 million. iPod sales continue to decline, down 17 per cent as falling sales of the basic iPod Classic and iPod Shuffle devices diluted growth in sales of the newer and feature-rich touchscreen  iPod Nano and iPod Touch units.

Previewing Apple’s results at the BBC

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday April 20 @ 3:58 am

It is extremely early in the morning, and I am off to BBC TV Centre to preview Apple’s Q2 results which are due out at 10pm BST tonight (5pm Eastern).

I’ll be on BBC News Channel at 5.30am BST this morning on World Business Report talking about what we can expect from Apple’s numbers.

Overseas viewers can watch the show live on BBC World at 6.30am CEST and 12.30am Eastern in the US.

Lots of interesting things to discuss including the implications of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on Apple’s component supply, whether iPod sales will decline further and the initial success of the iPad 2.

Off to the BBC…

Posted by Chris Green on Friday April 15 @ 6:01 am

I will be on BBC Radio 5 Live today at around 7.45am BST talking about Google’s financial results and the challenges facing co-founder Larry Page as he takes the helm as chief executive.

The iPad 2 – the good, the bad and the backlight leakage

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday April 14 @ 12:20 pm

<b>Apple's iPad 2 offers many improvements over the original, including front and rear cameras, as well as a magnetic screen cover and magent-controlled sleep mode, similar to that found on RIM's BlackBerry devices.</b>

Some of you will know that on launch weekend I decided to splurge and buy an Apple iPad 2. Yes, I did indeed say buy – rather than get hold of a review unit.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, I’ve had advance access to the iPad 2 in the form of units from the initial launch in the US, so have been able to review test the unit already. Secondly, off the back of that review testing, it quickly became clear that this was a piece of equipment I both wanted and needed to add to my computing kit.

I considered buying the original iPad on several occasions after its launch, but each time (including one time when I arrived in an Apple Store with money to spend on one), I decided against it. Usually, it came down to the fact that the original had no camera at all, let alone a front-facing camera for video conferencing – a ‘killer application’ for a device like the iPad.

Fortunately, with the iPad 2 Apple rectified this and added both a high resolution rear camera and a low-resolution front camera, bringing the iPad 2 into line with the iPhone and 4th generation iPod Touch.

But why buy one so early? Well, I have always been an early adopter (despite the early birthing pains that have to be endured when you buy anything from the first production run), but mostly, it comes down to the camera and integrated microphone. For me, the ability to use the iPad 2 for Skype calls and video conferencing is a massive help. Even though Skype has not released an iPad-native client, the iPhone/iPod Touch client makes full use of the iPad 2’s camera and mic, enabling both voice and video comms without the need for extra equipment or a headset. The results have been very good and I’m now regularly using it for Skype calls with colleagues in the US and with work clients.

I also opted for the 3G version of the iPad 2, which I have paired with a mobile broadband subscription from Three. Unlike other networks, Three provides a generous data cap, the network has been reliable and they don’t care what you use your allocation for, so VoIP calls, video streaming etc are all acceptable. Of course, when you use up your monthly 15Gb bandwidth allocation, you then start paying. Fortunately, I haven’t maxed it – yet!

Facetime is also very impressive, but there has been limited opportunity to use it, as even most of my iPhone 4-owning friends show little interest in Facetime as a communications option, preferring voice calls or SMS instead. It’s a pity as the audio and video quality that can be achieved with Facetime and a decent Wifi connection is remarkable given the basic front facing camera on the iPad 2, iPhone 4 and 4th generation iPod touch.

Beyond this, the device fits my needs and my lifestyle. There’s plenty of processing power under the bonnet, and it handles tasks such as email and web browsing very well (if you can live without Flash support). The lack of text messaging support on the 3G-enabled units (it was the same with the original iPad) is a big oversight, and hopefully Apple will rethink this and address in a forthcoming firmware update, but otherwise it excels as a communications tool (the official Twitter app for the iPad is a particular success).

However, for all the positive aspects of the device, there are some negatives.

For starters, I find the portrait/landscape automatic switching to be far too sensitive. Often it will switch orientation after the slightest angled movement, and then won’t switch back as easily. Automatic orientation switching is a good thing, but it needs to be less sensitive or at least be user adjustable.

Then there’s the backlight bleed. This is a defect that affects many, but not all, early iPad 2 units. I’ve already had mine replaced once (a week after the UK launch) and I’m going back to the Apple Store this weekend with a view to having the replacement replaced as well, as it’s worse than the original.

Backlight leaks around the edge of the screen creating a glowing flare effect around the edges. This is only visible on black backgrounds, so is unlikely to have any impact on everyday use, but is very noticeable when watching YouTube, BBC iPlayer or any other form of video that is not full-screen. My unit is afflicted by this all along the bottom edge and at both the left and right top corners. Tech news site Engadget has an excellent article and video illustrating the backlight leakage problem.

My view is that the bleed is a result of some sloppy assembly, no doubt prompted by the need to rush production and build up a stock of units for the initial launch phases. Unlike the original iPad, the iPad 2 display and glass front are glued in place, rather than clipped. I think that the backlight is leaking through the glue seal, either where the glue is thin or where there are gaps in the glue application. This is merely an assumption, but it would explain it. If correct, it is also something that can easily be fixed on the production line without requiring a major change to the design or assembly process.

Despite this small quality control glitch, the iPad 2 is still a must-have. Even if it does turn out to be a stopgap release (still not convinced it’s going to be replaced this year as some are claiming), it still represents a major step forward from the original iPad, and will still be a viable device for several years to come.

Virgin Mobile UK: A useless company staffed by incompetent liars!

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday December 29 @ 9:24 pm

Today I decided to purchase a new BlackBerry as a secondary device, having decided that my HTC Desire is awful and no longer fit for purpose (In fact, I don’t think it was ever fit for purpose).

I decided to take out a new contract with Virgin Mobile (owned by cable company Virgin Media), as this company was offering a good deal on the BlackBerry Curve 8520 – free handset and only £12.26 a month for two years for unlimited BlackBerry service and a basic talk plan.

So, I called Virgin Mobile to place the order. What follows are the basic details of how this moronic company has managed to take a perfectly straightforward purchase of a new BlackBerry Curve 8520 on a new contract, with next day delivery, and turn it into a complete disaster and waste of my time in just sic hours.

On calling Virgin Mobile I had to deal with a foreign call centre, by the sounds of the person who handled my call it was in the Philippines. This is where it all started to go wrong. The call centre rep had a terrible grasp of English and didn’t really seem to know what they were doing. My credit check also took a prolonged period of time, though allegedly I did eventually pass it (and am good for three contracts apparently). I had to repeat everything multiple times, and had to ask for everything to be repeated due to the poor English skills of the sales rep. In addition, the rep was far more interested in trying to to up-sell the contract and sell insurance than actually log my details or answer any of my questions.

However, I was called back by the same rep two hours later to say that my order had not gone through the system (a very vague and unexplained statement) and that she was going home now so wouldn’t be able to deal with it any further? I requested an explanation as to exactly what to the problem was and why it was not being rectified. None was given. I was then told that if the phone didn’t come out on Thursday it would come out on January 5th and would this be OK. I said no, it most certainly would not! I then insisted on escalation and was eventually called back by another person (this time in the UK) at about 5.30pm.

This person claimed I had not been credit checked at all by the foreign call centre and that my bank details had not been logged on the system. In addition, she claimed that my order failed because my address was too long? She took my address and bank details again and promised to push the order through manually, and that she would call me back by 6pm to confirm whether the phone was ordered and would be delivered on Thursday. The call never came.

So, as I write this, it’s nearly 9pm in the evening, I’ve not received the promised callback to either tell me the phone is on its way or to confirm that Virgin Mobile can’t organise a booze-up in a brewery. I now have no idea if the phone is going to be delivered on Thursday, or ever, and the very rude woman I’ve just spoken to at customer service told me there was nothing about an order on my account, the department dealing with it is closed and that I’ll have to call back tomorrow. No help whatsoever and very rude in the process.

In short, Virgin Mobile is utter crap and your staff are a joke. You have repeatedly lied to me today, you have failed to complete a very simple order for an advertised product, you have taken sensitive data from me in the form of my bank details and debit card details and failed to use them in the way that was promised. You have failed in your duty of care regarding my personal data having lost said banking and payment details after the original sales call, resulting in me having to give them to you again. You then failed again to use that data in the stated way – as you failed to actually set up a direct debit or process my order. In addition to all of this you have, as a result of your incompetence, potentially run a completely unnecessary second credit check, an action that will affect my on-going credit rating.

I will be calling you on Thursday morning. However, it will most likely be to tell you to shove your BlackBerry. If this is how you treat new customers at the point of inception, I certainly don’t want to be dealing with your unpleasant, untrustworthy and utterly incompetent organisation for the next two years of a contract!

I also expect an apology!

UPDATE: I received a phone call from Virgin Mobile’s call centre at 11pm on Wednesday night. No apology was offered for calling me so late in the evening, no acknowledgement was made of the fact I was already in bed at that time (I did mention this on the call), in fact, the caller (a different Philippine call centre rep to the one who handled my original order call) had no concept of what time it was in the UK.

Anyway – the call centre rep still had no idea what was going on or why my order still had not been processed. All he offered to do was run the order again (and credit check me, again). Despite the time, he claimed they could still get the phone to me on Thursday, and when pointed out that no courier company was going to collect a handset from Virgin Mobile at past 11PM one night for next dat delivery, he chirped up with the following:

“Well if it doesn’t come on Thursday, maybe it will arrive in 2-3 days, but that will also be OK”.

No, it bloody well will not be OK!

Virgin Mobile (and with it Virgin Media). I’ve made a bold statement with the title of this post – I challenge you to prove me wrong. So far, you have only proved me to be absolutely right!

Sky Remote Code for the Toshiba 32KV500

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday December 1 @ 1:26 pm

Like many others, I’ve just bought one of these rather good televisions from Best Buy, who were selling them at an exceptionally low price.

However, there is no information for it on Sky’s remote control codes section of its Active service, and even a call to Toshiba’s technical support resulted in incorrect information (a rather arrogant chap insisted that all Toshiba televisions use Sky remote code 1536).

Well, if that’s the case, please explain why the 32KV500 uses Sky Remote Code 065?

Yes, for all of you who have purchased Best Buy’s bargain Toshiba TV, the code you need to operate it with your Sky, Sky+ or Sky HD remote control is 065.

Enjoy!

Radio and TV appearances: Windows Phone 7 launch

Posted by Chris Green on Sunday October 10 @ 12:34 pm
Windows Phone 7 press conference invite

Windows Phone 7 press conference invite

Tomorrow (Monday) marks the official launch of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform.

Windows Phone 7 is the latest iteration of Microsoft’s operating system for smartphones and PDAs. The new version marks a major departure from the traditional Windows Phone/Windows Mobile user interface, with a move to a larger finger-friendly interface that has been influenced significantly by Microsoft’s Zune MP3 player platform.

Microsoft needed to undertake a major overhaul of Windows Phone in the face of overwhelming device and software competition from Apple, RIM and Google. Only Nokia appears to be struggling worse than Microsoft to gain a footing in the smartphone market.

I’m doing a number of media appearances tomorrow to talk about the new phone platform and where it fits into a crowded and competitive smartphone market. You can see and hear me on the following stations and shows:

Monday October 11th 2010 – all times are BST
5.30am – Wake Up To Money (BBC Radio 5 Live)
6.15am – Today (BBC Radio 4)
6.50am – BBC Breakfast (BBC 1 TV)
7.30am – World Business Report (BBC World TV) – Not officially available in the UK, international viewers only

If you can, do take a look.

Speaking at Digital Surrey tonight

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday July 22 @ 8:38 am

I will be speaking tonight at the Digital Surrey group, talking about ‘The financial and ongoing value of web content’.

Digital Surrey is a networking group that grew out of the Farnham Tweetup. Since April 2010 the group has been meeting at Surrey University in Guildford and we’ve had a number of fantastic speakers covering everything from the Digital Economy Act to Social Media in the Enterprise. Now I’m stepping up to talk about how and why individuals and businesses need to do more to understand the cost and value of the content they place online.

I’ll post my slides and any other useful material here after the event. Stay tuned.

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