iWant: An iPod Pro

Let’s face it: the iPod is dying. Apple still sells the iPod classic – with 160 GB storage on a hard disk – the iPod nano, the iPod shuffle, and the iPod touch, but the iPod family, overall, is on its last legs. Look at these numbers, showing iPod sales over the past few years (source: Macworld):

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Apple’s still selling more than 12 million units a year, but that’s down from 19 million just two years ago. Compare that to iPhone units (source: Macworld):

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Apple is selling more than 37 million iPhones a quarter; the iPad sells more units than the iPod as well.

So, with this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a hard-drive based iPod (because of the storage capacity), with the ability to play high-resolution files, and with a digital optical output. This would allow users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, and have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate this when walking on a busy street, but there are times when you want to listen to music on good headphones, and don’t want to be connected to your stereo.

The iPod pro would have to have more capacity than the current iPod classic: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), a 250 GB hard disk would hold about 200 albums. If you stuck with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 500 albums, which would be fine for most users. (Or, they could go to 512 GB of flash storage… Costly, but this is for a market that might be willing to pay for it.)

Apple could eliminate the digital optical output by including a DAC worthy of the name “pro.” The Chinese company Fiio has released a portable music player with an excellent DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Apple could use a similar quality DAC, and still come in at, say, $300 or so, with a goodly amount of storage.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that could stand out from what we’re used to with the iPod. If it doesn’t need iOS, Apple could use this to try out a new type of user interface.

The market wouldn’t be very large, but neither is the market for Apple’s forthcoming Mac Pro. Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?

Apple Refunds Purchasers of Split Breaking Bad Season 5

breaking-bad-season-52.pngI recently wrote about how Apple had split the final season of Breaking Bad into two parts to get people who had paid for season five last year to pay again. Shortly after I posted that article, someone filed a class action lawsuit against Apple for this deceptive practice.

As I pointed out, AMC, the network which airs Breaking Bad, and the actors and creator of the show, have always referred to the second part of the fifth season as part of season 5, but Apple was selling it as Breaking Bad, The Final Season.

I today received the following email from iTunes Support:

“We apologize for any confusion the naming of “Season 5” and “The Final Season” of Breaking Bad might have caused you. While the names of the seasons and episodes associated with them were not chosen by iTunes, we’d like to offer you “The Final Season” on us by providing you with the iTunes code below in the amount of $22.99. This credit can also be used for any other content on the iTunes Store. Thank you for your purchase.”

Whether or not Apple intended to deceive purchasers, the point remains that the description of the season pass for season 5, which you can see to the left, made it clear that this season pass included all episodes of season 5. I don’t think this was Apple’s fault, but they will certainly need to rethink their wording for season passes. Breaking Bad is not the only series that has been split like this, and I’m sure others will complain about not receiving what they expected from a season pass.

In any case, I welcome Apple’s resolution of this issue.

It’s Time to Get Rid of DRM on Ebooks

If you read ebooks as I do, you probably know that you are limited in the way you use them. If you buy an ebook from Apple, you can only read it on an Apple device. If you buy a Kindle, you can read it on a Kindle, or an Apple device (because of the Kindle app for iOS, and for OS X), but you’re still limited in what you do with the book. You can’t sell it or lend it, and you’re locked into a specific platform.

My latest Macworld article looks at this. I think that Apple should lead the way in getting rid of DRM on ebooks, the way the company spearheaded the drive to remove DRM from music.

It’s worth noting that my Take Control ebooks – including the just-out Take Control of LaunchBar – have no DRM, so you can read them on whatever device you want.

Visual Skeuomorphism is Dead; What About Audio Skeuomorphism?

Apple has proudly ditched skeuomorphism in its forthcoming OS X Mavericks and iOS 7; that’s the use of interface elements that look like items in the real world. In OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, this includes things like the fake leather in Calendar; the green felt in Game Center; and the faux hardcover binding in Contacts. iOS has some of these too: Game Center has the same green felt; Voice Memos shows an old-timey microphone; and Find Friends has stitched leather. Both OSs have horrid yellow, lined paper in Notes, and other elements of skeuomorphism can be seen here and there.

IMG_0645So if Apple’s ditched visual skeuomorphism, why not get rid of the audio version as well. On iOS, this includes keyboard clicks, lock sounds, and the whoosh you hear when sending emails. OS X has a number of “user interface sound effects,” which you can turn off en masse in the Sound preference pane. (On iOS, you can turn them off individually.)

But if we’re agreeing that showing a faux leather-bound book in an app’s interface is outdated, how long before we get rid of the sounds? While it’s useful to have some sort of feedback when your email gets sent, does it have to be a “whoosh,” the sound of something flying? And does the iOS camera – or any camera – need to have a shutter sound when you take a photo?

I think it’s time to go beyond these quaint, old-fashioned sounds and come up with some new forms of beeps to alert a user when something has happened. Personally, I’ve turned off most sounds on my iPhone, other than a ringtone and voice mail and text message alerts, and I only have a system beep on my Macs.

Why Apple Should Pay Income Tax on Overseas Earnings: Because Other Americans Do

The recent hullabaloo over Apple not paying income tax is almost surreal. The company has so much money overseas – currently some $100 billion in cash – that it has issued bonds to proceed with a share buy-back plan. The interest on the bonds is much less than the amount of tax the company would pay if they repatriated some of their income.

In addition, it turns out that Apple negotiated a “secret deal” with the Irish government back in the 1980s, so they only pay 2% income tax on the money they park in that country, though they actually only paid about 0.5%.

My question here is not whether it is moral for Apple to do this (the law allows them to do so), but why Apple or any other major corporation is not treated like other US citizens?

Expatriate US citizens – whether they are permanent residents of other countries or not – are taxed by the US on their foreign income. There is an earned income exclusion, which increases from time to time, and which does not take into account exchange rates. A US citizen could be well under the threshold for paying taxes one year, but if on the date that the exchange rate is calculated, the rate is unfavorable, they could owe taxes the following year on the same amount of income. (The current earned income exclusion is $95,100 for an individual, and $190,200 for a couple.) This exclusion also does not take into account the relative cost of living of a country. If the cost of living is higher, salaries will be higher. I experienced this 25 years ago when I lived in Norway for a year; everything cost nearly twice as much as France (where I was living before that), but salaries were higher to compensate.

In addition, the paperwork for Americans overseas filing taxes is substantial, complicated, and in many cases requires the use of a tax attorney or accountant. (See this Boston Globe article for more about this issue.)

What’s even more unfair is that Americans abroad are taxed twice. Once in the country they live in, and another time, if they earn more than the earned income exclusion, by the US. It’s interesting to note that the only other country in the entire world that does this is Eritrea.

Yet Apple isn’t even a resident of another country. Their subsidiaries are, but those subsidiaries only make money for the US company; Apple doesn’t have separate business entities for different countries or territories. (Though they manage to avoid paying VAT in all EU countries but one by “locating” their iTunes Store activities in Luxembourg, where VAT is only 3%, thereby denying VAT income to other countries where digital content is purchased.)

It’s obvious that expatriate Americans get little or nothing in exchange for their taxes. Other than the low-probability events requiring getting bailed out by the US Consulate, Americans abroad get no Social Security benefits, no unemployment, no health care, or anything else for their tax dollars. Apple, however, and other global corporations, get huge benefits from the US legal system, research infrastructure, publicly-subsidized education system, and the many international treaties and agreements governing such key factors to their success as intellectual property and trade regulations. So all of Apple’s sales overseas benefit from the broader fact that it is a US company.

So let’s treat Apple – and Google, Amazon, Yahoo! and all the others – like American citizens. Tax their overseas income, don’t let them set up a web of tax shelters, but make them pay their share.

Apple Bungles Bluetooth in Mac Pro

(When I wrote this article in late October 2006, I assumed that Apple would eventually discover the problem and fix it. After all, there are many posts on Apple’s Support discussion boards about this issue. But, no; I get one or two emails a week from readers who have Mac Pros and have the same problem. I’m astounded that Apple still hasn’t fixed this–in fact, it is clear that the problem is not just in factories, because this morning I received an email from a reader who had the Bluetooth module installed (and wired incorrectly) in an Apple Store.

One more thing. I had the motherboard of my Mac Pro changed last week–there was a problem with USB ports. The technician who came to change it was the same one who walked me through the wiring change for the Bluetooth module over the phone–see below for more on my change. He was very interested to see which wires went where; when he took out the motherboard, it was very clear: the wire that had been originally connected to the Bluetooth module was the one that ran to the AirPort antenna at the back of the computer.)

When I got my new Mac Pro, I was delighted to have such a fast, quiet, powerful new Mac. I was also very happy to be able to use it with my recently-bought Mighty Mouse, which is one of the nicest input devices I’ve used yet. So to do this, I had to order the Bluetooth module, which is a build-to-order option on the Mac Pro. Alas, Apple bungled very badly, connecting the wrong wire to the Bluetooth module. But I’m not the only person who has had this problem; it seems endemic. Read on to find out the whole story…I started wondering what was wrong when my mouse skipped across the screen. Tracking was, at times, normal, but at others it was jerky. I’m right-handed, and the mouse is to the right of my keyboard; the Mac Pro is on the floor, just next to my desk, at a distance of about three feet. It’s in a kind of bookcase, and there’s a desk between it, but the bookcase is open at the front and back, so those two pieces of particle board couldn’t be blocking the Bluetooth transmission, so I thought.

Since I have AppleCare on the Mac Pro, I called the support team. They made me go through the usual motions–run a hardware test, reinstall the Mighty Mouse software, try another user account, and do a clean install. (Note that this was about two hours of my time to get a EUR 39 Bluetooth module and EUR 69 Mighty Mouse to work together…) Nothing resolved the problem, so they determined that there was a problem with the Bluetooth module and/or antenna, and told me a technician would get back to me to set up an appointment. AppleCare here offers on-site repairs for desktop Macs, and that’s one of the reasons why I always buy such contracts: living in rural France, the nearest Apple repair center is a few hundred kilometers away.

The next day, the technician who would come and make the repairs called to make sure he understood the problem, and to say he was ordering the parts. Yesterday (about a week after he ordered the parts) he called to say he would be coming today to make the repair. But in the meantime, I had looked around and seen, on Apple’s discussion boards, that other users were having the same problem. Not only was the problem the same, but a solution was offered.

Here’s where we get to the bungling on Apple’s part… The Bluetooth module is a small chip placed on the motherboard, and it has to be connected to a tiny wire that runs to the Bluetooth antenna. This wire is one of four, three of which are labeled: one has a “BT” label (this is a sticker that wraps around the wire), one is labeled “2”, and another “3”. For some reason, there is a fourth wire which is unlabeled.

The 2 and 3 wires are shorter than the BT and unlabeled wires: they are just long enough to reach the location where and AirPort card would be added. (I don’t have AirPort, so they’re not connected.) The other two wires (BT and unlabeled) are the same length; both can reach the Bluetooth module. So the solution proposed was to switch the BT wire for the unlabeled wire; as the posters in the thread linked to above have all said, this resolves the problem.

So here’s the rub: what happened is that two wires got mislabeled. This didn’t happen when the Bluetooth module was added to the computer, but during the actual assembly of the Mac Pro. This means that either all of Apple’s process sheets have an error, or only some Mac Pros are affected. It’s hard to know which: not every Mac Pro purchaser will get the Bluetooth module, so they won’t have a problem unless they add one later. Also, since the Mighty Mouse works at a distance of about two feet, many users may not realize that there is a problem: it seems that the module itself, and whatever that wire is connected to, emits enough power to work at short distances. (Whereas Bluetooth is speced to work at up to 10 meters or 30 feet.) These users may, however, have occasional problems, and write them off as battery issues or interference.

This has already cost Apple a bit of money, in support calls, and in exchanging Mac Pros, which they seem to have done in some cases, as well as keyboards and mice. The technician who was to come and change my Bluetooth module was especially glad that I could fix the problem (I did it while he walked me through it on the phone), because he had a total of five hours’ drive to my house and back.

Apple’s quality control has failed here. It’s pretty simple to mislabel one of two similar wires (though I haven’t yet found what the purpose of the other wire is), but to allow a machine to go into production without that being discovered is surprising. Again, this may only be the case on a limited number of Mac Pros, or it could affect all of them.

Apple, if you’re reading this, you’d better resolve the problem in your factories, and you had better then contact everyone who has bought a Mac Pro with a Bluetooth module. Save your time, and save ours–two hours the first time, then another hour yesterday to make the fix (going slowly, with the technician on the phone, to make sure I didn’t screw anything up) is far more time than I need to spend on a mistake that is the result of ineptitude. I grant that mistakes happen, but I’m tired of spending so much time to resolve them, simply because you haven’t found them yet.

July 2010: I still get emails about this, and comments are posted to this article, so apparently there are still issues with Bluetooth on Mac Pros. I sold mine more than a year ago – not because of the Bluetooth issue, but because I wanted to downsize (I got a Mac mini) – so I can’t help those who post asking for more help.

Here’s a link to a site that shows some pictures, which, if I recall correctly, match what I saw in my Mac Pro.

More info, Sept. 2010: A reader has pointed me to the following information that he posted on his web site. He solved the problem using a third-party Bluetooth dongle.