Hardly a day passes where you don't see a tech pundit pontificating on the products Apple should be building, as if they know better than Steve Jobs and the rest of the company's executive team about such matters. Certainly Apple has had great success with most of the gear it does produce, but there have been a few notable failures.
Before you say "Cube," let me tell you that I regard that as more of an indulgence than a product that was intended to have long-term traction. I wrote at the time it came out that the design belonged in a museum, and I suppose when they dig up the remnants of this civilization thousands of years from now — assuming those remnants survive of course — the Cube will be an interesting and striking peculiarity of our time.
In any case, rather than talk about the stuff Apple should be making, on The Tech Night Owl LIVE this week, we called on cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, from Roughly Drafted Magazine, to talk about the products that Apple shouldn't build. Certainly an Apple flat panel high definition TV tops the list. I don't think it makes sense for Apple either, by the way.
He also gave his fearless opinions about the best features on the updated MacBooks and MacBook Pros.
You also heard insights about Apple's new line of notebook computers from Peter Cohen, Macworld's Game Room columnist. Do their enhanced graphic capabilities represent a major initiative from Apple to drive more game development to the Mac platform? In fact, is there any hope for expanding Mac gaming, considering that growth in that industry, even on the Windows side, appears to have stagnated big time?
In addition, Evan Gross, from Rainmaker Research, Inc., discussed the key features of the newest version of his famous writing tool, Spell Catcher 10.3, and the wild and crazy history of the product. Did you know, for example, that most of the companies who published various versions of Spell Catcher eventually went out of business, although the product persevered almost uninterrupted?
On The Paracast this week, we present an episode devoted to personal paranormal experiences. First you'll hear from listener Sian Thomas, known in our forums as Siani, whose encounters with the unknown began when she was a teenager. In the second hour, David brings on his friend, Jamie Beauchamp, to discuss an amazing "time shifting" episode that occurred during a trip from Boston to New York in the 1990s.
The phrase "don't bother me with facts" is quite apt when it comes to marketing. Those who are most adept at the profession know just how to deliver a mixture of facts and illusion to entice you to buy their products or services.
Certainly, I think few of you would disagree that Windows became the best selling operating system on the planet not because it was better than the competition, but because of Microsoft's savvy marketing, predatory practices, and a whole lot of smoke and mirrors.
Certainly over-promising and under-delivering plays a big part, not to mention double-crossing business partners when deemed appropriate. A good example is OS/2, an advanced multitasking operating system they were developing with IBM. While all this was going on, Microsoft was also working full bore on Windows NT as is industrial-strength OS.
These days, very few people remember OS/2, which become just another failed personal computer operating system. For a while, I bet many of you even felt the Mac would end up in the dustbin of history too, and certainly Apple at one time was trying real hard to make itself irrelevant.
No wonder the merest suggestion of a sneeze from Steve Jobs is sufficient to make Apple's stock plummet. He did, after all, save the company and today, approximately one third of the dollars spent on personal computers in the U.S. retail market, is earmarked for new Macs. How things have changed.
These days, Microsoft is discovering that the sales tactics that it employed so successfully in the last decade didn't survive the transition to the 21st century. Certainly all those pathetic ads created for them during their ongoing $300 million campaign to boost the prospects of Vista demonstrate that they just don't get it.
Indeed, the most blatant example might be the two poorly-developed skits featuring Bill Gates and the ten-million-dollar-man, Jerry Seinfeld. Somehow an ad agency scammed Microsoft into believing that doing a lame takeoff of a popular 1990s TV sitcom about nothing would make people want to adopt Vista.
I won't even try to understand the thought process that went into that foolish decision. Maybe the people who feel Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is quite mad have a point. Would a sane person sign off on such a pathetic campaign, or is Ballmer just stuck in a time warp, hoping against hope that he can turn back the clock and revisit Microsoft's glory days?
Then again, maybe that ad agency gave Microsoft just what it deserved, a taste of their own medicine. Good for them, and Seinfeld got a huge paycheck for very little work. Good for him too, and it truly vindicates the American dream.
Before you remind me that Microsoft still sits atop of the software industry and is making record profits, let me assure you that I do not disagree. If Microsoft stopped creating new products tomorrow, it would take years for the forces of inertia to take them down. But I still believe their leadership risks destroying the company if they don't change their ways.
Unfortunately, they also don't understand that lying to the public may be something you expect politicians to do, but you hope a tech company will have at least a modicum of respect for the facts.
Take a certain interview with a Microsoft executive that I mentioned the other day, where the subject of that article clearly had no clue about Microsoft's products, let alone Apple's. Of course recent interviews from Ballmer are no less unrealistic.
Ballmer boasts that only one out of every 33 computers sold is a Mac. Well, perhaps on a global scale, although Apple's worldwide market share continues to increase. But he needs to spend a little time reading the latest surveys from NPD Group and other market research companies, which specialize in the U.S. Assuming he didn't make these erroneous comments while off his meds, he is in store for a rude awakening.
More to the point, he should consult surveys of businesses about whether they plan to migrate to Windows Vista, or just await the arrival of its successor, Windows 7, hoping it'll be better. That news should also come as a rude shock to Microsoft. Sure, tens of millions of copies of Vista are being sold regularly on a retail level, simply because it's preloaded on new PCs. But how many of those computers are also packed with downgrade CDs, so you can revert to Windows XP if you prefer?
Maybe this explains why Microsoft wants to buy back billions of dollars of stock. That way, the executives and fat cats who invested in the company can get their golden parachutes before the company collapses.
This is not to say that Microsoft will fold tomorrow, next year, or five years from now. But I think fewer and fewer people take them seriously, and their legendary clout has left them. They are, to many PC companies, becoming a paper tiger.
Maybe Microsoft's shareholders, if they truly want the company to live long and prosper, should be voting to fire current executive team and board members and bring some new, visionary people on board. Even Joe the Plumber would do better.
The promise of cloud, that fancy buzzword for hosting key services, such as email, calendars and productivity applications, on huge Web server farms rather than on your Mac or PC, has been touted as the future of personal computing.
According to Google, some one million businesses have signed up for its Google Apps service, which includes an application suite meant to be a possible replacement for Microsoft Office. I know that our largest college, Arizona State University, converted all of its email accounts to Google, including those of students.
The advantage to a business or educational institution is that they don't have to design and maintain their own infrastructures for these services. THey don't, for example, need Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange. But that also assumes they'll still get industrial-strength reliability, and here's where things get a little dicey.
Now we all know that Apple's own set of cloud services, formerly known as .Mac, had a huge meltdown in July during the transition to MobileMe. While my email has been pretty reliable since then, there are still scattered outages. In the last few weeks, for example, I've been unable to check my mac.com (all right me.com) email in a browser, although it seems to work for the most part in a regular email client, such as Mail.
As for Google Apps, they've had their share of high-profile failures too. In August, for example, Google Mail experienced outages lasting for many hours. Just this past week, customers had trouble logging into their Google Apps home page, which is often customized to meet the requirements of a specific company. And, yes, the email system went down too.
Maybe that's why most of Google's features, beyond its core search capability, still bear the "beta" label.
Amazon, who also hosts a variety of cloud-based services, has had its ups and downs as well.
Perhaps these companies deserve a little slack. After all, they are dealing in new technologies, and stretching the functions of Internet networks way beyond what they were originally intended to do. You know, for example, that email, calendars and other collaborative services can be accommodated in smaller installations.
For example, our Web servers, handling just a few accounts, are extremely reliable. It's rare for anything to fail, and that's true with most of you who have similar equipment. But when you begin to scale that up to thousands and then millions of users, things can go awry. There are evidently too many points of failure, and if something can go wrong, it will.
This doesn't mean that the cloud is a pie-in-the-sky concept. It will ultimately succeed, I am sure, as companies learn from their mistakes and discover how to really deliver the industrial-strength reliability they promise.
For now, be skeptical and, if you choose to partake of one of those services, be sure you have a backup.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis
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