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The Definition of Insanity?

A popular joke, and maybe it’s not so funny, is that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a classic definition of insanity. If we take that concept literally, what can you say about Microsoft? After all, the company has been touting tablets for years, and has failed every single time.

At first, Microsoft depended on OEMs to get the job done, but much of what they accomplished, if that’s what you call it, was to tack a touch-sensitive screen onto a note-book, add the stylus, and charge you a lot more for the privilege. That didn’t go over so well, except in some vertical markets, such as physician’s offices.

Now when Apple released the iPad, a very different concept, more in tune with the image of a tablet you saw on, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation in the 1980s, Microsoft’s response was — the Surface. They cobbled together a version of Windows 8 for the ARM processor to get the first Surface to market. They even spent hundreds of millions on advertising, or so some published reports suggest. The ARM version failed, and the costlier Pro variation, using a regular Intel x86 processor, didn’t do much better. In the end, Microsoft took a $900 million inventory write-down because of unsold product in the last financial quarter, and cut the price. Yet total sales were less than that number, leading to estimates in the 1.5 to 1.7 million range since the Surface was first released in October of 2012.

Over the months, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer essentially made excuses about the Surface. First, it was meant as a “design point” to influence OEMs as to the future direction of a Windows 8 tablet. Later, the company gave excuses about sales being modest or somewhat in line with expectations, before Ballmer admitted the Surface hadn’t done so well.

Worse, the Surface comes across as little more than a slimmed down PC note-book, making a huge deal of the sometimes optional physical keyboard. So you end up with a touch-sensitive netbook, and it’s not that netbooks went anywhere after the initial flurry of sales. Once customers realized they were junk, they stopped buying. Of course, the iPad’s arrival helped hasten the departure of the netbook.

In a sense, then, Microsoft continues to believe in Windows everywhere, year after year, with little prospect that extending the market to mobile devices will succeed. Well, Windows Phone seems to have an improving market share, and if BlackBerry is sold off for the parts, there will be even less competition for a third player to get a piece of the handset and tablet market. But this isn’t what Microsoft planned.

Of course, when you talk about repeating unproven ideas, the news media isn’t innocent. Most of the time, it’s concentrating on one idea, however wrong or one-sided, and repeating it forever. In the Apple universe, for example, there’s Antennagate, the supposed scandal, in 2010, involving the iPhone 4, where you could easily kill reception if you held it the “wrong way.” This so-called death grip was allegedly the result of a poorly designed antenna system. Yet other smartphones exhibited similar effects when held in ways that covered their antennas. Even though YouTube videos, and the ones that Apple briefly posted, demonstrated how other handsets were impacted, the media very largely ignored the facts. Consumer Reports ignored them too and chose not to recommend that iPhone.

With the next model, Apple went to a superior system, a diversity antenna where the best signal is selected from two antennas. This is similar to what you find on the family auto’s rear window. No more complaints, but it’s not as if the iPhone 4 was defective.

Apple continues to be attacked for the flawed release of Maps for iOS 6. Yes, there were some irritating problems, particularly with the Flyover feature, where 3D pictures of some locales were melted together, or just plain wrong. Locations and turn-by-turn directions were also sometimes wrong. But Apple has fixed many of these problems, and continues to expand the mapping team. Yet some members of the media pretend the problem still exists in all its glory, and seems to ignore the ongoing issues with incorrect directions crafted by Google Maps.

Of course, being consistent is another problem with the media. Since last year, various commentators and financial analysts have been pouncing on Apple for not innovating enough. They seem to believe that the company has to overturn a market every other week to remain credible. They continue to forget that six years passed after the iPod came out before the iPhone arrived, and it was another three years before the iPad’s debut.

However, Tim Cook has put himself in the hot seat, promising great stuff from Apple starting this fall and continuing through 2014. The first evidence of how well he will fulfill that promise will evidently arrive with an expected iPhone media event on September 12th. Will there be a new entry-level model, which some have called an iPhone 5c? And even if the response to the next generation of iPhones, and iOS 7’s launch, is spectacular, what will Apple do next? The expected iPad and Mac refreshes aren’t going to be enough to satisfy folks who hope for more.

At the same time, what has Samsung delivered that’s at all different other than an overpriced OLED flat panel TV? I’m just wondering.