June 08, 2010, 12:39 PM — Apple introduced a lot of things during the WWDC 2010 keynote, and had, ironically and amusingly, their own version of the BlueTooth problems Google ran into at their own IO conference, but with almost 600 WiFi base stations in the main room. Steve Jobs ended up spending a lot of time asking people to shut off their WiFi base stations, so that the demos would work correctly. It was funny and kind of sad, for exactly the same reasons that Google doing it during IO was funny and kind of sad.
Both failures bring up what I think is an interesting problem: the current WiFi standards are not designed correctly for the way people are using it. I'm pretty sure that even during the entire 802.11n process, no one was saying "well, what about when we have 500+ base stations in the same room?" That's not a minor problem, and prior to the Verizon MiFi et al, one you just didn't see. The idea of "hey, we don't need to make people look for a base station, we can give them one that sits in their pocket, and they can connect to the internet by hopscotching from WiFi to cell networks" is a really cool concept, but as we saw during the keynote, there's problems with it. The big problem is that with WiFi, regardless of what frequency you use, has the same design assumption:
one base station => many clients
The entire standard works from that assumption, and until recently, that was a good one. However, now that you have:
many base stations => many clients
or more accurately: one base station/per client
That core assumption breaks down, and does so spectacularly, as we saw. Now, there's not an easy fix. RF networking is really messy compared to wired. Sure, you can narrow your beam width, which boosts power and reduces interference, but that create just as many problems as it solves. There's more to it than just the raw RF issues, and I hope that the WiFi standards bodies are already working on updating the standards to deal with a world full of base stations.
The new iPhone is classic Apple. Rather than just updating specs so the feature list is as big as the next guy's, they think about what people want to do with the features. For example, the steel frame. That's not just pretty, steel is a great antenna. Aluminum, not as much. The camera is improved, but rather than just fighting the megapixel war, they looked at what people want, namely good pictures and video, and worked on the overall experience. So larger elements, better software behind the cameras. Also, while I have *no* proof of this whatsoever, iMovie on the iPhone explains the radical UI change for iMovie on the Mac with iMovie '08 better. As I said during the keynote, this is what happens when you think past your next quarterly report.
Oh...and for the Trekkie in me: aluminosilicate glass? Transparent Aluminum Baby
The gyroscope feature jumped out at me too. I spent a number of years in the USAF working on B-1B bombers, which used a neat, pre-GPS feature called INS, or Inertial Navigation System. It used accelerometers, and gyroscopes to allow unassisted, rather precise navigation. As long as you knew exactly where you started, and exactly where you were going, and you could track motion and directional changes, you could guide someone to pretty much anywhere, and you never needed a satellite.
So let's see, what can the iPhone 4 do:
- You need to know where you are. Check, location services and cell/wifi triangulation
- You need to know where you're going. Check, Google or other mapping apps
- You need to be able to track motion. Check, Accelerometers
- You need to be able to track directional changes. Check, Gyro
What this means is that the potential is there for either a GPS-less nav system that can have a surprising amount of accuracy, or as a backup to things like the TomTom hardware, when you can't get to a satellite. (I live in Florida. It rains in Florida. A lot. There are a lot of times when my TomTom sits on the dashboard, helpless, because it can't find a satellite. Having an INS backup would be rather handy. This could be really good for pilots, boaters, and the like, especially if the next rev of the iPad includes the gyro. I realize that this is not something most people would get excited over, but for a former avionics tech, it's pretty hot.
As far as the rest of the keynote, there were almost no real digs at Google, which is nice. When most of your keynote or presentation is about someone else, after a while, it takes on the flavor of six-year-olds flirting. There were however, some rather unnamed digs at Adobe, in particular, with the new FaceTime application. Near the end of the keynote, Apple talked about how they were submitting FaceTime to standards bodies so that it could be an open standard that anyone could use. A subtle, but direct contrast with Adobe's insistence that Flash is an 'open' standard, even though they have complete control over it. I chuckled over it, but appreciated the distinction.
I'm not going to go into the rest of the keynote, there was nothing new about the OS, other than the new name, "iOS 4" which Apple did in fact license from Cisco. There is of course a gob of new stuff at the WWDC, but very little i can talk about. Sigh.