Q: How do you kickstart a stagnating accessory market?

A: By screwing over your entire user base

Apple unveiled a new connector for the iPhone 5, called the Lightning Port. It replaces the older and ubiquitous 30 pin connector, the same one that has been the interface for iPods, iPhones, and iPads since 2001. As you can see, it is significantly narrower than the older cable. And with the limited amount of room inside of any modern smartphone, each square millimeter is precious. So okay, I buy that Apple needed to redesign the port and the cable to shave the thickness of the iPhone 5 below 8mm. But here come the dubious issues.

CA-CHING!

First off, if you want another cable, it will cost $20. For a cable. So, okay, maybe all you need is an adapter for your existing cables. Yes, you can buy those. For $29. The again, who ever said Apple was consumer friendly? Do you think they’re the most profitable company in the world because they charge reasonable prices for their goods? The bedrock of the company is built on wallet rape. Sadly, they will probably sell out the day they’re released… which is a couple of weeks after the iPhone is released. Have fun, early adopters!

But wait, there’s more. One of the things that popped out at me during Apple iPhone unveiling yesterday was the first point in the Lightning Port presentation: “All-digital”. I mean, what the hell does that even mean? I assumed all of these cables were digital already. It sounded like something cooked up by the marketing department, like “High Quality” — it’s meaningless. But as it turns out, “All-digital” has a real impact and isn’t simply marketing-speak. Because “All-digital” means they removed all of the analog outputs. In other words, you’re getting less from the Lightning port than you did from the 30 pin port.

If you have an iPhone speaker dock, check the spec and look for “digital audio input” or “built-in DAC” or words to that effect. Because many docks use the analog sound pins on the 30 pin connector. To use the digital pins, the unit would need its own digital to analog converter (DAC). If you have an older or inexpensive speaker dock, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to hook up the iPhone 5 to it, even if you buy a $29 adapter. Your only recourse at that point is to use a plain old mini stereo cable assuming your dock has that input as well.

So who wins here? Apple & accessory manufacturers.

Who loses? Well, it’s all how you look at it, I guess. If you want the iPhone 5 and don’t care about cost, then I guess everybody wins. But if you are on a budget and you did invest in speaker docks and cables with 30 pin connectors, well… you lose.

It’s taller.

After all is said and done, and after you push away the Android catch-up features, the iPhone5 is a collection of spec bumps whose most noticeable change is the screen size. Maybe if Jobs were alive today he could sell it better, but I’m not itching to call my carrier to pre-order based on today’s presentation. On the whole, an incremental change from the iPhone 4S other than, you know, the market fragmentation.

BTW, 64 GB iPhone5 is $399. 16GB Galaxy S3 + 64GB microSD card? $260. Of course, if you get it through Amazon’s $99 deal, it’s $160. For 82GB total. Now that’s “different”.

 

Why Taller is not Bigger

Had he lived, he could have been the spokeman!

One of the largest issues confounding Apple owners these days is the tiny screen they’re forced to use. While 3.5” was considered comically big when it was released in 2007 (at a time when the race was to create the smallest functional phone), the 3.5” screen nowadays is pint sized relic. When HTC released the 4.3” Evo in 2010, Steve Jobs called it a Hummer. But people got very excited at the screen size – where Apple decided to stick with 3.5” and increase the resolution, Android decided to see just how big the screens could get before they had to increase the resolution. Incidentally, 2010 was also the year the Dell Streak was released with a 5” screen. It was considered unusable and a completely niche product because it was too big. In the past year, the Galaxy Note sold 10 million units with a 5.3” screen. The upcoming Galaxy Note will likely sell even more. It has a 5.5” screen. And even the Evo’s 4.3” screen has been dwarfed in the pure phone category– the Samsung Galaxy S3 has sold 30 million units in three months. It sports a 4.8” screen.

So screen sizes have been going up in lockstep with Android’s popularity. So where does that leave Apple? First let’s take a look at the reasons why Android has been able to get so large while Apple trapped itself at 3.5”. This will be a bit dray and technical, so go drink a cup of coffee first.

Okay. The central issue of the screen size problem is the iPhone operating system, iOS. Unlike Android, which was built from the ground up to scale to all sorts of resolutions and screen ratios, iOS can only scale arithmetically. That’s why the iPhone4 went from 480 * 320 pixels to 960 * 640 pixels. But this pixel density increase allowed Jobs to seize a marketing opportunity – the Retina Screen. It was a nice screen, but it was an even better marketing move. While resolution is a factor in the perception of detail, it actually places fourth behind contrast ratio, color saturation, and color accuracy. That is why some people like the SAMOLED+ screen on the Samsung Galaxy 2 over the iPhone4S screen even though it lags in resolution and pixel density – the Galaxy S2 blows away the iPhone in the areas of contrast ratio and color saturation. Be that as it may, Jobs was able to link pixel density with quality, and this was a savvy move on two fronts – first, it gave the iPhone4 screen the reputation for being the best, and secondly, it created a situation where it was impossible for Android manufacturers to catch up. That’s because pixel density is calculated by both resolution and size. The real reason the iPhone had such a high pixel density was because it was so small – even if Android manufacturers matched the iPhone on resolution, their larger screens would, by nature, have lower pixel densities. It’s math and shit.

However, Apple was about to be hoist by its own petard. One of the problems with wrapping yourself in the Retina Screen cloak and sneering at inferior pixel densities is that you can’t go any lower without looking like a hypocritical douche. And this is where they were trapped. Any attempt at making the physically screen larger at the current resolution would disrupt “Retina Screen” density. The only way increase the screen size without dropping below “Retina” would be to move up the resolution arithmetically to 1440 * 960, but no one makes panels with 494 ppi. There was only one way to get out of the 3.5” trap they set themselves in. And it was the same solution that the cities builders figured out – if you can’t grow out, grow up.

Since there was no way to make the iPhone5 screen actually bigger without disturbing the pixel density basket they put all their eggs into, the solution was to tack an extra 176 rows of pixels at the top of the screen. This preserved the “Retina Screen” pixel density while putatively offering a modern-sized, 4” diagonal screen in a 16:9 HDTV screen ratio. In other words, this is the bigger screen you were looking for.

Except it’s not.

So back to the title of the article. The reasons people want a “bigger” screen is to make fonts easier to read. To make the keys easier to tap on the keyboard. To make links in the browsers easier to touch. Basically, the graphic elements in the iPhone’s 3.5” screen are too small for many users. That’s why they were looking for a “bigger” screen. The iPhone 5’s taller screen does nothing to resolve any of those complaints. The only way for the graphics to truly grow is to increase the height and width. By merely elongating the screen, they have done almost nothing to catch up to the larger, more involving and more productive Android screens.

So you can watch HD video without the letterboxing now, and there’s an extra row of icons. That’s about it. In return, you get letterboxing on many of your apps and pretty much all of your games, until the time their developers update them to fill in useless information on the sides. And it is indeed useless – they have to make one app to satisfy both iPhone5 owners and iPhone4S owners, which means the info on the sides can’t be integral to the app without making separate widescreen versions (which, if it happens, means there’s the possibility that you’ll have to rebuy those apps). Of all the things myriad Apple copied from Android, who knew fragmentation would be the number one feature in the iPhone5.

I have firsthand experience with these issues – I had a widescreen TV back in 2000-2005 when there was no actual HD programming. Everything on TV had black bars on the side. But it was nice for DVDs. When HD programming finally came, the shows were still composed for square TVs, which meant anything on the sides was extraneous. But it was still a good tradeoff for me because my rear projection TV was so much bigger than the square tube TVs at the time. You won’t get this trade off with the iPhone5 screen, which is .6” shorter than the one on the Galaxy S3.

So that, in about 1,000 words, is why the newest “big” screen from Apple is anything but. Happy marketing!

The AOL of Smartphones?

The iPhone is increasingly falling behind other smartphone manufacturers in areas of customization and features, as Apple’s stubborn insistence on a “one size fits all” phone is starting to show its cracks. The lack of choice in the iPhone market has fueled Android to overtake the iPhone OS as the number one smartphone operating system worldwide, and the  Samsung Galaxy S3 actually outsold the iPhone in the U.S. last month, a feat that no single smartphone model has accomplished since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007.

Like AOL, the iPhone’s simple and easy to use interface is what made it attractive to newbies when it launched. But five years later, a lot of people find it too simple. Like AOL, the iPhone will have its place in the market. Technophobes and people who just can’t let go will still want the newest iPhone when it’s released. But unless Apple is willing to move to truly bigger screen sizes and more (any!) user customization, it will eventually become what AOL is today — once monolithic and ubiquitous, but now a sure sign of being unhip and out of touch.

Hey, maybe these two titans will merge into one company and we’ll see ads like this:

One More Essential Android App

I noticed that I overlooked one important app in my list of 15 Essential Android Apps. So here’s number 16.

Oovoo

Price: Free

What it does:

It’s video chat software. But the hook here is that it’s a completely cross platform video chat solution. It runs on Android, iPhone, PC, and Mac. So I can video chat with my sister’s iPad, my sister-in-law’s netbook, and my niece’s Macbook. I haven’t actually tried the 4 way feature, but I someone told me that they successfully conducted their fantasy football draft through Oovoo. The only other app that features cross platform video chat is Skype, but it’s quite buggy on Android. When you throw in the 4 way chat, it’s really a no brainer.

15 Essential Android Apps

Like many, many other smartphone users, you have an Android phone. Maybe your carrier forced you into a smartphone and it was free with contract. Maybe you heard about Android and decided to check it out. Maybe you got tired of your iPhone and headed for greener pastures. Or maybe you’re on T-Mobile and it’s the closest thing to and iPhone. Whatever the reason, you are now privy to a veritable panoply of apps for your convenience and/or pleasure.

A few notes: first off, I am not including games here because I’m not a game reviewer nor am I that enthusiastic about mobile gaming. Also, I noted for Kindle Fire users if the app was also in the Amazon App Store, since there is no Play Store access on the Fire. And finally, some of these apps have multiple programs with the same functionality, and I offered up the one that I picked for myself months ago. But things change quickly. If there’s a better app than the one I’m recommending, drop me a note and I’ll check out. Note that this started as a top 6 list, but I just kept piling on the apps. I could probably add another 10 apps to this list, but a lot of those are more essential to me than to normal users. Maybe for another day. So on with the list in no particular order.

Google Maps/Navigation

Price: Free (Pre-installed)

What it does:

Gets you directions and turn by turn navigation. Everyone knows Google Maps by now. But there is much more to be had once you tap the blue arrowhead in the lower right hand corner – now the location information is taken to the Navigation program, where a soothing female voice tells you when your turns and exits are coming. It’s essentially a Garmin in your phone, for free. I usually turn this program on and shut off the screen. The voice directions are enough to get me to where I’m going.

Swiftkey 3

Price: $2.99 (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

It will change your life. Swiftkey is an alternative keyboard that basically takes all other soft keyboards and smashes them into the floor repeatedly like the Hulk. Swiftkey’s word suggestions are not merely dictionary based, but also syntax based. It also learns from the way you type, taking into consideration names, phrases and word combinations that pop up in your emails and texts (this feature can be turned off for the paranoids). For the most part, three or four letters is all it takes to get the right word 90% of the time, and there are times Swiftkey will string together three or four words in a row, which is like a hitting 4 X 4 combo in Tetris.

Tip 1: If you do get Swiftkey, go into the advanced settings and change the long press delay to around 200ms. This will allow you to use the clearly marked alt numbers and symbols so quickly you’ll hardly even need to go to the second or third screen for them.

Tip 2: If you want to erase an entire word, swipe across the keyboard to the left. This deletes the entire word.

Think about this – you need to type on a smartphone all the time. Get the best keyboard out there. If you’re squeamish about spending the $3, there’s a free trial version that lets you take it out for a test drive. I wish I had Swiftkey on my desktop as well, since it would save me a staggering number of keystrokes.

Flashlight HD LED

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

Turns your LED flash into a flashlight. It could not be handier. Wanna see what’s under the couch? Need to see what’s in the recesses of your closet? This app will shine a light on your quest. The reason I picked one over a dozen other programs is that it lights up when you open the program. It’s all about one touch actions for me.

Note that Kindle Fire owners can only use the screen option. There’s no camera and ergo no flash on the Kindle Fire.

Facebook

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

It makes you cry. Because it’s slow. It hangs at times. It’s butt ugly. Unfortunately, it’s a reflection of the putrid website, so these things will probably never change. It’s easily the worst app on this entire list. So why is it “essential”? Because it allows you to upload photos to your Facebook account into a few taps, straight from your camera program. The new version even allows you to select multiple photos at a time. As a sharing interface, it’s the shit. As a user interface, it’s total shit. But if you like to post photos on Facebook, you must have it.

Pocket

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

It’s an offline reader. Almost any article on the internet can be sent to Pocket, where it is reconstructed into an easy to read and eye pleasing format. Originally, I loved Pocket because it allowed me to read articles even if I didn’t have a data connection (for instance, the train or the bathroom at work). What I love even more now is that I can read my articles without all the webpage clutter. It also generally saves my spot in the article if I exit out to another app (try to make your mobile browser to do that). And the kicker? Set up a pocket account and it will sync everything across your devices (including the desktop version of Chrome). So I can send an article to Pocket from my desk, start reading it on my phone, and then finish it up on my tablet. I installed Pocket solely because I wanted to read the internets while pooping, but it’s turned into so much more (Pocket, that is, not the pooping). The Read Later option is built into many website content apps, like Cracked.com and in most web browsers. Even better – it’s also found in Flipboard. What’s that, you may ask?

Flipboard (not available for 10” tablets)

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does: It’s a glorified RSS reader. But it’s also a glorious RSS reader. Three aspects of Flipboard make it stand out from the pack – first off, it updates your feeds and loads articles much faster than the other RSS readers I’ve used, like Pulse and Google Currents. And the curated topics will give you a lot of relevant stuff to read. It collects articles from the internet and delivers them to you in a magazine like format where you flip (swipe up) to the next article. But it’s also the best Facebook app around, displaying your wall as if it were a magazine spread. And even though it won’t display all of your wall posts (certain posts never show up in Flipboard and I’m not sure what setting is causing that), it’s 100 times nicer to check out Facebook on Flipboard than the actual Facebook app (which, like like I explained, is shit). The icing on the cake is the Pocket integration – long press in the article summary view (so you don’t even have to load the article), and you can tap Read Later to shoot the article to Pocket. I can queue up a dozen articles in a minute and read them later in Pocket. Flipboard + Pocket is an article consumption smorgasbord.

Gauge Battery Widget

Price: Free

What it does: Tells you how much battery you have as a percentage in your notification bar. The default meter gives you a green gauge with no actual demarcations and such coarse levels that half may be half or more likely just over 25%. And while there is a percentage on the battery meter with the newer Android OS, it’s so teeny tiny that it’s difficult to read it at a glance. Other battery widgets tell you the remaining battery percentage as a homescreen widget. But Gauge will put that battery meter in your notification bar, which means you can check it at a glance without even unlocking your phone. Most apps display the notification bar on top, so for the most part, you don’t have to go out back to the home screen to see how much juice you have left. And I hate to say it, but knowing how much battery you have left is a fact of life with Android.

Pocket Casts

Price: $2.99

What it does:

It downloads, organizes, and plays podcasts. And there’s no middle man here – the podcasts download directly to your device. I listen to podcasts more than music while driving, and this is hands down the best one I’ve used on Android.

Chrome (ICS and above)

Price: Free

What it does:

It does the internet! It’s fast, it’s relatively stable, and even if it locks up every once in a while, it remembers where you were and picks up form the last time. I used to use Dolphin HD, but I’ve come around to Chrome and use it exclusively now. I still think Dolphin does a bunch of things better (like bookmarks, gestures, and font scaling/rendering), but Chrome is well more stable and faster. Note that you must be on at least Android 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich aka ICS) to install Chrome. Sorry man.

Amazon Appstore

Price: Free

What it does:

It allows you access to the Amazon App Store. It allows you to check out the Free App of The Day, a daily promotion that allows you to download… uh… free apps. Sure, 95% of the FAOTDs are rubbish games. But there’s some gold mixed in with the dross every now and then. Essentially all of the Amazon apps are also in the Play Store (but not vice versa), so you have a choice of which store to install it from (the actual app is identical). I tend to go for the Play Store version only because they tend to get quicker updates from the developers, and some devs have pulled out of Amazon’s Market, so you’ll never get updates in that case (buying an app through Amazon does not mean you have the rights to install it from the Play Store and vice versa). But if Amazon is giving away an app that’s full price in the Play Store, then that’s an easy decision. The best deal I’ve ever seen was Office Suite Pro, a $14.99 Word & Excel compatible app I got for free.

Kindle

Price: Free

What it does:

Reads mobi formatted books as well as pdf format (although on phones, the latter sucks donkey balls). You can purchase ebooks from Amazon and download them directly to your device. You can share your progress across devices if the mobi file supports it. This is the reason I never bought an actual Kindle. I didn’t need one.

Dice Player

Price: Free

What it does:

Plays almost every video format and container – avi, mkv, mp4, wmv, mov, divx, xvid, h.264, etc. Instead of converting video files before loading them onto your phone or tablet, just copy them straight to the device and Dice will take care of the rest. If you don’t feel like copying them, then go ahead and stream them directly from your PC – Dice will do that too. The only files I can’t play smoothly are HD broadcast recordings, but that’s a horsepower issue. Oh, and you can shrink your video to a resizeable pop-up window so you can send texts while watching a video. Currently, only the native video player on the Galaxy S3 supports that feature. And it also handles subtitles! And you can FF/RR with a swipe. The bottom line – I can’t believe this is free.

ES File Explorer File Manager

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

It’s a file explorer and unpacks zip and rar files. It can also browse and transfer files from network shares wirelessly. Why do you need this? Because sometimes you need to move files from one folder to another. Or unrar an archive file. Or move small files back and forth from your PC. I use this app every day. I also use Solid Explorer Beta 2 because it has a nice split screen view and wifi file transfers are much, much quicker, but ES File Explorer is much easier to use. Solid Explorer Beta 2 is more of a power user app.

Dropbox

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

Two things: first, it allows you to shuttle files back and forth from your mobile device to your PC using the cloud as an intermediary. You can also share these files with friends as well. It also gives you to option to back up your photos automatically, although the 2GB you get for free probably won’t cover all of it (YMMV, I’m a bit of a shutterbug so 2GB is only about 6 month’s worth for me). This is another app I use on my phone at least once a week, although I use it daily to sync files across multiple desktops.

Google+

Price: Free

What it does:

It’s Google answer to Facebook and Twitter combined. In many respects it’s better than Facebook except for the fact that Facebook has a gajillion more people on it. Even if you don’t take advantage of the social aspects of Google+, the sole reason to sign up for an account is to upload every picture and video you take to Picasa automatically (this feature is defaulted to wifi only for those without unlimited data plans). Free cloud backup for all of your photos? Why are you waiting?

Key Ring

Price: Free

What it does:

Enter your store card data into the app and the cashier can scan the bar code from your phone. And you don’t even need to type in the barcode — there’s a built in bar code scanner that will do that for you.

So there’s my list, 15 apps that will turn your Android phone into a consumption and production powerhouse, all for the grand total of… $6. And if you get a tablet along with your phone, it will cost you an additional… $0. Because any app you buy can be installed in any of your other Android devices.

Sweet.

This is the Future of Photography

When I was a wee lad, photography was one of those things that was meant for adults — between the costs of film and developing and printing, letting junior snap away was an expensive proposition. The advent of digital photography allowed for a more affordable way to let a child develop their inner Ansel Adams — the instant feedback of the LCD screens and the zero cost of taking multiple shots meant that you could improve your skills on the fly. It’s such a huge leap that pretty much every professional photographer has turned to digital (the fact that a professional photography these days is as much about Photoshop as it is about lighting is another reason film has gone by the wayside).

But a huge part of consumer digital photography these days is the ability to share pictures with others. Once the carriers introduced picture via SMS, camera phones took off in a huge way. You could take pictures on a fancy DSLR, but it could be weeks before they were offloaded. Cameraphones afforded an immediacy that trumped their poor quality. After all, the picture you have on a memory card is worth the two that are only in your memories. Personally, the lag between picture taking and picture distribution from my point and shoot got so ridiculously stretched out that I was sending out pictures from Thanksgiving the next August. Yes, I admit that if I were more industrious it wouldn’t be that way, but c’est la vie.

Everything changed for me the summer of 2010. That was when I got my HTC Evo, an Android smartphone with a more than decent 8MP shooter. The trick to the Evo was this: with a couple of taps, I could upload any picture I had on the phone to Facebook. In fact, the realization that I could do this was the reason I joined Facebook. Instead of 8 months between taking the picture and emailing it, I could upload pictures to Facebook in almost real time. The act of sharing pictures had now become transparent. And if you’re not sharing your pictures, why are you taking them?

Which brings us to the future of photography. Sorry for the protracted prologue.

There have been cameras with wifi connectivity that uploaded to Facebook, but they were all a bit on the kludgy side. They were also limited — say you had a camera that worked with Facebook and Flickr but you wanted to upload to your Google+ account? Or you wanted to email the picture? Or use Instagram? Or whatever social or file sharing site that crops up? What about Dropbox, dammit? None of these proprietary interfaces were flexible enough or simple enough to be the best solution for a wifi-based photo sharing camera.

Here’s the solution: Android. Merge a Nikon point and shoot with a cellular-less Android phone (or tiny Android tablet if you will) and now you have this bad boy:

Nikon Coolpix S800c hands-on: a closer look at the Android camera (video)

Why, do yo ask? Because the Android part can connect to almost anything. Probably everything. You can email, upload, text (using Google Voice) — basically, it’s like having a phone with a 16MP camera and 10X optical zoom. That’s optical, not digital. 1080p video? Hells and yeah. Let’s upload that to YouTube. No one uses Facebook anymore? Download the app for the latest and greatest social networking site. It’s flexible and future-proofed. It’s flexture-proofable.

Now, this won’t replace my smartphone camera. My phone is always with me, and it’s available whenever I need impromptu snaps — this camera is for those times when I know I’ll be taking pictures. Holidays with the family. A day at the beach. A trip to the Corn Palace. Times when you know you’re going to want photographic mementos. But the whole offloading pictures business has gotten so bad that I frequently don’t bring the camera even if it’s one of those picture taking occasions because I know they’ll be stuck on the camera forever. The better picture quality wasn’t enough to make a difference over the overwhelming convenience of my smartphone. But the Coolpix S800c is the convergence product I’ve been looking for since I bought my first digital camera, only maybe I didn’t realize it until now. Now it seems so obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I’m sure Apple is scrambling to make their own iOS camera. Because it makes so much sense.

Maybe the reviews come out and there are a touch too many negatives. Maybe the picture quality isn’t all that great. Maybe the Android interface gobbles up too much battery. Maybe there’s some other horrible blemish that makes this a less than desirable product. It doesn’t matter. Even if this is a buggy first iteration alpha device, it’s going to happen with the next product. Because this is the future of consumer photography.

Also, Angry Birds. Yes, you can play Angry Birds on it.

One thing that went through my mind at the Nikon announcement was, “why didn’t Samsung think of this already?” Well, they did.

http://www.androidcentral.com/hands-samsung-galaxy-camera

It’s nice to have 3G connectivity I suppose (although I have zero need for it), but to be forced to buy a data contract for acamera is sheer insanity. And not the good kind. If it sells through carriers, it will be something like $600 off contract, $400 on. That’s nuts. And it don’t even make calls!

Hopefully, they will have a wifi version in time for the holidays. Selling through carriers absolutely killed the original Galaxy Tab. I have no idea why they’re going down the same low adoption route with what appears to be a hot shit device.