This week, Apple is expected to announce a refresh of several iPod products (including the touch) and possibly the Apple TV. The real drama remains with its higher-profile offerings — the iPhone and iPad — and last week, Qualcomm gave a credible look at their compelling future.
However, with phones running on Google’s Android platform passing the iPhone in shipments, there is some doubt whether Apple can hold onto this lead, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 product is starting to pull some positive comments.
What is fascinating is that this battle is increasingly defined by false information — OK, that’s not a surprise, but this time it is actually working against Apple, and that part is.
I’ll cover that and end with my product of the week: the best laptop line in the market from the only company that rivals Apple for customer loyalty and support.
Qualcomm and the Future iPhone
Since I was with Qualcomm last week, I’ll start by providing a look at what is coming in the next generation of iPhone-like products.
Cameras will not only get more resolution — up to 10 megapixels — but also core features found only in real cameras, such as image stabilization, point focus and red eye reduction, making it hard to justify standalone cameras. Images will automatically transfer to the Web and populate Facebook, likely making life way too easy for folks who want to burgle your home because they can more easily tell when you are away from it.
These things will increase their remote control capability, and as Sonos, Orb and Skifta have already demonstrated, be the way we manage and consume far more of our media across an ever-expanding DLNA-compliant landscape.
They will be connected to more things — from cash registers (so we can use them for coupons or payment) to airports (so we can use them instead of paper boarding passes).
They will, of course, move to ever faster 4G (and I’ll bet AT&T still sucks) and gain outdoor viewable displays like Qualcomm’s Mirasol MEMS display so we can actually use them outside. Tablets actually get this last first, and the next-generation Kindle and iPad will be particularly interesting to watch.
Apple on the Defensive
There is no doubt that the iPhone and iPad are the products setting the bar in their respective markets. I now have a growing number of friends who are using the iPad instead of a notebook, and some of the new applications have me drooling. However, much of the news surrounding Apple is increasingly both false and negative, which is unusual for this company and is likely the result of its historically horrid PR organization.
For instance, Apple recently filed for a patent that would allow the firm to better secure its phones. In reading the patent, it appears the company is moving to address the competitive problem RIM is having with security at the moment, and to better position a future iPhone against this opportunity.
This technology would allow a phone that was stolen to better protect itself and the data it contained, and thus be a stronger alternative to the BlackBerry. It would do this by using biometrics to verify that someone failing with a password was not the user, and then trigger a data wipe or some other data-protection response.
However the coverage suggests that the technology would be used by Apple primarily against people who jailbroke their phones or used them in a way that Apple didn’t authorize.
The credibility gap for this seems extreme, as the idea of Apple somehow posting pictures of folks doing this with a graph of their heart rate seems to actually make sense to some people. It would seem that for many, the assumption now is that everything Apple does is customer-hostile. For a company that generally takes rather good care of its customers, that is a bit of a stretch.
It appears that much of the information on the Gizmodo break-in supposedly orchestrated by Apple may have been false, along with the story that Steve Jobs blessed the bad antenna on the iPhone 4. This suggests a real image problem is developing for the company that will be worth watching.
In short, a company that once was Teflon seems to be getting blamed for a lot of stuff it actually isn’t doing at the moment.
Google’s False Wins
What really strikes me about Google is that this “do no evil” company increasingly seems to be going down a list of things that Microsoft was accused of doing in the 90s and using it as a to-do list — from the tie-up with Verizon in what appeared to be an attempt to both sneak around the U.S. government and blindside Net neutrality, to its effort to cover up the fact that it is failing with Android.
The fact that Google’s position on Net neutrality favors Google shouldn’t come as a shock. Companies often get creative when it comes to initiatives like this, and Google’s spin to make this work for it isn’t surprising. Yet few get that Android isn’t working.
The measure of success for a platform or product isn’t the volume sold — it’s the profit it delivers, and neither Android nor the Android Market is providing any broad profit.
In fact, if Oracle is correct and successful in its attack, Android’s ownership may not be the only thing in question. This product may result in the biggest loss Google has ever suffered.
While Apple was more aggressive, assuring profit for itself and, in so doing, profit for its accessory and application partners, Google has done neither — and this platform is becoming a hole to pour money into.
Just like it was with Microsoft, phone makers get no loyalty — and they are constantly put head to head with near-identical products. Verizon’s Droid offering is the extreme: It swaps Motorola and HTC under the same brand on a regular basis, putting massive pressure on both firms’ margins and making it very difficult for investors in those companies to determine ahead of time their success or failure.
Android is becoming the train wreck no one will admit to.
Wrapping Up: Microsoft’s Potential
With Apple on some kind of a negative news frenzy and Google doing its best to piss off as many governments and partners as possible (I didn’t even mention the Chrome OS vs. Android mess), Microsoft has more potential than ever to have a hit with Windows Phone 7.
Unfortunately, execution for that company in this segment has left a bit to be desired of late, but it is hard to deny it has a unique opportunity to step in and be an alternative to the iPhone to buyers and to Android for cellphone OEMs.
This could be a perfect storm for Microsoft if it executes sharply. Regardless, this will likely define how people perceive Microsoft’s management — so it had better be a hit.
Product of the Week: The Panasonic 5-Year Laptop
Of all of the OEMs I cover, the company that seems to come closest to the Apple ideal in terms of customer care and loyalty is Panasonic Toughbook. In design, the two are 180 degrees apart, as Apple is more of a form-over-function company with beautiful but relatively fragile products, while Panasonic makes products that can survive being shot but aren’t exactly the easiest on the eyes.
Of all the laptops I have, though — and I have a lot — the Panasonic is the only one that simply always works. The company doesn’t do the crapware thing; it doesn’t have the constant battles with Microsoft; it often even builds its own components, and they aren’t cheap. However, if you have to have a laptop that just works — to the extent you can bet your life on it — Panasonic builds it. People in law enforcement, the military, and on emergency teams bet their — and sometimes your — lives on these products a lot.
The one complaint that is consistent these days among both users and companies that buy PC hardware is that they don’t want to have to go through the pain of replacing it any more often than every five years, and Panasonic is the only company that builds for that goal.
It doesn’t do a lot of marketing, and it clearly isn’t the best looking, but if your life depends on your laptop working, there is only one brand — and that is why Panasonic’s Business Rugged Laptops are my product(s) of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.