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  • Apple Doesn’t Make Me-Too Products!

    December 2nd, 2008

    What I just wrote must seem so obvious, you have to wonder how anyone could possibly misunderstand the way the company operates, but it’s clear a lot of people do. That’s particularly true for the folks who claim to be experts about technology.

    Maybe it’s the training. I mean, when my son attended college, he majored in journalism. Although there were classes on developing online content, there wasn’t a whole lot that would actually qualify one for this specialty. Indeed, some of the best practitioners of tech writing essentially acquired these abilities on their own.

    One of the issues, however, is not so much the training or lack thereof, but common sense. Certainly if you’ve actually seen how Apple operates, you would get an indication as to how and why they enter product segments and what they hope to accomplish.

    No, it’s not just selling boxes, as the PC makers try to do. Steve Jobs wants to change the world, and Apple follows his vision to take an existing product space into a new direction.

    Take the iPod. There were certainly digital music players out before Apple entered the fray. Some looked pretty decent, but they all had serious shortcomings, such as dreadfully slow transfer of music from PC to player.

    Indeed, I reviewed several of these gadgets for CNET, and there wasn’t  a single one that I’d actually buy.

    Apple dealt with the file transfer issue by picking FireWire, which was far speedier than the original USB standard. Today, they use USB for cross-platform compatibility, but version 2.0 of that protocol provides data transfers at a good clip.

    Using their user interface expertise, Apple also developed a product that was simple for most anyone to master, which is why tens of millions bought them. Others tried, but they didn’t come close, and the iPod continues to own the market.

    Certainly when Apple entered the mobile handset fray, against all odds, they succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the skeptics by again taking an existing product segment and doing something new and different. While touch interfaces weren’t original, Apple made the feature easy to use, and grafted Mac OS X onto the device to provide a familiar working environment. In contrast, the operating systems used by most mobile devices is simply pathetic, often inspired by Windows conventions, where extra features are just tacked on rather than integrated into the overall user experience.

    Take a look at the highly-touted BlackBerry Storm. While Research in Motion is to be credited with developing great hardware that has taken over the smartphone market, their efforts to beat the iPhone at its own game are debatable. Yes, the touch screen provides the sense of tactile feedback the iPhone lacks, but it appears to fall down big time in other ways, particular the user interface. I won’t cover all the issues here, except to say that it doesn’t even support Wi-Fi. But if you are a Verizon Wireless customer and aren’t ready or willing to move to AT&T, it may be a suitable alternative.

    Now when it comes to the netbook, which is basically a small PC note-book with a tiny screen, somewhat crowded keyboard, and low power, again there are growing demands that Apple enter that arena.

    Forgetting for the moment my personal opinions on the subject, Apple executives have often said that they haven’t figured out how to build a cheap PC that isn’t a piece of junk. This isn’t to say the existing netbooks from Asus and other companies are all pieces of junk. I can see the value in an inexpensive portable computer that can handle the basic tasks that involve email, Web access and basic word processing. Certainly, the uber-lightweight MacBook Air would seem to be the ideal contender in this category if it cost a third of its present price.

    So if Apple were to get involved, again they’d have to find a way to make a difference — and make it affordable to the masses. They would want to address the perceived shortcomings of existing netbooks, and add enough innovation to make the product a compelling alternative. Of course, they’d also have to see if they could sell enough to justify the investment.

    Indeed, I have little doubt that Apple has various netbook prototypes percolating in development labs. If they felt they deserved production, they go at it full steam.

    Again, I wouldn’t be the one to suggest what form they should take. Some suggest a sort of iPhone Pro that would somewhat resemble the eMate 300 of the 1990s, which was, in turn, a grown up Newton. Certainly the guts of the iPhone are plenty powerful, and I suppose adding a larger screen and a physical keyboard could be done easily.

    But Apple doesn’t always accept the simple solution. Maybe they would keep the touch screen, only enlarge it proportionate to the screen size. Perhaps they’d even consider some sort of tactile feedback mechanism, and more traditional editing and navigation tools to match those of a regular portable computer.

    Could they do it cheaply enough to make sense? I wouldn’t know, but I’d think that anything above $600 would be too much, as folks might as well just buy a white MacBook and get a fully-equipped note-book for $400 more. But if Apple went the iPod touch route rather than iPhone, thus ditching the wireless telephone capabilities, and if they could craft this into a something that weighed maybe a pound or so, I can see some fascinating possibilities.

    Asus who?

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