Rage3D Kombuting // September 13th edition

Author: Panagiotis Vagiakos
Editor: Charles Oliver
Date: September 13th, 2012

Rage3D Kombuting: iPhone 5, Nokia new phones and Valve

This week: iPhone 5, Nokia new phones and Valve

Is it a blog? Is it my rumblings? Is it Stuff That Are Entirely My Opinion And Do Not Reflect That of Rage3Dô? Guilty as charged on all accounts. Enjoy and comment away :)

Has Apple dropped the ball on innovation?

First of all I must apologise for delaying the column this week; but I really wanted to watch the next-generation iPhone presentation on the 12th (which I am doing right now actually, as I am typing these lines, via the excellent Engadget live blog - only thing that's missing is live video of the Foo Fighters, that are now on stage). So the big mystery is now unveiled, and the iPhone 4Ss iPhone 5 specifications are out. And let me tell you ... it's the most BORING presentation Cupertino has ever graced us with. Like, ever. I don't know what's going on with their security over there, but they really need to step up; we already knew what they were going to announce ... to the dot. Some Chinese firm even went too far and patented the looks of the (then) unannounced iPhone 5 - which should make a good laugh in the months to come.

Back to Apple though. The new iPhone has a new processor (no benchmarks yet, just the promises of Apple to double the performance over ... A5? A5X? We'll see details when proper benchmarks arrive), a 4-inch display (same 326 ppi as the 4S) display with a very strange 1,136 x 640 resolution no one else uses (it's not even 16:9, but "close", as the company puts it), same camera specifications, finally LTE support, a new connector, a bit better battery life and iOS 6. I am not mentioning weight and thinness because you can never tell if a phone is 28g lighter and 2.7mm thinner. That's about it really. Nothing ground-breaking, nothing that sets it apart from its competition, not even features that are hot on other platforms, like NFC. And even though Tim Cook keeps repeating the word "revolutionary" in his speech, I really can't see that here. Apple's products are going the way of MacOS: small, evolutionary steps, which, if you want to see the glass half-full, can be a good thing; showing maturity of the platform. But people expect more from the company, they expect to be amazed, and Apple has lost that ability lately. And having the majority of the App Store applications run letterboxed in the new iPhone because there is no scaling doesn't look good. I mean, you know something is up when they advertise 5 rows of app icons and tab synchronisation between the PC and the phone as ground-breaking. And just 4 inches? Really Apple? And you justify this by showing us a hand and measuring the iPhone against that?

I won't even start on the new "revolutionary" earpods they presented:

Anyway, I'll probably get flamed for this rant, but Apple, get your act together. Fast. You even made the new Lumias look ground-breaking.

Nokia and Windows Phone - an uphill battle

Keeping up with the mobile phone theme of this week's column, let's get to the underdog camp. Nokia ... once a behemoth in the mobile phone industry, now struggling to find its place in the post-iPhone world. It's a company filled to the brim with talent, but its managers leave lots to be desired; after all, they are the ones that almost sank the ship a few years ago. Former Microsoft's head of its Business Division, now Nokia's CEO had to make bold decisions, and boy, he sure did. Ditching Symbian and Meego, rejecting the popular OS choice (aka Android), embracing Windows Phone, partnering with Microsoft. Countless lines have been written about these decisions, and the controversy still stands, even to this day. Last week Nokia, together with Microsoft, presented their new mobile phones running the upcoming Windows Phone 8 - Lumia 920 and Lumia 820. If you step aside for a moment and ignore the Pureview/camera shots controversy (which to me looks like more of a PR cock-up than a Nokia strategy), Nokia just released two beautiful pieces of hardware, running Microsoft's new operating system (which won't be available until late October), with no release date announced; rumours place that within this November. Will that be enough to kick-start sales?

Selecting Microsoft's mobile operating system was perhaps the decision that raised the most eyebrows in the industry. After the introduction of iOS and Android, Windows Mobile 6.x felt hopelessly outdated and out of sync with reality (it was designed with PDAs in mind, after all, a device that was totally obliterated by smartphones). So Microsoft went back to the drawing board, and designed Windows Phone, a fresh approach to operating systems, with live tiles instead of icons and lots of innovative features. Unfortunately for them, it still hasn't caught on with the mass public, even though people who are Windows Phone users are very positive with their experience of the Microsoft OS; earning it the lucrative title "Best OS nobody used". It was (and still is) a huge gamble for a company which was "on a burning platform" in 2010, as Stephen Elop eloquently put it in its now famous letter addressed to the Nokia employees.

Fast-forward to today, and Windows 8 - Microsoft has embraced Metro in all of its operating systems, including the desktop (I tackled that two weeks ago in my first Kombuting column). There's no escaping it - and Microsoft hopes that this will actually help its mobile OS gain momentum and become a viable third alternative for starters. If that's their goal, they have succeeded already, since failing RIM doesnít look like it can bounce back any time soon. So, in a three-horse race, they are third. Congratulations all around etc, but that shouldn't be enough for both companies. Microsoft needs exposure, and Nokia (even on the state it is in right now) can give exactly that. The Nokia 920/820 launch was easily the most talked about and debated subject of last week, and it brought Windows Phone (and most importantly, screenshots, videos and presentations of the new OS) to the mass media. Couple that with the fear many OEMs have since Samsung's defeat to Apple that they will become targets of lawsuits, and suddenly Windows Phone looks even more tempting for mobile phone manufacturers. So Microsoft's OS has all the potential to succeed - whether it will, is a totally different ballgame though; it is a question that will drive many heated conversations and debates for the next couple of years.

Where does that leave Nokia? As I said in the beginning, Nokia still has many talented engineers, it produces beautiful hardware and their new phones are no exception. But tying your luck with Microsoft's OS, without diversifying your offerings is a huge bet, even with Microsoft's millions backing the project. Samsung for instance, even though it has based its current leadership to Android, has already announced Windows 8-based phones, and I am sure that if Apple allowed it, it would have released iOS-based devices as well (ok, that was a joke, don't laugh :p). A Nokia with diversity certainly has more chances to succeed than a Nokia tied to the Microsoft camp, at least as far as I am concerned, and I know many people that would absolutely run to buy a Nokia phone powered by Android. But, things are as they are, and the following months will show whether Nokia will make the great comeback, or if it will continue to be a company in the shadow of its past success.

Valve getting into hardware, and why that would be a good thing

Valve has been on the news a lot lately, and is a company that nobody can take lightly. It's one of the most acclaimed software houses out there; its Steam software has single handily revolutionised digital software distribution, plus its games always ooze quality, with the company not in a hurry to finish them until they are 100% ready. So it was with great interest that I saw this ad that they posted lately, stating:

As an Industrial Designer at Valve, you will join a world-class group of electrical, mechanical, software engineers and designers who are busily defining new entertainment experiences through both hardware and software. We're hoping to add your expertise in product design and manufacturing, ergonomics, usability, aesthetics, and surfacing to our team.

You can find the rest of the ad here, and the job description is quite telling of the company's intentions. One paragraph particularly strikes out (and I quote): "Valve is traditionally a software company. Open platforms like the PC and Mac are important to us, as they enable us and our partners to have a robust and direct relationship with customers. We're frustrated by the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space though, so we're jumping in. Even basic input, the keyboard and mouse, haven't really changed in any meaningful way over the years. There's a real void in the marketplace, and opportunities to create compelling user experiences are being overlooked."

To be honest, once I read this ad, the first thing that came to mind was... Apple. And I will explain why. Up until the release of the first iPhone, the mobile phone was a stagnant market, with little innovation. You had Nokia, who was the big power player, introducing new mobile phones like there was no tomorrow (but with little new as far as innovation was concerned), maybe Ericcson, and other smaller players. And suddenly the iPhone came, from a company that had absolutely no experience in mobile phones, but knew a thing or two about style, user friendliness and design. And the world was never the same thereafter. Reading this ad, it seems that Valve has a pretty good idea on what's missing in the peripheral market, and they are determined to see it fixed. Will they go the Apple way and handle the manufacturing themselves as well? Nobody knows. One thing I do know is, that when Valve speaks, people listen. And with such a track record, nobody can afford to take them lightly - to publish something like this, it is beyond obvious that they mean business. It is after all one of the most secretive companies around, with information about new games and projects rarely (if ever) leaking to the public prior to their announcement.

So what will it be? Wearable computing? New 3D glasses? An exotic device to replace the mouse/keyboard/gamepad? Something completely different? Nobody knows. What we do know, is that if anyone can do it, it's Valve; they have what it takes, they have proven it time and time again, and I can't wait for what they have in store.

Or it can be just another excuse for them to keep delaying Half Life 3 :p

Tune in next week, same Komb-time, same Komb-site.