So is Android in trouble? Consider that the hottest selling Android devices are made by Samsung. Samsung, in turn, barely mentioned Android in the recent rollout of the Galaxy S4 smartphone. Other than generic hardware improvements, the major new features were apps made by Samsung. So where does Google enter the picture, and if Samsung's own app store takes off, where does that leave Google Play? Indeed, can you trust Google for anything in light of the decision to discontinue Google Reader and other products over the years.
Well, on this weekend's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented tech journalist Jim Dalrymple, Editor in Chief of The Loop, who talked about the status of the various mobile platforms, what Google has to fear from Samsung, and why he has problems relying on Google services. I'll also have more to say about Google and the state of Android in another article.
From Laptop magazine, Reviews Editor Michael Prospero covered some of the best and worst tech gear tested in 2012 and so far in 2013, along with whether lacking five features that are on the Samsung Galaxy S4 makes the iPhone 5 "ancient."
As for me, I think value of the five "superior" features are, in large part, debatable. Besides, it's not that Apple makes a big deal about hardware features except, for example, the Retina display.
In a special segment at the end of the episode, we presented commentator Kirk McElhearn, Macworld's "iTunes Guy," and the editor of Mac OS X Hints, who discussed Apple's answer to virtual desktops in OS X, known as Spaces. As I said during the episode, Spaces has been a useful if flaky feature. I have relied on a third-party shareware enhancement, TotalSpaces, which restores "grid spaces" to both OS 10.7 and OS 10.8.
On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a return visit with Grant Cameron who, with T. Scott Crain, are authors of a thought-provoking new book, "UFOs, Area 51, and Government Informants: A Report on Government Involvement in UFO Crash Retrievals." You'll hear loads of fascinating information about UFO coverups, disinformation, and lots more.
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.
As with governments, Apple and the fourth estate haven't had such a cozy relationship, particularly after the return of Steve Jobs in the 1990s. Although Jobs delivered great talking points in his occasional interviews, he was always wary of the media unless Apple had full control of the message. These days, Apple has largely inherited that approach, although corporate PR seems to reach out a little more often to a few selected media resources.
In the absence of regular communications, however, some so-called journalists simply make things up. Or they come out with outrageous interpretations of things Apple has announced, will announce, or might announce.
Take the iWatch as a blatant example. Even if Apple really has 100 engineers working on such a device, that doesn't prove that it will ever see the light of day. If Apple's project assignment breakdown was ever disclosed, you'd probably see thousands of designers and engineers working on different technologies and potential products at any one time. You expect that with a company that wants to remain at the cutting-edge.
The real question is how many of those products will ever go one sale. It's not the same thing as a tech company showing prototypes of some alleged product or service at the Consumer Electronics Show. They hope to make a splash, but how many ever make it to market? If they do, how many actually succeed and revolutionize a product category? Sometimes you think they consider products to be little more than darts thrown randomly at a dartboard, where very few actually hit the target.
Apple doesn't show off a new product until it's ready or almost ready for production. Product refreshes are announced only days ahead of the actual release, usually. The 2012 iMac was the unfortunate exception that didn't actually ship for weeks after the original announcement, so sales of existing models collapsed. I imagine that a similar situation is happening with the Samsung Galaxy S3 now that the S4 has been demonstrated and generated wide publicity.
When rumors arise about a new product from Apple, those rumors are spun in comparison with existing products. Another company is doing that, so Apple must be doing that too. Did iPhone speculation ever match the reality, or just resemble an iPod with a phone keypad?
When the iPhone was first demonstrated in 2007, the media scoffed in large part. This is silly, they suggested, since "real" smartphones had physical keyboards. This virtual keyboard stuff is a non-starter. Six years later, very few smartphones actually have physical keyboards anymore. How many of the critics admitted they got it all wrong?
The iPad may have been more predictable, since it had the form of an iPhone, more or less, in a larger case. Speculation about an Apple smart TV might be predictable, since TV sets traditionally had very defined form factors. Today they are thin, with narrow bezels, and how does Apple improve upon that? Or do they simply concentrate on the software and ways to improve picture quality and audio beyond what mainstream flat panel sets offer today?
With an iWatch, there is a structured form factor based on many years of experience and entrenched designs that have been at least somewhat successful. However Apple configures the buttons or the screen display, a watch is still a watch. It may be all about what it actually does more than the looks, since just about every possible shape and size has already been tried. But that doesn't mean Apple can't deliver a magnificent design that would actually make people consider using watches all over again because it's just so cool.
But I'd bet that, when and if an iWatch is announced, members of the media will, as usual, tell you chapter and verse why it just cannot succeed. Their comments will be buttressed by the ill-considered remarks of a few selected so-called industry analysts who never get anything right. But they seem to be at the top of the contact lists of the media, because you hear their worthless chatter over and over again.
The problem with all this is that few outside of Apple, and certain selected suppliers under deep security, know if and when a product will graduate the prototype stage and be readied for production. You may even see some carefully placed stories in the media, quoting "informed sources" or "sources in the know" about Apple's future product plans, and some of these stories may actually come from Apple executives speaking on deep background. Still, Apple's approach is simply to say that the company doesn't comment on unannounced products. This allows plenty of room for plausible deniability, and to gauge public reaction about a potential product or service without having to actually announce or release anything.
At times, Apple might even denigrate current products, which may be part of the initial marketing message for the new gadget. Existing products are abject failures. They don't meet the needs of customers, or customers are just forced to adapt to them since nothing better is available. Apple's whatever-it-is will be different, a response to needs customers barely know or understand until they see the solution. Yes, that's Apple's way.
Unfortunately, keeping secrets isn't as easy as it used to be. There are too many journalists with contacts in the supply chain who will ferret out preliminary details of the new Apple gadget. So, in the weeks before the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini were introduced, you could probably find just about all the specs aside from the actual part numbers. And, in some cases, the part numbers were revealed also, which is what gave the media early evidence of a surprise refresh for the full-sized iPad.
A responsible tech media has a huge responsibility to report about products accurately, and provide informed speculation and analysis. But in today's 24/7 news cycle, the media echo chamber often takes over regardless of logic or reason. That's why you've been reading nonsense that Apple is doomed for weeks now, although such silly claims are not being made quite as often, particularly as the company's stock price begins to recover somewhat.
Yes, maybe Apple's refusal to comment about many stories helps fuel the fires of uninformed commentary. In the end, Apple may believe that any publicity is good publicity, and that, in the end, customers probably won't care.
All right, you might say, the Night Owl has really flipped out this time. As you know, Android has some 70% of the mobile handset market, so how could Google's mobile platform possibly be in trouble? Isn't it all about being number one, with a bullet or otherwise?
But it may well be that the departure of Android founder Andy Rubin to another division at Google signals the need for a huge sea change. Supposedly, Rubin is best at starting up companies, and maybe not so great at keeping them growing and prospering. Rubin, for example, reportedly helped engineer the acquisition of Motorola Mobility, which remains a failing handset maker even under Google's ownership. They say Motorola's attraction was the huge patent portfolio, but it doesn't seem to have helped.
As to Android, Google makes money from targeted ads, and a few services, such as the business version of Google Apps. Mobile handset makers license Android free of charge, and are evidently free to use it as they will. So you have situations where manufacturers will bury Android so deep, you hardly know it's there. The most blatant example is Amazon, which pushes its own store and app ecosystem onto Kindle customers. Google Play? What's that?
In terms of generating income, recent assessments I've seen, which I have no reason to dispute, claim that Microsoft earns more money from Android than Google due to patent licensing payments. Worse, the only handset maker outside of Apple to earn decent profits is Samsung, and it's not that Samsung is showing Android the love.
Yes, the forthcoming Galaxy S4 runs Android, but Samsung is making a huge deal of their own apps and ecosystem, and Android hardly mattered at the recent S4 rollout. Samsung is reportedly poised to start using a new OS, Tizen, which may make its debut with cheaper handsets. If it takes off, Samsung may be able to attract Google Play developers to consider Tizen as an alternative, particularly if it's not hard to port the apps.
Look again at the coverage of the S4 rollout and see why the sole relevant maker of Android handsets must be giving Google conniptions. As to the rest of the handset makers, nothing forces them to stick with Android. If they see Samsung getting all the action -- and the profits -- from the platform, I suppose they could consider licensing Windows Phone. After all, they are, evidently, already paying Microsoft, so why not use their software?
As to Android, the problems that caused deep fragmentation of the platform remain. Hardware makers manipulate the interface the way they want. Wireless carriers feel free to stuff the handsets with lots of junkware. Based on published reports of the interfaces and bundled software, you could place the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the new HTC One smartphones side by side and not realize they are both running the very same OS unless you look real close. Doesn't branding count for something?
But if Android fails to ultimately pay off for Google, despite the large market share, there's nothing to stop them from just phasing out the platform. It wouldn't be the first time, as users of Google Reader and other dying or dead Google services know full well.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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