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  • Weekend Rant: The Tech Industry Needs the Apple Touch

    December 22nd, 2006

    It was implicit in all the hoopla about an iPhone, or whatever it’ll be called if Apple releases a mobile phone: Today’s cell phones, by and large, do not meet the needs of customers. Sure you can make and receive phone calls, and sometimes you can even get decent audio quality, although that seems to receive a lower priority in the rush to add useless features to an already-complicated miniature computer.

    While it may be true that some mobile phones offer more pizazz than others, the carriers will often cripple a phone or alter the features to meet their needs, although it seems those needs don’t always take into account what the customer wants. Witness, for example, the way Bluetooth file sharing with a PC has been removed from most Verizon Wireless phones and you’ll get the picture of what I’m saying.

    So Apple is pictured as the knight on a white horse ready to rescue the mobile phone industry. This isn’t to say that having an easier interface is going to eliminate many of the core problems, though. You’ll still have to put up with all the symptoms of too much growth and not enough attention to quality, such as listening to conversations in a digital haze, and putting up with uncertain connection quality and all-too-frequent disconnects. But Apple can’t do everything.

    But wireless phones isn’t the only area where Apple might make a difference. Take a look at HDTV. Yes, high definition has been the hot ticket in the consumer electronics stores this year, but the products aren’t always so wonderful when you take them home. Or have them shipped to you, since they aren’t so easily carried if you get a really large screen size.

    The struggle to get your brand new HDTV out of the box and place it on a stand, or mount it on a wall, is only the beginning, and not the most important factor. The next step is the hookup, and here things aren’t so simple.

    The rear jack panel of the typical HDTV has become almost as complicated as a receiver. Try to sort out the meaning of composite video, S-video, component, DVI and, of course, the all-important HDMI.

    So what do you do next? What do you connect to what? Of course, we’ve all been there before, hooking up a PC box to its various external workings, such as keyboard, mouse, speakers, etc. You have to put up with that stuff on a Mac too, of course, but the number of choices is far more limited. After all USB is USB, and FireWire is FireWire, and all the rest.

    Yes, an HDTV has an instruction manual of some sort, and perhaps a Quick Start guide to help you get organized. VIZIO, the fast-growing low-cost HDTV maker, color codes the jacks to make it easier to find them, more or less in the form of a typical Windows PC, but all those cables aren’t color-coded comparably, so it’s only half a loaf.

    Even if you do succeed in getting the right cables connected to the right jacks, you have to make sure that you are getting real HDTV reception. I’ve seen surveys showing that anywhere from 25% to 50% of HDTV owners are not really watching broadcasts in high definition, even though most of the cable providers I know about and the satellite services offer such content. Most cities have high definition stations too, but many people don’t understand that digital TV and high definition are not always the same.

    After all is said and done, you then confront the fact that every TV has an onscreen menu with lots and lots of picture adjustments. Some are simple, some make little sense, and what do you do to get the best quality picture for your viewing environment? A dark room, a light room? Decisions. Decisions.

    Computer makers have already tried to get into the flat-panel TV arena, with varying degrees of success. Do you really want to buy a Dell sight unseen, in the same way as one of their PCs?

    Indeed, there’s a crying need to simplify the HDTV installation and setup process. Here both the content providers and the TV makers have failed. So where do we look for a solution?

    From time to time, I’ve have heard suggestions that Apple can bring something new and different and compelling to the rapidly-growing HDTV world. Imagine an Apple-inspired user interface, and simplified connection prospects, and it would be a revelation.

    At the same time, this is a very crowded arena. It’s not like the music player business, which was untapped for the most part before the iPod became an astounding mainstream success. There are lots of big and small TV makers, millions of products in the stores, and entering that business is fraught with land mines.

    Indeed, prices are dipping faster than the makers and dealers want, there’s a ton of product, and making a profit is well-nigh impossible for a new player. Even experienced manufacturers are having difficulty.

    Fortunately, most of the raw components, from the flat panels to the accompanying circuitry, have reached the commodity stage, so it doesn’t take as much of an investment in R&D to build a perfectly decent product. It may not, of course, make a whole lot of sense for Apple to get involved, but maybe they could license a user interface, with appropriate online setup guides to help you know what you need to connect, and what will get you the best possible quality.

    Yes, that’s something Apple might want to consider, although I can’t say that I’d object to a real Apple large screen HDTV.



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