So what about the state of the iOS? Lest we forget, the OS will be six years old this summer. In the tech industry that's ancient, and the question is whether Apple really needs to do something other than conceive yet another 100 or 200 new features to pack onto the iOS with every upgrade.
Well, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented an extended conversation with John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer, who discussed such issues as why the iOS needs a new "paint job," the apparent shift towards the iPad mini, why he doesn't use Facebook, the problems with Java on the Mac platform, and his own experiences working for Apple from his home office.
Now considering that the iOS has hundreds of millions of users, the larger question is what Apple can change without basically forcing many of those users to leave the comfort zone and find they have to learn new skills. Apple began from scratch with version one. Another OS revelation at this stage may present a serious obstacle to customer acceptance unless done properly, and no doubt gently. Microsoft tried to move beyond the traditional Windows environment with Windows 8, and ended up with what many perceive to be a train wreck.
You also heard from Peter Cohen, a co-host of the "Angry Mac Bastards" radio show and Executive Editor for The Loop, who discussed the possibilities for new Apple gear, such as an iWatch and an Apple connected TV. When it comes to a TV set, just what needs might Apple fill without having to depend on deals with content providers or carriers? And what about all the false information being published about Apple's perceived failures in sales and marketing?
On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present the ever-elusive Dr. Russell Targ. Dr. Targ and Hal Putoff led the team at Stanford Research Institute that created the "remote viewing" protocols in the early '70s, about which many stories have been written. Targ's latest book is The Reality of ESP: A Physicist's Proof of Psychic Abilities."
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! 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.
In approximately three months, Apple is expected to take the wraps off iOS 7 -- and probably OS 10.9 -- at the 2013 WWDC. So it's not too early to consider where Apple has to fix what ails their operating systems, and make them seem more relevant as the competition intensifies.
With the Mac, it was mostly Apple versus Microsoft, a predictable competition since the Windows interface was, for better or worse, a consistent entity. But Android is a far more complicated affair. Apple is not just competing against Google, but with a number of handset makers who produce gear that's sometimes more than just generic. What's more, one Android handset may present a very different face than the next.
Samsung puts their own modifications on the OS, HTC has their own variants, and you actually have to go to one of the Google Nexus products to get the pure Android experience. With other gear, Android may be the underlying system, but deeply buried.
With an Amazon Kindle tablet, for example, most customers may not even realize they are using a mobile gadget powered by Android. At the same time, Android can do some things better than the iOS, and Apple doesn't suffer from a "not invented here" syndrome. They may not "borrow" a feature intact, but the influences are clearly felt. Take the revisions to the Notification Manager in iOS 6, inspired by Android, which actually made it useful.
For iOS 7, you know Apple will devise another 100 or 200 spiffy new features. But, as with OS X, it's also important to go back to the basics and fix what ails the system. I'm not talking about overhauling the interface, since it's clearly successful, but doing things that will make iOS 7 more productive.
Take the single-window mode. Talk about returning to the original Mac. It works fine with a smartphone, where you have a small screen and putting multiple windows is a non-starter. But with an iPad and an iPad mini, they are actually meant to serve as productivity computers, even notebook replacements. It's not all about consumption, which is what some ill-informed tech pundits may claim.
Apple knows it too. Consider the regular updates to Keynote, Numbers and Pages, and the feature expansion of Adobe's various iOS apps. And that's just for starters. With iOS 7, Apple ought to expand the limited multitasking to let you run two apps at the same time on the same screen, and easily switch among multiple document windows. I wouldn't presume to design the interface that makes it all possible. From switching through thumbnails, the common method, to swiping with the requisite number of fingers, I'm sure Apple will make it seem seamless and elegant, so long as it's functional.
Another improvement easily added is to be able to sort your apps alphabetically. Now Android actually will display your apps twice. One is the original icon, the other a shortcut, although both are functionally and visibly identical. I can see, however, where such an organizational scheme can be both helpful and confusing at the same time. An Android user, for example, might wonder why an app is displayed twice, and why trashing an app's icon may not necessarily remove the app itself.
At the same time, it would be nice to also have an alphabetical organizational scheme for your Safari bookmarks. That applies to the Mac version as well. It may not make so much of a difference with a couple of dozen bookmarks, but when the list expands to hundreds, the advantage is clear, even if you define sets of folders to help organize your collection. Google Chrome does it, so why not Apple?
But I'm really dealing with just a handful of minor features here. Apple ought to reconsider the fundamentals of touchscreen usability. It would help to encourage app developers to be a little more consistent, since the gestures you learn from one app may not necessarily translate to another. This works against what was once the hallmark of the original Mac OS, that your apps would look and work essentially the same, so you wouldn't be forced to learn new skills simply because an app developer had different interface ideas. And, yes, I realize consistency in OS X is also hit or miss.
Indeed, if you want to consider the iOS as a legitimate way to use productivity apps, Apple ought to consider relenting on hiding the file system. Indeed, an app owns its own documents, even if those documents may work just as well with someone else's app. It wouldn't hurt to be able to define a different default app for a document, as you can with OS X and, in fact, with Android. You shouldn't be forced to stick with Apple's home-bred offerings if someone else's email app or browser gets the job done better for you.
Now I realize there are many hopes for newly-minted interface chief Jonathan Ive, who has long demonstrated his design chops when it comes to hardware. But that doesn't necessarily guarantee that he'll do as well with the iOS and OS X, or even that it'll all happen so quickly. The features you see on the next versions of both may have been percolating for months or years, although I suppose Ive can make some last minute changes to fix the worst interface and usability ills.
While the failure of Windows 8 gives Apple more time to spruce up OS X, time is short for the iOS. As Android gets more and more powerful, and Google continues to smooth the rough edges, Apple will have to work harder and harder to demonstrate that the iOS is still the better way to go.
Take a look at Microsoft's current situation. Although sales and profits are still pretty decent, they are clearly not feeling the love these days. It seems that even those loud TV ads aren't convincing people to pay attention. It's as if Microsoft got stuck in the 1990s, and forgot that we're in the second decade of a different century.
Or maybe not. Because it's also true that Microsoft's Bill Gates did predict the arrival of tablets, only the company's vision of what they should be was way off. In fact, it was so far off, that, after spending loads of cash to promote the Surface, it has pretty much gone nowhere. Sure, some tech commentators actually like the thing. However, aside from the touch capability, it comes across more as a netbook than a tablet.
As it stands, both customers and OEMs have are pretty much ignoring the RT version of Windows 8. Customers are evidently confused over the fact that, although it looks like the x86 version of Windows 8, it won't run regular Windows apps unless they're recompiled for an ARM processor. This is a distinction that Microsoft has done little to explain. They must assume customers will somehow just know, and those loud, annoying TV ads are so filled with clicking and dancing it's hard to know what Microsoft is actually trying to sell.
It's no better with Windows 8. It debuted last October to tepid reviews, and failed to stem the tide of declining PC sales. A published report quoting an IDC analyst called Windows 8 sales "horribly stalled," which really means it is a major failure, clearly worse than Windows Vista. Sure, Mac sales were down considerably in the December 2012 quarter, but that was pretty much due to the chronic non-availability of the iMacs. That sales substantially rebounded in January, to the tune of 31% in the U.S. according to the NPD Group, appears to indicate that sales for the previous quarter would have been much higher if Apple had been able to better cope with the iMac production ramp.
But these days, a company doesn't have much time to reverse a failure. Few are paying attention to Windows 8 smartphones, which resulted in declining sales for Microsoft's mobile platform in the last quarter. How much time will the industry, and potential customers, give Microsoft to reverse the course?
In the movie industry, a flick either catches on immediately, or vanishes from the multiplexes in a couple of weeks. They don't get time to build an audience unless the word of mouth is really strong. Consider the recent box office bombs from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. It's all about sink or swim, and Microsoft doesn't have the time to double down and hope that customers will soon get with the program.
One way to "fix" Windows 8 would be to allow a default boot into the desktop interface, and the return of the Start menu. But it may be easier just to stick with Windows 7 since that is, essentially, what a customer who makes that move is doing. Yes, you can also use some built-in system tricks and utilities to alter Windows 8 appropriately.
Of course, media and tech pundits are far too busy blaming Apple for record sales and earning 69% of mobile handset profits, and pretending there's something really wrong with the company. This doesn't mean Apple doesn't have challenges ahead. But Microsoft's deep-seated problems go way beyond having to pay hundreds of millions in fines to the European Union Commission for making a dumb move and "accidentally" omitting the offer to select an alternative browser from millions of Windows 7 installations.
Unfortunately, other than being disappointed with the failure of the Windows Phone platform, even Bill Gates doesn't seem to understand what needs to be done to fix the company, and firing his chosen CEO, Steve Ballmer, would only be the beginning.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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