Amazon is about to pull an Apple

So, MG Siegler says an Amazon tablet is coming, and that he’s used it. Meanwhile, HackerNews is caught up in a lengthy discussion as to whether tablets are consumption devices, and whether or not that’s good for society… or something. Elsewhere in the discussion, the tablet is being doomed to failure because Amazon chose to fork Android, risking app compatibility with the plethora of high-quality applications available on the wonderfully organized and widely praised Android Marketplace. Pardon my condescending sarcasm.

Way to miss the point, folks.

I feel like history is repeating itself. I have a feeling that Amazon is about to pull an Apple here, and one of the only communities of people I know who are supposed to be dedicated to looking forward are stuck on a backward-facing philosophical discussion of consumption versus creation. That ship has sailed! Others are failing to see that creating “yet another Android tablet” isn’t the way to distinguish yourself in the market.

Amazon is a unique company. Have a look at the existing players in the tablet market:

Apple

  • At their core, a computing device company
  • Has content distribution relationships (iTunes content partners) for music, movies, and books
  • Powerful infrastructure support (data centers, iCloud)
  • Makes money on the hardware sale, as well as the sale of content

Google

  • A search company
  • Builds a tablet OS, but doesn’t actually sell a tablet
  • Wants customers to spend a lot of time in Google web properties
  • Wants to expand in to media (Google Music) and shopping search to sell more ads

Samsung

  • A consumer electronics company
  • Makes a wide variety of devices, including several tablets
  • Doesn’t have their own tablet OS (relies on Android)

Amazon

  • World’s largest online retailer
  • Has 137 million active customers [1]
  • Has quality content distribution relations for music, movies, books, clothing, electronics, lawn mowers… anything else you can think of
  • Knows how to build a successful hardware platform (Kindle)
  • Highest rated in customer satisfaction [2]

Amazon is unique in their online retail scope and experience with hardware products. Only Apple can come compare, and the focuses are flipped. Apple’s primary focus is hardware, with a strong media distribution backing. Amazon’s primary focus is online retailing, with a strong hardware product. Arguably, their converse efforts are disproportionate. That is to say, I don’t think the Kindle is as strong a corollary to Amazon’s retail business as Apple’s iTunes Store (apps, music, and movies) is to their hardware. Still I don’t think Amazon’s diverse strengths can be easily dismissed. They’re in a better position than both Google and Samsung to challenge the iPad as the dominant product in the tablet space.

If I were on Amazon’s tablet team, I’d try to make the device the center of the mass market consumer’s consumption lifestyle. People clearly love to shop Amazon, so make it easy for them. An Amazon tablet could fulfill the dreams of 1970s futurists who believed that housewives would purchase household products from a screen in their kitchens and living rooms. Amazon is in a unique position to provide a customer experience that spans everything from digital music to purchasing a new lawn chair on a single device through software that is smart and intuitive. This could be the device that actually makes people want to do these things. If they deliver on that, they’ll be in the game.

Footnotes

  1. Google cached page: Inside Amazon
  2. Amazon replaces Netflix at the top of a customer satisfaction survey

Google: Your data is safe in our cloud; Customer: I’m still scared

Google enterprise chief: Data is safer on our cloud than your PC

Statistically, there is little question that this statement is true, but Google faces the same challenges as airlines do when it comes to customer perception.

Statistically, you are much safer flying on an airplane than you are driving in a car, yet people are disproportionately afraid of flying when compared with riding in a car. Some propose that a major component of this fear is control related. In an automobile, the rational fear that should be present is subdued by a sense of direct control and familiarity: you are the one driving the car, and despite the fact that you are driving at speeds that can easily kill you, the sensation is familiar.

The same rules apply for cloud vs local storage. Statistically, you’re far less likely to lose data in Google’s cloud, but with your data on your own computer, you feel more in control, and it’s a mechanism you’re familiar with. If Google is smart, they’ll pursue a propaganda campaign informing customers about the statistical reality. I have a feeling that this is going to become a growing concern, not just with enterprises, but with consumers as well.

Google WebM: Who will think of the users?

A quote:

That is all well and good for Google, but what does that mean for me, the guy who just wants to lay on his sofa and watch cute kittens? At this point, pretty much nothing.

This is a short excerpt from an otherwise well balanced article explaining the players, roles, and technologies involved in Google’s decision to remove H.264 support from their HTML5 video tag implementation in Chrome. The sentiment expressed is that it doesn’t matter much to us mere mortals. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If Google is successful in pushing WebM as the standard means of encoding video on the web, it will render millions of devices obsolete, impacting the millions of consumers who own those devices. How?

In many articles on this topic, you’ll find passing mention of something called “hardware decoders”. Since my goal is to explain what Google’s actions mean to the Average Joe, I’m going to go through the trouble of backing up a bit and explaining a few things about video, and how it is played back on various devices.

All this talk about video codecs, what does it mean? A codec (short for coder/decoder) could be thought of as a process definition. Say you had a letter that you wanted to send to a friend, but the post office charged based on the length of the letter. You have two choices: you either shorten your message, or you find a method by which you can reduce the number of characters required to communicate the same information. Expressing the same information using fewer characters is something computer scientists call compression. In addition to compressing the message to save on costs, you’d want to make sure the letter was written in a language that the recipient understands. And what about his ability to open it and access the contents? You need to make sure the envelope is accessible and allows the recipient to easily access what’s inside. That sounds like a silly requirement, but it’s relevant when you look at the details. You could think of all these details as a “codec” for writing and delivering a letter.

I’ve lumped codec together with file format here, which is technically incorrect, but trivial for understanding this issue from an end-user perspective.

So how does this relate to web video? All of the seemingly inane details expressed above are the type of things that computer scientists think about when they design a video file format. Interestingly, codec is just one aspect of a video format. I won’t go in to the others, but it’s worth understanding that the problem is very complex and covers many different areas of knowledge. For the moment, let’s look at the compression part.

Inside your computer is a very, very powerful microprocessor called a CPU. Your CPU is capable of computing solutions to a very wide variety of problems. Because of this, we call it a general purpose microprocessor. It is possible, however, to build a kind of CPU that is optimized to perform a very specific task. In the various articles written about Google’s WebM decision, you’ll find mention of an “H.264 hardware decoder”. What does that mean?

H.264 hardware decoder: a specialized microprocessor that is purpose-built to decode the target codec.

Examples of H.264 hardware decoders:

  • The video card in your computer probably has one
  • The iPhone has one
  • The iPod has one
  • Most Android phones have one
  • If your TV can play video from an SD card or computer, it has one
  • If your digital camera shoots video, it probably has one
  • Your digital camcorder probably records in AVCHD (incorporates H.264)
  • Virtually every video production suite on the market can utilize an H.264 hardware encoder-decoder

So what does an H.264 hardware decoder do for you? In short, it allows you to watch high-resolution video while using far less battery than it would if you used your device’s CPU. When sitting at your desk, you’d think this wouldn’t matter, but playing back a 1080p video encoded using H.264 can peak even modern processors at 80%-90% utilization. That means the loud fan in your computer is going to turn on and make noise while you’re trying to watch your movie. On laptops, the consequence is even more severe. You can lose hours of battery life by not using H.264 hardware decoders. On mobile devices, it’s game over. Your phone doesn’t have a powerful dual-core CPU. It has a tiny mobile CPU that simply doesn’t have the horsepower to decode high-resolution video on the fly. You’ll be stuck with lower resolution, larger-size video that requires less computing power.

Feel that pit developing in your stomach? Yeah, I’m right there with you.

Let’s look at some numbers:

  • 50 million iPhones [1]
  • 450,000 iPads [1]
  • 220 million iPods (as of Sept 2009) [2]
  • 8.5 million Android phones (as of Feb 2010) [3]

That’s close to 280 million devices with H.264 hardware support, and I haven’t scratched the surface. There are no televisions on that list. Remember CES and all the hype over Android tablets? None of them have WebM hardware decoders. On every one of these devices, the cost of WebM video playback will be:

  • Greatly reduced battery life
  • Larger file-sizes (less compression will be required for smooth playback)
  • Lower resolution

We’re talking about falling back from every major milestone met by mobile device manufacturers in the last three years, and millions of devices rendered obsolete for video encoded in WebM. What happens if Google goes WebM-only for YouTube? Right now, Apple supports H.264 exclusively on their mobile devices? Why is that? Because Apple considers user experience to be first priority. Even if Apple were to implement WebM on their mobile devices, the consequence would be jittery video playback that sucked your battery dry in no time. That’s not a good user experience.

So, what does this mean for the Average Joe? If Google is successful, it means that your user experience will be significantly degraded on any device you own that contains H.264 hardware, but no WebM hardware. Have a look at the specs for your phone, portable media player, television, and home theater media devices. Any of them that rely on H.264 hardware are at risk for becoming obsolete.

1 – TechCrunch
2 – World of Apple
3 – Numberof.net

Apple invites Vimeo to party, snubs YouTube?

Apple has posted a web page containing a list of “iPad ready (really just HTML5 ready) websites”:http://www.apple.com/ipad/ready-for-ipad/ to their website. What’s interesting is that YouTube — a Google property — has been omitted from the list, despite the fact that they have an HTML5 version of the website available for public consumption. Oversight or passive aggressive behavior?