The discussion this week in some parts pitted Apple's Mountain Lion against Microsoft's Windows 8. On the surface, they seem similar, efforts to infuse desktop computing platforms with elements from mobile platforms. But that's where the similarities end. OS X and the iOS are still very different animals, although the former is inheriting more and more apps and features from the latter. There's little indication that they will be merged now or ever, since you interact with them differently.
Microsoft, however, remains tone-deaf. They've added more and more gestures to Windows 8, and took a failed user interface off the shelf, Metro, as the face of the upgrade. Microsoft seems not to comprehend that the public already said no to Metro on the Zune and Windows Phone smartphones, so why would they suddenly embrace it on a PC? There's no accounting for taste, of course, but I regard Metro as a poor design. It's not just the arrangement of onscreen tiles, which aren't bad, but putting thin white lettering on dark backgrounds is not a good idea. Unless you look closely, some of the labels on those tiles are hard to read. But, as I said, there's no accounting for taste.
Anyway, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we continued our extensive coverage of OS X Mountain Lion, Apple's successor to Lion. Apple plans to release Mountain Lion to Mac users by late summer, but many journalists already have prerelease copies, so there was lots to talk about.
On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present renowned paranormal investigator Dr. Barry Taff, who has spent decades investigating thousands of cases of paranormal phenomena, has consulted with the U.S. government, business, and law enforcement, and has written such books as "Aliens Above, Ghosts Below: Explorations of the Unknown."
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt -- Now with New Design! We're taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: "Separating Signal From Noise." We've also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show, along with a redesigned storefront.
Sometimes the best laid plans result in failure. Despite pumping hundreds of millions into an action movie, it gets horrible ratings from both reviewers and the public and tanks at the box office. Retail products that seem to offer loads of innovation simply don't survive for one reason or another.
Let's not forget that the first Macintosh wasn't a very good seller. It was regarded, at the time, as too expensive, with no way to upgrade or add expansion cards. Steve Jobs may have been ultimately correct in wanting to turn the personal computer into a user friendly appliance, but the 1984 Mac was just a little ahead of its time.
Despite all the obstacles, Apple held on even after Jobs was forced out. He returned a far more savvy businessperson, recruited or promoted a staff of brilliant designers, engineers and marketing people, and the rest is history. But that doesn't mean Apple didn't release some failed products during the second Jobs era.
A notable example is the Power Macintosh G4 Cube. It looked great. I wrote at the time that its amazing design meant that it deserved to be put in a museum. But I was just repeating a bit of dialog from the action flick, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
Unfortunately, Apple designed the Cube for the wrong market. Underpowered with limited expansion options, it was pitted against a traditional Power Macintosh minitower in terms of price. The Cube came off second best, and even a deep price reduction couldn't save it. Despite Jobs' protestations during the media event to launch Mac OS X that the Cube would stick around, a few weeks later he had to admit the inevitable.
I like to think that if the Cube came to market for the same price as an iMac, it might have been a decent success. You didn't expect the iMac to have top-drawer performance, at least then. How things have changed.
Fortunately, Apple had a compelling bench of successful products to build on, so the end of the Cube wasn't fatal. The company went on to create the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Any of these could have been abject failures if Apple didn't get the ingredients just right. They also arrived with what appeared to be long-range marketing plans. Improvements were carefully timed, and the public couldn't stay away.
But if the iPhone had bombed in the marketplace, Apple would be a very different company today. When a movie bombs, a studio will just make another movie. But when a company produces products and services that continue to fail, they aren't going to be long for this world.
While the iPhone was, according to Jobs, a fork in the development path of the iPad, you wonder if the iPad would ever have seen the light of day if the iPhone hadn't plowed the road first. The market was ready to embrace the iPad, the sort of mobile computing device that had previously failed to generate significant sales despite being touted over and over again as the next great thing.
Now you have to think that other companies, seeing how Apple had grown so large, would want to find ways to duplicate that success with their own products. But it's almost as if those companies reside on another planet, or they are watching Apple through a thick fog.
Consider those silly Droid commercials that are filled with noisy robotic special effects that tell you nothing about the product itself. Evidently the marketing people simply assumed that an Android, being a robotic creature, must be advertised in a sci-fi motif. They do not understand how to show you what these gadgets can really do.
Compare that to a typical iPhone 4S spot, where you see what looks like regular people using the Siri personal assistant. They want help to find a destination, they seek the location of a restaurant, or just want the computerized lady to reassure them that they are destined to be great rock stars. It's all very human, and all very typical of how you or I might use the iPhone. It's a surefire hit, so why can't Apple's competitors copy the concept? Can't you use voice recognition and get directions on an Android smartphone too? You wouldn't know it from those dreadful Droid ads.
Yes, I understand that the Android OS has a larger market share than the iOS, but at what cost? Companies flood the market with models that have differences that are almost impossible to discern, and end up confusing savvy customers who want to get the best product. Or maybe they just grab whatever the sales staff is pushing that week, and hope for the best.
This doesn't mean that the companies who build Android gear are incompetent. Samsung, the creator of the Galaxy series of smartphones and tablets, makes great TVs, among the best in the business. They have also become pretty successful in the handset business, though Galaxy tablets haven't done so well. But they've got lots of clunkers in the lineup, such as the oversized Galaxy Note smartphone that one reviewer called "the most useless phone I've used."
The main problem with the Galaxy Note is the size. Both Samsung, and Consumer Reports magazine are oblivious to the proper size of a smartphone. They both crave bigger, but not necessarily better. Apple could have built a larger iPhone ages ago. They didn't, not out of ego, but because they believed that some sizes and shapes are just wrong from a customer standpoint. This is why there is no 7-inch iPad, although that doesn't mean there won't be a version smaller than the current model some day.
At least Microsoft had the good sense to try to emulate Apple, first with an integrated ecosystem on the Zune, and now with their efforts to link the desktop and mobile operating systems. But Microsoft has no concept of design, and the ad campaigns are truly pathetic. There's that one for Windows 7, where a father and son are working on their laptops. The son takes over the dad's computer for a moment and comes up with some silly animated PowerPoint chart complete with ragged lettering and clumsy special effects. If Microsoft simply wanted to show parent and child getting along, it's a good image to follow. But it hardly makes you want to go out and buy a Windows 7 PC.
As Apple moves past the Steve Jobs era, you will find more and more critics telling them that they need to change their ways, or take evidence of a more nuanced leadership to indicate that Apple might pay attention to their silly demands. For Apple to continue to succeed, they must remain steps ahead of the competition. But if the rest of the industry paid closer attention to Apple's well trod path, maybe they'd learn a thing or two about product development.
As you might have expected, a new operating system from Apple means that more and more older models will be rendered incompatible. This is one area where OS X is very different from Windows. The system requirements for Windows 7 are basic enough that tens of millions of older PCs are perfectly compatible, although a notebook with a 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM will definitely deliver disappointing performance. But it is nonetheless compatible.
However, a number of Mac users are moaning over the fact that some models as little as four years old won't run Mountain Lion, at least according to published reports. A notable example is my son's early 2008 Black MacBook. It runs Lion perfectly well, but the needs of 10.8 are far more demanding. In order to run Mountain Lion, a Mac needs to be able to boot into a 64-bit kernel and possess what is regarded as "Advanced GPU" chipset. These two requirements eliminate models with 32-bit firmware, and older Intel integrated graphics, such as the GMA 950 on my son's MacBook.
I do realize there are already hacks out there that will allow you to "induce" Mountain Lion to install despite having subpar hardware. But it may not be worth the effort, and perhaps it's time for those who have those older Macs to consider an upgrade. Even if you can't afford a new computer, maybe you can find something in the used marketplace that's suitable, and perhaps sell off your existing computer to make up some of the cost.
Now I realize this listing is derived from the original requirements of the first 10.8 developer preview. It's always possible Apple is going to change things over time to encompass a greater number of older Macs, but that possibility is little to none. In the past, whenever system requirements for a new OS X release have come to light, things never change.
From Apple's standpoint, requiring better graphics means that all the new games that are expected to arrive on the platform as the result of Game Center will deliver something better than minimally playable performance. Apple doesn't compromise on OS releases.
Microsoft simply wants to sell Windows to as many customers as possible, and thus will provide very light system requirements, even though real world performance may be perfectly awful. Besides, Microsoft earns profits on the sale of software, not hardware. Apple is nowadays selling OS X releases real cheap to ease the upgrade path, but they'd rather sell you a new Mac.
Now I realize some of you are going to send protests to a company that you have come to regard as more and more profit hungry. Why can't Apple let Mac users decide if they are willing to accept a certain level of performance with a new OS upgrade? But Apple also wants to add new features that may simply not be compatible with older hardware. That's the juggling match Microsoft has to play as well. But since Apple produces both the hardware and the software, they can just discard older products where it makes sense to them.
You may not like it, and you may find ways to work around the limitations, perhaps even force OS X to install on a generic PC. But don't expect Apple to change.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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