Tech of 2012: Apple Maps

By Mike on 1:07 pm

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You're driving through the Australian outback to a town you've never been to before. You come to a cross roads. The sign says go straight, your iPhone says turn left. So you turn left. You've become so accustomed to blindly trusting technology. Your phone could never make an error, could it? A day later police find you near dead out in the scorching desert. Apple Maps had thought the town was miles away from where it actually was. 

This is a true story about Mildura in Victoria, Australia. It's a typical small town about half way between Melbourne and Adelaide. Mildura is a quaint little place of 30,000, known for its vineyards and wineries.The town is connected to the two cities by a pair of modern, four lane highways.It isn't located off a dirt road in the middle of the outback. Though according to the iPhone, it is. Apple Maps had placed the town inside the Murray Sunset National Park. After six separate incidents of people getting lost in the bush, state police issued a warning to motorists. Apple's mapping software was not to be trusted. 

This topped the laundry list of problems with Apple Maps. Some roads were missing, some roads that didn't exist were there, many things were located miles from where they actually were, 3D rendering looked like a warped Dali painting. As soon as the app launched, the complaints started rolling in. Making matters worse, it was made the default mapping application. The Google Maps app was no longer an option.
Mildura is not in the middle of the outback. Source: Wikipedia
In the end, it forced Apple to do something  unprecedented. They made a sincere apology for their mistake and even pointed people to alternative apps they could use in the interim. Apple has apologized for issues before. However, they usually twist it to somehow blame the user. This time, they knew they had screwed up bad. They released an incomplete product based built using bad data. Not because they thought they could do better than Google, but because they didn't want to deal with Google. The search giant ultimately had the last laugh. The new Google Maps app for iOS broke download records. Steve Jobs must be rolling in his grave.

More important than Apple's apology is what the fiasco says about ourselves. As smartphones have become commonplace, we've gotten comfortable with letting them think for us. So much so that common sense takes a ride in the trunk.

Tech of 2012: Windows 8 and Surface

By Mike on 11:55 pm

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Windows 8 stands out as one of Microsoft's more questionable decisions. The concept was a page right out of Apple's playbook. Take the strongest elements from the mobile sphere and bring them onto the desktop. The execution didn't work as well as the company had hoped, and left a lot of users confused.

The operating system hadn't fundamentally changed in seventeen years. Granted it's been spiffed up and tweaked considerably in that time. However, it still looks, works, and feels the same as it did way back in 1995. Seeing the popularity of tablets, Microsoft jumped into the already overcrowded marketplace screaming "me too!" As such Windows 8 was designed to by a hybrid OS. It had both tablet and desktop elements, and a radically new UI called Metro.

Metro was the very same interface that had gotten raving reviews on Windows Phone 7. So it made sense to port it over. The end result was the sort of beautiful mess that Microsoft seems to master ever even numbered release. The conventional desktop was hacked to pieces, missing the all familiar Start button. You were forced to use the new UI whether you liked it or not.

The Metro interface wasn't well suited for computers that lacked touch screens. In other words most systems Windows ran on. It had a great app store and a sleek interface, it just wasn't ideal for a desktop and laptop environment. It made even less sense for business. Reception was lukewarm from hardcore Windows fans and cold as ice from the general public. A month into its release and it had failed to break Windows Vista's launch sales numbers. Most people saw it as having no real advantage over Windows 7.

Window's 8's brand new "Metro" UI, -- image from Microsoft
On the tablet side, Windows RT and Surface tablets were also a sinking ship. Apple had just released the iPad 4 and Samsung had come out with the Galaxy Note 10.1. Both featured high resolution QXGA "retina" displays and fast new chips. The Surface lumbered along with its aging Tegra 3 processor and 768p display.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the Surface. As far as tablets go, it's a fine tablet. Metro worked like a charm, it was sleek, and was better designed than both Android and iOS. Problem was you could get a much better tablet with better app support for the same price. The iPad 4 and Note were three times faster and had three times the display resolution. Needless to say sales were modest at best.

That all said, Windows 8 is perhaps the most important version since Windows 95. It signals another paradigm shift in personal computing. One where touch screens will begin to dominate over traditional inputs, and tablets will begin to replace laptops. As such, Windows 8 is very much a prototype of things to come. Microsoft may have come late to the party but they've so far delivered the best mobile GUI I've seen, and it will only get better when things get perfected in Windows 9.

Tech of 2012: Wii and U together at last

By Mike on 6:52 pm

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Taking a look at the gaming and tech trends in 2012

If there's one thing about Nintendo, they've never played a conservative game. Their innovations are small, yet have a profound impact on gaming. Take something as simple as the plus shaped D-Pad. It's hard to believe that something so ubiquitous didn't exist prior to the Famicom. The Wii U is a little different. The latest gimmick is something that has existed for some time, just never really implemented: dual screen gaming.

A lot of entertainment providers talk about multiple screens. When I watch a movie on TV, I'm frequently on my iPad looking up actors, directors, discussing it on Twitter. The Wii U is a natural extension of the tablet revolution as much as it's an extension of the DS. The motion control that made the Wii famous has been pushed aside for a tablet-like controller with a touch screen interface. Have your inventory pulled up at all times, touch to solve puzzles, or even detach it from the TV and take your game with you to another room. Play your games on your TV the same way you loved to play them on your DS.

The Wii U GamePad is such an innovative product, it was introduced by Sony, six years ago. Back then it was called RemotePlay. The much touted feature would have allowed you to play PS3 games on your PSP. A couple of indie games implemented it but it never got far beyond that. Possibly owing in part to the PSP's low resolution and painfully slow WiFi. The same function is present in the Vita and has been used a bit more effectively, but not by much. So far only one game officially supports Wii U style mobile control. Apple also has this technology via AirPlay to stream iOS games to a TV and use iPad or iPhone to as a controller. Both these systems require the purchase of costly peripherals.

Where Nintendo excels the most is jumping in on trends before anybody else does. Even if they didn't originate the idea, they're the first to see its potential; no matter how small.