Alex Muir

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Microsoft and Apple

Today Apple is worth $683bn, over double Microsoft at $338bn. Apple made a profit of $18bn in the last quarter. My feeling is that Microsoft haven't even hit their biggest challenges yet.

As a Mac user I don't have much interaction with Microsoft products, aside from occasionally having to use Excel, and even more infrequently, Word. But last week I installed Windows 8.1 (is that the same as Windows 8?) on a friend's laptop. Followed by installing Office. I dreaded doing it - I haven't used windows for three years, and even then I was still fairly lost at sea. My first thought when I touched this new Dell laptop was how flimsy, plastic and breakable it felt. I swear I almost cracked the screen in half trying to open it at the hinge side. The build quality is laughable. This is part of Microsoft's problem - Apple products ooze quality before they're even turned on. Microsoft Windows is encased in whatever plastic shell a third party manufacturer can sell. Textured, chrome effect, leopard print - whatever will sell. It reminds me of Nokia's Xpress-On phone covers.

Windows installed neatly. Obviously I had to go hunting around for drivers for various unrecognised components of this very standard computer. Dell's Service Code system worked reasonably well, but I cannot believe that the process is exactly the same as it was back in 2001 with XP. Open device manager, right click the little yellow exclamation marks and try to find some sort of driver that will work. SURELY this should be a solved problem by now? At least between Microsoft and Dell???

My friend had moved from XP which would no longer run the versions of Office she needs to deal with accountants and the government. She HATES Windows 8, the start menu is gone and replaced by a context jarring screen full of ill-ordered applications. I genuinely think Windows XP had a close to perfect UI and that XP is closer in experience to OS X now. That's bad news for Microsoft as users are reaching the end of the road for XP and find themselves standing at a fork: More plastic, marketing bullshit, spyware and salesmen at Bestbuy, or something sleek from Apple that actually seems more familiar to an XP user (especially one that uses an iPhone), and at not a huge premium.

Microsoft have close to zero presence on mobile. No meaningful digital marketplace like iTunes, Amazon (Prime) or Play. Bing is barely used. Hotmail (now Live Mail?) is shit. Office 365? I've no fucking idea why 99% of consumers need anything more than Google Docs, and Open Office is bordering on mainstream now. XBox still seems strong. The Surface tablet was a decent attempt at marrying up hardware and software. It seemed to have some fans but completely missed the mass market and got undercut by commodity Android tablets.

Not to say that Apple are doing everything perfectly. I hate the iOS 8 flat, featureless design and iTunes is still a sluggish piece of crap. Still, they're selling 34,000 iPhones 6 handsets. Every. Single. Hour.

Transacting in Bitcoin

I made three different types of transaction in Bitcoin last night.

First I put $10 cash into a BTC ATM and bought some coins onto a wallet on my phone. This was seamless and fast - a massive contrast from the last time I used a Bitcoin ATM in San Francisco last year. On that occasion I had to scan my passport, my palm print and my face. This time I just inserted a banknote and scanned the QR code of my mobile wallet.

I then bought myself a drink at the bar and paid with Bitcoin. Which was even quicker than buying coins with the ATM. A mobile wallet really is the key to using Bitcoin in the real-world - and this was my first experience of using one. Essentially the sender scans a QR code provided by the recipient and enters the amount to send. The bar I was at had a Galaxy Note as their Bitcoin mechanism. Unfortunately there's no business case for accepting bitcoin yet - it's slower and more cumbersome than cash. But certainly on a par with credit cards for ease of use and speed.

My last transaction was to buy some Bitcoin for cash from Felix Weis, who is spending 365 travelling the world using nothing but Bitcoins. This was the least smooth of the transactions as we had to calculate the amount of BTC to transfer for a fixed amount of local currency. Even verbalising amounts of Bitcoin is overly complex. A number like 0.020549201 is almost impossible to articulate. I have no idea where to round it off either to avoid agonising over fractions of a cent, or (even worse) rounding myself out of $10.

It's important to say though, that none of these transactions was held up by waiting for a confirmation from the Blockchain. This confirmation can take between ten minutes and an hour and basically says that the transaction definitely happened. In the absence of a confirmation, I could have ten friends at ten other bars all sending the same Bitcoin at the same moment. Essentially double-spending. Part of the delay at the Robocoin ATM in San Francisco was waiting for a confirmation on the blockchain.

My feeling is now that Bitcoin and the blockchain has some parallels to email. While email's core is still sending and receiving messages, it's at least equally useful as a means of identification and authentication (login). Things like e-ticketing use email but have needed other technology like PDF to come to fruition. For better or worse, identity on the internet is still largely centralised through an email address. Email had some difficult concepts at first, but I'd say the majority of people could now identify an obviously invalid email address. Explaining how to find an @ sign on the keyboard might be compared with showing someone how to scan a QR code.

I still don't know where Bitcoin's headed (which is most of the fun). As Felix said to me last night, in five years it will either be a worthless piece of nostalgia or an everyday technology.

The right amount of magic

Developers talk about magic, which is where big, amazing things happen with a disproportionately small and simple piece of code. There's a whole spectrum of magic - from C which gives you almost nothing, through to using a framework like Ember and writing in Coffeescript.

Too little magic is unproductive and dry. Too much is even worse - it makes it hard to understand what's going on, and to understand how elements and processes relate to each other.

Rails has the right amount of magic - and Ruby makes it easy to throw a little magic dust on things. I think this explains a lot of their popularity, and is the basis for claims that Ruby allows 'beautiful code' and Rail is 'productive'. I've been working in Swift and XCode for the last couple of weeks and it feels like the balance is right there too. In twenty lines I'm able to capture video from an iPhone camera, extract QR codes and parse their data. It's fast to write, and it's extremely fast to run. The experience reminds me of the initial sense of power that I got from Visual Basic back in about 1997.

That said, there's a lot of mystery happening between the Storyboard and swift code that I don't understand yet. But so far, so good.

Things I just learned about headphones

Headphones might need to be run in

It's not completely proven, but it does seem probable that headphones benefit from wearing in to some extent. Something around 40-hours of normal usage would seem to be the magic number. The RHA MA750i pair that I've just bought apparently need more running in than most.

iOS has a 'late-night' mode that makes a huge difference in noisy environments

Under Settings > Music > EQ, there's a Late Night option which compresses audio into a smaller range which makes it sound better in a noisy environment like a plane, office or streetscape. Unlike the other EQ settings, this mode affects all audio output from the phone, including video and app audio.

iOS EQ only affects the music app

Spotify audio is unaffected by the iOS EQ setting. But Spotify has its own EQ setting under Settings > Playback > EQ.

Headphones

I've been travelling quite a lot recently.

By plane, when I like to do work and listen to music. Noise cancellation is the priority here. Walking around cities, where I love to daydream. I don't want to stand out with some big over-ear headphones, and I'd like to hear some traffic noise to stop myself being flattened by a bus. Running. In the rain. I sweat a lot. I need my bangers LOUD.

I used to have a nice pair of knock-off Bose noise-cancellers. Goldring NS1000s. They were very, very close to the genuine Bose ones in sound, but the build quality revealed itself after I lost their case and they disintegrated over about a week.

So for the past six months I've just been using Apple's earbuds. I found them comfortable and reasonable. They also seem to be fairly indestructible but the cable seems to have a party every single time I take them out. Anyway - they're missing so I nipped to the Apple Store (the only place that's open on a Sunday in Paris).

Looking up reviews for everything on the shelves (unsurprisingly dominated by Beats) I chose a pair of RHA MA750i in-ear buds. Based mostly on a fairly glowing WhatHi review. Price paid €99.95. Which is cheaper than I'd find them in the UK.

First impressions are good - build quality is outstanding. Nice chunks of machined stainless steel. I'll reserve judgement on sound quality until they've worn out.

Fitness

I've done no physical exercise for the past month. Today I went for a one-hour run and wasn't completely wiped out. That's further than I was running when I stopped exercising a month ago. But I know from past experience that the next run I go on will be exhausting and I'll struggle to match that first hour. It's almost as though my body forgets where the limits are after a while of not doing exercise. I've had exactly the same thing with weights - go back to it after ages stronger than I was when I stopped (and then plummet back down after that initial spike.)

My current exercise routine is to run for 20 minutes each morning and do 200 sit-ups. I stuck to that for a month in Paris and I'm planning on doing the same here in Budapest.

eBook dilemma

I just read a recommendation from Fred Wilson for a book called Product Design for the Web. I'm hitting a lot of walls in developing UI and flows for a couple of projects that I'm thinking about - Napkin and How a Car Works. It's hard not to just fall down the same REST trap all the time.

I can't decide whether to get the Kindle or the paperback. I can have the Kindle version instantly, and it's about half the price. But there's something nice about having a physical book: To read, to be seen to read ("Are you a developer?"), to share or give away, and to glimpse on a shelf for as long I keep it.

Fiction goes perfectly on the Kindle - ultimately just words, and certainly only going to be read once. But for non-fiction, and particularly anything with illustrations or code, the Kindle just doesn't display nicely. I feel like the Kindle is a little too sterile - but then it seems counterintuitive that fiction seems to suit that sterile setting perfectly.

My gut feeling is to get the paperback, but I'm going to try the kindle format and see whether eBook design has moved on from when I last tried.

Uber

As a startup community we love to frame Uber as an agile startup, beating down bureaucracy and disrupting an industry which hasn't seen innovation in decades. And in the process, enabling drivers to set their own hours and freeing them from the shackles of employment.

And Uber itself revels in this type of coverage. Posting articles about the regulatory hurdles it facts, protests from entrenched drivers, and how it's creating jobs. I've heard very polished PR people on various news bulletins explaining how they're battling for the consumer and the driver. Of course they're really battling for their investors against their competitors, but that goes unsaid.

But the reality is that Uber shareholders want to own the taxi market. Uber wants its drivers to remain drivers forever - there will be no scope for a driver to work hard, save money, and set up his own competitive taxi business with other drivers. Co-operatives? Nope. Uber wants to eliminate taxi businesses and own the market. What opportunities will there be for an Uber driver to progress? Very little. Instead of a taxi business with one or two local, comparatively wealthy owners and 20-200 drivers, there'll be an uber-business, with 25 super-rich owners, and 20,000-50,000 drivers. That's just further concentration of wealth. It's probably inevitable, but I feel it's also unacknowledged.

Google ads are now virtually indistinguishable

I've been using Google daily for over a decade. Today was the first day I found myself unable to quickly parse past their adverts in a search.

I'm not sure how they can continue argue that advertising isn't effectively paying to be boosted to the top of their search results.

Android tablets will win

A couple of days ago I bought a Nexus 7 tablet to play around with a concept for an app. Colour me impressed.

Packaging was slightly below Apple's standards, but it inconsequential. The product had a feel of quality and heft. It works. Setup was a breeze. It's fast, flexible and easy to use. I don't like the on-off button on the side, I would much prefer it on the front but that's very minor.

I installed Twilight, an Android version of Flux, which dims the screen at night - something I really need with iOS 7 and it's super-bright whites.

Developing on Android is easy and fun to get started. Within an hour I had a little app working on the device. No cost, no complex downloads.

Developing is fine and good, but I think Android is going to dominate the iPad into oblivion over the next couple of years. The Nexus 7 is £200 off the shelf at retailers, or easily found for £180 on offer, or £150 on a hot deal. Apple won't come close to this price. Tablets are first and foremost a web and video consumption device. I'd say the Nexus 7 works better than my iPad for this. At a significantly lower price. I could have picked up a Hudl for £120 which would be pretty similar.

I have a feeling that tablets will be commoditised before phones. Phones have an important social element - iMessage helps here, and apps are arguably more important on this smaller form factor. I'm fairly locked in to a couple of subscription apps that I've bought for my iPhone. This isn't the case with the tablet, where I almost exclusively use the web browser.

I might write some time about iOS 7, but having lived with it for a while I think it's brought almost nothing new. I dislike the design strongly - it is new, not better.