The Top 5 Tech Biz Stories of 2012

For the first time ever, smartphones outnumber basic mobile phones. Apple‘s iPhone and Google’s Android devices — which are more powerful than the top consumer PCs of just a decade ago — are changing our habits. Consumers are using smartphones to compare prices at brick-and-mortar retailers. Innovative startups are using these devices to make entrenched markets more efficient. And the “social networking” phenomenon continues forward, as people everywhere join Facebook and Twitter to connect and share content with friends, relatives, and strangers. In 2012, tech titans Apple and Google solidified their market power, even as questions percolated about how each company plans to remain on top of its respective market. (Google is currently staring down the barrel of a major federal antitrust investigation.) Meanwhile, relative upstarts Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon tested the public stock market and each encountered a harsh response from investors. Far from an apocalypse, 2012 was a year of ascension, as Apple CEO Tim Cook asserted his leadership following the passing of his mentor Steve Jobs, and Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo, in an appointment that highlighted the lack of female CEOs at America’s most high-profile companies. (MORE: Lessons from Facebook’s Instagram Photo Flap) Apple vs. Google Tech War – In 2012, it become clear that the most high-profile battle in technology is between Apple and Google, two tech juggernauts that bring radically different visions to the marketplace. As the locus of computing shifts from the desktop to the mobile device, Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android have emerged as dominant platforms. This fight is bigger than just a commercial clash between two tech titans. It’s a war between two fundamentally different visions of technology, described in simplistic terms as closed vs. open. Apple’s model is end-to-end control over the iPhone process, from hardware to software, while Google’s strategy has been to distribute the Android system for free in order to leverage innovation from hardware makers and the software developer community. Each company has been wildly successful: Apple generates over $10 billion in profit annually on iPhone sales, while Google’s Android is now the top mobile operating system on the planet. Given the intensity

Early Apple Computer And Tablet Designs Reveal The iMac And iPad That Might Have Been

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Apple worked closely with Frogdesign during the eighties, creating Apple’s early design language and charting the visual path of Apple computers from the Apple IIc to the Macintosh. Frogdesign founder Hartmut Esslinger’s fingerprints are all over those early, iconic designs, and in a new book called Design Forward, he reveals some concepts for Apple computers and tablets that never made it to market, but that would seem perfectly at home in evolutionary charts depicting the design history of the iPad, iMac and other modern Apple products.

Esslinger’s designs show off a tablet-type device called the “macphone” from 1984, which boasts a corded handset for calling as well as a stylus-based touchscreen for handwritten text entry and a software keyboard, which in some ways resembles the early Newton Apple tablet. Another, the “tablet mac” from 1982, depicts a more simple slate, which can support a corded keyboard for text entry and an external floppy disk drive that’s actually much bulkier than the device itself. These designs show that Apple was thinking about ways to make the computer a tablet long before it introduced the iPad in 2010.

There are also computers inspired by Sony, a company whose industrial design tastes Steve Jobs famously admired, as well as a concept called the “baby mac” from 1985 that has all the hallmarks of later iMacs in a package with a tilting base and low profile keyboard. Some of these concepts are a little more far out, like a two-screen workstation with a tower in the middle, but overall, it’s clear from these designs that Esslinger and Frogdesign didn’t just define the early Apple aesthetic, but also set the stage for later innovations to come.

Click to view slideshow.

Check out the full gallery over at Designboom for more.

The iMac In A World Of MacBooks On The Brink Of iPads

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Modern Apple owes pretty much everything to the iMac. Yes, it was the iPod and later the iPhone and iPad that took the company to new, almost unimaginable heights. But as everyone knows, the company was at death’s door when Steve Jobs unveiled the “Bondi Blue” iMac in 1998. The iMac saved Apple, giving the company the time to do everything else that followed.

But as we enter 2013, the world is a much different place than 1998. Beyond the aforementioned iPods, iPhones, and iPads, in the “traditional” computing space, everyone seems to be using a laptop nowadays. In fact, something like three quarters of Apple’s Mac sales are now made up of their MacBook lines.

And yet, the iMac still exists.

In the past month, Apple has released the latest iterations of the iMac into the world. I’ve been testing out one version — a fully-loaded 21.5-inch — for much of the past month. Darrell has already posted on some hands-on time with the device, a first look comparing it to the previous versions, and a full-on spec-y review. I figured I’d post some thoughts on how I’ve been using it and where I see the iMac fitting in a computing world heading the other direction.

The second Mac I ever bought was an iMac. And from a form-factor perspective, it actually wasn’t all that different from the way the current version looks. In fact, the 2004 white plastic model, was the inception of the current computer-on-a-pedestal design (the inverse of the desk lamp variety). Apple clearly decided that it liked this concept, and since then it has been refinement after refinement after refinement.

The most striking feature of the current iteration is just how thin it is at the sides — just 5mm. When compared just to the last version of the iMac, this new one looks fake, a dummy window unit, perhaps. It’s something like 80 percent thinner at the sides.

But it’s very real. Once you look beyond the sides, you’ll notice the “hump” in the back where all the goods are actually stored. Even with the component hump, the new iMac consists of 40 percent less volume than the previous versions. (Thankfully, Apple didn’t attempt to shove an optical drive, long-since dead, in the hump.)

And while the backside with less junk-in-the-trunk is great, you’re not going to be looking at the backside of the iMac (though Apple did make the Apple logo extra large this time around for those who do have it on desks facing outward). You’re going to be looking at the screen.

One reason Apple was able to make this new iMac so much thinner is that they borrowed and modified some processes from their other products to make the display itself 5mm thinner. Previously, the iMac’s front panel was laser-welded from the inside, which required more room to maneuver. Now, they’re using what’s called friction-stir welding to put the front right up against the back in a way that any user won’t even be able to perceive.

And since you can’t perceive it, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the screen itself is now significantly closer to the glass. Just as with the newer iPhones, the screen is now laminated to the display, removing a 2mm gap that existed before. Again, this is perhaps hard to see without a direct comparison, but you should perceive the screen feeling closer and more vibrant as a result.

More importantly from a usage perspective, the screen is now 75 percent less reflective. On my old iMacs (I’ve had three in total), they were all a bit like looking into a mirror if I was using any application with a dark background or if it was sunny outside. Now, you’ll only get hints of your reflection in the black trim around the display.

Unfortunately, the screen is not a “retina” screen. While it is the best screen ever found on an iMac, those who use retina displays regularly now will likely be at least a little disappointed. I’m in that camp as I replaced my old iMac with a 15-inch MacBook Pro with a retina display earlier this year. Going back, the result, particularly with text, is definitely noticeable.

But it may matter less to you depending on again, if you don’t regularly use a retina display, and/or if you use the iMac relatively far away from your head (pixels are harder to see the farther away you are from the screen, hence why the iPhone has a higher pixel density than the MacBook Pro, but both are still “retina”). I’m using the iMac at my standing desk, relatively closer to my face, so I notice.

For many, the additional screen size alone will trump the lack of retina. 21.5-inches when you’re used to 15-inches is great. 27-inches is even better, obviously. The reality is that we’re unlikely to get a 27-inch retina display anytime soon simply because it’s likely too cost prohibitive. Perhaps we’ll get a retina Cinema Display for professionals first, but the iMac will probably have to wait.

Another element the iMac gives you that a MacBook does not (at least not yet) is the option for a “Fusion Drive”. Marketing terms aside, this is a great method of compromise that Apple has come up with. Essentially, you have both a solid-state flash drive and a traditional hard drive in the machine, and software found in a slightly altered version of OS X Mountain Lion determines what data should go where automatically (based on your usage). This allows you to have the speed of SSD with the storage volumes of a regular hard drive.

This is important because one definite use case for the iMac is to be the main content hub of the house. That means it will need a lot of storage. You can configure Fusion Drives up to 3 TB. On this test machine, I have a 1 TB Fusion Drive installed, and it works great. It feels as fast as my MacBooks with flash drives — something like a billion times faster than my older iMac with its traditional hard drive.

Speaking of that old iMac, one major complaint I used to have about the machine was how hot it would run. If you dared put your hand along the backside, it was very, very hot to the touch. One problem was that the fan used to be found along the top and when kicked into high gear, the machine would push all the heat up there. This new iMac feels much, much cooler to the touch. You can still feel a little warmth along the top if you’re pushing the machine, but it’s barely noticeable.

Now, most of the heat is dissipated through the fan in the middle of the back of the iMac. A few times (while testing games and yes, Flash video), I got the fan to kick on. It’s silent and eliminates the heat well — a huge improvement over the previous version of the iMac. Apple also says that the machine now uses 50 percent less energy overall when idle. Again, this is important for the iMac which I imagine many people leaving on at all times as their media hub.

I keep going back to the “media hub” thing. I guess it’s because I’m trying to figure out where the iMac fits in this world of MacBooks that is spilling over into a world of iPads. Again, the extra screen real estate is great in a home office or at a desk in an actual office. But increasingly, you’re seeing more and more people with laptops that either plug into an external monitor at a desk, or don’t even bother. Retina displays are pushing this issue as well, as more content becomes retina-ready.

Meanwhile, the Fusion Drive is great if you’re going to use the device to store all your media. But with services like iCloud, the need to store those massive media files locally is quickly going away as well. And I have to imagine the Fusion Drive will find its way to MacBooks as well eventually — it’s already in the Mac mini too.

This iMac, with a 3.1 GHz i7 processor and 16 GB of RAM, is definitely the fastest machine I’ve ever tested. But part of my rationale behind the “spec is dead” argument is that there are a ton of machines out there that are now “fast enough” for most purposes. And if you’re doing intensive things like video editing, wouldn’t you still opt for the Mac Pro?

Yes, the starting prices for an iMac are relatively cheap (starting at $1,299 for the 21.5-inch version and $1,799 for the 27-inch version), but the starting prices for MacBook Pros are still cheaper (starting at $1,199 for a 13-inch non-retina and $1,699 for a 13-inch retina).

There is no question in my mind that this is the best desktop computer that Apple has ever made. I simply wonder how many people need a desktop computer in their lives going forward. Certainly, everything is trending the other way towards portable and fully mobile computing. And with all computing rapidly advancing towards the “fast enough” threshold (MacBook Pros are there, iPads/iPhones probably aren’t that far behind), the only argument for the iMac becomes the screen real estate. That just reeks of a dedicated screen (or smart glass) that sits on a desk (or your wall) that you push content to from your portable/mobile devices. I fear the need for a stand-alone desktop computer is nearing an end no matter the environment.

But we’re not there yet. And if you’re at all interested in having a desktop machine for your office and/or home office, the new iMac is clearly the one to get. I’m tempted to buy a fully-loaded 27-inch model (which, by the way, allows you to upgrade the RAM to 32 GB). But it’s not a slam dunk that I’m going to — and that has never been the case before. My MacBook is simply fast enough, and because I can take it everywhere, I get much more usage out of it. My desire for the iMac is simply for the larger screen real-estate — but again, non-retina prevents it from being a slam dunk in my mind.

So really, I think I’m just drawn to this machine for reasons of nostalgia. It bears a resemblance to my first iMac, but it’s so much more stunning in every way. And it hearkens back to the product that once saved Apple.

Apple’s leadership spurs industry-wide changes for Chinese labor

Apple’s efforts to reform the labor practices of its Chinese suppliers is having a noticeable impact, according to a recent New York Times report. While the changes may be happening slower than some labor advocates would like, Apple’s attempts to improve worker safety, curb excessive overtime, and eliminate the use of child labor is having a “ripple effect” throughout the industry.

In January, NYT published a scathing report planting much of the responsibility for the ills of labor abuses in China on Apple’s shoulders, even as the company became the first electronics manufacturer to join the Fair Labor Association and agreed to independent, third-party audits. The report suggested that Apple executives were willing to look the other way on labor abuses in order to keep costs from Chinese suppliers low. Apple CEO Tim Cook refuted the claims, saying that “any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us.”

FLA audits conducted in February and March at several Foxconn facilities, which assemble most of Apple’s devices as well as those of other manufacturers, identified 360 “action items” in order to improve working conditions, such as cutting down overtime hours, improving worker safety, increasing wages, and implementing a grievance system so that workers would not fear retribution for reporting problems. FLA inspectors noted in August that 284 of those items had been addressed, many ahead of the schedule formulated by the FLA.

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Apple Exploring Alternative Wind Power Technology And Motion-Control Mac Mice

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Apple’s patent filings today reveal one concept outside their usual product-focused applications, detailing a method for harnessing wind power in a manner different from that employed in traditional turbines. Electricity gathered from a wind turbine would be converted to heat energy and stored in a “low-heat capacity fluid” in Apple’s patent, allowing it to be tapped on an as-needed basis whenever the wind dies down.

It all gets pretty technical, but painted in broad strokes, the system would potentially use the motion of the rotor shaft moving against a “low-heat capacity fluid” (such as ethanol or mercury, for instance) to generate heat through friction between the two surfaces. This can then be transferred from the storage fluid to a working fluid which is then boiled off to release steam. The steam powers a turbine, converting the energy to usable form.

Apple’s system differs from basic wind-power generators that are highly subject to variances in wind power, as well as systems that use batteries to store energy made through rotational energy for later use when wind isn’t actively making that much power. Instead, it is designed to make wind power available on a more “on-demand” basis, which is of significant importance for facilities requiring a constant, uninterrupted power supply. That likely explains why Apple is pursuing this kind of tech: Its massive data centers have huge power requirements, and the company has stated its commitment to harnessing wind, solar and other alternative energy sources to help keep these facilities running smoothly.

So far, Apple has been working mostly on building solar farms and biogas generators to help fulfill its energy needs at data center locations like the one it has in Maiden, NC, and competitor Google recently revealed that it has powered a data center with wind power for the first time.

In a second filing published today, Apple is back on track with its more consumer-oriented patents, this time detailing an evolution of the mouse that would bring more gesture controls to the input device. The additions would allow a mouse to detect tilting, tilt-sliding, lifting and other gestures to add additional command capabilities to the mouse’s basic clicking, movement and scrolling. It’s sort of a Wii Remote-lite, which is likely an easier control paradigm for traditional desktop computer users to adopt than anything more drastic.

This is interesting is because Apple is still showing an interest in iterating on its input device design, which still requires a lot of improvement. The Magic Mouse, while promising with its multitouch surface, is in practice a frustrating device to use. Apple traditionally hasn’t done great with mice, and it’ll be interesting to see if it can do any better while adding motion control into the mix, if this patent ever turns into a shipping product.

Rumor: Apple Building Bluetooth Smart Watch

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According to Chinese gadget news site Tech.163, Apple may be in the process of developing its own smart watch that connects to your Apple devices via Bluetooth. Based on the report, Intel will be working with Apple to create the smart watch, with a 1.5-inch PMOLED display made by RiTDisplay with ITO-coated glass.

Apple has long had a small hold on the watch market thanks to its iPod nano, which is easily attached to a wrist band turning it into a full-functioning watch.

Recently, however, smart watches have grown increasingly popular. Sony, for instance, has a new offering called the Smart Watch, and we can’t forget how Pebble blew up Kickstarter with it’s e-paper Smart Watch that connects to iOS and Android devices.

Users are looking for more and more connectivity, and as it stands now, an iPod nano with no Bluetooth connection to a user’s phone or tablet is becoming less attractive.

Throughout the past year, there have been many questions over when and if Apple will join the Smart Watch race. Today marks one of the first semi-substantiated leaks.

However, I’m approaching this with a hefty helping of salt. Even if Apple is making a watch, it will be quite a while before we see any real evidence of it. Plus, there’s no proven market for smart watches yet, even with the success of Pebble and MetaWatch.

According to the source, Apple will launch this smart watch later next year.

Whether or not that’s true, this will likely excite multitudes of geeks who clearly see value in such a device, as proven by Pebble and others.

It won’t be revolutionary, per se — many have already entered the smart watch space — but Apple has a knack for making niche devices mainstream. Just take a look at tablets. Before the iPad, the main question on everyone’s mind was whether or not tablets would be used in everyday life.

If this rumor proves true, Apple is probably doing the same thing it did with tablets to the idea of the watch. Low-power Bluetooth 4.0 makes wearable connected tech more practical, and with Apple’s design touch and software ecosystem, a smart watch could appeal to more than just gadget geeks.

Apple Reportedly Looking To Bring Mac Mini Production To U.S. Shores

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Apple is said to be considering a move that will bring Mac mini production to the U.S., through manufacturing partner Foxconn, according to supply chain sources speaking to Digitimes. Foxconn already has an estimated 15 “operating bases” in the U.S. according to Digitimes. Indeed two of those at least include factories in California and Texas that finish assembly of partially assembled products, and while Foxconn officially denied plans earlier in the year to expand to Detroit, it did note that it has multiple U.S.-based facilities already in place.

Part of the production effort will involve Foxconn’s push to outfit some of those facilities with more automated workers, something else we heard the manufacturer was planning for a future ramp-up back in November. More automated production lines would help Apple get around the limitations it has cited in the past for failing to do more production at home in the U.S.: costs, and getting production facilities up to its exacting standards.

The Mac mini is a good candidate for Apple getting its feet wet once again with U.S. production for a number of reasons. First, like the Mac Pro which was first suggested as the likely target for Apple’s $100 million investment in U.S. production, it doesn’t have a screen. Eliminating display components from the equation represents a significant cost savings in terms of shipping components, and it likely has other benefits, too. Displays on most Mac and mobile device models are now integrated tightly with other components including the glass and other internals, so having production facilities near to display partners just makes sense in case things go wrong or need adjustment once limited trial or full production has already begun.

The Mac mini is also a Mac with relatively low shipping volume: Digitimes predicts 1.4 million units total for 2012. While Apple doesn’t break out individual Mac sales figures, that would make for a relatively small chunk of the 18.1 million Macs it sold during fiscal 2012. It’s small enough to be manageable for what is essentially a trial run, while also being large enough to represent a serious undertaking, where producing the niche and aging Mac Pro would’ve been a symbolic gesture, at best.

This is Digitimes, which has a spotty track record, so be wary of its veracity as usual, but remember also that the publication has proven in the past to have significant upstream supply chain access, too, and Apple CEO Tim Cook is on the record saying the production of one Mac line in particular will move stateside in 2013.

How to offload your iTunes library to a NAS

iTunes is something a whole lot of folks tolerate. It’s never been the best at any particular thing (except perhaps activating and syncing your iPhone or iPad, where it’s the only official game in town), but it certainly does a lot of stuff. Sometimes slow, sometimes crashy, and perpetually gaining features, it’s the app we use every day but rarely with any joy. One of its more frustrating aspects is its lack of an officially supported server component—Apple seems stubbornly unwilling to provide a real iTunes server, and so folks who would otherwise happily centrally locate a media library on a perfectly suitable NAS are stuck with islands of music.

Building a central multi-user iTunes server that works consistently and well— that’s also easy to configure and maintain without needing remote administration tools or command line hackery—is annoyingly difficult. However, it is relatively easy to take your iTunes library and simply move it to a NAS. It’s not the house iTunes server we wish we had, but it does get your data off of your computer’s local hard disk drive.

Why would you want to do this? The reason that pushed me down this path is solid state disks. As iTunes libraries go, mine’s middle of the road—about 50GB, made up of a mixture of music, audiobooks, and iOS apps but lacking movies, TV, and podcasts. Still, that’s 50GB of SSD space that would be taken up by files which, frankly, don’t particularly benefit from being on an SSD. I could relocate them to an external drive, but I don’t have any spare external drives with enough capacity. What I do have, though, is a Synology DS-412+ with plenty of space on it.

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