The death of the shared family computer

Computers, like telephones, originally entered U.S. homes in a single unit, tucked away just out of sight but usually accessible to all. Katie Reid at The Verge:

I can still see the Dell I grew up using as clear as day, like I just connected to NetZero yesterday. It sat in my eldest sister’s room, which was just off the kitchen. Depending on when you peeked into the room, you might have found my dad playing Solitaire, my sister downloading songs from Napster, or me playing Wheel of Fortune or writing my name in Microsoft Paint. The rules for using the family desktop were pretty simple: homework trumped games; Dad trumped all. Like the other shared equipment in our house, its usefulness was focused and direct: it was a tool that the whole family used, and it was our portal to the wild, weird, wonderful internet. As such, we adored it.

I remember the phenomenon of losing my dial up internet connection because someone picked up the phone, or patiently waiting my turn to check my email. The PowerMac 7200 (or the IIsi before it) was parked in a spare bedroom and required time and effort to log on. The thought of having unlimited personal access to the internet anywhere you went seemed crazy.

Today when I stand on the subway platform virtually everyone is staring down, their faces aglow in blue light. I’m just as guilty as anyone else- with Bluetooth earbuds plugged into my head I commute in a personal media bubble. As a perfect example of “do as I say and not as I do” we attempt to limit the kids’ access to devices as best we can, knowing that society will eventually force us to relinquish control. Katie Reid:

The advent of constant access has inevitably changed our relationship with tech. At one time, discovering the magical capabilities of our devices astonished and invigorated us. Now, we find them glomming on to our routines: joining us for dinner or family strolls, going on vacations or out on dates with us, waking us up in the morning and tucking us in at night. Though it was harder to come by, the computer time you ended up with on the shared family desktop was cherished and, maybe as a result, that much sweeter. Yet there was an untroubled ritual that, day after day, required us to step away.

The Apple Newton shipped 25 years ago today

On August 2, 1993 Apple Computer launched the Newton MessagePad. In development longer than it was on the market, the Newton was one of Apple’s flashier failures. Born with the Newton was the notion of a “personal digital assistant” and portable pen computing. You could manage a calendar, jot down notes (with Newton’s initially maligned handwriting recognition), store your contacts, and…send a fax or two.

It’s not hard, however, to see the Newton as the prototype of what virtually everyone carries around in their pocket today: a computer that you can take out into the world with you. Newton ran an early version of the ARM processor, the descendant of which lives inside the current iPhone. The space in time between the ’90s Newton and mid-2000s iPhone was occupied by a parade of short lived, pen-based PDAs from Palm, Handspring. Sony, Microsoft, and others.

And let’s not forget how the Newton put Doonesbury firmly on the map.

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Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to buy The Washington Post

Paul Farhi for The Washington Post:

The Washington Post Co. has agreed to sell its flagship newspaper to Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos, ending the Graham family’s stewardship of one of America’s leading news organizations after four generations.

Apparently this isn’t an Amazon acquisition- Bezos will be the sole owner of the paper and The Post Company will rename itself and continue without The Washington Post under its wing.

Apple’s Newton, 20 years on

Wired’s Matt Honan takes an interesting look back at the first PDA:

Newton was conceived on an airplane. That’s where Michael Tchao pitched the idea to Apple’s CEO, John Sculley, in early 1991. The company would announce it the following year, and the first product in the Newton Line, the MessagePad went on sale twenty years ago this week in August of 1993. It was Apple’s handheld PDA–a term Apple coined to describe it. By modern standards, it was pretty basic. It could take notes, store contacts, and manage calendars. You could use it to send a fax. It had a stylus, and could even translate handwriting into text. Well, sort of. At the time, this was highly ambitious. Handheld computers were still largely the stuff of science fiction.

It’s fascinating that Apple (and later Palm) thought that handwriting recognition should be the default method of input instead of an onscreen keyboard, even though people had been using keyboards for decades to write words faster.  Palm’s Graffiti shorthand language went so far as to make you learn a whole new way to handwrite letters.  Crazy.

iOS Maps: the five year plan

No one outside of Apple and Google knows the particulars of why the companies completely parted ways with Maps on the iPhone. The common assumption is that it was entirely Apple’s move to protect its platform from a rival, but we don’t know. Perhaps Google decided to pull the plug to protect their own platform, or maybe they wanted to junk up the built in YouTube and Maps apps with tons of ads, and Apple balked.

The fact is that Apple and Google had a five year agreement, not entirely unlike the one Apple shared with Microsoft from 1997-2002, where steady updates of Office to the struggling Mac platform were promised. People worried that Apple would suffer with the prospect of Microsoft letting Office die on the vine at the end of that term, but the reality is that both companies continued to create and update products that fill that productivity need, and users today have great choices with Office 2011 and iWork.

Most importantly for Apple, they are no longer depending on Microsoft to stay relevant. Five years into iOS, they are (or were) pretty reliant on Google for a core part of their user experience. I predict that Apple Maps will improve rapidly and Google will eventually have their own solution in the iOS App Store, complete with all the ads they want to sell. The new YouTube app does that now. I don’t think Apple would reject a Google maps app considering Mapquest has been available for a while.

I’m not so sure about that iPad mini

Predicting the release of Apple’s medium-sized iPad has been the national pastime for the tech press this year.  I would argue that it may be a very long wait.

Practically no one who follows Apple announcements expected the “iPad mini” to be announced alongside the iPhone 5.  The conventional wisdom was that Apple would shine the spotlight on the iPhone for several weeks to guarantee a huge rollout, and then schedule another event in October to unleash the not-too-small, not-too-big iPad.

But then Apple announced the new iPod touch.

The latest generation touch now has the same larger screen (vertically speaking) as the iPhone 5, along with a host of other significant changes.  And it’s priced at $299.

Which begs the question: what would they charge for the iPad mini?

Pundits predicted that Apple will price the still mythical device in the $200-$250 range, which is well below that of the new touch.  I suppose the iPad mini could be built with cheaper components than the new iPod- a non-Retina screen, slower processor, lesser storage capacity, lousier cameras- all to drive it down to the price of something like the Kindle Fire.

This is a problem for two reasons:

1) Apple would suddenly be undercutting a new high-margin product with something slightly larger, cheaper, and slower.

2) Apple is not in the business of selling crap.

Let’s address the second point first.  The battle cry for the small-ish iPad reminds me of a time in the distant past (3 years or so) when pundits declared that Apple would face certain peril if they didn’t create a super-cheap laptop to compete with the surging netbook market.  Back then there was a range of $200 laptops available at your local Best Buy that ran Windows or Linux on cramped screens and were powered by yesterday’s technology.  Profit margins on these devices were razor thin, and Apple just doesn’t duke it out for scraps at the bottom of the market.

So how much profit would Apple make on a $200 iPad mini?  Not enough.  Amazon is willing to go there with the Kindle Fire, but Amazon doesn’t mind barely operating in the black.

So, what if Apple decides to charge more than the iPod touch’s $299 price tag for the iPad mini?  It would avoid the undercutting I mentioned earlier, and it would sit neatly between the price points of the touch and the the $499 iPad.  That makes even less sense.  Why? Because the iPad 2 parked in that slot at $399, and some believe it’s Apple’s best selling tablet.

Any way you slice it, there’s little if any room for a device like the iPad mini to slide into the current lineup.