A selfish argument for making the world a better place

Having some time on my hands right now, I decided to move away from Twitter as a news feed and getting back to the good old habit of getting my news via an RSS reader (if you're curious, I use Inoreader as back end and Reeder on both iOS and Mac as front end). This allowed me to have a much less noisy set of news, which in turn uncovered this post from Kottke.org, an old favourite of mine which recently turned 20 (!!!).

The iPad Pro needs a Trackpad

My passion for computers and technology started in the late 80s. I clearly remember the day when, in Rome airport on the way to a family vacation to Tunisia, I bought one of the few italian computer magazines at the time (now long dead). I was bitten. At the time, desktops reigned supreme and towers were all the rage. Laptops started to appear, but there was another class of computers that has since all but disappeared, the portable computer. Portable computers were essentially a desktop “designed to be moved from one place to another”, but not to perform work while on the move.

But in 2015 the portable computer is back from the dead thanks to the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro, as people smarter than me noted, is a computer that can be moved from A to B, not a mobile device. And, as all good portable computers, it now needs a trackball to truly fulfil it’s destiny (ok I’m kidding, a trackpad would do).

I know what you’re thinking. Why using a trackpad when we are born with “the best pointing device in the world” and we can use them on the screen? The thing is, if the iPad Pro is at its best when used on a desk, you’ll have to often touch the screen in vertical position to operate it (except when drawing), but we know thattouch surfaces don’t want to be vertical”.

I use mine all the time on a desk, and while interacting with the screen is intuitive, it’s also tiring and inefficient as it forces you to take your hands off the keyboard.

So how to solve this problem? The simplest way would be to allow for pairing of the magic trackpad to an iPad and having some sort of “cursor” on screen to show where your finger would be (like Apple’s own iOS simulator for developers).

Another, more daring, option would be to create a “glass keyboard” to be attached to the iPad (it would look somewhat like the old Microsoft Courier concept). The benefits would be that the same surface can be used as keyboard, including different keys set up depending on the app, and to move the “finger” on screen. Developers could of course find new ways to use the new screen real estate for a new generation of iPad apps, making the platform more unique and appealing. Finally, but importantly, Apple gets us to buy new hardware, which they seem to like.

I realise this is not too far from turning the iPad Pro into a Mac/PC replacement but… isn’t this exactly the point of the iPad Pro? Why not taking the decision to launch a laptop replacement to its natural consequence? 

I also don’t think this is something Apple would never do. After Steve Jobs’ passing, the company has proven pragmatic in opening up to different ways of using their devices (think larger screens on iPhones and the iPad Pro itself, 3rd party keyboards, or the Apple Pencil). Also, despite the conceptual heresy, UX wise things would not change much. You still move your screen on the tablet, only the 1:1 local relation between your finger and the action is broken. I don’t think this is a disaster (in fact, you are already using a similar metaphore in the “trackpad-keyboard” functionality introduced with iOS 9).

In my opinion what makes the iPad better than a traditional computer is not the touchscreen per se, but the limit to one app -two now- that keeps me more focused on the task at hand.

Am I crazy? Don’t miss the opportunity to point that out in the comments.

On Apple's e-book price fixing

Earlier this week, John Gruber linked to a post on Fortune magazine about the appeal for the famous e-book fixing case that sees Apple as a defendant.

Gruber argues:

Two of the three judges on the appeal seemed to agree with what I’ve been arguing all along: (a) the agency model — where publishers set prices and Apple takes 30 percent — is not price-fixing; and (b) Amazon, with its monopoly share (80-90 percent) of e-book sales and predatory pricing scheme, is the company the DOJ should be investigating.

Gruber is usually very objective in his analysis, but in this case he's completely ignoring the facts. For instance, nowhere in the article there is any mention of point (a). Also to my knowledge nobody has ever argued that the agency model is per se price-fixing. If it was, half of the world industries would be in trouble. What IS price-fixing is agreeing with publishers controlling 50% of readership that they will set a price for e-books in Apple's bookstore, and that everybody else will have to sell at minimum that price.

From Wikipedia page on the case:

On the day of the [iPad] launch, Jobs was asked by a reporter why people would pay $14.99 for a book in the iBookstore when they could purchase it for $9.99 from Amazon. In response Jobs stated that "The price will be the same... Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they are not happy." By stating this, Jobs acknowledged his understanding that the Publishers would raise e-book prices and that Apple would not have to face any competition from Amazon on price.

That "the price will be the same" is one of the key problems for Apple, but according to the 2013 decision there is large evidence that "the Publisher Defendants joined with each other in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy. There is also evidence showing that Apple violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act by conspiring with the Publishers to eliminate retail price competition and raise the price of e-books. The evidence shows that Apple was a knowing and active member of the conspiracy."

This obviously does not mean ignoring Amazon dominating position in the e-book market, or condoning dubious practices - such as predatory prices [^1] - that they allegedly used to keep the competition at bay. Finally, this does not mean assuming that having more competition in the e-book market is a bad thing; obviously it is not. But two wrongs don't make a right. There is no point at trying to justify Apple's behaviour by pointing at Amazon's bad behaviour: all evidence I have seen, including a quote from Steve Jobs himself, suggest that Apple HAS conspired to fix prices with the publishers, and the Fortune article says nothing about this not being the case. Apple could have just launched and used different ways to win (eg iBook could have been the only app where you can buy a book straight from your iOS device), or complain to the authorities for Amazon behaviour. Easy? Certainly not, but I've been surprised by Apple in pulling off unexpected wins before.

I'm proud to be an Apple fanboy, and that's precisely why I won't condone any dubious behaviour from them.

[^1]: predatory pricing is a common practice in monopolies / oligopolies and it is used to keep things as they are, as people cheering for today's low crude oil price should remind themselves of.