You can only put so many dents in the universe

This story, from last week, appeared earlier on VentureBeat and on LinkedIn Today, where it’s generated a ton of commentary. I also did a video on the topic with KRON-4 TV, embedded here.

You can only put so many dents in the universe.

This week, Apple unveiled a respectable upgrade of its iPhone line.

So why do I feel so disappointed?

Maybe it’s because we expect so much from Apple. This is the company that brought us the first MP3 player that really mattered, the first smartphone to truly take the world by storm, the first successful touchscreen tablet, and the first ultralight notebook that people were really happy to use. And that’s all just in the past few years — reaching back further than that, Apple is responsible for the first all-in-one PC, the first commercially successful graphical user interface, and many more product design, manufacturing, and retail innovations.

This is what was so amazing about the late Steve Jobs: He drove the company to revolutionize industry after industry. Most successful entrepreneurs only get to change one industry, if they’re lucky; Jobs reinvented half a dozen.

It’s unfair to keep holding Apple to the same high expectations. After awhile, you run out of industries to reinvent. What’s next: Cars? The construction industry? Plumbing?

Not only that, even the best sluggers don’t hit home runs every single time they step up to bat.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This week’s upgrades look like excellent phones. The iPhone 5C has the same elongated, high-resolution screen of the iPhone 5, but it comes in a variety of primary colors and costs somewhat less than the original, at just $100 on contract or $549 off-contract. That should help Apple reach a bit further into the market for lower-cost smartphones.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 5S adds a much more powerful processor (the first in a smartphone to use a 64-bit processing bus), a substantially upgraded camera, and a spiffy new fingerprint sensor.

The company also said it was about to start rolling out iOS 7, the details of which it had fully explained a few months back, and which has been in developers’ hands since June. I’m underwhelmed by iOS 7, but it does offer a host of new features for developers and consumers — as well as some special “floating” effects that will help soak up some of that extra processing power. And iOS remains the most polished, coherent, and well-designed operating system available for a smartphone.

In all, it’s a solid upgrade to the iPhone line that should keep many current customers happy when it’s time to renew their contracts, and this might even attract a few new ones to Apple’s fold.

But the bigger issue is that Apple is facing an existential threat, and this week’s news suggests it has no clue about how to respond appropriately. Android now accounts for more than 80 percent of smartphone sales, while iOS is down in the mid-teens. This is a company that is slowly but surely losing the final stages of its war for the phone industry. Merely keeping the faithful happy is not working. Incremental upgrades are not going to stem the tide.

Consider the pricing of the iPhone 5C. It’s cheaper, yes. But as my colleague John Koetsier has pointed out, its unsubsidized price is still hundreds of dollars more expensive than competing Android phones. That makes a huge difference in countries where a few hundred dollars amount to a month’s worth of wages.

The detail Apple left out.

The detail Apple left out.

And consider the addition of the fingerprint sensor. I joked that Apple left out a key part of its technology diagram by not including the secret NSA backdoor. That’s a timely jab, given the recent news that the NSA has targeted iPhones for hacking and has successfully captured images from intelligence targets via the device. It’s also a bit unfair, since Apple assures us that the fingerprint data is encrypted and will make it out of the phone, let alone into the cloud — so until the iPhone 5S suffers a particularly hostile hack, that data is probably safe. But the real question is: Why? What is so great about a fingerprint sensor? It’s a nice, convenient way to unlock your phone — assuming it works more reliably than prior sensors — but it’s hardly redefining the rules of the smartphone game.

Finally, there’s the question of the iWatch. Many of us expected Apple to launch a wrist-mounted wearable device this week, but there wasn’t a peep about this in Cupertino on Tuesday.

Smartwatches are, for now, kind of a silly category. Fewer than a million of the things are sold each year, mostly to geeky tech enthusiasts. The biggest consumer entry into the smartwatch space was Samsung’s launch, last week, of its Galaxy Gear watch — a news event that got an extra bit of news hype when VentureBeat got an early look at the thing (you’re welcome, Samsung). But the Galaxy Gear is bulky, awkward, only works with Samsung phones (for now), and will probably cost about $300.

One of the reasons we were all hoping for an iWatch is that this is exactly the kind of product category Apple excels at doing. As it did with tablets, we all wanted Apple to come in and show us how to build a product that people will really want. No doubt Apple would come up with something more elegant, more svelte, and more desirable than anything that’s come before, and suddenly no one would mind spending $200 or $300 on a smart watch any more.

But Apple didn’t do that. There was no sign of a watch. So those of us in Silicon Valley are left watching, wondering, and feeling a little empty inside. Maybe it will show us something amazing later this fall, as CEO Tim Cook has promised. Maybe not. In the meantime, we’re left with these multicolored iPhones, and a growing sense that Apple is turning into a more ordinary tech company every day.

Jobs is gone. It looks like Apple’s magic is slowly seeping away now too.

The future of education: Tablets, or hands-on?

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

I read the Times story on Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s 650-person startup aimed at reinventing education via tablet games, with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, as I wrote in a piece today on VentureBeat, this is exactly the vision — shared by One Laptop per Child — first outlined in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age.” A self-guided curriculum, embedded in a digital book, that could teach children everything they need to know via engaging songs, games, and interactive projects.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

On the other hand, like the Times writer, I have an urge to yell at the tablet-focused kids in the book: Go outside! Climb a tree! And in fact I probably do yell that at my own children, from time to time, when they are on the verge of disappearing into a screen-centric vortex of digital media.

But then it occurred to me that an interactive tablet is perhaps not the best way to use technology to engage children. It’s certainly not the only way.

Earlier this year, I visited the studios of Two Bit Circus, an exciting experiment in “STEAM” education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics — the A is an addition that makes the acronym much more interesting, and inclusive, than the usual STEM). I wrote about Two Bit Circus and their STEAM Carnival project when it was just getting started on Kickstarter. The project achieved its funding goals, and the team has been busy putting together their act since then.

The project, in a nutshell, is to create a traveling “carnival” that would amaze children with steampunk- and Maker Faire-like circus attractions. Instead of slamming a hammer down to make a pellet ring a bell, the hammer would make an electrical arc rise up on a Jacob’s Ladder. Instead of a 3-ring circus with lions and clowns, the circus would offer the chance for kids to pit robots they’ve made against one another.

The Steam Carnival approach to educational technology is to make kids understand that tech is something they can build, not just something they use. I like that approach, and I think it’s increasingly important.

In other words, don’t just go outside and climb a tree. After you come down from that tree, figure out how to make a robot, a computer program, a musical score, or a digital video that you can show others. Put it together, wire it up, program it, direct it, edit it.

The tablet should be a tool for engaging creativity, not just a game that helps kids learn rote lessons mapped out by their state board of education. There’s room for both, I think. But the vision is not fully realized unless children are hacking into their tablets and writing their own software for it.

Or using their tablets to control battlebots.

Twitter adds ‘related headlines’ to embedded tweets

Twitter says, starting today, you’ll see “related headlines” appearing underneath tweets that have been embedded on websites.

There’s some confusion about whether these headlines will appear on websites or not. Some people, like Jay Rosen, hate the idea of embedding links to other people’s websites. Journalists aren’t going to like this.

But Twitter’s Mark S. Luckie says this only applies to tweets on Twitter, not on your website.

Who is right? We should be able to test this by seeing if related headlines show up in this post.

The lovely leather of Walnut Studiolo

About a year ago I wrote about Walnut Studiolo, a Portland-based craft shop that makes leather and wood accessories for bicycles.

If you think it’s reasonable to spend $72 for a leather cup holder that’s the perfect size for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, then you’ll love Walnut’s work.

I love the way their stuff looks, and their barrel-shaped saddlebag ($126) looks like an amazing piece of kit to tuck behind your Brooks saddle. Some of it is pretty silly though, like the leather six-pack holder ($89).

But now a video crew called Cineastas has made a short, loving documentary of all the hand-crafted labor that goes into making Walnut’s goods. It’s pretty gorgeous, in image and in sound.

You can almost smell the leather as Geoffrey Franklin carves strips of it with his razor-sharp blades.

Is Steve Ballmer killing Microsoft? And other burning questions

I spent half an hour in front of some video cameras at Revision3′s SF studio on Friday, with host Patrick Norton and fellow guest Mike Elgan, of ComputerWorld. We talked about Microsoft’s big reorg (and whether Ballmer was killing the company or not), the NSA’s PRISM program, the upcoming Def Con conference, Apple’s recent legal loss in the e-book price-fixing case, Dropbox, and whether Apple would be making a new, cheaper iPhone.

It was a lively, engaging discussion, and I had fun doing it. Check it out!

Normalcy is overrated

I was briefly walking behind a mother and daughter in downtown San Francisco last week about midday. They were both very nicely turned out: The mother in her thirties, the daughter probably 8 or 9, in matching brown coats and matching mid-length haircuts. A pretty picture. The daughter was talking to her mother about something, and it was one of those conversations? Where one person says everything? And the phrases all end in question marks?

I thought of my own daughter, and how she and her brother and Karen and I all look so different, and dress differently, and how she likes to meow at me and paw at me as if she was a cat, sometimes even when we are out in public, even though she is already 12. It’s a habit that has annoyed me for too long, even though I know what it means: She’s showing affection, and she wants a hug, and her love of cats helps her express an emotional need she can’t express directly. But it’s unique, and it’s her, and I love her for it, annoying as it can sometimes be. Plus, she doesn’t speak with question marks at the end of every phrase.

And then it hit me, right there, with the force of a long-forgotten memory, that normalcy is overrated. That’s how I felt growing up, and it’s how I feel now. At some point along the way I had forgotten how boring conformity can be. Thankfully, my daughter came along to help remind me.

I went home that evening and gave my kids big hugs. “Meow,” my daughter said, looking up into my face and smiling her squinty-happy-cat smile.

This story deserves an award of some kind for business writing. A subject like this calls for just the right mix of completely straight-faced reporting and just a tiny hint of a wink. Plus, of course, a huge love of Doritos.

I laughed, and I wept a bit for the outright enthusiasm that Taco Bell’s CEO expressed over his company’s innovation. Or, should I say, “innovation.” But, as they say, welcome to America!

Also, those locos tacos actually taste pretty good. Though they don’t sit too well inside.

Deep Inside Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco

How apps are chipping away at the open web

My latest “Dylan’s Desk” column for VentureBeat looks at a disturbing trend: The way app developers are giving up on three decades of openness and interconnection.

I am not yet sure that this is a truly widespread or irreversible trend. But I do feel skeptical about the rush to replace mobile websites with native mobile apps. This piece explains why.

For three decades, HTTP (which Paul Ford called “the Web’s operating system”) and HTML have proven to be resilient, flexible tools for interconnecting people and machines, facilitating communication in the most decentralized way imaginable. Anyone can publish a web page to a server on the Internet, and within seconds it is readable by anyone in the world who has the address and a browser capable of rendering HTML.

What’s more, anyone can link to any page on the Web without having to ask permission and without having to worry about what hardware or software delivers that page. All you need is a URL — another widely accepted, well-defined standard for interconnecting information.

Now, however, there’s a threat to this openness. It’s called the app store.

Technically, it’s not just the store: It’s the entire ecosystem of apps, content, hardware, and software. Apple perfected the model, and it has transformed the company into one of the most profitable corporations in the world. Even though its share price has plummeted in recent months, Apple is still in a very strong position thanks to the leverage that this ecosystem gives it. Indeed, that position is so strong that Apple continues to generate profits even though its market share among mobile devices is shrinking.

But here’s the problem: Apps are difficult to connect to one another. There’s no universally accepted way to link to a specific page or location within an app. (Many apps don’t even have pages.) To connect with an app, you need to use its application programming interface (API), assuming it has one, or the API of the device it’s running on. Naturally, that API differs from device to device. Making app-to-app connections is far more difficult than linking to a URL because you need to be a programmer to do it.

Read more: How apps are chipping away at the open web

I’d like to hear what you think.

What to do about the complete failure of gun control

Here’s the deal: The NRA is simply *far* better organized than the gun control lobby. A passionate minority will prevail over an apathetic majority any day, in our political system.

Here’s what I think gun control people need to do, if they’re serious:

  • Start a “National Gun Safety Association.” 
  • Make the debate about “gun safety” not “gun control.” Focus first on how limiting crazy people’s access to guns is a safety issue, not a control issue.
  • If that shows some success, expand the safety discussion to limiting magazine size and assault weapons bans — also safety issues, not rights issues.
  • Pair the above efforts with an extensive gun safety training outreach. Offer training so people who own guns can learn how to use them safely — and how to store them safely.
  • Make the spokesmen people like Gabby Giffords, who are gun owners, not liberals like Mike Bloomberg, who are not — and make it clear that the organization has no opposition to safe gun ownership. 
  • Make it a membership-based organization that not only raises funds, but can also mobilize its members to write letters and call senators/congressman. Throw parties. Have events. Make people feel like they belong to something.
  • Throw money at strategic congressional and senatorial races to aggressively punish politicians who vote counter to the organization’s goals.

If there’s an organization out there like this, I want to join it, and I will contribute.

Update: Sunlight Foundation has stats on how much money various organizations on both sides of the gun debate have contributed since 1989. Detailed stats here. Notably, the NRA doesn’t even show up on the list of top contributors to the last election cycle.

Update 2: I found an organization matching many of the above points. It’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabrielle Giffords and Marc Kelly. I gave them $50.

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