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Apple in 2008, Getting Ready for CES, Product of the Year

Tomorrow we start the New Year, and for those of you who aren’t still in line to buy a Nintendo Wii, it is looking to be a good one.

I’m having my doubts about Apple though, as it would seem success is going to their head as they put Think Secret out of business, and I and a lot of others were tricked into believing they personally threaten the guy who writes the Fake Steve Jobs parody (recall I recommended his Options book for anyone who is fascinated with Apple).

The companies at CES will be trying to make sure Steve doesn’t steal the show again this year, and they are coming in well armed. Folks are looking at Apple differently this year though, and for a company that lives on marketing, this could give CES an advantage it didn’t have last year.

I’ve been thinking about what my product of the year is and was thinking it should be the iPhone, but Dan Lyons has got me “Thinking Different,” which I think was his intent. My product of the year is Microsoft Sync, and I’ll close by explaining why.

Apple in 2008

It amazes me how often I watch people get lots of power and wealth and then misuse it.

From stars who seem to have honed stupidity and cruelty to a high art (I grew up near Hollywood, and you’d be amazed at how mean and cruel some of your favorite actors are) to executives (Enron is a good example) who traded compassion for dollars, this is a repeating theme.

Think Secret was a site that by any measure gushed about Apple. It received some leaked information that turned out to be accurate about a product that never was actually released, and Apple moved to put it out of business. If rumors are true, Apple paid them to close up shop. While I often applaud Apple’s ability to control its image, it was generally done subtly and artistically. Oracle is another company which controls its image with artistic beauty, using power only when and where appropriate, and the company is amazing to watch.To make a point, Dan Lyons joked about how Apple’s power might be going too far (and yes I fell for the joke).

This was to get us to think about some of our freedoms at the end of the year. If you search “Lyons and Apple” in Google news, you’ll see he got a lot of us thinking about this subject, and perhaps we should. There were a lot of reasons why 2007 wasn’t a good year for the world, and misuse of power probably goes to the core of most of them. In any case, there are a lot of us looking at Apple differently right now, and that will make it harder for Apple to compete with CES next year.

In addition, as Apple goes into the battle with CES, arguably one of its biggest, it still has to put to bed the Options problem that implicates Steve Jobs himself in an alleged crime. This would seem very ill-advised. In any case, this isn’t a good start for it in 2008, but recall 2007 looked like it would be difficult for Apple as well, and it powered through that.

CES: Battle of the Titans

Speaking of Apple, Apple wiped the floor with all of CES last year, and the folks there are pissed and planning to come back with a vengeance. I’ll be at the show and participating in the 11th annual Build Your Own PC race and was practicing last week with my new AMD Spider system (who knows, I may get lucky).

The hardest fought will likely be in the phone and MP3 player space; though I’m starting to think MP3 players may actually be giving ground away to the phone companies. The two firms to watch are RIM and HTC. HTC created the fastest and most credible competitor to the iPhone last year, but it was rushed and I’d expect a much better offering for the second generation.

In addition, HTC is partnered both with Microsoft (which helped it with the Touch) and with Google for Android, which has massive potential. Either could be a show stopper.

RIM actually gained market share after the iPhone was launched and exited the year of 2007 much stronger than it started. If you are observant, you saw there are a lot of people who have BlackBerry devices to do work and iPhones because they are cool.

By the end of 2008 I’ll bet these folks will have moved one way or the other. Just as Apple will be trying to capture business, RIM will be trying to pick up the entertainment thing. Neither is natural for the other, so this will be an incredibly interesting dance. However, consumers are more fickle than companies are, and were it not for Apple’s marketing — which balances this out — I’d give RIM the edge. As it is, this will be a fight to remember, and in the end, the winner may owe more to what the loser does wrong than what it does right.

On the PC side, the ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers — companies that make PCs for Apple and others) have gone completely dark for fear of leaking what Apple is launching, but rumors suggest these are some really sleek and cool laptops — and possibly a full refresh of the iMac (long overdue).

Expect HP and Dell to counter with follow-ups to their own all-in-one designs. HP’s TouchSmart is due for a major revision, and HP did touch on the desktop before Apple did. Dell’s XPS One entered with Apple-like marketing and could become a line. Both are expected to have major laptop updates next year, with HP potentially having a Blackbird knock-your-socks-off product and Dell an AlienWare refresh that will have gamers drooling for hours.

Sony is entering the year vastly stronger and, perhaps with its suicidal tendencies behind it, is expected to have some wonderful designs. Toshiba is expected to have its second-generation R500, a product that pushed a little too hard and needed at least one revision, but was arguably the most advanced laptop in 2007. Both companies need to bring up their marketing games, though, and have been traditionally eclipsed in this segment.

Overall, this means to be an amazing CES and Macworld — so lock up your wallet and enjoy the shows.

Product of the Year: Microsoft Sync

I was one of the launch analysts for Auto PC, Microsoft’s first automotive effort, and actually leased a car so I could use it. Let’s just say the experience wasn’t great. Much of what it was supposed to do — like work with cell phones — it didn’t, and my wife constantly threatened to yank it out of the dash and throw it out the window. Plays for Sure, Microsoft’s first big MP3 effort, was good technically but was marred by bad execution and horrid marketing. That led to Zune, which initially was a disaster as well. Microsoft’s Sync, on the other hand, has been excellently executed.

It comes out at a time when Microsoft’s founder is spending most of his time trying to help underprivileged nations all over the world. Also, Microsoft itself is both embracing its partners (the OEMs are praising the company for collaborating, for once) and embracing and collaborating with open source companies instead of using its power to silence them. In my view, that is the way big powerful companies should behave.

Sync, which is a partnership with Ford, comes after the MediaSmart Server product created in partnership with HP, and picking one or the other came down to marketing. The Sync marketing effort is, amazingly enough, at Apple’s level. Had Microsoft made this same effort with Plays for Sure, I think it could have beat Apple at its own game. The fact that Sync does a better job with iPods than Apple does with its automotive partners (we have one in our Audi, and it sucks) is telling.

From Auto PC to Sync represents the most massive improvement I’ve ever seen, and that alone would have put Sync on the list for consideration.

If Microsoft took the same effort with its other products in terms of partnership, product execution and marketing as it did with Sync, it would once again be a wonderful company. I think the product of the year should set a good example both inside and outside a firm. Sync does so, and it is my product of the year.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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