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BW Businessworld

Apple Diary 4: Outside The Halo

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Well, that's done with. Enough open-mouthed staring at the Apple top-brass as they work their magic on stage. An Apple event is always enjoyable, leaving in its wake more than the usual analysis, quibbling and complaints even as fans rush to be the first to get whatever new products are announced. And much the same way as someone will ask you why you hate dogs if you say a cat is awfully cute, Android users will scoff at you for being an Apple slave and Apple fans will wonder if you've ever really used an Apple device if you as much as say anything half-nice about Android.

With the hype having simmered down, it's time to take stock of the disappointments and complaints filtering through. Personally, I'm disappointed that I will have to wait until fall to see what iOS6 is like, try out Siri and see what other features that couldn't be taken up at the event may be sprinkled around. One is also anxious to see which features will really work in India, specially maps and the local search that enables Siri and whether the virtual assistant will be tuned to Indian accents or local search results.

One of the most reported fallouts of the WWDC event is the possible exit of the 17-inch MacBook Pro from Apple's lineup. The 17-inch was first brought to market by Apple in 2003 and while many will now consider it far too heavy and unwieldy to carry around, designers and other creative types particularly would miss it. But professionals have largely shifted over to the 15-inch MacBook so perhaps it's time to say goodbye to the 17-inch, finally. There hasn't been an official announcement however and since Apple is a company that loves to keep its secrets and surprise its customers – you ever know what will happen in the future. Perhaps it will go into cold storage to emerge later.

Emerging later is what is likely to happen to the Mac Pro, Apple's desktop computer. This too is a favourite with professionals who deal with design, video editing and other processor intensive tasks.  But it hasn't received an update or any attention at all for the past two or three years. PC Magazine reports that Apple said it'll still be a while yet; in fact, maybe next year. For a company that pushes the post-PC era concept, the Mac Pro is probably not on priority.

Another disappointment is that the first generation iPad, iPhone 3G and older the iPod Touch will be left out of the iOS6 loop. Without upgrades, these will now definitely wither away as apps begin to give trouble on them and don't work to their fullest. Those who are buying these devices second hand or still have them will have to think of buying new ones. It's time to move on although it's sad that a device like the original iPad is working fine at the moment but will abruptly go obsolete in a few months.
We're yet to see the full list of features in iOS 6 and of course capabilities begin to be evident only when apps that take advantage of the system begin to make their way to the App Store, but so many of the features showcased have already been n use elsewhere – though perhaps in not so polished and finessed a fashion. Facebook integration, for example, is not a new piece of magic but something everyone's already doing in individual products. It's nice --- but hardly worth separate demonstration. Notifications have been on in Android phones and tablets and also are not killer capabilities. But you would think they were from the way they're presented.
Everyone was expecting the Retina Display to turn up on MacBooks, but it did so only on the 15-inch MacBook Pro but with a price tag that still keeps it out of the reach of most people. One could argue that for now the Retina MacBook Pro can be thought of as a premium product since it is not absolutely imperative and everyone has been working fine enough without it, but that doesn't stop the wistful complaints. At the same time, the general view is that the Retina Display will eventually make it to all Apple products.
Even though WWDC was full of announcements, there are those who wanted more. They wanted news or announcements on Apple TV and there were none. They wanted to know more about the next iPhone even though that's not the way Apple works. In the end, one must remember that this was a conference for developers and for the most part, they looked happy enough. Let's hope they go back and bring out nicer and nicer apps over the next few months.

Thursday, 00.10 AM
Apple Diary 3: Say Hello To Siri

Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iOS Software at Apple, has no hesitation kicking off an introduction to iOS6 with a good jab at the competition, Android, showing the audience a chart of the fragmented landscape of multiple versions of that OS existing simultaneously on different devices vs the integrated evenly distributed iOS5 and its satisfied customers. He even made an oblique reference to Ice Cream Sandwich, calling it a "certain dairy product".

Scott Forstall, senior VP of iOS Software with Apple CEO Tim Cook

With iOS 6 coming to iPhones upward of the 3Gs, second and third generation iPads, and third generation iPods, a new set of capabilities come in as well. The first among these is the much-wanted Siri virtual assistant. Often thought to be the one reason the iPhone 4s is selling so well, Siri has led to many spin-off imitations on other phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S3 with its S Voice. None are as capable of understanding natural language as Siri whose skills have now grown on the new OS. She will be able to answer specific questions on baseball, basketball, restaurants nearby (with ratings and reviews), movies, directors, actors, and other topics. She will also be able to oen up apps on the device. She is of course also integrated into reminders, contacts and other essentials. Apple has added language support for several more countries, specially China. But also Korea, the home of the Galaxy phone. And Japan, Canada, Spain etc. Apple says they are taking Siri around the world. No mention of India, so we can't tell whether we're on the list yet.  Bringing the Siri assistant into another country means a lot of work as it must have access to information easily to be able to answer questions easily. Asking her to get you to Chinappa Mutthuswamy street will not help unless she can understand and access information. And so, the use of this service may be limited to some features only, but we will only know when iOS6 becomes available this fall.

Siri was fully expected, as was a maps function, specially since Apple has stopped using Google's maps. With Siri doing a lot of searching and Apple's own new maps system, Google has been hit rather hard below the belt. Apple's maps, which again may not apply to India, have a 2D, 3D and a "Flyover" mode, allowing you to go from a flat version to plan a route to a destination and then seeing it in photographic mode in the Flyover view. Turn by turn directions combine with these maps to take you places. Google has had some of these functions already. But typically, Apple has taken these concepts many steps further. It remains to be seen how well they work outside of the demo.

For the past year, Apple has had a tight integration of Twitter into iOS 5 and you can tweet easily from almost any app, or from native Apple applications. You link your account once and it works throughout the system. The same is now being done for Facebook while Twitter gets even more accessible from the Notifications Center in the same way as has been done with the Mountain Lion OS. Sharing things to Facebook and to post from apps will be as easy as it is for Twitter.

An interesting new feature is Passbook. This uses items from apps such as boarding passes from an airline's app or Starbucks cards, movie tickets etc and lets the user access services through them. You could board a plane with a boarding pass on the phone. Loyalty cards wil also be supported. These will be location-friendly so that you walk into a Starbucks and get a notification popping up your card to use if youd like to. Innovative as this is, again we don't know yet whether India will find this feature useful yet. Apart from anything else, it does require that apps and services opt in and create access to usage. No point going up to Jet Airways with your iPhone unless they have the process to give you a boarding pass via Passbook in place.

There are also advancements to Safari, FaceTime (which will be usable on cellular networks not just Wifi) and there's a great Do Not Disturb system to group contacts who can call you when you're "off" , reject calls with specific messages, get reminders to call later, and more. .

There are more features marking this new upgrade to the OS used by the increasingly popular iPad and other iOS devices. Some of these have been seen in separate bits on other devices – such as the Notifications Centre itself which is on every Android device – but the execution will probably be polished and smooth as Apple usually makes sure it is.  More will be known as reviewers get their hands on Apple's new devices and software which is when we will know whether the products live up to the confidence with which they were presented at the WWDC in San Francisco.

Wednesday,  19.30 PM

Apple Diary 2: Mountain Lion
All those shiny new MacBooks need a good operating system to make them come alive, and OSX Mountain Lion, coming in July, will be downloadable both to new MacBooks and older ones. It's always interesting to see what new usability has been put into an operating system – after all, you live with it day and day out and an obstacle or missing feature really eats into your productivity. Mountain Lion will be downloadable from the Mac Store and will update on all your Mac computers with a single purchase. That's interesting, considering we've always had to make separate purchases of Windows for different computers – unless licensed in some way

Apple's head of Mac software Craig Federighi (Reuters)

With great Apple pride, Craig Federighi, Apple's head of Mac software, strode up to deftly show off the new Mountain Lion OS. All those complaining that Apple events weren't quite the same should have checked in with themselves to see if there was a single moment of inattention as he went through the main collections of features. At the same time, as eight of the features were revealed, one by one, it was impossible not to think that some of these weren't entirely new to other systems. Only difference is that Apple seems to build upon an idea and take it to a much higher degree of usability.

For a long time, Apple has been pushing its iCloud. And that's the first thing Craig Federighi took up. He demonstrated how when you log in first time with your Apple ID, your apps are all configured to work with the cloud. iMessages, for example, a long time gripe of users on the iPad, will show your messages across all your Apple devices. If you get a message on your phone, but are at your laptop, you can see it there and respond. When you work with your email, you get it on all devices. Reminders and Notes work in the same way. You set a reminder on your phone, but it will also pop up on your laptop. Documents are also in the cloud, with updates to them showing across your devices. We're reminded of apps like Any.DO that update instantaneously as well, but here we're talking about an integrated whole system. In time, you no longer have to think about syncing even for photographs.

Users have also not been particularly thrilled with the dull Safari browser. Now, you can see what you were browsing from any of the Apple devices. This idea was implemented in Google's Chrome browser very recently. You're reading something on the Web at your laptop, but you suddenly need to get up and get into your car. Switch to your iPad or iPhone and you can continue where you left off. Safari is refreshed to come up with Instant Google like suggestions, browse much faster, scroll easier, and gesture based commands to navigate tabs and pages.

Notifications, existing for a long time on Android phones and then on the iPhone and iPad, comes to the MacBook with Mountain Lion in a smartened up avatar. It works across devices, of course, and gives you alerts for important things, lets you Tweet from within it, and even lets you disable all interruptions temporarily. When you're making a presentation it will automatically go off.

Dictation now becomes part of the overall OS, working with all applications. You can talk to update your Facebook status or input text into a document. It remains to be seen whether there will be an Indian English module to make it possible for users in India to work with this without getting hordes of errors. Dictation is already present on the new iPad. Siri, however, was not demonstrated as being part of this OS.

Twitter was already tightly integrated with the iPad. In Mountain Lion, sharing with Twitter and Facebook and other networks like Flickr is more prevalent. Enter your account once and you can share from anywhere without making too much of an effort.

Everyone sat up to take a look at a new feature called Power Nap. This gets your MacBook work at various essentials while it's closed up and in sleep mode. It silently backs up your data, collects notifications and updates to system software and apps. This, claims Apple, doesn't even take up much battery.

With Mountain Lion, the OS on MacBooks comes a step closer to iOS on the tablet. Gestures and other aspects of interfacing with the device are more common across them. But iOS is also about to get an upgrade. It will move up to OS6 and will also have a whole lot of new capabilities…Coming up in the Apple Diary.

Wednesday, 03.40 AM

Apple Diary 1: The New MacBooks
As the good people of India turned off their lights and settled into their beds for a hard earned nights' sleep on the night of the 11th of June, the "techies" pulled closer to their laptops and tablets and prepared for at least two hours of hyper-alertness, live-blogging the live blogs and annoying each other on Twitter.

The world's most watched tech company was about to take the stage in Mascone West, San Francisco for its developers' conference or WWDC as it is breathlessly known. The World Wide Developers' Conference was indeed fairly worldwide, with 62 countries represented in the gathering. Up until then, down to the very last moment, there were reels and reels of rumours and guesses at what would be showcased or revealed at the event. As is always the case with an Apple event, the anticipation reached fever-pitch, though perhaps not quite as much as it would have if a new iPad or iPhone had been expected to launch.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (Reuters)

When the conference kicked off, it was not introduced by Apple CEO Tim Cook, (he came later) but by the now world famous Siri, a hint at how important the iPhone virtual assistant would be to whatever was upcoming on Apple's products. Siri said hello to all with a few jokes and many drum rolls. And then it was time for Tim Cook to take the stage.

How long it will take for the ghost of Steve Jobs to fade away from Apple's conferences, but there is still an unreasonable and illogical amount of "Steve-watching" leading to minute and rather unfair comparisons; what Tim Cook was wearing, how he talked, how he gestured, and even which spot on the stage he preferred. Worse, if he were to be too Steve-like, he would surely be criticised for not being his own man. If he was not at all Steve-like, people would keep nostalgising about how great such shows were when Jobs was around.

But all was set aside as Tim Cook showcased staggeringly large numbers on the apps and how many people bought them at the App Store.  More than all the numbers and how there was a whole industry built around apps though, Tim Cook said, it was important to stop and think of how much apps had really changed peoples' lives. A video followed to show how various apps had helped people in critical ways: a teacher in India used them to bring life to classes, a blind man used them to take off for walks on his own, autistic children used them to create, and more stories. He thanked the developers for making this happen, and Phil Schiller, senior vice president of  worldwide marketing Apple, came on to introduce what's new in the line-up of MacBooks.

This is where most of the rumours (or inside information) turned out to be on the spot. The 17-inch MacBook Pro may just have been phased out, although we can't be certain, the rest of the lineup is dramatically upgraded. The MacBook Air, which Phil Schiller points out everyone (read ultrabook makers) is trying to copy, now comes with Intel's Ivy Bridge processors. These are actually going into ultrabooks as well. The Air, available in 11 and 13 inch models, has a few configurations possible. There's  the Core i5 and Core i7 dual-core processors, 4 to 8 GB of memory, and top notch integrated graphics which Apple claims is 60% faster than before. Turbo Boost can speed performance to 2.1GHz. The SSD (these silver-thin notebooks are kept light and fast by not using hard drives but flash storage instead) is also faster at 500GB read speed.. There's also a new HD 720p camera, same as the MacBook Pro. Reviews are yet to come in, but the performance should bring the Air into the realm of gaming capabilities. USB 3, available on the Air and the other notebooks in the line-up, also is much faster.  In essence, the MacBook Air has come a lot closer to the MacBook Pro.

Pricing for the MacBook Air, direct from Apple:
The 11-inch MacBook Air comes with a 1.7 GHz processor, 4GB of memory and is available with 64GB of flash storage starting at INR 67,900 inc VAT( INR 64,666 ex VAT), and 128GB of flash storage starting at INR 74,900 inc VAT(INR 71,333 ex VAT). The 13-inch MacBook Air comes with a 1.8 GHz processor, 4GB of memory and is available with 128GB of flash storage starting at INR 81,900 inc VAT (INR 78,000 ex VAT), and 256GB of flash storage starting at INR 99,900 inc VAT(INR 95,142 ex VAT). Configure-to-order options include a 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, up to 8GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 onboard memory and up to 512GB flash storage.

The MacBook Pro, used by so many for video editing and design, which is something that requires raw power, gets a refresh with higher specs. Also moving to Intel Ivy Bridge. The 13-inch MacBook Pro features the latest Intel Core i5 or Core i7 dual-core processors up to 2.9 GHz with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.6 GHz. The 15-inch MacBook Pro features the latest Intel Core i7 quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.7 GHz and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M discrete graphics. Both the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro can be configured with a 1TB hard drive or SSDs up to 512GB that are up to twice as fast as the previous generation. More detailed specs are available on the website, as is the keynote, which is interesting to watch if you're planning to buy a new laptop soon. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro ship with OS X Lion but will upgrade to Mountain Lion, a refresh which will bring many more gesture-based tablet-like functionalities to these notebooks.

Pricing for the MacBook Pro, from Apple:
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is available with a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory and 500GB hard drive starting at INR 81,900 inc VAT(INR 78,000 ex VAT), and with a 2.9 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory and 750GB hard drive starting at INR 99,000 inc VAT(INR 95,142 ex VAT). The 15-inch MacBook Pro is available with a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB of memory, Intel HD Graphics 4000 and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M, and 500GB hard drive starting at INR 122,900 inc VAT(INR 117,047 ex VAT); and with a 2.6 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, Intel HD Graphics 4000 and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M, and 750GB hard drive starting at INR 152,900 inc VAT(INR 145,619 ex VAT). Configure-to-order options include faster quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz, additional hard drive capacity up to 1TB, up to 8GB of memory and solid state storage up to 512GB.

But what made everyone shout out in delight, is the 15 inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Schiller calls it the "best computer we've ever made". It is about as thin as the MacBook Air (as are the other MacBooks now) and Phil Schiller demonsrated how it was just about as thin as his finger – 0.7 inches thin and 4.4 pounds light. An amazing fete. This is a display on which you can't discern the individual pixels and is the clearest on any existing noebook. Glare and reflection have also been reduced by up to 75% to make working with it more comfortable.  This notebook can apparently play four simultaneous streams of uncompressed 1080p HD video from its internal storage.

The Retina version has higher specs: Intel Core i7 quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.7 GHz, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M discrete graphics, up to 16GB of faster 1600 MHz RAM and flash storage up to 768GB. Two Thunderbolt and two USB 3.0 ports. There's 7 hours of battery life and 30 days of standby.

Pricing for the Retina MacBook Pro:
The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is available through Apple Authorized Resellers. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is available with a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.3 GHz, 8GB of memory and 256GB of flash storage starting at INR 152,900 inc VAT( INR145,619 ex VAT); and with a 2.6 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.6 GHz, 8GB of memory and 512GB of flash storage starting at INR 192,900 inc VAT(INR 183,714 ex VAT). Configure-to-order options include faster quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz, up to 16GB of memory and flash storage up to 768GB.

Each of these devices comes with an army of specs that would take a while to get through. The Apple website has these but explains them via videos.

In a few months, all of these notebooks will run on a new operating system. Up next in the Apple Diary.

Mala Bhargava is a personal technology writer and media professional
Contact her at mala at pobox dot com and @malabhargava on Twitter