Welcome to the World of Unrealistic Expectations

March 16th, 2011

As the iPad 2 remains sold out most anywhere, the only question is whether Apple can build enough to satisfy the demand. But there’s another cloud hanging over production, which is the impact of the earthquake in Japan. Since many semiconductor parts are built there, any slowdown or halt in manufacturing is bound to cause troubles throughout Asia when it comes to needed supplies. I suppose time will tell if your next Apple gadget’s shipping date changes for the worse.

Forgetting that potential trouble spot, it’s funny how the media’s perception of Apple’s ongoing success has changed recently. Of course, the lack of success of competing companies has to be a contributing factor.

Consider the report the other day that Microsoft had thrown in the towel when it comes to developing the poor-selling Zune digital music player. After struggling for several years to catch up to the iPod, and almost always remaining a year or two behind, they have evidently decided to focus on enhancing media player features in their smartphones.

Of course, it’s not that Microsoft is doing all that well with mobile platforms. After tepid sales of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft cut a deal with Nokia, the world’s largest cell phone maker, but going nowhere in high-end gadgets. But this is the sort of agreement that will, unfortunately, also gut sales of existing Nokia smartphones, as customers wait for the “real” version, incorporating Windows Phone 7.

Amid reports that Microsoft is also sending billions of dollars Nokia’s way to enhance mobile platform development, you have to wonder about the companies that adopted Windows Phone 7 without getting such a bribe. Of course, they can always divert production to Android, or whatever home-brewed OS they can cobble together, and hope that’ll do the trick.

Speaking of Android, last night I saw a veritable avalanche of those irritating science fiction-theme ads touting the Motorola Xoom. I’m still not sure what they expect you to be able to do with it, other than shake it around a little, but you have to wonder how sales were hurt by the arrival of the iPad 2. The fact that Apple’s updated tablet is also scoring better than the Xoom in most benchmarks is the unkindest cut of all. After all, Apple tends to place product specs behind usability.

Up till now, some members of the media made a big deal of the Xoom being the most compelling entrant so far, the beginning of the expected avalanche of iPad wannabes. However, once the crowds arrived at Apple’s retail outlets in the U.S. this past weekend, the story changed. Apple has already won the war, and the competition needs to go back to the drawing boards to find a better way to get a piece of the sales pie.

One huge problem with other tablets is that they all, for better or worse, are trying to imitate Apple’s basic form factor. Maybe they’ll add a few extra features, to provide the veneer of differentiation or superiority. The same scene played out over and over again with smartphones. Before the iPhone arrived, the benchmark was the BlackBerry and its tiny physical keyboard. When Apple demonstrated that touchscreens were good to have, suddenly most of the competition included them too. Sure, some also include a physical keyboard — and I grant that a case can be made that they are superior — but that isn’t the way the market has gone.

This isn’t to say the iPad 2 is necessarily perfect. Some might be concerned that the built-in cameras have so-so resolution. The front camera is old-fashioned VGA, the rear is HD, good for movies, but extremely poor for snapshots. Then again, how many of you expect to shoot still pictures on a tablet? A front camera with HD resolution, to match the capability of the new MacBook Pro family, might have been a good idea, but maybe Apple wants to hold it off till the iPad 3. Critics have mentioned that FaceTime image quality could be better.

But none of this really matters in the scheme of things. The iPad is iconic, the global standard for tablet computers. The PC industry tried and failed for years to deliver a credible product. All they could manage was to take existing note-books, and stick special displays on them. They were heavy, clumsy, and only specialty customers, such as physicians and their assistants, found them useful.

Now please understand that I am not saying the people who work at all the other consumer electronics makers are necessarily stupid. They are peopled with talented workers, but the leadership appears to be far too short-sighted to green light a product that breaks the mold. Taking chances is not in their DNA, because they can’t even accept the slightest risk of failure. So they just attempt to imitate gear that has been successful for others, hoping an 85% solution will spark sales.

Yes, there are pockets of innovation. Certainly the original Sony Walkman set the bar for everything that followed in its footsteps, and that includes the iPod. But even the Sony of the 21st century would likely fail to deliver another Walkman, and that’s too bad.

But that’s why the press and press is more and more convinced that Apple can’t fail. But that expectation has its own potential hazards, of course.

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One Response to “Welcome to the World of Unrealistic Expectations”

  1. DaveD says:

    What a lot of tech companies don’t have is a vision and making good calculated risk assessments. Apple became one of those after Steve Jobs got pushed out. As the new iCEO, Steve jobs cleaned the house thoroughly and went back to the basic plan to get a new Mac OS along with new Macs out. Laying the foundations for things to come by turning the Mac into a digital hub for pictures, music and videos, and reading materials in Adobe’s Portable Document Format. Once this was in place and in a continuing motion to make software and hardware improvements, Apple was looking for the next big thing.

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