Sunday, December 17, 2006

Microsoft owns the "Ribbon" look-and-feel

One of the great innovations in the upcoming Office 2007 is the Ribbon navigation bar. It finally allows anyone to utilize hundreds of features available in Word and Excel, without hunting through multitudes of menus, dialog boxes and sidebars that keep popping up. But what Microsoft giveth, Microsoft taketh away: recently they announced that the Ribbon concept can be licensed from Microsoft to be used in third-party products, for free. Note, the license is not for the code that makes the Ribbon work, or for icon images inside the Ribbon - the license covers Ribbon-like functionality. So if you wanted to create an application that works similar to Office 2007, under Windows, Mac or Linux, you would need to apply for the license.

Although the license is free, there is a catch: if you accept the license, you also accept many "must-follow" guidelines which ensure consistent implementation of the Ribbon across the globe. Another somewhat more contraversial catch is that you cannot license Ribbon for competing software, on any platform:
The license excludes products or components that perform primarily as software for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, email, contacts and databases, and that are created or marketed as a replacement for any or all of them.

This may seem reasonable from Microsoft's perspective: they've spent years testing and developing the Ribbon UI concept and they don't want to just hand it to someone else to compete with them. Unfortunately, this leads to a slippery slope of owning UI concepts, which are never so black and white. For example, the Ribbon borrows heavily from the concept of toolbars; many people have used toolbars in a number of configurations (including Microsoft themselves). What makes a toolbar no longer a toolbar but a license-infringing Ribbon?

This move also ensures that software like OpenOffice or Thunderbird will have to use different interface to Office 2007. This will place a greater support burden on companies that decide to switch to alternatives.

Moreover, historically Microsoft's Office UI has been copied over and over again, giving competing applications consistent look and feel (Microsoft is not alone in this, just ask Lotus and Adobe). Even webmail providers have emulated Outlook's interface to make it easier for their users to get used to the new system. Microsoft has not complained about this sort of thing in the past as it benefited indirectly: wide usage of their UI concepts validated the Office suite and ensured it was the "gold standard" of usability and the safe choice. This also helped standardize the Windows GUI across variety of applications. The new licensing arrangement sets a bad precedent for application development not just on Windows, but on any platform.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Zune debuts at #2

Zune replaces Sandisk as the second best selling digital music player. It grabbed 9% of the unit sales, with a 13% of the dollar value due to its higher per-unit price. Some are calling this a successfull launch, but I think it's still too early to call: many of the early adopters would have bought the unit in that first week, so we may see a significant drop in sales in the following weeks.

One indicator of this is Amazon sales ranking: when Zune debuted it was in the top 10 best selling MP3 players, although it has slipped to # 17 only days later. Of course, the fact that there is only one model of Zune is working against Microsoft, since Apple covers the gamut with Shuffle, Nano and full-sized iPod.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A few unnoticed Zune foibles

As the Zune marketing campaign ramps-up some of the info on device is starting to get out. Some of it is disappointing:
  • Zune will not show up as a removable drive in Windows - this is somewhat perplexing; this type of functionality can be very useful and many people rely on it. Most of Zune's competitors can be used as external storage devices.
  • Weird pricing on Zune Marketplace - I am not sure how this works in practice but Walt Mossberg reports that "the point system is deceptive. Songs are priced at 79 points, which some people might think means 79 cents. But 79 points actually cost 99 cents." I don't see how they could have implemented something like this without upsetting a lot of customers.
  • Songs shared through Zune are marked as "played" after only a minute of a song has been heard. If you stop playing the song at that point then restart later it would be counted as the second play. You only get three plays in three days to listen to songs people send to you.
  • If you share your own unprotected content (like a plain-jane MP3 file) it is covered by the same 3-by-3 limitations on the receiving Zune.
  • You cannot pass a beamed song to another person, nor can you be beamed the same song twice.
  • Zune is bigger than the 80Gb iPod, which has almost three times the storage and double the battery life (without using wireless on Zune).
  • You need a special Zune player to manage Zune on your computer, Windows Media Player won't work.
  • Zune's central "wheel" isn't a wheel, it won't turn nor is it touch-sensitive, it's just four buttons in the shape of a wheel.
  • There are no extras like games, calendar or alarm; there is no FM or Line-In recording either. It also has no support for podcasts.
  • It only works with Windows, no MacOS or Linux client (iPod works with all three).
  • Many other small oddities that were widely reported, the device won't be able to play PlaysForSure or iTunes purchased music, the only wireless functionality is to send music to friends (no wireless sync for example), bigger screen but same resolution as iPod so it doesn't look as crisp, etc.

I still want to check it out in person. It's really too bad they only have a one-size-fits-all model, I'm sure in the months to come they will be releasing new models.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Creative's latest device sounds better than God

Creative has just released an external X-Fi adapter called Xmod that aims to improve the sound of your music, in every way possible. This time around, vague marketing statements such as "better sounding" were not deemed sufficient to sell this product - Creative boldly claims that with this small $80 device your MP3s will sound not just better, not even near CD-quality, but they will sound better than studio quality! Take a gander at the picture below:


If this image is accurate then MP3s with Xmod will sound better than the day song was recorded in the studio. Of course, I'm sure that's not what they meant to say. Wait, there's more text following the chart:
  • Imagine being in the studio as your favorite artist records a new album. The sound is real and live the way it was meant to be heard.
  • When that album gets mass-produced on CD, it is compressed to fit the format. And the sound quality of that original performance suffers.
  • When you further compress the songs into MP3, you'll notice an even greater loss of sound quality. Your favorite album now sounds flat and lifeless.
  • X-Fi technology breathes life back into the songs. It restores the details, expands the music to surround sound and creates an experience that goes beyond studio quality.

  • The feast of inaccuracies in this snippet of marketing copy continues throughout the Xmod promotional text. For example, the statement when that album gets mass-produced on CD, it is compressed to fit the format is completely off the mark. CDs are not compressed, at least not in the same way MP3 files are compressed. Music on CDs is compressed but in a very different way which has nothing to do with the limitations of the CD format. CD format has a very wide dynamic range (the difference between the quietest and the loudest parts of the song) but through the method of dynamic range compression the CDs today are "compressed" into the louder parts of the dynamic range so that songs sound louder, although they lose the fine definition in their sound (on why this practice has taken off in the recent years see Loudness War).

    There are algorithms to remove dynamic compression after the fact, although they are far from perfect. This may be what Creative's engineers were trying to solve but we'll never know from their marketing materials. Creative, as one of the biggest players in PC audio, is doing a really poor job of educating the customer and is selling on hyperbole alone: Would you like your MP3s to sounds better than they did in the studio the day they were recorded? Where do I sign up?

    Saturday, September 30, 2006

    USB flash drives and security

    I had a great pleasure yesterday to participate in TechForum's live weekly radio program, discussing security and removable drives. Many thanks to Priscilla and Scott for a great show, filled with good ideas and great questions.



    I wanted to expand on a few of those ideas. iPod slurping (the act of using an iPod on someone else's computer to syphon out huge amounts of their data and take it with you) can be a great threat in an enterprise environment. But even worse, I believe Dan brought up the idea of using the iPod with a full-blown Windows installation to get around security measures on the host computer. Taking that a step further, you can now do this with any USB flash drive by installing a modified (read, most likely illegally patched, mock picture courtesy of Tom's Hardware) version of Windows XP that can help you do pretty much anything with the host computer, for good or evil.

    And as the technology gets better and better things will get even more interesting. During the show I mentioned a postage-stamp-sized USB flash drive - it's made by Sony and called Micro Vault. Despite its dimunitive size, it can store as much as 2 Gb of data. It's very easy to misplace something of this size. Most employees will treat their corporate laptop with some level of care and protect it from being lost or stolen. The same cannot be said of something so small that it's likely to go through more than one wash-cycle in its lifetime. Yet for the enterprise the consequences of losing that USB drive could be as costly as losing any number of laptops.

    Thursday, September 14, 2006

    Zune vs iPod, a few interesting notes

    Here's a few comments on the whole Zune hysteria that may have been overlooked.

    Firstly, due to the vertical orientation of the Zune promotional photos some people think that Zune has a wide-screen aspect ratio which is not true. Both iPod and Zune use 4x3 letterbox. iPod's screen is half an inch shorter diagonally, here's Zune's display shown on top of iPod for comparison:



    When it comes to Zune's physical size, it is pretty much the same width as iPod, but a bit longer. This image accurately shows their relative sizes:



    Some people assumed that Zune has a higher resolution screen which is untrue; both devices use QVGA (320x240). Something I thought was deceptive about the press photos of Zune is the image below. The device screen in the photo must have been composited digitally, after the shot was taken, as the apparent screen resolution in the photo exceeds that of 320x240. This is probably one of the reasons people think Zune has a high-res screen. After adjusting for 320x240 resolution the press photo in question (on the left) looks quite a bit duller (click for the full-size image):



    Now, we just need to know Zune's MSRP!

    UPDATE: MSRP was announced at $250 and a few unfortunate annoyances have also come to light.

    Wednesday, August 02, 2006

    Apple Newton beats up on Samsung Q1

    I love technology and I love gadgets. My accountant probably shakes his head whenever he goes through my expenses. But I have also been sorely disappointed that with all our progress in what our hardware can achieve today we have woefully neglected the key piece of the puzzle - the usability of these devices. The gadget landscape is littered with examples, from my HP hw6515 handheld that excels at collecting dust in my office, to my Motorola DCT6412 PVR, the most crashtastic piece of hardware I've ever owned.

    CNET UK made a great point few days ago by pitting Apple Newton (circa 1995) against Samsung Q1, the latest object of techno-lust. I remember Newton fondly, it was a quiet and elegant device that was a joy to work with. Samsung Q1 is the opposite, it's garish to the max. You've got the video, the audio, full Windows XP, colour screen, etc. But the question becomes which is the better device for the end-user, the user that needs it to be a) portable, b) run a long time on batteries and c) be stable. Watching videos is great but you won't be doing that if the battery life lasts only 2.5 hours and you also need to get some work done during the day!

    CNET gave Apple Newton the nod in the face off, and although this was a tongue-in-cheek comparison the point they were trying to make is crystal clear!