The return of Apple Rumor #3

Here’s something fun to do. Google the phrase Rumor #3. Here, I’ll make it easy: Click here.

The top result is a link to a two-year old RexBlog page called All the Apple Rumors You’ll Ever Need. It’s a list of popular rumors that get recycled before any event during which a new Apple product could be announced.

Many of the rumors (the ones with strike-though lines) have made it out of Cupertino and into our pockets or onto our desk- and table-tops. Others rumors haven’t. (And despite it coming to the forefront as recently as yesterday, I’m hoping the #12 rumor (Steve Jobs is retiring) will not be a reality for many years to come.)

However, it’s the #3 rumor that I enjoy most seeing reappear year after year — the “something like an oversized iPod” rumor. Yesterday, the rumor got a supersize re-kindling (bad pun) from Michael Arrington of TechCrunch who says he has it from not two but three independent sources “close to Apple” that a larger format iPod Touch device “will launch in Fall ’09”.

For 2+ years, I’ve enjoyed helping spread this rumor any way I can. Actually, when I started helping to spread it, there really wasn’t a rumor, it was more like a kernel of a rumor. I started doing speculative blogging about such a device in the summer of 2006 when I wrote a post about engadget’s claim of a rumor that Apple was developing an eBook reader. I thought that was a ridiculous idea as a slightly larger formatted iPod with a horizontal screen filling a full side of the device would not only be the perfect eBook reader, it would be the perfect eBook reader PLUS everything else a computer does. (A note of context: the iPhone and iPod Touch, the first iPod with a horizontal screen filling an entire side of an iPod, were not announced until six and 12 months after that post.)

The more I’ve written about Rumor #3, the more I’ve grown to love the concept of the device. Many people have e-mailed me to say that no such device is needed — that an iPhone or iPod Touch is already such a device. But they miss the point of a larger form factor. And, frankly, so did I before using a Kindle for the past year.

Speaking of the Kindle, in November of 2007, after the launch of the Amazon Kindle, I described and mocked-up the rumor #3 concept I hoped Apple was developing and gave it the fictitious name iPod Touchbook. Unbeknownst to me, my concept wasn’t unique as others comp’d up similar concepts before and after I did and gave them lots of names that play around with Apple-like product names, like the MacBook Nano.

Now that I’ve used an Amazon Kindle for a year, I am now completely convinced that the 15+ year prediction of eBook readers catching on right-around-the-corner may finally be right-around-the-corner. After using the Kindle for a year, I’m more convinced than ever that Apple will make it happen, not Amazon.

But Apple will never market a device that is solely an eBook reader. Even if Amazon has been successful with the Kindle (if you can call success selling out of a product a month before two Christmases in a row), the total sales of the device wouldn’t be enough to convince Steve Jobs that the eBook reader market is worth the attention of Apple. And he’d be correct.

However, Apple will sell a device that competes with this holiday season’s smash hit among the geeky early-adapter crowd: the under $500 stripped down notebook computers called netbooks. But rather than cannibalize real Macbooks, Apple probably believes (translation: “knows”) it can disrupt the netbook marketplace with something way cooler and less stripped-down-feelish: a touch screen device with the iPod brand. As I’ve said for two years, this will not be a tablet Mac. Forget that. Tablet PCs aren’t even successful in terms of overall PC notebook marketshare. Why would Apple go after a micro-niche of a meaningless niche.

As I noted last year at length, from a hardware and software standpoint, Apple’s device will be able to leap over anything Amazon can ever hope to do with the Kindle. However, if we all lived in a land called “Common Sense,” I’d think the two companies — and all the other potential eBook reader and Netbook makers — would agree on an open version of the Amazon-owned ebook mobipocket format as iPhones and Kindles both display the format. The rub is, the version of mobipocket files downloaded via Amazon.com is an encrypted version of mobipocket called AZW that can’t be viewed on other devices (but, please correct me if I’m wrong). Rather about adding proprietary DRM formatting to create two versions of mobipocket, an iTunes version and an Amazon version, they both should agree on one format (preferably without DRM) and then fight it out over such consumer-centric issues as price or buyer experience. No doubt to me that in such a war, Apple will win the hardware battle. But on the “buyer experience” front, Amazon has convinced me that their 13 years of learning what books I like to read is more than enough to keep me a loyal customer for book downloads. In other words, I’d love to buy eBooks from Amazon to read on my iPod TouchBook from Apple.

That would be the best of both e- and i-worlds.

Why most 2009 prediction columns are boring and obvious

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I believe reporters should stick to reporting what happened earlier and stay away from predicting what will happen later. Why? The skills that make for good reporting (i.e., keen observation and understanding of facts and context, common sense, skepticism, a tenacity for truth) are often at odds with the skills one needs to be a forecaster or prognosticator (i.e., the ability to know the facts yet dismiss them when a hopeful hypothetical gets in their way, a high threshold for ambiguity, a childlike faith that unsolvable challenges can always be solved, more guts than brains, a willingness — some might call it a “wish” — to be astoundingly wrong.)

The most important reason journalists can’t predict the future is this, however: Reporters base their predictions on the wisdom of “the experts” — those who academically study a field or financially analyze a market. Unfortunately (at least for predictive purposes) such experts are typically active participants in the echo-chamber that spawns top-down conventional wisdom. By definition, “conventional wisdom” is never the source of bold predictions (just ask, President-elect Clinton). Conventional wisdom is more like the setting of Los Vegas odds — the average of all bets that results in a comfort zone for those who must pay-up if their prediction is wrong. But the events and developments that actually are “game-changers” are rarely, if ever, top-down and are never the result of conventional wisdom. Game changing events are long-shots or, as in one of my favorite new buzz-words, “black swans.”*

Because of this, end of the year prediction stories typically reflect a thinking that merely is a linear projection of the present reality: Last year, oil was going to get more-and-more expensive and we were all going to be buying hybrid cars by now. This year, there are predictions that gasoline is going to fall to $1 a gallon and the only way we will buy hybrids will be if the federal government slaps a big tax on gas (which I predict will soon be known as the Friedman tax**).

This year, the 2009 prediction stories all start with how bad the economy is now and how it will stay bad or get worse before it gets better, but not too much better, and “the future” could be anywhere from six months to maybe a year, or, several years. In reality (or fantasy?) those predictions are about as reliable as the Farmers Almanac, daily horoscope, wooly worms or the ground hog. In other words, they may be entertaining and they may get lucky, but they’re based on nothing more than conventional wisdom and semi-educated speculations.

I think a more honest and accurate prediction story would say, simply, next year will be just like this year except a little bit better or a little bit worse, unless something “big” flies in from left field. It will either be something good — say, a breakthrough related to alternative energy sources; or something bad — I could list a dozen, but it’s too early in the morning for me to start writing scary stuff.

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*I recommend reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable that explores the nature of the rare and improbable events that occur much more than we think. Taleb argues convincely that our thinking is usually limited in scope and we make assumptions based on what we see, know, and assume. Reality, however, is much more complicated and unpredictable than we think.

**Thomas Friedman, with whom I agree on a surprising number of things, makes no sense to me on this one. The low price of gas is helping low-income Americans weather the current economic storm. I agree with his advocacy of policies that discourage our use of oil, however, I’d prefer to see tax policies that reward those who purchase hybrids and other alternative energy vehicles than punish those who can afford it least.

Just because you’re old, say over 25, doesn’t mean you can’t learn new stuff

piano keyboard

Over the weekend, a story aired on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday called, Never Too Late To Learn An Instrument. I encourage you to listen to it.

While it’s about adults taking up an instrument for the first time (good news: it’s doable), I believe one can extend the lessons contained in the story to adults learning anything new. The primary point is this: there is nothing about the adult brain that makes it impossible for adults to learn how to play a musical instrument — or learn a new language or to master a killer top-spin cross-court backhand in tennis.

It’s a myth that only children can learn to play the piano — or “how to use the Internet,” for that matter.

Certainly, there are tremendous advantages to learning things as a child: children’s brains are still developing and they think it’s normal to be in situations where someone is teaching them to do something.

So why do adults believe they can’t learn how to play the piano?

More than a neurological limitation, the reason we adults don’t learn new things like how to play a musical instrument is because of our attitudes. According to the NPR story, one of the primary reasons we don’t take up music is our disdain for being incompetent. Hey, we’re adults. We’re used to knowing how to do stuff. We don’t like it when we’re in situations where we’re inept, like, say, when everyone around us knows how to play a videogame and we don’t know how to operate a joystick (I picked an example from my own life). So we say, “Videogames are for kids.”

However, there is nothing scientific that suggests an adult can’t learn to play videogames. Or how to program in Python. Or play a piano. Or edit video. Or shoot video. Or understand what Twitter is all about.

OK. You’re over 25 and you’ve never played the piano. If you start now, will you ever be a concert pianist? Probably not. But you can become an incredible player — much better than you’d ever believe possible. And certainly better than everyone else who won’t even try — i.e., nearly everyone you know.

The same is true about doing anything new. No matter how old you are.

[photo credit: droid - via: Flickrcc]

In praise of the NFL playoffs

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A team wearing Titans uniforms lost today. They got trounced 23-0 by a team wearing Indianapolis Colts uniforms. Both teams benched their starting quarterbacks after one series. Both teams “deactivated” 8 starters. The Titans have six Pro-Bowlers and most of them did not play, or saw very limited action. (Later: Bonus quote from the Tennessean’s Joe Biddle – “It didn’t take long for Titans Anonymous to flood the field. Backups and their backups got into the scrap early. At one point early, the Titans had Tuff Harris, Tyrone Poole and Donnie Nickey in the secondary. Coming into the game those three players had combined for one tackle.

The game meant nothing as both teams had already locked-in their playoff bracket seeds. Even for someone like me, who has seen every Titans game and attended seven home games, it was harder than a pre-season game to keep up with who was playing what. “(The Colts are) playing very, very well, but there’s a chance we may play them again, so we just lined up and played today,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said after the game.

Nike takes a swipe at the NCAA’s
lack of a Division I football playoff.

So the regular season ended today and, technically speaking, the Tennessee Titans are the best team in the NFL. They ended the season with the best record, 13-3. But if such rankings were left up to the experts — the sports writers and ex-player/coach commentators — the Titans would probably be declared 5th or 6th place. Indeed, if it was up to the experts, the Colts would be named AFC South champions because their back-up players beat our back-up players today — and, well, you know, Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning, and all.

Fortunately, sports writers and ex-player/coach commentators don’t get to crown champions in the NFL. Not like they do in Division I NCAA football. The lack of a playoff system is so ridiculous, even one of the NCAA’s largest sources of sponsorship revenue, Nike, mocks it unrelentlessly in a tremendous ad currently running (see video sidebar).

Fortunately, in the NFL, despite the flood of predictions that will now start flowing, the only thing that will determine who will play in and win the Superbowl are the outcomes of playoff games.

But for the record, I’ll go ahead and get my predictions out of the way: On Saturday, January 10, the Titans will beat the Indianapolis Colts in Nashville. Eight days later, on January 18 at around 8:15 p.m. CST, the Titans will beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Nashville to win the AFC championship. (And despite what you’ll hear about towel revenge or Peyton Mannings’ perfection, I know for a fact the Titans can beat either the Steelers or the Colts as I’ve seen them beat both teams this year, live and in-person, at the venue where the games will be played.)

Two weeks later, the Titans will win the Superbowl in Tampa, although I have no idea what team they’ll play. It doesn’t matter. And yes, I’ll be there.

I’m a Titans fan.

What else did you expect me to predict?