Apple’s not-so-beautiful problem

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Hugo Rifkind



So, what is Apple going to do next? Financial results released by the company last night showed revenues down to $54.5 billion in the final quarter of 2012. It’s a funny sort of “down”, this, because revenues in the same quarter of 2011 were, I think, a mere $28.3 billion, which eagle-eyed business analysts among you might notice makes them what, technically, we might usually call “up”. But they’re down compared with how much further up they were expected to be, and as a result the share price has plunged.

You know why. Apple’s problem is that the iPad today is little different from the one that launched three years ago (albeit sometimes smaller) and the iPhone today is much the same as the one they brought out a whole 6 years ago (albeit a bit bigger). Both of these products changed the world (in a limited-horizons sense of the word “world”, admittedly) and the world has since caught up. Yes, all sorts of otherwise sane folk get wildly furious if you suggest an Android or Windows device can now do stuff an Apple one can’t (they can, they can, they can) but pretty much everybody agrees they can at least do the same.

Does this mean that Apple needs a new innovation, so as not to fade away? Probably. You think of Nokia, you think of Blackberry, and you realise that strokey, sexy technology doesn’t often stand still. Though maybe not. Or, at least, not much of an innovation. Think of the Biro. Invented in the 1880s, and revolutionising the exciting world of, um, pens, it’s much the same today. Basically, we’re done with pens. This is what pens look like. Finished.

One day, we’ll be there with handheld screen things - whatever the group term is for phones and tablets. Probably we aren’t there yet. Tech types suggest that the near future consists of tactile feedback - flat screens that pulse at your fingers and don’t feel flat; maybe best understood as a few steps farther along the path from the way your phone goes buzz when you unlock it. Apple will be working on this already, because everybody is.

After that, though, what next? These things can get thinner, shinier and HDer, but there comes a point where we’ll surely get bored. And after that we’ll still need to buy the things, and the people who make them will still make lots of money if we buy theirs; but it won’t be sexy and investors won’t be so inclined to go nuts. Sheer perfect functionality is a humdrum sort of thing. Nobody blogs about forks, do they?

Mark Zuckerberg’s stake in Facebook is now worth a paltry, er, $10.1 billion

Computer hacker Gary McKinnon, aka “Solo”, continues his decade-long fight against extradition to the US in the High Court today.

The US Government says he committed the “biggest military computer hack of all time” by breaking into US Army, Air Force, Navy, NASA and Department of Defence computers between 2001 and 2002. If extradited, he could spend 60 years in jail and be liable for up to $2 million in fines.

But McKinnon, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, says he was a “computer nerd” looking for evidence of UFOs, and was convinced that the US military secretly reverse-engineered an anti-gravity propulsion system recovered from alien spacecraft.

The McKinnon case involves the controversial Extradition Act 2003, which allows the US, among others, to request extradition without providing evidence.

Read more: There is something fundamentally wrong with outsourcing our criminal justice system”David Bermingham, one of the NatWest (Enron) Three extradited to the US for wire fraud, in The Times

Public data and how to guilt trip a local council | James Dean

Tom Steinberg, a Director at mySociety, which builds pro-transparency websites, gave an interesting talk at The Times today.

He spoke about FixMyStreet.com, a site that allows people to mark local problems (potholes, graffiti, fly tipping) on a public map – the point being to pressure the council into sorting the problem. The site also sends an e-mail to the council.

Steinberg said that 50 per cent of problems notified are fixed. That sounds like a staggeringly good return, achieved simply by making the complaints process public (and easy). It’s a fine model to build upon (in fact, mySociety is trying to repeat the success with FixMyTransport.com).

Initially dependent on charitable funding, mySociety now also makes money repurposing its sites for use abroad – see for example Mzalendo, the Kenyan version of They Work For You. Power to the people, and all that.

Twitter: @jamesdean_lives

Read more: There’s gold to be mined from all our data

Drones are that bit scarier because they’re robots | James Dean

What is it about a drone that makes it more scary than, say, the mean-looking brute that is the Apache helicopter gunship? You could, arguably, do more collateral damage with the latter.

Amid the arguments about the ethics of drone warfare, one thing struck me: perhaps we’re scared of drones because they’re robots. Robots controlled by humans rather than artificially intelligent automatons, but essentially, the piece of kit that is the “drone” contains no brain cells.

Drones shoot Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. So do Apaches. Once the missile is launched, it is guided to its target by the pilot – be they hovering overhead or sat in an office chair in Langley.

Surely, then, if they are given the exact same mission, a successful (unpiloted) drone strike is as ethically (un)sound as a successful (piloted) Apache strike. Isn’t it?

Twitter: @jamesdean_lives

Read more: The limited justifications for remote control warfare, by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald

In Los Angeles, California, Microsoft unveils its challenge to the Apple iPad: the Surface tablet computer, which boasts a plastic cover that doubles up as a keyboard. Microsoft gave no details on pricing or on a release date, and at the time of posting, Microsoft’s Surface website was not working (evoking fond memories).

(Reuters/David McNew)

Columns - Thursday June 14, 2012

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