Of Zune, iPhone and Pre: Sweating the Small Stuff
This week, MacBooks got upgrades, Mac cloners got downgrades, and a certain absent Mac maker apparently sounded "energetic" -- at least over the phone. However, action in the mobile space was just too frantic to ignore: The upcoming Pre apparently plays nice with iTunes; AT&T is getting ready to put its 3G network on a serious weight training regimen; and the Zune platform may be growing up a little.
There are lots of interesting tidbits floating around the Apple-focused blogosphere lately -- Apple quietly updated its low-end white MacBook, upstart Mac cloner Psystar filed for bankruptcy, and Steve Wozniak reportedly spoke on the phone to Steve Jobs, who apparently sounded "energetic."
Not surprisingly, though, some of the most interesting news revolves around mobile action: AT&T's network upgrade plans; the Palm Pre reportedly syncing with iTunes; and the not-yet-released Zune HD's sweet touchscreen, 720p video output, and a possible Xbox 360 play.
AT&T on the Move
AT&T is reportedly working on essentially doubling the capacity of its existing mobile data service -- and perhaps getting ready for the next blast of iPhones to hit the American market. The next-generation iPhone, of course, is widely expected to be released either in late June or in July.
Back to AT&T: The carrier's High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) technology will reportedly be souped up to a theoretical rate of 7.2 Mbps (megabits per second). The move will beef up AT&T's data speeds while the company lays plans for deploying an even faster "4G" Long Term Evolution (LTE) network, which is expected to deliver download speeds of up to 20 Mbps. LTE via AT&T will start becoming available around 2011.
"If they upgrade to 7.2 network, what about our present iphone 3g? the best i ever gotten was 1.4 ... the chip can go to 3.6 so where is my 2.4 left over i'd love to get 3.6 or even 3.0," commented NOFEER on the AppleInsider.com post on the subject.
That comment brings up two issues at once: For one thing, users almost always get a lot less speed out of a wireless cellular network than the "theoretical" offering; and second, the next-generation of iPhone is expected to handle data faster than existing iPhone 3Gs (but all that's more rumor than fact at the moment, and whether it pans out at all depends on the service carriers, too).
Meanwhile, commenter mello added, "I'd be happy with 3G that worked consistently. There are times when I could watch a 10 minute youtube video with no lag at my cubicle & then there are times when I would wait an hour for a one minute video to load up. It doesn't seem to matter how many bars I have in 3G either. There have been times when I've had 1 bar of 3G & could stream a youtube & other times with 5 bars where nothing loaded at all."
Some commenters have noted that downloads can sometimes be dependent on the Web server and not so much on the service carrier or device. Others point out a variety of other issues -- the number of users connecting to a given cell tower, for instance.
"I live in a heavy population area, lots of apts and stuff so I probably am connected to a loaded base station but I still feel ripped off as my friends pay less for the same [performance] with the iphone first gen edge plan," a_greer commented.
So, what's going on here? Obviously, different customers around the country are getting different results.
"If you look at AT&T's marketing, they say their 3G network is the fastest, and they do edge out Sprint and Verizon Wireless just by a hair," William Ho, a research director of wireless services for Current Analysis, told MacNewsWorld.
"So the upgrade to 7.2 enhances the speed claim," he said. Right now, the claimed speed in theory is 3.6 Mbps, "but nobody really gets that. AT&T, in their terms of service, gives you a range, from like 700 [Kbps, or kilobytes per second] to 1.2 Mbps down, and the reason why is that it's not like a wired network where it's predictable. In wireless, it depends on things like how far away you are from a cell tower, you're signal strength, etc.
"What's interesting is, why they are going to HSPA 7.2 instead of what they have been saying all along, which is HSPA+, which in theory, and depending on the flavors, you could get up to 15 to 20 Mbps? I asked AT&T why not HSPA+? And they basically said, 'By the time we're finished deploying, LTE will be rolling around,'" Ho added.
From a consumer standpoint, LTE is just another technology, Ho said, but the important point is that it'll bring mobile data customers access to a much faster and bigger pipe, which in turn may lead to better service and interesting new mobile applications.
Cool. So bring on 2011!
Back to Reality
While some are looking ahead to faster iPhone access, the Palm Pre is still looking for ways to take over the smartphone world. Obviously, a good way to do that is to mimic the iPhone's success and interoperability.
"Plug a Pre into a Mac and it syncs, seamlessly, with Apple's iTunes," writes Fortune's Philip Elmer-DeWitt.
"In fact, the iTunes Store treats the Pre just as it would an iPod or an iPhone with one two exceptions: it can't handle old copy-protected songs or, naturally, iPhone apps," he adds.
At this point, it appears as though the Pre has some syncing code built directly into it and that it mimics an iPod or iPhone in relation to iTunes. With so few Pres currently in the wild, it's tough to say exactly what's going on. No doubt more will come to light once the Pre gets into the hands of customers, Apple's team of reverse engineers, and the Cupertino legal squad.
Still, might this just be a bunch of hullabaloo?
"This is no big deal. I've been synching my non-DRM music to my Blackberry via iTunes for ages," commented Ray Evans on the Fortune post.
"The only wrinkle in this is if the ex-Apple developers at Palm are using undocumented API features to connect to iTunes. You can bet that Apple would find a way to inhibit use of those features, either legally or through the software. I'd rather Apple just leave Palm alone to compete. The iPhone needs a strong competitor to push innovation, be it hardware, firmware, software, or application stores," added Derek.
Of course, a lot of the issue has to do with sync capabilities. MP3 players can be recognized by iTunes, which then lets you drag and drop songs onto the player. However, syncing with iTunes -- letting the software carry out the process on its own -- may be another matter.
"Apple is very possessive of iTunes. It's the 'digital hub,' don't you remember? When Real came out with its software to sync its material onto the iPod, Apple went to the moon. Since then, no one really touches it anymore," Sven Rafferty, founder of HyperSven and SvenOnTech.com blogger, told MacNewsWorld.
"To make it sync, one has to 'pretend' it is an Apple device such as an iPhone or iPod. That is the key, and that is what is going to set off Apple's suits for infringement. I'd be very surprised if Palm does this since so much is riding on the success of the Pre as it is -- if the Pre fails, Palm pretty much goes under. I can't see it wanting to add a big lawsuit to the dinner table in the middle of its grand feast," Rafferty explained.
Bring on the Zune HD!
Microsoft isn't sitting out of the mobile tunes action, either.
Cnet's Ina Fried, in her Beyond Binary blog, posted that Microsoft has confirmed that its next-generation Zune player, Zune HD, will ship in the U.S. this fall. It features an HD Radio tuner as well as an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) touchscreen. Plus, it's based on Windows CE and will use a version of Internet Explorer customized for its touchscreen. Pricing or data capacity details haven't been announced. As for the "HD" portion of the name: It will also support 720p high-definition video out through the use of a dock, so users can connect it to an HD TV and get a decent (if not outstanding, 1080p-caliber) picture.
Microsoft, Fried reports, intends the device to go head-to-head with the iPod touch.
As if the hardware upgrades weren't enough, Microsoft also appears to be extending the Zune brand to its Xbox 360 marketplace.
"The software maker also said that at next week's E3 trade show in Los Angeles it will announce details on a new Zune-branded video service for the Xbox that will replace the current Xbox Live marketplace for TV and movies," Fried reported, noting that further details are unavailable.
In contrast, Apple TV owners can buy movies or TV shows and then play that content on their iPod or iPhones, in addition to the Apple TV and computers via iTunes. Might Microsoft be working on some similar content compatibility efforts? Probably. Either way, we'll know more next week.
Commenters on Fried's post quickly got into a heated argument over Microsoft's marketing tactics, but others were willing to talk turkey.
"Go Microsoft. I own an Iphone but I hope Microsoft makes a killer product," cast76 commented.
"Well, not sure HD radio helps much. I have HD radio, and at least in LA, it's horrible. When it's picking up at all, it's often echoey, tinny, or otherwise distorted, just like the early days of internet radio. I expected a lot better given all the hype. I prefer non-HD, but I can't make my car radio not tune HD radio when available," ikramerica--2008 added.
"The design looks nicely industrial and clean. I would not expect them to make it look like a candy colored jellybean like the iPod / Phone line. That look has been done and is quite frankly, rather dated and boring now. Apple will be hard pressed to reinvent the iPhone/iPod line in such a way as to make it look new and fresh if they keep their current designs. The Zune seems to be a break from all that," noted Vegaman_Dan, referring to the widely published Microsoft photos of the Zune HD.
"I haven't actually seen the device -- just the pictures -- and it looks interesting," Mike McGuire, a vice president of media research for Gartner, told MacNewsWorld.
"It's using an OLED screen, and there's some interesting steps and improvements they've made on the device," he added. While the Zune world is essentially treading along behind Apple, "this is a good extension of the product line," he said. "The HD Radio is unique for them, a differentiator ... and in the surveys we've done and have seen, radio is still an important way for many people to discover new music, so extending that is good thing."
Compared to Apple/iTunes, the Microsoft/Zune ecosystem still has a tiny market share, McGuire said. "The main takeaway is that they are continuing to evolve the product line," he said.