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  • The Eternal Apple/Media Disconnect

    August 3rd, 2010

    Over the years, the Mac remained a well-kept secret in the personal computing universe, nearly non-existent except for a devotees among content creators, including musicians, graphic artists and film editors.

    This unfortunate disconnect meant that Mac software was generally confined to the back of a retail computer store in the days before the Internet went mass market, if you could find any at all. I remember locating a bunch of dusty boxes at some of those stores, and every last one of them was outdated. But I also discovered mail order catalogs that vindicated the Mac, having thousands of titles from which to select.

    The situation grew worse in the mid-1990s, when Apple was on the brink. Steve Jobs recently admitted that the company was 90 days away from ruin, and that development would probably have made Microsoft happy, even though they were later persuaded, by Jobs no less, to invest $150 million in Apple.

    However, it took years for the press to stop using the “beleaguered” appellation when it came to Apple, and there are still severe bouts of skepticism that you might accurately regard as fishy in some cases.

    Take the arrival of the iPod in 2001. Store all your music, or at least enough to fill five gigabytes of storage space.

    Up till then digital media players were poor sellers. They were difficult to use, hard to sync with your music library and, in general, inferior replacements for the venerable Walkman. However, the ease of use of the iPod, coupled with relatively fast download speeds, courtesy of FireWire, and the seamless syncing with iTunes, made the new gadget a revelation.

    But how could Apple, a computer company, possibly succeed in the consumer electronics marketplace? Yes, we know the truth, but the news media naysayers made that complaint over and over again, despite loads of contrary evidence.

    When the iPod soared to number one in the market with a bullet, while adding Windows support and a legal way to download music (and later movies), nearly every competitive product that came out was regarded as a potential “iPod killer.” It doesn’t matter that none made headway. It was inevitable for Apple to fall, since they were closed, while the rest of the industry was open.

    When Microsoft double-crossed their PlaysForSure partners, meaning pretty much all iPod competitors, and begat the Zune (a closed platform by the way), success was widely predicted, but the predictions were dead wrong. Today, the iPod still has over 70% of the U.S. market, while the latest and greatest Zune sits at 1%. Microsoft’s “innovation” was to mimic the iPod of a year or two earlier, and maybe add a few bullet-point features to make it seem different. The customers didn’t care.

    You know the score with the iPhone. Few believed Apple could make a go of it, yet sales continue to soar. Even that manufacturered Antennagate scandal, designed to bring the iPhone 4 down, has apparently failed miserably. People are still lining up to get theirs, even though some media sources are still trying to engage the issue with post-mortems over how Apple really failed to do right by their customers. Those customers, however, disagree.

    Nowadays, we have almost daily revelations about iPad killers. With nearly 3.3 million sales during a shortened first quarter on sale, the iPad’s sales have nearly matched the Mac, even though this device is perennially backordered and, at the same time, becoming available in additional countries.

    At first, those alleged industry analysts were talking of sales in the five million range for all tablet computers for all of 2010, and they were rushing to revise their figures. More to the point, it will be months before any supposedly credible alternatives ship, and it’s a huge question whether any of them will gain traction.

    Remember that, until the iPad arrived, a tablet computer was basically a Windows PC with a movable display that sported a rudimentary stylus-based touch interface. Steve Ballmer, who still lives in the previous decade when it comes to his vision for the future of personal technology, somehow still believes that tablets must run Windows, even though that marketing strategy has been shown to be unsuccessful except for a few vertical markets.

    True, there are possibly more credible iPad killers on the horizon. One, from HP, will use the WebOS they acquired in buying Palm, although it hasn’t been proven that this operating system can scale up to a larger mobile device. There will also be a RIM BlackPad, based on the BlackBerry smartphone, which will reportedly appear this fall. But does anyone really expect that RIM will fare any better, since they have yet to deliver a credible consumer-oriented smartphone initiative?

    Then there are those reports a few months back that the FTC is looking into Apple’s affairs over such question as the closed iOS ecosystem, blocking Flash from the platform, mobile ad practices and whatever other evidence of potential wrongdoing they can unearth. However, an inquiry doesn’t necessary translate into the filing of an official complaint against a company. And even if that comes, Apple would likely make the fewest changes they can get away with, pay a fine, sign a consent decree and get on with business.

    As I’ve suggested, at least some of the negative press Apple receives comes from their refusal to play nice with the media. Some of it may even be instigated by competitors who are hoping and praying to kill the Apple gravy train. But that prospect doesn’t seem in the cards, at least for now.



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