Year-ender broadcasts are traditionally meant to focus on the most important issues of the period in question. In the case of Apple Inc., the real surprises occurred pretty late in the game. These were matters that weren’t accurately predicted by anyone, or most anyone that I know about.
There is, of course, Apple’s unexpected decision to divest itself of participation in Macworld Expo. Although it seemed to come out of left field, actually it sort of made sense — at least to them — after you look at where they have been going.
Naturally, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE , the Night Owl reviewed the crazy Apple universe for 2008, and explored some of the prospects for 2009. In addition to whether the Macworld Expo can possibly survive without Apple present, just why did Steve Jobs decide not to deliver the keynote? A reflection of his state of health, or just a way of showing that the Expo was no longer important?
Or did it really mean Apple had few, if any, important new products to present, so why bring out the first team when the second team could do just fine?
During these far-reaching discussions, you’ll also learned a little bit about the history and culture of the Expo, and we even turned the talk to some of the best iPhone and Mac games for the year.
On The Paracast this week, Gene and David don their Consumer Protection hats and expose a notorious faker in the UFO field. They’ll be joined in this worthy effort by investigator Frank Warren, who has done his own research into the questionable exploits of the offender in question.
If you can believe Microsoft, they frequently put groups of users in little test rooms — or some sort of testing environment — and expose them to the new features in a product. By gauging their reactions, they decide whether those capabilities deserve to go into production.
Now if you look at Microsoft’s shipping products, it doesn’t seem they’re getting a terribly good sampling, or maybe they aren’t paying attention to the results. Some of the features that end up in their products appear to be just plain weird.
Take, for example, those constant warnings in Vista about whether the next thing you do is safe or not. It comes so frequently that you many uses give the OK on auto-pilot, not realizing that they might be subjecting their PCs to potential malware as a result of not paying attention. Or, in frustration, they just turn off the feature.
So what might have been a good feature, at least insofar as Microsoft’s intentions might be considered, ended up in the “Cons” list when reviewers got their hands on Vista. Supposedly you’ll have a friendlier version in Windows 7.
This shortcoming should not have even come as a surprise to Microsoft, as public beta testing revealed the very same problems. So maybe the executives and/or committees that make the decisions on such matters either weren’t paying attention or opted to ignore the warning signs.
With Apple’s gear, you are sometimes given the impression that Steve Jobs is the only focus group. When he first announced Keynote, their presentation application, he claimed that it was built to satisfy a lone beta tester — him. Maybe that was meant as a feeble attempt at humor, since the statement did produce a moderate amount of laughter from most members in the keynote audience, but you have to wonder if that’s also true for most of their products.
Certainly, Jobs — and this is true for most any company CEO — would be expected to deliver the final verdict on a whole number of issues. In the end, if Jobs doesn’t sign on the dotted line, or otherwise indicate his acceptance, the product doesn’t make it into production.
But clearly the ongoing testing process must involve more than one person. Take Apple’s operating systems. Developers can sign up to fee-based programs that give them early access. After accepting Apple’s traditionally stringent confidentiality agreements, they will take the software seeds and test them against their own products to be sure there are no problems.
As with any software division, Apple has a bug reporting system that gives testers the opportunity to report problems to Apple’s developers and, one hopes, get a resolution on occasion. In the real world, of course, bugs are granted priority levels, and the ones that make it to the top, usually troubles that can cause crashes or data loss, get dealt with first. The ones at the lower end of the list are usually addressed at a later time, or not at all. That explains why some bugs, such as the inability of the Mac OS X Finder to consistently remember position or view settings, are consistently overlooked. It’s not that Apple doesn’t know about it.
When it comes to such outright usability issues, though, you have to wonder who is paying attention, because some decisions just don’t seem logical.
Of course, this isn’t something that suddenly happened on Steve’s watch. Apple has done foolish things under previous administrations. But in those days, when Mac users were a tiny niche of the PC universe, eccentricities could be forgiven. Take the dreadful methods required to install RAM on a host of models, beginning with the Quadra 800. Did anyone actually test the technique, or did they simply believe frustrated customers would let their dealers handle it, thus generating extra service fees?
I don’t pretend to know. But it’s not that Steve Jobs did so much better. The iMac was supposedly his first foray into introducing products with cutting-edge designs. The original pear-shaped model might be regarded as a museum piece, because nothing like it existed previously. But they never considered upgrades in that form factor. You had to basically take the whole thing apart to get to the two RAM slots.
The iMac’s second generation model, with the fancy articulated arm that looked so robotic in retrospect, supposedly had an easier memory upgrade scheme. Just remove the recessed screws at the bottom of the case, and you could replace the RAM module in seconds. The shortcoming was that, if you wanted to get at the second RAM module, you had to pry open an additional covering, and replacement involved a knowledge of the proper application of thermal grease.
So as much as Jonathan Ive might be created with a unique, snazzy-looking personal computer, maybe he wasn’t involved so much in the internal engineering process, which was ill-thought, to put it mildly.
The first iteration of the current iMac form factor actually sported user-replaceable component modules. Anyone with a smattering of knowledge about using a screwdriver and removing and plugging in large parts, could accomplish the repair. Apple, however, forgot about such things when it moved to Intel processors.
Well, at least RAM replacement is pretty easy on the current iMac, and isn’t that the most important thing anyway?
As I’ve stated before, the situation is remains pathetic on the Mac mini. You require a knowledge of putty knives or other fancy implements to get inside. And sporting two RAM slots meant a design change that forces you to pull out the hard drive to get to them.
Considering all these and countless other issues, you have to wonder just what sort of work Apple is doing to test whether their user base is being inconvenienced over these design failures. Do they, as with Microsoft, put customers in a room and let them write reports about their experiences. Is there an internal team that performs this task, or does it all rest on the thin shoulders of Steve Jobs?
I’d like to think it’s a combination of several methods at usability testing, and that some of the design failures are strictly the result of the need to make engineering compromises to ship a product on schedule.
At least, I hope that’s the reason and that Steve Jobs isn’t the only person at Apple Inc. who delivers such feedback.
Perhaps you didn’t know, or just don’t care, but a few months back the two satellite radio providers, Sirius and XM, became one. Well, at least from the corporate side. For now the two maintain separate programming lineups, fed to radios with different incompatible technologies.
At some point in time, they are supposed to devise methods to allow a single radio to receive both, but the products available now for your car or home are either one or the other. The big question is whether it really makes a difference.
Most of the programming options are the same, ranging from free music statioins to a fairly decent selection of news and talk radio. In fact, as the owner of a home system with XM and a car system with Sirius, aside from different channel numbers, I haven’t found all that much of a difference.
But there are notable exceptions. Veteran shock jock Howard Stern hangs his hat at Sirius, while his arch rivals, Opie and Anthony, are tied to XM. The are also various and sundry other differences that you might want to consider, depending on which sports you prefer, and whether you want to hear Oprah or Bob Dylan doing their thing.
Recently, many of the music stations were combined, which makes sense. However, if you want some of the truly exclusive Sirius stations on your XM radio, or vice versa, you have to order up the extra cost “Best of” series, which adds a handful of extra extra for a few dollars more.
Is it all worth it? That depends, and, frankly, it’s not to me. I’m more interested in when they will combine their billing departments so I don’t have to pay full price for each radio. If I were to add an extra Sirius radio to my Sirius account, or an XM radio to my XM account, I’d only pay a little more than half as much for the addition. It doesn’t sound fair to me, but the best I could get from their customer support people is that they are “working on it.”
In the end, once all the technological hurdles are resolved, there will be a single channel lineup, which will be fed separately to the millions of existing radios. For the future, one radio will serve all.
Of course when you combine two competitors, you wonder what sort of “synergies” might be found. With millions and millions of dollars of debt to service, you can bet that lots of employees will be left looking for new jobs in a poor economic environment. For the customer, I would hope that there will, ultimately, be more programming choices. Otherwise, this merger only makes sense to the corporate entities involved who wanted to save their companies and to nobody else.
But isn’t that the way it usually works out?
Meantime, I continue to enjoy my satellite radios, and await a resolution to the double-billing issue, and I hope that won’t be a long time coming.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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