Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPad Second Impressions

The iPad got a surprising amount of bad press. This was quickly followed by hard-core Apple defenders rebutting the complaints. Wired lists 10 Things Missing From the iPad then dismisses them as nothing anyone would want, anyway. I'm going to take a closer look at Wired's list. I reordered the list and combined four items into one.
  • Flash
  • Verizon
  • OLED
  • Multitasking
  • 16:9
  • USB, HDMI, Keyboard, Camera
  • GPS
Wired's take on some of these is interesting. For Flash and Verizon, the answer seems to be that it is their fault that Apple doesn't support them. Wired even predicts that the iPad will kill Flash. I'm not sure why. There are tens of thousands of iPhones out there and Flash still survives. Even if the iPad is a success, it will take it years to equal the impact that the iPhone has.

Wired has a point about OLED. It would have pushed the price point up too high. More on that later.

People don't really expect to do multiple things on their phone so multitasking wasn't a big deal. Even so, the ability to multitask is a selling point for Droid and Palm. The iPad is supposed to be more than a simple phone so why does it have this restriction? Wired assumes that anyone buying an iPad will be too busy watching movies to want email going in the background (which ties into the next point). Ok, if the iPad is going to be a personal movie device then you might not want email interrupting the movie but what about people who are using it to browse the web. I thought that most people multi-tasked these days.

The lack of a 16:9 proportion argues that the iPad is not primarily meant as a way of watching movies and TV. Wired points out that the logo and the home button are positioned for portrait, not landscape, which also indicates that video is more an afterthought than a goal. The lack of built-in HDMI says the same thing. It is possible that they positioned things the way they did so that the iPad would look like a big iPhone. Microsoft used 16:9 in the Zune HD and it looks fine in portrait and landscape. That makes the proportions really puzzling. It's even more puzzling if you assume that the iPad will mainly be used for web browsing. Most web pages look best in landscape. Did they design it around books? Or was my big iPhone theory correct?

This brings me to the real design factor in the iPad - cost. They wanted it to be cheap so they left a lot out. You can add USB, a keyboard, a camera, and possibly HDMI but you have to pay extra. These extra will add up quickly, too. A USB port and a docking station adds 20% to the base price. I'm betting that Jobs came up with a list of features that the iPad has to have to be considered functional and cut everything else out if it to save money. Some things are available as ad-ins. GPS was eliminated except on the higher-end version that can use cell-phone technology to approximate it. That may explain the 4:3 screen, also. It is probably cheaper than a 16:9. It certainly explains why the iPad is so light on memory. $500 only gets you 16 gig and the most you can get is 64 gig. That's not much for a device that is supposed to become your entertainment hub.

Sacrificing features for price is probably a good idea. A recent survey found that most people would not buy an $800 iPad. A $500 is much more attractive. Still, you really have to wonder how successful it will be as a media device? It's too big to be a dedicated MP3 player and it is pretty expensive as a single-person video player. The ability to download movies and TV shows and play them on your wide-screen TV without having to resort to a second computer or an expensive adapter seems like a missed selling point.

I haven't talked about games yet. The assumption is that this will be a great gaming platform and possibly that is its real intended use. I'm still a little skeptical about that, too. I know that the iPhone has been embraced as a gaming platform but I wonder just how much fun it will be using a 1 1/2 pound game controller. I predict a lot of repetitive stress injuries.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iPad Impressions

The Jesus Tablet has finally arrived and it's a big iPhone with a clunky name - the iPad. This is supposed to be the device that saves publishing by convincing us to stop accessing the Internet with our PCs for free and start buying the content for the iPad, instead. It isn't going to happen.

Gizmodo has a list of things that suck with the iPad. I'm going to concentrate on a few important ones.

First, its web browser is crippled. It doesn't run Flash. That means that Youtube needs a special app to work and pages with embedded Youtube videos will not work.

Like the iPhone, it will only do one thing at a time. You can browse or your can check email but don't try to do both.

There's no camera so you cannot do a video chat with anyone either.

People are expecting the iPad to take over ebooks the way that the iPod took over music. It will not. It is too big and too expensive.

I don't expect it to cut into the Netbook market much either. It is lighter but it is missing a lot of functionality and it costs more. I'm using a laptop on my lap right now. The form factor is pretty good. I can type without it falling off of my lap and I don't have to hold it in place to see the screen.

Apple had great success with music and phones but they entered these markets with revolutionary products. Prior to the iPod, MP3 players had very limited memory and hard-to-use controls. Apple was the first to offer a music player that could hold an entire collection instead of a couple of CDs.

The iPhone was the first phone with a big touch screen. Every phone before it had a keypad that took up a lot of space.

The iPad does not offer new functionality. There are other tablets on the market that do more. For the starting price of an iPad, you can get a good notebook with ten times the storage and a full version of Windows 7. For less than the price of an iPad you can get a netbook with a fairly large hard drive, similar screen size and good battery life.

I don't doubt that Apple will sell a lot of iPads - at least a million by the end of the year. But I don't think that it will dominate any markets the way that the iPod and iPhone have done.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Human Target

I never cared for the Human Target back when it was a back-up strip for Superman. The adventures of a regular guy who would disguise himself as people in danger in order to dodge assassination attempts was a poor fit for Superman and backup strips were usually too short to tell a good story, anyway.

Fox has adapted the strip as an action-adventure show which I like a great deal.

The concept has been totally retooled. The main character (Mark Valley) is now a bodyguard, accompanying the target rather than replacing him. He goes by the name Christopher Chance but it is clear that this is not his real name. In the first couple of episodes, they have dropped hints that Chance has a shady background and may have a death-wish. He is assisted by Winston (Chi McBride playing nearly the same role that he had in Pushing Daisies) and Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley).

The show is basically an old-fashioned action/adventure/mystery with some comedy thrown in. This used to be a TV staple but now is mainly represented on network TV by Chuck. The two episodes shown so far involved a run-away bullet train and a pilot-less airliner.

I hope that this show gets a decent chance. Fox premiered it on Sunday then moved it to Wednesday at 9 with a special time next week on Tuesday. It may switch places with American Idol and move to 8:00.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Avatar, Race and Heroes

Is Avatar racist? Many think so. The story has been described as one of a series of movies in which a white westerner abandons his culture and embraces a new one, thereby becoming its savior. The implication is that the alien culture cannot save itself, it has to have a white outsider to save it.

This general plotline has deep roots.

One of the oldest and most common stories is about a young man who leaves home, finds a teacher or mentor, and becomes a hero. This dates back at least a thousand years. George Lukas bragged about using it in the original Star Wars movie.

A refinement of this has the man encountering a totally new culture and embracing it. This is a staple of novels, especially science fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs used it for most of his heroes. This is the basis of Dune and the historic Japanese novel, Shogun.

The reason this is so common is that it allows the writer to introduce the new culture to us as it is introduced to the hero. The introduction becomes part of the plot.

During the Viet Nam war, a new variation grew up. The idea of a wise primitive culture resisting a cruel, technological culture was introduced. This mirrored the perception of a third world country being able to defeat a superpower.

In this variation, technology and culture have blinded the hero and he must learn the wisdom that his people forgot. The villains are normally either military or industrial with military accompanying them. They are contemptuous of the local culture but, when the final fight comes, the natives easily best the outsiders using their superior insights. Writer Alan Dean Foster made a career out of this as have other writers from the late 1960s and 70s.

This is what I grew up reading and James Cameron was born the same year that I was. You can also see the influence of this in other movies. In Return of the Jedi, Imperial soldiers are overcome by feral teddy bears. In Phantom Menace, a bunch of semi-primitives challenge a droid army. It is no coincidence that Alan Dean Foster wrote the first Star Wars novel.

The message here is debatable. It can be seen as a need for a white savior to rescue cultures that cannot save themselves, no matter how superior they are. An alternate view is that even someone from a decadent western culture can become enlightened if he leaves his culture behind and embraces a new one.

If James Cameron had just left it at that, conservatives would have continued to jeer but that would have been the end of it. The problem is that Cameron couldn't leave it alone. He had to introduce a racial element. When he cast the movie he cast whites as the bad guys and people of other races as the natives. Avatar is not about the superiority of primitive, planet-loving cultures over modern technological civilization. It is about everyone else being superior to whites. But they still need a white guy to save them. If you are sensitive enough then there is something here to offend everyone. Whites - you are evil. Blacks, Indians, Asians - you need whites to save you from other whites.

With it's anti-colonialism and anti-Bush message, Avatar was considered a contender for the Best Picture Oscar but some ham-handed racial casting might turn off enough Academy voters to give the Best Picture to someone else (possibly someone who made a better picture).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Doctor Parnassus

Most people know the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus as Heath Ledger's last film. Forget that. Yes, Ledger is there in an important role but he isn't what makes the movie stand out. It's real claim to fame is that it is Terry Gilliam's return to the type of film-making he did in the 1980s. It is the first movie that he wrote and directed since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988!) and his personal touch shows. Like a Tim Burton movie, there are a number of "Gilliam" images scattered throughout.

The movie is about a series of wagers between Doctor Parnassus, a former Buddhist monk, and Mr. Nick, the devil. Parnassus has a traveling show in which people go through a mirror and enter a world created by a combination of Parnassus's imagination and their own. While there, they are presented with a choice between salvation and perdition. Parnassus and Nick each try to influence the person's choice.

Over the centuries, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and Nick (Tom Waits) have made wagers with various stakes. To confuse things, Nick doesn't always want to win. Sometimes he has his sights on a different prize and Parnassus is a means to an end. The result of one of these wagers is that Nick gets to claim Parnassus's daughter, Valentina, at her 16th birthday. As the days are counting down, a new person enters the show - a man they found hanging beneath a bridge. It turned out that he wasn't dead. He had swallowed a tube which kept his windpipe from being crushed. The man's name is Tony, played by Ledger along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. He seems to offer salvation but he has his own dark secrets.

While the acting is good, the real star of the show are the visuals. Parnassus's traveling wagon unfolds into a fantastic stage with clockwork figures moving back and forth. Other times it has an seemingly unlimited number of doors and hiding places. The Imaginarium itself is ever-changing. Many of the visuals are reminiscent of Baron Muchausen. There is also a dance number by policemen in drag that reminds you that Gilliam started out in Monty Python.

If you liked Baron Munchausen, Brazil and Time Bandits then you will like Parnassus. If they left you confused then so will Parnassus.