Emerging Tech


Another iThing, Another iTempest

The debut of the latest iPad was once again an orgy of revenue for Apple. The company claims 3 million were sold in the opening weekend, and that certainly does sound like a lot.

But just as iPad sales are running hot, apparently so are the iPads themselves. Some users claim the devices are growing alarmingly warm in their hands during heavy use.

It’s easy to see why the new iPad could grow hot. It boasts some heavy graphics power to support that super-high-res Retina display. It’s got a much bigger processor than the iPad 2, its battery needs to be much larger to supply the juice needed to keep it running, and the result is you’ve got a nice little magazine-sized radiator to keep your lap warm on a cold winter night while you play “Infinity Blade II.” For some users, that’s a little worrying — not only because their iPads become uncomfortable to hold, but also because when a device gets that hot, you might start wondering whether there’s something wrong with it.

Apple says its iPads are running well within safe parameters, but if you’re really worried about it, just call AppleCare.

A few outfits ran independent tests. Cnet measured temperatures at points all over the iPad and found no spot exceeding 90 degrees. Then again, Consumer Reports said it measured temperatures as high as 116 degrees.

But unless we start hearing stories of iPads causing actual burns or exploding during a fevered round of “Scrabble,” this issue will probably pass by just like the iPhone 4S battery crisis before it and the iPhone 4 antenna predicament before that. Still, temperature management may require some new innovations for upcoming iPad models if Apple wants to keep amping up power in future generations. I don’t know if anyone wants to hear their iPads start muttering the f-word — fan noise.

Listen to the podcast (11:47 minutes).

The Urge to Splurge

Sometimes people who lived through the Great Depression have habits about saving money and supplies that seem a little odd to those of us who grew up in more comfortable times. Steve Jobs didn’t live through the Depression, but he did at one time see the company he founded on death’s doorstep, financially speaking. At a certain point, Apple even had to depend on a cash infusion from Microsoft to keep going.

Jobs apparently never wanted to see Apple penniless again, regardless of whether it made a flop product, hit a major supply chain snag or got caught up in worldwide economic turmoil.

Under Jobs’ second reign, Apple pulled itself out of the doldrums. It went from corporate skid row to vying with an oil firm as the most valuable public company in the world. Along the way, it amassed an incredible pile of cash, which now approaches $100 billion.

That war chest might give Apple an incredible sense of financial security, but to investors, there is such a thing as having too much walking-around money. Stagnant cash is good to have as a fallback, but having too much can be regarded as wasteful. But even though Apple could probably operate just fine with a fraction of the cushion it currently holds, demands for investor payoffs like dividends got nowhere under Jobs’ watch.

But with Tim Cook now in the CEO seat, a new chapter in Apple’s financial story has apparently begun. The company has decided to put its obscenely fat wallet through a round of fiscal liposuction. Starting this summer, it’s promised a dividend of $2.65 per share. It’s also staging a $10 billion stock buyback over the course of the next three years.

Dividends make nice thank-you notes to investors, who should already be pretty happy about the company’s incredible climb in value over the past half-decade. In fact, AAPL shares recently closed above the $600 mark for the first time ever. That value actually makes the $2.65 dividend seem kind of small by comparison. You’d have to own tens of thousands of dollars in Apple stock to get even a couple hundred bucks from the dividend.

Still, to investors who’ve been clamoring for a dividend for months, if not years, any payout at all is a win. It may not make them a whole lot wealthier right away, but it does indicate that Tim Cook is going to run Apple his own way, at least as far as the balance sheet is concerned.

The LTE Challenge

Sprint, the distant-third runner in the U.S. wireless race, took a big gamble when it signed on with Apple to be an iPhone provider. Apple demanded some heavy terms for the agreement — namely that Sprint put itself on the hook for billions of dollars worth of iPhones over the next several years.

The carrier is offering subscribers plenty of incentives to make it stand out from its iPhone rivals Verizon and AT&T — unlimited data plans, for one. But Sanford C. Bernstein doesn’t seem to think that will be enough for Sprint to avoid disaster. It downgraded Sprint to underperform recently, and one of its analysts, Craig Moffett, expressed concern that the wireless carrier might go bankrupt.

Shortly after that news was released, Sprint investors chewed almost 5 percent off its share value.

Going all-in on iPhones is proving to be especially burdensome for Sprint, according to Moffett, and the carrier’s sizable debt level doesn’t help matters either. But that’s not the only problem Moffett sees on the horizon.

Perhaps more worrisome is that Sprint could let technology pass it by. Verizon has so far led the charge into super-fast 4G LTE networks. AT&T is on the LTE bandwagon too, and both are spending big to get more LTE access to more of the cities they cover.

But it’s an area in which Sprint is lagging. It sells WiMax service, but that’s not a protocol next-generation smartphones are trending toward. New handsets now often feature LTE support, and Sprint’s plans for that technology are proving slow to take off. It tried tying up a deal with LightSquared, but that effort ended in flames after the FCC repeatedly stuffed LightSquared’s network proposal. Apparently its technology interferes too much with GPS signals, though that’s something LightSquared continues to deny.

Without a sizable LTE network, Sprint could begin to lag even further behind. The latest iPad includes LTE support, meaning there’s a very good chance the next iPhone will too. If that comes to pass before Sprint can whip up some respectable LTE coverage, the company will have assumed billions of dollars in obligations in order to sell a product that can barely work to its full potential on its own network. And with T-Mobile announcing layoffs and call center shutdowns this week as well, it looks like Moffett’s fears that the U.S. wireless market is beginning a slow fade into duopoly may prove true.

Tingling Tats

An inconvenient incoming call on a cellphone means different things in different situations. For moviegoers, it’s a dirty look; for classical music concertgoers, it’s social death; and for ninjas, it’s actual death. Turning off the phone isn’t a perfect solution either, if you really want to know that you’re being called without being a pest to everyone around you. Vibration mode? Sometimes too loud, sometimes unnoticeable.

There has to be a way to silently find out that someone’s calling without alerting anyone sitting nearby. Sight and sound alerts are out. Taste and smell alerts … are not going to happen. What’s left is the sense of touch, and Nokia seems to have figured out a way to do it. The solution, of course, is a tattoo, which is always an excellent idea under any possible set of circumstances.

The company has filed a patent for a magnetic tattoo that would silently alert the wearer to notifications coming from a mobile device he or she was carrying around. So instead of irritating other people in the movie theater or missing a call entirely, you’d presumably be able to step outside and take a call once you felt a tingly feeling on your arm. Or ankle. Or your lower back if you’re saucy. Or your face and neck if you’re just that hardcore.

It might sound a little ridiculous at this point to get needled with ink over a cellphone. And there’s no telling whether Nokia will actually go through with something like this at any point in the future. It’s just a patent application the company’s filed, and large tech firms constantly patent weird ideas they never end up using.

Then again, the idea of implantable personal tech isn’t completely out of left field, at least not to sci-fi fans. And it’s impossible to say what future technology users will be willing to put up with for the sake of convenience. Far enough in the past, the idea of carrying a phone around with you all day might have sounded like some kind of twisted punishment for misdemeanors.

Mass Reject

The “Mass Effect” series of games features one of the most developed and deeply imagined sci-fi worlds ever created for a video game. Its biggest fans will favorably compare it with “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”

But it seems the wrap-up to “Mass Effect” has stumbled into a hole that’s all too common for popular, long-running science fiction sagas: The fans hate the ending.

It happened with “Battlestar.” It happened with “Lost.” “Indiana Jones” too, if you count that as sci-fi.

This time, though, superfans are doing more than hanging their heads and commiserating on message boards. Instead, they’re lodging a complaint with the FTC about the game’s makers, BioWare and Electronic Arts. They’ve also started a petition demanding a change to the ending.

It’s one thing when a once-great artist loses the edge and puts out a finale to a long-running series that turns out to be kind of limp. Or when several talented writers paint themselves into a corner and end up tying things off with a bunch of nonsense for lack of an exit strategy. But in the case of “Mass Effect,” some fans of the series claim the ending wasn’t just bad — it was false advertising.

The galled gamers say they were led to believe that various decisions they made and actions they took while playing the game would result in a wide variety of different endings to the series. Win the war, lose the war, save New Vegas from the Kilrathi, destroy Metal Gear’s Triforce, whatever. I don’t know the details; I’ve never played “Mass Effect.” But the idea of multiple, very different endings based on in-game decisions isn’t uncommon in role-playing games, and these players say “Mass Effect” did not deliver as advertised. They want EA and BioWare to make downloadable content that will serve as a more satisfying, multi-faceted coda.

But what is the FTC going to do about it? That’s very hard to say. On one hand, it may just decide that all those promos and previews that led gamers to believe there’d be multiple endings don’t reach the threshold of false ads. And with agenda items like cracking down on unsafe products that could actually physically hurt people and make them die, the commission might not have time to talk about the ending to a video game.

On the other hand, it is the FTC’s job to stand up for aggrieved consumers, including gamers, and nothing aggrieves gamers more than when you mess with their games.

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