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Newsletter Issue #856


So does Amazon force you to sacrifice anything in exchange for low prices and, in some cases, same day delivery? Not in my experience. At times, I’ve made purchases from Amazon out of convenience. A product may be available locally, but not always for the same price. Even if the price is the same, once I drive to the store and wait on line, I’m already running behind.

When it comes to customer service, it can be pretty good once you take a few moments to find the right help resource. It’s not as if the Contact Us link is always front and center. But when you locate it, and where probably depends on your account and the order you are inquiring about, you have the choice of chat, email or phone. When you click or tap phone, they call you. This is similar to the way Apple can manage a support call.

Well, last year, I received a new office chair as a present. This is one of the most important essentials in my home office. I have back problems, and need something extra comfy. Unfortunately, a bolt broke off from the bottom of the seat, where the backrest is attached, so it began to tilt rearward. Part of the bolt was embedded in the chair and not removable, so I couldn’t even take it apart to send it back. But Amazon shipped out a replacement within a day, and sent a call tag for a package delivery service to pick up the damaged chair, even though it was fully assembled.

More recently, Amazon shipped me a replacement microphone when the one I used, a Blue Spark, developed a peculiar problem where the audio would distort or switch to a lower volume every so often. Perhaps the condenser stage failed, but Blue took several days too long to respond to a service request, and I was glad that Amazon, via a chat, offered to replace the unit. It was still under warranty, but way beyond the deadline for returning the unit.

So all in all, Amazon does appear to do right by its customers if you assume that my experiences, and others over the years, are solid examples.

Now on this weekend’s episode of  The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented columnist and podcaster Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” On this episode, he talked about the new monthly price plans for Amazon Prime, the quality of Amazon customer service, a possible smudging problem on 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s display, and Apple’s use-hostile upgrade policies for most Macs. We also had a brief discussion on Kirk’s search for a new hybrid car.

You also heard from commentator Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer. Jeff talked about lingering Apple/FBI issues, concerns about proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress covering device encryption, the European Commission’s antitrust case against Google over its alleged restrictive policies on the Android platform, the prospects for an Apple Car, the inability to upgrade RAM on many Macs, and the need for new features in iOS to make it possible to do more productive things on an iPad. Gene repeated his concerns about the fact that he cannot use an iPad to record episodes of his radio shows due to Apple’s “sandboxing” limitations.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris observe the passing of Albert K. Bender, once a UFO researcher who was instrumental in establishing the legend of the Men In Black in the early 1950s, a topic that has infused our popular culture and resulted in three blockbuster sci-fi films starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The guest panel includes Nick Redfern, a prolific author of books on UFOs and the paranormal, some of which have focused on the MIB, and cutting-edge commentator Greg Bishop, of “Radio Misterioso,” Greg’s book of essays on all things paranormal, “It Defies Language,” includes a foreword from Nick and illustrations from blogger Red Pill Junkie.


It wasn’t terribly pleasant for Alphabet (Google) and Microsoft stockholders this past week. Both companies missed revenue targets, more or less, and thus suffered from lower stock prices. For Google, it’s pretty much the same old problem. Most of its revenue comes from one product, search,  and, to a lesser extent, Google Play, Android’s app store. While the company continues to pour money into other ventures, they still aren’t paying off.

Even the purchase of Nest, a company that makes intelligent thermostats and smoke detectors, hasn’t been quite the cash cow Google expected when it bought the company in 2014 for $3.2 billion. That’s somewhat higher than Apple paid for Beats Electronics, a transaction that was greeted with skepticism by tech and financial pundits.

However, Beats was a successful company before Apple took it over, particularly when it came to its line of high-end headphones. Beats Music was still a developing service that now appears to be paying off in its guise as Apple Music. But, according to published reports, Nest generated a paltry $340 million in sales in 2015. That’s not so terrific when you consider the purchase price.

I suppose Alphabet expected Nest to become the hub of a major Internet of Things initiative, but it hasn’t quite turned out that way, at least so far. Nest also had an embarrassing failure of its Protect smoke detector in 2014. Some 440,000 units had to be recalled due to a possible safety risk. It resulted from a reported delay in sounding an alarm. In that respect, until the problem was fixed, the $129 gadget was inferior to the $20 smoke and carbon monoxide detector you could buy from Amazon.

The Protect was relaunched for $99, and I haven’t heard of any further complaints.

In short, Google remains essentially a one-product company. Such highly publicized experiments as Google Glass never paid off — it has since been withdrawn from the market. Self-driving cars are clearly years away from success, and it’s not that Google actually expects to sell cars. The technology would just be licensed to others for — what? That you’ll use Google Search in your car?

Indeed, the technology still has a ways to go before it is reliable. Earlier this year, one of Google’s test vehicles was involved in a minor fender-bender that resulted from making a wrong guess. It just goes to show that perfecting an autonomous vehicle is not going to be easy. Even if the vehicle makes all the right decisions, it has to account for imperfect human drivers.

So much for Google.

Microsoft also missed estimates as it suffers from the impact of the ongoing slowdown in PC sales. While cloud subscriptions continue to grow, it’s not enough to replace lost revenue from other products and services. Surface sales reportedly improved, but Microsoft is going nowhere with its smartphones. Clearly the $7.2 billion purchase of Nokia’s handset division under the aegis of former CEO Steve Ballmer was the wrong decision.

On the long haul, Microsoft’s prospects look favorable. The decision to expand support of other platforms with Office and other products appears to have paid off. Microsoft has buried the hatchet with Apple and Google — they have made peace over legal skirmishes with the latter. But the honeymoon for CEO Satya Nadella is clearly over.

So that takes us to Apple. In light of its guidance about declining revenue for the March quarter, the critics are expecting the worst. With less-than-stellar financials from Alphabet and Microsoft, it might be a trifecta. But that assumes things are going to be as bad as expected.

The main culprit is the iPhone. In light of the very slight sales increase in the December quarter, rumors arose that the bottom fell out of iPhone sales during the last quarter. The usual unconfirmed reports of a cutback in orders in the supply chain were cited as evidence that it has to be a disaster, they say, suggesting that the iPhone 6s refresh was just not compelling enough to encourage customers to upgrade.

Now I won’t even attempt to guess how well Apple did. We’ll all know on April 26th, when Apple reveals its financials for the March quarter. So-called industry analysts aren’t constrained by logic and reason, and will envision the worst. To them it’s inevitable that Apple take a big fall.

On the positive side, the iPhone SE appears to have taken off well enough to be backordered. But it’s not that Apple has given us much of a clue. Besides, it technically only shipped for one day in the last quarter, but actual units were en route to their customers during much of that week to arrive on March 31st. Published reports claimed that 3.5 million were preordered in China alone, but that doesn’t mean they all shipped in time to be counted for the quarter. But if the rest of the world tallied similar sales figures, that would mean at least seven million.

If all or most shipped before the quarter ended, it could be enough to keep iPhone sales from falling too much. Since Apple doesn’t traditionally break out numbers for individual models, however, the actual figures may not be known. Well, unless Apple has something about which to boast.

Early reports of Mac sales point to relatively flat results, down a little or up a little, but sufficient to move the platform way past the overall PC market yet again. Still, a few ill-informed pundits imagine that Apple should discontinue making Macs, without suggesting a replacement other than Windows. Look at how Windows and PCs are doing, so there’s even less logic in making such an outlandish suggestion.

Regardless of the final numbers, Apple will be criticized yet again for being an alleged one-product company, while ignoring the high sales racked up by Macs, the iPad (if sales don’t drop too much), and Apple’s “Other” products and services. Certainly iPhones occupy a far lower percentage of Apple’s revenue than Google Search for Alphabet. But is Alphabet being attacked for being a one-product company?

It’s quite clear that Apple continues to work on other products and services. We don’t know yet how well the Apple Watch will fare in the years to come. An Apple Car is still little more than a rumor, but at least the company is looking at products that could come to dominate a fair portion of its sales in the years to come. It’s not just focusing on products or services that it will never sell. So what is Google’s next act anyway?


The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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