Mobile Tech

PODCAST

Apple: Happy Now?

What do you call the iPhone 4 antenna … thing? A disaster? A non-issue? Is it a tiny problem blown way out of proportion, or an embarrassing blunder from a company that’s supposed to be known for genius engineering?

Ever since users discovered that they could kill an uncased iPhone 4’s signal simply by holding it a certain way, the company has faced its worst PR disaster in quite a long time. Critics said it was a blot on the brand that made it seem Cupertino was dead asleep at the wheel when it came time for field testing. Apologists countered that antenna attenuation can and does happen with any phone, and the only reason there’s so much rabble-rousing going on is that it’s the iPhone — and every time Apple bleeds, it leads.

It soon became clear that Apple would do itself more harm than good by ignoring the issue and hoping it would blow over. So what were its options? Earlier, when the problem first came to light, there was a quick suggestion that Apple should give iPhone 4 owners free Bumpers — those little plastic cases it makes (and frequently sells out of).

But as the grousing grew louder, and as Consumer Reports weighed in with a thumbs-down, talk of a product recall started making the rounds. That would be a huge gesture of commitment to customers, but it would also be incredibly expensive. And it would be a clear confession on Apple’s part that it had made an engineering mistake. From Apple’s point of view, doing that could be every bit as damaging to the brand as letting the complaints continue indefinitely.

So the company finally opted to tackle the whole thing head-on in a press conference Friday, and it offered up a remedy for disgruntled customers, albeit one that left a slightly passive-aggressive aftertaste.

The gist: This shouldn’t be a big deal. Of course we tested the iPhone 4’s antenna, and all cellphones have issues like this, and we’re going to show you a bunch of other cellphones that have the exact same problem. Very few customers have actually come to us directly and complained about this specifically. But even though the media has blown this way out of proportion and everyone’s going crazy about a really little thing, and Steve Jobs had to interrupt a vacation in Hawaii because of all this, all we want to do is make everyone happy.

So free cases for everyone. If you bought one from Apple, you get a refund. If we’re sold out of Bumpers, we’ll get you a third-party case. If you don’t like that, you can return your iPhone, full refund, your contract re-up disappears, no restocking fee. You can just pretend none of this ever happened.

The quote of the day came from Steve Jobs himself: “Maybe we should have a wall of PR people to insulate us, but we don’t.”

I had to think about that for a second before I figured out that he meant his top people don’t live in a bubble and they’re sensitive to customers’ unhappiness, and that’s at least plausible. But I assure you that Apple does indeed have PR people. They may not wall off company execs, but they certainly can wall off everyone else.


Listen to the podcast (13:34 minutes).


Blocked Apps

One of the biggest differences between the Android and iPhone platforms is openness, and that’s a big concern for developers. Who gets to write third-party software for it, how do they have to do it, and whose rules do they have to follow? I guess you could say Apple has the higher standards, though maybe that’s not the best way to put it. At last count, there were 717 apps with the word “fart” in the title or description. Probably more by now.

There are fewer rules to follow if you want to play in the Android Market, and it’s much less likely that Google will kick you out just because your app does the same thing as an app Google invented. Or if you’re some demented pornographer like that James Joyce guy.

But even though Apple is more choosy about what it lets through the velvet rope, and even though its criteria seem downright bizarre when you look at what gets in and what doesn’t, Cupertino still has the biggest selection of apps when you look at raw numbers — over 200,000. That’s might be at least partly due to the fact that it got a head start, both with its App Store and with the platform itself.

Android is no slouch, though. It’s coming up in market share, and it has a new plan to make it so that you don’t necessarily have to have formal training as a programmer to create Android apps. You may not even need any informal training either. I haven’t tried this, so I don’t know for sure, but it’s quite possible that actual morons could effectively use it.

It’s called “App Inventor,” and it uses a visual programming approach based on Open Blocks. That’s an extendable framework for graphical block programming systems. So you don’t have to concern yourself with all those slashes and arrows and commands and junk like that — you know, actual programming. Instead, you just build a stack of blocks. It’s like when the menu at a restaurant says you can build your own pizza. You don’t have to actually cook it yourself — just name your ingredients, and they’ll take it from there.

This could throw open the doors for a rush of new Android apps made by people who have lots of ideas but not a whole lot of nitty-gritty programming chops. The more apps in the Marketplace, the more people want to use Android, and the more people want to build software for a growing platform.

It could also open the doors to a whole river of crap. You’ve seen the Cathedral, you’ve seen the Bazaar, now get ready for the Yard Sale.

But giving people an easier way to push stuff directly to the Market may not be the immediate goal that Google has in mind for Inventor. Perhaps it’s more like an app playground where you can whip up something for personal use or just dink around with stuff to decide whether to spend the time to write an app in a more sophisticated language.

Go Your Own Way

Palm’s webOS platform didn’t have a very long career as a smartphone OS, but it may get a second chance in the mobile arena pretty soon. All Things Digital has reported that HP, which now owns Palm, has sidelined its plans for creating an Android-based tablet computer, which was expected to arrive sometime this fall. It’s unclear whether this delay really will be a delay or more like a complete abandonment, but it looks kind of similar to what HP did earlier this year with that Windows 7-based Slate computer you might have seen at CES. It backed off from that one too.

So if this All Things D report is true, that leaves webOS as the center of HP’s universe when it comes to tablets.

On its face, that seems sensible enough. HP did pay a lot of money for Palm, and it might be nice to make hardware for a platform you have complete control over — just ask Apple.

But there are also some risks involved. Even though none of those three platforms — Android, Windows and webOS — has a real iPad challenger on the market yet, webOS has by far the least clout. Android has shown huge growth in smartphones, Windows is all over PCs, but webOS has only appeared on a couple of smartphones, neither of which were real blockbuster devices.

Third-party software selection will be a major factor for a tablet platform’s success or failure, and that means HP is going to have to woo developers — woo them real hard. One of the reasons Palm stumbled was because webOS — this platform that was supposed to save its life and which a lot of critics really did like as an operating system per se — didn’t attract developers in droves, the way Android and iPhone did and still do. If HP really is putting all its chips on webOS, it’d better have a lot of geeky friends on its side.

The C-Word

Skype and a company called “Fring” really went at it this week, and Fring got so mad that it actually whipped out the C-word: Cowards. That’s what the guys at Skype are. Poltroons. Recreants. Scaredy-cats, even.

An official Fring blog post accused Skype of cowardice after the VoIP provider blocked Fring from using its technology. According to Fring, Skype did this because it’s afraid of open mobile communication.

For those not familiar, Fring makes a self-titled application for several smartphone platforms that’s supposed to tie a bunch of communication technologies into one single app. You’ve got your Facebook, your IM clients, your Twitter and, until recently, your Skype with video chat, all delivered through the Fring portal.

Everything seemed to be swimming along just fine until last week, when Fring’s systems got a little overloaded and it had to restrict access for a while. At that time, Skype called up Fring to let it know that when it finished sorting things out, it was going to have to forget about using Skype in its app anymore. Access denied, not yours, get off my lawn, and so forth.

At least, that’s how Fring described it. According to Skype, Fring was misusing its technology in a way that damaged the brand, and it was violating the API licensing agreement — which was apparently the closest thing to a formal license the two had between them — and the two had been trying to hash things out for weeks. In the end, said Skype, it was actually Fring that called things off.

So why is this happening now? Could have something to do with the iPhone 4, which includes a front-facing camera that’s just perfect for mobile video chat. The built-in vidchat app is called “FaceTime,” but that’s only usable when you’re hooked up to a WiFi network. With Fring’s use of the Skype technology, iPhone users could video chat over plain old 3G — at least they could before the two broke up.

Of course, the iPhone wasn’t the first phone to have mobile video chat, nor was it the first to get the Fring treatment. In May, Fring introduced a new Android app that allowed Skype vidchat, but now that’s hobbled too.

So maybe Skype plans to come out with its own mobile video chat app, and it wants to squash the competition first. Whatever the case, it’s unfortunate that Skype is doing this, said Fring marketing VP Jake Levant, because the company used to be, quote, a “tiger,” when it came to freedom and interconnectivity. That might be true, but remember that tigers aren’t particularly brave. They’re murder machines that you should never get very close to — otherwise, something like this happens.

Patent Pounder

I suppose nobody actually likes getting sued, but when you’re a technology company getting dragged to court over an alleged patent violation, at least that means someone cares — and it also probably means you’re rich and successful. Otherwise, nobody would bother. When you’re talking about two companies that make extremely complex products, the defendant sometimes has just as much on the plaintiff as vice-versa, and the real goal of the whole thing could just be to swing a licensing deal. It’s how business is done. It’s like one of those really violent mating dances you see see on Animal Planet.

But what eBay is facing with a lawsuit brought by XPRT might be a little different. XPRT knows what it wants: $3.8 billion. That’s the figure it came to after chalking up all the damages its says eBay has caused by violating six of its patents with four of eBay’s biggest services: PayPal, Shopping.com, StubHub and Bill Me Later.

XPRT claims it that in 2001, it pitched an idea to eBay during a confidential meeting: Buy PayPal and use our patent-pending technologies to integrate PayPal with your existing services. Look how easy it’ll be.

eBay did eventually buy PayPal, but according to the complaint, instead of using XPRT to mix it in just right, eBay used what it had seen in those meetings to create technologies of its own, which it unsuccessfully tried to patent for itself.

A lot in this case depends on what the companies agreed to before the talks took place back in ’01. If there was a solid written agreement about the rules, XPRT may have a big payday coming. If there wasn’t, this whole suit could fall through.

But the text of the complaint at least makes it sound pretty tight — names are named, dates are dated, and signed NDAs are cited. Plus, if it ever gets to a jury, the whole affair sounds like it could be explained relatively easily, as patent cases go — another plus for the plaintiff.

As for the $3.8 billion figure, well, even a clear-cut win for XPRT probably wouldn’t score that high. It’s a high-ball opener. Leaves them some room for negotiation.

The Social Game

Google knows that it’s currently not the most sociable Web company out there right now, but it does have a lot of money, so it figured, why not buy some people to be its friends? Or at least spread some money around so people will want to hang out with it more.

So it’s decided to pump as much as $200 million into Zynga, the company behind all those “Farmville” and “Mafia Wars” posts splattered all over your news feed in Facebook. That’s according to TechCrunch, which says Google plans on building out a pretty ambitious Google Games offering.

Until now, Zynga has been highly dependent on Facebook for all its action. So for Google, that investment buys it three things. First, it gets a piece of Zynga, which has proven it knows what it’s doing in the field of social gaming, at least as far as it’s possible to prove something like that. The field’s still young.

Second, Google could have the ability to augment all those social connections and communications channels it already has going on by adding a highly addictive gaming channel, making it a force multiplier. Sort of like it tried to do with Buzz, just without that part where everything turned all horrible and disastrous.

Third, by putting cash into Zynga’s pocket, Google gets to stick it to Facebook. Zynga needed and probably still needs Facebook more than Facebook needs Zynga, but once this partnership with Google takes root, Google may have the power to tell Zynga not to hang around with that Mark Zuckerberg kid so much anymore. Losing Zynga probably wouldn’t drive Facebook to a screeching halt, but it would be a clear reminder that its coming up against a very strong rival.

2 Comments

  • I have never had this issues with any of my corporate, personal nor family phones. For Apple, and Steve is not dealing with it well which leads me to believe that is a major issue where they (Apple)/he (Jobs) dropped the ball, it is exactly what it seems to be on the surface. Apple screwed up and Jobs’ ego can’t handle it. Time to step down Steve.

    The main issue is not that Apple is a target because they are Apple or whatnot. It’s because the issue is dynamic and all the correspondence tours of the "Stargate" can not hide the fact. A call can be lost by just placing a single finger across the antenna gap, not just by holding the phone in the "death grip". This is not present in all the phones or at the level of severity that is in the iPhone 4. That is what the real issues is. Apple screwed up and their ego will not let them be the "humble benefactor of goodness" that they profess or we have come to know them as. But must lie and insult our intelligence as one would to "sheep". Some fanboys may buy it. I don’t. And nor will my corporate clients that I push Apple gear on.

    After it was apparent the direction that this was going, after waiting to see what and how Steve had to say it, I canceled an order for 186 iPhone 4’s and we’re going Sprint EVO. My Apple Reps agreed with my actions. So there are some level heads at Apple.

  • Apple did not make an engineering mistake. By definition a mistake is an accident. Both AT&T and Apples own engineers warned them that the antenna design would cause problems. But Jobs wanted iPhone4 to look a certain way which meant all the warnings were tossed aside as inconvenient truths. Apple decided to intentionally release a defective product and for that it deserves all the scorn it is receiving and more.

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