Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Apple's iPad: Undiscussed X-Factors (sample post)

(I recently wrote up a couple sample posts to apply to an Apple news blog that I read.  Since the iPad has reportedly started shipping, I thought I'd put this up.)

The collective sigh of disappointment in response to the announcement of the Apple iPad was made even more dramatic by the fact that so many Apple fans had been almost literally holding their breath during the several weeks prior. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the build-up to the announcement was one of the most hyped product announcements in recent years, and it should come as no surprise that the aftermath of disappointment was a proportional backlash. The pre-release rumors of Steve Jobs declaring that the iPad “will be the most important thing [he’s] ever done” only made expectations even more hopelessly unrealistic. Undoubtedly, many among the Mac community, upon watching the keynote, balked at this extraordinary claim. However, the verdict is still out, and not just because the iPad has yet to be released. If, as many critics suggest, the iPad is only iterative, and not the “magical and revolutionary” that many had hoped for, then Jobs’ “most important” comment could be viewed as being about much more than a simple 1.0 product release. It suggests the imminent launch of a next generation platform in personal computing--one with the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with media and the internet.

Now that the acerbic tweets and vehement blog posts have subsided (some) and the early adopters are placing their pre-orders, it’s a good time to step back and look at two aspects of the iPad that could potentially open up the possibilities of this new device. These are aspects that have been largely neglected in much of the post-announcement commentary within the blogosphere, but are certainly worth taking a closer look at.

The Homebrew Community

I’ll start this section by acknowledging that, of course, it’s a gamble to count a homebrew community as a feature when there’s no evidence to support that homebrew on the iPad will even be possible. However, given the iPad’s architectural and software similarities to the iPhone, it isn't much of a leap. In fact, the iPhone is a perfect example of the value-add that a homebrew community can offer. When the iPhone was first released, it had regional, carrier, and software restrictions that severely limited its functionality. The homebrew community was able to remove many of these restrictions early on and open up previously unavailable features of the device: videorecording, tweakable system settings, custom skins, and limited third-party app multitasking, to name a few. The App Store wasn’t even available until over a year after the release of the original iPhone, so it was the homebrew community that first supported the platform, well before the current gold rush of developers and their apps. The iPad is definitely lacking—Adobe Flash, multitasking, and a camera are some of the chief complaints among bloggers and commenters alike. While the Flash issue seems unlikely to be resolved by homebrewers, it’s possible that the absence of multitasking and a camera can be resolved by some creative developers. Hypothetically speaking, what if the dock port was enabled to accept a plug-and-play webcam? It’s certainly an inelegant solution, but it’s the kind of temporary fix that can help the iPad platform get off the ground while we all await the seemingly inevitable: an on-board (front-facing?) webcam and other possible revision 2.0 additions.

App Sync

Another feature of the iPad that has been passed over in discussions of the product is the ability to automatically sync all of one's previously downloaded or purchased apps for the iPhone or iPod Touch. Of course, this hardly seems revolutionary, but the more I think about it, the more necessary it seems. On a broader note, Apple’s decision to make the iPad compatible with all App Store apps was a carefully calculated move. Creating a whole new platform from scratch would have segmented the market and risked the iPad going the way of the Newton (which might just be Steve Jobs’ greatest fear about the iPad). If developers aren’t willing to risk bringing their apps to the new platform, the early adopter demographic might fizzle out, effectively stalling the iPad before it ever had a chance. With full support of the App Store, the iPad will have a fully robust platform available right out of the box, with iPad-specific apps that take advantage of the device’s unique strengths sure to follow not far behind. Back in September 2009, the app-sharing website Appsfire ran the numbers on a small sampling of their users and found that the average amount spent per user was $80. When adjusted for power-users as outliers, the average went down to $45. While Appsfire’s statistics are generally skewed toward their specific demographic, which by their own admission has a high concentration of early adopters, the report generally affirms that iPod and Touch users are actively using the App Store to purchase and download dozens of apps for their devices. Appsfire's very existence confirms that one's own unique collection of apps has become a kind of status symbol among many iPhone users. Undoubtedly, the App Store is still very much a closed platform, but Apple’s willingness to allow purchased apps to automatically sync onto the iPad is a reassuring gesture of openness. For users to continue to happily spend money on the apps, they need to know that their purchases extend beyond just the life of their individual devices. Another example of this reassuring gesture is the relatively new feature of transferring purchased music back from an iPod to a computer through iTunes.

Micro-concessions such as these will go a long way toward establishing Apple as the leading source for digital media and mobile software, which will in turn drive sales of their hardware. Apple’s reassurance to the consumer that the continued use of their content will be available throughout their product line is important for the iPad’s success. As iPhone killers (mostly in the form of Android smart phones) and tablet competitors segment the market, the robust offerings of the App Store will be one of several distinguishing features that will drive sales. Consumers with money invested into their App Store purchases may find that the lost value in switching to another platform is just too great to justify switching. Looking out into the future, the potential for a mobile OS war on the level of OS X/Windows is gathering as users become invested into their platform of ‘choice’.

As a contrasting example, Nintendo’s DSiWare policy is an example of a lack of support that can potentially cripple a platform. DSiWare games are purchased and downloaded from the DSi Shop onto a specific DSi and cannot be transferred or redownloaded. If a user’s DSi breaks, their only option to preserve their purchases is to send the broken DSi to Nintendo directly so they can install the purchases onto the replacement DSi. This policy is quintessentially draconian and will only drive users away from DSiWare platform and potentially the DSi itself. It’s certainly not too late for Nintendo to change course, but damage has been done. It was clear from the keynote that Apple is positioning the iPad as a gaming device, aggressively going after Nintendo’s share of the market. The recent port of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars from DS to iPhone is an excellent example. Although critically acclaimed, GTA: Chinatown Wars was a sales disaster on the DS. How it fares on the App Store will certainly serve as an indicator for other developers and publishers who are looking to port their DS releases over to the Cocoa Touch platform. Even though discussing the Apple / Nintendo rivalry is of a bigger scope than this post can handle, it still illuminates the relative openness of Apple’s business model when compared to that of a competitor.

Conclusion: The Dealbreaker? (Or why I won’t buy one...yet)

It would be slightly hypocritical of me to end this post without discussing whether I'll personally buy an iPad, especially considering the aforementioned reasons. The short answer is: No. Back in January, I was among the throngs of starry-eyed Apple fans, drunk with the whispered possibilities of the unannounced tablet. However, when that fateful day finally came and I looked at the specs, there was one feature missing that I couldn't ignore: a front-facing webcam. That may sound odd to you, so let me explain. As an American expatriate living in Beijing, one of the primary ways I use my computer is to keep in touch with family and friends back home. Not having a webcam means no video skype chats with my nieces and nephews, no gtalk dial-ins on family reunions. To be fair, I've been using the same 12-inch Aluminum Powerbook for over 6 years, so when I do want to skype with my family, we have to use my wife's 13-inch Macbook. It's actually the Macbook's fault that a bundled webcam is now such a non-negotiable for me. When Apple decided to start including iSights into its entire notebook and iMac lines, critics clamored that it was driving prices up without adding functionality, and I realize that there are many users who just don't utilize the on-board iSight. However, now that video-chat and video-conferencing have become mainstays of the online experience (partly due to the increased install base from Apple's products), the iPad's lack of onboard video functionality seems like a giant step backward. Given the rumors about the pre-existing space (both hard and soft) for the camera, I'm hopeful that the future revisions will include one. My trusty AlBook has made it this far (although significantly worse for the wear), maybe it can last just a little longer. In the meantime, when you early adopters get your iPads synced up (and jailbroken?), let me know how it goes--some part of me, that deepest core of my inner fanboy, is still holding my breath, waiting for the magic.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Xiaolongbao : The Write-up

I know it's been a few weeks since Chinese New Year, but I wanted to take some time to do a write-up specifically on the xiaolongbao (steamed soup buns) and dumplings. By the way, continuing with our homestyle Chinese theme, we'll eventually get to a write-up on hand-pulled noodles, Niuroumian (beef noodle soup), and Zhajiangmian (fried meat sauce?), which we made for M's birthday this past weekend.

I've always viewed xiaolongbao as one of the pinnacles of Chinese cuisine, mostly because they have so much potential. Technique, flavor, and texture all vary so much--from the street vendors in Shanghai to Dintaifung's gourmet offerings. Since one of my hobbies is cooking things that I never thought possible to make on my own, xiaolongbao seemed like the perfect candidate. And what better time to make them than on Chinese New Year, where making dumplings is a New Year's Eve tradition?

So between Steamy Kitchen, Bon Appetit, and Kuidaore, we felt pretty confident that we could pull something together.

Step 1: Making the soup
Making the soup was pretty straightforward, but we started the day before so it would have time to chill. Going to the store was quite exciting, though, as I had most of the hog to choose from. Hmm...hoof soup? Skin soup? Nah, I think I'll pass. I veered from the recipes a bit by putting in some pork belly (and I left the fat on), which made for a few tasty meals after (add a bit of sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, and pepper, and you've got a kind of Chinese pulled pork). When the soup was done, the meat and broth looked so good that M kept drinking bowls of it. I had to kick her out of the kitchen so there would be enough broth for the xiaolongbao and the dumplings. A helpful hint here for anyone trying this at home: drag your pot of ready-to-simmer pork/chicken broth over to a friend's place and play Call of Duty for 2 hours while it simmers. Good times.

I had decided not to add agar or gelatin to make the broth set (mostly because we didn't have any), so after the 2 hours, I strained the soup and spent some extra time reducing it so that it would set in the fridge on its own. M and I went back and forth about whether we had reduced it long enough, whether to freeze it, etc. In the end, we nervously put it in the fridge, prepared to reduce it more the next day if needed, but when we checked on it in the morning, it was a gelatinous rectangle of gloriousness. I flipped it out of its Lock&Lock container onto a chopping board and tried to get a decent shot of it:
Jaden Hair over at Steamy Kitchen is a significantly better photographer, so you can head on over there for a gander, but be warned, she wrote up her xiaolongbao with a sex theme, so it can get a bit...well, steamy.

Step 2: The Filling

The filling's pretty similar to a standard dumpling filling, although it does have minced shrimp added. To be honest, we kind of regretted adding the shrimp since it was just frozen stuff from the local Chaoshifa supermarket. Getting decent seafood (for decent prices) is not easy here in Beijing. The fishiness of the shrimp mellowed out into the other flavors the day after, when we made a second batch with the leftover filling. Before we discovered that, we considered just leaving out the shrimp altogether, though we both agreed that xiaolongbao sort of needs a little of that seafoody funk to round out its flavor. So, M thinks that if we make this again, we could mince the shrimp a little finer and cure it with some ginger before mixing it in with the pork, then maybe let the filling hang out for awhile before using it.

Once the filling is ready, you can add the cubes of broth to the filling. Some people like to make individual cubes and surround them with filling, but we decided to mix the cubes in. Later, we decided it works even better if you break down the cubes a little more and get the gelatin nicely incorporated into the filling.

Part 3: The Dough
M has become the ultimate dough master. While I was busy messing with the pork jello and filling, she was mixing the dough. That night she made 4 batches of dumpling dough and 2 batches of xiaolongbao dough and taught our friends how to roll them out into perfect circles. The most difficult part about making xiaolongbao has got to be the pleating. Luckily, I spent most of my time in front of the stove, so other people had to suffer through trying to get uniform pleats on paper thin dough.

You'll have to excuse our uneven pleats and the few "Sad Sam" dumplings. (M's grandmother used to say badly folded dumplings looked lazy, like they were sleeping...) But hey, not bad for our first time, right?

Part 4: The Steaming (or Frying)

Steaming these bad boys was rough. We placed the steamer over our wok, but the steamer covered the water level, which made it difficult to tell if we needed to add water. The whole time we were coddling these guys; there are few worse tragedies in the food kingdom than a xiaolongbao whose soup has run out of him. Due to our inexperience, a few of these guys burst in the steamer. As we pulled off the lid, those of us gathered around the steamer let out a collective groan as soup dribbled out of the unfortunate dumplings and into the water below.

The first few batches came out okay, a little disappointing as far as soup goes. We had doubled the recipe but neglected to measure out the broth correctly (and added some of the cubes to the dumpling filling), so it's possible we didn't have enough broth for the filling. My preferred ratio has more soup and dough than filling, so I think some of the guys came out a little too dense for my tastes.

I had been joking all week that I was going to fry some, but when we got backed up with only one steamer and 15 hungry friends to feed, I decided to fry them up. One of our favorite foods from our trip to Shanghai last year was shengjianbao at a street vendor outside the Jade Garden and City God Temple. This was pretty much the same thing, though the dough for "real" shengjianbao is of the fluffier, thicker variety.

We cooked these the way we cook potstickers. Heat some oil, then place them in the skillet to brown for a couple minutes, then throw in some water and vinegar (carefully!) and cover for 5-6 minutes to let them steam, remove the cover and let the water boil off so the buns can recrisp.

I'm pretty biased because so many of my favorite foods are fried (or could be improved through frying), but these guys were so tasty. While the steamed buns have a refined and delicate air about them, these shengjianbao hit you over the head with deliciousness. Our friends tried these and wouldn't go back to the steamed ones. It's a ton of work to make all of this from scratch, but I definitely think the potsticker versions are worth the effort. The steamed ones will take some work to perfect. In the meantime, I can always pay the $6.50 for an order at Dintaifung.

On a side note, our friend Leah brought in our first non-kit lens, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens(Amazon Associate link) for us and it's been working miracles. Our friends and professional photographers Jerry & Ingrid exhorted us to go for the 50mm f/1.4 lens (at 3.5x the price), but we just couldn't bring ourselves to spend that much. Sorry, J & I! I'm a complete hack when it comes to photography, so the f/1.8 lens already makes my pictures 10 times better, which makes them almost passable. There's no zoom on it, so it's kind of a pain to have to back up from things to frame the shot, but we're really excited for this to be our starter lens. Hopefully there will be tastier pics of our cooking adventures in the months to come.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Happy Women's Day

It's Women's Day here in China, and we're celebrating in style at Starbucks with 'buy one get one free drinks'. But wait, before any fellow Beijingers run out to the nearest 'bucks, it's not actually a Starbucks special because of Women's Day, but our friend had coupons that could be used on holidays, and this was the last holiday that he could use them. I've been doing some reading and writing here, and the venti Caramel Frap has got me as productive as a late-summer drone ant. I have a friend that claims that the Renaissance was due to the introduction of coffee to the European continent. Hmmm...maybe, although that certainly bucks against my wholesome LDS upbringing. :) I digress.

You've probably heard the Chinese proverb "Women hold up half the sky". You might have heard of it here (not a bad time to try out our new Amazon Associate links):

Or you might have heard of it here:
Half the Sky Foundation

If you get a chance, pour a little out for women today, because they're awesome.

I think M probably should have written this post, but she's busy cramming for the HSK this week, so you're stuck with me.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Charcoal Resemblance

M and I recently took a short trip to Tianjin to get away from the madness. While wandering around some back alleys, we happened upon an elderly gentlemen offering 2 minute charcoal sketches for about $.75.

I figured it was a small price to pay to immortalize the mustache as a work of street art, so we went for it.