Bangkok Diary

    1 January 2008: A Look at 2007 and Beyond (Part One)

Graham K. Rogers

I guess that in some ways it is healthy to clear the decks by having a look back at the last year and also to look forward, although when dealing with Apple, any speculation is often futile, and sometimes dangerous.

The Conference

San Francisco My year began with my first trip to the US for several years; my first visit to San Francisco; and the first time I had attended a MacWorld conference. The rumours about the iPhone had been ebbing and flowing for months before Steve Jobs stepped onto the stage at the Moscone Center and he made much of this. The presentation he came up with was described in some professional sources as one of the best ever business presentations and I used the download (available in the iTunes Music Store podcasts section) several times with classes of my own students as an example of what they should aspire to. Why teach this stuff when it has already been done far better: no point reinventing the wheel.

The iPhone itself was a hit long before it was released. I was one of the fortunates who actually got my hands on one (the day after the announcement) and over the next few months I had to read so much rubbish in the popular press and elsewhere, by writers who were working from rumour, speculation and, in some cases I am sure, just stirring the pot.

There were some desperate attempts to blacken the idea of the device before it was even released. Trying to define the motives is really beyond me. When it was released it had quite good sales and became a highly-prized item. One Bangkok Mac user I know just had to have one, even if, as he said, it was unusable as a phone and was just bling.

Fortunately for him, the phone dealers of Mahboonkrong -- Bangkok being like Isherwood's Berlin of the 30s, where anything can be bought if you have the money -- knew a good thing when they saw it and unlocked iPhones soon became available. Some of the stalls being so brazen about it (less than 400 metres from Apple's office in Bangkok) that they were displaying the largest Apple logos I have seen outside of Moscone Center.

student One of my students acquired one from this source and he paid 20,000 baht ($675), down from the 24,000 baht ($810) that a technician in True (who helped me set up WiFi on an iPod touch) told me he had paid some weeks before.

With relative incomes taken into account, what some people are willing to pay for these, is clearly an indication of the attractiveness of the device (remember, "no one will pay that for a phone"?). A colleague also managed to have one sent to him as he was owed some money and took an iPhone in lieu.

Thai touch These people have careers which are computer related (the student is a computer engineer) and there was evidence of adaptation: the student had a set of pumpkin icons installed instead of the normal iPhone icons (I did not believe at first that it was a real iPhone); and my colleague changed his enough so that it could use Thai characters, a feat that Apple has been unable to do for the iPods (and while Thai can be typed or read in OS X, some feel that a proper localisation is long overdue).

While I do want an iPhone, my reasons are not to be first kid on the block, but because the device does have many of the functions that require me to have two devices currently. Once it comes here officially, I will be in line for my own and use my DTAC number (that student uses DTAC, including the EDGE function).

What I have also noticed in the last months is the way the design and available functions of many mobile phones now being made available have begun to change, and all the better for consumers. We have seen this in other areas in the past (3.5" disks, USB, Firewire being some of the technologies that Apple has introduced to consumer products) and the iPhone continues that trend.



Returning from MacWorld, I was pretty much on a high for a few weeks, until in the early hours of one morning in February, I cam down the stairs to visit the bathroom and check on the dog (who had been to the vet that day), only to find the front door open and a lot of items missing, including my 12" PowerBook, my camera, iPod and DVD player. The old motorcycle jacket I had worn in San Francisco -- the only warm coat I had -- was also gone.

Although I had software on the PowerBook that would help in tracking it, were it online, I was not wholly surprised by the outcome. The Orbicule software, Undercover, produced some results when the IP numbers where it was being used in the Din Daeng area of Bangkok, but the speed of the police in identifying those numbers (I ended up using other means -- in a typically Thai way) gave the user too much time and by the time we went to the establishment, it was long gone. However, with that initial information, the local detectives switched to old fashioned police work and a few weeks later took me to a yard, not far from the Talingchan police station, but the bird had flown.

By that time, I was up and running with a new MacBookPro, which serves me proud. The odd thing during that time was not the fact that the computer was misssing -- I have an older eMac still and access to other machines -- but the lack of a camera. That was the first purchase with insurance money.


iPods, iTunes and Software

There were a couple of occasions when we looked at iPods in the last few months and Apple continues to refine these. Not long after the burglary, I went down to Sathorn Road and had a complete run down on the Apple and Nike + system at Nike's offices there.

Unfortunately, a back problem, that had begun to show itself in San Francisco (the cold?) was worsening and rather than test the Nike+ system by jogging I was restricted to a gentle stroll and even that for only about 5 minutes. Nonetheless, I was able to gauge progress (in my case negative). I had the back fixed a few weeks later and all is well, although I am still averse to jogging (I always was).

In June, the AppleTV arrived here. It had been delayed somewhat, like the Airport Extreme Base Station, becuase of legal aspects surrounding the new IEEE standard for 802.11n: the faster WiFi standard. Once the committee gave the basic nod to acceptance for the IEEE, it was allowed to be imported and used in Thailand, where telecomms laws are years out of date and controlled by "a few good men" with an eye more to the amorphous concept of "national security" than fair use. Whatever one thinks of the former prime minister and his alleged bending of rules to his benefit, he was one of the few who could have dealt with this.

I include AppleTV here as Cupertino bills it as an iPod for the living room, although it is severely restricted in its functions here by the lack of downloads from the iTunes store. The press briefing made much of the podcasts and other free data available, which really missed the point: this is a device for streaming of movies and not their trailers.

While viewing movie trailers may be an interesting diversion one evening (I did this using a widget that comes with Leopard, while the Front Row Traliers section does a really nice job), AppleTV needs full length movies and a high definition TV set to work.

Nonetheless, these are selling, including the 160G version which we were told would not be sold in Thailand as they are only sold via online shops. One company installed almost 200 in a hotel resort in Hua Hin. The 160G is now available in the stores here.

touch The latest iPods came to Thailand in September, and the press briefing had a few of the new iPhone lookalike there: the iPod touch. Despite the Classic, the nano and the shuffle, it was the touch that everyone wanted to get their hands on.

The touch should not diminish the other iPods at all: each has a purpose. A Mac user I know in Phuket adores his 160G Classic, as he can fill it with movies; while a friend thinks the 8G nano he got for the new year is perfect; and I also enjoy these and the relative unpredictability of the iPod shuffle.

It has taken me a long time but there is a definite change in the way products can now be reviewed here and I am grateful for this. A few years ago, I had to visit a distributor to test out a Logitech digital camera for an hour or so; in late 2003, I collected one of the first G5 PowerPcs for a week's test; while now the products are often delivered to me.

In the case of the touch, Apple here arranged that one of these would be available a few days before its public release and, because I wanted to make a deadline, I did collect it myself: but here it was early and available. And gorgeous, although the 8G one I had for test was not quite big enough for all the data I have available on my standard iPod.


The iTunes Music Store continues to frustrate and annoy me with its tantalising candy shop appearance -- like being children outside the shop but the store's glass facade prevents us from reaching the wares.

There are some 22 countries that have such access and for all the others there are copyright problems. Apple does not own the copyrights, of course, so the cause is the music companies. Although it should be noted here that Thailand does not have an online store -- the "red" iPod, QuickTime Pro, and (earlier) the 160G AppleTV cannot be bought here. In the case of QTPro, the only way to buy it is to have a pirate copy (although I bought mine legally with help of Apple personnel in Singapore -- what a fuss to be legal).

Apple did have some noises in the ranks when a couple of the media companies decided they were not getting enough and insisted that prices should increase. Apple held its ground, but Universal was not happy. One wonders if the real problem is not money but control as these same corporations who were moaning about iTunes charges at 99 cents were later happy to set up shop with Amazon where the fees are to be 89 - 99 cents for DRM-free tunes.

There is much hypocrisy involved here and I say that the music companies (perhaps more than the movie organsiations) need to update their thinking. The 60s was a golden age for them with a major increase in the amount of music bought. The advent of the personal computer has seen a different type of use and with the digital file came the digital download: that advertisment for the first Macintosh, in which we were told that we would see "Why 1984 won't be like 1984" may have been more prescient than was intended.

It is easy to play and copy a music CD: indeed I no longer have a separate music player: I buy the disk, put the music in iTunes and the disk goes on a stack. Sometimes I listen to the music on loudspeakers and sometimes with an iPod. While the RIAA had said this was OK, they are now apparently finding this inconvenient in one case in the US and have now reversed this stance. I think they are on a loser, but this is indicative of the unpragmatic approach they have taken to their product and the lack of forward thinking that permeates the industry: a paradox when one considers the creative nature of the artists themselves (who the companies do not remunerate as fully as we all believe).

Salaya We might think of Sean Connery and his appearances as James Bond. He was paid a percentage of the take (as is common), but was infuriated when he learned that the take was being reduced by some "creative acounting" and it took years of litigation before he was properly reimbursed. The music industry wants its cake and wants to eat it too.

While some critics say that we in Thailand "are much too foreign" to use the iTMS, the lack of this facility may be laid at the feet of these companies and not Apple, although I would obviously like Apple to push some more here.

There are alternatives and I regularly buy online music and DVDs via the HMV Shop in the UK. The purchases arrive within a week or so and I store the videos for when I am ready to view; while (as per above) I copy the music to iTunes.

I did try a UK download service but, bought the music and downloaded it before I was aware that it was WMV, and DRM protected, and would not work on the Mac (iTMS downloads work on PC or Mac). I had to force the issue with the company by mentioning its responsibilities under consumer legislation concerning Internet purchases. They relented and credited me, while I trashed the files (I bought the CD legitimately in a store in Bangkok for less than I paid online).

Sony, which is not noted for being pro-Apple has software on their music sites which identifies the operating system (and browser) and identifies that the files are WMV, suggesting to the user that they might have problems were they to continue the transaction.

In the last days of 2007, Aung Aung Talay the Bangkok Post classical music columnist outlined a service he had used to download some older, remastered works (some going back to the 30s). There is a lot online and I bought a couple myself that evening. Although the recordings do have a certain quality that marks them out as not modern, their beauty makes this a service I will look at again: one of many ways in which music can be acquired legally here via the Internet.

That QuickTime Pro example (above) is indicative of the chicken and egg situation users here are in with software as well as music. When I first came to Thailand some 20 years ago, we could buy computers, but nowhere was there software available. Even if you tried to buy software by phone or fax (pre-Internet) we were refused as we might copy it and distribute it to others. With no software, people did precisely that and a new industry was born.

It was the same with music, although the video companies did make some progress and it is almost as cheap to buy from a local store like Mangpong or Boomerang as to buy from the pirates: the quality is certainly better from the shops; although should one want a movie before it is released, I am told that it will probably be available. Spiderman 2 was a case in point.

video podcast While the software situation has improved immenseley, despite Phantip Plaza's growth (and a number of other locations) legal software is now widely available in Bangkok and is being purchased: but then so is music, which merely adds to the hypocrisy of the record companies. (I suppose they do know that you can copy a music file from a CD?) There is also the easy access to the Internet purchases of software, which is where I buy most of mine.

As far as music on the iTMS, however, what is available are the podcasts and this is a whole medium on its own.

Summary of the year Part Two

Made on Mac

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