Technology

Apple's latest adventure will be a test of how it can get by without Steve Jobs.

iPod

“No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” So goes the now classic dismissal of the first ever iPod in 2001 by an editor of Slashdot, a popular online blogging community of free and open-source software advocates.  Skeptical comments poured in about how sales would be limited by the fact that the device was only compatible with Mac users who also had iTunes and a firewire port. Commentators elsewhere scratched their heads wondering why a computer company would want to get involved in the business of selling digital music players, an already crowded space.

We all know what happened next.  

iTunes and its music store were later made available on the Windows platform. Prices came down. More models with fewer features were introduced at lower price points. Before long, young urbanites were seen everywhere walking the streets and standing in subway trains wearing the iconic white earbuds. Apple’s “cool” credentials were solidified by the company’s association with whatever music people liked listening to. Unlike the Macintosh that was restricted to a desk in the privacy of a home or office, the iPod was highly visible everywhere, and had become a fashion item.

MP3 players were nothing new at the time, but it could be a skilled job learning to use them. With many small electronic devices, learning to use them can often require reading small print instructions in a small leaflet that unfolds into an intimidatingly large manual with the same convoluted instructions repeated in a dozen languages.  With Apple’s products, a manual is provided but seldom needed, such is the simplicity and intuitive design of the user interface. Despite the occasional technical hiccup, such as the iPhone 5 battery recall, Apple has generally given users a pleasant experience with a quality product and enabled it to build a brand with a clean, slick and urbane ambience. Microsoft tried this with products like the Zune, but has generally come across as trying too hard to emulate Apple, trying to put a veneer of coolness on a stodgy and clunky product. 

The Apple Watch has been greeted with the usual mix of reactions. Apple fans drool over it, while skeptical reporters predict a flop.  The company has never allowed skepticism to hold it back, and this is where Apple’s unique philosophy comes into play.  Leadership is not just about giving people what they want, often it is about giving people what they need, even if they do not know that they need it. The vision of Steve Jobs in the founding of Apple still rings true.  The idea of a computer for normal people to use in the home for everyday tasks was considered preposterous in the early 1980s, but Apple boldly launched the age of the personal computer, was emulated by the rest of the industry, and an entire way of life was changed. Apple is not afraid to create new markets.

That said, Microsoft cannot be accused of totally lacking in vision. Their proprietary Small Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) was an attempt to display useful information on everyday objects like coffee makers, and most notably in the SPOT Watch, an early attempt at a smart watch that was launched in 2004. Taking its data from a service called MSN Direct that broadcast FM radio signals in 100 metropolitan areas, the SPOT Watch could keep the user updated on weather, sports scores, news and other useful information. The expense of the service combined with the limits of the technology of the time and failed to provide an experience compelling enough to catch on.  It was discontinued in 2012.

By contrast, the advent of the smartphone, spurred in no small part by the iPhone which brushed aside the Blackberry, has transformed life by putting the power of the computer in just about everyone’s pocket. To sit on a train nowadays is to see everyone’s attention glued to a small screen where only twenty years ago it would have been everyone either looking out the window or reading a newspaper.  The Apple Watch could well usher in the era of people walking around looking at their watches.  It may even spark a renaissance of the wrist-borne device among younger people. Decreasing numbers of people in their early thirties or younger are wearing wristwatches, preferring to look at their phones when they need the time. However watches as a status symbol and piece of jewelry seem to be hanging in there, with sales steadily increasing year on year and holding on to 13 percent of the jewelry market. It would seem that people who relied on their phones to tell the time when they were younger tend to buy wristwatches as they get older.

More prestigious watches continue to sell, cashing in on a perceived value that remains high enough to convince some people to part with five-figure sums. Brands like Omega and Rolex have not lost their cachet.  Whether or not the Apple Watch captures the imagination of the younger generation remains to be seen. Apple has had many successes, but its history is also littered with products that either met mediocre results or flopped completely. The Pippin of 1996 was a games console developed in partnership with third-party manufacturers including Bandai, and it bombed spectacularly by being too expensive. The QuickTake that ran from 1994 to 1997 was a digital camera that failed to compete against more established companies in the photography market.  The Newton PDA was strangled shortly after birth when Steve Jobs returned to the Apple fold. Indeed many of the less successful Apple products existed during Mr Jobs’ absence from the company, a time when it seemed like it was losing its focus, and only with Jobs’ return did it regain the old magic. 

This may fuel a perception that Apple cannot continue rising to the dizzy heights of innovation without the wisdom of Jobs. 

Smart watches are not new by any means, and like the MP3 players of the 1990s there are plenty out there.  Whether or not the Apple Watch, the company’s first post-Jobs radical departure into a new market, does for wearables what the iPod did for music players, will be seen as a test of how Apple can fare in the post-Jobs era.

 

The British government is about to rush new privacy-busting laws onto the books with little debate.

In most democratic countries, making laws is a slow and laborious process, and deliberately so. It is such an important task that it is often shackled with all manner of checks and balances to prevent abuse of power.  The feeling among constitutional framers was that waiting a long time for legislation to pass is a small price to pay for having good laws on the books, and it makes it difficult for freedoms to be curtailed.

It is therefore alarming to privacy advocates that the British government is fast-tracking legislation through the House of Commons aimed at allowing the authorities to continue to access telephone and internet records. What critics are calling the “snooper’s charter” does not require companies to log the content of all communications, but it does require them to retain twelve months’ worth of meta data such as when calls were made, what numbers were dialed, internet browsing histories and so on. However it allows a “legal intercept” to be made, whereby a target can be identified for additional monitoring, in which case the contents of the communication can be monitored.

Why the rush?  In April the European Court of Justice struck down existing powers brought about by way of an EU directive, and David Cameron’s government wants British law clarified. Other EU member states are also going to have to make their own arrangements to clarify their laws in the absence of an EU-wide directive.  The British government is arguing that service providers are being threatened with legal action by privacy advocates if they do not start destroying data, and the feeling is that some of that data could be vital in criminal cases.

The Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labour Party have agreed to support the legislation, but with a considerable number of strings attached.  These conditions, which were initially resisted by Mr Cameron, include a range of measures to ensure “transparency and oversight.”  A Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will be established to assess the impact on civil liberties, annual reports will have to be published on how the powers are used, the number of public bodies that can ask for communications data will be restricted, and other checks and other measures will be taken to prevent abuse.

In justifying the high speed legislation the Prime Minister raised the usual specters of organized crime, paedophiles, Isis, and al Shabab. This may play well with conservative voters who respond well to fear-based campaigning, but will meet with skepticism among others.  The catastrophic and unprovoked war in Iraq, waged on trumped-up charges, has made a lasting impression on people’s willingness to trust government warnings about threats from evil-doers.

The opposition Labour Party has expressed concerns about the rushed process to get the law on the statute books before the summer recess, but the party leader Ed Miliband has expressed support for the law and will support it.

However parliamentary support for the legislation is not unanimous.  David Davis, a Conservative backbencher and former shadow home secretary, has described the situation as a “theatrical emergency” and says that officials have been aware of the court’s ruling since April and there has been plenty of time for ministers to get a response through Parliament with proper scrutiny.  “This is complicated law, it needs to be got right,” he says.

The emergency law will lapse in 2016, after the next general election. After that, any renewal will be subject to review through the usual parliamentary channels, but skeptics will continue to wonder why such scrutiny cannot take place now, or why the opposition is not doing a more thorough job of testing government policy to destruction.

NASA contests encourage students to pursue careers in aeronautical engineering.

The VT students' winning design. Image Credit: Virginia Tech.

The first A in NASA’s name is usually overshadowed by the S, representing the agency’s spectacular activities beyond Earth’s atmosphere, but aeronautics research remains a large part of the organization’s remit.  So is education and inspiring young people to pursue careers in aeronautical engineering. As part of that mission, the agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) puts up numerous prizes each year, and challenges students to come up with designs for solving real-world engineering problems.

ARMD’s contests include such tasks as designing Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) for fighting wildfires, designing safer airports, and designing helicopters.  Competitions are aimed at various age groups ranging from K-12 school children up to university students.

One recent challenge for college students was the design of a UAV for tracking hurricanes.  The challenge was to improve on the flight limitations of drones currently used to track and gather data on hurricanes during the Atlantic storm season which runs from June through November. As climate change makes such extreme weather events more frequent and more violent, this is a pressing problem.

“The data gathered by UAS’s is crucial to refining computer models so we can better predict not just the path of these storms, but also the process of hurricane formation and growth,” said Craig Nickol, a NASA aerospace engineer and technical lead for the contest at the agency’s Langley Research Center. “This is where current systems fall short.”

Predicting the path and strength of storms requires several days of consistent measurement, but current drones have a limited flight time of 24 hours.  NASA’s challenge was for students to design a system that can fly for seven days straight. Eight colleges submitted entries with the top three winning prizes.

The University of Virginia took third place with a design that said to have a flight endurance of 7.5 days. The life of the aircraft was estimated at 15 years, with a total lifecycle cost of about $493.7 million.

Purdue University took second place with a hydrogen-powered UAS capable of seven days of uninterrupted flight. Its approximate costs include $310 million for design, $78 million for production and operating costs of about $17,000 per flight hour.

First prize went to Virginia Tech’s team of nine university seniors who proposed a system consisting of two aircraft, each with a flight endurance of 7.8 days and using a liquid hydrogen fuel source. The estimated cost of that system was $199.5 million for production and a ten year lifecycle.

The prizes were awarded based on the level of supporting detail and documentation of the decision making process.

The University Aeronautics Engineering Design Challenge has been running for a decade.  The three winners of this year’s contest will receive a cash award through an education grant and cooperative agreement with Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.  Competitions like this are an illustration of how government agencies like NASA, without spending a fortune in tax dollars, can spur research and inspire people to pursue engineering careers.

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