Why wireless?

On August 17, 2006, in How-To, Opinion, by David K Every

Why wireless?

There are many people with ideas. Many ideas sound good, until you know what you’re talking about. In other words, common sense isn’t all that common. To me it means thinking something through, and taking apart and idea, disecting it and the ramifications.

My brother sold his Apple stock because he heard that Microsoft was coming out with a wireless iPod competitor, and figured that would take away sales. Heck, who wouldn’t? A new wireless iPods just sounds cool, until you really think about it. Sure it is easy to market as sexy, and it’ll sell, but will people use it and like it long term?

Wireless to the headset means that your headsets get bigger, contains a battery (and have to be recharged or replaced), and have a more limited life. Is it just me? I’m not seeing a big win there.

I have a bluetooth headset for my Cell Phone (RAZR); I can’t stand it. I was often forgettng to charge it. I have to bring two chargers when I travel. When a conversation cuts out, I need to check whether it was my headset or my phone or cell service or interference between the headset-phone that had problems. It is a pain to configure the first time, and Motorola’s innept software means I have to do 10 steps just to change states (no simple button for on/off, but instead a layers menu multiple levels deep to say that I want the phone to use the headset or not). And what would happen is that my phone would be on headset mode, I’d answer the phone (not the headset), and then desperately have to find the headset while yelling “hold on” in case they could hear me. Or vise versa. And so on, the lists of annoyances far outweighed the conveniences for many of us.

I went out and bought a wired headset, for much less, and have been much happier, even if I don’t have that whole Star-Trek chic thing going. People see the wire more often, so are less likely to think I’m talking to them. The power lasts as long as the phone, and I don’t have to worry about that. It weighs less, and is less to carry around. I don’t get interference or another type of lost connection. And so on, and so on. Sometimes the simpler solution is just better, and sometimes a $.03 wire is better than a lot of technology that tries to remove it.

Now back from the side rant. I look at wireless headphones for an iPod as being as useful as the bluetooth cell phone headset has been. Some of these things can be slightly improved (they were implementation flaws), but many are inherent with technology. And I’ve had a lot of “wireless” technologies. A headset only phone that is heavy and my wife refused to use because it hurt her head. The wireless phone with the light wired headset was much more popular for a reason. Wireless stereo headphones, not too bad; lower fidelity and more weight, and battery things, but usable. Wireless mouse; great for presentations, day to day, I threw it away because of quirks I kept having. (I suspect that was more implementation than technology, but still not the panacea people think). And so on. Some work a little, some don’t work much at all. But wireless headphones means, “cost more, adds lots of annoyances”. Not a big win. If they can cover most of the annoyances, it might be a slight win — but I expect the promise of wireless headphones far outweighs the realities.

Well, maybe wireless to the computer sounds better.

Not really. Right now, I dock to charge and upload. Wireless means I can upload and download from anywhere in the house, but I still have to plug in to charge. But wait… I download new music infrequently, and I recharge daily. Obviously that means wireless charging would be cool, but wireless downloads is far less cool.

I’m more concerned with tradeoffs. Wireless costs a lot in battery life (both headsets or to the computer). My understanding is that wireless costs about double the battery consumption as not having it (at least in that area of the power budget). Even if you say that only results in 25% less battery life, that’s a pretty strong tradeoff for me. So what will you give up for wireless? Battery life or size? Both are far more important to me.

Wired connections are much faster/reliable; so I’d rather have it work quicker and more reliably than have the big win of not reaching over and plugging it in the dock. And remember, the computer is right there, because you had to download the song from a website/computer, right? So you have to be near your computer when downloading, and I assume you have room for that 1″ by 3″ iPod dock on your desk.

So far, wireless to computer gives me nothing.

Now if you want to talk about a real win, make a feature where the iPod can browse music, and download it directly without having to have my computer as the intermediary; now that’s cool and occasionally useful. But you could put that functionality as part of the dock/recharger and it would be 90% as useful. I don’t need it wireless, as I still need my dock to recharge. It would be cooler to do it from anywhere, any time. But the question isn’t “is it cool” but “is it cool enough to justify the tradeoffs”?

Still, I like the idea of wireless for an iPod, if I can browse from the iPod directly. So it isn’t wireless that is cool, but the solution. Apple sees solutions; Microsoft sees technologies. So if Apple does it, it will be for a reason. If MS does it, there’s much less guarantee that they’ll get the big picture and solve the important parts of the solution.

How about wireless from iPod to iPod? Now that too sounds cool. But again, it is a solution, not just a technology. You have to get past the licensing and security to make it a real solution.

In implementation, I almost prefer infrared to radio (802.11). The former uses far less power, and I’m sharing specifically — point devices at each other to pass notes, instead of broadcasting and so on. There’s an inherent security with doing the point the two at each other. But still, let’s assume you can get the wireless (RF) solution working well. How much battery life (a daily use feature) are you going to give up for a rarely used function like sharing music? You need to design the solution so it works on-demand, but not all the time, and you need to make it simple, easy and popular. If MS does it, but you can only share with MS people, then Apple can come out with their implementation later that doesn’t work with MS, but works with 95% of the iPod market, and defeat any advantage MS would have. So if it happens by Apple, it is useful as it works with most people. If MS does it, it offers no real value.

Conclusion

I’m unconvinced that wireless is a win. Wireless enables you to do some things that might be a win, if done well. But those aren’t the simple things like a wireless headset or wireless downloading, but much bigger things.

Let’s say MS comes out with a Wireless iPod competitor with those things, no big. Then let’s say Apple comes out with a iPod cellphone that lets you download music direct to the phone (from anywhere) and send songs to your friends, and so on. Apple is good at seeing the big picture, Microsoft is not. MS does good technologies, but Apple thinks about whole solutions. So even if Micrsoft comes first, they stand a good chance of letting Apple come in later and demonstrate how it should be done; after Microsoft has spent their credibility on a solution that sounds good, but works as cleanly and efficiently as Windows. And Apple’s superior marketshare just gives them a huge inherent advantage that even companies as large as Microsoft are going to have trouble overcoming.

Some analysts have upgraded Apple when hearing MS is coming to the market, and I tend to agree with them. MS’s solution is unlikely to be good enough to take real marketshare away from Apple; but the hype will be big enough to destroy all the other competition and get more attention to music and video players. Then Apple can come back with a crushing blow, and guarantee their position for a long time. So that bodes well for Apple in the long term.

I see in return on investment there are simpler things Apple can do. A virtual trackpad with the whole front of the machine as a display that can do movies, scene changes or have custom “screen savers” to personalize your iPod; that sounds cool and easy Video content, more games, more storage/sharing, more personalization options. Apple could bring magnetic cables (ala PowerBook) to the iPod headset? There’s a lot of ways for the iPod to improve that cost far less, and impact users far more than going wireless. So Apple doesn’t have to be first to wireless, they just need to keep focus on making the best iPod type devices.

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